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Scott Walker’s Own Party Rejects His Milwaukee Highway Boondoggle

Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee decided to kill funding for I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: ##http://wuwm.com/post/zoo-interchange-reconstruction-triggers-more-closures-some-openings##WISDOT via WUWM##

Among other excellent decisions, the Joint Finance Committee wants to kill funding for the I-94 expansion between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges. Photo: WISDOT via WUWM

Governor Scott Walker might be too busy campaigning for president to care, but the Wisconsin legislature handed him a rebuke last week, rejecting his plans for debt-fueled highway expansion.

The Republican-controlled legislature’s Joint Finance Committee trimmed about 35 percent off Walker’s proposed $1.3 billion in borrowing for highways. If approved by the Assembly and Senate — a big if — the committee’s budget proposal could spell the end for Walker’s plans to widen a section of I-94 in Milwaukee.

The finance committee also ordered an audit of the state DOT’s spending. Advocates from WISPIRG, Sierra Club, and 1000 Friends of Wisconsin want state officials to hold off on beginning construction on any new highway expansion projects until the audit is completed.

“We just can’t afford to keep repeating the mistakes that got us into this year’s budget mess,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a statement. “For years, we’ve wasted billions of dollars on highway expansions based on inflated traffic forecasts, and our existing infrastructure has been left to crumble as a result. This audit brings unprecedented and much-needed scrutiny to WisDOT’s highway expansion plans and the methods used to justify billion-dollar projects.”

The committee picked one highway project to axe: the $850 million expansion of I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges, where traffic has actually been declining. The state had previously decided in February to scrap plans to double-deck that segment, opting for a different expansion method.

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The Pendulum Swings Away From Highways on the Dallas City Council

Half of the Dallas City Council now opposes the construction of a six-lane, limited-access highway along the Trinity River. Image: Army Corps of Engineers via Dallas Morning News

A runoff election Saturday has solidified who’s in and who’s out of the Dallas City Council. At stake were the future of two highway projects: the construction of the Trinity Toll Road and the removal of I-345 to make way for walkable development. Highway opponents gained ground, though not enough for a majority.

Before the election, four of 14 votes on the City Council consistently opposed the construction of the Trinity and supported removing I-345. Then in the May election, two candidates endorsed by A New Dallas, a PAC supporting the I-345 teardown, picked up seats. With the 35-vote victory victory on Saturday of Adam McGough, it appears that the council is now split on both highway issues.

McGough is the former chief of staff to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, the Trinity Toll Road’s chief booster. But late in the campaign he expressed opposition to Alternative 3C, the design that involves building a six-lane high-speed road alongside the Trinity River. McGough explicitly called for 3C to be rejected and said he supports a smaller four-lane road instead.

McGough also supports the effort to replace I-345 with surface streets. His runoff win puts him in a bloc along with Mark Clayton and Carolyn King Arnold, the newly elected council members, and the four sitting highway opponents.

With the City Council split 7-7, the pro-walkability camp remains one vote shy of a decisive majority. But in Dallas’s weak-mayor system, it is significantly stronger than before the election. As the Dallas Morning News reports, “the toll road will always be a bumpy ride for the mayor” and “the lopsided votes of the past in favor of the Trinity project now become closer.”

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Ohio DOT Cedes Ground in Its Sneaky Highway Expansion Campaign

The relocation of State Route 32 would have set the stage for an interstate to the sea. Image: ##http://www.urbancincy.com/2011/01/809m-identified-for-long-planned-i-74-extension-through-hamilton-county/##Urban Cincy##

The relocation of State Route 32 would have set the stage for sprawling development in Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs. Image: Urban Cincy

Opponents of a $1.4 billion highway expansion project outside Cincinnati have won some important concessions from Ohio DOT, but the agency’s stealth campaign to build an “interstate to the sea” isn’t over yet.

Last week, ODOT announced that it will no longer pursue the relocation of State Route 32 through communities on the eastern edge of Cincinnati. “We’re not going to spend any more time or money on that current aspect of the project,” ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham said at a meeting last Thursday.

But ODOT is still looking to widen parts of SR 32, add turn lanes, and install new ramps — meaning it hasn’t abandoned the decades-old plan to create a highway from Cincinnati all the way to the South Carolina coast.

“What they did is that they broke down the upgrading of SR 32 to interstate specs into several small projects that seem innocuous on their own,” said Jake Mecklenborg of UrbanCincy. “While cancellation of the highway inside the I-275 loop might prevent 1990s-type suburban development of rural Clermont County, the decades-old effort to connect I-74 in Cincinnati with I-74 in North Carolina is still very much alive.”

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Putting TIGER Spending in Perspective

Federal spending on TIGER compared to the total cost of various U.S. highway projects. Image: Streetsblog

Federal spending on TIGER compared to the total cost of various U.S. highway projects. Image: Streetsblog

The House’s current transportation spending bill calls for reducing the share of federal spending that goes to TIGER, a grant program for sustainable transportation projects in cities, from $500 to $100 million. The budget, meanwhile, holds highway funding steady.

Indianapolis' cultural trail is one of about 200 projects that have been funded through TIGER over its four-plus year history. Image: Visit Indy

Indianapolis’s cultural trail is one of about 200 projects that have been funded through TIGER over its four-plus year history. Image: Visit Indy

TIGER is an enormously popular program. In its second year, it received close to 1,000 applications totaling $19 billion from communities in every U.S. state. At that time, there was just $600 million in funding available. Last year it was reduced to $500 million.

Despite its overwhelming popularity, TIGER is constantly in jeopardy. Yet transportation project austerity does not seem to apply to highways. To illustrate, we thought it’d be interesting to compare the cost of a few highway projects to total TIGER funding. Keep in mind that TIGER funds about 50 innovative projects annually, from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail to Cleveland’s University Circle Rapid Station. The result is in the graph above.

Now, a little about those highway projects:

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Is the Lord For or Against a Texas County Road Bond? Opinions Mixed

Things are really getting heated in Montgomery County, Texas, just outside Houston, over a proposal to issue $350 million in bonds to maintain and expand roads. Like fire-and-brimstone heated.

Earlier this week, at a county commissioners meeting, volunteer Mary Hammer Menzel referred to road bond opponents as “tools of satan” in her opening prayer, reports the Montgomery County Courier.

Menzel apparently has strong opinions about which side of the debate God is on. At the previous meeting, she also led the opening prayer, saying, “Father, I want to lift up this road bond to you and just ask you to help the people realize this county has got to have ways to get around,” according to the Montgomery County Police Reporter. Menzel appears in a television ad supporting the road bond, saying, “I am for the road bond and the Lord is too.”

Laura Fillault, a road bond opponent, did not take kindly to this week’s prayer. “I’m not a tool of satan,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate that part of the prayer… It’s a road bond it’s not a satanic ritual.”

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Cincinnati’s Highway Revolt on the Verge of Victory

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Ohio State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Republican who believes in lower taxes, is taking a principled stance against a wasteful highway project. Photo: Wikipedia

Could the end be near for the $1.4 billion Eastern Corridor highway project proposed for eastern Cincinnati? Language added to Ohio’s transportation budget, which is being debated right now, would specifically “prohibit [Ohio DOT] from funding the Eastern Corridor Project in Hamilton County.”

The amendment was introduced by Republican state lawmaker Tom Brinkman, who represents an eastern portion of Cincinnati. Brinkman told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I am representing constituents who say, ‘We don’t want to tear down our communities.'” The boondoggle highway project is opposed by residents in Newton, Mariemont, Madisonville, and other towns east of Cincinnati.

The highway does have its defenders in the legislature. At a House Finance Committee meeting Monday, Democrat Denise Driehaus, who represents Cincinnati, signaled her concerns about Brinkman’s amendment.

“It’s been going on for about a decade and so there has been significant investment at both the state and local level,” she said. “It seems to me this sets a precedent that the legislature prohibits ODOT from spending on a local project that has been vetted locally.”

Ryan Smith, a Republican from southeastern Ohio, countered: “This project has gone on for a decade but I think everyone can agree that heading down the wrong path and continuing down the wrong path may be problematic.” As to whether it would represent some kind of dangerous precedent for elected leaders to direct state transportation officials not to fund specific projects, he said, “This is the first time I can remember somebody asking not to be funded on a project.” (For what it’s worth, Governor Kasich added legislation to a previous budget that forbid state money from being spent on the Cincinnati Streetcar.)

You can watch the exchange between Driehaus and Smith here at about the 8:30 mark.

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Americans Are Driving Less, But Road Expansion Is Accelerating

Notice how the new lane miles and miles driven depart in the upper right hand corner of this chart, via FHWA.

Starting around 2005, driving leveled off, but transportation agencies continued to expand roads. Click to enlarge. Chart: FHWA

Americans drive fewer miles today than in 2005, but since that time the nation has built 317,000 lane-miles of new roads — or about 40,000 miles per year. Maybe that helps explain why America’s infrastructure is falling apart.

The new data on road construction comes from the Federal Highway Administration and reached our attention via Tony Dutzik at the Frontier Group, which studies trends in driving. In 2005, Americans drove just above a combined 3 trillion miles. Almost a decade later, in 2013, the last year for which data was available, they were driving about 45 billion less annually — so total driving behavior had declined slightly. Meanwhile, road construction continued as if demand was never higher.

Between 2005 and 2013, states and the federal government poured about $27 billion a year into road expansion. According to FHWA data, road expansion was spread across highways and surface streets fairly uniformly.

That’s actually a faster pace than in previous decades, Dutzik points out. For the whole of the 1990s — when gas was cheap and sprawl development was booming — the country added, on average, about 17,000 lane-miles a year, less than half the current rate.

This is further evidence that America’s “infrastructure crisis” is due in large part to spending choices that favor new construction over maintenance.

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Wisconsin Dumps One Urban Highway Boondoggle in Favor of Another

Wisconsin Department of Transportation rendering of their proposed, but now rejected, plan for a double decker freeway in Milwaukee.

Instead of spending $1 billion to create this double-decker section of I-94 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin DOT will spend $850 million to widen the highway. Rendering: WisDOT via Milwaukee Business Journal

One of the nation’s most poorly conceived highway proposals will become slightly less ridiculous. Transportation officials in Wisconsin recently announced they will no longer consider double-decking a portion of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. The billion-dollar project would have raised the highway to building height in the Story Hill neighborhood.

Wisconsin DOT hasn’t seen the light, however. The state is still marching ahead with a tremendously expensive I-94 expansion project. Instead of spending $1 billion to double-deck the highway, WisDOT has settled on spending $850 million to repair the road and add a lane in each direction.

For comparison, the project will still cost about three times what Governor Scott Walker cut from state support for the University of Wisconsin in his recent budget. The road expansion is designed to save commuters just four minutes in each direction — assuming the state’s traffic assumptions are correct.

But there is very good reason to believe they are not. State officials are using old traffic data to justify the enormous expense. Traffic counts on the corridor actually declined between 2009 and 2012, the latest years for which data was available, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

The data Wisconsin DOT cites to justify the project only extends through 2010. The agency says that’s because a later construction project affected traffic levels on the road. But Metro Milwaukee’s population has barely increased in a decade, and statewide, driving has been flat since 1999, so it’s not at all clear why the state would be expecting such an increase.

“Rather than fixing it first and prioritizing the maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, the DOT wants to widen a highway where traffic counts have declined by 8 percent over the past 12 years,” said WISPIRG Director Peter Skopec in a press release.

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Washington Republicans: Put Seattle’s Highway-Borer Out of Its Misery

If nothing else, the politics of Seattle’s deep-bore highway tunnel fiasco keep getting more interesting. With Bertha the tunnel-boring machine stuck underground and “rescue” efforts literally destabilizing city neighborhoods, a pair of Republicans in the Washington State Senate introduced a bill to scrap the project before any more money is wasted.

After Seattle has spent billions and more than a year and all it has to show for it is a hole in the ground. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

Washington Democrats won’t back off their support for a risky deep-bore highway tunnel in Seattle. Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

While putting a halt to the underground highway would limit Seattle’s exposure to enormous cost overruns and open the door to more city-friendly transportation options, this effort to bury Bertha comes from outside the city. The Democratic establishment in the Seattle region isn’t rallying around the idea.

Republicans Doug Ericksen of Ferndale and Michael Baumgartner of Spokane co-sponsored legislation to cease spending on the stalled tunnel project and use the remaining money to study alternatives. The text of their bill [PDF] is probably the most sensible thing any politician has said about this project in quite some time:

The legislature finds that the state route number 99 Alaskan Way viaduct replacement project has failed. The legislature also finds that the project as it is currently designed cannot be justified financially and is not in the best interest of the public.

The knock against the bill is that it’s pure theater — a political maneuver to place the blame for Bertha squarely at the feet of Democrats.

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Cincinnati’s Eastern Corridor: The $1.4 Billion Road No One Seems to Want

The Eastern Corridor is an expensive state DOT highway project searching for a reason to exist.

The highway plan would relocate SR 32 through Mariemont's South 80 Park. Image: Village of Mariemont

The highway plan would reroute SR 32 through Mariemont’s South 80 Park, named for its 80-acre size. Image: Village of Mariemont

The $1.4 billion proposal from Ohio DOT is ostensibly intended to reduce commute times from Cincinnati’s far eastern bedroom communities to downtown. The project, a remnant of 1960s-era road planning, would create a commuter highway through the eastern Cincinnati region by widening and partially rerouting State Route 32, as well as widening Red Bank Road. The plan also contains commuter rail and bike infrastructure elements. Proponents, like the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, say it will shorten car commutes and promote job development in the eastern suburbs [PDF].

But even with those multi-modal goodies, nobody seems to like this highway — not even the towns it is designed to serve, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Newtown (population 2,600) opposes it. The village of Mariemont (population 3,400) opposes it. Madisonville, an eastern Cincinnati neighborhood that would be served by the road, opposes it.  “We don’t need it,” Newtown Mayor Curt Cosby told the Enquirer.

“The state keeps saying, ‘Well, we hear you and we’re taking that into account.’ But they continue to move forward and spend money. They don’t really hear us.”

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