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Earth Day Resolution: Stop Building Projects Like the Zoo Interchange

zoo

Leading up to Earth Day, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Time Is Running Out,” lamenting the lack of urgency in the United States to prevent a very urgent problem: catastrophic climate change. Today, Brad Plumer at Vox explained why it may be too late to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold that climate scientists have been warning about.

There are many steps we’ll have to take to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But one of them is most definitely this: America has to stop spending billions on projects like Wisconsin’s Zoo Interchange and start getting serious about building places where people can get around by walking, biking, and taking transit.

The Zoo Interchange embodies America’s broken transportation spending system, which former US DOT official Beth Osborne described on Atlantic Cities today as “an entitlement for state departments of transportation to allocate for their own priorities.”

This single highway interchange, aimed at reducing delays for suburban car commuters in the nation’s 30th largest city, costs more than total federal spending on walking and biking annually.

The Zoo Interchange carries 300,000 cars per day. It is “Wisconsin’s oldest and busiest interchange,” according to the state. A big part of Wisconsin DOT’s justification for the Milwaukee interchange is “safety.” According to WisDOT, there were an average of 2.5 collisions a day on the interchange between 2000 and 2005 and nine were fatal.

By comparison, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, Americans make about 112 million walking trips daily. About 4,000 pedestrians are killed annually on American roads.

And yet, Wisconsin will spend more on this one sprawl-inducing highway project than the feds spend each year on all walking and biking projects combined.

Clearly, our priorities are out of whack — way out of whack.

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The Fuzzy Math in the Road Lobby’s Memo to Congress

ARTBA would prefer that you not look too closely at this graph. Thank you for your cooperation. Image: Doug Short/##http://www.investing.com/analysis/vehicle-miles-driven:-another-population-adjusted-low-206969##Investing##

ARTBA would prefer that you not look too closely at this graph. Thank you for your cooperation. Graph: Doug Short/Investing

Don’t know what to make of the news that U.S. driving rates have dropped for the ninth year in a row? Looking for guidance about whether your state or city should be wantonly expanding roads or investing in transit, biking, and walking? The road lobby thinks you should turn to them for independent, unbiased analysis of these trends. Never fear, the road lobby says: Americans are driving more than ever. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. More lanes for everybody!

That’s the word from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which issued a memo Friday [PDF] to Congressional aides clarifying some “false claims” about transportation trends.

In virtually every recent congressional hearing and many media reports about federal transportation policy, the false claim that “Americans are driving less” emerges in some capacity. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show U.S. vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased 0.3 percent in 2012 and 0.6 percent in 2013. The upward trend is anticipated to continue well into the future as the nation’s economy and population continues to grow. This factual disconnect confuses discussions about the relative viability of various means to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund and support future federal highway and public transportation investments. The reality is that American driving trends are driven largely by macro-economic forces, not agenda-seizing assertions about shifts in societal behavior.

Take that, agenda seizers! See, VMT is increasing — albeit slower than the population, and slower than transit ridership. Drivers have already made up a third of the miles “lost” since the recession (and surely they’ll make up the rest any day now). The last 70 months of stagnant driving is nothing but a blip. Right?

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State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

States spend more than half their money on new construction. Image: Smart Growth America

States spend more than half their road money on adding lanes and new highways. Image: Smart Growth America

Even though 33 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition, West Virginia spends about 73 percent of its road budget building new roads and adding lanes. Mississippi spends 97 percent of its road money on expansion. Texas, 82 percent.

Smart Growth America reports that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, combined, devote 55 percent of their road spending — $20.4 billion a year — to expansions, according to data states provide to the Federal Highway Administration. In 2011, that investment added 8,822 lane miles to the nation’s highway system — meaning that more than half of states’ road dollars were dedicated to less than 1 percent of their roads.

Meanwhile, states spent $16.5 billion annually, or 45 percent of their total road budgets, maintaining and repairing the other 99 percent of the nation’s roads.

In total, 21 percent of America’s roads are in “poor” condition, based on an international index that measures ride quality and surface smoothness. And the condition of the nation’s roads is getting worse. The last time Smart Growth America checked in, in 2008, 41 percent were in “good” condition. By 2011, that figure was down to 37 percent.

“States are adding to a system they are failing to maintain,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which co-funded the study, in a webinar hosted by SGA this morning. “Every new lane mile is a lane that will eventually have to be repaired.”

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Driving Declines Spell Big Trouble for Turnpikes

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike has declined 10 percent since 2005. Turnpike officials had predicted it would rise 3 to 5 percent annually. Photo: Wikipedia

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike has declined 10 percent since 2005. Turnpike officials had predicted it would rise 68 percent by 2023. Photo: Wikipedia

What the New Jersey Turnpike Authority did in 2005 was no different than what almost every other state and regional transportation agency was doing at the time. It predicted that traffic volumes would rise at a healthy clip every year for about 30 years into the future. Then it estimated its revenues based on those figures and issued bonds for a $2.5 billion road widening project.

Today we know that traffic hasn’t risen at all since 2005. New Jersey’s projections weren’t just a little wrong — they were wildly inaccurate. The bonds were predicated on a 68 percent increase in traffic by 2023. It’s not going to happen: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that turnpike traffic has actually dropped 10 percent since 2005.

Even so, Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, told the Inquirer that local leaders aren’t blinking.

This chart shows the combined 20-year traffic projections of state and local governments in recent years compared to actual traffic levels. Image: State Smart Transportation Initiative

This chart shows the combined 20-year traffic projections of state and regional transportation agencies around the U.S. in recent years — the colored lines — compared to actual traffic levels — the black line. Image: State Smart Transportation Initiative

“We need two or three more years of data” before reconsidering the assumptions, he said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission made a similar gamble in 2007, when it predicted traffic would rise 3 to 5 percent annually and started issuing up to $900 million in bonds annually for road and transit projects around the state based on those projections. Rather than rising, the Inquirer reports, traffic has been flat. Pennsylvania hoped to repay the bonds with the increased toll revenues and by adding tolls to I-80.

But the additional traffic never materialized, and the Federal Highway Administration rejected the proposed toll on I-80. Now the turnpike is paying much less every year for state transportation projects, but it is still saddled with a rising debt load — $8 billion, according to the Inquirer.

Here’s the kicker. Nikolaus Grieshaber, the turnpike’s chief financial officer, told the Inquirer that Pennsylvania is revising its projections downward. It will now predict a traffic increase of 1.5 percent annually.

Nationally, vehicle miles traveled increased 0.6 percent last year, so Pennsylvania is still predicting its traffic will increase two and half times faster than the nation as a whole in 2013.

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Desperate to Keep Highway Money Flowing, Texas Foists Costs Onto Cities

Faced with an impending budget crisis, the Texas Department of Transportation has decided not to rethink its $5.2 billion plan for a third outerbelt through undeveloped grasslands around Houston. Instead, the agency has developed a proposal to basically shift a big part of its costs to the state’s major cities.

The Houston Business Journal reports that the state government plans to shift responsibility for more than 100 miles of roads to cities with populations larger than 50,000, and urban communities are in an uproar. The additional maintenance will foist $165 million in new annual expenses onto Texas’s major cities.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, told the Texas Tribune that “shifting $165 million of state costs onto cities would be a massive unfunded mandate that would require higher property taxes on homeowners and businesses.”

The shift amounts to a backdoor tax to fund the big highways suburban developers want. Rather than asking drivers on those suburban highways to pick up the cost, through a gas tax or tolls, Texas will make city residents pick up the tab.

Jay Crossley of local smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow said many state-controlled roads are already in terrible condition thanks to TxDOT’s habit of prioritizing new road construction over maintenance.

“TxDOT is saying, ‘We need our crack,’” said Crossley. “They’re basically handing over some broken local roads and saying ‘Now it’s your problem.’”

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Credit Rating Agencies Uneasy About Toll Roads as Americans Drive Less

Toll roads aren’t the cash cows they used to be. The assumption that the roads will “pay for themselves” is no longer a reliable one, and credit rating agencies are taking notice.

A toll road through the San Joaquin Hills is getting half the traffic that was expected. Cases like this are making credit analysts nervous. Photo: David Eppstein/Wikimedia

In Orange County, California, traffic on the San Joaquín Hills toll road is half what was projected. A recent toll road extension outside of Austin, Texas, is also seeing just half the expected traffic volume, leading the company that oversees the road to cut toll prices in hopes of attracting more “customers.” Moody’s Investor Services has downgraded the company’s credit rating. In the DC suburbs, the Inter-County Connector and new high-occupancy toll lanes along the famously congested Capitol Beltway are both getting far less than half the use that was projected. In San Diego County, the private company that built and operated the South Bay Expressway went into bankruptcy when the cars failed to materialize.

The federal loan program for transportation, TIFIA, now looks at only one criterion when choosing projects. Prohibited from considering public benefit, regional significance, or environmental impact, U.S. DOT staff chooses projects on the basis of credit-worthiness alone. The conventional wisdom holds that toll roads are the natural beneficiaries of this approach, since they include a mechanism for paying the loan back — but stories like those above indicate that that assumption should be re-examined.

Fitch Ratings, one of the Big Three credit rating agencies, warned investors in June that it was concerned about the future profitability of toll roads, given that “Americans have driven less each year since 2004 and those ages 16 to 34 have reduced their driving more than any other age group.”

Fitch analysts cited the groundbreaking report, “A New Direction,” by U.S. PIRG and stated their own belief that “the recession and increase in gas prices only partially explain this broad trend.” They think the shift from suburban to urban living and changes in technology and work patterns mean a more lasting reduction in driving. As such, they state, “caution remains warranted when future projections are the basis for investment.”

“In our view, these trends could have an impact given the U.S.’s current dependence on the user-fee infrastructure development model,” Fitch analysts wrote. “If these reductions persist, greater public subsidies would be required to fund still-needed new projects and provide credit stability.”

Of course, road projects have always required subsidies. Nearly 50 percent of road spending is covered by general taxpayer funds.

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Vitter Seeks to Cut Environmental Reviews for Massive Road Projects

Bridges are getting a lot of attention as senators add their two cents to the upper chamber’s transportation budget proposal for next year. The Senate transportation appropriations bill includes $500 million for “bridges in critical corridors” (BRICC), designed as a response to the recent bridge collapse along I-5 in Washington state — home of Senator Patty Murray, the chair of the Transportation and HUD Appropriations Committee. And in the amendment process, Republican senators have been lining up to mold the BRICC program to their liking.

Sen. David Vitter's amendment would further weaken environmental protections. Photo: Wikipedia

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) got an amendment inserted that would prioritize spending that money on functionally obsolete or structurally deficient bridges. And Rand Paul loves the new BRICC program so much he wants to raid the very tiny, very popular Transportation Alternatives program to prop it up.

Both Paul’s and Portman’s amendments are aimed at the same thing: widening the Brent Spence bridge between their two states. The project is so high-profile that President Obama stood under the bridge to make his infrastructure push in 2011. While the Brent Spence Bridge is “functional obsolete” — in other words, congested — it is not structurally deficient. In fact, the bridge is perfectly safe. As of its last inspection in 2005, it got good ratings for deck condition, superstructure condition, and substructure condition.

Paul and Portman aren’t the only Republicans looking to put their imprint on BRICC. Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe wants to make sure at least 20 percent of that money goes to rural areas. And Louisiana’s David Vitter is pushing to waive environmental reviews for any project funded by BRICC.

Vitter’s amendment [PDF] would make all BRICC projects eligible for a “categorical exclusion” from the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act. That means they wouldn’t have to undergo scrutiny of their environmental and community impacts or any evaluation of alternatives.

If all bridge projects under BRICC were going to replace bridges with their exact replica, with no changes, then sure, NEPA reviews might be superfluous. But the amendment would exempt projects as massive as New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge replacement — which will nearly double the width of the existing bridge without adding any dedicated transit component – from environmental review.

And BRICC projects aren’t necessarily repair or replacement projects — they can be brand-new construction on Federal-aid highways.

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Joe Cortright: Death of CRC Signals the End of “Highway Dinosaur Era”

Last month the Portland mega-highway bridge project known as the Columbia River Crossing died unceremoniously on the floor of the Washington statehouse. But there was some question among project opponents about whether to consider it a victory for smart transportation policy. After all, suburban Republicans opposed to the inclusion of light rail were ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back.

RIP CRC. Image: Bike Portland

Joe Cortright, a visiting scholar with the Brookings Institution and president at Impresa, a Portland-based consulting firm, thinks there is plenty of reason to celebrate. In fact, he sees the rejection of the CRC as the end of the old highway era.

We caught Cortright on the phone for a CRC postmortem. Here’s what he had to say.

Angie Schmitt: So you still consider the CRC’s death a victory for reformers. Why is that?

Joe Cortright: The CRC was a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway widening project that just happened to cross a river and have a short stub of a light rail essentially on the end of it. So yeah, there was a little bit of light rail associated with this project, but it was wrapped up in a humongous freeway widening project. And also the fact that they’re building this huge freeway project really undercut the viability of the light rail investment, because it made it so easy for people to use private automobiles.

I think it’s true that the final fatal blow was struck by conservatives, by Republicans, in Washington, and folks from Clark County, a lot of them disliked the light rail component of the project. But they also disliked it for other reasons like the tolling. The project was probably mortally wounded some time ago and this just happened to be the one thing that finally killed it. And a lot of those wounds were self-inflicted. They built it too short to allow navigation [on the river] underneath. There’s pending litigation on the environmental impact statement. There’s still very serious questions about the financial viability of the project. So there were a bunch of things that could have been the fatal blow, it just happened that this was the one.

Joe Cortright, a Portland-based consultant, thinks the death of the CRC will be a turning point for transportation policy in Portland and elsewhere. Image: Couv.com

AS: One of the things that was sort of striking about this project was just the scale and the dollar figure attached to it (at least $3.2 billion). Do you think it’s getting to the point where some of these projects are just so grandiose they’re not realistic?

JC: Absolutely. I think the big problem is that the incentives in the transportation planning system are producing these bloated projects that are really out of touch with trends in transportation, with the amount of resources we have. People are driving less and that undercuts gas taxes, which are the largest single source of funding for this. The way federal funding was made available, or potentially made available, for this project created incentives to scale it up. I don’t think anyone would have designed a project like this if it was going to be built solely with local resources. They designed it this way because they thought there was a promise, if they got approval from the state, the federal government would pay for it. We sold this project as, “Hey, we can get free federal money for light rail.”

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How Reason’s Highway Report Works Against Urban Areas

Just what does good state highway performance look like, according to the climate change skeptics at the Reason Foundation? This ”libertarian think tank” — funded by Exxon Mobil and the Koch Family Foundations, among others — has a funny way of judging these things. But media outlets all over the United States are reporting its findings as if they’re gospel.

Reason's rankings of states' highway performance corresponds pretty neatly with how rural they are. The green states are rated highest and the red ones rated lowest. Click to enlarge. Image: Reason

According to Reason’s 20th annual analysis of state highways, largely rural states like North Dakota, Kansas, and Wyoming are performing best, while more urbanized states like New York, Massachusetts, and California are in the bottom tier.

What goes into these rankings? We set out to see if the whole thing was worth taking seriously.

Reason took 11 indicators into account when judging states’ performance. A few are reasonable enough: percentage of deficient bridges, road conditions in rural and urban areas, how much states spend on administration versus construction.

But there are quite a few head scratchers. States are rated by how much they are spending per mile on capital and bridge disbursements. Here rural, southern, lower-cost regions perform better: South Carolina and West Virginia spend the least per mile, receiving the highest rankings. Places with higher costs of living score badly. The “worst performers” in this category are New Jersey, Florida, and California.

States are also rated on how much they spend on road and bridge maintenance per mile. North Dakota and South Dakota are awarded the highest rankings for devoting about $5,000 per mile to maintenance in 2009. States that spent the most money on maintenance per mile, New Jersey and California — about $185,000 and $150,000 respectively — came in last.

Phineas Baxandall at the Pubic Interest Research Group said Reason’s method of measuring efficiency is sorely lacking. “Purely a dollar per mile is going to be kind of a biased opinion,” he said. “The more urban you are, the harder it is to just pour tarmac and open roads, the more expensive it is.” Additionally, things like environmental remediation or overpasses that make it possible for pedestrians and cyclists to traverse urban highways would end up making the agency that funded them look “inefficient.”

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Highway Revolts Break Out Across the Midwest

The evolution of state and regional transportation agencies is painfully slow in places like Missouri and Ohio, where officials are plowing ahead with pricey highway projects conceived of decades ago. But plenty of Midwesterners have different ideas for the future of their communities, and they aren’t shy about speaking up.

Protesters picket outside the headquarters of the Southeast Michigan Regional Council of Governments against plans to spend $4 billion on two highway widenings. Image: Transit Riders Union

One after another, residents of major Midwestern cities have challenged highway projects in recent months. People in Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Oklahoma City have reached the conclusion that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on road widenings might not be in their communities’ best interests.

And it’s not just a few activists. Challenges have come from people like Council Member Ed Shadid in Oklahoma City, institutions like the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, and local governments like the city of Maplewood, just outside St. Louis.

Detroiters held signs outside a meeting of their regional planning agency earlier this month, picketing plans for $4 billion worth of highway expansion projects. Though the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments ultimately green-lighted the plans, members of the agency had to sit through two hours of negative public comments first. Not only was the public moved to speak out, so were the city of Detroit and the county of Washtenaw, which officially opposed the project.

And in Oklahoma City, the grassroots group Friends of a Better Boulevard has twice fought back state DOT plans to install a wide, highway-like boulevard in a developing area near the city’s downtown. As we reported this week, the FHWA recently intervened on the group’s behalf and forced ODOT to consider a proposal to restore the street grid instead of building a new road.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, environmental and civil rights groups may soon obtain a court injunction against a $1.7 billion interchange outside Milwaukee, on the grounds that project sponsors did not consider its potential impact on sprawl and transit-dependent communities. And in Cleveland, a few scrappy activists and the Sierra Club are opposing a $100-million-per-mile roadway that would displace 90 families on the city’s southeast side.

Now St. Louis has a highway battle on its hands. In many ways, this fight echoes the other protest movements. The South County Connector — like Cleveland’s “Opportunity Corridor” — is a “zombie” highway project. It was first conceived in 1957. The original concept was for an “inner belt expressway.” Its stated purpose is to “improve connectivity between south St. Louis County, the City of St. Louis, and central St. Louis County” and “improve access to Interstates 44, 64, 55, and 170.”

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