MTA Capital Program Highlights Dire Need for Sustainable Funding Sources

MTACPThe New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently unveiled its proposed $32 billion 2015-2019 Capital Program, subsequently adopted by the MTA Board at today’s meeting. The proposal is made up of “vital investments” derived from the 2015-2034 Twenty Year Capital Needs Assessment that will “renew, enhance, and expand the MTA network” by “addressing evolving customer needs and expectations, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of investing to keep MTA safe and reliable.”

A significant portion of the proposed plan is dedicated to the completion of large-scale transportation infrastructure projects, including the LIRR Ronkonkoma branch Double Track project, the Metro-North Harmon Shop replacement project, East Side Access and the expansion of the Metro-North New Haven Line to Penn Station. Each of these projects has its own major implications for regional transportation service. For the proposed 2015-2019 Capital Plan to include so many major capital investments sets the stakes a lot higher for this program being approved, and being fully funded.

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Groundbreaking TransitCenter Survey: Americans Want More Compact, Mixed-Use Neighborhoods

It’s widely accepted at this point that Americans are driving less and the country overall is shifting towards transit to get around — but you may be surprised to learn that it’s not just due to young people favoring transit or a recovering economy. A recent study by TransitCenter, “Who’s On Board: 2014 Mobility Attitudes Survey,” goes beyond previous studies that only look at commuting trends and ridership figures by including travel attitudes and behaviors.

The big takeaway from this groundbreaking report is that transit-oriented development plays a big role. The type of neighborhood is the top predictor of whether or not people in that neighborhood prefer transit: suburban, residential neighborhoods are the most common types of neighborhoods that respondents live in, but many reportedly prefer to live in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods. The report states that “the attractiveness of mixed-use neighborhoods is a major part of what drives people onto transit.”

Respondents across all age groups largely desire suburban, mixed-use neighborhoods. | Chart: TransitCenter

Respondents across all age groups largely desire mixed-use neighborhoods. | Chart: TransitCenter

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Four Ways to Improve Trans-East River Travel That Aren’t Gondolas

ERSWWhat does it take to get people talking about increasing travel options for people whose commutes take them across the East River?

A futuristic proposal spawned in the mind of a Manhattan real estate mogul, evidently.

The East River Skyway proposal aims to address congestion on the L train between Williamsburg and Manhattan by carrying passengers on aerial trams (like the Roosevelt Island tram). With rapid (and continuing) growth in North Brooklyn, the L train has become increasingly crowded in the last few years. But is a gondola the best way to accommodate demand for trans-East travel?

Benjamin Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas summarizes the issue nicely:

In a certain sense, this plan gets to problems with the current transit set-up including overcrowded L trains, a need to serve the southern part of Roosevelt Island, especially with the Cornell development on tap and more capacity across the East River. On the other hand, the alignment is terrible in that it tracks subway lines such as the J/M/Z that are under capacity and mirrors preexisting ferry service.

Although the East River Skyway would provide some fantastic views, perhaps we should consider improvements to the rights-of-way that already exist.

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NJ Transit Ridership Up Across the Board

Hudson-Bergen Light Rail saw twice as many passengers as Newark and four times that of RiverLine. | Photo: New York Post

Hudson-Bergen Light Rail saw twice as many passengers as Newark and four times that of RiverLine. | Photo: New York Post

New Jersey Transit recently opened its committee meetings to the public, allowing riders greater insight into the agency’s operations and performance stats. Ridership data made available at the August Customer Service Committee meeting has revealed some interesting usage trends across NJ Transit’s operations, highlighting customer needs in several areas.

The most encouraging insight gained from the committee’s report is that total June 2014 ridership across all three modes increased by 4.8 percent compared to June 2013, while statewide vehicle miles traveled (VMT) decreased and gas prices continued to soar. Rail ridership was up 7.3 percent, and the HBLR showed tremendous gains with a 6.9 percent increase in May and 7.4 percent in June, compared to 2013.

With statewide transit ridership increasing at such an encouraging rate, the state would be wise to prioritize a sustainable funding source for transportation projects. Thankfully it seems there is growing momentum to help push this issue in the right direction, though with NJ Transit already dependent on borrowing against its own capital funds to cover growing operating costs, a solution to the state’s transportation funding crisis can’t come soon enough.

Ridership stats across NJ Transit’s three transit modes allowed us to identify three specific transportation infrastructure projects that, if prioritized, could significantly improve and expand existing service for NJ Transit customers.

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Fix-it-First Investment Takes Priority in NJ’s FY 2015 Transportation Capital Program

NJDOT logo colorNew Jersey’s 2015 Transportation Capital Program reveals the state is spending less on unsustainable expansion projects and more on maintenance and preservation. According to Tri-State’s analysis, the FY 2015 Capital Program is dedicating the highest share of funds towards road and bridge maintenance and the lowest percentage of funds to expansion projects in recent memory.

Expansion projects in the 2015 Capital Program comprise only 3 percent of funds and maintenance/preservation projects comprise nearly 32 percent. By comparison, expansion projects made up 10 percent of the 2014 Capital Program funds and maintenance/preservation projects 25 percent; in 2013 expansion projects accounted for about 12 percent of funds and maintenance/preservation projects nearly 30 percent.

In 2015, for every dollar spent on roads or bridges, about 7 cents will go towards expansion while nearly 80 cents will go toward maintaining existing assets. In 2014 and 2013, about 25 cents on every dollar going to road or bridge projects went to expansion, and about 63 cents went to preservation.

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How Will New York’s Proposed Casinos Impact the Transportation System?

An artist's rendering of Sterling Forest Resort, a proposed resort casino in Tuxedo, NY. | Image:  sterlingforestresort.com

An artist’s rendering of Sterling Forest Resort, a proposed resort casino in Tuxedo, NY. | Image: sterlingforestresort.com

“I believe casinos in upstate New York could be a great magnet to bring the New York City traffic up.”

Governor Cuomo’s declaration in this year’s State of the State address would seem to suggest that upstate casinos would be built in transit-accessible locations. Less than half of New York City households own a vehicle, so “to bring the New York City traffic up” to casinos beyond the limits of Metro-North would ostensibly require some investments in transit.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t look to be part of the plan. Too often, transit access, congestion and wear-and-tear  on our roads are barely mentioned amidst the tax revenue ideology that accompanies economic development ventures. We’ve seen it before in New York, whether it’s the Governor’s effort to approve fracking, or the effort to lure New York City residents up to the Adirondacks (where there is no other option but to drive).

The June 30 deadline for casino applications brought 17 applicants vying for just four destination casino licenses in three upstate regions—the Catskills/Hudson Valley region, Eastern Southern Tier, and Capital Region. The final decision is expected to be made by the Gaming Facility Location Board, an appointed board with Cuomo-friendly appointees by the fall with casinos potentially opening as soon as 2015.

Some of the proposals submitted tout their proximity to public transit, while others propose significant expansions of the roadway system to bring customers directly to their door. Genting Americas is proposing a new Thruway Exit for a casino in Tuxedo, and Caesars Entertainment is offering to invest at least $20 million to improve traffic in the already burdened area near the proposed resort for Woodbury, “including funding a substantial portion of the long-delayed improvements to Exit 131 on the New York State Thruway.”

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Land Banking: A Tool to Facilitate Equitable TOD

Vacant and abandoned properties present a variety of challenges to municipalities: they degrade the aesthetic appeal of neighborhoods, pose safety risks and lower the value of surrounding properties. Communities burdened by vacant property also miss out on considerable revenue — while local governments face increased maintenance costs. And more often than not, attempts to redevelop these properties are thwarted by complicated tax foreclosure processes.

To help alleviate these headaches, some communities are enacting legislation to create land banks, which would acquire and manage abandoned properties so they can be saved for development and returned to productive uses.

One such productive use that land banks can help cities achieve is equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD). When municipalities establish land banks with the goal of creating ETOD, they’re not simply collecting underutilized land; they’re taking the first steps toward improving access to economic opportunity and housing choice for low-income people.

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One Region, TSTC-Granted Funds Advance Transit-Oriented Development Throughout the Region

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Municipal grantees of the One Region Funders’ Group and Tri-State’s Transit-Centered Grant Program present TOD project updates at TOD Forum. Left to right: Nicole Chevalier (moderator), Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation; Claire Shulman, Flushing-Willets Point-Corona LDC; David McCarthy, Jonathan Rose Companies; William Long, City of Mount Vernon; Richard Slingerland and Bob Galvin, Village of Mamaroneck; Jonathan Keyes, Town of Babylon. Photo: Kathi Ko

Tri-State and the One Region Funders’ Group assembled Transit-Centered Development Grant Program recipients last month to discuss progress made since the first round of grants to advance TOD were made in 2009.

The value of using philanthropic support to leverage additional investment for transit-oriented development (TOD) is unprecedented. Through two rounds of grant-making in 2009 and 2012, the program awarded $335,000 in funds to 11 municipalities throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. These awards leveraged $135,000 in local contributions, $6.7 million in county and regional funds, $23 million in state grants and loan guarantees, and $4 million in federal funds.

Presentations from the grantees made it clear that these funds are going a long way to undo decades of sprawl. Some notable updates include:

Affordable senior housing coming to Flushing, Queens

The Flushing-Willets Point-Corona LDC received a $14,000 grant in 2011 and used the funds as part of a larger proposal to revamp the LIRR’s Flushing station. Claire Schulman, former Queens Borough President and head of FWPCLDC, announced that the New York City Department of Housing, Preservation and Development is now poised to transform a 43,200 square foot parking lot into as many as 200 units of affordable senior housing.

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Governor Malloy Announces $15 Million for TOD along CTfastrak, New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Corridors

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Governor Malloy addressed a crowd yesterday at Union Station in Hartford. | Image: Connecticut Network

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy announced the creation of a transit-oriented development (TOD) fund intended “to promote mixed-use, smart and sustainable development while encouraging economic growth.” The $15 million fund will be used to provide financing for “livable, walkable, and bikeable” development along the CTfastrak and New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (NHHS) transit corridors, Malloy said Wednesday at Hartford’s Union Station.

The State will invest $2 million ($1 million from the Office of Policy and Management, $1 million from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority) to leverage $13 million from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), “and potentially millions more from banks, developers and other private and public sector organizations.” LISC will manage the fund and work with communities to identify parcels within a half-mile of stations for transit-oriented development opportunities.
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How Daylighting the Saw Mill River Helped Yonkers Become a Mixed-Use, Multimodal Hub

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The daylighted Saw Mill River in Yonkers. | Photo: communityprogress.net

Downtown Yonkers has undergone a dramatic change in the last decade thanks largely to the inspiring success story of the Saw Mill River Daylighting campaign, a project which was presented last week at GreenHomeNYC’s April Forum.

In the 1920s, the Army Corps of Engineers redirected a large portion of the Saw Mill River into underground flumes as part of a sanitation and flooding mitigation effort, where it lay hidden from sight for nearly a century. It wasn’t until the 1990s that anyone began to consider the potential for unburying the river, though the idea at the time seemed too massive an undertaking, especially given the hazardous pollution levels from illegal dumping in nearby industrial areas.

When Groundwork Hudson Valley was established in 2000, the non-profit organizations’s board of directors made daylighting the Saw Mill River one of its top priorities, as they felt strongly that it was “key to the city’s renewal.” And they were right. The newly daylighted river wasn’t simply a catalyst for revitalizing downtown; it became “the centerpiece of the city.”

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