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

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Opinion: Four ways the 405 freeway project has not made your life better


New Downtown LA Shuttle Service is "Like a Free Uber"


By Bianca Barragan, December 2, 2014



The parking situation in Downtown is improving, thanks to successful new spot-finding programs, but sometimes a night out requires moving the car multiple times, or a long walk back to the car in less-than-sensible shoes or the rain, or drinking—all real bummers. Now there's a new option: park once, then call DTLA's free shuttle to haul you to your destination and again to take you back to your car. Genius. The Downtown News makes the Downtown Concierge sound really good. It operates in a four-mile radius around Downtown, and will pick up and drop off anywhere within those borders. It will take people to their front doors! All for free!

Individual rides are free because sponsors (Downtown businesses) pay a monthly fee. "If Downtown Concierge sounds like a free Uber," that's because it is, says shuttle business owner Michelle Thrower, a long-time "parking management" professional. She estimates that 1,000 people a month take rides in one of the company's two 20-person buses or in their 15-passenger van. The shuttle starts service at 9 am and operates as late as 2 am on the weekends, and until midnight on the weekdays.

· Hop a Ride on Downtown's Free Shuttle Service [DN]
· Downtown Concierge [Official Site]

Los Angeles: Help! I’m Stuck in Drive and I Can’t Get Up


By Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, December 2, 2014


RETRO TRANSPO-Southern California has long been a nurturer of dreams that, while widely anticipated, often are never quite achieved. One particularly strong fantasy involves Los Angeles abandoning what one enthusiast calls its “car habit” and converting into an ever-denser, transit-oriented region. 
An analysis of transit ridership, however, shows that the region is essentially no better off than when the modern period of transit funding began in 1980, with the passage of Proposition A, which authorized a half-cent sales tax for transit. In 1980, approximately 5.9 percent of workers in the metropolitan area (Los Angeles and Orange counties) used transit for their commute. The latest data, for 2013, indicates the ridership figure has fallen to 5.8 percent. 

Never ones to let facts get in the way of fantasy, some retrourbanists and media types continue to insist our mass-transit transition is well on its way. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias, writing in Slate, declared that Los Angeles is destined to become America’s “next great transit city.” 

This view is echoed throughout retrourbanist circles. “The City of Angels is noticeably transforming. Our once car-centric town is becoming less car-dependent,” suggests the local LA Streetsblog, “Public transit is having a comeback. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructures are improving.” 

Instead of rushing to rail, Angelenos continue to rely on their cars to get to work. From 1980-2013, the market share of drive-alone commuters has risen from 70 percent to 74.1 percent. There has been an increase in driving alone of approximately 1.4 million daily commuters. Driving alone accounted for d approximately 85 percent of the region’s increase in commuters. 

Why do people stick to their cars? For one thing, transit takes longer. The average drive-alone, one-way commute in Los Angeles was 27.0 minutes in 2013, compared with an average commute of 48.7 minutes for transit. 

The other big factor is accessibility to jobs. The University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory produced an estimate for the percentage of jobs that the average L.A. resident could reach within 30 minutes by car. In Los Angeles, the average resident can reach 60 times as many jobs in that time by car as by transit. 

Transit needs downtowns-Transit plays an important role in America, but mostly in the urban cores of a handful of “legacy” cities. These core metros (excluding their often-sprawling, low-density suburbs) – New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco – account for 55 percent of all transit-work trip destinations, just 6 percent of the country’s employment.

Overall, the legacy cities’ transit ridership is nearly 10 times their proportionate combined share of jobs. 

To a large extent, this reflects history and urban form. Transit remains largely a matter of downtowns. The cities with transit legacies have an average of 15 percent of their jobs downtown, three times the average for other major metropolitan areas. In contrast, Downtown Los Angeles has 2 percent of the metropolitan area’s jobs. In Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, homes to much of the regional population, there are really no substantial downtown areas. 

In contrast, the many regions sharing LA’s multipolar form and large-scale transit investments – Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland, Ore., – have seen their transit market shares stagnate or decline, despite having built expensive rail systems. 
One problem is, like virtually all U.S. metropolitan areas (including the suburbs of legacy cities), the Los Angeles area, which pioneered the multi-polar metropolis, has been becoming more so and is even moving beyond polycentricity. The vast majority of growth in the statistical area encompassing Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties has taken place in precisely those areas – the Inland Empire, South Orange County or the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys in northern Los Angeles County – that also have the lowest transit ridership. In contrast, the core’s growth barely represents a blip. From 2000-10, the functional urban core, which has the strongest concentration of transit destinations, accounted for virtually none of the region's growth. 

Dreaming of New York? For many LA planners and urban boosters, more transit – funded from Washington – often seems to constitute an exercise of social engineering on a grand scale. The hope is that, by pushing transit, particularly rail, we will recreate the metropolis with ever-greater density.

 “We are going to remake what the city looks like,” then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told an approving New York Times two years ago. 

Despite the hoopla and the subsidization of downtown Los Angeles, however, relatively few people work in, or even visit Downtown, except for sporting or cultural events, although many pass by it on the freeways. 

For most Angelenos, Downtown is simply not part of their day-to-day experience the way, for example, Manhattan is for many New Yorkers, or the Loop is for many residents of the Chicago region. 

Transit Class Warfare-Developers and their planning allies tend to focus on transit as something that will get middle-class Angelenos out of their cars. But it’s difficult to see this working as long as such an overwhelming majority of jobs (98 percent) are located outside Downtown. Since 1980, driving alone, which was increasing its market share, added 15 times as many new commuters as transit, with its slipping market share. 

At the same time, there seems to be a profound unawareness of the low incomes of Los Angeles transit commuters. The latest American Community Survey data (2013) indicates that the median earnings of transit commuters at the national level is more than 85 percent higher than in Los Angeles. In the metropolitan areas around transit legacy cities, the median incomes of transit commuters is 150 percent higher than in Los Angeles. 

To some extent, poorer Angelenos, in the government’s expensive shift from buses to trains, are being sacrificed to satisfy the Utopian vision of planners, pad the profits of big urban developers, and to build the campaign war chests of the political class. Indeed, from 2008-12, the bus lines, which carry more than three times as many passengers as trains, were cut 16 percent If LA is experiencing a transit revolution, its most dependent riders have been largely left behind. 

So What Should Greater LA do? As anyone who drives the freeways knows well, LA has a traffic problem. But Los Angeles also has the shortest average commute time of any high-income world megacity for which data is available, despite having the highest automobile usage, the least transit and, except for New York, the lowest urban density. 

The real question is, will more transit, at least in its current form, offer the solution? Certainly, expanding and improving roads – although politically incorrect – has helped make commuting easier for many working in Orange County. Other ways to entice people off the roads, such as telecommuting, should be encouraged. Since 1980, the number of Los Angeles residents working at home has increased by approximately 240,000. This increase – 2.5 times that of transit in total numbers – has come at virtually no cost to taxpayers. 

To be sure, many Angelenos, for one reason or another, need decent transit services. Our approach would be for government to find out who these people are, and look for ways to make transit work better for them. Rather than invest huge dollars in rail megaprojects, perhaps we could reduce bus fares, a strategy attributed to the legendary Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn that increased bus ridership dramatically from 1982-85. 

Unlike today’s “progressives,” Hahn’s prime interest was serving his largely working-class and poor constituents. Besides cutting bus fares and increasingly service, other solutions, such as more competitively contracted service provided by regional agencies, such as Foothill Transit and the Antelope Valley Transit Authority, could provide less-expensive, more efficient and expanded service.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, has also expressed interest in promoting the use of rideshare services, like Uber or Lyft, and, more importantly, self-driving cars. 

Ultimately, rather than try to recreate New York, or undertake the expensive and virtually impossible task of rebuilding Los Angeles in the image of the latest urban planning fad, we should explore a host of innovative solutions that will help transit riders here and now by developing workable, and effective, ways to help them get to the services and jobs they need.

5 Freeway widening project still has 4 more years to go


Editorial: Proposed environmental rules could help cities reduce car use


Why Smaller Delivery Vehicles Could Be Huge for Cities


By Angie Schmitt, December 2, 2014

 Smaller delivery trucks could make cities a lot safer. Photo: Flickr, Jason Lawrence

 Using small delivery vehicles instead of big rigs could make cities a lot safer.

CityLab ran an article recently about how smaller delivery trucks could be coming to U.S. cities, with the makers of 15-foot cargo vans used in many European cities poised to begin marketing them in the United States.

That is important not just because these smaller vehicles are inherently safer, but because it could mean safer road designs altogether. Michael Andersen at Bike Portland elaborates:
Here in Portland, the fact that most cargo vehicles are big and dangerous to be around is a subtle influence on almost everything we do with our streets.

Last week, discussing chaotic behavior on North Williams Avenue, city project manager Rich Newlands wrote in an email that although it’d be “better” to run a concrete curb alongside a green-painted bike lane just north of Broadway, that would be impossible because of the “the turning radius of large trucks.”

Two weeks earlier, city staff recommended keeping protected bike lanes off Grand Avenue, citing the city’s policy to separate freight and bike traffic by nudging them onto completely different streets.

Like so many things about our streets, this policy is based on the assumption that in order to survive, any major commercial area requires daily visits from dangerously large trucks. But what if this isn’t actually true?
Andersen notes that very large trucks pose specific risks to bicyclists. In Portland, the driver of an 18-wheel delivery truck recently killed a 28-year-old female cyclist but was not found culpable in court because the judge ruled the he couldn’t possibly have seen her as he was turning right.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Walking Bostonian offers some ideas for filling the state’s budget gap after voters elected not to peg the gas tax to inflation. And ATL Urbanist points out that a good portion of the Atlanta streetcar route is surrounded by surface parking.

Court: Environmental Review for San Diego’s Highway-Happy Plan Inadequate


By Melanie Curry, November 25, 2014

The California Court of Appeals yesterday confirmed a lower court ruling that the environmental impact report (EIR) for San Diego’s long-range regional transportation plan was inadequate. The EIR, said the court, underplayed the impact of the emissions that would result from its highway-building, sprawl-inducing plan.

SANDAG approved its regional transportation plan in October 2011. It was touted as the first transportation plan in CA to be completed under the auspices of S.B. 375, which mandates regional plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But critics charged that the plan contradicted state climate change policy by focusing on highway expansions, which would only reinforce regional car dependence and increase emissions. Several groups took it to court, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris later joined the suit. In 2012 a California Superior Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs, declaring that the EIR failed to acknowledge how the business-as-usual plan will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The appellate decision says there are other problems with the environmental review. For example, highway expansions will increase pollution in nearby neighborhoods, but the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) “never connected the dots between that pollution and its public health impacts,” said Kevin Bundy, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to projections in the plan, emissions from land use and transportation would decrease until 2020, exceeding the targets set by S.B. 375. But after 2020, emissions would rise again, intersecting with the S.B. 375 targets somewhere around 2030.

“They acknowledged that in their environmental review,” said Bundy, “but what they didn’t acknowledge was that under state climate policy, and according to the best climate science, emissions have to go way down by 2050 — and stay down.”

Under the transportation plan as it’s currently written, emissions in 2050 would be almost seven times higher than state climate change targets. “That was not explicitly stated in the review. SANDAG did not let the public know how far off emissions would be by 2050,” said Bundy, who says the calculations are buried in a staff report but not included in the EIR.

“CEQA is all about full disclosure, about being honest about impacts,” he said. “I think they really stumbled on this.”

The court also ruled that SANDAG failed to consider alternatives that could help reduce driving.
“SANDAG’s excuse is that the 2050 goal is just an executive order, and that it is not binding,” said Bundy. “But it is consistent with the best climate science, and with SANDAG’s own Climate Action Strategy,” which is available in this PDF.

The SANDAG board will decide whether to appeal the Supreme Court’s ruling or follow the lower court’s requirements to redo its environmental review. If it’s any indication, the board recently refused to consider adopting a “transit first” policy or to put money slated for highways towards transit improvements.

The Great Traffic Projection Swindle


By Angie Schmitt and Payton Chung, November 20, 2014

This is the final piece in a three-part series about privately-financed roads. In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the Indiana Toll Road as an example of the growth in privately financed highways, and how financial firms can turn these assets into profits, even if the road itself is a big money loser. In this piece, we examine the shaky assumptions that toll road investments are based on, and how that is putting the public at risk.

A consultant predicted traffic on the Indiana Toll Road would rise 22 percent in seven years. Instead, traffic fell 11 percent in eight years.

For privately financed toll road deals, traffic projections are critical. These forecasts tell investors how much revenue a road will generate, and thus whether they should buy a stake in it, and what price to pay. While traffic projections have underpinned the rapid growth in privately financed highways, the forecasts have a dismal track record, consistently overstating the number of drivers who will pay to use a road.

Private toll roads have been sold to the public as a surefire something-for-nothing bargain — new infrastructure with no taxes — but it turns out that the risk for taxpayers is actually substantial. The firms performing traffic projections have strong incentives to inflate the numbers. And the new breed of private finance deals are structured so that when the forecasts turn out wrong, the public incurs major losses.

Given the large sums of money involved, even small errors in traffic projections can result in huge problems down the line — and, as Streetsblog has reported, traffic projections everywhere have tended to be wildly off-target. A whole financing scheme, meant to last for generations, can easily be sunk in just a few years by exaggerated traffic projections. The Indiana Toll Road, purchased in 2006 for $3.8 billion, is a great example. The firm that owned it, ITR Concession Co. LLC, declared bankruptcy in September.

Wilbur Smith Associates had predicted that traffic volumes on the Indiana Toll Road would increase at a rate of 22 percent over the first seven years. Instead, traffic volumes shrank 11 percent in the first eight. The result was financial disaster for the concession company, owned jointly by Australian firm Macquarie and Spanish firm Ferrovial. By the time they filed for Chapter 11, debt on the road had ballooned to $5.8 billion.

The company blamed the recession for putting a damper on truck traffic. The same story was offered on another bankrupt Macquarie-owned project, San Diego’s South Bay Expressway. But is that explanation sufficient?

UK-based consultant Robert Bain literally wrote the book on traffic projections, warning in 2009 against forecasters who blamed faulty predictions on the economy [PDF]. Commenting on the flurry of global toll highway bankruptcies that was just starting then, Bain said they had “less to do with the present economic climate, and more to do with a market readiness to be seduced by hopelessly optimistic traffic and revenue projections.”

Bain went on to list 21 ways in which forecasters systematically overestimate future traffic. Each one may tilt the forecast by a tiny amount, but cumulatively they result in significant errors. Some of the typical mistakes indicate that forecasters have not yet acknowledged the broader decline in driving and sprawl underway, while others “underestimate the reluctance of some to paying tolls.” Bain argued for a paradigm shift in the use of traffic projections, recognizing that many of them “resemble statements of advocacy rather than unbiased predictions.”

Phineas Baxandall, a senior researcher with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who’s written extensively for Streetsblog on trends in driving, says the engineering firms that provide the figures know how things work. “Companies seeking investment for privatized toll roads shop for the forecasting they want,” he said. “[There's] no incentive to tell bad news. And if the deal appears promising, then the forecasting company gets other opportunities to sell further analysis, legal advice, raising debt, selling equity, etc.”

In 2012, the Reston (Virginia) Citizens Association completed a study [PDF] examining traffic projections provided by engineering firm Wilbur Smith (the company that did the very wrong Indiana Toll Road projections, now called CDM Smith). The group collected data from 26 toll road projects on which Wilbur Smith had produced the traffic projections. During the first five years that were forecast, traffic projections overshot actual traffic every single year, and by an average of 109 percent, according to the report.

Randy Salzman, associate editor at Thinking Highways North America, has studied these types of deals for years. He’s never seen a case where a private consulting firm like CDM Smith or AECOM underestimated toll revenues on a privately-financed highway. “If there was honest predicting, some percentage of them would under-predict traffic,” he said. “There would be a bell curve. Instead… what we have is these projections that are always immensely above what the actual traffic is.”

There is ample incentive for these firms to inflate numbers. Firms that predict high levels of traffic attract investment dollars and regulatory approvals, which lead to construction projects, and the same firms often end up directly cashing in.

An investigation by the Denver Post examined 23 toll roads built between 1985 and 2006. Five of them sold bonds based on traffic projections that were prepared by companies that were promised, or granted, future business after their projections were sold to investors. Among those firms: Wilbur Smith, the company that did the Indiana Toll Road and South Bay Expressway projections.

One example cited by the Post was the traffic forecast for the $200 million Southern Connector in Greenville, South Carolina. In that case, Wilbur Smith was offered $12 million in contracts if the bonds to finance the project were sold. Toll Roads News reports the road only saw one-third to one-half of the traffic predicted by Wilbur Smith, and declared bankruptcy in 2010.

In some cases, engineering firms producing traffic projections have been sued for fraud by investors who lost money on projects that seemed like sure bets. Investors in the CLEM7 toll tunnel in Brisbane, for example, launched a class action suit against Los Angeles-based AECOM after actual traffic was as much as 70 percent below expectations. But other than the threat of liability, there is little to deter these companies from putting a rosy spin on the numbers.

In Bain’s research for the Australian government [PDF], he recommended that “independent peer reviews” of traffic projections “hold the potential to reduce over-optimism, or at least detect it in advance of a contract award.”

As the U.S. government wades ever more deeply into privately financed roads through its giant TIFIA lending program, federal taxpayers can end up on the losing end when projections come up short and deals go bad. As illustrated by the South Bay Expressway — a San Diego highway that received a second federal loan after it was unable to pay back the first — TIFIA has no built-in protections against inflated traffic projections and the financial fallout that can follow.

When he was still a Congressman, the late Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota) tried to establish an accountability office at U.S. DOT specifically to evaluate these private finance projects — but his suggestion was never enacted. That may be especially important in new private finance deals, where the risk has been largely shifted to taxpayers.

Following the Indiana Toll Road bankruptcy, financial ratings agency Standard & Poors issued a press release that seemed to be aimed at settling toll road investors’ nerves. The item noted that the Indiana Toll Road “was an early-stage public private partnership,” and that “current-generation transportation P3 projects… have different risk characteristics.”

Soon afterward, S&P held an event unsubtly titled “Traffic and Revenue Forecasting: Is This Risk Too Much For The Private Sector To Bear?” The answer appears to be “yes,” according to a recent Bloomberg article, “Private Toll Road Investors Shift Revenue Risk to States.” Potential investors in the Illiana Tollway – a billion-dollar highway proposed for cornfields beyond Chicago’s suburban fringe — and numerous other proposed roads are demanding that states assume the risk if traffic or tolls don’t meet expectations, by guaranteeing “availability payments” whether or not the cars show up.

Availability payments, the latest trend in privately financed infrastructure, guarantee a fat annual check from the state government to reimburse the private partner for their construction and maintenance costs. That amount is locked in even if the state collects no revenue at all.

“We are seeing more of that because investors are a bit skittish about the U.S. market,” Cornell professor Richard Geddes told Bloomberg. In states like Texas, where toll roads have recently turned into fiascos, investors are pushing to change laws to have the state — a.k.a. the public — assume the risk of lower-than-projected traffic.

The financial industry truly has learned some lessons from the Indiana Toll Road, the South Bay Expressway, the Pocahontas Parkway, the Greenville Southern Connector, or numerous other road investments gone bad. They’ve learned not to bet on rising traffic volumes, or on rising interest rates, and that the best way to privatize the profits is to stick the taxpayers with the bill as traffic volumes continue sinking.

Marketed to taxpayers as infrastructure they never have to pay for if they don’t want to, many privately-financed highways are actually bailouts waiting to happen.

Edited on November 21 to add more context about availability payments.
Other posts in this series: