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What AASHTO’s “Top Projects” Tell Us About State DOT Leadership

If you can build a project fast and under budget, AASHTO will love it, no matter how little sense it makes. Photo: Citizens Transportation Commission

Who can build the biggest road slab the fastest? Those seem to be the major criteria used by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to determine the “best” projects by state DOTs across the country.

In another sign that most state Departments of Transportation should still be called “highway departments,” there are no transit projects on AASHTO’s “top 10″ projects list this year. The closest thing to one is California’s Oakland-Bay Bridge, which was “built to accommodate future expansions in light rail, bus, and other modes of transportation.”

Many of the projects listed are bridge repairs (and emergency bridge repairs), which are important. But the list is also larded with highway expansions.

In Ohio, AASHTO showers praise on a $200 million project to bypass the town of Nelsonville, population 5,400. The project earned a nod for “reliev[ing] a major congestion problem” in rural southeast Ohio.

The most ludicrous selection is probably Segment E of Houston’s Grand Parkway. This is a $320 million portion of a proposed 185-mile third outerbelt for the city. Proponents of the project have openly admitted it is more about inducing sprawl than addressing any transportation problem. The Texas Department of Transportation, mired in financial woes, has allowed real estate interests in Houston to more or less dictate where money will be spent. Whether the state will be able to find the funds to complete the $5.4 billion loop is an open question.

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Car-Free Cappleman Touts Wilson Station Rehab as a Catalyst for TOD

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Rendering of the new station, including the restored Gerber building.

At a community meeting Wednesday on the upcoming reconstruction of the Red Line’s Wilson stop, 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman argued that one of the best things about the new station is that it will encourage walkable, transit-friendly development.

“One of the things I’ve pushed for as alderman is transit-oriented development, [which is a] good, sound urban planning practice,” he told residents during the hearing at Truman College. “We want to create more density closest to the ‘L’ stop.”

Cappleman noted that 45 percent of ward residents don’t own cars. “I am one of those people,” he said. “We also found that that 50 percent of the disposable income that you spend is spent outside the ward. So if we are going to make this a livable, walkable community, we need to make sure you can do your shopping here. “

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Rendering of the new main entrance on the south side of Wilson.

He added that the ward has been working with the mayor’s office and various city departments on strategies to fill empty storefronts near the station. “From my discussions with many developers, they are banging on the doors wanting to do something, so you’re going to see some exciting things, and it’s because of this Wilson ‘L’ stop,” Cappleman said. “The trick is making sure that, while we do that, we keep [the ward] as diverse as possible.”

At the meeting, officials updated residents on construction plans for the $203 million project, a massive overhaul of a station that RedEye readers have thrice voted Chicago’s grungiest. Originally built in 1923, the station has badly deteriorated over the last century, and it is not ADA accessible.

The new station will function as an additional transfer point between the Red and Purple lines, which means Uptown residents will be able to catch the Evanston Express for a faster ride downtown or to Evanston during rush hours. To accommodate Purple Line service, there will be two different “island” platforms, with canopies to shelter riders from the elements.

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Southern California Road Agency Courts Bankruptcy With Highway Addition

California 241 needs an extension so more people can not use it. Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

California 241 needs an extension so more people can not use it. Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies via U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Today, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group released a new report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now.

This week we’ve previewed the report with posts about the proposed Effingham Parkway in Savannah, Georgia and the harebrained scheme to widen I-240 through Asheville, North Carolina. Here we continue with an egregious example from the Golden State.

Southern California’s toll road agency has proposed extending an existing toll highway that might eventually span inland Orange County and connect to Interstate 5. The number of cars on previous sections of the highway, however, have failed to meet projections. Also, the agency is already struggling to avoid default on its debts.

California 241 is one of several toll roads in Orange County built and operated by the legislature-created Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA). California officials enabled the creation of toll roads in the area in the late 1980s amid both a shortage of state transportation funding and the perception of insatiable demand for more highways.

Traffic on California 241, however, hasn’t met official projections for a decade. In recent years — and especially since the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 — driving on existing sections of California 241 has declined.

The TCA measures road use by counting the number of transactions conducted by toll payers on the combined Foothill/Eastern Toll Roads, which include not only Route 241 but also Routes 133 and 261. The TCA’s count shows fewer transactions in fiscal year 2014 than in fiscal 2004. As indicated by the dotted trend line below, there were about 32 million fewer transactions in fiscal year 2014 than would have been expected if the trend from 2000 to 2006 had continued.

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With Permit Parking, John Cranley Could Help Cincinnati Despite Himself

Chalk this one up as a worthwhile proposal offered in bad faith.

Streetsblog readers may remember Mayor John Cranley as the pol who wasted a ton of taxpayer money trying to kill the Cincinnati streetcar. But lately Cranley has come out as a would-be parking reformer, proposing a $300 annual fee for on-street parking in Over-the-Rhine, a historic neighborhood on the streetcar route.

Mayor John Cranley's proposal to charge for curbside parking could help Cincinnati neighborhoods more than he realizes. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/taestell/15094122075/in/pool-over-the-rhine##Travis Estell/Flickr##

Mayor John Cranley’s proposal to charge for curbside parking could help Cincinnati neighborhoods more than he realizes. Photo: Travis Estell/Flickr

Not surprisingly, Cranley is getting blowback from some quarters. But Randy A. Simes at UrbanCincy says the plan is right on the merits.

To better understand how this proposed permit fee stacks up, let’s consider that it averages out to approximately $25 per month. According to the most recent State of Downtown report, the average monthly parking rate in the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton is $89. This average accounts for approximately 36,400 monthly parking spaces available in 2013.

While this average monthly parking rate is skewed by much higher rates in the Central Business District, many lots and garages reserved for residential parking in Over-the-Rhine charge between $40 and $110 per month. This means that Mayor Cranley’s proposal would put the city’s on-street parking spaces nearly in-line with their private counterparts.

This is a smart move. We should stop subsidizing parking as much as possible. Therefore, such a proposal should not only be examined in greater depth for Over-the-Rhine, but all of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods.

All well and good. The thing is, Cranley makes no bones about the fact that he considers the fee as retribution against streetcar supporters. “They should be asked to pay a much higher fee for cars they still have on the street,” Cranley said on a local radio show. “[It] is consistent with the philosophy of the folks who are pushing the streetcar, which is this will reduce the need for cars, so those who want to bring cars into Over-the-Rhine … should pay for the amenity that they so desperately wanted.”

Cranley’s motives may be suspect, but ironically, by placing a value on curbside parking he may end up helping constituents he holds in contempt.

Elsewhere on the Network: Bike PGH welcomes Pittsburgh’s new bike and pedestrian coordinator, and Rights of Way celebrates the arrival of the first bike corral in Portland, Maine.

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CDOT Previews Chicago’s Next Round of New Bikeways

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New protected bike lanes on Lake Street. Photo: John Greenfield

The quarterly meetings of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council are a good place to get up to speed on Chicago’s latest bike developments. Wednesday’s meeting was no exception, with updates on bike lane construction, off-street trails, Divvy bike-share, and more. The sessions take place during business hours, but if your schedule allows you to attend, you can get on the mailing list by contacting Carlin Thomas, a consultant with the Chicago Department of Transportation’s bike program, at carlin.thomas[at]activetrans.org.

CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton kicked things off by introducing MBAC’s four new community representatives. All four are seasoned bike advocates, so they’ll likely be an asset to the meetings, bringing on-the-ground knowledge of their respective districts.

Anne Alt, who works at the bike law firm FK Law (a Streetsblog sponsor) and volunteers with Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, will represent the South and Southwest Sides. Kathy Schubert, the founder of the Chicago Cycling Club who successfully lobbied CDOT to start installing non-slip “Kathy plates” on bridge decks, will cover the North Side.

Miguel Morales, a former networker for the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago’s Children and current West Town Bikes board member, will represent the West Side. And Bob Kastigar, a longtime activist who launched petition drives in support of fallen cyclist Bobby Cann and the proposal for a safety overhaul on Milwaukee Avenue in Gladstone Park, will cover the Northwest Side.

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Kastigar, Morales, Schubert, and Alt. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld somberly noted that Chicago has seen seven bike fatalities this year, up from three by this time last year. The crashes generally took place on the Southwest and Northwest Sides. All but one involved a driver, and the victims ranged in age from 20-year-old Jacob Bass to 59-year-old Suai Xie.

CDOT Assistant Director of Transportation Planning Mike Amsden provided an update on the department’s efforts to put in 100 miles of buffered and protected lanes by 2015. So far, 67.75 miles have been installed, with 19.5 miles built this year, Amsden said. An additional 23.5 miles of federally funded lanes are slated for construction in spring 2015. These include Lawrence (Central to Central Park) and Milwaukee (Lawrence to Elston).

Currently, 14 miles of bikeways are going through the approval process and could be built this fall or next spring. These include Elston (Webster to the northernmost intersection of Elston and Milwaukee, near Peterson), Kedzie (Milwaukee to Addison), and Pershing (King to Oakwood). Another 7.5 miles are tied to street repaving projects, and are slated for construction this fall or in spring 2015. These include Armitage (Western to Damen) and Augusta (Central Park to Grand). Presumably, the lion’s share of all of these upcoming bikeways will be buffered bike lanes, rather than protected lanes.

Amsden reported that recently built buffered and protected lanes on Broadway in Uptown have been getting positive reviews from business owners, pedestrians, and cyclists. A brand-new stretch of PBLs and BBLs on Lake Street from Central Park to Austin means you can now ride five miles from Damen to the city limits on next-generation lanes, albeit it under the shadow and noise of ‘L’ tracks. Buffered lanes were recently striped on Marquette, from Cottage Grove to Stony Island, and from California to Damen.

“Next we’re going to start focusing on closing the gaps in our network,” Amsden said. “We’re really trying to create a cohesive system by looking at areas of concern, like difficult intersections.”

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Thursday Job Market

Looking to hire a smart, qualified person for a position in transportation planning, engineering, IT, or advocacy? Post a listing on the Streetsblog Jobs Board and reach our national audience of dedicated readers.

Looking for a job? Here are the current listings:

Development Director, Transportation Alternatives, New York, NY
The Development Director will lead and direct all of T.A.’s fundraising efforts, with direct responsibility for major gifts, foundation grants, and gala events, and oversight responsibility for corporate sponsorship, membership, and T.A.’s annual bike tours

Safe Routes to School Planner, BikeWalk KC, Kansas City, MO
BikeWalkKC is looking for a person with technical expertise in community planning, active transportation, public and institutional policy, and geographic information systems to make Kansas City a better place for people to walk and bike. In particular this position will be focused on the Kansas City Public School District and all of its diverse neighborhoods.

Communications Manager, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia
The Communications Manager should be able to craft compelling messages that convey the joys of bicycling while furthering the Bicycle Coalition’s mission and programs. The ideal candidate also has a laser-like attention to detail and a strong commitment to diversity of all kinds.

Transit-Oriented Development Planner, City of Madison, WI
The Sustainable Transportation Planner is responsible for professional urban and community planning work with a particular focus on planning a healthy, sustainable, 21st Century mobility system for the City of Madison with consideration for the metropolitan region. The position is defined by a high degree of collaboration with area units of government.

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Single-Speeds Are Helping to Broaden the Appeal of Transportation Cycling

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Michael Anderson, Iban Mendez and Joey Lopez outside Wheel of Time Bikes. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John's column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Thursdays.]

The amount of biking in the U.S. more than doubled during the aughts, from 1.7 billion trips in 2001 to four billion in 2009, according to the League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy group. One of the great things about this boom is that it has created a wider demographic of people who ride.

In a report published last year, the League found that cycling saw the fastest growth over the last decade among Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans, from sixteen percent of all bike trips in 2001 to twenty-three percent in 2009. The study also found that eighty-nine percent of people aged eighteen to twenty-nine have a positive view of cyclists, and seventy-five percent of them feel that improved conditions for biking would make their community a better place to live.

The recent trend towards single-speed bicycles, with freewheels and/or fixed gears, has helped fuel the growing popularity of transportation cycling among urban youth in Chicago and other big cities. These sleek, minimalist rides are affordable, fast and easy to customize, which makes them an appealing gateway to biking for young people who, a decade ago, might have been more interested in buying four wheels than two.

Single-speeds have helped change the face of Chicago’s Critical Mass, which meets on the last Friday of every month in Daley Plaza. For most of the years since it launched in the nineties, the huge ride has drawn relatively few teens and people of color. Recently, the Mass has become more diverse in general, but nowhere is that more apparen than in back of the plaza’s giant Picasso sculpture, where dozens of youth, of all races, hang out and do tricks on their “fixies” before the ride gets rolling.

Nowadays, young single-speed riders, many of them black and Latino, are also a fixture at Logan Square’s eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument. The bikes have become so popular in Chicago that there are now at least two shops that sell almost nothing but fixies. One of these is Phixx 606 Cycles, located at 4075 North Elston in the Irving Park neighborhood (Phixx606Cycles.com, 773-969-1148).

The other is Wheel of Time Bikes, 1518 West 18th in Pilsen (Facebook.com/WheelOfTimeBikes, 312-226-2453). I dropped by recently to find out more about why single-speeds resonate so much with Chicago youth.

Owned by artist Vianey Valdez and her mechanic husband Angel, this shop in a largely Mexican-American community features imagery that honors indigenous cultures. The name refers to the Aztec calendar wheel, which makes up the front wheel of the fixie in the logo, and the other wheel is a Lakota dreamcatcher and sacred hoop. Valdez also painted a phrase in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, across a wall of the store.

A disco ball and dozens of silver CDs stuck to the recessed ceiling of the shop are leftovers from its previous life as a record store. Bike frames, rims, tires, chains and other parts and accessories in a galaxy of colors hang from the walls. The shop only stocks one bike brand: Los Angeles-based Pure Fix Cycles.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Transportation Officials Discuss Big Plans for Union Station (Sun-Times)
  • Active Trans Shares a State Transportation Platform With Gubernatorial Candidates
  • Ventra Records Used as Evidence to Charge Man With 3 Sexual Assaults on CTA (Fox)
  • Private Company Offering Service from Chicago to Madison on Vintage Rail Cars (Travel Pulse)
  • 7 Injured After CTA Bus Driver Crashes Into Parked Car in Oakland (Sun-Times)
  • Police Cracking Down on DUIs on North Side and in Back of the Yards This Weekend (DNA)
  • CTA Board Approves Contract for Security Guards at Parking Lots (RedEye)
  • Park District Selling Monthly Car Parking Passes at Loyola Beach for $129 (DNA)
  • Chicago Cycling Club Hosts a Bike Ride to a Yoga Studio (DNA)
  • Kickstarter Project to Post 100 Wacky Ads on Red Line Is Fully Funded (RedEye)

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA

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Wisconsin’s Highway Spending Mania Makes Less Sense Every Day

Road expansion projects in Wisconsin are gobbling up money that could be spent to repair what already exists and improve transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure.

Wisconsin isn’t known as a state that makes smart use of transportation dollars, whether it’s Scott Walker rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail service, denying funds for what would have been Milwaukee’s first suburban commuter rail service, or cutting millions in state aid for transit. Now a new report from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) sheds makes it perfectly clear just how imbalanced the state’s transportation funding priorities have gotten [PDF].

The report highlights wasteful highway expansion projects slated to cost $2.8 billion. That’s on top of the $2.5 billion spent on such projects in the past two budgets. These projects would expand highways in Madison, Milwaukee, and Fond du Lac where traffic has either stagnated or dropped. Wisconsin’s profligate spending on highway expansions not only diverts money from other ways of getting around, is also shortchanges maintenance of roads that already exist.

Wisconsin could afford to restore previously-cut transit funding, increase transit operations and capital funding, invest millions in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and increase funding for state and local roads — all for the next ten years — for less than half what it plans to spend on highway expansion in the next two years alone.

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Sunday Play Spot Series Energizes an Underused Stretch of Lincoln Avenue

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The scene on Lincoln Avenue last Sunday. Photo: Lakeview Chamber of Commerce

Over the past few years, the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, which administers SSA #227, has helped create car-free public spaces as a strategy to boost retail sales and build community. For example, they sponsored the conversion of parking lane space to People Spot seating areas on the Lincoln Avenue and Southport business strips, which have become popular places for shoppers and residents to relax and mingle.

Now they’re expanding on this success with the Sunday Play Spot program, a series of pop-up plaza events every weekend in September from noon to 4 p.m. on the 3300 block of North Lincoln. The block, located between School Street and Roscoe Avenue, next to the Paulina Brown Line stop, is completely pedestrianized to make room for a temporary art installation, active games, performances, and other fun activities for people of all ages. Program director Lee Crandell says the series was inspired by the Active Transportation Alliance’s Open Streets ciclovia and PlayStreets youth recreation initiative.

The SSA is spending $10,000 on the Play Spot program, a relative bargain for four free events that could potentially serve thousands of residents, and draw attention to a somewhat overlooked retail district, according to executive director Heather Way Kitzes. The series is also supported by 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, Centrum Partners, and dozens of other local businesses and institutions.

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The pop-up lawn. Photo: Lakeview Chamber of Commerce

While the west side of the block is fully populated with businesses, the east side currently has a number of vacancies, although some new tenants are coming in the next ten months, Way said. Centrum is also building a parking-lite residential building next to the ‘L’ station, which should increase the area’s vibrancy. “Right now, the block is underutilized, so it’s nice to get people out and activate the street by creating a nice pedestrian environment,” she said.

Hundreds of people showed up to play on the car-free street during last Sunday’s kickoff, Way said. The centerpiece of each event is a 50-foot inflatable art piece titled “Orange You Glad to See Me?” by Latent Design. It vaguely resembles a massive goldfish with a clear head. “You can walk inside and have this orange, monochromatic experience, she said.

The local YMCA led Zumba classes, the Little Gym hosted kids’ gymnastics activities, and there was a bags tournament. On the Route Bicycles and Heritage Littles, which specializes in balance bikes for young children, had cycles available for test rides. Pet activities included a Twister game for dogs, and a paw-printing activity that allowed pooches and their owners to create a dog-centric Chicago flag. For those who wanted to simply relax, there were tables and chairs, plus an Astroturf lawn, perfect for picnicking.

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