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DC Bike Advocates See U-Turn Enforcement as a Good Sign

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The bicycle lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Ave. are off-limits to cars (photo by Martin Di Caro/WAMU)

Anyone making an illegal U-turn across the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown D.C. will be subject to a $100 fine. District officials are wrapping up a public awareness campaign about the new law.

Employees with the District Department of Transportation were out on Pennsylvania Ave. Wednesday handing out fliers that to motorists that say, "Please help us stop the Pennsylvania Avenue U-turns."

The road is wide and drivers sometimes make mid-block U-turns across bike lanes. But as TN reported previously, almost 80% of the avenue's bike crashes are caused by cars making U-turns.

The practice is now illegal, and after 30 days of issuing warnings, police will now hand violators a $100 ticket. Bicyclists say cabbies are the worst offenders, making U-turns to pick up passengers hailing from the other side of the street.

"Well, you are going straight down Pennsylvania Avenue and you are pedaling along, you have green lights, you are going quick, and then all of a sudden a car that you are thinking is going straight all of a sudden whips around and you are looking at getting t-boned on your bicycle," says Maggie Benson. "It's very scary."

Benson rides her bike to work every day down Pennsylvania Avenue. Before the law was passed, there wasn't much she could do.

"You kind of throw your arms up, kind of yell a little bit and keep pedaling," Benson says.

But bicycle advocates also see the need for the enforcement as a sign of progress. If D.C. hadn't seen such growth in bicycling, there'd be no issues with cabbies crashing into bicyclists as taxi drivers and others make illegal U-turns. If D.C. weren't such a big bicycling city, there'd be no bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue in the first place.

"It's about the next steps in integrating biking as a major form of transportation in this city," says Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

There are now 56 miles of bike lanes in the District of Columbia, the most traveled being those on Pennsylvania Avenue, L Street and 15th Street. Farthing says the more bicyclists are on the road, the more drivers become accustomed to them.

"That's been proven to be true in cities across the country and the world, that the more cyclists you have the more motorists adjust and the safer cycling becomes overall," he says.

While police are responsible for enforcement, Farthing is focused on education for both motorists and cyclists, especially as D.C. adds even more bicycling infrastructure. "A lot of us took the driver's exam a long time ago when we didn't have things like center cycle tracks and dedicated bike lanes and things like that," he points out.

Pennsylvania Avenue is home to the city's only center bike lane, and it was prominently featured in this month's presidential inauguration.

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Transportation Nation

Pittsburgh Not Enforcing Tow Truck Licensing Rules

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Illustration by Anita DuFalla

(Halle Stockton -- PublicSource) In April 2010, the Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to protect motorists from aggressive tow-truck drivers.

Council members had heard one too many stories about price gouging by towers, or vehicles being snatched in “spiderweb” lots, those with lurking tow-truck drivers and confusing parking rules.

Although some of the practices already violated city ordinances, the city had no way to enforce its rules. So council established a business license for towing operators, and a new set of rules for towing vehicles improperly parked in restricted lots.

The licensing requirement was signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl within a week.

Nearly three years later, however, the licenses have not been issued.

That has left drivers like Elliot Gerard with little recourse when they have complaints about towing companies.

Gerard, of Monroeville, parked in a private lot designated for medical offices at Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill last spring. According to his wife, Alicia Gerard, as her husband took their infant son from the car seat to stop at a nearby Starbucks, he locked eyes with the driver of a Travis Towing truck parked a few spots away.

When he returned minutes later, his Nissan Rogue was chained to the truck’s ramp.

According to Alicia Gerard, the tow-truck driver told Gerard that to get his car back, he’d need to produce $110 in cash on the spot — or pay $150 at the impound lot.

Such an additional charge would violate the city code, which sets the maximum cost at $110, and does not allow extra charges or storage fees for the first 12 hours.

Gerard asked the driver to let him take his son’s safety seat and diaper bag from the car because he didn’t have the cash to pay, Alicia Gerard said, but the driver refused.

Ultimately, the driver told Gerard he could pay $115 by credit card, which he did, and his car was not towed. In 2000, the city code was amended to make towing companies accept credit cards as well as cash.

“Elliot was at fault because he didn’t see the sign, but the tow-truck driver’s actions were mischievous and calculating,” Alicia Gerard said.

Mark Travis, owner of Travis Towing, said the situation unfolded differently, but he would not elaborate.

“It’s just very popular to demonize us,” he said of the towing industry. “It’s an accepted form of bullying.”

‘Aggressive towing’

Complaints about towing companies piled up in 2010, after then-City Councilman Doug Shields called for city residents to share problems.

Among the complaints Shields received: A tow truck driver took a woman to an ATM to withdraw $300 so her vehicle wouldn’t be taken to the impound lot. A family told of coming to town for a Pirates game and returning to an empty parking space, with no signs in the lot telling them who to call about retrieving it.

Pittsburgh resident Gary Van Horn complained at the time that a tow-truck driver tried to charge him $900 for towing and storing his car after he had an accident and asked that his car be towed to a specific auto-body shop. Van Horn filed a police report and the amount was reduced to $200.

“This was purely aggressive towing,” he told PublicSource. It was “taking advantage of the situation.”

Each towing business was following its own set of rules, said Shields, who represented District 5 until 2011. So he wrote the 2010 ordinance in an attempt to use business licenses to make the rules uniform and the companies accountable.

The bill was to regulate operators who tow cars that have been parked in a restricted area, not those who tow a vehicle at the owner’s request after an accident.

“The business license was a common-sense response to citizens being preyed upon by unscrupulous operators,” Shields said. The city issues other professional licenses, including those for electricians, general contractors and pawnbrokers.

Getting a license would require tow-truck drivers to provide their drivers' licenses and business owners to provide proof of insurance, tax identification and access to company business records. The records would show whether they were adhering to the maximum towing charges and accepting credit cards as well as cash.

The 2010 law gave the enforcement job to the Department of Public Safety. The licenses were to cost $100, and $50 to renew annually.

The ordinance said that before a car could be removed from a private or restricted lot, towers would need a signed and time-stamped request from property owners, and that there must be signs in the lot warning of the tow risk.

In addition, tow-truck drivers could not tow a vehicle if the owner showed up before it was connected to the truck. If the motorist was too late, the tow companies would have to notify police of the towed vehicle’s location through an online program run by the Department of Public Safety.

An unenforceable rule?

Council unanimously passed the bill in April 2010 and Ravenstahl signed it. But Shields says the mayor's staff soon after told him it was not a priority.

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper said the law was “unenforceable.”

Chief Harper did not respond to numerous requests in the past two months for comment on why he thought the ordinance was unenforceable. Bureau of Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said Harper had a booked schedule for much of November, was on vacation in December and recently was off because his mother died. Doven said neither the mayor nor Public Safety Director Michael Huss would be available for comment.

Protecting "citizens from aggressive tow companies … is certainly important,” Doven wrote in an e-mail. “However, the ordinance was written by a politician without any input from the officials who would be responsible for implementing and enforcing the ordinance.”

Doven said she did not know which parts of the ordinance Harper thought were unenforceable. While she said a police representative would contact PublicSource, none had done so by deadline.

The mayor's office voiced few public misgivings about the measure during council's initial deliberations. At a March 2010 council meeting, Shields said he had sent the ordinance to the mayor’s policy director and had not heard back.

“I assume they are fine with it,” he said.

During an April council meeting the same year, Assistant City Solicitor Jason Zollett said the Law Department’s initial concerns about the bill had been assuaged because of amendments Shields was adopting.

“I’m perfectly content with the way it reads at this point," Zollett said.

Resolving towing disputes, Shields said, was going to take “some focus on the part of the police department, and Chief Harper has assured me that that’s going to happen.”

And when Harper came to council’s table shortly afterward to answer questions, he raised no concerns about the bill.

At several other council meetings, the dates to implement the ordinance were changed to give the city more time, but Shields said the administration was committed to having the system in place by early 2011.

All the amendments were passed by council and signed by the mayor.

Doven told PublicSource that Ravenstahl signed the original measure because he supported the idea behind the legislation. Thinking it would be revised later, she wrote, Ravenstahl “followed the will of council."

Doven said Councilman Bill Peduto, a Democrat who represents District 8, offered to rework the ordinance and that Harper had been awaiting his proposed revisions.

However, Peduto, who is challenging Ravenstahl in this year’s mayoral race, said the conversation ended when he asked Harper and Huss in March of 2012 for specific problems with the bill and was not given an answer.

“I’m not going to go through the foolish exercise of introducing and passing a bill and then see the administration not do it again,” he said.

Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs the council's Public Safety committee, did not return calls for comment.

Industry response

Nick Milanovich, manager at J.E. Stuckert Inc., says the Uptown-based towing company supported the business license.

“It would protect everybody,” he said. “And it would make sure that everyone is on the same page with insurance and liabilities.”

Joe Stickles, owner of Stickles Towing in Greenfield, said he supports a business license because it would help push out “fly-by-night” businesses that employ drivers without driver’s licenses or proper insurance.

Having the law on the books, but not enacted, has created confusion for the industry, both men said.

Stickles said several vehicle-owners have questioned his drivers about whether they have a business license.

“We have to explain to them … that it hasn’t been implemented,” Stickles said. “I tell them to call their local representative to ask about the situation.”

Had the law been implemented back when Elliot Gerard dashed into Starbucks for example, the tow-truck driver would have needed a request from the lot owner to remove the SUV. The Monroeville family also would have had a channel to complain about the towing company, and the city could review its practices.

Instead, the Gerards filed a police report, which they said went nowhere.

City officials “put this law on the backburner because it wasn’t important to them, but it was important to us and I’m sure it was important to a lot of others,” said Alicia Gerard.

Peduto said his office receives calls by residents outraged by how they’ve been treated by towing companies.

“There really isn’t a way to prevent it at this point,” he said. “The idea of the ordinance was to get to the root cause. Without it, there’s no mechanism in place to go after those operating illegally.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.

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Transportation Nation

BREAKING: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: I'm Out

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Secretary LaHood (photo by Martin Di Caro)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is leaving his post, ending a term where he caught transportation advocates, Republicans and Democrats alike off-guard by his spry push for safety, high speed rail, and a broad view of transportation systems.

“I have let President Obama know that I will not serve a second term as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation,” LaHood said in an email to staff Tuesday morning (full text below.) “It has been an honor and a privilege to lead the Department, and I am grateful to President Obama for giving me such an extraordinary opportunity. I plan to stay on until my successor is confirmed to ensure a smooth transition for the Department and all the important work we still have to do.”

“Every American who travels by air, rail or highway can thank Ray for his commitment to making our entire transportation system safer and stronger," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Peoria, was one of President Obama’s final appointments in his first cabinet, adding an “R” to diversify his cabinet. At the time, LaHood was little known outside his district, and no one expected him to make many waves.

Those people were wrong. “You — you’re the best thing that happened,” Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, once remarked to LaHood, who vigorously and unsuccessfully tried to save the ARC tunnel – an under-Hudson rail tunnel killed by Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

“When they said it was going to be a Republican taking this job, I thought we had a Democrat who later on thought he was a Republican,” Lautenberg said. But New York U.S. Senator Charles Schumer interjected as the three made small talk before an event at New York’s Penn Station. "No, he gets along with everybody." Schumer credited former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- now Mayor of Chicago -- with LaHood's appointment, a fact LaHood confirmed.

As the Tea Party’s ascendency in Congress made even highway spending a matter of caution, LaHood pushed forcefully for a federal role in infrastructure spending.

He tangled repeatedly with Congress on high speed rail and shutting down the FAA. An avid cyclist, LaHood once jumped on a table at a Washington, DC bicycle conference to emphasize his enthusiasm for cycling as transportation. A Buick driver, LaHood was especially passionate in his anti-distracted driving campaigns, pushing back not only against texting but also against shaving and applying make-up while driving. He was known to take immediate action if he witnessed distracted driving. "What I've been doing is kind of honking at somebody if I see him on a cellphone," he once told a local DC radio station.

LaHood shepherded through spending on high speed rail, stimulus funding, and innovative transportation projects like bus rapid transit.  But he and the Obama administration were unsuccessful in convincing Congress to expand high speed rail and infrastructure funding.  He also failed in convincing NJ Governor Chris Christie to save the NJ Transit tunnel under the Hudson.

LaHood, blunt, and candid, was a favorite among journalists for his propensity to speak frankly into a microphone, sometimes to the consternation of his own staff. He also answered questions from the public in his "On the Go" video chats -- two of which he did especially for Transportation Nation readers. (Watch them here and here.)

No word yet on a replacement.

The Secretary sent the following email to DOT employees across the country, informing them of his plans:

“I have let President Obama know that I will not serve a second term as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. It has been an honor and a privilege to lead the Department, and I am grateful to President Obama for giving me such an extraordinary opportunity. I plan to stay on until my successor is confirmed to ensure a smooth transition for the Department and all the important work we still have to do.

As I look back on the past four years, I am proud of what we have accomplished together in so many important areas. But what I am most proud of is the DOT team. You exemplify the best of public service, and I truly appreciate all that you have done to make America better, to make your communities better, and to make DOT better.

Our achievements are significant. We have put safety front and center with the Distracted Driving Initiative and a rule to combat pilot fatigue that was decades in the making. We have made great progress in improving the safety of our transit systems, pipelines, and highways, and in reducing roadway fatalities to historic lows. We have strengthened consumer protections with new regulations on buses, trucks, and airlines.

We helped jumpstart the economy and put our fellow Americans back to work with $48 billion in transportation funding from the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009, and awarded over $2.7 billion in TIGER grants to 130 transportation projects across the Nation. We have made unprecedented investments in our nation’s ports. And we have put aviation on a sounder footing with the FAA reauthorization, and secured funding in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act to help States build and repair their roads, bridges and transit systems.

And to further secure our future, we have taken transportation into the 21st century with CAFE Standards, NextGen, and our investments in passenger and High-Speed Rail. What’s more, we have provided the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with the funding and leadership it needs to prepare a new generation of midshipmen to meet our country’s rapidly-evolving defense and maritime transportation needs.

Closer to home, we also have made great strides. In December, the DOT was recognized as the most improved agency in the entire Federal government in the 2012 “Best Places to Work” rankings published by the Partnership of Public Service. Even more impressive, DOT was ranked 9th out of the 19 largest agencies in the government.

Each of these remarkable accomplishments is a tribute your hard work, creativity, commitment to excellence, and most of all, your dedication to our country. DOT is fortunate to have such an extraordinary group of public servants. I look forward to continuing to work with all of you as the selection and confirmation process of the next transportation secretary moves forward. Now is not the time to let up - we still have a number of critical safety goals to accomplish and still more work to do on the implementation of MAP-21.

I’ve told President Obama, and I’ve told many of you, that this is the best job I’ve ever had. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to work with all of you and I’m confident that DOT will continue to achieve great things in the future.

Thank you, and God bless you.”

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Transportation Nation

Bus Rapid Transit Looks Set for Growth in Oregon

Monday, January 28, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/springfieldhomer/5840474433/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Hayden Bridge Station on Eugene, Oregon's EMX bus rapid transit system.  (Photo CC by Flickr user Slideshow Bruce)

Portland has been a national leader in building light rail, but the transit-friendly city is considering buses as the next round of expansion. Portland is seriously considering bus rapid transit for two high-capacity transit corridors it is planning to expand. Nearby, Eugene is adding to its existing BRT lines, rankling some in the community.

OPB has a pair of stories laying out the potential boom in BRT building. Rob Manning reports on Portland where the decision seems to be coming down to light rail vs bus rapid transit:

There are two high priority corridors in Portland’s long-term transit plan. BRT is on the table, for discussion, in both of them...

Elissa Gertler, a deputy director at the Metro regional government, and the supervisor of the two corridor planning efforts, says there’s one big reason that interest in bus rapid transit may be overtaking light rail: "First and foremost, light rail is expensive. A big capital investment costs a lot of money, and partnership with the federal government in how to fund that has diminished over time, as we’ve expanded our system in this region.”

Bus rapid transit, as pictured above, is a cheaper alternative to light rail lines. Buses are given a dedicated lane to ensure traffic-free travel. Passengers pay before boarding -- similar to subway use -- to speed loading and unloading times. The scheme has proved effective and popular in cities from Curitiba, to Mexico City, to Cleveland.

As has happened in other cities, BRT's flexibility can lead to partial implementation with a kind of BRT-lite.  Something that is an option on the table in Portland. Again from Manning's report:

Transit consultant Jarret Walker says the ideal is to run the bus like a light rail train. Easier said than done in the two corridors Portland is studying.

"You have stretches there, where there’s just so much width," Walker says. "There’s only so much space in the road. And in those places, it doesn’t really matter if you’re building light rail or Bus Rapid Transit, the real question will be: Where do you find a path?"

Standing at 82nd Avenue and Division, Metro’s Elissa Gertler says planners are starting with a focus on where people are traveling. This Division corridor includes multiple college campuses. She says administrators see a value in getting their students out of their cars.

"We have heard them say, 'We don’t want to be a sea of parking lots, we don’t want to have to just building parking. We want to invest in educational space, and serving our students,' ” Gertler says.

Oregon knows how to do bus rapid transit as well as any state in the country. According to rankings by BRT proponents at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the Eugene BRT system is the second best in the nation, after Cleveland's. Both cities received a "bronze" rating by ITDP compared to "gold" in Bogota and Guangzhou.

The EmX buses in Lane County around Eugene carry 10,000 riders each weekday through dedicated lanes or with "signal priority," traffic lights that change to green when the buses approach.

A new 4.4 mile proposed extension is drawing opposition, according to this report from OPB's Amanda Peacher.

Kilcoin says the EmX extension will help connect West Eugene residents to downtown, and will improve traffic congestion. The project would widen the road in some places. LTD is also planning a number of other improvements, like two pedestrian bridges, new sidewalks, and an additional bike lane. That's in part why the price tag is so high-- all this is estimated to cost $95.6 million.

And that's the main complaint from groups like Our Money, Our Transit. Along 11th Avenue, opponents of the extension have lined the road with signs that read "No Build" with a picture of the big green bus crossed out.

"It's a really poor use of public funds." Roy Benson owns the Tire Factory, an automotive store along the planned route. As a business owner, he doesn't see any benefits of the new line. "I'll probably never have anybody come here on the bus, and then buy four tires and get back on the bus to go home," Benson says.

Peacher cites other opposition, as well as support from transit riders as is to be expected.The plan is going forward, currently in the design phase with a completion date of 2017 if all goes according to plan.

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Why One San Francisco Bike Lane Design Is Upsetting Drivers and Cyclists (AUDIO)

Friday, January 25, 2013

JFK Boulevard, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. (Photo Courtesy of SFMTA Livable Streets)

A prominent bike lane in San Francisco may be suffering because of its unique design. The ambitious, and expensive, bike lane striping of Golden Gate Park stands out from the other projects of San Francisco's bike plan for the criticism it draws from cyclists and drivers alike, in part for a disorienting placement of line of parked cars.

“I think it’s one of the dumbest things I ever saw that they put these stripes down here,” says driver Jimmy Harris of the lanes, pictured above.

Average speeds of drivers and bike riders have both fallen, a success at what's known as traffic calming. But also a stark test case of transportation psychology as users cite narrow lanes and an unusual arrangement of parked cars as confusing.

Ben Trefny and Rai Sue Sussman took a ride along JFK Blvd, with a measuring tape, to see why these particular stripes are raising hackles of bike riders and drivers. Give the audio version a listen.

Here's more: 

For a bit of background, the streets of San Francisco are changing. There are separated bike lanes on Market Street. There’s green paint all over the much-used bike path called the Wiggle. The city is definitely becoming more bicycle-friendly.

After many delays, the city’s bike plan is taking effect, with streets long-designed for car traffic being reconfigured for other modes of transportation. Four years ago San Francisco had 45 miles of bike lanes. Today there are 65 and with more on the way. Plus, 75 more miles of streets will be stenciled with symbols designating them as bike-friendly routes. It’s all having a big impact.

According to the San Francisco Bike Coalition, bike trips have increased more than 70 percent since 2006. But the planners’ choices for JFK Blvd. havn't been implemented so smoothly – and it’s flat-out rankled many of the bicyclists it’s supposed to serve.

The wide JFK Blvd. used to have almost no stripes whatsoever. Now, it’s full of them, creating several chutes designated for different purposes:  there’s a bike lane at either the edge; then buffer zone; a lane for parking; and then in the center a car lane in each direction.

Last spring, we talked with Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, about that project: the striping of Golden Gate Park

“Imagine the parking lanes that are kind of being moved out more into the center of the street, and the bikeway – the dedicated bikeway – will be against the curb, or against the green space, or the sidewalk area,” she said. “So that people biking actually have that physical separation from the moving traffic. JFK we think is a good street to try this because it is a very wide street it's way wider than most streets in San Francisco, so there was room there to try something different.”

It cost at least $425,000 to lay the stripes down – and the MTA estimates more than that to plan it all out.

So, what do the people who travel along JFK think about the new configuration?

“From a drivers’ standpoint, it’s pretty bad,” adds Daly City’s Nick Shurmeyetiv. “Honestly, the first few times I came in – like the first few times it really threw me off. I wasn't sure what was going on. I thought it was a traffic jam, or I don't know what,” he said of the parked cars that appeared to be a lane of traffic.

Frank Jones, from Concord says, “Well, we did pull up and stop behind somebody. And we thought, ‘They're not moving.’ Then we realized – there was nobody in the car! So we went around them.”

A count of cars lined up in the designated parking lane across from the De Young Museum one Friday afternoon showed 11 of 46 vehicles at least partially in the buffer zone. They followed a pattern: typically, each vehicle was aligned with the one in front of it. So if one missed the mark, many more would do the same. And they never missed on the side with car traffic. Only on the side toward the bikes.

“Yeah, you know the roadway, the width is a little narrower, but for the most part, this isn't a place to be going really fast from A to B,” says Peter Brown, who works as an SFMTA project manager.

If it’s the SFMTA’s goal to slow traffic on JFK, it’s been successful.

For cars, average speed has dropped about two or three miles per hour since the road was striped, according to a preliminary report. It makes sense, as the thoroughfare is much more narrow, now, and cars have to fully stop if anyone in front of them is trying to park.

Average bike speeds have also dropped, from an average of 14-and-a-half miles per hour to less than 13 during the week and a little slower on weekends. The report suggests that’s because bicyclists who used to cruise really fast up or down Golden Gate Park now have to slow down for other cyclists and the people who are trying to get across the bike lanes to their cars. Calming traffic, on paper anyway, arguably makes the route more accessible and safer.

The SFMTA surveyed people who use JFK both before and shortly after the new stripes went in. Almost 90 percent of responders felt like they understood the striping, but only about 60 percent liked it. Some people, like Lita Ward, don’t.

“I've had several incidents where I've nearly collided with people getting out of their cars, that are crossing the bike lane into the sidewalk area,” says Ward. “Obviously, we can't stop quickly enough... I think it's a great concept, but drivers need to be aware of what that change means for bicyclists."

It didn’t take long, wandering around JFK to see that scenario unfold. Just west of the De Young, two teenagers on mountain bikes blew through a stop sign on the downhill slope. A pedestrian crossing the bike lane to get to his car had to jump out of the way as they rapidly approached. The kids obviously hadn’t anticipated his presence, and the pedestrian didn’t notice until it was nearly too late.

Some people think better signage and public awareness campaigning would solve some of the ongoing issues with the newly striped lanes of Golden Gate Park, including longtime bike activist Chris Carlsson, who runs Shaping San Francisco, which looks into ways to improve the city.

“A proper educational campaign, in conjunction with an infrastructural transformation, I think could be really successful,” says Carlsson, who is one of the founders of Critical Mass.

[Related: Listen to an oral history of how Critical Mass was founded]

The people who most advocated for – and implemented – the striping of Golden Gate Park are examining the effects. The SF Bike Coalition has a webpage devoted to the “JFK Separated Bikeway Project.”

The page addresses some of the problems: cars that aren’t parked where they’re supposed to be; people crossing the bikeway without looking. SFMTA has a page called the JFK Cycletrack. It includes a survey in which people can share their thoughts about what they like and don’t like.

Even with the imposed structure, people are making the new configuration work for them. Sporty bicyclists take the car lane (which is allowed) to avoid slower-biking tourists and families; pedestrians walk in the bike path to avoid sprinklers; and cars drive through like they did before – only slightly slower.

But more than six months in, because of ongoing parking issues and -- for San Francisco -- the unusual off-curb parking situation, it appears that the striping of Golden Gate Park is not working quite as it was originally imagined. The removal of more than 80 parking spaces alone will be enough to change usage of the road. And unless a large-scale redesign is implemented, an experiment in shared road design may simply require users to get used to a number of imperfections.

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Transportation Nation

Ongoing NYC School Bus Strike Frustrates Special Education Families

Friday, January 25, 2013

A wheelchair-accessible taxi (photo by Kate Hinds)

(Beth Fertig - New York, SchoolBook) A day after New York City said it would pay car companies directly to transport eligible children with special needs to school, parents and teachers say the system, like so much else related to school bus strike, has presented challenges.

“They have to go up to the school to get this voucher form that they have to fill out but now when they call the cab companies in their various neighborhoods the cab companies don’t know anything about it,” said Joseph Williams, president of the Citywide District 75 Council and the father of a son with autism.

The Department of Education announced Wednesday an arrangement with the Taxi and Limousine Commission that allows some families of children with disabilities to avoid having to pay first for car service and then wait for reimbursement. The D.O.E. said it would pay the car services, to ease the hardship for families during the school bus strike

The problem, many families say, is that the car services don’t know about the new payment system.

D.O.E. spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the T.L.C. lined up the participating livery car companies, which is why families are supposed to fill out a form at school, or at their local committee on special education, to obtain a taxi voucher. They’re then given the name of approved vendors.

But Williams said he heard complaints from two different parents Thursday that word had not spread to the car companies. So he called a couple himself to see what was happening.

“I spoke to the dispatcher, ‘Do you know anything about it?’ I spoke to his boss and he said he hadn’t heard anything about it. And this was two car companies in Brooklyn,” he said, adding that he alerted the superintendent of District 75, which serves thousands of severely disabled students who normally depend on the yellow buses.

Beth Brady, a special education teacher at a District 75 middle school in Washington Heights, P138M, said she has a class of 12 students, most of whom use wheelchairs. But she said only one of them has been making it to school since the strike began because he’s ambulatory and lives closer to the school than the others.

“I was making a lot of phone calls today to share that information with them” she said, of the free taxi vouchers for lower income families. “They were asking which companies take the vouchers and we don’t have a list of that. So we’re still working on what cabs and limos would even take the vouchers. That’s a missing piece.”

Brady also said many parents can’t afford to take time away from work to accompany their children to and from school by either mass transit or a taxi. Her students come from both Manhattan and the Bronx.

Free Yellow Cabs for Children in Wheelchairs

Meanwhile, an umbrella group for some of the small yellow cab companies is offering free wheelchair accessible taxis to disabled children during the strike.

Mark Longo, information director for Taxi Club Management, said: “I’m probably getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 phone calls every hour” from families looking for transportation help.

Longo said Taxi Club Management has about 130 of the city’s 233 wheelchair accessible yellow cabs among its fleets, and that C.E.O. Gene Friedman felt strongly about wanting to help the city’s students.

Longo said families should contact him via email to make arrangements in advance at mark@taxiclubmanagement.com or call the city’s Accessible Dispatch Service, (646) 599-9999.

However, he said, Taxi Club Management doesn’t have enough cars to meet the demand and services can’t be provided outside the five boroughs. He said he is working to line up alternatives.

Transportation is especially complicated for children with the most serious disabilities because they often travel far from home to get appropriate services.

Michelle Noris’s nine year-old son, Abraham, attends the Henry Viscardi School on Long Island because he has cerebral palsy and a movement disorder called chorea. He has epileptic seizures and uses a wheelchair to get around, and a feeding tube for nourishment. The fourth grader has been taking a small wheelchair-accessible bus to school since first grade, with three other children and a matron.

Now, Noris said, she and her husband are splitting transportation duties each morning, taking Abraham to Long Island in their minivan and getting their other child to his neighborhood elementary school. She said they’re reimbursed 55 cents for every mile they travel with Abraham in their car which means return trips aren’t covered.

“It’s a 19.1 mile trip each way,” she explained. “We do it twice a day. So that works out to about $21 a day in reimbursement which just about covers the gasoline.”

These trips consume four hours each day, and since she’s paid by the hour as a professional engineer that means she’s making less money.

“They’ve offered that they would pay for car service but again, the car service they only pay while he’s in the car and of course we have to go with him, no one lets a nine-year-old child into a car service,” she said. “So that would be even more difficult financially because then I would be in Albertson, Long Island, and how would I get home?”

Noris and other families worry about the children with special needs who aren’t making it to school because of these complications. In addition to lost school time, many are also missing out on related services such as speech and occupational therapy.

Waiting on the Labor Board

The city is trying to get more school buses on the road by encouraging companies that employ drivers who aren’t striking to take a CPR course and four-hour training program. This way, they can cover for striking escorts.

Some of those bus companies employ escorts in the striking union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Other bus companies are picking up more students than normal. And some are training replacement workers.

Meanwhile, the head of the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office, James Paulsen, said he has finished his investigation of the bus companies’ complaints against Local 1181 and their request for an injunction to stop the strike. But Paulsen said he could not make his recommendations public. They were sent to the NLRB’s Division of Advice in Washington, D.C., where lawyers will consider the matter.

A decision is likely next week, he said.

If the NLRB sides with the bus companies, it will go to federal district court in Brooklyn to seek an injunction.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter at WNYC. Follow her on Twitter

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Transportation Nation

DC Commuters Want Less Traffic, More Transit -- And No Congestion Pricing

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

(photo by NCreedplayer via flickr)

Commuters are skeptical that congestion pricing will reduce traffic in the metropolitan Washington area and raise revenues to fund transportation projects. Instead, they favor alternatives to driving -- commuter rail, express bus service, or bicycling/walking.

report released Wednesday by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) weighed the attitudes of 300 area residents who participated in five forums: two in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in the District of Columbia. The participants were asked to consider three scenarios: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways, including interstate highways; 2) charging a per-mile fee measured by GPS systems installed in cars; and 3) creating priced zones similar to a system in London that would charge motorists to enter a designated area.

These attitudes are being probed at a delicate time for transportation funding in the region: Virginia's governor is proposing the elimination of the state gasoline tax -- while Maryland is looking at increasing theirs. Meanwhile, the area's largest transit project, the Silver Line, has yet to be fully funded.

But the funding scenarios posed to study participants received tepid support.

“This study shows people are cautiously open to concepts of congestion pricing, but they really need to see if it’s going to work, and they have doubts about that,” said John Swanson, a TPB planner.

“They really want to make sure that there are clear benefits, that [congestion pricing] is going to fund new transportation alternatives… particularly transit and high quality bus [service],” he added.

Scenario one – charging tolls on all major roadways – was supported by 60 percent of study participants, who engaged in extended exchanges of ideas and opinions. Scenario two – using GPS to track miles traveled – was opposed by 86 percent, even though drivers’ actual routes would not be tracked, only the number of miles.

“I don’t want to discount privacy concerns,” Swanson said. “I don’t think, however, the concerns were simply the classic ‘big brother’ concerns. There was a lot of code language for broader anxieties.  It was a complicated proposal that was hard to understand.  It seemed to be hard to implement.  A lot of people said it looked like it would be expensive to implement and, frankly, they are right.”

The study participants spoke of congestion in personal terms -- family time robbed, the stress of dealing with incessant traffic. Most commuters said driving is not a choice.

“The availability of other options besides driving—such as transit, walking and biking—increased [the] receptiveness to pricing. Participants also spoke favorably of proposals that would maintain non-tolled lanes or routes for those who cannot or do not want to pay,” the report said.

Transit advocates say the report shows shaping land use strategies to improve access to transit and create walkable, densely built environments is the best way to mitigate the region’s traffic jams.

“Newcomers to the region are very frequently choosing the city or a place near transit rather than a place where they have no option but to drive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“What’s most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around,” Schwartz added.

The study’s authors – the TPB partnered with the Brookings Institution – found most participants were unaware the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon) hasn’t been raised since 1993.  However, they also favored raising the gas tax as an easier, fairer alternative to implementing a congestion pricing program.

Support for increasing the gas tax increased over the course of the sessions --  from 21 percent when the study convened to 57 percent upon its completion.

The gas tax “is a hidden fee,” said Swanson. “We learned that people actually like that. There is a general sense of the invisibility of the gas tax being a problem and potentially a benefit, something that’s strangely attractive to people.”

Eighty-five percent of study participants identified transportation funding shortfalls as a critical problem, yet expressed doubts the government would make the right choices if additional revenues were made available through congestion pricing.

TPB board member Chris Zimmerman, who's also a member of the Arlington (VA) County Board, took exception to the wording of the study’s questions using the word “government” because he felt it provoked a negative response.

“If you are trying to interpret what people say, you have to be careful of what question you ask them,” Zimmerman said. “I think people get that there is a lack of funding.  They also get the fact there are a number of other problems.  There aren’t alternatives. For many in this region, they drive not because that’s what they are dying to do, but because they have no choice.”

Zimmerman, who background is in economics, said it should be no surprise people are lukewarm about congestion pricing proposals, given the lack of alternative modes of transportation in some places.  He is also unsure congestion pricing will work.

“The way roads are run is there is basically no pricing of them at all. Even if you are paying a gas tax it’s not related to your use of any particular road.  An economist looks at that and says of course you are going to get inefficiency and congestion,” Zimmerman said.

“You are not talking about going from the current situation to instantly pricing everything perfectly.  You are talking about implementing costs on particular segments of roads and that gets a lot more complicated because there are secondary effects," Zimmerman said. "We price one thing and many people shift to some other place.  Well, where is that some other place?”

“In practice, implementing that is very difficult.”

The Washington region saw two major highways shift to congestion pricing in 2012. Maryland's Inter-County Connector charges variably priced tolls; the 495 Express Lanes charge dynamically priced tolls and offer free rides to HOV-3 vehicles.

In the case of the Express Lanes, the state of Virginia will not receive toll revenues for 75 years as per its contract with its private sector partner, Transurban, and it remains to be seen if the new toll lanes will ultimately reduce congestion in the heavily traveled corridor. The ICC also has its critics, who say the recently constructed highway was a waste of money.

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Transportation Nation

An Oral History of San Francisco's Bay Bridge

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rendition of the new span of the Bay Bridge

After eleven years of construction, the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span is set to open to traffic this fall.

Meanwhile, the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO), part of University of California-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, is soliciting stories from people who were there when the original Bay Bridge opened in 1936.

Sam Redman, a ROHO historian, recorded a number of interviews with folks who remember that time. He shared excerpts with KALW’s Steven Short.

"The clips that I’m sharing today are from people who happened to be in the Bay Area at the time," said Redman, "people who were working on the bridge—Rosie the Riveters or tow truck drivers and engineers and other people that worked on the Bay Bridge."

Redman played a few soundbites from the World War II generation who actually watched the bridge as it was actually constructed.

Like Ralph Anderson.

“It was going to be wonderful. I didn’t realize that the ferries wouldn’t be there anymore. But to go across the bridge on the Key System trains, the whole lower deck was trucks and trains. And that worked out great, I thought that was a good system. And to go across the bridge for a quarter, I was impressed and pretty soon the bridge was going to be paid for and you wouldn’t have to pay anything.”

(Currently tolls on the Bay Bridge are between $4 and $6 dollars, depending on the time of day).

Yes, you read that right: the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, as it was initially constructed, carried rail. The Key System operated from 1938 to 1958.

(Image from keyrailpix.org)

"One of the interesting thing about this series," said Redman, "is learning about some of the failed proposals that we’ve had for bridges, including a span that would have run similar to the Bay Bridge from Alameda, south of the current Bay Bridge into San Francisco to alleviate some of that traffic congestion that was building up early on on the Bay Bridge.  It exceeded all traffic projections almost right away."

Redman said one of the things that amazed him while conducting the Bay Bridge's oral history project is "the way people have worked have changed on the bridge since time it actually started. Like Bay Bridge painters, for example. New rules and regulations mean that for their actual work it takes longer to paint the Bay Bridge, but that’s to actually keep the Bay that’s beneath them healthy. Before, the paint would just go directly into the Bay."

Here's a remembrance from Berkeley resident Norma Grey:

“In 1936, they just summarily announced that we were going to California. And it was precisely because my dad could not find a job. And so he borrowed $100 from his brother, put his three little girls and what possessions he could put in a Model T Ford and drove across the country. He stopped in Berkeley. Their plan was San Francisco, but it cost 25 cents to go across the new Bay Bridge.”

"Twenty-five cents would have been enough to buy a meal for the evening for the family," said Redman. "I think that puts in context how hard times really were. And it gives us a little insight into the folks who worked on the Bay Bridge. Job openings at the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge would have looked pretty appealing at that time, even though they were pretty dangerous jobs."

Redman added that the working conditions at the time helped keep construction costs down -- compared to today.

You can see differences in terms of safety, in terms of pay, in terms of all sorts of workplace conditions changes. In the course of building new bridges, people will look at the old Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge and say, gee, these were completed on budget and on time. But it’s because of a remarkable range of changes in labor that are actually good changes in many respects.

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Transportation Nation

Why New York City School Busing is So Expensive

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Striking bus workers (photo by Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

(Beth Fertig - New York, SchoolBook) In his showdown with striking school bus workers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly cited what seems like an astronomical figure: yellow bus service costs, on average, $6900 per child a year. That’s twice as much as Los Angeles spends per child.

The reasons are complicated. But they have to do with an industry that’s enjoyed an unusual monopoly for decades, as contracts got renewed again and again without competitive bidding; a union whose former president was sent to prison because of ties to organized crime; the growing number of students who depend on busing; and school bus routes that are considered highly inefficient.

Mob Ties

There’s a long and storied history of scandals in New York City’s school bus industry. In 2008, the former president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Salvatore “Hotdogs” Battaglia, was sentenced to four years and nine months in federal prison for racketeering. Battalglia admitted to taking payoffs from Genovese crime family members in exchange for agreeing not to unionize some of the school bus companies doing business with the city. Two other union leaders were also convicted.

“The union was found by federal prosecutors to be controlled by the Genovese crime family,” said Richard Steier, editor of The Chief newspaper, which covers city labor. Local 1181 under new leadership but its president was on the same board that served under Battaglia.

In 2009, seven city Department of Education employees were sentenced for taking bribes from bus companies, in exchange for looking the other way during inspections and giving them more lucrative bus routes.

“They’ve managed to prosper in return for making those payoffs,” said Steier, of the bus companies. “So it’s been pretty much a business arrangement rather than a question of victims.”

Bus Contractors Under Scrutiny

Four of the bus companies that were investigated in connection with the bribes continue to do business with the city. No criminal charges were brought but the companies must pay for an independent monitor. These companies include Jofaz Transportation, which currently has $318 million in contracts with the city, and Logan, which has $340 million. The Logan family owns a few other companies that have city contracts.

The Department of Education said Logan and its affiliated companies “have consistently provided safe and timely transportation” to city students. Logan and Jofaz were given two-year contracts in 2010 instead of the usual five.

One of the companies that was investigated for paying off Battaglia is Atlantic Express. Its owner, Domenic Gatto, claimed he was a victim of extortion and his spokeswoman noted that the U.S. Attorney acknowledged that was true, in open court. He was never convicted or implicated in any crime.

With all these problems, the obvious question is why the city continues to renew its contracts with the same bus companies year after year. More than 40 companies have contracts with the city. The city hasn’t bid out the contracts since 1979, when it ended the last bus strike by agreeing to employee protections.

The biggest school bus contractor appears to be Amboy Bus Company, which is affiliated with Atlantic Express. Amboy has $2.3 billion worth of contracts with the Education Department. These companies along with their employees have made more than $47,000 worth of donations since 2000, state and city records show. Atlantic Express spent $20,000 lobbying the education department last year and $25,000 lobbying city council members.

Steier, of the Chief, said Gatto and his companies enjoy “most favored nation status” because of connections to the Staten Island Republican party. In a particularly colorful episode, Gatto pulled out a gun once during negotiations with the city, though his lawyer said he was just illustrating a point.

Many observers believe the city was afraid to bid out its bus contracts because of what happened the last time it did that – the 1979 strike lasted three months. Officials don’t want to disrupt services more than a 150,000 students who depend on yellow buses.

Where the Money Goes

In 1980, the city spent $71 million on pupil transportation. Those costs ballooned to over a billion dollars last year. The number of students taking yellow buses has soared since then but the city still believes this price is much too high, because it translates to $6900 per student.

Local 1181 insists its members aren’t benefiting tremendously from that price tag. John Tomblin, who’s been driving a school bus since 1978, said he made $257 a week back then. Today, he said he makes more than four times that figure but it hasn’t kept up with the cost of living. He lives on Staten Island. “It’s $1200-1500 a month for a two-bedroom,” he said. “Every day life costs a lot of money from 35 years ago.”

The top salary for the union’s bus drivers is now $55,000 a year. That’s about the same as MTA bus drivers.

Lee Adler, who teaches collective bargaining and labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said Local 1181′s history of corruption hasn’t led to higher pay for its members. Average salaries are about $35,000 according to the union. “They seem to be not exorbitant and not out of whack with what I understand to be the wages of transportation persons in the greater New York City area,” said Adler.

But base salaries are deceptive said Elizabeth Lynam, vice president and director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, who published a report on the costs of pupil transportation in New York State. She noted that school bus drivers in Local 1181 get nine weeks of unemployment during the summer from the bus companies. “That’s extremely unusual for school employees,” she added.

The school bus companies claim their rate structure is only adjusted for inflation and doesn’t keep up with the rising costs of fuel and labor. The coalition of about 20 companies that employ Local 1181 drivers said 80 percent of revenues received from the city go to employee salaries and benefits.

Companies also claim the employee protection provisions (EPP’s) put them at a disadvantage. If one company goes out of business, whatever company picks up its business is required to pick up displaced union workers and pay them at the same rate. The union argues that these protections guarantee an experienced, safe workforce. Though the city says any workers who are hired to drive buses and escort students will have to be properly trained.

The Department of Education cites its pre-k bus contracts as evidence that competitive bidding can work. It says it saved $95 million over five years when it bid out these contracts in 2011 without the EPPs.

The Route of the Problem

But labor is just one area for potential savings. Lynam and others believe the city needs to make its bus routes much more efficient, because too many buses are driving around with just a few students on vehicles that could transport more than 60.

The city currently has 7000 bus routes, more than twice as many as in 1990. About a third of the students who take yellow buses have special needs. These students are the most expensive to transport because they require escorts, or matrons, and door-to-door service. Some attend private schools in Long Island or Westchester at city expense because there are no appropriate public schools here that can meet their needs.

There are also more general education students taking yellow buses. Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has opened about 500 schools over the last decade in an effort to give families more choices, whether in their own neighborhoods or elsewhere.

The city tried restructuring its bus routes in 2007 but that proved to be a disaster, with children stranded in the winter cold. Lynam, of the Citizens Budget Commission, said reforming the routes will be key to long-term savings. But it’s complicated. If drivers start earlier in the day, to pick up more children, that means working more hours.

“Should they pay overtime? What’s the best way?” she asked, acknowledging reform will involve lots of difficult questions.

But the complex logistics are among several challenges to overhauling the school bus industry. As he enters his last year in office, Bloomberg said this week he wished he had tackled the issue earlier in his tenure.

With reporting by WNYC’s Robert Lewis

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Transportation Nation

"I was right!" Combatants Clash Over Subway Trivia At NY Transit Museum (AUDIO)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Contestants drink beer and prepare to do battle at The New York Transit Museum's firs annual subway trivia night. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

New York subway buffs are male and female, young and old, and come from many backgrounds. What unites them is their quest to prove they know more about the transit system than you do. And now there's a gladiatorial forum for that: The New York Transit Museum's Subway Trivia Night.

About 170 contestants formed into teams and jammed around tables in a low-ceilinged room to grapple with 60 questions posed by quizmasters Stuart Post and Chris Kelley. The museum is housed underground in the former Court Street subway stop in Downtown Brooklyn. The space has no internet connection so the trivia buffs were forced to rely on an antique information device: the human brain.

Post gave the first question: "What shape was cut out of the very last version of the New York City subway token?"

Contestant Jen Petey polled her teammates. Two suggested the "Y" in NYC. She overruled them and wrote "pentagon" on the team's answer sheet.

Post said, "The shape cut out of the last token is ... [dramatic pause] ... a pentagon."

Petey banged her hand on the table. "I was right!"

Trains and train systems have long drawn devotees. The most rabid are called "foamers" because they figuratively foam at the mouth while displaying their mastery of the arcane. This crowd was gentler, less foamer than nerd.

The answer that got the loudest response was to the question, "Whose office do you reach when you call 212-594-SKIN?

Answer: Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, famous for decades of graphic ads that promise to cure all manner of disgusting dermatological disturbance.

In the end, first prize went to a team named, The Takers of Pelham 1-2-3, a play on the title of the movie. They got 54 1/2  out of 60 questions right, beating out teams with like Whole Lhota Love, My Fare Lady, and No se apoye contra la puerta (Don't lean against the door.)

The Transit Museum declared the event a success and promised a rematch in 2014. Nerds, you have twelve months to get ready. (Click here to see more photos of the event.)

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Transportation Nation

To Replace One Station After Sandy, A Cost of $600 Million

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Three and a half years before Sandy, the NY MTA unveiled a new subway station, at South Ferry.  The station would enable far faster turn-arounds for trains than the old station build a hundred years ago, speeding commutes for tens of thousands of straphangers each day.

The new station was "visible proof that when the MTA is provided with adequate capital funding, we build monumental works for generations of New Yorkers for decades to come," then MTA Chief Jay Walder said.

But Sandy completely submerged the station, wiping out the vital signaling room.  Replacing it will cost $600 million, more than a tenth of the damage to the MTA during Sandy. It could take a year, or more.

Flyer, posted pre-Sandy, remains on the platform where it was washed up. (photo: Andrea Bernstein)

The storm flooded the station with 14.7 million gallons of brackish water that rose 80 feet up from the train beds and completely engulfed tracks, platforms, signs, and escalators.

And most critically, says Wynton Habersham, Chief Electrical Officer in charge of signals and power for NYC Transit, the relatively brand new signalling room was inundated with saltwater: live wires hardened, signals corroded, and even electronic track-moving equipment was rendered unusable. "It's like just taking your computer and dipping it in saltwater," Habersham says.

Habersham says crews tried to clean off the signals, but the corrosion reappeared, and the supplier advised junking them.

A room the size of a basketball court full of signalling equipment was completely submerged. (photo: Andrea Bernstein)

Four such relay rooms, out of some two-hundred systemwide, were submerged and rendered useless by Sandy.

The dispatcher's office in South Ferry, post-Sandy. (photo: Andrea Bernstein)

Rebuilding the brand new South Ferry station, opened only three years ago after a laborious expansion using 9/11 recovery money, will cost $600 million. Habersham says no construction will take place until the MTA can figure out how to defend the station from future storms. Possible fixes include installing a horizontal barrier over the station's entrance, raising the signal room, and protecting components from saltwater.

MTA officials say no one is contemplating not rebuilding the station, which is normally used by 30,000 of the 70,000 people who ride the Staten Island Ferry on a weekday.

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Transportation Nation

Death On The Tracks: Its Human Cost & The Labor Fight It Has Provoked

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

NYC subway train operator Ed Goetzl, an 11-year vet, has been at the controls for a pair of 12-9s, transit shorthand for someone hit by a train.

(New York, NY - WNYC) A spate of deaths on the subway tracks has led to a confrontation between the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the union representing train operators. The two sides disagree about how to reduce the number of deaths, which take a serious toll on the train operators who witness them while piloting their trains.

Train operator Ed Goetzl has had two 12-9s -- transit shorthand for hitting someone with a train. In both cases, a woman tried to commit suicide by lying on the tracks. One lived, the other did not. He says he took no more than five days off to recover, and claims that's because he didn't blame himself for the incidents.

"See, I didn't kill them," Goeztl said. "They committed suicide and I was the instrument of their suicide. That's how I look at it."

On average, three people a week are hit by subway trains and one dies. Sometimes these incidents come in clumps. Right now, we're in a clump.

Twelve people have been hit by subway trains in the three weeks since a woman pushed Sunando Sen in front of a 7 train in Queens on December 27th. Sen died, and the woman has been charged with second degree murder.

The Transport Workers Union says each death leaves a train operator prone to nightmares, trauma and the impulse to withdraw from others. After a 12-9, operators get three days off at full pay. They can also take unpaid or disability leave for up to a year. It usually takes them three to six months to return to the job.

This week, the union distributed a flyer and sent a sharp letter to MTA management. The union wants the MTA to order trains approaching stations to slow down from 30 miles per hour to 10 miles per hour to give operators more time to brake if there's a person on the tracks.

The authority doesn't like the idea. Spokesman Adam Lisberg says operators who slow trains without permission are taking part in an illegal job action that could get them suspended. It would also lead to fewer trains running per hour at some times, and potentially to overcrowding on platforms, a danger in an of itself.

Ed Goetzl disapproves: "What's really offensive is management's concept that this is about a work slow down rather than what it's really about, which is the safety of the riding public." And of train operators.

Psychologist Howard Rombom has been treating train operators for 15 years. He says motormen react in many different ways after 12-9s, but that all of them are deeply affected. At his office in Great Neck, where hundreds of traumatized train operators have sat in a chair and looked out the window at the waters of Manhasset Bay, he talks about how a 12-9 can shake up the strongest-seeming train operator.

"I remember one worker, he was a big guy, the kind of guy you wouldn't think would get upset by a situation just by virtue of the physical presence," Rombom said. "He was involved with a 12-9 episode where he hit someone coming into the station. Someone jumped in front of the train -- smiled, waved and jumped."

The operator stopped the train and calmly went through the required procedures: he found the body, did interviews with the police and MTA supervisors and submitted to a drug test. His wife and children were supportive. But as time went by, his mind kept replaying the scene. He couldn't concentrate or sleep at night and had trouble connecting to the people around him.

"He felt sort of out of it, socially separate from everybody else. He said, 'I just don't feel like myself. I want to be alone,'" Rombom said.

The man needed months of therapy, sleep medication and conversations with his fellow operators before he felt better, Rombom says. Then one day, he was ready to drive a train again.

Such recoveries are usually private affairs. But the spate of recent highly publicized deaths has spurred the union to collective action. In the end, train deaths are rare--an average of 50 out of 1.6 billion riders per year. The MTA says that number is tragically high, but not high enough to slow the entire system down.

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Transportation Nation

Your Guide to Biking to the Inauguration

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

(photo by Martin DiCaro)

No matter your mode of transportation to the second inauguration of President Barack Obama you will have to do a lot of walking, as D.C.'s police force will establish a large “hard perimeter” around the parade route closed to vehicular travel and bicycles. (A map of the restricted area is here.)

Before you begin to hoof it, however, the easiest way to get close to the National Mall may be on a bicycle.  Bicycling advocates expect thousands of people to pedal into downtown D.C. on Monday morning, and DDOT is taking steps to accommodate them.

For starters, there will be a large bicycle parking area established at 16th Street and I Street NW starting at 7 a.m.

“That’s going to hold about 700 bikes but you are going to want to bring your own lock.  It’s not valet parking but it will be supervised all day,” said DDOT planner Jim Sebastian.

As for Capital Bikeshare, there will be two special docking areas – corrals – that will accept an unlimited number of bikes: at Farragut Square in Northwest and at the USDA building at 12th Street and Independence Avenue Southwest.

“It’s essentially a bottomless station where you can come down and not have to worry about there being an empty space,” Sebastian said.

Starting today six bike share stations along the inaugural parade route will be temporarily dismantled. To make up for the closed stations, CaBi will open a temporary corral to accept bikes. You can see the list here.

For bicycling advocates, Monday presents an opportunity to show how much progress D.C. has made in becoming a bike-friendly city.

"This is going to be the first year that we have bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue during an inauguration, so President Obama is going to be riding down Pennsylvania Ave. and those bike lanes are going to be in all those photos,” said Greg Billing at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “This is a great time for us to show off to the nation that D.C. is a bike city and that we are setting an example that other cities around the country can follow.”

Remember the kerfuffle over bike share stations on the National Mall? Take a trip to March 2012 here.

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Transportation Nation

Smart Growth Collides With Transit Planning In Alexandria

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Alexandria City Council members voted for a plan to charge residents in the garage of this new affordable housing complex to discourage the use of automobiles.

(Michael Pope, Alexandria Virginia -- WAMUWhat happens when the principles of smart growth collide with transit planning? That's the case on Jefferson Davis Highway in Alexandria, where a new affordable housing complex is planned, but it comes saddled with a paid parking lot.

Land-use attorney Duncan Blair presented the application to council members as an unusual sort of "Easter egg."

"Probably this is the number one issue in the city," Blair says. "It's the number one issue on the campaign trail. So I'm like the Easter Bunny bringing you exactly what you want, which is 78 new units of affordable housing for a 60-year period."

But some neighbors say this is a case of rotten eggs.

"Duncan, why does the Easter Bunny have to park his car on East Lynhaven Drive?" asks Joe Bondi, president of Lynhaven Citizens Association.

He and many of his neighbors are concerned about the city's decision to separate parking fees from rent. The idea is to discourage the use of automobiles, but Lynhaven residents say they are concerned the new residents will park on the street.

"The choices that people make who will live in this building are different than the choices that people make who live in market-rate buildings," Bondi says.

Alexandria's two new council members opposed the city s efforts to charge extra for parking. Councilman John Taylor Chapman says many of the lower income residents who live in the building may not be able to use the bus rapid transit system to get to work.

"Maybe they are a school teacher, and maybe they don't work in Alexandria," Chapman says. "Maybe they work in Fairfax or Loudoun County or wherever. Our BRT is not going to get them to their job. They are going to need a car."

Chapman and newly-elected Vice Mayor Allision Silberberg voted against the proposal, but a majority of elected officials sided with the developer's plan to charge separately for parking and rent.

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Transportation Nation

A "Last Forest" Fights Off a Suburban Highway

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The forest, as viewed from above, is a border between urban environments.

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A coalition of homeowners groups is ready to celebrate a victory in defeating a proposal to build a highway through the last sliver of nature still standing in the concrete jungle of Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Today the transportation committee of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to kill a plan to build a road down the middle of Old Courthouse Spring Branch Park, a 33-acre green space, the last buffer between urban development and hundreds of single family homes.

The park is a border between two urban environments. As shown in this satellite imagery, the city meets the park like a tide of concrete at the shores of nature. On the other side of the narrow park, it's orderly suburbs laid out like a microchip. Two ways of living protected from each other by forest, a forest it seems, both sides want to keep.

The board is responding to the protests of the group Save Tysons Last Forest, which pleaded with county transportation planners and supervisors to pick one of the other two options under consideration; the proposed highway is part of the county’s plan to enhance the road network around Tysons Corner as its population is expected to increase dramatically over the next several decades to 100,000 people.

Tom Salvetti and his dog Kelsey. (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

“I think we are going to win, although you never know. It’s never done until it’s done, but we are very confident that the county supervisors, the congressional delegation, everyone has looked at this and said, we can’t destroy this,” said Tom Salvetti, who lives next to the park, where he walks his German Shepherd Kelsey daily.

One reason why Salvetti and his neighbors love Tysons “last forest” is its abundance of wildlife. A WAMU reporter walking the park’s leafy trails with Salvetti on Monday spotted a small herd of deer.

“And there are at least four bucks in these woods as well,” said Salvetti, who said he regularly sees fox, turtles, aquatic birds, woodpeckers, and other creatures near the forest’s stream which runs underneath Pike 7 Plaza and all the way to the Potomac.

“Having woods here in Tysons Corner is very important. Walk around Tysons. It’s all concrete and this is green space. This is dirt. This is nature,” he said.

Neighbor Lance Medric praised county leaders for listening to the complaints of residents, more than 600 of whom signed a petition, who opposed the highway plan.

“It means saving the few last trees that are still around. Everybody talks about it but it’s a lot easier to get rid of them. And this is a natural barrier between thousands of single family homes and a city,” he said.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors are expected to take the proposal to build the connection to the Dulles Toll Road through the forest off the table today. The ramp would have connected the Toll Road to an extended Boone Boulevard.

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Transportation Nation

Detroit Auto Show: Big Sales, New Models, Fuel Efficiency

Monday, January 14, 2013

A 2014 Chevrolet Corvette C7 Stingray on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

(Mitchell Hartman, Marketplace)  The North American International Auto Show has kicked off in Detroit this week. Last year clearly showed the big-three U.S. automakers were back -- after GM and Chrysler got bailouts, and Chrysler also got new investment and leadership from Fiat. Auto sales were the highest since the recession began.

Facing ambitious new federal mileage standards (fleets have to average 54.5 mpg by 2025), and higher gas prices, automakers are touting ‘fuel efficiency’ at the auto show.

And no longer is it just for mid-market compacts. Even pickups, and sports cars like the new Chevy Corvette, brag on their gas mileage.

The new Corvette -- with styling like the Stingray of the 1970s, after which it is named -- came out from under the fancy tarps yesterday at the show. GM says it’ll get much better mileage than the previous version, which did 16 mpg in the city.

Many of the premier GM, Chrysler and Ford brands are now considered as reliable and well-engineered as European and Japanese performance cars -- and they tend to be cheaper.

Hybrid gas-electric car sales were up nearly 70 percent in the U.S. last year.

But automakers are also pushing higher fuel efficiency in conventional gasoline engines. They’re using lighter metals like aluminum, magnesium, and ultra-strong plastics. Also, there are ever-smarter computers in car engines that get more ‘oomph’ on a four-cylinder engine. Diesel vehicles, which can get better mileage and have become much more clean-running, are also gaining traction in the U.S. market.

One thing that’s changed from decades past, says auto analyst Paul Eisenstein atTheDetroitBureau.com: The domestic car market has become truly international.

“Does Detroit still matter as the dominant player in the U.S. auto industry?” asks Eisenstein. “No. There’s competition from all over the world that’ll continue to grow.”

But Eisenstein says there’s a flip side -- GM has to compete with Hyundai or BMW here. And those companies have to take the U.S. automakers seriously abroad.

“Chevy had record sales last year -- significant enough,” Eisenstein says. “But 60 percent of their volume took place overseas. And a good portion of that took place in all the emerging markets, like China, Brazil and Russia.”

Automakers could have record profits this year, and luxury cars are expected to fly off showroom floors. This year at the auto show new luxury models are on display from Cadillac, Lincoln, Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, Bentley, Audi, Acura, and Maserati.

Germany’s BMW is predicting record sales again this year. Ford is predicting luxury sales will be up 7.5 percent this year -- almost double what the company anticipates for its mass-market models.

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Transportation Nation

NYC to Add Citywide 'Wayfinding' Maps to Encourage Walking, Business

Monday, January 14, 2013

(Image courtesy of NYC DOT)

Even with smartphone maps, a waffle iron street grid and numbered streets in most of Manhattan, too many pedestrians are getting lost in New York City according to the NYC Department of Transportation. The solution, or part of it, will begin rolling out in March: maps. Lots of them. Designed just for pedestrians to be placed on sidewalks and eventually on bike share stations all around the five boroughs.

"We have a great system of signage for cars, but we don't have a good system of signage for people," said Jeanette Sadik-Khan, NYC's Transportation Commissioner. (Earlier this week she unveiled newly designed, and less cluttered, parking signs). Starting in March, New York City will install 150 'wayfinding' signs on sidewalks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens as part of a citywide system that will roll out in phases at a cost of $6 million, most of it borne by the federal government, the rest by local business improvement districts.*

A sample of what NYC's new wayfinding maps will look like. Courtesy NYC DOT.

The sidewalk signage will show pedestrians where they are and which way they are facing -- a study last year found that many New Yorkers couldn't point to north when asked. Transit, local attractions, and businesses are placed on a large map of the local street grid with  circles indicating where you can reach with a five minute walk, and how long it will take to get to other attractions. Like countdown clocks in subways, knowing the time and effort involved in a trip can make it more appealing. The signs, the DOT hopes, will encourage more walking.

"We're very excited about it and think it will be a big boon, not only for visitors ... but also for business." A slowly ambling customer visiting a new neighborhood, or a new route, is much more likely to check out a new shop than a driver is to stop, park, and peek in.

"New York is a perfect place to have a wayfinding system because nearly one third of all trips are made by foot," Sadik-Khan said. A little encouragement to walk could be a tipping point to leave the car at home, she says, pointing out that a quarter of all car trips in NYC are less than a mile, a distance people could walk.

The signs will roll out in Chinatown, Midtown Manhattan, Long Island City, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. "These are heavily foot trafficked areas," she says. "The lessons that we learn there... will help us as we build a bigger system citywide."

When bike share stations are installed in May, they will include these maps. That would add several hundred more pedestrian maps in many new neighborhoods.

Here's a full length sample:

Sample design of NYC's wayfinding maps. Courtesy NYC DOT.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that the majority of the cost of the project would be borne by business improvement districts.

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Transportation Nation

Chris Quinn: Don't Talk About Bike Lanes at Dinner Parties

Friday, January 11, 2013

Bike lanes are now not good dinner party conversation.  So says New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.  "Bike lanes, I put that now in the category of things you shouldn't discuss at dinner parties, right? It used to be money and politics and religion.  Now in New York you should add bike lanes," the 2013 candidate for Mayor said, chuckling, as a luncheon audience of Broadway and tourism officials chuckled with her.

(For a famous dinner party conversation about bike lanes, read here.)

"Start wherever you want," urged WNYC's Brian Lehrer, who was hosting the event.  "But talk about bike lanes, and pedestrian malls, and all things Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan."

More chuckling.

"Bike lanes are clearly controversial," Quinn said. "And one of the problems with bike lanes -- and I'm generally a supporter of bike lanes --  but one of the problems with bike lanes has been not the concept of them, which I support, but the way the Department of Transportation has implemented them without consultation with communities and community boards. "

The City DOT disputes that, and has provided reams of evidence over the years of community board interest in bike lanes.

In her remarks, Quinn kind of acknowledged that, but still maintained there wasn't enough community notification.

"So, for example in Chelsea, the Ninth Avenue bike lane south of 23rd street was put in place -- and the Community Board Four loves the bike lane, LOVES the bike lane, been asking for bike lanes for years and years and years.  It was put in on Ninth Avenue without notification to my office, and I was speaker at the time.

"That's a problem, right?," Quinn went on. "That's a problem particularly in a community like Chelsea, where there is such interest in bike lanes but then you just create tension. It's also a problem for example in Lew Fidler's district in Brooklyn, where I'd say the jury's mixed about bike lanes.  They were okay with the idea of the bike lane, they just wanted it moved one block over. "

Quinn's remarks -- a variation of which have been uttered by many of the Democratic candidates running for Mayor -- came despite polls showing bike lanes are favored by a majority of New Yorkers.

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Transportation Nation

Thirty Years Later, is Connecticut Ready to Reinstate Tolls?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Hartford (photo by dougtone via flickr)

(Neena Satija - CT Mirror) It's been almost exactly 30 years since a tractor-trailer plowed into cars waiting at a Stratford toll barrier, triggering an explosion that killed seven people. The January 1983 crash prompted Connecticut legislators to begin phasing out tolls in the state -- and they've been banned ever since.

But if some lawmakers have their way, that could change soon. Rep. Pat Dillon, D-New Haven, will be introducing a bill this legislative session that would re-establish tolls in the state.

"Our infrastructure is crumbling," said Dillon, who has been a legislator since the 1980s when tolls were first banned. "And we don't have the money to pay for it. We're not going to have the funds we need for transportation."

Her proposal comes as Gov.Dannel P. Malloy and the state Department of Transportation have been moving to seriously study the issue of tolls, pointing out that Connecticut's revenue from its gasoline tax is set to decline steeply as cars become more fuel-efficient. The state will begin two studies early this year to consider putting tolls on two major highways - I-84 west in the Hartford area, and I-95 between New Haven and New York.

Highway tolls are gaining more acceptance in other states -- most recently, Los Angeles County, which implemented the first tolls in its history last November.

"It's not just Connecticut where this is becoming an issue," said Tom Maziarz, director of the DOT's Bureau of Policy and Planning. "This is an issue nationwide in terms of the amount of funding available for transportation."

Drivers paid tolls all over the state before the 1980s. There were several toll stations on I-95 and Route 52, on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, and on Hartford-area bridges including the Charter Oak. The Connecticut Turnpike alone generated $56 million in revenue in its last year of collections.

Maziarz said he doesn't have an estimate of how much money tolls could bring in today. The DOT studies (which will cost about $2.2 million, mostly paid for by federal funds) will focus more on how the state might reinstate tolls, and for what purpose.

"Congestion pricing," which refers to using tolls meant to reduce traffic at peak hours, has become a popular term in many transportation circles. On I-95, congestion relief is critical, with 16 million hours of delay in the area between Bridgeport and Stamford experienced due to traffic in 2007, the last year for which figures were available. (In 1983, the number was under 5 million). The DOT estimates that delays on I-95 and I-91 cost a total of $670 million in lost productivity that year.

But reducing traffic through tolls on the highway won't be easy. I-95's "peak" period lasts from 6:15 a.m. to well after 10 a.m., and many drivers may not be able or willing to shift their time of travel in order to save money. Other possible routes, like the main roads in towns hugging the highway or the Merritt Parkway, are just as congested.

Another option would be adding new lanes that are toll-only -- a costly proposition in terms of construction and land acquisition. Or, all or some of the lanes on the current highway could be pay lanes -- but that may run afoul of federal requirements that generally do not allow tolls on interstate highways, and therefore deprive the state of needed federal funds.

"The goal is congestion relief," Maziarz said. "What we don't know yet is whether or not electronic tolling can do it, or what combination of electronic tolling and highway improvements and transit improvements are necessary to do it."

When it comes to putting tolls on I-84, the state's focus will be somewhat different. While revenues collected on I-95 could go toward a variety of improvements -- like fixing old roadways and bridges on the interstate, or even beefing up the railway system -- tolls on I-84 are seen as a possible option for financing the reconstruction of the Aetna Viaduct in Hartford.

The elevated roadway through downtown Hartford was built in 1965 and is in desperate need of repair.

"It's reached a point that in order to keep it functioning in a safe manner, it's very expensive and very disruptive," Maziarz said. "We just spent on the order of $25-35 million just within the last year or so with a relatively small repair project out there, where we focused on the bridge joints."

Replacing the whole viaduct, he said, will cost at least $1 billion to $2 billion.

With so many other issues facing the legislature this session, it's not clear whether Dillon's bill to put tolls back on the table will get much attention. Fairfield County legislators are also still very wary of a law that could, many say, disproportionately affect residents in that area.

"I've met so many people, certainly from the Greenwich area, that are opposed to it, that remember what it was like when they had them back in the early '80s and beyond," said Rep. Larry Cafero, a Republican from Norwalk. "So it's a mixed bag."

At the same time, Cafero said, things have changed since the 1980s. Back then, following the Stratford crash, thousands of people marched in protest of tolls because of the potential for accidents at toll booths. There were also concerns about the pollution caused by so many cars braking constantly to pay the toll.

Much of that is no longer a concern, as tolls are often paid electronically now. The DOT's studies will only consider reinstating tolls using an electronic method of payment, such as the EZ-Pass system in use throughout the Northeast.

"I think technology has come a long enough way that it's certainly prudent to look into it," Cafero said.

However, he noted, "for every person that has an EZ-Pass, there's many who don't. And I look to the right of me, and I see lines going back with idling cars for quite some distance of people doing it the old-fashioned way."

Follow Neena Satija on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

Pulaski Skyway to Close for Two Years; No New Rail Tunnel on Horizon

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Pulaski Skyway (photo by Paul Lowry via flickr)

The Pulaski Skyway -- an 80-year old elevated highway that carries 67,000 cars a day in New Jersey -- will partially close for two years beginning in 2014.

The highway runs between Newark and Jersey City and serves as a major feeder for cars and buses accessing the Holland Tunnel into downtown Manhattan. It will shut down to traffic after the completion of the 2014 Super Bowl, being held in the nearby Meadowlands.

The NJ Department of Transportation says it needs that time to entirely replace the existing deck, upgrade ramps, paint and seismically retrofit the Pulaski, which is in "poor condition." The work will cost $1 billion.

While deck work is ongoing, northbound lanes will be closed entirely for two years. Two southbound travel lanes will remain open.

Speaking Thursday in Newark, the state's transportation commissioner, James Simpson, said the work amounts to "basically a new bridge in place." He acknowledged the disruption closing the roadway would cause, but said "we couldn't leave it in its existing state. The only decision was to reconstruct it in place."

The Pulaski is considered "functionally obsolete" because it no longer conforms to modern design standards, and in 2011 the Texas Transportation Institute rated it the sixth least reliable road in the country. (It also ranked #8 on Jalopnik's less scientific list of "the most terrifying roads in the world.") The state says the work will extend the life of the structure by at least 75 years.

The closure of the roadway will have a ripple effect. Drivers who head north to enter the city via the Lincoln Tunnel will find not only crowds, but delays from another massive rehabilitation project -- the Port Authority's ongoing upgrade of the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel known as the helix. Meanwhile, NJ Transit has reached maximum capacity and can't run additional trains into Penn Station. The PATH system is similarly burdened.

As Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow with the Regional Plan Association, puts it: "The automobile options are now worse for two years, and there's no relief in site from point of view of a new rail crossing."

Zupan is referring to the ARC project, an $8.7 billion trans-Hudson tunnel that, when completed, would have boosted rail capacity between New Jersey and New York. Construction on the new tunnel began in 2009 -- only to be cancelled in 2010 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who said the state couldn't afford it.

Christie is using the money set aside for the ARC tunnel to shore up roads and bridges in the state -- among them, the Pulaski Skyway.

Preliminary work is underway on a study for the next iteration of a new rail tunnel -- this one known as Gateway -- but shovels are nowhere near ready to turn dirt.

"You've really created a perfect storm of transportation chaos -- you haven't created a new transit option and you've made driving options worse," says Zupan.

Another view of the Pulaski, spanning the Passaic & Hackensack Rivers in Jersey City (CC via wikimedia commons)

The Skyway is named for General Casimir Pulaski, a Polish-born hero of the Revolutionary War. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. And it was also referenced in Orson Welles' 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds. "The enemy now turns east," reads a line in the script, "crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes. Another straddles the Pulaski Skyway."

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