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

Friday, December 19, 2014

3 more reasons Seattle is stuck in a fustercluck


By David Roberts, December 18, 2014


Earlier this week I posted a long account of Seattle’s ill-fated efforts to build a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an urban highway that cuts between downtown and the waterfront. It’s about to fall down, you see, like the similarly designed Cyprus Street Viaduct in Oakland, which collapsed in an earthquake in 1989, squashing 42 people between levels. Originally Seattle’s viaduct was slated to come down in 2012, but the tunnel project has pushed it back to 2016 (or maybe farther), endangering more Seattle drivers.

Despite that post’s prodigious length, I’ve since been reminded of a few things I forgot. So here are three more reasons to feel bad for us Seattleites.

1. A tunnel expert warned us about all this.

In 2010, when alternatives to the viaduct were under consideration, then-mayor Mike McGinn hired a tunnel expert named Thom L. Neff to assess whether the geology around the viaduct was suitable for a tunnel. Neff reviewed all the extant documents and literature; his report is here. It concludes:
Given the level of current design and the risks identified in constructing a tunnel of this magnitude, there is a reasonable expectation that costs and schedule could exceed current estimates.
Ya think?

Neff warned that the project was “beyond precedent,” with the largest single-bore dig ever taking place in “the worst geologic environment I’ve ever seen,” beneath the water table, under considerable water pressure, through highly varied soil conditions. He made various recommendations, including the creation of a reserve fund, a more equitable division of risk between the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and its contractors, and the transfer of real-time monitoring responsibilities to WSDOT.

He was ignored. Seattle City Council member Nick Likata dismissed the report, saying, “The only thing he said that is in alignment with the mayor is this is a big project, and it’s risky, but we already know that.”

I guess we know now, eh?

2. Seattle’s traffic needs were almost certainly overestimated.

All the viaduct alternatives were measured against the same metric: Seattle’s projected traffic. But what if those projections were wrong?

You may know that national vehicle miles traveled (VMT) peaked in the mid-2000s and, in 2007, began declining for the first time in the post-war era. There are good (if not dispositive) reasons to think that this trend is permanent.

But the U.S. Department of Transportation has not gotten the memo. This is from a Sightline post:

The black line is national VMT. The colored lines are USDOT’s traffic projections. See a theme?
Is WSDOT any better? Well, here are its projections for the 520 bridge, Seattle’s other ongoing transportation megaproject fubar, from another post on Sightline:

Again, see a theme? Here’s blogger djw, at Lawyers, Guns & Money:
WSDOT is not appreciably different than USDOT on this issue; their long-range forecasts for 2008 ended up overestimating VMT by well over standard deviation (see pg 9 here) but despite that error, their 2010 model predicted [traffic] would return to 20th century growth rates in 2011, and continue on that trajectory until 2030, essentially replicating the now evident folly on the graph above. But the declining trend in Washington dates back over a decade — there were fewer VMTs total (not per capita in this growing region, but total) in 2012 than 2002. And WSDOT is still using these clearly broken projection models.
See this extensive analysis from the Congress for the New Urbanism for more.

Point being: A lot of the support for the tunnel, and a lot of the scaremongering against the surface/transit option, was based on WSDOT traffic projections that are almost certainly high of the mark.

3. Seattle government’s own data showed that the tunnel wouldn’t reduce downtown traffic relative to the surface/transit option.

Speaking of scaremongering, critics of the surface/transit option were convinced that it would flood nearby streets with traffic. All those cars that used to use the viaduct would just fan out through downtown, right?

Turns out not so much. Dominic Holden tells the tale:
The city hired consultant Nelson/Nygaard in 2008 to explore maximizing surface streets, optimizing lanes on I-5, and improving certain transit corridors through downtown. It concluded that it would cost $3.3 billion — almost a billion dollars less than the tunnel project — and would perform as well as, and in some cases better than, the tunnel.

The most compelling evidence for I-5/surface/transit is buried in the state’s own [supplemental draft impact statement]. In an appendix of a transportation discipline report, WSDOT cites the miles of travel, hours of travel, and hours of delay that would exist if we built the I-5/surface/transit option. To compare that data to the tunnel, The Stranger filed a records request with the City of Seattle to obtain the most recent data the state is using to forecast miles traveled, hours traveled, and hours of delay on the tolled deep-bore tunnel.

The data shows surface/transit performing slightly better in the downtown system overall, with fewer miles traveled, fewer hours traveled, and less delay. [my emphasis]
In other words, for an extra billion dollars (and counting), the tunnel will result in slightly more downtown traffic than the surface/transit option. And that’s according to the state’s own data!

Part of the reason the tunnel won’t reduce downtown traffic is that, contrary to WSDOT’s rhetoric and the whole conceptual model behind the tunnel, most traffic on the viaduct is not trying to bypass downtown. Rather, most trips on the viaduct begin or end there. The CNU analysis finds, “Most of the viaduct traffic during peak traffic periods gets on or off SR 99 in central Seattle, and is not through traffic.” As Holden says, “what drivers need from Highway 99 — what they use it for — isn’t a bypass mechanism, but a downtown delivery system.” The tunnel, which, again, has no exits downtown, will be useless for that.

Add to that the fact that the tunnel will be tolled — originally proposed at around $4, now down to $1, which is unlikely to raise enough money to cover Seattle’s part of the project costs. As commenter Morgan Kay pointed out under my last post (annoyingly, I can’t link to individual comments), the toll will either be high enough to make Seattle real money, in which case it would divert too many drivers, or it will be low enough to attract more drivers, in which case it wouldn’t make enough money.

People remain convinced that if you yank out a highway, traffic will get worse. It’s intuitive. But the truth is counterintuitive: there’s a growing mountain of evidence that building a road creates traffic (it’s called “induced demand”). Similarly, removing a road can destroy demand. Indeed, CNU’s analysis found that 28 percent of viaduct traffic would simply vanish if it weren’t replaced.

“Alaskan Way Viaduct Analysis of No-replacement Option”

Anyway, we could have gotten rid of the viaduct, improved downtown mobility, and revitalized the waterfront, all with no more downtown traffic than would have resulted from the tunnel boondoggle. For a billion less (and counting). D’oh.

To sum up: Experts knew (and publicly reported) that the geology around the tunnel was difficult and that delays and cost overruns were likely; the traffic projections on which the project was based were almost certainly too high; and best of all, the tunnel is unlikely to improve downtown traffic relative to the option of tearing it out and improving transit and surface streets. (This is all, of course, in addition to the problems I pointed out in my last post.)

Seattle leaders need to shake off their torpor and do something about this before billions more dollars are thrown into a big hole.

Call to Action: No Buildings Next to Freeways

From Sylvia Plummer, December 19, 2014

In this mornings (12/19/14) Los Angeles Times there is an Editorial about not building next to freeways because of health impacts.  

We need people to write emails to the editor about the opposite issue.. .  Not building freeways such as the SR-710 North next to established residential neighborhoods, hospitals and schools.  
The  emails need to be written today.  The Los Angeles Times responds very quickly from our past experience with them. 

The shorter the letter the better... and more likelihood of being  published.  

Send your emails to:  letters@latimes.com
You can reference:  "Give us some breathing room"
Here's the link to this mornings editorial:


L.A.'s freeway-adjacent residents need more protection from pollution

 A growing body of research shows that living next to a freeway can significantly increase the risk of asthma, heart disease, pre-term births, reduced lung function in children and premature death. Yet Los Angeles continues to approve residential developments next to freeways without imposing strong measures to protect the residents.

Case in point: the Da Vinci apartment complex, half of which was destroyed by fire last week. It was built 10 feet from the busy 110 freeway, with balconies overlooking the traffic. That's much closer than the 500-foot buffer zone that state air quality officials recommend for residential projects. Air pollution monitoring in Los Angeles has shown that levels of carbon monoxide and dangerous ultrafine particles are extremely high on and next to freeways and that the pollution doesn't dissipate until almost 1,000 feet away.
 In an attempt to cut potential pollution exposure, city planners required that developer Geoffrey H. Palmer install special air filters in the Da Vinci's ventilation systems — which wouldn't really help much if people opened their windows or balcony doors. Yet when Times reporter David Zahniser inquired, city inspectors discovered that the developer hadn't installed the equipment needed to accommodate the stronger filters. Palmer ended up adding the equipment, but the filters won't be effective without regular replacement — something the city does not follow up on once a project is complete, unless there's a complaint.
 Los Angeles and other cities need to adopt stronger measures when approving development along freeways. About 13% of the land zoned for residential use in Los Angeles is within 1,000 feet of a freeway. It's unlikely the city could stop all new housing projects along major roads, but authorities can and should do more to ensure that projects are built to minimize the health risks. That could include requiring buffer zones between residential units and freeways, reconfiguring site plans to move windows and balconies away from traffic and mandating the installation and regular maintenance of the highest-quality air filters. There may be situations in which the requirements for building next to a freeway are impossible for a residential project to meet, in which case the land may be better suited for a commercial or industrial use.
 Housing advocates are understandably wary of putting too many restrictions on new development in a city that already has a shortage of housing, and especially of affordable units. But given what we now know about the tremendous risks of living with concentrated air pollution, it's simply irresponsible to put homes near freeways without demanding significant protections for future residents.

The Chart That Toppled San Diego's Long-Term Transportation Plan

And could strengthen climate policies in California cities for years to come.


By Eric Jaffe, December 18, 2014


Late last month, a California appeals court upheld an earlier decision that undermined San Diego's massive, $214 billion plan for regional mobility through the year 2050. The ruling is expected to be appealed, but if it holds, the metro area's entire highway and transit network might be transformed as a result. And as if that weren't enough, the precedent would also strengthen climate policy in California cities for years to come.

It's a big case. It's also a very complicated one, with lots of environmental, legal, and transportation-related ins, outs, and what-have-yous. Fortunately, the gist can be boiled down into this one rather ordinary-looking chart:

(Via San Diego Transit)
What you're looking at, broadly speaking, are emissions trends from 1990 to 2050. The purple line, rising through 2010 then falling dramatically, represents California's preferred outlook. By 2050, the state hopes to cut greenhouse gas levels by 80 percent of their 1990 levels—as spelled out in an executive order signed in 2005 by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Contrast that with the emissions trends forecasted in San Diego's long-term transportation plan, crafted by the San Diego Association of Governments, known as SANDAG. After a brief dip in SANDAG's plan, emissions from new land-use (in orange) and transportation (in blue) patterns steadily creep back up over time, such that by 2050 they're either at or above current levels. It's the complete opposite of everything the state hopes to achieve.

Opponents of SANDAG's plan have used the chart to support their case at every stage of their fight—in public comments, legal briefs, even court sessions. Rachel Hooper of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, an attorney for the winning side, says what's so nice about the chart is that it provides a striking, instantaneous clarity to an issue that might otherwise be tricky to explain and overloaded with numbers. Better yet, neither side involved in the case disputes any of the figures the chart depicts.

"It's very dramatic, isn't it?" she says.

The chart, developed by climate advocacy SanDiego350.org, was submitted to SANDAG in October 2011 during the initial public feedback period for the 2050 plan. SANDAG presented its plan as a balanced vision of highway improvements matched with transit expansion. But opponents (the state attorney general among them) said that by front-loading road projects, the plan ensured car dependency in the region for decades and ran counter to California's climate goals.

On that last charge, SANDAG's own numbers show that the 2050 plan meets the state's short-term emissions goals (established in a law known as S.B. 375). Greenhouse gases fall 14 percent by 2020 from current levels, and 13 percent by 2035. But by 2050, the plan estimates that emissions will have fallen just 10 percent, meaning for most of the plan's duration they'll actually be on the rise—the reason being an "increased demand for driving" as people moved into more remote areas of the region, according to SANDAG.

In late 2011, SANDAG opponents (including the state attorney general) filed suit over the 2050 plan. The emissions chart appeared in an opening brief to the superior court, which first heard the case, serving as evidence that San Diego's transportation plan stood in "dramatic conflict" with Schwarzenegger's 2005 executive order. The whole point of that policy, argued opponents, was to avoid the type of "unacceptable climate change" the 2050 plan promoted:
A graph submitted to SANDAG illustrates the stark contrast between emissions allowed by the Plan—still drifting upward through 2035 and 2050—and the steeply declining trajectory necessary for climate stabilization.
SANDAG countered that its plan met the 2020 and 2035 emissions targets (outlined in SB 375), and that it didn't have the same obligation to meet the 2050 target (outlined in the executive order). But Judge Timothy B. Taylor of the superior court disagreed. He found SANDAG "impermissibly dismissive" of the Executive Order that calls for emissions to fall by 2050, and argued that the policy was in place for a reason:
SANDAG thus cannot simply ignore it.
"I don't know if it was because of the chart, but I think the court certainly got the point that we have a big problem with this SANDAG plan," says Hooper, who recalls using the graph in a PowerPoint presentation during the trial. "Emissions are going up. It's in violation or in contradiction with the state climate policy. That's all over their decision."

Asked about that decision, SANDAG referred CityLab to a press release quoting board chair Jack Dale as saying the law needs further clarity "for every planning agency and city in California":
"Left unchallenged, this appellate court decision will make it even more difficult for agencies and cities to know which regulations to follow and what standards to apply," Dale said. "The confusion will result in slowing down all projects in the state—transit projects, bike projects, pedestrian improvements, and highway projects."
Despite coming at the case from the other side, Hooper agrees that its eventual conclusion will have huge implications for how municipal planning organizations in California design long-term regional transportation plans. "Remember, these are plans that are in place for 30 or 40 years," she says. "What is heartening about this decision is the court is making sure they look at the impacts of the whole of the plan for all of those decades. Including on climate."
A traffic jam on Interstate 5.
It's fair to say the future of San Diego's transportation network hangs in the balance. Construction is reportedly scheduled to begin next year on one facet of the 2050 plan—a $6.5 billion suite of projects that begins with an expansion of Interstate 5. But Hooper says she's filed suit against this work in the San Diego Superior Court, and that the expansion could be halted if her side wins.

As for the long-term plan itself, SANDAG may eventually have to go back to the drawing board. Opponents have urged SANDAG to analyze the environmental impact of a so-called "50-10" plan that front-loads transit projects into the first decade. (SANDAG has called that idea implausible on funding grounds.) If existing alternatives don't pass environmental muster, SANDAG could theoretically have to reverse engineer a plan beginning with the 2050 climate target.

For now, says Hooper, all eyes are on a revision that SANDAG is currently doing as part of a mandatory four-year update for long-term regional plans. "The hope is they'll kind of get the hint here," she says. If not, there's a certain chart it's safe to assume they'll be seeing again.

Raise the Gas Tax!


By Steve Lafleur, December 19, 2014

TAKING ITS TOLL-Driving just got a lot cheaper in America. The timing is great not only for American consumers, but also for America’s infrastructure. The Highway Trust Fund simply can’t keep up current spending levels without more revenue. Significant declines in pump prices have presented an excellent opportunity to raise the federal gas tax, while keeping pump prices lower than initially anticipated. 
Though a gas tax hike may not be the ideal approach, it is infinitely preferable to bailing out the Trust Fund with general revenue, or to putting the brakes on much needed infrastructure spending. This is a rare opportunity to improve America’s infrastructure without putting an additional burden on American taxpayers. It would be a shame to miss it. 

No one enjoys paying taxes, though they are much easier to swallow when the revenue produces visible results. Since the gas tax is deposited into the Highway Trust Fund, it is somewhat like a user fee, albeit, an imperfect one. From the standpoint of fairness, it makes sense that drivers should pay for using the roads. Aside from fairness, the virtue of the 'user pays' principle is that it helps to ration roadway use. If movie theatres were paid for through tax revenue and tickets were free at the point of consumption, everyone would be stuck waiting in line. 

The same principle generally applies to roadways, although tolls have a more direct impact on traffic congestion than gas taxes. There is some legitimate debate over the optimal mix of revenue tools to fund roads, but if it comes down to raising the gas tax or using general government revenue, raising the gas tax is the obvious choice. 

Congress has allowed the Highway Trust Fund to gradually lurch towards insolvency. Expenditures have risen while gas tax rates haven’t. America’s aging infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, so holding out for the ideal solution no longer seems tenable. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that spending is poised to exceed revenue by $167 billion over the 2015-2024 period. The Trust Fund has already received $54 billion in transfers from the treasury since 2008. 

One of the proposed solutions to the shortfall is to restore the Highway Trust Fund's original mandate: use gas taxes exclusively to pay for highways. In other words, get rid of what's known as the Transit Account. That would go some way towards alleviating pressure on the Trust Fund, but it still wouldn’t bring the fund into balance. Regardless of whether or not the Trust Fund continues to pay for mass transit expansions, Congress will need to find more revenue. 

There has never been a better time to increase the gas tax. Consumers and firms have budgeted for much higher gas prices than they’re paying at the pumps. The bi-partisan proposal to increase the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon would leave gas prices below $3 per gallon, which is still a substantial overall decline. Indexing the gas tax to inflation would help to ensure that the Trust Fund doesn’t end up in this bind every few years.

Given the state of the American economy, now is a particularly bad time to defer highway construction and maintenance. Public spending can’t be expected to fix all that ails it, but this is a good time to support the construction industry. 

While 30 cents per gallon might seem high, American drivers would still pay among the lowest gas taxes on earth, and less than Canadians pay. That America has managed thus far to maintain an enviable national highway system for a fraction of Canadian federal fuel taxes is a testament to the efficiency of the Highway Trust Fund model. 

Given the enormous windfall that drivers will receive from lower gas prices, clawing back some of it to ensure that American still have roads fit for driving is a reasonable proposition. Just because the federal government owns the national highway system doesn’t mean that it's free. Someone has to pay to maintain the system. Drivers should be first in line to do so.

Experts: Plunging Gas Price Fueling Record Traffic


December 18, 2014

 COSTA MESA (CBSLA.com) — Experts say Southern California’s freeways have become more congested as the price of gas has plunged to its lowest point in more than five years.

KCAL9 Orange County reporter Stacey Butler spoke to motorists Thursday night who said they have noticed the trend, but are also enjoying the extra money in their pockets.

“I love it. It’s amazing,” said Jonathan Barrios. “I get to save tons of cash and spend it on other things that are more important.”

“It makes it a lot easier during the holiday season because you can spend more money on your Christmas gifts rather than on gas,” added Jennifer Teel.

“Now it’s like ten dollars cheaper,” noted commuter Alyssa Dunn, who drives over 70 miles a day, but has seen the downside of the lower prices. “As soon as the gas prices got this low, so many more cars were on the road.”

Dunn isn’t surprised that experts say a growing economy, combined with plummeting gas prices, has fueled record traffic on California’s highways.

“There’s always traffic nonstop,” Dunn said.

According to Cal State Northridge professor Kent Hymel, “Probably the biggest reason (for the increase in traffic) is the pretty sharp drop in the price of gasoline.”

According to new state figures, drivers traveled about 185 billion miles on state highways from 2013 to 2014, up almost 5 billion miles from the year before. That’s the largest traffic jump since 2003.

“There’s a lot more people who are out,” said driver Roger Tomlinson. “I’m out more, all my friends are out more because we can afford to go places.”

Some experts are saying that the good economy and lower gas prices are also fueling a increase in new car sales.