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For Buttigieg, ‘generational’ transportation change may not be easy, experts say

Pranshu Verma, THE NEW YORK TIMES

The new secretary has stirred excitement among transportation experts, but they warn that deep institutional change is likely to remain difficult.

Now that Pete Buttigieg is secretary of transportation, he faces a challenge: delivering on his promises of infrastructure overhaul.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, he said there was a “generational opportunity” to change infrastructure. In a string of news appearances over the past month — including ABC’s “The View” and an interview with the actor Chris Evans — Mr. Buttigieg said that climate change, racial justice and job creation could all be addressed through infrastructure overhaul.

We “have a historic opportunity to take transportation in our country to the next level,” he said on Mr. Evans’s website, “A Starting Point,” which interviews elected officials and policymakers. “We should actually be using transportation policy to make people better off, make it easier to get to where you’re going, easier to get a job, easier to thrive.”

His statements have generated excitement among transportation experts, who are unaccustomed to seeing the secretary of transportation adopt a news strategy to communicate about the nation’s infrastructure. But deep institutional change remains difficult, and reform will not come easy, they said.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Paul Lewis, the vice president for policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan transit research center in Washington. “But I do think a lot of the big things — the reform efforts — are going to take more time and effort than a lot of people are expecting.”
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Bay Area transit can be a complex, costly ‘nightmare.’ The pandemic might help fix that

Mallory Moench, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

At 3:15 every weekday morning, Richard Burnett leaves his house in Vallejo for the 45-minute walk to the downtown bus station. Two buses and a train later — all run by different agencies, with different schedules and different fares racking up — he’s at his job in San Francisco an hour before clocking in.

Eight working hours later, he turns around and does the whole thing over again. He gets home by 7:30 p.m., eats and goes straight to bed.

“If you live that far, you have to do that sacrifice to make it work,” said Burnett, a customer service representative for a tech company who endures the six-hour commute because he can’t afford both a car and rent. “There’s no time to do anything else.”

Burnett, who advises the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transit coordinating agency, on policies affecting low-income and disabled riders, dreams of express buses to main job centers and fares based on zones that would make traveling cheaper. But that would require what Burnett calls the “fiefdoms” of Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies — encompassing buses, cable cars, trains and ferries that stretch across nine counties — to agree on changes.

The pandemic, which created an existential crisis for Bay Area public transportation, has reignited a long-running debate over how to make the system better and who should control it. Each of the agencies now sets its own fares and schedules. Few other U.S. metropolitan areas have such vast and disjointed transit: Los Angeles County, smaller in size but larger in population, has nearly the same number of agencies, but only one county transportation authority.
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Focus on roads, bikes and pedestrian projects as Measure DD passes

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Voters this month agreed to lock in tens of millions of local dollars each year for road improvements and upgrades to Sonoma County’s bus network and bicycle and pedestrian paths, ensuring transportation officials have dedicated funds for infrastructure projects into 2045.

In an countywide election that saw near-record turnout, Measure DD comfortably passed with 71% support, 4 points clear of the two-thirds majority it needed for approval. The extension of an existing quarter-cent sales tax won’t kick in until spring of 2025, but allows the county and its nine cities to start initial planning and grant work on the next generation of road and transportation projects.

While Measure DD, also known as the Go Sonoma Act, carries forward similar objectives as Measure M, the 20-year tax that voters narrowly passed in 2004, it has a reconfigured spending plan for the projected $26 million in yearly revenue. No major projects were included in the renewal measure after the initial tax allocated 40% of its annual funds to widening Highway 101 from the Marin County line north to Windsor.

The new measure puts more emphasis on smaller upgrades, including a greater share of funding for local roads, transit, bike and pedestrian projects.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/county-eyes-road-upgrades-as-measure-dd-passes/

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Post-pandemic public transit may not end up looking all that different—but its goals may have to change

Kristin Toussaint, FAST COMPANY

Concept designs with plexiglass shields probably aren’t coming to transit. Instead, cities have to figure out how to make the systems safe and useful for the people who don’t have a choice but to use them.

As cities start to reopen, packed rush-hour subway rides seem like they’ll have to become a thing of the past: It’s hard to social distance on a packed train. But transit will still be crucial for helping people—especially lower-income residents—get around, and experts say straphangers will be back even before COVID-19 has been controlled. So what does that mean for the trains of our future?

Post-pandemic public transit might not actually look all that different. There probably won’t be partitions or more space to keep people apart, because that’s antithetical to its service. “Public transit is really good at moving a lot of people in the same direction at the same time. That’s when the music happens,” says Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies and a professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA.

What could change, though, is the number of touch points a rider has to interact with on a trip; the appearance of sanitation tools on board, such as hand sanitizer or mask dispensers; the behaviors of the passengers as more people don masks and gloves in public; and how often and where trains and buses run.

“Once agencies are able to stabilize their workforces, then they can really approach this question of how to allocate service, and a lot of what agencies have to do now is just a quicker, more nimble version of what they should be doing all the time, which is responding to rider needs,” says Ben Fried of TransitCenter, a foundation that advocates for better transit in American cities. “This is obviously an extreme situation where people are worried about being able to keep their distance on vehicles, but it sort of raises the same issues that always come up for transit: Are you providing enough service for people to get where they need to go?”
Continue reading “Post-pandemic public transit may not end up looking all that different—but its goals may have to change”

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Strategic design can help car-free streets gain popularity post-coronavirus

Jason Plautz, SMARTCITIESDIVE

Looking forward, some planners think any block could go car-free with just the flip of a switch. Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban innovation offshoot, has pitched a set of design principles that would reimagine streets for a multimodal future, tailoring different streets for different modes.

As cities and states enact stay-at-home orders to stem the COVID-19 outbreak, once-packed urban streets are now empty of cars.

Some mayors have seized that opportunity to open the pavement up to people for exercise. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week he would open a limited number of streets to pedestrians as an alternative to crowded parks, and in Philadelphia, a stretch of MLK Drive has been shut off to traffic in favor of bicyclists.

To some advocates, the street closures are a silver lining to the public health crisis: a chance to see what urban streets can do without cars on them. It could even lend more momentum to the car-free streets movement that has grown since San Francisco officially remade Market Street into a pedestrian promenade in January, inspiring cities like New York and Denver to experiment with the concept.

Pedestrian-focused street design has long been a staple in European cities, but experts say implementing such a change in the U.S. requires factors that don’t always exist in its car-centric cities. Jason Thompson, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, recently analyzed the design of 1,700 cities and found the U.S. tended to have sparser road networks with less transit — conditions that do not lend themselves to car-free streets.
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Land swap

Will Carruthers, THE BOHEMIAN

Petaluma approves complex land deal despite widespread opposition

Late on the night of Monday, Feb. 24, the Petaluma City Council narrowly approved a controversial, multi-part land deal in order to fund a second train station for the city.

Critics of the deal between Petaluma and Lomas Partners, LLC—a Southern California company businessman Todd Kurtin owns—say none of the parties involved have been responsive to criticism of the proposed designs, the process of approving the project and costs to the city.

Ultimately, the deal, which in part requires the city to contribute $2 million to cover some of the costs of the new train station, could leave the city with little leverage over the design of a downtown housing development and a related off-site affordable housing component, critics say.

After hours of discussion and public comment, almost unanimously against the current project proposal, the City Council voted 4 to 3 to support a development agreement with Lomas Partners and several related documents to greenlight Lomas’ interlocked housing development proposals.

There is at least one more significant hurdle for the project. The agreements approved by the City Council will be void if the city cannot secure a formal commitment from SMART to construct the Corona Road Station, which, if completed, will be the city’s second train station.

To that end, the Council directed staff to set up a meeting with SMART to reach an agreement.

Here are some of the details of the deal:

In August 2017, Lomas Partners, LLC, signed a deal with SMART to purchase 315 D St., a 4.48-acre piece of land next to Petaluma’s downtown station, for $5 million. In exchange, Lomas would donate 1.27 acres of land at 890 McDowell Blvd. and build a 150-space parking garage on it. Under plans filed with the city, Lomas would construct 110 homes on the remainder of the 890 McDowell Blvd. parcel.

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The spine of San Francisco is now car-free

Laura Bliss, CITYLAB

The plan to ban private cars from Market Street—one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous downtown thoroughfares—enjoys a remarkable level of local support.

In a city known for stunning vistas, San Francisco’s Market Street offers a notoriously ugly tangle of traffic. Cars and delivery trucks vie with bikes and pedestrians along this downtown corridor, as buses and a historic streetcar clatter through the mix. Dedicated lanes for transit and bikes end abruptly several blocks from the street’s terminus at the edge of the San Francisco Bay.

But the vehicular frenzy is ending, in part: Starting Wednesday, private vehicles—meaning both passenger automobiles and for-hire ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft—may no longer drive down Market, east of 10th Street. Only buses, streetcars, traditional taxis, ambulances, and freight drop-offs are still allowed. The closure to private vehicle traffic heralds the start of a new era for the city’s central spine, and perhaps for San Francisco at large, as it joins cities around the world that are restricting cars from downtown centers.

“We need to do better than use Market as a queuing place for the Bay Bridge,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, the newly arrived executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “Today represents the way the world is finally changing how it thinks about the role of transportation in cities.”

After decades of debate, the vision for a car-free Market Street has arrived at a remarkable level of support among activists, politicians, planners, and businesses. (Especially compared to the rancor and legal challenges that greeted New York City’s long-delayed effort to create a car-free busway along 14th Street in Manhattan.) In October, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors voted unanimously in support of a $600 million “Better Market Street” capital construction plan. Ground is set to break on construction for a protected bikeway, repaved sidewalk, fresh streetscaping, and updated streetcar infrastructure by the start of 2021.

Read more at https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2020/01/market-street-car-free-san-francisco-bike-lanes-transit/605674/

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Why Bay Area transit is broken, and who is trying to fix it

Erin Baldassari, MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL

Behind the push for a more regional, seamless integrated transit network.

It happens two to three times a week, Alex Rivkin says.

His Muni train runs a few minutes late, pulling up to the 4th and King Street station in San Francisco just in time for Rivkin to run frantically toward his departing Caltrain, only to see it pull away before he gets there.

Or vice versa: He’s standing on a Muni platform and, along with two dozen other people, pounding on a Muni train stopped at a red light that won’t open its doors to the travelers who just sprinted from the Caltrain station.

“It’s sadistic and cold-blooded,” said the frustrated San Francisco resident, who uses the two services, along with a city-provided shuttle in Mountain View, to get to his job at a South Bay pharmaceutical company and back home. “There is a lack of accountability for customer service, and it feels like these agencies just don’t care.”

He added, “I wish they would just talk to each other.”

Rivkin is not the only one who wants to see more cooperation and coordination among train, bus and ferry operators. At a time when regional leaders are considering asking taxpayers to back a proposed “mega-measure,” a $100 billion or more regional transportation sales tax, transit advocates say it’s more imperative than ever for the Bay Area’s more than two dozen transit agencies to work together and put customers first.

Read more at https://www.marinij.com/2019/09/22/why-bay-area-transit-is-broken-and-who-is-working-to-fix-it/

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SMART mulls early renewal of sales tax, reduction in fares for low-income riders

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s commuter rail service will consider a plan to reduce fares for low-income riders as part of a larger proposal from SMART staff to next year seek voter renewal of the 20-year sales tax measure that’s funded the system since 2009.

The moves come as Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which launched service in August 2017, assesses its long-term financial picture with an eye on restructuring debt and accelerating its delayed full build-out.

It expects to complete the southern-most station in Larkspur by year’s end, expanding its operating line to 45 miles of the planned 70-mile corridor. But guaranteed future funding in the form of an earlier tax renewal could help the agency speed up its extension of service north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, according to SMART staff.

“The reality is we’re a transit operation, and we need to plan ongoing operations, we need to plan expansions,” Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer told SMART’s 12-member board at its Wednesday meeting. “We can’t have ballot box uncertainty in our future. We can’t have our revenues stopping in 10 years.”

Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties together in 2008 passed the quarter-cent sales that represents SMART’s primary funding stream. Measure Q will sunset in 2029, and the agency’s staff is recommending pursuing its renewal as early as the 2020 general election, ensuring, if passed by a two-thirds majority, funding for another 20 years through 2049.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9464429-181/smart-mulls-early-renewal-of

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Santa Rosa to replace free downtown shuttle with parking pass

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Plagued by low ridership, a free Santa Rosa bus service will shuttle passengers to and from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station in Railroad Square for the last time Friday as the city moves to replace it with a discounted parking permit.

The City Council in late November decided to end the ParkSMART shuttle on March 1, a little more than a year after it began in December 2017.

Low ridership and relatively high trip cost were consistent problems for the shuttle. City staff previously determined that at its peak in September about 20 people rode the shuttle on a given day.

To partially offset the loss of the shuttle, the City Council in January approved a new permit allowing commuters who regularly use public transportation to park in the First Street garage for $31 a month. That’s half the cost of the regular monthly permit for the garage.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9327651-181/santa-rosa-to-replace-free