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Despite Cuomo's Suggestion That Taxi Talks Failed, Bloomberg Still Optimistic

Friday, December 09, 2011

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (photo NYC Mayor's Office)

(New York, NY -- Kathleen Horan, WNYC) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday he remains optimistic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will sign a bill that would put $1 billion in the city's coffers and allow street hails of some livery cabs in residential areas.

Bloomberg said on his weekly WOR Radio appearance Friday that he'd spoken to Cuomo the day before. He didn't disclose the details.

Cuomo said Wednesday that talks had failed to resolve significant issues with the bill. He said that without agreement, he'd veto it and wait for it to be brought up again next year.

The plan to allow a new class of livery car to accept street hails in upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs was at the center of Bloomberg's legislative agenda this year.

The bill passed the state legislature last summer and is finally expected to be sent to Cuomo on Friday to sign. He said Wednesday he will veto it because a myriad of issues  remained unresolved, including ensuring more wheelchair accessibility into the plan.

"I’ve said from day one, if we don't have a resolution of these issues I'm going to veto the bill because you don't have an agreement. We have been trying we've had numerous meeting over the past few weeks but we failed to reach resolution.”

The bill has faced passionate opposition from yellow taxi fleet owners, some in the livery industry and advocates for the disabled.

When Bloomberg was asked by reporters on Thursday if the bill was going to die, he appeared to be holding out hope for his plan, which he has said will increase taxi options beyond Manhattan.

“Many times the governor has assured me this would pass with some minor changes," he said. "We’ve worked on it with the governor’s staff, the state senate staff, the state assembly staff for months now.”

Cuomo has 10 days to decide whether to sign the bill or veto.

He has said that if he vetos the legislation it could be reintroduced early next year.

 

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Coffee, Tea or Cancer? Almost Half of Americans Oppose X-Ray Body Scanners

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Ontario International Airport, California. (photo by richmanwisco via flickr)

(by Michael Grabell, ProPublica) Even if X-ray body scanners would prevent terrorists from smuggling explosives onto planes, nearly half of Americans still oppose using them because they could cause a few people to eventually develop cancer, according to a new Harris Interactive poll conducted online for ProPublica.

Slightly more than third of Americans supported using the scanners, while almost a fifth were unsure.

The Transportation Security Administration plans to install body scanners, which can detect explosives and other objects hidden under clothing, at nearly every airport security lane in the country by the end of 2014. It's the biggest change to airport security since metal detectors were introduced more than 35 years ago.

The scanners have long faced vocal opposition. Privacy advocates have decried them as a "virtual strip search" because the raw images show genitalia, breasts and buttocks – a concern the TSA addressed by requiring software that makes the images less graphic. But in addition to privacy objections, scientists and some lawmakers oppose one type of scanner because it uses X-rays, which damage DNA and could potentially lead to a few additional cancer cases among the 100 million travelers who fly every year. They say an alternative technology, which uses radio frequency waves, is safer.

Some travelers like Kathy Blomker, a breast cancer survivor from Madison, Wis., have decided to forgo the machines altogether and opt for a physical pat-down instead. "I've had so much radiation that I don't want to subject myself to radiation that I can avoid," she said. "I decided I'm just not ever going to go through one of those machines again. It's just too risky."

After ProPublica published an investigation, reported in conjunction with PBS NewsHour, showing that the X-ray scanners had evaded rigorous safety evaluations, the head of the TSA told Senator Susan Collins that his agency would conduct a new independent safety study. He subsequently backed off that promise, prompting the senator to write the TSA pressing the agency to go ahead with the study and asking it to post larger signs alerting pregnant women that they have the option to have a physical pat-down instead of going through the X-ray scanners.

The TSA has repeatedly touted a series of polls showing strong public support for the scanners. But those polls and surveys – conducted by Gallup, The Wall Street Journal and various travel sites – largely dealt with the privacy issue.

Only one of those polls – by CBS News – asked specifically about X-ray body scanners, finding that 81 percent of Americans thought that such X-ray scanners should be used in airports. But that poll – like all the others – did not mention the risk of cancer.

When confronted with the cancer-terrorism trade-off, however, Americans took a much more negative view of the scanners.

Harris Interactive surveyed 2,198 Americans between Dec. 2 and Dec. 6. (Full survey methodology can be found here.) The international polling firm asked, "If a security scanner existed which would significantly help in preventing terrorists from boarding a plane with powder, plastic, or liquid explosives, do you think the TSA should still use it even if it could cause perhaps six of the 100 million passengers who fly each year to eventually develop cancer"

Forty-six percent said the TSA shouldn't use it, 36 percent said it should, and 18 percent weren't sure.

Asked to comment, TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said in a statement that the X-Ray scanners are "well within national standards."

"TSA’s top priority is the safety of the traveling public and the use of advanced imaging technology is critical to the detection of both metallic and non-metallic threats," he said. "All results from independent evaluations confirm that these machines are safe for all passengers."

The number of potential cancer cases used in the poll comes from a peer-reviewed research paper written by a radiology and epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and posted on the TSA's website.

The professor, Rebecca Smith-Bindman, concluded that 'there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans.' But she estimated that among the 750 million security checks of 100 million airline passengers per year, six cancers could result from the X-ray scans. She cautioned that the increase was small considering that the same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes.

Another study by David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, estimated that as airlines approach a billion boardings per year in the United States, 100 additional cancers per year could result from the scanners.

The TSA uses two types of body scanners to screen travelers for nonmetallic explosives. In the X-ray machine, known as a backscatter, a passenger stands between two large blue boxes and is scanned with an extremely low level of ionizing radiation, a form of energy which strips electrons from atoms and can damage DNA, leading to cancer. In the millimeter-wave machine, a passenger stands inside a round glass booth and is scanned with low-energy electromagnetic waves which don't strip electrons from atoms and have not been linked to cancer.

There is a great deal of uncertainty when performing cancer risk assessments from the very low levels of radiation that the backscatters emit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration put the risk of a fatal cancer from the machines at one in 400 million. The U.K. Health Protection Agency has put it at one in 166 million.

Some experts say such estimates of population risk create a distorted picture of the danger because humans are constantly exposed to background radiation and already accept risks that increase exposure, such as flying on a plane at cruising altitude.

In the authoritative study on the health risks of low levels of radiation, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the risk of cancer increases with radiation exposure and that there is no level of radiation at which the risk is zero.

Given that risk, Brenner and some in Congress have argued that the TSA should forgo in the X-ray scanners in favor of the millimeter-wave machine.

European officials have gone so far as to prohibit the X-ray body scanners, leaving the millimeter-wave scanner as the only option. But some countries, including Germany, have reported a high rate of false alarms with the millimeter-wave machines.

The TSA has said that keeping two technologies in play creates competition, encouraging the manufacturers of both technologies to improve the detection capabilities, efficiency and cost of the scanners.

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Controversial Plan To Expand Street-Hail Cab Pickup Faces Deadline

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Livery Cab (photo by Kate Hinds)

(New York, NY -- Kathleen Horan, WNYC) Flagging a cab isn't quite a unique New York experience -- but its a quintessential one.  Pretty much forever, that experience has been limited to riders hailing yellow cabs in Manhattan.  Those living in the outer boroughs, or in Upper Manhattan, have to either call a car -- a livery cab -- or informally "hail" a livery cab, since it's actually illegal for such drivers to accept street hails.

Since January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to change that.   And the state legislature passed the bill he promoted last summer. But the plan to allow up to 30,000 specially marked livery cars to accept street hails in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs kicked up more than a little controversy.

Yellow medallion fleet owners argued a new class of taxi would threaten the value of their pricey medallions. Some livery bases that rely on pre-arranged calls worried that allowing livery drivers to legally accept street hails would undermine their business model. And disabled groups said the bill didn't include enough accessibility.

After the legislation's initial approval, State Senator Martin Golden, who was the bill’s original sponsor, said he signed onto the bill too fast, without understanding the repercussions. Golden said one of the issues is the number of proposed livery permits that could be available is too high.

Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo's office convened a summit with key players to try to hash out a revised plan, but the Governor hasn't said what he'll do about the bill, which will die if he doesn't sign it by December 31.

As the deadline nears, stakeholders are either attempting to broker a deal—or hoping that the plan simply dies on the vine.

Changes in the bill could come during a special session of the legislature as early as this week.

If it becomes law, at least one opponent has promised to file a lawsuit to block any changes in court.

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NJ Lawmaker Calls for Probe of Port Authority Toll Hike

Friday, December 02, 2011

Lincoln Tunnel Helix(New York, NY -- Annmarie Fertoli, WNYC) A New Jersey lawmaker is calling on Governor Chris Christie's office to investigate how the Port Authority handled recent bridge and tunnel tolls and PATH fare hikes.

The agency argued last summer that it needed the money to pay for redevelopment at the World Trade Center site — but state Assemblyman Gary Schaer said legal documents the agency filed last month made no mention of the site.

"That brings us to question what happened between August and now, as well as are commuters going to be asked to pay for the World Trade Center additionally," he said. "So there's tremendous confusion, and confusion is a nice word."

Schaer said he's hoping to hear back from the governor's office next week.

The story was first reported this week by The Star Ledger.

The legal filing came in response to a lawsuit by the AAA motorists group that argues the hikes are not "fair and reasonable," as federal law requires. Both sides are due back in court for that case next week.

In September, cash tolls jumped on the Port Authority's Hudson River crossings, including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, jumped from $8 to $12.

The Port Authority released a statement saying:

“In August, the Port Authority informed the Governors of New York and New Jersey that the Port Authority was facing a severe fiscal crisis if it pursued its planned capital plan in the absence of a toll and fare increase. In such event, the Authority would be unable to fund the interstate transportation network projects, much less complete the long lists of other important non-network projects. Ensuring an additional flow of revenue through the toll and fare increase provides for funding of the interstate transportation network projects and makes available other Port Authority resources to complete hundreds of capital projects that are critical to the region's infrastructure needs, and the World Trade Center."

Neither Governor Andrew Cuomo's office nor Governor Chris Christie's office is commenting, referring all questions to the Port Authority. The governors jointly control the bi-state authority.

For a copy of the letter, click here.

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Building the Second Avenue Subway: Sandhog Tradition Stays in the Family

Monday, November 28, 2011

New York, NY -- Tracy Samuelson, WNYC) Mark Barrett is wiry — muscular but lean — with tattoos up his left arm and sideburns that reach almost to his chin. The tools on his belt clink as he calls to his father, Tony Barrett, standing nearby. Father and son are part of a crew of tunnel workers — sandhogs, they’re called — mining a tunnel for New York City’s new 2nd Avenue Subway line.

A recent morning found them 100 feet under the intersection of 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue. A train that brings supplies into the tunnel and carries out rock debris came off its tracks on the over-night shift the night before and the morning crew was tasked with righting the 30 ton locomotive. It took hydraulic jacks, shims, more than a little cursing and a few hours before the train was back on its rails.

Digging tunnels can be dangerous, dirty, hard work, but the Barretts said they like the work — the camaraderie with the guys on their crew and working with each other. They commute into work together each day and Mark said his dad was a big part of the reason that he became a sandhog.

“I like working side by side with him, that’s kind of cool,” Mark said.

Tony had hoped that sending Mark to college would keep him out of the tunnels.

“A lot of people get hurt down there,” he explained. “And he went to college to avoid all this, that’s what I was hoping for, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Mark says he’ll work in the tunnels as long as his dad does.

Listen to Mark's story here.

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Purple Line Stokes Gentrification Fears

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

University Boulevard in Langley Park is already starting to see the effects of the Purple Line, three years in advance of construction. (Photo by Matt Bush/WAMU)

(Washington, DC -- Matt Bush, WAMU) Maryland's Purple Line is years away from completion, but a group of small business owners say they're already feeling its effects.

Danny Santacruz owns America Hair Design, right at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard in Langley Park.  One day, the Purple Line will go through there. Construction is at least three years away, but Santacruz and his salon may not be here by then. Rent is getting higher and higher, to the point that Santacruz says he could rent in D.C.'s upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood for the same price.

"I've noticed on the leases, there's no renewal now after five years," says Santacruz. "They continue to increase (rent). It could have to do with the Purple Line. It could not. It could just be a coincidence. I don't really know."

He's done business in Langley Park for 11 years, but now, he sadly imagines what riders will one day say as they ride the Purple Line through there. "'Yeah, I remember they used to have Hispanic cuisine at this restaurant, or Indian cuisine at that restaurant,'" he says. "'Oh yeah, that was a long time ago. We have whatever store is there now.'"

Others are  more certain the higher rents in the area can be connected to the proposed Purple Line, and they fear that while they'll get the mass transit they've always wanted, it will destroy this neighborhood they call the "International Corridor" because of all its small businesses run by, and catering to, immigrants. Zorayda Moreira-Smith is a lawyer with Casa De Maryland, and she says the process of gentrification is beginning with landlords and developers.

"We are starting to see, unfortunately, people planning," says Moreira-Smith. "People don't want to have these long leases, because they know that will commit them to this baseline rent. And they know that they'll probably be able to get more once construction starts and the Purple Line is built."

Moreira-Smith says Casa does not want to see here what happened in the D.C. neighborhood of Columbia Heights, where big box retailers such as Target and Best Buy now do business. The Montgomery County Council is considering a bill targeting such retailers by forcing them to sign community benefit agreements supporters feel would protect existing businesses.

"These big box businesses are not here to compete with local small businesses. They're here to take over," Moreira-Smith says.

County executive Isiah Leggett has threatened to veto the measure, saying it sends a bad message and makes the county less business friendly.

There is no construction start date set for the Purple Line.

To hear the audio version of this story, go here.  And for more about DC and gentrification, listen to the TN documentary Back of the Bus: Mass Transit, Race and Inequality.

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Wheelchair Accessible Taxis Go Before NY Judge

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

One of the approximately 200 wheelchair accessible cabs in the city. (photo by Kate Hinds/WNYC)

(New York, NY -- Kathleen Horan, WNYC) Attorneys for the disabled faced off against attorneys for the city in a court hearing on Tuesday over the lack of wheelchair-accessible cabs.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, as well as the Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District, argued that New York City is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying it runs a public transportation system -- yet only two percent of cabs in the city can accommodate people in wheelchairs.

Simi Linton of Manhattan was one of a dozen disabled New Yorkers attending the hearing. "I feel optimistic that the judge understood the depth and the reach of the kind of discrimination that disabled people face daily," she said.

The city contends it's not violating the law because it doesn't operate the cabs themselves, drivers do.

But Federal Judge George Daniels repeatedly challenged the city’s attorney, Robin Binder, about whether New York City is responsible to do more, and what it plans to do to provide “meaningful access” to disabled passengers. Daniels said: “If it is your legal obligation, there is no dispute you’re not meeting that obligation.”

The Taxi and Limousine Commission has said it’s currently developing a system where disabled riders can order a wheelchair- accessible cab from a dispatcher. It should be operational by next spring.

One of the plaintiffs, Christopher Noel, said that plan doesn't cut it. "The TLC is basically saying that we'll come up with a system eventually, and then we'll get to you, but for now we'll just pick up everyone else and then we'll get to everyone else," he said. "It hurt me when I heard their argument," he said.

Judge Daniels said he’ll rule on the case by Christmas.

Before he concluded the hearing, Daniels warned the city that if he determines the city has an obligation to do more for accessible passengers, then it will have to be armed with remedies immediately, not in the future

Plaintiffs in the case are asking that as taxis are retired over the next few years, all new cabs be accessible models. The Nissan NV 200, the model chosen by the city to be the “Taxi of Tomorrow,” has to be retrofitted to fit wheelchairs.

Industry opponents argue requiring 100 percent accessibility isn't feasible and is too expensive.

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Electric Trucks to Be Built in the Bronx

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

(Photo: Smith Electric Vehicles)

(New York, NY -- Jenna Flanagan, WNYC) An electric truck maker is opening up a factory in the Bronx — saying it wants to be near a market for zero-emission delivery vehicles.

Smith Electric Vehicles says it will begin producing a delivery truck called the Newton in a building near Hunts Point beginning next year.

Smith EVs president and CEO Bryan Hansel said the company chose the location because the Newton is already used in New York, and he expects that to spread. “The initial trucks that are in New York are with people like Frito Lay, delivering potato chips, Coke-a-Cola,” he said.

Hansel said the $6 million worth of tax credits and other city and state incentives also lured the Saint Louis, Missouri-based company to set up shop in the Bronx. Officials said the trucks cost one-third to one-half the amount of conventional diesel trucks to operate and won't pollute the city's air. And they're easy for drivers to power up.

“In the morning, when they come, you unplug it, it's fully charged. You go do your day's work. That night you come back, plug it back in and it charges overnight,” Hansel said. “So we're only tapping into the grid and trying to take electricity when it’s at the lowest demand, overnight.”

The factory is expected to employ more than 100 people.

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Metro Employees Overworked: Study

Monday, November 14, 2011

photo by David Schultz/WAMU

(Elliott Francis -- Washington, DC -- WAMU) According to a new study, Metrorail employees are overworked and subject to fatigue, which could lead to accidents and mistakes.

The report is the result of a five-month partnership between the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority and the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which is responsible for reviewing safety on the transit service. It will be presented to Metro's board of directors next week.

It points out there are no state or federal laws which limit the number of hours employees can work, so many employees take advantage, working extra hours to earn overtime and maximize their retirement benefits.

A Metro spokesman says the agency will reserve comment until the final report is presented.

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Better, Faster, More Efficient -- And Gas-Powered

Friday, November 11, 2011

An exceptionally clean internal combustion engine in a Ford Cobra (Photo: (cc) Flickr user Bfraz)

(Adapted from the radio version by Sarah Gardner at Marketplace) Final details on tough new fuel economy standards for cars and trucks are due out next week. The White House is proposing 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025, a steep increase over the 2010 standard of 27.5 m.p.g., a fleet average established in the 1970s. So how will car companies get there? The staunchest EV advocates might predict that, eventually, electric cars will turn gas pumps into museum pieces and render this question irrelevant, but a few incremental achievements out of Detroit are proving the death of the internal combustion engine has been greatly exaggerated.

"We have a lot of new technology that is emerging," says Dave Cole chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Transportation. It isn't all hybrids and electric engines though. Automakers say they'll meet the 2016 fuel standard, mostly by selling lighter, more aerodynamic cars with smarter engines. Chevrolet for example offers the Cruze Eco with over 40 m.p.g.

"So every gram matters," says Sam Winegarden GM's engine guru. "The lighter it gets, the less energy it takes to move. It all works in your favor." GM shaved 100-plus pounds off the Chevy Cruze Eco to achieve more than 40 miles per gallon for the mid-sized car. The company switched to lighter wheels and other parts, but that's not all Winegarden is referring to. He's also talking about the car's engine. All the automakers are now "downsizing" under the hood.

"In a downsized engine, you have a smaller displacement. The amount of volume of air that the cylinders take," explains Steve McKinley an engineering executive at Honeywell Turbo Technologies. As carmakers move towards the "little engine that could" turbochargers will play a bigger role. The little devices give gas engines a power boost. McKinley says right now that describes only 10 percent of cars sold in North America. But by 2025, "You could see as much as 80 percent of the vehicles being turbocharged. So a pretty broad-ranging impact in order to meet future fuel economy goals."

Turbocharged small engines are common in Europe. And it's just one of the tricks up Detroit's fuel-savings sleeve. GM's Winegarden says carmakers are also tinkering with the internal combustion process. "How efficiently do we burn the fuel/air mixture?" he asks. They're also lowering the suspension on cars to reduce drag, installing easier-rolling tires, and adding devices that automatically shut off the engine when it's idling in traffic. Although they admit, some drivers balk at that one in test trials. "It's like, no, you're fine, everything's cool. It's going to start. It'll go, but you've got to get people used to that," Winegarden admits.

Carmakers are even dumping the spare tire in some models to save on gas. Together, these kinds of refinements mean squeezing about 25 percent more fuel efficiency out of the internal combustion engine.

To go beyond that some small startups are working on radical new engine designs. But achieving that 54 mile per gallon standard for the average across a company's fleet of cars means selling lots more clean diesels, hybrids and electric cars, which now account for just a tiny slice of yearly sales.

"So you're going to see a lot of emphasis on the internal combustion engine for a number of years," Winegarden predicts.

Regulators will re-visit the new fuel standards in 2019. If electric cars and hybrids haven't caught fire with consumers by then, Washington may apply the brakes on that 54 m.p.g. rule. And if a Republican wins the White House next year, some say, that could happen sooner.

Listen to Sarah Gardner's full radio piece, go to Marketplace.

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Houston to Require Businesses to Offer Bike Parking

Friday, November 11, 2011

(Houston -- Pat Hernandez, KUHF) It was a packed house at Houston's City Hall annex with owners of restaurants and bars discussing proposed changes to off-street parking rules and regulations. The Houston Planning Commission's Suzy Hartgrove deals with how many parking spaces businesses are required to provide for their customers.

"In some cases, we are increasing the number of spaces that businesses will have to provide," she says, "and in some cases we're loosening those restrictions, depending on what it is. Restaurants used to have to provide eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of gross floor area, I know it's complicated, and bars, 10 spaces. We're making our definition of a bar meet with the Texas Alcohol Board says is a bar, and so the number of spaces are going to go up."

She says some of the changes will include the addition of parking for bicycles, and "In some cases we're lessening parking requirements. For instance, back when this ordinance was first adopted, we hadn't heard of a 'Cupcake Shop' before and, people don't need to stay long at cupcake shops. So the parking, right now they're having to meet eight spaces per 1,000. Well. we're gonna take that down to four spaces per 1,000, because you don't need as much parking."

Planning Commissioners heard from many business owners. Some applauded the changes to the ordinance, while some thought it was an assault on small independent restaurants, or that the changes lacked clarity.

Comments from the business owners will be studied and forwarded to the Committee on Regulatory Affairs before the Planning Commission takes any changes to the parking ordinance for council approval in December.

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BWI Airport to Get $100 Million Expansion

Friday, November 11, 2011

BWI Terminal ((cc) Flickr user Bill Ruhsam)

(Washington, D.C. -- Matt McClesky, WAMU) BWI-Marshall airport  in Maryland is planning a major expansion to accommodate future growth. Airport officials say the $100 million project will include about 8,500 square feet of food and retail space, as well as new restrooms, a nine-lane security checkpoint, and a connector that will let passengers move directly between the A and B concourses and the C concourse without having to go back through security.

The expansion comes as BWI is handling more air traffic -- the airport saw a record 2.2 million travelers in July.

BWI's executive director says the Maryland Board of Public Works has approved the designs for the expansion, but still has to approve the construction.

The current schedule calls for the project to be completed by 2013.

Listen to a radio version of this story at WAMU.

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Lift of U.S. Mexico Trucking Ban Divides GOP

Thursday, November 03, 2011

butlerphotography/flickr

(Aswini Anburajan, Feet in Two Worlds) The Republican presidential candidates have been unusually quiet on President Barack Obama’s decision to lift the 17 year ban on Mexican commercial trucks entering the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite objections from Republican and Democratic congressmen and the powerful Teamsters Union.

The first truck crossed the border last week. The issue may be a non-issue in the presidential campaign as all candidates in the race claim support for free trade agreements. However allowing trucking between the countries and Mexican drivers to enter the United States touches on immigration, the fear of people entering the United States illegally and the threat some Americans, including those in unions, claim that immigration poses to American workers.

The emotions that the decision is invoking pits two key sections of the Republican party against each other – the pro-business movement, which sees a move like this as a cut in costs, and the hardliners who are advocating higher walls and more security around the border to limit any opportunity for people to enter the United States illegally.

(You can read the rest of the post at our sister site, It'sAFreeCountry.Org

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D.C. Considers Allowing Cyclists To Sue Drivers

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The view from cyclist Evan Wilder's mounted helmet camera after being run off the road in Northeast D.C. earlier this month. (Image from Evan Wilder/YouTube)

(Washington, DC - Patrick Madden, WAMU) With D.C.'s popular Capital Bikeshare program and dozens of dedicated bike lanes, more and more people are choosing to get around the city on two wheels. But it’s not always easy for cars and bikes to share the road, and the city is looking at ways to make cycling safer and protect cyclists' rights.

For D.C.’s cycling community, the turning point -- or maybe the boiling point -- was this video. Bicyclist Evan Wilder filmed it in August with a helmet-cam. It shows a pickup truck pulling up next to him. Then, the driver of the pickup then rolls down the window and threatens Wilder.

"Before I knew what was happening, the driver accelerated and slammed the side of his truck into my body," says Wilder, who testified about the video before the council Wednesday. "The impact was strong enough to cause my helmet to crack when my head hit the road."

According to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, no charges were filed against the driver.

Wilder’s video has become a driving force behind the Assault of Bicyclists Prevention Act proposal. The measure makes it easier for bikers to sue drivers, and it also offers financial incentives for lawyers to take up the cases.

"I know what we're advocating is an usual step," says the bill's sponsor, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells. "This will serve as a signal to the minority of motorists who are hostile to cyclists that aggressive behavior is no longer tolerated here in the city."

But as city lawmakers eye legal remedies to deter violence against cyclists, they’re also concerned about safety: namely, helmet use among users of the Capital Bikeshare program. Han Huang, a researcher at the MedStar Sport Concussion Center, testified before the council yesterday about a new study on the helmet-wearing rates of Capital Bikeshare riders.

"The results recorded were striking, if not surprising," says Huang. "Following nearly 1,000 observations, we found only 18 percent of bikeshare riders used helmets." Capital Bikeshare doesn't provide helmets to riders.

By contrast, nearly half of regular bike riders were observed wearing helmets during the study. Huang admits, however, he "doesn't know what the solution is" to get more bike share riders in helmets.

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Safety Keeps Pittsburgh Cyclists from Becoming Bike Commuters

Monday, October 31, 2011

(Larkin Page-Jacobs/Essential Public Radio)

(Larkin Page-Jacobs, Pittsburgh, Penn. -- Essential Public Radio) Bob Knoll and two of his friends decided to go on a bike ride back on Memorial Day. It didn't turn out well. As their small group reached the bottom of a hill behind the Pittsburgh zoo, they turned right and headed towards a busy intersection.

“There’s a traffic light at Allegheny River Boulevard and Washington…and it’s almost always red – it was green! I was delighted because it’s down hill,” Knoll said.

A vehicle approached on their left, and cut in front of the riders to make a right turn. “I never saw him, I never heard it coming. He just ran me over, or she,” Knoll recalls.

The driver fled the scene and hasn’t been found. Knoll, a professor of pediatrics, psychology, and psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, continues to recover and has yet to return to work. “All on the left side. I’m left handed too, it’s not fair!”

He has a sense of humor and acceptance about his brush with death – but the crash disrupted an important part his life. For decades Knoll has been racing, commuting and cross-country touring on his bike. He’s lived in cities around the country and finds that bicyclists are treated the same regardless of geography. “I think most of the drivers in Pittsburgh are just as careful as drivers in other places where I’ve lived. I think a lot of the animosity that you get from drivers, the bike riders sort of bring on themselves.”

Stories like Knoll's reinforce a perception that commuting by bike in the Pittsburgh area is dangerous and keeps bike riders from making the recreational activity into a regular ride-to-work habit.

Biking is safer than most people think. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fatalities per 10,000 bike commuters in the U.S. fell from 21 in 1980 to nine in 2008, with an overall decrease of 57 percent since 1980.

John Pucher, professor of City Planning and Urban Transportation at Rutgers University, says there is safety in numbers: “As cycling levels increase, the fatality rates and injury rates of cyclists fall. And the reason is the more people that are on bikes, the more visible they become to motorists. And the more visible cyclists become, the easier it is, or the more likely it is that cars will avoid them.”

There is a bit of a catch 22 to increasing cyclist numbers though. Until cycling is widely considered safe, new cyclists won't start riding to work. The solution, Pucher argues, is infrastructure. Pucher says the absence of bike lanes means only a small segment of the population is willing to ride to work.

“Maybe 80, maybe 75 percent of all regular commuter cyclists are in fact white males. So unfortunately cycling in the United States is very dominated by white males roughly from 20-45. Something like that is just stunning,” he says. Left behind are women, youths, seniors and anyone who is risk averse - research shows women are more inclined to cycle with separated bike lanes, and as the general population of cyclists increase more women join, as has happened in New York and Washington, D.C.

Still, in the U.S. less than two percent of the population bikes to work. That’s in sharp contrast to a country like the Netherlands where around 30 percent of trips are made on bikes, and where women are roughly half the bike riders.

Pucher says bike lanes that either have a cement barrier or a buffering line of parked cars – make people feel safer. “There have been many surveys asking ‘What will it take to get you on a bike?’ and almost every single survey the number one thing people want is physically separated cycling facilities.”

In Pittsburgh, few streets have painted bike lanes and they don’t usually connect to each other, leaving islands of relative safety amidst a sea of traffic. Scott Bricker heads the advocacy organization Bike Pittsburgh. He says having more bike lanes would be in keeping with Pittsburgh’s “livable city” image – unlike McKnight Road, a notorious eight lane roadway known for strip malls and a lack of sidewalks.  “When it’s car centric that’s not where people want to live. Just drive along McKnight Road. Is that the vision of Pittsburgh that people think of when they think of a livable city with a high quality of life? No, absolutely not.”

On a warm Friday evening Jane Kaminski waited outside the Main branch of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood. She’s teh co-founder of ‘Flock of Cycles’, a group that leads family friendly, traffic-signal-abiding rides with a bumping boom box. Kaminski says not only is it scary when drivers menace her with close calls, but “it hurts my feelings. I’m doing something that’s wonderful, I’m enjoying myself. So it offends me a lot.” And while she feels comfortable riding her bike, she doesn’t feel safe.

“Comfortable means I have a confidence about biking – I know the streets, I know what it feels like to have a loud bus passing me. But I don’t feel safe because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Flock of Cycles co-founder Nick Drombosky has a unique method of feeling safe on Pittsburgh's narrow streets: an outlandish double-decker bike. “You cannot be mad at it,” he explains. But short of riding a tall bike, he wishes everyone would take a deep breath, and calm down. “Everyone has a destination – what makes your destination any more important or your life any more important than anyone else's?”

Bike Pittsburgh’s Scott Bricker says when the organization began nearly a decade ago, a week wouldn’t go by without a threat from a driver or someone yelling at them to get on the sidewalk. “And really the culture is changing in a huge way here. So is that saying we’re all done and we don’t have any more work to do? No, not at all, there’s still a long way to go here.”

To listen to a radio version of this story, go to Pennsylvania's Essential Public Radio.

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Why Taxi Medallions Are Worth More than Ever

Monday, October 31, 2011

NYC Taxi (photo: Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

(New York, NY -- Ilya Marritz, WNYC) The past few years have been a bumpy ride for the assets one believed to safe but have recently had wild swings in value: bonds, gold and real estate, among them. But through it all, one asset has performed consistently: New York City taxi medallions just keep getting more expensive.

Sushil Maggoo drives a yellow Lexus. And he’s proud of the vehicle. But the most valuable part of this cab is not the vehicle itself, but the little piece of molded tin affixed to the hood. Even if you’ve ridden in a lot of cabs, you may never have taken a good look.

Maggoo’s medallion is blue and white, about six inches across, with a motif inspired by the Statue of Liberty’s crown. And it entitles him to pick up rides for hire, anywhere in the five boroughs of New York.

When he bought the medallion in 2003, he paid around $215,000. Today, the asking price for an individual driver medallion has more than tripled, to nearly $700,000. Last month, fleet medallions (which are valid for a single driver working within a fleet) cracked $1 million.

“It’s unbelievable, kind of,” said Maggoo, who adds that he would not be able to afford a medallion today.

An analysis by Bloomberg News, repeated by WNYC, shows individual and fleet medallions have seen a 10-fold increase in price. In the same period, gold prices tripled.

Seeking Rewards

Taking advantage of the rising cost of medallions is not so simple. To purchase a medallion, you need to become a driver or run a taxi fleet as a business.

There is one indirect way to invest, however: Medallion Financial, the only publicly traded company that makes medallion loans.
“Our company’s motto has been, ’In niches there are riches,’” said Andrew Murstein, company’s CEO.

The loans he makes are mainly to immigrants with no little or credit record, and no collateral. Though the business model could call to mind the recent boom in subprime home lending, which ended with nationwide economic meltdown, Murstein insists his business is different.

(Photo: Medallion Financial CEO Andrew Murstein. Ilya Marritz/WNYC)

“We have lent over $5 billion dollars to the taxi industry with zero losses,” he said. “I am not aware of a single bank in the United States that can make a claim like that.”

It’s not that drivers never default on their loans. But medallions are so valuable, it’s easy to repossess and re-sell a medallion from a delinquent borrower.

Explaining A Dizzying Rise

Similar to home lenders in the boom years, Medallion Financial’s business is based on the assumption that medallion values will never significantly decline in price. It’s a view supported by most drivers, and by Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky.

“I think people are buying these medallions because they know the city’s economy over the long run is a successful one,” he said.

Yassky added that the recent introduction of credit card readers may have contributed. With the option to pay using plastic, more people are likely to take a taxi, and they tend to tip more generously as well, he said.

But Ed Rogoff, a professor of management at Baruch College, said one factor alone really drives medallion prices: the fact that there are only 13,237 of them. Since the 1930s, the number has increased only slightly.

(Photo: Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky. Ilya Marritz/WNYC)

“There’s nothing like having a monopoly to keep you profitable,” Rogoff said. “When you limit competition, you get strong profits, and those profits get reflected in the value of the enterprise. And the value of the enterprise in the taxicab industry is the medallion price.”

Yet most drivers still make a modest wage. A typical driver may brings home about $50,000 a year, with no benefits.

Sushil Maggoo said he struggled to save enough to buy the medallion eight years ago. Now it’s his nest egg.

“I just want to keep up for my retirement to help me to pay my bill when I cannot work,” Maggoo said.

Until then, you’ll find him driving the streets of New York. Look for the yellow Lexus.

 

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Details of New Tappan Zee Plan Emerge

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tappan Zee Bridge (Nrbelex/WNYC)

(New York, NY --WNYC Newsroom) The  new Tappan Zee Bridge would open by 2017, be built to last more than 100 years and would include space that — one day — could be used for mass transit to cross, according to a new planning document.

The Federal Highway Administration and the New York State Department of Transportation released the planning document, called "Scoping Information Packet," in advance of public presentations scheduled this week on the project.

The existing span is overcrowded and deteriorating after 56 years of use. Earlier this month, the Obama administration helped jump-start replacement plans for the Tappan Zee Bridge, declaring it eligible for fast-tracked federal approvals.

However, one aspect of the proposal will not be going forward, at least not yet. The mass transit aspects of the new bridge were dropped, which helped trim the cost to $5.2 billion from as much as $21 billion. The document only talks of future mass transit.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino thinks that leaving mass transit off the current design is short-sighted. "I am troubled by the proposed design's absence of a mass transit component that would help alleviate congestion," he said. "A new bridge — without a mass transit component — would already be at capacity on the day of its opening."

The plan calls for two separate four-lane spans, separated by a 42-foot gap — which is where a future mass transit component could be included. It would be built just north of the current bridge.

With the Associated Press

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Ten Most Congested Intersections in Montgomery County

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Photo Courtesy of Armando Trull

(Washington, DC -- Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) Traffic congestion in Montgomery County has not gotten any better during the past two years, and the county’s network of roads continues to be strained by increasing numbers of commuters relying on cars as their primary means of travel, county planners say.

This most recent transportation evaluation comes from the annual Montgomery's Mobility Assessment Report. The report shows that certain corridors continue to be particularly bad for commuters during rush hours, including US-29 between Howard County and University Boulevard in the mornings, and eastbound University Boulevard between Georgia and New Hampshire avenues in the evenings.

Metrorail ridership in Montgomery County has remained steady, but bus service has declined slightly, according to the report. The survey also included a list of the county's worst intersections for traffic: taking top billing was Old Georgetown Road and Democracy Boulevard in Rockville, an intersection that hadn't been included in the top 10

There is hope for the future, planners say. Congestion should ease as more residents seek alternative commutes, and new housing developments are built closer to mass transit. The county board is scheduled to review the report at its meeting Thursday.

Top 10 most trafficked intersections in Montgomery County:

  1. Old Georgetown Road at Democracy Boulevard
  2. Damestown Road at Riffle Ford Road
  3. Shady Grove Road at Choke Cherry Lane
  4. Rockville Pike at W. Cedar Lane
  5. George Avenue at Norbeck Road
  6. MD 355 at Edmondston Drive
  7. Great Seneca Highway at Muddy Branch Road
  8. Connecticut Avenue at Jones Bridge Road
  9. E. Gude Drive at Crabbs Branch/Cecil
  10. Randolph Road at New Hampshire Avenue
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Maryland Schools Try To Improve Pedestrian Safety

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Montgomery County schools superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr walks with students to class at Captain James Daly Elementary in Germantown. (Photo by Matt Bush/WAMU)

(Matt Bush -- Washington, DC, WAMU) Of the 560 students at Captain James Daly elementary school in Germantown, about 40 percent walk to school. For the most part, they arrive at school safely, but the 5th-grade traffic safety patrol guards see unsafe conditions on the roads on a daily basis.

"The cars [go] too fast and kids have to get out the way," says one youngster.

"They can sometimes go out into the street and they're without adults," another points out. Some kids run instead of walking, and they run into someone else. Or their parents dart in between cars on the street when they are running late, say other members of the patrol.

These safety-minded kids aren't the only ones trying to watch out for traffic. Nora Dietz, the school's principal, says for the most part the area is pretty safe, though she does see cars going too fast in the nearby neighborhood. "One concern that we have is the speed on Scenery Drive, and the police department is going to help us with that," she says. "I think additional signage would be helpful,  possibly in a different color so we can highlight it."

But it isn't always traffic causing the danger. Last year, Dietz says,there was an attempted luring of a child after school. "What we found out from that is that taking shortcuts is probably not the best way to go to school," she says. The school is now providing walking maps to parents so they can identify the fastest, safest walking routes to school.

While the school gives out maps, the county is helping with speed cameras and roadway narrowing. County Executive Isiah Leggett says they are also upgrading some sidewalks -- but that takes money, which is never an easy thing to find in tight budgets.

"We are nowhere near where we want to go. I think we are less than 40 percent of where we need to go," he says. " So there's another 60 percent in terms of schools alone that we need to improve on. And we also have to target other areas, for example where elderly people are living."

The benefits of walking to school are numerous, says Cheikh Dieng, whose 5th-grade son Chiekh Jr. told him he'd rather walk this year than be driven.

"It's better for me to take my morning walk. I walk a good 20 minutes. It helps me, it helps him out," Dieng says. "When he comes to school, he's more awake this year. When I dropped him with the car, he'd be a little bit sleepy."

And that, Dieng adds, is the best pro-walking argument there is.

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NYC's Taxi TV Gets A New Channel

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Taxi TV (photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC)

(Kathleen Horan -- New York, WNYC) Since it debuted two years ago, Taxi TV hasn’t gotten great reviews. But the city is promising more choices that it hopes will boost its popularity this fall.

The city’s municipal television station, NYC Media, will create a second channel with programming that includes segments on the arts, food, animals and ways to enjoy NY "on the cheap." It is scheduled to debut in October.

"I picture myself as the template for going into that cab and saying, 'Oh, this is fun, this is cool … I want to go to this Bangladeshi restaurant. I want to see this free concert in Bryant Park,'" said Diane Petzke, general manager at NYC Media.

She said the new channel will offer more hyper-local content that real New Yorkers will enjoy. Currently the single channel shows news briefs and weather updates, as well as lifestyle programming that’s provided by WABC-TV and NBC TV — in between the commercials.

The advertisements pay for the programming, but neither of the two vendors who operate the screens, Creative Mobile Technologies or Verifone Technology Systems, would say how much revenue they make selling ad time in the back of cabs.

Regardless, most passengers say, it’s not the amount of the commercials or the current content that is at the heart of the matter — they’d rather do without the TVs altogether.

In a survey conducted by the city this year, more than 31 percent of customers said they found the TVs the second most annoying thing about riding in a taxi, after the price.

"I just don’t think I have to be that connected all the time," taxi passenger Harry Shroder said. He turns off Taxi TV as quickly as he can. "I rather enjoy a moment of relaxation, even if it's in a cab which is not that relaxing. I would prefer to have it off."

Frank Trolly, who has been driving a cab in the city for the last five decades, agrees. He doesn’t think the second channel will be much of a hit because most people are more interested in their own gadgets. "Either they’re on a cell phone, and that’s interrupting them, and they’re saying 'can you shut that off.'"

The Taxi and Limousine Commission said that according to their data, people switch off the screens about 22 percent of the time.

TLC Commissioner David Yassky said he understands. "I've seen some emails along the lines of the, 'TV is annoying and intrusive and I think you should get rid of it.'" But he added this is the first step towards improving the service. He said the two vendors who operate the TVs have agreed to pay for focus groups in their new contract with the city to see what passengers like and don’t like in future versions of Taxi TV.

Alan Stern, who takes cabs frequently for his job in real estate, welcomed another Taxi TV channel. "I think it’s good to have another choice because right now you just have the same news like every 10 minutes, so it would be good to have an added feature for yourself for sure. Some of those cab rides can be long and costly — at least you’re getting something for your money."

And, if you still don't like it, Yassky said you’ll soon be able to mute the introduction on TV screens as well.

You can listen to the story below.

 

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