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Court: Environmental Review for San Diego’s Highway-Happy Plan Inadequate

The California Court of Appeals yesterday confirmed a lower court ruling that the environmental impact report (EIR) for San Diego’s long-range regional transportation plan was inadequate. The EIR, said the court, underplayed the impact of the emissions that would result from its highway-building, sprawl-inducing plan.

SANDAG approved its regional transportation plan in October 2011. It was touted as the first transportation plan in CA to be completed under the auspices of S.B. 375, which mandates regional plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But critics charged that the plan contradicted state climate change policy by focusing on highway expansions, which would only reinforce regional car dependence and increase emissions. Several groups took it to court, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris later joined the suit. In 2012 a California Superior Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs, declaring that the EIR failed to acknowledge how the business-as-usual plan will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The appellate decision says there are other problems with the environmental review. For example, highway expansions will increase pollution in nearby neighborhoods, but the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) “never connected the dots between that pollution and its public health impacts,” said Kevin Bundy, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to projections in the plan, emissions from land use and transportation would decrease until 2020, exceeding the targets set by S.B. 375. But after 2020, emissions would rise again, intersecting with the S.B. 375 targets somewhere around 2030.

“They acknowledged that in their environmental review,” said Bundy, “but what they didn’t acknowledge was that under state climate policy, and according to the best climate science, emissions have to go way down by 2050 — and stay down.”

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“Not a Freeway” — Re-Branding the Excesses of the $1.4B Presidio Parkway

A temporary bypass road, with a movable median barrier, runs by the Main Post Tunnels under construction for the Presidio Parkway early this year. Photo: Presidio Parkway

When visitors land on the front page of the Presidio Parkway’s website, they see an animated pelican emerging from beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, gliding across green hills and blue skies. When the bird lands, you can “Meet Parker” with a click and learn all about the Presidio Parkway Pelican.

The PR team for this freeway project wants you to know that Parker the fictional pelican is “very excited about the improvements the new Presidio Parkway will bring to his favorite national park!”

This “former military pilot” even has his own color-within-the-lines page [PDF] that parents can print out for their kids to fill in. Perhaps that helps distract the whole family from the $1.4 billion taxpayers will be forking over for the next 30 years to build a one-mile freeway connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco’s Marina District.

The Presidio Parkway probably needs a re-branding campaign like this to make it palatable to the public. With the images of birds, clouds, and rolling hills, you can’t really tell that this project is about building a gargantuan concrete structure. In fact, the website insists that it’s “a parkway, not a freeway” with a logo depicting a quaint, narrow road, somehow free of motor vehicles, snaking through the grass to everybody’s favorite bridge.

Screenshot of the banner on PresidioParkway.com

There’s no doubt the depression-era Doyle Drive needed to be replaced, and there’s good reason the design of its successor has been deliberated since the 80s. The elevated highway was crumbling and would likely have succumbed to the next big earthquake. Designed to steer the motoring public around the former Presidio military base, it cut off the national park from the Bay.

The new road will be less of a monstrosity, and the temporary structure built in the first phase has already provided a “seismically safe” road for drivers. Car traffic is currently routed through the first of four planned tunnels via a temporary bypass road. In 2015, both pairs of tunnels are expected to open, and on top of them will be 13 acres of parkland that people and wildlife can traverse freely to Crissy Field.

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Study: Corrupt States Spend More on Highways

In states with higher levels of corruption, public officials spend more on construction, roads and safety services. Image: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new study found a link between highway spending and official corruption. Map: Public Administration Review via Governing

A new academic study helps explain the enduring political popularity of expensive transportation boondoggles like Birmingham’s $4.7 billion Northern Beltline and Kentucky’s $2.6 billion Ohio River Bridges.

According to research published in the journal Public Administration Review, states with higher levels of public corruption spend more money on highways and construction. The study found highway and construction projects and police programs provide the most opportunities for lawmakers to enrich themselves, according to Governing Magazine, and are positively correlated with state levels of corruption. Meanwhile, highly corrupt states also spend relatively less on health, education, and welfare — categories that were less susceptible to graft and bribery, the report found.

Public corruption for each state was ranked based on 25,000 convictions between 1976 and 2008. Overall, the authors found, the 10 most corrupt states spend $1,300 more per person annually than the average state.

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Highway Safety Projects Ineligible for Highway Funds in San Mateo County

Shoulder of Highway 1 Coastside San Mateo County

Walking or biking in this shoulder on Highway 1 is often the only option available to get between coast-side towns in San Mateo County without driving. Photo: Matt Hansen, Peninsula Press

San Mateo County’s Mid-Coast Multi-Modal Trail just barely made it into the list of Pedestrian and Bicycle Program projects approved for funding by the Transportation Authority (TA)’s Board of Directors last Thursday. Despite this step forward, building the trail will be difficult thanks in large part to restrictions on how TA funds can be spent, which hamper walking and biking projects.

The $165,000 allocated to the mid-coast trail will only pay for the engineering design and environmental review of the first of four phases, from Half Moon Bay to El Granada. Funds to actually construct the trail and design the three remaining sections to the north, from El Granada to Montara, haven’t yet been identified.

“The coast-side trail is among the most important projects to my constituents since I’ve been elected,” said Supervisor Don Horsley in March. “And this is the first opportunity we’ve had to apply for funding.”

This trail has been recommended by several transportation planning studies over the past ten years, most recently by the 2010 Highway 1 Safety and Mobility Improvement Study, which cites improved safety for people walking and bicycling and a reduction of traffic on Highway 1 among its benefits.

During its March 4 review of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Program projects, the TA’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) “noted concerns regarding safety, traffic congestion, access to schools, and access for people who don’t have cars as strong reasons in support of the Mid-Coast Multi-Modal Trail.”

But this type of project — infrastructure that reduces highway congestion by providing safe alternatives to driving — is surprisingly difficult to fund in San Mateo County.

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Don’t Widen 101: How SM County Could Move More People With Less Traffic

San Mateo County agencies are studying the “Planned HOV” scenario for Highway 101 — a road widening — even though the “Optimized HOT” scenario is much cheaper and more effective. Image: TransForm

San Mateo County is poised to spend more than a hundred million dollars on an expansion of Highway 101 while passing over more effective, less expensive options to improve people’s commutes.

Even as total traffic volumes have remained flat over the past decade on Highway 101 in San Mateo County, the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is conducting a $2 million study of expanding the highway with new carpool lanes. But highway expansions of already very large highways are simply not effective.

“If we had unlimited amounts of money and no concerns about our impact on the environment, we could keep doing that,” said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of TransForm. “But the last 50 years of experience suggests that paving our way of out congestion is not working.”

Highway 101, facing north from Ralston Avenue in Belmont during the evening rush hour. Photo: Andrew Boone

In a new report, “Innovation Required: Moving More People with Less Traffic,” TransForm calls on C/CAG to consider an alternative that they say would be cheaper, more effective at reducing traffic congestion, and would improve public transit. Instead of adding carpool lanes, TransForm is pushing for conversion of one existing highway lane in each direction into “optimized high occupancy toll lanes” (Optimized HOT), also called express lanes.

These lanes are free for carpoolers but also available to solo drivers for a fee, which is varied based on demand to ensure that they remain free-flowing. The report, which includes a traffic analysis of this option and two others, conducted by former C/CAG Transportation Programs and Planning Manager Joseph Kott, concludes that converting one existing lane in each direction to an express lane would move more people with less traffic at just one-tenth the cost of the agency’s current plans.

Building the more expensive, less efficient options would waste a lot of revenue from the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax, Measure A, that could fund an expansion of transportation choices for residents and workers. With an estimated $130 – $160 million in construction cost savings, as well as new toll revenue, converted express lanes could provide a windfall of funds to improve non-driving commute options in San Mateo County, such as Caltrain, SamTrans, and the county’s disjointed bicycle and pedestrian network.

Compared to C/CAG’s proposed carpool lanes, converting existing 101 lanes into express lanes would carry 75 percent more people in 10 percent fewer vehicles, while costing less than one-tenth as much to build, according to TransForm. Although it seems un-intuitive that a Highway 101 with an additional standard travel lane would end up more congested than converting an existing lane to a carpool lane, it works because the variable fee charged to solo drivers ensures that as many solo drivers are always in the carpool lane as possible without congesting it. Because the new express lanes, or “variable-fee-for-solo-drivers-carpool-lanes”, would also provide a congestion-free lane for buses and carpoolers, the number of people using buses and carpooling would increase because they would be faster driving alone. This results in fewer total vehicles and thus less traffic congestion.

The 75 percent more people in 10 percent fewer vehicles figures are based on the same assumptions used by C/CAG for other traffic analyses but include factors ignored in C/CAG’s June 2012 carpool lane feasibility study, such as demand variable with pricing and mode shift from solo driving to transit. Kott, the former C/CAG planner, said transportation agencies also usually neglect to account for factors such as growing demand for public and private transit, walking, bicycling, and the potential for Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs to provide financial incentives for non-driving commutes, since these are all relatively recent trends.

“We’re still stuck in this mode of saying that all we can do is provide for private motor vehicle travel on our highways and that’s all we can forecast,” said Kott. “We can do multi-modal forecasts too, but we have to have the right assumptions.”

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Highway Revolts Break Out Across the Midwest

The evolution of state and regional transportation agencies is painfully slow in places like Missouri and Ohio, where officials are plowing ahead with pricey highway projects conceived of decades ago. But plenty of Midwesterners have different ideas for the future of their communities, and they aren’t shy about speaking up.

Protesters picket outside the headquarters of the Southeast Michigan Regional Council of Governments against plans to spend $4 billion on two highway widenings. Image: Transit Riders Union

One after another, residents of major Midwestern cities have challenged highway projects in recent months. People in Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Oklahoma City have reached the conclusion that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on road widenings might not be in their communities’ best interests.

And it’s not just a few activists. Challenges have come from people like Council Member Ed Shadid in Oklahoma City, institutions like the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, and local governments like the city of Maplewood, just outside St. Louis.

Detroiters held signs outside a meeting of their regional planning agency earlier this month, picketing plans for $4 billion worth of highway expansion projects. Though the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments ultimately green-lighted the plans, members of the agency had to sit through two hours of negative public comments first. Not only was the public moved to speak out, so were the city of Detroit and the county of Washtenaw, which officially opposed the project.

And in Oklahoma City, the grassroots group Friends of a Better Boulevard has twice fought back state DOT plans to install a wide, highway-like boulevard in a developing area near the city’s downtown. As we reported this week, the FHWA recently intervened on the group’s behalf and forced ODOT to consider a proposal to restore the street grid instead of building a new road.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, environmental and civil rights groups may soon obtain a court injunction against a $1.7 billion interchange outside Milwaukee, on the grounds that project sponsors did not consider its potential impact on sprawl and transit-dependent communities. And in Cleveland, a few scrappy activists and the Sierra Club are opposing a $100-million-per-mile roadway that would displace 90 families on the city’s southeast side.

Now St. Louis has a highway battle on its hands. In many ways, this fight echoes the other protest movements. The South County Connector — like Cleveland’s “Opportunity Corridor” — is a “zombie” highway project. It was first conceived in 1957. The original concept was for an “inner belt expressway.” Its stated purpose is to “improve connectivity between south St. Louis County, the City of St. Louis, and central St. Louis County” and “improve access to Interstates 44, 64, 55, and 170.”

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The Nowtopian 12 Comments

Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

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Third Houston Outerbelt Would Turn Prairies Into Texas Toast

There’s a place just outside Houston where the vinyl siding and attached garages thin out and recede into grasslands.

The Katy Prairie, one of the country's last remaining natural grasslands and an important bird habitat, may be replaced with a highway and sprawl. Image: Houston Tomorrow

In this place — one of the country’s few remaining tall-grass prairies — something amazing happens each fall. First hundreds, then thousands, then millions of birds arrive here at Katy Prairie, an international wintering grounds for migratory birds, especially waterfowl.

Over the decades, this 1,000 square mile sanctuary has largely survived the encroachment of farmers and relentless development pressure from neighboring Houston, thanks in no small part to its dedicated supporters.

But the Katy Prairie has never faced a opponent like the Grand Parkway before. Piece by piece, the Houston area has been building a third — yes, third — bypass for the region. And much to the horror of local environmentalists, the next segment is planned to directly bisect this extraordinary habitat.

Development of this pristine land isn’t just collateral damage — it’s the point of the project. Project sponsors make no bones about it: The 15.2-mile Grand Parkway segment through Katy Prairie is a $462 million development project as much as it is a transportation project. Known as “Segment E,” it would be the third phase in a 180-mile “scenic bypass” for Houston. Each of the 11 segments is considered a separate and “independently justifiable project.”

Billy Burge of the Grand Parkway Association says right now there isn’t much need for Segment E, in terms of traffic. Burge and his colleagues don’t shy away from the fact that the project will generate more car trips and sprawl. In fact, they have what you might call a “build it and they will come” philosophy about road-building and traffic.

“There’s real demand in 15 to 17 years to have this,” said Burge, who chairs the association overseeing the project for the state and the region. “Once that link is completed, you’ll have a steady stream of traffic.”

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A State DOT’s Unshakable Highway Fixation

The South Carolina Department of Transportation is sometimes still familiarly known as the “highway department.” That was, in fact, the agency’s proper title until 1977, when it was changed by order of the general assembly to the Department of Highways and Public Transportation.

In many ways, though, the old name still fits. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the department spent about two percent of its $1 billion budget on transit. The rest was distributed among maintenance, engineering, planning and construction of roads and bridges.

This map shows the path of the highway SCDOT has planned for Charleston, unless opponents successfully fend it off. Image: SCDOT

That bias appears to have carried over in SCDOT’s handling of the Interstate 526 extension in Charleston. Over the protests of a majority of local residents, SCDOT has put forward a nearly half-billion-dollar proposal for a traditional highway bypass through Savannah’s lowcountry. The origin for the plan dates back to the days when SCDOT was still called the highway department.

The seemingly single-minded devotion to highways on the part of state and many local leaders frustrates Josh Martin of the Coastal Conservation League. The League’s alternative plan, A New Way to Work, emphasized street-level reforms over the disruption and environmental destruction of a freeway. What’s more, the League contends that traffic problems in West Ashley, Johns Island and James Island could be resolved for less than half the cost of SCDOT’s “preferred alternative.”

Why are politicians and the DOT overlooking more affordable and effective solutions? Martin said many Charleston-area leaders simply aren’t informed about the latest developments in the field of transportation.

“It’s just a political leadership that is really embedded in this antiquated thought of how transportation planning works,” he said. “You look at all these other places actually tearing their freeways down and we’re about to build a half-billion-dollar highway.”

“We are making the largest dumb-growth investment in the country with I-526,” he added.

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The Nowtopian 13 Comments

New Freeway Revolt Grips Guadalajara

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

Definitely No to the Freeway! (La Via Express)

While the world has gathered in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss again a shared approach to Climate Chaos, action is already being taken in countless communities. On a visit last week to Guadalajara, Mexico, more than a thousand miles west of the Climate Meeting, I had the pleasure of discovering a vibrant grassroots movement to block the construction of a new 23-kilometer elevated freeway through the heart of the city. Interestingly, this movement leans primarily on people who live along the proposed route of the freeway, but found crucial support and activism from Ciudad Para Todos (City For All), a three-year-old group of bicycle and transit activists who are Guadalajara’s most vocal opponents to the reign of the car.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

This is the current situation along much of the line. Train tracks down the middle. High tension electric lines on the right, underground gas and oil pipelines under the left.

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