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Talking Headways Podcast: Here I Am, Stuck in Seattle With You

podcast icon logoStuck in Seattle or Stuck in Sherman Oaks. There are so many places to get stuck these days and so many clowns and jokers making it worse.

First, poor Bertha, stuck 100 feet under Seattle. All the tunnel boring machine wanted to do was drill a 1.7-mile tunnel for a highway that won’t even access downtown and is projected to cause more congestion at a higher price than a parallel surface/transit option — and it got stuck just 1,000 feet in. Last December. Now the rescue plan is making downtown sink. It’s not going well. And to be honest, it was always destined to not go well. It was a crappy plan to begin with. Luckily, there is a rescue plan for the rescue plan, if anyone cares to carry it out. It starts with some accountability and ends — spoiler alert! — with pulling the damn plug.

But if the new tunnel to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct is likely to cause traffic tie-ups, it’s nothing compared to the perennial jam on LA’s I-405. The popular navigation app Waze has started directing drivers off the freeway and into the residential neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, infuriating the people who live there. Their solution: Try to convince Waze there are traffic jams in Sherman Oaks too. Our solution: Build a better transportation system.

And that’s it! This is our last podcast until the New Year. You can catch up on anything you missed on iTunes or Stitcher, and if you follow our RSS feed (or our Twitter feeds) you’ll be the first to know when a new episode is out.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Trails!

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Vote to Decide the Best Urban Street Transformation of 2014

streetsie_2014

If you’re searching for reasons to feel positive about the future, the street transformations pictured below are a good start. Earlier this month we asked readers to send in their nominations for the best American street redesigns of 2014. These five are the finalists selected by Streetsblog staff. They include new car-free zones, substantial sidewalk expansions, superb bike infrastructure, awesome safety upgrades, and exclusive transit lanes.

Which deserves the distinction of being named the “Best Urban Street Transformation of 2014″? We’re starting the voting today and will post a reminder when we run the rest of the Streetsblog USA Streetsie Award polls next Tuesday. Without further ado, here are the contenders:

Western Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Before

Before

After. (We're using a rendering because the project is not quite yet 100% complete.)

After. (We’re using a rendering because the project is not quite 100 percent complete.)

The Western Avenue road diet narrowed dangerously wide traffic lanes on this one-way street to make room for safer pedestrian crossings, a raised bike lane, and bus bulbs. Brian DeChambeau of the Cambridge Community Development Department, the lead agency on the project, adds these details about the redesign:

Read more…

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A Better Way to Spend $1 Billion Than Ramming More Roads Thru Milwaukee

This concept design for an east-west corridor rapid transit system for Milwaukee was developed by a New Jersey DOT veteran for local advocates. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

Instead of WisDOT’s plan to spend a billion dollars double-decking part of I-94, Wisconsin PIRG proposes an east-west rapid transit corridor for Milwaukee. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is set on widening Interstate 94, a highway that runs east-west through Milwaukee. The agency is so committed to this idea that it is proceeding, at great expense and over the objections of Milwaukee’s mayor, with a project to double-deck a portion of the road through a relatively densely populated area. The money that WisDOT is prepared to shell out for this highway expansion could be better spent providing quality transit options along the corridor, the Wisconsin Public Interest Research says in a new report  [PDF].

The Wisconsin DOT hasn't done a very good job predicting traffic over the last few years. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

Wisconsin DOT is still adding highways to accommodate growing traffic volumes, even though statewide traffic has declined since 2004. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

The justification for the billion-dollar highway project is flimsy. The state DOT says traffic will grow 24 percent by 2030, but traffic has actually declined on the highway during the last four years data was available. The Milwaukee region grew less than 1 percent over the last 13 years, and total driving in Wisconsin hasn’t increased in the last 10 years. There is no reason to think the next 15 years will be all that different.

Since WisDOT is only considering different road expansion scenarios for this corridor, WisPIRG decided to do the work the agency has refused to do, hiring New Jersey DOT veteran Mark Stout to study what else the state can get for its money besides a few extra highway lanes.

A coalition fighting the I-94 expansion released the results of Stout’s work yesterday. Stout recommends that WisDOT rehab I-94 without breaking the bank on new traffic lanes. More important than expanding the road, he writes, is providing options to get around without clogging streets with more cars — namely, beefed up transit.

Stout developed a conceptual rapid transit plan [above] that would enable residents to travel the corridor by bus or rail. The transit plan is designed to serve important clusters of housing and jobs, and to connect with the city’s planned downtown streetcar, increasing the usefulness of both systems. Stout did not attempt to put a price tag on the transit expansion, but he said it could likely be accommodated with existing resources outlined in the region’s Transportation Improvement Plan, a docket of projects eligible for federal funding.

“Rather than squander billions of tax dollars on overbuilding highways, WISDOT should be offering a vision for transportation that will help strengthen communities, connect people to jobs, and better accommodate changing local needs,” said WisPIRG’s Bruce Speight in a press release. “They aren’t doing it, so we have to do it for them.”

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Michigan Gas Tax Hike Could Provide Some Relief for Detroit Transit Riders

Michigan state senators voted last week to approve a gas tax hike expected to net more than $1 billion annually to fix the state’s notoriously potholed roads, reports the Free Press. The measure, if it passes the House intact, could also be good news for Detroit’s woefully inadequate transit system.

A provision of the bill would allow Detroit to spend 20 percent of its portion of the proceeds on transit. Detroit has been funding transit only through its general fund — with no dedicated revenue stream — and it has arguably the worst transit system of any major city in the nation. With the city in bankruptcy, general fund revenues for transit have been in short supply. Riders report two-and-a-half-hour one-way commutes, or buses that never show, making it nearly impossible to hold down a job without a car.

Although the region is in the process of merging Detroit’s transit system with SMART, the suburban transit provider, establishing a seamless system has been fraught with political challenges. Regional planners, for instance, recently shifted millions of dollars in transit funding from Detroit to the suburbs. A new funding source would be huge.

Under the plan approved by the State Senate, Michigan’s gas tax would incrementally rise 17 cents per gallon over the next few years. Raising the tax to fix the state’s roads has been a top priority of Governor Rick Snyder, and Republican lawmakers apparently felt comfortable advancing it following the election.

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Lawmakers Could Finally Equalize Benefits for Transit and Parking This Year

It’s time to rev up the annual fight over parity between federal transit and parking benefits for commuters. Members of Congress hope this might finally be the year to get it done.

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RTD_Bus_%26_Light_Rail#mediaviewer/File:Denver_light_rail_train_at_16th-California_station.jpg##Wikipedia##

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: Wikipedia

This morning, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) announced that they will, again, push to equalize the tax benefits available to transit commuters and car commuters.

Right now, people who drive to work can get up to $250 a month in tax-free earnings to pay for parking. The monthly tax-free income available to the 3 million Americans who use the transit benefit, meanwhile, is capped at $130.

With the passage of the 2009 stimulus law, parity was implemented between the parking benefit and transit benefit for a brief while. After extending the higher transit benefit a few times, however, in recent years Congress has failed to take the necessary action to do so.

At today’s press conference, Washington Metro Board Chair Tom Downs noted that Metro ridership had stagnated since transit benefits dropped. “If you’re providing a $1,500-a-year incentive to drive your car over taking transit, you’re probably going to have an impact on mode choice,” Downs said.

Increasing the transit benefit makes the law more fair, but it probably won’t make a big impact on how people get to work. Studies show that providing parking benefits always increases solo driving rates, whether or not the workplace also offers transit perks. Better to do away with all commuter benefits than to provide both [PDF]. Besides, most transit commutes cost far less than $235 a month. A monthly New York subway pass costs $112. In DC, you’d have to travel from one end of the system to the other every day during peak hours to make use of the full $235 transit benefit Blumenauer proposes.

Though Blumenauer’s plan only cuts the parking benefit by $15, it’s deficit neutral (at worst), since so many more people drive than use transit.

Read more…

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How Clayton County Turned Its Zero-Transit Nightmare Around

Walking is great, but Clayton County's car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club

Walking is great, but Clayton County’s car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club

Whether Tuesday’s election left you feeling elated or devastated, there’s one happy story we can all rejoice in: Clayton County, Georgia, will finally get transit service.

For 10 years the county had a skeletal bus system with three routes, known as C-TRAN, which was then completely dismantled about four years ago. Having gotten its jump-start with federal air quality money, C-TRAN never really had the sustainable funding it needed. In 2010, facing a severe budget crisis, county commissioners voted to eliminate the service entirely. Advocates begged the commissioners to try other options, even raising fares and cutting service; anything but removing it entirely. But in March 2010, C-TRAN ceased operation.

Clayton County is a spread-out suburban area south of Atlanta. It’s the most economically depressed county in the region, and 7.5 percent of households don’t have access to a car. Most of the towns in the area have huge arterial roads but no real downtown.

So without a car and without even the barest of transit systems, people walk — along these unsafe arterial roads with no sidewalks.

“It’s not uncommon to see young people, old people, moms with babies, people with groceries walking in a ditch,” said Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “In hot weather, in cold weather, in rain — in all conditions, at all times of the day and night.”

Just eight months after the bus service ended, nearly 70 percent of voters in Clayton County agreed in a non-binding ballot measure to join the MARTA regional transit service.

But nothing happened.

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Ohio DOT’s Defense of the Transit-Inaccessible Transit Meeting

On Friday, the Ohio Department of Transportation held a meeting ostensibly to gather feedback from transit riders in the Dayton and Cincinnati regions. But ODOT held the meeting in exurban Lebanon — a hour’s trip by car from Cincinnati and totally inaccessible by transit from either city.

What was ODOT thinking?

Is it just a symptom of the agency’s low regard for transit riders? In an attempt to find out, I called ODOT and asked to talk to one of their many professional spokespeople. One of the media representatives politely took my phone number and said he’d ask someone to call me back. No one did.

So, below is the transcript of my non-interview with an apparently too-busy ODOT:

You have been hosting these transit meetings around the state to gather feedback about how the system is functioning. Why did you decide to hold them during the middle of the day? I’ve attended ODOT meetings in the evening for highway projects. Did you decide to handle meetings for transit riders differently and if so, why?

No answer.

Seems like an agency that was genuinely interested in gathering feedback would be sure to hold their meetings during a convenient time. 

Silence.

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6 Transportation Ballot Initiatives to Watch Next Tuesday

Activists in Clayton County, Georgia, support a ballot measure that would connect the county with the regional transit system. Photo: STAND UP via ##http://saportareport.com/blog/2014/07/as-clayton-commission-gets-a-marta-vote-do-over-spotlight-shines-on-gail-hambrick/##Saporta Report##

Activists in Clayton County, Georgia, support a ballot measure that would connect the county with the regional transit system. Photo: STAND UP via Saporta Report

Next week, voters in Maryland and Wisconsin may tell state officials to keep their greedy paws off transportation funds. Louisianans will consider whether to create an infrastructure bank to help finance projects. Texans will weigh the wisdom of raiding the state’s Rainy Day Fund for — what else? — highways. And Massachusetts activists who have been fighting to repeal the state’s automatic gas tax hikes will finally get their day of reckoning.

Those are just a few of the decisions facing voters as they go to the polls Tuesday. They’re the ones getting the most press and that could have the biggest impact. For instance, if Massachusetts loses its ability to raise the gas tax to keep up with inflation, it could inspire anti-tax activists in other states that would like to gut their own revenue collection mechanisms, too.

There are lots of local initiatives on next Tuesday’s ballot that aren’t generating so much buzz but could still have major implications for the state of transportation in key parts of the country. Here are some contests you should pay attention to.

This is what Pinellas County's rail system could look like in 10 years, if it passes Tuesday's ballot referendum. Image: ##http://greenlightpinellas.com/about/view-the-maps##Greenlight Pinellas##

This is what Pinellas County’s transit system could look like in 10 years, if it passes Tuesday’s ballot referendum. Map: Greenlight Pinellas

Pinellas County, Florida: For years, transit advocates have been trying to correct what they see as a major deficiency in Tampa’s regional transportation network: It is the largest metropolitan area in the country without rail transit. Voters in the three counties that make up the Tampa Bay region — Polk, Pinellas, and Hillsborough — all have to approve a new one-cent sales tax to pay for a potential light rail system and other transit improvements. Voters in Hillsborough rebuffed an attempt to get approval in 2010. Pinellas and Polk are trying this year.

Specifically, Pinellas County voters will decide on Greenlight Pinellas, a plan to increase bus service by 65 percent and build a 24-mile light rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater. It would form part of a regional transit system that the three counties are still trying to figure out. It’s by no means a done deal: The Pinellas contest has been one of the most bitterly and loudly contentious of this cycle. But a vote in favor of building the system would be a game-changer.

“The hope is that a positive vote, particularly in Pinellas, would really be a shot in arm for Hillsborough to come back to the voters or to proceed with some other funding mechanism to support the system,” said Jason Jordan, who tracks transit-related ballot initiatives around the country for the Center for Transportation Excellence.

Polk, the least urban of the three counties, will vote on a one-cent sales tax measure that would fund both transit and roads.

Read more…

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Are Federal Transit Models Short-Changing Universities?

Planners of the new Tucson streetcar predicted that it would carry 3,600 passengers a day. Just three months after it opened, the figure is 4,700. Builders of the light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul that started running in June foresaw 33,000 daily riders in 2015; the count has already passed 37,000.

Despite its slow travel time, the Twin Cities' Green Line is surpassing expectations -- in part because the FTA underestimates the university effect. Photo: ##http://www.cts.umn.edu/Publications/catalyst/2014/july/greenline##U of M Center for Transportation Studies##

Despite its slow travel time, the Twin Cities’ Green Line is surpassing expectations — in part because the FTA underestimates the university effect. Photo: U of M Center for Transportation Studies

These two rail lines have something in common: They pass through the heart of major state universities. Maryland’s Purple Line, which will break ground next year, does the same. There’s every reason to believe ridership will beat expectations there too.

The forecasts in Minnesota and Arizona did not fall short for lack of effort. A lot of work goes into ridership estimates, and they are carefully vetted by the Federal Transit Administration. Indeed, that vetting may be the cause of the lowball predictions.

Since the federal agency has the job of choosing the best among many projects seeking funding, it can’t let local governments puff up their numbers. So it insists that forecasters begin with computer models approved by regional planning agencies and lets them deviate only when hard evidence justifies it.

The models are slanted against transit. They ignore the ongoing return to the city and assume a future of more sprawl and more driving. On top of that, they treat universities like any other workplace. That’s a good enough approximation if you’re trying to predict rush-hour highway traffic, the purpose for which the models were originally put together, but it undercounts potential transit riders.

For many reasons, transit gets more use at universities than elsewhere:
Read more…

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By a Wide Margin, Americans Favor Transit Expansion Over New Roads

It's not even close. Americans prefer transit spending to road spending. Photo: Wikipedia

It’s not even close. Americans prefer transit spending to road spending. Photo: Wikipedia

If only our nation’s spending priorities more closely tracked public opinion: A new poll [PDF] from ABC News and the Washington Post finds that when presented with the choice, Americans would rather spend transportation resources expanding transit than widening roads.

In a landline and cell phone survey that asked 1,001 randomly selected adults how they prefer “to reduce traffic congestion around
the country,” 54 percent said they would rather see government “providing more public transportation options,” compared to 41 percent who preferred “expanding and building roads.” Five percent offered no opinion on the matter. The survey had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Attitudes varied by political leaning, place of residence, and other demographic factors. Urbanites were most likely to prefer transit spending (61 percent), followed by suburbanites (52 percent), then rural residents (49 percent), indicating that transit may be preferred to roads in every setting, though the pollster’s announcement doesn’t include enough detail to say so conclusively.

Among college graduates, racial minorities, people under 40, very high earners, and political liberals and independents, majorities favor transit expansion. Meanwhile, strong conservatives, evangelical white protestants, and white men without college degrees are more likely to favor road spending.

The poll release was timed in conjunction with Tuesday’s Washington Post forum on transportation issues.