Wednesday, October 19, 2016

We have a New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund bill!

At long last – after a 3 ½ month shut down of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund – the New Jersey Legislature has passed and the Governor has signed a bill increasing the gas tax by 23 cents a gallon.  The tax increase will generate more than $1 Billion in revenue for the Trust Fund, essentially restoring capital funding levels to where they were before the shutdown.  Why was such a massive increase necessary?  Because nearly 30 years of increasing debt obligations without any new revenue had essentially bankrupted the whole system.  As a veteran of the many failed attempts to get the gas tax increased over those years I am happy to see it finally happen, though I have to shake my head that it needed a complete financial meltdown to spur action. 
So, it’s all good, right?  Well, not quite. 
First, I hate to say it, but it’s not enough money.  Although it may be stretched to about $1.6 Billion a year through debt financing (which brings it own problems), the huge costs that New Jersey will be facing over the next decade, especially on the transit side (think Hudson River tunnels) will require more resources.
Second, the Trust Fund mainly finances capital costs, so the new bill leaves the operations and maintenance side woefully underfunded.  Under New Jersey’s wacky transportation finance system, operations and maintenance costs mainly fall on the state’s general funds, which have been continually squeezed for a generation.  The damage caused on the transit side was recently documented in the New York Times  (here).  On the highway side, routine maintenance is chronically underfunded, so bridges and highways are allowed to deteriorate until they are in bad enough condition to require capital projects.  Staff functions which can’t be sheltered under a capital line item are just left undone.  This squeeze will actually be made worse by the Trust Fund bill, which cuts general fund revenue sources (sales tax and estate tax) as part of the political price exacted by the Governor.
Third, although a funding bill is a big step forward, it really should be accompanied by significant transportation reform.  Some of the issues that need to be addressed on the NJDOT side – in my opinion – include better budget control of project costs, much more emphasis on operations and maintenance (both of these issues related to the transportation finance system), a renewed connection between transportation planning and land use planning (which has waned in recent years), a stronger connection to climate change resilience and other sustainability issues, and a stronger commitment to collaborative and robust planning.
I should point out that there are some substantive problems common in other states that are not prevalent in New Jersey.  One is transit funding.  Although transit funding is inadequate, especially on the operations and maintenance side, it’s not because transit is an unwanted houseguest, as it is in many states.  New Jersey being a geographically compact and densely populated state, transit is political popular in all regions and in the Legislature.  Another problem not prominent in New Jersey is overinvestment in highway capacity increases.  Transportation decision makers decided a long time ago (first explicitly stated in the 1989 Transportation Plan) that New Jersey could not “build its way out of congestion” and resources have increasingly focused on system preservation, and especially the bridge program.
A companion bill to the tax bill does, however, offer hope for the future on these unaddressed issues.  It creates a Transportation Policy Review Board, to be composed of nine public members, all of whom are supposed to have transportation expertise.  The Board is given a broad mandate to “provide independent analysis of the transportation capital program, provide comments on the cost effectiveness of the program, evaluate the condition of the State transportation system, and identify needed infrastructure investments.”  The Board is to have its own budget and the ability to conduct its own research and to produce its own reports.  (One of the specific tasks spelled out in the legislation is a study of a VMT tax.)  If the Board fulfills its statutory charter it will become, in effect, a state transportation commission, something New Jersey has not had since 1948.  History instructs us, however, not to assume success (the new Board is legislatively built on the statutory ruins of a previous failed review board).
The companion bill contains various other provisions, but I will mention just two: one very good and one very bad.  The very good provision requires that New Jersey DOT set up a monthly online project reporting system – long overdue – which could become the kernel of a New Jersey Grey Notebook (see Washington State DOT).  The really bad provision establishes a Capital Program Approval Committee with appointees from the Legislature.  The Committee is to assure that “legislative input” is considered in putting together the annual program.  The program can’t be adopted until each member of the Committee approves each project! 
So two cheers for the Trust Fund bill and on the next challenges!

Friday, September 16, 2016

More fun on Lisbon transit

And, yes, most of it is fun!
I recently posted on Lisbon’s excellent metro system – reflections from a recent visit – but also want to comment on some of the other elements of a varied and robust public transportation system.

Tram 28
Like San Francisco’s cable cars, this electrified streetcar line is part transportation system and part tourist attraction.  It is regularly listed as one of the top 10 things to see in Lisbon.  The crowded, rickety tram pursues a colorful route through the city, highlighted by a precipitous, winding ride through the narrow lanes of the historic Alfama district.  There is often a queue to get on the Number 28, but it’s worth the wait.

Modern trams
Alongside the “antique” trams plying Line 28 and a couple of other routes, Lisbon also uses modern, comfortable trams, notably on Line 15, which efficiently connects the city center with the outlying tourist destination of Belem.

All the buses I saw looked clean and modern.  The transit authority uses minibuses to navigate the narrow streets of the Alfama district.

Perhaps nothing speaks to the tourist boom in Lisbon more than the proliferation of tuk-tuks – 3-wheelers that race up and down the streets, serving as taxis and tourmobiles.  These appear to be loosely regulated and entrepreneurial, offering travelers a quick and sometimes harrowing ride through the city.  They vary widely in size and motive power, so it’s hard to say whether these are a net positive or negative for air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.  But they are fun!

Lisbon is a very hilly city, and funiculars are practical as well as being fun.  Although I don’t like the acceptance of graffiti on the cars, they offer a very picturesque trip!

Elevador Santa Justa
Although generally grouped with the funiculars, the Elevador Santa Justa really is what it says – an elevator!  Designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel, the iron structure carries passengers from the lower town to the upper town – with lots of selfies at the top!

Although the streets are all thronged with people, Lisbon is in many ways not an easy city for pedestrians.  For one thing, cars (not to mention trams) roar (or rumble) through the narrow streets with pedestrians often walking single file and hugging the walls of the bordering buildings.  For another, the beautiful and characteristic pavement tiles (calçada portuguesa – you saw them in Rio during the Olympics) are tough to walk on.  As for bikes, I saw very few, whether due to a non-bicycling culture or the challenging terrain.  In the newer parts of town, where there are broad boulevards, the city has embarked on a program of reducing auto space and expanding room for bike lanes, pedestrian space, and the always-important sidewalk cafes.

Transit oriented development
There isn’t much TOD in Lisbon – at least that I saw – with the notable exception of the Parque das Nações complex in the north of the city.  Originally built for the 1998 World Exhibition, the complex houses an aquarium, a concert hall, a shopping mall, and other attractions, together with housing.  The complex is served by a multimodal transit station, designed by Santiago Calatrava, which links the Metro, national and commuter rail, and buses.  Although the design and architecture is a bit too concretey and windy for my taste, it is impressive and worth a visit.

All-in-all, Lisbon is an easy and inexpensive city to get around in using public transportation – at least in the center – and a wonderful place to visit.  Está bem!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Lisbon Metro – Nice ride!

I had occasion to spend a few days in Lisbon recently and of course did several rides on the Metro.
My review?  Nice ride!
The system is well laid out, with four lines criss-crossing one another in a dense network in the city center.  Trains are clean and frequent.  Stations are clean with clear signage and are decorated with bright, tasteful station art – traditional Portuguese tiles with updated images. Every major tourist and business destination in the center is served with the exception of some in very hilly neighborhoods, which need special treatment.  (One clever solution is found at the Baixa-Chiado station.  The station’s platforms are in the lower town – Baixa – but there is a long escalator link to the Chiado district in the upper town.  Photo of the Chiado entrance below).  There are direct connections to commuter rail and ferry terminals.  Maps and line charts are clear and easy to understand.
What demerits can be given?  Not many.  Some of the underground transfers are long, but that’s a feature of most large networks.  Occasionally three-car trains (as opposed to the normal 8 or 10) appear, with little warning, stop at the top end of the platform, and zoom off as customers are still running down the platform to catch it.
But overall an excellent system!
Why can’t we do that here?  (And why do I have to keep asking this question?)

More on the other aspects of Lisbon transit (trams, buses, funiculars, tuk-tuks, etc.) in another post.

Monday, August 15, 2016

UK way ahead of us in EV chargers

A new report from the UK suggests that there soon may be more electric vehicle charging stations than conventional gas stations in that country (story here).
The country is already blanketed with an “electric highway” of 296 fast chargers on the motorway network.  These are operated by a firm called Ecotricity (website here).  The motorway chargers have been free during their first 5 years of operation, but are now switching to a payment system.  The “electric highway” enables EVs to travel freely on major traffic corridors while relieving the “range anxiety” that may discourage potential EV buyers.  All of this, of course, facilitates the uptake of EVs.

Why can’t we do that in this country?

Friday, August 5, 2016

Evaluating the Democratic Platform on Transportation

Having evaluated the Republican Platform on transportation, I thought I should also do the Democratic.  You won’t be surprised to hear that it is far better – a pretty low bar to clear.
The Democratic Platform (available here) doesn’t actually have a Transportation Plank (more about that in a minute) but does discuss the topic under the “Create Good-Paying Jobs” and Climate Change/Clean Energy/Environmental Justice planks.
There are two strong elements concerning transportation.
First, the platform calls for a major investment in infrastructure: making “the most ambitious investment in American infrastructure since President Eisenhower created the interstate highway system.”  For transportation, this means “updating and expanding our roads, bridges, public transit, airports, and passenger and freight rail lines.”
Second, the platform directly links transportation investment to climate change (“an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time”) and clean energy: “We will transform American transportation by reducing oil consumption through cleaner fuels, vehicle electrification [and] increasing the fuel efficiency of cars, boilers, ships, and trucks.  We will make new investments in public transportation and build bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure across our urban and suburban areas.”  Transportation is one part of the “green and resilient infrastructure” that will “protect communities from the impact of climate change and help them to mitigate its effects.”
I do have a few smallish concerns and one big one.  On the smallish side, transportation does not get its own plank, but is subsumed mainly into “infrastructure,” which itself is an element of “Create Good-Paying Jobs.”  Transportation plays a unique role in the economy and society, and mixing it in with water and sewer and schools and energy grids in funding programs can cause problems.  Also, in an ideal world I would have liked to have seen a better defined vision for a 21st century transportation system, more on resilience, more on transportation reform, more on the overall importance of transportation to the economy (beyond short-term jobs), and more program details.
But those concerns are really more drafting issues than substance issues.  My big concern is that the plank doesn’t address revenue.  This is going to be a big challenge, but we won’t get to where we need to be without a significant slug of new revenue.  Not only does the plank not talk about revenue, it evokes the siren song of a national infrastructure bank.  As I have said many times before, infrastructure banks are fine, but they are tools for borrowing money not generating revenue. 

So overall I give the Democratic platform on transportation a B grade on the basis of its strong commitment to a robust investment program and to its clear linkage to climate change.  It's a really good start, but A grades are only available to those who propose a solid revenue plan.  Bonus points may be available later!

Republican Platform on Transportation: Failing grade

Amid all the drama of the two major party political conventions, policy issues got very little attention and the platforms themselves even less.  Actually, despite the cynicism that party platforms attract, they have been shown historically to be good indicators of the general policy direction, and often the specific initiatives, the respective parties will adopt.  The transportation planks of the 2016 platforms are definitely worth a look.
So, first the Republicans (full text available here).  I guess the good news is that the Republicans actually have a transportation plank, called “America on the Move.”  The narrative begins with a nostalgic reference to the days of bipartisan transportation policies: a curious way to begin, as the Republicans effectively ended the days of bipartisanship by refusing to entertain any more bumps in the federal gas tax.  The text then shifts into an ideological attack on the Obama Administration for subordinating “civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.”  (FYI, the use of the term “government transit” instead of “public transportation” is a marker for Tea Party ideology.) 
The main proposal of the plank is pulling all non-highway programs out of the Highway Trust Fund.  Targeted are “mass transit,” bike/ped programs, recreational trails, landscaping, historical “renovations,” ferry boats, federal lands, scenic byways, and education.  These “worthwhile enterprises” should be funded  “through other sources.”  These other sources apparently don’t include other federal funds, as the platform states that these programs “should not be the business of the federal government.” 
Of course, it’s easier to dismiss all these other programs – as well as encouragement for Smart Growth – if you don’t believe that climate change is real.  The Environmental Progress plank talks about “shoddy science” and “scare tactics” in regard to climate science and advocates withholding U. S. funding from the UN climate program, repudiating the Paris agreement, and enforcing “dispassionate analysis of hard data” (lulz). 
The transportation plank does recognize that current funding levels for surface transportation (meaning highways) may fall short.  The answer?  Encourage more public/private partnerships.  This shift from tax financing to toll financing is a Tea Party/Reason Foundation ideological mainstay. 
Some other proposals:
·      Repeal Davis-Bacon (old-fashioned union busting)
·      “Reform” provisions of the environmental laws
·      Privatize Amtrak, at least in the Northeast Corridor

My final grade for the transportation plank of the Republican platform?  F.  From a political science standpoint, the language should be credited for being generally clear about direction and specific about proposals.  However, any platform that proposes to withdraw the federal commitment to surface transportation (outside of basic highway funding) gets a failing grade from me.

Monday, June 27, 2016

For a New Jersey gas tax: Just the facts, Ma’am

New Jersey is in the throes of dealing with a long-overdue gas tax increase – or of just letting the state’s transportation trust fund fail.  I suppose it’s pretty predictable that some participants in a debate like this will generate rhetorical fog.  My friend and colleague Jack Lettiere has just confronted (see a bogus analysis making the rounds in New Jersey, which asserts that New Jersey’s “real problem” is “out of control spending,” with the implication that no tax increases are necessary.
Jack carefully pulls apart this very wobbly analysis, which was put forward by the Reason Foundation.  What he doesn’t say – and what I think should be added to the discussion – is that the Reason Foundation isn’t some impartial think tank.  It is an ideologically driven, quasi-libertarian group that opposes public works in general.  And by public works in general, I mean just that.  Raising money from taxation to support infrastructure investment is something that the Ayn Rand crowd just finds repugnant.  The Reason Foundation is the biggest of these groups, but there are many spin-offs around the country, coming up with arguments to shoot down taxation for all sorts of transportation programs and projects.  They often give special attention to public transportation – which they really dislike – and they get really excited about opposing streetcars!

The takeaway?  Those of us who are advocates for public investment in infrastructure – desperately needed to bring our nation success in the 21st century – need to be vigilant about the facts and vigorous in pursuing our case.