Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.
Feds Encourage States to Spend Infrastructure Money on Fixing What We Already Have First
No politician in the United States has yet won re-election by boasting that they kept current infrastructure in good repair. That helps explain why new roads and bridges continue to be added to our infrastructure, while the stock we already have deteriorates.
Some progress has been made on the repair front: a report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association notes that the percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country that are rated in poor condition has steadily declined since 2016. But the report also says that one in three bridges in the country are in need of some repair, and as the four-month closing of a major Interstate highway bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis demonstrates, even bridges that are in good repair may need attention. The ARTBA report states that at the current pace of repair, it would take 40 years to fix all the bridges that need fixing, and new bridges will join the backlog list over that time span.
On this score, concerns of the road builders dovetail with those of urban advocates who want to see fewer new or widened freeways chewing up the urbanscape. Backing them up is Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who told an Aspen Institute/Bloomberg Philanthropies-sponsored gathering of urban leaders earlier this year that the new administration was committed to shifting infrastructure priorities from new construction to repair.
So now that the Biden administration has a huge pot of infrastructure money to hand out to the states, it is making good on its promise.
Transportation for America reports that for the first time, a memo of guidance from the Federal Highway Administration to regional administrators has put repair and rehabilitation of existing roads and bridges as the top priority in determining how federal infrastructure money should be spent. In addition, the memo informs administrators to let state transportation departments know that this federal funding should go not only to state-owned or federally-assisted infrastructure, but also to mobility infrastructure owned and maintained by counties, cities and towns. These facilities, the memo notes, are generally in worse shape than state-owned infrastructure — and they also handle 85 percent of all vehicle miles traveled in the country.
The memo also calls for a simplified review of repair and rehabilitation projects, and it calls for using existing road capacity more efficiently before contemplating adding capacity.
As Aarian Marshall writes in Wired’s report on this shift in emphasis, “The DOT’s gentle, ‘have you thought about this?’ approach to climate-friendly and safe road infrastructure may feel toothless. But states that have experimented with similar approaches say it’s helpful.” Marshall goes on to cite Colorado as an example of a state that has successfully nudged local officials to take a more holistic, “people-friendly rather than builder-friendly” approach to funding transportation infrastructure projects.
California Legislator Proposes Law to Stop Freeway Expansion in Its Tracks in Neighborhoods Already Harmed by Infrastructure
The Los Angeles Times reports that a state representative from Los Angeles County is introducing a bill in Sacramento that would shut down freeway expansion projects in many lower-income neighborhoods that have been environmentally stressed.
The bill that State Rep. Cristina Garcia (D) of Bell Gardens intends to introduce in early 2022 would prevent the state transportation department from funding or permitting freeway construction projects in areas with high rates of pollution and poverty and where residents have suffered negative health effects from living near freeways.
What prompted her to sponsor this bill was a Times investigation of three decades’ worth of freeway construction projects across the country. The investigation found that the projects displaced more than 200,000 people, with residents of Black and Latino neighborhoods disproportionately affected. Garcia also cited research showing that freeway widening does nothing to alleviate congestion as another motivation for her bill.
Also prodding her forward: her long fight against the California Department of Transportation’s (Caltrans) efforts to widen the Long Beach Freeway (I-710), which runs along the west edge of Bell Gardens, one of a string of heavily Hispanic cities in southeastern Los Angeles County. According to the article, health problems arising from air pollution along the freeway’s route have led some to refer to it as “cancer alley.”
Another state legislator, state Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), plans to introduce legislation that would increase compensation for families displaced by freeway projects and pay for projects such as tree planting that would mitigate their negative effects.
Kamlager told the Times that the state shouldn’t be building freeways at all anymore. “We should be looking at alternative modes of transportation that can get commuters from point A to point B in a way that keeps air clean and preserves communities,” she said.
Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin told the paper that highway expansion should now be “an absolute final option.” LA County transportation officials also said that they have shelved plans to expand both I-710 and I-605, which runs to 710’s east, because they disproportionately disrupt Latino communities.
Garcia, however, believes her bill is needed to make sure such projects aren’t resurrected in the future. “It’s always been, everything’s more important than this community,” she told the Times. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s a working-class community, immigrant, Latino. It feels accepted in California oftentimes that folks are going to be disposable.”
Federal Rule Throws Roadblock at Boston’s Effort to Expand Free Bus Service
Conventional wisdom has it that large transit agencies like Greater Boston’s MBTA are too big to implement fare-free transit system-wide. But that hasn’t stopped Boston and MBTA officials from piloting free-transit programs. One two-month pilot offered prepaid transit passes to groups of riders in a controlled experiment that showed that fare subsidies caused ridership to jump, even among car owners. Another, still underway, has the city picking up the tab for running the T’s busiest bus route, which serves Black and low-income sections of Roxbury and Dorchester.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu would like to see the T’s free-fare experiment extended and expanded to additional routes. But CommonWealth magazine reports her desire has run up against a federal rule that has the MBTA unwilling to go along with her, at least for now.
The Boston City Council has voted to spend $8 million in federal funds to expand free fares to two more bus routes and extend the program for two years. And this is where the MBTA gets cold feet: a Federal Transit Administration rule requires pilot projects like this one to either end or become permanent after six months. T officials worry that they might become responsible for the cost of the service once federal money for the program runs out. That would happen because the FTA now requires an equity study of any fare increases. Should the study find a disproportionate impact on the basis of race, color or national origin, the MBTA would have to fix the inequity.
Wu took her case to Buttigieg on a visit to him in D.C. Dec. 14. While neither she nor Buttigieg divulged either the substance of their conversation, or whether Buttigieg made any promises, an FTA spokesperson issued a statement the next day confirming that the MBTA correctly understood what was at stake.
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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.