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MoveOn Takes On Infrastructure

Sacramento's levees are rated "unacceptable" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Photo from MoveOn.org.

The online nonprofit MoveOn.org is taking up the banner of infrastructure investment. Under the subject line “Can your photo create jobs?” the group just sent its 5 million members an email asking them to take a picture of an infrastructure project near them that needs doing.

“It could be a bridge, a school, a road, a dam—any piece of our infrastructure in need of repair,” they write.

They’re asking members to print a sign like the one held by the little girl in the picture above, highlighting the jobs that could be created if the government would address the nation’s infrastructure needs.

MoveOn isn’t troubling itself with whether the project is “shovel-ready” or whether it’s the right kind of infrastructure investment. They’re keeping it simple: “Stuff is crumbling and the people who can rebuild it are unemployed. What gives?”

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$1,060: The Cost of Decrepit Infrastructure for Your Family Last Year

This chart shows delayed maintenance for infrastructure across modes and time periods. Image: ASCE

Five months’ groceries for a family of four. A year’s worth of textbooks for a college student. One thousand sixty dollars: That’s how much inadequate infrastructure spending cost the average American family last year, according to a new report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Surface Transportation Infrastructure.” And it’s only projected to get worse.

The country’s roads, bridges and transit systems are deteriorating, but because of the gradual and diffused nature of the problem, the economic effects aren’t easy to recognize, ASCE asserts.

But make no mistake: deferred maintenance costs American families and businesses dearly. Deteriorating roads do damage to private and commercial vehicles. Extra miles are driven to avoid congested roadways. Unreliable transit systems and commercial trucking routes force users to allot additional time in case of delay, undermining productivity.

All this added up to a four-figure price tag for the average U.S. family in 2010. That’s a total of $130 billion for American families and businesses last year alone.

Looking ahead, things could get much worse, engineers report. If spending levels are held constant, by 2020, businesses would pay an extra $430 billion in transportation costs, household incomes would fall by $7,000 and U.S. exports would fall by $28 billion. This would be a tremendous blow to the economy. By 2040, losses in efficiency related to transportation investment are expected to directly result in the loss of 400,000 jobs — and that’s if spending levels are held constant, not reduced by a third, as Rep. John Mica (R-FL) has proposed.

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San Francisco Could Find Downstream Benefits in Innovative Street Paving

Source: Chicago's <A href="http://egov.cityofchicago.org/webportal/COCWebPortal/COC_EDITORIAL/GreenAlleyHandbook.pdf">Green Alleys Handbook</a>Source: Chicago's Green Alleys Handbook

During the heavy rainfall season, San Francisco faces some daunting challenges: Draining the water, keeping the roads from getting slippery, and containing and treating the runoff. Some storms are so severe that the city can't keep pace. That's when we see flooding in the Muni tunnels and sewage discharges into the bay.

But the solution -- or at least part of the solution -- could be as simple as changing the material that we use to pave our streets.

The city considered a wide variety of low-impact-design techniques for managing water at community meetings held in 2007. Among the solutions was permeable pavement, a technique dating back centuries that fell out of favor during the fast-and-cheap highway booms of the last few decades.

As Miles Chaffee, President and founder of Milestone Imports explained to Streetsblog, the benefits of permeable paving are numerous. "It decreases impervious land coverage, provides a more stable load-bearing surface, and allows the water to go into the ground," he said. "It eliminates the need for detention ponds, which require additional space. And it takes off a lot of stress from the sewer systems when it's done correctly."

In addition, permeable paving can be made lighter in color, which reduces the urban heat island effect. It can be made of recycled materials, such as concrete and rubber, and by filtering the water, it removes pollutants. There are advantages for bicyclists as well: "It takes that film of water off the ground that makes it slippery," Chaffee said.

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What Can SF Learn from Other Cities’ Urban Water Projects?

(Editor's note: This is Part 3 in a 3-part series on the Bay Area watershed. In Part 1, we examined a radical new daylighting proposal in Berkeley; and in Part 2, we looked at the changes that SF streets may face under a bold plan by the Public Utilities Commission.)

Phalen Creek in St. PaulPhalen Creek in St. Paul, MN
Although the daylighting of underground urban streams has its roots here in the Bay Area, it's a practice that's spread around the country and the world in the last few decades.

Early daylighting projects like the Napa River, Strawberry Creek, and Codornices Creek formed the basis for a worldwide shift in the possibilities presented by urban watersheds. Now, a series of best-practices has begun to emerge from the ever-growing number of daylighted streams around the world, which could inform the proposed transformations of creeks here in San Francisco.

The SF Public Utilities Commission is now studying the feasibility of daylighting Yosemite Creek, Islais Creek, and Stanley Creek. While their research is underway, Streetsblog decided to take a closer look at successful urban water projects around the world from which planners might draw inspiration.

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Bay Area Cities Rediscover the Creeks Under Their Streets

ramblasperspect.jpgOne of the proposed designs for Center Street in Berkeley, by Ecocity Builders

(Editor's note: This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on the Bay Area watershed)

The proposal to convert Center Street in Berkeley from an asphalt thoroughfare to a park-like promenade -- revealing a long-hidden underground creek -- is the latest twist in the interesting and often-controversial story of the Bay Area's heavily-modified waterways.

The Center Street project is a striking reversal of a century-old trend towards burying Berkeley's creeks below ground. It's also an example of the relatively new practice of "daylighting" forgotten waterways, a trend said to have been unintentionally sparked forty years ago in nearby Napa.

In the 1970s, as part of the redevelopment of its downtown, the City of Napa stumbled upon a new way of thinking about the urban watershed: Instead of leaving the Napa River buried, engineers removed its cover, exposing it to daylight.

"In the 70s, there was the redevelopment," Barry Martin, Napa's Public Information Officer explained to Streetsblog. "and a number of buildings were taken down. The creek ran underneath some structures, so as they were designing this urban renewal project, [daylighting] was part of that."

"I don't think there was any environmental thinking going on at that time," he added.

Some urban planners debate whether Napa's construction in the 70s constitutes the country's first daylighting project. In 2003, Steve Donnelly, then co-director of the Urban Creeks Council, dismissed the project as the nation's first, saying, "all they did was take the top off a concrete channel."

Uncovering the waterway didn't fix Napa's watershed problems, either.

Forty years after its restoration began, Napa still struggles with the health of the Napa River: Frequent flooding plagued the city during the past decades, and engineers are only now getting the water flow under control, in part thanks to tactics similar to those employed by the settlers of 200 years ago.

In the 1800s, residents recognized that the east side of the river's oxbow was too wet to use in winter, and set aside the land as a summer fairground. An amphitheater now sits on the land, but there's more to the park than meets the eye: It serves as a buffer during floods, redirecting overflow away from more vulnerable areas.

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Bay Bridge Steel Sails into Bay, Work to Begin Mid-February

100121_Bay_Bridge_steel_13797_credit_Jackson_Solway.jpgMassive yellow structures called "sea fasteners" help insulate the delicate cargo during its trans-Pacific voyage. Photos: Jackson Solway
For the engineers toiling to complete the replacement of the Bay Bridge, their ship has finally come in.

After more than than 15 months of delays spurred by weld fabrication and inspection issues, the first steel sections for the highly publicized signature span glided across the Bay Thursday afternoon.

"This is the moment we will actually see this bridge come to life," Caltrans spokesperson Bart Ney said to a small group of journalists at a press event.

When the barge carrying eight 1100-ton sections arrived at Oakland's Pier 7, it was ahead of schedule for a change.

Upon seeing the cargo for the first time, Metropolitan Transportation Commission executive director Steve Heminger said, "it's about time."

The freighter, called the Zhen Hua 17, arrived six days early, and could have coasted through the Golden Gate one day sooner if not for this week's El-Nino-like storm surge, which pummeled the Bay Area with high winds and heavy rains.

Rough seas Wednesday forced the freighter into a holding pattern about 40 miles off shore from the Golden Gate, and was one of three ships delayed that day.

Even in better weather, San Francisco bar pilots navigate large vessels through the Bay's gauntlet of narrow shipping channels, sand bars and whipping winds.

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The Nowtopian 14 Comments

For a City of Panhandles! Copenhagenize it!

city_living.jpgMona Caron's rendition of 24th and Folsom after we've made a few basic changes.  (Thanks to Mona Caron for this image, originally published in the Bay Guardian in 2006.)

We’ve been waiting for years now to see some physical changes to accommodate the huge increase in daily bicycling. We did get an odd set of painted bike lanes and green bike route signs, and a significant number of bike racks for parking, before it all came to a halt due to the injunction three years ago. After perusing the much-anticipated Draft Bicycle Plan and its dense bureaucratese, full of overlapping redundant promises, I’m afraid we’ll be waiting a good while longer to see the kinds of changes that we ought to be getting.

It’s really hard to believe that after all this organizing and earnest campaigning we’ll basically end up with a few thousand “sharrows” and another batch of partial, end-in-the-middle-of-nowhere bike lanes, lanes which in any case are horribly inadequate patches on our misallocated and car-centric public streets. How is it that after almost two decades of rapidly expanding bicycling, the city’s transit priorities still treat bicycles as an annoyance that they only grudgingly are willing to accommodate? When will there be a systematic commitment to altering the streets of this city to create dedicated bikeways, separated from cars and pedestrians, comprehensively linked to provide for easy, graceful, convivial bicycling to all parts of the city?

Over at the blog Copenhaganize their basic point is summarized in two short sentences:

Each and every day 500,000 people ride their bicycle to work or school in Copenhagen. This blog highlights who they are, why they do and how it was made possible.

Forty years ago Copenhagen was just as car-clogged as anywhere else but now 36% of the population choose the bicycle. Copehagenizing is possible anywhere.
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The Nowtopian 4 Comments

Depaving Uncovers Layers of History

watching_morning_training_6110.jpgNeighbors gather for tips and tricks to Mission Roots gardening project, 23rd and Florida

We walk on layers of history. In our neighborhoods, in our cities, there were once natural phenomena, like creeks, sand dunes, hills, and forests. Over time they were covered in farms, factories, houses, and most of all, streets. At first those streets were dirt, often thick and muddy. Around the middle of the 19th century they started to be used for railroads, both intercity, and local streetcar and cable car lines. Sometimes the shape of our 21st century streetscape is a ghost of those old train lines.

In the Mission, where I live, all of this pertains. But more than the questions of ecological succession, including natural and human, as well as agricultural, industrial, and residential uses of land, there are the shifting human communities themselves. At any given moment in time there are diverse populations living side-by-side, right next door, right on top of each other, but sometimes that close proximity does not include much awareness or daily interaction.

Last week I wrote about Jane Martin and her project PlantSF, and how it inspired a couple of dozen families along the nearby blocks of Harrison, Alabama, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th to begin the historically overdue process of depaving this cemented neighborhood. I walked around speaking with folks this past Saturday, as "Mission Roots" took hold in many sidewalk gardens, and I had more than one reaction. Of course I was delighted to see all the effort being made to green the city, to reverse the domination of 20th century urban design. I met many lovely folks, most of whom were homeowners working in front of their own properties. Apparently the organizers had successfully garnered a $50,000 grant to provide materials, and the cement cutting services were donated by a local company. The homeowners had to apply to the city for permission, using the one-page permit Jane Martin helped design, and that involved a modest fee and a drawing that conforms to city regulations in terms of accessibility, utilities, etc. Interestingly, one of the main organizers of this effort, Audrey Newell, confirmed my hunch that 75% of the participants had approached the organizers, rather than the organizers having to go out and convince people.

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