Infrastructure Bill Needs Fixing, Critics Say

Advocates for cities say there should be more for transit and rail in the infrastructure package, and more in this week’s Mobile City.

Six-lane elevated highway in Seattle

Critics of the infrastructure bill say that it would lead to more roads and not enough public transit (Photo by Bala Maniymaran / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

City Transportation Advocates Say Infrastructure Bill Tilts Too Much Towards Roads

The bipartisan infrastructure bill now before the House is the product of months of negotiations between Democrats, many of whom represent urban districts, and Republicans, who these days skew rural. Advocates for transportation in cities are now saying that the bill the two sides agree on also skews too rural.

The top brass at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Executive Director Corinne Kisner and Chair Janette Sadik-Khan, had this to say about it in a statement released Aug. 10:

“Even as the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that our planet is heading toward an increasingly uninhabitable future, the infrastructure bill passed today by the Senate keeps our nation on an unsafe and unsustainable path. It continues to prioritize building the infrastructure that most contributes to the U.S.’s worst-in-class safety record and extraordinarily high climate emissions: new highways.”

Kisner and Sadik-Khan called on the House to add a fix-it-first provision to the highway portion of the bill, strengthen performance measurements and up the amount spent on transit as key ways to “fix what’s painfully wrong with the bill.”

On the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, Amanda Eaken, director of transportation at the American Cities Climate Challenge, took a similar tack in her essay “How Congress Can Get Cities Moving”, writing that Congress should raise the level of transit funding to match what’s spent on highways and fund a transition to electric vehicles.

Lack of support for electrification is also one of Yonah Freemark’s chief criticisms of the bill. Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, told The Hill that while the $66 billion for intercity rail and the $39 billion for mass transit in the bill was “a large amount, even compared to what advocates have been looking for,” he went on to say that “the funding does not necessarily seem oriented toward addressing climate change.

“Rail, especially electrified rail, is the most sustainable motorized transportation mode in terms of its carbon emissions,” Freemark added. “Rail services also encourage compact, pedestrian-oriented development surrounding stations, which is also an effective counter to climate change.”

Rail Researchers Test a Metro on the Cheap

One way cities might be able to build electrified rail transit quickly and for less is being put through its paces on the historic East Broad Top Railroad in Pennsylvania right now.

A Carnegie Mellon University news release reposted on Railway Age goes into detail on the test of the “Pop-Up Metro” being developed by Henry Posner III, chair of the Railroad Development Corporation (RDC) and an adjunct history professor at CMU. The Pop-Up Metro is a two-car trainset built in Britain and modified by RDC subsidiary VivaRail to operate on battery power.

The advantage of this technology, Posner said, is that it can be deployed on the cheap using existing rail lines. “A lot of urban areas in this country have underutilized freight lines that could also support transit service,” he said. “People might not have considered these opportunities because it’s been perceived as too expensive, too lengthy and too risky. With Pop-Up Metro, you can do that project quickly on a demonstration basis. You don’t have to spend $100 million.”

RDC, which specializes in running short line freight and regional passenger railroads on what it calls “emerging networks in emerging markets,” is marketing Pop-Up Metro as a way for cities to test the waters on possible rail transit service without having to make a huge upfront investment in infrastructure. While the track record of using freight lines for mass transit is mixed, there have been some successes, such as San Diego’s initial light metro line (“The Mobile City,” Aug. 3).

Posner plans to demonstrate Pop-Up Metro soon to potential customers, including public transit systems considering adding rail service, existing systems looking to upgrade their rolling stock, and private developers who might want to incorporate rail transit into their projects.

Autonomous-Car Company to Test Second Vehicle in New York City

Mobileye, an Intel subsidiary developing autonomous-vehicle technology, is preparing to put a second driverless car on the streets of New York City, arguing, essentially, if they can “make it there, they’ll make it anywhere,” Streetsblog NYC reports.

The company made the announcement that it was doubling its fleet of AVs in New York as the city moved to require a special city permit for AV tests. Mobileye’s one self-driving car has been roaming New York streets since June under a permit issued by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

At a briefing in July, Mobileye President and CEO Ammon Sashua informed an audience of potential investors that the company ultimately planned to expand its fleet to a total of seven cars. The company wants to test AV technology in New York, Sashua said, because it’s such a difficult place for humans to drive in: “In New York City, we gain all the learning we want to gain [in] AV testing. It is really really challenging [to drive in New York], even for a human.”

The New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT), however, is concerned about what might happen to everyone else when the cars are tooling around town. It plans to implement a permit system that would require AV companies to certify that their cars will operate more safely than human drivers will, to submit a “safety plan,” to carry $5 million in insurance to indemnify the city against legal liabilities and to provide information on any collisions. NYC DOT will also require that the companies allow its staff to ride in the cars as a “demonstration of the autonomous vehicle technology.” Companies that fail to obtain the permit will be fined $5,000 a day.

In a presentation to AV tech enthusiasts that included a 45-minute video showing its car in action in New York, Sashua described what Mobileye wants to do in the city as “battle testing,” saying that the company needed to be able to prove its cars could operate “at scale” in a place where driving was a challenge to begin with.

“If you can conquer New York City, then it opens up very very big parts of the world to deploy this technology,” he said. “You have to battle test in difficult areas.” But he added that the technology would have to take a back seat to human whims if it is to be accepted. “No one is going to heed my advice in New York, especially drivers,” he said. “[As tech developers], we need to manage with what we have. We are not going to change the DNA of New Yorkers. We need to drive safely within that DNA.”

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationelectric vehiclesautonomous vehicles

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