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NY Mayor: New Staten Island Buses to Reduce Commutes by 30 Minutes

Thursday, August 30, 2012

MTA Chief Joe Lhota (left), Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro (photo: Colby Hamilton)

(Staten Island, NY -- Colby Hamilton, WNYC)  Staten Island is getting a bus rapid transit -- or something like it.  New York City's brand of fast buses, which feature off-board payment and relatively few stops, is coming to the city's least populous borough.

So-called "select bus" routes already run in Manhattan and the Bronx.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says daily commuting for thousands of  Staten Island transit users could be reduced by as much as half an hour a day.

The new bus service along the S79 line on to Hylan Boulevard will make just 22 stops, down from 80 stops on the regular bus service. Approximately 4,000 daily riders use the current, non-select service along the S79 line.

“By streamlining the number of stops to 22, we’re bringing a red carpet to the borough’s busiest bus corridor,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Bloomberg called select bus service throughout the city a “proven winner.”  MTA Chief Joe Lhota said, as a part of a recent round of service restorations, other Staten Island bus lines are being added -- and will coordinate with the ferry schedule.

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Transportation Nation

The Science of Cutting Bus Routes in Chicago

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chicago's Transit Authority recently announced a restructuring of bus routes. It is partly meant to ease crowding on some lines, while removing others with few riders. But the exact decision-making process for ending the life of a bus line isn't purely by the numbers.

WBEZ's Curious City investigates why some routes get cut and others dont. Reporter Ken Davis gets answers from the top, and takes a few rides with the CTA's "data jockey" and a video camera in tow to give us a sense of the type of rider on endangered bus lines.

Obviously any decision to change or drop service is driven first by money. The CTA currently wants to add buses and trains to its highest-traffic lines, but without any additional money, they have to cut something else. And good decisions require clean data. So Jeff [Schroeder, Data Jockey] has turned about 1,700 CTA buses into hunter-gatherers. They quietly, unobtrusively collect data. On you.

As he eventually learns, the type of person and neighborhood served matters a lot too. CTA's chief Forrest Claypool tells WBEZ, “It’s certainly a high priority to make sure that our most impoverished areas have quality mass transportation ... So we are gonna protect that service at all costs.”

For more on exactly what that means, and the third and final factor in the science of cutting bus lines, read (also watch and listen) to the full version at WBEZ.

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Transportation Nation

Moody's: NY Payroll Tax Ruling Could Hurt MTA Debt Rating

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

(photo by: Flickr user: JuntosWorldwide's photostream

The rating agency Moody's issued a "credit negative" for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Monday. That's because of a court ruling last week that overturned New York's Payroll Mobility Tax, a key source of funding for the MTA.

"It doesn't mean there is a ratings change," cautioned David Jacobson of Moody's. "What we are saying is that... the court case, could -- key word 'could' -- have a negative impact, but [right now] it is not enough to warrant a change in the rating or the outlook."

The court ruling, which we covered extensively last week on TN, does not force the state to stop collecting the tax. The MTA has said it is confident the ruling will be overturned on appeal.

At issue is the right of NY State to tax 34 cents per one hundred dollars of payroll for all employers, including freelancers in the 12 counties around New York City that are served by subways, buses and commuter trains. The Nassau County court ruled that the tax violated the state constitution because some counties where the tax is collected did not vote to support it. That is not necessary if the tax "supports a substantial state interest."

The 2009 law was enacted to bail out the MTA from a $2 billion a year short fall. The MTA said payroll taxes and other fees affected by the ruling contribute $1.8 billion or about 15 percent of the agency's budget.

A ratings downgrade for the MTA could make debt financing more expensive for the agency, which is currently undertaking a $23 billion capital plan.

The MTA is rated A2, an upper/medium grade, by Moody's. Jacobson said that puts the MTA in "pretty solidly in the middle of investment grade scale." The Moody's outlook remains "stable."

 

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Transportation Nation

7 Years After Katrina Washed it Away, Mayors, Amtrak Considering Gulf Coast Rail Bigger than Before

Friday, August 24, 2012

A 2009 Amtrak plan suggests three option s for restoring gulf coast service from New Orleans to Florida.

In 2005, there weren't many passenger trains rolling from Florida to New Orleans -- just three a week in each direction.

Now there are none.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed away swathes of rail along the Gulf Coast owned by CSX. Amtrak used those tracks for the last stretch of the Sunset Limited service mostly for passengers going to, or coming from, as far off as Los Angeles. After the storm, Amtrak suspended -- though it did not officially cancel -- the Gulf Coast portion of the route. Seven years later,  from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle Mayors are plotting how to bring back the trains, and add new ones.

More than 40 mayors gathered last week in Mobile, Alabama to hear from Amtrak what they need to do to get trains rolling. If they get their way, the new Sunset Limited Gulf Coast service will be more frequent than before in hopes of boosting tourism and commerce.

According to a review of a 2009 report by Transportation Nation, restoring train service would not be cheap, and the old Sunset route did not turn a profit. Bringing it back requires federal or state support to build it, and then almost certainly, a subsidy to run it. So, the coalition of mayors and local leaders are strategizing how to lobby their representatives in Congress to get the federal funding process going.

Chart from Amtrak Presentation on PRIIA Plan presented to Gulf Coast Mayors. Figures are 2009 dollars.

The Panama City News Herald reports: "Officials believe reviving the train service would be a boost to tourism and would help the economies of communities across the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina." According to the paper, "Mobile, Alabama Mayor Sam Jones wants an alternative to cars and planes, both of which he calls "too costly."

A 2008 act of Congress, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIAA), required Amtrak to come up with a plan for restoring service. The national rail company offered a 52 page report with three options: restoring the old, sleepy tri-weekly nighttime service, extend the famous City of New Orleans route from Chicago to New Orleans so it turns east to Orlando, Fla. A third option is to  launch a new daily service.

Amtrak tells Transportation Nation the plan is there and done. "It is now the decision of federal and state policymakers to determine if passenger rail service should be restored, identify the preferred option and provide the additional funding for capital and ongoing operating costs."

Some of the stations along the route were so infrequently used that it will be hard to argue for restoring them in tight fiscal times. A local website, NorthEscambria.com reports that fewer than three people per week boarded Sunset Limited trains at the Atmore, Alabama station.

Still, Mayors want the service back, and the primary goal of their big meeting on August 16th, was to gather facts they can use to convince Congress to pony up funding. The Pensacola News Journal reported support from the mayors of New Orleans, Pensacola, Fla. and Mobile, Alabama and others want to take economic arguments to their Congressional representatives. Daily daytime service would make it possible for someone to live in Biloxi, Miss, or nearby and work in New Orleans, or for New Orleanians to take short vacations along the Gulf Coast. That's the kind of story a Congressman would need to hear to devote taxpayer money to an unprofitable line.

Another meeting of mayors and local supporters will take place in the next three months months to focus in on Congressional proposals to pitch to federal lawmakers. Mayor Jones of Mobile, told the Alabama Local "we've probably got another six months worth of preparation before we step out with our plan and proposal."

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Transportation Nation

MTA, NY Pols Fire Off on Court Decision Striking Down Key Transpo Tax

Thursday, August 23, 2012

For the best summary of this issue LISTEN to this short conversation with WNYC's Matthew Schuerman:

(New York, NY - WNYC) When news broke last night that a New York Supreme Court Justice had struck down a crucial transportation tax, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority issued a tart remark that included a promise to “vigorously appeal today’s ruling."

Then the authority's financial officers had overnight to contemplate the prospect of having a $1.8 billion hole blasted into their annual budget if the ruling is upheld.

That could not have produced sweet dreams. Instead, it prompted the authority to send forth a more robust denunciation of Justice R. Bruce Cozzens Jr.'s finding that the tax, collected from 12 counties in and around New York City served by the NY MTA, was levied in a way that violated the state constitution.

MTA head, Joe Lhota said, "the ruling is flawed as well as erroneous." He added the lawsuit also contests four other dedicated taxes, totaling $1.8 billion per year. "The payroll mobility tax drives the entire economy of New York. Without the MTA, New York would choke on traffic," he warned.

At issue is a "mobility tax" that collects 34 cents per hundred dollars of payroll from employers, excluding small businesses. The tax was created in 2009 to save the NY MTA from a budget crisis caused by the recession.

In addition to running the largest subway system in the U.S., the city buses, the MTA also manages regional commuter rail companies and the bridges used by them.

Late last year, Governor Cuomo reversed the tax for certain small businesses, promising to replace "every penny" with money from the state's general revenues.

Below is the MTA's most recent fighting words in full, followed by reactions from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg.

MTA Statement on Payroll Mobility Tax ruling

The MTA strongly believes that yesterday’s ruling from Nassau Supreme Court is erroneous. We will vigorously appeal it and we expect it will be overturned, since four similar Supreme Court cases making the same argument were previously dismissed.

The Payroll Mobility Tax maintains a regional transportation system that moves more than 8.5 million people every day and drives the economy of New York City, Long Island, the northern suburbs and the entire state.

Removing more than $1.2 billion in revenue from the Payroll Mobility Tax, plus hundreds of millions of dollars more from other taxes affected by yesterday’s ruling, would be catastrophic for the MTA and for the economy of New York State.

The MTA is getting its fiscal house in order. We have cut more than $700 million from our annual operating budget and eliminated 3,500 jobs. We are on track for this year’s discretionary spending to actually be lower than last year’s.

Without the Payroll Mobility Tax or another stable and reliable source of funding, the MTA would be forced to implement a combination of extreme service cuts and fare hikes. The Payroll Mobility Tax remains in effect for now, and we expect that it will survive this legal challenge.

Governor Cuomo told reporters this morning that he didn't think there would be a disruption to the NY MTA's budget, adding, "I believe this ruling is wrong and will be reversed."

In a separate event, Mayor Bloomberg told reporters that one way to make up for the NY MTA's potential loss of revenue would be to enact a congestion pricing plan like the one he proposed for part of Manhattan in 2008, which was defeated by a vote in the state legislature. The mayor then continued with a bit of sarcasm, "I betcha the legislature thinks they have a better plan. My suggestion is you address your question to those people who think they have a better plan."

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Transportation Nation

Nation's First Incorporated African-American Town Gets Streetscape Makeover (PICS)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

New Gateway Welcomes Visitors to Historic Eatonville Near Orlando

(Nicole Creston, WMFE -- Orlando, Fla.) The small town of Eatonville, Fla. just north of Orlando is best known for being the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States. It is also known for being home to historical landmarks like the first Central Florida school for African-Americans, and to notable figures like writer Zora Neale Hurston.

[Listen to this radio report at WMFE.]

This month, the town celebrated its 125th anniversary by cutting the ribbon on the crown jewel of a multi-year beautification project: an archway visible from Interstate 4. The stately structure welcomes visitors to town and gives Eatonville a new sense of identity. It could be the first step in turning the town into a destination for historic tourism.

Maye St. Julien, Chair of the Eatonville Historic Preservation Board, explains the significance of the year 1887 for Eatonville, and why it’s being recognized 125 years later. “What we celebrate is the actual signing of the articles of incorporation making it an official town recognized by the state.”

The town was actually founded in 1881 by a freed slave named Joe Clark, says St. Julien. She says since African-Americans could only buy individual plots of land back then – enough for one house – Clark sought the help of his boss, citrus industry entrepreneur and retired military captain Josiah Eaton.

“The town is named for Mr. Eaton because he was the major contributor and the major supporter of Joe Clark,” says St. Julien. “And he advertised, and you can see on the newspaper back in 1880s, for people of color to come to Eatonville and own your own land, and you could purchase a lot for $35, or $50 if you needed credit. And that’s how this town was made.”

Six years later, in 1887, men from 27 of Eatonville’s 29 families incorporated the town.

“There were 29, but there was a bit of intimidation on the part of the whites when it was learned that the blacks had acquired this much land,” explains St. Julien. “So, two of them became a little concerned and chose not to participate in that, but thank goodness and God bless the 27 who did,” says St. Julien.

Eatonville’s historic main street is East Kennedy Boulevard. From its intersection with I-4, the town’s business district stretches east about five blocks and the whole strip has been completely refurbished. The road has been repaved and repainted, brick pedestrian walkways have been added, and sidewalks are bristling with Florida-friendly flowers and foliage.

Eatonville Mayor Bruce Mount can’t hide his enthusiasm about the changes that district has seen over the past few years. “If you haven’t been down Kennedy Boulevard lately, you will not know Kennedy Boulevard,” says Mount.

City Planners Worked for Two Years to Revive Downtown Eatonville with New Street Pavers, Refurbished Sidewalks, and Shady Trees

Famous African-American institutions including the Hungerford Normal and Industrial School and figures like Hurston shared addresses along the storied piece of pavement.

And now, Eatonville is getting the kind of gateway its leaders say it deserves. A new iron archway mounted on brick columns stretches across Kennedy, facing I-4. A sign at the top extends a welcome to Eatonville and displays information about the historic town and its 125th anniversary. Mount says the whole structure lights up at night.

Writer Zora Neale Hurston Grew Up in Eatonville and Included the Town in Her Novels

“It has a clock on it and it also has some nice plaques on it,” Mount adds. “The Zora Neale Hurston plaque is there, the school [plaque] is there, so that is a very nice theme to the streetscape… The citizens are proud. I’m getting calls all the time.”

The vast majority of those calls about Kennedy’s overhaul are positive, he says.

And so is most of the conversation down the street during a recent lunchtime rush at Vonya’s Southern Cooking Café on Kennedy. The customers were buzzing about Eatonville’s makeover.

“Huge difference already,” says nine-year Eatonville resident Darrius Gallagher. “It should be very beautiful. It’s a very historic town.”

Esther Critton has lived in Eatonville all of her nineteen years. “With them doing the construction, it gives the town a better look and then makes the people feel good, makes the town run smoother,” she says. “So, we’re coming a long way.”

In August 2012, 125 years after the 27 men signed the articles of incorporation for Eatonville, Mayor Mount helped honor those men by cutting the ribbon on the gateway that commemorates the town’s anniversary. The ribbon stretched the full five blocks of the business district, wrapping around the smaller brick columns that now mark the east end of Eatonville on Kennedy.

Those columns, although constructed as part of the same project as the gateway, do not have an arch to support. That seems to be a bit of a problem for one nearby business owner - former Eatonville Mayor Abraham Gordon Junior.

Decorative Columns Mark the East Entrance to Eatonville

Former Mayor Eatonville Abraham Gordon Jr.  Runs Be Back Fish House in Town

Gordon owns the Be Back Fish House, a seafood restaurant and the business closest to those columns. He had a different vision for his end of the street, including a sign identifying the town and, ideally, an archway like the one close to I-4.

“It should’ve been the same height that is down on that end,” says Gordon, “and just had across ‘Welcome to Eatonville’ and that would’ve made it somewhat complete.”Gordon also says the placement of the columns so near his restaurant used up space he was hoping he could dedicate to his customers.

“There’s parking in front of every business in the town of Eatonville,” explains Gordon. “There’s parking in places where there’s no business in the town of Eatonville. And no parking in front of this place, where there is business.”

Instead, he points out, there’s a proliferation of that Florida-friendly foliage, which is mean to enhance the look of the columns but winds up partially obscuring his restaurant from view.

But, he adds, he’s seen the changes Eatonville has undergone since he first arrived in the early 1950s, and he doesn’t want to stand in the way of the town’s evolution. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, and we don’t need any more problems.”

He says Eatonville has come a very long way from the cluster of houses surrounded by dirt roads and strained wastewater systems he first saw, and overall he says the town’s new look is “very nice.”

Eatonville Public Works Director Abraham Canady says, “the construction is a result of a federal grant that was spearheaded by Congresswoman Corrine Brown." She adds, "the grant went through the Federal Highway Administration to Florida Department of Transportation.”

The Project was Made Possible by Help From State and Federal DOT's

Canady says the current construction value of the project is about $1.4 million, and he thinks it’s worth every penny, especially the west end gateway that draws welcome attention to the town.

And that’s just the beginning, according to Mayor Mount. There are more changes coming, starting with plans for more development near the new gateway.

“We want it to be mixed use – amphitheaters, the eateries, the hotels,” he says. “That’s what we want. We want Eatonville, when we’re talking about the future, to be a tourist destination. And because people say, ‘What do you have to sell, what do people have to sell?’ Our history.”

He says Eatonville could capitalize on “historical tourism” and become a destination for visitors looking for a different type of Orlando vacation than the theme parks offer.

Mount says that idea is still in the early stages. Next step – a visioning meeting with the town council as Eatonville continues to evolve…and celebrate its anniversary throughout the year.

Click here to listen to Nicole Creston's report on Eatonville at WMFE. 

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Transportation Nation

BREAKING: NY State Court Overturns Tax That Supports NY MTA

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In response to a lawsuit filed by seven suburban county governments, a New York State judge ruled Wednesday that a payroll tax suburbanites pay for the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority is unconstitutional.  Government leaders from Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties are among those who sued to overturn the tax of 34 cents per hundred dollars of payroll for all employers, including freelancers.

The 2009 law was meant to bail out the MTA from a $2 billion a year short fall.  The MTA said in a statement: “We will vigorously appeal today’s ruling. We believe this opinion will be overturned, since four prior challenges to the constitutionality of the law making the same argument have been dismissed.”

Government leaders from Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties were among those who sued to overturn the "mobility tax."

The tax brings the transit authority more than a billion dollars a year. The tax applies to all 12 New York State counties served by the MTA.

In his ruling, State Supreme Court Justice R. Bruce Cozzins Jr. agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that the tax does not serve substantial state interest, and improperly supercedes the county governments.

Paul Steely White, the President of Transportation Alternatives, a transit advocacy group, said in a statement:  "This decision threatens the foundation of the state’s economy. Public transportation is critical to the New York City metropolitan area—an area which provides 45 percent of the state’s tax revenue, paying for countless public services from Niagara Falls to Montauk. We hope Governor Cuomo resolves this case, and that the appeals court will consider the substantial state interest when reviewing this ruling.”

MTA Payroll Tax Decision

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Transportation Nation

Poll: By More Than Two to One, New Yorkers Say Bike Lanes a Good Thing

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Photo: Kate Hinds

Some two thirds of New Yorkers say bike lanes are "a good idea," according to a New York Times poll.  By a 66 to 27 percent margin, New Yorkers are in favor of bike lanes.

The poll shows even larger margins in favor of bike lanes than last year's Quinnipiac College poll,  which found 58 percent of New Yorkers favor bike lanes, compared to 37 percent that do not.  But because different polls have different methodologies, it's hard to conclude a trend from two different polls.

A more recent Q-poll found support for bike share at 74 to 19, up slightly from 72 to 23 in October.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday bike share would be delayed until next spring because of software issues.  It was originally to have launched last month.

The New York Times concluded that "the poll results suggest that the city's residents have gradually become accustomed to bicycle lanes, which have been frequent targest of tabloid ire and are already emerging as a flashpoint in the 2013 mayoral race."

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Transportation Nation

PIC: Highway Overpass as War Monument

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Not often do you see a highway overpass celebrated for its beauty, but this entrance to Fort Benning in Georgia is a local point of pride, as much for transportation planners as the military servicemen stationed at the base. The Georgia State Transportation Board voted to place this photo on the cover of the official state map.

Here's how the Georgia Department of Transportation described the proud monument on its Facebook page.

"The Columbus Gateway Foundation completed construction of this magnificent structure encompassing 56 acres, 20 flags, 20 fountains, and life-size statues atop the gateway pillars. The monument’s four statues are two bald eagles, a “Trooper on the Plains” representing the Armor school and a “Follow Me” Infantryman, all well-known symbols to members of the military and especially important to those attending the base's Armor and Infantry training facilities."

We wonder how long they had to wait for a shot that had so little traffic passing by.

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Transportation Nation

New York City's 5 Boro Taxi Plan: Winners, Losers and What's Next

Monday, August 20, 2012

The city's new outer-boro street hails, inspired by the color of Granny Smith apples (photo: Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

New York  City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday he is not expecting legalized street hail service for livery car passengers "for a while."

Officials said the plan will be on hold at least until the new year, with a ruling not expected before January.

The city is appealing a State Supreme Court decision blocking the city’s plan to sell 18,000 livery street hail permits as well as 2000 yellow medallions. The estimated billion dollars in revenue from the medallion sale -- as well the expanded cab service promised by the Bloomberg administration -- hangs in the balance.

The winner so far in this saga is the powerful medallion lobby, including the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade-- chief plaintiff in the lawsuit against the 5 Boro plan. This trade association has been a successful litigant against other city taxi polices, including legally nixing a mandate several years ago by the Bloomberg administration that cabs get at least 30 miles to the gallon.

The potential losers are livery customers and drivers. The city estimates more than 120,000 -150,000 illegal street hails occur a day. Many who live beyond Manhattan and rely on non-yellow cab service said they welcome more taxi regulation for these cars—including distinctive taxi markings, so they know a taxi driver is authorized to pick up passengers--as well as greater price regulation.

Krystle James, 27, of East New York, said since livery fares can be unpredictable she tries not to hail cabs on the street, instead writing down the number of a passing livery cab and calling their office. She thinks this helps her get a firm price on the cab so there’s no haggling later.

But that’s what Tariq Mohammad, 27, from Bedford-Stuyvesant loves about livery cab hails on the street. “I’ll start off really low like $10, he’ll start off higher, $20. We’ll meet in the middle, $14-$15, I’ll give him a dollar tip. $16 bucks, I save $4,” he said.

Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky said he hopes livery drivers who were planning to operate legally and buy the new permits will “hang tight” as the appeal process plays out.

“We’re going to push for the fastest possible outcome”, he promised.

Sources in the both the livery and yellow cab industry expect a compromise will eventually be struck.

Guy Palumbo with Global Transportation Network Consultants said he thinks it’s time for all sides to try and finally hash out some kind of plan soon. “At this stage the liveries and the taxis should develop a workable plan so when a decision is rendered they have a way forward,"  Palumbo said.

(Stephen Nessen contributed reporting.)

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Transportation Nation

Dukakis To Transportation Nation: You Were "Dead Wrong" on Romney and Infrastructure

Monday, August 20, 2012

If given a forum, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee) can dish out some sharp criticism of Mitt Romney's infrastructure record. He calls it "disappointing" and "pathetic." Last week I sent him an email that referenced my infrastructure reporting here on Transportation Nation. And today I got a dose of his blunt assessments. He told me I was "dead wrong."
When I reviewed the transportation policy of Dukakis' fellow former governor of Massachusetts and current presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, I found he was a metro-friendly moderate with a focus on fixing what already existed. Dukakis disagrees.
He wrote:

"You were dead wrong. When Romney left the governorship, the state was a wreck-- rusting bridges, potholed roads, a great transit system that had serious financial problems he refused to fix, and a pathetic inability to get anything done. Projects that should have taken months took years, and his " fix it first" program was a joke."

He also offered to talk with me on the phone to offer more details. Full transcript of that below. This communication follows Dukakis' latest bout of criticism for Romney which aired on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show last week.

Dukakis said flatly that after Romney’s four years as Governor “the state’s infrastructure, Rachel, was a wreck. That’s the only way you can describe it. Rusting bridges, potholed roads, couldn’t get anything done.” He later got slightly more specific by saying “bridge projects that should have taken eighteen months were taking four and five and six years. He couldn’t get anything done.”

This conflicted with my review in December of Romney's tenure. I found reason to praise Governor Romney’s record on transportation—specifically his focus, in a twenty-year statewide plan released in 2005, on repair and maintenance. The plan directed at least 75 percent of all new capital spending toward maintaining and improving the Commonwealth’s existing network, “consistent with the Romney administration’s ‘Fix-It-First’ policy," the release said.

We will of course continue to assess the candidates' records ourselves, which will include reaching out for comment from those Dukakis criticizes below. (When Dukakis took a swipe at Romney two years ago, a Romney spokesperson simply shot back that "Mike Dukakis sounds like a very angry and bitter old man.”)

But Dukakis' elaborations are worth noting. He shares two key resume bullet points with Romney and as this edited transcript shows, a passion for potholes ... and bridges and transit, and most of all Mitt Romney's record.

Edited transcript:

Dellinger: Governor, I would love to have you elaborate on the comments you made about Romney's record on infrastructure. I had the impression — mind you, at a time when you see some Republican Governors actively canceling high-speed rail and tunnel projects — that Romney was decent on transportation, that he at least talked a good game about the importance of maintenance and transit.

Dukakis: I guess he did. But Romney is one of the great disappointments to me. I mean, I was a huge fan of his dad’s. And in fact, truth be know, I courted Kitty in little yellow Rambler convertible in the early 60s, because George Romney was the only guy in Detroit making a small, fuel-efficient car. And George was a fine governor and a darn good Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (an agency his kid wants to abolish), and in fact some of my best housing people worked for him at HUD and were big fans of his. He was one of those prototypical, better than just moderate republicans. He was a doer, he believed in this stuff, thought it was important, and that government had a role to play.

When Mitt first arrived on the scene, as a [Senate] candidate against [Ted] Kennedy, he sounded very much like his dad, in the best sense. And when he became governor, we all assumed this guy is going to be George Romney Junior. And to this day I really don't understand this guy. His economic record was a disaster. Fourth from bottom in job creation. And just a lot of talk and no action. He just didn't seem to understand how to a Governor moves an economy, and especially the economy of the old older urban communities in the state, which is where we have the most economic stress. Or the role of infrastructure in stimulating that.

But on the infrastructure stuff itself, the guy was just really pathetic. I mean, I was all for the fix-it first thing. I think you got a fix it first before you start new stuff, although there were a number of new projects that we wanted to move on. But he was kind of detached. He had a very weak transportation team. It was a guy named Daniel Grabauskas who was the secretary of transportation, who now of all things has been hired to run the Honolulu transit system. Don't ask me what they expect him to do out there. But he was very ineffective, very weak. They just couldn't get anything done. Projects that should have taken months took years.

And as you know, here in the state it's not just the highways, but it's the Metropolitan transit system and the commuter rail system. We had stations, T stations, that were under reconstruction for years under this guy. And I'll tell you one story which is typical. The Ashmont station on the red line is a big station in the Dorchester section of Boston. And it was kind of an old station and so they're going to do a major reconstruction and do some transit-oriented development there. So a team was designated to do affordable housing next to Ashmont Station. And they did it. In about 18 months it was up and running, leased and all that stuff. The station project, which went way over budget, went on and on and on. And at some press conference some reporter asked Romney, 'What about Ashmont?' Romney had no idea where Ashmont station was.

You know he's always been a puzzle to me. So we ended up with bridge projects that should have taken twelve months that were taking three or four years. When I said the state's infrastructure was a wreck when he left it, that was not an exaggeration I remember driving up 128, and honest to God nine out of ten bridges were covered with rust. I mean they couldn't even paint bridges. And as you know, if you don't paint the bridge for 200,000 bucks, pretty soon you're gonna have a reconstruction job for 3 million. They couldn't do it. He was kind of detached. And then of course in his last year and a half, it was all about the presidency, so we never saw him.

And look, I had the best state transportation Sec. in the country. I mean nobody's better than Fred Salvucci. Fred's just remarkable, and we did billions of dollars worth of construction, completely redid the T, and all this kind of stuff. We were deeply involved, he and I, in the fight to kill the master highway plan and shift some money to public transportation, which we were able to do. So it's a big thing with me, but Romney just couldn't do it.

Dellinger: But let me just challenge you. Talking about a governor's record, isn't there a delayed effect, especially when it comes to visible signs of transportation improvements? In fact, you even said it's going to take Gov. Deval Patrick his full two terms to fix all of this. But you're judging Romney on only one term.

Dukakis: Yeah but Patrick has turned this economy around. Were really moving around here. And Patrick has worked it. I mean worked it. Intensively. He hasn't been fooling around on this life sciences stuff. And it's working. Metropolitan Boston is just popping with activity. Patrick has been fully engaged in this, and actively so. Romney never was. I mean I don't want to go on anecdotally at great length, but one of the things a number of us suggested to Romney was that he do what I—and of course Deval has done a number of times, and that is take a major state project and put it in a distressed area as a stimulus for revitalization. When I was governor we did this a lot in our older urban communities.

One of the proposals we made to him—and in fact I met with him personally, the only time I met with him was early in his term—was take the state Department of public health, which had about 1000 employees and was occupying expensive downtown office space, and move them to the Dudley section of Boston, which is Roxbury, which is now in the process of revival thanks to the mayor. But putting 1000 state employees in the new building, or a reconstructed building would have been a huge stimulus for this revitalization. And a bunch of us went in to see him. He certainly understood it. Never produced. Just never produced. Whether he didn't get it, or didn't understand it. And in fact he would've saved the state money. Rents out there are a lot cheaper than they were in downtown Boston. Just another example of the guys inability either to understand how you do this, or to execute, or something. But Patrick, in his first term, has turned this thing around.

Dellinger: I guess what I'm getting at is that with infrastructure a governor faces not just challenges that started when he first took office. The bridges are rusting because we built a lot of things right after World War II that were last that were meant to last 50 years, and the egg timers all went off at the same time.

Dukakis: To be sure. But what does it take to paint a bridge?

Dellinger: Well even today Massachusetts is suffering under the weight of having to pay debt service on the Big Dig. Romney spoke of moving the state to it's post-Big-Dig future, focusing on repairs. But there simply wasn't a lot of money to go around. 

Dukakis: Well, no. And the Big Dig was the result of sheer incompetence. I mean if Salvucci had been running that job it would have been done in half the time at half the cost. Trust me. And in fact I suggested to Weld when he took over that he ask Fred to stay on just to run the Big Dig. Well he rejected that advice. Fine and dandy. Then he picked a guy to run it was just utterly incompetent. But I'm not blaming Romney for the Big Dig. I mean that was largely the fault of Weld. But I'm not talking in terms of huge projects. I'm talking about bridge painting. I'm talking about bridge reconstructions, those kinds of things. Romney just couldn't do it. Just couldn't get it done. He didn't seem to be engaged. Didn't seem to understand the importance of it. Wasn't personally into it. And had a very very weak transportation team.

Dellinger: Can you point to specific things that you did, and that Gov. Patrick maybe is now doing, that were different, on a day-to-day level, with transportation? 

Dukakis: Well first you got to pick good people. Got to pick good people. And then secondly you have to be personally into it. I mean I was just all over this thing. Now it happens to be a particular interest of mine. It's something I go way back on. I don't know whether you're familiar with the history of this place, but like everyone other metropolitan area, we were told that in order to solve our problems coming out of World War II in the sixties and seventies that we had to build a so-called master highway plan that involved eight lane expressway's into the heart of the city. I thought it was a prescription for disaster. And meanwhile the T was falling apart. It was a basket case.

Fred Salvucci and I were deeply involved in the 60s—I was a young legislator at the time—in ultimately fighting and killing the master Highway plan. We were the first state in the country, thanks to [Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill, to be able to use our previously designated interstate highway money for public transportation. It had never been done before. This was back in the time when you couldn't bust the Highway trust fund had to be gasoline tax money had to be used for highways. And so Fred and I had literally about $3 billion in former highway money.

This was the mid-70s. When Ford, who was quite good on the stuff by the way, was President, and then Carter. But it was Tip and the congressional delegation that obviously made it possible for us to do that. And so we basically just did a huge job on the T. I mean massive modernization. We acquired the existing commuter rail system from the private railroads for a song and used the highway money to transform that. It's now carrying 150,000 people a day. That's just commuter rail not to mention the T itself. All stations, total reconstructions. And you know today we've got one of the best public transportation systems in the country, and it's made a huge huge difference. So I both as a legislator and the governor was into this and deeply committed to it.

Dellinger: I agree that where money is appropriated, to what mode, is a very key factor in determining outcome. And when I looked into Romney's budget, he did seem to put his dollars where his mouth was. 

Dukakis: Just couldn't execute. That was his problem. Couldn't execute.

Dellinger: That sounds so subjective, though. What exactly does that mean? 

Dukakis: He couldn't get it done.

Dellinger: His DOT couldn't get things done... on time?

Dukakis: He just wasn't engaged. I mean that's Romney. He's kind of out there someplace. He just doesn't get into it. For one thing I rode the T. It wasn't an act. I was riding it since I was five. It's amazing what you learn when you ride the transit system. And you know, I'm a huge national rail passenger guy. I was on the Amtrak board. Romney has just announced he's for abolishing, getting rid of all Amtrak subsidies. I don't know what the hell he's talking about. Is he serious? Amtrak just carried 30 million people this past year. I mean if this country doesn't need a first-class national rail passenger system, I don't know what it does need.

Dellinger: Paul Ryan's budget opines that "“high-speed rail and other new intercity rail projects should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services.” I assume you disagree that all new rail projects should be done as profitable businesses only?

Dukakis: There's no profitable— Well, we are making money on the Northeast corridor and the Acela. But were spending $40 billion in public subsidies on highways, $16 billion on air, and a billion and a half on Amtrak. Don't these guys understand? I mean where are they? I don't know what the hell they're talking about. Every mode of transportation, as you know, is subsidized. And rail and highway's and air are far more heavily subsidized than rail.

You go to Europe you go to Japan—Kitty and I went to South Korea a year ago where I'd been stationed back in the mid-50s—and it's embarrassing coming back from the United States after you've been over there. My God, they've got the best airport in the country, terrific transit in Seoul. Two high-speed rail lines. Couldn't find my unit in the DMZ because there's a huge new commuter rail station in what used to be a rice paddy when I was there. And here we are just stumbling around. I mean I just don't know what these guys are talking about.

Anyway that's my take on it, for whatever it's worth.

 

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

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Transportation Nation

Bloomberg: NYC Bike Share Delayed Until Spring (UPDATED)

Friday, August 17, 2012

(Photo by Andrea Bernstein)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloomberg said Thursday there were no penalties for a delay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Transportation Nation

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Then the finger-pointing began in earnest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BREAKING: Ray LaHood Condemns DC Airports Authority Board: "We Are Outraged"

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

(UPDATED WITH MWAA RESPONSE) The head of the U.S. Department of Transportation says the board controlling the Silver Line is out of control and "in desperate need of reform."

Ray LaHood has sent a blistering letter to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority questioning the board's ethics and laying out steps the authority must take to get in line.  Co-signed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, as well as the mayor of D.C., the letter is an unflinching condemnation of "an organization that conducts much of its business behind closed doors."

The MWAA oversees the DC-area airports as well as the ongoing construction of the Silver Line, one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects in the region. A recent audit this spring slammed the MWAA for weak oversight, overspending, conflicts of interest, lax ethics, and lack of transparency.

And, if today's letter is any indicator, things haven't improved much since then.

The letter reads: "We are outraged by ongoing reports describing questionable dealings, including the award of numerous lucrative no-bid contracts to former Board members and employees and the employment of former Board members. It has become clear that MWAA's policies and procedures are deficient and lack the safeguards necessary to ensure the principled oversight of nationally and regionally significant assets."

The letter goes on to list eight steps the MWAA must take to bring itself in line with "best Federal practices" and "regain the trust of the public we all serve."

Michael Curto, the chairman of the MWAA's board, said in a statement: "We acknowledge the concerns of the Secretary of Transportation, our elected officials and others, and we are committed to restoring public trust wherever it is lost and to earning and assuring the confidence of the people we serve."

Curto says the MWAA is "making significant progress in a number of areas," and goes on to list eight ways the Authority is reforming.

Read the letter Ray LaHood sent to the MWAA in its entirety below.

MWAA Letter

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Transportation Nation

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

Friday, August 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tappan Zee Tolls: The Backlash to the Backlash

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Tappan Zee Bridge (photo by waywuwei via flickr)

Following last week’s news that tolls on the new Tappan Zee Bridge could nearly triple by the time it opens in five years, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office has mounted a PR campaign trumpeting support for the $5 billion project.

The governor's team has been sending out near-daily emails listing numerous backers of a new bridge--including an endorsement from former New York Governor George Pataki, who had defeated Andrew Cuomo's father, Mario, in 1994. Notably absent from the list of supporters: Rockland County executive Scott Vanderhoef and Westchester County executive Rob Astorino, two elected officials who have yet to sign off on the project in order for it to receive federal funding.

The Cuomo plan would set the new bridge's cash toll at $14, a hefty jump from the current $5 charge. The governor says the increase is needed to pay for the $5.2 billion span, whose "basic source of financing will be the tolls."

Administration officials point out that at the new toll would bring the TZB in line with other Hudson River crossings, like the George Washington Bridge, due to rise to $14 in 2014, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which costs $13.

The projected toll was laid bare at a community meeting in Ramapo last Thursday -- and Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor, was careful to back into it.

Schwartz began by repeating the governor's assertion that a comprehensive bus rapid transit system would double the cost of the new bridge. "A full build-out of bus rapid transit on the bridge is $10 billion [leading to] a $28 toll in 2017," said Schwartz. He tried to use that number to make $14 look like a bargain.

It didn't work: the collective chagrin was immediate.

Media outlets ran headlines the next day using words like "tripling," and "steep." Opinion columns fumed that "the logic must be that if commuters already are soaked, they won't notice another wave of cold water." One local official said the toll hike would make the Tappan Zee a "bridge for only the rich" and announced plans for a town meeting on the topic. And Hudson Valley advocates who have been hoping -- so far in vain -- for a robust mass transit system said area commuters "could have few options in the face of higher tolls."

That same day, Cuomo's office sent out a statement implying that the $14 toll was a no-brainer. "On the cost the choice is clear," said Cuomo. "A new better bridge will require about the same tolls as just fixing the old bridge and about half the toll of a new bridge plus a new bus system."

But still: $14 tolls?

"I guess I was pleasantly surprised that the tolls weren't going to be higher," said Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association.

Yaro said that even if the current bridge was not replaced, tolls would go up because the cost of maintaining the 50-year old structure is skyrocketing. "People are not happy that they have to pay increased tolls but this strikes me as a reasonable amount," he said.

The RPA has long advocated for better bus service across the Tappan Zee Bridge. But Yaro says the corridor doesn't need a 30-mile bus rapid transit system, at least right now, because the I-287 corridor has seen a significant drop in traffic over the past ten years. "It is a place where we don't have growing traffic congestion," he said.

Instead, Yaro recommended easing bus traffic across the bridge on either side, and creating a better connection to the Tarrytown Metro-North station. Caveat: building a ramp from the bridge to the station, as some have proposed, would cost too much. "But we've gotten assurances from the governor's office that they'll will work with us and other advocates to look at options to make those connections work, both in the immediate future and as the new bridge comes on line," Yaro said.

David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University's graduate school of architecture, was similarly sanguine about a future with $14 tolls  -- even in the face of few mass transit options. "I think if the tolls are $14, that will substantially cut down traffic -- so it doesn’t matter that there's not going to be a dedicated transit lane [on either side of the bridge]," he said. Then he slammed the project's price tag. "We should be outraged just because it’s costing so much, whether it has transit or not."

Meanwhile, as this story was being written, yet another email came in from the Governor's office. “The elected officials of the Hudson Valley know best what their region needs, and on behalf of their constituents, they are calling for a new bridge to replace the obsolete Tappan Zee,” Cuomo said.

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Transportation Nation

Why Transportation Planning Gets It Wrong

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

(photo by Martin DiCaro/WAMU)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 03, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not your normal toll road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public-private partnerships are the future

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

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

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

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

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

Private entities take the risk

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

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

Better options?

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

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

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

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

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Transportation Nation

NY State Releases Final Report on Environmental Impact of New Tappan Zee Bridge

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Tappan Zee Bridge (photo by waywuwei via flickr)

New York has just released the final environmental impact statement for its new Tappan Zee Bridge.

The state says over the last six months, it has received over 3,000 public comments about the project, and the EIS document groups them into four categories:  concern about construction impacts (noise/dust/air quality/traffic),the design aesthetics of the new bridge, the construction impact upon the Hudson River environment, and transit capability of the new bridge.

Here are some ways the state says it will deal with the concerns:

  • Construction noise and air quality will be monitored 24/7, and the results will be publicly available online
  • A  "Blue Ribbon Selection Committee" will participate in the design selection -- meaning some members of the public will have input into what the new bridge will look like
  • Dredging will be limited, the discharge of sediment into the river will be minimized, and the state will use "bubble curtains and other technologies to minimize acoustic effects of piles driving on the fish."
  • The bridge will be designed "so that it could accommodate transit in the future."

The report does not include a widely touted plan to turn the old bridge into a greenway. The State Thruway Authority says it will demolish the existing structure.

More later. In the meantime, you can read both the summary and the entire report here. And please comment below to let us know what you think of the report.

 

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Atlanta Tax for Transit Plan Loses by Big Margin

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

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

 

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

From Jonathan Shapiro's  story:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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