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The Idea That Families Don’t Belong in the City Is Antiquated and Harmful

The notion of cities as playgrounds for the young and unattached remains a pretty pervasive concept.

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

The blogger at Family Friendly Cities has encountered it plenty. A young parent, he says that in his circles, the social stigma against raising children in the city remains irrationally strong:

As a young couple we lived in a garden style apartment in a car dominated city with two automobiles in what is one of the most sprawling cities in the country. We wanted more. So after we married we moved to a more urban city, one that still gets a rather unfortunate rap for sprawl but has a thriving urban core. We also dropped one of our cars. We primarily relied on transit except for our grocery store trips. Our home was more urban, and so was our neighborhood. That was fine, we were still young and childless, and we were constantly reminded of it. “Good thing you are doing it now before you have children” was a common sentiment, as if our urban lifestyle had an expiration date. It was set to die the moment we added a new family member. So we did, and it didn’t. Despite the auto-centric place we lived we walked to the hospital to give birth, and to the horrified look on the nurses’ faces we walked our newborn home. Even when we proclaimed that you could probably see our home from any of the windows in the maternity ward they thought we were crazy. Crazy to choose to walk her home the equivalent of three city blocks, rather than drive. And so came more of the comments once she was home; advice, and questions: “Have you looked for a house outside the city,” “Once she gets older you are going to need more space,” “You will need a yard,” “Living in the city is fine while she is so young, but not when she gets older” and the always important “The schools are better in X County.” So we followed their advice. We packed up a yellow truck and moved: to the second most dense census tract in the city smack dab in the heart of downtown, across the country.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Central Subway Now on Schedule and Under Budget, Says Controller Audit (SFGate)
  • Alley Plaza Opens on Annie Street Next to SPUR, at Mission Near New Montgomery (Curbed SF)
  • More on Van Ness BRT Approvals (SFBay); CBS Reporter Barbara Taylor: “The Losers are Motorists”
  • Costs for MTC’s New Headquarters in Rincon Hill Jump Another $32 Million (SFGate)
  • CA Supreme Court Denies Challenge to “Transit-Friendly” Parkmerced Redevelopment Project (SFGate)
  • Facebook Shuttle Drivers Unionize to Demand Higher Pay (KQED)
  • Uber Executive Tracked Journalist’s Movements in NYC, Against Company Rules (Biz Times, Examiner)
  • Golden Gate Bridge Car, Bus, Ferry Traffic Increase as Economy Booms (Marin IJ)
  • Some Find Walnut Creek’s New Pedestrian Scrambles Confusing (KRON)
  • Traffic Violation Crackdowns on Peninsula are Apparently Reducing Injuries (People Behaving Badly)
  • Caltrain Clips Bumper of Car Sticking Past Crossing Gate in Menlo Park, Causing Delays (Almanac)
  • Bike/Ped Bridge Over Hwy 101 in East Palo Alto Enters Design Phase (Palo Alto)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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SF Hotel Council on Board With Market Street Car Restrictions, Transit Lanes

Market Street, looking east at Seventh Street. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

The SF Hotel Council supports the SFMTA’s proposals to extend transit-only lanes and ban private cars from mid-Market Street, said the council’s chief.

“We looked at all the proposals to try to vet out any potential issues, and [the SFMTA has] been wonderful to work with,” said Kevin Carroll, the Hotel Council’s executive director, at an SFMTA open house meeting yesterday. The proposals will bring ”faster transit times for everybody — our visitors, our employees,” he said. ”Our visitors will have a better experience on Market Street. It’s safer, easier, more understandable.”

The project, presented under the banner of Vision Zero, will make Market a safer street to walk and bike on. SFMTA’s Project Manager Mari Hunter said that idea seems to be easy for many to support.

City studies have also shown that most drivers who get on Market only travel for a block or two. “That’s enough to create conflict,” said Hunter. ”Market Street is unique in that, while in other parts of the city, the majority of collisions occur at the intersections, we’re finding just as many mid-block.”

Many drivers on Market seem to simply be lost, and making it clearly car-free may simplify the street network for drivers. Taxis and delivery vehicles would still be allowed, though Hunter said the SFMTA has worked with hotel managers to create more loading zones on side streets, which will reduce the need for curbside stops on Market.

“People get into these loops,” circling around blocks, Carroll said.

The project is expected to be approved by the SFMTA Board in March, and would be implemented over the next spring and summer.

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How Pittsburgh Builds Bike Lanes Fast Without Sacrificing Public Consultation

pfb logo 100x22 Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Four months — that’s how long it took Pittsburgh to announce, plan, and build its first three protected bike lanes.

One of the country’s most beautiful (and probably still underrated) cities has proven this year that it’s possible for governments to move fast without neglecting public outreach. Instead of asking people to judge the unknown, the city’s leaders built something new and have proceded to let the public vet the idea once it’s already on the ground.

That’s part of the magic of the simplest protected bike lanes: unlike most road projects, they’re flexible. The construction phase can come at the middle or the beginning of the public process rather than the end of it.

For a city full of hills, narrow streets and short blocks, building a great bike network isn’t easy, a point acknowledged by Mayor Bill Peduto in the above video.

“We have all of the detriments to building a bike system that people could argue,” Mayor Bill Peduto says in the video above. “But we’re still doing it. And we’re going to beat every other city.”

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

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How Macquarie Makes Money By Losing Money on Toll Roads

This is the second post in a three-part series about the Indiana Toll Road and privately financed highways. Read part one.

When you invest in Macquarie Atlas Roads, now-worthless shares in the Indiana Toll Road (and four “Other Toll Roads”) are an almost-free bonus with your purchase of shares in APRR, which runs profitable toll roads in France. Image: Macquarie Atlas’ September 2014 Investor Presentation

Macquarie Group, the gigantic Australian financial services firm with some $400 billion in assets under management, has made a lot of money in the infrastructure privatization game.

The publicly traded company owns the Brussels Airport, the Dulles Greenway, telecommunications towers in Mexico, a wind farm in Kenya, and much more. One of those assets was the Indiana Toll Road, which Macquarie purchased in 2006 with Spanish firm Ferrovial — whose most profitable assets include Heathrow Airport and the 407 toll road ringing Toronto. The Indiana Toll Road was housed in a spinoff company called ITR Concession Co. LLC., which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in September after a disastrous eight-year run.

Macquarie and Ferrovial paid the state of Indiana $3.8 billion for the Indiana Toll Road. At the time, it was the largest infrastructure privatization deal in U.S. history. Eight years later, the road was saddled with an astounding $5.8 billion in debt, far beyond the original, unexpectedly-high purchase price.

Traffic fell well short of the projections offered by the engineering firm Wilbur Smith (now CDM Smith), and the company blamed the bankruptcy on the fallout from the recession.

But some observers also pointed to the risky financing underlying the deal. Macquarie and Ferrovial each chipped in just $374 million of their own money to finance the deal. The other $3 billion was borrowed from seven European banks, six of whom have since been bailed out by their respective governments.

Granted, the deal happened in 2006, when debt was flowing freely. According to a 2007 profile by Fortune’s Bethany McLean, Macquarie borrowed its billions using loans resembling a balloon mortgage. It would purchase a type of derivative, called an “accreting swap,” to get a low teaser interest rate, all the while assuming that a refinance was just around the corner. But when credit markets froze entirely, Macquarie couldn’t extricate itself from punishing interest payments.

McLean cited the example of the Macquarie-owned Chicago Skyway: “In 2007 the Skyway will pay interest of just $129,000 on $961 million of debt. But the interest payment for 2018 is to be $480 million — that’s not a typo.”

That helps explain how Macquarie and Ferrovial ended up owing almost twice as much as they paid for the Indiana Toll Road, after collecting tolls for eight years.

Randy Salzman, associate editor of Thinking Highways North America, has reported extensively about P3s, saying that it’s common for privately financed roads to go bankrupt. He says that firms acquiring infrastructure typically provide very little of their own cash, and because of a complicated mix of fees and tax breaks, they may benefit financially even when the deals go sour.

“You’d think that they wouldn’t be investing in these things because so many of them go bankrupt,” he said. “You’d think that the money would be running away.”

But Salzman says he’s seen these kinds of bankruptcies happen over and over again. “The only question is when.”

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Will Arlington Streetcar Foes Support BRT Instead?

Arlington, Virginia’s streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

News broke yesterday that Arlington, Virginia, is abandoning plans for a 7-mile streetcar along Columbia Pike.

Proponents had advanced the streetcar for more than a decade and had secured some $65 million in state support for the $333 million project. But this month’s election delivered a crushing blow, writes David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. Going forward, he says, one major question is whether streetcar opponents who said they supported Bus Rapid Transit instead will now follow through on those statements:

Following John Vihstadt’s strong win in last week’s [County Board] election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.

It’s not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It’s also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we “reported” this in April 2013 as an April Fool’s joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation leader Peter Rousselot and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also “too expensive.”

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It’s important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns comments on an editorial calling for an end to the interstate highway system, and explains why maybe it’s not as far fetched as it seems. Bike Walk Lee reports that Florida DOT’s Bill Hattaway, the man charged with making the Sunshine State safe for walking and biking, has been named an “outstanding government official” by Governing Magazine. And Streets.mn says opposing bike/ped projects might not be a winning strategy for Minnesota Republicans.

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Today’s Headlines

  • SFMTA Board Approves Van Ness BRT Changes; ABC 7 Finds Some Parking-Obsessed Merchants
  • SFPD Gets $210,000 Grant for Ped/Bike Safety Campaign (SF Weekly)
  • Supervisors Vote for Katy Tang to Replace David Chiu as Board President (SFBay, SF WeeklyExaminer)
  • Stanley Roberts Receives Threats for “People Behaving Badly” Segments on Car “Sideshows” (Weekly)
  • Uber Executive Suggests Smearing Journalists Who Criticize Company (Buzzfeed, ExaminerCBS)
  • More on the Cabbie Protest at SFO Over “Ride-Shares” (ABCNBC); Another One Promised (SFGate)
  • Reddit CEO Resigns After Employees Refuse to Move to Daly City — for Obvious Reasons (Slate)
  • Private Parking Lot Managers May Not Have Legal Grounds to Fine for Exceeding Time Limits (ABC)
  • BART Extension to San Jose is Looking Less and Less Like the Original Plans (SFGate)
  • VTA Revisits Bus-Only Lanes for El Camino Real BRT in Palo Alto, Despite City’s Opposition (PA Online)
  • Facebook Shuttle Drivers May Vote to Unionize, Seeking Higher Pay (CBS, ABC)
  • Vigil Held for Mithaq Salem, Blind Man Killed by Driver While Walking to Mosque in Oakland (ABC)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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Three Recent Assaults By Drivers Show Traffic Sewers’ Danger to Bikes, Peds

A driver recently assaulted a man bicycling on car-dominated Geneva Avenue near London Street. Photo: Google Maps

There have been three disturbing cases in SF within the last month in which drivers assaulted people walking and biking. Such cases are usually rare, but all of the attacks occurred on streets designed for fast driving.

The most recent attack was in the Excelsior on November 11. According to the SFPD Ingleside Station newsletter, a driver was arrested after assaulting a man bicycling on Geneva Avenue. The driver apparently didn’t like the fact that victim was occupying a traffic lane, which the CA Vehicle Code allows in any lane that can’t be safely shared between a bike and a car. But instead of simply changing lanes, this driver took to violence:

The bicyclist told Ingleside officers Trail and Carrasco that he was riding eastbound on Geneva from Alemany, in the slow lane, when the driver of a car started honking at him to “get out of the way”. The bicyclist ignored him and kept riding. However, after he crossed Mission Street, near London, the motorist passed him on his left and then swerved right into the bicyclist’s front wheel. The bicyclist took out his cell phone and took a picture of the motorist’s license plate and then started to dial 911. But, before he could complete dialing, the motorist ran up to him and slammed his body, forcing the cell phone onto the street. The officers detained and questioned the motorist and, after interviewing witnesses, placed him under arrest for robbery and aggravated assault.

Of two recent attacks on pedestrians, the driver in one case ran the victim over and killed him on November 3. Joseph Jeffrey, 54, told a driver to slow down near Eddy and Larkin Streets in the Tenderloin. Police told the SF Chronicle that the driver intentionally ran over Jeffrey, who was homeless and had just left the hospital after recovering from a gunshot wound:

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VTA Cuts Alum Rock and Santa Clara BART Stations From Funding Plans

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Five Wounds Urban Village, which would redevelop an industrial site with new housing, office, and retail space around a new Alum Rock BART Station. Image: Taeker Planning & Design

Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) officials announced on October 6 that they would not seek federal funds in 2015 to construct Alum Rock and Santa Clara BART stations planned as part of the transit system’s extension through downtown San Jose. The move sparked an outcry from neighborhood leaders and elected officials, who have worked in community planning efforts for over a decade to anchor new compact, walkable urban centers with the transit stations.

A $2.3 billion, 10-mile extension of BART to Berryessa in northeast San Jose, from its current terminus in Fremont, is currently under construction and scheduled to open in late 2017. Another $4.7 billion is needed for an extension from Berryessa to Santa Clara’s Caltrain Station, through downtown San Jose, which had earlier been slated to have four stations. VTA planners say the extension would get a better chance of winning a $1.1 billion New Starts construction grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) by cutting the $1.3 billion cost of the Alum Rock and Santa Clara stations from the grant application.

“This is a radical change from what we understood from VTA for the last nearly-15 years,” said Terry Christensen, the Friends of Five Wounds Trail’s executive director and long-time resident of the Five Wounds/Brookwood Terrace neighborhood. VTA first proposed the Alum Rock station for that neighborhood in 2001.

The locations of future BART stations planned for the rail transit system’s extension to Santa Clara, through downtown San Jose. Image: Valley Transportation Authority

While FTA’s policy guide for scoring New Starts transit projects requires that funded projects ”be supported by an acceptable degree of local financial commitment, including evidence of stable and dependable financing sources,” cutting the two stations still leaves the BART extension $1.7 billion short of its construction budget. Cutting the stations also hurts the project’s ratings on other factors FTA scores on: mobility improvements, particularly for car-free households; economic development effects, or the likelihood of attracting transit-supportive development;, environmental benefits like reduced vehicle miles traveled; and congestion relief.

VTA is now pursuing a “phased station implementation”, first constructing BART stations only at Diridon and Downtown by 2025, and later adding the Alum Rock and Santa Clara stations when an additional $1.3 billion for their construction somehow becomes available. VTA planners are also proposing to relocate the proposed Alum Rock Station, if and when it is ever built, to Santa Clara and 23rd streets to trim another $165 million in tunneling costs from the project.

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The Indiana Toll Road and the Dark Side of Privately Financed Highways

This is the first post in a three-part series on the Indiana Toll Road and the use of private finance to build and maintain highways. 

Who owns the Indiana Toll Road? Well, as of the bankruptcy filing in September, Macquarie Atlas Roads Limited (MQA Australia), which is joined at the hip to Macquarie Atlas Roads International Limited (MQA Bermuda) on the Australian stock exchange, has a 25 percent stake. Macquarie’s investment bank arm brokers the various transactions related to ownership of the road, collecting fees on each one. Welcome to the world of privately financed infrastructure. Graphic: Macquarie prospectus

In September, the operator of the Indiana Toll Road filed for bankruptcy, eight years after inking a $3.8 billion, 75-year concession for the road with the administration of Governor Mitch Daniels.

The implications of the bankruptcy for the financial industry were large enough that ratings agency Standard & Poor’s stepped in immediately to calm nerves. In a press release, the company attempted to distinguish the Indiana venture from similar projects, known as public-private partnerships, or P3s: “We do not believe this bankruptcy will slow the growth of current-generation transportation P3 projects, which have different risk characteristics.”

But the similarities between the Indiana Toll Road and other P3s involving private finance can’t be ignored. And as we’ll see, even the differences aren’t all good news for the American public. Once hailed as the model for a new age of U.S. infrastructure, today the Indiana deal looks more like a canary in a coal mine.

At a time when government and Wall Street are raring to team up on privately financed infrastructure, a look at the Indiana Toll Road reveals several of the red flags to beware in all such deals: an opaque agreement based on proprietary information the public cannot access; a profit-making strategy by the private financier that relies on securitization and fees, divorced from the actual infrastructure product or service; and faulty assumptions underpinning the initial investment, which can incur huge public expense down the line. Though made in the name of innovation and efficiency, private finance deals are often more expensive than conventional bonding, threatening to suck money from taxpayers while propping up infrastructure projects that should never get built.

For the parties who put these deals together, however, the marriage of private finance and public roads is incredibly convenient. Investors are increasingly impatient with record-low returns on conventional bonds, and are turning to infrastructure as an asset class that promises stable, inflation-protected returns over the long run.

Meanwhile, governments are eager to fix decaying infrastructure — but without raising taxes or increasing their capacity to borrow. On the occasion of yet another meeting intended to drum up investor interest, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently wrote on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s blog: “With public investments in our nation’s important transportation assets steadily declining, we need to find better ways to partner with private investors to help rebuild America.”

Those investors are lining up to get in the infrastructure game. According to the Congressional Budget Office, about 40 percent of new urban highways in America were built using the private finance model between 1996 and 2006. Since 2008, that figure has jumped to almost 70 percent.

In an attempt to get even more deals done, the current federal transportation bill ramped up funding for the TIFIA program — which offers subsidized federal loans and other credit assistance, often to projects that also receive private backing — by a factor of eight.

Major private investors have stepped up their lobbying efforts to close more of these lucrative deals. Meridiam North America recently hired Ray LaHood, Foxx’s predecessor as Transportation Secretary, and Macquarie Group — which orchestrated the Indiana fiasco — hired away a White House deputy assistant to “continue strengthening our relationships with key elected officials… while also exploring new investment opportunities.”

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