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Time’s Up: 6 Things to Know About Today’s Transpo Showdown (UPDATED)

UPDATE 2:40 p.m.: The House has rejected the Senate amendment, as expected.

Today is the House of Representatives’ last day in session before departing for an August recess full of photo ops and electioneering in their districts. The Senate will stick around DC for one more day before going home. Before that happens, the two houses have to come together on a plan to keep the Highway Trust Fund going. If not, U.S. DOT will have to take drastic measures.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker disagrees with the House GOP on when the bill should expire and how to pay for a new one.

Both the House and the Senate have voted on not entirely dissimilar plans to keep the fund going. But the differences between them have set up a high-stakes showdown that has to be resolved by tomorrow.

Here are the key points:

    1. The timing: The House is expected to vote on the Senate bill today at about 3:00 p.m. and is expected to refuse to budge. Then they’ll leave town, meaning the Senate can either cave or be blamed as the Highway Trust Fund goes dry before August recess ends and transportation works grind to a halt. Meanwhile, Sec. Anthony Foxx has warned state DOTs that federal payments will slow down August 1 — that’s tomorrow — if Congress doesn’t take action to keep the Fund from going insolvent.
    2. The numbers: The House is gloating that the Senate’s bill contains a $2 billion technical error — which is true; it comes up with just $6.2 billion of the $8.1 billion needed — but Senate Democrats say it can be easily fixed.
    3. The urgency: Since summer is the high season for construction, the real pressure on the Highway Trust Fund is between now and the end of the year, when states will need to get reimbursed for the work that’s going on now. That’s why there’s not a huge monetary difference between the House proposal that lasts till May and the Senate proposal that ends in December. There’s just not a lot of cash going out the door at U.S. DOT between January and May.
    4. The conflict: The House and Senate disagree on what budget gimmicks to use to “pay for” the transfer into the trust fund, but more fundamentally they disagree about how long the patch should be. As we’ve reported before, Boxer prefers a December deadline, saying it’s unfair for this Congress to fail to fix a problem that occurred on its watch and instead kick it to the next Congress. What she means is that she wants her six-year bill to pass and that won’t happen after the end of this year if the GOP wins a majority in the Senate and she loses the chairmanship of the EPW Committee. That’s precisely why the House is gunning for a May deadline.
    5. The breakdown: The Senate Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic as the House about having to take this up when they’re in charge. Thirteen Rs joined the Ds in pushing for a December sunset, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who wants to raise the gas tax and be done already. “Wouldn’t it be great to finish 2014 actually solving one issue; taking one issue off the plate next year?” he said yesterday at a WSJ press breakfast. Only one Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, voted no on Boxer’s date-change amendment. Notably, David Vitter, the ranking member on the EPW Committee, who has shown great bipartisan unity with Boxer, broke with her on this and voted to essentially flush their six-year-bill down the toilet. His predecessor, James Inhofe, voted in favor of Boxer’s December 19 deadline.
    6. The fallout: If the GOP does win the Senate in 2014, the conventional wisdom says they’ll lose it again in 2016. Will the Republicans really want to take on a tax increase of any kind during the only two years when they’ll get the lion’s share of the blame? Of course not. The prognosis is that if there’s no long-term bill this term, it’ll be another three years. Three more years of patchwork funding gimmicks is nothing to look forward to.
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“Safe Routes” Goes Global With the Model School Zone Project

"Please give us a safe route to school." This picture of a 9-year-old girl in Vietnam helped catalyze street improvements. All photos courtesy of Safe Streets Worldwide

“Please give us a safe route to school.” This picture of a 9-year-old girl in Vietnam helped catalyze street improvements. All photos courtesy of Safe Kids Worldwide

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

To get to Seoul Gumsan Elementary School in South Korea, students have to cross a heavily trafficked road with a blind curve. Between 2009 and 2010, 89 children were injured and one killed in 86 traffic crashes near the school.

Seoul Gumsan then had the good fortune to become part of the international Model School Zone program, which chose 10 schools in 10 countries to showcase how better infrastructure and education could help keep kids safe on their way to and from school.

To make Seoul Gumsan safer, Safe Kids Korea, in conjunction with Safe Kids Worldwide, painted a mural on the side of the school to clue drivers in to the fact that they were in a school zone. They also installed skid-proof pavement on the road, since they found that cars often skidded in wintry conditions. In conjunction with directional road signs and other traffic calming measures, the average vehicle speed near the school went down by nearly half, from 34 kilometers per hour (21 mph) to about 18 kph (11 mph).

Near the Seoul Gumsan Elementary School in South Korea, before and after Model School Zone street treatments.

Near the Seoul Gumsan Elementary School in South Korea, before and after Model School Zone street treatments.

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Want to Improve Traffic Safety? Let People Get Around Without Driving

This ad is being aired across Missouri to convince voters to OK a three-quarter-cent sales tax that would raise $5.4 billion for transportation projects — mostly highways — over 10 years. The spots have been airing heavily in the run-up to the August 5 election, supported by millions of dollars from construction companies that hope to cash in.

It was smart of the construction lobby to zero in on the issue of safety, says Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns. But will spending billions on highway expansion make anyone safer? Marohn doesn’t think so:

We can have a lot of conversation about what makes a transportation system safe — and we have had that conversation here in multiple ways – but few people ever talk about the safest option: reducing the amount people are forced to drive.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Obama Urges Transpo Bill Before Recess as Congress Squabbles Over Details (The Hill, WSJ)
  • WaPo Thinks Senate Bill Is Better of Two Flawed Options
  • Is Streetcar Totally Dead for San Antonio? (TPR)
  • For a Nationwide Infrastructure Plan, Congress Should Be Talking About Broadband (CityLab)
  • Protected Bike Lanes Would Be Easier to Build Under New California Law (Next City)
  • How Will Fairfax County Capitalize on the Silver Line? (Falls Church News-Press)
  • Grants to Boost TOD in Minneapolis (Finance & Commerce)
  • In Brazil, Past Tragedy Fuels Bike Boom (Next City)
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Will Missouri Voters Go Along With the Highway Lobby’s Money Grab?

Next week, Missouri voters will decide on Amendment 7 — a three-quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for transportation projects that would be the largest tax increase in the state’s history. Construction industry groups have poured millions into convincing Missourians to pay $5.4 billion over the next 10 years. Will they bite?

A coalition of pro-transit forces is urging them not to. Thomas Shrout, a long-time St. Louis transit advocate, is heading the opposition, a group called Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions. Shrout says the tax fails on a number of levels.

For one, 85 percent of the money would be spent on roads. Only 7 percent would go to transit and a small portion would go toward local governments.

“It’s just out of proportion,” said Shrout.

Highway capacity in slow-growing Missouri is already abundant. Compared to other American cities, Kansas City and St. Louis rank near the top in highway miles per capita. Driving has been declining nationwide and Missouri’s population grew less than 1 percent over the last 13 years.

So why the push to raise taxes to build new roads? Follow the money. “Just about every major [engineering and construction] firm in the country has given to the Yes campaign,” Shrout told Streetsblog.

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Streetsblog Chicago 32 Comments

Study: To Keep Bicyclists Outside the Door Zone, You Need a Buffer

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A buffered bike lane does a better job of encouraging bicyclists to ride outside the door zone than a wide bike lane. Photo: John Greenfield

A new study has found that bike lanes with a buffer next to the parking lane are better than conventional bike lanes at encouraging bicyclists to ride outside the door zone.

The study, recently published by the Transportation Research Board, concludes that wider but un-buffered bike lanes aren’t necessarily better than narrower lanes in encouraging bicyclists to ride outside the door zone. If there’s enough space to make a wider bike lane, the authors conclude, that extra space should be used to install a “narrower bicycle lane with a parking-side buffer,” which “provides distinct advantages over a wider bike lane with no buffer.”

Researchers reached their conclusions after observing thousands of cyclists using various bike lane configurations in Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts. On one Chicago street, for example, few bicyclists rode outside the door zone when the bike lane had no buffer, then after a two-foot buffer was striped, 40 percent rode outside the door zone.

Bicyclists are more likely to ride outside the door zone in a buffered bike lane than any other bike lane width studied.

Bicyclists are much more likely to ride outside the door zone in a buffered bike lane than in any other bike lane width studied.

That’s because the door zone is four feet wide, and riding in the center of a six-foot-wide bike lane still doesn’t give a cyclist enough clearance.

The on-street tests demonstrated that a six-foot-wide bike lane offers no advantage over one that’s five feet wide, or even four feet wide. Regardless of the width, bicyclists still ride in the center of the lane — within the radius of a typical car door swinging open. Dooring crashes are common in urban areas like Chicago: In 2012, the last year for which data is available, 18 percent of reported bike crashes were doorings.

The researchers were studying different types of bike lanes, and how people use them, in order to refine recommendations in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ ”Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities.” The guide recommends five-foot-wide bike lanes and says four-foot-wide bike lanes can be used in other situations — but it was based on trial and error, not scientific research.

While protected bike lanes weren’t studied in this research, the authors’ observations show how proximity to moving traffic contributes to doorings. For instance, the study concluded that, “as traffic volume increases, bicyclists move away from vehicles in the travel lane and position themselves closer to parked vehicles or the curb.” Researchers observed the same response as truck traffic increased. This leads bicyclists to ride in the door zone — but with protected lanes, cyclists don’t have to ride next to motor vehicle traffic, and this isn’t a problem.

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Buenos Aires: Building a People-Friendly City

Buenos Aires is fast becoming one of the most admired cities in the world when it comes to reinventing streets and transportation.

Just over a year ago, the city launched MetroBus BRT (constructed in less than seven months) on 9 de Julio Avenue, which may be the world’s widest street. The transformation of four general traffic lanes to exclusive bus lanes has yielded huge dividends for the city and is a bold statement from Mayor Mauricio Macri about how Buenos Aires thinks about its streets. More than 650,000 people now ride MetroBus every day, and it has cut commutes in the city center from 50-55 minutes to an incredible 18 minutes.

That’s not the only benefit of this ambitious project. The creation of MetroBus freed up miles of narrow streets that used to be crammed with buses. Previously, Buenos Aires had some pedestrian streets, but moving the buses to the BRT corridor allowed the administration to create a large network of shared streets in downtown where pedestrians rule. On the shared streets, drivers aren’t permitted to park and the speed limit is an astonishingly low 10 km/h. Yes, that is not a misprint — you’re not allowed to drive faster than 6 mph!

Bicycling has also increased rapidly in the past four years — up from 0.5 percent mode share to 3 percent mode share and climbing. Ecobici is the city’s bike-share system which is expanding to 200 stations in early 2015. Oh, and add this amazing fact: Ecobici is free for all users for the first hour.

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Senate Tees Up Last-Minute Showdown on Transpo Funding

With just two work days left before the federal transportation funding source dips into the red, Congress is moving toward a high-stakes showdown over how to close the gap.

Yesterday the Senate passed a bill to transfer $8 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund, which would keep things running until December 19 — meaning the next deal would be struck before a new Congress is seated. The House, meanwhile, has a different idea — using unpopular budget gimmicks to extend transportation funding until May 31, when both houses of Congress may be controlled by the GOP.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the Senate bill is an improvement in a few ways:

Late Tuesday evening, the Senate modified and approved a measure transferring about $8 billion from the general fund to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent until the end of the year. But because two amendments were made, it’ll return to the House for further action before any final deal can be approved on postponing insolvency of the nation’s transportation program. The House will have to act fast: the long August recess is scheduled to begin in just three days.

Conventional wisdom had held that the Senate would adopt the House-passed bill as-is so they could finish up well before recess begins later this week. However, a strong bipartisan group supported amendments to eliminate the most controversial accounting gimmick and cut the length of the patch in half to keep the pressure on to find a long-term fix as soon as possible.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Will the Senate Cave to the House’s Transpo Bill? (The Hill, Fiscal Times)
  • Streetcars Winning Chase for Federal Transit Funds (Roll Call)
  • Maryland Opens Bidding for Purple Line (WaPo)
  • Transit Agencies Get Creative With Real Estate By Rail Lines (WSJ)
  • NACTO Guide Gives Minneapolis Flexibility (MinnPost)
  • High-Speed Rail Could Link Twin Cities, Rochester (AP)
  • Tucson Streetcar Carried 3,500 Riders on First Day (Tucson Sentinel)
  • Sales Tax Vote Could Bring Light Rail, Other Transit Upgrades to Tampa (Tampa Bay Times)
  • Guardian UK: It’s Tough to Right-Size Density
  • Public Ridesharing Thrives in Birmingham, But Uber Might Be Blocked (AL.com)
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Houston’s Plan to Make “Bicycle Interstates” Out of Its Utility Network

The blue lines show trails planned as part of the Bayou Greenways system. Image: Utility Line Bike & Hike Trails

Rights-of-way controlled by the Houston utility company CenterPoint (the dotted lines) could combine with trails planned as part of the Bayou Greenways system (the blue lines) to create a grid of off-street biking and walking routes covering much of the city. Map: Utility Line Bike & Hike Trails

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

Long lanes of grass alongside power lines are almost as ubiquitous in Houston as highways. There are roughly 500 miles of high-voltage utility rights-of-way criss-crossing the city, and they’re mostly just dead spaces, forming weedy barriers between neighborhoods.

What could the city do if it repurposed these underused spaces? Inspired by an article in Rice University’s Cite Magazine, Alyson Fletcher decided to write her master’s thesis at the Cornell University landscape architecture program on that question. She drafted a proposal to turn these linear, grassy areas into a “recreational super-highway” — and it’s starting to look like a real possibility.

In May, the city inked an agreement with CenterPoint Energy, owner of some 500 miles of utility rights-of-way across Houston. The agreement provides the city with free access to these spaces, some 140 of which are high-voltage lines with very tall towers and wide rights of way, which are well suited for trails.

For years, city and state leaders had struggled to overcome liability concerns on the part of the energy provider. Who would be responsible if someone was injured? CenterPoint didn’t want to be that party. So Texas lawmakers got together last year and passed a law resolving the liability issue for CenterPoint.

Designers at Rice University, the University of Houston, and SWA Design Group estimate the project could cost about $100 million to complete. Community activist Michael Skelly has been leading tours of the utility areas for people who want to learn more about the proposal.

Besides the low cost of land acquisition, the project has another important selling point: It complements the Bayou Greenways plan. As we reported last week, Houston plans to add 300 miles of trails and 4,000 acres of parkland along its 10 major natural bayous. But since most of the bayous are oriented east-west, the plan has limitations from a transportation standpoint.

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