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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.

Read more…

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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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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.

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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.

pfb logo 100x22

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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Hastily-Debated Collins Measure Could Put More Tired Truckers on the Road

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from ##http://6abc.com/traffic/police-truck-driver-fell-asleep-prior-to-crash-on-i-95-in-del/144318/##6ABC##

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from 6ABC

It just wouldn’t be Congress if we weren’t trying to debate substantive policy changes, with drastic implications for public safety, with a government shutdown deadline fast approaching.

As Congress tries to wrap up the hideously-named “cromnibus” (continuing resolution (CR) + omnibus) spending bill for the rest of FY 2015 by Thursday, one provision is attracting a heated debate over road safety.

An amendment introduced over the summer by Maine Senator Susan Collins would repeal elements of a 2011 U.S. DOT rule requiring truck drivers to get adequate rest. The two basic pillars of that hours-of-service rule are: 1) drivers have to take a 30-minute rest break within the first eight hours of their shift, and, more contentiously, 2) drivers have to take a 34-hour “restart” period once every seven days. That 34-hour rest period must include two consecutive overnights between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. According to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “The net effect of these changes was to reduce the average maximum week a driver could work from 82 hours to 70 hours.”

The Collins amendment would maintain the 34-hour rest mandate but would remove the requirement that it include two overnights, and it would allow drivers to take more than one restart in a seven-day period, thereby starting a new 70-hour workweek.

Truck crashes caused 3,921 deaths in 2012 [PDF]. Bloomberg News reports that the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend.

Sec. Foxx noted in his blog post that most truckers “behave responsibly and drive well within reasonable limits,” but that the rules guard against those “who are tempted to push the limits.”

“Additionally, new research available on the subject demonstrated that long work hours, without sufficient recovery time, lead to reduced sleep and chronic fatigue,” Foxx wrote. “That fatigue leads drivers to have slower reaction times and a reduced ability to assess situations quickly.” He added that drivers often can’t accurately assess their own fatigue.

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