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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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Advocates Defend New Haven’s “Downtown Crossing” Highway Removal Plan

This is the city of New Haven's concept for Downtown Crossing, its plan for 11 acres of downtown land that will be cleared by the removal of the Route 34 Expressway. Photo: Downtowncrossingnewhaven.com

Earlier this week we ran a story about why local livable streets advocates with the New Haven Urban Design League are disappointed with the city’s decision to replace a section of grade-separated highway with a plan that remains, on balance, car-centric.

We soon heard from teardown proponents who remain supportive of the project. While acknowledging its shortcomings, Ryan Lynch of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign says the current project would be an important step forward for both New Haven and the state of Connecticut:

We agree that there is too much parking in the corridor, and the road remains too wide, but we have to disagree with the assertion that what is being proposed is only marginal improvement. This project, even in the first phase, will be implementing some of the most progressive transportation infrastructure in the state. Some of this infrastructure, to our knowledge, are firsts for the entire state of Connecticut, including the first ever bike boxes, separated cycle tracks, and raised intersections at particularly wide intersections.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Benton, a spokesperson for the city, took issue with some of the assertions from the Urban Design League, including the claim that the roadway replacing the highway will have no through streets. Phase I of the project — the phase that New Haven has collected about $30 million to build out — does not include side streets. Those are supposed to be built in Phase II, said Benton. Future phases are not yet funded, she allowed, but she said the city is committed to finishing them.

Benton said the city appreciates what advocates including the Urban Design League have proposed, but it’s the city’s responsibility to put forward something practical, as well as transformational. “I think it’s a testament to this project that they have been so engaged,” she said. “I don’t think their ideas are necessarily bad ideas. I think sometimes there a gap between feasible reality and what they would like to see.”

In other news about this project, Anstress Farwell, president of the Urban Design League, is traveling to Washington this week to speak with representatives of U.S. DOT about the organization’s concerns.

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So Much for Supply and Demand: Transit Ridership Spikes, Funding Plummets

Let’s get this straight: skyrocketing gas prices are inspiring people to investigate their transportation options. More and more of them are taking transit. Is this really the time to take the axe to those transit systems’ budgets?

When drivers switch to transit, they should be welcomed with on-time service and affordable fares that reinforce the wisdom of their decision. Instead, they’re finding that their bus routes are being cut, fares are going up, and they’re faced with longer waits for infrequent service.

Members of Congress are tripping all over themselves to pass bills to drill in the Arctic or repeal tax breaks for big oil (depending on their respective party ideology) – neither of which will have a measurable effect on gas prices. The Department of Justice is investigating to see if there’s been any fraud or manipulation in gas prices.

But has anyone in Washington thought to make sure people had alternatives so they didn’t have to spend so much on so much gasoline? That the simplest way to save households money might be to make sure they have reliable transit service?

As Ya-Ting Liu of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign notes in the TSTC blog, Mobilizing the Region:

Type in “transit ridership” in Google News and one will see reports of upticks in transit ridership across the country, from large cities to small towns (Pierce County, WA; Lake Tahoe, CA; Palm Beach, FL; Luzerne County, PA; Nashville, TN; Montrose, CO;Valparaiso, IN to name just a few).

Unfortunately for those turning to public transportation for a reprieve, they’re most likely experiencing a system that has been cut to the bone in the past 18 months as lawmakers in D.C. stood by. Not only did the 111th Congress fail to pass the Public Transportation Preservation Act of 2010, which would have provided emergency federal funds to restore and maintain transit service across the country, the 112th Congress has recently slashed transit funding as a way to curb federal spending. More could be on the way. The House Budget Committee recently passed Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposal for fiscal year 2012 that would slash federal transportation spending by 30%, bringing it from $50B/year to about $35B/year. According to an analysis conducted by House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee minority staff, the tri-state region would lose over $1 billion in federal transportation dollars and 38,515 jobs. [To see the damage in your state, check out the chart here [PDF].]

Only in planet D.C. can one be outraged about rising gas prices, non-responsive on rising transit ridership numbers and wholly committed to reducing federal investments in energy efficient modes of transportation like transit.

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GAO: Transportation Spending an Investment With Uncertain Returns

Cross-posted from Mobilizing the Region, the official blog of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

A December study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that, well, there’s not much government accountability when it comes to how states spend federal transportation funds. Despite the existence of a federally mandated transportation planning process, the federal government offers no clear goals for state spending and there’s no clear way of knowing what benefits the public gets in return for such spending. GAO surveyed all 50 state DOTs (as well as DOTs in D.C. and Puerto Rico) and identified common challenges and opportunities to transition to a more “performance-based” transportation planning framework.

gaoPoliticized State Planning, Rubber-Stamp Federal Oversight

Federal law requires all states to conduct a long-range transportation plan and a statewide transportation improvement plan (STIP). The long-range plan is supposed to cover the state’s strategic vision and direction for a 20-year period, but varies in content from state to state because there is really no requirement about what each state puts in it or when the plan gets updated. In fact, 10 states have not updated their long-range plans since the last federal transportation bill authorization in 2005.

The statewide transportation improvement plan, on the other hand, is developed every four years by state DOTs and is the project-by-project, itemized blueprint for how each state spends federal transportation dollars. What factors are most influential when it comes to selecting projects for the STIP?

“Funding and politics,” according to GAO’s 50 state survey:

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Stimulus Bill Is a Step Forward for Pedestrians, Cyclists & Cities

Within the $27.5 billion allocated for "highways" in the stimulus bill signed by President Obama yesterday, there is some good news for pedestrians, cyclists and cities.

I spoke with Michelle Ernst, staff analyst at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, to get a sense of how the new legislation compares to the 2005 federal transportation bill, known as SAFETEA-LU. Ernst points out that federal highway money flows through the Surface Transportation Program, which is more flexible than the "highway" label lets on. Compared to SAFETEA-LU, the stimulus bill will nearly double the portion of "highway" funds going to bike and pedestrian projects while sending more money to cities.

Here are the changes Ernst spotted after crunching the numbers:

  • Double the money to bike and pedestrian projects: Under SAFETEA-LU, roughly 1.7 percent of total highway funding was authorized for the Transportation Enhancements program, most of which goes toward bicycle and pedestrian projects. In the stimulus package, that figure has nearly doubled to 3 percent. The new bill also requires states to spend the money on actual Transportation Enhancements, whereas previous transportation bills gave them wiggle room to shift it around to other programs.
  • More money going to cities: Under SAFETEA-LU, 6.5 percent of highway funding was "sub-allocated" directly to large urban areas, defined as metro regions with a population greater than 200,000. In the stimulus bill, large urban areas get 16 percent. This funding will go to agencies that, compared to state DOTs, are more likely to invest in progressive transportation projects.

While these changes represent improvements, even more money should be going to cities. As Brookings notes, the nation's 100 largest metro areas produce 75 percent of the nation's GDP. And the glaring omission of any "fix-it-first" language in the final bill will make it easier for some of those sub-allocated funds to be spent on road expansion.

But overall the revised formulas in the stimulus bill mean more money for transit, bike and pedestrian projects and more funds piped directly to cities. The guaranteed funding for Transportation Enhancements is something that bicycle advocates, especially, fought to include in the final bill. Mayors and green transportation experts championed a bigger slice for urban areas, which frees up money for progressive projects. The final stimulus bill reflects these efforts and gives advocates something to build on as Congress gears up for the big transportation re-authorization coming later this year.

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Where Does Stimulus Cash Go From Here? TSTC Explains.

While we've been focusing on the stimulus action in Washington this week, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign has kept an eye on the region's state DOTs, which will dispense billions for transportation infrastructure. On Wednesday Tri-State filed suit to prevent the New Jersey Turnpike Authority from widening the Garden State Parkway, a project the agency intends to fund in part with stimulus cash. Tri-State has also kept the pressure on Connecticut's DOT -- which never made its wish list public -- to invest in transit, bike, and pedestrian improvements.

Earlier this week, we asked Tri-State's Michelle Ernst and Steven Higashide about the state DOT wish lists, especially New York's. (It's reasonable, they say.) With the transportation debate set to play out again on a massive scale as the multi-year federal reauthorization approaches, there's no better time to get acquainted with the arcane world of transportation spending. If you're not familiar with the term "sub-allocation" yet, you will be.

Streetsblog: What do urban areas stand to receive compared to rural areas in the New York state list?

Steven Higashide: I should start by saying that it’s not clear how NYSDOT will prioritize the projects on its wish list -- that is, how much money will each regional office actually get?

I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Based on that, it looks like urban areas get roughly 25 percent of NYSDOT highway funds, while suburban areas get around 25 percent and rural areas get 50 percent. Again, this is pretty back of the envelope; but we can say pretty confidently that rural areas have more road funding in the list than urban areas.

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NGOs Work to Fill Transit-Oriented Development Void

cycle.jpgToday the Tri-State Transportation Campaign joined the One Region Funders’ Group* and The Fund for New Jersey in announcing a grant program to foster metro area transit-oriented development.

The program intends to encourage transit oriented development, or mixed use development within a fourth to half mile of a train or bus station, by offering financial support to municipalities ready to address the linkages between affordable housing, energy efficiency and development near transit stations. Up to ten small grants will be awarded to communities across downstate New York and Connecticut. Up to five grants will be awarded in New Jersey.

The grants, according to a TSTC press release, will be awarded to help fund project planning and design. While the state of New Jersey and New Jersey Transit have had TOD funding programs in place since the 1990s, resulting in a number of projects including the Transit Village Initative, New York and Connecticut have not kept pace. Last spring the MTA announced a new plan to encourage TOD development, but has so far not followed through with a formal program. The New York State Department of Transportation, meanwhile, has come up with a "smart growth" web site, and not much else. Connecticut has embraced TOD concepts, but has also been slow to realize a blueprint for carrying them out.

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America’s Least Wanted Highways

sheridan_map_1.jpgThe Congress for New Urbanism released a highly entertaining top ten list today: the North American highways most in need of demolition. At the top is Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, a structurally damaged elevated highway that, if removed, would free up 335 acres of public land by Elliott Bay.

New York's Sheridan Expressway, which traverses 1.25 miles of Bronx River waterfront (right), comes in at number two. Thanks to the advocacy of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, the state DOT is considering a proposal to replace the lightly-traveled, Moses-era Sheridan with housing and parks. As the Tri-State Transportation Campaign reported last month, preserving it is becoming harder and harder to justify.

Here's the full "Freeways Without Futures" list, issued as part of a joint venture between CNU and the Center for Neighborhood Technology called the Highways to Boulevards Initiative:

  1. Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle, WA
  2. Sheridan Expressway, New York, NY
  3. The Skyway and Route 5, Buffalo, NY
  4. Route 34, New Haven, CT
  5. Claiborne Expressway, New Orleans, LA
  6. Interstate 81, Syracuse, NY
  7. Interstate 64, Louisville, KY
  8. Route 29, Trenton, NJ
  9. Gardiner Expressway, Toronto, ON
  10. 11th Street Bridges and the Southeast Freeway, Washington D.C.

Previous highway-to-boulevard conversions have succeeded in cities from New York to San Francisco to Seoul, often in the face of opposition from carmaggedon-predicting doomsayers. More from CNU President John Norquist on why freeway removal makes sense, after the jump.

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Fact Check: Congestion Pricing is Not a “Regressive Tax”

fidler_facts.jpg

One of the most oft-repeated slams against congestion pricing we heard at this week's Congestion Mitigation Committee hearings is that congestion pricing would be a "regressive tax," an unfair burden to poorer New Yorkers.

Is congestion pricing regressive? The data suggests otherwise.

As the chart above shows, even in Brooklyn Council member Lew Fidler's heavily auto-dependent district, households with a car earn more than twice the income than households without. Meanwhile, only 5.3% of workers living in Fidler's distrit drive to work in Manhattan south of 86th Street (unfortunately, Fidler is probably one of them). Fact sheets for Richard Brodsky, Vivian Cook, Denny Farrell, Jeffrey Dinowitz and other congestion pricing opponents' districts are equally revealing and very much worth a download. Cook, for example, represents a Queens district where only 3.5% of workers drive into the proposed charging zone for work.

In testimony before the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign argued the point. From this week's Mobilizing the Region:

Some anti-pricing politicians seem to have dressed up for Halloween as populists defending “working stiffs” from a “regressive tax” on driving. But an analysis of Census data by TSTC and the Pratt Center for Community Development shows that, in all but one State Assembly district in NYC, vehicle-owning households are 50% wealthier than households without a vehicle; in nearly half of districts, average income is twice as high.

Furthermore, only a small minority of commuters drive alone to the proposed congestion pricing zone (CPZ); this is true not only in Manhattan but in the outer boroughs and the surrounding suburban counties. For example, only 5.1% of workers from Rockland County drive alone to the proposed CPZ. In Westchester, 3.4% of workers drive alone to the CPZ. In Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the percentages are even lower.

Fact sheets containing a breakdown of commuting patterns by mode and destination, vehicle ownership statistics, and the average incomes of vehicle-owning households and non-vehicle-owning households are available online. The fact sheets cover counties and City Council, state Assembly, state Senate, and U.S. Congressional districts in the New York metropolitan area.

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Who Are Anti-Pricing Pols Really Looking Out For?

Responding to some politicians' claims that congestion pricing is a "regressive tax" that would impact "working stiffs" who must drive to their jobs, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Pratt Center for Community Development have compiled data, broken down by district, showing that the vast majority of commuters in New York City and surrounding counties would not be affected by a congestion pricing fee. In district after district, the stats show that most people either work somewhere other than the proposed pricing zone or commute to the CBD via transit, carpooling or other means. Fact sheets are available for City Council, State Assembly and Senate, and US Congressional districts.

Also included is a handy breakdown of the income differential between households that have a car (or cars) and those that don't, again showing that car owners are usually significantly wealthier than their transit-dependent neighbors.

This data will be very useful to take your local elected official during the upcoming public hearings:

Council District 23
Councilmember David I. Weprin
Democrat Representing Queens

State Assembly District 81
Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz
Democrat Representing Bronx

dinowitz.jpg

 

The prevailing pattern holds true in anti-pricing Congressman Anthony Weiner's district as well, where just 5% of commuters use their private vehicles to travel to the proposed congestion pricing zone.