Sunday, February 26, 2012

More EV trucks are rolling!

Many of us have spent a lot of time working on ways to speed the introduction of electric vehicles in this country – which is important given the significant benefits they provide in greenhouse gas emission reduction, energy security, and general modernization of the transportation system.  Most of the time we are focusing on passenger vehicles, but we shouldn’t forget that EVs include trucks too!
I recently shared a panel (at the Greater Long Island Clean Cities Coalition EV workshop) with Brett Gipe of Smith Electric Vehicles, who gave a very encouraging account of the market growth in commercial electric vehicles.  Smith, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a British-based company who are now expanding rapidly in the U. S.  They manufacture a variety of delivery-van-type vehicles and have become a real force in local delivery in New York City, where their customers include distributors of seafoods, drugstore supplies, snack foods, and various specialty goods.  They have done so well in the city that they have announced that they are opening a manufacturing facility in the Bronx!  They are also expanding into other cities and into other markets, including schoolbuses and parcel delivery.
Smith says that although their products have higher sticker prices they save so much on operating costs that total cost of their vehicles is significantly lower than comparable gasoline and diesel units.
It’s great to see EV use expanding in these markets, where the benefits appear obvious.  The trickier question will be how we can increase electric propulsion in the larger supply chain, which is overwhelmingly dominated by diesel tractor-trailers.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Down by the River (Line)

Eric Jaffe has a piece on The Atlantic Cities about New Jersey’s River Line and the influence that the perception of crime has on transit and economic development.
I happen to have visited some of the River Line towns recently – and know a bit about the tangled history of the thing – so I thought I would share a few comments.
First, a bit about the history.  The River Line was not built as a typical transit “new start,” with years of planning studies, alternatives analyses, environmental assessments, and public outreach sessions behind it.
The River Line was born of four circumstances:
1.     The political leadership of New Jersey felt they “owed” a transit project to South Jersey, the less populated (and to them, underappreciated) part of the state.
2.     The towns along the route of the obvious choice for fixed guideway transit, a light rail line from Mount Holly to Moorestown to Camden, rejected it.
3.     Conrail put its old freight line from Camden to Trenton up for sale.
4.     The political establishment of Burlington County, with ties to landowners and developers in the northern part of the county, thought the River Line might work for them.
There was no way this process would meet the tests for federal New Starts funding, so the New Jersey Legislature agreed to fork over state money.
The result of these unorthodox steps (or shenanigans if you prefer) has been a line that has been remarkably successful as a transit line, although it has yet to be successful in reshaping land use and stimulating sustainable economic development.
Some of the towns along the route, including Burlington and Bordentown, have some decent redevelopment happening near the station.  Others…not so much.  Riverside, a promising little town with some historic architecture, looks to me like it’s actually gone downhill in the past few years.  (It was at the Riverside station that one of the locals said to me: “So, are you going to ride the Crime Line?”)
By the way, Eric Jaffe says the River Line is a light rail line with some of the properties of a commuter rail line.  A better way to put it is that the River Line represents a new incarnation of an old transit form: the interurban line!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fixing local roads vs. expanding state highways in Wisconsin

There’s a battle going on in Wisconsin.  No, not the one you’re thinking of (although not unrelated).  There is a debate over spending more money on local road repair vs. spending more money on widening state highways.  Without getting into the local specifics, I pass along a few thoughts on the topic I have shared with my friends in the Badger State:
A few key points on local roads (fix-it-first) vs. highway expansion:
·      Local projects tend to use local contractors, while big projects may attract large contractors from farther away.  Generally, the smaller the contract, the more likely the money "stays home" with a local contractor.
·      Similar point: Local, small projects tend to use small, local contractors, such as asphalt pavers.  Big projects usually have large contractors (with larger overhead) and specialist subcontractors from farther away.
·      Related to the above effects, money spent on local projects tends to go out the door and into the economy very quickly, maximizing stimulus effect.  Big projects by their nature take longer and the pay-out may take years.
·      Local projects have a higher proportion of payroll costs.  Bigger projects have more non-payroll costs: materials, equipment rental, and especially right-of-way (land) acquisition.  This again has a direct impact on economic stimulus.
·      On the question of long-term economic development there is no consensus in the field.  Economists will tell you that minimizing the time consumed in transporting goods has a direct economic impact.  On the other hand, commuters tend to value improved reliability over reduced time consumption, which argues for a state of good repair.
·      Failure to keep up with a state of good repair also dramatically increases cost liability over time.  It's a lot cheaper to repair and resurface streets on a regular basis than it is to let them fall apart and have to rebuild them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Crouching TIGER, Hidden Funding

I was pleased to see TIGER proposed for permanent authorization in the President’s reauthorization proposal.  It not only gets permanent authorization at a level of $500 million a year, with regular increases, it would come in at $4 Billion in added spending in Fiscal 2012 to push the economy out of depression.  What a great idea!  Too bad it wasn’t done in the past two years of lost growth.  (Also too bad it won’t happen now either.)
As I said before, I believe this is a very successful and meritorious program (  Other than the fact that during this Congress finding the funding for long-term TIGER will be hard than finding a snow leopard, I am still concerned that TIGER is drifting away from innovative projects and toward projects that are just large and otherwise unfundable (we used to have earmarks for those!).
Still, an encouraging sign of positive thinking from the Administration.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Administration Transportation Budget – Some Good Stuff!

The newly released transportation budget request looks pretty good.  The proposed six-year reauthorization is definitely promising.  In previous cycles we would have said it represents a good step forward.  Now, in contrast with the bills pending in Congress, it looks practically visionary.  In other words, instead of good-better-best we have dreadful (House bill), weak (Senate bill), and good (Administration bill).
We look forward to details.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rise of the CAVE People

You have probably read stories in the New York Times and elsewhere about the rise of opposition to almost all urban planning initiatives by the Tea Partiers and related Know Nothings.
The latest buzzword (thanks to Josh Schank of the Eno Foundation) is “CAVE people”: Citizens Against Virtually Everything!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Senate Finance Committee – Let’s Push in the Nails with our Thumbs

The Senate Finance Committee has put together a ramshackle bill ( to more or less cover the shortfall in funding for a two-year transportation reauthorization bill, doing everything they can to avoid the obvious need to increase the gas tax.  As I have said before, it’s like picking up everything in the room but a hammer when you need to drive in a nail ( ).
Black liquor?  Really?  (Makes me want to reach for a Guinness.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

TIGER IV is here!

I was very pleased to see USDOT put out a notice of funding availability for the next round of TIGER discretionary funding ( ).  Although every year I fear the end of the program, they managed to get $500 million from Congress for FFY12.  TIGER began as part of the Stimulus bill and has been, in my opinion, a huge success.  Having worked quite a lot on the Stimulus program, I was sometimes asked how follow-on stimulus bills could be made to give greater emphasis to more innovative transportation solutions.  My answer: put more TIGER in your tank!
Unfortunately, there has been no more stimulus – despite an economy and construction industries that are flat on their backs and despite the desperate need for infrastructure work and despite cheap prices for that work.  But the good news is that TIGER carries on.
I must say that the overall “innovativeness” of projects selected seems to have declined in the FY11 awards.  (Two that I know and like a lot are the Carrie Furnace project in Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati streetcar.)  My other complaint, about which more another time, is that the freight investments still seem oriented toward Chinese economic development.
Nevertheless, good to see TIGER IV and let’s hope we may see a TIGER V!

Friday, February 3, 2012

CMAQ: Having Some Fun While Trashing a Program

CMAQ – the Congestion Management and Air Quality program – has been a real game changer for state DOTs, making them think about air quality issues and about creative, often non-highway, transportation solutions.  What it hasn’t had is a name that really reflects the statutory language, legislative intent, and actual practice of the program.
For various reasons, some transportation agencies and some members of Congress don’t like CMAQ.  So what would you do if you wanted to trash the program – and have some fun while doing it?
The drafters of the Mica bill must have had a few laughs while putting in a provision that says that states can use CMAQ to build new highway capacity if the project “is likely to contribute to the mitigation of congestion or the improvement of air quality.” [Sec. 1108]
This of course is the absolute opposite of the longtime purpose of the program – but arguably fits the name!  Chuckle, chuckle.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mica Bill – Making it Easier for Developers to Get Interstate Interchanges?

Section 1704 of the new Mica Reauthorization bill would allow FHWA to delegate approval of “justification reports” for new interchanges on existing Interstate highways to state DOTs. 
What’s this all about?  Under current laws and regulations, FHWA jealously guards access to Interstate highways.   Too many access points placed too close together mess up the operation of the highway and can cause safety problems.  To get a new interchange, the state DOT has to make a “justification report,” with all kinds of backup studies, to prove the need and to get FHWA’s approval even to start the planning process.
Who would want an easier process?  Developers!  A new interchange can turn a poor development location into a great one overnight.  Developers and their lobbyists can often be found in the hallways of DOTs and planning agencies, pleading their cases for access.
Would this change in language make a difference?  It’s not clear.  The part of the law requiring FHWA final approval is still in place – as is the need to get NEPA clearance.  And FHWA is not required to delegate approval of justification reports to states.
Would this change be good for state DOTs?  I don’t think so.  DOTs can now let FHWA be the bad guys and say no.  Why would they want to do that themselves?  Especially since a weak justification report would likely fail NEPA approval in the end anyway.
Can the idea of interchange approvals as a revenue source be far behind?  Watch for future developments on this issue.