Posts about Roads
In a lively comment debate over Herb Caudill's article on car dependence, some readers argued that "induced demand," the principle that new or wider roads rarely relieve congestion, is no reason to eschew major highway projects; rather, this just shows latent consumer demand for more lane miles. Reader Jacob raised a thought-provoking analogy:
Let's give everyone free McDonald's hamburgers. Let's put 10,000 hamburgers a day on a table in front of the Capitol (or wherever).
What would happen? People would take and eat the hamburgers, and once word got out, all 10,000 hamburgers would be taken very quickly every day. We may thus infer that because people need food and they really seemed to like those burgers, McDonald's hamburgers are an important public good.
A city planner might notice a problem: those 10,000 hamburgers just aren't enough. They get taken very early in the morning, so not everybody has a chance to get a hamburger. The obvious solution
— because burgers are a highly-valued public good — is to provide more free burgers. So the city planner starts to provide 20,000 hamburgers a day.
You can see where this is going. People start going out of their way to get the free hamburgers, and planning their day around that trip. The city has to keep providing more and more free burgers
— eventually millions a day — to keep satisfying the demand for free hamburgers. The competing food markets crater, because who would pay $2/lb for apples when you can get as many free burgers as you want (although maybe you have to wait in a 30-minute line).
Public health goes to hell, because everybody's eating six burgers a day. And yet, everybody likes their free burgers and the Hamburger Department is an untouchable political powerhouse. Proposals for a 10-cent hamburger fee to cover the huge costs of hamburger provision get shot down by public outrage.
What's the problem here? The problem is that food is indeed a necessity, and yes, people seem to like McDonald's hamburgers
— but the fact that people will take free burgers does not prove that they are "highly valued" by the market. We are not seeing actual demand for burgers. We are seeing induced demand for a good which is being provided at artificially low prices.
But for some reason, replace hamburgers with roads and everybody goes nuts.
In short, the fact that a new lane or road immediately fills up with traffic does not "prove" that there was a high demand for that road
— it proves that people will use way too much of something that's free.
It may have taken two arrests of a 64-year-old Georgetown woman, but there is hope on the horizon for those who want changes in the District's scooter regulations.
DC law classifies all motor scooters as motorcycles, meaning that scooter owners must hold motorcycle licenses, wear a helmet, register their scooter, show proof of insurance, and pass a motorcycle skills test. Violating the law could land you in jail, as it did for Ann Goodman, though Goodman also appears to have deliberately flouted the law.
Many scooter owners want rules specifically for scooters, distinct from motorcycles. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the DC Council committee with oversight of motor vehicles, is sympathetic. "It shouldn't be a matter of police officers measuring the wheelbase or something like that," Cheh told NBC4 after learning of the arrests. "We should have clear categories."
Cheh said she "hopes to introduce a bill before the end of the year that puts scooters and motorcycles in different, easy-to-understand categories," according to the article.
"Hope" is an ambiguous word, so I reached out to Cheh's senior policy advisor William Handsfield to get more clarity on when we might see a piece of legislation.
"We've been thinking about it a lot, but I don't think there are any clear cut answers," Handsfield wrote in an email. "We'll be doing more on this topic soon, as the status quo is unsatisfactory."
Parking is biggest issue
While the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is "responsible for classifying vehicles and determining registration requirements," the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) sets parking rules based on those classifications, said Monica Hernandez, a communications specialist for DDOT, in an email.
In addition to evaluating the policies in place, DDOT is developing a program to create on-street scooter spaces, Hernandez wrote.
Handsfield mentioned that, while at DDOT, he headed a program which installed on-street bike racks around the city. "In the two years since we installed those racks, we've noticed that scooter owners often lock up there as well, which I think most would agree is preferential to scooters on the sidewalk," he wrote.
A quick search turned up articles about on-street racks being installed in numerous cities around the country, including New York and Seattle. In DC, it's illegal for scooters to park in bicycle racks.
In the comments on my earlier post, David C wrote,
We discussed the issue of scooters/bikes at a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting. ... For parking we decided that we really didn't care if they parked at bike racks. We just need a lot more bike racks. But we don't think they should be riding in the bike lane.The lack of parking options, as well as some confusing information, is the biggest issue with the current scooter laws, said Wellesley Scott, president of Modern Classics, a motorcycle and scooter store in Brentwood, and an authority on all things scooter.
"The problem is that... they're written by people who don't ride," Scott said. "Scooter theft in the city is a huge issue."
He proposed a sidewalk parking permit as a way to address the issue of scooter owners needing to secure their scooter while also providing a source of revenue for the city.
Scott doesn't support a wide-scale change to the laws on the books, and says that riders have to bear some blame, especially in Goodman's case. "People choose to read the laws now the way they want them to read," said Scott, an attorney. "I hear about customers getting arrested all the time."
He said that some prospective owners are deterred by the complexity and strictness of the laws, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. "What's important to me is to have people who are licensed and insured on the road," Scott said.
The US Department of Defense has approved a $180 million plan to widen Richmond Highway in Fairfax County. The proposal is unlikely to reduce traffic over the long term. It's more likely to harm the community character, degrade historic sites, and make traffic worse.
Moving so many jobs to Fort Belvoir, far from effective transit, was a mistake in the first place. Unfortunately, that decision is out of local hands. But rather than impose an ineffective and undesirable highway, DoD and Fairfax County need to find a more creative way to address the area's congestion.
Communities along Route 1 have long fought to revitalize the corridor. The current plan, however, would turn Richmond Highway into such an expressway that it would make revitalization along its sides difficult. It would divide rather than knit together the two sides of Route 1.
Expanding the road would also harm adjacent historic sites like Woodlawn Plantation and the Woodlawn Baptist Church. It risks repeating the scale and sterility of the massive 10-lane expanse of pavement that already exists around historic Pohick Church to the south.
Lanes and other elements can be narrower
Even if the number of lanes grows, the highway doesn't need to be so wide. The current proposal for the southern portion of the project, from Telegraph Road to the new Mulligan Road, is for a whopping 148 foot-wide cross-section. That's enormous. It includes a 32-foot median reserved for future transit and overly-wide, highway-scaled lanes that are up to 14 feet across.
Several components of the highway could be a more reasonable scale without reducing the number of road lanes. Doing so would be more appropriate for the area, and would better accommodate other modes. Many arterial streets in the DC region have lanes of 11 or 12 feet wide. There is no reason why the lanes on Route 1 need to be so much wider.
It is commendable that the DoD plan designated land specifically for rapid transit in the future, but DoD and Virginia should go further. They should include transit in a dedicated right-of-way as a core component of the proposal. This could use existing buses right away. Perhaps the transit lanes could replace the new third lane of the highway in each direction.
Walking, biking, carpooling and living on post can all reduce traffic
Addressing the traffic generated by Fort Belvoir requires a comprehensive solution, including transit, bike and pedestrian access, as well as creative solutions specific to the military base.
Although it's true that many workers will commute to the base from too far away to walk or bike, the current plan would force even those who live nearby to get in their cars. That's a mistake.
While the plan appropriately includes a bike path and sidewalk, the width and speed of the road would discourage walking and biking. It would be so difficult and dangerous to cross such a wide road that few people would ever try. Furthermore, if the entrances to the fort are not designed with bicyclists and pedestrians in mind, it is even less likely that the paths would be used.
DoD should take advantage of Fort Belvoir's status as a military complex to reduce traffic congestion. One way to do this would be greater use of federal transit benefits and carpooling. For example, DoD could design parking policies with strong incentives for carpooling, especially for those with regular work schedules.
Fort Belvoir should continue to maximize opportunities for soldiers and their families to live on post. The base has earned praise and awards for its "new urbanist" military housing, and should expand those communities. This would reduce single-occupant vehicle demand and allow for a reduced number of through and turn-lanes, particularly in the areas most endangered by the current plan.
Narrowing the road in this manner, while maintaining the number of through lanes, would make the road more manageable for non-automobile modes, without disrupting car traffic too much. A narrower road would be safer, would reduce the necessity to take land from historic sites, and could potentially move more people, by converting car trips to other modes.
It is important that DoD and Fairfax County consider all options before hastily widening Route 1. The changes coming to Fort Belvoir are significant, but turning a community's main street into a through highway is not the answer.
The 1950 plans for DC show massive efforts to remove people from so-called "blighted" neighborhoods, and give more fascinating and scary insights into the urban development mindset of the day. They also include a full-color map showing the many freeways then planned for DC:
Portion of DC comprehensive plan, 1950. Image from Washington, Past and Future scanned by RayM on ShawNeighborhood. Click for full version.
The image above shows the inner ring, which would have demolished many of the buildings along Florida Avenue, T Street, and New Jersey Avenue to the current Center Leg I-395 at Third Street.
You can also see the proposal to extend the Mall eastward and wipe out a huge chunk of Capitol Hill.
The full image also shows a pair of freeways proposed to run through Battery Kemble and Glover Archbold parks to AU and Tenleytown, up Nebraska Avenue, weaving through Forest Hills, then across where Military Road is now, past Fort Totten along the Fort Circle down to the current Kenilworth Avenue/295 freeway.
Dan Malouff made this map a while back from the 1958 version of this plan:
Map based on 1958 Basic Freeway Plan. Click to enlarge.
Much of the money slated for these projects instead went to construct the Metro.
Congress passed a major transportation bill last week, authorizing more than $100 billion in spending for highways, transit, and other modes over the next 2 years. The bill changes a number of rules and shifts the ways in which money is distributed, in an effort to preserve highway funding.
The bill generally maintains the status quo of federal transportation spending, but attempts to stretch the amount of money available for highways. Transit gets the same amount of money as before, which is not nearly enough for the projects states want to build.
Bicycle and pedestrian programs got consolidated into a single, smaller program, half of which state governments control directly. States uninterested in building sidewalks and bike trails can spend the money on more roads instead.
The bill makes $54.6 billion available per year for the next 2 years. About 80% of funding will go to highways, and about 20% will go to transit. Both the overall funding level and the 80/20 split are comparable to existing allocations.
The gas tax will remain at 18.3¢ per gallon, as it has since 1993 when gas was $1.07. Since this won't produce enough revenue to maintain current spending, almost $20 billion in federal general fund money will be infused into the transportation fund.
As in every previous federal transportation authorization, the bulk of spending authority goes to highways. Most of the money will be automatically distributed to state Departments of Transportation, which will have the authority to determine spending on roads within their borders.
Little about this system will change, except that a little bit more money is available for highways due to cuts to other modes.
One thing that may change is the make-up of the fleet of cars and trucks using the highways. This bill eliminates the so-called "gas guzzler tax," which raised a small amount of money but provided a disincentive to buying the least efficient cars and SUVs.
Another change is that more funding, up to $1 billion per year, is being directed to the TIFIA program, which offers loans to states and localities for major capital projects, instead of direct grants. TIFIA loan details are more favorable than private market deals, so this is a good option for large projects that don't get grants. Meanwhile, by expanding a program that requires participants to pay it back, the feds stretch limited dollars further.
At one stage of negotiations, Republicans in Congress sought to eliminate transit funding altogether. That would have been a disaster. Thankfully, it didn't happen.
Much of the transit money flows to transit providers through automatic formulas, similarly to how highway money flows to state DOTs. The largest pot of non-automatic money is in the New Starts program, which is the major federal source for money to build new rapid transit routes.
New Starts is funded at $1.9 billion per year, which is $50 million per year less than the existing allocation.
For that money, the list of project types that are eligible to receive New Starts grants has been broadened, to include more BRT projects, as well as projects that expand the core capacity of existing transit lines. Also, a special category has been established for "demonstration projects" that are primarily funded with local or private money, and only need a little federal funding.
New Starts is extremely important. Virginia received $900 million from it to help build the Silver Line, and Maryland is counting on it to help fund the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Expanding the list of eligible uses is good, but it further spreads out an already-diminished pot of money.
The competition for New Starts grants will be fierce, and the supply definitely won't meet the demand.
Tax-exempt benefits for transit riders will continue to be capped at $125/month, while drivers can still get corresponding parking benefits of up to $240/month. This is a blatant subsidy for driving over transit use, and is extremely unfortunate.
Some positive news is that there are two new transit programs established in the bill.
The first is a safety program that will institute nationwide safety standards for railcars, and require large transit agencies to establish safety plans. This is a direct outgrowth of WMATA's problems in recent years, especially the June 2009 Metrorail crash.
The second new program will offer planning grants to help communities plan and build Transit Oriented Developments around transit stations, which is a nice win for smart growth.
Bicycle and pedestrian funding was a major target for attack, and a major point of contention. Many rural and conservative congresspeople don't understand the importance of these modes to urban transportation, and view them as unnecessary luxuries.
At several points throughout the negotiation process, it looked like dedicated bike/ped funding might be eliminated entirely. With the final adopted bill, it was reduced from about $1 billion annually to about $700 million annually. That's too bad, but the fact that any survived at all is good news.
Of that $700 million, half will be distributed via automatic formula to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) for use on bike/ped projects. Previously all of this money had been distributed to states, so sending it to metropolitan areas is an interesting change, and could be seen as an experiment in funneling money directly to metropolitan areas instead of through states.
Unfortunately, the other half of the $700 million in bike/ped money will go to state DOTs, who will have the option of either using it for bike/ped projects, or flipping it into their highway funds and using it for road projects. If all the states do this, it will decrease the total amount of federal bike/ped funding to just $350 million.
Although it is not strictly a dedicated bike/ped fund, another pot of money that is often used for bike/ped projects is the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program (CMAQ). Capital Bikeshare has largely been funded via CMAQ, so it is a significant program.
The good news is that CMAQ funding levels appear to be level. The bad news is that the list of eligible project types that can use CMAQ funds has been broadened to include a larger variety of road projects.
Republicans in Congress had wanted to include in the bill funding for the Keystone Pipeline, which would have transported crude oil from Canada to refineries in the US. Democrats opposed it, and the fight was one of the most widely-reported sticking points in the negotiations.
Funding for the pipeline was not included, which was the major Republican concession agreed upon, in response to Democrat concessions regarding bike/ped and transit funding.
However, another aspect of the bill may have even more important and widespread effects.
A rarely-reported provision aimed at streamlining project delivery will eliminate the requirement for federal environmental review for a wide range of projects, including those within existing right-of-way, those that are below certain cost thresholds, and those that replace damaged infrastructure.
Excluding those projects will undoubtedly save millions of dollars, and months or even years of project planning. But it will also eliminate a key step in project review, and reduce the ability of localities to object to undesirable projects imposed on them by states. It is definitely a mixed blessing.
Just about everyone in the transportation policy world agrees that the current federal funding system isn't working. Costs keep rising, and with the gas tax flat, spending power keeps dropping. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees about what to do.
Some want to find more sustainable revenue sources, and use them to build multimodal 21st century infrastructure. Others want to eliminate multimodal programs and focus on spending limited money on what they see as the most important priority, highways.
This bill is a compromise. It puts off the larger questions of our country's long term needs, and takes a slight regressive lean, in order to continue for 2 more years the overall status quo of an 18.3¢ tax going to an 80/20 highway/transit split.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
When VDOT began their "multimodal" study of I-66 inside the Beltway, many assumed that this was just a formality and, regardless of what the models showed, VDOT would recommend widening the road. Turns out, that seems to be exactly what's happening.
When the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) wanted to widen I-66 in a few places, local leaders argued that they hadn't studied the corridor thoroughly enough. Under pressure, VDOT agreed to do a study, and the results are now coming out.
According to VDOT's own data, an option that doesn't require widening I-66 would do more for mobility than widening it. Despite this, VDOT officials told a group of citizen and government stakeholders on Tuesday that they plan to recommend the widening option. Was this just a foregone conclusion from the start?
VDOT showed 4 "packages" of changes at 2 public meetings, along with stats for how each would likely affect travel times, traffic volumes, and more.
Package 1, which would make the existing lanes of I-66 into HOT lanes, free for vehicles with 3 or more people and tolled for 1 and 2, brings almost as much benefit as Package 2, which would add a 3rd lane on top of that. But package 1 costs about $350-650 million less.
Allen Muchnick of the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation was one of the stakeholders in Tuesday's meeting, and got to see the draft final report. It lists the following metrics for packages 1 and 2, plus another option called a "sensitivity test," which tried only applying tolls during the peak period where I-66 is HOV-only today.
Here are the key metrics. The "Pkg 1 + ST" column reflects this new option from the sensitivity test.
|Metric||Pkg 1||Pkg 1 + ST||Pkg 2|
|Daily Person Miles Traveled||+40,490 (0.8%)||+318,388 (5.4%)||+267,509 (4.6%)|
|Person Throughput Measure||+5,632 (1.2%)||+27,669 (6.1%)||+24,098 (5.3%)|
|Peak Period Congested VMT||+10,726 (2.8%)||+11,230 (2.9%)||-65,164 (-16.9%)|
|Transit Ridership||+1,423 (1.1%)||+2,568 (1.9%)||+2,124 (1.6%)|
|Added Capital Cost||$33M||$33M||$345-695M|
|Added Operating Cost||$23M||$23M||$25M
This new option, tolling at peak times, appears to move more people by both car and transit than the widening, yet saves hundreds of millions of dollars. Even without this option, it's likely that widening the road at such cost, and with all the disruption it will cause, is not worth gaining only a few percentage points of extra movement.
The metric of "peak period congested VMT" measures the wrong thing. This is the amount of vehicle miles traveled that happen in an uncongested road. But congetion, per se, is not the problem; a short drive in traffic is better than a long drive without it. The goal is to move people, or more accurately, get people where they need to be.
There were plenty of flaws with this study from the start. This assumes, as the "baseline," that Virginia has implemented every change in the regional Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP). That includes adding the 3 "spot improvements," which would already widen I-66 in several places; and changing I-66 to HOV-3 and assuming that nobody cheats the HOV restrictions.
The CLRP also includes some projects which will help in the I-66 corridor but have no funding today, like lengthening all Metro trains to 8 cars and adding new bus service in the area. Hopefully these will happen, but there's no guarantee.
A better study would have used today as the baseline, and looked at the CLRP changes like the "spot improvements" as some of the options. After all, if another change helps more, it's far from too late to build that instead. We would also then be able to better see the effects of this phantom bus service, though I'm told the full report does provide more detail on the effects of these proposals.
Is the urge to widen I-66 coming from engineers who can't shake the paving habit, or political pressure from above? If a transportation agency is unwilling to actually recommend anything other than widening, regardless of what a study shows, then that study really is the sham as people accused, and I feared, at the time, and VDOT might as well change its name to Virginia Department Of Paving Your Community.
Virginia Governor McDonnell says he fully supports the timely completion of Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Yet his administration's political roadblocks are the biggest threat to the project.
In a Washington Post op-ed this weekend, McDonnell wrote, "Unfortunately, the project has been marked by many controversies, ranging from escalated costs, the prospect of soaring tolls on the Dulles Toll Road, legal and labor issues, and the overall accountability, membership and transparency of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA)."
The governor is blowing out of proportion MWAA's governance, legal, and labor issues in a way that unfairly sows doubt about the transit line. Today's interim report by the USDOT's Inspector General found real transparency, spending, and accountability problems at MWAA, but does not find that the agency mismanaged the Silver Line project.
The high tolls are a direct result of the state's failure to invest its own money in this critical transportation project, placing the burden fully and unfairly on northern Virginians. Instead of making the case to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for the importance of moving forward, McDonnell's administration is making it easier for them to vote no, endangering the whole project.
The Governor just threatened again, via a budget amendment, to withhold the state's meager $150 million contribution to Phase 2 if his new appointees to MWAA were not seated immediately instead of on July 1st. Fortunately, the Virginia House of Delegates voted yesterday to kill the amendment, stopping this latest threat.
One of the main points of disagreement between the McDonnell administration and MWAA has been Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These have been successful on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Dulles Rail Phase 1 projects.
PLAs are not just about regulating union labor and wage rates for workers. They also require unions to help secure an adequate supply of skilled trades for these massive projects, and to ensure effective coordination among the dozens of trades and subcontractors, both union and non-union, for smoothly functioning, safe, and timely construction. The preference for PLAs in the bidding process seems a reasonable solution. We should move forward with these provisions.
The governor says he is greatly concerned that Virginia doesn't have a majority of seats on the MWAA governing board, which controls Dulles and Reagan National Airports, as well as the Dulles Toll Road and the Silver Line project. But this regional agency has effectively served our region for a long time, completing major and complex expansions of both airports.
It is true, however, MWAA could be much more transparent and accountable, as the IG report notes. The Coalition for Smarter Growth was among the first to raise this issue in 2006 when the Kaine administration proposed handing control of the project over to MWAA. Pressure from the governor, our federal and state legislators, and local elected officials has resulted in key reforms at MWAA. These reforms should continue, but so should the Silver Line.
The attacks on MWAA may have more to do with securing state control of future toll road revenues, for use on road projects like the Northern Virginia Outer Beltway and other rural highways, than about fixing the governance of MWAA.
We can't know that for sure, but it's very plausible given the administration's power grab at the Virginia Port Authority. After reorganizing the port authority's board to ensure control from Richmond, the administration pressed new board members to approve diverting $250 million to Route 460, a rural highway between Hampton Roads and Petersburg that Hampton Roads leaders say is not their top priority. A similar effort by the governor to secure a controlling majority on MWAA in order to do the same thing would not work to the best long-term interests of Northern Virginians.
McDonnell says that he could not even contemplate funding another $300 million for Dulles rail without raiding other projects throughout the state. But is he setting the right priorities? What money might actually be available?
The governor is proposing to spend over $750 million on the Route 460 project. Another $244 million is being earmarked to the controversial Charlottesville western bypass, a road that appears to be ineffective and a waste of money. Millions are going to the Coalfields Expressway to support mountaintop removal in an area with little traffic.
Even accounting for these projects, there may be another $400 million available in the $1.5 billion Public-Private Transportation Act fund. Setting different priorities would free up hundreds of millions more.
It's hard to respond to the governor's argument that Northern Virginia is getting its fair share of the state's funding without seeing the full picture. A clearer accounting of complicated funding flows would be helpful for both the public and legislators. Certainly, making significant investments in addressing the transportation needs of Northern Virginia should be a priority given the importance of the region to the state's economy.
Perhaps symbolic of the administration's priorities, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Tyerar made two recent trips from Richmond to Leesburg to appear before the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. He didn't go to make the case for Dulles Rail. Rather, he spoke to promote the Outer Beltway.
The governor and secretary revived planning for the Outer Beltway, added it as a new Corridor of Statewide Significance, and are exploring the route for yet another public-private partnership. Yet this highway would do little to help massively congested corridors like I-66, Route 50, and Route 7. The contrast between the obstacles put before Dulles Rail by the McDonnell administration and their full-court press for the Outer Beltway couldn't be starker.
If the Silver Line's phase 2 fails, it will be on Governor McDonnell's watch. He should lead the way to compromises that will allow the project to move forward, and focus more of the state's transportation resources on this economically critical project.
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