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3 Reasons Politicians Like Building New Roads More Than Fixing Old Ones

The cost to construct this bridge ($600 million) is more than the estimated $500 million it would cost to bring Minnesota's 1,191 "structurally deficient" bridges into a state of good repair. Guess which the state is moving ahead with. Image: Minnesota DOT

The $600 million it will cost to build this one bridge is more than the estimated $500 million needed to bring all of Minnesota’s 1,191 “structurally deficient” bridges into a state of good repair. Guess which project Minnesota is moving ahead with. Image: Minnesota DOT

American transportation policy places a premium on delivering big, shiny new things.

As much as the big state transportation agencies and their political bosses love pouring concrete, they tend to avoid keeping the things they build in good working condition. Many state DOTs still spend upwards of 90 percent of their annual budgets on new construction, according to Smart Growth America, despite all the ink that’s been spilled about structurally deficient bridges across the land.

The question is why? Why do new projects continue to hold such political appeal, even while the public is bombarded with messages about the fragile state of American infrastructure and business-as-usual practices bankrupt the current system of transportation funding?

We reached out to civil engineer and big thinker Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns for his take. Drawing from his experience as a municipal engineer, he said the problem boils down to three factors.

1. Building new infrastructure is less complicated than fixing existing infrastructure

“From the position of the construction worker on the ground, it’s so much easier to do something new because you don’t have to deal with all of the existing problems. You have the elevation of people’s sidewalks, you have people who don’t want to have the street shut down. It is just like a logistical nightmare to do maintenance. When you’re doing something new, where you control the site, it takes away the messiness.”

2. New projects tend to be more popular with the public

“People almost always respond positively to new stuff. They’ll tolerate the hassle of construction when you’re doing something that’s new. But if you say we’re going to take this bridge and tear it down and put it back the way it was, it doesn’t make anything better for them. It’s just maintenance. You don’t have anything new tomorrow that you didn’t have today. When you do maintenance projects you get pushback from people. They’ll tolerate new stuff because they perceive it as the necessary thing for things to get better. You know in like three months you’ll be able to drive a lot quicker.”

3. New construction is easier to finance

“Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is. Most federal and even state funding programs assume maintenance to be a local issue, so it is easier and more streamlined to get money for new stuff than for maintenance.”

Streetsblog USA
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Here They Are — The Sad Benches Where No One Wants to Sit

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This lovely “place I don’t want to sit” comes from Drew Ackermann in Gambrills, Maryland. His wife tested it out just for laughs.

Last week, Gracen Johnson over at Strong Towns introduced the phrase “places I don’t want to sit” to describe the lousy, leftover public spaces where someone has plopped down a bench or two as an afterthought. The seating, in these cases, helps crystallize how unsalvageable our public realm becomes when everything else is planned around moving and storing cars. Who would actually want to sit there?

So Strong Towns and Streetsblog encouraged folks to Tweet their own examples at #PlacesIDontWantToSit. You all dug up some hilarious-but-sad places — here are some of the lousiest ones.

This submission comes to us via Kansas City-based Tweeter The Pedestrian Path, who added the helpful white arrow to point out the sitting space:

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 9.51.31 AM

Read more…

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The Appalling Rollback of Truck Safety Provisions in the DRIVE Act

A battle is brewing over the Senate transportation bill’s approach to truck safety. Though large trucks are involved crashes that kill nearly 4,000 people a year — a number that has grown by 17 percent over the past five years — the DRIVE Act actually rolls back what few protections exist.

The bill would allow longer and heavier tractor-trailers. Trucking companies would be able to double up two 33-foot trailers behind one truck, even in states that have banned such big loads.

The bill would also cut down on mandated rest periods for truckers, a long-simmering question. Right now, truckers have to rest for at least 34 hours between work weeks, with that 34-hour break including two overnights and the work week not including more than 70 hours of driving. The Senate bill would allow truckers to work 82 hours a week with less rest.

Perhaps most appalling, the DRIVE Act would let teenagers drive commercial trucks.

Yes, the bill would allow 18-year-olds to drive commercial trucks, despite the elevated crash risk of teenage drivers. A raft of legal provisions and insurance standards work to protect the public from notoriously unsafe teen drivers, who pose a danger to society even driving a VW bug, much less a big rig with two 33-foot trailers.

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This Is What Passes for Traffic “Justice” in America

The "mob" was actually a group of people on bikes trying to flag down a motorist who had hit one of their friends and driven off, dragging his bike. Image: <a href="http://www.10news.com/news/driver-bicyclists-tussle-in-normal-heights" target="_blank">KGTV San Diego</a>

The “mob” was actually a group of people on bikes trying to flag down a motorist who had hit one of their friends and driven off, dragging his bike. Image: KGTV San Diego

Here’s a great example of how American law enforcement tends to produce perverse results when it comes to traffic collisions.

A cyclist in San Diego was hit by a driver and managed to avoid more serious injury by jumping off his bike. Prior to the incident, the motorist had been honking repeatedly at the group the victim was riding with, according to this report from KGTV San Diego.

Although she struck a person, dragged his bike for blocks, and only stopped when confronted by the victims’ friends, the driver will receive no ticket and face no criminal charges. In fact, one of the friends who chased the driver down may be charged with a misdemeanor for banging on her window and breaking it. In KGTV’s telling, that makes the cyclists a “mob” and the whole incident “a tussle” between them and the driver.

That’s how it goes on American streets: Harming a person with your car carries no penalty but harming someone’s car most definitely does.

Hat tip Shane Phillips

Streetsblog USA
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Another Tall Tale About Congestion From the Texas Transportation Institute

Crossposted from City Observatory.

Everything is bigger in Texas — which must be why, for the past 30 years, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) has basically cornered the market for telling whoppers about the supposed toll that traffic congestion takes on the nation’s economy. Today, they’re back with a new report, “The Urban Mobility Scorecard,” which purports to measure congestion and its costs in U.S. cities.

The numbers (and from time to time, the methodology) change, but the story remains the same. Traffic is bad, traffic is costing Americans lots of money, and traffic is getting worse. Here’s the press release: “Traffic Gridlock Sets New Records for Traveler Misery: Action Needed to Reduce Traffic Congestion’s Impact on Drivers, Businesses and Local Economies.”

The trouble with TTI’s work is that, to put it bluntly, it’s simply wrong. For one, their core measure of congestion costs — the “travel time index” — only looks at how fast people can travel, and completely ignores how far they have to go. As a result, it makes sprawling cities with fast roads between far-flung destinations look good, while penalizing more compact cities where people actually spend less time — and money — traveling from place to place. These and other problems, discussed below, mean that the TTI report is not a useful guide to policy.

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The Politically-Driven, Koch-Backed Campaign to Undermine Boston Transit

Boston’s MBTA has been having a tough year.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Following a disastrous winter season marked by extreme weather and service disruptions, the agency has been inundated with charges of mismanagement.

While the MBTA has its flaws, the charges against it don’t stem from a good government campaign so much as an ideologically-driven assault, filled with exaggerations and lies and backed by groups affiliated with the Koch brothers. Transit advocates view the sustained effort to discredit the agency as an attempt to undermine public support for expanding the rail and bus network in the growing Boston region.

The charges against the MBTA stem from a few interconnected sources. Fitting a pattern that Streetsblog reported on last year, a Koch-funded “think tank” has sown misinformation about the agency, which has then been picked up by politicians with Koch ties. In June, conservative groups won a major victory, passing a law that opened the door to privatizing some parts of the MBTA.

Leading the attack is the Pioneer Institute, which has published multiple reports filled with misleading claims about MBTA spending. (The Charles Koch Institute lists the Pioneer Institute as a “partner institution.”) Piling on recently was Governor Charlie Baker, a co-founder of the Pioneer Institute. Baker ordered a report on the MBTA in the wake of last winter’s fiasco.

Any legitimate watchdogging of the MBTA has been buried underneath a pile of exaggerations and misleading claims originating from Pioneer and its allies. Let’s examine a few of them:

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Today’s Headlines

  • Illinois Traffic Deaths Are Up 9% This Year, Compared to 14% Nationally (WYGM)
  • Active Trans Releases Report on Creating Complete Streets Policies in Illinois Communities
  • Police Arrest Man Who Had Been Evading DUI Charges for 8 Years (Sun-Times)
  • Police: Teens Have Been Robbing Bike Riders Near Garfield Park (NBC)
  • Advocates Help Restore Access to Busse Woods After Path Closed by Construction (Active Trans)
  • Union Pacific Gives Up on Plan for Pedestrian Bridge in Wheaton (Tribune)
  • Illinois Policy: Driverless CTA Trains Would Save Money on Wages
  • Monday’s Storm Shut Down a Section of the Pink Line (CBS)
  • What’s Causing the Work Delay on the Argyle Shared Street? (DNA)
  • Uber Is a More Popular Option for Morning Commutes in Chicago Than NYC or SF (DNA)
  • Cool Vintage Photos of the Blue Line in Logan Square (DNA)
  • Bike 45 Hosts a Repair Workshop This Sunday (DNA)

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA

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Study: Uber Reduces Drunk Driving Deaths

There’s an unexpected upside to the introduction of Uber into more and more U.S. cities, according to a study published earlier this year: the service helps reduce drunk driving fatalities.

The entry of Uber X — driving services offered by people using private vehicles — into a new city decreased drunk driving deaths by an average of 3.6 percent, according to the study, funded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Uber and carried out by researchers at Temple University. The difference took about nine months to take effect, they found. No similar benefit was found for the entry of Uber Black, the luxury driver service offered by the same company.

Researchers examined about 12,500 collisions from 2009 to 2014 across 540 townships in the state of California, comparing DUI fatality rates before and after the introduction of the service. (Researchers used econometric models to control for factors like size of population and size of elderly population.)

The study concluded that would-be drunk drivers appear to be sensitive to price as well as the availability of driver services. In others words, Uber X makes it easier and cheaper to hire a driver, offering an alternative to drunk driving for a small but significant percentage of the population, the authors concluded. On the other hand, the availability of a more expensive but more accessible driver service than a traditional taxi — Uber Black — did not seem to impact drunk driving behavior.

Streetsblog USA
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Crashes Doubled After Houston Banned Red Light Cameras

Collisions increased dramatically after Houston banned red light cameras. Chart: Houston Police Department

Collisions increased dramatically after Houston banned red light cameras. Chart: Houston Police Department

Law enforcement officers warned there would likely be an uptick in collisions when Houston debated banning red light cameras in the early part of the decade. Turns out they were absolutely right.

Houston voters banned the life-saving technology in 2010, with the press mostly cheering them along. Last year Houston PD examined how that’s impacted safety at intersections. According to department data [PDF], their predictions have been borne out.

The HPD data contrasted crash figures from 2006 to 2010 — when the cameras were in operation — and from 2010 to 2014, after they were banned and removed. At the intersections that formerly had cameras, fatal crashes jumped 30 percent. Meanwhile, total crashes were up 116 percent. And DWI crashes nearly tripled, increasing by 186 percent.

Houstonians are now safe from $75 fines, but according to the National Coalition for Safer Roads, Houston now carries the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous city in America for red light running. Between 2004 and 2013, 181 people were killed in the city as the result of failure to comply with traffic lights.

Streetsblog USA
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Louisiana Raids Its Maintenance Fund to Pay for Road Expansions

This year, Louisiana will raid $21.6 million from its road maintenance fund to pay for road projects, including some expansions, that have been on the books since 1989. The state will have to keep stealing from the fund for the next 27 years to pay for them.

Two projects, including the construction of a new four-lane highway connecting I-12 to Bush, Louisiana, continue to cost the state dearly, 26 years after they were approved. Image: ##http://wwwapps.dotd.la.gov/administration/public_info/projects/home.aspx?key=88##Louisiana DOTD##

Two projects, including the construction of a new four-lane highway connecting I-12 to Bush, Louisiana, continue to cost the state dearly, 26 years after they were approved. Image: Louisiana DOTD

Voters approved a package of 16 road and bridge projects under a pay-as-you-go model 26 years ago. Two of the projects, both in the New Orleans area, are still underway, according to a report by The Advocate:

Meanwhile, leaders have long since concluded that financing the improvements through a special, 4-cents-per-gallon tax was not enough.

The original price tag for the projects was $1.4 billion. The latest estimate is $5.2 billion.

“It is unbelievable,” said state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, who is often involved in Baton Rouge-area highway projects.

State officials say construction will last up to 10 years, and taxpayers will be shelling out for these roads long after building has ended. Since the 4-cents-a-gallon tax fund the state is authorized to use for these projects is insufficient, the state is digging into a fund that’s supposed to cover ordinary road maintenance in the region. The raids will recur annually for the next 27 years, starting at $21.6 million this year and ending at an estimated $87.6 million in 2044.

“It was ill-conceived,” Republican Sen. Dale Erdey, a veteran member of the Senate Transportation Committee, told The Advocate. “They told Joe Public that it would be a pay-as-you-go-type situation, and of course, that was totally off base.”