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WNYC News

With Spire Installed, WTC Tower Becomes World's 3rd Largest

Friday, May 10, 2013

The silver steel spire was installed atop One World Trade Center on Friday – making the 1776-foot structure the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

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Transportation Nation

D.C. Cycle Track Construction To Begin In August

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

WAMU

Construction of a westbound bike lane connecting Georgetown with downtown D.C. could begin in August, District transportation planners said Monday during a walking tour of the proposed M Street track.

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Transportation Nation

Maryland Officials to WMATA: You Can't Quit Silver Spring Transit Center

Thursday, May 02, 2013

WAMU

Montgomery County officials have no intention of letting D.C.'s Metro back out of the Silver Spring Transit Center -- even though the project is two years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

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Transportation Nation

Contractors Vying For Silver Line Phase II Have History Of Busting Budgets

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The construction of Phase II of the Silver Line Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, one of the largest public transportation projects in the U.S., will lie in the hands of the contractor team that makes the winning bid to the project’s owner, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).

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Transportation Nation

Quinn's Transit Vision: Long on Buses, Ferries, Short on Bike Share

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn gave voters their first detailed glimpse into what her transportation agenda would be if she's elected Mayor. It's like Bloomberg's -- but without the big, bold visions.

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Transportation Nation

Low-Bid Process For Silver Line's Phase II May Foster Hidden Costs

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The success of a megaproject can come down to a single decision: choosing the right contractor.

As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) prepares to embark on Phase II of a $5.5 billion rail extension to Dulles International Airport known as the Silver Line, five pre-qualified construction consortiums are facing an April 19 deadline to submit bids to build a transportation project largely financed by toll revenues from the Dulles Toll Road.

After receiving the bids next Friday, MWAA will announce the winner in May. Preliminary work is scheduled to begin later this year with a target of 2018 for completion of the Silver Line to Dulles and beyond into Virginia's Loudoun County. Phase I of the project, which extends D.C.'s Metro to Reston -- is scheduled to open later this year.

Some of the biggest names in the construction industry are competing for the Phase II contract, including Bechtel, the firm that is building Phase I. The lowest bidder wins Phase II.

“Before you go to a low bid, you do everything possible to make sure that you have a firm that is fully capable and fully understands the scope of work of the project involved,” said Patrick Nowakowski, the executive director of the Dulles Corridor Rail Project. “We don’t want to have firms leading the effort… who’ve never undertaken a megaproject.”

Nowakowski says using the low-bid procurement procedure ensures the lowest possible price for Fairfax and Loudoun County taxpayers and the toll road users.

“It’s all about price,” Nowakowski said.

Once the contractor teams’ individual design proposals met the standards established in MWAA’s design schematics, the lowest bid became the only factor in deciding who will win the contract. Therefore, a bidding contractor with a superior design receives no advantage in the bidding process. But Nowakowski says his office has been meeting with the competing contractor teams for months to ensure all the design proposals are sound.

“That’s where the confidence level comes in, the amount of time we have spent working with them,” Nowakowski said. “[We] make sure that the designs they produce meet the minimum standards that [we’ve] established in a specifications.”

Critics say low bid invites trouble

Any number of issues can push a megaproject over budget, but the low-bid procurement process is particularly troublesome, critics say, because it entices a contractor to submit an artificially low bid with the intention of requesting change orders to drive up a project’s final cost, paid for by the project’s owner and into the contractor’s pockets. In the case of the Silver Line, the owner is MWAA.

“The procurement on Phase II is not being done in an optimal way,” said Brian Petruska, an attorney at the Laborers International Union of North America, one of the unions that supplied workers to build Phase I of the Silver Line. “For a contractor the number one goal is to get the project.”

Change orders usually occur in one of three ways: the project owner requests the change and then pays the contractor to include it; an unexpected problem arises in the construction process requiring a change for the project to proceed safely; or the contractor requests a change order from the owner. In the latter case, MWAA would have to approve any change orders that are requested by the general contractor.

“We've looked at projects such as the Wilson Bridge and the Springfield interchange where change orders were approved because the price of steel went up. You would think the contractor should factor in potential increases in the price of steel, so when they make the bid they take the risk,” said Petruska, who said MWAA should have chosen a bidding process that grades on both design and price.

MWAA insists its contract documents and oversight procedures will prevent unnecessary change orders and, therefore, stick to the Silver Line’s budget.

“I worry about change orders from the day I sign the contract to the day I end it,” Nowakowski said. “It’s not a function of the low-bid procedure. It’s a function of how well the contract documents were written and how well you manage the project from the day you start to the day you finish.”

The higher the Silver Line price, the higher the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road

Virginia’s approval of an additional $300 million in Silver Line funding lightened the burden on Dulles Toll Road users to finance the $2.7 billion Phase II extension. Before the Commonwealth approved new funding, toll revenues were scheduled to cover 75 percent of Phase II’s costs. That cost has been reduced to 64 percent, according to an MWAA spokeswoman-- as long as Fairfax and Loudoun Counties continue to fund the $400 million needed to build parking garages and a rail station at the planned Rt. 28 stop.

If Phase II’s construction goes over budget, toll road users may be asked to make up the difference, according to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.

Connaughton says it will be up to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to make sure only legitimate change orders are approved for Phase II of the Silver Line.

“Any price escalation is passed almost directly onto the toll road users, and the toll road users are already bearing a very large brunt of the cost of this project,” Connaughton said.

Change orders and bloated project budgets

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has a mixed record in keeping its projects on budget. While MWAA officials have praised the contractor and union workforce for keeping Phase I of the Silver Line on time and on budget, the Dulles Main Terminal Automated People Mover Station will receive no such praise.

The Automated People Mover Station, which provides a rail and pedestrian link between the main terminal and midfield concourses at Dulles Airport, was awarded by MWAA to the contractor Turner Construction Co.* at the low-bid price of $184 million. After 82 change orders were approved, the project finished at $388 million, an increase of $204 million from the original low bid, according to sources familiar with an internal MWAA audit.

The audit also found MWAA staff approved certain increases without documentation and without written contractual obligation to do so, sources said.

While the People Mover Station may provide an egregious example of a project’s costs soaring out of control, it serves a caution that even when government agencies sign a contract with established construction industry giants, things can go very wrong. That is why, Nowakowski said, the Silver Line’s project management team will exercise strict oversight.

“We’ve got some of the five best teams in the world competing” for the contract, he said. “The taxpayers can believe that we’ve done everything that we can to get the best possible price.”

The Springfield Interchange (Archer Western) and the Silver Spring Transit Center (Foulger Pratt) provide two widely publicized examples of projects that went well over budget despite having major construction firms serving as general contractors. Archer Western is leading one of the five construction consortiums that will bid of Phase II of the Silver Line.

In addition to Archer Western Contractors, the other construction consortiums competing to build Phase II are led by Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., Skanska USA, Clark Construction Group, and Fluor Enterprises Inc.

Construction industry warns against pointing fingers

Representatives of the construction industry say it is harder to determine what actually went wrong than to simply assign blame when megaproject encounters budget or construction problems.

“A newspaper or a radio show or anybody can spout off and say there was a problem on a job and they name the contractor or the subcontractor,” said Patrick Dean, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Virginia. “Typically they don’t get into the details because that news is old by the time anything is figured out.”

Dean says the idea contractors pocket huge sums off excessive change orders is “a fallacy.”

“It’s not like contractors are going to make a lot of money on change orders. A change order increases their contract but they are a hassle. You have to negotiate them, sometimes you fight over them. You may have to rework something or change your schedule,” said Dean, who said some change orders are requested not for profit but to make projects more durable to reduce future maintenance costs.

Regardless of whether MWAA or the general contractor will pay for any change orders approved during Phase II of the Silver Line, the additional costs may ultimately fall on drivers on the Dulles Toll Road.

Virginia Transportation Sec. Connaughton, a critic of MWAA’s past performance, said the agency must run this project well. “Additional costs not only delay the project but obviously cause it to spiral out of control with price,” Connaughton said.

This is the first of a two-part series on construction of Phase II of the Silver Line to Dulles.

*This post originally listed the contractor as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. They are the architects, not the contractor. 

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Transportation Nation

Contractors To Pay For Repairs To Beleaguered Maryland Transit Hub

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Preliminary repair work is underway at Maryland' s Silver Spring Transit Center, but officials still can't say when it will actually open.

The construction and design teams have agreed for now to pay for the necessary repairs to fix the structural problems at the Silver Spring Transit Center that were detailed in a scathing county report.

David Dise, director of general services for Montgomery County, says some repair work is already underway but that the major remediation work won't take place until late summer.

"Foulger Pratt was directed on Friday to begin the replacement of the faulty pour strips on the mid-level of the transit center," Dise says. "Parsons Brinkerhoff, the engineer of record, is beginning the design of the other remediation work that has to be done, the columns, the beams, and the topping slabs on the two levels."

That's just the beginning. Those repairs will take months to complete, so Dise can't say when the facility, already two years behind schedule, will open.

"Much of that will depend upon the final remediation plan being developed by Parsons Brinkerhoff and the subsequent schedule developed by Foulger Pratt after they receive the design," Dise says.

So the county, as of now, will not have to pump any more money into finishing the facility.

"The contractors that have performed the work that is in error must bear the cost of its repair," Dise says.

So it appears the county and the contractors have reached a resolution that will avoid costly, time consuming litigation, at least for the time being. The contractors may fight the county in court after the work is done to recover their expenses.

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Transportation Nation

Why Tolls Will Be Waived On One Virginia Highway This Weekend

Friday, April 05, 2013

A dynamic tolling system is set to open on a new section of the Beltway later this year.

495, shown last year while under construction

Nearly five months after opening, the operators of the 495 Express Lanes are struggling to attract motorists to their congestion-free toll road in a region mired in some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

Transurban, the construction conglomerate that put up $1.5 billion to build the 14-mile, EZ Pass-only corridor on the Beltway between the I-95 interchange and Dulles Toll Road, will let motorists use the highway free this weekend in a bid to win more converts.

“It takes a lot of time for drivers in the area to adapt to new driving behaviors. A lot of us are kind of stuck on autopilot on our commutes. That trend might continue for a while, too,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.

Light use of HOT lanes raises questions

McGurk says some drivers are confused about the new highway’s many entry and exit points. Opening the Express Lanes for free rides this weekend will let motorists familiarize themselves with the road, he said.

After opening in mid-November, the 495 Express Lanes lost money during its first six weeks in business. Operating costs exceeded toll revenues, but Transurban was not expecting to turn an immediate profit. In the long term, however, company officials have conceded they are not guaranteed to make money on their investment. Transurban’s next quarterly report is due at the end of April.

To opponents of the project, five months of relatively light traffic on Virginia’s new $2 billion road is enough to draw judgments. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has not recovered since the recession knocked millions out of work and more commuters are seeking alternatives to the automobile, according to Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“They miscalculated peoples' time value of money. They overestimated the potential demand for this road,” said Schwartz, who said the light use of the 495 Express Lanes should serve as a warning.

“We should not have rushed into signing a deal for hot lanes for the 95 corridor, and we certainly shouldn’t rush into any deal on I-66,” he said.

Transurban is counseling patience.

“We’re still in a ramp-up period. You’ve probably heard us say that since the beginning, too, but with a facility like this it’s a minimum six months to two years until the region falls into a regular pattern on how they’re going to use this facility,” McGurk said.

In its first six weeks of operations toll revenues climbed on the 495 Express Lanes from daily averages of $12,000 in the first week to $24,000 in the week prior to Christmas. Traffic in the same period increased from an average of 15,000 daily trips to 24,000, according to company records. Despite the increases, operating expenses still outstripped revenues.

It is possible that traffic is not bad enough outside of the morning and afternoon rush hours to push motorists over to the EZ Pass lanes on 495.

“It may also show that it takes only a minor intervention to remove enough cars from the main lanes to let them flow better,” said Schwartz, who said the 14-mile corridor is simply pushing the bottleneck further up the road.

Even Transurban’s McGurk says many customers who have been surveyed complain that once they reach the Express Lanes’ northern terminus at Rt. 267 (Dulles Toll Road), the same terrible traffic awaits them approaching the American Legion Bridge.

Express Lanes a litmus test for larger issues

The success or failure of the 495 Express Lanes will raise one of the region’s most pressing questions as it looks to a future of job and population growth: how best to move people and goods efficiently. Skeptics of highway expansions, even new facilities that charge tolls as a form of congestion pricing, say expanding transit is cheaper and more effective.

“An approach that gives people more options and reduces driving demand through transit and transit-oriented development may be the better long-term solution. But we’ve never had these DOTs give us a fair comparison between a transit-oriented investment future for our region and one where they create this massive network of HOT lanes,” said Schartz, who said a 2010 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments pegged the cost of a tolled network of 1,650-lane miles of regional highways at $50 billion.

Transportation experts say a form of congestion pricing, either tolled lanes or a vehicle miles traveled tax, may be part of a regional solution to congestion. The public, however, needs to be explained why.

“As long as the majority of system remains non-tolled and congested then you are not going to solve the problem,” said Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.

“Highways in this region are drastically underpriced. People are not paying enough to maintain them and they certainly are not paying enough to pay for the cost of congestion. The American people have been sold a bill of goods because they have been told that roads are free. Roads cost money,” he added.

The 495 Express Lanes are dynamically-priced, meaning the tolls increase with demand for the lanes. The average toll per trip in the highway’s first six weeks of operations was $1.07, according to Transurban records. As motorists enter the lanes they see signs displaying how much it will cost to travel to certain exits, but no travel time estimates are displayed. “It is important to be very clear to drivers about the benefit of taking those new lanes, and I am not sure that has happened so far,” said Schank, who said it is too early to conclude if the Express Lanes are working as designed.

“It’s hard to know if it works by looking whether the lanes are making money. I don’t know if that is the right metric. It’s the right metric for Transurban, but it’s not necessarily the right metric from a public sector perspective,” he said. “The real metric is to what extent does it improve economic development and regional accessibility, and that’s a much harder analysis that takes some real research and time.”

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

Feds Set Uniform Standards For Sandy Rebuilding

Thursday, April 04, 2013

U.S. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to the Meadowlands of NJ to announce new post-Sandy rebuilding regulations. (photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Build higher. That's what the federal government is saying to the owners of structures badly damaged by Sandy. Northeast flood zones now have tougher re-building requirements that apply across the board: to houses, businesses and government infrastructure.

Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood in front of an Amtrak electrical station in a New Jersey swamp to make their point: any structure more than half destroyed by Sandy that is being rebuilt with federal funds, must be lifted higher than before. The new standards require a building owner to consult an updated FEMA flood map, find the new recommended height for his structure and then lift it a foot above that.

LaHood explained why: "So that people don't have to go through the same heartache and headache and backache that it's taken to rebuild."

LaHood says the Amtrak electrical plant, which was knocked out by Sandy, will be lifted several feet at a cost of $25 million. A statement from the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force has details on the new standards:

WASHINGTON – Today, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force announced that all Sandy-related rebuilding projects funded by the supplemental spending bill must meet a single uniform flood risk reduction standard. The standard, which is informed by the best science and best practices including assessments taken following Hurricane Sandy and brings the federal standard into alignment with many state and local standards already in place, takes into account the increased risk the region is facing from extreme weather events, sea level rise and other impacts of climate change and applies to the rebuilding of structures that were substantially damaged and will be repaired or rebuilt with federal funding. As a result, the new standard will require residential, commercial, or infrastructure projects that are applying for federal dollars to account for increased flood risk resulting from a variety of factors by elevating or otherwise flood-proofing to one foot above the elevation recommended by the most recent available federal flood guidance.

 This is the same standard that many communities in the region, including the entire state of New Jersey, have already adopted – meaning federally funded rebuilding projects in the impacted region often already must comply with this standard.  In fact, some communities require rebuilding higher than this minimum standard and if they do so, that stricter standard would supersede this standard as the minimum requirement.

 “Communities across the region are taking steps to address the risks posed by climate change and the Federal Government needs to be a partner in that effort by setting a single clear standard for how federal funds will be used in rebuilding,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who also chairs the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. “Providing this guaranteed minimum level of protection will help us safeguard our investment and, more importantly, will help communities ensure they are better able to withstand future storms.”

 “President Obama has called on us to invest in our nation’s infrastructure—and that includes ensuring that our transit systems, roads, rails and bridges are built to last,” said Transportation Secretary LaHood, who joined Secretary Donovan in making the announcement in New Jersey today. “The flood risk reduction standard is a common sense guideline that will save money over the long-term and ensure that our transportation systems are more resilient for the future.”

 Today’s announcement does not retroactively affect federal aid that has previously been given to property owners and communities in the Sandy-impacted areas.  It also does not impact insurance rates under the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Moving forward the federal standard applies to substantial rebuilding projects (i.e. when damage exceeds 50 percent of the value of the structure) that will rely on federal funding.

 The specific steps that these types of structures will need to take include:

  • Elevating – the standard would require structures to elevate their bottom floor one foot higher than the most recent flood risk guidance provided by FEMA; and/or
  • Flood-proofing – in situations where elevation is not possible, the standard will require structures to prepare for flooding a foot higher than the most recent flood risk guidance provided by FEMA – for example, by relocating or sealing boilers or other utilities located below the standard elevation

These additional steps are intended to protect communities from future risk and to protect taxpayer investments over the long term. 

The programs which received funding in the supplemental bill and will be impacted by this standard include:

-          HUD: Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program

-          HHS: Construction and reconstruction projects funded by Social Services Block Grants and Head Start

-          FEMA: Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the Public Assistance Program

-          EPA: The State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs

-          DOT: Federal Transit Administration's Emergency Relief Program, as well as some Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Highway Administration projects

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Transportation Nation

The Tradition Of Naming Tunneling Machines

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Bertha, on board the Fairpartner, in Elliot Bay (photo by Bow Jones)

(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW)  Bertha is here. The world’s largest tunnel boring machine arrived in Seattle Tuesday after being shipped from Japan. It’s expected to reach land sometime this week. After that, in a few months, it will get to work drilling the tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The Washington State Department of Transportation named the machine, Bertha, after Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha Knight Landes. The name was suggested by two school kids who won WSDOT’s naming contest.

According to Linea Laird, WSDOT’s tunnel project administrator, the tradition and practice of naming tunneling machines dates back to the earliest mining traditions.

“Originally, it was part of the patron saints of protection of underground workers,” she said. “There would be even a little shrine that would be established there for the workers.”

Laird says the name of the saint gave the miners something personal that they could relate to as they did their dangerous work. Paying homage to their saints evolved into naming tunneling machines.

Naming is commonplace in the tunneling industry these days. Miami named its machine after Harriet Tubman. And Sound Transit named two machines Balto and Togo, after two famous Husky dogs that inspired the Iditarod. And the tunneling machines boring new subway tunnels under the streets of New York City bear a variety of names, including Molina, Georgina, and TESS.

Chris Dixon is supervising the contractors who will be operating Bertha. He’s been in the tunneling business for decades.

“There were two machines that drove tunnels on one contract on the Los Angeles Metro Red Line subway, they called them Thelma and Louise.” Dixon says another machine used in Puerto Rico was named after the wife of a contracting executive.

Laird concedes that the name Bertha might not be the prettiest. But she says the name conjures up something that is big, solid and has a down-home quality to it. That, Laird says, seems like an appropriate description of Bertha’s new home: Seattle.

Here's WSDOT's map of places to go to get a good look at Bertha.

Follow Derek Wang on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

Maryland County Approves Millions More for Troubled Transit Center

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Maryland's Montgomery County Council approved an additional $7 million to pay for construction work already completed at Silver Spring Transit Center, which is already two years behind schedule and about $80 million over budget.

The $7 million approved by county lawmakers has nothing to do with major design and construction problems detailed in a county report released two weeks ago.When it comes to who will pay to repair those problems, county officials say it will likely be determined in litigation with the project’s contractors.

“We will move expeditiously to make sure that we make the necessary repairs and that the taxpayers of Montgomery County will not have to pay for the flaws of the contractor,” says County Executive Ike Leggett, who has threatened to cancel the county’s contract with Foulger Pratt and other contractors and sue to recover any funds paid to fix the transit center’s construction issues, like inadequately thick concrete.

“Whatever we spend we will get back because we are going to pursue to the ultimate degree of the law and the legal process to make sure the county is reimbursed for anything we may have to put out in advance,” says Leggett.

Council President Nancy Navarro echoed Leggett’s vow to go to court, if necessary, to protect taxpayers but left open the possibility the county is also responsible for the mess at the transit center.

“I have not said at any moment that the county could not have some responsibility in this. It is possible,” says Navarro, who says the transit center could open to the public while any litigation proceeds. 

No lawsuits have been filed yet.

Contractor Foulger Pratt has said the county’s design plan was flawed from the start. Company executive Bryant Foulger has said any safety issues concerning concrete and reinforcing steel bars are the county’s responsibility.

 

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Transportation Nation

Feds Posit Ambitious Plan for Northeast High Speed Rail

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The shoot-for-the-moon, Level D plan: a second Northeast Corridor "spine," Long Island-to-New England service, and 220-mph rail (image via NEC FUTURE)

Over a dozen plans for improving rail in the Northeast Corridor are under consideration by the federal government, ranging from minor improvements to a future with 220-mile-per-hour bullet trains between Washington and Boston -- not to mention new service between Long Island and New England.

These various options are detailed in a new report released Tuesday by the Federal Railroad Administration. NEC FUTURE sketches out 15 alternatives representing different levels of investment through the year 2040 in the 457-mile corridor.

Related: Amtrak Updates High-Speed Rail Vision, What’s Changed

The options, in turn, have been grouped into four separate categories which grow progressively more ambitious: while those in Level A focus on achieving a state of good repair, Level D would build a separate high-speed rail line between Boston and D.C. and bring new service in the region, primarily in Long Island, New England and the Delmarva peninsula.

The report aims to jump-start public debate about how rail capacity should be shaped in the region. "It is intended to be the foundation for future investments in the Northeast Corridor, a 150 year-old alignment that has guided the growth of what is now one of the most densely populated transportation corridors in the world,” said Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, NEC FUTURE program manager for the Federal Railroad Administration.  “(It) will further the dialogue about the rail network in the Northeast and how it can best serve us over for the years ahead.”

Over the next year, these 15 options will be winnowed down. The federal government wants to have a single alternative in place by 2015.

Because it's conceptual, no cost estimates are included in the report. But existing documents provide a baseline. In 2010, Amtrak identified $9 billion alone in state of good repair projects for the NEC, with an additional $43 billion in investment just to meet projected 2030 ridership levels for the current system. Meanwhile, another Amtrak report estimated the cost of bringing high-speed rail to the NEC at $151 billion.

Related: Amtrak’s 220mph Vision for the Future

Dan Schned, a senior transportation planner at the Regional Plan Association, said "what’s possible and what Congress has the stomach to spend are two different things."

But he said that funding need not come solely from Congress. "Successful high-speed rail projects around the world have private sector participation," Schned pointed out, adding that "the arrangement of public and private financing and project delivery issues will be the most challenging" aspects of overhauling the NEC.

The Federal Railroad Administration is holding workshops in New Haven, Newark and Washington D.C. next week to present the plan to the public. For more information, go here.  Read the full report below.

NEC Future: A Rail Investment Plan for the Northeast Corridor

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Transportation Nation

Subway Sea Wall Of Steel Rising Between A Train And Jamaica Bay

Monday, April 01, 2013

Pile driver installs a section of steel wall between A train tracks in the foreground and Jamaica Bay behind. (photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) New York is Holland now: the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority is building a wall to keep out the sea along a two-mile stretch of the A subway line on its way to the Rockaway peninsula in Queens. The wall is made of thick steel and runs along the eastern side the tracks on the island of Broad Channel, in the middle of Jamaica Bay.

The $38 million project is the MTA's first big step since Sandy to prevent flooding from future storm surges.

To make sure the wall is strong enough to hold off another flood, workers are pounding each section about 30 feet into the ground. In the end, the wall will rise only seven feet above the rails, two feet above Sandy's height. The MTA thinks that's high enough.

On a recent windy afternoon, Contractor Mitch Levine was watching workers pile drive and weld each section into place. He said the wall is designed to withstand salt water. "This steel is special steel," he said. "It's marine steel, which will stop it from eroding over the course of 100 years."

Keeping the hungry waves at bay

NY MTA program manager Raymond Wong said the wall is supposed to prevent future storm surges from doing what Sandy did in this area, which was rip the embankment right out from under 400 feet of track.

"The tracks were hanging in the air," he said.

For three weeks after Sandy, each tide took another bite from a larger section of the embankment--until the NY MTA rebuilt the shore by dumping tons of stone and concrete next to the tracks. But this stretch of the A train across Jamaica Bay is still not in service. Thousands of riders now cram into crowded shuttle buses and face rush hour commutes that can end after midnight.

The wall will also serve a second purpose: keeping debris off the line. Forty-eight boats came to rest on the tracks after Sandy, along with jet skis, docks and fuel tanks. The clean up alone took three months.

Why a wall?

NY MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said engineers chose a steel wall to protect the A train because, "It could meet strength requirements as well as timing requirements--we wanted to make sure the wall would be in place by May 1." The line is scheduled to return to full service by summer.

Although Jamaica Bay is part of Gateway National Park, Ortiz said the wall didn't need to go through "any type of approval process" because it's within the right-of-way of the tracks, which is controlled by NYC Transit. Ortiz said the NY MTA did consult with the National Park Service and Army Corps of Engineers about the plan.

At the Broad Channel station replacing signals and thousands of feet of cable and other components. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Kevin Ortiz)

Bringing the power back

The MTA is taking a much more short term approach to repairing the A train's damaged electrical system. A mile away from Broad Channel, a control house sits in the railyard at the end of the line in Rockaway Park. Inside, Wong showed off rooms stuffed with equipment that looked modern in the 1950s, when it was installed. One panel has thousands of fuses, each with its own hand-lettered tag. Sandy turned these rooms into temporary aquariums.

"Everything was just coated in salt water that undermined the copper," Wong said. "When we came here, this whole thing was a big block of rust."

Electricity is vital to the subway. It powers signals that keep the trains apart, and switches that move those trains down the right track. There's also lighting at stations, public address systems, and power to the third rail to move the trains--the list goes on.

So what is the MTA doing to protect the electrical equipment at low-lying sites from future storms? "We're just trying to get up and running over here," Wong said. "There's really not much you can do."

Wong said, ideally, the MTA will lift the control house 10 feet in the air, rip out the old components and computerize the system. But that's millions of dollars and years away. His goal right now is to get the A train back by summer, however he can.

Click here for more photos of restoration work on the A line.

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Transportation Nation

LaHood Doles Out Another $1.42 Billion To Transit Hit By Sandy

Friday, March 29, 2013

(New York, NY - WNYC) The federal government is making available the balance of $2 billion promised to transit agencies hit hard by Sandy. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told transit managers, mostly in New York and New Jersey, that if they've got invoices for Sandy reconstruction and repairs, he's got $1.2 billion in reimbursements to dole out.

That's $545 million less than the amount available before cuts forced by sequestration.

Most of the funding will go to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs buses, trains and subways in and around the city; the PATH train, which connects northern New Jersey to Manhattan; New Jersey Transit, which runs trains and bus in that state; and the NYC Department of Transportation, which oversees roads and bridges.

Here's the full text of LaHood's announcement:

U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Announces $1.42 Billion to Help Transit Agencies Recover From Hurricane Sandy

FTA meets deadline to get first $2 billion in aid to storm’s hardest-hit communities

WASHINGTON – U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced a third round of Federal Transit Administration (FTA) storm-related reimbursements through the FY 2013 Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. The majority of the $1.4 billion announced today goes to the four transit agencies that incurred the greatest expenses while preparing for and recovering from Hurricane Sandy—the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. (PATH), New Jersey Transit (NJT), and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT). The remainder will be allocated to other transit agencies that incurred eligible storm-related expenses but have not yet received funds.

“Shortly after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, President Obama and I promised that we would do everything in our power to bring relief to the hardest-hit communities, and that is exactly what we have done,” said Secretary LaHood. “In less than two months’ time, we met our commitment to provide $2 billion to more than a dozen transit agencies that suffered serious storm damage, and laid the groundwork to continue helping them rebuild stronger than before.”

A total of $10.9 billion was appropriated for the disaster relief effort, which is administered through FTA’s Emergency Relief Program. (This amount was reduced by 5 percent, or $545 million, because of the mandatory sequestration budget cut that took effect on March 1.) Earlier this month, FTA allocated nearly $554 million of the first $2 billion in aid to reimburse certain transit providers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. With today’s allocation, FTA has now met the 60-day Congressional deadline to get the initial funds out the door in order to reimburse hard-hit transit agencies for expenses incurred while preparing for and recovering from the storm.

“Considering that over a third of America's transit riders use the systems most heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy, it is imperative that we continue this rapid progress to restore these systems in the tri-state region,” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff.

The remainder of the $10.9 billion will be utilized for ongoing recovery efforts as well as to help agencies become more resilient in the face of future storms and disasters. The FTA has published an Interim Final Rule in the Federal Register this week for FTA’s Emergency Relief Program outlining general requirements that apply to all the funds allocated related to Sandy and future grants awarded under this program.

A summary of how the funds announced today are to be allocated is described below. A more detailed breakdown, and information on eligibility requirements, appears in the Federal Register:

$1.4 billion in disaster relief aid primarily to assist the transit agencies that incurred the greatest storm-related expenditures: the New York MTA, the PATH, New Jersey Transit (NJT), and the NYC DOT. These funds are made available on a pro-rated basis, based on damage and cost assessments FTA has made with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the transit agencies themselves.

A separate $21.9 million allocation to reimburse the NYC DOT as part of a consolidated request with other entities for various activities prior, during, and after the storm to protect the Staten Island Ferry, its equipment, and personnel, the East River Ferry service, and Governors Island, including the public island’s Battery Maritime Building ferry waiting room. Emergency measures included moving transit equipment to higher ground, operating ferry vessels at berths to prevent damage; debris removal; reestablishing public transportation service; protecting, preparing and securing Ferry Terminals at St. George and Whitehall, facilities and offices to address potential flooding; staffing and operating ferryboats at berths to prevent damage; and performing shelter-in-place operations for worker protection during the storm.

$422,895 to reimburse four additional transit agencies for expenses incurred preparing for and recovering from the storm. These are the Greater Bridgeport Transit District ($21,783); the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ($344,311); the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority ($1,179) and the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which is receiving $55,622 just for CTTransit bus-related expenses, as FTA previously allocated $2.8 million to MTA for Metro-North rail service serving southwestern Connecticut.

A table listing total allocations for funding recipients to date and a summary of their reimbursable expenditures is available here.

 

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Transportation Nation

Contractor Responds to Reported Defects In Silver Spring Transit Center

Friday, March 29, 2013

(Photo CC by Flickr user thisisbossi)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The general contractor leading the construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center is publicly defending itself against alarming charges of building defects in the delayed transit hub, pointing to evidence that it followed Montgomery County's design plans.

Rockville-based Foulger Pratt released copies of daily inspection reports under the letterhead of the firm Montgomery County hired to perform field inspections on the Silver Spring Transit Center, Owings Mill-based Robert B. Balter Company. The signed reports state: "Prior to concrete placement reinforcing steel was inspected and found to be installed as per specifications."

The charges center on insufficient amounts of concrete, reinforcing steel and post-tensioning cables — high-strength steel strands or bars used to strengthen concrete — according to Montgomery County's findings of design and construction flaws released last week to intense news coverage. Foulger Pratt managing principal Bryant Foulger says he would like his side of the story to receive as much attention.

"It feels like from the county executive's comment, that we've been indicted and tried and convicted without realizing there is another very compelling side to this story," Foulger said. "If there is an issue with safety here, it is related to design. That's the county's issue, not ours."

In its rebuttal to the county's claims, Foulger Pratt is zeroing in on the facility's concrete pour strips that the county's investigation said lacked proper reinforcement. The contractor contends all concrete was poured in compliance with design documents.

"They accused us of leaving out things that they didn't include in the design in the first place," Foulger said. "The only area where they've identified as a safety concern are these pour strips, and as you can see by these reports and as you can see by the drawings, we built them in accordance with plans and specs."

The fate of the Silver Spring Transit Center, which is over budget and behind schedule, remains up in the air.  Both sides have said their differences can be worked out, but Foulger Pratt claims the transit hub would have opened already had it not been for the county's stonewalling.

"For over a year, Foulger Pratt has been asking the county to sit down around the table, to work together with us in a professional dialogue, first and foremost to determine what if anything needs to be done to open this facility for the public and to get it open," said Judah Lifschitz, an attorney for Foulger Pratt. "It flies in the face of fundamental fairness for the county to not talk to us for a year about these issues, to not engage in a professional dialogue."

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett has threatened to cancel its contract with its hired design and construction firms unless they pay for whatever mediation will be necessary to fix the transit center's structural problems.

In a statement released after issuing the results of the county's investigation, Leggett said, "These deficiencies not only compromise the structural integrity of the facility, but could also begin to impact the Transit Center's durability far earlier than expected, thus shortening its useful life. At worst, if no changes are made, some of the facility's elements may not withstand the loads they are intended to support, thereby putting the many users of the center at potential risk."

Washington Post report said Balter Company "improperly tested the strength of concrete, apparently failed to measure its thickness and didn't raise sufficient concerns when the concrete started to crack, according to independent engineers and county officials."

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @martindicaro

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Transportation Nation

Frank Sinatra In Service of Pothole Patching (Video)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

That friendly tuxedo clad road inspector is singing a message of municipal upkeep. Imagine some of these choice lyrics set to Frank Sinatra's My Way

"As now potholes appear / and if you fall, then you'll be hurting / don't worry friends, help is here / we'll take your calls, you can be certain."

"At work our days are full / inspecting all our paths and byways / and more, much more than this, at work in hiiiiighways." 

"We lay each tarmac course, / not when it's wet, but on a dry day / and more, much more than this, at work in hiiighways." 

Watch the full video for four minutes of robust crooning in the service of pothole patching courtesy of the Worcestershire County Council, U.K.

Via Transport Issues Daily.

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Transportation Nation

Real Estate Tip: Buy Near Transit

Monday, March 25, 2013

Transit-oriented development project in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo CC by Flickr user Steven Vance)

Homes close to good transit options made for better real estate investments during the recession, according to a new study from the American Public Transportation Association.

APTA looked at housing market data from Phoenix, Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago from 2006 to 2011, and compared homes close to transit with homes for the metro region overall. The study found residential property values located near transit performed 41 percent better. Heavy rail, bus rapid transit, and light rail, with more frequent service and transfer options, helped real estate prices even more than commuter rail more typically found in suburbs, according to the study.

Areas with no transit options fared the worst in terms of home value.

Residents close to transit sheds -- areas that are a half-mile away from a transit stop or closer -- also had better access to jobs and incurred less transportation costs. In Chicago, residents close to the city's transit system spent $300 less on transportation per month than the regional average.

Percent change in average residential sales prices relative to the region, 2006-11

Transit is not the sole factor of course, but allowing residents wider access to local amenities has made it a real estate catalyst. Alex Boylan, a Minneapolis-based realtor, says he's noticed that properties close to the light rail or major bus routes don't stay on the market as long. "Now more people are more about community, wanting to live closer to work, and using the transportation that's provided around them," he said. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the study showed that home prices fell everywhere from 2006 to 2011, but homes next to the Hiawatha light rail line better maintained their values by 62 percent when compared to the entire Twin Cities.

Areas with accessible transit tend to have more nearby amenities, and therefore better walkability scores, something Boylan says homebuyers have been paying much closer attention to in the last few years.

Related: What Makes A City Walkable

The years covered in the APTA study were bad years for the housing market, but now that the market's improving, Darnell Grisby, APTA director of policy and research, says the desire for a city lifestyle will only continue to grow. “The millennial generation that seeks more transit-oriented lifestyles and empty nesters that will be seeking to downsize their homes while living near amenities will ensure that this trend continues,” he says.

Related: Will SunRail change Central Florida's driving habits?

The study showed that The Loop in Chicago performed more than 75 percent better than the region as a whole, where retirees and young professionals are fueling one of the most dramatic downtown housing booms in the country -- though the 2010 Census showed that middle class families were still flocking to the city's suburbs.

The study corresponds with other cultural shifts. Other data shows millennials are less car-centric than their parents. A recent Zipcar survey said Americans in the 18-34 age group consider their computers and mobile phones more important in their daily lives than cars, and fewer young people are trying to get driver’s licenses.

"People are voting with their feet," says Sara Wiskerchen, a spokesperson for the National Association of Realtors, a group that partnered with APTA for the study. The real estate industry group has become a booster for transit-oriented development. Wiskerchen says NAR plans to take the study to Congress to push for more public transportation and smart growth initiatives in American cities. "Consumers are looking for, and choosing, neighborhoods that they're able to find more walkable features, that have lower transportation costs, and really just looking at communities in a smart way," says Wiskerchen.

Related: DC a pioneer in walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods

 

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Transportation Nation

Maryland Taxpayers Won't Foot The Bill For Silver Spring Transit Center, Officials Say

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Silver Spring Transit Center (photo by thisisbossi via flickr)

Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett is vowing that taxpayers will not be left on the hook for the problems delaying the completion of the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Leggett says if the contractor Foulger-Pratt, the subcontractors, and design firms fail to rectify construction problems at the $112 million transit hub, the county will cancel the contract and sue.

"We will pursue every legal and administrative remedy that we think is available, so that we make certain that the county taxpayers do not foot this bill for the additional costs that may have to be born as a result of remediation," Leggett says.

The county hired engineering consultants to investigate the transit center's structural problems. They issued a report Tuesday that found excessive cracking in concrete, missing cables, inadequate reinforcing steel, and concrete of insufficient strength and thickness. Leggett says these problems can be fixed.

"It's simply right now a question of how much and how long it will take to do those," Leggett says.

The transit center is already two years behind schedule.

In a statement, the contractor Foulger-Pratt says it will take time to review the county's report, and says the county has refused to cooperate, "forcing taxpayers to pay for a $2 million report conducted without any input from us or our engineers."

Leggett says the contractors will pay for the repairs, not taxpayers.

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Transportation Nation

Maryland's Future Transit Hub "Severely Compromised" by Construction Errors

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Silver Spring Transit Center (photo by ThisIsBossi via flickr)

(Matt Bush -- Washington, D.C., WAMU) An independent report on the yet-to-be-opened Silver Spring Transit Center shows the transit hub is plagued by flaws that will render it unfit to open unless fixed.

The transit hub, which will connect commuters to rail, Metro, buses, bikes and cabs, was scheduled to have opened two years ago, but has been dogged by construction errors and cost overruns. After seeing cracks in the concrete last year, Montgomery County commissioned a report on the SSTC from structural engineering firm KCE.

And now that report concludes the problems with the center go far beyond cracked concrete.

In a statement, county executive Isiah Leggett says the center as currently constructed is "severely compromised." According to his statement:  "The facility contains significant and serious design and construction defects, including excessive cracking, missing post-tensioning cables, inadequate reinforcing steel, and concrete of insufficient strength and thickness.  These deficiencies not only compromise the structural integrity of the facility but could also begin to impact the Transit Center’s durability far earlier than expected, thus shortening its useful life.  At worst, if no changes are made, some of the facility’s elements may not withstand the loads they are intended to support – thereby putting the many users of the center at potential risk."

Read the full report here.

Earlier this year contractor Foulger-Pratt said the county has needlessly delayed the opening of the center as it awaited this report.

At this time, there is no timetable as to when the center will open.

Follow Matt Bush on Twitter.

 

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Transportation Nation

Infrastructure report card says $3.6 trillion needed by 2020

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Former Pa. Governor Ed Rendell (Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in backdrop)

Former Pa. Governor Ed Rendell (Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in backdrop)

The nation’s infrastructure received a D+, a slight improvement from the D issued in 2009, in an infrastructure report card released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), a group whose members stand to benefit from increased spending on the construction of roads, bridges, levees and dams.

The report grades infrastructure in sixteen sectors and prescribes a funding level necessary to bring each up to a B grade.  That will require spending $454 billion annually over the next eight years, according to the group’s figures. However, the society estimates only $253 billion annually is currently earmarked for infrastructure repair and improvements, leaving a yearly funding gap of $200 billion.

At a news conference at the Earth Conservation Corps Pump House in southeast Washington – with a view of the structurally obsolete Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge spanning the Anacostia River – advocates of infrastructure spending sought to convey their message in easy to understand terms, acknowledging that ordinary citizens often do not see the costs associated with outdated infrastructure.

“The real goal is that Americans would have this conversation about infrastructure at their kitchen table,” said ASCE president Greg DiLoreto. “They’d sit down and they’d say, you know what? I was driving home last night, hit a pothole, and I ruined the front end of our car. What can be done about that?”

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the co-founder of the bipartisan group Building America’s Future, said more Americans are beginning to realize that infrastructure is not free and does not last forever.  Still, there is a large difference between what a group of civil engineers believes should be spent and what Congress and state and local governments are willing to spend.

“Members of both parties feel this way, predominately Republicans, that we can’t spend money on anything.  That’s wrong,” Rendell says. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that investing in infrastructure is wasteful spending.  There are some projects that are bad and we should ask for stricter accountability and transparency, but we’ve got to invest in growth.”

The sector with the highest grade (B-) is solid waste. Inland waterways and levees both received the lowest grade, D-.  Grades were poor to mediocre in transportation sectors: aviation (D), bridges (C+), rail (C+), roads (D), and transit (D).

“First we have to repair the quality of the roads,” Rendell said. “But then we have to expand.  We have to do additional ramps.  We have to widen lanes. A good hunk of the money should be spent on mass transit.  There’s got to be a balance.”

The report card breaks down infrastructure state by state. In Washington, D.C., for example, 99 percent of roads are rated poor or mediocre.  The report card says driving on roads in need of repair costs District of Columbia motorists $311 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – $833 per motorist.

Virginia’s infrastructure graded at D+ and Maryland received a C+.

Winning the public’s support to raise revenues for infrastructure spending will depend on convincing the public they have to pay more, whether its taxes or user fees, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former Assistant Secretary of Transportation under the George W. Bush Administration.

"The challenge is being able to make the case about specific facilities that people know and understand, and what the implications would be if they have to close that facility,” said Frankel, who said the ASCE’s figures are sound, even if they are unrealistic in terms of what governments are willing to spend.

“We’re not going to raise that money.  People acknowledge we have to invest more but there’s disagreement about how much we need to invest. Whatever funds are available we have to make better choices, prioritize and target,” Frankel said.

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