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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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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

New MARTA GM: First We Economize, Then We Ask the State for Money

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New MARTA GM Keith Parker talks to the State Senate Transportation Committee (photo by Charles Edwards)

(Charles Edwards - Atlanta, WABE) The new head of Atlanta's transit agency plans to makes changes within and outside the rail and bus agency before asking Georgia lawmakers to spend major state dollars on the transit system.

Keith Parker took over MARTA's helm earlier this month. The agency's previous chief, Beverly Scott, is now running the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Keith Parker went before the State Senate Transportation Committee to continue his introduction to state lawmakers and discuss a $740,000 audit KPMG has been conducting on MARTA at the agency’s request.

Parker told the committee audit recommendations will turn into a game plan aimed at lowering MARTA’s expenses. He also said he’ll work to change public perception about the transit system being unsafe.

Parker also wants MARTA to explore private partnerships that could lead to more revenue.

“And then I think come to you and say we need your help if you want to take the agency from where it is right now to where we want it to be,” he said.

Parker says when he was running transit systems at San Antonio and Charlotte, the same formula led to hundreds of millions in transit funding.

But will the ‘get our house in order’ strategy work in Georgia? Jeff Mullis chairs the State Senate’s Transportation Committee.

“He has high aspirations for us here in Georgia, doesn’t he?” laughed Mullis.

Mullis and other committee members are impressed with Parker. But that mirth was a sign of how difficult the committee and observers expect it will be for MARTA to get major state funding. That has been a 30-year-old battle.

Parker remains optimistic. He left the Committee meeting early to meet with staff members in Governor Nathan Deal’s office.

Follow Charles Edwards 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

At Transportation Nation, we serve up serious news, with flair, style, and a flash of java.

Rejoice. (And get a tax deduction, too.) You can own a Transportation Nation coffee mug.

'What's so exciting about a coffee mug?' you might ask. 'It doesn't run on a smart grid or move at the speed of a bullet train." But, friends, it is a reminder to you of all the value this site has brought you in 2012. And your donation shows our reporters here at TN that you care.

Plus, the video is hilarious. We present to you the multi-modal mug. Yours as a thank-you gift for a donation of $5 / month to our ad-free, nonprofit public media project.

If you won't donate, consider sending this around to your friends who might.

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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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Transportation Nation

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

Orlando MagLev Plan Gets Tentative Approval

Monday, December 17, 2012

Magnetic levitation concept drawing (Image courtesy of American Maglev Technology Inc.)

A private company aiming to build a 40-mile long, $800 million dollar magnetic levitation rail line through Orlando has the green light to move forward with its plan.

American Maglev Technology Inc. says the monorail would be a first for the U.S.

The transportation planning agency Metroplan Orlando gave its conditional approval to phase one of the plan last week -- a 15-mile elevated line connecting Orlando International Airport  and the Orange County Convention Center.

The first phase would cost $315 million. MetroPlan's approval clears the way for the Florida Department of Transportation to solicit bids for use of the public right of way along the proposed route.

Tony Morris of American Maglev Technology Inc (AMT) says no public money would be needed to fund the project. According to AMT presentation materials, the company's system would cost $20 million per mile to build, compared to $70 million for other maglev systems.

MetroPlan wants a technical assessment to ensure the technology is safe, and it wants a request for proposals issued to see if there are competing plans before proceeding further.

MetroPlan executive director Harry Barley says the Florida Department of Transportation will carry out the technical assessment.

"This is a new technology, there is a test track and the [AMT] team has already gone through a great deal of testing on their own," says Barley. "But we feel there needs to be some additional work to review what they've done and perhaps build upon that before we're really confident the technology is appropriate."

Lease agreements also need to be negotiated to acquire public right of ways for the project.

Barley says those details will have to be worked out amongst the various agencies, including the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, the Orange County Expressway Authority, Orange County and the City of Orlando.

"The step that was taken with all those people present and voting to move ahead, I think reflects the collaborative nature on which this project can move forward."

AMT chief executive Tony Morris began working on a magnetic levitation rail system in Volusia County in the 1990s-- but that project didn't progress beyond the test phase.

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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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Transportation Nation

Report: National Weather Service Says NJ Transit Didn't Ask About Flooding

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hoboken Terminal, post-Sandy (photo by NJ Transit via flickr)

The National Weather Service says New Jersey Transit didn't call.

The Star-Ledger is reporting the agency never consulted the National Weather Service, which predicted storm surges of up to 11 feet.

But NJ Transit isn't backpedaling from its costly decision to store rail cars in yards that later flooded during storm Sandy.

NJ Transit director James Weinstein told a State Legislative panel Monday the agency relied on weather reports and past storm experience to determine where to store hundreds of rail cars and locomotives.

The transit agency's Kearny facility, which sustained almost $100 million in damage, is only ten feet above sea level.

Weinstein told lawmakers the agency's decision-making process was sound.

New Jersey Transit says it's standing by his testimony.

To see what areas flooded during Sandy, check out the map below.

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Transportation Nation

Could NYC's 'Bike Lane to Nowhere' Get A Boost?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

(photo by Kate Hinds)

A previously-tabled Manhattan bike lane plan will get another look at a community board meeting Tuesday night.

As Transportation Nation reported in October, the Upper West Side's Community Board 7 is taking another look at extending the neighborhood's only on-street protected bike lane.

The Columbus Avenue bike lane is occasionally referred to as a "bike lane to nowhere" because it's less than a mile long and doesn't connect to other bike lanes.

Here's some history: in 2009, the community board requested a study from the city for two bike lanes: one on Columbus Avenue lane from 110th Street to 59th Street, and a matching northbound lane on Amsterdam Avenue.

After heated debate in 2010, only the Columbus Avenue lane went in -- and only from 96th to 77th Streets. (Amsterdam was considered too narrow by the NYC DOT to accommodate a bike lane.)

On Tuesday night, the New York City Department of Transportation will make a public presentation about bike lane usage in the neighborhood -- and weigh in on the Columbus Avenue extension. TN will cover the meeting -- and, should our cell phone signal allow, live tweet.

Columbus Avenue , with a protected bike lane on right side (photo by Kate Hinds)

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Transportation Nation

Confusion at the Gas Pump: Which Grade is Best?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Octane ratings at a California gas station, 2007 (photo by f31fud via flickr)

(Isabel Angell -- San Francisco, KALW) Gas prices in California are always a big problem. And this year, the average price per gallon is set to hit four dollars – the highest average ever. It seems like there’s nothing the average driver can do to lower their fuel costs – except, maybe, change what grade of gasoline they buy. Most people, though, have no idea what that means for their car.

A choice at the pump

At a gas station in El Cerrito, people pull up in their cars to fill up their tanks. At some point, each of them presses a button: regular, mid-grade, or premium. The higher the grade, the higher the octane content. And the higher the octane content, the higher the price. At this gas station, regular gasoline costs $3.82 per gallon and premium costs $4.05 – twenty-two cents more expensive. I’m curious, so I start asking people what kind of gas they’re buying, and why.

Kate Foley buys gets regular because it’s the cheapest, she tells me with a laugh.

Susie Marcus went for the regular unleaded, “I guess because it’s the least expensive and I have not seen any proof that buying the better gas makes you go farther or better mileage.”

Ariana Jones sprung for the premium. She tells me it’s the only kind her car will take.

So, how are they making these decisions? If it’s just based on price, there’s no reason to use premium, unless the more expensive gas is actually better.

For answers, I turned to Daniel Kammen, a professor at the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley. He told me octane is a measure of energy content. So the different grades of gas have different energy contents. I asked him what that means for my car.

“You get more zip in the car when you use a fuel with a higher energy content,” says Kammen.

But before you start imagining your humble Honda Civic transforming into a fiery red Mustang, a word of warning from Kammen: “There's very little difference in everyday behavior. So if you're doing urban driving, you’re not going to notice much difference because you're not going at the speeds when it matters. And on the highway you have to have a really high performance car to really see that difference.”

And by high performance car, he doesn’t mean a lowly BMW.

“You most likely see it when you start driving Lamborghinis and Ferraris,” says Kammen.

The latest numbers from the California Energy Commission say that 18 percent of gas sold in California in 2010 was premium. But 18 percent of Californians probably don’t own a Lamborghini.

So why do people buy premium when they don’t have to? I asked Sudhot Bhat, who teaches marketing strategy at San Francisco State. He says that most consumers are not experts in the things that they buy.

“Even for things like toothpaste, they are not very good judges of quality,” Bhat says. “So what I sometimes think is that a lot of consumers use price as a gauge of quality. If they do not know much about a product, they tend to think that the product with the higher price is higher quality.”

Bhat says because most people don’t know what’s going on in their gas tank, some consumers might spring for the premium gas just because it’s more expensive. But he has a solution for people who want to get the most bang for their buck: look it up on the internet.

“I think if consumers had more time and they did some research, they would know what really is good quality. You don't have to take the manufacturer's word for it, you can actually go on see what other people are saying,” says Bhat.

One of the big reasons people say they like to buy premium is to prevent engine knocking, when the fuel doesn’t explode the right way in the engine, and that makes a knocking sound. It means you’re not getting the full power of the gas – and if it keeps happening, it can actually hurt your car. But, for the last fifteen years or so, engines have been built with sensors to prevent this exact thing from happening.

So what should you be buying? I took Sudhot Bhat’s advice and turned to the Internet. What I found matched what Berkeley’s Dan Kammen told me: if your car’s manual says it runs on regular, there’s no reason to splurge on a higher grade. And many high-performance cars will run on regular – you just might not get the maximum power possible. Turbo-charged really do require the high-octane premium, so check with your mechanic before making the switch.

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Transportation Nation

D.C. Unveils Four New Taxicab Colors (Updated)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

No, it's not an ode to the Brazilian flag: it's one of four possible color schemes for D.C.'s taxi cabs (photo by Martin Di Caro)

D.C. could eventually have one cab color to rule them all. Or stripes.

Mayor Vincent Gray unveiled four new color schemes on Monday, one of which will be chosen next year as the new paint job for the district’s 6,500 taxicabs, a process that will take years to fully implement. The multicolored striped patterns are one piece of a larger modernization effort that is coming together slowly -- too slowly for D.C.’s top taxi regulator.

One D.C. city council member said he was "appalled" by the color choices.

“I’m a very impatient person and I would like to speed it up,” said Ron Linton, the head of the Taxicab Commission.

Although district lawmakers passed a taxicab modernization bill this year, the most important changes have yet to come to fruition: GPS smart meters, credit card payment machines and touch screen monitors for customers in the back seat.

The new paint jobs will be introduced when taxi drivers replace their aging vehicles; by 2018 no cab on Washington’s streets will be older than 7 years, as per a new regulation, Linton said.

“The people who ride in the cabs were pushing and pushing for a modernization program,” said Linton, referring to a survey undertaken by the office of D.C. Council member Mary Cheh that found widespread dissatisfaction with the current conditions of taxicabs. That survey also found the public’s preferred color to be yellow (38%).  Red was second (15%).

Linton’s office will choose the winning color scheme next year, taking into consideration public opinion.  The public may vote for their favorite inside Verizon Center through January 7 where two sample future taxicabs are on display, or choose designs online.

(UPDATE, 12/11/12 1:30pm: Two D.C. city council members -- one of whom said he was "appalled" by the color choices - say they will consider legislation to end the public vote so a new color scheme can be chosen.)

Last month a panel of administrative law judges killed the district’s plan to install credit card machines in cabs because of problems with the contract awarded to VeriFone, which beat out seven other tech firms. Linton says the matter is still being resolved by the District Office of Contracting and Procurement.

“We selected Verifone on the basis of what was, in my judgment, an honest evaluation and a cost analysis,” he said.

At a news conference to unveil the proposed color schemes and encourage the public to vote on their favorite, Mayor Gray said changes to the district’s taxis are necessary not only to improve the hospitality industry but for the cabbies, too.

“The changes have to come,” Gray said. “This industry has got to change to be competitive. I actually think the cab drivers will make more money as a result of this.”

Gray said touch screen monitors that offer riders the option of tipping 15, 20, or 25 percent will induce larger tips.

“As opposed to what you have now where people in a cash business sometimes give nothing or give a meager sum, I think the cab drivers will ultimately do better as a result of the changes we’re proposing.”

When those changes ultimately arrive is unclear, although Gray and Linton said it will take years to fully implement the new color scheme.  Roughly one-third of taxicabs have installed credit card machines on their own, Linton said.

As for D.C.’s cabbies, some have been reluctant to accept changes that are commonplace in other cities.  A common complaint is credit card processing fees will bite into a day’s pay. Others say GPS smart meters are an invasion of privacy. As for the proposed color patterns, one cabbie waiting for customers outside Union Station on Monday was not impressed.

“It looks ugly. It’s no good for the city color,” said B.K. Anthony, who drives a light blue SUV. “It looks junky.”

For the record, Mayor Gray called the colors “funky.”

 

 

: The multi-colored patterns of yellow and green OR red and white are – in the words of some D.C. councilmembers – appalling!  And now two lawmakers say they will consider legislation to end the public vote so a new color scheme can be chosen.  Councilmembers prefer a solid color like yellow or red to the striped patterns unveiled by the D.C. Taxicab Commission yesterday, which would have the final say on a color regardless of what the public picks. A survey conducted by Councilmember Mary Cheh on the state of the district’s cab industry found that 38 percent of respondents want all-yellow cabs, 15 percent want red.

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Transportation Nation

Critics: Christie Deep-Sixed Climate Change Prep

Friday, December 07, 2012

Christie on December 7 photo: NJ Governor's Office

"I know there are some folks at Rutgers who are looking at whether climate caused all this, but I certainly haven't been briefed in the last year, year-and-a-half on this," Christie told WNYC's Bob Hennelly last month.

But the question may be more than academic.

The state's transit agency that answers to Christie, New Jersey Transit, acknowledged this week it lost $100 million in trains and equipment. Some critics are linking NJ Transit's decision to store trains in low lying rail yards during the storm to its lack of a climate change preparation plan. The agency said, before the flood, it had figured that there was an "80 to 90 percent chance" there wouldn't be flooding.

That turned out to be a losing gamble, and one, critics say, that reflects a pattern in Christie's term in office.

In his first year, Christie closed the Office of Climate Change and Energy which had been created and given top-level priority under Jon Corzine.

It was run by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Its mission was to ready the state  to handle more severe storms, heat and rising sea levels.

“So none of this work is getting done,” said Bill Wolfe, a 30-year-veteran of DEP and now a harsh critic.

“And if you want to get something done, the DEP has all the tools to get something done and they’ve chosen not to use those tools for political reasons, reflecting the Governor’s priorities and Governor’s policy,” Wolfe said. “And they just don’t want to own up to that.”

Robert Martin, Commissioner for the Department of Environmental Protection, defended the Christie Administration’s efforts. The DEP hasn’t been weakened, he said, it’s been streamlined to cut red tape and wasteful spending.

Thrift is an issue Christie is comfortable talking about. Climate science isn't. As Sandy was bearing down on the region , WNYC’s Bob Hennelly asked Christie if the Governor was discussing the increasing severity of storms with climate change scientists.

“No, that’s over my head.,” Christie replied.

That’s been Christie’s approach to questions about climate change. Once he said he was "skeptical." When he was pressed about the increasing severity of storms, he maintained he’s a lawyer, not a scientist.

“But that’s what we have an academic community to do is to think about those bigger issues and if those experts have an answer for me, my door is always open to listen to them,” Christie said.

Several of the people who lost their jobs when the Office of Climate Change was cut now work in academia -- at Rutgers University.

The Bergen Record earlier this month dug up a video of David Gillespie, director of Energy and Sustainability Programs for NJ Transit, specifically saying the agency decided not to develop a climate adaptation plan.

 “The mitigation plan that we have for movable assets -- our  rolling stock --  is we move it out of harm’s way when something’s coming,” Gillespie said. “Generally we have enough time to do that, so we didn’t spend a lot of money on that.”

Gillespie said there’s  no need to make changes in the next five to 20 years, and that the agency has 50 years to adapt to climate change.   That's despite a federal study distributed to all the nation's transit agencies that warned them to protect their assets by readying for worsening storms.   And despite the lessons of Irene, where New York's transit system suffered the worst transit damage in modern history.

New Jersey was well prepared for Sandy,  said Martin, the DEP chief. “While unfortunately some lives were lost, by and large we protected the state, we protected thousands of lives and lots of homes and lots of property overall and again we’ve done a great job with that and the Governor provided great leadership overall."

And NJ Transit's James Weinstein told a Senate committee Thursday that the agency had no choice -- if moved elsewhere out of potential flood zones, the trains could have been damaged by falling trees, or stranded, as they were during Irene.  "Keeping the trains in the yards was the best decision, especially in light of what happened during Irene.”

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Transportation Nation

NYC Bike Share Delayed Again -- Until May, Sandy Flooding Cited

Friday, December 07, 2012

(photo by Kate Hinds)

New York City Bike Share, delayed from its initial summer, 2012 launch, is being delayed again. The city is now setting a May, 2013 launch date. Officials are citing damage from storm Sandy.

According to a DOT press release: "Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge flooded NYCBS’s facility at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which sits along the East River, and where about two-thirds of the system’s equipment had been stored before the Oct. 29 storm. While portions of the system’s equipment were not significantly damaged, including bike frames and hardware, many parts of the system containing electrical components must have individual parts refurbished or replaced.

"NYCBS is currently working to identify, repair and replace these damaged parts, aided through insurance and supplemented by equipment that wasn’t stored at the Navy Yard, as well as by additional equipment from its supplier and from elsewhere in the delivery pipeline."

The bike share was initially scheduled for July, then August, then delayed until March 2013.  Bike share systems in Chicago, San Francisco, and an expansion in Washington have also been delayed. All four cities share a vendor, Alta Bike Share.

Launching bike share has been a part of the city's PlaNYC, a blueprint for reducing the city's carbon footprint and combating climate change. Climate change has been cited as a reason for Sandy's intensity and destruction.

The city also says some neighborhoods won't get bike share even at the newly delayed launch date.

"The timeline will affect the phasing for neighborhoods in the initial launch area. The 5,500 bikes will be located in the densest and most geographically contiguous parts of the service area in Manhattan south of 59th Street and in Brooklyn as work continues to extend to 7,000 bikes in the remaining parts of the Brooklyn service area and into Long Island City, Queens, by the end of 2013. Details will be announced as planning continues. And while planning is underway to launch the initial system in May, we remain committed to bringing the system to 10,000 bikes."

In a statement, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director, Paul Steely White, was philosophical. “New Yorkers are eager for this new transportation choice but we all know the damage Hurricane Sandy wrought on our city," Steely White said. "Every day, a new cost is added to the toll of destruction, and the damage to the bike share equipment is merely the latest. We’re thankful the storm spared so much of the equipment and grateful to see the program will still launch in the spring.”

Tri-State Transportation campaign offered a more grimly sanguine twist: "If a 150 percent increase in bicycling over the East River bridges in the days after the storm is any indication, bike share will help New York City’s residents and commuters weather the next storm even better."

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Transportation Nation

Bloomberg: In Reponse to Climate Change, NYC Needs Levees

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (photo: New York City Mayor's Office)

New York needs more coastline protections in the wake of climate change.  So says New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Thursday, in a major address on rebuilding after storm Sandy delivered Thursday. Bloomberg was introduced by former Vice President Al Gore.

"Over the past month," Mayor Bloomberg said, "there has been a lot of discussion about sea walls. It would be nice if we could stop the tides from coming in, but King Canute couldn’t do it – and neither can we, especially if, as many scientists project, sea levels continue rising. However, there may be some coastline protections that we can build that will mitigate the impact of a storm surge – from berms and dunes, to jetties and levees."

We'll have more soon.  Meantime, you can find the full transcript of the remarks here.

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