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Transbay Transit Center to Fill Downtown With People, Not Cars

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The new Transbay Transit Center is expected to transform San Francisco’s downtown core by focusing new development around a massive regional transit hub in eastern SoMa. Scheduled to open in 2017, it will link 11 transit systems and eventually CA High-Speed Rail. Some have called it the ”Grand Central of the West.”

Renderings via TransbayCenter.org

The SF Planning Commission last week approved an influx of high-density office and housing redevelopment, including the West Coast’s tallest skyscraper, in the neighborhood surrounding the new station at First and Mission Streets, known as the Transbay Center District. To ensure that new workers and residents come by transit, foot, and bike instead of clogging the streets with cars, the plan would make sweeping streetscape improvements and limit the amount of car parking in the area.

“This is going to be one of the best examples of transit-oriented development in the world,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “We’re going to be putting in $4 billion in transit infrastructure and then putting our tallest buildings right on top of it. It’s going to be studied and emulated all over the world if we get this right.”

The hub, which replaces the old Transbay Terminal, would connect to transit systems in all nine Bay Area counties, including Muni, BART, AC Transit, SamTrans, and Golden Gate Transit. Caltrain would operate on an electrified system connecting directly to the station, thanks to a recently-approved plan to extend tracks from the 4th and King station. Caltrain would share those tracks with high-speed rail trains.

Streets within the plan area — bounded by Market Street to the north, Steuart to the east, Folsom to the south, and just short of Third to the west — would be transformed with improvements for walking, bicycling, and surface transit.

Major streets — Mission, Howard, New Montgomery, Second, First, and Fremont Streets — would get wider sidewalks, road diets, transit lanes, and boarding islands. The planning department is also looking at creating a transit-only plaza on Mission between First and Fremont.

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Will Obama’s Transportation Jobs Plan Avoid Funding Sprawl?

USDOT has made public the breakdown of President Obama’s $50 billion plan to create jobs through transportation infrastructure investment. The administration says: “It will put people to work upgrading 150,000 miles of road, laying/maintaining 4,000 miles of train tracks, restoring 150 miles of runways, and putting in place a next-generation air-traffic control system that will reduce travel time and delays.”

Obama announcing the American Jobs Act. Photo: SHRM

Specifically, they lay out the numbers:

  • $27 billion for rebuilding roads and bridges
  • $9 billion for repairing bus and rail transit systems
  • $5 billion for projects selected through a competitive grant program
  • $4 billion for construction of the high-speed rail network
  • $2 billion to improve airport facilities
  • $1 billion for a NextGen air traffic control system

It’s encouraging to see the words “upgrading” and “rebuilding” when it comes to roads, indicating that the administration might be adhering to a fix-it-first approach to transportation spending. But, as we mentioned last week, the bridge Obama highlighted recently as a prime target for jobs-bill money isn’t actually in need of repair — transportation officials just want to widen it to allow more traffic to go through faster.

Certainly, the administration has shown a desire to attack the maintenance backlog in the country, but that doesn’t guarantee that highway expansions and sprawl projects won’t get a slice of the “rebuilding” pie.

That said, it’s good to see the plan includes $5 billion for projects funded through a competitive grant program (think TIGER). And it also hits a somewhat more equitable balance between rail/transit and roads than Congressional transportation bills generally do.

The president’s plan also includes an infrastructure bank, funded with $10 billion seed money. The administration says projects will be evaluated on the basis of how badly they’re needed and how much they would help the economy.

Some have said over the last couple of weeks that the I-bank concept is in trouble after the GOP pounced on the Solyndra loan story, in which a solar company filed for bankruptcy soon after receiving half a billion dollars in government-backed loans. Experts say the infrastructure bank proposal would vet projects well and protect taxpayers from risk.

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Senate Saves a Sliver For High-Speed Rail

President Obama had sought $8 billion for high-speed rail in 2012. The House-passed budget had exactly zero. The Senate bill approved by the Transportation subcommittee Tuesday followed suit. But the full Appropriations Committee yesterday put $100 million back into next year’s budget for the president’s signature transportation initiative.

Senator Dick Durbin, co-chair of the High-Speed Rail Caucus, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ride a high-speed train in China. Photo from Reid's Flickr photostream

That’s still starvation wages for the program, but it’s at least a placeholder that keeps it limping along. The move was spearheaded by four Democratic senators — Dick Durbin of Illinois, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Dianne Feinstein of California and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — who introduced the successful amendment to reallocate some funds earmarked for highway and transit projects to high-speed rail.

“I offered this amendment because we can’t turn our backs on a project that will invest in the future and put Californians back to work,” Feinstein said in a statement.

“Every dollar we spend on rail produces $3 in economic output,” added Senator Durbin, a founding member of the Bi-Cameral High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus. “Congress has maintained a commitment to high speed and intercity rail for over a decade. This amendment will continue that commitment.”

Highway funding in the Senate bill stays at FY2011 levels, but the chamber added another $358 million for the New Starts program for transit capital investments, previously funded at $8.3 billion. The House budget would reduce New Starts to $5.3 billion.

TIGER got a little bump too, with the Senate raising the allocation from $527 million to $550 million. Of that, $120 million is reserved for rural communities. The third round of TIGER grant applications is currently underway.

The Senate-passed budget keeps $90 million for the tri-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities (down from $100 million in 2011), a victory for livability advocates and anyone who prefers federal collaboration and efficiency over stovepipes and silos.

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Senate Strips High-Speed Rail Funding

The Senate’s transportation budget proposal is still under wraps, but we’re getting some clues about what’s in it.

The president's "vision" for high-speed rail is getting cloudy. Image: White House

This morning, a subcommittee marked up the transportation and HUD appropriations bill, and the full committee will consider it tomorrow afternoon. Only after that will the draft bill be released.

During this morning’s subcommittee markup, though, a few senators divulged a few key points. For example, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said he was ” discouraged by the elimination of high-speed rail grants” in the budget. “It’s a casualty of the cuts mandated in the debt-limit deal,” he said.

Despite his strong push last winter for high-speed rail service that would reach 80 percent of the U.S. population in 25 years, President Obama has been willing to sacrifice high-speed rail funding in tense budget fights with Republicans. The Senate seems to be following suit.

However, funding for Amtrak is untouched in the Senate budget bill, foreshadowing a pitched battle once the Senate and House have to reconcile their two budget bills. The House made devastating cuts to Amtrak in its version.

And Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) emphasized that TIGER grants are “an important part of the transportation equation” and indicated that they were still in the bill. Through other channels, we hear that TIGER is being funded at $550 million, which is slightly higher than the $527 million allocation it has now. The House 2012 budget proposal would have eliminated the program completely.

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Report: Get Out of the Highway-Obsessed Eisenhower Era

Building America's Future's words, not ours! Source: BAF, via USDOT.

Building America’s Future, led by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has added their voice to the chorus calling for greater investment in U.S. infrastructure, lest the country fall behind its global competitors. In a new report, Falling Apart and Falling Behind, BAF recommends more focus on mass transit, a switch away from formula funding without performance requirements, and more emphasis on metropolitan areas.

A couple weeks ago, we took some heat from some of you, dear readers, about our coverage of a somewhat similar report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Indeed, that report called for more infrastructure spending, but without specific recommendations on how to build a bettertransportation system. Charles Marohn at Strong Towns wrote a scathing critique of the report, questioning the urgent need to “spend trillions to save seconds” of commute time – especially the assertion that the U.S. should spend $2.2 trillion in order to save $1.0 trillion. Marohn went on to say:

At Strong Towns, we want our infrastructure maintained. In fact, it’s the common denominator of a Strong Town. But the reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Well put. And we’re glad to see that today’s contribution to the infrastructure debate goes deeper than the ASCE report in recommending concrete ways to build smarter, not just more.

Building America’s Future urges more spending, but says that to do it right, funding priorities should adhere to national strategies. And they’re not shy about spelling out what those are: more economic growth and mobility, less congestion and pollution. “Largely run on gasoline, our transportation system is environmentally, politically, and economically unsustainable,” they write.

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Mica and Rail Supporters Meet Halfway

Members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association on Capitol Hill with Rep. John Mica (center) on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of USHSR.

At a meeting with members of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica softened his stance somewhat on his plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor.

He acknowledged that the proposal is “controversial” and said that was why he framed it in a separate bill, apart from the rest of the reauthorization. He said he’s “heard the concerns” about the plan. A member of his staff said that the original plan was being portrayed as transferring Amtrak’s assets away from it, while leaving Amtrak holding the bag on the debt. “Which, when you put it that way, does sound sort of unfair,” the staffer said, indicating that issues like those are being worked out.

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, said he was glad to see Mica striking a more cooperative tone. “His initial bill and his initial hearing was a little bit ‘This is it; take it or leave it’,” Kunz said. “Now he’s recognizing there needs to be a bit more cooperative action.”

The committee isn’t easing up on everything, though. The staffer also stated that the committee was giving inter-city and passenger rail “a temporary rest” while it focuses exclusively on high-speed rail. “It does not serve the two programs well to be ‘smooshed,’ or put together and consolidated the way they have been and then have most of the projects that receive funding not be high-speed rail in any way, shape, or form.”

In response to the Congressional Research Service’s conclusion that the rail privatization scheme could run into constitutional problems, Mica’s staffer was dismissive, saying CRS merely warned that some courts could find it to be a violation, and they should be careful. (Sounds like a finding of unconstitutionality to me.)

As he often does, Mica spoke of his high-speed rail plans as a way to rescue high-speed rail from the Obama administration’s mismanagement and bungling. He often jokes about the “gift that keeps on giving”: the original $8 billion allocated for high-speed rail, some of which has been returned by gun-shy states and re-allocated.

Mica asserted that the involvement of the private sector is “non-negotiable” – which Amtrak itself would agree with, as it’s already seeking private sector partners. Mica gave Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman credit for being on board. “Boardman sees that you cannot [upgrade the NEC to high speeds] – at least in his lifetime – under the current proposal,” Mica said. He also said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is “willing to negotiate.” But he cast blame on Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who he said are willing to give “none of the pie” to private investors.

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Onion: Al-Qaeda Would Reduce U.S. Infrastructure to Rubble But It’s Too Late

You can always count on The Onion to call attention to the sorry state we’re in. Today’s story: “Al-Qaeda Claims U.S. Mass Transportation Infrastructure Must Drastically Improve Before Any Terrorist Attacks.”

Photo: The Onion

According to The Onion, al- Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has demanded that the U.S. make significant repairs and upgrades to its roads, bridges, and railways before al-Qaeda would even consider destroying them with terrorist attacks.

Reading from a prepared statement, al-Zawahiri blasted the U.S. government for its lack of foresight and admonished its leaders for failing to provide Americans with efficient and reliable modes of public transport to reduce traffic congestion, lower carbon emissions, improve air quality, and supply suitable targets for terrorists.

“The al-Qaeda network is fully prepared to continue the jihad against the American infidels by launching deadly attacks, but your outdated and rusting transportation infrastructure needs to be completely overhauled for those strikes even to be noticed,” al-Zawahiri said. “We want to turn your bridges into rubble, but if we claimed credit for making them collapse, nobody would ever believe us.”

They even got in a dig about the nation’s paralysis around building high-speed rail.
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California: Ground Zero in the High Speed Rail Wars

Is Bakersfield-to-Fresno a good start for HSR in California? Photo: Neighborhoodr

On Thursday, the California High Speed Rail Authority accepted the resignation of Ogilvy Public Relations. The PR firm was about to get axed over accusations that it billed excessively while doing little to counter a tide of anti-rail propaganda.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, at the Rosemead Community Recreation Center, east of Los Angeles, the Authority displayed maps and renderings of the rail system it’s designing to link California’s major cities. Up and down the state, in fact, the Authority is holding regular outreach meetings as it draws up detailed blueprints, including a planned initial segment from Bakersfield to north of Fresno, through the state’s agricultural Central Valley. “We hope to start construction in the fall of 2012,” said Project Manager Maj. Gen. Hans Van Winkle at a high-speed rail conference in downtown Los Angeles. So in theory, everything’s on schedule and there’s $6.3 billion in state bonds and federal funds ready to go.

The Ogilvy firing, however, was just the latest indication of the vicious brawl going on between HSR opponents and supporters nationally and in Sacramento. With Florida’s decision to abandon its project, California is now the only state with a dedicated HSR system in advanced planning. That’s put California in the cross-hairs of anti-rail politicians and petroleum-and-aviation-industry-backed groups such as the Reason Foundation.

The battled heated up May 10, when California’s Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) came out with a report attacking the decision to build the first leg in the Central Valley. Engineers prefer this long, straight section because it minimizes construction challenges. Nevertheless, the report set off a flurry of anti-rail editorials in papers ranging from the Sacramento Bee to the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Many echoed the Reason Foundation’s statements that the Central California segment will be a “train to nowhere.”

“This initial money, if we spent it instead in Southern California…we could use it for existing commuter rail and high-speed rail,” said Southern California State Senator Alan Lowenthal.

In 2008, voters in California approved Proposition 1A, which authorized the state to issue $10 billion in bonds to begin funding a dedicated, 220-mph high-speed line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. However, it stipulated the dollars can’t be spent unless they’re matched — in this case by the Feds.

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High-Speed Rail Funds Get Slashed in Detailed Budget Plan

Just when we thought transportation had gotten off relatively easy in the shutdown-aversion budget deal:

House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY). Image: Mindfully

The House Appropriations Committee has released details [PDF] on the budget agreement between the two houses, including more information on the agreed-to $38.5 billion in cuts. Where we’d heard before that high-speed rail was getting a $1.5 billion haircut, down to the $1 billion for 2011 that President Obama had originally requested, it turns out now that that last billion dollars is being cut too. And to add insult to injury, they’re also zeroing out $400 million of rejected Florida rail funds (technically cutting funding from 2010), bringing the grand total of HSR cuts to $2.9 billion.

This is a big blow to one of the president’s signature projects, with which he was planning on “winning the future.” It further clouds the outlook for his $53 billion proposal for high-speed rail over the next six years, starting in 2012. These budget cuts, of course, are for FY2011, before the $53 billion was to start, but please believe the Republicans aren’t looking for a massive increase in rail money for next year either.

TIGER, which had appeared to be safe, is getting $72 million cut from its $600 million budget, and the Appropriations Committee eliminated all funding for “planning, preparation or design” of projects eligible for TIGER funding. For now, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities appears to be safe.

Meanwhile, New Starts transit funding, already slated for $280 million in cuts, is now getting $502 million cut from its $2 billion budget, with another $128 million coming out of Amtrak grants for capital improvements and debt service. They’ve also cut $3.1 billion in highway contract authority that had not been obligated, as opposed to the $2.5 billion cut announced Friday night.

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Who Wants Florida’s $2.4 Billion in High-Speed Rail Funds?

Gov. Rick Scott got to say no, yet again, to Florida’s dreams of high-speed rail.

The attorney for the state senators argued in Florida's Supreme Court to save high-speed rail funding.

Florida’s Supreme Court ruled this morning that Gov. Scott doesn’t have to accept federal money to build a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. Two state senators had filed a lawsuit, claiming Scott had “overstepped his authority” by turning down the money, since the state legislature had voted to authorize the project. (Check out Transportation Nation’s chronology of events.)

Scott put the final nail in the coffin this morning when he formally told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, for the last time, he was rejecting the federal funds for the project. LaHood had been trying for weeks to assuage Scott’s concerns by assuring him that Florida would not be held responsible for cost overruns and that private investors would assume most of the risk.

A USDOT spokesperson said the department had “addressed every legitimate concern Governor Scott has raised” and “repeatedly and clearly told Governor Scott and his staff that Florida would not bear financial or legal liabilities for the project.” Florida Senator Bill Nelson and Rep. John Mica begged him to change his mind. Still, no dice.

This morning, after talking to Scott, LaHood issued a statement saying, “The Obama Administration’s bold high-speed rail plan will not only create jobs and reinvigorate our manufacturing sector in the near term, it is a crucial and strategic investment in America’s future prosperity. I know that states across America are enthusiastic about receiving additional support to help bring America’s high-speed rail network to life and deliver all its economic benefits to their citizens.”

He’s right about that – politicians from around the country – and especially the Northeast – have been lining up to ask for Florida’s hand-me-downs.