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Posts from the Environmental Review Category


Environmental Reviews: Helpful (and Hurtful) to Many Ideologies

Writing at the Heritage Foundation’s blog, Nick Loris says that
the White House’s pending decision on whether to consider climate
change in federal environmental reviews amounts to "more green tape."

protected_bike_lane.jpgSan Francisco’s newest bike lanes: made $1 million pricier by environmental reviews. (Photo: Streetsblog SF)

Citing Republican senators’ concerns that
existing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements have
caused lengthy delays in transportation project planning, Loris writes
that adding climate change to NEPA will

guarantee that the billions in infrastructure spending in this stimulus
bill will not be spent till years after the economy has already
recovered. The money that will be spent in the near-term won’t be spent
efficiently; it will be spent overcoming unnecessary regulatory hurdles …

One wonders if Heritage would describe the three-year delay in San Francisco’s planned bike lanes, caused by local bike critic Rob Anderson’s request for a full environmental review, qualifies as an "unnecessary regulatory hurdle." Streetsblog San Francisco reported that the final price tag for the city’s review topped $1 million.

Or how about the opponents of a car-free trial in New York’s Prospect Park, who attempted
to delay the project by pushing for an environmental review? Their
efforts would hardly meet Heritage’s definition of "green tape"
promoted by environmental advocates.

Perhaps Loris would take a different position on the northeast corridor’s failure to secure federal high-speed rail money thanks to the burdensome length of environmental reviews. Since Heritage had previously blasted
the entire high-speed rail program as "fiscal waste on the fast track,"
the group might hail any "regulatory hurdle" that standing in the way
of rail expansion.

The moral of the story: NEPA-mandated
reviews can be utilized successfully by liberals, conservatives, green
groups, highway boosters, and just about every constituency under the
sun. That’s an argument for streamlining the environmental review
process, not eliminating it.


Fear Growing Senator Boxer Won’t Deliver Progressive Transportation Act

Dallas_High_Five.jpgThe "High Five" in Dallas, via jmmadrid on Flickr

California Senator Barbara Boxer will be at the center of a battle over whether or not the reauthorization of the transportation bill will address the global warming impacts of transportation, given her Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee is responsible for writing much of the bill's language. Any chance of reforming the transportation bill, which advocates are clamoring for, will require deft political maneuvering to mollify ranking committee member Senator James Inhofe. 

Several sources said that Boxer's cooperation with Inhofe is simple math. The $312 billion baseline for transportation over six years is insufficient to meet state of good repair needs and set the country on a course for innovation. Minnesota Representative James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, has suggested $400-500 billion would be needed, while the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Organizations (AASHTO) and the American Public Transit Association (APTA) argue in their Bottom Line Report that at least $160 billion will be needed annually. In order get from $312 billion to $500 billion or better, Boxer will need to get approval for new revenue streams, which would require a filibuster-proof majority, something she might not get without Inhofe and other reluctant members on the committee. 

Several interviewees also pointed to Senator Boxer's alliance with Inhofe on an amendment in the federal stimulus bill for an additional $50 billion in highway money as a bad sign.

"You have polar bears and glaciers on your website... then throw people back in their cars?" said one official who insisted on anonymity.



Mayor Newsom, Caltrans Announce Plans to Remove Portions of I-280

fireball_2.jpgA controlled explosion from the filming of the TV series "Trauma," on a closed portion of I-280
Mayor Gavin Newsom yesterday announced one of his most ambitious plans for re-shaping San Francisco, telling reporters at a press conference with Caltrans Director Will Kemption and Caltrain Director Michael Scanlan that the city would move forward with plans to tear down sections of I-280 through San Francisco.  

"As we saw this weekend with the filming of the new TV series 'Trauma,' we can close a section of 280 and it doesn't back up all the way to San Bruno," said Mayor Newsom.  "I'm committed to actively looking for projects where we can transform our streets into public open space, especially in neighborhoods that have so little of it.  Show me another project that gives back more space to our great city than this."

Mayor Newsom painted a grand vision of a ribbon park in the footprint of the current freeway and said the city would rezone much of the area for residential development, much of which would be affordable housing, he claimed.  "Think Rock Creek Park for the next century," said Mayor Newsom.  "If New York City can convert an old rail line through Manhattan into the Highline Park, surely we can transform our outdated infrastructure into green space."

Caltrans' Kempton said that the agency had considered various freeways that underperformed their transportation function after the successful removal of segments of the Embarcadero Freeway and Central Freeway to Market Street, but said that they weren't seriously thinking about this section of I-280 until Mayor Newsom approached Governor Schwarzenegger late last year. 

"We've understood that it was possible to make changes to further segments of the Embarcadero Freeway," said Kempton, "but we didn't see it as a priority until Mayor Newsom made it so.  Now, we're only committing to study it, but we know the Obama administration is looking for innovative transportation projects, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are unspent federal stimulus funds from other states that we can apply for in six months, a year from now."

"Highway de-construction can be just as shovel-ready as highway re-construction," said Kempton.



Love Your Lane: Kirkham Street to the Sea

Kirkham_photo1.jpgRiding down Kirkham at 33rd Ave with a view of the ocean

Kirkham Street is one of the Big 56 bike lane projects that hasn't raised many eyebrows. Unlike the looming battle over 2nd Street or 5th Street, the Kirkham lane will be on a relatively quiet residential street that runs east-west from Ocean Beach to 6th Avenue, where it will connect with the remainder of bicycle Route 40.  

District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu said in an interview that she had not heard of any community resistance to the plan, in large part because there would be only minor parking removal in one of the proposed options and none in the other. 

"There have been a number of individuals who have expressed a desire to have an integrated bike network where bike riders feel they get get across the city in designated lanes," she said.  "I think that would be good for the district, some path of travel that is clearly marked for bicyclists."



Paradise LOSt (Part III): California’s Revolutionary Plan to Overhaul Transportation Analysis

Transportation consultants and planners associated with the San Francisco Transportation Authority's (TA) ATG working group sent excited bursts of email to each other earlier this month about a new development coming from the state Office of Planning and Research (OPR), the body responsible for writing and amending the CEQA guidelines related to transportation and traffic.  The OPR had adopted much of the spirit of the working group's recommendations and proposed an amendment (PDF) to CEQA guidelines that de-emphasized LOS and indicated that it would be much better to use measures for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reductions such as ATG.

"How on earth did this happen?  Did we actually have an impact?" someone involved asked in one of the emails.  This same commenter related a chain of events wherein representatives from the TA and consultants had been up to Sacramento to lobby the OPR only weeks before the amendment was adopted and had been given no indication by staff that a change so momentous was in the offing.

The specific changes to the CEQA Environmental Checklist for transportation also call for the elimination of parking supply as an environmental factor of CEQA and focus attention on the desirability of reducing VMT (PDF).

Said Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson Nygaard Consulting:
What I like about OPR's wording is that it maintains the traffic section that everyone expects to see, but gives a very different analysis.  With vehicle trips rather than congestion as the potential impact, one would not ever be able to widen a road to reduce the impact.  Widening the road would increase the impact by inducing more vehicle trips!  To reduce the impact, one needs to reduce the number of vehicle trips at the source.



Paradise LOSt (Part II): Turning Automobility on Its Head

One of the unintended consequences of San Francisco’s bicycle injunction, which Rob Anderson and fellow NIMBYs will likely rue for some time to come, is the arduous thought and labor that advocates and professional planners have invested in doing away with LOS all together.  

Two arguments in the debate over LOS have emerged. One calls for abandoning LOS but replacing it with a metric that prioritizes transit, cycling, and walking before cars, assuming that three decades of legal precedent would require some replacement metric. Another argues for walking away from LOS entirely, given that it is merely a convention and not a law.

Shortly after releasing the report on LOS deficiencies, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) convened a strategic working group in the spring of 2004 comprised of the Planning Department’s Office of Major Environmental Assessment (MEA), the MTA, user advocacy group representatives, and industry practitioners.  The working group developed a replacement for LOS analysis that became known as auto trip generation, or ATG (PDF).

ATG avoids intersection-specific analysis, instead evaluating new developments based on the number of car trips they would add to the aggregate traffic picture and assessing a transit mitigation fee based on the total number of additional trips.  The working group debated for some over the threshold number of trips that would trigger the mitigation.  Given that San Francisco is lined on three sides by water and is essentially built out to capacity, any new development that adds vehicle trips to the matrix will have an impact on overall traffic, so the threshold they decided on is one trip.

As Rachel Hiatt, senior transportation planner for the TA, reported at Transportation Research Board in 2005 (PDF):
The Transit First policy of the City Charter recognizes that some short-term auto congestion is a predictable and unavoidable consequence of implementing Transit First policies, since mode shift will occur gradually as the transit, bicycle and pedestrian networks are improved. A measure of auto delay – auto LOS – is inconsistent with the Transit First policy for this reason. A measure of auto trips generated, in contrast, recognizes that adding additional automobile trips to San Francisco streets is environmentally undesirable, while allowing for automobile congestion impacts that may result from improving the city’s networks for transit, walking, and cycling.



Paradise LOSt (Part I): How Long Will the City Keep Us Stuck in Our Cars?

Editor's note: Today we begin Part I of our occasional series on LOS reform.

Bus_in_traffic.jpgTraffic engineers are reluctant to give exclusive lanes to buses (or bikes) for fear of the impact on cars

The Pseudo-Science of LOS

There's a dirty little secret you should know about San Francisco: It's engineered first and foremost for automobility and will never be able to shed this bias if the traffic engineers are in the driver's seat wielding their traffic analysis tools like bibles. As long as the city continues prioritizing the use of transportation analysis known as Level of Service (LOS), you might as well burn our Transit First policy for warmth.

On the one hand, LOS is a very simple and blunt metric for understanding the speed that vehicles can move about the city. LOS measures the amount of vehicular delay at an intersection, with A through F grades assigned to increased delay. This measurement is taken during the peak 15 minutes of evening rush hour and if an intersection slips from LOS D to LOS E, traffic managers will try to mitigate the impact, which usually means widening the road, shrinking the sidewalks, removing crosswalks, softening turning angles, and adjusting signal timing to speed the movement of vehicles.

LOS_Graph.jpgLOS delay from Highway Capacity Manual
LOS analysis seems like science, free from political or ideological considerations, the perfect traffic-engineering tool to rationalize our cities, but the methodology behind it is far from precise. As Jason Henderson, professor of geography at San Francisco State University, said at a recent presentation, LOS is a very poor tool methodologically. In the early years of its development, the "science" was merely traffic engineers assuming what made motorists uncomfortable. He cited the fact that LOS F used to represent a delay of more than 60 seconds, but that in the 2000 Highway Capacity Manual it was revised to 80 seconds. And motorist behavior studies since have shown that inconvenience with delay can depend on numerous factors and differ dramatically between drivers.

Yet the result of relying on this poor methodology to shape the growth of cities has a profound affect on the politics of human mobility, privileging the movement of vehicles before the movement of anything else. Quite simply, LOS analysis has given us Phoenix and Atlanta, congestion and ever-longer commutes, and a whole host of ills that accompany reliance on the inefficient use of street space for our cars.

"I've been doing transit analyses in California for 20 years," said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal of Nelson Nygaard, a transportation and land use consulting firm. "In my practice the single greatest promoter of sprawl and the single greatest obstacle to transit oriented development (TOD) and infill development is the transportation analysis conventions under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, LOS."


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Schwarzenegger Long on Fiscal Stimulus Rhetoric, Short on Transit Specifics


Governor Schwarzenegger sent a letter Tuesday to President-elect Obama encouraging massive expenditure in the federal stimulus package on a host of projects in California.  The letter comes a month after the governor and president-elect discussed the stimulus package in person:

When we met, I had identified $28 billion in infrastructure projects ready to break ground in California within the first 120 days of your administration.  I am writing to report that we now have nearly $44 billion in projects that are ready to start construction or place orders.

Schwarzenegger proposes spending $11 billion of the $44 billion "in investment in road, transit and rail construction."  But when pressed for a detailed project list, the governor's press office refused to elaborate and punted to regional officials.

The Municipal Transporation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area's transportation planning and federal fiscal conduit, was only slightly more forthcoming with specifics.  While the MTC confirmed it has a long list of projects, it would not elaborate on the specifics for fear the public would view the project wish list as a slate of promises.

MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler was clear most of the projects that could be built within 90-120 days of Obama's inauguration would be road maintenance repairs that would not significantly alter the long-term strategic vision for the region

"We could dig holes in the desert and they might contribute to the economic recovery," he said.  "But then you've got holes in the desert."