Friday, March 17, 2017

This Week in Transportation: March 17, 2017

Rendering of the Purple Line courtesy of the State of Maryland.
This week in transportation, Congress began thinking about a $1 trillion transportation plan, California released guidance for driverless vehicles, and President Trump released a budget proposal that could kill transit projects across the country. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

NBC News shines a light on the issue of how Trump - and, more importantly, Congress - will choose to pay for the President's trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal. Importantly, Democrats in Congress and a handful of Republicans have pointed out that public-private partnerships will only bear fruit for projects where companies can expect a profit - and that won't be the case with important "public good" projects like fixing water infrastructure.

Work begins on $1T infrastructure plan
The Hill gives a good rundown of where Trump's transportation proposal stands, from the mention of infrastructure improvements in his first joint address to Congress, to his recent meetings with industry executives and agency heads. If your focus isn't usually on transportation policy at the federal level, this is a good 101 piece to read.

High-speed train bill could stall All Aboard Florida’s Brightline
The Palm Beach Post reports, "The day after All Aboard Florida’s Brightline welcomed the second train in its growing fleet, officials with the private rail venture said a proposed billregulating high-speed trains could threaten its expansion to Orlando and other points across the state. The bill (SB 386), dubbed the Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act, cleared its first hurdle on Tuesday, winning support from the Senate’s Committee on Transportation. It would require high-speed rail companies such as All Aboard Florida to install safety features and pay for fencing along sections of its tracks where pedestrians could be at risk... Rusty Roberts, vice president of government affairs for All Aboard Florida, told the Senate committee that the bill could threaten the company’s expansion plans, adding that it 'unconstitutionally targets one company.'”

California’s Finally Ready for Truly Driverless Cars
Wired reports that "Silicon Valley’s home state is ready to toss the bag of flesh and bones and replace it with a big sack of cash. The California Department of Motor Vehicles today proposed new regulations that will finally prepare for the move from testing to commercialization... Among other things, they require that a manufacturer obtain written support from the local jurisdiction before going fully driverless (without clarifying who, exactly, must agree to that). The company must also have a communication link to the car, and provide plans for remote operation, so a human, somewhere, can step if the car gets pulled over, or the like. "

The Purple Line is toast if Trump’s budget passesJonathan Neely writes for Greater Greater Washington, "President Trump's budget proposal will cast a devastating blow against transit if it passes through Congress. On the chopping block are the Purple Line and Alexandria's West End Bus Rapid Transit, along with dozens of other projects across the nation. The administration is continuing its anti-urban, anti-government campaign by slashing programs that affect virtually every American. The transit cuts are particularly draconian, and have the potential to impact transit construction for decades." He names several projects whose futures will be in jeopardy if Trump's budget came to pass, from the DC Metro's Purple Line, to the Second Avenue subway extension in NYC."

Happy reading, and happy weekend!

Friday, March 3, 2017

This Week in Transportation: March 3, 2017

This week in transportation, President Trump asked Congress for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, DOT Secretary Chao emphasized the need for private infrastructure investment, and a new report detailed potential ridership levels for high-speed rail in the West. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Here's what Trump just told Congress about Infrastructure
At his first address to Congress as president, Donald Trump asked for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and acknowledged that it will require both public and private financing.

Chao Warns Governors: Paying for Big Transport Plans to Be Hard
Elaine Chao had her first public appearance since her confirmation as Transportation Secretary. According to Bloomberg, she told the National Governors Association, "Everybody wants a better transportation system, but very few people want to pay for it, so that's a big conundrum... There will be a lot of discussion about pay-fors, and that's going to be a tremendous challenge."

Caltrain: Agreement with contractors to extend deadline keeps electrification project alive
The Mercury News reports that electrification of Caltrain - an important component of bringing high-speed rail to California, as it will share those tracks - may still happen even after the feds put off awarding grant money that would help the project: "The commuter rail line announced Monday that it has reached agreements with two contractors to extend a March 1 deadline to begin work to June 30. The extra time preserves its $2 billion electrification project, which was thrown into disarray this month when the Federal Transit Administration said it was deferring $647 million in grant funding."

High-speed rail report estimates 11M riders between Las Vegas and California by 2035
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports, "A high-speed train system linking Las Vegas and Southern California would attract about 11 million round-trip riders and generate roughly $1 billion in annual revenue by full buildout in 2035, according to a report released Thursday. The figures were based on a $115 roundtrip ticket that would connect passengers on the publicly funded California High Speed rail system to a private line operated by XpressWest, the company franchised nearly two years ago to build a rail segment from Las Vegas to Palmdale."

5 Takeaways from Federally Administered Next-Gen Transportation Programs for Modernizing Infrastructure
This wrap-up of the Smart Cities Challenge summarizes what the grant program got right - including funneling the money directly to cities, requiring collaboration between stakeholders, and rewarding well-defined goals.

Happy reading, and happy weekend!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Here's what Trump just told Congress about Infrastructure

At his first address to Congress, President Donald Trump asked Congress to approve a $1 trillion infrastructure package financed by both public and private investment.

In announcing this proposal - which did not get more specific than that in terms of what funding mechanisms would be used to finance what kinds of projects - Trump invoked Eisenhower's leadership building the national interstate highway system, saying "the time has come for a new program of national rebuilding."

As he often does, Trump compared the money America has spent in the Middle East with the money that could have been spent on infrastructure at home. He said, "America has spent approximately $6 trillion in the Middle East, all the while our infrastructure at home as crumbled. With that $6 trillion we could have rebuilt our infrastructure twice."

"To launch our national rebuilding," he said, "I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — creating millions of new jobs. This effort will be guided by two core principles: Buy American, and hire American."

He also mentioned infrastructure at the beginning of his speech, which used similar parallel structure to his Inaugural Address where he first painted a dark picture of what America has become, before defining how things will change under his presidency.

He first said, "We've spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled." He later said, "Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways, gleaming across our very, very beautiful land."

Indeed, Trump still talks about infrastructure mostly in terms of transportation infrastructure, though he did mention pipelines such as Keystone XL and Dakota Access at other times in his address.

Friday, February 24, 2017

This Week in Transportation: February 24, 2017

This week in transportation, Congress might wait until next year to tackle an infrastructure package, support grew for high-speed rail in the Northwest, and a new report outlined methods for better investing in bicycle and walking infrastructure. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Trump, Congress may punt on infrastructure until 2018
Axios reports that GOP sources have told them they will "push off until next year any consideration of the massive infrastructure plan Trump wants to push for roads, airports and other big projects, giving Republican lawmakers more breathing room amid a crowd of issues that'll require massive effort, time and political capital... Republican strategists say that Democrats, who'll be reluctant to give Trump a win, will be in a jam as midterm elections close in: They'll be under huge pressure to support big projects that'll bring money and improvements to their districts."

Drivers log record-breaking miles on US roads in 2016
The Hill reports, "Drivers in the U.S. traveled a record-breaking number of miles last year, for the fifth straight year of increased driving on public roads, according to new federal data. U.S. driving topped 3.2 trillion miles in 2016 — up from 3.1 trillion the previous year, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) said Tuesday. Drivers logged more than 263.6 billion miles in December 2016 alone, which is a 0.5 percent increase over the previous December, the FHWA added."

The Dallas Business Journal writes that Texas Central Partners, the firm constructing a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas, is taking issue with a recent report by the Reason Foundation which found the line could cost taxpayers $21.5 billion despite intentions to build the line without any taxpayer dollars. They claim the data Reason used for the study is outdated and that they reversed earlier support for the rail line without cause.

Next City reports, "With a coalition of tech millionaires and billionaires, politicians and investment groups behind the renewed push, it seems plausible high-speed rail could finally move from fantasy to reality in the Northwest. The idea is at least real enough that Washington Governor Jay Inslee put $1 million in his proposed budget to fund a feasibility study."

New report highlights MPO investment in walking, bicycling infrastructure
Transportation for America and the American Public Health Association have released a new report highlighting metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have placed a greater emphasis on active transportation, such as walking and bicycling. The paper outlines four policy levers MPOs can use to ensure more funding and better results for walking and bicycling infrastructure. It also includes over 30 case studies of MPOs across the country using those strategies successfully.

Happy reading, and happy weekend!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

New report highlights MPO investment in walking, bicycling infrastructure

Click here to download the report.
Transportation for America and the American Public Health Association have released a new report highlighting metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have placed a greater emphasis on active transportation, such as walking and bicycling. 

“How Regional Transportation Planning Agencies are Promoting Physical Activity and Health” outlines four policy levers MPOs can use to ensure more funding and better results for walking and bicycling infrastructure. It also includes over 30 case studies of MPOs across the country using those strategies successfully.

As the paper says, "All across the United States the demand for more opportunities to safely walk and bicycle are at an all-time high in both heartland towns and urban centers alike. Communities are being built to encourage more physical activity by making it easier to exercise and making it safer, more convenient and more attractive to walk or bicycle from place to place."

How are MPOs doing this? Here are the four levers outlined in the report:

Dedicated funding for active transportation: Especially in large metropolitan areas, MPOs have a lot of sway over how federal transportation funding gets allocated. The Nashville Area MPO, for example, has dedicated 15% of its federal transportation dollars to bicycle, walking, and transit-supportive projects - including Lower Station Camp Greenway to provide a safe walking and bicycling path for students of Station Camp Elementary, Middle and High Schools.

Performance measures to better assess project benefits: To better target funding, MPOs can include in their performance assessments measurements of public health, access to opportunity, and quality of life, among others. The Twin Cities region’s Metropolitan Council, for example, redesigned the criteria it uses to determine allocation of transportation dollars to prioritize walking and bicycling projects for underserved communities, by including equity criteria in its evaluations of proposed projects, and by giving more points to projects in areas with more affordable housing.

Planning and policies that support regional goals: This would include planning processes that address public health outcomes and social inequities with investments in active transportation. The Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments, seeing a link between active transportation and a reduction in the rate of chronic disease, established a bikeshare program where Medicaid recipients can rent a bike for two hours for free to help them get to their medical appointments.

Improved data and measuring what matters: MPOs should collect and use data that will better help them prioritize walking and bicycling infrastructure where it would be most effective. This data might include public health outcomes, the availability of transportation facilities, the quality of active transportation facilities, and the proximity of places between which people could walk or bike. The Madison Area Transportation Planning Board’s Active Living Index (ALI) takes into account things like intersection density, bicycle level of service, and transit access to jobs to determine which places in the area would benefit most from new bicycling and walking infrastructure.

You can read the full report here. I think it's certainly worth reading through, as it includes a lot of examples of how MPOs are already using these different methods to invest more, and more wisely, in walking and bicycling infrastructure.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Eno Report Recommends Improvements for Federal Freight Grants

A container ship docked at the Port of NY/NJ.

The Eno Center for Transportation has released a new report outlining recommendations for improving the FASTLANE program. The "Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies" (FASTLANE) grant program, created by the FAST Act passed in 2015, provides funds for highway and intermodal freight projects to the tune of $800 million per year.

Click here to read the report.
Some beneficiaries of the FY16 grants include the Arlington Memorial Bridge reconstruction project in DC-Virginia; an interstate widening and realignment in Arizona; and improvements to the Port of New York/New Jersey's cross-harbor railcar float system.

The report authors write, "A federal discretionary grant program, if designed correctly, can target limited funds to freight projects that relieve bottlenecks and improve reliability for freight movements across the country. While FASTLANE is a significant step in creating a useful federal freight program there is ample room for improvement."

To that end, the report outlines several problems with FASTLANE as it exists today and offers six recommendations to address those problems.

Among the current challenges is the broad eligibility language of the program that has led to highway projects without explicit freight characteristics receiving nearly 60% of the FY16 grant awards. Moreover, the report notes that because FASTLANE funding comes through the Highway Trust Fund, legislators put a cap on how much of the total funding could be awarded to intermodal, rail, or port projects - at just one-ninth of the total amount.

Here are the report's verbatim recommendations, which were created with input from Eno's Freight Working Group.
  1. Congress needs to increase the funding available for FASTLANE grants – or a similar discretionary freight program – to at least $2 billion annually. 
  2. Congress should revise the eligibility standards to allow for all freight projects, including public and private railways, ports, waterways, highways, and intermodal connectors. 
  3. Congress needs to also restrict eligibility to only freight projects. 
  4. U.S. DOT needs to exercise greater transparency and explicitly describe its evaluation process, assign weights to criteria, and publish the final results. 
  5. U.S. DOT should emphasize leveraging non federal funds, both public and private, by increasing the weight of this metric so that projects that use fewer federal dollars score better. 
  6. U.S. DOT should be transparent and explicit in how it awards projects to achieve some form of geographic diversity, and should keep the equity aspect of the selection process to a minimum. 
Read the full report here.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

This Week in Transportation: January 28, 2017

Photo courtesy of Susan Walsh/AP
This week in transportation, a document potentially containing the Trump team's infrastructure priorities is re-circulating, Senate Democrats unveiled their infrastructure plan, and a new poll found Americans don't want to raise taxes to repair infrastructure. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Trump team compiles infrastructure priority list
The Kansas City Star obtained a document it says outlines the Trump administration's 50 infrastructure priorities. Most of them are transportation infrastructure projects - such as the Gateways project to repair the NYC-Newark rail tunnels - though it includes a few energy infrastructure projects as well, including new transmission lines and a large wind farm in Wyoming. The Star says Congressional aides have confirmed the authenticity of the document but that it is still a working draft based on recommendations from governors across the country.

Senate Democrats propose $1 trillion infrastructure plan
FOX News reports, "Senate Democrats on Tuesday offered a plan to spend $1 trillion on transportation and other infrastructure projects over 10 years, challenging President Donald Trump to join them on an issue where they hope to find common ground. Democrats estimate their plan would create 15 million jobs. The plan includes $210 billion to repair aging roads and bridges and another $200 billion for a "vital infrastructure fund" to pay for a variety of transportation projects of national significance... Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats pitched their plan to Trump and asked for his support. Schumer said he also warned Trump that doing so would mean he'd have to "go against" elements of the Republican Party. Trump acknowledged that and seemed open to working with Democrats, he said."

Ryan: GOP planning 'expansive' infrastructure budget
The Washington Examiner reports that House Speaker Paul Ryan is looking to include funding for infrastructure in the fiscal 2018 budget, the size of which will be determined by how much money they can find to pay for it. "Ryan said lawmakers are aiming for an 'expansive' infrastructure spending plan in the fiscal 2018 budget in the weeks ahead. Ryan, R-Wis., said infrastructure is a significant part of the GOP's 200-day agenda, along with health insurance reform, tax reform and regulatory reform."

Americans want to rebuild roads, bridges, but not at cost of taxes: Reuters Poll
Reuters reports, "Americans want a federal infrastructure program to focus on rebuilding aging roads and bridges, but are reluctant to use federal dollars for such projects, according to a Reuters polls released on Thursday... According to the Dec. 16-Jan. 12 poll, most Americans said a federal infrastructure program should focus on improving existing roads and bridges. They expressed less interest in mass transit, new roads and new technology. Americans also expressed little interest in paying for such a program. Some 51 percent of respondents said they did not want a higher tax bill as a result, and 56 percent said they do not want the government to borrow money to pay for infrastructure."

Happy reading, and happy weekend!