Many of you by now have probably read my “No New Funding (equals) A Transportation Disaster” blog post that I put out back in April, which explained the current situation of federal Highway Trust Fund and why it’s running dry. On June 30th, I put out a brief follow-up post stating how time is running out for our elected officials to come up with a longer-term solution to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund (which I will refer to throughout the rest of this post as the HTF), due to the ongoing partisan bickering that continues to stall any significant progress. Then, just Tuesday, July 17, the Republican-led House came up with a short-term measure that would keep the HTF funded through May, 2015, something that both many Democrats and some Tea Party groups aren’t too happy about. The plan is being spearheaded by Republican Congressman Dave Camp of Michigan and is known as HR5021, or The Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014. The measure passed the House chamber with a 367 to 55 vote.
This is a follow-up to a post that I published back in April, 2014. Since this post was published, very little has been done in Washington, D.C. to arrive at a long-term solution to keep our National Highway Trust Fund going. As this editorial says, the Congressional bickering continues to drag on with no end in sight. In fact, just like many huge issues that Congress has bickered about in the past, the issue of replenishing the National Highway Trust Fund will likely come down to a series of last-minute, short-term, “band-aids” to keep the fund going in a very limited capacity for just a span of a few months before having to arrive at the broader issue again. These political games MUST COME TO AN END!
It seems that every month, we’re faced with a new looming fiscal disaster that is only averted by our elected officials in Washington D.C. at the very last minute. Many of us know all to well the words “fiscal cliff” and “credit downgrade”. Both phrases have been synonymous with the continual partisan bickering in the Capital.
Now, usher in the Federal Highway Trust Fund, a pool of funds that is supposed to be dedicated to highway construction across the nation. This fund was established decades ago when the President Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was being built. The fund was meant to provide financing to the system, as well as other highways across the nation. This fund has been largely supplied through gasoline taxes, which haven’t been raised in a very long time, and is now in danger of running dry. Without any action by Congress to re-authorize transportation funding, long-awaited highway projects like the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway in Garland, TX will never be able to be built, and improvements existing highways will eventually cease. This would not only significantly delay the much-needed upgrades to our nation’s aging infrastructure, but it will also cost thousands of jobs within the construction industry.
So what’s the issue here exactly? Well, many members of Congress have shown little to no interest in raising gas tax revenues, especially with more fuel efficient vehicles hitting the roads. Some legislators in fact, have instead opted to push and shove through plans to implement what is called the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, which would essentially bill each and every commuter based on the amount of miles they travel. This plan has hit many roadblocks of its own, including opposition from privacy advocates who fear that equipment used to gather data to enforce VMT would possibly gather too much info about drivers. Currently, the only US state to have VMT in place is in Oregon. But they’re only operating VMT in a limited scope as of right now.
Here in the Tampa Bay area, the Federal Highway Trust Fund has been able to help modernize and expand many of our highways, by helping to keep state transportation coffers filled. This in-turn allows the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to keep their program of projects fully funded for the upcoming fiscal year. Federal money I’m sure has played a role in being able to help fund two projects in Pinellas County that have been gaining dust in the planning books for the past few decades. One project is to convert the portion of Gandy Blvd between Interstate 275 and 4th St N into a limited-access freeway flanked by frontage roads. Construction on this project was able to begin recently and is slated for completion in 2017 or 2018. The second project, which is not planned to begin until 2017, is the Gateway Expressway, which would convert portions of Pinellas County Road 296 and 611 into a limited-access tollway, also flanked by frontage roads.
Even more importantly though, is plans to rebuild the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, which connects I-275 between St. Pete and Tampa. Although state funds are already in place to build a basic four-laned bridge, those funds could possibly be impacted down the road, should FDOT have to re-prioritize highway projects due to a lack of federal funding. In this article from the Orlando Sentinel, FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad mentioned that the agency has put together a contingency fund of “couple hundred million dollars” just in case Congress doesn’t act. He has also mentioned that the planned Express Lanes project for I-4 through Orlando will be protected in whatever way possible should FDOT have to re-shuffle projects. This still leaves uncertainty for other road projects, especially those that tie in pedestrian and transit improvements, like bike lanes, improved sidewalks, and bus queue/jump lanes.
Furthermore, public transit funding could also plummet if Congress does not act on re-authorizing transportation funding. This is because a portion of the Federal Highway Trust Fund includes as Mass Transit Fund, which was established in 1982 and is also dependent on gas tax revenues. This would force many transit agencies across the nation to slash services and hike fares. For already cash-strapped agencies like Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), further reductions in transit funding could mean that recent improvements in rush-hour, late-night, and weekend services could all be scaled back come 2015/2016. If the drop in funds is prolonged, HART could be forced to raise fares again…possibly much higher than previous increases. For the record, HART’s last base fare increases were in 2007 and 2012 respectively. Between 2007 and 2012, the base one-way fare has increased from $1.50, to $1.75, to $2.00. HART’s recent fare increases have been more modest compared to other districts who have had to raise fares in a more steep manner. Imagine however, if that fare suddenly jumped to $3.50…or even $4.00? Transit would begin to become unaffordable for most riders. And since purchasing new buses goes through a federal process, and utilizes federal funding, HART’s loss of transit buses could accelerate, forcing entire routes and services to be eliminated all at once.
The most grim consequence that any prolonged Congressional inaction could have on all this will no doubt be the loss of construction jobs. Many state leaders have warned that if the trust fund runs out, job losses could begin as early as this year as projects begin stall out. This will undoubtedly hurt the slow-going economic recovery and possibly even send the country right back into recession. And while some leaders have proposed just putting another “band-aid” on the matter, which many funding proposals have seen in recent years, this game of “kicking the can down the road” is not going to work for much longer. A long-term funding solution has to be devised…NOW!
l would strongly suggest contacting your legislators in Washington and tell them to come up with a long-term transportation funding solution that will be able to help our economy recover and grow. We cannot let Congress keep playing the “kick the can down the road” game, especially with transportation. They must devise a long-term solution to keep our infrastructure funded.
Almost a year ago, Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) announced that they would revise the Route 17 (formerly known as the Norfolk NET) into a one-way loop around the downtown Norfolk area. This change coincided with the move of the downtown bus transfer hub from Cedar Grove to an interim location along Wood St.
Now, there’s word that during the March Norfolk City Council meeting, which was held on March 25 (meeting agenda | HRT presentation slides | [YouTube] video of the meeting), city leaders decided to pull funding from Route 17, as well as Route 16. This surprise decision has angered some riders, including those who depend on Route 16 to get to and from the Old Dominion University (ODU) Campus. To say the least, I am definitely NOT HAPPY by this move. as it brings forth a huge inconvenience to those who rely on certain routes to make connections and get to their final destination on time. These cuts will also force customers to have to walk further to get to a bus stop, especially in times of inclement weather and high traffic periods on the roadways.
For me personally, these cutbacks bring back haunting memories of when Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART)’s Route 7 had its weekday frequency north of the Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry campus reduced from 30-minute headways to 60-minute headways in 2007 due to budget cuts. Several other routes were axed or reduced/re-aligned during that cycle as well, including the Route 98 Trolleybus between Hyde Park and Downtown Tampa (which was cut due to ultra-low ridership).
Routes that could be eliminated
Changes to all HRT routes mentioned in this post are slated to take effect during the July 6, 2014 markup cycle, with Routes 16, 17, 28, and 412 all slated to be eliminated due to funding issues and/or low ridership (see a Google Map I made of the affected routes). One rider I spoke with noted that when HRT sent route surveyors onto Route 16, they did so during times when the ODU campus was on winter and spring break. Now if that is truly the case, then SHAME ON YOU HRT!
Something that a rider mentioned to me was that Routes 16 and 17 are being eliminated in order for the city to provide funding for the increased services on Routes 44 and 45, which are receiving improvements as part of HRT’s agreement with Elizabeth River Tunnels. From what I’ve learned from watching the video of the council meeting, since capital contributions by the HRT member municipalities isn’t increasing this fiscal year, I guess HRT has found an way to “balance the budget” while trying to shove the route eliminations underneath the radar (that is from public eyes).
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, Route 17, the downtown Norfolk circulator that has seen various changes over the years, is also slated for elimination. Originaly known as the Norfolk NET, which stands for Norfolk Electric Transit, has used hybrid-drive buses, and originally began with a small fleet of electric-powered buses (those latter buses didn’t quite work out for HRT). The route was altered following the opening of the Tide Light Rail Line in 2011 and has seen further changes made to it since then. The route currently has adjoining routes that run very close to it, and has thus been deemed as a duplication of service in the downtown area.
Two other HRT routes that are also slated for elimination include Route 28, which is a Norfolk/Virginia Beach Limited Stop route that has not been well planned from the start (as they don’t utilize specialized buses or anything to distinguish the route from local routes), and Route 412, which is an under-utilized portion of the Peninsula Commuter Service that has seen most of its riders utilize Paratransit services instead (one rider told me that virtually 99% of would-be Route 412 riders utilize Paratransit servces in the area). There are also several local routes in the area where Route 412 runs. I will discuss more about Route 28 in a future blog post about Limited Stop routes.
Changes to routes affected by the Elizabeth River Tunnels Agreement
As part of the agreement between HRT and the Elizabeth River Tunnels, which operate the Downtown and Midtown tunnels connecting Portsmouth to Norfolk (and is now charging AWESOME TOLLS TO BOTH TUNNELS, I say that sarcastically), Routes 44, 45, and 47 will all see some sort of change come July, either changes with schedules/timepoints/running times, and/or routing changes. This agreement allowed for the Elizabeth River Ferry to operate earlier hours on weekdays.
Route 44 will have its downtown Norfolk segment eliminated in favor of improvements on the Portsmouth side of the route. The new eastern terminus would be at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. However, there’s also word that the Eastern Virginia Medical Center loop will also be eliminated. IF THE LATTER CHANGE HOLDS TRUE, PASSENGERS WANTING TO CONNECT TO THE TIDE LIGHT RAIL (LRT) CAN KISS THAT CONNECTION GOODBYE!
Route 45 will keep its existing route, but have frequency improvements during rush hours (15-minute headways from 30-minute headways).
Route 47 will also keep its existing route, but have frequency improvements during rush hours (15-minute headways from 30-minute headways). This change will affect the segment between Crawford Street and Villiage/Academy.
Routes that could see reductions in service
Routes 2, 11, and 18 are all up on the table for some sort of service reduction, although no further details have been provided. This could mean a possible reduction in frequency and/or span of service.
What one rider is suggesting
Another rider I spoke with has come up with a suggestion that HRT should consider. That suggestion would be to merge portions of the 16 with another route. For instance, portions of Route 4 could be merged into the 16 to maintain ODU service while leaving critical portions of the 4 intact. I personally think that this would be a great idea because it would preserve such service to ODU.
Public Hearings on the matter
Due to rider concerns, HRT will be holding two public hearings to allow public input on the proposed elimination of Routes 16 and 17. Please see below of dates and locations.
Monday, April 14, from 6:00-7:30 PM, at the Park Place Multi-purpose Center, 606 W. 29th Street, Norfolk.
Thursday, April 17, from 6:00-7:30 PM, at the Tidewater Community College-Norfolk Student Center, 310 Granby Street, Norfolk.
Although it is normal for many transit districts to impose various changes throughout their respective systems, the proposal to eliminate Route 16 has come as a huge shock to many riders that depend on it to get around. I sure hope that HRT will reconsider eliminating the Route 16, in favor of modifying routes in the area to maintain service to the ODU campus.
FOR PRIVACY REASONS, I AM NOT IDENTIFYING THE NAMES OF THE HRT BUS RIDERS I’VE SPOKEN WITH IN REGARDS TO THESE SERVICE CUTS. THANK YOU.
Over the past several years, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) has seen a steady increase in ridership. Some areas in fact, are warranting the need to new bus service, and SCAT would like to be able to service new areas where the demand for transit is needed. However, in this day and age where keeping a sound budget is more important than ever before, and external funding sources are very limited, bringing in new transit service now often means sacrificing existing services in order to balance out an agency’s budget.
Although pulling back under-performing services and routes is nothing new, it is something that must be faced even more often than ever before due to the recent recession. SCAT’s late-night service, which has some routes running past 10:00pm has not seen the ridership levels that it had hoped for when such services were first introduced a few years ago. At the same time, demand along the University Pkwy corridor has grown, especially the area towards Lakewood Ranch. SCAT would like to bring forth new services to the northeastern side of Sarasota County, but has had no funds to be able to do so.
Now, SCAT has been granted with federal grant of $529,021 dollars to help start the new University Loop service, to be given the route number of 30. This new route is aimed at relieving congestion along University Pkwy, while providing a direct connection between Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Route 30 would operate from 6:00am until 10:00pm, Monday through Saturday, with 60-minute headways.
Here’s the catch, like most federal grants, a local match amount is required. With SCAT not wanting to dip into reserve funds, it instead examined eliminating under-performing routes and trips. With the cuts; four bus routes that currently run until 12-midnight will have their end-times rolled back to roughly 10:00pm. Additionally, five under-utilized trips along Route 90X, and one under-utilized trip along Route 100X will be eliminated. Both Routes 90X and 100X connect North Port to downtown Sarasota, with Route 90X making a deviation to Venice, while Route 100X does not.
All of the above changes will take effect in July of 2014.
In my third installment of “No new funding (equals)”, I focus on some disappointing news that broke over the weekend in Hampton Roads, VA. The area’s two major transit districts; Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) and the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority (WATA) were slated to get a good amount of state and federal funds over the next six years to help replace aging buses and make other necessary improvements to their systems. Unfortunately, changes in the way that funding is calculated within two federal programs. These changes resulted in a much lower revenue estimate than originally planned, which in-turn, forced the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, to substantially reduce the amount of funds that they would be allowed to dish out for various transportation projects throughout the region; including public transit.
So what does this funding reduction mean for both HRT and WATA? It means that neither district will have the funds available to purchase additional buses needed to replace older units and to expand their current fleets, which in-turn, means that both districts will have to hold onto older buses for a longer period of time, thus increasing maintenance costs. HRT was also hoping to be able to purchase a fourth ferry boat for its ferry system. That too has been delayed as a result of these changes. However, both districts will continue to explore other funding avenues to be able to obtain new buses.
As you may have heard; HART and PSTA posted news last week of record ridership during the month of April, which continues to be an amazing trend despite the current state of the economy throughout the Bay Area.
However, I really have to make things clear about the reality of the current transit funding situation, because some people don’t seem to realize that you can’t have expanded transit service without money to fund those services. When I was reading comments on HART and PSTA’s Facebook pages, some people were asking why can’t we get more routes or buses? Again, if there is no funding available, then there is simply no way to get new buses or routes…it’s as simple as that.
As I mentioned in my last post, many transit districts are having to re-evaluate their current levels of service, as well as future plans, based on the levels of funding that are available to them. I also mentioned that in the case with HART in Tampa, they currently must rely on property taxes to fund a large chunk of its transit operations, a source that has been dwindling during the past several years. Now there is word that HART will face a very dire dilemma next year if no new funding sources are found.