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Posts from the "State Legislature" Category

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Study: Corrupt States Spend More on Highways

In states with higher levels of corruption, public officials spend more on construction, roads and safety services. Image: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new study found a link between highway spending and official corruption. Map: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new academic study helps explain the enduring political popularity of expensive transportation boondoggles like Birmingham’s $4.7 billion Northern Beltline and Kentucky’s $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges.

According to research published in the journal Public Administration Review, states with higher levels of public corruption spend more money on highways and construction. The study found highway and construction projects and police programs provide the most opportunities for lawmakers to enrich themselves, according to Governing Magazine, and are positively correlated with state levels of corruption. Meanwhile, highly corrupt states also spend relatively less on health, education, and welfare — categories that were less susceptible to graft and bribery, the report found.

Public corruption for each state was ranked based on 25,000 convictions between 1976 and 2008. Overall, the authors found, the 10 most corrupt states spend $1,300 more per person annually than the average state.

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Cycling So Popular in Georgia That Lawmaker Carl Rogers Wants to Ban It

Responding to a cycling boom in northern Georgia, a bill introduced in the state house would require bicyclists to purchase license plates and limit how and where they ride.

Cycling is booming in north Georgia, says lawmaker Carl Rogers -- and that's a problem. Photo: Southeast Discovery

House Bill 689 was purportedly introduced in response to complaints from north Georgia drivers, whose chief grievance seems to be that it is inconvenient to encounter cyclists on the road at all. Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who introduced the bill, believes cycling is so popular in the area that things are getting out of hand. Said Rogers to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “On these narrow mountain roads and on state roads, the traffic can be heavy. The mountain roads have become especially a problem because the (bike) clubs are moving up there.”

The legislation would require cyclists to purchase a $15 annual registration, to be displayed on a license, or face a misdemeanor offense and a $100 fine. The law would prohibit cyclists from riding more than four in a row single file, and would allow the state and localities to “restrict when and where cycling is allowed.”

“It looks like the purpose of the bill is to allow motorists to drive as quickly as possible and prioritizes eliminating a moment’s delay or ‘inconvenience’ over another person’s fundamental safety,” said statewide advocacy group Georgia Bikes! in a statement.

The group added that the law would discourage a healthy and inexpensive form of transportation:

The reason we tax, register, and require licenses for motorists is because cars are inherently dangerous and create negative externalities and social impacts (congestion, sprawl, physical inactivity, air pollution, crashes, fatalities, road wear & tear, etc, etc). A bicycle does none of these things, and in fact is a common sense solution to many of these problems.

In a bit of unintended hilarity, Rogers says funds from his bike ban law could be used to make cycling safer — which, of course, tends to encourage cycling.

A public hearing on the bill was scheduled for today in Gainesville. Any bill has a two-year period in which it can be taken up by the general assembly. However, the AJC called the bill a “long shot,” and noted that when lawmakers return from recess in January it will be an election year, which will make instituting new fees less politically palatable. In addition, the head of the Georgia Senate, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, is an “avid cyclist,” according to the AJC.

Georgia Bikes! Executive Director Brent Buice said the group doubts the bill will ever become law or even come up for a vote, but it is watching the case closely.

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NC Gov. McCrory Sets Out to Let Highway Money Flow While Blocking Transit

A new transportation plan put forward by North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory will make it “almost impossible to find money for passenger trains, sidewalks, bicycles and regional transit,” according to the Raleigh News Observer.

Why is North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory trying to torpedo plans for transit in the "Golden Triangle?" Image: Wikipedia

McCrory’s Strategic Mobility Formula will clear the way for more spending on the state’s highway system, designating about 40 percent of the state’s transportation money for projects of statewide importance (big highways, airports and freight rail only). Another 30 percent will be divided between seven regions of the state. Projects eligible for this smaller pot of money would include “second-tier” highways and ferries, but no transit and no Amtrak, reports the News Observer’s “Road Worrier” Bruce Siceloff.

Siceloff adds that the governor’s plan might torpedo a rail “triangle” between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill:

It creates new barriers that appear likely to kill prospects for money to build greenways or upgrade Amtrak service.

Also in jeopardy are Triangle plans – endorsed by Durham and Orange residents who have voted to increase their local sales taxes – for light-rail lines and rush-hour commuter trains that could eventually reach beyond the region as far as Greensboro and Goldsboro.

McCrory — who helped secure funds for Charlotte’s Lynx light rail system when he served as mayor — has also obstructed the city’s streetcar plans.

It’s something of a mystery why McCrory has become such a dogged transit opponent. Jeff Wood at the Overhead Wire speculates that there are greater political rewards for McCrory in supporting sprawl, since certain individuals stand to profit from some $3 billion in road projects for the Charlotte region, and big-ticket transit projects are seen as competition.

According to the News Observer, state legislators will vote on McCrory’s plan “in the next week or so.”

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There’s No Doubt: Traffic Enforcement Cameras Save Lives

A 2011 study by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety comparing cities with red light cameras to those without them found that in the 14 largest U.S. cities, the cameras reduced fatal red-light-running collisions by 24 percent. Click to enlarge. Image: IIHS

Gawker dished out some richly-deserved ridicule to Tennessee State Senator Jon Lundberg yesterday, following reports that he is co-sponsoring legislation to outlaw the specific speeding camera that nabbed him doing 60 in a 45 zone last October. Lundberg denied that the incident had any impact on his decision to sponsor in the legislation, and contested the violation to boot.

But the case is a telling one. State governments around the country have demonstrated hostility to automated enforcement programs. Twelve states specifically forbid the use of speed enforcement cameras, except in very limited circumstances, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Nine states prohibit red light cameras. Others, like New York, have yet to enact legislation that would enable cities to use these traffic enforcement tools.

A proposed ban in Iowa failed narrowly in the Senate last year and one is currently under consideration in Ohio.

The Ohio legislation, framed as a defense of due process and privacy, has received mostly favorable coverage in the press and has enjoyed the support of groups like the Ohio ACLU and Ohio PIRG. One Ohio PIRG official characterized speed cameras as “cash cows designed to rip off drivers.” Ohio Lawmaker Ron Hood went so far as to assert that red light cameras are themselves a safety hazard.

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety, told the Washington Post last year that these kind of debates tend to get distorted: “Somehow, the people who get tickets because they have broken the law have been cast as the victims.”

Lost in these debates is the fact that automated enforcement saves lives. A 2011 study by IIHS comparing cities with red light cameras to those without them found that in the 14 largest U.S. cities, the cameras reduced fatal red-light-running collisions by 24 percent. Even more impressive, they seemed to promote safe driver behavior more generally. The researchers found that cities with red light cameras saw 17 percent fewer fatal crashes at signalized intersections, per capita, than cities without cameras.

Between 2004 and 2008, that added up to 159 lives saved in those 14 cities alone. If automated enforcement had been installed in all 99 of the U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, some 815 lives would have been saved over those four years, the report found.

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In Colorado, a Big Legal Victory for Active Transportation Funding

Believe it or not, in many U.S. states one of the biggest obstacles to active transportation is in the constitution.

Embedded in the constitutions of 22 U.S. states are bans on spending gas tax revenues and/or vehicle registration fees on anything but highways and bridges. That means no matter how much practical value a sidewalk, busway, or bike lane would add, those projects must go begging for funds.

Municipalities throughout the Denver area will soon be able to use gas tax revenues on projects like light rail expansion. Image: Captured Refractions

But thanks to the efforts of a broad coalition in Colorado, the number of states with constitutional restrictions on sustainable transportation spending is about to fall to 21. Governor John Hickenlooper will sign a bill tomorrow that opens up $250 million a year in state gas tax revenue to walking, biking, and transit projects.

Colorado-based transit and environmental advocates found a way to overcome the ban without the monumental effort and expense of a statewide referendum. And they’re eyeing six other states around the Southwest with hopes for a repeat or two.

Colorado’s constitutional amendment — passed in 1935 — states that gas tax revenues and vehicle registration fees can only be spent on highways and bridges. To make matters worse, the state had always depended on a narrow reading of the term “highways” to exclude local roads, sidewalks, and bike infrastructure, as well as transit.

Rather than try to overturn the rule, advocates in Colorado simply challenged the way it was being interpreted, said Will Toor, a former mayor of Boulder who helped lead the campaign as director of transportation at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

“Fifteen years ago, a group of us began making the argument that that was really an inappropriately narrow interpretation,” said Toor. “There are other places in the constitution that describe railroads as highways of the state.”

In 2009, a coalition of transit advocates had a small breakthrough. The Colorado legislature wanted to pass a new vehicle registration fee, but lawmakers needed the political support of transit advocates. The transit coalition was able to win a small, but important, fraction of the funding for transit – just $15 million out of $1.2 billion.

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New Threat: States Robbing From Education to Pay for Highway Expansions

Last week, protesters gathered on the statehouse steps in Little Rock, Arkansas, to oppose a bill that would transfer money from the state’s general fund into its highway fund.

The 100 or so protesters — mainly from the education and social services sectors — warned that the legislation would transfer $2.3 billion in revenue over 10 years out of classrooms and clinics and into the state Department of Transportation, according to the Arkansas News.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is calling a state bill that would transfer general funds into the highway budget "highway robbery." Image: Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

Arkansas Advocates for Families and Children have dubbed the bill “highway robbery.”

It’s not just Arkansas. States unwilling to reexamine the way they fund and implement transportation projects are increasingly faced with trade-offs between transportation spending and other priorities. As the federal gas tax continues to stagnate, more and more states are considering extreme measures to shore up transportation budgets — including robbing funds from education and social services.

States are in a difficult position, says Eric Sundquist of the State Smart Transportation Initiative. “The road lobby is still pushing for more, more,” he said. ”It’s started to dawn on people that this money is being sucked out of state and local treasuries.”

Wisconsin has come under fire for much the same reason as Arkansas. During the 2011 budget cycle, Governor Scott Walker was pushing highway expansion projects totaling $400 million. In order to raise the money without raising the gas tax, Walker proposed transferring $140 million from the state’s general fund to highway spending.

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Bob McDonnell: Everyone Should Pay For Virginia’s Roads (Except Drivers)

In transportation circles, there’s an endless debate about how to fund infrastructure. Raise the gas tax? Index it to inflation? Institute a vehicle-miles-traveled fee? Many jurisdictions have turned to property taxes, bonds, and sales taxes as a supplement.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell wants to eliminate the state's gas tax and replace it with a sales tax. Photo: Wikipedia

But Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is blowing the whole thing wide open with a half-baked scheme for the ages: Stop asking drivers to pay any gas tax at all.

Who will pay? Everyone else. Instead of having drivers chip in for the roads they use, he proposes to raise the sales tax.

But wait, it gets crazier: He also wants to add a $100 fee on drivers of vehicles powered by alternative fuels.

Fees like that make sense when you’re dealing with a gas tax-funded system that hasn’t found a way to adequately charge electric- and hybrid-car drivers. But taxing only drivers of alternative-fuel cars is just a complete perversion of incentives.

And it’s all made so much worse by the fact that McDonnell proposes to keep exempting fuel from the sales tax. So, that 5.8 percent sales tax he wants to levy on milk and pencils and television sets? Drivers won’t have to pay any of that for the fossil fuels they pump.

It’s bad enough when states exempt gas from the sales tax because it’s taxed separately, as 37 states and the District of Columbia do. But to exempt it from both just makes no sense.

What’s more, a sales tax is more regressive than a gas tax, taking a bigger chunk out of poor people’s wallets than rich people’s — a double whammy if you’re a low-income Virginian with no car who would end up subsidizing other people’s driving.

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Which States Are Breaking Free From Oil Dependence? NRDC Ranks All 50

State policies can help households save money by reducing oil dependence, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Photo: NRDC.org

When it comes to helping their residents get around without breaking the bank, California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York are the top five states in the nation, while Nebraska, Alaska, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota bring up the rear.

That’s according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC ranked every state on their policies to reduce oil dependence, as well as their actual performance, based on per-capita spending on gasoline as a percentage of income.

Among the measures that NRDC rewarded for giving residents more freedom from fuel price volatility: 13 states are actively promoting smart growth policies, and five states have set targets to reduce overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT). NRDC also gave credit to states that had developed fuel efficiency standards or were taking action to encourage the use of alternative fuels.

The four top-ranked states have all set targets to reduce VMT or petroleum consumption, and three of the top five states are also among the top five in transit investment.

The lowest-ranking states, meanwhile, were all without any substantive policies to reduce fuel consumption or promote travel options besides driving. NRDC found a substantial overlap among states that had the worst fuel policies and the states where residents end up taking the biggest hits at the pump. Residents of Mississippi, West Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Oklahoma spend the highest percentage of their income on gas.

The point of the report, said NRDC Executive Director Peter Lenher, is not to shame the most oil-dependent states, but to provide inspiration and examples from the places that are leading the way toward a more resilient future.

“What’s really important here: we really can do something about how much people pay for their transportation,” said Lenher. “This should be viewed as a very hopeful study to show that policies make a difference in the lives of people.”

You check out all the rankings in the full NRDC report.

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Voter ID Laws Marginalize People Without a Car

The 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, twice thwarted by brutal police assaults, inspired Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which is now under attack through various state voter roll purges and photo ID laws. Photo: Charles Moore

Sustainable transportation advocates may read news headlines about new voter ID laws, roll their eyes at the prejudices of red-state legislators, and turn the page — at their own peril. This seemingly unrelated issue may have far-reaching consequences for transportation policy. New state laws mandating photo ID for voters threaten to disenfranchise nondrivers, and the skewed elections that would result could lead to political control by forces hostile to transit, cities, and even Safe Routes to Schools.

A report issued in early July by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law [PDF] spells out how the strictest new laws in ten states* discriminate against nondrivers.

The first, and most obvious, way is that drivers have a driver’s license, which can function as the required photo ID. That leaves nondrivers as prime targets of voter ID laws.

Source: Brennan Center

Eleven percent of eligible voters lack the necessary ID, and, as the table above illustrates, nearly half a million people in the 10 affected states both lack access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing government office.

To make matters worse, many of the same states now requiring photo ID for voting also fail to support transit. The report brings home the reality for the targeted voters:

Voter ID laws are especially burdensome for citizens in high-poverty areas. Not only are these eligible voters among the least likely to have photo ID, they are also among the least likely to have access to government services, such as public transportation… Citizens with limited vehicle access will be highly dependent on public transportation to obtain the ID necessary for voting. However, the states that passed the most restrictive voter ID laws are among the nation’s worst investors in public transportation… Seven of the ten restrictive voter ID states rank in the bottom half of the country when it comes to investment in public transportation.

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“Highway Removal” Project in Cleveland Looks an Awful Lot Like a Highway

It is an oft-lamented fact, both locally and nationally, that the city of Cleveland hasn’t taken full advantage of its position on the shore of Lake Erie. The national media, in its seemingly boundless enthusiasm for stories about the declining fortunes of the city where I live, is quick to point out that we haven’t taken advantage of what may be our best asset.

The West Shoreway is no place for pedestrians -- and it might not be any more welcoming after the re-do. Photo: Thomas Ondrey/Plain Dealer

Whether the publication is Forbes (Most Miserable City, Sixth Fastest Dying City) or Portfolio Magazine (Third Most Stressed City), the attention can start to feel like a cheap shot. Inevitably, they turn the blame for the city’s problems onto itself with observations like this one: Why hasn’t Cleveland developed its lakefront into an asset like the city of Baltimore or San Francisco?

Now NPR has run a story on the “teardown” of the West Shoreway freeway, highlighting plans to turn it into a tree-lined boulevard and break down a major barrier to the lake. The reporters liken the project to Milwaukee’s rejection of the Park East Freeway and San Francisco’s refusal to rebuild Embarcadero Freeway, turning high-speed roadways into parks.

But what’s really going on in Cleveland is a little less revolutionary. Ironically, the city is getting positive press for a project of debatable merit.

NPR may have jumped the gun when it said the city was converting the freeway into a “slower, tree-lined boulevard.” So far, project sponsors have been unable to get the speed limit reduced legislatively. Other important attempts to make the road more pedestrian-friendly — such as the addition of stoplights and crosswalks — have been thwarted at the state level. It’s not clear just yet that the angry driver quoted by NPR has anything to worry about.

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