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Sen. Boxer Shines Sun on Transportation Bill Talks

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) (photo by Todd Zwillich)

(Washington, D.C.) Striking a decidedly feel-good tone on transportation legislation Wednesday, Democrats' chief negotiator painted herself optimistic about the chances of a House - Senate agreement before July 4th.

"I'm feeling good," Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Boxer praised talks with Republicans--and even the Republicans themselves--for steady progress. She's leading final House-Senate conference negotiations over surface transportation legislation that expires June 30th.

"I welcome a change of heart on behalf of Republicans that I feel we have now," Boxer said. She was referring to the basics of a 2-year, $109 billion Senate bill that passed with 74 bipartisan votes in March.

Boxer said both she and chief GOP negotiator Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) agree on the desirability of a bill of even longer duration than the Senate bill. But therein lies the difficulty.While Boxer says that 80% of her EPW bill is already agreed to, that bill does not include some of the most contentious issues.

"I don't have any sicking points to share with you today," Boxer said. Even if the senator isn't sharing, that doesn't mean that sticking points aren't present.

How to pay for spending in the bill is a key issue with House conservatives, and one that aides say is not yet solved. So are the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, a GOP demand to roll back EPA coal ash regulations, spending on bike lanes, parks and other so-called transportation "enhancements," and other issues.

Boxer said she spoke to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) by phone Tuesday about the conference and that she was encouraged by the chat. Boehner released a statement saying he was “hopeful that the negotiators can complete work on a conference agreement that includes Keystone and other energy measures to address high gas prices and create jobs."

The statement went on to say Boehner expects "meaningful infrastructure reforms that ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent effectively and efficiently on roads and bridges across this country.”

"I there's a lot more than three or four or two hard issues," Boxer said. Last week House Republicans voted to demand the conference return and approve the Keystone pipeline. Boxer dismissed the importance of the vote as routine but added that discussions had begun on contentious areas like Keystone.


 

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WNYC News

Medical Records Could Yield Answers On Fracking

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is fracking making people sick? The question has ignited a national debate. A proposed study in northern Pennsylvania could help resolve the issue. By mining more than 10 years' worth of patient records, researchers hope to better understand the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on health.

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Transportation Nation

Report: 70 Percent of Offshore Oilfields Unused

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Oil Drill Rig, Montana

Some 26 million acres of offshore areas currently under lease for oil and gas development are inactive, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Department of the Interior. A DOI press release touts the finding, and pushes oil companies to, um...drill, baby, drill.

The report comes as President Barack Obama pushes his so-called "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, which includes development of alternative fuels but also more vigorous oil drilling.

Here's an excerpt from the release.

According to the report, more than 70 percent of the tens of millions of offshore acres currently under lease are inactive, neither producing nor currently subject to approved or pending exploration or development plans. Out of nearly 36 million acres leased offshore, only about 10 million acres are active – leaving nearly 72 percent of the offshore leased area idle.

In the lower 48 states, an additional 20.8 million acres, or 56 percent of onshore leased acres, remain idle. Furthermore, there are approximately 7,000 approved permits for drilling on federal and Indian lands that have not yet been drilled by companies.

“These lands and waters belong to the American people, and they expect those energy supplies to be developed in a timely and responsible manner and with a fair return to taxpayers,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “We will continue to encourage companies to diligently bring production online quickly and safely on public lands already under lease.”

 

 

 

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WNYC News

With Gas Boom, Pennsylvania Fears New Toxic Legacy

Monday, May 14, 2012

Industry has ruined a lot of Pennsylvania's water. Coal mining companies hammered the state, leaving behind acidic water that turned thousands of miles of streams into dead zones. People in the state are looking for ways to make sure the fracking boom doesn't deal another blow to its water.

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Transportation Nation

Europe Slow to Warm Up to Electric Cars

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A charging station in Berlin (photo by Kate Hinds)

Europe is home to expensive gas, a growing wind farm industry and aggressive carbon reduction goals.  But so far, when it comes to electric cars, il n'y a pas d'amour -- pas encore.

Transportation ministers and industry leaders, speaking last week at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany, said government subsidies and ever-increasing numbers of charging stations aren't yet enticement enough to convince European consumers.

Case in point: Sergio Monteiro, Portugal's Secretary of State for Public Works, Transport and Communications, said his country is laying the groundwork for EVs -- but so far his fellow citizens aren't buying.

"We have more than 1,300 charging points," he said, adding that Portugal is also financially incentivizing the purchase of EVs. "The average cost (of an electric car) is around 35,000 euros in Portugal, and we have a reduction of five thousand euros subsidized by the state."

But, said Monteiro, "we only managed to sell 200 vehicles last year." And 60 of those went to government administrators.

Monteiro dusted off a phrase uttered by the Irish transport minister earlier that day.  "It was like the field of dreams," he said. "You have the infrastructure, then services would come. That was not the case." He added that it was "living proof that infrastructure can only do so much -- you need to break a number of barriers." And chief among them is cost. Even with a 5,000 euro reduction, Monteiro said, EVs are too expensive for the average Portuguese citizen navigating austerity measures.

The wait for lower prices may be a decade away. Nissan vice president Mitsuhiko Yamashita said it usually takes ten years to reduce the price of new technologies by half. He used airbags as an example, saying it now cost automakers as much to put six airbags in a vehicle today as it did to include two a decade ago. "We can do the same thing for the EV, but...it takes maybe five to ten years, ten years on average. But during that time frame, I'd like to expect some type of support from the government."

While some European countries offer subsidies to purchase EVs, not all do.

Another issue hampering EV adoption is standardization. Europe is home to multiple electrical grids, and different EVs have different plugs. Pat O'Doherty, the CEO of Ireland's Electricity Supply Board, said "I should be able to drive my electric vehicle from Dublin in the future, down through Britain and charge it, down through France and into the South of Spain." He added that even the technology governing payment systems at public charging stations differs from place to place.

Yamashita later said ruefully "that's my headache at this moment."

Nissan launched the all-electric Leaf at the end of 2010, but so far sales have been underwhelming. Yamashita tried to put a good face on it. "We already sold more than 27,000 vehicles worldwide as of the beginning of April," he said. "Thirteen thousand in Japan, 11,000 in the U.S...We just started sales in Europe but we've sold 3,000."

Those are stark numbers, and it doesn't look much better when you read reports that Nissan wants to sell 20,000 to 25,000 of them in Europe in 2012. The company is trying to boost sales by moving production to the U.K., which will lower costs, and also redesign it in order to appeal to European tastes.

One bright spot for the Leaf, though, can be found in Norway, where 1,000 of them were sold in six months.

But on a large scale, "it will only work if the customer benefits financially," said O'Doherty. He said the Nissan Leaf had been selling better in Ireland since Nissan had knocked 5,000 euros off the price.

Watch a video of the conversation at the ITF summit below.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Dame Daphne Sheldrick on Love, Life, and Elephants

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Dame Daphne Sheldrick is the first person ever to have successfully hand-reared newborn elephants. In her memoir Love, Life and Elephants: And African Love Story, she tells about her pioneering work saving countless elephants, rhinos, and other baby animals, and about her love and partnership with David Sheldrick, the famous Tsavo Park warden.

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WNYC News

Butterflies Flutter Across the Region in Abundance

Monday, May 07, 2012

Red admiral butterflies have been attracting attention all over the city and throughout New Jersey this weekend. Scientists agree that the abundance of these flower-loving creatures is an unusual occurrence.

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WNYC News

Fracking: New Rules Aim To Bring 'Best Practices' To Public Lands

Friday, May 04, 2012

Among the proposals: Requiring companies that are extracting natural gas to disclose the chemicals they use.

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Transportation Nation

42 Bike Share Docks for Lower Manhattan Revealed in Semi-Public Rollout

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Slide showing the location of several planned bike share docks in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The New York City Department of Transportation continues to show community boards in Brooklyn and Manhattan where it's planning to install Bike Share stations in those boroughs.

NOTE: WE'VE TURNED THIS INTO AN INTERACTIVE MAP, VIEW IT HERE.

NYC DOT has promised to post a map of the entire system online once it's done. But the department is sticking by its refusal to release the draft maps, though it's supposed to have the actual program up in running by mid-July, a mere 10 weeks from now.

There is a way to glimpse what the city has in mind, and that's to go to a community board meeting and sit through the department's presentation of bike share locations. Hence our presence, with cell phone camera, at Thursday night's meeting of Community Board 1's Planning and Infrastructure Committee.

We photographed five slides, like the one above, that show where the bike share docks would go around Lower Manhattan. By our count, CB 1 will hold 42 of them.

The locations were whittled down through a series of meetings with department staff and community board members. Kate Fillin-Yeh, director of New York City Bikeshare, said any proposed location that had been red-flagged in a previous meeting did not make the cut.

Of the 42 that remain, twelve would require the removal of parking spaces--"three or four" per location, according to Fillin-Yeh. The stations would also be installed on street sites not used for parking, sidewalks, parks and plazas, and private property.

She said the department tried to spread the the bike docks evenly throughout Lower Manhattan, and place them near subway stations, large institutions like New York Law School, and tourist sites like south Street Seaport and the boat to the Statue of Liberty.

Board members reacted positively to the plan, with some praising the DOT for the way it has run its consultation with the community. The plan will be presented to the full board in the coming weeks.

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Transportation Nation

NY Gov Cuomo Offers No Details on Tappan Zee Bridge Funds

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Tappan Zee Bridge spanning, on the day of this photo, a serene Hudson River. (Flckr / duluoz cats)

(New York, NY - WNYC) In the Q & A after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the members of a new state Infrastructure Bank Board, he talked today about how the state might pay to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge after the federal government did not grant a $2 billion loan application.

(Ray LaHood wrote about the projects that did get the funding here.)

The proposed $5.2 billion project is a high priority for Cuomo.  It would build two spans to replace an aging, overcrowded bridge across the Hudson River in New York City's northern suburbs.

Environmental and transportation groups have criticized the replacement bridge's design because it makes no provision for transit.  Some opponents have suggested Cuomo's  vehicles-only approach contributed to the project's failure to win federal transportation funding.

But Cuomo downplayed the decision by the Obama administration not to grant a loan on April 26.   Cuomo said he's considering public-private partnerships that could leverage private financing, but he has no proposal at this time.

Here's an excerpt of the Q & A:

Q: Was it disappointing to not get the federal transportation loan for the Tappan Zee Bridge? Also, any progress on the next steps in terms of funding?

Cuomo: I believe the federal transportation funds will be reauthorized and I believe we will be competitive. Howard, anything new on the Tappan Zee financing?

Director of State Operations Howard Glaser: We’re doing many things simultaneously: the environmental review, the financial plans, working out labor agreements. So you’ll continue to see that work being done over the next few months.

Q: Do you need public-private partnership legislation to fund the bridge?

Cuomo: We’re talking about public-private partnership legislation. We don’t have an immediate proposal on that.

[Cuomo then talked about the various political obstacles to the project, and the need to overcome them to show that the state can still think and build big.]

[We're battling] inertia and institutional opposition—just bureaucratic opposition: opposition of the system, opposition to change, opposition to risk, which is very real and one of the main challenges you’re going to face.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is a project that has been talked about for decades, literally. The Tappan Zee Bridge--and there’s a project called the Peace Bridge in Buffalo--are large scale public works projects that have been talked about for decades but have somehow defied progress, let alone completion. That is one of those cultural enemies, I think, to progress. This sense that big projects are just too difficult to tackle.

Building a bridge: it’s controversial, it’s complex, there’s going to be opposition and [the idea that] if there’s opposition, we should stop. We’re trying to do the exact opposite with the Tappan Zee. We’re trying to say, ‘When there is a pressing need, government should be able to respond quickly, expeditiously, efficiently. Hear everyone, fair process, due process…but then get it done. Get it done.’

Government was about functioning [during the tenure of former NY State Governor] Al Smith. Government was about functioning and performing, competently, quickly. So the Tappan Zee Bridge, which we’ll be involved in, is a project that we identified early on, that is not just going to be about repairing that bridge. But it’s going to be about making the statement that government can work and society can work and we can still do big things. We’re that good. So keeping the Tappan Zee on time and moving along is very important to us.

Q: The biggest roadblock seems to be how to pay for it.

Cuomo: We’re working through a number of financing options and we’ll present a number of options for discussion and we’ll pick the best one.

Q: Will you be passing legislation during this session to allow you to raise public-private money for the Tappan Zee Bridge? Would it have to go through legislation?

Cuomo: It would not have to go through legislation. No.

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Transportation Nation

Average Fuel Economy Drops for Cars Sold in April

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

(Chart via University of Michigan)

Americans bought more gas guzzlers in April than in previous months. A University of Michigan study found that the average fuel economy (according to the window sticker -- more on that below) is at 23.9 miles per gallon. That's .2 m.p.g below the March average, and the first drop since December. Overall fuel economy for American cars sold has been trending higher over the years with occasional dips and drops (see chart). April's average is nearly 20 percent higher than in 2007 when U. Mich started tracking the gas mileage of autos Americans buy.

The authors posit that a slight drop in gas prices spurred this slip backwards on m.p.g. as Americans felt more comfortable plunking down cash for bigger cars.

As you digest this American m.p.g. news, consider a German study from earlier in the week that finds automakers are exaggerating fuel efficiency claims for their cars, and doing it more boldly then in the past. The study finds that in 2001 carmakers claimed 8 percent more fuel efficiency than drivers got in practice. In 2012, that jumped to a 21 percent gap between promise and practice. Something a few drivers have taken seriously enough to sue over, and win.

 

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Transportation Nation

NYC, 44 Other Regions, Blow 2008 Smog Standards

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

(photo by: harry_nl)

(New York -- WNYC) New York City and surrounding suburbs currently blow past smog limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency’s latest data, released Tuesday, found that forty-five areas of the country fail to meet air quality standards for ground level ozone.

The standards were set by the Bush Administration in 2008. They allow 75 parts of smog per billion cubic feet of air. As you can see on the map below, pockets of the country in almost all regions fail to meet air quality standards, but the bulk of "nonattainment" areas are along the Northeast corridor and throughout California. (See the EPA's designations for each area here.)

The agency said that the noncompliant areas were assigned a classification based on how close they are to meeting the standards. The classifications range from marginal to moderate, serious, severe and extreme. Most of the areas that do not meet the standards, including the New York region, are classified as marginal – that is, closest to meeting the standards.

The EPA said it expects these areas would be able to comply within three years, usually as a result of recent and pending federal pollution control measures.

“The standards are too weak,” said Frank O'Donnell, president of the DC-based non-profit environmental group Clean Air Watch. O’Donnell is pushing for the EPA to move ahead with low-sulfur gasoline. “Now that gasoline prices are dropping, we urge the House Energy and Commerce Committee to drop plans to kneecap EPA authority to see cleaner gas standards,” said O’Donnell.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office said in a statement that the city has made progress on cleaner air... cutting greenhouse gasses by 12 percent below 2005 levels.

In an email, an EPA spokeswoman said it was a “coincidence” that the data was released on May 1st, World Asthma Day. Smog can reduce lung function and aggravate asthma.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Trail of Trash

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The average American produces 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edward Humes looks at what’s in that trash; how much we pay for it; how we manage to create so much of it; and how some families, communities, and even nations are finding a way transform waste into energy and prosperity. He investigates the trail of trash in Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Garbage.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

New Details on the Anniversary of the BP Oil Spill

Friday, April 20, 2012

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Backstory: Preserving the Great Apes

Thursday, April 19, 2012

On today’s first Backstory, Ofir Drori talks about his fight to protect apes from extinction, and discusses the endangered worlds in Africa—not just of animals but of people. He’s the author of The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent.

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The Takeaway

Controversy Over Northwest Coal

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Northwest has long been a major source of exports. Timber and paper once dominated the Northwest market; these days, it's all about coal. Demand for coal has dropped in the United States, but the clamor for coal in Asia's growing markets has American companies lobbying for controversial coal terminals along the train tracks in Washington and Oregon to transport coal mined in Montana. Explaining this coal controversy is Ashley Ahearn, an environmental reporter for KUOW in Seattle, and a contributor to their "Coal in the Northwest" series.

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Transportation Nation

On Opening Day, NY Yankees Parking Garages Limp Toward Default

Thursday, April 12, 2012

 

 

Yankee parking garage that was closed due to lack of customers. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

The Yankees hold their first home game in the Bronx on Friday afternoon, but the company that owns their stadium's parking garages may be on its last legs.

The Bronx Parking Development Corporation is struggling to make payments on the $237 million in tax exempt bonds used to build the garages, placing the company in danger of default

As TN reported, the eleven garages were a little more than one-third full on game days last year. On days without a game, an average of  70 people paid to park there, leaving nearly 9,000 spaces empty. Each space costs $35 or $48 for valet parking. Smaller garages in the neighborhood charge much less.

Late last month, the corporation said it needed to raid its cash reserves to make its latest payment on its bond obligations. In a letter to bond holders, the corporation said that if it didn't do that, it would immediately default. The same crisis occurred before the last bi-annual payment came due, in November.

The parking company, which was set up with the backing of the Bloomberg administration because the Yankees wanted more parking spaces, also owes $25 million to the city in rent and property taxes.

In an audit last month, New York City Comptroller John Liu blasted the city Industrial Development Agency for recommending in 2006 that the bonds be issued to finance the new garages. "NYIDA did not independently analyze the financial position and cash flow of the proposed parking operation or the parking needs of the community to determine if there would be a demand for increased parking, at higher prices, in the Yankee Stadium vicinity," the report said.

Critics like Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York agreed with Liu's assessment. "This project was forced through despite the screaming concerns of local residents, transportation experts and good government advocates," she said.

The agency replied in a written statement that it relied on the recommendation of "a nationally recognized expert" in giving a thumbs up to the deal, and then helping to arrange for its tax exempt financing.

Agency spokesman Kyle Sklerov also stressed in an email to WNYC that the city would not lose money if the Bronx Parking Development Corporation defaulted on its debt. “The bonds are not a general obligation of the City or the IDA in any way, shape or form," he said.

Damiani said that may be true, but the garages going bust would mean a big hit to the reputation of the agency. "What does it mean for future projects in this city when a development as prominent as the one associated with Yankee Stadium goes into default?" she asked.

Sklerov disagreed. He said, "We expect that bond investors will continue to evaluate future IDA projects on their own merits.”

The garages were also controversial because city parkland was paved to make way for some of them. That parkland was fully replaced only last week when, after five years,  three new baseball diamonds on the site of the old Yankee Stadium were opened to the public.

A call to the Bronx Parking Development Corporation was not returned.

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Transportation Nation

After 5-Year Wait, Ballfields Near Yankee Stadium Finally Open

Monday, April 09, 2012

MaCombs Dam Field sits in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Jessie Wright-Mendoza)

(New York, NY - WNYC) It's been a long wait for a South Bronx neighborhood that heard promise after promise about how parkland that became parking garages would one day be replaced. That day is now here.

Five years after the city of New York allowed a heavily used set of baseball diamonds to be paved over for a parking lot serving the new Yankee Stadium, a set of replacement fields has opened--a year behind schedule. In the meantime, those garages have remained mostly empty on Yankee game days and, as TN has reported, the company that owns them is on the verge of default.

The field, which was also known as Heritage Field and is actually a set of three fields, saw its first action last week with a game between Cardinal Hayes and All Hallows high school varsity baseball teams. For years, the teams have been playing "home" games on opponents' fields while waiting for the new fields to open.

Neighborhood residents had to wait until Saturday to get their first access to the 10.8 acres of Kentucky bluegrass, installed where the old Yankee Stadium once stood. Standing outside the new Heritage Field, South Bronx resident Carlos Juarez said his neighbors have gone through a range of emotions as they waited for the former parkland to be replaced.

"In the beginning, people refused to support this construction," he said. "They took down the old Yankee Stadium and people were like, 'What are they going to do?' But when they saw the result, they just loved it."

Similarly, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe stressed the end result rather than the lengthy and sometimes rancorous process that delivered it.

"When you talk to people in the neighborhood about the old MaCombs Dam Park, they knew they were not particularly great," Benepe said. "The old MaCombs Dam ballfield was sort of in a pit surrounded by elevated roadways."

The new MaCombs Dam Field will be open from 10 a.m. to dusk and will give priority to teams with permits from the city. But when those teams aren't playing, the public will be free to step on turf where Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio once plied their trade. Blue polymer fiber stitched into the sod marks where home plate once stood. Anyone can straddle it and, in their minds eye, knock a long ball out of the park.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Underreported: The Price of Quinoa's Success

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Quinoa has become an incredibly popular food in recent years, with prices for the whole grain tripling in the last five years. On today’s Underreported, Time writer Jean Friedman-Rudovksy talks about how the exploding market for quinoa has also created problems, including land disputes in Bolivia and environmental issues.

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Transportation Nation

Post 9/11 Security Upgrade To NYC Transit Lags

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

(New York, NY - WNYC) A new report says the first phase of the NY MTA's security upgrade after 9/11 won't be done for another two years, and that the cost keeps rising.

NY State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli says more than 3,000 cameras are already in place at transit hubs and in bridges and tunnels. What's missing is the authority's ability to monitor some of them, and to communicate efficiently with the police and fire departments.  Another problem is communications rooms in the subway have been prone to overheat.

The work was supposed to be done in 2008 but a new report by the comptroller is pushing that date back to 2014. (Only last year, the comptroller said Phase 1 would be finished this year.) The final budget is expected to be $882 million dollars--nearly $300 million more than originally estimated.

It's costing more than expected to get seven command centers up and running. And the price could rise another $150 million if the NY MTA loses a court fight with Lockheed Martin, the project's original contractor. The authority says the company reneged on its contract; Lockheed Martin says the NY MTA didn't give it enough access to tunnels and other locations to get the work done.

The NY MTA says steady progress on its security upgrade has been made and that they've finished reinforcing 17 bridges, tunnels and train stations against terrorist explosions.

"We agree with the Comptroller's assessment that the system is more secure and the public better protected as a result of the security investments that we have made," said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. "The report's conclusion is that the biggest obstacle going forward is funding, and we don't disagree."

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