My Life As a Commuter

On my “About Me” page you will find a personal branding video that talks about the importance, in my opinion, of expanding, innovating, and improving this country’s infrastructure. However, what the video doesn’t explain is how I came to care in the first place, so I thought I’d share with you some background that might help explain this fascination with a concept that is so broad it almost feels intangible, but at the same time is a critical part of our daily lives.

I moved to a suburb north of Seattle, WA when I was 12 years old. At 16 I passed the driver’s test and found an indescribable feeling waiting for me behind the wheel of my ’68 Mustang with moldy carpet and a driver side door that wouldn’t open. Fast forward to my freshman year at University of Washington and enter the world of a commuter’s nightmare. I couldn’t afford to park on campus so I either had to take the bus or fight gridlock into the U District. Riding the bus was easy enough…as long as you could find a parking spot at the park and ride.

Fast forward to 2004 when I landed my first “big kid” job. No more were the days of sleeping in, going to a bartending job at 3:00 pm, and driving home well after most people were sound asleep. This new adventure required me to hit the road every morning and evening with hundreds of thousands of other cars, crawling toward a destination where they passed out a paycheck. The frustration, exhaustion, and quickly learned bladder control during that time was eye opening.

In 2006 I took a position with a company that makes structural bridge components. The majority of our work is done with state and federal highway agencies. It has been an eye opening experience to deal with such a wide range of personalities and government “cultures”. Each DOT truly has their own idea on how to approach bridge projects. Some do whatever they can to help move projects along, knowing that lane closures are not fun for anyone. Others will lock up the brakes on a project while they verify that the tint of the paint going underneath the bridge is exactly as specified.

Everyday I see firsthand the very real and daunting challenges these state agencies face in regards to funding infrastructure projects. A ridiculously outdated federal gas tax barely scratches the surface of need. States have wisely turned to putting their own measures in place to cover the funding gap. This is a problem that is not going away, and if we strive to make our roads a place of convenience (no traffic), safety, economic importance (efficient movement of goods), and fun (road trip!) we will all be better for it.

Now go enjoy the day.

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Atlanta Voters: Let’s Do This

This fall, voters in Atlanta will have the opportunity to vote for three separate ballot measures critical to improving transportation and transit in the region, thanks to law SB 369, which was passed by Georgia legislature late in the 2016 session.

One of the measures would expand the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile network of multi-use trails and transit along a historic railroad corridor.   The Beltline is essential to bike and pedestrian users because of the access it provides to various neighborhoods around the city.

Voters will also have the option of approving three new local funding sources. The City of Atlanta can request a half-cent sales tax increase through 2057, which would be used specifically for transit. The measure would bring in an estimated $2.5 billion for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), which would help fund subway extension, improve bus service, and add light rail service to the Beltline project.

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A separate ballot question proposes to allow the city to ask for another half-cent for road projects, but only for a five-year period, generating roughly $260 million. These funds would be used to purchase the remaining right of way to close the Beltline Loop, as well as allocate $75 million for 15 street projects and $69 million for pedestrian and sidewalk improvements around the city.

The third measure on the ballot only applies to residents of Fulton County that live outside the Atlanta city limits. Voters will decide if they want a 0.75% sales tax for transportation projects. Fulton County extends north and south of Atlanta and incorporates many suburbs of Atlanta proper. Unfortunately, if approved, these funds would go toward transportation projects only, ignoring the needs of mass transit in the area.

Despite the fact that the voters defeated a 2012 measure for a $7 billion transportation package across a ten county region, proponents of the bill are optimistic that citizens of Atlanta will see the benefit of the new measures based on their support of the 2012 package, which, unfortunately, did not prove enough tip the scales against the majority of “no” voters from surrounding counties. Despite the fact that Atlanta is home to only half a million people, they should be applauded for pushing for a multi-year, multi billion dollar transportation package.

Now go enjoy the day.

The Christie Crisis

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie proposed a counteroffer to the state Assembly today to find funding for hundreds of road and bridge projects that he shut down by executive order nearly two weeks ago. By suspending $3.5 billion in “nonessential” road construction work, he is likely going to cost the state far more money than he is saving.

New Jersey occupies the unenviable position of having the highest construction costs per road mile (according to Reason Foundation’s 21st Annual Highway report) coupled with the second lowest gas tax in the nation. As many states move to fund transportation projects on their own, knowing federal funds won’t cover the necessary expenses, New Jersey has continued to use debt to fund projects, and it has finally caught up with them. For instance, in 2013, almost half of the $7.2 billion transportation budget for New Jersey went to pay for debt accrued on prior work.

Earlier this month, Christie reached a deal with the state Assembly to raise the state’s gas tax by 23 cents a gallon to replenish the trust fund. In exchange, the state’s sales tax would be cut from 7 percent to 6 percent by 2018. But the Senate opposed the deal, saying it would create a nearly $2 billion hole in the state budget. Another plan to raise the gas tax 23 cents-per-gallon with a phasing out of the estate tax, increasing the retirement income tax exclusion threshold, and creating new tax deductibles for charitable donations was also rejected.

According to an analysis by ARTBA, the shutdown cost the transportation construction industry and New Jersey taxpayers $41 million in its first week and could continue to cost as much as $9 million per week in lost sales, wages and economic activity in the state. Between 1,300 and 1,700 workers have been displaced.

Unfortunately for the residents and commuters of New Jersey and surrounding areas, summer is prime construction season and there’s no way to turn back the clock on lost days once a resolution is reached. The effects of the shutdown have already had major impacts as cities such as Summit saw local businesses forced to lay off workers while they wait for construction to resume on a century-old crossing.

Infrastructure News

Because I am the sales manager for a manufacturing firm that owes the majority of its annual revenues to DOT work, I subscribe to several newsletters to help stay abreast of developments across the country that could affect our market.  I am amazed at how quickly infrastructure is becoming a major talking point, not only the offices of government officials, but in coffee shops as well.  For those of you that don’t subscribe to newsletters about roads and bridges (99.999%???), here is what’s going on in your country this week.

Civil engineers spent the last year studying roads, bridges, and airports in Florida.  The final grade: C.  What this means is that needs are being met, but the future will undoubtedly require upgrades.  Committee chairperson Tonya Mellen asserted that, “Between our expected population increase, rising sea levels and hurricane risks, our infrastructure needs to grow and adapt to be ready for the future.”  According to the report, the state’s airports will surpass operational capacity in the next 15 years.  For comparison purposes, the nation’s infrastructure as a whole earned a D+.

A major rehabilitation project on the I-480 Bridge in Valley View, OH is starting two years earlier than originally planned.  The bridge carries roughly 180,000 vehicles across the Cuyahoga River every day.  Built in 1977, the heavily used bridge needs some TLC in the form of a deck replacement and some other miscellaneous repairs.  Despite the fact that some states (we’re talking to you, New Jersey) struggle to fund transportation projects, Ohio has been able to keep pace with needed repairs and improvements.  The $281 million project is scheduled to be completed in Fall, 2023.

Pennsylvania is spending about $1 billion a year more on road and bridge work than it did just a couple of years ago.  Pennsylvania is scheduled to award contracts for roughly 820 highway and bridge projects to the tune of about $2.4 billion.  About $1 billion of that comes from the Act 89 Funding Plan, signed into law in 2013 to help fund transportation projects.  According to PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt, by committing to these projects Pennsylvania is no longer the number 1 ranked state in the nation for structurally deficient bridges.

Now go enjoy the day.

Back From the Dead: $272 Million CSX Hub

This week CSX announced Rocky Mount, NC as the home of the Carolina Connector Intermodal Terminal.  The Carolinas Gateway Partnership, which touts itself as, “A public-private industrial recruitment agency dedicated to the economic development of the Eastern North Carolina counties of Nash and Edgecombe” claims the state of the art terminal will create high paying jobs in Rocky Mount, deliver improved transportation options and help drive economic growth.

Along with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, CGP estimates the $270 million project will bring 300 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs to Rocky Mount, and more than 1,500 jobs statewide over time.  The terminal will act as a crucial cog in the freight industry, sorting, holding, and rerouting cargo containers between trucks and trains.

CSX1It wasn’t too long ago that the project was on its death bed.  In January, Governor McCrory announced that the hub would be located in Johnston County.  The negative feedback was immediate and overwhelming from landowner and residents.  Two weeks later the project was declared dead.

About that time, the head of CGP, Norris Tolson, took it upon his own initiative to contact executives with CSX and offer to help find a solution in Nash or Edgecombe County.  After visiting a couple of sites, CSX determined one would fit their needs.  By the end of May, Tolson had secured 700 acres of land, and the project got the lifeline it needed.

What makes this story a winner is that several leaders stepped up, crossed party lines, and brought much-needed economic benefit to a state where unemployment rates are among the highest in the country (5.1%).  In a time where every city, state, and county is looking for innovative ways to fund important projects, it is good to see that hard work, determination, and cooperation ended up being the magic formula.

Now go enjoy the day.

Ready, Set, Vote!

There are several important measures that we will see on the ballots in November. Following the trend we’ve seen the last few years, several states are attempting to adopt measures to help fund transportation projects, knowing that current federal funding levels are too low to effectively grow and maintain infrastructure to keep up with economic and societal demands. Here are just a few of the important projects on the west coast that need your vote in November. A more comprehensive list can be found at http://t4america.org/maps-tools/state-policy-funding/2016-votes/

Sound Transit is looking to expand the regional light rail network throughout Seattle and the surrounding region with a bill called ST3. Sound Transit is looking to generate $27 billion over a 25-year period. The funds would come through a sales tax increase (0.5%), a vehicle excise tax increase (0.8%), and 0.25 mill property tax increase ($25 for every $100,000 or assessed property value). After 3 ½ years of discussion and voter input, this measure hits the ballot in November and would look to help manage the estimated 800,000 additional people expected to live in the region by 2040.

San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is proposing a $0.005 (half of one cent) sales tax increase for the next 40 years to generate $18 billion for important freeway and transit projects within the next 15 years (a major measure that is a legally binding goal). 42% of the new funds will go to transit projects and 24% will be allocated to cities for local projects. Some of the major projects include expanding trolley service, several freeway expansions, and a new trolley line that would run from San Ysidro border crossing to Kearney Mesa, branded the Purple Line.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has voted to put a 30 year, $0.005 (half of one cent) tax measure on the November ballot. The money would be used for various projects including improving rapid transit options (BART and Caltrain), repairing potholes, and improving highway interchanges. The tax is expected to raise roughly $6.5 billion. It will need a 2/3 majority vote to be enacted, but in a region that has consistently showed a willingness to spend money on transportation solutions the VTA is hopeful the measure will be passed. Here is a breakdown of the projects the tax would fund:

  • BUnknownART Phase II, $1.5 billion
  • Bicycle/pedestrian program, $250 million
  • Caltrain capacity improvements, $300 million
  • Caltrain grade separations, $700 million
  • County expressways, $750 million
  • Highway interchanges, $750 million
  • Local streets and roads, $1.2 billion
  • SR 85 Corridor, $350 million
  • Transit operations, $500 million

 

Now go enjoy the day

Death and Taxes

In 2009 The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) conducted a study on traffic accidents and fatalities. Their findings showed that over half of the deaths that occur on America’s roadways can be blamed on poor road conditions. That year nearly 34,000 people died in traffic accidents, a number which reveals just how important it is to improve our roads. The benefits are not only economic, but societal as well.

The PIRE study broke down the economic impact ($217 billion) of these traffic fatalities as well. “$20 billion in medical costs; $46 billion in productivity costs; $52 billion in property damage and other resource costs; and $99 billion in quality of life costs which measure the value of pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life by those injured or killed in crashes and their families.”  In addition to shattered lives, these accidents destroy wealth as well.

So what can we do to improve these numbers? The good news is we’re already taking important steps in the right direction. Many roadway projects now require wider shoulders, improved guardrails, better lighting, rumble strips (to wake up sleeping drivers), and cleared space next to roadways to improve visibility and eliminate hazards like rocks and trees. Engineers are also looking at new technologies like heated roads, ice detection systems, and breakaway light poles to further reduce the risk of traffic fatalities.images

Many times we get so caught up in the debate about transportation funding as it relates to economic and traffic mitigation that we forget how important it is that we have safe, modern roads for our loved ones to travel on. We’ve made incredible safety improvements to cars over the last 25 years.  I think it’s time we brings our roads up to standard as well.

 

No go enjoy the day.