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Posts from the "State DOTs" Category

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As Driving Continues to Stagnate, Some States Finally Start to Adjust

The Maryland Department of Transportation expected driving to continue on an optimistic upward trend after the recession ended. Now the state is reconsidering. Image: SSTI

In 2009, the Maryland Department of Transportation projected that driving would start to increase again after the recession ended. After driving continued to stagnate, the state reconsidered its traffic forecast. Image: SSTI

Another year, another decline in per capita driving. For the ninth year in a row, the cumulative distance Americans drive is down, adjusting for population, according to new data from the Federal Highway Administration. Total driving by all Americans has fallen about 2 percent since 2007 — or 7 percent per capita — and is lower than it was in 2005.

But a decade of stagnant driving came and went without major adjustments at most state departments of transportation — the agencies responsible for spending tens of billions of dollars in federal transportation funds each year. The typical state DOT still makes decisions based on models that assume driving will continue to grow forever. The result is billions of dollars spent on unnecessary roads.

But there’s some positive news on that front this week. At long last, according to the research team at the State Smart Transportation Initiative, some states are starting to adjust their traffic projections to better reflect reality.

Chris McCahill at SSTI writes:

Maryland is an example of this trend. In 2009, the state’s long-range plan projected statewide VMT [vehicle miles traveled] growth of 2 percent per year through 2030 [pictured above]. The plan dismissed the recent decline as a temporary consequence of high fuel prices and the economic downturn, asserting, “there is no clear evidence that Marylanders will continue to drive less in the future.” However, in its updated plan released just last month, the agency has left out projections entirely, declaring that “a return to strong annual VMT growth is unlikely and per capita VMT [...] is actually decreasing.” A handful of other states have either dampened their projections or shifted their focus toward VMT reduction goals and transportation demand management efforts.

McCahill says most states are still projecting that driving will start rising steadily again soon, despite mounting evidence that the recent decline signifies a long-term trend. But some are starting to see the writing on the wall.

Read more…

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Why Is It Still So Hard to Find Out How States Are Spending Transpo Money?

Summary of Nationwide Findings for Bicycling and Walking Projects by Project Type. Image: Advocacy Advance

Based on available information, 88.7 percent of all state transportation projects include nothing for walking and biking. Image: Advocacy Advance

You would be lucky to get half as much information about a $5 million transportation project in your state as you can get from a toothpaste tube about how to brush.

That sad comparison comes from a new report by Advocacy Advance (a project of the League of American Bicyclists and the Alliance for Biking and Walking). The report — “Lifting the Veil on Bicycle & Pedestrian Spending: An Analysis of Problems & Priorities in Transportation Planning and What to Do About It” [PDF] — compares bike/ped spending in State Transportation Improvement Programs, the spending plans state DOTs have to publish at least once every four years.

Advocacy Advance took a look at bike/ped spending in all 50 states. Here's part of Ohio's scorecard. The state got two As, a B- and a D for data transparency. Image: Advocacy Advance

Advocacy Advance took a look at bike/ped spending in all 50 states. Here’s part of Ohio’s scorecard. Image: Advocacy Advance

While toothpaste directions average six sentences, the average state DOT project description is just one sentence.

And when trying to decipher how your state is spending millions of dollars on a given transportation project, you shouldn’t be surprised to come across something like this: “SH 28, SALMON SB, SHARED USE PATHWAYS, PHS I.” That’s all Idaho tells the public about how its transportation dollars are being spent.

“Generally, state advocates know about the STIP but they don’t see it as a useful place to put their time because there are so many issues with it,” said Ken McLeod, the author of the Advocacy Advance report. “It’s hard to produce data from it that’s actionable for them or their constituents. So there’s some frustration at the state and local level, knowing that there’s this document with great potential that’s unrealized.”

McLeod dug deep to determine what projects involved bike/ped spending. He separated out bike-only, ped-only, and bike-and-ped projects, and then separately categorized larger road projects with a bike/ped element. And he looked beyond DOTs’ “bike/ped” coding to determine for himself when a project invested in infrastructure for walking and biking.

Advocacy Advance used the data to produce scorecards for each of the 50 states. (Since the District of Columbia isn’t a state and so doesn’t have to produce a STIP, it was left out of the analysis.)

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Transpo Agencies Are Terrible at Predicting Traffic Levels

This chart contrasts state DOTs' projected traffic volumes with those actually recorded by the Federal Highway Administration. Image: ##http://www.ssti.us/2013/12/new-travel-demand-projections-are-due-from-u-s-dot-will-they-be-accurate-this-time/?utm_source=SSTI+Community+of+Practice+Master+List&utm_campaign=cbd2d0b53a-December_6_2013_newsletter12_16_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f54dd1d9a6-cbd2d0b53a-45447449## SSTI##

Combined traffic projections from state and regional transportation agencies (the colored lines) have been wildly off the mark (the black line shows real traffic levels) for more than a decade. Image: SSTI

Americans’ travel behavior is changing dramatically. It seems like not a week passes without a new report about the decline in driving. But are state and local transportation agencies — which are responsible for much of the nation’s highway and transportation planning — keeping up with the facts on the ground? A review of the evidence by the State Smart Transportation Initiative finds the answer is a definitive “No.”

Forecasts and assumptions about ever-increasing traffic are often used to justify agency decisions to expand roads. But these assumptions are increasingly divorced from reality. In fact, state and regional agencies aren’t just wrong some of the time. State DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations are getting it wrong every year, over and over again, by significant margins, according to SSTI’s analysis.

In their most recent reporting to the Federal Highway Administration, state and regional transportation agencies used data from 2008 to predict that traffic volumes would reach a combined 3.3 trillion miles nationally in 2012. Last year, a few months after that forecast was publicly released, real-world data already showed that the forecast wasn’t even close. Transportation agencies had collectively overestimated how many miles Americans would drive in 2012 by 11 percent. That is the equivalent of adding five “average-sized” states to the total, SSTI reports.

What’s worse, these wildly incorrect traffic assumptions are routinely used to justify costly road expansions.

SSTI reviewed every 20-year traffic forecast submitted by state and regional agencies to FHWA since 1999 (these predictions are in a document called the Conditions and Performance Report to Congress). It turns out that the 20-year projections overestimated future traffic volumes in every single year the reports could be compared against data on actual miles driven by Americans. The 1999 report, for example, overestimated actual driving in 2012 by a whopping 22 percent.

SSTI’s Eric Sundquist concluded that states and MPOs “generally have not updated their models and assumptions to account for current conditions, as if they expect the year to be 1980 forever.”

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It Could Cost More to Shut Down Cincy Streetcar Than Finish It

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory is frustrated that all his work to bring the streetcar to fruition might be for naught, now that anti-streetcar John Cranley has been elected to take his place. “I’m from the tough part of town,” Mallory joked. “I will take the guy in a dark alley. I’m not afraid to use the threat of physical violence.”

Streetcar project manager John Deatrick told Cincinnati's City Council today what it will cost to abandon the project now.

Streetcar project manager John Deatrick told Cincinnati’s City Council today what it will cost to abandon the project now. Add to that the money already spent and the returned federal grant and it climbs much higher.

All jokes aside — assuming Mallory was joking — it’ll cost the city of Cincinnati up to $125 million to halt progress on its streetcar project now — but that’s just what Mayor-elect John Cranley plans to do. It was his campaign promise.

“We’re going to have to keep this fight going,” Mallory said yesterday at Transportation for America’s re-launch event. “We’re probably going to have to go to court.”

Obstacles like this are extremely frustrating to local officials trying to improve their cities. At Tuesday’s event, a celebration of local control over transportation projects, the panel on “barriers to success” became a bit of a support group for Mallory.

“At the state level, I don’t have a partner on this project,” Mallory lamented. Well before he had John Cranley to worry about, he’s had to battle the state over transportation investment, regarding the streetcar and more. “My governor gave back $400 million to the federal government for high-speed rail and took away $52 million that a previous governor put into my streetcar project and spread that around the state for other highway projects.”

The story gets even worse. “Insult to injury,” Mallory said, “the state legislature in Ohio passed legislation specific to the Cincinnati streetcar project that you can’t get any state money for this project. And that’s an assault.”

“It’s punitive,” piped in Urban League CEO Marc Morial, in solidarity.

“For me, it’s not a matter of a lack of support,” Mallory said. “I have adversaries on this project. That doesn’t bode well if talking about the advancement of our region, driven at the local level.”

That was the theme of the day: Transportation for America is trying to empower mayors and other local leaders who are trying to innovate in their cities, adding transit and infrastructure that invites people to bike and walk more.

It’s probably safe to assume John Cranley won’t be joining T4America’s new alliance of innovative mayors. But Mallory is a natural. He listened to the 14 economic development studies that all came to the same conclusion: Cincinnati needed to link downtown with uptown and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. So he went to work rebuilding the streetcar network, which existed in his city from the 1860s until 1951, running on 220 miles of track. He can’t recreate that system overnight but he’s starting in the urban core, with the hope of bringing it outward to the neighborhoods.

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As Deadline Approaches, Amtrak’s Indy-Chicago Line Faces Cuts

Notices may soon start appearing at train stations around the United States warning of possible service disruptions as states struggle to finalize funding agreements with Amtrak. All “state-supported” Amtrak routes — those shorter than 750 miles — are up against an October 16 deadline to come up with state funds to support passenger rail operations under the 2008 PRIIA law. So far, only seven out of 19 agreements in 15 states with state-supported lines have hammered out final agreements.

Amtrak service from Indianapolis to Chicago is threatened as a new law takes effect next month. Image: WIBC Indianapolis

Under Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, ”states will pay more, [though] they will not pay 100 percent,” said Amtrak spokesperson Steve Kulm. Amtrak will continue to pay roughly 13 percent for state-supported routes, he said, but the amount will vary by route.

Most states seem on track to reach an agreement with Amtrak in time, although some states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, are still negotiating and may reach out to the Federal Railroad Administration for arbitration.

Indiana faces the most imminent threat to rail service, as Governor Mike Pence appears to be balking at the $3 million needed to maintain the Hoosier Line between Indianapolis and Chicago. The service, which makes one round trip four days a week, also serves a number of small towns and cities. The other three days of the week, Indianapolis-Chicago service is provided by the Cardinal Line, which runs between New York and Chicago and is not facing cuts. Rail advocates are troubled at the prospect of losing daily service, which would diminish the usefulness of the Chicago to Indianapolis route.

About 37,000 passengers use the line annually, costing the federal government about $3.1 million last year, according to WICB Indianapolis. Right now it appears state leaders in Indiana aren’t willing to take on that expense.

“Our position on this is that we’ve not been interested in investing in this solely, but if communities along the path are interested in investing in this, it’s a possibility,” Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, told the Post-Tribune.

Smaller local governments may want the train, but they’re not in a position to shoulder the cost. Stephen Wood, Mayor of Rensselaer, said his town of 6,000 can’t afford to take on the expense, although they value the service.

“The communities along that route really like that train,” said Dan Johnson of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “They want it to grow. They want three or four trains a day because they don’t want to be isolated.”

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is working with locals to “save the Hoosier line.” Indiana rail supporters are also concerned if the Hoosier shuts down it could affect an Amtrak repair facility in Beech Grove, which employs 550 people, on the south side of Indianapolis.

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Despite Texas DOT’s Shenanigans, El Paso Will Go Ahead With Bike-Share

El Paso bike-share is moving forward, despite Texas DOT’s attempt to kill the whole project. That’s the word today from a state representative in El Paso on the latest development in the city’s proposal for a 200-bike system.

The city of El Paso lined up approval and $2 million in federal and local funds to launch its bike-share system. But the whole project was threatened when TxDOT tried to pull funding last month. In the meantime, Streetsblog did a little investigating about whether the state of Texas actually has the authority to strip federal funds from a project that was approved by the metropolitan planning body as well as the Federal Highway Administration. TxDOT hasn’t responded — but in its own way, the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization has.

It was up to the El Paso MPO’s Transportation Policy Board to decide whether it would grant the state’s request to “deprogram” the bike-share plan and remove it from planning documents altogether. In a vote today, the board chose not to. It seems that the city can move forward with the plans without the state’s blessing.

But as the state representative’s tweet indicated above, there may be more drama to come.

Why does the state of Texas want to strip funding from El Paso’s bike share program? Streetsblog asked them three days ago and we’re still waiting for an answer. It may have something to do with the fact that Texas DOT continues to support unjustified $5 billion+ mega-highways, even though it doesn’t have the money to pay for them.

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Why Are State DOTs So Afraid of Accountability?

Deron Lovaas is the federal transportation policy director for NRDC. A version of this article appeared on his blog this morning.

In this era of constrained resources, the country must move toward performance-based management and accountability for results in all sectors — including transportation. It’s a Culture of Consequences, in the words of the RAND think tank.  We need to use all the new tools and technologies at our disposal to ensure we get good bang from every buck.

Florida Transportation Chief Ananth Prasad has a message for U.S. DOT: When it comes to performance measures, we prefer the toothless kind. Photo: Joe Burbank, Orland Sentinel

Tell that to state DOTs.

Ensuring that reforms are effective requires setting clear goals. A few years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center set out five goals for a sound transportation system: economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety. If our transportation officials made sure every dollar they spent was in the service of those core goals, we would see immediate reforms.

In recent years performance management has become common practice in many fields, including education and medicine. And now it is coming to transportation. RAND found that tying performance to incentives is necessary to improve the performance of government bureaucracies. As RAND bluntly puts it, reformers should “make the rewards or penalties big enough to matter.”

So imagine my dismay when grantees of the national transportation program – state transportation departments – launched what appears to be a concerted campaign this week against accountability. Their target: one sentence in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly proposed strategic plan for 2014-2018.

Specifically, the state DOTs were up in arms about the modest bit of progress encapsulated in this line on page 28: “[DOTs will] Use the system performance information to drive programmatic and legislative linkages between system performance and Federal funding.” This is in the chapter about achieving a state of good repair, one of the two measures that DOT and states can most readily implement since they already collect a lot of data on it. (The other one is safety). Seems like a logical place to start connecting incentives to performance goals.

But the state DOTs weren’t having it. A flurry of seemingly coordinated responses started populating U.S. DOT’s website.

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad posted the following “idea” on the DOT site: “Performance Measurement Must Not Be Linked To Funding.” Say what?

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Does Texas DOT Have the Authority to Kill Bike-Share in El Paso?

Just a few weeks ago, El Paso was all ready to go with a new bike-share network, or so it seemed. The city had lined up $400,000 in local funds from the city of El Paso, the University of Texas at El Paso and a grant from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The regional planning agency had unanimously signed off on awarding the project $1.6 million in federal transportation funds earmarked for air pollution reduction. Suburban communities had even started expressing interest in being added to the system.

TxDOT is trying to crush El Paso's bike share dreams. But does the agency have the authority? Image: El Paso Times

But last month the Texas Department of Transportation pulled the rug out. TxDOT told local and regional officials it did not support the use of federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds for the project. State officials have been coy about what they’d rather see the money spent on, but they haven’t backed down. And, not content to strip funding, TxDOT officials are now plowing ahead to “deprogram” the whole bike-share project altogether, removing it from contention for any kind of funding.

Bike advocates in the city have been taken aback. After all, TxDOT officials were part of the unanimous vote by the regional planning body to disperse the CMAQ money in May.

“How can TxDOT and the [El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy] Board ever expect the community to trust in the transparency of our public agencies when a program that was planned and approved through legitimate channels was then shelved by bureaucrats in favor of vague, unnamed, and unpublicized projects?” wrote Scott White, a board member at Velo Paso Bicycle-Pedestrian Coalition, in a letter to the planning organization’s board [PDF]. “The board must ask whether TxDOT overstepped its jurisdictional authority, and if so, was this the first time?”

I asked around about the legitimacy of TxDOT’s actions — whether the state agency does indeed have the authority to strip this regionally-approved project of federal funds. TxDOT apparently believes that bike-share isn’t an appropriate use of CMAQ funds. But FHWA’s Texas field office approved the expenditure in [PDF] in June. Furthermore, many bike-share programs around the country have benefited from CMAQ funding, including Washington’s Capital Bikeshare.

I asked Michael Medina, assistant director of the El Paso MPO, where TxDOT’s authority to veto the project comes from. He said: “I am not aware of any statuatory or regulatory power that they have.”

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Birmingham to Widen Downtown Highway While Other Cities Tear ‘Em Down

Downtown freeways are unmitigated disasters for cities. They ruin the development potential of central city neighborhoods and create dead zones that divide downtown areas. That’s why Milwaukee, San Francisco, New Orleans, Niagara Falls, Oklahoma City, New Haven and Syracuse have either torn them down or are seriously considering it.

I-20/59 through downtown Birmingham is set to be widened. Image: Al.com

But Birmingham, Alabama, is on track to take just the opposite approach. Under the advice of the Alabama Department of Transportation, Birmingham plans to widen its elevated downtown highway, I-20/59. ALDOT wants to spend $65 million widening 18 miles of this highway to six lanes at all points, based on the projection that traffic will grow 4 percent annually for the foreseeable future. (The project’s total cost, including redecking the highway, is $300 million.) The idea is to speed traffic through downtown on “Alabama’s busiest highway.” ALDOT also wants to widen a local road and remove some on ramps.

John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, recently criticized ALDOT’s proposal in local news site The Weld, saying “it definitely will not do anything good for Birmingham.”

Public opposition to the project is growing, even while political opposition has been lacking. More than 500 people have joined a Facebook group called Rethink 50/29. According to Mark Kelly, publisher of The Weld, the freeway revolt is attracting a growing number of businesses:

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The State of State Transit Funding

States increased their transit spending more than 5 percent between 2007 and 2011, reaching $13.9 billion annually, according to a recent report from the Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials. But that increase was concentrated in just a handful of states.

Top states for transit spending. Image: AASHTO

Almost all of the elevated transit spending — 92 percent — is attributable to five states: Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Alaska and the District of Columbia. Illinois more than doubled its previous transit outlays, increasing its annual transit expenditures by $734 million.

A total of 18 states increased their support for transit between 2007 and 2011, while 17 decreased support and 15 registered no change. Four states — Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii and Utah — do not fund transit at all.

If you look at how total state transit spending is distributed, again, the vast majority comes from just a handful of states. New York, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Illinois account for a total $11.4 billion in funding. In addition, these seven states collected about half of the available $10 billion in federal funding for transit in 2011, which is allocated by formula.

States draw their transit funding from a variety of sources, AASHTO reports. Half have rules against using gas tax revenues and motorist fees to support transit. Still, the second most common source of revenues was gas taxes; 14 states fund transit this way. The most common method of transit funding is through general fund expenditures, which 15 states use. Other states use license and registration fees or even lottery revenues.

In most states, the level of transit funding is completely overwhelmed by the amount of road spending.