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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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Via Streetsblog Denver
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Denver Residents Sue to Stop John Hickenlooper’s Highway Boondoggle

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Children at Swansea Elementary School have taken recess next to I-70 for decades. Widening the highway by four lanes will make the air they breathe more harmful. Photo: David Sachs

North Denver neighborhood organizations and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in federal court today to stop Colorado DOT’s I-70 boondoggle, which will increase traffic and create more air pollution for generations to come if it’s built.

The communities around the highway are exposed to elevated levels of particulate pollution, which leads to higher rates of chronic cardiovascular diseases. Widening the highway by four lanes will only make the problem worse, but Governor John Hickenlooper is letting his DOT move forward with the project.

Governor Hickenlooper has let his DOT proceed with a project that will make air quality for north Denver neighborhoods worse for generations.

“CDOT now has a golden opportunity to correct a half-century of harm done to Denver citizens,” said Becky English of Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter. “We hope this lawsuit causes CDOT to investigate removing the traffic and pollution from north Denver neighborhoods.”

To receive federal funding, Colorado DOT determined that adding four travel lanes would not violate national air quality standards. Those findings were based on newer EPA guidelines — “issued with no public notice last November” — that advocates say are too lenient [PDF]. Under the EPA’s previous guidelines, CDOT’s claims wouldn’t fly, according to the lawsuit, which names the EPA as the defendant.

Here’s more from the statement:

Denver Environmental Health reported in 2014 that residents in the north Denver neighborhoods adjacent to I-70 experience a 70% greater rate of mortality from heart disease than other neighborhoods in Denver not affected by highway pollution, and 40% greater frequency of urgent care for children suffering from severe asthma compared to other parts of Denver. CDOT’s analysis of air quality after the proposed expansion of I-70 shows a further degradation of air quality. This will exacerbate these health impacts, especially on seniors and children in the primarily minority and low-income communities of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea.

“The residents of the Elyria and Swansea know many neighbors who, because of the pollution, have suffered debilitating diseases, died of pollution-related causes, or moved away,” said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Coalition. “We need to protect ourselves.”

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Highway Boondoggles: Widening I-70 in Denver

The unnecessary widening of I-70 in Denver would cost an additional $58 million. Image: Colorado DOT

Widening I-70 in Denver instead of just repairing it will cost an additional $58 million. Image: Colorado DOT

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2 (the original came out in 2014), U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group teamed up to profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report. Today, we look at the widening of I-70 in Denver, a project with a potentially high social and economic cost. 

The need to tear down the viaduct carrying I-70 through the center of Denver is clear, but widening it while while it undergoes much-needed replacement would waste tens of millions of dollars.

The bridge, which was built in 1964, first had detectable cracks in 1981. Since then, it has required many repairs. A major 1997 project installed rods intended to reduce cracking. In 2005, the weight of vehicles on the viaduct was limited in hopes of extending the bridge’s life.

But the bridge continued to crumble. By 2010, the bridge was considered “structurally deficient,” a federal designation indicating significant problems in its structure. A $30 million maintenance project in 2010 was expected to give the viaduct another 10 to 15 years of service. But just four years later, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced that some of the work done in 1997 was failing. The repairs themselves needed to be repaired.

The viaduct is also an eyesore whose removal has been sought by the local community for many years. Since it was built, neighbors have complained that it divides their community, which is one of Denver’s poorest.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has proposed replacing the viaduct with a trench for the highway, and partially covering the road with a park. In September 2015, CDOT put out a formal call for private companies willing to finance and build the project. However, CDOT is also proposing to widen the highway.

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Latest Trend in Protected Bike Lanes: Installation in One Year or Less

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Of all the reasons Denverites had to get excited about the two protected bike lanes their city opened Thursday, the most underrated was a feat that you maybe will only fully appreciate if you’ve ever worked in government.

Speed.

Even if they’d taken years to build, the new one-mile lanes on Arapahoe and Lawrence streets would have a lot going for them:

  • They’ve created the first true connections in a low-stress biking network with which the city intends to join its excellent trail system with its major downtown destinations.
  • Their ceremony capped a remarkable public process that began with a local business advocacy group creating a one-day demo on Arapahoe and then leading a successful online crowdfunding campaign to pay for the design work that would make it permanent.
  • Maybe best of all, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Thursday promised three more protected bike lanes in 2016.

But hiding among all that was this remarkable fact: Denver brought both of these one-mile street projects from preliminary planning to completion in less than one year.

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It’s “Transit Christmas” for These Bus and Train Projects in Obama’s Budget

LA Metro's expansion plans would get a boost with Obama's $100 million endorsement of the Purple Line extension. Photo: Wikipedia

LA Metro’s expansion plans would get a boost with $100 million for the Purple Line extension. Photo: Wikipedia

In addition to the broad strokes of transportation policy outlined by the White House yesterday, the Obama administration also put out a much more specific proposal: the list of transit expansion projects recommended for funding in fiscal year 2016. Jeff Wood of The Overhead Wire and Talking Headways fame called it “Transit Christmas.”

Though the budget enacted by Congress will no doubt differ from the administration’s budget, these recommendations from the Federal Transit Administration are significant. Many of the projects on last year’s list are now under construction.

Here’s a look at what’s in line for federal funding, starting with the list of grants for large expansion projects from the FTA’s “New Starts” program.

Major projects recommended for funding:

  • Los Angeles’ Westside Subway Extension, Section 2 — $100 million
  • San Diego’s Midcoast Corridor — $150 million
  • Denver’s Southeast Extension –$92 million
  • Baltimore Red Line — $100 million
  • Maryland Purple Line (Suburban D.C.) — $100 million
  • Minneapolis’ Southwest Light Rail — $150 million
  • Fort Worth’s TEX commuter Rail — $100 million

The big drama right now surrounds the Purple and Red line projects in Maryland, where newly elected Republican Governor Larry Hogan has threatened to cut off state support for the new transit lines if private partners don’t cover enough of the construction costs.

A second list of smaller projects in mid-sized cities are in line for funding from the FTA’s “Small Starts” program.

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Six Tips From Denver for Crowdfunding a Bike Project

A Denver business group is soliciting contributions for this protected bike lane on Denver’s Arapahoe Street. Rendering: Alta Planning + Design

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Need money for a better bike lane? Try asking the Internet.

A year after a neighborhood enhancement group in Memphis turned heads around the country by raising $70,000 for a new protected bike lane using the crowdfunding site Ioby.org, business leaders in Colorado’s capital are following suit.

The Downtown Denver Partnership launched its campaign in October with a breakfast event and a detailed plan to raise $36,000 online from corporate and individual donors to help pay for planning and design of a protected bike lane on Arapahoe Street.

With crowdfunded bike facilities becoming a new trend, we wanted to get some tips on how to run a good campaign. Here’s what this project’s mastermind, DDP senior manager Aylene McCallum, told us about how they did it.

1) The lane being crowdfunded is relatively uncomplicated

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock rides in the 15th Street protected bike lane in May. Photo from his Twitter feed.

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WaPo Transpo Forum: America’s Mayors Aren’t Waiting for Washington

Atlanta’s BeltLine of bike and pedestrian trails is raising property values in every place it touches. Denver’s new rail line will create a much-needed link between Union Station downtown and the airport, 23 miles away. Miami is building 500 miles of bike paths and trails. Los Angeles is breaking new ground with everything from rail expansion to traffic light synchronization. And Salt Lake City’s mayor bikes to work and, by increasing investment in bike infrastructure, is encouraging a lot of others to join him.

At this week’s Washington Post forum on transportation, five mayors from this diverse set of cities spoke of the challenges and opportunities they face as they try to improve transportation options without much help or guidance from the federal government.

Speaking of the feds:

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta is tired of Congress not doing its job. “Cities don’t get to kick the can,” he said. And even if the feds aren’t ready to make big investments, private and foreign investors are reportedly itching to get a crack at U.S. infrastructure, but there’s been no good process for doing so. Reed wants the federal government to play a convening role, bringing mayors together with private investors they can pitch projects to.

And either way, he said, if the federal government is providing less funding to cities for transportation, “we think they need to have a little less say” — except when it comes to safety. But Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says there’s an upside to the gridlock in Washington: “Cities are being more creative.” And Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker says the Obama administration has been a great partner — pointing especially to the TIGER program and the HUD/DOT/EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

New projects:

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is excited about intelligent transportation technology, like the traffic signal synchronization his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, pioneered. And LA’s Expo line — which he dubbed the Beach-to-Bars line — opens soon, turning a two-hour slog through traffic into a 45-minute pleasure cruise. He says it’ll open up access to the Philharmonic and sports venues that, these days, are often avoided because the trip is too hellish.

But Garcetti is already on to the next thing. To him, that thing is autonomous cars. He thinks LA will be a natural home for those. In fact, he openly acknowledges that his push to build BRT lanes is all in the interest of turning them into autonomous vehicle lanes a few years down the road. That’s right — despite the visionary strategic plan LA just released, Garcetti wants to turn road space over from efficient modes to less efficient ones.

And he does think driverless cars are just a few years away — he estimates that one in every 100 cars will be self-driving in 10 years, and five years after that they’ll be “absolutely mainstream.”

Denver’s Mayor Hancock is especially excited about the “Corridor of Opportunity” between the airport and Union Station because he lives out by the airport — one block inside the city limits, just enough to run for mayor, he admits. He currently drives to work, but he says he’s excited for the chance to take the train instead. “What we’ve decided to do is Denver is create a more multimodal approach to our transportation challenges,” he said. “Not only do you need to plan transit, but you need to plan for bicycles, you need to plan for pedestrian-friendly communities.” (And more lanes on the highway.)

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, says they don’t really have a rail transit “system” at all, just one line (with a little detour to the airport). They’re still waiting for a rail link to the beach. The county’s new 10-year transportation plan has been lambasted by advocates as “complete fluff with no substance, future transit vision, or measurable goals.”

Once these projects get going, they have a way of multiplying. Salt Lake City has built 140 miles of urban rail in 15 years, and Mayor Becker says that even the skeptics wanted a light rail line of their own the minute the first line opened. What they still need to do, Becker said, is flesh out the bus system — “we invested in rail to the detriment of a really strong bus system,” he said — and fill in the gaps in the bike trail network.

On financing:

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Denver Urbanists vs. Traffic Calming Conspiracy Theorists

With a fast-growing transit network, Denver is grappling with how to build walkable places around its new rail lines, and the Denver Business Journal is running a package of stories about the potential for transit-oriented development. Overall it looks like a solid introduction to the notion that Denver needs to reduce car dependence, but the series did take an unfortunate detour into “war-on-cars” fantasy-land today with a he-said/she-said piece titled “Are transit-oriented developments a campaign against cars?”

Transit oriented development isn't a conspiracy against driving, it's an attempt to level the playing field for other modes. Photo: City of Denver

Guys, this is not a conspiracy against the middle class. Photo: City of Denver

Still, it’s helpful to get a reminder of what urbanists are up against in cities like Denver. In this case, the “debate” started with a Denver Post column by City Council President Mary Beth Susman published in June. In a fairly moderate plea for better transit options, Susman noted that in addition to providing incentives — “carrots” — to entice folks to try walking, biking or transit, the city is planning to use some disincentives — “sticks” — to discourage driving. The two “sticks” she mentioned were reducing parking requirements — we’re talking about loosening government regulations that compel  — and refraining from widening roads in some areas of the city.

In response, the conservative Colorado Peak Politics called Susman’s editorial an “astonishing” admission that the city’s policy was trying to “actually make driving inconvenient.” The outraged, anonymous blogger asserted that nobody with kids to drop off, or a “client-facing position,” or groceries to pick up will ride a bike in Denver, and that policies that try to make biking safer and more practical are a “dangerous” attack on the middle class.

But the real hidden gem of this whole episode comes from Kathleen Calongne of the sprawl-loving American Dream Coalition. While it’s regrettable that Business Journal reporter Caitlin Hendee treated Calongne as a credible source, she’s at least good for some laughs.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Crown Prince of Fresh Air

podcast icon logoWhat would you think of a city planner, out ruffling feathers with his bold ideas about density and urbanism — who commutes to work an hour each way from his ranch way outside the city? Ironic — or hypocritical? That’s the question we wrestle with in our discussion of Brad Buchanan, the head honcho at Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development.

And then we head from Denver to Dallas, where MPO chief Michael Morris has unilaterally declared that the plan to convert I-345 into a boulevard is going nowhere. Trouble is, he doesn’t actually have the authority to say that, and his facts are wrong. But by asserting it, will he make it true?

Say your piece in the comments. And subscribe to this podcast on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.

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Other Cities Look to Tear Down Their Old Highways, But Not Denver

Denver's plan for I-70 is to bury it, widen it and cap it. Image: I70east.com

Denver’s plan for I-70 is to widen it, bury it, and cap a small part of it. Photo: I70east.com

Denver has one of those golden opportunities that many American cities are seizing: An elevated highway that damaged neighborhoods is nearing the end of its life, giving the city an opening to repair the harm.

Unfortunately, as Tanya has reported, Denver seems poised to double down on highway building instead. The city is looking to bury and widen Interstate 70 through the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, then cap a small section. The $1.8 billion proposal would add four lanes to I-70 — two in each direction — for a total of 10 lanes.

This visualization shows how the highway would look widened and with a cap. Image: I70east.com

A look at the proposal to sink and widen I-70 and put an 800-foot-long park on it. Image: I70east.com

While Denver has been booming in general, the neighborhoods bisected by I-70, which was laid down through the city in the 1950s, haven’t shared in the good fortune. Thanks to the many trucks roaring through and the eyesore of the elevated highway, Elyria-Swansea and nearby communities suffer from excessive traffic, environmental problems, and disinvestment.

Proponents of the highway plan call it a “corridor of opportunity” and are promising a network of parks, open space, and transit. A big sweetener is the proposed 800-foot-long park they say would be built on the highway lid.

But according to community activist and  former City Council member Susan Barnes-Gelt, the design does little to mend connections between the two neighborhoods. She says there’s no excuse for widening highways through urban neighborhoods in an age when many cities are choosing to tear them down.

In a Denver Post editorial earlier this year, Barnes-Gelt wrote that under Mayor Michael Hancock, what could have been a big step forward for the city is “morphing back into a highway project.” It’s especially disappointing considering Denver’s recent history of smart planning, she said.

“This is what happens when people that can make a difference don’t pay attention,” she told Streetsblog.

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