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Long Arm of the Koch Brothers Extends to Nashville to Slap Down Transit

Fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch are meddling in local Nashville transit politics. Image: screenshot from the “Koch Brothers Exposed” trailer, via Salon

On Tuesday, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced that he might do away with dedicated transit lanes on two stretches of the Amp, the proposed seven-mile bus rapid transit line that could set an important precedent for the car-centric city. Dean is the main political backer of the project, so the fact that he’s buckling says something about the mounting pressure to water down or kill the Amp. And that pressure isn’t going to let up any time soon, because Dean and other supporters of effective transit in Nashville are up against opponents with very deep pockets.

Until recently, the anti-transit campaign in Nashville — organized under the umbrella of a group called Stop AMP — seemed like garden variety NIMBYism. Some nearby residents don’t want to transfer any street space from cars to buses, and they had a fitting ringleader in local car dealer Lee Beaman. But when the Tennessee State Senate passed a bill that would ban transit lanes, that raised some eyebrows.

Where did Stop AMP get the muscle to move a bill through the State Senate? “Concerned citizens writing us checks for $100 here, $200 there,” Richard Fulton of Stop AMP told Streetsblog. Fulton is the son of former Nashville mayor and Tennessee state senator Dick Fulton.

Yup, $100 checks — and oh right, a lobbyist paid by the Koch brothers, billionaire funders of the Tea Party movement and smart growth paranoia everywhere. “They do have a lobbyist that has been assisting us and helping lobby but mainly because he’s a citizen of Nashville and against the Amp,” Fulton admitted.

Americans for Prosperity, the most illustrious of the political organizations financed by Charles and David Koch, has a new chapter in Tennessee. It’s just nine months old but with the State Senate vote it already has a big win under its belt.

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Will de Blasio Make Good on His Pledge to Build Great Bus Rapid Transit?

During his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio called for the creation of a citywide, “world-class” Bus Rapid Transit network consisting of at least 20 routes. These new routes would provide a crucial link for communities beyond the reach of subways and speed trips that are poorly served by the city’s Manhattan-centric rail system.

Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/61135621@N03/10930906743/in/photolist-hDVKKn-hDVKQ2-hDVKJR-hDV4r7-hDVL2K-hDV4d1-hDUmsp-hDV4HE-hDVL3r-hDVKwX-f1oBUU-f1oBKY-byEi8c-bDQkXm-bDQm73-deteve-detdRd-7C9G1Q-dwvtyZ-dwvtG2-aZLEg6-8BGt6h-fsrcaf-bzRdWF-br2R68-ga79rs-ga72Uv-ga76tL-im8tYQ-9cWWhF-842X7k-dbhDNz-iAhMCg-dR7Fb5-f19hpM-f1oBSA-f1oBQf-f19hkg-f19haD-f19hkz-8EYxLP-detcU5-bSK3sg-bDQmdW-fC42nb-fBNERP-9KE38J-daxWUc-9UJNum-br2KDF-br2PpP##MTA/Flickr##

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Now that he is mayor, de Blasio will have to build out new routes much more rapidly than his predecessor if he is to keep his campaign promise.

While de Blasio has not offered a timetable for completing the rapid bus network, it took the Bloomberg administration approximately six years to build the city’s first six Select Bus Service routes.

“It’s possible to pick up the pace,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “The constraint is staffing.”

The Department of Transportation will likely need more planners and community liaisons in order to work on multiple projects at the same time.

“If you have one team working on planning for SBS, you can get one route done per year. If you have two teams you can get two routes done, and so on,” says Byron.

One key challenge for de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg will be to accelerate the public engagement process while following through on his campaign language about “extending [outreach] beyond the community board.” As public advocate, de Blasio criticized Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan for moving too fast on major street redesigns. Now that he’s mayor, he will likely have to contend with the opposition that has met previous SBS projects.

It’s not impossible to imagine that future Select Bus Service routes will encounter less friction than before. SBS is now up and running successfully in several neighborhoods, and the concept is no longer new and alien to residents and community boards. There is a clear record of success.

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What Transit Riders Could Get If Cuomo’s Transit Raid Doesn’t Go Through

How much transit service could the MTA add if Governor Cuomo’s proposed $40 million transit raid doesn’t make Albany’s final budget? Here’s a taste, courtesy of the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance.

Photo: Wikipedia

Service that was cut from seven subway lines in 2010, serving 300,000 weekday riders, could be restored. More than a dozen weekday bus routes could be added across the five boroughs, plus weekend service for more than a dozen other routes. The LIRR could run more trains and MetroNorth could add cars.

It would all add up to quicker commutes, less crowding, and more freedom for New Yorkers to get around without a car.

Straphangers and the Riders Alliance based the potential service restorations and additions on the MTA’s estimates of cost savings achieved with the 2010 service cuts.

In their budget proposals, both the Assembly and the State Senate rejected the $40 million transit raid in the governor’s executive budget. The issue is expected to be decided during final negotiations this week between the legislature and Cuomo.

The Cuomo camp has tried to diminish the significance of the raid, which would compel the MTA to pay off bonds for capital projects that the state had previously promised to cover. The advocates’ list of foregone service helps bring home the point that there is in fact a very real cost whenever Albany decides to divert revenue from transit.

Here’s the full list of service that $40 million could buy, according to Straphangers and the Riders Alliance:

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With Ridership on the Rise, Will Congress Step Up and Invest in Transit?

Yesterday the American Public Transportation Association reported that Americans made more transit trips in 2013 than in any other year since 1956. Of course, per capita ridership is still low compared to the 1950s, and we’re nowhere near the ridership peaks of the 1940s. But when transit trips increase 1.1 percent while population rises 0.7 percent, you know change is afoot.

Transit expansions, like LA's expo line, which opened in 2012, helped boost transit ridership to levels not seen in 57 years. But will the federal funding crisis keep transit from flourishing? Photo: ##http://thesource.metro.net/tag/expo-line-testing/##The Source##

Transit expansions, like LA’s expo line, which opened in 2012, have helped boost transit ridership to levels not seen in 57 years. But will the federal funding crisis keep transit from flourishing? Photo: The Source

APTA, which is meeting in Washington this week for its legislative conference, has some ideas about how to keep the momentum going in the right direction.

It goes a little something like this: Pass a transportation bill. Make it a six-year bill — not a measly two years like the current MAP-21 bill. Raise the gas tax, pass a VMT fee, do whatever you need to do to provide a steady funding source. And then invest $100.4 billion over the next six years in transit.

This year, transit got $8.6 billion from the Highway Trust Fund and another $2.1 billion from the general fund — mostly for New Starts capital grants — for a combined total of $10.7 billion. APTA wants to see that number grow to $12.1 billion in 2015 and $22.2 billion in 2020.

While APTA’s proposal would mark a major improvement, it’s not as big a jump as President Obama envisions. The White House budget proposal would bring transit funding up to $17.6 billion in 2015 — which APTA doesn’t call for until 2018. APTA would have funding grow more incrementally over time, while Obama envisions a big increase next year and then stability.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced yesterday that the administration would submit a transportation bill proposal to Congress, which it has not done previously.

While APTA is pushing for a six-year bill, the administration has rolled out a four-year bill, because that’s what its proposed funding method will support. Foxx told transit agency officials assembled for the APTA conference yesterday that he empathized with the need for long-term legislation.

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Report: NYC’s Density and Transit Set Citi Bike Apart

Did you just get off the subway? Chances are you can easily complete your trip in the Manhattan core on a Citi Bike. Image: NYU Rudin

Bike-share has better links to transit in New York than in Chicago or DC. Image: NYU Rudin

Even when adjusted for its size, Citi Bike’s ridership numbers have quickly surpassed comparable systems. While there are many factors shaping Citi Bike’s success, a new report from NYU argues that the program’s connections to transit could be a key to its strikingly high ridership.

Last week, graduate students at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management issued a report that mapped bike-share stations and metro stations in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. In New York, frequent subway stops in the Manhattan core and nearby Brooklyn mesh closely with the dense network of Citi Bike stations. The result: One in 10 Citi Bike stations is within 100 feet of a subway stop, more than half are within 750 feet and nearly three-quarters are within a quarter-mile. In the other two cities, both rail transit and bike-share stations are spaced farther apart, and their ridership numbers have lagged behind Citi Bike’s.

In the Citi Bike service area, there are 19.7 bike-share stations per square mile, while there are only 6.8 stations per square mile in Chicago and 4.37 per square mile in DC, with both cities spread over a far larger area than Citi Bike. By concentrating in the transit-heavy core, the report argues, Citi Bike has been able to attain ridership numbers above other systems.

“It was striking how many of the Citi Bike stations are within just a five-minute walk [of the subway],” said report co-author Lily Gordon-Koven. “In New York, it works very well if you get off the subway and you want to make a really short trip.”

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American Transit Ridership Hits 57-Year High

Public transit ridership grew 1.1 percent in 2013, three times faster than driving. Photo: Wikipedia

Public transit ridership grew 1.1 percent in 2013, three times faster than driving. Photo: Wikipedia

The last year transit ridership was this high in the United States, Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act. Not since 1956, according to the American Public Transportation Association, have Americans logged as many transit trips as they did in 2013: 10.7 billion. It was the eighth year in a row that Americans have made more than 10 billion transit trips.

Growth in transit ridership is outpacing changes in driving. While total miles driven by Americans rose 0.3 percent in 2013, public transit use was up 1.1 percent.

“There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy in a press release. “People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services.”

Some of the big increases were in places like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City that have been pouring resources into expanding their transit networks. L.A. saw a 4.8 percent increase in heavy rail ridership and a nearly 6 percent increase in light rail ridership, following the opening of its Expo Line in 2012. Salt Lake City, meanwhile, saw a doubling in commuter rail riders, on the heels of a significant expansion of its Frontrunner system.

Growth also occurred in cities with established train networks. Rail ridership in the New York region, for instance, grew 4.2 percent.

The positive trend, while not uniform, was widely spread. Places as diverse as Fort Myers, Florida; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Yuma, Arizona, saw sizable bumps in ridership either systemwide or on specific lines.

Heavy rail ridership recorded the strongest growth of any transit mode in 2013, with an increase of 2.8 percent, while commuter rail rose 2.1 percent. Light rail trips, including streetcars, increased by 1.6 percent. Meanwhile, bus travel was up 3.8 percent in cities with populations less than 100,000, but was down 0.1 percent overall, APTA reports.

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In Obama Budget, a Glimpse of What Beefed-Up Transit Funding Could Do

Nashville BRT is among the transit upgrades in line for funding in 2015. Image: Nashville Public Radio

The budget proposal released by President Obama yesterday fleshes out the transportation ideas put out by the White House last week and includes specific grants for transit upgrades and expansions in 2015, but many of them won’t be part of this budget unless Congress agrees to increase funding for transportation.

The White House budget proposes $17.6 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, an increase of about $7 billion from current levels. This would give transit agencies significantly more resources to rehab existing infrastructure and build rail and bus expansions.

Most of the additional funding — more than $5 billion — would come in the form of bigger distributions to transit agencies by formula. On top of that, money for transit expansion projects would grow by more than $500 million, a new $500 million program would help fund bus rapid transit projects, and $500 million would be set aside for “a new competitive grant program that will encourage innovative solutions to our most pressing transportation challenges.”

Enacting these changes is unlikely, because Obama will have to win Congressional support for funding transportation with corporate tax reform. But a look at the FTA budget provides a sense of how much more can be done for transit each year, given new resources.

The increased funding for transit expansion would go toward light rail in Baltimore, an extension of Boston’s Green Line, and commuter rail in Orlando, among other projects. Portland’s Columbia River Crossing — the sprawl bridge/light rail project that apparently just won’t die – is also on the list.

A round of smaller grants that also need Congressional approval would fund bus rapid transit projects in Nashville, Oakland, El Paso, Eugene, and Vancouver, as well as $50 million to advance Fort Lauderdale’s streetcar plans.

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Miami-Dade Squanders Transit Tax on Roads, Thanks to Florida DOT

Does this look like a transit project to you? Some of Miami-Dade's transit tax will fund grade separation so cars don't have to stop at intersections. Image: ##http://www.apcte.com/projects.php?cat=4&pro=34##APCT Engineers##

Does this look like a transit project to you? Some of Miami-Dade’s transit tax will fund grade separation so cars don’t have to stop at intersections. Image: APCT Engineers

Only one of every five federal transportation dollars are set aside specifically for transit. So it’s infuriating when a local government plunders the small pool of transit funds and spends it on roads. Particularly when that place has some of the country’s most notoriously car-dominated and dangerous streets.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Miami-Dade County, Florida. In 2002, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund the People’s Transportation Plan, an ambitious agenda including 88 new miles of Metrorail and 635 new buses. It was all to be overseen by a Citizen’s Independent Transportation Trust.

Transit activist Marta Viciedo says Miami-Dade's failure to build transit has its origin in the very law that was supposed to expand rail. Photo:  ##http://ourcitythoughts.org/reviews/qa-with-marta-viciedo/##Our City Thoughts##

Transit activist Marta Viciedo says Miami-Dade’s failure to build transit has its origin in the very law that was supposed to expand rail. Photo: Our City Thoughts

Unfortunately, the way the legislation was written left far too much room to deviate from the transit message that was sold to voters. The county “didn’t emphasize that there would be any roadway or street improvement,” said Marta Viciedo, chair of the local Transit Action Committee, TrAC. “They had over 80 public meetings with the transportation plan. They really built this hype around Metrorail expansion.” But by slipping “roadway improvements” into the bill, they cleared the way for the half-cent tax to be a slush fund for any old transportation project. And that’s what’s happening.

So what is that transit tax being spent on? Here’s the list, via MoveMiamiDade:

  • Construction of NW 87th Avenue between NW 154th Street and Miami Gardens Drive (NW 183rd Street). This is “way out where nobody really lives,” according to Viciedo.
  • Constructing major ingress/egress improvements in downtown Miami, from SW 8th Street to SW First Avenue. This is basic resurfacing, but Viciedo says Florida DOT has been shirking their mandate to build bike lanes when they resurface streets, and she doesn’t expect that this one will be different.

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How Liberating Is Your Transit System? An Interview With Jarrett Walker

I first became aware of Jarrett Walker’s work through his blog, Human Transit, a few years ago. Here was someone writing about transit in a completely refreshing way, framing questions not in terms of mode or technology but through the prism of values and desires. To call Walker’s site a transit blog doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s about what we want from our cities, and how transit can help us get there. His 2011 book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives, is a must-read if you’re interested in cities and want to understand what makes transit work well.

jarrett_walkerA transit planning consultant by trade whose clients literally span the globe, Walker will be in NYC next month to lead his two-day workshop in transit network design (as of press time, a few spaces are still available) and give a talk at the New School on the evening of February 6 (no registration required). When we first got in touch about doing an interview, he was about to leave for a gig in New Zealand for several weeks. A few days ago we caught up for a discussion that touched on transit on three continents, why simplicity matters in transit networks, and the legibility of New York City’s bus system.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about what you were working on in New Zealand?

I have been working in New Zealand on and off for five years now. The main project that brings me down there over and over is a complete redesign of the bus system in Auckland. Working with my New Zealand colleagues from a firm called MR Cagney, I led workshops with Auckland transit staff that completely redesigned the network, with the goal of much higher ridership and much higher levels of freedom for almost everyone. Aucklanders will see that network rolling out over the next few years. And since then I’ve been back there several times to help them work on the details. There are lots of interesting details around what the buses do downtown and how that interacts with various people’s ideas about what downtown ought to be.

Does the Auckland bus system consist of what we’d call conventional lines and rapid lines, specifically BRT lines?

They have one very nice busway, they have a couple of old commuter rail lines that they’re in the process of turning into rapid transit lines. They have an extension of the rail line through the downtown in the works. But most of the system is bus routes, and the system has grown incrementally, because New Zealand had gone through this period of Thatcherite madness where they had privatized the whole bus system and essentially given over to private companies the right to run buses in particular areas, and had pretty much hollowed out the government role in planning transit service. And so for quite a while you’d see routes being designed by various local bus operators without caring very much about how they fit together into a network.

Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity.

This is the first time the entire city has been looked at as a single unit without regard to the historic bus operator boundaries. This is a very common issue in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. And Australia and New Zealand in particular are swinging back toward asserting strong government control over transit planning. Quite a different set of issues than we have in the states.

Do they run up against the problem where the current system has its own constituency? That’s a pretty big overhaul.

Absolutely. Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity, and you have to eliminate the things that only had historical justifications but don’t really make sense and aren’t generating ridership or coverage.

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Cuomo’s State of the State: More Highways, Less Dangerous Driving

If you were expecting Governor Cuomo’s transportation policy to match up with his socially progressive yet fiscally conservative reputation, he didn’t deliver during today’s State of the State address, which featured a ringing endorsement of a multi-billion dollar highway across rural areas near the Canadian border. While the governor’s focus on expensive highway projects, not transit, during the annual speech is by now a well-established pattern, today’s address did feature a few positive signs, including a continued push to increase penalties for drunk and distracted driving.

There is one significant transit project Cuomo did endorse: Penn Station Access, which would reroute New Haven Line Metro-North trains along the Amtrak route through the eastern Bronx, adding four new Metro-North stations in the borough. Although the MTA has been planning it for years, Cuomo’s inclusion of it in the State of the State bodes well for the project as the MTA gears up for its next five-year capital plan.

After the speech, Mayor Bill de Blasio welcomed Cuomo’s interest in expanding Metro-North service in the Bronx. ”I appreciated his focus on mass transit,” he said. “For people in the eastern Bronx, this was music to their ears.”

As in last year’s State of the State, Cuomo also emphasized the importance of stormproofing the city’s subway to reduce the threat of flooding during major storms.

But the really big-ticket surface transportation project in Cuomo’s speech was a rural road boondoggle. He announced a push for a new interstate highway linking Interstate 81 in Watertown to Interstate 87 in Champlain, near the Canadian border. ”The proposed Route 98 could reduce travel time and speed up commerce,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it for years. Let’s get DOT to undertake a study and see if we can make this project happen.”

What Cuomo didn’t mention is that state DOT has already issued reports over the past 12 years on the plan, which could cost billions of dollars to build a full-fledged expressway across one of the state’s least-populated rural areas. Last February, Cuomo endorsed the interstate concept, while saying the project was too expensive for the state.

The multi-billion North Country expressway plan is like a rural version of the governor’s other gigantic, wasteful road project, the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, which received a few mentions from Cuomo today after taking center stage at last year’s State of the State. As with the expressway, Cuomo’s Tappan Zee message is mainly about showing voters that he can wield the state’s bureaucracy to build big projects. Good transportation policy has nothing to do with it.

Cuomo had some better ideas when it came to traffic enforcement, proposing stronger rules against texting teen drivers and repeat DWI offenders, building on previous efforts.

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