Friday, March 27, 2009

Transit News ’Cross the Nation

Image source

The Recovery Act provides $27.5B for Highway Infrastructure Investment, with a portion of that to support passenger and freight rail transit. The Act also allocates $8B to the states, with a priority on constructing high-speed intercity rail service, and an additional $1.3B for Amtrak. However, this money is going to capital costs, equipment replacement and repair, and system expansion. It does not support operating costs.

Transit funding in this country has been a struggle in recent times. For metro systems, federal transportation funding pays for a portion of capital costs, but for operating costs, transit systems are usually on their own. The relationship of funds from the farebox, the local region, and the state varies widely from place to place. In each region transit funding is linked to different taxes, allocation formulas, and political structures, creating a situation where in some regions the transit authority has the financial flexibility to invest in improving service, whereas in others the agency is constantly trying to stay afloat.

This background explains the diversity of news on the transit scene across the nation. Let's look at what's going on.

Of all of the transit systems in the U.S. New York’s MTA relies most heavily on its farebox to fund operating costs. That means without adequate state aid, when MTA needs money, its riders will pay the tab. As a result, on Wednesday the MTA board voted to cut service and raise fares to $2.50. MTA will eliminate two subway lines and 35 bus routes. Funny, I’ve never heard of states having to close major roads when they have budget shortfalls. Again, transit gets the short end of the stick (excuse my editorializing).

In Washington D.C. Metro is having similar operating funding woes, though not as severe as in the Big Apple. Metro will start holding hearings soon on cutting its MetroBus service, rather than raising fares. In Atlanta, MARTA is threatening major service cuts unless the state changes the structure of its funding and lifts restrictions on how it can flex its capital and operating dollars.

In contrast, Boston’s T is talking about service improvements, centered around transit-oriented development, with the opening of four new rail stations on the Fairmount Line. Seattle is also talking service expansion. Local transit advocates are bemoaning the city’s lack of support for a plan to install electric “e-trolleys,” but plans are moving ahead to expand streetcar lines. In greater Detroit, there is serious talk of building a regional transit system connecting the city to southeastern Michigan. With gas staying expensive and congestion clogging our metro areas, even the Motor City is looking at regional transit as a necessary solution.

The San Francisco Bay Area is looking at consolidating services of its 26 transit agencies, due to “sinking revenues and increased demand for public transit.” Many don’t realize that transit rarely makes money. As demand increases, so do costs, and the increased revenue from new riders is often less than the added costs to increase service. Transit agencies often do not have nearly enough capital dollars to pay for system expansions. In this sense, transit is no different than automobile transportation. They are both totally unaffordable without major subsidy. However, we spend 80% of our federal transportation dollars on roads and highways, while transit is much more efficient and cost-effective (darn, I'm editorializing again).

Ok, let’s keep rolling down the line. In Los Angeles the County Transportation Board is considering spending $300 million for new light-rail cars from an Italian company. Yep, the U.S. economy is tanking and yet our metro transit authorities often buy their rolling stock from foreign companies. SEPTA, in the Philadelphia region, recently bought its new regional rail cars from a South Korean company. Perhaps instead of bailing out the auto industry the fed should invest in U.S. companies that manufacture train cars (Just a crazy thought).

Speaking of the Philadelphia region, SEPTA announced its plans to offer a new one-day pass, serving a long-time need in this tourist-rich city. SEPTA has been trying to revamp its image and make investments while the tenuous state funding legislation provides a break from the agency’s ongoing funding crisis. PATCO, meanwhile, which is funded by bridge tolls, is planning a service expansion of its high-speed rail line through southern New Jersey. Also, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) just released a feasibility study for expanding SEPTA’s Broad Street Subway to PIDC’s Navy Yard business center.

So, that’s the news from across this great nation of ours. And that concludes our journey today. Have a safe trip to your final destination, stand clear of the closing doors, and please, mind the gap.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Philly Is Doin' Just Fine (Part III)

The Ottawa Citizen ran an article yesterday titled "What a great city looks like" featuring Philadelphia:

If you think that the cities are failing in bankrupt America, if you think that they are emptying their libraries, darkening their theatres, closing their galleries and shuttering their museums, come to Philadelphia. . . .

This has always been a city of superlatives (the first capital, the first zoo, the first bank, the first university) in the republic of superlatives. It hasn't lost its ambition. Indeed, there is so much new and innovative here that you could wonder if there is a recession at all.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Finally, Public Recycling!

Philadelphia's Streets Department will be installing 500 "Big-Belly" solar-powered trash receptacles around Center City, from South Street to Spring Garden, and down Broad Street to Washington Avenue. The new receptacles are funded by a DEP grant, and will replace all of the existing wire mesh trash cans.

The biggest advantage for the City is that these new receptacles only need to be emptied twice a week (as opposed to the once or twice a day needed for the standard public trash cans). The compacting mechanism that makes them so efficient is completely solar-powered. The City has been testing out a few of these around town (the one's I've seen are at 7th & Chestnut and 15th & Walnut).

Additionally, many of these receptacles will be accompanied by public recycling bins (!). I've heard plenty of Philadelphians bemoan the fact that we don't have public recycling on our streets. Well, we will soon. Recycling was a big priority item for Mayor Nutter as he campaigned; between introducing weekly single-stream recycling and this effort to put recycling bins on public streets, his administration is truly tackling it.

So, let's give credit where it's due: Good job Mayor Nutter! Good job Streets Department!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cars Cars Cars

Today we're talking cars. In the U.S. we're driving less. In India, it looks like people will be driving much much more. The reasons are quite different of course.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reported nationally a 3.1% decrease in driving between January 2008 and January 2009. In Pennsylvania that drop was 4.5% and in New Jersey 6.5%. Why? It's the economy, stupid. When money is tight, people drive less. When they are out of a job, they don't need to commute.

Taking a glass-half-full approach, perhaps when they drive less, people will see that biking and transit aren't so bad after all. Perhaps with the new investment in intercity rail and regional transit systems provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we can start to build a national transit system that will allow many more people to permanently reduce their driving.

Now, zooming halfway across the globe to India, the long-awaited Nano, produced by the Tata Group, is seen by many as nothing short of a revolution that will even the transportation playing field for India's vast population of working-class families. However, the New York Times' Green Inc. Blog questions of the car that will sell for about $2,000, "World’s Cheapest Car: Boon or Bane?"

The potential problem is that "the seemingly guaranteed success of the Nano may create more traffic and strain on India’s already rickety urban infrastructure." It is interesting to compare the hype around the Nano to the way that the automobile was hailed in the U.S. following World War II. The Green Inc. blog quotes one Indian reader, "I'm buying it because it gives a sense of freedom."

It sounds good to liberate a population of working-class people, allowing them to safely and efficiently get where they need to go. However, the streets of cities like Mumbai are already overcome with gridlock traffic. In many parts of India, the nation lacks serviceable roads. It is reasonable to question whether India may end up, in the not too distant future, in a similar position to the U.S. today:

...Where our roads are crumbling and our nation simply cannot afford to fix the massive highway system we have built.

...Where gridlock slows millions of commuters, and we have no alternative because our government never invested in an adequate mass transit system.

...Where automobile-related fatalities are the country's leading non-medical cause of death.

...Where people cannot afford gasoline, but have become so auto-dependent that there is no other choice.

The Green Inc. blog notes, “Indeed, debate over the Nano points up an achingly similar question that has long plagued richer, car-centric countries in the West: How soon until governments develop truly effective multimodal urban public transportation systems?”

No doubt India’s government and/or its private sector will have to start thinking about this question sooner rather than later. The fact is, cars only represent freedom… until they don’t anymore.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Collins on Howard Brandston, infrastructure and urban design.

The New Yorker has published an excellent piece on lighting, urban design, and human interaction with the environment and is well worth the read.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Sea Change

Earlier this week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced a new partnership called "Sustainable Communities." The press release explains:

"The average working American family spends nearly 60 percent of its budget on housing and transportation costs, making these two areas the largest expenses for American families. [HUD and DOT Secretaries] Donovan and LaHood want to seek ways to cut these costs by focusing their efforts on creating affordable, sustainable communities."

Of course, this is just the latest effort bringing a new attention to metro areas. Last month President Obama created the White House Office of Urban Affairs, headed by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion.

It is good to see that the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program has found so much leverage with this administration. Its director Bruce Katz left his mark all over these new initiatives.

The success of the Office of Urban Affairs and the new HUD-DOT partnership is yet to be seen. However, a sea change is certainly beginning. Over the past eight years we saw urban and metropolitan areas ignored completely. We saw HUD's budget slashed and slashed again. We saw a huge decline in money for affordable housing. We saw calls from the White House for de-funding Amtrak, and no attention paid to regional transit systems.

Well, the times they are a changin'. Members of Congress are trying to establish an office of rural affairs, accusing President Obama of focusing too strongly on urban America! That is quite a change from an administration that could not have cared less about urban America over the last eight years. Also, who would have thought we would see an article like this one?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Philly Is Doin' Just Fine (Part II)

In my prior post, I commented that the new Pew study shows Philly is now considered as desirable a place to live as New York, Dallas, and Chicago.

Philadelphia’s Center City District recently released its latest quarterly digest, noting some more positive figures. Notably, home prices in Philadelphia declined only 10.1% since 2006. Compare that to declines of 11.9% in New York, 12.8% in Boston, 13.7% in Chicago, 32.2% in Los Angeles, 38.3% in Miami, 39.3% in Las Vegas, and 40.6% in Phoenix. In Center City home prices only declined by 1.1%.

Philadelphia is weathering the economy far better than most major cities. That will surely position the city to remain competitive once the economy recovers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Historic Preservation Happy Hour

Booze and history. What more could you possibly ask for?

March 16 Historic Preservation “Meet Up”

What: Those working in historic preservation and related fields – and those who hope to be – are invited to a Preservation Meet Up networking event.

Who: Hosted by the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, but open to all ages.

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, March 16

Where: The Studio Lounge of Solefood, at Loews Philadelphia Hotel in the historic PSFS Building, 12th and Market Streets.

What else? Free admission. Happy Hour Specials at Cash Bar. Discounted Preservation Alliance memberships for anyone who joins at the event.

For more information, email or visit