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Posts from the "Highway Expansion" Category

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Wisconsin Responds to Public, Dumps Absurdly Wasteful Highway Project

Wisconsin's justification for the $125 million widening of rural Highway 38 was never very clear. Fortunately it looks like the state has dropped the project. Photo: America 2050

Wisconsin’s justification for the $125 million widening of rural Highway 38 was never very clear. Fortunately, the state has dropped the project. Photo: America 2050

“It is difficult to find any merit in the project at all.”

That’s what the Wisconsin Public Interest Group said about the proposed $125 million widening of Highway 38, outside Milwaukee, in a 2011 report [PDF].

The nine-mile rural road widening, from two lanes to four, was indeed a head scratcher. This area of the state is sparsely populated, surrounded by cabbage farms. What’s more, Highway 38 closely parallels Interstate-94.

“It is baffling why a major expansion should be a spending priority,” wrote WisPIRG’s Bruce Speight and Kyle Bailey.

But the Highway 38 road widening was nothing unusual for Wisconsin. The state is pursuing a plan to pour $6.2 billion into highway expansion in the slow-growing Milwaukee region. A review of plans by the Wisconsin Public Interest Group found the state consistently overestimated the need for these projects and that the justification for many of them was shoddy or nonexistent.

That should explain why advocates like Speight are so surprised and encouraged to learn the state has abandoned the plan for Highway 38. WisDOT spokesman Brian DeNeve told Streetsblog the reason was “local opposition to the project.”

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Denver Auditor Blasts Plan to Widen I-70: “Ten Lanes Is Not an Option”

“Ten lanes is not an option. A doubling of the current width of I-70 through Denver is not acceptable.”

City Auditor Dennis Gallagher says CDOT's plan to widen I-70 ignores current trends in transportation. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/31437555@N00/5605571597##Jeffrey Beale/flickr##

City Auditor Dennis Gallagher says CDOT’s plan to widen I-70 ignores current trends in transportation. Photo: Jeffrey Beall/flickr

That’s how Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher began a letter [JPG and JPG] last week to the director of the Colorado DOT. “I can’t tell you how incensed I am that the state wants to expand I-70 to ten lanes through North Denver,” Gallagher said the next day on Facebook. “You should be too.”

The city has been studying options for replacing the 50-year-old viaduct for a decade. Gallagher’s preferred option is to reroute I-70 along I-270, though that plan would also involve road expansion. As it’s laid out here [PDF] by a community group called Globeville Elyria-Swansea LiveWell, the re-routing would widen I-270 from two lanes to five or six lanes in each direction. (However, it would happen on “relatively level, open, undeveloped land,” they say.) The projected cost of this expansion has dampened support for this proposal and even Gallagher admits “that is perhaps no longer a viable option.”

Gallagher’s second choice is the “city option,” which entails taking the highway below grade and covering it with an 800-foot-wide landscaped lid to reconnect the city, “making the neighborhoods real neighborhoods again.” The third option — which CDOT backs — would do that and also add two new tolled express lanes in each direction, resulting in a massive 10-lane highway. Here’s Gallagher’s brilliant explanation of his opposition to CDOT’s $1.8 billion plan:

In an era in which freeway vehicle traffic is dropping; environmental and social trends are moving people away from a reliance on cars and trucks for transportation; other cities are choosing to eliminate freeways from their urban core; Denver’s population, particularly our growing population of Millennials and Seniors, is choosing not to drive or even have a driver’s license, it makes no sense to me and is not good public policy to build a ten-lane freeway when it likely will never be needed, may in point of fact be obsolete sooner rather than later, is destructive to the neighborhoods, and a wasteful expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

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State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

States spend more than half their money on new construction. Image: Smart Growth America

States spend more than half their road money on adding lanes and new highways. Image: Smart Growth America

Even though 33 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition, West Virginia spends about 73 percent of its road budget building new roads and adding lanes. Mississippi spends 97 percent of its road money on expansion. Texas, 82 percent.

Smart Growth America reports that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, combined, devote 55 percent of their road spending — $20.4 billion a year — to expansions, according to data states provide to the Federal Highway Administration. Between 2009 and 2011, that investment added 8,822 lane miles to the nation’s highway system — meaning that more than half of states’ road dollars were dedicated to less than 1 percent of their roads.

Meanwhile, states spent $16.5 billion annually, or 45 percent of their total road budgets, maintaining and repairing the other 99 percent of the nation’s roads.

In total, 21 percent of America’s roads are in “poor” condition, based on an international index that measures ride quality and surface smoothness. And the condition of the nation’s roads is getting worse. The last time Smart Growth America checked in, in 2008, 41 percent were in “good” condition. By 2011, that figure was down to 37 percent.

“States are adding to a system they are failing to maintain,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which co-funded the study, in a webinar hosted by SGA this morning. “Every new lane mile is a lane that will eventually have to be repaired.”

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Traffic Plummets on the Highway Seattle Is Spending a Fortune to Replace

Traffic has collapsed around Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct. Image: Sightline

Traffic has collapsed on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct. Image: Sightline

For months now, the largest tunnel boring machine in the United States has been broken down under the city of Seattle. Meanwhile, traffic on the highway that the tunnel is supposed to replace has plummeted, raising more questions about whether the project is worth the enormous expense.

The project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a buried highway in Seattle is off to an absolutely disastrous start. Image: Wikipedia

The project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a buried highway is off to an absolutely disastrous start, but there’s also a big upside to the new traffic patterns. Photo: Wikipedia

The state of Washington intends to spend $3.1 billion to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct — an elevated double-decker highway right by the waterfront — with an underground highway tunnel. But Bertha, the tunnel boring machine, is stuck a thousand feet into its path and will take months to get running again, if the state can get it running again at all.

Meanwhile, Clark Williams-Derry at regional think tank Sightline has made an amazing discovery: Traffic on the viaduct has plummeted by 48,000 vehicles per day in the last three years, or 44 percent, raising questions about whether this awesomely expensive undertaking is needed at all.

The reason for the traffic drop? A lot more people are taking buses. Some have avoided driving because of construction delays. Of those who are still driving, some have shifted to surface streets. Combine that with the fact that, across America, driving is declining in general — and maybe Seattle doesn’t need to replace this highway after all.

Williams-Derry puts it like this:

Nobody knows if Bertha will ever get moving again, let alone complete her job. But given these figures, maybe it doesn’t matter. Seattle has seamlessly adapted to losing the first 48,000 trips on the Viaduct. No one even noticed. No one even noticed that 40 percent of the Viaduct’s traffic just disappeared! Could accommodating the loss of another 62,000 be that hard if we, I don’t know, tried even a little?

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Detroit Advocates Challenge Michigan DOT’s Highway Expansion Plans

Perhaps you’ve read recently about the city of Detroit’s financial woes. The pensions of public employees are on the chopping block and Detroit may have to sell masterpieces from its art museum as it negotiates bankruptcy proceedings.

A costly proposal to widen I-94 in Detroit threatens the recovery of the city's Midtown neighborhood. Image: ##http://www.freep.com/article/20131201/BUSINESS06/312010066/I-375-I-94-MDOT-freeways-Detroit## Free Press##

A costly proposal to widen I-94 in Detroit threatens the recovery of the city’s up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood. Image: Free Press

But the transportation agencies that have saddled Detroit with a sprawling and expensive road system certainly aren’t scrimping. They just keep on building highways. Earlier this year the region’s regional planning organization, SEMCOG, greenlighted some $4 billion in highway expansion plans for Detroit. That includes $2.7 billion for a project that would widen I-94 through the city’s up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood. All this despite the fact that a quarter of Detroit residents lack access to an automobile and the city has been slashing transit services for years.

Local advocates are pushing back. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and faith-based social justice organization MOSES are asking the Federal Highway Administration to order a new environmental impact study for the I-94 project. In a letter sent to FHWA this week, they allege that the Michigan Department of Transportation and regional planning agency SEMCOG are rushing the proposal, charging that the required environmental review for the project is outdated. The EIS was completed nearly a decade ago and uses information from as far back as the 1990s.

Great Lakes’ Executive Director Nick Schroeck points out there are a lot fewer people living in the Detroit region than there were then. The number of miles driven per person has also declined. The original environmental impact study, from 2003, assumes vehicle miles traveled will increase 11.4 percent by 2025. But since that time, mileage actually decreased 14 percent.

“Significant changes have occurred in the ensuing years,” said Schroeck. “The population and economic projections in the FEIS were way off, leading to faulty conclusions.”

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Talking Headways: The Streetsblog Podcast, Episode 2

Welcome to the second edition of the new Streetsblog podcast, which we’re calling Talking Headways. Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood and I return as your hosts, talking about everything from bicycle carnage to Texas sprawl, and from misguided transportation priorities in Tennessee — one place that ought to know better — to motorcycle-riding assassains in Bogotá. (With a brief, emotional interlude about Gabe Klein leaving Chicago.) And then we go to our happy place.

Come with us, won’t you? And don’t forget to let us know what you think and participate in the conversation in the comments section.

You can subscribe to our Soundcloud feed here.

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TIFIA-Backed, Privately-Operated Texas Toll Road Flirts With Default

It’s been nothing but headaches for Texas State Highway 130. The road — or rather, SH 130 Concession Company LLC, which operates the road — got a credit downgrade to junk bond status in April, and now it’s been deemed even junkier with another downgrade from Moody’s last week. Traffic projections for the road failed to materialize, and so did the expected revenue. Now, the road could end up defaulting on its debts — including a $430 million federal loan.

The Austin area's SH 130 is at risk of defaulting on its loans next year. Photo: My SH 130

Traffic has been light on the road since it opened a year ago, causing TxDOT to reduce toll rates. Revenues dropped even lower. The operator also convinced the state to give the road the country’s highest speed limit — 85 miles per hour — to lure daredevils onto the road. No dice.

SH 130 is the only part of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s outlandish Trans-Texas Corridor fantasy that ever got built. The misguided scheme sought to facilitate NAFTA commerce by building a corridor up to a quarter of a mile wide with separate rights-of-way for trucks, passenger cars, freight rail, oil and gas pipelines, and high-speed rail. Luckily, public opposition killed the project.

The 41-mile southern section of the 91-mile SH 130 was largely built, maintained and operated by Madrid-based Cintra Concessiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte. Cintra owns 65 percent of the Concession Company, while San Antonio-based Zachry Construction owns the rest.

It’s the first privately built and operated road in Texas. But the money backing it isn’t all private. The road was financed by a federally-subsidized TIFIA loan.

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Chicago Transit Agencies Vote for a Tollway Even the Road Lobby Hates

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IDOT moving full steam ahead on unneeded road building in Illinois. Photo: straightedge217.

Chicago-area transportation organizations are poised to shoot themselves in the foot and harm the region by allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation Department to squander limited transportation infrastructure funds on the $2.75 billion Illiana Tollway. On Friday the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s transportation committee voted to recommend moving forward with this wasteful, destructive project, which promises to suck jobs from Illinois and send them to Indiana. It would create only 940 new jobs over the next thirty years.

Representatives of Metra and Pace, plus Steve Schlickman of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center (possibly motivated by fear of losing state funding), voted yes on an advisory motion to include the Illiana Tollway in the fiscally constrained projects list for CMAP’s GO TO 2040 regional plan. This would allow the highway project to compete for the same small pots of money that fund the transit agencies’ maintenance and expansion projects, as well as research and planning studies.

Max Muller, the Active Transportation Alliance’s director of government relations, was perplexed by the vote. “It makes as much sense as the Illiana Expressway proposal itself: none,” he said. Mueller added that the CTA and Metra voted against their own interests and “against a regional plan that prioritizes multimodal transportation and investment in existing infrastructure.”

On Friday, Stacy Meyers, policy coordinator for Openlands, a conservation group that is one of three organizations suing IDOT over the tollway, told the committee members that they would be unwise to support the project — echoing analysis of the Illiana by the Metropolitan Planning Council and CMAP’s own staff. “Your top projects will be deferred, underfunded or dropped, even if you have been told otherwise,” she said. “There simply isn’t enough money to do everything. We can barely cover what we have agreed to build.”

Reps from the CTA, the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Regional Transportation Authority, and other organizations abstained from voting, effectively handing over their votes to IDOT. Unsurprisingly, the three IDOT reps on the committee voted in favor of the project. The rep from the Illinois Tollway Authority also also voted yes, but that’s not surprising either since the commission enjoys a very secure funding mechanism and unwavering support from the governor’s office. In the end the CMAP committee voted 10 to seven in favor of the project.

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Desperate to Keep Highway Money Flowing, Texas Foists Costs Onto Cities

Faced with an impending budget crisis, the Texas Department of Transportation has decided not to rethink its $5.2 billion plan for a third outerbelt through undeveloped grasslands around Houston. Instead, the agency has developed a proposal to basically shift a big part of its costs to the state’s major cities.

The Houston Business Journal reports that the state government plans to shift responsibility for more than 100 miles of roads to cities with populations larger than 50,000, and urban communities are in an uproar. The additional maintenance will foist $165 million in new annual expenses onto Texas’s major cities.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, told the Texas Tribune that “shifting $165 million of state costs onto cities would be a massive unfunded mandate that would require higher property taxes on homeowners and businesses.”

The shift amounts to a backdoor tax to fund the big highways suburban developers want. Rather than asking drivers on those suburban highways to pick up the cost, through a gas tax or tolls, Texas will make city residents pick up the tab.

Jay Crossley of local smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow said many state-controlled roads are already in terrible condition thanks to TxDOT’s habit of prioritizing new road construction over maintenance.

“TxDOT is saying, ‘We need our crack,’” said Crossley. “They’re basically handing over some broken local roads and saying ‘Now it’s your problem.’”

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Akron’s Jason Segedy: Shrinking Cities Need a New Approach to Mobility

There are people like Jason Segedy in every region — people who are trying to move the region forward on a more sustainable and competitive path. But Segedy is a little different: He actually has some power.

Jason Segedy of Akron's MPO is trying to change the way people think about transportation in the heartland. Image: Amatsplanning.org

Segedy is 40 years old and a lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. He’s also the head of AMATS, Akron’s metropolitan planning organization. Through his leadership there, as well as his work with the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, Segedy has been  advancing a new approach to transportation in a region that has experienced population loss and stagnation.

We caught Jason on the phone recently to hear more about his efforts to take transportation in a different direction in northeast Ohio. Here’s what he had to say:

Angie Schmitt: You’ve made the point before that northeast Ohio should not be focused on expanding highway capacity and instead should be focused on maintenance and transit. Why?

Jason Segedy: I started working at an MPO in 1997. At that time, in the 1990s — and the late ’90s especially — there was a lot more optimism about economic growth and population growth. Actually if you look back at it, in retrospect, we weren’t experiencing that much growth. But that is what we were expecting.

At that time, there was a backlog of projects to fix congestion that did have some utility and usefulness. You could argue about induced demand and whether they were really necessary. But we took care of a lot of congestion problems that were going on back then.

If you go back to 2007 and 2008, we had the financial crisis. If you look back to the 2000s, we didn’t grow. All of northeast Ohio lost 100,000 people. When you look at our demographics, the population growth isn’t there at all. Instead we have this pattern of shifting people around.

The fiscal issue is also a big one for me, if you look at the highway trust fund constantly being shored up with general fund revenues. ODOT, by it’s own admission, doesn’t have a lot of funds, that’s why we’re borrowing money from the turnpike.

AS: What kind of projects should regions like Akron — slow-growth places — be focused on?

JS: Fix it first. The idea is definitely to focus resources and a lot of our mental energy making sure the existing highway system is in a state of good repair. We’re really trying to promote having better pavements and better bridge conditions. There’s a lot of concern in our region that roads are not being maintained the way they should be. That’s what we’ve been promoting.

Equally important is creating alternatives to driving. I think there are a lot of false dichotomies that people put out in front of us: Either everyone has to drive everywhere and live in big houses with big yards or everyone has to be herded into high-rises and use public transit for everything.

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