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Will Old Transit Systems Eat Up All the New Starts Grants?

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago's red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/##http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/how-to-fix-the-el-cta/Content?oid=3473194##Chicago Reader##

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago’s red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/Chicago Reader

One of MAP-21’s many mixed blessings was the New Starts Core Capacity program. It expanded eligibility for New Starts grants — normally reserved as capital assistance for new transit lines — to existing corridors. To qualify, the system just had to show that the improvements would expand the capacity of the line by at least 10 percent.

The double-edged sword is this: The expanded mission didn’t come with any more money. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration saw its funding for New Starts/Small Starts frozen for several years, and then faced a 7 percent cut with the sequester for 2014. Luckily, the budget deal appears to have saved them from that, and though details are still forthcoming, it may mean a more modest 2 percent cut. Less horrific than was feared, perhaps, but still less money for more eligible projects.

That’s led some people to fear that the smaller, newer systems New Starts has traditionally targeted could lose out to legacy systems in major transit markets like New York and Boston. Those concerns came out last week during a Highway and Transit Subcommittee hearing in Congress, focusing on the new program.

“With the expanded eligibilities, one could see a potential situation in which a handful of expensive projects in large urban areas could monopolize the New Starts funding over several years,” said subcommittee chair Tom Petri (R-WI) in his opening remarks. “This could come at the expense of funding opportunities for new public transportation systems in the rest of the country.”

The first New Starts Core Capacity grant to an existing line was put in the project pipeline last month — for Chicago’s red and purple lines, a $4 billion project.

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Federal Transit Administration Grapples With Likely Funding Cuts

After fighting to maintain reasonable funding levels in the transportation bill – and for the inclusion of dedicated transit funding in the first place – the Federal Transit Administration now finds itself up against almost certain funding cuts that imperil rail and bus expansion projects, as well as the agency’s own staffing.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff is hoping to keep staffing steady through near-inevitable budget cuts. Photo: U.S. DOT

The fiscal cliff deal hasn’t answered many questions. Spending cuts of about 8 percent (the “sequester”) could hit at the beginning of March. The current interim budget, or “continuing resolution,” expires at the end of March. And on top of all of that, another debt ceiling deadline is looming, and Republicans will certainly try to extract spending cuts again in exchange for raising it.

“None of us knows what’s going to happen,” said Sylvia Garcia, U.S. DOT deputy assistant secretary for management and budget, at the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference Wednesday. “No matter what happens, the message from Congress right now is, ‘You’re going to have less money to do what you need to do.’”

While the Federal Highway Administration’s staff is safe from layoffs from the sequester, since they’re funded out of the Highway Trust Fund, the FTA isn’t so lucky. General-funded FTA programs — including the New Starts program for transit expansion, some research, and all FTA administration — are still vulnerable to cuts. Worse, the “across-the-board” nature of the sequester means the FTA would have to apply the cuts evenly among those three areas.

Administrator Peter Rogoff told the TRB audience yesterday that he’ll move “heaven and earth” to keep people working, especially since the agency is already running on a bare-bones budget, and they’re “one person deep in a lot of critical areas.” He’s desperately trying to avoid furloughs, and he pledges to fill vacancies in important positions.

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City Receives Federal Funding for Full Nostrand Avenue Select Bus Route

The SBS stop coming to the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Empire Boulevard. Image: NYC DOT

The first Select Bus Service route in Brooklyn is on track to start speeding bus trips next year, after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced yesterday afternoon that the project has secured a $28 million federal grant.

The B44 route on Nostrand, Rogers, and Bedford Avenues, which runs between Sheepshead Bay and Williamsburg, is one of NYC’s most used but least reliable bus lines. Plagued by bus bunching, the B44 took home the Straphangers Campaign’s “Schleppie Award” in 2009 and consistently ranks as Brooklyn’s most unreliable route. After it’s converted to Select Bus Service, the B44 will feature off-board fare collection, dedicated bus lanes along most of the corridor, and 12 bus bulbs to improve speeds and cut down on the amount of time buses spend standing still.

The B44 links Brooklyn residents to Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn College, Kings County Hospital, and SUNY Downstate Hospital, as well as several subway lines. Weekday ridership currently stands at about 44,000 passengers. Not only will they see faster, more reliable service, but the improvements should attract more riders. Following SBS upgrades in Manhattan and the Bronx, more passengers started riding those routes, cutting against a citywide trend of declining bus ridership.

“I think everyone who saw Sandy from near or afar recognized the critical role buses played once the subway system went down, underscoring the value of these types of investments in our transportation infrastructure,” Sadik-Khan said in a press statement. “SBS continues to bring enhanced service to densely populated areas in need of transportation enhancements.”

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Bus Lane Rehab and Utica Ave SBS Win Federal Transit Grants

The bus lanes on Fordham Road, some of the first in the city to be painted red, have been worn away. A federal grant would help repair city bus lanes and apply a longer-lasting paint job. Image: WNYC

New York City was awarded nearly $50 million in federal grants to improve its bus service, the Federal Transit Administration announced today. The money will go toward both the basics, like a new radio system for buses, and new and improved bus lanes to speed service further.

The planned Select Bus Service improvements on Utica Avenue got a $3.4 million boost from the feds. According to the FTA, the project will not only attempt to speed up bus service, but also improve connections to the bus with better sidewalks, lighting, subway staircases, and wayfinding. The city Department of Transportation is also studying traffic safety on Utica with the intent of integrating safety features into the bus project, though its study is behind schedule (it was supposed to be completed this spring).

Riders on existing bus lanes would also see smoother trips. The city won around $14.7 million to repair 20 miles worth of bus lanes, both by resurfacing the pavement and repainting the lanes. This work would use a new, longer-lasting method of applying red paint to the lanes. Lanes already painted red would be repainted where the coloring has worn away and some bare lanes would be colored in, according to a city DOT spokesperson. DOT has found that the colored lanes more effectively signal to drivers that bus lanes are for buses only.

The MTA won two grants. $24 million would go toward a new radio system and command center for buses, which the FTA believes will make service more reliable and safe. Another $5.6 million would help the MTA do a better job of managing its bus fleet as vehicles age and are repaired or replaced.

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FRA Chief: America Is Driving Less and Congress Needs to Catch Up

Speaking to reporters earlier today, Federal Railroad Administration chief Joe Szabo said that people are driving less and using transit more — and that those changes are permanent. “America’s travel habits are undergoing rapid change,” he said. It’s a fact, he said (“not opinion — statistically proven”), calling on Congress to show that it understands these changes by moving in a new direction.

FRA Chief Joe Szabo says Congress needs to recognize that Americans are driving less and using transit more. Photo: AllGov

Szabo referred to a recent report by U.S. PIRG that found the average American drives six percent fewer miles today than in 2004. “While that’s significant,” he said, “what’s really significant is what you’re seeing with younger people.” He cited U.S. PIRG’s finding that from 2001 to 2009, driving among the 16-34 year old demographic declined 23 percent while transit use increased 40 percent. Szabo went on:

We’re talking about the next generation that actually considers it badge of honor not to own a car but instead to use inter-city passenger rail, mass transit, bike-sharing, and car-sharing. And this is the future. So it’s time for Congress to recognize this future and prepare for this rapidly growing trend.

Szabo’s remarks came during a press event with the American Public Transportation Association, which released impressive ridership numbers for the first quarter of 2012. Americans took nearly 2.7 billion trips on transit during the first three months of the year, a five percent increase over last year — the fifth consecutive quarter of U.S. public transit ridership increase, APTA said.

Rail modes experienced especially strong growth, with light rail use up by 6.7 percent and heavy rail use up by 5.5 percent. Szabo said that rail transit will continue to play a big role in a mode shift away from cars.

“There are efficiencies in rail that can’t be ignored,” he said. “With service levels targeted for the marketplace, passenger rail can be the most cost-effective, least oil-reliant, and most environmentally friendly mode of transportation.” He said the country is experiencing a “rail renaissance,” with ridership up 72 percent between 1995 and 2008.

Swings in the economy have likely contributed to the recent ridership surge, with transit becoming more appealing to Americans looking to economize on transportation costs. Many of those new riders will stick with transit: APTA studies have shown that a significant number of transit converts don’t go back to driving when gas prices fall. Job growth could also be a factor, since commuting constitutes 60 percent of transit use.

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After 30 Years of Federal Support for Transit, Battle Lines are Redrawn

Add Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff to the list of people saying that it’s premature to declare victory over the House’s attempts to cast transit into the abyss. Rogoff knows a thing or two about transportation bills: He was an aide on the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee for 20 years, during which time the federal government passed three long-term transportation laws.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff says 30 years of not having to defend federal funding has led to complacency. Photo: Minnesota Public Radio

Until they show us something different, said Rogoff, the same old House bill — the one that cuts off all dedicated revenue streams for transit programs — is still the one before us. And since the House has yet to bring forward any concrete alternatives, it presents “an incredibly fluid and dangerous situation, especially since our highway trust fund programs are scheduled to expire in three weeks.”

The House bill “deliberately puts public transportation on a starvation diet, forcing it to survive on the most controversial of funding proposals,” like oil drilling, according to Rogoff. “And I’m talking about what the House bill does, not what the House bill did.”

“We spend a great deal of time talking to each other, but we’re in a fundamental fight now for our own survival,” Rogoff said. “I don’t think we’ve won the fight on the trust fund. We haven’t won anything. The only thing that’s happened is that the expiration of our program has grown weeks closer.”

Support for mass transit has been enshrined in federal law since Ronald Reagan signed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which raised the federal gas tax for the first time since 1959 and directed a portion of the proceeds to fund transit. Since then, Rogoff surmises, the transit industry has gotten complacent.

“We’ve never had to have the discussion about why we are there in the name of a balanced transportation system,” Rogoff said. “I’d be willing to bet that of the 535 members of House and Senate, less than a dozen were in office when Reagan signed transit into the trust fund. That gives us 520-plus people to educate.” (The real number is well over a dozen, in fact closer to 40, but it doesn’t change his point.)

The result is a Congress that never truly internalized the rationale for supporting transit, and therefore sees it as as a superfluous nice-to-have rather than a hard-fought and well-deserved component of federal policy. “We need to talk to each and every one of them. We need to stop just speaking to our friends.”

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OMB: Senate Seeking Too Much Highway Money to Fund Transportation Bill

These numbers, from the Office of Management and Budget, indicate that the Highway Account of the Highway Trust fund is in better fiscal shape than previously thought. So why are senators still chasing after $12 billion? Source: OMB

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and his Finance Committee have been looking high and low for a $12 billion patch to fund the transportation reauthorization bill that passed the Senate EPW Committee a few weeks ago. According to Politico’s transportation reporters, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, has already rejected several of Baucus’s ideas.

But the question is not only, “How will we get the money?” It’s also, “How much money do we need?” The dollar amount the Senate is seeking could lavish more money than necessary on roads while leaving transit out in the cold.

The EPW Committee wants to hold transportation spending at current levels (plus inflation), which they estimate at $109 billion over two years. Receipts into the Highway Trust Fund (from gas taxes and other vehicle fees) aren’t expected to be sufficient to pay that bill. The Congressional Budget Office told the committee that the HTF is $12 billion short of the amount needed to fully fund the bill. That amount is destined just for highways, based on projections that the Mass Transit Account will be solvent through the end of 2013 – in fact, ending that year with a $1.5 billion balance.

But last month, the two top members of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit, asked FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff for confirmation of those numbers [PDF]. Rogoff replied that he, in fact, found another set of numbers to be more accurate [PDF].

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Feds Call “All Hands On Deck” For Detroit Transit

For the last two days, transit experts from around the country have been hunkered down in Detroit to devote their collective expertise to making the Motor City a better city for transit.

Proposed route for the Woodward Light Rail Corridor. Image: Detroit Free Press

The Federal Transit Administration convened the panel, which included current and former transit agency leaders from Salt lake City, Denver, Portland, Atlanta and Dallas. The meeting was to focus on the planned Woodward Avenue light rail project, which received a $25 million TIGER grant, to envision a “bright future” for Detroit transit. Bickering between private donors and public officials over the design of the rail line (curb-running versus center-running trains) and conflict between the primary transit providers in Detroit have created problems for the project, and were likely a reason the feds decided to step in with some assistance from above.

Of course, the leaders that came together to advise Detroit come from very different cities with their own sets of issues, but none with the complex set of challenges besetting Detroit: an unemployment rate triple the national average, the highest foreclosure rate in the country, more than a quarter of its property vacant, a 25 percent drop in population over the past decade, and most of the region’s jobs well outside the city limits, with no public transportation to get there. Can a city like Portland really be of any help?

“Given the current technical capacity, as well as the lack of experience, as well as the extraordinary needs in Detroit, we wanted to treat this project differently, and sort of attack the problems collectively, rather than just wait to see if the city can attack them themselves,” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff told Streetsblog.

Dan Lijana, a spokesperson for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, said that although Detroit’s transit system will undoubtedly look very different from the other cities’ systems, there were some concrete things they wanted to learn from others’ experience: how to space transit stops, how to design the routes, and, especially, how to foster economic development along the corridor.

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Government Shutdown Would Be a Punch in the Gut to Transit Agencies

A powwow between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Obama, and House Speaker John Boehner last night failed to yield a compromise that would put a budget in place before the government shuts down at midnight tonight. The failure of yet another attempt to negotiate makes a government shutdown all but inevitable.

A government shutdown could empty out the D.C. metro system. Photo: Examiner

Just a month ago, AASHTO sounded the warning that the transportation sector could lose up to $100 million a day in case of a shutdown. However, Congress’s extension of SAFETEA-LU through the end of the fiscal year (September 30) has put their minds at ease. Now, AASHTO spokesperson Tony Dorsey says spending for federal highway programs will continue unabated, despite a shutdown. “At this point,” Dorsey said, “we’re not anticipating any issues.” Still, he said, they’re hoping that “should there be a shutdown, it will be a very, very short one.”

But that’s not the whole story. According to a detailed DOT shutdown plan, the vast majority of the Federal Transit Administration would shut down, keeping only 54 out of 575 positions working. Already-awarded stimulus grants would continue to receive oversight and the Lower Manhattan Recovery Office would continue to function. The $270 million that the FTA normally remits to transit agencies every week would cease.

Jeff Rosenberg, government affairs director for the Amalgamated Transit Union, says the SAFETEA-LU extension only continues government’s authority to pay for transportation programs. But “if the FTA isn’t authorized to open the door,” he says, those payments will cease. That could be especially damaging for smaller metros that receive operating assistance, not just capital funds, from the feds. However, he’s hopeful that a potential shutdown would only last a couple of days and would just be “a blip on the screen.”

What else can you expect to happen if the government does shut down as of midnight tonight?

  • At least 800,000 federal employees would be furloughed immediately. That would cause a massive drop in transit ridership, especially here in D.C., where Metro is predicting a five to 20 percent drop in case of a shutdown. Michael Perkins of Greater Greater Washington estimates that this would result in a loss for Metro of a quarter million dollars a day.
  • Amtrak’s federal subsidies – up in the air for months now anyway as Congress debates whether to eliminate them, reduce them, or maintain them – will stop. However, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman recently assured employees that the rail operator can keep going on ticket revenue alone in the short term.
  • The Federal Highway Administration will stay open, with no positions furloughed, according to the DOT shutdown plan. The FHWA is funded with contract authority and has enough funds available to operate in that way for about a month.
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Picture This: ARC Money + Congestion Pricing = No More NYC Transit Cuts

Later today, Governor Chris Christie is expected to announce that he’s shutting down construction of the ARC tunnel for good, closing off the potential for transit-based growth in northern New Jersey for the foreseeable future. In a dark day for smart planning and development, the project to double NJ Transit’s capacity to Manhattan has become a casualty of cheap-gas-at-all-costs populism.

New Jersey’s loss will be somebody else’s gain: $3 billion in Federal Transit Administration funding will shift from ARC to other projects. Already, elected officials are making their case to the feds. In a letter sent to U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood a few days ago, New York City Council transportation chair Jimmy Vacca said he’d be sad to see ARC go, but…

…if New Jersey is intent on abandoning this worthy project, it is imperative that the $3 billion in federal funds available be used to fund the many other vital transportation projects on queue in the New York region, such as the long overdue Second Avenue Subway, the 7 train extension, and the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access project. All are at risk of not being completed due to lack of funding.

…the MTA’s five-year, $26 billion capital program is currently funded only through the second year, with no guarantee that New York State will fund the remaining three years. This capital program funds station rehabilitations, new communication signals and tracks, and routine replacement of buses and subway cars… If the ARC Tunnel is canceled, then the Federal Government’s contribution should stay within the Greater New York Metropolitan Region and help stabilize the MTA’s finances.

It will probably be rather difficult to convince the FTA to put more money into the MTA capital program. The feds are already the primary funder of the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, and this June FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff promised Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd that “not a single penny” more from the New Starts program would go toward the escalating costs of those mega-projects. New Starts is the same pot of money that would have funded ARC.

However, $3 billion is a lot of money — nearly a billion more dollars than LaHood’s DOT has dispensed in two rounds of TIGER grants. Surely some of it should go toward the MTA, which provides about a third of all transit trips in the United States. So indulge in the following scenario…

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