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Posts from the "U.S. DOT" Category

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Dueling Forecasts: Does the Energy Dept. Know Something U.S. DOT Doesn’t?

Tony Dutzik is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Group. This article was originally posted on the Frontier Group’s blog.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) — the data and analytical wing of the Energy Department — is out today with a fascinating analysis of changing driving trends and their implications for America’s energy future. The analysis, part of the EIA’s annual package of forecasts called the “Annual Energy Outlook,” reviews recent changes in demographic, economic, technological and other factors affecting the number of miles Americans drive.

It also serves as a telling contrast to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s own recent forecast of vehicle travel, presented in the biennial “Conditions and Performance” report.

We’ve criticized the U.S. DOT before for regularly overshooting the mark when it comes to forecasting vehicle travel, exaggerating the need for spending on highway expansion and maintenance. The EIA report, on the other hand, takes a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to forecasting than the DOT’s reliance on untrustworthy state data and straight-line projections. It also gives us some key indications of what slower VMT growth might mean for our energy future.

DOT is from Mars, EIA is from Venus – Diverging Forecasts

The EIA and DOT have very different thoughts about how the future will play out when it comes to trends in driving. The DOT forecasts an immediate resumption of rates of vehicle travel growth that haven’t been seen for a decade, while the EIA assumes that, while driving might pick up again soon, it also might not, and that, to the extent driving does increase in the future, it is likely to grow way more slowly than it did during the post-war Driving Boom. This is the case we made in our 2013 report, A New Direction.

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Sec. Foxx: Bicycle Infrastructure Can Be a “Ladder of Opportunity”

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won't stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the ##http://www.bikeleague.org/content/sec-foxx-shares-support-bikes##Bike League##

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won’t stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the Bike League

This morning, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s blog post is all about bicycling. He opens by touting the complete streets policy he helped implement in Charlotte (it passed before he was mayor) and the city’s bike-share system — the largest in the Southeast.

His post follows on his speech yesterday to the National Bike Summit, which began with this frank admission: “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, became the darling of the bike movement when he stood on a table at the 2010 Summit and affirmed his commitment to safe cycling, later declaring “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Foxx’s speech was less fiery but showed his commitment to the issue. He mentioned that he himself had been the victim of a crash while jogging in Charlotte, and while he wasn’t hurt, he’s aware how lucky he was that it didn’t turn out differently.

“All across our country, every day, there are accidents and injuries — and unfortunately sometimes even fatalities — that occur among the bicycle and pedestrian communities,” Foxx told the Summit audience. “I didn’t tolerate it as a mayor. And as U.S. secretary of transportation we certainly won’t stand still and allow this crisis to slowly build up over time.”

“Our roads should be safe,” he went on. “They should be easy places to travel no matter how we are traveling on them.”

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: U.S. DOT Fails to Get Travel Forecasting Right

The U.S. Department of Transportation seems to be stuck in a bizarre time warp.  For nine years in a row Americans have decreased their average driving miles. Yet U.S. DOT’s most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation’s transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030.

Times have changed. Why hasn't DOT gotten the memo? Image: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/5124536635/##Flickr/James Vaughan##

Times have changed. Why hasn’t DOT gotten the memo? Image: Flickr/James Vaughan

Just how out of whack is that forecast? Consider the following:

  • Vehicle travel hasn’t increased by even 1 percent in any year since 2004. Yet the U.S. DOT assumes that driving will increase at a rate significantly faster than that every year on average through 2030.
  • The new report uses for one of its two scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999.
  • In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn’t even get the past right. The report “projects” (based on 2010 data) that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone.

Why should we care about all this? With transportation funds increasingly scarce — and especially with Congress due to reauthorize the nation’s transportation law — policy-makers need good guidance about where to invest. A sensible approach, especially given the recent decline in driving and increasing demand for transit, would be to plow a greater share of those limited resources into expanding access to public transportation and active transportation modes while focusing highway spending on fixing our existing roads and bridges.

Instead, the U.S. DOT’s travel forecast is used as justification to propose a dramatic increase in highway spending to fund all the new and expanded highways that the DOT presumes we’ll need to accommodate all of those imagined new cars and drivers. The agency asserts that the nation would need to spend between $124 billion and $146 billion each year to maintain and improve the highway system — numbers that are sure to find their way immediately into highway lobby press releases and be repeatedly cited in congressional hearings.

What makes the DOT forecast so bewildering is that the agency — elsewhere in the very same document — acknowledges the strong possibility that many of the factors that have caused the recent drop in driving may be long-lasting. The report states:

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The Revolving Door Spins Again: LaHood Joins DLA Piper

When former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced earlier this month that he was going to co-chair Building America’s Future, I thought, “well that seems like a good place for him, but it’s not going to make his wife happy.” Mrs. LaHood has famously been needling him for years to get out of public office and make some money in the private sector.

Former DOT Secretary Ray LaHood will now be a lobbyist policy adviser at one of the biggest law firms in the world. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Looks like he’s getting right on that. He announced this week that he’s got a second gig lined up — this time, as a senior adviser at DLA Piper, one of the 10 largest law firms in the world. The firm doesn’t do much lobbying on transportation, though over the last few years it’s done $630,000 worth of business with Northeast MAGLEV, a Japanese-backed company that wants to build high-speed magnetic levitation trains on the Northeast Corridor.

Despite his abiding interest in high-speed rail, LaHood will not, apparently, be lobbying his former U.S. DOT colleagues on Northeast MAGLEV’s behalf, since revolving door rules prevent such a thing — though technically, he can lobby his old colleagues in Congress any time he wants.

A spokesperson for LaHood has made it clear that as a policy adviser, lobbying won’t be in his job description.

James Hood at Consumer Affairs rolls his eyes at this, saying President Obama’s ethics rules leave too much room for government officials to use position titles like “lawyer” and “policy adviser” to do lobbying that would otherwise be banned. “You can, in other words, make a big show of closing the front door but it doesn’t do much good if the side door remains wide open,” Hood said.

Joan DeBoer, LaHood’s chief of staff at U.S. DOT, is making the move with him.

NHTSA chief David Strickland is also taking advantage of the revolving door, landing a plum job at Venable, LLP, a lobbying law firm that deals with auto regulation.

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What If There Was No Highway, Transit, or Rail Agency — Just U.S. DOT?

Former UMTA and FTA administrators, from left: Frank Herringer, Bob Patricelli, Ted Lutz, Al DelliBovi, Brian Clymer, Gordon Linton, Jenna Dorn, Jim Simpson, and current administrator Peter Rogoff at the podium. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Former UMTA and FTA administrators, from left: Frank Herringer, Bob Patricelli, Ted Lutz, Al DelliBovi, Brian Clymer, Gordon Linton, Jenna Dorn, Jim Simpson, and current administrator Peter Rogoff at the podium. Photo: Tanya Snyder

“Highway people like highways, transit people like transit, rail people like rail,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said yesterday at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. “But our transportation system should be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Foxx wasn’t the first to lament the atomization of the various modes at the federal level. Just this morning, in a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff touted the agency’s efforts at “tearing away federal stovepipes” but said “coordination is still a problem at the federal level.”

Rogoff knows better than anyone that to some degree, those stovepipes are necessary — and that if they’re torn away completely, transit has the most to lose.

After all, just yesterday Rogoff moderated a panel at TRB comprised of eight of his predecessors at the FTA (and its precursor, the Urban Mass Transit Administration). And he asked them whether it made sense to consolidate the modal agencies — presumably not just highways, transit and rail but also aviation, pipelines, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and others.

“Is it time to do away with modal silos?” Rogoff asked.

“Every administration kicks around the idea of combining everything into one agency,” admitted Brian Clymer, who presided over the agency from 1989 to 1993.

The Department of Transportation has only been one, unified agency since 1967, when the various pre-existing modal agencies were brought under one roof. Before that, some were housed under separate cabinet departments like Commerce or Agriculture.

Maintaining separate agencies under one department is probably as much unity as is called for, the former administrators agreed. First of all, whenever you have such technical knowledge, “you’re always going to have some degree of specialization,” Clymer said — and there’s nothing wrong with that. The people who know the sweet spot for streetcar headways aren’t necessarily the foremost experts on warm-mix asphalt. But that doesn’t mean they can’t talk to each other — and it certainly doesn’t mean that planning should happen in isolation.

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Secretary Foxx Pledges to Make Bike/Ped Safety a Priority

Pedestrian crash statistics aren’t just numbers to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. He himself was the victim of one of those crashes once, while out jogging. “I got lucky,” he told a packed room at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board today. “But there are lots of people out there that aren’t so lucky.”

Sec. Anthony Foxx announced his transportation priorities today, including an increased focus on safety for modes that historically get ignored. Photo by Nancy Pierce, ##http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/blog/queen_city_agenda/2013/02/anthony-foxx-jerry-orr-share-a-happy.html?s=image_gallery##Charlotte Business Journal##

Sec. Anthony Foxx announced his transportation priorities today, including an increased focus on safety for modes that historically get ignored. Photo by Nancy Pierce, Charlotte Business Journal

He said he saw an uptick in the number of pedestrians and bicyclists injured on the roads while he was mayor of Charlotte — and that these numbers are trending upward not just in that city, but around the country. “So over my tenure as secretary of transportation you can expect me to focus some attention on pedestrian and bicycle safety,” he said.

TRB is a major event that draws several thousand transportation professionals and academics from around the world.

Foxx said that after a recent airplane trip, his 9-year-old daughter brought him her list of transportation priorities (including bigger airplane bathrooms and no ear popping) and he figured if his daughter had already announced her transportation priorities, maybe he should do the same.

One of those priorities is to “look out for modes that traditionally don’t get much attention” like bicycling and walking.

The secretary highlighted equity not just among modes, but among people of different incomes. He said transportation should connect everyone, no matter where they live, to the 21st century economy:

I happen to know what happens when that doesn’t happen. Growing up in my hometown of Charlotte, I saw the indent of a highway loop that separated one part of the city from its central business district, and another highway project that divided a neighborhood in half, creating more stress on already stressed communities.

Foxx also highlighted the power of transportation to shape our communities. “I don’t think transportation should just help us get places better,” he said. “It should help us make places better — and help improve the quality of life of people all across our country.”

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TIGER Funding Gets 20 Percent Boost in Final 2014 Spending Bill

We’re less than a third of the way through fiscal year 2014 and we already have a budget! Well, almost — the president still has to sign it. But the House and Senate unveiled the details of the omnibus budget bill yesterday, and just having a complete bill that both parties and both chambers have agreed to is a pretty big deal.

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski said the omnibus bill takes the transportation budget and other functions of government off "autopilot" for the first time since 2011. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa_goddard/5613807476/?welcome##NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr##

Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski said the omnibus bill takes the transportation budget and other functions of government off “autopilot” for the first time since 2011. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr

For the past few years, Congress has been unable to agree on a budget, so funding levels have essentially been frozen in place, and then various deals and sequesters have taken slices out without much strategy or forethought. “For the first time since 2011, no mission of our government will be left behind on autopilot,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski in a statement, noting that all 12 sections of the bill are complete.

The results for multi-modal transportation programs [PDF] are better than we’ve grown accustomed to. TIGER gets a 20 percent jump, from $500 million in 2013 to $600 million in 2014. The $500 million translated into $474 million in grants last year, with some taken out for planning and administration. A staffer said that $20 million of the 2014 amount is earmarked for planning, though some of that could go to help grantee communities with their planning.

Amtrak gets $1.39 billion — about $80 million more than last year, but the money comes with strings attached. The bill includes “policy reforms” for Amtrak, including overtime limits for employees and a prohibition on federal support for routes where Amtrak offers a discount of 50 percent or more off normal, peak fares — except where the loss from the discount is covered by the state and the state participates in setting the fares.

There’s nothing for high-speed rail. The Office of Sustainable Communities and its Integrated Planning and Investment Grants (formerly known as Regional Planning and Community Challenge grants) are also zeroed out.

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NHTSA Chief David Strickland Gets Caught in the Revolving Door

When David Strickland announced last month that he was stepping down as the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he didn’t give any clues about where he might be going. The news came out this week: The nation’s top auto regulator is going to be a lobbyist at a law firm that deals with auto regulation, raising concerns that he’s going through the revolving door between the public and private sector, more to the benefit of industry than the public.

Will the nation's top auto safety watchdog become a lobbyist for the auto industry? Photo: ##http://www.autoweek.com/article/20110620/carnews/110629985##Auto Week##

Will the nation’s top auto safety watchdog become a lobbyist for the auto industry? Photo: Auto Week

At Venable, LLP — also known for fighting the government moratorium on offshore drilling after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster — Strickland will work on government relations (a fancy term for lobbying) as part of the firm’s regulatory group, which represents many major automakers on a variety of matters — “including some before NHTSA,” as The Detroit News notes.

In an interview with the LegalTimes blog, Strickland said he’s excited to work on legal issues surrounding self-driving cars and other emerging technologies.

Venable’s Venerable Clients in the Automotive Industry

Venable represents the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the National Auto Auction Association, the National Automotive Finance Association, and other industry groups — and those are just the nonprofits, which are the only clients Venable lists publicly. Consumer Affairs notes that “Venable has billed $1.1 million for its services to Chrysler over the last five years.”

“Venable’s automotive industry attorneys represent auto industry players in litigation and transactions work across the country,” the law firm’s website boasts. “We have been part of the industry for years, and we have worked through every industry issue with every type of industry player.”

The firm claims credit for “winning the 10-year environmental battle to build Utah’s Legacy Parkway,” helping UDOT get wetlands and other permits to build a four-lane highway along the Great Salt Lake despite court challenges by concerned environmental groups.

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Trucks and Cities Are Like Oil and Water. Is There a Solution?

This freight truck killed 73-year-old pedestrian Ngozi Agbim in Brooklyn this June. Photo: Daily News via ##http://www.streetsblog.org/2013/06/25/ngozi-agbim-73-killed-by-truck-driver-at-crash-prone-brooklyn-intersection/##Streetsblog NYC##

This freight truck killed 73-year-old pedestrian Ngozi Agbim in Brooklyn this June. Photo: Daily News via Streetsblog NYC

About 350 pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are killed each year by large trucks in this country. Big freight trucks are incompatible with cities in many ways, bringing danger, pollution, noise, and traffic congestion. They park in bike lanes and have shockingly big blind spots, putting everyone around them at risk. And yet, most cities haven’t found a way to reconcile the need to move goods with all their other priorities.

Meanwhile, as more and more cities prioritize walkability and bike-friendliness, they often neglect the task of reconfiguring freight logistics.

As part of the MAP-21 transportation bill, U.S. DOT convened a Freight Advisory Committee to help inform the creation of a national strategic plan for freight transportation. One of the advisory panel’s six subcommittees focuses on the first mile/last mile problem, but even that one subcommittee is reportedly more concerned with port access than delivery issues at the destination. The interplay between urban freight transportation and smart growth is far from a core focus of the committee.

It should be a top priority for urbanists and complete streets advocates, though. If we don’t help cities plan for freight movement, what we’ll get is unplanned freight movement, and all the chaos that comes with it. About 80 percent of freight in cities is delivered by trucks, and those trucks pose a significant threat to livability.

Loading and unloading slows traffic and takes up street space. When businesses do have dedicated loading docks, they reduce available space for the business and for the pedestrian activity that enlivens urban spaces. Then there’s noise pollution, air pollution, and safety concerns.

And yet, our cities run on the goods these hulking trucks deliver — and the garbage they take away. (Yes, trash pick-up is a freight question too.)

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Silver Lining to the U.S. DOT Shakeup: Barbara McCann Joins the Team

The loss of Polly Trottenberg and John Porcari from U.S. DOT was a blow for livability advocates. But into the void has slipped Barbara McCann, an architect of the Complete Streets movement. McCann starts Monday as the new director of the Office of Safety, Energy and Environment in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation.

Barbara McCann, shown here talking to former Sec. Ray LaHood, starts work at U.S. DOT on Monday. Photo: ##http://www.bmccann.net/##McCann Consulting##

Barbara McCann, shown here talking to former Sec. Ray LaHood, starts work at U.S. DOT on Monday. Photo: McCann Consulting

“That’s a mouthful,” she said in an email to colleagues, “but I’ll be responsible for overseeing the Department’s strategic planning process and will help set Departmental policies, plans and guidelines relating to safety and environmental sustainability (and much more).”

McCann helped popularize the term “complete streets” while working at America Bikes in 2003, and with several other organizations, started the National Complete Streets Coalition in 2005. She left the coalition in June 2012 to write a book about building political and community support for complete streets. The book, Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, came out this fall. The new job at DOT will cut short her book promotion efforts, but the Coalition — now officially a program of Smart Growth America — will continue to use it.

There are now well over 500 complete streets policies in states, cities and towns around the United States. While these policies don’t translate into better walking, biking and transit overnight, they commit planners and transportation officials to at least consider non-motorized modes when engineering a street.

Transportation reformers and smart growth advocates can look forward to seeing a very friendly face when dealing with the Office of the Secretary at DOT. Let’s hope all of their hiring decisions during this upheaval are as wise as this one!