Transportation Futures | Page 10

Congratulations to FRA on a Sensible Decision

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Two months ago we reported on the railroad industry’s reaction to the FRA’s directive setting forth the terms of the so-called “Stakeholder Agreements.” Those are the agreements between state authorities and Class I railroads that will govern the shared-use freight-passenger rail service in rail corridors receiving federal aid under the Administration’s high-speed rail (HSR) program. The FRA directive stunned and angered railroad executives by what they regarded as unreasonable demands, and burdensome requirements. For example, the government proposed to impose penalties on freight railroads for failing to meet on-time performance standards for passenger traffic. Railroad executives also objected to the peremptory manner in which the directive was handed down. Reportedly, they had no advance knowledge of the announcement nor did they participate in the preparation of the guidance. Although none of the parties would go on the record at the time as threatening to break off negotiations and walk away from the high speed rail program, senior railroad executives left no doubt that there were limits to how far they were willing to compromise their primary responsibility to maintain safe operations and keep commitments to their customers — a responsibility that requires giving precedence to freight operations, especially in capacity-constrained corridors. As we wrote at the time:


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Seattle Divided? Tunnel Tug-of-War

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Photo Source: WSDOT

“Is there a culture war being waged for the soul of Seattle?,” asks Jordan Royer in an article that appeared today in Crosscut. A one-time candidate for Seattle City Council and former public safety staffer for Seattle mayors Paul Schell and Greg Nickels, Royer’s article folds the debate about replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct into his article, “How a Quiet Culture War is Dividing Seattle.” 

The great debate raging about the Alaskan Way Viaduct is another place where the cultural battle is playing out. Some are eager to test the theory that reducing car capacity forces people to get around by other means. The problem with conducting this experiment on our waterfront, however, is that you squeeze the port and all those well paying jobs. The Port of Seattle is contributing up to $300 million for the tunnel project, and it’s not because they want to be nice or because it’s part of their responsibility. They are contributing because they know they are in a competitive fight for survival as a major container port and understand what’s at stake if the project doesn’t move forward.

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Cascadia Provides Background, Context to Tunnel Discussion

Photo Source: Washington State Department of Transportation Today on KUOW 94.9 FM’s “The Conversation,” Ross Reynolds and reporter Deborah Wang took on a comprehensive reporting assignment to look at the deep-bore tunnel–the transportation option chosen in 2009 by Seattle, King County and Washington State to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct. Cascadia Center and Discovery Institute have been front and center on the idea of a deep-bore tunnel since the beginning of the debate. And Cascadia Center director Bruce Agnew provides an abundance of context and background for the KUOW report.  KUOW’s report summarizes the history, policy and dynamics of replacing an aging, elevated highway with a highly advanced and technical tunnel. Listen to the report here. 

New Political Realities May Sidetrack the Transportation Reauthorization

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Over the past eight months the U.S. Department of Transportation has been conducting a series of “listening sessions” around the country to solicit new ideas from stakeholders and interested citizens for the next multi-year surface transportation bill. The sixth and final session on the national listening tour was held at the U.S. DOT headquarters on July 14. Participating in the latest town hall meeting was the full complement of the department’s senior management team (save Secretary Ray LaHood). Complementing the session with U.S. DOT officials were four panel sessions involving local officials and transportation professionals discussing local transportation issues, program funding, state and local needs and outreach to the public.

A Game Changing Event

The latest listening session took place amid growing speculation by political analysts that the Democrats may lose control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November. This speculation has been reinforced by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs who commented on last Sunday’s “Meet the Press” and again at his regular press briefing the following day, that “there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.” Gibb’s conclusion was not inaccurate, given that about 60 Democratic seats are in jeopardy and Republicans need a net gain of only 39 to re-take the House. But, as Washington Post political observer Dana Milbank pointed out, when the president’s chief spokesman announces that his party is in trouble, it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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Eyes of World Focus on Seattle Tunnel

A Cascadia Center-authored op-ed about tunneling technology appeared this morning in the Puget Sound Business Journal.

At 55 feet in diameter, the Puget Sound’s deep-bore tunnel is in the higher range of tunnels around the world that have been completed largely on time and within budget. Tunneling success has spread to North America, too. While the often-maligned Boston Central Artery project (Big Dig) is cited for cost overruns, another Boston project, the Wastewater Treatment Tunnel, was completed successfully with little notice. Other on-time and on-budget tunnel projects include the 1.2 mile, $538.8 million Allegheny subway tunnel in Pittsburgh and the “Gold Line” rail tunnel in Los Angeles. For navigating complicated soils with far more history and debris than Seattle’s, the just completed tunneling for New York’s No. 7 Subway Line to 34th Street bodes well. According to the city transit authority, “the 24-hour construction operation was completed in six months instead of 2-3 years as originally planned.”

Cascadia attended and reported from the North American Tunneling Conference in Portland, Ore., earlier this week. The Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project (a key Cascadia issue for many years) was highlighted as a project that could “advance the U.S. into the major leagues with Europe and Asia in tunnel technology.”
See the full article here or in the extended post.

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Is The High Speed Rail Program At Risk?

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KenOrski.pngEver since President Obama announced his high speed rail (HSR) program initiative and Congress approved $8 billion to fund it as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009, many States have lined up to stake out a share of the new money. States that had been working on high-speed rail plans for years saw it as an opportunity to finally bring their projects to fruition, while others scrambled to get rail corridor planning underway so that they too could qualify for a share of the pie. The prize looked particularly attractive because the dollars will flow directly to the recipient states without requiring a local match.
For most states, competing for a piece of the action meant developing a plan in cooperation with the Class I freight railroads to upgrade existing infrastructure to accommodate passenger rail service at speeds higher than 79 mph. While such speeds would hardly qualify as “high-speed” in Europe and the Far East, they became the de facto threshold standard for qualifying under the HSR program. Only California and Florida have proposed construction of dedicated new track that would allow true high speeds, i.e. top speeds of 150 mph and higher (however, Florida’s Tampa-to-Orlando project is expected to operate only at average speeds of 86 mph; see “Weighing the Future of High-Speed Rail in America,” NewsBrief, October 29, 2009).
For the Administration, there was a political incentive to focus on the projects requiring upgrades to existing infrastructure. While the Florida and California high-speed lines will take years to complete, long after the present generation of political leaders has left office, most of the “upgrades” could become operational in a shorter time frame and become part of this Administration’s catalogue of accomplishments to be proudly cited in the 2012 presidential election campaign. Major grants have been awarded for improvements in the Chicago-St.Louis, Madison-Milwaukee, Seattle-Portland, Raleigh-Charlotte and Cleveland-Cincinnati corridors. These projects typically will involve reconstructing track to meet more stringent requirements for higher speed operations, building bypass tracks, eliminating grade crossings, installing advance signal systems and implementing positive train control technology.

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USDOT Agreement to Advance Careers of Women in Transportation

Photo source: Fast Lane Though it often gets pushed off the front page, everyone knows that the U.S. is going to require money and minds to solve and secure its infrastructure future. An agreement signed today in Washington, D.C., will help make sure that women remain — and advance — as a key part of that effort. With the WTS audience as witnesses, I signed an understanding between DOT and WTS to encourage women to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math–without having to put their transportation careers on hold. Those are the words of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who today signed an agreement with WTS (Women’s Transportation Seminar International), the leading group dedicated Read More ›

Passenger Ferry Future Focus of Cascadia Event

Photo Source: The Kitsap Sun Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats was the setting Thursday evening for a gathering of passenger-only ferry advocates, including those from Kingston and King County, Wash., and the U.S. federal government. The well-attended event (followed by an Ivar’s Seafood-sponsored reception) was organized within the specific context of a new passenger-only service between Kingston and Seattle, and a broader context of supporting more service throughout the region. The Port of Kingston will launch passenger-only service between Kingston and Seattle this fall. (This article in the Kitsap Sun offers details about the new service.) Capital funding for the new link came from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration. The Port has also developed public-private partnerships to cover initial operating Read More ›

Innovative Financing Is No Substitute for New Funding

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Hoping to sustain interest in the Committee’s efforts to enact a new multi-year transportation bill during this session of Congress, Reps. James Oberstar (D-MN) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR), leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, convened a hearing on April 14 to explore innovative ways of financing highway and transit investments. But while the hearing provided a useful survey of available financing tools and programs, it produced no new answers to the key question that has bedeviled transportation advocates for many months and remains as the chief obstacle to moving the legislation forward– the question of how to pay for the proposed multi-year surface transportation program.
The Administration’s opposition to increasing the current 18.4 cents/gallon federal gas tax– the most obvious means of generating the needed funds– was reiterated once again at the House hearing by Christopher Bertram, U.S. DOT’s Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs. The White House has also announced its opposition to any additional taxing of motor fuel as part of the Senate energy legislation. “The Senators don’t support a gas tax, and neither does the White House,” the White House said in a statement, thus squelching any secretly entertained hopes that the energy bill might offer a backdoor way of raising the gas tax in the guise of a ” carbon fee.” (The proposed Kerry-Graham-Lieberman energy plan reportedly would have called for an additional levy of 15 cents/gallon. To fully fund the proposed $500 billion six-year transportation bill would require approximately a 20 cents/gallon increase in the gas tax.)
White House opposition to a gas tax increase is only one of several obstacles standing in the way of an early passage of a multi-year law. Three other factors make passage of the legislation this year unlikely:
1. The Senate faces a crowded legislative agenda that includes confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court justice and consideration of the Finance Reform Bill in addition to the energy bill. The likelihood of taking up a multi-year transportation bill on top of that busy agenda in the 60 legislative days remaining before the pre-election congressional adjournment, appear remote according to congressional observers.
2. Passage of the HIRE Act has taken the pressure off the lawmakers to move the multi-year bill this year. The Act not only has extended the existing law until the end of December 2010; it also has transferred $19.5 billion from the General Fund into the Highway Trust Fund and restored an earlier $8.7 billion rescission of contract authority. The latest projections by the Congressional Budget Office indicate that the General Fund transfer, when added to the projected revenue stream from the gas tax, is expected to support highway and transit programs at the levels authorized for Fiscal Year 2009 through the end of Fiscal Year 2012 and into FY 2013 (Congressional Budget Office, “Highway Trust Fund Projections, March 19, 2010.) Our own reading of the CBO projections suggests that both the Highway Account and the Transit Account of the Trust Fund could remain solvent as long as the second or third quarter of Fiscal Year 2013. With assured funding possibly through mid-2013, the case for passing a multi-year transportation bill this year has become less than compelling. In an unspoken acknowledgment of this state of affairs, many interest groups have quietly dropped their efforts to lobby for enactment of the reauthorization bill this year.
3. Last but not least, there are no signs of a popular outcry about the stalled transportation authorization. Despite extensive documentation of the needs for new infrastructure investments (notably, U.S. DOT’s 2008 Conditions and Performance report and the findings of the two commissions established by Congress to study future transportation funding needs) there seems to be no sense of urgency on the part of the public to embark upon a massive program of infrastructure modernization. Signs of aging infrastructure are kept largely hidden from view thanks to diligent efforts by state and local highway agencies to maintain their assets in good repair. In the absence of any visible signs of system deterioration, warnings by advocacy groups about “crumbling infrastructure” are falling on deaf ears. The recent injection of some $50 billion of federal funding into surface transportation in the form of Recovery Act (ARRA) stimulus funds, TIGER Discretionary Grants and High Speed Rail grants has further weakened the argument that the transportation sector is not receiving adequate attention and that we are vastly under-funding our transportation needs.
Leveraging Future Revenue Streams
Although the House hearing shed no new light on how to generate new revenues for the federal-aid transportation program, it sent a strong message that innovative financing methods can help expedite project delivery and offer other benefits to the public. Under traditional methods of financing, transportation projects are completed on a pay-as-you-go basis: projects are built incrementally as public funds become available over a period of years. Using financing tools, notably tax-free bonds, state and local transportation agencies can gain immediate access to the funds necessary to advance projects into construction, and use their traditional funding or project-generated revenue streams to liquidate the indebtedness over time. While toll revenue is often used as security (collateral) in highway financing, project-generated user fees are not the sole means of backing debt issuances for transportation projects. Other types of security include dedicated sales tax revenue, future federal grants and revenues derived from tax assessment districts, transit-oriented development and other “value capture” projects. As Philip Washington, General Manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District testified, this has enabled transit agencies to gain access to private capital even though transit lacks sufficient project-generated revenue to use it as collateral for long-term debt obligations.

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“Imagination” Needed for Seattle’s Eastside Corridor

Seattle Times editorial columnist Lance Dickie just penned a strong piece about the Eastside Rails and Trails issue — the 42-mile corridor that connects Seattle’s Eastside communities. It’s the same corridor that Cascadia Center has been encouraging be used for both rails and trails. Bruce Agnew, policy director of the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, has a ready answer: Rails and trails must be done simultaneously. It is the only way Agnew sees it happening. He views the Cascadia Center as the neutral broker among a variety of public entities and potential users of the corridors. The center is a longtime proponent of rail from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C., and has actively led discussions and hosted field trips on the possibilities Read More ›