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Transportation Nation

President Kills Pipeline: Full Statement

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

UPDATED WITH STATE DEPARTMENT RELEASE:

From the White House:

Statement by the President on the Keystone XL Pipeline

Earlier today, I received the Secretary of State’s recommendation on the pending application for the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. As the State Department made clear last month, the rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment. As a result, the Secretary of State has recommended that the application be denied. And after reviewing the State Department’s report, I agree.

This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people. I’m disappointed that Republicans in Congress forced this decision, but it does not change my Administration’s commitment to American-made energy that creates jobs and reduces our dependence on oil. Under my Administration, domestic oil and natural gas production is up, while imports of foreign oil are down. In the months ahead, we will continue to look for new ways to partner with the oil and gas industry to increase our energy security –including the potential development of an oil pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico – even as we set higher efficiency standards for cars and trucks and invest in alternatives like biofuels and natural gas. And we will do so in a way that benefits American workers and businesses without risking the health and safety of the American people and the environment.

And here's the release by the state department:

Denial of the Keystone XL Pipeline Application

Media Note

Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
January 18, 2012

Today, the Department of State recommended to President Obama that the presidential permit for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline be denied and, that at this time, the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline be determined not to serve the national interest. The President concurred with the Department’s recommendation, which was predicated on the fact that the Department does not have sufficient time to obtain the information necessary to assess whether the project, in its current state, is in the national interest.

Since 2008, the Department has been conducting a transparent, thorough, and rigorous review of TransCanada’s permit application for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline project. As a result of this process, particularly given the concentration of concerns regarding the proposed route through the Sand Hills area of Nebraska, on November 10, 2011, the Department announced that it could not make a national interest determination regarding the permit application without additional information. Specifically, the Department called for an assessment of alternative pipeline routes that avoided the uniquely sensitive terrain of the Sand Hills in Nebraska. The Department estimated, based on prior projects of similar length and scope, that it could complete the necessary review to make a decision by the first quarter of 2013. In consultations with the State of Nebraska and TransCanada, they agreed with the estimated timeline.

On December 23, 2011, the Congress passed the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 (“the Act”). The Act provides 60 days for the President to determine whether the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest – which is insufficient for such a determination.

The Department’s denial of the permit application does not preclude any subsequent permit application or applications for similar projects.

 

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Transportation Nation

Reports: Obama to Reject Keystone Pipeline

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

NPR's got the roundup of news stories on the pipeline's demise:

Several news outlets are reporting that the Obama administration will reject TransCanada's proposal to run an oil pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border.

The Washington Post reports the administration will make it official later today and will allow TransCanada to reapply once it has a proposal to reroute the pipeline to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills of Nebraska.

As we've reported, the Keystone XL pipeline has become a rallying point for environmentalists. The president first sought to put off a decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 elections, but he agreed to make a decision by Feb. 21 as part of the payroll tax cut negotiations.

Full post here.

 

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Transportation Nation

Proposed $1.6 Billion Dollar Wekiva Parkway in Central Florida Jumps Forward

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Standing Room Only As MetroPlan Orlando Approves Wekiva Parkway Deal

(Orlando, WMFE) The controversial $1.6 billion dollar Wekiva Parkway project moved ahead Tuesday in Orlando as the regional planning body Metro-Plan Orlando approved a funding proposal for the 25-mile long roadway.  Only two commissioners voted against the funding plan.  Osceola County Commissioner and Metro-plan board member John Quinones cited concerns about costs as his reason for voting no, "You’re talking about 1.6 billion dollars.  That is too much of a price tag.  I think the toll roads are going to pay the consequences.  I just don’t think the cost benefit analysis warrants the building of this road right now."

Currently the Florida Turnpike Authority will pay for 28% percent of the project costing about $459 million dollars, state DOT funds will cover another 28% at $460 million, and the Orlando/ Orange County Expressway Authority will pickup the remaining 44% or 745 million dollars.

The roadway project which has been discussed for more than 50 years, raised controversy on the latest round of discussions because some studies by the Orlando /Orange County Expressway Authority show the Wekiva Parkway won't be able to pay for itself for years, despite being partially tolled.

The Wekiva Parkway Hearing in Orlando Brought Out Opponents and Supporters

Also, about 150 residents of the 12 Oaks RV Resort in Sanford, Florida will have to be relocated if the roadway isn't moved.  Manager Sid Bennett says he's planing a lawsuit under the Older Americans Act which was signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson.  Bennett  said he felt many emotion after the approval of the parkway, "Desperation, despair, because this is just another step in the taking and the forcing of something that's going to have be very tragic for a lot of people on SR 46."

Environmental groups in Central Florida including Audubon of Florida are supporting the Wekiva Parkway because it will be partially elevated allowing migrating black bears and other species to pass under without crossing traffic.

Some of the Proposed Wekiva Parway's Route

Initially the highway will be composed of four lanes with slip roads on the side.  Eventually it could be expanded to six lanes.

Next the plan goes before the Lake-Sumter Regional Planning Organization and the Orlando/Orange County Expressway Authority.

Groundbreaking could start as early as this fall.

You can listen to economist Dr. Hank Fishkind's analysis of the Wekiva Parkway project here.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Trucking Through the Port of Oakland

Saturday, January 14, 2012

(Photo:  Shani Aviram)

Oakland has the fifth busiest port in the country. According to the Port of Oakland, they support between 50,000 and 73,000 jobs in Northern California, making it one of the Bay Area’s biggest economic engines. The Port of Oakland says that economic development is its primary driver, but the truck drivers who make a living running goods to and from the port say deteriorating working conditions are cutting into their bottom line.

KALW reporter Shani Aviram profiled what it's like to be a truck driver in Oakland. You can listen here.

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Transportation Nation

Obama Administration Fast Tracks NE High Speed Rail Review

Friday, January 13, 2012

From the the White House:

Today, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a pilot project aimed at expediting the environmental reviews for high-speed passenger rail service in the Northeast Corridor through an innovative and more efficient process.

Through this pilot project, CEQ and DOT will work with stakeholders to identify efficiencies to speed the environmental review process that will inform selection of service types and station locations for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor.  The pilot will engage Federal, state and local governments and the public in the environmental review process earlier to set benchmarks that maintain rigorous environmental protections and save time and costs by avoiding conflicts and delays in the later steps of rail-project development.

"The Northeast Corridor is the busiest rail corridor in the U.S.,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “Our planned improvements will lead to more jobs, a stronger rail system and a stronger economy.  By bringing all involved parties to the table earlier in the process, we will do the job better and finish it sooner.”  

“The National Environmental Policy Act provides essential protections for American communities and the natural resources our economy depends on,” said Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.  “This pilot project will ensure a collaborative environmental review process for quicker, better-informed decisions for the Northeast Corridor high speed rail project.”

To promote transparency and public input, DOT will post and track project timelines and progress on the Federal Infrastructure Projects Dashboard at www.performance.gov, which launched in November 2011 to track high impact, job-creating infrastructure projects for expedited review.   

 The Transportation Rapid Response Team, a Federal interagency group also launched in November 2011 to speed Federal reviews of transportation projects, will help coordinate the high-speed rail planning process to ensure quick resolution of any interagency conflicts.  

 

The Northeast Corridor high-speed rail planning project is the fourth project selected by CEQ under its National Environmental Policy Act Pilot program, which focuses on identifying and promoting more efficient ways to do effective environmental reviews that can be replicated.  CEQ will use efficiencies identified for the high-speed rail project to develop best practices for environmental reviews across the Federal Government.

 To learn more about CEQ’s NEPA Pilot Program, visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/nepa.

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Transportation Nation

California's Diesel Decade

Thursday, January 12, 2012

photo by Shani Aviram

One of the expenses truckers face is paying to upgrade their rigs to meet new environmental emissions regulations for diesel engines. California has the strictest gasoline emissions regulations in the country. The "smog check" is a consuming ritual known to every Californian. Until very recently, diesel engines on freight trucks – big rigs that haul almost everything we buy in and out of ports and across the country – haven’t been under the same rules. Now, that’s starting to change.

In 2010, the California Air Resources Board created a new set of emissions regulations for diesel engines. On a rolling basis, freight trucks are required to retrofit older engines, or to buy completely new trucks to meet stricter emissions standards. While those requirements can be expensive for truckers, so are the environmental impacts.

KALW’s Julie Caine sat down to talk with Rob Harley, professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley about how the new regulations are changing the air we breathe.

Listen to the interview here

JULIE CAINE: Can you just summarize the changes in regulations, the effects on port truckers?

ROB HARLEY: There’s been a lot of effort in the last couple of years to take steps to clean up the emissions from port trucks. Some of the oldest trucks, built before 1994, are no longer able to be at the port. Some of the more recent models have needed exhaust filters installed or even been replaced completely with brand new trucks or newer trucks.

CAINE: Why were those regulations put into place?

HARLEY: Diesel trucks are one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the state of California and the whole country. And the trucks last a long time. They can stay on the road for 20 years or more. And, especially at the ports, we had a pretty old mix of trucks operating right in an urban community with residential neighborhoods nearby. So that posed air pollution and health concerns for the neighbors.

CAINE: You've been studying some of the effects of those changes. You did some measurements at the Port of Oakland in 2009 and then again in 2010. Was that timed with the changes in the regulations?

HARLEY: Yes, exactly. We made some measurements just before the first phase of the program took effect and then we were back about six months later after the oldest trucks had been banned and a lot of filters had been installed and some newer trucks had come into the fleet. We timed those measurements deliberately to give a before and an after – and to see what the emission changes were from this attempt to clean up the port trucks.

CAINE: What did you find?

HARLEY: Well, it was pretty impressive reductions. Things went down by about 50 percent. When I say “things” I mean the black smoke emissions and also the nitrogen oxide emissions. These are two of the major air pollutants that diesel trucks emit a lot of and we were really struck by how quickly this reduction in emissions had occurred. Normally it might take 10 years of gradual replacement of old trucks to get that kind of reduction. Here it was in 6 months instead of 10 years that those emission reductions happened. That's a very rapid and successful reduction in emissions.

CAINE: These emission regulations are for the whole state of California, is that correct?

HARLEY: They will be. The ports and rail yards have been what the state calls an early action item. They got started there first, but the same kinds of requirements are coming statewide to all trucks, not just the ports and rail yards. There's going to be a lot of activity there in the next coming years, but California's approach is different from the national approach. The national approach is only about new trucks, saying they need to have modern emission equipment, but California reaches out to the older models and says that those trucks have to be either cleaned up or retired on an accelerated schedule. That's part of California's longstanding role or approach as a laboratory for air pollution control. The program here is pushing more rapidly to reduce these diesel emissions than elsewhere in the country.

CAINE: Tell me about the impact on individual truckers who often own their own vehicles. Do you know how much it costs to retrofit a truck, as opposed to buying a new truck?

HARLEY: Yeah, so ballpark numbers might be $15,000 to put an exhaust filter on a diesel truck – that's a big investment and on a very old truck – it's probably not worth it because that would be more than the value of the truck. Brand new trucks could be $100,000, or something in that range. These are expensive pieces of equipment. There are some grant programs that the state and various other agencies involved have been helping, not to cover the complete cost, but to at least subsidize the costs of retrofits. And then there are some truckers who just replace, who get a newer or brand new truck rather than go through the investment of control equipment on an old truck that's not worth it. So it’s left to the individual to decide whether it makes more sense to replace with newer equipment or to retrofit older equipment. The very oldest trucks just weren't suitable for retrofitting, so they aren't in the program at all for being retrofitted.

CAINE: I would guess, similarly to people who drive very old, used cars, that people who were driving those very old trucks – that was probably all they could afford. I'm just curious if there are alternatives for people who can't afford a $15,000 filter, or can’t really put in a huge investment to meet those new requirements. Are there are any alternatives?

HARLEY: I think it is going to make it more expensive to operate. You need newer and cleaner equipment and there's a cost to having that. There are a lot of interesting questions about air pollution control related to this program. One of them is sort of a financial question: is it better to retrofit older trucks or just to replace them outright? I think the approach the Port of Oakland has taken is more cost effective by trying to retrofit some of the middle-aged trucks, and not delay and buy time before the bigger costs of replacing the equipment need to be incurred. In Southern California, they implemented a fee on every container and the shippers ended up subsidizing the replacement of trucks down there. Oakland's sort of in competition with the Southern California ports and it couldn't implement that fee on the shippers because it would just drive the business to other ports. So the approach in the Bay Area was a less costly one. On the other hand, there wasn't money from the shippers to cover all the costs. There were grant programs from the port itself, the state, and various other agencies to help offset some of the costs, but not all of them. So that's an interesting question: what's the right approach? What's the right short-term approach and what's the right longer term approach in terms of retrofitting filters on older trucks versus just replacing them to newer trucks?

CAINE: So what's the payoff for the rest of us? Let's talk about the community around the Port of Oakland. Do you have a sense of how the changes in regulations are affecting the health of folks around the port?

HARELY: That's a hard question – to say how people's health status is changing as the truck emissions are cleaned up. But it's an interesting question. It's really the point of all this effort to clean up the emissions of diesel trucks. So I can go only some of the first steps, and others will have to take some of the next steps in understanding what the health outcomes are. But we are seeing changes in air quality in the community, in West Oakland, near the port. Similar things are happening in Southern California, in the ports of L.A., and Long Beach regulation.

CAINE: Are you going back to do any more testing of the air?

HARELY: We are. We've been back – actually, quite recently – in November of this year. We'll go back again in early 2013, after 3 more model years of trucks have been fixed with emission filters and more replacement of the older trucks have occurred. So it's an ongoing program to clean up the diesel truck fleet in California. It started at the Port of Oakland and the Southern California ports as well, and it's going to move statewide over the coming years. You could almost call this the decade of diesel control coming up, and a really strong focus now on controlling diesel emissions in California.

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Transportation Nation

Severe Weather Events Continue to Cost US: Big $$ to Alabama, Vermont, NY, NJ

Monday, January 09, 2012

Upstate New York roads, as viewed by helicopter (photo by Karen DeWitt/NYS Public Radio/WXXI)

Severe weather events in 2011 -- the worst in history according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- continue to cost the U.S. big bucks.

Tranportation Nation has reported on the costs of climate change, now the U.S. DOT is announcing it's releasing some $1.6 billion  to 30 states.  Vermont, devastated by Hurricane Irene will get $125.6 million, North Dakota $89.1 million for severe flooding, and both New York and New Jersey are getting close to $90  million each.

Full release and list of grantees follow:

U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Announces Close to $1.6 Billion in Funding for Repairs to Damaged Roads and Bridges Supplemental Funding from Congress Makes Reimbursement Possible

WASHINGTON - U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced nearly $1.6 billion to states and territories across the nation to help cover the costs of repairing roads and bridges damaged by a variety of natural disasters.

“Communities from coast to coast are still recovering from disasters that have affected the roads they use, their homes and businesses,” said Secretary LaHood. “The Obama Administration stands ready to provide emergency relief and reimburse these communities for the work that has been done to restore their critical transportation needs.”

Funding from the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Emergency Relief Program was provided by the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012.  FHWA will provide a total of $1.58 billion to 30 states, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and federal land management agencies to reimburse them for repairs to roads and bridges caused by storms, flooding, hurricanes and other natural and catastrophic disasters.

“States and communities can rely on the federal government during these critical times,” said FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez.  “When disaster strikes, the Department will do all it can to provide help to the affected areas.”

Vermont, hard hit by Hurricane Irene, will receive $125.6 million; North Dakota will receive $89.1 million for the Devils Lake Basin for damage caused by Spring 2011 runoff; and Iowa will receive $37.5 million to repair damage caused by the May 2011 Missouri River flooding.  A complete list of states and funding amounts is listed below.

This money will reimburse states for fixing or replacing highways, bridges and other roadway structures. Costs associated with detours, debris removal and other immediate measures necessary to restore traffic flow in impacted areas are also eligible for reimbursement.

For a state-by-state breakdown click here (http://www.dot.gov/affairs/2012/fhwa0212.html).

 

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Transportation Nation

Houston Starts Small As It Tries Out First-Ever Bike Share

Friday, January 06, 2012

B-Cycle Runs Denver and San Antonio Bike Shares (Photo: Andrea Bernstein)

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  A city that loves to drive is taking its first step toward setting up a bike share program. Starting this spring, people in downtown Houston will be able to use  solar-powered kiosks to check out bikes for short trips.

The city has given a $105,000 contract to B-Cycle to operate the program.

The program is starting on a small scale, in what officials term as a "demonstration" of the technology. There will be a total of 18 bikes and three kiosks, located within blocks of each other at three downtown locations. One will be at the convention center, another at the main public library, and a third kiosk will be located at Market Square park. Users of the system can register on a website or at the kiosk themselves.

Ray Cruz with Houston's Fleet Management Department says over the next year they'll gauge the public's interest in the program, as well as how it should be set up on a wider scale. "Obviously the city of Houston's footprint is huge, and to satisfy our needs we have to take into account how it would be received." If the program expands in the future, the city will have to set up individual systems for different neighborhoods, considering Houston's sprawling geographical area. Officials are also talking about setting up kiosks near the city's expanding light rail lines.

Houston is listed as a non-attainment area by the EPA in terms of air quality, and the heavily car-dependent city has been looking at bike sharing for the past couple of years as a way to reduce vehicle emissions. The pilot program is modeled after San Antonio's bike share, which currently has 20 kiosks at popular destinations. The Wisconsin company that installed San Antonio's system, B-Cycle LLC, will also install the Houston system.

The Houston City Council has approved a $105,000 contract to get things up and running. Each bike cost a little under $1000 and the kiosks cost about $10,000. The project is funded through an EPA climate showcase grant and will be operated through a partnership with the city and the nonprofit group Bike Houston. A local bike shop has volunteered to maintain the bikes at no cost for a year.

Cruz says response to the bike share pilot program has been positive so far. The city has been working to develop an extensive bikeway network, which now totals about 460 miles. Also figures from 2011 show a big jump in the number of Houstonians who ride their bikes to work.

The city is currently working on a website where people can sign up for the program.

New York and Chicago are expected to launch their bike share programs this summer.

 

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Backstory: Saving the Sturgeon

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Atlantic sturgeon has been around for more than 85 million years, but years of overfishing, habitat loss, and warming ocean temperatures have pushed the species to the brink of extinction. OnEarth contributing editor Bruce Stutz talks about the efforts to save the sturgeon.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Thoughtful Response to Environmental Crises

Monday, January 02, 2012

Small Planet Institute co-founders, Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, argue that it isn't physical challenges like climate change that threten us the most, but how we think about them. Frances, author of Diet for a Small Planet, also discusses her new book EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want

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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW MONTANA: Oil Boom in Canada Brings Megaloads South of the Border

Friday, December 30, 2011

A megaload moves through Montana (photo by Jackie Yamanaka/YPR)

(Billings, MT-YPR) The oil boom in Canada’s Tar Sands field and an oil refinery upgrade brought megaloads--huge shipments of drilling equipment-- across Western roads and interstate highways in 2011.

Opponents argue this equipment supports a dirty tar sands oil industry, will destroy public infrastructure, and disrupt scenic and wild landscapes. Proponents counter the megaloads will boost the economy. They add that until consumers no longer drive vehicles or use petroleum-based products, it's better to buy oil from friendly countries like Canada than from the Middle East.

Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil are seeking permission to move several hundred loads of large processing equipment from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, through Idaho and neighboring Washington and Montana, to its final destination – the Kearl oil sands in Alberta, Canada.

Earlier this month, the Idaho Transportation Department temporarily suspended shipments of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil refinery equipment following a collision with a vehicle. There were no injuries.

Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) Director Timothy Reardon recently gave an update on the Kearl transport project to the interim Revenue and Transportation Legislative Committee (RTC).

Conservation groups and others are fighting movement of the oil sands processing equipment.  Opponents argue MDT should have conducted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) rather than an Environmental Assessment (EA) in issuing permits to the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil loads. In Montana, a state district judge granted a preliminary injunction halting the loads earlier this year. District Judge Ray Dayton later modified his order when Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil proposed smaller load sizes, and set a January 6, 2012 hearing date for arguments on a permanent injunction sought by opponents. Reardon, who has been MDT’s lead attorney before being promoted to director in August, expects the judge will instead request a trial for a full hearing on the matter.

Originally, the loads were up to 30 feet tall and weighed more than 500,000 pounds. Because of the size and weight, the companies were seeking to move the loads at night on two-lane roads. Now the companies have basically cut those loads in half and have been traveling on the interstate.

“They’ve moved 80 so far on the interstate and they’ve done so without incident (in Montana),” Reardon told lawmakers during December’s RTC hearing. “One of the distinctions about using the interstate route that has become apparent is with half-size loads on the interstate, most vehicles can travel 55-60 MPH.”

He adds traveling on the interstate means the passing lane is free for other vehicles to get around the loads.

Reardon told lawmakers the companies have submitted an application to move 300 oversize loads via I-90 and I-15.

A legislator had asked MDT if the state agency had adequately assessed state bridges to make sure they could handle megaloads. Reardon says during the state’s EA of the Kearl Transportation Project, the agency’s engineers “used their best judgment based on the information at hand to determine that the bridges on the proposed route were sufficient.”

Reardon told lawmakers that after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, Montana began an aggressive program to inspect all of its bridges. “They’ve all been found to be structurally safe as far as this route (the Kearl transportation project) is concerned. Our engineers tell me they do not believe there is a risk.”

“They get paid to make decisions about building bridges and telling us if they think they are going to fail when they get a heavy load on it,” Reardon says. “And so far, they tell me those bridges are sound.”

Reardon says at this point, however, none of the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil loads have moved any of its loads on any of those bridges.

Another megaload shipment that received attention in Montana in 2011 was a proposal by ConocoPhillips to move four coke drum shipments from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho to the company’s oil refinery in Billings.

Protesters met the ConocoPhillips megaloads in February as crews traveled down a Missoula street.  It was the only Montana community to hold a protest rally.

The ConocoPhillips megaload moving through a Helena intersection in February 2011

In Helena, a few onlookers watched. At the final destination in Billings, crews were greeted with coffee and donuts in April.

Because of the size, the loads were split into two. The final load arrived at ConocoPhillips refinery in August. The final shipment was delayed by several weeks because of spring flooding across portions of Central and south central Montana.

 

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Plastic Ocean

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Captain Charles Moore, environmentalist and researcher, talks about discovering of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the summer of 1997, when he was sailing from Honolulu to California. In Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Ocean Moore looks at the secret life and hidden properties of plastics—from milk jugs to polymer molecules small enough to penetrate human skin or be unknowingly inhaled.

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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW HOUSTON: Light Rail Funding, A New Beltway, and Red Light Cameras

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Guests sign a commemorative document as Houston receives its first-ever federal funds for light rail construction. Photo by Gail Delaughter/KUHF

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  On the plus side for Houston's year in transportation: a light rail project received its first-ever federal funding, an ambitious highway project broke ground, bicycle commuting is up, and the Port of Houston is doing brisk business. The flip side: over 30,000 homes in Houston have no cars and no access to buses, trains, or park and rides, and an expensive legal battle continues to wage over the city's now-defunct red light cameras.

After earlier controversy over violations of the government’s “Buy America” provisions, Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority secured its first-ever federal funding for light rail construction. Metro is getting close to a billion dollars. The money will pay for the northbound extension of the Red Line, currently Houston’s only line in operation, as well as a new line from downtown to the southeast section of the city. Metro CEO George Greanias said the funding agreement shows Metro “is serious about transit and will be a good partner, and is somebody worth investing in.”

The legal squabble continues over Houston’s red light cameras.  Houston residents voted to do away with the cameras, but the company that operates the devices sued for breach of contract.  American Traffic Solutions says it’s owed 25 million dollars, while the city disputes that amount.  Proponents of the devices said the technology saved lives by deterring would-be red light runners, while opponents argued the cameras increased the number of rear-end collisions and were more about making money than about safety.

Houston-area officials gathered in September to break ground for a new segment of State Highway 99, also known as the Grand Parkway.  When completed, the 170-mile roadway will be the third loop around the city and will pass through seven counties.  The project moves forward despite protests from the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which fears the project will harm ecologically-sensitive grasslands.

Business is strong at the Port of Houston.  A recent study shows the port has a $118 billion economic impact in Texas.  There’s also state and local sales tax revenues, pegged at close to $4 billion.  Port officials say tonnage is up, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of steel pipe that’s coming in for increased drilling activity.  The Port of Houston now wants to upgrade facilities to handle larger ships that will come into the Gulf of Mexico after the widening of the Panama Canal.

In a heavily car-dependent city, Houston cycling activists are encouraging people to try pedal power to get around.  Figures from the League of American Bicyclists show a 62 percent increase in the number of bike commuters. The idea of cycling to work isn’t always an easy sell in a city known for its extreme summer heat, but Houston’s Bicyclist-Pedestrian Coordinator is touting the benefits of leaving the car in the garage.

Honda cars and pickup trucks continue to top Houston’s list of most-stolen vehicles.  The Houston Police Department says Hondas are popular with thieves eyeing vehicles for street racing.  Auto theft investigators say the stolen pickups are frequently taken to the Mexican border where they’re used for drug running and immigrant smuggling.

Houston was near the top of a list of cities with large numbers of no car/no transit households. According to a Brookings Institution study, over 30,000 homes in the city lack vehicles and access to buses, trains, or park and rides. The author of the study said increasing numbers of low income families are moving from the city out to the suburbs,  and in cities like Houston these can be quite isolated areas, almost ‘transit deserts.”

Read about our other year in review posts here.

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The Takeaway

EU Court to Rule on Carbon Emissions

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Wednesday, the European Union's highest court will rule on a lawsuit filed two years ago by two U.S. airlines and a industry trade association attempting to halt the E.U.'s plan to charge for carbon emissions pollution. It would include the industry in the worldwide cap and trade market. If the court decides to uphold the 2008 European law, on January 1, airlines will be forced to reduce their carbon emissions to an historic low, or buy emission credits from companies that pollute less than the base rate.  

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Transportation Nation

Newt Gingrich: Rail Visionary, Lover of Oil

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Former speaker Newt Gingrich. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Flickr.

It’s hard to know for sure how former House Speaker New Gingrich might handle transportation as President. Of his Republican rivals who’ve been governor you can easily paint portraits of the metro-friendly moderate or the big-thinking privatizer. But Gingrich has never overseen a department of transportation, never appointed a transportation commissioner, never signed off on (or killed) a major project.

His Congressional record isn't terribly helpful. In the House, Gingrich didn’t seem focused on mobility issues. An analysis of his track record on Project Votesmart reveals that Gingrich did not cast a vote on many of the key transportation bills in the 1990s, including the 1998 TEA-21 reauthorization bill, which succeeded by a large margin. Newt’s famous Contract with America didn’t deal with bridges or trains or roads (the “Taking Back our Streets Act” dealt with crime) and the summary of legislative proposals that make up his newer-fangled "21st Century Contract with America" never mentions “transportation” or “infrastructure” (aside from military infrastructure).

So all we have is his rhetoric. And in that, Gingrich has had his bold moments, though. In 2007, in the months following the publication of his book A Contract with the Earth, when he was filming public service announcements with Nancy Pelosi, Gingrich was talking up “common sense environmentalism” and a green jobs revolution, dreaming of a “Hydrogen car, or a car that would get 1,000 miles to a gallon of petroleum.” He suggested offering cash prizes of a tax-free billion dollars to attract “lots of inventors other than auto companies in Detroit.” He beamed thinking about a composite materials car made in America, or a hydrogen engine made in America.

“If you look at the amount we spent to maintain military capability in the Persian Gulf,” he said, “if you had spent the same amount to create a revolution in energy, we’d almost certainly be deeply into a hydrogen economy by now.”

Gingrich has consistently been in favor of private companies doing technologically cool things for the health of America (and for profit). In his book, Real Change, he included a chapter endorsing improved rail and more modernized airports. “As the leading economy in the world,” he wrote, “America should have the best air and rail transportation in the world, but we don’t.”

Why not? Because of unions, Gingrich believes. “Unfortunately, the air traffic controller union understands that a twenty-first-century space-based air traffic control system would reduce the importance and number of air traffic controllers.” And the three reasons America hasn’t seen the kind of high-speed rail investment one saw in France, Japan, and China? “Union work rules make it impossible,” for one, Gingrich writes. For another, "regulations and litigation involved in large-scale construction...has become time consuming and expensive.” And third: “pork barrel politicians waste money subsidizing absurdly uneconomic routes.”

Gingrich identified the three corridors he believed were “very conducive to this kind of high-speed train investment,” and they may sound familiar: a system between Boston and Washington, from San Diego to San Francisco, and from Miami to Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

“I support—and I’m confident that most Americans support—a twenty-first-century rail system that is privately built, run efficiently, and capable of earning its own way,” Gingrich wrote, allowing that this “might even require an initial program of tax incentives or other help (just as the transcontinental railroad did). But it just makes sense that we the people of the United States should have a railroad system that works for us, and not for the Amtrak bureaucracy and their unions.” For non-high-speed corridors, he suggested turning the rail lines over to the states.

In 2009, Gingrich held forth with his former colleague Dick Gephardt at an event sponsored by Building America's Future and the National Governors Association (video via Streetsblog). He spoke in favor of user fees over taxes, and privatization over government bureaucracies, but agreed with BAF co-founder (and former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania) Ed Rendell that America needed a capital budget. "No American thinks they buy houses on annual appropriations," he said. He asserted that the American public understood capital investment, that we were being held back by an unimaginative government, and that we needed a program of "very large megaprojects that arouse the nation" -- specifically faster rail lines.

But as Matt Yglesias noted in May of this year, within 24 hours of announcing his candidacy, Gingrich went on the radio to defend oil companies, railing against the “anti-energy, anti-American” ideas of the far left, who “don’t understand how the real world works.”

“Liberals don’t like us liking bigger vehicles, so they want to find a way to punish us economically,” Gingrich said, accusing Obama of schadenfreude over higher gas prices. “Hit our pocketbook, make us change, because they’d like all of us to live in big cities in high rises, taking mass transit.”

One might perceive in Newt’s pro-oil posture a bit of political practicality. When selling books and not soliciting votes, he’s shown a greater imagination for an America that lives and works differently. Sometimes his imagination has run rather wild, as when he became enamored with the idea of giant space mirrors that could distribute sunlight to prevent darkness, lower crime, prevent frosts in agricultural areas -- and light the interstate highways.

Those in the transportation business seem to be likewise unsure of where Gingrich’s heart lies. Open Secrets shows that Newt has raised a paltry $19,450 from identifiable transportation-sector contributors this year. That’s just 4% of the $485,000 Romney has raised from the industry, a quarter of the haul won by Ron Paul, and $2,000 less than Rick Santorum received.

More candidate analysis: Mitt Romney: Metro-Friendly Moderate?, Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor Problem.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Carrot City

Monday, December 19, 2011

Joe Nasr, Co-author of Carrot City, takes an in-depth look at the growing number of urban farms, gardens, and parks around the world. He’s joined by Eli Zabar, who tells us about the vegetables he grows in the greenhouses situated on the roof of his marketplace, The Vinegar Factory, and Annie Novak, co-founder of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn.

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Transportation Nation

NY & NJ Port Authority Chief Expects Transpo Building Push Once World Trade Center Is Done

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Patrick Foye, head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (image courtesy of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's office)

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s new executive director said he’s been thinking about the “peace dividend” he expects once 1 World Trade Center is completed in 2013 – when the authority will be able to turn its energies toward “tens of billions” in overdue transportation infrastructure overhauls.

Pat Foye delivered the keynote speech for a conference about globalization and the New York State economy. The event was held in Manhattan at the SUNY Levin Institute, which is named after Neil Levin, the former Port Authority chief executive who died at the World Trade Center on September 11.

Anticipating a building push, Foye criticized the environmental review process that big building projects must pass through in the New York City region. “There’s no field of human endeavor that benefits from a 10-year study," he said. “We can do this quicker and cheaper and have greater certainty in the process.”

Foye sat down for a Q & A after speaking at the conference.

What did you mean by the “World Trade Center peace dividend?”

1 World Trade Center is 50 percent leased, which is terrific. The building is on track to be finished at the end of 2013. It’ll be open to tenants in the first quarter of 2014. The Port Authority has commitments it made to the World Trade Center site and to Downtown Manhattan in general. Once those commitments have been met, the Port Authority will be able to take funds and increasingly focus them on airports and ports and the PATH train and bridges and tunnels—the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, the Staten Island bridges—all the incredibly important infrastructure that help drive the economy of the region.

We’ll be refocusing on the Port Authority’s core mission, which is critical transportation infrastructure that serves both states. That’s what the future looks like.

Your predecessor, Chris Ward, said the recent toll and fare hikes were not enough to do what the Port Authority needs to do while finishing the World Trade Center. Are you facing hard choices about delaying or canceling critical infrastructure projects?

Life’s about hard choices, whether you’re sitting at your kitchen table with your spouse or whether you’re in business or a big governmental entity like the MTA or the Port Authority.

I’m probably the wrong guy to ask because I’m an MTA board member and, a year ago, I voted against the MTA fare increase because I thought voting against it was the right thing to do.

But I think the toll increase was the right thing to do for the Port Authority at the time. I personally would not be advocating—and I’m not advocating—for higher toll levels now. I think that given the economy, that would not be an appropriate thing to do. And I know it’s not something that either Governor Christie or Governor Cuomo would support. It’s something the Board of Commissioners would not support.

So I think the toll and fare increase, which was a painful decision made in August, was at the right level.

How would you streamline the environmental review process for large building projects? Would you have less reviews, tighter deadlines?

Look, everybody is committed to environmental protection. I’ve got three daughters. I care a lot about the water I drink, my wife drinks, my neighbors drink. I feel the same way about the air we breathe and chemicals in the soil. That’s a given.

The question is, with unmet transportation needs in the hundreds of billions and unemployment as high as it is, isn’t there a way to shorten the process without compromising the environment?

I believe there is. I think President Obama, a president with a terrific environmental record, led the way on the Tappan Zee Bridge when he gave Governor Cuomo a waiver of the NEPA process. It’s one of only 14 projects in the country to get that waiver.

[NOTE: The Tappan Zee Bridge connects New York’s Rockland and Westchester Counties, accommodates 135,000 vehicles each weekday and is in constant need of repairs. An expedited federal review is supposed to speed construction of a replacement bridge by coordinating the permitting process.]

How does the state’s new infrastructure bank work and how will it affect the Port Authority?

The state and region’s transportation infrastructure needs can be measured in hundreds of billions of dollars. State and government budgets everywhere are under pressure. Taxpayers have reached the limit of their ability to give more.

The infrastructure bank is designed to come up with menu of projects: the Tappan Zee Bridge, perhaps the Central Terminal Building at LaGuardia Airport, which is a Port Authority asset, perhaps the MTA’s East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway projects.

The bank would then combine the state and Port Authority together with sources of private capital: public unions, private pension plans, corporate pension plans, institutional investors. The state would not pay a fee but would co-invest, if you will.

Why is it needed?

We have an economic crisis. And I think people have generally have lost some confidence in the ability of Washington to address these concerns. We need to do something and we need to do it now.

The state has the projects and the expertise but doesn’t have the ability to borrow at those levels.

The governor has been very public about the importance of fixing the Tappan Zee Bridge, which is an incredibly important asset for the entire region. The state infrastructure fund will be looking at the Tappan Zee as among the first projects that it considers.

Is it like bonds in that investors can expect a set rate of return?

The infrastructure fund will afford investors the opportunity to invest in debt, perhaps subordinated debt, preferred equity, common equity or a common equity equivalent.

Every project is different. It’s got its own history, its own needs from a financing point of view. One of the advantages of the Tappan Zee Bridge, for instance, is it has a whole history of toll collection, and that can be plotted. That gives comfort and assurance to investors.

Projects with toll or fare revenue, that will help the financing get done.

(Some of the answers in this interview have been condensed.)

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Transportation Nation

D.C. Pedicabbers Say Park Police Still Targeting Them

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

(Courtesy John Jacks)

(Washington, D.C. - Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) D.C. pedicab operators have been complaining of hostile treatment from police around the National Mall for much of the year. Although business slows down as the weather gets colder, some pedicab drivers say unpleasant interactions with police are again heating up.

Pedicab operators in the District started complaining of a police crackdown on their industry in the spring. Brian Graber, who's been operating a pedicab for three years now, says the U.S. Park Police force-- which has jurisdiction over the National Mall -- was enforcing rules before, but something has changed.

"This year, it started getting ferocious, if you will," Graber says. "I don't know what happened."

Oskar Mosco says he thought things would calm down once the National Park Service contract with Tourmobile ended in October, since many confrontations with police have centered on pedicabs picking up customers in designated Tourmobile pickup locations. But in the past couple of weeks, he says he's seen an increase in hostile attitudes from some officers.

"The same officers are coming up," he says. "We talk about getting badge numbers, to have some accountability."

The Park Police did not respond to requests for comment. The National Park Service has said it is drafting revised regulations for pedicab operation around the mall.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is drafting a letter to the National Park Service this week, urging Park Service officials to involve pedicab operators as they formulate the plan.

Norton says tension between police and pedicab operators should be resolved with a simple sit-down meeting, but she also says revamping the transportation plan for the National Mall goes beyond resolving conflicts between pedicab operators, the Park Police and the Park Service.

"Are we going to have multi-modal, green transportation on the mall?" asks Norton. "Or are we going to have monopoly transportation? That's the kind of issue the public needs to weigh in on. I'm hoping the Park Service understands that."

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WNYC News

EPA To Unveil Stricter Rules For Power Plants

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The rules, which come two decades after Congress ordered the agency to regulate toxic air pollution, would give power plants nationwide just three more years to slash mercury and other harmful emissions. But some big power plants are angling for more time.

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WNYC News

Canada Exits Kyoto Climate Agreement

Monday, December 12, 2011

Canada is withdrawing from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol agreement on climate change, with Environment Minister Peter Kent arguing that the framework doesn't represent the way forward for Canada or the world.

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