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Posts from the "Transit" Category

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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.

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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.

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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:
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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.

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Got Transit Troubles? The Problem Could Be the Chain of Command

Boston's MBTA enjoys unique consolidation, but that hasn't spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

Boston’s MBTA consolidates the entire region’s transit network, but that hasn’t spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

If you still have to juggle multiple farecards for the various transit systems in your area — or if urgent maintenance issues in the city core are going unattended while the suburbs get a shiny new station — the problem might run deeper than the incompetence everyone is grumbling about. The root of it all might be embedded in the very structure of the agencies that govern your transit system.

Last year, infighting among members of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority about how to distribute funds led the agency to seek outside help. A team of researchers, including the Eno Center for Transportation, came to try to figure out what the trouble was. “It soon became clear that RTA did not actually have a funding distribution problem,” Eno wrote in its report.

In fact, the authors concluded, RTA had a governance problem, which in turn had far-reaching consequences beyond funding battles: Governance issues impeded RTA’s ability to coordinate regional transit services and investments and contributed to “chronic underinvestment” in Chicago’s transit network.

The Chicago area is home to three major transit operators: the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra (a regional rail agency), and Pace (a suburban bus agency), all members of the RTA. While the RTA has the power to distribute funding, that’s about all it can do. Even those funding decisions are largely based on outdated formulas set by the state. When there is some money that RTA has the discretion to allocate as it chooses, bitter disputes ensue among the three agencies — disputes like the one Eno and company were called in to mediate.

The RTA doesn’t coordinate or steer Chicago’s transit providers, so all three essentially operate separate fiefdoms. “The inherent problem is that RTA occupies an ambiguous middle ground where it is powerful enough to create challenges and bureaucracy, but not powerful enough to be productive in pursuing regional goals,” reports Eno. The Chicago officials and transit experts Eno interviewed wanted to see RTA either strengthened or eliminated, but they agreed the status quo is not productive, leading to jurisdictional battles without building regional partnerships.

Meanwhile, the state is all but absent in Chicago transit governance, which Eno says is “shortsighted” when “transit has such a large impact on the economic success of the state.” Aside from helping with coordination and regional visioning, the state could be providing needed funds.

Intrigued by the findings in Chicago, Eno then partnered with TransitCenter to study five other cities to see how transit governance structures affect operations.

Here’s a cheat sheet before we go on:

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Talking Headways Podcast: Zero Deaths, Zero Cars, Zero Tundra Voles

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Special guest Damien Newton of Streetsblog LA joins Jeff and me on this episode to tell us all about the Los Angeles DOT’s new strategic plan, which includes a Vision Zero goal: zero traffic deaths by 2025, a vision all of our cities should get behind. He walks us through the oddities of LA politics and the pitfalls that may await the plan, as well as one really good reason it could succeed. (Her name is Seleta Reynolds.)

Then Jeff and I move on to Helsinki, Finland, and its even more ambitious goal: Zero private cars by 2025. They have a plan to do it, which includes many elements that American cities are experimenting with on a tiny scale. We talk about what Helsinki has in store that could get them to their goal.

And then we research Finnish fauna.

I know you’re listening to this podcast on your phone while you’re on on your bike or whatever, but when you get to a safe place to stop, shout at us in the comments.

And find us on  iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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Census Data Shows How Much Less Millennials and Gen-Xers Commute by Car

Change in share of Generation X Commuters (aged 25-54) driving to work, 2007 to 2013. Image: Brookings, from analysis of American Community Survey data

Change in share of Generation X Commuters (aged 25-54) driving to work, 2007 to 2013. Image: Brookings, from analysis of American Community Survey data

Cross-posted from Brookings’ The Avenue blog. This article is the second in a short series examining new Census data on transportation trends.

Nationally, most commuters are still revving up their cars to get to work every morning, but the picture is more complicated when you look across different age groups.

Based on the latest Census data from the 2013 American Community Survey, changes are underway for younger and older commuters alike, especially in the country’s largest metropolitan areas.* By and large, Millennials and Generation X are leading the charge toward a range of alternate modes, including public transportation and walking, while Baby Boomers continue to use their cars at even higher levels.

Indeed, while 82.4 percent of workers ages 16 to 24 — the youngest working Millennials — commute to work by car, that share has fallen by nearly 1.3 percentage points in large metros since 2007 and nearly 4 percentage points less than they did in 1983.

Young Millennials also represent the commuters who most frequently take public transportation (5.8 percent of them commute that way) and walk to work (6.6 percent). They’re not only ditching the car in traditional multimodal hubs like San Francisco but in several smaller metros as well. For example, Tucson ranked first nationally in its transit growth among these workers, seeing their share rise 5.5 percentage points since 2007. Meanwhile, more young workers are walking in other university-centric metros like Syracuse (+3.6 percent since 2007), New Haven (+2.4), and Austin (+1.7).

Still, driving dips aren’t limited to Millennials; Generation X commuters are shifting away from private vehicles in nearly equal numbers. Overall, workers aged 25 to 54 saw their driving rate fall by 0.9 percentage points between 2007 and 2013. That drop equates to roughly 750,000 drivers — about the total number of commuters in Milwaukee — switching to other modes. That might help explain the stalling amount of miles driven across the country.

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