Monday, October 22, 2012
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is getting ready for its new Atlantis shuttle display with a $100 million building. Construction began in January, and the exhibit is slated to open in July 2013. On November 2nd, Atlantis will make the journey by road from the Kennedy Space Center on a special 76 wheel transporter. The 9.8 mile trip will take all day, with stops along the way for ceremonies with shuttle program employees and the public.
The building that will house the space shuttle is about 116 feet tall and will have a floor area of 90,000 square feet -- big enough to accommodate the 78-foot wingspan and 57-foot height of the orbiter.
Getting Atlantis over to the Visitor Complex is a delicate operation, but not quite as tricky as Endeavour's recent trek through Los Angeles.
"We are at the space center, there's 144,000 acres that we've got to work with here," says Tim Macy, the director of project development at the visitor center. "There's some big wide open spaces."
Still, some modifications have been made to accommodate the shuttle's move.
"We'll take down a ton of light poles, stop signs and traffic signals to get here, but that's just logistics," says Macy. A short section of roadway has also been built to bring the shuttle into the building.
Macy says the trickiest part of the move will likely be maneuvering the shuttle into the new display hall.
After the the orbiter is safely inside, it will be wrapped in protective "bubble wrap" to shield it while construction continues.
The new section of road leading up to the building will be torn up and eventually replaced with landscaping.
Workers will start filling in the final wall of the building withing days of Atlantis being moved inside. Up to 150 people a day are working on the project, and Macy says crews could be increased if necessary.
“I’m really confident in the schedule," says Macy.
"I mean, we’ve built in some weather days that we haven’t had to take advantage of in terms of the exterior of the building, and as anyone will tell you, once you get in and you get sealed up, you can control your own destiny.”
The completed display hall will include a replica of the external tank and solid rocket boosters that visitors will walk under as they enter the building. One of the outside walls incorporates a "swoop" that will be covered by orange cladding to symbolize the shuttle flight.
"You know when it comes down and gets into its de-orbit burn, that orange color, the glow that comes around the base of it, that's the look we're going for there," says Macy.
Tim Macy is confident visitors will be impressed when the display opens next summer.
"We think we're telling the right story here, and we understand the responsibility that's been given to us," says Macy.
"We didn't just get [the orbiter], we feel we've earned the opportunity to present this to the public."
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
By Kate Hinds
Although the second question in Tuesday night's presidential debate was about gas prices, those hoping for conversation about transportation policy -- or even the word "transportation -- were disappointed.
And while President Barack Obama once spoke frequently about the need to renew the country's infrastructure, that word also wasn't uttered by either candidate.
But here's what was talked about: a transcript of the conversation shows the word “gas” 30 times.
In response to a question about how much the U.S. can control gas prices, President Obama said: "The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy. So here's what I've done since I've been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it's been in decades." A few moments later, he said that during his administration, "we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars. That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you're going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas."
Governor Mitt Romney disputed the president's numbers. "Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production is down 9 percent," he said, adding that "I'll get America and North America energy-independent. I'll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses. We're going to bring that pipeline in from Canada." This led to a spirited exchange about domestic oil production.
Later in the debate, the candidates sparred over the auto industry bailout, but during the debate the words “transportation,” “infrastructure” and “transit” weren’t mentioned once.
President Obama did use a “bus driver” as a salary example during a tax policy question; he also said he’d take the money the country has been spending on war and “rebuild America — roads, bridges, schools.”
No matter what their commitment to transit, one thing is certain: one of these men will be gracing a D.C. fare card in January.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Dennis Martire and the agency he worked for would be paid little attention – if not for the responsibility running one of the largest public transportation projects in the country: the Silver Line Metro rail to Dulles International Airport.
Wednesday morning Martire officially resigned from his position as a member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) after months of criticism directed from high places at both his professional behavior and the conduct of the airports authority itself.
In his first interview since settling a costly legal dispute with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's administration and agreeing to resign, Martire -- a high-ranking official with the labor union LiUNA -- defended the agency’s record and denied any wrongdoing.
‘We have a policy that allows us to go to airport conferences. It’s not like we pull out a globe, spin it, and say 'we’re going here today,'” Martire said.
A Washington Post editorial in May accused Martire of spending more than “$38,000 attending five conferences in 2010 and 2011,” including a nine-day trip to attend a 36-hour conference in Sardinia.
“It was a three-day trip [the editorial board] made into a nine-day trip. The conference was only three days. I flew from there to somewhere else on my dime, not on MWAA’s dime,” he said.
In August, the federal Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sent MWAA a letter expressing outrage at “ongoing reports describing questionable dealings including the award of numerous lucrative no-bid contracts to former Board members.” MWAA (pronounced "em-wah") has publicized reforms of its spending, travel, and contracting practices, but Martire believes the board of directors and the agency’s leadership allowed their opponents to turn such issues into a distraction from MWAA’s stewardship of the Silver Line.
“The airports authority has handled this project remarkably well,” said Martire, who said a project labor agreement (PLA) -- a pro-union provision voluntarily undertaken by the prime contractor in the Silver Line’s Phase 1 construction -- kept the project on-time, on-budget, and with a strong record of worker safety.
“Compared to other major infrastructure projects in northern Virginia like the Springfield interchange or the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it’s a model project. Those projects were all hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The taxpayer is the one who has to eat that money,” he said.
Martire said “it’s a disgrace” that the state of Virginia has provided only $150 million dollars for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which has an estimated price tag of $3 billion, and he urged the federal government to provide additional funding to bring down the projected toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road. Under the current financing arrangement, those tolls will cover 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs. A full, round-trip toll would rise to $9 in 2015 under current MWAA projections.
“You’re going to have rail to Dulles and beyond, but the tolls are still my major concern. This could be a boondoggle if it’s built out there with $10 tolls,” Martire said.
Martire also shrugged off criticism for supporting the use of a non-voluntary PLA in planning process for Phase 2, accusing its critics of opposing organized labor.
“I do work for a labor union,” Martire said. “There’s no doubt that the governor of Virginia and Congressman [Frank] Wolf, both Republicans, do not like labor. They don’t like what labor stands for.”
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) With the company that owns the Yankee Stadium parking system staring down bankruptcy, Mayor Bloomberg called the situation "sad," and said his administration is "trying to help them."
Speaking during a press conference Q & A, the mayor addressed the issue of the stadium's foundering garages and lots, which have been only 42 percent full this season, according to this latest report.
"There just wasn't the business there that the owners, who made the investment, thought that there was going to be," the mayor said in answer to a question posed by a WNYC reporter. "If the owners of the parking garage can't make money, that's sad. We've got to find a way to help them."
The Bloomberg administration has already tried to help the company by having the city's Economic Development Corporation attempt to broker a deal with a real estate developer to build affordable housing and stores on some of the underused lots near an existing retail mall. But those talks have ended without a deal.
NYC EDC spokesman Kyle Sklerov wouldn't give specifics on the failed negotiations. Nor would he comment on an idea by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. to have the Bronx Parking Development Company build a hotel atop an empty garage. Sklerov would only say:“New options to develop the site will be considered moving forward as part of a larger effort by the BPDC board to get back on sound financial footing."
The scramble to find new revenue for the BPDC was set off by the company's long slide into default on $237 million in tax-free bonds. The NYC EDC acted as the conduit for those bonds, not the seller, so taxpayers aren't holding the debt.
Still, the default is a blow to the agency's reputation. Before the Yankees' new stadium was opened in 2009, Bronx residents and some civic groups tried to warn the city and the team that 9,000 parking spots spread across eleven lots and garages weren't needed. Their concerns went unheeded and the EDC facilitated the tax-free bonds that created a parking system sized to suit the Yankees' misguided desire.
The lots and garages have been underused--even during seasons, like this one, when the Yankees make the playoffs--and the BPDC is now in financial free fall.
Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg said it best when first asked at the press conference about the stadium parking: "Not everything works."
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
For the thousands of commuters who spend too much of their lives sitting in traffic on the Washington area’s hopelessly congested roads, the future may not look much better than the present. Despite some large investments in mass transit projects, like the Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport, about three-fourths of all economic activity – from shopping to commuting to work – will be the result of automobile trips in 2040, virtually unchanged from present day, according to a report by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis.
In 2007, 74 percent of gross regional product (GRP) – a measure of all income -- was the result of car travel. By 2040 it will be 73 percent, according to the study’s authors, who forecast total GRP by that year to potentially amount to $1.8 trillion, up from the current $429 billion. The projections are based on where the study places the region’s major job centers: in the outer suburbs, implying that a regime of road building will be necessary to accommodate the region’s growth. The study was prepared for the 2030 Group, a group of real estate developers.
The study is flawed, according to mass transit advocates.
“I think it is out of sync with changing demographics and the huge market demand to live not just in the city but to live in neighborhoods that are walkable and near transit,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates transit-oriented development. “This is a report that seems to, through some magic they have applied, allocate significant portions of regional growth to outer suburban job centers. They are arguing for more highway investment over transit investment in the region.”
The study designates the Tysons Corner-Dulles corridor as the most prominent “activity center” that will see significant changes in transportation use thanks to the arrival of the Silver Line, but the overall forecast allows for minor shifts in mode changes, including bicycling/walking. Schwartz says the forecast overlooks surging demand for living in urban, walkable places.
“We are changing our land uses and have shown that compact, walkable neighborhoods with transit generate far fewer car trips and shorter car travel distances,” he says. “A younger generation is driving less, living in cities and an older generation of downsizing empty nesters and retirees will not be driving as much. They are out of touch with the trends. They are trying to justify more outer suburban growth,” referring to suburban real estate developers in the 2030 Group.
Whatever transportation infrastructure will be necessary for the expected population and job growth, current levels of government investment are grossly inadequate, according to Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that supports highway construction.
“What the study shows is that most of the economic activity centers are heavily dependent upon a good road network, but roads also move buses. It’s not just about cars,” Chase said. “We’re not going to have the transportation network to support that type of economy. If we don’t invest more in transportation, we’re not likely to have the economic future that most people would want.”
One possible source of funds would be an increased state and/or federal gas tax, something few politicians are willing to publicly endorse. The current federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1993.
“The cost of construction and the cost of maintenance have gone up. The cost of just petroleum products that go into asphalt has gone up 350% in the last ten years,” Chase says. “If you want to have a strong economy, if you want to have jobs for your kids, you need to make a greater investment in transportation, and the failure to do so is going to cost every person far more in terms of lost wages, lost opportunities, and a deteriorated quality of life, than paying a few more pennies on the gas tax.”
Chase says Virginia and Maryland could also raise sales taxes or create surcharges on income taxes to pay for infrastructure investment.
Monday, October 15, 2012
By Kate Hinds
DC's transit agency is circulating proposed designs for a commemorative fare card that will be sold for the presidential inauguration.
According to a WMATA spokeswoman, the agency will print 100,000 of these $15 cards, which would come pre-loaded with a one-day rail pass. (Functional and collectible!)
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
For the ninth time in ten years, Amtrak has broken a ridership record. The national rail network carried 31.2 million passengers in the twelve months before September 30, 2012. This news comes smack in the heat of an election season where nationally subsidized services like passenger rail and public television have become campaign issues.
The news: ridership grew by 3.5 percent in 2012, giving Amtrak its highest number of passenger trips since the company began operations in 1971. As the chart above shows, Amtrak ridership has grown steadily--a total of 49 percent since 2000.
Ticket revenue increased 6 percent, accounting for $2 billion of a roughly $4 billion budget. That revenue comes in about $100 million above projections in the 2012 budget (PDF). The government chipped in a $466 million operating subsidy, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The federal government also allocated an additional $952 million for capital expenses.
Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said in a statement, "ridership will continue to grow because of key investments made by Amtrak and our federal and state partners to improve on-time performance, reliability, capacity and train speeds."
In the speed department: Last month, Amtrak began testing Acela trains to run at a new top speed of 160 miles per hour along several stretches of the Northeast Corridor. And 82 percent of trains were on time in 2012, up a bit from last year, which is about on par with airline industry performance compiled by FlightStat. (PDF) Amtrak has been growing in part by stealing business travelers from airlines on shorter flights.
The newly released numbers show the Northeast Corridor is still the anchor route for Amtrak with more than a third of all riders (11.4 million) traveling between Boston and Washington, D.C. Amtrak won't release new state-by-state and line-by-line numbers until next week, but the 361 miles of track along the Northeast Corridor are likely to continue to bring in more than half of all ticket revenue for Amtrak, as it did last year according to the 2011 annual report. According to projections (see PDF, last page of Appendix), only the NEC and Kansas City - St. Louis lines earn a profit on a per passenger basis. When final numbers are in, we'll find out if this new ridership and ticket revenue peak brings any other lines into break even territory.
Amtrak was established to provide passenger service that private train companies would not, or could not offer profitably.
Friday, October 05, 2012
Shuttle technicians at the Kennedy Space Center are finishing their work to prepare the last of NASA's retired orbiters for display.
Atlantis flew the last shuttle mission in July 2011, and it's due to roll out to the visitor complex on November 2nd.
Inside the Orbiter Processing Facility Hi-Bay 2 at the space center, workers are making sure the shuttle is free of toxic fuel residue and other hazardous parts. The main engines have been removed and will be used for future space programs
Many of the staff still at the shuttle processing facility have spent decades working on the orbiters.
Lead shuttle systems technician specialist David Bakehorn says after 27 years working on the shuttles, he’s sad to see it go.
“But it’s really nice that it’s staying at home," he says.
"We were worried we weren’t going to get a real live orbiter here in Florida, (because) there’s only so many to go around, and I’m glad to be a part of it."
Shuttle Discovery was flown to the National Air and Space Museum near Washington DC in April, and last month Endeavour piggybacked on the 747 transporter to California. Enterprise, which never flew in orbit, is now in New York, and a replica shuttle which had been on display at Kennedy for 18 years was sent by barge to Houston.
Atlantis only has to go 9 miles. Next week is landing gear will be retracted, and in mid-October it will be put on a special transporter and rolled over to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
On November 2nd, Atlantis will be moved by road to the Visitor Center, where a new building's been constructed to house the shuttle.
Sightseers won't actually be able to go inside the shuttle, though, so this is the last chance to walk inside the cabin and the living quarters before it becomes a museum piece.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
An outgoing member of the agency running the Silver Line rail project is accusing U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood of “coercive” and “heavy-handed” oversight that has created a distraction from finding funding for the second phase of the rail link to Dulles Airport.
In a letter sent to LaHood’s office on Tuesday, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board member Robert Brown, whose tenure on the board of directors is expected to end this month, says the transportation secretary has taken unprecedented steps of questionable legality to monitor the airports authority following reports of profligate spending and unethical practices.
In August, Secretary LaHood sent MWAA a letter of his own, signed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, expressing “outrage” at “ongoing reports describing questionable dealings including the award of numerous lucrative no-bid contracts to former Board members.”
“I haven’t disputed that there have been some questionable governance practices at the airports authority. I think those by and large have been addressed and corrections put in place,” said Brown in an interview with Transportation Nation.
In defending MWAA’s record, Brown is attempting to draw attention to projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road that would pay for 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs. More federal and Virginia state funding would lower the projections, he said.
“There is no other transportation project of this scale anywhere in the country where the local community bears such an inordinate share of the total project cost,” he said.
There is currently no federal funding for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which has an estimated cost of roughly $3 billion. The state of Virginia has provided $150 million, a sum Brown describes as “paltry.”
“That is not the kind of contribution Virginia is making to any of the other transportation projects in the state. It is funding 20 to 25 percent of project costs on three other megaprojects in Virginia and it is funding 6 percent of the cost of this project,” Brown said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said the agency received Brown’s letter but had not had time to review it.
MWAA had come under intense scrutiny for months leading up to LaHood’s critical letter. The overseas travel expenses incurred by some MWAA board members, especially Dennis Martire, led to charges of profligacy. Martire recently settled a legal battle with the administration of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who tried to remove him from the board of directors. Martire agreed to resign his post this month.
Monday, October 01, 2012
Electric vehicle charging stations are springing up all over Florida -- and a lot of them are concentrated around Orlando, which has more than 150 stations within a 70-mile radius. But uptake in central Florida has been ... slow.
The Orlando Utilities Commission, which has installed 78 charging stations around the city, estimates there are about 700 electric vehicles currently on the road in Orlando. That's a tiny percentage of the 915,960 cars and pickup trucks registered in Orange County, which encompasses most of the Orlando metropolitan area.
But alternative fuel advocates are hopeful the vehicles will eventually catch on in the Sunshine State. Florida's electric vehicle infrastructure is growing quickly, and the U.S. Department of Energy lists 319 public charging stations across the state, provided with funding from federal stimulus money.
Orlando resident Mark Thomasen has been an advocate for electric vehicles in the city since 2008. He worked for a company that installed many of the charging stations and now writes an EV blog. He says it's been a challenge to build up acceptance of electric vehicles in the area. "There's not as much of a green movement in central Florida, and in Florida versus say Washington, or Oregon or Colorado."
Motorists might also balk at the upfront price. Chevrolet's plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid Volt sedan has a list price of $39,145, while Nissan's all-electric Leaf, has a base price of $35,000. Even with the $7,500 federal tax rebate, the cars are comparatively expensive.
But Thomasen is confident EVs will catch on in Florida. He says they don't face some of the challenges of hydrogen, such as how to generate and store the gas, as well as the need to dvelop a high capacity, durable and inexpensive fuel cell. And he says even if drivers aren't worried about the environmental cost of gasoline, EVs should appeal to people who don't want to rely on foreign oil.
"Over here, what matters to people is energy independence," he says. "People don't realize how much fuel we use and how little we have within our border. So by moving to an electric car and getting off of that, we go to a different fuel source."
And Thomasen says electric vehicles at least have the infrastructure to support them, unlike hydrogen fuel cars.
Seven years ago there was a big push to build a hydrogen fuel infrastructure in California and in Florida. In 2005, Florida Governor Jeb Bush broke ground on the state's first hydrogen fueling station in Orlando. “Florida is spurring investment in the development and use of pollution-free hydrogen technology,” said Gov. Bush. The new station was to be part of a "hydrogen hub" in central Florida, and the first of a series of stations fueling a fleet of clean energy vehicles.
After Jeb Bush left office, Florida's new governor Charlie Crist grabbed the renewable fuel baton. He cut the ribbon on the station in May 2007, and touted it as a way to wean the nation off foreign oil. A fleet of minibuses operated by the Orange County convention center was adapted to run on hydrogen supplied by the station. Progress Energy, one of the partners in the project, opened a second refueling station near Oviedo as part of a nationwide demonstration project on fuel cell vehicles, led by the US Department of Energy. Eventually though, Florida's hydrogen highway evaporated. After two years and 3,200 fill-ups, the two hydrogen refueling stations shut down and the pilot program finished.
James Fenton, who directs the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research facility at the University of Central Florida, says hydrogen still has a place in the future of alternative fuels in Florida. But he says it's more likely to be used in fuel cells in electric vehicles rather than powering internal combustion engines. "Eventually we'll get to the point when all the battery-powered electric cars will have fuel cell range extenders," says Fenton. "You'll have electric cars with batteries for short trips because the electron out of the wall is dirt cheap, then you'll electrolyze water somewhere else, fill your car with hydrogen and extend the range."
And while electric vehicles aren't yet a common sight on central Florida roads, Fenton says he's upbeat about their future because mile for mile, electricity out of the wall is cheaper than gasoline. But he says there are still some obstacles to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"We don't have a hydrogen infrastructure," says Fenton. "That's the kicker."
Monday, October 01, 2012
By Mark Simpson
It seems like Florida and high-speed rail were a couple that always flirted across a crowded room -- but neither had the nerve to ask for a date.
Finally in 2010 and 2011 it seemed like progress was being made. But then the pair's matchmaker -- governor Charlie Crist -- left office, and new governor Rick Scott started sending mixed signals. What could have been a storybook romance for President Obama, Florida, and fast trains evaporated faster than a Shinkansen speeding between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Time Magazine journalist Mike Grunwald recounts some of that story in his new book “The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era”.
Speaking with Mark Simpson on WMFE’s Intersection program this week, Grunwald recalled Orlando and Tampa’s hope’s creating a blazing fast network of trains between the two anchors of the I-4 corridor: “Florida had the shovel-readiest bullet train," he says. "You had the land, you had the route right down I-4, it was pretty much good to go. You had all these private companies that were willing to pick up the slack and say we’ll cover the cost of any overruns and make sure this isn’t going to cost Florida a dime.”
Grunwald says Rick Scott’s cancellation of high speed rail reflected the action of other Republican governors around the country, including Wisconsin and Ohio, and political ideology played into the stripping away of Obama’s grand plans for high speed rail. “There was a kind of tea party element to this; we don’t like trains, that’s the sort of liberal way to travel and we don’t like government projects.”
The high-speed rail network is now much smaller than the nationwide map originally envisioned in the stimulus package. Rather, routes in the Midwest and Northeast are beefing up to bring “higher speed rail,” which don't approach the bullet train speeds of Europe and Asia but instead are shaving off some commuting time between major cities. (Watch videos of recent Acela tests on TN.)
So now, President Obama can't point to a gleaming set of new trains and say "I built that." According to Grunwald, that has ramifications. “I talked to a guy in the administration who told me he thought this was going to be a great issue for Obama in 2012," he says, "because they would just show pictures of those guys in Florida building this new fancy high-speed network that was going to whip bullet trains past traffic on I-4 and create tens of thousands of jobs, and they’d be able to run those ads in Wisconsin and say hey thanks for your money Wisconsin -- but of course it turned out Florida went [in that same] direction.”
You can listen to the complete conversation on WMFE’s web page.
Friday, September 28, 2012
(New York, NY -- Ilya Marritz, WNYC) Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) warned on Friday that it will get more and more difficult to construct two Amtrak rail tunnels linking New Jersey and midtown Manhattan, unless the forces of government and the private sector quickly align.
"There is a major issue that has to be resolved right now or else the project may end up in the graveyard, as it did with ARC," Schumer said, referring to a previous rail tunnel plan that was killed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2010.
The reason? A new mixed-use neighborhood is being built on Manhattan's west side, on a platform directly above the site where the rail tunnels would emerge from below the Hudson.
"Amtrak's engineers have determined that the only place they can bring these new tunnels into Manhattan is under Hudson Yards, along a Long Island Railroad right of way," Schumer told real estate developers at a breakfast gathering organized by the New York Building Congress.
Schumer said the Related Companies, which are building the Hudson Yards neighborhood, are prepared to cooperate with Amtrak and the federal government. But Related plans to begin construction by the end of this year, making the Amtrak project especially urgent, the senior U.S. Senator from New York said.
"We will need contracts, design plans, and construction dollars to flow over the next six to twelve months to make this a reality. We need action, we need it fast," Schumer said.
The Senator said his next step will be to work to get agreements inked between the parties, so tunnel construction can begin before the end of 2013.
Schumer will also lobby for federal dollars to build the tunnels, known as the Gateway project. He estimates Gateway will require $20 million in 2013, and $100 million in 2014 for preliminary work.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
By Kate Hinds
On Thursday's 30 Issues in 30 Days, the WNYC election series took a look at infrastructure.
Host Brian Lehrer notes that word did not come up in the convention speeches of either President Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Neither, for that matter, did transportation.
How times have changed. President Obama once talked so often about building roads and bridges we turned those mentions into an interactive chart.
Meanwhile, said one of the Brian Lehrer Show guests, it's not just that we have an infrastructure problem. "It's that we can't even deal with it how bad the problem is. "We are beyond denial of the crisis," said Infrastructure USA's Steven Anderson.
Listen to the conversation below.
Want to learn more about how infrastructure became a partisan issue? Go here.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
“It's game-changing. Amazing. It's the best.”
In the 11 years since Al-Qaeda terrorists used passenger planes as weapons on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, air travelers have rarely used such words to describe the airport security experience. But that could be changing at airports across the country.
“It honestly has changed everything,” says Neal Lassila, a tech company executive, describing how easily he sails through security now thanks to the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program.
Lassila was interviewed by Transportation Nation after taking all of 90 seconds to pass through a new screening checkpoint at Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington that was built specifically for PreCheck “known travelers.”
“I travel quite a bit so getting in and out of security was a bit of a hassle,” the Los Angeles resident said.
Lassila didn’t have to take off his shoes or belt -- or even open his bag -- on the way through the checkpoint. He had been pre-screened after successfully applying for the TSA program through his airline as a frequent flier. His ‘known traveler’ number is now embedded in the bar code of his boarding pass.
TSA officials invited reporters to attend a news conference inside the Dulles main terminal on Tuesday to check out the new checkpoint and interview travelers who have been accepted into the PreCheck program, which marks a shift in the one-size-fits-all security template used on all travelers after 9/11.
“I had to give them my driver’s license, a working passport, and I had to show them my birth certificate to prove who I was and that the documents matched me,” said Rich Hubner, a Virginia resident who travels frequently for his environmental science career.
Hubner applied for the PreCheck expedited screening program through the government’s Global Entry system which requires a short, in-person interview with security personnel to verify his identity. Becoming eligible for the program removed all the hassle of long lines at security checkpoints.
“Cooler minds have prevailed finally,” he said.
Dulles is the 26th airport where PreCheck is operating. TSA hopes to expand the program to 35 airports by the end of the year. Three million passengers have been screened through PreCheck to date, according to TSA administrator John Pistole. But he said Dulles is a special case. “Dulles International is the first airport in the nation to build a new checkpoint that is dedicated only to TSA PreCheck operations,” he said at the news conference. “If we have determined that a passenger is eligible for expedited screening, that information will have been embedded on the bar code of your boarding pass.”
There are some caveats: only frequent fliers of certain airlines, like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, US Airways or Alaska Airlines are eligible right now. And pre-screened passengers won't necessarily fly through security every time. The TSA website warns that the agency "will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening."
To see a list of airports that have PreCheck, go here.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
By Kate Hinds
The federal government has given its final approval to New York State's plans to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. It's the final regulatory hurdle the $5 billion project had to cross before the state could award a contract and begin construction.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, Governor Andrew Cuomo was elated by the Department of Transportation's decision, which is the result of a year-long sprint by his administration to fast-track plans to replace the 56-year old bridge linking Westchester and Rockland Counties.
"From my point of view, that was the most difficult step all along here," Cuomo said. "Building the bridge is actually the easy part. Relative to the environmental review, it's a straightforward task. "
The environmental review is a 10,000 page document laying out the environmental impact the project will have on the surrounding Hudson River area -- and demonstrates how the state will conform to federal law.
"It doesn't build the bridge -- we still have to pick a contractor, we still have to work out the financing," said the governor, "but the environmental review is basically completed."
The state is currently reviewing bids from three contractors. Once a team is picked, which is expected to be later this year, it will be constructing the bridge under New York's new design-build legislation. Last week, the governor named a design team to help review the bids and provide aesthetic guidance.
But one big question has yet to be answered: how the state will pay for the new bridge. New York is in the process of requesting a low-interest loan from the federal government, and Cuomo has said that the basic source of financing will come from tolls. But the state has yet to release a comprehensive finance plan.
Still, the governor said, the hardest step was in the rear-view mirror. "I'm going to exhale today," he said.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Not too long ago, an ad for Audi cars sought to relate to the average driver with grimly shot footage of rutted roads, rotting bridges, and frayed guardrails. “Across the nation, over 100,000 miles of roads and bridges are in disrepair,” a female announcer intones.
That this rhetoric could turn up in an ad is a metaphor of the current acceptance of America’s rather sorry infrastructure. In its latest report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American infrastructure a "D.”
In 2008, Republicans and Democrats pretty much agreed that investing in infrastructure is a national priority. Here's an excerpt from the 2008 GOP platform:
We support a level of investment in the nation's transportation system that will promote a healthy economy, sustain jobs, and keep America globally competitive. We need to improve the system's performance and capacity to deal with congestion, move a massive amount of freight, reduce traffic fatalities, and ensure mobility across both rural and urban areas.
We urgently need to preserve the highway, transit, and air facilities built over the last century so they can serve generations to come. At the same time, we are committed to minimizing transportation's impact on climate change, our local environments, and the nation's energy use. Careful reforms of environmental reviews and the permitting process should speed projects to completion.
It's hard to remember that that was just four years ago -- when Senator Barack Obama was running against Senator John McCain.
In 2012, supporting infrastructure couldn't be more partisan.
In one of the most-quoted pieces of video />made this campaign, President Barack Obama argues that success relies on collective action, including big infrastructure projects. Obama: "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help... Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
But to Republicans, that sounded like an argument against individual ingenuity. "We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones," former Governor Mitt Romney said in his acceptance speech, describing all the reasons our parents and grandparents came to this county, including "freedom to build a life. And yes, freedom to build a business with their own hands."
It was huge applause line. The theme even became a country song Lane Turner performed at the convention, with the refrain, "I built it, with no help from Uncle Sam."
That Uncle Sam has a big role in building infrastructure has been a pretty consistent theme for President Obama. His $800 stimulus bill had big sums for highways, transit, and high speed rail. He's proposed big transportation budgets every year.
But republicans see it differently. Arguing the country can't afford more debt, Republican Governors sent stimulus money back to the federal government. In Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, they stopped high speed rail projects in their tracks. But they weren't the first republicans to send big bucks back to D.C.
But before Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida had even won office, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie started a modern trend: sending billions back to the federal government for a local transit project rather than risk incurring extra debt for New Jersey taxpayers. In October, 2010, Christie pulled the plug on an already-started transit tunnel under the Hudson River -- the so-called ARC tunnel. " In the end the taxpayers of New Jersey would be on the hook for every nickel of the cost overruns," Christie said, explaining the decision.
"When you become governor, and you start to become presented with the information I was presented with you're presented with now a choice of a project that I do think is a worthwhile project but that we simply can't afford," Christie added.
Christie's Democratic counterpart in New York, Andrew Cuomo, took a different approach. Without the financing in hand, Cuomo greenlighted his own massive infrastructure project -- a new $5 billion Tappan Zee bridge.
"As a society, as a government, as a state, we have to be able to get to yes," Cuomo told reporters after he'd applied for the funds. "We have to be able to build a bridge that needs to be replaced. If we want this state to be what we want this state to be you have to be able to tackle a project like this."
Thursday, September 20, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY -- WNYC) The one-word street markings started appearing around Manhattan in mid-summer. An eagle-eyed TN reporter snapped a photo of one and, with no help from the city's tight-lipped Department of Transportation, deduced it was the start of a new pedestrian safety campaign.
That $1 million campaign has now been officially launched with the help of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who joined NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan at the corner of Second Avenue and 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan to show off an oversized stencil that read "LOOK!"
The emphatic order is meant to be spotted by a pedestrian with his head buried in a smartphone as he launches into traffic. The "O's" in LOOK! also double as eyeballs pointing toward a presumed onslaught of vehicles. Sadik-Khan said New Yorkers need the heads-up: more than half of those killed in city traffic accidents are pedestrians. She added that at that very corner, 75 people were hurt in crashes between 2006 and 2010.
The LOOK! markings are installed at 110 crash-prone intersections throughout the city, with 90 more to come.
LaHood said it's critical for pedestrians to remain alert while crossing the street because even when they're in the right, they can still be hurt--more than half of all New Yorkers killed last year by cars at a crosswalk had the green light. "Having the right-of-way does not guarantee your safety," he said. "Hold off on emailing or texting until you've crossed the street."
Sadik-Khan said she got the idea for the markings when she visited London and came across its well-known suggestions to "Look Left" or "Look Right" before crossing.
The NYC DOT isn't putting the burden of safety solely on walkers. The LOOK! campaign includes ads on the backs of buses that admonish motorists to "Drive Smart / LOOK!" Other ads tell drivers to yield to pedestrians when turning at an intersection.
A NYC DOT spokesman said the campaign is largely funded by the Federal Highway Administration.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meets this morning to hold Amtrak to the fire over taxpayer subsidies to the national rail network. Amtrak, founded in 1971, has never made a profit. Over its four decades of operating a for-profit passenger service on 44 rail routes, Amtrak has received about $40 billion in subsidies for capital and operating expenses.
Transportation Committee Chair, John Mica (R-Fla.) says a big chunk of those subsidies are wasted. In recent months, Mica has been shining a brighter spotlight on what he sees as unnecessary spending and mismanagement at Amtrak. Today's hearing will be the third of three discussing Amtrak operations. The head of Amtrak, Joe Boardman, (interviewed by TN here) will be on the stand along with representatives from the bus industry, a rail passenger group and the conservative Cato Institute.
Mica's office and Amtrak have each issued statements that hint at how this hearing will play out. We've pasted them below. Consider it a tale of dueling press releases.
The announcement from Mica's office states the purpose of the hearing bluntly: "to review Amtrak operations and the need for reforms to significantly cut the unnecessarily high costs of U.S. passenger rail service."
Late yesterday afternoon, Amtrak issued a retort that touted record ridership and a consistent decline in subsidies that peaked in 2004. The proud subject-heading on Amtrak's email blast is a direct response to Mica's criticism: "Amtrak Covers 85 Percent of Operating Costs with Ticket Sales and Other Revenues." That still leaves $466 million in annual subsidies. And that means each passenger trip on Amtrak costs the government $46, more than ten times what other modes receive according to figures cited in Mica's statement, which quoted from a recent study funded by the bus industry.
Mica also offered a pair of line items he'd like to see slashed. One of the lines costs Amtrak $200 million on overtime pay annually, he says. Then there's the hamburgers. Mica devoted a whole press conference last month to lambasting Amtrak's $16 money-losing burgers and the $83 million the company loses from on-board food and beverage service. Mica says that's a glaring example of mismanagement, particularly considering Amtrak's failure to meet a Congressional mandate to break-even on food.
Congressional mandates, Amtrak has said in the past, are exactly the reason the company runs in the red, at least on certain routes. Amtrak was founded to operate a rail network as a for-profit company but also a national public good. Commercial passenger rail had all but failed by 1971. Freight companies were required to operate passenger service. Amtrak was the replacement for that unpopular system. (See these historical press releases from Amtrak's early days for a sense of the thinking in the early 1970s).
Many routes travel through sparsely populated towns with stops chosen as much by political negotiations -- or even mandate -- as passenger demand. Amtrak's long distance routes lose the most money. The worst performer of all is the Sunset Limited line from Los Angeles to New Orleans. As we reported last month, local officials are now agitating to restore that service along the Gulf Coast despite the fact that some stations had passenger numbers in the single digits.
If you want more data from the Transportation Committee, the briefing memo from Mica is here.
Amtrak funding has come to be a political football as a symbol of big government. Today's hearing is sure to be gripping political theater ... for us rail geeks, anyway.
Watch it here starting at 9:30 a.m.
Full Press Releases, first Mica, then Amtrak:
Billions in Taxpayer Subsidies for Amtrak to be Focus of Hearing
Washington, DC – The $40 billion cost to taxpayers in subsidizing Amtrak over the years will be the subject of a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on Thursday.
The Full Committee hearing, chaired by U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), will investigate the monetary losses associated with Amtrak’s operations, explore and compare Amtrak’s level of federal subsidy with the subsidies provided to other modes of passenger transportation, and examine management deficiencies identified by the Amtrak Office of Inspector General.
Funding for Amtrak’s capital and operating expenses comes from operational revenues and appropriated funds. Amtrak’s operations have never resulted in a net profit with most of its routes losing money. The system as a whole only accounts for 0.1 percent of America’s passenger travel, but its per-ticket subsidy level is dramatically higher than other modes of transportation. Over the past 41 years, Amtrak has received nearly $40 billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies. According to a recent study comparing FY 2008 levels of federal subsidy by mode, aviation received $4.28 per passenger trip, mass transit received $0.95 per passenger, intercity commercial bus received $0.10 per passenger, and Amtrak received $46.33 per passenger.
Various factors result in Amtrak’s more than $460 million in annual operating losses, including $83 million per year in food and beverage operating losses (despite a long-standing Congressional break-even requirement), and more than $200 million annually in overtime pay (despite a Congressional cap on the amount of allowable overtime).
This will be the third in a series of Committee oversight hearings to review Amtrak operations and the need for reforms to significantly cut the unnecessarily high costs of U.S. passenger rail service. Click here for more information about Thursday’s hearing.
And from Amtrak:
AMTRAK COVERS 85% OF OPERATING COSTS WITH TICKET SALES AND OTHER REVENUES
Federal operating grant reduced nearly 50% since FY 2004
WASHINGTON - Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman will appear before a Congressional committee tomorrow and testify that with record ridership of 30.2 million passengers, Amtrak now covers 85 percent of its operating budget with ticket sales and other revenues, reducing the federal operating need to just 15 percent.
In addition, he will inform the committee that the FY 2012 federal operating grant of $466 million is significantly down from a peak of $755 million in FY 2004, or a reduction of nearly 50 percent in inflation adjusted dollars.
"Amtrak uses federal operating support to achieve the mission given to us by Congress to deliver the mobility, connectivity and economic benefits of a national passenger rail network, particularly long-distance train routes," Boardman stated.
Through dispatching services, operating contracts and access to Amtrak-owned and maintained infrastructure, Amtrak also supports the safe movement of more than 230 million commuter rail passengers and more than 300,000 carloads of freight rail service each year.
He also will reiterate that for FY 2013, Amtrak is requesting $450 million in federal operating support, an amount lower than what Congress appropriated for the current year. This is possible as a result of improved management and financial performance.
"The federal government has long been in the business of subsidizing all modes of transportation, yet no one can agree on what numbers to use to quantify the benefits of these investments," Boardman said. "Record ridership and revenue, best farebox recovery in the U.S. passenger rail industry, debt cut in half, increased efficiency, better cost controls, improved on-time performance and being the nation's only high-speed rail operator are strong indicators that Amtrak is putting our portion of the federal investment to good and effective use."
Also, Boardman will explain that according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the numbers of Americans in smaller cities and rural communities who no longer have access to intercity bus or air service, and are served only by Amtrak, tripled in just five years. Ridership on Amtrak long-distance trains is up 18.4 percent from FY 2007 to FY 2011.
Finally, Boardman will remind the committee that throughout Amtrak's 41-year existence, passenger rail has been only a small portion of the annual federal transportation budget. In contrast, in just the past four years, the Congress appropriated $53.3 billion from general revenues to bail out the Highway Trust Fund as federal gas tax receipts prove insufficient - that's almost 30 percent more than the $39.3 billion in total federal expenditure Amtrak has received since it was created in 1971.
Amtrak is America's Railroad(r), the nation's intercity passenger rail service and its high-speed rail operator. A record 30.2 million passengers traveled on Amtrak in FY 2011 on more than 300 daily trains - at speeds up to 150 mph (241 kph) - that connect 46 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian Provinces. Amtrak operates intercity trains in partnership with 15 states and contracts with 13 commuter rail agencies to provide a variety of services. Enjoy the journey(r) at Amtrak.com or call 800-USA-RAIL for schedules, fares and more information. Join us on facebook.com/Amtrak and follow us at twitter.com/Amtrak.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2012
This just in from the Dept. of Transportation: Virginia is getting an additional $74 million in federal money for high-speed rail. Upon closer inspection, it's really higher speed rail that will top out at 110 m.p.h. The money will help pay for laying an extra 11-mile stretch of rail meant to speed freight and passenger travel between Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, N.C.
The Obama administration has allocated around $10 billion to high-speed rail that was meant to lay whole new track and connect regional lines into a national rail network. Republican governors in Wisconsin and Florida returned federal money, saying the plans were too expensive and the states would be on the hook for cost overruns. That leaves California as the the biggest beneficiary of federal money, for an ambitious nearly 400-mile plan to connect Los Angeles with San Francisco by high-speed rail. DOT funds have been distributed around 153 projects, most of which are more like today's Virginia announcement than California's plan: projects meant to incrementally push the nation's rail network toward true high-speed rail through construction that will help an eventual HSR network, but also offer near-term intermediate benefits like faster travel time on congested stretches.
Here's the full release:
U.S. Department of Transportation Awards More than $74 Million to Further Development of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor in Virginia
Added Capacity Will Improve Passenger, Freight and Commuter Rail Service Between Virginia and Washington, D.C.
WASHINGTON –U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today awarded more than $74.8 million to the Commonwealth of Virginia to continue development of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor. The funding will help improve passenger and freight rail service between Virginia and Washington, D.C. and reduce delays on the Virginia Rail Express (VRE) commuter service.
“The Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor between Charlotte and Washington D.C. serves one of the fastest growing regions in the country, which is why it is critical to eliminate congestion points so that intercity passenger, freight and commuter rail can all run smoothly without delays,” said Secretary LaHood. “This is a great example of how federal, state and local governments are working with rail carriers to build capacity and improve service for the public.”
The project will build up to 11 miles of third track and related improvements from Arkendale in Stafford County to Powell's Creek in Prince William County, Va. The third track will provide the capacity needed for higher speed trains on the Southeast Corridor to operate without conflict from freight and commuter trains. On a daily basis, 40-50 freight trains, 10 Amtrak trains and 14 VRE trains operate over this segment, and the addition of a third track will allow for traffic to flow unimpeded. In addition to adding a third track, the project includes final design and improvements to the station at the Quantico Marine Base in Quantico, Va.
“The Washington, D.C. area transportation system has been plagued with delays as population in the area has increased and more commodities flow through the region,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo. “Reducing congestion and adding capacity are two key outcomes we and our state partners in Virginia planned for in making this investment. Projects like this will make a real difference for passengers while maintaining our world class freight system. We are building a rail infrastructure for an America built to last.”
When completed, the Corridor will have have at least eight high-speed trains traveling at 110 mph between Charlotte, N.C. and Washington D.C. Travel time between Charlotte and Washington D.C. will be reduced by up to three hours, and travel time between Richmond and Washington D.C will be reduced by 35 minutes. The Southeast Corridor is one of five originally proposed high-speed passenger rail corridors designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 1992. It is part of an overall plan to extend service from the existing high-speed rail on the Boston to Washington Northeast Corridor to points in the Southeast. Future plans for the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor call for extending service from Charlotte to Atlanta.
The Federal Railroad Administration and its 32 state partners are making great progress on High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail projects across the country. With $10.1 billion in federal funding, states are moving forward with 153 projects, laying the foundation for a 21st century passenger rail network.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The federal government may provide a substantial loan to the agency running the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport, enabling the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) to lower projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road that are expected to cover 75 percent of the rail project’s estimated Phase 2 cost of $2.7 billion, a Virginia congressman said.
MWAA, along with Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, plans to submit a letter of interest by September 30 to the federal government for a loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (TIFIA) Act, which established a program that lends money for major transportation projects throughout the country.
Based on recent discussions with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he expects a loan to come through soon
“I’m very confident we’re going to be able to lock down a TIFIA loan for a fairly substantial percentage of the cost of the construction of Phase 2 by the end of this year,” Connolly said. “We know that [the loan] can’t exceed 33 percent of the cost of the project. It is my hope that it will be somewhere between 25 and 30 percent, but we have to see. We are in competition with other projects around the country as well.”
Effective January, the cost of a one-way, full toll is projected to rise to $2.75. In 2015, it increases to $4.50, with scheduled increases of $2 every five years.
“One of my goals is to move us from zero federal assistance to a substantial federal assistance so we can get the pressure of the toll users and the toll rates,” Connolly said.
There is currently no federal funding for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which is expected to begin construction next year. The state of Virginia is providing $150 million. Fairfax and Loudoun Counties have allocated substantial sums, but three-quarters of the cost is expected to come from Dulles Toll Road users.
Because the project, which will extend to the airport and beyond into Loudoun County by the end of the decade, did not meet Federal Transit Administration criteria for expected ridership, the federal government was reluctant to provide any funding at all. After the project was split into two phases the government allocated $900 million for Phase 1, which will end at Wiehle Avenue in Reston, Va.
“One of the flaws in the financing of this project is that the Commonwealth of Virginia really hasn’t put up its own money. It has used our money in the form of toll revenue to finance its share and airports' [authority’s] share of this project, and that puts real upward pressure on toll rates,” Connolly said.
The Reston Citizens Association, which says it represents 58,000 Fairfax County residents, sent a letter on Monday to the MWAA’s chief executive officer, calling the recent public hearings the agency held “inadequate” considering the anticipated impact of higher tolls. The association is asking the MWAA to reduce the toll burden to 25 percent of the Silver Line’s Phase 2 cost.
The letter “details the harm the proposed toll hikes will do to the well being of toll road users, to the already serious congestion on local roads, and to the potential economic and tax revenue growth in the Dulles Corridor.” Opponents of the current financing structure say drivers attempting to avoid the higher tolls will seek alternate routes to work, further congesting already jammed secondary roads.
“[The] MWAA has a responsibility to address the variety of community concerns we enumerate and more. It is a far broader responsibility than building a 16-mile railroad. We are anxious to help you find new funding sources,” the RCA writes.
“The public needs to be heard. I think the Reston [Citizens] Association is absolutely correct,” Connolly says. “I share the Reston Association’s concern about the lack of accountability at MWAA.”
The MWAA's proposed toll hike is also the subject of a recent class action lawsuit, which argues that the agency does not have the legal right to raise tolls on drivers to pay for trains.
In recent months the embattled MWAA has publicized measures it has taken to improve transparency after reports of profligate spending and unethical practices by some members of its board of directors.