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Roads


67 Congress members to feds: Measure the movement of people, not cars

The federal government hands states about $40 billion a year for transportation, money they can basically spend however they want. The result in many places is a lot of expensive, traffic-inducing highways that get clogged with cars soon after they're finished. Can measuring the effect of all this spending lead to better decisions?

US DOT is developing a metric to assess how well states address congestion. This is a minefield—if the new congestion rule only measures the movement of cars, it's going to entrench 60 years of failed transportation policy. Unfortunately, the first draft of the DOT rule left a lot to be desired.

Reformers have been pushing the agency to revise the rule so it takes a broader, multi-modal view of congestion. Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America reports 19 senators and 48 US representatives have written a letter to US DOT [PDF] demanding a healthier approach.

The Congress members write:

If we focus, as this proposed rule does, on keeping traffic moving at high speeds at all times of day on all types of roads and streets, then the result is easy to predict: states and MPOs will prioritize investments to increase average speeds for cars, at the expense of goals to provide safe, reliable, environmentally sensitive, multi-modal transportation options for all users of the transportation system, despite those goals being stated in federal statute. This singular focus on moving vehicles undermines the progress this Administration has made on multi-modal planning and investments through the TIGER program. Encouraging faster speeds on roadways undermines the safety of roads for all users, as well as the economic vitality of our communities.

The excessive congestion performance measure should be amended to assess people hours of delay and not just vehicles. This change is critical to account for the many non-single occupancy vehicle users, including transit bus riders and bicyclists and pedestrians traveling along the corridor, which provide critical congestion relief and could be undercounted or even penalized under this measure.

The letter also insists that U.S. DOT require state and regional transportation agencies to assess the impact of projects on greenhouse gas emissions.

US DOT is currently accepting comments about the rule change. You can weigh in and help promote a better policy.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

Roads


The feds just blew a chance to reform the city-killing, planet-broiling status quo

The Obama administration has released new rules governing transportation planning. Despite rumors the new rules would be a big step forward, for example requiring states to take things like greenhouse gas pollution into effect, instead they appear to be more of the same-old.


US DOT isn't taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Image from Top 10 Famous.

Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, US DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.

But the rules released yesterday are a big disappointment, say analysts. While it will take a bit more time to fully assess the 423-page document [PDF], advocates are already going on the record panning US DOT's effort.

Greenhouse gas emissions

On the question of whether state transportation agencies should be required to at least report the emissions impact of their transportation plans, US DOT "whiffed," writes Joe Cortright at City Observatory:

There's nothing with any teeth here. Instead—in a 425 page proposed rule—there are just six pages (p. 101-106) addressing greenhouse gas emissions that read like a bad book report and a "dog-ate-my-homework" excuse for doing nothing now. Instead, DOT offers up a broad set of questions asking others for advice on how they might do something, in some future rulemaking, to address climate change.

This is hugely disappointing, considering that anonymous Obama administration officials were bragging about the impact of these reporting requirements to Politico earlier this week. At the rate things are going, half of Florida will be under water before American transportation officials acknowledge that spending billions to build enormous highways serving suburban sprawl is broiling the planet.

Traffic congestion

There was also some hope that US DOT would reform the way congestion is measured. Current measures of congestion emphasize vehicle delay, which leads to policies that actually promote more driving and more total time spent in cars, as agencies seek to temporarily reduce delay by widening roads. Policies that reduce traffic by improving transit or enabling people to live closer to work don't rate well under this measure of congestion.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the new rule "would still push local communities to waste time and money attempting to build their way out of congestion by using a measure of traffic congestion that's narrow, limited and woefully out of date."

Cortright says the metric could have been worse, but it's still measuring the wrong things:

The core measure of whether a metropolitan area is making progress in addressing its congestion problem is what USDOT calls "annual hours of excessive delay per capita." This congestion measure essentially sets a baseline of 35 mph for freeways and 15 mph for other roads. If cars are measured to be traveling more slowly than these speeds, the additional travel time is counted as delay. The measure calls for all delay hours to be summed and then divided by the number of persons living in the urbanized portion of a metropolitan area.

The proposed measure is, in some senses, an improvement over other measures (like the Texas Transportation Institute's Travel Time Index) that compute delay based on free flow traffic speeds (which in many cases exceed the posted speed limit)

This is all about vehicle delay, not personal delay. So a bus with 40 or 50 passengers has its vehicle delay weighted the same amount according to this metric as a single occupancy vehicle.

This ignores the value of shorter trips. As long as you are traveling faster than 15 miles per hour or 35 on freeways, no matter how long your trip is, the system is deemed to be performing well.

When you get down to it, US DOT's congestion metric belongs to the same line of thinking that led Houston to spend $2.8 billion widening the Katy Freeway to 23 lanes only to see traffic congestion return with a vengeance a few years later. Instead of managing demand for freeways, it will lead to more supply.

California has shifted away from an emphasis on vehicle delay and instead uses "Vehicle Miles Traveled" as a performance measure. VMT measures how much traffic a given project will add to streets and highways. US DOT is nowhere close to such an enlightened position.

Biking and walking

Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists also notes another big disappointment.

What you can do

Now for the good news. This process isn't over yet. The rule can be amended—and anyone can weigh in. The comment period will open Friday and will likely be open through the summer. US DOT needs to be inundated with comments that call for a modern approach to measuring transportation system performance.

It's worth noting that US DOT officials are touting this rule—which took three years to draft—as environmental progress. Gregory Nadeau wrote on the Fast Lane Blog:

This is a down payment on the administration's 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan, a budget proposal to reduce traffic and carbon intensity of the transportation sector.
Let's hold them to that.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

Transit


The feds are taking over WMATA safety, which is unprecedented

Late Friday evening, the US Secretary of Transportation announced an immediate federal takeover of WMATA safety oversight.


Boss pointing image from Shutterstock.

The takeover gives federal officials authority to inspect Metro at will, and to order Metro employees to address safety problems. WMATA will still manage normal train operations.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Congress transfer oversight of WMATA from the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

However, the FRA typically manages freight railroads, long distance trains, and commuter rail (like MARC and VRE), and has no experience with a transit agency like WMATA. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx worried giving oversight to FRA would be more disruptive than a direct takeover by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which already has the statutory authority for a safety takeover.

With Foxx's blessing, that's what will happen. Effective immediately, the FTA is in charge of Metro safety.

The move is unprecedented. FTA has never taken over the safety oversight role from a local State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA), like the TOC. But given Metro's repeated lapses, and the inability of the TOC to enforce change, USDOT believes this is the best alternative.

Details are still scarce. But the FTA will have authority to enforce corrective actions. This should mean that WMATA won't be able to ignore safety directives, as they do with the TOC.

This move is only temporary. The FTA will relinquish control when DC, Maryland, and Virginia create a new SSOA which actually has teeth and can effectively enforce safety changes. Since the FTA has never played this role before, it is unclear if this oversight will be a success.

Beginning with the 2009 train crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people, Metro has suffered several major safety lapses, including a smoke incident in January that killed another passenger.

This takeover is the sort of shake up of WMATA management that could lead to real change in the organization's culture, and hopefully improve WMATA safety. On the other hand, it could also further impede the agency from making nimble changes that could benefit riders. Only the future will tell.

Government


Why is the Highway Trust Fund going broke (and what can be done about it)?

You may have been hearing some doomsday reports in the media about the impending bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund. The US Department of Transportation has a ticker where you can watch the balance drop. What is happening, and why?


Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

What is the Highway Trust Fund?

The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is basically a bank account that was established by Congress in 1956 to pay for the Interstate Highway System. The HTF is funded through revenues from the federal gas and diesel taxes, and an assortment of other taxes on things like truck tires. The idea was that these taxes are essentially road user fees, and thus should be set aside for transportation.

In 1982 we started the long and painful slog away from the "user fee" concept with the creation of the Mass Transit Account, which funds transit capital projects.

How important funding from the HTF is for transportation infrastructure varies a lot from state to state. In our region, federal funding comprises 86% of transportation capital investment in Virginia, and it's also really important for WMATA, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

How much money is in the HTF right now?

The HTF is divided into two main accounts, the Highway Account and the Mass Transit Account. The former has $8.1 billion in it right now and the latter has $2.8 billion.

That sounds like lots of money. Why the wailing and gnashing of teeth?

True, the current balance in the HTF is roughly 80% of what it was last October. That seems far from empty. But we really are about to blow through those billions.

Most programs financed by the HTF are operated on a reimbursement basis. That means that money to pay for projects doesn't go out the door until the project is complete and has been inspected. It's not unusual for states to basically be handing over big piles of receipts at the end of the fiscal year to get paid back. Thus, most of the projected drop has yet to occur.

Also, the summer construction season is just now kicking into high gear. People are freaking out because bids for work are going out the door while a letter from Transportation Secretary Foxx warns that reimbursements may well be delayed—a cash flow crisis for states.

Why is this happening if it's possible to predict it in advance?

The HTF is in crisis because it's traditional revenues are no longer sufficient to cover the spending levels Congress authorized for transportation programs. To cope, Congress has been periodically bailing out the trust fund for the last few years using infusions of money from the General Fund (the pot all our income taxes go into).

So this is an artificial crisis? We're creating it by spending more than we have?

Some folks certainly see it that way. Others note our crumbling bridges and burgeoning demand for transit capital projects. Also the current transportation spending authorization, passed in 2012, did not increase spending.

If our transportation spending is reasonable, why can't we find the money to pay for it?

We last raised the gas and diesel taxes in 1993. The CBO estimated last year that if these taxes had been indexed to inflation, the 18.4¢-per-gallon tax on gas would be 29¢ today. Basically, the HTF has lost 38% of its purchasing power to inflation alone.

When people bring up raising the gas tax, smarty-pants folks correctly point out that cars have become more fuel efficient, and even in these more efficient cars people are driving less, so the gas tax is becoming conceptually inefficient or obsolete. Ideologues point out that we spend HTF money on things that encourage people to drive less, and thus pay less into the fund, like transit infrastructure, sidewalks, and bicycle facilities. However, more intellectually pure solutions like road pricing or a tax on vehicle miles traveled are not ready for prime time. So, let's stop changing the subject.

The CBO estimates that raising the two motor fuel taxes by 10¢ would solve the problem without eliminating funding for any current transportation programs. In other words, other issues are marginal compared to the effectiveness of simply adjusting motor fuel taxes for inflation.

A bipartisan proposal to do just that is finally making the rounds after years of General Fund bailouts. However, such a proposal is both a referendum on our economic recovery since 2008 and our sense that we need a federal transportation program. That means it's got a long row to hoe with the Obama administration and tea party conservatives.

What will happen if the HTF empties out while we are waiting for Congress to act?

USDOT will stop writing checks. Stop work orders will go out on projects. Contractors will get laid off. The lights are going to go off in some people's houses.

Because this pain will be very visible, and affect every state, it's likely that Congress will provide a general fund bailout at a minimum for this summer. Just a couple of months ahead on the calendar, however, the current transportation spending authorization will expire at the end of September, another impending crisis that requires Congressional action.

Many professionals in the transportation sector are weary of the constant lurching from one short-term authorization to another, and the de facto endless funding cut that is inflation. However, I'm not convinced that we transportation professionals have fully confronted why many in Congress, or even the general public, might be reluctant to fund our work.

It's not just time to raise the gas tax—it's time to increase transparency in transportation planning, truly listen to the public's priorities about transportation, and earn the trust required to justify dedicated revenues. I'll talk more about that in an upcoming post.

Politics


Will Cantor's loss push congressional Republicans to balk on transportation compromise?

Last night, US House majority leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary to a tea party challenger who painted Cantor as too willing to compromise with Democrats. Cantor's loss makes this summer's looming congressional fight over transportation funding all the more unpredictable.


US Highway Trust Fund balance. If Congress doesn't act soon, money will run out. Image from USDOT.

MAP-21, the federal transportation funding bill, expires in October. But the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) will begin running out of money in August. Without a bipartisan bill to add new money, federal transportation funding will trickle to a halt.

Transportation wasn't a major issue in Cantor's election, but immigration reform was. Cantor mostly opposed immigration reform, but he briefly contemplated compromise, giving his more conservative opponent David Brat an opening to attack.

Some pundits fear that will push every other House Republican away from compromise in general, and grind whatever progress Congress was making on anything to a halt.

From an immigration perspective that probably makes little difference; House Republicans were not going to compromise anyway. But it could make a huge difference for transportation.

Transportation funding was a non-partisan issue in the 20th Century. Every six years Congress would pass a transportation bill with broad support from both parties. But in recent years, amid declining gas tax revenue and increasing need for supplemental funding, transportation has become a partisan spark.

Congress seemed primed to act, but now it's an open question

Up until Cantor's defeat, the general assumption in the transportation world has been that Congress would do something this summer. "Something" might mean a long term solution like a new bill and new taxes. Or it might mean a band-aid, like an extension of MAP-21 with an infusion of federal general fund dollars. Either way, Congress appeared to be making some progress.

But now? House Republicans might very well cease all legislative activity, and hope to ride out the rest of election season without upsetting their conservative base.

Polls show that raising money for transportation is popular, and voters rarely punish officials for doing so. But that may not matter to Republicans concerned about attacks from the extreme right.

While in Congress, Cantor fought against progressive transportation funding. But in this case his personal vote, and even his leadership on the specifics, might be less important than the simple fact that he was probably willing to advance a bill.

On the other hand, maybe the Republican establishment will take this as a call to arms, and moderate legislators will become more powerful. But that seems unlikely the day after the biggest tea party victory of the season.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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