Transportation Issues Playing a Factor in Many 2014 State Races

From tolling to gas taxes to light rail transit projects, transportation issues are factoring into numerous 2014 state races as Election Day approaches. One example is the question of how to fund the replacement of a bridge over the Ohio River, which has come up as an issue in both Ohio and Kentucky. I also have updates this week on the chances for a new long-term federal transportation bill, the work of several state transportation funding committees, the evolution of public-private partnerships and the debate over streetcar systems and other transit projects in many communities.

Bridge Funding Fuels Political Division on Both Sides of Ohio River

Possible tolling for a new Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River is one of the issues dividing incumbent Ohio Gov. John Kasich and his Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald, WLWT noted recently.

“(Tolling) does hit, I think, a working person and a commuter pretty hard,” FitzGerald said. “I think it would be better to do it without a toll.”

Kasich disagrees. “You’re not going to have that (new) bridge without tolling,” he said.

The Brent Spence has also become a political hot potato across the river in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race, The Nation reported. With tolling a political non-starter so far among Northern Kentucky politicians and residents, Sen. Mitch McConnell recently stepped in to propose paying for the bridge by repealing the federal prevailing wage law so that workers are paid less, which he says would save $13 billion over ten years.

McConnell’s opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, called the McConnell plan a desperate election-year flip-flop and countered with her own plan, which would free up $75 billion over 10 years by cutting tax loopholes for the wealthy.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a highly trafficked, Kentucky-owned, Interstate 75 bridge over the Ohio that has been receiving declining sufficiency ratings over the last decade, a Cincinnati Enquirer investigation found. The existing Brent Spence Bridge was deemed functionally obsolete years ago because of design deficiencies including lanes that are too narrow and a lack of emergency lanes. The newspaper reported that records show the bridge hasn’t been painted in more than 20 years, which has contributed to rust and cracking. Concrete has decayed and exposed internal steel to rust as well.

It’s estimated that replacing the bridge would cost $2.4 billion. But before construction can even begin, a plan to fund it must be agreed upon. The 2014 election might go a long way towards determining what direction that plan goes.

“This report is a game changer,” said Mark Policinski, Executive Director and CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments in a statement. “Delay will mean more dangerous incidents and a greater risk that the next accident or piece of concrete that falls will lead to a tragedy. The report is not political rhetoric. It is a scientific statement that our safety is more and more at risk. The report shows the matter is no longer an engineering or planning decision. The deteriorating safety of the 225,000 people who cross the bridge every day is squarely a political decision.”

But the leader of a newly formed Northern Kentucky anti-tolling group took issue with Policinski’s comments, calling them “unacceptable” and “irresponsible” and saying they “implied that the Brent Spence Bridge was at risk of collapse.” Joseph Meyer of NKY United called on Policinski to retract the statement also noting it contradicted assurances by Kentucky transportation officials that the bridge is safe.

In a recent op-ed for The River City News, Meyer, a former Kentucky Education and Workforce Cabinet Secretary and former state Senator, lays out the case the case against tolling. “Tolls are a stale idea, saddled with the stench of failure,” he writes. Meyer goes on to argue that tolling creates traffic diversion, congestion and safety issues, that it will increase costs for businesses, and that it is inefficient.

MAP-21 Reauthorization & the Future of the Highway Trust Fund

  • House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said at a recent event in Arkansas that his goal is to get a five- to six-year transportation bill passed next year and a variety of options are being reviewed to pay for it, The Arkansas News reported. Among those options: repatriation of offshore corporate taxes, indexing the gas tax, and oil exploration and production off shore and on federal lands.
  • Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer recently reached out to House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp reminding him that she had previously sent over a list of options for addressing the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. “The devastating economic impacts of failing to ensure the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund can be avoided,” she wrote in an October 9 letter.
  • October 1 marked the beginning of FY 2015 and a 31-member organization called the Transportation Construction Coalition used the occasion to call on Congress to find a way to pay for and pass a new long-term surface transportation bill.
  • October 1 also marked the 21st anniversary of the last increase in the federal gas tax. In a statement, American Society of Civil Engineers president Randall Over said “this milestone is a sad reflection on Congressional inaction when it comes to our transportation system. … We elect our lawmakers to make the tough decisions. However, modernizing our nation’s infrastructure has taken a backseat to partisan politics.”
  • The Washington Post editorial board writes that “Instead of waiting longer to pass unimpressive reform, Congress should make the rational policy change—fixing the gas tax—as soon as it gets back from the campaign trail.”
  • Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin seemed to suggest in a recent interview with The Daily Herald editorial board that a return of earmarks could help grease the skids for a long-term transportation bill. Congress’ decision to eliminate earmarks several years ago has “created a situation where you can’t get transportation bills passed, you can’t get highways funded,” Durbin said. Durbin’s opponent in next month’s election, State Sen. Jim Oberweis, is said to oppose bringing back earmarks.
  • In a new report, the Government Accountability Office finds that “DOT Has Opportunities to Improve Tracking and Reporting of Highway Spending.”
  • Oregon: Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was in Portland recently to see firsthand why the city is seen as a transportation innovator. In a blog post, the secretary highlighted the Tilikum Crossing, the Willamette River bridge currently under construction that will accommodate light rail, streetcars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians but not cars or trucks. [Attendees of the 2013 CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Portland got to see the bridge as well.] Foxx also highlighted Portland’s light rail expansion, which is expected to create more than 14,000 jobs initially and 100,000 more once service begins. But Foxx noted that uncertainty about the federal program is putting transportation innovation around the country in jeopardy. “The innovative projects I saw in Portland? We’ll need them elsewhere, too,” the secretary writes. “But the short-term transportation extension Congress passed at the 11th hour jeopardizes our ability to invest in smart projects like these. That Band-Aid also expires in May, just as the transportation construction season begins to pick up, just as thousands of workers are planning to get to job sites. We’ve got to get Congress to give us the resources to help communities all across America realize their vision and build safer, more reliable transportation capable of handling the increased load the future will impose.”
  • Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute offers an alternate view of things where the Rose City is concerned in his essay “Ten Reasons Portland Transit Is Not a Model for Other Cities.”

Legacy of MAP-21

  • Texas: Politico notes that TxDOT has come to an agreement with federal officials that allows the state to take over some environmental reviews through the Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program, which began as a pilot program and was made permanent under MAP-21. Under the program, qualified states can take responsibility for NEPA reviews on transportation projects with continuing federal oversight. The original pilot limited the program to five states but California was the only state to participate.

State Activity on Transportation Revenues

  • A new report from Standard & Poor’s finds that “While infrastructure needs in the U.S.—and worldwide—are very high … debt issuance in the majority of U.S. states remains below average. And although we consider lower debt levels to be a credit strength, we also recognize that deteriorating infrastructure may limit a government’s economic competitiveness.” S&P does note that some states are responding to infrastructure needs with tax increases and debt issuances. The report also touts public-private partnerships as an alternative infrastructure financing solution.
  • California: Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1077, which establishes a technical advisory committee to study a mileage-based road usage charge alternative to the gas tax.
  • Connecticut: In a three-part series, Keith Phaneuf of The CT Mirror took a look at the state’s recent transportation history and what may lie ahead. Part one looks at why, despite a series of fuel tax increases over the last decade, many key projects remain unfunded. Part two looks at how budget choices and fiscal maneuvers have undermined transportation funding in the state. And part three looks at the rough road ahead for transportation improvements. Included in the latter article is a discussion of how transportation funding is playing as an issue in the gubernatorial campaign this year. Both incumbent Gov. Dannel Malloy and his opponent Tom Foley are opposed to tax increases and see tolling as a last resort, Phaneuf notes.
  • Georgia: The legislature’s Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding began meeting in August to consider potential new funding sources. In a 2012 referendum, just three of 12 regions in the state agreed to implement a 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation. The search for a “Plan B” for the rest of the state appears to be taking some familiar turns, The Augusta Chronicle reported. But at a September 30th meeting of the panel, the presidents of the Georgia Oilmen’s Association and Sprint Foods, a chain of convenience stores, both expressed strong opposition to a gas tax increase. Committee co-chairman Rep. Jay Roberts (an attendee at our recent CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Washington, DC) said the panel is considering all options including raising the gas tax or holding another referendum to impose a statewide sales tax. “For a long-term solution, 10 or 20 years out, I don’t think that (raising the motor fuel tax) is where we need to look at. I think we need to have a multi-prong approach,” Roberts said. Among those the panel heard from at another hearing on October 1 was Paula Hammond, the former Washington State Transportation Secretary who now serves as a Senior Vice President at engineering and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. You can view her PowerPoint presentation entitled “Transportation Revenue: Where is it going to come from?” here.
  • Indiana: INDOT officials say they need $258 million more annually just to maintain the state’s roads and bridges. A state legislative study committee is currently reviewing ways to come up with those funds. State Rep. Ed Soliday, a veteran of one of our CSG Transportation Policy Academies, is chairing the panel. He said recently that the state must take action now to avoid passing on a costly and potentially dangerous infrastructure debt to the next generation. “I think we need to think very honestly and say to the public: ‘Here (are) our choices, here’s what it costs’ and then somebody is going to have to exercise some political courage,” he said. “There’s no free lunch here.” The panel’s first report to the legislature, which is expected to lay out possible ways of paying for roads and what the state would get using each, is due next July. Earlier this year, Soliday passed legislation requiring the state DOT to work with outside experts to study alternative funding mechanisms, including possible changes to the gas tax and the feasibility of a mileage-based system. But the Republican-controlled legislature appears unlikely to raise taxes to boost road funding next year and Republican Gov. Mike Pence has suggested he’ll propose funding cuts for several state agencies and seek another business-focused tax cut in his next budget proposal, The (Munster) Times reported.
  • Michigan: Gov. Rick Snyder said recently he wants state lawmakers to come together on a road funding plan during their lame-duck session after the November election, Crain’s Detroit Business reported. State officials say between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion more is needed annually to adequately maintain Michigan’s roads and bridges. The legislature has so far resisted increasing taxes or registration fees to generate additional revenue. They came close to passing a package earlier this year but left for a months-long vacation without doing anything. Snyder said he’s had positive discussions with lawmakers about coming to an agreement by the end of the year. Due to term limits, more than two dozen lawmakers will be wrapping up their legislative careers in December, which could make them more inclined to address the issue, some believe. … Meanwhile, Land Line magazine reports that transportation funding has become a major issue in the state’s governor’s race. Snyder’s challenger, Democratic former Congressman Mark Schauer, has supported past efforts to raise the state’s gas tax and truck weight fees. He says he wants to make sure transportation funding isn’t diverted for other purposes. He supports turning to the state’s Rainy Day Fund to fix roads and wants to see the state pursue public-private partnerships to get more projects done and support regional transit.
  • Minnesota: At a recent debate, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a wholesale state sales tax on gasoline to raise close to the $6.5 billion the state needs to fund infrastructure projects over the next 10 years, Roll Call reported. Dayton’s Republican opponent Jeff Johnson says the state needs to allocate more of its transportation spending to roads and bridges and less to bike lanes and trains.  
  • New Jersey: One state lawmaker said recently that the state gas tax would need to increase by 31 cents per gallon to raise the $1.6 billion needed to meet the state’s annual transportation spending obligations, NJ.com reported. But Assemblyman Scott Rumana also said he doubted the public would support such an increase. At 14.5 cents-per-gallon, New Jersey’s gas tax is the second lowest in the nation after Alaska’s. Such a large increase would cost the average motorist $200 a year. But, as NJ.com noted elsewhere, the cost of not fixing New Jersey’s ailing roads and bridges could cost New Jersey motorists $600 a year to replace cracked rims and damaged suspensions. Gov. Chris Christie has resisted a gas tax hike for five years but has recently signaled he may be open to exploring it as a funding option. The Asbury Park Press noted that according to a recent Reason Foundation report, the state spends more than $2 million a mile—eight times the national average—on construction, maintenance and administration of its state-controlled highways. Depending on the source, the added costs are blamed on union labor, the state’s dense population, the high cost of acquiring land for right-of-way, and the expenses of relocating utilities. … Elsewhere, the governor recently vetoed a legislative effort to revamp the state’s infrastructure bank, Land Line magazine noted.
  • South Carolina: A bipartisan group of state lawmakers said last month they’re prepared to support a gas tax increase in order to fund repairs to the state’s roads and bridges, noted Jenny Ragone on the American Road and Transportation Builders Association Washington Newsline blog. The lawmakers made their comments at the annual meeting of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads. Those in attendance also said a transportation funding solution is necessary and will be a priority in 2015. The state faces a $42 billion shortfall over the next 29 years and must find almost $1.5 billion more annually to maintain and improve transportation infrastructure. A 13-member bipartisan legislative committee has been meeting to discuss possible ways to raise the funds. The panel was created by acting House speaker Jay Lucas just last month and is to have its ideas ready when the General Assembly convenes in January, The State reported.
  • Wisconsin: In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board this week, Gov. Scott Walker suggested the state might consider getting rid of the per gallon gas tax and replacing it with a sales tax to create a more stable funding source for transportation. Neither Walker nor his Democratic challenger Mary Burke have laid out specific plans for shoring up a projected $680 million shortfall in the state’s transportation fund in the next biennial budget.

Public-Private Partnerships & Tolling

  • Next City looks at the rise of availability payment-type public-private partnerships in the United States and who benefits when more risk is shifted to the public sector.
  • Charles Chieppo of Harvard University’s Kennedy School writes in a blog post for Governing that one way to improve toll road concession models in the wake of the Indiana Toll Road bankruptcy has been suggested by Northeastern University Professor Joseph M. Giglio, who has proposed splitting roadway ownership three ways. “The third class of owners—banks, utilities and retailers whose revenue is dependent on regional economic activity—have an interest in good service at acceptable toll rates,” Chieppo writes. “Their influence would balance the often conflicting interests of government, which wants to keep motorists’ prices down, and private investors that want to maximize profits. Since it would likely be unwieldy for existing roads to shift to this approach, however, it might be most appropriate for fast-growing areas seeking new capacity.”
  • Florida: While toll roads have become a significant fact of life for residents of South Florida, state transportation officials say to expect North Florida to see much more tolling in the years ahead, The St. Augustine Record reported. Officials say there really aren’t any other options to take timely action on transportation projects and to prevent the kinds of traffic congestion problems that plague other parts of the state.
  • Georgia: State DOT officials hope to provide trip time reliability for commuters and improve transit system performance with a project to add 10 more miles of toll lanes to I-85 in Gwinnett County, The Gwinnett Daily Post reported. But some at a recent open house said they’re concerned toll rates could go up once the lanes are added. Construction is expected to begin in 2015 with the new lanes opening to traffic in 2018. … Meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal recently attended a ground-breaking ceremony for reversible managed express lanes on I-75 in Cobb County, The Henry (County) Daily Herald reported. “They are what is happening all across the country and we’re no exception,” the governor said. “When we need additional lanes, they are very expensive and they’re expensive not (just) to initially build but also to maintain. I believe that is the way you’re going to see most major projects on interstates (funded) going forward.”
  • Illinois: The policy committee for a key Chicago area MPO voted Thursday to keep alive plans for the Illiana Tollway, a proposed $1.3 billion road that would link Interstate 55 with I-65, The Southtown Star reported. Despite concerns expressed that the tollway would be an overly costly “road to nowhere,” the panel voted 12-6 to keep the road in their updated Go to 2040 Plan, which outlines $360 billion in land use and transportation spending for northeast Illinois between now and 2040. The vote allows the state to reach out to private investors for help in building and maintaining the road, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson told the newspaper.
  • Indiana: The La Porte County Commission recently passed a resolution asking the state to explore options for retaking full control and ownership of the Indiana Toll Road in the wake of the bankruptcy filing by the private consortium contracted to operate the facility, The Herald Argus reported. Also, The South Bend Tribune took a look at the issue of whether the state could or should take back control. Meanwhile, the Indiana Department of Transportation and some state legislators are expressing concern about the deteriorating condition of rest stops along the toll road, Indiana Public Media reported. … The selection of McLean, Va.-based Kapsch TrafficCom IVHS to oversee toll collections on the three bridges that make up the Ohio River Bridges Project was discussed at a recent public hearing in Jeffersonville, Louisville Business First reported. A handful of attendees expressed concern about the impact of the tolls on Southern Indiana businesses and area commuters who must cross the bridges for work. Final approval of the toll operator could come as early as this month. A Tennessee company recently filed a protest with the Indiana Finance Authority about the Kapsch selection, arguing the company had “significant and undisclosed conflicts of interest,” WDRB noted. ... The city of Indianapolis is set to embark on a different kind of public-private partnership in another area, The Bond Buyer reported. The city is looking to build a new $500 million criminal justice complex. It would be just the second so-called social infrastructure public-private partnership structured with availability payments done in the U.S. so far (a courthouse in Long Beach, CA was first) and follows the city’s privatization of its parking system and sale of its water and sewer department.
  • Kentucky: The Lane Report, a Kentucky business magazine, looks at the chances for legislation to enable the use of P3s in the state in an article this month.
  • North Carolina: The Charlotte City Council recently received an update on plans to add toll lanes to I-77, WFAE reported. State and city transportation officials explained why the managed toll lanes are a good idea for the interstate and fielded questions from council members about what might happen if the project isn’t successful. “My possible fear is that you’re going to price people out of using it, and we’re going to have lanes that sit empty,” said council member Kenny Smith. “Then you’re going to still have the congestion.” Warren Cooksey from the North Carolina DOT responded that “If the price is so high that cars aren’t getting into the lanes, the price has to drop because the goal is to get cars into the lane.” That prompted council member Ed Driggs to ask “Who has control over the pricing?” The answer to that question is a subsidiary of the Spanish infrastructure development firm Cintra. The state has entered into a public-private partnership with the company to build and manage the lane. Another subsidiary of Cintra, by the way, is part of the consortium that has been in charge of operating the Indiana Toll Road. Charlotte City Council members wanted to know if what happened with the bankruptcy in Indiana could happen in North Carolina. Norm Steinman of the Charlotte Department of Transportation pointed out that the Indiana Toll Road is all tolls, unlike what is planned for I-77, and pointed to the success of similar projects around the country. “There are 24 of these high-occupancy toll lanes, express toll lanes, managed lane projects in the United States,” he said. “Not a single one has failed.”
  • Texas: In a recent piece for The Texas Tribune’s TribTalk, Phineas Baxandall of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Sara E. Smith of the Texas PIRG highlight what they call “The trouble with toll roads in Texas.” “Especially in Texas,” they write, “tolls tend to be introduced for the wrong reasons. When elected leaders aren’t willing to fix major transportation funding problems, tolling can appear to create money out of thin air while actually wasting tax dollars and leading to poor decisions about what transportation projects to build and how to manage them.” Texas lawmakers did come up with a plan to redirect billions from the state’s Rainy Day Fund over the next decade to transportation, which voters will consider next month, but the dollars generated won’t come close to meeting the state’s needs. Baxandall and Smith go on to say that most toll projects get built because the money used to build them is “off budget.” “Tolling raises revenue from the public akin to taxes or fees but uses off-budget private concessions or quasi-public agencies to collect the money and borrow against future tolls. The borrowing doesn’t count as public debt, and thus the costs seem to disappear, especially when public-private partnerships act as a middleman. It’s government accounting fiction. In reality, the private costs of financing toll roads are far more expensive than the rock-bottom interest rates the state pays when issuing tax-free public bonds. Off-budget tolling can thus discourage public officials from confronting transportation funding questions directly, distorting public choices and enabling politicians to take credit for shiny new roads while remaining insulated from any blame.”
  • Virginia: State DOT officials announced recently they will soon expand the network of High-Occupancy Toll lanes in the Washington, DC area, WJLA reported. As was widely expected, HOT lanes will be built in the near future stretching along I-66 from U.S. 15 in the Culpepper/Warrenton area to the point where I-66 meets the Capital Beltway in the Vienna/Merrifield area. VDOT is expected to seek approval for the toll lanes next year. Construction could begin as soon as 2017 with an estimated completion in 2020. Elsewhere, The Washington Business Journal reported that the new Express Lanes on I-95 in Northern Virginia may open as early as December.

State Multi-Modal Strategies

  • The U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group have a new report just out that shows there is mounting evidence that the Millennial generation’s shift away from driving is more than temporary and that what they want are convenient, walkable neighborhoods with multiple travel options. The report calls for a reassessment of transportation investments including greater investment in public transit and biking infrastructure, and using highway funds to repair existing roads rather than building new and wider highways
  • Columbia University’s David King writes for The Atlantic CityLab that there are three big challenges cities will face as they shift away from transportation systems that rely on the automobile to more multi-modal ones. He says there’s a need to move beyond car vs. transit, a need to accommodate public and private modes and a need for more balance in transportation networks.

Transit

  • A new study from the University of Minnesota looks at accessibility to jobs by transit in 46 of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.
  • The Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution looks at newly released Census data from the 2013 American Community Survey and finds that: “The share of national commuters traveling by private vehicle is edging down for the first time in decades—from 86.5 percent in 2007 to 85.8 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, other transportation modes have grown in relative importance. Public transportation, which just recorded the most passenger trips since 1956, saw its share jump to over 5 percent, reaching levels not seen since 1990. The share of those bicycling and walking to work also continued to rise, now representing nearly 4 percent of all commuters. The biggest gain, however, came from those workers who didn’t technically commute at all. With the help of burgeoning broadband coverage, nearly as many people now work from home as ride public transportation to their jobs. Leading these national trends are the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.”
  • Streetsblog USA reported on a new study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association that shows the full impact of a transit line on motor vehicle traffic can far exceed the direct effect of substituting rail or bus trips for car trips.
  • David Alpert of The Atlantic CityLab has some words for transit advocates who question whether streetcar investments really enhance mobility and whether they’re worth the money if they don’t operate in a dedicated traffic lane or run infrequently. “Anyone who supports mass transit expansion should want it to be as close to perfect as possible,” Alpert writes. “But streetcars also have another set of opponents: Those who simply don’t want to fund any transit at all, regardless of its specifics. They seize on any flaw to stop projects that might change their street or interfere with their driving. So I worry about the effects of this latest trend in streetcar criticism. While streetcar projects can and should be better, many of these articles go further and either imply or outright state that a streetcar without every desirable feature is worse than nothing. That’s not right. Perfect transit is absolutely a goal, but the perfect must not be the enemy of the good.” Alpert goes on to say there are many reasons why a streetcar might be worthwhile even if it doesn’t meet every need out there, including: imperfect transit can still be good for cities, an imperfect streetcar might be all the city can afford at that time, funding won’t get directed towards a “better” transit project if it’s not spent on the streetcar, streetcars can outperform buses even without dedicated lanes, and the city can make the streetcar system better later and may even have plans to do so. For more on this issue, public transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker takes a different view on his Human Transit blog.
  • A new report from global commercial real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield looks at how 10 major North American cities are coping with mounting transit and transportation challenges with innovative solutions to meet changing demands. “As more people, including empty nesters heed the siren call of downtown living, city governments, developers and businesses will continue to be pressured by the need to reduce commute times to support the fight for talent, improve productivity and enhance the overall experience of urban life,” the report said. “Those that manage their growing pains the best will strengthen their positions as world-class cities.” One of the cities featured in the report, Atlanta, is also highlighted in this Atlanta Business Chronicle article.
  • Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog USA looked at how well it works to use HOT lanes for express bus service and other transit.
  • Georgia: Dan Vock of Governing magazine profiles Keith Parker of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) in the magazine’s October issue. In doing so, he writes about the racial, regional and partisan acrimony that have defined the transit agency’s first few decades and notes that the agency’s problem “has always been its unorthodox funding mechanism. Most of the nation’s public transit agencies get about a quarter of their income from state funds, but MARTA doesn’t get any operating money at all from the state of Georgia. Its budget is heavily dependent on local sales taxes, leaving the system especially vulnerable to economic downturns. During the Great Recession, MARTA took a cleaver to its operating expenses. A third of its bus routes were eliminated. Wait times between trains hit 15 minutes. Bathrooms in most stations were closed. Along with reduced services, passengers saw fares rise more than 40 percent. Customers were incensed. Ridership dropped by a sixth in the four years before Parker arrived.” Parker has won praise for his efforts to turn things around in his just less than two years on the job.
  • Maryland: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who is running for Governor, recently accused his Republican opponent Larry Hogan of having a “campaign conversion” about building light rail projects in the DC suburbs and Baltimore, The Washington Post reported. Brown noted that Hogan told The Baltimore Sun that he would cancel the Purple Line outside DC and the Red Line project planned for Baltimore because they would be too expensive. Hogan reportedly also told the newspaper he would focus instead on building roads. But he later told WBAL radio that he was “not really opposed to either” light rail project and that both are “worth considering.”
  • Minnesota: Streets.MN argues against Minneapolis’ planned streetcar system: “(Streetcars are) hot right now. However, in Minneapolis, in 2014, in the places they are proposed, they are also probably not a good idea. Or at least, they are certainly not a good use of hundreds of millions of dollars in transit funding that’s already too scarce and ill-budgeted.”
  • Missouri: The Atlantic CityLab looks at what the future may hold for Kansas City’s streetcar plans after supporters suffered a setback at the ballot box in August. In 2015, the city expects to open a two-mile starter streetcar route between Union Station and the River Market neighborhood. Officials had hoped it would pave the way for expansion lines to the east and south and eventually result in a wide network of streetcars. But in August, 60 percent of voters along the planned expansion routes defeated a measure to create a taxing district that would have helped to fund the new lines.
  • New York: Amtrak announced recently that damage from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy will require the eventual renovation of the 104-year-old North (Hudson) River tunnels, which connect New Jersey and New York. The renovation would require shutting down one track at a time, reducing capacity from 24 trains an hour to just six. Moreover, Amtrak chief Joseph Boardman said the tunnels likely have only 20 years of life left in them. The public rail company wants to immediately begin construction of the Gateway Program, the primary component of which would be a new double-track rail tunnel under the Hudson. Once the new tunnels are ready, rehab of the existing tunnels could begin by 2025. Even if Sandy hadn’t caused the damage that it did, a new tunnel likely would have been needed, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic blog noted. Traffic on the rail corridor is expanding and is expected to continue to do so. Freemark also writes that: “New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority (of New York & New Jersey) had a plan to solve this problem back in the mid-2000s, when they successfully assembled $8.7 billion for the Access to Region’s Core (ARC) project (it was the largest federally funded transit project ever), which would have added two new tunnels under the Hudson by 2018. In other words, it would have provided at least something of a solution to the problem Amtrak is now warning of. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who assumed office in January 2010, put the project on hold and then cancelled it in September and October 2010, citing the risk that the project’s cost would escalate, putting the state’s finances in trouble. In the process, he significantly delayed any investment in new cross-Hudson rail links.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said this month he would make pushing for a new rail tunnel a priority and blamed Christie for killing the ARC project. “It should have been begun years ago, with all due respect to Governor Christie,” he said, according to Capital New York. Christie, for his part, continues to defend his decision, the Associated Press reported. “The people of New Jersey did not want to pay $3 to $5 billion in cost overruns for a tunnel that went to the basement of Macy’s,” he said recently. “So this is just another way for liberals who want bigger spending programs to complain about a recent decision I made to save the taxpayers money.” And as Paul Mulshine of The Star Ledger pointed out in a recent piece on the history of the ARC project, as it was conceived Amtrak couldn’t have used the ARC tunnel anyway. … The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently agreed to transfer more than three acres of parking lots at a Westchester County train station to apartment development Avalon Bay Communities, The Wall Street Journal reported, noting it as part of a larger trend. “The MTA-AvalonBay deal is the latest example of how cash-strapped transit agencies are using transit-oriented development to raise cash for capital improvements and new infrastructure,” the newspaper’s Matt Hudgins writes. “Transit agencies in cities including Atlanta, Washington and Los Angeles are selling, exchanging or leasing parking lots and other surplus real estate to developers and using the proceeds to upgrade their facilities, extend their services and supplement their capital budgets.” … During a real estate summit last month, CityRealty President Dan Levy proposed a $100 million gondola line between Manhattan and Brooklyn that could carry 5,000 people per hour in both directions over the East River in just four minutes, Urbanful reported. Levy said he sees the proposed East River Skyway as a cost-effective solution for easing overcrowding on the subway’s L train. “Cities around the globe are recognizing the viability and efficiency of urban gondolas to overcome serious transportation challenges,” Levy said. “An aerial transportation system would be a relatively inexpensive and quickly deployable solution here in New York.” The cities of Rio, Singapore and London have similar systems.
  • Utah: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s recent westward swing also included a stop in Sandy, Utah for the groundbreaking for an apartment and office complex that is being touted as a new model for transit-oriented development, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. The Utah Transit Authority is using some extra land it obtained for a rail station to partner with a private developer on the project, which is designed in part to increase transit ridership. 
  • Virginia: The Virginia DOT will launch a program this fall to allow buses traveling on I-66 inside the Capital Beltway to use the shoulder when traffic is backed up, The Washington Post reported. It’s part of a one-year pilot project that follows years of study on how to improve the interstate’s notorious congestion problems. Shoulder operations have been successful elsewhere in the country, notably in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, where nearly 300 shoulder-miles have been put in operation for buses since the program began 20 years ago. … Elsewhere The Post reported that Metro’s new Silver Line appears to be humming along in terms of ridership but the Silver Line wasn’t always such a sure bet.
  • Washington: Voters will consider a ballot measure next month to fund planning for a monorail line between Ballard and West Seattle, The Seattle Times reported. The measure would create a new government entity called the City Transportation Authority and task it with planning a 16-mile elevated monorail line. The authority would have the power to put taxpayers on the hook for bond debt and would impose a $5 citywide car-tab fee on vehicles at least a year old, raising about $2 million a year. But actually starting construction on the project would require consideration of a follow-up tax measure.

High-Speed Rail

  • California: Many believe there is a strong case for developing high-speed rail in Intermountain West states like Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado but analysts say it probably won’t happen unless California first has success with its high-speed rail project, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
  • Florida: Some wonder whether the debate over a planned Miami-to-Orlando passenger rail line could influence the outcome of the state’s gubernatorial race, Boston’s WBUR reported recently.
  • Innovation NewsBriefs editor Ken Orski writes that no one should expect a continent-wide high-speed rail network any time soon.

Active Transport

  • California: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city’s Department of Transportation have released a strategic plan called “Great Streets for Los Angeles,” which outlines proposals aimed at ending all pedestrian-related deaths, improving safety around public schools and changing the timing of streetlights to account for the amount of time it takes people to cross streets, The Los Angeles Daily News reported.

Freight & Cargo Transport