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How Quickly Will Caltrans Embrace Complete Streets Guidelines?

Though it may seem esoteric, one of the biggest impediments to designing streets for people is the over-reliance on design standards that have long privileged movement of vehicles over any other consideration on the streets. That’s why advocates cheered when U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood published a policy paper recently that, at least in word, placed bicycles and pedestrians on equal footing with motorists.

“Every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems,” read one line of the statement.

Yet, an advisory policy paper won’t change the streets overnight and that’s where reforming the design manuals and guidelines at state departments of transportation is imperative, work that groups like Congress for New Urbanism have made a priority at the national level.

Various cities in California that have tried to rebuild their streets to be safer for pedestrians and bicycle riders have often been met with resistance from traffic engineers and city attorneys who rely on Caltrans manuals and standards that are good for moving traffic, not always for protecting vulnerable users.

“The Caltrans Highway Design Manual [HDM] has been the bible for highway engineers for the past half century and has guided the development of California’s freeway system,” said Hans Larsen, Acting Director of San Jose’s Department of Transportation. “Unfortunately, the HDM has also become the default gospel for designing local streets by many city engineers.”

Larsen said the standards that make freeways good for carrying large quantities of vehicles at high speeds are not context appropriate on most streets in urban areas. “Even today, the Caltrans HDM continues to promote such commandments as ‘a design speed as high as feasible should be used’ and ‘the basic lane width shall be 12 feet,’” he said.

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Study: Clean-Car Subsidies Alone Can’t Meet White House’s Climate Goals

Government subsidies for hybrid and electric cars, while "politically seductive," will fail to achieve the Obama administration's national pollution-reduction goals if they are not coupled with a significant increase in fuel prices, according to a new study by Harvard University researchers.

The team at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs used U.S. Department of Energy economic models to evaluate six possible outcomes for Washington's newly reinvigorated push for a 17-percent cut in U.S. emissions by 2020, in keeping with President Obama's pledge at the global Copenhagen climate talks.

Five of the Harvard team's six outcomes assumed a future carbon price of $30 per ton (higher than the price envisioned in the House-passed climate bill) that rises over time, with other tweaks added to the system, including continued government tax credits for hybrid and electric vehicles, an immediate 50-cent hike in the gas tax, and more increases in auto fuel-efficiency standards.

The researchers concluded that taxpayer-funded clean-vehicle credits "are expensive and not particularly effective at reducing CO2 emissions, at least in the near term." In order to trim transportation's 30-percent contribution to total U.S. emissions, the Harvard team recommended an all-of-the-above approach:

[O]ptions now being discussed in Congress cannot by themselves achieve the significant reductions in the transportation sector needed to meet the Obama administration’s targets for total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The most effective policy for reducing CO2 emissions and oil imports from transportation is to spur the development and sale of more efficient vehicles with strict efficiency standards while increasing the cost of driving with strong fuel taxes. Without addressing both, CO2 emissions from the U.S. transportation sector will continue to grow.

Of course, higher gas taxes are as anathema to politicians as clean-car subsidies are alluring -- which is leaving green groups wary of a bipartisan Senate proposal to include a new motor-fuel fee in climate legislation. The oil industry has said it prefers a new carbon tax on fuel because companies can more easily pass on the costs to consumers, attributing the resulting gas-price hikes to congressional climate action.

From the Harvard researchers' perspective, however, expensive fuel is merely a means to an end.

"A fundamental insight from this study," they concluded, "is that if one wishes to reduce U.S. CO2 emissions or net petroleum imports from the transportation sector during 2010-2030, consumers cannot continue to drive more and more each year ... in this study, higher fuel prices are the mechanism to reduce vehicle-miles traveled."
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White House: Transit Inflation Outstripping Private Transportation

The White House's annual economic report, in addition to its endorsement of inter-city rail and transit spending, also sheds more light on transit inflation, which is often reported anecdotally in the many cities struggling with fare hikes but rarely put in statistical terms by economists.

NYC-transit-fare-hikes-poised-for-passage_1.jpg(Photo: UPI)
In the appendices of its report, the president's Council on Economic Advisers estimated the overall U.S. consumer price index (CPI) at 214.537 in 2009, with the period of 1982-1984 signifying the 100 level. In general, then, prices for major goods have more than doubled over the past two-and-a-half decades.

The changes in price for what Americans pay for food (218.249 in 2009) and housing, including utilities (217.057), have kept pace with the overall CPI, according to the White House. But in the specific category of transportation, the difference was notable -- private transportation, a category that includes new or used vehicles and motor fuel, had a CPI of 174.762 in 2009, while transit's CPI hit 236.348 last year.

To be sure, transit costs were not the most out-off-control expense singled out by the White House. Inflation for medical care reached 375.613 in 2009, and the cost of shelter, not including utilities, was 249.354 last year.

Still, the palpable disparity between the costs of private and public modes of transportation is a trend that should be catching the attention of policymakers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
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White House Economic Report Touts TIGER, High-Speed Rail, Transit

The White House Council of Economic Advisers' first annual report under President Obama made headlines today for its gloomy job-creation outlook, but tucked inside its 462 pages is a tangible reflection of a changed outlook on transportation policy under the new administration.

NA_BE235_whecon_G_20100211182945.jpgTop White House economic adviser Christina Romer, at right, holds up yesterday's report. (Photo: WSJ)
In a section entitled Rescuing the Economy From the Great Recession, for example, the president's economic aides name-check a series of "Responsible Policies to Spur Job Creation."

One of those policies -- which neither the House nor the Senate has chosen to add to their jobs bills this winter -- is an expansion of the stimulus law's merit-based TIGER grant program, which many transport reformers view as a step towards a leveling of the playing field between transit and roads. Here's the relevant section of the White House report:

The experience of the Recovery Act suggests that spending on infrastructure is an effective way to put people back to work while creating lasting investments that raise future productivity. For this reason, the Administration is supporting an additional investment of up to $50 billion in roads, bridges, airports, transit, rail, and water projects. Funneling some of these funds through programs such as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program at the Department of Transportation, which is a competitive grant program, could offer a way to ensure that the projects with the highest returns receive top priority.

The economic report also touts the value of clean transport spending in its section on energy policies to aid adaptation to climate change.

"Investments in high-speed rail and public transit will increase energy efficiency by improving both access and reliability, thus making it possible for more people to switch to rail or public transit from autos or other less energy-efficient forms of transportation," the president's advisers wrote.

Will this White House support, however buried it might be, help persuade congressional leaders to add more transit and rail aid to any jobs bill that comes down the pike?

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How Google and Portland’s TriMet Set the Standard for Open Transit Data

With national data transparency efforts like President Obama's Open Data Initiative and municipal projects like New York City's Big Apps or San Francisco's Data SF, government agencies across the country have been opening their raw data sets, some more reluctantly than others. With the debut of City-Go-Round and media coverage generated about transit data transparency, many transit operators have taken steps to release their schedule and route information to third party developers, who in turn use the data to develop an array of applications to improve rider experience.

If those agencies haven't already formatted their data in the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), the industry standard, they are likely rushing to do so now. How Google's specification became the common language for transit data is an interesting story and, as with many tales of transit innovation, it begins in Portland, Oregon.

After traveling internationally in the summer of 2005, Bibiana McHugh, an IT Manager at Portland's TriMet transit agency, was frustrated that she couldn't access transit information on a mapping program like Mapquest and certainly couldn't plan a trip by transit with the same ease as a driving trip. When she returned stateside, she sent inquiries to Mapquest, Yahoo!, and Google, asking each if they had plans to incorporate transit data into their mapping services and if TriMet could partner in the endeavor.

Of the three, only Google replied. As it happened, software engineer Chris Harrelson had been using his 20 percent time to interface transit data with Google Maps, what became the Google Transit Trip Planner. TriMet worked with Google to prepare TriMet's data set in a format that would work for Google Maps, a difficult task, according to McHugh.

"Transit data is extremely complex," she said. "There is a temporal element and spacial element and it takes a relational database in order to manage all of that information."

She added, "A lot of agencies have this fear that it will be misrepresented or won’t be used accurately."

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Quantifying the Value of San Francisco’s Unaccepted Streets

As we have reported, Berkeley Professor Nicholas de Monchaux's Local Code proposal for activating San Francisco's "Unaccepted Streets" called for transforming the patchwork of 529 acres of underutilized alleys, street-ends, and pathways into a network of green spaces. Were San Francisco to build out the more than 1500 identified sites, de Monchaux estimates that the city would save $4.8 million in air pollution mitigation, $6.9 million in energy savings, and a staggering $1 billion in stormwater infrastructure.

From the proposal:

The final outcome of our proposal is a pedestrian network of places, and a virtual network of spaces as well. A focused web threaded through real and virtual fabric; our systematic interventions turn away from the idea of urban infrastructure driven by cars and highways to a more robust, and perhaps natural, notion of urbanity. Instead of the old metaphors of lungs and circulation, we propose a robust, networked logic of health and social welfare, a distributed immune system for the 21st-century metropolis.

While the project didn't win UCLA's WPA 2.0 design competition, Professor de Monchaux and the five other WPA 2.0 finalists were afforded an audience in late November with President Barack Obama's Director of the Office of Urban Affairs Adolfo Carrion and HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims, who both apparently showed great interest.

"My goal now is to initiate some of those conversations with local agencies," said de Monchaux. "I think a very interesting next step would be to implement some of the designs locally, create a community based laboratory to see how these designs would perform."

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Stimulus Spotlight: Oregon’s Solar Highway

3078005880_7eeb96b270.jpgThe first of Oregon’s "solar highway" installations, which are receiving $2 million from the federal stimulus. (Photo: ODOT via Flickr)

Washington’s normally frenetic pace slows down in August, when humid
weather and the absence of Congress combine to give the capital some
recharging time.

But this month also marks a half-year since the economic stimulus became law, giving Streetsblog Capitol Hill an opening
to examine some of the innovative — and potentially controversial –
transportation projects getting funded by the Obama administration’s
$787 billion recovery effort.

Our first stop is Oregon, a hotbed for
environmentally friendly transport policy where the ODOT uses about 47
million kilowatt-hours (kWH) of electricity each year to run lights,
signals, and other illuminated features. To start offsetting its power
needs with clean energy, the agency has built the nation’s first "solar highway" system, installing linear arrays of photovoltaic panels along roadside land.

"Our
long-term goal is to offset 100 percent of our energy use with
renewable resources," Allison Hamilton, project director at ODOT’s
office of innovative partnerships, said in an interview.

Hamilton’s
office estimates that filling that power need would require about 120
miles of roadside arrays, or less than 1 percent of state-owned land.
The first "solar highway" project, in the Portland suburb of Tualatin,
can be monitored on the Web and is expected to generate about 128,000 kWH a year.

That may not seem like much, given that the nation’s largest solar array, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, generates
30 million kWH annually. But ODOT is gearing up for a major expansion
of its "solar highways," with a planned 3-megawatt installation — more
than 25 times the size of the Tualatin site — slated to receive $2
million from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus law.

The
stimulus money for the "solar highway," however, comes from the
Department of Energy’s (DoE) pot, not the U.S. DOT’s. Despite the
project’s use for transportation purposes, it cannot be considered a
transport initiative.

"Both the DoE and DOT like the whole
idea of the solar highway," Hamilton explained, "but the strings
attached are making it difficult."

The 3-megawatt array, to be located in the town of West Linn, also has run into difficulties from some locals who question the environmental
consequences of the panel installation as well as the
effect on their property values.

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Obama Talks Urban Policy as LaHood Seeks More Urban Transpo Money

obama_fl.jpgObama during the "sprawl is over" speech last February
The White House Office of Urban Affairs, which has drawn criticism for its inactivity at a rocky economic time for the nation's cities, capped a day-long summit today with a speech by President Obama.

Referencing his formative years as a Chicago community organizer, Obama urged the mayors, governors, and Cabinet secretaries who attended the urban policy summit to think of cities and suburbs as interacting parts of the same metropolitan organism.

At one point, the president sounded a David Brooks-esque note, describing sprawl -- the days of which he declared "over" in February -- as "creating new pressures and problems [but] also opening up new opportunities":

Now, the first thing we need to recognize is that this is not just a time of challenge for America's cities; it's also a time of great change. Even as we've seen many of our central cities continuing to grow in recent years, we've seen their suburbs and exurbs grow roughly twice as fast. It spreads homes and jobs and businesses to a broader geographic area.

And this transformation is creating new pressures and problems, of course, but it's also opening up new opportunities, because it's not just our cities that are hotbeds of innovation anymore. It's our growing metropolitan areas.

Later in his speech, however, Obama criticized a pattern of Washington policy-making that "encouraged sprawl, congestion, and pollution" instead of promoting transit and smart growth.

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How Much Operating Aid is Your Local Transit Agency Getting?

President Obama has signed into law a $106 billion war funding bill that includes a provision allowing local transit agencies to spend 10 percent of their stimulus money on operating costs.

That sounds good … but how much money are we actually talking about? According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA):

  • St. Louis’ Metro system can spend up to $4.6 million in stimulus cash on operating. When added to the $7.5 million in FTA aid approved on Wednesday, that fills about one-quarter of the transit agency’s $50 million shortfall. 
  • San
    Francisco can spend up to $17.4 million in stimulus cash on operating.
    Total size of the local BART’s deficit for next year: $23 million, even after fare hikes take effect.
  • The
    New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area can spend up to $118.2 million in
    stimulus cash on transit operating. Total size of the deficit for next
    year at New York’s MTA alone: $1 billion.
  • Los
    Angeles can spend up to $38.8 million in stimulus cash on transit
    operating. Total size of the system’s deficit for next year: $200 million, as my colleague Damien Newton has reported.

If your home city isn’t one listed above, check out the apportionment tables available for download here.

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House Transpo Leaders United — in Frustration With the White House

Senior members of the House transportation committee today fired a warning shot at those pushing an 18-month extension of existing federal law, putting the Obama administration and key senators on notice that their $450 billion proposal would move forward this year.

374706082_7380904145.jpgHow often does this man hold a shovel? (Photo: World Economic Forum via flickr)

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the transportation panel's chairman, described a delay in long-term funding as a risk to jobs and growth opportunities that were created by the recent stimulus law.

And Oberstar made no attempt to hide his disdain for the Obama economic advisers who helped trim transit's share of that stimulus plan. Holding up a red shovel for a phalanx of photographers, Oberstar quipped: "There are folks in the economic gang at the White House who never had a shovel in their hands or a callus on their fingers."

His GOP counterpart on the committee, Rep. John Mica (FL), vowed to join Oberstar in amassing House support for a transportation bill that could clear the lower chamber of Congress by the end of September -- though even their allies concede that Senate passage is a long shot.

"I view this as the most critical jobs bill before Congress ... we're going to do it together, one way or another, come hell or high water," Mica said, adding flourish as he advised critics not to "underestimate Oberstar and Mica."

Several advocacy and interest groups are joining the committee's effort to push a six-year transportation bill across the finish line. The Laborers' International Union of North America released a statement that plainly said, "We agree with Chairman Oberstar that the surface transportation bill should not be delayed."

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which represents the nation's transit agencies, also lent its voice in support. "Our members need this bill to pass as soon as it possibly can," APTA President William Millar told Streetsblog.

Yet the key for Oberstar and Mica may be how many senators endorse their call for a long-term transportation re-write this year. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood already has admitted that the "reform" he called for as part of his 18-month extension would have a slim chance of passing, given the contentious debate that's likely to erupt simply over averting bankruptcy for the nation's highway trust fund.

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