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Obama Tells States "Use It or Lose It" for $470 Million in Transpo Money (CHART)

Friday, August 17, 2012

States will lose out on millions of dollars in federal highway money if they sit on the cash without putting it to immediate use, the White House said in a statement today.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is making freeing up $473 million in unspent highway earmarks for other projects  "that will create jobs and help improve transportation." The move is intended to speed the stimulus and job creation impact of federal transportation spending, much of which goes to large projects that can take years to plan and execute.

President Barack Obama said, “We’re not going to let politics stand between construction workers and good jobs repairing our roads and bridges.”

According to the DOT, $473 million in highway earmarks remain unspent from 2003-2006 appropriations (full list here). Today's authorization allows state transportation departments to take that earmarked money and use it on other highway, transit, passenger rail or port projects.

Funds not re-obligated within a state by the end of the year can go to other states in the 2013 fiscal year, hence the headline in the White House press release "Use It or Lose It" (in full below)

Top Ten States with unused earmarks:

Top Ten States with Unspent Transportation Earmark Money

Alabama $51,488,747.50
California $43,075,444.64
Texas $30,795,362.97
New York $29,031,287.86
Pennsylvania $28,536,041.90
Alaska $20,239,216.44
Massachusetts $18,933,562.00
Kentucky $17,518,853.15
Michigan $15,806,886.79
Mississippi $15,248,578.00

Full Press Release:

Obama Administration on Idle Earmark Projects: Use It or Lose It “We Can’t Wait” Action Helps States Put People to Work, Improve Infrastructure

WASHINGTON, DC – The Obama Administration today announced that it won’t allow infrastructure funds to sit idle as a result of stalled earmark projects at a time when hundreds of thousands of construction workers are looking for work. U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is making over $470 million in unspent earmarks immediately available to states for projects that will create jobs and help improve transportation across the country.

“My administration will continue to do everything we can to put Americans back to work,” said President Barack Obama. “We’re not going to let politics stand between construction workers and good jobs repairing our roads and bridges.”

“We are freeing up these funds so states can get down to the business of moving transportation projects forward and putting our friends and neighbors back to work,” said Secretary LaHood.

President Obama has vowed to veto any bill that comes to his desk with earmarks and would support legislation to permanently ban earmarks. But $473 million in highway earmarks from FY2003-2006 appropriations acts remain unspent years later. Those acts contain provisions that authorize the Secretary to make the unused funds available for eligible surface transportation projects.  Effective today, state departments of transportation will have the ability to use their unspent earmarked highway funds, some of which are nearly 10 years old, on any eligible highway, transit, passenger rail, or port project.

States must identify the projects they plan to use the funds for by October 1, and must obligate them by December 31, 2012.

“Particularly in these difficult fiscal times, states will be able to put these dollars to good use,” said Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez.  “These funds will create jobs in the short term and help bring about what President Obama called ‘an America built to last.’”

To ensure that this funding is quickly put to good use to improve our nation’s infrastructure, funds not obligated by the December 31 deadline will be proportionally redistributed in FY 2013 to states that met the deadline.

A list of available funds by state can be accessed here: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/pressroom/redisfy0306earmarks.htm

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Transportation Nation

Bloomberg: NYC Bike Share Delayed Until Spring (UPDATED)

Friday, August 17, 2012

(Photo by Andrea Bernstein)

(UPDATED 9:55am) There will be no shiny blue Citi Bikes on the streets of New York until March.

"Unfortunately there are software issues" said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Friday on his radio show on WOR with John Gambling. The mayor said: "One of the newspapers keeps writing, 'you're hiding something.' Yeah, well, nothing. The software doesn't work. Duh. Until it works, we're not going to put it out until it does work."

"We did think there would be a possibility of a partial launch but at this point --

At which point, Gambling interjected: "Next year?"

"The spring," Mayor Bloomberg responded. "Hopefully the software will work by then. We want to make sure that it works. Washington and Boston are pretty good tests." The Mayor added that "mother nature" makes winter a poor time to launch a system.

A press release from the NYC Department of Transportation (full text below)  sent out shortly after the Mayor's radio statement clarified the launch date will be "March" for phase 1 of the program, which will include 7,000 bikes at 420 stations. The statement did not specify what neighborhoods, or with what pace the bikes would be deployed.

Chicago also delayed its launch until spring, and before its own system went live, Boston delayed so as not to have the system get going just as a cold, northeast winter was getting under way. Bike share relies on physical activity, and streets clear of snow and ice.

The New York bike share program was to have launched July 31. But that day came and went with city officials tight-lipped about why. Mayor Bloomberg only said the problem had to do with software issues.

"It really is very advanced technology," the Mayor said Friday. "Each station is like a dock, each place you stick in a bike is a computer, and everything runs on solar power so you don't need a lot of wiring and there's no burden on the electrical system. There's an enormous number of transactions you have to communicate in real time to central computers."

With 10,000 bikes at full roll-out New York's system will be, by several orders of magnitude, the largest system in U.S., and the largest in North America. The next largest U.S. system is in Washington, with about 2,000 bikes.

Even before Friday's announcement, there were indications that the initial, breathless announcements may have been overly optimistic. When it named its sponsor, the city let it slip out that launching the system would take 13 months, and that neighborhoods like Park Slope and the Upper West Side wouldn't get bike share until 2013.

That turned out to be because finding a sponsor took so much longer than anticipated, and because of that the vendor who is supplying New York with its bikes, Alta Bicycle Share, didn't have any money in hand to order bikes until months later than planned.

Alta is also preparing large bike shares for San Francisco and Chicago. The Chicago system, set to be 4,000 bikes, is similarly delayed, and the losing vendor in that city has sued, saying the Chicago transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, had an inappropriate consulting relationship with Alta. A Klein spokesman says there's nothing untoward and that Klein recused himself from Chicago's selection.

Alta is the only vendor in the U.S. who has undertaken large-scale bike share systems, running both the Washington, DC and Boston networks. Those programs are widely deemed to be successful, and both are expanding. They both use a previous version of software, made by a different vendor, than newer Alta bike share systems. Boston's launch was also delayed by several months when it opened with 600 bikes in Summer 2011.

On Thursday, at an unrelated press conference in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the mayor said: “We’re trying to figure out when we can put a date that we’re sure or reasonably sure that it will work."

He said the reason for New York's delay is straightforward. “Look,” he said, “everybody wants to say there’s a secret agenda here. The software doesn’t work. And putting it out when the software doesn’t work, it wouldn’t work. Period.”

He wet on: “The fascinating thing is those people who screamed they didn’t want bicycles are now screaming ‘where are they?’. So I guess we’ve come a long way and [are] going in the right direction. Nobody would put it out quicker than me.”

On Friday, cycling advocates praised the Mayor's edition.  " “While we are eager for Citi Bike to begin, it’s more crucial that this ground-breaking transit system be launched correctly, not quickly, " said Paul Steely White, the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives.

"New York’s public bike share program will not only be the largest bike share system in the Western Hemisphere, it will also be the city’s first brand-new, full-scale form of public transit since the subway’s debut more than 100 years ago—this is not a moment to rush. When bike share launches in 2013, it will transform New York City by giving New Yorkers unprecedented convenience and freedom of mobility. In time, the circumstances of Citi Bike’s launch will be all but forgotten and we’ll all be enjoying a city made safer, healthier and less congested," Steely White added.

The contract inked between Alta Bicycle Share and New York City last September, which Transportation Nation has obtained, stipulated the company was to have least 1,000 bikes on the street on or before July 31.

Thereafter, Alta was supposed to have added at least 75 stations per ten business days, building to 7,000 bikes by September 30.

The announcement came on a summer Friday, typical a time politicians use to announce news they hope will garner little attention.

Bloomberg said Thursday there were no penalties for a delay.

“It’s all private money. And the people who’ve put up the money, particularly the two big sponsors, Citibank and MasterCard, are fully aware of what’s going on and they have been as supportive as you possibly can be. The city loses because we don’t have bicycles, but the city doesn’t lose any money or anything, and we all want to get it done as quickly — but you’ve got to do it right.”

The city’s Department of Transportation and Alta -- which is contractually not allowed to speak without prior DOT approval --  had been ciphers on the delay. Even Citi Bike’s official twitter account has been dark for a week.

But on Friday, the city issued DOT its longest statement in months on bike share.

The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), bike share operator New York City Bike Share (NYCBS) today announced that the Citi Bike system will launch in March 2013 with an initial phase of 7,000 bikes implemented at 420 stations. The timeline, agreed to by all parties, does not affect the Citi Bike sponsorship structure, which uses $41 million in private funding from Citi to underwrite the system for five years and ensures that NYCBS will split profits with the City.

 “New York City demands a world-class bike share system, and we need to ensure that Citi Bike launches as flawlessly as New Yorkers expect on Day One,” said DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “The enthusiasm for this program continues to grow and we look forward to bringing this affordable new transportation option to New Yorkers without cost to taxpayers.”

“NYCBS continues to be committed to bringing the largest and best solar-powered bike share system in the world to New York City,” said Alison Cohen, President.  “We recognize that New Yorkers are eagerly anticipating the launch of the bike share system and we will deliver on that promise.”

NYCBS continues work to conclude manufacture and testing of the high-performance software necessary to operate the new system, which is being tailored for New York City. The system uses new solar power arrays and circuit boards, and engineers will continue to thoroughly test data communications, power management and payment systems to ensure overall system performance. Following the March launch, work will continue to expand the system to 10,000 bikes, covering parts of Manhattan and from Long Island City to parts of Brooklyn.

 

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Transportation Nation

Politics Heating Up Over Big Toll Increase For Trucks On NY State Thruway

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo is fighting with the state comptroller over a toll hike. (photo by azipaybarah / Flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) The two-part political rule for any toll increase is a) voters will hate it b) officials must jockey to shift the blame.

That dynamic began today with the release of a report by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli questioning the need for a proposed 45 percent toll hike on commercial vehicles using the New York State Thruway. He blasted the authority for an operating budget that has ballooned by 36 percent over the past ten years, and urged the authority to save money by "consolidating functions" and handing off control of the money-losing Erie Canal.

“Imposing a large toll increase could have damaging effects on consumers and businesses at a time when many New Yorkers are struggling to recover from the recession,” DiNapoli said. “The Thruway should do more before relying on yet another toll hike to make ends meet.”

Governor Cuomo did not disagree. He echoed DiNapoli in saying tolls should be raised as "a last resort." But while taking questions from reporters in Albany, the governor raised the specter of "a real crisis" for the state if the thruway authority doesn't have the revenue it needs to "fix roads and build new bridges."

Then the finger-pointing began in earnest.

Thomas Madison, the Cuomo-appointed executive director of the thruway authority, fired off a statement blaming DiNapoli's lax oversight for contributing to the authority's dire financial straits. "The Comptroller, and his audits over the years, have actually contributed to past problems at the Thruway Authority by failing to report years of fiscal gimmicks and deferred expenses," Madison said.

Knowing the timeline is crucial to sorting out the argument. Madison took over the thruway authority last September; DiNapoli has been comptroller since early 2007. Madison was essentially blaming prior administrations at the authority for taking out burdensome loans that are now coming due--and DiNapoli for not calling them on it.

Then Madison defended a toll hike this year, at least in theory:

“The fact remains that tolls for large trucks on the Thruway – mostly long distance haulers – are 50 to 85 percent less in New York than in comparable states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And each of these trucks creates thousands of times more damage to roads and bridges than a passenger car. Heavy trucks, not passenger vehicles, should bear these added costs, so that tolls can be kept as low as possible for all motorists.”

When reporters asked Cuomo whether the thruway authority should take DiNapoli's suggestion and have the authority give up oversight of the corporation that oversees the the occasionally scandal-plagued Erie Canal, Cuomo dodged the question. "The canal is a great asset to the state," Cuomo said. "I don't think there's anyone who says that we should close down the Erie Canal. It's part of our legacy, it's part of our history, it's important for tourism."

Of course DiNapoli wasn't questioning the canal's importance, only that its operation had cost the authority more than $1 billion over the past two decades--and that the state would be better served to pay the canal's bills with revenue not collected from toll-paying drivers. Cuomo did concede that the canal was hurting the authority's bottom line: "It is not a money-maker at this point," he said.

The first of several public hearings on the toll hikes is scheduled for tomorrow in Buffalo. If passed, the hike would be the fifth increase since 2005.

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Transportation Nation

Walking While Elderly, Danger Increases with Age in NY Region

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One potential safety measure, employed in Canada, is explicit signage. (photo by Marcin Wichary via flickr)

In the greater New York City region, older pedestrians are almost two-and-a-half times more likely to be struck and killed by a vehicle than those under age 60.

That's the conclusion in a new report by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), which also found that elderly pedestrians in the NYC area suffer higher fatality rates than the national average.

According to the TSTC, between 2008 and 2010, 435 pedestrians aged 60 years and older were killed on the region’s roads. That age range makes up just over 18 percent of the area's population -- but accounts for 34 percent of pedestrian fatalities.

For those who walk slower, it can be difficult to cross an intersection before the light changes. That's partly why the older a pedestrian gets, the more likely she is to be hit and killed by a car. Those aged 75 years and older fared worst of all, with a fatality rate 3.09 times the rate of those under 60.

According to the report, "older pedestrians in Litchfield County, Connecticut have the highest fatality rate in the region, representing 75 percent of all pedestrian fatalities in the county, but only 22.1 percent of the population."

Nassau County, Queens and Brooklyn in New York and Hudson County, New Jersey, rounded out the top five of worst counties for elderly pedestrian safety.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Freight Carrier's Ad Campaign Aims To Make Infrastructure A Hot Topic During Presidential Election

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


One of the largest freight carriers in the country is riding into the presidential election with a nationwide television advertising campaign designed to spark debate about infrastructure.

Virginia-based Norfolk Southern’s CGI-laden, Toy Story-esque advertisements show a boy falling asleep in his bedroom while his toys come to life, creating a thriving city that his train set races around. The release of the media campaign is timed to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions, where the freight company will have a strong presence. According to AdWeek, Norfolk Southern is also a sponsor of CNN's election coverage.

“Wherever our trains go, the economy comes to life,” says the narrator.

"One of the points Norfolk Southern likes to make is that they invest in their own infrastructure,” says Jim Lansbury, creative director at RP3, the ad agency behind the campaign. "Airlines don't build airports and trucking companies don't build highways."

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ estimates that $2.2 trillion over five years is needed to modernize the country's infrastructure, from levees and dams to highways and bridges. The federal government's primary funding source for transportation projects is the gas tax, but there's little chance it will be raised.

“Gas tax revenues and receipts have been lagging behind what we want to spend on transportation at the federal level,” says Rachel MacCleery, a transportation expert at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, who says about 25 percent of all transportation spending nationwide flows from Congress.

“The Obama administration, early in the administration, has taken the gas tax off the table,” MacCleery adds.  The 18-cent-per-gallon tax has not been raised since 1993.

With funding for projects tight, states like Virginia are turning to public/private partnerships to build major highways.

Funding major transportation projects that promise to create jobs has become a partisan issue, especially during a presidential election season. There is little enthusiasm for a new stimulus bill.

“Where you see lots of progress in infrastructure investments it definitely is a bipartisan effort,” says MacCleery.  While overall spending figures are important, where the investments are made is equally critical.  “Are we building the kinds of infrastructure systems that will help sustain the 21st century economy and really thinking about conservation? Are we maintaining the infrastructure we have now?”

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Transportation Nation

Analysis: Picking Ryan Means Picking Fight on Transportation

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

 

Congressman Paul Ryan speaks at a Romney Rally in Manassas, Virginia, Sunday. (Photo by Flickr user monkeyz_uncle)

“Sharp” is a word you may have heard a lot these past few days. It’s a favorite descriptor for Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congressman who became Mitt Romney’s running mate as of Saturday morning. Sharp, say friends and foes alike, are Ryan’s appearance, his mind, his criticisms of President Barack Obama, the spending reductions he favors—and now, somewhat suddenly, the contrast between the policies embodied by the presumptive Republican challengers and those of the incumbent Democrats. It is a perceived sharpness that itself stands in contrast, of course, to Mitt Romney’s pre-Ryan candidacy, which many commentators found too muddled and many conservatives found too moderate.

Take transportation, for instance. Romney, as this blog observed, spoke and behaved as a metro-friendly moderate when he was Governor of Massachusetts. Romney’s transportation budgets were modally balanced, with an emphasis on fixing what already existed, and he worked hard to create a new state agency to encourage smart growth development and sustainability. A candidate who still believed in those principles might not have many sharp things to say about transportation in a debate with President Barack Obama.

The Obama Administration subscribes to the belief, by no means exclusive to liberals, that infrastructure spending is crucial to creating jobs and keeping America competitive. Judging from Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint, the newly tapped V.P. candidate takes issue not with just the dollar figures required to test Obama's idea, but the philosophy itself.

As high-speed rail advocates and transit-friendly bloggers are already aware, Ryan will bring plenty of sharp contrast to the presidential campaign. Yonah Freemark of Transport Politic put it neatly:

“Mr. Ryan voted against every piece of transportation legislation proposed by Democrats when they controlled the lower chamber between 2007 and early 2010, with the exception of a bill subsidizing the automobile industry to the tune of $14 billion in loans in December 2008. This record included a vote against moving $8 billion into the highway trust fund in July 2008 (the overall vote was 387 to 37), a bill that was necessary to keep transportation funding at existing levels of investment. Meanwhile, he voted for a failed amendment that would have significantly cut back funding for Amtrak and voted against a widely popular bill that would expand grants for public transportation projects. He did vote in favor of the most recent transportation bill extension.”

These votes of Ryan's weren’t a matter of toeing the party line, either. Republican House Transportation Chairman John Mica, for instance, took the other side on every one of these votes except the failed amendment cutting funding for Amtrak.

But no budget hawk is perfect. Ryan did show a certain weakness for transportation dollars back when George W. Bush was President. In July of 2005, he joined the 412-8 majority in voting for the infamously pork-laden, “bridge-to-nowhere”-building reauthorization bill SAFETEA-LU. And then he sent out a press release listing all of the earmarks he had won for his district, including $7.2 million for the widening of I-94 between the Illinois state line and Milwaukee, $3.2 million for a bypass around Burlington, and $2.4 million for work on I-43 in Rock County. Small authorizations were also secured for preliminary engineering work on the Kenosha streetcar expansion project and Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail. Ryan’s press release boasted that the state of Wisconsin was still a donee state, getting back $1.06 for every federal tax dollar, up from $1.02 the previous authorization. But “there’s no gas tax increase, and it draws on the Highway Trust Fund – not general revenues – for transportation spending, and it’s fair for Wisconsin gas tax payers.”

Five years later, as we know, it became unfashionable, gauche even, to be seen indulging in earmarks and other federal largess. In November 2010, that Tea Party autumn, Republican Scott Walker won the governorship of Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin after a campaign that made a major issue of the Milwaukee-to-Madison high speed rail “boondoggle.” In a television commercial, Walker said he’d rather use the $810 million to fix Wisconsin’s roads and bridges. But the money wasn’t fungible. As Walker and Florida Governor Rick Scott soon had to admit, turning down the money only meant re-gifting it to high speed rail projects in other, bluer, more grateful states.

Paul Ryan tried to change that. Just a few days after Walker’s election, he and two fellow Wisconsin Republicans co-sponsored legislation in the House to order returned high-speed rail money deposited into the general fund for the purposes of deficit reduction. The bill would have changed the political dynamic of federal high-speed rail funding had it passed, placing new pressure on any governor who accepted those grants. For whatever reason, the bill never left committee.

When Ryan became Chairman of the House Budget Committee, in 2011, he put forth a 2012 budget that, reflecting Ryan’s commitment not to raise the gas tax or draw from the general fund, reduced transportation spending from its 2011 level of $95 billion gradually down to $66 billion in 2015. That was at a time when the Obama Administration was proposing a six-year infrastructure outlay of $476 billion “to modernize the country’s transportation infrastructure, and pave the way for long-term economic growth.”

But there’s the rub. Chairman Ryan refutes that premise. In his budget, transportation spending is not economic investment. To quote the 2013 budget:

In the first two years of the Obama administration, funding for the Department of Transportation grew by 24 percent–and that doesn’t count the stimulus spike, which nearly doubled transportation spending in one year. The mechanisms of federal highway and transit spending have become distorted, leading to imprudent, irresponsible, and often downright wasteful spending. Further, however worthy some highway projects might be, their capacity as job creators has been vastly oversold, as demonstrated by the extravagant but unfulfilled promises that accompanied the 2009 stimulus bill, particularly with regard to high-speed rail.

The document goes on to say that the country’s fiscal challenges make “long-term subsidization infeasible,” and that “high-speed rail and other new intercity rail projects should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services.” (It’s unclear whether Ryan believes that new highways should also be built as self-supporting commercial services. But he should give Rick Perry a call before saying so publicly.)

With Ryan now on the Republican ticket, one can see more clearly the (sharper) contours of the general election debate, and infrastructure spending might just have a starring role. It’s there in the debate over the federal budget, and the federal funding role. It’s at the crux of the hullabaloo over “You didn’t build that” (a government theory Elizabeth Warren articulated better). And it will be there when Paul Ryan debates Amtrak Joe.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

Cuomo: Toll "Too High" on Estimates for New Tappan Zee Bridge

Friday, August 10, 2012

File photo of Governor Cuomo at the Tappan Zee Bridge on November 15, 2010 (photo by Richard Yeh/WNYC)

Although senior staffers to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have been out in force defending the proposed toll hike on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the governor is now calling the $14 toll "too high."

It's a new chapter in a series of events that started last Thursday evening, when Larry Schwartz, the secretary to the governor, formally revealed at a community meeting that tolls on the new bridge would almost triple when it opens to traffic in 2017.

The current Tappan Zee Bridge, which connects Rockland and Westchester Counties across the Hudson River, is considered to have outlived its useful life. New York State has been working on plans to replace it for almost a decade, and Governor Cuomo has made jump-starting construction one of his priorities.

Although Cuomo had been saying that tolls on the Tappan Zee would go up when the new bridge opens to traffic in 2017, the number -- which one Albany talk show host referred to as "jaw dropping" in an interview with the governor on Friday --  caught many people off guard, and  the backlash was immediate.

But today the governor struck a different tone in a letter to the New York State Thruway Authority, the agency in charge of the bridge. It was the first time Cuomo backed away from the $14 number.

"I believe the projected 2017 toll schedule based on the Federal Highway Administration’s estimate of up to $5.2 billion for the new bridge is too high," wrote Cuomo. "Over the next five years, we must find alternatives, revenue generators and cost reductions that reduce the potential toll increases." It was not immediately clear what a non-toll revenue generator would be.

To lower future tolls, the NY state is banking on lowering the projected construction costs below the federal estimate of $5.2 billion. Another option would be applying for additional grants to the state from the U.S. Department of Transportation. A spokesperson for the governor's office said that three construction bids are currently under review and that the cost will be the last piece of information to be parsed.

While it will take some time to hash out exactly how much toll revenue is required to build the new Tappan Zee, Cuomo's letter had one immediate effect: the supervisor of one Westchester town cancelled a planned meeting to protest the toll hike. "In light of the Governor’s responsiveness to the concerns of residents who object to the toll hike -- there is no need to have the meeting on August 15th," reads a notice on the Greenburgh web site.

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Transportation Nation

Calif. Residents File Health Claims Against Chevron (AUDIO)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Richmond, CA residents wait to file claims at an accident and injury attorney's office the night after a fire at a Chevron refinery. The line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. Photo by Julie Caine

The night after an explosion and fire at a Chevron refinery sent plumes of thick black smoke out across one of the Bay Area's poorest communities, local residents were already scrambling to ensure they will get compensated for potential impacts to their health.

Chevron has an official claims process, but many local Richmond residents filed into the office of a local attorney instead. KALW's Julie Caine stopped by to talk to the people in line.

Listen to them here:

A sample:

NICHOLAS HANEY: We are having a lot of people come in, we haven't sorted it all out yet. I'm having people fill out forms... We need to figure out where people were, where they live, where they were at the time of the fire, and, so we don't have all the answers yet. Chevron, I hope they step up to the plate and do the right thing. They have a lot of people in this town that got sick due to their negligence.

NOTE: Chevron Corporation issued the following information for people seeking to file medical claims:

"Chevron will open a help center in Richmond on Friday, August 10, to assist residents who want to file claims related to the incident that occurred at the refinery this week."

Help Center:
Nevin Community Center
598 Nevin Ave.
Richmond, CA

Hours of operation:
9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday - Friday
8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday

Those wishing to file a claim by phone should call 866-260-7881. Live operators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Residents who have already filed a claim by phone do not need to visit the help center.

We have reports that individuals may be calling members of the community about making claims. These are not Chevron representatives. There are only two ways a claim can be filed: by calling 866-260-7881 or or by visiting the help center at 598 Nevin Ave.

The claims process has been set up through Crawford and Company. We intend to compensate our neighbors for medical and property expenses incurred as a result of the incident.

Those who call the claim line will be asked a series of questions about their claim, which will then be routed to adjusters. Adjusters are attempting to respond to all claims within three days. Chevron will strive to pay appropriate and reasonable claims, including out-of-pocket medical and property-damage expenses.

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Transportation Nation

Sandy Adams Takes on "Rock of Gibraltar" Mica in Battle for US House Seat

Friday, August 10, 2012

John Mica and supporters  (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The chair of the House Transportation Committee finds himself in a scrappy fight for re-election, but he's standing his ground and turning to mobility metaphors to express his confidence: "I think I have some life left on the odometer," he said, touting the benefits of his seniority in the house. Meanwhile, his opponent, Sandy Adams, is pointedly using his Washington experience against him.

Mica's U.S. Congressional District 7 used to stretch from his home in Winter Park, metro Orlando to Ponte Vedra, a seaside town 130 miles north, not far from Jacksonville.  Redistricting shifted the boundaries closer to Orlando, and District 7 now centers on Seminole County, just north of Orlando's exurbs.  Neighboring District 24 -- currently represented by Sandy Adams -- moved South, leaving Adams to scrap with Mica in the Republican primary.

As the influential chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, Mica has been in Congress nearly 20 years, long enough for people to know who he is. Under siege from his opponent Sandy Adams, he’s flying his conservative colors and highlighting his record as a whistle blower on wasteful spending.

“You get to election year, and people want to know what you’ve done, and what you stand for, and I think I’ve got a very strong record of cutting waste, government bureaucracy and also of providing leadership,” says Mica.

But Adams says he's exactly the kind of insider politician voters don't want.

Her campaign is running an ad that labels Mica "Obama's best cheerleader", citing his support for SunRail, Central Florida's 62 mile long commuter rail line, which the ad brands a "boondoggle".

Adams also criticized Mica over a highway tolling provision in the recently passed highway funding  bill.

"Lexus lanes" are a talking point in the District 7 primary (photo by Matthew Peddie)

"It was his bill, he put the tolls on I-4 after telling people he would not," says Adams. "That’s a career politician.

"That's total political malarkey," says Mica. He says the bill preserves free lanes and stipulates if new toll lanes are built, “then you have to use the money for the construction or to reduce indebtedness, which would reduce or eliminate the tolls."

And Mica says he's no cheerleader for the Obama administration.

"It's totally absurd, taken out of context," says Mica. "I am the best cheerleader in Congress for transportation and getting people working."

"I was able to defeat Harry Reid and get a transportation bill done that the Democrats couldn't do, an FAA bill that cut Harry Reid's $3,720 airline ticket subsidies,  so I'm not the best friend of either Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama."

After nearly a decade in Tallahassee as a Florida state representative, Adams is no political newcomer, but she’s staking her claim as a cost cutting outsider.

“I am not a career politician," says  Adams. " I am, and remain, a citizen legislator.”

She says the choice is clear for voters on August 14th in the Republican primary. "They have a choice between a 20-year career Washington politician, or someone that they sent less than two years ago to fix the mess he helped create."

"I am not a career politician" says Sandy Adams

Adams defeated a Democrat in 2010, but this time she’s up against a formidable Republican. "I'm sort of the rock of Gibraltar," says Mica, who says District 7 needs a representative with his staying power and leadership.

And in the highly competitive 435 member U.S. Congress, Mica says his seniority is a good thing. "It will easily be another decade-and-a-half before another full committee chair comes from Central Florida, just because of seniority."

Mica's clout has allowed him to out-raise his opponent nearly two to one. At the end of July, his campaign had nearly a million dollars cash in hand while Adams had half that.

After a Rotary lunch meeting in Orlando Thursday where both Mica and Adams spoke, Mica was quick to quash any suggestion he'd paid for a high profile endorsement from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. "Oh absolutely not. You don't know what a stingy bastard I am. I wouldn't pay anybody for an endorsement."

Meanwhile Adams' campaign has picked up steam in recent days, with an online fundraising site raking in nearly $30,000 in just over 24 hours.

"We're doing just fine," says Adams.

There's also a Democratic primary in District 7, with new-deal Democrat Nicholas Ruiz up against blue-dog Jason Kendall for a chance to take on the winner of the Mica-Adams contest.

Jason Kendall says if he makes it through his primary, there are enough moderates to give him votes in November.

"Sandy’s something of an extremist," says Kendall. " Getting endorsed by Allan West or Sarah Palin might work in some places but I know a lot of people were really turned off by that endorsement.”

Both Republican candidates have a strong base of supporters, but there are some who still haven't made up their minds, like Steve Grier, who was at a recent Mitt Romney campaign event in Orlando. Grier said he wants to learn more about Adams and Mica.

"I like a lot of things about John Mica," he said. "I know that he was for SunRail, which I’m not real crazy about that aspect. But that remains to be seen. Honestly, I’ve had my eyes more on the presidential aspect of the race.”

 

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Transportation Nation

Highway Expansions Are Only A Short-Term Solution: Expert

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Highway construction in Virginia (photo by bankbryan via flickr)

When the express lanes projects on the I-495 Beltway and I-95 in northern Virginia are ready for commuters, they will be designed to serve a dual purpose: encouraging carpooling by giving HOV-3 vehicles a free ride, and reducing congestion by also giving motorists the option of paying a premium toll to escape the usually jammed non-toll lanes.

The first of those goals is attainable. But the second is not, according to an expert on drivers’ behavior, who says expanding two of the busiest highways in the Washington metropolitan region will produce the unintended consequence of more congestion in the long term.

“The biggest potential problem is that we’re building more roads that will provide very short-term congestion relief and will cause other kinds of traffic and travel problems,” says transportation consultant Rachel Weinberger, the co-author of Auto Motives: Understanding Car Use Behavior.

Weinberger believes enough drivers will be willing to pay the tolls so Transburban, the private entity building the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, will make a profit.  However, she says, there's little evidence to suggest expanding highways will solve a region’s congestion woes.

“First we have to ask, do we really need this road? All of the research shows that when you add capacity to highways, rather than relieving congestion in the long run, you actually create more congestion in other parts of the system,” she says.

In short, wider highways induce more traffic. Those new users ultimately have to exit the highway somewhere, producing more traffic on secondary roads where expansion is not possible. “Now you have dumped more cars onto the streets on Washington D.C. because you’ve added this capacity on I-495,” Weinberger says.

Earlier this week, TN asked Virginia governor Bob McDonnell if northern Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve congestion problems. McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions. “We are trying to do everything,” he said, adding that Virginia is investing in transit projects like the Silver Line.

Backers of the Express Lanes projects are relying on drivers’ willingness to pay pricey tolls for a faster, more predictable ride.  They are also calling the possible increase in carpooling a win-win, even though more free rides on the new lanes mean less toll revenue for Transurban.  However, in the contract with the state of Virginia, Transurban is protected in the event the number of free rides rises dramatically.

The state is required to subsidize ride sharing if the number of carpoolers on I-495 reaches at least 24 percent “of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are… going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day… during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour…”  The threshold on I-95 will be 35 percent under similar conditions.

In Weinberger’s view, there will enough new carpoolers and toll payers to provide the appearance of relief -- but it won’t last.

“We sit in traffic and we fume about it and we think that the easy solution is to build more lanes and then we won’t have so much traffic, but I am sure the Beltway has been expanded several times and there continues to be traffic,” she says.  "Typically when we build more capacity we make somebody’s trip a little bit faster, but it’s very rare that people actually conserve their travel-time savings. Instead they’ll make some other adjustment like they may move further out, creating more sprawl."

 

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Transportation Nation

Readers & Listeners Share Tips On Surviving The Present Penn Station, Identify Remnants Of The Old

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The muses in this public artwork seem to be beckoning passengers into the void. (Photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Relish the wisdom of the crowd. Many of you have weighed in with your knowledge of New York Penn Station at the bottom of our previous post with additional strategies for navigating the nation's busiest train terminal.

We invited you to contribute to the list of minor amenities that New Jersey Public Radio managing editor Nancy Solomon and I came up with as we walked the overburdened transit hub and searched for coping strategies for the 600,000 travelers who squeeze through it every weekday.

A few readers said there are more water fountains than the one we found behind a pillar in the Amtrak Acela waiting room. George Gauthier wrote, "There are three other water fountains in the station, two in the waiting room for New Jersey Transit, next to the rest rooms. Another at the east end of the Long Island Rail Road station behind the police booth."

And after I described a filigreed entryway near the Long Island Rail Road waiting area as "the one thing commuters can see from the lost age of Penn Station," several of you brought up a wide staircase with thick brass handrails that riders still use to reach tracks 1-6. Eric Marcus said the staircase is another survivor from the original Beaux Arts beauty that opened in 1910. He added: "In some places you’ll see the old glass block floors in their cast iron frames above you. They’ve been covered over by terrazzo, so light no longer penetrates."

Marcus goes on to claim, intriguingly, that Amtrak has been collecting fragments of the original Penn Station from people who've saved them, with the aim of bringing these vestigial elements to a new station Amtrak is building across Eighth Avenue in the Farley Post Office. (See renderings of Moynihan Station here.) We've asked Amtrak whether that's true, and await their reply.

Which raises the question: how did regular people save bits of old Penn Station?

Technology consultant and native New Yorker David Hochman has an answer. He was seven years old in 1964, the year after the original station was dismantled and resettled as rubble to a wetland in New Jersey. Hochman's parents spotted an ad in The New York Times taken out by The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which then owned the station, offering to send a memento of the monumental building to those who asked for one. The enterprising David sent in his request, and the railroad replied:

Some time later, a chunk of stone weighing "a few pounds" arrived in the mail. Surely young Hochman cherished it as a talisman from a more graceful age, and he will now be donating it to Amtrak. "Sadly," he writes, "I've lost track of the piece itself." He then rhetorically smacks his forehead while quoting Bugs Bunny, "What a maroon I am!"

(This excellent article describes even more slivers of the old Penn Station embedded in the new.)

Of course there were plenty of laments. To delve into the history of Penn Station is to realize its demolition remains an open wound in the psyche of New York. Commenter "Jorge" quoted Yale professor of architecture Vincent Scully's great line about the effect of removing passengers from the station's once-palatial precincts to an underground warren devoid of natural light:

“One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Reader Paul de Silva, an architect, added this critique: "The worst part of Penn is the track platforms. Much of the power of a well designed train station anywhere in the world is an open view of the platforms, as per original Penn."

Others added detail to a shortcut described by Nancy Solomon in the radio version of the story, which you can hear by clicking the audio player at the top of the post.

And several people wondered why the railroads that use Penn Station wait so long before posting the track number of a departing train. That's because the station handles close to the same number of trains as Grand Central Terminal on half as many tracks. Result: dispatchers don't know a train's track number until 10 to 12 minutes before it leaves, as opposed to the 25 minutes' notice that passengers enjoy at Grand Central Terminal. The shorter notice at Penn Station means people pile up under the information boards, blocking the flow of the hordes through the too-small halls.

Despite all, reader "Andrea" complimented Amtrak for playing classical music in its waiting area. She says her dream job is "to be the DJ for Penn Station!"

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Transportation Nation

MAP/VIDEO: How To Survive, And Occasionally Thrive, In New York Penn Station, The Continent's Busiest Train Hub

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Passengers moving through the Connecting Concourse on Penn Station's lower level.

(New York, NY - WNYC) New York's Penn Station is rail hub as ant colony: tight-cornered, winding and grimly subterranean. Like ants, 600,000 passengers per weekday course through it, pausing only to stare at an overhead information board until their departure track is revealed and then, toward that specified bowel, they descend.

Even the transit executives who run the place understand that it needs a makeover: they've hired Los Angeles construction firm Aecom to draft a renovation plan, expected by the end of the year, called "Penn Station Vision." There's talk of moving back walls, upgrading signs and improving the lighting. But that won't happen until Amtrak decamps across Eighth Avenue into a new space at the Farley Post Office, which is at least four years away.

In the meantime, what can a traveler do to make her time in Penn Station more bearable? [VIDEO BELOW]

Typical fare on the lower level.

That's the question I set out to answer with Nancy Solomon, an editor at WNYC who's been commuting from New Jersey to the West Side of Manhattan through Penn Station for more than ten years. Our tour of the station on a sweltering summer afternoon revealed a bi-level, nine-acre public space that, in some places, barely functions. "The station is doing what it was never, ever designed to do, which is accommodate more than a half-million commuters," says Ben Cornelius, a former Amtrak worker and TN reader who toiled in Penn Station for six years. "It was designed to be a long-haul, long-distance train station, not a commuter barn."

Yet, Nancy and I turned up a handful of grace notes: a hidden water fountain, a sanitary restroom, decent sushi. And to our surprise, we stumbled upon a large, and largely overlooked, piece of the original Penn Station.


More than most municipal facilities, Penn Station is haunted by the ghost of its earlier incarnation--a Beaux Arts masterpiece by legendary architects McKim, Mead and White.

Postcard of the original Penn Station.

That station rose in 1910 and fell, against a howl of protest, in 1963. Its dismantled columns, windows and marble walls suffered the same fate as a talkative two-bit mobster: they were dumped in a swamp in New Jersey. On the levelled site rose Madison Square Garden and a nondescript office tower; station operations were shunted to the basement, where they remain. Here's one way to navigate it:

Penn Station users: What do you do to make it more bearable? Where do you eat, rest, go looking for shortcuts? We want to know!

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Transportation Nation

Virginia Breaks Ground on I-95 Express Lanes

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

(photo by Martin DiCaro/WAMU)

Virginia broke ground on a plan to improve and expand 30 miles of High Occupancy Toll lanes along a stretch of the state's I-95 corridor.

Like the 495 HOT lanes, the I-95 Express Lanes will be located adjacent to the regular, non-toll lanes, giving drivers a choice: take the chance of getting stuck in traffic or pay a dynamically-priced toll for a faster ride. The goal is to enhance existing lanes while adding a third HOT lane to 14 miles in the northern most stretch of the corridor and two new lanes to the nine miles at the southern end.

The $1 billion project is scheduled for completion in December 2014. The I-95 Express Lanes are the result of another public-private partnership between the state and Fluor-Transurban, the company that is building the soon-to-be completed 495 HOT lanes. Transurban is paying for nearly 90 percent of the project while applying for a federal loan of $300 million to assist in the financing.

Under the agreement, Virginia gets an expanded commuting corridor with fully electronic toll lanes connecting Fairfax to Stafford County for contributing less than 10 percent of the project’s cost, while Transurban will receive the toll revenues for 75 years. The state's financial exposure is limited.

“The contract we signed with the state is a very equitable contract. We are taking the traffic risk,” said Transurban General Manager Tim Steinhilber. “Once we build the road, if no one comes to use the road then we don’t make any money. We lose money.”

Naturally, Transurban expects to turn a profit.  If profits exceed a certain threshold, the state may share in toll revenues. At the other end of the spectrum, if HOV-3 carpoolers exceed a thirty-five percent threshold under certain circumstances, the state would have to subsidize those trips to ensure Transurban doesn’t take a bath on the free rides. There is a similar safety net in the 495 HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes contract.

“Traditionally across the country, HOV lanes are underutilized. We are working with the state to encourage carpoolers because that takes cars off the road and reduces congestion for everyone,” said Steinhilber. “If we get to the point where the state would start [subsidizing] the HOVers, it’s a win-win.”

At a groundbreaking ceremony at the Dale City rest area Tuesday, state and federal officials -- including Virginia Governor (and possible Republican Vice Presidential choice) Bob McDonnell -- touted the project’s estimated economic benefits: 500 construction personnel with an overall impact of $2 billion by supporting 8,000 regional jobs. One thousand trees will also be planted along the corridor that is designed to eventually seamlessly connect to the Capital Beltway at I-495, quickening trips to job centers in Tysons Corner, Va. Express buses will also have free access to the toll lanes.

(photo by Martin DiCaro/WAMU)

“If you can’t move people and you can’t move goods quickly to market, you are not going to get businesses coming here and you aren’t going to get tourists.  It’s going to impair the quality of life for all of us,” said Gov. McDonnell.

When asked by Transportation Nation if northern Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve its dreadful congestion problems, McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions.

“We are trying to do everything,” he said. “We are going to have a number of projects up here that will use mass transit. We’ve been advocating rail to Dulles.”

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Transportation Nation

Why Transportation Planning Gets It Wrong

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

(photo by Martin DiCaro/WAMU)

The completion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project connecting Virginia and Maryland in one of the region’s most congested corridors is the latest in a number of major infrastructure projects that are unfolding in the Washington metropolitan area.

The Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport, the HOT lanes projects on I-495 and I-95 in Virginia, and the ICC and Purple Line in Maryland all raise an issue government agencies, planners and transit advocates have been grappling with for decades: how to connect a growing population with job centers in one of the nation’s most economically vital regions, where low unemployment rates and continued growth defy the national trend.

Moreover, at a time when funding for transportation projects is increasingly difficult to obtain, choosing the wrong solution to traffic congestion is all the more costly; there is no way to undo a $2 billion dollar road or rail link if it ultimately does not meet a region’s needs. Urban planners have argued that widening major highways will only temporarily relieve bottlenecks.

“If you have job centers that are accessible from a wider geographic span, you are going to get the best talent to your job center,” said John Undeland, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s part of the Wilson Bridge project. “But if congestion is constricting those opportunities, so you are only able to draw a talent pool from a smaller geographic area, it doesn't work as well.”

On Monday, after a decade of construction, five lanes were opened in each direction between the busy Telegraph Road interchange in Virginia and the bridge connecting to Maryland, ending a terrible bottleneck that routinely caused traffic jams that stretched for miles.

“It’s a soul-killing experience to be sitting there day after day,” Undeland said.

While the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has improved the driving experience, transit advocates say it is a missed opportunity that speaks to a larger issue: whether the regional economy will continue to prosper through a reliance on highway expansion.  Once-promising plans to use the Wilson Bridge’s center lanes for rail transit were never realized.

Over three-quarters of all jobs in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. are located in neighborhoods with transit service, according to a research paper by Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

“The reality is in terms of sustainability, we cannot endlessly build roads forever. We can't continue to take up endless amount of land space for highways,” said Tomer, who said highway expansion can be an effective as part of a multi-modal solution to congestion.  For instance, the I-495 HOT lanes project in northern Virginia will charge motorists a premium toll to avoid the normally congested non-toll lanes while also promoting carpooling and some express bus service.

“The solutions that work in each community are so different. Transit can only work in certain communities. In others, private automobile use or carpooling is going to be the preferred commuting mode,” Tomer said.

As important as finding the right mix of transportation infrastructure is where corporations decide to locate their job centers. In Tomer’s view, different jurisdictions are better served thinking regionally as they compete to attract corporate headquarters within their boundaries. Wherever a company decides to locate, the offices should be near a regional transit network so people from further distances may easily commute there.

“A whole suite of investments is what will help this metropolitan economy prosper. We need to continue to invest in public transportation. Fortunately, we are doing that here,” he said.

But large companies still have to make the right decisions, at least in the view of smart growth advocates. They point to the example of Northrop Grumman, which rejected a transit-adjacent site in Ballston in favor of a suburban office park near the Beltway and Route 50 when choosing a location for its headquarters.

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Transportation Nation

Woodrow Wilson Bridge Construction Complete, Without Transit Lanes

Monday, August 06, 2012

Capital Beltway at the Telegraph Road, VA interchange west of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Ten years after construction began with the dredging of the Potomac River, the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge improvement project opened to motorists on Monday morning in what has been one of the most congested commuting corridors in the country. The daily clogged three lanes mess of cars is over.

“We had backups of three, four, five miles on a regular basis. It’s a soul-killing experience to be sitting there day after day,” said spokesman John Undelan of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The stretch of highway is now five lanes in each direction on I-495 Capital Beltway from the Telegraph Road interchange across the Wilson Bridge into Maryland. The bridge, improved with two new spans, is also five lanes each way, ending what had been a terrible bottleneck. The bridge used to have only three lanes in each direction.

“The Beltway is Washington’s main street. This is how we get around, and this had been a constriction for more than a decade,” Undeland said.

Transit and environmental advocates say the improvements are a missed opportunity. Once-promising plans to use the bridge’s two center lanes for rail transit never came to fruition, despite investments to stabilize the bridge to handle the weight of rail cars.

“It’s another example of our short-sighted transportation policy,” said Josh Tulkin, the state director of the Sierra Club Maryland chapter. “We need long-term investments in rail or we will be expanding freeways lane by lane well into the future.”

Weekend drivers will have to wait a few more weeks for the full benefit of the project, as there will be single-lane closures on two to three weekends for paving and striping.

 

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Transportation Nation

Piece Of New York's Original Penn Station Hides In Plain Sight ... Inside Today's Penn Station

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Entryway that is the only known piece of the old Penn Station to survive inside the current station. (photo by Jennifer Hsu / WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) At first, MTA spokesman Sal Arena insisted that no part of the architectural glory of the old Penn Station survived in the stripped down bunker of today's Penn Station. But the carved leaf pattern in a large steel entryway on the lower level seemed so at odds with the rest of the station's no-frills style that we asked him to re-check that.

Arena obliged. Then wrote back, "I stand corrected."

TN has learned that this entryway--part of the original Penn Station--was walled off in 1963, when the above-ground part of the station was razed. The destruction was decried by many as an act of "historical vandalism." (Public ire at the leveling of the 1910 building is credited with launching the modern preservationist movement.) Madison Square Garden and a blocky office tower replaced the formerly grand public space; the train hub was shunted into the corridors beneath them.

There the entryway lay hidden for 30 years.

Postcard image of the original Penn Station.

In the early 1990s, Penn Station underwent a major renovation, its first since the original building was demolished. That's when workers took down the wall and discovered the entryway. "It was found exactly where it is now," Arena said. "The contractor cleaned it, painted it and put in windows." It is now a deep umber color.

As far as we can tell, the entryway went back into service quietly--no announcement was made about the salvaged piece of history. It's safe to assume that a large part of the station's 600,000 weekday travelers pass by without an inkling of its provenance. In places, the paint on the entryway's columns is worn away from the hordes of commuters brushing past it, wanting only to leave Penn Station.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, called the discovery a "cool" but minor find. "It's the sort of thing that's a curiosity, an oddity, one of those pieces of history that you need a plaque to explain," he said.

He noted a remnant of the past that can also be found outside the present station: two stone eagles from the vanished building that flank an entrance at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. Bankoff said they're handsome, if hard to see, and small consolation for the "interplay of space and light" that was lost when the original station was torn down and tossed into a trash heap in New Jersey.

Except for a pair of stone eagles and a strangely tenacious red entryway.

Detail of glass and steel entryway from the old Penn Station. (Photo by Jennifer Hsu / WNYC)

COMING SOON: A feature story about the some of the small conveniences in the present Penn Station that can make passing through it more bearable. We'll also be asking for your Penn Station tips.

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Transportation Nation

Two NYC Street Mysteries Solved

Friday, August 03, 2012

(photo by Kate Hinds)

As it turns out, those aren't poker chips embedded in asphalt.

For years we have wondered about letters, numbers, and other esoterica that mark city streets and sidewalks. So we reached out to New York City utility company Con Edison for some answers.

According to spokesman Robert McGee, the blue plastic disk is a Con Ed calling card. It's placed on streets that the utility was responsible for repaving. In some cases, they have numbers in the center; these designate the year Con Ed did the work.

"One of the things that has been attempted over the years is to get the various city agencies" -- as well as Con Ed, the telephone company, and the cable company -- "to coordinate on street openings," McGee said. By getting everyone on the same page, the city can try to minimize the amount of times a street is ripped up.

And those yellow letter E's that can be found on city streets and sidewalks? Also Con Ed. E7 means the road was paved in 2007.

And sometimes the Es don't have year markings.

Close up of an E on the sidewalk on West 82nd Street (photo by Kate Hinds)

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Transportation Nation

What's the Best Way to Build New Highways: Private? Public? Tolls? Magic?

Friday, August 03, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) As the opening of the Interstate 495 Express Lanes on northern Virginia's Capital Beltway draws closer, backers of the $2 billion project say they cannot guarantee the four new HOT lanes will achieve the goal of reducing traffic congestion while simultaneously returning a profit for their private sector operator.

The admission is noteworthy because there was enormous investment made by a private entity. The tolls revenues that are supposed to supply its profit are off limits to the state of Virginia for the next seven decades.

The HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes will run next to the Beltway's non-toll lanes between the Dulles Toll Road and I-95 in Springfield, Va., one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. The project is the result of a public-private partnership between the state of Virginia and Fluor-Transurban, a company that has built similar facilities in the United States and abroad.

In the deal, the state received four new lanes of traffic capacity, a repaving of the Beltway, and a fully electronic toll facility for individual commuters and HOV-3 carpoolers. Transurban gets the toll revenues for the next 75 years, but company officials say they may not turn a profit at all.

"The private sector is responsible for paying back the debt and paying to operate and maintain the lanes," said Jennifer Aument, a Transurban spokeswoman, at a recent press conference to promote the new E-ZPass Flex device that will be necessary for HOT lanes carpoolers to have.

Transurban provided about 75 percent of the capital necessary to build the new lanes and toll gantries. Public money was necessary to cover about one-fourth of the costs and finalize the partnership because projected toll revenues were not sufficient for Transurban to finance the entire project itself.

HOT lane popularity has been mixed in other cities. Houston is currently considering additional promotion and advertising to get more drivers using new HOT lanes that are under capacity.

"If the traffic doesn't come and we can't generate the revenue, we are taking the risk on this project," Aument said of the Virginia plan. "But we believe because the 495 Express Lanes will provide a faster, more reliable trip which is much needed in this great region, it will be a success for us, for VDOT, and for travelers."

Not your normal toll road

The idea behind the 495 Express Lanes is not that commuters will use them every day; commuters are expected to pay the potentially pricey toll on days when they need the reliability and predictability that a congestion-free highway would present.

The tolling will be dynamically priced; the more commuters that use the toll lanes at a given time during the day the higher the toll will be. Raising the toll during peak travel periods will prevent the new lanes from getting congested, as is usually the case during rush hour in the adjacent non-toll lanes.

Carpoolers may use the HOT lanes for free as long there are at least three occupants in the vehicle. If carpooling is too successful, Virginia taxpayers will wind up subsidizing some HOV-3 trips.

The contract between Virginia and Transurban requires the state to pay subsidies if the number of carpoolers reaches at least 24 percent "of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are... going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day... during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour..."

During peak travel times -- if carpoolers make up about one-fourth of all vehicles in the HOT lanes -- the state will have to pay Transurban 70 percent of the lost toll per vehicle. Both VDOT and Transurban are downplaying the possibility that taxpayers will have to subsidize carpoolers.

"Is there a back stop? The answer to that is yes. Do we think we will get there? The answer to that is no. And if we do, we still consider that a success," says Charlie Kilpatrick, VDOT's chief deputy commissioner. "That's a success story because we would have such a great usage in HOV, much further beyond what we ever imagined."

"Carpooling could expand by more than 10 times on the Beltway before this provision would go into effect," says Aument, who says the subsidy will not be paid if Transurban clears a certain profit on toll revenue, about 12 percent. "It's there as a stop-gap in the extraordinary circumstance that there are so many carpoolers that we can't collect enough toll revenue to operate and maintain the road."

Public-private partnerships are the future

Without the capital of Transurban the 495 Express Lanes would have remained just an idea. To build the $2 billion road, however, the state agreed to Transurban receiving the toll revenues for the next 75 years, even though the company hopes to have paid off its project debt in 30 years.

"It is frankly unrealistic to believe that there are sufficient public funds for these enormous projects in Virginia," says Kilpatrick.

Virginia has been one of the most active states in the country in signing public-private partnerships, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former assistant secretary of transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"The private sector is putting a lot of money into this only with the assurance that they will get a return on their investment to service the debt that they have incurred to construct it," Frankel says. "So the public had to give up something to get this built."

"If you like the Beltway the way it is and you don't want anything built at all, then it's a bad deal," says Frankel. "Most of the residents of Virginia wanted this increased capacity. By taking some of the traffic off the free lanes, it should improve the flow of traffic on the free lanes as well." Express buses will also have access to the HOT lanes.

Private entities take the risk

Some private highway ventures have not gone as planned. The Pocahontas Parkway near Richmond, an 8.8-mile tolled freeway between the junction of I-95 and VA-150, has yet to meet traffic projections and may have to go through another financial restructuring. The Dulles Greenway saw its finances restructured for the first time in 1999 after projected levels of traffic and tolls didn't materialize. Frankel expects 495 to be more successful than the aforementioned toll roads because the HOT lanes were built directly adjacent to congested travel lanes.

"You are getting increased capacity on a crowded, unreliable facility," says Frankel, who says the 91 Express Lanes, which run for 10 miles in southern California, are an example of a successful dynamic tolling and HOV-3 system.

Better options?

Smart growth advocates are unhappy with the deal the state received in losing access to toll revenues for 75 years, and argue that VDOT should have considered alternatives to Beltway expansion.

"I think we should be looking at all alternatives upfront, and look more objectively at transit and transit-oriented development and lower cost approaches," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We should look at public ownership of the toll lanes so we have access to those revenues in the future."

"VDOT rejected at the earliest stages a transit alternative for this corridor. They were prevailed upon to do another transit study, but they promptly put it on a shelf. They never took seriously a transit-oriented development for this corridor," says Schwartz, who says Virginia could have considered something similar to the Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile light rail line that will extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

"Our concern is the rush to do these public-private deals has been reducing the consideration of alternatives in project corridors," Schwartz adds. In his estimation, if the new lanes on 495 eventually attract more commuters, congestion could increase on secondary roads when those added vehicles ultimately exit the highway.

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Transportation Nation

Atlanta Tax for Transit Plan Loses by Big Margin

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Atlanta (photo by J.C. Burns via Flickr)

 

A measure that would have hiked Atlanta's sales tax by a penny per dollar to fund $7 billion in roads and transit failed badly Tuesday, by a margin of 63 to 37, WABE in Atlanta is reporting.

From Jonathan Shapiro's  story:

The returns soon showed a big defeat for the one percent sales tax increase, a plan that would have raised more than $7 billion for road and transit projects across the metro region over 10 years.

Mike Lowry, a Roswell resident and volunteer with the Transportation Leadership Coalition, said the margin of defeat exceeded his expectations.

“It’s better than I ever could have hoped for. We’re ecstatic.”

The Sierra Club, the Atlanta Tea Party, and the NAACP are among the groups that came out strongly against the plan, saying it was full of unnecessary projects and didn’t do enough to relieve traffic.

Our Back of the Bus documentary looked, in part, at Atlanta's transit needs.

 

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Transportation Nation

What if NYC Had Won its Bid To Host the 2012 Olympic Games?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The proposed Olympic Village in Queens (image courtesy of NYC2012/Neoscape)

Fred Mogul will be on the Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday morning to discuss his reporting on this story.


(Fred Mogul - New York, NY, WNYC) Two fencers duel on a New York City sidewalk. One scores a hit. The other concedes. The winner claims the elusive, available taxi.

A woman weightlifter hoists a grocery-filled granny cart over her shoulders, crosses the neighborhood and climbs the stairs of a walk-up.

The images come from a pair of ads, back in 2005, with the tagline: “The Olympic Games in New York. We’ve been training for this forever. NYC-2012.”

But the training wasn’t enough. Seven years ago, London defeated New York City’s bid to host the XXX Summer Olympiad, and the results are on stage for all the world to see.

But what if the Big Apple had won? What would the games have looked like, and what would their legacy be? And would New Yorkers be any less ambivalent about the Olympics in 2012 than they were in 2005?

For one, there certainly would be a wealth of new structures.

Runners would be sprinting in an Olympic Stadium overlooking either the Hudson River or Flushing Bay.

Swimmers would be freestyling in a new aquatic center on the Williamsburg waterfront.

Cyclists would be zipping around a velodrome in the Bronx.

And thousands of athletes would be staying in the new Olympic Village, an apartment building in Long Island City, Queens, across the East River from the United Nations.

Most of the proposed facilities now exist only in the bid books the city and the non-profit NYC-2012 presented to the International Olympic Committee. But a handful of projects have been developed, even without the games. New York’s proposal emphasized that most of what the city would build was necessary, anyway. The Olympic legacy would pay dividends for generations to come, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others argued.

Mitchell Moss, an urban policy professor at NYU and a self-described “informal advisor” to Bloomberg, says so many things have, in fact, been built or are under construction from the Olympic bid that the city really did win the Olympics, figuratively speaking.

“The net effect of having this is that we basically took underused parts of our city and put them to use,” said Moss. “The Olympics are 17 days of sports, but what New York got is a century’s worth of new housing and infrastructure.”

Moss cites the following as Olympics-inspired triumphs:

  • The No. 7 subway is being extended from Grand Central Terminal to 11th Avenue. After several delays, the MTA says it’s schedule to open in mid 2014 and be fully completed at the end of 2015.
  • The revised Olympic stadium evolved into Citi Field, the home of the Mets, since 2009.
  • The would-be gymnastics center became the soon-to-open home of the Brooklyn Nets, Atlantic Yards.
  • A sports and cultural center at the 169th Street Armory in Harlem and a new aquatic center and ice rink in Flushing Meadows, Queens, were stalled 1990s projects, until the Olympic bid renewed pressure to fund them, bringing them to completion a few years later.

Less concrete — both literally and figuratively — victories are the Hudson rail yard on the far West Side of Manhattan and Hunters Point in Queens. Moss said the two massive industrial sites had been targeted for redevelopment for decades, but were always captive to controversy and inertia.

Moss puts them in the “win” column, arguing that pressure from the Olympics bid led to their rezoning for residential and commercial use.

“These were all tied to the Olympic [bid] deadline,” Moss said.

But Greg David isn’t so sanguine. The Crain’s Business columnist and CUNY professor calls the far West Side and Hunters Point — by far the biggest challenges before, during and since the Olympic proposal — Exhibits A and B of premature self-congratulation. Both sites have a handful of new buildings, but full development could take decades.

“It isn’t true ‘We won by losing,’ because [hosting] the Olympics would’ve pushed this agenda much further ahead,” David said. “Look at the Hudson rail yards. It’s supposed to be the next great Rockefeller Center. Well, the Olympics are about to start in London, and we’re not about to put the platform up that’s needed for that development, because there aren’t any tenants for it yet.”

New Yorkers were divided in 2005 about the merits of hosting the Olympics, and they continue to split over whether the crowds that would’ve converged and the development that would have ensued would have been good or bad for the metropolitan area.

“I think it would have been lots of fun and definitely help the area a lot,” said Kevin Li, 26, outside the Aquatic Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where water polo games were slated to be held under the city’s proposal.

Nearby, Wayne Conti, 60, disagreed.

“Sometimes it turns out afterwards that in their rush to build they didn’t really build the right things and you’re kind of stuck with it afterwards,” he said.

Andrew Wong, 40, a Queens resident who works on the Far West Side sees both sides.

“For most of us regular working folks it would have wreaked havoc on our everyday lives,” he said.

But he noted development in the area, which is inevitable, would have moved forward more quickly and coherently, if the city had to build a stadium and whip the largely industrial area into shape by 2012.

“When you have a deadline everything falls into place. All the politics, all the deadlock with the government — everybody finds a way to make things happen. When you don't have a deadline, everything stretches out forever.”

Perhaps not forever. But for Hudson Yards, Hunters Point and other areas in the city’s Olympic bid book, it could take a while.

Whether New Yorkers think that’s a good or bad thing depends on whether they believe urban development, like the Olympics, should be Faster, Higher, Stronger — or they prefer a different approach, like Slow and steady wins the race.

Guia Maria Del Prado and Jorteh Senah contributed reporting

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