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Transportation Nation

Northern Virginia Planning Big 'Outer Beltway' Road Expansion (Part 1)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Approximate rendering by the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group that opposes the plan.

This is the first of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 2)

In a massive undertaking that would transform the face of Northern Virginia, state transportation planners are unveiling plans to create a “north-south corridor of statewide significance.” Some are calling it a potential beginning of an "outer Beltway," others say it's essential infrastructure for the region's economy. Critics call it a big waste of money, unnecessary and poorly planned.

The proposal would add a path between I-95 in Prince William County to Route 7 in Loudoun County, arcing west of Dulles International Airport and connecting to I-66, Rt. 50, and the Dulles Greenway.

Neither the exact route of a new highway, the cost, nor the number of lanes has been decided, but the agency’s objective is coming into focus: to dramatically expand Northern Virginia's road capacity to benefit commerce, namely the growth of Dulles Airport into the east coast's largest freight hub.

“I'm concerned that they are going to build a road at six lanes going 60 miles an hour much like the Beltway or Highway 28. They are going to need to do four lanes and they will have to slow it down,” said South Riding, Virginia resident Todd Sipe, who pointed out his home on a map of one of the proposed corridor routes at the first of two public open houses on Tuesday night.   “I believe nothing is settled yet.  They are collecting public comment now.”

Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation greeted residents inside a high school cafeteria in Loudoun County filled with maps, charts, and bullet points about a regional master plan that is still in its conceptual stages.

 Residents attending the event were skeptical of the need for a major north-south highway west of the airport, running along the western edge of Manassas Battlefield State Park.

“It seems to be more aimed at industry and transporting freight to Dulles Airport,” said Sterling resident Bill Roman. “In terms of our needs here in the county, people commute east-west mostly, not north-south. There are no north-south issues.”

“I think the state could spend its money in much more effective ways. The way this is shown right now, it ends on Rt. 7. That isn’t the place where you can end a road like this,” said Emily Southgate of Middleburg, referring to mounting pressure to extend a corridor north of Rt. 7 in the form of a new Potomac River crossing, an idea supported by Virginia state officials but not by their counterparts in Maryland.

One lawmaker who conceptually supports the creation of the corridor is convinced additional highway capacity would help commuters. Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) says concerns about a sprawl-inducing new highway could be addressed by limiting access, building fewer exits and entrances.

“When you talk about limiting access you have two main benefits,” he said. “It makes it easier to privatize the road to get it paid for, which is what I think VDOT is primarily interested in. The other benefit is that you can limit development in areas that are undeveloped."

In Letourneau’s view, new housing development is coming to Loudoun County, so the board of supervisors has to responsibly accommodate it.

VDOT officials say a limited-access highway that improves access to Dulles Airport and incorporates HOV lanes and bus lanes would serve the most people.

“We are going to work the best transportation system that we can and meet the needs of the public. There has to be political consensus to do that,” said Garrett Moore, VDOT’s Northern Virginia District Administrator.  “We can limit access. One of the things we'd like to do is get predictable and fast transport, additional capacity and carpools to include express and bus rapid transit.”

Some environmental groups are adamantly opposed to building a north-south highway west of Dulles Airport, especially if it would absorb any property on the periphery of the Manassas battlefield.

“In the context of our limited resources in Virginia, this is one of the worst expenditures we could make,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.  “The fact that it might be a public-private partnership doesn't change that analysis.”

Building through a public-private partnership would likely mean new tolls on the highway. To Miller, VDOT’s plans amount to an “outer beltway” that would lead to new development in 100,000 acres of farm land and rural subdivisions.

“There’s a big choice this region is going to make over the next ten years,” Miller added. “Are we going to take advantage of the investment in the Silver Line, or are we going to allow development to occur in this large 100,000 acre range from I-66 to Rt. 7 west of the airport. We don’t think it is inevitable. The McDonnell administration is encouraging sprawl by encouraging this highway.”

The second part of this series deals with Dulles as a freight hub. 

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VIDEO: Transportation Nation's Mug. It Can Be Yours.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Action shot from "Multi-Modal Mug" shot film by Amy Pearl / WNYC

At Transportation Nation, we serve up serious news, with flair, style, and a flash of java.

Rejoice. (And get a tax deduction, too.) You can own a Transportation Nation coffee mug.

'What's so exciting about a coffee mug?' you might ask. 'It doesn't run on a smart grid or move at the speed of a bullet train." But, friends, it is a reminder to you of all the value this site has brought you in 2012. And your donation shows our reporters here at TN that you care.

Plus, the video is hilarious. We present to you the multi-modal mug. Yours as a thank-you gift for a donation of $5 / month to our ad-free, nonprofit public media project.

If you won't donate, consider sending this around to your friends who might.

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Transportation Nation

Coal for Asian Export Could Lead to Rail Traffic "Like We've Never Seen Before"

Monday, July 30, 2012

A coal train in the Laurel, MT rail yard. Picture by Jackie Yamanaka.

(Billings, MT – YPR) An additional 60 trains of coal could roll through the Northwest rail network every day headed across the Pacific if forecasts are correct. Two manufacturing firms signed deals last week to build 20 new barges to increase export capacity, a sign of optimism from coal exporter Ambre Energy that port redevelopment proposals will gain approval.

Terminal developers are eying the lucrative Asian market, hungry for energy -- coal from Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin -- to fuel its economic engine. For example, Australian-based Ambre Energy is involved in two proposals to expand the Pacific Northwest port. Exports are constricted because of limited port capacity.

An expansion won't come easy though, considering the chorus of critics citing environmental, traffic, human health, and community concerns with coal shipping, export and even coal use. But in these tight economic times, coal shipping expansion remains popular with the general public, according to one recent survey.

An interim Montana legislative committee became the latest to weigh in on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should expand an environmental review for Pacific Northwest port projects with a mixed response to the idea, which would slow redevelopment.

The Sierra Club is leading an effort called the Beyond Coal campaign that includes stopping coal exports. Among the concerns cited: the global impacts of coal-fired power plants, the impact of coal dust on human health, and the increase in freight rail traffic that can snarl traffic in local communities.

The Sierra Club,  affiliates of the Billings, Mont.-based Northern Plains Resource Council, and local governments like Missoula, Mont. are among those asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand its environmental reviews beyond just the port terminals projects and look at broader environmental areas and issues.

Letters from interested parties have become the weather vane revealing which way the winds of legislative oversight are blowing. The railroad BNSF's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rose recently wrote a letter to Wash. Governor Christine Gregoire to address concerns about the port projects. The Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) of the Montana Legislature sent a letter of it's own to the Corp’s office in Portland, Oregon also opposing an expanded environmental review.

During a recent hearing, the panel heard from proponents, opponents and informational witnesses on the issue before voting on whether to send a letter to the Corps.

All of this back and forth follows a dramatic forecast released in a report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils called Heavy Traffic Ahead.

“Make no mistake about it,” says Terry Whiteside, a transportation consultant and co-author of the report. “This is a huge, huge increase in volume like we’ve never seen before in this part of the world.”

Whiteside projects an additional 27-to-63 trains per day could be the result of increased coal exports to Asia. He calculated that figure based on the export projections of 75 million tons of coal/day by 2017; up to 170 million tons of coal/day by 2022.

“The problem with the study is that it wrongfully assumes that BNSF would originate 100 percent of the Powder River Basin coal,” says spokeswoman Suann Lundberg in Fort Worth, TX. “That’s just not logical. The Powder River Basin is accessed by both the Union Pacific and the BNSF on what we call the ‘joint line.’ 50 percent of it moves on Union Pacific and 50 percent of it moves on BNSF. “

Lundberg says BNSF was not contacted by the authors of the study. She adds the railroad would only have access to one of the proposed six port terminals and the others are either located on other railroads or served jointly among railroads.

Whiteside says he did not contact the railroads, instead he looked at the empirical data and “forced it back on the system.” He adds the study wasn’t designed to be a debate about what the railroad wants.

“I don’t think its any secret that railroads are forecasting the volumes (rail) are going to grow,” says Jim Lewis of Montana Rail Link (MRL), which owns the track between Billings, Mont. and Sand Point, Idaho.

He says there are many reasons, including population and consumption growth for consumer goods, as well as high diesel prices and the semi-driver shortage facing the trucking industry. Lewis says the increase in rail freight traffic is driven by market demands, which can change. He says that’s happening now with the decrease in corn and other agricultural commodities because of the drought and it’s happening with coal.

“I find it kinda ironic that we’re talking about the potential for increased coal traffic in a year when we are forecasting our coal traffic will be below or flat to 2011 volumes,” Lewis says.

He says he also wasn’t contacted for the WORC study. As for the study’s projected increase in rail traffic number, Lewis says they’re not possible given MRL’s capacity constraints. There’s only a single track tunnels over the pass near Bozeman, Mont. and at the Continental Divide. “It would be very costly to try to expand upon that capacity in those two areas,” he says.

Lewis says currently on average, about 19 trains pass through Billings each day, some are MRL traffic, most is BNSF. He says some freight trains terminate at the Laurel, MT rail yards, about 15 miles west of Billings with the remaining 15 continuing west. Lewis estimates the maximum freight rail capacity on the MRL portion of track is about 30 trains/day.

BNSF is investing in its infrastructure. Since 2000, the railroad has spent over $36 billion on maintaining current lines, laying new track, and buying locomotives.

Lundsberg says in Montana, BNSF is spending $111 million in 2012  on infrastructure. She says these capital expenditures, however, are not aimed solely at forecasts of a growing Asian export market for coal.

“Freight traffic will increase with or without coal exports,” she says. “And that means additional traffic and we’re preparing for that.”

That has caused a face-off between groups like the Montana and Billings Chamber of Commerce and environmental organizations like WORC. Economic developers argue Montana and the rest of the country needs the jobs, tax revenue, and infrastructure that increased coal mining and the railroads bring to the region. Conservation groups worry it will be local communities and citizens who will bear the burden of paying for under- and over-passes to re-route traffic past this projected increase in train traffic while corporations are making millions of dollars and should be the ones to pay that cost.

The one thing all sides agree upon is why now is the time for the railroads to have discussions with local governments and citizens about coal, the proposed export terminals, and ways to mitigate the expected growth in rail traffic and resulting traffic jam issues.

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Transportation Nation

A Third Battle of Manassas? Virginia Proposes New Highway Near Civil War Battlefield

Friday, July 27, 2012

Virginia transportation officials are drawing closer to an agreement with the National Park Service as part of a plan to build a major four-lane divided highway connecting Route 7 in Loudoun County to Interstate-66 in Prince William County, what opponents charge will be the first piece of an outer beltway in northern Virginia.

Just as Confederates and Yankees 150 years ago both claimed to be fighting for freedom, the two sides today both claim they are fighting for the same thing: the future of Manassas, and better transportation in northern Virginia. There are no Stonewall Jacksons or heroic stands on Chinn Ridge this time around, but the outcome of this battle will bring lasting changes to historic ground nonetheless.

You can listen to an audio version of this story here.

Negotiations with the Park Service involve a proposal to build the new road along the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park in exchange for closing -- except to visitors -- the two heavily traveled roads (Routes 234 and 29) that currently crisscross the park.

The new bi-county parkway would pave over 12 acres of the Manassas historic district and four acres of actual battlefield land on the periphery of the property away from where most of the fighting occurred during the Second Battle of Manassas from August 28-20, 1862. As the 150th anniversary of that key Confederate victory approaches, opponents say the new road will create more sprawl and development, turning the hallowed ground into a "median strip."

"Imagine the precedent," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The Park Service would potentially be agreeing that highway agencies can take historic battlefield land or other park land for other highway projects."

Schwartz says plans to build major highways in northern Virginia have been pushed for decades. In the late 1980s, a study that examined the possible construction of a Washington Bypass west of the capital was rejected by the governors of Virginia and Maryland.

"Very clearly they are putting together the pieces of a circumferential highway in northern Virginia, and they've pressed Maryland for bridge crossings," Schwartz says.

Manassas Park superintendent supports the plan

"It becomes a balancing act between what you are giving up and what you are gaining," says Ed Clark, the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park.

For giving up a few acres out of seven square miles of battlefield ground, the National Park Service hopes to gain a better experience for tourists.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board understands that the National Park Service will not agree to a new highway along the Manassas battlefield's western edge unless Routes 234 and 29 are closed through the park, Clark says.

"The road we are primarily interested in is the Manassas Battlefield Bypass," he says, referring to a separate project that would circle the western and northern park boundaries, overlapping a future north-south highway along the battlefield's western side.

"It would enable us to remove all of the [park] traffic, as most folks in northern Virginia are aware how serious the traffic is along the I-66 corridor," Clark says. "That traffic does detract significantly from the battlefield experience from this hallowed ground."

A Battle over growth

While opponents believe a new highway from Loudoun to Prince William County will open up new lands for development, supporters, including Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, say anyone who looks at Google Earth can see that residential growth is already crowding the Manassas battlefield.

In Connaughton's view, a four-lane divided highway would serve several purposes. "Prince William and Loudoun Counties are two of the fastest growing jurisdictions in the country," he says. "We are trying to make better connectivity between the counties to deal with current and future population growth, and to also open up the commercial development area on the back side of Loudoun County."

Virginia is also working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to establish Dulles Airport as a cargo hub, which new road infrastructure would help facilitate.

"When you put all these together, it makes sense for the state to move forward and try to make this thing a reality," Connaughton says. "It's been on the books for a very, very long time. It's not an outer beltway."

"I really encourage folks to go on Google satellite and see that this isn't about opening up areas for future growth. Look at the map. Look at the reality of what is there today. The growth is there."

Better options?

Smart growth advocates say there are better ways to deal with current growth and traffic congestion. The proposed highway is not the answer. "You could wind up with the worst of all worlds, which is a new highway, more development sparked on the western and northern boundaries of Manassas battlefield, more traffic, and political pressure to never close the roads through the park," Schwartz says.

Developers are pushing for more roads in order to lobby for zoning changes that would clear the way for more homes and commercial properties to be built in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, Schwartz says.

As evidence, Schwartz points to a February 2011 meeting of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board. Board member and developer Gary Garzinski made clear his intention to seek a major north-south connection "from 95 or 234 extended up to a corridor, up to and including Route 50... that would extend Route 234 to Route 50 to join what is called the Dulles Loop that gives access to Dulles Airport to more people from the south," according to a transcription of the board meeting.

In a letter to the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in February, smart growth advocates proposed several alternative solutions to address east-west traffic congestion in northern Virginia.

The proposals included "improving I-66, including the extension of HOV and bus lanes; funding and expanding the capacity of the Gainesville Interchange... co-locating Route 29 onto the improved I-66 to allow Route 29 to be closed through the Battlefield; upgrading Pageland Road west of the Battlefield with shoulders, roundabouts at intersections, and turn lanes..."

"Bi-County Parkway" moving forward

The state's environmental impact study of the new highway is expected by the end of the year. A deal with the National Park Service about the location of the road along the western edge of the battlefield is expected this summer.

The project should have been completed years ago, Connaughton says.

"Because of bad policies and bad decisions in the past, we've ended up with residential development and not the transportation infrastructure we need to support it," he says.

 

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Explainer: What Happens Now With California's Bullet Train

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The bullet train may be back on track. Earlier this month the California legislature narrowly approved $8 billion dollars in bond money to start construction of the high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Governor Jerry Brown signed off at ceremonies in LA and San Francisco.

The project is now expected to cost close to $69 billion dollars to complete. The bulk of the money the legislature just approved will go to start building a 130-mile stretch of track in the Central Valley; about a quarter will go to local transportation projects in LA and San Francisco.

The bullet train project is controversial. The scope -- and the price tag -- has changed many times since voters first approved the plan back in 2008, and the project now faces multiple lawsuits designed to stop construction before it starts. KALW’s Julie Caine sat down with Mike Rosenberg, a reporter who covers high-speed rail for the San Jose Mercury News, to talk about what happens next. Below is the full transcript of the interview, which was edited for broadcast.

Listen to the radio version:

JULIE CAINE: I wondered if we could start with giving people a sense of what high-speed rail is right now in California? It's been through so many changes—different price tags, different plans. Can you give us a brief overview about what the Legislature just approved and Jerry Brown signed into law?

MIKE ROSENBERG: Sure. The legislature approved a bill worth $8 billion dollars. It's the starting point for high-speed rail. So there’s going to be a $6 billion dollar stretch of track in the Central Valley, around Fresno. And there's also going to be about $2 billion dollars worth of upgrades to projects in the Bay Area and Southern California. For us, that means electrifying the Caltrain line that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. The reason they're doing that is these are projects that will help now in the Bay Area and LA area, but they'll also lay the groundwork for high-speed rail later. The entire high-speed rail project that runs between San Francisco and LA is slated to cost about $69 billion dollars.

CAINE: So there's $8 billion dollars of that money now. Are there any plans for how to get the $61 billion that are needed?

ROSENBERG: Not really. There's a little bit of bond money left over from when voters approved the project in 2008. There's a few billion dollars left from that, but as far as the rest of the money, it's all sort of on paper. They're hoping the federal government kicks in about $40-50 billion dollars. But they've zeroed out all funding for the last three years, and Republicans have sort of made a mockery of the project in the House. The only way that they'll really be able to get the money is if something changes in the political climate in Washington. The other back-up plan is to use new greenhouse gas fees that are coming down at the state level.  Big polluters would have to pay because of their greenhouse gases and that would have to go to environmentally friendly projects. High-speed rail is going to try to tap into that, but that's also a questionable source of funding.

CAINE: So right now all that the money will pay for is a stretch of track in the Central Valley and improvements to rail systems in LA and San Francisco. Why start in the Central Valley? Why is construction starting there?

ROSENBERG: The consensus view is that, putting aside backroom deals with Central Valley politicians, it was something that was decided on by the federal government. The Obama Administration is desperate to see some sort of high-speed rail built because California is the only state left that actually has plans for a high-speed train that's anywhere near reality. The Central Valley portion is the biggest stretch of land where they can build the biggest stretch of track. They can build about 130 miles down there, whereas if they were to do it here or in LA, it would be a much smaller amount. The theory is that once you have a bunch of tracks sitting there doing nothing, it's going to be much harder to abandon, so that puts the pressure on politicians to give more money. Whereas if you were doing something that had use, like electrifying the Caltrain line, they'd say, well, you know we succeeded at that and let's abandon it. Whereas the entire Central Valley stretch of track is going to be tough to let sit out there as a sign of failure.

CAINE: It would be a source of embarrassment to the federal government if nothing else happened but that stretch of track?

ROSENBERG: Right.

CAINE: I'm curious about the support in California for high-speed rail. The legislature just voted on whether they were going to approve releasing the bond that voters passed in 2008, and that was an incredibly close vote. In the state senate it needed 21 votes to pass, and it got exactly 21 votes. No Republicans voted in favor, and some of the major Democratic supporters of high-speed rail voted against it. One of those was Senator Joe Simitian from Palo Alto, who changed his vote to no at the last minute. I'm wondering what it meant for someone like Joe Simitian to vote against the high-speed rail plan?

ROSENBERG: It's actually really significant. I mean on one hand he's just one guy, but him and also a Democrat from Concord named Mark DeSaulnier and another one from Long Beach called Alan Lowenthal, they were the three guys who were tasked with overseeing the bullet train for the Democratic Party. And they were the three who came out and said, you know, the more we look into this, the more we don't like it. The other Democrats were supposed to rely on their expertise, but once they said that they didn't want to go forward with the project, they had to weigh that with the leadership, like the president of the Senate, Darrell Steinberg, and of course the governor, who are die-hard supporters. And they all ended up just going with the program and approving it, even though as far as I can tell, they didn't necessarily know that much about what they were voting on. But the ones who had been following it decided ultimately to vote against it.

CAINE: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the reasons Joe Simitian gave for voting against something that he has really championed, even since before 2008.

ROSENBERG: The biggest reasons for him, and really anyone who doesn't like the project, is the cost and the uncertain funding. I mean $69 billion dollars is more money than any state has ever spent on any public works project. It's an unprecedented amount of money, and finding that much money is just going to be a really big chore. Following that, there are a lot of questions about whether this is actually worthwhile in the first place. The rider estimates keep going down, and they're questionable. And people are wondering what exactly will happen to the property along the way. There's a 520-mile route that this is going to take, and that's going to take over a lot of businesses and homes along the way. So that's going to cause a lot of economic damages as well, not to mention people's livelihoods. If it was just about whether or not we had the money and we were trying to decide whether it was worthwhile, it would sort of put a lot of people on fence. Those who are wobbling on it get pushed over the edge by the fact that there really isn't that clear of a plan to actually get this done. They're scared that they're going to be only left with that one stretch of tracks.

CAINE: It's interesting that building is starting in the Central Valley where there is a lot of opposition, very vocal opposition to the project, and in fact a lot of litigation. I'm wondering if you can talk about some of the real obstacles, particularly legal obstacles, that are in the way of the bullet train now.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, it’s funny. The Central Valley was supposed to be the easy part. Because the opposition was really in the Bay Area, and there were just so many people in LA that they would have to displace. But the Central Valley, they were supposed to just say yeah, this is great, come on down. It turns out they were the ones who rose up against the fiercest. And now they're really only faced with one option, which is to sue. Because no one has any control over the project, outside of the state and federal governments. So if you're a local county, or a city, or a farmer, or a business owner, the only thing you can do is to try to sue. There are about half a dozen suits going on right now, and there’s going to be more coming. The general idea is to have a judge issue an injunction to stop them from being able to start construction. That’s something that will be playing out over the past six months or so.

CAINE: I know there are also some questions about whether the plan that the legislature and Jerry Brown just approved is actually legal in terms of what the voters voted on in 2008 because the high-speed rail plan has changed so much since that time. Can you talk a little bit about that? What are the major points of contention between what voters approved in 2008, and what was just approved?

ROSENBERG: It’s an ethical argument saying that we voted on a certain plan. It was supposed to be $33 billion, now it's twice that. It was supposed to open by 2020, now it's 2030. The ticket to get from SF to LA was supposed to be 55 bucks, now it's like 85 bucks. The rider estimates have gone in half. Everything has changed pretty dramatically. Some of the opponents are trying to go beyond an ethical argument and saying it's just flat out illegal. You can't use this money—it's a legal statue that was created when voters passed the bond measure to approve the project in 2008, so if you're going to use that money you have to adhere by what you said you were going to spend the money on. That's probably not an argument that's going to win in a legal sense cause they usually give them leeway to spend money on those sorts of things, when the details have changed. But just from an ethical standpoint, that's the main argument that opponents cite, when you talk about people who once supported it and are now against it.

CAINE: I know a lot of the opposition to the plan is very political, and a lot Republicans when they were giving their statements about why they didn't support high-speed rail were starting to invoke huge budget cuts that the state is facing, particularly for education, and really using this as a kind of focal point to turn voter sentiment against Jerry Brown's November tax initiative, which is the centerpiece of how he's going to finance some of the social programs and education in the state. Is the bond money that just got approved actually money that could be used for education for example?

ROSENBERG: It depends on who you ask. The voters approved $10 billion dollars in bonds, and that money can only be spend on high-speed rail. Now, the bond money itself gets paid back through the General Fund, which is used on everything--education, social services, prisons. So the money right now is only available for high-speed rail, but when they start paying it back over the next three decades, that will cut into all the other programs.

CAINE: I'm just curious, in light of all of that, why is Jerry Brown still such a champion of high-speed rail? Why is he still so behind it?

ROSENBERG: There’s a couple of schools of thought on that. I mean what he says is that he dreams of doing big things and he doesn't believe that bad times are the time to shy away.   He had this press conference where he called all the skeptics fearful men and NIMBYs and declinists. He tends to take his point of view and he doesn't necessarily care so much about what the polls say. Especially when it comes to a long-term project. To be frank, by the time the project's finished, even (by) the most optimistic standards, Jerry Brown will probably (have) passed away. So it's something that's so long term, he'll never really have to deal with the repercussions of it. From a skeptic's standpoint what people point to is that the main driver of this project in terms of the funding to get the ballot measure passed and to keep it going and to lobby politicians has come from the construction unions. Because that $69 billion dollars, that's going into their pockets. And Democrats—Brown and some of the others—are funded mostly by the unions so if they turn down a project that the unions support, then they risk losing the support of their major funding backers and then they might not get elected back to office.

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California Governor Signs Bullet Train Bill

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown gave high-speed rail the official green light Wednesday, signing legislation authorizing $8 billion in initial funding for the $68 billion project.

This officially frees up money to begin the line's construction, which will start next year in the Central Valley.

Signing ceremonies in San Francisco and Los Angeles emphasized the political importance of the $1.9 billion allocated for improving existing commuter rail systems in these cities, the eventual “bookends” of the rail network that would connect northern and southern California.

In a statement, Gov. Brown said “by improving regional transportation systems, we are investing in the future of our state and making California a better place to live and work.”

Brown had no plans to stop in the Central Valley, where the project faces strong legal opposition from farmers, agribusiness and other groups in the Valley.

Republican legislators in California roundly oppose the plan. State senator Joel Anderson released a statement today equating approval for high-speed rail funding with slashes to education funding in the state. “There should be no doubt that Governor Brown has thrown our children’s education under the tracks to build this train,” he said.

 

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Calif. High-Speed Rail's One Vote Survival Reveals New Anti-HSR Faultline

Monday, July 09, 2012

(Oakland, Calif -- KALW) California Governor Jerry Brown scored a razor-thin legislative victory on Friday when the California State Legislature voted to release initial funding for high-speed rail—a major infrastructure project that he wholeheartedly supports. The plan got the green light four years after voters first approved a bond measure that would help build a network connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The vote to release $8 billion in state and federal funds came at the tail end of sessions on Governor Brown’s latest state budget, which includes potentially drastic cuts to many social, educational, health and public safety programs.

The state still has not secured any of the additional money needed to complete the $68 billion project.

Plans for the bullet train have become increasingly unpopular among voters in California. And up until the last minute on Friday, the future of the project remained uncertain. The State Assembly had already approved funding for initial construction by a wide margin the day before, but the sharply divided state senate also had to approve the proposal. Support falls mostly on party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against the plan. If just five Democrats joined Republicans, that would have been the end of bullet train bond money.

In the end, four Democratic senators voted against the plan—including Transportation Committee Chair Mark DeSaulnier (Concord), Alan Lowenthal (Long Beach), and Joe Simitian (Palo Alto), all of whom had played key roles in the development and oversight of the plan. Fran Pavely (Agoura Hills) also voted against the plan.

Senator Simitian—a long-time supporter of high-speed rail—said that while he staunchly supports the vision of high-speed rail in California, he could not support the current plan, which he said was very different in “scope, content and price,” than what voters approved in 2008.

Sen. Simitian said passage of the high-speed rail plan could imperil Brown’s chances of getting voter approval for statewide tax increases in November that could generate as much as $40 billion in badly needed revenue.

Not a single Republican senator voted to support the plan, and many invoked the upcoming tax initiative and cuts to education in their statements prior to the vote.

The money approved on Friday will combine with $3.3 billion in federal Recovery Act funds, to pay for initial construction of the high-speed rail line in the Central Valley, running between Fresno and Bakersfield.  In addition, money approved on Friday includes $2 billion in “connectivity” funds—that will pay for improvements to existing commuter rail lines in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Approving the funding is just one of many hurdles for the beleaguered plan. The bullet train faces ongoing lawsuits, as well as vocal opposition from Central Valley farmers.

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MWAA to Loudoun County: No Extension on Silver Line Deadline

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s CEO says the agency will not grant a request by three members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors to extend a deadline for a critical decision affecting Phase 2 of the Silver Line rail project to Dulles Airport.

In an interview with Transportation Nation, CEO Jack Potter said MWAA will not extend Loudoun County’s deadline to December to decide whether to opt out of the $2.7 billion rail link. The current deadline is July 4; the board of supervisors is expected to vote the day before.

On Monday the three board members issued a list of 21 “considerations” upon which their support may ride and requested a six-month deadline extension. If the nine-member board votes to opt out, the start of Phase 2 would be delayed at least 18 months.

“We are looking forward to a decision on July 3,” said Potter, who said Loudoun officials were already granted a 30-day extension that pushed the final decision into next month.

Although only four of nine county supervisors currently support Phase 2, Potter said he was optimistic Loudoun will opt in.

“They are starting to address some of the more challenging issues with Phase 2. One of the biggest issues they have is how to finance Phase 2. The fact that they are actively engaged in discussions about tax districts and finding other means of dealing with the funding, I find that encouraging.” Potter said.

The extension request had little chance of being realized.  There may not even be enough support on the Loudoun Board to make a formal request to MWAA even if the agency were willing to grant it.  The request for more time to weigh the Silver Line does illustrate, however, that just two weeks from the big vote there remain serious questions among enough board members to place the project in peril."

A proposal to create a special tax district around the planned Metro stops west of the airport was one of three ideas the Loudoun board agreed to consider to pay for the county’s $270 million Phase 2 commitment. The board has scheduled a work session on June 29 to decide on a financing framework before the final vote. The tax district would levy taxes on commercial properties that stand to benefit from the presence of a Metro stop nearby.

In response to Potter's remarks, Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) said he would support Metro rail-to-Loudoun if the board approves the proposal for the special tax district. Reid has been on the fence, saying he would not support the project unless the board demonstrates it can be paid for.  He was among the three Supervisors who signed the "opt in consideration."

“Looking at the numbers it looks to me that it will help pay for the cost of Dulles rail without burdening the rest of the county,” said Reid, who maintains that the Silver Line would not solve the county’s transportation problems.

“I still think that some of our conditions… are things the Airports Authority and WMATA should be discussing with us,” said Reid, who said he never intended to make the 21 considerations a list of ultimatums.

“I think that many of the issues there are beyond anyone’s control,” said Potter. “It’s great for someone to have a wish list for what they would like to have in a perfect world, but much of what they wrote down is unattainable.”

In an email, supervisor Geary Higgins, who also asked for an extension of the July 3 deadline, said Potter's remarks were "unfortunate." Currently only four supervisors on the nine-member board support the Silver Line. One more supporter is necessary for a majority to prevent the county from opting out of the project.

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40% of Traffic in Williston is Semi-Truck

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An intersection in Williston, North Dakota. Photo by Jackie Yamanaka.

(Sidney, MT and Williston, ND – YPR) – The amount of semi-truck traffic in the Bakken oil field communities is stunning.

“It isn’t uncommon that you will come through here (intersection in Williston) and see that the trucks will be backed up for a mile,” says Williston Economic Development Executive Director Tom Rolfstad. “They all have to take a left hand turn here, so it gets to be a real bottleneck.”

Williston officials want to create a truck route to divert semi traffic around the community.

“You can see the ration of trucks here,” Rolfstad says. “We are approaching 40% truck traffic on our roads. The highway engineers say 12% truck traffic is considered to be high.”

The volume of the semi traffic is undermining the road beds under paved and gravel roads.  The roads designed to handle just moderate truck and farm traffic, since both Sidney, Montana and Williston, North Dakota are agriculture-based communities.

Richland Economic Development Executive Director Leslie Messer in Sidney says in the Spring when gravel roads are slick and muddy, the farmers most likely will idle their tractors.

“This industry (oil) doesn’t stop,” she says. “They’re dragging. They’re pushing. They are pulling. They are thrashing the (road) beds if they can’t get in there.”

Messer says it will take about 2,200 semi loads to service 1 oil well over that well’s lifetime. Most of the activity is in the drilling phase when loads of water, sand, pipe, and other materials are delivered to the site.

She says some of the oil companies are repairing the damage they cause to the roads otherwise its up to local government as part of its road maintenance program.

“We’ve built lots of roads for Richland County. Glad to do so,” says Russell Atkins, area production manager of the Bakken Operations for Continental Resources. “We needed the road to that (oil) well.”

He says in instances where there is no road but Richland County had the right-of-way, Continental would build a road and leave the maintenance to the counties in Montana and North Dakota.  The affected counties are looking to their respective state Capitols and the federal Transportation Rea-authorization bill to help pay for the costs of building and maintaining affected oil patch roads.

“All that we ask is once it is built up and the drilling activity has subsided please maintain it. We’re glad to build it,” he says. “We get a few that think, ‘well, you are just going to build it, maintain it, and do everything from now on.’ It doesn’t work quite like that,” Atkins says.

Atkins says the oil companies are working at a furious pace to lock up leases with production wells. He says 90% of the work remains.  Atkins calls the Bakken oil play world class. He places this portion of the Williston Basin right up with reserves in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

“Our estimates of recoverable oil is 24 billion barrels. That’s 20 of oil and 4 of barrels of oil equivalent of natural gas. To do this is going to take 48,000 wells,” he says.

Besides all of the semi-truck activity needed to carry out that work, there’s also an increase of pick-up truck traffic, notes Williston Economic Development’s Tom Rolfstad.

“This is kinda a big ass pickup with a welding unit on the back,” says Rolfstad. “You kinda look like a wimp if you come here driving a Kia or a Subaru.”

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Loudoun Leaders Leaning "No" on Silver Line to Dulles Airport

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

After four hours of debate Monday night,  the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors only inched closer to deciding how to fund its $270 million commitment to Phase 2 of the Silver Line rail project to Dulles Airport and west into the county, leaving some Metro-to-Loudoun supporters on the board visibly frustrated and raising the probability that a majority of supervisors will decide to opt out of the project when a final vote is held in two weeks.

“I’ve been saying all along it’s 50/50. I still think it’s 50/50,” said Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), a Phase 2 supporter, after Monday night’s marathon work session.

If the county opts out of the $2.7 billion dollar project, construction of the rail link to connect Washington DC with the international airport would be delayed by at least 18 months.

The supervisors met to determine how the county would finance the project but only settled on submitting three options to the board staff for further consideration: creating 1) a county-wide commercial and industrial tax, 2) special tax districts around the two future Metro stops that
would levy taxes on commercial properties, 3) tax districts based on the borders of the county’s planning sub-areas.

“In my view we eliminated too many options from the table. The board took off the table any use of the general fund whatsoever, which I think is a mistake. We could fund the entire project our of general fund revenue with an impact of $98 a year for the average homeowner,” Letourneau said.

On the nine-member board four supervisors are considered “opt in” votes, but it’s not clear if they will be able to sway any of their colleagues to reach the five-vote majority necessary to support Metro rail-to-Loudoun. Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) made a show of voting against every financing option, declaring “Metro is evil.” When asked to clarify his remarks by a reporter Delgaudio declined to comment, saying he was “very busy.”

Of the four remaining supervisors leaning toward “opting out,” three signed and submitted just hours before the work session began a list of 21 demands they would like satisfied in order to support the project.

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) initiated the “opt-in consideration” which included proposals outside the Loudoun board’s power. For instance, Higgins is asking the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to seat two additional Virginia board members. When asked how the proposal relates to Phase 2’s financing, Higgins responded, “The [MWAA] board doesn’t have the greatest reputation for openness and the way they have approached things. If it’s no big deal why have they refused to seat those people?”

The board’s three Phase 2 supporters who were present (Chairman Scott York was absent) touted the findings of a new survey conducted by the University of Virginia. Using a sample of 1,000 county residents in mostly suburban zip codes, the survey found that 77 percent want access to Metro rail. In rural areas support is 57 percent; in non-rural areas support rises to 81 percent. However, supervisors who are leaning toward opting out questioned the survey’s methodology, implying that the questions were designed to prompt favorable answers.

"There were no specifics with respect to [supporting rail]… if it means raising your taxes,” said Board Vice-Chair Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge). “That’s what this board is grappling with."

The supervisors plan to hold one final work session to determine if they can provide a financing framework before deciding the county’s ultimate participation in a public meeting scheduled July 3. Letourneau said opting out would hurt the county for decades, let alone delay construction by
at least 18 months.

“It is possible the project would get completed to Dulles Airport, but it will stop at Dulles Airport. There will be a rail line behind it which would make it impossible for it to ever be continued into Loudoun County. That’s the worse case scenario for us, where we are paying very high tolls, we are getting no economic benefit, our commuters have no access to the airport station, and they will have very limited access to the station’s in Fairfax County,” he said.

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Transportation Nation

Bakken Oil Field Traffic's Tolls on Country Roads

Friday, April 06, 2012

Nabors' oil drill rig that is broken down and re-assembled at well sites across the Bakken Oil Fields and elsewhere. This site is owned by Texas-based XTO Energy, which has about 400 wells in the Bakken fields across ND and MT.

(Culbertson, MT – YPR) – The mayor of Culbertson Gordon Oelkers says one of the biggest complaints he hears from residents in this northeastern Montana town is how the semis going to and from one of the biggest oil plays in the U-S is tearing up the roads.

U-S Senator Max Baucus met with the town’s residents to hear their concerns and discuss possible solutions.

“Oh my,” said Baucus as a woman handed him a picture of her broken china cabinet.

“That was a glass shelf,” she said as Baucus looked at the pile of broken dishes.  “And we’re right on the highway. I’m constantly going in and pushing the dishes back on the shelf so they (the dishes) don’t fall. Yesterday it (the glass shelf) just cracked.”

The town of 700  people was once part of the out-migration taking place in Eastern Montana. Now the town is suffering from growing pains because of the oil boom in the Williston Basin, specifically the Bakken. The Montana Department of Transportation is currently studying traffic on the roads. The community is asking Baucus for help with funding once the study is completed.

The Democrat chairs the Senate subcommittee charged with overseeing the federal transportation bill. The Senate recently passed a reauthorization bill, but it stalled in the House.

“It’s getting a little high-centered,” said Baucus. “But it’s going to have to break loose. I just urge you, and me, to try to figure out how to modify that legislation to address this part of the country.”

Senator Max Baucus, right in orange helmet, meeting with officials of Nabors Industries and XTO Energy at a well drill site near Culbertson, MT

He said the problem is Congress is moving away from earmarks, a specific road, for example. But maybe money can be designated for a region. Texas roads are also being damaged by an oil boom.

“I hate to tell you this but there are a lot of people back there who feel there should not be a federal highway program. Rather that each state should take care of its own road needs, period,” Baucus said. “And that’s gaining a little bit of a head of steam, frankly. It’s nuts. It makes no sense. We wouldn’t have any highway program if that’s the case.”

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Roads Killed: Texas Adds Up Damages from Oil Drilling

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tanker Truck in rural DeWitt county, Texas. (Photo: KUHF)

(Dave Fehling -- Texas, StateImpact/KUHF) Just about everyone I talked to for this story wanted to make one thing very clear: "I want people to understand, we are happy to have the energy industry in Texas," said John Casey of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Why would John Casey think anyone might believe otherwise? Because Casey sees firsthand what the energy industry is doing to his roads. "There'll be a crater in the road, it might be five or ten feet wide and it could be a foot deep, all of sudden just appears."

He's talking about the rapid deterioration of state-maintained roads and highways, even freeways, in the Corpus Christi area. That's where Casey is the district engineer for TxDOT.

"Roads that used to have five vehicles a week now have a hundred trucks rolling on them in a day, or an hour. So it's a pretty significant change," he says.  The trucks DeWitt County, (like the one heard in the audio version of this story rolling down a rutted road) are going to and from drilling rigs. In the past several years, energy companies have been drilling thousands of new oil and gas wells here and elsewhere in Texas. The drilling operations use truckloads of water, sand and chemicals. According to TxDOT, drilling the average well now requires over a thousand truck trips.

In the farm and ranch areas of south Texas, the roads were built for pickups and produce trucks, not tankers. Yet, while the drilling boom here may be ripping up roads, it's also a huge boost to local economies, tripling sales tax revenues in just one year for some local governments. It's happening in other parts of the state as well.

"There are homes that have drilling activities going on within 600 to 1200 feet," says Mayor Robert Cluck of Arlington.

Large hole on FM road in Karnes County

Large hole on FM road in Karnes County (Photo: KUHF)

 

Mayor Cluck and the city council began to worry. With 340 gas wells now drilled in Arlington and more on the way, what would happen if one of them had a blowout, resulting in an explosion and fire? The city decided to create a special team within its fire department.

"We approved the other night an emergency response center. It would have six new officers specially trained in gas drilling incidents," he said.

To pay for it, council approved a fee: $2,400 dollars per year per well to be paid by energy companies. Fire chief Don Crowson explained, "that's how this fee has materialized. It's kept the responsibility for the safety of these sites on the industry, not necessarily on the taxpayer."

Arlington was in essence copying what already is happening in South Texas: counties there are charging the energy companies thousands of dollars per well to pay for road damage. And now, Texas may be getting in on the act. TxDOT has just formed a task force to meet with energy companies. TxDOT says it has to find a way to fund what could be hundreds of millions of dollars to fix damaged state roads. Mari Ruckel represents the drilling industry.

"The Texas Oil and Gas Association is well aware of the road conditions and concerns that have emerged alongside incredible economic activity and commerce in Texas," he said.

Ruckel says it'll likely be up to the Texas legislature to come up with a way to charge the industry for repairs. The oil and gas industry points out it pays over seven billion dollars a year to Texas and local governments in taxes and royalties. But, the industry has also benefitted from big state tax breaks enacted as the drilling surge began a decade ago. A surge that has brought riches to some communities, but cost them as well.

 

FURTHER READING: For more on oil drilling's impact on American roads, read this post on Montana's crunch to find more drivers of trucks serving oil companies.

This story was produced by StateImpact a local news reporting project in conjunction with NPR and member stations. 

 

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Rural Schools Recruit Abroad To Stay Afloat

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Small towns are shrinking across America, and along with them student populations. When a student population shrinks, so does a school’s state funding. But some rural and small town schools have found an inventive way to stay afloat by recruiting international students who pay up to $30,000 per year to attend an American public school — regardless of where in America that school is.

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Transportation Nation

Photos: Take BART to Rural California

Friday, February 10, 2012

Keith Roquemore and his family at the Mendocino County Fair Rodeo. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hamilton

A lot of people talk about two Californias. The state is so big, it could be a country. And, like a country, it encompasses multiple cultures. There’s NorCal and SoCal, free love and freeways.  But there’s also another axis: one that separates the urban Bay Area and sprawling Los Angeles from the rural rest of the state.

Photographs of rural Californians are on BART trains until March. They're part of a  new multimedia series called "Real Rural," and will be on billboards in Sacramento and Los Angeles later this year.

KALW's Julie Caine talked with artist Lisa Hamilton about the series.

 

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Transportation Nation

CA Measure Would Repeal High Speed Rail Funding

Monday, January 30, 2012

photo courtesy California High Speed Rail Authority

State Senator Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) introduced legislation today that would put high-speed rail back on the November ballot in California. The measure would give voters the chance to de-authorize the $9 billion bond measure passed in 2008.

According to Mark Spannagel, spokesman for Senator LaMalfa, the measure would "eliminate the project."

In a statement, LaMalfa said, “Voters have been misled about the true costs of High Speed Rail from the start. The costs have tripled since 2008 and every objective observer has said this project is too expensive and is unlikely to be completed.”

Meanwhile, in an interview in LA over the weekend, Governor Jerry Brown said that the current estimated $100 billion price tag for the project was “way off,” and said that revenue from cap and trade regulations would help finance the project.

Currently, the project has secured about $12 billion in a combination of federal funds and a state bond measure approved by voters in 2008.  In order not to lose the federal money, construction needs to begin this year, and is required to start in the Central Valley, far from major metropolitan centers.

Brown also said that he was redesigning the plan so that the first phase of construction in the Central Valley would “justify the state investment,” even if it was the only part of the rail plan ever constructed.

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Maryland County Explores Bikeshare in the 'Burbs

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Columbia's pathways (photo: Jonathan Wilson)

Leaders in Howard County, Maryland, and  the unincorporated town of Columbia are trying to figure out whether something that seems to be working quite well in more urban areas can be part of the plan going forward in their neck of the woods -- they’re exploring the potential of bike sharing.

The two municipalities have teamed up to apply for for grant money to fund a feasibility study on such a program.

The arrival of a bike sharing program could coincide with major redevelopment in Columbia's downtown, which is currently dominated by a sprawling shopping mall.

"It isn't a traditional downtown with a main street," Columbia Association director of community planning Jane Dembner says. "

But the sprawling retail complex and the expanse of parking lots surrounding it haven’t stopped Columbia, which is about a 30 minute drive from Baltimore and a 45 minute drive from the nation's capital, from regularly being listed as one of the very best places to live in the country.

The town's 100,000 residents have access to some of the best public schools in the nation, and foreclosure and jobless rates are impressively low.

But local leaders believe a bike sharing programs could make things even better.  And there are already reasons to believe that if bike sharing is feasible in a suburban environment at all, Columbia would be the place.

Turn in to any of the residential streets in Columbia and it’s not long before you see some of the paved trails that snake through the neighborhoods.  The trails were created as a selling point when this planned community was conceived by local developer Jim Rouse more than 40 years ago.

"We have 94 miles of pathways that are separated from our roadways. Major cities don’t have that many," Dembner says. "Washington [D.C.] doesn't have that many pathways."

The paved pathways are perfect for bicycling in most spots, but that doesn't mean they're perfect for bicycle commuting.

Some routes contain steep and winding sections that are difficult to navigate on a bicycle, and signage is almost non-existent. Even some locals say it's easy to lose your way.

"For people who know the area, it's in your head -- a mental map, I guess you could say," says Anthony Rizzi, a 17-year-old student at Wilde Lake High School.  "But I know as a freshman doing cross-country I got lost all the time."

Howard County Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty says the county, which is in charge of road improvements in Columbia, will have to invest in better on-road bike lanes to make bike sharing work.

"If you go on our bike trails, you can go all sorts of wonderful places, but you can't necessarily get from here to there," she says.

You can hear the entire WAMU story here.

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Rural College Campuses Solve Student Transportation Challenges With Shuttles -- And Bikes

Thursday, January 19, 2012

MSU-Billings students arriving on campus from the new shuttle service

(Billings, MT – YPR) – The car-centric West poses a challenge for college students who arrive on campus without a car. Public transportation can be limited, and far flung classrooms, and snow and ice storms can be a challenge for students who live on campus -- but attend classes miles away. Transportation is also a challenge for "land locked" campuses that can't add more parking spaces and are looking for ways to encourage the campus community to become more "green."

Now three Montana campuses with affiliated Colleges of Technology, located miles away, have transit options for its students. Montana State University-Billings became the last campus to get a shuttle for its students beginning with the current spring semester.

Jeannie McIsaac-Tracy is the director of Student Life and Auxiliary Services at MSU-Billings. She says 90 students live in the residency halls but take the majority of their classes at the COT, seven miles away.

“We have no housing at the COT,” she says. McIsaac-Tracy says the new shuttle service tells students, “yes you can live with us, be part of the evening campus life, and not have that additional expense of driving back and forth.”

Student Johnny Maetzold is one of those students. “I’ve been driving out there,” he says. “But now that the bus is here and money is a little tight, I think I might ride it a few times.”

McIsaac-Tracy says the free shuttle is an important sustainability issue for the city of Billings, Montana’s largest community. “If you watch in the morning, you see car after car after car leaving this lot (at MSU-Billings) and driving out and back.” She says in addition to reducing traffic congestion, the shuttle could reduce the use of gasoline and automobile emissions. “So we’re excited about the environmental issue of running the shuttle.”

The MSU-Billings 18-seat bus is currently a pilot project. Campus officials say they will evaluate usage and work on a funding source at the end of the semester.

The University of Montana-Missoula has been fine-tuning its student transit since 1999. What initially sparked the issue was the need for more parking, but the lack of land on or adjacent to campus.

That’s when the student government created and pays for the Associated Students of UM Office of Transportation. The campus now runs six buses a day between its COT and two Park and Ride lots.

Director Nancy Wilson says the office estimates it will carry about 450,000 riders this year on its system. “About 40% of our ridership walks to the bus stop and the other 60% drives to the bus stop,” she says.

In addition to free bus service, UM also has 50 bicycles that students can borrow for free for up to two days -- or students can rent a bicycle, helmet, light, and lock for $30/semester. Wilson says that “works really well for international students.”

U-M's fleet of bicycles

Wilson says UM continues to look into whether to offer its students car share.  “We’ve looked into it several times,” she says. “We’re not sure if our community is large enough to support a car share at this point.”

Boise State University in Idaho has a car share program for its students.

Wilson says UM also works with the city bus service  and a community based transportation organization, Missoula in Motion, to help students get around the area by bicycle or city transit.

Montana Tech in Butte also is working with the Butte-Silverbow Bus service to transport students for free from its uptown campus and residency halls to its COT. That service started in January 2010.

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Montana To Parents, Kids: We Know It's Winter -- But You Can Still Walk & Bike To School

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

(Billings, MT – YPR) – A Montana school launched a walk/bike to school initiative -- even though it's January.

Nicole Chakos is the acting president of the Highland Elementary Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). She says she was inspired to go ahead with the the winter launch after watching three boys ride their bikes to school one day in December.

“It was a beautiful day,” Chakos says. “But a beautiful day in Montana is, I think it was 28 (degrees F) in the morning, but the roads were clear. And it really hit me and I thought, ‘You know, the kids, they can do this.’”

The Montana Safe Routes to School coordinated urges students to continue walking and biking to school through the winter. Taylor Lonsdale has issued a friendly challenge to Montana schools, saying Alaska and New Hampshire have active programs. “So I’ve tried to frame it as ‘We’re Montanans. We’re not going to let people in New Hampshire do this if we can’t do it.’”

Zap machine at Highland Elementary School

“We live in Montana,” Lonsdale says. “Winter weather is a reality for all of us but that doesn’t mean that our lives stop. That doesn’t mean we stop being outside and active.” He says many Montana families with children participate in winter activities -  snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, or downhill skiing - so what’s different about walking to school, he asks.

As an incentive at Highland Elementary, the PTSA installed Boltage. It uses what it calls a Zap machine to track mileage when a student gets to school in any way other than being driven.

The Zap is a solar-powered, wi-fi internet enabled machine that reads a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that’s issued to participating students.  Highland Elementary is the first Montana school to have a Boltage program.

As participating students accumulate days walked/biked, they receive small rewards -- in this case colored rubber wrist bands stamped “Highland Boltage.” The PTSA also plans to hand out stickers, temporary tattoos, and other prizes as incentives to encourage kids to walk or bike to school.

Highland Parent Nancy Dimich says for her son, walking and biking is more than that. She says what motivates her son and his friends is the camaraderie.

“When they get together, and there’s three of them, they take off happy as clams because they’re free,” Dimich says. “I think there’s a sense of liberty.” She says when she joins them to walk to school the boys talk non-stop.  She thinks the walking and talking gets them ready for the school day. “I truly believe they’re coming to class much more prepared for their studies,” she says. “They really have their blood circulating. The oxygen is going to their brains. They’re ready.”

The PTSA Nicole Chakos says some parents, however, never will consider letting their children walk or bike from home to school, even when it's not winter. Concerns about safely crossing busy streets at rush hour, the distance to travel, and the cold and snow during the winter present barriers. For those parents, she suggests creating a drop-off zone a few blocks from the school where the kids can gather and then walk as a larger group.

“Maybe they (parents) can get them across the busy road and let them walk as a group so they start to get the experience,” Chakos says. “I really believe as those parents get more and more comfortable, especially as the kids get a little bit older, with them leaving directly from home (and walking to school).”

Chakos says even walking those couple of blocks would count under Highland’s Boltage program.

The Boltage Zap unit, software, RFID tags, support, and other materials cost nearly $7,000 for the next 3 years. The school received a grant from the Montana Safe Routes To School (SRTS) to pay the cost.

A child at Highland with a Boltage RFID tag on her backpack

The state’s SRTS program is currently funded out of the 2005 federal transportation funding bill known as “Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act” or SAFETEA-LU.

Montana SRTS's Taylor Lonsdale says the state receives $1 million a year in dedicated funding under the current legislation. He says it's his understanding that the  current U.S. Senate proposal would move to a model where states would have the discretion to direct funding for a number of bicycle and pedestrian specific programs, including SRTS.

Lonsdale says it is hard for him to see a dedicated stream of funding possibly end. He says he sees the benefits of SRTS to Montana “from infrastructure improvement in small communities that otherwise couldn’t afford it to the education and encouragement programs like Boltage at Highland” that are getting kids excited about walking and biking to school.

And its more than just about schools. It's about livable communities, says Billings School District 2 trustee and community health advocate Kathy Aragon. “So we have an obligation to our community to make it more safe for kids to walk or bike,” she says. “We can return to the good old days where we didn’t have the congestion caused by parents driving their kids to school.”  Aragon adds encouraging kids to walk and bike to school is good for the environment because it reduces automobile emissions and it reduces wear and tear on streets because cars aren't driving back and forth in front of schools to drop off/pick up children. And: children and their parents can get in some exercise.

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Northern Va. Leaders Worry About "Devolution"

Monday, January 09, 2012

'Devolution' might mean Va. counties would take responsibility for clearing roads during snowstorms

The debate over how to fund transportation needs in Virginia seems to be never-ending, but there's one idea gaining steam in Richmond that has both Republicans and Democrats in Virginia's D.C. suburbs worried: "devolution."

Devolution is the term for having counties and cities take over maintenance of secondary roads, and the idea has been discussed for years.  Right now Virginia's Department of Transportation (VDOT)  has much of that responsibility, but with the agency severely underfunded and a steady stream of complaints about road deterioration in the Commonwealth, the prospect of saddling cities and counties with the task is becoming more attractive to some.  Earlier this year the state commissioned an extensive study on 'devolution' by George Mason University researchers.

"It's something that's on the table -- we have to consider it," VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley says.  "It's just difficult, based upon the funding that we have, to do all things. So we're going to have to pick a few things and to them well."

Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart, a Republican, says if the governor and general assembly push 'devolution' through, it's local taxpayers that would suffer.

"It will cause a massive tax increase all over Northern Virginia, not just Prince William, but also Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria," says Stewart.

Fairfax County Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay says Fairfax could likely do a better job than the state's Department of Transportation, but not without new revenue.

"If it devolves to local government, with the funding scheme that's in place today, we simply don't have the money to do it," McKay says.

But both Stewart and McKay say they fear Virginia's general assembly could push the idea through no matter what local leaders have to say about it.

 

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YEAR IN REVIEW MONTANA: Oil Boom in Canada Brings Megaloads South of the Border

Friday, December 30, 2011

A megaload moves through Montana (photo by Jackie Yamanaka/YPR)

(Billings, MT-YPR) The oil boom in Canada’s Tar Sands field and an oil refinery upgrade brought megaloads--huge shipments of drilling equipment-- across Western roads and interstate highways in 2011.

Opponents argue this equipment supports a dirty tar sands oil industry, will destroy public infrastructure, and disrupt scenic and wild landscapes. Proponents counter the megaloads will boost the economy. They add that until consumers no longer drive vehicles or use petroleum-based products, it's better to buy oil from friendly countries like Canada than from the Middle East.

Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil are seeking permission to move several hundred loads of large processing equipment from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, through Idaho and neighboring Washington and Montana, to its final destination – the Kearl oil sands in Alberta, Canada.

Earlier this month, the Idaho Transportation Department temporarily suspended shipments of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil refinery equipment following a collision with a vehicle. There were no injuries.

Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) Director Timothy Reardon recently gave an update on the Kearl transport project to the interim Revenue and Transportation Legislative Committee (RTC).

Conservation groups and others are fighting movement of the oil sands processing equipment.  Opponents argue MDT should have conducted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) rather than an Environmental Assessment (EA) in issuing permits to the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil loads. In Montana, a state district judge granted a preliminary injunction halting the loads earlier this year. District Judge Ray Dayton later modified his order when Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil proposed smaller load sizes, and set a January 6, 2012 hearing date for arguments on a permanent injunction sought by opponents. Reardon, who has been MDT’s lead attorney before being promoted to director in August, expects the judge will instead request a trial for a full hearing on the matter.

Originally, the loads were up to 30 feet tall and weighed more than 500,000 pounds. Because of the size and weight, the companies were seeking to move the loads at night on two-lane roads. Now the companies have basically cut those loads in half and have been traveling on the interstate.

“They’ve moved 80 so far on the interstate and they’ve done so without incident (in Montana),” Reardon told lawmakers during December’s RTC hearing. “One of the distinctions about using the interstate route that has become apparent is with half-size loads on the interstate, most vehicles can travel 55-60 MPH.”

He adds traveling on the interstate means the passing lane is free for other vehicles to get around the loads.

Reardon told lawmakers the companies have submitted an application to move 300 oversize loads via I-90 and I-15.

A legislator had asked MDT if the state agency had adequately assessed state bridges to make sure they could handle megaloads. Reardon says during the state’s EA of the Kearl Transportation Project, the agency’s engineers “used their best judgment based on the information at hand to determine that the bridges on the proposed route were sufficient.”

Reardon told lawmakers that after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, Montana began an aggressive program to inspect all of its bridges. “They’ve all been found to be structurally safe as far as this route (the Kearl transportation project) is concerned. Our engineers tell me they do not believe there is a risk.”

“They get paid to make decisions about building bridges and telling us if they think they are going to fail when they get a heavy load on it,” Reardon says. “And so far, they tell me those bridges are sound.”

Reardon says at this point, however, none of the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil loads have moved any of its loads on any of those bridges.

Another megaload shipment that received attention in Montana in 2011 was a proposal by ConocoPhillips to move four coke drum shipments from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho to the company’s oil refinery in Billings.

Protesters met the ConocoPhillips megaloads in February as crews traveled down a Missoula street.  It was the only Montana community to hold a protest rally.

The ConocoPhillips megaload moving through a Helena intersection in February 2011

In Helena, a few onlookers watched. At the final destination in Billings, crews were greeted with coffee and donuts in April.

Because of the size, the loads were split into two. The final load arrived at ConocoPhillips refinery in August. The final shipment was delayed by several weeks because of spring flooding across portions of Central and south central Montana.

 

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