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Uncle Sam Wants You to Drive: 5 Tax Breaks for Cars in the U.S. Tax Code

It’s April 15. If you bought an electric car in 2013, you can claim a tax break today. If you bought a plug-in hybrid, you can get a tax break today. But if you don’t own a car and walk to work instead? Sorry, Charlie.

Drive too much? Congratulations, you get a tax break. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/86530412@N02/8264919801/##Chris Potter/flickr##

Bought a shiny new electric car? Congratulations, you get a huge tax break. Photo: Chris Potter/Flickr

There’s a whole array of goodies in the U.S. tax code for drivers, the automobile industry, and oil companies. Here are the ABC’s (and the DE’s) of these tax-day gifts that help clog our streets with cars.

Alternative vehicle logistics. President Obama wants to extend the tax break for people who invest in properties involved in the production of advanced vehicles or the fuels they use. The Treasury Department argues that the $2.3 billion allocated for this incentive under the 2009 stimulus wasn’t enough, and that it didn’t reach more than two-thirds of eligible applicants.

Biofuels. You can get a dollar from Uncle Sam for every gallon of biodiesel you produce, though this is the last year for that one.

Car commuting and driving for work. The granddaddy of all tax incentives for driving is the $250 per month that car commuters can claim in tax-free income to cover parking expenses. Once you’re on the clock, your driving expenses are also eligible for a tax deduction. The IRS lets you write off 56.5 cents for every mile you drive for your job. As Turbo Tax’s fact sheet says plainly: “More miles, more money.” You can even write off trips to search for a job, see a rental property you own, or do volunteer work (though that one gets a lower rate). In some cases, you can even claim deductions for car washing and polishing.

Drilling. Oil companies can write off costs associated with drilling and for the amount of oil taken out of (“depleted” from) their wells. They also get a big thank-you from Uncle Sam for not exporting jobs to China. According to The Atlantic, those three tax expenditures alone will cost taxpayers $37 billion over the next decade. Despite repeated efforts to repeal these subsidies, including for deficit-reduction purposes, they live on.

EVs. The Obama administration announced last month that the tax incentives for alternative fuel vehicles aren’t big enough yet. The White House wants to increase the maximum tax credit for purchasing electric vehicles from $7,500 to $10,000 and broaden it to include a wider range of “advanced technology vehicles.” The reason? President Obama thinks putting a million of these cars on the road by 2015 would “reduce dependence on foreign oil and lead to a reduction in oil consumption of about 750 million barrels through 2030.”

Read more…

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Editorial: Why Raise Fares When Metro’s Building Even More Free Parking?

Foothill Gold Line's Azusa-Alameda Station not-so-innovative site plan - 200 more parking spaces coming on line next year. Source: Gold Line Construction Authority website

Foothill Gold Line’s Azusa-Alameda Station site plan means 200 more surface parking spaces due to open in 2015. Source: Gold Line Construction Authority website

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an editorial asking Why Raise Metro Fares While Giving Away Metro Parking? At the time, I totaled parking for Metro’s BRT and rail lines at 19,450 parking spaces. Despite Metro’s plan to increase transit fares, the agency has no plan to increase parking charges. Metro gives more than 9 out of 10 spaces away for free. I did a conservative estimate of Metro’s parking revenue potential to be at least $3.5 million per year.

Turns out that it gets worse. Or better, depending on your point of view.

Metro’s building lots and lots of lots.

There are 2,435 more Metro parking spaces under construction. When the Gold Line Foothill extension opens in 2015, Metro will break the 20,000 mark with 1,525 new parking spaces. Also in 2015, Expo phase 2 will add 580 new parking spaces. In 2019, the Crenshaw Line will add 330 new parking spaces.

Metro’s overall total rail/BRT parking spaces will climb to 21,885. Using the same very conservative assumptions, I estimate that, with the additional spaces, Metro’s parking revenue potential will be at least $4.3 million per year.

After the earlier article, via Twitter and via the Source, Metro responded with the “doesn’t go far enough” argument:

Of course, $3.5 million doesn’t cover the projected budget shortfalls that Metro is projecting and using to justify the fare increases (the shortfalls begin at $36 million in FY 2016 and then rise).

I’ve always found this sort of assertion to be disingenuous. It’s sort of like being in a boat that’s leaking in five places, and refusing to fix one hole, because it doesn’t fix all of them at once.

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DC Inspires Bike Lane Envy With Curb-Protected Cycling

The new 1st Street curb-protected bike lane takes shape. Photo: BeyondDC/Flickr

Here’s a good sign that protected bike lanes are here to stay in American cities: Cities are increasingly trading plastic bollards for concrete curbs, making the lanes a more permanent feature of the landscape.

As I reported for People for Bikes last year, Chicago, Austin, Seattle, New York and Portland have all either installed or plan to install curb-protected bike lanes. The latest city to join this elite group is Washington, DC.

Dan Malouff at Greater Greater Washington explains the new bike lanes coming to M Street and 1st Street in the nation’s capital:

Their designs are a step up from previous DC cycletracks, since they each include spots — though on M, a very brief spot — where a full concrete curb separates bikes from cars.

The 1st Street NE cycletrack connects the Metropolitan Branch Trail to Union Station and downtown DC. DDOT installed its curb last week, from K Street to M Street. Crews are still working on striping and signals, but the project is close to opening.

Read more…

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Today’s Headlines

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CA Sen. Steinberg Proposes New Spending Plan for Cap-and-Trade Revenue

Senator Darrell Steinberg’s new proposed spending plan for CA cap-and-trade revenue.

Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) announced a proposed plan to create a permanent spending strategy for cap-and-trade revenue [PDF] that prioritizes investments in affordable transit-oriented housing, transit expansion, and CA high-speed rail. Unlike the Governor’s plan for this year’s budget, Senate Bill 1156 also proposes investments in “complete streets” and transit operations.

Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento)

Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento)

Calling the plan a “long-term investment strategy in greenhouse gas emissions,” Steinberg said he wanted to spark a “healthy debate” about how the state should spend the revenue collected via the state’s cap-and-trade system created under A.B. 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

“This strategy is designed to achieve the objectives of A.B. 32 through significant reductions in greenhouse gas and the direction of public and private investment to California’s low-income and disadvantaged communities, which are disproportionately burdened by air pollution and the effects of climate change,” Steinberg said in a press release.

Steinberg’s staff emphasized that the plan provides a permanent funding stream for affordable, transit-oriented housing and mass transit, which are key to reaching the goals of A.B. 32 yet lack stable sources of funding. 

The proposal replaces a bill Steinberg introduced in February to replace cap-and-trade with a carbon tax. Steinberg acknowledged that the carbon tax proposal was “not that popular,” and said that the current proposal was a product of the debate provoked by the earlier bill.

A.B. 32 requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and calls for the California Air Resources Board to create a market system for helping achieve those reductions. In response, CARB created a cap on emissions from GHG producers and an auction system to allow those who don’t meet the cap to buy emission “credits” from those who do. This cap-and-trade system currently applies to the state’s manufacturing sector, and is scheduled to include fuel producers next year.

Meanwhile, the auctions are producing revenue, which by law must be spent on further reducing GHG emissions to help California reach A.B. 32′s the goals.

Steinberg’s proposal was well-received by transit advocates. Read more…

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How Does LA City’s Mobility Plan Modify Its 3-Year-Old Bike Plan?

LA City Planning Dept graphic showing how the bike plan does and doesn't become the Mobility Plan. From the DCP handout: Where did the Bicycle Plan go?

LA City Planning Department graphic showing how the bike plan does and doesn’t become the Mobility Plan. From the DCP handout: Where did the Bicycle Plan go?

Streetsblog readers are probably aware that the city of Los Angeles Department of City Planning (DCP) is currently updating the Transportation Element of the city’s General Plan. The Transportation Element has a great deal of influence over what L.A.’s streets look like, and which uses they prioritize.

The new Transportation Element, called Mobility Plan 2035,  has been released in draft form. For a plan overview, read SBLA’s Mobility Plan review, and also read SBLA’s series of Community Voices on the Mobility Plan: part one, two, and three. Read the plan documents and summaries at the DCP’s LA/2B website. DCP just concluded a series of community forums, but is still receiving public comment through May 13, 2014.

In the past, the Transportation Element included a somewhat independent bike section, called the Bicycle Master Plan. In 2011, after much controversy and struggle, the city adopted its latest bike plan, titled the 2010 Bike Plan. That plan is currently in effect, governing what streets are approved for bike lanes, as well as a host of other bicycle related policies.

At its community forum meetings, DCP distributed a handout entitled Where did the Bicycle Plan go? which states, in part:

The goals, objectives, policies and programs of the 2010 Bicycle Plan are incorporated into Mobility Plan 2035, which lays the policy foundation necessary for the City to plan, design and operate streets that accommodate all users including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and motorists. [...]

A few components of the 2010 Bicycle Plan have been modified during the Plan’s integration into Mobility Plan 2035. These modifications were made in order to reflect the latest input from the community, as well as to reflect further refinements of the bikeway system.

The details of the “few components [that] have been modified” are not entirely clear.

Bike Plan facilities have been carried over into the new Mobility Plan, but there’s no clear thorough accounting of what’s in and what’s not in. DCP lists a category called “Deferred Backbone” (the gray oval in their chart above) of 195 miles of streets that were approved in 2011, but, in DCP’s designation, just won’t happen before 2035, so they’re out.

The handout also states that the Neighborhood Network is “relatively unchanged.” Relatively unchanged never quite means a little more bikeway mileage. According to the stated totals, the Neighborhood Network appears to have lost 5 miles. The 2010 plan totals say there will be 825 miles of bikeways. The draft Mobility Plan shows a total of 820 miles: 50 miles in the Bicycle Enhanced Network (BEN) plus 770 miles in the remaining Neighborhood Network.

Which 5 miles are missing? Or was new mileage added, and more than five deleted? It’s hard to tell. It’s a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.

Read more…

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How Will a New FRA Rule Affect Commuter Rail?

Misguided safety rules from the Federal Railroad Administration are cited as the cause for all sorts of problems, from high-construction costs to pedestrian hazards to, ironically, worse safety outcomes.

Would a new FRA regulation dampen commuter rail expansion across the U.S.? Photo: Richard Masoner via Flickr

Transit observers are concerned that a new FRA regulation may hamper commuter rail expansion. Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr

Which helps explain why Jarret Walker at Network blog Human Transit is alarmed about a new rule “requiring two-person train crews… for most main line freight and passenger rail operations.” It’s “much too soon to panic,” Walker says, but he was still compelled to send the FRA his concerns about how this might play out for commuter rail:

The language creates a reasonable suspicion you are about to ban one-person crews on urban commuter rail services regulated by the FRA, which usually fall within FRA’s use of the term “passenger rail.” While the text is unclear about what “minimum crew size” standard it proposes for “passenger rail,” it makes no sense that you would need to “establish minimum crew size standards” if the intended minimum were one.

Your release mentions later that the rule is expected to contain “appropriate exceptions.” It would be wise to give the transit and urban development worlds some assurance that you don’t plan to shut down the possibility of one-person-crew urban transit — using FRA-regulated rail corridors — through this rule. Such services — similar to existing commuter rail but with higher frequency and smaller vehicles — are one of the best hopes for cost-effective new rail transit in the US.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Velo reports that Indianapolis is getting ready to launch its bike-share system. Strong Towns gives advice for communities that don’t have much of a biking and walking culture but are trying to change that. And Urban Review STL reports that a new hospital expansion in St. Louis is coming with an immense parking garage.

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Students Re-Envision Their Neighborhood Through Interactive Workshop

Roosevelt students looking for building materials Photo by James Rojas

Roosevelt students looking for building materials. Photo by James Rojas

“Mister, who’s coming to class today?” asked a curious student from Gene Dean’s 9th grade English class at Roosevelt High School.

As the rest of the class began to take their seats, they took notice of the two tables filled with a random assortment of trinkets and knick-knacks, prompting another student to ask, “Are those toys for kids?”

Enter urban planner James Rojas, who excitedly engaged the students by asking them if they knew what an urban planner did.

Although the answers might have fallen into the category of “kids say the darndest things,” the laughs broke up the awkwardness and allowed Rojas to introduce his interactive “Place It!” workshop. Three of Dean’s 9th grade English classes participated last Monday, a change from the normal routine of reading and essays that students clearly didn’t mind one bit.

Rojas describes his approach to workshops as one that offers “an opportunity for individuals to think critically about spatial organization and urban space and how it affects their everyday lives. The workshops are a means by which participants can imagine how their cities and neighborhoods could be organized differently.”

Urban planner James Rojas leads students through his PLACE IT! workshop Photo by Erick Huerta

Urban planner James Rojas leads students through his PLACE IT! workshop. Photo by Erick Huerta

Having participated in several of Rojas’ workshops before, I knew that while his methodology and execution are consistent, no two workshops are ever the same, and therein lies the beauty of the approach.

The workshops started simply enough, with Dean asking his students to write about a favorite childhood memory in their journals. Rojas followed up by having the kids build small-scale models of their memory, using materials found on the tables.

While some of the kids bemoaned that they didn’t have a favorite memory or that they couldn’t remember anything, none seemed to have any problem scrambling toward the tables to rummage around for items to build with.

From happier memories of going to Disneyland, weddings, and holiday celebrations to more somber ones of family separation and painful accidents, students neither held back nor limited themselves. Read more…

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Bike Lanes Don’t Lead to Congestion, But Some of Them Should

johnson-congestion-minneapolis-1

After bike lanes were installed in Minneapolis, there were more cars per unit of road space, but still not enough to meet the threshold for congestion.

Gretchen Johnson and Aaron Johnson have posted a nice debunking of typical “war on cars” rhetoric over at fivethirtyeight.

Johnson and Johnson gathered before-and-after traffic data from 45 miles of streets where Minneapolis installed bike lanes. They also looked at how Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West bike lane affected traffic conditions.

They found, in short, that after the installation of bike lanes, traffic conditions did not meet the threshold of “heavy congestion,” and the impact on space for motor vehicles was moderate enough that drivers’ travel times would likely be unaffected.

None of the 10 Minneapolis streets reached a level where “minor incidents can cause traffic jams,” although the bike lanes did edge two streets into the “mild to moderate” congestion category. The authors, a transportation consultant and aeronautics Ph.D., write that this “mild to moderate” level is “where traffic is still moving smoothly but you might notice that it’s a bit harder to move from one lane to another.”

Meanwhile, on Prospect Park West, NYC DOT reported that there was no evidence that travel times increased after the installation of a two-way protected bike lane. The two Johnsons, after reviewing the data, say “we agree.”

These are the findings you would expect to see when a street redesign converts excess space for cars into room for bikes. Afterward, there’s less wide-open road space encouraging motorists to drive fast, and on Prospect Park West the city observed a big reduction in speeding after the bike lane was installed.

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The Week in Livable Streets Events

sblog_calendarSchools are on their Spring Breaks, most Council meetings are in recess, so our schedule is a little on the light side.

  • Wednesday – L.A. City’s Board of Public Works discusses mitigation measures for tree removal for construction of Metro’s Crenshaw line. A joint neighborhood council task force has been negotiating with Metro and the city of Los Angeles. The community is pressing for robust tree replacement, including maintenance commitment. The item has been postponed from today’s BPW agenda; agenda for the Wednesday 9:30 a.m. meeting should be available shortly here.
  • Wednesday, Thursday – The Metro Board of Directors’ host their committee meetings to discuss what will be discussed at next week’s Metro Board hearing. The agendas look a little light to me, a claim that bike share contracts could be released in May is the highlight that I can tell, but sometimes local transit reformers chime in with something I missed. Regardless, you can read all about them, here.
  • Thursday – The City of Los Angeles hosts an online primer for those interested in finding out how it’s doing implementing the 2009, 2010, 2011, 2010 Bike Plan. How are they doing? What does the future hold? Find out Thursday at 7 p.m. Get the details on Facebook.
  • Saturday - Pacoima Beautiful is programming a street closure at Bradley Street between Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Gardens from 10 am to 4 pm as a demonstration of what the area would look like if they had a plaza instead of street. The demonstration is part of a future People St application, so you could be seeing the future. Part of the plaza event includes an “interactive planning” session with James Rojas and two live models presented throughout the day on topics such as “Pacoima Wash 2050″ and “Plan your own Plaza.” The interactive modeling is part of a #LA2050 Listens series. For more details, click here.

If we missed something, or if there’s something we need to know for future weeks, drop us a line at damien@streetsblog.org.