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Posts from the U.S. DOT Category

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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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U.S. DOT Wants States to Disclose Climate Impact of Transportation Projects

The Obama administration wants state DOTs to report on the climate impact of their transportation policies, reports Michael Grunwald at Politico, and the road lobby is dead set against it.

Dallas' "High Five" Interchange. Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

As part of the implementation of the MAP-21 federal transportation bill, U.S. DOT officials are preparing a new rule that would require states to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and report their progress, according to Grunwald.

It’s the same idea behind similar rules requiring states to track progress on traffic congestion and walk/bike safety. No penalty would apply to states that fail to attain their goals, but the rule would increase transparency and enable advocates to hold transportation agencies accountable for their climate performance.

The road building lobby appears to hate the idea. From Grunwald’s piece:

Nick Goldstein, vice president for regulatory affairs with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, warned that a mandate for agencies to set climate targets could be used as a pretext to discourage highway construction at a time when America desperately needs better infrastructure. He suggested the Obama administration has embraced an anti-asphalt mentality.

The draft rule has yet to be released by U.S. DOT. Once that happens, it will be subject to a period of public comment, and that feedback could shape the final form of the rule.

The climate rule is definitely one to keep an eye on. We’ll post more details as they become available.

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Anthony Foxx Wants to Repair the Damage Done By Urban Highways

During the first two decades of the Interstate Highway system, almost half a million households were displaced. Most were low income and people of color, Foxx said.

During the first two decades of constructing the Interstate Highway System, almost half a million households were forced to leave their homes.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is offering a surprisingly honest appraisal of America’s history of road construction this week, with a high-profile speaking tour that focuses on the damage that highways caused in black urban neighborhoods.

U.S Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx spoke at the Center for American progress today about the legacy of discrimination in transportation. Image: CAP

U.S Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx spoke at the Center for American progress today about the highway system’s legacy of discrimination. Image: CAP

Growing up in Charlotte, Foxx’s own street was walled in by highways, he recalled in a speech today at the Center for American Progress. Building big, grade-separated roads through thickly settled neighborhoods devastated communities, uprooted residents, and cut off the people who remained from the city around them.

“The people in my community at the time these decisions were made were actually not invisible,” he said. “It is just that at a certain stage in our history, they didn’t matter.”

From I-95 in the Overtown neighborhood in Miami, to the Staten Island Expressway, to I-5 in Seattle, freeways divided and weakened city neighborhoods all over the country. Foxx estimates that nearly 500,000 households were compelled to relocate by the construction of the interstate highway system between 1957 and 1977. Most were people of color living in low-income neighborhoods.

“Areas of this country where infrastructure is supposed to connect people, in some places it’s actually constraining them,” he said.

The speech marks the launch of a new initiative spearheaded by Foxx called “Ladders of Opportunity,” which aims to shape transportation policy based on how infrastructure can serve as a barrier, or bridge, to jobs, education, and better health.

Foxx’s power is limited. U.S. DOT doesn’t have the authority to simply turn off the federal funding spigot for projects like the Detroit region’s $4 billion plan to widen two highways, siphoning resources from struggling inner suburbs to more affluent, farther-flung communities. The transportation secretary can’t wave his hand and stop Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper from pumping more traffic and air pollution through north Denver with the widening of I-70.

Of the $60 billion in annual federal funding allocated to surface transportation, 90 percent is doled out to state and local agencies by formula, Foxx noted. The remaining 10 percent funds U.S. DOT operations, discretionary programs like TIGER, and transportation research.

Even when U.S. DOT is poised to back a project that aims to benefit a disadvantaged community, local politics often gets in the way.

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New Federal Guide Will Show More Cities the Way on Protected Bike Lanes

Oak Street, San Francisco. Photo: SFMTA.

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.

Protected bike lanes are now officially star-spangled.

Eight years after New York City created a trailblazing protected bikeway on 9th Avenue, designs once perceived as unfit for American streets have now been detailed in a new design guide by the Federal Highway Administration.

The FHWA guidance released Tuesday is the result of two years of research into numerous modern protected bike lanes around the country, in consultation with a team of national experts.

“Separated bike lanes have great potential to fill needs in creating low-stress bicycle networks,” the FHWA document says, citing a study released last year by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities. “Many potential cyclists (including children and the elderly) may avoid on-street cycling if no physical separation from vehicular traffic is provided.”

Among the many useful images and ideas in the 148-page document is this spectrum of comfortable bike lanes, starting with bike infrastructure that will be useful to the smallest number of people and continuing into the more broadly appealing categories:

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You Can Help Make State DOTs Accountable for How They Spend

States have prioritized maintenance. Will new standards help? Image: Smart Growth America

States have failed to prioritize maintenance instead of expansion. Will new standards help? Image: Smart Growth America

Pressure is mounting on the president and Congress to keep roads and bridges from falling apart by increasing transportation funding. But a big part of the problem is states, which receive the lion’s share of federal transportation funds but opt to spend most on new roads, instead of maintaining existing infrastructure.

Between 2009 and 2011, states spent just 45 percent of their highway money maintaining the 900,000 miles of roads they control, according to Smart Growth America. Meanwhile, they poured 55 percent into road expansions. Some states spent more wisely and some spent more irresponsibly. The worst spent upward of 90 percent of their budgets on new construction during that time period.

And that’s always been their prerogative. Most of the tens of billions of dollars in federal funding that flows to states every year comes with few strings attached. The system is also opaque: Determining how states spend their money is extraordinarily difficult.

How can people demand better from their state DOT if they can’t tell what their DOT is doing? Advocates see greater transparency as an important tool for change, and they’re fighting to implement strong new federal standards to grade state DOTs on safety, maintenance, and other key indicators.

MAP-21, the transportation bill enacted in 2012, included provisions for U.S. DOT to hold states to a new set of performance standards. Now, two years after passage, policy makers at the agency are beginning to define those metrics. For the most part, the law doesn’t penalize failure to hit targets, but its reporting requirements could compel state DOTs to be publicly accountable for their decisions — provided they’re stringent enough.

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