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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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Transportation Nation

States Seeking Enviro Friendly De-icers To Prevent Corrosion

Monday, December 12, 2011

Approach to a Billings, MT overpass

(Billings, MT – YPR) – The Montana Department of Transportation uses a “green” anti-corrosion inhibitor in its liquid chemical road de-icer.

The state agency recently awarded a one-year contract to Rivertop Renewables  of Missoula, MT to provide about 110,000 gallons of  corn-sugar to mix with its salt brine de-icer.

“Essentially MDT will put sugar and salt on our roads to keep winter drivers safe and our state’s economy flowing, while protecting infrastructure investments and our environment,” says Rivertop President Jere Kolstad in a press release.

Dr. Dave Wilkening is the company’s manager of corrosion sciences.  He says he’s been working to develop an inhibitor that’s bio-based and bio-degradable.  Wilkening says he grew up in the Midwest, “and have vivid memories of cars with holes in the floor boards and fester rusted off” from either road salt or liquid de-icers sprayed on the roads during the winter.

He says the alternative – phospate-based corrosion inhibitors – aren’t environmentally friendly and are being phased out at the request of state transportation departments.

Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and the Canadian province British Columbia joined together several years ago to develop specifications for the chemicals used to combat snow and ice on roadways. The group is known as the Pacific Northwest Snowfighters Association. According to its website, it was formed to evaluate and establish specifications “for products used in winter maintenance that emphasize safety, environmental preservation, infrastructure protection, cost-effectiveness and performance.”

Montana Department of Transportation snow plow at the Billings Field office

MDT winter maintenance specialist Justun Juelfs is a member of the committee. He says bio-inhibitors are a fairly new product in the market. He says Montana has been producing a liquid salt brine de-icer for the past 5 years, “So we asked the industry to develop a product that meets or exceeds our corrosion protection standard.”

Juelfs says using a “green” corrosion inhibitor is not new to MDT. “Essentially the product that we’re using this year, that was sourced through Rivertop, is essentially the same active ingredient that we’ve been using for years in the past.”

Juelfs says while Rivertop Renewables is a Montana-based company, that fact did not lead to any special preference. He says every bidder has to abide by the same rules. “Rivertop was the successful bidder based on low bid,” he says.

Juelfs says the company was awarded a one-year contract for its anti-corrosion inhibitor and that was done purposely.

“We have more and more players at the table each year,” he says. “So multiple year contracts would discourage future competition. And until salt brine corrosion inhibitor becomes more readily available and there’s additional vendors willing to supply that, we just stick with an annual contract because at this point it is in the state’s best interest to do so.”

Juelfs says Montana doesn’t require vendors for an anti-corrosion additive to be bio-based, but he says the state has stringent environmental requirements. For example, he says the state tests for heavy metals, Ph, and the biological oxygen demands, “so we know we’re not impacting the adjacent streams and rivers to our highways.”

“I think the positive effect is we’re able to provide an adequate level of service and provide safety to the traveling public,” Juelfs says. “That’s certainly on the forefront and has to be balanced with environmental stewardship, as well.”

Rivertop’s Dave Wilkening says the industry is responding to the needs of the pacific northwest states. He hopes it spread. “The trend in the industry,” he says, “is to do when possible ‘green chemistry.’ There’s a lot of momentum behind that.”

Wilkening says the East coast and Midwestern states that use a lot of solid salt are beginning to adopt liquid de-icers, but still haven’t fully embraced anti-corrosion inhibitors.

“But there’s a growing understanding that corrosion is a large expense,” Wilkening says. “For example, a bridge deck costs multi-millions of dollars. So if you can reduce that by reducing the corrosive effects of de-icing salts you’ve saved the taxpayers millions of dollars in replacement fees just by increasing the service life of bridge decks, equipment, guard rails, signage.”

Wilkening says while that might be hard to quantify because of the long-term effect, there’s a growing awareness that you need to consider those things in the overall costs of a road maintenance program.

 

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WNYC News

Climate Strategists: To Cut Emissions, Focus On Forests

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The basic idea is to have rich countries that emit lots of climate-warming gases pay poorer countries to keep their forests, or even expand them. That's because forests suck carbon from the atmosphere. But there's not yet a global system to make a plan like this work.

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The Takeaway

EPA Says Fracking May Cause Pollution

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that fracking may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution. The controversial method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells has been a source of debate across the country. The E.P.A. found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised them not to drink their water after the E.P.A. found low levels hydrocarbons in their wells.

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WNYC News

EPA Report Links Fracking To Water Pollution

Thursday, December 08, 2011

This is the first time the EPA has linked fracking to the contamination of drinking water and it could have great implications for future gas drilling in the U.S.

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Transportation Nation

STUDY: 5 Million Electric Cars Will Power Homes, Grid by 2017

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Nissan Leaf charging (Photo (cc) Washington State DOT via Flickr)

The number of electric vehicles able to power buildings and feed the power grid will grow from 100,000 today, to more than 5 million in 2017, according to a new study by Pike Research, a market research firm for the clean technology industry.

The prospect of a power grid made more stable and efficient by millions of EVs connected to homes, and thus the power grid has been a much vaunted secondary benefit of widespread adoption of electric cars. So far it's not even close to happening. But, the researchers predict, it will by the middle of the next decade after continued exponential EV adoption, especially in commercial fleets.

As of now there has been exactly one commercial test project of V2G possibilities. That was headed by the University of Delaware and PJM Interconnection, and it concluded in 2010 (PDF report). The data from that project will shape future plans for commercialization, Pike research predicts.

There are a few obstacles and disincentives for utilities to connect cars to the power grid, according to the report. One hitch to growth right now is that one Nissan Leaf on a block is not enough to interest a power company in building out vehicle-to-grid connections in an area. There needs to be a cluster of EVs close enough to each other to tempt a utility. Fleet vehicles, like these electric delivery trucks, are the best candidates for a cluster of battery power storage the researchers posit.

While EVs could take on excess power from utilities, something they certainly want, utilities could potentially lose money on power served to homes with vehicle to grid capacity. If car batteries are able to take and store the cheaper power offered in off hours, the car itself could be a cheaper power source for a home or business during the expensive peak daytime hours.

Just how an electric car, a home, and the power grid will all interact is still far from sorted out. "Vehicles will compete with traditional generation sources as well as with emerging technologies, such as stationary battery storage," according to the report. What might turn out a more popular relationship between the next generation of car and power grid is for the car to help the grid more than the power the home it is connected to. Utilities and automakers are both keen on using EVs for frequency regulation, accepting more power for a faster charge when more power is available, and taking less when demand is straining the overall grid. ECOtality, an EV charger company, announced today a plan to use cars on their charging systems to help Maryland utility, Silver Spring Power Co. regulate their supply and demand through a smart-grid EV connection that shifts EV charging to off-peak hours if needed.

Finally, the report authors note that carmakers don't benefit from selling an electric car that can give back to the grid as compared to a car that can just charge up as normal. So until consumers clamor for that extra service, the feature is likely to be limited to costly retrofits or special orders, rather than standard with all new EVs, further limiting adoption.

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Transportation Nation

East Harlem Bike Lanes: "Change is Scary"

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

 

NYC DOT's Joshua Benson, presenting the city's plans for bike lanes in East Harlem (photo by Kate Hinds)

In a long and often contentious public hearing Tuesday night, Manhattan's Community Board 11 revisited arguments for and against a pair of proposed bike lanes on First and Second Avenues.

CB11 had voted overwhelmingly to support the lanes, which would run from 96th Street to 125th Street, earlier this fall. And the city had said they'd begin construction in the spring of 2012. But that schedule was thrown into doubt last month when the board voted to rescind their support of the lanes after local business owners protested.

So on Tuesday night, the New York City Department of Transportation made their sixth visit to CB11 to made the case for the lanes once again. They showed a PowerPoint of the street redesign, talked about its benefits, and pledged to work closely with business owners and other community members to address concerns.

And concerns were plentiful. Business owners, like Frank Brija, who owns Patsy's Pizzeria and is also a member of CB11, said he was a bike rider himself and liked bike lanes in general--just not on his street. "I'm here to say, why can't we just compromise," he said. "First Avenue we know is like a next highway to the FDR Drive. When there's traffic there, it becomes so congested." He suggested that the bike lanes be relocated to Pleasant Avenue or Paladino Avenue.

Erik Mayor, another CB11 member and the owner of Milk Burger, agreed with Brija."The people who drive up First Avenue don't live here," he said. "And it's not realistic to think that people are going to ride their bike to work, when most people live in the Bronx." He said the lanes would increase traffic and pollution, and that the DOT's rationale for installing protected bike lanes in the neighborhood was flawed. "What works in Denmark, or Colombia, or Bogota, that's not El Barrio. That's not East Harlem. That's not Spanish Harlem."

But they were in the minority. During the public comment session, person after person got up to speak in favor of the lanes. Members of Community Board 7 on Manhattan's Upper West Side -- which recently unveiled data on its own year-old bike lane -- were on hand to assuage fears. "We had a debate on our board which was very similar to what you're currently experiencing," said CB7's Ken Coughlin.

"I'm here to tell you that now we have more than a year of experience, all these concerns are basically groundless." He told the group that Columbus Avenue had seen reductions in injuries, speeding cars and double parking since that lane's installation. "Change can be difficult, but what we got for our change was a safer street, a more livable street, a more functional street for everyone, and, I think, a more beautiful street."

One by one, public health officials, doctors, local activists, mothers with small children, and even school students stood up to speak in favor of the lanes. One of the supporters, Raphael Benavides, said: "The new proposed configuration is a win/win for everyone involved. It is safer--just look at the numbers. It is healthier, it is good for the environment...and it is good for business." He said the lanes would bring more people to East Harlem. "Cyclists are explorers. They will come to our community. And I am a business owner, so I do have a vested interest in this endeavor."

At several points people spoke over each other and at times the discussion got heated enough that a board member intervened to smooth over hurt feelings. One CB11 member, Yma Rodriguez, said she was insulted by the implication that bike lane supporters had been brainwashed by the city. "That the DOT would get us all together to conspire...could you not believe that we have minds of our owns, that we also have opinions, that we also have concerns that are legitimate?"

Brija and Mayor left before the meeting was over. At the end of the evening, one of the last members of the public to speak, local resident Diego Quiñones, surveyed the room and summed up the events of the evening:  "Wow, change is scary, huh?"

Matthew Washington, the chair of CB11, said afterward that the board would formally revisit the lanes at the committee level in January. "We have to mold this proposal, as it's been molded already, to get to that ultimate point where all people feel that issues have been addressed," he said.

 

 

 

 

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Transportation Nation

New Poll Shows California Voters Would Kill High Speed Rail Funding

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A rendering of California's high-speed rail (image courtesy of California High-Speed Rail Authority)

High-speed rail in California is taking a beating. A Field Poll released today shows that 64% of California voters want a re-vote on the project, and that 59% of those voters would now oppose funding the project.

A revised business plan released by the California High-Speed Rail Authority in November projects costs for the rail system of almost $100 billion dollars—three times the total amount put before voters in 2008 when they approved a $9 billion bond measure to finance the project.

The poll shows that awareness about the bullet train is high in the state—77% of registered voters across party lines say they’ve heard of or read about the project. Opposition to the project is higher among Republicans, 73% of whom would now vote to kill funding -- as opposed to 49% of Democrats.

The timing of this poll comes just days after the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a scathing report, calling the funding strategies in the new business plan “highly speculative” and adding that “…it is highly uncertain if funding to complete the high-speed rail system will ever materialize.”

In November, Congress voted to zero out federal funding for high-speed rail for the next year.

Currently California has secured only $6 billion for the project—a combination of federal stimulus funds and the state bond money that voters would now take back if given the chance.

That $6 billion would be enough to build 130 miles of track between Merced and Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley, but not enough to connect that track to either San Francisco or Los Angeles.  Another problem is that the 130-mile track wouldn’t be able to carry high-speed trains until additional segments were built. The Rail Authority says that the new tracks could be used for existing Amtrak service, but, according to the LAO report, this causes a new problem. Without the fast trains, starting rail construction might actually be illegal, as the bond funds from the state are intended for high-speed rail.

The new business plan lays out a variety of possible funding sources, including tax credit bonds and a federal high-speed rail trust fund. But none of that money has been secured. The Rail Authority has talked consistently about private sector investment, but that money wouldn’t come until the trains were operating and showing a profit.

In California, high-speed rail has Governor Jerry Brown’s support. The business plan is in a public comment period until Dec. 31, 2011. It goes before the California Legislature in January.

 

 

 

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Thoughtful Response to Environmental Crises

Monday, December 05, 2011

Small Planet Institute co-founders, Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, argue that it isn't physical challenges like climate change that threaten 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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The Takeaway

Texas Experiences Worst Drought on Record

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Texas is in the middle of the worst drought on record in the state's history. Farm crops have been hit hard, and valuable grazing land has dried out, leading to heavy losses in the state’s valuable cattle industry. In total, Texas has suffered more than $5 billion in agricultural losses since the drought began.

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Transportation Nation

Extreme Weather Events in 2011 Costing Federal Highway Officials Hundreds of Millions

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Spring 2011 floods damaged a bridge in Ryegate, Montana (photo by MontanaTom1950 via Flickr)

(Billings, MT-YPR) When  U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will provide more than $215 million in aid for storm-ravaged roads and bridges, the press release only hinted at the damage caused this year by extreme weather events:  tornadoes, hurricanes, record heat, and flooding.

In Montana alone, record snowfall, mountain snowpack, and spring rains meant an historic flood year. In mid-September, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials had identified nearly 1,500 public infrastructure projects, totaling nearly $50 million.

2011 is emerging as a record year for disasters. According to the Pew Center's stateline.org, about 39 states are awaiting money to repair storm damaged roads, bridges and other public infrastructure. Some of that request was to the FHWA, for which Congress allocates up to $100 million a year.

(For a related story on climate change and transit costs, click here.)

“Communities suffering from disasters have been hard at work restoring vital transportation links so people can resume daily activities soon as possible,” says LaHood. “They did their part, and now it’s our turn to give the states the money they were promised to help pay for that work.”

Lynn Zanto of the Montana Department of Transportation estimated costs to the state from this spring’s flooding at $36 million. The state’s reimbursement from FHWA, which will help repair bridges and roads, is just over $2.56 million.

“Although this may seem like a small amount compared to our overall costs, we’re still very appreciative to our (Congressional) delegation, (and) Secretary LaHood,” Zanto said in a press release. “We do our best to make every dollar count and we’ll keep our fingers crossed and remain hopeful that we’ll see future reimbursements to help mitigate the impacts from the spring floods.”

Those projects would have to initially be paid for by local governments; reimbursement requests would be submitted to FEMA. The FHWA emergency relief money is only to repair or rebuild federal-aid highways and or roads located on federal land.

MDT’s Lynn Zanto says the agency worked quickly to restore the flow of traffic to flood damaged roads and bridges. She says this includes a South Central Montana bridge off of Interstate 94 that was damaged by flooding.

She says funding for that work came from the agency’s program fund that would otherwise pay for planned highway projects, which were put on temporary hold.

Of the $215 million in federal aid, California received the largest amount at $43 million. North Dakota follows at $31.5 million, and Vermont will receive just over $15 million.

The allocation is the second this year for the Federal Highway Administration, which also distributed $319 million for aid in April.   But those disbursements don’t match 2006 and 2007 disbursements for Hurricane Katrina damage.

Also extremely expensive for the FWHA: 2004 and 2005 disbursements for California, which cost in excess of $300 million each.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Federal Grant Encourages Denser Development in San Francisco

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A model affordable housing development in San Francisco (image courtesy of MTC)

Building and preserving affordable housing near public transit hubs in the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the areas of focus of a $4.99 million federal grant awarded Monday to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).

The “Sustainable Communities” regional planning grant, awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), fosters regional planning that integrates transportation, housing, job development, land-use and infrastructure development.

In addition to affordable housing, the grant will support job development for low- to middle-income residents in the communities in which they live. Because housing prices are so high, many low- to middle-income workers can’t afford to live in the communities where they work, and long daily commutes on congested freeways are a way of life. Of the more than 7 million people living in the Bay Area, only 9.7% currently get to work on public transportation.

"Our nation's ability to compete in a global economy and create jobs is dependent upon how quickly and efficiently we can connect our workers and families to education and employment opportunities." said HUD Secretary Donovan.

Increasing access to public transportation and reducing the need for long commutes is also part of a strategy to reduce emissions and air pollution in the Bay Area.

The “Sustainable Communities” grant will be matched with $2.383 million in funds from local agencies in the nine-county region.

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The Takeaway

Assessing the UN Climate Change Conference

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's the second day of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. For the next two weeks, delegates from 194 nations will meet in Durban, South Africa to discuss the future of international climate change legislation. But amid such concerns as the looming expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, a perennial question emerges: Why have actions to stanch global warming been so timid? And will this conference do anything to change that?

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WNYC News

Don't Toss That Turkey: Unilever Says Restaurants Need To Cut Waste

Monday, November 28, 2011

Up to now, food waste hasn't been a big priority for Unilever, though it's one of the central flaws in the global food system. Now, the company is realizing that it's a big concern among diners.

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Transportation Nation

Metro North Commuter Rail Line Washed Out During Tropical Storm Irene Resumes

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Port Jervis commuter line, cleaved in two by raging floodwaters roiled by Tropical Storm Irene, reopens today.  The washout of 14 miles of track was the most severe damage sustained by a transit agency in modern history.

Scientists and government officials say climate change will bring more frequent weather events like Irene, and without preventative action, similar washouts could become more commonplace.  (Full story here.)

For the past three months, passengers traveling to Rockland and Orange counties and points north and west of New York City have endured a frustrating commute.

During Tropical Storm Irene, a raging Ramapo River, otherwise little more than a creek in areas, surged to buckle the tracks, wash out the support ballast, and undermine railroad bridges.  Fred Chidester, the manager of the line for Metro North, called it the worst damage he's "seen in 28 years of working for the MTA."

The 14 mile stretch Irene undermined runs from the southernmost tip of Rockland County to Harriman, cleaving the 90-mile line in two.  Passengers commuting to New York have had to, in some cases, take a train, then a bus, then a train, adding up to an hour to already long commutes.

About 2600 passengers ride the Port Jervis line each day.

The MTA originally projected the line would be out until the new year, but about a month ago said trains could run down the entire track beginning November 29.  Trains will be somewhat slower and run less frequently than before Irene, while track workers complete their work.

The repair work is projected to cost the cash-strapped transit authority $40 million.

 

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