2011's Biggest Transportation Failures

The end of the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line, the death of a pedestrian near Atlanta and other low points from the year in city travel

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Reuters

No one likes a car crash, but when one does occur, very few of us have the strength to look away. Likewise, while it would be great if every city transportation project and program in the United States ran smoothly, many inevitably do not. Here's a rubber-necked review of ten of the worst urban transportation failures to take place in American cities this past year.

1. Florida rejects high-speed rail funding. In February Florida Governor Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal funding for a  planned high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (and ultimately Miami). Scott claimed he was worried that Florida taxpayers would be stuck with cost overruns, but in reality Scott based his decision on advice from the auto-centric Reason Foundation. As a result, Scott ignored the fact that the corporations preparing bids for the project were willing to cover any losses; a subsequent report concluded that Florida's rail project would have been quite profitable. (Globally, it's worth noting a much more significant high-speed rail failure in 2011: the crash that occurred near the Chinese city of Wenzhou this summer.)

2. The tragic case of Raquel Nelson. This summer a jury convicted a woman named Raquel Nelson of second-degree vehicular homicide in the death of her 4-year-old son. But contrary to what you might guess, Nelson had not been driving a car. She and her son had been crossing a five-lane highway in Marietta, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, in April of 2010 when they were struck by a driver who had been drinking. Nelson had not been crossing in a legitimate crosswalk, leading to accuse her of negligence, but the failure was really one of street design in metro Atlanta: Getting to the nearest crosswalk from their bus stop would have taken Nelson and her children half a mile out of their way. Nelson currently awaits a retrial. (In a related report from 2011, Atlanta was found to have the worst transit-coverage of any metro area in the country.)

3. Closing the Sherman Minton bridge. In early September officials ordered the closure of the Sherman Minton Bridge, which connects the cities of Louisville, Kentucky, and New Albany, Indiana, after engineers found a significant crack in the structure. The closure altered the travel plans of roughly 55,000 cars a day; it also exemplified the poor state of bridges in the United States. As Nate Berg reported in October, more than 18,000 bridges in metropolitan areas across the country are considered structurally deficient. The Sherman Minton will remain closed until the repairs are complete. 

4. Replacing a highway in Seattle. For a while now the city of Seattle has wanted to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which cuts through its downtown waterfront, but residents have debated whether to reconfigure the highway into a grade-level street or replace it with a tunnel. Though many urbanists preferred the grade-level option — a "sustainable surface street with transit," in the words of the Congress for the Urbanism — the tunnel won out in an August referendum. In the end pro-tunnel interests raised substantially more campaign money than the anti-tunnel faction did.

5. The transit-free Tappan Zee. In October the Obama Administration approved an expedited review for upgrades to the Tappan Zee Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River a bit north of New York City. But while initial plans for the bridge included creating space for alternative transit modes, the fast-tracked project turned out to be a transit-free structure. This month a bipartisan coalition of elected officials and advocacy groups urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to include bus-rapid transit as part of the new bridge [PDF].

6. Carmaggedon fizzles. Carmageddon turned out only to be a failure of expectation. The closure of 10 miles of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles, which carries some 250,000 vehicles a day, was supposed to result in a maddening ripple of congestion throughout the metropolitan area. Thanks in part to a heavy media blitz by city officials — celebrities like Tom Hanks and Ashton Kutcher were asked to put the word out on Twitter — the traffic doomsday never materialized; instead it became, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, the "biggest non-event since Y2K."

7. Houston shuts off red light cameras. In late August the city of Houston turned off its red-light cameras after months of civic debate and legislative intervention. While Houston wasn't the only major city to eliminate its program in 2011 — Los Angeles did the same earlier in the summer — the decision touched off a wide debate on the merits of traffic cameras. Studies have yet to reach a consensus on whether or not the cameras actually deliver on their promise of increased driver safety. Many municipalities clearly believe they don't: in the months since Houston's decision, Raleigh and Albuquerque ended their programs too.

8. Detroit bus drivers strike. At least a hundred bus drivers for the city of Detroit refused to go to work in early November after a colleague was assaulted on the job, stranding some 120,000 riders. The drivers quickly ended their holdout after Mayor Dave Bing agreed to increase security, but the situation underscored the frightening trend of mass transit riders abusing mass transit workers. Passenger assaults against bus drivers are up in New York City as well — about 20 percent higher than in 2010 — and subway workers have encountered more abuse too. Some point to a combination of increased fares and a tough economy as a reason for the violence.

9. Troy loses a transit center. In a low moment for American democracy, the small city of Troy, Michigan, lost out on the chance to build a transit center years in the making when newly elected Mayor Joyce Daniels rejected the proposal. Daniels, a Tea Party activist, refused the center on the grounds that it would require Troy to accept $8.5 million in federal funds that she believed the country couldn't afford to spend. The city council agreed with this logic despite strong support from local businesses and a common belief that the multi-modal center would turn Troy into a regional transportation hub. Other cities in Michigan have already begun to lobby for the refused funds.

10. Expiration of commuter tax benefits. Congress extended the payroll tax in December, but failed to protect the commuter tax benefit of $230 a month. That figure will fall to $125 a month, while the parking benefit will rise to $240 a month. The decision amounts to "giving a bigger edge in any subsidy to those who drive, as opposed to those who use mass transit," writes the Washington Post in an editorial — a move that hurts public transportation users in all cities across the country.

Photo credit: Andy Clark/Reuters

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