Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Another Virginia congressman is adding his voice to Republicans questioning the McDonnell’s administration’s plan to construct a major north-south highway in Northern Virginia, a parkway running west of Dulles International Airport and Manassas Battlefield that critics call an “outer beltway.”
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
A proposed highway that would skirt a Civil War battlefield is raising hackles in Virginia.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Plans for a major highway in Northern Virginia are taking shape. Officials say the billion-dollar road would spur growth, but opponents say that premise is flawed.
Friday, April 05, 2013
Nearly five months after opening, the operators of the 495 Express Lanes are struggling to attract motorists to their congestion-free toll road in a region mired in some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.
Transurban, the construction conglomerate that put up $1.5 billion to build the 14-mile, EZ Pass-only corridor on the Beltway between the I-95 interchange and Dulles Toll Road, will let motorists use the highway free this weekend in a bid to win more converts.
“It takes a lot of time for drivers in the area to adapt to new driving behaviors. A lot of us are kind of stuck on autopilot on our commutes. That trend might continue for a while, too,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.
Light use of HOT lanes raises questions
McGurk says some drivers are confused about the new highway’s many entry and exit points. Opening the Express Lanes for free rides this weekend will let motorists familiarize themselves with the road, he said.
After opening in mid-November, the 495 Express Lanes lost money during its first six weeks in business. Operating costs exceeded toll revenues, but Transurban was not expecting to turn an immediate profit. In the long term, however, company officials have conceded they are not guaranteed to make money on their investment. Transurban’s next quarterly report is due at the end of April.
To opponents of the project, five months of relatively light traffic on Virginia’s new $2 billion road is enough to draw judgments. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has not recovered since the recession knocked millions out of work and more commuters are seeking alternatives to the automobile, according to Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“They miscalculated peoples' time value of money. They overestimated the potential demand for this road,” said Schwartz, who said the light use of the 495 Express Lanes should serve as a warning.
“We should not have rushed into signing a deal for hot lanes for the 95 corridor, and we certainly shouldn’t rush into any deal on I-66,” he said.
Transurban is counseling patience.
“We’re still in a ramp-up period. You’ve probably heard us say that since the beginning, too, but with a facility like this it’s a minimum six months to two years until the region falls into a regular pattern on how they’re going to use this facility,” McGurk said.
In its first six weeks of operations toll revenues climbed on the 495 Express Lanes from daily averages of $12,000 in the first week to $24,000 in the week prior to Christmas. Traffic in the same period increased from an average of 15,000 daily trips to 24,000, according to company records. Despite the increases, operating expenses still outstripped revenues.
It is possible that traffic is not bad enough outside of the morning and afternoon rush hours to push motorists over to the EZ Pass lanes on 495.
“It may also show that it takes only a minor intervention to remove enough cars from the main lanes to let them flow better,” said Schwartz, who said the 14-mile corridor is simply pushing the bottleneck further up the road.
Even Transurban’s McGurk says many customers who have been surveyed complain that once they reach the Express Lanes’ northern terminus at Rt. 267 (Dulles Toll Road), the same terrible traffic awaits them approaching the American Legion Bridge.
Express Lanes a litmus test for larger issues
The success or failure of the 495 Express Lanes will raise one of the region’s most pressing questions as it looks to a future of job and population growth: how best to move people and goods efficiently. Skeptics of highway expansions, even new facilities that charge tolls as a form of congestion pricing, say expanding transit is cheaper and more effective.
“An approach that gives people more options and reduces driving demand through transit and transit-oriented development may be the better long-term solution. But we’ve never had these DOTs give us a fair comparison between a transit-oriented investment future for our region and one where they create this massive network of HOT lanes,” said Schartz, who said a 2010 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments pegged the cost of a tolled network of 1,650-lane miles of regional highways at $50 billion.
Transportation experts say a form of congestion pricing, either tolled lanes or a vehicle miles traveled tax, may be part of a regional solution to congestion. The public, however, needs to be explained why.
“As long as the majority of system remains non-tolled and congested then you are not going to solve the problem,” said Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.
“Highways in this region are drastically underpriced. People are not paying enough to maintain them and they certainly are not paying enough to pay for the cost of congestion. The American people have been sold a bill of goods because they have been told that roads are free. Roads cost money,” he added.
The 495 Express Lanes are dynamically-priced, meaning the tolls increase with demand for the lanes. The average toll per trip in the highway’s first six weeks of operations was $1.07, according to Transurban records. As motorists enter the lanes they see signs displaying how much it will cost to travel to certain exits, but no travel time estimates are displayed. “It is important to be very clear to drivers about the benefit of taking those new lanes, and I am not sure that has happened so far,” said Schank, who said it is too early to conclude if the Express Lanes are working as designed.
“It’s hard to know if it works by looking whether the lanes are making money. I don’t know if that is the right metric. It’s the right metric for Transurban, but it’s not necessarily the right metric from a public sector perspective,” he said. “The real metric is to what extent does it improve economic development and regional accessibility, and that’s a much harder analysis that takes some real research and time.”
Thursday, April 04, 2013
Virginia lawmakers approved bipartisan legislation that makes texting while driving a primary offense, and significantly raises the fines.
State legislators passed amendments to the bill that were proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, including one increasing the fine for texting while driving from $20 to $125 dollars for a first offense and $250 dollars for every subsequent violation.
That's less than the original legislation, which pegged those fines twice as high.
Delegate Rich Anderson (R-Prince William Co.) says it puts texting on the same level as other impaired forms of driving.
"That aligns driving while intoxicated and driving while texting pretty closely," says Anderson.
Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) says he has been trying to get a bill passed on this topic for a number of years, after students from Centreville High School brought the issue to his attention.
"I’m very pleased, because this is an extraordinarily dangerous activity," Barker says. "The accident rate is 23 times the rate for people that are texting compared to people that aren’t, which is a phenomenal differential. It clearly will save lives."
Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) says the law addresses more than just texting at the wheel.
"You can be convicted not only if you are texting, but also if you are reading a text message, if you are sending an email or if you are reading an email," Surovell says.
The bill does not address other potential distractions, like voice-controlled messaging. There also remains some ambiguity about other activites not expressly banned in the legislation, like the use of GPS on a smartphone.
"Depending on how things work, there may need to be tweaks in the future," Barker says. "I think what we’ve done is adopted a very clear policy here, and if we need to fix the language to clarify that, we can obviously do that in the future."
The amended bill now heads to the governor's desk for his signature. He is expected to sign it.
Thursday, April 04, 2013
(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW) Bertha is here. The world’s largest tunnel boring machine arrived in Seattle Tuesday after being shipped from Japan. It’s expected to reach land sometime this week. After that, in a few months, it will get to work drilling the tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
The Washington State Department of Transportation named the machine, Bertha, after Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha Knight Landes. The name was suggested by two school kids who won WSDOT’s naming contest.
According to Linea Laird, WSDOT’s tunnel project administrator, the tradition and practice of naming tunneling machines dates back to the earliest mining traditions.
“Originally, it was part of the patron saints of protection of underground workers,” she said. “There would be even a little shrine that would be established there for the workers.”
Laird says the name of the saint gave the miners something personal that they could relate to as they did their dangerous work. Paying homage to their saints evolved into naming tunneling machines.
Naming is commonplace in the tunneling industry these days. Miami named its machine after Harriet Tubman. And Sound Transit named two machines Balto and Togo, after two famous Husky dogs that inspired the Iditarod. And the tunneling machines boring new subway tunnels under the streets of New York City bear a variety of names, including Molina, Georgina, and TESS.
Chris Dixon is supervising the contractors who will be operating Bertha. He’s been in the tunneling business for decades.
“There were two machines that drove tunnels on one contract on the Los Angeles Metro Red Line subway, they called them Thelma and Louise.” Dixon says another machine used in Puerto Rico was named after the wife of a contracting executive.
Laird concedes that the name Bertha might not be the prettiest. But she says the name conjures up something that is big, solid and has a down-home quality to it. That, Laird says, seems like an appropriate description of Bertha’s new home: Seattle.
Tuesday, April 02, 2013
Meanwhile, legislators in Richmond -- and push for legislation making texting while driving a primary offense in Virginia.
"I think we're getting to the point where people are starting to understand and recognize that, but I'm not sure people are quite aware of how dangerous it is,” says Debbie Pickford, chair of the board of Drive Smart Virginia.
Just how dangerous? Texting while driving increases your risk of a crash by 23 times, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Eighty percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near crashes involve driver inattention within three seconds before the accident. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has been known to honk at drivers he sees talking on cell phones, has called distracted driving "an epidemic on America's roadways."
Despite these findings, Pickford says, it has been difficult convincing teenagers as well as adults to drop their gadgets and keep both eyes on the road. “The problem is getting worse,” she says. Her group is encouraging drivers to sign a pledge in which they publicly commit to eschewing cell phones while driving.
According to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, teen driver deaths went up in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period the prior year, and Pickford says a big reason is driver distractions like smart phones.
“We’re a multitasking society. We’re a busy society,” Pickford says. “I think multitasking has become a way of life, so people are just trying to get things done when they are in their cars and there is a lot more you can do now on a smartphone.”
Distracted Driving Awareness Month was once just one week, and advocates plans to extend their activities well past April into the “dangerous months” for teenagers when proms and graduation parties increase the potential for risky road behaviors.
Ultimately, safety advocates would like society to view distracted driving the same way it now sees drunk driving, but Pickford concedes that will take many years.
“It took a while for society to get to the fact that drinking and driving is really very dangerous, so I think it will take a few years to build this campaign and make people aware,” she says. “It doesn’t happen over night and it’s why we have gone from a week to a month. We are hosting a distracted driving summit in September in Richmond.”
Advocates are also looking to Richmond lawmakers for help. This week state legislators are expected to approve legislation that would make texting while driving a primary offense.
“Right now a policeman can pull someone over if they see something else going on in the car. They cannot pull them over if they see you texting while driving,” Pickford says.
Drive Smart Virginia says youth education starts in the car with parents. Children as young as five begin to pick up their parents’ driving behaviors, so she is urging parents to set good examples and refrain from using hand-held cell phones at the wheel.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
A bipartisan group of 68 members of the U.S. House, responding to the advocates’ safety concerns, has signed a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asking him to order the Department of Transportation to follow through on two aspects of the MAP-21 legislation signed into law last year.
The representatives, including D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, are asking Sec. LaHood to establish a national goal to reduce bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities and to push individual states to set “performance measures” to accomplish the same.
“If we don't set performance goals for states and cities there will be no incentive for them to look at what many don't even recognize,” Norton said in an interview with WAMU 88.5. “More people are walking and more people are taking their bikes. Thus, there will be no incentive to try to make the roads easier to navigate.”
As overall roadway fatalities have dropped significantly the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed has increased, according to federal data. Total fatalities have dropped from 37,423 in 2008 to 32,367 in 2011. But roughly 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists are killed annually, from 12 percent of all roadway deaths in 2008 to almost 16 percent in 2011, according to the federal government’s fatality analysis reporting system.
Safety advocates see the establishment of performance measures as an opening for additional federal funding directed to bicycling and walking infrastructure. Currently less than one percent of federal highway safety funds are spent improving bicyclist and pedestrian safety.
“We urge USDOT to set separate performance measures for non-motorized and motorized transportation,” says the letter signed by the 68 House members. “This will create an incentive for states to reduce bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities, while giving them flexibility to choose the best methods to do so.”
Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The new tunnels at Devil’s Slide on the northern California coast are finally open to drivers. This marks the first time cars have driven through a brand-new California highway tunnel in almost 50 years. The Devil’s Slide tunnels, officially named the Tom Lantos Tunnels, have been under construction since 2007 but have been a source of controversy since the 1970s.
When Highway 1 was built along the California Coast in the 1930s, it included a 1.2 mile stretch of road on an extremely unstable piece of hillside between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay called Devil’s Slide. During especially rainy winters, the ground would give way, causing the road to break and forcing drivers into a 45 mile detour. In 1995, the road was closed for 158 days.
Since the 1960s, California’s Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, had been looking for an alternative route. Caltrans proposed a highway bypass that would cut through the coastal hills. Locals and environmental activists were vehemently against the bypass, which would have been a larger freeway and split Montara State Park. The groups successfully used the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Coastal Act to postpone construction of the bypass through the 1970s and 80s. At the same time, the groups fought for a tunnel as the solution to the Devil’s Slide.
Caltrans had originally said that a tunnel would be too costly, but an independent study in 1996 showed that the tunnel was “reasonable and feasible.” In November of 1996, 74 percent of the voters of San Mateo County approved an initiative that stated a tunnel was the only permissible repair alternative to Devil’s Slide.
Construction began in 2007. The tunnels are over three-quarters of a mile long, with a total of 32 ventilation fans. The project’s cost of $439 million was fully funded with Federal Emergency Relief money, secured by U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, the tunnel’s namesake.
In a press release, Brian Kelly, the acting secretary of California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, praised Caltrans and the other groups that worked to make the tunnels a reality.
“Ingenuity, will, and perseverance combined to get this project done. The new tunnels are state of the art structures that blend well into the beautiful, natural surroundings on this stretch of Highway 1,” he said. “Thanks to the work of the men and women who dedicated themselves to completing this project, motorists and emergency responders will have a safer journey from this day forward.”
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
(Michael Pope -- WAMU) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has offered a compromise on his transportation funding plan in response to a legal objection by the state's attorney general. Virginia needs new and additional revenue for upkeep it's network of highways (about 58,000-miles worth) and mass transit systems. As cars get more fuel efficient, gas tax revenues are falling in many states.
McDonnel has already signed a bill that replaces the state's 17.5 cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline and a 6 percent levy on diesel fuel. That won't change. The portion of the plan under scrutiny involves sales tax.
Virginia attorney General Ken Cuccinelli had raised concerns about a provision that would have levied higher taxes on some more densely populated areas, including Northern Virginia.
The bill members of the General Assembly sent to the Governor's Mansion had a long list of localities from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would have been subject to a higher sales tax rate. The two-tier tax system was intended to raise money for road building, but Cuccinelli said it may have been unconstitutional.
Now the governor has a fix: ditch the parts about the two urban areas and extend the taxing authority to the entire state. McDonnell is sending an amendment back to the General Assembly that would create regional taxing authority to all 21 of the commonwealth's regional planning districts — two of which are Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
That means the other 19 districts could create taxing authorities for transportation dollars if they wanted to, but they don't have to.
The governor's amendments also cut the controversial $100 fee on hybrid cars to $64 a year, cut taxes paid on hotel stays, and reduced the titling tax on vehicle purchases.
McDonnell's 52 amendments will be considered by the General Assembly in a veto session April 3rd.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
The nation’s infrastructure received a D+, a slight improvement from the D issued in 2009, in an infrastructure report card released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), a group whose members stand to benefit from increased spending on the construction of roads, bridges, levees and dams.
The report grades infrastructure in sixteen sectors and prescribes a funding level necessary to bring each up to a B grade. That will require spending $454 billion annually over the next eight years, according to the group’s figures. However, the society estimates only $253 billion annually is currently earmarked for infrastructure repair and improvements, leaving a yearly funding gap of $200 billion.
At a news conference at the Earth Conservation Corps Pump House in southeast Washington – with a view of the structurally obsolete Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge spanning the Anacostia River – advocates of infrastructure spending sought to convey their message in easy to understand terms, acknowledging that ordinary citizens often do not see the costs associated with outdated infrastructure.
“The real goal is that Americans would have this conversation about infrastructure at their kitchen table,” said ASCE president Greg DiLoreto. “They’d sit down and they’d say, you know what? I was driving home last night, hit a pothole, and I ruined the front end of our car. What can be done about that?”
Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the co-founder of the bipartisan group Building America’s Future, said more Americans are beginning to realize that infrastructure is not free and does not last forever. Still, there is a large difference between what a group of civil engineers believes should be spent and what Congress and state and local governments are willing to spend.
“Members of both parties feel this way, predominately Republicans, that we can’t spend money on anything. That’s wrong,” Rendell says. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that investing in infrastructure is wasteful spending. There are some projects that are bad and we should ask for stricter accountability and transparency, but we’ve got to invest in growth.”
The sector with the highest grade (B-) is solid waste. Inland waterways and levees both received the lowest grade, D-. Grades were poor to mediocre in transportation sectors: aviation (D), bridges (C+), rail (C+), roads (D), and transit (D).
“First we have to repair the quality of the roads,” Rendell said. “But then we have to expand. We have to do additional ramps. We have to widen lanes. A good hunk of the money should be spent on mass transit. There’s got to be a balance.”
The report card breaks down infrastructure state by state. In Washington, D.C., for example, 99 percent of roads are rated poor or mediocre. The report card says driving on roads in need of repair costs District of Columbia motorists $311 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – $833 per motorist.
Winning the public’s support to raise revenues for infrastructure spending will depend on convincing the public they have to pay more, whether its taxes or user fees, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former Assistant Secretary of Transportation under the George W. Bush Administration.
"The challenge is being able to make the case about specific facilities that people know and understand, and what the implications would be if they have to close that facility,” said Frankel, who said the ASCE’s figures are sound, even if they are unrealistic in terms of what governments are willing to spend.
“We’re not going to raise that money. People acknowledge we have to invest more but there’s disagreement about how much we need to invest. Whatever funds are available we have to make better choices, prioritize and target,” Frankel said.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
The World Health Organization says 1.24 million people die each year as a result of traffic crashes, which are the leading cause of death for people between 15 and 29.
The Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, released Thursday, also estimates crashes injure between 20 and 50 million people each year.
Worldwide, the report says pedestrians and cyclists constitute 27% of all road deaths. But "in some countries this figure is higher than 75%, demonstrating decades of neglect of the needs of these road users in current transport policies, in favour of motorized transport."
(The above video, which has hair-raising footage of schoolchildren crossing roads in developing countries, provides ample visual evidence of this.)
There's also a strong link between income and road deaths. While wealthier countries have made progress, the toll is rising elsewhere. "91% of the world's fatalities on the roads occur in low-income and middle-income countries, even though these countries have approximately half of the world's vehicles."
(Read TN's report on the link between income and pedestrian fatalities in Newark, NJ)
Africa has the highest death rate per 100,000 residents — 24.1, compared with 16.1 in North and South America. The European Region has the highest inequalities in road trafﬁc fatality rates, with low-income countries having rates nearly three times higher than high-income countries (18.6 per 100 000 population compared to 6.3 per 100 000). The Western Paciﬁc and South East Asia regions have the highest proportion of motorcyclist deaths.
The report says the first step to reducing traffic mortality is a group of laws aimed at drinking and driving, speeding, and failing to use motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, and child restraints. Currently, only 28 percent of countries -- covering 7 percent of the world's population -- have laws addressing all of these factors.
Other steps are making road infrastructure safer, ensuring vehicles meet international crash testing standards, and improving post-crash care.
The report was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable arm of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City.
Read the entire report below.
Friday, March 08, 2013
"We love Orlando, we love Mickey Mouse, we love Walt Disney, Universal, the Church Street Facilities, that great mall -- Millenia Mall, but dadgum that I-4, that's a headache," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad told journalists in Orlando this week.
"We're going to fix that headache."
The Florida DOT is moving ahead with plans for the I-4 Ultimate project- a $2.1 billion dollar fix for I-4. The state's prescription includes adding toll lanes to a 21-mile stretch of the interstate running through the heart of Orlando. The department aims to begin construction in 2015 and complete it by 202o.
Prasad said four so-called "managed lanes" would be added to the interstate, leaving six lanes toll free. Tolls would be higher during heavy congestion periods and lower when traffic is light.
“We use tolls to only keep a certain number of people in the managed lanes so we can keep them going at 50 miles an hour," he said. "Say if I-4's ‘general purpose’ lanes – the toll-free lanes – are congested and you only charge a quarter, everybody’s going to be on it, and now you got another two lanes of gridlock. So what you do is you use tolls as a way to manage capacity coming in to the express lane.”
Prasad conceded there is a downside to building the extra lanes.
"There's going to be inconvenience- you're talking about $2 billion worth of work in a very constrained corridor- albeit a long corridor- getting done over five years. It's a lot of work."
However, Prasad said a similar $1.3 billion expansion project is successfully underway on South Florida's I-595. He said travel times along that stretch of road-- roughly 10 miles -- have only increased by an average of five minutes because of construction.
The state is putting up about half the $2.1 billion dollar cost of the I-4 Ultimate project and courting private investment to foot the remainder of the bill. Under a public-private partnership agreement with the state, private firms would also maintain and operate the toll lanes for a fixed length of time.
Prasad said the public private partnership allows Florida to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs.
"What the state gets is delivering a project 20 years in advance," he said.
"If we were to do this project on a regular pay-go mechanism, we would be building it for the next 20 or 25 years and chasing congestion like we always do."
Gregg Logan, a managing director at the real estate advisory firm RCLCO's Orlando office, says the I-4 upgrade will help the local economy.
"You don’t want businesses that are here already and thinking about expanding saying, 'Gee, do I want to stay here and deal with this gridlock'- or companies that might be thinking about coming and bringing jobs. We want them to be looking at [Orlando] as a good place to invest because we have our act together."
And he says Florida has to look for new ways to fund infrastructure - with a combination of local government funding, private investment and user fees- because federal government dollars are limited.
"Like it or not that seems to be a collective decision we’ve made as a society for that’s how we’re going to fund infrastructure," says Logan, who adds he's worried the US is falling behind other countries in transportation infrastructure.
"When you look around the world right now and you look at where big rail projects and transit projects are being done, you find that’s in China Brazil, the Middle East," says Logan.
"We’ve sort of forgotten that part of what has made us great and enabled us to have the growing economy we have is that we made these investments in infrastructure. Now we’ve taken that for granted."
The Florida DOT is promoting I-4's managed toll lanes as one part of a multi-modal transport system that could also include bus rapid transit to complement Central Florida's SunRail commuter train. SunRail is slated to begin service in 2014, while private rail companies are also talking about an Orlando to Miami service and a maglev rail linking Orlando International Airport with the Orange County Convention Center.
Eric Dumbaugh, the director of Florida Atlantic University's School of Urban and Regional Planning, supports the addition of managed lanes to I-4. The challenge for Florida, he says, is to develop viable alternatives to driving.
"Our transit system is inadequate in all of our metropolitan areas: it doesn’t take us where we need to go, our development doesn’t link up to it as well as it should, so we’re trapped in our cars."
But Dumbaugh says he's optimistic about Florida's ability to develop a truly comprehensive transportation system, because a new generation is now demanding alternatives to the car.
"You survey millennials- they don’t want to drive," says Dumbaugh, who highlights the efforts of a group of Florida Atlantic University students to set up a transit themed installation in Miami this weekend.
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
California has the worst track record in improving its highways, while spending twice the national average per mile.
That's according to a new study by the Reason Foundation. The libertarian think tank studied improvements to the nation’s highway infrastructure over a 20-year span, contrasted with money spent per mile. They looked into seven categories that represent the state of the highway system: fatalities, deficient bridges, percent of urban and rural interstate highways in poor pavement condition, percent of urban highways that are congested, percent of rural primary roads in poor pavement condition, and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow. The study noted how much each state improved –or worsened– in each category between 1989 and 2008. It turns out that overall, most of the country has made big improvements in highway conditions over the last 20 years.
Lead author Dave Hartgen says he’s not ignoring the problems with the national highway infrastructure, which he admits are plenty. (In its last report card for the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a “D.”) But he says the results prove the United States highway system isn’t “crumbling.”
“The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape,” he said in a press release. “The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good.”
While the study shows the country is improving, California noticeably lags behind. California was the only state that improved in just two categories: fatalities and deficient bridges. In contrast, 37 states improved in five out of the seven categories and 11 improved in all seven. California fared particularly badly in urban congestion and urban interstate road conditions. The state has two of the most congested metro areas in the country– the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. And the condition of its California’s urban Interstate roads, like the Bay Area’s hated I-880, have declined by more than 20 percent since 1989. Only Hawaii is worse. Over the twenty years covered by the study, the state spent $5.84 million per mile of highway– more than twice the national average of $2.85 million per mile.
But there is a silver lining: California has reduced its fatality rate by 1.1 fatalities per 100 million miles of highway. That’s the 13th best improvement in the country.
To learn more, check out the full study here.
Friday, March 01, 2013
(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) For the first time since they began fighting the construction of a highway ramp near their homes, a coalition of eight homeowners’ groups in Fairfax County and Alexandria are getting some official help in their battle with the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Alexandria city leaders are pledging to lobby state transportation officials to reconsider the placement next to the homeowners’ properties of the planned northern terminus of the future I-95 Express Lanes, 30 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes extending from the Edsall Road area in Fairfax County to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The $1 billion public-private project is scheduled for completion in December 2014.
Before winning the public support of Alexandria city hall, the group Concerned Residents of Landmark had been rebuffed by public officials in their bid to convince VDOT to stop construction.
One of the group’s leaders, Mary Hasty, whose home in Alexandria’s Overlook community will stand just 75 feet from the completed exit ramp, says time is running out.
“We’re racing against the clock, yes. And my understanding is that VDOT has accelerated the building project of the ramp because they want it to be done so the opposition will stop,” Hasty said.
VDOT will begin pile driving at the site next week, a significant step in the building process, but Hasty remains steadfast.
“Even if they’ve driven the piles, when the public health issue comes to light, they can stop,” she said.
Alexandria Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg says the city has a responsibility to represent its constituents.
“Science is convincing, and they had an outside firm that’s very prestigious do this research and it is very convincing,” Silberberg said. “We are certainly going to make the case from an environmental and health perspective.”
Concerned Residents of Landmark spent more than $70,000 to hire the national law firm of Shrader & Associates to perform a traffic and environmental analysis of the project. Their study found backed up traffic on the exit ramp will spew a cloud of pollution in excess of federal safety standards, the group said.
“My biggest concern with VDOT is that they failed to fulfill their requirements under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act,” said Hasty, who said VDOT did not perform localized studies of pollution impacts on her community.
VDOT officials dispute the homeowners’ accusations.
“Our studies were approved back in the end of 2011 which met all federal and regulatory requirements and that is why we are proceeding with construction today,” said John Lynch, VDOT’s Northern Virginia megaprojects director. “Their study used a different modeling technique and so we are trying to see why there is a big difference in the outcome of the two models.”
The Shrader study says 80,000 people in Fairfax County and Alexandria will be affected by pollution from vehicles exiting I-95, especially from particulate matter equivalent to what was spewed by the coal-fired GenOn electric plant that was closed down last year after a long battle with Alexandria.
“This is a health issue. It’s incumbent on our elected officials to carry this message to Richmond,” said Herb Treger, the vice president of the board of directors of Watergate at Landmark, a community of 4,000 residents that joined Hasty’s coalition. “It’s a government project. Government projects can always be stopped. I worked for the government for 40 years. I know they can be halted until the proper studies are done,” he added.
In order to determine if the project’s environmental impacts met federal safety standards, VDOT studied the location with the most traffic volume in the project corridor, the Springfield interchange, Lynch said. That “worst case scenario” conformed to federal standards clearing the way for construction throughout the corridor, Lynch said.
“For the localized ‘hotspot’ analysis there are guidelines from the EPA to choose different locations for your project and typically you choose the worst place,” Lynch said. “It’s a qualitative analysis. If you do it at the worst case scenario then you assume that it is fine everywhere else.”
VDOT has no plans to stop construction.
“We have no intention of going away,” Treger said.
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Thursday, February 28, 2013
Last year the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin thrust Sanford to the center of international attention -- and spurred a conversation about how urban design and public space shape civic behavior.
Now, Sanford is searching for a new vision for its future. The city has established Imagine Sanford, a project aimed at creating a solid identity for the city -- and a plan for how to get there. The 13-member steering committee is made up of community leaders who meet monthly while the plan is being formulated.
Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett says although the project started in January 2012, since Trayvon Martin's death the pressure has been on to get the project moving.
Although Sanford has an enviable downtown, he says, more needs to be done to link up the distinct areas of the city, including the historic African American neighborhood of Goldsboro.
"We haven't really done a very good job of making Goldsboro part of the city, so to speak," he says.
"You've got historic Goldsboro Boulevard- we want to take that and do the beautification on through 13th [street] which ties that in to [US Highway] 17-92 and what's happening on the east side of town too."
Some of the other proposals for the city include welcome signs and a system of hiking and cycling trails through Sanford and around Lake Monroe.
Triplett says he wants to make sure the trail system connects to the SunRail commuter train station.
"Some people say we're disadvantaged because of the placement of our SunRail [but] we're kind of blessed in a way because we've got a blank slate out there."
Triplett says the vacant land around the station will allow for new development linked to the rail- including shops and apartments.
"We've got a great opportunity over the next ten years- we've just got to make sure we do it right the first time."
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW) Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said Tuesday that cracks in the pontoons for the state Route 520 floating bridge project were largely the result of a flawed design by the state.
The pontoons are the floating part of the 520 bridge across Lake Washington, the longest floating bridge in the world. They’re huge concrete structures that support the roadway; the larger pontoons are about the length of a football field and weigh the same as 23 Boeing 747 jetliners.
Last year, cracks were discovered in the pontoons for the new bridge, which prompted then-Governor Chris Gregoire to convene an expert panel to review the situation.
The panel released their findings on Tuesday, and found two reasons for the cracks: the contractor didn’t follow the state’s engineering guidelines as it was building the pontoons, and the state had a faulty design.
WSDOT never ran models that tested the pontoon design.
Specifically, the cracks occurred when the steel bands were used to compress the concrete pontoons, a process called post-tensioning. Originally, those bands were inserted through the lengths of the pontoons.
The fix involves using the same technique but in a different direction. WSDOT said it would insert the steel bands across the width of the pontoons and compress the concrete, which should eliminate the major cracks.
Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond said her department did not follow standards of good practice. She said WSDOT never ran models that tested the pontoon design.
“Engineering is all about analyzing and testing, and checking, whether it’s a pontoon or bridge or highway off ramp. And so I think a step was missed,”she said.
Hammond said she didn’t know why that step was missed, but she said she requested an internal review and heads might roll. “What are the accountabilities for those employees?” she said.
The development comes at a time when there will be a change in leadership at WSDOT. Last week, Governor Jay Inslee announced a new transportation secretary, effective next month.
Hammond said the pontoon problems have been frustrating for her. “I know I’ve taken a very strident approach to lessons learned, what exactly happened, how do we go after making sure this never happens again. And as I leave, if that’s what I can leave the agency, an awareness of what we did wrong and how we can improve ourselves for the future, then I would say that at least that’s a positive note,” she said.
Hammond said the contractor, Kiewit-General Joint Venture, will work to fix the pontoons. The state has about $200 million in its contingency fund to cover the costs. WSDOT will have to negotiate with the contractor to determine which party pays for the repairs of the different cracks, because both WSDOT and Kiewit-General are responsible for the problem.
The work means that the floating section of the bridge will probably open in the fall of 2015, Hammond said. The contract for the floating bridge calls for the project to be open by July 2015, although officials had publicly said they hoped it would be open by the end of 2014.
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Wednesday, February 27, 2013
(Cy Musiker - San Francisco, KQED) The San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge is having its moment.
The new eastern span opens in the fall. And on March 5, artist Leo Villareal will unveil the Bay Lights, a massive light sculpture he's designed for the suspension section connecting Treasure Island to San Francisco.
Working with CalTrans crews, Villareal has hung 25,000 LED lights on the cables on the north side of the bridge.
The project will cost about $8 million, all of it raised by private donations. And Villareal said it will pay off by attracting $97 million in economic activity to San Francisco.
"Really?" I asked. "People are going to fly here to see it?"
"Yes," he said. "Public art is a powerful magnet. Many people are drawn to this."
We were sitting on the Embarcadero, just north of the Bay Bridge. Bells were sounding behind us in the clock tower of the Ferry Building. But Villareal was focused on the sweeping view he had to the south, of the suspension span and the patterns forming in the lights he’s hung.
"For me its all about discovery," he said. "Figuring out what it can do. I don’t know in advance. There’s a lot of chance and randomness in my process, so I’m here to make discoveries."
In his lap Villareal held a remote desktop connected to a computer in the bridge's central anchorage, with which he was orchestrating the lights as he practiced for the show's opening night.
"This is a program that we wrote," he said. "It's called Particle Universe. And we can change their mass, the velocity, gravity. All these things we find in nature. As an artist, I use all these equations and rules as material, really just play with them. I'm just sitting here waiting for something exciting or compelling to happen. When it does I capture that moment, and that becomes part of the mix."
As Villareal spoke, he made the lights seem to fall from the tops of the cables to the bottom. Then a shadow moved across the lights from Treasure Island toward the city, and back again, and then the lights rippled, as though reflecting the waves on the bay below.
"You would think you wouldn't be able to improvise with software," said Villareal. "But I've found ways on involving chance and working intuitively with software. You can spend more time with this that a sign in Las Vegas or Time Square that does one thing for one minute and then repeats over and over again. The other thing that's important for viewers is that they don't feel anxiety that they missed something. At any point that you're ready to jump in, there it is."
I asked Villareal now that he’s spent so much time with the Bay Bridge, the commuter workhorse of the Bay Area, what he makes of its personality. It’s a question he struggled to answer.
"You don’t want to mess with it," he said. "You know I feel a lot of respect for it. I want to add something and augment what's here. These are the icons of the Bay Area, the bridges. I think there's also an honesty and integrity to the piece. That's very similar to what the bridge is like. I've done a couple of cable walks and gone to the top of the bridge and was amazed at how efficient it all is."
Villareal is a regular at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, and he says he wants people to gather on the Embarcadero to see the lights, the same way people gather around campfires out on the desert.
It seemed to be working that night as passersby gathered nearby, pointing up to the bridge.
"It looks kind of like some kind of star constellation to me," said Amy Gallie, one of the onlookers. "It becomes ethereal instead of something which is so prosaic that we're used to looking at."
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
In a final attempt to reach a compromise on measures to raise substantial new revenues for transportation before the scheduled adjournment of the legislative session, Virginia House and Senate negotiators struck a deal that replaces the state’s gas tax with a lower tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, but raises the sales tax.
The deal eliminates the state’s seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon gas tax, replacing it with a three-and-a-half percent wholesale tax. It also raises the state sales tax to pay for roads, but not by as much as the governor wanted. The sales tax would increase from 5 to 5.3 percent under the deal reached by a conference of ten legislators. A $100 registration fee for hybrid and electronic vehicles is also included.
The deal, which would raise approximately $869 million a year when fully implemented, now heads to the House and Senate for floor votes by the end of the week. While passage in the Republican-led House seems certain, the deal may run into trouble in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each hold 20 seats. Some Democrats remain unhappy with the plan to use general fund (sales tax) revenue to pay for transportation.
“The reduction in the gas tax makes no sense to me,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). “Obviously I want to raise money for transportation… but it’s a little bit of a shell game, quite frankly. Historically we’ve used sales tax for education and this is a major step in the other direction.”
Petersen calls the $100 registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles “asinine.”
“We want people to drive fuel efficient vehicles. Why would we penalize them?” he said.
To appease Northern Virginia lawmakers, the negotiators included Governor McDonnell’s proposal to use $300 million in increased sales tax revenue to finance the Silver Line rail extension to Dulles Airport.
The $5.5 billion Silver Line project is managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has lobbied Richmond for funding in order to offset projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road. Those tolls are supposed to pay for 75 percent of Phase II of the Silver Line’s construction cost under the current financing arrangement.
‘When it comes to the Silver Line the $300 million is vital to future toll mitigation. I would hate to think this opportunity would be lost,” said MWAA chief executive Jack Potter.
The negotiators’ deal created an unexpected potential difficulty for the Silver Line extension. The agreement requires that Loudoun County approve a countywide commercial and industrial tax (C&I) in order to be eligible for state transportation dollars for local projects. However, in 2012 the county created two special tax districts around its future Silver Line station stops. Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles District) says an additional C&I tax would make the county uncompetitive with surrounding jurisdictions in attracting businesses.
“If the Legislature moves forward with this proposal it would force us to reexamine our funding mechanism for Metro [Silver Line] and create a great deal of doubt,” Letourneau said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
Loudoun's participation in the Silver Line project is vital to eventually extending rail to Dulles International Airport.
In addition to the special tax districts for the coming commuter rail, Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors has in place a special tax district for businesses along its busy Rt. 28 corridor. A C&I tax of 12.5 cents per $100 assessed property value would render the county at a steep disadvantage to neighboring Fairfax, Letourneau said.
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