Friday, January 25, 2008

Presidential Forum on Transportation & Infrastructure

The presidential campaigns have faced questions from Russert, Williams and even a YouTube audience. Now it’s “Gridlock Sam’s” turn.

Sam Schwartz, New York Daily News traffic columnist and CEO of Sam Schwartz Company, will serve as a moderator of “Moving America Forward: A Presidential Candidates Forum on Transportation & Infrastructure.” The bi-partisan forum will be hosted Jan. 31 by the NYU Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

According to Micah Kagan, a NYU graduate student and event organizer, no actual candidates will take part, but representatives on behalf of each campaign from both parties have been invited, and as of Thursday, several had accepted. Audience members will be allowed to ask questions.

The event is free, but space is limited. Those interested in attending or obtaining more information should visit The event will be held in the Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, located on the fourth floor of the Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square S., New York City.

Kagan said those who can’t make it will still be able to view the forum on a webcast, which he expects will be posted shortly after its conclusion.

The forum will be co-sponsored by the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York, the American Society of Civil Engineers; CUNY Institute for Urban Systems, the General Contractors Association, the League of American Bicyclist; the Municipal Art Society; the Regional Plan Association; Transportation Alternatives; the University Transportation Research Center, Region 2 and the Wagner Transportation Association.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Commuter benefit rises $5

For a second consecutive year, the IRS has approved an increase in the monthly allowable tax-free amount toward commuter benefits, raising the maximum from $110 to $115 for transit costs. The change became effective Jan. 1.

The IRS reportedly raised the commuter benefit amount to adjust for inflation based on the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index. However, the $5 may offer little comfort to many public transit riders. With fuel costs skyrocketing in recent years, transportation agencies have hiked their fares to compensate – by almost double in some cases – but transit benefits haven’t nearly kept the pace.

Help could be on the way. Bills introduced both in the House of Representatives and the Senate last year would revise the laws to increase the monthly transit and vanpool limit to $200 per month, if passed. Both, as of this writing, were assigned to committees for review.

In a press release, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) praised the $5 hike as a win for commuters and the environment. The organization cited a recent study which claimed riding public transportation could reduce a commuter’s daily carbon emissions by 20 pounds.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Putting Mountaineers in Gear

By Karl Vilacoba has posted a column which took me down Memory Lane – which in this case is an elevated, electrified roadway traversed by unmanned blue and gold vans.

In “Personal Rapid Transit: The Connective Tissue of Better Mobility,” University of Washington Professor Emeritus Jerry Schneider discusses two PRT systems and how they might serve as models for other cities. Schneider was enthusiastic about PRTs’ potential to provide relatively cheap, reliable and environmentally friendly public transportation. The two systems he focuses on chiefly – the ULTra PRT at London’s Heathrow Airport and the Vectus PRT in Sweden – are both under construction and considered cutting edge. A PRT I grew to know well was once, too, but those days are long gone.

In the early 1970s, Morgantown, W.Va.’s PRT was built to connect West Virginia University’s original downtown campus to a newer one springing up two miles away in the city’s Evansdale section. The system has five stops: Walnut Street, in the downtown shopping area; Beechurst Avenue, in the heart of the downtown campus buildings; Engineering, the stop for the Coliseum hoops arena, engineering school and other university buildings in Evansdale; the Towers dorms; and Medical, the drop-off point for Mountaineer Field, the medical school and local hospital. You can ride from one end of the line to the other in about 20 minutes; going by foot would mean crossing a mini-mountain that separates the two areas.

Before I put in my dorm request as an incoming freshman, I sought living advice from an upperclassman I knew. He laid it out like this: The Towers dorms are modern, cleaner, and have better cafeterias and amenities, but you have to ride the PRT to class every day. The downtown dorms are ancient, cold and crumbling, but are in the middle of it all. Ever the Jersey boy, I gravitated to the more urban downtown area.

Although I lived downtown, the PRT nonetheless became a major part of my college life. On football game mornings, when Morgantown becomes the largest city in West Virginia, ridership swelled as visitors and students like myself sardined ourselves in the (allegedly) 20-person capacity cars. You’d also be hard-pressed not to get stuck with at least a few courses out in Evansdale over your career, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

I can’t imagine how I would have gotten by without the PRT. It ran steadily from morning to the evening, and cars weren’t difficult to come by. Rides were free by swiping your student ID through the turnstile and 50 cents for anyone else; next to a newspaper or a postage stamp, can you think of a better value today than that? I lived in a house with a track running through my backyard, yet it was so quiet I rarely even noticed it.

There were also times I thought PRT could have stood for Pain in the Rear Tailbone. The university touts its 98 percent reliability, but I’m willing to bet that 2 percent failure came inordinately during the rough Morgantown winters, when you dreaded getting stranded the most. There were other times when it felt like the so-called “PRT Gods” –faceless operators who controlled the cars from a remote location, never making themselves known except to scald a misbehaving student on the platform over the loudspeaker – were playing tricks on me. You’d push the button for your destination, then watch a car pull up to you and just idle there, doors closed, for minutes on end.

Today, the PRT is an indispensable part of campus life and a selling point for prospective students. According to a recent New York Times piece, there’s a debate going on now over whether to expand the system by five more stops. If something were to happen that caused the PRT to vanish tomorrow, it would be a disaster. Morgantown is an old city of narrow, wildly sloped streets that were not planned to handle anything near its modern traffic. Anything that means getting cars off these streets is profoundly positive, especially when you’re talking about drivers 18-22 years old.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Less Stress Express

By Karl Vilacoba

I’m seeing more grays than I’d care to when I look in the mirror lately, but I read something the other day that reminded me it could be worse.

A recent study suggests that commuters who take the train to work were less stressed by their trip than those who drove. According to “Leave the Driving to Them: Comparing Stress of Car and Train Commuters,” motorists reported significantly higher levels of stress, more negative moods and indicated their trip took more effort and was far less predictable compared to rail riders.

I can certainly relate to this study. When I joined the magazine a few months ago, I had a decision to make: To drive or not to drive. I, too, would be choosing between the NJ Transit rails or the highways. Even my commute time was the same as the average for people in the study, roughly 75 minutes.

I decided to base my decision on a drive I took to our Newark offices for an interview. The meeting was set for 9 a.m., so it would serve as a pretty good indicator for the rush hour traffic I’d face each morning behind the wheel.

On my way in, I got confused by the signs in a construction area and missed my exit. I allowed myself about a half-hour extra to be on the safe side, but I watched in panic as the minutes ticked off on my dashboard clock while I desperately sought a way to turn around in the glorified parking lot that was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard gridlock traffic. I made the embarrassing call to let my future supervisor know I was running late.

I explained what a disaster Route 280 was to a current co-worker who sat in on that meeting, and he asked with puzzlement why I would ever take that road. I told him that’s what the directions on the Web site said to do. “They do?” he said with a chuckle. “Oops.” Thanks, partner!

If it were purely a matter of speed, I would drive. It would save time, although not enough to be a deal-breaker. If it were purely a matter of money, I probably would save by getting a parking pass and driving, although parking garage fees, tolls, high gas prices and the attrition on my car all add up. But there’s something to be said for living without the fear of getting in a high-speed crash, or the relatively few surprises of a train ride. At the end of the day, it’s a quality of life decision, and I devised a checklist about my drive to help myself make it.

Congestion? Check. Expensive? Check. Stressful? Check. Check. Check. … So where can I get my monthly pass?