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Posts from the Transit Category

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Congress Expected to Level Tax Benefit for Transit and Car Commuters

A federal policy that has encouraged Americans to drive to work instead of taking the bus or the train won’t tilt the playing field toward car commuters so much.

Those who take the bus or train to work will soon enjoy the same tax benefits as those who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

People who take the bus or train to work should soon be eligible for the same tax benefits as people who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

A bill that extends provisions of the tax code will permanently set the maximum transit commuter tax benefit at the same level car commuters get for parking expenses. Both classes of commuters can now pay for those costs with up to $255 in pre-tax income per month. The tax deal is expected to clear Congress this week, reports Forbes.

Currently, the monthly pre-tax expense for transit riders is capped at $130, while the cap for parking is set at $250. The mismatch primarily works against commuter rail and express bus services, which can easily cost more than $130 per month.

In recent years, lawmakers went back and forth between temporarily leveling the playing field and stiffing transit riders.

Jason Pavluchuk of the Association for Commuter Transportation applauded the measure, which would take effect in 2016. “This provision will eliminate the financial incentive to drive alone and will increase transit,” he said. “Further, this will help both transit riders as well as drivers who will benefit from less congested roads.”

While commuter tax benefit parity is an improvement, eliminating the benefit entirely would be better.

A report released last year by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group pointed out that commuter tax benefits amount to a gigantic transfer from low earners to high earners, who are best positioned to take advantage of them. Also, the maximum benefit may now be level for individual commuters, but in the aggregate the vast majority of these tax incentives will continue to go toward driving, an enormous subsidy that makes rush hour traffic congestion worse.

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What Went Wrong With Boston’s Green Line Extension?

Last week, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority abruptly cut ties with four contractors working on the 4.7-mile Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, outside Boston. The announcement came shortly after reports that the cost of the light rail project had ballooned to about $3 billion, an increase of a billion dollars.

Boston's Green Line extension plans are up in the air following some major setbacks. Image: MassDOT

After major setbacks, Boston’s Green Line extension will be delayed but probably not cancelled. Image: MassDOT

State officials said the decision doesn’t mean the project will be cancelled, although transportation chief Stephanie Pollack wouldn’t rule out that possibility, reports the Boston Globe.

The Green Line extension has a lot going for it. The project will serve some of the most densely populated areas of New England, and ridership is expected to be robust — about 49,000 trips per day. It enjoys widespread political support and will run along existing rail right-of-ways, so the political controversies that can accompany land acquisition are not an issue. It has secured nearly $1 billion in federal funding and benefits from a legal mandate requiring the state to offset some of the pollution effects of the Big Dig by improving transit.

So how did the cost rise so much and what does it mean for the project?

A major factor was the way MassDOT and the MBTA chose to contract out the project, according to Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental non-profit.

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The Looming Transit Breakdown That Threatens America’s Economy

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Categories of maintenance needs, in billions of dollars, for America’s large transit agencies. Graph: RPA

While federal transit funding stagnates, the nation’s largest rail and bus systems have been delaying critical maintenance projects. Without sustained efforts to fix infrastructure and vehicles, the effects of deteriorating service in big American cities could ripple across the national economy, according to a new report from the Regional Plan Association [PDF].

RPA focuses on ten of the nation’s largest transit agencies — in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Between them, these agencies face about $102 billion in deferred maintenance costs. To bring the systems into a state of good repair will require about $13 billion in maintenance spending per year — more than twice the current rate of investment.

These regions house about one-fifth of the country’s population and produce about 27 percent of the nation’s economic output. They also carry about 60 percent of the nation’s total transit ridership, up from 55 percent 20 years ago. That’s a reflection of how transit has become increasingly important in these regions, with passenger trips growing 54 percent over the same period.

That level of ridership growth can’t be sustained if the transit systems aren’t maintained properly. RPA cites a 2012 report from San Francisco’s BART that says if the system is allowed to deteriorate…

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Transit vs. Highways: Which Came Out on Top in Local Elections?

Ed Murray's Move Seattle plan got a $900 million nod from voters yesterday. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog

Ed Murray’s Move Seattle plan got a $900 million nod from voters yesterday. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog

There were several local ballot measures with big implications for streets and transportation yesterday, and results were all over the map. Here’s how three of the most notable votes turned out.

Seattle’s property tax increase to fund walking, biking, and transit

This map shows all the projects planned as part of Ed Murray's 10-year Move Seattle Plan. Image: Seattle. Click to enlarge

This map shows all the projects planned as part of Ed Murray’s 10-year Move Seattle Plan. Image: Seattle. Click to enlarge

Voters have spoken and they decided to enact Move Seattle, the $900 million property tax levy for transportation.

The funding will support Mayor Ed Murray’s 10-year transportation vision [PDF], which lays out an agenda to reduce traffic deaths and greenhouse gas emissions, and generally make it safer and more convenient to walk, bike, or ride the bus.

Among the projects that will receive funding: seven rapid bus routes with dedicated lanes, a creative plan to fill gaps in the sidewalk network, and a network of 50 miles of protected bike lanes.

One of the longer-term goals of the plan is to put 75 percent of Seattle households within a 10-minute walk of frequent bus routes, running at least every 15 minutes.

The constitutional mandate to subsidize highways in Texas

In Texas, voters overwhelming passed Prop 7, a sales tax measure that will generate revenue for free highways. The measure mandates spending $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue annually on highways without tolls. As expected, Prop 7 won in a landslide, with about 83 percent of voters supporting the measure, according to the Austin Statesman.

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House Transpo Bill Spells Trouble for Transit Projects Across America

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Chicago’s Red and Purple Line modernization project could be delayed or worse under the funding formulas in the House transportation bill, says Representative Dan Lipinski. Image via CTA

A provision in the House GOP’s new transportation bill threatens to upend how transit agencies fund major capital projects, delaying or killing efforts to expand and maintain rail and bus networks.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (STRR), released Tuesday and marked up in committee yesterday, would change funding rules for the three federal programs that support transit maintenance and expansion projects, known as New Starts, Small Starts, and Core Capacity.

Currently, transit capital projects are eligible to receive 80 percent of their funding from federal sources, with local sources providing the remaining 20 percent. This is the same as the federal match available for highway projects. But the new House bill would cut the maximum federal match for transit projects to 50 percent while leaving the highway formula untouched. The bill would also prohibit transit agencies from counting funds from other federal programs (TIFIA loans, for instance) toward the local portion.

Representatives from urban areas warn that the House bill jeopardizes projects to maintain and improve transit systems. At the mark-up hearing yesterday, Representative Dan Lipinski, a Democrat who represents Chicago, said the measure “could end or delay Red and Purple Line modernization projects in Chicago.”

By cutting the potential share of project funds available from federal sources, the bill would also make transit projects less appealing relative to highways in the eyes of local governments, which would have to pitch in a smaller percentage for road projects.

Smaller cities are more likely to take advantage of federal matching funds that exceed 50 percent of a project’s total cost. Albuquerque, for instance, is counting on an 80 percent match to build its downtown BRT route. Larger cities are more likely to supplement a 50 percent federal grant with another source of federal funds, like TIFIA loans.

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Simple, Creative Ideas to Build a Better Bus Stop

Waiting for the bus can be a pain. To make transit more appealing, nothing beats frequent service, but studies have shown that if you’re going to wait, small improvements like shelters and information about when the next bus is coming can make the wait feel shorter.

A community group in Denver, Colorado raised money to post walking directions signs advising riders of nearby destinations that are a sort distance by foot. Photo: ioby

WalkDenver raised money to post wayfinding signs pointing the way to destinations within walking distance. Photo: ioby

That was a big impetus behind “Trick Out My Trip,” an initiative that helped transit riders in cities across America implement creative ideas to make the rider experience better. The project was sponsored by TransitCenter and ioby (in our backyards), a crowdsourcing platform for community improvements.

Ten grassroots teams raised a combined $54,000 for their projects, matched by $26,000 from the sponsoring organizations. Among the ideas that got funding: play equipment at transit stops for waiting children in Denver and bike repair stations at rail stops in Atlanta.

Here are a few cool examples.

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Without Transit, American Cities Would Take Up 37 Percent More Space

Even if you never set foot on a bus or a train, chances are transit is saving you time and money. The most obvious reason is that transit keeps cars off the road, but the full explanation is both less intuitive and more profound: Transit shrinks distances between destinations, putting everything within closer reach.

A new study published by the Transportation Research Board quantifies the spatial impact of transit in new ways [PDF]. Without transit, the researchers found, American cities would take up 37 percent more space.

Transit-oriented development in Portland's Pearl District. Photo: Smartgrowth.org

Transit-oriented development in Portland’s Pearl District. Photo: Smartgrowth.org

The research team from New York, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City modeled not just how many driving miles are directly averted by people riding transit, but how the availability of transit affects the way we build cities.

By allowing urban areas to be built more compactly, the “land use effect” of transit reduces driving much more than the substitution of car trips with transit trips. Total miles driven in American cities would be 8 percent higher without the land use effect of transit, the researchers concluded, compared to 2 percent higher if you forced everyone who rides transit to drive.

On average, the study found, the “land use effect” of transit is four times greater than the “ridership effect,” or the substitution of car trips with transit trips. But the land use effect of transit varies a great deal across urban areas, the study found. In places like Greenville, South Carolina, it’s responsible for reducing driving 3 percent. In San Francisco and New York City, it’s 18 and 19 percent, respectively.

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North Carolina Lawmakers Try to Sabotage Durham-Orange Light Rail

A rendering of the 17-mile Durham-Orange light rail plan. Image: Go Triangle

A rendering of the proposed Durham-Orange light rail. Image: Our Transit Future

State lawmakers in North Carolina launched a sneak attack this week on plans for light rail between Durham and Orange County — and nobody’s sure exactly who’s behind it or why they did it.

Leaders in Durham and Orange are counting on the state to deliver about 10 percent of the funding for the $1.5 billion, 17-mile line, which would connect the booming area between Durham and Chapel Hill. But North Carolina residents learned this week that the state budget compromise between the House and Senate includes a new provision that would outlaw directing more than $500,000 in state funds to a light rail project. Lawmakers never openly debated the provision.

Durham-Orange light rail is expected to draw 23,000 daily riders. Image: GoTriangle

Daily ridership on the Durham-Orange light rail is expected to be 23,000. Click to enlarge. Image: Our Transit Future

The move was sudden and unexpected. “Nobody knew about it, and bang – it was there,” said Ron Tober, a retired transit executive who lives in the state. “It’s a fairly dramatic event that has occurred.”

Voters in Durham and Orange counties have approved a half-cent sales tax to fund the light-rail project. The plan also called for $138 million from the state, with federal funding to close the gap.

Just this week, the Federal Transit Administration awarded $1.7 million to GoTriangle to plan transit-oriented development around the stations. Project leaders recently completed a draft environmental impact statement and were preparing to approach the federal government for funds to begin the engineering phase.

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A Major Bike Lane Upgrade, Brought to You by Portland’s Transit Agency

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

It’s safe to say Portland has found a way to solve the problem of people confusing a sidewalk with a sidewalk-level bike lane.

The answer: lots and lots of green.

Here are some pictures of the raised bike lanes on Southwest Moody Avenue in 2013.

Comfortable separation between bikes and cars? Yes. Confusing interactions between people walking and biking? Also yes.

Now, here’s what a once-similar section of the same street looked like as of last week.

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Cities Lead the Way as U.S. Car Commuting Takes Historic Downturn

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Graph: U.S. Census Bureau

The decline is small in number, but in the scheme of things, it’s huge: New census data [PDF] out last week show car commuting among Americans is finally, after decades of growth, starting to reverse itself.

Driving to work is still the predominant mode to a depressing extent. Almost nine in 10 Americans get to work by car and about three in four drive alone. But those numbers are beginning to fall.

Since 1960, the percent of Americans driving to work rose from 64 percent to a high of 87.9 percent in 2000. Since then, it has declined slightly but meaningfully to 85.8 percent. The percent of the population commuting by car ticked down again in 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available.

Even solo car commuting is down from its high in 2010 of 76.6 percent. Despite a precipitous decline in carpooling, solo car commuting was down to 76.4 percent in 2013, after two decades of rapid growth.

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Declines in car commuting for the 10 cities with the highest transit commuting rates by age. Table: U.S. Census

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