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Prospects for Transportation Legislation and Other Infrastructure Ventures

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What are the prospects for surface transportation legislation in the 112th Congress? We explored this question informally in conversations on the sidelines of several recent meetings and conferences, by reviewing debates on the National Journal’s Transportation Blog and by soliciting observations from colleagues in the transportation community. This, let it be clear, was not a scientifically conducted survey but an attempt to reflect and distill the views of a group of informed transportation professionals and Washington insiders. All comments were solicited on an off-the-record and not-for-attribution basis. 

The responses came in two forms. Some respondents told us what they think should be in the legislation, other speculated what will be in the legislation. There was a wide disparity between the two views. What the transportation community wants to see in the bill differs widely from what it expects to see in the bill. Typical of the first view was a desire to see the Congress pass a multi-year surface transportation bill that ensures a strong federal role, “fundamental program reform,”  a long-term financial commitment and a substantial increase in funding. Unless Congress acts promptly and decisively, “deficiencies in our transportation system will seriously compromise both the near-term prospects for economic recovery and our long-term economic productivity,” wrote former Secretaries Samuel Skinner and Norman Mineta in the National Journal’s Transportation Experts blog. The outcome of the mid-term elections and the prospect of a divided government, they thought, should not mean additional delays and stop-gap measures.

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Seattle Tunnel Bids Fit Budget

WSDOT released a new SR 99 tunnel video on 10/29/10. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire announced today that two of the bids for the deep-bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct have come in “at or below the contract price limit,” according to a statement released by the governor’s office. “After 10 years of debate, 90 alternatives, and eight studies today we are returning the waterfront to the people of Seattle and keeping our economy moving,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “We can’t afford to wait. Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct is a critical public safety project. The bored tunnel preserves capacity, is essential to our state’s commerce, and keeps traffic moving through the entire construction process. We owe it to Read More ›

Back on Track: Amtrak Service to Continue to Vancouver

Passenger rail advocates from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., are praising the news this afternoon that the Canadian federal government has agreed to pay the border fee costs needed to keep a second Amtrak Cascades train running between Seattle and Vancouver. Until late this afternoon, it appeared that the second train, originally started as a pilot program in conjunction with the Winter Olympics, would be canceled. As reported in The Vancouver Sun, “the Canada Border Service Agency…notified Amtrak it planned to begin charging the company $1,500 a day starting Nov. 1.” That wasn’t a fee that Amtrak was willing to pay. Time had been running out for one of the two daily trains connecting Vancouver and Seattle, as Washington state Read More ›

Looking Past the November Midterm Elections

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Ken-Orski-Headshot.pngThe long-term fate of the federal surface transportation program
continues to elicit much speculation amid expectations that Congress
(or at least the House) will change hands in November and make serious
attempts to trim government spending, while at the same time resisting
any large-scale tax increases. What would a federal transportation bill
enacted by a Republican-led 112th Congress look like (assuming, that
is, that the bill gets on the legislative agenda at all, i.e. in the
first 8-10 months of the new Congress, before it gets caught in the
2012 presidential election cycle)?  Chances are it would be far less
expansive than the bill proposed by Rep.James Oberstar and championed
by the transportation community. A Republican majority, elected on a
pledge to put an end to runaway spending and to shrink the size of
government (see the House Republicans’ “Pledge to America”), might well
decide to strip the legislation of prescriptive programs of
non-essential nature, focus on the highway “core program” and
investments of high national priority and let states assume
responsibility for discretionary programs that meet local political
objectives or are primarily of local benefit (and there are a lot of
those!). In sum, a Republican victory in November foreshadows major
changes in the scope of the federal-aid program. As one of our
colleagues put it, the program as we have known it over the years, will
simply cease to exist.

In a guest commentary, Richard G. Little, Director of the Keston
Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the
University of Southern California
, offers his own reflections on how
the reality of constrained resources and greater spending discipline in
the next Congress might affect our future transportation policy.

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Cascadia Continues Support for Second Train to Vancouver

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Photo Source: Amtrak Cascades

There has been a setback to the prospects of a permanent second daily Amtrak Cascades service to Vancouver, B.C. The Canadian federal government has made the decision not to waive permanently a border fee for the second train, requiring the Washington State Department of Transportation to pay almost $550,000 annually for border clearance services. Helping convince the Canadian federal government to waive the border fee — not just temporarily first through the Vancouver Winter Olympics and then until this fall — has been an important issue for Cascadia Center for several years. As a part of the coalition that has pushed for this expanded
service, Cascadia is disappointed with the decision.

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No One Said It Would Be Easy: America’s Bid for High-Speed Rail

An article that appeared today in The Wall Street Journal, “High-Speed Rail Stalls,” offers a candid assessment of the  challenges of delivering on the promise of high-speed rail (HSR) in the United States.  As the WSJ’s Jennifer Levitz reports, “Opposition from freight railroads is threatening the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar push to make high-speed passenger trains an integral part of the U.S. transportation network. The standoff demonstrates the difficulties of introducing new passenger service to a rail network that is at least 90% owned by freight railroads and outfitted for slower trains.” Developing HSR has been a top transportation priority for President Obama. The Northwest’s Cascadia Corridor is one of several key corridors to have been awarded stimulus funds to accelerate Read More ›

The Climate Policy and West Coast Transportation Conference

Momentum continues to gather for West Coast leadership on climate change and transportation.  Cascadia Center is co-sponsoring an important West Coast Corridor Coalition conference — The Climate Policy and West Coast Transportation Conference — at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., on Sept. 16-17, 2010. Federal and state policy makers will join private sector leaders to explore cross-border opportunities in exciting initiatives like the Interstate 5 Green Highway.  Issues to be addressed at the conference include: An overview of the economic, security and environmental reasons to move beyond oil in transportation. Congressional action on climate and energy legislation and the effort to find bipartisan solutions that will benefit the economy, national security and the environment. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Read More ›

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.