Toll Debate Heats Up in the West

Link

 

Each day, nearly 24,000 vehicles race through a 30 mile stretch of Interstate-15 that pierces the northwestern corner Arizona. This segment of the highway – known as the “Arizona Strip” – looks much like the rest of I-15 as it traverses through the Mojave Desert, serving as a vital freight link between Southern California and points West. Many drivers don’t even know they have entered Arizona.

One-fourth of traffic on the Arizona Strip is freight trucks. Photo courtesy of Gannett.

 

But the state ignited a firestorm of controversy when it submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation last week to begin tolling that 30-mile segment for everyone but Arizona residents.

In documents submitted to the federal government’s tolling and pricing office, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) states that it is seeking to participate in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program. That program, authorized in 1998, allows up to three segments of the Interstate Highway System to be tolled by states to finance roadway improvements or expansion. Two other states have been granted permission to toll Interstate highways: Interstate 70 in Missouri and Interstate 95 in Virginia.

Detail of Arizona's proposed project area. Courtesy of ADOT.

ADOT contends that a new toll would raise up to $393 million over a 30 year period to fund vital roadway improvements, including bridge superstructure improvement, pavement rehabilitation, and safety enhancements. In its application, ADOT admits that tolling existing interstate capacity is “not popular,” but that a new source of revenue is necessary to carry out necessary improvements and tolling is the “most equitable method of accomplishing it on this very unique and isolated section of roadway.”

The proposal was immediately criticized by officials in neighboring Utah and Nevada. “If Arizona has been negligent in its maintenance of I-15, it should not try and foist its responsibility onto highway users or neighboring states who already pay into the system with their own tax dollars” Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert said in a prepared statement. The Las Vegas Review-Journal called the plan a “money grab…built on the backs of Nevada and Utah residents and commercial haulers.”

With shrinking revenues and constricted budgets, however, many states do not have other options to finance necessary highway improvements. Several states, most recently Virginia, have pursued public-private partnerships to begin tolling segments of existing state highways or newly constructed Interstate highways.

It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing.  According to the Federal Highway Administration figures, 32 states have developed a total of 280 toll projects between 1991 and 2009, roughly divided between newly constructed toll highways and toll-backed improvements to existing facilities. Toll roads now account for nearly one-half of newly constructed access-controlled expressways.

As Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell explained after his state received approval to begin tolling a segment of Interstate-95, “limited funds and growing capital and maintenance needs have led to deficient pavement and structures, congestion, higher crash density, and safety concerns. This approval is a major step toward funding critical capacity and infrastructure investment needed in this corridor.”

Future Still Murky for Federal Transportation Bill


 

It’s been more than two years since the last federal transportation bill expired, and the debate in Washington about the size and scope of the next bill continues. Members of both parties have acknowledged the declining state of America’s highways and infrastructure, but appear to be no closer to an agreement about the federal government’s priorities for investing in the country’s crumbling bridges and roads. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave U.S. roads a dismal “D-” grade in a report that found nearly half of all vehicle miles traveled on urban expressways in 2009 were traveled on deficient pavement. In it’s final report to Congress, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Commission found that the U.S. would need to invest nearly $200 billion each year to maintain our road and highway network. Last year, public spending totaled $160 billion.

Various federal commissions have concluded that the U.S. is under-investing in its roads and highways.

 

While there appears to be agreement about the need for repairing roads, the heart of the debate is the amount of money to invest. President Obama has been calling for the greatest amount of funding through his American Jobs Act. The President calls for a $50 billion investment in transportation and infrastructure that includes a new $10 billion national infrastructure bank and about $27 billion for highways and road maintenance. With Congressional Republicans and even a few Democrats balking at the President’s plan, the chances of the American Jobs Act passing Congress in one piece are slim to none. In an effort to get some of the provisions passed into law, Senate Democrats are preparing to break up the bill into smaller parts and vote on them separately, with the first vote in the Senate scheduled for this evening.

President Obama has pushed Congress to pass a jobs bill.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has been critical of Obama’s national infrastructure plan and opposes many of the President’s signature projects such as high speed rail. Mica released a broad six-year transportation proposal in July 2011 that cuts federal funding by nearly 20 percent. The House proposal would eliminate or consolidate 70 federal programs within the Department of Transportation and promotes the capitalization of state infrastructure banks instead of one national bank. House Republicans said recently that they are open to spending more on roads and infrastructure, provided that the additional funding is paid for by cuts from other programs.

Assuming that Senate Democrats and House Republicans can reach an agreement on funding levels, there remains a lot of disagreement on how to fund the bill. The fuel tax – which has not been raised since 1993 – is the largest revenue source for bridges and highways. However, Federal outlays have exceeded fuel tax receipts since 2000, creating a pressing need to find alternative revenue sources. The Highway Trust Fund has narrowly escaped insolvency three times since then, with Congress providing a bailout of $35.5 billion. Chairman Mica opposes any increase in the fuel tax, whereas Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, supports the idea of pegging the fuel tax to inflation.

With a fuel tax adjustment off the table, how to fully fund the next surface transportation authorization remains a $230 billion question.

From Transport to Mobility


 

Waiting and stopping.

For public transportation users across the world, it is what defines their daily journey: waiting for the next bus or train, and then stopping several times before reaching the chosen destination. Waiting and stopping is so intrinsic to the public transportation experience that it is not often recognized, much less challenged.   Imagine a world in which waiting and stopping were eliminated altogether, where the choice of when and how to get to a destination was chosen not by a transit system but by each individual user.

Such is the world envisioned by Georges Amar. Amar is the Director of Prospective and Innovative Design at Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), operator of the Paris subway and bus systems. In a recent lunch discussion hosted by the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, Amar highlighted the potential for transit agencies to reinvent the way transportation is offered and utilized. At the center of his presentation was a distinction between two interacting (and often competing) concepts: transport and mobility.

Transport, Amar stresses, is a rather outdated concept. Transport is the steel and the pavement and the bus and the physical elements that comprise the traditional role of transportation. Mobility, however, is a distinctly separate idea. Mobility is the ability to move about independently, without restrictions or barriers. Amar points out that our mobility is a function of the transport options available to us. More often than not, our desire for mobility transcends the physical restraints of transport. This concept is hardly surprising to anyone who has suffered through rush hour traffic. The gap between our demands for mobility and the restraints put on us by transport are immense, and can be measured in the minutes one sits idle at a station or the hours one wastes in highway congestion each year.

Amar envisions a world in which transit agencies focus on mobility instead of just transport. Offering new tools and services that allow users to embrace their own mobility is the next greatest challenge for transit agencies. In the old paradigm of transport, the one which most of us still interact today, we have a choice between two or three methods of transport. Shifting the paradigm from transport to mobility means offering a broad menu of options – “trans-modality” – which can mean up to 20 or 30 choices of modes.

So, how well are the world’s transit agencies doing at shifting the paradigm? Amar admits that even his own agency has a long way to go, but ideas and innovations are sprouting up. Amar points to the rise of carpooling, car sharing, bus rapid transit and bike sharing as early examples of a move towards “trans-modality.” Moving beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to transport will require planners to start by asking, “what would the user want?” Responding to those wants, Amar believes, is the very heart of the paradigm shift from simple transport to mobility.

The Benefits of Going Long


 

As the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey prepares to sell $1 billion in general obligation bonds today to finance the construction of the World Trade Center complex, NYU Urban planning professor and director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management Mitchell Moss explains that there is no better time than now for public agencies to take out long-term, low-interest debt.

Read Mitchell Moss in today’s Bond Buyer.

Image: Silverstein Properties

The Long Process to Rebuild Lower Manhattan


 

The following piece by Mitchell Moss, executive director at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, appeared on the Russel Sage Foundation website.

The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site has been delayed by intense and noisy debates over the financing of the commercial development, the need to substantially modify an initially unrealistic site plan, as well as the cost of the extravagant PATH station. Key decisions by the Port Authority made at the outset of the process led to a highly centralized and flawed plan, which required massive expenditures for underground infrastructure and a new office tower—One World Trade Center—to be placed on the northwest corner of the site, a highly vulnerable location.

 

MOVING FORWARD ON THE 9/11 MEMORIAL

The comparatively rapid progress on the September 11 Memorial and Museum has been largely due to the central role played by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who chairs the foundation responsible for financing and operating the facility. Bloomberg insisted that the memorial be open to the public by the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack. (The Museum is expected to open in 2012.) The memorial occupies approximately half of the WTC site and displays the names of all the victims of the 9/11 attack, as well as those killed in the 1993 bombing. The site, which also includes 400 oak trees, will eventually be one of the city’s great gathering places, serving all New Yorkers as well as the families of the victims. It is designed to fit into the fabric of lower Manhattan as well as to be a place that honors those who died on 9/11. Paying for the operating costs of the Memorial and Museum has yet to be resolved, but efforts are underway for the federal government to absorb some portion of the costs.

While the Port Authority and the Silverstein Properties, the developer with the legal right to rebuild on the WTC site, engaged in a series of legal battles, New York City took a proactive approach to the renewal of the surrounding area under its control. In December 2002, Bloomberg announced that lower Manhattan would be redeveloped as a “24-hour, 7-day” community, with new housing, parks and schools, as well as improved transportation infrastructure. The mayor recognized that financial services had been emigrating from lower Manhattan for more than 25 years and that the future of this area would depend on a mix of uses.

 

LOWER MANHATTAN SURGES

This strategy has produced remarkable results. The population of lower Manhattan has doubled, and a surge of new public and private schools, as well as new parks and open space has appeared through the once bleak financial district. Federal and state incentives were especially effective in attracting a new upper income residential population. It is no accident that the city’s tallest residential building, 8 Spruce Street, was built just east of City Hall, with the benefit of low-cost financing provided by Liberty Bonds made available by the federal government in response to the September 11 attack.

Today, the center of the financial services industry in lower Manhattan has moved to the corner of West Street and Vesey Streets, where Goldman Sachs occupies a new, highly subsidized headquarters building in Battery Park City and opposite the headquarters of American Express. Wall Street today is largely residential on the south side of the street, and the only major financial institutions with headquarters on Wall Street today are Bank of NY Mellon and Deutsche Bank. The New York Stock Exchange continues to occupy the corner of Wall and Broad Street, but the actual floor of the exchange is largely filled with television cameras and computer terminals, not stockbrokers and traders. The building is a heavily fortified and well-protected relic, since most financial market activity is done in the trading rooms of major investment banks, not on the floor of the stock exchange. The Bloomberg strategy to diversify lower Manhattan’s office sector has turned out to be a wise one.

The End of California High Speed Rail?


 

The California High Speed Rail project has had no shortage of political and financial challenges. Faced with a ballooning budget, tepid political support in Washington and heated NIMBYism along the planned route through the Bay Area peninsula, the project has  appeared closer to a pipe-dream than reality.

When the House Appropriations Committee released its Transportation, Housing and Urban Development budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 last Thursday, however, California High Speed Rail may have been dealt a lethal blow. In the proposal, the Committee strips $7 billion from the President’s budget request of $8 billion for inter-city passenger and high speed rail service – leaving just $1 billion for Amtrak and other rail funding.

Rendering of a high speed rail station in California. Courtesy of CHSRA.

With it’s sheer size and considerable budget (the last estimate puts it in the ballpark of $60 billion, although the California High Speed Rail Authority is expected to release a revised estimate in October 2011) high speed rail has become a high-stakes project for President Obama and California Governor Jerry Brown (D). Both claim that high speed rail will boost the U.S. economy, spur construction jobs (particularly important in California, where the statewide unemployment is the third highest in the nation at 12%) and relieve traffic at congested U.S. airports for medium-haul trips through highly populated, urbanized areas such as the one between San Francisco and Los Angeles or the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston. In his State of the Union address in January 2011, Obama boldly set a goal to make high speed rail accessible to 80% of America by the year 2025 – a goal that seems wildly optimistic even among the program’s supporters.

Republicans have been less supportive of high speed rail, primarily due to the high cost factor. The governors of Iowa, Florida, and Wisconsin – all Republicans – rejected high speed rail stimulus funding with considerable fanfare earlier this year, citing their concerns about cost overruns. These high speed rail grants, created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, provided $8 billion to create the foundation for a nationwide high speed rail system.

Although House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has supported high speed rail in the past, it is unlikely he will attempt to salvage funding from the Appropriations Committee’s 2012 budget draft. It appears that the President has also backed off from his support for high speed rail, at least for now. During his landmark jobs speech last week, which included a proposal for a $10 billion infrastructure bank, the President was mum on any plan for continuing high speed rail – an ominous omission from an infrastructure proposal to which high speed rail should have belonged.

As the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, the California high speed rail project is dependent upon a firm federal investment. Without consistent federal support, the project costs would fall squarely on the state, which would be unlikely to meet the project’s budget obligations through the bond market or private financing. The political winds have shifted in D.C., and it doesn’t bode well for high speed rail supporters.

 

How Transportation Should Play Into Obama’s Jobs Plan


 

When President Obama outlines his plan to create jobs and jumpstart the U.S. economy during a joint session of Congress tonight, transportation and infrastructure are sure to be a prominent theme. The President is expected to propose $300 billion in stimulus spending to spur hiring, which is likely to include funds for critical infrastructure projects. Since it is unclear what the President’s job plan will entail, here are some suggestions on how the President can optimize stimulus funds to create jobs and get shovel-ready projects going.

  • Call on Congress to pass an immediate, 2-year extension of a transportation bill. When the current authorization expires on September 30, 2011, federal highway projects will come to a grinding halt, states and cities will stop receiving Federal transportation aid, and hundreds of thousands of jobs will be thrown into jeopardy. To delay an extension would destabilize critical infrastructure projects and could cost the U.S. and state governments billions of dollars. Extending the transportation bill should be priority #1 for Congress.
  • Streamline the Federal approval process for infrastructure projects. Bureaucratic red tape severely diminishes the effectiveness of stimulus funds. In some cases, Federal highway projects have taken over a decade to complete due to onerous and duplicative Federal approval requirements. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) took aim at the lengthy period it has taken for infrastructure projects to get funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the “stimulus bill”) and has proposed to streamline the process. President Obama should echo this concern. Accelerating project delivery is critical to spurring growth, creating jobs, and maximizing the effectiveness of taxpayer dollars.
  • Provide “Stimulus Grants” Directly to States. To ensure that the most-needed projects take priority, new stimulus funding should go directly to states in the form of formula grants. The economic downturn is being felt differently in each state, and each state’s recovery will thus require a different approach. The President’s jobs proposal should empower states and Governors  with the authority to award stimulus funds.

Though it was encouraging to hear Obama push for reauthorization of the transportation bill in his weekend radio address to the nation last Saturday, it is unclear whether Congress will heed the President’s warning to pass a bill to stave off job losses and $1 billion in lost revenue to states. And with strong opposition to additional Federal spending from House and Senate Republicans, White House officials have acknowledged that a stimulus plan of the size Obama is expected to introduce is unlikely to gain traction on the Hill.

The President’s speech will be broadcast live tonight at 7pm EST.

President Obama Renews Call for Transit Bill Extenstion


Photo: Transportation for America

With less than four weeks until Federal surface transportation programs expire – along with the fuel taxes that fund them – President Obama reiterated his support for an extension of the transportation legislation. In his weekly radio address to the nation today, Obama warned that a failure to extend the transit programs could threaten “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Read the full Bloomberg News article on the President’s radio address here.

When Congress languished to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2011, 4,000 employees were furloughed and 200 construction jobs were halted for nearly two weeks. The partial shutdown cost the government $30 million each day in airline taxes it could not collect.

Failure to enact either a full reauthorization or a temporary extension of surface transportation programs would have even greater repercussions to the fragile U.S. economy. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that a delay of 10 days to extend the legislation would cost the U.S. $1 billion in lost fuel tax receipts and furlough some 4,000 government officials. If the Highway Trust Fund – which funds most highway and mass transit programs – were to shutdown, most if not all of the 1.8 million transportation and construction jobs it directly supports would be threatened. Nearly 118,000 jobs are linked to Federal highway and mass transit programs in New York State.

House and Senate leaders must reconcile wildly different reauthorization proposals when Congress returns from its summer recess this week. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has proposed a $230 billion, 6-year full reauthorization that limits Highway Trust Fund outlays to the amount of fuel taxes received and cuts authorized spending by 35 percent from current levels. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has proposed a $110 billion, 2-year extension.

The current authorization will expire September 30.

 

New York Subway Running in Time for Monday Morning Commute


Photo: Flickr user johnathanpercy

 

After bracing for record winds and rainfall during Tropical Storm Irene’s path over New York City, the region’s transit agencies began a slow process of getting public transportation back online in time for the Monday morning commute.

Nearly all of the New York Subway’s lines have been restored, but the system is running on a limited service and with some exceptions. Read the full New York Times article and Rudin Center’s Mitchell Moss on the city’s unprecedented transit shutdown.