Friday, April 21, 2017

This Week in Transportation: April 21, 2017

A viaduct under construction in Fresno County, Calif.
Photo courtesy of the LA Times.

This week in transportation, the Trump administration began staffing up for its infrastructure push, New York and New Jersey officials urged federal support for Amtrak's Gateway project, and California sold more bonds to fund its high-speed rail project. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Transportation Department plans new top-level spots to oversee Trump priorities
The Hill reports, "The Department of Transportation plans to create new top-level roles and reshuffle other positions in order to put more muscle behind two of President Trump’s priorities: infrastructure investment and modernizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)... Secretary Elaine Chao intends to appoint DOT chief of staff Michael Britt to be senior adviser for FAA modernization... On transportation, Chao intends to appoint James Ray to be a senior adviser on infrastructure."

New study identifies nine of the worst highway projects across the country, $10 billion in taxpayer dollars wasted
The United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund and Frontier Group has released the third in a series of reports about wasteful spending on highway expansion projects. U.S. PIRG writes that this installment "identifies nine of the most wasteful highway expansion projects across the country, slated to collectively cost at least $10 billion. This third iteration of the highway boondoggles report details how despite America’s mounting repair and maintenance backlog, and in defiance of America’s changing transportation needs, federal, state and local governments across the country continue to spend billions each year on expanding highways. The report disputes the claims used to justify these investments and argues that the projects are outright boondoggles."

California sells $1.2 billion of bonds to finance construction of bullet train in the Central Valley
The LA Times reports, "The California treasurer sold $1.2 billion in bonds Thursday to help finance construction of high-speed rail in the Central Valley, a significant development after years of delays in tapping the bonds that taxpayers approved in 2008... The bond funds are critical to current construction efforts in the Central Valley. They would help finance about 118 miles of construction from Madera to Shafter, not including electrical power systems, signals or trains. Any spending from the bonds, which are taxable for investors, must be matched with money from other sources. So far, the project has $3.5 billion in federal grants and $1.2 billion in state greenhouse gas fees."

NY, NJ senators invite transportation secretary to view decaying train tunnels
Reuters reports, "To preserve federal funding for critical rail projects, New Jersey and New York senators on Wednesday asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to examine firsthand the decaying train tunnels that threaten to cripple regional travel if they fail. In a letter to Chao, four Democratic senators, two each from New York and New Jersey, asked Chao to visit before Republican President Donald Trump's administration finalizes any federal infrastructure package. They also urged Chao to support Amtrak's Gateway Program, which includes building a passenger rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River in partnership with NJ Transit, the two states, and their bi-state port authority."

Portland wants to open its streets to self-driving cars
The Seattle Times reports that the City of Portland wants to be among the first to issue permits for driverless vehicles. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman are "directing the Portland Bureau of Transportation to create a policy to open up the city’s streets to self-driving cars. As part of a new initiative, the agency would have 60 days to develop a set of rules for pilot programs to deploy and test autonomous vehicles. It’s looking at issues such as the cost of a permit and methods of reporting when and where the cars would be on the road."

Happy reading, and happy weekend!

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.