In their final debate before two upcoming caucus votes this week, the three Democratic candidates running for their party’s nomination to fill a vacant seat on the Arlington County board laid out their positions on one of the most divisive issues in the race: the future of the $300 million Columbia Pike streetcar project.
Arlington County -- one of the most densely populated places in Virginia -- has already voted to move ahead with a streetcar plan. Now it must figure out how to pay for it.
The District’s first streetcar in a half-century was towed down its tracks on H Street NE at four miles per hour Monday, the first in what will be months of safety tests before passengers can finally hop aboard next year.
The first streetcar to glide down tracks in Washington in half a century will make its first appearance Friday, as the District Department of Transportation intends to transfer one of its new streetcars from its Anacostia test track to the H Street/Benning Road NE corridor.
D.C.'s first streetcar line in 50 years may be ready for passengers service by spring or early summer of next year, but an exact date remains elusive.
The H Street/Benning Road corridor is undergoing a permanent—and highly anticipated—transformation.
The District Department of Transportation is launching a one-year study of a nine-mile streetcar line between Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C. and Takoma in Northwest. It's a key segment of a planned 22-mile streetcar system supposed to integrate wiith Metro buses and the D.C. Circulator.
D.C.'s streetcar won't be taking passengers for several more months, but engineers are already putting the vehicles through their paces, testing braking and acceleration -- and a feature called "dead man."
They haven't figured out how to pay for the project yet, but the Arlington County Board has approved a plan to move ahead on the Columbia Pike Streetcar.
D.C. officials say they're hopeful the city's new streetcar system will be up and running by the end of the year.
D.C. is officially welcoming its new set of streetcars this week -- marking the first time the vehicles have been seen in the District since 1962. And to drum up ridership, Mayor Vincent Gray said fares could be free -- at first.
(Jess Zimmerman -- Cross-posted from Grist.org) If you live in a city with a thriving streetcar system, chances are you live in Europe and your burg is pretty bike-friendly anyway. But you have to admit that sticking to the streetcar tracks would make it much less likely for you to be hit by a car, while simultaneously making it much more likely for you to be hit by a streetcar. If that sounds like fun, or if you’ve just always wanted to “ride the rails” but don’t actually understand what those words mean, you can take inspiration from this project by German urban collective We Are Visual.
The Bahnradbahnrad (trainbiketrainbike) basically just adds training wheels (ha ha, get it? TRAINing wheels?), so the bike can slide through the streetcar’s track groove without losing stability. Off the track, you will look like a six-year-old. But on the tracks, you’ll be able to get anywhere you might want to go — streetcars hit most of a metropolis’ best offerings — while being relatively unmolested by everything besides large multi-car vehicles bearing down on you. But hey, they run on a schedule, and they have to stop — you can outrun a silly little train, right? Go find out!*
* Don’t go find out.
Governor Scott Walker’s triumph in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election seems to vindicate yet again his anti-rail campaign strategy. Supporters of the Millwaukee streetcar, his latest punching bag, must be worried now that Walker will make their pet project the next piece of trophy taxidermy on his office wall, right beside the high speed “boondoggle train to Madison.”
If we’ve learned anything these last few years it’s that an empowered Governor can do a lot to frustrate local wishes, be they for a commuter rail tunnel, a potentially profitable high speed train line, or a cherished lack of interstate highway. But there’s reason to think Walker might be powerless to stop the streetcar plan, even if he wanted to do so.
A year ago, before the recall campaigning, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a thorough piece elucidating one possible reason the Republican Governor wasn’t making a big deal of the streetcar at the time:
A 10-year-old civil rights settlement could explain the governor's reticence.
That deal prohibits the state from blocking the streetcar project, according to a top federal transportation official and an attorney involved in the settlement.
Faced with allegations that it was discriminating against urban minorities by favoring freeways over light rail, the state agreed in November 2000 to cooperate with the Milwaukee Connector study and to incorporate its recommendations into the state's long-term transportation plans. That study eventually spawned the streetcar.
(For more in-depth reporting and context on the historical confluence of race and transit, listen to Transportation Nation’s Back of the Bus documentary)
We reached John Norquist, the President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, who was mayor of Milwaukee at the time of the agreement. He agreed that it wouldn’t be possible for the streetcar funding to be re-purposed without the consent of the mayor, which seems unlikely since Mayor Tom Barrett was Walker’s recall opponent. “Walker can’t take the money. It’s a joint agreement,” Norquist said. “If Barrett doesn’t agree to move the money, then the money stays where it is.”
But keeping the funding safe for one project shouldn’t be the end of the story, Norquist said. “I think the transit advocates in Milwaukee need to attack the wasteful road projects that Walker’s engaged in, the boondoggle of widening Interstate 94 to eight lanes between Milwaukee and the Illinois state boundary. That’s something like 4 billion dollars. Just to go from six to eight lanes.”
(Repeated calls and e-mails to Walker's Office were not returned.)
Agreeing with certain regretful comments made by Wisconsin State Representative Brett Hulsey to Transportation Nation last week, Norquist said that the Democrats and pro-train advocates were too timid and passive in the face of Walker’s barrage of criticism. “They need to have an intellectual theory behind what they’re doing. We did this back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We threw out a bunch of pro-highway legislators in Milwaukee, and a bunch of us got elected on an anti-freeway campaign. We killed all three pending freeways in Milwaukee.” The streetcar money originally came from funds returned for the unbuilt Stadium North Freeway. “Originally it was $500 million. And the state DOT has been trying to steal it ever since.”
Since those anti-freeway heyday that brought him into power, the pendulum has swung the other way, he says, largely because of racial fears tied to transit in Wisconsin. “This last election Walker ran against the city, tried to wrap the fear about the big city around Barrett’s neck,” Norquist observed. “It’s all very hardcore. They treat transit like it’s a welfare queen sashaying down a welfare promenade.”
But he also thinks that attitude might soon run its course. “I think Walker’s attitude still works because the a lot of those post-war generation are still voting their fears about the city and there’s still a lot of them around,” he said. “But it’s about to change. Young people—the Millenials—like urban place, and they don’t have a negative attitude toward transit.” In 1970, there were nine cities in the nation with rail transit systems, he pointed out, while today, some forty cities have it, including many in sun belt. “I think Walker will be one of the last of the people that are able to use transit as a wedge issue.”
Next Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin means everything to the prospect of improved train service in that state. But local rail advocates are still unsure whether the passenger rail issue will hurt or help embattled Republican Governor Scott Walker, who is in a tight race against challenger Tom Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee.
“I think we’ve taken it from a big negative for us to about a break-even,” said Brett Hulsey, a Democratic state assemblyman from the west side of Madison who is an outspoken supporter of both Barrett and better trains. “That’s progress. But Walker has TV ads now beating up Barrett for a $100 million dollar streetcar project in Milwaukee. Apparently this is still polling well for Walker.”
In the fall of 2010, when Walker ran for the statehouse, he made an issue of the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail project, which had received $810 million in federal funding, saying “I’d rather take that money and fix Wisconsin’s crumbling roads and bridges.” Walker also set up a website, NoTrain.Com.
The money wasn’t, in fact, fungible, and soon after he was elected, Walker returned it to the federal government, which redistributed it to other states, including California and Illinois. Other Republican governors, Rick Scott of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio, followed suit.
As it turned out, stopping the “Boondoggle train to Madison” was a political winner.
“Transportation choice advocates and Democrats, didn’t do a good job leading up to the last election, in explaining the benefits,” Hulsey admits. “We thought we had a done deal. And we should have done a better job making it part of the political discourse.”
Barrett, for his part, is trying to do just that, drawing a straight line between transportation improvements and the state’s hunger for jobs with visits to the. He recently visited a Talgo factory that has been making new train cars for the existing Hiawatha line. Funding for that too is in jeopardy, even though the cars are 99 percent complete.
Talgo is no passive prop. The company hasn’t been at all shy about their feelings for Walker’s leadership. Their Twitter feed has been quite sharp, and the company’s Vice President of Public Affairs and Business Development, Nora Friend, recently complained bluntly to Milwaukee’s WUWM radio. that the Walker Administration’s apparent intention to breach a maintenance contract would mean Talgo would have to close its current facility and lay off skilled workers.
“We find ourselves in this situation,” she said, “because of the blunder of returning $810 million dollars. The cost of that permanent maintenance facility was included in those finds that Wisconsin competed to get. We don’t want to have to litigate our contract. What we want is very simple. we want the state of wisconsin to do what it preaches, that it is open for business.”
Hulsey points to a report that Walker has actually given away $1.3 Billion in federal money, and thinks the public is starting to understand the Democrat’s view of the matter. “We have educated the public that of the 35,000 jobs that we lost last year, 5,500 of those jobs would have been people upgrading our train tracks, direct and indirect jobs.”
Hulsey likes to encourage train supporters in states such as Illinois to send letters to Walker thanking him for the re-appropriated funds and resulting jobs.
“Those jobs and the benefits of those jobs would have far exceeded any operating costs to maintain rail service to Madison," said Nora Friend.
Walker’s straightforward position, like that of Florida Governor Rick Scott, is that, given the economic climate and mounting deficits, federal and state governments cannot afford to risk millions and billions of dollars on rail systems they see as speculative and likely to require years of subsidy. Whether voters agree with this, or the argument that government is in a unique position to create desperately needed jobs and new infrastructure critical to economic development, won’t be clear until election day, if then.
But Hulsey counters Walkers claims with a classic Democratic argument. “The fact that this is happening in battleground states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida is not an accident,” he told me. “This is part of the Republican do-nothing strategy to try to make President Obama look as bad as possible. Hurting workers to hurt Obama is the overall strategy.”
NJ Transit is taking corporate bids for naming its stations, terminals, and trains -- and one bidder is crying foul. (The Star-Ledger)
If regional Detroit can't agree on an integrated rail and bus system, they risk losing millions in federal dollars -- and what may be "our last, best opportunity." (Detroit Free Press)
Mayor Bloomberg floated a new plan to expand taxi service in the outer boroughs by setting up hundreds of stands where livery cabs could legally pick up passengers on the street. (Wall Street Journal)
US DOT head Ray LaHood went to New Orleans for the groundbreaking of their streetcar expansion project. (Fast Lane)
Is texting while driving as dangerous as we think -- and is a ban the right way to prevent it? (The Takeaway)
Delta is scrambling to do damage control after charging a group of U.S. soldiers returning home from deployment in Afghanistan $200 each for extra bags. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
It took two years to plan for parking at the upcoming US Open in Bethesda. (WAMU)
Chicago will get protected bike lanes, and Rahm Emanuel bikes 25 miles on weekends. (Chicago Sun-Times)
97 degrees in Minneapolis = Twin Cities highway damage. (Boing Boing)
A dancing traffic cop has become a sensation in Manila. (BBC News video)
Owning a Harley-Davidson in China is a status symbol for a small slice of the aspirational Chinese consumer. (Marketplace)
Ohio has pulled nearly $52 million in funding for Cincinnati's proposed streetcar project. (Cincinnati.com)
DC's Metro says a new report shows that an increase in peak fares has not stopped riders from using the system (WAMU).
State and local officials in Virginia have taken the next steps in their fight to block a plan to build a new underground metro station at Dulles airport. (WAMU)
Gas prices are up 40% over last year, and economists are debating the effect on consumers. (NPR)
So are drivers buying less gas? Or are fuel-efficient vehicles partially responsible for a slowdown in gas sales? (Marketplace)
The Center for Public Integrity investigates predatory auto loans -- the same scams outlawed by Congress after the mortgage crisis.
ProPublica reports that natural gas might not be cleaner than burning coal.
The New York Post says a new study contradicts the NYC DOT's cycling numbers.
New York's MTA sometimes uses regular subway cars --with passengers on them -- to haul garbage. (NY Daily News)
Virgin Atlantic blogs about the strangest items passengers have tried to pass off as checked baggage, including bathtubs, dead cows, and a bag of cutlery previously stolen from another Virgin Atlantic flight.
Top Transportation Nation stories we're following: The US DOT conducts surprise bus inspections -- and finds that one in 10 are unsafe. A budget deal is made -- and the slashing isn't just for high-speed rail. The Willis Avenue bridge makes its final journey. Bikes are now used to sell bridal wear. And: the San Francisco Bay Area's most dangerous transit mile.
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Denver's FasTracks needs more money to complete its rail expansion, but the question of a tax increase has been put off until May. (Denver Post) (Meanwhile - if you want to learn more about Denver's transit expansion, listen to the TN documentary "Back of the Bus: Race, Mass Transit and Inequality")
Another step has been taken toward building a $778 million commuter-train line that would link nearly 20 suburban communities to downtown Chicago. (AP via Bloomberg Businessweek)
Apparently equality comes with a price: a European Union court ruled that insurance companies must charge men and women the same rates -- so now women drivers will pay as much as men do to insure their cars. (NPR)
Dallas Area Rapid Transit demonstrated a new energy-efficient streetcar that uses rechargeable batteries, not overhead wires. (Dallas Morning News)
The New York Observer weighs in on the bike lane brouhaha, which it terms "New York's last culture war." And the New Yorker's John Cassidy pens a defense of bike lane opponents. Which is then picked apart by Reuters' Felix Salmon.
Even the British paper the Guardian is writing about NYC's bike lanes. "How New York – the city that still has a uniquely low level of car ownership and use – manages its transport planning in the 21st century matters for the whole world: it is the template. If cycling is pushed back into the margins of that future, rather than promoted, along with efficient mass public transit and safe, pleasant pedestrianism, as a key part of that future, the consequences will be grave and grim."
A pregnant subway commuter tracks chivalry in New York -- with a positive outcome. Out of 108 subway rides, she was offered a seat 88 times. (WSJ via Second Avenue Sagas)
And, okay we bit. Here's the full Mad Men pro-high speed rail video, produced by the pro-high speed rail group, US PIRG.
Top Transportation Nation stories we're following: has the backlash to the bike lane backlash begun in NYC? And: Montana legislators mull penalties for multiple DUI's, but should the 3rd crime get offenders a felony charge...or the gallows? And: in DC, lawmakers want graduated driver's licenses for teens, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks about transportation of the future at the National Bike Summit.
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(Washington D.C. - David Schultz, WAMU) A scathing report has just been released by the transition team of incoming D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. The report is something of an indictment against the city's Department of Transportation, as led by Gray's mayoral predecessor, Adrian Fenty, and his young, charismatic transportation director, Gabe Klein.
Among its grievances:
(Washington, D.C. -- David Schultz, WAMU) The D.C. City Council, convening in a lame duck session next week, will cast a crucial vote on funding for an urban street car project.
The project was the darling of outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty and his Director of Transportation Gabe Klein. Building a streetcar as a supplement to the city's already-existing bus and subway service was a huge part of their overall goal to make D.C. more walkable and to spur economic development in blighted neighborhoods.
But the project's costs have been climbing steadily upward, and there are still questions about how the streetcars will be powered (i.e. whether there will be overhead wires blocking D.C.'s monumental views).
His soon-to-be successor, current Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has been much more cool to the streetcar. In a late night budget session earlier this year, Gray eliminated funding for the streetcar project — only to reinstate it later that day after an outcry from the local transit backers.
Gray later blamed the elimination of streetcar funding on a "staff error," and said he is a full supporter of the project. But the upcoming vote, which could be one of his last on the City Council, will be a true test of that support.
Toyota recalls 1.5 million vehicles worldwide for brake and fuel problems. (New York Times)
Midterm elections may reroute high speed rail projects. (Marketplace)
Tough week for transportation in DC: The Virginia Department of Historic Resources is objecting to a change in the planned Metrorail line to Dulles Airport that could save more than half a billion dollars (WAMU). And DC failed to win TIGER grant money to help expand its bikeshare program.
While Atlanta celebrates its $47.6 million streetcar grant, other area residents are annoyed that a highway project didn't get funded. "Because it's more important than a streetcar. Peoples' lives depend on it." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Dueling rallies over Park Slope's bike lanes to take place in Brooklyn today. (New York Daily News)
The Swedes have invented an invisible bike helmet, modeled on a car airbag, that will go on sale next spring. (Popular Science)