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Don’t Look Now, But the House Amtrak Bill Actually Has Some Good Ideas

The House's rail authorization proposal is harsh, but not as harsh as it would have been under the previous chair. Photo: ##http://transportation.house.gov/uploadedfiles/railpacket.pdf##House Transportation Committee##

The House’s Amtrak proposal isn’t going to transform American passenger rail, but it might actually help around the margins. Photo: House Transportation Committee

Tomorrow, the House Transportation Committee will consider a bill that changes the nation’s policies on passenger rail. The proposal, while it includes some cuts, is a departure from the senseless vendetta many House Republicans have waged against Amtrak in the past. The National Association of Railroad Passengers, NARP, says the plan contains “commonsense regulatory and governance reforms.”

In an encouraging act of bipartisanship, the bill was crafted and introduced jointly by Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA), Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV), and the chair and ranking member of the rail subcommittee, Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Corrine Brown (D-FL). You can read the bill summary here [PDF] and the full text here [PDF].

The Republicans’ talking point that the House bill cuts Amtrak funding by 40 percent is being widely reported, but the reality isn’t so draconian. The bill does reduce the amount authorized for Amtrak, but Congress wasn’t appropriating nearly that much in recent years anyway. Congress was authorized to spend $1.96 billion on Amtrak in 2013, for instance, but the House only appropriated $1.41 billion. The authorized amount in the PRRIA bill is actually a slight increase over what Amtrak got in 2013.

The bill stops short of pushing for full privatization of the Northeast Corridor, the main part of the network that turns a profit, which Shuster and Amtrak Hater-in-Chief John Mica had pushed for previously. It does further separate the Northeast Corridor from the rest of the system, requiring Amtrak to reinvest NEC profits back into the NEC. House Republicans say the idea is to “eliminate Amtrak’s black-box accounting,” in which Amtrak (quite transparently, I may add) subsidizes money-losing long-distance service with the profits from the NEC.

Meanwhile, the bill continues the very long-distance services that come under constant fire from the GOP for inefficiency. After all, key GOP constituencies live in rural areas whose only long-distance transportation option may be Amtrak. Brookings has recommended dispensing with these routes, but Congress has found the politics of that too burdensome.

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”Bikelash!” The Streetfilm

Six months ago, Dr. Doug Gordon and Dr. Aaron Naparstek charmed audiences at the 2014 National Bike Summit with a great routine called “Moving Beyond the Bikelash,” sharing what they’ve learned from the pushback to New York City’s bike network expansion.

So last week, while at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference, I thought it would be interesting to ask advocates from across the country about the state of bikelash in their cities and how they combat it. Here’s what they told me.

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EPA Rejects New York’s Clean Water Money Grab for Highway Bridge

This morning, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the $510.9 million federal loan New York state had requested from a clean water program to pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Only $29 million worth of TZB work is eligible for clean water money, the EPA’s regional office ruled, averting a dangerous precedent that could have let governors across the country raid environmental funds to pay for highways.

Building a new highway bridge with clean water funds? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

Using clean water funds to replace this highway bridge? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

“New York’s request presents a unique circumstance that is unprecedented… no other state has made a request of this type or magnitude,” wrote Joan Leary Matthews, regional director of EPA’s clean water division [PDF]. “There is no evidence… that the [Clean Water State Revolving Fund] was intended to fund mitigation for major construction projects within an estuary. Construction activities arising from transportation projects do not advance water quality, and CWSRF funding should not be used for these purposes.”

The Thruway Authority had planned on using the $510.9 million loan on twelve projects. Today, EPA rejected seven of those projects, totaling $481.8 million, because they are directly tied to building the new bridge. The projects deemed ineligible are: removal of the existing bridge, dredging for construction vessels, armoring the river bottom, installation of an underwater noise attenuation system, construction of a bike-pedestrian path on the new bridge, restoration of oyster beds, and the installation of a falcon nest box.

The state will be able to receive funding for five projects, totaling $29.1 million: the restoration of Gay’s Point and Piermont Marsh, the installation of stormwater management measures, and the creation of a conservation benefit plan, including an Atlantic sturgeon outreach program.

Environmental advocates and good government groups staunchly opposed the loan, saying that allowing clean water funds to be used for highway construction would set a dangerous precedent. “It’s great that the agency in charge of calling balls and strikes has called the state out,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “But we shouldn’t have gotten here in the first place.”

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Highway Boondoggle Case Study #1: Georgia’s Effingham Parkway

?The Effingham Parkway expansion is premised on the idea that the Panama Canal expansion will see more cargo coming through Georgia ports -- but there are many holes in that logic. Image: Georgia Ports Authority via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

The Effingham Parkway expansion is premised on the idea that the Panama Canal expansion will see more cargo coming through Georgia ports — but there are many holes in that logic. Image: Georgia Ports Authority via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

This week, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group will release a report titled, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 case studies of some of the more wasteful, least needed roads being built in America right now.

At a time when Americans are driving less and government traffic projections are alarmingly out of sync with actual trends, states should be cautious about costly highway expansion. Instead, many states are charging ahead with misguided projects that will empty their coffers of funds needed to maintain existing infrastructure, among other things.

Between 2009 and 2011, states spent 55 percent of their road dollars on expansions to less than 1 percent of their roads, underfunding the other 99 percent to the point where many roads and bridges fell into dangerous disrepair.

Here’s a preview of the report’s exposé of reckless state road spending. We begin with an effing doozy: the Effingham Parkway in Savannah, Georgia.

Transportation officials in a rural area northwest of Savannah, Georgia, are worried that an existing state highway will be unable to cope with growing traffic volumes if the hoped-for industrial expansion and resulting population increase occur. Their proposal is a new $37.4 million highway. Recent trends, however, suggest that traffic isn’t growing as quickly as anticipated, raising questions about whether the new highway is necessary.

The proposed Effingham Parkway is a $37.4 million road that would run parallel to the existing Georgia Route 21. Connecting the new highway to other existing local roads will require spending an additional $11.5 million on nearby road work. State plans include expansion to four lanes in the future, and specify a total price tag of $100 million.

Traffic on Route 21, however, has failed to grow at the rate anticipated by officials along most of the relevant length. Of five locations on Route 21 parallel to the proposed parkway where both projections and traffic counts were available, only one saw traffic increase at an average rate higher than is expected to happen if the Effingham Parkway is not built. The other locations saw traffic rise far less than projected, stay flat, or even drop.

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How to Improve 3-Foot Passing Laws

After a couple of vetoes by Governor Jerry Brown, California finally has a 3-foot passing law.

As of June, 24 states plus the District of Columbia have such a law, which requires drivers to give cyclists a minimum buffer of 3 feet when passing from behind. With California’s law in effect as of today, Rick Bernardi of Bob Mionske’s bike law blog says 3-foot laws are good for cycling, but could be improved.

There's room to improve 3-foot passing laws, like the one that takes effect in California today. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/sfbike/7000434589/in/set-72157629263668356/##SF Bike Coalition/Flickr##

There’s room to improve 3-foot passing laws, like the one that took effect in California today. Photo: SF Bike Coalition/Flickr

Bernardo points out that some laws, including California’s, provide exceptions for drivers that weaken cyclist protections. Minimum passing distances should be commensurate with motorist speed, he says, and intentional “buzzing” should be criminalized.

The law should also make collisions prima facie evidence of an illegal pass, Bernardi writes.

When drivers collide with a cyclist while passing, they will often attempt to shift the blame to the cyclist: “The cyclist came out of nowhere” is one common explanation for a crash. “The cyclist suddenly swerved into my path” is another commonly heard explanation. If the cyclist is seriously injured or killed, the driver’s explanation may be the only explanation we hear. More often than not, when a driver says that the pass was “safe” but the cyclist did something that doesn’t make any sense, it really means that the driver wasn’t paying attention, or was passing too close. But under the law, injured cyclists must prove that the driver’s pass was unsafe. 3 foot laws can be strengthened by making collisions prima facie evidence of an illegal pass. This means that when a driver is passing a cyclist and a collision results, the law would presume that the pass was too close. The driver could still rebut this presumption with evidence to show that the pass was not too close, but now the burden of proof would be where it properly belongs — on the driver who has the responsibility to pass at a safe distance.

Also on the Network today: Streets.MN says investing in transit for “millennials” and “millennials” alone is a bad idea, and the Wash Cycle takes a tour of the Capital Bikeshare warehouse.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Rail~Volution About to Get Underway in the Twin Cities (Strib)
  • Detroit Cheers TIGER Grant for Woodward Avenue Streetcar Line (Detroit News)
  • Scientist Praises Blumenauer’s Call to Replace Gas Tax With VMT Fee (Roll Call)
  • Coalition Forms to Address New Jersey Transportation Funding Crisis (NJ.com)
  • Study of Housing + Transportation Costs Show Low-Income People Struggling (NLIHC)
  • What Happened at FutureBike After Pro-Walk Pro-Bike? Here’s a Twitter Recap (Bike League)
  • Sidecar Quietly Positions Itself to Conquer the Transportation Market (GeekWire)
  • The Bikelash Means You’re Winning (CityLabStreetfilms)
  • How to Love Your Alley So It Loves You Back (Next City)
  • “MinuteEarth” — the Perfect Elevator Speech on How Better Policies Can Save the Planet (ScienceAlert)
  • People Are Psyched to Get Hardcover NYC Subway Signage Guide from 1970 (Slate)
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Talking Headways: Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Redux

podcast icon logoAfter a week at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place Conference in Pittsburgh, it was all I could talk about — and luckily, Jeff was an eager audience.

In this podcast, Jeff and I talk about the relative utility of a character like Isabella, the new character People for Bikes created to make the case for safe, low-stress bikeways. We dig into the announcement that U.S. DOT is going to take on bike and pedestrian safety as one of its top issues. And we debate the pros and cons of holding the next Pro-Walk Pro-Bike in Vancouver.

There were hundreds of workshops, panels, presentations, and tours — not to mention countless side conversations, power lunches, and informal caucuses that were probably at least as energizing as the formal sessions — so my impressions are just one tiny slice of the pie. If you attended this year, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the conference, the host city, and your experience in the comments.

Keep up with us (if you can) at our RSS feed or subscribe on Stitcher or iTunes.

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With Permit Parking, John Cranley Could Help Cincinnati Despite Himself

Chalk this one up as a worthwhile proposal offered in bad faith.

Streetsblog readers may remember Mayor John Cranley as the pol who wasted a ton of taxpayer money trying to kill the Cincinnati streetcar. But lately Cranley has come out as a would-be parking reformer, proposing a $300 annual fee for on-street parking in Over-the-Rhine, a historic neighborhood on the streetcar route. 

Mayor John Cranley's proposal to charge for curbside parking could help Cincinnati neighborhoods more than he realizes. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/taestell/15094122075/in/pool-over-the-rhine##Travis Estell/Flickr##

Mayor John Cranley’s proposal to charge for curbside parking could help Cincinnati neighborhoods more than he realizes. Photo: Travis Estell/Flickr

Not surprisingly, Cranley is getting blowback from some quarters. But Randy A. Simes at UrbanCincy says the plan is right on the merits.

To better understand how this proposed permit fee stacks up, let’s consider that it averages out to approximately $25 per month. According to the most recent State of Downtown report, the average monthly parking rate in the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton is $89. This average accounts for approximately 36,400 monthly parking spaces available in 2013.

While this average monthly parking rate is skewed by much higher rates in the Central Business District, many lots and garages reserved for residential parking in Over-the-Rhine charge between $40 and $110 per month. This means that Mayor Cranley’s proposal would put the city’s on-street parking spaces nearly in-line with their private counterparts.

This is a smart move. We should stop subsidizing parking as much as possible. Therefore, such a proposal should not only be examined in greater depth for Over-the-Rhine, but all of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods.

All well and good. The thing is, Cranley makes no bones about the fact that he considers the fee as retribution against streetcar supporters. “They should be asked to pay a much higher fee for cars they still have on the street,” Cranley said on a local radio show. “[It] is consistent with the philosophy of the folks who are pushing the streetcar, which is this will reduce the need for cars, so those who want to bring cars into Over-the-Rhine … should pay for the amenity that they so desperately wanted.”

Cranley’s motives may be suspect, but ironically, by placing a value on curbside parking he may end up helping constituents he holds in contempt.

Elsewhere on the Network: Bike PGH welcomes Pittsburgh’s new bike and pedestrian coordinator, and Rights of Way celebrates the arrival of the first bike corral in Portland, Maine.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Transportation for America Chooses Favorite TIGER Projects
  • An Urbanist’s Review of Pro-Walk Pro-Bike and Its Host City (Community Architect)
  • Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Leaves Behind a Two-Way Cycletrack (Post-Gazette)
  • Maryland Ballot Measure Would Prevent Raiding of Transportation Fund (Herald-Mail)
  • Texas Has $54 Billion in Road Debt and Wants Permission to Spend More (Star-Telegram)
  • Charlotte Finds Streetcar Operational Costs Will Be Double Bus, Light Rail Costs (Observer)
  • Enquirer Lays Out 8 Steps to a Fully Funded Cincy Streetcar
  • Santa Monica’s Mountain Lions and the Developing World’s Road-Building Boom (Salon)
  • Cost Estimates for Boston’s Green Line Rise to $2 Billion (WBUR)
  • Wider Bike Lanes Make Drivers Less Anxious (Road.cc)
  • More Research Shows Active Transpo Makes Us Happy (CityLab)
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Need to Add a Bike Lane to a Bridge? Experiment Like Pittsburgh Did

The Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place 2014 conference took place this week in Pittsburgh. Even though the Andy Warhol Bridge already has a nice shared bike-ped path on it, for one week the city decided to put bike lanes on its roadway. It’s the simplest design you can imagine, just two rows of small traffic barriers and a little bit of signage. I compiled a few moments of footage while walking to an event one night.

In New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge is just packed with pedestrians and cyclists. For about the last ten years or so, the crowding gets so intense at peak hours that it can be perilous. There have been many solutions suggested over the years, including converting one of the roadway’s car lanes to a two-way protected bike lane so cyclists and pedestrians don’t have to jostle for space on the narrow promenade they currently share.

Of course the Brooklyn Bridge has more traffic of all types than the Andy Warhol Bridge. But keep this Pittsburgh experiment in mind for the future. Something has to be done on the Brooklyn Bridge. Maybe a trial bike lane during the summer would be a good place to start.

It wouldn’t be an unprecedented decision. There are many other examples throughout the world — here’s our video of Vancouver giving road space to bikes on the Burrard Bridge: