Streams

 

Featured

Transportation Nation

Houston to Expand Bike Share

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Houston B-Cycle (image courtesy of @houstonbcycle)

(Laurie Johnson - Houston, KUHF) Houston officials rolled out a small bike share program last May with three kiosks and 18 bikes downtown. In less than eight months of operation, 1,200 people joined and checked out bikes 2,000 times.

Now, the program is expanding: in March, the program will bulk up to 200 bikes at 24 kiosks.

Read the whole story at KUHF.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

NY Gov Plans for Flood-Proof Subways, Open Transpo Data, Coastal Barriers (Full Document)

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The new Tappan Zee Bridge features prominently in the heroic graphic cover of the New York State 2013 State of the State book. (Click to enlarge)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to flood-proof the NYC subway system using inflatable bladders, roll down gates and new pumps.

He wants to install a statewide network of electric car charging stations.

Those were some of the ideas advanced in his annual  State of the State speech and accompanying 300 page book detailing his agenda for 2013.

The books cover shows a new Tappan Zee bridge rising over a flood-ravaged home, with the capitol building in New York as the connecting image.   Get it?

We've pulled out some of the parts related to transportation and infrastructure for you. Most of them fall under the heading of Sandy rebuilding and storm resilience.

Here some bullet points (not including the Adirondack Whitewater rafting challenge.)

Page 233: "Take Immediate Steps to Protect Transportation Systems Against Future Storm Events

"New York State’s transportation infrastructure encompasses a vast network of Interstates, state highways, local roads, public transit systems, waterways, bike networks, and walking facilities. Our transportation systems link to airports and marine ports that connect New York to the rest of the country and the world. Downstate, New York City boasts the most comprehensive and complex transportation network in the country that supports a region of national and global significance. Overall, the State’s transportation infrastructure is vital to the health of our economy, environment, and well-being.

"Recent severe events, such as Superstorm Sandy, Tropical Storm Lee, Hurricane Irene and the 2010 snowstorm, have revealed vulnerabilities in our transportation infrastructure. Much of it is aging and susceptible to damage from extreme weather events or seismic threats, and many facilities, such as tunnels and airports, have been built in locations that are increasingly at risk of flooding. Steps must be taken to make the State’s transportation infrastructure more resilient to future severe events. To protect and maintain our economy, mobility and public safety, Governor Cuomo has sought federal support to repair and mitigate our transportation systems to better withstand future threats.

"The following measures should be taken to make our transportation systems stronger in the face of future storms. With federal assistance, these measures can and will be taken by the MTA and other State agencies and authorities to harden our transportation systems against future threats:

  • Flood-proof subways and bus depots with vertical roll-down doors, vent closures, inflatable bladders, and upsized fixed pumps (with back-up power sources);
  • Mitigate scour on road and rail bridges with strategically placed riprap and other steps;
  • Replace metal culverts with concrete on roads in flood-prone areas;
  • Providing elevated or submersible pump control panels, pump feeders, and tide gates to address flooding at vulnerable airports;
  • Install reverse flow tide gates to prevent flooding of docks, berths, terminal facilities, and connecting road and rail freight systems, and harden or elevate communication and electrical power infrastructure that services port facilities; and
  • Upgrade aged locks and movable dams to allow for reliable management of water levels and maintain embankments to protect surrounding communities from flooding.

 

We reported earlier in the week base on a draft report, the NYS2100 commission to harden NY against future storms recommended among other things, a new bus rapid transit system. Here is how results of the NYS 2100 commission are summarized officially in Cuomo's book.

Page 225: "The NYS2100 Commission reviewed the vulnerabilities faced by the State’s infrastructure systems and have worked to develop specific recommendations that can be implemented to increase New York’s resilience in five main areas: transportation, energy, land use, insurance, and infrastructure finance. The Commission seeks to:

• Identify immediate actions that should be taken to mitigate or strengthen existing infrastructure systems—some of which suffered damage in the recent storms—to improve normal functioning and to withstand extreme weather more effectively in the future;
• Identify infrastructure projects that would, if realized over a longer term, help to bring not only greater climate resilience but also other significant economic and quality of life benefits to New York State’s communities;
• Assess long-term options for the use of “hard” barriers and natural systems to protect coastal communities;
• Create opportunities to integrate resilience planning, protection and development approaches into New York’s economic development decisions and strategies; and
• Shape reforms in the area of investment, insurance and risk management related to natural disasters and other emergencies."

 

Cuomo also promises more open data, which would include quicker access to transportation data held in State Agencies -- several other states including New Jersey and Illinois already do this.

Page 203: "Open New York will provide easy, single-stop access to statewide and agency-level data, reports, statistics, compilations and information. Data will be presented in a common, downloadable, easy-to-access format, and will be searchable and mappable. The Open New York web portal will allow researchers, citizens, business and the media direct access to high-value data, which will be continually added to and expanded, so these groups can use the data to innovate for the benefit of all New Yorkers."

 

And here's the lofty language used around the new Tappan Zee Bridge, which we have covered extensively.

Page ix: "We set out to bridge the divide between yesterday and tomorrow, what was and what can be, dysfunction and performance, cynicism and trust, gridlock and cooperation to make government work.
And we are.

Look at our progress on replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge. We did in one year what was only talked about for the past ten years. The new Tappan Zee Bridge is BIG, BOLD and BEAUTIFUL. [Emphasis original]

My friends, I would like to say that our job is done. But, we have much more to do."

 

And in more detail on page 4: "Governor Cuomo, working with the State Legislature, enacted a new law allowing the use of design-build techniques on New York Works projects.1 This streamlines the contracting process by holding a single contractor accountable for both the design of the project and its actual construction, with the potential to save 9 to 12 months on the project timeline for bridge repair and construction.

"The centerpiece of the New York Works infrastructure program is the replacement of the Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson Valley, which has been needed for years. Plans for a new bridge were announced more than ten years ago. The State held 430 public meetings and explored 150 different bridge concepts. But New Yorkers still had not seen any results. Governor Cuomo put forward a plan for a new bridge that considered the future transit needs of the region; the plan increases lanes for drivers, creates emergency lanes and shoulders to handle accidents, includes a pedestrian and bike lane for the benefit of local communities, and will boost the economy of the region by creating and sustaining 45,000 jobs. And about one year later, on December 17, 2012, the Thruway Authority awarded a contract for the new bridge at a cost $800 million less than the next lowest bidder and approximately $2 billion less than the original estimate. Work on construction will begin in 2013.
New York’s typically high energy costs have long been a barrier to growth of the state economy. The Energy Highway initiative, introduced in the 2012 State of the State address, is a centerpiece of the Governor’s Power NY agenda, which was put in place to ensure that New York’s energy grid is the most advanced in the nation and to promote increased business investment in the state. In October 2012, the Energy Highway Blueprint was launched, identifying specific actions to modernize and expand the state’s electric infrastructure. The comprehensive plan, supported by up to $5.7 billion in public and private investments, will add up to 3,200 megawatts of additional electric generation and transmission capacity and clean power generation."

 

Full document here:

NY State of the State Book by

Read More

Comments [3]

Transportation Nation

Virginia Governor Proposes Eliminating State Gasoline Tax

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (photo via flickr)

Virginia would become the first state in the country to eliminate its gasoline tax if a major transportation funding plan proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is approved by the General Assembly.

Revenue from the state gas tax of 17.5 cents per gallon, last raised by lawmakers in 1986, would be replaced by an increase in the state sales tax. That rate is currently 5 percent; the governor wants to raise it to 5.8 percent.

McDonnell’s proposal would also increase by half the portion of the sales tax already dedicated to road maintenance and operations. However, during the first three years, that tax would provide $300 million for the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport -- a $5.5 billion project that Virginia has funded only $150 million to date.

“Transportation is a core function of government.  Children can’t get to school; parents waste too much time in traffic; and businesses can’t move their goods without an adequate and efficient transportation system,” said McDonnell at an afternoon news conference, flanked by members of the General Assembly who will dissect his sweeping proposals during the 45-day legislative session.

If lawmakers pass the governor’s entire plan, which also includes higher vehicles registration fees and a $100 charge on electric and natural gas vehicles, Virginia would receive more than $3 billion over five years to fund road construction and transit development, including intercity passenger rail.

A primary aim of the funding package is to stop the yearly transfer of construction dollars from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund to required maintenance projects, a process that will leave the fund empty by the end of the decade.

“My transportation funding and reform package is intended to address the short and long-term transportation funding needs of the Commonwealth. Declining funds for infrastructure maintenance, stagnant motor fuels tax revenues, increased demand for transit and passenger rail, and the growing cost of major infrastructure projects necessitate enhancing and restructuring the Commonwealth’s transportation program,” McDonnell said.

The governor has indicated in recent weeks that the state gasoline tax’s diminishing returns minimizes its effectiveness in raising new revenues.  Higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, among other factors, have eaten into the tax’s buying power. The 17.5 cents per gallon tax currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, although the tax has lost 55 percent of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation since 1986, the last time it was raised.

Instead of raising the tax or pegging it to annual inflation adjustments, the governor wants to eliminate it, although the state diesel tax would remain in place. Virginia would then abandon a fundamental premise of transportation funding: motorists who use the roads pay for the roads in the form of taxes.

“If this were adopted it would mean there would be no relationship to the extent to which people use the transportation network and what they actually pay for it," said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which favors road construction as a solution to traffic congestion.

"It's a dramatic proposal to shift funding from the gas tax to the sales tax, and we're going to have to look at what it means when you disconnect the tax from the actual use of the roadways,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and frequent critic of the McDonnell administration’s funding priorities.

The General Assembly has for years evaded the responsiblity of injecting significant new tax revenue into transportation. While all observers agree the state’s needs total in the billions, there is no consensus on the best way forward. To Schwartz, prioritizing road construction amounts to squandering precious funds that could be used to develop public transit systems.

"Instead of addressing metropolitan area needs, the administration is spending $1.2 billion on Rt. 460, $200 to $400 million on the Charlottesville Bypass, and proposing to spend billions on the Coalfields Expressway and an estimated $2 billion on a Northern Virginia outer beltway,” he said.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

While Detroit Gains Ground, Japanese Automakers Stumble in China

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A Toyota dealership in Qingdao was burned by protestors in a dispute over an island chain claimed by both China and Japan.

(Paul Eisenstein - The Detroit Bureau) General Motors and Ford Motor Co. have ended 2012 with all-time sales records in China — but the news is nowhere near as good for Japanese makers.

Stung by a dispute between China and Japan over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, Toyota, Nissan and Honda have all suffered a sharp decline in sales in what has become the world’s largest automotive market.

While General Motors has yet to release its final figures for 2012, the maker already passed its previous peak by the end of November, the 2.59 million vehicles it sold for all of 2011. GM has set a goal of boosting sales in China to 5 million by mid-decade.

[Related story: GM Sets Another New Sales Record in China – And it’s Not Alone.]

Ford, meanwhile, has confirmed its sales in China rose 21% last year, to 626,616, also an all-time high. The maker was a relative latecomer to the Chinese market but has been aggressively expanding both its product portfolio and production capacity over the last several years.

“Record 2012 sales highlight the positive response our customers have for our full portfolio of high-quality, safe, fuel-efficient and smart vehicles,” John Lawler, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor China, said in a statement. “Their enthusiasm for Ford cars validates our aggressive plan to introduce 15 new vehicles, double production capacity and double our China dealership network — all by 2015.”

Chrysler has also been pushing into record territory, though its volumes have been much smaller than its cross-town rivals. That’s ironic because Chrysler was the first Western maker to build vehicles in China, or more precisely through its Jeep subsidiary. But its original operation was assumed by former partner Mercedes-Benz following the break-up of the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler AG.

[Related story: Chinese Reportedly Eyeing Stake in Daimler AG]

Under new partner Fiat SpA, Chrysler is again making an aggressive push to expand in China.

Japanese makers were also slow to enter the Chinese market, in part to long-standing enmity between the two nations dating back to Japan’s brutal occupation of its neighbor during World War II. That simmering disdain came back to a boil when the Japanese government decided to buy what it calls the Senkoku Island chain last September.

That set off rioting in China, the bigger nation also laying claim to what it calls the Daioyu Islands. A number of Japanese-owned vehicles were destroyed and a Toyota dealership was even torched in what many observers believe were government-tolerated, if not sanctioned, riots.

Japanese industry executives had previously telegraphed the likelihood of declining sales in China which, they also cautioned, would hurt their earnings for the rest of the 2012 fiscal year – which closes on March 31, 2013.

Nissan took the biggest hit, sales declining 5.3% for calendar-year 2012, to 1.2 million vehicles. Nissan has been the most aggressive of the Japanese makers operating in China, among other things setting up the new Venucia brand with its partner there, Donfeng Motors.

Toyota suffered a 4.9% drop in volume last year, to 840,000. Honda’s China sales slipped 3.1%, to 599,000. Prior to the dispute over the Senkoku/Daioyu Islands, Toyota had expected to see a 10% jump in sales in China, reaching 1 million for the first time.

The market for Japanese products has begun to improve, Toyota China spokesman Niu Yu telling the Wall Street Journal, “Sales are getting better day by day, but it’s still hard to say when we can get back to the pre-protest level,” said.

But it’s unclear how quickly there will be a full recovery. Nissan, for example, suffered a 41% drop in demand in October, shortly after the dispute began, but sales were still off 24%, year-over-year, in December.

Follow The Detroit Bureau on Twitter.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

NYC Unclutters Parking Signs

Monday, January 07, 2013

NYC unclutters Midtown parking signs. (Graphic via NYC DOT)

New York city is de-cluttering the design of parking signs starting today in Midtown Manhattan, where a slew of parking rules that change depending on the hour and day are laid out in signs that vary in font, color, format and height. Misreading signs can lead to fines well above $100.

The new signs are (almost) fit for twitter. With streamlined phrasing, they reduce the number of characters needed to explain the commercial metered parking zone rules from 250 characters to "about 140," the NYC Department of Transportation said in a statement. By fitting the same information in less space, the DOT says it will save money because the new smaller signage will be cheaper to produce.

“New York City’s parking signs can sometimes be a five-foot-high totem pole of confusing information,” said Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in a statement.

The updated signs are simpler and easier to read with a consistent two-color layout and a uniform font.

"The basic way these had been done is like a playbill for a music hall in 1845," said Michael Beirut partner at Pentagram, the design firm that created the new look. The old way was, "Pick the most important thing and put that first, center everything," and make it fit by changing font width and placement. "We just tried to make it feel a little bit more sober and subdued and in control," he said.

That was achieved, in part, by shifting the focus from prohibitive phrasing to permissive phrasing, he said. "The old signs read like, 'no one can park here except...' So the new signs flip that to lead with the positive, what you are allowed to do," he said.

The new look makes a few updates that seem obvious in hindsight like placing the day of the regulation before the hours of the regulation and eliminating abbreviations. The hierarchy of information is changed as well. The message of the threatening red "No Standing" sign is now blended with other parking regulations in these commercial parking zones. The big red sign is gone, it's message captured with one line, "others no standing"  added to other signs.

According to the DOT renderings, the messy blue "Pay at Muni-Meter" signs will also go. Once they were a necessary bit of visual clutter for the city's transition away from old fashioned parking meters. The last individual parking meter in Manhattan was jack hammered out of commission with camera's watching in 2011. So long ago that the DOT assumes drivers will know to look down the block for the new meters with a sign.

“You shouldn't need a Ph.D in parking signage to understand where you are allowed to leave your car in New York," said City Council Member Daniel Garodnick in a emailed statement that referred to him as "a longtime supporter of syntactic clarity."

"I was pleased to work directly with DOT, removing unnecessary words in these signs," Garodnick said.

Proving that any effort to make parking easier in Manhattan is worthy of political fanfare, the unveiling of the new design this morning drew not just Sadik-Khan, head of the NYC DOT and darling of the black glasses set, but also the speaker of the City Council and leading mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, along with Garodnick who first proposed simplifying the signs in 2011.

David Gibson of the  design firm Two Twelve, and author of "The Wayfinding Handbook, Information Design for Public Places," sees the changes as a chance for a more radical redesign of street signage. Overall, he said of the new look, "It's a bit of an improvement. It seems like they could have pushed the envelope a little further. It's very much in the vernacular of what parking signs are like now. Maybe this was an opportunity to go a little further, I mean, this is New York city where we break new ground and push the envelope."

The signs will be installed in Manhattan's commercial metered parking zones, throughout Midtown, as well as  some areas in the Financial District, the Upper East Side and Lower East Side. Other parts of the city will get the re-designed signage in the future.

Read More

Comments [2]

Transportation Nation

Draft Report: To Withstand Storms, Build a Bigger Bus System

Monday, January 07, 2013

MTA "Bus Bridge" After Sandy replaced some subway service (NY MTA photo)

To better survive the economic impact of big storms like Sandy, New York needs a "world class" bus rapid transit system.   That's one of the major recommendations in a draft report commissioned by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on how to rebuild New York infrastructure post-Sandy.

Bus Rapid Transit -- basically, fast buses which run on segregated lanes where users pay off board -- mimics a subway system by planning bus routes that can run almost as quickly through streets as trains can underground.

Such a system could be less vulnerable to floods and more able to restart service after big storms.  It would also be able to connect neighborhoods that would otherwise be stranded by subway service disruptions.

"A world class BRT network would enhance the resilience and redundancy of the overall transit system," according to a draft copy of the report which was leaked to the New York Times.  The report contained no specific recommendations for funding the system.

It also doesn't address the thorny political question which frequently accompanies BRT proposals -- that of of turning over road space traditionally used by cars to buses only.

The recommendation is part of a set of proposals drawn up by the NYS2100 Commission, one of three large commissions set up by Governor Cuomo to address rebuilding New York in the wake of storm Sandy, which caused over $30 billion in damage.   The two other commissions, on emergency response and preparedness, delivered their findings directly to the governor last week.  No word on when the final 2100 report will be presented to the Governor, or whether or how he'll adopt its recommendations.

BRT advocates, like the Institute for Transportation Development Policy, argue that BRT can be built far more quickly and cheaply than subways. The Second Avenue subway has been under development for half a century, by contrast.

"Financial support from the State would be welcome in helping to bring New York City’s ongoing bus system improvement efforts closer to world class ‘gold standard’ BRT," said ITDP CEO Walter Hook in a statement.  "A world-class BRT system would not only have fully dedicated lanes that keep the buses separate from traffic, and off-board fare collection, but also beautiful iconic stations with platforms that allow people to step directly onto the bus."

The NYS2100 commission is co-chaired by Rockefeller Foundation Chairwoman Judith Rodin and financier Felix Rohatyn. (Rockefeller also funds Transportation Nation.)

The Governor's office didn't comment on the draft report, and an MTA spokesman, Adam Lisberg, said the report's recommendations had not been shared with the MTA.

During storm Sandy, the MTA's temporary "bus bridge," which replaced subway service during the period when all the East River tunnels were flooded, came as close to New York has seen of having a true BRT.   Though there were long lines to board the buses, the buses, aided by police officers stationed at every corner, zipped through city streets.  The ride from the East Village to Barclay's Center in Brooklyn took about 12 minutes.

The city has also installed several "select bus service" lines, which adopt some features of BRT, including off-board payment.

"BRT corridors that serve as connectors to the subway system would provide riders with muliple options for connections and access to the core," the report said.

The draft report suggests creating a bus line that would run the length of southern Brooklyn, connecting the D, F, B and Q lines,  and a east-west corridor connecting  neigborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant to lines that run through Brownstone Brooklyn, Midwood, and Coney Island.

The draft report notes that transit ridership has increased 60 percent since 1990, but bus line speeds overall have decreased by 11 percent.

 

 

Read More

Comments [4]

Transportation Nation

INTERVIEW: Author Jeff Speck Explains What Makes a City Walkable

Friday, January 04, 2013

 

Manhattan pedestrians, stepping peppily (photo by Kate Hinds)

Manhattan pedestrians, stepping peppily (photo by Kate Hinds)

LISTEN to this interview that aired on Marketplace or read a summary below. 

(Sarah Gardner -- Marketplace) What makes a city walkable? According to Jeff Speck, the author of "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time," a walk has to be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting if you're going to get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks.

"The pedestrian has to have a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles," says Speck, "but also the streets need to be comfortable in the way they're shaped by buildings, and you can't have a bunch of blank walls and parking lots to walk by."

Speck says that 77 percent of Millennials want to live urban cores. Of course, New York, Chicago and San Francisco have done a good job keeping their cities pedestrian-friendly, but Speck says no city has put the thought into walkability that Portland, Ore., has.

"The VMT [vehicle miles traveled] of your typical Portlander peaked in 1996," says Speck who lauds Portland for a long-term strategy to minimize the importance of the car, "and as a result, one economist has calculated that about 3.5 percent of GDP is money saved by driving less."

Many cities are doing good things to make their cities more walkable, but Speck says most average American cities still have a long way to go to become truly walkable. Why? The car is still the driving force in city planning.

"A city is being planned not by its mayor," says Speck, "but by a public works director who is responding to complaints about traffic and parking."


The majority of Americans still drive alone in a car to and from work. But in cities and states across the nation, the commuter population is turning to carpools, public transportation, walking, and bikes. Explore this interactive map on how America gets to work.

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

Fiscal Cliff Legislation Equalizes Transit Tax Benefit

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

LIRR commuters (photo by @MSG via flickr)

After a year of lobbying, transit advocates finally won.

As part of legislation passed Tuesday, pre-tax benefits for transit are now on par with parking benefits. Individuals who get commuter benefits from their employers can now look forward to (about) $240 a month. The measure is particularly meaningful to suburban commuters, who can easily spend more than that amount on transit.

Note section 203.

The back story: on December 31, 2011, legislation equalizing transit benefits expired. So for 2012, transit riders received a $125 monthly benefit, although parking remained at $240--a thorn in the side for politicians from transit-dependent states. Last March, New York Senator Charles Schumer authored legislation to re-equalize the benefit, but it wasn't acted on until the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Transit advocates hailed the legislation. "We've been pushing for transit equity for months," said Rob Healy, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association. "From our perspective, we felt it was very, very important that the federal tax code not bias one mode versus another." He added: "You shouldn’t be making your choices based on a tax code which treats parking better than it does transit."

Veronica Vanterpool, the head of the Tri State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for transit riders in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, said  when the benefit expired, "it was a de-facto tax increase for transit commuters. It's ludicrous that Congress would incentivize driving over public transportation. So we are particularly pleased that this was restored...we know a lot of our region's senators have really pushed for that."

Vanterpool said about 700,000 people in the tri-state region take advantage of the benefit. And: it's retroactive to January 1, 2012, although the mechanism for calculating those past benefits hasn't yet been determined.

But the current benefit also expires at the end of 2013 -- meaning transit advocates must begin spooling up again.

“It is our hope that in the new Congress, legislation will pass to make the public transit commuter benefit parity permanent,” said APTA president Michael Melaniphy. Vanterpool echoed that sentiment. "Moving forward," she said, "we need to make sure this is a permanent restoration and that we're not dealing with this battle every year."

 

 

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW Washington, D.C: Silver Lines, Express Lanes, Gentrification, and Scandal

Monday, December 31, 2012

(photo by Wally G)

The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future.  In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.

1) The Silver Line

When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018.  Outstanding issues remain, however.  The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.  Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.

2) I-495 Express Lanes

A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County.  Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built.  Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.

3) Transit and Gentrification

Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States.  While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.

4) The Uber Battle for the Ages

After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber.  This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize.  In the end Uber won.  And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.

5) MWAA’s woes

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention.  But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons.  Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices.  Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

Year in Review New York: Sandy, Buses, Tappan Zee -- and Abandoned Bikes

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 tested New York's transportation infrastructure like no other year in recent memory.

Sandy

Sandy's storm surge flooded hundred-year-old tunnels, drowned power stations, and inflicted a commuting nightmare on millions of Northeast residents for weeks. It also caused a mini-boom in bike ridership -- and elevated climate change to a hot topic in transportation planning.

New York and New Jersey were both hit hard, but each state planned --and responded --  differently. NJ Transit took heavy damage with major routes offline for weeks after parking trains in a flood plain, because, as one executive said, "we thought we had 20 years to respond to climate change." That decision cost the agency $100 million. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was also hit by unprecedented flooding. While in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying the next generation of infrastructure must take climate change into consideration, we learned that across the river, Governor Chris Christie had deep-sixed his state's climate change research department.

The NYC subway was known to be vulnerable to a powerful storm surge, and flooded as predicted. In the storm's aftermath, the agency furiously tweeted updates and churned out service maps with lightning speed - .gif -- impressing even traditionally harsh critics. But while much of the damage was dealt with quickly, other assets -- like the South Ferry subway station, and the A train out to the Rockaways -- remain unrestored. Also unclear: how the agency will cover the $5 billion in damages. So far, the plan is to take on debt rather than pile on to an already scheduled fare hike.

Our complete Sandy coverage is here.

The entrance to the downtown 1 train at Broadway and 79th Street, pre-storm (photo by Kate Hinds)

A New Tappan Zee Bridge Moves from Idea to Design Plan

The aging Tappan Zee Bridge is being replaced at the cost of several billion dollars -- making it the largest contract ever awarded in New York State. After a lengthy debate about adding transit, which some argued should at least include a plan for bus rapid transit, Cuomo said speed and cost outweighed the merits of adding a rail line.  Transit advocates howled, and some key county officials held up a vote -- but the governor's vision ultimately prevailed: the bridge will be 'transit-ready' -- meaning plans for a rail link or a fully iterated BRT line have been tabled for a future date.

Meanwhile, the issue of how to pay for the bridge has yet to be resolved. The bridge wasn't included in the first round of federal TIFIA loans; the state has since re-applied. The governor said the brunt of the cost would come from tolls -- but the backlash to the idea of a $14 crossing was swift.  A builder was chosen this month (see pics) and work will begin after the state comptroller okays the contract. The new bridge is scheduled to open in 2018.

And no, the old bridge won't be preserved as a greenway. The NY State Thruway Authority -- the agency in charge of the project -- will demolish it.

The winning Tappan Zee design

Street Safety Investigations

We'll have more on this in the new year, but our work on monitoring safe streets in NYC continued with two investigative reports. In our report "Walking While Poor" we found that, in New Jersey, it is more dangerous to be a pedestrian in low income neighborhoods.

And in New York City, our report Killed While Cycling, uncovered why so few fatal bike crashes lead to arrest. The laws just aren't written to punish vehicle crashes with a criminal response and the NYPD has just 19 detectives assigned to investigate criminality when a car or truck hits someone or something. The department argues more lives can be saved by preventative methods, like speed traps. The result, families of those killed on NYC streets rarely feel justice is done.

After deadly crashes, Chinatown buses wane -- and Bolt and Megabus move in.

New York was the original nexus of a curbside bus network that became known as Chinatown buses because they picked up passengers from unofficial bus stops in Chinatowns up and down the Northeast corridor. But the busy corner under the Manhattan Bridge that was once the nexus of this travel network is now mostly empty.

After a deadly year of crashes in 2011, many said the industry was unsafe. While confused travelers tried to figure out just who regulates Chinatown buses, the government took notice. In June, the U.S. DOT shut down 26 bus companies that operate along the most popular routes: the I-95 corridor from New York to Florida. The DOT called it the “largest single safety crackdown in the agency’s history." 

And while some Chinatown buses are still discreetly operating, they're losing market share: mainstream bus companies like Greyhound are expanding their curbside businesses, actively meeting with community boards to add stops in Chinatown itself.

The driver of the bus crash that killed 15 in 2011, Ophadell Williams, was acquitted of manslaughter charges in December.

Abandoned Bikes

This is one story that became way bigger than we expected. It started out simply enough: Transportation Nation asked readers to help map all of the abandoned bikes in New York City. (For those unfamiliar with NYC: abandoned bikes are strewn about our sidewalks like cigarette butts after a party, the detritus of modern mobility.) We wanted to know how many of these bike carcasses there were, and why they stayed so long encumbering walkways, taking up prime bike parking without being removed by authorities.

The response was overwhelming, both for our humble project and for the city. We found more than 500 busted bikes, cataloged in photos sent in from WNYC listeners. We mapped them through an online civic action platform (SeeClickFix )that anyone could update.

When we began to get inquiries from artists and abandoned bike fans (yes, they exist), we picked out our favorite bike photos from the stack and shared them with each other. WNYC listeners called in to confess and explained why they left cycles to rust away. The project spread to Washington, D.C. A nonprofit offered to recycle them. Several photographers sent in links to their own portfolios of abandoned bike art. And so we collected authentic abandoned bikes and turned them into an art exhibit. Meanwhile, the city also promised to collect more of them as they streamlined the process for reporting and removal.

See the full project here.

Ragged rusty bikes hide within the sleek and modern Jerome L. Greene Performance Space

Lost Subways of New York

We kicked off 2012 with a look at the subway system that never was: dozens of tunnels and platforms that were either abandoned or were built but never used. They form a kind of ghost system that reveals how the city’s transit ambitions have been both realized and thwarted.

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

Drought Lowers Mississippi, Holding Up Barge Traffic

Friday, December 28, 2012

The confluence of the St. Croix (TOP) and Mississippi Rivers (BOTTOM) is seen from the air on May 31, 2012. (Karen Bleier/AFP-Getty Images)

(Eve Troeh, Marketplace) This year's drought is plaguing more than farmers. The Mississippi River is at its lowest water level in decades, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in emergency mode to keep barge traffic moving.

A stretch of the river from St. Louis, Missouri to Cairo, Illinois is so low right now, jagged bedrock is close to the surface. That could scrape or even puncture the huge barges that silently float the river. Each one normally carries 70 semi trucks worth of very heavy stuff, and they ship in groups 40 or so barges at a time.

Lynn Muench, Senior Vice President of Regional Affairs with American Waterways Operators, a trade group, says barges mostly ship heavy things that would be too expensive to send by rail or truck alone. That includes petroleum products, chemicals, sand, gravel, and salt for the roads this time of year.

One timely load some of these stalled barges are carrying? Fertilizer for spring planting.

She says the fleets of barges have lightened their loads, so they don't sink so deep in the water. For the next several week, barring heavy rain, the boat captains will have to have to line up all day, waiting, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers breaks up the rock. They can only pass in the night, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

"The price to move everything has almost doubled," says Muench.

She says the Army Corps should've seen this coming and busted up the rocks sooner. Mike Petersen, a corps spokesman in St. Louis, recognizes that the slowdown is annoying, but notes it is the best option, long-term.

"This is something that'll give us a permanent improvement in that stretch," he says.

He expects to finish the work in a few weeks. The drought, he says, could go on for years.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Uncovered: The Secret Routes of Silicon Valley Company Shuttles

Thursday, December 27, 2012

@jimgreer posted this photo of a Google bus on Twitter: "@google bus stuck at 23rd and Chattanooga."

(Queena Kim - Marketplace) By now you’ve heard about the perks that come with working in Silicon Valley. Free lunch, 20 percent time -- that’s the work time you can use to pursue independent projects.

Well, another perk? A private bus that picks you up in your neighborhood in San Francisco and shuttles you down to your corporate campus about an hour south in the suburbs of Silicon Valley.

During rush hour in San Francisco, you see them everywhere, said Eric Rodenbeck, the creative director of Stamen Design in the Mission District of San Francisco.

“They’re just so big," Rodenbeck says. "These buses are two stories high and they’re barrelling down residential streets, and no one knows where they’re going except the people who are on them.”

Rodenbeck is talking about the private shuttle buses that run up and down the Peninsula. They look like fancy tour buses. Google’s buses are white. Facebook’s are a sleek blue. But beyond that, they’re sort of a mystery to most San Franciscans.

“You know it’s almost like this masonic ritual,” Rodenbeck says.  "If you've got the key, this whole other city layer unlocks itself to you. And that’s the kind of urban puzzle we like to solve."

So, Stamen decided to map the private shuttle buses connecting San Francisco to Silicon Valley.

(image courtesy of Stamen Design)

But getting the data wasn’t easy. The tech companies don’t comment on the buses. They don’t tell you where they stop or how many people ride on them. But in the era of big data, the information was easy enough to find.

“Even though the companies might not have wanted their locations public, we started looking around and we realized on Foursquare -- if you typed in “shuttle” and “google” or “shuttle” and “apple” all these locations came up because their employees were checking in at those bus stops,” Rodenbeck says.

Stamen also hired bike messengers to follow the buses. And then they had people just sit at a cafe on the corner of 18th and Dolores and count the people getting on and off the buses.

I checked out the Google bus stop a little after 7 a.m. one rainy morning and the “G-bus,” as the display on its windshield reads, was already picking up Googlers. For the next few hours, the buses would arrive in 15-20 minute intervals and a steady stream of 20-30 somethings, holding coffee cups and wearing sneakers and backpacks, would get on board.

It might have been the early morning hour or the rain but few people were willing to talk. When I approached a group of 20-somethings and asked them about the bus, they said they couldn’t talk because Google was in "a quiet period." A quiet period is when a company can’t say anything that might affect its stock price, and that was the nicest response I got until I met 35-year-old Tanya Birch, who works on the Google Earth outreach team. I asked her what it’s like on the bus.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Birch said. “They let us choose the type of seats and decor inside. And it’s got dim lighting with the Google colors.”

There’s also free Wi-Fi on the shuttles, and Birch said it's basically another hour of work.

The tech world is driven by young, educated largely urban workers. But companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are located in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, which is about an hour south of the San Francisco.

“I think a lot of young people who work at the tech companies they want the city life they want something that’s fun and entertaining, and you don’t get that in the suburbs,” Birch said.

So,  to compete for that talent pool, big tech companies have to provide transportation. Rodenbeck says he expected to find the shuttles in the city’s hip, young neighborhoods.

“What we were surprised to learn is that the network is much more extensive than that,” says Rodenbeck.

When the map was finished, Stamen counted buses from Apple, eBay, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, and they found the buses ran through almost every neighborhood in San Francisco. Stamen estimates that about 14,000 people ride the private shuttle buses every day.

Rodenbeck says he thinks the locations are secret because the companies are “sensitive to this idea that they are funding a change in the infrastructure in San Francisco without it being regulated.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is in the midst of studying what’s essentially emerging as a private mass-transportation system, says Jerry Robbins, a transportation planner for the agency.

“The increase in employer buses has sparked some reaction from residents,” Robbins says.

He says that since tech companies contract out the work to private bus companies, which are regulated by the state, the city has little say in what they do.

But Robbins says the agency has fielded complaints that the the private shuttle buses, which often stop at public bus stops, are causing delays and traffic.

Another impact is rising real estate prices, says Amanda Jones, a realtor in San Francisco for nearly a decade. Today, about half her clients work in the tech industry.

“Unquestionably the shuttle stops are transforming real estate values,” Jones says. “When I interview new clients, we get out the real estate map and they want to show me where their corporate shuttles are. I recently sold a house. He does trading for Google and gets in early in the morning. Literally, if it wasn’t five blocks from a shuttle stop, we didn’t look at it.”

Jones says even fixers-uppers and homes with shaky foundations are selling for a premium if they’re located near a private shuttle bus stop.

“They have so little time to have with family and their friends they want to go home and be able to walk to the restaurant and not be stuck in their car for two hours,” says Jones.

Jones says she gets it because until someone comes up with an app that can beam you to work, the private shuttle bus is as close as you get.

Read More

Comments [2]

Transportation Nation

Shippers, Dockworkers Making Last-Ditch Attempt To Avoid Massive Port Strike

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Port of Howland Hook in Staten Island, NY.

(New York, NY - WNYC) UPDATED WITH WHITE HOUSE COMMENTS

The White House is urging dockworkers and shipping companies to reach agreement on a contract extension for East Coast and Gulf Coast dockworkers whose existing pact expires this week.

Obama spokesman Matt Lehrich said Thursday the White House is monitoring the situation closely and urges the parties to "continue their work at the negotiating table to get a deal done as quickly as possible."

Earlier this week, a federal mediator called a meeting of the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) and an alliance of shipping concerns in an eleventh-hour effort to avert a commercially crippling East and Gulf Coast port strike on December 29.

Director George Cohen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said the parties have agreed to attend, but gave no information beyond that "due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations."

Dockworkers from Massachusetts to Texas are threatening to walk off the job if an agreement isn't reached by Saturday at midnight, when their contract extension expires.

Talks between the two sides broke down December 18. “We at New York Shipping Association are certainly disappointed that the USMX – ILA negotiations are apparently coming to an abrupt end," said association president Joseph Curto.

The New York-New Jersey ports handled $208 billion of cargo last year, most on the East Coast.

But in what may be a sign that negotiations are gearing up to resume, "no comment" was the uniform word from all sides in the dispute: the New York Shipping Association, USMX (a consortium of 24 container carriers and every major marine terminal operator and port associations on the East and Gulf Coasts) and the ILA, which represents 14,500 workers at more than a dozen ports extending south from Boston and handling 95 percent of all containerized shipments from Maine to Texas, about 110 million tons' worth.

The Associated Press reports that issues including wages are unresolved, but the key sticking point is container royalties, which are payments to union workers based on cargo weight.

Port operators and shipping companies, represented by the Marine Alliance, want to cap the royalties at last year's levels. They say the royalties have morphed into a huge expense unrelated to their original purpose and amount to a bonus averaging $15,500 a year for East Coast workers already earning more than $50 an hour.

The longshoremen's union says the payments are an important supplemental wage, not a bonus.

USMX, on its website, gives several examples of the economic devastation that could result from a strike, including these numbers related to the Port of New York and New Jersey:

  • Employs more ILA members than any of the 13 other East and Gulf Coast ports, the union’s 3,250 members would lose $7.5 million a week in wages alone.
  • A strike at the port, the largest on the East Coast, could also put at risk the nearly 171,000 jobs directly related to its operations.
  • A shutdown would result in $100 million in lost revenue a month for railroads, truckers and other port-related transportation industries that handle more than 250,000 containers per month.

The National Retail Federation wrote to President Obama last week and asked him to use "all means necessary" to head off a strike. “A strike of any kind at ports along the East and Gulf Coast could prove devastating for the U.S. economy,” said Matthew Shaw, the group's president and CEO.

Earlier this month, an eight-day strike shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That strike was resolved only after a federal mediator was brought in.

Read More

Comments [2]

Transportation Nation

Year in Review Bay Area: High Speed Rail Narrowly Passes, Apps Push Into Bay Area

Monday, December 24, 2012

(Photo CC by Flickr user worndark)

2012 was a year that had transportation on the minds of voters and elected officials throughout California. It was also a year of technological innovation, lawsuits, and personal loss.

We monitored the halls of power, and we got out and about—on bikes, buses, trains, cars, and cabs—to find out just what getting around in the Bay Area is all about. Here are some of our favorite feature stories of the year from KALW.

 

In Politics: A Year of Close Calls:

The California State Legislature finally gave the green light to state’s controversial high-speed rail plan, but only by the narrowest of margins. With strong support from Governor Jerry Brown, the legislature voted to release initial funding needed to start construction in time to meet federal deadlines.  So far, only about $8 billion of the projected $98 billion needed to complete the project have been secured. Ray LaHood voiced his support for the bullet train in the face of renewed opposition to any further federal funding at a Transportation Committee hearing on the project earlier this month.

Elections in the state ushered in Prop 39, which will earmark billions of dollars for clean energy programs.

At the county level, a sales tax increase meant to fund transportation infrastructure projects in the Bay Area failed to receive the 2/3 majority vote it needed to pass. After an aborted recount, Measure B1 fell short by around 700 votes of the approximately 350,000 cast.

And after a two-year campaign, young people in San Francisco finally won the right to ride MUNI for free.

 

Bike 101:

I overcame (mostly) my fear of riding my bike on city streets by getting behind the handlebars and taking a class in urban bike riding.

 

Riding the 1 Bus:

More than 22,000 people ride the 1 and 1R buses every single day. Most of them don’t own cars — this is the only way they get around. The buses travel right through the heart of the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods along International Boulevard, also known as East 14th.

Whatever you call it, it’s a road, and a part of Oakland, with an identity all its own. As part of our reporting project about the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods in Oakland, I got on the 1 to find out what riding the bus says about a community.

 

Train Engineers and Track Suicides:

I met a Caltrain engineer about track suicides. They are, of course a tragic occurrence, but they also take a toll on the people whose job it is to get you to and from work every day.

“The way I kind of look at it, the farther I am from my last one, the closer I am to my next one,” he says. “It’s almost like rolling the dice. It’s an awful tragedy.”

 

Meet the Super Commuter:

I visited the NASA-style control room that keeps Bay Area traffic moving (sort-of), and navigated the intricacies of getting around (or not) on our freeways and bridges with the Super Commuter.

 

Taking Uber for a Test Drive:

Uber had a busy year, brashly pushing it's way into new markets like Washington, D.C. and New York with mixed success. In San Francisco, the company drew lawsuits even as business continued expanding.

And reporter Isabel Angell tried out a new app that’s supposed to make it easier (though not necessarily cheaper) to get a cab in San Francisco.

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Vignelli, Designer of Famous Subway Map, Defends His Version Over These Others (IMAGES)

Friday, December 21, 2012

More than iconic, the New York City subway map is a coat of arms for a way of life. It's a tool for 5 million riders a day. It hangs in the Museum of Modern Art. And, occasionally, it changes.

The most recognizable edition remains the most controversial. Designer Massimo Vignelli's clean modern lines and bold colors changed the branding of the subway in 1972 and elevated the map to the level of modern art. It also distorts geography. His map lasted just seven years before confused passengers convinced the MTA to replace it. Vignelli still staunchly defends his design, and in doing so, has offered some choice observations about other versions.

We present some of his comments to you, as recorded during a talk Vignelli gave earlier this year at the New York City Transit Museum.

1939 system-wide NYC subway map

1939 Version:

“There’s too much information. The greatest thing about the London map, if you’ve ever seen it, is that they stick to the subway, the underground. Therefore, there’s no reference to above. In New York, they wanted to put everything. It was too much.”

 

1958 system-wide Subway Map

1958 Version:

“This is more a diagram, but again the details are very fragmented information. You see, all these boxes here, they fragmented the legibility of the line. The express [train] they made in a different way. So it’s too much going on...It could be simplified...Fragmentation is a disease of people that do not know how to design diagrams.”

 

1979 map, which replaced the Vignelli map:

“This is the map that came after our map. If you have to have abstract geography, why do you have it in any case? Why [sic] have it at all?

"And look at here [pointing to curved path of train line at lower Manhattan]. Who cares if the subway has to make a [turn] like that? I’m going, we’re all going, from Point A to Point B. How we get there is the conductor’s problem, not mine.”

 

Updated version of 2008 map, circa 2010

2008 Subway Map

“We belong to a culture of balloons. [The designers] grow up with comic books, and this is what happens. There’s balloons all over the place. It’s ridiculous.”


1972 "Vignelli" subway map

His own map from 1972:

“Every line a different color, every stop a dot.”

When the NY MTA hired Vignelli to develop a new plan for subterranean navigation, he was tasked with streamlining the wayfinding process for riders and bringing New York into the future.

Train routes were straightened into neat angles to make a tidy diagram out of the actual snarl of criss-crossing tunnels. Forty years later, graphic designers still laud Vignelli's map as a triumph.

However beautiful, it is geographically abstract, bearing only inadvertent resemblance to the actual street grid above.

For example, the Vignelli map portrays the 50th St stop on the Seventh Ave line, now the 1 train, to be west of the 50th St stop on the Eighth Avenue line, now part of the C and E, confusing New Yorkers with hardened mental pictures of the city in their mind and sending tourists wandering westward into Hells Kitchen hunting for non-existent subway stops. Just seven years after it was released, the MTA replaced Vignelli's “diagram,” as he calls it (because maps only represent geography) with a more traditional map.

But, Vignelli is back in the subway diagram business. With the help of a new design team, he created “The Weekender,” a digital interactive subway map directly inspired by the 1972 hand-drawn diagram.

 

"The Weekender" digital subway map

 2012 “The Weekender”

“It doesn’t make any sense to print a map anymore. In a digital era, a map should be a digital map. All this information could become alive at the moment. So basically, The Weekender... will, should, become the regular map for all the stations. No more printed map. Printed maps are a trap for tourists.”.

“The blinking dots... are terrific. When you think actually, that there’s all this work in subway all the time, you get an idea of the complexity of the job, and what it means to run a transit system. It’s great. It’s a passion.”

 

Read More

Comments [3]

Transportation Nation

As NY MTA Chair, Lhota Exhorted: Be A Man!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jim O'Grady and Joe Lhota (Photo: Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Several months ago, NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Charles Moerdler was droning on with objections to a change in a meeting schedule. The issue was minor and the room was warm -- one could be forgiven for mentally wandering ... or dozing off.

Moerdler wrapped up; Joe Lhota pounced.

"Chuck, I wish you would reconsider that position since your flawed thinking and the erroneous things you said are scurrilous."

Chins lifted off chests. What was this? Lhota continued.

"The lying to this board has got to stop!"

This was real. Moerdler looked mortified. But he rallied once Lhota had wrapped up his tongue-lashing. Moerdler replied by accusing Lhota of character assassination--remember, this began as a squabble about a meeting schedule--before concluding somewhat oddly, "I will not challenge you."

Lhota said, "Oh, I wish you would. Be a man!"

This was Lhota the politician, the guy who, as long-time deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani, had an up-close view of power wielded as a blunt instrument. This was Lhota the alpha male making a calculated display not just to smack down Moerdler but to let others know that if you cross Joe Lhota, you could pay a price.

Lhota, who'll resign on Dec. 31, seems to have real feeling for New York City's transit system--he spoke movingly of damage done to it during Sandy. But he's no Jay Walder, his technocratic predecessor. Where Walder was bland, Lhota has been blunt.

Exhibit B would be Lhota's reaction to a court ruling in August that the payroll mobility tax, which accounts for almost 15 percent of the NY MTA budget, violates the state constitution. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a measured statement that took issue with the decision. Lhota, for his part, convened a full-blown press conference at Grand Central Terminal, where he attacked the judge who made the ruling, and the suburban legislators who brought the lawsuit that prompted it, as "flawed as well as erroneous."

Lhota came with a chart to show that the MTA subsidizes the average subway ride by a little more than a dollar while subsidizing the average Long Island Railroad rider by more than 7 dollars. Take that.

Even the way he launched his political career was aggressive. It has to be the first time a public figure to announce his intention to run for mayor only moments after presiding over a fare and toll hike. Asked by a reporter how that combination of events reflected on him, Lhota joked, "It's a profile in courage."

And what of his 357-day legacy as NY MTA chairman? Transportation advocates give him credit for several successes: restoring service quickly after Sandy, cutting overhead at the MTA by hundreds of millions of dollars, and bringing back $30 million in subway and bus service that had been cut in 2010.

Those same advocacy groups expressed grave concerns over the MTA budget, which depends on regular 7.5 percent fare and toll hikes--the next one is coming in 2015--and a capital plan funded by massive borrowing. In a statement, the groups sounded a warning:

"Earlier this year, the MTA borrowed $7 billion to help pay for the last two years – 2013 and 2014 – of its current construction program. The agency already spends $2 billion a year out of its $13 billion annual operating budget to pay off its existing $32 billion in debt. Debt service is projected to go up to $3 billion in future years."

Storm Sandy only made the situation worse. The federal government and insurance should pay for most of the estimated $4.75 billion in damage to the NY MTA's transportation system. But $950 million of infrastructure damage may need to be covered by the authority. Advocates point out, "that will come to $66 million a year in additional debt payments for decades to come."

The other unknown that Lhota leaves is the fate of the contract he's been negotiating with Transport Workers Union Local 100 since January. Lhota has said the biggest challenge to the NY MTA's budget are the fixed and rising costs of workers' pensions and healthcare. That's why he made it a priority to get off to a good start with union chief John Samuelsen, who, in the past, made no secret of despising Jay Walder. But now Lhota is leaving before a contract has been reached.

And that speaks to the issue of stability. Counting interim executives, the NY MTA has had six leaders in six years. A Twitter wag pointed out that Lhota today followed his post-Sandy analysis--"We still have a long way to go to get back to normal"--by essentially saying "See you!"

He's leaving to "explore" a run for mayor of New York. Perhaps his successor will stay longer than a year.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

As PATH Resumes after Sandy, Questions Remain about Agency, Flood Plans

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

World Trade Center Path, Flooded After Sandy (Photo: Andrea Bernstein)

UPDATED* (Brigid Bergin, New York -- WNYC) Hoboken, NJ commuters are finally getting some relief Wednesday as PATH train service resumed on a limited schedule seven weeks after Sandy flooded the transit system. Though the new direct service into Manhattan was greeted like an early Christmas present to residents, larger management and transparency issues are surfacing about the agency that runs the bi-state rail system.

In the first weeks after the storm, when all trains into New York were interrupted, Irene Smith faced a commuting nightmare. She lives at the end of the NJ Transit Port Jervis line and commutes into Manhattan. It took her eight hours a day, she said, and involved a train, a ferry, and a bus to get to and from work. When NJ Transit service from Secaucus improved, her commute shortened to three hours. The last leg to return was the PATH train.

“Well it changed the last part of my trip from about half an hour, to an hour,” said Smith. “And I have a two hour trip before I get to Hoboken, so it was really rough.”

The PATH still isn't fully operational. There's no overnight service, though the agency hopes to restore it by New Year’s Eve.

Port Authority officials say the PATH system suffered catastrophic damage from the 10 million gallons of water they estimate flooded the tunnels. By Port Authority estimates that caused $300 million worth of damage -- just on the PATH system.

Just shy of a month after Sandy, acting PATH director Stephen Kingsberry took reporters into the damaged Hoboken station and PATH tunnel to show the media the extent of the storm damage.

Kingsberry pointed to photographs of flooding at the PATH stations. The images were released by the Port Authority after the storm and picked up by many local media outlets, including TN. For the tour, the photos were pasted to poster boards sitting on an easel behind him.

One picture shows water breaching an elevator shaft at the Hoboken station. There's also a shot of one of those pressurized floodgates. Those floodgates were purchased after the last time the system flooded during a powerful Nor'easter in December of 1992. That storm knocked out PATH service for 10 days.

But those floodgates are only four feet tall and Port Authority spokesman Ron Marsico explained via email, “The entrance flood gates were not designed for the unprecedented storm surge that occurred” during Sandy.

However, those aren’t the only floodgates the Port Authority has been investing in. There are budget lines dating back to 2009 for a “floodgates / flood mitigation” project. Officials confirm the Port Authority has spent $181 million on those projects. But it’s not clear what that money paid for.

The 2012 capital budget explicitly states the Port Authority completed installation of floodgates and interior strengthening in Tunnel F, one of the tunnels out of the World Trade Center site.

A spokesman for the Port Authority says those gates are part of a security project that's not scheduled to be operable until 2014. But that's all they'll say about the project.

The PATH system doesn't have a permanent director, leading to chatter within the transit community about management issues. The acting PATH director is Stephen Kingsberry.  His former boss, Michael P. DePallo, left to run the transit system in Los Angeles October 13. . There's also been a lot of movement in the ranks of the Port Authority since the Ward left.

The Port Authority says there's a clear chain of command, but it also keeps a very strict approach to how it shares information.

*The initial version of this story incorrectly made reference to the Port Authority being without a permanent director.  That is incorrect. Pat Foye has run the authority for over a year.  TN regrets the error

Brigid Bergin is at bbergin@wnyc.org and you can follow her on Twitter @brigidbergin.

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

TSA to Commission Independent Study of X-Ray Body Scanners

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Transportation Security Administration will have the National Academy of Sciences study the health effects of X-ray body scanners used in airports. (David McNew/Getty Images)

(Michael Grabell ProPublica) Following months of congressional pressure, the Transportation Security Administration has agreed to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to study the health effects of the agency's X-ray body scanners. But it is unclear if the academy will conduct its own tests of the scanners or merely review previous studies.

The machines, known as backscatters, were installed in airports nationwide after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009 to screen passengers for explosives and other nonmetallic weapons. But they have been criticized by some prominent scientists because they expose the public to a small amount of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that can cause cancer.

The scanners were the subject of a 2011 ProPublica series, which found that the TSA had glossed over the small cancer risk posed by even low doses of radiation. The stories also showed that the United States was almost alone in the world in X-raying passengers and that the Food and Drug Administration had gone against its own advisory panel, which recommended the agency set a federal safety standard for security X-rays.

The TSA maintains that the backscatters are safe and that they emit a low dose of X-rays equivalent to the radiation a passenger would receive in two minutes of flying at typical cruising altitude.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, introduced a bill mandating such a test earlier this year.

"I am pleased that at long last the Transportation Security Administration has heeded my call to commission an independent examination into the possible health risks travelers and TSA employees may face during airport screenings," she said in a statement Monday night.

According to a brief contract notice posted on a government procurement website, the National Academy of Sciences will convene a committee to review previous studies to determine if the dose from the scanners complies with existing health and safety standards and to evaluate the TSA's methods for testing and maintaining the machines.

Collins' office said the language in the contract notice wasn't final and that the study would be consistent with the senator's calls for an independent investigation. TSA spokesman David Castelveter added, "Administrator [John] Pistole has made a commitment to conduct the study and TSA is following through on that commitment."

Still, it's unclear how much the study that the TSA is proposing will add to what's known about the machines, mainly because it's not known if the National Academy of Sciences will conduct new tests or confine itself to examining previous studies. In the past, TSA has contracted with the Food and Drug Administration, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Army Public Health Command to test the scanners. All three studies found the radiation was in line with a voluntary standard set by an industry panel that included FDA scientists.

A 2012 study by the Department of Homeland Security's independent watchdog supported the findings but based its report on previous tests performed by the TSA and the other groups.

This fall, the TSA began replacing the X-ray body scanners with millimeter-wave machines 2013 a technology radiation experts consider safer 2013 at most of its biggest airports. The TSA said the move was done to speed up lines and that the X-ray scanners would eventually be redeployed at smaller airports.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of the two types of scanners.

Europe has prohibited the X-ray scanners while Israel, which is influential in the security world, has recently begun testing them.

The TSA study will not address privacy, cultural or legal concerns that have been raised by the scans, the contract notice said.

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

NY MTA Chief To Step Down And Run For Mayor

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Joe Lhota (Photo: Stephen Nessen, WNYC)

UPDATED Joe Lhota, the head of the largest transit agency in the U.S., is stepping down to run for New York City Mayor, less than a year after he was officially confirmed for his current job.

"I will be submitting my resignation to Governor Cuomo today," Lhota said Wednesday after an MTA board meeting where fare hikes were approved.  Lhota said the resignation will take effect December 31 and he will "explore"  a run for Mayor.   Lhota descried the decision as "bittersweet."

The move roils both the Mayor's race and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority as it struggles to recover from storm Sandy, described by the Republican Lhota as "the worst devastation in our 108-year history." The NY MTA is estimating its damage at $5.2 billion, not including ways to fortify the system against future storms.

It also leaves New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the uncomfortable position of choosing a new transit chief as he begs Congress for $60 billion in recovery aid. Lhota was selected after a large committee interviewed several candidates, then sent its top recommendations to the Governor.

Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer,  who was elected Wednesday to serve as the Vice Chair of the MTA board, will now serve as its acting chair.  Ferrer was the Democratic candidate for Mayor himself in 2005.

Lhota, an ex-deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani, has also worked for Madison Square Garden, a subsidiary of Cablevision.

Word comes, literally, on the eve of the MTA's vote to hike fares and tolls.

You can read the full story on the WNYC website.

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

VIDEO: Transportation Nation's Mug. It Can Be Yours.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Action shot from "Multi-Modal Mug" shot film by Amy Pearl / WNYC

At Transportation Nation, we serve up serious news, with flair, style, and a flash of java.

Rejoice. (And get a tax deduction, too.) You can own a Transportation Nation coffee mug.

'What's so exciting about a coffee mug?' you might ask. 'It doesn't run on a smart grid or move at the speed of a bullet train." But, friends, it is a reminder to you of all the value this site has brought you in 2012. And your donation shows our reporters here at TN that you care.

Plus, the video is hilarious. We present to you the multi-modal mug. Yours as a thank-you gift for a donation of $5 / month to our ad-free, nonprofit public media project.

If you won't donate, consider sending this around to your friends who might.

Read More

Comment