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.

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!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

This Week in Transportation: January 21, 2017


This week in transportation, President Trump referenced infrastructure in his inaugural address, a Cabinet appointee came out in support of public investment, and opposition to a new Amtrak line gained traction in Rhode Island. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Here's what Trump said about infrastructure in his Inaugural Address
During his Inaugural Address, incoming President Donald Trump mentioned transportation infrastructure twice. My blog post highlights those two mentions and what they might mean for future policy.

Poll: Majority opposes Trump's current plan for infrastructure
A new poll out from the Washington Post and ABC News found that a strong majority of Americans oppose Trump's current plan for rebuilding our infrastructure, which relies heavily on incentivizing private companies to build infrastructure they could toll. 66% somewhat or strongly oppose the plan, while just 29% strongly or somewhat support it.

Trump’s Commerce pick backs public spending on transportation
The Hill reports, "Amid concerns from rural Republicans on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Commerce Department voiced support for public investments in transportation. Wilbur Ross, who co-authored the private funding-focused infrastructure proposal that Trump floated on the campaign trail, assured senators during his confirmation hearing that the concept of using private financing was not the “be all and end all” solution...'“The infrastructure paper I put out was meant to provide another tool, not to be the be all and end all,' Ross told the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 'There will be some necessity for [direct federal spending on transportation], whether it’s in the form of guarantees or direct investment or whatever.'"

One lawsuit down, but high-speed rail still faces five more cases
The Fresno Bee reports, "A lawsuit filed in 2014 by Kern County against the California High-Speed Rail Authority will be dismissed under the terms of a settlement announced Wednesday afternoon by the state agency... But four more CEQA lawsuits are still pending, filed by Kings County, the First Free Will Baptist Church of Bakersfield, Dignity Health, and the city of Shafter. And just last month, Kings County, local farmer John Tos, two Bay Area residents and several organizations sued the rail authority over the business financing plan it adopted to begin using money from Proposition 1A."

17 Rhode Island lawmakers oppose high-speed rail bypass
The Daily Progress reports, "A bipartisan group of Rhode Island legislators is opposing a plan to build a new Amtrak line that would speed up rail travel between Boston and New York City. Seventeen state lawmakers sent a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration this week expressing concern about the proposed bypass that would extend from Old Lyme, Connecticut, into southwestern Rhode Island. 'This bypass goes through wetlands, aquifers, nature preserves, designated open space, private property and farmland,' they wrote. 'The effect this project would have on southwestern Rhode Island would be enormous.'" Read my post about the FRA's plan for the Northeast Corridor here.

Happy reading, and happy weekend!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Here's what Trump said about infrastructure in his Inaugural Address



During his Inaugural Address, incoming President Donald Trump mentioned transportation infrastructure twice. Here are the two mentions and what they might mean for future policy:

First, while sharing a bleak description of America's recent past, Trump included our decaying infrastructure in a list of what America has gotten wrong by not putting itself first for the past several years:

"...and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas, while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay."

He previously said, in a presidential debate, that the money America spent in Iraq would have been better spent at home, including on transportation infrastructure, so this is a frequently-used talking point of his. Given the general theme of the address - about putting America first - it is likely he will continue talking about rebuilding America rather than focusing on problems overseas.

Later on, while outlining his vision for America's future, Trump again brought up transportation infrastructure as a means of creating jobs:

"We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American."

That last part, Buy American and Hire American, is particularly important, as it describes policies that require the use of American materials and American labor for constructing infrastructure. Transportation Secretary-designate Elaine Chao has previously said she didn't support Buy America rules, so it will be interesting to see whether that sort of provision makes it into an infrastructure package passed by Congress.

It is also important that Trump mentioned airports and railways in addition to the traditional "car infrastructure" (roads, highways, bridges, tunnels). Trump's infrastructure proposal so far relies heavily on tax-incentivized private investment, which will likely mean toll roads and other infrastructure that can turn a profit for those private interests. So if Trump is also committed to other kinds of transportation infrastructure projects - and Secretary Chao seems open to federal direct spending on important projects - they could help ensure that a bill passed by Congress is more wide-reaching than roads and highways. I will be hoping to see funding for high-speed rail, in particular.

It will also be interesting to see whether other types of infrastructure - energy, telecommunications, water, and others - make it into an infrastructure package.

While not a major focus of his speech in any way - no particular policy was, though border security and national defense got a few more mentions than infrastructure did - Trump made it clear that rebuilding our infrastructure remains among his priorities and that he views it through a lens of job creation and economic development.

Now, it's up to Congress to pass a bill.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

This Week in Transportation: January 14, 2017


This week in transportation, Takata agreed to a fine for exploding airbags, Elaine Chao had her Senate confirmation hearing, and a new report predicted cost overruns and delays for California's high-speed rail line. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Three Takata executives indicted over exploding airbags
CNN reports, "Three former executives of Japanese airbag maker Takata were indicted over the company's exploding airbags Friday. In addition, the company pleaded guilty to corporate criminal charges and agreed to pay a $1 billion fine, the Justice Department said... But most of the money that the company agreed to pay as part of the settlement will go to the automakers who bought the airbags from the company and have had to pay to repair them. The company will have to set up a fund with $125 million to compensate victims and their families as part of its guilty plea. But that's a fraction of the $850 million that will go to the automakers."

What we learned at Chao's confirmation hearing
Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, whom President-Elect Donald Trump selected to head the Department of Transportation, had her Senate confirmation hearing this week. Check out my write-up on what we learned about where Chao stands on a variety of transportation issues, including safety, regulation, and the balance of private investment and federal spending.

Obama admin sets climate metric for federal projects
E&E News reports, "A final draft of a rule the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published on its website would require state and regional highway planners to measure and report the greenhouse gas emissions of projects receiving federal funding. Environmentalists have framed the measure as a long-term strategy to lower vehicle emissions by encouraging public transportation and dense housing. Some planners, including those in California and Massachusetts, already take greenhouse gas emissions into account. Critics, however, argue that Congress did not give the highway agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions."

California's bullet train is hurtling toward a multibillion-dollar overrun, a confidential federal report warns
The LA Times reports, "California's bullet train could cost taxpayers 50% more than estimated — as much as $3.6 billion more. And that’s just for the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest part of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion... The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule."

Local state legislators vow to fight proposed high speed rail
KBTX reports, "Brazos Valley lawmakers in Austin are against a high speed rail system proposed to be built between Houston and Dallas. Many of them cite a statistic that says not one private high speed system has ever been profitable. 'When you look across, not just our country but the world, and you can't find an example of a private high speed rail project that's not funded partly by government subsidies, ie, the taxpayers, I really think that should give us pause,' said State Representative Trent Ashby... The other point lawmakers like State Representative Leighton Schubert make is that the infrastructure would physically divide parts of the state."

Happy reading, and happy weekend!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

What We Learned at Chao's Confirmation Hearing

Secretary-designate Elaine Chao testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee.
While we don't know much about Elaine Chao's stances on many issues related to transportation policy, Wednesday's confirmation hearing gave us an opportunity to learn a little more.

Before a committee known for its bipartisan spirit, Chao struck a familiar tone: she concluded the three-hour hearing by saying a large transportation bill "gives us an opportunity, on a bipartisan basis, to work together to build a better America." Indeed, infrastructure investment already seems to be one of the greatest chances for bipartisan movement in the next Congress, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) saying that Republican President-Elect Donald Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure plan "sounds good to me."

What else did we learn about what transportation policy might look like under a Trump-Chao administration? Here are the major developments:

Chao prioritizes safety
It could scarcely be clearer: in all aspects of the Department of Transportation's work, safety will be a top priority. When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked about rail safety in particular, Chao stressed that "safety is number one, there's no question about that... Safety will continue to be the number one priority for the Department of Transportation."

Safety for whom? Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) pointed out that 10% of roadway deaths in 2015 were pedestrians, with seniors more likely than any other age group to be struck and killed by a car. Particularly problematic in urban areas with many walking commuters, it will be important to find out whether Chao might support any policies to help address pedestrian safety in addition to driving safety, rail safety, port safety, etc.

Regulation will be front and center
In her questionnaire to the committee, Chao mentioned the importance of streamlining permitting processes for new infrastructure projects. In most cases, that means reducing regulation to make the process faster. 

Chao spelled out a moderate approach to regulation, saying "The great challenge for all regulators is to balance the ultimate goal of safety, but also to make sure that the regulations enacted are based on sound science, on true data, and that the underlying analysis is solid – that is the best way to protect consumers and passengers."

She also said the government could do a better job helping regulated bodies comply with regulations: as Secretary of Labor, she emphasized compliance over enforcement, and it sounds like that would be the case at Transportation as well. "Regulations can be confusing," she said, "Government has the responsibility to reach out to the regulated community to help them understand what’s required of them."

The administration will pursue public-private partnerships...
We already know that Trump's infrastructure plan relies heavily on incentivizing private investment in our infrastructure. It's no surprise, then, that Chao emphasized public-private partnerships (PPP) as a way to move big projects forward.

Chao called it "essential" to recognize when private funding tools would be more effective than government funding, but acknowledged that "there are times when PPP have not been welcomed; we need to do away with some of those impediments."

How to get private interests more involved? Chao said "the private sector is encouraged to get involved when there's a bold vision; this president [Trump] has a bold vision." Pressed by Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) for more  specifics, Chao added that "for them [PPP] to be effective, there are revenue streams that need to be assured."

On that topic, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V) brought up the fact that private companies aren't interested in investing on projects for which they won't get a return on that investment - for example, in more sparsely populated areas. She asked, "How do we incent the private dollars to go to the less economically developed parts of the country?" Chao only reiterated that it will be important to figure out the pay-fors for any infrastructure plan.

...but more federal funding might still be coming
When Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J) asked Chao whether the Trump Administration would support increasing federal direct spending on infrastructure, Chao said, “I believe the answer is yes.” Despite the bit of wavering there - Chao obviously did not want to go on the record putting words in the president-elect's mouth - I got the impression that Chao recognizes a large infrastructure plan would, by necessity, require some direct federal investment even if much of it relies on private investment.

One potential beneficiary of beefed-up federal support: the TIGER grant program, which provides funding for transportation projects (road, rail, transit, and ports) that achieve national objectives. Chao said that "from all my meetings... I've been very impressed with how many members like [TIGER grants]. She also called the current annual TIGER grant amount "a very modest sum in this budget."

Autonomous vehicles will be a major focus
Almost every member of the committee brought up autonomous vehicles and the broader topic of DOT's need to catch up on modernization issues. Chao cited the federal government's “failure to keep pace with emerging technologies" such as autonomous vehicles, but also said the federal government is not alone responsible: "The federal government can't do this on its own," she said, and it "must take stakeholders' perspectives into account." 

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) brought up the interesting point that autonomous vehicles can help people who can't drive (as opposed to just don't want to drive), such as the elderly and the disabled, get around - a sentiment Chao later echoed: "For seniors who may not want to drive, autonomous vehicles are a way to give them back their freedom."

Given the committee's and Chao's interest in autonomous vehicles and modernization - combined with Trump's desire to reduce regulation and Chao's support for private enterprise - it looks like the next four years could be very good for the budding autonomous vehicle industry. 

On ATC reform: let's talk later
Air traffic control reform will continue to be a hot-button issue, but Chao wasn't wading into it before she had to: "I'd like to get confirmed first," she said to audience laughter after being asked about the issue. She did add that "we need to have a national discussion" on the issue, before FAA reauthorization comes up again on September 30.

Also regarding the FAA, the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) came up several times, including in the broader context of modernization. Chao said "We need to have greater emphasis on improving the rate of modernization." She told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that examining NextGen is a "top priority of mine... how do we improve it, then also how do we maintain our aviation system to be the best, safest, most efficient in the world."

Chao gets intermodality
Intermodality - how our different modes of  transportation intersect to help people get around as quickly and efficienty as possible - is an interest of mine, and I was happy to hear her say we should "focus more on how different modes can be a single, seamless provider of services to provide a more efficient transportation system for the benefit of people and shippers." She said her department would have a "major focus on intermodal compatibility - seeing more cooperation between different modes."

Chao dodges on emissions, climate
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) brought up vehicle emissions - the transportation sector is responsible for more emissions than any other part of our economy - and fuel efficiency standards, asking Chao if she would commit to maintaining or bolstering those standards to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Like on many issues, Chao would only say she would examine the issue. We still don't know where Chao stands on climate change, so it's hard to know where she might come down on fuel efficiency standards or projects that would help make infrastructure more resilient to climate change and severe weather. 

She did, however, say at another point that rail travel "can obviously help with the environment, it is a wonderful alternative" - so she isn't unaware of, or necessarily uninterested in, the intersection of transportation policy and environmental policy. But we'll have to see how much weight she puts on environmental issues when it comes to approving big new infrastructure projects.

It's Really Dangerous to Walk in Florida


Download the new report here.
It's more dangerous to be a pedestrian in Florida's large metro areas than in those of any other state.

That's according to Dangerous by Design, a new report by Smart Growth America. The report takes a deep dive into the problem of pedestrian fatalities - namely, walkers who get struck and killed by cars. It uses a Pedestrian Danger Index to rank the 104 largest metro areas in the U.S. based on the number of walker fatalities and the overall number of walking commuters in the area.

It found that of the 10 metro areas with the highest score (meaning, the most fatalities per walking population), eight of them were in Florida. All of them were in the South.

Of the 10 most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians, eight are in Florida.

Nationwide, the statistics are alarming: between 2005 and 2014, over 46,000 people were killed by a car while walking. In 2014, that number was nearly 5,000 - an average of 13 pedestrians struck and killed by a car every day. And they aren't just statistics: Smart Growth America reminds us that "Each one of those people was a child, parent, friend, classmate, or neighbor. And these tragedies are occurring across the country—in small towns and big cities, in communities on the coast and in the heartland."

The report comes with a few interesting interactive maps. The first one lets you see all of the walker fatalities in any part of the country. Here's Washington, DC, where I live, which ranks the 69th most dangerous metro area for pedestrians:

A map of every pedestrian fatality in the Washington, DC metro area.

The second map, which is a heat map of the same data, shows that the neighborhoods in DC proper with the highest concentration of pedestrian fatalities are the Columbia Heights/Mount Pleasant area, and New York Avenue:

A heat map showing the highest concentrations of pedestrian fatalities in the Washington, DC metro area.

And here's what that heat map looks like in the most dangerous metro area for pedestrians in the country - Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida:

A heat map showing the highest concentrations of pedestrian fatalities in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL area.

The report delves into which communities are the most vulnerable to being killed by a car while walking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found that poor neighborhoods and people of color - in both cases less likely to own their own car - are more likely to be killed by a car while walking than white people or people living in wealthier areas.

People of color are more likely to be killed by a car while walking.

The report ends with a call to action: as Transportation Secretary-designate Elaine Chao will have her Senate committee hearing this week, Smart Growth America is encouraging people to write to the Senate Commerce Committee and urge them to ask Chao a question about pedestrian fatalities. We don't know much about where Chao stands on a number of transportation issues, so this hearing is a good opportunity to get more information - but only if they ask the right questions.

Download the full report here.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Four Things I Learned at Transportation Camp


This weekend I was at Transportation Camp, an "unconference" hosted by Mobility Lab that brings hundreds of transportation industry thought leaders, young professionals, and students together to talk about the latest issues, research, and ideas in transportation. By "unconference," they mean that attendees actually propose sessions when they get to the conference that day - so the topics covered are completely up to the people who show up.

There were a lot of really interesting-sounding sessions - over 70 squeezed into five one-hour blocks - and unfortunately I couldn't attend all of them. But here are some interesting things I learned at the sessions I did attend; if you came to Transportation Camp, I'd love to hear what you found interesting at the sessions you attended. Sound off in the comments are tweet me @TransportUSBlog!

1. Public transportation isn't always faster than driving.

Since the Washington, DC metro area is known for gridlock (in more ways than one), there's a prevalent assumption that taking public transportation (like Metro or the bus) is faster than sitting in traffic. But at the first session I attended, "WMATA: Moving Deck Chairs on the Titanic?" Stuart M. Whitaker presented research that concludes otherwise: measuring the time it takes to get from one Metro station to another using Metro or by driving, he found that in some cases the average Metro delay is 50% longer than if you'd driven. It can take even longer when you're riding the bus, as you're sitting in the same traffic as your car would be but making far more frequent stops.

There were some flaws in this research; it didn't include, for example, the time it takes to find parking once you get to your destination, which can take a long time particularly in dense areas like Dupont Circle. It also didn't take into account the fact that some people are productive (reading, doing homework, responding to emails) while riding transit but wouldn't be able to multitask while sitting behind the wheel. But the fact remains that driving is in many instances simply more time-efficient than taking public transportation, even in a major city with several transportation options, and this reality will continue making it challenging to get people to leave their cars at home.

2. I write too much.

I already knew this, but an interesting session by Jonathan Neeley, staff editor at Greater Greater Washington, drove this point home. In an age where more and more people are reading news on their phones, it's important to get to the point quickly and be brief. He said articles in the 500-800 range generally got the most engagement (in the form of comments). He also recommended short paragraphs (this one is already too long by his four-line standard) and breaking up long blocks of text with sub-headers (at least I'm doing that one here.)

Neeley had some other good tips: he said posts that are trying to persuade people should start by defining the problem and then explaining the solution - so that by the time you get to the solution, people already agree on what the problem is and are ready to be convinced that your solution is the best one. He also suggested focusing on outcomes, not processes - don't spend paragraphs talking about what an Environmental Impact Statement does before saying whether the project was approved.

3. Talk about people, not technologies.

My background is in communications, so I couldn't resist the session, "Red State: How can we make the case for transit in Middle America?" Moderated by Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smart Growth, the session was an open forum where people could talk about what arguments they've found to be most persuasive when trying to get Republicans to support transit projects.

The consensus that emerged, in the words of one of the attendees, was "don't talk about transit, talk about people - how do we get people to work, how do we get kids to school." A lot of the transit projects that the people in that room work on are those like bus rapid transit or streetcars that will directly help people get around, whether in Phoenix, Ariz. or in eastern Oregon. They found that the most convincing argument was to "frame it as a jobs and employment access opportunity - let's get people to work."

It isn't always that easy - I made the point that a lot of these projects have a definite, measurable, positive impact on the people they need to convince to support the project, but that isn't always the case. In California and Texas, for example, new high-speed rail lines will help many people access jobs in other cities, reduce congestion and emissions, and bring new development to mid-sized cities between the denser urban areas. But there will be people who are negatively impacted by those rail lines, such as those losing their homes to eminent domain or who may see their property values decline because of new trains running nearby. There wasn't an answer, at least at this session, about how to talk to people who will (or feel they will) be hurt by a new project that will certainly benefit other people and the economy as a whole.

4. No one knows what Secretary Chao will do at DOT

The last session I attended, wonderfully titled "Chao Chao! Here comes the Trump Train!" brought together federally-minded transportation advocates to talk about what they might expect under a Trump-Chao Department of Transportation. There were a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. In fact, at one point we brought up Chao's answers to the Senate Commerce Committee questionnaire to see if there were any hidden clues.

I've written about how Chao, who has served as deputy administrator of the DOT's Maritime Administration, might approach maritime infrastructure issues, but most of the focus at this session was on how federal funding for public transportation might take a hit at the expense of highway construction and maintenance under a Trump administration. We really just don't know yet - we'll likely get a better picture when we see who gets nominated for other DOT positions (deputy secretary, under secretary, etc.) and agency administrator positions.



Friday, January 6, 2017

This Week in Transportation: January 6, 2017

Photo by Max Touhey.
This week in transportation, Congressional leaders pushed Trump's infrastructure plan back to the spring, the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway finally opened, and the Nevada Center for Advanced Mobility hosted an automation-themed conference featuring driverless shuttles. Here are the most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Trump’s infrastructure plan likely to take shape later in spring
The Hill reports, "President-elect Donald Trump’s promised infrastructure package will likely take shape after his first 100 days in office, according to top Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Congress will focus on finding ways to pay for Trump’s infrastructure proposal during the first few months of his presidency, with a broader package likely to come together later in the spring. 'We’re going to start to work on it, but first of all, you’ve got to figure out the pay-fors, which will come, I believe, in the first 100 days,' Shuster said Wednesday. 'Then in the next second 100 days is when we’ll put together a big infrastructure package.'"

Port Infrastructure and the Role of Government
Lauren K. Brand, associate administrator for Ports and Waterways programs for the Maritime Administration, makes the case for more federal funding dedicated to improving our nation's ports: "We are in the midst of a revolution over port infrastructure. This revolution is not about the role of ports as silent engines for our economy and the need for better intermodal infrastructure. Rather, it is about why governments – local, state and federal – believe ports exist, and whether or not public and private entities, other than those directly responsible for ports, should help build or improve port infrastructure and their intermodal connectors."

Republicans embrace Amtrak’s Gulf Coast rebirth
POLITICO writes, "A decade after Hurricane Katrina wiped out a long stretch of Amtrak's transcontinental passenger route in the Deep South, the railroad is plotting to bring it back. And it’s attracted a seemingly unlikely group of cheerleaders: red-state Republicans. For Amtrak, extending the City of New Orleans line from Louisiana to Orlando, Fla., is a chance to demonstrate that its traditionally money-losing long-distance routes deserve Congress' investment. It could also mark a shift in some Republicans’ attitudes toward Amtrak, after decades of GOP leaders in Washington trying to slash the passenger rail’s funding and force it to dump unprofitable routes."

After Decades of Delays, Second Avenue Subway Finally Starts Rolling
NBC New York reports, "New Yorkers' long wait to take a subway under Manhattan's far Upper East Side ended Sunday when three new stations on the Second Avenue line opened to the public... The nearly 2-mile segment adds stations along Second Avenue at 96th, 86th and 72nd streets and a new connection to an existing subway line at 63rd Street. Seen as crucial to alleviating congestion in the nation's biggest subway system, it is on a line expected to carry about 200,000 riders a day. The entire system transports about 5.6 million riders on an average weekday."

Driverless shuttles move closer to Las Vegas streets
The Las Vegas Sun reports, "Both Local Motors and Keolis discussed plans to bring their self-driving shuttles to the Las Vegas area Tuesday at Mandalay Bay during the GO-NV Summit, presented by the Nevada Center for Advanced Mobility. The half-day conversation about the future of technology, data, and policy surrounding transportation in Nevada focused heavily on automation. Local Motors unveiled its Olli design in June while Keolis and French partner Navya announced its NAVLY vehicle in September. Both driverless shuttles are being tested in other areas (Olli in Maryland, NAVLY in Lyon, France) and likely will debut here in 2017."


Happy reading, and see you at Transportation Camp!