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Transportation Nation

Atlanta's Tax-for-Transportation Vote Is Today

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Atlanta (photo by Matt Lemmon via flickr)

(Jim Burress - Atlanta, WABE for Marketplace) Atlanta traffic stinks. I live just eight miles from work, but it often takes an hour or more to get home. So, let's start the car, start the stopwatch and see how tonight's commute shapes up.

There's an acronym you're about to see a lot -- "T-SPLOST." Like "y'all" and "bless your heart," T-SPLOST is an expression that's inserted itself into our vernacular down here. It stands for "Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax." It's a 1 percent sales tax that over 10 years will generate more than $8 billion for regional transportation projects. It's safe to say everyone in Atlanta hates our traffic. It's just as safe to say that's where the agreement ends.

"If we are successful on Tuesday," says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, "we'll move the equivalent of 72,000 cars each day from our roads."

Governor Nathan Deal agrees. "We have to do something to address the transportation and transit needs of our state."

It's not every day Atlanta's Democratic mayor the Republican governor agree. But they -- and a lot of other unlikely allies - -are campaigning for the T-SPLOST. They say it will ease congestion and create jobs.

It might even make it easier to get to the ballgame, says Atlanta Braves executive VP Mike Plant. "The No. 1 reason year-in and year-out that people tell us they don't come to more games is because of the traffic."

That's the case for the transit tax. This is the case against. State Senator Vincent Fort, a Democrat, hates the measure. Sweat saturates his white "Vote No on T-SPLOST" T-Shirt as he knocks on Joyce Engram's front door. "This is going [to be a] tax on your groceries and your medicine," he tells her. "So I hope you'll vote against it."

If the T-SPLOST passes, Atlanta's sales tax would jump from 8 to 9 percent. The extra penny would go toward transportation.

Emgram tells Fort: "I'm going to vote against it. I needed to know. But I'm definitely going to vote against it. You can believe that."

As we continue down the street, Fort smiles at the thought of taking on big business, powerful politicians and well-funded interest groups. And possibly winning.

"We've got about $800," he says. "They've got about $8 million and we're beating 'em."

The "we" he's referring to is an unlikely alliance, including pro-transit folks, an environmental group, even the Tea Party.

"This coalition, this is unprecedented," says Debby Dooley, one of 22 original founders of the Tea Party. "You know when these coalitions [come] together -- groups that are normally on the opposite end of the spectrum -- come together in solidarity on the same issue, that should send huge red flags that this project list is seriously flawed."

Oh, the project list. Back here in my car, I've gone three miles in 23 minutes. I'm stuck on the "Downtown Connector," where Interstates 75 and 85 merge and run through the heart of the city. Fourteen lanes of stopped traffic. A few years ago the Connector made the list for the top 10 most congested roadways in the nation. But it's not one of the 157 projects the new tax would fund. That's one reason State Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers broke ranks with fellow Republicans to oppose the tax.

"A more reasonable approach," he says, "would be to have traffic engineers sit down, and literally list the most congested traffic problems in metro Atlanta."

Instead, a roundtable of local elected officials came up with the list. So if you're keeping track of who's cuddled up in this unlikely anti-T-SPLOST bed, we've got one of the state's top Republicans, a popular Democratic senator, and a founder of the Tea Party. Even the head of Georgia's Sierra Club is anti-T-SPLOST.

If the T-SPLOST passes, there's a lot of money in it for MARTA. No, that's not the name of another strange bedfellow. It is the name of our mass transit system. Connie Suhr rides MARTA a few days a week from her suburban home into downtown where she works. She admits it's a bit strange for someone who rides the train to oppose a project that expands the system. But she says this whole issue is a bit strange.

"I have aligned myself with people against the T-SPLOST that I would not normally have done," Suhr says. "I can't say particularly why. We all have our different reasons. But I also run into enough people who are in favor of it. I think it will be a very interesting fight."

Home: 49 minutes, 25 seconds. Not too bad, but I'm still a frazzled. Is a commute like that, 8 miles and three-quarters of an hour enough to get the tax passed? Polls suggest maybe not, but it's up to the voters to decide tomorrow.

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Transportation Nation

Central Florida looks South for Ideas on How to Integrate Transit

Monday, July 30, 2012

Orlando International Airport people mover (photo by Matthew Peddie)

(Orlando -- WMFE) Central Florida faces a transit planning challenge in the next few years with the arrival of publicly funded SunRail commuter rail in 2014, and private companies also  lining up rail plans.

Recently Orlando city officials toured the new Miami Intermodal Center, a ground transportation hub linking rail, buses and rental cars to Miami international airport.

Orlando Transportation Policy Advisor Christine Kefauver says after looking at MIC, she thinks Central Florida is heading in the right direction.

“Our intermodal center is further down the road, but I don’t see that there’s anything above and beyond to say that we’ve not planned appropriately," says Kefauver, adding "it’s nice to see this kind of stuff in use.”

Orlando International Airport is making plans for an intermodal station at the site of its yet-to-be-built South terminal. Potential rail connections include SunRail and All Aboard Florida, a privately run central Florida to Miami service which Florida East Coast Industries wants to have operational by 2014.

Kefauver says All Aboard Florida has a good chance of success, based on what was learned from the failed attempt to bring high-speed rail to Central Florida.

“As we went through the conversation of Orlando to Tampa for high-speed rail, what we heard from a lot of folks was ‘I really want to get to Miami,’" she says.

Kefauver says rail will benefit Orlando residents and the 55 million tourists a year who visit the area."Tying all this in at the airport increases their ability to be able to use those other modes.”

The SunRail line does not include an airport stop, but MetroPlan Orlando, the  transportation planning agency for Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties, has begun talks on how to link the commuter rail with the airport.

Metroplan Orlando executive director Harry Barley says one option is to use a rail spur that now brings coal to OUC’s Stanton power plant. “That’s clearly the easiest and fastest to do, because of that spur being in place, and perhaps reframing this as an extension of the existing SunRail project.”

The rail spur branches off the SunRail line between the Sand Lake Road station and Meadow Woods station, and runs past the south of the airport.

Barley says some new rail would have to be laid to connect the freight line with the airport  and to double the track in some places.  He says a "back of the envelope" estimate put the cost of adapting the rail spur for a passenger train at around $104 million.

Meanwhile, Christine Kefauver says she's hopeful demand for SunRail will allow it to increase its frequency from every 30 minutes as currently planned, to every 15 minutes. When that happens she says there will be added impetus to connect the rail line to the airport.

 

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Transportation Nation

Builders of Giant Transportation Projects Face Criminal Probe

Monday, July 30, 2012

Months after one of  New York City’s biggest construction giants agreed to pay nearly $60 million for inflating costs on public works projects, WNYC has learned that the criminal probe into billing fraud has expanded to other major contractors.

Bovis Lend Lease, which avoided indictment in the 2007 Deutsche Bank fire that killed two firefighters, agreed in April to pay $56 million in penalties and restitution for overbilling.

Now, WNYC has confirmed federal prosecutors are looking into the billing practices of Turner, Plaza, Skanska and Tishman construction companies. The construction contracts under scrutiny run into the billions of dollars.

The firms are linked to major public projects like the Croton Filtration Plant, the extension of the 7th Avenue Subway and the World Trade Center.

In April, Janice Fedarcyk, the head of the FBI’s New York office, zeroed in on the impact of Bovis's fraudulent inflation of public construction costs.

"The over billing fraud affected city, state and federal public building projects,” she said. “If you are a New York City resident, Bovis indirectly swindled you on three different levels. For 10 years the pattern of fraudulent over billing was a standard practice, business as usual.”

At the heart of the probe is what prosecutors say is an industry-wide practice known as "8 and 2" in which construction companies fraudulently bill clients for hours not worked by labor foremen.

Bovis would add two hours of overtime pay on top of regular hours for as many as 60 foremen and falsely listed unworked hours as worked, prosecutors said.

The standard contract states that the union foremen get $34.24 an hour with no guaranteed overtime.

Federal prosecutors say the union foreman were not charged and did not break the law because they played no role in Bovis’s fraudulent billing.

(A few stories remained at the Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan in 2010. Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

At the Bovis announcement in April, Loretta Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, had a warning for the city's construction industry.

"The message should be clear to all who are engaged in similar contract billing fraud: You are in our sights,” she said. “And the defense that ‘everyone does it’ will not be a shield against law enforcement."

In a statement to WNYC, Tishman’s corporate parent, AECOM, confirmed that in December 2011 it was served with a grand jury subpoena in the billing investigation. The company said that it was cooperating with prosecutors.

A spokesman for Turner would say only that the company "could neither confirm nor deny" it was under investigation. Skanska and Plaza declined to comment.

Brian Aryai, a 13-year veteran of the Treasury Department, was a former senior vice president at Bovis. He is the whistle blower credited by prosecutors with tipping them off to the 8-and-2 billing scheme that set off the probe.

Aryai, who could collect a substantial reward under the federal False Claims Act, said that what Bovis admitted to is a common industry practice.

"I think within the industry there was such rampant corruption that the people who were entrusted with being in positions of accountability and power overlooked very visible symptoms of the issues that have been uncovered," Aryai said in an interview with WNYC.

One of the former Bovis employees who pled guilty is James Abadie, a leading contractor trade group and former chairman  of the powerful Contractor Association of Greater New York.

Abadie  is awaiting sentencing and faces 20 years in jail. His guilty plea has sent off shock waves in construction circles, because he was so well regarded across the industry, according to Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association.

Coletti said Abadie’s fall and the wider probe has the industry “reeling.”

He says the across-the-board nature of the continuing probe is a challenge for builders at a time when contractors are dealing with thin profit margins.

(Photo: Croton Filtration Plant in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. The $3.5 billion dollar project is being built by Skanska. Bob Hennelly/WNYC)

Coletti defended the industry's "8 and 2" practice as a cost of doing business. He says the money paid to the foremen was to assure jobs got done on time.

"This was not a question of over billing. There is some question about procedures and compliance issues," Coletti said.

Prosecutors say what matters is how contractors represent these costs to their customers in their bills.

Coletti predicted the fallout from the focus on billing practices would force the industry to be more transparent in how it does business.

He conceded the industry has had a tough time shaking its image of being plagued by 'no show jobs' linked to organized crime. He says, in reality, those days are the stuff of TV and the movies.

"There is a certain excitement to thinking that kind of activity goes on on a regular basis. It’s like the Sopranos TV show. It was a very popular show. I don't know if we are over going to overcome that kind of perception, unless we begin to do very publicly the kind of things I am talking about with you now," Coletti said, referencing the industry’s efforts improve transparency.

Ronald Goldstock, former director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force – which investigated the infiltration of the construction trades by the Mafia – says law enforcement has been successful in rolling back the mob's dominance in construction. But he says the organized crime legacy still makes the industry vulnerable to corruption like the "8 and 2" billing arrangement.

"Over time customs and practices are set up within the industry. They do become internalized. People don't think about them as being corrupt necessarily,” he said. “Over time it is an accommodation between both sides, and no one really knows which it is anymore.”

As federal prosecutors pursue white-collar cases in the construction industry, one challenge they may encounter is that the bigger the construction firm, the more limited their enforcement options may be.

This was the case with Bovis. US Attorney Loretta Lynch struck a deferred prosecution deal with the Australian-based multinational building firm. She cited concerns that criminally prosecuting Bovis would do more harm than good for the city because Bovis was so central to so many ongoing projects.

This is not the first time Bovis avoided criminal prosecution because of its size and dominance in the city’s construction industry.

In 2008, Bovis benefited from similar forbearance by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau for the firm's role in the Deutsche Bank Building fire.

Two firefighters were killed, and the DA’s investigation determined that Bovis was partially responsible as the prime contractor. In that case Bovis was granted a non-prosecution agreement.

It paid the families of the firefighters $16 million and agreed to reform its management of subcontractors.

 

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Transportation Nation

LaHood Invites Bids for Enriched Pot of Federal Transpo $, Winks at Tappan Zee Bridge

Friday, July 27, 2012

That's the Tappan Zee Bridge in the background. It spans the Hudson River about 25 miles north of Midtown Manhattan. At three miles, it is the longest bridge in the state. (photo by digitaltree515 / flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Step right up, we've got money for loans. That was essentially today's message from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to states with large public transportation works in the planning. That includes rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, about which LaHood and his chief financial officer spoke positively, if vaguely.

 “We have heard from very high officials in the state of New York about this project and we have directed them to the notice in the federal register,” said LaHood, referring to today's official announcement that the grant money is available.

In February, the state applied for a $2 billion loan for the Tappan Zee Bridge from the U.S. DOT fund known as TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act). But TIFIA turned it down.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has been undeterred. He continues to apply political muscle to the project: this week, he appointed a former TV anchorman as Special Advisor to the The Tappan Zee Bridge. But he has yet to explain how the estimated $5.2 billion cost of the rebuilding will be funded. Given the state's limited finances, it would seem to behoove the governor to scoop up some of that TIFIA cash.

TIFIA functions as the U.S. DOT's infrastructure investment arm. In the past, it has paid for projects like an upgrade to the Staten Island Ferry and an extension to the President George Bush Turnpike in West Texas.

The fund is newly infused with $1.7 billion from the recently enacted federal surface transportation bill. LaHood said that money can be leveraged into $17 billion worth of "loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to major infrastructure projects with the potential to create jobs and spur economic development and growth." That's a big jump up from the last round of $120 million, which was used to dole out $1.2 billion in loans.

U.S. DOT chief financial officer Chris Bertram said the department favors projects that have "a revenue source like a dedicated sales tax or, in the case of the Tappan Zee Bridge, tolls." He said that reassures the department it will be paid back.

Department spokesman Justin Nisly said the sooner a grant application is received, the sooner it will be dealt with. "We will begin evaluating letters of interest immediately, and announcements will be made on a rolling basis."

U.S. DOT will also launch a unit that will help state and local governments figure out how to finance their transportation projects. According to a press release, the Project Finance Center will act as a wise uncle to bureaucrats seeking "to analyze financial options for highway, transit, rail, intermodal and other surface transportation projects facing funding challenges." 

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Transportation Nation

A Third Battle of Manassas? Virginia Proposes New Highway Near Civil War Battlefield

Friday, July 27, 2012

Virginia transportation officials are drawing closer to an agreement with the National Park Service as part of a plan to build a major four-lane divided highway connecting Route 7 in Loudoun County to Interstate-66 in Prince William County, what opponents charge will be the first piece of an outer beltway in northern Virginia.

Just as Confederates and Yankees 150 years ago both claimed to be fighting for freedom, the two sides today both claim they are fighting for the same thing: the future of Manassas, and better transportation in northern Virginia. There are no Stonewall Jacksons or heroic stands on Chinn Ridge this time around, but the outcome of this battle will bring lasting changes to historic ground nonetheless.

You can listen to an audio version of this story here.

Negotiations with the Park Service involve a proposal to build the new road along the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park in exchange for closing -- except to visitors -- the two heavily traveled roads (Routes 234 and 29) that currently crisscross the park.

The new bi-county parkway would pave over 12 acres of the Manassas historic district and four acres of actual battlefield land on the periphery of the property away from where most of the fighting occurred during the Second Battle of Manassas from August 28-20, 1862. As the 150th anniversary of that key Confederate victory approaches, opponents say the new road will create more sprawl and development, turning the hallowed ground into a "median strip."

"Imagine the precedent," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The Park Service would potentially be agreeing that highway agencies can take historic battlefield land or other park land for other highway projects."

Schwartz says plans to build major highways in northern Virginia have been pushed for decades. In the late 1980s, a study that examined the possible construction of a Washington Bypass west of the capital was rejected by the governors of Virginia and Maryland.

"Very clearly they are putting together the pieces of a circumferential highway in northern Virginia, and they've pressed Maryland for bridge crossings," Schwartz says.

Manassas Park superintendent supports the plan

"It becomes a balancing act between what you are giving up and what you are gaining," says Ed Clark, the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park.

For giving up a few acres out of seven square miles of battlefield ground, the National Park Service hopes to gain a better experience for tourists.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board understands that the National Park Service will not agree to a new highway along the Manassas battlefield's western edge unless Routes 234 and 29 are closed through the park, Clark says.

"The road we are primarily interested in is the Manassas Battlefield Bypass," he says, referring to a separate project that would circle the western and northern park boundaries, overlapping a future north-south highway along the battlefield's western side.

"It would enable us to remove all of the [park] traffic, as most folks in northern Virginia are aware how serious the traffic is along the I-66 corridor," Clark says. "That traffic does detract significantly from the battlefield experience from this hallowed ground."

A Battle over growth

While opponents believe a new highway from Loudoun to Prince William County will open up new lands for development, supporters, including Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, say anyone who looks at Google Earth can see that residential growth is already crowding the Manassas battlefield.

In Connaughton's view, a four-lane divided highway would serve several purposes. "Prince William and Loudoun Counties are two of the fastest growing jurisdictions in the country," he says. "We are trying to make better connectivity between the counties to deal with current and future population growth, and to also open up the commercial development area on the back side of Loudoun County."

Virginia is also working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to establish Dulles Airport as a cargo hub, which new road infrastructure would help facilitate.

"When you put all these together, it makes sense for the state to move forward and try to make this thing a reality," Connaughton says. "It's been on the books for a very, very long time. It's not an outer beltway."

"I really encourage folks to go on Google satellite and see that this isn't about opening up areas for future growth. Look at the map. Look at the reality of what is there today. The growth is there."

Better options?

Smart growth advocates say there are better ways to deal with current growth and traffic congestion. The proposed highway is not the answer. "You could wind up with the worst of all worlds, which is a new highway, more development sparked on the western and northern boundaries of Manassas battlefield, more traffic, and political pressure to never close the roads through the park," Schwartz says.

Developers are pushing for more roads in order to lobby for zoning changes that would clear the way for more homes and commercial properties to be built in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, Schwartz says.

As evidence, Schwartz points to a February 2011 meeting of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board. Board member and developer Gary Garzinski made clear his intention to seek a major north-south connection "from 95 or 234 extended up to a corridor, up to and including Route 50... that would extend Route 234 to Route 50 to join what is called the Dulles Loop that gives access to Dulles Airport to more people from the south," according to a transcription of the board meeting.

In a letter to the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in February, smart growth advocates proposed several alternative solutions to address east-west traffic congestion in northern Virginia.

The proposals included "improving I-66, including the extension of HOV and bus lanes; funding and expanding the capacity of the Gainesville Interchange... co-locating Route 29 onto the improved I-66 to allow Route 29 to be closed through the Battlefield; upgrading Pageland Road west of the Battlefield with shoulders, roundabouts at intersections, and turn lanes..."

"Bi-County Parkway" moving forward

The state's environmental impact study of the new highway is expected by the end of the year. A deal with the National Park Service about the location of the road along the western edge of the battlefield is expected this summer.

The project should have been completed years ago, Connaughton says.

"Because of bad policies and bad decisions in the past, we've ended up with residential development and not the transportation infrastructure we need to support it," he says.

 

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Transportation Nation

California Governor Campaigns for Infrastructure -- And His Legacy

Friday, July 27, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Ben Trefny - San Francisco, KALW - for Marketplace) In California, Governor Jerry Brown has been on the campaign trail. He's not up for re-election -- he's campaigning for massive infrastructure projects. He's been pushing some of these for decades. But why is he on the offensive now, when his state faces multi-billion-dollar deficits?

He acknowledged he's been at this a long time. "You know," he said at last week's signing of his $8 billion transportation bill, "I signed my first high-speed rail bill 30 years ago, it's taken that long to get things going."

High-speed rail isn't the only thing he's backing. He also wants a pair of tunnels to transfer water from northern to southern California. Cost? Anywhere from $14 billion to $24 billion, depending on your favorite estimate -- figures similar to the deficit California faces year after year.

If the projects do get built, they would be completed after the 74-year-old Brown is out of office. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters says that's part of the point: the lifelong politician once nicknamed Governor Moonbeam wants more of a concrete legacy. "He wants people to look back on him and say, "That Jerry, he did some really great stuff,'" said Walters, "rather than, 'Hey, Jerry, he was kind of crazy.' You know?"

There is one constant over Jerry Brown's long political career. He's always shooting for the moon.

Listen to the audio version of this story on the Marketplace Morning Report.

 

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Transportation Nation

Gridlock Sam: Lack of Congestion Pricing Is NYC's Biggest Transpo Problem

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sam Schwartz -- an engineer and former NYC traffic commissioner -- has been shopping a plan he says would make toll pricing more in New York City more rational and equitable. He talks about it on the latest episode of the public television show MetroFocus, starting with a tried and true thought experiment: the alien considering a human custom--in this case, the city's tolling policy--and finding it strange.

"If you were an urban planner from Mars," he said, "and you wanted to go to the center of New York City, you would assume it was Staten Island, because we charge everybody to go into Staten Island. That's crazy."

Instead, Schwartz would raise tolls on approaches to the central business district of Manhattan and lower tolls to geographically peripheral areas like Staten Island and The Rockaways. The plan is generating buzz among urban planners but Schwarz is still seeking a wider audience, knowing such plans in the past have proved a heavy political lift.

The rest of this week's show is devoted to New York City transportation, including the MTA's East Side Access project, bringing real-time bus information to passengers, and a profile of senior citizens in Brooklyn whom are agitating for pedestrian safety.

Bonus: you'll learn the backstory of how Schwartz coined the term 'gridlock,' which he says he can't take sole credit for.

If you're in the New York City area, the episode will air on WNET Thursday night at 8:30. Or watch below!

Watch "Transforming Transportation" Full Episode on PBS. See more from MetroFocus.

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Transportation Nation

Explainer: What Happens Now With California's Bullet Train

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The bullet train may be back on track. Earlier this month the California legislature narrowly approved $8 billion dollars in bond money to start construction of the high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Governor Jerry Brown signed off at ceremonies in LA and San Francisco.

The project is now expected to cost close to $69 billion dollars to complete. The bulk of the money the legislature just approved will go to start building a 130-mile stretch of track in the Central Valley; about a quarter will go to local transportation projects in LA and San Francisco.

The bullet train project is controversial. The scope -- and the price tag -- has changed many times since voters first approved the plan back in 2008, and the project now faces multiple lawsuits designed to stop construction before it starts. KALW’s Julie Caine sat down with Mike Rosenberg, a reporter who covers high-speed rail for the San Jose Mercury News, to talk about what happens next. Below is the full transcript of the interview, which was edited for broadcast.

Listen to the radio version:

JULIE CAINE: I wondered if we could start with giving people a sense of what high-speed rail is right now in California? It's been through so many changes—different price tags, different plans. Can you give us a brief overview about what the Legislature just approved and Jerry Brown signed into law?

MIKE ROSENBERG: Sure. The legislature approved a bill worth $8 billion dollars. It's the starting point for high-speed rail. So there’s going to be a $6 billion dollar stretch of track in the Central Valley, around Fresno. And there's also going to be about $2 billion dollars worth of upgrades to projects in the Bay Area and Southern California. For us, that means electrifying the Caltrain line that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. The reason they're doing that is these are projects that will help now in the Bay Area and LA area, but they'll also lay the groundwork for high-speed rail later. The entire high-speed rail project that runs between San Francisco and LA is slated to cost about $69 billion dollars.

CAINE: So there's $8 billion dollars of that money now. Are there any plans for how to get the $61 billion that are needed?

ROSENBERG: Not really. There's a little bit of bond money left over from when voters approved the project in 2008. There's a few billion dollars left from that, but as far as the rest of the money, it's all sort of on paper. They're hoping the federal government kicks in about $40-50 billion dollars. But they've zeroed out all funding for the last three years, and Republicans have sort of made a mockery of the project in the House. The only way that they'll really be able to get the money is if something changes in the political climate in Washington. The other back-up plan is to use new greenhouse gas fees that are coming down at the state level.  Big polluters would have to pay because of their greenhouse gases and that would have to go to environmentally friendly projects. High-speed rail is going to try to tap into that, but that's also a questionable source of funding.

CAINE: So right now all that the money will pay for is a stretch of track in the Central Valley and improvements to rail systems in LA and San Francisco. Why start in the Central Valley? Why is construction starting there?

ROSENBERG: The consensus view is that, putting aside backroom deals with Central Valley politicians, it was something that was decided on by the federal government. The Obama Administration is desperate to see some sort of high-speed rail built because California is the only state left that actually has plans for a high-speed train that's anywhere near reality. The Central Valley portion is the biggest stretch of land where they can build the biggest stretch of track. They can build about 130 miles down there, whereas if they were to do it here or in LA, it would be a much smaller amount. The theory is that once you have a bunch of tracks sitting there doing nothing, it's going to be much harder to abandon, so that puts the pressure on politicians to give more money. Whereas if you were doing something that had use, like electrifying the Caltrain line, they'd say, well, you know we succeeded at that and let's abandon it. Whereas the entire Central Valley stretch of track is going to be tough to let sit out there as a sign of failure.

CAINE: It would be a source of embarrassment to the federal government if nothing else happened but that stretch of track?

ROSENBERG: Right.

CAINE: I'm curious about the support in California for high-speed rail. The legislature just voted on whether they were going to approve releasing the bond that voters passed in 2008, and that was an incredibly close vote. In the state senate it needed 21 votes to pass, and it got exactly 21 votes. No Republicans voted in favor, and some of the major Democratic supporters of high-speed rail voted against it. One of those was Senator Joe Simitian from Palo Alto, who changed his vote to no at the last minute. I'm wondering what it meant for someone like Joe Simitian to vote against the high-speed rail plan?

ROSENBERG: It's actually really significant. I mean on one hand he's just one guy, but him and also a Democrat from Concord named Mark DeSaulnier and another one from Long Beach called Alan Lowenthal, they were the three guys who were tasked with overseeing the bullet train for the Democratic Party. And they were the three who came out and said, you know, the more we look into this, the more we don't like it. The other Democrats were supposed to rely on their expertise, but once they said that they didn't want to go forward with the project, they had to weigh that with the leadership, like the president of the Senate, Darrell Steinberg, and of course the governor, who are die-hard supporters. And they all ended up just going with the program and approving it, even though as far as I can tell, they didn't necessarily know that much about what they were voting on. But the ones who had been following it decided ultimately to vote against it.

CAINE: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the reasons Joe Simitian gave for voting against something that he has really championed, even since before 2008.

ROSENBERG: The biggest reasons for him, and really anyone who doesn't like the project, is the cost and the uncertain funding. I mean $69 billion dollars is more money than any state has ever spent on any public works project. It's an unprecedented amount of money, and finding that much money is just going to be a really big chore. Following that, there are a lot of questions about whether this is actually worthwhile in the first place. The rider estimates keep going down, and they're questionable. And people are wondering what exactly will happen to the property along the way. There's a 520-mile route that this is going to take, and that's going to take over a lot of businesses and homes along the way. So that's going to cause a lot of economic damages as well, not to mention people's livelihoods. If it was just about whether or not we had the money and we were trying to decide whether it was worthwhile, it would sort of put a lot of people on fence. Those who are wobbling on it get pushed over the edge by the fact that there really isn't that clear of a plan to actually get this done. They're scared that they're going to be only left with that one stretch of tracks.

CAINE: It's interesting that building is starting in the Central Valley where there is a lot of opposition, very vocal opposition to the project, and in fact a lot of litigation. I'm wondering if you can talk about some of the real obstacles, particularly legal obstacles, that are in the way of the bullet train now.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, it’s funny. The Central Valley was supposed to be the easy part. Because the opposition was really in the Bay Area, and there were just so many people in LA that they would have to displace. But the Central Valley, they were supposed to just say yeah, this is great, come on down. It turns out they were the ones who rose up against the fiercest. And now they're really only faced with one option, which is to sue. Because no one has any control over the project, outside of the state and federal governments. So if you're a local county, or a city, or a farmer, or a business owner, the only thing you can do is to try to sue. There are about half a dozen suits going on right now, and there’s going to be more coming. The general idea is to have a judge issue an injunction to stop them from being able to start construction. That’s something that will be playing out over the past six months or so.

CAINE: I know there are also some questions about whether the plan that the legislature and Jerry Brown just approved is actually legal in terms of what the voters voted on in 2008 because the high-speed rail plan has changed so much since that time. Can you talk a little bit about that? What are the major points of contention between what voters approved in 2008, and what was just approved?

ROSENBERG: It’s an ethical argument saying that we voted on a certain plan. It was supposed to be $33 billion, now it's twice that. It was supposed to open by 2020, now it's 2030. The ticket to get from SF to LA was supposed to be 55 bucks, now it's like 85 bucks. The rider estimates have gone in half. Everything has changed pretty dramatically. Some of the opponents are trying to go beyond an ethical argument and saying it's just flat out illegal. You can't use this money—it's a legal statue that was created when voters passed the bond measure to approve the project in 2008, so if you're going to use that money you have to adhere by what you said you were going to spend the money on. That's probably not an argument that's going to win in a legal sense cause they usually give them leeway to spend money on those sorts of things, when the details have changed. But just from an ethical standpoint, that's the main argument that opponents cite, when you talk about people who once supported it and are now against it.

CAINE: I know a lot of the opposition to the plan is very political, and a lot Republicans when they were giving their statements about why they didn't support high-speed rail were starting to invoke huge budget cuts that the state is facing, particularly for education, and really using this as a kind of focal point to turn voter sentiment against Jerry Brown's November tax initiative, which is the centerpiece of how he's going to finance some of the social programs and education in the state. Is the bond money that just got approved actually money that could be used for education for example?

ROSENBERG: It depends on who you ask. The voters approved $10 billion dollars in bonds, and that money can only be spend on high-speed rail. Now, the bond money itself gets paid back through the General Fund, which is used on everything--education, social services, prisons. So the money right now is only available for high-speed rail, but when they start paying it back over the next three decades, that will cut into all the other programs.

CAINE: I'm just curious, in light of all of that, why is Jerry Brown still such a champion of high-speed rail? Why is he still so behind it?

ROSENBERG: There’s a couple of schools of thought on that. I mean what he says is that he dreams of doing big things and he doesn't believe that bad times are the time to shy away.   He had this press conference where he called all the skeptics fearful men and NIMBYs and declinists. He tends to take his point of view and he doesn't necessarily care so much about what the polls say. Especially when it comes to a long-term project. To be frank, by the time the project's finished, even (by) the most optimistic standards, Jerry Brown will probably (have) passed away. So it's something that's so long term, he'll never really have to deal with the repercussions of it. From a skeptic's standpoint what people point to is that the main driver of this project in terms of the funding to get the ballot measure passed and to keep it going and to lobby politicians has come from the construction unions. Because that $69 billion dollars, that's going into their pockets. And Democrats—Brown and some of the others—are funded mostly by the unions so if they turn down a project that the unions support, then they risk losing the support of their major funding backers and then they might not get elected back to office.

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Transportation Nation

UPDATED: Here's What a Revamped D.C. Union Station Would Look Like

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Rendering of planned renovations for Washington, D.C.'s Union Station (Courtesy of Amtrak)

UPDATED 6:30 p.m EST (Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A wavy roof and shimmering glass atriums would join the stately dome of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station if the new $7 billion master plan from Amtrak comes to be. The proposal would convert Washington, D.C.’s main transit terminal from an aging, over-capacity station that dates to 1907 into a modern transportation hub of high-speed rail that will double the number of trains and triple the number of passengers in gleaming, glass-encased halls.

At a press conference at Union Station Wednesday, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman said the project will be completed in four phases over the next 15 to 20 years in order to minimize disruption to northeast corridor customers at the station.

The Central Concourse as viewed from the south showing waiting areas, reconstructed tracks and platforms, the first class lounge & retail. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

The massive overhaul of one of the busiest stations in the country – 100,000 passenger trips daily – is also designed to benefit the city and region through job creation, increased tax revenues, and economic development. It all looks beautiful on paper now, but it remains unclear if the plan will actually come to be.

Missing from the images of modern concourses that were put on display at the press conference were any concrete plans to finance the project.

The proposed new "train shed" as seen from H Street. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

“You got to have a vision to get anything done. If you don’t have a vision or a plan of where you are going, you are not going to get anything funded,” said Boardman, who stressed that he is confident the federal government will come through with a significant portion of the financing.

“When you build highways you can expect to get 50 to 80 percent of the funding,” Boardman said. “When you do a transit system you can expect that same kind of percentage."

Phase 1 is scheduled to start next year with improvements to existing concourses, two new tracks and platforms. Subsequent phases will involve the construction of below ground platforms, tracks and shopping space that will be naturally lit.

“Today is about the vision that will serve this country here at Union Station for the next 50 years,” said John Porcari, a deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “You get to that by having bite-sized segments of projects that we can fund one at a time. The federal government has been a funding partner. We believe the private sector can and will be.”

Concourse A looking northwest showing the waiting areas, skylights and mezzanine bridges. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

Amtrak’s plans to make Union Station a high-speed rail hub envision trains bolting at more than 200 miles per hour, cutting the trip from D.C. to New York City to about 90 minutes. The high speed rail would take someone from Washington to Boston in about three hours. Read our summary of the full Northeast corridor high-speed rail plan here, including renderings of the New York station upgrade plans.

Also unveiled Wednesday was a proposal by a private developer to make over the neighborhood around Union Station with three million square feet of office, residential, hotel, and parking space.

 

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Transportation Nation

Ray LaHood: If You Want Federal Transportation Money to Go to Biking and Walking, Start Agitating Locally

Monday, July 23, 2012

By Ray LaHood, Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation

Last week Transportation Nation readers sent me a number of great questions to answer in my latest "On the Go" video. Today, I'd like to return the favor by answering one or two more questions right here on Transportation Nation.

Greg asked: "How can DOT give Americans more transit, walking, and biking options when the vast majority of the money will just be passed to state DOTs to buy more highways?"

Well, Greg, as I acknowledged in "On the Go," some readers of Transportation Nation may not be happy with every part of the new transportation bill, MAP-21. But at DOT, we aren't about to stop moving American transportation forward.

The new bill actually increases the portion of funding going to transit. It broadens the New Starts program to include projects that expand capacity on existing transit lines, and that's a great opportunity for cities with legacy systems. It also provides a big bump to our transit State Of Good Repair program.

And, although highway formula funding is passed to the states, states can still use some of those funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects and other activities that improve air quality and relieve congestion. It's true that MAP-21 permits the states to redirect transportation enhancement funding for purposes other than active transportation, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will.

If accessibility advocates and biking and walking advocates make their voices heard in their state capitols and in their county and city councils, there's no reason to believe that the tremendous progress we've made in the last three years can't continue.

(video of Secretary LaHood from "On The Go")

Tanya asked, "What's your favorite transit line? What city works the best?"

I don't know if Tanya is testing me here or not, but I've already been asked to pick my favorite Olympic sport, and I am not about to pick a favorite transit line or city and arouse the disappointment of every other community in America.

I will say that our nation's transit agencies are doing a great job of moving people where they need to go as safely and reliably as they can. Whether it's by bus, light rail, commuter rail, subway, paratransit, or streetcar, Americans are taking more than 10 billion transit rides each year. And the American Public Transportation Association recently reported that the first quarter of 2012 was the fifth consecutive quarter of ridership growth. As our economy continues to recover, those numbers are only going to increase even more. So my favorite transit line is any one that helps people get where they need to go.

I'm also pleased that MAP-21 gives the Federal Transit Administration a safety oversight role for the first time. We worked with Congress for more than two years to secure that authority, and I know the folks at FTA will hit the ground running in their new mission.

Okay, that's it from here. Thanks again to Transportation Nation and its readers. I appreciate your interest, and I encourage you to stay engaged.

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Transportation Nation

US DOT Head Ray LaHood to Transportation Nation Readers: Transpo Bill is "Highway Centric"

Thursday, July 19, 2012

For his latest "On the Go" video Q&A, the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary fielded questions from Transportation Nation readers, who grilled him about the new transportation bill (MAP 21) and high-speed rail.

"We think that the MAP 21...is probably a little highway centric," says LaHood, but "I think we're on the right track" when it comes to bike and pedestrian improvements.

In response to a question about the prospects of high-speed rail in the Northeast, LaHood said that the federal government is investing $3 billion in rail upgrades along the corridor. "Amtrak is doing well," he said, pointing out that ridership is  booming. While not talking specific timing for fast trains along the Boston-to-DC route, he said "the future is very bright" for rail in the Northeast.

Enough of transportation. What will the secretary be watching at the summer Olympics? It turns out he's a swimming aficionado ("people have to train very, very hard") as well as a basketball fan -- but he deftly sidestepped the current debate over whether the 2012 U.S. basketball team is the equal of the "dream team."

 

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Transportation Nation

California Governor Signs Bullet Train Bill

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown gave high-speed rail the official green light Wednesday, signing legislation authorizing $8 billion in initial funding for the $68 billion project.

This officially frees up money to begin the line's construction, which will start next year in the Central Valley.

Signing ceremonies in San Francisco and Los Angeles emphasized the political importance of the $1.9 billion allocated for improving existing commuter rail systems in these cities, the eventual “bookends” of the rail network that would connect northern and southern California.

In a statement, Gov. Brown said “by improving regional transportation systems, we are investing in the future of our state and making California a better place to live and work.”

Brown had no plans to stop in the Central Valley, where the project faces strong legal opposition from farmers, agribusiness and other groups in the Valley.

Republican legislators in California roundly oppose the plan. State senator Joel Anderson released a statement today equating approval for high-speed rail funding with slashes to education funding in the state. “There should be no doubt that Governor Brown has thrown our children’s education under the tracks to build this train,” he said.

 

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino talk about the reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

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Transportation Nation

Private Ferry, Floated By Municipal $, Flourishes In New York

Monday, July 16, 2012

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn ride the East River Ferry with the Williamsburg Bridge in the background. (photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Several Brooklyn-to-Manhattan commuters were baffled at 7:45 this morning to find an unexpected boarding ritual taking place at the head of the gangway leading to their ferry. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a likely candidate for mayor, stood there waiting to shake hands.

"Congratulations!" Quinn told the riders, one by one. "You're among the million passengers to take the East River Ferry!"

That's a million paid customers in just over a year, more than double the initial projection of 409,000 annual riders. But that success comes at a price to the city: a $3.1 million subsidy per year over the three-year life of the pilot program.

The money comes from the city's Economic Development Corporation. Private ferries that criss-cross the Hudson River, connecting New Jersey to various parts of the harbor, do not receive subsidies.

The East River Ferry started with 12 days of free service last June. From the beginning, it proved popular with New Yorkers and tourists. The boats follow a route that goes from Wall Street to East 34th Street in Manhattan with stops along the way -- four in Brooklyn and one in Queens. Then they ply the trip in reverse. (Bloomberg and Quinn boarded at the North 6th Street stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a three stop ride to Wall Street.) In spring and summer, the ferry adds a Brooklyn harbor loop and makes the short hop from Lower Manhattan to Governor's Island.

Weekend service is especially popular in the warm months. Billy Bey, the company running East River Ferry, says it has had to operate larger vessels on the weekends to hold the crowds, and a new landing at Brooklyn Bridge Park has been fitted with wider gangways to speed boarding and disembarking.

The ferry isn't cheap: $4 for a one-way trip, compared to the $2.25 base fare per subway ride with a Metrocard; and the ferry charges $140 for a monthly commuter pass, compared to $104 for a 30-day unlimited ride MetroCard.

But sometimes a passenger like Bloomberg can catch a break. The mayor ordered a $2 cup of coffee from the on-board concession stand, which a woman who gave her name as Jennifer served up gratis. Jennifer said she was happy to do it "because he's the mayor," although she initially called him Mayor Giuliani. But Jennifer also noted a Bloombergian particularity: the mayor added milk to his Joe but, true to his crusade against empty calories, no sugar.

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Transportation Nation

Is BRT Coming to D.C. Suburbs?

Friday, July 13, 2012

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Officials in Montgomery County, Md. are considering approving the construction of a $1.8 billion bus rapid transit system that would be composed of  23 BRT corridors and take as many as 20 years to build in three phases.

Listen to this full radio story here.

The county's transit task force envisions designated bus lanes hauling at least an estimated 165,000 commuters daily. But that vision is making some county residents squint.

"Every proposal has had one thing in common: disrupt our neighborhoods to make it a shorter, easier commute for those living farther out to drive along Route 29," says county resident James Williamson, who testified at a public hearing before the task force Thursday night.  "None have ever worked. This one won't either."

Skeptics question whether BRT will really ease traffic congestion on Montgomery County's clogged roads, because there will be fewer lanes available for car traffic. The dedicated lanes devoted to the bus corridors will have traffic signal priority, with lights synchronized to allow buses to travel through many intersections without a red light.

Resident James Zepp, who once sat on transportation advisory committees for the D.C. and federal governments, says there are too many unknowns in the plan for him to feel confident it'll be worth the investment -- and the higher taxes that could result.

"These important operational aspects that the task force chose not to address that could increase congestion across the county," says Zepp.

Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, testified in favor of BRT, calling it an essential component of the county's transportation future, along with Metro and the Purple Line project.

"Interconnecting and expanding transit for Montgomery County residents and workers, enhancing access to jobs, addressing traffic, improving energy efficiency and maintaining economic competitiveness," says Schwartz.

The task force is actually calling its plan RTV, for rapid transit vehicle, instead of BRT. Either way, the system will be expensive to operate with projected yearly costs of $176 million, or about $1 million per mile.

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Transportation Nation

DC Metro: We Need Rail That Can Handle Hotter Temperatures

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Metro board discusses what caused the July 3 track derailment and train evacuation incident in College Park, Md. (photo by Markette Smith/WAMU)

(Markette Smith -- Washington, DC, WAMU) More details have emerged about the July 3 train car derailment that happened during rush hour near West Hyattsville, Md.

Metro engineers inspected the tracks a day before the derailment, but say they found no warning signs. The following day, a portion of the railing buckled from the pressure of prolonged 100-degree weather. This "heat kink" caused a six-car Green line train to jump the tracks.

Now, Metro officials say the only way to prevent that from happening again is to change the way they install railing system-wide.

Dave Kubecik, Deputy General Manager of Metro Operations, says the likelihood of a track buckling increases when temperatures climb higher than 85 degrees. So now, they're trying new methods of installing rail that can withstand greater exposures to heat.

"Knowing that it's subjected to an environment of 95 and 100 degrees, you're going to have much more movement and energy that's going to have to be released or contracted," says Kubecik. "So by adopting a standard of 95 degrees neutral, basically that means that that infrastructure is designed to take more heat and it minimizes its movement."

This is the second incident of a Metro rail buckling under extreme heat this year.

The incident also prompted the institution of a new safety rule. After the train jumped the tracks, the six-car Green Line train momentarily lost power. The train operator had did not have a cell phone and had to walk to a communications outlet to alert the rail system of what happened.

As a result of the incident, Metro has instated a 5-minute rule. So now, in the case of a communications failure, if managers at headquarters do not hear from a train operator in the field within 5 minutes, then they will automatically send emergency responders.

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Transportation Nation

NY Gov Cuomo: We're Paying for the New Tappan Zee With Tolls -- And Mass Transit Would Increase Them Even More

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (right), announcing an updated '511NY' system. (photo by governorandrewcuomo via flickr)

At a press conference today announcing the state's revamped 511 travel information system, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reiterated his position that putting transit over the Tappan Zee Bridge could double construction costs -- which would then be passed on to toll payers.

"Money matters," he said. "If you asked toll payers do they wanted to pay double the toll, my guess is the answer would be no.  If you asked the taxpayers do they want to pay $10 billion, the answer would be no."

But mass transit advocates dispute the state's cost estimates of adding bus rapid transit (BRT) to the new bridge.

Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said New York had never accurately analyzed the cost of a simple BRT system and was relying instead on old projections for a much more elaborate project.  “If the state's BRT cost analysis only considered installing bus rapid transit in the context of a massive I-287 overhaul, it made a mistake," said Vanterpool in an email. "You don’t need to dig a tunnel to paint a bus lane."

Westchester County executive Rob Astorino echoed that thought Tuesday. In an appearance on the radio show "Live From the State Capitol," he said: "If the average mile is considered to be about $166 million, according to the state, that is about ten times more than the average bus rapid transit mile in the nation."

But Cuomo said during his press conference that his problem was not with the idea of transit, but with the reality of paying for it.

"In theory is a mass transit system across the state a great idea? Of course, of course," he said. "You're not going to get anyone -- certainly the people around this table -- to say anything but they support a robust mass transit system all across the state. The question then becomes the reality of the situation, and the cost of the situation. And to put in a bus system now, for Rockland County and Westchester would roughly double the cost, from five billion to ten billion. And that is a significant increase, and one that I believe is not advisable at this time."

Cuomo said the financing plan for the bridge had yet to be finalized, but one thing was certain: "The basic source of financing will be the tolls," he said. "So the bulk of the financing will come from the tolls. And that's why whatever the cost of the bridge is, whatever you add on is going to be financed by the tolls. And it's very simple at one point. We make it complicated. You can build whatever you want. You then have to pay for what you build."

When pressed about tolls, he said "we'll have it broken down to what the toll will go to for various options, and then the people will decide."

The governor has long said mass transit on the bridge would lead to toll hikes -- and that if the counties want it, they can pay for it. Earlier this year the governor's press office sent out an email saying "the Counties have no plans in place to construct these 64 miles of mass transit. The entire bridge is only three miles and will support mass transit, if and when the Counties build it."

In a phone interview with TN Tuesday, Rockland County executive Scott Vanderhoef called that type of thinking "cynical" and said a BRT system would serve more people than just Rockland and Westchester. "I don't buy that argument. It's a thruway system, a federally-funded, state-funded thruway system. And ultimately you're talking about multiple jurisdictions that it would have to serve...so it's a regionally important area."

"But," he said, "I'm also not insisting that [BRT] be built now." What he wants "is to move people across this bridge, a new bridge, in any way that you can...to keep them out of cars." Vanderhoef said he was encouraged by the state's recent announcement that it would create rush-hour bus lanes on the new bridge.

Vanderhoef and Astorino -- along with Putnam County executive MaryEllen Odell -- have asked the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council to defer voting on the Tappan Zee Bridge until they get more information about the project. "No one disagrees that the bridge needs to be replaced," Vanderhoef told TN. "The question is: what are you buying?" He said the final environmental impact statement, which will be released later this summer, would address those issues.

A NYMTC vote on the project -- which is necessary in order to secure federal funding -- could take place in September.

You can listen to Governor Cuomo's remarks below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Will SunRail Change Central Florida's Driving Habits?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

SunRail will run right through the center of Florida Hospital's Health Village campus (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Listen to an audio version of this story here

Developers are building apartments along Florida’s new commuter rail line -- but if SunRail isn't reliable, both the idea of transit-oriented development -- not to mention SunRail -- could flop.

The SunRail tracks run straight through Florida Hospital’s campus on North Orange Ave. When the commuter train starts in 2014 it will be an important part of the hospital’s plans for a health village, which will include a mix of apartments, shops and businesses clustered around the yet-to-be built rail station.

Developer Craig Ustler says the project will transform the surrounding neighborhood.

“It would look like a lot of people walking, a pedestrian friendly environment, and maybe an evolution to a place where the car doesn’t win all the time.”

"It’s not a perfect set up yet," says Craig Ustler, standing at the site of the future Florida Hospital SunRail platform "they’ve got to build an administrative building and some retail to tie it all together, but a lot of pieces in place already to make a quality environment built around the transit.”

Ustler is counting on residents for a 250 apartment, $38 million complex he’s building a few blocks from the hospital.

The idea behind transit-oriented development (TOD) is to create pedestrian- friendly environments with access to transportation alternatives to the car. Local officials, like Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, are excited about its potential.

“Transit-oriented development is popping up all around these stations, giving us new places to work, live and play," said Dyer when SunRail got the final go-ahead a year ago.

"New companies moving in, new jobs being created. People saving money because they don’t have to use their car. People saving time because they’re not stuck on I-4.”

With ten thousand hospital employees and about three thousand  students at the College of Health Sciences, all of them potential rail passengers, shoppers or tenants, Florida Hospital is ripe for TOD.

To make it work, though, the rail has to run often and on time. And right now SunRail won’t run on weekends.

Gregg Logan, managing director of the Orlando real estate advisory services firm RCLCO, says that could be a problem.

“If it’s not convenient, then people won’t use it and that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘see, we shouldn’t have funded it because people aren’t using it,'" says Logan.

"Well, people will use it if it’s convenient.”

SunRail says it will extend the service if there’s demand.

TOD is still untested in Central Florida, and that’s made it challenging for developers to get financing for big projects around rail. Compared to cities with well-established mass transit system like New York, Central Florida’s urban environment is relatively young, with most of the big growth springing up in the last 50 years. But Gregg Logan says that could be an advantage.

“I guess the good news is we can go to some of these other places and look at what worked," he says, "and borrow some of their best ideas.”

RCLCO's Gregg Logan points to a map of the SunRail commuter train route (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Logan says Central Florida should take inspiration from Portland’s street car and the Washington DC Metro, where TOD has driven up the value of land around rail stations. While Florida Hospital has big plans for development, some of the other stops along the rail line aren’t as far advanced.

One landowner trying to attract business for a potential development is Tupperware. Spokesperson Thomas Roehlk says the company has 100 acres for mixed use set aside at its headquarters near the Osceola Parkway station.

“We haven’t had the interest yet from businesses, partially as a consequence of the fact that we are in phase two, so we’re four years out from having a station, and secondly just because of the slow uptick to the economy," He says.

However, Roehlk believes Tupperware’s plan will succeed in the long run because of the location’s proximity to another major transport hub -- Orlando International Airport.

Meanwhile, developer Craig Ustler says once the train starts running past his building at Florida Hospital, Orlando residents will begin to see the potential for a well-planned urban environment.

“I think the vast majority of people have woken up to the fact that living 30 miles away from where they work, and driving, and the price of gas and all that is probably not the most efficient thing in the world," says Ustler.

"We still need some time to work through exactly how to fix that and how to give people the tools to make a move.”

Ustler's apartment complex breaks ground next month.

 

 

 

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Calif. High-Speed Rail's One Vote Survival Reveals New Anti-HSR Faultline

Monday, July 09, 2012

(Oakland, Calif -- KALW) California Governor Jerry Brown scored a razor-thin legislative victory on Friday when the California State Legislature voted to release initial funding for high-speed rail—a major infrastructure project that he wholeheartedly supports. The plan got the green light four years after voters first approved a bond measure that would help build a network connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The vote to release $8 billion in state and federal funds came at the tail end of sessions on Governor Brown’s latest state budget, which includes potentially drastic cuts to many social, educational, health and public safety programs.

The state still has not secured any of the additional money needed to complete the $68 billion project.

Plans for the bullet train have become increasingly unpopular among voters in California. And up until the last minute on Friday, the future of the project remained uncertain. The State Assembly had already approved funding for initial construction by a wide margin the day before, but the sharply divided state senate also had to approve the proposal. Support falls mostly on party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against the plan. If just five Democrats joined Republicans, that would have been the end of bullet train bond money.

In the end, four Democratic senators voted against the plan—including Transportation Committee Chair Mark DeSaulnier (Concord), Alan Lowenthal (Long Beach), and Joe Simitian (Palo Alto), all of whom had played key roles in the development and oversight of the plan. Fran Pavely (Agoura Hills) also voted against the plan.

Senator Simitian—a long-time supporter of high-speed rail—said that while he staunchly supports the vision of high-speed rail in California, he could not support the current plan, which he said was very different in “scope, content and price,” than what voters approved in 2008.

Sen. Simitian said passage of the high-speed rail plan could imperil Brown’s chances of getting voter approval for statewide tax increases in November that could generate as much as $40 billion in badly needed revenue.

Not a single Republican senator voted to support the plan, and many invoked the upcoming tax initiative and cuts to education in their statements prior to the vote.

The money approved on Friday will combine with $3.3 billion in federal Recovery Act funds, to pay for initial construction of the high-speed rail line in the Central Valley, running between Fresno and Bakersfield.  In addition, money approved on Friday includes $2 billion in “connectivity” funds—that will pay for improvements to existing commuter rail lines in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Approving the funding is just one of many hurdles for the beleaguered plan. The bullet train faces ongoing lawsuits, as well as vocal opposition from Central Valley farmers.

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Transportation Nation

The Single Switch Routing 1/3 of All LIRR Trains, Down for a Month

Monday, July 09, 2012

Long Island Railroad train barrels through a crossing. (photo by ynkefan1 / flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) About 5,000 riders on Long Island Railroad will see their evening rush hour train either cut or delayed for as long as a month starting Monday.

The NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the LIRR,  is taking a single switch in Queens out of service so it can dig the next length of the East Side Access Tunnel — a project designed to bring LIRR trains to Grand Central Terminal by August 2019.

Switch 813 regulates 1/3 of all eastbound train traffic as it passes through a massive switching yard called The Harold Interlocking.

The switch can't be operated while a giant boring machine is tunneling beneath it. With only two tracks remaining to handle the evening rush, train traffic must be juggled.

The NY MTA said riders can expect the following changes:

  • The 4:52 PM train from Penn Station to Babylon will be canceled.
  • The 5:20 PM train from Penn Station to Long Beach will be canceled.
  • The 5:40 PM train from Penn Station to Seaford will be canceled.

The four PM Peak trains with adjusted schedules include:

  • The 5:36 PM train from Penn Station to Babylon, which will depart Penn Station one minute later (at 5:37 PM) and arrive Babylon two minutes later at 6:42 PM.
  • The 5:55 PM train from Penn Station to Long Beach will arrive at Long Beach one minute later at 6:52 PM.
  • The 5:59 PM train from Penn Station to Babylon will arrive at Babylon five minutes later at 7:04 PM.
  • The 6:44 PM train from Babylon to Patchogue will operate two minutes later, departing Babylon at 6:46 PM and arriving Patchogue at 7:16 PM as a result of its connecting train from Penn Station (the 5:37 PM) arriving two minutes later at Babylon.

The NY MTA has been alerting riders to the changes through an alert on its website, fliers posted at stations and dropped on trains seats, and email alerts to the 30,000 customers who subscribe to them.

Those efforts weren't enough for the Long Island Railroad Commuters Council, which urged the LIRR to post workers in stations and on platforms during the first days of the schedule changes.

LIRR spokesman Sal Arena said that will now happen. "Railroad president Joe Calderone said to The Riders Council, 'You're right. Let's do it.'" Arena said riders confused by the changes can expect to see LIRR workers in reflective vests at Penn Station in Manhattan, Jamaica Station in Queens and Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.

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