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Transportation Nation

Quinn's Transit Vision: Long on Buses, Ferries, Short on Bike Share

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn gave voters their first detailed glimpse into what her transportation agenda would be if she's elected Mayor. It's like Bloomberg's -- but without the big, bold visions.

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Transportation Nation

VIDEO: Will Metro Do Away with its Mood Lighting?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Depending on your take, the lighting in D.C.'s Metro stations is either insufficient, charmingly subdued, or designed by someone scarred by the energy crisis of the 1970s.

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Transportation Nation

Low-Bid Process For Silver Line's Phase II May Foster Hidden Costs

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The success of a megaproject can come down to a single decision: choosing the right contractor.

As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) prepares to embark on Phase II of a $5.5 billion rail extension to Dulles International Airport known as the Silver Line, five pre-qualified construction consortiums are facing an April 19 deadline to submit bids to build a transportation project largely financed by toll revenues from the Dulles Toll Road.

After receiving the bids next Friday, MWAA will announce the winner in May. Preliminary work is scheduled to begin later this year with a target of 2018 for completion of the Silver Line to Dulles and beyond into Virginia's Loudoun County. Phase I of the project, which extends D.C.'s Metro to Reston -- is scheduled to open later this year.

Some of the biggest names in the construction industry are competing for the Phase II contract, including Bechtel, the firm that is building Phase I. The lowest bidder wins Phase II.

“Before you go to a low bid, you do everything possible to make sure that you have a firm that is fully capable and fully understands the scope of work of the project involved,” said Patrick Nowakowski, the executive director of the Dulles Corridor Rail Project. “We don’t want to have firms leading the effort… who’ve never undertaken a megaproject.”

Nowakowski says using the low-bid procurement procedure ensures the lowest possible price for Fairfax and Loudoun County taxpayers and the toll road users.

“It’s all about price,” Nowakowski said.

Once the contractor teams’ individual design proposals met the standards established in MWAA’s design schematics, the lowest bid became the only factor in deciding who will win the contract. Therefore, a bidding contractor with a superior design receives no advantage in the bidding process. But Nowakowski says his office has been meeting with the competing contractor teams for months to ensure all the design proposals are sound.

“That’s where the confidence level comes in, the amount of time we have spent working with them,” Nowakowski said. “[We] make sure that the designs they produce meet the minimum standards that [we’ve] established in a specifications.”

Critics say low bid invites trouble

Any number of issues can push a megaproject over budget, but the low-bid procurement process is particularly troublesome, critics say, because it entices a contractor to submit an artificially low bid with the intention of requesting change orders to drive up a project’s final cost, paid for by the project’s owner and into the contractor’s pockets. In the case of the Silver Line, the owner is MWAA.

“The procurement on Phase II is not being done in an optimal way,” said Brian Petruska, an attorney at the Laborers International Union of North America, one of the unions that supplied workers to build Phase I of the Silver Line. “For a contractor the number one goal is to get the project.”

Change orders usually occur in one of three ways: the project owner requests the change and then pays the contractor to include it; an unexpected problem arises in the construction process requiring a change for the project to proceed safely; or the contractor requests a change order from the owner. In the latter case, MWAA would have to approve any change orders that are requested by the general contractor.

“We've looked at projects such as the Wilson Bridge and the Springfield interchange where change orders were approved because the price of steel went up. You would think the contractor should factor in potential increases in the price of steel, so when they make the bid they take the risk,” said Petruska, who said MWAA should have chosen a bidding process that grades on both design and price.

MWAA insists its contract documents and oversight procedures will prevent unnecessary change orders and, therefore, stick to the Silver Line’s budget.

“I worry about change orders from the day I sign the contract to the day I end it,” Nowakowski said. “It’s not a function of the low-bid procedure. It’s a function of how well the contract documents were written and how well you manage the project from the day you start to the day you finish.”

The higher the Silver Line price, the higher the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road

Virginia’s approval of an additional $300 million in Silver Line funding lightened the burden on Dulles Toll Road users to finance the $2.7 billion Phase II extension. Before the Commonwealth approved new funding, toll revenues were scheduled to cover 75 percent of Phase II’s costs. That cost has been reduced to 64 percent, according to an MWAA spokeswoman-- as long as Fairfax and Loudoun Counties continue to fund the $400 million needed to build parking garages and a rail station at the planned Rt. 28 stop.

If Phase II’s construction goes over budget, toll road users may be asked to make up the difference, according to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.

Connaughton says it will be up to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to make sure only legitimate change orders are approved for Phase II of the Silver Line.

“Any price escalation is passed almost directly onto the toll road users, and the toll road users are already bearing a very large brunt of the cost of this project,” Connaughton said.

Change orders and bloated project budgets

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has a mixed record in keeping its projects on budget. While MWAA officials have praised the contractor and union workforce for keeping Phase I of the Silver Line on time and on budget, the Dulles Main Terminal Automated People Mover Station will receive no such praise.

The Automated People Mover Station, which provides a rail and pedestrian link between the main terminal and midfield concourses at Dulles Airport, was awarded by MWAA to the contractor Turner Construction Co.* at the low-bid price of $184 million. After 82 change orders were approved, the project finished at $388 million, an increase of $204 million from the original low bid, according to sources familiar with an internal MWAA audit.

The audit also found MWAA staff approved certain increases without documentation and without written contractual obligation to do so, sources said.

While the People Mover Station may provide an egregious example of a project’s costs soaring out of control, it serves a caution that even when government agencies sign a contract with established construction industry giants, things can go very wrong. That is why, Nowakowski said, the Silver Line’s project management team will exercise strict oversight.

“We’ve got some of the five best teams in the world competing” for the contract, he said. “The taxpayers can believe that we’ve done everything that we can to get the best possible price.”

The Springfield Interchange (Archer Western) and the Silver Spring Transit Center (Foulger Pratt) provide two widely publicized examples of projects that went well over budget despite having major construction firms serving as general contractors. Archer Western is leading one of the five construction consortiums that will bid of Phase II of the Silver Line.

In addition to Archer Western Contractors, the other construction consortiums competing to build Phase II are led by Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., Skanska USA, Clark Construction Group, and Fluor Enterprises Inc.

Construction industry warns against pointing fingers

Representatives of the construction industry say it is harder to determine what actually went wrong than to simply assign blame when megaproject encounters budget or construction problems.

“A newspaper or a radio show or anybody can spout off and say there was a problem on a job and they name the contractor or the subcontractor,” said Patrick Dean, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Virginia. “Typically they don’t get into the details because that news is old by the time anything is figured out.”

Dean says the idea contractors pocket huge sums off excessive change orders is “a fallacy.”

“It’s not like contractors are going to make a lot of money on change orders. A change order increases their contract but they are a hassle. You have to negotiate them, sometimes you fight over them. You may have to rework something or change your schedule,” said Dean, who said some change orders are requested not for profit but to make projects more durable to reduce future maintenance costs.

Regardless of whether MWAA or the general contractor will pay for any change orders approved during Phase II of the Silver Line, the additional costs may ultimately fall on drivers on the Dulles Toll Road.

Virginia Transportation Sec. Connaughton, a critic of MWAA’s past performance, said the agency must run this project well. “Additional costs not only delay the project but obviously cause it to spiral out of control with price,” Connaughton said.

This is the first of a two-part series on construction of Phase II of the Silver Line to Dulles.

*This post originally listed the contractor as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. They are the architects, not the contractor. 

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TN MOVING STORIES: Japanese Automakers Recall 3 Million Cars, Capital Bikeshare Sets Another Record, Stun Gun Breaks Up BART Fight

Thursday, April 11, 2013

NJ Transit: We’re Being More Transparent About Sandy Recovery (link)
Revived: Idea To Send NYC Subway Line To New Jersey (link)
San Francisco Airport Bans Rideshare App Companies from Taxi Line (link)
Contractors To Pay For Repairs To Beleaguered Maryland Transit Hub (link)

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Transportation Nation

San Francisco Airport Bans Rideshare App Companies from Taxi Line

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Last month, San Francisco International Airport issued cease-and-desist orders to six different app-based rideshare companies like Lyft, SideCar, and UberX.

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Transportation Nation

NJ Transit: We're Being More Transparent About Sandy Recovery

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

NJ Transit's board meetings will now be videotaped, and the agency is expanding the information on its Sandy recovery website.

It's part of an agency attempt to provide more transparency to the riding public -- many of whom have showed up at NJ Transit board meetings since Sandy to complain about confusing schedule changes, last-minute service outages, and a general lack of effective communication.

Jim Simpson, the state's transportation commissioner and NJ Transit chairman, said Wednesday at a board meeting that the videos of each board meeting will be available on the agency's website within 48 hours "to increase transparency on the board. We think it's really a good thing for everybody."

Executive director Jim Weinstein also said the NJ Transit website will now "include a listing of contracts associated with the Sandy recovery, as well as background on all projects." And the site now offers details on agency efforts to repair and replace trains damaged by Sandy.

NJ Transit has been under scrutiny for its decision to store rail stock in flood-prone areas during the storm, which caused nearly a quarter of its fleet to suffer damage.

The board also approved paying another $28.5 million to Canadian rail company Bombardier, which is repairing train cars damaged by Sandy. NJ Transit says it will reimbursed for storm expenses through a  combination of federal aid and insurance money.

Related: NJ Transit Chief: Our Trains, Equipment, Suffered $100 Million In Sandy Damage

Following the meeting, Weinstein less enthusiastic about a different subject: a recent study endorsing a proposal to extend the #7 subway to Secaucus. "It’s not a New Jersey project," he said. "It emanated from the mayor’s office in New York and it clearly has some different points of view in New York, from the MTA." Weinstein sounded lukewarm about the project.  "We'll see where it goes," he said.

One recent bright spot for the agency: Weinstein said NJ Transit got a ridership boost during last week's Wrestlemania, when the agency provided more than 35,000 bus and rail trips to the Meadowlands.  The agency views the event as a dress rehearsal for next year's Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets and Giants play. Weinstein, who was on site for much of the event, described Wrestlemania as "quite an enlightening experience."

 

 

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Contractors To Pay For Repairs To Beleaguered Maryland Transit Hub

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Preliminary repair work is underway at Maryland' s Silver Spring Transit Center, but officials still can't say when it will actually open.

The construction and design teams have agreed for now to pay for the necessary repairs to fix the structural problems at the Silver Spring Transit Center that were detailed in a scathing county report.

David Dise, director of general services for Montgomery County, says some repair work is already underway but that the major remediation work won't take place until late summer.

"Foulger Pratt was directed on Friday to begin the replacement of the faulty pour strips on the mid-level of the transit center," Dise says. "Parsons Brinkerhoff, the engineer of record, is beginning the design of the other remediation work that has to be done, the columns, the beams, and the topping slabs on the two levels."

That's just the beginning. Those repairs will take months to complete, so Dise can't say when the facility, already two years behind schedule, will open.

"Much of that will depend upon the final remediation plan being developed by Parsons Brinkerhoff and the subsequent schedule developed by Foulger Pratt after they receive the design," Dise says.

So the county, as of now, will not have to pump any more money into finishing the facility.

"The contractors that have performed the work that is in error must bear the cost of its repair," Dise says.

So it appears the county and the contractors have reached a resolution that will avoid costly, time consuming litigation, at least for the time being. The contractors may fight the county in court after the work is done to recover their expenses.

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TN MOVING STORIES: Twin Cities Transit, #7 Extension Idea Returns, Massachusetts Pols Debate Transpo Funding

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Top stories on TN:
Does Classical Music at Train Stations Really Deter Crime? (link)
Pay-By-Phone Parking — And Real-Time Space Availability — Being Tested in the Bronx (link)
Ostriches, Brownies, and Childbirth: Memories of a Golden Gate Bridge Toll Taker (link)
Amtrak Ridership Continues to Set Records — Despite Sandy Damage (link)

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Does Classical Music at Train Stations Really Deter Crime?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

(Brian Wise - WQXR) Move along, hoodlums. Antonio Vivaldi is playing at Newark Penn Station.

When New Jersey Transit upgraded the public address system at its Newark transit hub a year ago, they began piping in classical music along with the announcements on train arrivals and connections. The authority subscribed to a music service and station agents could select from different channels, which also include easy-listening and jazz.

The idea, said a NJ Transit spokesperson, is to relax customers "and make it more pleasant to traverse the facilities."

But in cities from Atlanta to Minneapolis and London, there's often a bigger strategy at work: turn on the great composers and turn away the loiterers, vagrants and troublemakers who are drawn to bus stations, malls and parking lots. Last month, the Associated Press reported on a YMCA in Columbus, OH that began piping Vivaldi into its parking lot, and claiming to disperse petty drug dealers as a result.

In the above podcast, WQXR host Naomi Lewin asks why classical music in particular seems to be the weapon of choice – and whether it works.

"It's been used as part of a larger strategy of crime prevention through environmental design," said Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the criminal-justice department at Seattle University. She noted that classical music is often accompanied by upgrades like better lighting, improved traffic flow or trimmed shrubbery in public areas.

Studies on the specific effects of music on criminal behavior are lacking. But Helfgott believes classical music is historically associated with "a cultural aesthetic that is pro-social as opposed to antisocial," making it a preferred crime prevention tool.

Put another way, rowdy teenagers don't find classical very cool.

Nigel Rodgers, the head of Pipedown, a group that campaigns against background music in any form, believes the strategy presents a slippery slope. “Yes, young people commit crimes and it’s a problem," he said. "I do appreciate that. But we must seek out other pro-sociable ways of dealing with the problem rather than just squirt acoustic insecticide at young people.

"People who really like music of any sort don’t want to have it piped at them when they’re trying to talk, eat or shop when they don’t want it."

It's also worth keeping in mind that not all classical music works as a soothing agent. As anyone who has seen "A Clockwork Orange," knows, even Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has its dark associations.

In Columbus, OH, where the YMCA piped in Vivaldi, the strategy is being hailed as a success. A local business improvement district executive told the AP: "There's something about baroque music that macho wannabe-gangster types hate. At the very least, it has a calming effect."

Should classical music be used to fight crime and loitering? Join the discussion at WQXR.

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Transportation Nation

Pay-By-Phone Parking -- And Real-Time Space Availability -- Being Tested in the Bronx

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

An 18-block stretch in the Bronx will be the first in New York City to test pay-by-phone parking.

The pilot program will allow people to use phone, internet or smartphone app to pay for 264 metered parking spaces along or adjacent to Arthur Avenue  -- as well as spots in the city's Belmont Municipal Parking Field. To participate, motorists must sign up in advance on the Pay-By-Phone website. Each Muni-Meter in the pilot program has a QR code and a seven-digit number; the motorist must use either to confirm payment.

Users will receive a text or email when their meter is about to expire, and they will have the option of extending their time without having to return to their cars. According to the mayor's press release, traffic enforcement agents will use new hand-held scanners to cross-check the PayByPhone's data to ensure compliance.

"New York City parking has come a long way since we had to put a roll of quarters in our pocket," said city transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, making the announcement Tuesday in the Bronx with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A side view of the Muni-Meter in the Bronx. Note QR code and 7-digit ID. (Photo by Christine Streich)

Related: Good Bye, Parking Meter; Hello, Muni-Meter

The pay-by-phone pilot will be tested for three months; it could then expand citywide.

Potentially more interesting than the ability to feed the meter remotely is the second half of Tuesday's announcement: a real-time parking availability map, seeded by information transmitted from roadbed sensors.

A sensor embedded in the roadway detects whether a parking space is free or not. (Photo by Christine Streich)

"Green indicates the greatest likelihood of a spot; yellow, the chances aren't so good, and red, well, you get the idea--" said Sadik-Khan. "Forget about it, as Marty [Markowitz] would say," interjected Bloomberg, referring to Brooklyn's Borough President.

Sadik-Khan added the map would cut down on the pollution created by cruising around and looking for a spot. "Knowing where to go, and to concentrate your search on where it's going to have the biggest value and the biggest payoff, is half the battle," she said.

In addition to being available online, the map is also available as a smartphone app. Bloomberg batted away suggestions that the app could encourage distracted driving.  Bloomberg reasoned passengers could check the map -- or drivers could check it before they leave "or pull over. I mean, a lot of things are meant for you, you can't do it while you're --" here the mayor paused -- "in the shower, for example."

This cracked up the crowd. "I'm just trying to think of some other place you shouldn't," Bloomberg said, moving along to the next question.

Real-time parking conditions in the Belmont section of the Bronx (click for interactive map)

Other cities around the world -- San Francisco, London, Vancouver, Miami -- use similar technology. Monica Hernandez, a spokesperson for the District Department of Transportation, said all 17,500 meters in Washington D.C. can be paid for via phone, and that the program had been in place for almost two years. "It's serving its purpose," she said. "It provides one more option for people looking to park."

With reporting from Christine Streich/WNYC.


 

 

 

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Ostriches, Brownies, and Childbirth: Memories of a Golden Gate Bridge Toll Taker

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Last week, the Golden Gate Bridge switched to its new all-electronic tolling system. The change has been smooth, with just a few reports of confused drivers stopping at the toll plaza. For most people, it won’t be a big deal, because over three-quarters of commuters use the electronic payment system Fastrak.

Mary Currie, the spokesperson for the Golden Gate Bridge Transit District, estimates the switch to all-electronic tolling will save the district – which is facing a big deficit– $16 million over the next eight years. “Every government agency is faced with having to downsize, and as service providers in the transit world labor is our biggest expense,” said Currie. “So that is directly relates to the all-electronic tolling project. It’s labor.”

In other words, it’s the toll collectors. Officially called “bridge officers,” they’ve been taking drivers’ money since the bridge opened in 1937. On March 26, 2013, all 28 of them clocked in for the last time. All but eight officers had arranged to retire or switch to another job in the district.

Jacquie Dean was one of those eight bridge officers, and she said goodbye to a career that spanned 18 years on the Golden Gate Bridge. As the country moves to all-electronic tolling, Dean represents a group of people who soon won't be there to have stories to tell. From ostriches to babies to "the best sunsets in the world," Jacquie Dean shared some of her favorite memories of the bridge and her feelings as she moves forward.

Like Dean's memories of the driver who always hands out goodies to the toll takers. "Joyce...makes the best brownies in the world....she is just the nicest lady." And the relationships that develop even in the brief period of time it takes to make the toll transaction. "The kids grow up," she says. " You watch them from the first day of kindergarten -- they bring you little pictures that they've drawn -- graduations from fifth and sixth grade...going into high school."

And then there was the day the ostriches got loose. "I don't know if you know ostriches are quite fast and quite strong," she says. "And our toll man had to go out there and try to wrangle ostriches on the Golden Gate Bridge and it did stop traffic for about 30 minutes."

But Dean didn't get to deliver a baby -- that job fell to one of her colleagues. "And actually on (the baby's) birth certificate it says he was born on the Golden Gate Bridge. There are only two people in the world that were actually born on the Golden Gate Bridge."

Listen to the conversation below.

 

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Amtrak Ridership Continues to Set Records -- Despite Sandy Damage

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Rail ridership continues to grow in America.

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

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

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

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

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

Why passenger rail is on the rise

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

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

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

Chart courtesy of Amtrak

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

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

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TN MOVING STORIES: Dreamliner to Fly Again in May, The Risk of Killing the Keystone XL, Take a 360 Tour of Edinburgh's Tram

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Top stories on TN:
NYC Starts Placing Bike Share Docks (link)
US Navy Could Use Blimps to Track Drug Submarines (link)

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US Navy Could Use Blimps to Track Drug Submarines

Monday, April 08, 2013

The US Navy has been testing a blimp in Jacksonville Florida to see if it could be used as a submarine spotter off the coast of Central and South America.

Testing of the MZ-3A helium filled airship at Naval Station Mayport wrapped up Friday. Earlier last week, US Senator Bill Nelson (D- FL) took a ride on the blimp, which can carry a crew of 10

"I was really struck how maneuverable it is," says Nelson. "It can rapidly ascend and rapidly descend."

Bill Nelson after his blimp ride (photo by Katie Ross)

Nelson says the benefit of the blimp is fuel economy.

"The amount of fuel it takes to crank up a jet and just taxi out to the runway is the amount of fuel a blimp would use in an entire 24 hour period," he says.

The U.S. Navy's Fourth Fleet patrols the waters around Central and South America- shipping routes for traffickers of drugs, people and other contraband as part of Operation Martillo.

Sen. Nelson says smugglers use a variety of boats- some of them submersible.

"They ride right below the water’s surface, but they’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated than that. They’re building submarines."

The MZ-3A has a cruising speed around 45 knots. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Corey Barker says the blimp wouldn't replace the fixed-wing jet and turbo-prop aircraft currently used in maritime surveillance.

"The blimp would not be responsible for pursuing a ship or fast speedboat," Barker says. "It would simply be responsible for detecting that and passing that information to our patrol units, our aircraft with our partner nations and the coastguard to intercept that ship."

USS Macon (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.)

Airship technology is not new. The US Navy was flying rigid airships in the 1920s and 1930s. But Lt. Commander Barker says the surveillance equipment on board the MZ-3A blimp is state of the art.

He says the Navy will also be testing an aerostat, an unmanned balloon that could fly behind a ship to scan the surrounding sea.

"It's not as wide an area as a blimp, but it will have sensors that can detect and monitor illicit activity in the area," says Barker.  Aerostats have been used by the military in Afghanistan and also in the 1980s by the US Coastguard to patrol the Caribbean.

U.S. Coast Guard ship with aerostat balloon (Photo: US Coastguard) 

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TN MOVING STORIES: Madison Square Garden Lease No Sure Thing, FAA Delays Tower Closures, Michigan's First BRT Line Shaping Up

Monday, April 08, 2013

Top stories on TN:
World’s Worst Airship Disaster Wasn’t the Hindenburg: Remembering the USS Akron (link)
BART, Unions Begin Contract Negotiations as Agency Emerges from Deficit (link)
Why Tolls Will Be Waived On One Virginia Highway This Weekend (link)

Madison Square Garden (photo by Flodigrip's World via flickr)

The renewal of Madison Square Garden's lease is no longer a sure thing. (Crain's New York Business)

Remember how the FAA was going to shut down 149 air traffic control towers this month? Now that's delayed until June. (The Hill)

Passenger complaints about airlines are up 20% -- even though airlines are doing a better job with on-time performance and luggage. (AP)

Car sharing reflects a cultural shift: "People of my generation believed that our private automobile said a lot about who we are, that [it] defined our power and our status. The younger generations don't seem to be buying into that anymore, and they are seeing automobiles as simply a tool." (NPR)

New Jersey is synchronizing traffic lights on one highway. (Star-Ledger)

The jihad ad war is paying off for New York's MTA. (New York Times)

Michigan's first BRT line is shaping up. (MLive)

HopStop is crowdsourcing transit information. "We can't afford to wait years for transit agencies to slowly make this information available," says the company's CEO. "We should rely on our user base, the largest transit user base out there." (The Verge)

A public health message for Shanghai straphangers: don't bring your pet birds on the subway during an avian flu outbreak. (Shanghaiist)

Follow TN on TwitterFacebook, or Tumblr.

 

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World's Worst Airship Disaster Wasn't the Hindenburg: Remembering the USS Akron

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The USS Akron over Manhattan circa 1931 - 1933 (Photo U.S. Naval Archives - http://wny.cc/Y3c5Bk)

When we think of the future of transportation now, it's cars that talk to each other, bullet trains and BRT. But 80 years ago, it was blimps. The centerpiece of New York City, the Empire State Building, even explored the idea of docking dirigibles atop it's soaring spire.

But then came the crashes. WABE in Atlanta took the 80th anniversary of the worst airship disaster in history to recall the fiery tragedy that helped end the dreams of blimps as mass transport. And as Jim Buress points out:

"The Hindenburg is easily the most recognized airship disaster.  But it’s far from the worst. The USS Akron, seen here, crashed on April 4, 2013 off the coast of New Jersey. It's considered the world's worst airship disaster. That unfortunate distinction goes to the USS Akron, a navy airship... Seventy-three of the 76 crew members died."

WABE’s Jim Burress interviewed airship historian Dan Grossman of Airships.net.

Give a listen. The conversation starts with Grossman explaining what caused the crash off the coast of New Jersey.

Listen to the interview here.

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BART, Unions Begin Contract Negotiations as Agency Emerges from Deficit

Friday, April 05, 2013

BART train (photo by Keoki Seu via Flickr)

Rising ridership and sales tax revenues on San Francisco's BART system mean the agency is no longer operating at a deficit, which has triggered labor negotiations that could give union workers their first raise in four years.

BART contracts for its union workers – who make up almost 90 percent of BART’s over 3,000 employees– are set to expire on June 30th. And that has sent BART and union leaders to the negotiating table. Both sides are hoping to avoid the bitter and contentious fight that happened during the last contract negotiations in the summer of 2009.

But things were different in 2009. Ridership was declining, and the system was facing a $250 million deficit over the next four years. BART went into negotiations with the goal of cutting $100 million in labor costs through reductions in health care and pensions, and changing what they considered “wasteful” work rules, like unnecessary overtime. A last-minute deal that kept wages static, prevented a strike by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, or ATU – the union that represents the system’s approximately 900 station agents and train operators.

That deal did save BART the $100 million it wanted and laid out plans for four of the five unions and non-union employees to get a one percent raise if strict guidelines were met, including increased ridership and sales tax revenues. This week, BART announced the guidelines have been met, so most of their employees will be receiving their first raise in since 2009.

“With record ridership and an aging system, our employees are working hard to provide on-time, reliable service for our riders,” BART General Manager Grace Crunican said in a press release. “The bar was set high for our employees to receive this increase and the predefined standards were met.”

Since 2009, BART has increased its ridership – from 340,000 to over 390,000 in the latest monthly report. And it’s no longer operating on a deficit, but the system does have a $10 billion unfunded capital need for renovation and expansion projects.

“This year’s labor negotiations will be focused on bargaining a fair contract for our hard working employees as well as ensuring the long term financial health and sustainability of our system,” Crunican said.

BART says they’re looking at the same issues as last negotiation: employee health care, pensions, and work rules.

“We must pave the way for BART to continue to be the backbone of Bay Area transportation for decades to come,” Crunican said. “BART is looking to protect its future fiscal stability with measures to more effectively share the risks and costs associated with its employee benefits program.”

Antonette Bryant is the president of ATU Local 1555. She said calling last negotiation contentious was “a gross understatement.” But this time, she said, she wants to have the contract settled June 30th.

“We want them to pay a fair wage for our employees and increase safety and service for the BART patrons,” Bryant said. Meaning, they want a pay raise.

Bryant also said the one percent raise announced this week should not be considered as the transit workers’ only salary increase.

“I want to make it clear that this is not benevolent,” she said. “This is something they have to do. They owe us the money from the previous contract negotiations.”

As negotiations go on, both parties hope to have a deal by June 30th and to prevent the fighting that happened four years ago.

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Transportation Nation

Why Tolls Will Be Waived On One Virginia Highway This Weekend

Friday, April 05, 2013

A dynamic tolling system is set to open on a new section of the Beltway later this year.

495, shown last year while under construction

Nearly five months after opening, the operators of the 495 Express Lanes are struggling to attract motorists to their congestion-free toll road in a region mired in some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

Transurban, the construction conglomerate that put up $1.5 billion to build the 14-mile, EZ Pass-only corridor on the Beltway between the I-95 interchange and Dulles Toll Road, will let motorists use the highway free this weekend in a bid to win more converts.

“It takes a lot of time for drivers in the area to adapt to new driving behaviors. A lot of us are kind of stuck on autopilot on our commutes. That trend might continue for a while, too,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.

Light use of HOT lanes raises questions

McGurk says some drivers are confused about the new highway’s many entry and exit points. Opening the Express Lanes for free rides this weekend will let motorists familiarize themselves with the road, he said.

After opening in mid-November, the 495 Express Lanes lost money during its first six weeks in business. Operating costs exceeded toll revenues, but Transurban was not expecting to turn an immediate profit. In the long term, however, company officials have conceded they are not guaranteed to make money on their investment. Transurban’s next quarterly report is due at the end of April.

To opponents of the project, five months of relatively light traffic on Virginia’s new $2 billion road is enough to draw judgments. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has not recovered since the recession knocked millions out of work and more commuters are seeking alternatives to the automobile, according to Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“They miscalculated peoples' time value of money. They overestimated the potential demand for this road,” said Schwartz, who said the light use of the 495 Express Lanes should serve as a warning.

“We should not have rushed into signing a deal for hot lanes for the 95 corridor, and we certainly shouldn’t rush into any deal on I-66,” he said.

Transurban is counseling patience.

“We’re still in a ramp-up period. You’ve probably heard us say that since the beginning, too, but with a facility like this it’s a minimum six months to two years until the region falls into a regular pattern on how they’re going to use this facility,” McGurk said.

In its first six weeks of operations toll revenues climbed on the 495 Express Lanes from daily averages of $12,000 in the first week to $24,000 in the week prior to Christmas. Traffic in the same period increased from an average of 15,000 daily trips to 24,000, according to company records. Despite the increases, operating expenses still outstripped revenues.

It is possible that traffic is not bad enough outside of the morning and afternoon rush hours to push motorists over to the EZ Pass lanes on 495.

“It may also show that it takes only a minor intervention to remove enough cars from the main lanes to let them flow better,” said Schwartz, who said the 14-mile corridor is simply pushing the bottleneck further up the road.

Even Transurban’s McGurk says many customers who have been surveyed complain that once they reach the Express Lanes’ northern terminus at Rt. 267 (Dulles Toll Road), the same terrible traffic awaits them approaching the American Legion Bridge.

Express Lanes a litmus test for larger issues

The success or failure of the 495 Express Lanes will raise one of the region’s most pressing questions as it looks to a future of job and population growth: how best to move people and goods efficiently. Skeptics of highway expansions, even new facilities that charge tolls as a form of congestion pricing, say expanding transit is cheaper and more effective.

“An approach that gives people more options and reduces driving demand through transit and transit-oriented development may be the better long-term solution. But we’ve never had these DOTs give us a fair comparison between a transit-oriented investment future for our region and one where they create this massive network of HOT lanes,” said Schartz, who said a 2010 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments pegged the cost of a tolled network of 1,650-lane miles of regional highways at $50 billion.

Transportation experts say a form of congestion pricing, either tolled lanes or a vehicle miles traveled tax, may be part of a regional solution to congestion. The public, however, needs to be explained why.

“As long as the majority of system remains non-tolled and congested then you are not going to solve the problem,” said Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.

“Highways in this region are drastically underpriced. People are not paying enough to maintain them and they certainly are not paying enough to pay for the cost of congestion. The American people have been sold a bill of goods because they have been told that roads are free. Roads cost money,” he added.

The 495 Express Lanes are dynamically-priced, meaning the tolls increase with demand for the lanes. The average toll per trip in the highway’s first six weeks of operations was $1.07, according to Transurban records. As motorists enter the lanes they see signs displaying how much it will cost to travel to certain exits, but no travel time estimates are displayed. “It is important to be very clear to drivers about the benefit of taking those new lanes, and I am not sure that has happened so far,” said Schank, who said it is too early to conclude if the Express Lanes are working as designed.

“It’s hard to know if it works by looking whether the lanes are making money. I don’t know if that is the right metric. It’s the right metric for Transurban, but it’s not necessarily the right metric from a public sector perspective,” he said. “The real metric is to what extent does it improve economic development and regional accessibility, and that’s a much harder analysis that takes some real research and time.”

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

TN MOVING STORIES: D.C.'s 'Million Dollar Bus Stop' Under Review, Texas's Transpo Funding Woes, DIY Airstrip Lights

Friday, April 05, 2013

Top stories on TN:
New Yorkers: Meet Your Bike Share Station Map (link)
Feds Set Uniform Standards For Sandy Rebuilding (link)
New Law Makes Distracted Driving a Primary Offense in Virginia (link)
The Tradition Of Naming Tunneling Machines (link)

The FAA has been using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating control towers at small airports -- even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time. (AP)

DC's transit system is reviewing what led to its 'million dollar bus stop.' (Washington Post)

Texting, drinking: these behaviors are not beneficial to the pedestrian experience. (Virginia Public Radio)

Chicago's transit system wants cell phone service in its subways. (WBEZ)

Transportation funding challenges in Texas: "although gas tax revenue has failed to keep pace with either inflation or the state’s explosive growth since the early 1990s, TxDOT has been in a building boom over the past 10 years, its budget roughly doubling to the more than $20 billion proposed for 2014-15." (American Statesman)

A well-known NYC environmentalist was paid by Fresh Direct to help sell their move to the Bronx. (New York Times)

The Los Angeles Times rides along with a parking enforcement officer. "I was lucky to have never had an incident of violence."

Residents of a remote town in Peru used bikes, cars and rickshaws to help light up an airstrip so an emergency medical flight could take off. (BBC; video)

Follow TN on TwitterFacebook, or Tumblr.

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Transportation Nation

Feds Set Uniform Standards For Sandy Rebuilding

Thursday, April 04, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-          HUD: Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program

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

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

-          EPA: The State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs

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

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