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Koch Brothers Loom Over Maryland’s Purple Line Fight

Look whose envoy has been dispatched to undermine Maryland’s Purple Line. Once again, Randal O’Toole of the Koch brothers-funded Cato Institute has been deployed to attack a light rail project in distress.

pete_rahn

Newly appointed Maryland DOT chief Pete Rahn will play a large role in deciding the fate of the Purple Line. At Rahn’s confirmation hearing, lawmakers questioned him about a fishy contract awarded to Koch Industries when he was running New Mexico DOT.

On Monday, the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank, is hosting a debate on whether to construct the light rail project in the DC suburbs, which newly elected Governor Larry Hogan has threatened to kill. The debate will pair Rich Parson, vice chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, with O’Toole, professional rail critic.

O’Toole works for the Cato Institute, founded and funded by the Koch brothers. Cato dispatches O’Toole to political squabbles involving rail transit around the country, from Indianapolis to Honolulu. He’s so rabidly anti-rail that after Hurricane Sandy, he suggested New York City should replace its subway system with a network of underground buses.

Despite dispensing ridiculous advice, O’Toole continues to be treated as a serious thinker by American media outlets. The Washington Business Journal recently printed an O’Toole broadside against the Purple Line, replete with his typical arguments, like light rail is worse for the environment than driving.

Hogan’s appointee to head the state DOT, Pete Rahn, was scheduled to give opening remarks at the event today. But sources tell us that Rahn has since backed out after a bruising confirmation hearing with Maryland’s Democratically controlled legislature.

At the hearing, Maryland lawmakers raised questions about a highway project in New Mexico, where Rahn was previously DOT chief. NM-44, a 118-mile, $420 million road-widening that Rahn oversaw in New Mexico — the most expensive highway project in the state’s history at the time — awarded a huge and unusual contract to Koch Industries.

An investigation by the Albuquerque Business Journal [PDF] reported that Koch Industries was the only bidder on the project and approached Rahn directly with the proposal before bids had been requested. Koch Industries was also awarded an unprecedented $62 million contract for a 20-year maintenance warranty.

Former New Mexico Republican State Senator Billy McKibben told the Illinois Business Journal (which reported on the controversy after Rahn was installed as the head of Missouri DOT) that the deal would have bankrupted the state if it wasn’t for a well-timed oil and natural gas boom.

Correction 2:51 p.m. February 26: The original version of this story included the wrong date for the Maryland Public Policy Institute debate. It is March 2. 

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Ydanis Rodriguez Bill Would Open Residential Elevators to Bikes

The City Council is poised to eliminate a major hassle for many New Yorkers who own bikes. A bill from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez would mandate that all residential buildings in the city allow residents to use elevators to transport their bikes to and from their apartments.

Council Member Ydanis Rodroguez

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez

Rodriguez, who chairs the council transportation committee, introduced the bill today. It is co-sponsored by Antonio Reynoso, Carlos Menchaca, Brad Lander, Helen Rosenthal, and Ben Kallos.

From a Rodriguez press release:

Currently, many residential buildings have policies that prevent a resident from transporting their bicycle via the elevator. In some cases, the effects of these policies are as egregious as forcing residents to walk up ten flights of stairs with a bicycle on their back. Upon enactment, [the bill] would render these policies and lease agreements null and void and in violation of the Administrative Code.

These antiquated building policies cause an undue burden on cyclists. This bill would better the quality of life for the over 200,000 people who bike each day or the more than 500,000 adults use their bike at least twice month for exercise or transportation.

The last big move the City Council made to improve bike access was a 2009 bill that gave New Yorkers legal grounds to petition commercial landlords for bicycle access to their workplaces. That was a huge step, yet even now cyclists still have to deal with hostile landlords and building personnel. In 2014 Rosenthal and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer introduced legislation to permit folding bikes on passenger elevators in commercial buildings, but the bill stalled in the housing and buildings committee.

By passing both of these bills, the City Council would remove pointless barriers that keep people from cycling.

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Report: All New NYC Garbage Trucks Should Have Life-Saving Side Guards

Earlier this month, the city announced a pilot program to add side guards, which prevent people from being dragged under the rear wheels of large vehicles, to 240 trucks in the city fleet. It’s a start, but there are thousands more trucks on NYC streets that need this life-saving equipment.

Making side guards standard equipment for new DSNY trucks would encompass the whole fleet in about seven or eight years. Photo: City of Boston

Making side guards standard equipment at DSNY, as Boston has for its trash trucks, would encompass the whole fleet in about seven or eight years. Photo: City of Boston

A new report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center lays out an action plan specifically for New York City [PDF], describing a path to expand side guards across the city’s fleet of trucks.

The Volpe Center recommends better data collection by NYPD and the state DMV to study the safety impacts of the city’s pilot program, but the effect of side guards is already clear. After the United Kingdom began requiring them in 1986, the fatality rate for pedestrians hit by the side of a truck fell by 20 percent. For bicyclists, the fatality rate decreased 61 percent.

Trucks make up just 3.6 percent of vehicles on the road in New York City, but they account for 12.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 32 percent of bicyclist fatalities, according to city data cited by the Volpe Center. Pedestrians are three times more likely to die after being hit by a truck or bus than by a passenger car. Truck side impacts are particularly deadly for bicyclists. More than 50 percent of cyclists struck by the side of a truck die, mostly after falling beneath the vehicle’s wheels.

The Volpe Center identified 4,734 medium- and heavy-duty trucks as candidates for side guards. These include dump trucks, salt spreaders, trailers, fuel tankers, and other types of trucks operated primarily by the Department of Sanitation, DOT, Parks, the Department of Education, NYPD, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Corrections.

Volpe recommends installing solid panel-style side guards, rather than rail-style guards, and suggests stainless steel or plastic composites rather than aluminum, which is vulnerable to salt corrosion. Street sweepers, fire engines, car carriers, and special-purpose vehicles, such as movable highway barrier “zipper” trucks, would be exempt because side guards are either unnecessary or incompatible.

Of the 4,734 vehicles that could use side guards, half are garbage trucks, mostly operated by the Department of Sanitation. While garbage trucks have about 30 different equipment configurations that could complicate side guard retrofits (Volpe says that the cost of “fitting a single-unit truck with side guards, based on discussions with the identified vendors, ranges from $600 to $2,500″), they are replaced more frequently than other city vehicles, meaning that side guards could become standard equipment relatively quickly.

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The Remarkable Drop in Car Commuting to Downtown Seattle

Seattle has made impressive strides in promoting healthy transportation. Image: Commute Seattle

As Seattle has invested more in transit and developed housing downtown, the share of workers who commute without driving has quickly grown. Image: Commute Seattle

In a testament to how quickly travel behavior can change, new stats out of Seattle show that the share of downtown workers who commute alone by car has dropped significantly in the last 15 years.

The rate of solo car commuting to downtown Seattle was 50 percent in 2000. Now it’s down to 31 percent, report the Downtown Seattle Association and Commute Seattle.

Owen Pickford at The Urbanist provides some context:

The mode split by type has changed significantly since the last survey, which was completed in 2012. Nearly 4% fewer people drove alone compared to that survey and it seems likely that Seattle will reach its goal of 30% or less by 2016. The largest companies (100+ employees) in Downtown still had the lowest drive alone rate, but medium sized companies (20-99 employees) saw the most progress, reducing rates from 37% to 30% since the last survey.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic is that non-motorized modes have seen the largest increase. This is also great news for the city because it means people are living closer to work, which is likely only possible due to the immense amount of development that is occurring in Seattle’s downtown core.

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Tony Avella Finds It “Offensive” to Say the Truth About NYC’s Toll System

In his quest to preserve free driving privileges over the Queensboro Bridge, State Senator Tony Avella seems to be having a hard time rounding up the old gang.

Photo: NY Senate

Photo: NY Senate

Yesterday, Avella tried to pick a fight with Council Member Mark Weprin, a fellow legislator from northeast Queens who opposed the 2008 congestion pricing plan but backs the Move NY toll swap proposal.

In an interview on NY1 Tuesday night, Weprin said it’s unfair to hike tolls and fares for everyone except the people who get to drive into Manhattan for free each day. “Every time the tolls go up, everyone’s costs go up. Every time the subway fares go up, people’s costs go up,” he said. “The only people who don’t pay extra are the people who use those free bridges right now to go to work. And most of those people are rich people who can probably afford to drive into the city. The average guy taking the subway, their costs keep going up.”

He’s right: Fewer than 20 percent of the 3.7 million people who travel to Manhattan south of 60th Street every day arrive by car, taxi or truck. Outer-borough residents who commute to Manhattan by car have household incomes 34 percent higher than the average New Yorker, according to Census numbers crunched by Move NY. The bottom line: The toll, which is capped for commercial vehicles, would fall on more affluent New Yorkers.

Tony Avella finds this offensive.

“I demand an apology from Council Member Mark Weprin for his outrageous comment,” Avella said in a press release. “This statement completely ignores the small businesses and commuters of all income levels who utilize these bridges on a daily basis and for whom added tolls would be a hardship… The legislature must take into consideration the middle and low-income New Yorkers who rely on these free bridges day in and day out.”

Avella and Weprin engaged in a Twitter back-and-forth in which Weprin distilled Avella’s position like so:

 

“Apology?” Avella tweeted back.

What makes Avella’s position even less defensible is that he’s rejecting a plan that would cut tolls in half on the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges — both of which are within his district.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Second Ave Subway to East Harlem? Maybe Not, If Capital Plan Falters (NYTCrain’s2nd Ave Sagas)
  • On Filling Gap in MTA Capital Plan, De Blasio Tries to Keep Focus on Albany (NY1)
  • Driver Arrested Under Right-of-Way Law After Jeanine Deutsch, 85, Dies of Injuries (DNANews)
  • MTA May Seek to Cut Down on Turns in Bus Routes to Reduce Pedestrian Collisions (News)
  • Golden, Brook-Krasny, Malliotakis Grandstand on VNB Tolls, Ignore Move NY (Bensonhurst Bean)
  • Meanwhile… Drivers Might Get Charged for Trips to Connecticut, But Not Midtown (WCBS)
  • Capacity at the Port Authority Bus Terminal Is Grim, and About to Get Grimmer (Capital)
  • TA and Families for Safe Streets Plan March and Rally for Safer Queens Boulevard (DNA)
  • De Blasio’s PlaNYC Update to Focus on Equity, Include More Agencies, Seek More Feedback (Capital)
  • Plan to Distribute Trash Burden Has Big Implications for South Bronx Truck Traffic (NY Environment)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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Will DA Ken Thompson Drop Case Against Bus Driver Who Killed Senior?

On the evening of December 23, 2014, 78-year-old Jean Bonne-Annee was crossing New York Avenue at Farragut Road in Brooklyn when an MTA bus driver ran him over while making a left turn.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson

Bonne-Annee died at the scene. He was the eighth pedestrian killed by a turning MTA bus driver in 2014.

Police arrested driver Reginald Prescott and charged him with violating the Right of Way Law, which is intended to hold drivers accountable for killing or injuring pedestrians and cyclists who are following traffic rules.

Because Prescott was driving a bus and was charged for killing someone, TWU Local 100 and some members of the press have devoted much attention to a crash that otherwise would have received little or no notice. On Tuesday Pete Donohue of the Daily News reported that District Attorney Ken Thompson may bow to pressure from the TWU and dismiss the case.

Arraignment proceedings for Prescott were canceled, Donohue reported, “as prosecutors and his union defense lawyer agreed neither to go forward with a formal reading of the charges nor require Prescott to enter a plea, as is customary.”

“We pressed a pause button to say ‘stop’ with the view towards the district attorney ultimately dismissing the charges completely against Mr. Prescott,” TWU Local 100 legal director Kenneth Page said.

A spokeswoman for Brooklyn prosecutors would only say that the case remains under investigation. No new court date for Prescott was set during his appearance in court Tuesday morning.

“[T]he case is still being investigated and the charges have not been dropped,” a Thompson spokesperson told Streetsblog via email.

As Ben Fried wrote this week, before the Right of Way Law NYPD and prosecutors didn’t investigate the vast majority of serious traffic crashes, and declined to pursue charges in fatal collisions that did not involve extenuating circumstances like DWI or leaving the scene. The strength of the Right of Way Law is that it removes driver intent from the equation: If you harm someone who is walking or biking with the right of way, you committed a misdemeanor.

The court process may reveal that Prescott was not at fault. What shouldn’t be in doubt is a full and fair disposition of the case. Otherwise, people who are following all the rules will continue to be denied the protection of the law, as they were before.

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Outer London’s Huge Bike Plan Could Break the Cycle of Bad Suburban Transit

Kingston’s rail station would become a “major cycle hub” under London’s plan to pour tens of millions of dollars into biking improvements in three of its suburbs.

pfb logo 100x22

Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

You may have heard that London has just approved a spectacular crosstown protected bike lane. But another part of its plan has, ironically, gotten little press in the United States.

As London’s regional government begins what may be the biggest municipal bicycling investment in the history of Europe, it’s setting aside $140 million for the suburbs.

“Cycling is, I think the secret weapon of suburban sustainable transport,” says Transport for London Director of Surface Strategy and Planning Ben Plowden. “It is much more like car travel than transit is.”

It’s almost impossible to build car-lite suburbs with transit alone

In the United Kingdom as in the United States, efforts to reduce car dependence have relied mostly on the biggest tool in the shed: transit.

In London and New York, transit reigns supreme. The cities’ woven grids of bus and rail lines carry the overwhelming share of non-car trips in each city.

But in smaller cities and suburbs, transit needs help. With further to walk to each bus stop, fewer people ride. With fewer riders, buses run empty and it becomes cripplingly expensive for agencies to run them frequently. With infrequent buses, even short transit trips can take hours.

It’s a situation familiar to anyone who’s ridden transit in a U.S. suburb or small city — let alone tried to balance the budget of a suburban transit agency.

“You’re not going to have a $125 an hour bus with 43 seats coming through all these cul-de-sacs,” said David Bragdon, a former New York City sustainability chief who now runs Transit Center, a transit-focused policy nonprofit. “It just doesn’t work.”

That’s why London, working to stave off congestion as its population keeps climbing, is looking hard for better ways to improve suburban transit. And that’s what led its transport agency to the bicycle.

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De Blasio Defends Right-of-Way Law to Dimwits in Albany [Updated]

Update [February 26]: The quote from the mayor has been updated to include his full response.

At a hearing in Albany this morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the new city law that enables police to file misdemeanor charges against drivers who injure or kill people with the right of way. He also shed some light on how officers determine whether to file charges.

Mayor Bill de Blasio testifies in Albany this morning. Image: NY Assembly

Mayor de Blasio in Albany this morning. Image: NY Assembly

State Senator Marty Golden, who represents Bay Ridge, focused on the high-profile arrests of bus drivers who have killed or injured pedestrians in crosswalks. Golden asked if the Right-of-Way Law is even necessary. “If it’s an accident, it’s an accident. Do we need to arrest these people, and is that necessary?” Golden asked. “Should we be locking up bus drivers?”

Here is the heart of the mayor’s response:

Senator, the law that was passed by the City Council, which I signed, makes clear that when an individual fails to yield to pedestrians where they should — the pedestrian has the walk sign and they’re crossing the street and there’s still a crash… what the law dictates is that if there is serious injury or fatality, and if the officers on the scene determine that it was an avoidable injury or fatality, they are obligated to pursue an arrest. If the officers determine that it was unavoidable, meaning something happened that no driver could have possibly foreseen or responded to in time, they have the option of giving a summons. So this is a new law with a clear standard. It is a stricter standard than that which existed previously, and that’s for a reason, because people were being killed and grievously hurt in all sorts of instances and there wasn’t a clear enough legal consequence. So the law, I think, has been a step forward. It should be applied respectfully and sensitively, especially — I agree with you — our public service workers always deserve respect in every situation, and I appreciate the work they do. But again, the officer on the scene has to make a determination… If the officer believes it was 100 percent avoidable, that is an arrest situation.

At an MTA press conference minutes later, Daily News reporter Pete Donohue asked MTA Chair Tom Prendergast whether he thought bus drivers who injure or kill pedestrians in crosswalks should be subject to the Right-of-Way Law. Prendergast’s response avoided answering questions about the law itself.

“For whatever reason, the legislation was written the way it was. I’m not going to get into details of it,” Prendergast said, stressing that bus driver unions, the city, and the MTA alike are working to reduce crashes. “I drove a bus for 30 days,” Prendergast said. “The two hazards that you’re most faced with are right turns and left turns, and so I can totally appreciate the difficulties bus drivers have.”

While Prendergast did not address how the law is enforced or whether bus drivers should receive the special exemption that the TWU is seeking, he did say the MTA may adjust bus routes to limit turns through crowded crosswalks and may ask DOT to offset pedestrian crossings to minimize conflicts. (In the 1990s, the Giuliani administration moved some Midtown crosswalks to mid-block locations and installed pedestrian barriers at corners, which remain in place today.)

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Cincinnati’s Highway Revolt on the Verge of Victory

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Could the end be near for the $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway project proposed for eastern Cincinnati? Language added to Ohio’s transportation budget, which is being debated right now, would specifically “prohibit [Ohio DOT] from funding the Eastern Corridor Project in Hamilton County.”

The amendment was introduced by Republican state lawmaker Tom Brinkman, who represents an eastern portion of Cincinnati. Brinkman told the Cincinnati Enquirer, ”I am representing constituents who say, ‘We don’t want to tear down our communities.’” The boondoggle highway project is opposed by residents in Newton, Mariemont, Madisonville, and other towns east of Cincinnati.

The highway does have its defenders in the legislature. At a House Finance Committee meeting Monday, Democrat Denise Driehaus, who represents Cincinnati, signaled her concerns about Brinkman’s amendment.

“It’s been going on for about a decade and so there has been significant investment at both the state and local level,” she said. “It seems to me this sets a precedent that the legislature prohibits ODOT from spending on a local project that has been vetted locally.”

Ryan Smith, a Republican from southeastern Ohio, countered: “This project has gone on for a decade but I think everyone can agree that heading down the wrong path and continuing down the wrong path may be problematic.” As to whether it would represent some kind of dangerous precedent for elected leaders to direct state transportation officials not to fund specific projects, he said, “This is the first time I can remember somebody asking not to be funded on a project.” (For what it’s worth, Governor Kasich added legislation to a previous budget that forbid state money from being spent on the Cincinnati Streetcar.)

You can watch the exchange between Driehaus and Smith here at about the 8:30 mark.

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