Feds Halt Houston Freeway Widening Project, and May Pause More

Also: Uber and Lyft find that the only way to get more drivers is to pay them, and more in this week’s Mobile City.

Houston didn't want it, Harris County didn't want it, and Houstonians didn't want it. Now, the Federal Highway Administration has asked TxDOT to pause the freeway widening project until it reviews claims that the widening violates civil rights laws. Emboldened by this decision, anti-freeway activists around the country have asked transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg to review other highway projects. (Concept via TxDOT)

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg promised we would see a different approach towards urban transportation coming out of Washington with him in charge of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

And damned if he hasn’t kept that promise. In one of the first notable actions taken on Buttigieg’s watch, the department told the Texas Department of Transportation to stop work on a controversial freeway widening project in Houston until it can review opponents’ claims that the widening violates civil rights laws (“The Mobile City,” March 21). And that action has now led anti-freeway activists in other cities to press their case for similar federal intervention on widening projects that threaten to further shred the fabric of lower-income neighborhoods filled mostly with people of color.

Something else many expected to see coming from Buttigigeg and his Amtrak-commuter boss was a greater emphasis on improving passenger rail transportation. This week brought with it welcome news on that front from New York, where the Federal Railroad Administration has pledged to wrap up its environmental review of the North River Tunnels expansion and rehabilitation project by late May, thus getting this major project for both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit back on track.

Meanwhile, demand for urban transportation is rising as cities and states ease their COVID restrictions, and that rise in demand has led to a shortage of ride-hailing drivers. This has put pressure on Uber and Lyft to find more drivers so that users won’t get “no vehicles available” messages so often. And in order to get them, they have resorted to doing something many disaffected drivers say they should be doing anyway: Offering them more money.

Federal Order to Stop Work on Houston Freeway Project Leads Opponents Elsewhere to Press Their Case

If you felt the earth move under your feet on March 6, it wasn’t because bulldozers were pushing dirt around in order to widen a freeway. On the contrary: That was the day the U.S. Department of Transportation broke new ground in highway policy by telling a state transportation department to put a freeway widening project on ice.

And now, Bloomberg CityLab reports, the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) pressing of the pause button on the Texas Department of Transportation’s North Houston Highway Improvement Project has led freeway-widening opponents in other cities to press their cases for federal intervention on civil-rights and environmental-justice grounds.

One such group of opponents is the coalition of organizations fighting a revived plan to widen I-94 through Milwaukee’s west side. They wrote Buttigieg on March 16 asking for FHWA to require the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to prepare a new environmental impact statement on the project rather than simply issue a new decision based on its prior review.

Two weeks later, a similar letter landed in Buttigieg’s inbox from a coalition called No More Freeways asking the secretary “to take immediate action to address serious environmental and social justice issues” arising from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plan to spend $750 million to widen a 1.7-mile stretch of I-5 through the middle of a historically Black Portland neighborhood. No More Freeways wrote that it wants the FHWA to call the same time-out in Portland that it called in Houston.

The article suggests that USDOT is willing to lend a sympathetic ear to the requests. Acting FHWA Administrator Stephanie Pollack was scheduled to meet with the Milwaukee opponents on April 9.

But even if the widening projects ultimately go forward, the moves taken by the Buttigieg Transportation Department represent an about-face after some six decades of uncritically approving the overwhelming majority of freeway projects it reviews. “There’s been such an absence of a federal role on advancing infrastructure that really relates to what people want and how they live their lives, and that relates to resiliency,” Richard A. Dimino, the president and CEO of A Better City, a Massachusetts-focused urban planning and advocacy organization, told CityLab. That group seeks a total redesign of a project to replace an aging viaduct on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston’s Allston neighborhood.

In simpler terms, Dimino and the other opponents are asking the FHWA to review highway projects as if people mattered. And now the agency has signaled that it’s willing to do so.

Feds Promise to Wrap Up Environmental Review of Hudson River Tunnel Project by May

Mass Transit reports that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has set May 28 as the date it will produce a final environmental impact statement on the Hudson Tunnel Project.

The on-again, off-again, on-again project will both repair the existing North River Tunnel under the Hudson, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and add capacity to the nation’s busiest passenger rail corridor by digging a second two-tube tunnel under the river.

Working with the FRA on the environmental review are the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New Jersey Transit Corporation, with other local and regional agencies providing assistance.

The response to the news from local and regional officials can roughly be summed up as, “It’s about time this got moving again.” Here’s how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it: “Now with new leadership in Washington, this project is finally getting the prioritization it deserves.”

The project is designed to avoid disrupting service on the Northeast Corridor rail line, which is used by Amtrak intercity and New Jersey Transit regional rail trains. The first phase will consist of constructing the new tunnel; once it is complete, one tube of the existing North River Tunnel will be taken out of service for about a year for reconstruction.

Uber and Lyft Use Bonuses to Lure Drivers Back Behind the Wheel

As the COVID pandemic kept most Americans at home, many ride-hailing drivers simply stopped driving when they found they could no longer make a living from it. But now, Forbes reports, demand is rising again as restrictions are lifted. That has led ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft to offer former and potential new drivers cash incentives to take to the road for them.

Uber announced April 7 that it was launching its own “stimulus” program to attract more drivers — specifically, a $250 million pile of money it will use to offer new and returning drivers performance incentives, such as a $1,100 bonus for completing 115 trips in Austin. As for Lyft, it will offer current drivers bonuses of $800 for referring former drivers back to its platform.

The article cites data from market research firm Edison Trends that show spending on Uber trips rose 30 percent from February to March of this year as evidence of rising demand. But the supply of drivers isn’t keeping pace with the growth in demand. The RideShareGuy, a blog for gig workers in ride-hailing, speculates that one reason why may be because drivers aren’t sure that they will make more than the $300 per week they get in pandemic unemployment insurance payments. Driver hesitancy to return to work until they can get vaccinated may also contribute to the shortage.

Uber says another reason it’s having trouble finding drivers is because emergency pandemic rules in a number of cities keep the company from offering drivers surge pricing. As a result, riders in Boston and Las Vegas are experiencing longer wait times. Riders elsewhere may also find no drivers available when they wish to request a vehicle.

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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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.

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Tags: public transportationtrainshighwaysuberhoustonride-hailing

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