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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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Atlanta Streetcar’s Early Ridership Numbers Disappoint

The first batch of numbers are in for ridership on Atlanta’s brand new $98 million, 2.7-mile downtown streetcar — and the project is off to a rocky start.

The Atlanta Streetcar is underperforming projections. Photo: City of Atlanta

So far, the Atlanta Streetcar is not meeting projections. Photo: City of Atlanta

The streetcar, which opened December 30, is carrying 18 percent fewer riders than anticipated, according to data released by the city this week. That’s actually worse than it sounds because the streetcar is still offering free fares. Passengers will start having to pay $1 per trip in the coming months.

In its first six weeks of operation, the streetcar carried 102,000 people. Project sponsors had predicted 124,000, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The city, which is running the streetcar, also says operating costs are 50 percent higher than anticipated. Service was expected to cost about $3.2 million annually. Instead, it will cost $4.8 million.

The cost overruns aren’t as alarming upon closer examination. A big chunk of the additional expense comes from introductory fees the city is required to pay MARTA for its cooperation on the project. Those will wind down next year. The city also decided to spend $1 million to seek federal funding for additional transit projects, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports, and that expense has been budgeted to streetcar operations.

Critics of the project, including many national transit advocates, have pointed out that the route, which mainly connects the city’s tourist destinations, is of limited use. It also runs in mixed traffic, which makes it painfully slow at times.

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St. Louis Stunner Runs Away With the Vote for America’s Sorriest Bus Stop

This bus stop in the St. Louis suburb of Lindbergh was the overwhelming favorite for sorriest bus stop. Photo: NextSTL

This bus stop in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights was the overwhelming favorite for sorriest bus stop. Image via NextSTL

In the end, it was never even close. This bus stop on Lindbergh Boulevard in suburban St. Louis won wire-to-wire in the voting for the Sorriest Bus Stop in America.

There was plenty of worthy competition, but something stood out about this stick in the ground next to what seems to be a divided highway. The only thing marking the stop is a single, lonely signpost — no sidewalk, no bench, and not much in the way of destinations.

The stop is actually an important connection point, as a spokesperson from St. Louis Metro Transit explained in the comments (we confirmed that it was in fact Metro):

The stop is on Lindbergh, a major north-south artery. The speed limit is 40 MPH in that section (it is not a freeway.) The overpass you see in the photo is Page Avenue, a major east-west artery. Vehicles use exit ramps to make the connection between the two streets, but there is no safe way for pedestrians to cross between Page and Lindbergh. So, the Page bus leaves Page Avenue, drops people off at that bus stop who need to transfer to the Lindbergh bus, and then returns to Page. It looks odd, but serves an important purpose.

Metro spokesperson Patti Beck added: “We do need to help our customers get to where they need to go and there is no pedestrian infrastructure along those two major roads.” She said the agency tries to work with municipalities in its service area to ensure there is proper pedestrian infrastructure when possible.

Indeed, the lion’s share of the blame doesn’t lie with Metro, but with the public officials and agencies who have created such a far-flung, high-speed street network. Transit, walking, and amenities for bus passengers are afterthoughts.

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Despite Problems, Boston’s MBTA Should Continue to Expand

Cross posted from the Frontier Group.

As you may have heard, we’ve been experiencing a few public transportation problems here in Boston of late. Record-smashing snowfall, coupled with extreme cold temperatures and some questionable decisions by public officials in the early days of Snowmageddon have left the city with a subway and commuter rail system that is, as I write, barely functioning. It has also focused public attention on fiscal train wreck that is our local transit system, the MBTA.

One meme that has surfaced in the recent debate is that the MBTA should not spend a dime on further expansion until it can run the core part of its system reliably. It’s a compelling argument in many ways. Clearly, one should not invest in building a new addition to one’s home if the roof is caving in. It is also clear that ensuring the smooth functioning of the city’s core subway lines – some of which rely on cars that date from the late 1960s and infrastructure that dates from God knows when – is more critically important than adding new stations and service.

But the idea of putting further expansion and improvement plans on hold indefinitely is not a perfect solution either. Doing so essentially commits Boston to a 20th century (and in some places, a 19th century) transit system – albeit, perhaps, a well-functioning one – for years, if not decades, to come.

The tension between improving the functioning of our current, inadequate transit systems and building new, modern systems comes up over and over in debates among transportation experts and transit advocates.

Is it, for example, a smart idea to spend tens of billions of dollars on a modern high-speed rail system in California at the same time that Amtrak struggles (and often fails) to provide First World-quality service on the rest of its network? Should we consider major investments in new rail lines at a time when bus service in many communities is so substandard?

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Technology Can Help People Go Car-Free, But Don’t Forget the Basics

Image: Mobilizing the Region

The cities with the highest share of car-free household are still the ones that excel at the basics of transit and walkability. Image: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

Last week, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group released a ranking of the top 10 cities for “wired” transportation, where newer technologies like bike-share, real-time transit data, and app-based ride-hailing services are helping people get around without a car. After rating 70 metro areas based on the availability of 11 different technologies, Austin came out on top.

Joseph Cutrufo at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Mobilizing the Region blog adds some important context today, pointing out that the cities with the most savvy on transportation tech don’t necessarily align with the cities seeing a surge in car-free living. Austin, for example, has seen its share of car-free households decline in recent years.

The places where living car-free is most common are still the cities with two basic strengths: good transit and a walkable built environment. “New transportation technology can complement but can’t replace transit, density and walkability,” Cutrufo says.

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It’s Time to Vote for the Sorriest Bus Stop in America

We asked you to point us to the nation’s worst bus stops and you answered. After receiving dozens of nominees from our readers, Streetsblog editors narrowed the pool down to eight very sorry bus stops.

These bus stops are ugly. Ugly! In a transportation system where public agencies never seem to lack the money for $800 million interchanges or $2 billion highway tunnels, bus stops become an afterthought. Many of these contenders are situated in the midst of car-oriented development without so much as a sidewalk or bench nearby, let alone a shelter. To make transit dignified and comfortable, we need to do better.

Help us crown America’s sorriest bus stop by voting below. Here are the contestants:

Pennsylvania Avenue in Forestville, Maryland

This entry comes to us from author and transit advocate Ben Ross. This is the same Pennsylvania Avenue that runs past the White House:

md_bus

Google Street View via Ben Ross

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