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The Idea That Families Don’t Belong in the City Is Antiquated and Harmful

The notion of cities as playgrounds for the young and unattached remains a pretty pervasive concept.

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

The blogger at Family Friendly Cities has encountered it plenty. A young parent, he says that in his circles, the social stigma against raising children in the city remains irrationally strong:

As a young couple we lived in a garden style apartment in a car dominated city with two automobiles in what is one of the most sprawling cities in the country. We wanted more. So after we married we moved to a more urban city, one that still gets a rather unfortunate rap for sprawl but has a thriving urban core. We also dropped one of our cars. We primarily relied on transit except for our grocery store trips. Our home was more urban, and so was our neighborhood. That was fine, we were still young and childless, and we were constantly reminded of it. “Good thing you are doing it now before you have children” was a common sentiment, as if our urban lifestyle had an expiration date. It was set to die the moment we added a new family member. So we did, and it didn’t. Despite the auto-centric place we lived we walked to the hospital to give birth, and to the horrified look on the nurses’ faces we walked our newborn home. Even when we proclaimed that you could probably see our home from any of the windows in the maternity ward they thought we were crazy. Crazy to choose to walk her home the equivalent of three city blocks, rather than drive. And so came more of the comments once she was home; advice, and questions: “Have you looked for a house outside the city,” “Once she gets older you are going to need more space,” “You will need a yard,” “Living in the city is fine while she is so young, but not when she gets older” and the always important “The schools are better in X County.” So we followed their advice. We packed up a yellow truck and moved: to the second most dense census tract in the city smack dab in the heart of downtown, across the country.

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Today’s Headlines

  • This Fare Hike Is Nothing Compared to What Will Happen With an Unfunded MTA Capital Program (WSJ)
  • Republicans Have a Majority, But Jeff Klein May Still Remain Senate Co-Leader (CapTon)
  • Gelinas: Cuomo Can’t Ignore Math Much Longer; Big Toll Hikes Necessary to Pay for TZB (TUCapital)
  • Judge Denies AAA’s Bid to Block Port Authority Toll Hikes, Set to Take Effect December 7 (WNYC, WCBS)
  • After Rule Change to Reduce Overcharging, Pedicab Licenses Drop by a Quarter and the Post Is Thrilled
  • NTSB Compares Metro-North “Safety Culture” to Chernobyl (Bloomberg); Meanwhile, on the Streets…
  • Broken Windows: Turns Out Driver Stopped for Using Cell Phone Was Unlicensed (Advance)
  • Take a Look at Proposals for Jay Street from Transportation Alternatives Workshops (Brooklyn Paper)
  • Rejoice, Nostrand Walkers and Bus Riders: Construction Set to Wrap in Spring (DNA)
  • Eyes on the Street: New Ped Safety Island at Pitt and Delancey on Lower East Side (Bowery Boogie)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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Cuomo’s MTA Commission Declines to Endorse New Funding Source

If you were hoping the release of the MTA Reinvention Commission report would be the moment when Governor Andrew Cuomo comes to his senses and makes an aggressive push to fund the region’s transit system by fixing its dysfunctional tolling structure, don’t hold your breath.

It's in Cuomo's hands now: The MTA Reinvention Commission is set to release its final report soon. Photo: MTA/Flickr

It’s in his hands now: The MTA Reinvention Commission is set to release its final report soon. A draft didn’t tackle many specific funding questions. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Yesterday, Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York published a draft copy of the report [PDF 1, 2, 3]. While the MTA won’t say when the commission plans on releasing the final version, it should be coming soon. A commission member tells Streetsblog that the panel met today to go over the document before its publication.

The report examines the current state of MTA funding and operations, using case studies from cities around the world to offer examples of how its recommendations could be put into practice. It covers a wide breadth of issues, including the management of large capital projects, how to improve customer service, and better regional planning and coordination with other agencies.

The recommendations are grouped into seven “strategies,” leaving funding for last. The report emphasizes the need to keep the Payroll Mobility Tax in place, and suggests revenue enhancements like requiring all-cash real estate transactions to pay a version of the mortgage recording tax, increasing the use of value capture throughout the region, and squeezing more revenue from advertising, which is already on the rise.

When it comes to larger revenue sources, the report is more circumspect. It raises the possibility of congestion pricing, parking fees, and even distance-based subway fares, which Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign called “the mother of all non-starters.” In the end, the draft report refuses to pick sides, suggesting “a comprehensive study that re-examines the MTA’s approach to fares and tolls.”

“It was beyond the scope of this Commission to recommend a specific set of revenue-raisers,” reads the report. “[But] existing sources fall short of what will be needed for sustaining a truly great regional transportation system in the years ahead.” In short: Albany will have to make a decision, so stay tuned.

There’s a lot more to the report than the funding section. The first strategy deals with how the MTA could reform its procurement and project delivery methods. It suggests greater use of public-private partnerships and design-build contracts in a bid to encourage “risk sharing with the private sector” and to reduce the costs and timelines of MTA projects.

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How Macquarie Makes Money By Losing Money on Toll Roads

This is the second post in a three-part series about the Indiana Toll Road and privately financed highways. Read part one.

When you invest in Macquarie Atlas Roads, now-worthless shares in the Indiana Toll Road (and four “Other Toll Roads”) are an almost-free bonus with your purchase of shares in APRR, which runs profitable toll roads in France. Image: Macquarie Atlas’ September 2014 Investor Presentation

Macquarie Group, the gigantic Australian financial services firm with some $400 billion in assets under management, has made a lot of money in the infrastructure privatization game.

The publicly traded company owns the Brussels Airport, the Dulles Greenway, telecommunications towers in Mexico, a wind farm in Kenya, and much more. One of those assets was the Indiana Toll Road, which Macquarie purchased in 2006 with Spanish firm Ferrovial — whose most profitable assets include Heathrow Airport and the 407 toll road ringing Toronto. The Indiana Toll Road was housed in a spinoff company called ITR Concession Co. LLC., which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in September after a disastrous eight-year run.

Macquarie and Ferrovial paid the state of Indiana $3.8 billion for the Indiana Toll Road. At the time, it was the largest infrastructure privatization deal in U.S. history. Eight years later, the road was saddled with an astounding $5.8 billion in debt, far beyond the original, unexpectedly-high purchase price.

Traffic fell well short of the projections offered by the engineering firm Wilbur Smith (now CDM Smith), and the company blamed the bankruptcy on the fallout from the recession.

But some observers also pointed to the risky financing underlying the deal. Macquarie and Ferrovial each chipped in just $374 million of their own money to finance the deal. The other $3 billion was borrowed from seven European banks, six of whom have since been bailed out by their respective governments.

Granted, the deal happened in 2006, when debt was flowing freely. According to a 2007 profile by Fortune’s Bethany McLean, Macquarie borrowed its billions using loans resembling a balloon mortgage. It would purchase a type of derivative, called an “accreting swap,” to get a low teaser interest rate, all the while assuming that a refinance was just around the corner. But when credit markets froze entirely, Macquarie couldn’t extricate itself from punishing interest payments.

McLean cited the example of the Macquarie-owned Chicago Skyway: “In 2007 the Skyway will pay interest of just $129,000 on $961 million of debt. But the interest payment for 2018 is to be $480 million — that’s not a typo.”

That helps explain how Macquarie and Ferrovial ended up owing almost twice as much as they paid for the Indiana Toll Road, after collecting tolls for eight years.

Randy Salzman, associate editor of Thinking Highways North America, has reported extensively about P3s, saying that it’s common for privately financed roads to go bankrupt. He says that firms acquiring infrastructure typically provide very little of their own cash, and because of a complicated mix of fees and tax breaks, they may benefit financially even when the deals go sour.

“You’d think that they wouldn’t be investing in these things because so many of them go bankrupt,” he said. “You’d think that the money would be running away.”

But Salzman says he’s seen these kinds of bankruptcies happen over and over again. “The only question is when.”

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Chinatown Biz Group Fed Up With Placard Parkers Hogging Spaces All Day

Imagine if your neighborhood’s streets were used as an employee parking lot for a nearby office building, and the people in charge of enforcing the rules turned a blind eye, day in and day out, as they ticketed members of the public but ignored lawbreaking by their colleagues.

Well, there’s no need to imagine: That’s how parking works in Chinatown, and leaders from the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation are fed up after years of abuse.

Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership LDC points to a placard parker who left his car on the street all day. Photo: Stephen Miller

Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership LDC points to a placard parker who left his car on the street all day. Photo: Stephen Miller

The Partnership inventoried the neighborhood’s parking supply in August, looking at regulations and conditions for the approximately 3,000 on-street parking spaces within the BID’s service area, which is roughly bounded by Broome Street, Broadway, Worth Street, and Allen Street [PDF]. During the peak of summer vacation, the BID found that 24.4 percent of all on-street parking spots in that area were taken up by cars with government placards.

In recent years, the city and state have reduced the total number of placards available, but the streets of Chinatown continue to fill with private cars displaying government placards, sitting by the curb all day like it’s an employee parking lot. The Partnership isn’t the first to document this longstanding problem. A 2006 study by Transportation Alternatives showed only 12 percent of permits in the southern section of Chinatown were being used legally [PDF]. A survey for an NYPD environmental impact statement in 2006 found more than 1,100 cars illegally using placards near One Police Plaza [PDF].

The problem is most pervasive in the neighborhood’s southern end, which is full of courts and government offices. On a midday walk near the Partnership’s Chatham Square headquarters, more than half the parking spots were occupied by placard holders. “Chinatown’s largest population are government workers,” said Wellington Chen, the Partnership’s executive director. “We are far and above the single most affected community.”

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Will Arlington Streetcar Foes Support BRT Instead?

Arlington, Virginia's streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

Arlington’s streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

News broke yesterday that Arlington, Virginia, is abandoning plans for a 7-mile streetcar along Columbia Pike.

Proponents had advanced the streetcar for more than a decade and had secured some $65 million in state support for the $333 million project. But this month’s election delivered a crushing blow, writes David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. Going forward, he says, one major question is whether streetcar opponents who said they supported Bus Rapid Transit instead will now follow through on those statements:

Following John Vihstadt’s strong win in last week’s [County Board] election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.

It’s not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It’s also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we “reported” this in April 2013 as an April Fool’s joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation leader Peter Rousselot and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also “too expensive.”

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It’s important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns comments on an editorial calling for an end to the interstate highway system, and explains why maybe it’s not as far fetched as it seems. Bike Walk Lee reports that Florida DOT’s Bill Hattaway, the man charged with making the Sunshine State safe for walking and biking, has been named an “outstanding government official” by Governing Magazine. And Streets.mn says opposing bike/ped projects might not be a winning strategy for Minnesota Republicans.

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Families for Safe Streets Meets With Cuomo Rep to Talk DMV Reforms

In a meeting with representatives from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration Tuesday, members of Families for Safe Streets called for reforms to New York State Department of Motor Vehicles protocols, with the goal of discouraging reckless driving and obtaining some measure of justice for crash victims and their families.

New York State DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala did not attend a Tuesday meeting with family members of traffic violence victims. Photo: NYS DMV

New York State DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala did not attend a Tuesday meeting with family members of traffic violence victims. Photo: NYS DMV

Karen Rae, Cuomo’s deputy transportation secretary, met with relatives of crash victims at the governor’s Manhattan office. The meeting was arranged by Congresswoman Grace Meng [PDF], and was prompted by news that the DMV voided both traffic tickets issued by NYPD to the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in Queens in 2013.

A recording obtained by WNYC reveals that the administrative judge rushed through the hearing and declared the driver, 44-year-old Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, ”not guilty” in a matter of seconds. The video that captured the collision was never screened.

Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, attended yesterday’s meeting. Also present were Amy Cohen, mother of Sammy Cohen Eckstein; Kevin Sami, whose father was killed in a crash; and attorney Steve Vaccaro. J. David Sampson, the agency’s executive deputy commissioner, represented the DMV. DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala was expected to attend but was not there.

Officials and advocates discussed the January DMV “safety hearing” scheduled for Abu-Zayedeh, as well as last January’s hearing for the driver who killed Brooklyn pedestrian Clara Heyworth, when a DMV administrative judge relied mainly on the motorist’s own testimony to determine whether or not he would be allowed to drive legally again.

Families for Safe Streets presented the following recommendations to DMV:

  • A mandatory three-month license suspension for serious offenses while driving, including (a) hit and run; (b) aggravated unlicensed operation; (c) failure to use due care (VTL 1146); and (d) striking someone with the right of way (per NYC Administrative Code Section 19-190).
  • Reform the DMV point system so that higher point values apply to violations where someone is seriously injured or killed; prevent drivers from using adjournments to push points outside the 18-month window and avoid suspension.
  • Greater accountability for commercial drivers, enforced by a mandatory three-month or longer license suspension upon accrual of six or more penalty points.
  • Mandatory, prompt and publicly-noticed safety hearings at which victims, their families, and NYPD crash investigators can attend, present evidence and make statements; quarterly reporting of aggregate safety hearing outcomes and other statistics.
  • DMV’s adoption of the equivalent of the Federal Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights for victims’ families at traffic ticket hearings related to fatal crashes.

Read more…

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Today’s Headlines

  • The Allison Liao DMV Hearing Was an Utter Travesty (WNYC)
  • Capital Got the MTA Reinvention Commission Report, and It Doesn’t Say Much About Funding
  • Citizens Budget Commission Wants Fare Hikes, Toll Reform to Fix MTA Budget Gap (C&S)
  • AMNY: 4 Percent Fare Hikes Aren’t Terrible, But Straphangers Should Get Something More in Return
  • The Coming Toll Hike Will Affect Verrazano Bridge Drivers and People Are Outraged (Advance, NY1)
  • Silver: $5 Billion in Settlement Cash Should Be Used for One-Time, Undefined “Infrastructure” Boost (TU)
  • Flatbush Dollar Van Driver Flees Traffic Stop, Injures at Least Two in Chase (Post, News, NY1, WPIX)
  • More Coverage of Changes to Central Park Loop (News, Post, Gothamist, Capital, WNYC, WABC, WCBS)
  • The Only Thing Better Than 25 MPH Speed Limit Would Have Been 20 MPH (Vox)
  • Advance Columnist Misses the Point of Lower Speed Limit, Thinks He’s Already Above-Average Driver
  • Well, This Is One Way to Walk Across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (Bensonhurst Bean)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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If Central Park Was Car-Free, New Safety Measures Could Be in Place 24/7

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The pedestrian safety improvements coming to the Central Park loop narrow crossing distances the most during car-free hours. When cars are in the park, pedestrians will have a longer distance to cross. Image: NYC DOT

Four major pedestrian crossings on the Central Park loop will be redesigned to shorten walking distances and alert approaching drivers and cyclists, the city announced today. The new crossing treatments are part of a package that will also lower the speed limit on the loop from 25 to 20 mph.

Two people were killed by cyclists in separate collisions on the loop this summer — 75-year-old Irving Schachter, struck by a teenage cyclist who reportedly swerved into the running lane to avoid a pedicab, and 58-year-old Jill Tarlov, hit at a marked crossing by a cyclist who frequently trained in the park (but whose speed at the time has not been determined).

The changes DOT will implement should reduce the risk of pedestrian injury on the park loop. If motor vehicle speeds decline, all other traffic on the loop should be less harried during the hours when cars are allowed in the park. When cars are not in the park, the four major crossings will be even shorter for pedestrians, with movable barricades and signs with concrete anchors narrowing the distance further. These are the locations that will get the new treatment:

  • West Drive at Delacorte Theater (near W. 81st Street)
  • West Drive at Sheep Meadow (near W. 68th Street)
  • West Drive at Heckscher Ballfields Crossing (near 63rd Street)
  • East Drive at Terrace Drive (near E. 72nd Street)

Still, the fact that this design will minimize crossing distances when cars aren’t around points to the basic shortcoming in the plan: As long as the design of the loop has to accommodate car traffic, safety measures can only go so far. In a completely car-free park, the safer pedestrian crossing distances could be permanent, and the city could get rid of the traffic signals that cause misunderstandings between pedestrians and cyclists.

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The Indiana Toll Road and the Dark Side of Privately Financed Highways

This is the first post in a three-part series on the Indiana Toll Road and the use of private finance to build and maintain highways. 

Who owns the Indiana Toll Road? Well, as of the bankruptcy filing in September, Macquarie Atlas Roads Limited (MQA Australia), which is joined at the hip to Macquarie Atlas Roads International Limited (MQA Bermuda) on the Australian stock exchange, has a 25 percent stake. Macquarie’s investment bank arm brokers the various transactions related to ownership of the road, collecting fees on each one. Welcome to the world of privately financed infrastructure. Graphic: Macquarie prospectus

In September, the operator of the Indiana Toll Road filed for bankruptcy, eight years after inking a $3.8 billion, 75-year concession for the road with the administration of Governor Mitch Daniels.

The implications of the bankruptcy for the financial industry were large enough that ratings agency Standard & Poor’s stepped in immediately to calm nerves. In a press release, the company attempted to distinguish the Indiana venture from similar projects, known as public-private partnerships, or P3s: “We do not believe this bankruptcy will slow the growth of current-generation transportation P3 projects, which have different risk characteristics.”

But the similarities between the Indiana Toll Road and other P3s involving private finance can’t be ignored. And as we’ll see, even the differences aren’t all good news for the American public. Once hailed as the model for a new age of U.S. infrastructure, today the Indiana deal looks more like a canary in a coal mine.

At a time when government and Wall Street are raring to team up on privately financed infrastructure, a look at the Indiana Toll Road reveals several of the red flags to beware in all such deals: an opaque agreement based on proprietary information the public cannot access; a profit-making strategy by the private financier that relies on securitization and fees, divorced from the actual infrastructure product or service; and faulty assumptions underpinning the initial investment, which can incur huge public expense down the line. Though made in the name of innovation and efficiency, private finance deals are often more expensive than conventional bonding, threatening to suck money from taxpayers while propping up infrastructure projects that should never get built.

For the parties who put these deals together, however, the marriage of private finance and public roads is incredibly convenient. Investors are increasingly impatient with record-low returns on conventional bonds, and are turning to infrastructure as an asset class that promises stable, inflation-protected returns over the long run.

Meanwhile, governments are eager to fix decaying infrastructure — but without raising taxes or increasing their capacity to borrow. On the occasion of yet another meeting intended to drum up investor interest, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently wrote on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s blog: “With public investments in our nation’s important transportation assets steadily declining, we need to find better ways to partner with private investors to help rebuild America.”

Those investors are lining up to get in the infrastructure game. According to the Congressional Budget Office, about 40 percent of new urban highways in America were built using the private finance model between 1996 and 2006. Since 2008, that figure has jumped to almost 70 percent.

In an attempt to get even more deals done, the current federal transportation bill ramped up funding for the TIFIA program — which offers subsidized federal loans and other credit assistance, often to projects that also receive private backing — by a factor of eight.

Major private investors have stepped up their lobbying efforts to close more of these lucrative deals. Meridiam North America recently hired Ray LaHood, Foxx’s predecessor as Transportation Secretary, and Macquarie Group — which orchestrated the Indiana fiasco — hired away a White House deputy assistant to “continue strengthening our relationships with key elected officials… while also exploring new investment opportunities.”

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