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News & Notes

DC Streetsblog: Obama Takes Another Swing at $50 Billion in Infrastructure Spending

President Obama is pressing for infrastructure investment again as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations. The president kicked off talks calling for an end to the debt ceiling, the extension of middle-class tax cuts, and $50 billion in infrastructure spending — a proposal that first arose last year as part of his ultimately unsuccessful American Jobs Act.

The Wall Street Journal called the President’s proposals “a particularly expansive version of the White House’s wish list” and “a potential starting point for negotiations.”

See also: Our favorite Obama quote from 2009

The Atlantic Cities: 10 Techniques for Making Cities More Walkable

In Jeff Speck’s excellent new book, Walkable City, he suggests that there are ten keys to creating walkability. Most of them also have something to do with redressing the deleterious effects caused by our allowing cars to dominate urban spaces for decades. I don’t necessarily agree with every detail, and my own list might differ in some ways that reflect my own experience and values. But it’s a heck of a good menu to get city leaders and thinkers started in making their communities more hospitable to walkers.

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Here we go again

Photo by Jef Nickerson

ProJo reports that RIPTA is once again, in a now annual tradition, looking at fare hikes and service cuts to balance their budget deficit.

John Rupp, the board chairman, said it will try to design a fare increase that won’t deny people transportation, and it will try to keep any service adjustments from doing more than inconvenience riders.

“We’re trying to target a fare increase that won’t push people off the bus,” he said.

Good luck with that, you raise fares and you reduce service, you’re pushing people off the bus. If I can’t get there from here, then I won’t.

The fare increase sought is $0.25, which would raise fares to $2.00. The chairman claims that will keep RIPTA’s fares inline with other agencies. Actually, if you look just up the road to Boston, you’ll find bus fares between $1.25 and $1.50 depending on which fare product you use. In Austin, Texas (a city with a similar metro size to us) bus fares are $1.00.

Where Austin and Boston both differ from Rhode Island is that they both have express bus services with higher fares than local service. Boston has express bus service costing $2.80 to $5.00 depending how far you go and which fare product you use. Austin’s express bus service costs $2.50. Here in Rhode Island you can travel a route such as the 40, which doesn’t leave the city of Providence, or the 60 which runs all the way from Providence to Newport, or the 54 Express which runs from Providence to the Lincoln Mall non-stop, all for $1.75 ($2.00 if the increase goes through). These are different kinds of service, but they are all treated the same when it comes to the fare charged.

In Boston, express buses have local and express zones. Take the 553 which I used to ride when I lived in Waltham. The 553 starts at Brandeis University, goes through Waltham Center, West Newton, Newtonville, and Newton Corner where it gets on the Mass Pike and runs Express into Boston. If one were to ride the bus between any two points between Brandeis and Newton Corner, one would pay the local fare, if one stays on the bus into Boston, then they must pay the express fare. So the bus provides local service at it’s far end, but a premium is paid if you want to utilize it all the way into the city. A zone structure like this could be instituted on a bus such as the 60 to Newport. One would pay a local fare if they didn’t leave Aquidneck Island for example, or perhaps a local fare zone all the way to Barrington. But if you wanted to ride all the way into Providence, a higher fare would be instituted. Or there could be another version of the 60, a 60 Limited, which would not stop at every stop, thereby speeding the trip and justifying a premium fare.

RIPTA provides various kinds of services but treats them all the same. There is local urban bus service which people use as their primary means of transportation in Providence and Pawtucket and to a lesser extent in the close suburbs and out in Newport. Then there are commuter services, whereby people are parking their cars and getting on the bus to get to jobs in Providence. And there is some reverse commuting where people are taking buses out of Providence to jobs at office parks in the suburbs. And the service that RIPTA is probably least good at, due to it’s hub-and-spoke arrangement, where people are taking the bus from suburb to suburb.

As RIPTA looks towards the future and starts to plan for things such as Streetcars, rapid bus service, more park n’ ride facilities, integrating service with southward expansion of commuter rail, and more, they need to start considering what are the different services they are providing, how they will be operated and prioritized, and what fares are reasonable for each.

Of course the reason for RITPA’s current budget problem is the same as it always is, the gas tax:

The situation is another in a series of fiscal crunches for the authority. It reflects a continuing paradox: as expenses rise, the revenue from a key revenue source, the state fuel tax, is fading. Also, the more successful the authority is at persuading drivers to take the bus, the less fuel they buy and the less money the transit agency gets. The same is true whenever gas consumption declines. The fuel tax is linked to the number of gallons sold rather than to the price.

There are some working to free RIPTA from the gas tax Catch-22 it is trapped in now. The Coalition for Transportation Choices (CTC) is supporting a legislative package that will help RIPTA free itself from dependance on the gas tax and help RIDOT from depending so much on issuing bonds to make the money they need to match federal dollars.

The CTC supports an increase in the biannual auto registration fee to $40, a Petroleum Products Gross Receipts Tax, and a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax. The VMT would be studied this year before moving to implement it, the registration fee and Petroleum Products Gross Receipts Tax could go in to effect now and raise $67 million annually for RIDOT, RIPTA, and local cities and towns to repair roads.

Year after year after year after year we end up here. RIPTA saying they don’t have enough money and have to cut service and raise fares. And Year after year after year after year the Assembly does nothing to change the fact that it is the gas tax trap that is causing this.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Let’s stop being insane.