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Posts from the "Highway Expansion" Category

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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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Why a Broke State DOT Could Be Great for Missouri

These expensive flyovers in sprawling Missouri might not have been worth the expense to taxpayers. Maybe a broke MoDOT will help bring projects back down to earth. Image: NextSTL

Maybe a broke MoDOT will bring costs back down to earth by not building projects like these expensive flyovers. Image: NextSTL

In August, Missouri voters roundly defeated a sales tax increase supported by road building interests that would have dramatically boosted funding for the state DOT. During the run-up to the election, state leaders laid it on thick in their appeal for more road money, arguing that the fallout would be disastrous for public safety if voters didn’t approve the 0.75 percent sales tax hike.

But voters didn’t bite on the business-as-usual proposal. And now, reports Richard Bose in a brilliant post at NextSTL, the state has unveiled its Plan B: a tighter budget that is packaged in language designed to scare residents into approving another funding source for the DOT.

MoDOT's approach to highway funding is no longer sustainable. The organization hopes its scaled-back plans encourage voters to pony up more money. Image; MoDOT

MoDOT’s approach to highway funding is no longer sustainable. The agency hopes its scaled-back plans scare voters into ponying up more money. Image: MoDOT

Missouri officials call it the “325 Plan,” because the state will only have $325 million to spend annually on transportation by 2017. Among the warnings: ”Supplementary roads will become a patchwork of repairs. Heavy loads on Missouri bridges will be limited, and some bridges could be closed indefinitely.” In light of the budget crunch, the state has said it will make “improvements” on only 8,000 of its 34,000 miles of roads. But the rest will still receive basic maintenance.

Bose says putting Missouri DOT on an austerity budget might be just what the doctor ordered. After all, over the last decade, the state binged on road spending, much of it backed by borrowing. And yet the state still has almost 500 bridges in poor or serious condition, and its economy is still performing worse than the nation as a whole. Perhaps giving the DOT more money to throw at highway construction isn’t going to fix anything.

Back when money was flowing freely, many of the state-supported highway expansions were little more than jobs programs, Bose says. Now it’s not clear that the state’s economy can support infrastructure at the scale that was built. Missouri DOT isn’t about to admit that’s a possibility, though:

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Can Seattle Stop Its Highway Tunnel Boondoggle Before It’s Too Late?

Is it too late for Bertha? Photo: WsDOT

Seattle and the state of Washington have a window of opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad. Photo: WsDOT

It’s been one year since the world’s largest tunnel boring machine, “Bertha,” got stuck 120 feet beneath Seattle. Before it broke down, the colossal machine had excavated just 1,000 feet of the two-mile tube that’s supposed to house a new, $3.1 billion underground highway to replace an aging elevated road called the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Bertha hasn’t budged an inch in the 12 months since. Meanwhile, the bad news keeps on piling up.

Right now, the state’s contractor is busy building a second tunnel down to the machine, so that parts can be removed, repaired, and replaced. In order to keep the second tunnel dry, construction crews have been draining the water table. This work has dangerously destabilized the very elevated highway the tunnel is supposed to replace, and one of the city’s historic neighborhoods — Pioneer Square — is actually sinking as well.

As David Roberts detailed in a recent Grist story, the project could impose billions of dollars in cost overruns on the public. Nobody is certain the machine can be fixed, or if it does get fixed, whether the same problem won’t occur again, farther down its path. In December, the deep-bore tunnel ran away with the voting for Streetsblog’s “Highway Boondoggle of the Year” award.

If there’s anything positive to emerge from the current mess, it’s that local advocates like Cary Moon, who warned against building the tunnel in the first place, are commanding attention again. Moon recently took to the pages of the local alt-weekly, the Stranger, to argue that in light of the tunnel project’s spectacular, slow-motion meltdown, the city should explore other options.

We reached out to her to learn more.

This is a pretty big disaster, it sounds like.

This project identified a lot of risks at the beginning of the process, but the political commitment to it was already high enough at that point that no one really paid that much attention, except for several of us.

They treated us like we were gadflies instead of pointing out honestly and clearly what was probably going to happen. It’s frustrating because all this was known then but no one was listening.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Here I Am, Stuck in Seattle With You

podcast icon logoStuck in Seattle or Stuck in Sherman Oaks. There are so many places to get stuck these days and so many clowns and jokers making it worse.

First, poor Bertha, stuck 100 feet under Seattle. All the tunnel boring machine wanted to do was drill a 1.7-mile tunnel for a highway that won’t even access downtown and is projected to cause more congestion at a higher price than a parallel surface/transit option — and it got stuck just 1,000 feet in. Last December. Now the rescue plan is making downtown sink. It’s not going well. And to be honest, it was always destined to not go well. It was a crappy plan to begin with. Luckily, there is a rescue plan for the rescue plan, if anyone cares to carry it out. It starts with some accountability and ends — spoiler alert! — with pulling the damn plug.

But if the new tunnel to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct is likely to cause traffic tie-ups, it’s nothing compared to the perennial jam on LA’s I-405. The popular navigation app Waze has started directing drivers off the freeway and into the residential neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, infuriating the people who live there. Their solution: Try to convince Waze there are traffic jams in Sherman Oaks too. Our solution: Build a better transportation system.

And that’s it! This is our last podcast until the New Year. You can catch up on anything you missed on iTunes or Stitcher, and if you follow our RSS feed (or our Twitter feeds) you’ll be the first to know when a new episode is out.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Trails!

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Pima County Holds Better Sidewalks Hostage to Get a Road Expansion

Pima County is insisting on widening Broadway Avenue, whether Tucson wants it or not. Photo: Jude Ignacio and Gerardine Vargas via ##http://blog.preservationleadershipforum.org/2014/02/11/sunshine-mile/#.VIi7kWTF9Ns##Preservation Leadership Forum##

Pima County insists on widening Broadway Boulevard, whether Tucson wants it or not. Photo: Jude Ignacio and Gerardine Vargas via Preservation Leadership Forum

West of downtown Tucson, Arizona, the city runs up against the interstate first and then the mountains, cutting off development. But east of downtown, the city sprawls on for miles. The Sunshine Mile, a shopping and dining corridor centered on Broadway Boulevard, stretches two miles just east of downtown, between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road.

Pima County and its Regional Transportation Authority are pushing the city to widen Broadway for the length of the Sunshine Mile. And they’re threatening to withhold money for bringing the sidewalks into compliance with the Americans for Disabilities Act until Tucson complies.

The long and sordid story begins in the mid-1980s, when engineers predicted that traffic on Broadway would skyrocket from about 35,000 vehicles per day to 56,000 by 2005. To prepare for that veritable onslaught, planners concocted a scheme that involved widening Broadway from less than 100 feet to 150 feet.

The projections never came to pass. Traffic on Broadway has never exceeded 45,000 cars a day, according to Laura Tabili of the Broadway Coalition, which is fighting the road widening. In line with the rest of the country, traffic has actually been declining for the last 10 years. The most recent daily traffic counts on Broadway are now down below 35,000, less than in 1987, and in general the volume is only that high east of the target area.

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A Better Way to Spend $1 Billion Than Ramming More Roads Thru Milwaukee

This concept design for an east-west corridor rapid transit system for Milwaukee was developed by a New Jersey DOT veteran for local advocates. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

Instead of WisDOT’s plan to spend a billion dollars double-decking part of I-94, Wisconsin PIRG proposes an east-west rapid transit corridor for Milwaukee. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is set on widening Interstate 94, a highway that runs east-west through Milwaukee. The agency is so committed to this idea that it is proceeding, at great expense and over the objections of Milwaukee’s mayor, with a project to double-deck a portion of the road through a relatively densely populated area. The money that WisDOT is prepared to shell out for this highway expansion could be better spent providing quality transit options along the corridor, the Wisconsin Public Interest Research says in a new report  [PDF].

The Wisconsin DOT hasn't done a very good job predicting traffic over the last few years. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

Wisconsin DOT is still adding highways to accommodate growing traffic volumes, even though statewide traffic has declined since 2004. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

The justification for the billion-dollar highway project is flimsy. The state DOT says traffic will grow 24 percent by 2030, but traffic has actually declined on the highway during the last four years data was available. The Milwaukee region grew less than 1 percent over the last 13 years, and total driving in Wisconsin hasn’t increased in the last 10 years. There is no reason to think the next 15 years will be all that different.

Since WisDOT is only considering different road expansion scenarios for this corridor, WisPIRG decided to do the work the agency has refused to do, hiring New Jersey DOT veteran Mark Stout to study what else the state can get for its money besides a few extra highway lanes.

A coalition fighting the I-94 expansion released the results of Stout’s work yesterday. Stout recommends that WisDOT rehab I-94 without breaking the bank on new traffic lanes. More important than expanding the road, he writes, is providing options to get around without clogging streets with more cars — namely, beefed up transit.

Stout developed a conceptual rapid transit plan [above] that would enable residents to travel the corridor by bus or rail. The transit plan is designed to serve important clusters of housing and jobs, and to connect with the city’s planned downtown streetcar, increasing the usefulness of both systems. Stout did not attempt to put a price tag on the transit expansion, but he said it could likely be accommodated with existing resources outlined in the region’s Transportation Improvement Plan, a docket of projects eligible for federal funding.

“Rather than squander billions of tax dollars on overbuilding highways, WISDOT should be offering a vision for transportation that will help strengthen communities, connect people to jobs, and better accommodate changing local needs,” said WisPIRG’s Bruce Speight in a press release. “They aren’t doing it, so we have to do it for them.”

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How Macquarie Makes Money By Losing Money on Toll Roads

This is the second post in a three-part series about privately financed highways. Part one introduced the Indiana Toll Road privatization as an example of shoddily structured infrastructure deals. Part three looks at how faulty traffic projections lead bad projects to get built, and how the public ends up paying for those mistakes.

When you invest in Macquarie Atlas Roads, now-worthless shares in the Indiana Toll Road (and four “Other Toll Roads”) are an almost-free bonus with your purchase of shares in APRR, which runs profitable toll roads in France. Image: Macquarie Atlas’ September 2014 Investor Presentation

Macquarie Group, the gigantic Australian financial services firm with some $400 billion in assets under management, has made a lot of money in the infrastructure privatization game.

The publicly traded company owns the Brussels Airport, the Dulles Greenway, telecommunications towers in Mexico, a wind farm in Kenya, and much more. One of those assets was the Indiana Toll Road, which Macquarie purchased in 2006 with Spanish firm Ferrovial — whose most profitable assets include Heathrow Airport and the 407 toll road ringing Toronto. The Indiana Toll Road was housed in a spinoff company called ITR Concession Co. LLC., which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in September after a disastrous eight-year run.

Macquarie and Ferrovial paid the state of Indiana $3.8 billion for the Indiana Toll Road. At the time, it was the largest infrastructure privatization deal in U.S. history. Eight years later, the road was saddled with an astounding $5.8 billion in debt, far beyond the original, unexpectedly-high purchase price.

Traffic fell well short of the projections offered by the engineering firm Wilbur Smith (now CDM Smith), and the company blamed the bankruptcy on the fallout from the recession.

But some observers also pointed to the risky financing underlying the deal. Macquarie and Ferrovial each chipped in just $374 million of their own money to finance the deal. The other $3 billion was borrowed from seven European banks, six of which have since been bailed out by their respective governments.

Granted, the deal happened in 2006, when debt was flowing freely. According to a 2007 profile by Fortune’s Bethany McLean, Macquarie borrowed its billions using loans resembling a balloon mortgage. It would purchase a type of derivative, called an “accreting swap,” to get a low teaser interest rate, all the while assuming that a refinance was just around the corner. But when credit markets froze entirely, Macquarie couldn’t extricate itself from punishing interest payments.

McLean cited the example of the Macquarie-owned Chicago Skyway: “In 2007 the Skyway will pay interest of just $129,000 on $961 million of debt. But the interest payment for 2018 is to be $480 million — that’s not a typo.”

That helps explain how Macquarie and Ferrovial ended up owing almost twice as much as they paid for the Indiana Toll Road, after collecting tolls for eight years.

Randy Salzman, associate editor of Thinking Highways North America, has reported extensively about similar tollway deals and their aftermath, saying it’s common for privately financed roads to go bankrupt. He says that firms acquiring infrastructure typically provide very little of their own cash, and because of a complicated mix of fees and tax breaks, they may benefit financially even when the deals go sour.

“You’d think that they wouldn’t be investing in these things because so many of them go bankrupt,” he said. “You’d think that the money would be running away.”

But Salzman says he’s seen these kinds of bankruptcies happen over and over again. “The only question is when.”

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Citing Lack of Funds, St. Louis Road Builders Give Up on Sprawl Project

Plans for the $120 million South County Connector. Image: St. Louis County via nextSTL

Plans for the $120 million South County Connector have been shelved for lack of cash. Image: St. Louis County via nextSTL

The transportation funding crunch kills bad projects along with the good. Case in point: Officials in St. Louis County say plans are on hold for the $120 million South County Connector, a classic sprawl highway boondoggle that has faced widespread local opposition.

The campaign against the project included official legislation from the city of Maplewood, one of four cities that would have been bisected by the road. Maplewood Mayor James White lambasted the county in an open letter last year, saying, “We have seen no details nor been given any meaningful assurances that this project would do anything other than bisect and segregate our community further.”

Of course, those kinds of concerns aren’t what’s giving St. Louis County pause. It’s the lack of money. St. Louis County DOT spokesman David Wrone — whom you may remember as the winner of Streetsblog’s “Motor Mouth” award – told the Post-Dispatch that the federal government won’t allow localities to apply for money unless they have a funding plan in place. And apparently St. Louis County doesn’t have anywhere near enough money to get serious about this project.

Missouri tried to boost its transportation coffers with a three-quarter cent sales tax hike in August. The $5.4 billion, 10-year proposal was larded with highway projects. But voters didn’t bite, especially in urban areas, despite an avalanche of campaign spending by construction firms. In St. Louis County the measure lost by 34 percentage points, according to nextSTL.

So Missouri voters expressed their desire not to pay for frivolous highway projects and now a frivolous highway project is not getting funded. Perhaps St. Louis County DOT will get the message.

In 2010, St. Louis County residents approved a half-cent transit tax by a wide margin.

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The Illiana Expressway Will Eat Itself

If you asked me to paint a picture of a highway where no highway should exist, this is the picture I would paint. Image: ##https://pbworld.com/capabilities_projects/illiana_expressway_.aspx##Parsons Brinckerhoff##

The Illiana Expressway fails on all measures — expected revenue, projected traffic — when looked at realistically. Unfortunately, Illinois and Indiana don’t look at it that way. Image: Parsons Brinckerhoff

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. This is the final installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Illinois and Indiana are proposing to build a new highway across the far southern extent of the Chicago metropolitan area at a cost of more than $1 billion and perhaps as much as $3 billion. Intended to divert truck traffic from Interstate 80, the tolls charged to finance the highway could instead discourage trucks from using the roadway.

The proposed Illiana Expressway would extend from I-55 in Wilmington, Illinois, to I-65 in Hebron, Indiana, at the southernmost reach of the Chicago metropolitan area, traversing a largely rural and thinly populated area.

The wisdom of the project has been questioned by staff of the region’s metropolitan planning organization, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which said the project “expose[s] the State of Illinois to extensive financial risk,” even as it offered “unsubstantiated economic development potential” and “negligible impacts on regional transportation performance.”

Further, the staff criticized the planning process for significantly underestimating potential costs — by at least 30 percent and possibly as much as 400 percent, compared to similar highway projects around the country. CMAP staff projections also show an economic impact only one-fifth as large in 2040 as that projected by the highway’s planners.

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