Posts about USDOT
President Obama yesterday nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the next Secretary of Transportation. If Foxx's experience in Charlotte is any indication, he'll make a strong choice.
During his nomination press conference, Foxx said "cities have had no better friend" than the US Department of Transportation under outgoing Secretary Ray LaHood, and that if confirmed he would hope to "uphold the standards" LaHood set. That's great news.
The fact that Foxx comes from a major central city is also a huge benefit. It means he understands urban needs, which aren't just highways.
Charlotte may not be New York, but it's made great strides in the right direction. The city's first rail line opened a few years ago, and a streetcar line is under construction now. Charlotte also gained bronze-level status as a bike friendly community in 2008, and launched bike sharing in 2012.
Foxx has been a strong advocate for urban rail, especially streetcars. He knows transportation and land use are tied at the hip, and has fought repeated attacks on Charlotte's streetcar by former Mayor and current North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.
He's also worked as an attorney for bus manufacturer DesignLine.
Foxx also knows that state Departments of Transportation can sometimes be part of the problem. At the federal level, it's common for USDOT to delegate responsibilities and funding to state DOTs, under the assumption the states have a better understanding of local needs. But state DOTs aren't any more local than any huge centralized government. And since they usually focus on highways, the result is that federal dollars mostly go to highways as well.
Since Foxx fought with the state over Charlotte's streetcar, he knows that funneling everything through state DOTs means states hold the cards. He knows that can hurt cities.
Finally, Foxx hired Arlington, VA's former county manager, Ron Carlee, to run Charlotte's city government. Foxx would have heard about Arlington's reputation for progressive transportation planning during the hiring process, and presumably counted it in Carlee's favor.
Of course, no one can really predict what kind of Secretary Foxx will be. When progressive champion Ray LaHood was first tapped for the job, the blogosphere worried his history as a Republican from rural Illinois meant he'd be a status quo highway builder.
But we do know that Foxx has made a priority of building transit in his home city, and has had to fight to make it happen.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Congress has done its job, such as it is, and passed a transportation bill. Now it's handed off the policymaking to USDOT, which must issue a raft of rules, definitions, and guidance to accompany the new law, known as MAP-21. According to sources with intimate knowledge of this process, much depends on how DOT decides to measure congestion.
New performance measures for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ)
If the agency follows the prevailing orthodoxy, states could be rewarded for wasteful highway spending. If it adopts better measurements, smarter investments and less wasteful spending will follow.
The CMAQ measures will also require a definition of "cost-effectiveness," a related but somewhat separate can of worms.
Graphic from CEOs for Cities.
The above graphic shows the wrong way to measure travel performance. The "Travel Time Index" awards a better score to Charlotte than Chicago, even though commutes in Chicago are shorter, because drivers in Charlotte spend a higher percentage of their time in free-flowing traffic.
USDOT should include distance driven in any measure of congestion
Performance measures in the MAP-21 law have been criticized for being toothless, since many of them don't have consequences attached. However, there is still the possibility that state performance rankings could be made public. And a spotlight on state failures could be an effective way to encourage good decisions.
Streetsblog asked Joe Cortright for his advice to DOT officials struggling to define congestion. Cortright is an economist and senior policy advisor for CEOs for Cities. In 2010, the organization commissioned him to write Driven Apart, a critique of prevailing methods of measuring congestion. His words of wisdom for USDOT: "Don't make the mistake the Texas Transportation Institute makes."
TTI's Urban Mobility Report, released every year, invariably gives top honors to places that have overbuilt road capacity. The institute measures congestion only by looking at the degree to which traffic slows down people's commutes. The problem with that, Cortright says, is that "you end up rewarding places that encourage people to drive longer and longer distances, and then you look at those long distances that they're traveling, and say because they're moving at a relatively higher speed much of the time that they're driving, that the system is somehow performing better."
Over the past few years, USDOT has been very deliberately working hand-in-glove with HUD and the EPA to treat transportation and land use as one cohesive system. It only makes sense that the agency use the same ethic in measuring roadway performance and congestion. By doing so, DOT would have to acknowledge that a long commute along miles and miles of free-flowing highways is no bargain compared to a short commute in dense traffic, not to mention an even shorter commute on transit.
Clark Williams-Derry, research director for the sustainability-focused Sightline Institute, suggests that congestion may simply be the wrong thing to measure. "Focusing on congestion is like, in a basketball game, focusing only on the number of assists you get," Williams-Derry said. "It's an interesting fact, but it doesn't tell you the final score."
But people treat this one piece of the picture as if it's "the whole story," he says. Why not measure how long it takes to get from place to place? Or how much it costs? After all, a major argument against congestion
The upshot is that following the same methods as TTI's Urban Mobility Report to set performance goals under MAP-21 would be a huge mistake. "It would focus resources on projects that are sprawl-oriented, that encourage decentralized development," Cortright said. "You can raise your performance on that measure most by having people drive more, as long as they're driving faster."
Cortright recommends that DOT put more emphasis on vehicle miles traveled than travel speed, and notes that this is especially important when it comes to measuring the cost-effectiveness of projects that are supposed to mitigate congestion and improve air quality. That's another tricky definition DOT is going to have to figure out.
It's not cost-effective for USDOT to encourage projects that induce driving
When DOT decides how to judge the cost-effectiveness of a CMAQ project, they can either focus on the CM (Congestion Mitigation) or the AQ (Air Quality), but those aren't the same thing. "It's unambiguous that if people drive fewer miles there's going to be less pollution," Cortright said. "A lot of the quote-unquote 'congestion reduction' projects essentially encourage more VMT."
Widening roads induces more people to drive, which makes it a poor method to address congestion. Image from Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
"There's this pervasive mythology that our pollution problems are chiefly caused by people having to idle in traffic," he continued. "There's no evidence for that, and the evidence there is suggests that if you reduce congestion, people actually drive further, and that more than offsets the benefits of less idling."
In addition, Williams-Derry pointed out that not all congestion is stop-and-go traffic. Congestion that consists merely of slower but smoothly flowing traffic actually improves air quality, since cars work more efficiently at slower speeds. That's what makes CMAQ a tricky program to judge, since its two goals are sometimes at odds with each other.
If DOT is going to measure cost-effectiveness, Cortright and William-Derry say, it needs to think like a business. Starbucks would never build a second café next door so that it could move the line faster at 9:00 a.m. and then have it sit empty the rest of the day. Building more roadway capacity to handle peak-of-the-peak traffic makes just as little sense.
Cost-effectiveness also can't be measured without examining what are known as "externalities"
"If I were USDOT, I'd try to add in, in figuring cost-effectiveness, the cost of all those other subsidies to automobiles," he added.
There are still people inside and outside DOT
By being thoughtful about how to define success in the CMAQ program specifically, and roadway performance generally, USDOT can have a tremendous and lasting impact on whether our transportation system is sustainable and sensible
Narrow sidewalks, a 5-way intersection, and missing median strips and crosswalks are just some of the problems around the Anacostia Metro. A project funded by several federal agencies aims to find solutions to what EPA officials called the city's most dangerous intersections for pedestrians.
The Anacostia Metro opened in December 1991 as the southernmost Green Line Station, bunched between I-295 and Suitland Parkway. Designers expected it to be a park-and-ride commuter station. But subsequent stations in Prince George's County quickly undercut the demand for parking at Anacostia.
Meanwhile, nearly 70% of Ward 8 households don't own a car, making the design incompatible with surrounding communities.
The original design made pedestrian access an afterthought. In the two decades since, few improvements have been made to increase pedestrian safety around the station. Coming and going is perilous for the large swaths of schoolchildren and seniors in the area.
Anacostia was selected as one of 5 capital city communities across the country to participate in Greening America's Capitals, a project between the Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and US Department of Transportation.
The program will "produce schematic designs and exciting illustrations intended to catalyze or complement a larger planning process for the pilot neighborhood."
The station is "badly in need of attention," according to Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, who reiterated that improvements would "complement other [ongoing] projects" in the neighborhood. The station lacks a distinctive character and, although, within short walking distance of the Anacostia River, there are no direct access paths to the waterfront.
Top: Current dangerous condition of Firth Sterling Avenue SE and
Howard Road Suitland Parkway SE. Bottom: Rendering of a possible safer configuration with a refuge median. Photos by the author showing slides presented at the meeting.
To improve pedestrian safety, residents suggested footbridges, wayfinding signage, refuge medians, speed humps, and better street lighting. A slide presentation contrasted the present condition of Howard Road, Firth Sterling Avenue, and the 5-point intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, Howard Road, and Sheridan Road with renderings that envisioned what the future could look like.
James Magruder, a native of Ward 8 who works with Washington Parks and People, agreed that the intersection of Howard Road and Firth Sterling was in dire need of attention. "Over the years that corner has been the site of many accidents that have been fatal" to pedestrians, said Magruder.
Another way to improve safety in the area is to develop some of the many vacant properties around the station. WMATA owns one large vacant field on the other side of Howard Road, and both the Williams and Fenty administrations pushed to relocate WMATA's headquarters here, though without success.
Brenda Richardson, who works for Councilmember Marion Barry, claimed that WMATA has been unresponsive to their inquiries about the station area. In response, an official from WMATA who had been sitting in the back of the room said Metro is conducting an "initial evaluation to determine what the issues are" around safety.
Some east of the river denizens were skeptical that the studies would lead to change. "We're studied out," said one resident who attends similar meetings weekly. "Everyone's studying us to get money. Then the plans get sat on for 20 years."
"The worse case scenario is this doesn't happen," an EPA official admitted. "This only happens if all parties agree."
Today, we're trying an experimental format for the links: Twitter style.
- US DOT: Lowest traffic fatalities in 60 years (Transportation Nation, @marctomik)
- "We don't want to come off as NIMBYs." But Arlington residents don't want a homeless shelter in their backyard (Post, @_jpscott)
- The London Tube's central Zone 1 is very pricey, so a map shows how to get off outside and take bike share (Ollie O'Brien)
- What are public/private partnerships PPPs? Where are they in the US and internationally? (Brookings, @bogrosemary)
- What to get for the cargobike lover who has everything (& kids)? (Bike Noun Verb, @KidicalMassDC, @IMGoph)
- On Friday, @beyonddc exposed the folly of highway "Level of Service." Now @e_jaffe takes on local street LOS (Atlantic Cities, @vebah)
- An experiemental system can disable drivers' phones in the car without affecting passengers' phones (Daily Mail, Steve S.)
- Lance's feelings about bike lanes in cartoon form (The Onion, @JoelLawsonDC)
Our current Breakfast Link editors are looking to move on from curating the links each day. Meanwhile, many of our contributors now use Twitter, and can submit or curate items through that service.
We decided to try creating a links post collaboratively, by building the post from tweets contributors and readers sent in to a new Twitter account, @GGWashTips, plus some from our regular tip queue. This is the result.
Have a tip for the tweets? Tweet it to @GGWashTips.
Want to edit the Breakfast Links in either the old style or this one? Email us at email@example.com.
Each of the past three years the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to local governments, as part of a program called TIGER. Each year the Metropolitan Washington Transportation Planning Board (TPB) puts together an application on behalf of the DC region.
This year, TPB is submitting an application for $24 million that would go towards improving bicycle and pedestrian access to rail stations.
TIGER grants are extremely competitive nationally. The money can be used for almost anything related to transportation, so thousands of applications are submitted every year. USDOT funds the projects it deems most worthy, based on an extensive set of evaluation criteria.
If TPB's submission is funded, the money would go to completing the following projects:
|Fort Totten street improvements||Rebuild 1st Place NE and Galloway Road NE in DC to make them more pedestrian friendly.|
|Forest Glen over/underpass and bikesharing||Construct a grade-separated pedestrian/bicyclist crossing of Georgia Avenue, and establish 10 Capital Bikeshare stations in the Forest Glen neighborhood.|
|New Carrollton street improvements||Sidewalk and crossing improvements at multiple locations around New Carrollton station, in anticipation of future TOD.|
|Twinbrook street improvements||Sidewalk and crossing improvements at multiple locations around Twinbrook station, in anticipation of future TOD.|
|West Hyattsville sidewalks and bike station||Improve sidewalks around West Hyattsville station, and construct a full-service bicycle station similar to the one at Union Station.|
|Pentagon City cycle track and bikesharing||Reconstruct Army Navy Drive to be a complete street, including a two-way cycle track, and add 10 Capital Bikeshare stations to Columbia Pike.|
|VRE bike parking||Add 35 secure bike lockers with capacity for 70 bikes at a total of 8 VRE stations located outside the Beltway.|
Two years ago, during the initial round of TIGER allocations, TPB successfully won a grant for about $60 million worth of bus priority improvements. Last year they requested money for a massive expansion of Capital Bikeshare, but unfortunately did not receive funding. Hopefully the region will be successful again this year.
FTA administrator Peter Rogoff and his PR team are disputing Thursday's story on streetcar tracks on the 11th Street bridge. In that article, I wrote, "The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway." It's become even more clear that that indeed is the fundamental question.
In an op-ed on the Washington Post's All Opinions are Local, Rogoff makes two main points. First, he says that by federal law, FTA had to stop the tracks once they learned about the issue. And second, echoing the statement his communications team put out on Friday, he says FTA gave DDOT several options for including tracks by redoing or modifying environmental reviews.
The second point is mostly irrelevant; DDOT was too far along in the bridge project to reopen the environmental reviews by the time that happened in July of this year. But the first point is indeed the key question. Rogoff says FTA had no leeway. So far, all of the transportation professionals I have spoken with argue that they did.
The options FTA gave DDOT
Let's start with the 2nd claim, that FTA gave DDOT plenty of options in July. The 3 options, according to Brian Farber, Associate Administrator from the Office of Communications and Congressional Affairs, were:
In this July 28 letter, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy tells FTA that they've decided to take the tracks off the project, as a result of a meeting a month earlier where USDOT officials "stated that because streetcar infrastructure was not included in the record of decision for [the EIS], it could not be included as part of the bridge construction."
- To reopen the FHWA EIS document and evaluate streetcar for the bridge.
- To conduct an expedited FTA EA and evaluate streetcar on the bridge.
- To extend the northern terminus of the current Historic Anacostia FTA EA to include the 11th Street bridge, and evaluate streetcar from the Anacostia Metro station to the western terminus of the bridge.
However, this is all happening while the bridge has long been under construction. Work began in December 2009. According to several people familiar with the bridge project, DDOT at this point faced two unpleasant choices: pull the tracks off the bridge, or start an environmental process that could take years.
Besides the extensive public participation process that would have been required, the bridge EIS had drawn a lawsuit for the way it added cross-river vehicular capacity while claiming it didn't. Personally, I agreed with the opponents and think DDOT made a mistake doing the bridge this way. Adding the "missing link" may well draw vehicle trips through the region off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and into DC.
But that's water under the bridge, as it were, and now that the bridge is half built, it doesn't seem wise of DDOT to reopen all those cans of worms. I'm skeptical it would best "save taxpayer monies in the long run" to delay work while a long EIS occurs, and potentially incur huge penalties from the contractor if the EIS takes very long, as it likely would.
People familiar with the discussions (including additional people beyond those I spoke to for the original story) confirm the basic truth of what I reported. Unfortunately, everyone is very reluctant to be quoted publicly. Transportation professionals will inevitably have to work with federal agencies. They don't want to raise the ire of FTA and imperil other projects.
Did FTA have leeway?
All of the options FTA offered involved not putting the tracks on the bridge until after further environmental review. If FTA really felt they had absolutely no choice, then what they did was best. They stopped DDOT as they had to, but they gave DDOT various (unpalatable) alternatives.
But did they have to? I spoke to several transportation professionals who feel FTA could have let the tracks go forward, or at least let DC finish them with local dollars. Commenter Will P (who is familiar with the situation) agreed, writing:
DC had the ability and planned to pay for the rails on the bridge with local money. What FTA is saying is that if DC chose to put in the rails on the Bridge before their mandated studies, they would then be disqualified from getting federal dollars for segments that would connect to the Bridge.I've asked FTA's media relations folks to further explain the issue from FTA's standpoint, but they aren't experts on federal law, either, and haven't yet gotten back to me with specifics.
This is an unusual situation because the key decision point is coming not during the early design phases or during bidding, but after the project has long been underway. According to people familiar with the process, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had signed off on project documents which did include the streetcars. These include early construction documents and also "Plans, Specifications & Estimates" (PS&E) reports.
Here's the core of the timeline, as best as I can understand it from talking to numerous people:
- DDOT completed an EIS for the bridge that included "accommodation" of transit but was vague about what transit exactly would be included. The EIS won an award from FHWA for its public process.
- DDOT prepared to build the project with mostly local dollars. They decided to include tracks to save money in the future on the streetcar network.
- DDOT switched to use mostly federal money on the project. They were working with FHWA. The construction documents and intermediate PS&Es signed off on by FHWA included the tracks.
- At some point, when DDOT asked to switch the type of tracks to comply with Buy America, people at FHWA realized they should involve FTA and talked to FTA about the tracks.
- FTA judged that the tracks hadn't gone through proper process. FHWA then told DDOT they couldn't do the tracks without more review.
- FTA suggested 3 options for DDOT to get approval for the tracks, which would have required longer process that could have delayed the entire project and cost more money.
- In July, DDOT decided not to pursue those and finish the project without the tracks.
In step 3, DDOT officials apparently believed that they had the necessary federal approvals to go ahead with tracks, since FHWA had signed off on documents. Maybe DDOT should have realized they should go talk to FTA. Maybe they were hoping nobody would notice so they didn't have to. Or maybe they honestly thought everything was fine.
Clearly, if DDOT had gone through some more process years ago, we would all be better off today. DDOT officials admit they probably screwed up, in hindsight. But federal processes are very complex. A agency can go extremely slowly and make absolutely sure they cross every t and dot every i (and still maybe make mistakes), or they can try to move faster and do the best they can. DDOT, from at least Dan Tangherlini through Gabe Klein, was trying to move fast and get a lot done. Somewhere along the way (though before Gabe Klein took over), this happened.
But in June, whatever happened before, we were faced with this situation: One federal agency had been telling DDOT they could go ahead; now another stepped in and said no. Maybe federal law is so unambiguous that the tracks can't possibly go forward, even if FHWA had approved them for months, even with local money, that FTA officials had absolutely no choice. But was it?
Could they have said, "That's too bad, this one got by. Hey, FHWA, please try to keep an eye out for stuff like this in the future, and DDOT, we're going to ask you to be a little more careful next time. Okay? Let's just do the tracks anyway and we'll all try to do better."
Or, could they have said, "We're sorry, we really don't think that it's legal to use federal money for the tracks, but if you want to use some local money, we'll let this be a 'nonparticipating' part of the project."
That's the question. Rogoff's letter suggests these two options were not available to FTA. Other transportation professionals say they were. This question defines the issue of whether FTA "put up a roadblock" in July, or just acted as they must.
Update: In the Post piece, Rogoff also adds another option, placing removable blocks on the bridge that can be changed to tracks in the future. Rogoff's piece says DDOT declined to pursue any options, including the removable blocks, but DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says the removable blocks are indeed what DDOT is doing as part of making the bridge "streetcar ready."
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