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FHWA Gleefully Declares That Driving Is Up, Calls for More Highway Spending

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA's own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels. Image: ##http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/travel_monitoring/14juntvt/figure1.cfm##FHWA##

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA’s own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels — even if you’re just looking at total miles-driven. Chart: FHWA

Well, so much for the predictions that changing preferences and new technologies will lead to a car-free utopia. The Federal Highway Administration announced last week that after nine years of steady decline, vehicle-miles-traveled in the U.S. was 1.4 percent higher this June than last June. Apparently, red-blooded Americans everywhere are finally getting back to their Hummer habit after a few years of diminished driving and rising transit ridership and bike commuting.

Except one thing: Driving is still way down from peak levels. While the FHWA’s press release trumpets that “American driving between July 2013 and June 2014 is at levels not seen since 2008″ — adding, alarmingly, a call for “greater investment in highways” — that’s not the whole story. Yes, the total driving rate now approximates where it stood in 2008, when VMT was in freefall. But it’s still way down from the peak — 3.05 trillion miles — in 2007.

Since the end of the recession, total VMT has fluctuated within a fairly constrained range, remaining well below the 2007 peak. And that’s just total driving. If you look at the per capita driving rate, it’s still dropping. In fact, it’s as low as it’s been in nearly 17 years.

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FHWA to Engineers: Go Ahead and Use City-Friendly Street Designs

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NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide includes engineering guidance for transit boulevards. Image: NACTO

The heavyweights of American transportation engineering continue to warm up to design guides that prioritize walking, biking, and transit on city streets. On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration made clear that it endorses the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes that you won’t find in the old engineering “bibles.”

FHWA “supports the use of the Urban Street Design Guide in conjunction with” standard engineering manuals such as AASHTO’s Green Book and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the agency said in statement released on Friday. FHWA had already endorsed NACTO’s bikeway design guide last August. The new statement extends its approval to the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, which also covers measures to improve pedestrian space and transit operations.

Federal approval of what were until recently considered “experimental” street designs means that more engineers and planners will feel comfortable implementing them without fear of liability.

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FHWA: Bike-Ped Investments Pay Off By Cutting Traffic and Improving Health

Marin County rebuilt an old railroad tunnel and created a 1.1-mile non-motorized path, expanding transit access and increasing biking by 95 percent. Photo: ##http://parisi-associates.com/projects/non-motorized-transportation-pilot-program/##Parisi Associates##

Marin County rebuilt an old railroad tunnel and created a 1.1-mile walking and biking path, improving access to transit and increasing biking 95 percent on the road leading to the tunnel. Photo: Parisi Associates

Nine years after launching a program to measure the impact of bike and pedestrian investments in four communities, the Federal Highway Administration credits the program with increasing walking trips by nearly a quarter and biking trips by nearly half, while averting 85 million miles of driving since its inception.

In 2005, the FHWA’s Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) set aside $100 million for pedestrian and bicycle programs in four communities: Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; and the Minneapolis region in Minnesota.

Each community had $25 million to spend over four years, with most of the funding going toward on-street and off-street infrastructure. According to a progress report released this week, about $11 million of that remains unspent, though the communities also attracted $59 million in additional funds from other federal, state, local, and private sources.

“The main takeaway is, we’ve now answered indisputably that if you build a wisely-designed, safe system for walking and biking within the context of a community that is aware of and inspired by fact that it is becoming a more walkable, bikeable place, you can achieve dramatic mode shift with modest investment,” said Marianne Fowler of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and an architect of the pilot program.

Columbia reconfigured a key commuter intersection to making walking and biking easier and safer, resulting in a 51 percent jump in walking rates and a 98 percent jump in biking at that location. In Marin County, the reconstruction of the 1,100-foot Cal Park railroad tunnel and construction of a 1.1-mile walking and biking path provided direct access to commuter ferry service to downtown San Francisco and reduced bicycling time between the cities of San Rafael and Larkspur by 15 minutes. Biking along the corridor increased 95 percent, and a second phase of the project is still to come.

The program helped jump-start the Nice Ride bike-share system in Minneapolis, which grew to 170 stations and 1,556 bicycles by 2013, with 305,000 annual trips. And in Sheboygan County, the ReBike program distributed bicycles to more than 700 people and a new 1.7-mile multi-use path was built, following portions of an abandoned rail corridor through the heart of the city of Sheboygan. “Sixty percent of the population of Sheboygan County lives in close proximity to that corridor,” said Fowler. “And the trail gives them access to almost anything in Sheboygan.”

FHWA could see the impact: At locations where better infrastructure was installed, walking increased 56 percent and biking soared 115 percent. Using a peer-reviewed model, FHWA also estimated changes in walking and biking throughout the four communities. The program led to a 22.8 percent increase in walking trips and a 48.3 percent increase in biking trips. Without the interventions, residents would have driven 85 million more miles since the program launched, according to FHWA.

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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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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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FHWA to Transportation Engineers: Use the NACTO Bikeway Design Guide

In a significant step forward for American bike infrastructure, the Federal Highway Administration issued a memorandum late last month essentially endorsing street designs like protected bike lanes.

Protected bike lanes now have the official backing of the federal government. Image: Green Lane Project

In the memorandum, FHWA urges transportation engineers to use the guidelines issued by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which contains templates for bikeway designs widely deployed in Europe but shunned in the U.S. until very recently.

This federal endorsement is critical because protected bike lanes have yet to be officially sanctioned by the country’s most influential transportation engineering organization: the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. AASHTO publishes the “green book,” which for many transportation departments serves as the bible of street design. But, being a bit stodgy, AASHTO has never included protected bike lanes in its standards, despite mounting evidence that these designs improve safety.

The exclusion of protected bike lanes from the country’s most important engineering guide has stymied growth, since U.S. transportation engineers generally hesitate to use designs that don’t have the imprimatur of AASHTO or FHWA. The FHWA memorandum encourages its divisions around the United States to be “flexible” in bicycle design, and refer to both the AASHTO and the NACTO guides for assistance.

“It’s great news,” says Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, an initiative that promotes the adoption of protected bike lanes in American cities. The Green Lane Project recently surveyed transportation professionals around the country about the barriers to installing high-quality bike infrastructure. More than 90 percent of respondents reported it would be helpful or very helpful if FHWA would endorse the NACTO guide.

Many American engineers have felt reluctant to install protected bike lanes, thinking they could held liable for deviating from federal guidelines should a collision occur. As a result, some states, notably California and Illinois, have measures that prevent cities from installing protected bike lanes in certain circumstances. Roskowski thinks this endorsement from FHWA will help resolve that.

“I think we’re sort of pretty close to tearing down that wall in the engineering world, saying, ‘We can’t build these,’ which has been the response [to innovative bike treatments] from the engineering community in the United States for a long time,” she said. “Now there’s a convergence of forces saying, ‘Yes we can build them.’”

Roskowski said she believes the memorandum is an interim measure, until FHWA develops its own bikeway design guide, which is expected in about a year.

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FHWA: Oklahoma DOT Must Consider Restoring Street Grid in Downtown OKC

Advocates in Oklahoma City have proposed this grid pattern as an alternative to a wide, highway-like boulevard for downtown. Recently, FHWA forced ODOT consider the grid proposal. Image: ODOT

In a rare victory against state DOT standard operating procedure, residents of Oklahoma City last week managed to compel the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to consider a redeveloped street grid as an alternative to a wide, high-speed boulevard through the city’s downtown.

A highly-organized group of volunteers calling themselves Friends of a Better Boulevard has been challenging Oklahoma DOT’s plans for an area near downtown where the I-40 elevated highway was recently torn down. ODOT had originally proposed an elevated highway-like road through the “core-to-shore” area, where the city had been planning a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood.

Oklahoma City Councilman Ed Shadid, a surgeon, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the grid plan. Image: NewsOK

So far, the OKC advocates, with the support of City Councilman Ed Shadid, keep on winning.

Their first victory was challenging the state’s environmental analysis for I-40. The state had conducted a single environmental impact study for the I-40 teardown, the construction of the boulevard that would take its place, and an I-40 replacement highway nearby. But advocates successfully argued that the $85 million boulevard project was large enough to deserve its own environmental impact statement.

Now, in another major victory, OKC advocates have changed the DOT’s “alternatives analysis” process — part of the environmental impact study. This process is meant to evaluate a set of options for the project; generally state DOTs just trot out of a handful of similar road plans with slightly different alignments. But Friends of a Better Boulevard and its allies argued that the DOT should add a proposal that differs significantly from the “boulevard” plan: the reconstruction and enhancement of the original street grid, known as “Alternate D.” And this week, FHWA intervened on the advocates’ behalf and ordered the state to add Alternate D to the analysis.

A rendering of the original boulevard concept. Image: NewsOK

“The Federal Highway Administration has clearly told ODOT that they must respect the widespread outcry from the people of OKC to study the option,” Shadid told his Facebook followers Wednesday. “By trying to funnel traffic to one high speed corridor in which cars cannot exit to reach potential development along the boulevard, one impedes economic development as well as forgoes the creation of walkable destinations and place-making that might otherwise be possible.”

Friends of a Better Boulevard’s Bob Kemper, a former ODOT engineer, said the wide boulevard would divide downtown, much like the structure it replaced.

“We just thought that was the wrong way to go,” he said. Kemper said the grid option “seems to be the favorite plan of the majority of folks in Oklahoma City.”

Kemper said he just hopes ODOT doesn’t use inflated traffic modeling to rule out the concept.

Between now and July 2, Friends of a Better Boulevard is hosting a letter-writing campaign to public officials to show support for Alternate D.

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Petitioning U.S. DOT to Recognize That City Streets Should Prioritize Walking

The FHWA applies the same design standards to city streets as to suburban arterial roads.

The Federal Highway Administration classifies roads as either “rural” or “urbanized.” But the “urbanized” label is deceptive, because it applies suburban street design standards to any street that isn’t rural. So if you live in, say, downtown St. Louis, the FHWA applies the same standards to your streets as to the streets in Orlando’s most distant suburbs. This contributes to a horrendous mismatch: Many city streets where walking should take precedence are in fact designed for moving massive amounts of traffic.

Now there’s a petition drive underway to change that. John Massengale, Victor Dover, and Richard Hall — a team of planners and architects that are involved with the Congress for New Urbanism — are circulating asking U.S. DOT to develop more city-friendly standards.

The trio recommends establishing separate standards for urban and suburban streets, introducing new priorities that place pedestrians first on city streets. From their letter to U.S. DOT:

The new standards for Urban Areas would be fundamentally different than the current Urbanized standards. Two-way streets, narrow traffic lanes, bicycle sharrows, and a prohibition on slip lanes and turn lanes would be the norm. In large cities, faster urban routes might be limited to broad boulevards and parkways. Small-town residential streets and Main Streets would be similarly transformed, according to their context.

The team calls their proposal a “simple but powerful idea could transform America’s streets and make our neighborhoods, cities and towns more walkable.” As of this afternoon, the petition needs only about 60 signatures to reach the goal of 500 supporters.

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FHWA Helps Cities and Towns Land Bike/Ped Funding

American cities and towns should get a leg up on using federal funds to make streets safer for biking and walking, thanks to rules enacted yesterday by the Federal Highway Administration.

Projects like this pedestrian bridge in Austin, Texas, which are built by local agencies, will get a boost from new FHWA rules. Photo: National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse/R.E. Martin

MAP-21, the current transportation law, was passed hurriedly enough that not all the i’s could be dotted and t’s could be crossed — and some of those details simply aren’t the business of Congress to work out. It’s up to U.S. DOT to put a finer point on many of the provisions in the bill. The agency is still struggling with a lot of them and has, admirably, opened the door to significant public input to help them put meat on MAP-21′s bones.

Some of the details came out yesterday, with FHWA’s guidance on the Transportation Alternatives program, which replaced the popular Transportation Enhancements program as a major funding source for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

America Bikes was quick with its analysis of the pros and cons of the new rules, and chief among the good news is that the guidance preserves local control over bike/ped funds by denying states eligibility for TA funds.

The disappointing provisions in MAP-21 haven’t gone away. TA money still gets split down the middle, with half going to cities and towns and the other half going to the states. And state DOTs can still have the option of either running a competitive grant program with their half of the funds, or “flexing” their entire portion to whatever they want. But states can no longer apply to their own grant programs, clearing the way for greater local access to these funds.

“If you make a contest with your own rules, and you apply to it, who’s going to win?” said Mary Lauran Hall, spokesperson for America Bikes.

Primarily, the rule means that if a state decides to use its TA funds on bike and pedestrian infrastructure, local agencies will have a greater say in how the funds get spent. But it won’t just prevent state bike/ped projects from competing against city bike/ped projects. One of the most disappointing changes in MAP-21 was that states can now spend TA funds on environmental mitigation for road building. Those tend to be big, expensive projects that can elbow crosswalks and bike lanes out of the running. This rule seemingly negates that option, unless the state finds a local agency to sponsor the environmental mitigation project.

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Five Factors That Will Determine Whether TIFIA Benefits Transit

Phineas Baxandall is a senior analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Is Crenshaw light rail the beginning or the end of TIFIA financing for transit? Image: LA Metro

Last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood touted his department’s $545.9 million TIFIA loan to construct Los Angeles’ 8.5-mile light rail transit line along the Crenshaw corridor as “just one example of how DOT’s TIFIA credit assistance program extends the value of America’s transportation dollar.”

But will public transit financing really be the future of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program?

TIFIA has been politically popular partly because people see their own hopes reflected in its broad mandate to provide “innovative” financing through low-interest loans and lines of credit for transportation. Both chambers of Congress offered major increases to TIFIA, while virtually every other program in the last transportation bill saw cuts or level funding. From $122 million for the program last year, the new transportation law provides $750 million this year and $1 billion the next. Groups that had urged the elimination of dedicated federal funding for transit cheered TIFIA’s expansion, while Senate EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer triumphantly declared that TIFIA would leverage $50 billion in transportation finance and bring salvation for Los Angeles’s larger regional transit plans. Many transit advocates and metropolitan planning organizations point to the new money as evidence that their long-fought efforts to improve the otherwise uninspiring transportation law weren’t in vain.

There’s reason to be skeptical and also reason for hope. Past TIFIA financing went mainly to highways and private toll roads. New first-come-first-serve rules make it even less likely that future TIFIA assistance will reach non-highway projects, but other rule changes expand the kinds of transit projects eligible under TIFIA.

Five questions will determine what kind of program TIFIA becomes, and five recommendations can help build a better TIFIA. First, the questions…

  1. Will the backlog of highway proposals get a head start?

    TIFIA’s old criteria included sustainability and livability, but the new law rewards speedy applications as long as they are complete and eligible. The legislation makes it easier for transit and other multimodal projects to become eligible, but money may not be available once they apply.

    The first letters of interest received by TIFIA this summer lacked even a single transit, bike, or pedestrian proposal — and they “could just about tap out TIFIA’s FY2013 budget authority,” according to the Public Works Financing Newsletter. The first letter received was another “bridge to nowhere” proposal for Alaska, followed mostly by Texas highways that probably couldn’t have cut the mustard under the previous, more stringent TIFIA selection criteria.

    A first-come-first-serve application process favors toll road proposals, like those from Texas, that have been shopped around for years in different forms. It’s not clear how much selection criteria will be imposed between submitting letters of inquiry and being invited to submit an application. But transit projects will face a more complicated and untested process, as well as the need to coordinate with the government entities whose sales, property or other taxes will be used to pay back the loans. TIFIA’s acronym may come to mean Tolling Is Faster In Applications.

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