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Posts from the U.S. DOT Category

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Trump’s Pick for U.S. DOT Is GOP Insider Elaine Chao

Donald Trump has chosen Elaine Chao to serve as transportation secretary in his administration, according to Politico. Chao was secretary of labor under George W. Bush and is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. An official announcement is expected shortly.

Chao has a long resume in federal government under Republican presidents. She served as deputy secretary of transportation under George H. W. Bush, rising through the agency from a post in maritime administration.

Chao’s family owns an international shipping empire, and her father is singlehandedly responsible for making McConnell one of the richest men in the Senate, according to the Nation.

While Chao has more experience in government and a less extreme ideological background than other Cabinet picks, she has been on the Trump team for a while, serving on the campaign’s Asian Pacific American Advisory Council, according to Politico.

Chao is no environmentalist, having resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies as a result of its “Beyond Coal” campaign. Her involvement with the foundation reportedly became an issue in McConnell’s reelection campaign in Kentucky. She’ll now be operating for a White House that denies the science of climate change. Federal efforts to coordinate transportation and land use policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may not survive in the Trump DOT, but that would have been the case no matter who landed the transportation secretary job.

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Engineers to U.S. DOT: Transportation Is About More Than Moving Cars

A trade group representing the transportation engineering profession thinks it’s high time for American policy makers to stop focusing so much on moving single-occupancy vehicles.

Should roads like this be considered a "success?" ITE doesn't think so. Photo: Smart Growth America

Should roads like this be considered a success? ITE doesn’t think so. Photo: Smart Growth America

U.S. DOT is currently deciding how it will assess the performance of state DOTs. Will it continue business as usual and equate success with moving huge numbers of cars? That’s what state transportation officials want, but just about everyone else disagrees — including professional transportation engineers.

In its comments to the Federal Highway Administration about how to measure performance, the Institute of Transportation Engineers — a trade group representing 13,000 professionals — said that, in short, the system should not focus so heavily on cars [PDF].

Here’s a key excerpt:

Throughout the current proposed rulemaking on NHS performance, traffic congestion, freight mobility, and air quality, an underlying theme is apparent: these measures speak largely to the experience of those in single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). While such a focus is understandable in the short-term, owing largely to the current availability of data from the NPMRDS and other national sources, ITE and its membership feel that FHWA should move quickly within the framework of the existing performance management legislation to begin developing performance measures that cater to multimodal transportation systems.

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Yes, Local Transportation Agencies Can Measure Their Climate Impacts

It’s going to be a tough sell for those who claim that greenhouse gas performance measures for transportation can’t possibly work, when plenty of transportation agencies say it would be no problem.

That’s according to transportation officials in several regions across America who responded to a survey commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The responses were shared with the Federal Highway Administration as it considers implementing a rule for transportation agencies to measure their climate impact.

Even in cities and regions where climate change is nowhere near the top of the policy agenda, planners and decision-makers still recognize greenhouse gas reductions as a desirable outcome of some of the things their constituents want most — like walkable, bikeable neighborhoods and a break from endless roadway congestion that takes time out of their day while triggering respiratory disease and contributing to hundreds of premature deaths per year.

Some legislators are still debating the urgency of reducing carbon emissions from transportation, and the powerful benefits of doing so. Recently, Senate Energy and Public Works Chair James Inhofe (R-OK) maintained FHWA has no mandate to measure greenhouse gases.

But the issue is already settled for many metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), for reasons that usually include but often go far beyond the need for local solutions to global climate change. The survey of 10 agencies in eight states found that most support greenhouse gas reductions as a legitimate policy priority that meshes well with their responsibilities.

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Unless US DOT Changes Course, Building Protected Bikeways May Get Tougher

Seattle, Washington.

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities connect high-comfort biking networks.

“Hey, how long does it take you to get to work?”

“Well, on average my car is usually traveling at 36 mph.”

No actual human makes transportation decisions this way. But for some reason, the federal government has proposed evaluating highway congestion based entirely on the speed of cars — while ignoring how far or how long people have to drive or ride to get where they’re going.

It’s a system that’d reward states for spending billions to extend freeways to sprawling exurbs, transportation reformers warn, but penalize communities that make their streets more space-efficient.

“Let’s say your [road’s average speed is] going from 40 mph to 30 mph,” said Katy Hartnett, director of government relations at PeopleForBikes, in an interview. “Maybe at 30 mph you’re actually moving more people through, because you’ve put a bus on it, or a bike lane.”

For the White Flint neighborhood of Montgomery County, Maryland, that’s exactly the risk. The county has a long-term plan to run a bus rapid transit line and protected bike lanes up Rockville Pike, greatly improving access to the White Flint Metro Station. Old Georgetown Road would also get protected bike lanes, helping form a connected bike-and-transit network that could combine to create convenient alternatives to rush-hour traffic in this redeveloping suburban area.

“Montgomery County, it’s growing quickly,” said Garrett Hennigan of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “Over the past five years there’s really been a change in focus and a change in thinking in how we should plan around the bike.”

But the federal rules as currently proposed might penalize Montgomery County for trying to get ahead of its congestion problem. That’s because Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road are both classified as “principal arterials,” which makes them part of the Federal Highway System, which means any slowdown in auto traffic would raise bureaucratic red flags — even if the actual result would be to help more Marylanders escape congestion.

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Will U.S. DOT Get Serious About Climate Change? Here’s Cause for Optimism.

Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

A new federal rule may change the way states measure the environmental impact of highway sprawl. Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

Last fall, national environmental advocates sat down with officials from U.S. DOT to talk about how federal transportation policy can address climate change.

There is wild variation between state transportation departments when it comes to green transportation policy. Some of the more sophisticated agencies, like California’s and Oregon’s, are starting to factor greenhouse gas emissions into their transportation plans. Most are content to keep on expanding highways and supporting development patterns that are disastrous for the climate. There are no federal incentives to nudge states in a better direction.

Environmental advocates saw an opportunity in the 2012 transportation bill, called MAP-21. U.S. DOT was in the process of drafting new rules, mandated by MAP-21, requiring transportation agencies to assess their performance on several fronts. By having state and regional transportation agencies track and report progress on objectives like reducing traffic fatalities, the thinking went, improvements would follow.

Transportation-related carbon emissions seemed like a logical metric to include, so the environmental advocates made their case to U.S. DOT. They lined up letters of support from the Minnesota, California, and Pennsylvania departments of transportation, from 16 members of Congress, and from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, among others.

“To their credit, the [Obama] Administration, they put this out there as one of the items that they want to work on,” said Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the organizations leading the campaign. “It’s a legacy item for this presidency. It’s part of the climate agenda.”

In April, U.S. DOT released a 400-page draft of proposed federal rules to assess states’ performance on congestion management. Appended was a short, six-page section posing 13 questions about how the agency should measure climate impacts.

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It Just Got Easier for Cities to Design Walkable, Bikeable Streets

The federal government threw out 11 rules that prevented cities from building walkable streets Photo: NJbikeped.org

The federal government threw out 11 rules that prevented cities from building walkable streets. Photo: NJbikeped.org

We probably haven’t seen the last of engineers who insist on designing local streets like surface highways. But at least now they can’t claim their hands are tied by federal regulations.

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration struck 11 of the 13 design rules for “national highways” — a 230,000-mile network of roads that includes many urban streets.

The rule change eliminates a major obstacle to safe street design around the country. The old rules applied highways design standards — wide lanes, no trees — to streets that function more like main streets, with terrible consequences for safety and walkability.

In October, FHWA proposed eliminating all but two of the old standards on streets designed for speeds under 50 mph, citing a lack of evidence that the rules improve safety. Now, those changes are official.

Ian Lockwood, a consultant with the Toole Design Group and formerly the transportation director for West Palm Beach, Florida, said the changes are important. The new rules open the door to treatments like road diets, bike lanes, and street trees — the kind of street designs that lead to a safe pedestrian environment, not high-speed traffic.

“This allows the designs to better support the place and not so much how fast people can drive through it,” he said.

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Room to Breathe: The Feds Just Made It Easier to Fit Bike Lanes on Streets

Photo: Adam Coppola.

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.

A large car is less than seven feet wide. But thanks in part to an obscure federal rule, millions of miles of traffic lanes on local streets around the country are 12 or more feet wide.

Lanes that wide, it’s now known, make urban streets less safe. They give many people a false “freeway” feeling behind the wheel, leading to speeding and worse. And for cities looking to boost the appeal of biking, wider lanes mean less room for buffers, planters and other separators that dramatically improve the biking experience.

But for road projects that get federal funds, dangerously wide auto lanes have often been suggested or required.

Until yesterday.

Though they rarely make headlines, the “13 Controlling Criteria” have loomed large in the work of traffic engineers across the country since they were adopted in 1985. The idea then was to create a simple, hard-to-break list of basic guidelines for street design: shoulder widths, grades, cross slopes and how close to the roadway an “obstruction” (such as a tree or post) would be allowed.

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U.S. DOT Wants to Show America How to Heal Divides Left By Urban Highways

Highway destruction in reverse: U.S. DOT used the teardown of Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway, shown here mid-demolition, to illustrate its “Every Place Counts” initiative. Photo: Milwaukee Department of City Development via CNU

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx opened up earlier this spring in a refreshingly personal speech about how highway construction in American cities isolated many neighborhoods — especially black neighborhoods — and cut people off from economic opportunity. Now U.S. DOT is following up with an effort to demonstrate how those wrongs can be righted.

Yesterday the agency announced the Every Place Counts Design Challenge, which asks cities to submit proposals for “reconnecting” communities “bifurcated” by transportation infrastructure. U.S. DOT will select four cities from different regions of the country where the agency will lead workshops to advance the winning ideas. (The deadline to apply is June 3, but the agency wants notification of intent to apply by May 20.)

In its announcement, U.S. DOT doesn’t go into a lot of detail about what types of projects it’s looking for. However, the agency chose some highly suggestive images to illustrate the initiative. One photo shows a highway cap over Interstate 70 in Columbus, Ohio, not the most groundbreaking project. Another shows Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway, mid-demolition, a rare 100-percent intentional highway teardown. And the third shows Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which was made possible by another freeway teardown — the removal of Harbor Drive.

Too often, when city residents build momentum to heal the damage caused by urban freeways, the state DOT shoots it down. This could be an opportunity to get different levels of government on the same page and move forward with some really bold ideas.

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Why Federal Efforts to Link Transportation to Climate Change Matter

Cross posted from the Frontier Group

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Twenty-five years ago this spring, I was a fresh-faced undergrad at Penn State enrolled in a course on existential threats to civilization, including climate change. We knew then (and yes, with a reasonable degree of certainty we did know) that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were causing the earth to warm in ways that could prove catastrophic.

We also knew that travel on America’s roads was a leading source of greenhouse gases on a global scale, and that transportation infrastructure decisions were capable of encouraging the use of high-carbon modes of travel that contribute to the warming of the planet.

Since then, an entire generation of Americans has been born, grown up, and sat through unnerving college lectures. America has added more than 715,000 new lane-miles of public roads (the rough equivalent of building a 255-lane wide road from New York to Los Angeles), and we have spent an additional $2.6 trillion (2014$) in capital expenditures on our highway system. Since those sunny spring afternoons in 1991, America’s transportation system has spewed more than 43 billion metric tons (carbon dioxide equivalent) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to the mounting damage from climate change that is now being experienced around the world.

So, how then to take the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (U.S. DOT) move last week to begin consideration of rules that would set non-binding performance measures for greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? Does it represent an important policy opening or a huge disappointment, given the scale and speed of climate change?

Time will tell and, as NRDC’s Deron Lovaas suggests in the comments to this Streetsblog post, the Obama administration’s announcement last week is merely the opening bell in what is sure to be an intense fight over how strong the new greenhouse gas performance measures will be and what format they will take.

Regardless of the ultimate form of the rules, however, the Obama administration’s action is significant, if only because it signals the renewal of public debate around the connection between transportation infrastructure decisions and global warming.

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U.S. DOT Blows Chance to Reform the City-Killing, Planet-Broiling Status Quo

The Obama administration purportedly wants to use the lever of transportation policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently said he’d like to reverse the damage highways caused in urban neighborhoods, but you’d never know that by looking at U.S. DOT’s latest policy prescription.

U.S. DOT has drafted new rules requiring state DOTs to track their performance. Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, U.S. DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.

U.S. DOT isn't taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Photo: Top10Famous

U.S. DOT isn’t taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Photo: Top10Famous

But the rules released yesterday are a big disappointment, say analysts. While it will take a bit more time to fully assess the 423-page document [PDF], advocates are already going on the record panning U.S. DOT’s effort.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

On the question of whether state transportation agencies should be required to at least report the emissions impact of their transportation plans, U.S. DOT “whiffed,” writes Joe Cortright at City Observatory:

There’s nothing with any teeth here. Instead — in a 425 page proposed rule — there are just six pages (p. 101-106) addressing greenhouse gas emissions that read like a bad book report and a “dog-ate-my-homework” excuse for doing nothing now. Instead, DOT offers up a broad set of questions asking others for advice on how they might do something, in some future rulemaking, to address climate change.

This is hugely disappointing, considering that anonymous Obama administration officials were bragging about the impact of these reporting requirements to Politico earlier this week. At the rate things are going, half of Florida will be under water before American transportation officials acknowledge that spending billions to build enormous highways serving suburban sprawl is broiling the planet.

Traffic Congestion

There was also some hope that U.S. DOT would reform the way congestion is measured. Current measures of congestion emphasize vehicle delay, which leads to policies that actually promote more driving and more total time spent in cars, as agencies seek to temporarily reduce delay by widening roads. Policies that reduce traffic by improving transit or enabling people to live closer to work don’t rate well under this measure of congestion.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the new rule “would still push local communities to waste time and money attempting to build their way out of congestion by using a measure of traffic congestion that’s narrow, limited and woefully out of date.”

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