Streams

The Furner Problem: How Globalized Capital Complicates Privatization

Friday, October 22, 2010

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) – This week, in an online excerpt from his new book Griftopia, Rolling Stone muckraker Matt Taibbi offers a startling revelation: “There are now highways, airports, parking garages, toll roads—almost everything you can think of that isn’t nailed down and some things that are—for sale, to bidders unknown, around the world.”

Taibbi says he dropped his fork when he first learned, in 2009, that the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other pieces of infrastructure had been offered “for sale” (or long-term lease, as the case may be). He was even more alarmed to learn that the investors behind these deals were in many cases—brace yourself—not American.

This won’t be news to readers in Chicago, where the Skyway toll bridge was leased to a Spanish-Australian consortium in 2004 (five years before Taibbi dropped his fork), nor to readers in Indiana, where, in June 2006, the same consortium took over operations of the Indiana Toll Road. The dialogue surrounding this latter deal involved a fair amount of xenophobia. At a Privatization Conference in September of 2006, Ryan Kitchell, the Indiana Official who lead the team that struck the already-triumphant lease deal, told a roomful of bankers and DOT finance officials that this “Furner problem” (think “foreigner” with a flat midwestern drawl) had taken them by surprise. People in the finance world, he said, took for granted that money knows no borders. L’argent sans frontieres, as the French toll operator APRR, now partially owned by an Australian fund, might say.

Taibbi’s book excerpt, it should be said, does pour some new gasoline (or crude oil) on the fire by focusing his umbrage on the presence of Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds among those parties looking to turn our infrastructure into cash flow. He draws connections between a Nixon-era OPEC embargo, the war in Iraq, and the seemingly bum deal Chicago got in privatizing its parking meters.

Let’s set aside for a moment the argument over the virtues and pitfalls of infrastructure privatization. Taibbi’s piece certainly demonstrates that the “Furner problem” has legs. And that raises, in turn, important questions: If privatization continues, as seems likely since the Obama Administration and governors from both parties seem friendly to the idea, should some preference be given to bidders with American investor pools? Should lawmakers try to restrict foreign investment in the proposed National Infrastructure Bank?

Such economic jingoism gets tricky, as evidenced in this riveting video clip from a Texas Transportation Committee meeting last year, captured by filmmaker Bill Molina, director of Truth Be Tolled. There’s a lot going on in this exchange between Commissioner Ted Houghton and Hank Gilbert, the founder of Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), but if you can get past Houghton’s namecalling (he calls Gilbert a “bigot”), he actually makes an interesting point: If China, say, is loaning us money at interest (for profit) so that we can fund our infrastructure stimulus, then how American are our roads anyway?

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

Read More

Comment

Feds Finally Release Their ARC Tunnel Estimates

Friday, October 22, 2010

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) When NJ Governor Chris Christie put the ARC Tunnel on hold last month, he alone made public his cost estimates -- overruns could go as high as $5 billion dollars.  Federal officials said they hadn't completed their analysis, but disputed that Christie's numbers were accurate.    Just now -- as the tunnel faces its...um, final decision point, the US DOT released the following statement:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Statement on the ARC Tunnel Project

Washington, DCU.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the following statement today on the ARC Tunnel project:

“In response to press reports, I want to clarify the range of numbers regarding the ARC tunnel project.

“The Department of Transportation has estimated the low-range cost of the project at $9.775 billion. The mid-range estimate is $10.909 billion and the high-end range is $12.708 billion.

“For complex projects, we do a range of estimates in the interests of accuracy. However, DOT is committed to working together through the life of the project to keep costs down to the lowest estimate.

“In addition, we’ve been discussing with New Jersey officials the simultaneous construction of the $775 million South span of the Portal Bridge project.

“We are committed to continuing the constructive dialogue we have had for the last two weeks with New Jersey officials to find a way to move forward on the ARC tunnel project, which will double commuter train capacity between New Jersey and New York.”

###

Read More

Comment

ARC's Second D-Day Arrives... Late?

Friday, October 22, 2010

(New York -- Matthew Schuerman, WNYC)  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was expected to make his final decision on the Access to the Region's Core train tunnel under the Hudson River today, but it's increasingly unclear whether that will happen.

The Associated Press and WNBC are reporting that Christie has extended the deadline, but do not attribute the information to any source. (WNBC says the governor will deliberate over the weekend.) They state that the governor is not meeting with US Secretary Ray LaHood.

An official close to LaHood told me there never was a meeting planned (even though LaHood said Monday, while at a ceremonial groundbreaking at New York's Moynihan train station Monday, of Governor Christie:  "He and I agreed that over a two week period we would put together a plan for a path forward and we will be meeting with him at the end of that two weeks and presenting that information."

Another official involved in the deliberations said that a meeting was never formally scheduled but was in the works for today. The official said the meeting fell through after the Associated Press reported last night that the true estimate of the tunnel's cost was $9.77 billion--much less than the $13.7 billion that Christie said it might cost. The official said the revised estimate comes from the federal government--as opposed to NJ Transit, which is in charge of the project--and that LaHood gave that estimate to Christie when the two met two weeks ago.

No comment from Christie's office so far. He's scheduled to campaign for Republicans in New Jersey later today.

Stay tuned.

Read More

Comment

In Maryland Governor's Race, Purple Reigns

Friday, October 22, 2010

(Washington, DC — David Schultz, WAMU) Some cities use letters or numbers to name their train lines; here in D.C., we use colors. Depending on where you're going, you take the Red Line, Blue Line, Green Line, Orange Line or Yellow Line. The iconic D.C. Metro map is an artful study in the use of these five primary colors.

But for years, there's been talk of a new color - the Purple Line. Until recently, the Purple Line has been more myth than reality - in part due to the light rail project's nearly $1.7 billion price tag. In the past four years, however, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (D) made it a priority and has begun seeking federal funds for the Purple Line.

O'Malley is up for election this year and Bob Ehrlich, his Republican opponent and his predecessor as Governor, is not a Purple Line supporter. And that may end up costing him the election.

Read More

Comment

Agriculture Secretary: We'll Boost Ethanol for Transpo Fuel

Friday, October 22, 2010

(Washington, DC -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) The Obama Administration is getting ready to boost the use of ethanol in transportation fuel.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday a new round of payments to US farmers for growing corn and other crops destined for gas tanks. The goal is to expand domestic production of ethanol and increase consumer demand for the renewable fuel.

Vilsack said his agency would also team up with the Federal Aviation Administration to encourage development of aviation fuel from biomass and farm waste, including switchgrass.

Vilsack framed the move as a way to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign energy.  "Today we still send a billion dollars a day outside our shores helping other countries' economies to grow while our economy recovers from a deep recession," he said in a speech in Washington, DC. "We can do better. We have to do better. Rural America is where we will do better," Vilsack added.

The expansion is part of a plan to boost US ethanol production from about 13 billion gallons this year to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The Environmental Protection agency recently approved a plan to increase the standard ethanol concentration in blended automobile fuel from 10% to 15% for newer cars, according to Bloomberg. Boosting ethanol production will mean the US will need more refineries. Vilsack said his agency would come up with a plan within the next two months to help fund the construction of five new refineries.

Read More

Comment

TN Moving Stories: Car Accidents Biggest Threat to Americans Abroad, ARC Decision May Be Delayed, and the Evils of the Subway Door Stander

Friday, October 22, 2010

Biggest threat to Americans abroad isn't terrorism -- it's "a lethal cocktail of killer roads, unsafe vehicles, dangerous driving and disoriented travelers."   (USA Today)

Will Governor Christie hand down his ARC tunnel decision today--or think some more over the weekend? (AP via Star Ledger)

French president Sarkozy forcibly opens one oil refinery--but 2,500 gas stations are still empty. (BBC)

Palo Alto city council doesn't want high-speed rail stop, says "it doesn't make good transit sense." (Silicon Valley Mercury News)

Drum Major Institute report says: invest more in the MTA or face fiscal disaster (via New York Daily News).

The New York Times' Complaint Box takes subway door standers to task...and deputizes their readers to enforce subway etiquette. Plus: they have a beautiful online photo exhibit of historic images of the subway.

Read More

Comment

Breaking: ARC Tunnel Cost $4 Billion Lower Than Thought

Friday, October 22, 2010

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) The AP is reporting federal estimates for the ARC transit tunnel are considerably lower than those cited by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie when he pulled his support for the transit project citing cost concerns. According to AP reports, three government officials familiar with the transit project—the largest currently underway in the United States—confirm federal estimates for the tunnel are $9.77 billion, about $4 billion lower than the worst case scenario, $14 billion, cited by Governor Christie.

Just under $9 billion in funds are currently dedicated to the project including $3 billion from the federal government, $3 billion from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The State of New Jersey would be responsible for the rest, including any cost overruns, a liability that led Governor Christie to oppose the project. New York City and New York State are not paying any money for the tunnel.

Governor Christie pulled his support for the project two weeks ago, effectively canceling it. After meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, he agreed to a two week reprieve, which ends on Friday. His office would not comment on the newly released figures cited by the AP.

Read More

Comment

Houston Metro: Light Rail Projects Stalled

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(Houston, TX — Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houstonians anxious for Metro to finish its light rail project are going to have to stick it out a while longer. Metro’s President and CEO George Greanias announced today that, due to budget restraints, work on the rail expansion project is going to slow down dramatically. Metro’s budget for the project, which seeks to add five more lines to the existing Main Street line, has been slashed by almost 70 percent – dropping from $458 million to $143 million. According to Greanias, the transit agency has no choice but to make some serious adjustments in order to reduce project costs. “We’re just having to take some very difficult and regrettable steps, but we’re doing them,” Greanias lamented.

Metro has identified more than one hundred engineering, construction, small business, and community outreach contracts that will be either suspended or reduced. Utility work on the North and Southeast lines will continue at the current pace till the end of the year. But for now, work on the University and Uptown lines is stalled. Greanias says the agency has to take the necessary steps, “to make sure we don’t put the agency or its long term programs in jeopardy.”

Metro’s overall budget, which was adopted last month, was trimmed back by 31 percent. The agency was depending on federal funding for two of the light rail lines, but was told last month that the money would be delayed because it violated federal purchasing and Buy America laws. More on that here.

Hear the story at KUHF

Read More

Comment

You Live In NYC. Do You Know What The Speed Limit Is?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(Kate Hinds, WNYC/Transportation Nation) “Many New Yorkers do not even know what the speed limit is,” said New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Speaking today at the intersection where Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue and West 71st Street meet in a notorious “bow-tie” configuration, she said that the city and the New York Police Department are kicking off an enforcement campaign designed to make the streets safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.

Read the story at WNYC.

Read More

Comment

NY Candidate Cuomo: Congestion Pricing "Moot"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(New York -- Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo has been a bit of a cipher when it comes to transportation and transit.  He's bemoaned MTA inefficiencies, called into question an employer-tax imposed last year to help bail out the MTA, and said fares shouldn't go up. But he's said little about financing the authority over the long term.

Today, in his most extensive remarks to date on transit, he didn't add much.

The occasion was the release of his 273-page urban agenda, which by the way, did NOT include transit.  It was the kind of "urban agenda" you'd hear in the 1990's: anti-poverty, affordable housing, minority jobs. (By contrast, Shaun Donovan, the current HUD Secretary -- Cuomo's former job -- has made sustainable, walking, transit-rich communities a major plank in his agenda.)

But all the journalists there, pretty much, wanted to talk transit.  In fact, I didn't raise the subject.  A Daily News reporter did.

"There's going to be a need for more efficiency," Cuomo said of the MTA.  "More effectiveness, better management.  You can't have over $500 million in overtime. You can't have thousands of people making over $100,000 a year .  I believe the Governor should be accountable for the MTA."

My turn.  But what about funding for the MTA?  Does he support congestion pricing?  [As Mayor Bloomberg does?]  Bridge tolls? [As Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch does?]

"Congestion pricing was proposed," Cuomo parried.  "It was discussed.  It was basically rejected by the legislature.   I don't know that there's been any change in opinion.  I think it's moot.  I understand the concept.  I understand that it was rejected.  I don't think it would pass if it came up again, unless something changed."

Without offering specifics, he added. "There's going to be a number of revenue raisers. The instinct is going to be to say 'more money more money more money.'   I understand that.  Part of the discipline I want to bring is a fiscal discipline to the state and the MTA.  The answer can't always be more money."

But then Melissa Russo of WNBC Channel 4 asked (I'm paraphrasing): how could he say, if it didn't happen, it won't happen?  What about all the other things he wants to happen -- like government reform?  Isn't the problem that the legislature hasn't made them happen?

Read More

Comment

NYC DOT Says Brooklyn Bike Lane Dramatically Reduces Speeding, Sidewalk Bicycling

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation)  On a day with competing rallies about the controversial bike lane that the city installed on Prospect Park West in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, the city's Department of Transportation released some data that it says shows the two-way, protected bike lane is doing what it was meant to do--slow traffic and get bicyclists off the sidewalks.

A city DOT spokesperson said today that preliminary data shows that BEFORE the bike lane, three out of four cars on Prospect Park West were speeding.  The agency says that number has dropped to one in seven.  And the DOT says almost half of all cyclists used to ride on the sidewalk. That number has decreased to four percent.

The city notes that the lane was installed at the request of the local community board.

A PDF of the city's data can be found here:  Prospect Park West Bike Lane Preliminary Data

Read More

Comments [1]

NJ Dems: Governor Christie Pulled Transit Tunnel Numbers "Out of Thin Air"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(New York -- Matthew Schuerman, WNYC)  A top New Jersey Democrats says he's combed through the hundreds of pages that led Governor Chris Christie to dump the ARC train tunnel under the Hudson River and found no justification for it.

"The documents provided by the governor’s own administration fail to provide any justification for the governor’s claim of billions in cost overruns on the tunnel project," Assemblyman John Wisniewski, head of the Assembly's Transportation Committee said in a press release this afternoon. “That claim seems as though it was simply pulled out of thin air by the governor."

Wisniewski got roughly 400 pages of documents Wednesday from the governor's office through a freedom of information request. The Democrat said that three reports on cost estimates that were included state, "The overall project remains within budget," and repeat that the budget remains at $8.7 billion.

Christie, a Republican, canceled the tunnel two weeks ago, saying that internal reports pointed towards as much as $5 billion in cost overruns  and that he wasn't about to pass those costs on to New Jersey taxpayers.

Christie's office hasn't responded to a request for comment. Those wishing to pore through the documents themselves can find them on the assemblyman's web site.

UPDATE, 5:30 p.m. : Christie's office says the documents that Wisniewski reviewed are only the first batch of many that he will receive under his information request.

Read More

Comments [2]

Pro-Transit Groups say Cuomo Proposal to Abolish MTA "Empty Rhetoric"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  You might think pro-transit groups would be allies with New York Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo (he's not the guy who wants to "take a baseball bat" to Albany).  But Transportation Alternatives and the left-leaning Drum Major Institute have released a 5-step plan for stabilizing the NYC MTA's finance.  And they don't seem too happy with the Democrat, and what he's said (and not said) about how he'd finance the MTA.   (He hasn't said.)

From their press release:

"Empty rhetoric about abolishing or restructuring the MTA fails to address the heart of the matter: how the gubernatorial candidates would hold state lawmakers accountable for decisions that caused the severe service cuts and painful fare hikes now disproportionately affecting lower and moderate income working families,” said John Petro, urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. “To be a true Albany reformer, our next governor must have a real vision and plan for how to tame the MTA’s runaway debt and establish more sustainable revenue so that the public transit system serves all New Yorkers.”

Cuomo's presenting an "urban agenda" today.  We'll have more later.

Read More

Comment

ARC Transit Tunnel Deadline Approaches ...Again; Christie Says There's No "Money Tree"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  Tomorrow is the second manufactured deadline for life or death of an $8.7 billion rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York, but there's little that's happened in the last two weeks to suggest NJ Governor Chris Christie, a fiscal conservative whose star in on the rise in the GOP, will change his mind.

(Two weeks ago today, Christie announced he was pulling the plug on NJ's financing and shutting down the project. Next day, in an unusual move, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a project advocate, flew to Trenton and convinced a reluctant Christie to "review options.")

Advocates are fighting back hard -- the hardest and loudest they've been since the tunnel first slipped into jeopardy this fall -- but behind the scenes there's not much optimism that Christie can or will be turned around.

Ideas have been presented to Christie, ranging from innovative financing to rolling out the project in phases, but a viewing of Star-Ledger video certainly doesn't make it sound like he's changing his mind.

Christie on ARC tunnel: It's not a bad idea, but it's way over budget

While campaigning in Pennsylvania this week Christie talked about his middle-class roots: "In our house, when I used to go my mother and say 'I'd like something new, I'd like to buy something ' my mother would look at me and say 'well, of course Christopher, you can have that just go in the back yard and take the money off the money tree. You know where that is, right?'...to me it is a moral imperative to say no to these things."

Meantime, NJ Democrats received late yesterday a packet of documents on ARC they'd requested under NJ's open records law. They say they're reviewing them now...we'll have more later.

Read More

Comment

TN Moving Stories: Toyota Recall, Dueling Bike Rallies in Brooklyn, and Swedes Invent Invisible Bike Helmet

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Toyota recalls 1.5 million vehicles worldwide for brake and fuel problems. (New York Times)

Midterm elections may reroute high speed rail projects. (Marketplace)

Tough week for transportation in DC: The Virginia Department of Historic Resources is objecting to a change in the planned Metrorail line to Dulles Airport that could save more than half a billion dollars (WAMU). And DC failed to win TIGER grant money to help expand its bikeshare program.

While Atlanta celebrates its $47.6 million streetcar grant, other area residents are annoyed that a highway project didn't get funded. "Because it's more important than a streetcar. Peoples' lives depend on it." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Dueling rallies over Park Slope's bike lanes to take place in Brooklyn today. (New York Daily News)

The Swedes have invented an invisible bike helmet, modeled on a car airbag, that will go on sale next spring. (Popular Science)

Read More

Comment

TIGER Grants: DOT and HUD Get Together

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) As we reported earlier today, the United States Department of Transportation released the full list of transportation investment grants (known as TIGER II)--a pool of money totaling $600 million for 75 separate projects. How does this round differ from the previous TIGER grants, announced earlier this year? Not very--but there's one key difference:  HUD got involved in the planning grants.

DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said in a press release today: "This marks the first time that the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have joined together in awarding grants for localized planning activities that ultimately lead to projects that integrate transportation, housing and urban development."

That sentiment was echoed today by the Pratt Center's Joan Byron, who spoke to WNYC about the $1.5 million planning grant that New York City received to look at sustainable ways to redevelop the Hunts Point area of the Bronx.  She said:  "It feels like a real vindication for the community organizations of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance and for ourselves that the federal government is now on the page where South Bronx communities have been for ten years."

While HUD and the DOT collaborated on the first round of TIGER grants, this is the first time that planning grants were jointly awarded--which seems to indicate that the Obama Administration is putting its money where its mouth is in terms of taking livability and sustainability criteria seriously.

TIGER grants were awarded in two categories: capital and planning. Atlanta was the big capital winner, with a $47.7 million grant for its streetcar project. Fort Worth received $34 million to upgrade its rail capacity, and Seattle also received $34 million for a bridge replacement.

Read More

Comment

Proposed Billings Bypass Divides Montanans

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

(Billings, Montana - Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) I-90 in Billings, Montana is part of the Camino-Real International Trade Corridor-- a well-traveled NAFTA route that truckers use to move goods through Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

But: things aren't exactly seamless in Billings, because truckers have to leave the interstate and be rerouted through city traffic.

That traffic has turned Billings' Main Street into the most congested, heavily-traveled highway in the state of Montana. Transportation planners had proposed building a bypass to re-route semi traffic away from Main Street, but the lack of a reauthorized federal transportation bill has meant no money for the project.

Stefan Streeter is the administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation office in Billings. He says despite the lack of full funding, part of the project is funded. And planners have an eye toward a full truck bypass.

“When you put all of this together there's a lot of long range plans between the city, county and the state to alleviate what is by far the most congested route in the state of MT and also provide for emergency access," he said.  "At 5:00 if you need an ambulance on Main Street, lord help you, because I don't think it can get up there.”

Read More

Comments [1]

TIGER II Grants Officially Announced

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the winners of their $600 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant competition today. According to the DOT's press release:  "Roughly 29 percent of TIGER II money goes for road projects, 26 percent for transit, 20 percent for rail projects, 16 percent for ports, four percent for bicycle and pedestrian projects and five percent for planning projects."

We'll do a fuller analysis later on today, but in the meantime, you can find the complete list of capital grant winners here (pdf), and planning grant winners here (pdf).

Read More

Comment

TN Moving Stories: ARC Supporters Fan Out Across NJ; Critical Mass Bicyclists Win Suit; and You Say You Want a Rail-Volution?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

ARC tunnel supporters fanned out across the state yesterday to rally, get signatures, pass out fliers. Can the tunnel be saved? Governor Christie's response: "I don't know. I’ll wait to see what they tell me on Friday about the money. It’s all about the money." (Star Ledger)

"Critical Mass" bicyclists win suit against city. (WNYC)

NYC's MTA adds buses to the M15 Select Bus Service line. How's the new line doing? "Things are incrementally getting better," says spokesperson. (New York Daily News)

Now, even BlackBerry users in Boston will know when their train or bus is coming. (Herald)

The New York Times debates the question: "The number of drivers over 70 will triple in the next 20 years. How will they stay safe and mobile?"

16th annual Rail-Volution conference held this week in Portland, Oregon--a model city for transit oriented development...but one participant notes: "The extensions into the suburbs are the real test." (Portland Tribune)

Read More

Comment

Construction Workers Rally to Save ARC Tunnel

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

(North Bergen, NJ -- Scott Gurian, WNYC) Supporters of a new commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River rallied Tuesday in North Bergen, New Jersey, to save the project, saying it represents thousands of construction jobs for the region.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has put the project, known as the ARC Tunnel, on hold pending a review of the costs. Speaking today in front of hundreds of unionized construction workers, William Mullen, the president of the New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council, said New Jersey can't afford to lose those jobs in tough economic times.

"Is this state broke, and doesn't have the money?” he asked. “Yes. But do we have to find a way to come up with it? Yes we do! If we're gonna make this state grow and survive for our children, our grandchildren, it has to be done."

The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that the unemployment rate in the construction industry rose to 17.2 percent last month.

Governor Christie has said he doesn’t want New Jersey taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns. After an appeal from the U.S. Department of Transportation, he is expected to announce later this week whether he's killing the project once and for all.

Read More

Comments [2]