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The Pendulum Swings Away From Highways on the Dallas City Council

Half of the Dallas City Council now opposes the construction of a six-lane, limited-access highway along the Trinity River. Image: Army Corps of Engineers via Dallas Morning News

A runoff election Saturday has solidified who’s in and who’s out of the Dallas City Council. At stake were the future of two highway projects: the construction of the Trinity Toll Road and the removal of I-345 to make way for walkable development. Highway opponents gained ground, though not enough for a majority.

Before the election, four of 14 votes on the City Council consistently opposed the construction of the Trinity and supported removing I-345. Then in the May election, two candidates endorsed by A New Dallas, a PAC supporting the I-345 teardown, picked up seats. With the 35-vote victory victory on Saturday of Adam McGough, it appears that the council is now split on both highway issues.

McGough is the former chief of staff to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, the Trinity Toll Road’s chief booster. But late in the campaign he expressed opposition to Alternative 3C, the design that involves building a six-lane high-speed road alongside the Trinity River. McGough explicitly called for 3C to be rejected and said he supports a smaller four-lane road instead.

McGough also supports the effort to replace I-345 with surface streets. His runoff win puts him in a bloc along with Mark Clayton and Carolyn King Arnold, the newly elected council members, and the four sitting highway opponents.

With the City Council split 7-7, the pro-walkability camp remains one vote shy of a decisive majority. But in Dallas’s weak-mayor system, it is significantly stronger than before the election. As the Dallas Morning News reports, “the toll road will always be a bumpy ride for the mayor” and “the lopsided votes of the past in favor of the Trinity project now become closer.”

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Is the Lord For or Against a Texas County Road Bond? Opinions Mixed

Things are really getting heated in Montgomery County, Texas, just outside Houston, over a proposal to issue $350 million in bonds to maintain and expand roads. Like fire-and-brimstone heated.

Earlier this week, at a county commissioners meeting, volunteer Mary Hammer Menzel referred to road bond opponents as “tools of satan” in her opening prayer, reports the Montgomery County Courier.

Menzel apparently has strong opinions about which side of the debate God is on. At the previous meeting, she also led the opening prayer, saying, “Father, I want to lift up this road bond to you and just ask you to help the people realize this county has got to have ways to get around,” according to the Montgomery County Police Reporter. Menzel appears in a television ad supporting the road bond, saying, “I am for the road bond and the Lord is too.”

Laura Fillault, a road bond opponent, did not take kindly to this week’s prayer. “I’m not a tool of satan,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate that part of the prayer… It’s a road bond it’s not a satanic ritual.”

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Ohio Cities to State DOT: No More New Roads, Just Fix What We Have

A potholed street in Boardman, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Youngstown. The Youngstown area has a Facebook group with 800 members devoted to mocking these potholes. Photo: Potholes of Youngstown and Surrounding Areas

A potholed street in Boardman, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Youngstown. The Youngstown area has a Facebook group with almost 800 members devoted to mocking these potholes. Photo: Potholes of Youngstown and Surrounding Areas

Given that the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke and the Interstate Highway System is more or less complete, maybe — just maybe! — it doesn’t make sense to keep expanding highways. And if there’s one place in the country where it’s especially urgent to stop building more highways, it’s northeast Ohio.

The combined metro areas of Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown are shrinking at an alarming rate. Unlike some Rust Belt regions, it’s not just their core cities hemorrhaging population: The whole region has shrunk 7 percent since the 1970s. The three cities have lost more population combined since the 1950s than they have now.

That kind of decline exerts intense fiscal pressures. Central cities and even many suburbs in these regions can’t afford to maintain their roads. Cleveland recently borrowed $100 million, with about a quarter of that for road repairs. Even though that will roughly double the annual road repair budget, it’s still just a small fraction of what’s needed to catch up on the city’s $300 million resurfacing backlog.

State transportation policy has not responded to these mounting pressures. The Ohio Department of Transportation has continued to add highways as if the region were booming. Since the 1990s alone, northeast Ohio has added more than 300 highway lane-miles. Rather than stimulate growth, it has mostly served to facilitate sprawl and hollow out city centers. Cleveland ranked dead last among 96 metro areas in a recent Brookings study on growth in job access.

Local leaders are finally speaking up, with Akron and Cleveland making it clear they want the state to start emphasizing maintenance. Grace Gallucci, head of Cleveland’s metropolitan planning organization, NOACA, appealed to ODOT in September to use part of its “major projects” funding on a package of road repairs in the Cleveland region. The state refused.

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How the Lure of Spending Keeps Dumb Highway Projects Alive

Decades ago, Ohio officials drew a line on a map — the Eastern Corridor, a highway for commuters living in Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs. No matter how much time has passed and how little sense it makes to build that highway today, that line can still seem like destiny.

An image used by the village of Newton to oppose the Ohio Department of Transportation's $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway plan. Image: Village of Newton

This is the message from the village of Newtown about the Ohio Department of Transportation’s $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway plan. Image: Village of Newtown

The Eastern Corridor began as a 1960s vision for a highway connecting bedroom communities in mostly rural Clermont County to downtown Cincinnati, roughly 17 miles away. There is not much appetite for it: As soon as Ohio DOT dusted off its plans and started laying the groundwork to build this $1.4 billion project in 2011, communities along the corridor revolted.

The project lives on anyway. Last week, it seemed like state legislators were poised to reject the highway, but the thought of turning down a big construction project — no matter how wasteful and unwanted — was too much for some lawmakers to bear. The Eastern Corridor remains a looming possibility, a case study in how highway projects can develop a nearly unstoppable political momentum.

The outcry against the Easter Corridor has been growing since the moment ODOT told the public what it wanted to build. Along almost every section of the planned road, residents, neighborhoods, and whole towns tried to stop the project.

The most fiercely opposed sections involve rerouting State Route 32 through Newtown and Mariemont — two small, relatively affluent inner-ring suburbs. The road would cut through the heart of tiny Newtown, where the leadership is adamantly opposed, saying it will destroy the town’s business center. In Mariemont, it would ruin a park referred to as the South 80.

The Eastern Corridor also calls for a poorly-conceived rail line, expected to cost as much as $600 million and draw as few as 3,000 daily riders. The region’s rail advocates oppose it, calling it a waste of money.

Even farther away suburbs are not exactly thrilled about the highway. Andersen Township Trustee Russell Jackson told the Cincinnati Enquirer that “nobody in the local communities really sees this incredible benefit to building this thing.”

There are pockets of support for the project, including rural Clermont County, but overall, public opinion against the Eastern Corridor appears to be strong enough to sink it. Jason Williams at the Enquirer wondered last week if it was “on life support.”

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Cincinnati’s Highway Revolt on the Verge of Victory

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Could the end be near for the $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway project proposed for eastern Cincinnati? Language added to Ohio’s transportation budget, which is being debated right now, would specifically “prohibit [Ohio DOT] from funding the Eastern Corridor Project in Hamilton County.”

The amendment was introduced by Republican state lawmaker Tom Brinkman, who represents an eastern portion of Cincinnati. Brinkman told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I am representing constituents who say, ‘We don’t want to tear down our communities.'” The boondoggle highway project is opposed by residents in Newton, Mariemont, Madisonville, and other towns east of Cincinnati.

The highway does have its defenders in the legislature. At a House Finance Committee meeting Monday, Democrat Denise Driehaus, who represents Cincinnati, signaled her concerns about Brinkman’s amendment.

“It’s been going on for about a decade and so there has been significant investment at both the state and local level,” she said. “It seems to me this sets a precedent that the legislature prohibits ODOT from spending on a local project that has been vetted locally.”

Ryan Smith, a Republican from southeastern Ohio, countered: “This project has gone on for a decade but I think everyone can agree that heading down the wrong path and continuing down the wrong path may be problematic.” As to whether it would represent some kind of dangerous precedent for elected leaders to direct state transportation officials not to fund specific projects, he said, “This is the first time I can remember somebody asking not to be funded on a project.” (For what it’s worth, Governor Kasich added legislation to a previous budget that forbid state money from being spent on the Cincinnati Streetcar.)

You can watch the exchange between Driehaus and Smith here at about the 8:30 mark.

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Americans Are Driving Less, But Road Expansion Is Accelerating

Notice how the new lane miles and miles driven depart in the upper right hand corner of this chart, via FHWA.

Starting around 2005, driving leveled off, but transportation agencies continued to expand roads. Click to enlarge. Chart: FHWA

Americans drive fewer miles today than in 2005, but since that time the nation has built 317,000 lane-miles of new roads — or about 40,000 miles per year. Maybe that helps explain why America’s infrastructure is falling apart.

The new data on road construction comes from the Federal Highway Administration and reached our attention via Tony Dutzik at the Frontier Group, which studies trends in driving. In 2005, Americans drove just above a combined 3 trillion miles. Almost a decade later, in 2013, the last year for which data was available, they were driving about 45 billion less annually — so total driving behavior had declined slightly. Meanwhile, road construction continued as if demand was never higher.

Between 2005 and 2013, states and the federal government poured about $27 billion a year into road expansion. According to FHWA data, road expansion was spread across highways and surface streets fairly uniformly.

That’s actually a faster pace than in previous decades, Dutzik points out. For the whole of the 1990s — when gas was cheap and sprawl development was booming — the country added, on average, about 17,000 lane-miles a year, less than half the current rate.

This is further evidence that America’s “infrastructure crisis” is due in large part to spending choices that favor new construction over maintenance.

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More Money Won’t Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don’t Change How It’s Spent

Milwaukee's Marquette Interchange, which cost $810 million to construct, sits practically empty during daylight hours.

Milwaukee’s Marquette Interchange is a beast that cost $810 million to build. If this is how state DOTs spend their money, existing infrastructure will continue to crumble. Photo: HNTB

“America’s infrastructure is slowly falling apart” went the headline of a recent Vice Magazine story that epitomizes a certain line of thinking about how to fix the nation’s “infrastructure crisis.” The post showed a series of structurally deficient bridges and traffic-clogged interchanges intended to jolt readers into thinking we need to spend more on infrastructure.

The idea that decrepit roads are caused by a lack of money is widespread. Vox‘s Matt Yglesias recently argued that the nation should borrow a bunch of money at low interest rates now and invest in an “infrastructure surge” that would help put idled construction workers back to work. Liberal crusader Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill in the Senate to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next five years.

States have been shirking their maintenance responsibilities in favor of building expensive new projects. Image: Smart Growth America

States have been shirking their maintenance responsibilities in favor of building expensive new projects. Graphic: Smart Growth America

It’s true that a surge of investment could be very helpful in building modern, high-capacity transit systems in American cities, or in constructing high-speed rail links between major metros. It’s also true that the federal gas tax has been eroded by inflation for more than 20 years, so tens of billions of dollars in general fund revenue has been diverted to transportation spending since 2008.

But throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.

That’s because the sorry state of American transportation infrastructure is mainly the result of wasteful spending choices, not a lack of funding.

State DOTs’ lack of fiscal discipline is nothing short of criminal. The chart on the right, courtesy of Smart Growth America, shows how states divided spending between new construction and maintenance from 2004 to 2008. States used most of their money — 57 percent — on new construction (projects like that massive but oddly empty interchange in Milwaukee, above, don’t come cheap). Meanwhile, states used the 43 percent left over to maintain the remaining 98.7 percent of road infrastructure. This is a recipe for ruin.

If you think that states have felt chastised in the last few years, think again. Here’s a chart from the Minneapolis Star Tribune showing how Minnesota DOT divides its money between maintenance and new construction:

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Washington Republicans: Put Seattle’s Highway-Borer Out of Its Misery

If nothing else, the politics of Seattle’s deep-bore highway tunnel fiasco keep getting more interesting. With Bertha the tunnel-boring machine stuck underground and “rescue” efforts literally destabilizing city neighborhoods, a pair of Republicans in the Washington State Senate introduced a bill to scrap the project before any more money is wasted.

After Seattle has spent billions and more than a year and all it has to show for it is a hole in the ground. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

Washington Democrats won’t back off their support for a risky deep-bore highway tunnel in Seattle. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

While putting a halt to the underground highway would limit Seattle’s exposure to enormous cost overruns and open the door to more city-friendly transportation options, this effort to bury Bertha comes from outside the city. The Democratic establishment in the Seattle region isn’t rallying around the idea.

Republicans Doug Ericksen of Ferndale and Michael Baumgartner of Spokane co-sponsored legislation to cease spending on the stalled tunnel project and use the remaining money to study alternatives. The text of their bill [PDF] is probably the most sensible thing any politician has said about this project in quite some time:

The legislature finds that the state route number 99 Alaskan Way viaduct replacement project has failed. The legislature also finds that the project as it is currently designed cannot be justified financially and is not in the best interest of the public.

The knock against the bill is that it’s pure theater — a political maneuver to place the blame for Bertha squarely at the feet of Democrats.

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Can Seattle Stop Its Highway Tunnel Boondoggle Before It’s Too Late?

Is it too late for Bertha? Photo: WsDOT

Seattle and the state of Washington have a window of opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad. Photo: WsDOT

It’s been one year since the world’s largest tunnel boring machine, “Bertha,” got stuck 120 feet beneath Seattle. Before it broke down, the colossal machine had excavated just 1,000 feet of the two-mile tube that’s supposed to house a new, $3.1 billion underground highway to replace an aging elevated road called the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Bertha hasn’t budged an inch in the 12 months since. Meanwhile, the bad news keeps on piling up.

Right now, the state’s contractor is busy building a second tunnel down to the machine, so that parts can be removed, repaired, and replaced. In order to keep the second tunnel dry, construction crews have been draining the water table. This work has dangerously destabilized the very elevated highway the tunnel is supposed to replace, and one of the city’s historic neighborhoods — Pioneer Square — is actually sinking as well.

As David Roberts detailed in a recent Grist story, the project could impose billions of dollars in cost overruns on the public. Nobody is certain the machine can be fixed, or if it does get fixed, whether the same problem won’t occur again, farther down its path. In December, the deep-bore tunnel ran away with the voting for Streetsblog’s “Highway Boondoggle of the Year” award.

If there’s anything positive to emerge from the current mess, it’s that local advocates like Cary Moon, who warned against building the tunnel in the first place, are commanding attention again. Moon recently took to the pages of the local alt-weekly, the Stranger, to argue that in light of the tunnel project’s spectacular, slow-motion meltdown, the city should explore other options.

We reached out to her to learn more.

This is a pretty big disaster, it sounds like.

This project identified a lot of risks at the beginning of the process, but the political commitment to it was already high enough at that point that no one really paid that much attention, except for several of us.

They treated us like we were gadflies instead of pointing out honestly and clearly what was probably going to happen. It’s frustrating because all this was known then but no one was listening.

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The Great Traffic Projection Swindle

This is the final piece in a three-part series about privately-financed roads. In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the Indiana Toll Road as an example of the growth in privately financed highways, and how financial firms can turn these assets into profits, even if the road itself is a big money loser. In this piece, we examine the shaky assumptions that toll road investments are based on, and how that is putting the public at risk.

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A consultant predicted traffic on the Indiana Toll Road would rise 22 percent in seven years. Instead, traffic fell 11 percent in eight years. Photo: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

For privately financed toll road deals, traffic projections are critical. These forecasts tell investors how much revenue a road will generate, and thus whether they should buy a stake in it, and what price to pay. While traffic projections have underpinned the rapid growth in privately financed highways, the forecasts have a dismal track record, consistently overstating the number of drivers who will pay to use a road.

Private toll roads have been sold to the public as a surefire something-for-nothing bargain — new infrastructure with no taxes — but it turns out that the risk for taxpayers is actually substantial. The firms performing traffic projections have strong incentives to inflate the numbers. And the new breed of private finance deals are structured so that when the forecasts turn out wrong, the public incurs huge losses.

Given the huge sums of money involved, even small errors in traffic projections can result in huge problems down the line — and, as Streetsblog has reported, traffic projections everywhere have tended to be wildly off-target. A whole financing scheme, meant to last for generations, can easily be sunk in just a few years by exaggerated traffic projections. The Indiana Toll Road, purchased in 2006 for $3.8 billion, is a great example. The firm that owned it, ITR Concession Co. LLC, declared bankruptcy in September.

Wilbur Smith Associates had predicted that traffic volumes on the Indiana Toll Road would increase at a rate of 22 percent over the first seven years. Instead, traffic volumes shrank 11 percent in the first eight. The result was financial disaster for the concession company, owned jointly by Australian firm Macquarie and Spanish firm Ferrovial. By the time they filed for Chapter 11, debt on the road had ballooned to $5.8 billion.

The company blamed the recession for putting a damper on truck traffic. The same story was offered on another bankrupt Macquarie-owned project, San Diego’s South Bay Expressway. But is that explanation sufficient?

UK-based consultant Robert Bain literally wrote the book on traffic projections, warning in 2009 against forecasters who blamed faulty predictions on the economy [PDF]. Commenting on the flurry of global toll highway bankruptcies that was just starting then, Bain said they had “less to do with the present economic climate, and more to do with a market readiness to be seduced by hopelessly optimistic traffic and revenue projections.”

Bain went on to list 21 ways in which forecasters systematically overestimate future traffic. Each one may tilt the forecast by a tiny amount, but cumulatively they result in huge errors. Some of the errors indicate that forecasters have not yet acknowledged the broader decline in driving and sprawl underway, while others “underestimate the reluctance of some to paying tolls.” Bain argued for a paradigm shift in the use of traffic projections, recognizing that many of them “resemble statements of advocacy rather than unbiased predictions.”

Phineas Baxandall, a senior researcher with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who’s written extensively for Streetsblog on trends in driving, says the engineering firms that provide the figures know how things work. “Companies seeking investment for privatized toll roads shop for the forecasting they want,” he said. “[There’s] no incentive to tell bad news. And if the deal appears promising, then the forecasting company gets other opportunities to sell further analysis, legal advice, raising debt, selling equity, etc.”

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