To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bertha repairs will take months: WSDOT

The contractor building the Highway 99 tunnel will decide by the week's end whether to access a damaged bearing seal through the back of the machine, or by digging a hole. 


By Bill Lucia, February 11, 2014

 Bertha's cutter head is lifted into place, during the machine's assembly in 2012.
 Bertha's cutter head is lifted into place, during the machine's assembly in 2012. WSDOT

Fixing Bertha’s main bearing seal will take months, Washington State Department of Transportation said Monday night.

To repair the seal, Seattle Tunnel Partners, the contractor digging the Highway 99 tunnel, will have two options. One is to dig a shaft in front of the idled boring machine, which sits 60-feet beneath the ground in Pioneer Square, amid groundwater-inundated earth and muck. The other is to access the bearing through the back of the tunneling rig. The company, WSDOT said, will make a choice about the best way to undertake the repairs by the end of this week.

“[Seattle Tunnel Partners] has not yet fully determined the cause of the seal problems,” WSDOT said late Monday night in a press release.

The nearly $90 million machine has moved a little more than four feet since Dec. 7, after it encountered unusual resistance while digging. The damaged seal protects Bertha’s main bearing, which allows the machine’s 57.5-foot “cutter-head” to spin. After moving the machine a short distance during the last week of January, sensors showed unusually high operating temperatures. The hotter than normal readings led workers to find the busted seal. WSDOT has not indicated whether any other part of the machine’s $5.1 million main bearing assembly is damaged.

As for who will pay to fix the machine, Seattle Tunnel Partners, WSDOT said, has “not shown any evidence that suggests the state or taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns associated with these repairs.” The contractor was not available for comment when WSDOT announced the extent of the delays.

For now, WSDOT said, the stalled machine will not cause delays with the Elliott Bay Seawall replacement project, which is underway nearby. The Seattle Department of Transportation is heading up that project. Old age and wood-boring sea creatures called "gribbles" have left the seawall vulnerable to severe damage or failure in the event of a strong earthquake.

Mayor Ed Murray announced on Monday that he’d formed a new Office of the Waterfront, responsible for planning and managing city projects and partnerships in the area. He addressed the seawall’s relationship to the tunnel in an emailed statement.

“The Seawall needs to be replaced because it isn’t safe,” Murray said. “This public safety issue doesn’t disappear while the Seattle Tunnel Partners and WSDOT work to get Bertha moving again.”
The bearing seal wasn’t the only problem Seattle Tunnel Partners found in recent weeks.

Investigations that followed the early December shutdown revealed that the spokes on the machine’s cutter head were jammed with soil. WSDOT Program Administrator Todd Trepanier said last week that a variety of factors, including soil type, additives injected into the mined soil and the machine’s speed, could’ve caused the clog.

The deep bore tunnel is the centerpiece of the estimated $3.1 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project. Bertha is scheduled to finish digging the 1.7-mile underground roadway, which runs from Sodo to South Lake Union, in late 2014. A four-lane highway inside the tunnel is slated to open by the end of 2015. So far the machine has completed about 1,000 feet of mining and is stopped near South Main Street. WSDOT said it is waiting for Seattle Tunnel Partners to provide a plan that details how they can "recover lost time." A January Crosscut analysis raised questions about whether the drilling can be done in time.

Based on the contract terms, Hitachi Zosen, the company that manufactured the machine, owns it for the first 1,300 feet of digging. After that point, Seattle Tunnel Partners, a partnership between Dragados-USA and Tutor Perini, will take over ownership of the tunneling rig. Hitachi Zosen representatives are here, working with Seattle Tunnel Partners to diagnose and fix Bertha’s mechanical problems.

Good news: Most Americans want climate action. Now for the bad news …


By Ben Adler, February 10, 2014

 man checking box

In the United States, we are supposed to have a representative system of government. You’d never know it from looking at Congress and climate change, though. Consider the results of a recent poll of 1,000 registered voters that was commissioned by the Sierra Club and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR).

GQR found consistent, clear majorities are concerned about climate change and favor action to mitigate it. Sixty-six percent of respondents said climate change is a very or somewhat serious problem. Fifty percent said the federal government should be doing more to address climate change, 23 percent said it is doing about the right amount, and only 19 percent said it should be doing less.

These views were just as strongly held, or more so, among key groups of swing voters that decide the outcome of presidential elections. Sixty-nine percent of self-identified moderates, and 67 percent of Midwesterners, said climate change is a serious problem, and 54 percent of moderates said the government should be doing more about it.

Naturally, the liberal-leaning constituencies that are widely credited with helping President Obama win the last two elections — and that Republicans have said they want to make inroads among — are also concerned about climate change and supportive of taking action against it. Eighty-six percent of Hispanics and 77 percent of Millennials say climate change is a serious problem, while 66 percent and 60 percent, respectively, say we should be doing more to address it.

You would think, in light of these results, that the Republican Party would be moving toward acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change and support for market-oriented approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But no.

Relative to 2008, when their presidential nominee John McCain supported cap-and-trade, the Republican Party has backslid considerably. Currently, no leading national Republicans favor climate change legislation. In fact, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is moving a bill to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants under the Clean Air Act.

This would seem like a political loser for the GOP. According to the poll’s results, 70 percent of voters favor the EPA imposing limits on carbon pollution from power plants, including 76 percent of both Midwesterners and moderates, and 94 percent of Hispanics. The poll also found that 44 percent of voters have a favorable impression of the EPA, versus 30 percent favorability for coal companies and a mere 13 percent for Congress itself.

So why are Republican congressmen siding with the coal industry against the EPA and the majority of American voters? The answer is our election system. House Republicans are not elected by a majority of American voters, or by independents or Millennials or Hispanics. They are overwhelmingly from districts that, thanks to gerrymandering and winner-take-all elections, are guaranteed to vote Republican in November. Their challenge is winning their primaries, events dominated by the most loyal Republicans, the most intensely conservative and partisan voters, who are considerably older and whiter than the country as a whole.

As a recent Pew Research Center poll showed, Republican voters are evenly split on whether climate change is even happening, with most Tea Party Republicans saying it is not. The Senate Republican who cosponsored cap-and-trade legislation in 2009, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is facing four right-wing challengers in his Republican primary this June. Siding with the base is the safest way to avoid a primary fight.

It’s also important, whenever talking about Americans in general or Republicans in particular, not to discount the role of ignorance. Fifty-six percent of voters in the GQR poll — including 78 percent of those who think the government should be doing less to combat climate change — said, incorrectly, that the federal government already limits carbon pollution from power plants.

And according to Pew, 37 percent of Americans said “no” when asked “Do scientists generally agree that human activity causes global warming?” To say that you disagree with the scientific consensus is an opinion, no matter how foolish. But to say that scientists do not actually agree about anthropogenic global warming is just plain wrong. Perhaps Republicans in the House genuinely believe — as a shockingly, depressingly large proportion of Americans do — not that the scientists are mistaken, but that the scientists do not even agree on the basic facts of climate change.

The End for LOS in California? State Wants Input on a New Planning Metric


By Melanie Curry, February 10, 2014

With little fanfare, California is considering a change in how it measures transportation impacts that could herald a major change in environmental law. SB 743, passed and signed into law in September, is a potential game changer because it could completely remove LOS — Level of Service, a measure of car traffic congestion — from the list of tools that must be used to analyze environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act. As the state contemplates a broader, more sustainable metric to use for smarter urban planning, the public is invited to weigh in on what the LOS replacement should look like.

Streetsblog USA doesn’t pull punches when describing why many oppose”Level of Service” metrics. Image: Andy Singer

CEQA requires new projects, be they highways or housing units or basketball stadiums, to analyze potential environmental changes created by the proposed project. In copious detail. Water, air, land, noise, plants, animals: any physical aspect of the existing area that might be affected negatively must be analyzed.

For a variety of historical reasons, traffic congestion has crept into this group of environmental impacts under CEQA and become part of the law. Congestion is analyzed by measuring the flow of traffic at intersections (how many vehicles get through in a set amount of time) and grading those intersections on their performance. Planners refer to this as LOS, for Level of Service.

The irony of LOS is that CEQA requires mitigation when projects cause delay to automobile traffic—even if the projects create better conditions for other road users, such as transit riders, bicyclists, or pedestrians. Thus the San Francisco Bike Plan was held up for years because of a lawsuit claiming the city did not take into account the negative effects bike infrastructure would have on LOS.

Streetsblog covered SB 743 as it was passed last year, but at the time we missed a nuance that makes it an even bigger potential change for CEQA and planning. At first read it looked like the LOS provision, tacked onto a bill written to streamline environmental review for a new Sacramento Kings basketball stadium, applied only to areas designated as “Transit Priority Areas,” defined as within a ½ mile of high quality transit. In some places, this covers very large areas: for example, most of San Francisco is so designated because of its dense transit networks. This alone could make a huge difference in the way environmental impact reports are handled for many projects.

Neither Streetsblog nor many advocates monitoring the legislation realized on the first read that the new law gives the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) the discretion to come up with a substitute for LOS and apply it throughout the state—not just to urban areas “well served by transit,” but everywhere. And to all projects.

The long-term results of using LOS as a measure of environmental impact have been argued about for years and explained well elsewhere. Removing it from the CEQA process has the potential to profoundly affect the way cities are planned and built. And while some of the larger cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, actively pursue the question of whether traffic impact is an appropriate measure of environmental impact (and working on their own substitute measures), not every locale is happy about it.

OPR is asking for early feedback on two items: a draft list of goals it wants the new criteria to meet, and a preliminary list of possible replacement measures for LOS. These are both described in detail in this report, and summarized below. The deadline is this Friday, February 14, and comments can be sent to: ceqa.guidelines@ceres.ca.gov. Future drafts will incorporate feedback received now, with the goal of preparing a final draft by July 1, 2014.
Below is an explanation of why many people oppose using LOS as a measure to analyze environmental impacts. Streetsblog is also reaching out to municipal leaders who use LOS for a future story explaining why they may not want to remove it entirely from CEQA.

LOS Redux

The way LOS is measured and applied has had unanticipated results—perverse outcomes, in planner speak—that run contrary to other state goals such as emissions reductions and safer streets.

To illustrate, consider a project proposed in a relatively undeveloped area. It might affect traffic flow at a few nearby intersections, but if those are wide, free-flowing intersections currently experiencing little delay (with a current LOS of A or B, say) the new project may well have a minimal effect on overall traffic flow. On the other hand, a similar project in a busier, more built-up area will likely have a bigger effect on traffic flow at a larger number of intersections. This is because 1) in a dense area there are probably more intersections within a set distance and 2) those intersections may already have more delay and more congestion (a lower LOS) to begin with, given already existing land uses.

But which of the two proposed projects will produce more car trips and therefore more traffic, emissions, noise, and safety issues? LOS can’t tell you that; it can only tell you whether nearby traffic is likely to be delayed. It does seem intuitive that a project in a dense area where a lot of people walk, take transit, or ride bikes would produce fewer car trips than the same project in a place where people always only drive—but measuring LOS won’t get you that information.

In addition, it turns out the fixes for the problem—the mitigations required by CEQA—are not so good. If the CEQA analysis shows that a project will lower LOS to an “unacceptable” level, then something must be done about it—and that something could well be a design for a wider road with more lanes and faster traffic. This would solve the Level of Service problem, but a wider, faster road also creates less safe and certainly less comfortable conditions for users who are not in vehicles, including people on bikes or on foot.

And which travelers contribute more in terms of emissions, noise, and the potential for life-threatening collisions?

Thus requiring mitigations because a project reduces the number of cars that can get through a given intersection in a given amount of time can lead to road designs that discourage efficient, active transportation that might actually lower emissions and noise.

Longstanding arguments against using this traffic flow grading system include whether traffic flow is even an environmental impact that needs to be analyzed—while it is true that traffic jams can affect local air quality, emissions are assessed separately under CEQA. Worrying about traffic flow above other considerations has encouraged car-centric development in outlying areas and created wider, faster roads and longer distances for everyone, including people who aren’t in cars.

There are other arguments against using LOS, but the kicker is that a development’s attempts to improve access for people not in cars—by, say, adding a bike lane or widening a sidewalk—could lower the LOS at nearby intersections, thus triggering the need for mitigation. That’s a huge anti-incentive to improving infrastructure for anyone except car drivers.

OPR’s Draft Replacement Goals and Metrics

Under SB 743, a traffic impact measure chosen to replace LOS must help reduce greenhouse gases as well as promote multimodal transportation and diverse land uses.

OPR has drafted an expanded list of potential goals and is looking for feedback on them. They include: maximum environmental benefit and minimum environmental harm; efficient use of limited fiscal resources; social equity, including low-cost access to destinations, livable communities, and minimizing traffic impacts; maximum health benefits associated with active transportation and minimum adverse health effects from vehicle emissions, collisions, and noise; simplicity and clarity; consistency with other state policies such as greenhouse gas reduction and complete streets; and efficiency of the overall transportation network not just for cars, but for all users.

The OPR report asks: are these the right objectives? Are there other objectives that ought to be included?

Then there’s a preliminary list of alternatives to LOS. Each one of these deserves a separate discussion too lengthy to cover here. So far they include: vehicle miles traveled (per capita or per person); automobile trips generated; multi-modal level of service; fuel use; motor vehicle hours traveled; or a presumption in particular defined areas that any single development will not produce significant regional traffic impacts.

A series of open questions at the end of the OPR report make for some thought-provoking reading, including questions about the effect of parking, which wasn’t addressed here, although it does appear in SB 743.

Look for more discussion of LOS and OPR’s efforts in the next few days.

A World Without Car Crashes


By David Zax, February 11, 2014

 A World Without Car Crashes

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—"This curve here, you wouldn't think much of it," Debra Bezzina is saying, "but somebody was killed here two years ago, and they didn't even find him right away." Our van, driven by Bezzina's University of Michigan colleague Rick Byrd, is coming up on a curve that indeed looks relatively benign, even in this icy January weather. But Bezzina shares the story of the man who took the curve too quickly and skidded off the road. He wasn't the first to do so.

I brace myself as we approach, and something unusual happens: an alarm sounds from the dashboard, and an alert flashes in a corner of the rearview mirror. I realize the mirror doubles as a heads-up display — it shows a right-turn arrow against a blue background that suddenly turns red to warn of danger. Byrd, at the wheel, slows down.

What had just happened was both simple and profound, and people like Bezzina and Byrd, employees of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI or "um-tree" for short), say it could transform the way American drivers experience their commutes. The van in which we're driving  — an UMTRI van with a splashy yellow decal that reads "Connecting the Future" — has been equipped with technology to alert its driver in a range of situations. In this case, a piece of roadside equipment nearby was broadcasting to vehicles like ours the speed at which to safely take the coming turn. A router-like device in the van caught the signal, noted that the van was at risk, and issued the alert we just heard.

The UMTRI van isn't the only vehicle on the road here that's so futuristically equipped. I've come to Ann Arbor in the last weeks of an 18-month large-scale trial of connected vehicle technology. The trial was funded largely by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which wants to know about the safety benefits of such devices. There are 2,800 vehicles in Ann Arbor participating in this "Safety Pilot," as the program is called. All are equipped with devices that communicate their vehicle's speed and position. A select 400 also include alert systems like the one I've just witnessed in the UMTRI van, together with cameras to capture further information — including how drivers react to such alerts. Cars, trucks, tractor trailers, and even a bicycle are wired for the pilot.

Courtesy David Zax.

Courtesy UMTRI.

"It's the largest deployment of vehicle-to-vehicle technology in the world," says Scott Belcher, chief of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a trade association of which UMTRI is a member.

The sharp-bend alert isn't the only kind Ann Arbor drivers have been experiencing over the last year and a half: there has been a symphony of them, some triggered by communications between a pair of cars, others triggered by an interaction between a car and transmitters along the road. In all manner of hairy situations — a tricky left turn, an approaching train at a railroad crossing, a car looming in a blind spot, or a car suddenly slamming on brakes up ahead — technology like that in the UMTRI van has been making driving in Ann Arbor safer.

Many have heard by now of high-profile research into autonomous cars that can drive themselves by using fancy sensors to detect their surroundings. The automotive revolution we're likely to see sooner, say experts here in Michigan, may not come from cars that sense but from cars that talk. These experts speak of a coming "internet of cars" — and some think it could bring about the biggest change in how we transport ourselves since the car was first invented.
•       •       •       •       •

Courtesy UMTRI and U.S. DOT.

The first and most important application, of course, would be safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has already estimated that vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology like what's in these Ann Arbor cars and on these Ann Arbor roads could reduce "non-impaired crash scenarios" (read: crashes caused by sober drivers) by 80 percent. "That's bigger than seatbelts, bigger than airbags," says Belcher. "Basically, you're creating cars that don't crash."

Though it's still crunching the Ann Arbor data, NHTSA recently announced that given the "overwhelming safety benefits" of connected vehicles, it would soon propose mandating such technology in new cars by a future date. The announcement signals to manufacturers that connected vehicles represent the next phase in American automotive safety (some car makers may even offer inexpensive devices to retrofit vehicles already on the road). It also addresses a common concern that the full safety benefits of connected vehicles won't emerge until the entire fleet can converse on the road.

But spend enough time interviewing car futurists and soon you realize that safety applications could be just the beginning. Because once you create a ubiquitous "internet of cars" — a world where vehicles, roads, traffic signals, and transportation authorities are all sharing information in real-time — the results could be as wide-reaching, dynamic, and creative as they've been for that other Internet.
Belcher and others point to small-scale experiments designed to hack traffic problems around the country. In midtown Manhattan, for instance, E-Z Pass readers glean traffic data to dynamically alter the timing of traffic lights and lessen gridlock. San Francisco has used sensors to experiment with the variable pricing of parking spaces in parts of the city. And applications like Google Maps already give traffic flow estimates by using various types of traffic sensors. But experts think that these three applications could be improved upon — and many others invented — in a world where every car shares information about its position and velocity.
Some of these futurists foresee a day when communications technology and self-driving technology combine to create a veritable transportation utopia. Kirk Steudle, the director of Michigan's Department of Transportation, remembers his own conversion moment on a GM test track, when a combination of communications and safety technology brought the Cadillac in which he was riding to a sudden, automatic stop — mere feet from a parked car. "I used to say that for civil engineers and mechanical engineers, the only interface we ever had was the tire," says Steudle with a chuckle. Now those who build cities and those who build cars have a lot more to talk about.

Because new realities become possible in a future where cars are so good at communicating that they just don't crash. You can pack self-driving cars right next to each other, creating space for a whole new lane on highways. You can huddle cars together in tight platoons, creating NASCAR-like drafting effects that save gasoline. You can rethink the design of a car altogether, slimming it down. And you can rethink business models, selling travel time in shared cars that act like automated taxis.

"If you've got a communications platform that's reliable and secure, what you can do with it — how you leverage it — is really limited by your own imagination," says Belcher.
•       •       •       •       •
Of course, countless questions remain, many of them thornier than the relatively simple question that the DOT is currently exploring with Safety Pilot's data: How well does this technology work? Some experts wonder whether it makes sense to require manufacturers to use the kind of basic technology being used in Ann Arbor — "dedicated short-range communications," a Wi-Fi like technology — just as advanced cellular networks like 4G LTE grow more widespread.

"There are skeptics out there who think we're invested in Betamax," says Belcher, who nevertheless thinks a commitment to some form of technology is necessary, even if future generations may laugh at it. "It's like buying the first cell phone," he says. "You spend $2,000 for that thing you can't really use. But if people didn't buy those, we wouldn't have what we have today."

Other questions center around whether Americans will want to use some of this technology even if it works perfectly. Car ownership represents a kind of freedom for many; these folks might scoff at the idea of ceding any control of their vehicle. This may be a generational matter, though, since studies have shown that today's teens don't have the same love affair with driving as have generations past.

Courtesy U.S. DOT.

Researchers and policymakers will also need to assuage fears over security and privacy. Could the "internet of cars" be hacked, with one or more vehicles broadcasting dangerous lies about their velocities? And can drivers be assured that their anonymity is nonetheless being safeguarded even as their on-board devices broadcast information about the state of their car? Connected car evangelists will not only need to solve these problems but to explain these solutions to average drivers. A recent collaboration between UC Berkeley and U.S. DOT researchers imagining smart transportation systems in the year 2050 concluded that "social, political, economic, legal, and environmental dimensions" could be even tougher hurdles to clear than technological ones.

Regardless of the questions ahead, the NHTSA announcement has sent a strong signal to auto manufacturers that it is time to "switch gears from research to development," in the words of Hidekia Hada, a Toyota manager who oversees the automaker's forays into connected vehicles in the United States. He adds that Toyota's participation in a young but sweeping vehicle-to-infrastructure communications platform in Japan has well prepared the manufacturer to spring into action.
Ann Arbor may not have a Jetsons-like display of futurism on its roads just yet, but as we take another turn in the UMTRI van, I begin to realize that the simple beep and flash coming from the mirror may be like the bleating of an old dial-up modem: a sound I'll recall one day with a smirk, and with awe at how far we've come.

Because all the experts here are telling me the future is hurtling towards me, just around the bend, unseen but detected. "It's my strong belief that the ability to connect vehicles to other vehicles, to traffic lights, to signs, to parking spots, and to traffic operation centers will transform the way that you and I are traveling," says Andreas Mai, who studies connected vehicle technology for the communications giant Cisco. "The auto industry is really at the cusp of this transformation right now," he promises. "It's not that far away."