Friday, April 05, 2013
Nearly five months after opening, the operators of the 495 Express Lanes are struggling to attract motorists to their congestion-free toll road in a region mired in some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.
Transurban, the construction conglomerate that put up $1.5 billion to build the 14-mile, EZ Pass-only corridor on the Beltway between the I-95 interchange and Dulles Toll Road, will let motorists use the highway free this weekend in a bid to win more converts.
“It takes a lot of time for drivers in the area to adapt to new driving behaviors. A lot of us are kind of stuck on autopilot on our commutes. That trend might continue for a while, too,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.
Light use of HOT lanes raises questions
McGurk says some drivers are confused about the new highway’s many entry and exit points. Opening the Express Lanes for free rides this weekend will let motorists familiarize themselves with the road, he said.
After opening in mid-November, the 495 Express Lanes lost money during its first six weeks in business. Operating costs exceeded toll revenues, but Transurban was not expecting to turn an immediate profit. In the long term, however, company officials have conceded they are not guaranteed to make money on their investment. Transurban’s next quarterly report is due at the end of April.
To opponents of the project, five months of relatively light traffic on Virginia’s new $2 billion road is enough to draw judgments. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has not recovered since the recession knocked millions out of work and more commuters are seeking alternatives to the automobile, according to Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“They miscalculated peoples' time value of money. They overestimated the potential demand for this road,” said Schwartz, who said the light use of the 495 Express Lanes should serve as a warning.
“We should not have rushed into signing a deal for hot lanes for the 95 corridor, and we certainly shouldn’t rush into any deal on I-66,” he said.
Transurban is counseling patience.
“We’re still in a ramp-up period. You’ve probably heard us say that since the beginning, too, but with a facility like this it’s a minimum six months to two years until the region falls into a regular pattern on how they’re going to use this facility,” McGurk said.
In its first six weeks of operations toll revenues climbed on the 495 Express Lanes from daily averages of $12,000 in the first week to $24,000 in the week prior to Christmas. Traffic in the same period increased from an average of 15,000 daily trips to 24,000, according to company records. Despite the increases, operating expenses still outstripped revenues.
It is possible that traffic is not bad enough outside of the morning and afternoon rush hours to push motorists over to the EZ Pass lanes on 495.
“It may also show that it takes only a minor intervention to remove enough cars from the main lanes to let them flow better,” said Schwartz, who said the 14-mile corridor is simply pushing the bottleneck further up the road.
Even Transurban’s McGurk says many customers who have been surveyed complain that once they reach the Express Lanes’ northern terminus at Rt. 267 (Dulles Toll Road), the same terrible traffic awaits them approaching the American Legion Bridge.
Express Lanes a litmus test for larger issues
The success or failure of the 495 Express Lanes will raise one of the region’s most pressing questions as it looks to a future of job and population growth: how best to move people and goods efficiently. Skeptics of highway expansions, even new facilities that charge tolls as a form of congestion pricing, say expanding transit is cheaper and more effective.
“An approach that gives people more options and reduces driving demand through transit and transit-oriented development may be the better long-term solution. But we’ve never had these DOTs give us a fair comparison between a transit-oriented investment future for our region and one where they create this massive network of HOT lanes,” said Schartz, who said a 2010 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments pegged the cost of a tolled network of 1,650-lane miles of regional highways at $50 billion.
Transportation experts say a form of congestion pricing, either tolled lanes or a vehicle miles traveled tax, may be part of a regional solution to congestion. The public, however, needs to be explained why.
“As long as the majority of system remains non-tolled and congested then you are not going to solve the problem,” said Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.
“Highways in this region are drastically underpriced. People are not paying enough to maintain them and they certainly are not paying enough to pay for the cost of congestion. The American people have been sold a bill of goods because they have been told that roads are free. Roads cost money,” he added.
The 495 Express Lanes are dynamically-priced, meaning the tolls increase with demand for the lanes. The average toll per trip in the highway’s first six weeks of operations was $1.07, according to Transurban records. As motorists enter the lanes they see signs displaying how much it will cost to travel to certain exits, but no travel time estimates are displayed. “It is important to be very clear to drivers about the benefit of taking those new lanes, and I am not sure that has happened so far,” said Schank, who said it is too early to conclude if the Express Lanes are working as designed.
“It’s hard to know if it works by looking whether the lanes are making money. I don’t know if that is the right metric. It’s the right metric for Transurban, but it’s not necessarily the right metric from a public sector perspective,” he said. “The real metric is to what extent does it improve economic development and regional accessibility, and that’s a much harder analysis that takes some real research and time.”
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
A Pennsylvania report on recidivism shows that halfway houses do little to reduce the problem. Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, discusses their role and the impact of privately run houses. Also, Peter Cove, founder of America Works, discusses his organization's efforts to move ex-prisoners into the workforce.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
(The Bay Area -- KALW) As cities across the country face steep budget cuts, many local governments are looking at their transportation departments and wondering if someone else could do the same job for less money.
That’s exactly what Fairfield, California thought. The small city (about 100,000 residents) contracted MV Transportation to run the bus system for the Fairfield and Suisun Transit organization, or FAST, hoping the company would bring a regular bus service to its suburban population.
But the reality was less than perfect, and it could serve as a cautionary tale to cities considering a private company for their public transit.
Zusha Ellison, a reporter for the Bay Citizen, uncovered a whole mess of problems with MV Transportation, from chronically late buses to city council members forgiving some of the $164,000 in fines that the company had racked up.
Ellison talked to George Fink, the former head of FAST, who spent his time trying to reign in MV Transportation. But the transit company was well-connected in the local government, which made it difficult for FAST to police the company. Fink remembers getting calls from his boss after criticizing MV Transportation, telling him to back off.
There have been other cases where private operators have taken over public bus systems with mixed results. When Nassau County, New York shifted it's bus system to a private operator, service was reduced on 60 percent of the routes in an effort to limit losses*. North of New York City, a Poconos bus operator filled a gap when transit cuts reduced public bus service, but the fleet used was shabbier and drew regulatory scrutiny. And a private eco-friendly operator in Detroit launched with some fanfare last year, only to shift business models for lack of customer demand.
The Farfield California is one example--a stark and cautionary example--of what can happen when local transit is turned over to private ownership, according to the Bay Citizen report.
* Ruth Ott of Veolio Transportation, the company that runs NICE Bus, wrote to contest our assessment of service cuts that we first reported the cuts a year ago. She writes:
We have improved both service quality and operational performance ... Customer satisfaction and customer perception of punctuality, vehicle reliability, bus cleanliness, quality of passenger information, operator courtesy have all increased significantly, by 50% to 60%, as measured by independent market research surveys.
We have made the best use of the available budget for transit service. The available dollars in 2012 were actually $35 million less than the $156 million that had been estimated by the MTA [ed note: the previous operator].
Monday, December 31, 2012
The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future. In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.
1) The Silver Line
When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018. Outstanding issues remain, however. The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.
2) I-495 Express Lanes
A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County. Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built. Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.
3) Transit and Gentrification
Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States. While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.
4) The Uber Battle for the Ages
After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber. This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize. In the end Uber won. And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.
5) MWAA’s woes
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention. But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons. Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices. Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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Thursday, December 13, 2012
On Capitol Hill today, high-speed rail in the Northeast will get dissected and debated. This time though, Amtrak head Joe Boardman will sit at the witness table with some support from record ridership numbers. And also Sandy.
The hearing continues a series of grillings GOP lawmakers have been giving to Amtrak in a push to reduce the subsidies the national rail network relies on each year. Other witnesses on the docket include a DOT rep, an American Enterprise Institute Scholar and a Morgan Stanley managing director.
The 15 word hearing title obscures the topic, so it's pasted way down below in this post, but rest assured the conversation will cover privatization of high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor.
Outgoing House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica who will chair today's hearing has long supported the idea of building high-speed rail in the Northeast because that route is the only one profitable for Amtrak, but he has argued that funding, and even operations, could be provided by the private sector. Big spending on big projects need not come entirely from the government, Mica has argued.
Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution says, "Superstorm Sandy did change the conversation around infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast."
The storm, which caused $60 million in losses to Amtrak and billions in damages to other transit agencies, showed the need for expensive upgrades, and a scale of risk involved that demands more active government investment. "The enormous bills we have from Sandy are not going to be born by the private sector. It's ridiculous to think so."
He says, "there is a role for the private sector to play" and he hopes the hearings hone in on it because finding the right role is crucial.
Puentes also says, states are likely to play an increasingly large role in Amtrak funding in the future. As the national government becomes more reticent to pay for unprofitable rail routes, states that want to keep their service will have to start chipping in.
One test case to watch for this model could be the Sunset Limited line along the Gulf Coast that was washed away in 2005 by Katrina. Local officials are lobbying to get it back. The cash-strapped states of Alabama and Mississippi would need to pony up though, and so far it's stalled.
Today's hearing though, is on the Northeast Corridor, where megaprojects are on the table and profits are a reasonable lure for business involvement. The "vision" for high-speed rail still carries a price tag of $151 billion and a minimum construction time of several decades. There is no plan for how to find that huge sum.
Amtrak is likely to try to draw the focus to a more immediate project that is incremental to the "vision," the Gateway program, which would add two new tunnels under the Hudson River into New York's Penn Station from New Jersey. There are two existing Hudson tunnels at capacity now. They both flooded during Sandy along with two of the four tunnels under the East River.
Petra Messick, a planner with Amtrak says the tunnels are needed for projected ridership growth but, Sandy also showed the value that new infrastructure could bring.
"When the Gateway Tunnels are built, they will be built in the 21st century and include a host of features that will make them more resilient ... like floodgates," Messick says.
The existing tunnels are more than a century old.
And in case you were still curious, that full 15 word title is: “Northeast Corridor Future: Options for High-Speed Rail Development and Opportunities for Private Sector Participation.”
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell offered no specifics in his “comprehensive transportation funding and reform” plan to raise an additional $500 million per year to prevent the state from running out of money to build roads by 2017.
Speaking in Fairfax County at his annual transportation conference, Governor McDonnell called on lawmakers to stay in session next year until they find a solution to Virginia’s long-term funding woes, which are exacerbated by the transfer of money from the state’s construction fund to required highway maintenance projects.
“I don’t think we can wait any longer,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think I can continue to recruit businesses to Virginia and see the unemployment rate go down unless we are able to get a handle on and provide some long-term solutions this session to that problem.”
The Republican governor, who is one year from leaving office, did not specify what he will ask lawmakers for when they convene in Richmond in January.
“I’ll tell you when we’re ready… before the session,” the governor said in brief remarks to reporters following his speech. “These are plans that take a lot of work to put together.”
He refused to take a position on whether the state’s gas tax should be increased, although he indicated that doing so alone would not generate adequate revenue. The tax of seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon, which currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, was last increased in 1986. It has lost 55% of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation.
Improved automobile fuel efficiency and the rising costs of highway construction materials have reduced the gas tax’s buying power, McDonnell said.
“A key ingredient of asphalt has increased by approximately 350% over that same time,” he said.
Critics contend the McDonnell administration cannot be trusted to direct new revenues wisely. One of the most vocal critics points to a record of highway construction instead of transit projects as evidence, especially from the $4 billion dollar package approved for the administration by the legislature.
“He squandered most of that,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s gone to rural highway projects that have very low traffic demand and are not high priorities given the traffic congestion within northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”
Schwartz listed State Rt. 460 in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway, bypasses in Charlottesville, and plans for an “outer beltway” in northern Virginia as examples of poor spending priorities by the administration, while transit projects like the Silver Line Metro rail and existing roads like I-66 need help.
“They are not targeting the areas of greatest need. You are not getting the best bang for your buck. You are spending a few billion dollars on the wrong things,” said Schwartz.
New revenues would likely be directed to construction projects under the state’s transportation trust fund, which currently loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually to required maintenance. The trust fund’s formula directs fifteen percent of its monies to transit projects. The remainder is for road building.
Governor McDonnell denied his administration is neglecting transit and other modes of transportation. “It’s going to be a multi-modal approach. Road, rail, and mass transit, all of those will be beneficiaries of a funding plan,” he said.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
For the ninth time in ten years, Amtrak has broken a ridership record. The national rail network carried 31.2 million passengers in the twelve months before September 30, 2012. This news comes smack in the heat of an election season where nationally subsidized services like passenger rail and public television have become campaign issues.
The news: ridership grew by 3.5 percent in 2012, giving Amtrak its highest number of passenger trips since the company began operations in 1971. As the chart above shows, Amtrak ridership has grown steadily--a total of 49 percent since 2000.
Ticket revenue increased 6 percent, accounting for $2 billion of a roughly $4 billion budget. That revenue comes in about $100 million above projections in the 2012 budget (PDF). The government chipped in a $466 million operating subsidy, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The federal government also allocated an additional $952 million for capital expenses.
Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said in a statement, "ridership will continue to grow because of key investments made by Amtrak and our federal and state partners to improve on-time performance, reliability, capacity and train speeds."
In the speed department: Last month, Amtrak began testing Acela trains to run at a new top speed of 160 miles per hour along several stretches of the Northeast Corridor. And 82 percent of trains were on time in 2012, up a bit from last year, which is about on par with airline industry performance compiled by FlightStat. (PDF) Amtrak has been growing in part by stealing business travelers from airlines on shorter flights.
The newly released numbers show the Northeast Corridor is still the anchor route for Amtrak with more than a third of all riders (11.4 million) traveling between Boston and Washington, D.C. Amtrak won't release new state-by-state and line-by-line numbers until next week, but the 361 miles of track along the Northeast Corridor are likely to continue to bring in more than half of all ticket revenue for Amtrak, as it did last year according to the 2011 annual report. According to projections (see PDF, last page of Appendix), only the NEC and Kansas City - St. Louis lines earn a profit on a per passenger basis. When final numbers are in, we'll find out if this new ridership and ticket revenue peak brings any other lines into break even territory.
Amtrak was established to provide passenger service that private train companies would not, or could not offer profitably.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
One of the largest freight carriers in the country is riding into the presidential election with a nationwide television advertising campaign designed to spark debate about infrastructure.
Virginia-based Norfolk Southern’s CGI-laden, Toy Story-esque advertisements show a boy falling asleep in his bedroom while his toys come to life, creating a thriving city that his train set races around. The release of the media campaign is timed to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions, where the freight company will have a strong presence. According to AdWeek, Norfolk Southern is also a sponsor of CNN's election coverage.
“Wherever our trains go, the economy comes to life,” says the narrator.
"One of the points Norfolk Southern likes to make is that they invest in their own infrastructure,” says Jim Lansbury, creative director at RP3, the ad agency behind the campaign. "Airlines don't build airports and trucking companies don't build highways."
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ estimates that $2.2 trillion over five years is needed to modernize the country's infrastructure, from levees and dams to highways and bridges. The federal government's primary funding source for transportation projects is the gas tax, but there's little chance it will be raised.
“Gas tax revenues and receipts have been lagging behind what we want to spend on transportation at the federal level,” says Rachel MacCleery, a transportation expert at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, who says about 25 percent of all transportation spending nationwide flows from Congress.
“The Obama administration, early in the administration, has taken the gas tax off the table,” MacCleery adds. The 18-cent-per-gallon tax has not been raised since 1993.
With funding for projects tight, states like Virginia are turning to public/private partnerships to build major highways.
Funding major transportation projects that promise to create jobs has become a partisan issue, especially during a presidential election season. There is little enthusiasm for a new stimulus bill.
“Where you see lots of progress in infrastructure investments it definitely is a bipartisan effort,” says MacCleery. While overall spending figures are important, where the investments are made is equally critical. “Are we building the kinds of infrastructure systems that will help sustain the 21st century economy and really thinking about conservation? Are we maintaining the infrastructure we have now?”
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Virginia broke ground on a plan to improve and expand 30 miles of High Occupancy Toll lanes along a stretch of the state's I-95 corridor.
Like the 495 HOT lanes, the I-95 Express Lanes will be located adjacent to the regular, non-toll lanes, giving drivers a choice: take the chance of getting stuck in traffic or pay a dynamically-priced toll for a faster ride. The goal is to enhance existing lanes while adding a third HOT lane to 14 miles in the northern most stretch of the corridor and two new lanes to the nine miles at the southern end.
The $1 billion project is scheduled for completion in December 2014. The I-95 Express Lanes are the result of another public-private partnership between the state and Fluor-Transurban, the company that is building the soon-to-be completed 495 HOT lanes. Transurban is paying for nearly 90 percent of the project while applying for a federal loan of $300 million to assist in the financing.
Under the agreement, Virginia gets an expanded commuting corridor with fully electronic toll lanes connecting Fairfax to Stafford County for contributing less than 10 percent of the project’s cost, while Transurban will receive the toll revenues for 75 years. The state's financial exposure is limited.
“The contract we signed with the state is a very equitable contract. We are taking the traffic risk,” said Transurban General Manager Tim Steinhilber. “Once we build the road, if no one comes to use the road then we don’t make any money. We lose money.”
Naturally, Transurban expects to turn a profit. If profits exceed a certain threshold, the state may share in toll revenues. At the other end of the spectrum, if HOV-3 carpoolers exceed a thirty-five percent threshold under certain circumstances, the state would have to subsidize those trips to ensure Transurban doesn’t take a bath on the free rides. There is a similar safety net in the 495 HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes contract.
“Traditionally across the country, HOV lanes are underutilized. We are working with the state to encourage carpoolers because that takes cars off the road and reduces congestion for everyone,” said Steinhilber. “If we get to the point where the state would start [subsidizing] the HOVers, it’s a win-win.”
At a groundbreaking ceremony at the Dale City rest area Tuesday, state and federal officials -- including Virginia Governor (and possible Republican Vice Presidential choice) Bob McDonnell -- touted the project’s estimated economic benefits: 500 construction personnel with an overall impact of $2 billion by supporting 8,000 regional jobs. One thousand trees will also be planted along the corridor that is designed to eventually seamlessly connect to the Capital Beltway at I-495, quickening trips to job centers in Tysons Corner, Va. Express buses will also have free access to the toll lanes.
“If you can’t move people and you can’t move goods quickly to market, you are not going to get businesses coming here and you aren’t going to get tourists. It’s going to impair the quality of life for all of us,” said Gov. McDonnell.
When asked by Transportation Nation if northern Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve its dreadful congestion problems, McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions.
“We are trying to do everything,” he said. “We are going to have a number of projects up here that will use mass transit. We’ve been advocating rail to Dulles.”
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
In 2006, New York inked a two decade privatizing city bus shelters, sidewalk sheds, city benches and even sidewalk newstands. The Spanish company Cemusa would take on the cost of building them and earn back the money through advertising. This kind of deal is growing more popular around the country as municipal governments shy away from capital spending, and business operations like ad sales on public property. Today, an NYC audit finds bus shelter maintenance lacking. This little case study reveals the mixed bag that can come from outsourcing city functions to private companies.
New Yorkers will attest the new glass and steel street furniture is slick, sightly and a needed update over the previous generation (even if critics do lament how NYC must suffer the same shelters as other countries received.) According to the NYC Comptroller's Office audit they aren't being kept clean enough: "we lack reasonable assurance that the bus stop shelters are serviced in accordance with Cemusa’s franchise agreement."
The 20-year deal requires Cemusa to design, construct and maintain 3,300 bus stop shelters, 330 newstands along with a few pay toilets and other non-adverting-friendly structures like benches. The advertising value is estimated at $1.3 billion. Many urban advocates are wary of these long term franchise deals for public revenue sources, particularly after Chicago sold off parking meter rights at a near fire sale price, and Houston cannceled an agreement to run red light cameras.
To keep Cemusa honest, the agreement with the NYC Department of Transportation has some pretty specific requirements: 'Each bus shelter must be cleaned and inspected twice a each week on non-consecutive days' for instance. There are set time frames for making repairs, for reporting damage, all the fine print you'd expect the City to want so they can cry foul if maintenance goes south.
But here's the thing: Cemusa subcontracts the work to other companies. That's permitted under the agreement. Those subcontractors aren't doing their jobs well according to the audit. The audit finds "insufficient evidence" that electrical inspections were carried out as reported, that cleaning was not on schedule, and that reporting and repair of damage was slower than required.
This is not to say the shelters are deathtraps crumbling on straphangers' heads. Simply that, when a private company manages public space, they too, leave it dirty sometimes, just like the DOT did when they managed bus shelters.
Cemusa agreed to five of the eight recommendations, and the DOT had no comment. How they respond and what reforms come will be another data point in our passive study of how alternative models function for updating our civic spaces.
Monday, May 07, 2012
The first commercial spacecraft to perform a mission to the International Space Station is set to launch on May 19th. Commercial space company SpaceX announced on Friday the new launch date for its Dragon space capsule.
The capsule atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket was due to lift off from Cape Canaveral next Monday, but the launch was delayed to allow more work to be done on computer software for the mission.
The aim of the mission is to blast the Dragon capsule loaded with cargo into low-earth orbit before docking it with the International Space Station.
SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Brost Grantham said Friday the company and NASA have nearly finished the software assurance process. “So far no issues have been uncovered during this process, but with a mission of this complexity, we want to be extremely diligent,” she said.
The backup date for the launch is May 22nd.
Thursday, May 03, 2012
(New York, NY - WNYC) In the Q & A after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the members of a new state Infrastructure Bank Board, he talked today about how the state might pay to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge after the federal government did not grant a $2 billion loan application.
(Ray LaHood wrote about the projects that did get the funding here.)
The proposed $5.2 billion project is a high priority for Cuomo. It would build two spans to replace an aging, overcrowded bridge across the Hudson River in New York City's northern suburbs.
Environmental and transportation groups have criticized the replacement bridge's design because it makes no provision for transit. Some opponents have suggested Cuomo's vehicles-only approach contributed to the project's failure to win federal transportation funding.
But Cuomo downplayed the decision by the Obama administration not to grant a loan on April 26. Cuomo said he's considering public-private partnerships that could leverage private financing, but he has no proposal at this time.
Here's an excerpt of the Q & A:
Q: Was it disappointing to not get the federal transportation loan for the Tappan Zee Bridge? Also, any progress on the next steps in terms of funding?
Cuomo: I believe the federal transportation funds will be reauthorized and I believe we will be competitive. Howard, anything new on the Tappan Zee financing?
Director of State Operations Howard Glaser: We’re doing many things simultaneously: the environmental review, the financial plans, working out labor agreements. So you’ll continue to see that work being done over the next few months.
Q: Do you need public-private partnership legislation to fund the bridge?
Cuomo: We’re talking about public-private partnership legislation. We don’t have an immediate proposal on that.
[Cuomo then talked about the various political obstacles to the project, and the need to overcome them to show that the state can still think and build big.]
[We're battling] inertia and institutional opposition—just bureaucratic opposition: opposition of the system, opposition to change, opposition to risk, which is very real and one of the main challenges you’re going to face.
The Tappan Zee Bridge is a project that has been talked about for decades, literally. The Tappan Zee Bridge--and there’s a project called the Peace Bridge in Buffalo--are large scale public works projects that have been talked about for decades but have somehow defied progress, let alone completion. That is one of those cultural enemies, I think, to progress. This sense that big projects are just too difficult to tackle.
Building a bridge: it’s controversial, it’s complex, there’s going to be opposition and [the idea that] if there’s opposition, we should stop. We’re trying to do the exact opposite with the Tappan Zee. We’re trying to say, ‘When there is a pressing need, government should be able to respond quickly, expeditiously, efficiently. Hear everyone, fair process, due process…but then get it done. Get it done.’
Government was about functioning [during the tenure of former NY State Governor] Al Smith. Government was about functioning and performing, competently, quickly. So the Tappan Zee Bridge, which we’ll be involved in, is a project that we identified early on, that is not just going to be about repairing that bridge. But it’s going to be about making the statement that government can work and society can work and we can still do big things. We’re that good. So keeping the Tappan Zee on time and moving along is very important to us.
Q: The biggest roadblock seems to be how to pay for it.
Cuomo: We’re working through a number of financing options and we’ll present a number of options for discussion and we’ll pick the best one.
Q: Will you be passing legislation during this session to allow you to raise public-private money for the Tappan Zee Bridge? Would it have to go through legislation?
Cuomo: It would not have to go through legislation. No.
Friday, April 27, 2012
(New York, NY - WNYC) NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joe Lhota told planners at a Midtown conference that the first project on his "wish list" is extending the Number 7 subway train down 11th Avenue to 23rd Street.
"It's something that I think would make sense because if you look at the demographics of the West Side, we shouldn't just make one stop," he told reporters after taking part in a workshop at the Regional Plan Association's annual assembly, which was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Lhota said, "It's important to have plans, to have a wish list." But he cautioned there was no active push to send the 7 train from Times Square past its planned terminus at W 34th Street. "I'm not sure it can be done," he said. "I'm not sure about how close you can get to the Hudson River."
The $2.1 billion extension is scheduled to be done by December 2013 at a cost of $2.1 billion. It's being built in conjunction with a massive development of the Hudson Yards immediately to the south.
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also been thinking about boosting the capacity of New York's transportation system.
Appearing Friday as a guest on WOR Radio's John Gambling Show, he said "it'd be great" to offer free transfers to the city's private ferries with a Metrocard. "It's all one big thing in these days of technology," the mayor said. "You could use one card and then revenue could be divided up" between the ferry operators and the NY MTA.
Lhota liked the idea of allowing ferry passengers to pay by Metrocard, noting that several non-NY MTA transit operators in the region already do that, from the PATH Train to New Jersey and a newly privatized bus system on Long Island. But he wasn't keen on the idea of making the transfer free and sharing fares. "The NY MTA is in no position to share its revenue with the ferries," he said.
The NY MTA is perennially cash-strapped and only recently received funding from the state for the last three years of a five-year capital plan.
Tuesday, April 03, 2012
New York is investing $1.2 billion in new, accelerated road and bridge projects, just days after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the funding bill for his "New York Works" infrastructure bank.
The funding -- almost ten percent of the entire $15 billion projected spending on infrastructure -- came even before appointees to a 15-member committee to administer the fund were named.
The funding will accelerate road and bridge projects across the state, with the largest single payment -- nearly half a billion dollars -- going to replace the Kosciuszko Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. But there are projects everywhere, from the Hempstead Turnpike in Long Island to the Latta Brook Road in Chemung County to Rt 52 over the Callicoon Creek in Delaware County to Route 9N in Port Henry, in the North Country.
The $1.2 billion in accelerated funding comes on top of $1.6 billion in previously planned spending on roads and bridges. It does not include the more than $5 billion replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, a project which has drawn fire for its lack of mass transit.
In a measure of how Governor Cuomo views the political potency of building new infrastructure, word of the investments came in a series of ten carefully-designed press releases, each targeted to a different media market with quotes praising the governor from local legislators.
The infrastructure bank has won support from business and labor leaders, who see a significant new infusion of funds into construction as a shot in the arm for the economy, particularly upstate.
And while many details of the fund are as yet unreleased, some infrastructure bank experts shrugged off the disbursement of funds before its governing structure has even been named.
"You can't just jump to where we should be," said New York University professor Michael Likosky, who has advised governments on setting of infrastructure banks. "That's a lot of the reason why these things have failed up to now."
Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, was also nonplussed. "These were projects that had to happen," Yaro said, noting that New York has slowly defunded road projects over the years, leaving many roads and bridges in critical condition.
The grand idea of the NY Works fund is that it will coordinate capital spending among 45 agencies and authorities, including the state Department of Transportation, the New York MTA, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Thruway Authority, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and others. The governing body will prioritize and coordinate state projects -- the lack of which can tangle with interest costs, construction materials, and labor availability.
The $1.2 billion in new spending consists of $247 million in state capital funds and $917 million in new federal funds. When it's fully constituted, the fund is supposed to draw in private capital -- but, unlike Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, Governor Cuomo hasn't said which private sector investors have indicated they will invest in the fund.
This tranche of funding includes $212 million for bridge decking and structural replacement on 115 bridges, $250 million for 2,000 miles of pavement, and $687 million for "transportation projects of regional or statement significance throughout the state that had been delayed due to resource constraints," according to the press releases.
The Governor's office promises a live web link to on going New York Works projects, but that list is not yet live.
Here are the ten press releases (with lists of projects)
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
The chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, said airports that switch from all-federal security screening to private run security could save tax payers millions of dollars.
His remarks came in a press conference at the Orlando area's Sanford Airport.
Mica said this week the newly enacted Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act should streamline the process for airports that want to contract with private security screening firms instead of relying on Transportation Security Administration run screening.
The Winter Park Republican said that, in the decade since it was created, the TSA has ballooned into a "mammoth agency that attempts to intimidate small airports that are efficiently run."
He said switching the 35 top airports in the nation to private security screening would save tax payers one billion dollars over the next five years.
Mica said the TSA rejected some airports which applied to contract with private security because it said that would cost more.
But he said the agency's reasoning was not backed up by a Government Accountability Office report.
"GAO said that TSA cooked the books, that they added costs in," he said.
Sixteen of the nation's 457 airports currently run private security screening, and there are others that want to do the same, like Orlando Sanford International Airport.
The airport’s president, Larry Dale, said opting out of TSA run screening is about more than saving money.
“We’re already responsible for security here," Dale said. "If things screw up we get the blame. We want to have a part and a say in the security of this airport.”
Airports which opt out of all-federal screening will get to choose who screens their passengers, but security firms would still have to meet federal approval and operate under TSA guidelines.
Sanford could hire its own agents to run security screening, but it's more likely to contract with a private firm.
"We're not going to go out and do it ourselves like Jackson Hole (Wyoming) does, as a much smaller airport," Dale said.
Sanford has reapplied to opt out, and Dale hopes to have an answer from the TSA within months.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
His Congressional record isn't terribly helpful. In the House, Gingrich didn’t seem focused on mobility issues. An analysis of his track record on Project Votesmart reveals that Gingrich did not cast a vote on many of the key transportation bills in the 1990s, including the 1998 TEA-21 reauthorization bill, which succeeded by a large margin. Newt’s famous Contract with America didn’t deal with bridges or trains or roads (the “Taking Back our Streets Act” dealt with crime) and the summary of legislative proposals that make up his newer-fangled "21st Century Contract with America" never mentions “transportation” or “infrastructure” (aside from military infrastructure).
So all we have is his rhetoric. And in that, Gingrich has had his bold moments, though. In 2007, in the months following the publication of his book A Contract with the Earth, when he was filming public service announcements with Nancy Pelosi, Gingrich was talking up “common sense environmentalism” and a green jobs revolution, dreaming of a “Hydrogen car, or a car that would get 1,000 miles to a gallon of petroleum.” He suggested offering cash prizes of a tax-free billion dollars to attract “lots of inventors other than auto companies in Detroit.” He beamed thinking about a composite materials car made in America, or a hydrogen engine made in America.
“If you look at the amount we spent to maintain military capability in the Persian Gulf,” he said, “if you had spent the same amount to create a revolution in energy, we’d almost certainly be deeply into a hydrogen economy by now.”
Gingrich has consistently been in favor of private companies doing technologically cool things for the health of America (and for profit). In his book, Real Change, he included a chapter endorsing improved rail and more modernized airports. “As the leading economy in the world,” he wrote, “America should have the best air and rail transportation in the world, but we don’t.”
Why not? Because of unions, Gingrich believes. “Unfortunately, the air traffic controller union understands that a twenty-first-century space-based air traffic control system would reduce the importance and number of air traffic controllers.” And the three reasons America hasn’t seen the kind of high-speed rail investment one saw in France, Japan, and China? “Union work rules make it impossible,” for one, Gingrich writes. For another, "regulations and litigation involved in large-scale construction...has become time consuming and expensive.” And third: “pork barrel politicians waste money subsidizing absurdly uneconomic routes.”
Gingrich identified the three corridors he believed were “very conducive to this kind of high-speed train investment,” and they may sound familiar: a system between Boston and Washington, from San Diego to San Francisco, and from Miami to Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
“I support—and I’m confident that most Americans support—a twenty-first-century rail system that is privately built, run efficiently, and capable of earning its own way,” Gingrich wrote, allowing that this “might even require an initial program of tax incentives or other help (just as the transcontinental railroad did). But it just makes sense that we the people of the United States should have a railroad system that works for us, and not for the Amtrak bureaucracy and their unions.” For non-high-speed corridors, he suggested turning the rail lines over to the states.
In 2009, Gingrich held forth with his former colleague Dick Gephardt at an event sponsored by Building America's Future and the National Governors Association (video via Streetsblog). He spoke in favor of user fees over taxes, and privatization over government bureaucracies, but agreed with BAF co-founder (and former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania) Ed Rendell that America needed a capital budget. "No American thinks they buy houses on annual appropriations," he said. He asserted that the American public understood capital investment, that we were being held back by an unimaginative government, and that we needed a program of "very large megaprojects that arouse the nation" -- specifically faster rail lines.
But as Matt Yglesias noted in May of this year, within 24 hours of announcing his candidacy, Gingrich went on the radio to defend oil companies, railing against the “anti-energy, anti-American” ideas of the far left, who “don’t understand how the real world works.”
“Liberals don’t like us liking bigger vehicles, so they want to find a way to punish us economically,” Gingrich said, accusing Obama of schadenfreude over higher gas prices. “Hit our pocketbook, make us change, because they’d like all of us to live in big cities in high rises, taking mass transit.”
One might perceive in Newt’s pro-oil posture a bit of political practicality. When selling books and not soliciting votes, he’s shown a greater imagination for an America that lives and works differently. Sometimes his imagination has run rather wild, as when he became enamored with the idea of giant space mirrors that could distribute sunlight to prevent darkness, lower crime, prevent frosts in agricultural areas -- and light the interstate highways.
Those in the transportation business seem to be likewise unsure of where Gingrich’s heart lies. Open Secrets shows that Newt has raised a paltry $19,450 from identifiable transportation-sector contributors this year. That’s just 4% of the $485,000 Romney has raised from the industry, a quarter of the haul won by Ron Paul, and $2,000 less than Rick Santorum received.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Pop quiz: What national political figure, as one of his first acts as chief executive, created a new agency tasked with coordinating housing, transportation, and energy policy in the pursuit of “smart-growth” development? Hint: in his four years as leader, this politician championed a fix-it-first infrastructure strategy and awarded taxpayer-funded grants to communities dedicated to sustainability, insisting that, “by targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.”
If you said President Barack Obama, that’s understandable—Obama also believes in fixing existing infrastructure and curbing sprawl, and he also created an agency to bring together housing, transportation, and energy policy—but that's not who we're describing.
The sprawl curber in question was, in fact, one of the the president’s potential challengers, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. In 2003, shortly after taking office, Romney created a state Office of Commonwealth Development, which—like Obama’s Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities—broke down the silos separating livability issues and made policy out of smart-growth ideas.
The OCD’s criteria (PDF) for public grants read like a new urbanist handbook. Successful projects should “provide transportation choice,” by being “walkable to public transportation,” the guide said. A good plan “reduces dependence on automobiles by providing increased pedestrian and bicycle access.”
But those were the ideas championed by the governor of a fairly liberal northeastern state, not those of a presidential hopeful vying for the nomination of an increasingly conservative party. Recently, Romney has been reminding debate audiences, opponents, and interviewers almost constantly that he doesn’t believe that what was good for Massachusetts is necessarily a prescription for the nation. He’s proud of his record, he says, but his emphasis has changed.
For one, he’s become an energy hawk, calling for the immediate approval of the Keystone oil pipeline. “Oil is obviously one of our most crucial energy resources and the single most important fuel for our transportation needs,” says his online campaign platform (PDF), which calls for increased domestic oil production and an amendment to the Clean Air Act to exclude the regulation of carbon.
This is the same Mitt Romney who in the spring of 2004 unveiled Massachusetts' first Climate Protection Plan (PDF), saying: “The same policies that protect the climate also promote energy efficiency, smart business practices, and improve the environment in which our citizens live and work. For Massachusetts, promoting climate protection in the Commonwealth and throughout our nation also promotes Massachusetts businesses that are at the forefront of the new markets for renewable energy technologies.”
Romney has made the creation of jobs a central pillar of his campaign, but he’s keen to trim the federal payroll—in the transportation sector, among others. In late September Romney opined in the New Hampshire Union Leader (a paper that went on to endorse Newt Gingrich) that “Amtrak is a classic example” of the many “functions that the private sector can perform better than the public sector.”
This conviction may come in part from a transition he witnessed as Governor. Just before Romney took office, Amtrak declined to bid to renew its operations of Boston’s commuter rail system, and a newly formed consortium, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, took over the nation’s fifth-largest regional rail network in the summer of 2003.
But the deal hardly serves as a success story for privatization. Mass Bay, as it is known, is paid more than $250 million a year to manage the railroad, and the company came under harsh scrutiny recently when it came to light that the MBTA, the public transportation authority that funds that contract, waived millions of dollars in penalties the private company was supposed to have paid for slow service. Despite Mass Bay’s performance issues, the consortium’s contract was extended for two years in January.
Romney played no role in awarding or extending the Mass Bay contract, and he made no moves to privatize city trains and buses operated by the MBTA. Instead, when the T showed signs of fiscal trouble in 2003, Romney signed a law to allow fare hikes. "It was just a slap in the face," Democratic State Representative Gloria L. Fox told the Boston Globe. "It just goes to show that the poor pay more." But Romney stopped short of advocating increases in ticket prices. He ordered an audit of the T’s finances, and suggested strongly that they look for ways to increase ridership and improve service before asking riders to pay more.
Governor Romney took a similarly business-like approach to the state’s highways. In 2004, he signed a reform bill to streamline and consolidate the operations of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the state Highway Department. The move was philosophically similar to recent proposals, by both parties in Washington, to simplify project selection and funding mechanisms in federal transportation.
All in all, Romney remained a metro-friendly moderate during his tenure as Governor. In 2005, mid-term, he unveiled a twenty-year, $31-billion state transportation plan that re-emphasized his “fix-it-first” convictions, directing “seventy-five percent of all new capital spending toward maintaining and improving the Commonwealth’s existing transportation network.” Hailing the “post-Big-Dig world,” Romney’s plan was modally balanced. Twelve billion went to “reconstructing, decongesting and expanding roadways across the Commonwealth, including all major choke points,” while nine billion went to “achieving a state of good repair on the MBTA’s aging assets.”
Will Romney’s smart-growth past be thrown back at him as “right-wing social engineering”? Will his ruminations about a private Amtrak take firmer root? Will he continue his anti-Federal tack and declare transportation the prerogative of the states? It’s hard to know. Perhaps it won’t come up much in the primaries—it hasn’t so far.
But some are betting that Mitt’s a transportation man, deep down. According to an analysis of campaign contributions from the transportation sector this cycle, Romney comes in second among politicians nationwide (including the President), with $485,626 as of press time. The leader, Texas Governor Rick Perry, tops Romney by less than $5,000, and the two are way out in front. House Speaker John Boehner, in third place, has raised less than half the haul of either man.
(Special hat tip to blogger Mike Laub whose obsessive catalog of old Romney press releases provided a wealth of information.)