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Posts from the "Highway Repair" Category

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How Reason’s Highway Report Works Against Urban Areas

Just what does good state highway performance look like, according to the climate change skeptics at the Reason Foundation? This ”libertarian think tank” — funded by Exxon Mobil and the Koch Family Foundations, among others — has a funny way of judging these things. But media outlets all over the United States are reporting its findings as if they’re gospel.

Reason's rankings of states' highway performance corresponds pretty neatly with how rural they are. The green states are rated highest and the red ones rated lowest. Click to enlarge. Image: Reason

According to Reason’s 20th annual analysis of state highways, largely rural states like North Dakota, Kansas, and Wyoming are performing best, while more urbanized states like New York, Massachusetts, and California are in the bottom tier.

What goes into these rankings? We set out to see if the whole thing was worth taking seriously.

Reason took 11 indicators into account when judging states’ performance. A few are reasonable enough: percentage of deficient bridges, road conditions in rural and urban areas, how much states spend on administration versus construction.

But there are quite a few head scratchers. States are rated by how much they are spending per mile on capital and bridge disbursements. Here rural, southern, lower-cost regions perform better: South Carolina and West Virginia spend the least per mile, receiving the highest rankings. Places with higher costs of living score badly. The “worst performers” in this category are New Jersey, Florida, and California.

States are also rated on how much they spend on road and bridge maintenance per mile. North Dakota and South Dakota are awarded the highest rankings for devoting about $5,000 per mile to maintenance in 2009. States that spent the most money on maintenance per mile, New Jersey and California — about $185,000 and $150,000 respectively — came in last.

Phineas Baxandall at the Pubic Interest Research Group said Reason’s method of measuring efficiency is sorely lacking. “Purely a dollar per mile is going to be kind of a biased opinion,” he said. “The more urban you are, the harder it is to just pour tarmac and open roads, the more expensive it is.” Additionally, things like environmental remediation or overpasses that make it possible for pedestrians and cyclists to traverse urban highways would end up making the agency that funded them look “inefficient.”

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I-5 Bridge Collapse: A Painful Reminder of the Nation’s Misguided Priorities

A bridge on I-5 collapsed in Washington state last night, a reminder of the nation's need to focus more on repair. Photo: KRON 4

In a searing reminder that the nation has to do a better job of keeping its infrastructure in safe working condition, the I-5 bridge between Burlington and Mt. Vernon, Washington, collapsed last night. Thankfully, no one was killed, and the three people whose vehicles fell into the water were hospitalized with only minor injuries.

Interstate-5 runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, connecting most of the major cities of Washington, Oregon, and California. The collapse of a bridge on one of the country’s most important roads reveals the fragile state of the nation’s critical infrastructure, especially coming six years after the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people.

A truck with an oversize load apparently hit the overhead part of the steel truss bridge at about 7:00 p.m. last night, buckling the bridge and dropping two vehicles about 25 feet down into the cold Skagit River.

Google Maps has already been updated to show that the bridge no longer meets above the Skagit River.

The bridge was built in 1955 and has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records — well below the statewide average rating of 80. Still, Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said the bridge was inspected twice last year, in August and November, and repairs were made. It wasdeemed “functionally obsolete” — but not structurally deficient — as recently as 2010. 

Functional obsolescence means that the bridge was built to outdated standards but doesn’t indicate that it’s necessarily unsafe. Often, a bridge is deemed obsolete simply for being more narrow than engineers would currently like it to be, given the level of traffic throughput. However, one factor in deeming a bridge “functionally obsolete” can be that it wasn’t built to withstand current vehicle weight loads — or heights.

ASCE’s 2013 infrastructure report card says 1,693 — 21.6 percent — of Washington’s bridges are functionally obsolete. Sixty-seven percent of the state’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

Though I-5 is an interstate highway, the collapse occurred in a state that has de-prioritized repair on its state roads. Washington spends just 14 percent of its total state highway budget on repair. Only six states spend less. According to a 2011 Smart Growth America analysis [PDF], the state spends $181 million a year on repair, when it needs to spend $426 million.

The collapse puts out of commission a bridge used by an average of 71,000 vehicles a day at the start of a busy holiday travel weekend.

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Boehner Calls Obama’s Bluff on Infrastructure (But Who Will Call Boehner’s?)

Did you notice the big white beard and jolly red cheeks on President Obama at the State of the Union the other night? He’s the new Santa Claus, giving out gifts the government can’t afford to greedy little kids everywhere.

That’s how House Speaker John Boehner sees the president’s latest proposal for infrastructure investment — $40 billion for maintenance, under a strict “fix it first” ethic, with no revenue stream attached to it.

“Trying to find a funding source to repair the nation’s infrastructure is still a big goal of mine,” Boehner told reporters yesterday. “And the president talked about infrastructure, but he didn’t talk about how to pay for it. It’s easy to go out there and be Santa Claus and talk about all these things you want to give away, but at some point, somebody’s got to pay the bill.”

This is exactly what happened on Valentine’s Day two years ago, when President Obama rolled out his six-year transportation budget proposal. The spending side of the ledger was enthusiastically filled in — but the revenue side? Crickets.

As we said at the time, bold and innovative infrastructure proposals are great but it doesn’t really help anything, in these lean times, to promise the moon and then offer nothing in the way of realistic funding.

Now, Boehner’s not blameless in all this. He says he’s looking for a funding source, but only if it rhymes with “soil shilling.” Foil filling? Oil drilling. That’s right. Otherwise, he’s only too happy to cut transportation spending by a third — and next time around, it’ll be an even bigger cut than that. It’s certainly disappointing that Congressional Democrats and the White House have been afraid to come out in favor of a gas tax hike, but it’s not as if Boehner’s been pushing for sensible revenue measures either.

Forty billion dollars for transportation maintenance is a worthy goal. It could hold at bay the calls for highway expansion and help the country get more out of the infrastructure we have, while saving ourselves bigger expenditures on replacement when poorly maintained infrastructure finally needs to go. It could even have big benefits for bicycling.

If we can’t find the money to pay for this, what will we find the money for? U.S. DOT’s plan for 3,000 new miles of highway?

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President Obama Proposes a “Fix-It-First” Program For Roads

From the "enhanced" State of the Union, whitehouse.gov

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama launched a “Fix-It-First” program to repair aging infrastructure and put people to work.

The president even took an indirect jab at officials who would rather build new than fix existing infrastructure, saying, “I know you want these job-creating projects in your district; I’ve seen all those ribbon-cuttings.”

So, tonight, I propose a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.

Obama has proposed infrastructure investment many times before, and always with a heavy tilt toward repair and maintenance, but never such an explicit mandate to “fix it first.” By keeping existing transportation infrastructure in good condition, officials can save the public from the expense of unnecessary road expansion projects.

However, he did give a nod to some new infrastructure he’d like to see: notably, high-speed rail.

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The Next Generation DOT

Cross-posted from the Strong Towns blog

Charles Marohn is a planner and engineer in Minnesota and the executive director of Strong Towns. 

We’ve been looking at the instincts of today’s transportation agencies. While on an individual level it is clear that these organizations are filled with people who are professional, competent and want to do the right thing, the institutional inertia is carrying them in wayward directions.

Lesson for state DOTs: Don't build anything new until you're sure you can maintain what you already have. Image: Public Domain Photos

When confronted with a persistently dangerous intersection, there is no push or conversation to close it. That is not in the play book because the policies of transportation agencies are deeply rooted in misunderstandings about economic growth and development. What is in the play book is the will to make large expenditures on modest improvements in the hopes that the problem will be alleviated. This from agencies that are fatally short of funding. At least we tried.

Unfortunately, those misunderstandings we have about growth and development correlate highway spending with increased prosperity. In reality, this is an illusion brought about by quick and easy development leveraged off these massive investments. The lack of productivity in this approach means that, over the long term, the costs far outweigh the gains. It is the Ponzi scheme of the Suburban Experiment. We’re in the unwinding phase.

Nobody should understand that more clearly than our nation’s DOTs. They are simultaneously over committed and under funded. While they obsess about the latter, it is the former that they will ultimately be forced to reconcile. Many in these agencies — especially the second tier of leaders that are a little more removed from our highway building heydays and a little further from retirement than the first tier – understand this clearly, but they lack an acceptable alternative approach. They are trapped by the inertia of their organization.

It is to those people that I offer my thoughts on the principles and understandings that a Next Generation DOT should embody when making that inevitable course correction.

1. Transportation spending is not economic development.

Speaking of transportation in terms of economic development has been a convenient way to secure additional funding streams. Unfortunately, the meme has become part of the wider culture, even though we know that good transportation systems serve productive growth, not create it. Transportation systems move goods and people. They are not catalysts for productive growth. We know how much that interchange costs so we need to stop pretending that the quiki mart, pet stop and strip mall somehow justify the investment just because it makes the locals happy.

2. Transportation spending is not job creation.
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Highway Builders to Party Leaders: The Future Is “More Than Just Roadways”

Over the past two weeks, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association has sent letters to the Republican National Committee [PDF] and the Democratic National Committee [PDF], asking them to consider inserting a plank in their platforms about transportation. And they were clear in their letter that, despite being major cheerleaders for road-building, the future they see is multi-modal.

ARTBA reminds Republicans that the Transcontinental Railroad was their idea -- and a good one, at that. Image: Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

They also made a strong argument for transportation as a federal responsibility. To many, this is a no-brainer. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) likes to remind people of the example of the Kansas Turnpike, built in 1954, when transportation was left to the states. Oklahoma ran out of funding for the project — “So for the next 18 months, the turnpike ended in Amos Switzer’s field at the Kansas/Oklahoma border,” DeFazio said. “For months on end, Amos was left to fish drivers out of his field until the start of the interstate system that finished this badly needed roadway.”

Conservatives in Congress have been arguing the unthinkable: taking the country back to a state-based system where there’s no federal role in transportation. “We settled that debate with Dwight David Eisenhower,” DeFazio said.

ARTBA wants to settle this argument once and for all with a little founding-father-speak — always popular with the right. Here they bring out the big guns — George Washington himself — who in 1785 said, “The credit, the saving, and convenience of this country all require that our great roads [and by this I'm sure he also meant light rail, bullet trains, and the national bike network] leading fromone public place to another should be straightened and established by law… To me these things seem indispensably necessary.” Not to mention that the federal responsibility for “post roads” is written into the constitution.

Writing to the Democrats, ARTBA celebrates Thomas Jefferson, who authorized funding for the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois; Woodrow Wilson, who signed the Federal-Aid Roads Act; Franklin D. Roosevelt, from whom infrastructure building was a key strategy out of the Great Depression; and other Democrats right up to 2008. Take note, straphangers and complete streets advocates: Tailoring your message to butter up your audience is a lobbying strategy well worth stealing from these guys.

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Smart Growth America: States May Pave Over Their Own Good Intentions

Last week, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign revealed how states prioritize spending: 20 percent for transit, 2 percent for bike/ped, 38.5 percent for maintenance, and about 22.5 percent for highway expansion. Looking just at those last two numbers, that breaks down to 71 percent more spending on repair than sprawl-inducing new lanes.

But Smart Growth America cautions that these figures may be misleading.

“It’s important to note that the Tri-State report is based on an analysis of State Transportation Improvement Programs, so it’s looking at planned funding, not necessarily real spending,” said SGA President and CEO Geoffrey Anderson in a statement.

In a 2011 study, Smart Growth America found a very different story. Between 2004 and 2008, states spent an average of 36 percent more on road expansion projects than they did on road repair projects, based on data collected from the states by the Federal Highway Administration.

Between 2004 and 2008, states spent $37.9 billion annually on repair and expansion of roads and highways. Of these funds, 57 percent went to road widening and new road construction – just 1.3 percent of roads. 43 percent went to preservation of existing roads, which make up 98.7 percent of the system.

There are two different conclusions one can reach when looking at the disparity between current state transportation plans (the numbers that Tri-State crunched) and the history of state DOT spending patterns (the numbers emphasized by SGA).

One, we can assume that states are road expansion addicts, always promising to quit and then falling back on their old ways.

Or, two, we can assume, as Anderson charitably (albeit cautiously) does, that “states are coming to grips with the huge backlog of upkeep and maintenance that need to get done” and that the near future will be different than the recent past.

AASHTO Executive Director John Horsley insists it’s the latter. In fact, he disputes Smart Growth America’s analysis, saying the FHWA biannual reports on state spending – up to 2008, the latest year available — show “a consistent upward trend in the percentage that’s spent on rehabilitation and preservation, as opposed to system expansion.”

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GOP’s “Bridge Repair, Not Bike Lanes” Mantra Was Just a Lot of Hot Air

Last fall, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) proposed diverting all transportation enhancements funding, which goes primarily to bike and pedestrian projects, to bridge repair. “With nearly 25 percent of our nation’s bridges deemed either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, we need to make their reconstruction a priority over errant beautification projects,” Sen. Paul said.

A quarter of U.S. bridges may be deficient, but focusing on just the most dangerous will have the most impact. Image: ##http://www.partnershipborderstudy.com/bol_old/Section%201/section1.asp##Partnership Border Study##

Republicans insisted they were all about bridge repair and couldn't spare a dime for biking and walking, but it turns out they didn't set aside anything for bridge repair either. Image: Partnership Border Study

He also said that the money spent on “movie theaters, squirrel sanctuaries, turtle tunnels and flower beds” could otherwise boost the Highway Bridge Program by $700 million.

Forget for a moment that that’s the world’s most preposterous definition of TE ever. Let’s take at face value the idea that keeping the nation’s bridges in a state of good repair is an important safety issue. Who could disagree with that?

In the MAP-21 transportation bill that the president will sign in just a couple of hours, the Republicans did manage to gut transporation enhancement spending. But did they divert that money over to bridge repair? Far from it. In fact, they gutted bridge repair spending too!

The bill consolidates two-thirds of highway programs out of existence, including the Highway Bridge Program for the rehabiliation or replacement of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.

Joshua Schank of the Eno Transportation Center says it’s not such a bad thing. “Program consolidation, which if anything didn’t go far enough, will result in more focus on where the money is going and therefore likely cause more funds to be dedicated to existing infrastructure,” he said in an email. “The old bridge program encouraged repair, but without regard to need or prioritization. By contrast, the new National Highway Performance Program focuses more on outcomes, such as pavement conditions, that are consistent with state of good repair and will help prioritize decision-making.”

Indeed, one of the few performance measures in the bill that really has teeth is the one for bridge repair, which requires states with inferior infrastructure conditions to spend more. However, not everyone is convinced that this will do the trick.

“The way they crafted it, yes, [states] could spend a lot on repair,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America. “They could have spent a lot on repair under SAFETEA-LU.” But they didn’t.

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A New Bill Passes, But America’s Transpo Policy Stays Stuck in 20th Century

The House of Representatives approved the transportation bill conference report this afternoon by a vote of 373 to 52. [UPDATE 4:00 PM: The Senate has also approved the bill, 74-19.] This is a bill that’s been called “a death blow to mass transit” by the Amalgamated Transit Union, “a step backwards for America’s transportation system” by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a retreat from the goals of sustainability and economic resiliency” by Reconnecting America, “a substantial capitulation” by Transportation for America, and “bad news for biking and walking” by America Bikes.

Remember the empty highways that symbolized the House Republicans' vision of America's transportation system? The final transpo bill might as well have the same unfortunate cover.

After more than 1,000 days of waiting since the last transportation bill expired, the nation’s new transportation policy is a grave disappointment to people seeking to reform the current highway-centric system.

The fact that the House GOP tried and, for the most part, failed to reverse the progress made under presidents Reagan and Bush the elder offers a small degree of consolation. “Some of the worst ideas pushed initially by House Republicans went nowhere – funding the highway system with new oil drilling revenues, taking transit out of the highway trust fund, de-federalizing transportation funding – to mention some of the most radical proposals that were seriously being put forward,” wrote Deron Lovaas of NRDC this morning. “But… that pretty much exhausts the good news.”

So what does the bill actually do? Overall, it doesn’t change a whole lot, and the most significant changes tend not to benefit livable streets or sustainable transportation. Here’s a breakdown.

Length and funding. The bill lasts a year longer than the Senate bill would have, expiring at the end of September 2014. That gives states, cities, and the construction industry substantially more stability and allows them to move forward on projects that have been delayed for years because of the uncertainty surrounding federal funding. It maintains funding levels at around $54 billion a year, as did the Senate bill, which is roughly current levels plus inflation.

While some have criticized the complex funding mechanisms that prop it up and its departure from a user-pays model, the Congressional Budget Office reported this morning that the bill actually reduces the deficit by $16.3 billion.

Everyone seems to understand that Congress won’t be able to pull this kind of magic for long and will soon have to deal with the long-term insufficiency of current Highway Trust Fund revenues to cover the nation’s transportation needs. However, the gas tax was not raised, and at the same time the House passed this bill, it also approved an appropriations bill that prohibits even studying the possibility of moving toward a VMT fee.

Non-transportation-related items. The Keystone XL pipeline and the EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, introduced into the transportation negotiations by the House Republicans, were stripped out of the bill. The RESTORE Act to spend BP oil spill fines on Gulf Coast restoration is included.

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From a Reader: Seven More Questions For the Transportation Conference

Last week, I published a list of seven questions I had as the Transportation Conference Committee started meeting. I was examining the politics, not the policy. Turns out some readers wanted to hear more about the policy.

I asked the Cap’n what his questions would be. The reply:

Meanwhile, reader Ryan Richter sent in his revised list of questions too. They’re a little more specific, so I’ll start with Ryan’s. With any luck, the answers to Cap’n Transit’s questions will be woven into the answers below.

Thanks to both of you for keeping me focused on what really matters in this whole political hullabaloo.

Ryan’s first question:

1. How will public transportation fare after being practically decapitated in the last round?

Public transit came out a winner when members of the House GOP mounted their full-frontal assault against it. “The uprising was so immediate and so bipartisan [the Republicans] backed off,” said Deron Lovaas of NRDC. Democrats and some urban and suburban Republicans blew up at the idea that transit would no longer be eligible for its 20 percent of Highway Trust Fund dollars, which it’s gotten since the Fund’s Mass Transit Account was created under Ronald Reagan in 1983. Surviving an attempt against it makes transit that much stronger now – its opponents know that defunding transit is a losing issue for them.

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