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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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Why a Broke State DOT Could Be Great for Missouri

These expensive flyovers in sprawling Missouri might not have been worth the expense to taxpayers. Maybe a broke MoDOT will help bring projects back down to earth. Image: NextSTL

Maybe a broke MoDOT will bring costs back down to earth by not building projects like these expensive flyovers. Image: NextSTL

In August, Missouri voters roundly defeated a sales tax increase supported by road building interests that would have dramatically boosted funding for the state DOT. During the run-up to the election, state leaders laid it on thick in their appeal for more road money, arguing that the fallout would be disastrous for public safety if voters didn’t approve the 0.75 percent sales tax hike.

But voters didn’t bite on the business-as-usual proposal. And now, reports Richard Bose in a brilliant post at NextSTL, the state has unveiled its Plan B: a tighter budget that is packaged in language designed to scare residents into approving another funding source for the DOT.

MoDOT's approach to highway funding is no longer sustainable. The organization hopes its scaled-back plans encourage voters to pony up more money. Image; MoDOT

MoDOT’s approach to highway funding is no longer sustainable. The agency hopes its scaled-back plans scare voters into ponying up more money. Image: MoDOT

Missouri officials call it the “325 Plan,” because the state will only have $325 million to spend annually on transportation by 2017. Among the warnings: ”Supplementary roads will become a patchwork of repairs. Heavy loads on Missouri bridges will be limited, and some bridges could be closed indefinitely.” In light of the budget crunch, the state has said it will make “improvements” on only 8,000 of its 34,000 miles of roads. But the rest will still receive basic maintenance.

Bose says putting Missouri DOT on an austerity budget might be just what the doctor ordered. After all, over the last decade, the state binged on road spending, much of it backed by borrowing. And yet the state still has almost 500 bridges in poor or serious condition, and its economy is still performing worse than the nation as a whole. Perhaps giving the DOT more money to throw at highway construction isn’t going to fix anything.

Back when money was flowing freely, many of the state-supported highway expansions were little more than jobs programs, Bose says. Now it’s not clear that the state’s economy can support infrastructure at the scale that was built. Missouri DOT isn’t about to admit that’s a possibility, though:

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Philly Urbanists Launch Political Action Committee to Shake Up City Council

In a move that may mark, in the words of Philadelphia Magazine, ”New Philadelphia’s political awakening,” a group of Philly urbanists launched a political action committee earlier this month to support candidates who will reform local land use, transportation, and taxation policies.

One of the planks of The 5th Square’s platform: getting the city to follow through on its protected bike lane plans. Image via 5th Square

The new organization is called The 5th Square, a reference to the public space at City Hall, and it was founded by Geoff Kees Thompson, who writes at This Old City. The platform, which is still in development, urges the adoption of a Vision Zero policy to eliminate traffic fatalities, the construction of 40 miles of protected bike lanes in four years, and tripling the city’s parks budget.

The 5th Square will use its candidate surveys, political donations, and volunteers to influence City Council races. ”What [the city] needs now more than ever are better leaders who think progressively about our city, not retrograde candidates stuck to our decline-filled past,” Thompson wrote in the manifesto announcing the PAC’s launch.

So far the group has raised about $3,500 toward its first-month goal of $5,000, a figure Philly Magazine called “pretty much the pizza budget of the mayoral campaign.” But as StreetsPAC has demonstrated in New York City, money is just one of many factors that determine a PAC’s influence.

In 2013, StreetsPAC spent only about $40,000 in its first election cycle, a pittance compared to the real estate interests that dominate the NYC political scene. What it lacked in money it more than made up for in media savvy and grassroots enthusiasm, with 13 of its 18 endorsees going on to win. StreetsPAC organizers credited their success to a hardworking volunteer network and the ability to broadcast endorsements to a large, committed constituency.

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Transit and Equity Advocate Stephanie Pollack to Lead MassDOT

Stephanie Pollack was one of the first transportation experts who made a serious impression on me. A few weeks after I started working at Streetsblog, at my first Rail~volution conference, she gave a presentation on the complex relationship between transit, gentrification, and car ownership. Her energy, intellectual rigor, and passion for social justice were apparent in her nuanced work exploring the reasons why car ownership rates tend to rise in neighborhoods with new transit services — and how it hurts not just the transportation system and the environment, but the poor.

Stephanie Pollack, a thought leader on how housing and transportation policy impacts minorities and low-income people, will be the new secretary of MassDOT. Photo: ##http://www.northeastern.edu/news/faculty-experts/stephanie-pollack/##Northeastern##

Stephanie Pollack, a thought leader on how housing and transportation policy affects minorities and low-income people, will be the new secretary of MassDOT. Photo: Northeastern

The person who opened a Rail~volution session on transit and equity with, “I spent a couple of decades as a transit and equity advocate before I went into academia,” has just been named the director of a state department of transportation.

By a Republican governor.

When Streetsblog fretted about what a Charlie Baker victory over Democrat Martha Coakley could mean for transportation, naming such a firebrand as his transportation secretary seemed unthinkable. But perhaps Baker will continue the legacy of moderate Republican Massachusetts governors who care about smart growth.

Or perhaps he was simply impressed by Pollack’s résumé, including her leadership at Northeastern University’s Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and her service on numerous teams and panels to help design city- and statewide public transportation and housing policy.

The Boston Globe’s headline yesterday about Pollack’s nomination read, “Baker names gas tax advocate as transit chief,” noting that “Baker has said he does not plan to raise taxes.” But Pollack’s history is much more interesting than her position on the gas tax.

Her research focuses on the intersection between transportation and equity. How can planners bring transit services into a neighborhood without bringing gentrification along with it? Are all communities equally consulted in the lead-up to major transportation changes? Are higher gas taxes “elitist or equitable”? (You can guess by that Globe headline which side she comes down on. Actually, don’t just guess – this short presentation of her conclusions is worth perusing.)

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The Feds Quietly Acknowledge the Driving Boom Is Over

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After years of erroneously predicting rapid growth in driving, the FHWA finally made significant downward revisions to its traffic forecast last year. Graphic: U.S. PIRG/Frontier Group

The Federal Highway Administration has very quietly acknowledged that the driving boom is over.

After many years of aggressively and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of rapid driving growth, the agency’s more recent forecast finally recognizes that the protracted post-World War II era has given way to a different paradigm.

The new vision of the future suggests that driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overestimates of future driving translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.

The forecast is a big step forward from the FHWA’s past record of chronically aggressive driving forecasts. Most recently, in February 2014 the U.S. DOT released its 2013 “Conditions and Performance Report” to Congress, which estimated that total vehicle miles (VMT) will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. This raised some eyebrows because total annual VMT hasn’t increased by even as much as 1 percent in any year since 2004.

Comparing the 20-year estimates of the “Conditions and Performance Report” issued at the beginning of 2014 to the new 20-year estimates shows the agency has cut its forecasted growth rate by between 24 percent to 44 percent.

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NHTSA Touts Decrease in Traffic Deaths, But 32,719 Ain’t No Vision Zero

Twenty-four-year-old Taja Wilson was killed near the Louisiana bayou in August when a driver swerved on the shoulder where she was walking. Noshat Nahian, age 8, was killed in a Queens crosswalk on his way to school in December by a tractor-trailer driver with a suspended license. Manuel Steeber, 37, was in a wheelchair when he was killed in Minneapolis while trying to cross an intersection with no crosswalk or traffic signal on a 40-mph road. One witness speculated that Steeber must have had a “death wish.”

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a motorist on his way to school in Queens with his sister, Nousin Jahan Nishat, 11. Photo: ##http://accidentsinus.com/Victims/detail.aspx?Victim=ea990b8d-8312-4526-bf61-b326706ffdf9##Accidents in US##

Noshat Nahian, 8, was hit and killed by a truck driver on his way to school in Queens with his sister.
Photo: Accidents in US

These are just three of the 4,735 pedestrians killed in 2013. Believe it or not, that was an improvement, down 1.7 percent from the year before.

New data [PDF] from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that overall, traffic fatalities went down in 2013 — reassuring news after a disturbing uptick in 2012. But 32,719 preventable deaths on the country’s streets is still an alarming death toll. Tens of thousands of lives would be saved if the United States achieved a traffic fatality rate comparable to the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan.

The Vision Zero movement is growing around the country, but advocates are still trying to come up with a way to bring the movement for zero deaths to the national level, instead of just city by city.

Moreover, though the overall situation improved in 2013, beneath the surface there were some disconcerting trends and facts:

  • Bicyclists (categorized as “pedalcyclists” in NHTSA reporting language) were the only group to experience more deaths in 2013 than 2012. With more and more people riding bicycles, the 743 cyclists killed in 2013 probably still represents fewer deaths per miles ridden, but it also reveals a blind spot in many places in the country that have yet to adapt their roads to the reality of more people biking.

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DeFazio, Norton, and Larsen Take on Dangerous Street Design

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is already proving that he’ll put some muscle into the fight for bike and pedestrian safety in his new post as ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Before even starting his new job as Ranking Member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: ##http://bikeportland.org/2012/03/27/rep-defazio-takes-us-inside-the-transportation-fight-and-the-republican-psyche-69482##Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland##

Before even starting his new job as ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

DeFazio and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), top Democrat on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, have signed on to fellow T&I Democrat Rick Larsen (D-WA)’s letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the recent rise in bike and pedestrian fatalities, which increased 6 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At the state and federal level, efforts to improve the safety of walking and biking often blame the victim — as the Governors Highway Safety Association did when it flagged the recent increase in cyclist fatalities without noting that biking rates have gone up much more. DeFazio and company are emphasizing a much more fundamental problem: street design.

In their letter, they state:

[W]e are concerned that conventional engineering practices have encouraged engineers to design roads at 5-15 miles per hour faster than the posted speed for the street. This typically means roads are designed and built with wider, straighter lanes and have fewer objects near the edges, more turn lanes, and wider turning radii at intersections. While these practices improve driving safety, a suspected unintended consequence is that drivers travel faster when they feel safer. Greater speeds can increase the frequency and severity of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who are moving at much slower speeds and have much less protection than a motorized vehicle affords.

The GAO responds to lawmaker requests like these by investigating the matter and reporting back to help members of Congress develop a deeper understanding of the issues so they can set better policy. The GAO itself makes recommendations for improvement in the reports.

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Kentucky Threatens 17 Louisville Street Trees, Citing Safety [Updated]

The Kentucky Department of Transportation objects to street trees on this stroad. Image: Google Maps

The Kentucky Department of Transportation says trees make this road dangerous. Image: Google Maps

Here’s a classic story of traffic engineering myopia. Officials at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are threatening to remove 17 newly planted street trees in a Louisville suburb.

As reported by Next City and Louisville’s Courier-Journal, the trees had been selected and planted in part to ameliorate the area’s growing urban heat island problem. Louisville has lost 9 percent of its tree cover over roughly the last decade.

But Kentucky officials say the trees are a hazard to motorists along Brownsboro Road in Rolling Hills.

“We are not anti-tree at the Transportation Cabinet,” state highway engineer Matt Bullock told the Courier-Journal. “We are pro-safety.”

The state has given the city until Christmas to remove the trees. Local officials have accused the state of “selective enforcement” and even “harassment.”

Charles Marohn, the civil engineer who founded Strong Towns, said Kentucky is looking at the problem in the wrong way. ”Street trees are dangerous,” he said, but only if “you have fast moving traffic.”

“They’re focused on the street trees and not the speed. Street trees are not a problem at reasonable speeds.”

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