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Posts from the U.S. DOT Category

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Federal Regulators Will Let U.S. Railroads Run Faster, More Efficient Trains

European-designed traincars are on their way to the U.S. Photo: Paris' high-speed TGV via Wikipedia

American passenger railroads will be able to save hundreds of millions of dollars annually by using trains designed to standard European specifications. Photo of France’s TGV, via Wikipedia

Why are American trains so expensive and yet so slow? One factor that rail advocates often point to is the Federal Railroad Administration and its rail safety regulations — rules that are finally on the verge of changing.

Antiquated regulations that date all the way back to the late 1800s (they were updated in the 1930s) compel American passenger rail operators to use trains designed like “high-velocity bank vaults,” as former Amtrak CEO David Gunn once put it. While European and Asian railcars became lighter and sleeker in recent decades without compromising safety records, FRA rules continued to insist on heavy, slow, outdated, and expensive equipment.

That finally appears set to change with the FRA’s release of new draft safety rules for traincars.

The FRA expects the new rules will enable railroads to use trains that are safer, more energy efficient, and cheaper to operate. The rules will allow American passenger train operators to purchase rolling stock designed to European safety standards (but not Japanese standards), without going through an expensive waiver process.

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Trump’s Pick for U.S. DOT Is GOP Insider Elaine Chao

Donald Trump has chosen Elaine Chao to serve as transportation secretary in his administration, according to Politico. Chao was secretary of labor under George W. Bush and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. An official announcement is expected shortly.

Chao has a long resume in federal government under Republican presidents. She served as deputy secretary of transportation under George H. W. Bush, rising through the agency from a post in maritime administration.

Chao’s family owns an international shipping empire, and her father is singlehandedly responsible for making McConnell one of the richest men in the Senate, according to the Nation.

While Chao has more experience in government and a less extreme ideological background than other Cabinet picks, she has been on the Trump team for a while, serving on the campaign’s Asian Pacific American Advisory Council, according to Politico.

Chao is no environmentalist, having resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies as a result of its “Beyond Coal” campaign. Her involvement with the foundation reportedly became an issue in McConnell’s reelection campaign in Kentucky. She’ll now be operating for a White House that denies the science of climate change. Federal efforts to coordinate transportation and land use policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may not survive in the Trump DOT, but that would have been the case no matter who landed the transportation secretary job.

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Will US DOT’s Self-Driving Car Rules Make Streets Safe for Walking and Biking?

This week, U.S. DOT released guidelines for self-driving cars, a significant step as regulators prepare for companies to bring this new technology to market. Autonomous vehicles raise all sorts of questions about urban transportation systems. It’s up to advocates to ensure that the technology helps accomplish broader goals like safer streets and more efficient use of urban space, instead of letting private companies dictate the terms.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

The rules that the feds put out will be revised over time, and the public can weigh in during that process. With that in mind, I’ve been reviewing the guidelines and talking to experts about the implications for city streets — and especially for pedestrian and cyclist safety. Here are a few key things to consider as regulations for self-driving cars get fleshed out.

Fully autonomous cars can’t break traffic laws.

The feds say self-driving cars should adhere to all traffic laws. In practice, this means they’ll have to do things like obey the speed limit and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Following the rules may be a pretty low bar to clear, but it’s more than most human drivers can say for themselves.

Transit advocate Ben Ross points out, however, that this standard will only apply to “highly automated vehicles” (HAVs). Cars that are lower down on the autonomy spectrum — where a person is deemed the driver, not a machine — wouldn’t need to have features that override human error.

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FHWA’s New Goal: Eliminating Pedestrian and Cyclist Deaths in America

Pedestrian and biking safety has been lagging. Can federal officials reverse the trend? Graph: FHWA

Pedestrian and cyclist deaths account for a growing share of traffic fatalities in America. Can federal officials reverse the trend? Graph: FHWA

The Federal Highway Administration wants to eliminate pedestrian and cyclist fatalities “in the next 20 to 30 years.” In a new strategic plan [PDF], the agency calls for reducing serious injuries and deaths 80 percent in the next 15 years, which would be an intermediate goal on the way to zero.

FHWA also calls for boosting the share of short trips Americans make by biking or walking. It defines short trips as five miles or less for bicyclists and one mile or less for pedestrians. The agency’s goal is to increase the share of these trips 50 percent by 2025 compared to 2009 levels.

Now for the bad news. As admirable as these goals may be, federal transportation officials have limited power to see them through. Decisions about transportation infrastructure and street design are mainly carried out by state and local governments.

Nevertheless, the feds do have some means to influence street safety by changing design standards and using the power of persuasion. FHWA can certainly help move local decisions in the right direction. To encourage safer transportation engineering, the agency says it will ramp up its professional training and recognize states for making progress on walking and biking.

Here’s a look at some of the more promising ideas in the agency’s plan.

Promote safer streets through better design standards

One obstacle to safe streets is the widespread application of highway-style engineering strategies to local streets where people walk and bike. Wider and straighter roads might be better for cars-only environments, but they are terrible for pedestrian and cyclist safety.

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Engineers to U.S. DOT: Transportation Is About More Than Moving Cars

A trade group representing the transportation engineering profession thinks it’s high time for American policy makers to stop focusing so much on moving single-occupancy vehicles.

Should roads like this be considered a "success?" ITE doesn't think so. Photo: Smart Growth America

Should roads like this be considered a success? ITE doesn’t think so. Photo: Smart Growth America

U.S. DOT is currently deciding how it will assess the performance of state DOTs. Will it continue business as usual and equate success with moving huge numbers of cars? That’s what state transportation officials want, but just about everyone else disagrees — including professional transportation engineers.

In its comments to the Federal Highway Administration about how to measure performance, the Institute of Transportation Engineers — a trade group representing 13,000 professionals — said that, in short, the system should not focus so heavily on cars [PDF].

Here’s a key excerpt:

Throughout the current proposed rulemaking on NHS performance, traffic congestion, freight mobility, and air quality, an underlying theme is apparent: these measures speak largely to the experience of those in single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). While such a focus is understandable in the short-term, owing largely to the current availability of data from the NPMRDS and other national sources, ITE and its membership feel that FHWA should move quickly within the framework of the existing performance management legislation to begin developing performance measures that cater to multimodal transportation systems.

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Stark Divisions Between Dems and GOP on Climate Impacts of Transportation

How polarized are the two political parties on key questions about transportation policy and climate change? As you can imagine, the answer is “very.”

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer (CA), ranking member of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Photo: Wikipedia

California Senator Barbara Boxer. Photo: Wikipedia

The senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — California’s Barbara Boxer and Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, respectively — each wrote an opinion this week for the Eno Center for Transportation about a proposed federal rule to require state DOTs to measure their impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Boxer is the ranking Democratic member of the committee. Her column applauds the move to measure the climate impacts of state and regional transportation policy:

Establishment of a performance measure for carbon pollution is critically needed now. Since 1970, carbon emissions produced by the transportation sector have more than doubled, increasing at a faster rate than any other end-use sector. By requiring transportation agencies to track carbon emissions, we can evaluate whether transportation investments are effective in meeting the goal of protecting the environment.

Senator Jim Inhofe (OK) is chair of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Meanwhile, Committee Chair Inhofe challenged the legitimacy of the rule:

The goal of the laws I co-authored is to improve the safety and advance the modernization of our roads and bridges. FHWA’s proposed GHG regulation would divert the limited time and resources of States and local governments away from this goal to pursue instead the administration’s unlawful and overzealous climate agenda.

Yes, the “overzealous agenda” of transparently documenting how much carbon pollution is caused by billions of dollars of spending on transportation.

FHWA regulators will be wading through these and many other comments in the coming months as they produce a rule that may or may not require states and regional planning agencies to finally measure their impact on the climate.

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State DOTs to Feds: We Don’t Want to Reveal Our Impact on Climate Change

State DOTs don’t want to report on how their spending decisions affect greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Andrew Boone

Every year state DOTs receive tens of billions of dollars in transportation funds from the federal government. By and large, they can do whatever they want with the money, which in most states means wasting enormous sums on pork-laden highway projects. Now that U.S. DOT might impose some measure of accountability on how states use these funds, of course the states are fighting to keep their spending habits as opaque as possible.

At issue are proposed “performance measures” that U.S. DOT will establish to track whether states make progress on goals like reducing traffic injuries or cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. For the first time, state DOTs will have to set targets and measure their progress toward achieving them. It is strictly a transparency initiative — there are no penalties for failure to meet the targets.

Nevertheless, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), doesn’t want to expose the effect of state transportation policies to public scrutiny. AASHTO has released a 110-page comment [PDF] on U.S. DOT’s proposed performance measures, rattling off a litany of objections.

Here are a few highlights:

AASHTO doesn’t want to measure greenhouse gas emissions

In a meeting with federal officials in May [PDF], AASHTO leaders opposed a rule that would require state DOTs to measure their greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists and even some state DOTs support this rule (there is some diversity of opinion within AASHTO). But the AASHTO leadership really dislikes it. In its comments [PDF], AASHTO said it doesn’t believe the feds have the “legislative authority” make state DOTs track carbon emissions.

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Anthony Foxx to Local Officials: Transport Policy Should Tackle Segregation

Local transportation officials should actively work to reduce segregation and promote equal access to quality schools, three Cabinet members say in a “dear colleague” letter released last week [PDF].

Are good schools accessible by transit, or foot and bike safely? Federal officials say transportation officials have a role to play in improving equality. Image: Streetfilms

Are good schools accessible by walking, biking, and transit? Cabinet members say they should be. Image: Streetfilms

The message from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and Education Secretary John King urges transportation, housing, and education officials at all levels of government to work together to ensure that people aren’t excluded from economic and educational opportunities.

The call to action builds on HUD’s 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which requires local governments that receive federal housing funds to analyze segregation patterns and develop plans to reduce it.

“We recognize that a growing body of research supports the benefits of socioeconomic and racial diversity in schools and communities, and that such diversity can help establish access points for opportunity and mobility,” Foxx, Castro, and King wrote. “We also recognize that children raised in concentrated poverty or in communities segregated by socioeconomic status or race or ethnicity have significantly lower social and economic mobility than those growing up in integrated communities.”

In the transportation sphere, the letter recommends a few steps to take. To paraphrase:

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Will U.S. DOT Get Serious About Climate Change? Here’s Cause for Optimism.

Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

A new federal rule may change the way states measure the environmental impact of highway sprawl. Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

Last fall, national environmental advocates sat down with officials from U.S. DOT to talk about how federal transportation policy can address climate change.

There is wild variation between state transportation departments when it comes to green transportation policy. Some of the more sophisticated agencies, like California’s and Oregon’s, are starting to factor greenhouse gas emissions into their transportation plans. Most are content to keep on expanding highways and supporting development patterns that are disastrous for the climate. There are no federal incentives to nudge states in a better direction.

Environmental advocates saw an opportunity in the 2012 transportation bill, called MAP-21. U.S. DOT was in the process of drafting new rules, mandated by MAP-21, requiring transportation agencies to assess their performance on several fronts. By having state and regional transportation agencies track and report progress on objectives like reducing traffic fatalities, the thinking went, improvements would follow.

Transportation-related carbon emissions seemed like a logical metric to include, so the environmental advocates made their case to U.S. DOT. They lined up letters of support from the Minnesota, California, and Pennsylvania departments of transportation, from 16 members of Congress, and from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, among others.

“To their credit, the [Obama] Administration, they put this out there as one of the items that they want to work on,” said Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the organizations leading the campaign. “It’s a legacy item for this presidency. It’s part of the climate agenda.”

In April, U.S. DOT released a 400-page draft of proposed federal rules to assess states’ performance on congestion management. Appended was a short, six-page section posing 13 questions about how the agency should measure climate impacts.

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House Panel Calls on U.S. DOT to Measure Access to Economic Opportunity

A bill working its way through Congress may prompt federal officials to get a better handle on how transportation projects help or hinder access to jobs, education, and health care.

California Congresswoman Maxine Waters was one of the sponsors of the provision. Photo: Wikipedia

Representative Maxine Waters of California sponsored the provision. Photo: Wikipedia

The legislation, which passed out of a House Committee this week, calls for U.S. DOT to measure “the degree to which the transportation system, including public transportation, provides multimodal connections to economic opportunities, including job concentration areas, health care services, child care services, and education and workforce training services, particularly for disadvantaged populations.” Details of how the proposed metrics work would be determined by U.S. DOT in a formal rule-making process.

Sixty years of highway-centric transportation policies have systematically curtailed opportunity for poor Americans — spreading jobs and housing farther apart and limiting access to employment, especially for people without cars. Even today, projects like the Tampa Bay Express Lanes demolish properties in low-income urban areas to save time for more affluent suburban car commuters.

The provision in the House bill aims to make change through accountability. It won’t dictate policy, but it should illustrate how transportation policy decisions expand or diminish access to economic opportunity.

Advocates including PolicyLink and the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights campaigned for such legislation for years, but it was not included in the last federal transportation bill.

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