Friday, February 22, 2013
Another infusion of federal cash is keeping central Florida's SunRail project on track to open in 2014.
Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, speaking on behalf of transportation secretary Ray LaHood, paid a visit to a Florida Hospital in Orlando, where one of the stops for the 61 mile long SunRail line is being built. Rogoff was joined by local leaders, state department of transportation officials and Florida lawmakers including U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown.
Rogoff announced the federal government would make $87.3 million available in funding for SunRail, bringing the FTA's investment to date in the Central Florida commuter rail line to $148 million. The Federal government has agreed to pay $178.6 million overall in New Start funds towards construction of the 32-mile long first phase of the line, about half the capital cost.
"We make incremental payments based on the progress of the project," Rogoff said. "They're making great progress, they're ready to spend that money, they're ready to keep these people on the job."
Rogoff highlighted the rail line as a jobs engine, which has already employed 800 people to work in construction.
"But what we're really excited about is all the additional jobs that are coming in from the economic development along the line," he added.
The Florida hospital station is at the heart of a 176 acre "health village" where the hospital is developing medical research offices, apartments and shops.
SunRail officials say there are more than two dozen retail, office, government and residential development projects associated with stations along the rail line, representing $1.6 billion in investment.
Rogoff also talked about the need for additional spending on roads and other infrastructure in Florida-- particularly to fix up hundreds of bridges, highlighting president Obama's call for a $50 Billion infrastructure plan. "If that $50 billion dollars goes through, you're going to see more investment around here, not just on this type of rail project but on highway and sea port projects that will keep the economy of Florida going."
Asked whether sunshine state might see federal funds in the future for high speed rail, Rogoff said "that is going to depend a lot I believe on the leadership of Florida."
Florida's Governor Rick Scott famously turned down federal money for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa in 2011.
Meanwhile, SunRail officials say the first phase of the commuter rail line, a 32 mile long stretch from DeBary to Sand Lake Road, will open in 2014.
Friday, February 22, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Two months have passed since now-mayoral candidate Joe Lhota resigned as chairman and CEO of the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority. So what do we know about his replacement, the man or woman who will face a raft of problems, once that person is chosen by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to lead the nation's largest transit agency?
"Nothing, nada, zip, zero," said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign. "I haven't heard."
Other transportation advocates say the same. At one time, those advocates would have known by now what was happening. That time was September 2011, two months after Lhota's predecessor, Jay Walder, resigned from the NY MTA's top spot. A search committee made up of advocates and governmental veterans was, by the end of those two months, wrapping up interviews for Walder's replacement. The committee recommended Lhota, whom Cuomo named head of the NY MTA in October of 2011. Three months later, the state senate confirmed him in the post.
A mere year later, Lhota was gone--convinced by Republican power brokers to run for mayor, a decision made easier by the high profile he gained from directing the authority's largely sure-footed handling of storm Sandy.
But this time around, there is little urgency in the search for his replacement. The governor has not courted fanfare in announcing the formation of a search committee, as he did before. Instead, a Cuomo official blamed distractions from Sandy and an Albany budget fight for the fact that "there will be no announcement soon" about a new transit chief. Cuomo spokesman Matt Wing would only add that, "The administration continues to actively search for a new chairman."
Former mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer, who joined the NY MTA board eight months ago, is serving in a caretaker role as interim chairman and CEO. Ferrer has said repeatedly that he has no interest in making his role permanent.
Acting executive director Tom Prendergast, who normally runs the subways and buses, now has the firmest grasp of anyone on day-to-day operations. Some transportation advocates are floating his name as their choice for the next chairman. Mitchell Moss, NYU professor of urban policy and planning, theorized that Prendergast's prowess at keeping the authority running, particularly Prendergast's skillful navigation of a recent snowstorm, is easing the pressure on Cuomo to promptly name a new NY MTA chairman. "Tom is a seasoned professional who is doing such a good job that there may not be the urgency to fill the position," Moss said.
But the NY MTA faces crucial post-Sandy choices about repairing and hardening the transit system, especially as the authority starts to spend nearly $5 billion in federal aid. Joe Lhota vigorously lobbied his fellow Republicans for Sandy aid; without a permanent chair, the NY MTA has lost at least some of that clout.
The void at the top is also felt in the stalled negotiations between the NY MTA and its largest union, TWU Local 100, which has been without a contract for 13 months. The two sides haven't spoken in nearly four months, an unusually long hiatus for a union negotiation.
An apparent moment to make progress presented itself in mid-December, when the day-to-day emergency of Sandy had subsided and freshly re-elected union president John Samuelsen was freed from campaigning. Instead, Joe Lhota "dropped the bomb," in the words of union spokesman Jim Gannon, by announcing his resignation.
Lhota was then asked at his final board meeting whether his abrupt departure would stall the authority's talks with Samuelsen, with whom Lhota had gone out of his way to cultivate a productive relationship. Lhota downplayed the problem. "There have been talks and there will continue to be talks," he said. Since then, he's been wrong on the second point.
The talks matter because a balanced budget for the authority rests in part on getting the union to agree to either three years of flat pay or pay increases offset by rules concessions that bring increased productivity. Without those three "net-zeroes," the NY MTA's chronically fragile finances would become even more problematic, with cuts in service a possibility. Either way, that's a headache for the next chairperson to sort out, whenever that person arrives.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
In a final attempt to reach a compromise on measures to raise substantial new revenues for transportation before the scheduled adjournment of the legislative session, Virginia House and Senate negotiators struck a deal that replaces the state’s gas tax with a lower tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, but raises the sales tax.
The deal eliminates the state’s seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon gas tax, replacing it with a three-and-a-half percent wholesale tax. It also raises the state sales tax to pay for roads, but not by as much as the governor wanted. The sales tax would increase from 5 to 5.3 percent under the deal reached by a conference of ten legislators. A $100 registration fee for hybrid and electronic vehicles is also included.
The deal, which would raise approximately $869 million a year when fully implemented, now heads to the House and Senate for floor votes by the end of the week. While passage in the Republican-led House seems certain, the deal may run into trouble in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each hold 20 seats. Some Democrats remain unhappy with the plan to use general fund (sales tax) revenue to pay for transportation.
“The reduction in the gas tax makes no sense to me,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). “Obviously I want to raise money for transportation… but it’s a little bit of a shell game, quite frankly. Historically we’ve used sales tax for education and this is a major step in the other direction.”
Petersen calls the $100 registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles “asinine.”
“We want people to drive fuel efficient vehicles. Why would we penalize them?” he said.
To appease Northern Virginia lawmakers, the negotiators included Governor McDonnell’s proposal to use $300 million in increased sales tax revenue to finance the Silver Line rail extension to Dulles Airport.
The $5.5 billion Silver Line project is managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has lobbied Richmond for funding in order to offset projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road. Those tolls are supposed to pay for 75 percent of Phase II of the Silver Line’s construction cost under the current financing arrangement.
‘When it comes to the Silver Line the $300 million is vital to future toll mitigation. I would hate to think this opportunity would be lost,” said MWAA chief executive Jack Potter.
The negotiators’ deal created an unexpected potential difficulty for the Silver Line extension. The agreement requires that Loudoun County approve a countywide commercial and industrial tax (C&I) in order to be eligible for state transportation dollars for local projects. However, in 2012 the county created two special tax districts around its future Silver Line station stops. Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles District) says an additional C&I tax would make the county uncompetitive with surrounding jurisdictions in attracting businesses.
“If the Legislature moves forward with this proposal it would force us to reexamine our funding mechanism for Metro [Silver Line] and create a great deal of doubt,” Letourneau said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
Loudoun's participation in the Silver Line project is vital to eventually extending rail to Dulles International Airport.
In addition to the special tax districts for the coming commuter rail, Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors has in place a special tax district for businesses along its busy Rt. 28 corridor. A C&I tax of 12.5 cents per $100 assessed property value would render the county at a steep disadvantage to neighboring Fairfax, Letourneau said.
Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Metro employees will soon be able to anonymously report "close calls" and other safety hazards.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is working with the federal government to set up a hotline. It's one of the recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after a deadly 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured 80 others. That crash was the deadliest episode in Metro history, and ensuing investigation uncovered rampant safety problems at the transit agency.
WMATA is working with the rail worker's union to establish the confidential “close call” reporting system. The goal is to catch potential safety hazards that would otherwise go undetected by Metro’s usual safety reporting systems. Metro employees would be able to report problems without fear of retribution.
“This is a partnership with our union, Local 689 Amalgamated Transit Union, and we are working out a memorandum of understanding with the union to determine the parameters of the program,” said Andrea Burnside, Metro’s chief performance officer. “It is very important to have it confidential because employees will not be willing to participate in the program.”
Exactly what would constitute a “close call” is being hammered out in negotiations with the union, Burnside said.
Improving safety -- and convincing the public their safety on the rail lines is being taken seriously -- ranks as a Metro priority since the Red Line crash. WMATA approached the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics for help in creating the reporting program.
"Systems that allow confidential reporting of safety violations are an important part of creating a safety culture in an organization," said DOT spokesman Justin Nisly in an email to Transportation Nation. "The Bureau of Transportation Statistics currently operates a similar safety reporting system for rail that analyzes safety issues to identify trends, new sources of risk, and helps develop preventive safety actions to address them. Because of that expertise, WMATA approached the BTS to help set up their close call reporting program."
New Jersey Transit was the first passenger rail system in the country to establish a confidential reporting system, back in 2009.
“We are getting a positive response,” said New Jersey Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder, who said their program is creating a culture where employees are more apt to report problems from the serious to the more routine. “When they see some infrastructure issues they report it to us. They don t have to worry about any type of reprimand,” Snyder said. “Rail yard efficiencies have improved. We‘re getting improved safety in and around our yards as well as operational efficiencies during our morning rush hours and afternoon rush hours.”
Based on New Jersey Transit's program, the U.S. DOT estimates it may receive 400 close call reports each year in D.C. But Burnside cautions that Metro's system is different than New Jersey's, and the definition of what would constitute a "close call" on Metro rail has yet to be determined.
A potential start date for Metro's program has not been established. The "close call" program is part of Metro's long-range strategic plan.
Investigation: Washington Airport Agency Leadership Targeted Pro-Labor Board Members in Rail Line Fight
Thursday, February 14, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C, - WAMU) A former board member of the authority in charge of airports in the Washington, D.C. region is accusing the agency's leaders of not telling the whole truth in testimony before Congress, and internal emails suggest three current authority board members worked with officials in Richmond, Va. to remove one of their colleagues, an investigation by WAMU has found.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is trying to rebuild the public's trust after a tumultuous 2012. But key officials who remain in their MWAA posts were involved in the political maneuvering that ended in the resignations of two pro-labor, Democratic board members who, their opponents say, were threatening the completion of the Silver Line: Mame Reiley and Dennis Martire, who supported a controversial pro-union provision for the construction of the rail project's second phase.
Twenty-three pages of emails obtained by WAMU suggest that Republican board members Tom Davis and Todd Stottlemyer, as well as Democrat Rusty Conner, were aware of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s intention to remove Dennis Martire from the MWAA board and communicated with Republican officials in Richmond to secure Martire's removal.
And former MWAA board member Bob Brown, a Democrat, says agency CEO Jack Potter and board vice-chairman Tom Davis did not tell the whole truth when they told members of a House subcommittee last November that the hiring of Mame Reiley to a staff position was only Potter’s idea.
The emails, along with Brown's allegation, suggest that an agency designed to be insulated from political pressures was riven by them. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is comprised of four jurisdictions: D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government (three board members are presidential appointees). The board members terms are staggered to prevent any single mayor or governor from exerting excessive influence over the appointment process. Yet it appears the Republican administration of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell sought to replace members of the board of directors not when their terms expired but through political pressure exerted by its allies.
‘Not illegal, but against the grain’
Reiley resigned from the board in February, citing health concerns, and began a new, $180,000 per year position shortly thereafter.
“Nobody did anything illegal, but it goes against the grain, of the notion of these kinds of non-political regional agencies,” said Brown.
Brown says Davis, who was appointed by McDonnell, orchestrated the hiring of Reiley to a special position created for her. Brown says he knows this because both Reiley and Davis told him so.
“Tom was the one that conceived of the idea of how to persuade Mame Reiley to resign her seat and open up that prior Democratic appointment for McDonnell to fill,” Brown says.
By replacing Reiley on the MWAA board of directors with Todd Stottlemyer, the McDonnell administration secured another Republican vote against a pro-labor provision included in the bidding process for Phase 2 of the Silver Line. McDonnell and Republicans in the General Assembly fought against that provision, known as a PLA or project labor agreement, and the all-Republican Loudoun County Board of Supervisors threatened to pull out of the project over it.
MWAA had defended the pro-labor provision against these attacks for months, but bowed to this pressure and voted to kill the PLA on June 6.
Davis denies he orchestrated Reiley’s hiring. Reiley did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
“There are other people, who I am not going to get into, that basically initiated this conversation,” Davis said. “I didn't have a dog in that fight but I thought getting her off the board frankly at that point would be a win-win for everybody. So I acquiesced and didn't raise an objection to it.”
Potter, the MWAA CEO, finalized Reiley's hiring and continues to take sole responsibility for the decision — a decision that was among questionable dealings highlighted in an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year.
“I stand by what I testified in front of Congress. I made the decision on the hiring and it was my sole decision. I made the decision to hire Mame Reiley, period,” Potter told WAMU 88.5 in an interview this week.
Potter noted in his November testimony, “My judgment was not good in terms of the hiring of that person.” He added, however, that the position was necessary to develop land to offset rising costs at Dulles International Airport.
Davis testified at the same hearing that he knew the job was being created for Reiley.
“I was aware. There were board members it was run by,” Davis testified. “This was a complicated situation.”
Board members emailed about Martire’s ouster
McDonnell on June 14, 2012 attempted to remove Dennis Martire from MWAA's board "for cause." It was just one week after the board voted to remove the pro-labor provision from the Silver Line bid process. Martire supported the PLA but had also been embarrassed by accusations that he abused MWAA’s travel policy.
Emails sent by Davis, Stottlemyer, and board member Rusty Conner suggest they knew of the governor's intention to dump Martire in February — four months earlier, according to emails which were obtained from a Fairfax Circuit Court filing.
In an email sent on Feb. 18, 2012 Davis wrote to David Speck, a former MWAA board member and member of Virginia’s House of Delegates. “I think they will try to remove Denny so that means two more [board] openings,” the email from Davis reads. “ [Virginia Transportation Secretary] Sean Connaughton is the key decision maker. It may be helpful for them to keep this bipartisan.”
A Fairfax Circuit Court judge blocked the governor’s attempt to remove Martire. The board member eventually settled his legal dispute with the commonwealth and agreed to resign his board seat.
Davis admitted he wanted Martire off the board, but insists it was not for political reasons, and that there was nothing improper in him supporting the labor leader’s removal.
“My job was to try to get a rail system built. This board was dysfunctional. It wasn't just the PLA. It was the lack of transparency. There were 20 things going wrong at that point,” Davis told WAMU 88.5 in an interview.
One of those things going wrong was the insertion of the labor agreement into the bidding process for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which would have awarded contractors a bonus in their bidding scores if they agreed to enter into a voluntarily labor agreement with the workforce building the rail line. As a right-to-work state, Virginia’s General Assembly voted to withhold $150 million in funding if the PLA provision remained.
Project costs would have escalated under the project labor agreement, Davis argues. But Potter sees a value in such agreements; he credits the PLA Phase 1’s construction with keeping the project on time and on budget.
“The project labor agreement included a no-strike clause. It assured that there was an available trained workforce for the project. It produced an outstanding safety record. It provided management flexibility in the form of flexible work schedules that were very much needed given the nature of the type of work that was being done,” Potter said at an MWAA board meeting.
Bids for Phase 2 of the Silver Line construction are due by April 19.
In mid-May, Davis emailed fellow board member Conner, telling him that the PLA would be overturned June 6. "We all need to keep powder dry until then including Richmond," meaning the move to remove Martire should wait until after the PLA vote.
Conner emailed back, "Call Sean [Connaughton] and tell him not to pull the trigger on Martire until the 7th,” referring to the Virginia transportation secretary.
But Connaughton says it wasn’t his call; the Governor had the final say on Martire’s removal.
“The airports authority members are supposed to be representing the interests of the people that they were appointed by,” Connaughton said. “Each one is governed by the laws of the jurisdictions that appointed them. They are not supposed to be off doing things that are contrary to the interest of the jurisdictions in the region.”
In a June 1 email, Davis seems to joke that Martire may "keep his parking if he resigns, not if he is removed."
MWAA provided Martire $855,000 to pay his legal fees. The authority also provided Davis, Stottlemyer, and fellow board member Rusty Conner $196,000 for their legal fees incurred fighting subpoenas for 700 emails requested by Martire’s lawyers. The emails cited in this story were part of that filing. The $196,000 was paid to the law firm DLA Piper, where board member Rusty Conner is a partner.
"A Clean Sweep"?
Despite MWAA’s efforts to turn over a new leaf on ethics and practices, one government watchdog said the continued political infighting will affect the agency’s ability to perform its duties.
“Given all that has gone in the past couple of years with the board, it really seems like the best course of action would be a clean sweep and an entirely new set of board members,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Both the MWAA board chairman Michael Curto and CEO Jack Potter should also resign after being implicated in the Department of Transportation audit, Sloan said.
“It’s impossible for the public to have confidence in board members who engage in conduct like that,” she said.
Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
By Kate Hinds
New Jersey Transit says it could be next fall before service is restored to pre-Sandy levels. And the cost of its damage is now pegged at $450 million -- a $50 million increase over previous estimates.
Speaking Wednesday at a board meeting, NJ Transit executive director Jim Weinstein said the agency was still assessing the damage and putting together its request for federal aid. The $450 million figure includes approximately $100 million in damage to rail cars and locomotives, as well as approximately $20 million in lost revenue. Weinstein said insurance will be covering the damage to rail cars and locomotives, and the agency is also submitting a request to the Federal Transit Administration for funding.
But full recovery will take more than money. During the storm surge, replacement parts for rail cars and locomotives were damaged. And these are not off-the-shelf items. So Weinstein says bringing service back to pre-Sandy levels will take some more time. “All of the equipment back? I mean we're talking the better part of a year,” he said.
Right now, service is at about 94% of pre-Sandy levels. Weinstein said that number will increase further in March, when repairs are complete at Hoboken’s electrical substation, allowing the electric trains that ply the Gladstone and Morris & Essex Lines to operate again. Right now those lines must use diesel locomotives, which are slower than electric.
Also on the agency’s agenda: finding a more flood-proof rail yard. During Sandy, trains and equipment were stored in low-lying rail yards. Officials have maintained there was no need to move them because the areas had never flooded before. But now, the agency is looking to expand a rail yard south of New Brunswick to provide a safe harbor for trains and equipment during future storms. When asked if the new storage facility would be in place in time for hurricane season, Weinstein answered tersely.
"No, I don't want it to be in place by the next hurricane season," he said. "It will be in place by the next hurricane season."
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY – WNYC) The NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it’ll take two to three years and $600 million dollars to completely repair the South Ferry subway station, shuttered since storm Sandy. In the meantime, the authority is looking for ways to partially re-open the station and restore 1 train service to the tip of Manhattan.
“We can’t have the impacts that people are experiencing today” go on much longer, said MTA executive director Tom Prendergast.
He was referring to the thousands of riders who pour off the Staten Island Ferry each weekday and must now walk several blocks to connect to the 1 train. Before Sandy inundated South Ferry, those riders could catch the 1 train quickly and easily by entering the spacious station and walking down a flight of stairs.
The MTA won’t give a timeline for the station's partial re-opening. That led City Councilman David Greenfield to ask whether Prendergast could provide “a timeline on when you would have a firm timeline?”
Prendergast answered, “No.” But he later said the authority could offer a timeline in "two or three months." Prendergast said he’s ruled out shuttle buses to replace the missing train service because the buses can’t carry enough riders, even when "swinging low," which is transit-speak for full-to-bursting.
He added that the NY MYA is thinking about re-activating the old South Ferry station, a landmark that was mothballed when the new station got a top-to-bottom rehab and expansion thanks to $545 million in post-9/11 recovery funds. (The new station opened in 2009.) But the old station, with its tightly curved tracks, would need platform extenders and new entrances.
"There's also some equipment that’s now mounted on the platform," said MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg.
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
(Alec Hamilton-WNYC News) U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says area transit agencies should be able to be ready to withstand future storms.
"Nobody's sitting around,” LaHood told WNYC's Soterios Johnson. "There's a sense of urgency about getting this done, getting it done the right way, making sure that it's done correctly -- and making sure that it's done in a way that will withhold the kind of storm that hit the region during Sandy."
On Monday the Federal Transit Administration said it would start releasing $2 billion of the $10.9 billion in transit aid voted into law last week.
New Jersey has requested $1.2 billion of that aid, New York close to $5 billion. Neither agency has released a complete breakdown of how those funds would be spent.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Michael Horodniceanu, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority's master builder, was sweating as he stood in a cavern blasted from the layers of schist below Grand Central Terminal, which marks its 100th year on Friday. He was considering the question of which, in the end, would be thought of as the bigger job: building the original terminal or the the tunnels that the authority is bringing into a new $8.24 billion station it is constructing beneath the existing one.
"This one," he said. "Because people have been building above ground for a long time. We've been digging for a long time--we have about 6 miles of tunnels just in Manhattan. We've been digging under the most expensive real estate you can find in New York."
What's he and hundreds of sandhogs are creating is a project called East Side Access: 350,000 square feet of track, platforms, escalators and concourses that will, for the first time, connect Long Island Railroad to the East Side of Manhattan. It will double the size of Grand Central Terminal without enlarging its footprint, and it is expected to shave 40 minutes off the commutes of about 160,000 passengers per weekday. Currently, Long Islanders who work on the East Side of Manhattan must travel to Penn Station, on the West Side, and double back.
The project is $2 billion over-budget and its 2019 completion date puts it six years behind schedule--another reason Horodniceanu is sweating.
This is people-intensive work," he said. "We use the best technology but, in the end, it takes people." As he spoke, a worker operated a backhoe that clawed rock from a watery pit. The pit was lit by a high-intensity kleig light, which barely held back the subterranean gloom.
Every day 750,000 visitors pass through Grand Central Terminal, making it the largest hub for train traffic in the world. Of East Side Access's impact on Grand Central Station, Horodniceanu said, "What we are doing now is we are basically preparing it for the next 100 years. "
Thursday, January 31, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Soon after Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913, it was viewed as an one of the great public spaces in America, an icon of modern travel. By the 1940s, a popular radio drama bearing its name would open with a blast from a locomotive whistle and an announcer crying, "Grand Central Station! As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, part of the nation's greatest city."
Thirty years later, developers wanted to take a wrecking ball to Grand Central and replace it with an office tower.
In truth, the place was seedy. That's according to Kent Barwick, a former head of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and a key player in the effort to prevent the destruction of the terminal to make way for an office tower. "It was pretty dusty and the windows were broken," he recalled of Grand Central back then. "It was dark and and littered with advertising everywhere. And there wasn't any retail except for a couple of newsstands that had near-poisonous sandwiches and undrinkable coffee."
(We've done some terrific coverage of Grand Central in the past year: a tour of the Grand Central clock tour with The Invention of Hugo Cabret author Brian O. Selznick here and a cool behind-the-scenes video of Grand Central's secrets here.)
The Fight Is On
The terminal was owned by the Penn Central Railroad, a company in decline because of America's move to the suburbs and car-dependent travel. The much vaunted Interstate Highway Bill also spelled death for long-distance rail travel. In 1975, Penn Central was careering into bankruptcy and desperate to squeeze a windfall from its prime Manhattan real estate. So it proposed to do to Grand Central what it had done to Penn Station: sell the development rights to a company that would tear down the Beaux-Arts masterpiece and erect a steel and glass tower.
But Grand Central, unlike Penn Station, was landmarked.
The owners sued in state supreme court, claiming the new landmark law was unconstitutional. The railroad won, and moved to demolish Grand Central. The preservationists scrambled.
Barwick and his colleagues at The Municipal Arts Society called a hasty press conference in the terminal at Oyster Bar. Barwick's boss, Brendan Gill spoke first. "If we can't save a building like this, what can we do?" he asked.
The preservationists knew they were fighting to save not only the building but the landmarks law itself. And they knew from press descriptions of them as "a troop of well-known New Yorkers" that some of their opponents were painting them as elitists who wished to suspend New York in amber. Former consumer affairs commissioner Bess Meyerson spoke next, and addressed the issue.
"It's not really a question of change," she said. "If any city understands change, it's our city. But I think it's high time that we ask that very important question, 'Change for what?'"
The next speaker was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose presence transformed preservation from a stuffy to a glamorous pursuit. "I think if there is a great effort, even if it's at the eleventh hour, you can succeed and I know that's what we'll do," she said.
The New York Times prominently featured her in its coverage the following day, noting her "eleoquence," as well as her "two-piece tan dress adorned with heavy long gold chain." The effort to save Grand Central was, from that moment, a national issue.
Barwick recalled that Onassis also wrote a letter to Mayor Abe Beame, and that the letter began, "'Dear Abe, How President Kennedy loved Grand Central Terminal.'" Barwick laughingly added that, "I don't know, and I don't need to know, whether President Kennedy had ever expressed himself on that subject."
Not long after, Beame told the city's lawyers to appeal the state supreme court's decision, an appeal the city won. The case then moved, in 1978, to the U.S. Supreme Court.Penn Central again argued it should be able to do what it wanted with its property. New York's lawyers said the city had the right to regulate land use through the landmarks law.
The justices sided with the city. Grand Central Terminal was saved and, in the early 90s, underwent a restoration that brought back its luster. Penn Central Railroad eventually became Metro-North, which last year saw near-record ridership of 83 million passengers.
Barwick said that today, the city can't imagine being without Grand Central Terminal. "You see New Yorkers all the time, staking a claim in that building, pointing up to that cerulean sky and saying, 'Hey. this belongs to us,'" he said.
Grand Central Terminal turns 100 years old tomorrow.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
By Kate Hinds
New York's Grand Central Terminal turns 100 this year. But when it opened, "it was neither grand nor central," said writer Sam Roberts, the author of Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America. He talked about the origins of the iconic transit hub on Wednesday's Leonard Lopate Show -- and how it wound up transforming Midtown, spurring the growth of the suburbs, and even contributing to westward expansion.
But its origins were rooted in Cornelius Vanderbilt's competitive streak, said Roberts. The man known as "The Commodore" had taken control of the New York Central Railroad ("ruthlessly," said Roberts, "in the way robber-barons did in that day"). Meanwhile, Penn Station was being built on the other side of town by the rival Pennsylvania Railroad company, and the Vanderbilts "wanted to say 'we have the best and biggest railroad terminal in the world,'" said Roberts.
"They didn't own the land, but they did own the New York State Legislature," he added, "which made it a lot easier."
Monday, January 28, 2013
Two more links in the New Jersey commuter rail network will return to pre-Sandy levels today.
Hoboken terminal station will reopen and PATH service will run on pre-Sandy overnight levels with the restoration of Newark-World Trade Center service. The dual announcements from Northern New Jersey's two commuter rail agencies come after criticism of the slow pace of service restoration and just days before the three month anniversary of Sandy, which poured 10 million gallons of water into PATH train tunnels, and washed out dozens of miles of NJ Transit track among other damage.
NJ Transit trains have been running from Hoboken, but the station building has been closed, leaving passengers to wait in the cold without access to bathrooms. NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein is marking the occasion by greeting passengers at the Historic Hoboken Terminal, pictured here before and after the storm. "The waiting room, which is opening a day earlier than expected, will provide a heated shelter and temporary seating for customers as the agency continues with remediation work to address storm-related flood damage," an official statement says.
The Hoboken Terminal had reopened in mid-November only to be shuttered less than a month later when mold was discovered. State Senator Paul Sarlo had been threatening to hold hearings on the delay last week.
Hoboken is served by both NJ Transit commuter rail and PATH. PATH tunnels under the Hudson to lower Manhattan were particularly hard hit. It took seven weeks to restore PATH service to Hoboken at all, and one line from the city is still out. Round the clock service has been offered since earlier in the month on some lines while repairs on others continued.
Starting tonight, the agency announced, the route connecting Newark and World Trade Center will run 24-hours.
The statement reads:
"Service on the Newark-WTC line had only been running weekdays between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. since service resumed on the line after the storm. Return of the Newark-WTC PATH line overnight on weekdays, in addition to the ongoing overnight service from Journal Square to 33rd Street via Hoboken, means PATH’s overnight schedule during the week has returned to pre-Sandy status.
"Exchange Place and World Trade Center Stations remain closed weekends from 10 p.m. Fridays through 5 a.m. Mondays during the month of February to allow crews uninterrupted time to complete necessary repairs.
Crews continue to work around-the-clock to return weekday Hoboken to World Trade Center service and weekend service between Newark and the World Trade Center. Those are the final segments of service yet to be restored."
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Commuters are skeptical that congestion pricing will reduce traffic in the metropolitan Washington area and raise revenues to fund transportation projects. Instead, they favor alternatives to driving -- commuter rail, express bus service, or bicycling/walking.
A report released Wednesday by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) weighed the attitudes of 300 area residents who participated in five forums: two in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in the District of Columbia. The participants were asked to consider three scenarios: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways, including interstate highways; 2) charging a per-mile fee measured by GPS systems installed in cars; and 3) creating priced zones similar to a system in London that would charge motorists to enter a designated area.
These attitudes are being probed at a delicate time for transportation funding in the region: Virginia's governor is proposing the elimination of the state gasoline tax -- while Maryland is looking at increasing theirs. Meanwhile, the area's largest transit project, the Silver Line, has yet to be fully funded.
But the funding scenarios posed to study participants received tepid support.
“This study shows people are cautiously open to concepts of congestion pricing, but they really need to see if it’s going to work, and they have doubts about that,” said John Swanson, a TPB planner.
“They really want to make sure that there are clear benefits, that [congestion pricing] is going to fund new transportation alternatives… particularly transit and high quality bus [service],” he added.
Scenario one – charging tolls on all major roadways – was supported by 60 percent of study participants, who engaged in extended exchanges of ideas and opinions. Scenario two – using GPS to track miles traveled – was opposed by 86 percent, even though drivers’ actual routes would not be tracked, only the number of miles.
“I don’t want to discount privacy concerns,” Swanson said. “I don’t think, however, the concerns were simply the classic ‘big brother’ concerns. There was a lot of code language for broader anxieties. It was a complicated proposal that was hard to understand. It seemed to be hard to implement. A lot of people said it looked like it would be expensive to implement and, frankly, they are right.”
The study participants spoke of congestion in personal terms -- family time robbed, the stress of dealing with incessant traffic. Most commuters said driving is not a choice.
“The availability of other options besides driving—such as transit, walking and biking—increased [the] receptiveness to pricing. Participants also spoke favorably of proposals that would maintain non-tolled lanes or routes for those who cannot or do not want to pay,” the report said.
Transit advocates say the report shows shaping land use strategies to improve access to transit and create walkable, densely built environments is the best way to mitigate the region’s traffic jams.
“Newcomers to the region are very frequently choosing the city or a place near transit rather than a place where they have no option but to drive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“What’s most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around,” Schwartz added.
The study’s authors – the TPB partnered with the Brookings Institution – found most participants were unaware the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon) hasn’t been raised since 1993. However, they also favored raising the gas tax as an easier, fairer alternative to implementing a congestion pricing program.
Support for increasing the gas tax increased over the course of the sessions -- from 21 percent when the study convened to 57 percent upon its completion.
The gas tax “is a hidden fee,” said Swanson. “We learned that people actually like that. There is a general sense of the invisibility of the gas tax being a problem and potentially a benefit, something that’s strangely attractive to people.”
Eighty-five percent of study participants identified transportation funding shortfalls as a critical problem, yet expressed doubts the government would make the right choices if additional revenues were made available through congestion pricing.
TPB board member Chris Zimmerman, who's also a member of the Arlington (VA) County Board, took exception to the wording of the study’s questions using the word “government” because he felt it provoked a negative response.
“If you are trying to interpret what people say, you have to be careful of what question you ask them,” Zimmerman said. “I think people get that there is a lack of funding. They also get the fact there are a number of other problems. There aren’t alternatives. For many in this region, they drive not because that’s what they are dying to do, but because they have no choice.”
Zimmerman, who background is in economics, said it should be no surprise people are lukewarm about congestion pricing proposals, given the lack of alternative modes of transportation in some places. He is also unsure congestion pricing will work.
“The way roads are run is there is basically no pricing of them at all. Even if you are paying a gas tax it’s not related to your use of any particular road. An economist looks at that and says of course you are going to get inefficiency and congestion,” Zimmerman said.
“You are not talking about going from the current situation to instantly pricing everything perfectly. You are talking about implementing costs on particular segments of roads and that gets a lot more complicated because there are secondary effects," Zimmerman said. "We price one thing and many people shift to some other place. Well, where is that some other place?”
“In practice, implementing that is very difficult.”
The Washington region saw two major highways shift to congestion pricing in 2012. Maryland's Inter-County Connector charges variably priced tolls; the 495 Express Lanes charge dynamically priced tolls and offer free rides to HOV-3 vehicles.
In the case of the Express Lanes, the state of Virginia will not receive toll revenues for 75 years as per its contract with its private sector partner, Transurban, and it remains to be seen if the new toll lanes will ultimately reduce congestion in the heavily traveled corridor. The ICC also has its critics, who say the recently constructed highway was a waste of money.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Representative John Mica (R-FL) will retain some influence in helping set transportation policy, even though Pennsylvania Congressman Bill Shuster has taken over as chair of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Mica was appointed to three subcommittees: Highways and Transit; Railroads Pipelines and Hazardous Materials; and Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. He was also named chair of the subcommittee on Government Operations under the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Winter Park Republican says he's proud of his legacy as chair of the Transportation Committee.
"My replacement is fortunate in that we passed a highway bill, we passed an FAA bill that was stalled for many years under the Democrats, we passed a Coast Guard reauthorization, we passed pipeline safety legislation, so most of the major bills have been passed," he says. "So [Shuster] has time to reassess and then move forward with a highway bill and find a responsible way to go beyond the next two years. "
But Mica says it will be a challenge to try to fix congested and crumbling highways. "Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to increase gas taxes, and that doesn’t really even solve your problem because people are using even less of the traditional gasoline."
"You have alternative fuels, you have plug in cars, and you have cars going much further on one gallon of gas."
One source of revenue included in the current transportation bill allows for extra toll lanes to be built on existing interstates like I-4.
Mica says Amtrak -- which he labels a "Soviet style passenger rail system" -- also needs reform, and he favors allowing private operators to run the passenger rail system.
Meanwhile, Mica says he’s excited about the prospect of private passenger rail starting in the state - with All Aboard Florida proposing a Miami to Orlando service beginning in 2015. "It'll be a project that actually will make money and pay taxes with the private sector," he says. "That's the way we need to be going with passenger rail service across the country."
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) A spate of deaths on the subway tracks has led to a confrontation between the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the union representing train operators. The two sides disagree about how to reduce the number of deaths, which take a serious toll on the train operators who witness them while piloting their trains.
Train operator Ed Goetzl has had two 12-9s -- transit shorthand for hitting someone with a train. In both cases, a woman tried to commit suicide by lying on the tracks. One lived, the other did not. He says he took no more than five days off to recover, and claims that's because he didn't blame himself for the incidents.
"See, I didn't kill them," Goeztl said. "They committed suicide and I was the instrument of their suicide. That's how I look at it."
On average, three people a week are hit by subway trains and one dies. Sometimes these incidents come in clumps. Right now, we're in a clump.
Twelve people have been hit by subway trains in the three weeks since a woman pushed Sunando Sen in front of a 7 train in Queens on December 27th. Sen died, and the woman has been charged with second degree murder.
The Transport Workers Union says each death leaves a train operator prone to nightmares, trauma and the impulse to withdraw from others. After a 12-9, operators get three days off at full pay. They can also take unpaid or disability leave for up to a year. It usually takes them three to six months to return to the job.
This week, the union distributed a flyer and sent a sharp letter to MTA management. The union wants the MTA to order trains approaching stations to slow down from 30 miles per hour to 10 miles per hour to give operators more time to brake if there's a person on the tracks.
The authority doesn't like the idea. Spokesman Adam Lisberg says operators who slow trains without permission are taking part in an illegal job action that could get them suspended. It would also lead to fewer trains running per hour at some times, and potentially to overcrowding on platforms, a danger in an of itself.
Ed Goetzl disapproves: "What's really offensive is management's concept that this is about a work slow down rather than what it's really about, which is the safety of the riding public." And of train operators.
Psychologist Howard Rombom has been treating train operators for 15 years. He says motormen react in many different ways after 12-9s, but that all of them are deeply affected. At his office in Great Neck, where hundreds of traumatized train operators have sat in a chair and looked out the window at the waters of Manhasset Bay, he talks about how a 12-9 can shake up the strongest-seeming train operator.
"I remember one worker, he was a big guy, the kind of guy you wouldn't think would get upset by a situation just by virtue of the physical presence," Rombom said. "He was involved with a 12-9 episode where he hit someone coming into the station. Someone jumped in front of the train -- smiled, waved and jumped."
The operator stopped the train and calmly went through the required procedures: he found the body, did interviews with the police and MTA supervisors and submitted to a drug test. His wife and children were supportive. But as time went by, his mind kept replaying the scene. He couldn't concentrate or sleep at night and had trouble connecting to the people around him.
"He felt sort of out of it, socially separate from everybody else. He said, 'I just don't feel like myself. I want to be alone,'" Rombom said.
The man needed months of therapy, sleep medication and conversations with his fellow operators before he felt better, Rombom says. Then one day, he was ready to drive a train again.
Such recoveries are usually private affairs. But the spate of recent highly publicized deaths has spurred the union to collective action. In the end, train deaths are rare--an average of 50 out of 1.6 billion riders per year. The MTA says that number is tragically high, but not high enough to slow the entire system down.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood expressed optimism a federal loan would be approved to help finance the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project, funding that would help slow down projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road.
“This is one of the first [projects] under the new TIFIA loan program that was passed by Congress in transportation bill, which gave us an enormous amount of money, almost $2 billion over the next two years,” LaHood said. “I would say right now things look good.”
Tolls on the Dulles Toll Road are currently set to finance roughly half the Silver Line’s cost.
After swearing in two federally appointed members to the board of directors of the agency that oversees the Silver Line’s construction, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, LaHood praised the authority’s work to overhaul its ethics, hiring, and contracting practices. Last year an audit by the Department of Transportation revealed a litany of shady dealings at MWAA.
“Since then MWAA has done everything that we have asked them to do,” LaHood said. “That included passing new travel and ethics policy for its board and staff, terminated contracts with former board members and employees that are not competitively bid, adopt employment and nepotism restrictions, improve board transparency, began to make quarterly acquisition reports and forecasts to the [U.S. DOT], and approve an amendment to the lease with DOT to give us oversight of MWAA policies and procedures permanently.”
This progress is a factor in determining whether MWAA will receive a loan through the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program.
Last year Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D) said he expected the loan could amount to 25 to 30 percent of the project’s cost. When asked on Wednesday how large a TIFIA loan would be for the Silver Line, LaHood declined to speculate, and he offered no estimate on when the final decision would be made.
“You’re the only one that would really care about that, and I’m not going to get into the details about the loan application,” LaHood said. “We are working with MWAA on this and as soon as we finalize the work we will announce what percent we’re going to give and how much money it involves.”
Drivers who use the Dulles Toll Road also care about how much funding the Silver Line may receive. Additional funding would bring down the projected toll rates, currently scheduled to rise over the next four decades.
Tolls on the road increased on January 1. The full, one-way toll increased by 50 cents to $2.75. To the commuter who takes the road every day, that will amount to an extra $260 in 2013. The tolls are scheduled to increase again in January 2014 by another 75 cents.
MWAA CEO Jack Potter said he’s also optimistic MWAA would receive the additional funding.
“We are working very closely with the Department of Transportation, Loudoun County, Fairfax County to put our application in and we are very positive of a good outcome,” Potter said. “I’d like to get as much as we possibly can.”
Potter has been lobbying for more state funding. Virginia lawmakers have approved only $150 million for the Silver Line so far. On Monday Potter met Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton as well as a group of lawmakers who control the purse strings in Richmond.
“I am very much focused on output. The output is dollars coming to the rail project,” Potter said. “How the Commonwealth generates those dollars is strictly Commonwealth business. I am strictly focused on the output of $300 million dollars or more that could come to the rail project.”
In a major transportation funding plan unveiled earlier this month, Governor Bob McDonnell proposed using sales taxes revenues to provide $300 million for the Silver Line over three years. That plan, however, is expected to face opposition in the General Assembly among lawmakers who say the rail project should not compete for general fund revenues normally used to pay for education and public safety.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
By Kate Hinds
The Pulaski Skyway -- an 80-year old elevated highway that carries 67,000 cars a day in New Jersey -- will partially close for two years beginning in 2014.
The highway runs between Newark and Jersey City and serves as a major feeder for cars and buses accessing the Holland Tunnel into downtown Manhattan. It will shut down to traffic after the completion of the 2014 Super Bowl, being held in the nearby Meadowlands.
The NJ Department of Transportation says it needs that time to entirely replace the existing deck, upgrade ramps, paint and seismically retrofit the Pulaski, which is in "poor condition." The work will cost $1 billion.
While deck work is ongoing, northbound lanes will be closed entirely for two years. Two southbound travel lanes will remain open.
Speaking Thursday in Newark, the state's transportation commissioner, James Simpson, said the work amounts to "basically a new bridge in place." He acknowledged the disruption closing the roadway would cause, but said "we couldn't leave it in its existing state. The only decision was to reconstruct it in place."
The Pulaski is considered "functionally obsolete" because it no longer conforms to modern design standards, and in 2011 the Texas Transportation Institute rated it the sixth least reliable road in the country. (It also ranked #8 on Jalopnik's less scientific list of "the most terrifying roads in the world.") The state says the work will extend the life of the structure by at least 75 years.
The closure of the roadway will have a ripple effect. Drivers who head north to enter the city via the Lincoln Tunnel will find not only crowds, but delays from another massive rehabilitation project -- the Port Authority's ongoing upgrade of the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel known as the helix. Meanwhile, NJ Transit has reached maximum capacity and can't run additional trains into Penn Station. The PATH system is similarly burdened.
As Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow with the Regional Plan Association, puts it: "The automobile options are now worse for two years, and there's no relief in site from point of view of a new rail crossing."
Zupan is referring to the ARC project, an $8.7 billion trans-Hudson tunnel that, when completed, would have boosted rail capacity between New Jersey and New York. Construction on the new tunnel began in 2009 -- only to be cancelled in 2010 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who said the state couldn't afford it.
Christie is using the money set aside for the ARC tunnel to shore up roads and bridges in the state -- among them, the Pulaski Skyway.
Preliminary work is underway on a study for the next iteration of a new rail tunnel -- this one known as Gateway -- but shovels are nowhere near ready to turn dirt.
"You've really created a perfect storm of transportation chaos -- you haven't created a new transit option and you've made driving options worse," says Zupan.
The Skyway is named for General Casimir Pulaski, a Polish-born hero of the Revolutionary War. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. And it was also referenced in Orson Welles' 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds. "The enemy now turns east," reads a line in the script, "crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes. Another straddles the Pulaski Skyway."
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
By Kate Hinds
For the first time in the 70-plus days since Hurricane Sandy, some PATH lines are resuming partial around-the-clock operations.
Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo say starting Wednesday, trains will run 24-7, from Newark to 33rd Street, via Hoboken.
PATH has operated on a 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule – with the exception of New Year’s Eve – since the storm. The system suffered catastrophic damage from an estimated 10 million gallons of water that flooded the tunnels.
PATH trains will still run from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the week on the Hoboken to 33rd Street, Journal Square to 33rd Street and Newark to World Trade Center lines.
Port Authority officials say it could be late February before they receive a shipment of replacement parts necessary to restoring service on the line between Hoboken and the World Trade Center, which is still not operational.
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Virginia would become the first state in the country to eliminate its gasoline tax if a major transportation funding plan proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is approved by the General Assembly.
Revenue from the state gas tax of 17.5 cents per gallon, last raised by lawmakers in 1986, would be replaced by an increase in the state sales tax. That rate is currently 5 percent; the governor wants to raise it to 5.8 percent.
McDonnell’s proposal would also increase by half the portion of the sales tax already dedicated to road maintenance and operations. However, during the first three years, that tax would provide $300 million for the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport -- a $5.5 billion project that Virginia has funded only $150 million to date.
“Transportation is a core function of government. Children can’t get to school; parents waste too much time in traffic; and businesses can’t move their goods without an adequate and efficient transportation system,” said McDonnell at an afternoon news conference, flanked by members of the General Assembly who will dissect his sweeping proposals during the 45-day legislative session.
If lawmakers pass the governor’s entire plan, which also includes higher vehicles registration fees and a $100 charge on electric and natural gas vehicles, Virginia would receive more than $3 billion over five years to fund road construction and transit development, including intercity passenger rail.
A primary aim of the funding package is to stop the yearly transfer of construction dollars from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund to required maintenance projects, a process that will leave the fund empty by the end of the decade.
“My transportation funding and reform package is intended to address the short and long-term transportation funding needs of the Commonwealth. Declining funds for infrastructure maintenance, stagnant motor fuels tax revenues, increased demand for transit and passenger rail, and the growing cost of major infrastructure projects necessitate enhancing and restructuring the Commonwealth’s transportation program,” McDonnell said.
The governor has indicated in recent weeks that the state gasoline tax’s diminishing returns minimizes its effectiveness in raising new revenues. Higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, among other factors, have eaten into the tax’s buying power. The 17.5 cents per gallon tax currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, although the tax has lost 55 percent of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation since 1986, the last time it was raised.
Instead of raising the tax or pegging it to annual inflation adjustments, the governor wants to eliminate it, although the state diesel tax would remain in place. Virginia would then abandon a fundamental premise of transportation funding: motorists who use the roads pay for the roads in the form of taxes.
“If this were adopted it would mean there would be no relationship to the extent to which people use the transportation network and what they actually pay for it," said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which favors road construction as a solution to traffic congestion.
"It's a dramatic proposal to shift funding from the gas tax to the sales tax, and we're going to have to look at what it means when you disconnect the tax from the actual use of the roadways,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and frequent critic of the McDonnell administration’s funding priorities.
The General Assembly has for years evaded the responsiblity of injecting significant new tax revenue into transportation. While all observers agree the state’s needs total in the billions, there is no consensus on the best way forward. To Schwartz, prioritizing road construction amounts to squandering precious funds that could be used to develop public transit systems.
"Instead of addressing metropolitan area needs, the administration is spending $1.2 billion on Rt. 460, $200 to $400 million on the Charlottesville Bypass, and proposing to spend billions on the Coalfields Expressway and an estimated $2 billion on a Northern Virginia outer beltway,” he said.
Monday, January 07, 2013
Millions of people in this country have hobbies. There’s stamp collecting, role playing games, beer making -- you name it, it’s out there.
And then there's my dad, Richard Dornhelm. He grew up in New York City in the 1940s and '50s and fell in love with the city's trains -- especially the ones running underground.
"I'm a civil engineer by training," he says now. "And I'm a Brooklyn boy by birth. We never had a car; we had a subway. We took the subway to my grandma’s house or we took the subway to museums. Took the subway to Coney Island. We took the subway pretty much everywhere we went."
When he was little, Dad and his brother Mark always stood at the front of the first car, where they’d stare out the huge front window as the trains barreled down the track.
"There wasn’t much to see in a tunnel," Dad says. "So it was really the anticipation that this train would take you somewhere and you’d come out of this hole in the ground and be in a very different place. A different world."
Dad grew up in Brooklyn -- near the Church Avenue station, on the F line -- and stayed there until he finished college. He eventually landed in California where he met my mom, who also grew up near the Church Avenue stop. When I was growing up, he only rode the subway when we went back East to visit family.
And then 15 years ago, he went to a railway museum in Rio Vista, a river town near Sacramento. And there he found some of the original 1880s steam-powered cars that once ran on Manhattan’s elevated tracks.
The two cars survived because they'd been sold for use in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond -- across the bay from San Francisco. After seeing them, my dad went home and started thinking about how to build replicas by hand, remembering subway modeling he’d done as a teen. And then the project just sort of took off.
One car led to another, and one subway line led to the next -- the old BMT, the Independent, and so on. You can see where this is going.
"I never intended to end up with 100 cars," Dad says.
But he did. And now my parents' living room in what is otherwise a simple 1970s tract home in Walnut Creek looks like a New York City rail yard. Dad's hand-crafted cars are about a foot long, of all colors, from all eras. They've won awards and run in holiday shows at Manhattan's Grand Central Station. There are antique-looking ones with paneled wooden sides and tiny bare lightbulbs. And there are shiny new stainless steel.
My dad allows that other people "don't look at subways the same way I do." Asked to explain, he adds: "I think they’re a marvel of ingenuity and even if they are a hole in the ground, it still has really produced enormous benefits for the people in the cities.”
My own kids have love for Dad's trains, too, driving them on a mock elevated track he's built. They can't really understand the hundreds of hours of work these incredibly detailed, built-from-scratch trains represent.
There are turquoise-and-white cars, replicas of cars built for a World's Fair. There's the 1930s “Green Hornet,” originally made of aluminum and shaped like a BART train, but scrapped because of World War II. And then there's the bright orange refrigerator car, something he remembers from the 1950s.
"The doors would open and people from the neighborhood would go up and buy crates of wine-making grapes," Dad remembers. "It was largely an Italian neighborhood. I remember I first heard about California because those orange refrigerator cars were from this place called California. Wonderful place I thought. Too bad the subway doesn’t go there."
Over the holidays, I watched my Dad sanding wood in his workshop, which used to be my room. His father was a toolmaker and my Dad uses some of those tools as he works.
I’m struck by how much these models bring together: My dad and his father. Our families in California and Brooklyn. My dad’s childhood with his grandkids’. I can’t help but admire the cars' artistry as we look at them. He reminds me some of them will be mine someday.
“You don’t have to keep them all," he says. "You can just pick a few. And remember the subway… and remember me. What else can I say?"
To see more photos head over to KQED's The California Report where this article originally appeared. There's also a charming video of a model train pulling into a model El station and passengers "get on" the train with no seeming human hand at the puppet strings. Or go see the real things at the NY Transit Museum.