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The $128 Million Question: Where's the ARC Tunnel Letter?

Friday, December 17, 2010

(New York - Jim O'Grady, WNYC) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stood up at a press conference on Thursday morning at the state house in Trenton and uttered what could have been a $128 million phrase.

“The offer was a nice start,” he said.

He was referring to a letter from federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that offered a rebate in the above amount against a $271 million charge the feds have presented the state for preliminary work on the cancelled ARC rail tunnel under the Hudson.

Christie killed the project in October because of projected cost overruns. LaHood, in the letter, proposed to give the state $128 million back for projects that improve air quality by cutting traffic congestion. But only if New Jersey pays the whole bill by December 24.

The governor’s positive reaction on Thursday was a reversal of sorts. The prior two days, he’d refused to acknowledge the potential deal because the letter that contained it, dated Tuesday, hadn’t been sent to him. Instead, it was addressed to New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg. By Wednesday evening, though the offer had been widely reported, Governor Christie’s spokesman Michael Drewniak insisted it still hadn’t reached the state house.

“Neither the Governor’s Office or New Jersey Transit has heard from Secretary LaHood,” said Drewniak in a statement. “If and when we are contacted by the secretary, we will review their proposal.”

The disconnect may have had something to do with testy public relations between the Republican Christie and the Democrat Lautenberg.

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TN Moving Stories: Christie Considers $128 Million Offer, Vote on Taxi Driver Dress Code Postponed, and BART Eyes Late Nights

Friday, December 17, 2010

Governor Christie will consider the FTA's offer to credit New Jersey with $128 million towards the $271 million the feds say the state owes.  "I would say that offer was a nice start, and we’ll continue to talk," Christie said at a press conference Thursday. (Star-Ledger)

A vote on a taxi driver dress code is postponed until next month. (WNYC)

Police will begin conducting random bag searches on (DC) Metro trains and buses. (Washington Post, WAMU)

BART may try operating trains later than 12:15am on Saturday nights. Par-tay! (San Francisco Examiner)

NYC's MTA "stealthily" renames a transit stop, so "Broadway-Nassau" is now just "Fulton Street." (AM New York)

Religious ads have been banned on Fort Worth buses, because of a furor sparked by an ad for atheism. (Houston Chronicle)

Broward County, Florida, will begin a bike share program this spring. (Sun Sentinel)

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Houston's Escalating Traffic Woes: Study Says Commute is Third Worst in America

Thursday, December 16, 2010

(Houston, TX -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Earlier this year we learned that Houston has five of the top ten most congested roads in Texas.  Now, Houston’s been given the title of third worst place to commute in America. 

Bundle.com and reporters at TheStreet.com compared data to come up with the rankings. The study factored in travel time, hours wasted in traffic, and car expenses like gas and vehicle maintenance. Alan Clark is the manager of Transportation Planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council. He says more and more people are transplanting themselves in Houston every day, making it nearly impossible for the infrastructure to catch up. Clark points out that growth in job activity, in population, and in travel, "far outstrips the increases in new roads and expansion of existing roads to carry that traffic.”

Hear the story over at KUHF News.

Clark offers a pretty bleak outlook for Houston commuters . With funding options limited, he says there’s not a lot of cash for transportation projects. “The resources for improving our road system continue to decline, and are expected to decline further in the next ten years, says Clark. "We’ve really been spending a lot of time prioritizing the dollars that are available,” he says.

Clark says some of the money is going into transit alternatives, like vanpools, carpools, and public transportation. H-GAC is also working with employers who can provide compressed work weeks or tele-working from home. Clark hopes all of these things will reduce the number of cars on the roads.

Still, if current projections hold true, you may have to leave earlier to get to work on time. Clark puts the problem in perspective this way: "Today, let’s say that you’re able to get to work in about 40 minutes; in the future that travel to work might take more than an hour.

Of the 90 American cities studied, Houston came in at 88. We’re better off than our northern neighbor though–Dallas came in dead last.

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Hertz Offers All-Electric Rental Cars

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nissan Leaf

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) The fledgling electric vehicle market got a little boost yesterday, when Hertz Connect began renting all-electric cars.

The rental car giant is starting small, with just five Smart Electric Drives in New York City. "That's all we could get our hands on right now," says Rich Broome, a Hertz Senior Vice President. But he says, the company is committed to ramping up to 1,000 electric vehicles nationally—including plug-in hybrids—by the end of 2011. Other cities slated to get the rental EVs are Washington, D.C., San Fransisco and select college campuses.

The move is  good news for EVs, even if it isn't totally new. The first generation of electric cars, like the original electric Toyota Rav4, were available for rent at major rental car companies in the late 1990s before carmakers backtracked on production of the vehicles.  Zipcar currently offers plug-in Toyota Priuses as part of a pilot program in partnership with the city of San Fransisco. Zipcar tells Transportation Nation they've been renting alternative-fuel vehicles and hybrids since 2003, and they "welcome Hertz to the space." Zipcar does not offer an all-electric vehicle currently for rent to its members.

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Titan of D.C. Transit Abruptly Resigns

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chris Zimmerman

(Washington D.C. - David Schultz, WAMU) In news that has come as a shock to many—especially myself—Chris Zimmerman announced this morning that he will be stepping down from the Board of Directors of Washington D.C.'s Metro system at the end of this year.

Zimmerman had served on the Board for more than a decade, and he had been instrumental in guiding Metro through the darkest period of its 34 year existence. Over the past 18 months, Metro has faced multiple budget crises, a rapidly crumbling infrastructure, federal condemnation and a train collision that killed eight of its passengers. Zimmerman, whose main job is as a local politician in Arlington, Va., was there through it all, rarely—if ever—missing a Board meeting.

Before I joined WAMU, I reported for a weekly newspaper in Arlington, so I got to know Zimmerman fairly well. And I can say definitively that he lives and breathes transportation. His influence in the D.C. region far exceeds that of his job title, as he sits on no fewer than four regional transportation bodies. (Although, after today, that number is reduced by one.)

Zimmerman has become something of a boogeyman for the pro-roads set in Northern Virginia. Many believe he is the man pulling the strings behind Arlington's efforts to block the expansion of several major highways that lead in and out of the District. But he is also a hero to the burgeoning transit-oriented anti-sprawl community in D.C.

We will continue to follow this story and watch to see if other changes are coming to Metro's leadership.

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MTA's 2011 Budget Is In The Black--Just Barely

Thursday, December 16, 2010

(New York -- Jim O'Grady, WNYC) The New York City MTA passed a spending plan for 2011 that erases the $900 million deficit officials had projected earlier this year.  But authority chairman Jay Walder warns the budget is just barely in the black.

"It is an extremely tight budget for the MTA," he said at yesterday's board meeting. "We're running an incredibly complex, multi-billion dollar company with essentially no margin."

The $12 billion budget has only an $8 million dollar cushion--less than a tenth of one percent of the total.

The agency says it filled the gap by laying off 1,000 workers and cutting bus and train service back in June. Those savings will continue to this year. And the December 30th fare hikes will kick in more than $400 million.

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TN Moving Stories: New Yorkers Face Long Commutes, More DC Residents Are Taking Public Transit, And How To Modernize Air Traffic Control

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Census data, commuter edition: More DC residents are using abandoning their cars and taking public transit to work. "Only New Yorkers take the subway to work more than Washingtonians do." (Washington Post)

Meanwhile, four of New York City's five boroughs logged the nation's longest average commute times to work (New York Post).  The country's worst commute continues to belong to Staten Island, where residents spend 42.5 minutes each way traveling to work (Staten Island Live).  But remember, New Yorkers --commutes cost less in NYC.

The blog Ride The City published data about more than 600,000 NYC bike rides planned on their site since April 2009. Median ride length: a little over 4 miles. And: 85% of all rides started or ended in just 7% of census blocks.

In other news:  The tax cut -- with its attendant transit benefit -- passes the Senate. Next stop: the House. (New York Times)

New York City has launched a new pilot program that will allow some disabled Access-A-Ride customers to take taxis instead. (WNYC)

Amtrak passengers can now bring unloaded guns on some trains. All aboard! (NPR)

A federal task force has some ideas about how to modernize air traffic control -- and ensure transparency in pricing. (Wall Street Journal)

Richard Florida digs into neighborhood walkability--which he writes is "a magnet for attracting and retaining the highly innovative businesses and highly skilled people that drive economic growth, raising housing values and generating higher incomes."  (The Atlantic)

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NJ Governor Mum About Feds' Offer to Cut $271 Million ARC Bill Nearly in Half

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

(New York -- Jim O'Grady, WNYC) New Jersey could be off the hook for almost half the $271 million  the federal government says it owes for scrapping a rail tunnel under the Hudson after work had been started.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says it will give the state $128 million back for projects that improve air quality by cutting traffic congestion. But only if New Jersey pays the whole bill by December 24.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released a letter containing the offer. A spokesman for Governor Christie said he had no comment on it because the department hasn't contacted him.

Governor Christie halted the $8.7 billion ARC tunnel project in October because of potential cost overruns. The decision has been controversial. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, for one, repeatedly decries it as “disastrous.”

Lautenberg took credit on Wednesday, along with fellow New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, for brokering the rebate offer from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. A press release from Lautenberg claimed that, “The Senator has been working quietly with DOT on reducing New Jersey’s burden since the project was killed.”

Now the Christie administration must decide if half a loaf is enough to end its scrap with the feds. Earlier this month, the governor directed New Jersey Transit—the state agency overseeing the project—to hire well-connected DC law firm Patton Boggs at $485 an hour to fight the tab from LaHood, which is for preliminary work on the ARC tunnel.

James Weinstein, executive director of New Jersey Transit, stood before reporters after a recent board meeting at the agency and contended the federal government was wrong to ask for money it spent in collaboration with the state.

“This isn’t like they sent us a check for $270 million and then walked away and let us spend it,” Weinstein said of the U.S. DOT. “They were a participant in everything we did, every day, every minute, every hour.“

If the Christie administration sticks to that position, it could be that the Transportation Secretary just made an offer that can be refused.

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Feds to NJ: Okay, We'll Credit You $128 Million For ARC Tunnel

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The U.S. Transportation Department tells New Jersey it will be credited nearly half the $271 million it owes the federal government for a scrapped NY-NJ rail tunnel if it pays back all it owes.

New Jersey got the tunnel tab for money already spent after Gov. Chris Christie abandoned the $8.7 billion project because of potential cost overruns.

The bill is due Dec. 24.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg has been negotiating with federal transit authorities to get the bill reduced. Christie approved the hiring of a Washington law firm to fight it.

A Dec. 14 letter confirming that $128 million would be credited to a congestion mitigation account after New Jersey repays the debt was signed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The Associated Press has obtained a copy of the letter.

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Officials Say Rescues Completed In Ontario Highway Emergency

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

(Detroit -- Pat Batcheller, WDET) Emergency officials in Ontario say they believe everyone who was stuck in deep snow on Highway 402 has been rescued. Blinding lake effect snow and strong winds off of Lake Huron have closed the highway between Sarnia and London, Ontario. The Blue Water Bridge, which carries traffic between Sarnia and Port Huron, Michigan, is closed to commercial traffic.

More than 300 people became stranded on the highway Monday after a massive winter storm dumped almost two feet of snow and ice along a  stretch of 402 between London and Sarnia. The weather made plowing all but impossible, leaving motorists to fend for themselves overnight in sub-zero temperatures — many without food, water or warm clothing. The National Post reported that in some areas, snow drifts reached as high as five feet.

Larry Gordon, the news director at Blackburn Radio in Sarnia, says the Canadian military used helicopters to reach motorists--some of whom were stuck for more than 24 hours.  “They are actually landing at various locations along that usually busy highway," he said,"  "and taking those people to their first meals in over a day and warm and dry conditions at a number of warming centers that have been set up around the community.”

Environment Canada is forecasting snow squalls through Wednesday for counties near Lake Huron.

The closure of the Blue Water Bridge is forcing trade to be re-routed through Detroit. Many of the trucks that normally cross there are being diverted to the Ambassador Bridge, causing heavy traffic on I-75 in Southwest Detroit.

You can see a slideshow of travelers and cars stranded in the snow here.

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TN Moving Stories: NYC Cabbies Find It's Hard To Answer Nature's Call, and Obama Talks HSR

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

So many NYC cab drivers, so few bathrooms. "Out of 62 taxi relief stands in the city, only one that recently opened in lower Manhattan has onsite bathrooms drivers can use." But: J&R Music World to the rescue! (WNYC)

Plow cam! Montgomery County, Maryland, has a new interactive map on its Web site, where residents can check to see if snow plows have cleared the roads in their area. (WAMU)

NJ Transit wants to raise parking fees. (Star-Ledger)

San Francisco backs away from "border toll" idea. (San Francisco Chronicle)

President Obama talks high-speed rail with a Florida journalists, says: "My hope is that everybody looks at this objectively and take the politics out of it. If they do, then I think Florida will benefit in part from decisions that were made in Wisconsin and Ohio that I don't think will serve their people well." (Tampa Bay Online; transcript)

Why are fewer people killed in auto accidents? A variety of reasons--including the bad economy. (Wall Street Journal)

Indianapolis's old minor-league baseball stadium has been turned into "cash-for-clunkers" graveyard. (Jalopnik)

AAA forecasts a 3% increase in travel during year-end holidays.

Reminder: Watch today's NYC MTA meeting live via webcast. (It starts at 9:30.) We'll have analysis of the meeting later on today.

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Despite Controversy, SF Supes Vote to Study Congestion Pricing

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

(San Francisco–Casey Miner, KALW News) It's a controversial plan, but the city of San Francisco is pushing ahead anyway: this morning, the board of supervisors voted to continue studying several options for congestion pricing cordons in the northeast corner of the city. The options include a $3 toll to enter and leave the cordoned area during especially busy times; alternatively, commuters who parked downtown all day would pay a $6 toll upon leaving. A third option, which would have charged drivers to enter the city from the south, was scrapped after politicians from Peninsula city councilmen to a state Assemblyman threatened a counter-toll. Don't hold your breath, though – the earliest anyone will pay to drive into the Financial District is 2015.

I interviewed Matthew Roth of Streetsblog SF about why it's so controversial to price driving; hear our conversation over at KALW News.

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Cars Gone: Vehicle Rapture or Minnesota Snow Reef?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Snowbank in snow city Minneapolis. Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio

(Minneapolis -- Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio)  Where's the rest of the car?  Buried under a nearby snowbank near this Interstate 35 and Washington Avenue intersection here in Minneapolis?

Probably not.

Our "processed" snow here has been bladed and pushed into rock-like snowbanks, winter time reefs that just like the maritime hazards can shear off otherwise necessary portions of our vehicles.

Greetings from snow-blasted Minnesota!

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U.S. Senate Voting on $230 Monthly Commuter Tax Benefit

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

(New York--Jim O'Grady, WNYC) The U.S. Senate is voting today on a tax cut compromise that includes a provision allowing transit riders to deduct up to $230 per month for the cost of their commute.

The move would be a big step toward extending a benefit that began last year as part of the Obama administration's federal stimulus package. Before then, a transit commuter's monthly pre-tax benefit was capped at $120. Raising the cap to $230 put bus and train riders--and van poolers--on par with those who drive to work and pay for parking.

Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group that works in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, has been pushing the provision. Spokeswoman Ya-Ting Liu said, "At the end of the day, given the growing need for affordable transportation options, and the growing economic cost of traffic congestion, fed policy should reward transit use. And that’s exactly what this does."

After the Senate vote, the tax package compromise will be taken up by the House. Should it pass there, the House and Senate would need to come up with a reconciled bill and then pass that bill before the end of the year.

Liu said the yearly suspense over the $230 benefit for transit riders could be avoided if the provision were to be written into the tax code, as it has been for drivers.

"The underlying issue is parity between transit and parking," she said. "Right now, this is a permanent benefit that only drivers enjoy."

For more on the issue and its economic ramifications, see this Marketplace report.

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The Country's Best And Worst Commutes -- From Your Wallet's POV

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

(Click for larger image)

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) TheStreet and Bundle took a look at how much Americans in different cities spend commuting by car each year and ranked their findings.

Dallas fares the worst, with a commuting cost that averages $593 a month in gas and other auto expenses. They also "lose" about 53 hours annually.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is bike-friendly Eugene, Oregon, where residents average $348 in monthly car expenses and lose only (!) 11 hours annually.

You can read the report here.

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TN Moving Stories: Tax Cut Bill Has Mass Transit Tax Break, and Airline Bag Fees Reap Billions

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tucked into the tax cut bill is a provision that would allow thousands of transit riders to save hundreds of dollars a year on their commuting costs.  And it could have a financial ripple effect. (Marketplace)

Airline bag fees brought in $4.3 billion this year. (USA Today)

NYC Transit considers taking entire subway lines out of service for equipment and maintenance. (New York Daily News)

Pennsylvania's Port Authority gets $45 million in emergency funding to postpone record-breaking Port Authority service cuts. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Right now if people charge their electric cars slowly, the grid can handle it. "But people will want faster charging, which will require bigger transformers and heavy-duty power outlets that deliver 240 volts. And running the grid will get more complicated." (NPR)

Snowplow drivers are working around the clock to keep roads passable in the Twin Cities. Snow day! (Minnesota Public Radio; slideshow)

Jet Blue was fined $600,000 by the US DOT for violating rules protecting disabled passengers, as well as failing to disclose code share information. (Washington Post)

The Asian Development Bank has approved a $1.1 billion finance package for two major transportation projects that will help ease traffic gridlock in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (AP via NPR)

When is carpooling like a the end of a big group dinner? Which Bay Area commuter will reach for their wallet first when the toll booth/check comes? Video below! (Oakland North)

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First Chevy Volt Ships to Dealers

Monday, December 13, 2010

Image: © GM Corp

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Chevrolet began shipping Volt electric vehicles to customers and dealerships Monday. The first of 160 cars expected to be shipped this week from the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant are heading to California, Texas, Washington, D.C. and New York, the initial launch markets for the Volt.

Tony DiSalle, Volt marketing director at Chevrolet called it a "historic milestone." Chevy announced plans for the Volt about four years ago, signaling a move from heavier SUVs toward more fuel efficient cars.

The Volt does have a small gas tank and gas powered engine to supplement the electric drive and allow longer trips of up to 379 miles on a single charge and fill up. That's in contrast to the Nissan Leaf, which does not have a gas engine. The first person to order a Nissan Leaf received their car in San Fransisco on Saturday.

Today's batch of Volts are not the first to ship but they are the first batch to go out to dealers for retail consumers. Earlier this year, Chevrolet shipped 15 pre-production Volts to "technology advocates" and "electric vehicle enthusiasts" for a 90-day vehicle and charging evaluation program.

Chevy has offered an incentive to spark early purchases of the car before roadside charging stations exist.  The company is providing free in-home 240 volt chargers to the first customers who pre-ordered Volts.

Recently private companies have announced plans to build charging stations in Tennessee and Texas. Still, early buyers of the Volt, or Leaf, will have to rely, at least in large part, on in-home chargers.

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'Tis The Season ... To Crack Down on Drunk Driving

Monday, December 13, 2010

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) The Department of Transportation kicked off the annual Holiday Drunk Driving Crackdown Monday. Specifically, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wants law enforcement to get tougher on drunk drivers who refuse to take roadside breathalyzer tests with the use of on-call judges and blood tests.

Law enforcement officials say too many drivers know that refusing to take a roadside breathalyzer improves their odds of beating a conviction. Secretary LaHood thinks a strategy being used in nine states dubbed "no refusal" might be a solution.

Under a "no refusal" plan, a judge stays on-call, even in off hours, to issue search warrants by phone if necessary that allow police to take blood samples from drivers who refuse a breathalyzer. Much like searching a car for drugs, this is asking a judge for permission to search for evidence of drunk driving, except the evidence is blood alcohol level, and the search is a blood test.

About one in four drunk drivers refuse a breathalyzer nationwide, while in some states the rate is much higher—in New Hampshire 81 percent of drivers refused. See chart on refusal rates by state here.

LaHood writes on his blog, "states like Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, and Utah that have adopted "No Refusal" programs demonstrate more guilty pleas and fewer costly trials." And, as you might expect, so called "refusal rates" have also dropped. In Texas, they fell from nearly 50 percent down to 10 percent.

Not every state is able to join up with this federal push backed with $7 million in funding for a national advertising campaign. In 20 states, current law would not allow warrants to be issued for blood tests by "on-call" judges. But that leaves 21 states that LaHood hopes will adopt the plan. Some states that do use "no refusal" plans do so only on certain highly publicized "no refusal" weekends.

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Subway Wallets: Transit Map as Fashion Accessory

Monday, December 13, 2010

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Here's a handy gift for subway riders, tourists planning a trip to New York, or transit cartography nuts. The Mighty Wallet is a nearly indestructible subway map printed on Tyvek, the material used for express mail envelopes.

Get one for New York City, London or Chicago, each celebrating love of public transit by turning the subway map into design object. Certainly not the first time, nor the last.

Note the different sales pitch the company uses for each of the different wallets. In New York, the wallet "... adds a level of stealth that safeguards your valuables from theft. Mighty Wallets have actually evaded theft in real life situations through their uncommon stealthy design." No mention of theft prevention for the Chicago sales pitch, just a nod to affection for the El.

And the London page touts design insight: "The "Tube" map is based not on the geographic but the relative positions of stations along the lines. A style that has been adapted worldwide."

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TN Moving Stories: CT Transpo Overhaul Coming, London Gets A Hydrogen Bus, and New York's "Cagelike" Subway Turnstiles are Fare Eaters

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday time can mean bonus time...but not for San Francisco Muni operators. Management has "put the kibosh this year on year-end payouts from a special trust fund set up for the city's transit operators." (San Francisco Chronicle)

Connecticut governor-elect Dan Malloy intends to overhaul that state's Department of Transportation--starting at the top. (Hartford Courant)

The U.K.'s first permanent hydrogen bus was launched in London; there are more coming next spring. (The Guardian)

General Motors' CEO wants government to loosen restrictions on executive pay so GM can hold onto its best. He also called the Toyota Prius hybrid a "geek-mobile." (USA Today)

"Cagelike" subway turnstiles: the bane of  inexperienced subway riders, who sometimes have to pay twice if they can't figure the system out right away. (New York Daily News)

Surveillance cameras coming to some New York City buses this spring. (AP via Wall Street Journal)

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