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Transit Union Slams DRIVE Act

The Amalgamated Transit Union wants more protections for transit in the multi-year transportation bill. Photo: ##http://www.atu.org/media/multimedia/photos/national-transit-action-rally##ATU##

The Amalgamated Transit Union wants more protections for transit in the multi-year transportation bill. Photo: ATU

Yesterday, the Senate passed both a three-month transportation extension and a six-year reauthorization bill (albeit with three years of funding), which the Senate hopes to workshop with the House in the fall. The bill’s name itself — the DRIVE Act — raised the hackles of transit advocates. Looking deeper, it seems those advocates have more to worry about than just semantics.

The Amalgamated Transit Union summed up their top five concerns with the bill in a letter to the Senate before yesterday’s vote. The Union said that “people who care about public transportation” should vote against the bill because it:

  • Expedites New Starts grant funding for public-private partnerships, encouraging communities to get into deals with private entities. The ATU worries that this policy could lead to “bridges to nowhere” and calls it a “shameless, partisan, and unprecedented nearly $2 billion give away to private — mostly foreign — corporations that have a long history of providing low quality transit service all across the nation.”
  • Removes the requirement for metropolitan planning organizations to include transit agency representatives on their governing boards.
  • Seals information about truck and bus crashes, keeping the public in the dark. The ATU charges that many bus crashes are the result of underpaid and overworked drivers employed by non-unionized bus companies falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Fails to restore bus capital funding that was cut from $980 million to $440 million in MAP-21. The union says without proper funding, unsafe and antiquated buses stay on the road way past the end of their useful life.
  • Is the result of an undemocratic process, as Banking Committee Chair Richard Shelby “broke off negotiations and completed the public transportation title of the bill without reaching an agreement with Ranking Member [Sherrod] Brown.”

Meanwhile, Transportation for America criticized the Senate for missing a chance to give local communities more control over decisions that impact them. A bipartisan amendment from Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) to direct more funding to towns and cities was rejected, and the bill instead reduces the overall amount of funding controlled at the community level by nearly $200 million in the first year alone.

And of course, T4A and many other observers are disappointed that the bill is funded — well, half-funded — with gimmicks and shell games rather than a sustainable income source that the transportation sector can count on.

The DRIVE Act will be the Senate’s contribution to a compromise to be worked out with the House, which hasn’t passed a bill yet. Maybe they will, or maybe they’ll go to conference without one, like last time, and just hack away at the Senate’s bill. Either way, House Speaker John Boehner says he’s “confident” they’ll pass a multi-year bill in the fall.

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Major MARTA Expansion Could Transform the Atlanta Region

MARTA hopes to expand its rail service in Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Image: ##http://wabe.org/post/8b-marta-rail-expansion-proposal-explained##ItsMARTA via WABE##

MARTA hopes to expand its rail service in Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Map: ItsMARTA via WABE

Transit planners in the Atlanta area are getting serious about the largest expansion in MARTA’s history. MARTA officials have proposed new, high-capacity service into North Fulton County and east into DeKalb County that could link important job centers by rail for the first time. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says it could “change the face of Atlanta.”

The new rail service would finally connect residential areas to the rapidly growing area encompassing Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control, just east of the city limits. It would also extend all the way north to Alpharetta, a booming business center 25 miles north of Atlanta in Fulton County.

Officials from Cobb County, just west of Fulton, have long resisted and even ridiculed the idea of bringing transit access there, and Gwinnett County to the east is too low-slung and suburban to consider rail service at this point. But Fulton’s charge ahead into a more urban future could cause its neighbors to reconsider their ways.

MARTA Board Chair Robbie Ashe says the transit expansion could propel a new model of growth in the region. “Corporations are increasingly demanding immediate proximity to transit stations,” Ashe told the AJC. “State Farm did it when they came here. Mercedes did it. Worldpay did it when it relocated. Kaiser is going to be located two blocks from here because of the Arts Center Station.”

Best of all, according to Darin Givens who blogs at ATL Urbanist, these new stations, even the ones far out in the suburbs, are likely to be surrounded by transit-oriented development rather than park-n-rides.

“MARTA has now accepted that it’s time to undo its park-n-rides,” Givens said. “They’re trying to turn all these park-n-ride lots around MARTA stations — around a lot of them — into transit-oriented development.”

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Fewer People Are Riding the Bus Because There Are Fewer Buses to Ride

Source: The Century Foundation

In most big American cities, bus service shrank between 2006 and 2012. No wonder bus ridership is dropping too. Graphic: The Century Foundation

Remember when the Great Recession decimated transit agency budgets, but the White House and Congress refused to step in and fund bus service while spending billions of dollars to subsidize car purchases? Well, the hangover continues to this day, leaving bus riders in the lurch.

Last year, bus ridership in America shrank 1 percent. While rail ridership grew 4 percent, enough to lift total ridership slightly, buses are still the workhorse of U.S. transit systems, accounting for most trips. If bus ridership is shrinking, something is wrong.

Jacob Anbinder at the Century Foundation has been poring over the data. He notes that in most of the nation’s biggest cities, bus ridership was on the upswing until the recession. Since then there’s been a noticeable falling off. His chart below shows bus ridership in America’s ten largest urban regions:

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Washington DC, Atlanta, Boston

It’s not surprising that bus ridership fell when a lot of people were out of work, Anbinder says. What’s disturbing is that bus ridership is still slumping even as the economy has picked back up.

But the explanation is simple enough. As Anbinder shows in the chart at the top of this post, a lot of transit agencies cut bus service during the recession, and for the most part it’s still not back to pre-recession levels.

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Program Would Make Transit Free for Commuters to Downtown Columbus

Downtown Columbus workers might soon have access to free transit. Photo: DowntownColumbus.com

Downtown Columbus workers might soon have access to free transit. Photo: DowntownColumbus.com

Only about 5 percent of workers in downtown Columbus arrive by transit daily, according to census data. So Columbus — technically the fifteenth largest city in the U.S. — isn’t a huge transit city, by any means. But an innovative new proposal could help dramatically increase the share of downtown workers who arrive by bus.

A group of downtown property owners is experimenting with a program that would offer free transit passes to those who work in downtown Columbus. The initial 18-month pilot, which recently received final approval, includes just five major employers and about 1,100 employees.

But if it is successful, the plan is to expand free transit passes to employees in a wide area encompassing most of downtown. Marc Conte of Capital Crossroads, the downtown special improvement district leading the initiative, thinks it could at least double the number of people taking transit into downtown each work day.

Some cities, including Boulder and Salt Lake City, have experimented with downtown transit pass systems before, but never on this scale, says Conte. The program is actually modeled after Ohio State University’s BuckID program, which lets all students ride COTA buses for “free” (the cost of the service is included in student activity fees).

Capital Crossroads, a voluntary association of 550 downtown property owners, was grasping for a solution to parking demand. Downtown Columbus office occupancy rates are climbing, and parking lots were developed, but those trends were placing stress on the existing transportation system. Capital Crossroads members, many of them condo owners, “kept asking us to do something about the parking problem,” Conte said. “If you have a big chunk of employees to park anywhere, you can’t find them any parking.”

The city of Columbus built two 700-space downtown parking garages. But the city isn’t interested in additional bonding to build more spaces, Conte says, and market parking rates aren’t high enough to justify private garages.

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Chris Christie Keeps Trying to Balance NJ’s Books on Backs of Transit Riders

Graph: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

That blue line is about to take another steep jump, but not the green one. Graph: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

Governor Chris Christie has really made a mess of New Jersey’s transportation finances. Since 2011, the governor’s “flipping the couch cushions” strategy has resulted in the state amassing an additional $5.2 billion in debt.

New Jersey’s gas tax has not increased since the 1980s and is the second lowest in the nation. Without new revenue, predictably enough the state can’t balance the books. This budget session, New Jersey Transit is facing a $60 million shortfall, and transit riders will soon be paying more for less. The state has proposed a 9 percent fare increase on top of service reductions.

The refusal to raise the gas tax is a hallmark of Christie’s political strategy. A 2012 report from the federal Government Accountability Office concluded that Christie killed the ARC transit tunnel across the Hudson because he wanted to siphon the money off for highways without hiking the state’s gas tax.

While the gas tax hasn’t budged since 1988, New Jersey transit riders got stuck with a 25 percent bus fare hike and a 10 percent rail fare hike in 2010.

A recent poll of New Jersey voters found 50 percent favor raising the gas tax. But that hasn’t convinced Christie to face reality.

Without new revenue, the state may be forced to cancel previously authorized projects, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign warns. And soon, New Jersey won’t even be able to pay the bill on existing debts. Something’s got to give — raising fares and cutting service can’t paper over Christie’s transportation budget mistakes much longer.

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5 Things the USDA Learned From Its First National Survey of Food Access

How much does transportation limit people's access to food? A new UDSA study takes a look at the issue. Photo: Wikipedia

How much does the transportation system limit people’s access to food? Photo: Wikipedia

The links between transportation, development patterns, and people’s access to healthy food are under increasing scrutiny from policy makers trying to address America’s obesity epidemic.

Here’s some new data that sheds light on Americans’ access to fresh food. The USDA recently completed the first “National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey,” which delves into where people buy their food and how they get there.

Here are the major findings:

Most people drive their own car to the grocery, but lower-income households are more likely to rely on transit or a ride

Across all income groups, 88 percent of Americans drive the family car to pick up the groceries.

However, people who use government food assistance like WIC or SNAP — as well as people who don’t participate but qualify based on income guidelines — were more like to rely on transit, walking, biking, or a ride from a friend or family member:

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Miami’s Golden Opportunity to Bring Commuter Rail Downtown

Miami wants to take advantage of infrastructure put in place by intercity high speed rail to expand local transit. Image: SFRTA

Miami wants to take advantage of high-speed rail infrastructure to improve its commuter rail service. Image: SFRTA

Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. Traffic-clogged Miami is tantalizingly close to a commuter rail extension that would link its northern suburbs to the heart of downtown. But the city needs to secure $30 million in the next few months to make it happen.

The region has a commuter rail line called Tri-Rail that runs 72 miles north to south and serves about 15,000 weekday passengers. But the line heads inland in the city of Miami and terminates at the airport, not downtown. With the construction of All Aboard Florida, the private high-speed rail line between Miami and Orlando, Tri-Rail could add a new spur that takes commuters directly downtown.

The South Florida Regional Transit Authority says bringing Tri-Rail to downtown by piggybacking on All Aboard Florida — an improvement that would conservatively add a few thousand daily passengers — would not cost much. All it would take is $69 million to build two elevated boarding platforms at the downtown train station.

The Florida Department of Transportation has committed $17 million to the proposal. And SFRTA has pledged another $3 million. It’s up to the county, city, and other partners to come up with the remaining $49 million.

“We’re looking at this as now or never,” said Bonnie Arnold, a spokesperson for SFRTA. “This opportunity is not going to come around again. The opportunity to have commuter rail on elevated tracks is really critical because the traffic congestion in Miami has just gotten awful. It’s almost impassable.”

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U.S. Transit Ridership Continued Upward Climb in 2014, Thanks to NYC

Healthy growth in New York City's subway ridership is a big part of the United States' overall transit ridership picture for 2014. Photo: Wikipedia

New York City subway ridership increased substantially in 2014. Photo: Wikipedia

Transit ridership continued to climb in American cities last year, even as gas prices sank. The American Public Transit Association is out with new data on the number of transit trips in the United States — 10.8 billion in 2014, the highest in 58 years.

Total transit trips were up about 1 percent compared to 2013, with significant variation between individual cities.

In Minneapolis, light rail trips grew 57 percent in 2014, reflecting the launch of the Green Line. Transit ridership grew 4 percent overall in the Twin Cities region.

Other cities that saw ridership growth include San Diego (8 percent over 2013), Baltimore (4 percent), Denver, (3 percent, Atlanta (2.5 percent), and Boston (just under 2 percent).

Meanwhile, transit trips in Detroit dropped 14 percent — concerning, but not surprising given the ongoing dysfunction of regional transit service. In Los Angeles County, transit ridership decreased 2.8 percent. The Chicago Transit Authority saw a 4 percent increase in rail trips but an 8 percent drop in bus trips, for an overall decline of 2.8 percent.

APTA attributed ridership growth in Indianapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Riverside, California, to service increases. In cities like Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle, APTA says the increasing number of transit trips probably had more to do with economic growth.

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Koch Brothers Loom Over Maryland’s Purple Line Fight

Look whose envoy has been dispatched to undermine Maryland’s Purple Line. Once again, Randal O’Toole of the Koch brothers-funded Cato Institute has been deployed to attack a light rail project in distress.

pete_rahn

Newly appointed Maryland DOT chief Pete Rahn will play a large role in deciding the fate of the Purple Line. At Rahn’s confirmation hearing, lawmakers questioned him about a fishy contract awarded to Koch Industries when he was running New Mexico DOT.

On Monday, the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank, is hosting a debate on whether to construct the light rail project in the DC suburbs, which newly elected Governor Larry Hogan has threatened to kill. The debate will pair Rich Parson, vice chair of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, with O’Toole, professional rail critic.

O’Toole works for the Cato Institute, founded and funded by the Koch brothers. Cato dispatches O’Toole to political squabbles involving rail transit around the country, from Indianapolis to Honolulu. He’s so rabidly anti-rail that after Hurricane Sandy, he suggested New York City should replace its subway system with a network of underground buses.

Despite dispensing ridiculous advice, O’Toole continues to be treated as a serious thinker by American media outlets. The Washington Business Journal recently printed an O’Toole broadside against the Purple Line, replete with his typical arguments, like light rail is worse for the environment than driving.

Hogan’s appointee to head the state DOT, Pete Rahn, was scheduled to give opening remarks at the MPPI event. But sources tell us that Rahn has since backed out prior to a bruising confirmation hearing with Maryland’s Democratically controlled legislature.

At the hearing, Maryland lawmakers raised questions about a highway project in New Mexico, where Rahn was previously DOT chief. NM-44, a 118-mile, $420 million road-widening that Rahn oversaw in New Mexico — the most expensive highway project in the state’s history at the time — awarded a huge and unusual contract to Koch Industries.

An investigation by the Albuquerque Business Journal [PDF] reported that Koch Industries was the only bidder on the project and approached Rahn directly with the proposal before bids had been requested. Koch Industries was also awarded an unprecedented $62 million contract for a 20-year maintenance warranty.

Former New Mexico Republican State Senator Billy McKibben told the Illinois Business Journal (which reported on the controversy after Rahn was installed as the head of Missouri DOT) that the deal would have bankrupted the state if it wasn’t for a well-timed oil and natural gas boom.

Correction 2:51 p.m. February 26: The original version of this story included the wrong date for the Maryland Public Policy Institute debate. It is March 2. 

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Maryland Gov Larry Hogan Plays Chicken With Purple Line Funding

Newly elected Maryland Governor Larry Hogan says he’s putting off bids on the Purple Line light rail project in an attempt to cut costs, but the delay could also jeopardize the whole project by putting federal funding at risk.

The Purple Line would represent a major expansion of Washington, D.C.,'s transit system and would likely lead to a boom in development in the Maryland suburbs. Image: PurpleLineMD

The Purple Line would be a major expansion of Washington, D.C.,’s transit system and would likely lead to a boom in development in the Maryland suburbs. Image: PurpleLineMD

A cloud of uncertainty has been hanging over the Purple Line since Hogan’s election in November. On the campaign trail, the Republican threatened to kill the project, which has been in the works for more than a decade and was expected to break ground this year. Hogan has kept some state funding for the project in his budget, but hasn’t committed to building it.

In his latest announcement, Hogan said he is extending the deadline for bids to construct the Purple Line five months, from March to August. He had already pushed the deadline back two months, before taking office.

The additional time, Hogan argues, will allow firms to revise their proposals to lower costs and save money. His newly appointed transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, will study and review the proposals.

But is this move really about cost containment? Advocates are concerned that Hogan’s foot-dragging will have another effect: jeopardizing federal funding.

Nick Brand, president of the Action Committee for Transit in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, says Hogan’s new timeline would put the project out to bid in early August instead of March. Then, the state must spend some time reviewing and ranking bids before making a selection. But $100 million in federal funding was appropriated for the fiscal year ending September 30. Even if there are no additional delays, it’s going to be tough to finalize a funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration before then, Brand said.

Running past the September date isn’t a dealbreaker, but it will increase uncertainty surrounding the project, according to Brand. “There’s apparently not a fixed deadline for the money to be spent or committed,” he said. But “once you’re into a new fiscal year, the competition is out there saying, ‘Maryland’s not ready but we’re ready.'”

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