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EPA Rejects New York’s Clean Water Money Grab for Highway Bridge

This morning, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the $510.9 million federal loan New York state had requested from a clean water program to pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Only $29 million worth of TZB work is eligible for clean water money, the EPA’s regional office ruled, averting a dangerous precedent that could have let governors across the country raid environmental funds to pay for highways.

Building a new highway bridge with clean water funds? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

Using clean water funds to replace this highway bridge? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

“New York’s request presents a unique circumstance that is unprecedented… no other state has made a request of this type or magnitude,” wrote Joan Leary Matthews, regional director of EPA’s clean water division [PDF]. “There is no evidence… that the [Clean Water State Revolving Fund] was intended to fund mitigation for major construction projects within an estuary. Construction activities arising from transportation projects do not advance water quality, and CWSRF funding should not be used for these purposes.”

The Thruway Authority had planned on using the $510.9 million loan on twelve projects. Today, EPA rejected seven of those projects, totaling $481.8 million, because they are directly tied to building the new bridge. The projects deemed ineligible are: removal of the existing bridge, dredging for construction vessels, armoring the river bottom, installation of an underwater noise attenuation system, construction of a bike-pedestrian path on the new bridge, restoration of oyster beds, and the installation of a falcon nest box.

The state will be able to receive funding for five projects, totaling $29.1 million: the restoration of Gay’s Point and Piermont Marsh, the installation of stormwater management measures, and the creation of a conservation benefit plan, including an Atlantic sturgeon outreach program.

Environmental advocates and good government groups staunchly opposed the loan, saying that allowing clean water funds to be used for highway construction would set a dangerous precedent. “It’s great that the agency in charge of calling balls and strikes has called the state out,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “But we shouldn’t have gotten here in the first place.”

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Talking Headways: Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Redux

podcast icon logoAfter a week at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place Conference in Pittsburgh, it was all I could talk about — and luckily, Jeff was an eager audience.

In this podcast, Jeff and I talk about the relative utility of a character like Isabella, the new character People for Bikes created to make the case for safe, low-stress bikeways. We dig into the announcement that U.S. DOT is going to take on bike and pedestrian safety as one of its top issues. And we debate the pros and cons of holding the next Pro-Walk Pro-Bike in Vancouver.

There were hundreds of workshops, panels, presentations, and tours — not to mention countless side conversations, power lunches, and informal caucuses that were probably at least as energizing as the formal sessions — so my impressions are just one tiny slice of the pie. If you attended this year, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the conference, the host city, and your experience in the comments.

Keep up with us (if you can) at our RSS feed or subscribe on Stitcher or iTunes.

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US DOT Awards 72 TIGER Grants, But the Program Remains in Jeopardy

This afternoon, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will announce the latest round of TIGER grants awarding $600 million among 72 transportation projects in 46 states and the District of Columbia. You can see all TIGER grants to date or just the latest round — TIGER VI — in this map from Transportation for America.

Here are a few things to know about the state of the program:

Demand for these grants still far outstrips supply. U.S. DOT received 797 eligible applications this time, up from 585 in 2013, requesting 15 times the $600 million available for the program. TIGER fills a significant void in the federal transportation program — it’s one of the only ways cities, metro regions, and transit agencies can apply directly for federal funds, bypassing state DOTs. Plus, the emphasis on non-automotive modes and the availability of small grants make it a good fit for transit improvements and bike and pedestrian projects, which can’t access other federal pots of money so easily.

27 percent of the total funding is going to transit projects. That includes
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Protected Lanes Are a Great Start — Next Goal Is Low-Stress Bike Networks

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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.

For decades, protected bike lanes were a “missing tool” in American street design. Now that this is changing, bikeway design leaders are identifying a new frontier: low-stress grids.

Dan Goodman of the Federal Highway Administration says the federal Department of Transportation is shifting its strategy from emphasizing biking facilities to emphasizing biking networks.

“Separated bike lanes are part of the toolbox that get us to connected networks,” said Dan Goodman of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Human Environment.

Speaking at the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference in Pittsburgh, Goodman said a draft 2014-2018 FHWA strategic plan prioritizes, for the first time, the enhancement of pedestrian and bicycle networks instead of just “one-off” facilities.

“We want people to be not just thinking about resurfacing one mile and having the bike lane die, especially if there’s a shared-use path one block away,” Goodman said. “We want to focus on filling those gaps… That’s something that you’ll be hearing us talk about a lot more.”

Under Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, creating connected networks is one of four overarching policy priorities for the U.S. Department of Transportation, he said. (The others are safety, data and performance measures, and equity.)

Martha Roskowski, vice president for local innovation at PeopleForBikes, described “the network” as “where things are going.”

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Foxx: New U.S. DOT Bike/Ped Initiative “Critical to Future of the Country”

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx just announced to the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference in Pittsburgh that the department is “putting together the most comprehensive, forward-leaning initiative U.S. DOT has ever put forward on bike/ped issues.” He said the initiative “is critical to the future of the country.”

Photo: Wikipedia

The top priority, he said, will be closing gaps in walking and biking networks where “even if people are following the rules, the risk of a crash is too high.” He said dangerous street conditions are especially severe in low-income communities, where pedestrians are killed at twice the rate as in high-income areas, often because they lack sidewalks, lighting, and safe places to cross the street. He noted that when he was mayor of Charlotte, a child was hit by a driver because the road he was walking on with his mother had no sidewalk, and overgrown bushes pushed them into the street.

In its announcement today, U.S. DOT noted that pedestrian and cyclist deaths have been rising faster than overall traffic fatalities since 2009.

As Foxx often mentions when discussing street safety issues, he himself has been the victim of a crash. He was hit by a right-turning driver while jogging one morning during his first term as mayor.

As part of the initiative, U.S. DOT just wrapped up bike/ped assessments in Boston, Fort Worth, and Lansing, Michigan. They’ll be leading similar assessments in every state in the country.

Without going into detail, Foxx also said the department plans “to re-examine our policies and practices that without intending to do so have occasionally resulted in road designs that shut out people on foot and on bicycle.” Certainly, there is a wide variety of federal transportation policies and practices that warrant examination on that front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Transit Agencies Expand Even When They Struggle to Provide Service

This map shows transit routes in New Orleans that run less frequently than once every 30 miles at peak hour in red. Routes that run at 15-minute frequencies or less. Image: Ride New Orleans via Transport Politic

Frequent transit in New Orleans is scarce: The transit routes in red run less frequently than once every 30 minutes at peak hour, while only the routes in green run at least every 15 minutes. Image: Ride New Orleans via Transport Politic

New Orleans transit is in bad shape, as we reported recently. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has never recovered from Hurricane Katrina and service is at about 36 percent of pre-storm levels despite the region’s population rebound.

New Orleans’ frequent service lines have been slashed dramatically. Even newly built streetcar lines are running infrequently.

So why is New Orleans planning a major expansion that would dramatically expand the streetcar system, as well as add light rail and bus rapid transit? As Yonah Freemark recently pointed out at the Transport Politic, despite its inability to deliver frequent along its existing routes, NORTA plans to pour $3.5 billion into construction.

This case, Freemark explains, illustrates problematic incentives embedded in federal policy. Namely, the federal government makes money available for expansion projects but not for day-to-day service:

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Congress Hits the Snooze Button on Transpo Funding Until May

Someone had to cave and last night, it was the Senate.

Closed for the summer. Photo: ##http://www.capitol.gov/html/EVT_2010061578974.html##Capitol.gov##

Closed for the summer. Photo: Politic365

The upper chamber had fought as long as it could to adjust the House transportation bill so it wouldn’t expire when the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But senators were never willing to actually let the Highway Trust Fund go broke. U.S. DOT would have started cutting back on reimbursements to state DOTs as of today in the absence of an agreement.

After the House rejected the Senate’s amendment yesterday, hours before representatives were due to return to their home districts for the five-week August recess, it seemed the Senate had no choice. Then, news broke that the House was going to stick around a little longer to keep fighting about the border crisis.

Could the Senate have taken advantage of the House’s presence to toss the football back to them, on the assumption that the last team holding it will get blamed for the fumble? Maybe. Maybe the House would have been the one to cave, then. Maybe they would have sent the transportation industry into a tailspin. In a recent poll, 85 percent of transit agencies said they would implement service cuts if that happened.

At least we were spared that. But perhaps not for long. Former U.S. DOT official Beth Osborne, now at Transportation for America, noted that each extension seems to be getting harder. “The easy ways to pay for the program are gone,” she said. “It’s going to get harder doing this with bubble gum and band-aids.”

Who cares?

Last night on Twitter, Cap’n Transit paid me the backhanded compliment of my life by saying:

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Time’s Up: 6 Things to Know About Today’s Transpo Showdown (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2:40 p.m.: The House has rejected the Senate amendment, as expected.

Today is the House of Representatives’ last day in session before departing for an August recess full of photo ops and electioneering in their districts. The Senate will stick around DC for one more day before going home. Before that happens, the two houses have to come together on a plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund going. If not, U.S. DOT will have to take drastic measures.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Both the House and the Senate have voted on not entirely dissimilar plans to keep the fund going. But the differences between them have set up a high-stakes showdown that has to be resolved by tomorrow.

Here are the key points:

    1. The timing: The House is expected to vote on the Senate bill today at about 3:00 p.m. and is expected to refuse to budge. Then they’ll leave town, meaning the Senate can either cave or be blamed as the Highway Trust Fund goes dry before August recess ends and transportation works grind to a halt. Meanwhile, Sec. Anthony Foxx has warned state DOTs that federal payments will slow down August 1 — that’s tomorrow — if Congress doesn’t take action to keep the Fund from going insolvent.
    2. The numbers: The House is gloating that the Senate’s bill contains a $2 billion technical error — which is true; it comes up with just $6.2 billion of the $8.1 billion needed — but Senate Democrats say it can be easily fixed.
    3. The urgency: Since summer is the high season for construction, the real pressure on the Highway Trust Fund is between now and the end of the year, when states will need to get reimbursed for the work that’s going on now. That’s why there’s not a huge monetary difference between the House proposal that lasts till May and the Senate proposal that ends in December. There’s just not a lot of cash going out the door at U.S. DOT between January and May.
    4. The conflict: The House and Senate disagree on what budget gimmicks to use to “pay for” the transfer into the trust fund, but more fundamentally they disagree about how long the patch should be. As we’ve reported before, Boxer prefers a December deadline, saying it’s unfair for this Congress to fail to fix a problem that occurred on its watch and instead kick it to the next Congress. What she means is that she wants her six-year bill to pass and that won’t happen after the end of this year if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate and she loses the chairmanship of the EPW Committee. That’s precisely why the House is gunning for a May deadline.
    5. The breakdown: The Senate Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic as the House about having to take this up when they’re in charge. Thirteen Rs joined the Ds in pushing for a December sunset, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who wants to raise the gas tax and be done already. “Wouldn’t it be great to finish 2014 actually solving one issue; taking one issue off the plate next year?” he said yesterday at a WSJ press breakfast. Only one Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, voted no on Boxer’s date-change amendment. Notably, David Vitter, the ranking member on the EPW Committee, who has shown great bipartisan unity with Boxer, broke with her on this and voted to essentially flush their six-year-bill down the toilet. His predecessor, James Inhofe, voted in favor of Boxer’s December 19 deadline.
    6. The fallout: If the GOP does win the Senate in 2014, the conventional wisdom says they’ll lose it again in 2016. Will the Republicans really want to take on a tax increase of any kind during the only two years when they’ll get the lion’s share of the blame? Of course not. The prognosis is that if there’s no long-term bill this term, it’ll be another three years. Three more years of patchwork funding gimmicks is nothing to look forward to.
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FHWA to Engineers: Go Ahead and Use City-Friendly Street Designs

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

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

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

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