Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters entered the blogosphere on April 29 with a blog called the Fast Lane. Looks like FHWA, FTA, and other DOT officials will also contribute to the blog. Comments are allowed on the blog, so they are interested in a two-way conversation.
It is good to see transportation officials embracing modern communication methods. Let us hope Stephanie Kopelousus, Florida’s Transportation Secretary, follows the example and begins an official Florida DOT blog. Or it would be nice to see the District Secretaries blogging and taking comments from the public on local projects. Perhaps we could suggest it. Email the Secretary at email@example.com if you want to suggest the idea.
This week’s topic is how FDOT, like every other DOT across the country (I guess the Feds set the precedent here), is trying to raid the public transit funds for more road expansion projects in the Greater Miami Area (get used to it folks, we don’t fly with the “South Florida” nomenclature around here.)
On one end is the Florida Department of Transportation, or DOT, trying to keep money it uses to build and improve state roads. At the other is Tri-Rail, struggling to find money to fund the commuter train’s operations and pay for new projects.
“I wish we had more dollars, but by [giving Tri-Rail] the $2, I hope they realize this is a crisis,” he said. “The state needs to take a look at adding some funding sources for regional mass transit.”
If Tri-Rail doesn’t get a dedicated funding source and if the three counties cut their funding next year as expected, Tri-Rail officials say they’ll have to drastically reduce service. Under that scenario, Tri-Rail could default on a $334 million federal grant used to construct a second track because the money was awarded based on the agency’s pledge to operate at least 48 trains a day weekdays.
But is it streetcars we desire? The mass transit message is decidedly mixed. One day earlier this month, Tri-Rail celebrated ridership hitting a whopping 15,000. There are Burger Kings with more traffic at their drive-thru windows — and they serve food.
A national transportation commission, with the scary sounding name of “National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission,” released a report last week known as Transportation for Tomorrow. This report calls for, among other things, raising the gas tax by 40 cents in five years, creating a new federal bureaucracy, imposing federal regulations on states ability to draw private investment in things like Public-Private Partnerships, and adding a federal transit tax on every transit ticket sold.
Ouch. Let’s look at this thing piece by piece. My first thought on the gas tax was that it wasn’t too bad of an idea. The Federal Highway Trust fund is expected to be short $4.3 billion in 2009, so a higher gas tax would solve the immediate problem. But U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and two other commission members released a dissenting report, where they point out some serious problems with the federal gas tax. First, the federal government already plays too large of a role in transportation funding. Since the feds redistribute the wealth between states,
The second problem with increasing the gas tax is that it is a flawed system. With more fuel efficient cars and even a few electric cars on the road today, some users are not paying as much as others for the same service. As Secretary Peters pointed out, we need a new alternative. All users should pay for using the road, whether it be at a toll booth or using some kind of GPS mileage system or whatever. But now is a good time for change, as several states are already looking into alternative funding sources. If the federal gas tax is left alone, the shortfall in funding will gradually force states to seek alternatives such as these.
Creating more bureaucracy is a bad thing, especially at the federal level where it will only strengthen the federal control of transportation. Telling states what they can and cannot do with private investment will only hurt projects like I-595 and the
Taxing transit tickets is sheer lunacy. Thankfully, Peters also comes out against this. Transit agencies set prices to cover as many costs as they can while still attracting the number of riders they need. If the federal government throws a tax on every ticket (the actual commission report says “all trips,” which would apply to free trips like the Miami MetroMover), that will only upset the balance the transit agency has reached between revenue and ridership. They would be forced to sacrifice their ridership or reduce fares and eat the cost of the tax themselves. The tax money would go to the general fund, where it could go towards paying for new highways or someone else’s transit system. So the chances are good that it will take away money from transit agencies. I will personally write to any congressman who dares to introduce such idiocy into a bill and I hope that the thousands of transit riders would also join us in opposing such an idea.
If you want to know who was responsible for this, read their names here. Every commissioner but Mary Peters, Maria Cino, and Rick Geddes supported the report. We’re grateful these three retained enough sanity to dissent.
- A Town in Germany has decided to handle its traffic problems by removing all the traffic signals. The plan is to remove all signals in the city center to make life easier for pedestrians, evening the playing field and forcing traffic to no longer dominate the roads.
Meanwhile Columbia, Missouri Business owners and a local developer are upset that the federally funded PedNet program will hamper vehicular traffic in favor of friendlier pedestrian and bicycle options. Who knew?
“The concern for the business owners and anyone who lives in the area is that the intersection will be less friendly,” Lindner said. “And vehicular traffic is always going to be the major mode of transportation in Columbia, so you can’t ignore the impact on it. We should be trying to alleviate congestion, not do things to make it worse.”
- Discussions are underway about possibly merging the metropolises Hong Kong and Shenzhen into one Mega-City. The plan is being considered to make the region more competitive in the global market and to better link the existing cities.
- Burj Dubai has officially surpassed Toronto’s CN tower, making it the tallest free standing structure in the world at 555 meters and 150 stories. Like most things in Dubai, the buildings’ final height is a closely kept secret, but it is expected to rise between 750 and 800 meters…
- They say everything is bigger in Texas, but Arlington’s Public Transit system is the smallest for cities with 350,000+ inhabitants. Actually, Arlington doesn’t even have a Public Transit System, garnering it the distinction of the largest American city without one.
“Arlington residents have voted down a public bus system three times in the last 27 years, worried about big buses lumbering down their quiet suburban streets, as well as the cost of a service that many believe would benefit only a few. But advocates say the city’s growing population, coupled with the pain of higher gasoline prices, make buses an easier sell now.”
Sell? You shouldn’t have to sell anyone a public transit system. If they want to choke in their own congestion and sprawl then so be it. Let them degrade their own quality of life rather than spend money on a transit system in a city where people clearly don’t get “it.”
- The D.C. Council is working on some legislation which would make Bicycle parking a requirement at all apartment buildings with more than 8 units and 10% of automotive parking capacity at commercial establishments.
- This excerpt speaks for itself:
“The Minneapolis bridge collapse on Aug. 1 led Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters to publicly reflect on federal transportation spending priorities and conclude that those greedy bicyclists and pedestrians, not to mention museumgoers and historic preservationists, hog too much of the billions of federal dollars raised by the gas tax, money that should go to pave highways and bridges. Better still, Peters, a 2006 Bush appointee, apparently doesn’t see biking and walking paths as part of transportation infrastructure at all.”
- How about this for some adaptive reuse, a house made from the abandoned fuselage of a Boeing 747, designed by David Hertz:
- The Streetcar Debate…
- FAU trustees approved plans to build a 30,000 seat, $62 Million stadium for the Owls’ football team on the Boca Raton campus. Construction is set to begin in 2009.
- More reasons why converting every neighborhood into its own municipality is such a bad idea: identity crisis. The suburban bedroom community of Davie has been struggling to find itself for the past few years amid all the other South Florida “cities.”
- What do you do with 39 acres on the western fringes of development? Build a 600,000+ square foot warehouse facility! Just another reason why we need to adopt a county-wide comprehensive land use action plan.
- Here go the latest rounds in Transit Cuts…
“With all of the cuts, Transit will be down to 34 million annual miles of service. That’s seven million more miles, a 26 percent increase, that have been delivered since late 2002 when Miami-Dade County voters approved a half-cent sales-tax increase for transportation.
But it’s a whopping 10 million miles short of the 44 million miles that former Mayor Alex Penelas promised by 2008 during the campaign. The agency never got close, peaking at 38 million miles in December 2005 and paring back in three subsequent lineups.
In Transit’s defense, ridership has remained steady as the miles have been cut — an indicator that the planning and scheduling gurus aren’t sacrificing riders.”
- BoB’s 3rd Quarter Construction tour hits Miami Beach.
- 26th Parallel offers up some kind words on our efforts.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at the Federal Department of Transportation’s budget for project funding in Fiscal Year 2008. Using completely backward, archaic philosophies, DOT has set aside $42,000,000,000 for highway projects, and a trifling $1,400,000,000 for transit projects. That’s right - $42 billion for highways and $1.4 billion for transit. We can certainly see where DOT’s priorities still lie.
How on earth are we supposed to improve inner city and regional transit, with the feds only dolling out $1.4 billion for transit projects? How are cities supposed to improve sustainability, reduce congestion, and improve mobility? Plus, when you consider all the money going towards highway building/expansion, it makes it even more difficult for transit systems to compete.
“There’s still a lack of understanding how fundamentally broken the transit program is. The demand for transit has never been higher…at the same time, the federal government substantially underfunds transit, so it’s very competitive to get those funds”, says Brookings Institution fellow Robert Puentes.
Unlike federal highway funds, which states receive based on a formula and may spend as they wish, money for new transit projects is awarded at the discretion of the FTA. The agency doesn’t have much to dole out. The FTA has proposed spending about $1.4 billion on new transit projects next fiscal year, compared with $42 billion that states will receive for highway maintenance and construction, according to federal figures. More than 100 transit projects across the country are expected to compete for federal money in coming years, according to a federal report.
In deciding which projects deserve funds, FTA officials consider primarily which would attract enough riders and save them enough time to be worth the investment. They also consider the state and local governments’ ability to help pay for construction, maintenance and operating costs. Other considerations include impact on air quality, development around stations and the ability to move lower-income workers to jobs.
FTA evaluations can take years, because it rates a project — and grants permission for it to move forward — at several different points, controlling it from preliminary engineering through construction.
So there you have it. This is what Miami is up against; this is what America is up against. It goes to show that our federal government is not serious whatsoever about curbing driving demand, pursuing sustainability, or fighting climate change. Until this gross discrepancy is corrected, we cannot expect any appreciable improvement in transit, traffic congestion, or the quality of our urban environments.
How do we fix this? It comes down to politics. We need to help elevate smart growth to the forefront of political issues for subsequent election campaigns. These planning issues are so important, so critical to millions of people, it’s unfathomable that they have not commanded more press time. I mean, after all, smart growth lumps together so many classic issues like the environment, energy, oil (gas prices), climate change, health care, and poverty. The trick will be finding a way to consolidate these issues, which will require a unified effort by leaders of each sub-issue.
Sooner or later it will happen, so let’s do what we can to make it sooner.
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