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Transportation Nation

Threatened Tortoises Make Way for Central Florida Toll Road

Friday, January 04, 2013

A gopher tortoise captured from a burrow on the Wekiva Parkway site (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Construction of a 25-mile long toll road that will complete a beltway around Orlando is due to begin in February, but before building on the Wekiva Parkway can start, threatened gopher tortoises have to be moved out of the way.

The $1.7 billion  roadway project is being showcased as an example of careful transportation planning through an environmentally sensitive area. In addition to relocating threatened species, the project will include fencing and wildlife bridges to minimize the risk of animal- vehicle collisions, and much of the roadway will be elevated.

About 260 gopher tortoise burrows have been identified around the first few miles of the parkway slated for construction. Backhoes are used to scoop away the bulk of the dirt, taking care not to disturb the burrow itself. The tunnel is marked with a long PVC pipe so the backhoe operator doesn't dig too deep.

Biologist Joel Johnson (left) directs a tortoise excavation (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Every few feet the backhoe driver stops, and a biologist - like environmental consultant Joel Johnson - climbs into the crater to dig with a shovel

"When it gets down to the more intricate part of the excavation, you’ll dive in with an arm to pull the tortoise out," says Johnson.

"At some point it’s a personal touch. The iconic thing is this backhoe here digging these huge holes in the ground, but the action is really in a couple of feet, you know, five feet around that burrow."

Gopher tortoises are powerful diggers. A typical burrow could extend 30 feet lengthwise and slope down to a depth of 25 feet.

After digging down a few feet, the backhoe driver stops to allow some manual shovel work (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Getting the tortoises out isn't easy.

"They are surprisingly strong, like most crevice dwelling and burrowing animals, and once they get in there and decide they don't want to come out, it becomes a matter of leverage," says Johnson.

"We have ones that dig as fast as we are. We're chasing them," he says.

"And then sometimes they come up and they look like a zombie coming out of a grave, out of the dirt right after you take a swipe."

Two backhoes, two shovel wielding biologists... but no sign of a tortoise in this burrow (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The gopher tortoise is important to Florida's ecology because other animals use its burrow  to shelter and find food.

"They call [the gopher tortoise] a keystone species," says Mike Dinardo, the environmental coordinator for the project.

"That burrow provides refuge for others escaping fire, maintaining humidity and escaping heat."

The gopher tortoises' room mates  include the indigo snake, the gopher frog and the pine snake, as well as crickets and other insects.

Insects like this one share the gopher tortoise burrow (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The gopher relocation project started mid December, so far capturing more  than 40 tortoises. It could take another few weeks to dig up the remaining burrows.

Once the animals get a health check up they’ll be moved to a ranch in Okeechobee County, South Florida.

Environmental coordinator Mike Dinardo and the tortoise containers (photo by Matthew Peddie)

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Transportation Nation

Christie on NJ Transit Storm Decisions: "Not A Hanging Offense"

Thursday, January 03, 2013

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

NJ Governor Christie is offering a full-throated defense of NJ Transit chief James Weinstein's decision to store rail trains in yards that flooded during Sandy -- a misstep that cost the agency $100 million.

"Well, you know, if they knew for sure it was going to flood, believe me, [executive director] Jim Weinstein would have moved the trains," Christie said, in response to a reporter's questions. "This is a guy with decades of experience in government, with extraordinary competence, who made the best decision he could make at the time. Sometimes, people make wrong decisions. It happens. It's not a hanging offense."

Speaking Tuesday at a press conference, the governor reserved most of his ire for House Republican leadership, which failed to vote on a $60 billion Sandy aid package. But when questioned about his support of Weinstein, Christie said:

A transcript follows.

Reporter: in light of the report last week that NJ Transit had been warned months ahead of time that  rail yards in Kearny would likely flood in the event of a storm like Sandy, do you still support the leadership?

Christie's full response:

"I absolutely support the leadership -- and I don't believe that that's what the report said. I mean, I think you've gilded that report up pretty well in the lead up to your question. I don't think that's what the report said. I think these guys made the best judgement they could under the circumstances. And all of you are geniuses after. Once you see that the Kearny yards flooded, you could say 'well, geez, they should have moved the trains.’ Well, you know, if they knew for sure it was going to flood, believe me, [executive director] Jim Weinstein would have moved the trains. This is a guy with decades of experience in government, with extraordinary competence, who made the best decision he could make at the time. Sometimes, people make wrong decisions. It happens. It's not a hanging offense."

The head of NJ Transit, Jim Weinstein, told a state panel last month the agency relied on past experience -- and the understanding that it had up to 20 more years to prepare for climate change -- when it came where to store its rolling stock during the storm.

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The Takeaway

America's Infrastructure Crisis

Thursday, January 03, 2013

One in eight bridges in the United States have been categorized as structurally deficient and many more are reaching the end of their lives. Attorney and author Barry LePatner tells us what can be done about America's infrastructure problem. Where will the money come from in an era of tightening budgets and is there enough political will to prevent the country's infrastructure from falling farther behind? Kristian Foden-Vencil is a reporter for OPB News.

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Transportation Nation

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

Monday, December 31, 2012

(photo by Wally G)

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

1) The Silver Line

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

2) I-495 Express Lanes

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

3) Transit and Gentrification

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

4) The Uber Battle for the Ages

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

5) MWAA’s woes

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

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Transportation Nation

Port Strike Averted... for 30 Days

Friday, December 28, 2012

Container ship at Port Newark, NJ. (photo by joevare / Flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) A federal mediator has announced that dockworkers at East and Gulf Coast ports will not go on strike this Saturday, as threatened. The International Longshoremen’s Association and United States Maritime Alliance have agreed to extend their contract negotiations for an additional 30 days.

A strike, which had the potential to cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost wages and economic activity,  seemed likely after talks between the two sides broke down on December 18.

At issue was a wage structure that includes royalties to union workers based on cargo weight. There is now an agreement in principle on wages, with more bargaining needed to seal the deal.

The National Retail Federation said it welcomed the news while striking a note of caution in a statement: "We continue to urge both parties to remain at the negotiating table until a long-term contract agreement is finalized." The New York Shipping Association agreed, saying, it "is looking forward to getting to the table to begin serious bargaining on the local agreement and to start the process of change.”

Below is a statement on the agreement by Director George H. Cohen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “I am extremely pleased to announce that the parties have reached the agreements set forth below as a result of a mediation session conducted by myself and my colleague Scot Beckenbaugh, Deputy Director for Mediation Services, on Thursday, December 27, 2012:

“The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties, subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement. The parties have further agreed to an additional extension of 30 days (i.e., until midnight, January 28, 2013) during which time the parties shall negotiate all remaining outstanding Master Agreement issues, including those relating to New York and New Jersey.  The negotiation schedule shall be set by the FMCS after consultation with the parties.”

“Given that negotiations will be continuing and consistent with the Agency’s commitment of confidentiality to the parties, FMCS shall not disclose the substance of the container royalty payment agreement. What I can report is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement. While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved in the upcoming 30-day extension period.”

“On behalf of our Agency, I want to thank the parties, especially ILA President Harold Daggett and USMX Chairman & CEO James Capo, for their ongoing adherence to the collective bargaining process, which has enabled them to avoid the imminent deadline for a work stoppage that could have economically disruptive nationwide implications.”
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Transportation Nation

Northern Virginia Road Expansion: Betting on Dulles Airport as Freight Hub (Part 2)

Friday, December 21, 2012

There's already construction in the area, building new lanes, but planners are contemplating an entirely new highway. Pictured: Express Lane Construction on I-495 at Route I- 66 (Photo by Trevor Wrayton, VDOT)

This is the second of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 1)

To elected officials and Virginia transportation planners, Dulles International Airport is an untapped well of economic growth. However, maximizing its potential will necessitate major improvements of the surrounding road network.  That includes completion of a “north-south” corridor which is now in the conceptual stages.

On Dec. 12 the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unveiled its intentions to pursue development of airport properties, including 400 acres on Dulles’ western side and sixteen acres around the future Rt. 606 stop of the Silver Line. The goal is to enhance the airport's industrial capacity as a freight hub.

“We are the only airport on the east coast with that kind of land available to us for development purposes. Cargo is down at Dulles right now, but it is down because of the economic uncertainty in Europe,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn). “The problem we have today is there is no easy access from the airport. The only access we have today is Rt. 28 and 28 is very limited.”

At their monthly board meeting, MWAA officials emphasized the importance of both expanding the Dulles Loop – Routes 606, 28, and 50 – and eventually connecting it to the north-south corridor.  Studies to expand all three roadways are underway.

MWAA CEO Jack Potter indicated the agency would take a cautious approach to development.

“We do not want to make an investment either at Rt. 606 or in the western lands to put a lot of infrastructure in there. We are not going to build something and hope that somebody comes,” he said during a presentation to the MWAA board.

Elected officials in Loudoun County who support the “north-south corridor” concept see Dulles as a key to future economic growth and the roads it will require as relief for traffic-weary commuters.

"Anybody who lives in Loudoun County knows that more road capacity is necessary,” said Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles). “Keeping roads small doesn't prevent growth from happening.”

Environmental groups opposed to the construction of a multi-lane, divided highway west of Dulles Airport question whether the expansion of freight is the right goal.

“There are only so many pounds of freight that you can move on an airplane in an economical way. I think it is less than one-tenth of one percent of freight in Virginia comes by air. It is going to be an important economic activity but it is not the major way to move freight in the United States,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

In his view, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Virginia master plan and MWAA’s development ideas amount to a move in the wrong direction, toward sprawl-inducing road expansions that could undermine the ongoing investment in the Silver Line rail project, scheduled for completion in 2018.

“I think the people who move west of Dulles Airport aren’t looking for another interstate highway with trucks on it to serve their neighborhood,” Miller said.

Miller uses the term “outer beltway” to describe the north-south corridor concept, a term that chafes supporters.

“If you want to unlock the potential of our economic engines – and Dulles is the biggest economic engine that we have in Northern Virginia – you’ve got to be able to tie it back to the other industries. If you look on the other side of the river, we have a large biotech industry in the I-270 corridor,” said Supervisor Buona.

“If you are able to create a [transportation] link between that industry and the IT and government contracting set, and that link connects to the airport, what you’ve done is create a corridor of commerce. You have not created an outer beltway,” he added.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Rebuilding Resilience: Next Steps

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Judith Rodin , president of the Rockefeller Foundation, appointed co-chair of the NYS 2100 commission to improve the resilience of infrastructure, continues her series of conversations on how the region can recover from Sandy and prepare for future disasters. Today: what concrete steps New York should take.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Going Places

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Yesterday's big news from the MTA includes fare and toll hike approval and Joe Lhota's resignation as chairman, which opens up the possibility of him running for mayor. Plus: The disputed expansion of Columbus Avenue's protected bike lane and its potential impact on retailers; the series with Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation continues with a look at infrastructure resilience; and Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions on tablets.

Transportation Nation

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

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

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

Moerdler wrapped up; Joe Lhota pounced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transportation Nation

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transportation Nation

Northern Virginia Planning Big 'Outer Beltway' Road Expansion (Part 1)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Approximate rendering by the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group that opposes the plan.

This is the first of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 2)

In a massive undertaking that would transform the face of Northern Virginia, state transportation planners are unveiling plans to create a “north-south corridor of statewide significance.” Some are calling it a potential beginning of an "outer Beltway," others say it's essential infrastructure for the region's economy. Critics call it a big waste of money, unnecessary and poorly planned.

The proposal would add a path between I-95 in Prince William County to Route 7 in Loudoun County, arcing west of Dulles International Airport and connecting to I-66, Rt. 50, and the Dulles Greenway.

Neither the exact route of a new highway, the cost, nor the number of lanes has been decided, but the agency’s objective is coming into focus: to dramatically expand Northern Virginia's road capacity to benefit commerce, namely the growth of Dulles Airport into the east coast's largest freight hub.

“I'm concerned that they are going to build a road at six lanes going 60 miles an hour much like the Beltway or Highway 28. They are going to need to do four lanes and they will have to slow it down,” said South Riding, Virginia resident Todd Sipe, who pointed out his home on a map of one of the proposed corridor routes at the first of two public open houses on Tuesday night.   “I believe nothing is settled yet.  They are collecting public comment now.”

Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation greeted residents inside a high school cafeteria in Loudoun County filled with maps, charts, and bullet points about a regional master plan that is still in its conceptual stages.

 Residents attending the event were skeptical of the need for a major north-south highway west of the airport, running along the western edge of Manassas Battlefield State Park.

“It seems to be more aimed at industry and transporting freight to Dulles Airport,” said Sterling resident Bill Roman. “In terms of our needs here in the county, people commute east-west mostly, not north-south. There are no north-south issues.”

“I think the state could spend its money in much more effective ways. The way this is shown right now, it ends on Rt. 7. That isn’t the place where you can end a road like this,” said Emily Southgate of Middleburg, referring to mounting pressure to extend a corridor north of Rt. 7 in the form of a new Potomac River crossing, an idea supported by Virginia state officials but not by their counterparts in Maryland.

One lawmaker who conceptually supports the creation of the corridor is convinced additional highway capacity would help commuters. Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) says concerns about a sprawl-inducing new highway could be addressed by limiting access, building fewer exits and entrances.

“When you talk about limiting access you have two main benefits,” he said. “It makes it easier to privatize the road to get it paid for, which is what I think VDOT is primarily interested in. The other benefit is that you can limit development in areas that are undeveloped."

In Letourneau’s view, new housing development is coming to Loudoun County, so the board of supervisors has to responsibly accommodate it.

VDOT officials say a limited-access highway that improves access to Dulles Airport and incorporates HOV lanes and bus lanes would serve the most people.

“We are going to work the best transportation system that we can and meet the needs of the public. There has to be political consensus to do that,” said Garrett Moore, VDOT’s Northern Virginia District Administrator.  “We can limit access. One of the things we'd like to do is get predictable and fast transport, additional capacity and carpools to include express and bus rapid transit.”

Some environmental groups are adamantly opposed to building a north-south highway west of Dulles Airport, especially if it would absorb any property on the periphery of the Manassas battlefield.

“In the context of our limited resources in Virginia, this is one of the worst expenditures we could make,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.  “The fact that it might be a public-private partnership doesn't change that analysis.”

Building through a public-private partnership would likely mean new tolls on the highway. To Miller, VDOT’s plans amount to an “outer beltway” that would lead to new development in 100,000 acres of farm land and rural subdivisions.

“There’s a big choice this region is going to make over the next ten years,” Miller added. “Are we going to take advantage of the investment in the Silver Line, or are we going to allow development to occur in this large 100,000 acre range from I-66 to Rt. 7 west of the airport. We don’t think it is inevitable. The McDonnell administration is encouraging sprawl by encouraging this highway.”

The second part of this series deals with Dulles as a freight hub. 

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Transportation Nation

Washington Governor Proposes New Fuel Tax For Education

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

(photo by Larry Darling via flickr)

(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW) Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is proposing a new wholesale vehicle fuel tax to help cover the costs of getting kids to school.

Currently, school districts help pay for students' transportation needs, but a recent court ruling says state government is not doing enough to support education. That includes education-related transportation.

Gregoire’s solution? A new tax on refineries to basically pay for school bus costs. Her plan was included in her 2013-2015 budget proposal, which is required under state law. Gregoire said her fuel-tax proposal is directed at oil producers, not consumers.

"Let’s be clear," she says, "the five top oil companies in America, in the first six months of this year, had over $60 billion in profits. So I expect them to do this without passing this on to consumers."

[Also at KUOW: Not Easy To Find Room For Ocean Energy]

Gregoire’s proposal would cost fuel wholesalers about 5 cents a gallon in the first year, 8 cents a gallon by 2015 and 12 cents a gallon in 2017.

State Senator Andy Hill is the likely chairman of the Senate budget committee. He opposes the plan and predicts that the new fuel tax would get passed down to consumers. “That really hurts the middle class as they fill up their tanks," explains Hill. "I think when you ask the average voter, when you ask about transportation, they think about roads, bridges, tunnels, ferries. They don’t think about school buses.”

Fellow Republicans say the state doesn’t need to raise taxes to pay for education.

[Also at KUOW: Another Dock Washes Ashore In Wash., Possibly From Japanese Tsunami]

Gregoire’s plan would need to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and Governor-elect Jay Inslee. A spokesman for Inslee wouldn’t say whether the incoming governor supports Gregoire’s plan. The spokesman said Inslee will lay out his own budget plan during the upcoming legislative session.

Follow Derek Wang on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

PATH Service To Hoboken To Resume Wednesday

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Security camera footage captures flooding in the Hoboken PATH station, 10/29/12

One of the longest running service outages caused by storm Sandy is about to end.

PATH train commuter service is about to resume to Hoboken, NJ, the Port Authority said in a tweet:  "PATH's Hoboken-33 service resumes Wednesday 12-19-12 at 5 a.m. and operates every day from 5 a.m. – 10 p.m."

But there will be no direct service from Hoboken to the World Trade Center, and the Port Authority says that remains "several weeks away."

Some 29,000 riders use the Hoboken station every day.  They've been without service to Manhattan for almost eight weeks.

PATH tunnels were among the most severely hit during Sandy, with water filling five miles of tubes.

Closed Hoboken PATH train station in November (Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

According a Port Authority press release, the "announcement means weekday service between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. will be back at all 13 PATH stations and on three of PATH’s four regular lines: Journal Square to 33rd Street, Hoboken to 33rd Street and Newark to the World Trade Center".

The Port Authority says critical equipment was damaged, but has offered few details on what was damaged, or what was entailed in restoring the service.

PATH says it will restore limited 24 hour service in time for New Year's Eve.

Many commuters take New Jersey Transit trains to Hoboken and transfer to the PATH. NJ Transit is operating curtailed service to Hoboken because of a damaged electrical substation. The agency  tells TN that PATH service restoration will not lead to more NJ Transit service to Hoboken.

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Transportation Nation

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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

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Transportation Nation

Shale Drillers Eager to Move Wastewater on Barges

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The "Vulcan" towboat and its load pass the Point on the Ohio River, highlighted by the sunrise. The Vulcan beongs to the Consol Energy fleet. (Photo by Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette)

(Emily DeMarco - PublicSource) The shale gas drilling industry wants to move its wastewater by barge on rivers and lakes across the country. But the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s waterways, must first decide whether it’s safe.

“It may be hazardous,” said Commander Michael Roldan, chief of the Coast Guard’s Hazardous Material Division, stressing the word ‘may.’ “If it is, it would not be allowed to ship under bulk.”

Right now, he pointed out during an interview with PublicSource, it can’t be shipped by barge, even though there has been confusion in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Ohio about whether it could be.

The Coast Guard has been considering whether to allow the industry to use the waterways for about a year, according to Roldan, who said the question came up when the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh -- the local office of the Coast Guard -- called the Washington office to clarify whether bulk transport was allowed after Marcellus Shale drillers began making inquiries.

The Coast Guard’s decision would affect more than Pittsburgh’s iconic three rivers. Nearly 12,000 miles of waterways could be open to these waterborne behemoths, each carrying 10,000 barrels of wastewater.

Like so many questions involving the shale gas industry, it’s a divisive one. Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill that could contaminate Pittsburgh’s rivers with chemicals isn’t worth the risk. But industry officials who advocate waterway transport said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move this stuff.

A barge accident would be a “massive catastrophe,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy organization.

“It’s not just a contamination of a waterway,” Hvozdovich said. “You’re talking about the contamination of the drinking water supply for about half a million people....It seems like a very bad idea.”

However, industry officials and transportation experts counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, are moved on barges now. They include chlorine, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous ammonia. Why should the drilling industry be treated differently? they ask.

Anyone who says moving the wastewater is a danger doesn’t know what’s on the waters already, said John Jack, vice president of business development and operations for GreenHunter Water, a company that handles wastewater for major oil companies.

“Look what’s going down the waters right now,” Jack said, “highly toxic stuff....There’s nothing in our product that’s hazardous.”

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires about five millions gallons of water per well. Water is combined with chemicals and sand and shot deep underground, releasing pockets of gas from shale rock formations.

Depending on the well, about 15 to 80 percent of what was injected returns to the surface. That’s called ‘flowback.’ Plus, the well continues to regurgitate naturally occurring water from inside the shale, which is called ‘produced water.’ Both liquids become wastewater, which is often called “brine.”

Complications arise for the Coast Guard’s analysis because companies use proprietary mixtures of chemicals in fracking. And, salt, hydrocarbons and radioactive elements that occur naturally underground catch a free ride with the watery mixture to the surface.

“If there wasn’t the variability, this would be a much easier process,” Roldan said.

Ring-around-the-tub effect

The agency is determining appropriate ‘ceilings’ for each component in the wastewater. Companies that want to ship by bulk would have to test their wastewater first. If the components are under the Coast Guard’s ceilings, companies would be given the green light, assuming approval.

The Coast Guard’s biggest concern about the wastewater is what Roldan calls the ‘bathtub ring’ effect inside the barges. Just as, after many showers and baths, calcium in tap water can leave a ring around the tub, radioactive particles in the wastewater may accumulate inside the barge.

Workers and inspectors on the barges could be at risk after long-term exposure, he said, and the agency would likely require regular testing of the barges for radioactivity.

Roldan couldn’t say when the Coast Guard’s determination of whether wastewater can be safely moved on barges would be complete. In part, that is because the nationwide issue is complicated. For example, experts from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Transportation and Energy have weighed in already.

Others, including a committee established by the White House, will likely review the draft proposal.

The agency plans to publish its proposal on transporting wastewater in the Federal Register. Then, the public and the industry will have an opportunity to weigh in.

But there has been great confusion at the ports about the rules.

Officials at GreenHunter, which moves wastewater for some of the largest drilling companies in the Marcellus and Utica Shales by truck, planned to start using barges before the end of the year because they believed it was allowed, Jack said. They’ve been investing in five terminals in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I’ve had the regional commanders out to our sites and nobody told us that we couldn’t” move it by barge, he said. His understanding, he said, is that it’s being done in Texas and Louisiana.

The Pittsburgh office of the Coast Guard declined to comment.

But Roldan’s reaction was immediate when asked whether any company is allowed to do this. “No, they’re not allowed,” he said. “You may want to tell them before we catch them.”

However, he said he understood the confusion because of the way the current regulations are worded. “A liberal reading … could lead to a misinterpretation,” he said.

One question the agency couldn’t answer is the expected volume of wastewater that would be shipped over the rivers.

“We’ve been asking ourselves this,” Roldan said.

In Pennsylvania alone, about 23 million barrels of wastewater were generated in 2011, according to PublicSource calculations using data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil & Gas Reporting website. The data are self-reported by the producers and are not vetted by the DEP.

While about 99 percent of the waste from shale drilling is just water, the remaining one percent is salt, chemicals, and radioactive particles.

A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition declined to answer questions about moving waste on barges and instead emphasized the industry’s commitment to recycling wastewater.

Today, new technology has increased the capacity for on-site recycling, but that is costly. Transporting the waste off-site to disposal or treatment locations is still needed by the industry.

Less road wear and tear

Shale gas companies have good reason to eye the waterways.

Transporting wastewater by barges has environmental, safety and economic benefits, Jack, of GreenHunter, said. For example, a major drilling company would save 58,000 trucking hours by using barges.

And trucks have about 2,000 accidents for every barge accident, he said, citing data from the DOT and the Coast Guard.

James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, an agency that advocates for waterway transport, said using barges is a good idea.

“The more that it can be moved on waterways, the less wear and tear of roads,” he said, adding that barges also produce less air pollution than trucks.

And they’re a fraction of the cost. Barges cost only about 10 percent of the cost to move the waste by truck, said Jim Kruse, director of the Center for Ports and Waterways Institute at Texas A&M University. They are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than trains, he said.

The change would not eliminate trucks because they'd still be needed to get the wastewater from the drill rigs to the barges.

Three gas drilling companies have already approached Pittsburgh-based Campbell Transportation Co. about moving their wastewater by barge, said Peter Stephaich, one of Campbell’s shareholders.

“We are regulated by just about everybody,” he said, listing federal and state agencies that oversee barge companies. Stephaich said he’s confident that wastewater will be moved responsibly.

“If we move it, we’ll move it within the rules,” he said. “If the costs are too high, we won’t do it.”

Operators like Campbell may have to purchase new equipment, retrofit their infrastructure, and train their crews.

Benjamin Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University (about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh), is one expert who didn’t know about the Coast Guard’s review.

“Oh crap,” he said. “A lot of things could go wrong.”

For example, wastewater contains bromides. Bromides transform into carcinogens when they are pumped through water treatment facilities, Stout said.

If there was a barge accident, the treatment facilities would have to shut their intake valves of river water, he said. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Wheeling use water from the Ohio River for drinking.

(Stout is a board member of FracTracker, a non-profit that disseminates data about the shale gas industry. Both FracTracker and PublicSource are funded, in part, by the Heinz Endowments.)

Despite his alarm, Stout said he is glad that the Coast Guard is studying the issue because it’s one more determination about an industry that currently doesn’t offer a lot of transparency.

Asked whether the Coast Guard is being lobbied by the industry, Roldan said: “We’re not really feeling pressure. We could deny it.”

Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or edemarco@publicsource.org.

View this story on the PublicSource site here.

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Transportation Nation

D.C. Airports Board Spent $1.5 Million Defending Former Board Member

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The agency managing the construction of the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project in Northern Virginia spent more than a million dollars in legal fees in two lawsuits defending one of its board members in a battle with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

In a confidential memo obtained by WAMU 88.5, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board details the $1.5 million in legal fees spent defending Dennis Martire, a labor union official who agreed to resign from the MWAA board of directors in September.

In June the McDonnell administration tried to oust Martire from the board.  He sued to keep his seat, and the airports authority agreed to reimburse his legal expenses. He was reimbursed $855,000, according to the memo.

In an interview with WAMU, Martire said he was entitled to legal assistance under MWAA policy.

“We have an indemnification policy that every board member has the right to due process and every board member has the right to face their accusers if you are accused of anything,” said Martire, who drew intense criticism after it was revealed he had spent $38,000 traveling to five conferences while MWAA director.

In his view, however, Martire was targeted for political reasons: the McDonnell administration wanted greater control of the MWAA board.

“The governor was removing me for booking a plane ticket two weeks before a trip, and we spent $1.5 million dollars of MWAA money to defend that case. It's ludicrous,” Martire said. “There is a movement afoot to make it an all-Virginia board. There is a movement afoot to create a Republican-dominated board.”

The confidential memo says the airports authority also spent $360,000 to defend itself and one of its top officials, and nearly $200,000 was spent defending three other board members – Rusty Conner, Todd Stottlemyer, and former Va. Congressman Tom Davis – who were subpoenaed during the litigation.

MWAA chief counsel Phil Sunderland did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
MWAA Legal Fees

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NY Thruway Cancels 45% Toll Hike

Monday, December 17, 2012

(Karen DeWitt -- Albany) The New York Thruway Authority has rescinded a controversial 45% truck toll hike proposal, saying it intends to cut costs instead.

Thruway executive director Tom Madison, speaking Monday at an announcement with Governor Cuomo, says the authority scrapped plans for the truck toll hike and will economize instead.  Some authority workers will be laid off and the rest will see their benefits cut, state police will have to fund Thruway patrols themselves, and some state agencies might take over some of the services provided on the canal system, which has been a financial drain on the authority.

Cuomo says he’s pleased. “I thought it would  be  counterproductive form an economic development point of view,” he said.

Monday's announcement ends months of back-and-forth of uncertainty. The Authority originally announced the toll hike last spring, but New York State's comptroller blasted those plans -- leading the proposal to languish.

The cancellation of the toll hike was heralded by business leaders, who had pushed to see the truck toll increase rescinded. “We are thankful and relieved,” said New York State Business Council  president Heather Briccetti.

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Transportation Nation

New York Chooses Builder for $3.1 Billion Tappan Zee Bridge Replacement

Monday, December 17, 2012

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (R), with advisor Brian Conybeare, standing in front of a model of the new design. (Image courtesy of @NYGovCuomo)

UPDATE: It's official: New York has awarded the contract to construct the new Tappan Zee Bridge.

In a press release, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said, “the Thruway Board has selected the Tappan Zee Constructors’ plan which offers New York toll payers the biggest bang for their buck – with the best price, shortest construction time, minimal dredging, and can accommodate mass transit in the future. This is a major milestone for a bridge project that was a metaphor for the dysfunction of government and is now a national model for progress.”

Earlier Monday, Tom Madison, the executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority, said he was supporting a $3.1 billion plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The (presumptive) new Tappan Zee Bridge. (New York Thruway Authority)

The board unanimously approved the contract at its meeting on Monday.

The wining design was recommended by a selection committee earlier this month.  At $3.1 billion, it's the least expensive of the three design finalists; Madison pointed out that with a construction time of five years, 2.5 months, it's also the fastest to build. It's one of the largest contracts ever executed in New York -- and it will be the first project constructed under the state's new design-build legislation.

The winning bidder is Tappan Zee Constructors -- a consortium led by Fluor Enterprises, Inc.. One of the team members is American Bridge -- the company which constructed the original Tappan Zee back in 1955.

No financing plan is yet in place to construct the bridge. Cuomo reiterated Monday "the tolls on the Tappan Zee will be one of the main funding sources for that bridge." The state is also waiting to see if the federal government will approve its request for a $2.9 billion TIFIA loan.

New York's comptroller has to sign off on the contract.

 

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Transportation Nation

D.C. to Start Testing Streetcars Next Spring

Friday, December 14, 2012

The first three streetcars to roll downs tracks in the District of Columbia since 1962 will be ready for testing next spring, DDOT officials said at a news briefing on Thursday.

The district is building a track in Anacostia to test its streetcars with the goal of launching them into service late next year or early 2014 on the planned H Street/Benning Road corridor, a two-mile, ten-stop segment of a planned 22-mile trolley system that will take five to eight years to complete -- barring further delays.

“From a safety standpoint, we have to start what we call burning in the cars, to get them used to the traffic systems,” said DDOT chief engineer Nick Nicholson. “We have to make sure everything, especially the emergency response, is working well. Sometime after that we complete that burn-in period and get a safety certification, we will begin revenue service.”

Fares and operating hours have not been decided, but officials said they are looking into seamless fare payment technologies, including using Metro’s SmarTrip cards. The final pieces of infrastructure have to be completed, too, on H Street/Benning Road.

“You will start seeing us build our switches in so we can switch the cars from track to track.  You will see power plants starting to come in to run the cars.  You will see the upgrades of the overhead wires and reinforcement of the Hopscotch Bridge to be a stop for the streetcar and we will build a maintenance facility,” said DDOT director Terry Bellamy.

Between now and the day the first passengers climb into a D.C. streetcar in fifty years, DDOT will employ a public awareness campaign to help businesses in the emerging H Street corridor.

“We think pedestrians will probably be used to streetcars because they are used to buses. Our real concern is the automobile driver, because he is used to having the road to himself,” Nicholson said. “Those cars in the district that like to double (park) or just stop and wait, in a streetcar path they're going have to move on.”

Nicholson said delivery trucks will have to alter their schedules or find alleyways to idle because the fixed-rail streetcar system cannot swing around them like buses. The streetcars will flow from the H Street’s median to pick up passengers outside the parking lane.

The district’s ambitious vision for a trolley system that will help residents and visitors efficiently move within the city, as opposed to Metro’s outside commuter-oriented design, foresees streetcars crossing east-west from Benning Road to Georgetown and from Buzzard’s Point to Anacostia, and north-south from Takoma to Buzzard’s Point.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has pointed to the transformation of Portland, Oregon by a new streetcar line as a model of economic growth, and district officials are depending on the H Street/Benning Road line to increase property values and enhance shopping and entertainment options in the corridor.

Progress may have a cost. A study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University found  that neighborhoods that get new rail transit systems like streetcars experience a significant increase in housing prices -- leading to renters and low-income households getting priced out.

In a prior series, WAMU examined the relationship between transit and gentrification in D.C.’s Ward 7, where a plan to extend the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line east of the Anacostia River is under consideration.

To learn more, check out D.C. Streetcar's latest media briefing here.

 

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Transportation Nation

NY MTA Head Formally Backs Fare Hike

Thursday, December 13, 2012


As expected, the head of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority is recommending the agency raise the base fare for subways and buses by 25 cents, and increase the cost of a 30-day MetroCard from $104 to $112.

Joe Lhota outlined his recommendation in a memo sent to MTA board members Thursday. The board is expected to approve the fare hike at its meeting next week. It would go into effect in March 2013.

Lhota says in his memo that the increase in fares and tolls will raise an additional $450 million annually for the agency.

To learn more, read the memo below, or download a pdf of it here.

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