Streams

 

Federal Government

Transportation Nation

California is Least Improved in Highway Conditions

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The I-880 freeway in Oakland, Calif. (photo by Julie Caine)

California has the worst track record in improving its highways, while spending twice the national average per mile.

That's according to a new study by the Reason Foundation. The libertarian think tank studied improvements to the nation’s highway infrastructure over a 20-year span, contrasted with money spent per mile. They looked into seven categories that represent the state of the highway system: fatalities, deficient bridges, percent of urban and rural interstate highways in poor pavement condition, percent of urban highways that are congested, percent of rural primary roads in poor pavement condition, and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow. The study noted how much each state improved –or worsened– in each category between 1989 and 2008. It turns out that overall, most of the country has made big improvements in highway conditions over the last 20 years.

Lead author Dave Hartgen says he’s not ignoring the problems with the national highway infrastructure, which he admits are plenty. (In its last report card for the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a “D.”) But he says the results prove the United States highway system isn’t “crumbling.”

“The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape,” he said in a press release. “The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good.”

While the study shows the country is improving, California noticeably lags behind. California was the only state that improved in just two categories: fatalities and deficient bridges. In contrast, 37 states improved in five out of the seven categories and 11 improved in all seven. California fared particularly badly in urban congestion and urban interstate road conditions. The state has two of the most congested metro areas in the country– the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. And the condition of its California’s urban Interstate roads, like the Bay Area’s hated I-880, have declined by more than 20 percent since 1989. Only Hawaii is worse. Over the twenty years covered by the study, the state spent $5.84 million per mile of highway– more than twice the national average of $2.85 million per mile.

But there is a silver lining: California has reduced its fatality rate by 1.1 fatalities per 100 million miles of highway. That’s the 13th best improvement in the country.

To learn more, check out the full study here.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Florida Space Advocates Talk Up Drones to State Lawmakers

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Credit: NASA

(Amy Green -- Orlando,  WMFE) Drones will be the biggest issue for Florida space industry advocates when they meet this week with state lawmakers in Tallahassee.

The Florida space industry wants the state to be one of six test sites for integrating drones in the national airspace. Since 1990 the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the limited use of drones in national airspace for missions in the public interest such as disaster relief, law enforcement and military training. Last year Congress directed the FAA to research how to broaden the use of drones in the national airspace.

“We’re really not so much interested in the vehicles as much as the technology. How do universities end up using this? How do farmers end up using this?” says Dale Ketcham, director of spaceport research and technology at the University of Central Florida.

“We don’t know yet how it’s going to manifest itself, but we’re confident it’s going to be a huge economic capability,” he says. “It’s going to be developed somewhere. The Chinese already are doing it, and so we feel it’s important that we be leading that effort.”

Leaders of Florida’s $8 billion space industry will meet with state lawmakers Wednesday as part of their annual Space Day at the Capitol. They’ll talk with lawmakers about strategies for the industry in Florida. Ketcham says they’ll also discuss civil liberties concerns and other policy issues associated with drones.

“I’m not sure the FAA thinks of themselves as the people who ought to be setting policy on privacy and civil liberties,” he says. “FAA is just a regulatory function for safety. But the policy makers in Tallahassee and Congress are the ones who have to address that.”

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

LaHood: The Next Secretary Won't Stand on the Table At Bike Confab

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Secretary Ray LaHood at the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC (Photo: US DOT)

It was a wistful good-bye for transportation secretary Ray LaHood at the 2013 National Bike Summit.

The Secretary, who began with a low-profile that he quickly raised in the biking community by, among other things, jumping on a table at the 2010 Bike Summit Meeting to promote bikes, gave a long a loving paean to his administration's efforts to promote bike share, bike lanes, and safe biking.

"I guarantee you this," LaHood said, close to the beginning of his speech. "Whoever my successor is. You'll not have a secretary of transportation stand on the table and speak to you, that will never happen again."

"Since he was appointed in 2009, LaHood has been a true believer in the power of biking and has raised the credibility of bicycles as transportation at the federal level," the League wrote in its blog. “Ray LaHood is the first and only transportation secretary that keeps talking about bikes — even after we’ve left  the room,” said League President Andy Clarke.

"The President recently told me that he ran into someone who said something about Ray LaHood,” the Secretary said in his speech. “The president said, ‘You must be a cyclist’ — and he was.”

LaHood has promoted bike share, bike lanes, and biking to work, and has argued -- often to unsympathetic former Republican colleagues in the House -- that biking should be given respectability as a mode of transportation.

For that, he'll be missed in biking circles. "What a ride these four-and-a-half years with all of you. You’ve made a great difference; you really have," LaHood told the cyclists.

To which the League replied: "Right back at you, Mr. Secretary."

 

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Census: New York, Maryland, and New Jersey Have Most Long-Distance Commuters

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

(New York, NY -- John Keefe, WNYC) Do you travel at least 90 minutes and 50 miles to work every day? The U.S. Census Bureau calls you a "mega-commuter" — and you're not alone.

According to the census, workers who live in New York state show the highest rate of long commutes at 16.2 percent, followed by Maryland and New Jersey at 14.8 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively.

Based on the 2006-2010 American Community Survey, 586,805 full-time workers are mega commuters -- one in 122 of full-time workers. Mega commuters were more likely to be male, older, married, make a higher salary, and have a spouse who does not work. Of the total mega commutes, 75.4 percent were male and 24.6 percent women.

About 2 percent of workers in the New York Metro Area are mega-commuters, according to American Community Survey figures released Tuesday.

TN has reported on this trend, which is as shown in the rise of people who fly to work.

The routes into Manhattan have some of the highest number of mega-commuters in the country. The flow into the city from Suffolk County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, are near the top of that list, behind two counties outside of Los Angeles.

Also in the top-ten for number of mega-commuters: Those who commute to New York from Pennsylvania's Monroe County — a 91-mile trip that takes about 2 hours each way.

Read more about mega-commuters at the census bureau website.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Feds Shut Down Fung Wah

Friday, March 01, 2013

This just in from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:

"WASHINGTON –The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) today shut down Boston-based Fung Wah Bus Transportation’s using new authorities given to FMCSA under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).

“Bus companies that jeopardize public safety and refuse to cooperate with our investigators have no place on the road, and now, thanks to our additional authority, we can take them off,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Safety is our highest priority, and we will continue to do all we can to ensure that unsafe bus companies are not on our roads.”

"Earlier today, Fung Wah stopped cooperating with FMCSA safety investigators and blocked further access to company safety records. Under provisions contained in MAP-21, signed into law by President Obama in July 2012, FMCSA may revoke the operating authority registration of a motor carrier that fails to comply with an administrative subpoena or a letter demanding release of company safety records. This is the first case of FMCSA exercising this new provision to revoke a motor carrier’s federal operating authority.

“We will not hesitate to immediately shut down a bus or truck company that ignores safety regulations and puts innocent lives at risk,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro. “We will employ every tool we have to take unsafe commercial drivers, vehicles and entire companies off the road anywhere in the county at any time.”

On Tuesday, FMCSA ordered Fung Wah to immediately provide its entire fleet of 28 motorcoaches for thorough and detailed safety inspections by qualified inspectors. FMCSA’s safety investigators had continued their examination of Fung Wah’s operations through the rest of the week in order to consider further action against the company as a whole in addition to ordering its buses out of service."

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

A Year After the Trayvon Martin Shooting, Florida City Examines Urban Design

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Trayvon Martin memorial in Goldsboro, Sanford (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Last year the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin thrust Sanford to the center of international attention -- and spurred a conversation about how urban design and public space shape civic behavior.

Now, Sanford is searching for a new vision for its future. The city has established Imagine Sanford, a project aimed at creating a solid identity for the city -- and a plan for how to get there. The 13-member steering committee is made up of community leaders who meet monthly while the plan is being formulated.

Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett says although the project started in January 2012,  since Trayvon Martin's death the pressure has been on to get the project moving.

Mayor Jeff Triplett on the Jumbotron (right) at a 2012 rally for Trayvon Martin

Although Sanford has an enviable downtown, he says, more needs to be done to link up the distinct areas of the city, including the historic African American neighborhood of Goldsboro.

"We haven't really done a very good job of making Goldsboro part of the city, so to speak," he says.

"You've got historic Goldsboro Boulevard- we want to take that and do the beautification on through 13th [street] which ties that in to [US Highway] 17-92 and what's happening on the east side of town too."

Some of the other proposals for the city include welcome signs and a system of hiking and cycling trails through Sanford and around Lake Monroe.

Triplett says he wants to make sure the trail system connects to the SunRail commuter train station.

"Some people say we're disadvantaged because of the placement of our SunRail [but] we're kind of blessed in a way because we've got a blank slate out there."

Triplett says the vacant land around the station will allow for new development linked to the rail- including  shops and apartments.

"We've got a great opportunity over the next ten years- we've just got to make sure we do it right the first time."

Listen to a an interview with Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett here.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Fung Wah's Bus Fleet Ordered Off the Road

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Permitted? It's complicated.

The entire passenger fleet of Chinatown bus company Fung Wah has been ordered off the road for an immediate safety inspection.

This news comes a day after the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities found cracks in many bus frames and asked the federal government to declare the company an "imminent safety hazard."

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Fung Wah - which operates between New York and Boston for about $15 each way -- must cease transporting passengers on its 28 vehicles, which must be immediately taken off the road for inspection.

But, says a DOT spokesman, "the company, if it chooses, has the prerogative to rent or lease other vehicles; the company is not shut down."

A phone call to Fung Wah's New York offices earlier Tuesday afternoon would seem to bear this out, as the woman who answered the phone said the company was still operating buses between New York and Boston every hour.

From the DOT:

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has ordered Fung Wah Bus Transportation, Inc., to immediately cease passenger service and provide its entire fleet of 28 motorcoaches for thorough and detailed safety inspections by qualified inspectors. Going forward, FMCSA will continue to work closely with its state law enforcement partners in Massachusetts and New York to ensure the safety of the traveling public.

FMCSA’s safety investigators are continuing their examination of Fung Wah’s operations, including examining the safety records of its vehicles, drivers and other company safety performance requirements prescribed by federal regulations, and may consider additional actions against the company if warranted.

Beau Duffy, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation, said in an email: "We are working with our partners at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the state of Massachusetts to ensure Fung Wah’s buses are not put back in service until they are inspected and any deficiencies are corrected."

 

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Lawmakers Warn of Severe Air Travel Disruptions from Sequestration

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The airport experience will get more aggravating if Congress does not avoid the automatic budget cuts called sequestration, three Virginia Democratic lawmakers said Monday at a news conference inside Reagan National Airport, predicting fewer flights available and longer security lines.

Representatives Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran and Senator Tim Kaine, flanked by members of air travel and pilots’ groups, issued a warning for every American who plans to fly: cuts to the FAA and TSA budgets would affect key personnel who now man air traffic control towers and security screening checkpoints.

Connolly said, “47,000 [FAA] employees could be furloughed one day per two-week pay period, the equivalent of ten percent of their workforce. That number includes 15,000 air traffic controllers. That will affect the scheduling of flights and the availability of flights.”  He added, the sequestration cuts would not force a simple belt-tightening but instead affect staffing levels at airports across the country.

Some Republicans are questioning why the possible $689 million FAA budget cut, which amounts to about four percent of the agency’s $15.9 billion budget, would cause so many problems. Moran said sequestration provides no flexibility to Congress or President Obama.

“The cuts are being concentrated on what’s called discretionary programs, which is a minority of the entire federal budget, and they are also being squeezed into a seven month period out of the fiscal year,” Moran said. “So if you had 12 months in which to spread them out, if you had the ability to identify which programs are a higher priority than others, if you didn’t have to cut every program, project and activity equally, and if you could deal with the entire federal budget, the effect would not be anywhere near as severe.”

“We can fix this.  It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact it’s not that hard to fix,” said Kaine, who said congressional Republicans oppose a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction that includes tax increases and spending cuts.

Some Republicans disagree with that assessment.

Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf was invited to the news conference but did not attend.  In a statement released by his office, Wolf urged both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to embrace “bipartisan plans to turn off sequestration.”

In his letter to the president, Wolf said the best solution is to enact the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which he said would reduce the deficit and prevent the automatic federal budget cuts.

The possibility of additional hour long waits on security lines caused by cuts to the TSA’s budget is not sitting well with travelers. Some are angry Congress has failed to reach a deal to avoid disruptions to air travel.

“They ought to go back to school and learn how to add and subtract.  This wouldn’t have happened in the first place,” said one woman at Reagan National Airport who declined to provide her name. “I’m totally disgusted with government.”

Others travelers weren’t buying the dire warnings about 90-minute flight delays.

“I feel that decline in services will be fairly minimal, except perhaps for business travelers. I feel like the amount of money being cut is a small percentage of the total,” said Ed Evan as he sat in the US Airways terminal.

If sequestration takes effect, Congress can act later to restore some of the cuts, but Connolly warned the process will be difficult.

“We have a continuing resolution funding the federal government that expires March 27, so there is an opportunity… to try to fix some of these problems,” Connolly said. “But you have to remember that once sequestration kicks in, that creates a new baseline for the continuing resolution. In other words, the new number is minus the sequestration.”

It remains unclear how much wiggle room the FAA and TSA will have to adjust air traffic controllers’ and security screeners’ work schedules to maintain adequate staffing during peak travel times and the coming summer vacation months.

“The fact is no one knows right now what the impact of the sequester will be,” said Geoff Freeman, the chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association.

 

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Florida's SunRail Is On Pace to Launch in 2014, Gets Another $87 Million in Fed Funds

Friday, February 22, 2013

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff at Friday's SunRail announcement (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Another infusion of federal cash is keeping central Florida's SunRail project on track to open in 2014.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, speaking on behalf of transportation secretary Ray LaHood, paid a visit to a Florida Hospital in Orlando, where one of the stops for the 61 mile long SunRail line  is being built.  Rogoff was joined by local leaders, state department of transportation officials and Florida lawmakers including U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown.

Rogoff announced the federal government would make $87.3  million available in funding for SunRail, bringing the FTA's investment to date in the Central Florida commuter rail line to $148 million. The Federal government has agreed to pay $178.6 million overall in New Start funds towards construction of the 32-mile long first phase of the line, about half the capital cost.

"We make incremental payments based on the progress of the project," Rogoff said. "They're making great progress, they're ready to spend that money, they're ready to keep these people on the job."

Rogoff highlighted the rail line as a jobs engine, which has already employed 800 people to work in construction.

"But what we're really excited about is all the additional jobs that are coming in from the economic development along the line," he added.

The Florida hospital station is at the heart of a 176 acre "health village" where the hospital is developing medical research offices, apartments and shops.

SunRail officials say there are more than two dozen retail, office, government and residential development projects associated with stations along the rail line, representing $1.6 billion in investment.

"We are here to celebrate the continuing completion of a transportation system for the metro Orlando area that is putting us into the 21st Century," said Senator Bill Nelson (left) "The only thing lacking is the high speed rail which we had $2.5 billion dollars on the table of the federal share," he added. (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Rogoff also talked about the need for additional spending on roads and other infrastructure in Florida-- particularly to fix up hundreds of bridges, highlighting president Obama's call for a $50 Billion infrastructure plan. "If that $50 billion dollars goes through, you're going to see more investment around here, not just on this type of  rail project but on highway and sea port projects that will keep the economy of Florida going."

Asked whether sunshine state might see federal funds in the future for high speed rail, Rogoff said "that is going to depend a lot I believe on the leadership of Florida."

Florida's Governor Rick Scott famously turned down federal money for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa in 2011.

Meanwhile, SunRail officials say the first phase of the commuter rail line, a 32 mile long stretch from DeBary to Sand Lake Road, will open in 2014.

 

 

Read More

Comments [3]

Transportation Nation

White House Infrastructure Plan Shifts Focus from New Building to Repair

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

President Barack Obama's new $50 billion infrastructure plan -- a remarkably consistent number he's pushed several times before -- has a twist.  This time, the President wants to prioritize fixing roads and bridges over building new ones, which has been the previous focus of most U.S. government transportation spending.

"The new plan focuses on 'fix-it-first,'  according to a U.S. DOT spokesman, "prioritizing the most crucial repair projects that we can fix right away to keep our economy moving. "

In his state of the union speech, the President raised the specter of 70,000 structurally deficient bridges.  That's not a new number--nor does it mean those bridges are in danger of imminent collapse--but it's an alarming one.

President Obama has long argued for infusions of infrastructure spending to jump-start the economy, and to, um, pave the way for a more economically secure future.

But Congress hasn't passed any of them, and now Washington is deeply mired in strategies to avoid the cuts brought on by the so-called "sequester," a provision of the 2011 debt deal.

"The more the President talks about 'fix-it-first,' the better," said Phinneas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG.

Fifty billion dollars, by the way, is just about the same amount Congress just approved to fix damage caused by storm Sandy.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

D.C. Metro Employees Will Soon Be Able to Anonymously Report Safety Hazards

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

(photo by Susan Sermoneta via flickr)

Metro employees will soon be able to anonymously report "close calls" and other safety hazards.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is working with the federal government to set up  a hotline. It's one of the recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after a deadly 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured 80 others. That crash was the deadliest episode in Metro history, and ensuing investigation uncovered rampant safety problems at the transit agency.

WMATA is working with the rail worker's union to establish the confidential “close call” reporting system. The goal is to catch potential safety hazards that would otherwise go undetected by Metro’s usual safety reporting systems. Metro employees would be able to report problems without fear of retribution.

“This is a partnership with our union, Local 689 Amalgamated Transit Union, and we are working out a memorandum of understanding with the union to determine the parameters of the program,” said Andrea Burnside, Metro’s chief performance officer. “It is very important to have it confidential because employees will not be willing to participate in the program.”

Exactly what would constitute a “close call” is being hammered out in negotiations with the union, Burnside said.

Improving safety -- and convincing the public their safety on the rail lines is being taken seriously -- ranks as a Metro priority since the Red Line crash. WMATA approached the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics for help in creating the reporting program.

"Systems that allow confidential reporting of safety violations are an important part of creating a safety culture in an organization," said DOT spokesman Justin Nisly in an email to Transportation Nation. "The Bureau of Transportation Statistics currently operates a similar safety reporting system for rail that analyzes safety issues to identify trends, new sources of risk, and helps develop preventive safety actions to address them.  Because of that expertise, WMATA approached the BTS to help set up their close call reporting program."

New Jersey Transit was the first passenger rail system in the country to establish a confidential reporting system, back in 2009.

“We are getting a positive response,” said New Jersey Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder, who said their program is creating a culture where employees are more apt to report problems from the serious to the more routine. “When they see some infrastructure issues they report it to us. They don t have to worry about any type of reprimand,” Snyder said. “Rail yard efficiencies have improved. We‘re getting improved safety in and around our yards as well as operational efficiencies during our morning rush hours and afternoon rush hours.”

Based on New Jersey Transit's program, the U.S. DOT estimates it may receive 400 close call reports each year in D.C. But Burnside cautions that Metro's system is different than New Jersey's, and the definition of what would constitute a "close call" on Metro rail has yet to be determined.

A potential start date for Metro's program has not been established.  The "close call" program is part of Metro's long-range strategic plan.

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

NJ Gov Christie: "Chewed Away" Shore Road Will Be Rebuilt

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A coastal Jersey roadway ravaged by Sandy will take two years and over $215 million to repair.

Aerial photographs of the Mantoloking Bridge and Route 35, before and after Sandy (image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video via flickr)

Speaking Tuesday in the shore town of Lavalette, Governor Chris Christie said the state has received federal funding to rehabilitate a 12.5 mile stretch of Route 35 running from Point Pleasant Beach to Island Beach State Park.  The road, which is a block from the Atlantic Ocean, "sustained some of the most severe damage in the state," said Christie. "Thousands of truckloads of debris and sand" were removed in the days after the storm, he said, and the road was "chewed away" in places. In Mantoloking (see above), the storm cut a new inlet between the ocean and the bay.

Christie said the scope of the damage left him with a decision: "Build back to where we were, or rebuild better and stronger." He added: "our decision is to rebuild better and rebuild now."

The new roadbed will be 24 inches thick instead of the current eight -- incorporating both an asphalt pavement top and sub-base materials to act as drainage and stabilization. There will also be a new drainage system and pump stations. "The new system will be built to handle 25-year storms, which is the maximum attainable given the peninsula's geology," reads the press release.

That's reasonable, says Dr. Tom Bennert, pavement expert at Rutgers' Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation. He said  the force of the water generated by Sandy was tremendous.

"It would be very difficult for any structure, even pavement, to withstand that," he said. "A 25-year flood, based on the geology, based on the fact that there is quite a high water table in that area, you’re only going to be able to drain so much, is a very realistic target."

Bennert said he was glad to see the state pay attention to the drainage system, which he said is critical. "It’s kind of hard to visualize," Bennert says, "because when we’re driving on the road we just see the top. But really there’s six to 12 inches of asphalt below that, then granular material used as a foundation to support the asphalt."  That granular material provides drainage to make sure if water gets in, it doesn’t stay there.

Bennert also said Route 35 needed work even before Sandy hit. "A lot of our pavements in this state have lived past their design life," he said, and that includes Route 35.  "It was a pavement that was built quite a while ago and honestly...really needed to be reconstructed to begin with."

The project is being divided into three phases. The first section of the road to be repaired will be the northernmost stretch, which currently has just one travel lane open in each direction. Work will begin this summer.

According to New Jersey Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Greeley, "the Complete Streets model has been incorporated into our design for all three contracts." He says the state will be installing new sidewalks, as well as upgrading many existing intersections with ADA-compliant curb ramps, high visibility crosswalks and some pedestrian signal heads at certain locations.

Greeley adds: "While there are no dedicated bike lanes planned, the reconstructed roadway shoulders will be built to the same strength as the travel-lanes and will therefore provide a safer and smoother ride for cyclists."

The New Jersey Department of Transportation says that while it tries to limit summer construction along shore highways, work on Route 35 will be ongoing throughout 2013. At least one lane of traffic will be open in each direction at all times.

To watch Governor Christie make the funding announcement, see the video below.

For more, check out the WNYC series Life After Sandy.

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Steel Gates, Raised Roadbeds & Dunes: NYC Transpo After Sandy

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sandy flooded the Battery Park Underpass with 15 million gallons of water.

(New York, NY - WYNC) Now that post-Sandy repairs to New York's transportation infrastructure are in full swing, attention is shifting toward hardening the city's bridges, tunnels and roads against future storm surges.

U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Manhattan to hand over $250 million to reimburse the city Department of Transportation for repairs it's making to its storm-damaged facilities. LaHood also said $5 billion is on the way to make those same facilities resilient in the face of future storms.

It's unclear how much of that money could come to New York City. But U.S. Senator Charles Schumer gave examples of how it could be spent locally.

"Once they repair the inside of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, they can put, if they choose, steel gates, to prevent another flood," he said. He also talked about raising coastal roads and building dunes to shelter highways from the ocean.

New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who joined LaHood and Schumer, said Sandy caused the city "$900 million worth of  damage to city roads, bridges, our ferry system, signals, signs--an extraordinary amount of damage."

By way of example, she said The Battery Park Underpass at the tip of Lower Manhattan was filled with 15 million gallons of water (see photo). When it comes to reducing that kind of vulnerability to storm damage, Sadik-Khan said her department "has a long way to go."

Schumer praised LaHood for delivering the $250 million in repair money less than a month after it's authorization by Congress, which he called "a world record" in the realm of post-disaster relief. He explained that the funds will be used in part to reimburse the city for repairs it has already undertaken.

"The mayor couldn't sit there and wait and say, 'We'll fix the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel when the federal money comes,'" he said. "The city had to lay out enormous sums of money."

Some of the money has been spent on repairing the vents and electrical system of the Battery Park Underpass , fixing flood-damaged parts of the Staten Island Ferry terminals, shoring up bridges, and replacing highway lights and guardrails.

Sadik-Khan said the mayor's office will release a report in May about how to harden the city's infrastructure against future storms, including roads and bridges .

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Virginia Transportation Funding Plan Dies in State Senate

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Virginia capitol building (photo by Thruhike98 via flickr_

Governor Bob McDonnell’s five-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding package died on the floor of the Virginia State Senate on Tuesday night, as divided lawmakers decided to sent the proposal back to committee after defeating two Republican floor amendments.

After more than an hour of debate it became apparent there were not enough votes to support the governor’s plan to eliminate the state’s gas tax (17.5 cents per gallon) and replace it with a higher sales tax to fund road and rail construction and maintenance.

The bill was largely blocked by Senate Democrats from northern Virginia who were unhappy with McDonnell’s plan to use general fund revenue that also pays for schools, public safety, and other programs.

At least one senator’s frustration bubbled to the surface.  Republican Senator Frank Wagner, whose amendment to establish an eight percent gas tax was defeated as an alternative to the governor’s proposal, implored his colleagues to get behind some plan to create new revenues for the state’s immense transportation needs.

“You know, I told myself in 22 years I'd never get emotional over a bill. And I'm sorry I broke my own damn word. I'm emotional. We've been fighting this for ten years. Ten years now!” Wagner shouted. “I'm here tonight to get a transportation bill passed!”

The Senate is now left to consider a bill passed by the House of Delegates that maintains most of the key provisions of Governor McDonnell’s package, including the elimination of the gas tax. But the administration sounded pessimistic the House bill would fare any better.

“It was quite clear from the floor debate and from the fact they voted against every single transportation funding mechanism before them, and that they didn't even offer any solutions of their own, they have no intention of addressing transportation funding,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, who made it clear the administration blamed Democrats for the bill’s demise.

“We’re incredulous,” Connaughton said. “On a day that the Texas Transportation Institute comes out with its nationally known study that says the Washington region has the worst traffic congestion in the entire country, the Senate Democratic caucus voted against every Senate version of transportation funding to date.”

Without some form of compromise, the General Assembly will close its session in three weeks without approving any new transportation revenues.

“Unless the Democrats in the Senate work with us… things do not look very favorable right now,” Connaughton added.

“The governor can send down a bill at any time. That's his prerogative.  I would encourage him to find common ground among all the proposals that are out there and there are a lot of them,” said Delegate David Toscano, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “It looks like if the governor is not willing to compromise on very much, nothing is going to get done,” he said.

Toscano chided the governor's plan for relying on revenue from future Internet sales -- a marketplace equity bill --that Congress "probably won't pass." He added: "It was deficient in the first place."

Read More

Comments [1]

Transportation Nation

LaHood: There's a "Sense of Urgency" on Transit Aid

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ray LaHood (photo by Martin DiCaro)

(Alec Hamilton-WNYC News) U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says area transit agencies should be able to be ready to withstand future storms.

"Nobody's sitting around,” LaHood told WNYC's Soterios Johnson. "There's a sense of urgency about getting this done, getting it done the right way, making sure that it's done correctly -- and making sure that it's done in a way that will withhold the kind of storm that hit the region during Sandy."

On Monday the Federal Transit Administration said it would start releasing  $2 billion of the $10.9 billion in transit aid voted into law last week.

New Jersey has requested $1.2 billion of that aid, New York close to $5 billion.  Neither agency has released a complete breakdown of how those funds would be spent.

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

Sandy Aid Funds for Transit Start to Flow

Monday, February 04, 2013

The FTA is releasing the first $2 billion in federal aid to "protect, repair, reconstruct, and replace public transit equipment and facilities" damaged by storm Sandy.

The funds are the "first installment" of $10.9 aid to transit passed by Congress and signed into law last week.

The NY MTA estimates Sandy caused $5 billion in damages in what it's then-head Joe Lhota called the "worst devastation ever." For a sense of why the price tag on rebuilding is so high, consider this radio report on the destroyed South Ferry station in Southern Manhattan, a single project that could cost about half a billion dollars.

The $2 billion made available today in federal money will go to a mix of agencies battered by Sandy's floodwaters, not just the NYC subway. See below for the official announcement:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Makes $2 Billion in Federal Aid Available for Public Transit Systems Damaged by Hurricane Sandy

 Assistance part of $10.9 billion emergency relief package to restore transit in 13 states

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today announced the availability of $2 billion through the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) new Emergency Relief Program to help protect, repair, reconstruct, and replace public transit equipment and facilities that were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The funds are the first installment of $10.9 billion appropriated to the FTA through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, which President Obama signed into law on January 29.

“At DOT, we continue doing all we can to help our state and local partners make their storm-damaged public transportation systems whole again,” said Secretary LaHood. “The $2 billion we’re making available now will reimburse transit agencies for extraordinary expenses incurred to protect workers and equipment before and after the hurricane hit, and support urgently needed repairs to seriously damaged transit systems and facilities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere.”

FTA’s new Emergency Relief Program was established under the two-year surface transportation law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). The funds will be awarded through the program on a rolling basis, in the form of grants to states, local governments, transit agencies and other organizations that own or operate transit systems damaged by the storm. Information about the funds and how to apply is available at www.fta.dot.gov/emergencyrelief.

“The Department has stepped up to address the worst transit disaster in U.S. history, which directly affected well over one-third of the nation’s transit,” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. “We are pledged to distribute the emergency relief funding responsibly and as quickly as possible to ensure that transit riders have the reliable service they need and deserve—and lay a strong foundation to mitigate the impact of such disasters in the future.”

Following the storm, the Department developed a rapid-response strategy to assist transit providers in the short-run, while laying the foundation for the responsible administration of federal-aid transit funds available now. Notably, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and FTA have conducted continuing damage assessments and cost-validation work for both operating and capital costs associated with restoring and rebuilding transit in the impacted areas. These early joint efforts support FTA’s ability to compensate the affected transit agencies promptly while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly.

Consistent with the requirements of the supplemental appropriations, the remaining disaster relief funds will be made available after FTA issues interim regulations.

For the most part, the FTA will cover 90 percent of the cost of transit-related operating and capital projects undertaken in response to Hurricane Sandy.

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

NASA's Moon Mining Robot

Monday, February 04, 2013

NASA's RASSOR (Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot) (photo by Matthew Peddie)

In a building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, about 40 engineers and scientists are tackling the practical challenges of space exploration -- like designing astronaut clothing for long missions, converting trash into fuel, and harvesting extra-terrestrial resources.

"It's really a return to NASA's roots, the very early days of how NASA designed new technology" says Jack Fox, Chief of the Surface Systems Office at Kennedy Space Center. "We believe in a hands-on approach: just try something out, and if it works, great. If it doesn't, put it aside and try something different."

Swamp Works- NASA's technology incubator at Kennedy Space Center (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The Swamp Works team is housed in the refurbished Apollo flight crew training building, where astronauts once familiarized themselves with the lunar module and learned how to use the lunar rover. Scientists are now trying to solve some of the problems faced by those astronauts -- like dealing with space dirt.

"Dust got everywhere. It clung to everything," says Fox.

On one side of the building scientists are developing technology to banish dust electronically.

And in the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations lab, engineers are figuring out how to deal with the sandblasting effects of rocket exhaust during landing and lift-off on the moon and other planets. They're also building a machine to excavate space dirt, or regolith. NASA one day hopes to send astronauts beyond the moon, to an asteroid or Mars, and the Swamp Works team is developing a robot that can excavate other planets for water and other resources.

The RASSOR (Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot) looks like a small tank. At each end is a fearsome toothed drum, used to scoop up the regolith. It can also raise and lower its arms to climb over rocks.

Drew Smith, who helped design RASSOR, explains the counter-rotating drums would allow the robot to dig on another planet like the moon.

"Since we don’t have a really large mass on another planet we have to be able to cancel out the excavation forces or it would just spin its tracks and not go anywhere."

The robot weighs about 180 pounds, but on the moon that's only about 30 pounds of force.

The engineers are building a regolith test bed -- essentially a giant sand pit -- which they'll fill with 120 tons of "simulant" or imitation space dirt, so they can test the robot.

Philip Metzger, NASA physicist (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Philip Metzger, a physicist at the Regolith Operations Lab, says harvesting resources on other planets could lighten the load of spacecraft blasting off from earth. "By using the resources of space -- of the moon and the resources of Mars, we can reduce the mass of a Mars mission by a factor of between three and five," says Metzger.

NASA aims to eventually send a version of the RASSOR into the craters of the moon to excavate lunar ice deposits. Metzger says anything they design to work on the moon should also work on Mars -- although operating the robot remotely poses a problem: "On the moon there's  only a 2.7 second time delay, so you can tele-operate, but on Mars it’s too far of a distance to tele-operate. So robotic autonomy is one of the key technologies we’re trying to develop," he says.

Companies like Caterpillar are interested in robot autonomy for terrestrial mining. "Mining’s moving into places humans can’t go here on earth," says Metzger, adding that space mining companies have also expressed an interest in licensing the technology.

NASA's Orion spacecraft under construction at Kennedy Space Center (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Meanwhile, in a separate building at Kennedy, NASA employees and Lockheed Martin contractors are assembling the spacecraft designed to take astronauts to an asteroid, Mars and beyond. The green welded aluminum pressure capsule of the Orion crew module is being transformed into a functioning spacecraft inside the Operations and Checkout building. Orion's first unmanned foray into space is slated for September 2014.

 

Read More

Comment

Transportation Nation

How Grand Central Terminal Survived the Wrecking Ball - And Lived to 100

Thursday, January 31, 2013

(New York, NY - WNYC) Soon after Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, it was viewed as an one of the great public spaces in America, an icon of modern travel. By the 1940s, a popular radio drama bearing its name would open with a blast from a locomotive whistle and an announcer crying, "Grand Central Station! As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, part of the nation's greatest city."

Thirty years later, developers wanted to take a wrecking ball to Grand Central and replace it with an office tower.

In truth, the place was seedy. That's according to Kent Barwick, a former head of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and a key player in the effort to prevent the destruction of the terminal to make way for an office tower. "It was pretty dusty and the windows were broken," he recalled of Grand Central back then. "It was dark and and littered with advertising everywhere. And there wasn't any retail except for a couple of newsstands that had near-poisonous sandwiches and undrinkable coffee."

(We've done some terrific coverage of Grand Central in the past year:  a tour of the Grand Central clock tour with The Invention of Hugo Cabret author Brian O. Selznick here and a cool behind-the-scenes video of Grand Central's secrets here.)

The Fight Is On

The terminal was owned by the Penn Central Railroad, a company in decline because of America's move to the suburbs and car-dependent travel.  The much vaunted Interstate Highway Bill also spelled death for long-distance rail travel. In 1975, Penn Central was careering into bankruptcy and desperate to squeeze a windfall from its prime Manhattan real estate. So it proposed to do to Grand Central what it had done to Penn Station: sell the development rights to a company that would tear down the Beaux-Arts masterpiece and erect a steel and glass tower.

But Grand Central, unlike Penn Station, was landmarked.

The owners sued in state supreme court, claiming the new landmark law was unconstitutional. The railroad won, and moved to demolish Grand Central. The preservationists scrambled.

Barwick and his colleagues at The Municipal Arts Society called a hasty press conference in the terminal at Oyster Bar. Barwick's boss, Brendan Gill spoke first. "If we can't save a building like this, what can we do?" he asked.

The preservationists knew they were fighting to save not only the building but the landmarks law itself. And they knew from press descriptions of them as "a troop of well-known New Yorkers" that some of their opponents were painting them as elitists who wished to suspend New York in amber. Former consumer affairs commissioner Bess Meyerson spoke next, and addressed the issue.

"It's not really a question of change," she said. "If any city understands change, it's our city. But I think it's high time that we ask that very important question, 'Change for what?'"

Cause célèbre

The next speaker was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose presence transformed preservation from a stuffy to a glamorous pursuit. "I think if there is a great effort, even if it's at the eleventh hour, you can succeed and I know that's what we'll do," she said.

The New York Times prominently featured her in its coverage the following day, noting her "eleoquence," as well as her "two-piece tan dress adorned with heavy long gold chain." The effort to save Grand Central was, from that moment, a national issue.

Barwick recalled that Onassis also wrote a letter to Mayor Abe Beame, and that the letter began, "'Dear Abe, How President Kennedy loved Grand Central Terminal.'"  Barwick laughingly added that, "I don't know, and I don't need to know, whether President Kennedy had ever expressed himself on that subject."

Not long after, Beame told the city's lawyers to appeal the state supreme court's decision, an appeal the city won. The case then moved, in 1978, to the U.S. Supreme Court.Penn Central again argued it should be able to do what it wanted with its property. New York's lawyers said the city had the right to regulate land use through the landmarks law.

The verdict

The justices sided with the city. Grand Central Terminal was saved and, in the early 90s, underwent a restoration that brought back its luster. Penn Central Railroad eventually became Metro-North, which last year saw near-record ridership of 83 million passengers.

Barwick said that today, the city can't imagine being without Grand Central Terminal. "You see New Yorkers all the time, staking a claim in that building, pointing up to that cerulean sky and saying, 'Hey. this belongs to us,'" he said.

Grand Central Terminal turns 100 years old tomorrow.

Read More

Comments [2]

Transportation Nation

A Pay-Per-Mile Road Tax Could Target Transpo Funding -- But It's Years Away

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

(photo by Richard Masoner via flickr)

As federal and state governments struggle to adequately fund their transportation networks, a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax has potential to increase revenues -- but the establishment of the tax is probably years away.

To cite one example, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s major transportation funding proposal would eliminate the state gas tax and replace it with a higher sales tax. There is no mention of VMT. In fact, no state currently charges drivers a VMT tax, which tracks all miles traveled and charges a fee based on distance.

“The technology is generally there but there are an awful lot of political, institutional, and general public policy concerns that we still have to deal with,” said Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

One big concern may be privacy. A study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board released last week found that 86 percent of area commuters oppose having a GPS device installed in their vehicles to track all their miles traveled.

“There are lot of measures that can be put in place to insure that personal information is not being used or exploited, but you really have to do a good job of convincing the motoring public that privacy concerns are going to be dealt with in a very clear way,” Puentes said.

At a time when governments are looking for dedicated revenue streams for transportation systems and projects that often run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, VMT offers an opportunity to direct money to the most troublesome roads, said Puentes, who said a VMT tax would mark a fundamental change to transportation funding.

“If you are driving on the Beltway during rush hour consistently adding to the traffic on those highly congested roads, you’d be paying more, and then those revenues would go back to the road you are using,” he said.  Under the current gas tax system, revenues are placed into central transportation funds and allocated more evenly.

Politically, few politicians have shown the willingness to try to convince drivers of the merits of VMT.

"Oregon is generally considered to be the state that's pioneering most of the research and the policy analysis around this. A state law requires them to look at this,” said Puentes, referring to a state pilot program.

A University of Iowa study examined VMT on a pilot basis in Oregon and 12 U.S. cities. In Congress, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer is pushing a bill that would mandate that the Treasury Department study VMT.  In 2009 a national commission recommended VMT as one possible solution to the nation's transportation funding crisis.

But pay-as-you-drive is gaining acceptance in other circles. In 2010, California approved it as a method of pricing car insurance, and now State Farm is using it.

Read More

Comments [1]

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.”

Read More

Comment