Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Yes, Virginia, there is a transportation funding bill

What to make of the new transportation funding bill passed by the Virginia legislature?  Some thoughts:
1. Yes, it’s messy and complicated, but that’s to be expected of any revenue measure requiring bipartisan support.  And it does raise revenue!
2. It’s much better than the governor’s original proposal, which would have completely eliminated the motor fuels tax as the main source for transportation funding.  As I noted in earlier remarks (here), that would have done away with the “user pays” principle and potentially subjected transportation funding to becoming a participant in the annual scrum for general fund appropriations.  The bill as passed explicitly retains a nexus to use through imposing a new, indexed excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel – the functional equivalent of the motor fuels tax, although at a somewhat lower revenue level.
3. There is still too much emphasis on the sales tax – both a dedicated piece and a transferred piece – for my taste.  No good can come of taking money from schools and hospitals.
4. An important piece of good news is that the measure was a genuine bipartisan bill and got a number of Republican votes, despite the official disapproval of Grover Norquist!  One can hope that this may be a sign that other legislatures may look at real needs and try to come up with real resources to meet those needs in a nonideological way.
5. I agree with critics that there may be significant problems in how the funding provided in the bill actually gets spent.  Virginia is obviously very conflicted on this issue.  (On the subject of priorities, see Greater Greater Washington’s analysis here).
6. What’s up with the $100 fee on electric vehicles and hybrids?  Virginia, which previously enacted a $50 fee on EVs, now plans to increase the fee and extend it to Priuses and other hybrids.  Why?  It’s not entirely clear.  The governor’s original proposal made a rather convoluted argument about EVs not paying federal motor fuels taxes (he would have been applying an increased tax on EVs while relieving taxes on gasoline-powered vehicles).  I guess it makes more sense now (using the "equity" argument) with a gas tax back in the plan.  The annual revenue (estimated to begin at $10 million a year) may also have been persuasive to legislators.  Still, there has been pushback and the governor has said he will review the fee issue.
After all the drama in getting a bill enacted, the whole thing now faces the possibility of being thrown out, at least in part, by state constitutional issues (see story here)!  We’ll have to see how the Virginia experience affects what happens in other capitals.  Should be fun to watch!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Congrats to Georgetown Climate Center for a great workshop!

Congratulations to Georgetown Climate Center (Vicki Arroyo, Kate Zyla, Cassie Powers, Chris Coyle, and company) for a great work workshop on energy and climate change (see website for more info – day two tomorrow).
My favorite part was the panel on electric vehicles.  Good to see that folks are optimistic and moving forward, despite some negative press and various hurdles.
Anthony Eggert gave the view from California, still the leader in clean air, while Mike Robinson (GM) gave a manufacturer’s point of view (very bullish on his cars!).  Christine Kirby recounted the successful work done on EVs by the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a subject dear to my heart.  (If you’re not familiar with TCI, it’s a unique and exciting collaborative of the transportation, energy, and environment agencies of the 12 northeast states + DC.)  My most favorite part was hearing Tonia Buell of Washington state DOT and Eric Heineman of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s office talk about the real EV networks they have put in the ground – matching EV-dense metro areas with strategically spaced fast chargers on interstate routes.  All done through collaborative planning processes.  Good stuff!  I think this is what it will take to make EVs really viable for all-purpose travel.
I was hoping Gina McCarthy (USEPA) would tell us what the President meant in the State of the Union by saying he would direct executive agencies to come up with climate change plans if Congress doesn’t (a pretty good bet).  But alas that shoe didn’t drop.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tesla and NY Times: Charges and counter-charges

OK, I couldn’t resist the pun.  If you are interested in electric vehicle transportation, you have no doubt followed the controversy surrounding the New York Times story, based on a Washington – Boston test drive of the Tesla Model S, which suggested that the Tesla has serious range problems.  Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, challenged the story and the journalistic integrity of the writer.  Not exactly Jerry Springer stuff, but it has gotten people excited.  Why?  The future of electric vehicles is very much on a knife edge right now, and there are plenty of people hoping they will fail as well as plenty of people who think their success is vital to cleaner transportation and a safer future.
The latest chapter in the story comes from the Times’ public editor, who summarizes the controversy, evaluates both sides, and reaches the non-conclusion that “there is still plenty to argue about.”  She also notes that other test drivers have recently had better results.  These include a CNN Money test drive on the Washington to Boston route (here) and a Los Angeles to San Francisco drive by a writer for The Verge (here).
What conclusions can we draw from this drama?
First, electric vehicles, at their current technological level, have limited range.  They are likely to be used mainly for local travel.
Second, electric vehicles can be used for intercity travel if they have access to conveniently located fast chargers.  None of the reviewers suggested that Tesla’s Superchargers didn’t work well – there just aren’t enough of them.  (Tesla has installed two Superchargers on the I-95 corridor about 200 miles apart, in Newark DE and Milford CT, used in the notorious Times test drive.  They are solar-powered and free for Tesla drivers.)
Third, the Tesla Model S is still a very cool car.
For me, the public policy lesson is simple: the states and the federal government should aggressively pursue strategies to install fast charging units on interstate highways to grow the range of electric vehicles and promote their rapid proliferation.  I believe that that outcome is critical to cleaner transportation and a safer future.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ewing Town Center gets more great press!

Our plan for a revitalized Town Center and multimodal transportation project in Ewing NJ (a suburb of Trenton) continues to get good press (story here).
Congrats to Chuck Latini – the planning consultant for Ewing – for a great project and a great presentation!
As the news story suggests (and as I have noted before) the piece I am working on for the county, which is focused on the airport, fits seamlessly with the town’s plan.
The best way to move any project forward is always to have broad, informed public support.  So far we are looking good!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New maps – Transit stations and rents (too damn high?) in DC and Boston

The folks at WeLoveDC have posted a clever new map, based on an earlier one from Boston, showing the clear relationship between rents and proximity to rapid transit.  On the Washington area map, the effects of linking transportation planning and land use planning in Arlington and Montgomery counties are clearly seen – as is the obvious lack of success in Prince Georges.
The connection is harder to see in Boston, at least beyond the northern branch of the Red Line, where one has to think that Porter and Davis squares are definitely pricier than they would be without the T.  Probably a more complicated situation there, but it raises some interesting questions.  How bad was the alignment of the Orange Line – just bad or very bad?  What will be the effect of the Green Line extension?
Good visuals!

Monday, February 11, 2013

It takes a (ballpark) village…..

…to revitalize downtown St. Louis?
With baseball just around the corner (pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training today!), it’s great to see the Ballpark Village redevelopment finally get going in downtown St. Louis.  The proposed development is a very cool, well-designed mixed-use revitalization project adjacent to the Cardinal ballpark (see the video and slideshow on the website).  It has been on the drawing boards for several years and was slowed down, like so much else, by the economic slump. 
Ballpark Village provides another powerful example of how a baseball stadium can leverage urban revitalization.  St. Louis’ downtown has been struggling for longer than many of its peers, so it’s encouraging to see the project move forward!
One thing the video and slides don’t mention is that the ballpark is directly served by its own Metrorail light rail station.
Play ball!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The more people learn about road pricing, the less they like it!

That was the main takeaway from a remarkable report just published by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.
The Board used an intensive “deliberative forum” format to educate and engage citizen groups.  They looked at congestion in the Washington metro area – obviously a huge concern – and ways that road pricing could be used to raise money to improve the system.
The most extensive pricing system – in effect an elaborate vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax using GPS – “triggered a strong negative response…The objections toward this scenario were visceral.  Participants found the proposal overwhelming and unfamiliar, they thought it would be impossible to implement, and they were concerned about where the money that was raised would go…The scenario provoked a sense of outrage regarding issues of privacy and government overreach.”
Wow.  And this was not an instant reaction, but one based on an intensive briefing.
What did these citizens like better?  The gas tax!
“People…became much more supportive of gas tax increases after a lengthy discussion about current funding problems and options for road pricing.  At the beginning of the forums, 21% of participants thought gas taxes should be raised to pay for transportation improvements.  By the end, 57% thought they should be raised.”
I believe this report supports my conclusion that many people continue to underestimate both the public resistance to VMT-type taxes and the resilience of the gas tax as a revenue source.