Halloween may be over but the fight over the annual expiration of the federal transit commuter transit tax benefit is coming back to life again this year. Seemingly every year transit advocates are forced to go to the mat to support the extension of this critical tax benefit that should become permanent rather than subject to the changing winds in Congress. What is it? The benefit allows employees to spend up to $245 per month pre-tax on transit benefits saving commuters hundreds of dollars per year on their taxes while reducing congestion and thereby cleaning the air. The parking benefit provides an identical $245 pretax benefit that is nevertheless permanent. The transit benefit has see-sawed up and down as Congress has had its repeated budget, fiscal cliff, and sequestration battles. If it is not extended at the end of this year, the benefit will fall to $130 per month, effectively providing a greater incentive to drive. Parity is the common sense name of the game here and Congress should at least move to extend it but ideally it’s time to make the $245 transit benefit permanent for congestion-busting, air-cleaning transit riders.
Earlier in October, the Federal Aviation Administration considered lifting a ban on electronic devices in airplanes. After much discussion with airlines and electronics manufacturers, the FAA announced it has eased restrictions on the use of most devices during takeoffs and landings, provided that they can operate in “airplane mode.” Before allowing such, however, individual airlines must demonstrate that using such devices in airplane mode is safe. Industry pundits rejoiced at the decision, stating that this will make the flight experience more bearable for passengers. Flight attendants expressed concern that those using the devices may ignore important safety instructions that are given at takeoff. However, a ban on making cellphone calls from a plane will remain in effect.
Hardly a few hours passed and select airlines quickly announced that they would eliminate the ban on electronics. Delta and JetBlue became the first airlines to do so, with American Airlines following suit 3 days later. So, as long as airlines continue to increase their share of profits from items other than actual tickets, all is fine and dandy, right?
After much controversy, LADOT General Manager Jaime De La Vega will step down. A holdover from the Villaraigosa Administration, De La Vega came under scrutiny by department managers for his abrasive attitude. It is worth noting that De La Vega came in when the LADOT was dogged by numerous scandals, to which De La Vega succeeded in controlling the damage and addressing deficiencies. It was also under his leadership that the department took an increased interest in bicyclist and pedestrian needs. In the meantime, LA Department of Recreation and Parks General Manager Jon Kirk Mukri will serve as the interim general manager of LADOT.
A report requested by Congressmember Henry Waxman and recently released to the public outlines the causes of delay for the I-405 northbound carpool lane project. The report singles out failed retaining walls and their ineffective design as the major culprit, although other factors such as lawsuits and utility relocations also factored in. A near collapse of one such wall in 2011 led to the demolition and reconstruction of all 14 such walls along the route and a state ban on using related construction methods.
For its part, Metro stated that the project is 85% complete, with the 3-mile segment of the (temporarily mixed-flow) lane open already shaving minutes off of individual commutes. One letter to the editor provides some perspective, noting that the design-build method shaved years off the typical construction schedule. New bridges will open in the next few months, as well. Ultimately, this project will provide continuous carpool lanes between Orange County and north Los Angeles County.
Transit Coalition Chair Ken Alpern wrote several articles on the state of affairs with specific local transportation policies. In this piece, Alpern mulls as to how to make a rail connection to LAX both cost-effective and attractive for travelers. Another piece gives warning to policymakers who ask for tax increases yet don’t assure the public that the government is spending existing tax revenues responsibly. In a subsequent article, Alpern recognizes that any transportation project that aims to achieve a meaningful impact will have to be paid for by taxpayers and that everyone must share the burden in order to benefit.
In other news, the Los Angeles Times editorial board expresses its doubts about the proposed Downtown LA streetcar amidst clearer construction cost estimates… and the feeling is mutual in this response to the editorial. The Los Angeles Downtown News published a much lengthier editorial denouncing Angels Flight management for various lapses of judgment while operating the historic funicular, even as the National Transportation Safety Board faulted the funicular’s lack of safety features. Also, NBCUniversal continues to bring local audiovisual content to video screens across the Southland, with the venture now expanding into TransitTV. This means that bus riders will now have an hour of NBC programming piped into those ubiquitous TV screens and into their commutes, much to their dismay.
Meanwhile, the LADOT continues to receive heat for the proposed configuration of the Hyperion Avenue Bridge that is set for a seismic retrofit. LADOT proposes widening existing road lanes with few provisions for bicyclists and pedestrians. The LADOT recently held the first official meeting on the project, where bicyclists expressed concern that the proposed design further endangers bicyclists who must share lanes with drivers. Amidst the complaints registered by attendees, Tomas O’Grady of Enrich LA proposed an alternative configuration that calls for a road diet through the bridge, a bike path on one side of the same bridge and another bridge connecting said bike path to a separate proposed bike bridge that would traverse the Los Angeles River.
In tune with the increased visibility of bicycle advocates, the Los Angeles Times printed another set of articles that discussed the viability and culture of bike travel in Los Angeles. Columnist Paul Whitefield laments the perceived imposition of bicyclists on city streets in a “Quixotic quest” to make them equal to automobile travelers. Despite advances by municipalities to improve safety and promote bike usage, most commuters remain hesitant at biking to work or anywhere else. Encouraging bicyclists to “share the road” instead of building segregated and safe bike paths endangers these same cyclists who will almost always lose when a car hits them, according to Whitefield. Case in point: Wilshire Boulevard, which has no bike lanes but cyclists brave the street anyway, as columnist Ted Rogers explained.
Over the years, LAX has slowly bought properties in Manchester Square in hopes of either using the properties to expand the airport or at least create new air-related facilities. Instead of using eminent domain to purchase the properties all at once, however, the airport has negotiated sales with individual property owners. While most owners sold their properties to LAX, others have held out and stayed in the neighborhood. This has led to a rather eerie sight: Some houses continue to stand even as they are completely surrounded by barren lots.
Finally, KCET offers a photo essay on the construction of Wilshire Boulevard east of MacArthur Park. Today it is hard to fathom that the boulevard actually had its eastern end at the aforementioned park. However, various interests came together to formulate and advance an extension of Wilshire Boulevard, which served communities as far west as Santa Monica, to Downtown LA. Construction of the extended boulevard involved purchasing properties, demolishing numerous buildings and crossing MacArthur Park. The new road opened in 1934.
With no political valor to raise the federal gas tax, some are looking towards a replacement tax that is based on how many miles a vehicle traveled. Technology has sufficiently advanced to the point where innocuous “black boxes” can be installed in cars to record such information, so that relevant agencies can charge the user accordingly. Agencies can further charge drivers according to the weight of their vehicles if they so choose. However, privacy remains the main issue as to why the concept has not been implemented, as this letter to the editor made clear. Some are concerned that if the technology is GPS-based, law enforcement agencies could track vehicle movements instantly. Also, the notion of a vehicle-miles-based tax may very well betray the notion that transportation facilities benefit “the broad public interest” in a myriad of ways, even if some people do not directly use such facilities.