Transportation headlines, Monday, December 2

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Ridership discrepancy calls Metro’s estimation method into question (L.A. Times)

The article ponders the difference between Metro’s traditional way of estimating ridership and new data generated by the latched turnstiles at entrances to Red and Purple Line stations. The traditional ridership estimates have been running significantly higher than the turnstile counts since gates begun to be latched in June.

Metro officials say that the turnstile data is preliminary and not yet complete enough to serve as a substitute for ridership data. As for ridership, officials say the traditional estimates seem to be capturing trends on the subway and that the methodology behind those estimates is approved by the Federal Transit Administration.

Speed is cited as possible cause of deadly train crash in the Bronx (New York Times) 

No official word yet on the cause of the Metro North commuter train derailment just north of Manhattan on Sunday morning that killed four passengers and critically injured 11.

The speed limit along the curved stretch of track next to the Hudson River is 30 miles per hour and officials suggested Monday that the train was going faster; no one knows why. The NYT quotes an anonymous source saying the engineer told emergency workers he had to quickly apply the brakes.

Metro North’s Hudson Valley Line remains closed. It has been a difficult year for Metro North; two of its trains on the New Haven Line collided in May, injuring 70, and a railroad worker was struck and killed by a train in late spring.

More states raise taxes to pay for transportation (Kansas City Star) 

With Congress log-jammed, states and local governments are increasingly willing to raise taxes to pay for transportation improvements. Conservative groups are grumbling and may challenge some of the tax hikes, but politicians from both parties are finding that improving infrastructure is popular with voters.

In other words, the closer the politicians live to the actual people and land they govern, the more responsive they are.

Why mass transit is doomed in America: politicians don’t know people who use it (Salon) 

Race, class, fear and shame: transit barriers (KCET)

Two good semi-related articles. At KCET, long-time transit rider D.J. Waldie looks at some recent studies and articles that suggest the so-called ‘car bias’ remains strong and is preventing people from trying transit — even when transit may save them time and money. The big problem, as Waldie writes, is that new policies are encouraging denser developments near transit which may end up housing people who still won’t take the bus or train. Hmmm. No, make that a double hmmm.

At Salon, writer Alex Pareene gets grumpy on the fact that politicians in New York — which should be the most transit-friendly state in the nation owing to the Big Apple — consistently find ways to steer money away from transit.

But it’s not just a New York problem, Pareene writes before delivering a big-time spanking to Minneapolis and Atlanta. And then he finishes up his article with this eternally glorious paragraph which made the Source smile and then smile again:

Just about the only place where there seems to be hope for mass transit in America is, bizarrely enough, Los Angeles, where the system is currently in the process of growing and improving. Why there, of all places? Maybe because while Los Angeles politicians are as unlikely to ride buses and trains as politicians anywhere else, they do have a personal stake in seeing other drivers get the hell off the road.

Congresswoman Karen Bass introduces local hire legislation — bill is consistent with America Fast Forward legislation

This is an important issue because local transit agencies are currently prohibited from creating local hiring programs when using federal funds for projects. The rationale has been that all Americans should have access to jobs created with national funding, but the policy fails to take into account that most of the funding for most projects these days is raised locally.

Here is the update from Metro’s government relations team:

Earlier today, Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-37) moved to introduce legislation that will allow transportation agencies “to prioritize hiring local residents for highway and transit projects.”

According to a press release issued by the Congresswoman’s office, the legislation, entitled the “Local Hire Act” will make it easier to “generate jobs in the very counties and states where their transportation projects are located, while preserving competition and cost effectiveness.”

In September of 2011 our Board voted to add an additional component to our America Fast Forward initiative to permit transportation agencies to establish local hiring programs in proportion to the local share of a given project(s) total cost. Currently, federal procurement regulations do not permit agencies, like Metro, to require bidders to establish local hiring or purchasing programs or to take such programs and local hiring directly into account in the bid evaluation process.

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State of California proposes legislation to keep federal transit funds flowing to Metro and other agencies

Some good news: it appears that a temporary solution has emerged to prevent Metro from losing $3.6 billion in federal funds due to an ongoing dispute over pension reform between the state of California and the U.S. Department of Labor.

The solution involves a state bill exempting transit agencies from pension reform while allowing for the Labor Department’s ruling to be challenged in court.

Some quick background:

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said earlier this year that pension reform signed into law in California last year (known as PEPRA) violates the collective bargaining rights of transit workers represented by the Amalgated Transit Union.

That, in turn, would violate the Federal Transit Act, meaning that Metro and other large transit agencies in California are ineligible to receive most federal funding.

That could cost Metro $3.6 billion in funds that would be used for everything from day-to-day operations to key grants and loans absolutely vital to build such projects as the Purple Line Extension and Regional Connector.

Here is the news release from California Gov. Jerry Brown; please note that the $1.6 billion in the first paragraph does not include the full array of funds that transit agencies could lose.

And here is the legislative update from Metro CEO Art Leahy:

PEPRA/13C UpdateGovernor Brown Proposes Legislation to Keep Federal Transit Money Flowing; Will Defend Pension Reforms in CourtAs outlined in our recent communications on this issue, Sacramento Regional Transit today was notified by the United States Department of Labor that they are now decertified from receiving federal funds.

Governor Brown has also now proposed legislation which would exempt other transit agencies from the pension reform law so that federal funds would continue to flow while the litigation proceeds.

The legislation AB 1222 will be carried by Assembly Member Bloom.

I would like to thank our Board Chair Diane DuBois and Director Zev Yaroslavsky for meeting with the office of Governor Brown, Assembly Speaker Perez, Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg and Assembly Member Bloom during their recent trip to Sacramento as well as Director Pam O’Connor who also worked with Assembly Member Bloom on this issue.

I would also like to thank Mayor Eric Garcetti for his outreach to the Administrations of President Obama and Governor Brown. We will continue our advocacy efforts with Assembly Member Bloom and legislative leaders in both houses to move this bill through the legislative process.

Concurrently, we will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Labor to ensure the free flow of federal transportation dollars. The favorable resolution of this issue will safeguard over $3 billion in federal grants, new starts fund agreements, and loans that we anticipate receiving in the next twelve months.

Here is the Metro staff report on new project acceleration plan to be considered by agency’s Board of Directors this month

Metro project acceleration plan

The Metro Board of Directors this month will consider a project acceleration plan that, on average, would lop an average of 10 years off the time it takes to build second and third decade Measure R transit and road projects. It’s a big deal for many reasons — the foremost being that it could allow the taxpaying public to enjoy the investments they’ve made in local transportation a lot sooner than originally planned.

The Metro staff report that explains the plan is above.

In order to best explain the plan being proposed by Metro staff, it helps first to understand two fundamental truths about Measure R, the half-penny sales tax increase approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008.

The plus side of Measure R was that it provided funding to a long list of transit and road projects, many of which were long sought by the region but lacked funding. Measure R remedied that — and is the reason that five new rail lines will be under construction simultaneously by the middle of this decade along with a host of highway projects, including the widening of the I-5 between the 605 and the Orange County line.

Measure R, however, also posed a challenge. The sales tax would last for 30 years — from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2039 – and the construction of projects it funded were staggered over that three decade span. The third phase of the Purple Line Extension, for example, is currently scheduled to open in the mid-2030s, meaning the future children of current Bruins may be able take the train to campus. In other words, it’s a long time from now. The is true not just for the Purple Line, but for other lines to the Eastside, the South Bay, Southern L.A. County, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley as well.

It’s precisely for this reason that the Metro Board of Directors adopted a policy in 2010 to accelerate projects if possible under the America Fast Forward plan, which proposed an expansion of low cost federal loans for transportation nationwide. Besides the obvious benefit of getting to ride or drive on projects earlier, acceleration may also allow Metro to save on construction and borrowing costs (recently both have been at historic lows due the Great Recession but may now be starting to rise) and to create much-needed jobs.

I’ll better explain the new acceleration plan in a moment, but first a very important caveat: Approval by the Board doesn’t guarantee that any transit or road project would be accelerated. Ultimately, the plan will depend on Metro’s ability to secure loans and bonds from the federal America Fast Forward program, as well as federal New Starts money. In other words, Congress and President Obama must act to expand the amount of loans and bonds available to transit agencies around the United States and to provide federal New Starts to Los Angeles County.

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Support for America Fast Forward bonds program is coast-to-coast with a lot in between

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Here’s a new graphic from Metro showing the growing support for the bond part of the America Fast Forward program that Congress will hopefully adopt this year. And here’s the update from Metro’s government relations squad:

Last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined over 100 mayors from across the United States in encouraging the United States Congress to back our agency’s America Fast Forward Transportation Bond initiative. America Fast Forward Transportation Bonds represent a new class of qualified tax credit bonds that would, if enacted into federal law, significantly increase transportation infrastructure investments across the nation. Support for the initiative is bi-partisan in nature, including from Scott Smith, the Vice-President of the Conference of Mayors. Mayor Smith is a Republican who is currently the mayor of Mesa, Arizona. Please find here a map that illustrates the broad array of America’s mayors in support of America Fast Forward Transportation Bonds.

 

Here’s an earlier post that better explains the bond program. The gist of it: these are bonds that would come without interest for transit agencies, a potential savings of millions of dollars on big projects.

Mayors across the United States show their support for America Fast Forward bond program to accelerate transportation projects

MayoralLetterAFFBonds4-30-13

The America Fast Forward initiative got a nice boost last week when the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a letter (above) to Congress supporting Metro’s attempt to create a new class of bonds that could be used to accelerate transportation projects across the country, including Metro’s Measure R highway and transit projects. From Metro’s government relations staff:

A letter sent by well over 100 Mayors from across the United States is encouraging the United States Congress to back our agency’s America Fast Forward Transportation Bond initiative.

America Fast Forward Transportation Bonds represent a new class of qualified tax credit bonds that would, if enacted into federal law, significantly increase transportation infrastructure investments across the nation.

The correspondence was spearheaded by the Immediate Past President of the United States Conference of Mayors, Los Angeles Mayor and Metro Director Antonio Villaraigosa.

The letter secured strong bi-partisan support, including from Scott Smith, the Vice-President of the Conference of Mayors.  Mayor Smith is a Republican who is currently the mayor of Mesa, Arizona.

Please find here a copy of the United States Conference of Mayors letter to Congressional leaders in support of America Fast Forward Transportation Bonds.  For your review, please also find here a brochure that includes details on our innovative transportation bond initiative and an illustration on how the America Fast Forward Transportation Bond process would work.

Here’s a helpful pamphlet from Metro explaining how the bonds would work. Congress last year approved another part of the America Fast Forward initiative that expanded a program that offers federal backing of low-interest loans. The bond program is the other equally important part of America Fast Forward.

AFF Bonds Single Page

President Obama’s proposed budget calls for $130 million for two Metro projects: Purple Line Extension and Regional Connector

This page from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation booklet of budget highlights. Click above for the full document (pdf).

This page from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation booklet of budget highlights. Click above for the full document (pdf).

Some very welcome news via the proposed budget released today by President Barack Obama: the budget includes $130 million to help fund two of Metro’s big rail projects: the Purple Line Extension and the Regional Connector. The budget allocates $65 million to both projects.

This is the first time that both projects will actually receive federal money. The funds are extremely significant because they help supplement Measure R funds for two projects that are both very expensive and need additional funds. Although Congress still must approve the budget, historically these type of funds don’t change much during budget negotiations.

There’s another reason the money is important. The funds are the first payment for more federal dollars that will flow to both projects in future federal budgets via the federal New Starts program that helps local transit agencies pay for big, pricey transit improvements — such as new rail lines.

Formal agreements that detail the New Starts money are expected to be signed between Metro and the Federal Transit Administration later this year. The subway will be asking for $2.3 billion in New Starts money and has a budget of $2.4 billion for its first phase to La Cienega Boulevard. The Regional Connector will be asking for $671 million in New Starts money and has a budget of $1.3 billion.

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Metro Board to consider change to Measure R expenditure plan as part of latest project acceleration effort

UPDATE: The item will be considered at April’s meeting of the Metro Board of Directors.

In 2010, the Metro Board of Directors approved the 30/10 plan, the idea being to build 30 years worth of Measure R projects in the next decade. Although it hasn’t yet worked out, that policy is still very much on the books — and Metro staff are still trying to advance Measure R road and transit projects.

The first part of a new acceleration strategy will come before the Metro Board at its monthly meeting on Thursday. In particular, Metro staff are recommending that the Board approve a public notice of a planned change to the Measure R expenditure plan that would allow second- and third-decade Measure R projects to begin receiving funds this decade.

If approved, the proposal would then be vetted by a three-judge panel that provides oversight for Measure R. After the judges release their findings, the plan is for the Metro Board to vote on the new dates for the expenditure plan and a new acceleration plan at the Board’s May meeting.

And what will the acceleration strategy be this time around? I don’t know the details beyond what’s in the staff report issued last week (the report is below). The report shows that Metro is looking at assembling funds from a variety of sources — Measure R, America Fast Forward loans and bonds (30/10 was renamed America Fast Forward in 2011) and possibly revenues from Prop A and C, the half-cent sales tax increases approved by L.A. County voters in 1980 and 1990, respectively.

So stay tuned. As always there’s a lot of balls in the air, particularly at the federal level, where Metro is trying to lock down New Starts money for the Westside Subway Extension and Regional Connector while also getting getting Congress to fully adopt and fund the America Fast Forward plan.

Mixed news on transportation funding from Congress — not exactly a shocker, people

For masochistic readers following the tortuous path of transportation funding in Congress, here are a dynamic duo of legislative updates from Metro’s government relations staff.

The first is good news: the House of Representatives restored transportation funding in the budget for the second half of this fiscal year.

The second is not so good news: the House of Representatives is hacking away at transportation funding in a budget they’re preparing for the next fiscal year.

The updates:

House Adopts Six Month Stop Gap Spending Bill

This morning, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate-amended version of H.R. 933, a six month stop gap funding bill for the Federal Government for the balance of Federal Fiscal Year 2013.

The bill was adopted by a vote of 318 to 109. As was shared in yesterday’s Legislative Alert, the U.S. Senate passed this bill last night by a vote of 73 to 26. In a welcome development, the bill includes language that aligns the level of funding for federal transportation programs with the amounts authorized for those programs under the newly adopted surface transportation bill, MAP-21.

Under the previous stop gap funding bill that covered the first six months of Federal Fiscal Year 2013, Congress ignored MAP-21 funding levels and kept the funding for federal transportation programs at the lower level provided in Federal Fiscal Year 2012.

Initial estimates of this change in policy indicate that federal transportation programs will receive a boost of $385 million dollars of regular discretionary budget authority for the balance of Federal Fiscal Year 2013. This stop gap funding bill is subject to sequestration, which will cut funding across the board for a number of defense and domestic discretionary programs.

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Metro and other agencies urge feds to release transit funding currently being withheld

Further proof that there’s always something getting in the way of transportation funding in the nation’s capital. From Metro’s government relations starting nine:

Metro along with the Orange County Transportation Authority, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and Sacramento Regional Transit, sent a letter to Acting United States Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris, urging the United States Department of Labor to release federal transit funding currently being withheld from public transit agencies in California. We will continue to keep you apprised as this issue continues to unfold.  Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.