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.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Happy 50th Birthday New Jersey DOT!

I was honored recently to take part in a festive 50th birthday celebration for my agency “alma mater,” the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
The agency itself is older than that, but it was officially transformed from a highway department to a transportation department with enactment of the Transportation Act of 1966.  (Legislative geeks may be interested to note that the 1966 act didn’t repeal the old highway department statute: it just added a new layer.  The New Jersey transportation laws are like an archeological dig, with stratified layers telling ancient stories of old problems and policies.)

The highlight of the celebration was an appearance of 12 former commissioners and acting commissioners of the department, whose NJDOT history went back as far as the 1950s.  The panel discussion of the 12 veterans included many reminiscences, a few revelations, and lots of expressions of warm feelings toward each other and toward the agency staff.  I think it reaffirmed the view of many of us that this is an organization with a real heart and soul.  Of course, the warm and fuzzies at any such celebration avoid a lot of the more painful episodes of the past, but on balance NJDOT has a lot to celebrate for the past 50 years and many exciting challenges to look forward to in the next 50!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Remembering the Joplin Tornado

Just 5 years ago an incredibly destructive tornado roared through my old hometown of Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 people and leaving a wide band of devastation that is still being restored.  The town’s high school (my alma mater), largest hospital, and many businesses and homes were destroyed. 
A link here to one of the moving ceremonies commemorating the event….

As we work to improve infrastructure resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, it’s good to remember why this is important.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Extending New Jersey’s River Line Light Rail to downtown Trenton

A New Jersey business group has refloated the idea of extending the River Line transit system from the city’s train station, where it now terminates, to the downtown area, a distance of a bit more than a mile (news story here). Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce director Bob Prunetti announced the plan in a press conference with Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson.  The existing line is mostly on dedicated right-of-way, but the extension would run on city streets.  Some initial planning was done on this segment when the line was started, but it was dropped for cost considerations.  It is currently on an NJ Transit shelf list (“projects to be defined/studied”).
The extension is a great idea and should be done to fully connect the state capital to the state’s transit network.  In fact, the extension really needs to continue – in a future phase – through Trenton to connect with another rail line and with the Trenton airport.  (This was recommended by an airport land use study I led a few years ago.)  There is, not surprisingly, no money for this project, or for several transit projects queued up ahead of it.  However, we continue to hope that the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund will some day be replenished and will begin to fund the work that needs to be done to bring the state’s transportation system into the 21st century.
For those of you not familiar with it, the River Line is a 34-mile long, 21-station diesel transit line connecting Trenton and Camden and carrying 9,000 passengers a day.  It runs through several old towns along the Delaware River and was envisioned as an economic development project as much as a transportation project.  (The story of its birth involves a political promise to invest state Transportation Trust Fund money in transit in South Jersey, a rebellion against another proposed line by wealthier suburban towns, and the availability of a rail right-of-way that Conrail was dumping.)   Although usually categorized as a light rail line, it really has more in common with the type of service that a hundred years ago was called an “interurban” line.
The Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce decided to launch the project as a means of stimulating economic development in downtown Trenton.  The city’s redevelopment has lagged behind that of similar urban areas in the Northeast. 
The group has backed up its proposal with a white paper, “Light Rail Economic Impact Study for the City of Trenton” (link in the news story cited above), which lays out the economic development case for the project.  The study also refers to the further extension, toward the airport and the Ewing Township redevelopment project, which I mentioned earlier.  The full River Line extension – together with existing and proposed Amtrak, NJ Transit, and SEPTA rail lines, a new BRT service, and a relocated airport terminal – would create a modern, transit-linked, urban center, anchored by the state capital and the Princeton knowledge hub. 
Now we just need to start putting the pieces into place.