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Transportation Nation

Amtrak Ridership Continues to Set Records -- Despite Sandy Damage

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Rail ridership continues to grow in America.

March was the best single month ever in the history of Amtrak, and October, December and January each set records for their respective months, according to a company spokesperson. (UPDATE: Full release here.)

All of that is despite the damage and closures caused by Sandy.

It's also because Amtrak has been setting ridership records for just about every year for the past dozen years (chart), so any growth -- whatever size -- is also a new record. Amtrak set 11 consecutive monthly records last year. (PDF)

Amtrak reports ridership numbers by fiscal year. For the first six months of FY2013 (October 2012 to March 2013), Amtrak grew about one percent over the previous six months, putting the rail network on pace to break the 2012 yearly ridership record, despite Sandy. The damage from that storm shut down much of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's busiest route, for days.

Amtrak will release line-by-line ridership numbers later this morning. A statement from the company says 26 of 45 routes posted ridership increases and suggested its growth is evidence for more sustained capital funding for a passenger rail network.

Why passenger rail is on the rise

A recent Brookings Institution report found that on shorter trips, passengers are shifting to rail. That's partly because airlines are scaling back on short haul flights, which aren't as profitable for carriers.

All of that means Amtrak has been slowly but steadily gaining travelers who used to fly, especially on the Northeast corridor.

Consider this chart from an Amtrak presentation showing how, over time, passengers traveling between Washington, D.C. and New York City have shifted to rails from planes. Of the people who flew or rode a train between the two cities in 2000, 37 percent of them took Amtrak; but by 2012, 76 percent were riding Amtrak.

Chart courtesy of Amtrak

Amtrak's D.C-N.Y. route is beating the airlines. The chart excludes cars and buses, which themselves are increasing dramatically despite a crackdown on so-called Chinatown buses, and longer-route planes certainly carry more passengers, but it's the trend that is telling, and confirmed in the Brookings report.

Beyond the Northeast, Amtrak is doing better as well, with some local clamor for more service on state-subsidized routes, even where it has little chance of breaking even financially. We'll see how ridership is doing on those routes later this morning when Amtrak releases its full passenger counts.

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Transportation Nation

Feds Set Uniform Standards For Sandy Rebuilding

Thursday, April 04, 2013

U.S. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to the Meadowlands of NJ to announce new post-Sandy rebuilding regulations. (photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Build higher. That's what the federal government is saying to the owners of structures badly damaged by Sandy. Northeast flood zones now have tougher re-building requirements that apply across the board: to houses, businesses and government infrastructure.

Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood in front of an Amtrak electrical station in a New Jersey swamp to make their point: any structure more than half destroyed by Sandy that is being rebuilt with federal funds, must be lifted higher than before. The new standards require a building owner to consult an updated FEMA flood map, find the new recommended height for his structure and then lift it a foot above that.

LaHood explained why: "So that people don't have to go through the same heartache and headache and backache that it's taken to rebuild."

LaHood says the Amtrak electrical plant, which was knocked out by Sandy, will be lifted several feet at a cost of $25 million. A statement from the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force has details on the new standards:

WASHINGTON – Today, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force announced that all Sandy-related rebuilding projects funded by the supplemental spending bill must meet a single uniform flood risk reduction standard. The standard, which is informed by the best science and best practices including assessments taken following Hurricane Sandy and brings the federal standard into alignment with many state and local standards already in place, takes into account the increased risk the region is facing from extreme weather events, sea level rise and other impacts of climate change and applies to the rebuilding of structures that were substantially damaged and will be repaired or rebuilt with federal funding. As a result, the new standard will require residential, commercial, or infrastructure projects that are applying for federal dollars to account for increased flood risk resulting from a variety of factors by elevating or otherwise flood-proofing to one foot above the elevation recommended by the most recent available federal flood guidance.

 This is the same standard that many communities in the region, including the entire state of New Jersey, have already adopted – meaning federally funded rebuilding projects in the impacted region often already must comply with this standard.  In fact, some communities require rebuilding higher than this minimum standard and if they do so, that stricter standard would supersede this standard as the minimum requirement.

 “Communities across the region are taking steps to address the risks posed by climate change and the Federal Government needs to be a partner in that effort by setting a single clear standard for how federal funds will be used in rebuilding,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who also chairs the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. “Providing this guaranteed minimum level of protection will help us safeguard our investment and, more importantly, will help communities ensure they are better able to withstand future storms.”

 “President Obama has called on us to invest in our nation’s infrastructure—and that includes ensuring that our transit systems, roads, rails and bridges are built to last,” said Transportation Secretary LaHood, who joined Secretary Donovan in making the announcement in New Jersey today. “The flood risk reduction standard is a common sense guideline that will save money over the long-term and ensure that our transportation systems are more resilient for the future.”

 Today’s announcement does not retroactively affect federal aid that has previously been given to property owners and communities in the Sandy-impacted areas.  It also does not impact insurance rates under the National Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Moving forward the federal standard applies to substantial rebuilding projects (i.e. when damage exceeds 50 percent of the value of the structure) that will rely on federal funding.

 The specific steps that these types of structures will need to take include:

  • Elevating – the standard would require structures to elevate their bottom floor one foot higher than the most recent flood risk guidance provided by FEMA; and/or
  • Flood-proofing – in situations where elevation is not possible, the standard will require structures to prepare for flooding a foot higher than the most recent flood risk guidance provided by FEMA – for example, by relocating or sealing boilers or other utilities located below the standard elevation

These additional steps are intended to protect communities from future risk and to protect taxpayer investments over the long term. 

The programs which received funding in the supplemental bill and will be impacted by this standard include:

-          HUD: Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program

-          HHS: Construction and reconstruction projects funded by Social Services Block Grants and Head Start

-          FEMA: Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the Public Assistance Program

-          EPA: The State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs

-          DOT: Federal Transit Administration's Emergency Relief Program, as well as some Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Highway Administration projects

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Transportation Nation

One Train Ticket in New Jersey Can be Valid for Years ... If You Never Get on a Train

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The main waiting room at Newark Penn Station (photo by Luke H. Gordon via flickr)

(Sarah Gonzalez - WNYC/NJPR) John Williams says he’s been living at Newark Penn Station for a couple months.

His nails are almost an inch long; his grey beard less groomed than he’d like. But the 60-year-old is dressed sharp in a light brown plaid suit.

“I done had it on for two months,” he said. “I don’t smell and stuff like that but that’s a problem, you got some people in here that really, really smell bad.”

Laws prevent transit police from asking anyone – including the homeless – to leave stations unless they’re breaking rules.

“We can sleep sitting up in here, but if you lay down in here they’re going to wake you,” Williams said. “They take a stick and stick you with it. Or hit on the side of the wall or the bench.”

Inspector Al Stiehler with NJ Transit Police says managing the homeless in train stations takes officers are away from their primary role, which is counter-terrorism and safety.

“Sometimes we’re dealing with the same person two, three times a day,” Stielher said. “They’re intoxicated, they go to the hospital, they come right back. They have a seizure, they go to the hospital, they come right back. Police officers didn’t have the tools to do what they needed. It was just a cycle.”

(photo by Laser Burners via flickr)

Since New Jersey Transit can't ask homeless people to leave the waiting areas, they’re trying to offer help instead.

Michelle Walsh is the Community Intervention Specialist with New Jersey Transit. She tries to get the homeless into shelters and connect them to programs that offer food and services. She says the program has two goals.

“Helping the homeless but also making it more comfortable for passengers when they’re riding through,” she said.

Walsh says she engages about 75 percent of the homeless in some way.

“Even if it looks like someone isn’t working with me, we might be working on… getting their birth certificate from a different state which takes time.”

Many of the homeless men and women have mental disorders, Walsh said. Many want to stay at train stations.

And they have the right to be there, according to Ed Barocas, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey.

“If someone is simply sitting up on a bench, whether they do it for a half hour or 4 hours that’s their right to do it,” Barocas said. “These are areas open to the public, and people who are homeless are a part of the public.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has given the state $24 million dollars to help with the homeless. And some of that money will go to organizations that New Jersey Transit partners with.

Buying a Ticket to Sleep on the Benches

John Williams says he prefers to stay at train stations where there are a lot of other homeless people – like a station in Summit. He says it makes him feel more comfortable.

And if he wants to sit, or rest his eyes, on the benches for ticketed passengers only, he knows what he needs to do.

“I have a ticket, okay. This is what you need to have to stay in,” Williams says. “If you doesn’t have that you’re going to have to go out in the cold.”

He doesn’t need to buy a train ticket every night in order to sleep on the benches.

“No I don’t buy a ticket every night. I buy a ticket one time, as long as it’s not punched it’s good. As long as it doesn’t have a hole in it. I done had this for two months.”

Once you’re on a train, conductors, which cost taxpayers about 30 million dollars a year, come by with a hole-puncher, manually punching two holes in every passenger’s ticket.

If you never get on a train to get your ticket punched, your ticket will never expire.

Some of the homeless people at Newark Penn Station have been there for years. One has been at the station for 19 years; another for 26 years.

Inspector Al Stiehler says NJ Transit has been tossing around ideas to create a system where tickets would eventually expire, but he says that’s way down the line.

He says train stations attract large homeless populations because they offer amenities the homeless can’t get elsewhere.

“They have access to liquor stores and bars, there’s people around here that can get money, there’s food, and they have 24/7 hour police protection. They’re not going to get that at a shelter.”

John Williams says he shouldn’t have to go to a shelter.

“Because I am a taxpayer,” he said. “Well, I used to be a taxpayer.”

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Transportation Nation

Maryland County Approves Millions More for Troubled Transit Center

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

No lawsuits have been filed yet.

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

 

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Transportation Nation

Feds Posit Ambitious Plan for Northeast High Speed Rail

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The shoot-for-the-moon, Level D plan: a second Northeast Corridor "spine," Long Island-to-New England service, and 220-mph rail (image via NEC FUTURE)

Over a dozen plans for improving rail in the Northeast Corridor are under consideration by the federal government, ranging from minor improvements to a future with 220-mile-per-hour bullet trains between Washington and Boston -- not to mention new service between Long Island and New England.

These various options are detailed in a new report released Tuesday by the Federal Railroad Administration. NEC FUTURE sketches out 15 alternatives representing different levels of investment through the year 2040 in the 457-mile corridor.

Related: Amtrak Updates High-Speed Rail Vision, What’s Changed

The options, in turn, have been grouped into four separate categories which grow progressively more ambitious: while those in Level A focus on achieving a state of good repair, Level D would build a separate high-speed rail line between Boston and D.C. and bring new service in the region, primarily in Long Island, New England and the Delmarva peninsula.

The report aims to jump-start public debate about how rail capacity should be shaped in the region. "It is intended to be the foundation for future investments in the Northeast Corridor, a 150 year-old alignment that has guided the growth of what is now one of the most densely populated transportation corridors in the world,” said Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, NEC FUTURE program manager for the Federal Railroad Administration.  “(It) will further the dialogue about the rail network in the Northeast and how it can best serve us over for the years ahead.”

Over the next year, these 15 options will be winnowed down. The federal government wants to have a single alternative in place by 2015.

Because it's conceptual, no cost estimates are included in the report. But existing documents provide a baseline. In 2010, Amtrak identified $9 billion alone in state of good repair projects for the NEC, with an additional $43 billion in investment just to meet projected 2030 ridership levels for the current system. Meanwhile, another Amtrak report estimated the cost of bringing high-speed rail to the NEC at $151 billion.

Related: Amtrak’s 220mph Vision for the Future

Dan Schned, a senior transportation planner at the Regional Plan Association, said "what’s possible and what Congress has the stomach to spend are two different things."

But he said that funding need not come solely from Congress. "Successful high-speed rail projects around the world have private sector participation," Schned pointed out, adding that "the arrangement of public and private financing and project delivery issues will be the most challenging" aspects of overhauling the NEC.

The Federal Railroad Administration is holding workshops in New Haven, Newark and Washington D.C. next week to present the plan to the public. For more information, go here.  Read the full report below.

NEC Future: A Rail Investment Plan for the Northeast Corridor

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Transportation Nation

LaHood Doles Out Another $1.42 Billion To Transit Hit By Sandy

Friday, March 29, 2013

(New York, NY - WNYC) The federal government is making available the balance of $2 billion promised to transit agencies hit hard by Sandy. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told transit managers, mostly in New York and New Jersey, that if they've got invoices for Sandy reconstruction and repairs, he's got $1.2 billion in reimbursements to dole out.

That's $545 million less than the amount available before cuts forced by sequestration.

Most of the funding will go to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs buses, trains and subways in and around the city; the PATH train, which connects northern New Jersey to Manhattan; New Jersey Transit, which runs trains and bus in that state; and the NYC Department of Transportation, which oversees roads and bridges.

Here's the full text of LaHood's announcement:

U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Announces $1.42 Billion to Help Transit Agencies Recover From Hurricane Sandy

FTA meets deadline to get first $2 billion in aid to storm’s hardest-hit communities

WASHINGTON – U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced a third round of Federal Transit Administration (FTA) storm-related reimbursements through the FY 2013 Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. The majority of the $1.4 billion announced today goes to the four transit agencies that incurred the greatest expenses while preparing for and recovering from Hurricane Sandy—the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. (PATH), New Jersey Transit (NJT), and the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT). The remainder will be allocated to other transit agencies that incurred eligible storm-related expenses but have not yet received funds.

“Shortly after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, President Obama and I promised that we would do everything in our power to bring relief to the hardest-hit communities, and that is exactly what we have done,” said Secretary LaHood. “In less than two months’ time, we met our commitment to provide $2 billion to more than a dozen transit agencies that suffered serious storm damage, and laid the groundwork to continue helping them rebuild stronger than before.”

A total of $10.9 billion was appropriated for the disaster relief effort, which is administered through FTA’s Emergency Relief Program. (This amount was reduced by 5 percent, or $545 million, because of the mandatory sequestration budget cut that took effect on March 1.) Earlier this month, FTA allocated nearly $554 million of the first $2 billion in aid to reimburse certain transit providers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. With today’s allocation, FTA has now met the 60-day Congressional deadline to get the initial funds out the door in order to reimburse hard-hit transit agencies for expenses incurred while preparing for and recovering from the storm.

“Considering that over a third of America's transit riders use the systems most heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy, it is imperative that we continue this rapid progress to restore these systems in the tri-state region,” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff.

The remainder of the $10.9 billion will be utilized for ongoing recovery efforts as well as to help agencies become more resilient in the face of future storms and disasters. The FTA has published an Interim Final Rule in the Federal Register this week for FTA’s Emergency Relief Program outlining general requirements that apply to all the funds allocated related to Sandy and future grants awarded under this program.

A summary of how the funds announced today are to be allocated is described below. A more detailed breakdown, and information on eligibility requirements, appears in the Federal Register:

$1.4 billion in disaster relief aid primarily to assist the transit agencies that incurred the greatest storm-related expenditures: the New York MTA, the PATH, New Jersey Transit (NJT), and the NYC DOT. These funds are made available on a pro-rated basis, based on damage and cost assessments FTA has made with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the transit agencies themselves.

A separate $21.9 million allocation to reimburse the NYC DOT as part of a consolidated request with other entities for various activities prior, during, and after the storm to protect the Staten Island Ferry, its equipment, and personnel, the East River Ferry service, and Governors Island, including the public island’s Battery Maritime Building ferry waiting room. Emergency measures included moving transit equipment to higher ground, operating ferry vessels at berths to prevent damage; debris removal; reestablishing public transportation service; protecting, preparing and securing Ferry Terminals at St. George and Whitehall, facilities and offices to address potential flooding; staffing and operating ferryboats at berths to prevent damage; and performing shelter-in-place operations for worker protection during the storm.

$422,895 to reimburse four additional transit agencies for expenses incurred preparing for and recovering from the storm. These are the Greater Bridgeport Transit District ($21,783); the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ($344,311); the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority ($1,179) and the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which is receiving $55,622 just for CTTransit bus-related expenses, as FTA previously allocated $2.8 million to MTA for Metro-North rail service serving southwestern Connecticut.

A table listing total allocations for funding recipients to date and a summary of their reimbursable expenditures is available here.

 

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Transportation Nation

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

Thursday, March 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro

Silver Spring Transit Center NWG

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Transportation Nation

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

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

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

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

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

Multifaceted effort to curb car-dependence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arlington serving as a regional model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After Poisoning And Whacking Doesn't Work, NYC Transit Tries Birth Control On Rats

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A "smoothie" like this will contain rat birth control. (photo by Mary Harris)

(Mary Harris, WNYC) If you're scared of New York City subway rats, hanging out with Paul Jones is a bad idea. He's the man who manages the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority's trash rooms, and he knows where the rats are hiding. He even knows their favorite foods.

"They want the good stuff: the Red Bull, the lattes. They love lattes!" Jones said.

Jones has watched the NY MTA try various tactics to rid itself of rodents. They've hired exterminators. They're putting trash in mint-flavored bags, which are supposed to repel pests. They've even reinforced trash room doors to make it harder for rats to make it to the buffet table.

Now they're trying a new approach. The National Institutes of Health has just given Loretta Mayer, and her company, Senestech, a $1.1 million grant to tempt rats into consuming birth control.

Mayer's product, which is still in development, works in the lab by speeding up menopause in the female rat. She's quick to add that it doesn't affect human fertility because the compound is rapidly metabolized.  "It’s just like if you take an aspirin for a headache it'll numb your headache, but if you give an aspirin to your cat it would kill it," she said.

Senestech researchers (photo by Mary Harris/WNYC)

At the moment, she's trying to find the ideal flavor to appeal to the New York subway rat's palate. In Asia, she's flavored her bait with roasted coconut, dried fish, and beer. Here, she's  considering lacing the bait with pepperoni oil. It will be mixed into a bright pink smoothie--not solid food--because underground rats can find food easily but are constantly searching for liquid.

Mayer isn't the only scientist chronicling the lives of New York's rats. At Columbia University, Professor Ian Lipkin has been sending teams of researchers into the subways to collect rodent samples. He's trying to discover what kind of germs they're carrying.

"They’re little Typhoid Marys running around excreting all kinds  of things that are problematic for humans," Lipkin explained.

Lipkin then puts the risk into perspective: he said he worries more about shaking hands with someone with a bad cough than he does about crossing paths with a subway rat. But he wants to know what the rats are carrying.

"We have every year a whole host of diseases that occur in people--encephalitis, meningitis, respiratory diseases, diarrheal diseases--that are largely unexplained. And one potential mechanism by which people become infected is through exposure, directly or indirectly, to infectious agents that would be carried by rodents," Lipkin said. "We need to know what kind of bugs these animals carry so we can respond more effectively to them."

Back underground, Mayer's research team is gathering results from the initial taste tests. They're encouraged: the rats seem to be enjoying their smoothies.

But Paul Jones has seen exterminators come and go. And even the bluntest of weapons has failed to drive the rats off. He keeps blunt objects in the trash rooms so he can lay a good whack on the aggressive rats.

Paul Jones holds the keys to all of New York City's trash rooms. And he knows where all the rat nests are. (Photo by Mary Harris/WNC)

"We've hit them with shovels and pitchforks - they just flip over and run off. And they don't go away," he says with a sigh. "They're very hard to die."

To comment on this story, check out TN's Facebook page.

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Maryland's Future Transit Hub "Severely Compromised" by Construction Errors

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Silver Spring Transit Center (photo by ThisIsBossi via flickr)

(Matt Bush -- Washington, D.C., WAMU) An independent report on the yet-to-be-opened Silver Spring Transit Center shows the transit hub is plagued by flaws that will render it unfit to open unless fixed.

The transit hub, which will connect commuters to rail, Metro, buses, bikes and cabs, was scheduled to have opened two years ago, but has been dogged by construction errors and cost overruns. After seeing cracks in the concrete last year, Montgomery County commissioned a report on the SSTC from structural engineering firm KCE.

And now that report concludes the problems with the center go far beyond cracked concrete.

In a statement, county executive Isiah Leggett says the center as currently constructed is "severely compromised." According to his statement:  "The facility contains significant and serious design and construction defects, including excessive cracking, missing post-tensioning cables, inadequate reinforcing steel, and concrete of insufficient strength and thickness.  These deficiencies not only compromise the structural integrity of the facility but could also begin to impact the Transit Center’s durability far earlier than expected, thus shortening its useful life.  At worst, if no changes are made, some of the facility’s elements may not withstand the loads they are intended to support – thereby putting the many users of the center at potential risk."

Read the full report here.

Earlier this year contractor Foulger-Pratt said the county has needlessly delayed the opening of the center as it awaited this report.

At this time, there is no timetable as to when the center will open.

Follow Matt Bush on Twitter.

 

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Infrastructure report card says $3.6 trillion needed by 2020

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DC's Metro Takes Silver Line Plans to the People

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Metro is starting to familiarize its customers with the service changes that will arrive with the opening of the Silver Line out to Reston, Virginia, a suburb west of Washington, D.C., expected by the end of the year.

The first of three open houses took place in Capitol Heights, Md. on Tuesday. "The first question people ask us is, 'When is it going to be here?'" says Metro's Jim Hughes. As he explains, the first phase of the $5.5 billion project is scheduled to open by the end of the year. "Particularly on the Virginia side, they've dealt with the construction for four years. They want it to happen."

The Silver Line has been a big story for a long time, because it will extend rail west into Virginia, eventually to Dulles International Airport and beyond into Loudoun County once Phase II of the rail extension is completed in 2018. Even so, some folks at Metro's open house who live at what will be the eastern end of the Silver Line — Largo Town Center in Maryland — have heard little to nothing at about it.

"I live in Largo and I know that the Silver Line will have an impact on my community," says 65-year-old Yvonne Alston. "And I just wanted to see exactly when it was opening and exactly where it would go."

Hughes, WMATA's director of intermodal planning, is also responsible for making sure there is enough bus service to get Virginia commuters to the four new rail stops that will open in Tysons Corner, where there will be no new parking lots.

The opening of the Silver Line will come at the cost of other Metro lines. It will reduce Blue Line service during rush hour by two trains an hour, or one every twelve minutes. Hughes expects that change to inconvenience 6,000 to 8,000 passengers per day.

"There will also be less service on the Orange Line between Vienna and West Falls Church, the end of the line, where we are expecting a lot of people to switch over to the Silver Line," Hughes says. "So we don't need as much service between those last couple stops."

Two more public meetings on the Silver Line are scheduled. The first is at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 at the Reston Community Center in in Reston, Va. The second is at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 16 at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel in Arlington.

Residents can find out more about these meetings or submit comments online on WMATA's website.

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NJ Transit Wants $1.2 Billion in Fed Funds for Sandy Recovery, Future Storms

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

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

New Jersey Transit is putting together a more than $1.2 billion request for federal aid to help it recover from Sandy and prepare for future storms.

Earlier this week, the agency's post-Sandy project list was approved by the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, a regional authority that has to sign off on federal funding requests. Of that $1.2 billion request, $450 million is direct cost from Sandy damage. (See photos of the damage here). The remainder would help the agency resist damage from future storms.

The largest chunk of money, $565 million, would go to resiliency funding devoted to upgrading its rail facilities and creating two new storage yards in Linden and New Brunswick. Agency spokesman John Durso Jr. said those yards would be built to withstand a storm at least as strong as Sandy.

The agency doesn't want a repeat of  last year's flooding at storage yards in the Meadowlands and Hoboken, which surprised the agency and damaged nearly a quarter of its rail fleet. According to the NJTPA document, those facilities "will require evacuation in future impending storms."

Speaking Wednesday at a NJ Transit board meeting, executive director James Weinstein said if the Linden yard clears a vetting process, the agency hopes to have it in place as the default safe haven in time for this year's hurricane season.

But that's not all NJ Transit has to do. Included in the project list:

  • $194 million to replace wooden catenary poles with steel ones along the Gladstone Line, constructing sea walls along the North Jersey Coast Line, elevate flood-prone substations, and raise signal bungalows
  • $150 million to upgrade the Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Kearny, including building flood walls
  • $150 million for flood mitigation at its facilities in Hoboken and Secaucus and to provide crew quarters "to ensure the availability of crews post-storms"
  • $26.6 million to improve the resiliency of the Hudson-Bergen light rail and the Newark city subway.

"If you think about it," said Weinstein, "what Sandy has created (is) a billion dollar-plus capital program overnight, basically. And that billion dollar-plus capital program has to be evaluated, implemented, executed and completed, under some very strict guidelines that were enacted by Congress."

Should NJ Transit receive funding from the federal government, work would have to be completed within two years from the date of funding notification.

These are "hard core infrastructure projects," said Weinstein.

But he added that it may not be enough: "whether you can prevent boats from washing up on your bridge, I don't know of an engineering principle that would do that. But what we're trying to do is make sure that the structural integrity of this infrastructure doesn't get undermined in the future."

 

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Post-Sandy Repairs To NYC Subway Will Cause Years Of Disruption

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tracks coated with the residue of saltwater flooding (photo by Jim O'Grady)

(New York, NY - WNYC) Expect delays. That's the message from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority as it readies to spend $2 billion in federal relief aid to make repairs to the subway after Sandy.

Flooding from the storm coated thousands of electrical components in parts of the system with corrosive salt water. The MTA says riders can expect more frequent interruptions of service as those switches, signals, and other parts are replaced.

Immediately after Sandy, the MTA scrambled to get the subway up and running, sometimes with components that were damaged by flooding but hastily cleaned and pressed back into service. Much of that equipment is functioning with a shortened life span, and will be replaced.

That means a lot of repair work will be happening in the subways over roughly the next two years. MTA executive director Tom Prendergast says the work will cause more line shutdowns, called "outages."

"The problem we're going to have is how do we do that and keep the system running?" he told members of the transit committee at MTA headquarters in Midtown Manhattan on Monday. "We don't want to foolishly spend money; we want to effectively spend that money in a very short period of time. So there are going to be greater outages."

Except for the still-shuttered South Ferry terminal and severed A train link to The Rockaways, the subway was almost entirely back up and running within a month after the late October storm. But Sandy's invisible fingers, in the form of corrosion, can still play havoc with trains.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said, "The subways have recorded more than 100 signal failures related to Sandy since service was restored after the storm, plus problems with switches, power cables and other infrastructure. Most of those failures happened in yards, but some were on mainline tracks and led to at least short service disruptions."

Twice last week, signals on the R train failed and briefly disrupted rush hour service. The problem was traced to components degraded by salt water caused by flooding in the Montague Avenue tunnel, which connects Brooklyn to Manhattan beneath New York harbor.

The MTA is in line to receive $8.8 billion in federal Sandy relief aid, which is to be split about evenly between repairs and hardening the system against future storms. Projects funded by the first $2 billion must be completed within two years after their start date. That will cause a flurry of repairs in large swaths of the subway--mostly in Lower Manhattan, the East River tubes, and lines serving waterfront areas of Brooklyn.

The MTA already shuts down or diverts train traffic from parts of the system on nights and weekends to upgrade tracks, signals and switches, and otherwise keep the subway in "a state of good repair." Add to that the new Fastrack program that closes sections of lines overnight for several days in a row, allowing work gangs to fix tracks and clean stations without having to frequently step aside for passing trains. And now comes even more disruptions in the form of post-Sandy repair and mitigation.

There's no word yet on when work will commence or on what lines the extra outages will occur, but straphangers would do well to start bracing themselves. Sandy wounded the subway to a greater extent than the eye can see, and it will take years--and extra breaks in service--to return the system to its pre-storm state.

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Toll Lanes Touted as Congestion Fix for Central Florida's I-4

Friday, March 08, 2013

Artist's impression of the I-4 Ultimate project through Orlando (Image courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation)

"We love Orlando, we love Mickey Mouse, we love Walt Disney, Universal, the Church Street Facilities, that great mall -- Millenia Mall, but dadgum that I-4, that's a headache," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad told journalists in Orlando this week.

"We're going to fix that headache."

The Florida DOT is moving ahead with plans for the I-4 Ultimate project- a $2.1 billion dollar fix for I-4. The state's prescription includes adding toll lanes to a 21-mile stretch of the interstate running through the heart of Orlando. The department aims to begin construction in 2015 and complete it by 202o.

Prasad said four so-called "managed lanes" would be added to the interstate, leaving six lanes toll free. Tolls would be higher during heavy congestion periods and lower when traffic is light.

“We use tolls to only keep a certain number of people in the managed lanes so we can keep them going at 50 miles an hour," he said. "Say if I-4's ‘general purpose’ lanes – the toll-free lanes – are congested and you only charge a quarter, everybody’s going to be on it, and now you got another two lanes of gridlock. So what you do is you use tolls as a way to manage capacity coming in to the express lane.”

Prasad conceded there is a downside to building the extra lanes.

"There's going to be inconvenience- you're talking about $2 billion worth of work in a very constrained corridor- albeit a long corridor- getting done over five years. It's a lot of work."

However, Prasad said a similar $1.3 billion expansion project is successfully underway on South Florida's I-595. He said travel times along that stretch of road-- roughly 10 miles -- have only increased by an average of five minutes because of construction.

The state is putting up about half the $2.1 billion dollar cost of the I-4 Ultimate project and courting private investment to foot the remainder of the bill. Under a public-private partnership agreement with the state, private firms would also maintain and operate the toll lanes for a fixed length of time.

Prasad said the public private partnership allows Florida to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs.

"What the state gets is delivering a project 20 years in advance," he said.

"If we were to do this project on a regular pay-go mechanism, we would be building it for the next 20 or 25 years and chasing congestion like we always do."

Gregg Logan, a managing director at the real estate advisory firm RCLCO's Orlando office, says the I-4 upgrade will help the local economy.

"You don’t want businesses that are here already and thinking about expanding saying, 'Gee, do I want to stay here and deal with this gridlock'- or companies that might be thinking about coming and bringing jobs. We want them to be looking at [Orlando] as a good place to invest because we have our act together."

And he says Florida has to look for new ways to fund infrastructure - with a combination of local government funding, private investment and user fees- because federal government dollars are limited.

"Like it or not that seems to be a collective decision we’ve made as a society for that’s how we’re going to fund infrastructure," says Logan, who adds he's worried the US is falling behind other countries in transportation infrastructure.

"When you look around the world right now and you look at where big rail projects and transit projects are being done, you find that’s in China Brazil, the Middle East," says Logan.

"We’ve sort of forgotten that part of what has made us great and enabled us to have the growing economy we have is that we made these investments in infrastructure. Now we’ve taken that for granted."

The Florida DOT is promoting I-4's managed toll lanes as one part of a multi-modal transport system that could also include bus rapid transit to complement Central Florida's SunRail commuter train. SunRail is slated to begin service in 2014, while private rail companies are also talking about an Orlando to Miami service and a maglev rail linking Orlando International Airport with the Orange County Convention Center.

Eric Dumbaugh, the director of Florida Atlantic University's School of Urban and Regional Planning, supports the addition of managed lanes to I-4. The challenge for Florida, he says, is to develop viable alternatives to driving.

"Our transit system is inadequate in all of our metropolitan areas: it doesn’t take us where we need to go, our development doesn’t link up to it as well as it should, so we’re trapped in our cars."

But Dumbaugh says he's optimistic about Florida's ability to develop a truly comprehensive transportation system, because a new generation is now demanding alternatives to the car.

"You survey millennials- they don’t want to drive," says Dumbaugh, who highlights the efforts of a group of Florida Atlantic University students to set up a transit themed installation in Miami this weekend.

 

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Sequestration Means Less $$$ To Harden Northeast Transit Against Future Storms

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

One of eleven major NY subway tunnels flooded by Sandy. (photo by MTA New York City Transit / Leonard Wiggins)

(New York, NY - WNYC) New York area transit has received a double setback, both having to do with Storm Sandy and what's needed to recover from it: money.

Thanks to the sequester, the U.S. Department of Transportation will be disbursing five percent less in Sandy disaster relief to transit systems damaged by the storm. That means 545 million fewer dollars for the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority; the PATH Train, which connects northern New Jersey to Lower Manhattan; and transit agencies in six northeastern states battered by the storm.

The NY MTA officially learned of the funding reduction in a letter sent Tuesday from the president of the Federal Transit Administration to the authority's acting executive director, Tom Prendergast.

"Dear Tom," the letter began. "I have regrettable news..."

The letter went on to say that "due to inaction by Congress" -- meaning the failed federal budget talks -- there would be less money to recover from Sandy, "the single greatest transit disaster in the history of our nation."

Millions Less For Mitigation

The cut won't be felt right away because the first $2 billion in aid, out of nearly $10.4 billion, is in the pipeline. The NY MTA's first grant was $200 million "for repair and restoration of the East River tunnels; the South Ferry/Whitehall station; the Rockaway line; rail yards, maintenance shops, and other facilities; and heavy rail cars."

The PATH Train, which is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, received $142 million "to set up alternative commuter service; repair electric substations and signal infrastructure; replace and repair rolling stock; and repair maintenance facilities."

Future grants were supposed to be used, in part, to protect transportation assets and systems from future disasters. But the letter goes on to say that the cut will curtail those efforts: "FTA will now be required to reduce these investments by the full $545 million mandated by the sequester."

The feds say that the reduced pile of Sandy recovery money means priority will given to reimbursing transit agencies for "activities like the dewatering of tunnels [see photo above], the re-establishment of rail service ... and the replacement of destroyed buses."

Also Affected: A Troubled Megaproject

A spokesman for the NY MTA said the reduction in funds won't affect progress on mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, which will bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Terminal.

"East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway will keep rolling along," the spokesperson said.

But at what cost? In the case of East Side Access, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli gave a detailed answer on Wednesday, which constitutes transit setback number two. He said in a report that the cost of the project had nearly doubled from an original estimate of $4.3 billion to the current price tag of $8.25 billion. The completion date has also been pushed back ten years to 2019.

These semi-appalling facts are generally known. Less well known is the report's conclusion that the NY MTA's current estimates for the East Side Access timetable and final price tag "do not take into account the impact of Superstorm Sandy."

The storm did little to no damage to the project's eight miles of tunnels. But DiNapoli said it diverted NY MTA resources, which resulted in a construction delay at a key railyard in Queens, costing $20 million. The comptroller added, "Within the next three months, the MTA expects to determine whether the delay will have an impact on the overall project schedule."

In other words, there's a chance that East Side Access could be more than ten years late. A spokesman for the NY MTA declined to comment.

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DOT Head Questioned Over Support of MWAA Leadership

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

After U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the beleaguered Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority at a Congressional hearing last autumn, two Democratic members of Congress did a slow burn and sent separate letters to him, stating they were "troubled" and "disappointed and concerned" by his support for MWAA.

MWAA oversees the D.C. area's airports -- and is in charge of the massive $6 billion Silver Line rail project. In recent months the agency has been trying to repair its image after a federal audit that found the agency had unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices. The agency also battled Virginia's governor, who sought to oust a member of its board, and it's being sued by a former employee. Now, it's hiring an outside public relations firm.

Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards and West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote LaHood following his November 16 testimony in which he expressed “a lot of confidence in” MWAA’s CEO Jack Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto.

Potter, Curto, and MWAA board vice-chairman Tom Davis were all called to testify about the findings in an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.  The audit revealed a litany of questionable hiring and contracting practices – a “culture of nepotism” – inside MWAA.

“In light to these admissions to serious missteps, and those highlighted in the Inspector General’s (IG) report, I am troubled by the support you expressed in their continued leadership,” Edwards wrote LaHood. “I would appreciate a more complete explanation of your support for the current leadership of MWAA despite their admission and the IG’s report.”

Edwards Letter to LaHood


Congresswoman Edwards declined to comment on this story, but Secretary LaHood’s office provided the following statement:

“Secretary LaHood met with Congresswoman Edwards on January 23, 2013 to respond to her letter.  They had a productive discussion of the steps the Department of Transportation has taken to improve accountability and transparency at MWAA, and the Secretary promised to work with the Congresswoman and other interested Members from the Washington Metropolitan area on this issue moving forward.”

Congressman Rahall’s February 15 letter to Sec. LaHood expressed the same concerns about the federal transportation’s chief stated confidence in Potter and Curto.

“I was disappointed and concerned by your testimony that you ‘have a lot of confidence’ the chairman of MWAA’s board of directors and MWAA’s chief executive officer, particularly in view of the fact that these individuals, by their own acknowledgement, were involved in some of the questionable conduct identified by the Inspector General,” wrote Rahall, the committee’s ranking member.

Rahall Letter to LaHood

In their November testimony, the two MWAA leaders said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions. There were, however, notable cases in which they were directly involved: a law firm that employed Curto’s wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel.

“I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for [MWAA] made the decision to retain the law firm. My wife at the time was an employee at that law firm… she had no direct or indirect financial interest in the law firm,” explained Curto. “Although it wasn’t an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created specifically for her at an annual salary of $180,000 without proper vetting or board approval.

“My judgement was not good in terms of the hiring of that person,” said Potter, who said the creation of the job was necessary to meet the challenges created by rising costs at Dulles International.

Following these admissions Edwards asked Curto if he belonged in his leadership position.

“I would hope so,” Curto responded. “I think the body of the report, most of the findings and conclusions of the inspector general's report occurred prior to my time on the board and certainly prior to my tenure as chair.”

When reached to comment on this story, Curto provided a statement.

MWAA’s "leadership continues to work diligently to address the issues and concerns reported on over the past year. We have made significant progress and believe the organization is moving expeditiously in the right direction."

Rep. Rahall’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

 

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Meet the Feline Station Master of the Wakayama Electric Railroad

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Here's another way to attract people to transit -- put a cat in charge of the local train station.

In 2007, Japan's financially beleaguered Wakayama Railroad was on the verge of closing its Kishi Station. But after a railroad executive adopted a local stray, Tama the calico cat became something of a local celebrity. Responsibility soon followed, and she was officially appointed station master. Her job, when she's not napping, is to greet passengers. (According to Wikipedia, "in lieu of a salary, the railway provides Tama with free cat food.")

Mitsunobu Kojima, the CEO of Wakayama Railroad, Kojima credits her with reviving the moribund railroad ("single-pawedly," according to the above Animal Planet segment.) Tama was credited with pumping as much as 1.1 billion yen (10.44 million dollars) into the local economy in 2007 alone.

Now, Tama has a Facebook page, Wakayama Railroad is chugging along, the trains have been redecorated, and the town is so cat-crazy it's possible to ride in a taxi cab festooned with 880 cats.

The cat train of the Wakayama Electric Railroad. (Photo by Douglass Sprott via flickr)

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Report: For Short Trips, Passengers Flock to Rail

Friday, March 01, 2013

An Amtrak train in Fort Worth, Texas (photo by StevenM_61 via flickr)

(Tom Lisi - New York, WNYC) A new study from the Brookings Institution shows that Amtrak ridership has grown by half since 1997, and the bulk of that growth has come from inter-city trips less than 400 miles long, especially outside the Northeast.

The study split up the number trips on Amtrak by metropolitan area. Boston, Tampa, and Dallas ridership tripled, all of which have other urban centers nearby. Trips longer than 400 miles grew, but barely and they operated at the greatest loss. The Northeast Corridor, which links Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, continues to be the only Amtrak line that makes a profit, generating over $200 million in 2011.

Brookings released its findings in part to garner support for reauthorizing the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which expires in September. The PRIAA has eliminated the uncertainty of funding renewals from the federal government, and it has pushed states to invest in corridors that serve them. With the help of state funds, shorter corridors like the Carolinian and the Vermonter are now close to breaking even. “There is recognition of the importance of passenger rail as part of transportation costs,” says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings. “[The states] are seeing the popularity and the economic connections.”

The study also tries to make the case to Congress and state governments that Amtrak deserves to be looked at as a smart investment. “There’s the convention that Amtrak is part of some big bloated bureaucracy, but Amtrak is actually reinventing itself,” says Puentes.

House Republicans, and former Republican President candidate Mitt Romney have repeatedly slammed Amtrak funding as bloat.

That might have to do with the heavy losers, which are the coast-to-coast lines like the California Zephyr, which operated at a loss of over $60 million in 2011. Some might point to those losses as a case against future high-speed rail projects, but Puentes says the shorter city-to-city Amtrak rides that now get help from states could be the template. “If you look at those key criteria, LA to San Francisco is exactly the right distance, there’s a clear economic connection, and the state has supported rail for decades,” he says.

The Brookings study also comes the same day the sequester takes effect, which will cut $100 million in Amtrak’s federal funding. “We’re not seeing support from Washington for high-speed rail. States have to pick up the slack,” says Puentes.

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