I’ve been intending on writing something useful on the City of Sacramento Transportation Priorities Plan, but here we are just a few days away from the deadline to comment, June 14th, and I’ve not done so. I encourage you to go to the webpage (https://www.cityofsacramento.org/Public-Works/Transportation/Planning-Projects/Transportation-Priorities-Plan), review, and provide your input.
A recent post on Streetsblog, Brent Toderian: Don’t “Balance” Modes — Prioritize Walking, Biking, and Transit, is from a visit and keynote in Denver, but applies perfectly to Sacramento, and I encourage you to read and reflect.
His main point is that those calling for balancing spending on all the modes really mean “lets just keep doing what we were doing.” We have spent, in this region, trillions of dollars in support of one mode, the privately owned motor vehicle. We have spent a little on transit, and almost nothing on walking and bicycling. If we simply increase the share for transit, walking and bicycling a bit, we have not really done anything. There is a deficit in transit, walking, and bicycling that can only be overcome but shifting our spending to these modes. Every dollar spent on expanding or widening roadways and freeways for privately owned vehicles directly harms transit, walking and bicycling because it encourages and subsidizes privately owned vehicles. It encourages people to live further away from jobs and services. It induces traffic, which congests our roadways so that transit can’t work as well. It encourages inappropriate speeds that endanger walkers and bicyclists.
Before we can start doing right, creating system that truly serves people’s desires for access in livable communities, we have to stop doing what we were doing. It think we can keep doing the wrong stuff and just add in the right stuff, we are wrong. We need to stop expanding and widening roads. Now, and for ever. #NoNewRoads
Another myth promulgated by people who support roads over transit is that transit has to be subsidized while motor vehicles pay their way. “Transit, particularly rail transit, is very expensive to build, operate, and maintain. While driving is pretty much self-supporting through user fees, transit must be heavily subsidized by taxpayers.”
Roads for motor vehicles are anything but self supporting. For the state and federal highway system (from the interstates all the way down to some arterial streets that many people don’t realize are designated highways), gas taxes pay for roughly half of constructing those roads. Where does the other half come from? Out of our pockets, from the general fund, through income taxes and other fees. You may have heard that the federal highway trust fund is out of money, but highways are still being built. How is that possible? Well, money keeps getting dumped into transportation to make up for the lack of gas tax income. Though it is now down to 50%, if the gas tax is not raised, it will be a continually declining percentage until nearly all of our transportation funds come out of the general fund.
So if the gas tax doesn’t pay for maintaining roads, what does? Nothing! Very little money is being spent on maintenance, and our roads have deteriorated in a way that is obvious to anyone who drives, or rides a bike, or even walks. Politicians give lip service to fixing roads, but when it comes to spending money, it is all about big new roads and ribbon-cutting opportunities. Or even big new transit projects and ribbon-cutting opportunities.
For local roads, those paid for by counties and cities, very little comes from the gas tax. Counties and cities in California do not have gas taxes nor income taxes (though they do in some other states). So where does the money come from? Sales tax, and out of the general fund, which is mostly property tax. Self supporting? Hardly. Counties and cities do get some state and federal funds, some of which comes from gas taxes, but it usually is only for new construction (not that it has to be, but that is what is asked for and given), and it is a small part of what it takes to build and maintain local roads.
And then there are the externalties of a car-centric transportation system. Climate change, air pollution, sprawl, unemployment or underemployment for people who can’t afford to get to jobs, death and severe injury on our roads ($80 billion per year, for just injuries, not including fatalities), high portions of both family income and family wealth devoted to just one purpose, the car, deteriorating infrastructure, foreign wars for oil (if you think the war in Iraq was about freedom rather than oil and profit for Halliburton and Dick Cheney, you haven’t been paying attention).
All forms of transportation get some subsidy. Motor vehicles, bicycles, buses, trains, airplanes (the subsidy here is probably the highest percentage of any), all get subsidized. Though rail freight is subsidized far less than other modes, which is why it seems to not be competetive with road and air, when it would be if the playing field were level. The real question is whether the subsidies result in a transportation system that serves all citizens, and not just those who choose to drive or are forced to drive by a lack of choice. My opinion is that we have our priorities all wrong.
So why do we still keep spending money we don’t have on highways and roads, rather than a rational transportation system? The “asphalt lobby” as it is called. This is a network of engineers, construction companies, government workers, and politicians who profit incredibly from continuing to spend our money on their pet projects. AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) and ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) are probaby the most prominent proponents, but there are organizations and lobbyists too numerous to list. OK, I can’t resist: the Asphalt Paving Alliance, the Asphalt Institute, the National Asphalt Paving Association. Not to mention: the American Concrete Pavement Association, the American Concrete Institute.
Time to stop!
There was a Twitter townhall today hosted by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and House Transportation Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster, organized around the Twitter hashtag #StuckInTraffic. I was expecting the worst, given that the hashtag presupposes that the main issue is congestion, but was pleasantly surprised. The questions they answered were softball questions, but the cars-first, highways-only message was absent in their answers, and that has to be a good sign.
The #StuckInTraffic hashtag has all the related tweets and provides a wider range of opinions, but other than the Heritage Foundation cars-only fringe pushing their Transportation Empowerment Act, there was a surprising across-the-board support for a true multi-modal transportation system.
I believe that we should have a multi-modal system, but I also believe that we have already spent enough money on highways and stroads, and that we should now be spending money only on maintenance, walking, transit and bicycling. What multi-modal should mean going forward is that we make up for our past cars-only mistakes by not spending any more on that ultimately dead-end enterprise. One of my favorite transportation graphics of all time is below, showing Chicago’s transportation priorities. Though the mix may be different in different locations, it is good place from which to start discussions at all levels, federal, state and local.
In response to the Viewpoint: Sacramento County Needs SouthEast Connector by Roberta MacGlashan and Steve Miklos in the Sacramento Bee on Tuesday:
The southeast connector is a 1970s solution to modern transportation questions. It is based on the model of people living a long way from where they work, and commuting long distances, for example, from El Dorado Hills to Elk Grove. Many people are looking now for a different way to live, with home, work, shopping and cultural amenities all close to each other. They are looking for transportation alternatives, which are scarce in the Sacramento region.
The southeast connector will also produce sprawl all along the corridor. Even before the project is scheduled for construction, developers are wanting to turn agricultural land into yet another subdivision. Cordova Hills is just one example. The Sacramento region already has an oversupply of suburban housing and suburban office parks; we don’t need any more. Some people will continue to choose suburban living and long commutes, but the question is why the rest of us would want to subsidize that choice to the tune of $456M dollars.
The Sacramento region certainly needs transportation infrastructure, and some small part of that infrastructure might be new roads, but what we really need to meet the demands of people for livable places and a vibrant economy is alternatives to single occupant cars. We need a more extensive light rail system, a bus network that serves more people, frequent Amtrak service, and streets that are safe and welcoming for bicyclists and pedestrians. We won’t get that if we spend huge sums on the connector.
We know that freeways such as the connector do not reduce fuel consumption or air pollution. Instead, they induce more driving and increase both. If you don’t believe that freeways induce traffic, just look at Interstate 80. It has been under an almost continuous process of expansion, yet it is always congested, and the new construction underway will be full as soon as it is finished. The economic and freight needs of Interstate 80 could be met by a four-lane freeway. The other lanes are there for commuters. I don’t accept long-distance commuting as an economic benefit, in fact it is quite otherwise.
Though the viewpoint talks about $456M as being the “total cost,” it is only just the beginning. There will be interchanges and widening and enhancements, costing in total many times as much. It would be better to cancel the project right now and re-think the transportation network we need in the Sacramento region.
The lead article this week in the Sacramento News & Review is Sacramento’s report card. I can’t resist getting in on the fun.
The article covers bicycle transportation in the “On two wheels” paragraph, and does it pretty well, giving a C grade. I’d add that art bike racks can be fun if they are also functional. The dragon at Shoki Ramen House and the bottle openers at New Helvetia Brewing are good examples. I think bicycling really works pretty well in the central city and some of east Sacramento, with people getting along in sharing the road most of the time. The further out you go, though, the worse things are, with belligerent drivers traveling at high speeds. I’d give central city a B and the far suburbs an D-. Does this average to a C?
Another major happening this last week in Sacramento was the announcement of progress in bringing bike sharing to Sacramento.
Chris Morfas presented to the SACOG Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee on progress in bike share. Fehr & Peers is writing a business plan for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District. The business plan will include solutions for serving low income people and those without access to credit cards or smartphones (most systems depend on one or both of these to operate).
Participants in the annual Cap-to-Cap trip to Washington DC, hosted by Sacramento Metro Chamber, experienced the new and highly successful bike share program there.
The bike share business plan should be completed by mid-summer, and the partners will then seek capital funding from SACOG and possibly private investors. The Sacramento system might be integrated with the bay area systems now being designed, with the Amtrak Capitol Corridor being a logical connection between the two.
See the Bike Share Bulletin_April_2013.
Yesterday I attended the Transportation Choices Summit, sponsored by TransForm, at the Sacramento Library Tsakopoulos Galleria. The purpose of the summit was to bring together advocates and others in the areas of transportation, health, and housing. Speakers were Brian Kelly, Acting Secretary, CA Business, Transportation & Housing Agency, Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board, and James Corless, Director, Transportation for America. There were plenary panels on Building California’s Future, and Cap & Trade Auction Revenues to Support Sustainable Communities. Breakout sessions were held on a variety of issues.
This is the current list of Public Works transportation projects in the City of Sacramento. I know about a few of these projects, but many of them I don’t know anything about. It would be worth exploring all of them to see what the implications are for walkability and bikeability, but where would I find the time? Some projects have their own document or page on the city website, but most of them don’t, at least that I’ve been able to find, so I presume these would require getting in touch with the city to get the documents.
I have long been thinking about a policy for construction of roads and highways, that would result in no more pavement. A post by Charles Marohn on Strong Towns blog titled “What is the federal role?” reminded me that I’d not posted on my idea. An excerpt from his post:
So if you forced me to have a federal transportation bill, then I would want it to do two things. First, I would want it to place a moratorium on the expansion, extension or construction of any new auto-oriented facilities. No new road miles anywhere. There is no need for this country to ever build another mile, another lane, another overpass or anything — we have far more than we can take care of now, most of it very unproductive. I would make this exception, however: any state that wants a new mile of highway has to remove two miles of existing. This would allow flexibility for states that wanted a strategic contraction, allowing them to allocate scarce resources to areas that would have the greatest benefit. In short, I would ensure the bill funded maintenance (which would make it politically irrelevant in the current context, but that is beside the point).”
I worked for several years in the Lake Tahoe basin, doing watershed education. The policy for hard coverage such as buildings and pavement, which produces runoff to the lake and a decline in water quality, is that there be no net increase in coverage over time. If a developer or homeowner wants to increase their coverage by expanding the areal extent of a building or parking lots, they must retire other buildings or pavement. The policy has been quite effective, and is primarily responsible the reversal in the steep decline of lake clarity. I realized that the policy would be a good one to apply everywhere. Pavement everywhere has the same effect, causing rain and snow to run off, carrying sediment and debris into waterways. Less pavement equals cleaner water. But there are so many more benefits of less pavement to the environment and to livability in towns and cities, that it makes no sense to continue paving, anywhere, anytime. Continue reading “No net pavement: a modest proposal”