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Transportation Nation

LaHood: There's a "Sense of Urgency" on Transit Aid

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ray LaHood (photo by Martin DiCaro)

(Alec Hamilton-WNYC News) U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says area transit agencies should be able to be ready to withstand future storms.

"Nobody's sitting around,” LaHood told WNYC's Soterios Johnson. "There's a sense of urgency about getting this done, getting it done the right way, making sure that it's done correctly -- and making sure that it's done in a way that will withhold the kind of storm that hit the region during Sandy."

On Monday the Federal Transit Administration said it would start releasing  $2 billion of the $10.9 billion in transit aid voted into law last week.

New Jersey has requested $1.2 billion of that aid, New York close to $5 billion.  Neither agency has released a complete breakdown of how those funds would be spent.

 

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Transportation Nation

Bus Rapid Transit Looks Set for Growth in Oregon

Monday, January 28, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/springfieldhomer/5840474433/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Hayden Bridge Station on Eugene, Oregon's EMX bus rapid transit system.  (Photo CC by Flickr user Slideshow Bruce)

Portland has been a national leader in building light rail, but the transit-friendly city is considering buses as the next round of expansion. Portland is seriously considering bus rapid transit for two high-capacity transit corridors it is planning to expand. Nearby, Eugene is adding to its existing BRT lines, rankling some in the community.

OPB has a pair of stories laying out the potential boom in BRT building. Rob Manning reports on Portland where the decision seems to be coming down to light rail vs bus rapid transit:

There are two high priority corridors in Portland’s long-term transit plan. BRT is on the table, for discussion, in both of them...

Elissa Gertler, a deputy director at the Metro regional government, and the supervisor of the two corridor planning efforts, says there’s one big reason that interest in bus rapid transit may be overtaking light rail: "First and foremost, light rail is expensive. A big capital investment costs a lot of money, and partnership with the federal government in how to fund that has diminished over time, as we’ve expanded our system in this region.”

Bus rapid transit, as pictured above, is a cheaper alternative to light rail lines. Buses are given a dedicated lane to ensure traffic-free travel. Passengers pay before boarding -- similar to subway use -- to speed loading and unloading times. The scheme has proved effective and popular in cities from Curitiba, to Mexico City, to Cleveland.

As has happened in other cities, BRT's flexibility can lead to partial implementation with a kind of BRT-lite.  Something that is an option on the table in Portland. Again from Manning's report:

Transit consultant Jarret Walker says the ideal is to run the bus like a light rail train. Easier said than done in the two corridors Portland is studying.

"You have stretches there, where there’s just so much width," Walker says. "There’s only so much space in the road. And in those places, it doesn’t really matter if you’re building light rail or Bus Rapid Transit, the real question will be: Where do you find a path?"

Standing at 82nd Avenue and Division, Metro’s Elissa Gertler says planners are starting with a focus on where people are traveling. This Division corridor includes multiple college campuses. She says administrators see a value in getting their students out of their cars.

"We have heard them say, 'We don’t want to be a sea of parking lots, we don’t want to have to just building parking. We want to invest in educational space, and serving our students,' ” Gertler says.

Oregon knows how to do bus rapid transit as well as any state in the country. According to rankings by BRT proponents at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the Eugene BRT system is the second best in the nation, after Cleveland's. Both cities received a "bronze" rating by ITDP compared to "gold" in Bogota and Guangzhou.

The EmX buses in Lane County around Eugene carry 10,000 riders each weekday through dedicated lanes or with "signal priority," traffic lights that change to green when the buses approach.

A new 4.4 mile proposed extension is drawing opposition, according to this report from OPB's Amanda Peacher.

Kilcoin says the EmX extension will help connect West Eugene residents to downtown, and will improve traffic congestion. The project would widen the road in some places. LTD is also planning a number of other improvements, like two pedestrian bridges, new sidewalks, and an additional bike lane. That's in part why the price tag is so high-- all this is estimated to cost $95.6 million.

And that's the main complaint from groups like Our Money, Our Transit. Along 11th Avenue, opponents of the extension have lined the road with signs that read "No Build" with a picture of the big green bus crossed out.

"It's a really poor use of public funds." Roy Benson owns the Tire Factory, an automotive store along the planned route. As a business owner, he doesn't see any benefits of the new line. "I'll probably never have anybody come here on the bus, and then buy four tires and get back on the bus to go home," Benson says.

Peacher cites other opposition, as well as support from transit riders as is to be expected.The plan is going forward, currently in the design phase with a completion date of 2017 if all goes according to plan.

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Transportation Nation

Ongoing NYC School Bus Strike Frustrates Special Education Families

Friday, January 25, 2013

A wheelchair-accessible taxi (photo by Kate Hinds)

(Beth Fertig - New York, SchoolBook) A day after New York City said it would pay car companies directly to transport eligible children with special needs to school, parents and teachers say the system, like so much else related to school bus strike, has presented challenges.

“They have to go up to the school to get this voucher form that they have to fill out but now when they call the cab companies in their various neighborhoods the cab companies don’t know anything about it,” said Joseph Williams, president of the Citywide District 75 Council and the father of a son with autism.

The Department of Education announced Wednesday an arrangement with the Taxi and Limousine Commission that allows some families of children with disabilities to avoid having to pay first for car service and then wait for reimbursement. The D.O.E. said it would pay the car services, to ease the hardship for families during the school bus strike

The problem, many families say, is that the car services don’t know about the new payment system.

D.O.E. spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the T.L.C. lined up the participating livery car companies, which is why families are supposed to fill out a form at school, or at their local committee on special education, to obtain a taxi voucher. They’re then given the name of approved vendors.

But Williams said he heard complaints from two different parents Thursday that word had not spread to the car companies. So he called a couple himself to see what was happening.

“I spoke to the dispatcher, ‘Do you know anything about it?’ I spoke to his boss and he said he hadn’t heard anything about it. And this was two car companies in Brooklyn,” he said, adding that he alerted the superintendent of District 75, which serves thousands of severely disabled students who normally depend on the yellow buses.

Beth Brady, a special education teacher at a District 75 middle school in Washington Heights, P138M, said she has a class of 12 students, most of whom use wheelchairs. But she said only one of them has been making it to school since the strike began because he’s ambulatory and lives closer to the school than the others.

“I was making a lot of phone calls today to share that information with them” she said, of the free taxi vouchers for lower income families. “They were asking which companies take the vouchers and we don’t have a list of that. So we’re still working on what cabs and limos would even take the vouchers. That’s a missing piece.”

Brady also said many parents can’t afford to take time away from work to accompany their children to and from school by either mass transit or a taxi. Her students come from both Manhattan and the Bronx.

Free Yellow Cabs for Children in Wheelchairs

Meanwhile, an umbrella group for some of the small yellow cab companies is offering free wheelchair accessible taxis to disabled children during the strike.

Mark Longo, information director for Taxi Club Management, said: “I’m probably getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 phone calls every hour” from families looking for transportation help.

Longo said Taxi Club Management has about 130 of the city’s 233 wheelchair accessible yellow cabs among its fleets, and that C.E.O. Gene Friedman felt strongly about wanting to help the city’s students.

Longo said families should contact him via email to make arrangements in advance at mark@taxiclubmanagement.com or call the city’s Accessible Dispatch Service, (646) 599-9999.

However, he said, Taxi Club Management doesn’t have enough cars to meet the demand and services can’t be provided outside the five boroughs. He said he is working to line up alternatives.

Transportation is especially complicated for children with the most serious disabilities because they often travel far from home to get appropriate services.

Michelle Noris’s nine year-old son, Abraham, attends the Henry Viscardi School on Long Island because he has cerebral palsy and a movement disorder called chorea. He has epileptic seizures and uses a wheelchair to get around, and a feeding tube for nourishment. The fourth grader has been taking a small wheelchair-accessible bus to school since first grade, with three other children and a matron.

Now, Noris said, she and her husband are splitting transportation duties each morning, taking Abraham to Long Island in their minivan and getting their other child to his neighborhood elementary school. She said they’re reimbursed 55 cents for every mile they travel with Abraham in their car which means return trips aren’t covered.

“It’s a 19.1 mile trip each way,” she explained. “We do it twice a day. So that works out to about $21 a day in reimbursement which just about covers the gasoline.”

These trips consume four hours each day, and since she’s paid by the hour as a professional engineer that means she’s making less money.

“They’ve offered that they would pay for car service but again, the car service they only pay while he’s in the car and of course we have to go with him, no one lets a nine-year-old child into a car service,” she said. “So that would be even more difficult financially because then I would be in Albertson, Long Island, and how would I get home?”

Noris and other families worry about the children with special needs who aren’t making it to school because of these complications. In addition to lost school time, many are also missing out on related services such as speech and occupational therapy.

Waiting on the Labor Board

The city is trying to get more school buses on the road by encouraging companies that employ drivers who aren’t striking to take a CPR course and four-hour training program. This way, they can cover for striking escorts.

Some of those bus companies employ escorts in the striking union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Other bus companies are picking up more students than normal. And some are training replacement workers.

Meanwhile, the head of the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office, James Paulsen, said he has finished his investigation of the bus companies’ complaints against Local 1181 and their request for an injunction to stop the strike. But Paulsen said he could not make his recommendations public. They were sent to the NLRB’s Division of Advice in Washington, D.C., where lawyers will consider the matter.

A decision is likely next week, he said.

If the NLRB sides with the bus companies, it will go to federal district court in Brooklyn to seek an injunction.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter at WNYC. Follow her on Twitter

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Transportation Nation

DC Commuters Want Less Traffic, More Transit -- And No Congestion Pricing

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

(photo by NCreedplayer via flickr)

Commuters are skeptical that congestion pricing will reduce traffic in the metropolitan Washington area and raise revenues to fund transportation projects. Instead, they favor alternatives to driving -- commuter rail, express bus service, or bicycling/walking.

report released Wednesday by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) weighed the attitudes of 300 area residents who participated in five forums: two in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in the District of Columbia. The participants were asked to consider three scenarios: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways, including interstate highways; 2) charging a per-mile fee measured by GPS systems installed in cars; and 3) creating priced zones similar to a system in London that would charge motorists to enter a designated area.

These attitudes are being probed at a delicate time for transportation funding in the region: Virginia's governor is proposing the elimination of the state gasoline tax -- while Maryland is looking at increasing theirs. Meanwhile, the area's largest transit project, the Silver Line, has yet to be fully funded.

But the funding scenarios posed to study participants received tepid support.

“This study shows people are cautiously open to concepts of congestion pricing, but they really need to see if it’s going to work, and they have doubts about that,” said John Swanson, a TPB planner.

“They really want to make sure that there are clear benefits, that [congestion pricing] is going to fund new transportation alternatives… particularly transit and high quality bus [service],” he added.

Scenario one – charging tolls on all major roadways – was supported by 60 percent of study participants, who engaged in extended exchanges of ideas and opinions. Scenario two – using GPS to track miles traveled – was opposed by 86 percent, even though drivers’ actual routes would not be tracked, only the number of miles.

“I don’t want to discount privacy concerns,” Swanson said. “I don’t think, however, the concerns were simply the classic ‘big brother’ concerns. There was a lot of code language for broader anxieties.  It was a complicated proposal that was hard to understand.  It seemed to be hard to implement.  A lot of people said it looked like it would be expensive to implement and, frankly, they are right.”

The study participants spoke of congestion in personal terms -- family time robbed, the stress of dealing with incessant traffic. Most commuters said driving is not a choice.

“The availability of other options besides driving—such as transit, walking and biking—increased [the] receptiveness to pricing. Participants also spoke favorably of proposals that would maintain non-tolled lanes or routes for those who cannot or do not want to pay,” the report said.

Transit advocates say the report shows shaping land use strategies to improve access to transit and create walkable, densely built environments is the best way to mitigate the region’s traffic jams.

“Newcomers to the region are very frequently choosing the city or a place near transit rather than a place where they have no option but to drive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“What’s most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around,” Schwartz added.

The study’s authors – the TPB partnered with the Brookings Institution – found most participants were unaware the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon) hasn’t been raised since 1993.  However, they also favored raising the gas tax as an easier, fairer alternative to implementing a congestion pricing program.

Support for increasing the gas tax increased over the course of the sessions --  from 21 percent when the study convened to 57 percent upon its completion.

The gas tax “is a hidden fee,” said Swanson. “We learned that people actually like that. There is a general sense of the invisibility of the gas tax being a problem and potentially a benefit, something that’s strangely attractive to people.”

Eighty-five percent of study participants identified transportation funding shortfalls as a critical problem, yet expressed doubts the government would make the right choices if additional revenues were made available through congestion pricing.

TPB board member Chris Zimmerman, who's also a member of the Arlington (VA) County Board, took exception to the wording of the study’s questions using the word “government” because he felt it provoked a negative response.

“If you are trying to interpret what people say, you have to be careful of what question you ask them,” Zimmerman said. “I think people get that there is a lack of funding.  They also get the fact there are a number of other problems.  There aren’t alternatives. For many in this region, they drive not because that’s what they are dying to do, but because they have no choice.”

Zimmerman, who background is in economics, said it should be no surprise people are lukewarm about congestion pricing proposals, given the lack of alternative modes of transportation in some places.  He is also unsure congestion pricing will work.

“The way roads are run is there is basically no pricing of them at all. Even if you are paying a gas tax it’s not related to your use of any particular road.  An economist looks at that and says of course you are going to get inefficiency and congestion,” Zimmerman said.

“You are not talking about going from the current situation to instantly pricing everything perfectly.  You are talking about implementing costs on particular segments of roads and that gets a lot more complicated because there are secondary effects," Zimmerman said. "We price one thing and many people shift to some other place.  Well, where is that some other place?”

“In practice, implementing that is very difficult.”

The Washington region saw two major highways shift to congestion pricing in 2012. Maryland's Inter-County Connector charges variably priced tolls; the 495 Express Lanes charge dynamically priced tolls and offer free rides to HOV-3 vehicles.

In the case of the Express Lanes, the state of Virginia will not receive toll revenues for 75 years as per its contract with its private sector partner, Transurban, and it remains to be seen if the new toll lanes will ultimately reduce congestion in the heavily traveled corridor. The ICC also has its critics, who say the recently constructed highway was a waste of money.

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Transportation Nation

Montana Legislators Want Drivers to Give School Buses More Room

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rep. "Doc" Moore, the sponsor of HB 155. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

(Helena, MT – YPR) – Montana lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a bill that would increase the distance motorists have to give a school bus when children are getting on and off.

House Bill 155 would amend current Montana law to increase the distance a motor vehicle has to stop from 15  to 30 feet when a school bus puts on its red flashing light.

Representative David “Doc” Moore (R-Missoula) is the bill’s sponsor.

The freshman lawmaker brought toy school buses and handed them out to many state representatives in the 100-member house to try to persuade his colleagues to vote for his first bill.

Rep. Kristin Hansen (R-Havre), chair of the House Education Committee, posing with her toy school bus after the vote. (Photo by Jackie Yamanaka)

Moore said the bill is about safety. “In 2011, nationwide there were 100 fatalities or injuries of school children in school safety zones,” he said. “Sixteen of these fatalities happened when children were getting on or off their buses.”

But not everyone was on board. Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls) questioned whether the bill was necessary. He asked: where are the statistics that changing Montana law will save a child’s life?

“I think we’re better off to leave it the way it is. It isn’t causing any problems the way it is. I think we’re better off to just vote ‘no’ on this,” he said.

But HB 155 passed the Montana House on an 83-17 vote. It faces a final vote in the House. If it passes, it will go to the Montana Senate for consideration.

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Transportation Nation

An Oral History of San Francisco's Bay Bridge

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rendition of the new span of the Bay Bridge

After eleven years of construction, the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span is set to open to traffic this fall.

Meanwhile, the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), part of University of California-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, is soliciting stories from people who were there when the original Bay Bridge opened in 1936.

Sam Redman, a ROHO historian, recorded a number of interviews with folks who remember that time. He shared excerpts with KALW’s Steven Short.

"The clips that I’m sharing today are from people who happened to be in the Bay Area at the time," said Redman, "people who were working on the bridge—Rosie the Riveters or tow truck drivers and engineers and other people that worked on the Bay Bridge."

Redman played a few soundbites from the World War II generation who actually watched the bridge as it was actually constructed.

Like Ralph Anderson.

“It was going to be wonderful. I didn’t realize that the ferries wouldn’t be there anymore. But to go across the bridge on the Key System trains, the whole lower deck was trucks and trains. And that worked out great, I thought that was a good system. And to go across the bridge for a quarter, I was impressed and pretty soon the bridge was going to be paid for and you wouldn’t have to pay anything.”

(Currently tolls on the Bay Bridge are between $4 and $6 dollars, depending on the time of day).

Yes, you read that right: the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, as it was initially constructed, carried rail. The Key System operated from 1938 to 1958.

(Image from keyrailpix.org)

"One of the interesting thing about this series," said Redman, "is learning about some of the failed proposals that we’ve had for bridges, including a span that would have run similar to the Bay Bridge from Alameda, south of the current Bay Bridge into San Francisco to alleviate some of that traffic congestion that was building up early on on the Bay Bridge.  It exceeded all traffic projections almost right away."

Redman said one of the things that amazed him while conducting the Bay Bridge's oral history project is "the way people have worked have changed on the bridge since time it actually started. Like Bay Bridge painters, for example. New rules and regulations mean that for their actual work it takes longer to paint the Bay Bridge, but that’s to actually keep the Bay that’s beneath them healthy. Before, the paint would just go directly into the Bay."

Here's a remembrance from Berkeley resident Norma Grey:

“In 1936, they just summarily announced that we were going to California. And it was precisely because my dad could not find a job. And so he borrowed $100 from his brother, put his three little girls and what possessions he could put in a Model T Ford and drove across the country. He stopped in Berkeley. Their plan was San Francisco, but it cost 25 cents to go across the new Bay Bridge.”

"Twenty-five cents would have been enough to buy a meal for the evening for the family," said Redman. "I think that puts in context how hard times really were. And it gives us a little insight into the folks who worked on the Bay Bridge. Job openings at the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge would have looked pretty appealing at that time, even though they were pretty dangerous jobs."

Redman added that the working conditions at the time helped keep construction costs down -- compared to today.

You can see differences in terms of safety, in terms of pay, in terms of all sorts of workplace conditions changes. In the course of building new bridges, people will look at the old Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge and say, gee, these were completed on budget and on time. But it’s because of a remarkable range of changes in labor that are actually good changes in many respects.

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Transportation Nation

Why New York City School Busing is So Expensive

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Striking bus workers (photo by Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

(Beth Fertig - New York, SchoolBook) In his showdown with striking school bus workers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly cited what seems like an astronomical figure: yellow bus service costs, on average, $6900 per child a year. That’s twice as much as Los Angeles spends per child.

The reasons are complicated. But they have to do with an industry that’s enjoyed an unusual monopoly for decades, as contracts got renewed again and again without competitive bidding; a union whose former president was sent to prison because of ties to organized crime; the growing number of students who depend on busing; and school bus routes that are considered highly inefficient.

Mob Ties

There’s a long and storied history of scandals in New York City’s school bus industry. In 2008, the former president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Salvatore “Hotdogs” Battaglia, was sentenced to four years and nine months in federal prison for racketeering. Battalglia admitted to taking payoffs from Genovese crime family members in exchange for agreeing not to unionize some of the school bus companies doing business with the city. Two other union leaders were also convicted.

“The union was found by federal prosecutors to be controlled by the Genovese crime family,” said Richard Steier, editor of The Chief newspaper, which covers city labor. Local 1181 under new leadership but its president was on the same board that served under Battaglia.

In 2009, seven city Department of Education employees were sentenced for taking bribes from bus companies, in exchange for looking the other way during inspections and giving them more lucrative bus routes.

“They’ve managed to prosper in return for making those payoffs,” said Steier, of the bus companies. “So it’s been pretty much a business arrangement rather than a question of victims.”

Bus Contractors Under Scrutiny

Four of the bus companies that were investigated in connection with the bribes continue to do business with the city. No criminal charges were brought but the companies must pay for an independent monitor. These companies include Jofaz Transportation, which currently has $318 million in contracts with the city, and Logan, which has $340 million. The Logan family owns a few other companies that have city contracts.

The Department of Education said Logan and its affiliated companies “have consistently provided safe and timely transportation” to city students. Logan and Jofaz were given two-year contracts in 2010 instead of the usual five.

One of the companies that was investigated for paying off Battaglia is Atlantic Express. Its owner, Domenic Gatto, claimed he was a victim of extortion and his spokeswoman noted that the U.S. Attorney acknowledged that was true, in open court. He was never convicted or implicated in any crime.

With all these problems, the obvious question is why the city continues to renew its contracts with the same bus companies year after year. More than 40 companies have contracts with the city. The city hasn’t bid out the contracts since 1979, when it ended the last bus strike by agreeing to employee protections.

The biggest school bus contractor appears to be Amboy Bus Company, which is affiliated with Atlantic Express. Amboy has $2.3 billion worth of contracts with the Education Department. These companies along with their employees have made more than $47,000 worth of donations since 2000, state and city records show. Atlantic Express spent $20,000 lobbying the education department last year and $25,000 lobbying city council members.

Steier, of the Chief, said Gatto and his companies enjoy “most favored nation status” because of connections to the Staten Island Republican party. In a particularly colorful episode, Gatto pulled out a gun once during negotiations with the city, though his lawyer said he was just illustrating a point.

Many observers believe the city was afraid to bid out its bus contracts because of what happened the last time it did that – the 1979 strike lasted three months. Officials don’t want to disrupt services more than a 150,000 students who depend on yellow buses.

Where the Money Goes

In 1980, the city spent $71 million on pupil transportation. Those costs ballooned to over a billion dollars last year. The number of students taking yellow buses has soared since then but the city still believes this price is much too high, because it translates to $6900 per student.

Local 1181 insists its members aren’t benefiting tremendously from that price tag. John Tomblin, who’s been driving a school bus since 1978, said he made $257 a week back then. Today, he said he makes more than four times that figure but it hasn’t kept up with the cost of living. He lives on Staten Island. “It’s $1200-1500 a month for a two-bedroom,” he said. “Every day life costs a lot of money from 35 years ago.”

The top salary for the union’s bus drivers is now $55,000 a year. That’s about the same as MTA bus drivers.

Lee Adler, who teaches collective bargaining and labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said Local 1181′s history of corruption hasn’t led to higher pay for its members. Average salaries are about $35,000 according to the union. “They seem to be not exorbitant and not out of whack with what I understand to be the wages of transportation persons in the greater New York City area,” said Adler.

But base salaries are deceptive said Elizabeth Lynam, vice president and director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, who published a report on the costs of pupil transportation in New York State. She noted that school bus drivers in Local 1181 get nine weeks of unemployment during the summer from the bus companies. “That’s extremely unusual for school employees,” she added.

The school bus companies claim their rate structure is only adjusted for inflation and doesn’t keep up with the rising costs of fuel and labor. The coalition of about 20 companies that employ Local 1181 drivers said 80 percent of revenues received from the city go to employee salaries and benefits.

Companies also claim the employee protection provisions (EPP’s) put them at a disadvantage. If one company goes out of business, whatever company picks up its business is required to pick up displaced union workers and pay them at the same rate. The union argues that these protections guarantee an experienced, safe workforce. Though the city says any workers who are hired to drive buses and escort students will have to be properly trained.

The Department of Education cites its pre-k bus contracts as evidence that competitive bidding can work. It says it saved $95 million over five years when it bid out these contracts in 2011 without the EPPs.

The Route of the Problem

But labor is just one area for potential savings. Lynam and others believe the city needs to make its bus routes much more efficient, because too many buses are driving around with just a few students on vehicles that could transport more than 60.

The city currently has 7000 bus routes, more than twice as many as in 1990. About a third of the students who take yellow buses have special needs. These students are the most expensive to transport because they require escorts, or matrons, and door-to-door service. Some attend private schools in Long Island or Westchester at city expense because there are no appropriate public schools here that can meet their needs.

There are also more general education students taking yellow buses. Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has opened about 500 schools over the last decade in an effort to give families more choices, whether in their own neighborhoods or elsewhere.

The city tried restructuring its bus routes in 2007 but that proved to be a disaster, with children stranded in the winter cold. Lynam, of the Citizens Budget Commission, said reforming the routes will be key to long-term savings. But it’s complicated. If drivers start earlier in the day, to pick up more children, that means working more hours.

“Should they pay overtime? What’s the best way?” she asked, acknowledging reform will involve lots of difficult questions.

But the complex logistics are among several challenges to overhauling the school bus industry. As he enters his last year in office, Bloomberg said this week he wished he had tackled the issue earlier in his tenure.

With reporting by WNYC’s Robert Lewis

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Transportation Nation

Meet a Student Super Commuter on the Bus for a Better Life

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bus one of four to get to school. (Photo by Melissa Bailey / New Haven Independent with permission)

As New Yorkers are considering the importance of school buses with a looming strike set for Wednesday, consider the case of Nikita and her mom, Nilda Paris of New Haven Connecticut.

The mother-daughter duo travels together at least four hours a day on public transit round trip—all in search of a better education and a sense of opportunity they don’t see close to home.

Nikita, who’s 14, gets up at 4:30 a.m. with her mom in their apartment in Bridgeport’s East End. New Haven magnet schools accept kids from Bridgeport, but don’t offer bus service. Paris and Nikita don’t have a car. And the trains don’t run early enough to deliver her for the 7:30 a.m. start of school. So they hop on a series of buses, beginning at 5:30 a.m., to get to school on time.

Melissa Bailey of the New Haven Independent spent a day following Nikita and her mom  -- and taking some great photos -- to see what this student super commute is like. If you want to understand what a multi-transfer transit commute of this sort is like, read the full story. It unfolds as a touching vignette about the search of opportunity, and a bit reminiscent of our past story on the importance of a car -- sometimes -- in economic mobility.

It won't spoil the story to say, Nikita and her mother are cheerful about the trek.

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Transportation Nation

Pulaski Skyway to Close for Two Years; No New Rail Tunnel on Horizon

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Pulaski Skyway (photo by Paul Lowry via flickr)

The Pulaski Skyway -- an 80-year old elevated highway that carries 67,000 cars a day in New Jersey -- will partially close for two years beginning in 2014.

The highway runs between Newark and Jersey City and serves as a major feeder for cars and buses accessing the Holland Tunnel into downtown Manhattan. It will shut down to traffic after the completion of the 2014 Super Bowl, being held in the nearby Meadowlands.

The NJ Department of Transportation says it needs that time to entirely replace the existing deck, upgrade ramps, paint and seismically retrofit the Pulaski, which is in "poor condition." The work will cost $1 billion.

While deck work is ongoing, northbound lanes will be closed entirely for two years. Two southbound travel lanes will remain open.

Speaking Thursday in Newark, the state's transportation commissioner, James Simpson, said the work amounts to "basically a new bridge in place." He acknowledged the disruption closing the roadway would cause, but said "we couldn't leave it in its existing state. The only decision was to reconstruct it in place."

The Pulaski is considered "functionally obsolete" because it no longer conforms to modern design standards, and in 2011 the Texas Transportation Institute rated it the sixth least reliable road in the country. (It also ranked #8 on Jalopnik's less scientific list of "the most terrifying roads in the world.") The state says the work will extend the life of the structure by at least 75 years.

The closure of the roadway will have a ripple effect. Drivers who head north to enter the city via the Lincoln Tunnel will find not only crowds, but delays from another massive rehabilitation project -- the Port Authority's ongoing upgrade of the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel known as the helix. Meanwhile, NJ Transit has reached maximum capacity and can't run additional trains into Penn Station. The PATH system is similarly burdened.

As Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow with the Regional Plan Association, puts it: "The automobile options are now worse for two years, and there's no relief in site from point of view of a new rail crossing."

Zupan is referring to the ARC project, an $8.7 billion trans-Hudson tunnel that, when completed, would have boosted rail capacity between New Jersey and New York. Construction on the new tunnel began in 2009 -- only to be cancelled in 2010 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who said the state couldn't afford it.

Christie is using the money set aside for the ARC tunnel to shore up roads and bridges in the state -- among them, the Pulaski Skyway.

Preliminary work is underway on a study for the next iteration of a new rail tunnel -- this one known as Gateway -- but shovels are nowhere near ready to turn dirt.

"You've really created a perfect storm of transportation chaos -- you haven't created a new transit option and you've made driving options worse," says Zupan.

Another view of the Pulaski, spanning the Passaic & Hackensack Rivers in Jersey City (CC via wikimedia commons)

The Skyway is named for General Casimir Pulaski, a Polish-born hero of the Revolutionary War. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. And it was also referenced in Orson Welles' 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds. "The enemy now turns east," reads a line in the script, "crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes. Another straddles the Pulaski Skyway."

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Virginia Governor Proposes Eliminating State Gasoline Tax

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (photo via flickr)

Virginia would become the first state in the country to eliminate its gasoline tax if a major transportation funding plan proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is approved by the General Assembly.

Revenue from the state gas tax of 17.5 cents per gallon, last raised by lawmakers in 1986, would be replaced by an increase in the state sales tax. That rate is currently 5 percent; the governor wants to raise it to 5.8 percent.

McDonnell’s proposal would also increase by half the portion of the sales tax already dedicated to road maintenance and operations. However, during the first three years, that tax would provide $300 million for the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport -- a $5.5 billion project that Virginia has funded only $150 million to date.

“Transportation is a core function of government.  Children can’t get to school; parents waste too much time in traffic; and businesses can’t move their goods without an adequate and efficient transportation system,” said McDonnell at an afternoon news conference, flanked by members of the General Assembly who will dissect his sweeping proposals during the 45-day legislative session.

If lawmakers pass the governor’s entire plan, which also includes higher vehicles registration fees and a $100 charge on electric and natural gas vehicles, Virginia would receive more than $3 billion over five years to fund road construction and transit development, including intercity passenger rail.

A primary aim of the funding package is to stop the yearly transfer of construction dollars from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund to required maintenance projects, a process that will leave the fund empty by the end of the decade.

“My transportation funding and reform package is intended to address the short and long-term transportation funding needs of the Commonwealth. Declining funds for infrastructure maintenance, stagnant motor fuels tax revenues, increased demand for transit and passenger rail, and the growing cost of major infrastructure projects necessitate enhancing and restructuring the Commonwealth’s transportation program,” McDonnell said.

The governor has indicated in recent weeks that the state gasoline tax’s diminishing returns minimizes its effectiveness in raising new revenues.  Higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, among other factors, have eaten into the tax’s buying power. The 17.5 cents per gallon tax currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, although the tax has lost 55 percent of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation since 1986, the last time it was raised.

Instead of raising the tax or pegging it to annual inflation adjustments, the governor wants to eliminate it, although the state diesel tax would remain in place. Virginia would then abandon a fundamental premise of transportation funding: motorists who use the roads pay for the roads in the form of taxes.

“If this were adopted it would mean there would be no relationship to the extent to which people use the transportation network and what they actually pay for it," said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which favors road construction as a solution to traffic congestion.

"It's a dramatic proposal to shift funding from the gas tax to the sales tax, and we're going to have to look at what it means when you disconnect the tax from the actual use of the roadways,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and frequent critic of the McDonnell administration’s funding priorities.

The General Assembly has for years evaded the responsiblity of injecting significant new tax revenue into transportation. While all observers agree the state’s needs total in the billions, there is no consensus on the best way forward. To Schwartz, prioritizing road construction amounts to squandering precious funds that could be used to develop public transit systems.

"Instead of addressing metropolitan area needs, the administration is spending $1.2 billion on Rt. 460, $200 to $400 million on the Charlottesville Bypass, and proposing to spend billions on the Coalfields Expressway and an estimated $2 billion on a Northern Virginia outer beltway,” he said.

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Fairfax Board To Vote On Tysons Tax Hike

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Metro Rail construction from Tyson's Corner to East Falls Church station on Route 267 in Northern Virginia. (Photo by Trevor Wrayton, VDOT)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) More than two years after adopting a plan to modernize Tysons Corner, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will decide Tuesday night whether to raise real estate taxes to help pay for the area's new transportation grid.

Both businesses and residential properties in Tysons Corner would be taxed to raise $250 million over 40 years to help pay for road improvements to accommodate expected population and job growth. Although commercial real estate developers are not objecting to the creation of this special tax district — they will benefit most from Tysons' growth — residential property owners are very unhappy.

While the board had contemplated making residential property owners exempt from the new taxes, that may not actually be possible, says Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova.

"We were all a little bit surprised when we discovered that wasn't a possibility because of recent legislation at the state level," Bulova says.

At least one Virginia state lawmaker says he will introduce legislation to exempt residential properties or allow them to pay a lower tax rate. Bulova believes that would make it fair for apartment dwellers who don't stand to financially gain from future economic growth around the four planned Silver Line Metro stops in Tysons.

"If you are an existing residential homeowner, you are not going to be able to redevelop your property and you are not going to see the same kind of benefit as a developer," Bulova says.

The $250 million in new taxes is part of a total $2.3 billion needed to build a multi-modal transportation grid at Tysons Corner, county lawmakers say. Planners expect 100,000 people to live and 200,000 to work in Tysons Corner by 2050.

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Draft Report: To Withstand Storms, Build a Bigger Bus System

Monday, January 07, 2013

MTA "Bus Bridge" After Sandy replaced some subway service (NY MTA photo)

To better survive the economic impact of big storms like Sandy, New York needs a "world class" bus rapid transit system.   That's one of the major recommendations in a draft report commissioned by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on how to rebuild New York infrastructure post-Sandy.

Bus Rapid Transit -- basically, fast buses which run on segregated lanes where users pay off board -- mimics a subway system by planning bus routes that can run almost as quickly through streets as trains can underground.

Such a system could be less vulnerable to floods and more able to restart service after big storms.  It would also be able to connect neighborhoods that would otherwise be stranded by subway service disruptions.

"A world class BRT network would enhance the resilience and redundancy of the overall transit system," according to a draft copy of the report which was leaked to the New York Times.  The report contained no specific recommendations for funding the system.

It also doesn't address the thorny political question which frequently accompanies BRT proposals -- that of of turning over road space traditionally used by cars to buses only.

The recommendation is part of a set of proposals drawn up by the NYS2100 Commission, one of three large commissions set up by Governor Cuomo to address rebuilding New York in the wake of storm Sandy, which caused over $30 billion in damage.   The two other commissions, on emergency response and preparedness, delivered their findings directly to the governor last week.  No word on when the final 2100 report will be presented to the Governor, or whether or how he'll adopt its recommendations.

BRT advocates, like the Institute for Transportation Development Policy, argue that BRT can be built far more quickly and cheaply than subways. The Second Avenue subway has been under development for half a century, by contrast.

"Financial support from the State would be welcome in helping to bring New York City’s ongoing bus system improvement efforts closer to world class ‘gold standard’ BRT," said ITDP CEO Walter Hook in a statement.  "A world-class BRT system would not only have fully dedicated lanes that keep the buses separate from traffic, and off-board fare collection, but also beautiful iconic stations with platforms that allow people to step directly onto the bus."

The NYS2100 commission is co-chaired by Rockefeller Foundation Chairwoman Judith Rodin and financier Felix Rohatyn. (Rockefeller also funds Transportation Nation.)

The Governor's office didn't comment on the draft report, and an MTA spokesman, Adam Lisberg, said the report's recommendations had not been shared with the MTA.

During storm Sandy, the MTA's temporary "bus bridge," which replaced subway service during the period when all the East River tunnels were flooded, came as close to New York has seen of having a true BRT.   Though there were long lines to board the buses, the buses, aided by police officers stationed at every corner, zipped through city streets.  The ride from the East Village to Barclay's Center in Brooklyn took about 12 minutes.

The city has also installed several "select bus service" lines, which adopt some features of BRT, including off-board payment.

"BRT corridors that serve as connectors to the subway system would provide riders with muliple options for connections and access to the core," the report said.

The draft report suggests creating a bus line that would run the length of southern Brooklyn, connecting the D, F, B and Q lines,  and a east-west corridor connecting  neigborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant to lines that run through Brownstone Brooklyn, Midwood, and Coney Island.

The draft report notes that transit ridership has increased 60 percent since 1990, but bus line speeds overall have decreased by 11 percent.

 

 

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NYC Adds Bus Service, in First Transit Expansion in Years

Friday, January 04, 2013

 

(Photo CC by Flickr user davefishernc)

New York City will get more buses.  Starting Sunday, the NY MTA is increasing the frequency or extending the routes of 17 bus lines. Another four routes will grow later in the month. (Scroll down for the full list.)

It's the first major expansion of transit service in the city since 2010 when a budget deficit led the agency to slash bus routes, and comes at a time when many other cities are cutting funding for buses and subways -- Kansas City has turned to asking citizens to donate online.

Later in the year, the MTA will add six totally new bus lines, mostly to connect booming residential neighborhoods. One line will connect Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City, another will roll between Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen and the far West Village.

This weekend's expansion in New York restores many of the 2010 cuts, but not all -- the B51, which we profiled -- for example, remains out of service. That bus drew just 900 riders a day compared to a system average of 13,000, resulting in a loss of several dollars per rider.

The MTA says the restorations are based on demographic data and ridership need. These are not new routes, but several of the old ones are getting longer, mainly to serve growing hot spots like an Ikea in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and the Bronx Terminal Market, a big box shopping center in the South Bronx. ,“These enhancements were all a result of listening to our customers and keeping close watch on changing travel trends," New York City Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement.

This weekend's expansions will affect about 50,000 riders each day.

The move will be paid for, in part, by a recently approved fare increase, and comes on the heels of $5 billion in damages from Sandy. The MTA has said it will not put the bill for storm repairs on riders, but will ask for federal and state funding.

 

Sunday, January 6,  2013 Service Restorations and Enhancements: 

Bx13      New Extension from East 161st Street to Bronx Terminal Market (149th Street and River Avenue)

Bx34      Restore daytime weekend service

B4           Restore full-time service to Knapp Street/Voorhies Ave via Neptune Avenue, Sheepshead Bay Road, Emmons Ave/Shore Parkway

B24         Restore weekend service

B39         Restore daytime service between Williamsburg and Manhattan’s Lower East Side

B48         Restore extension from Atlantic Avenue to Prospect Park (BQ) Station

B57         Extend route from Carroll Gardens to Red Hook (Ikea) via Court Street, Lorraine Street and Otsego Street

B64         Restore extension from Cropsey Avenue to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue (DFNQ) Station via Harway Avenue

B69         Restore weekend service

M1         Restore weekend service from 106th Street to 8th Street

M9         Extend north terminal from 23rd Street to 29th Street via 1st and 2nd Avenues and extend south terminal from City Hall to Battery Park City via Warren Street/Murray Street and West Street

M21       Restore weekend service

Q24        Restore extension from Broadway Junction to Bushwick Avenue via Broadway

Q27        Provide new overnight service from Horace Harding Expressway to Cambria Heights via Springfield Blvd

Q30*        Provide new branch to Queensborough Community College

Q36        Extend alternate trips from Jamaica Avenue to Little Neck via Little Neck Parkway  (This restores weekday service along route of previous Q79 route.)

Q42     Restore midday service from Jamaica Center to St. Albans via Archer Avenue

On Sunday, January 20, we will implement the following service restorations and enhancements:

S76         Restore weekend service

S93*       Extend route from entrance to College of Staten Island into campus area

X1           Add overnight express bus service from Eltingville to Manhattan via Hylan Blvd

X17         Extend route to Tottenville middays

*The Q30 and Q42 are weekday only, so they are being introduced on Monday, January 7.  The S93 is also weekdays only, so it will be introduced on Tuesday, January 22.

In addition, NYC Transit is continuing to work with communities in order to develop new services to address transit needs in growing and changing neighborhoods.  The following new services are planned for implementation later in 2013:

  • New route, Bx46, which would operate between the South Bronx and western Hunts Point to be implemented in April 2013
  • New service connecting Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
  • New Williamsburg-Greenpoint-Long Island City service
  • New service between East New York (New Lots Avenue 3 station) and Spring Creek
  • New north-south far Westside Manhattan route to serve the West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.
  • Select Bus Service on the Bx41 route along Webster Avenue
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YEAR IN REVIEW Connecticut

Thursday, January 03, 2013

A Metro-North commuter train arriving at Westport station (photo by Matt Hintsa via flickr)

(Neena Satija - CT Mirror) As we celebrate the beginning of a new year, it’s time for that obligatory look back on the last one. Some big stories for Connecticut commuters in 2012:

A major storm prompts rail closures for the second year in a row. In 2011, Metro-North suspended service during Tropical Storm Irene and suffered severe damage to its Port Jervis Line; this time around, it was the New Haven Line’s New Canaan branch that was badly hit. But most praised the quick recovery of the tri-state area transportation system, much of which was back online within two to three days after the storm. The full consequences of the damage incurred by the storm are probably yet to be felt, however, with damage to the New York’s MTA system in the billions — and, as of Jan. 2, a federal aid package for the region affected by Sandy has yet to be voted on.

An old rail line gets … well, older. As Metro-North officials keep telling us, the New Haven Line is one of the oldest in the country. Commuters had several painful reminders of that this year, as everything from derailing trains to power problems (or perhaps squirrels???) to signal issues to 100+ year-old bridges that wouldn’t close stranded them for hours. And yet, some data suggest it was still actually a better year for the rail agency than 2011, when severe winter weather and extreme heat caused even more issues.

Fare hikes, followed by … more fare hikes! Metro-North prices jumped 5.25 percent in January of 2012. By the time the legislative session in Connecticut rolled around several months later, a few lawmakers tried to make sure more hikes wouldn’t be in the cards — but they weren’t successful. Ticket prices jumped up again this year, by 4 percent.

Tolls?! Often considered the third rail of Connecticut politics for the past three decades, tolls quietly entered the conversation last year as a way to pay for badly-needed transportation projects and infrastructure upgrades. The calls got louder by the end of the year, and the state will begin studying the prospect of tolls on I-84 and I-95 in earnest in the coming months.

CTFastrak. Following plenty of spirited debate, the Connecticut General Assembly approved a $567 million to built a 9.4-mile road from Hartford to New Britain that will be exclusively for buses. Known affectionately — and derisively — as the Hartford-to-New-Britain busway, the huge project (mostly funded by federal money) saw skepticism even from those who eventually became its greatest proponents. Now, construction is well underway, to the chagrin of many — including some downtown Hartford residents.

A conversation starts about the future of rail travel in the Northeast Corridor. OK, so it’s really just the environmental review process that’s starting, and maybe some people are kicking around some early ideas for what rail travel could really look like between Washington, D.C. and Boston in the next few decades. Also, we don’t really have money to do any of this stuff, on a federal or state level. But still, it’s good to dream!

A fight over parking in Stamford. Given that the waiting list for a monthly parking pass at Stamford’s train station — the busiest in Connecticut — is about two years long, there really is a fight going on about this. First, Connecticut’s Department of Transportation asked people for their input on plans to improve the parking situation at the station — but wouldn’t tell people anything about those plans. After much public fuming, the state created an advisory panel consisting of five citizens who were given a tiny bit more information about those plans than the rest of us. Most of us still have no idea who has submitted proposals to replace a parking garage at the station, and what exactly their proposals are — for which they will get $35 million in state aid. The DOT is expected to make a final decision soon.

Here’s to bigger — and hopefully, better — stories for commuters in the coming year.

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YEAR IN REVIEW Washington, D.C: Silver Lines, Express Lanes, Gentrification, and Scandal

Monday, December 31, 2012

(photo by Wally G)

The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future.  In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.

1) The Silver Line

When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018.  Outstanding issues remain, however.  The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.  Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.

2) I-495 Express Lanes

A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County.  Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built.  Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.

3) Transit and Gentrification

Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States.  While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.

4) The Uber Battle for the Ages

After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber.  This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize.  In the end Uber won.  And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.

5) MWAA’s woes

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention.  But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons.  Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices.  Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.

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Year in Review New York: Sandy, Buses, Tappan Zee -- and Abandoned Bikes

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 tested New York's transportation infrastructure like no other year in recent memory.

Sandy

Sandy's storm surge flooded hundred-year-old tunnels, drowned power stations, and inflicted a commuting nightmare on millions of Northeast residents for weeks. It also caused a mini-boom in bike ridership -- and elevated climate change to a hot topic in transportation planning.

New York and New Jersey were both hit hard, but each state planned --and responded --  differently. NJ Transit took heavy damage with major routes offline for weeks after parking trains in a flood plain, because, as one executive said, "we thought we had 20 years to respond to climate change." That decision cost the agency $100 million. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was also hit by unprecedented flooding. While in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying the next generation of infrastructure must take climate change into consideration, we learned that across the river, Governor Chris Christie had deep-sixed his state's climate change research department.

The NYC subway was known to be vulnerable to a powerful storm surge, and flooded as predicted. In the storm's aftermath, the agency furiously tweeted updates and churned out service maps with lightning speed - .gif -- impressing even traditionally harsh critics. But while much of the damage was dealt with quickly, other assets -- like the South Ferry subway station, and the A train out to the Rockaways -- remain unrestored. Also unclear: how the agency will cover the $5 billion in damages. So far, the plan is to take on debt rather than pile on to an already scheduled fare hike.

Our complete Sandy coverage is here.

The entrance to the downtown 1 train at Broadway and 79th Street, pre-storm (photo by Kate Hinds)

A New Tappan Zee Bridge Moves from Idea to Design Plan

The aging Tappan Zee Bridge is being replaced at the cost of several billion dollars -- making it the largest contract ever awarded in New York State. After a lengthy debate about adding transit, which some argued should at least include a plan for bus rapid transit, Cuomo said speed and cost outweighed the merits of adding a rail line.  Transit advocates howled, and some key county officials held up a vote -- but the governor's vision ultimately prevailed: the bridge will be 'transit-ready' -- meaning plans for a rail link or a fully iterated BRT line have been tabled for a future date.

Meanwhile, the issue of how to pay for the bridge has yet to be resolved. The bridge wasn't included in the first round of federal TIFIA loans; the state has since re-applied. The governor said the brunt of the cost would come from tolls -- but the backlash to the idea of a $14 crossing was swift.  A builder was chosen this month (see pics) and work will begin after the state comptroller okays the contract. The new bridge is scheduled to open in 2018.

And no, the old bridge won't be preserved as a greenway. The NY State Thruway Authority -- the agency in charge of the project -- will demolish it.

The winning Tappan Zee design

Street Safety Investigations

We'll have more on this in the new year, but our work on monitoring safe streets in NYC continued with two investigative reports. In our report "Walking While Poor" we found that, in New Jersey, it is more dangerous to be a pedestrian in low income neighborhoods.

And in New York City, our report Killed While Cycling, uncovered why so few fatal bike crashes lead to arrest. The laws just aren't written to punish vehicle crashes with a criminal response and the NYPD has just 19 detectives assigned to investigate criminality when a car or truck hits someone or something. The department argues more lives can be saved by preventative methods, like speed traps. The result, families of those killed on NYC streets rarely feel justice is done.

After deadly crashes, Chinatown buses wane -- and Bolt and Megabus move in.

New York was the original nexus of a curbside bus network that became known as Chinatown buses because they picked up passengers from unofficial bus stops in Chinatowns up and down the Northeast corridor. But the busy corner under the Manhattan Bridge that was once the nexus of this travel network is now mostly empty.

After a deadly year of crashes in 2011, many said the industry was unsafe. While confused travelers tried to figure out just who regulates Chinatown buses, the government took notice. In June, the U.S. DOT shut down 26 bus companies that operate along the most popular routes: the I-95 corridor from New York to Florida. The DOT called it the “largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history." 

And while some Chinatown buses are still discreetly operating, they're losing market share: mainstream bus companies like Greyhound are expanding their curbside businesses, actively meeting with community boards to add stops in Chinatown itself.

The driver of the bus crash that killed 15 in 2011, Ophadell Williams, was acquitted of manslaughter charges in December.

Abandoned Bikes

This is one story that became way bigger than we expected. It started out simply enough: Transportation Nation asked readers to help map all of the abandoned bikes in New York City. (For those unfamiliar with NYC: abandoned bikes are strewn about our sidewalks like cigarette butts after a party, the detritus of modern mobility.) We wanted to know how many of these bike carcasses there were, and why they stayed so long encumbering walkways, taking up prime bike parking without being removed by authorities.

The response was overwhelming, both for our humble project and for the city. We found more than 500 busted bikes, cataloged in photos sent in from WNYC listeners. We mapped them through an online civic action platform (SeeClickFix )that anyone could update.

When we began to get inquiries from artists and abandoned bike fans (yes, they exist), we picked out our favorite bike photos from the stack and shared them with each other. WNYC listeners called in to confess and explained why they left cycles to rust away. The project spread to Washington, D.C. A nonprofit offered to recycle them. Several photographers sent in links to their own portfolios of abandoned bike art. And so we collected authentic abandoned bikes and turned them into an art exhibit. Meanwhile, the city also promised to collect more of them as they streamlined the process for reporting and removal.

See the full project here.

Ragged rusty bikes hide within the sleek and modern Jerome L. Greene Performance Space

Lost Subways of New York

We kicked off 2012 with a look at the subway system that never was: dozens of tunnels and platforms that were either abandoned or were built but never used. They form a kind of ghost system that reveals how the city’s transit ambitions have been both realized and thwarted.

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Uncovered: The Secret Routes of Silicon Valley Company Shuttles

Thursday, December 27, 2012

@jimgreer posted this photo of a Google bus on Twitter: "@google bus stuck at 23rd and Chattanooga."

(Queena Kim - Marketplace) By now you’ve heard about the perks that come with working in Silicon Valley. Free lunch, 20 percent time -- that’s the work time you can use to pursue independent projects.

Well, another perk? A private bus that picks you up in your neighborhood in San Francisco and shuttles you down to your corporate campus about an hour south in the suburbs of Silicon Valley.

During rush hour in San Francisco, you see them everywhere, said Eric Rodenbeck, the creative director of Stamen Design in the Mission District of San Francisco.

“They’re just so big," Rodenbeck says. "These buses are two stories high and they’re barrelling down residential streets, and no one knows where they’re going except the people who are on them.”

Rodenbeck is talking about the private shuttle buses that run up and down the Peninsula. They look like fancy tour buses. Google’s buses are white. Facebook’s are a sleek blue. But beyond that, they’re sort of a mystery to most San Franciscans.

“You know it’s almost like this masonic ritual,” Rodenbeck says.  "If you've got the key, this whole other city layer unlocks itself to you. And that’s the kind of urban puzzle we like to solve."

So, Stamen decided to map the private shuttle buses connecting San Francisco to Silicon Valley.

(image courtesy of Stamen Design)

But getting the data wasn’t easy. The tech companies don’t comment on the buses. They don’t tell you where they stop or how many people ride on them. But in the era of big data, the information was easy enough to find.

“Even though the companies might not have wanted their locations public, we started looking around and we realized on Foursquare -- if you typed in “shuttle” and “google” or “shuttle” and “apple” all these locations came up because their employees were checking in at those bus stops,” Rodenbeck says.

Stamen also hired bike messengers to follow the buses. And then they had people just sit at a cafe on the corner of 18th and Dolores and count the people getting on and off the buses.

I checked out the Google bus stop a little after 7 a.m. one rainy morning and the “G-bus,” as the display on its windshield reads, was already picking up Googlers. For the next few hours, the buses would arrive in 15-20 minute intervals and a steady stream of 20-30 somethings, holding coffee cups and wearing sneakers and backpacks, would get on board.

It might have been the early morning hour or the rain but few people were willing to talk. When I approached a group of 20-somethings and asked them about the bus, they said they couldn’t talk because Google was in "a quiet period." A quiet period is when a company can’t say anything that might affect its stock price, and that was the nicest response I got until I met 35-year-old Tanya Birch, who works on the Google Earth outreach team. I asked her what it’s like on the bus.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Birch said. “They let us choose the type of seats and decor inside. And it’s got dim lighting with the Google colors.”

There’s also free Wi-Fi on the shuttles, and Birch said it's basically another hour of work.

The tech world is driven by young, educated largely urban workers. But companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are located in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, which is about an hour south of the San Francisco.

“I think a lot of young people who work at the tech companies they want the city life they want something that’s fun and entertaining, and you don’t get that in the suburbs,” Birch said.

So,  to compete for that talent pool, big tech companies have to provide transportation. Rodenbeck says he expected to find the shuttles in the city’s hip, young neighborhoods.

“What we were surprised to learn is that the network is much more extensive than that,” says Rodenbeck.

When the map was finished, Stamen counted buses from Apple, eBay, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, and they found the buses ran through almost every neighborhood in San Francisco. Stamen estimates that about 14,000 people ride the private shuttle buses every day.

Rodenbeck says he thinks the locations are secret because the companies are “sensitive to this idea that they are funding a change in the infrastructure in San Francisco without it being regulated.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is in the midst of studying what’s essentially emerging as a private mass-transportation system, says Jerry Robbins, a transportation planner for the agency.

“The increase in employer buses has sparked some reaction from residents,” Robbins says.

He says that since tech companies contract out the work to private bus companies, which are regulated by the state, the city has little say in what they do.

But Robbins says the agency has fielded complaints that the the private shuttle buses, which often stop at public bus stops, are causing delays and traffic.

Another impact is rising real estate prices, says Amanda Jones, a realtor in San Francisco for nearly a decade. Today, about half her clients work in the tech industry.

“Unquestionably the shuttle stops are transforming real estate values,” Jones says. “When I interview new clients, we get out the real estate map and they want to show me where their corporate shuttles are. I recently sold a house. He does trading for Google and gets in early in the morning. Literally, if it wasn’t five blocks from a shuttle stop, we didn’t look at it.”

Jones says even fixers-uppers and homes with shaky foundations are selling for a premium if they’re located near a private shuttle bus stop.

“They have so little time to have with family and their friends they want to go home and be able to walk to the restaurant and not be stuck in their car for two hours,” says Jones.

Jones says she gets it because until someone comes up with an app that can beam you to work, the private shuttle bus is as close as you get.

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Transportation Nation

As NY MTA Chair, Lhota Exhorted: Be A Man!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jim O'Grady and Joe Lhota (Photo: Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Several months ago, NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Charles Moerdler was droning on with objections to a change in a meeting schedule. The issue was minor and the room was warm -- one could be forgiven for mentally wandering ... or dozing off.

Moerdler wrapped up; Joe Lhota pounced.

"Chuck, I wish you would reconsider that position since your flawed thinking and the erroneous things you said are scurrilous."

Chins lifted off chests. What was this? Lhota continued.

"The lying to this board has got to stop!"

This was real. Moerdler looked mortified. But he rallied once Lhota had wrapped up his tongue-lashing. Moerdler replied by accusing Lhota of character assassination--remember, this began as a squabble about a meeting schedule--before concluding somewhat oddly, "I will not challenge you."

Lhota said, "Oh, I wish you would. Be a man!"

This was Lhota the politician, the guy who, as long-time deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani, had an up-close view of power wielded as a blunt instrument. This was Lhota the alpha male making a calculated display not just to smack down Moerdler but to let others know that if you cross Joe Lhota, you could pay a price.

Lhota, who'll resign on Dec. 31, seems to have real feeling for New York City's transit system--he spoke movingly of damage done to it during Sandy. But he's no Jay Walder, his technocratic predecessor. Where Walder was bland, Lhota has been blunt.

Exhibit B would be Lhota's reaction to a court ruling in August that the payroll mobility tax, which accounts for almost 15 percent of the NY MTA budget, violates the state constitution. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a measured statement that took issue with the decision. Lhota, for his part, convened a full-blown press conference at Grand Central Terminal, where he attacked the judge who made the ruling, and the suburban legislators who brought the lawsuit that prompted it, as "flawed as well as erroneous."

Lhota came with a chart to show that the MTA subsidizes the average subway ride by a little more than a dollar while subsidizing the average Long Island Railroad rider by more than 7 dollars. Take that.

Even the way he launched his political career was aggressive. It has to be the first time a public figure to announce his intention to run for mayor only moments after presiding over a fare and toll hike. Asked by a reporter how that combination of events reflected on him, Lhota joked, "It's a profile in courage."

And what of his 357-day legacy as NY MTA chairman? Transportation advocates give him credit for several successes: restoring service quickly after Sandy, cutting overhead at the MTA by hundreds of millions of dollars, and bringing back $30 million in subway and bus service that had been cut in 2010.

Those same advocacy groups expressed grave concerns over the MTA budget, which depends on regular 7.5 percent fare and toll hikes--the next one is coming in 2015--and a capital plan funded by massive borrowing. In a statement, the groups sounded a warning:

"Earlier this year, the MTA borrowed $7 billion to help pay for the last two years – 2013 and 2014 – of its current construction program. The agency already spends $2 billion a year out of its $13 billion annual operating budget to pay off its existing $32 billion in debt. Debt service is projected to go up to $3 billion in future years."

Storm Sandy only made the situation worse. The federal government and insurance should pay for most of the estimated $4.75 billion in damage to the NY MTA's transportation system. But $950 million of infrastructure damage may need to be covered by the authority. Advocates point out, "that will come to $66 million a year in additional debt payments for decades to come."

The other unknown that Lhota leaves is the fate of the contract he's been negotiating with Transport Workers Union Local 100 since January. Lhota has said the biggest challenge to the NY MTA's budget are the fixed and rising costs of workers' pensions and healthcare. That's why he made it a priority to get off to a good start with union chief John Samuelsen, who, in the past, made no secret of despising Jay Walder. But now Lhota is leaving before a contract has been reached.

And that speaks to the issue of stability. Counting interim executives, the NY MTA has had six leaders in six years. A Twitter wag pointed out that Lhota today followed his post-Sandy analysis--"We still have a long way to go to get back to normal"--by essentially saying "See you!"

He's leaving to "explore" a run for mayor of New York. Perhaps his successor will stay longer than a year.

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Transportation Nation

Northern Virginia Planning Big 'Outer Beltway' Road Expansion (Part 1)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Approximate rendering by the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group that opposes the plan.

This is the first of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 2)

In a massive undertaking that would transform the face of Northern Virginia, state transportation planners are unveiling plans to create a “north-south corridor of statewide significance.” Some are calling it a potential beginning of an "outer Beltway," others say it's essential infrastructure for the region's economy. Critics call it a big waste of money, unnecessary and poorly planned.

The proposal would add a path between I-95 in Prince William County to Route 7 in Loudoun County, arcing west of Dulles International Airport and connecting to I-66, Rt. 50, and the Dulles Greenway.

Neither the exact route of a new highway, the cost, nor the number of lanes has been decided, but the agency’s objective is coming into focus: to dramatically expand Northern Virginia's road capacity to benefit commerce, namely the growth of Dulles Airport into the east coast's largest freight hub.

“I'm concerned that they are going to build a road at six lanes going 60 miles an hour much like the Beltway or Highway 28. They are going to need to do four lanes and they will have to slow it down,” said South Riding, Virginia resident Todd Sipe, who pointed out his home on a map of one of the proposed corridor routes at the first of two public open houses on Tuesday night.   “I believe nothing is settled yet.  They are collecting public comment now.”

Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation greeted residents inside a high school cafeteria in Loudoun County filled with maps, charts, and bullet points about a regional master plan that is still in its conceptual stages.

 Residents attending the event were skeptical of the need for a major north-south highway west of the airport, running along the western edge of Manassas Battlefield State Park.

“It seems to be more aimed at industry and transporting freight to Dulles Airport,” said Sterling resident Bill Roman. “In terms of our needs here in the county, people commute east-west mostly, not north-south. There are no north-south issues.”

“I think the state could spend its money in much more effective ways. The way this is shown right now, it ends on Rt. 7. That isn’t the place where you can end a road like this,” said Emily Southgate of Middleburg, referring to mounting pressure to extend a corridor north of Rt. 7 in the form of a new Potomac River crossing, an idea supported by Virginia state officials but not by their counterparts in Maryland.

One lawmaker who conceptually supports the creation of the corridor is convinced additional highway capacity would help commuters. Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) says concerns about a sprawl-inducing new highway could be addressed by limiting access, building fewer exits and entrances.

“When you talk about limiting access you have two main benefits,” he said. “It makes it easier to privatize the road to get it paid for, which is what I think VDOT is primarily interested in. The other benefit is that you can limit development in areas that are undeveloped."

In Letourneau’s view, new housing development is coming to Loudoun County, so the board of supervisors has to responsibly accommodate it.

VDOT officials say a limited-access highway that improves access to Dulles Airport and incorporates HOV lanes and bus lanes would serve the most people.

“We are going to work the best transportation system that we can and meet the needs of the public. There has to be political consensus to do that,” said Garrett Moore, VDOT’s Northern Virginia District Administrator.  “We can limit access. One of the things we'd like to do is get predictable and fast transport, additional capacity and carpools to include express and bus rapid transit.”

Some environmental groups are adamantly opposed to building a north-south highway west of Dulles Airport, especially if it would absorb any property on the periphery of the Manassas battlefield.

“In the context of our limited resources in Virginia, this is one of the worst expenditures we could make,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.  “The fact that it might be a public-private partnership doesn't change that analysis.”

Building through a public-private partnership would likely mean new tolls on the highway. To Miller, VDOT’s plans amount to an “outer beltway” that would lead to new development in 100,000 acres of farm land and rural subdivisions.

“There’s a big choice this region is going to make over the next ten years,” Miller added. “Are we going to take advantage of the investment in the Silver Line, or are we going to allow development to occur in this large 100,000 acre range from I-66 to Rt. 7 west of the airport. We don’t think it is inevitable. The McDonnell administration is encouraging sprawl by encouraging this highway.”

The second part of this series deals with Dulles as a freight hub. 

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Transportation Nation

Breaking: MTA Approves Fare Hike -- and Lhota Officially to Resign This Month

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

MTA head Joe Lhota announcing his "bittersweet"'decision to resign as chairman. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

(UPDATED) Rare is the meeting of NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority at which the secondary story is a vote to raise fares and tolls. But that was the case on Wednesday morning, when NY MTA chairman Joe Lhota presided over the system's fourth price hike in four years before announcing he'd step down on Dec. 31 to "explore" a run for mayor.

First, the money side: starting March 1, New Yorkers will pay  $30 for a weekly Metrocard and $112 for a monthly card. The base fare for buses and subways will rise to $2.50. Riders of commuter rail lines will see an eight to nine percent increase in ticket prices. Tolls on the authority's bridges and tunnels will go up by about the same amount.

The board voted to adopt Lhota's fare and toll hike recommendations. The board also approved Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx Borough President, as the new MTA vice chairman.

According to the MTA, its 2013 budget "assumes small cash balances available at the end of 2013 and 2014 that will be rolled forward to help address deficits in the following years that will nevertheless total more than $330 million by 2016."

Or, as the agency's official twitter account tweeted: "Our Board has adopted a 2013 budget that is fragile and faces risks, but is balanced."

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