All posts in Transportation

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Playing Gate Keeper

Is the Trump administration holding the Gateway tunnel hostage for political reasons?
It’s no secret that the Trump administration has been much more hostile to the Amtrak Gateway Project than its predecessor. President Obama's team had hashed out a 50/50 funding agreement between the federal government and New York and New Jersey officials to replace the aging tunnel under the Hudson River, but the Trump administration quickly moved to quash the deal last year. According to NBC New York, the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is now suing the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) over concerns that the administration has unduly canceled the project. A federal Environmental Impact Statement for the project was supposed to have been completed by March 30, 2018, but the DOT has failed to produce any materials or answer the Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) filed by the NRDC in September. The suit alleges that progress on the Gateway tunnel is being stymied so that the administration might use it as a bargaining chip to help grease construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. The 108-year-old, two-track rail tube that runs between New Jersey and New York services approximately 200,000 Amtrak passengers daily but was severely damaged by saltwater during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. With the looming possibility that one of the tunnels would fail (which Amtrak expects would reduce traffic by up to 75 percent), both New York and New Jersey had upped their commitments to the project to $5 billion out of the required $12.7 billion. The Obama administration’s pledge to fund half of the project would have largely been doled out in loans to the two states, a common method of funding infrastructure.

The alleged quashing of the environmental review isn’t the first time the current administration has been accused of playing hardball with the project to achieve its political aims. In March of last year, President Trump was reportedly meeting with congressional Republicans to kill the project in retaliation against Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Democratic leaders in the affected states. The NRDC suit alleges that USDOT has been intentionally delaying any progress on the project and has gone so far to refer to the project under the codename “mushroom” to thwart FOIA requests. USDOT has denied impeding the Gateway Project for political reasons or using a code word to obfuscate its documentation and has chalked up the delay to what it calls an untenable funding model. The agency also issued the following statement: “It is false to say that DOT is blocking the Hudson Tunnels project, when in fact the project as it stands is actually ineligible to proceed.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had scheduled a sit down with president Trump at the White House over the state of the project in November of last year, as well as several high-profile, live-streamed tours of the crumbling tunnels. It appears that, for the time being, those overtures were for naught. Lending fuel to the NRDC's allegations is the recent decision by the Trump administration to demand the return of $2.5 billion in transportation grants given to California for their high-speed rail project, along with the possible cancelation of another $968 million grant. California's Governor Gavin Newsom has argued that the move is purely political and a result of the state's decision to sue the administration over its recent state of emergency declaration.
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Staying Alive

Brooklyn-Queens streetcar rolls into environmental review
New York’s Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) is still alive and inching toward realization. Today the de Blasio administration awarded a $7.25 million contract to national land-use and transportation planning consultants VHB to oversee the waterfront streetcar project’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS). Questions over the $2.7 billion streetcar route’s feasibility have plagued the light rail project since the beginning. Officials still haven't released the exact route or said how the city would recoup the money needed for construction. Last August, Mayor de Blasio admitted that at least $1 billion would be needed from the federal government and that using the “value-capture” model (collecting increased tax revenue as the BQX boosted property values along its route) wasn’t wholly feasible. The route was shortened to 26 stops along 11 miles, from Astoria in Queens to Gowanus in Brooklyn, cutting out Sunset Park farther south, and the opening date got pushed back from 2024 to 2029. All had gone quiet since then, but speculation flared that Amazon could potentially chip in for the system after the tech giant announced that it would be building a second headquarters in Long Island City. That seems to have been confirmed by Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who pointed to the boom in investment along the Queens-Brooklyn waterfront as proof that new modes of public transport across the two boroughs were needed. The city expects that the BQX will accommodate 50,000 daily riders when it first opens and 60,000-to-90,000 riders by 2050. ”For some reason, everybody thinks we are not serious but we have always been serious,” Glen told the Wall Street Journal. “The mayor wouldn’t have re-endorsed and announced we were moving forward if we weren’t moving forward.” The nonprofit group Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector lauded the contract award as well, calling it a clear commitment on the part of the de Blasio administration to moving the project through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). With the EIS on track for completion in 2020, the BQX project will move to the next stage of the ULURP by the end of 2021. The city hopes that the project will begin construction by 2024.
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Gondola With The Wind

BIG proposes gondola to connect Oakland A's stadium to public transit
Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has unveiled renderings for a proposed gondola line that could link downtown Oakland, California, with the firm’s proposed baseball stadium development for the Oakland Athletics on Howard Terminal. The proposed gondola line would bridge a 1.3-mile gap in transit access between the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) system that stops in downtown Oakland and Jack London Square, a site adjacent to the new development. The link is projected to serve up to 6,000 individuals per hour and will take roughly three minutes to make the trip. The proposal has come to light as the A's and BIG work to assuage local stadium-related concerns, which include lack of transit access to the site and preservation issues for the existing Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, which will be effectively torn down for the project. The new renderings show a conventional gondola system running above the streets of Downtown Oakland. The elevated line will ferry passengers above the street and between the buildings that line the route while picking up and dropping off at raised stations with curved metal and wood walls. Gondolas are having a bit of a moment in American transit planning circles, as two efforts are lifting off in Los Angeles and in other cities. In L.A., a recent proposal to build a gondola line linking the city’s Union Station with Dodger Stadium has gained momentum. A second proposal to build a gondola line to connect various parts of the city to the Hollywood Sign has also gained notoriety as local officials move to accommodate a recent uptick in foot traffic to the remote mountainside sign. Plans for the Oakland gondola are being developed in tandem with the stadium proposal, which calls for new residential, commercial, and cultural programs around the baseball stadium. If all goes according to plan, the new stadium and gondola line could be up and running as soon as 2023.
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There's Norway Out

Norway's E39 superhighway will connect its coast and break a few records
A $47 billion proposal to link together Norway’s wild western coastline is the nation’s largest and toughest infrastructure project yet, according to NPR. The project's new highway would connect Oslo in the southeast to the coastal cities of Bergen, Stavanger, Alesund, and Trondheim, replacing numerous ferries with tunnels and bridges. But because of challenging geography, architects and civil engineers have been forced to develop new and inventive ideas to complete the route. After decades of building roads all over the country, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (NPRA) understands the nation's waterways, full of endless mazes of fjords and lakes, were not designed to be conquered by the automobile. And with its freezing weather and rugged mountain soil, only a select especially acclimated number of people inhabit this area of Scandinavia—a number that decreases yearly. Most attribute depopulation in these areas to a lack of accessibility. All local road transportation relies on small highways that crisscross the region’s valleys, and the only way to navigate past most waterways is by ferry, which can take upwards of 45 minutes each; in some areas, driving to the neighboring city can require three ferry trips. Mayor Martin Kleppe of Tysnes, a region of rural municipalities located on an archipelago off the coast, told NPR that, "The ferry is a beautiful trip, but it's more an obstacle than a good connection." Tysnes's population has decreased by 50 percent over the last century, a decline the project is meant to counter. But where there's a challenge, there's a solution. The renderings and video released by the NPRA for the project depict some grand ideas—suspension bridges, tunnels, underground junctions—to link all waterways, connect remote island towns, and drastically improve accessibility to the region from the rest of Scandinavia. If completed, the project would contain a number of record-breaking engineering marvels: the suspension bridge at Sognefjord, for example, would have 1,500-foot-high towers and its 12,100-foot-long span would dwarf even the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge and the Millau Viaduct. But it is not all figured out quite yet. The NPRA's greatest challenge is at the Sula fjord, the deepest and the widest of them all, and an important shipping route. To cross the 3 miles of water while leaving the 66-foot-high clearance for boats to pass, engineers stand with two likely proposals. The first is a rather awkward three-tower suspension bridge. The two exterior towers would be placed on land, the center tower being anchored to the seafloor.  The second proposal is the first of its kind in the world: a submerged tunnel tethered not to the seabed below, but above to floating pontoons. While many other underwater tunnels already connect vast waterways—those of Chesapeake Bay, from Copenhagen to Malmö, and Hong Kong to Macau, for instance—one that floats could open new doors in the civil engineering world. A project of this magnitude is going to not only make a massive mark on Norway’s majestic landscape and make life easier for its residents, but it will also open the area to the rest of the world. This endeavor may put the global spotlight on the far north.
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Tolls Are Coming

Possible congestion pricing plan for Los Angeles takes a step forward
A plan to bring congestion pricing to Los Angeles County has taken a tentative step forward, The Los Angeles Times reports. In an effort to reduce traffic while also raising funds for new mass transit projects, next month the board of directors for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) will take up an initiative to study the issue. The initiative, if approved, would allow the board to assemble a panel of experts to investigate how congestion pricing might work in Los Angeles County, where The Los Angeles Times reports nearly three-fourths of commuters drive to work. According to Metro, it could take up to two years to study possible congestion pricing plans. Metro’s consideration of congestion pricing comes as the transit authority gears up for its “28 by 28” initiative, a plan that seeks to bring over two dozen transformative transportation projects to fruition before the city hosts the 2028 Olympics. The 28 by 28 plan would build-out L.A.’s planned public transportation system as envisioned by the recent Measure M initiative. The 2016 measure raised county sales tax rates to partially fund system expansions to the tune of $860 million per year. That’s a sizable chunk of what’s needed to bring many projects to life, but ultimately not enough to have them completed before 2028, hence the need for additional funding. Metro is expected to tap federal and state funding sources—including California’s gas tax funds—to fill in funding gaps for projects that include a new transit route crossing the Sepulveda Pass, the completion of the Purple Line to Westwood, and a new transit line connecting Downtown Los Angeles with the southeastern suburb Artesia. Congestion pricing could help bridge the gap for the agency, however. According to The Los Angeles Times, a recent Metro report indicates that a per-mile tax on driving could raise $102 billion over ten years and that a fee to enter Downtown Los Angeles could bring in an additional $12 billion. Metro officials claim that congestion pricing could bring in enough new funding to lower base transit fares or even make the entire system free to ride. It’s possible that with the right congestion pricing plan, Metro could make transit more affordable and useful as it makes driving more expensive and difficult in tandem.
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State of Trains and Trust

High-speed rail plan for Pacific Northwest takes a step forward
A fledgling plan to bring high-speed rail (HSR) service to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and parts of southwestern Canada is moving closer to becoming a reality. The Urbanist reported that this week, the Washington State Legislature introduced legislation that would create a new interstate high-speed rail authority for the region that could begin to take the first steps toward making the Cascadia Rail plan a reality. According to The Urbanist, the new rail authority would be in charge of coordinating high-speed rail efforts across Washington, Oregon, and Canadian jurisdictions while also setting requirements for contracting operations and other issues. The authority would also be responsible for ensuring that the trains and routes selected for the project could deliver service at 250 miles per hour, a key stipulation for making the project economically viable across the region. The authority would also provide a singular contact point for communities along the proposed routes and would handle the preparation of environmental impact reports at the federal and local levels. A preliminary plan for the Cascadia Rail service was unveiled in 2018 that proposed a coastal line connecting Portland, Oregon, with Vancouver, Canada. The plan includes an eastern spur connecting Spokane, Washington, with Seattle. The plan has support from the Washington State business community as well as a growing set of local officials who see the prospect of reliable, high-speed rail service as a key way of reducing automobile traffic along Interstate-5 while also helping to address growing transportation emissions across the region. Several high-speed rail plans are making progress around the country, including in California, where the nation’s first true high-speed rail network is currently under construction. After years of planning and partisan bickering, the controversial plan is finally in full-swing and a line running through central California between Bakersfield and Madera is expected to open by 2022. Along the Florida coast, the privately owned Brightline route made its debut this year connecting West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Though the train is not truly a high-speed rail corridor—it runs at top speeds of roughly 80 miles per hour—the train has cut travel times between the two cities by over an hour. The line is expected to expand to serve Miami and Orlando by 2020. All Aboard Florida, the company that owns and operates Brightline, is also moving toward a second train venture connecting Las Vegas, Nevada, with the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. The company recently purchased XpressWest, a struggling venture that was aiming to deliver service between the two cities following the Interstate-15 corridor, Urbanize.LA reported. Like the Florida line, however, trains will not exactly run at high speeds; projected service is expected to begin in 2022 and will run at around 92 miles per hour. This might sound like a good bit of progress—and it is—but recent rail development in the United States pales in comparison to the many ambitious rail projects under construction around the world. China, for example, plans to build over 2,000 miles of true high-speed rail lines in 2019 alone. That’s enough track to connect Philadelphia to Phoenix.
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Can You Wait for It?

The longest bridge in the world will be finished this year in Kuwait
What will soon be the longest bridge over water in the world is nearing completion in Kuwait, according to KHL. The Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah Causeway will stretch over 30 miles total in two parts, spanning Kuwait Bay to shorten the travel distance between Kuwait City and a planned megadevelopment in Subiya to the north. The $2.6 billion project is part of a massive development effort that could link Kuwait City to a new port and the Subiyah megadevelopment. Now the drive around the bay takes over an hour, but the bridge could shorten that time to less than twenty minutes. The causeway features a 1,100-foot-long span with an asymmetric cable-stayed construction that will be the most visually recognizable part of the bridge, aside from its miles and miles of road. Korean company Hyundai E&C and local consortium Combined Group Contracting Company won the project in 2013, and the project is scheduled to open this year. The extremely short construction time frame for a project of this scale was ambitious and unusual, but Hyundai says that it has met and exceeded timeline expectations. Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the span of the bridge to be about 22 miles, when the total span is over 30 miles. The main segment of the bridge is about 22 miles long.
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More Than Meets the Eye

A Tesla struck and "killed" a robot at CES—or did it?
It’s either a documented case of robot-on-robot violence or an elaborate self-perpetuating hoax. At the January 7 opening of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a Tesla in “self-driving mode” struck a Russian Promobot, and the event was captured on video. Or did it? The story seemed too good to be true, and touched a nerve over fears that autonomous vehicles could be dangerous (see the case of Uber’s Arizonan test car that got into a fatal crash last March). In the video, a Tesla Model S can be seen cruising by a robot standing curbside, at which point the Promobot falls over and its arm falls off. Promobot’s manufacturer, also called Promobot, posted footage of the incident to Twitter, tagged Elon Musk, and “Promobot was killed by a self-driving Tesla car” racked up over a million views. Promobot claims that its robot was damaged beyond repair and that they would be filing a police report. How did the robot manage to “run off” to the far side of the road without anyone noticing? How did Promobot seem to know that the Tesla was in self-driving mode? Why was the scene being filmed in the first place? The company has thus far been unable to provide answers, but tech writers and Twitter users were quick to point out the inconsistencies in Promobot’s story. Tesla’s cars, while equipped with an “Autopilot” mode that assists drivers on highways, lacks a fully-autonomous self-driving mode. When the driver, George Caldera, was asked for a comment by the Daily Mail, he allegedly told the British tabloid that he had shifted to the passenger seat and handed over control to the vehicle. “I switched this Tesla into a self-driving mode and it started to move. And wow! A robot on the track! I thought the flivver would come round, but it bumped straightly into it! I am so sorry, the robot looks cute. And my sincere apologies to the engineers.” Other than the strange quote, a rope can be seen on the far side of the road near the robot, and Promobot appears to fall over slightly before being passed by the car. Robots and self-driving cars have captured the public’s imagination, but confusion over the capabilities of each have at times also served to confuse. For instance, the robots deployed to ward off homeless people in San Francisco and Waymo’s self-driving cars in Arizona, have both elicited visceral responses from the public. The integration of artificial intelligence into the urban fabric has a long and bumpy road ahead.
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LongPoint Bridge

CRÈME proposes floating timber bridge to connect Brooklyn and Queens

Currently the only link between the rapidly developing neighborhoods of Long Island City, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is the Pulaski Bridge, a six-lane drawbridge with a narrow pathway where pedestrians and bikers jostle for space. Brooklyn-based CRÈME/Jun Aizaki Architecture & Design wants to change that by proposing the LongPoint Bridge, a 250-foot-long crossing dedicated to foot and bike traffic.

The bridge is distinguished from its counterparts across the city for its lightweight, floating timber construction. It is anchored on either end by a concrete and steel mast embedded into the waterbed of Newtown Creek (the East River canal that divides Queens and Brooklyn). Glulam beams joined by galvanized steel braces and pins rise in two trussed peaks of armature around the nearly 50-foot-tall masts. The structure is a nod to the area’s industrial past and present while also referencing the iconic profiles of other bridges in the city. Its height above the canal allows smaller vessels to pass underneath, but for larger boats, the bridge pivots open in the middle, with each section moving on propeller-driven pontoons. This floating feature also allows the bridge to rise and fall with the tides.

According to Jun Aizaki, the firm’s founder and principal, the bridge’s design and timber composition allows it to be assembled off-site and installed quickly and inexpensively; in the long term, it will require only minimal repairs. CRÈME also proposes public parks and loading docks to flank the bridge on both ends, along with a pedestrian crossing over the Long Island Railroad commuter rails just beyond the canal. Together with the timber bridge, the pathway would connect commuters to the G and 7 trains on either side.

With the impending L train shutdown in 2019 and the predicted growth of Long Island City as it hosts Amazon’s HQ2, the timing of a quickly constructed, relatively affordable bridge seems ideal. Aizaki and his team, which includes a community organizer, are busy raising support and funds through meetings with public officials and local community members. For Aizaki, the bridge is intended as “a grassroots, rather than developer-initiated, project,” which he hopes will “be a symbol of something the community can be proud of."

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A More Perfect Union

Amtrak plans major update for Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Last week, Amtrak announced a call for contractors to bid on a proposal to modernize and expand the railroad’s main concourse at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Union Station is Amtrak’s headquarters and the second busiest train station in the country, yet its cramped and narrow concourse has been in desperate need of a face-lift since it was built in the 1980s. While the station has retail and food options, it is plagued with long lines and overcrowding, and lacks bathrooms. Union Station, which is swamped by nearly five million passengers each year, is known for its infamous train boarding process, where riders are forced to wait on the concourse instead of the platform of their specific train. The disorganized space often creates winding lines and very confused passengers. Amtrak's project aims to double the capacity of the 70,000-square-foot space by creating a more open, flexible, and spacious interior layout. The scheme will undoubtedly modernize the space which will no longer be confined by restrictive walls, doors, and hallways. Passengers will be able to flow freely throughout the open concourse, which should alleviate congestion and minimize the stress associated with boarding and queuing. The plans also involve a generous amount of glass and natural light, which will both brighten the space as well as improve overall aesthetics and comfort. The addition of more bathrooms and a luxury, 10,000-square-foot lounge will further provide visitors with a more positive, streamlined experience. This isn’t the first time Amtrak has sought to revamp Union Station. In 2012, the railroad service unveiled a multi-billion-dollar proposal to remodel the concourse. Without proper funding, the plans were scrapped. Construction of Amtrak’s most recent vision is anticipated to begin this fall, and completion is slated for 2022. While the news may be exciting for frequent passengers of Union Station, it still will not fix Amtrak’s inconvenient boarding process.
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Eliminating Elevation

Seattle set to finally close Alaskan Way Viaduct and open new tunnel
The aged elevated highway that famously borders downtown Seattle along its waterfront is set to officially close this Friday as part of the city's multi-pronged tunnel replacement project. The two-mile Alaskan Way Viaduct, also known as State Route 99, has blown past its recommended lifespan and has long been considered a major hazard to the city and its drivers. Its upcoming closure marks the beginning of a new transportation system for the whole city, but the saga leading up to this point has been harrowing. After a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Seattle in 2001, causing widespread panic about the then 48-year-old highway’s structural safety, the city and state began more seriously studying options to replace the viaduct. The Washington State Department of Transportation settled on a plan in 2004 that would include the build-out of a shallow, six-lane tunnel, but opposition soon arose over the project’s exorbitant cost and lengthy proposed construction timeline. After years of arguments, the most dangerous part of the highway, which sat south of downtown, was eventually demolished in 2011. Two years later, Seattle began making way for the tunnel, but the boring machine used to burrow the tunnel’s diameter broke down four months into its 1.7-mile journey underneath the city. It took another two years to repair the machine and digging began again in late December 2015. Despite more setbacks, including a large, unexpected sinkhole, the tunnel boring project was completed in spring 2017. It’s expected to open up to vehicular traffic in four weeks. Next steps include the demolition of the remaining standing viaduct and the construction of a street-level boulevard along its footprint. Dubbed the New Alaskan Way, it will line the edge of Elliot Bay. Once that's complete, the entirely revamped highway system will stretch northbound in two directions starting from Seattle’s major sports stadiums, CenturyLink and Safeco Fields, which are situated south of downtown. The SR 99 tunnel route begins adjacent to the arenas and runs northeast underneath the city toward a northern portal near Seattle Center, the home of the Space Needle. Drivers will be able to bypass downtown through the tunnel or the waterfront street-level surface highway or simply exit onto city streets. The decision to build both an underground highway and an elongated boulevard is an unconventional approach to mid-century transportation replacement projects. Cities around the country are currently grappling with similar situations revolving around dilapidated infrastructure, but Seattle’s struggle has been on the global stage for quite some time. After all, the Alaskan Way Viaduct should have come down decades ago when experts first saw signs of damage. It’s interesting to see a major metropolis, one sitting at sea level no less, choose this multi-project plan that for years created a mess of construction chaos and citywide debate. Though the pedestrian-friendly New Alaskan Way will likely do wonders to connect downtown Seattle with its industrial waterfront—a much-needed intervention—at a total of $3.3 billion it’s hard not to see this decision as both a big win for the city's future and a big burden for its present. 
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Cooler Transit

Hyperloops and wheelchair bikes: Cooper Hewitt explores the future of mobility
In The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, presents a variety of concepts from around the world that ask the question: how will we move in the future? With concepts from firms like Höweler + Yoon, design studios like IDEO, and companies like Waymo, the exhibition suggests a range of possible futures instead of painting a holistic vision. Making the case that transportation options are multiplying as data and technology take to the roads (and tunnels, and skies), the show's organizers present a world on the cusp of transit change, change that could make cities not only more efficient but also a happier place for all their inhabitants. Hopefully. It's certainly a buzzy topic, given Elon Musk's constant parade of revelations and updates on his many ventures and self-driving cars taking to the street (at their own peril). Visitors to the show, up now through March 31, have just one obstacle in their way: the government shutdown. As part of the Smithson Institution, the museum is at the mercy of the federal government, which does not show any sign of ending its shutdown soon.