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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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Wisconsin Dumps One Urban Highway Boondoggle in Favor of Another

Wisconsin Department of Transportation rendering of their proposed, but now rejected, plan for a double decker freeway in Milwaukee.

Instead of spending $1 billion to create this double-decker section of I-94 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin DOT will spend $850 million to widen the highway. Rendering: WisDOT via Milwaukee Business Journal

One of the nation’s most poorly conceived highway proposals will become slightly less ridiculous. Transportation officials in Wisconsin recently announced they will no longer consider double-decking a portion of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. The billion-dollar project would have raised the highway to building height in the Story Hill neighborhood.

Wisconsin DOT hasn’t seen the light, however. The state is still marching ahead with a tremendously expensive I-94 expansion project. Instead of spending $1 billion to double-deck the highway, WisDOT has settled on spending $850 million to repair the road and add a lane in each direction.

For comparison, the project will still cost about three times what Governor Scott Walker cut from state support for the University of Wisconsin in his recent budget. The road expansion is designed to save commuters just four minutes in each direction — assuming the state’s traffic assumptions are correct.

But there is very good reason to believe they are not. State officials are using old traffic data to justify the enormous expense. Traffic counts on the corridor actually declined between 2009 and 2012, the latest years for which data was available, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

The data Wisconsin DOT cites to justify the project only extends through 2010. The agency says that’s because a later construction project affected traffic levels on the road. But Metro Milwaukee’s population has barely increased in a decade, and statewide, driving has been flat since 1999, so it’s not at all clear why the state would be expecting such an increase.

“Rather than fixing it first and prioritizing the maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, the DOT wants to widen a highway where traffic counts have declined by 8 percent over the past 12 years,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a press release.

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4 Things to Know as Transportation Bill Negotiations Heat Up

Lawmakers in Washington are just beginning their latest attempt to craft the first long-term transportation bill in roughly a decade. The current bill expires in just a few months, on May 31, but in Congress that’s an eternity. While it’s a long way from go time, the contours of the debate are starting to become apparent.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (center, in white) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (right, in the red tie) held a Twitter town hall to promote a long-term transportation funding plan. Photo: Bill Shuster via Twitter

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster (center, in white) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (right, in the red tie) held a Twitter town hall last week to promote a long-term transportation funding plan. Photo: Bill Shuster via Twitter

Here’s how things are shaping up.

The White House Transportation Proposal and Anthony Foxx’s “Grow America Tour”

The Obama Administration has unveiled the broad strokes of a six-year transportation proposal, the “Grow America” plan, that would dramatically increase federal funding for transit and include key incentives to reform how state DOTs spend their billions.

Transportation Secretary Anthony set out on a four-day tour of some Southern states yesterday to promote the Grow America plan. Foxx has been enlisting local leaders to help build a push for reauthorization.

The Fight Over Transit Funding

Pushing in the opposite direction, bolstered by Koch brothers money, is the Tea Party wing of the GOP, which wants to end federal funding for anything that’s not highways.

Last week, a group of rural Republicans raised the prospect of eliminating the portion of the Highway Trust Fund that supports transit. Since Ronald Reagan signed the policy into the law in 1983, 20 percent of federal gas tax revenue has gone toward the nation’s rail and bus systems.

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Obama’s New Transportation Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

With federal transportation funding on track to run dry by May 31, Washington lawmakers are gearing up again to reset national transportation policy… or, if that doesn’t work out, to limp along indefinitely under the status quo.

Unlike the U.S., China is opening high-capacity transit lines left and right. Photo of Beijing metro: Xinhua

Today President Obama unveiled his opening bid in this process. The $478-billion, six-year plan from the White House includes many of the proposals the administration unveiled last year. Congress didn’t advance those ideas then, and with the GOP now controlling both houses, chances remain slim for reforming highway-centric federal transportation policy.

But the White House budget document remains the best summary of the Obama team’s transportation policy agenda. The ideas are intriguing even if they’re politically improbable.

Here’s a look at the highlights [PDF].

The Good

Boosts Transit Funding: Obama proposes a large increase in transit funding, budgeting $23 billion in 2016 and a total of $123 billion to transit over six years. That would represent a 75 percent increase over current levels. The would go toward both expansions and the maintenance and improvement of light rail, BRT, subway, and commuter rail networks.

Promotes State DOT Reform: The Fixing and Accelerating Surface Transportation program would “create incentives” for state DOTs and other transportation agencies to reform how they approach road safety and congestion management. Funded at $1 billion annually, the program would fund initiatives like “distracted driving (safety) requirements or modifying transportation plans to include mass transit, bike, and pedestrian options,” the White House says.

Read more…

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What They’re Doing for Bike Safety in Wyoming: Mandatory Orange Vests

It could become illegal to bike in Wyoming without this accessory. Photo: Team Estrogen

It could become illegal to bike in Wyoming without this accessory. Photo: Team Estrogen

A bill introduced in the Wyoming statehouse would require cyclists to wear “two hundred square-inches of reflective neon” and carry a government-issued ID. The legislation would also require cyclists to have a rear light, even though another law already requires that, according to Jackson Hole News and Guide.

Brian Schilling, coordinator of Jackson Hole Community Pathways, told the paper he thought the measure was “a little onerous.” He said his 5-year-old daughter could technically comply with the ID requirement because she has a passport. But, he added, “I don’t think her entire surface area is 200 inches.”

The law would require at least 200 square inches of “of high-visibility fluorescent orange, green or pink color clothing visible from the front and rear of the bicycle,” whether the cyclist is riding during the day or night. According to the News and Guide, it has six sponsors: House Reps. David Northrup, Donald Burkhart, Hans Hunt, Allen Jaggi, Jerry Paxton, and Cheri Steinmetz, although none would comment for the newspaper.

Walkable City author Jeff Speck called it the “We are America’s biggest dorks and will never get it” cycling bill.

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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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Koch-Funded Groups: Cut All Federal Funding for Walking, Biking, Transit

The Highway Trust Fund is going broke, but a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is "squirrel sanctuaries." Image: Brookings

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and “squirrel sanctuaries.” Image: Brookings

You know it’s time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding everything except car infrastructure.

Yesterday, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and the Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

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Cincinnati’s Eastern Corridor: The $1.4 Billion Road No One Seems to Want

The Eastern Corridor is an expensive state DOT highway project searching for a reason to exist.

The highway plan would relocate SR 32 through Mariemont's South 80 Park. Image: Village of Mariemont

The highway plan would reroute SR 32 through Mariemont’s South 80 Park, named for its 80-acre size. Image: Village of Mariemont

The $1.4 billion proposal from Ohio DOT is ostensibly intended to reduce commute times from Cincinnati’s far eastern bedroom communities to downtown. The project, a remnant of 1960s-era road planning, would create a commuter highway through the eastern Cincinnati region by widening and partially rerouting State Route 32, as well as widening Red Bank Road. The plan also contains commuter rail and bike infrastructure elements. Proponents, like the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, say it will shorten car commutes and promote job development in the eastern suburbs [PDF].

But even with those multi-modal goodies, nobody seems to like this highway — not even the towns it is designed to serve, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Newtown (population 2,600) opposes it. The village of Mariemont (population 3,400) opposes it. Madisonville, an eastern Cincinnati neighborhood that would be served by the road, opposes it.  “We don’t need it,” Newtown Mayor Curt Cosby told the Enquirer.

“The state keeps saying, ‘Well, we hear you and we’re taking that into account.’ But they continue to move forward and spend money. They don’t really hear us.”

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Four Nice Touches in U.S. DOT’s New “Mayors’ Challenge” for Bike Safety

Denver Transportation Director Crissy Fanganello, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard in 2014.

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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.

There’s a difference between bike-safety warnings that focus on blaming victims and warnings that recommend actual systemic improvements. The launch of a Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is the good kind of warning.

Yes, it’d be nice if it weren’t being pegged on the dubious claim that biking has gotten more dangerous in the last few years. Also if U.S. DOT were offering any money for cities that take its advice.

That said, there’s a lot to love in this initiative launched Friday. Let’s count a few of the ways.

The feds want cities to measure successful bike trips, not just bad ones.

Austin, Texas.

In many cities, the only times bikes show up in the official statistics is when something goes wrong.

When a person collides with a car or a curb while biking, they enter the public record. When they roll happily back to work after meeting a friend for tacos, they’re invisible to the spreadsheets that drive traffic engineering decisions.

This is the sort of logic that sometimes leads people to the conclusion that on-street bicycle facilities decrease road safety. What they’re actually doing is increasing bike usage, which in turn is the most important way to increase bike safety. When our primary metric of biking success is the number of people biking rather than the number of people dying, we’re making our cities better across the board, not merely safer.

Foxx’s lead recommendation that cities “count the number of people walking and biking” shouldn’t be revolutionary. But if every city did, it would be.

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Alabama DOT Wants to Gouge a Highway Through This Historic Town Center

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North Eufaula Avenue, the heart of Eufaula, Alabama’s historic town center, is under threat by the Alabama DOT. Photo: Robin McDonald

The town of Eufaula, Alabama, population 13,000, is known for its historic buildings. Stately mansions, giant live oak heavy with Spanish moss — it’s exactly the type of place that comes to mind when you picture Southern small-town charm.

Every year the city hosts a home tour called the Eufaula pilgrimage, which culminates with the grand mansions on North Eufaula Avenue. That event and other cultural tourism brings millions of dollars to the local economy every year.

Which is why many residents were horrified when the Alabama Department of Transportation came to town in November and announced it would be widening North Eufaula Avenue, through the heart of the historic district. Widening the road from two lanes to four would cut into the roots of the stately oaks and make this historic small-town street feel like a high-speed freeway.

Doug Purcell, a long-time resident and board member of the Eufaula Heritage Association, has been leading the local campaign against the project. The state of Alabama has tried to widen the road three times in the 42 years he’s lived there, and he’s fought back every time.

“North Eufaula Avenue defines the special character of Eufaula,” he said. “It’s Eufaula’s front porch and one of its showcases.”

Purcell and other activists gathered 6,000 signatures opposing the widening.

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