April 9, 2012

Svante Goes to Washington

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Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 traveled to Washington, D.C. on March 14 in hopes of persuading the U.S. Department of Transportation to allocate funding for several Ithaca public works projects, including improvements to transit infrastructure and roadways. Myrick met with several congressional and administration officials during his visit to generate support for the projects.

The City of Ithaca has requested a total of $18.5 million in aid from the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program, which distributes grants by the USDOT to “fund projects that have a significant impact on the nation, a region or a metropolitan area,” according to the department’s website.

The program is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and is “intended to pay for transportation improvements that would directly lead to job creation and job retention and economic development,” according to Myrick.  For the 2012 fiscal year, the USDOT can give out up to $500 million in TIGER grants, to be awarded through a competitive application process.  Final applications were due on March 19.

While in Washington, Myrick visited the USDOT, which conducted the initial review of the application. He also met with the staffs of several members of Congress, including Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) to request that their offices send letters of support.

The trip allowed Myrick to hear constructive feedback directly from Congress, advising him on how to make Ithaca’s application as effective as possible.

“What I learned is that we have a very strong application,” Myrick said. “But … we also need to keep up the critical advocacy.”

Of the $18.5 million the city is seeking from the federal government, about $11 million will be allocated to public works construction and $7.5 million will be used for operational improvements, Bill Gray, Superintendent of Public Works for the City of Ithaca, said in an email.

If the application is approved, the TIGER grant would secure federal funding for about $12 million of this figure, according to Myrick. The rest of the proposed projects would be funded by the city, the state, the University and possibly by funds solicited from the private sector, he said.

“The city has committed $3.5 million,” Myrick said. “We look for the rest to come from those other sources.”

The TIGER proposal has several components, including rebuilding parts of Stewart Avenue, making it a smoother, stronger link between downtown and the University, improving the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit bus system and replacing the old transit infrastructure in the Commons, according to Gray. Myrick referred to the Commons as the open-air “Grand Central Terminal” of Ithaca, with thousands of pedestrians walking through each day.

The TIGER grant would also provide funding to dramatically improve TCAT service.  The proposal requests funding for new buses, improved bus shelters, traveler information systems that would announce bus arrival times and a transit information kiosk in the Commons.

These improvements would make the system “better, more comfortable, faster and more frequent than our standard bus line,” according to Doug Swarts, service development manager for TCAT.

If approved, the TIGER grant would allow TCAT to implement changes to more closely resemble bus rapid transit, a system that provides faster, more efficient service than traditional bus lines, Swarts said.  While the city is not looking to create independent lanes for public transportation vehicles, a characteristic of true BRT systems, it is looking to give buses priority over cars at intersections in order to reduce delays, Swarts said.

This is the fourth time the city has requested funds through the TIGER program, since the first round of grants in 2009. According to Swarts, the proposal is essentially the same as previous versions.

“Nothing substantively [has changed] other than that we’re trying to sell it better, more convincingly,” he said.

Myrick said the planners are working to incorporate the input of more Ithaca residents.

“They need to hear from a lot of Ithacans telling them exactly how important these funds are and how important this work is,” Myrick said.

Myrick said the federal government will likely decide whether or not to approve Ithaca’s request for a TIGER grant in June.

Original Author: Rebecca Friedman