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, February 10, 2016

A Bold Transportation Plan for Urban America—Dead on Arrival

The DOT’s $98 billion 2017 budget has a lot to recommend it, and virtually no chance of approval.


By Eric Jaffe, February 10, 2016

 Image U.S. DOT
 The Long Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly released fiscal 2017 budget is about 70 pages long, but you need only look at the cover to catch its drift. The lead image shows the pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined Long Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio, which reunited two neighborhoods separated in the 1960s by an interstate—a fate shared by so many urban districts. Lest the point get lost, the $98 billion budget makes clear that future transport policies must “reconnect” communities, where past ones “divided” them.

The 2017 DOT budget may get laughed out of a Republican-controlled Congress in this election year, but it nevertheless outlines a bold national transportation policy with American cities at its center. Unlike the recently passed FAST act, which stayed true to historical spending habits that favor highway expansion and worsen congestion, the new budget does more than nod at real change. In that sense it’s truer to the DOT’s 30-year “Beyond Traffic” vision that hopes to pivot away from car-first planning toward more mobility choices.

Some of the raw numbers: Public transit funding would nearly double under this budget, from $11.8 billion in fiscal 2016 to just short of $20 billion. TIGER grants that jumpstart so many metro area projects would rise from $500 million to $1.25 billion. Specific capital projects that gain mention for funding starts include L.A.’s westside subway extension ($125 million), Honolulu’s driverless train corridor ($244 million), and Albuquerque’s gold-standard BRT project ($69 million). High-speed rail gets back on the federal wish list at $7 billion.

Among the plan’s boldest elements is its empowerment of metropolitan planning organizations. MPOs currently craft the long-term plans for urban regions but lack the direct funding might of state DOTs, which often remain locked in a road-building mindset left over from the interstate era. The new budget calls for MPOs to receive billions in direct funding to make their own decisions—a reasonable charge given that traffic and transport-related climate impacts tend to emerge at a regional level as powerfully as the local one.

 Driverless transport technology gets more than a wink, with a chief expected result being safer city travel. The White House already revealed its $4 billion plan for autonomous vehicle development and large-scale testing, and the budget makes clear that this investment has “better, faster, cleaner urban and corridor transportation networks” in mind. Positive train control, the intercity train advance that would greatly reduce human errors like the one that caused the wreck of Amtrak’s Train 188, also gets nearly $200 million.

The plan is especially explicit when it comes to “Clean Transportation Plan Investments,” which together amount to some $320 billion over 10 years. One sharp component would reward states that cut greenhouse gas emissions—frowning on road expansions that increase vehicle miles traveled, similar to the new policy being developed in California. A clean communities program would help cities and towns do things like expand bike and pedestrian networks and reconnect “downtowns divided by freeways,” like Columbus.

The clean elements of the budget plan would be funded by the $10-a-barrel oil tax that the White House unveiled last week. It’s not a gas tax, per se, since it targets producers rather than consumers, but it might as well be, since companies may pass on the fee to drivers—potentially adding 24 cents a gallon to gas prices. That seems like a big bump only in the context of U.S. fuel costs that rank among the world’s lowest, and while middle-class families might feel the hit, they would also gain something in cleaner air, safer travel, and less-congested roads.

Still, the barrel tax was pronounced “dead on arrival,” and the 2017 DOT budget as a whole received a similar greeting from Speaker Paul Ryan, who called it “a progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hard-working Americans,” according to The New York Times. Some divides still await their great bridge.

Preliminary Federal Ruling Sides With Beverly Hills Against Metro Subway


By Joe Linton, February 9, 2016

 Early version of possible Purple Line Subway alignments studied through Beverly Hills. Image via Metro

Last week, United States District Judge George Wu issued a ruling [PDF] in Beverly Hills’ legal battles against Metro’s plans to tunnel the Purple Line subway beneath Beverly Hills High School.

The Beverly Hills Courier portrayed the ruling as a victory for Beverly Hills in that Judge Wu chided subway proponents for “not properly considering the environmental effects of running a tunnel through an area riddled with abandoned oil wells and pockets of potentially explosive methane gas.”

Though the judge sided with Beverly Hills, agreeing that the subway environmental studies did not fulfill all the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the decision is more of a split ruling with some of Beverly Hills’ winning points more nitpicky than substantive.

There are a couple of lawsuits with multiple parties involved. The plaintiffs include the city of Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills Unified School District. The defendants include Metro and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). For the purposes of this article, SBLA simplifies the parties to “Beverly Hills” against “Metro.”

The ruling last week is in the federal court case; Metro won the state court case last year.

The lawsuit primarily centers on Beverly Hills’ criticism of Metro’s decision to relocate the planned Century City stop from Santa Monica Boulevard to Constellation Boulevard.

Metro studied numerous subway alignments, and ultimately chose a route that places the Century City station at the intersection of Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars. Though Constellation and Santa Monica are one block apart, Metro found that Santa Monica Boulevard would not work due to earthquake faults. The Constellation alignment effectively necessitates tunneling under Beverly Hills High School.

All in all, Beverly Hills raised nine issues where it asserted that Metro’s environmental studies (Environmental Impact Statement – EIS) failed to meet NEPA requirements. The court sided with Beverly Hills on half of those issues. In effect, though, Beverly Hills effectively only needs to prevail on one issue to find that Metro failed NEPA.

The conclusion of the 217-page ruling [PDF] reads:
The Court concludes that [Metro] failed its disclosure/discussion obligations … in connection with [Beverly Hills’] comments concerning the effects of tunneling through gassy ground and the risk of explosions; that it failed its disclosure obligations regarding incomplete information concerning seismic issues; and that it should have issued [additional environmental studies]. The Court also concludes that [Metro] failed to properly assess “use” of [Beverly Hills] High School under [recreational land law] due to the planned tunneling. In all other respects, the Court rules in favor of [Metro].
Metro, via spokesperson Dave Sotero, issued a statement on the ruling:
After a thorough review, Metro concludes that Judge Wu’s tentative rulings uphold the approved plans to build the Century City subway station at Constellation and to tunnel safely beneath Beverly Hills High School. Some of the findings are procedural, requiring the FTA to perform additional environmental analysis and provide a further opportunity for public comment. The majority of extensive environmental work was deemed sound. If the ruling holds, Metro will support FTA in meeting these additional procedural requirements. Time is of the essence. Any significant delay resulting from this case could jeopardize the timely delivery of this critically important transit project for all L.A. County residents.
After the jump are summaries of the nine specific areas of dispute in the lawsuit. Following those are possible next steps in the case.

1 – Air Quality and Public Health

Beverly Hills asserted that Metro’s construction-related emissions air quality analysis was insufficient because the analysis did not account for local air quality, only regional.

The judge issued a mixed ruling on this point. It found that Metro “did not act in an arbitrary or capricious manner” considering air quality impacts. But, in regards to public health, the judge sided with Beverly Hills, asserting that Metro lacked “a more robust discussion of public health impacts at least insofar as NOx [nitrogen oxides air pollution] is concerned.”

2 – Methane Gas and Oil Wells

Beverly Hills contended that Metro did not sufficiently take into account the potential explosive dangers of methane gases and oil wells. Metro responded that underground gases and wells might be encountered, but Metro tunneling technology allows the agency to be successful getting through these safely.

The court responded that Metro analyzed oil well locations, and that Metro can tunnel safely through areas with oil wells, but sided with Beverly Hills that Metro had not “sufficiently crossed its t’s and dotted its i’s” regarding documenting potential impacts.

3 – Alternative Routing

Beverly Hills argued that Metro failed to analyze any subway routes to Constellation Station that would avoid tunneling under Beverly Hills High School, even though Beverly Hills presented alternatives that would do this. Metro cited a number of reasons why Beverly Hills’ alternatives were rejected, including that each would slow train speeds due to “sharp curves through Century City.”

On this issue, the court sided with Metro echoing Metro’s environmental studies: “[t]here is no reasonable tunnel alignment that does not pass under structures within the school campus,” taking into account the need “to achieve maximum safe train speeds between stations (by minimizing curves and grade differentials).” From the ruling: “In short, the Court concludes that [Metro] engaged in informed decision-making with respect to the assessment of alternatives relating to the approach to Constellation Station.”

4 – Predetermined Decision

Beverly Hills asserted that Metro showed favoritism using “the environmental analysis to rationalize a decision that had already been made.” Beverly Hills further accused Metro of making “a unilateral secret change of plans” in 2010 to route the Purple Line via Constellation Boulevard instead of Santa Monica Boulevard. Beverly Hills asserted that Metro manipulated seismic and ridership data to bolster its preordained choice. Metro responded that the Constellation vs. Santa Monica decision was made because technical studies showed that “there was no fault-free section along Santa Monica Boulevard that would be large enough to accommodate a station.”

The court standard here is interesting: “permissible partiality” is acceptable, but it can not get in the way of the project studies taking a “hard look” at alternatives. The standard of proof is pretty high; other cases where improper pre-determination was proved involved a “binding commitment” where project proponents signed contracts in advance of finishing environmental studies.

The judge called this “a very close question” stating “the analysis certainly appears to have been slanted in one direction” but that the slant was not bad enough to clearly be full-on improper pre-determination. The ruling sided with Metro because there was no evidence of “a binding commitment of any type involved here” despite “evidence that a Constellation Station location was preferred early on and that subsequent analysis favored that preference in ways that some people and organizations found reason to criticize.”

5 – Seismic Risk

Beverly Hills disputed Metro’s seismic data criteria for routing the subway under Constellation Boulevard instead of Santa Monica Boulevard. Beverly Hills asserted that Metro’s seismic data was incomplete, and criticized the agency for doing additional seismic studies after already approving the Constellation route. Beverly Hills asserted that Metro was not up front about uncertainties in its data. Metro asserted that environmental studies do not need “to affirmatively present every uncertainty.”

The court sided with Beverly Hills on this item. The court affirmed Metro in saying that the agency’s seismic risk studies were “reasonably thorough,” but stated that Metro failed to make “up-front disclosures of relevant shortcomings.” 

6 – Re-opening Environmental Certification (NEPA)

Beverly Hills asserted that because Metro did additional seismic studies after its environmental studies were approved, the agency should have re-opened the NEPA process. According to Beverly Hills, instead Metro “simply swept problems under the rug.”

The ruling sided with Beverly Hills on this, asserting that Metro should have issued additional environmental studies.

7 – Clean Air Act

Beverly Hills asserted that Metro only looked at Clean Air Act requirements pertaining to subway operations, and did not analyze air local air quality impacts for construction activities.
The court sided with Metro that its analysis was acceptable under the Clean Air Act.

8 – Public Land Usage

Federal law requires certain procedures be followed when a project impacts a park or recreation area. Beverly Hills argued that tunneling below (and constructing near) Reeves Park and Beverly Hills High School would impact recreation. Metro argued that the tunnel is far enough underground (and construction activity limited enough) that the project does not impact recreation.

Though the ruling stated that construction and the tunneling “would not substantially impair” recreation, the courts sided with Beverly Hills, stating that Metro “failed in its obligation to perform a sufficient … analysis concerning ‘use’ of the High School due to the tunneling underneath it.”

9 – National Historic Preservation Act

The court sided with Metro on NEPA.

What happens next?

Beverly Hills’ lawsuit challenges the environmental clearance for the entire 9-mile Purple Line subway extension – from Koreatown to Westwood. The project is broken into three sections.
In 2015, Metro began construction on the first section of subway extension. The initial section costs $3 billion and extends 3.9 miles from Koreatown to just inside the Beverly Hills border. That initial extension is anticipated to open in 2023.

Beverly Hills’ primary lawsuit contentions concern section two,  planned to tunnel below Beverly Hills, including Beverly Hills High School. Section two is not under construction yet, but Metro has begun preliminary investigation work, with utility relocation anticipated to start soon.

Phase three will take the line from Century City to the VA Hospital in Westwood.

As of 2015, Metro expected section two to open around 2026 and phase three to open around 2035. Metro CEO Phil Washington secured USDOT approval to expedite future subway phases, in part in support of connecting rail to UCLA in time for a potential 2024 Olympics.

Last week’s ruling is still preliminary. Both Metro and Beverly Hills will soon respond to the judge’s preliminary document. Then on March 14 all parties are due back in court again. On that date, or soon after, the ruling will be finalized.

A settlement appears unlikely. In an interview (minute 11) with Beverly Hills View last week, former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky described earlier settlement attempts as “dead on arrival.”

If Beverly Hills and Metro are unable to come to terms, it is unlikely but theoretically possible that the judge could order the halt of the entire project, potentially including the initial section already under construction. This would be a huge mess.

A more likely, less drastic ruling would be re-opening the NEPA environmental review process, so Metro can “sufficiently cross its t’s and dot its i’s” probably before section two construction gets underway. Metro could appeal this ruling. Either a legal appeal or a re-opened NEPA process could result in delaying future subway phases. This would increase Metro’s project costs – both construction and legal – without necessarily altering the subway alignment. While some in Beverly Hills might see this potential outcome as a victory, it is not clear that Metro would make any changes to the alignment already selected. With public monies wasted on extended legal battles, instead of invested in school and transportation improvements, ultimately it appears that it will be the public that loses.

With the two sides far apart, maybe newer consensus-minded Metro board members — perhaps L.A. County Supervisor Shiela Kuehl and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti — could show leadership by reaching out to their Beverly Hills colleagues and trying to find some kind of face-saving middle ground.
After the March ruling, it should be clearer if the project will see any delays.

10 Ways to Lure People Onto Metro's Trains and Buses (VIDEO)


By Hillel Aron, February 3, 2016

(See website for the video.)

Last week, a little paper called the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story: "Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California."

Never mind that Gene Maddaus of the far littler L.A. Weekly broke the story of L.A. Metro's declining ridership four months ago.

No sooner had the Times posted the story than the transit-booster community lost their collective shit. Various excuses were tossed about like so many used-up TAP cards – Joe Linton has a very good summary of them here.

But the dream of a hyper-urbanized L.A., where we all ride the train to our skyscraper apartments and whisper sweet nothings to our sexy-sounding smartphones – oh wait, that was Scarlett Johansson in Her – has never felt further away.

But not to worry. The Weekly is here with 10 easy, if perhaps largely unrealistic and ridiculously unpopular, solutions to ripping the steering wheels from Angelenos' cold, dead  alive and well fingers.

10)  Build a big rail network
Rail in L.A. doesn't really go anywhere. Unless you live by a rail stop and are going someplace by a rail stop, it doesn't make much sense to use it.

As we speak, Metro is building out this nascent system: Expo Line will reach the sandy beaches of Santa Monica in May; the Purple Line (aka the Subway Not-Really-to-the-Sea) extension is under construction and so is the Crenshaw Line. But the Gold Line extension opens next month! I can't wait to ride to the Donut Man in Glendora!

That's still a bit thin. So transit boosters are proposing yet another sales tax hike, this one on the November ballot, to build more rail lines and pay for more buses and who knows what else.

9)  Make the damn thing faster
Only problem is, a lot of the trains aren't that great. Take the Expo Line. It's slow. It takes at least 30 minutes to ride from Culver City to downtown. When you factor in five minutes waiting for the train and 10-minute walks to and from your starting place and your actual destination, you're looking at a commute that's pretty much comparable to sitting in your car.

And why, again, did they build the Expo Line at grade, where it has to stop for cars at traffic signals? Oh right, to save money. Only problem is, that left Expo Line basically a glorified bus line.

8)  Add Wi-Fi
Buses are pretty nice these days – they're clean and air-conditioned! But maybe the millennial set would be more likely to ride buses and trains if they were given more amenities or could get some work done. Maybe it's time Metro added wireless Internet.
7) Give us way more buses
About three-quarters of L.A.'s transit riders take the bus, not rail. And yet bus service gets treated like the red-headed stepchild. Granted, buses are slower and worse for the environment than trains. But the nice thing is, they can go anywhere a car can. And Metro can shift bus routes around, based on jobs and neighborhood demand. Since Google Maps now shows transit data, it's never been easier for the casual rider to find the right bus.

City planners get this, and part of L.A.'s controversial mobility plan is to add more bus-only lanes to the city streets.

6)  Build more housing by rail — but make it crappier
Ever since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's days, L.A. has followed a policy of "smart growth" — encouraging density without increasing traffic by building tall buildings near transit stops. Only one problem: That housing is new, and more desirable than some old stucco thing that's falling apart. It tends to be expensive, and the people who move into it can easily afford cars.

The median income for Metro riders is $15,918 — compared to the $55,909 median income citywide. Poor people, unsurprisingly, make up the vast majority of transit riders in Los Angeles.

So here's a thought: Why not build really crappy housing by transit stops? Maybe some micro units, like the kind a developer is trying to build on Skid Row.

10 Ways to Lure People Onto Metro's Trains and Buses (VIDEO)

5)  Raise the tax on driving 
Here's a popular proposal: Let's raise the gas tax. Or replace it with a tax on the number of miles you drive. This would discourage driving, and you could use the revenue to pay for roads and add more bus service.

4)  Cut the price of bus and rail fares
The Times pointed out that transit ridership started to fall when Metro raised fares and cut service. So maybe lower the fares.

Of course, someone has to pay for Metro's overhead and maintenance. The more you cut fares, the more taxpayers must pay.

But maybe you decide poor people deserve access to this service. Maybe you think that having more people on trains and buses is super-important and you don't care if it costs. Or maybe you're just trolling readers and throwing out counterintuitive ideas that no one likes!

3) Raise the price of parking
Speaking of trolling...

No but seriously. Whenever I go to downtown, I try to ride my bike or take the bus. It's not because I care about the environment. It's because parking in downtown Los Angeles is crazy expensive and hard to find.

There's an idea out there that Angelenos loooooove cars and will never ride buses or trains. But most people are rational. If they find something that is faster or cheaper, they might start to use it — some of the time. If it's both fast and cheap, they'll start to use it most of the time.
The low cost of parking, while obviously good for individuals, is bad for society in ways that I couldn't possibly cram into this already bloated listicle, so I'll just direct you to this fantastic Los Angeles magazine piece on UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking

10 Ways to Lure People Onto Metro's Trains and Buses (VIDEO)

2)  Embrace the newer meaning of ride-sharing
The Times cited the rise of Uber and Lyft as another possible reason fewer people ride on L.A.'s trains and buses. Metro still seems to think ride-sharing is what we do during our "first mile, last mile" — transit jargon for that space between Metro transit stops and our houses or jobs.
The real dream of transit boosters is to create a new class of Angelenos who don't own cars — or, at least, a new class of couples who share a car. Ride-sharing apps give the non–car owners a choice in addition to  buses, trains, cycling and, of course, walking.

1)  Wait 
It's not like traffic is getting better. Eventually, traffic may get so bad that a 30-minute Expo Line slog seems like warp speed
Or maybe we'll run out of gas all of a sudden.

The fact is, no one knows what the future will hold. Our birth rate is rather low, although people still move here. With rents eating up as much L.A. income as they do, more residents will surely consider going carless.

But the vision of a transit-centric Los Angeles was always further away than the politicians made it seem
And by the way, there's nothing wrong with fewer people using Metro. The whole point of L.A.'s transit expansion was to offer an option. Yes, transit needs revenue and political support, but we could all just decide that we care about having the option of taking a bus or a train, and we care about poor people being ableto get around. We're still gonna drive most of the time, but I'm glad we have the train for that one time of year I want to take mushrooms and go to Universal Studios, or ride a bus to Pershing Square for a Bernie Sanders rally, or take the train to the beach and pretend my phone sounds like Scarlett Johansson.

Obama’s Last Budget Lays Out a Smart Vision for American Transportation


By Angie Schmitt, February 9, 2016

The White House released its 2017 budget [PDF] this morning, which includes more detail about the exciting but politically doomed transportation proposal President Obama outlined last week. Obama’s plan doesn’t have a chance in the current Congress, but it shows what national transportation policy centered on reducing greenhouse gas emissions might look like.

Obama had an awesome transportation budget in him all along. Photo: Iowapolitics.com via Flickr
If only candidate Obama had campaigned on this transportation plan in 2008.

Last week’s release sketched out a $10 per barrel tax on oil to fund a $30 billion increase in annual transportation spending. The budget gives us a closer look at what that $30 billion would fund.
In total, $20 billion of it would go toward programs to reduce GHG emissions and give people better options to get around without driving. Here are the details — keep in mind that with the GOP firmly in control of Congress, this is more of an aspirational document than a politically feasible spending plan.


The budget calls for an $8 billion increase in annual capital funds for transit, bringing the total to about $20 billion. Of that, about $16 billion would be divvied up to metro regions by formula to support maintenance and expansion projects, about 60 percent. Another $3.5 billion would boost competitive grant programs for expansion projects. The budget recommends funding in FY 2017 for Los Angeles’s Westside Subway, Southwest Light Rail in Minneapolis, Albuquerque Bus Rapid Transit, and Honolulu commuter rail, among other projects.

Highways, Streets, and Land Use

Past Obama budgets have called for large percentage increases for both highways and transit. This one includes more “highway” spending — $7.5 billion annually — but that would mainly go toward programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A $5.5 billion program called “21st Century Regions,” for instance, would bypass state DOTs, which are notorious for wasting funding on highway boondoggles, and instead fund regional planning agencies to build multi-modal projects and coordinate transportation and land use.

Intercity Rail

Obama proposes a 268 percent increase in rail funding, devoting about $6 billion a year to the nation’s intercity rail system. About $3.7 billion of that would be dedicated to system upgrades like fixing major bottlenecks. The proposal would also include $700 million for the Northeast Corridor, the most heavily-traveled route in the nation.


Obama calls for $1 billion a year for a new “multi-modal freight” program.

What It Means

With this budget proposal, Obama is laying out a long-term vision. Whatever he put out would have gotten shot down by Congressional Republicans, so why not aim high? The whole budget is loaded with political moon shots like increasing the minimum wage and tripling the child care credit for working families.

However, as a statement of goals and principles, Obama’s budget has value. The ideas will go nowhere this session, but they could gain momentum at some point in the future.

America doesn’t have much of a national transportation policy besides distributing money by formula to states and transit agencies. The Obama proposal would establish some unambiguous goals, like responding to the threat of climate change.

Too little, too late? For this presidency, sure. But a future president could pick up these ideas and run with them.

Anything but boring: World’s largest tunnelling machine, Big Bertha, is stuck under Seattle, Tweets an interview


By Ariel Rosenstock, February 2, 2016

 A close-up view of Bertha’s cutterhead. Flickr / WSDOT CC BY 2.0
 A close-up view of Bertha’s cutterhead.

Big Bertha, Seattle’s famous tunnel boring machine, is stuck underground again. Bertha was running for just under a month following a two year delay to fix a broken cutter head. And the machine has taken to Twitter, as we imagine it can get lonely so far beneath the city.

Filling the SR 99 tunnel access pit. Flickr / WSDOT CC BY 2.0
Filling the SR 99 tunnel access pit.

A little over two weeks ago, a large sinkhole formed while Bertha was drilling the over-57-foot-diameter Highway 99 tunnel to replace the earthquake prone viaduct. No one knows exactly why it happened. Just earlier that day, a nearby Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) barge tilted, offloading tunnel dirt into Elliot Bay and dismantling part of a dock.

The 15-foot-deep, 20-feet-wide, and 35-foot-long sinkhole was quickly filled with 250 cubic yards of concrete and sand.

But Bertha is still stuck. STP wants to start Bertha again, but the Washington State Department of Transportation (WDOT) hasn’t given them the necessary written permission to move forward yet. SDOT says they need more information.

But enough of the dismal facts and figures. And now, for something different:

The nonprofit blog Strong Towns interviewed @StuckBertha, Bertha’s unofficial Twitter account, in January. Enjoy some excerpts from their tongue-in-cheek conversation, below.