Year In Review 2011

Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW WASHINGTON D.C.: Metro Woes, BikeShare Boom, HOT Lane Compromise

Friday, December 30, 2011

(Photo (cc) by Flickr user Crazy George)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) There was no shortage of transportation related news for D.C.-area residents to digest in 2011.  Here's a list of some of the biggest stories:

The Rail-to-Dulles Kerfuffle

Most residents and leaders in the D.C. region agree that extending Metrorail to Dulles International Airport is a good idea. But that doesn't mean that everybody agrees on what it should cost, how the new Metro stations should be designed, or who should pay how much.

The nearly $6 billion project is so important to the nation's capital region that U.S. Transportation Secretary stepped in to broker a compromise, but it took a while. The way the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which is overseeing the project, has handled the situation angered local Northern Virginia leaders so much that MWAA may soon be forced to change the way it does business. For now, the counties are onboard with the latest plan, and the second phase of the project is moving forward, but stay tuned.


More Metro Woes

It's hard to know where to start with this one -- the bad news for D.C.'s transit system doesn't seem to have stopped since the 2009 Metrorail crash that left nine people dead. This year the bad news continued with questions surrounding the ethics behind Metro's method of extending contracts.  The GAO also chided Metro's board for mismanagement. Crime at Metro stations continues to trend upward. The woefully underfunded system also seems to find new ways to show its age every year -- and in 2011, it was broken escalators that got the spotlight. To be fair, Metro made some progress on the escalator outages. Maybe that freed up some grumbling riders' energy to focus on those long station names, also seen as a problem.


Capital BikeShare Grows

The program launched in the summer of 2010, but in 2011 it took off, drawing in tourists and residents alike -- -- particularly after an online coupon doubled membership. Support from the nation's executive branch doesn't hurt. Neither do free helmets. The system currently covers the District and neighboring Arlington County, in Northern Virginia, but all signs point to expansion in both Virginia and Maryland.



Under the  Department of Defense's Base Realignment and Closure program military bases are closing around the country, dampening the economies of many base-dependent communities. But in the Washington D.C. region, the concern is on military personnel moving into the area, and creating traffic nightmares for the already congested roads. For much of 2011, local leaders were scrambling to get more federal funding for traffic improvement projects around bases and new DoD buildings, and some wanted BRAC projects delayed altogether. Much of the furor surrounded the massive Washington Headquarters Service building in Alexandria, which brings 6,400 federal workers into a building along I-395, one of the busiest roads in the country. Thanks to the DoD's plan to phase in the arrival of the workers, the building, which opened in September, hasn't led to the traffic nightmares many predicted.  But local leaders who criticized BRAC plans say things will get worse as more workers move in, and they feel vindicated by this report, released at the start of December.


DDOT Shakeup

Former District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein actually resigned in December of 2010, but the ripple effects continued well into 2011. In the Spring, while Mayor Vincent Gray continued his search for a replacement, TN broke the story that Klein was tapped as transportation chief in Chicago, under new Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Gray finally named a successor in May, but it remains to be seen if the new director can leave a mark as big as Klein who was the driving force behind Capital Bikeshare, new bike lanes, and the D.C. Circulator bus service.


Arlington Draws Line in Sand over HOT Lanes

Northern Virginia continues to move forward with the construction of High Occupancy Toll lanes, on the Capital Beltway and on a portion of I-95, but Arlington County leaders successfully forced the state to keep HOT lanes out of their territory, and made a few enemies by doing so.


Pedicabbers vs. Park Police

At the start of the summer, pedicabbers  in began complaining that Park Police around the National Mall had upped the hostility towards their kind this year. Park Police denied any sort of crackdown. Some pedicabbers suggest a change in treatment had to do with the Park Service's exclusive contract with Tourmobile, a tourbus company that has designated parking spots around the Mall. But since the contract expired this fall, pedicab operators say things aren't getting any better.


D.C. Attempts to Impose Some Order on Intercity Bus Industry

Unlike New York, D.C. is moving the "curbside" buses -- like Megabus and Bolt Bus -- away from the curbs. First the city announced new fees for the discount bus companies to cover their idling in metered parking spaces. Then the city moved several of the most prominent companies off of city curbs and into a space in the Union Station parking garage dedicated to the booming industry.


Read other year in review posts from around the nation here.





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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW SAN FRANCISCO: Apps Launch, Rail Remains, and Protests Simmer

Thursday, December 29, 2011

(Photo (cc) by Flickr user Salim Virji)

(San Francisco - KALW) The Bay Area had a tumultuous year in transportation, a more acute example of many trends taking hold around the nation. (See other year in review posts here.) In 2011 we watched the ongoing roller coaster ride for California's high-speed rail plan, covered the perils of being a pedestrian in one of the most walkable cities in America, examined the state of California’s crumbling bridges, and reported on a safety technician on the new Bay Bridge who was fired after falsifying test data.

We've met the new SFMTA chief, who doesn’t own a car, and tried out new technology that helps find parking in a city where looking for a spot can literally make you cry. We’ve learned about the biological hazards found in BART seats (eew), and reported about First Amendment rights on public transit after officials shut down cell phone service on the trains during protests of a BART police shooting of a homeless man in San Francisco.

It was hard to choose our top five, but here’s a selection of some of our favorite stories of the year.


High Speed Rail

California has one of the only high-speed rail plans left in the country.  But it’s been more like a roller coaster ride than a train trip this year. The year started with a rail-supporting governor, leading advocates of the $9+ billion plan to sigh with relief that the Golden State's bullet trains wouldn't die a premature death like in Wisconsin.  Still, tight budget times were a threat to the more than multi-billion dollar plan. When Florida's governor killed a $2 billion high-speed rail plan in his state that meant more federal money for California.

As scrutiny increased, some evidence showed that the towns along the route might boom as a result, while critics argued this was a train to nowhere. A revised business plan released by the California High-Speed Rail Authority in November projected costs for the rail system of almost $100 billion dollars—three times the total amount put before voters in 2008 when they approved a $9 billion bond measure to finance the project.

That didn’t make voters happy—a recent Field Poll shows that 64% of California voters want a re-vote on the project, and that 59 percent of those voters would now oppose funding the project. The project remains the most likely candidate to become the nation's first, and only, high-speed rail line.


Parking in San Francisco: There’s an app for that

The city of San Francisco is leading the way in using technology to try and tackle the age old urban frustration of finding a parking spot. After putting censors in each public metered parking space, the city released an app telling drivers the easiest places to find a free spot. The most popular streets get more expensive and the least get cheaper.

According to Jay Primus, the manager of the program, “It’s a little bit like the Goldilocks principle. We don’t want it too hot, we don’t want it too cold – we want it just right. In this case, prices not too high or too low, but just right for the demand we see.”

The city is now making its first round of changes to parking meter costs based on data gathered from its street sensors around town. The idea is for meter and garage rates to be based on demand as well. Since rates change slowly, it's too soon to draw any conclusions, but tech-minded transportation policy makers are watching this project closely.


BART protests

In July, demonstrators upset about the BART Police killing of a homeless man named Charles Hill filled downtown stations in San Francisco, crowding platforms and at one point attempting to climb on top of a stopped train.

The BART Board decided to disable cell service on several platforms in early August in order to disrupt a planned protest that was to be organized in part, via mobile communications among the participants.

According to the Washington Post, this decision made BART “the first known government agency in the nation to block electronic communications as a means to quell social unrest.”

In addition to First Amendment issues, the intentional disruption of cell service raised questions from the FCC about the legality of shutting down an entire communications network, even if only temporarily. On December 1, the BART Board approved a policy authorizing police to shutdown wireless communication in stations under “extraordinary circumstances.”


Rent my Car

When you really think about it, you probably don’t use your car all that much.  You drive to work – then leave your car in the lot all day while you’re inside. Or you leave town for a few days – then don’t use your car for the next three weeks. Meanwhile, plenty of other people don’t have cars, but sometimes need them.

Three new companies in the San Francisco Bay Area – Getaround, RelayRides, and Spride Share – are trying to match those idle cars with people who want to drive them. Each model is a little different, but the basic idea is the same: when you’re not using your car, you can rent it out to anyone who needs it. And if you need a car? You can rent anything from your neighbor’s station wagon to a brand-new Tesla Roadster. Or, you can rent KALW reporter Casey Miner’s beater for a bargain. (Listen to how that worked out here.)



How I learned to stop worrying and love the 880 freeway

The first real freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area was the 880. Completed in 1957, it connects the Port of Oakland with San Jose. Today it’s a major trucking route, and the most direct way to get to the Oakland Airport, or to an Oakland Raiders game.

But those things aren’t what set it apart from other freeways. Of all the Bay Area’s roads, the 880 — also called the Nimitz freeway — is arguably the one that gets the most people the most worked up.

AAA once named the “Nasty Nimitz” the “rudest road” in the region. And as far as we can tell, it’s the only highway with Yelp reviews, which say things like, “880 is like the backwards bigotted (sic) relative in the family that everyone is ashamed of.” And, “Dammit 880, why can’t you be nicer and more manicured like your East Bay cousins 80 and 580?” And, “There is a stretch around Downtown Oakland that is sooo freakin’ bumpy it’s like ridin’ in a horse-drawn buggy down the Oregon Trail. You have died from dysentery.”

Why so much distaste for one stretch of pavement? KALW’s Julie Caine takes us on a tour of one of the Bay Area’s most maligned roads.


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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW HOUSTON: Light Rail Funding, A New Beltway, and Red Light Cameras

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Guests sign a commemorative document as Houston receives its first-ever federal funds for light rail construction. Photo by Gail Delaughter/KUHF

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  On the plus side for Houston's year in transportation: a light rail project received its first-ever federal funding, an ambitious highway project broke ground, bicycle commuting is up, and the Port of Houston is doing brisk business. The flip side: over 30,000 homes in Houston have no cars and no access to buses, trains, or park and rides, and an expensive legal battle continues to wage over the city's now-defunct red light cameras.

After earlier controversy over violations of the government’s “Buy America” provisions, Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority secured its first-ever federal funding for light rail construction. Metro is getting close to a billion dollars. The money will pay for the northbound extension of the Red Line, currently Houston’s only line in operation, as well as a new line from downtown to the southeast section of the city. Metro CEO George Greanias said the funding agreement shows Metro “is serious about transit and will be a good partner, and is somebody worth investing in.”

The legal squabble continues over Houston’s red light cameras.  Houston residents voted to do away with the cameras, but the company that operates the devices sued for breach of contract.  American Traffic Solutions says it’s owed 25 million dollars, while the city disputes that amount.  Proponents of the devices said the technology saved lives by deterring would-be red light runners, while opponents argued the cameras increased the number of rear-end collisions and were more about making money than about safety.

Houston-area officials gathered in September to break ground for a new segment of State Highway 99, also known as the Grand Parkway.  When completed, the 170-mile roadway will be the third loop around the city and will pass through seven counties.  The project moves forward despite protests from the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which fears the project will harm ecologically-sensitive grasslands.

Business is strong at the Port of Houston.  A recent study shows the port has a $118 billion economic impact in Texas.  There’s also state and local sales tax revenues, pegged at close to $4 billion.  Port officials say tonnage is up, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of steel pipe that’s coming in for increased drilling activity.  The Port of Houston now wants to upgrade facilities to handle larger ships that will come into the Gulf of Mexico after the widening of the Panama Canal.

In a heavily car-dependent city, Houston cycling activists are encouraging people to try pedal power to get around.  Figures from the League of American Bicyclists show a 62 percent increase in the number of bike commuters. The idea of cycling to work isn’t always an easy sell in a city known for its extreme summer heat, but Houston’s Bicyclist-Pedestrian Coordinator is touting the benefits of leaving the car in the garage.

Honda cars and pickup trucks continue to top Houston’s list of most-stolen vehicles.  The Houston Police Department says Hondas are popular with thieves eyeing vehicles for street racing.  Auto theft investigators say the stolen pickups are frequently taken to the Mexican border where they’re used for drug running and immigrant smuggling.

Houston was near the top of a list of cities with large numbers of no car/no transit households. According to a Brookings Institution study, over 30,000 homes in the city lack vehicles and access to buses, trains, or park and rides. The author of the study said increasing numbers of low income families are moving from the city out to the suburbs,  and in cities like Houston these can be quite isolated areas, almost ‘transit deserts.”

Read about our other year in review posts here.

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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW FLORIDA: 2011 Rides Rails Out of the Sunshine State

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

SunRail survived 2011; high-speed rail in Florida wasn't so lucky.

(Orlando-WMFE) The start of 2011 held a fair amount of transportation-related optimism for Florida--and with good reason. The state looked on track to be one of the first in the nation to begin a high-speed rail line, Central Florida was eying commuter rail, and Florida's brand new governor, Rick Scott, was promising fresh thinking in Tallahassee.

But then Scott took office. And one of his first decisions was to freeze major state actions until after he reviewed them. His review of high-speed rail wasn't favorable, and in February, Scott joined Republican governors from Ohio and Wisconsin in rejecting federal funds for bullet trains. The move set off a flurry of activity to stop the Sunshine State from losing the more than $2 billion slated for the project. It also raised the blood pressure of rail supporters, who were now left wondering what Scott would do to central Florida’s promised SunRail commuter line.

The governor spent months reviewing SunRail and he approved it in July.  Behind the scenes, though, powerful Republican Congressman John Mica, who chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, had been watching Governor Scott’s moves.  The governor was counting on Mica to approve $77 million dollars in federal funds to start deepening the port of Miami to accommodate Panamax ships.   Mica made a connection between the Governor’s approving of SunRail and his approval of the $77 million.

Florida also rolled out a major roads program in August.  It spells out proposals for creating new tolled lanes on Interstate 4 and completing a ring road around Orlando known as the Wekiva Parkway. But both programs could be susceptible to budget machinations which are set to start in next month in Tallahassee.  Last year state lawmakers raided the transportation trust fund to the tune of more than $100 million dollars to fill a budget gap.  Governor Scott says he’s loathe to pull that money out again, but he knows it's an option.

So all in all, Florida lost some high speed rail, gained SunRail, might get a major parkway around Orlando, will likely get deeper ports, and more toll roads.  Money holds the key to all of it, and legislative session starts next month.

Read our other year in review posts here.

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