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BREAKING LaHood: Give Us A Week on Florida High Speed Rail

Thursday, February 17, 2011

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) After a meeting with Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and a group of Florida Congress members, the U.S. DOT wants a deal put together in a week  in which a third party assumes all the financial risk of building a high speed rail line.

More soon.

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Delta Fined for Violating Disability Rules

Thursday, February 17, 2011

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) The U.S. Department of Transportation said today that it fined Delta Air Lines $2 million for violating federal rules on passengers with disabilities.

This civil penalty is the largest penalty ever assessed against an airline by the DOT in a non-safety-related case.

Airlines are required to report disability-related complaints to the DOT, which provides that information to the public here. In 2009, the most recent year for which this information is available, Delta had more complaints lodged against it than any other domestic carrier.

The DOT said today that its investigation had found many violations of the requirements to provide assistance to passengers while getting on and off airplanes. The government also said that Delta frequently did not respond adequately to disability complaints from passengers.

Delta says it's addressing the problem.  "We take the responsibility of serving customers with disabilities seriously and have made significant investments in technology, feedback assessment, and training since the issues in 2007 and 2008 that the DOT cites in its consent order," said spokesman Morgan Durrant. "We will continue to coordinate with DOT and our Customer Advisory Board on Disabilities to ensure that these efforts are appropriately supporting customers with disabilities and providing them with a consistent travel experience."

Delta is allowed to use most of the fine to improve its service for travelers with disabilities, especially those in wheelchairs.

You can read the DOT's press release here.

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U.S. Senator Nelson's Office: Florida Planning Organization Wants to Take Over High Speed Rail

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Florida Senator Bill Nelson's office:

"Officials now studying ways to help Florida, despite governor’s rejection of federal money for high-speed rail.  Today:

"Ø  A metropolitan planning organization in Tampa and a rail authority in South Florida have volunteered to step forward in place of the state to accept oversight of the bullet-train project and the $2.4 billion from Uncle Sam.  Lawyers are researching how to do it.

"Ø  At 1:30 p.m., U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson will meet on the plan in Washington with the federal transportation secretary and members of Florida’s congressional delegation."

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SF MUNI Faces $1.6 Billion Deficit, But Big Projects Get a Federal Boost

Thursday, February 17, 2011

(San Francisco–Casey Miner, KALW News) It's a truism well-known in transportation circles that it's much easier for transit agencies to get money for new projects than it is to find cash for ongoing operations and maintenance. Here in the Bay Area we've got several big expansions on in the works, despite the fact that all of our transit agencies face ongoing cash-flow problems.

President Obama's proposed federal budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars for the Bay Area, including money for SF Muni to move forward on two big projects : $200 million to build the Central Subway from downtown up through Chinatown, and $30 million to build BRT on Van Ness Avenue. Both projects are also depending on additional federal grants.

But there's a wrinkle.

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Rural Residents Losing Access to Intercity Transportation, Report Says

Thursday, February 17, 2011

(Helena-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) About 3.5 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity bus, ferry, and rail transportation between 2005 and 2010. That’s according to a new report from the U-S Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

The report says North Dakota had the lowest percentage of rural residents with access to intercity transportation.

BTS reported significant changes for the state  since 2005, including reductions in Greyhound Lines bus services and the suspension of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited New Orleans-Jackson route.

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BREAKING: LaHood to Meet with Florida Delegation to Salvage Florida High Speed Rail

Thursday, February 17, 2011

LaHood rides high speed rail in Japan last year with Central Japan Railway Chair Yoshiaki Kasai

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  A DOT official tells us "Secretary Ray LaHood has agreed to meet with the Florida delegation to discuss options for salvaging the [Florida high speed rail] project without the state's involvement."  The meeting comes a day after Florida Governor Rick Scott said he was returning $2.4 billion dollars to the federal government for the project. That move was met with widespread criticism, including from the Republican Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica.

More coverage below and here.

The meeting between LaHood and the Florida congressional delegation  is set for 1:15  today.  We'll update as we get details.

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WMFE: LaHood and U.S. Senator Nelson Looking to Restore Florida High Speed Rail

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On our partner The Takeaway this morning, Mark Simpson of our newest partner, WMFE in Orlando, reports:

"Readers of the tea leaves might have been able to anticipate this was coming. Last week Governor Scott was speaking with Wisconsin Governor Walker Scott who also rejected high speed rail money.  So you might have been able to anticipate this was coming up soon, but still it really did rock the Florida political establishment.

"But I wonder whether it really is dead, because you've already seen U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood working on just finding out if there is a legal work-around to still do this project without state participation."

Here's video of Nelson, who says "We are exploring how we could keep this project going forward since the state of Florida will not participate."

Simpson added:  "Rick Scott has kind of seen his base become the Tea Party in Florida.  When he unveiled his budget just a few weeks ago he didn't do it in the capitol Tallahassee, where all the establishment legislators could come hear the announcement, instead he went to a small town north of Orlando with a hand-picked crowd of Tea Party supporters to unveil the budget, kind of disavowing the Republican establishment that's been ruling Florida for a good long time. "

Listen to the Takeaway segment below.

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TN Moving Stories: NYC Council Votes To Improve Bike, Pedestrian Crash Data, Toronto Wants Private $ For Subway, and What's HSR's Future Looking Like?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Now that Florida's governor has 'pulled a Christie,' what does that mean for the future of the country's high speed rail program? (The Takeaway)

Good time for an ominous Ray LaHood tweet: "We have choices to make—not between left and right, but between forward and backward."

New York's City Council unanimously passed a suite of bills that will require police to provide monthly reports of traffic accidents and summonses -- as well as require the city's Department of Transportation begin annual reporting on the number of bike and pedestrian crashes broken down by police precincts. (WNYC)

Toronto's mayor is seeking private money to extend that city's subway. (Toronto Star)

The head of the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce threw his support Wednesday behind Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's proposal to speed the building of local transportation projects. (Los Angeles Times)

The Bay Area's transportation funding agency doesn't discriminate against minorities by steering state and federal dollars to trains instead of buses, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in dismissing a suit by AC Transit riders. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Should we focus on mass transit ...or mass transit AND road improvements? Maryland's Montgomery County Council can't decide. (The Gazette)

A NYC bus driver quizzes his passengers -- then leads the bus in song. The M86 has never been this much fun. (via NYC The Blog)

NY's MTA Board's committees will meet throughout the day today, starting at 8:30 a.m. Watch the meetings live: http://bit.ly/mtawebcast

Top Transportation Nation stories we're following: High speed rail will not come to Disneyworld.  Or will it? And: New Jersey lawmakers present a united front in opposition to repaying feds for cancelled ARC tunnel, while Houston METRO gets a refund from a Spanish rail car supplier.

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High Speed Rail Will Not Come To Disneyworld

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sadiqa Muqaddam had been hoping for work on the high speed rail line

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) When I was in Tampa before last November's election, I met a man named Sadiqa Muqaddam.  Muqaddam told me he'd found his first job as an iron worker building ships in Pascagoula Mississippi.  "You know," he told me, "this is what I went to school for.  When I was coming up, I was taught by my people, the only way for you to have something in America, is for education."

For half a century, Muqaddam said, there was more work than he could handle. "One day I was going all over the state of Florida. I was working out of Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, everywhere, I was everywhere, you know? And now, when I look around, there’s no jobs. There’s no jobs.” In the last year, Muqaddam lost his home. “I’m renting, now I’m back renting. Before I used to own. I’m used to walking in my three bedroom house, two cars, my little Chihuahua. I don’t have that no more. Even my dog died. Lost my cars, everything.”

But there was one thing that Muqaddam was thinking about -- a bullet train from Tampa to Orlando.  "That right there would give me work. I fall in that category, of messing with iron, steel, whatever." But there will be no high speed rail line in Florida.

Saying "the risk far outweighs the benefits," Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican elected last November, called  U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Wednesday morning. Scott said he would be rejecting $2.4 billion in federal funds for high speed rail. This makes him the third Republican Governor to do so, after Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio. But those projects were far less significant than the Florida plan, which was to be the first fully functioning true high-speed rail anywhere in the Americas.

This was to be a marquee project for the Obama administration, so important that the President announced his high speed rail program in January 2010.  It was going to stop at Disneyworld -- something that cheered planners, who figured happy tourists would ride the high speed rail, and then carry its banner back to their home districts.

Florida's Planned High Speed Rail Route

The Florida project had all the land it needed along the I-4 corridor. It had almost all the funding. But it did not have the political support of Republican Governor Rick Scott, and in the end, that's what mattered.  Scott said Wednesday:

  • "The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits."
  • "Historical data shows [sic] capital cost overruns are pervasive in nine out of 10 high speed rail projects and that two-thirds of those projects inflated ridership projections by an average of 65 percent of actual patronage.
  • "It is projected that 3.07 million people will use the train annually.  Keep in mind that Amtrak’s Acela train in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore only had 3.2 million riders in 2010. And that market’s population is eight times the size of the Tampa/Orlando market.
  • "President Obama’s high-speed rail program is not the answer to Florida’s economic recovery."

Scott's announcement comes just a week after Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Philadelphia to announce an Administration push for $53 billion for high speed rail funding over the next six years. President Barack Obama has made high speed rail a signature initiative of his administration. But his goal, announced with some fanfare in his State of the Union address last month, to link 80 percent of Americans to high speed rail by 2036, has suffered a significant setback with the Florida cancellation.

Neither the President's nor the Vice President's office would comment on the political ramifications of Scott's action, instead referring us to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's statement:

“We are extremely disappointed by Governor Rick Scott’s decision to walk away from the job creating and economic development benefits of high speed rail in Florida. We worked with the governor to make sure we eliminated all financial risk for the state, instead requiring private businesses competing for the project to assume cost overruns and operating expenses. It is projects like these that will help America out-build our global competitors and lay the foundation needed to win the future. This project could have supported thousands of good-paying jobs for Floridians and helped grow Florida businesses, all while alleviating congestion on Florida’s highways. Nevertheless, there is overwhelming demand for high speed rail in other states that are enthusiastic to receive Florida’s funding and the economic benefits it can deliver, such as manufacturing and construction jobs, as well as private development along its corridors.”

But Petra Todorovich, the head of America 2050, and a general optimist about the future of high speed rail in the U.S., isn't so sure. "The funds will be distributed," she noted (Florida itself had been a beneficiary when newly-elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sent back his state's high speed rail money), most likely to California, which already has some $12 billion in funding for its San Francisco to L.A. high speed rail.

But, she said in a phone interview, "It becomes much trickier now. The next project on line is California. It becomes much larger, much more complicated, much farther away.  This could set high speed rail back years, even decades."

In a poll released earlier this week, the Rockefeller Foundation (full disclosure, they support Transportation Nation) found that 71 percent of Americans agreed that "building a high speed rail system in the U.S. will be a benefit to travelers and to the U.S. economy."   Sixty-seven percent of independents, 56 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of tea party affiliates agreed.

But that doesn't mean Scott and other Republican governors haven't tapped into unease about how to pay for big programs like this, or what seems to weigh heavily on voters minds: whether the government should be spending at all on big projects just now.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the first to curtail a big infrastructure project,  when last October he sent three billion dollars back to the federal government that was to have been spent on a transit tunnel under the Hudson River.  It would have been the largest transit project in the nation.  Christie said NJ's portion of the bill -- another 2.7 billion --- could run too high, with cost overruns

Gov Christie, whose name is widely bandied about as a GOP presidential candidate, either in 2012, or 2016 is repeating his wariness of spending on big infrastructure projects like a mantra, and each time he does so, he becomes more full-throated (video) "I look at what is happening in Washington DC right now and I'm worried," Christie told the American Enterprise Institute Wednesday.

He continued "[The President] says the big things are high speed rail. The big things are high speed internet access for almost  80 percent of America,  or something,  by some date.  A million electric cars by some date.  Ladies and gentlemen, that is the candy of American politics.

"Those are not the big things, because let me guarantee you something:  if we don't fix the real big things there's going to be no electric cars on the road. There's going to be no high speed internet access -- or if there is you're not going to be able to afford to get on it. We're not going to be able to care about the niceties of life, the 'investments' that Washington wants to continue to make."

"This really was a world class high speed rail system," lamented Petra Todorvich, of Building America's Future. "It defies logic why a governor would kill a project like this -- private investors were just chomping at the bit. If the concerns were overruns, those questions could have been answered," she said.  "A deal could have been structured where the private sector took the risk."

Private sector firms certainly were coming forward, spending big money on lobbying campaigns. Everyone wanted to be able to build the first high-speed rail line in America.

In a sit-down interview in his headquarters in New York's Empire State Building, Mike McNally, CEO of  Skanska USA told me that Skanska was dying to take over big projects like high speed rail in Florida.  But he was worried about the signals some Governors are sending by canceling big projects after they began.  "The private sector can't, we don't operate that way. We're here to do what the governments -- they're our customers -- we want to do what they want to do. We need to know what they want to do and these are not short term decisions, these are long term commitments. You just can't keep changing every two fears or nothing's going to happen.

Even Republicans who've expressed reservations about the Tampa to Orlando line (it' was short, it had many stops, neither Tampa nor Orlando has much of a real downtown or a transit system to shuttle passengers to high speed rail) like John Mica, the Chair of the House Transportation Committee expressed regret at Scott's decision.

"I am deeply disappointed in the decision to not move forward with the Orlando to Tampa passenger rail project," Mica said in a statement. "This is a huge setback for the state of Florida, our transportation, economic development, and important tourism industry.''

Politicians from other states are already putting their hats in the ring to collect the money Florida just turned away. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York was one of them. He said, "Florida’s loss should be New York’s gain. Other states may not be ready to unlock the potential of high speed rail, but it is a top priority for upstate New York. We can put these funds to use in a way that gets the best bang for the buck. The administration should redirect these funds to New York as quickly as possible.”

But the sentiment of doubt about paying more taxes for anything remains real, and widespread.  Even people like unemployed iron worker Muqaddam have hesitations. When I went to Florida last fall, I was there to investigate how voters felt about a sales tax to fund a local light rail, another big transportation project.  I asked Muqaddam about that.  Initially, he was pretty sure he was against it. "We don’t have -- It’s just like you’re taking, you know, we ain’t got.  And then the little bit we do got, you’re taking, you know?”

A sentiment Rick Scott is speaking to.

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Christie Calls Infrastructure Investments "Candy"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011




Speaking  earlier today, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called Obama's high speed rail and electric car goals "the candy of American politics" in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute Wednesday.

Watch in the video above, starting at 20:14  in for the transportation  comments.

Transcript:

"I look at what is happening in Washington D.C. right now and I'm worried. I'm worried. And, you know,  I heard the president's State of the Union speech, and it was two weeks after mine and he said America is about doing the big things. Now I'm not saying he copied me... But I think its important to note it because of what he thinks the big things are.

"He says the big things are high speed rail. The big things are high speed internet access for almost  80 percent of American or something  by some date.  A million electric cars on the road by some date.  Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the candy of American politics, those are not the big things, because let me guarantee you something  if we don't fix the real big things there's going to be no electric cars on the road.  There's going to be no high speed internet access, or if there is you're not going to be able to afford to get on it.  We're not going to be able to care about the niceties of life, the 'investments' that Washington wants to continue to make."

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Houston's METRO Gets Money Back From Spanish Rail Car Supplier

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's METRO has officially received a $14 million dollar refund from the Spanish-owned rail car vendor Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF).

METRO had hired CAF to build 103 light rail cars for the North and Southeast rail lines. But last December METRO had to cancel the contract after the Federal Transit Administration said the $330 million dollar deal violated federal purchasing laws and Buy America rules. That has stalled $900 million dollars in federal grants. “The Federal Transit Administration made it clear that unless we terminated the CAF contract and purchased cars under a new program that they were comfortable with, we would not be eligible for the full funding grant,” said George Greanias, METRO’s president and CEO.

METRO was able to recover $14 million dollars of the $41 million it had already paid to CAF. Greanias says the money will go toward re-procuring the light rail cars. “We just issued a notice over the weekend that we’re going to be going out to take bids on rail cars," said Greanias. "And we’ve been working very closely with the Federal Transit Administration to make sure that every step in the process that we’re going through right now meets with their approval.”

Earlier this week the Obama Administration submitted its proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. It includes $200 million dollars for the North and Southeast rail lines.

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NJ to Feds: We May Not Have Agreed About ARC Tunnel, But We Agree We Shouldn't Have To Pay

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) New Jersey politicians might not have agreed about the ARC tunnel -- but when it comes to paying back the federal government $271 million in ARC money, they present a united front ... against paying, that is.

Yesterday, Governor Christie's office released a copy of a letter that the entire New Jersey congressional delegation --13 congressmen (yes, the entire delegation is male) plus the two senators -- sent to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, expressing concern that "forcing New Jersey to pay these funds will undermine efforts for a new Trans-Hudson tunnel."

New Jersey has been pursuing legal action to avoid repaying the Federal Transit Administration $271 million that the agency billed the state for work on the ARC tunnel project. This letter appears to be the latest attempt by the state to try to get off the hook for the bill.

We reached out to the DOT for comment, wondering:  what triggered this letter? Were there discussions afoot about repurposing that money for a new iteration of a Trans-Hudson tunnel -- like the Gateway Tunnel or extending the #7 subway? The DOT says they have "no update."

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Waiting for "Go" Dough

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation)  They say attention spans are getting shorter. But great patience is required in the transportation world, where big plans don't always include... well, plans.

by Chuck Kennedy, via Wikimedia Commons

Obama's robust transportation budget (pdf), a wonky valentine on Monday, was greeted with the predictable enthusiasm from activists and equally expected groans from Republicans. Tea-Party-beloved Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) called the proposed increase in transportation spending evidence of the President's "fiscal irresponsibility," while the Public Interest Research group said it proved that the administration was "serious about investing in the future."

The reactions were unsurprising, in part, because so were the proposals: The ideas put forward in the budget read like a greatest hits from the past two years of rhetoric. You've got the half-trillion-dollar reauthorization commitment coupled with program streamlining that former Rep Jim Oberstar (D-MN) floated two years ago, before being swept out of the House in the November GOP takeover. And there's that upfront $50 billion in stimulus that Obama proposed to a crowd on Labor Day. A heap of high-speed rail. A dash of TIGER-like grants. Add the perennial Infrastructure Bank idea (to be specific, the much poo-poo'd version that would have the "I-Bank" live within the USDOT), and you've got yourself a budget.

No word on how to pay for it all, though.

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Ray LaHood: I'm Disappointed FL Rejected HSR Money -- But Other States Will Benefit

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) DOT secretary Ray LaHood is not happy about Florida governor Rick Scott's decision to reject federal funding for high speed rail. His office issued the following statement this morning:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Statement on Florida Governor Scott’s Decision to Decline High-Speed Rail Dollars

WASHINGTON U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today made the following statement regarding Florida Governor Rick Scott’s decision to decline high-speed rail dollars.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: “We are extremely disappointed by Governor Rick Scott’s decision to walk away from the job creating and economic development benefits of high speed rail in Florida. We worked with the governor to make sure we eliminated all financial risk for the state, instead requiring private businesses competing for the project to assume cost overruns and operating expenses. It is projects like these that will help America out-build our global competitors and lay the foundation needed to win the future. This project could have supported thousands of good-paying jobs for Floridians and helped grow Florida businesses, all while alleviating congestion on Florida’s highways. Nevertheless, there is overwhelming demand for high speed rail in other states that are enthusiastic to receive Florida’s funding and the economic benefits it can deliver, such as manufacturing and construction jobs, as well as private development along its corridors.”

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Christine Quinn: Parking Ticket Fix Good For Constituent Relations

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn was on the Brian Lehrer Show this morning to talk about her State of the City speech. And as parking tickets were one of the big ticket items in that speech, Brian asked --quoting Andrea Bernstein's Transportation Nation article--the following question:

Brian Lehrer: More than 90% of people who work in Manhattan take mass transit, not their own cars. So why the attention to the problem of parking tickets issued to drivers  while they're putting money in the meters?

Christine Quinn: Well, for a couple of reasons. We've been very aggressive on mass transit issues in the Council from our big campaign last year to successfully save student MetroCards to supporting congestion pricing for extra funding for the MTA and an array of other issues.  But we in the Council want to be responsive to the issues that New Yorkers call us about.

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BREAKING: Rick Scott Rejects $2.4 Billion for High-Speed Rail

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) Florida Governor Rick Scott just announced that he's rejecting $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funds for  high-speed rail link connecting Orlando to Tampa.

"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," the governor said. "President Obama’s high-speed rail program is not the answer to Florida’s economic recovery."

You can read his prepared remarks here. There's a story about this in the Orlando Sentinel here.

More as we learn it.

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Video: Rick Scott Ends Florida's High-Speed Rail Plan

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Here's the press conference where Florida Governor Rick Scott announced his decision to cancel Florida's high-speed rail plan.
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TN Moving Stories: Maryland Population Growth Expected Near Transit, Transpo Groups Like President's Budget, And NCDOT Combats Junk in Your Trunk

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Transportation groups have much to like in President Obama’s budget request for infrastructure improvements -- but fear the spending plan might not get off the ground in Congress. (The Hill)

Planners in Montgomery County, Maryland, expect population growth will happen around transit centers and mixed use developments near the area's Metrorail station. (WAMU)

Christine Quinn announced her plan to ease NYC's parking restrictions and introduce new legislation that would allow ticket agents to literally "tear up" tickets. (WNYC)  Also: Quinn will be on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show today, and it's safe to say that this parking plan will come up in the conversation.

A political battle brewing over the New Starts transit funding program could endanger at least $394 million for Minneapolis's Central Corridor light-rail line. (Star-Tribune)

The North Carolina DOT has launched a campaign to combat junk in your trunk. Drive lighter, save money at the pump:

Ray LaHood takes to his blog -- and Twitter, and Facebook -- to defend the president's high-speed rail plan in the face of critics. "As the Secretary of Transportation, let me be clear: there is no amount of money that could build enough capacity on our highways and at airports to keep up with our expected population growth in coming decades."

Greece's socialist government was able to pass its sweeping public transportation reform legislation in a final vote two hours past midnight on Wednesday, despite protracted strikes since December. (Dow Jones)

NY's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has refused to move from a parking lot slated to be turned into a park on Greenpoint's waterfront. (NY Daily News)

Is Burlington's pro-bike policy part of the secret behind Vermont's low unemployment rate? (Good)

An app to report potholes has come to Boston. (Wired/Autopia)

Top Transportation Nation stories we're following: We look at the politics behind the iconic beleaguered middle class driver. Senator Jeff Sessions weighs in on high-speed rail -- and what he thinks transportation policy should focus on. Montana grapples with megaloads. Houston's light rail system stands to get more money if the president's budget is passed. And: we just can't get enough of love on the subway.

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The Politics of Driving

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn got a whole bunch of attention (including from WNYC), for her proposal, packaged to land with maximum punch in her state of the city address, to ease the lives of those New Yorkers who feel they are a slave to alternate-side-of-the-street parking and other motorist-related hassles.

As WNYC's Azi Paybarah reports it, Quinn said in her speech Tuesday: "almost every New Yorker has a story about getting a ticket they didn't deserve."

Azi explains: "new legislation would be written to allow ticket agents to literally "tear up" a ticket when a motorist presented proof that they stepped away from their car in order to purchase a parking ticket at a nearby meter. The problem, Quinn said, of those wrongfully issued tickets was bountiful."

But. The politics of driving in New York City are far from simple. Unlike every other city in America, the majority of New Yorkers take transit to work. More than 90 percent of people who work in Manhattan don't get there by private car.  But in politics, the beleaguered middle class driver -- like "Joe the Plumber," an archetype with great political hold -- is a powerful icon.

Since I've been covering this issue, candidates for Mayor (and Quinn is widely expected to be one 2013) have tried, with varying degrees of success, to tap dance around it. To take a walk down memory lane, in an August 2005 mayoral debate I asked (page 11 of the transcript) the democratic candidates about whether traffic into Manhattan should be limited by tolling East River bridges (which unlike some other crossings into Manhattan, are free).

There were four candidates at the time vying to be the Democratic nominee against Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the time: former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer (who went on to be the nominee against Bloomberg), Congressman Anthony Weiner (who didn't run in 2009 because, he said, there was too much important work to do in Washington, but who very well may run in 2013), Gifford Miller, the City Council Speaker (Quinn's current job) and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. None of them were for charging drivers to enter Manhattan by tolling East River bridges. To Weiner, it was "a tax on the middle class."

Throughout the 2008 fight on congestion charging, that's how opponents portrayed it. Quinn, however, stood up and took the heat. Through arm-twisting,  cajoling, and pleading, she pushed forward Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to charge motorists $8 to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan during peak hours. Proponents, including Quinn, argued that the charge would ease traffic, reduce driving and help the environment, and make hundreds of millions of federal dollars available for mass transit.

“This is a bold decision… which will send a message to the state Legislature that we are sick and tired of our streets being clogged with traffic," Quinn said after the relatively narrow council vote of 30-20. (Narrow, because Quinn is the Democratic Speaker of a Council that is almost entirely composed of Democrats, and can usually get upwards of 40 council members to support her on any given measure.) But the council didn't actually have the power to enact the charge -- the state legislature did. And that body never voted, leaving some city council members who'd gone along with Quinn bitter that they'd been forced to take a stand on a relatively controversial issue.

Congestion charging did not come to be in New York City. The federal government took back its offer of hundreds of millions of dollars in transit aid. Partly because of that, the MTA faced down an $800 million budget gap last year, imposed the most severe service cuts in a generation, and raised fares.

Of the candidates who may run for Mayor in 2013 in New York, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio is on record as opposing congestion charging. He was one of the 20 votes against Quinn. Weiner has remained opposed, and most recently, when former MTA chief and transit eminence gris Richard Ravitch put forward a plan to save the MTA with bridge tolls, Weiner wasn't for that, either. City Comptroller John Liu, formerly a city council member from Queens and chair of the transportation committee, supported congestion charging -- but not bridge tolls. And then of course, there's Quinn.

All of this is the backdrop of Tuesday's speech, which comes in the wake of general outer-borough fury at Mayor Michael Bloomberg for failing to plow the streets in a timely manner after the blizzard of 2010. That's been rolled into general Bloomberg-fatigue (he's now in his third term after promising to serve for only two), resistance to some of Bloomberg's reforms that are seen by some motorists as anti-automobile (bike lanes come to mind), and general frustration by middle class New Yorkers suffering the third year of a recession as property taxes, water rates, and parking fees rise.

And thus Quinn's refrain, in a speech that usually ricochets with resonance, that among her lofty goals "is just making it easier to find a parking spot."

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Sessions: High-Speed Rail Will Never Be Profitable

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Senator Jeff Sessions

Transportation Nation's Todd Zwillich asked Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions if he could ever support high-speed rail, as long as the overall budget bottom line is low.  The response:

Senator Jeff Sessions: Well, the critical number is -- are we going up or are we going down in spending? We need to be going down in spending. And then within that number, you can fight over what is your priority and what is not in your priority. I’ve studied the rail situation in years past, and I’m convinced that the way America operates it will not be an efficient thing here. High-speed rail is exceedingly expensive. I’m very dubious about that new spending program. I think most people would prefer we fix the 14th Street Bridge, and you know the potholes in the neighborhood, rather than spending huge amounts of money – and that’s just a down payment on the plan the President mentioned in his speech. I was just stunned that 80% of the American people would be in walking distance – or some distance – to the high speed rail, I think, is impractical.

Question: you just supported an increased budget line for the District of Columbia, I think. 14th Street Bridge?

Senator Sessions: (laughs) I’m just kind of kidding, but urban transportation problems are real, for millions of Americans, and a good policy would figure out how to improve that. But I don’t think high-speed rail in areas that are never going to be profitable are the answer.

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