Putting Up Roadblocks

March 26, 2007

When the Indiana General Assembly approved Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Major Moves” transportation plan last month, it added two provisions that might turn out to be stumbling blocks to the construction of I-69. The new interstate has become a 142-mile, $2 billion controversy, as most new highways are these days.

“Actually what the legislature did, they added a couple of checkpoints for INDOT,” Gary Abell, director of communications for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) told Roads & Bridges.

When the Indiana General Assembly approved Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Major Moves” transportation plan last month, it added two provisions that might turn out to be stumbling blocks to the construction of I-69. The new interstate has become a 142-mile, $2 billion controversy, as most new highways are these days.

“Actually what the legislature did, they added a couple of checkpoints for INDOT,” Gary Abell, director of communications for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) told Roads & Bridges.

One checkpoint requires INDOT to get approval from the General Assembly before building in Perry Township southwest of Indianapolis.

The other checkpoint requires INDOT to get approval from the General Assembly before implementing tolling on the 25-mile stretch of I-69 between Martinsville and Indianapolis.

“When we reach those checkpoints, we will go back and seek permission for the construction, but that’s several years away,” said Abell. “We are continuing forward with the environmental studies in all six sections of I-69.”

Two years ago, the Federal Highway Administration approved a 2,000-ft corridor. INDOT is currently conducting Tier 2 environmental studies to help settle on a 400- to 500-ft final alignment.

Substantial changes in the route could cause significant delays in construction, the Indianapolis Star reported, but no one is really sure whether the General Assembly’s checkpoints will require substantial changes.

Gov. Daniels has vowed that he would not support any action that would delay construction. In fact, he is in favor of tolling the new interstate as a way to speed construction and boost the state’s ability to pay for it. He wants to break ground sometime in 2008, according to the Indianapolis Star.

One tolling option is for the state to pay to design and construct the interstate and then manage it. The other option is for the state to partner with a private entity, have the private entity pay part of the construction costs and then let the private entity operate the highway and collect the tolls. Indiana recently leased the Indiana Toll Road to a private company. The private company pays the state up front, and then the company operates the highway and collects the tolls.

Supporters of the new interstate say it will fuel economic growth between Indianapolis and Evansville. Opponents say it will damage the environment of the area and displace many homes and businesses. Perry Township, especially, has objected to the interstate based on the loss of assessed property values from its tax rolls if the interstate goes through the township. Township trustee Jack Sandlin told the Indianapolis Star that another $270 million in new development has been put on hold because of the possibility of the interstate construction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed about the danger to the environment. Fish and Wildlife found only two species with the potential to be harmed by the construction. They were the Indiana bat and the bald eagle. In a Dec. 3, 2003, biological opinion, the agency concluded that the I-69 alignment was “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of either the Indiana bat or the bald eagle.” In fact, Fish and Wildlife said the mitigation and conservation measures planned for the I-69 construction might actually improve the habitat for bats.

Va. may scale back truck lanes

Even if the Virginia legislature passes Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s proposal to increase transportation construction funding by $1 billion per year, the state will probably not have enough money to build separated truck lanes along the entire I-81 stretch it is planning to reconstruct.

At a recent town meeting in Harrisonburg, Gov. Kaine told the audience that the commonwealth probably would not receive the federal funds—possibly as much as $1 billion—it was expecting when it planned the truck lanes along the widened and tolled I-81.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is now negotiating with Star Solutions to handle the construction. When Star Solutions submitted its proposal, there was a possibility that the project would get significant federal funding, which would go toward truck-separated lanes. VDOT did get some federal funding but not enough to build truck-separated lanes from one end of the corridor to the other. VDOT has received more like $100 million to $150 million in federal money.

“So far what we have learned from our first tier of the environmental impact statement is that it would take a combination of solutions to address the needs of I-81. Truck-separated lanes up and down the corridor is not the answer. Maybe in some sections it would work well, but maybe in other sections it’s not necessary,” Tamara Neale, spokesperson for VDOT, told Roads & Bridges. The state is still developing environmental studies of the project.

The reason Kaine is so eager to increase transportation funding is because traffic in the state is growing beyond the current budget.

“Our transportation needs are growing beyond what we can afford,” said Neale. They have had no increase in their gasoline tax since 1986, Neale said, and they have increasingly had to shift money from construction to maintenance to cover soaring maintenance costs. “We are getting ourselves into a situation where, in the not-too-distant future, at the rate we’re going now, we will have no money left for construction. It will take everything we have to maintain what we’ve got.”

The Virginia assembly is currently debating three transportation funding bills. The state senate has a bill that looks much like the governor’s. They raise user fees to create a sustainable source of revenue. The house members do not want to raise user fees, so their bill funds transportation by taking money from the surplus in the general fund, a plan the governor states is not sustainable.

The governor’s plan would increase highway construction programs by about 90% and double spending on mass transit. He would raise the revenue by relying on a 2% increase in the motor-vehicle sales and use tax, a 2.25% increase in the auto insurance premium fee and dedication of one-third of the current insurance premium tax proceeds to transportation, weight-based registration fees so the heaviest passenger vehicles pay the most for wear and tear on the roads and enhanced fees for abusive drivers.

Virginia needs a new budget enacted by the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1.

New Jersey staying afloat

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine has signed a bill that should keep the state’s Transportation Trust Fund solvent for another five years by restructuring some of the fund’s debt and increasing the amount the fund can borrow.

The bill’s supporters said it was necessary to continue federal matching funds to New Jersey road and rail projects. The federal funds amount to $1.4 billion per year.

“By issuing bonds to replenish the trust, we are spreading out the costs for projects that will benefit New Jersey drivers for years to come,” state Sen. Joseph Doria, one of the bill’s sponsors, told the Associated Press.

The bill’s opponents said it was a bad idea to add to the state’s debt.

Ky. spends $23M for projects

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has approved additional contracts worth more than $23 million.

“We want Kentuckians and visitors alike to know that whenever you drive and wherever you drive in this commonwealth, you count on safe, dependable roads,” said Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert. “As we evaluate projects, safety, reliability and economic development are at the top of the list.”

Examples of the newly funded projects include replacement of a bridge over Bull Run Creek on KY 1742 in Casey County at $294,000. The money also will be used to resurface about 9 miles of I-64 in Jefferson County at $9.8 million. A bridge over Gibson Creek on KY 58 in Marshall County also will be replaced at $1.4 million.

Bond plan stuck in California

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to pump $107 billion into the state’s economy through transportation projects over the next 10 years has smacked into a wall. Negotiations between the governor and state legislators have collapsed, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Some people in the state were quick to say the problem was an entrenched war over water, with environmentalists on one side, developers on the other and politicians unable or unwilling to bend.

The roadblock on the transportation part of the plan was a collection of ideological conflicts, according to the Sacramento Bee columnist, Dan Walters. Highway advocates tangled with transit backers. Opponents feuded over private versus public funding for engineering work. Schwarzenegger and Republicans supported diverting gasoline sales taxes to transportation, but Democrats mounted increasing resistance to the measure, because, they said, it was a threat to funding for other programs, such as schools.

As a result of the stalemate, Schwarzenegger will not be able to put a bond package on the ballot for the June primary election. His next chance will be November’s general election ballot, but the deep-seated stumbling blocks probably will be in the same positions then.

Capka in line to head FHWA

The Bush administration has nominated Rick Capka to serve as the next administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Capka has been acting FHWA administrator since Mary Peters stepped down from the position last year. He was appointed deputy administrator of the FHWA in August 2002.

Prior to joining FHWA, Capka was chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority overseeing much of the construction of Boston’s “Big Dig” Central Artery/Tunnel project.

Capka is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 29 years.

FMCSA study: Driver error causes most truck crashes

Truck crashes involving large trucks and other vehicles are 10 times more likely to be caused by one of the drivers than by other factors, such as weather, road conditions and vehicle performance, according to a new study released by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). In crashes between trucks and passenger vehicles, truck-driver error was less often the cause of the crash than passenger-vehicle driver error.

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study was commissioned by FMCSA to review the causes of, and contributing factors to, crashes involving commercial motor vehicles. While previous data focused on specific crashes or individual causes of crashes, this study was the first nationwide examination of all precrash factors.

“This study makes it clear that we need to spend more time addressing driver behavior, as well as making sure trucks and buses are fit for the road,” FMCSA Administrator Annette M. Sandberg said. “The multitude of data now available will allow us to analyze specific areas of behavior and work with our industry and safety partners to develop an agenda on driver safety that will improve commercial motor vehicle driver performance.”

FMCSA will conduct analysis to further examine driver factors such as use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, speeding, fatigue, inattention, distractions, work environment and unfamiliarity with the road.

The study, conducted with the help of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, investigated a national sample of crashes between April 2001 and December 2003 at 24 sites in 17 states. Each crash involved at least one large truck and resulted in at least one fatality or injury. The total sample of 967 crashes included 1,127 large trucks, 959 non-truck motor vehicles, 251 fatalities and 1,408 injuries. Action or inaction by the driver of either the truck or the other vehicle was the critical reason for 88% of the crashes.

The data offer unprecedented detail not available anywhere else about the events surrounding truck crashes. The study database eventually will be available to the public to encourage further analysis and increase the knowledge about large-truck crash factors.

For copies of the report, visit www.fmcsa.dot.gov.

Ky. votes for quick clearance

The Kentucky senate has passed legislation to put into practice incident-management procedures known as “Quick Clearance,” the practice of rapidly and safely removing temporary obstructions from a roadway. The bill now goes to Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s desk for signing.

“By making sure these accidents are quickly moved out of the way, we can prevent additional accidents which may result from traffic congestion,” said state Rep. David Osborne, who co-sponsored the bill. “This bill is very important when you consider that an estimated 20% of all accidents nationwide are secondary crashes,” which occur in the congestion and confusion caused by the initial incident.

Enviros decry Interior policy

Outgoing Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has implemented a policy that will make it easier for states and counties to perform widespread highway maintenance and construction across currently protected federal lands in the western U.S., according to a statement from Earthjustice.

The new policy involves a new process for recognizing highway rights-of-way under what is known as RS 2477. The current policy is not to consider claims in national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and wilderness study areas. The new policy may directly conflict with long-standing federal protections for national parks and other western public lands.

“By issuing this policy days before leaving office, Norton is cementing her antienvironmental legacy by further undermining necessary protections for some of our nation’s wildest public lands,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski. “This is her parting gift to those who are interested in seeing these wild public lands developed for profit.”

In the past, Earthjustice said, states have claimed cattle paths, streambeds, abandoned Jeep tracks and hiking trails as highways under RS 2477.

Agreement on Mexican cement

The U.S. and Mexico signed an agreement in early March to lower duties on Mexican cement. Shortages of cement cropped up in the U.S. last year, and the construction industry has argued that duties on imported Mexican cement are not needed.

Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), called the agreement “a good first step for contractors and consumers alike.”

“We thank U.S. Commerce Secretary Gutierrez for having responded to AGC’s concerns and worked out an agreement that sharply reduces the duty now, eliminates it in three years and includes a ‘safety valve’ in case more imports are urgently needed,” said Sandherr.

U.S. builders will be able to import 3 million metric tons of Mexican cement per year, under the agreement, for three years with a duty of only $3 per metric ton, compared with the current duty of $26 per metric ton. The U.S. imported 2.2 million metric tons of cement from Mexico in 2005. All limits will be removed in three years if the two sides abide by the agreement.

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