Thursday, June 28, 2007

Caltrans Approves Highway 50 expansion

On June 25, Caltrans filed its Notice of Determination indicating that it had completed environmental review of the proposed Highway 50 expansion and approved the project. This is the so-called "bus/carpool lane" project that would increase the freeway's carrying capacity by 20 to 25 per cent. By approving the project, Caltrans started the 30-day clock for legal challenges to the project's environmental impact report (EIR).

Two days later, Caltrans got around to notifying the public who had commented on the project that the Final EIR had been released. By delaying public notification, they foreshortened the effective window of opportunity for citizens to file suit. Gotta love our intrepid public servants' deep commitment to transparent public process...

Global Warming & the Attack on CEQA

Global warming has become something of a cause celebre in the U.S. recently, and California has been a leader among states in passing legislation that attempts to address the issue in the wake of the federal government's years of neglect of the issue under the Bush administration. AB 32 codified the state's commitment to reducing greenhouse gases by phasing in an emissions cap that will drop the state's production of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2020.

But AB 32 is not the only state mandate that requires project proponents to examine their impact on global warming. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires thorough analysis of the environmental impacts of almost any project approved by a state or local agency, also requires analysis of greenhouse gas impacts. Recently, both the California Attorney General and the nonprofit organization Center for Biological Diversity have been aggressively holding local agencies' feet to the fire regarding the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions.

Now comes the pushback from the building industry. A coalition representing a broad swath of business and construction interests has petitioned Arnold Schwarzenegger for relief from the duty to analyze greenhouse gas impacts as part of CEQA review. Ironically, they cite AB 32 as support for the proposition that they don't need to take any steps to identify or mitigate global warming impacts before the implementation of AB 32 measures. You can read their letter to the governor here.

The Planning and Conservation League has submitted a response, and they are also encouraging others to call or write the Governor and the Democratic leadership in the legislature. Read more from PCL here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

News flash!

Does this item surprise anybody?

The Federal Highway Administration has notified the state its carpool lanes are too slow – slower than an average of 45 miles an hour during peak periods. The lanes have been under the agency’s oversight since the state started allowing solo hybrid drivers to use them.

The short news byte also adds a delicious bit of dramatic irony when the Caltrans spokesperson notes, with a hint of incredulity, the impact of continued highway expansion in a growing region:

“Vehicle miles traveled actually increases faster than population growth,so as we continue to get more people driving on our highways, that’s obviously going to impact the congestion.”

Obviously. Obviously and inevitably, when you build a transportation system that facilitates continued use of the automobile and gives people few alternative choices.

It's more than a little disingenuous for Caltrans to imply that population growth alone drives the increase in VMT. The rate of increase is exacerbated if we continue to build freeways that induce traffic demand, rather than pursuing strategies that reduce both congestion and traffic.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

What Works?

A good transportation policy must provide an effective way of moving people and goods around. But, given the potentially crushing impacts of poorly designed transportation systems on our land, our air, and on the lives of the people who live in the region, there are a variety of other objectives that must guide the decisions we make. In the Sacramento area, one of the key objectives is that our transportation plan must contribute to an improvement in air quality. It must also support the conservative land use policies like those adopted in SACOG's Blueprint. And, to further complicate the situation, the transportation policy choices we make will affect area residents differently, depending on their income level.

Carolyn Rodier published a paper comparing the effectiveness of a variety of transportation strategies towards meeting these goals. (It’s available thanks to the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC-Davis). Although part of the purpose of her paper is to compare the output of different models that project the effects of transportation policy decisions, she also makes some interesting observations concerning the policies that are most likely to help us meet our objectives. Most interesting to me is the information summarized in Table 2 of her paper and explained on pages 6-8. It appears that the most effective policy across the board is one that combines increased gas taxes, investment in “advanced” light rail (better transit information systems and/or local paratransit service), and a solid urban growth boundary (UGB) to centralize future land use and development. Enforceable land use controls, investment in transit, and disincentives for fuel consumption would seem to be the winning combination for addressing congestion, air quality, and land conservation.

Rodier also notes that, without aggressive investment in transit, the costs of strategies like gas taxes and urban growth boundaries tend to fall on the poorest in the community. Transit is the great equalizer in spreading the hidden costs of transportation policy equitably across the entire community.

SACOG recognizes the importance of land use policy to meeting transportation goals. The Blueprint process, whereby the agency facilitated a regional consensus among the community and local jurisdictions on future land use, was a real breakthrough in transportation policy. Nevertheless, the fact that Blueprint land use scenario is voluntary (read: unenforceable against any municipality that makes land use decisions) is a significant source of concern.

As SACOG rolls out its long-term Metropolitan Transportation Plan, we have other reasons to be concerned. Too often in the past, the mix of projects included in the MTP were heavily weighted towards road projects that encourage rather than discourage automobile traffic. Transit has traditionally been the stepchild of Sacramento transportation planning. Rodier’s paper is a great reminder that policies that encourage people switch from low-density automobiles to transit, and discourage them from continuing to commute in low-density vehicles, ultimately provide the greatest benefit to everyone in the community.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bike Festivities!

This Saturday is shaping up to be a great day to be on a bike. For starters, head over to the Mercy General Hospital & E. Sacramento Community Spare the Air Transportation Fair. Looks like they'll have free lemonade, free ice cream, free bike tune ups, and free banjo music from 10 AM until 2 PM at 40th and J Streets. Who can beat free ice cream and free banjo music?

Later that evening stop by the Sacramento Bike Kitchen in Oak Park to help them celebrate their one year anniversary. Cover is $5 with a bike, $7 without. Festivities start at 5. They'll have music too, but it's uncertain whether they'll have banjos.

Update: Mercy General is also offering free rides on its neighborhood light rail shuttle- an idea that was very popular among participants in SACOG's recent "Tall Order" workshops.

Rob Peter to pay Paul?

California's budget problems are so complex and recalcitrant that many have abandoned hope. But how can we stand by when the Governor's 2007-2008 proposes to shift money from transit to education, at a time when the State is faced with severe impacts from climate change?

The Governor's budget proposes taking $1 billion from transit to pay for teacher tax credits, child care, and home-to-school transportation, all of which would normally be financed through the general fund. Does this sound like a long-term solution to you? And really, who does this hurt the most? It's the poor, the disabled and the elderly who will pay the immediate price in terms of loss of mobility. We will all pay the long-term costs to our environment and our air quality.

The fact is, debt repayment and tax cuts have led to these chronic budget shortfalls, which are expected to continue through 2011, according to the California Budget Project. The largest of these tax cuts is the $5 billion dollar drop in vehicle license fees that the Green Gov used to get himself elected.

Don't let them get away with this. The Transportation and Land Use Coalition (TALC) of the Bay Area has a great website with more information on this topic and a list of actions you can take, that include contacting your State representatives. Don't wait, do it today!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

ECOS Comments on DEIR for I-80 Expansion

Better late than never... Here is an electronic copy of the comments that ECOS submitted on the Draft Environmental Impact Report released by CalTrans for its I-80 Expansion project (a so-called bus/carpool lane project).

The DEIR is available on the CalTrans website here.

Council Hits Brakes on Broadway Bridge

In a testament to the power of neighborhood groups to affect transportation policy, at least at the municipal level, the Bee reports that the Sacramento City Council will consider alternative locations for a new Sacramento River Crossing. And in what appears to be a developing rhetorical theme, at least one council member contends that transit access should be a central consideration in the location of the bridge. The Bee article implies that CalTrans disagrees:

[Council Member Rob Fong's] goal for a river crossing, he said, is to connect commuters quickly to major transit stops, such as light rail, not to put an undue burden on residential neighborhoods.

Caltrans officials contend the Highway 50/Capital City Freeway crossing of the Sacramento River -- also called the Pioneer Bridge -- is becoming crowded with local traffic forced onto the freeway.

I'm not sure there's any real contradiction between the desire to keep local traffic off the freeways and the desires to facilitate transit access and protect neighborhood livability. That is, there's no contradiction unless you assume that automobiles should continue to be the dominant mode of transportation in the region.

Ontario gets it!

Courtesy of the Walkable Neighborhoods blog, here is a bit of encouraging news from our neighbors to the North.

In a surprise announcement before the fall provincial election, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty unveiled plans Friday to spend $11.5-billion over 12 years on a lengthy list of public-transit projects in what the government boasted was the largest such investment in Canadian history.


He said that work would start on the projects next year, and that the plan, called MoveOntario 2020, is proof his government is serious about taking on the economic and environmental effects of traffic congestion, which he said is "choking" the GTA.
Note to state and local officials: when Ontario completes its "MoveOntario 2020" transportation plan, SACOG will be less than halfway through the term of its decidedly more modest MTP 2035.

Monday, June 18, 2007

June Committee Report

The June Report for the ECOS Transporation/AQ Committee is available here.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

France expands bullet train network

While California remains mired in indecision concerning the future of high-speed rail, French citizens celebrate the expansion of the TGV network into northeast France and Germany.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Ideals and Actions

It's hard not to be impressed with the lofty goals in SACOG's MTP, the long-term transportation plan for the Sacramento region. It includes such laudible goals as:


Develop a transportation system and related strategies that contribute to achieving healthy air in the region...


Improve the health of our residents by developing systems that would encourage walking and biking, and improve the safety and security of people on all modes in all areas...


Develop the transportation system to promote and enhance environmental quality for present and future generations.

These principles sound like the foundation for a progressive, transit-oriented transportation plan that will move us away from relying on automobiles, right?

Think again!

Too often, the individual projects funded by the ostensibly progressive MTP are the same old solution to our transportation woes-- they spend our money to build roads and encourage still more automobile traffic. This approach does nothing to improve our air quality, ensure our health and safety, or promote environmental solution. On the contrary, continued expenditures on projects to increase highway capacity promote increased traffic and exacerbate the environmental woes that come with reliance on the automobile.

Take, for example, Caltrans' current proposal to expand Interstate 80 by adding a lane-- a so-called "bus/carpool lane." Caltrans has recently admitted that their "bus/carpool lanes" increase traffic rather than promoting sustainability, health or improving air quality. Check out the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the proposed expansion of I-80. The project would add a "bus/carpool lane" to the freeway with the objective of encouraging carpooling and decreasing congestion. It sounds good, until you comb through Caltrans' own environmental impact studies. Buried deep in the DEIR is the admission that the addition of a "bus/carpool lane" to the freeway will increase traffic along I-80 in the eastbound direction during rush hour by 13% (compared to the 'no-build' alternative). That means 13% more vehicles on the freeway, solely as a result of the induced demand that results from freeway expansion.

This fact-- one of the most important impacts of the proposed expansion-- barely merits mention in Caltrans' DEIR. You have to look closely at p. 43 in Chapter 2 of the DEIR to notice that the additional lane will increase eastbound traffic during rush hour from 53,000 vehicles to 60,000 vehicles. That's a major increase in traffic, and it will result in important environmental impacts. Still, Caltrans apparently doesn't think a 13% increase in traffic is "significant."

What part of this project protects air quality, community health and safety or sustainability, as the MTP promises?

SACOG's MTP, like many planning documents developed through political processes, fails to follow through on the laudable goals it sets for itself. We're promised better air quality, better health, and a more sustainable system. What we get, when all is said and done, is more cars. It's easy to see why people are cynical about politics.