September 02, 2008

Tuesday morning

We got lucky here in Picayune. Drove around town yesterday afternoon and this morning, and all I saw were a couple trees, tree branches, power lines, and one I-59 highway sign blown down. Several leaves and small branches all over, but the roads are still passable.

While it doesn't make for exciting photo/video potential, I'm glad we got off with minimal damage.

Those photos I did take are posted on the website, while videos are posted on YouTube.

September 01, 2008

2:40pm update

Still have power here, though there are parts of Picayune that don't.

Still have tropical-storm force winds in the Picayune area, and we're in the middle of a feeder band that's passing through, so it's a bit wet again. We did have a break in the rain around 1:00pm CDT.

Took a quick drive around town to check on some of our people and to view the damage thus far. Only minor damage in Picayune from what I could tree fallen and a few downed power lines.

Even looks like a CVS Pharmacy and a couple of gas station convenience stores are open, but that's about it.

I-59 is open in both directions...I took it southbound from Exit 6 (MS 43 North) to Exit 1 (US 11/MS 607) during my drive around. Of course, there's very little traffic out on the roads, and between the wind and the rain I was only going about 50 MPH.

Some traffic signals were still operating...mainly on Memorial Blvd and US 11. Except at US 11/MS 43, all of the MS 43 and I-59 ramp traffic signals were dark.

One guide sign blown over...the 1 mile advance guide sign for Exit 1 on southbound I-59.

SunHerald is reporting that MDOT and the Hancock County Sheriff's Department have closed MS 43/603 between US 90 and I-10 due to flooding.

SunHerald also had photos and video up of the storm surge overrunning US 90 along the beach in Gulfport.

Took some snaps and some video while I was out. Am in the process of uploading.

So far so good...

Getting a bit of rain now in Picayune from Gustav, which is about to make landfall somewhere in Terrebonne Parish, LA. Winds I'd estimate at around 40-50 MPH here (of course much higher near the center).

Some reports of power outages around the area...but surprising, reports that crews are out in the weather working to restore power. I'd have expected them to wait until conditions died down this evening before heading out. I know I am, though I might still head out to the car and shoot some pictures if I can do it without drenching my camera.

Already a couple of reported (but unconfirmed) near the port in Gulfport and another near Slidell/Pearl River (which theoretically would've gone right over Stennis...i.e. my office).

Posting this now as the power flickers.

August 19, 2008

Meanwhile, back on the home front...

More MnDOT controversy this time....or moreso silence.

There's been a lot of talk and articles lately on the transportation funding bill passed (actually veto-overridden) by the Legislature early this spring, and on one Republican representative in particular.

Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) is one of six Republicans who voted to override Pawlenty's veto of the transportation funding bill, giving MnDOT its first major cash infusion (MVST phase-in notwithstanding...and that has problems of its own as it is) in years.

So you'd think everything was fine and dandy, and MnDOT now has a means to pay back get some much-needed and delayed projects running. And to an extent, it has...the 169 "Devil's Triangle" near Osseo had repeatedly been delayed...lastly by its funding being shifted to keep the Crosstown Commons on track. And it's now under construction. Some needed bridge replacements, including I-90 at Dresbach, US 52 Lafayette Bridge, and the US 61 Hastings bridge, are now funded and scheduled.

Stop the presses.

It seems there's a minor blurb in the funding bill that directs MnDOT to "finish Highway 60".

And indeed there is. Article 2, Section 3, Subdivision 2(e). It directs MnDOT to spend bond funds in District 7 to "accelerate all projects" that meet certain criteria...namely IRC projects that have an EIS completed, are included in the long-range plan, and add capacity. Interestingly, only Highway 60 meets this criteria.

The section between the Iowa line and Worthington is slated, but the section between Windom and St. James is still unscheduled, much to the dismay of local residents.

So a lot of the attention lately has been on this lack of scheduling, articles written by both Rep. Hamilton and other Legislative members, and this otherwise-obscure line in the transportation funding bill.

Now don't get me wrong...Hwy 60 needs to be improved. The back-and-forth between 2 lanes and 4 lanes is confusing to motorists, and the highway has had its share of accidents.

But there's a few things to consider here. First, there are numerous other roadways across the state that have the same accident problems, and have much more traffic on them. Yet they aren't scheduled.

Second is another part of the transportation funding bill that most people seem to have either forgotten or ignored.

I wrote up a letter that sums it up, and sent it to the StarTribune, the Mankato Free Press, the Worthington Daily Globe, and the Mountain Lake Observer. The version to the Worthington paper is slightly different than the other three as I was replying directly to a letter by Rep. Hamilton there. Below is the letter in italics:


MnDOT in a Catch-22

A lot has been said lately about Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) and this year's transportation funding bill, not to mention the mandate put in for MnDOT to first expend funds on certain projects in southwestern Minnesota that meet certain criteria, and that only Highway 60 meets the criteria.

While this is's in Article 2, Section 3, Subdivision 2(e) of the transportation also represents somewhat of a dilemma for MnDOT. Because Article 6, Section 5, Subdivision 4 (and its various components) requires all state highway bridges that are fracture-critical or have a sufficiency rating below 80 to be under contract by mid-2018. And as we've all seen, bridges are expensive. Also, because of the ongoing escalation in material costs (steel, cement, oil, etc), MnDOT just doesn't have the funding to maintain the existing system, build Highway 60, and meet the bridge repair/replacement requirements, even with the funding bill. So something has to give. And unless we're all willing to live with less road maintenance and worse pavement, MnDOT will have to go against one of the legislative requirements, whether it be the bridge requirements or Highway 60.

A catch-22, if you will.


Will be interesting to see if anyone publishes it...nevermind what MnDOT plans to do to address the controversy. Stay tuned.

July 01, 2008

More fuel for the fire...

As if the article from 2 weeks ago wasn't enough, there's been a spate of new articles lately reflecting on MDOT's funding woes, including this SunHerald article, also published today by the ClarionLedger), and even picked up by Forbes. There's also this article from a week ago (originally published by the ClarionLedger). Then there's a letter from Wayne Brown, the Southern District Commissioner.

Two items I found of interest. First is that MDOT's annual construction budget has stayed relatively even for the past several years. And we all know what inflation has done over that timeframe.

Second is that this is just now hitting the mainstream media in Mississippi, when it has long been noted as a problem in other states. I'm thinking, as I noted in my previous blog entry, that this is a result of MDOT's "Katrina money" running out...most of the post-Katrina reconstruction having run its course...and now they're feeling the pinch.

And solving the problem won't be easy. This is a state that has long had an aversion to high taxes. Plus you have a population that is very rural and drives a lot as a result who would be hit even worse by higher gas prices, and so is well opposed to a gas tax increase, even though that gas tax money would go back to the roads and is thus far the fairest way to pay for them. Then to top it off, you have a lot of people mad at MDOT for the way they run business...and their "elected transportation commission" in particular, as exemplified in this ClarionLedger editorial from last week. So you'd have opposition to increased funding for MDOT on the simple basis of the people running the MDOT show.

Bottom line: it's going to be a rough ride for awhile (pun intended).

June 20, 2008

Road-building hitting a dead-end in Mississippi?

I'd skimmed over this article from the SunHerald earlier this week, but it wasn't until I A) discovered Taralyn's blog (she goes by Darkangel on MTR), and B) that she'd commented about it that I decided to pipe up.

So, for the first time in what seems like ages, MDOT has cancelled or delayed road projects. The reason? It's not community opposition (which they usually plow through anyway), or the Mississippi Legislature finally getting a clue and reigning MDOT in (which will never happen, no matter how much it needs to).

Nope. As some would put it, it's the economy, stupid. Other DOTs across the country have long been feeling the pinch from the run-up in oil, steel, and cement prices. And now that Katrina money has mostly run its course, MDOT is starting to feel the same.

Which is unfortunate, because there's a lot of projects out there that will be left wallowing in the wind now that inflation has hit the roof in addition to already being left out because MDOT likes doing the "big projects". Like the first phase of what some call MS 601, some call "I-310", and yet others call the "Gulfport Port Connector". Of course, that one survived, because it's "already funded". So did the planned MS 57 bypass of Vancleve.

But several projects ready to go weren't so lucky. Among them: a Kiln bypass, which has been needed since God-knows-when. The article also mentioned improvements to US 11 and MS 43 in Picayune that were put on hold. It's funny in a way...because MDOT has been talking about widening US 11 through Picayune for ages now, and all we've seen from them is a center left-turn-lane for about a mile north of MS 43...and it took Katrina money and traffic just to get that done. And MS 43 has been screaming 4 lanes! and left turn lanes! for awhile now too...but that isn't happening either.

So much for a better route for me over to Gulfport.

May 26, 2008

Taking down freeway spurs, and some possible Minneapolis examples

First off, a quick update, as I've been out to sea for 3 months. The Minnesota Legislature DID pass a transportation funding bill, which was promptly vetoed by the Governor. However, when the veto override vote came up, six House Republicans chose to break ranks and vote for the bill, and so both MnDOT and regional transit finally have their first real surge in funding in years. Afterwards, and somewhat in keeping with requirements in the bill, MnDOT announced accelerated timetables for several bridge replacements, including the US 52 Lafayette Bridge, the US 61 Hastings Bridge, and the MN 23 DeSoto Bridge in St. Cloud...which has been closed for the past month after an inspection brought up concerns about the gusset plates.


Moving on to more recent events, about a week ago was the first of some articles around the country (mainly the same article/story appearing in different locations on different days) on removing freeways from urban areas, especially blighted elevated freeways, and highlighting Oklahoma City's removal of I-40 through downtown.

What some of these articles barely mention, however, is that I-40 is not being eliminated. It's being relocated to a covered-over trench along an old railroad line a few blocks to the south. While this will allow the city to build a park along the existing I-40 right-of-way, to say that the freeway is being torn down to make room for a park, without discussing the relocation, is misleading.

Supporters are quick to point out real-life examples of freeway removal as a talking point for further projects. It should be pointed out that most of these removals were spur routes, not major through routes. They were also done either due to structural damage (i.e. the Embarcadero in San Francisco after the '89 earthquake) or because the route was underutilized (i.e. the Park East in Milwaukee).

That said, the story has opened up discussion nationwide about removing or relocating freeways from undesirable locations, either for aesthetic reasons (i.e. along a waterfront), or to open up areas of the central city for redevelopment. Minneapolis is no exception, and there's been some discussion on the StarTribune Roadguy blog about doing the same thing in Minneapolis. Two of the more popular suggestions involve downgrading the 3rd St spur east of the Metrodome that feeds into the U of M campus, and downgrading the 3rd/4th St spur from 2nd Ave N to I-94.

Removing the spur east of the Metrodome to the "U" has several issues related to it, between it being the primary route into and through campus, the proposed Central LRT line, and elevation/grade differences between Cedar Ave and the spur. I'll save this for a future discussion.

Below are some points on the other freeway spur...along 3rd/4th St between I-94 and 2nd Ave N:

- Average traffic volumes on the spur are about 20K daily. Combined with the existing 3rd St/4th St, it’s a total of about 23K. This is on par with many of the one-way pairs around downtown.

- With that in mind, it’s within the realm of possibility to take down the freeway spur and create a 3rd/4th St “boulevard” in between I-94 and 2nd Ave N.

- To maintain traffic flow, though, two main recommendations, if not outright requirements, would be A) traffic signal progression, and B) three lanes on each street. I don’t remember street widths offhand, but I think it’s possible to maintain 3 traffic lanes and still have enough street width for parking and a bike lane, especially inbound along 4th St (which has the wider width available due to the overpass).

- One of two areas of concern is bridging over the BNSF rail tracks. I don’t remember the elevation difference between the BNSF trench and old 3rd St/4th St, but if there’s enough of an elevation difference, you should be able to bridge over the rail tracks without having to bridge over 5th Ave N as well.

- The other area of concern is connecting to the I-94 ramps, especially outbound on 3rd St. The inbound connection to 4th St shouldn’t be much of a problem, but the outbound connection currently has a large building in the way…this building is what causes the break in 3rd St between 10th Ave N and 12th Ave N. It’s not insurmountable, but it may require some tight curviture and will definately impact the parking lots at the building.

So, in a nutshell, I think one's doable, but the other has too many issues that need to be sorted out first.

February 18, 2008

Transportation at the Minnesota Legislature

As expected, the transportation situation in Minnesota is at the forefront of the state Legislature.

The DFL has already introduced a major transportation spending bill similar to last year's...several billion dollars worth. Unfortunately for them, many Republicans are aghast at the large number of 'tax increases' contained in the bill, and the Governor has already put out that he will oppose any tax increases that do not include a corresponding 'tax decrease' elsewhere.

With the state facing a budget deficit, I doubt that'll happen. Unless some major compromise occurs, it'll probably come down to a situation similar to last year: Governor vetoes a transportation bill, the Senate overrides, but the House sustains the veto.

I'm on the mailing list for one state Senator (who shall remain nameless here). The following is part of a legislative update this Senator E-mailed out today:


The $8.4 billion transportation plan introduced last week is very
similar to the bill vetoed by Gov. Pawlenty last spring. It includes a
new 5-cent gas tax with inflationary increases, as much as a 2-1/2 cent
fuel surcharge, a new car registration tax and a half-cent metro sales
tax for transit which is not subject to voter approval.

The bill would undoubtedly provide a large infusion of needed funding
for congested roads and ailing bridges across the state, as well as
funding new state patrol officers and giving transit users more options.
Unfortunately, the bill relies too heavily on new taxes and fees that
would cost all of us directly and indirectly by adding to the cost of
goods brought to market. An additional provision borrows $2.2 billion
for bonding over 10 years. Although the governor has promised a veto of
any bill that does not have a corresponding tax cut, a veto override
attempt could be close.

The House and Senate bills both have a few more committee hearings
before being brought to the respective floors for full debate. At those
stops, it is possible that significant changes will be made, so I will
try to keep you updated on this important bill's status.


Following is my reply:

We're not going to improve the transportation situation by bonding alone, contrary to what the Governor may think. And given the budget deficit that you've already cited, we can't exactly pull money out of the general fund either.

Some sort of revenue increase will be needed. If it takes the DFL and enough Republicans to compromise on a transportation bill that would be veto-proof, then so be it. I'd rather have something than nothing. And if the Legislature ends this session with nothing, you and the Governor will have a lot of angry voters to contend with.

A lot of people are complaining that the tax increases for transportation proposed would "hurt the working poor". Do any of them (yourself included) realize that the working poor are hurt just as much, if not more, by traffic congestion in the metro, poor roadways, and poor transit service? Sure, nobody likes paying more to drive or travel, but if the result is a better transportation system, one that saves TIME as well as the hidden monetary costs of congestion, then it will be worth it.

But the gas tax is still part and parcel of it. Already has Constitutional protection, and is more a "user fee" than most people think.

Nevermind that history shows infrastructure improvements to be economic builders as important thing to remember in this near-recession economic time.

Lastly, on the subject of tax reform and transportation, it's been long established by the scientific community that heavier vehicles both A) damage roads more than lighter vehicles, and B) require much heavier road construction for the road to support them. Given those in mind, perhaps the state should change vehicle registration fees to be based on vehicle weight instead of based on market value/age depreciation.


Will be interesting to see what happens. Hopefully Minnesotans won't be disappointed in the end.

February 17, 2008

A *REAL* economic stimulus package

So Congress, worried about the economy, passes a $168 billion "economic stimulus package" that the President signs, giving tax breaks to businesses and rebates to taxpayers in an effort to stimulate spending and conversely the now-faltering economy.

Perhaps if Congress had done their homework, they'd have realized that there are far better areas they could have put that money that would do much more to jump-start the economy. With history to back it up.

Tax breaks to some businesses, especially small businesses (which are the lifeblood of the economy to begin with) may be beneficial. And while every taxpayer enjoys getting money back from the government, polls are already showing that a vast majority will be using the rebates to pay down debt or put into savings, instead of spending it as Congress intended. Sorry, Congress/Mr. President, but a much better location to target that $168 billion would have been infrastructure.

Take a look around you. Our public infrastructure is crumbling. Electric grids are overloaded. Water and sewage facilities are old and in need of replacement, as is thousands upon thousands of bridges and miles of pavement. People are sitting in traffic congestion due to lack of capacity and lack of other options.

Even using just 1/3 of that $168 billion figure for infrastructure would have given astounding results. History has long shown that investment in public infrastructure pays hefty dividends down the road (pun intended). Not only would it create construction jobs (with several ancillary economic benefits as a result), but investing in the transportation infrastructure would give motorists and travelers time and money benefits....less time on the road (meaning more time with family), less gas wasted (meaning less money spent on that they can then spend elsewhere), and better ability to move goods and services (meaning money savings for businesses).

It's a win-win situation. And it's completely UNSAT that Congress failed to consider it.