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Posts from the "Bridges" Category

The Nowtopian 10 Comments

An Unfinished Freeway Revolt: Car-Free Vancouver Day

fwys_equal_climate_crime_8186.jpgBanner at Car-Free Vancouver Day
gateway_sux_8187.jpgThe organization fighting the massive freeway plan in Vancouver

I’m just back from a fantastic five-day visit to Vancouver to help celebrate and publicly ponder Car-Free Vancouver Day. The event started six years ago along East Vancouver’s Commercial Drive (“the Drive” as it is often called there). It has grown to encompass five separate neighborhood street closures, one being the very wide 4- to 6-lane Main Street where it is closed for about 17 blocks. To San Franciscans the event has a certain familiarity, combining something of our venerable tradition of street fairs with the newer excitement of “Sunday Streets.” But unlike the well-established and highly commercial street fairs, or the city-sponsored Sunday Streets, Car-Free Vancouver Day is a product of grassroots organizing, with hundreds of volunteers working hard for months to produce an exciting day of urban reinhabitation.

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New Report Takes on ‘Perverse Incentives’ to De-Emphasize Bridge Repair

When Minneapolis' I-35 bridge collapsed in 2007, lawmakers from both parties vowed to focus on shoring up the nation's aging infrastructure. But when the public spotlight faded from the issue of infrastructure repair, Congress showed little appetite for setting aside maintenance aid that did not hold the promise of ribbon-cutting ceremonies or campaign donations.

pie.pngThe state of repair for America's urban roads, according to federal maintenance data. In rural areas, 61% are rated "good." (Chart: U.S. PIRG)
Meanwhile, existing federal transportation formulas dole out bridge repair money based on the size of each state's maintenance backlog. But up to half of that repair funding can be redirected to other purposes, such as building new roads, with the assurance of continued largess -- as long as local bridges remain unfixed.

That little-known provision is one of many "perverse incentives" highlighted in a report on road and bridge maintenance released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups' (PIRG) education fund.

The rules governing federal aid for interstate maintenance, according to the U.S. PIRG, are equally skewed to ensure older roads keep crumbling. Take the cases of New York, where 567 miles of road were rated in less than "good" condition by the U.S. DOT (see categories in the above pie chart), and Florida, where 13 miles were in the same aging state.

One might think that New York would receive more maintenance money from Washington. But as today's report points out:

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What’s Wrong With America’s Ambivalence About Crumbling Infrastructure?

In today’s New York Times, Bob Herbert celebrates the cause of
infrastructure maintenance — a less exciting proposition for
politicians than cutting the ribbon at new transportation projects, but
in many ways more vital to economic growth.

structurally_deficient_bridges_co_2.jpgA crumbling bridge support in Colorado. (Photo: Pure Thinking)

After talking to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), an avowed booster of the National Infrastructure Bank concept, Herbert asks, "What’s wrong with us?" and continues:

We’re so far behind in some
areas that … Rendell has said that getting our infrastructure
act together can feel like “sledding uphill.”

“When I took over
as governor,” he said, “I was told that Pennsylvania led the nation in
the number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.
We had more than 5,600 of them. So I put a ton of money into bridge
repair. We more than tripled the amount in the capital budget, from
$200 million a year to $700 million a year. And I got a special
appropriation from the Legislature to do $200 million a year extra for
the next four years.”

One might be tempted to respond that what’s wrong with American
infrastructure policy has much to do with pundits such as Randal
O’Toole of the Cato Institute, who converts new acolytes in Washington
by arguing that the biggest defect in national infrastructure policy is
insufficient road spending. To O’Toole, the fact that one in four of
U.S. bridges is rated obsolete or deficient is no big deal:

“Functionally obsolete” bridges are not in any danger of falling down;
they merely have narrow lanes, inadequate overhead clearances, overly
sharp on- and off-ramps, or other outdated design features. These
bridges pose no risk to auto drivers unless the drivers themselves
drive recklessly.

… "[S]tructurally deficient” bridges have
suffered enough deterioration or damage that their load-carrying
abilities are lower than when they were built. But that still doesn’t
mean they are about to fall down; though they may be closed to heavy
loads, the most serious problem is that they cost more to maintain than
other bridges.

When the debate stumbles on the mere question of whether deficiency is worth fixing — incidentally, the National Bridge Inventory states that
deficient and obsolete bridges often contribute to congestion — it’s
difficult to see a broad consensus emerging in favor of government
spending to bring our built environment into good order. What Herbert
didn’t address in his column, unfortunately, was how to carve out that
consensus by talking in new and different ways about the importance of
infrastructure investment.

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The Nowtopian 9 Comments

Bridge the Gap!

bikes_small.jpgPhoto: Matthew Roth
As I climbed the steps out of the Lake Merritt BART station this morning I heard loud chanting. "Wow," I thought, "those bicyclists have really pulled out the troops!" But the demonstrators that greeted me across 8th Street in Oakland were pile drivers, iron workers, carpenters and other trades workers, chanting "Jobs for Oakland Now!" Not far from their boisterous demonstration in front of the main doors of the Joseph Brot Metro Center were a few cyclists showing their signs to passersby, "Bridge the Gap Now" "All the Way Across the Bay" and "Safety Path!" Across the street, Transform and Urban Habitat were also making their presence felt, opposing the Oakland Airport Connector that the building trades unionists were clamoring for.

Democracy in action, I suppose. Long-time bicycle advocates from the East Bay and San Francisco converged on this meeting, hoping to convince the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) to support using some of the new tolls ($5 on all bridges as of July 1, with $6 congestion pricing on the Bay Bridge during rush hour, and for the first time, a half-price toll for carpoolers) to fund a new west-span bicycle/pedestrian/maintenance/safety lane to make the bridge safer, and to finish the transbay route for bicyclists and pedestrians too, not just motorized vehicles. But that effort was bureaucratically sidetracked before this meeting even started.

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Report: After MN Collapse, Bridge Repair Got Just 11% of D.C. Earmarks

In the wake of the 2007 collapse of Minnesota’s I-35 bridge, Washington policymakers vowed
a renewed focus on repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure. But
weeks after the fatal collapse, Congress approved a transportation
spending bill with 704 earmarked projects, at a total cost topping $570
million — and just 11 percent of those earmarks went towards bridge
repair, according to a new report released today.

1030532519_c614bfbe27_o_thumb.jpgThe I-35 bridge collapse, above, killed 13 drivers. (Photo: America 2050)

Today’s
report, produced by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG),
contrasts the low amounts lawmakers set aside for bridge repair with
the flood of campaign contributions sent their way by highway,
development, automobile, and construction groups.

During
the election cycle that reached its peak in 2008, the year that bridge
repairs accounted for 74 of Congress’ 704 transportation earmarks, U.S.
PIRG found that road-building interests steered $80.3 million to
federal campaigns.

The same highway-centric groups also
lavished $53.5 million in campaign cash on state elections, in which
the costs of securing a victory are often much lower, according to the
report. Road-building interests split their federal donations more
evenly, steering 47 percent to Democrats and 53 percent to Republicans,
compared with a 61-39 split in favor of the GOP in state elections.

The report (available here)
separates donations from "transportation" versus "construction" groups
but does not name which lobbying entities U.S. PIRG singled out for
analysis, making it difficult to directly connect specific donations to
specific earmarks.

But the authors’ conclusion "that
elected officials often overlook preventative maintenance projects,
especially when new capacity projects are encouraged by campaign
contributions" was bolstered by an Associated Press investigation
one year after the Minnesota collapse. That AP probe found that just 12
percent of the deficient bridges getting the most state-level traffic
had received any attention other than regular maintenance.

"The
greatest need, for
almost every place, is investing in existing infrastructure," said Mark
Stout, who spent 25 years working on policy at the New Jersey DOT
before helping put together U.S. PIRG’s report.

"Each
earmark and each project has its own
story," he added, "but by and large, I think it’s safe to say that a
structurally deficient bridge is not going to rally around it a lot of
local elected officials and business interests that are
lobbying to make [repairs] happen. They sort of think that’s someone
else’s job or that
someone else is going to take care of it."

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