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4 Ways Trump’s Transportation Plan Is Ripe for Corruption

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As long as Trump doesn’t release his tax returns, divest from his assets, and put his wealth in a true blind trust, the public can have no confidence that federal infrastructure spending will be based on merit and not Trump’s personal financial interests. Photo: Kamoteus/Flickr

Donald Trump’s opaque personal finances and business entanglements around the globe raise the possibility of unprecedented corruption for a United States president. And transportation is one area where the risk of Trump using the powers of the presidency to enrich his family and reward cronies is especially high.

As a candidate, Trump outlined a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, consisting mainly of tax incentives and subsidized loans for private companies to build things like roads and water systems. Paul Krugman and Ron Klain have noted that this would confer huge subsidies to companies that don’t need them, for projects that would get built anyway. In other words, government handouts for contractors and financiers.

In the transportation realm, Trump’s plan would mean building lots of privately-financed toll roads, an arrangement rife with examples of costly blunders, bankruptcies, and conflicts of interest. Letting the Trump White House oversee a huge program of privatized toll road construction would open the door to corruption on a massive scale.

While the vast sums we spend on infrastructure have always been vulnerable to various forms of corruption, the potential for Trump to game the system goes far beyond typical “highway to nowhere” graft. Here’s a closer look at why.

1. Trump has not released his tax returns, and his assets are not in a true blind trust

Alone among modern presidents, Trump has not released his tax returns. The public has no way to tell exactly what Trump’s financial interests are and how far they extend. And because Trump and his children have not divested from the family’s assets and put their wealth under the control of a disinterested third party, or blind trust, they can continue to profit from decisions made by the vast federal government apparatus that Donald Trump will soon steer.

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Houston’s Big Chance to Turn Back the Tide of Car Traffic

TxDOT's $7 billion proposal for downtown Houston highways is not terrible, say advocates, but it could be better. Image: TxDOT via Swamplot

TxDOT’s $7 billion plan for downtown Houston may tear down the Pierce Elevated Freeway while expanding I-45. Some civic leaders question why more resources won’t be devoted to transit. Image: TxDOT via Swamplot

There’s a lot riding on Texas DOT’s $7 billion plan for downtown Houston freeways.

TxDOT has been working for more than a decade on a plan for the three highways that roughly form a circle around the city — I-45, I-10, and U.S. 59. Last April, the agency revealed a draft version of the plan, and another revision is expected to come out as soon as six months from now.

Advocates for a walkable Houston see a lot of promise in TxDOT’s willingness to rethink the city’s freeways, but the plan might still make traffic worse by adding lanes.

On the bright side, TxDOT is proposing to tear down the Pierce Elevated Freeway, which could open up 20 to 50 blocks of downtown for walkable development. The plan also calls for aligning I-45 with U.S. 59 to the east of the city, burying the roads in a trench capped with a park.

“The impacts on walkability and urbanism are real and are a big deal,” said Jay Crossley, former director of the smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow. “If they could only do those parts of the plan it would be an amazing plan.”

But while TxDOT is starting to consider how its highway projects affect urban neighborhoods, said Crossley, it hasn’t quite embraced the “paradigm shift” away from highway widening that Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for.

It’s still an open question whether TxDOT’s plan will result in a net increase in highway capacity, pumping more traffic into downtown.

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Massive Highway Expansion Threatens to Destroy Tampa Neighborhoods

Grassroots advocates have waged a dogged campaign against Tampa's plan to add $6 billion in highway lanes. Now they're starting to gain key political support. Photo: Sunshine Citizens

Grassroots advocates have picked up key political support in their campaign against Florida DOT’s $6 billion plan to widen 90 miles of highways around Tampa. Photo: Sunshine Citizens

Most people still think of Tampa as a sprawling, car-centric town, but that is starting to change. In 2014, Smart Growth America [PDF] found that Tampa is shifting toward a more walkable development pattern. The city is starting to build out a bicycle network, and its Riverwalk project is bringing people out to stroll downtown.

Tampa’s recent progress could be overwhelmed, however, by Florida DOT’s $6 billion Tampa Bay Express project, a 90-mile road widening scheme that will chew up city neighborhoods to add toll lanes to three interstates. Information about the project’s finances is hazy, and Florida DOT has proven that its traffic projections for toll road projects are worthless. Neverthless, regional decision makers are set to take up the plan this week.

On Wednesday, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization will vote on Tampa Bay Express.

Tampa's centrally located Seminole Heights historic neighborhood, a former streetcar community filled with charming bungalows, has begun to see reinvestment after decades of decline, but a $6 billion highway plan could deliver another blog. Photo: Wikpedia

Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood is threatened by FDOT’s $6 billion highway widening plan. Photo: Wikipedia

If the highway widenings are built, Governor Rick Scott’s state DOT will seize properties to ram through the new lanes. Of the residents who’ll be uprooted, 80 percent are black or Latino, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Sprawling development is sure to follow. “You would see a weakening of the trend toward the revitalization of in-town neighborhoods and instead new housing stock farther and farther from the urban core,” said Thomas Hawkins of the smart growth advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida.

But there’s a chance the highway plan will be defeated, thanks to a grassroots coalition known as Sunshine Citizens that has pushed back against Florida DOT’s agenda.

“For $6 billion we could have a truly multimodal, comprehensive transportation system,” said Michelle Cookson, a leader of Sunshine Citizens who lives in Seminole Heights, one of the neighborhoods that will be affected by the widening. “We know this is the absolute worst choice for us.”

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The Grassroots Triumph Over a Ruinous Highway Plan for Charleston

Highway opponents in Charleston, South Carolina, “beat Goliath.” That’s how the Post and Courier described the finale of a long grassroots campaign to stop the extension of I-526 into Johns Island and James Island.

Grassroots opponents quashed plans to slice highway through island communities in Charleston. Photo: Nix 526

Grassroots opponents quashed plans to slice a highway through island communities outside Charleston. Photo: Nix 526

Local officials made it official earlier this month: There will be no highway through the historic island communities outside Charleston. They conceded as much after learning the state infrastructure bank would not fund the project.

The I-526 expansion had its origins in the 1970s, the third and last leg of a curving highway bypass around Charleston. If built, it would have cut an eight-mile swath through houses and churches and marshlands.

But an organized and persistent group of residents overcame a powerful political coalition that favored the environmentally ruinous highway. Interstate 526 backers included Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, County Council Chair Elliott Summey, key state lawmakers, and the local chamber of commerce.

They were opposed by a group called Nix 526, headed by sisters Robin and Jenny Welsh, who began cultivating a following on Facebook in the middle of the last decade. Nix 526 led the charge against the project, targeting politicians who supported the highway and blasting out the message that the project was more likely to cause sprawl and create more traffic than cure it.

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The Problem With “Infrastructure Week”

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You may have noticed that it’s “Infrastructure Week” in America — a time where engineering and construction industry groups beat the drum for more money, using big numbers and images of collapsing bridges.

You can follow the dialogue on Twitter. It’s full of value-neutral statements like this one from Democratic members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:

It’s hard to dispute the value of infrastructure, or that America’s transportation, water, sewer, and utility systems are generally in bad shape. But the big prescription that comes out of Infrastructure Week is not so much about making better infrastructure — it’s mainly about spending more money.

Infrastructure Week is brought to you by some of the largest engineering firms in the world. The coalition is broader than that, and includes some perspectives that emphasize quality and efficiency. But the driving force is the American Society of Civil Engineers, an organization with plenty of self-interest in bigger public construction budgets.

So it’s no wonder that the message from Infrastructure Week boils down to an orchestrated appeal for funds. It’s also not difficult to see why this message doesn’t get a lot people very excited: For more money, we can get a less defective version of what we’ve already got.

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Seattle’s “Viadoom 2016” — Another Carmageddon That Wasn’t

Source: Seattle Bike Blog

Bike trips on Seattle’s Spokane Street Bridge spiked the first Monday when the Alaskan Way Viaduct was out of commission. Meanwhile, car commutes haven’t gotten much worse during the highway closure. Graph: Seattle Bike Blog

Heard this one before?

The temporary closure of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct to accommodate construction — code name: “Viadoom” — was going paralyze the city. The elevated highway carries about 110,000 vehicles a day. Without it, travel times would soar 50 percent, predicted the traffic analytics firm Inrix.

The highway was closed from April 29 to May 8, and we now have a solid read on the effect. Wouldn’t you know it — Viadoom, like so many Carmageddons before it, didn’t live up to the hype.

“Commute times have not dramatically increased and several of the major routes into the city have been only moderately affected,” the company’s Lytang Kelley told Crosscut. Commuters on these routes only spent a few more minutes in traffic, Crosscut reports.

The fact that Viadoom turned out to be much milder than expected carries special significance because right now Seattle is spending $4.2 billion (expected cost overruns notwithstanding) to replace the viaduct with an underground highway.

Five years ago, highway opponents argued that a surface street with better transit could handle the travel demand just as effectively as the $4.2 billion megatunnel. But they were marginalized by highway boosters in city and state government who backed the project and said the underground highway was absolutely essential to keeping the city running.

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Highway Propaganda Vids Sell City Residents on the Wonders of Wider Roads

It’s not enough for highway builders to carve out land at great public expense so they can jam more cars into cities. Now they want you to believe their projects are great for the neighborhoods that bear the brunt of the added traffic and pollution.

Up top is a video produced by the Colorado Department of Transportation to sell the public on its massive I-70 expansion project. Streetsblog Denver reports that the agency spent $88,000 in public funds to make this 30-minute epic.

The I-70 project will replace 12 miles of aging highway with a new highway, adding four lanes in the process. Because 900 feet of the new highway trench will be covered with a park, the CDOT video helpfully explains that the widening is really all about doing right by immigrant neighborhoods — not moving traffic. Many residents affected by the project beg to differ.

As a tool to sway public opinion, the CDOT video probably won’t make much of an impact. At the time we published this post it only had 135 views after a month on Vimeo. But the propaganda technique is something to keep an eye on. Colorado DOT isn’t the only road builder trying out the same message.

To promote the “Opportunity Corridor,” a road expansion project through low-income Cleveland neighborhoods, the local chamber of commerce commissioned the video below. The angle is very similar to CDOT’s video: This highway isn’t like the bad highways of the past — a new breed of road builder has figured out how to make asphalt and traffic lanes work wonders for struggling neighborhoods.

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U.S. DOT Blows Chance to Reform the City-Killing, Planet-Broiling Status Quo

The Obama administration purportedly wants to use the lever of transportation policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently said he’d like to reverse the damage highways caused in urban neighborhoods, but you’d never know that by looking at U.S. DOT’s latest policy prescription.

U.S. DOT has drafted new rules requiring state DOTs to track their performance. Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, U.S. DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.

Is U.S. DOT teeing up a lot more projects like Houston's Katy Freeway? Photo: Wikipedia

U.S. DOT isn’t taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Photo: Wikipedia

But the rules released yesterday are a big disappointment, say analysts. While it will take a bit more time to fully assess the 423-page document [PDF], advocates are already going on the record panning U.S. DOT’s effort.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

On the question of whether state transportation agencies should be required to at least report the emissions impact of their transportation plans, U.S. DOT “whiffed,” writes Joe Cortright at City Observatory:

There’s nothing with any teeth here. Instead — in a 425 page proposed rule — there are just six pages (p. 101-106) addressing greenhouse gas emissions that read like a bad book report and a “dog-ate-my-homework” excuse for doing nothing now. Instead, DOT offers up a broad set of questions asking others for advice on how they might do something, in some future rulemaking, to address climate change.

This is hugely disappointing, considering that anonymous Obama administration officials were bragging about the impact of these reporting requirements to Politico earlier this week. At the rate things are going, half of Florida will be under water before American transportation officials acknowledge that spending billions to build enormous highways serving suburban sprawl is broiling the planet.

Traffic Congestion

There was also some hope that U.S. DOT would reform the way congestion is measured. Current measures of congestion emphasize vehicle delay, which leads to policies that actually promote more driving and more total time spent in cars, as agencies seek to temporarily reduce delay by widening roads. Policies that reduce traffic by improving transit or enabling people to live closer to work don’t rate well under this measure of congestion.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the new rule “would still push local communities to waste time and money attempting to build their way out of congestion by using a measure of traffic congestion that’s narrow, limited and woefully out of date.”

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How San Diego Planners Spun the Press to Sell Highway Expansions

How far will transportation agencies go to spin public perception of their highway expansion plans? San Diego’s KPBS has produced a brilliant case study in this video and the accompanying report — a deep dive into the media operation mounted by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to defend its slate of highway expansion projects.

In late 2011, SANDAG passed a long-term transportation plan with a slew of highway expansions guaranteed to increase pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the agency hailed its work as an environmental victory, the first such plan in California to meet the state’s supposedly stringent new sustainability goals.

Environmental groups weren’t fooled. They sued SANDAG on the basis that the agency failed to account for the increased traffic generated by highways, and they were soon joined by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Rather than make any substantive policy changes, SANDAG has doubled down on highway expansion in the latest update to its long-range plan (which has to be refreshed every four years). The updated plan calls for 1,757 miles of additional freeway capacity to be built in the next 35 years.

SANDAG’s plan slates the transit and biking projects far into the future while those highway miles are going to get built much sooner. Even taking the multi-modal projects into account, wrote CityLab‘s Eric Jaffe, “It’s the complete opposite of everything the state hopes to achieve.”

SANDAG officials anticipated pushback from the environmental groups that were suing them. So naturally it deployed an expensive, highly-coordinated media strategy to sell the public on the environmental virtues of its highway expansion project list and ensure its passage.

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Anthony Foxx Wants to Repair the Damage Done By Urban Highways

During the first two decades of the Interstate Highway system, almost half a million households were displaced. Most were low income and people of color, Foxx said.

During the first two decades of constructing the Interstate Highway System, almost half a million households were forced to leave their homes.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is offering a surprisingly honest appraisal of America’s history of road construction this week, with a high-profile speaking tour that focuses on the damage that highways caused in black urban neighborhoods.

U.S Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx spoke at the Center for American progress today about the legacy of discrimination in transportation. Image: CAP

U.S Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx spoke at the Center for American progress today about the highway system’s legacy of discrimination. Image: CAP

Growing up in Charlotte, Foxx’s own street was walled in by highways, he recalled in a speech today at the Center for American Progress. Building big, grade-separated roads through thickly settled neighborhoods devastated communities, uprooted residents, and cut off the people who remained from the city around them.

“The people in my community at the time these decisions were made were actually not invisible,” he said. “It is just that at a certain stage in our history, they didn’t matter.”

From I-95 in the Overtown neighborhood in Miami, to the Staten Island Expressway, to I-5 in Seattle, freeways divided and weakened city neighborhoods all over the country. Foxx estimates that nearly 500,000 households were compelled to relocate by the construction of the interstate highway system between 1957 and 1977. Most were people of color living in low-income neighborhoods.

“Areas of this country where infrastructure is supposed to connect people, in some places it’s actually constraining them,” he said.

The speech marks the launch of a new initiative spearheaded by Foxx called “Ladders of Opportunity,” which aims to shape transportation policy based on how infrastructure can serve as a barrier, or bridge, to jobs, education, and better health.

Foxx’s power is limited. U.S. DOT doesn’t have the authority to simply turn off the federal funding spigot for projects like the Detroit region’s $4 billion plan to widen two highways, siphoning resources from struggling inner suburbs to more affluent, farther-flung communities. The transportation secretary can’t wave his hand and stop Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper from pumping more traffic and air pollution through north Denver with the widening of I-70.

Of the $60 billion in annual federal funding allocated to surface transportation, 90 percent is doled out to state and local agencies by formula, Foxx noted. The remaining 10 percent funds U.S. DOT operations, discretionary programs like TIGER, and transportation research.

Even when U.S. DOT is poised to back a project that aims to benefit a disadvantaged community, local politics often gets in the way.

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