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At NACTO Conference, LaHood Delivers Straight Talk on MAP-21

After a rousing opening speech from NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took the stage at the “Designing Cities” conference of the National Association of City Transportation Officials yesterday. Streetsblog stringer Dani Simons was there and briefed us on the highlights.

U.S. DOT chief Ray LaHood says cities are the incubators of innovation. Photo: NYCDOT via AN Blog

LaHood said:

  • We’ve made amazing progress in cities in the past four years with light rail, high-speed rail, BRT, walking and biking paths. And we’re not going back. We can only go forward from here.
  • The incubators (of good transportation ideas) in America are the cities.
  • I know a lot of you were disappointed about the new federal transportation bill, MAP-21, but you know the best thing about the new bill? It’s only a two-year bill.
  • In my opinion the fight over the next bill won’t be as much about content as it is about how to fund it. And I think, if Obama is reelected, that Congress will start getting to work on the new bill starting in January.
  • Hopefully Congress will pass new appropriations to fund another round of TIGER grants, but that depends on whether Congress passes any new appropriations before the end of this term.

Indeed, there are stirrings of work on the next bill already. LaHood is right: The fight next time will be all about money, just as the fight last time was all about money — it was just never resolved. If Congress can’t find a way to bring in as much in revenue as the Highway Trust Fund needs to spend on infrastructure, the country will continue along a path of belt-tightening and bailouts — and it will strengthen the hand of anyone who wants to eliminate funding for transit, walking and biking. Without overcoming the funding issue first, it will be difficult to make significant progress in the new bill.

As for appropriations, the House has passed half of its appropriations bills for fiscal year 2013, which has already started, including the one for transportation. The full Senate has passed none, though the Senate committee for transportation appropriations did pass one that includes money for TIGER, as well as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities grants and non-high-speed inter-city passenger rail. The House budget doesn’t allocate money for any of those things. A continuing budget resolution is in place now, which freezes current funding through the end of March, including for TIGER.

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Ray LaHood on Making Room For Everyone on America’s Streets

Editor’s note: Last month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood invited Streetsblog readers to submit questions for a Q&A installment on his blog, Fast Lane. Here are his answers.

In my “On The Go,” series, I only get time to answer a few questions. But — like the Streetsblog community — I never get tired of talking about transportation.

And because Streetsblog readers came through with so many good questions for the May installment of “On The Go,” I’m happy to answer more of those questions here on your home turf.

Jesse asks: What role does the government (at any level — not just federal) have in changing the public’s perception of the streets from a place that is the exclusive domain of cars to public space that should accommodate everyone’s needs?

That’s a terrific question, Jesse, because it covers a number of issues that are so important to the Streetsblog community. At the US DOT, we have said repeatedly that people on bicycles, people on foot, and people with disabilities are valued stakeholders in what happens with our roadways. At the federal level, we’re providing leadership by making it clear that we support all modes of transportation.

And we’ve put our actions behind those words with grants for complete streets initiatives, better sidewalks, and more bike infrastructure like bike-sharing programs, bike lanes, and off-road paths. The Federal Transit Administration has made it easier for commuters to access transit service by bicycle. The Federal Highway Administration’s Non-motorized Transportation Program has demonstrated that Americans want to use their feet to get where they’re going.

Read more…

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Transportation Secretary LaHood Answers Streetsblog Readers’ Questions

Editor’s Note: Last month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood invited Streetsblog readers to submit questions for a Q&A installment on his blog, the Fast Lane. Here are his answers. (For maximum effect, picture the secretary delivering these remarks while standing on a table.)

Since March, I’ve been doing a monthly video series called “On the Go with Ray LaHood,” where I respond to questions from the public. I want to thank Streetsblog readers for supplying the bulk of the questions we received this month.

But in my latest “On the Go” video, I was only able to answer a few of them. Since you provided so many great questions, I thought it would be nice to answer a few extra ones right here on Streetsblog.

On my Fast Lane blog, Josef Szende asked, “Does the USDOT consider its job on creating a sustainable transit system to be over once the majority of the country is using electric vehicles?”

Josef, it’s true that I’m excited about Electric Vehicles. They’ve got a lot of potential to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and they really help solve the problem of tailpipe emissions. But many people don’t want to own cars–electric or otherwise. And, with transportation costs as the number two item in most household budgets, we know Americans need access to affordable transit options.

So this DOT is pushing forward to continue growing innovative transit systems across the U.S. For example, our Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has a very popular Urban Circulator program and a successful New Starts program that, on Monday, announced nearly $1.6 billion for 27 projects nationwide.

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USDOT Announces Funding For Transit Projects, Minus ARC Tunnel

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday announced $1.58 billion in New Starts grants that will fund 27 transit projects around the country. The only major difference between this list and the list of proposed projects that came out in February 2010 is the glaring absence of the ARC tunnel project that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie unceremoniously axed last year.

The century-old transit tunnel NJ Gov. Christie decided not to modernize. Photo: TSTC

Christie’s decision to kill the project to expand capacity in a train tunnel under the Hudson River had one positive result: it must have made things easier for ­FTA officials to make the cuts required by the 25 percent haircut the New Starts program received earlier this year at the hands of Congressional budget-cutters.

The $200 million federal grant for ARC was one of the biggest on the list of proposed New Starts projects last year. The only other significant change is that the $45 million for “Other New Starts/Small Starts Projects” became $20 million for Alaska’s Denali Commission and for ferries in Alaska and Hawaii.

In its press release, USDOT highlights some of the transit projects that are moving forward:

Read more…

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Ray LaHood Wants to Hear From Streetsblog Readers

Note that LaHood had Facebook on in the background during his last video chat. (And he says he's not a hipster.)

Got a question for Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood? He’s all ears.

LaHood has been doing a series of video chats where he responds to questions from the public, and a DOT official told me they would like to “explicitly invite Streetsblog readers to submit their questions to the Secretary” for the next episode of “On the Go with Ray LaHood.”

There are three ways to submit questions. You can leave a comment on the Secretary’s blog, go to his Facebook discussion page, or tweet a question using hashtag #q4ray.

Go ahead, give him your best shot.

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LaHood Kicks Off National Bike Summit

On the first night of the National Bike Summit, Secretary Ray LaHood told an enormous hotel ballroom filled with cycling advocates about his childhood riding bikes in Peoria, Illinois and reminded them that they need to work harder than ever to convince Congress to support cycling.

Sec. LaHood immediately after addressing the Bike Summit. Photo by Clarence Eckerson.

Last year, he captivated the Summit crowd with his famous “Tabletop Speech” and his declaration that “this is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Last night, League of American Bicyclists President Andy Clarke introduced LaHood with the high praise, “He talks about bikes -– not just with us -– but with other people too!”

LaHood encouraged the attendees, who will be going to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives on Thursday, to “talk to your member of Congress about the importance of making communities cycle-friendly.” He reminded them that Ohio Congressman Steve LaTourette went from ridiculing cycling to supporting it after hearing from committed advocates. (LaHood was polite enough to not mention LaTourette by name, but everyone in the room knew who he was talking about.)

“I want you to work hard on your members of Congress,” LaHood exhorted the crowd. “We really need your help more now than, maybe, ever before. Because you know that a new crowd is in town and they have a little different agenda and it’s being played out in a way that maybe doesn’t reflect the kind of values many of us believe in.”

He didn’t talk much about the “big, bold” transportation plan proposed by “that fella I work for” (President Obama), other than asking attendees to “charge up to Capitol Hill” and push members to support cycling.

LaHood bolstered his own cred with the room full of cyclists by telling stories of how he and his wife go cycling on the C&O Canal trail every weekend (though I think he meant the Capital Crescent), and recounting his own early years riding a Schwinn all around town, and how he bought bikes for his four kids and his nine grandkids to make sure cycling was part of their lives.

“You have a full partner -– many more than one partner -– at DOT,” he told them.

Read more…

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Obama Admin’s Bold Transpo Plan Leaves Funding Question to Congress

The president’s six-year transportation plan [PDF], included as part of the administration’s FY2012 budget proposal, weighs in at a hefty $556 billion and lays out several policy reforms that, if enacted, could help the nation transition to a more multi-modal, less oil-dependent transportation system.

The plan is a blueprint that Congress can use as a basis for its transportation reauthorization bill. It has a lot in common with then-Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar’s bill from 2009. And, like Oberstar’s bill, it leaves unanswered the question of how to fund transportation investments. This time, however, it comes in the midst of an all-out Republican war on deficit spending.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the president's proposal represents the administration's "big bold vision" for transportation. Photo: Tanya Snyder

How much of this plan will survive the GOP cutting machine is anyone’s guess. There’s a lot in the president’s proposal that’s worth saving. Some notable elements:

  • Transit funding is going up by 127 percent, while funding for roads and bridges is getting a 48 percent increase. That represents a significant shift in the highways-to-transit ratio, which will go from an 80-20 split to a 74-26 split.
  • The Highway Trust Fund is getting a long-overdue name change. The new Transportation Trust Fund will now have four accounts – the traditional highways and mass transit accounts and also new accounts for passenger rail and an infrastructure bank.
  • Some advocates are disappointed that the proposed infrastructure bank will be housed at DOT and not be formed as an independent entity, as many had hoped. Still, the shift to more discretionary, competitive grants is a huge victory for reformers.
  • The consolidation of 55 road programs into five means there will no longer be separate pots of money for bridges, for example, or trucker rest areas, according to Undersecretary Roy Kienitz. That money will be rolled into a larger pot of funding for highways that states and local governments will compete for. The five programs will be: the National Highway Program, Highway Safety Improvement, Livable Communities, Federal Allocation and Research, Technology, and Education.
  • The TIFIA loan program will go from a $120 million allocation to $450 million; TIGER, which has given out $2.1 billion in grants so far, will get $2 billion the first year in the president’s proposal.
  • The funding for livability programs – $28 billion over six years – will include bike and pedestrian improvements, but allocation decisions rest with the states.
  • While the new bill doesn’t have a line item for a new national freight policy or a new office overseeing freight movement, Kienitz said freight programs got the lion’s share of TIGER grants (pun not intended, I think) and will be well-positioned to get money from the infrastructure bank.
  • Amtrak funding will be split into two accounts: one for state of good repair and one for new system development. Read more…
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Excitement at Transbay Event, But Federal Transportation Bill Uncertain

Transbay_groundbreak_1.jpgSenator Barbara Boxer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, US DOT Secretary Ray Lahood, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board Chairman and SFMTA CEO Nat Ford at the Transbay Transit Center groundbreaking. Photos: Matthew Roth.

Though most of the California political class celebrated the groundbreaking of the new Transbay Transit Center with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in San Francisco yesterday, significant questions remain for funding a national high-speed rail network through the federal transportation act.

The event swarmed with Secret Service and various other branches of law enforcement keeping an eye on a crowd that, as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom joked with LaHood, was mostly made up of consultants on the Transbay project.

LaHood cracked wise several times at Newsom's expense, repeating more comments Newsom made before the press conference to the public and the media and suggesting Californian's should vote him in as Lt. Governor on his humor alone.

When he stopped ribbing Newsom, LaHood gushed about how far "ahead of the curve" California is on high-speed rail. LaHood said U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) had cast "courageous votes" that made the stimulus bill possible, which meant a $48 billion infusion for the US DOT or nearly two-thirds his annual budget. From the $8 billion President Barack Obama added for high-speed rail nationally, California received $2.3 billion, $400 million of that for the Transbay Transit Center.

"People who come back from Europe or Asia and have ridden high-speed rail, like many of you have, come back to America and ask why we don't have high-speed rail in America? Because we've never made the investment, that's why," said LaHood. "This year we had 8 billion times more money for high-speed rail given President Obama's vision to connect America with high-speed, inter-city rail."

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Traffic Engineer Jack Fleck Looks Back at 25 Years of Shaping SF Streets

Jack_Fleck_1.jpgJack Fleck, who retired yesterday after 25 years with the SFMTA, has been pondering the city's streets from his 7th floor office above Van Ness and Market Streets. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on the past, present and future of traffic engineering in San Francisco. 

Jack Lucero Fleck remembers his teenage years as a sputnik, the kind of kid who was as "nutty as a slide rule," loved math and science, and knew he was headed in that direction. It was the summer of 1965, and living in Peoria, Illinois, the same town where US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood grew up, Fleck couldn't quite peg what he wanted to do in life. And then there were the Watts riots.

"I got kind of interested in, 'well, what caused that? Why were people burning down their neighborhood?'," Fleck, 62, explained during a recent interview. "I decided I would go into civil engineering because I liked to do math and science and engineering and I would combine it with city planning to make cities better places to live, so people wouldn't want to burn them down."

For the last 25 years, Fleck, who retired yesterday from his job as San Francisco's top traffic engineer, has had a hand in almost every major transportation project in San Francisco, from the demolition and boulevard replacement of the Embarcadero and Central Freeways, to helping in the design of the T-Third line and Central Subway, to crafting a controversial proposal to remove the bike lane at Market and Octavia Streets.

He has sometimes been the bane of transit advocates for defending post-World War II traffic engineering orthodoxy favoring one-way street networks, such as those that roar through neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and SoMa. While some advocates have been working to dismantle some of the one-way arterials, Fleck, who became lead traffic engineer in 2004, is a firm believer in them. Still, those advocates and transportation professionals who have worked with Fleck (none we contacted would go on the record with their criticisms) say he has been a true professional and easy to work with.

"His views are very progressive and he's very environmentally conscious," said Bond Yee, the interim Director of Sustainable Streets at the SFMTA who has been at the agency four years longer than Fleck. "He epitomizes what the new generation of transportation professionals is becoming. He's a little bit ahead of his time."

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Cyclists Laud LaHood’s Bike-Ped Advocacy

Several dozen cyclists rode to U.S. DOT headquarters today to present
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood with a letter signed by hundreds of
local bike-ped groups, hailing the former GOP congressman’s support for
their cause during his first 16 months on the job.

lahood.jpgLaHood, at
far right, during a tabletop speech at March’s National Bike Summit.
(Photo: Jonathan
Maus
)

"Americans want to get outdoors … they want
opportunities to get out of congestion," LaHood told the assembled
cyclists, some of whom joined him in donning brightly colored bike
lapel pins
to signify support for the Congressional Bike Caucus.

In addition to hailing the health benefits of bike-ped — LaHood
said he has used the local Rock Island trail near his Peoria hometown
"hundreds of times" — he also thanked the assembled advocates for
serving as a counterweight to the
criticism
directed his way by the trucking industry after a March
policy statement that endorsed putting cyclists and pedestrians on equal
footing with drivers.

"We need to be promoting biking," the Cabinet member said, but that
effort "does not take away from other forms of transportation."

The letter presented to LaHood, accompanied by a signed poster that
the Washington Area Bicyclist Association compiled during last week’s Bike
to Work Day events
, praised the March policy statement on bike-ped
but acknowledged its non-binding nature.

"We have a lot of work to do," wrote the letter’s signatory groups,
which included America Bikes, the Safe Routes to School National
Partnership, Transportation for America, and the National Complete
Streets Coalition. The advocates continued:

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