Passenger Transport - December 30, 2011
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NEWS HEADLINES

Congress Adjourns Without Passing Transit Benefit Extension

While Congress passed a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut at the eleventh hour just before Christmas, this bill did not include an extension of the public transportation commuter benefit (at the rate of $230 per month per commuter).

Newspapers across the U.S. have taken up the cause of public transit commuters whose monthly transit/vanpool benefit level will revert to $125 per month on Jan. 1, 2012, while the monthly parking benefit will increase to $240.

APTA emphasized that this increased commuting cost will hit the very workers who may need it the most: 70 percent of those who rely on public transit have household incomes from $15,000 to $99,000 a year, according to its latest demographic survey of riders.

“Unless Congress acts, there will be a financial bias in the federal tax code against public transit use,” said APTA President & CEO Michael P. Melaniphy. “We are seeking to maintain parity with the parking benefit to ensure that there isn’t a disincentive to take public transportation.”

“Get out of that bus, train, light rail or subway and drive your car to work! Crowd the roads! Burn the most gasoline possible! Pollute the air!” wrote the Baltimore Sun. “That’s the unmistakable message Congress has sent the nation’s commuters with its recent choice not to maintain a tax parity between those who elect to take public transit to work and those who drive their own vehicles.”

The Sun article continued: “[O]ffering a tax deduction to drivers that is twice the amount offered to transit riders makes no sense whatsoever and certainly doesn’t have much positive impact on the deficit. It’s bad transportation policy, bad economic policy and bad energy and environmental policy …. This stupidity can’t be left to stand.”

The San Francisco Examiner quoted Christine Maley-Grubl, executive director of the Peninsula Congestion Relief Alliance, regarding the comparison between the reduced public transit benefit and the increased parking benefit: “We want people out of their cars so there is less congestion and less impact on our air quality. That’s not going to happen by giving people additional funds for parking.”

Congress may consider the issue when it reconvenes in mid-January, and may incorporate it into the long-term extension of the payroll tax cut that Congress will address in February.

The higher benefit level was implemented as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 and was renewed for one year in 2010. About 250,000 of the approximately 2.7 million commuters who use the public transit credit spend more than $125 per month; most participants in the benefit live in large metropolitan areas. 

Before adjournment, 22 members of the Senate—20 Democrats and two Republicans—signed a bipartisan letter to the Senate Finance Committee urging the extension of these benefits at the higher level of $230. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) spearheaded the letter to committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT), which states:

“As you know, in 2009 Congress raised the tax-free benefit that workers could apply toward monthly commuting costs, from $120 per month up to $230 per month, putting transit benefits on par with parking benefits. This important benefit eases the burden of commuting costs on families, relieves congestion, reduces the stress on our highway system and decreases our reliance on foreign oil.”

The letter says the reduced transit benefit level “would represent a significant tax increase for middle-class commuters and their employers, who currently do not have to pay federal payroll taxes on the amount of the benefit.”

The other signers are Sens. John Kerry (D-MA); Barbara Mikulski (D-MD); Joe Lieberman (I-CT); Benjamin Cardin (D-MD); Jeff Merkley (D-OR); Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ); Tom Carper (D-DE); Ron Wyden (D-OR); Richard Durbin (D-IL); Charles Schumer (D-NY); Patty Murray (D-WA); Barbara Boxer (D-CA); Chris Coons (D-DE); Tom Udall (D-NM); Daniel Akaka (D-HI); Richard Blumenthal (D-CT); Scott Brown (R-MA); Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY); Mark Kirk (R-IL); Mark Warner (D-VA); and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

On the House side, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) sent out a “Dear Colleagues” letter calling for more co-sponsors on the bill he introduced in July, the Commuter Benefits Equity Act of 2011, to make parity between transit and parking benefits permanent. The bill currently has 47 co-sponsors, including the 23 original signers.

Wilkinson Named Executive Director in Charleston, SC

The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) in Charleston, SC, voted Dec. 21 to name Christine Wilkinson its executive director. She has served in the position on an interim basis since the retirement of her predecessor, Howard Chapman, on June 30, 2011.

“Christine Wilkinson is a strong leader and has done a great job in her time as interim executive director,” said Elliott Summey, CARTA board president. “She has been with CARTA since the beginning and knows the system, the area and is extremely qualified for the position.”

Wilkinson is a native of Charleston who has served as CARTA’s transit administrator since the formation of the authority in June 1997. She earlier served Charleston in the same capacity since October of 1995, assisting with the changeover of the city’s public transportation system from S.C.E. & G. to CARTA. She also assisted in the procurement of a new bus fleet, the privatization of fixed route service, and establishing CARTA as a recipient of federal transportation funds.

ULI: Transit a Contributing Factor as Demand Shifts for California Housing

Increased demand for housing near public transportation in California may contribute to a coming mismatch between housing supply and demand that could last through the next two decades, according to The New California Dream: How Demographic and Economic Changes May Shape the Housing Market, a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

The report by Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, analyzes housing demand in the state through 2035. It shows that the existing supply of conventional subdivision lots exceeds current demand, and will continue to do for at least the next 23 years, even if no new supply is created during that time.

ULI cites the interests of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1978, and Generation Y, born between 1979 and 1996, as contributing to greater demand for multi-family housing, as well as townhomes, duplexes, three-plexes and four-plexes on small lots in the housing markets of California’s four largest Metropolitan Planning Organizations. At least half of the demand could be for locations near public transit.

Demand is likely to be highest for rental units in Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs), the report notes. However, existing and potential TODs located within one-half mile of transit may accommodate only about two-thirds of the expected demand for such homes between 2010 and 2035.

“For the most part, Californians’ preferences mimic those of the nation as a whole, with one glaring exception,” Nelson said. “Californians consider transit options to be far more important in choosing a place to live than do people in the rest of the nation.”

The report is available online.

APTA NEWS

TCRP Releases Report on Real-Time Transit Information for Mobile Devices

The Transit Cooperative Research Program announces the release of S-91, “Use and Deployment of Mobile Device Technology for Real-Time Transit Information.”

The synthesis examines the use and deployment of real-time transit information on mobile devices. It explores the underlying technology required to generate the information to be disseminated, mobile technology used for dissemination, characteristics of the information, resources required to successfully deploy information on mobile devices, and the contribution of mobile messaging to an overall agency communications strategy, including “information equity.”

Case studies examine the effect of this method of information sharing on public transportation agencies in Oregon, Florida, California, and London, as well as lessons learned.

APTA member public transit agencies have provided anecdotal accounts in their ridership reports suggesting that the provision of real-time information leads to increased ridership. Many larger agencies can provide this information through applications for Android and iPhone—for example, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority displays arrival time information for specific Metrorail and Metrobus stops. The data must be of a certain quality, however, to be used as part of a mobile phone app.

To download this file, click here.

AROUND THE INDUSTRY

Public Transportation Agencies Spread the Holiday Spirit

Public transportation systems throughout North America celebrated the holiday season with decorated buses, free fares, and charitable giving events. Here are a few examples.

Employees of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) collected 9,849 pounds of canned and nonperishable food, along with $9,360, for the Union Gospel Mission of Dallas during their annual “Friendly Food Fight” among agency departments, divisions, and consultants. DART employees look on as President/Executive Director Gary Thomas, right, presents the donations to Bill Thompson, executive director of the mission.

The 15th annual food-drive competition to help provide for the homeless men and women of north Texas collected 4.92 tons of goods during the first half of December.

* * *

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) helped make the season bright for 4,000 area children during its Annual Holiday Shop on Dec. 21 and 22. Each year, MARTA works with the Federation of Charities and United Way to invite area families to select from thousands of holiday gifts such as toys, bicycles, and gift certificates for essential items.

Giving back to the community is a MARTA tradition and, year after year, employees contribute generously to ensure that even more children are able to enjoy the holidays. The MARTA Employees’ Charity Club, which established the Holiday Shop 15 years ago, coordinates the agency’s community outreach efforts. In 2011, MARTA employees pledged $675,000 to support more than 400 charities.

* * *

The Centre Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in State College, PA, decorated a tree with information about the CATACOMMUTE program—ridesharing and vanpools—as part of the Festival of Trees sponsored by the Centre County United Way. Before Christmas, CATA collected 431 pounds of non-perishable food during its one-day Food for Fare event in partnership with the State College Area Food Bank and accepted Toys for Tots donations at both of the system’s offices.

* * *

For the sixth year, employees of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) donated toys and cash for distribution at a charitable event in the system’s service area. BART Police officers played Santa Dec. 17 at the Monument Community Partnership’s 12th Annual Las Posada Navidena event in Concord, CA, distributing 800 donated toys.

“So many families are in need this year,” said BART Board Member Gail Murray, who represents the city of Concord. “We are thrilled we will be able to put smiles on the faces of 800 youngsters affiliated with the Monument Community Partnership this holiday season.”

* * *

The Bloomington-Normal Public Transit System (BNPTS) in Normal, IL, reported the largest response in the nine-year history of its Stuff the Bus event for the Children’s Home + Aid Crisis Nursery. Spurred on by a kickoff donation by AT&T of $10,000 and a new Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet computer, the Bloomington-Normal community donated thousands of items, which BNPTS packed into one of its buses for delivery. The Crisis Nursery helps children ages 6 and under in times of need.

“This event provides the Crisis Nursery with enough supplies to take care of children in need for an entire year,” said Mick Farrell, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 752, which partnered with the transit system for the first time in 2011.

* * *


Valley Metro Rail in Phoenix provided special benefits to riders of METRO light rail Dec. 9-18 with the operation of a specially decorated Holiday Train.
      The train, decorated both inside and out with seasonal décor, promoted the idea of using light rail for holiday shopping trips. Riders could discover hidden, locally-owned restaurant and retail gems along the route by visiting m.shiftarizona.com--a site developed by Valley Metro Rail in partnership with Local First Arizona--to help residents understand how and where to spend local this holiday season and year-round.

The system also invited passengers to follow the route of the Holiday Train on @METROrail’s Twitter feed and enter giveaway events by uploading photos.

* * *

With the help of its specially decorated ReindeerBus, shown, and ReindeerCommunityShuttle, TransLink in Vancouver, BC, collected more than 3,000 Christmas gifts from its riders and employees through its 25th annual Toys for Tots campaign, accepting donations at Coast Mountain Bus Company’s transit centers; the SeaBus terminal; transit police facilities; West Vancouver Transit; the Lost Property Office; and TransLink headquarters.

This effort began in 1986 with a small group of BC Transit (as it was called) bus drivers at the Surrey Transit Centre and, within a few years, the idea had taken off. The two special buses operated on regular routes and provided service to specific locations.

West Coast Express commuter rail joined in with its “Santa Train,” collecting almost 4,000 more toys donated by passengers on two dedicated runs. Customers exchanged a new, unwrapped toy for a round-trip ticket. The toys, along with $1,260 (Cdn.) and more than 80 kilograms of food, have been donated to agencies in communities served by the train.

TransLink employees also raised more than $1,100 (Cdn.) for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

* * *

AC Transit in Oakland, CA, gave a holiday gift to its riders: free fares on its decorated “Holiday Bus” until Dec. 31, 2011. The festive bus ran on a different route each day throughout the holiday season.

“These are tough times for this agency as it is for everybody else,” said Interim General Manager Mary King. “But the Holiday Bus is a token of gratitude to our riders. It’s a small thing but it is a way for us to contribute in this season of sharing, and we intend to do so as long as we are able.”

* * *     

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority (WATA) in Williamsburg, VA, packed a trolley-replica bus with more than 200 pounds of donated non-perishable food items for a local agency, FISH of Williamsburg, through its “Stock the Trolley” event.

WATA presented tokens good for a free round trip to the first 50 people who donated food and continued to receive donations at its main office location.

* * *

Employees of Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) and agency contractors donated hundreds of gifts to seven service agencies in the Denver metropolitan area through Operation Give-a-Gift.

Santa Claus joined Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and RTD representatives at the donation event. This year’s campaign supported Alternatives to Family Violence, Sacred Heart House, Denver Children’s Home, Anchor Center for Blind Children, Little Sisters of the Poor-Mullen House, Chateau Des Mons, and Freedom Service Dogs.

* * *


Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Agency of Harris County (Metro) decorated five buses from its fleet with reindeer, snow, elves, and other holiday symbols, then placed them on display at various transit centers throughout the service area.

Agency employees participated in Metro’s second annual holiday bus-decorating contest, in which the winning wheels won the honor of escorting Metro’s Blue Santa back home after delivering gifts at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.

* * *
     
The Riverside Transit Agency in Riverside, CA, partnered with firefighters in Temecula, CA, and Pennypickle’s Workshop (the Temecula Children’s Museum) to stuff a trolley with donated toys for children ages 2 to 15. This program is part of the museum’s annual Winter Wonderland event where children of all ages have an opportunity to play in real snow, visit the Snow Princess, take holiday portraits, make crafts, enjoy games and entertainment, and snack on s’mores and hot cocoa.

The “Spark of Love Toy Drive Fund” was created in 2004 at the California Community Foundation to provide toys or sports equipment for underserved children during the holiday season in Southern California. With help from donors, partners, and sponsors, the campaign collected more than 500,000 toys in 2010.

* * *

Employees of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) presented bicycles and helmets to all 113 first-graders at Cesar Chavez Elementary School during an assembly on safety.

The employees and friends of MTS collected money for the bikes, helmets, and other gifts as part of an annual program to bring holiday cheer to first-graders at a selected elementary school in the MTS service area.

* * *

The St. Cloud Metropolitan Transit Commission (Metro Bus) in St. Cloud, MN, joined New Flyer, Townsquare Media, and local grocery stores the week before Christmas to collect more than two tons of food and $236 in cash donations for local food shelves run by the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities Emergency Services.

Metro Bus used one of its 35-foot New Flyer buses, manufactured at the St. Cloud plant, to collect donations at six stores through the “Fill the Flyer” campaign. The system also accepted food and money on all its buses and at its transit center. "The majority of donations came from shoppers at the stores,” said Metro Bus Executive Director David W. Tripp. “Employees at the New Flyer plant also made a huge contribution to the drive.”

New Flyer—which not only manufactures buses but also is a large employer in the St. Cloud area—ran a friendly competition among its 12 work stations to see which group could donate the most pounds of food per employee. The winning group presented the entire donation — more than 1,500 pounds—to representatives of the charities.

Pictured in the photo, from left: Salvation Army representatives Bill Kimball and Maj. Steven Koehler; New Flyer employees from the winning work group, CAD/RETRO: Allen Ahlbrecht, Chuck Hiscock, Doug Barthel, Casey Wolford, Mark Hennig, Jacob Schlangen, Chip Beronius, Leisa Fix, Roberto Gonzalez, Peter Soregi, Robert Link, Lisa Hommerding, and Fred Novak; Kristin Darnall, Catholic Charities; David Tripp, Metro Bus; and John Uran, Townsquare Media.

New Year’s Eve Service: Giving Back to the Community

New Year’s Eve is famously a night when people may overindulge and might not want to drive themselves home after celebrating. That’s where public transportation comes in: agencies throughout the U.S.—such as these listed below—are providing free or reduced-price rides, extending service hours, and operating specialized routes to make sure revelers find their way home safely.

In New York City, where millions gather to watch the ball drop at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the agencies of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) are making preparations to cope with the crowds. MTA New York City Transit will close subway entrances in the Times Square area and recommends that customers travel to stations at 57th or 59th Street and walk south to reach the square. MTA Long Island Rail Road and MTA Metro-North Railroad also will provide additional service from the afternoon of Dec. 31 through the early morning of Jan. 1.

Miller Lite Free Rides™ is working with public transit agencies and local beer distributors in cities including Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Madison, WI, to offer free bus rides on New Year’s Eve and into the early hours of New Year’s Day.

The Milwaukee County Transit System and Waukesha Metro Transit in Waukesha, WI, are providing free rides in the Milwaukee region for the 24th year. Participants in this program will receive a “Restaurants Rewarding Responsibility” coupon for participating area restaurants.

Throughout the Twin Cities area, Metro Transit and the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority in Burnsville, MN, are operating free beginning at 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve. Partygoers can ride free until midnight on all Metro Transit bus routes, Hiawatha light rail, and Northstar commuter rail, and after midnight on 25 bus routes and the Hiawatha Line.

This is the 18th year for the free rides provided by Metro Transit in Madison, available between 7 p.m. Dec. 31 and 3:30 a.m. Jan. 1. Riders can plan their travel online, by using Google Maps on a computer or mobile device, or by calling the agency’s customer service line.

The Miller Lite Free Rides program is a collaborative effort bringing together transit systems, community organizations, law enforcement agencies, civic organizations, and others to help keep streets safe and prevent drunk driving on major holidays and throughout the year. More information is available here.

Continuing a tradition that began in 2002, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in Orange, CA, will operate free bus rides between 6 p.m. Dec. 31 and 2:30 a.m. Jan. 1. This program provided 15,540 free rides last year and more than 102,000 boardings since its inception.

“We encourage those out celebrating New Year’s Eve in Orange County to leave behind their cars and enjoy a free ride on the bus,” said OCTA Chair Patricia Bates. “Knowing that an OCTA bus is there to get residents home safely is something that can give everyone peace of mind this holiday season.”

The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District is extending its New Year’s Eve hours of service until 3 a.m.—three hours later than the usual closing time—and adding special service into and out of downtown San Francisco--beginning at 8 p.m.--for people wishing to attend the annual fireworks show.

Elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay area, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose will offer free bus and light rail service beginning at 7 p.m. Dec. 31 and ending at 3:49 a.m. New Year’s Day. Caltrain commuter rail will also operate free after 11 p.m. on New Year's Eve, as well as adding four extra post-midnight trains. The San Francisco Municipal Railway will provide complimentary light rail and bus rides from 8 p.m. Dec. 31 until 6 a.m. Jan. 1, along with special Muni Metro service well into the early morning of New Year’s Day.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) encourages people heading to New Year’s Eve celebrations to ride for one penny on all buses and trains from 10 p.m. New Year’s Eve to 4 a.m. New Year’s Day. CTA emphasizes that customers should not use their farecards during this time because they will be charged the full fare and refunds are not available.

In Des Moines, IA, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority will operate special service on the D-Line Downtown Shuttle, which normally operates only on weekdays. The free shuttle will run every 10 minutes from 11 a.m. Dec. 31 to 2 a.m. Jan. 1, serving popular downtown destinations including major hotels.

Portland’s Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon begins free operation of all buses and MAX light rail at 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve. The MAX Blue, Green, and Yellow lines will remain in service until around 3 a.m. New Year’s Day, while shuttle buses will connect to Portland International Airport after the MAX Red Line shuts down for the night.

COMMENTARY

The 52-Cent Case for ‘Sustainability’

BY NEAL PEIRCE

“Sustainability.” It’s 14 letters, six syllables. Small wonder many people blanch when they read or hear the word. Some may ask: “Is it something about the environment?”

For clarity and to stress the timeliness of their work, the managers of the Obama administration’s “Sustainable Communities” program are switching strategies. Competitive planning grants for cities and regions are still the top goals. But instead of talking first about more efficient land use, transit or town planning, the new focus is on raw economics.

Check the 52-cent figure, they say. Research shows that for every dollar the average American family has to spend, 52 cents is taken up right away for housing and transportation. This means that everything else gets squeezed, sometimes dangerously. And not the least, such essentials as food and clothing.

So what’s a promising cure? It’s clearly to push the 52-cent figure down by helping workers and families gain easier, more affordable access to jobs and schools. And this does dictate that communities pivot away from yesterday’s sprawl patterns, embracing instead such smart development strategies as housing closer to real work centers, homes closer to schools, and transit services to help households spend less on automobile travel.

Plus, it means a need to supply more compact, efficiently located housing units as American family sizes keep shrinking and the population ages.

Clearly, more and more local communities “get” the saliency of this approach. Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, cites the outpouring of interest in HUD’s must recent Sustainable Communities nationwide competition, announced Nov. 21. There were eight times as many applicants as awardees, $500 million in funding requests, but only $96 million to distribute among all winners.

Significantly, Donovan noted, this awards process is evoking growing interest among chambers of commerce and economic development corporations that are glad to become “core partners” in the local applicant coalitions.

The grants—27 for individual communities, 29 for regions—are spread from Boston to Denver to Seattle, from the deeply depressed city of Opa-Locka, Fla., to heavily rural Fremont County, Idaho. All provide federal seed or stimulus money to challenge local areas to create high-quality, interconnected housing, transportation and workforce development plans that show clear potential economic payoffs.

Each project has to incorporate clear fact-based assessments; all are followed closely in implementation by the HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities headed by Shelley Poticha. “We’re unusual for the federal government,” notes Poticha, “by investing in proactive strategies to shape the future and not just the historic pattern of federally supported capital projects.”

The HUD effort doesn’t stand alone: It is one section of the Obama administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities (smartcommunities.gov), which works to coordinate smart growth, sustainable and economically promising initiatives and policies across historically rigid departmental lines. Encouraged and endorsed by the White House Domestic Policy Council, the three official players are HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Key personnel from the three agencies meet every week to mesh their policies and approaches. They’re regularly joined by the Agriculture Department, which isn’t officially part of the partnership yet with $20 billion a year in rural development funding is a significant player. Transportation adds heft, especially through its series of highly competitive “TIGER” grants for local transportation projects that are designed both for sustainability and high economic impact.

Ideally, all these efforts would be praised and advanced by Congress as harbingers of a smart and engaged federal government, one that listens to local needs, encourages local ingenuity and that helps to position the nation for a stronger joined economy and livable communities to come.

Sadly, it’s not happening. While Congress is willing to keep TIGER rolling with $500 million for the next fiscal year (enough to fund about 10 percent of its applications), the HUD Sustainable Communities program is in deep trouble.

Evidence: House Republicans originally prepared legislative language that actually would forbid a dollar of government expenditure if the related federal departments were to talk, plan, research or manage grants cooperatively. And in relation to what activities? The language left no doubt on it intent: Specified was “interagency coordination on livable communities or sustainable development.”

Geoffrey Anderson, president of Smart Growth America, commented: “What business would ever tell its units not to talk to each other?”

Later, cooler heads prevailed and that language was dropped by the House committee. But still, the final House-Senate conference report, while it did endorse the concept of interdepartmental coordination to integrate housing and transportation, failed to fund HUD’s Sustainable Communities program for the next year.

There’s just slim hope that funding will be restored in future years. Which would be sad—the demise of one of the most imaginative federal system innovations in many decades. But then again, sometimes there’s an idea just too good to stay dead long.
 
E-mail Neal Peirce.
©2011, The Washington Post Writers Group