Sunday, December 16, 2012

Congrats to Tri-State Transportation Campaign!

Congratulations to Tri-State Transportation Campaign on another successful year!

If you’re not familiar with this organization, it is one of the most effective transportation reform advocacy groups in the country, active in the tough environment of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. 

At their recent annual benefit event (when a lot of the participants were still struggling with the effects of Hurricane Sandy), they honored Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken (whose city was still waterlogged), Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, and Steve Ballone, county executive of Suffolk County, New York.  All three of these individuals have made a really positive impact, and a good deal of their success can be traced back to the work Tri-State has done in those communities.

How influential is Tri-State?  Their former executive director, Kate Slevin, was just recruited by New York City to be an assistant commissioner at NYCDOT!  (Congrats to Kate and also congrats and best wishes to Veronica Vanterpool on taking the helm at Tri-State.)

If you want to learn something from Tri-State, take a look at their excellent blog or dive into their ambitious state-by-state STIPfunding analysis.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Next EV launch – Chevy Spark

Another new EV has been officially launched and is scheduled to show up at showrooms in California and Oregon next summer: the Chevy SparkEV.

Now the Spark is no Tesla – and I haven’t seen any reviews yet – but the launch of a new moderately priced EV by General Motors is surely a good sign for the future.

Good News: The Spark is equipped for fast charging, so the battery can get an 80% charge in 20 minutes at specially-equipped charging stations.

Bad News: The Spark has the new SAE Combo fast charging connection, so there are now officially two different, distinct, incompatible fast charging systems in the U.S.

I really don’t know how we got into a VHS vs. Betamax situation, which seems to me like an unnecessary, self-inflicted handicap at this stage of EV development, but I hope we can figure out a way to work through it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ewing NJ Town Center plan gets some press

It was good to see the developing Town Center redevelopment plan for Ewing, New Jersey get a good story in the Trenton Times.  This is a real cutting-edge project that will tie together a relocated commuter rail station, a relocated airport terminal, and potential new rapid transit links at a new high-quality, mixed-use Town Center in a brownfield redevelopment zone in an inner-ring suburb at the heart of the Northeast Mega-region.  Hard to top that!

(I am involved in a related project – more about that at a later time.)

This story broke at about the same time that the Trenton-Ewing-Princeton triangle was ranked 4th in the Top 50 Mid-Sized Cities list for jobs and economic development by Area Development magazine (see story in TheAtlantic Cities).

 A lot of exciting possibilities ahead!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

It’s Global Warming! (Sandy’s Silver Lining?)

Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover put it bluntly: “It’s GlobalWarming, Stupid!”  So the silver lining of Hurricane (or post-tropical whatever) Sandy may be that increased attention will be paid to (1) the real and urgent dangers of climate change and (2) the overall substandard status of America’s infrastructure, including transportation.

I had suggested a while back that we might be only a few more natural disasters away from the public demanding that transportation planners come up with solutions to these threats.  I think Sandy put us a step closer.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s assessment, by the way, was right on target.

On the response to climate change: “In truth, what’s lacking in America’s approach to climate change is not the resources to act but the political will to do so.”

On infrastructure: “The U.S. has allowed transportation and other infrastructure to grow obsolete and deteriorate, which poses a threat not just to public safety but also to the nation’s economic health.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tesla Model S is Motor Trend Car of the Year!

Elon Musk and his Tesla electric cars continue to make big-time news, now winning the coveted Motor Trend car of the year award.
Two things are important here:  First, as MT’s subhead on their story said, this is “Proof Positive that America Can Still Make (Great) Things”.  Second, the magazine’s reporting underscores that electric vehicles can be powerful, fast, exciting, well-handling, fun-to-drive cars.  There is nothing wimpy in this technology.
Now, as I said in my earlier comments on the Tesla, most of us may not be able to afford this gem, but it is heartening that this state-of-the-art, climate-friendly, 21st century technology is being built and delivered right now in this country.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Southern Towns: Atlanta, Some Thoughts

I’m sure there is very little I can say about Atlanta and transportation that hasn’t been said before, but after spending a few days there (the first in a while), I can’t resist putting a few points on paper:
MARTA – I found the MARTA connection at ATL to be very convenient.  Headways were a little longer and service was a little slower than I would have liked, but it delivered me to midtown Atlanta very comfortably.  I did notice that most of the stations we passed in the southern part of the city were surrounded by low-density development, with some parking.  Why no TOD?  MARTA apparently has a pretty low reputation in Atlanta, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  Perhaps the sparse coverage?  MARTA’s cousin, the Washington Metro, on the other hand, is choking on its own success.
Atlantic Station – I had heard a lot about this Smart Growth infill development and was eager to see it.  The central part of this development was very impressive, with high-quality, well-scaled buildings, streets, and open spaces.  Atlantic Station as a whole seems to be a transit-oriented development without the transit!  Attractive stairway openings lead down from the surface level, but to a vast underground parking garage, not a light rail station!  Unfortunately, the whole development is located at a place that is “not on the way” for transit planning purposes, inJarrettWalker’s language, and so is unlikely to have rapid transit access at any time in the near future.
Georgia State Capitol – Really?  A beautiful building facing freeway ramps and parking lots and home to a concentration of homeless people.
Up-and-coming neighborhoods – I was pleased to see some nice development and redevelopment activity in some up-and-coming neighborhoods: West Midtown, Virginia Highlands, Inman Park.  A key factor holding these neighborhoods back is that they are overrun with auto traffic.  High-speed traffic roars through local high streets, and pedestrians use the rare crosswalks at their own risk.  A little basic traffic calming and pedestrianizing would work wonders in promoting sustainable economic development in these places.
Atlanta of the future – At a very brief glance, there appears to be plenty of room in Atlanta for infill urbanizing and upgrading.  The necessary transit upgrades will not be complicated, just expensive.  In rough terms, I think tripling the mileage of the MARTA network would give a pretty decent transit grid.  Georgia remains one of those places where using gas tax money on transit is verboten and where taxes and public expenditure generally are the subject of not-very-enlightened discourse.  But there are plenty of smart and energetic people in Atlanta, so one hopes for a bright future.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Tesla Continues to Make News with Model S and Superchargers

You may have read the recent New York Times rave review of the Tesla Model S sedan.  If not, you should.  You may find yourself putting a Model S on your win-the-lottery wish list!
Perhaps a more important Tesla development – from a transportation policy point of view – is Tesla’s launch of “Supercharger” fast charging stations.  Six of these high-tech, solar powered fast chargers have already opened at strategic intervals on California highways.  They may (or may not) be part of a solution to a problem a lot of people (including me) have been struggling with: how do you design, fund, build, and operate fast charging stations on Interstate corridors?  Slower chargers are fine for overnight or daytime charging but are a problem for longer-distance travel.  Fast chargers, which can “fuel up” and EV in half an hour or so, are expensive and require special equipment.  Without a network of fast chargers, users of electric vehicles might consider themselves stranded on electrified islands in urban centers.
The Tesla Superchargers look very promising.  Unfortunately, they also raise some serious technical issues (taking another step away from standardization in fast charging) along with an unproven (some would use harsher terms) business plan.  Still, these are bold and visionary steps, and I wish Elon Musk and the Tesla folks well (and if I win the lottery I will buy a Model S for sure!).
You can look here for the Supercharger launch video, complete with pyrotechnics, or here for Motor Trend’s more sober account.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Exciting New Raleigh Union Station Project Moves Ahead

An exciting new rail station project is taking shape in Raleigh, NC.  The Union Stationproject will convert an old warehouse building into a new multimodal transportation center in downtown Raleigh.  Amtrak will be a key tenant, to be followed by developing commuter and light rail services.  The project looks like a classic example of using a high-quality transportation project as a lever for urban redevelopment.  (Raleigh has recently trailed Durham on the “hip and trendy” scale, but watch developments in Raleigh’s Warehouse District – which will get a real lift from Union Station.)
The Triangle area is poised for future transit oriented development as well as high-speed rail connections.  As the Raleigh News and Observer story mentions, a key component of success for North Carolina rail will actually be found in Virginia, where freight rail bottlenecks cause chronic delays in already slow-paced Amtrak schedules.  The highway congestion is so bad between Washington and Richmond that an improved train service could be very attractive to travelers.
This looks to be a very successful project, which also demonstrates that we’re still getting good results from stimulus funding!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Jarrett Walker’s New Book a Must Read for Transportation Planners

Jarrett Walker’s new book on transit planning – HumanTransit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives – deserves to be considered an instant classic, and should be on every transportation planner’s shelf.  It’s one of those few books I wish that I had had in my hands much earlier in my career.
Walker clearly explains the “geometry” of transit network design and lays out a powerful case for simplicity and frequency of transit services.  A properly designed network of high-frequency (15 minutes apart or better) transit services can provide a level of mobility that allows people to move freely about their city and reduce their need for cars.  Frequency is freedom!
There is a lot of good content in this book, so I’ll just highlight a few points that struck me as particularly powerful:
·      People not familiar with transit planning may make “motorist errors” in thinking about transit.  For instance, speed looks very good (but note that a service that gets you downtown in 30 minutes but is scheduled only every two hours will actually take you 2 ½ hours to get downtown if you miss your vehicle!).
·      The “density” problem: You don’t need to plan for greater density everywhere, just where you want to put transit stops.  If you want to live in a housing development with big backyards – or in a log cabin – that’s fine, just don’t expect transit service.  But if you want to live in a livelier, more urban setting, you should be able to move to a place where great transit service can eliminate most of your need for a car. 
·      Our suburban arterials can actually be reworked to be transit friendly (if not exactly paradigms of New Urbanist form).  There’s more to it than I can summarize here, but you need to read it.  Think “boulevards.”
·      A lot can be accomplished by linking long-range land use planning with transit planning.  Yes, long-range planning!  The idea is similar to the concept of blueprint planning (which for some reason isn’t fashionable these days) but the takeaway I like is that long-range planning can yield short-range benefits by putting developments where they can produce maximum efficiency on the network.
What makes Jarrett Walker’s book particularly useful and powerful is his clear, crisp prose style and precise use of instructive illustrations.  My copy is already looking well-used.

Monday, August 27, 2012

New Town Takes Shape in Connecticut

The exciting project of designing and building a new town center in Storrs, Connecticut, is finally taking shape.
If you don’t know Storrs, it’s the town (actually a placename in Mansfield Township) that is home to the University of Connecticut.  And actually until recently it wasn’t much of a town at all, with very little to offer for the thousands of students, faculty, and staff congregated in this rural northeastern Connecticut setting.  But a partnership of the university, the town, and others decided to change that and to make a town – a real college town – with shops, apartments, townhouses, offices, streets, and squares. 
Having visited Storrs a few years ago, when the project was just getting started, it’s very satisfying to see it moving forward so well.  The design both of the overall town center and of individual elements looks really first rate.  It will be eminently walkable and bikeable, with a transportation center providing local and regional connections.
I am especially pleased because the Storrs town center may prove to be a good model for a project I am currently working on to design new settlement patterns for rural New England.  More on that later.

Friday, August 17, 2012

West Virginia Takes the Blue-Ribbon Path – Good Luck!

West Virginia Governor Early Ray Tomblin has set up a blue-ribbon commission to come up with recommendations for transportation funding in the Mountain State.  Those of us who are veterans of blue-ribbon commissions know that many start out with high hopes but fewer succeed in really making strong recommendations and far fewer get results in the legislature.  But it is important work and should be done right.
The WV commission starts out right by avoiding the worst pitfall – ruling out gas tax increases. 
The make-up of the commission is suitably broad, but has some notable gaps.  There is no representation from the transit, environmental, MPO, or public interest communities.  All too many governor’s offices do this – presumably to avoid annoying the highway interests – but these omissions weaken both the process and the product.  Hopefully more people can be brought on to the team.
Good luck, West Virginia!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

High-Speed Rail in Philadelphia? Stations and Tunnels

Amtrak is beginning the conversation on how to gethigh-speed rail through center city Philadelphia, avoiding the circuitous routing now in place and ideally reaching the airport.  Some of the controversies include whether to build a new station in the Market East area (replacing the historic 30th Street Station as the main hub) and whether it’s worth the money to build a 10-mile long tunnel through the city.
It’s great news that Amtrak is going straight at these issues.  Some of my concerns:
·      The current Market East Station works well for SEPTA’s regional rail, but is the idea to put high-speed rail there as well?  The absolute worst outcome would be ending up with some sort of Vietcong tunnel complex like Penn Station in New York.  Has anyone thought about Suburban Station as an option?
·      It’s really important to consider the transit connections for high-speed rail.  Most of the intersystem connections in Philadelphia work poorly.  We need to make that better.
·      Most importantly, I’m concerned about the Pennsylvania east-west connection, which no one in the state is actively pursuing.  The 250-mile trip between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh now takes 7 hours and 23 minutes by train.  The high-speed rail trip between Madrid and Barcelona, which is half again as far, takes 2 hours and 45 minutes.  And they have mountains in Spain too!  Imagine what high-speed rail would do in terms of effectively moving Pittsburgh closer to the Northeast Corridor and tying Pennsylvania together.  Somehow a new north-south routing needs to be made to work with a new east-west routing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Beverly Swaim-Staley the Perfect Choice for Union Station Challenge

Having recently given a very good review to the newWashington Union Station plan and wished future success to the talented BeverlySwaim-Staley (just leaving Maryland DOT), I’m happy to put the two together and offer congratulations to Beverly in taking on the leadership of implementingthe new plan!
Her background and skills make her the perfect choice for the job and give me real hope that this visionary plan for a world-class transportation hub in a world-class capital can really happen!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Massachusetts Legislature Earmarks the New Transportation Bill

I was happy to see Massachusetts enact a new $1.5 Billion transportation bill (see my earlier comments here) but I was amazed to see the extent to which the funding was sliced up by legislative earmarks.
By my count (I could have missed some!) there are some 212 earmarks in the highway portion of the bill alone.  Many of these are small, but 86 of them (again my rough count) amount to $1 million or more and 6 of them amount to $10 million or more.
Just reading through the project list, most of them appear to be reasonably meritorious, but any list this big and disorderly probably has some clinkers in it.  (There are also some “earmarks” in the list that have no money attached.  I guess some folks got there after the money was all divvied up.)
I have no philosophical objection to earmarks, and sometimes they make sense both as a policymaking tool and as a way to fund transportation projects that otherwise may not be easily fundable due to their size, lack of fit with existing categories, and so forth.  But, really, the scale of earmarking in the Massachusetts bill is a bad way to make policy and is certainly no way to prioritize a capital program.  After so much progress has been made in transportation reform in Massachusetts over the past few years, it’s disappointing to see the details in this bill.  If you want to see for yourself, look here.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

MassDOT Gets Some Green…and Gets Greener

Good news that Massachusetts transportation projects have been funded to the tune of $1.9 Billion in a bill just passed in thelegislature (although I haven’t worked my way through the bill yet – more on that another time).
What’s also good news, if you haven’t been following it, is that MassDOT continues to get environmentally greener with its “GreenDOT” program.  The GreenDOT initiative was started just two years ago by the first MassDOT secretary, Jeff Mullan, as a way to launch his brand new agency on a progressive, forward-looking, environmentally friendly path, and has been pushed along by Secretary Rich Davey.  A new GreenDOTimplementation plan is now in the works, with goals, tasks, and performance indicators for air quality, energy, land, materials, planning/policy/design, waste, and water.  An ambitious agenda!
The MassDOT folks are running a first-class change program, but of course the long-term success will only show itself over time.
People often say that changing a large agency is like “turning a battleship,” but I’m not sure that’s the best analogy (and not just because battleships can actually turn pretty fast).  It’s probably better to think of trying to turn a fleet – one composed of battleships, barges, freighters, submarines, and every other kind of vessel, in all kinds of ages and conditions.  Good luck and keep at it MassDOT!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Provocative Thoughts on Sustainability Planning

Gar Alperovitz and colleagues have posted a provocative piece on “Anchoring Wealth to Sustain Cities and Population Growth” which bears reading by thoughtful transportation planners.  They suggest a rethinking of neighborhood-based economic development strategies that fit with a climate change—constrained future.
The authors discuss some of the transportation ramifications of new urbanist strategies (especially more transit and high-speed rail) but there is plainly more thinking that we need to do at our end.  As I have said before, one thing we are not as good at as we should be, as a transportation community, is neighborhood and community transportation planning.
Although many of the concepts that Alperovitz and company outline are far removed from the normal sphere of transportation planners, they are worth your consideration.  Why?  Although conventional thinking in recent years has been that climate change denial is an immutable and overwhelming force, my feeling is that this situation may flip much sooner and much more rapidly than one might think.  We may be only a few more natural disasters (God willing, not too horrible) away from the public demanding that transportation planners come up with solutions! 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Congrats to Amtrak on New Union Station Plan

I was very pleased to see Amtrak (as lead agency) adopt a first-rate master plan for upgrading Washington’s Union Station.  The plan is both visionary and eminently practical.  It works for transportation (both intercity rail and all the modes gathering there); it works architecturally; and it works as a catalyst for high-quality urban development.
At a time when so many agencies have assumed a defensive crouch, it is refreshing to see Amtrak and a collection of other agencies put forward a plan for a “world-class transportation hub worthy of a great nation.”  They have expressly looked at the great new and refurbished European stations for inspiration.  And they have designed in capacity not just for the next round of expansion but for future expansion that should serve well in to the 21st century. 
The planners understand that Union Station is not just a train station, but also serves Metro, buses, taxis, bicycles, pedestrians, and (soon) streetcars.   The future Union Station will also serve (and stimulate) urban redevelopment in the neighborhood and serve (and stimulate) sustainable development in the entire Northeast mega-region.
The first priority, thankfully, will be improvements to “Concourse A”, the area where passengers now crowd into inadequate spaces to board trains.  Those of us that are frequent Amtrak customers will appreciate any relief we can get there!
The $7 Billion plan won’t happen overnight, but adopting the master plan is the first step in getting there.  Well done, Amtrak!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

More NASTO Notes

If you’re like me, sometimes it takes a few days (weeks) to sort out your notes from a conference or meeting.  So, although time has marched on, there are several points from last month’s NASTO (Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials) conference in Baltimore that are (in my opinion) worth remarking and thinking about.
In no particular order:
Natural disasters really are disastrous and we really really need to plan for them – Those of us who were largely spared the worst effects of Hurricane Irene last year should not forget about how bad it really was in some places.  Vermont’s transportation secretary, Brian Searles, described in detail the devastating impact of the storm, including widespread flooding and a complete disruption of parts of the transportation network.  The state was cut in two by closure of the east-west mountain passes, and many towns could only be reached by helicopter.  VTrans is still working on fixes in some spots.  Vicki Arroyo, of Georgetown Climate Center, showed slides from the destruction in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina, including pictures of her own family, which always helps to put a human face on tragedy.  The clear message is that we all need to step up our game in planning for natural disasters, which appear to be a growing part of our future. (FYI, this can happen anywhere.  A couple of weeks ago both mainline rail connections between England and Scotland were shut down due to landslides caused by flooding.) On that point, Sonal Sanghavi, of Maryland DOT, talked about that department’s efforts to develop a comprehensive asset management system for drainage infrastructure, done in an ecosystem-based approach.
Funding is different from financing! – Thanks to Laurie Mahon of McKinsey, who gave a “master class” on the difference between the two, something I’ve been talking aboutwhenever I can.  Financing schemes – debt and borrowing  – don’t work without adequate funding – taxes, fees, tolls, fares – behind them.  (Laurie also had some good guidance on how to make projects more attractive to investors.)
High-speed rail is still moving forward in the Northeast – Although California has gotten most of the attention lately, several speakers pointed out that planning and investment in HSR in the Northeast continues to advance, without nearly as much controversy.  Just one item of interest: Bob Garrett of PennDOT noted that that agency is investing nearly half a billion dollars in the Keystone Corridor (although it owns no infrastructure and operates no service of its own there!) and is seeing explosive ridership growth and expanding TOD investment.
Transportation finance – See my earlier post.
Best luncheon speaker ever – If you ever have a chance to hear a talk by Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, don’t miss it on any account.
Congrats to Jim Redeker – Connecticut DOT’s commissioner is the new NASTO president and offered some thoughtful remarks on how to position the transportation community to deliver and succeed in today’s difficult environment.  Jim has a strong background in transit, transportation and land use, economic development, and strategic planning, and is a great choice for the coming year.
Congrats to Maryland DOT – As host agency, MDOT did the thoroughly professional job we always expect of them.  They are still the benchmark DOT in my book.  We will definitely miss Beverly Swaim-Staley, who has been a first-class CEO!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

And Some MAP-21 Bad News

Many people have already noted this clinker – under Section 1316 of the new Reauthorization bill all highway projects built within the existing right-of-way lines are classified as Categorical Exclusions under NEPA and can’t be held to the higher requirements of Environmental Assessments or Environmental Impact Statements.
Why is this important?  Presumably the issue is highway widening projects – adding new lanes – within the existing ROW.  DOTs and other agencies who want to widen highways look to the “inside” approach where they can, because adding lanes on the inside doesn’t require ROW acquisition and has fewer environmental impacts than adding lanes on the outside, and is therefore much faster and cheaper.  But apparently some folks have wanted to make that process even faster and cheaper by shortcutting the NEPA process.
Some points to consider here:
First, the main impact of highway widening projects on the natural environment usually has very little to do with trout streams and bog turtle habitats, although these are the sort of issues that get the most attention.  The main impact is the stimulus to sprawl settlement patterns and the resultant costs to both natural and built systems.  And our present NEPA process underrates those impacts.
Second, a “categorical exclusion” isn’t really what the name implies.  Typically, a CE may require 6 months of technical studies and preparation of a significant document to justify that status.  It isn’t necessarily a free pass.
I’m not sure where this leaves us, and we will have to see how the process plays out.  In a sensible system, we should be adding capacity to the system within comprehensive regional plans – “blueprint” plans – that link settlement patterns, transportation networks, and natural systems to maximize benefits to all three.  Still work to be done there.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

MAP-21 (or, as I sometimes call it, ATLAS-T 1000 ½), Some Good News on the Grid

Now that the Reauthorization bill has been signed, many of us are looking through it to identify the good bits (more than we might have thought a few months ago), the bad bits, and the head-scratchers that we will need to see play out.
We will start with some good news.
A provision that has gotten little attention is the one that makes projects on minor collector roads eligible for STP funding where those projects improve level of service on an adjacent NHS highway and meet other conditions (see Section 1108).  Although there are still more limitations than I would like (and why can’t NHS funding be used?), this is still a step in the right direction.  Smart Growth planners have known for a long time that improvements on the local grid are often better and more cost-effective than improvements on the mainline highway.  Improving the connectivity of the local grid disperses and tames traffic and supports neighborhoods.  Expanding capacity on the NHS highway often stimulates sprawl development and divide towns without doing a very efficient job of improving traffic flow.  I hope that state DOTs take advantage of this opportunity and that FHWA encourages it!
What is ATLAS-T 1000 ½?  AT Least it’s an Authorization bill for Surface Transportation (although 1000 days late and ½ the size it needs to be).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

MAP-21 or ATLAS-T 1000 ½?

So, to most people’s surprise (including mine) we have a 2+ year Reauthorization bill, with more or less steady spending levels and more or less steady programs.  The sighs of relief can be heard emanating from every state DOT and MPO!
The final bill has the Senate name, MAP-21.  I think of it as ATLAS-T 1000 ½: AT Least it’s an Authorization bill for Surface Transportation (although 1000 days late and one-half the size it should be).
It’s an ungainly combination of current programs, a few relatively progressive Senate provisions, and a few turn-back-the-clock House provisions.  There’s a lot to digest and both congressmen and commentators have begun to point out the flaws (some troublesome transit provisions, setback for Transportation Enhancements, etc.) and some of the opportunities (at least a nominal start on national objectives and performance measures, freight planning, etc.).  I may offer a few thoughts on some of these in the future.
For now, two general comments:
First, the funding for the bill is obviously unsustainable.  It depends on a patchwork of unrelated financing provisions that pay for two years.  Although the creativity of politicians in avoiding revenue issues should never be underestimated, this would seem to be the last hurrah for the current transportation finance system. 
Second, two years is probably the right amount of time for everyone to take a deep breath, get through the election cycle, and focus intently on a new bill.  My preference is to start with a new draft bill that does what really needs to be done:
1.     Double (or more) the size of the program.
2.     Enact sustainable funding.
3.     Reach and maintain a state of good repair for our existing systems.
4.     Double (or more) the mileage of fixed guideway transit.
5.     Create (at least in some places) genuine transit networks that provide the density, frequency, speed, quality, and connectivity that make them an all-purpose mobility system for a majority of users.
6.     Build regional backbones of a national high-speed rail network.
7.     Redesign and rebuild the national highway system as a real “all-weather” network that keeps working in almost all conditions.
8.     Rethink, replan, design, and build community-scale transportation.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Great Neighborhoods Initiative Going Strong in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has posted thepresentations from their recent Great Neighborhoods Summit, and it’s good to see this initiative moving forward.  The Great Neighborhoods program provides expert assistance to communities working for smart development and redevelopment, often with a transit-oriented development angle.
Two of the best success stories (with a transportation perspective) from MSGA’s update report:
·      In the Fairmount corridor in Boston a suburban commuter rail line runs through otherwise transit-poor neighborhoods.  MBTA is building new in-town stations, which will function almost like rapid transit stops, and a variety of agencies and groups are promoting redevelopment along the line, including  “village centers” and greenways.
·      In the more upscale, suburban setting of Winchester, MSGA is working with the town to plan a major upgrade and infill development of the CBD, centered on the commuter rail station.
Historically, transportation agencies have not been very good at planning or project development at this scale.  This will be a challenge we need to address in coming years, as “great neighborhoods” will be a key building block for a successful, sustainable future.  Thanks to MSGA for providing some good lessons.

Monday, June 11, 2012

NASTO Notes – Reauthorization and Funding

The biggest topic at NASTO (Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials) is – as at all transportation conferences – Reauthorization and funding.  And as usual, no one is very optimistic.
John Porcari (USDOT Deputy Secretary) noted that if we are all asked to do more with less for much longer, pretty soon we will be asked to do everything with nothing.  He said we are living off the infrastructure our parents (and grandparents and great-grandparents) bought and paid for.  He naturally pointed out some of the good things the Obama Administration has been trying to do, but said it was hard to be optimistic about Reauthorization.
Jack Basso, AASHTO’s finance guru, had to provide another in his long series of rather depressing accounts of the current and future state of transportation funding.   The Highway Trust Fund is in critical condition.  No more transfers can be expected from general funds.  The new CBO report on the financial effects of the new CAFÉ standards makes it clear that current funding is not viable.  And there is now no escaping the revenue issue.  (Here I have to disagree.  Congress and state legislatures can be incredibly creative in escaping revenue issues!)
We will miss Jack Basso, retiring soon from AASHTO, who has been a major voice of reason in transportation finance for many years.
When will we turn the corner and start talking about all the wonderful things we can do in this country in the 21stCentury?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Oklahoma Transportation Funding is (not so) OK

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has signed a bill (HB 2247) that will dedicate another $18 million a year in general revenue toward fixing state highway bridges.
The good news is that Oklahoma has in place an aggressive program to rehab or replace structurally deficient bridges, which the added money will accelerate.
The bad news is that the funding doesn’t come from new revenue: it comes from general revenues diverted to the transportation budget from other purposes.  This continues a pattern Oklahoma started a few years ago.  And by the way, Oklahoma has a lower gas tax than every state other than South Carolina, New Jersey, Wyoming, and Alaska.
Now, ODOT does a lot of good work, and I’m sure they’re happy to get the extra funding.  But I have to say that effectively diverting money from education, health, and public safety (the big budget draws in Oklahoma) is a bad bargain in the long run for transportation.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Southern Towns – Fredericksburg, VA

I recently had occasion to spend some time wandering around some southern towns I was unfamiliar with, and saw some positive – and some not so positive – signs of smart growth.
Fredericksburg, VA, is a welcome oasis in the horrendous I-95 corridor between Washington and Richmond.  It’s a charming town with an historic district reflecting both Revolutionary and Civil War events, although still a little rundown and gritty in spots.
Some of the positives:
·      Excellent street grid and good architecture.
·      Lots of antique shops – bins and bins of Civil War prints!
·      Boutiques, craft beer, locally owned bookstore, Victorian B&Bs, etc.
·      College town (Mary Washington)
·      Good north and south train service (Amtrak, last VRE station on the line to Washington) from a restored train station.
·      The city is right on the Rappahannock River but doesn’t seem to have made the connection.
·      Not much downtown housing.  A few streets of townhouses around the train station and riverfront could make a big difference.
The town has real charm and offers real promise for the future.

Monday, May 7, 2012

More on Infrastructure Banks Don’t Generate Revenue

A recent GAO report (Transportation: Key Issues andManagement Challenges, March 29, 2012) makes the same point I have been making about infrastructure banks (and similar mechanisms) and revenue.  After a brief summary of proposals for a national infrastructure bank, more TIFIA, etc., they note:
“While these tools have promise to help meet increasing transportation demands, they are forms of debt that must be repaid, not new revenues.  New revenues for transportation infrastructure investments can come only from two sources: new taxes or new fees. Ultimately, raising new revenues or reducing transportation spending or both will be needed.”
Thank you GAO!  

Monday, April 30, 2012

NJ Turnpike – “Savior of the Industry”

A recent meeting about the New Jersey Turnpike’s widening projects and related work was called  “Savior of the Industry.”  That’s a good indication of how bad things are in the construction industry – and how important infrastructure investment is for helping the ailing economy!
The Turnpike Authority is spending $350 million on this program over the next few years, and it has no doubt been a life-saver for many of the construction and engineering firms in the state.  Admittedly these projects have been controversial, and some people would have chosen other projects to spend $350 million on.  But the point is that this infrastructure investment has been a huge tonic to New Jersey’s economy, while buying its citizens a massive piece of infrastructure at bargain prices. 
The shame is that this kind of investment in major transportation infrastructure is not happening all over America.
The Turnpike meeting, by the way, was sponsored by the NewJersey Alliance for Action.  If you’re not familiar with the Alliance, they are a non-profit, nonpartisan coalition of business, labor, professional, academic, and government leaders that advocates investment in infrastructure in the state.  There are similar groups in other states, but I’m not aware of any that has the prestige and credibility that NJAFA brings to the public forum.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Yes, You Should Read the U.S. Treasury Report on Infrastructure

State DOT policy folks and anyone interested in transportation finance should read the Treasury report “A New Economic Analysisof Infrastructure Investment,” published in late March. 
I haven’t posted anything on this report before now, as I’ve been trying to decide how to respond to some of the shortcomings in it.  Shortcomings aside, however, this is a valuable piece and should be taken seriously.  I mention state policy people in particular because although the report is intended to influence the congressional debate, I doubt that it will penetrate the dense fog on Capitol Hill.  Those toiling on transportation finance and revenue problems in the states, however, may find it a useful tool.
Why useful?  All too often the discussion of the economic impact of transportation investment is superficial at best, usually dominated by a figure for the number of jobs created by a project or program (based on a mutiplier that someone came up with at some time in the past).  The Treasury report, on the other hand, draws our attention to the real and substantive contribution that investing in transportation makes to economic growth. 
Some of the key points:
·      Transportation investments have long-term economic benefits in addition to short-term job creation.
·      Investment is very timely now, as there are major underutilized resources.
·      We are underinvesting in transportation compared to the need, the investment levels of other countries, and the expectations of our citizens.
·      These investments have a lot of side benefits, including promoting public health.
There has been surprisingly little work done on these issues, and state DOTs haven’t done much to pursue research at the state level either.  (When I was at NJDOT I commissioned Rutgers Professor Joe Seneca to do just this, which has yielded some excellent results: short version here, long version here.)
My main quibble with the Treasury report is that it manages to ignore the obvious point that a revenue plan is needed to support this highly desirable investment in transportation infrastructure.  I believe that a strong argument could be made that a significant gas tax increase, if phased in properly, could (1) finance an infrastructure-led economic recovery, (2) buy a huge amount of infrastructure for the price, (3) have minimal economic drag, and (4) promote long-term budgetary stability.  That argument – or any argument related to revenue – is not to be found in the Treasury paper.
Instead, we see another argument for a national infrastructure bank.  Now, I am generally OK with the idea of an NIB.  What I don’t like is the notion than an NIB will take the place of the revenue we really need.  And as Ihave pointed out before, there is usually an unspoken assumption in these discussions that private investments are adding new revenue to the mix, when in fact they are loans that are going to be repaid – with interest – by the tollpaying public.
I also continue to be somewhat perplexed at how the argument for an NIB gets mixed up with the argument that we need better project choices.  I have been a strong supporter of the TIGER program, which has used discretionary funding to stimulate innovative projects.  But NIB projects would seem likely to be scored by the predicted return on investment from tolls, not how well they contribute to innovative solutions.  And TIGER and NIB together would surely never account for more than a small fraction of the total transportation program.  More important for the total program is a focus on performance objectives.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Richard Florida at NJ Planning Conference

I never fail to learn something from Richard Florida, so it was terrific hearing his presentation as keynote speaker at PlanSmartNJ’s planning conference in Trenton this week.  As a “Jersey boy,” Florida was able to connect with his audience on multiple levels.
Much of the presentation would be familiar to those of you have read his books and follow him online.  He spent some time explaining his thesis that the current economic slump will be usher in a “great reset,” realigning us toward the “creative economy,” with all the social changes that involves.  This thesis resonates well in New Jersey, which has shown a dramatic change from a blue-collar manufacturing economy to a white-collar knowledge-based economy.
Some of Florida’s points that I thought most noteworthy:
·      Don’t think about quality of life, think about “quality of place,” which includes all the natural and built stuff on the ground.  Invest in parks and schools!
·      Corporations don’t grow the economy – cities do.
·      Don’t be concerned just about the business climate, be concerned about the people climate.
·      The most open-minded, diverse, tolerant communities are also the most prosperous.
Incidentally, central New Jersey, where we were (Trenton, Princeton, Ewing), scores very well on all of Florida’s metrics.
I won’t summarize the whole conference, but it’s worth listing a few nuggets that give hope for a better smart growth future:
·      New Jersey has a new state plan under development, which, while very different from the last one, is still very focused on smart growth opportunities.
·      New Jersey continues to be strong in health care and biotech, and these industries gravitate toward places with strong knowledge bases, good quality of life, and great connectivity (including transit).
·      Urban manufacturing is an underappreciated asset and continues to grow in certain niche segments, with small, decentralized, more sophisticated enterprises.
·      Goods movement trends in the region show signs of increasing “onshoring” of manufacturing and increasing emphasis on rail.
·      The transit sector continues to move forward despite the economy, with new light rail lines and extensions in planning and new transit-oriented developments.
Plenty of food for thought!  Thanks to PlanSmartNJ for a great meeting.

Friday, April 6, 2012

US PIRG Report Highlights Demographic and Cultural Changes Behind Drop in VMT

US PIRG has issued a new report summarizing recent data which suggests that the recent flattening of growth in vehicle miles traveled may be a long-term trend.   The implication of the data is that social, cultural, and technological changes – and not just the economic slump – have led to less driving, especially among the Millennial generation.  The 18 – 34s not only drive less, they use transit more, walk and bike more, rely on social media more, and are drawn to urban centers, where alternatives to driving are more plentiful. 
You have probably seen some of this data reported elsewhere, but US PIRG has pulled it together in a clear, well-documented, and persuasive narrative.  (As the report notes, you can also see this change on the ground by visiting places like the Orange Line neighborhoods of Arlington, VA.)
A critical question is the extent to which VMT will rebound when the economy rebounds.  The authors of this report suggest there is good reason to believe that attitudinal and behavioral changes observed in the Millennials will persist, causing long-term changes in the demand for transportation services.
Transportation policy folks need to carefully read the final section of the report – “Implications for Transportation Policy” – which asks us to think about whether we are planning, designing, and building transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of an era which is already passing.  What might we need to do more of?  More (and better!) transit, better land use planning, and a transportation revenue system reflecting a new reality.
Well done to the US PIRG and Frontier Group team!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Durham Keeps Getting It Right

I just saw the promo video for the newest building in the American Tobacco District in Durham, North Carolina, and I’m glad to see that Durham continues to get urban development right in terms of scale, sensibility, and economic value.
If you aren’t familiar with it, the American Tobacco District is a nice mix of adaptive reuse (old tobacco buildings), high-quality activity centers (the Durham Bulls ballpark and a new performing arts center), attractive new buildings, and a beautiful walkable setting.  Not surprisingly, the area is a magnet for cutting-edge knowledge-based businesses in a region where they are already prolific.
Durham is one of my favorite cities and just seems to keep getting better, one building and one block at a time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Coolest Performance Measure Ever?

We all know commuting can be stressful.  How about measuring it with physiological measures?  How about measuring it as it changes during the commute?  How about then putting it onto a nifty 3D map of Dublin, comparing the roadway commute with the transit commute using red and green stacked graphics?
The technique looks potentially useful, but whether it is or not, it’s definitely got the cool factor!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Transportation and Livability Conference Papers Posted

The full conference proceedings of last year’s Conference on Performance Measures for Transportation and Livable Communities have now been posted.  The Austin conference, sponsored by the Texas Transportation Institute, showed that we have made some significant progress on this important topic, but still have a long way to go.
My presentation, entitled “Targeted Transportation Programs for Livable Communities: Lessons from Three Pennsylvania Programs,” is found in session 4.  I offered up some of the conclusions I have reached in working on these programs, one sponsored by the greater Philadelphia MPO (DVRPC), one sponsored by PennDOT, and one by the Lancaster County MPO.  All three of these programs have shown that MPOs and state DOTs can get a big payoff from small investments when they carefully target a Smart Growth transportation program.  More of them should really pursue this opportunity!
There were many informative presentations, and I am reluctant to single any out, but I will mention just a few that I personally found helpful.
Forinash (general session) and Zietsman (session 2) gave introductions to the two new guidebooks on the topic, by USEPA and NCHRP respectively.
For some on-the-ground experience with sustainability performance measures, you might look at Appleyard (session 1), Taebel (4), Lane (8), and Tilbury (10).
If you are not familiar with the work being done on accessibility (as distinct from mobility), you should be!  See all the session 7 presentations (Guthrie et al. offers some data on accessibility and transportation equity issues that offered some important new insights).
Those of us that have had to cope with the issue of “main streets” on state highways will benefit from Reeves (session 1).
Congrats to Katie Turnbull and company for pushing some important issues along

Saturday, March 17, 2012

New Fast EV Charger Comes to the U. S.

A new “fast charger” for electric vehicles has just come on to the U. S. market, made by Fuji Electric of Japan.  I got to see the product “launch” in New Jersey a few days ago, and while it’s not my job to review chargers, I can say that this one is pretty cool.   It can fully charge a Nissan Leaf in an hour. 
What are fast chargers and why are they important?  A typical home charger can charge your EV overnight in your garage.  And that’s fine for how most EV owners use (or will use) their vehicles – local use and fairly limited miles.  But what if you have a sudden need to drive to another state?  With fast chargers installed at rest areas, for instance, a driver can “fill up” the battery while stopping for a quick lunch.  A good network of fast chargers can make EV travel viable over wide regions of the country. 
There are issues, of course, starting with cost – say, $50,000 to buy and install one.
The most annoying issue for fast chargers – in my opinion – is that there are two competing, completely incompatible technical standards.  The “CHAdeMO” standard is used by all Japanese-made EVs.  (Fuji Electric – not surprisingly since it is made in Japan – is a CHAdeMO.)  The U. S. and European carmakers are developing a different (“SAE”) standard.  Remember VHS and Betamax?  I can’t believe this is the best way to pioneer new technology.
At any rate, congratulations to Fuji Electric on entering the field in the U. S. and pushing the technology forward.  (The folks at FE say that their plan is to move some manufacturing and assembly to this country as sales permit.  We need it!)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New VTPI Report on Energy and Emissions Strategies

An excellent report just posted by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (“Comprehensive Evaluation of TransportEnergy Conservation and Emission Reduction Policies”) provides some timely help for those of us struggling with policy choices in this area.  As usual, Todd wades into complex and often controversial issues with a reasoned analysis and solid scholarship. 
The gist of this report is the conclusion that many studies overrate “cleaner vehicle” strategies as opposed to “mobility management” strategies (VMT reduction) because they do not use comprehensive evaluation techniques. 
Without repeating the whole argument, I’ll just mention a couple of the points I find particularly powerful:
·      A “liter of fuel conserved through vehicle travel reductions provides about four times the total benefits as the same fuel savings provided by cleaner vehicle strategies, due to additional benefits such as congestion reductions, road and parking facility cost savings, consumer savings, and traffic safety” and
·      The benefits of transit investments tend to be undervalued, and … “Even larger benefits can result if public transit improvements leverage additional vehicle travel reductions by helping create more compact, multi-modal communities where residents tend to reduce their vehicle travel and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit.”

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Maryland Goes for the Gas Tax!

Congratulations to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley for having the courage to go directly for a gas tax increase to keep the state’s transportation trust fund solvent and moving forward!
Technically it’s not an increase in the excise tax but imposition of a 6 percent sales tax, phased in over 3 years.  The recently introduced legislation (SB 971 and HB 1302) also includes a “braking mechanism” to defer increases during gas price spikes and various provisions to increase the integrity of the fund.
The legislation is based on the report of a Blue Ribbon Commission issued last fall.  A couple of provisions in that report (not in the pending legislation) that I found of interest:
·      The Commission recommended that MDOT incorporate a Strategic Framework for Transportation Investment Decisions into its planning process to reinforce the state’s Smart Growth policies.
·      They also devoted considerable space to encouraging innovative financing.  An idea I had not seen before is the proposal to develop a Value Capture Analysis system that would be added to the department’s project prioritization scheme.
At any rate, Maryland DOT and state government have done, as I always expect, a first-rate job in putting this proposal together.  Good luck Maryland!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Funny Maps and Fragmented Jurisdictions

Kaid Benfield’s recent blog on fragmented borders in Belgium and the Netherlands is a funny look at how some medieval jurisdictional lines have survived into the 21st century.  It’s somehow comforting to know that not all the ancient eccentricities of geography have been “reformed.”
I have just two thoughts to add – one on the light side, one more serious.
On the light side, anyone really interested in imagining the complexities of living in a place with confused and overlapping boundaries needs to read China Mieville’s novel The City and the City – where citizens can be “grosstopically” in two cities at once but officially only in one!  It’s great fun!
Less fun is dealing with fragmented jurisdictions in the real world.  All of us in the transportation planning world have had to deal with.  One problem I’m chewing on now is – I think – pretty peculiar to New Jersey and Pennsylvania: small town centers (“boroughs”) surrounded by suburban “townships,” often leading to bad planning decisions in both jurisdictions.  Maybe we should have a field trip to that sidewalk café in Baarle-Nassau (or Baarle-Hertog?) and mull the problem over a Belgian (or Dutch?) beer or two!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thoughts While Wandering through Suburban Station in Philadelphia

I have occasion to visit center city Philadelphia pretty often and almost always use SEPTA’s very convenient and reliable regional rail service.  Normally I use the Market East station, but a few days ago I got off at Suburban Station, one of the other center city stations (the third station being the monumental Thirtieth Street Station, the Amtrak stop).  If you have never been there, Suburban Station is quite an interesting place.  It’s an underground station with a 1930s office building overtop (art deco, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad) in the center of blocks of modern office towers.  Even underground it retains a certain elegance (unlike the ugly warren of New York’s Penn Station) and convenience.
However, a few critical (hopefully constructive) thoughts:
·      Signage is pretty weak.  I think this is pretty common for stations that cater mainly to commuters, where 99.9 percent of people follow the same path every day.  You can spend a lot of time wandering around if you don’t know where you are going.
·      There is only one restroom in the entire complex, that I could find, and the men’s room was shut down.  I suppose that reduces the homeless population (the reason behind it?) but it’s very inconvenient for out-of-town visitors.
·      Although the Suburban Station underground area is fairly nice, the tunnels leading to other transit connections look pretty sketchy, with low-end shops and a heavy police presence. 
·      Good luck if you don’t know Philadelphia and you’re walking around the neighborhood looking for the station.
My biggest takeaway, however, is a reminder that the Center City Commuter tunnel that was built in the 1980s, tying together a tangle of regional rail lines and funneling them through the three center city stations, was a tremendously successful and underappreciated transportation project.   Could it be built today?  Will we someday soon be able to build the other projects like that that should be built to make our cities and our country succeed and prosper?