Skip to content

Streetsblog.net No Comments

Will Arlington Streetcar Foes Support BRT Instead?

Arlington, Virginia's streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

Arlington’s streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

News broke yesterday that Arlington, Virginia, is abandoning plans for a 7-mile streetcar along Columbia Pike.

Proponents had advanced the streetcar for more than a decade and had secured some $65 million in state support for the $333 million project. But this month’s election delivered a crushing blow, writes David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. Going forward, he says, one major question is whether streetcar opponents who said they supported Bus Rapid Transit instead will now follow through on those statements:

Following John Vihstadt’s strong win in last week’s [County Board] election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.

It’s not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It’s also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we “reported” this in April 2013 as an April Fool’s joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation leader Peter Rousselot and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also “too expensive.”

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It’s important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns comments on an editorial calling for an end to the interstate highway system, and explains why maybe it’s not as far fetched as it seems. Bike Walk Lee reports that Florida DOT’s Bill Hattaway, the man charged with making the Sunshine State safe for walking and biking, has been named an “outstanding government official” by Governing Magazine. And Streets.mn says opposing bike/ped projects might not be a winning strategy for Minnesota Republicans.

No Comments

Today’s Headlines

14 Comments

The Indiana Toll Road and the Dark Side of Privately Financed Highways

This is the first post in a three-part series on the Indiana Toll Road and the use of private finance to build and maintain highways. Part two takes a closer look at how Australian firm Macquarie manages its infrastructure assets. Part three examines the incentives for consultants to exaggerate traffic projections, making terrible boondoggles look like financial winners.

Who owns the Indiana Toll Road? Well, as of the bankruptcy filing in September, Macquarie Atlas Roads Limited (MQA Australia), which is joined at the hip to Macquarie Atlas Roads International Limited (MQA Bermuda) on the Australian stock exchange, has a 25 percent stake. Macquarie’s investment bank arm brokers the various transactions related to ownership of the road, collecting fees on each one. Welcome to the world of privately financed infrastructure. Graphic: Macquarie prospectus

In September, the operator of the Indiana Toll Road filed for bankruptcy, eight years after inking a $3.8 billion, 75-year concession for the road with the administration of Governor Mitch Daniels.

The implications of the bankruptcy for the financial industry were large enough that ratings agency Standard & Poor’s stepped in immediately to calm nerves. In a press release, the company attempted to distinguish the Indiana venture from similar projects, known as public-private partnerships, or P3s: “We do not believe this bankruptcy will slow the growth of current-generation transportation P3 projects, which have different risk characteristics.”

But the similarities between the Indiana Toll Road and other P3s involving private finance can’t be ignored. And as we’ll see, even the differences aren’t all good news for the American public. Once hailed as the model for a new age of U.S. infrastructure, today the Indiana deal looks more like a canary in a coal mine.

At a time when government and Wall Street are raring to team up on privately financed infrastructure, a look at the Indiana Toll Road reveals several of the red flags to beware in all such deals: an opaque agreement based on proprietary information the public cannot access; a profit-making strategy by the private financier that relies on securitization and fees, divorced from the actual infrastructure product or service; and faulty assumptions underpinning the initial investment, which can incur huge public expense down the line. Though made in the name of innovation and efficiency, private finance deals are often more expensive than conventional bonding, threatening to suck money from taxpayers while propping up infrastructure projects that should never get built.

For the parties who put these deals together, however, the marriage of private finance and public roads is incredibly convenient. Investors are increasingly impatient with record-low returns on conventional bonds, and are turning to infrastructure as an asset class that promises stable, inflation-protected returns over the long run.

Meanwhile, governments are eager to fix decaying infrastructure — but without raising taxes or increasing their capacity to borrow. On the occasion of yet another meeting intended to drum up investor interest, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently wrote on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s blog: “With public investments in our nation’s important transportation assets steadily declining, we need to find better ways to partner with private investors to help rebuild America.”

Those investors are lining up to get in the infrastructure game. According to the Congressional Budget Office, about 40 percent of new urban highways in America were built using the private finance model between 1996 and 2006. Since 2008, that figure has jumped to almost 70 percent.

In an attempt to get even more deals done, the current federal transportation bill ramped up funding for the TIFIA program — which offers subsidized federal loans and other credit assistance, often to projects that also receive private backing — by a factor of eight.

Major private investors have stepped up their lobbying efforts to close more of these lucrative deals. Meridiam North America recently hired Ray LaHood, Foxx’s predecessor as Transportation Secretary, and Macquarie Group — which orchestrated the Indiana fiasco — hired away a White House deputy assistant to “continue strengthening our relationships with key elected officials… while also exploring new investment opportunities.”

Read more…

10 Comments

The Parking Tax Benefit: A $7.3 Billion Subsidy for Traffic Congestion

Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

Not only does the parking tax benefit pay people to drive during the most congested times of day, the whole system of commuter benefits functions as a gigantic transfer from poor workers to affluent workers, who have greater access to subsidized travel to work. Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

The federal government spends billions of dollars a year on tax subsidies that make traffic congestion worse, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group. The culprit is the parking commuter tax benefit, which costs taxpayers $7.3 billion in foregone revenue each year, all while adding more than 800,000 cars to rush-hour traffic on the nation’s roads each workday, the authors estimate.

The parking tax benefit allows people to claim up to $250 in parking expenses as tax-free income per month. It originated in the late 1970s, when, in the name of fairness, Congress prevented the IRS from taxing the free parking perks that employers gave their workers, without any thought to the effect on transportation. The new report shows that not only does the parking tax benefit have a disastrous effect on traffic, it’s not even fair to car commuters — amounting to a gigantic transfer to the most affluent drivers.

Most advocacy efforts centered on commuter tax subsidies attempt to raise the transit benefit — currently capped at $130 per month. Last week, for instance, two members of Congress pledged to fight for an equal commuter benefit for transit and parking. TransitCenter and the Frontier Group argue that this is the bare minimum to strive for. The real impact lies in simply getting rid of the parking benefit.

The transit benefit, they write, is a “relatively inefficient tool for motivating changes in transportation behavior” and “only weakly counteracts the negative impact of the parking tax benefit” — and should be thrown out, as it were, with the bathwater. If commuter benefits are retained, however, they recommend some key reforms: equalizing the transit benefit, and mandating that employers who offer parking benefits also provide the option of receiving a cash equivalent instead.

TransitCenter and Frontier Group estimate that while most people don’t change their commuting behavior based on the incentives created by these tax benefits, about 2 percent do — and that 2 percent drives 4.6 billion additional miles per year.

To make matters worse, they do that extra driving at peak hours, in crowded downtown areas, worsening congestion that the country’s transportation policy is supposedly oriented toward fixing.

Read more…

Streetsblog.net No Comments

Why Is Obama Leaving Top Federal Transportation Posts Unfilled?

There are five open posts at leading federal transportation agencies. Photo: Bike Portland

There are five open posts at leading federal transportation agencies. Photo: Bike Portland

We’ve heard a lot of good policy points on transportation from President Obama during his six years in office, and we’ve seen some progress, too.

But transportation reform has never been a top priority for the president. Here’s an example from Network blog Systemic Failure: The Obama administration is leaving top federal transportation positions unfilled.

There are now 5 transportation agencies within the Federal government that are being run by acting administrators:

  • The FTA: Therese McMillan is acting administrator while her nomination is pending in the Senate.
  • NHTSA, where David Friedman has been acting administrator since the resignation of David Strickland (over the GM ignition switch scandal).
  • The FRA, which is losing Joe Szabo (thank God!).
  • NTSB: Deborah Hersman resigned as Chair earlier this year. Christopher Hart has been Acting Chair.
  • FHWA: Gregory Nadeau is acting Administrator.

Other than McMillan, the Obama Administration has yet to make a nomination for these agencies. It is one of those rare opportunities where the Obama Administration could dramatically support transit, bikes, and livability goals. Well, that is if the Administration were really interested in doing that.

Just imagine: an NTSB that focuses on road safety, instead of hot-air balloons and rocketships. An NHTSA that implements regulations for truck sideguards. An FRA that doesn’t regulate passenger trains out of existence. An FHWA that isn’t blindly promoting highway expansion.

What is the president waiting for?

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Political Environment explains how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is fudging traffic projections to make the case for a $1.1 billion highway expansion in Milwaukee. Family Friendly Cities wonders what it would take to get suburban families with children to make the switch to urban living. And This Old City contemplates how to get Philadelphia City Council members, who really, really love to drive, to advocate for transit riders.

No Comments

Today’s Headlines

  • Complete Streets Advocate Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) Finally Concedes the Race (The Hill)
  • Will This Climate-Savvy Louisiana Republican Be Able to Speak the Truth in the House? (MoJo)
  • Why a Georgia Public School Official Is Bullish on Raising the Gas Tax (AJC)
  • MassDOT Wrestles With Impact of Gas Tax Repeal Vote (MassLive)
  • Wisconsin Wants to Join 5 Other States in Taxing Electric and Hybrid Cars (Strib)
  • Uber Pisses Off Republicans By Saying Obamacare Allows More Self-Employment (NY Mag)
  • Maps Show Where Economic Value of Roads Conflicts With Conservation Needs (CityLab)
  • How New Post-Graduate Programs Are Changing the Field of Urbanism (ThisBigCity)
  • Men’s Journal Counsels Against Riding Bikes in Parks
27 Comments

Shared Space: The Case for a Little Healthy Chaos on City Streets

Market Square in Pittsburgh, PA: an American model for shared street space. Photo: M.Andersen.

pfb logo 100x22

Dick van Veen is a Dutch architect and engineer at consultancy company Mobycon. This post originally appeared on the blog of The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Imagine yourself in a small town enjoying a coffee next to what looks like a public square. Except there are no curbs, no sidewalks, no traffic lights, no striping, not even a stop sign.

All the same, cyclists, parents with baby carriages, buses and cars — yes, cars — are going about their business guided by the same human courtesy that allows us to form lines and wait our turn at the grocery store checkout.

In the Netherlands, we call this approach to low-stress public space “shared space.”

Before you dismiss the concept as a utopian ideal, take a look at the video below from Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. It shows what can happen when the usual traffic devices are removed, as I described above. Dutch examples abound but this approach is also working in places with emerging cycling cultures like Exhibition Road in London, UK, or Opernplatz in Duisburg, Germany.

Read more…

13 Comments

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.

Streetsblog.net No Comments

There’s a Difference Between Bike Share and Bike Rental

Dallas is in the process of rolling out a “bike-share” system. According to the Dallas Morning News, the city installed the first two stations in a local park this week. The project got a boost from a $125,000 grant, and the plan is to expand the system piece by piece.

Dallas' new "bike share" system won't function like this one pictured in Denver. Photo: Wikipedia

Dallas’s new “bike-share” system won’t function like this one pictured in Denver. Photo: Wikipedia

But due to its pricing scheme and location, this type of bike share shouldn’t be confused with large-scale systems in DC and New York, or even in Cincinnati. Patrick Kennedy writes in his column for D Magazine that Dallas’s new system is more like bike rental.

The fundamental [requirements] of bike share to be a success:  1) It’s in places of need — where people live and where they work 2) It gets people out of cars — meaning a healthier, energy and spatial efficient way to travel and 3) it is membership based. Making money is rarely a concern because the positive externalities are worth it. It is seen as an investment in transportation (for a decimal point for what the Trinity Toll Road is to cost) and increasingly it is seen as a necessary investment to attract college grads (at which Dallas is struggling).

The Dallas bike share system doesn’t do any of that. It’s for visitors to Fair Park to ride around a bit. And for that, it’s a great asset, but as Paul Sims pointed out on Twitter that is bike rental. Not bike share. It is not transportation, but recreation. So we should call it that. The ambiguity could hurt the effort to scale the system up citywide.

What hurts the potential expansion of the system more is its pricing structure, which is rental-based rather than sharing-based. The Dallas system prices the first half hour the most, at $5 for 30 minutes. Then $2.50 each additional 30, punishing ridership while encouraging longer usage of the bike.

Read more…

No Comments

Today’s Headlines

  • Bless His Heart: Sen. Carper Still Thinks Congress Could Raise the Gas Tax (News Journal)
  • NEC Portal Bridge Chokepoint Could Be Fixed, Would Cost $940M (AP)
  • Japan’s Maglev Train Opens, Reaching Speeds Over 300 MPH (Daily Mail)
  • Texas Transportation Council Drops Trinity Highway Boondoggle From Plan (Dallas Morning News)
  • WISDOT Presses Forward With Expensive and Unnecessary I-94 Expansion (WISPIRG)
  • Gov. Christie’s Presidential Ambitions vs. the Need to Raise NJ’s Gas Tax (NJ.com x2)
  • Critic Says Planned Detroit BRT Stations Are Too Far From Employment Centers (Crains)
  • SEPTA Trying to Work Bikes Into Philly Transit (CBS)
  • Silicon Valley Weighs BRT Options Along Camino Real (Human Transit)
  • Urban Geometry: Why It’s Better for Your City to Be Shaped Like a Circle Than a Giraffe (Salon)
  • DC Scores High in Transpo “Free Market” Ranking for Uber Law (Daily Signal)
  • Washington Post Is Super Down on Streetcars These Days, in DC and Suburbs