Strong Showing for Connecticut’s Vulnerable User Bill and Lockbox Amendment

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Image: Bike Walk Connecticut

Advocates made a strong showing for Connecticut’s vulnerable user bill (SB336) at last Wednesday’s public hearing of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Transportation Committee. Also with strong support in the committee: A resolution (SJ23) which would begin the process of amending the state’s constitution to safeguard transportation funds.

The safety bill would define a “vulnerable user” of the road as a pedestrian, cyclist, animal rider, highway worker, tractor operator, a blind person and his or her service animal, wheelchair user, or a rider of a skateboard, skates, or scooter. It would levy a fine of up to $1,000 for careless drivers who injure or kill a vulnerable user, provided that the vulnerable user was using the road with care. Twenty-three organizations are listed as supporters of the bill and are working together to support its passage. The bill unanimously passed the Senate last year, but it did not receive a vote in the House.

At the hearing, TSTC Senior Planner Steven Higashide cited testimony from Kirsten BechtelKaren Santucci and Antonio Riera, pediatric emergency doctors from Yale Medical School who wrote in support of the legislation. A volunteer from the Connecticut Horse Council and Bike Walk Connecticut’s Kelly Kennedy also testified in person. Notably, the Connecticut DOT also submitted a supportive statement, saying that the vulnerable user bill was “in line with the department’s mission to provide…a safe and efficient multi-modal transportation system.” In total, 39 organizations and individuals, including Transit for Connecticut, AARP, ConnPIRG, and the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association submitted testimony in support of the bill. No testimony was submitted in opposition.

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Could the New Haven Line’s Problems Be Hurting Connecticut’s Economy?

Commuters filled a "Speakout" at the Pequot Library in Southport, hosted by the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby on February 18. | Photo: Steven Higashide/TSTC.

Commuters filled a “Speakout” at the Pequot Library in Southport, hosted by the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby on February 18. | Photo: Steven Higashide/TSTC.

Over 100 commuters came to an occasionally raucous “Commuter Speakout” hosted by the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby in Southport last Tuesday night. The event was organized in response to a series of incidents and increasing delays on Metro-North’s New Haven Line. On-time performance on the railroad, which had hovered around 95 percent for many years, fell to 80 percent in February.

“We are well aware of our failure to provide the service you deserve,” said John Kesich, Metro-North’s senior vice president of operations. Also in attendance were ConnDOT Commissioner Jim Redeker and rail administrator Eugene Colonese; Sue Doering, Metro-North’s senior director of service and stations; and Anne Kirsch, Metro-North’s director of safety and security.

The Speakout came one day after Metro-North’s new president, Joseph Giuletti, appeared at a press conference with Governor Malloy, Commissioner Redeker, and MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast. There, the officials promised to deliver a “100-day action plan” to the governor in the coming weeks. At the Speakout, Commissioner Redeker said the 100-day plan would include a safety review, a review of major projects, a new communications plan, and a simpler customer complaint interface.

Riders at the Speakout cited a litany of complaints including broken heaters, stranded trains, missed connections and standing-room-only conditions. But perhaps the most pointed line of criticism came from several commuters and elected officials who said the series of incidents was hurting the state’s economy and reputation. A realtor said that potential clients were mentioning the railroad’s faults. A new resident of Stamford said he had warned friends not to move to Connecticut. And State Senator Toni Boucher (one of several state legislators in attendance) warned that Connecticut has been losing population in recent years and can’t afford to lose any more.

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Transportation Absent From Malloy’s State of the State, But Not His Budget

Governor Malloy didn't mention transportation in his State of the State address, but did propose a budget with new transportation initiatives. | Photo: Brian Pounds, Connecticut Post

Governor Malloy didn’t mention transportation in his State of the State address, but did propose a budget with new transportation initiatives. | Photo: Brian Pounds/Connecticut Post

Last week, Governor Dannel Malloy delivered a snow-delayed State of the State address focused on his plans for tax relief, education, and economic development. It was so focused on those plans, actually, that it did not include a single word on the topic of transportation. But the Governor’s proposed midyear budget, presented to the General Assembly that same day, tells a different story.

In fact, the Governor’s proposed budget includes several new transportation initiatives:

  • A $7 million predevelopment fund for transit-oriented development, to be administered by the Office of Policy and Management. The fund will likely first be used to assist communities that want to build around stations on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Line and CTfastrak bus rapid transit. The budget would also allow ConnDOT to hire employees to work on TOD.
  • 75 new engineers, as well as new ConnDOT positions focused on speeding up project delivery.
  • A $1.5 million “Safety and Maintenance Program” developed in response to the May derailment on the New Haven Line.

In a triple win for state taxpayers, the budget includes no new fare hikes, no cuts to rail and bus operations, and no transfers out of the Special Transportation Fund. The $7 million predevelopment fund is particularly welcome considering TSTC and other advocates have called for a formal TOD program for years. Responding to this component of the budget, Howard Rifkin of the Partnership for Strong Communities (an affordable housing advocacy group) praised the Governor for “ensuring that development in and around transit stops includes mixed-income housing for our workforce,” and called the fund “good news for the future of CTfastrak and the Springfield-to-New Haven commuter rail line.”

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Steal This Complete Streets Checklist

As state departments of transportation try to reduce the stubborn problem of pedestrian and cyclist deaths, one tactic they can use is to help local communities adopt complete street policies. In the tri-state region, few are doing as good a job on that front as the New Jersey Department of Transportation. On its complete streets website, NJDOT has published guides not just for how to develop complete streets policies, but also how to come up with a plan to implement them.

Included in both guides is a version of the checklist NJDOT itself uses when it’s developing a project. NJDOT requires that the project manager and designer fill out the checklist “during the earliest stages of the Concept Development or Preliminary Engineering Phase so that any pedestrian or bicycle considerations are included in the project budget.” Among other things, the checklist reminds staff to

  • examine existing pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure
  • measure existing levels of non-motorized travel and identify missing infrastructure
  • coordinate with the local transit agency
  • and ensure that projects abide by pedestrian and bicycle design standards.
NJDOT's project checklist.

Two of the 12 items which make up NJDOT’s complete streets preliminary engineering checklist.

The value of New Jersey’s complete streets guides goes beyond the checklist, however. The guides also offer advice for local leaders on how to support complete streets beyond just adopting policies. For example, the implementation guide suggests a list of typical plans that may need to be updated after a complete streets policy is passed (master plan, circulation, land use, etc.). It also has examples of how the development review process can support complete streets, and “lessons learned” from towns and cities that have done the work already.

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Connecticut Metro-North Riders to “Speakout” Feb. 18

After a year of delays, derailments, and other woes on Metro-North’s New Haven Line, the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby is hosting a commuter “Speakout” on February 18 at 7:30 pm, at the Pequot Library in Southport, CT. Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker will be present for the event, which is an opportunity for rail riders to […]

RPA: Without Faster Investment, Metro-North New Haven Line Faces 20 Years of Disruption

Maintenance on the New Haven Line often prevent the railroad from using all four of its tracks, reducing service capacity. Shown here is a temporary platform being built at Fairfield station in 2010. | Tim Loh for Fairfield Citizen.

Maintenance on the New Haven Line often prevents Metro-North from using all four of the line’s tracks, reducing service capacity. Shown here is a temporary platform being built at Fairfield station in 2010. | Tim Loh for Fairfield Citizen.

New Haven Line Metro-North riders, who have endured a year marked by serious service disruptions, could face 20 more years of compromised service if investment in basic maintenance is not sped up. That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Regional Plan Association, Getting Back on Track: Unlocking the Full Potential of the New Haven Line. RPA’s report calls for $3.6 billion in priority investments through 2020 so that the railroad can reach a state of good repair and run full, four-track service.

RPA identified $3.6 billion in currently unfunded New Haven Line projects.

RPA identified $3.6 billion in currently unfunded New Haven Line projects that are essential for the railroad to run reliable service.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation’s 2013-2017 capital plan currently dedicates $962 million to the New Haven Line. At that rate of investment, it would take 20 years to complete the projects identified by RPA as necessary for it to function as a reliable railroad. Until those projects are completed, delays could remain routine. For example, the rail line’s movable bridges are frequently stuck open, and needed track, platform, and overhead wire repairs often necessitate taking portions of track out of service, resulting in slower service and reduced redundancy.

The New Haven Line has come under scrutiny after a series of incidents that can be traced both to aging infrastructure and management practices. Last Thursday, a power failure stranded riders for two hours. In September, an old electrical cable failed, crippling the line for almost two weeks.  In May 2013, a derailment near Bridgeport injured dozens of people and shut the line down for days (two of the rail line’s four tracks were out of service for a maintenance project in this area; had they been open, the railroad could have run limited service while repairs continued). Also in May, a worker was killed after an error by a Metro-North rail traffic controller. All of this has led to a decision by the Federal Railroad Administration to review the agency’s “safety culture.”

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Promising Signs from New Haven’s New Mayor

(L to R) New Haven's new director of economic development Matthew Nemerson, new director of Traffic, Transportation and Parking Doug Hausladen, and Mayor Toni Harp.

(L to R) New Haven’s new economic development administrator Matthew Nemerson, new transportation director Doug Hausladen, and Mayor Toni Harp. | Photo: New Haven Independent

In the last week, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp has given promising answers to many of the questions that transportation advocates have been asking. Last week, the administration announced it would study transit improvements within New Haven, and earlier this week, Mayor Harp named a new city transportation director, Doug Hausladen, who has a strong record on traffic safety and complete streets.

Hausladen, who was elected a city alder in 2011, has a history of sustainable transportation activism. As a private citizen, Hausladen pushed for a state complete streets law and helped win pedestrian safety improvements at a downtown intersection. As an alder, he pushed for improvements to Route 34 and for legislation to allow municipalities to use cameras to enforce red-light running, which would improve safety in New Haven (73 pedestrians were killed or injured in the city in 2010 alone).

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Tri-State Region to Congress: Put Transit Tax Benefits at the Top of To-Do List

Once again, commuters are waiting for Congress to make the transit commuter benefit equal with the parking benefit. Photo: @SrcasticCommutr via Stamford Advocate

Today, over 30 elected officials, agencies, and advocates from the tri-state region exhorted Congress to fix the transit commuter tax benefit and to do it as soon as possible. In a joint statement, they said “As Congress reconvenes in Washington for its first days of work in 2014, restoring parity to the commuter tax benefit for transit riders must be at the top of its to-do list.”

Signing onto the statement were Mayor Harry Rilling of Norwalk, CT; the Greater Bridgeport Transit agency, Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, Melville (NY) Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Future, Business Council of Fairfield County, Regional Plan Association, Straphangers Campaign, Transport Workers Union Local 100 and several other environmental, transportation and civic advocates from the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, who called restoring the benefit an economic imperative for transit riders and misguided transportation policy:

The expiration of parity for the transit commuter benefit means fewer dollars in transit riders’ pockets — and fewer dollars in the farebox too. When riders no longer have the option to use pre-tax dollars for transit passes, transit systems may face decreased ridership, which often leads to fare hikes and service cuts.

Just as the transit commuter benefit was slashed, the benefit for parking increased by $5 to $250 per month, which amounts to a federally-endorsed transportation policy that incentivizes driving, leading to more cars on the region’s already congested and deteriorating roads. Restoring and enacting permanent parity for transit riders, and making that parity retroactive to January 1, establishes a balanced and progressive fiscal policy.

Others in the region have also called for Congress to take action. On Monday, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp held a press conference calling for the restoration of the benefit. New York Senator Charles Schumer and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez also held events last November and December calling for the extension of the transit benefit’s parity. A bill in the House which would set the transit and parking benefits permanently equal to one another at $220/month has 60 sponsors, and a bill in the Senate to establish commuting parity at $250/month has 11.

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Connecticut 2013: Looking Back on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

CT-GBE-2013There was plenty to be happy about in Connecticut last year, with progress on the CTfastrak bus rapid transit corridor, lots of new bike infrastructure and the election of livable streets champions in cities across The Nutmeg State.

But as there almost always is, there was room for improvement in 2013. Connecticut’s elected officials boosted transit fares, failed to vote on a key piece of safety legislation and continued to use limited highway dollars for capacity expansion instead of sorely-needed road and bridge maintenance.

The Good

Positive outlook for CTfastrak, now under construction — Construction is underway on Central Connecticut’s bus rapid transit system, and much of the negativity surrounding the project appears to have given way to excitement. And on top of that, the busway has proven to be a catalyst for transit oriented development.

Never-before seen in Connecticut bike infrastructure on the way — Under the leadership of Transportation, Traffic and Parking Director Jim Travers, the City of New Haven introduced the City’s first bike corral. New Haven will also be home to Connecticut’s first cycle track, which suggests a changing mindset at the Connecticut Department of Transportation. On top of that, (soon to be painted) green lanes will be installed in Hartford.

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What the Federal Budget Deal Means for Transportation

The House passed a two-year budget by a wide margin, but it doesn't appear that transit commuter parity will be addressed until next year. | Image: DailyKos

The House passed a two-year budget by a wide margin, but it doesn’t appear that transit commuter parity will be addressed until next year. | Image: C-SPAN via DailyKos

The two-year budget deal, unveiled earlier this week and passed by the House of Representatives last night, will curtail “sequestration” cuts to government spending planned for this year. Although it faced some opposition, it passed with a wide margin (332-94) and will move to the Senate for a vote next week. So what would the deal mean for transportation?

If the budget deal passes the Senate next week, House and Senate lawmakers would then write bills funding the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (as well as the rest of the government), and try to negotiate the differences. By adopting higher spending levels, the budget deal would provide more room for Congress to work with but would not change the fact that there are large philosophical differences between the different chambers of Congress. When the two houses tried writing appropriations bills earlier this year, the result was a Senate bill that boosted funding for transportation and a House bill that starved it.

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