Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Significant decreases in automobile traffic reported by FHWA

A recent U.S. Department of Transportation press release indicates that the number of vehicle-miles traveled is decreasing at record pace while transit ridership is increasing at near record pace.

Here are the data presented in the press release dated Oct. 24, 2008:

"In August 2008, Americans drove 15 billion fewer miles, or 5.6 percent less, than they did in August 2007 – the largest ever year-to-year decline recorded in a single month, Secretary Peters said. She added that over the past 10 months, Americans have driven 78 billion fewer miles than they did in the same 10 months the previous year. Texans alone drove 1.3 million fewer miles, the Secretary added.

"Transit ridership, meanwhile, saw an increase of 6.2 percent this summer compared to last, said Secretary Peters. In Texas, the DART rail system saw an increase of 15 percent this summer, one of the largest in its 12-year history, she noted. "

The August 2008 Traffic Volume Trends report from the Federal Highway Administration includes data by month in 2008 indicating a continuous decrease in vehicle miles traveled in tabular and graphical form. It is interesting to note that vehicle miles traveled have decreased 5.6 percent nationwide but that in the Southeastern states the decrease was 7.4 percent.

Clearly, it is time to consider where our transportation dollars will best be spent. Spending the many millions of dollars programmed for highway projects in light of rapidly decreasing vehicle use doesn't seem to be the best investment right now. Instead of spending most of our transportation dollars in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County on projects like the Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road, the McIntire Road Extended, the Meadow Creek Parkway and other road projects, reprogramming much of that money to transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects seems like a better choice. Our region's transportation goal for many years has been to reduce reliance on automobiles in our urbanized area. Now that this is the trend we as a region need to provide that alternative infrastructure to provide needed mobility by means other than automobiles.

Encourage your transportation planners to meet our future transportation needs by other than more and bigger roads. People are shifting to transit and with better transit options I am sure this trend will continue.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

When planning Federal-aid Highways, What Constitutes the No-action Alternative?

Here is another letter I sent to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regarding what constitutes the no-action alternative that is required to be considered among the set of alternatives considered for any Federal-aid Highway project. The Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road is just such a project and I have been questioning how the proposed no-action alternative complies with requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Assumptions about what is considered to be already built for this project (all projects with full funding for construction included in what is called the Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP) as FHWA sees it) appear to be inconsistent with FHWA's own guidance. I consider this a serious issue and continue to seek clarification for FHWA as to how the current no-action alternative complies with NEPA. No word back from FHWA yet, but I will post the response when I get it. It is my belief that the no-action alternative assumed for this project leads to dramatically limiting the range of alternatives appropriate for consideration in meeting our local transportation needs and results in illegal segmentation of the interchange from the yet finalized McIntire Road Extended project.

If our community is going to approved spending many millions of our available Federal, State and local transportation dollars on this combination of projects, it is essential that we plan in a comprehensive way and consider adequately the impacts these projects have on our natural, historic, and recreational resources. I believe the current effort falls short of the minimum levels of planning and environmental consideration.

Here is the letter of October 10, 2008.

Peter T. Kleeman
407 Hedge Street, Charlottesville VA 22902
(434) 296-6208

October 10, 2008

Roberto Fonseca-Martinez, Division Administrator
FHWA Virginia Division
400 North 8th Street, Suite 750
Richmond, Virginia 23219-4825

Dear Roberto Fonseca-Martinez:

Thank you for your letter in response to my August 18, 2008 letter concerning the Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road project. In your response you define the no-build alternative (often referred to as the "no action" alternative) to be quite different from how it is defined in FHWA's own guidance. I have searched Council on Environmental Quality, FHWA, and other NEPA related websites online in an attempt to clarify what constitutes an appropriate no-action alternative for this interchange project.

In your letter to me dated September 4, 2008 you state the following: "When FHWA prepares a NEPA document, the no-build alternative is defined as all committed projects from the CLRP (i.e. those projects funded for construction) minus the project being subjected to NEPA." You then state that "it is the CLRP that is the controlling document for determining whether or not a project is considered committed."

I searched FHWA online material, FHWA guidance documents, United States Code, Title 23 and FHWA regulations and find no definition of committed project in terms of the CLRP or justification for the CLRP to be the "controlling document for determining whether or not a project is considered committed." FHWA guidance appears to be silent on any connection between a committed project (no matter how defined) and what projects are assumed to be part of a no-action alternative.

FHWA's current guidance document entitled "GUIDANCE FOR PREPARING AND PROCESSING ENVIRONMENTAL AND SECTION 4(F) DOCUMENTS" (FHWA TECHNICAL ADVISORY T 6640.8A available online at "" describes the no-action case as follows:

"No-action" alternative: The 'no-action' alternative normally includes short-term minor restoration types of activities (safety and maintenance improvements, etc.) that maintain continuing operation of the existing roadway."

Although this is not a formal definition, it is the only definition I could locate that suggests what would normally be included in a no-action alternative for a Federal-aid Highway project. There is not even a hint in this FHWA guidance material that funding for construction being included in a CLRP for a particular project would support including that project as part of the no-action alternative network description.

In fact, projects described as examples of efforts toward streamlining the environmental review process on the FHWA website list a variety of different assumptions for the no-action network, but without any indication of a basis for appropriateness of those assumptions regarding use of committed projects in the no action network other than several projects that adopt the definition from Technical Advisory T6640.8A provided above.

In addition to not finding any Federal statute, regulation, or guidance indicating a connection between financially committed projects – no matter how defined – and what should be included in specifying the no-action alternative it appears that inclusion of all projects included for construction in the CLRP aside from the project for which the environmental document is being prepared in the no-action alternative eliminates the possibility of exploring the issue of project segmentation. If all projects included for construction in the CLRP are assumed to be in the no action alternative, the only project in the entire network not assumed in place would be the project (or segment) under study. Other projects that are closely integrated with the project under study and that influence traffic assumptions, range of feasible project alternatives, opportunities for avoidance of Section 4(f) or Section 106 properties, and other impact analysis results are rendered fixed in design and stifles any opportunity to identify new alternatives that better meet regional transportation goals with fewer environmental impacts. This appears inconsistent with the NEPA requirement that projects not be segmented and eliminates the opportunity for project designers to identify new alternatives that could meet transportation purpose and need without unnecessary impact on natural, cultural, and historic resources.

I request that you provide me current guidance, regulations, or statutes that constitute the basis for no-action alternative specification beyond the guidance provided in TECHNICAL ADVISORY T 6640.8A.


Peter T. Kleeman

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Matters from the Public - Can your voice be heard?

Yesterday - October 22, 2008 - I attended two transportation related meetings in Charlottesville. One as a consulting party in the Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road Section 106 (historic preservation issues) and the other as a member of the public at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board meeting. The message sent loudly and clearly at both meetings is that acquiring and considering input from the public is not a really much of a priority in local transportation planning.

At the Section 106 consulting parties meeting, Charlottesville's project consultants (RK&K) indicated clearly that their meeting agenda was final and that continuing discussion of issues not resolved in previous meetings to the satisfaction of consulting parties (all citizen representatives of local interest groups) would not be discussed. In fact, the consultant chairing the meeting indicated that if the citizen consulting parties wouldn't follow the agenda and insisted on continuing previous discussions, we would not have any more opportunities to participate in the (federally required) Section 106 review process. Given that the consulting parties were appointed to the committee by the Federal Highway Administration, the ability of the city's consultants to end our consulting role may be overstated - but I question seriously if input from the public is being taken seriously. This is my first opportunity to participate in a Section 106 review of possible effects of a project on historical resources listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. But, I don't feel that the process is being carried out in compliance with the federal guidelines. Clearly this process should have occurred much earlier in the project development process (as stated explicitly in federal regulations), and much of the public's concerns stem from alternatives that could limit effects on historic properties having been eliminated from consideration before the public (through the Section 106 process) were able to provide input on historic preservation. This is a case of too little pubic access to the process way too late in the process.

At the MPO meeting, members of the policy board defended their unilateral decision to schedule future public hearings earlier in the day than has been the tradition (public hearings have started at or later than 5:00 pm for many years). This action was brought up, discussed and voted on by the policy board at their September meeting without ever notifying the public of the possible change or providing the public an opportunity to comment in any meaningful way as to how this change will impact the public's ability to participate in these public hearings. The defense of this action given in the September 17, 2008 draft minutes is that "the 2007 Public Participation Policy only requires that public hearings be 'accessible and convenient,' so 5:00 p.m. is not a required time."

I presented to the MPO policy board that for many members of the public who have regular daily work-hours, holding a public hearing shortly after 4:00 pm is not even possible (let along accessible or convenient) while such a hearing at or after 5:00 may be possible to attend even if somewhat inconvenient. My recommendation to the policy board that the public be invited to weigh in on how this schedule change would impact their ability to comment was not agreed to by the MPO policy board.

I have long been an advocate for proactive public involvement where decisions directly impact the public and am very sensitive to actions that clearly limit opportunities for the public to participate in a meaningful way. Yes, as pointed out by MPO staff, the public can telephone, email, or mail comments on issues prior to the public hearing, but there is no guarantee that they will have access to all of the relevant material for the issue at hand (often supplemental material is distributed at the meeting) and they will not be able to hear the introduction of the matter by staff and others clarifying elements of the matter prior to the public hearing. The action taken by the MPO policy board will limit the ability of members of the public to participate. The change is apparently more about convenience to the voting members of the policy board (their desire to end a meeting earlier than 5:00 pm when few items are on an agenda when a public hearing is scheduled) than to provide interested members of the public an opportunity to participate in local transportation decision making.

So, what I got from my experiences on October 22 is that the public may participate, but not as comprehensively as is the intent or tradition, and I am not convinced that anyone is really listening.

Friday, October 17, 2008

VDOT is Pushing the Parkway Agenda

I was surprised to read the headline in Rachana Dixit's Oct. 16, 2008 Daily Progress entitled: Parkway plans pass another milestone. Apparently VDOT is eager to get this project moving in spite of the fact that the McIntire Road Extended and Route 250 Bypass Interchange at McIntire Road project are still in preliminary engineering and as I see it still wrought with potential project design problems, environmental compliance problems, funding considerations, and other potentially project delaying (or termination) requirements.

This action reminds me of the strategy National Football League teams use to avoid reconsideration of a controversial football play call. Teams will hurry to the line of scrimmage and try to get the next play in motion before the play is challenged by the opposing team. Sometimes it works - sometimes not. Unfortunately, we proponents of using our funds for better transportation alternatives can't simply throw a red flag onto the playing field to request a review.

In VDOT's action, they are hoping to maintain that the county project - Meadow Creek Parkway - is totally independent of the city project - McIntire Road Extended. I and others contend that it is essential to consider all three related projects (Meadow Creek Parkway, McIntire Road Extended, and the Route 250 Bypass at McIntire Road) together for environmental review purposes. It appears that even the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) considers Meadow Creek Parkway and McIntire Road Extended to be one combined project for purposes of determining appropriateness of water quality permit applications for storm water discharge and stream impacting activities of those projects. In fact the USACE is just beginning the process of reviewing impacts of these projects on Nationally Register of Historic Places eligible properties prior to considering signing any required permits. Given that this Historic Property process (known as the Section 106 process) is supposed to be completed prior to selecting a final project design it appears that VDOT's advertisement for bids on a final project is a bit premature.

I do not know what VDOT's rationale for their most recent action is, but perhaps this is going to turn out to be our own local "October Surprise." I am ever optimistic our elected officials will realize that the financial and resource costs to construct this set of road projects is not consistent with our future needs and both Charlottesville and Albemarle will look to fund and construct better public transit solutions to meet our needs of the future - and not build these road projects that may not even have been good solutions to our problems of the past.

Note: Photo from Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A great bicycle path model for us to emulate

Here is a great photo of what part of the soon to be constructed bicycle path to be built in Germany might look like. I read in the Oct. 16 2008 online version of the Dutch newspaper de Telegraaf that Germany will construct a 915 kilometer (about 550 mile) bicycle path from its border with Poland through five German states to its border with the Netherlands at a cost of about 900,000 euro (about $1.5 Million) over the next three years. The goal is to promote bicycling and bicycle tourism. What a great project to emulate here in Virginia and beyond. Given the high cost of automobile projects, investment in safe, long-distance bicycle facilities would be a great investment of scarce transportation dollars. With the Millions of dollars being taken from the Virginia transportation program, I urge our transportation decision makers to consider projects like this along with more investment in transit.