Author Archives: Steven Schrayer

GAO report on transit 1998-2008

The Government Accountability Office delivered a report (abstract here) to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on Nov. 30th examining the growing pains that our current transit system is feeling. Primarily, they looked at the increase in ridership that has occured over this period, and the difficulties many transit authorities have had adjusting to this increased demand.

What’s interesting is that even though revenue and fares increased, many of the systems saw their costs increased as well, and not simply from having to increase service levels. While buses had to run more frequently in some areas, or some train platforms had to be extended, simply keeping the infrastructure in repair proved to be a monumental cost for many of the service providers.

Ultimately, the GAO makes three key recommendations to the Committee, as stated in the abstract:

focusing resources on state of good repair, streamlining the delivery of federal grant programs, and incorporating performance accountability measures to maximize the impact of investments.

The state of good repair one probably sounds the most mundane, but there’s an additional insight to be gained from its role in GAO’s report:

Officials from the majority of transit agencies with whom we spoke emphasized the importance of maintaining a state of good repair in order to meet future increases in ridership demand. However, agency officials pointed out it is easier to procure additional federal funding to support new transit capital projects than to obtain funding to help maintain their existing vehicles and infrastructure.

While the other GAO recommendations are important, the federal prioritization of new capital projects over repairing older ones deserves a hard examination. While infrastructure can grow so old that it may be more costly to maintain due to obsolesence, this hierarchy of spending still comes off as wasteful, poorly planned, and unsustainable.

“Drive til you qualify”

99% Invisible has an interesting segment up with Lisa Margonelli about the apparent lack of conscious design behind how sprawl, traffic engineering, and gasoline consumption interact. Although the audio portion is disappointingly short(and a bit difficult to follow with the ambient music in the background), the overall message is one that warrants consideration.

It’s interesting to think about the connection between mortgages helping to encourage sprawl(unconsciously, at least) because individuals would look further and further away from the city(see title) for low-interest loans and greater sq. footage, or that gas pumps are designed to look more like ATMs to make the experience of purchasing gas a bit more palatable. How cars are designed to be most efficient at 55mph, but most travel typically occurs in the 30s on local roads with constant stopping, or in the 70s. The amount of waste that goes into moving people is staggering to think about.

99% also makes note of a talk(included below) that Margonelli gave at the TEDxOilSpill forum this past June. A lot of it has to do with how to change U.S oil demand over time, why there’s such a need to, and the difficulty and safety hazards of controlling and cleaning up after an oil spill.

Margonelli makes note of an initiative featured on the New America Foundation’s website called STRONG (Secure Transportation Reducing Oil Needs Gradually), which deals with gradually raising the gas tax,incorporating externalities of oil (health costs, environmental degradation), and generally shifting demand away from individual gasoline consumption and towards more sustainable transit choices.

The Importance of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities

DCStreetsBlog did an interview series(Part 1, part 2) with Maria Zimmerman the Deputy Director for Sustainable Communities at the department of Housing and Urban Development, and Brian Sullivan from the Office of Public Affairs. The series highlights not only the importance and reasoning behind the three agencies’ partnership, but also the challenges of working together. It’s a really informative series. Here’s a few choice sections, mostly on the technical issues the agencies have had to overcome:

Maria Zimmerman: In terms of messaging, we have always felt there is a strong economic need for investing more smartly, leveraging our resources. Federal coordination is just cost effectiveness.

That message is one we can be stronger on. We’ve talked about some of the environmental and quality-of-life reasons for sustainability – we can do a better job of explaining what are the costs of not investing this way and what are the savings if we do. It’s really about trying to invest more wisely.

MZ
: To set up the process to review the grants, we all had these amazing firewalls of our internet systems to prevent hacking, and literally just getting between the firewalls was an unbelievable headache. That involved countless calls, and countless IT people. And yeah, we have different budgeting codes from OMB and from Congress, so coordinating can be quite a bit of effort.

Sullivan: We didn’t even have their phone number a year ago.

MZ: For instance, for HUD CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) money, we have a preference for local hiring. And our funds can be used as a match for DOT funds, but DOT has provisions against local hiring – you have to do a competitive bid. So if you have a project and you’re trying to bring together DOT and CDBG money, you either have to create a strange artificial wall, or what most folks do is say, we’re not going to pool that money – it’s too hard. That would require a Congressional fix.

There are real improvements in quality of life to be gained from the partnership.  A concerted government effort towards achieving livability and sustainability is a pretty big step in the bureaucracy, and it’s really encouraging to see what steps the organizations are taking agency-wide in their pursuit of livable communities. What really interests me, though, is how these agencies have to work together to begin to work together — overcoming competing policy goals and regulations, making their technology compatible, and even something as simple as talking to each other. It’s a way for the agencies to reduce duplication of effort, standardize the technologies they use and achieve something close to economies of scales in their policies.

Bloomberg proposes extending subway to NJ

With the ARC tunnel scrapped, Mayor Bloomberg of New York is proposing an extension of NYC’s subway system into New Jersey. Eliot Brown of WSJ writes:

The plan is an attempt to expand rail capacity and grab some of the $3 billion in federal money that had been set aside for a rail-tunnel project between New Jersey and Manhattan, according to multiple people familiar with discussions over the project. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spiked the rail tunnel three weeks ago due to concerns about cost overruns…

With a preliminary price tag of $5.3 billion, the new plan calls for the no. 7 tunnel to be further extended under the Hudson River to connect with New Jersey Transit trains in Secaucus, people briefed on the concept said.

So while ARC may be dead and buried, this is plan may at least end well. That is, assuming that all parties involved can come to an agreement, and that the funds can be successfully reallocated.  I also have my doubts about how pleased Gov. Christie is that a mayor from another state is working to find a replacement for a program he canceled.

Edit: Here’s another article to contrast to Bloomberg’s announcement and the entire ARC struggle.

Eric Jaffe of Infrastructurist discusses China’s growing high speed rail program:

China has quietly finished laying the tracks for the longest bullet line in the world. Spanning more than 800 miles, the line will link the Chinese capital of Beijing with Shanghai, an economic hub on the east. Travel between the two cities will drop to four hours—down from 10—when train service begins in 2012.

As the BBC points out, five years ago China had no high-speed rail track to speak of. Today, at roughly 4,000 miles, China’s bullet train network is already the world’s most extensive. That total is set to double within two years, according to the World Bank, which would give China more high-speed mileage than the rest of the globe combined.

Granted, HSR and a subway system aren’t the same thing, but it’s worth knowing that China is trouncing the U.S(and the rest of the world) in transit infrastructure investment.

Lightning Fast Mortgage Courts

Matt Taibbi came out with another article on the economic crisis. This time, he’s looking at how implicit the court systems may have become in letting things like robosigning slide, and how some are evening doing it themselves.

“Because in America, it’s far more shameful to owe money than it is to steal it.”

Taibbi’s pieces are sometimes a bit too apocalyptic and doom and gloom, but it does ram home a very important point: the ones who live in the house tend to be blamed for the foreclosure and at times the economic crisis, rather than the banks which construct these systems that profit from absurd rates of turnover and inflated asset values.

Down to brass tacks with gas tax

I don’t represent RenewLV’s stance on the gas tax, but here’s my take on it and some of the history behind the issue.

The federal gas tax is rapidly becoming a new political third rail, alongside certain social services. With Republicans controlling the House, it’s less likely the tax will be increased — or that the continuous tax break will be “canceled” as some see it — but the gas tax is still one of those pesky pieces of legislation that needs attention. Having not been adjusted since 1993, this per gallon tax has not kept pace with inflation or the changing per capita demand for gasoline as automobiles see higher CAFE standards. Consequently, while the price per gallon may be increasing, the fraction of this that goes to funding road infrastructure has only been decreasing.

There’s a report by Robert Pirog of the Congressional Research Service that helps to shed some light on the history of the tax, as well as what a political nightmare it is. It was first introduced in 1919 in Oregon and within 13 years was in effect in some form in every state, with the tax itself ranging from $.02 to $.07 per gallon (for comparison, $.02 and $.07 in 1932 would be worth $0.32 and $1.12, respectively, in 2010 dollars). It was permanently enacted by the federal government in the 1940s and was periodically adjusted to either pay for highways or for deficit reduction. It was most recently adjusted by Presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clintion.

Where we are today, however, the gas tax has not been adjusted for 17 years. Were the tax to have kept pace with inflation, it would have moved from $.184 in 1993 dollars to $.27 in 2010 dollars. Couple this decrease in real revenue with the fact that improved CAFE standards have helped to reduce individual consumption of gasoline, and you have a revenue stream that is slowing to a trickle at a time when infrastructure investment is needed more than ever. In the eyes of some, this continuous depreciation in the gas tax due to inflation is actually a tax break that occurs every year. Since tax breaks without reductions in spending add to the deficit, it’s fairly apparent what the net effect is.

As it currently stands, user fees make up a continuously decreasing portion of highway funding. Since the gas tax by and large goes towards road infrastructure (with incredibly minor portions directed towards public transit), a real decrease in revenues from the tax reduces what the federal government can invest in roadways. This is amazingly important as the focus at all levels of government on automobile use is propped up, in part, by the myth that user fees pay for highway usage. It’s used as a counter-argument against increased investment in public transit, as mass transit, in the eyes of some, can only be funded if it at least breaks even immediately.

With technological momentum behind systems of highways, and most Americans being socialized to use the car over all other modes of transportation, it would take time for a public transit system to reach enough demand to be profitable. Public transit tends to take a long time to build up, so it’s not such a bad idea to start before roadway congestion becomes even worse and public infrastructure decays even further.

There is some momentum currently in place to slowly increase the fuel tax, but not much. On the one hand, there’s Sen. Voinovich(R-Ohio) and Sen. Carper(D-Del)who suggest increasing the tax at a rate of 1 cent a month for 25 months, in order to let the economy slowly adjust to the effects of the tax. The tax increase would see 15 of the 25 cents going towards the Highway fund, and the other 10 going to deficit reduction. Increasing the gas tax is also suggested in the Debt Commission’s proposal to decrease the deficit, though admittedly this might make the adjustment even less likely of passing

Compounding the improbability of an increase in the gas tax is the rise to Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — say that five times fast — of heir apparent Rep. John Mica(R-FL). While in the past Mica has shown himself to be a supporter of expanding transit infrastructure, he has been staunchly opposed to increasing the gas tax.

As I see it, ultimate goal of bringing the gas tax in line with contemporary needs and RenewLV’s Sustainable Transportation Initiative have a lot in common: they encourage reduced reliance on solely the automobile, increased usage of mixed use landscapes and transportation, and seek to promote infrastructure systems that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

Tax increases during a recession are barely politically palatable. The gas tax is also a regressive tax increase, due to the nature of its implementation. However, it pays for public road infrastructure while also placing the costs onto the greatest users of roads. By internalizing a portion of the costs of highway usage (the gas tax doesn’t even remotely touch the environmental or health damages accrued from automobile usage), demand for automobile usage and infrastructure would decrease, while increasing public desire for multimodal transit. Reinvesting in our existing infrastructure, establishing new systems of public transit, and shrinking the federal deficit; the gas tax is a difficult measure to support, but it is what’s needed.

Water infrastructure spending in Lehigh County

Yesterday, Gov. Rendell announced that the state would be investing $174 million into PA’s water infrastructure across 21 counties. Most of this money is being spent in the form of low-interest loans to the various county entities and water treatment plants, with only $20 million being used in the form of grants.

  • Allentown City received an $8.6 million loan to replace all of the city’s water meters with new units incorporating mobile read technology, enhancing the ability to detect water leaks and allowing the city to manage its water system more efficiently.
  • Allentown City received a $670,000 loan to repair leaks in the Schantz Spring transmission main that are causing costly water losses to the city.
  • Lehigh County Authority received a $1.8 million loan to replace 2,700 outdated water meters and backflow preventers, thus eliminating possible contamination of the water system and improving the operating efficiency of the system.

Externalities, Hidden Costs and Transit Reform

Reforming our current(primarily highway based) transit mode is the smart thing to do, but it’s not a bad thing to have more information on the true costs of the current highway mode of transportation.

Here’s an article that’s been working its way across the internet(I originally found it via Streetsblog.net, who found it through a pro-bike blog) by Todd Litman of Planetizen. He writes:

Housing and transport expenses exceed the recommended limits (33% for housing and 20% for transport, or 45% combined) for the two lowest income quintiles (40% of the U.S. population). Since zero-vehicle households spend relatively little on transport, transportation inaffordability is even worse than this graph indicates for the 77.5% of these lower-income households that own motor vehicles. In other words, “affordable automobile dependency” is an oxymoron: You can have affordable transportation or you can have automobile dependency, but it is impossible to have both, and efforts to make driving “affordable” simply shift the costs to other economic sectors, such as government, businesses, or housing.

He makes his argument from too many angles for me to introduce in a short post, so rather than just continue copying and pasting snippets from the article, I will just highly recommend reading it.

Nutrient Abatement Credits

ARC’s dead. Moving on.

So here’s a cool thing. PA farmers have generated a pretty solid amount of nutrient abatement credits by taking means to combat different sources of non-point pollution. These steps are being taken to help prevent nutrient pollution in watersheds, primarily the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

David Thompson of the Sun Gazette writes:

Farmers install riparian forest buffers to filter out nutrients before they enter the waterway, fencing to keep livestock out of streams, no-till planting and cover crops to reduce soil erosion and other conservation practices to generate the credits.

The credits are generated by farmers through abatement methods like those discussed above, and then sold to industries that tend to add nutrients to water, like wastewater treatment facilities.

There are some regulations in place to help guide what does and doesn’t qualify for an abatement credit, though it’s still worth wondering how many pounds of nutrients have actually been abated, and how effective the credit trading scheme has been across different types of pollutants.

Provided the abatement program is properly monitored and regulated, it seems more or less like a win-win. Farmers get money for continued abatement, industry is encouraged to get in line in a way that is not overly economically damaging to them.

The individual counties earn some revenue from the auction of excess credits, but since this revenue is supposed to be directed towards “mak[ing] multiple trips to each farm, creat[ing] detailed spread sheets that calculate the credits, submit[ting] documentation to the DEP and respond[ing] to any questions the agency may have” to certify credits, it doesn’t sound likely that the counties make out with much of a net revenue gain.

I just hope that the program is adaquately enforced, and the threshhold for nutrient emissions is set low enough that treatment plants have an economic incentive to participate in the trading scheme, rather than emit anyway and pay any fines that would occur.

ARC decision deferred

The results are in from the working group that was assembled in response to Governor Christie’s initial decision to scrap the ARC Tunnel project — and the answer is “wait”, writes Karen Rouse of NorthJersey.com.

Governor Christie has apparently decided to take the weekend to think about which way to go with the ARC tunnel. Admittedly, a weekend isn’t exactly a long time, especially in light how long the ARC will take to complete, but it still adds to the suspense. Gov. Christie taking the weekend to think over the project does suggest he might not have made up his mind already, though the question of whether or not he has been purposefully inflating the cost overruns for the ARC doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Regardless, however, spending on public transit is still a smart bet, even (or maybe especially) in tough economic times. For instance, the American Public Transit Association has researched the impact of spending on transit and found over and over again that, for each billion spent roughly 36,000 jobs are made for a year. These jobs grow out of spending construct the infrastructure as well as operating it, and job growth may even occur in sectors that aren’t directly benefitting from the government spending.

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