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FHWA Proposes to Let States Fail Their Own Safety Goals With Impunity

Secretary Anthony Foxx has made clear that safety — and specifically, safety for bicyclists and pedestrians — is a priority of his administration. If that’s true, his administration sure has a funny way of showing it.

More of this happening on your state's roadways? Bring it! FHWA doesn't mind. Photo: ##http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2012/02/two_drivers_sent_to_area_hospi.html##Post-Standard##

More of this happening on your state’s roadways? Bring it! FHWA doesn’t mind. Photo: Post-Standard

The Federal Highway Administration’s proposal on safety performance measures allows states to fail to meet half their own safety targets without consequences. And it gives the seal of approval to worsening safety performance as long as people in that state are driving more.

The MAP-21 transportation bill was cheered for instituting performance measures, but it left it the details up to U.S. DOT. The first of three Notices of Proposed Rulemakings — U.S. DOT’s proposals for how to set up this system of accountability — was released earlier this week. This one is on safety; the next two will be on 1) infrastructure condition and 2) congestion and system performance. These rulemakings are slipping behind schedule but were always expected to be implemented well after MAP-21 expires September 30.

People on foot and on bikes “left out”

First, bike and pedestrian advocates are bitterly disappointed that their demand for a separate performance measure on vulnerable road users was not included. “Once again, bicyclists have been left out,” said Bike League President Andy Clarke in a blog post Tuesday. “We know that without a specific target to focus the attention of state DOTs and USDOT on reducing bicyclist and pedestrian deaths within the overall number — we get lost in the shuffle.”

DOT is requesting comments on how a performance measure for bicyclists and pedestrians might be possible, but also makes clear it’s unlikely to implement one. The agency says it’s looking for the smallest possible number of performance measures, noting that “separating specific types of fatalities… leads to numbers too statistically small to provide sufficient validity for developing targets.”

We’ve asked FHWA for comment for this story. We’ll update when we hear back.

50 percent failure = A for effort

The only four performance measures FHWA is requiring are: 1) number of fatalities, 2) rate of fatalities, 3) number of serious injuries, and 4) rate of serious injuries. States can choose to add separate targets for urbanized and non-urbanized areas.

Things go from bad to worse in Section 490.211: “Determining Whether a State DOT Has Made Significant Progress Toward Achieving Performance Targets.” Here, it becomes clear that FHWA intends to let states skirt accountability entirely.

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Anthony Foxx: Bicycle Infrastructure Can Be a “Ladder of Opportunity”

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won't stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the ##http://www.bikeleague.org/content/sec-foxx-shares-support-bikes##Bike League##

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won’t stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the Bike League

This morning, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s blog post is all about bicycling. He opens by touting the complete streets policy he helped implement in Charlotte (it passed before he was mayor) and the city’s bike-share system — the largest in the Southeast.

His post follows on his speech yesterday to the National Bike Summit, which began with this frank admission: “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, became the darling of the bike movement when he stood on a table at the 2010 Summit and affirmed his commitment to safe cycling, later declaring “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Foxx’s speech was less fiery but showed his commitment to the issue. He mentioned that he himself had been the victim of a crash while jogging in Charlotte, and while he wasn’t hurt, he’s aware how lucky he was that it didn’t turn out differently.

“All across our country, every day, there are accidents and injuries — and unfortunately sometimes even fatalities — that occur among the bicycle and pedestrian communities,” Foxx told the Summit audience. “I didn’t tolerate it as a mayor. And as U.S. secretary of transportation we certainly won’t stand still and allow this crisis to slowly build up over time.”

“Our roads should be safe,” he went on. “They should be easy places to travel no matter how we are traveling on them.”

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: U.S. DOT Fails to Get Travel Forecasting Right

The U.S. Department of Transportation seems to be stuck in a bizarre time warp.  For nine years in a row Americans have decreased their average driving miles. Yet U.S. DOT’s most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation’s transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030.

Times have changed. Why hasn't DOT gotten the memo? Image: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/5124536635/##Flickr/James Vaughan##

Times have changed. Why hasn’t DOT gotten the memo? Image: Flickr/James Vaughan

Just how out of whack is that forecast? Consider the following:

  • Vehicle travel hasn’t increased by even 1 percent in any year since 2004. Yet the U.S. DOT assumes that driving will increase at a rate significantly faster than that every year on average through 2030.
  • The new report uses for one of its two scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999.
  • In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn’t even get the past right. The report “projects” (based on 2010 data) that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone.

Why should we care about all this? With transportation funds increasingly scarce — and especially with Congress due to reauthorize the nation’s transportation law — policy-makers need good guidance about where to invest. A sensible approach, especially given the recent decline in driving and increasing demand for transit, would be to plow a greater share of those limited resources into expanding access to public transportation and active transportation modes while focusing highway spending on fixing our existing roads and bridges.

Instead, the U.S. DOT’s travel forecast is used as justification to propose a dramatic increase in highway spending to fund all the new and expanded highways that the DOT presumes we’ll need to accommodate all of those imagined new cars and drivers. The agency asserts that the nation would need to spend between $124 billion and $146 billion each year to maintain and improve the highway system — numbers that are sure to find their way immediately into highway lobby press releases and be repeatedly cited in congressional hearings.

What makes the DOT forecast so bewildering is that the agency — elsewhere in the very same document — acknowledges the strong possibility that many of the factors that have caused the recent drop in driving may be long-lasting. The report states:

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Secretary Foxx Pledges to Make Bike/Ped Safety a Priority

Pedestrian crash statistics aren’t just numbers to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. He himself was the victim of one of those crashes once, while out jogging. “I got lucky,” he told a packed room at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board today. “But there are lots of people out there that aren’t so lucky.”

Sec. Anthony Foxx announced his transportation priorities today, including an increased focus on safety for modes that historically get ignored. Photo by Nancy Pierce, ##http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/blog/queen_city_agenda/2013/02/anthony-foxx-jerry-orr-share-a-happy.html?s=image_gallery##Charlotte Business Journal##

Sec. Anthony Foxx announced his transportation priorities today, including an increased focus on safety for modes that historically get ignored. Photo by Nancy Pierce, Charlotte Business Journal

He said he saw an uptick in the number of pedestrians and bicyclists injured on the roads while he was mayor of Charlotte — and that these numbers are trending upward not just in that city, but around the country. “So over my tenure as secretary of transportation you can expect me to focus some attention on pedestrian and bicycle safety,” he said.

TRB is a major event that draws several thousand transportation professionals and academics from around the world.

Foxx said that after a recent airplane trip, his 9-year-old daughter brought him her list of transportation priorities (including bigger airplane bathrooms and no ear popping) and he figured if his daughter had already announced her transportation priorities, maybe he should do the same.

One of those priorities is to “look out for modes that traditionally don’t get much attention” like bicycling and walking.

The secretary highlighted equity not just among modes, but among people of different incomes. He said transportation should connect everyone, no matter where they live, to the 21st century economy:

I happen to know what happens when that doesn’t happen. Growing up in my hometown of Charlotte, I saw the indent of a highway loop that separated one part of the city from its central business district, and another highway project that divided a neighborhood in half, creating more stress on already stressed communities.

Foxx also highlighted the power of transportation to shape our communities. “I don’t think transportation should just help us get places better,” he said. “It should help us make places better — and help improve the quality of life of people all across our country.”

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NHTSA Chief David Strickland Gets Caught in the Revolving Door

When David Strickland announced last month that he was stepping down as the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he didn’t give any clues about where he might be going. The news came out this week: The nation’s top auto regulator is going to be a lobbyist at a law firm that deals with auto regulation, raising concerns that he’s going through the revolving door between the public and private sector, more to the benefit of industry than the public.

Will the nation's top auto safety watchdog become a lobbyist for the auto industry? Photo: ##http://www.autoweek.com/article/20110620/carnews/110629985##Auto Week##

Will the nation’s top auto safety watchdog become a lobbyist for the auto industry? Photo: Auto Week

At Venable, LLC — also known for fighting the government moratorium on offshore drilling after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster — Strickland will work on government relations (a fancy term for lobbying) as part of the firm’s regulatory group, which represents many major automakers on a variety of matters — “including some before NHTSA,” as The Detroit News notes.

In an interview with the LegalTimes blog, Strickland said he’s excited to work on legal issues surrounding self-driving cars and other emerging technologies.

Venable’s Venerable Clients in the Automotive Industry

Venable represents the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the National Auto Auction Association, the National Automotive Finance Association, and other industry groups — and those are just the nonprofits, which are the only clients Venable lists publicly. Consumer Affairs notes that “Venable has billed $1.1 million for its services to Chrysler over the last five years.”

“Venable’s automotive industry attorneys represent auto industry players in litigation and transactions work across the country,” the law firm’s website boasts. “We have been part of the industry for years, and we have worked through every industry issue with every type of industry player.”

The firm claims credit for “winning the 10-year environmental battle to build Utah’s Legacy Parkway,” helping UDOT get wetlands and other permits to build a four-lane highway along the Great Salt Lake despite court challenges by concerned environmental groups.

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Streetsblog’s Suggested Edits to U.S. DOT’s Seven Priorities for 2014

Just before we went on holiday break, U.S. DOT’s Inspector General’s office released a document [PDF] detailing the department’s top challenges for the year ahead. The document calls them “management challenges” but by and large it’s just a list of seven things the Inspector General thinks DOT needs to do to meet its mission of providing a “safe and well-managed transportation system” to strengthen the U.S. economy and improve “the quality of life for the traveling public.”

For starters, let's agree that the solution to traffic congestion on roads like this isn't to build more roads like this. Photo: flickr/##http://www.flickr.com/photos/atwatervillage/842866223/##Atwater Village Newbie##

For starters, let’s agree that the solution to traffic congestion on roads like this isn’t to build more roads like this. Photo: Atwater Village Newbie/flickr

Here are the seven priorities the Inspector General came up with:

  1. Improving FAA’s Oversight of the Aviation Industry and the Operations of the National Airspace System
  2. Identifying and Addressing Root Causes of Problems With NextGen and Setting Investment Priorities
  3. Continuing Actions To Strengthen Highway, Transit, and Pipeline Safety
  4. Improving Oversight of Surface Infrastructure Investments and Implementing Statutory Requirements
  5. Implementing Requirements To Address the Federal Railroad Administration’s Expanded and Traditional Responsibilities
  6. Managing Acquisitions and Contracts To Achieve Results and Save Taxpayer Dollars
  7. Building a Secure and Modern Information Technology Infrastructure

All worthy goals, but we have a few more things we’d humbly submit to DOT for their 2014 to-do list:

  1. Replace Polly Trottenberg with someone exactly like her. We’d be crushed to see a new policy chief at DOT who didn’t share Trottenberg’s commitment to breaking down modal siloes, reconsidering old traffic projections and transportation plans, and protecting taxpayers from wasteful projects that perpetuate an outdated and unsustainable system. Trottenberg was an excellent replacement for Roy Kienitz, whom we also still miss. May the legacy of first-rate Under Secretaries for Policy continue. (And while we’re on the subject, may ex-FHWA chief Victor Mendez be as consistent an advocate for walking and biking as his predecessor in the Deputy Secretary position, John Porcari.)
  2. Measure congestion in a way that doesn’t create more traffic. If the problem you’re trying to solve is that people are wasting too much time behind the wheel, then it makes no sense to build roads that cause people to drive even longer distances. And yet, the traditional performance measurement for congestion leads to exactly this outcome. Instead, the metric for congestion should be based on considerations like total travel time and the diversity of transportation options, not how car commutes stack up against the impossible ideal of free-flowing traffic. Also, “system performance” should be defined more broadly than just roadway speed.

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Leadership Shakeup at U.S. DOT: What Will It Mean for Transit and Biking?

Two of the Obama administration’s top transportation officials are heading elsewhere, creating a leadership shake-up at U.S. DOT.

As you may have heard, U.S. DOT Under Secretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg was tapped by incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to head the city’s transportation department this week. Also on the way out is Deputy Secretary John Porcari, number two under Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Porcari is leaving for the private sector.

U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari is leaving for the private sector, one of a handful of high-ranking officials leaving the agency. Image: U.S. DOT

U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari is departing for the private sector, and he’s not the only high-ranking official leaving the agency. Image: U.S. DOT

Trottenberg’s most important contribution may have been shaping TIGER, the popular competitive grant program that helped fund items from the Atlanta streetcar to Rochester’s Inner-Loop highway teardown. She was also instrumental in FHWA’s endorsement of the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Bikeway Design Guide, giving the federal government’s seal of approval to protected bike lanes.

League of American Bicyclists Director Andy Clarke wrote on the league’s blog that Porcari had made major contributions to U.S. DOT’s sustainability efforts advanced under Ray LaHood:

The departure of Deputy Secretary Porcari is a real shame for our issues. He, like his former boss Ray LaHood, just seemed to get the whole livability thing and the role bikes (and walking, and transit) play in creating communities with real transportation choices and a higher quality of life.

Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, said she has worked with both Trottenberg and Porcari and she is “sad to see them leave,” but optimistic that the agency’s progress won’t be slowed.

“I think they have been incredibly effective and instrumental in changing the course of that agency — sort of achieving Ray LaHood’s vision in making sure that U.S. DOT is responsive and relevant and really up to speed with what’s happening in terms of transportation across the country.”

Porcari will be replaced by Victor Mendez, who formerly ran the Federal Highway Administration, which Clarke called a “traditionally conservative” agency. Prior to his role at FHWA, Mendez worked for the Arizona Department of Transportation.

“Mendez doesn’t come as naturally to the bike issue as Porcari – although he is a keen runner — and FHWA hasn’t really embraced the emerging national bike culture under his tenure,” he wrote.

But Roskowski said Mendez has been supportive of her group’s efforts to advance high-quality bike infrastructure. He even attended the Green Lane Project’s kickoff last spring.

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New Layer of Red Tape From FHWA Threatens to Delay NYC Bike Projects

The Federal Highway Administration is seeking to impose a new layer of bureaucratic review on New York City bike projects, which could significantly delay the implementation of street redesigns that have proven to reduce traffic injuries and deaths.

The Federal Highway Administration wants to impose a level of bureaucratic review that could delay projects like the Kent Avenue bike lane by one to two years. Photo: NYC DOT

According to a source in city government, FHWA wants the New York State DOT to review each individual NYC bike project design before releasing federal funds for implementation. This would be a major departure from the existing practice in which the state DOT approves a package of bike projects for funding simultaneously, without performing design reviews of each one. If the state DOT starts reviewing every single NYC bike project going forward, it could dramatically slow down the addition of new bike lanes, delaying each by up to two years, the city official said.

Currently, NYC DOT pays for many of its bike projects using funds from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. These CMAQ grants have laid the foundation for the city’s bike network expansion over the past six years. The federal grants first pass through the state DOT, which then releases the funds to the city.

According to the state DOT, the state has to review federally-funded projects classified as capital construction. NYC bikeways are implemented primarily through contracts that involve striping but not capital construction, and the state DOT confirmed that for years most bike lanes have been built without being classified as “construction projects.” FHWA now wants to reclassify bike lanes, triggering the more time-consuming review procedure.

While the impetus to reclassify bike lanes appears to have originated with state DOT sometime earlier this year, the agency has since backed away from the idea. The feds remain intent on pursuing the much more time-consuming process, however, with FHWA saying it is applying review protocols established by the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act.

The city official says the review procedure is flexible, and there is no need to reclassify bike lanes. The current, streamlined review procedure has led to the implementation of projects all over the city with demonstrable safety benefits, routinely lowering the rate of traffic injuries by more than 25 percent [PDF].

Street safety advocates are alarmed at the prospect of a much lengthier bureaucratic review for New York City bike improvements. “The current process is working well, and has dramatically improved safety for bikers, pedestrians and motorists alike,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Such onerous red tape would add cost and delay and would effectively put lives in jeopardy while making it virtually impossible for Mayor-elect de Blasio to achieve his goal of increasing bicycling and reducing fatalities and injuries.”

The American transportation agency with the most extensive track record of installing bike lanes on urban streets is NYC DOT, and the safety record of the agency’s bike projects is unequivocally positive. One reason that New York City has been able to deploy bike projects as quickly as it has is the lack of interference from agencies higher up the funding pyramid. Other cities haven’t been so fortunate.

FHWA is seeking to impose needless oversight that will tie up sustainable transportation projects in the name of “environmental review” — how perverse is that?

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HUD and U.S. DOT Embrace Housing + Transportation Metric for Affordability

philly_housing

Looking only at housing costs (top map), much more far-flung parts of the Philadelphia region look affordable (the yellow areas) than if you look at housing and transportation costs together (bottom map). Maps: CNT

A few years ago, the Center for Neighborhood Technology gave a wonderful gift to urbanists and planners: the Housing + Transportation Index. This simple calculation clarified and popularized a key concept: that transportation costs must be taken into account in any measurement of “affordability.”

Without that, potential homebuyers and renters make the mistake of “saving” money by buying a home far outside the city, only to see those savings vanish when they end up driving multiple cars hundreds of miles per week, racking up fuel and maintenance expenses. The H+T index is a simple tool for making better decisions — for families, for planners, and for the federal government.

Today, U.S. DOT and HUD announced that they’re launching a new version of H+T. They’re calling it the Location Affordability Index, and CNT helped develop it. LAI differs from H+T in some key ways (here’s an infographic detailing those differences) but at its root, it gets at the same important question: Where is the best place to live without breaking the bank?

CNT answers that question by showing the huge variations between two maps: one that shows places where the median household pays 30 percent or more of their income on housing, and one that shows places where those households pay 45 percent or more of their income on housing and transportation combined.

The maps show how intimately linked transportation and housing are when determining cost of living, as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told reporters today. “For any housing community to succeed, its residents need to be able to get to work, its young people need to be able to get to school, and its families need to be able to access critical resources and services they need,” Donovan said.

philly_ht

Areas farther from the city center no longer appear affordable when transportation costs are factored in.

Donovan noted that for most families, transportation is their second-highest monthly expense, after housing, but said transportation costs aren’t always so easily tabulated. You don’t get one transportation bill in the mail, the way you get your mortgage or rent bill. Transportation costs are paid in dribs and drabs — a tank of gas here, a bus fare there, a parking ticket, a taxi ride, an oil change. The LAI index helps quantify how those costs add up, and see if the transportation requirements of a particular geographic area render it unaffordable.

“It can sometimes be tricky to weigh the pros and cons of all of these options,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Does it make more sense to live in a community where you have to drive to work every day? Or might it be a better bargain to live where you can walk, bike or ride public transportation? That’s where the Location Affordability Portal comes in.”

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Government Shutdown to End, Leaving Transit Agencies to Pick Up the Pieces

Congratulations, gentle Congresspeople. You have come up with a deeply flawed solution to a problem only you would create. Never mind that it set up another showdown three months from now. The good news is the government shutdown is almost over, for the moment. More than 18,000 furloughed U.S. DOT officials can return to work.

Stoddard County, Missouri, was planning to take all 10 of its transit vehicles out of service today because the shutdown had dried up funds. Photo: Stoddard County Transit

While highway work continued practically uninterrupted and more than 24,000 air traffic controllers kept the skies safe, the shutdown halted funding reimbursements to local transit agencies from both federal and state entities. The North Carolina DOT’s public transportation division ceased operations entirely, furloughing 22 federally funded positions. Stoddard County, Missouri, planned to shut down its transit system today, threatening to lay off all seven of its drivers and strand many people who depend on the service. Nearby counties appeared to be on the brink of following suit.

In California, environmental reviews were stalled and project delivery times — which Congressional Republicans were dead set on accelerating with the last transportation bill — were extended.

In Hampton Roads, Virginia, two transit expansion studies were halted due to the hold-up of federal support.

Moody’s Investors Service declared GARVEE bonds, issued to help fund transit, to be the single most vulnerable kind of debt in the shutdown. The name, after all, is an acronym for “Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles” — and if you can’t anticipate any revenue from federal grants, you’re kind of screwed.

As the shutdown hit, it also sent FTA employees home early from the American Public Transportation Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Many had gone there hoping to maximize their time with transit officials from around the country, since the sequester had slashed the agency’s travel budget and they don’t get to have as many face-to-face meetings as they used to. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff called the shutdown “maddening,” “demoralizing,” “insulting,” and “unnecessary.”

It’s unclear when furloughed employees will return to work.