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Transportation Nation

Purple Line Design Will Stop if Maryland Doesn't Get More Transpo Funding

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The proposed Purple Line Route (image via Maryland Transit Administration)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Local officials are asking Maryland's Department of Transportation not to divert funding from the Purple Line, the proposed light rail line that would connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The agency is considering reallocating $41 million dollars in Purple Line design funding to other sources if state lawmakers fail to pass a transportation revenue increase in this legislative session. The move would  put the rail project on hold, which would be "unacceptable," according to Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro. She sent a letter voicing her concerns to MDOT's acting secretary this week.

"Montgomery County, specifically, is relying on these projects to continue our economic development strategies through our different redevelopment projects," Navarro says. "Many of the redevelopment projects that we have already adopted, all the master plans that we have adopted will mostly likely not be realized."

MDOT agrees, says agency spokesman Jack Cahalan -- which is why it believes the legislature should approve more money.

"The bottom line is, without a revenue increase, the state will simply not have the money to construct any new highway or transit projects," says Cahalan. "That's the reality."

The 16-mile Purple Line carries a $2.4 billion dollar price tag. Montgomery County officials say engineering funding for the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed bus rapid transit system, is also on the line.

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Transportation Nation

Connecticut Gov Wants Transpo Funding to Fill Budget Holes

Thursday, February 07, 2013

(Neena Satija -- CT Mirror) Coming from a supposedly "pro-transportation" governor, the proposed budget of Dannel Malloy has a lot of transportation advocates confused.

"It's hard to follow the dollars here," Joe McGee, of the Business Council of Fairfield County, said Wednesday afternoon.

"I work with these numbers all the time. I know these budgets. And I'm confused. What am I missing?"

On the one hand, Malloy's budget calls for a $1.26 billion special transportation fund for the coming fiscal year. Transit advocates have also been heartened by the work on the Hartford-to-New-Britain busway and the New Haven-Springfield high-speed rail line.

On the other hand, transportation -- like all other state services -- faces steep cuts as the administration tries to claw its way out of a several-hundred-million-dollar budget hole. And though next year's proposed spending is about $42 million above current levels, it falls $90 million shy of the level needed to maintain current services, according to nonpartisan legislative analysts.

Breakdown of state transit funds. (From 2013 report by state Office of Fiscal Analysis)

The special fund supporting Connecticut's highways, bridges and railways would be raided for non-transportation programs under Malloy's proposed budget, continuing a trend that began roughly a decade ago.

Two days earlier, Republican state Rep. Gail Lavielle of Wilton had suggested changing state law to convert the roughly $1.3 billion fund into a "lock box" that could not be used for other purposes.

"If you don't do something to make some structural changes to the budget to leave money to spend on transportation, I fear for the consequences," Lavielle said. "We have trains that are unsafe, we have bridges that are unsafe."

While campaigning for governor in 2009, Malloy promised to preserve the Special Transportation Fund. In 2011, he tried, shifting $30 million away from the general fund and into transportation.

But as state finances have fallen into deficit, things have swung the other way. About $70 million was taken from transportation and put into the general fund this year, and Malloy wants to take another $75 million next fiscal year.

"He has broken his promise regarding the transportation fund for the second budget in a row," one of Malloy's chief critics, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Wednesday.

Car, bus commuters asked to give more

Malloy's budget also assumes a major increase in the wholesale tax on gasoline and other fuels signed into law in 2005 by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. As far as motorists are concerned, about 3.8 cents per gallon will be added to the price of gasoline starting July 1, and the state expects to collect an extra $32 million next fiscal year.

Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba responded to McKinney's charge Wednesday, saying, "Governor Malloy has proposed a robust investment agenda for our state's infrastructure projects, as inconvenient as that may be for the senator."

The transportation fund expects to close this year with a $159 million reserve that is projected to grow to $164 million next year.

"Most residents, at least those not running for governor, would think taking surplus funds and using them to address what would be painful cuts that would affect our most vulnerable, is just common sense," Doba said.

But those reserves apparently will not be used to offset other cuts that many say will hurt the state's poorest residents, as well as worsen its already crumbling infrastructure. Bus fares will jump under the proposal, and many commuters with disabilities will also be asked to pay more. The state's rail budget will be cut by $2 million, and expenditures on road maintenance for towns will be shifted to the state's credit card.

"Those have consequences," said Steve Higashide, of the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "It feels like few areas were spared in this budget, and transportation wasn't spared either."

Lavielle was also concerned that the rise in fares for bus riders and riders with disabilities were going toward filling in the state deficit, rather than improving the transportation system. She has proposed separate legislation that would prevent this.

"If you are collecting money off rail and bus fares, that money should be used for rail and for buses," she said. In recent years, the legislature has also raised fares for Metro-North riders, with the increase in revenue going toward the state's general fund rather than the rail system.

Ben Barnes, secretary of the state's Office of Policy and Management, said it was incorrect to assume that increases in bus fare would go toward services other than transportation. But nowhere in the proposed budget is that made clear.

"Is the money raised for transportation staying with transportation, or is it being used to cover part of the deficit? It's unclear to me," said McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County.

A ride on the public bus costs $1.25 right now. Under Malloy's plan, it'll go up to $1.50 in 2014 and raise $4 million next year. For riders with disabilities that prevent them from riding regular public transit, they'll have to pay 4 percent more to ride what are known as paratransit vans provided for them under federal law.

Advocates say the fare increases will impact commuters who are already suffering.

McGee credited Malloy for continuing to focus some investment in transportation, but he questioned whether Connecticut has an overall comprehensive plan.

"We know he's committed to transportation. But it's confusing," McGee said. "[W]e are not clear exactly on what his intentions are."

Neena Satija also blogs over at CT Mirror’s Rant and Rail. Follow her on Twitter.

 

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Transportation Nation

Golden Gate Bridge Switching to All Electronic Tolling

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza (photo by Isabel Angell)

(San Francisco -- KALW) Last week, the Golden Gate Bridge began testing a new all-electronic toll collection system. In the past, there’s always been the option to hand cash to a human being.

But in sixty days, if all goes according to plan, human toll collectors will be completely phased out. Mary Currie, the spokesperson for Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, said it’s mostly about the budget.

“We have a $66 million, five-year shortfall, and with the movement from manual collection to electronic collection we can save approximately $16 million over an eight-year period,” Currie said.

Currie expects the change will be fairly easy, because more than two-thirds of the people who cross the Golden Gate Bridge today already have a FasTrak--an opt-in program that lets drivers pay their tolls electronically. But Currie says drivers can also pay using credit cards or cash, use smart phones or kiosks to pre-pay.

People who blow through the toll plaza without pre-paying will get a bill for six dollars mailed to their house.

The all-electronic toll system is scheduled to go into effect at the end of March.

But if this Q&A in the San Jose Mercury is any indication of how Bay Area residents feel about the switch, the Golden Gate Bridge transit district has their P.R. work cut out for them. People are asking about everything from what to do when driving a rental cars to how to this will work for those who only take rare trips across the bridge. While the transit district has answers for most of the questions, drivers will need to know them before the big shift.

Of the 28 toll Golden Gate Bridge toll workers, 14 have either retired or have found other jobs within the transit district. In the event the district can’t place the remaining workers, they will get a severance package, the details of which are still being negotiated with the toll takers’ union. The union has not made any toll workers available for comment.

Though many highways use all electronic tolling, by Currie's count, the Golden Gate is the largest bridge to attempt such a system in the United States. Two smaller bridges that have eschewed cash tolls are the SR 520 "floating bridge" in Seattle and the Leeville Bridge in Louisiana. Currie said that while Golden Gate Bridge is among the first bridges to try this new tolling system, it certainly won’t be the last.

“We will see all-electronic tolling across the United States in the next 10 years,” she said.

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Transportation Nation

Officials: As Construction Site, World Trade Center Vulnerable To Floods

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

One World Trade Center with 9/11 in the foreground. (photo by melfoody / Flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) A Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official says a built-out World Trade Center site will be less vulnerable to future storms like Sandy once construction is done by 2020. But the authority hasn't decided what to do in the meantime to protect the site from rising tides.

Construction sites that include open pits, as does the 16-acre World Trade Center site, are vulnerable to flooding. And much of the site is built on landfill where the Hudson River once flowed--and would flow again if not for retaining walls.

But Port Authority executive director Pat Foye wouldn't elaborate on what steps could be taken to protect the site from flooding while under construction, and harden the site once construction is done in an age of climate change and rising sea levels.

"Port Authority people and outside experts are looking at how to make the site more resilient," Foye said. He wouldn't give details about possible mitigation efforts beyond saying, "The review continues."

Foye estimated it will cost $2 billion to repair storm damage to the World Trade Center, along with the rest of the authority's facilities, including airports, bridges and tunnels. Foye said $800 million alone is needed to fix the PATH train system, which only recently returned some of its lines to a pre-Sandy schedule.

Foye said insurance reimbursements and FEMA payments should cover those costs."There will be no material impact on the budget," he said.

Still under construction in Lower Manhattan is One World Trade Center, which carries a price tag of $3.8 billion, making it the world's most expensive new office tower. To offset the costs of the 1,776-foot skyscraper, the authority last year levied higher bridge and tunnel tolls and reduced spending on transportation infrastructure.

One World Trade Center is scheduled to be done by early next year. But some part of the larger World Trade Center site will be under construction, and vulnerable to flooding, for at least the next eight years.

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Radiolab

Fast Cash Dash Flash Crash Clash

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

In our Speed episode, we learn just how outdated our idea of the stock market is. Producer Andy Mills helps us picture the modern-day market with some beautiful depictions of high frequency trading, from technicolor graphs to frantic piano riffs.

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Transportation Nation

Virginia Transportation Funding Plan Dies in State Senate

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Virginia capitol building (photo by Thruhike98 via flickr_

Governor Bob McDonnell’s five-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding package died on the floor of the Virginia State Senate on Tuesday night, as divided lawmakers decided to sent the proposal back to committee after defeating two Republican floor amendments.

After more than an hour of debate it became apparent there were not enough votes to support the governor’s plan to eliminate the state’s gas tax (17.5 cents per gallon) and replace it with a higher sales tax to fund road and rail construction and maintenance.

The bill was largely blocked by Senate Democrats from northern Virginia who were unhappy with McDonnell’s plan to use general fund revenue that also pays for schools, public safety, and other programs.

At least one senator’s frustration bubbled to the surface.  Republican Senator Frank Wagner, whose amendment to establish an eight percent gas tax was defeated as an alternative to the governor’s proposal, implored his colleagues to get behind some plan to create new revenues for the state’s immense transportation needs.

“You know, I told myself in 22 years I'd never get emotional over a bill. And I'm sorry I broke my own damn word. I'm emotional. We've been fighting this for ten years. Ten years now!” Wagner shouted. “I'm here tonight to get a transportation bill passed!”

The Senate is now left to consider a bill passed by the House of Delegates that maintains most of the key provisions of Governor McDonnell’s package, including the elimination of the gas tax. But the administration sounded pessimistic the House bill would fare any better.

“It was quite clear from the floor debate and from the fact they voted against every single transportation funding mechanism before them, and that they didn't even offer any solutions of their own, they have no intention of addressing transportation funding,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, who made it clear the administration blamed Democrats for the bill’s demise.

“We’re incredulous,” Connaughton said. “On a day that the Texas Transportation Institute comes out with its nationally known study that says the Washington region has the worst traffic congestion in the entire country, the Senate Democratic caucus voted against every Senate version of transportation funding to date.”

Without some form of compromise, the General Assembly will close its session in three weeks without approving any new transportation revenues.

“Unless the Democrats in the Senate work with us… things do not look very favorable right now,” Connaughton added.

“The governor can send down a bill at any time. That's his prerogative.  I would encourage him to find common ground among all the proposals that are out there and there are a lot of them,” said Delegate David Toscano, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “It looks like if the governor is not willing to compromise on very much, nothing is going to get done,” he said.

Toscano chided the governor's plan for relying on revenue from future Internet sales -- a marketplace equity bill --that Congress "probably won't pass." He added: "It was deficient in the first place."

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Transportation Nation

As Virginia Debates Transportation Funding Plan, EVs Put Gas Tax Under Microscope

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Chevy Volt at the 2012 NY International Auto Show (photo by Kate Hinds)

As both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly prepare to work to find common ground after passing different versions of Governor Bob McDonnell’s major transportation funding plan, critics say the governor’s proposal to eliminate the state gas tax and replace it with a higher sales tax would not provide enough revenue to satisfy the state’s transportation needs.

On Monday the House gave preliminary approval to a measure that keeps most of McDonnell’s proposals intact, including eliminating the state’s 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax.  In the Senate, a key Republican lawmaker is proposing a different solution: a 5.5 percent sales tax on the wholesale price of gasoline tied to inflation.

The bill approved by the House killed the governor’s plan to impose a $100 registration fee on alternative fuel vehicles.  The proposals are scheduled for a final vote today.

The McDonnell administration argues higher fuel efficiencies continue to eat into gas tax revenues so the tax should be replaced, especially as the adoption of hybrid and electric cars is expected to reduce gas consumption.

The latest hybrid and electric models are currently on display at the Washington Auto Show, where proponents say they have become much more practical for everyday use since the first generation models.

Mahi Reddy, the founder of SemaConnect, a manufacturer of electric vehicle charging stations based in Bowie, Maryland, says EVs are indeed becoming more popular, although they only represent less than one percent of all vehicles on the road today.

“Previous generations of electric cars struggled because they used lead-acid batteries. They used nickel-metal hydride batteries,” Reddy said. “The new generation all use lithium batteries, the same lithium technology that is in your cell phone. So that means these batteries are much lighter, they have much more range, and these cars are much better engineered so they are practical cars you can use to commute to the office.”

In his view, the biggest obstacle facing EVs is the lack of charging stations.

A report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found our region has strong potential for EV growth, but an "underdeveloped charging network" is one of several problems.

But while the governor views improving fuel efficiency as a reason to dump the gas tax altogether, the Council of Governments executive director Chuck Bean takes the opposite position.

“In terms of transportation funding all of the options need to be on the table; gas tax, sales tax. We are really in a crisis of transportation funding and need to be very creative,” Bean said. “I would hesitate to reverse or eliminate any taxes because there is simply a great need for more funding.”

The potential of these vehicles does raise another potential challenge to funding transportation: as the U.S. vehicle fleet is comprised of more EVs and regular vehicle fuel standards improve, the gas tax will lose even more of its purchasing power. That would leave states looking for other revenue streams like higher tolls, more borrowing, higher vehicle fees, or higher sales or property taxes to pay for roads and rails.

The smart growth community says there is no way for Virginia to build its way out of its infamous traffic congestion and taht the solution lies in changing land use policies and urban planning strategies to maximize the potential for transit, walking, and bicycling.

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Transportation Nation

LaHood: There's a "Sense of Urgency" on Transit Aid

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ray LaHood (photo by Martin DiCaro)

(Alec Hamilton-WNYC News) U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says area transit agencies should be able to be ready to withstand future storms.

"Nobody's sitting around,” LaHood told WNYC's Soterios Johnson. "There's a sense of urgency about getting this done, getting it done the right way, making sure that it's done correctly -- and making sure that it's done in a way that will withhold the kind of storm that hit the region during Sandy."

On Monday the Federal Transit Administration said it would start releasing  $2 billion of the $10.9 billion in transit aid voted into law last week.

New Jersey has requested $1.2 billion of that aid, New York close to $5 billion.  Neither agency has released a complete breakdown of how those funds would be spent.

 

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Radiolab

Million Dollar Microsecond

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Picture the scrum of the stock exchange -- the flurry of buying and selling, the split-second decisions that make and break fortunes. Then take out all the humans and accelerate everything until you literally can't keep up. Jad visits the inhumanly fast world of modern-day, high-speed trading with NPR's

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Radiolab

Speed

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The inhumanly fast world of high-speed trading, an excruciatingly slow experiment, and a physicist plays Zeus.

Comments [67]

Transportation Nation

Sandy Aid Funds for Transit Start to Flow

Monday, February 04, 2013

The FTA is releasing the first $2 billion in federal aid to "protect, repair, reconstruct, and replace public transit equipment and facilities" damaged by storm Sandy.

The funds are the "first installment" of $10.9 aid to transit passed by Congress and signed into law last week.

The NY MTA estimates Sandy caused $5 billion in damages in what it's then-head Joe Lhota called the "worst devastation ever." For a sense of why the price tag on rebuilding is so high, consider this radio report on the destroyed South Ferry station in Southern Manhattan, a single project that could cost about half a billion dollars.

The $2 billion made available today in federal money will go to a mix of agencies battered by Sandy's floodwaters, not just the NYC subway. See below for the official announcement:

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Makes $2 Billion in Federal Aid Available for Public Transit Systems Damaged by Hurricane Sandy

 Assistance part of $10.9 billion emergency relief package to restore transit in 13 states

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today announced the availability of $2 billion through the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) new Emergency Relief Program to help protect, repair, reconstruct, and replace public transit equipment and facilities that were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The funds are the first installment of $10.9 billion appropriated to the FTA through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, which President Obama signed into law on January 29.

“At DOT, we continue doing all we can to help our state and local partners make their storm-damaged public transportation systems whole again,” said Secretary LaHood. “The $2 billion we’re making available now will reimburse transit agencies for extraordinary expenses incurred to protect workers and equipment before and after the hurricane hit, and support urgently needed repairs to seriously damaged transit systems and facilities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere.”

FTA’s new Emergency Relief Program was established under the two-year surface transportation law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). The funds will be awarded through the program on a rolling basis, in the form of grants to states, local governments, transit agencies and other organizations that own or operate transit systems damaged by the storm. Information about the funds and how to apply is available at www.fta.dot.gov/emergencyrelief.

“The Department has stepped up to address the worst transit disaster in U.S. history, which directly affected well over one-third of the nation’s transit,” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. “We are pledged to distribute the emergency relief funding responsibly and as quickly as possible to ensure that transit riders have the reliable service they need and deserve—and lay a strong foundation to mitigate the impact of such disasters in the future.”

Following the storm, the Department developed a rapid-response strategy to assist transit providers in the short-run, while laying the foundation for the responsible administration of federal-aid transit funds available now. Notably, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and FTA have conducted continuing damage assessments and cost-validation work for both operating and capital costs associated with restoring and rebuilding transit in the impacted areas. These early joint efforts support FTA’s ability to compensate the affected transit agencies promptly while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly.

Consistent with the requirements of the supplemental appropriations, the remaining disaster relief funds will be made available after FTA issues interim regulations.

For the most part, the FTA will cover 90 percent of the cost of transit-related operating and capital projects undertaken in response to Hurricane Sandy.

 

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Transportation Nation

How Grand Central Terminal Survived the Wrecking Ball - And Lived to 100

Thursday, January 31, 2013

(New York, NY - WNYC) Soon after Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, it was viewed as an one of the great public spaces in America, an icon of modern travel. By the 1940s, a popular radio drama bearing its name would open with a blast from a locomotive whistle and an announcer crying, "Grand Central Station! As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, part of the nation's greatest city."

Thirty years later, developers wanted to take a wrecking ball to Grand Central and replace it with an office tower.

In truth, the place was seedy. That's according to Kent Barwick, a former head of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and a key player in the effort to prevent the destruction of the terminal to make way for an office tower. "It was pretty dusty and the windows were broken," he recalled of Grand Central back then. "It was dark and and littered with advertising everywhere. And there wasn't any retail except for a couple of newsstands that had near-poisonous sandwiches and undrinkable coffee."

(We've done some terrific coverage of Grand Central in the past year:  a tour of the Grand Central clock tour with The Invention of Hugo Cabret author Brian O. Selznick here and a cool behind-the-scenes video of Grand Central's secrets here.)

The Fight Is On

The terminal was owned by the Penn Central Railroad, a company in decline because of America's move to the suburbs and car-dependent travel.  The much vaunted Interstate Highway Bill also spelled death for long-distance rail travel. In 1975, Penn Central was careering into bankruptcy and desperate to squeeze a windfall from its prime Manhattan real estate. So it proposed to do to Grand Central what it had done to Penn Station: sell the development rights to a company that would tear down the Beaux-Arts masterpiece and erect a steel and glass tower.

But Grand Central, unlike Penn Station, was landmarked.

The owners sued in state supreme court, claiming the new landmark law was unconstitutional. The railroad won, and moved to demolish Grand Central. The preservationists scrambled.

Barwick and his colleagues at The Municipal Arts Society called a hasty press conference in the terminal at Oyster Bar. Barwick's boss, Brendan Gill spoke first. "If we can't save a building like this, what can we do?" he asked.

The preservationists knew they were fighting to save not only the building but the landmarks law itself. And they knew from press descriptions of them as "a troop of well-known New Yorkers" that some of their opponents were painting them as elitists who wished to suspend New York in amber. Former consumer affairs commissioner Bess Meyerson spoke next, and addressed the issue.

"It's not really a question of change," she said. "If any city understands change, it's our city. But I think it's high time that we ask that very important question, 'Change for what?'"

Cause célèbre

The next speaker was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose presence transformed preservation from a stuffy to a glamorous pursuit. "I think if there is a great effort, even if it's at the eleventh hour, you can succeed and I know that's what we'll do," she said.

The New York Times prominently featured her in its coverage the following day, noting her "eleoquence," as well as her "two-piece tan dress adorned with heavy long gold chain." The effort to save Grand Central was, from that moment, a national issue.

Barwick recalled that Onassis also wrote a letter to Mayor Abe Beame, and that the letter began, "'Dear Abe, How President Kennedy loved Grand Central Terminal.'"  Barwick laughingly added that, "I don't know, and I don't need to know, whether President Kennedy had ever expressed himself on that subject."

Not long after, Beame told the city's lawyers to appeal the state supreme court's decision, an appeal the city won. The case then moved, in 1978, to the U.S. Supreme Court.Penn Central again argued it should be able to do what it wanted with its property. New York's lawyers said the city had the right to regulate land use through the landmarks law.

The verdict

The justices sided with the city. Grand Central Terminal was saved and, in the early 90s, underwent a restoration that brought back its luster. Penn Central Railroad eventually became Metro-North, which last year saw near-record ridership of 83 million passengers.

Barwick said that today, the city can't imagine being without Grand Central Terminal. "You see New Yorkers all the time, staking a claim in that building, pointing up to that cerulean sky and saying, 'Hey. this belongs to us,'" he said.

Grand Central Terminal turns 100 years old tomorrow.

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Transportation Nation

Va. Gov's Plan to End Gas Tax Goes Before Committee

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Workers complete one span of the track for the Silver Line to Dulles Airport. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing a new structure to fund large state transportation projects. (Photo by Armando Trull/WAMU)

(Washington, DC - WAMU) A legislative committee in the Virginia House of Delegates will take up Governor Bob McDonnell's $3 billion transportation funding plan Wednesday. The governor expects his bill will go before the full House and Senate next week.

McDonnell's proposal has been picked apart since its unveiling three weeks ago, but he still says it's the best plan out there. McDonnell insists increasing the gas tax would be politically impossible, which is why he has recommended eliminating the gas tax and replacing it with a higher sales tax to fund transportation.

"I can only tell you that the poll that was done last week by two independent sources said that 2-1, Virginians favored this approach over tax increases," McDonnell said. "So I think I've found the right economic and political model that can actually get the job done and can pass."

Virginia would be the first state to eliminate its gas tax, dumping what has become a rule of transportation funding: use the roads, pay the tax that's supposed to maintain them. But it's not outrageous — it's just different, says Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.

"We are one of the few nations on earth that uses gas taxes to directly fund transportation," he says. "Most countries have much higher gas taxes than we do, which sends a signal to users and discourages gasoline consumption and encourages smaller vehicles and more public transportation. So they have much higher gas taxes than we do but they don't dedicate that money to transportation."

But Schank calls the governor's plan 'inconsistent' because it maintains a user fee on trucks by continuing the diesel tax and a user fee for electric vehicles by increasing the registration fee to $100.

"And then he's getting rid of the so-called user fee for passenger vehicles by getting rid of the gas tax," he says. "It's not a strategy based on thoughtful analysis about how we should be paying for our transportation system."

Schank acknowledges the governor has to deal with political realities. McDonnell says neither the General Assembly nor Virginia residents want to pay more at the pump.

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Transportation Nation

Pittsburgh Not Enforcing Tow Truck Licensing Rules

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Illustration by Anita DuFalla

(Halle Stockton -- PublicSource) In April 2010, the Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to protect motorists from aggressive tow-truck drivers.

Council members had heard one too many stories about price gouging by towers, or vehicles being snatched in “spiderweb” lots, those with lurking tow-truck drivers and confusing parking rules.

Although some of the practices already violated city ordinances, the city had no way to enforce its rules. So council established a business license for towing operators, and a new set of rules for towing vehicles improperly parked in restricted lots.

The licensing requirement was signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl within a week.

Nearly three years later, however, the licenses have not been issued.

That has left drivers like Elliot Gerard with little recourse when they have complaints about towing companies.

Gerard, of Monroeville, parked in a private lot designated for medical offices at Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill last spring. According to his wife, Alicia Gerard, as her husband took their infant son from the car seat to stop at a nearby Starbucks, he locked eyes with the driver of a Travis Towing truck parked a few spots away.

When he returned minutes later, his Nissan Rogue was chained to the truck’s ramp.

According to Alicia Gerard, the tow-truck driver told Gerard that to get his car back, he’d need to produce $110 in cash on the spot — or pay $150 at the impound lot.

Such an additional charge would violate the city code, which sets the maximum cost at $110, and does not allow extra charges or storage fees for the first 12 hours.

Gerard asked the driver to let him take his son’s safety seat and diaper bag from the car because he didn’t have the cash to pay, Alicia Gerard said, but the driver refused.

Ultimately, the driver told Gerard he could pay $115 by credit card, which he did, and his car was not towed. In 2000, the city code was amended to make towing companies accept credit cards as well as cash.

“Elliot was at fault because he didn’t see the sign, but the tow-truck driver’s actions were mischievous and calculating,” Alicia Gerard said.

Mark Travis, owner of Travis Towing, said the situation unfolded differently, but he would not elaborate.

“It’s just very popular to demonize us,” he said of the towing industry. “It’s an accepted form of bullying.”

‘Aggressive towing’

Complaints about towing companies piled up in 2010, after then-City Councilman Doug Shields called for city residents to share problems.

Among the complaints Shields received: A tow truck driver took a woman to an ATM to withdraw $300 so her vehicle wouldn’t be taken to the impound lot. A family told of coming to town for a Pirates game and returning to an empty parking space, with no signs in the lot telling them who to call about retrieving it.

Pittsburgh resident Gary Van Horn complained at the time that a tow-truck driver tried to charge him $900 for towing and storing his car after he had an accident and asked that his car be towed to a specific auto-body shop. Van Horn filed a police report and the amount was reduced to $200.

“This was purely aggressive towing,” he told PublicSource. It was “taking advantage of the situation.”

Each towing business was following its own set of rules, said Shields, who represented District 5 until 2011. So he wrote the 2010 ordinance in an attempt to use business licenses to make the rules uniform and the companies accountable.

The bill was to regulate operators who tow cars that have been parked in a restricted area, not those who tow a vehicle at the owner’s request after an accident.

“The business license was a common-sense response to citizens being preyed upon by unscrupulous operators,” Shields said. The city issues other professional licenses, including those for electricians, general contractors and pawnbrokers.

Getting a license would require tow-truck drivers to provide their drivers' licenses and business owners to provide proof of insurance, tax identification and access to company business records. The records would show whether they were adhering to the maximum towing charges and accepting credit cards as well as cash.

The 2010 law gave the enforcement job to the Department of Public Safety. The licenses were to cost $100, and $50 to renew annually.

The ordinance said that before a car could be removed from a private or restricted lot, towers would need a signed and time-stamped request from property owners, and that there must be signs in the lot warning of the tow risk.

In addition, tow-truck drivers could not tow a vehicle if the owner showed up before it was connected to the truck. If the motorist was too late, the tow companies would have to notify police of the towed vehicle’s location through an online program run by the Department of Public Safety.

An unenforceable rule?

Council unanimously passed the bill in April 2010 and Ravenstahl signed it. But Shields says the mayor's staff soon after told him it was not a priority.

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper said the law was “unenforceable.”

Chief Harper did not respond to numerous requests in the past two months for comment on why he thought the ordinance was unenforceable. Bureau of Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said Harper had a booked schedule for much of November, was on vacation in December and recently was off because his mother died. Doven said neither the mayor nor Public Safety Director Michael Huss would be available for comment.

Protecting "citizens from aggressive tow companies … is certainly important,” Doven wrote in an e-mail. “However, the ordinance was written by a politician without any input from the officials who would be responsible for implementing and enforcing the ordinance.”

Doven said she did not know which parts of the ordinance Harper thought were unenforceable. While she said a police representative would contact PublicSource, none had done so by deadline.

The mayor's office voiced few public misgivings about the measure during council's initial deliberations. At a March 2010 council meeting, Shields said he had sent the ordinance to the mayor’s policy director and had not heard back.

“I assume they are fine with it,” he said.

During an April council meeting the same year, Assistant City Solicitor Jason Zollett said the Law Department’s initial concerns about the bill had been assuaged because of amendments Shields was adopting.

“I’m perfectly content with the way it reads at this point," Zollett said.

Resolving towing disputes, Shields said, was going to take “some focus on the part of the police department, and Chief Harper has assured me that that’s going to happen.”

And when Harper came to council’s table shortly afterward to answer questions, he raised no concerns about the bill.

At several other council meetings, the dates to implement the ordinance were changed to give the city more time, but Shields said the administration was committed to having the system in place by early 2011.

All the amendments were passed by council and signed by the mayor.

Doven told PublicSource that Ravenstahl signed the original measure because he supported the idea behind the legislation. Thinking it would be revised later, she wrote, Ravenstahl “followed the will of council."

Doven said Councilman Bill Peduto, a Democrat who represents District 8, offered to rework the ordinance and that Harper had been awaiting his proposed revisions.

However, Peduto, who is challenging Ravenstahl in this year’s mayoral race, said the conversation ended when he asked Harper and Huss in March of 2012 for specific problems with the bill and was not given an answer.

“I’m not going to go through the foolish exercise of introducing and passing a bill and then see the administration not do it again,” he said.

Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs the council's Public Safety committee, did not return calls for comment.

Industry response

Nick Milanovich, manager at J.E. Stuckert Inc., says the Uptown-based towing company supported the business license.

“It would protect everybody,” he said. “And it would make sure that everyone is on the same page with insurance and liabilities.”

Joe Stickles, owner of Stickles Towing in Greenfield, said he supports a business license because it would help push out “fly-by-night” businesses that employ drivers without driver’s licenses or proper insurance.

Having the law on the books, but not enacted, has created confusion for the industry, both men said.

Stickles said several vehicle-owners have questioned his drivers about whether they have a business license.

“We have to explain to them … that it hasn’t been implemented,” Stickles said. “I tell them to call their local representative to ask about the situation.”

Had the law been implemented back when Elliot Gerard dashed into Starbucks for example, the tow-truck driver would have needed a request from the lot owner to remove the SUV. The Monroeville family also would have had a channel to complain about the towing company, and the city could review its practices.

Instead, the Gerards filed a police report, which they said went nowhere.

City officials “put this law on the backburner because it wasn’t important to them, but it was important to us and I’m sure it was important to a lot of others,” said Alicia Gerard.

Peduto said his office receives calls by residents outraged by how they’ve been treated by towing companies.

“There really isn’t a way to prevent it at this point,” he said. “The idea of the ordinance was to get to the root cause. Without it, there’s no mechanism in place to go after those operating illegally.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.

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The Takeaway

From Undocumented Pay to Documented Paycheck

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What would be the economic impact of putting some 11 million people on the pathway to citizenship? And how does one person who has lived his life on the black market come out of the shadows financially? Carlo Alban starred on Sesame Street for five years, but he did so as an undocumented immigrant.

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Transportation Nation

A Pay-Per-Mile Road Tax Could Target Transpo Funding -- But It's Years Away

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

(photo by Richard Masoner via flickr)

As federal and state governments struggle to adequately fund their transportation networks, a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax has potential to increase revenues -- but the establishment of the tax is probably years away.

To cite one example, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s major transportation funding proposal would eliminate the state gas tax and replace it with a higher sales tax. There is no mention of VMT. In fact, no state currently charges drivers a VMT tax, which tracks all miles traveled and charges a fee based on distance.

“The technology is generally there but there are an awful lot of political, institutional, and general public policy concerns that we still have to deal with,” said Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

One big concern may be privacy. A study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board released last week found that 86 percent of area commuters oppose having a GPS device installed in their vehicles to track all their miles traveled.

“There are lot of measures that can be put in place to insure that personal information is not being used or exploited, but you really have to do a good job of convincing the motoring public that privacy concerns are going to be dealt with in a very clear way,” Puentes said.

At a time when governments are looking for dedicated revenue streams for transportation systems and projects that often run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, VMT offers an opportunity to direct money to the most troublesome roads, said Puentes, who said a VMT tax would mark a fundamental change to transportation funding.

“If you are driving on the Beltway during rush hour consistently adding to the traffic on those highly congested roads, you’d be paying more, and then those revenues would go back to the road you are using,” he said.  Under the current gas tax system, revenues are placed into central transportation funds and allocated more evenly.

Politically, few politicians have shown the willingness to try to convince drivers of the merits of VMT.

"Oregon is generally considered to be the state that's pioneering most of the research and the policy analysis around this. A state law requires them to look at this,” said Puentes, referring to a state pilot program.

A University of Iowa study examined VMT on a pilot basis in Oregon and 12 U.S. cities. In Congress, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer is pushing a bill that would mandate that the Treasury Department study VMT.  In 2009 a national commission recommended VMT as one possible solution to the nation's transportation funding crisis.

But pay-as-you-drive is gaining acceptance in other circles. In 2010, California approved it as a method of pricing car insurance, and now State Farm is using it.

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Transportation Nation

Cruise ships: A Luxury for the Rest of Us

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cruisers just off a ship reflect on why they decided on a cruise and whether it was worth the money. (Photo by Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace)

(Interview by Jeremy Hobson -- Marketplace) For many well-heeled Americans, the idea of a luxury vacation is a fancy hotel or an expensive flight to an exotic destination. And for the wealthiest among us, taking a break means private jets and pricey beach resorts. But for more than 10 million Americans annually, their luxury vacation means a berth on a cruise ship.

"The United States is still clearly the No. 1... market for cruisers in the world," Royal Caribbean president and CEO Adam Goldstein told Marketplace. "There are about 20 million people a year in the world taking a cruise right now and 11 or 12 [million] come from the United States."

Cruise ships weren't always so mainstream. In 1970, Goldstein said only 500,000 people took a cruise every year.

"It's definitely become more available, when I got into the business in 1988 we aspired to be a mainstream vacation," Goldstein said. "It's definitely become more accessible but what the last few years of challenges, economically, have posed to us is the need to really get across the value message of what is included in the cruise purchase."

According to industry research firm Cruise Market Watch, the ticket price for a typical cruise passenger is $1,311. When you combine onboard expenses and incidentals, the price tag rises to $1,711.

That's not inexpensive, but the the average American family will spend $4,000 on a vacation, including airfare, according to a 2010 American Express survey.

"First of all, we draw pretty broadly, obviously we offer upscale vacations," Goldstein said. "We are looking at household income of probably something like $75,000 and up generally speaking. The vast majority of our cruisers I would say would be middle and upper-middle class."

[Also from Marketplace: Fisher Island: America's most exclusive zip code.]

 

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Transportation Nation

Alexandria To Consider Registration For Bicycles

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Alexandria City Hall (photo by cliff via flickr)

(Michael Pope - Washington, D.C., WAMU) Members of the Alexandria City Council are about to consider whether or not bicycle owners should be forced to register their bikes and pay a fee.

Tucked away in the Alexandria city code is a provision, largely ignored, requiring bicycle owners to register with the city and pay a 25-cent registration fee. City Councilman Justin Wilson admits he is in violation of the policy.

"I've tried. I've actually tried," Wilson says. "We don't make it very easy to register your bike."

As it turns out, nobody registers their bicycle because nobody knows about the provision, which dates back to 1963. Wilson says city officials are now looking at the existing policy to determine what kind of changes might be needed to enforce the measure.

During a recent public hearing, Old Town resident Kathryn Papp said mandatory registration would be a good idea.

"Cars are registered and charged a fee. Motorcycles are registered and charged a fee," Papp says. "Almost every vehicle on the roadway is registered and charged a fee."

Papp says registration would also make stolen bicycles easier to recover, and revenues from a small annual fee could go towards building addition bicycle facilities.

City Council members are expected to consider recommendations in the spring.

 

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Transportation Nation

DC Commuters Want Less Traffic, More Transit -- And No Congestion Pricing

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

(photo by NCreedplayer via flickr)

Commuters are skeptical that congestion pricing will reduce traffic in the metropolitan Washington area and raise revenues to fund transportation projects. Instead, they favor alternatives to driving -- commuter rail, express bus service, or bicycling/walking.

report released Wednesday by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) weighed the attitudes of 300 area residents who participated in five forums: two in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in the District of Columbia. The participants were asked to consider three scenarios: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways, including interstate highways; 2) charging a per-mile fee measured by GPS systems installed in cars; and 3) creating priced zones similar to a system in London that would charge motorists to enter a designated area.

These attitudes are being probed at a delicate time for transportation funding in the region: Virginia's governor is proposing the elimination of the state gasoline tax -- while Maryland is looking at increasing theirs. Meanwhile, the area's largest transit project, the Silver Line, has yet to be fully funded.

But the funding scenarios posed to study participants received tepid support.

“This study shows people are cautiously open to concepts of congestion pricing, but they really need to see if it’s going to work, and they have doubts about that,” said John Swanson, a TPB planner.

“They really want to make sure that there are clear benefits, that [congestion pricing] is going to fund new transportation alternatives… particularly transit and high quality bus [service],” he added.

Scenario one – charging tolls on all major roadways – was supported by 60 percent of study participants, who engaged in extended exchanges of ideas and opinions. Scenario two – using GPS to track miles traveled – was opposed by 86 percent, even though drivers’ actual routes would not be tracked, only the number of miles.

“I don’t want to discount privacy concerns,” Swanson said. “I don’t think, however, the concerns were simply the classic ‘big brother’ concerns. There was a lot of code language for broader anxieties.  It was a complicated proposal that was hard to understand.  It seemed to be hard to implement.  A lot of people said it looked like it would be expensive to implement and, frankly, they are right.”

The study participants spoke of congestion in personal terms -- family time robbed, the stress of dealing with incessant traffic. Most commuters said driving is not a choice.

“The availability of other options besides driving—such as transit, walking and biking—increased [the] receptiveness to pricing. Participants also spoke favorably of proposals that would maintain non-tolled lanes or routes for those who cannot or do not want to pay,” the report said.

Transit advocates say the report shows shaping land use strategies to improve access to transit and create walkable, densely built environments is the best way to mitigate the region’s traffic jams.

“Newcomers to the region are very frequently choosing the city or a place near transit rather than a place where they have no option but to drive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“What’s most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around,” Schwartz added.

The study’s authors – the TPB partnered with the Brookings Institution – found most participants were unaware the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon) hasn’t been raised since 1993.  However, they also favored raising the gas tax as an easier, fairer alternative to implementing a congestion pricing program.

Support for increasing the gas tax increased over the course of the sessions --  from 21 percent when the study convened to 57 percent upon its completion.

The gas tax “is a hidden fee,” said Swanson. “We learned that people actually like that. There is a general sense of the invisibility of the gas tax being a problem and potentially a benefit, something that’s strangely attractive to people.”

Eighty-five percent of study participants identified transportation funding shortfalls as a critical problem, yet expressed doubts the government would make the right choices if additional revenues were made available through congestion pricing.

TPB board member Chris Zimmerman, who's also a member of the Arlington (VA) County Board, took exception to the wording of the study’s questions using the word “government” because he felt it provoked a negative response.

“If you are trying to interpret what people say, you have to be careful of what question you ask them,” Zimmerman said. “I think people get that there is a lack of funding.  They also get the fact there are a number of other problems.  There aren’t alternatives. For many in this region, they drive not because that’s what they are dying to do, but because they have no choice.”

Zimmerman, who background is in economics, said it should be no surprise people are lukewarm about congestion pricing proposals, given the lack of alternative modes of transportation in some places.  He is also unsure congestion pricing will work.

“The way roads are run is there is basically no pricing of them at all. Even if you are paying a gas tax it’s not related to your use of any particular road.  An economist looks at that and says of course you are going to get inefficiency and congestion,” Zimmerman said.

“You are not talking about going from the current situation to instantly pricing everything perfectly.  You are talking about implementing costs on particular segments of roads and that gets a lot more complicated because there are secondary effects," Zimmerman said. "We price one thing and many people shift to some other place.  Well, where is that some other place?”

“In practice, implementing that is very difficult.”

The Washington region saw two major highways shift to congestion pricing in 2012. Maryland's Inter-County Connector charges variably priced tolls; the 495 Express Lanes charge dynamically priced tolls and offer free rides to HOV-3 vehicles.

In the case of the Express Lanes, the state of Virginia will not receive toll revenues for 75 years as per its contract with its private sector partner, Transurban, and it remains to be seen if the new toll lanes will ultimately reduce congestion in the heavily traveled corridor. The ICC also has its critics, who say the recently constructed highway was a waste of money.

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Transportation Nation

Governor Cuomo's Budget: $6 Billion for Sandy Recovery to MTA, Port Authority

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gov. Cuomo assessing flood damage after Sandy. (Image courtesy of the Office of the Governor)

Governor Andrew Cuomo is offering more details on how he'd like to spend federal Sandy recovery funds -- even though Congress hasn't yet passed the legislation. When he unveiled his $142 billion budget Tuesday, Cuomo laid out how the state will allocate a hoped-for $30 billion in aid, including:

  • $2 billion for replacement or mitigation of 2,000 miles of highway
  • $6 billion for mitigation for MTA and Port Authority, including vent covers, tunnel bladders and pumping capacity to protect transit tunnels.
  • $159 million for coastal mitigation – $34 million to repair Fire Island inlet and $125 for “soft barriers” like dunes on beaches
  • $2 billion to harden energy utilities

Read Anna Sale's story at WNYC.

Related:
NY’s South Ferry Station Closed for Foreseeable Future (link)
As PATH Resumes after Sandy, Questions Remain about Agency, Flood Plans (link)
Totaling Sandy Losses: How New York’s MTA Got to $5 Billion (link)
Transit in NYC Suffers “Worst Devastation Ever” (link)

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