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Posts from the "Transportation Policy" Category

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NYC Congress Members, MTA Chief Repudiate House GOP Attack on Transit

Congress members Joe Crowley, Charlie Rangel, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney joined MTA chief Joe Lhota to decry the House Republicans' attempt to end dedicated federal funding for transit. Photo: Noah Kazis

Four New York City members of Congress joined the chairman of the MTA today to bluntly denounce the House GOP’s anti-transit transportation bill.

“It’s the worst piece of legislation you could ever imagine,” said MTA chief Joe Lhota, a Republican who served as the city’s budget director during the Giuliani administration.

“The worst transportation bill we have ever seen,” agreed Representative Jerry Nadler, a liberal Democrat.

Though the Republican proposal includes a number of other reasons for New Yorkers to hate it, such as eliminating the Safe Routes to School and Transportation Enhancements programs, which fund bicycle and pedestrian improvements, today’s presser focused on the attack on dedicated transit funding.

Currently, about 20 percent of federal gas tax revenues are devoted to transit, which provides the MTA $1 billion per year in dedicated capital funding. The transit agency gets another $400 million a year from the federal general fund. Under the Republican proposal, all transit funds would come from the general fund, where they’d have to compete with defense, health care and other spending priorities.

That $1 billion a year is absolutely necessary for the MTA to continue repairing the system and building expansions, and it could disappear entirely. Charlie Rangel, former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which passed the anti-transit provision, said he asked influential House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan where the money to pay for transit would come from in the general fund. “The answer was they did not know at that time,” said Rangel.

The four Congress members in attendance did not mince words about the House bill. “Not even worth a warm bucket of asphalt,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Nadler said the bill exposed the attitude of the Republican Party toward transit riders: “You’re second class citizens. We don’t give a damn about you. Just disappear.”

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Post-Irene Open Thread 2: A Teachable Transportation Moment

Grand Central stood eerily empty as the MTA shut down all transit service. Photo: MTA/Marjorie Anders.

Sometimes the best way to understand the ordinary is to examine the extraordinary. Watching Hurricane Irene wreak havoc on the entire transportation system from North Carolina to the Canadian border brought certain patterns and questions into high relief. Here’s some of what we thought about while the power was down.

Most striking to me was the palpable absence of the transit system in New York City. The New York Times called the closure of the subways “perhaps the most unsettling element of a prodigious storm preparation effort.” Even on national television, the idea of New York City existing without transit was held up as the ultimate symbol of the seriousness of the storm. A lot of people seemed only to realize the absolute centrality of the transit system in its absence.

Life without transit also highlighted the value of building places with multiple transportation options. In the streetcar suburb where I was during the storm, people ventured out on foot to see neighbors, survey damage and even head to the few open stores long before most felt safe driving or transit service had resumed. Taxis provided a backup transportation option for normally transit-dependent New Yorkers who really needed to get somewhere.

In contrast, those with only one means of travel — such as drivers in upstate New York, where floods rendered hundreds of roads and bridges impassable — are stuck at home. Irene helped us see the value of multiple transportation modes, or even multiple options within a single mode.

The hurricane also cast the decisions we make about transportation safety in a different light. Storm-related incidents killed 21 Americans, six of whom died in their cars. With most people holed up, though, and those behind the wheel proceeding slowly and carefully, it’s possible that more than six people might have died over a weekend of driving in the affected area, or that the hurricane kept overall traffic injuries down. If that were in fact the case, what would it tell us about efforts to prevent people from being killed and maimed in traffic crashes?

Along those lines, as of last Friday, New York City considered shutting down taxi service on safety grounds. It was ultimately decided that the need for mobility outweighed the need for caution — an interesting case of transportation goals in conflict. It was instructive to watch drivers and pedestrians negotiate normally signalized intersections with the power off — when does the motorist decide to yield? — and to observe the natural traffic calming effects of fallen tree branches.

What did Hurricane Irene make you think about the way we get around?

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Meet the Obscure Unelected Agencies Strangling Many U.S. Cities

Transit investment lagged in regions where MPO boards did not give equal representation to city populations, Detroit being an especially bad example. In more democratic metros, investment was much more balanced. Image: Nelson, 2003

Do you know the name of your local Metropolitan Planning Organization or Council of Government? Most Americans don’t. In fact, most people probably have no idea these agencies even exist, let alone what they do. Yet they are surprisingly powerful and play a substantial role in shaping the places where we live and work.

Led by unelected boards, MPOs and COGs, as they’re known, are a special breed among government agencies. They lack the authority to issue taxes or impose laws. As such, they go largely unmentioned in the media and are mostly unknown to local residents, outside of the most wonkish circles. But the low profile of MPOs and COGs belies their considerable power.

Despite their limitations, they represent the strongest form of regional governance we’ve got in the United States, crossing city and county lines. More importantly, they disperse hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars annually. MPOs and COGs are powerful forces shaping metro regions. While these agencies often distribute transportation funds more fairly than state DOTs, many of them are structured in a way that favors sprawl and undermines cities.

MPOs and COGs can be profoundly undemocratic. They are governed by boards of public officeholders, but there is no requirement that they be in any way representative of the region’s population. In fact, the general rule that governs the composition of MPO boards is “one place, one vote,” rather than the more traditional “one person, one vote.” This often produces decisions dramatically skewed toward suburban and rural interests.

For example, greater Milwaukee’s MPO, known by the unwieldy acronym SEWRPC, is governed by a board of 21 members, three from each of the counties that make up the planning region. That means that the city of Milwaukee — population nearly 600,000 — has zero representatives on the commission that distributes millions of dollars for transportation throughout the region. It is not guaranteed any votes. The city’s only voting power comes from the three seats given to Milwaukee County — and those must be spread between the central city and many suburbs. Meanwhile, rural Walworth County — population 100,000 — is guaranteed three votes.

Milwaukee is an especially egregious case. But unfortunately, this general pattern is more the norm than the exception. A 1999 Brookings Institution study [PDF] found that central cities were under-represented in as many as 92 percent of MPOs and COGs.

That bias can have a strong impact on policy, further research has shown. A 2003 study by researchers at Virginia Tech found that for each additional suburban member on an MPO board, there was a 1 to 9 percent decrease in funding for transit — with highways being the favored alternative.

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As Local Governments Innovate, State DOT Still Focused on Roads

This map shows many of the projects in the region’s transportation improvement program, revealing the priorities of the area’s transportation agencies for the next five years.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) has released a draft of its transportation improvement program, or TIP [PDF], providing a window into the investment priorities of the region’s transportation agencies over the next five years.

The TIP is a list of projects that are eligible to receive federal funding. It’s not a budget and is frequently amended, so it is best understood as a set of projects transportation agencies have in the pipeline that indicates broad spending priorities, rather than a rigid timeline for planning and construction. While dates and dollars are attached to each project, nothing is set in stone.

The public can comment on the TIP through July 8 by e-mailing Christopher Hardej at NYMTC, the regional planning agency.

Transportation advocates say the draft TIP shows how the state DOT is lagging behind local transportation agencies when it comes to progressive planning, which reflects the agency’s budget constraints as well as its internal culture.

“Most of the innovation is coming from local governments,” Steven Higashide of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told Streetsblog after reading through the draft TIP. “The bulk of the state DOT’s portion are these large rehab projects that have been on the books for many years, so that limits room for other types of project.” The rehab of the Gowanus Expressway, for example, is allocated over $92 million in the TIP, and the replacement of the Kosciuszko Bridge is given around $550 million. Read more…

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Knowing Is Half the Battle: States Lack Data to Make Good Transpo Decisions

Eighteen states are "trailing behind" on collecting good performance data to justify their transportation investments.

As attention turns to performance measures as a way to squeeze every last drop of value out of scarce transportation dollars, states are going to need to do a better job proving the efficiency and effectiveness of their programs. Trouble is, most states don’t even bother to collect the information they need to show what actually works.

Is this why so many states make questionable decisions, prioritizing highway expansion over transit, walkable streets, and bicycle facilities when trying to fight congestion? Not exclusively, but the lack of good data leaves a bigger opening for purely political considerations to dictate transportation policy. A December GAO report that found that 30 states’ transportation planning officials said that political support was of great or very great importance in selecting projects; just 11 states said the same about economic analysis.

The Pew Center on States and the Rockefeller Foundation just issued “Measuring Transportation Investments: The Road to Results,” a thorough examination of states’ transportation data-gathering capabilities. They found that many states simply don’t have the information they need to accurately evaluate and report on their own performance in the areas of safety, jobs and commerce, mobility, access, environmental stewardship and infrastructure preservation.

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NACTO: Feds Already Greenlighting Bikeway Design Innovations

The National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Bikeway Design Guide was 20 years in the making, and already it’s having an impact, says the organization’s Mia Birk.

Bringing together transportation officials from 20 major cities to discuss progress on bikeway designs in the U.S. produced quite a few “aha moments,” said Birk. For one, transportation officials learned that many of the bikeway innovations they had been adopting from Europe aren’t as innovative as they had thought.

The protected bike lane on New York City's Ninth Avenue.

For example, Birk said, 20 American cities use bike boxes, one of the design features that isn’t specifically endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and the American Association of Highway Transportation Officials’ design guide.

“It’s not like it’s some fringe thing anymore,” Birk said.

She added: “There’s a comfort in knowing that your colleagues are on the same wavelength.”

Conversations throughout the course of the NACTO guide development process also revealed that federal officials aren’t as unfriendly to new bike treatments as many city-level transportation officials had expected. Federal transportation officials have indicated that many of the 20 bike treatments recommended by NACTO are allowable within federal guidelines — while not explicitly endorsed — and therefore eligible for federal funding, Birk said.

“They’ve basically green-lighted a few of them a yellow-lighted a few others,” she said.

Birk described the conversations with federal transportation officials as “really effective and positive.”

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Retired Military Leaders, Corporate CEOs: Driving Alone Aids Terrorists

Energy intensity of different modes of transport. Source: ESLC

What do the president of FedEx, the former Director of National Intelligence, and 19 other business and military leaders have in common? They’re urging the U.S. to adopt less oil-intensive transportation habits. They say our national security depends on it.

Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, says oil dependence is a threat to national security.

Retired military officers have joined forces with business tycoons to form the Energy Security Leadership Council. They’re looking for ways to reduce U.S. oil dependence and improve energy security. In 2008, the ESLC released a study detailing the need for the U.S. to shift from a petroleum-based to an electricity-based transportation sector.

Realizing that fuel efficiency and alternative fuels are just two legs of a three-legged stool, the ESLC released a report yesterday, “Transportation Policies for America’s Future,” calling for significant changes in transportation infrastructure [PDF].

America’s transportation network exists almost in a vacuum, the report says, with virtually no connection between how it is designed, how it is funded, and how American families and businesses use it every day. The result is an inefficient system in which system needs are out of alignment with investment, cost is out of alignment with usage, and congestion is threatening to undermine the potential gains associated with recent improvements in vehicle technology and fuel diversification.

Fedex CEO Frederick Smith agrees.

The ESLC call for policy shifts including:

  • The establishment of national performance metrics, with reduction in oil consumption chief among them, for projects to receive federal funds.
  • Create a new federal formula program, totaling 25 percent of annual federal transportation funding, to reduce congestion and encourage “economically justifiable alternatives to single-occupant travel in internal combustion vehicles” in metropolitan areas.
  • Create a $5 billion-per-year competitive program with funds available to congested metropolitan areas seeking to implement dynamic tolling, improved traffic signals and payment systems, and public transportation solutions.
  • Maintain and improve highway and passenger rail capacity outside of metropolitan areas and along major freight corridors.
  • Remove federal restrictions on state tolling of new and existing roads.
  • Shift to a VMT fee that “adequately accounts for fuel consumption externalities.”

These aren’t treehugging hippies advocating for these changes. These retired high-ranking military officers and corporate CEOs are convinced that the U.S. addiction to oil is the nation’s Achilles heel. “Hostile state actors, insurgents, and terrorists have made clear their intention to use oil as a strategic weapon against the United States,” they say. “America’s energy security can be fundamentally improved through major reductions in oil demand.”

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Green Shoots at NYSDOT

Though New York is the least car-dependent state in the country, the state DOT isn’t known for championing for the state’s millions of non-drivers. In some corners of the large and decentralized agency, however, progressive ideas have taken root and new programs are being developed. At yesterday’s Rudin Center conference on livability, two DOT officials embraced the state’s extremely ambitious climate plan and outlined a course to expand the state’s much-praised GreenLITES certification system. The challenge for new DOT commissioner Joan McDonald will be to embrace the good thinking already coming from within the department and turn it into statewide policy.

John Zamurs, a 30-year veteran of NYSDOT, is head of the sustainability and climate change section in the agency’s statewide policy bureau. At a panel on the connection between livability and climate change yesterday, Zamurs walked through the goals of the New York State climate action plan, including a $25 billion transit expansion, immediate anti-sprawl measures, complete streets, congestion pricing and parking reform. Zamurs not only said that those kinds of policies would make the state more livable, but that we need what he called “a radical change in how travel is done in the state.”

Plans to expand DOT’s GreenLITES program also offered grounds for optimism yesterday. As Paul Krekeler, the GreenLITES program manager explained, GreenLITES is a rating and certification mechanism for NYSDOT to use internally. As in the LEED program to rate green buildings, DOT projects can earn points for hundreds of different sustainability features, from wetland preservation to separated bike paths and transit signal prioritization, which add up to a ranking from basic certification to “evergreen” status. “Our real goal here,” said Krekeler, “is transportation in support of a sustainable society.”

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How Obama Should Address Transportation in the State of the Union

Streetsblog Capitol Hill is pleased to publish this guest post from Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director for NRDC.

The President got pulses racing in the transportation world with stirring speeches about infrastructure investment this past Labor Day and Columbus Day. And his economic advisers recently put out a thoughtful report [PDF] making the case for investing now, while building costs are low and so much labor is available in construction. Now is the time for the President to make a strong pitch to Congress and more importantly to the American public in his State of the Union. This is what I would say if I were writing the speech President Obama will give on Tuesday.

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We face a challenge in this country: Our transportation infrastructure policy is broken and it is going broke.

Obama-state-of-the-unionMore than fifty years ago, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower worked with legislative leaders including Democratic Senator Al Gore, Sr. on a visionary transportation law: The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. This launched the construction of a world-class highway system that drove prosperity in the 20th century and now criss-crosses the nation. Thirty-five years later, Republican President George H. W. Bush worked with Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Representative Glenn Anderson to pass the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, reforming and updating Eisenhower’s vision to address America’s changing transportation needs.

Now is the time to honor that bipartisan legacy by building infrastructure that gives us a competitive edge in the 21st century.

But we’re not there yet – far from it.

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Meet Cuomo’s Point Man on the MTA: Jim Malatras

Jim Malatras will be a leading voice on MTA policy. Get to know him. Photo: The Daily Mail.

Jim Malatras will be a leading voice on MTA policy. Get to know him. Photo: Claude Haton/Hudson-Catskill NewspapersClaude Haton/Hudson-Catskill Newspapers.

The Cuomo Administration’s transportation policy is still taking shape, but here’s a name to watch: Jim Malatras. As Cuomo’s new deputy secretary for policy management, Malatras will be a top advisor on all major transportation decisions, including how transit riders fare in the upcoming budget.

“The Cuomo administration’s point man on MTA policy issues is Jim Malatras,” said John Kaehny of the watchdog group Reinvent Albany. Kaehny noted that Malatras will be overseeing a broad portfolio of policy issues. “Traditionally, the deputy secretary for authorities is responsible for day to day operational and budget discussions with the MTA and other state authorities,” added Kaehny. “That person hasn’t been appointed yet.”

Until that position is filled, Malatras will be the key advisor on MTA issues. Critical decisions are already being made, especially regarding the budget, so Malatras is someone for transit advocates to keep an eye on for now.

Recently, Malatras has been part of the Cuomo team, most recently helping the Cuomo campaign develop its policy positions and before that serving as the executive director of legislative affairs and state policy for the attorney general’s office.

When it comes to Malatras’ bio, however, transit advocates are more interested in the job he held before working for Cuomo: legislative director for former Assembly Member Richard Brodsky.

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