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WNYC News

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

WNYC

The prospect of a $128 million rebate for New Jersey may be all that’s needed to calm the collision of personalities and political agendas at the center of the ARC Tunnel debate.

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Transportation Nation

California High-Speed Rail: All The Way to Bakersfield

Thursday, December 09, 2010

(San Francisco–-Casey Miner, KALW News) Earlier today we reported that the Department of Transportation re-allocated $1.2 billion in high-speed rail money rejected by Ohio and Wisconsin. The largest share of the liberated funding is headed to California. Now officials at the DOT have given us a few more details on how that $654 million in new high-speed rail funds is meant to be spent.

The bulk, $616 million, will go towards extending the first segment of the rail system all the way to Bakersfield, instead of terminating it in Corcoran as was originally planned. The rest of the money will go to Caltrans to improve existing rail transit.

The feds are also asking California to match the $616 million with its own bond funds; rail Authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said that outlay will still have to be approved by the Authority board. We'll have more on this as the situation develops.

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WNYC News

Survey Shows Support for Park Slope Bike Lane

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

WNYC

A new survey of some 3,000 Brooklyn residents finds that, by a three to one margin, residents approve of a two-way protected bike lane along Prospect Park West. That support diminishes to just half, however, when only residents of the boulevard are surveyed.

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Transportation Nation

Norm Mineta, Former Sec. of Transportation, "Roads and Highways" top Transpo Priority, Defends Earmarks, Questions Some Defense Spending

Friday, November 26, 2010

Norm Mineta in 2001. Image: Alex Plummer / FEMA

Norm Mineta served as Secretary of the Department of Transportation in both the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. Lately Mineta's been teaming up with Republicans and Democratic DOT secretaries in the hopes of convincing Congress to make major new transportation investments, including a $50 billion infrastructure bill championed by President Obama.

The trouble is that in these days of giant debt and political polarization, Congress is in little mood to listen. Transportation Nation's Todd Zwillich recently sat down with Mineta at his current office in at the Washington lobbying firm of Hill & Knowlton to ask about Washington's attitude toward roads and highways, high speed rail, and the prospects for bipartisan agreement in an era of political warfare.

[MP3]http://audio.wnyc.org/news/news20101123_minetta_zwillich.mp3[/MP3]

"I was hoping that we'd be able to see something around the infrastructure bank being considered in the past during the lame duck session....I haven't seen anything to confirm any kind of activity that would connote action during the lame duck."

TZ: You joined the president and bi-partisan past transportation secretaries in the WH rose garden a few weeks ago pushing for the president's proposal for an immediate 50 billion investment in infrastructure and transportation. What are you hearing around Washington about the prospects of that money being approved in the near term...?

Norm Minetta: I was hoping that we'd be able to see something around the infrastructure bank being considered in the past during the lame duck session. In fact that's what we were hoping would be the result of former Secretary Sam Skinner and I meeting with Pres Obama and Secretary Geithner and Secretary LaHood, but I haven't seen anything to confirm any kind of activity that would connote action during the lame duck. And I did see secretary LaHood maybe about a week, ten days or a week after that session and it didn't seem like anything was happening.  So I guess we'll have to wait until after the start of the new 112th congress.

TZ: ...You've called for a transformational investment in infrastructure. Can we get it in this 112th congress? Where do you think we're heading given this political environment?

NM: Well, I think those of us who are proponents of transportation spending, really haven't done a good job of justifying what that spending is all about. When we think about everything we eat, wear, consume, whether as individuals or a business, it just seems to me what we're not seeing is that everything we have in terms of food, clothing, whatever you want to talk about, got to a store, got to a distribution center got to our house by something on wheels, and we really haven't done a very good job of relating that spending. When I hear these folks talk about look at that pork. Well that pork  is really economic activity and it just seems to me then we just  haven't done a good job at explaining. The mere fact that spending money, is not pork. That there is substance to that spending. And the other thing to is besides spending from tax revenues, there's also a great deal that is accumulating in the private sector that's available for expenditures in infrastructure, what I call pipeline -- private investment in public enterprises. So it seems to me what we ought to be doing is utilizing this whole public/private partnership in order to advance spending and not just tax revenue.

"When I hear these folks talk about look at that pork. Well that pork  is really economic activity and it just seems to me then we just  haven't done a good job at explaining. The mere fact that spending money, is not pork. That there is substance to that spending."

TZ: As you know the reality of our political environment right now suggests that any increased spending ... might be pretty unlikely and a lot of people in Washington are limping along with what are called continuing resolutions--staying with current funding levels. ...Now if that happens, and we just go along with any continuing resolutions for the next 2 or 3 year, what are the consequences of that in practical terms?

NM: Well, just in the transportation field, in the past we've has T-21: the transportation efficiency act for the 21st century. That was a $230 billion expenditure over a six year period.  SAFETEA-LU was a successor and that was $270 billion over a 6 year period. Chairman Oberstar put in the surface transportation assistance act and he called for $450 billion, but to the extent that the surface transportation assistance act never got enacted, we're now working on the $270 billion that's now been replaced since 2003. So here we are in 2010, and we're still working on a $270 billion authorized level. Now in the meantime, there's been a tremendous increase in the cost of doing business. And when you think about the highway trust fund, 87% of that highway trust fund, is going to maintaining what we have already built. So that means that 14% is available for new but again with the cost increases, we're really getting 20% less for what we have to spend. So it is costing us all very dearly. And the problem is that today, given that we're working on a global economic marketplace, we're going to be impacting on our own productivity, impacting on our own congestion and have a economic disadvantage competing against Germany, China, India, Japan, all the other countries in the economy who are making tremendous investments in their own transportation infrastructure.

TZ: In the short term, over the next year, the new chair Mr. Mica from Florida, starts to work on a transportation bill, do you see any prospects of the kind of bipartisan agreements that can make the kind of investments you're talking about?

NM: I think given the fact that that gasoline tax generates about 300 billion, instead of a $450 billion bill, maybe we should just stay with a $300 billion bill and work on that for the time being.

TZ: That's a lot of maintenance then and not much new. You gave a matrix before of maintenance versus new. Scaling back to $300 billion sounds like a lot of maintenance for the next few years.

NM: But it's still an increase from the present $270 billion, so to that extent, it is an increase, but it's not ... you figure it's a 20% increase in cost, that means we should probably be at minimum $330 billion, and that is to an extent, a reduction if we stay with $300 billion. But it seems to me, $300 billion is a better place to me to be working on these extensions, that we have right now. I think we're working on our 11th extension right now. and that ends on Dec. 31. So during the lame duck session, we're going to have to extend that Dec. 31st date to June, sometime in that time period.

TZ: What do you think is the future of high speed rail? Will it survive this political environment? And if a couple of states stick with their high speed rail, but most don't, will it take the wind out of the sails for high speed rail and this push that the stimulus act tried to make for it.

NM: I think high speed rail was always considered to be a regional kind of a program: There was Portland-Seattle-Vancouver. California had LA to San Francisco, Texas, Florida, the Northeast corridor and the Midwest. So there's been really, regional high speed rail. The $8 billion that was in the stimulus program went to something like 120 areas. I think Chairman-designate Mica  coming in the 112th congress is supportive of high speed rail, but thinks that there ought to be criteria by which we measure projects that are going to be funded, so that we are speaking on the  high speed rail and not higher speed rail. I think congressmen Mica is supportive of high speed rail, but doesn't like the sort of the spreading out of the money to 120 or so projects and would rather have had that money concentrated in ...

TZ: let's say - Florida.

NM: Florida has an Atlanta to Tampa route. That's a 110-mile-route. California is probably the longest at 150 miles. Portland, Seattle, Vancouver is probably 100, maybe 200 miles. Of course Texas is such a big state, it has a potentially big one.

TZ: This method of 120 locations, regions that you describe, is the classic formula that congress uses to get by in from as many members as possible, we have something to gain or nothing to lose if it's not funded. Mr. Mica is talking about something much more streamlined. Do you agree with that approach or would it jeopardize the support you can get with that kind of funding if the benefit only goes to a couple of places, instead of being spread around?

We "ought to really be getting to an effective high speed rail... greater than 200 mph... Even if  we have only five places in the country that have real high speed rail that we would be better off than having short segments of 90 mph trains."

NM: Well when the Europeans and Asians talk about high speed rail, they're talking about 220 miles per hour. Japan is going to a maglev that goes to 300 miles per hour. When we talk about high speed rail, we're talking about 120, 150 to 220 mph.  Right now a lot of these projects, trains are going 85 mph and we're going to go to maybe 97 mph. Well, I think if I read Congressman Mica correctly what he's saying, we ought not to be doing this kind of high speed rail. But ought to really be getting to an effective high speed rail based on what others think of, and that is at least 220 mph- 200 mph,  greater than 200 mph... Even if  we have only five places in the country that have real high speed rail that we would be better off than having short segments of 90 mph trains.

TZ: You've dealt with Congress. You've had experience in both Democratic and Republican administrations. High speed rail in five regions. Is that something you can get the rank and file go along with? And is that something in the Midwest or people in places that don't get the direct benefit, don't necessarily want to sign up for if it's just Florida, California and New York that benefits?

NM: Well, I think it has to be done, in conjunction with something else the Miller Report talks about and that is a budget reform. And you have actually two budgets: a capital budget and an operating budget. And the train systems under a bifurcated budget system like this will get no operating subsidies, in that they will have to be cost recovery based on the fare box.

TZ: In other words, the federal government can invest in building, but operating costs will be in fares, with no transfer of funds, let's say from tax payers in Kansas to commuters in New York City.

NM: Europeans and Asians, you look at those high speed rail systems--TGV in France, Shinkansen in Japan--get no operating subsidies from the government. They are totally dependent on their efficiency of operation, their fares, and their fare box, for the operation of the system. Yet the Japanese Federal Government helps in the construction of the capital arena.

"I can cite examples of Halliburton or KBR or Blackwater spending billions and what we have nothing really to show for it. So it seems to me, again, that if they are going to say spending needs to be looked at then, it seems to me we have to look at spending all across the board."

TZ: In the environment that we have ... can Washington produce any kind of transformational transportation and infrastructure policy over the next two years or, honestly, are we going to have to just limp along until 2012 in terms of transportation?

NM: If the conservative groups are willing to say all defense spending is good and we ought to keep spending there and we don't apply and standards of efficiency or lets say an internal rate of return or return on investment. Then that seems to be to be foolish. I can cite examples of Halliburton or KBR or Blackwater spending billions and what we have nothing really to show for it. So it seems to me, again, that if they are going to say spending needs to be looked at then, it seems to me we have to look at spending all across the board.

Why is the Chamber of Commerce promoting their ATM, their Americans for Transportation Mobility? Because it is important in terms of economic engine, as job builder. So to me this is not just a business issue, its also personal in terms of quality of life. Am I going to be caught up in congestion and not able to get home to have dinner with my family, or can I be home in time to be with Johnny for his soccer match. To me congestion is part of that economic equation of what happens in life. And we ought to be working on relieving congestion, and this is going to require spending. so we have to make sure that the money we spend is being spent efficiently, and there is a return on that dollar. So we can make a differentiation on the types of spending that goes on.

TZ: What is the single greatest area of transportation infrastructure?

NM: Roads and highway conditions, is to me critical. The interstate highway system after WWII created the largest increase in economic development in the country. That was not just by accident. That great growth of our economy is directly attributable to the interstate highway system  and its expansion. And at the same time it gave mobility to people to move about as freely as they want. So to me the roads and highways still need a great deal of improvement and what we have already built requires maintenance, and it would be foolish not to do the maintenance given all of the money that has been used on constructing the highway system.

TZ: Former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, thanks for joining us.

NM: Thanks for having me on board Todd.

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WNYC News

DOT Adds Cameras to Express Bus Service Routes

Monday, November 22, 2010

Starting Monday, cameras will be watching out for the special bus lanes on First and Second Avenues in Manhattan. Drivers will now get a $115 ticket if a camera catches them driving in the bus lane.

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Transportation Nation

California to Feds: You Gonna Keep That High-Speed Rail Money?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

(San Francisco–Casey Miner, KALW News) One of the biggest challenges facing California’s high-speed rail effort is the question of funding: Is there going to be enough of it, available over a long enough period of time, to actually see the project through?

When you’re in that kind of  tenuous situation, it always helps to get an unexpected bonus--and that’s what Golden State politicians are banking on. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as outgoing governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have all written letters to the Department of  Transportation, urging them to reallocate money rejected by the newly-elected leadership of Ohio and Wisconsin, plus anyone else who might want off the high-speed rail… uh… train.  Money quote:

“It is with a certain sense of astonishment that we note recent announcements from some of our gubernatorial colleagues that they are uninterested in federal contributions to their high-speed rail systems. You are more than welcome to redirect that money to California –- where we know how to use it to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and provide a clean, fast and low-cost way to travel.”

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WNYC News

Fourth Graders Educate New Yorkers About City Speed Limit

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are you smarter than a fourth grader? If you don't know what New York's speed limit is, the answer is probably "no."

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WNYC News

Brooklyn Residents, Cyclists Debate Park Slope Bike Lane

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Park Slope residents and cycling advocates led two boisterous rallies on Thursday, over the future of a protected bike lane along Prospect Park West.

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Transportation Nation

TIGER Grants: DOT and HUD Get Together

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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WNYC News

City Employees to Share Zipcars with Weekend Renters

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Many New Yorkers are familiar with car sharing services like Zipcar, and now city employees will be too. The city is testing out car sharing for part of it’s fleet and hoping the savings will follow. 

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Transportation Nation

First Steps for Obama's DOT, Seen Through a Bush Administration Lens

Monday, August 30, 2010

President George W. Bush speaks with US Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters in the Oval Office of the White House on September 27, 2007.(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

President George W. Bush speaks with US Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters in the Oval Office of the White House on September 27, 2007. The meeting was after a summer of long delays and flight cancellations at airports. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

(Transportation Nation)  Mary Peters and Ray LaHood, oddly enough, were both born in places called Peoria. (Peters's birthplace, a suburb of Phoenix, was named for Lahood’s hometown in Illinois.) Until recently, it might have seemed that this was all that the Secretary of Transportation and his predecessor had in common. LaHood, a Republican Congressman, was appointed with little experience in transportation policy, but has been given billions to spend. Peters had worked for twenty years at the Arizona DOT and was the head of the Federal Highway Administration before Bush nominated her to replace Norman Mineta as Secretary of Transportation in 2006.

Many of the hard issues now facing the Obama Administration—such as crumbling infrastructure, declining gas tax revenues, and disparate opinions on spending priorities—were first recognized during Peters's tenure. The solutions put forth by the Bush Administration were bold and controversial, and Peters took the lead in encouraging highway privatization and more permissive tolling policies. She stood firm with President Bush (and against many influential Congressional Democrats) in refusing to advocate a gas tax increase.

The Obama Administration's focus on "livability" and high-speed rail have been in contrast with the past, and yet lately LaHood has been sounding more like Peters, speaking kindly of tolling and private investment. Transportation Nation's Matt Dellinger interviewed Peters last week.  She talked about the persistent problems with our transportation policy, her reaction to the Obama Administration’s first steps, and what her own future holds after January, when federal law will allow her to lobby the White House and Congress.

DELLINGER: When you were with the Bush Administration, you told me that you felt like the canary in the coal mine as far as the gap in federal transportation funding, the weaknesses of the gas tax, and the need for innovative thinking. What were the first signals that we were headed for trouble? And have things gotten any better or worse since you left?

MARY PETERS: I would say in terms of the status of the federal Highway Trust Fund, from the perspective of the revenue that it's collecting, versus what was expected to be collected, it has gotten worse—due to the recession in part, but also due to the fact that we have more fuel efficient cars and we have more alternative and renewable fuels. And then of course Americans are driving less, especially during the recession and, in the summer of ‘08, the very high fuel prices.  American driving is picking up a little bit, especially through the summer months this year, but by-and-large we're not gaining vehicle miles traveled at the rate that we had in the past and I believe won't in the future. So if anything, yes, it has gotten worse. Now, the reason that I caveat that a little bit is because Congress has elected to put some fairly significant amounts of money into the Highway Trust Fund. Between the summer of ‘08 and February of this year they've put $34.5 billion dollars of General Fund monies into the Highway Trust Fund to maintain its solvency. Absent that, we would be in real, real trouble.

DELLINGER: Generally speaking, President Bush was against using general funds to boost the Highway Trust Fund.

MARY PETERS: He really was. Of course, he did sign off in the fall of ‘08 on the first infusion of money that had to go from the general fund into the Highway Trust Fund, but generally speaking, he felt that the trust fund ought to do what trust funds do: collect revenues from defined resources and operate within the constraints of those revenues. But again, because this came on very suddenly through the summer of 2008 and because the trust fund appeared that it would not remain solvent through September of ‘08, we went to Congress—in fact, just the week before Lehman Brothers failed—and got the first infusion of cash.

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Transportation Nation

The New Math of Tarmac Delays

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Department of Transportation levied heavy fines against airlines that leave passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours, which led to a decrease in long tarmac delays -- but increased flight cancellations. -- Marketplace

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Transportation Nation

Spotting a BlackBerry from 20 feet Away: Notes on Texting Ban Enforcement

Friday, July 09, 2010

(Houston, TX - Melissa Galvez, KUHF News Lab)  For most drivers in Texas, it is legal to both talk on a cell phone and text while driving — except in school zones and certain cities. There are some who say one or both of those should be outlawed. In the second of a series on distracted driving, a look at how such a law could be enforced.

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories

Friday, July 09, 2010

Five flights had tarmac delays of more than three hours in May, the first full month with new, steep federal fines.  (USA Today)

California high-speed rail planners defend ridership estimates, as critics tell them to "do it right." (LA Times)

Duck boats high-and-dry nationwide after Philly fire, crash leaving two missing.  (SF Chronicle)

WSJ publishes letters from INFRASTRUCTURIST, new urbanists, others critiquing its "Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration" piece.

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Transportation Nation

Firm Backs Off after LaHood Lashes Out on Texting Campaign

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

(Washington, DC - Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation)  A Washington, DC, lobbying firm has nixed a campaign against federal distracted driving initiatives after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lashed out at the plans.

LaHood took a swing today at the Seward Square Group, who he said is drumming up opposition to DOT's distracted driving campaign.

LaHood accused the lobbyists, some of whom represent mobile phone device manufacturers, of cynically trying to undermine efforts to curb distracted driving. DOT claims distracted driving, including the use of PDA's and cell phones while behind the wheel, causes 6,000 deaths per year on U.S. roads.

“Those of us who care about safety will join our effort, not undercut it. Thousands of lives are at stake,” LaHood said a press conference at DOT headquarters in Washington.

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Transportation Nation

LaHood: States Should Spend Faster

Friday, June 18, 2010

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  President Barack Obama travels to Columbus , Ohio today to cut the ribbon on the 10,000th Recovery Act highway project.   The move, clearly timed to emit some good news in the cloud of BP spill-related bad news, was heralded Thursday in a conference call by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Vice President Biden's Chief Economist, Jared Bernstein.

LaHood said the news could be even better.  "The problem is getting the governors to enter into contracts through their Departments of Transportation to get these contracts awarded so people can be hired."

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Transportation Nation

The Takeaway: 'This is Not Your Father's DOT': Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The federal government is on the verge of spending billions of dollars on highways and public transit projects, beginning in 2010. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood views this as a historic moment in American history, when federal money will back policy aimed at getting Americans off the highways, out of our cars and into public transit and high-speed rail. LaHood steps through the many areas of American life in which he's now shaping policy.

Listen to the full story.

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