Posts by Author: Rachel Kaufman

Solar Is Third Greatest Renewable Energy Source—What Does This Mean for Cities?

Solar-panel installers at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. (Credit: U.S. Air Force/Pascual Flores)

Solar has surpassed biomass to become the #3 renewable electricity source in the United States, according to CleanTechnica and data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Solar resources, including small- and large-scale photovoltaic (PV) installations and solar thermal, created 77 million megawatt-hours of electricity in 2017, outpacing biomass resources, which generated 64 million megawatt-hours in 2017. Hydropower and wind power were the only renewable sources of energy that outperformed solar, generating 300 million MWh and 254 MWh, respectively.

Overall, about 17 percent of the electricity generated last year was from renewables, the EIA said. Solar’s contribution to the total electricity generated, while growing, still is around only 1 percent.

The EIA tracks three types of solar power: solar thermal, which uses sunlight to boil water to produce steam, which in turn produces power; and two sizes of solar photovoltaic. PV installations with capacity lower than 1 megawatt are considered “small-scale.” Since these are typically capable of supplying about 200 homes and take up multiple acres, “small” here is relative. Meanwhile, PV installations with capacity greater than 1 megawatt are considered utility-scale.

Solar is an attractive option for cities looking to reduce their carbon footprint. The systems can be pricey to set up—the National Renewable Energy Lab estimated a cost of around $2.80 per watt for residential systems and around $2 per watt for commercial systems—but the price is dropping. PV module costs have fallen 75 percent since 2009, Computer World reports.

Traditional solar—PV panels placed in a wide-open, sunny field—hasn’t historically been a great fit for cities, thanks to land-use requirements and other complications. Billing rules mean that homeowners can’t always get credit for the power they generate, which reduces the incentive to install solar; and renters are left with nothing.

But that is changing. Companies such as Brooklyn SolarWorks have developed solar canopies specifically designed for small, flat rooftops. Many states have adopted net metering policies, which allow—or require—electric utilities to offer a credit to homeowners if their solar panels generate more energy than they use. (Most states have adopted requirements that only apply to certain utilities—often investor-owned.) And community solar project structures are now allowing renters to get in on the action. By “subscribing” to a solar farm that may be next door or across town, renters receive a credit on their energy bill. In a pioneering model in Washington, D.C., a law firm installed solar panels and is gifting the energy credits to low-income subscribers across town, a feat the Washington Post called “a bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine that demands more paperwork than photosynthesis, but is workable nonetheless.” Low-income residents in two housing complexes now receive lower energy bills—and sometimes no bill at all.

It’s not all rosy—the 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels imposed by the Trump administration in January has halted, by some estimates, billions of dollars of solar projects. But the EIA expects another 5,000 megawatts of utility-scale PV to come online by the end of 2018, and the Solar Energy Industries Association reports that PV capacity is projected to double over the next five years.

 

Massachusetts House, Senate Agree on $1.8 Billion Housing Bond

Legisation to boost affordable housing was passed by lawmakers in the Massachusetts State House and delivered to the governor. (Credit: Schnatz/Flickr)

Massachusetts lawmakers have sent a $1.8 billion housing bond bill to the governor, the State House News Service reports. If signed, it will provide $400 million for the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, $600 million for Department of Housing and Community Development projects, and millions more for housing for people with disabilities or mental illness, workforce housing, mixed-use projects near “main street areas” and after-school programs.

The funding could help create at least 17,000 new housing units over the next five years in the commonwealth, according to Rachel Heller, CEO of Citizens Housing and Planning Association, speaking to the Boston Business Journal.

“There are developers who are eager to build more affordable homes, more mixed income developments, and the passage of this bill is what is needed to move those projects along,” she told the Business Journal.

Massachusetts, like most states, is struggling to produce enough affordable housing as costs and home prices have risen. More than 60 percent of low-income families pay more than half their income to housing, according to the Center for Social Policy, as reported by local news channel WWLP. Boston, the state’s capital and largest city, has aggressively built new housing units, with permit issuance up 12 percent in the greater Boston area in 2017. Although rent increases in the area are slowing, according to a report last year, new rental buildings are “increasingly concentrated at the high end of the market.”

The bond bill is based on legislation introduced last year by Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and at the start of the two-year session by Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Brighton) and Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Suffolk), who left the Senate earlier this year.

The legislation “is essential for us to be able to continue to make progress toward making Massachusetts affordable for all our residents,” Jay Ash, Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, told lawmakers in February. The bond bill also includes $25 million in low-income housing tax credits.

“Huge win for low income residents who desperately need affordable housing,” Aaron Gornstein, president and CEO of the Boston-based nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing, tweeted Wednesday.

States and municipalities have issued $894 billion in bonds over the last two years, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association says. Austin, Texas, is considering a $161 million housing bond as part of an $816 million bond package also funding transportation, parks and rec and stormwater management; and Californians will vote in November on a $4 billion housing bond.

 

New York City Debuts Regional Mapping Tool

The NYC Department of Planning's new tool includes this map showing new housing units permitted from 2010-2016, revealing that new housing has been heavily centralized in the NYC region. While in line with population growth and shifts in the region trending toward the center, new housing production has not kept pace with population.

New York City’s planning department has launched a new mapping tool that harnesses population, housing and economic data and makes it available for exploring by the general public.

The Metro Region Explorer offers trending data on the city’s greater metropolitan region: the five boroughs, upstate New York and Long Island, as well as parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Collectively, the region is home to 23 million people and the largest foreign-born population in the nation.

In a release, the city said that the Metro Region Explorer “will help New Yorkers understand the City’s relationships, including interdependencies, to areas outside our borders. It enables the public, planners and policy makers to examine the regional context for shared planning challenges. It is the only mapping resource that combines municipal population, housing and economic data across our region.”

The map doesn’t propose policy solutions, but the data it provides will be helpful for planning policy in the years ahead. “It is extremely important when planning for our individual municipalities that we look at the entire region,” Annisia Cialone, director of the Division of City Planning for Jersey City, said in a statement. “Key issues such as housing and affordable housing specifically, transportation, and economic development have impacts beyond our borders.”

The map tracks population density and in/out-migration, housing trends, and changes in the labor market since 2000. It uses all publicly available federal datasets “that have been processed and/or analyzed” by the Department of City Planning, according to the site. The app has data going back to the year 2000, but focuses on 2008-2017, the Gotham Gazette reports.

The population trends show that while New York’s suburbs have typically operated as a “relief valve” for the city’s housing supply, fewer people are leaving the city, which accounted for 60 percent of the region’s population growth since 2010, according to the map. All five boroughs have added jobs faster than they’ve added housing; the city added nearly half a million jobs post-recession. Meanwhile, suburbs such as those in New Jersey have more housing, but fewer jobs in some places.

“We don’t think that can continue forever,” Carolyn Grossman Meagher, director of regional planning at the DCP, told a business group Tuesday, according to the Gotham Gazette. “In other words, as a New Yorker, it is becoming less of an opportunity for me to avail myself to economic resources outside the city because the job growth just isn’t there.”

​In addition to shining a light on the need for additional housing in the city, the trends also underscore the importance of maintaining transportation infrastructure, both in and outside the city.

The regional planning division of the Department of City Planning was formed at the recommendation of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s OneNYC plan. One of the goals of the plan was for the city to think regionally. The city “has, and is dependent on, a regional ecosystem,” Grossman Meagher said.

 

New ParkScore Rankings Show How Cities Stack Up for Green Space

Loring Park, Minneapolis. (Credit: Doug Kerr/Flickr)

Minneapolis, Minnesota, has the best park system in a major city in the U.S. for the third year running, according to the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore index, released Tuesday.

It outscored rival city St. Paul by just a few points, ranking higher on both park access (the percentage of residents within a 10-minute walk of a park) and park acreage (the percentage of city area dedicated to parks). St. Paul outscored Minneapolis on amenities but it wasn’t enough to push it to first.

Close behind the Twin Cities were Washington, D.C., in third place, and Arlington, Virginia, in fourth.

At the bottom of the list was Charlotte, North Carolina, where despite its boomtown growth only about 30 percent of the population has close access to a park. Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, Indiana, which tied for last place in the ParkScore 2017 rankings, “declined to participate” this year and were not ranked, TPL said.

The Trust for Public Land has been running its annual ParkScore rankings for seven years, ranking cities on park access, amenities, acreage and per-capita spending on parks. This year, the Trust updated its algorithm to include splashpads and restrooms as amenities, and added volunteer hours and charitable contributions to its calculation of parks spending. This provides “a ranking boost to cities whose residents strongly support their park systems,” TPL said.

“I’m thrilled that our park system continues to earn accolades,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We have world class parks and the world is taking notice.”

Ninety-seven percent of Minneapolis residents and 96 percent of St. Paul residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. San Francisco is the only city where all residents live that close to a park, but its relatively small median park sizes pushed it to fifth place.

TPL uses a relatively sophisticated algorithm to measure park access. If a park is physically close to a neighborhood but cut off by a highway or other obstacle, it isn’t counted.

“We want to make sure that people can get to a park on foot, because what we’ve seen in terms of health studies done at both the national as well as local levels is that if people can walk—versus ride a bike or get into a car or take the bus—the usage rate for parks goes up pretty heavily,” Charlie McCabe, director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, told Fast Company. “People stay longer, and people exercise more.”

The ParkScore also ranks cities on their park acreage. But since land is often limited in cities, improving this metric is challenging. Fast Company explains how Chicago, which rose from 11th on the list in 2017 to 8th in 2018—its first time in the top 10—increased its park acreage by working with school districts to redesign school grounds into green areas with gardens and play spaces. The city is planning to build 34 schoolyards by 2019. The revamped spaces capture stormwater to reduce flooding, serve as outdoor classrooms for students and are open to the public outside of school hours.

Other interesting factoids from this year’s rankings: Boise, Idaho, is still the best city for dogs, with 6.7 dog parks per 100,000 residents. Norfolk, VA, has the most basketball hoops, and Cleveland, Ohio, has the most splashpads and water features.

Explore the rankings and data yourself here.

 

New Orleans Considering Curbing Short-Term Rentals

The New Orleans City Council is proposing a freeze on permits for short-term vacation rentals, including those in historic neighborhoods like the French Quarter. (Credit: Mike Defelippo/Flickr)

Just a year after New Orleans legalized short-term vacation rentals such as those that use Airbnb in many parts of the city, the incoming city council is considering a temporary freeze on such rentals, the Times-Picayune reports.

A zoning change that would “push pause” on rentals, the freeze would be a dramatic reversal of current regulations, according to the Times-Picayune. The proposal, introduced by councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, would stop the city from issuing permits to short-term rentals in historic core areas where the owners don’t live on the property. Rentals with current permits would be allowed to continue operating until their licenses expire, but no new permits would be issued for at least a year. The ban could come to a vote as soon as Thursday, the New Orleans Advocate said.

In April 2017, New Orleans began issuing permits for legal short-term rentals. An accessory permit, which costs $200, allows a permitholder to rent out rooms inside a home in which she lives, for as many days of the year that she wants. A temporary permit, which costs $150, allows a person to rent out an entire home for up to 90 days per year. The 90-day cap was supposed to incentivize local property owners to rent out their spare rooms while disincentivizing real-estate investors from buying up housing stock and turning the units into full-time short-term rentals.

Critics said that the 90-day cap was too generous; an investor could still rent out a New Orleans home nearly every weekend a year. Plus, as Next City reported last year, one operator could list a unit on Airbnb for 90 nights a year and on a competitor like VRBO for another 90 nights. Next City reported that at the time, the city was aware of the loophole and was “hoping to outsource some of the technical work to companies that have figured out how to catch bad actors.”

To hear Palmer and her new council colleagues say it, the city has not managed to do so. Palmer, who rejoined the council this month after a four-year absence, ran on a platform partially dedicated to curbing short-term rentals.

“We (new council members) all ran on this (in our campaigns) because we saw how short-term rentals were affecting our neighborhoods. Not all of them, but some,” Palmer told the Advocate. (The Times-Picayune says that three of the five new council members made short-term rentals a campaign issue.) Five council members in all are listed as sponsors of the measure, the Advocate wrote.

Neighborhood groups, the newspapers reported, have found a lot to complain about since Airbnb’s legalization. Short-term rental homes have pushed out longtime residents, they say, and former mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration had difficulty enforcing the city’s rules including the rental cap.

Palmer has also introduced another measure that, if approved, would require the City Planning Commission to add to a study it is conducting on short-term rentals. It would extend by another four months the deadline for the commission to make final recommendations; the study was scheduled to be completed later this summer.

In a statement, Airbnb spokesperson Molly Weedn said that the company “would hope the city would wait to consider any changes to the rules—which the council spent more than two years developing and which have been in place for just over a year—until a study looking at short-term rentals is expected to come out in early July.”

 

With New Taxi Hail Pilot, Uber Says Konnichi-wa to Japan

Uber has yet to gain a substantial foothold in Japan's tightly regulated taxi industry. (Credit: Kim Yap/Flickr)

Uber has reached an agreement—of sorts—with the government of Japan, launching a taxi-hailing pilot that will connect customers on Awaji Island with existing taxi companies.

The pilot service is a “minor victory” for Uber, according to Bloomberg; regulations in Japan restrict non-professional drivers from transporting paying customers. Back in 2015, when the company tried to launch under its traditional model of using non-professional drivers in Fukuoka, Japan’s sixth-largest city, it was shut down.

Since then, Uber has been running a small operation in Tokyo, where the app is used to connect existing black-car drivers with customers. Uber is also authorized to provide rides in the rural town of Tango, where more than a third of the residents are over 65 and the local taxi service went under a decade ago, Reuters reports. In addition, the company has made inroads in Japan with UberEats, currently operating in four cities.

The new pilot service is Uber’s biggest move into the country’s taxi industry (as opposed to the black-car industry), which is worth $15.5 billion, Bloomberg said. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hoping Uber will help promote tourism on Awaji Island, a popular location for cyclists and home to 120,000 people. The island is about 47 miles from Osaka, the country’s second largest metropolitan area, after Tokyo.

Taxis in Japan are highly regulated, a fact that some observers say makes Uber less relevant. Bloomberg wrote that although Japan’s taxi fares are among the priciest in the world, they are easy to hail from the street and “usually offer impeccable service, from automated doors to glove-wearing drivers eager to get passengers to their destination.”

This hasn’t stopped other ride-hailing companies from wanting some skin in the game. Lyft president John Zimmer said in April 2018 that “we would love to be in Japan,” but did not elaborate on a timeline. Didi Chuxing, a Chinese-based ride-sharing company that claims to be the world’s largest transportation network company, is also looking to get in on the taxi-hailing market, in partnership with the Japanese conglomerate Softbank (which also owns a 15 percent stake in Uber) and the cab company Daiichi Koutsu Sangyo, Bloomberg said. Sony is working on a rival taxi-hailing app; and Toyota invested 7.5 billion yen ($70 million) in JapanTaxi, which it says is the biggest taxi-hailing app in the country.

Japan is showing no signs of moving toward deregulating the taxi industry, so the Uber pilot, which will run through March 2019, will be confined to professional taxi drivers for now. But the ride app hopes to expand its partnerships with taxi companies nationwide. Meanwhile, the country is making very slow strides toward embracing the sharing economy. Last year, Japan moved to legalize Airbnb rentals—as long as homeowners register with local authorities and comply with any additional local regulations.

“I’m very excited that Uber’s technology will contribute to further enhancing the transit environment of Awaji Island,” Brooks Entwistle, Uber’s Chief Business Officer, said in a statement, adding that it will be “the first initiative of its kind in Japan.”

 

NYC Mayor Taking Steps Toward Marijuana Decriminalization

In a victory for proponents of marijuana law reform in New York City, like these marchers at the 2015 Cannabis Parade in Union Square, the mayor has set the wheels in motion for the "inevitable" legalization of pot. (Credit: Beverly Yuen Thompson/Flickr)

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said he will tell the NYPD to stop arresting people for smoking marijuana in public, the New York Daily News reports.

The mayor has not exactly done an about-face on pot — he still personally opposes making recreational marijuana legal — but believes that legalization is inevitable and “it is critical our city plans for the public safety, health and financial consequences involved.”

The move comes on the heels of a New York Times investigation that found that black and Hispanic people are arrested on marijuana charges in New York at much higher rates than white people, even though marijuana use is fairly consistent across races.

After the investigation’s results were published, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said he would convene a 30-day working group to review the NYPD’s marijuana policies. The Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance, said his office will no longer file charges against defendants in marijuana possession and use cases, Mother Jones reported. (Brooklyn may follow suit.)

And on Monday, the mayor’s office said he is putting together a task force “to lay the groundwork for full legalization,” the Daily News reported, “figuring out issues like how cops will deal with public smokers, what kind of zoning will be needed for pot dispensaries, and what types of public health campaigns the city should run about marijuana.”

It’s an abrupt shift from the mayor’s public stance in January, when De Blasio pointed to the city’s 17,500 annual marijuana arrests as “a normal level in the sense of what we were trying to achieve.” Still, as far back as 2014 he was directing police to stop arresting people for marijuana possession and instead issue summonses. Today’s announcement extends the summons policy to smoking in public.

The NYPD blamed the higher arrests in majority-black neighborhoods on an uptick in resident complaints about marijuana. A subsequent analysis by the Times found that that explanation didn’t hold up. In the 85-percent-black Canarsie precinct in Brooklyn, for example, officers arrested people for marijuana use at a rate four times higher than in the precinct that includes Greenpoint, which is 4 percent black, despite the same rate of 311 and 911 complaints about marijuana in those precincts. (In other predominantly black neighborhoods, calls to 311 and 911 are more common, the Times added; criminal justice reform advocates said it’s not because more people are smoking marijuana in these neighborhoods, but because people in poorer areas are less likely to have recourse in the form of a responsive landlord or building super.)

The disparity in arrest rates appears to have more to do with police strategy than resident complaints, according to the Times analysis. Neighborhoods made up mostly of people of color are often already overpoliced compared with white neighborhoods. “More cops in neighborhoods means they’re more likely to encounter somebody smoking,” Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who advised The Times on its marijuana-arrest analysis, told the Times.

Police officers who see someone smoking marijuana are legally allowed to search that person and check for open warrants, the Times added. Some lawyers say that these searches and warrant checks are the real factor driving enforcement disparities.

“What you have is people smoking weed in the same places in any neighborhood in the city,” Scott Levy, a special counsel to the criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, told the Times. “It’s just those neighborhoods are patrolled very, very differently. And the people in those neighborhoods are seen very differently by the police.”

 

Mapping the Spread of Inclusionary Housing Policies

The map's color coding indicates state-law friendliness to inclusionary housing. (Credit: Grounded Solutions Network) 

Not all inclusionary zoning programs are alike. As communities move to adopt IZ policies, they need information on what works and what doesn’t.

In an effort to provide some of that guidance, this week Grounded Solutions Network launched the Inclusionary Housing Database Map, an inclusionary zoning tool that lets leaders explore IZ policies around the country.

“When policymakers or community members want to improve housing affordability in their communities through an inclusionary housing policy, they often ask a set of questions,” Stephanie Reyes, state and local policy manager for Grounded Solutions, said in a statement. “These questions can include: What other cities in my state have an inclusionary housing policy in place? How are those policies structured? What does state law say about local jurisdictions’ ability to adopt inclusionary housing policies? The Inclusionary Housing Database Map can answer all these questions and more, so each community doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel as they design their policy.”

Inclusionary zoning policies typically give market-rate developers density bonuses or other incentives in exchange for building or funding affordable housing. Grounded Solutions, using data from its own 2016 survey, found 800 such policies on the books in communities across America.

The nonprofit also surveyed the legal landscape around IZ. It found that in many states, inclusionary zoning programs are prohibited or limited by law. (Next City reported late last year how Milwaukee’s attempt to create an IZ policy was thwarted when the city attorney said that the policy likely ran afoul of state law, which prohibits rent control.) Elsewhere, state courts have struck down inclusionary housing ordinances, calling them unconstitutional taxes.

But other communities are moving forward with these programs, and users of the map can explore lots of data related to them. (A side note: At the time of this writing, we were able to use the map using the Safari web browser, but struggled to get it to work in Chrome. Hopefully that’s just first-week jitters.) How many housing units did each program produce? How can developers comply with the policies? Some communities require developers to build the affordable units within the project that is receiving the bonuses, while others allow developers to pay into an affordable housing fund or build off-site units.

Critics say that inclusionary zoning policies drive up housing costs by limiting the total amount of housing built. In the majority of cases that isn’t true, according to 2016 research by the National Housing Conference’s Center for Housing Policy. Still, that same research found that IZ doesn’t do much for a city’s lowest-income residents, because most programs have affordability targets above 50 percent of area median income. Serving a lower-income population would require changes to IZ programs or other housing options entirely.

Grounded Solutions admits that its map may be incomplete. “It is possible that the surveys missed programs, particularly small programs or voluntary programs that go by another name, such as ‘density bonus policy,’” they said. Plus, new programs are being enacted all the time. One new addition for the map, hot off the presses: a new IZ program in Tacoma, Washington.

 

The Steep Price of Short-Changing Public Transit

Boston commuters using public transit.

In winter 2015, record snowfall in Boston shut down the MBTA. The city’s transit agency couldn’t run any subways, trolleys or commuter rail for days, and it took weeks for the subway to return to full service. Amid the chaos, MBTA general manager Beverly Scott resigned, citing aging equipment and disabled trains. The incident cost the MBTA $40 million in direct costs and caused tumult among businesses and commuters that depended on the rail system.

In Washington, D.C., arcing insulators on tracks are causing twice as many track fires as four years ago, delaying and frustrating commuters. The transit authority has said it needs to shut down 20 stations (about one-fifth of the system) over the next three years in order to rebuild structurally deficient platforms, which have been degraded by “decades of exposure to weather and de-icing agents.”

When saltwater from Superstorm Sandy flooded nine subway tunnels in 2012, New York’s MTA was hammered with $5 billion in damages.

While extreme weather events can’t always be predicted or planned for, ignoring maintenance issues on transit systems comes at a significant cost, according to a new report from the American Public Transit Association.

Failure to invest in public transportation infrastructure, the APTA says, will cost the country some $340 billion through 2023 and result in the loss of 162,000 jobs. Last October, for example, the New York City Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency, calculated that the dollar value of one morning of subway delays was $1.2 million a day. (The IBO multiplied the average hourly wage of an average subway commuter by the average number of delays. It admits that some people might just stay at work later to make up for the lost time, but that also means that commuters have given up some of their free time — an annoyance for the commuter at the least, if not a loss in productivity.)

APTA points to a case study in Chicago. The CTA manages a rail system (the “L”) and 1,800 buses serving 1,300 miles; it plans to spend $600 million a year over the next five years on reaching and maintaining a state of good repair while modernizing equipment. While the L isn’t perfect (its year-end report found that it missed its own target for rail delays four months out of 12), the APTA holds up the CTA’s modernization efforts as economic drivers; $1.9 billion has been invested within a half-mile of the Morgan Station since it reopened in 2012.

“CTA’s experience demonstrates how investments in [reaching a state of good repair] can improve customer experience while stimulating private-sector investment. CTA has invested significantly in heavy rail station reconstructions, allowing the agency to maintain key assets while also attracting new real estate investment,” the report said.

For the MBTA, however, the situation is less rosy: The transit agency has a $7-billion maintenance backlog and “it is…unclear whether and how MBTA will arrive at the revenue needed” to pay for it.

It’s not the only system that is struggling. San Francisco’s transit agency, SFMTA, needs $2.41 billion; SEPTA in Philadelphia estimates it needs $5 billion. In total, APTA said, public transit needs nearly $90 billion in investment to bring it up to speed.

Paying for all this will not be easy. President Trump’s infrastructure plan calling for $200 billion in federal funding is considered dead on arrival because it has “no bipartisan appeal and no actual path forward,” as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote. States are often more financially constrained than the feds, so without federal investment, many of these infrastructure projects may have to put on the brakes.

 

D.C. and Baltimore Business Leaders Call for Regional Toll-Road Strategy

Business leaders call for seamless network of regional tolls to fight I-95 traffic gridlock around D.C Metro area.  

A team of business leaders in the Washington, D.C., metro area is calling for more tolls stretching from as far south as Richmond up to Baltimore, arguing that the tolls are needed to reduce congestion on some of the country’s busiest highways.

The Greater Washington Partnership is calling for existing toll lanes in Virginia and Maryland to be “built into a complete regional network the group believes could ease the traffic jams that waste time and money across the region every day,” radio station WTOP reports.

Parts of I-95 and the Beltway already have tolls; the companies behind the Greater Washington Partnership say that having the same rules in Maryland would allow for a more seamless connection.

Anyone who’s driven in Beltway rush-hour traffic can attest to the misery of the experience. A 2017 study found that one stretch of I-95 in Northern Virginia is the worst traffic “hot spot” in the country. Although the studies, by transportation analytics company Inrix, have come under fire for flawed methodology, the pain I-95 drivers experience is real. And it’s only getting worse: Roadway congestion is projected to increase 50 percent by 2040.

New tolls should follow six principles, the partnership said in a position paper released Wednesday. These principles are:

  • Tolling should improve the transportation system, not just the tolled facility.
  • Tolling should be coordinated regionally.
  • Decisionmakers should prioritize “providing enhanced connectivity to the greatest number of people,” not generating the most revenue or moving more vehicles.
  • Consumers of all income levels should benefit from tolls, even those who cannot afford the tolls.
  • Toll revenue should be invested in public transportation.
  • Public agencies should “conduct robust and broad public engagement to develop goals, performance metrics and public benefit assessments for each tolling project.”

The paper says the tolls are necessary to offset the economic costs of congestion, which are estimated (by the notorious Texas Transportation Institute, to be fair) at around $1,100 for every Baltimore commuter and $1,800 for D.C. commuters yearly.

The paper doesn’t specifically call for new tolls, but supports tolls that are already planned and under construction, such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s $9-billion initiative to widen (and toll) major highways around D.C. and Baltimore. When the plan was proposed in fall 2017, Hogan said that the “massive, unprecedented projects…will be absolutely transformative, and they will help Maryland citizens go about their daily lives in a more efficient and safer manner.” (Pro-urbanist organizations like the Coalition for Smarter Growth blasted the plan as a “highways-first” approach.) If the plan is enacted, nearly the entire Beltway around Washington, D.C., will contain toll lanes.

Virginia’s Department of Transportation also added high-occupancy tolling on busy I-66 in December 2017. The tolls, which fluctuate in price during peak hours, can spike to $40 each way during the morning rush. Virginia legislators are weighing changes that would limit the impact of the tolls on commuters, but meanwhile, the tolls have leveled out at around $11 on average, and trip times have increased.

The Greater Washington Partnership was founded by sports team owner Ted Leonsis, Russ Ramsey of Ramsey Asset Management and Peter Scher of JP Morgan Chase, and includes company leaders from Capital One, Dominion Power, Exelon, the Carlyle Group, Under Armour, Washington Gas and other major employers.

 



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