Top 12 Transportation Stories of 2012

The start of the new year provides a great opportunity to look back at the major transportation stories of the past year. 2012 was an active year in transportation. Below are the top 12 stories of 2012 in order of importance.

1) Passage of MAP-21 Surface Transportation Bill: The U.S. had been operating on the tenth extension of SAFETEA-LU–the last multi-year transportation bill that expired in 2009. Most observers believed that a new transportation bill would have to wait until 2014 since transportation was not a big priority for decision makers. In addition Congress lacked the financial resources and the House instituted a moratorium on earmarks. However, many failed to realize how hard Senator Barbara Boxer and Congressman John Mica would work for a bill. The new bill had several noteworthy aspects. It did not include a major increase in funding. In fact in order to keep the same funding levels, the 2-year bill borrowed against the next 10 years of revenue. Still, holding the line on funding increases is a big deal–especially in Washington D.C. The bill also expanded the TIFIA program from $150 million in funding to $1 billion. In addition, the bill slightly expanded the tolling provisions.

2) Passage of a new Federal Aviation Administration Bill: Often overshadowed by the new surface transportation bill, the U.S. had been operating under the 23rd extension of the last FAA bill that expired in 2007. The new bill creates a framework for the needed Next-Generation radar system. But without much funding, implementation of the system will be slow. The bill also forced TSA to resume accepting applications that want to opt-out of federal screening. This option was written into the original post 9/11 TSA bill. However, clarification was needed after TSA Administrator John Pistole refused to allow any additional airports to opt out of federal screening. The new bill also creates rules for future drone flights.

3) Hurricane Sandy, Natural Disasters and Transportation: Hurricane Sandy demonstrated the vulnerability of much of the East Coast to major storms. A Senate bill to provide $60 billion in aid died in the House leaving the region in limbo. House Republicans refused to pass the Senate bill for two reasons. First, because of the size of the bill, most of the Sandy revenue came from the general fund not the transportation fund. Second, much of the $60 billion in funding had little to do with emergency relief. While the logical long-term fix would be for the government to stop backing mortgages to residents who live in flood plains, this country seldom does logical. Since future disasters are inevitable and the Northeast’s run of good luck may be over, the U.S. should provide a realistic level of emergency funding, fund infrastructure directly affected by the storm only, and decide how best to distribute such funding. More info is available here.

4) Managed Lanes Momentum: The concept of adding priced capacity continues to gain momentum. Transportation Planners know that widening highways in fast-growing metro areas can be a frustrating exercise. While mobility is enhanced in the short-term, growth and the resulting additional trips return the highways to its congested state in approximately 2-5 years. Priced lanes offer a long-term congestion reduction strategy and in some cases help fund new improvements. The biggest opening was the I-495 lanes in Virginia from I-95 to the Dulles Toll Road. These lanes provide much needed new capacity for one of the busiest interstates in the country. Virginia is also converting the I-95 HOV lanes from Dumfries to I-495 to Managed Lanes and extending the lanes south to Stafford. Texas added Managed Lanes on the North Tarrant Express in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. California is in the process of converting many of its HOV lanes to HOT lanes. While political challenges remain, managed lanes continue to be the most realistic way to add capacity in urban and suburban areas.

5) Failure of Georgia Transportation Investment Act in 9 of 12 regions: While 2/3 of local transportation ballot measures pass, some fail and some that fail do so in spectacular fashion. The latter describes what happened in the metro Atlanta region. While the poor state of the economy and the state’s conservative electorate were factors, the entire process was a mess. The Georgia legislature, which could have increased funding by itself, punted the issue to local governments. These governments made political decisions, not transportation decisions on which projects to add. The MPOs attempted to create the best list of projects but were told by politicians which projects to choose and how much those projects would cost. The top-down campaign antagonized the tea party, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP. The advertising campaign was a failure; the more times citizens saw the pro-tax adds, the less likely they were to vote for the tax. While most experts expected the tax to fail, the 37%-63% margin was surprising. What are the takeaways? The defeat is not necessarily transferrable to other areas. But other metros should ensure that any proposed tax actually funds merit-based transportation projects. Funding economic development through a transportation tax was not popular in metro Atlanta. And the Atlanta community needs to find a better way to explain and promote transportation.

6) San Juan Airport Privatization: Most airports in the United States are publicly owned and operated. Most cities resist privatization of their airports at all costs. This is unfortunate since running an airport is a specialized skill in which most public entities do not excel. However Governor Fortuno of Puerto Rico approached the situation differently. Fortuno led the process by approving a concession agreement with American Airlines and a request for proposals in 2011. In 2012, the Commonwealth accepted bids. While the deal has not yet reached financial close, its new Governor Padilla, from a different political party, supports the privatization and is trying to finalize the transaction. This bipartisan effort may lead more cities to consider airport privatization in 2013. Privatizing airports may be especially intriguing to struggling cities, which can make a lot of money from leasing or selling their airport. These cities can use those funds to support education, public works or unfunded pension programs.

7) High-Speed Rail–The Saga Continues: High-speed-rail remains in the news both domestically and internationally. California continues to be the biggest U.S. story. Legislators approved Governor Brown’s request to begin selling $4.5 billion in voter approved bonds including $2.6 billion that will fund the central valley line. This occurred after the CA HSR Authority approved another new business plan that allows its high-speed rail trains to share the track with local commuter rail trains in San Francisco and Los Angeles. This reduces the total price tag from $98 billion to $68 billion. But that plan still relies on billions from the federal government, revenue from an untested cap and trade plan that is intended for environmental uses and a private partner that would fund this money-losing venture. The circuitous route from Los Angeles to San Francisco is another major flaw. The most logical HSR route in the United States is the northeast corridor. While construction on this route would be expensive, its density may justify its high costs. Yet President Obama seems to have little interest in this corridor. Fortunately other countries seem to be a little more logical. Portugal has abandoned its high-speed rail plans. Spain has halted construction on most new lines. China may be the biggest country to watch. While the country halted construction as a result of its latest HSR crash, it appears to be building HSR again with a lower top speed of 186 miles per hour. Most average Chinese cannot afford the train and remain opposed to the construction. China’s central government does not concern itself with whether its citizens approve of its spending but the $640 billion debt from building HSR might cause China to slow down future construction.

8) Growth of BRT over Rail: While intercity HSR continues to be popular, intracity Bus-Rapid-Transit continues to gain popularity over new rail. BRT is often less than a tenth the cost of rail. And BRT comes in many different forms. Expressway BRT makes use of managed lanes, either HOT or HOV, to offer a reliable travel time on highways. Arterial BRT makes use of queue jumpers and special lanes to move faster than the regular traffic on busy arterials. And a new concept called managed arterials would allow buses to use arterials with tolled grade separations to provide a faster, more reliable travel speed. Such a BRT network can be coupled with a robust local bus network to create a comprehensive transit system. Over the past five years, the implementation of new BRT lines has been increasing while the implementation of new light-rail lines has been decreasing.

9) Obama White House MIA in Transportation: Discussing the White House’s lack of involvement in transportation is like beating a dead horse but the lack of realistic ideas from Pennsylvania Avenue remain a major problem. The White House has proposed stimulus style spending and infrastructure bank grants. But neither of these ideas helps transportation. Stimulus spending is bad economic policy but it is especially foolish for transportation. Most of the needed transportation projects are long and take multiple years. Short term spending only funds repavings and minor repairs. In order to make such spending effective, state DOT’s and MPO’s have to move money around, a convoluted approach for sure. The President’s infrastructure grant program chooses projects on a political basis. If the selection criteria were merit based that might help, but most transportation watchers are not interested in another TIGER based stimulus grant program. The President’s lack of interest in transportation has had negative consequences for fellow Democrats. The White House’s failure to pass a new bill in 2009 helped lead to the defeat of many moderate democrats in 2010; this year the President had to accept a much less urban-friendly bill. Replacing Ray LaHood with someone with both a background and passion for transportation would help.

10) Tidewater Tunnels: It was a busy year for transportation in the Commonwealth. VDOT reached a deal with Elizabeth River Crossings to begin construction on the new Midtown tunnel. The deal doubles capacity of the Tunnel and improves both the quality and quantity of bus and ferry transit service between Portsmouth and Norfolk. While the tunnel will have a toll between $1.59-$1.84, this is 40% lower than the initial estimate. The project also makes substantial upgrades to the Downtown Tunnel and extends the Martin Luther King Expressway from London Blvd to I-264. Both projects will help relieve traffic congestion on the area’s bridges. And the user-pays user-benefits nature of tolling is fairer for taxpayers. Virginia advanced two lesser projects in the I-95 reconstruction and the new expressway between Petersburg and Norfolk. I-95 tolling for reconstruction is a promising idea but the current plan to have one tollbooth near the North Carolina border needs to be reworked. Building an unneeded expressway with money the state does not have is a bad idea and should be abandoned.

11) Chicago Infrastructure Bank: In contrast to his former boss, former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is heavily involved in transportation. In April, Emanuel and the city council approved a new infrastructure bank to increase private investment. The Infrastructure Trust would review projects that generate revenue and projects such as a BRT system could be funded by the private sector. Many investors have already put up more than $2 billion for the Infrastructure Trust. The Infrastructure bank provides access to funds the city could not otherwise obtain and is also a hedge against risk. The city can offload risk to private investors for projects with uncertain benefits. At the same time, Chicago has to create well-structured deals. Chicago undervalued its parking meters in 2008. As a result the city negotiated a poor deal for itself. True infrastructure banks are an excellent way to increase funding without raising taxes. In today’s economy more cities may look at Chicago’s example.

12) TSA In the News: The Transportation Security Administration is like a bad song on Top 40 radio. Every time it makes news it annoys and yet nobody can find a way to get rid of it. TSA screeners steal personal items and abuse thier power. But more significantly the agency has failed to improve security. Why? The TSA concentrates on screening passengers at the front of the airport but leaves the back door wide open. There is no protection from intruders entering the secure side of an airport through a fence or waterway as happened earlier this year at Kennedy International Airport. In Newark a knife-wielding intruder got onto the tarmac by scaling an eight-foot fence. In Dallas a group bypassed all security and posted a video of themselves on YouTube. These problems could be remedied if airports and not TSA oversaw screening on their property. Currently, TSA has dual purposes—conducting the screening and overseeing the screening process. Having airports run security screening and allowing TSA to focus on overseeing screening would end this conflict.