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the next big thing in transportation

By enelson
Friday, January 18th, 2008 at 6:42 pm in Freeways, fuel, Funding, Safety, tolls.


As I sit here high above the Nimitz Freeway, members of my favorite Caltrans maintenance crew are busy patching a 1-by-1-foot hole in the highway’s bridge over High Street.

How appropriate that I just got off the phone with Steve Heminger, who had just flown in from Washington, D.C.

Heminger, who by day is executive director of the Bay Area’s very own Metropolitan Transportation Commission, was tapped in 2005 by Nancy Pelosi to serve on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

That hole in the Nimitz is but one of many such holes in freeways around the nation, and the money to fix them — permanently — is dwindling to nothing.

Heminger’s panel, chaired by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, just finished hashing out how this nation might be able to fix such crumbling transportation infrastructure. Funny how “crumbling” and “infrastructure” always seem to go together these days.

The problem, as many transportation people have explained over and over again, is that it’s always cooler to build something than it is to keep it from falling down.

The High Street Bridge is a case in point. About a decade ago, it was judged unfit to withstand a major earthquake. Lucky for the Bay Area, Caltrans was able to scrape the money together to finally get that project moving and potentially done within the decade to come.

But there are a lot of highway bridges, like the ill-fated I-35W bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed Aug. 1, and they all need to be maintained. And there are 35-year-old BART cars that need to be replaced, railroad lines so shabby that Amtrak trains have to go over them slow enough to spot washouts in time to stop.

And that lack of maintenance costs more than dollars, even though much heat has been generated over the commission’s recommendation to increase the federal gasoline tax by 25-40 cents per gallon.

“Obviously there’s going to be a lot of controversy about the revenue recommendations,” Heminger told me, noting that most commission members agreed to that even if Peters and some of her fellow Republicans dissented.

The commission’s report recommends reforming the way the federal government spends transportation money, starting with doing away with the 108 federal programs now charged with revenue consumption.

“I was shocked to learn myself, even though I work in the profession,” that there were so many programs, Heminger said.

The commission is recommending that spending be focused by a mere 10 new programs, focusing on such national priorities as moving freight and relieving congestion.

“We are under-investing in our system, but we are still spending a considerable amount of money,” Heminger said.

That means less money on pork projects like freeways through remote Congressional districts or bridges to nowhere and more on critical transportation bottlenecks, regardless of the mode of transportation.

“We shouldn’t have to wait for bridges to fall down to do something about the problem,” Heminger said.

But it often happens that our democratically elected representatives don’t choose to act on these things until they do fall down.

In the blog this week, I read a commentary that recounted the history of Congressional blue-ribbon panels headlined “Why does Congress outsource its work?”

The piece by Ryan Grim maintains that even the best of these panels write reports that are quickly gathering dust on some shelf. But the infrastructure panel, with few members of national prominence, seems doomed to irrelevance.

Heminger sees it differently, or why would he have make all those trips to D.C.?
 “We’re not going to know for some time,” he said, whether the panel’s work will amount to anything. “This year’s an election year and the current (transportation spending authorization) bill doesn’t expire until next year.”

For the moment, at least, Heminger believes change is in the air.

“I think there’s a lot of consensus around the country that it’s time for a change,” he said.

A half-century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower convinced Congress to approve the Interstate Highway program. Today, Heminger believes, Americans could be ready for the next big thing.

(NOTE: This item was post-dated to correspond to when I actually wrote it, then neglected to post it properly. I know this violates several rules of blogdom and journalism, so please forgive me.)

Staff Photo of Interstate 880 northbound backup because of chunk of concrete falling out Jan. 18 by Alison Yin.

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22 Responses to “the next big thing in transportation”

  1. DensityDuck Says:

    The problem is that to fix a highway, you have to take it out of service. The Bay Area (and pretty much everywhere else) is so jammed to capacity that if you took a highway out of service the entire area would self-destruct.

    Can you imagine what 280 would be like if everyone from 101 was on it too?

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Ahh, DD, I have it on good authority that you can have your cake and fix it, too. I did a story on this very subject not long ago:
    In short, the lanes are squeezed, and the new lanes are built in stages as the old lanes are retired and demolished. It does require some additional right-of-way in the case of the Nimitz Freeway, but in that case they’re actually widening the viaduct to make room for shoulders.

  3. DensityDuck Says:

    True, they’ve been doing much the same thing in Pennsylvania on the turnpike (I-76/I-276), but it’s taking forever and traffic really gets jacked up. I’m just not that confident in the ability of my fellow drivers to deal with squeezed lanes!

    One thing I’ll say is that the highway builders seem to have intentionally left themselves some room. I-85 has enough space for two entire extra lanes right in the middle.

  4. The Overhead Wire Says:

    Perhaps next time you talk to Steve you can ask him if he actually took sections out of that report on the importance of electric rail transit. I hope he didn’t, but if he did its a sad day for the bay area.

  5. Dogtown Commoner Says:

    DensityDuck, it is a common assumption that taking a highway out of commission will cause the entire area to “self-destruct,” but in fact this isn’t the case. The most obvious recent example is when parts of 580 in Oakland were closed for a month due to the fire/collapse last summer. EVERYONE predicted disaster and gridlock, but it never happened. BART ridership increased, people used alternative routes, some people shifted their schedules to avoid rush hour, and overall there were minimal negative consequences. For more examples, I’ve written about this on my blog here and here:

  6. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Most streets, roads and freeways are way below capacity most of the time, even if you discount the space inefficiency of enormous vehicles carrying only one or two people. You can stand by just about any road in the Bay Area and count, and see that there are only a few minutes of each day when you can see any crowding.

    People’s perception of overcrowding of roads is distorted. They pick up on the few times when they use them and they are crowded, and ignore the rest of the time when everything goes as they want it to.

  7. Capricious Commuter Says:

    TOW, can you elaborate? By “took sections,” do you mean, “removed” from the panel’s final report, to the detriment of public transportation?

    Bruce, isn’t reliability important in any transportation system? Sure, I get to work in a mere 70 minutes eight times out of 10, but I have to budget an extra half-hour if I want to be sure of getting there on time. (or stay late to make up for it a lot, which is what I do)

  8. South Bay Resident Says:

    I would like to point out that one of the big reasons the Bay Area doesn’t have enough money to fund our road network is that we spend 2/3 of our money on public transit which carries less than 1/9 of our traffic. If transit funding were proportional to use there would be more than enough money to repair roads and we could even reduce congestion in some places.

  9. MikeOnBike Says:

    “The most obvious recent example is when parts of 580 in Oakland were closed for a month due to the fire/collapse last summer.”

    For that matter, we went a whole decade with a chunk of 880 missing after the ’89 quake.

  10. DensityDuck Says:

    “You can stand by just about any road in the Bay Area see that there are only a few minutes of each day when you can see any crowding.”

    Uh, wha? Have you stood by the Tully Road exit on 101 Southbound? Have you stood by any of interchanges on 85? There are any number of places where crowding occurs.

    I guess if you define “cars are usually still moving forward” as “not bad traffic”, then no, the Bay Area doesn’t have bad traffic. I disagree that five miles an hour is an acceptable speed for a modern three-lane highway.

    I’m not as certain about the conclusions you draw from the 580 collapse, because A: I find it extremely hard to believe that it had no effect at all on the surrounding highways, and B: it was a highly-publicized short-duration event. It’s not as though 580 was going to be closed for the forseeable future.

    As for 880: The demographics of the Bay Area in 1989 were a lot different from 2007. There were fewer people, if nothing else.

    Okay, I’ll admit that I was a bit over-rhetorical when I said that the whole area would explode. But I’ll stand by my assertion that any reduction in highway capacity, for the long term that a paving project would require, will make a bad situation vastly worse.

    One solution might be to eighty-six the carpool lanes, but then I think that they should do that anyway…

  11. The Overhead Wire Says:

    Yes I mean taken out. I just can’t imagine Steve doing that. He’s always been very pro transit. But the charges were leveled against him in that article. We’ll probably see more about it soon. Thanks for the Great Blog here. You might want to check out City Transit Advocates for blogs on transit around the country.

  12. miked Says:

    South Bay Resident says:

    we spend 2/3 of our money on public transit which carries less than 1/9 of our traffic.

    Are you talking about local funding decisions or overall costs? Do you mind showing where you got that dollar figure? (not saying it isn’t true, more that I’m interested)

  13. Dick Patterson Says:

    Your Jan 18 column used the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis as an example of the need for more maintenance. That example doesn’t support your assertion about crumbling infrastructure. Politicians are always whining about crumbling infrastructure, so we vote for more money for highways and then the money doesn’t seem to go there. The Minneapolis bridge failed because the gussets were not designed correctly, not from inadequate maintenance. If we want to get serious about improving our highway system, the first step would be to greatly reduce the role of government. Perhaps a system like the national parks, where management of the parks is contracted to private contractors, who then could be monitored and provided incentives for good management. Leaving management of our entire highway system to one congressional committee is just plain stupid. Set up ten management companies around the country, provide a board of directors composed of industry experts (no politicians, please) to oversee the operations and collect revenue from fuel taxes or tolls. And then decrease our federal taxes so the politicians can’t squander it their pet projects, special interests, and unnecessary wars.

  14. South Bay Resident Says:


    The number varies year to year and plan to plan, but 2/3 is about average. The current MTC plan for transit spending calls for 62% of transportation spending to be dedicated to transit, and in their latest poll, the mtc refers to transit as consuming 2/3 of transportation funding. The MTC 2030 plan is here.

  15. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    “Bruce, isn’t reliability important in any transportation system?”

    Perhaps, but if your car fails to start, is that because we have not built enough roads? Reliability and capacity are not necessarily related.

  16. murphstahoe Says:

    I’m not buying SBR’s assertion. I’m trying to figure out how the Bay Area spends as much on transit as we are spending on the Bay Bridge alone…

    And I would guess that taking BART out of commission would have a bigger impact than taking any freeway – including the Bay Bridge – out of commission.

  17. DensityDuck Says:

    Murph: That’s because there is more BART than there is Bay Bridge. Taking BART out of service would be more comparable to taking all of 101 from Gilroy to Napa out of service…

  18. South Bay Resident Says:


    The answer is: operating subsidies and building new rail lines. Here are some recent and ongoing projects to give you an idea of how much is spent on transit around here. This isn’t an exhaustive list but rather a small sampling. The Central Subway in SF will cost $1.4 billion in addition to the $780 million already spent on the third street light rail. BART to SFO was $1.5 billion, you’re also looking at $3.4 billion for the new Transbay terminal including the Caltrain downtown extension. These capital projects (I picked ones in and around SF since you mentioned the Bay Bridge), BART requires $250 million per year in operating subsidies plus about $50 million per year in new capital investment to keep the system running. In addition, Muni requires $135 million each year in operating subsidies, AC Transit about $230 million each year, and so on. Remember that when you buy a transit ticket, you’re only paying about half of the cost of operating the service.

    Suddenly, the horribly inflated, grossly mismanaged and poorly designed Bay Bridge retrofit project with its $6.2 billion cost (of which only about $1 billion was necessary) doesn’t seem so bad.

  19. Capricious Commuter Says:

    SBR, I generally get what you’re saying, but I’ll quibble with one point: The Transbay Terminal cost isn’t so much supporting transit as it is adding the the SF skyline, office space, etc. It’s like saying the World Trade Center towers in New York were part of that city’s transit network because they were built by the Port Authority.

  20. Capricious Commuter Says:

    And, on the two-thirds question, I spoke to Randy Rentschler at the MTC, and he not only confirmed the proportion of transit to roadway spending, but had a logical explanation of the disconnect between the 63 percent MTC plans to spend on transit vs the 10 percent of commuters who ride transit. I started to put all of that here, but I think it would be better to put that in today’s new post.

  21. South Bay Resident Says:

    The $3 billion cost excludes the development included with the Transbay Terminal. It does include the downtown extension of Caltrain and the underground concourse to BART plus the cost to replace the current bus terminal. I’m not including the cost of the (privately funded) skyscrapers that will be included. I really do try to give transit agencies the benefit of the doubt and to present numbers in the way that is most favorable to them when I post about transit issues.

  22. Guy Span Says:

    Erik said,”And there are… railroad lines so shabby that Amtrak trains have to go over them slow enough to spot washouts in time to stop.”

    Oops. This is not true. There are times in severe weather where an embankment might have washed away, leaving the rails intact and providing a clear (green) signal. So for the safety of the passengers and crew, trains proceed at restricted speed (not greater than 15 MPH) to be able to stop short of an obstruction. This is standard for every railroad in America. But it is not, as implied, a daily event.

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