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Posts from the "AASHTO" Category

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What AASHTO’s “Top Projects” Tell Us About State DOT Leadership

If you can build a project fast and under budget, AASHTO will love it, no matter how little sense it makes. Photo: Citizens Transportation Commission

Who can build the biggest road slab the fastest? Those seem to be the major criteria used by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to determine the “best” projects by state DOTs across the country.

In another sign that most state Departments of Transportation should still be called “highway departments,” there are no transit projects on AASHTO’s “top 10″ projects list this year. The closest thing to one is California’s Oakland-Bay Bridge, which was “built to accommodate future expansions in light rail, bus, and other modes of transportation.”

Many of the projects listed are bridge repairs (and emergency bridge repairs), which are important. But the list is also larded with highway expansions.

In Ohio, AASHTO showers praise on a $200 million project to bypass the town of Nelsonville, population 5,400. The project earned a nod for “reliev[ing] a major congestion problem” in rural southeast Ohio.

The most ludicrous selection is probably Segment E of Houston’s Grand Parkway. This is a $320 million portion of a proposed 185-mile third outerbelt for the city. Proponents of the project have openly admitted it is more about inducing sprawl than addressing any transportation problem. The Texas Department of Transportation, mired in financial woes, has allowed real estate interests in Houston to more or less dictate where money will be spent. Whether the state will be able to find the funds to complete the $5.4 billion loop is an open question.

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State DOTs Brazenly Request a Blank Check to Build More Highways

Want your state DOT to support safer, multi-modal local streets? You can dream, but don't dare tell them what to do. Photo:flickr

“This is a money and power grab.”

“It’s very disappointing and very AASHTO.”

That’s how some transportation reformers are describing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ new recommendations for the next surface transportation bill. The current bill, MAP-21, expires in less than a year.

AASHTO’s proposal is “so mired in protective technical-speak that it’ll fail to inspire anyone outside of state DOT technical staff — which I guess just sees ‘more money’ and that’s all they care about,” vented Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council upon seeing the document.

AASHTO’s recommendations boil down to one thing: less local control and more power at the state level. They want to wrest control over transit funds from transit agencies. They want more “flexibility” on every front. They want less distribution of funds to officials at the city or regional level — a move Lovaas calls “regressive” since “more and more people, businesses and jobs are becoming centralized in metro areas.”

MAP-21’s one real achievement, a provision allowing some degree of local control over funds for biking and walking, gets targeted in AASHTO’s wish list. AASHTO complains that states aren’t eligible for this relatively tiny pot of money, and demand to get their hands in the cookie jar that’s closed to them.

What’s more, Lovaas noted, AASHTO boldly resists any form of accountability. The association insists that no additional performance measures be implemented until the new ones from MAP-21 can be amply tested out. And yet they want to go full throttle with their agenda to accelerate “project delivery” — basically making an end run around environmental and community scrutiny.

Indeed, AASHTO is positively allergic to performance measures. They want to make sure states aren’t required to fix infrastructure that’s in the worst condition first, though they don’t explain why any other approach would make any sense. Over and over again, they affirm their “steadfast opposition” to “using performance measures as the basis for apportioning or allocating federal funds among the States” — in other words, having any mechanism whatsoever to ensure that they don’t spend billions of dollars on wasteful projects.

Above all, AASHTO says over and over that “the implementation of MAP 21 [and any subsequent bill] should avoid any unnecessary administrative burdens or unnecessary restrictions on State flexibility.” Translation: Hand over a blank check. Nowhere does AASHTO say how it intends to improve the transportation system, meet national goals like greater safety or environmental sustainability, or be more accountable to the public. They don’t even bother to explain the expected outcomes of their recommendations. The list is nothing but “give us the money and go away,” in the words of David Burwell, transportation analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.

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FHWA Endorses Engineering Guide for Walkable Urban Streets

A new engineering guide gives transportation professionals design standards tailored for urban streets. Image: CNU.org

Urban streets serve a much different purpose than rural ones: They’re for walking, socializing, and local commerce, not just moving vehicles. Unfortunately, American engineering guides tend not to capture these nuances.

That can lead to a lot of problems for cities. Wide roads appropriate for rural areas are dangerous and bad for local businesses in an urban setting.

But there’s change on the horizon. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Engineers’ “Green Book,” the so-called bible of transportation engineering, has some new competition specially designed for urban places.

Last month, the Federal Highway Administration gave its stamp of approval to two new engineering guides: the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ bikeway design guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes, and Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, designed to help cities build streets that are walkable and safe for all users.

The urban thoroughfares guide, produced by the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Congress for the New Urbanism, is based on the concept of “context sensitive solutions,” which seeks to balance the movement of vehicles with other objectives, like promoting active transportation and fostering retail businesses. Both guides are now recommended by FHWA as companions to AASHTO’s guide.

Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard and an adviser to the development of the urban thoroughfares guide, said the revolutionary thing about it is the engineering guidance about the important ways urban “arterials” differ from rural highways. Problems can arise when the Green Book is applied to cities because it is written by the organization of state DOTs, which are mainly concerned with highway building, not local streets.

“While AASHTO guidelines do accommodate a broad array of street designs, where they are weak is providing designers with information about the way in which local streets are very different,” said Tumlin. “Engineers need more thorough guidance on the ways in which urban arterials are distinct from rural highways and ways in which to design those arterials to prioritize a wide variety of objectives.”

The new ITE guide instructs engineers to “use performance measures that benefit all modes,” and to consider the surrounding area — the character of the community — when designing streets.

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FHWA to Transportation Engineers: Use the NACTO Bikeway Design Guide

In a significant step forward for American bike infrastructure, the Federal Highway Administration issued a memorandum late last month essentially endorsing street designs like protected bike lanes.

Protected bike lanes now have the official backing of the federal government. Image: Green Lane Project

In the memorandum, FHWA urges transportation engineers to use the guidelines issued by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which contains templates for bikeway designs widely deployed in Europe but shunned in the U.S. until very recently.

This federal endorsement is critical because protected bike lanes have yet to be officially sanctioned by the country’s most influential transportation engineering organization: the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. AASHTO publishes the “green book,” which for many transportation departments serves as the bible of street design. But, being a bit stodgy, AASHTO has never included protected bike lanes in its standards, despite mounting evidence that these designs improve safety.

The exclusion of protected bike lanes from the country’s most important engineering guide has stymied growth, since U.S. transportation engineers generally hesitate to use designs that don’t have the imprimatur of AASHTO or FHWA. The FHWA memorandum encourages its divisions around the United States to be “flexible” in bicycle design, and refer to both the AASHTO and the NACTO guides for assistance.

“It’s great news,” says Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, an initiative that promotes the adoption of protected bike lanes in American cities. The Green Lane Project recently surveyed transportation professionals around the country about the barriers to installing high-quality bike infrastructure. More than 90 percent of respondents reported it would be helpful or very helpful if FHWA would endorse the NACTO guide.

Many American engineers have felt reluctant to install protected bike lanes, thinking they could held liable for deviating from federal guidelines should a collision occur. As a result, some states, notably California and Illinois, have measures that prevent cities from installing protected bike lanes in certain circumstances. Roskowski thinks this endorsement from FHWA will help resolve that.

“I think we’re sort of pretty close to tearing down that wall in the engineering world, saying, ‘We can’t build these,’ which has been the response [to innovative bike treatments] from the engineering community in the United States for a long time,” she said. “Now there’s a convergence of forces saying, ‘Yes we can build them.’”

Roskowski said she believes the memorandum is an interim measure, until FHWA develops its own bikeway design guide, which is expected in about a year.

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Does the Gender Disparity in Engineering Harm Cycling in the U.S.?

Research has shown that women are more comfortable biking on protected bike lanes, but the male-dominated engineering profession has discouraged this type of street design. Photo copyright Dmitry Gudkov

A study published in this month’s American Journal of Public Health finds that highly influential transportation engineers relied on shoddy research to defend policies that discourage the development of protected bike lanes in the U.S. In their paper, the researchers point out that male-dominated engineering panels have repeatedly torpedoed street designs that have greater appeal to female cyclists.

The research team, led by Harvard public health researcher Anne Lusk, examines four engineering guides published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials between 1974 and 1999. All of these guides, treated like gospel by engineers across the country, either discourage or offer no advice about protected bike lanes, despite the fact that research has shown that women, in particular, are much more likely to bike given facilities that provide some separation from vehicle traffic.

Lusk found that many of AASHTO’s official claims regarding the purported safety problems of protected bike lanes were offered without supporting evidence. AASHTO refused to consider data demonstrating the proven safety record of protected bike lanes outside of the United States. And since there have been almost no protected bike lanes in the U.S. until quite recently, AASHTO based its position against protected bikeways on domestic street designs like sidewalk bikeways, not real bike lanes designed specifically to integrate physically protected bicycling into the roadway.

The researchers came to this rather damning conclusion: “State-adopted recommendations against cycle tracks, primarily the recommendations of AASHTO, are not explicitly based on rigorous and up-to-date research.”

Lusk and her team carried out a safety study of their own, examining crash reports on protected bike lanes in 19 U.S. cities. They found that protected bike lanes had a collision rate of about 2.3 per million kilometers biked — lower than the crash rates other researchers have observed on streets without any bike lanes. (Those rates vary from 3.75 to 54 crashes per million kilometers.)

Lusk’s research also suggests the lack of gender balance in the engineering profession may have contributed to the resistance to protected bike infrastructure. Researchers found that in 1991 and 1999, AASHTO’s Bikeway Planning Criteria and Guidelines were written by a committee made up of 91 and 97 percent men, respectively.

“The AASHTO recommendations may have been influenced by the predominantly male composition (more than 90%) of the report’s authors,” Lusk writes.

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Shuster Shows His Thoughtful Side, Boxer Heaps Praise at AASHTO Conference

In a sense, there’s not much to say about the joint appearance at the AASHTO conference yesterday of House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster and Senate EPW Chair Barbara Boxer. They thanked AASHTO for all its help getting MAP-21 passed. They addressed the big question of how to raise revenues without actually making any proposals. They agreed that infrastructure should be a non-partisan issue. None of these are breaking news.

Bill Shuster seeks to reach across the aisle in what rapidly became a highly polarized committee in the last Congress. Photo: Rep. Shuster's Picasa gallery

But still, there was some excitement in the air. Boxer and Shuster joked about who was and who wasn’t wearing a baseball cap when they sealed the deal on MAP-21. (She’s sure it was him, but he still says she was in sweats.)

But then, Boxer always had a collegial relationship with John Mica too, who would kid her about opting for smoothies when they ordered pizza during late-night negotiations.

Shuster is a different animal from Mica. He’s more personable, less strident. His sense of humor is less quirky. And most important, his positions are more moderate.

Shuster never misses a chance to expound on the importance of the federal role in transportation and makes it clear that he’s going on the offensive with more conservative members, especially new ones, to convince them.

He’s conversant in the history of the founding of the republic and lectures audiences that infrastructure was the thing that convinced the founders that the Articles of Confederation wouldn’t work. He ribbed the Heritage Foundation for giving an Adam Smith award but not recognizing that the father of capitalism was also a proponent of federal infrastructure spending. “Sometimes I ask them about that and it kind of draws a blank stare,” he said.

But nothing says “I’m a reasonable guy you can work with” better than his refreshingly non-polarizing comments on the third-rail issue of rail:

I’ve watched, in the last 40 years, the debate in Congress. Republicans used to stand up and say, “Amtrak has failed; sell it off and do away with it all.” I don’t agree with that. There is a need for passenger rail in this country. My counterparts on the other side of the aisle talk about, “There’s no passenger rail system that’s not subsidized in the world,” and they’re right. But I think it’s wrong that we can’t get Amtrak to a place where they’re not taking as big subsidies from the federal government. They can get to a place where they may be able to get close to break-even.

Yes, this the same man who co-sponsored a bill to privatize the Northeast Corridor. Looking back, he may have been the reason the privatization proposal wasn’t more radical than it was.

Shuster reiterated his position — identical to Mica’s — that high-speed rail should start in the Northeast Corridor.
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U.S. DOT to Challenge AASHTO Supremacy on Bike/Ped Safety Standards

For years, the federal government has adopted roadway guidelines that fall far short of what’s needed — and what’s possible — to protect cyclists and pedestrians. By “playing it safe” and sticking with old-school engineering, U.S. DOT allowed streets to be unsafe for these vulnerable road users.

But that could be changing. The bike-friendliest transportation secretary the country has ever seen told state transportation officials yesterday at AASHTO’s annual Washington conference that U.S. DOT was getting into the business of issuing its own design standards, instead of simply accepting the AASHTO guidelines.

LaHood told an audience of state transportation officials that the FHWA is getting into the roadway design business.

Normally, the Federal Highway Administration points people to AASHTO’s Green Book, the organization’s design guide for highways and streets — and indeed, the agency is still directing people to the 2001 edition of the Green Book. Cycling advocates have long criticized the AASHTO guide, and the FHWA’s adherence to it, since even the most recent version doesn’t incorporate the latest thinking in bicycle and pedestrian safety treatments.

In FHWA’s new round of rule-making, DOT will set its own bicycle and pedestrian safety standards for the first time. The agency will “highlight bicycle and pedestrian safety as a priority,” LaHood said. (You can watch his entire speech on AASHTO’s online TV channel.)

FHWA will rely heavily on input from AASHTO but also signaled that it would work with others to incorporate the full spectrum of bike/ped design best practices.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials publishes its own, much more cutting-edge, design guide for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. No one at U.S. DOT reached out to NACTO in advance of the AASHTO speech, but NACTO spokesperson Ron Thaniel said they have a “close working relationship with Secretary LaHood” and “look forward to working with him” on the new standards.

LaHood noted that he would be meeting with cyclists next week at the National Bike Summit here in Washington and that he would work with them on ways to improve infrastructure “to make biking and walking opportunities as safe as they possibly can be.”

But it was wise of him to make his announcement at AASHTO, not at the Bike Summit. He seems to be trying to bring AASHTO into the fold of a movement to embrace more innovative bikeway designs. “I’m asking [the cycling community] for their help but I’m asking you to be helpful also,” he told the state officials. “I know that most of you want to build the 21st century infrastructure that your communities need to be competitive. The problem is we don’t have modern-day roadway standards to help us bring these ideas to life.”

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Outgoing AASHTO Director: Assess Gas Tax By the Dollar, Not By the Gallon

When the federal gas tax was set at 18.4 cents per gallon, it represented 17 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas. Now it’s barely 5 percent.

AASHTO Director John Horsley is thrilled with the new transportation bill, which gave state DOTs just about everything they wanted. Photo: International Transport Forum

That was 20 years ago. Some say the answer for today isn’t just to raise the gas tax but to re-imagine it. John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, who retires at the end of this month, made his proposal yesterday at the annual Transportation Research Board conference.

He’d like to see the fixed gas tax replaced with a percentage sales tax on fuels. He said such a move could avert a looming “transportation fiscal cliff.” An AASHTO press release explains:

Under Horsley’s proposal, sales tax rates on fuels would be set at a level that restores solvency to the Highway Trust Fund. The fund is currently spending $15 billion more annually than the revenues it receives. The change would support spending on highways and transit over the next six years at $350 billion. If the program were limited to expected excise tax revenues, it would have to be cut to $236 billion.

Horsley didn’t propose a figure for the sales tax percentage. Right now, the price of gas in DC is $3.59 per gallon. If the gas tax went back up to 17 percent, it would be 61 cents a gallon.

Let me be clear: Horsley’s idea is much less ridiculous than Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s sales tax proposal, which he introduced last week, which would have levied the sales tax to pay for roads on everything but gas. This would still charge drivers at the pump to pay for the transportation network, it would just do it in a way that goes up according to prices, like all sales taxes.

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AASHTO: America’s Best Transportation Projects Are All Highways

Are you ready to be inspired?

Well, good, because the American Association of State Highway and Transportation just released its list of finalists for the “America’s Transportation Award” Grand Prize. These ten projects span every sector of the transportation world, from enormous highway projects to … less enormous highway projects and highway bridges.

Maryland's Intercounty Connector, built "for 20 years of future sprawl," is an AASHTO favorite. Photo: dougtone/Flickr via GGW

Voting is open through October 19. Who will win the top prize?

One candidate is Maryland’s $2.4 billion Intercounty Connector, a “19-mile multimodal highway.” This road was “designed for 20 years of future sprawl,” wrote Greater Greater Washington, and today its wide asphalt expanses are a testament to how little the region needed this project to be built. Here’s an actual headline from a local radio station: “Why does ICC seem so empty?

Then there’s California DOT, a.k.a. Caltrans, which was nominated for its $5 million “carmageddon” communications campaign. It saved Los Angeles from complete meltdown when one portion of I-405 was closed last summer. Either that or the short-term closure of a single highway isn’t the end of the world after all.

Another highway AASHTO honors is the I-270 project in St. Louis, which “redesigned and reconstructed” three roadway projects and came in under budget. The goal of this project? To reduce congestion. Never mind that the Texas Transportation Institute ranks St. Louis third from last in congestion, or that as the scourge of congestion has been systematically eliminated in this city, people have actually spent more time behind the wheel.

Not a single transit, bike or pedestrian project makes AASHTO’s list. Is there any better indication that the majority of America’s state DOTs still view job number one as building highways?

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How State DOTs Got Congress to Grant Their Wish List

Bike and pedestrian funding got slashed. Federal assistance for transit operations was rejected. Even the performance measures – arguably the high point of the recently passed federal transportation bill – are too weak to be very meaningful. For Americans who want federal policy to support safe streets, sustainable transportation, and livable neighborhoods, there were few bright spots in the transportation bill Congress passed last month.

AASHTO Director John Horsley is thrilled with the new transportation bill, which gave state DOTs just about everything they wanted. Photo: International Transport Forum

But state transportation departments are celebrating. They scored victory after victory, getting a bigger share of federal funding with fewer rules and regulations attached.

In the Senate, advocates were able to work some reforms into the bill and mobilize grassroots support for amendments like the Cardin-Cochran provision, which put funds for street safety projects in the hands of local governments, not state DOTs. But the House never managed to pass a bill of its own, and the opaque conference committee process was an exercise in horse-trading that advocates found difficult to penetrate.

The final product, which included measures like raising the federal contribution for certain highway expansions, seemed finely tailored to benefit DOTs in several ways. “This is a bill written by and for the benefit of state DOTs at the expense of both federal oversight and regional and community outcomes,” wrote David Burwell, director of the climate change program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an email shortly after the bill passed. He said the policy changes “are too elegantly crafted and specific in their effect to have been written, or even conceived, by members of Congress or their staff.”

For state DOTs, access to lawmakers is a given. “We worked very closely with the House and Senate to craft those measures,” AASHTO Director John Horsley confirmed to Streetsblog in an interview yesterday. He said that while AASHTO offered recommendations, no text written by AASHTO made it into the bill verbatim, as far as he knows.

According to Horsley’s account, AASHTO followed a pretty standard script when it came to advocating for their interests on the Hill. Every stakeholder and special interest under the sun had its lobbyists knocking on lawmakers’ doors, offering their two cents – everyone from gravel producers to equipment manufacturers to environmentalists to free market fundamentalists. It’s just that the state DOTs seemed to get everything on their wish list.

Horsley said AASHTO had been laying the groundwork for many, many months before conference started, working with Republican House Transportation Committee staffers as well as aides of both parties in the Senate. (He didn’t mention working with House Democrats, who were shut out of the process from day one.)

The House is where the magic happened for AASHTO. “We’ve been very pleased with where the Senate bill started,” Horsley said. “And we were even more pleased when the House and the Senate in conference agreed to incorporate a lot of the House provisions that were even better for states.”

What were those House provisions? Horsley went through the list:

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