Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Driving down again in July

From Reuters -- is WisDOT listening?

Motorists on U.S. roads applied the brakes hard on driving when gasoline prices peaked over the summer at more than $4 per gallon, according to the latest government figures released on Tuesday.

Americans, she said, drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in July than they did a year earlier. Transit ridership, in contrast, was up 11%.

The 3.6 percent year-over-year decline in miles traveled on all roads in July cemented a downward trend begun nine months ago in response to rising pump prices and economic weakness.

While the June drop was 5 percent, the July drop was still sharp and may be more illustrative of consumer habits and concerns about the economy. July is a usually heavy driving period marked by traditional summer vacations and the Independence Day holiday.

"The decline means Americans are consuming less fuel and emitting less CO2 (tailpipe emissions), which is a positive development," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in an interview with Reuters. "But it is a challenge to how we fund transportation today."

The miles traveled figure is an informal economic reference for policymakers who sought to make the best of another bad number by touting rising transit figures. The drop in driving heightened concerns about how to pay for road and rail projects, since those employment-creating priorities are financed mainly by gasoline taxes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

That other bailout

Congress this month bailed out the Federal Highway Trust Fund to the tune of $8 billion, putting a lot of road projects back on track. The funds were transferred from FHWA's administrative accounts to the Trust Fund.

The Bush administration opposed the rescue before it supported it.

From the Puget Sound Business Journal:

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters praised Congress for acting quickly "to protect states from the pain of a funding shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund."

But, she added, "the fundamental funding flaws that plague the nation's transportation system will continue to wreak havoc if left unfixed."

Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agreed, calling the transfer of funds a "short-term fix."

"Congress must develop a long-term solution when reauthorizing the surface transportation law next year," Josten said. "Every funding option must be on the table."

Federal gasoline taxes currently provide revenue for the fund. Gas tax receipts fell in recent months as Americans curtailed their driving in response to high prices at the pump.

So $700 billion or more for financial institutions and increased taxes, in one way or another, for highways. Something to look forward to.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Other states slowing down in light of federal funding problems

Arizona is putting as much as $171 million in new federally-funded highway projects on hold because of the uncertainty that the federal funds will be available.

Arkansas is delaying taking bids on a $24 million project to rebuild an I-40 interchange for the same reason. According to KFSM-TV:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says her agency would delay and even cut back payments for state road and bridge construction nationwide because the federal Highway Trust Fund had been depleted. The federal government typically covers 80% of the costs of a project on all highways.

Wisconsin seems ready to rush forward with its $1.9 billion North-South I-94 boondoggle. Who's going to foot the bill if the federal money isn't there?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The federal highway fund is broke

The Federal Highway Trust Fund is officially broke. President Bush wants an $8 billion bailout, but that money won't last long.

Wisconsin wants to spend $1.9 billion on reconstructing and needlessly expanding North-South I-94. State records show that the overwhelming majority of citizens who participated in the public input process opposed the expansion, but the state pushed ahead with it anyway. State records also show that the public input process was a bit of a sham, and that a WisDOT was consultant was drafting the document giving the federal go-ahead for the project even before the second of two public comment periods began.

We now have a situation of insufficient need for an expanded freeway, coupled with insufficient funding and a basically fraudulent public participation process. So why is this project moving forward?

Friday, September 5, 2008

I-94: Approval doc drafted before citizen comment period began

Highway officials were busy drafting the official document that would give the go-ahead to a $1.9 billion proposal to expand North-South I-94 even before the second public comment period on the proposal even began, state records show.

A WisDOT consultant sent a draft of the document, the Record of Decision, on March 26, one day after FHWA signed off on the Final Environmental Impact Statement and well in advance of the 30-day public comment period began April 5.

"Jay---attached is the signed FEIS cover sheet," consultant Charlie Webb, of CH2M Hill, wrote to WisDOT's Jay Waldschmidt. "The EIS will be sent to the Federal Register today for NOI publication on April 4. Comment period will end May 5. Also attached is the draft Record of Decision for your review."

NOI stands for "Notice of Intent."

It is unclear who actually wrote the draft. The properties box on the Word version document indicates it was created on March 24, just two days before it was sent to WisDOT by CH2M Hill.

From the draft:

The selected alternative is to widen I-94 to eight lanes in the study area (Safety and Design Improvements with Added Capacity Alternative). The selected alternative provides the best balance among sound engineering design, addressing long-term travel demand and safety, and minimizing overall social, economic, and natural resource impacts.

Selection was based on evaluation and consideration of all comments received during the public involvement process, public hearing testimony and other public comments received during the EIS availability period, comments received from state and federal review agencies, environmental and engineering factors, consistency with local and regional transportation/land use plans, and documentation on how the proposed improvements will address long-term traffic and safety needs.

The draft Record of Decision had blank pages where comments second public comment period could be listed. The draft then concluded:

Based on the analysis and evaluation documented in the EIS, and after careful consideration of all social, economic, and environmental factors, including comments received on the EIS, it is FHWA’s decision to adopt the selected alternative contained therein as the proposed action for this project.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How about a local share for the I-94 and the Zoo Interchange projects?

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has irritated Waukesha County officials by insisting the county go halvesies on the projected $50 million cost of a bypass around the city, according to the JS.

Waukesha County officials object, and so much want to stay on the highway welfare rolls and contribute just 10% that they are completely dropping their bypass funding from the county's long-range capital plan.

The road project, highly desirable to the county as a supremely-discounted bargain, is completely undesirable when Waukesha must pay just half the actual cost. Still a bargain, but not quite what county officials had in mind.

What other highway projects would lose their luster if local units of government had to pay? Think Kenosha County would be so eager to destroy wetlands for I-94 interchange reconstruction if Kenosha County residents had to pick up half the cost? Do you think Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker would push freeways over transit if half the cost of rebuilding North-South I-94 in Milwaukee County appeared on county property tax bills?

Milwaukee Ald. Robert Bauman has long advocated that local governments share in the cost of highway projects now funded by the state. The Waukesha bypass reaction shows he's on to something. Kudos to WisDOT for insisting on a significant cost-share. Now the agency should expand that idea to other highway projects.