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Transportation Nation

Threatened Tortoises Make Way for Central Florida Toll Road

Friday, January 04, 2013

A gopher tortoise captured from a burrow on the Wekiva Parkway site (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Construction of a 25-mile long toll road that will complete a beltway around Orlando is due to begin in February, but before building on the Wekiva Parkway can start, threatened gopher tortoises have to be moved out of the way.

The $1.7 billion  roadway project is being showcased as an example of careful transportation planning through an environmentally sensitive area. In addition to relocating threatened species, the project will include fencing and wildlife bridges to minimize the risk of animal- vehicle collisions, and much of the roadway will be elevated.

About 260 gopher tortoise burrows have been identified around the first few miles of the parkway slated for construction. Backhoes are used to scoop away the bulk of the dirt, taking care not to disturb the burrow itself. The tunnel is marked with a long PVC pipe so the backhoe operator doesn't dig too deep.

Biologist Joel Johnson (left) directs a tortoise excavation (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Every few feet the backhoe driver stops, and a biologist - like environmental consultant Joel Johnson - climbs into the crater to dig with a shovel

"When it gets down to the more intricate part of the excavation, you’ll dive in with an arm to pull the tortoise out," says Johnson.

"At some point it’s a personal touch. The iconic thing is this backhoe here digging these huge holes in the ground, but the action is really in a couple of feet, you know, five feet around that burrow."

Gopher tortoises are powerful diggers. A typical burrow could extend 30 feet lengthwise and slope down to a depth of 25 feet.

After digging down a few feet, the backhoe driver stops to allow some manual shovel work (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Getting the tortoises out isn't easy.

"They are surprisingly strong, like most crevice dwelling and burrowing animals, and once they get in there and decide they don't want to come out, it becomes a matter of leverage," says Johnson.

"We have ones that dig as fast as we are. We're chasing them," he says.

"And then sometimes they come up and they look like a zombie coming out of a grave, out of the dirt right after you take a swipe."

Two backhoes, two shovel wielding biologists... but no sign of a tortoise in this burrow (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The gopher tortoise is important to Florida's ecology because other animals use its burrow  to shelter and find food.

"They call [the gopher tortoise] a keystone species," says Mike Dinardo, the environmental coordinator for the project.

"That burrow provides refuge for others escaping fire, maintaining humidity and escaping heat."

The gopher tortoises' room mates  include the indigo snake, the gopher frog and the pine snake, as well as crickets and other insects.

Insects like this one share the gopher tortoise burrow (photo by Matthew Peddie)

The gopher relocation project started mid December, so far capturing more  than 40 tortoises. It could take another few weeks to dig up the remaining burrows.

Once the animals get a health check up they’ll be moved to a ranch in Okeechobee County, South Florida.

Environmental coordinator Mike Dinardo and the tortoise containers (photo by Matthew Peddie)

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Transportation Nation

It's Toll Roads vs. Surface Streets in Race to the Orlando Airport

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

At the starting line, outside Orlando City Hall

Thursday morning, 9am: two law-abiding drivers, two routes to the airport, one winner.

WMFE reporter Matthew Peddie and news director Mark Simpson wanted to figure out the fastest route the airport from downtown Orlando. In a thoroughly unscientific experiment, they put two kinds of roads to the test. The toll road to the airport tacks on distance but promises a speedier ride. Surface roads are free and more direct -- but are studded with traffic lights.

Whose route was victorious?  Listen to the radio story, below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Controversy on the Texas Prairie: Road to Nowhere - or a Must for Houston's Future?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Will a highway cut through Texas' Katy Prairie?

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News)  Houston is preparing to complete an 88-mile ring road this weekend -- as controversy continues to simmer around another, even larger ring road that critics say will induce sprawl.  That road, called the Grand Parkway, would cut through the environmentally sensitive Katy prairie (pictured.)

But for now, after 23 years of construction, the final section of the city’s outer beltway, called the Sam Houston Tollway, will be complete come Saturday.

It’s the second road to circle Houston. The first was Loop 610, which was completed in 1976.

Alan Clark, the director of transportation and planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, says the final $400 million dollar section will serve the rapidly growing communities in Northeast Harris County. “It should shorten their travel time significantly," he said. "And by that I mean maybe twenty minutes, thirty minutes - it could be even longer.”

But critics argue that it induces suburban sprawl and doesn't fix congestion problems in Houston's denser, more populated areas.

Those arguments are getting even more heated around another concentric road that has only just begun its giant circle around Greater Houston.

It's called the Grand Parkway, and it would be the third road to ring around Houston.  Some want it, some loathe it. It would be a massive 180-mile toll road encircling greater Houston, and it's been part of the city's planning since 1962. Less than thirty miles have been built so far, but 14 more could be added soon. That's because the Texas Department of Transportation recently announced that it expects to have the nearly half -billion dollars it needs to construct the next segment.

With Houston poised to gain 3.5 million people over the next thirty years, proponents of the road say it's a crucial part of the region's transportation system. Critics say the road is superfluous, arguing that the money should be spent to tackle existing congestion problems in places where more people live and commute. But opposition to the road heats up even more over this next segment -- known as "E" -- because it will cut through the environmentally sensitive Katy Prairie, west of Houston.

You can listen to the story - and see a slideshow - at KUHF.

For more on KUHF's coverage of Segment E -- including a look at the route it would take, and reaction from locals and one tenacious environmentalist -- visit here.

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Transportation Nation

It's Official: TxDOT Takes On Houston's Grand Parkway Project

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Last month Harris County commissioners voted in favor of letting the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) build a portion of the Grand Parkway.  The state has accepted the job and says it will construct three segments of the 180-mile ring road which will loop around Greater Houston. Harris County stepped back from the project after learning that TxDOT expects to have $425 million dollars available for the road this year. TxDOT spokesperson Karen Amacker says it’s now up to the department to" deliver the transportation system the state needs and we believe that the Grand Parkway is an important part of that system."

Grand Parkway Segment Map

TxDOT will be developing all of the segments located in Harris County – three out of the proposed toll road’s eleven segments. Amacker says Segment E, which would connect Interstate 10 with 290, is likely to move forward first because “it’s the most shovel-ready.”  She says it’s also one of the more “financially robust” segments of the Grand Parkway. The 14-mile section would run through the Katy Prairie and is expected to cost around $400 million dollars.

“It is certainly possible that the commission could identify funding for Segment E before the end of this year," says Amacker.  "As for the other segments of the Grand Parkway, it will be a challenge, as it is with funding any transportation project in this challenging environment.”

Amacker says money for the Grand Parkway will come from a number of sources, including the State Highway Fund and bond proceeds. But the state is running low on money for new construction projects, so it’s unlikely funding for the other segments will be available anytime soon. As for Segment E, Harris County has yet to obtain a federal permit that would allow wetlands to be filled in for the construction of the highway. And without it, Segment E can’t be built.

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Transportation Nation

The Paradox of the Dulles Airport Toll Road

Thursday, December 30, 2010

(Washington, D.C. -- David Schultz, WAMU) Nowadays, the cash toll roads generate is often put toward more than just the maintenance and upkeep of the road itself.

That's what's happening in Northern Virginia: the Dulles Toll Road connects the D.C. region to Dulles International Airport. The local Airports Authority here is using money from the road to pay for a new rail line that will run parallel to the road.

But how much money are they using? Therein lies the rub...

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Transportation Nation

HOT Lanes to Launch in Houston, Let Drivers Pay to Avoid Traffic

Thursday, November 04, 2010

(Houston, TX –– Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houston is planning to let solo drivers pay to drive in a special, faster lane, for the right price. The plan is expected to reduce traffic overall, though it raises some equity concerns that rich drivers can buy a faster commute while everyone else pays the price.

In its latest budget, Metro put aside $20 million in federal funds to turn 84 miles of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. That means cars with just one person in them will be able to pay a fee to access the HOV lane and skip the stop and go traffic. The lanes be controlled by a transit agency, not the Harris County Toll Road Authority, the agency normally in charge of toll roads in the area.

Houston Metro president and CEO George Greanias says the existing HOV lanes are practically empty around 80 percent of the time. "With the exception of just some peak periods, there’s usually additional capacity there that’s not getting used," says Greanias. "In the meantime, you’ve got the lanes adjacent to HOV lanes that are congested due to all the heavy traffic."

Map of Proposed Hot Lanes

Carpools, vanpools, and buses will be able to

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Transportation Nation

The Furner Problem: How Globalized Capital Complicates Privatization

Friday, October 22, 2010

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) – This week, in an online excerpt from his new book Griftopia, Rolling Stone muckraker Matt Taibbi offers a startling revelation: “There are now highways, airports, parking garages, toll roads—almost everything you can think of that isn’t nailed down and some things that are—for sale, to bidders unknown, around the world.”

Taibbi says he dropped his fork when he first learned, in 2009, that the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other pieces of infrastructure had been offered “for sale” (or long-term lease, as the case may be). He was even more alarmed to learn that the investors behind these deals were in many cases—brace yourself—not American.

This won’t be news to readers in Chicago, where the Skyway toll bridge was leased to a Spanish-Australian consortium in 2004 (five years before Taibbi dropped his fork), nor to readers in Indiana, where, in June 2006, the same consortium took over operations of the Indiana Toll Road. The dialogue surrounding this latter deal involved a fair amount of xenophobia. At a Privatization Conference in September of 2006, Ryan Kitchell, the Indiana Official who lead the team that struck the already-triumphant lease deal, told a roomful of bankers and DOT finance officials that this “Furner problem” (think “foreigner” with a flat midwestern drawl) had taken them by surprise. People in the finance world, he said, took for granted that money knows no borders. L’argent sans frontieres, as the French toll operator APRR, now partially owned by an Australian fund, might say.

Taibbi’s book excerpt, it should be said, does pour some new gasoline (or crude oil) on the fire by focusing his umbrage on the presence of Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds among those parties looking to turn our infrastructure into cash flow. He draws connections between a Nixon-era OPEC embargo, the war in Iraq, and the seemingly bum deal Chicago got in privatizing its parking meters.

Let’s set aside for a moment the argument over the virtues and pitfalls of infrastructure privatization. Taibbi’s piece certainly demonstrates that the “Furner problem” has legs. And that raises, in turn, important questions: If privatization continues, as seems likely since the Obama Administration and governors from both parties seem friendly to the idea, should some preference be given to bidders with American investor pools? Should lawmakers try to restrict foreign investment in the proposed National Infrastructure Bank?

Such economic jingoism gets tricky, as evidenced in this riveting video clip from a Texas Transportation Committee meeting last year, captured by filmmaker Bill Molina, director of Truth Be Tolled. There’s a lot going on in this exchange between Commissioner Ted Houghton and Hank Gilbert, the founder of Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), but if you can get past Houghton’s namecalling (he calls Gilbert a “bigot”), he actually makes an interesting point: If China, say, is loaning us money at interest (for profit) so that we can fund our infrastructure stimulus, then how American are our roads anyway?

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories

Monday, July 19, 2010

Signal problems or sabotage among suspected causes for Indian train crash which killed 60 (Times of India)

Republican opposed to higher gas taxes, privatizing roads takes over powerful Texas transportation committee (Austin American Statesman)

Pay by phone parking?  It's coming to DC (Wash Post)

NYC makes traffic lights longer, runs shuttle buses to make city more friendly to elderly (NY Times)

Nazi airport becomes "wild and free" park in Berlin (LA Times)

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