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The Brian Lehrer Show

Meet the Borough Presidents

Friday, February 07, 2014

In the first of a series of roundtables with the borough presidents, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., new Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and new Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams discuss life and politics in New York City and compare notes about our diverse neighborhoods.

 

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Local Politics Round Up: A DOE Pick; Bloomberg Says Goodbye

Monday, December 30, 2013

On the day when Mike Bloomberg signs his last bills into law, new Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to name DOE veteran Carmen Fariña as next schools chancellor. Brigid Bergin, WNYC politics reporter, discusses the latest in local politics news.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Candidate How-To

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

With the petitioning period for September's primary about to start, Mark Winston-Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, adjunct faculty at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, talks about what he's learned as a community organizer and "near-miss" insurgent candidate for city council about the ins and outs of running for local office in NYC.

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Transportation Nation

Low-Bid Process For Silver Line's Phase II May Foster Hidden Costs

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The success of a megaproject can come down to a single decision: choosing the right contractor.

As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) prepares to embark on Phase II of a $5.5 billion rail extension to Dulles International Airport known as the Silver Line, five pre-qualified construction consortiums are facing an April 19 deadline to submit bids to build a transportation project largely financed by toll revenues from the Dulles Toll Road.

After receiving the bids next Friday, MWAA will announce the winner in May. Preliminary work is scheduled to begin later this year with a target of 2018 for completion of the Silver Line to Dulles and beyond into Virginia's Loudoun County. Phase I of the project, which extends D.C.'s Metro to Reston -- is scheduled to open later this year.

Some of the biggest names in the construction industry are competing for the Phase II contract, including Bechtel, the firm that is building Phase I. The lowest bidder wins Phase II.

“Before you go to a low bid, you do everything possible to make sure that you have a firm that is fully capable and fully understands the scope of work of the project involved,” said Patrick Nowakowski, the executive director of the Dulles Corridor Rail Project. “We don’t want to have firms leading the effort… who’ve never undertaken a megaproject.”

Nowakowski says using the low-bid procurement procedure ensures the lowest possible price for Fairfax and Loudoun County taxpayers and the toll road users.

“It’s all about price,” Nowakowski said.

Once the contractor teams’ individual design proposals met the standards established in MWAA’s design schematics, the lowest bid became the only factor in deciding who will win the contract. Therefore, a bidding contractor with a superior design receives no advantage in the bidding process. But Nowakowski says his office has been meeting with the competing contractor teams for months to ensure all the design proposals are sound.

“That’s where the confidence level comes in, the amount of time we have spent working with them,” Nowakowski said. “[We] make sure that the designs they produce meet the minimum standards that [we’ve] established in a specifications.”

Critics say low bid invites trouble

Any number of issues can push a megaproject over budget, but the low-bid procurement process is particularly troublesome, critics say, because it entices a contractor to submit an artificially low bid with the intention of requesting change orders to drive up a project’s final cost, paid for by the project’s owner and into the contractor’s pockets. In the case of the Silver Line, the owner is MWAA.

“The procurement on Phase II is not being done in an optimal way,” said Brian Petruska, an attorney at the Laborers International Union of North America, one of the unions that supplied workers to build Phase I of the Silver Line. “For a contractor the number one goal is to get the project.”

Change orders usually occur in one of three ways: the project owner requests the change and then pays the contractor to include it; an unexpected problem arises in the construction process requiring a change for the project to proceed safely; or the contractor requests a change order from the owner. In the latter case, MWAA would have to approve any change orders that are requested by the general contractor.

“We've looked at projects such as the Wilson Bridge and the Springfield interchange where change orders were approved because the price of steel went up. You would think the contractor should factor in potential increases in the price of steel, so when they make the bid they take the risk,” said Petruska, who said MWAA should have chosen a bidding process that grades on both design and price.

MWAA insists its contract documents and oversight procedures will prevent unnecessary change orders and, therefore, stick to the Silver Line’s budget.

“I worry about change orders from the day I sign the contract to the day I end it,” Nowakowski said. “It’s not a function of the low-bid procedure. It’s a function of how well the contract documents were written and how well you manage the project from the day you start to the day you finish.”

The higher the Silver Line price, the higher the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road

Virginia’s approval of an additional $300 million in Silver Line funding lightened the burden on Dulles Toll Road users to finance the $2.7 billion Phase II extension. Before the Commonwealth approved new funding, toll revenues were scheduled to cover 75 percent of Phase II’s costs. That cost has been reduced to 64 percent, according to an MWAA spokeswoman-- as long as Fairfax and Loudoun Counties continue to fund the $400 million needed to build parking garages and a rail station at the planned Rt. 28 stop.

If Phase II’s construction goes over budget, toll road users may be asked to make up the difference, according to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.

Connaughton says it will be up to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to make sure only legitimate change orders are approved for Phase II of the Silver Line.

“Any price escalation is passed almost directly onto the toll road users, and the toll road users are already bearing a very large brunt of the cost of this project,” Connaughton said.

Change orders and bloated project budgets

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has a mixed record in keeping its projects on budget. While MWAA officials have praised the contractor and union workforce for keeping Phase I of the Silver Line on time and on budget, the Dulles Main Terminal Automated People Mover Station will receive no such praise.

The Automated People Mover Station, which provides a rail and pedestrian link between the main terminal and midfield concourses at Dulles Airport, was awarded by MWAA to the contractor Turner Construction Co.* at the low-bid price of $184 million. After 82 change orders were approved, the project finished at $388 million, an increase of $204 million from the original low bid, according to sources familiar with an internal MWAA audit.

The audit also found MWAA staff approved certain increases without documentation and without written contractual obligation to do so, sources said.

While the People Mover Station may provide an egregious example of a project’s costs soaring out of control, it serves a caution that even when government agencies sign a contract with established construction industry giants, things can go very wrong. That is why, Nowakowski said, the Silver Line’s project management team will exercise strict oversight.

“We’ve got some of the five best teams in the world competing” for the contract, he said. “The taxpayers can believe that we’ve done everything that we can to get the best possible price.”

The Springfield Interchange (Archer Western) and the Silver Spring Transit Center (Foulger Pratt) provide two widely publicized examples of projects that went well over budget despite having major construction firms serving as general contractors. Archer Western is leading one of the five construction consortiums that will bid of Phase II of the Silver Line.

In addition to Archer Western Contractors, the other construction consortiums competing to build Phase II are led by Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., Skanska USA, Clark Construction Group, and Fluor Enterprises Inc.

Construction industry warns against pointing fingers

Representatives of the construction industry say it is harder to determine what actually went wrong than to simply assign blame when megaproject encounters budget or construction problems.

“A newspaper or a radio show or anybody can spout off and say there was a problem on a job and they name the contractor or the subcontractor,” said Patrick Dean, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Virginia. “Typically they don’t get into the details because that news is old by the time anything is figured out.”

Dean says the idea contractors pocket huge sums off excessive change orders is “a fallacy.”

“It’s not like contractors are going to make a lot of money on change orders. A change order increases their contract but they are a hassle. You have to negotiate them, sometimes you fight over them. You may have to rework something or change your schedule,” said Dean, who said some change orders are requested not for profit but to make projects more durable to reduce future maintenance costs.

Regardless of whether MWAA or the general contractor will pay for any change orders approved during Phase II of the Silver Line, the additional costs may ultimately fall on drivers on the Dulles Toll Road.

Virginia Transportation Sec. Connaughton, a critic of MWAA’s past performance, said the agency must run this project well. “Additional costs not only delay the project but obviously cause it to spiral out of control with price,” Connaughton said.

This is the first of a two-part series on construction of Phase II of the Silver Line to Dulles.

*This post originally listed the contractor as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. They are the architects, not the contractor. 

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Transportation Nation

NJ Transit: We're Being More Transparent About Sandy Recovery

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

NJ Transit's board meetings will now be videotaped, and the agency is expanding the information on its Sandy recovery website.

It's part of an agency attempt to provide more transparency to the riding public -- many of whom have showed up at NJ Transit board meetings since Sandy to complain about confusing schedule changes, last-minute service outages, and a general lack of effective communication.

Jim Simpson, the state's transportation commissioner and NJ Transit chairman, said Wednesday at a board meeting that the videos of each board meeting will be available on the agency's website within 48 hours "to increase transparency on the board. We think it's really a good thing for everybody."

Executive director Jim Weinstein also said the NJ Transit website will now "include a listing of contracts associated with the Sandy recovery, as well as background on all projects." And the site now offers details on agency efforts to repair and replace trains damaged by Sandy.

NJ Transit has been under scrutiny for its decision to store rail stock in flood-prone areas during the storm, which caused nearly a quarter of its fleet to suffer damage.

The board also approved paying another $28.5 million to Canadian rail company Bombardier, which is repairing train cars damaged by Sandy. NJ Transit says it will reimbursed for storm expenses through a  combination of federal aid and insurance money.

Related: NJ Transit Chief: Our Trains, Equipment, Suffered $100 Million In Sandy Damage

Following the meeting, Weinstein less enthusiastic about a different subject: a recent study endorsing a proposal to extend the #7 subway to Secaucus. "It’s not a New Jersey project," he said. "It emanated from the mayor’s office in New York and it clearly has some different points of view in New York, from the MTA." Weinstein sounded lukewarm about the project.  "We'll see where it goes," he said.

One recent bright spot for the agency: Weinstein said NJ Transit got a ridership boost during last week's Wrestlemania, when the agency provided more than 35,000 bus and rail trips to the Meadowlands.  The agency views the event as a dress rehearsal for next year's Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets and Giants play. Weinstein, who was on site for much of the event, described Wrestlemania as "quite an enlightening experience."

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Contractors To Pay For Repairs To Beleaguered Maryland Transit Hub

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Preliminary repair work is underway at Maryland' s Silver Spring Transit Center, but officials still can't say when it will actually open.

The construction and design teams have agreed for now to pay for the necessary repairs to fix the structural problems at the Silver Spring Transit Center that were detailed in a scathing county report.

David Dise, director of general services for Montgomery County, says some repair work is already underway but that the major remediation work won't take place until late summer.

"Foulger Pratt was directed on Friday to begin the replacement of the faulty pour strips on the mid-level of the transit center," Dise says. "Parsons Brinkerhoff, the engineer of record, is beginning the design of the other remediation work that has to be done, the columns, the beams, and the topping slabs on the two levels."

That's just the beginning. Those repairs will take months to complete, so Dise can't say when the facility, already two years behind schedule, will open.

"Much of that will depend upon the final remediation plan being developed by Parsons Brinkerhoff and the subsequent schedule developed by Foulger Pratt after they receive the design," Dise says.

So the county, as of now, will not have to pump any more money into finishing the facility.

"The contractors that have performed the work that is in error must bear the cost of its repair," Dise says.

So it appears the county and the contractors have reached a resolution that will avoid costly, time consuming litigation, at least for the time being. The contractors may fight the county in court after the work is done to recover their expenses.

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Transportation Nation

Pay-By-Phone Parking -- And Real-Time Space Availability -- Being Tested in the Bronx

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

An 18-block stretch in the Bronx will be the first in New York City to test pay-by-phone parking.

The pilot program will allow people to use phone, internet or smartphone app to pay for 264 metered parking spaces along or adjacent to Arthur Avenue  -- as well as spots in the city's Belmont Municipal Parking Field. To participate, motorists must sign up in advance on the Pay-By-Phone website. Each Muni-Meter in the pilot program has a QR code and a seven-digit number; the motorist must use either to confirm payment.

Users will receive a text or email when their meter is about to expire, and they will have the option of extending their time without having to return to their cars. According to the mayor's press release, traffic enforcement agents will use new hand-held scanners to cross-check the PayByPhone's data to ensure compliance.

"New York City parking has come a long way since we had to put a roll of quarters in our pocket," said city transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, making the announcement Tuesday in the Bronx with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A side view of the Muni-Meter in the Bronx. Note QR code and 7-digit ID. (Photo by Christine Streich)

Related: Good Bye, Parking Meter; Hello, Muni-Meter

The pay-by-phone pilot will be tested for three months; it could then expand citywide.

Potentially more interesting than the ability to feed the meter remotely is the second half of Tuesday's announcement: a real-time parking availability map, seeded by information transmitted from roadbed sensors.

A sensor embedded in the roadway detects whether a parking space is free or not. (Photo by Christine Streich)

"Green indicates the greatest likelihood of a spot; yellow, the chances aren't so good, and red, well, you get the idea--" said Sadik-Khan. "Forget about it, as Marty [Markowitz] would say," interjected Bloomberg, referring to Brooklyn's Borough President.

Sadik-Khan added the map would cut down on the pollution created by cruising around and looking for a spot. "Knowing where to go, and to concentrate your search on where it's going to have the biggest value and the biggest payoff, is half the battle," she said.

In addition to being available online, the map is also available as a smartphone app. Bloomberg batted away suggestions that the app could encourage distracted driving.  Bloomberg reasoned passengers could check the map -- or drivers could check it before they leave "or pull over. I mean, a lot of things are meant for you, you can't do it while you're --" here the mayor paused -- "in the shower, for example."

This cracked up the crowd. "I'm just trying to think of some other place you shouldn't," Bloomberg said, moving along to the next question.

Real-time parking conditions in the Belmont section of the Bronx (click for interactive map)

Other cities around the world -- San Francisco, London, Vancouver, Miami -- use similar technology. Monica Hernandez, a spokesperson for the District Department of Transportation, said all 17,500 meters in Washington D.C. can be paid for via phone, and that the program had been in place for almost two years. "It's serving its purpose," she said. "It provides one more option for people looking to park."

With reporting from Christine Streich/WNYC.


 

 

 

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Transportation Nation

New Law Makes Distracted Driving a Primary Offense in Virginia

Thursday, April 04, 2013

(photo by mrjasonweaver via flickr)

Virginia lawmakers approved bipartisan legislation that makes texting while driving a primary offense, and significantly raises the fines.

State legislators passed amendments to the bill that were proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, including one increasing the fine for texting while driving from $20 to $125 dollars for a first offense and $250 dollars for every subsequent violation.

That's less than the original legislation, which pegged those fines twice as high.

Delegate Rich Anderson (R-Prince William Co.) says it puts texting on the same level as other impaired forms of driving.

"That aligns driving while intoxicated and driving while texting pretty closely," says Anderson.

Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) says he has been trying to get a bill passed on this topic for a number of years, after students from Centreville High School brought the issue to his attention.

"I’m very pleased, because this is an extraordinarily dangerous activity," Barker says. "The accident rate is 23 times the rate for people that are texting compared to people that aren’t, which is a phenomenal differential. It clearly will save lives."

Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) says the law addresses more than just texting at the wheel.

"You can be convicted not only if you are texting, but also if you are reading a text message, if you are sending an email or if you are reading an email," Surovell says.

The bill does not address other potential distractions, like voice-controlled messaging. There also remains some ambiguity about other activites not expressly banned in the legislation, like the use of GPS on a smartphone.

"Depending on how things work, there may need to be tweaks in the future," Barker says. "I think what we’ve done is adopted a very clear policy here, and if we need to fix the language to clarify that, we can obviously do that in the future."

The amended bill now heads to the governor's desk for his signature. He is expected to sign it.

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Transportation Nation

New Yorkers: Meet Your Bike Share Station Map

Thursday, April 04, 2013

(Click for interactive map)

New Yorkers, meet your Citi Bike station locations. Even more closely placed than your neighborhood Starbucks. Beginning next month, you'll be able to pick up and drop off bikes from Central Park South to Barclays Center. Annual members will get 45 minutes of free riding, daily members 30 minutes.

The New York City Department of Transportation has released an interactive map showing the draft locations of 293 stations located across Manhattan (below Central Park) and across a swath of Brooklyn through Fort Greene. (That 293  is down a bit from last year's projected launch of 420 stations.) Gray dots show the location of future docking stations. The DOT's website says it will "continue to work with New Yorkers to refine these station locations."

The system, which is scheduled to launch next month, will eventually grow to 10,000 bikes and 600 docking stations around the city. It's being operated by Alta Bike Share and funded by Citibank.

The city's bike share program was to have originally launched last year, but a one-two punch of software trouble followed by Sandy flooding knocked it back to May 2013.

To see detailed maps of stations at the community level, click here.

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Transportation Nation

Maryland County Approves Millions More for Troubled Transit Center

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Maryland's Montgomery County Council approved an additional $7 million to pay for construction work already completed at Silver Spring Transit Center, which is already two years behind schedule and about $80 million over budget.

The $7 million approved by county lawmakers has nothing to do with major design and construction problems detailed in a county report released two weeks ago.When it comes to who will pay to repair those problems, county officials say it will likely be determined in litigation with the project’s contractors.

“We will move expeditiously to make sure that we make the necessary repairs and that the taxpayers of Montgomery County will not have to pay for the flaws of the contractor,” says County Executive Ike Leggett, who has threatened to cancel the county’s contract with Foulger Pratt and other contractors and sue to recover any funds paid to fix the transit center’s construction issues, like inadequately thick concrete.

“Whatever we spend we will get back because we are going to pursue to the ultimate degree of the law and the legal process to make sure the county is reimbursed for anything we may have to put out in advance,” says Leggett.

Council President Nancy Navarro echoed Leggett’s vow to go to court, if necessary, to protect taxpayers but left open the possibility the county is also responsible for the mess at the transit center.

“I have not said at any moment that the county could not have some responsibility in this. It is possible,” says Navarro, who says the transit center could open to the public while any litigation proceeds. 

No lawsuits have been filed yet.

Contractor Foulger Pratt has said the county’s design plan was flawed from the start. Company executive Bryant Foulger has said any safety issues concerning concrete and reinforcing steel bars are the county’s responsibility.

 

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Transportation Nation

Contractor Responds to Reported Defects In Silver Spring Transit Center

Friday, March 29, 2013

(Photo CC by Flickr user thisisbossi)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The general contractor leading the construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center is publicly defending itself against alarming charges of building defects in the delayed transit hub, pointing to evidence that it followed Montgomery County's design plans.

Rockville-based Foulger Pratt released copies of daily inspection reports under the letterhead of the firm Montgomery County hired to perform field inspections on the Silver Spring Transit Center, Owings Mill-based Robert B. Balter Company. The signed reports state: "Prior to concrete placement reinforcing steel was inspected and found to be installed as per specifications."

The charges center on insufficient amounts of concrete, reinforcing steel and post-tensioning cables — high-strength steel strands or bars used to strengthen concrete — according to Montgomery County's findings of design and construction flaws released last week to intense news coverage. Foulger Pratt managing principal Bryant Foulger says he would like his side of the story to receive as much attention.

"It feels like from the county executive's comment, that we've been indicted and tried and convicted without realizing there is another very compelling side to this story," Foulger said. "If there is an issue with safety here, it is related to design. That's the county's issue, not ours."

In its rebuttal to the county's claims, Foulger Pratt is zeroing in on the facility's concrete pour strips that the county's investigation said lacked proper reinforcement. The contractor contends all concrete was poured in compliance with design documents.

"They accused us of leaving out things that they didn't include in the design in the first place," Foulger said. "The only area where they've identified as a safety concern are these pour strips, and as you can see by these reports and as you can see by the drawings, we built them in accordance with plans and specs."

The fate of the Silver Spring Transit Center, which is over budget and behind schedule, remains up in the air.  Both sides have said their differences can be worked out, but Foulger Pratt claims the transit hub would have opened already had it not been for the county's stonewalling.

"For over a year, Foulger Pratt has been asking the county to sit down around the table, to work together with us in a professional dialogue, first and foremost to determine what if anything needs to be done to open this facility for the public and to get it open," said Judah Lifschitz, an attorney for Foulger Pratt. "It flies in the face of fundamental fairness for the county to not talk to us for a year about these issues, to not engage in a professional dialogue."

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett has threatened to cancel its contract with its hired design and construction firms unless they pay for whatever mediation will be necessary to fix the transit center's structural problems.

In a statement released after issuing the results of the county's investigation, Leggett said, "These deficiencies not only compromise the structural integrity of the facility, but could also begin to impact the Transit Center's durability far earlier than expected, thus shortening its useful life. At worst, if no changes are made, some of the facility's elements may not withstand the loads they are intended to support, thereby putting the many users of the center at potential risk."

Washington Post report said Balter Company "improperly tested the strength of concrete, apparently failed to measure its thickness and didn't raise sufficient concerns when the concrete started to crack, according to independent engineers and county officials."

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @martindicaro

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Transportation Nation

With Plans Drawn, Maryland's Purple Line Scares Some Business Owners

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Map presented by MTA at Silver Spring Neighborhood Work Group for Purple Line

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) On colorful maps spread out over long tables the planned path of the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail extension to the D.C. area Metro system, was shown to residents and business owners at a ‘neighborhood work group’ meeting Wednesday night. But the maps reveal, progress to some, means bankruptcy fears to others.

While the maps conjure images of what might be if the $2.2 billion rail system supported by transit advocates and real estate developers ever gets built, to some the plans are the harbinger of personal hardship.

“I’m not happy at all,” said Dario Orellana, the owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant in busy Silver Spring. “We’ve been there for 14 years and moving is going to be really hard on us.”

Orellana is one of about a dozen businesses on 16th Street that would be displaced by the Purple Line’s proposed route through Silver Spring, Maryland. Officials from the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) explained that the planned right-of-way will also absorb part of business-friendly Bonifant Street, making it a one-way street with parallel parking on one side.

“We have to take up a good part of the street, roughly 25 to 30 feet of it, for the Purple Line to come along here,” said Michael Madden, the MTA’s Purple Line project manager. “We work very hard to minimize those impacts.”

Orellana’s lawyer said no matter how much money the state provides his client in compensation for moving his restaurant, he and other entrepreneurs displaced by the Purple Line will struggle to attract the same clientele to new locations.

“I am looking at the map right now and a number of these businesses will probably have to go somewhere. They are right there in the way of the line,” said attorney Dmitri Chernov.

No one will have to move their businesses anywhere if state lawmakers currently in session in Annapolis fail to approve additional funding to replenish Maryland’s transportation trust fund.

“This is the make or break year, so we know that we need additional revenue, the state needs additional revenue in the trust fund to actual build the Purple Line,” said Madden. “So far we are optimistic, based on the discussions going on, that will happen.”

Madden said the MTA is also preparing to negotiate a permanent federal funding agreement because the Purple Line has been accepted into the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.

“We have planned and designed the project so that it meets all the federal requirements,” Madden said.

A federal grant would provide matching dollars splitting the bill with the state on a 50/50 basis each year of construction, which Madden hopes will begin in 2015 and wrap up in 2020.

“We would not start the project until we know we would have the assurance of sufficient funding to complete the project,” he said.

The Purple Line may be years from carrying its first passengers but the state is close to completing both its preliminary engineering and environmental impact statement, which are due this fall.

The 16-mile light rail system would be powered by overhead cables between Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, connecting to WMATA’s Red Line’s east and west branches and crossing over Connecticut Avenue. Rider estimates are 74,000 per day by 2040, Madden said.

Some residents at Wednesday night’s meeting – after taking in the MTA’s pretty topographical maps – focused on what they viewed will be the Purple Line’s negative effects on downtown Silver Spring.

“It’s going to take away parking on one side of the street and on Saturdays and Sundays around here on Bonifant Street everything is packed solid,” said Bob Colvin, the president of a local civic association.

Colvin was not impressed with the rail system’s potential to reduce car dependency, thus mitigating the loss of road. “I think people are still going to drive. They are going to come from afar and I’m sure this Purple Line is not going to cover all venues from wherever these people come from.”

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro

Silver Spring Transit Center NWG

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Transportation Nation

After Objections, Va. Gov Amends Two-Tiered Transpo Funding Plan

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

(Michael Pope -- WAMU) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has offered a compromise on his transportation funding plan in response to a legal objection by the state's attorney general. Virginia needs new and additional revenue for upkeep it's network of highways (about 58,000-miles worth) and mass transit systems. As cars get more fuel efficient, gas tax revenues are falling in many states.

McDonnel has already signed a bill that replaces the state's 17.5 cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline and a 6 percent levy on diesel fuel. That won't change. The portion of the plan under scrutiny involves sales tax.

Virginia attorney General Ken Cuccinelli had raised concerns about a provision that would have levied higher taxes on some more densely populated areas, including Northern Virginia.

The bill members of the General Assembly sent to the Governor's Mansion had a long list of localities from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would have been subject to a higher sales tax rate. The two-tier tax system was intended to raise money for road building, but Cuccinelli said it may have been unconstitutional.

Now the governor has a fix: ditch the parts about the two urban areas and extend the taxing authority to the entire state. McDonnell is sending an amendment back to the General Assembly that would create regional taxing authority to all 21 of the commonwealth's regional planning districts — two of which are Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

That means the other 19 districts could create taxing authorities for transportation dollars if they wanted to, but they don't have to.

The governor's amendments also cut the controversial $100 fee on hybrid cars to $64 a year, cut taxes paid on hotel stays, and reduced the titling tax on vehicle purchases.

McDonnell's 52 amendments will be considered by the General Assembly in a veto session April 3rd.

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Transportation Nation

How a D.C. Suburb Avoided the Capital's Traffic Nightmare

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Arlington's Wilson Boulevard and North Lynn Street at night. (Photo CC by Flickr user Mrs. Gernstone)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) While the District of Columbia grapples with proposed changes to its parking and zoning policies, last updated in 1958, nearby Arlington County, Virginia seems to have triumphed in its effort to minimize traffic congestion. Commuters are shifting from cars to transit and bikes.

What's more, traffic volume has decreased on several major arterial roads in the county over the last two decades despite significant job and population growth, according to data compiled by researchers at Mobility Lab, a project of Arlington County Commuter Services.

Multifaceted effort to curb car-dependence

Researchers and transportation officials credit three initiatives for making the county less car-dependent: offering multiple alternatives to the automobile in the form of rail, bus, bicycling, and walking; following smart land use policies that encourage densely built, mixed-use development; and relentlessly marketing those transportation alternatives through programs that include five ‘commuter stores’ throughout the county where transit tickets, bus maps, and other information are available.

“Those three combined have brought down the percentage of people driving alone and increased the amount of transit and carpooling,” said Howard Jennings, Mobility Lab’s director of research and development.

Jennings’ research team estimates alternatives to driving alone take nearly 45,000 car trips off the county’s roads every weekday. Among those shifting modes from the automobile, 69 percent use transit, 14 percent carpool, 10 percent walk, four percent telework and three percent bike.

“Reducing traffic on key routes does make it easier for those who really need to drive. Not everybody can take an alternative,” Jennings said.

Arlington’s success in reducing car dependency is more remarkable considering it has happened as the region’s population and employment base has grown.

Since 1996 Arlington has added more than 6 million square feet of office space, a million square feet of retail, nearly 11,000 housing units and 1,100 hotel rooms in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor. Yet traffic counts have dropped major roads: on Lee Highway (-10%), Washington Boulevard (-14%), Clarendon Boulevard (-6%), Wilson Boulevard (-25%), and Glebe Road (-6%), according to county figures. Traffic counts have increased on Arlington Boulevard (11%) and George Mason Drive (14%).

“Arlington zoning hasn’t changed a great deal over the last 15 years or so. It’s been much more of a result of the services and the programs and the transportation options than it has been the zoning,” said Jennings.

Arlington serving as a regional model

Across the Potomac, the D.C. Office of Planning is considering the controversial proposal of eliminating mandatory parking space minimums in new development in transit-rich corridors and in downtown Washington to reduce traffic congestion. In Arlington, transportation officials say parking minimums have not been a focus.

“When developers come to Arlington we are finding they are building the right amount of parking,” said Chris Hamilton, the bureau chief at Arlington County Commuter Services. “Developers know they need a certain amount of parking for their tenants, but they don’t want to build too much because that’s a waste.”

Hamilton says parking is available at relatively cheap rates in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor because demand for spots has been held down by a shift to transit.

“In Arlington there are these great options. People can get here by bus, by rail, by Capital Bikeshare, and walking, and most people do that. That’s why Arlington is doing so well,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton credited a partnership with the county’s 700 employers for keeping their workers, 80 percent of whom live outside the county, from driving to work by themselves.

“Arlington Transportation Partners gives every one of those employers assistance in setting up commute benefit programs, parking programs, carpool programs, and bike incentives. Sixty-five percent of those 700 employers provide a transit benefit. That’s the highest in the region,” Hamilton said.

“There’s been a compact with the citizens since the 1960s and when Metro came to Arlington that when all the high-density development would occur in the rail corridors, we would protect the single family neighborhoods that hugged the rail corridors,” he added.

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Transportation Nation

Maryland Taxpayers Won't Foot The Bill For Silver Spring Transit Center, Officials Say

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Silver Spring Transit Center (photo by thisisbossi via flickr)

Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett is vowing that taxpayers will not be left on the hook for the problems delaying the completion of the Silver Spring Transit Center.

Leggett says if the contractor Foulger-Pratt, the subcontractors, and design firms fail to rectify construction problems at the $112 million transit hub, the county will cancel the contract and sue.

"We will pursue every legal and administrative remedy that we think is available, so that we make certain that the county taxpayers do not foot this bill for the additional costs that may have to be born as a result of remediation," Leggett says.

The county hired engineering consultants to investigate the transit center's structural problems. They issued a report Tuesday that found excessive cracking in concrete, missing cables, inadequate reinforcing steel, and concrete of insufficient strength and thickness. Leggett says these problems can be fixed.

"It's simply right now a question of how much and how long it will take to do those," Leggett says.

The transit center is already two years behind schedule.

In a statement, the contractor Foulger-Pratt says it will take time to review the county's report, and says the county has refused to cooperate, "forcing taxpayers to pay for a $2 million report conducted without any input from us or our engineers."

Leggett says the contractors will pay for the repairs, not taxpayers.

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Transportation Nation

Infrastructure report card says $3.6 trillion needed by 2020

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Former Pa. Governor Ed Rendell (Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in backdrop)

Former Pa. Governor Ed Rendell (Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in backdrop)

The nation’s infrastructure received a D+, a slight improvement from the D issued in 2009, in an infrastructure report card released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), a group whose members stand to benefit from increased spending on the construction of roads, bridges, levees and dams.

The report grades infrastructure in sixteen sectors and prescribes a funding level necessary to bring each up to a B grade.  That will require spending $454 billion annually over the next eight years, according to the group’s figures. However, the society estimates only $253 billion annually is currently earmarked for infrastructure repair and improvements, leaving a yearly funding gap of $200 billion.

At a news conference at the Earth Conservation Corps Pump House in southeast Washington – with a view of the structurally obsolete Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge spanning the Anacostia River – advocates of infrastructure spending sought to convey their message in easy to understand terms, acknowledging that ordinary citizens often do not see the costs associated with outdated infrastructure.

“The real goal is that Americans would have this conversation about infrastructure at their kitchen table,” said ASCE president Greg DiLoreto. “They’d sit down and they’d say, you know what? I was driving home last night, hit a pothole, and I ruined the front end of our car. What can be done about that?”

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the co-founder of the bipartisan group Building America’s Future, said more Americans are beginning to realize that infrastructure is not free and does not last forever.  Still, there is a large difference between what a group of civil engineers believes should be spent and what Congress and state and local governments are willing to spend.

“Members of both parties feel this way, predominately Republicans, that we can’t spend money on anything.  That’s wrong,” Rendell says. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that investing in infrastructure is wasteful spending.  There are some projects that are bad and we should ask for stricter accountability and transparency, but we’ve got to invest in growth.”

The sector with the highest grade (B-) is solid waste. Inland waterways and levees both received the lowest grade, D-.  Grades were poor to mediocre in transportation sectors: aviation (D), bridges (C+), rail (C+), roads (D), and transit (D).

“First we have to repair the quality of the roads,” Rendell said. “But then we have to expand.  We have to do additional ramps.  We have to widen lanes. A good hunk of the money should be spent on mass transit.  There’s got to be a balance.”

The report card breaks down infrastructure state by state. In Washington, D.C., for example, 99 percent of roads are rated poor or mediocre.  The report card says driving on roads in need of repair costs District of Columbia motorists $311 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – $833 per motorist.

Virginia’s infrastructure graded at D+ and Maryland received a C+.

Winning the public’s support to raise revenues for infrastructure spending will depend on convincing the public they have to pay more, whether its taxes or user fees, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former Assistant Secretary of Transportation under the George W. Bush Administration.

"The challenge is being able to make the case about specific facilities that people know and understand, and what the implications would be if they have to close that facility,” said Frankel, who said the ASCE’s figures are sound, even if they are unrealistic in terms of what governments are willing to spend.

“We’re not going to raise that money.  People acknowledge we have to invest more but there’s disagreement about how much we need to invest. Whatever funds are available we have to make better choices, prioritize and target,” Frankel said.

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Following Public Pressure, Metro Will Add More Bus Service to DC's Busiest Corridor

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Commuters at 16th and U Streets NW

Commuters at 16th and U Streets NW

Additional morning rush hour service is coming to Metro’s busiest bus corridor in Washington after the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission took commuters’ complaints to the transit authority.

The S bus line on 16th Street NW, a historic gateway into downtown D.C., is struggling to meet ridership demand. Buses are often packed before reaching the southern stretch of the route and cannot squeeze additional passengers aboard, leaving rush hour commuters waiting in long lines at bus stops in Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and near Dupont Circle. Some commuters eventually give up and hop in taxis.

“I went out to the bus stops and I saw taxicabs pull up to the long lines, seeing a business opportunity and offering to take them downtown, because the buses weren’t working for our city,” says Kishan Putta, a commissioner on the Dupont Circle ANC.

Putta tried to solicit commuters’ concerns on Facebook and Twitter but drew his largest response the old fashioned way: he put up posters at bus stops asking commuters to contact him.

“We took those stories and those complaints to Metro and they agreed to meet us,” in January, Putta says. “They had to admit in public this is a big problem.”

Putta provided the following example of a typical commuter complaint about crowding on the S line.

“I actively chose to walk 45 minutes to work during every day this week rather than take the bus despite the temperatures in the teens and howling winds,” the commuter’s complaint said. “On the one day when I decided it would be better for my health and well-being to take the bus I waited at the bus stop for 20 minutes.”

“Just this week it has taken me 45-50 minutes to get from 16th & V to 14th & I, and anywhere from 4 to 6 buses have passed the stop each morning because they are too crowded to accept any more passengers,” another complaint said.

Metro has been aware of S line bus crowding for years but its efforts haven’t kept up with growing ridership. In 2009 the S9, which makes limited stops on 16th Street NW, was added during morning and evening rush hours to alleviate crowding.

“Bus ridership remains strong especially with all the new residents moving into the district,” says Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. “There are new residential units along this corridor and so we want to make sure we are providing service for the folks who want it.”

Stessel says Metro has yet to decide on a name for the new S service, but says it will begin on Monday, March 25. An additional bus will arrive at 16th Street and Harvard NW every 12 minutes from 7:30 to 9:15 weekday mornings. A total of nine additional trips will go down 16th Street, then left on I St to 14th Street. Then the buses will head back to Columbia Road NW. The extra capacity will carry between 400 and 500 commuters on a busy morning.

“This issue didn’t just crop up two months ago. We’ve been working on the S line and broader issues related to the S line for more than a year now,” Stessel says. “That said, the relationship we’ve had over the last two months with the ANC has been nothing but constructive.”

“I will take my hat off to Metro,” says Putta. “They were responsive. We worked together on coming up with possible options.”

Still no answer to 16th Street traffic

Putta concedes that while the additional morning rush hour bus service will help move commuters south on 16th Street, the district faces a bigger task in mitigating the corridor’s notorious traffic congestion.

“As with a lot of these long-term solutions, you would need to do a transition so that you would hopefully get less people driving. And of course, the physical limitations of the road are definitely an issue,” says Putta, referring to the possibility of creating a bus-only lane on 16th Street during rush hour.

Metro’s Stessel says the transit authority is working on a solution.

“It’s an ongoing dialogue that we have not only with DDOT but with all of the jurisdictions,” Stessel says. “A major milestone will be achieved about a year from now when we launch what is true BRT (bus rapid transit) in the region for the first time. That will be on the Virginia side of the river in partnership with Alexandria and Arlington.”

The Route 1 Transitway will run buses every six minutes in dedicated lanes from Braddock Road in Arlington north to Crystal City.

“We hope that will spark other jurisdictions to consider, if not true BRT, perhaps traffic signal prioritization or more bus lanes,” says Stessel. “From a public policy perspective, if you have a vehicle that has 50 people in it, that really should get priority over a car that has one person in it.”

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Traffic Fatalities Up in NYC, Speeding Top Culprit, DOT Says

Monday, March 18, 2013

(Click text below title to see additional charts)

 

Traffic fatalities rose 12 percent in 2012 in New York City, driven by a 46 percent jump in the number of motor vehicle occupants who were killed in crashes. Speeding, the city says, was the top contributing factor. Pedestrians and cyclist fatalities remained at or near historic lows.

The number of cyclists who were killed dropped 18 percent compared to 2011 (from 22 to 18) while the number of pedestrians struck and killed rose by 5 percent in 2012 (from 141 to 148) according to figures released by the NYC Department of Transportation.

In total 274 people died in traffic collisions, 108 of them in vehicles (including on motorcycles) and 166 of them while walking or riding a bike. The DOT had previously cited 237 as the number of fatalities for 2011 but amended that to 245 in today's release.

The DOT calculates "speeding was the greatest single factor in traffic deaths, contributing to 81 fatal traffic crashes—about 30 percent of all traffic fatalities." Fatal hit-and-runs are also on the rise, the DOT said. Other contributing factors were "disregard of red lights or stop signs, driver inattention and/or alcohol."

“One thousand New Yorkers are alive today who would not be if we simply sustained the city’s fatality rate just one decade ago,” said Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. She stressed efforts the city is making to reduce speeding near schools (see graphic below) and long term positive safety trends.

New York remains safe by national standards. Traffic fatalities remain near all time lows following an aggressive program installing about 200 safety improvements in the past five years including street and intersection redesigns, protected bike lanes, slow zones and special attention to schools. NYC traffic fatality rates are less than one third of the national average on a per capita basis, and about half the rates of many other big cities.

To address the dangers of speeding, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and several members of the City Council want to install speed cameras. Last week the City Council called on state legislators -- whose approval is needed -- to permit the city to install cameras.

The NYPD supported the idea in a statement along with the official release of the 2012 fatality numbers. “Just as red light cameras reduced infractions at intersections where they were installed, we anticipate that speed cameras will result in greater compliance with posted speed limits,” said Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.

The Police union, however, has come out against the speed cameras, telling the NY Daily News, "What we need are the actual police officers on the street ... Cops on the street are what slows people down.”

Last month, Kelly announced a considerable expansion of NYPD staffing its Collision Investigation Squad (formerly the Accident Investigation Squad) as part of a wider effort to focus more on preventing and investigating traffic collisions, which kill almost as many New Yorkers as gun homicides.

The NYPD issued one million moving violations last year, 71,000 of them for speeding, a figure advocates say is not enough. (By comparison, about 51,000 tickets went to cyclists in 2011. To see the latest breakdown of what summonses were issued by the NYPD, see this chart from January ). Police point out issuing speeding summonses requires special equipment, while other tickets can be written by every officer on the street. That could be why the NYPD supports speed cameras.

If today's announcement is any indication, the initial focus of speed cameras, if approved, could be around schools.

Speeding near schools in NYC. (Image: NYC DOT)

Speeding is alarmingly common near schools. The DOT measured the percentage of vehicles that were speeding when passing NYC schools. Outside three schools, 100 percent of the cars were speeding: P.S. 60 Alice Austen in Staten Island, P.S. 233 Langston Hughes in Brooklyn and P.S. 54 Hillside in Queens.

At the High School for Law Enforcement and Public Safety, 75 percent of cars were going above the legal limit. In all, the DOT released a list of 100 schools where 75 percent or more of vehicles were speeding. Cameras, the city says, can help.

"The streets around our city’s schools are the real speed traps, and we can’t play it safe when it comes to doing everything we can to protect New Yorkers on our streets—and especially seniors and school kids,” said Sadik-Khan.

The DOT also pointed out, no pedestrians were killed in crashes with cyclists.

High-Speed School List

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DC Metro Says Fare Increase & Loss of Tax Benefit Caused 2012 Ridership Dip

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Buying fare cards at Metro's Smithsonian Station (photo by Ian Muttoo via flickr)

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) says the one-two punch of last year’s fare increase coupled with a temporary lull in a tax benefit is behind a six-percent drop in rail ridership during the last half of 2012.

At Thursday’s board meeting, Metro general manager Richard Sarles said Hurricane Sandy, the federal holiday on Christmas Eve and weekend track work were other factors that contributed to fewer riders --  but said the increase in fares was the most significant.

“You saw that especially in the second half of the year,” Sarles said. “With the federal transit benefit being restored, we are seeing in the first month or two ridership going back up to what we expected.  Clearly, the federal transit benefit, when it was cut almost in half, had a significant impact on our ridership.”

The provision allowing for $230 a month in tax subsidies for transit riders expired at the end of 2011, reducing the eligible amount to $125.  In January Congress returned the federal transit benefit to $240.

Metro is rehabilitating its aging infrastructure as part of a multi-billion dollar capital improvement program. The track work requires closing some stations and single-tracking at others nearly every weekend, although track work will be postponed for the upcoming cherry blossom festival.

While necessary to repair the transit system, weekend track work is the target of endless complaints, and Sarles says it has scared some riders away. “On the weekends there is a decrease is ridership especially when we close down a set of stations for very necessary work,” he said.

Metro is also tracking ridership swings at individual stations.  Dupont Circle saw the largest drop in riders entering the system last year, mostly because the station’s south entrance was closed for months for an escalator replacement. Navy Yard on the Green Line, where Nationals fans disembark to watch their favorite baseball team, saw the most growth, according to WMATA figures.

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Object Lesson: How Sequestration Could Affect Small Airports

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chocks Away- business jet traffic at Kissimmee Gateway Airport could suffer if the control tower closes (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Budget cuts brought about by sequestration could force the closure of more than 100 air traffic control facilities  -- including control towers at smaller airports across the US.

Kissimmee Gateway Airport, which is just outside of Orlando, is on the list of towers which could be shut down April 7th. City leaders say that would put the brakes on one of the main economic drivers in the area.

“It’s an economic engine, not only necessarily because of what happens on the field, but also what happens adjacent to it," says Mayor Jim Swan. He says the economic impact of the airport is estimated around $100 million a year. Swan says losing the tower will make it  tough to market a $3.2 million dollar business airpark  which is being built with state and local funds.

A large part of the airport’s traffic includes business jets bringing people to functions at nearby Disney World and conventions on Orlando's International Drive.

Last year the airport saw 129,000 departures and landings from a mix of business jets, and propeller planes. Aviation director Terry Lloyd says losing the control tower- which is operated under a contract with the Federal Aviation Administration- could decrease flights to under 100,000 a year.

"I think it's something that we have a lot of dread [about], and there are a lot of unknowns," he says.

He says having a tower to help manage traffic makes Kissimmee a more attractive destination for business jets.

"The corporate traffic- that's kind of on the top of their checklist, if there's an airport with a tower, that's where they go," he says. "And then if there's not a tower they make a decision- is it important enough for us to go in there, and a lot of it's driven by the aircraft insurance companies."

Aircraft operators also have fuel agreements at airports - like Kissimmee- that guarantee the price of aviation fuel if they land there.  Lloyd says those agreements could also be jeopardized by the loss of the tower.

Other airport users say they're concerned about safety. John Calla, vice president of operations for Italico Aviation--  a company that plans to import and assemble light sport aircraft at Kissimmee -- says he's worried about the mix of traffic if there's no tower. "You see the jets that take off here and the speed they operate," says Calla. "You get a smaller aircraft that's used to flying about 60 miles per hour, integrating with something of that size, and you could get some conflicts.

Calla says the tower is important to separate and sequence the arrival and departure of planes. "They know the speed of the aircraft and they know how much to sequence it so traffic flow is not impaired. It also improves the safety as well."

Florida Congressman Alan Grayson has written to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the FAA urging them to consider the impact of closing the tower.

 

 

 

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