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Posts from the Highway Expansion Category

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Toledo Neighbors Fight Back Against City’s Plan to Widen Their Road

Roseanne Martinez has lived at the corner of Secor and Bancroft Roads, just over the border from Toledo, for almost 30 years.

The Martinez house is one of 13 that might be leveled to make way for a wider road in the Toledo area. Photo via Dana Dunbar

The Martinez house is one more than a dozen that might be leveled to make way for a wider road in the Toledo area. Photo: RT Photography

She and her husband were married in the backyard. They raised four kids there. Every Sunday, they walk right across the street to attend church at Hope Lutheran.

But Martinez found out recently she might lose her home — or at the very least, a big part of her yard — to a road widening project. The City of Toledo and the neighboring upscale suburb of Ottawa Hills are planning to widen the residential stretch of Secor Road, adding roundabouts, 12-foot lanes and maybe even a turn lane. Martinez’s house and about 13 others are in the crosshairs.

“I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us,” Martinez said of learning about the project. A roundabout would bring traffic almost up to her front door. Now she’s not sure she can sell, and if she stays, and the house isn’t demolished, her quality of life might be ruined.

“We’re long-time members of the community,” she said. “We were really blindsided. “

This $12 million widening project isn’t all bad. Replacing a couple high-crash intersections with roundabouts would be a legitimate win for safety. And the plan calls for adding a sidewalk on the east side of the road.

But the lack of concern for surrounding residents and intense focus on providing wide lanes for car traffic is troubling residents like Dana Dunbar, an Ottawa Hills resident who has also lived in Toledo’s Old Orchard neighborhood. Dunbar says she thinks the city is missing a big opportunity, potentially undermining one of the healthiest residential and commercial areas in the region.

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Houston’s Big Chance to Turn Back the Tide of Car Traffic

TxDOT's $7 billion proposal for downtown Houston highways is not terrible, say advocates, but it could be better. Image: TxDOT via Swamplot

TxDOT’s $7 billion plan for downtown Houston may tear down the Pierce Elevated Freeway while expanding I-45. Some civic leaders question why more resources won’t be devoted to transit. Image: TxDOT via Swamplot

There’s a lot riding on Texas DOT’s $7 billion plan for downtown Houston freeways.

TxDOT has been working for more than a decade on a plan for the three highways that roughly form a circle around the city — I-45, I-10, and U.S. 59. Last April, the agency revealed a draft version of the plan, and another revision is expected to come out as soon as six months from now.

Advocates for a walkable Houston see a lot of promise in TxDOT’s willingness to rethink the city’s freeways, but the plan might still make traffic worse by adding lanes.

On the bright side, TxDOT is proposing to tear down the Pierce Elevated Freeway, which could open up 20 to 50 blocks of downtown for walkable development. The plan also calls for aligning I-45 with U.S. 59 to the east of the city, burying the roads in a trench capped with a park.

“The impacts on walkability and urbanism are real and are a big deal,” said Jay Crossley, former director of the smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow. “If they could only do those parts of the plan it would be an amazing plan.”

But while TxDOT is starting to consider how its highway projects affect urban neighborhoods, said Crossley, it hasn’t quite embraced the “paradigm shift” away from highway widening that Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for.

It’s still an open question whether TxDOT’s plan will result in a net increase in highway capacity, pumping more traffic into downtown.

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4 Ways Road Builders Game the Numbers to Justify Highways

The people who make the case for highways often present themselves as unbiased technicians, simply providing evidence to an audience subject to irrational bias.

Greenville's Southern Connector, a PPP toll road, was predicted to attract 21,000 vehicles per day. It attracted less than 9,000. Map via Toll Road News

Forecasts said motorists would make 21,000 trips per day on Greenville’s Southern Connector, a public-private toll road. In real life they made fewer than 9,000. Map via Toll Road News

But traffic forecasting is not a neutral, dispassionate exercise. It is subject to all sorts of incentives, beliefs, and assumptions that can skew the results in a particular direction.

Intentionally or not, forecasters frequently exaggerate predicted traffic volumes to make the case for building toll roads, according to industry consultant Robert Bain [PDF]. Bain has catalogued 21 ways in which forecasters manipulate data to make toll road financing look attractive [PDF]. Gaming numbers isn’t limited to toll roads — DOTs do it for taxpayer-funded projects too.

Here are a few tricks Bain says forecasters use on private projects to make highways seem like a good bet to investors:

1. Pick a time frame that suits you

Maybe looking at the last 10 years of traffic doesn’t make that great a case for widening a highway. Why not just pick a different time frame?

To justify its $850 million I-94 expansion project, Wisconsin DOT used traffic data from 1999 through 2010, leaving out two years. But traffic was flat on the road between 2009 and 2012, according to a Wisconsin PIRG analysis, which has pointed out the agency is a notoriously overoptimistic forecaster [PDF].

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Texas DOT Seems Open to a Downtown Dallas Highway Removal

The Texas DOT is formally considering tearing down Interstate 345 in Dallas. Image: CityMAP/TxDOT

TxDOT shows just how much land could be freed up by tearing down Interstate 345 in Dallas. Image: CityMAP/TxDOT

Will Texas embrace a model of mobility that works well for cities, instead of tearing them up with wider highways?

A new report from the Texas Department of Transportation indicates that at least in some circumstances, the answer may be “Yes.”

TxDOT last week released its “CityMAP” plan for urban highways in central Dallas [PDF]. Normally, you would expect a highway-focused report from TxDOT to be nothing but road expansions and widenings, with no regard for the neighborhoods that the highways cut through. But CityMAP is different.

The report calls for “integrated solutions reflecting statewide, regional and local shared goals that seek a balance for mobility, livability and economic development.” In other words, TxDOT is thinking about more than just moving cars.

Most significantly, the report indicates that TxDOT is seriously considering a highway teardown. Grassroots advocates in Dallas, led by planner Patrick Kennedy, have been mobilizing to remove I-345, which divides downtown Dallas from the Deep Ellum neighborhood, to make way for walkable development. The proposal gets a nod from TxDOT in the report.

TxDOT considers how tearing down the 20-lane highway and replacing it with an at-grade, six-lane road would affect traffic congestion and city life. The agency estimates that traffic delay on the surface street wouldn’t be any worse than if it spent hundreds of millions more dollars to bury the highway in a trench. (Although TxDOT says the teardown could increase congestion on surrounding roads.) Furthermore, TxDOT notes that removing I-345 would increase opportunities for urban housing, which could lessen the need for people to drive on highways in the first place.

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Clinton Pledges to Make a Big Infrastructure Push in Her First 100 Days

The industry groups behind last week’s “Infrastructure Week” campaign got exciting news today when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton announced she’s going to make a big $275 billion “infrastructure” push in her first 100 days.

An anonymous Clinton aide told the Washington Post:

This proposal would represent the most significant increase in infrastructure investment since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System.

Streetsblog took a look at Clinton’s infrastructure proposal when she introduced it in December, and there wasn’t much more to it than a large dollar figure. Her proposal calls for spending $275 billion on top of the $300 billion for surface transportation already on the books for the next five years. It doesn’t, however, call for raising the gas tax, a mileage fee, or even the barrel of oil tax recently proposed by President Obama.

Instead, Clinton ‘s proposal envisions additional funding from a vague “business tax reform.” Whatever that turns out to mean in practice, it sounds a lot like the funding gimmicks that Washington has increasingly come to rely on to subsidize roads.

On the bright side, Clinton did call for more investment in transit, biking, and walking; for more accountability for state DOTs; and for greater use of “merit-based” project selection, rather than just shoveling money at states to pour into expensive highway projects, no questions asked.

Overall, Clinton’s infrastructure plan falls short compared to what Obama called for in his final budget proposal. That Obama blueprint would substantially raise transit funding without increasing the allocation for highways. It would have been a real policy shift, rather than the “more of everything” approach Clinton seems to favor. Congress, however, would not even dignify the Obama proposal with a formal hearing.

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The Tragic History of Highways Demolishing Cities — It’s Not Over Yet

This video from Vox provides an excellent overview of how the Interstate Highway System wiped out whole city neighborhoods in the post-war era.

It’s hard to believe that federal and local officials ever thought it was a good idea to uproot urban residents to clear paths for highways, but what’s even crazier is that we’re still doing the same thing today.

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The Problem With “Infrastructure Week”

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You may have noticed that it’s “Infrastructure Week” in America — a time where engineering and construction industry groups beat the drum for more money, using big numbers and images of collapsing bridges.

You can follow the dialogue on Twitter. It’s full of value-neutral statements like this one from Democratic members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:

It’s hard to dispute the value of infrastructure, or that America’s transportation, water, sewer, and utility systems are generally in bad shape. But the big prescription that comes out of Infrastructure Week is not so much about making better infrastructure — it’s mainly about spending more money.

Infrastructure Week is brought to you by some of the largest engineering firms in the world. The coalition is broader than that, and includes some perspectives that emphasize quality and efficiency. But the driving force is the American Society of Civil Engineers, an organization with plenty of self-interest in bigger public construction budgets.

So it’s no wonder that the message from Infrastructure Week boils down to an orchestrated appeal for funds. It’s also not difficult to see why this message doesn’t get a lot people very excited: For more money, we can get a less defective version of what we’ve already got.

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Highway Propaganda Vids Sell City Residents on the Wonders of Wider Roads

It’s not enough for highway builders to carve out land at great public expense so they can jam more cars into cities. Now they want you to believe their projects are great for the neighborhoods that bear the brunt of the added traffic and pollution.

Up top is a video produced by the Colorado Department of Transportation to sell the public on its massive I-70 expansion project. Streetsblog Denver reports that the agency spent $88,000 in public funds to make this 30-minute epic.

The I-70 project will replace 12 miles of aging highway with a new highway, adding four lanes in the process. Because 900 feet of the new highway trench will be covered with a park, the CDOT video helpfully explains that the widening is really all about doing right by immigrant neighborhoods — not moving traffic. Many residents affected by the project beg to differ.

As a tool to sway public opinion, the CDOT video probably won’t make much of an impact. At the time we published this post it only had 135 views after a month on Vimeo. But the propaganda technique is something to keep an eye on. Colorado DOT isn’t the only road builder trying out the same message.

To promote the “Opportunity Corridor,” a road expansion project through low-income Cleveland neighborhoods, the local chamber of commerce commissioned the video below. The angle is very similar to CDOT’s video: This highway isn’t like the bad highways of the past — a new breed of road builder has figured out how to make asphalt and traffic lanes work wonders for struggling neighborhoods.

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Will Cleveland Finally Get Serious About Confronting Sprawl?

Northeast Ohio has been sprawling outward without adding overall population. The result is vacancy in urban areas. Map: NEOSCC

Northeast Ohio has been sprawling outward without adding population. The result is vacancy in urban areas. Map: NEOSCC (Click to enlarge.)

The Cleveland region has been struggling with sprawl for a long time.

Since the 1970s, the regional population has shrunk while housing and jobs have spread outward — a combination that has devastated urban areas in particular.

Transportation policy is a big part of the problem. Northeast Ohio keeps widening highways, facilitating quick suburban commutes and fueling sprawl. This weakens the places that are already the most vulnerable. Cleveland recently topped a national list of “most distressed cities,” and its neighbor East Cleveland is on the verge of bankruptcy.

Most Ohio governors and state transportation chiefs are oblivious or worse, pursuing policies that promote job sprawl, undermine transit, and lavish resources on highways.

One agency that could change this dynamic is the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), the regional planning agency charged with dispensing federal transportation funds. Until very recently, however, NOACA was not up to the task.

Sparsely populated rural counties have disproportionate influence at NOACA compared to dense urban areas, and rivalries within the agency often pitted low-income urban communities against newer, wealthy suburbs. In lieu of actual economic growth, many of the outlying suburbs were happy to simply siphon off businesses and houses from close-in communities.

Rather than confront this dysfunction, for years NOACA’s leadership mostly shied away from it. Funding was awarded project-by-project to satisfy political demands, rather than to achieve specific policy goals like broad-based economic growth, better access to jobs, or environmental sustainability. In essence, the regional planning agency didn’t do any planning, local environmental leader David Beach has said.

But now NOACA is trying to correct that, says the agency’s new director, Grace Gallucci, who took the job in 2012 after working at Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority.

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How San Diego Planners Spun the Press to Sell Highway Expansions

How far will transportation agencies go to spin public perception of their highway expansion plans? San Diego’s KPBS has produced a brilliant case study in this video and the accompanying report — a deep dive into the media operation mounted by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to defend its slate of highway expansion projects.

In late 2011, SANDAG passed a long-term transportation plan with a slew of highway expansions guaranteed to increase pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the agency hailed its work as an environmental victory, the first such plan in California to meet the state’s supposedly stringent new sustainability goals.

Environmental groups weren’t fooled. They sued SANDAG on the basis that the agency failed to account for the increased traffic generated by highways, and they were soon joined by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Rather than make any substantive policy changes, SANDAG has doubled down on highway expansion in the latest update to its long-range plan (which has to be refreshed every four years). The updated plan calls for 1,757 miles of additional freeway capacity to be built in the next 35 years.

SANDAG’s plan slates the transit and biking projects far into the future while those highway miles are going to get built much sooner. Even taking the multi-modal projects into account, wrote CityLab‘s Eric Jaffe, “It’s the complete opposite of everything the state hopes to achieve.”

SANDAG officials anticipated pushback from the environmental groups that were suing them. So naturally it deployed an expensive, highly-coordinated media strategy to sell the public on the environmental virtues of its highway expansion project list and ensure its passage.

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