Ticket to ride: Will public transit benefit from ISTEA reauthorization?
While the acronym, “ISTEA,” has inspired countless headline writers — including those on this magazine — and reporters reaching for clever lines, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act is serious business. At stake are billions of dollars in federal grants to states and cities for highway and public transit improvements.
Later this spring and into the summer, Congress will hold ISTEA reauthorization proceedings that will determine the size and shape of the nation’s surface transportation programs well into the next century.
In 1991, with bipartisan support from Congress and the White House, ISTEA marked the beginning of a more flexible era of transportation funding that embraces local decision-making. As a result, nearly $3 billion in so-called “flexible funds” was earmarked by state and local officials for transit improvements, mostly under the Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality program (CMAQ) and the Surface Transportation Program (STP).
ISTEA, which expires this September, is viewed by many as the most significant surface transportation legislation of the last 50 years. Unusual in that it recognizes the environmental consequences of additional road capacity and transit options, ISTEA has brought everyday users of cars, trains, buses and bicycles to the decision-making table with its public participation requirements.
In the past, most of this grant money would have been used to build roads. But other transportation options are now part of the mix.
In Cleveland, for example, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority built a pedestrian walkway from a rail station to its Gateway sports and entertainment complex. As a result, auto traffic is down and foot traffic up dramatically. In Santa Barbara, Calif., an express bus, financed with flexible grant funds, carries thousands of students each year between Santa Barbara City College and the nearby student community of Isla Vista. Traffic and parking problems at the college have abated, while bus patronage has climbed. In Clarksdale, Miss., the Delta Area Rural Transit System, an economic lifeline in this rural community, is expanding its service through a Livable Communities grant, funded with ISTEA money.
Competition for dollars
Competition is still keen for limited federal dollars. War has broken out among the so-called “donor” and “donee” states over perceived inequities in ISTEA highway allotments; donor states argue they pay much more in gas taxes than they get back in highway grant money. This is a distraction public transit advocates hope to avoid. They want the issue resolved, but not in a way that derails or delays ISTEA reauthorization.
As usual, politics will be at the center of the ISTEA debate, as the transportation community tries to corral 4.3 cents of federal gasoline tax revenue that was earmarked several years ago by Congress to help reduce the deficit. That revenue, which sits in the Highway Trust Fund, adds up to $6.5 billion a year.
Money will be key in every ISTEA discussion. The Clinton Administration’s transit budget for next year offers less money than the 1996 budget but offers greater flexibility in how it can be spent. Funding for programs that support modernization of aging rail systems and construction of new systems was slashed by 17 percent in the president’s budget, but, as a carrot, Clinton is proposing greater discretion for large metropolitan areas in spending federal capital funds and more flexibility in the methods by which smaller cities can apply federal funds in their transit systems.
But Congress may try to have it both ways.
Consequently, in addition to lobbying for more money, ISTEA supporters will have to guard against attempts to tinker with the legislation. “Mend it, don’t amend it” is the battle cry of the American Public Transit Association (APTA) and the U. S. Conference of Mayors.
ISTEA in peril?
When ISTEA was enacted, George Bush was in the White House and Congress was controlled by Democrats.
The subsequent turnover of congressional seats has brought new players into the game who have no history with ISTEA and no allegiance to it.
That is not the case on the local level. In a recent National Association of Counties survey, nearly 97 percent of county officials said they supported higher ISTEA funding levels. Additionally, an overwhelming 86 percent of the respondents said Congress should spend the nearly $20 billion in gas tax revenue and interest that has accumulated in the Highway Trust Fund.
“The Highway Trust Fund should be used for its intended purpose: to improve and rebuild America’s roads, bridges and mass transit systems,” argues NACo president Michael Hightower, a Fulton County, Ga., commissioner who also believes that “tweaking” ISTEA by giving county officials additional responsibilities and funds “so local citizens can control the fate of their roads, bridge and transit systems,” will make the law “the perfect innovative approach to taking our nation’s transportation system into the 21st Century. If we want improved mobility and economic development and cleaner air, we must keep ISTEA strong,” he says.
And so an impressive education campaign is under way. “ISTEA is in line with the principles many members of Congress ran on, but they may not know that,” says APTA chairperson Leslie White, who also directs the 116-bus C-TRAN in Vancouver, Wash. “ISTEA took what used to be primarily a federal responsibility and put execution of the transportation program right down at the local level, closer to the people.”
The law, White thinks, should sell itself.
But just in case it doesn’t, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has weighed in with strong support for fine-tuned, but not overhauled, reauthorization. The USCM has joined APTA, NACo, the National League of Cities, the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, the Surface Transportation Policy Project and the American Public Works Association in a coalition designed to salvage the original intent of ISTEA.
“We share the view that ISTEA works with a broad coalition of interests,” said Fort Worth, Texas, Mayor Kenneth Barr in testimony before a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in February.
“We all recognize that fine-tuning amendments and other technical adjustments are needed to strengthen and modernize the program structure,” said Barr, who chairs the USCM subcommittee on public transportation. “Congress should build on ISTEA’s strengths and accomplishments.”
In testimony before the same subcommittee, APTA’s White agreed with Barr. “APTA supports continuation of a strong federal role in setting transportation policy and funding infrastructure investments,” he said. “ISTEA established a sensible program to carry out federal highway and transit policy, which should be retained in the [reauthorization]. Its federal-state-local partnership works well. Its flexible funding and intermodal emphasis allow transportation policy to address national and local needs while recognizing that transportation is linked to other factors that affect each community’s economy and quality of life. Federal investment in transit infrastructure produces valuable assets in every community and long-term benefits for the entire nation, including reduced traffic congestion, improved access to jobs and help in meeting federal mandates.”
Quoting U.S. Department of Transportation estimates, White argued that the government should invest at least $13 billion annually to maintain transit services and provide modest improvements. “The current federal investment of $4 billion a year is simply not enough,” he says.
White echoed colleagues in urging the increased use of gas tax revenues to fund improvements.
According to White, studies show that transit saves at least $l5 billion a year on congestion costs. In the last 30 years, he said, transit riders have prevented the emission of 1.6 million tons of hydrocarbons, 10 million tons of carbon monoxide and 275,000 tons of nitrogen, as well as the importation of 20 billion gallons of gasoline and the construction and maintenance of 20,000 lane-miles of freeways and arterial roads.
Local government organizations have offered a comprehensive working proposal for ISTEA reauthorization. Key recommendations include:
Preserving a strong federal transportation program. ISTEA reformed federal transportation policy to meet the mobility challenge of the post-interstate era by integrating surface transportation planning, programs and services. Still in its infancy, this integration process must be continued, ISTEA proponents argue;
Maintaining and expanding ISTEA’s flexible funding provisions. Local governments insist that flexible funding provisions under the CMAQ and Surface Transportation programs have been successful and should be continued because they allow communities to identify those transportation solutions that best support their goals for economic development, community revitalization and other priorities. Additionally, they say, after core transit programs are fully funded, additional flexible funding should be authorized by expanding the STP using revenues from both the Highway and Mass Transit Accounts of the Highway Trust Fund.
Maintaining existing transit program structure. The discretionary new start, rail modernization and bus components; the formula funding for urbanized areas; non-urban and elderly/disabled components; planning and research and administrative functions all provide funds for specific needs and encourage innovative solutions, according to local government officials.
Streamlining the transit program. Proponents say that reauthorization legislation should address limitations on the use of transit funds, expensive federal mandates and unnecessarily stringent procurement standards that create waste and inefficiency.
By all accounts, ISTEA supporters expect reauthorization, with some of their recommendations adopted notwithstanding expected battles over road formulas. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee expects to have a bill ready by Spring, according to committee spokesman Jeff Nelligan. “The biggest fight will be over money,” he says. “The Senate actually has a total.”
Nelligan is referring to a letter signed by 57 senators that encourages appropriation of $27 billion a year from the Highway Trust Fund for highway spending. In addition, a second Senate petition seeks another $5 billion for mass transit. “That’s $32 billion,” Nelligan says. “That’s a lot of dough. Over six years (the life of ISTEA), you have $192 billion dollars. That is the most important development to date in this entire issue.”
That action is encouraging. Still, the USCM, NACo and APTA, as well as countless mayors and county commissioners, are watching closely to make sure Congress gives them their ticket to ride.
Greg O’Brien is editor and president of Stony Brook Publishing & Productions, Brewster, Mass. Chip Bishop is president of Chip Bishop Communications, West Dennis, Mass.
ITS guide available from PTI
Good transportation does more than move people efficiently. It enhances the economy, safety and quality of life. That’s the central premise of Smart Moves: A Decision-Maker’s Guide to the Intelligent Transportation Infra-structure, a new guide published by Public Technology, Inc., to help cities, counties and metropolitan authorities plan, finance and build intelligent transportation systems.
PTI’s Urban Consortium Transportation Task Force developed the 62-page guide with a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It features concrete examples of cities and counties that have made significant strides with ITS.
“Many publications on ITS drown readers in an alphabet soup of technology terms, failing to offer any big-picture insight,” says Thom McCloud, PTI’s vice president for research. “Yet the ‘I’ in ‘ITS’ stands for much more than machine intelligence. It means human intelligence, too. Recognizing that missing equation, Smart Moves helps officials make wise decisions for truly intelligent systems.”
While focused on localities, the book offers useful conclusions to all levels of government. Specific sections explore ways elected and appointed officials — and expert staff — can tap into and integrate existing telecommunications infra-structure, invest wisely in technology and obtain local, federal, regional, state and private-sector support to build effective traffic and transit systems.
Smart Moves is available for $16 to governments and $32 to others. To order, call the PTI Publications Center at (800) PTI-8976 or e-mail <[email protected]>.
PTI is the non-profit technology R&D organization of the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties and the Inter-national City/County Management Association.
Unified lift keeps D.C.’s traffic moving
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) knew it had a big job when maintenance was needed on vibration isolation pads beneath the floating concrete slabs in the tunnel leading to the L’Enfant Plaza Station.
For starters, the station is one of the Washington Metro’s busiest stations, serving the Yellow, Green, Blue and Orange lines.
Next, excessive wear of the current vibration isolation pads, along with the introduction of newer, longer-lasting rubber pads, made replacement the only viable option, according to WMATA Superintendent of Special Projects Tony Adams.
But getting below the slabs to repair the pads without disrupting daily commuter traffic presented formidable lifting and logistical challenges. The three floating slabs, weighing about 200 tons each, rested on the worn vibration isolation pads.
And because more than 18,000 commuters use the station daily, the project had to be completed between Midnight and dawn over a single weekend.
An investigation of the size and scope of the project left WMATA sure that alternatives to a unified lift (flow divider valves or manual flow control) would be impossible because of the number of lifting points needed to raise the concrete slabs. Additionally, time constraints also made these approaches either impractical or impossible. Plus, the crisscross pattern of the subway tracks on top of the concrete slabs necessitated that all three sections be lifted in unison.
Consequently, the authority, working closely with technical representatives from the Enerpac unit of Applied Power, Butler, Wis., developed an innovative unified lifting system. The intricate system involved 86 50-ton, single-acting cylinders, more than a half-mile of hydraulic hose and a sophisticated control center that monitored all lifting points during the project.
The system allowed the vibration isolation pads to be installed overnight, affecting Metrorail traffic for fewer than 12 hours between Midnight and Noon on Sunday, April 20. “Commuters who left the Metrorail on Friday night would never have known what took place over the weekend when they returned on Monday,” Adams says. “But if the lift had not worked as planned, the whole world would have been aware of the disruption.” Adams notes that, while a lift of this size had not been previously attempted by WMATA, the entire project had been carefully planned.
The concept involved conducting the lift with just four unified jacks per slab.
Each slab also contained a set of helper jacks with each set powered by a separate power source.
The evenly spaced helper jacks were positioned to provide nearly enough lifting force to raise the slabs.
The added pressure from the four unified lifting jacks furnished sufficient force to lift the slabs, with the variance in weight distribution absorbed by one or more of the helper jacks.
Seventy-four 50-ton cylinders served as helper jacks. Each of the end slabs used 28 cylinders, while the center slab, due to a center track crossover pattern, applied just 18. Significantly, the entire lifting project was arranged and conducted with a minimum unbolting of subway track, thus reducing the overall time requirements for completion of the job.
A bus is a bus is a bus: City’s fleet gets poetic
Pierce Transit in Tacoma, Wash., is about to become Poetry in Motion. The authority is planning to run poems by local poets and teenagers on the sides of its buses. (The latter have been invited to compete in Pierce County’s poetry and fiction writing contest for cash, prizes and the chance to have their work displayed on the buses.
Nationally known as “Poetry in Motion,” the program began in 1992 in New York City. There, each year, 20 different poems appear in 35,000 buses and 23,000 subway cars to be read by more than 5 million transit riders daily.
Chicago and Portland, Ore., are expected to adopt the program soon. For more information, call (212) 254-9628.
Skylights keep transit center bright
Jacksonville, Fla., is the largest city in the United States in square miles. Given that, public transportation in the city is a very serious matter.
The Jacksonville Transportation Center, a 10,000-square-foot, two-story, open-air facility, is one of the ways the city addresses that matter. But getting around in a facility that large poses problems for pedestrians.
Consequently, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) asked ICF Kaiser Engineers, Fairfax, Va., and the architectural firm of VRL Architects to design a pedestrian access to and between the buses, the elevated skyway express systems and automobiles.
Cost, according to Architect Kim Rinaman, was a major factor in designing the center. “We wanted reasonable initial cost with long-term maintenance return,” Rinaman says. “With over 150,000 passenger bus trips per week, we chose sturdy materials to minimize effects of public use and resist vandalism.”
The center incorporates stainless steel escalators, tinted concrete masonry, brick, granite and porcelain paving and translucent skylights, manufactured by Manchester, N.H.-based Kalwall.
Covering the center is a self-supporting 12,000-square foot, 180-degree vault skylight. Eighteen pyramid skylights brighten the bus-loading canopies attached to the center. The skylights are shatter-proof and maintenance-free and can withstand the area’s diesel fume-laden air. Normal rainfall washes the panels clean.
“The [skylights] create an open, friendly, safe and inviting atmosphere,” Rinaman says. “They allow natural light in while providing rain shelter without dark shadows.”