Saturday, June 28, 2008

EPA, FHWA and I-94: part of a larger scandal?

At first, the Federal Highway Administration's position on the global warming impacts of expanding North-South I-94 just seemed completely looney tunes. Now, though, with revelations in the New York Times this week that the White House just refused to open an email from the EPA concerning global warming, FHWA's dismissal of global warming concerns seems to transcend idiocy and elevate itself into a piece of a larger scandal.

Here is the relevant passage from the FHWA's record of decision approving WisDOT's proposal to expand the freeway even though people are driving less and expansion won't improve drive times in the vast majority of the project area.

Comment - "The report's analysis of greenhouse gas impacts is inadequate. The analysis is not much of an improvement over the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which did not mention greenhouse gases at all. The Final EIS talks about greenhouse gases, but doesn't say much useful and offers no mitigation plans." The FEIS violates NEPA requirements by not committing to mitigation of GHG emissions.

Response - FHWA's position is that greenhouse gas emissions/climate change is a global issue, the affected environment is the entire planet, and no individual project's emissions will be large enough to perceptibly impact global greenhouse gas emissions and/or climate. FHWA commits to mitigation measures when 1) the impacts for which the mitigation is proposed actually result from the proposed action, and 2) the proposed mitigation represents a reasonable public expenditure (23CFR 771.105(d)).

Because global climate change cannot be attributed to a specific project FHWA will not mitigate potential greenhouse gas emission impacts of the proposed action. (Emphasis added.)

To date, no national standards have been established regarding greenhouse gases, nor has the U.S. EPA established criteria or thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions. On April 2, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al. that the U.S. EPA does have authority under the Clean Air Act to establish motor vehicle emissions standards for carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. EPA is currently determining the implications to national policies and programs as a result of the Supreme Court decision. However, the Court's decision did not have any direct implications on requirements for developing transportation projects.

FHWA is actively engaged with the U.S. DOT Center for Climate Change to develop strategies to reduce transportation's contribution to greenhouse gases — particularly carbon dioxide emissions — and to assess the risks to transportation systems and services from climate change. FHWA will continue to pursue these efforts as productive steps to address this important issue.

Well, hell. The Bushies in the Federal Highway Administration are saying that because the global warming impact of each individual highway project cannot be precisely measured, nothing will be done concerning any project to try to mitigate the impacts we know to exist.

Idiotic reasoning? You bet. (That idiocy, unfortunately, was warmly embraced by Secretary Frank Busalacchi and his merry minions at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Does Gov. Doyle really feel comfortable with his administration being so closely associated with George Bush's pseudo-science?) But it may be more than idiocy -- The New York Times reported this week that the Bush loyalists
just ignored what they did not want to acknowledge.

From the Times:

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week.

The document, which ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status, was the E.P.A.’s answer to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required it to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment, the officials said.

This week, more than six months later, the E.P.A. is set to respond to that order by releasing a watered-down version of the original proposal that offers no conclusion. Instead, the document reviews the legal and economic issues presented by declaring greenhouse gases a pollutant.

Over the past five days, the officials said, the White House successfully put pressure on the E.P.A. to eliminate large sections of the original analysis that supported regulation, including a finding that tough regulation of motor vehicle emissions could produce $500 billion to $2 trillion in economic benefits over the next 32 years. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter....

In early December, the E.P.A.’s draft finding that greenhouse gases endanger the environment used Energy Department data from 2007 to conclude that it would be cost effective to require the nation’s motor vehicle fleet to average 37.7 miles per gallon in 2018, according to government officials familiar with the document.

About 10 days after the finding was left unopened by officials at the Office of Management and Budget, Congress passed and President Bush signed a new energy bill mandating an increase in average fuel-economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The day the law was signed, the E.P.A. administrator rejected the unanimous recommendation of his staff and denied California a waiver needed to regulate vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases in the state, saying the new law’s approach was preferable and climate change required global, not regional, solutions.

California’s regulations would have imposed tougher standards.

The Transportation Department made its own fuel-economy proposals public almost two months ago; they were based on the assumption that gasoline would range from $2.26 per gallon in 2016 to $2.51 per gallon in 2030, and set a maximum average standard of 35 miles per gallon in 2020.... (This delusion about gas prices is in contrast to WisDOT's, where folks believe that gasoline will be $2.51 a gallon this year.)

The House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, led by Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, has been seeking the discarded E.P.A. finding on the dangers of climate change.

After reading it last week, Mr. Markey’s office sent a letter to Mr. Bush saying, “E.P.A. Administrator Stephen Johnson determined that man-made global warming is unequivocal, the evidence is compelling and robust, and the administration must act to prevent harm rather than wait for harm to occur.”

Simultaneously, Mr. Waxman’s committee is weighing its response to the White House’s refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents relating to the E.P.A.’s handling of recent climate-change and air-pollution decisions. The White House, which has turned over other material to the committee, last week asserted a claim of executive privilege over the remaining documents.

Did EPA ever suggest specific steps to mitigate greenhouse gas impacts from highway projects? Did the agency recommend a new emphasis on transit? We don't know, because Bush is hiding records.

It is absolutely clear, though, that the US DOT and its Federal Highway Administration is dancing around the real EPA assertions that greenhouse gases pose a threat and should be controlled. Surely the actions of the Bush administration should compel WisDOT to take a new look at the record of decision.

It's just too bad that WisDOT leadership has climbed into bed with Bush's charlatans and pulled the blankets high and tight over their collective heads.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Congestion relief for wealthy, Evenson advocates

Highway planning according to SEWRPC chief Phil Evenson: People of means should be able to buy their way out of congestion while everyone else breathes car exhaust.

Evenson proposed this week that drivers who can afford to pay tolls to drive in less congested lanes should be allowed to do so.

“What’s wrong with a premium charge for a premium ride?” Evenson said during a forum on transportation funding sponsored, according to the JS.

Where to start...

Well, for one thing, SEWRPC and the highway happy planners at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation keep insisting that easing congestion is essential for a strong economy. But here comes Evenson, completely disowning overall congestion relief. He's now willing to provide better traffic movement only to those who can pay more for it.

SEWRPC has long dismissed concerns that adding highway lanes will increase air pollution because there will be more cars on the road. SEWRPC has argued repeatedly that cars moving at faster speeds are less polluting than cars stuck in stop and go traffic. Under Evenson's proposal, though, many people would still be stuck in traffic. The freeway would be wider, more people would be on it, but traffic jams in a majority of lanes could actually be worse. Even under SEWRPC's convoluted logic on pollution, air pollution could well be worse than it otherwise would be.

How high would the tolls have to be to cover the cost of building and maintaining the extra lanes for rich people? Or would the average Wisconsin driver, who can't afford to drive in the rich people's lanes, have to pay to build them?

What happens if too many people want to drive in that lane? Do we build yet another rich people's traffic lane, or do we convert a regular traffic lane to a rich person's lane, thereby increasing congestion in the regular people's lane?

Evenson's proposal does nothing to address the negative aspects of freeway construction -- the noise, dirt. loss of green space, loss of wetlands, loss of flood plain, loss of tax base, etc. The negative impacts of SEWRPC's existing freeway expansion plan is visited mostly on City of Milwaukee residents -- Evenson's proposal for rich people's traffic lanes likely would also most negatively affect city residents. At least he's consistent on some things.

And, as a commenter on Jim Rowen's blog points out, Evenson's proposal conveniently overlooks the fact that people are driving less.

Evenson's proposal benefits a few people with adequate disposable income who experience a few minutes of delay in their drives to the suburbs. The costs are borne by everyone else.

And global warming impacts? Shhhh. SEWRPC doesn't like to talk about that.

Sounds like the type of SEWRPC plan we have come to expect.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dem leadership holds fast on transit funding

A key House committee refused to raid the transit fund for the money to build more highways, as the Bush administration wanted. Unfortunately, there is still not enough money in the transit fund to meet this country's needs.

From CQ Politics:

House Panel Approves Transportation-Housing Spending

The chairman of the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee on Friday said the projected shortfall of the federal Highway Trust Fund is not his panel’s responsibility to fix.

“This shortfall is not of this committee’s making,” said John W. Olver , D-Mass.

Both the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office have projected the trust fund will run up to a $3.7 billion deficit in fiscal 2009. The panel rejected requests from the Bush administration to borrow $3.2 billion from the mass transit fund to make up for the difference.

The subcommittee approved a $108.3 billion appropriations bill with about $55 billion in discretionary spending for transportation, housing and other independent agencies such as the Washington-area Metro system. The bill would appropriate $66.7 billion for transportation and $41.5 billion for housing.

Keeping with the guarantees in the 2005 highway law, the panel provided $40.2 billion for highways and $10.3 billion for public transit services. That number includes $1.8 billion for new commuter transit lines.

Amtrak received $1.5 billion, including $114 million additional funds for back pay to union employees who worked without a pay increase for eight years. That’s significantly more than the president’s $800 million request.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Driving drops again -- let's build bigger freeways

Will the Wisconsin Department of Transportation please wake up?

From today's USA Today:

Americans drove 30 billion fewer miles from November through April than during the same period in 2006-07, the biggest such drop since the Iranian revolution led to gasoline supply shortages in 1979-80.

That's a lot of miles undriven.

We already knew that expanding North-South I-94 won't improve driving speeds along most of the route. We know that WisDOT's reconstruction plan for the freeway will cost $1.9 billion and the state hasn't a clue how to pay for it.

Now we know that Americans are seriously cutting back on their driving, which not only makes freeway expansion a bit more silly, but also a bit less affordable because less driving means less money in state and federal highway funds.

So will WisDOT wake up?

Not likely. It is resting so comfortably on that pillow stuffed with our tax dollars.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Living near freeways makes allergies worse

From the Boston Globe:

BOTTOM LINE: Children who live close to a major road and are therefore exposed to traffic-related air pollution have an increased risk of allergies, eczema, and asthma, said Heinrich.

CAUTIONS: Other factors, like socioeconomic status, also contribute to the development of allergies, and though the study accounted for these, we cannot conclusively say that traffic pollution alone is the cause for higher allergy risk.

WHAT'S NEXT: The researchers plan to follow the children until age 10 or longer to see the effects of age and any family moves.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Frank Busalacchi's response misses the truth

Does WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi truly not understand his own department and its workings or is he a flat-out liar? Top city officials wrote to Busalacchi to advocate the $200 million budgeted for expanding North-South I-94 be used for transit instead.

Frank responded with a letter that contained a couple of whoppers. One response Busalacchi makes contradicts itself entirely within two short sentences. Busalacchi first summarized a point in the city's letter, then stepped immediately in to Delusion Land:

The FEIS acknowledges that freeway expansion in most sections of the I-94 North-South corridor would result in little or no changes in drive times

This is correct. The expansion is absolutely necessary to maintain little or no change in drive times; without expansion, driving conditions will be much worse.

Yup. Frank believes both that freeway expansion won't help drive times and that it is absolutely necessary or conditions will get much worse. He really should give up smokin' those exhaust pipes.

Here is what WisDOT's own Environmental Impact Statement says about what the expansion would accomplish.

The Safety and Design Improvements with Added Capacity Alternative would decrease travel times on SB I-94 during the evening rush hour by over 10 minutes between Howard Avenue and College Avenue in 2035, compared to the Safety and Design Improvements Alternative. Travel times would not vary by as much south of College Avenue. In Racine and Kenosha Counties, there would be little difference in travel times between the two alternatives.

The EIS also said that in Racine and Kenosha counties, "existing travel times within the corridor are not currently encumbered by congestion -- reductions in travel time will be minimal."

Maybe Frank should actually read the report before he embarrasses himself, his agency and Gov. Doyle again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

And WisDOT won't rethink a thing

WisDOT is beginning to look just a little bit silly in its refusal to take into consideration any new inconvenient fact that might suggest altermatives to highway-building. Here's the latest from the Washington Post:

The average price of a gallon of gasoline nationally is now almost a dollar higher than it was a year ago, according to the Energy Department. And with crude oil trading at more than $134 a barrel yesterday, more gasoline price increases are probably in the pipeline as refiners and retailers attempt to pass crude oil costs along to motorists, industry analysts warn.

"The fear here is that we've crossed a Rubicon," said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA. "Normally, prices plateau after Memorial Day . . . But I don't think we're going to get much relief this summer."

In a society nurtured on cheap gasoline, the high fuel prices are having disparate effects: the end of free pizza deliveries at major franchises, a plunge in the sales of sport-utility vehicles, a steep drop in the price of houses that are far from jobs or mass transit.

Federal officials have also reported the first decline in miles driven on U.S. roads since 1979, business at roadside convenience stores has slowed, and the tourism industry is bracing for a downturn this summer. Nationwide, about 8 percent of Americans say they have changed their commuting patterns and are taking public transportation, according to a survey conducted by NPD Group, a market research firm. The same share of respondents said they would vacation closer to home this summer because of rising gas prices.

Monday, June 2, 2008

California making improvements where they matter

While the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is looking to throw a couple hundred million away on widening a freeway for no discernible purpose, California is giving up battling a lawsuit and is going to spend money on improvements that actually help people.

The state is going to spend up to $2 billion to make improvements to accommodate people with handicaps.

What a concept.

California's work includes, according to the San Diego Union:
  • Building about 10,000 new curb ramps.
  • Improving about 50,000 existing curb ramps to meet recent changes in design requirements.
  • Rebuilding a “considerable percentage” of the approximately 2,500 miles of sidewalk under Caltrans jurisdiction.
  • Rebuilding pavement at crosswalks for a “considerable percentage” of the approximately 15,000 state highway intersections and installing audible crossing signals for the visually impaired.
It can be so very refreshing to reach out to people beyond the road-builder campaign donor crowd. WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi ought to try it sometime.

Wonder just how compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act WisDOT is?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The contortionist logic

The JS editorial board continues to push freeway expansion on North-South I-94, with only a slight nod to a crucial fact.

Opponents of the widening - such as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett - argue that widening the roadway would not significantly ease travel times and that the money for expanding the roadway could be better used for mass transit alternatives. Those are legitimate concerns, especially with the rise in gas prices, and certainly the state could push harder for mass transit and the KRM.

Widening the freeway won't do what the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has for years said it will do. It will not improve traffic flow in Racine and Kenosha Counties. Maybe the JS editorial board thinks spending $200 million for something that doesn't work is a bargain. In support of its argument it cites an outdated SEWRPC study that already has been shown to be grossly inaccurate and that is contradicted by WisDOT's finding that freeway expansion won't do much for traffic flow.

Maybe we can sell the Board a $50,000 Hummer convertible. Like WisDOT's freeway to "modernize" the freeway without lane expansion, it's bigger than anyone really needs and really environmentally unfriendly. For an extra $10,000 the editorial board can get an Hummer convertible. Board members can roll around town with the wind blowing through their hair and the sun in their faces.

But wait. Turns out that the convertible roof doesn't open.

Will the editorial board still buy it? Probably not. No one in their right minds would pay extra for something knowing that it won't work.

Then why is it so damned willing to spend $200 million for freeway expansion that won't work? We are guessing it has something to do with that freeway subsidy from the federal government. The editorial board is bravely endorsing spending someone else's money.