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More Lanes on the 710 Means More Trucks: More Trucks Means More Pollution, Get it Caltrans?

L.A.'s Pacific Electric trains delivered freight in their days. Photo via Metro Library

L.A.’s Pacific Electric trains delivered freight in their day.  Photo via Metro Library

The Arts District of downtown Los Angeles is now a vibrant residential community. But the signs of its warehouse past are everywhere. Abandoned railroad spurs, peeking up from the asphalt and running down old brick streets, speak volumes about bad public policies and metrics that, even as LA struggles to rebuild its once-great transit system, persist in too much of its bureaucracy. That’s exemplified in two 710 freeway studies released by Caltrans and Metro.

The study for the northern section came out in March and looked at the “gap closure” from Alhambra to Pasadena, where the 710 would join the 210. The study for the southern section was released in June 2012 and looks at widening and double-decking the segment that runs 20 miles from the ports to the Pomona Freeway south of downtown. This chunk is mostly about freight and would cost around $8 billion. Together, the environmental studies cost millions and number 2300 pages, with over 26,000 pages of supporting documents.

The Interstate Highway System changed the economics of trucks vs. trains for local delivery. Truck trailers now park on abandoned rail spurs in downtown L.A. Photo: Roger Ruddick

The Interstate Highway System changed the economics of trucks vs. trains for local delivery. Truck trailers now park on abandoned rail spurs in downtown L.A. Photo: Roger Rudick

Most people know that Los Angeles had a comprehensive mass transit system, the Pacific Electric. But the Pacific Electric, along with other railroads of Southern California, also delivered freight. All the building materials and manufactured goods that made the economy of Los Angeles was once delivered on local rail spurs directly to warehouses, many of them in downtown LA.

So what killed local rail freight delivery? “It was the Interstate Highway System,” explained Don Norton, a spokesman for the Pacific Harbor Line, a railroad that assembles long-distance freight trains full of containers offloaded from cargo ships. “But railroads still compete on cargo that’s heavy, bulky, and traveling extremely long distances.”

Railroads have to maintain their own infrastructure—meaning thousands of miles of tracks, switches, spurs, bridges, signals, yards, etc. So they focus on their long-distance mainlines where they get the most bang for the buck. Trucking companies, on the other hand, get an all-but free ride on roads built by state and local governments. They also cause a disproportionate amount of damage.

As a result, when cargo comes off a ship in Los Angeles, if it’s staying in the region or going no farther than Nevada or Arizona, trucks cost less. If it’s going to Memphis, Chicago or anyplace east of the Rockies, or around 550 miles or more, it’s more cost-effective to combine the shipments onto a single freight train—often more than a mile in length—rather than paying some 300 truck drivers to do the same job. Some long distance trains are put together right on the docks. Others are assembled in what’s called “near dock” yards—trucks scoot containers from ships to rail yards a few miles away, where they are transferred onto those giant freight trains.

Read more…

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120 Groups Call for More Funding for Active Transportation Program

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California should invest more to increase biking and walking, say community groups and advocates. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

A broad coalition of organizations called today for California to increase funding for walk and bike projects. More than 120 organizations signed a petition urging the state to increase its investment in the Active Transportation Program (ATP), citing cost savings and health benefits from better bike and pedestrian infrastructure and the low level of funding currently available.

The ATP provides $300 million biannually for projects that encourage people to take trips by bike or on foot, including infrastructure (paths, lanes, sidewalks, crossings) and programs (education, safe routes to schools). In the last round, announced in the fall, many more projects applied for the program than could be funded, leaving over $800 million worth of ready-to-go projects on the table.

“We know that 20 percent of trips by Californians are on foot or by bicycle, but despite the overwhelming demand for projects that create safer streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, and pathways, the state Active Transportation Program still only receives around one percent of Caltrans’ annual budget,” said Jeanie Ward-Waller, Senior Policy Manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

The 120 organizations that have signed on so far [PDF] include community and advocacy organizations that focus on health, walking, biking, the environment, equity, and economic policy. Several cities also signed the call for more funding.

The coalition emphasizes cost savings from investing in active transportation, which are less expensive to build and require less maintenance per trip than highways. It also refers to the recent Smart Growth America report, Safer Streets, Stronger Economies, that presents data on community economic benefits from better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Read more…

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California Says It Is Committed to Increasing Biking, Walking

CalSTA Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy and Housing Kate White testifies to the CA legislature on the benefits of encouraging walking and bicycling

CalSTA Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy and Housing Kate White testifies to the CA legislature on the benefits of encouraging walking and bicycling

CalSTA, the state agency that oversees all state transportation departments including Caltrans, is committed to improving conditions for transit, biking, and walking, according to its Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy and Housing, Kate White.

“Thirty percent of all trips in California are less than a mile,” said White, testifying at a legislative hearing yesterday in Sacramento. “We want to make bicycling or walking the default for those short trips.”

White gave her testimony at a joint hearing of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing and the Assembly Committee for Environmental Quality, which was set to discuss the relationships between transportation and greenhouse gas emissions. Representatives from state agencies addressed questions about what changes need to happen for the state to reach its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

CalSTA, according to White, recognizes the importance of clean vehicles and clean fuels. “However,” she said, “our focus at the transportation agency is on the infrastructure and behavioral side of the coin. And that means improving transit, walking, biking, and housing to reduce vehicles miles traveled.” She highlighted three strategies the agency is focusing on:

  • High speed rail, which White called “the cornerstone of electrifying transportation in California.” California expects high speed rail to replace “dirty” air trips between the Bay Area and the L.A. region. The project also includes electrifying Caltrain, which will have the added benefit of doubling the capacity of the popular Bay Area rail service.
  • Supporting local transit for trips between five and a hundred miles long. The state transit account this year, said White, was for $1 billion, and the state generally contributes several hundred million dollars every year for local and regional transit.
  • Active transportation. The Active Transportation Program (ATP) is investing in projects to make safe, inviting walking and biking trips an alternative to driving, especially for trips that are less than a mile. “These represent over 30 percent of all trips, and many are unfortunately still made by automobile,” said White. “A mode shift to walking and biking not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but has many co-benefits for health, and for healthier life styles for children and families,” she added.

Read more…

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California Long-Range Transportation Plan: GHG Goals Are Elusive

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Caltrans is seeking public input on its draft, long-range, statewide transportation plan, California Transportation Plan 2040

Caltrans has been in the process of developing its long range transportation plan for the last two years. Now it has released the draft California Transportation Plan 2040 [PDF]. Public input will be solicited at workshops throughout the state in March and April, starting today in Sacramento.

The long range plan, or CTP, is based on the California Interregional Blueprint, which was developed in response to a 2009 law, S.B. 391 (from Carol Liu). That law required Caltrans to identify transportation strategies and policies that would achieve the greenhouse gas reduction goals set by A.B. 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act.

The CTP is ambitious and wide-ranging, incorporating input from many state agencies and covering a lot of ground. It sets out a vision for a multimodal, sustainable, and economically viable transportation system, including support and promotion of active transportation to help meet state goals. It defines transportation goals for California and identifies policies and strategies for meeting those goals, and includes analyses of its recommended strategies and their capacity to achieve GHG reductions.

That analysis shows that the state’s transportation sector will not achieve its GHG reduction goals without applying every one of the plan’s most aggressive recommendations, plus changing most of the existing cars and trucks on the road to zero-emission vehicles. Among the CTP’s recommended strategies are road pricing, increasing the number of carpools, improving transit service, keeping high-speed rail fares low, doubling the number of bicycle trips, increasing carpool lane occupancy requirements from two to three people per car, managing the whole system better, and promoting “eco-driving” (accelerate slowly, avoid sudden braking, don’t idle).

But some “strategies” were just eliminated from the analysis altogether:

The range of transportation strategies [analyzed was] narrowed . . . . Road capacity enhancing strategies were rejected due to concerns these would ultimately increase VMT.

This raises the question of how the state will prevent new “road capacity enhancing” projects from happening. They still seem to be awfully popular with some people—witness the recent completion of the 405 widening in L.A., or the current drumbeat about the need for a third vehicle lane on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge in the Bay Area–or the plan to build an expensive tunnel to connect the 710 in Long Beach to. . . what, again?

As long as these big capacity enhancing projects are being proposed, and supported, and built, it seems like a better idea to go ahead and analyze their effects on GHGs–and have the conversation about stopping them.

Another question is whether the CTP has teeth. The fact that it relies on existing documents that themselves haven’t been used effectively is a concern. For example, it refers to

Caltrans Smart Mobility 2010: A Call to Action for the New Decade, commonly referred to as the Smart Mobility Framework (SMF). SMF core principles include location efficiency, reliable mobility, health and safety, environmental stewardship, social equity, and a robust economy. The SMF integrates transportation and land-use by applying principles of location efficiency, complete streets, connected multimodal networks, housing near destinations for all income levels, and protection of parks and open space.

But Caltrans was critiqued in a report last year for “almost completely ignoring” the Smart Mobility Framework. If that one ended up on the shelf, what hope does the CTP have? Read more…

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Technical Assistance Available for CA Active Transportation Program

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ATP Goals can be boiled down to “Increase Active Transportation”–but, as with so many state programs, it’s not really that simple. Image: Caltrans

The guidelines for the second cycle of California’s Active Transportation Program, which funds projects that encourage bicycling and walking, are in their final stage of revision. Staff will present the guidelines to the California Transportation Commission for approval at the commission’s next meeting on March 25 and 26. The call for projects is expected to be released on March 26, with applications due June 1.

Caltrans is scheduling technical assistance workshops throughout the state during March and April. Workshops will assist potential applicants in assessing their projects and completing successful applications. The first two workshops are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 19 in Oakland (register here) and March 25 in Redding (register here).  Future training dates, which were just released, are available here [PDF] and here.

The Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership and several partners have already begun their own cycle of training workshops, providing similar information to the Caltrans workshops, with greater focus on community outreach and partnering. Their statewide workshop yesterday was completely booked, but those who missed it can still attend a webinar providing the same information. The webinar will be Wednesday March 11, from 1 to 3 p.m. Register here.

The Southern California Association of Governments is also hosting an ATP workshop on March 16 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Register here for that workshop, which will be available as a videoconference at the SCAG main office building in downtown Los Angeles, as well as several locations in other counties in the SCAG region.

And if that is not enough, several local advocacy groups in Los Angeles have teamed up to provide assistance to agencies, schools, school districts, and community-based organization partners. To get that help–from Investing in Place, LA n Sync, and the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition— apply by March 18.

Last week Caltrans held a day-long meeting to discuss the guideline revisions, as well as the potential makeup of a future advisory committee for the program. A draft organizational chart for the advisory committee [PDF] includes representatives of urban and rural counties and cities, large Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), smaller regional transportation planning groups, rural county task forces, tribes, and recreational trails programs, as well as advocates for public health, schools, pedestrian and bicycle groups, and disadvantaged communities.

At the meeting, a question raised concern about who would represent bicycling issues. The ensuing discussion showed that there is disagreement about whether one person, from one advocacy group, could fully represent the concerns of bicyclists. There are at least eight suggested Caltrans positions on the advisory committee–which advises Caltrans. It is not clear why Caltrans should be heavily represented on the “advisor” side, while only one “bicycle expert” would be invited to participate.

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CA Coalition Calls for More Funding, Staffing for Active Transportation

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Increasing funding for the Active Transportation Program could get more people to walk and bike, especially for short trips. Photo of Sunday Streets in Berkeley, by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog.

A coalition of advocacy groups released a petition yesterday calling for California to increase funding for active transportation to help the state meet its climate goals.

The petition calls on the legislature to increase funding for the Active Transportation Program (ATP) by $100 million from its current $120 million per year, integrate green infrastructure and access to parks and green space in the goals of the ATP, and ensure ATP investments provide meaningful benefits to disadvantaged communities.

The coalition points out that nearly 1/5 of all trips in California are made by foot or by bike (this information comes from the National Household Travel Survey, not the U.S. Census, which only counts commute trips). Despite this high mode share, less than two percent of the state transportation budget is spent on the ATP, which brings all active transportation projects under one funding umbrella.

There are currently only four staff assigned to the program (although Caltrans has approximately 19,000 employees). Those staff oversee the 265 projects that received funding in the first cycle of the ATP, and they are working on revising the guidelines for the second round of funding, which will begin at the end of March. The second round will likely double the number of grants, at least under current funding levels.

Even with the minimal investments made in the past, California has seen an increase in walking and bicycling trips. Properly funding the ATP is a no-brainer, according to the coalition. By building infrastructure that encourages people to walk or use their bikes for short trips of less than a mile, the state could make tremendous leaps towards achieving its climate goals by reducing carbon emissions and poor air quality, at the same time reducing congestion for everyone.

“When the ATP was formed in 2013,” said Jeanie Ward-Waller of the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, “the whole idea was to consolidate all of the different pots of funding for bike and walking programs and then grow the pot, by adding cap-and-trade funding. That hasn’t happened and, in fact, the funding seems to be mysteriously shrinking.”

“By forming a single stream of funding, and incorporating climate change goals in the legislation,” added Tony Dang of California Walks, “we were positioning the program to receive cap-and-trade funding.” Instead, the only cap-and-trade money made available for active transportation last year was placed under the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program.

“We’ve worked with the Strategic Growth Council to make sure that active transportation is included in their efforts,” said Dang, “but given the amount of money they have, and their mandates for affordable housing, we really don’t think that’s going to be a big enough source of funding, and it won’t be as transformative for walking and biking as we’d hoped it would be.”

ATP staff held a workshop two days ago on its revisions to program guidelines, and way more people wanted to attend than they could accommodate. “It’s clear that this program has a lot of constituents,” said Dang, “and they really need the pot to grow.”

“When you combine all walking and biking trips,” he added, “they account for nearly 20 percent of all the trips taken every day in California. And yet funding for those trips is less than 2 percent of the transportation budget.”

“Californians are clearly not sitting around idle waiting for increased funding, but the state should step up for what people want.”

Read more…

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Caltrans Report Celebrates Its Support of Active Transportation

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Caltrans Directory Malcolm Dougherty seems to take bicycles seriously. Image: Caltrans, The Non-Motorized Transportation Facilities Report to the California State Legislature, Fiscal Year  2013–14

Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, just released its annual report to the legislature [PDF] on its achievements last year in the area of “non-motorized travel,” and this year the document is more celebratory than it has been in the past.

With good reason. It shows a new side of Caltrans, starting with its cover. Instead of a blurry, weirdly stretched-out photograph of bicycle riders, as on previous reports, this year’s edition features Caltrans Executive Director Malcolm Dougherty standing with his bicycle—and looking like he knows how to ride it.

This new, bike-friendly tone at Caltrans is a welcome change from the past, when the department was  focused on moving cars, and it’s in keeping with other efforts it has been making in the last year. When a report  from the State Smart Transportation Initiative thoroughly drubbed the department for being risk-averse and dysfunctional, its leaders responded by reworking its mission statement, endorsing the principal of more flexible street design guidelines, and creating a new position of Director of Sustainability.

These achievements are celebrated front and center in the new report.

“We are taking a different look at transportation,” said Director Dougherty. “It’s a change in perspective. Before, we saw the need to solve car-oriented transportation problems. Now, we see that there are transportation problems that need to be solved, and multimodal needs have to be considered in those solutions.”

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The cover from the 2011-12 report. “Young child experiencing the joys of nonmotorized transportation,” says its caption. Image: Caltrans

Just saying the department has a new focus, however, isn’t going to change a thing. Dougherty has been traveling the state, meeting with Caltrans district staff to discuss the new mission, its accompanying vision statement, and the objectives and goals that are being developed to go with them. “A fair amount of our employees were already sensitive to and incorporating bicycle and pedestrian concerns into their planning,” he said, “and some of them have stated that they’re glad we’re going in this direction.”

Caltrans still has a long way to go to become a truly multimodal state transportation department. Renaming the report would be a start. “Non-motorized transportation” smacks of Old Engineer Speak, and describing bicycling and walking that way is a little like calling women “nonmen.” Nevertheless, the 2013-2014 Non-Motorized Transportation Facilities report does highlight some real achievements.

Read more…

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Friday Fun: Caltrans Blows Up a Boulder!

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Who doesn’t want to watch (safely) exploding rocks? (Screengrab)

A video released today by Caltrans shows a work crew blasting apart a boulder that threatened to fall onto Highway 101 near Crescent City. Who doesn’t want to watch rocks exploding? With all safety precautions in place, of course.

Caltrans has been under pressure to change its bureaucratic, outdated culture since the 2013 creation of an agency to oversee it (the California State Transportation Agency, or CalSTA) and the publication of a damning report last year. Since then, the department has made many strides in the right directions, from publishing a new mission statement, to endorsing less constricting guidelines for street design, to creating the new position of Director of Sustainability.

The department also been attempting to communicate better with the public and the media, producing a newsletter, Mile Marker, about its achievements, as well as semi-regular  “News Flash” announcements.

The latest News Flash is pure fun: Caltrans work crews decided to blow up a rock, and we get to watch.

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CA Active Transportation Program Funding Unchanged for Next Two Years

This Complete Streets plan in Albany, CA, won a grant from the Active Transportation Program in 2014. Image: Wallace Robers & Todd, via City of Albany

The Complete Streets plan for San Pablo Avenue in Albany, CA, won a grant from the Active Transportation Program in the 2014 allocation. Image: Wallace Roberts & Todd, via City of Albany

Although Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed FY 2015 budget showed a decrease in the line item for the Active Transportation Program (ATP), Caltrans Budget Chief Steven Keck assured the California Transportation Commission at its meeting last week that the change was technical and the funding level would be the same as last year’s.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty later confirmed that “as of today going forward, our plan is: no change in the ATP budget.”

While the funding is not being cut from 2014 levels, there is still concern that the need to improve conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists is far greater than the funding provided in the ATP.

And the commissioners seem to agree.

Commissioner Yvonne Burke expressed surprise that there wasn’t more of a fuss kicked up at the meeting. Commissioner Carl Guardino was the only speaker who called attention to the program’s paltry funding, noting that the need for it “greatly outstrips the amount of funding available.”

The ATP allocates most of the state’s funding targeted at increasing walking and bicycling. It was created by statute [PDF] in 2013, combining state and federal funding for bicycle infrastructure, Safe Routes to Schools, and other similar funds into a single pot. In its first two-year cycle, it awarded a total of a little over $350 million for 267 projects throughout the state.

Tracing the sources of money in the ATP can be tricky. Early budget proposals typically incorporate some uncertainty about funding levels, since calculating the state’s revenues from taxes can be an inaccurate science. Other budgetary practices, like last year’s repayment of $9 million that had been borrowed from the ATP’s precursor, the Bicycle Transportation Account, further muddy the waters.

Whatever the reasons for it, the confusion over an issue as simple as “how much money will the state be spending on walking and bicycling infrastructure” adds to the impression that Caltrans is not a very transparent organization.

At last week’s meeting, commission staff presented and discussed draft revisions to the program guidelines [PDF] for the second two-year cycle of funding, set to begin in June.

Read more…

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CA Budget Details: Active Transportation Gets Less Money

Active Transportation Project applications pile up at Caltrans headquarters on May 21.Photo: California Bicycle Coalition

Caltrans received over 770 applications for Active Transportation Projects in May last year.
Photo: California Bicycle Coalition

Last Friday, Governor Jerry Brown released his proposed 2015-16 budget. The 270-page summary [PDF] included a passing reference to $360 million previously allocated for the Active Transportation Program (ATP), as part of state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging more bicycling and walking. But the budget summary offered no details about future funding, nor what allocations for the coming year might be.

The details were released late that afternoon, and they show that the state is not yet taking the commitment to active transportation seriously. The ATP’s allocation for 2015-16 under Brown’s proposed budget is considerably less than the previous year’s funding level.

This is the first step in the budget process. The governor proposes a budget, which then is discussed in the legislature–the first such hearing was held today in the Assembly. In the spring Brown will propose revisions, based on legislative feedback, which will then undergo further discussions and revision. The final budget must be passed by June.

The budget proposal reads like an exercise in bureaucratic obfuscation. You can find the transportation section here [PDF], but good luck figuring it out. With some hand-holding and a lot of consultation with people who know way more than I do, this is what I found buried in the numbers:

  • The overall budget for transportation, almost $16 billion, will increase by $200 million over last year’s budget
  • That doesn’t seem like a lot, given inflation
  • Despite that increase, the proposed 2015-16 ATP allocation from state funds will decrease by twenty percent over the 2014 allocation, from $43 million to $34 million
  • In addition, the proposed 2015-16 ATP allocation from federal funds will decrease by five percent over 2014, from $95 million to $90 million

There are caveats and many questions remaining. For example, the aforementioned $360 million to the ATP in the budget summary was for three years’ worth of funding. The next round of ATP funding will also be for a multi-year program, but how that fits with the numbers in the current budget is not clear. It’s also not clear yet whether the next round of ATP funding will be for two years or three years.

The initial round of ATP funding, allocated in May, received 770 applications that requested about $1 billion in funding. Only 265 of those projects got funded. Sure, they probably weren’t all perfect applications, but likely many of them were, and 34 percent is still a small portion of projects to fund. It is clear that there is heavy demand for the Active Transportation Program funding.

Yet the proposed budget shows no commitment to expanding the ATP, and little commitment to keeping its funding at the same level, despite the climate change goals articulated in the governor’s recent speeches, and despite the clear connection between increased bicycling and walking trips and reduced fuel use and emissions.

Calls to the California Transportation Commission and Caltrans have not yet produced any answers to the remaining questions. Stay tuned as we dig further.

Meanwhile the California Transportation Commission is set to approve revised guidelines for the second round of ATP funding. It held one workshop last week in Los Angeles [PDF], and the draft guidelines [PDF] will likely be approved at the commission’s next meeting on January 22 in Sacramento.

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