Reason in the Transportation News

Reason’s transportation work is featured prominently in four different newspapers today. First up, our founder and director of transportation studies Bob Poole has an excellent piece in today’s Orange County Register highlighting the role the private-sector can play in meeting our national transportation infrastructure needs. Here’s an excerpt:

Unfortunately, the predictable, status quo responses to the Minneapolis tragedy have already begun: a new federal spending program to fix roads and much higher federal and state fuel taxes. Both suggestions are off-target. The 2005 federal transportation bill doled out $286 billion, no small chunk of change. Before the feds hike the gas tax any further, government needs to prioritize spending, to focus on critical infrastructure projects instead of “bridges to nowhere” and thousands of other “earmarked” pet projects. If Congress fails to enact fundamental reforms, taxpayers will be justified in rejecting new gas-tax hikes. For the major highway investments we needââ?¬â??such as rebuilding Interstates and adding capacity to congestion-choked expressways ââ?¬â?? there’s a better way to pay. Texas, Virginia, and other fast-growing states have demonstrated the new model: highway public-private partnerships funded by direct user payments (tolls). In today’s new toll-road model, private companies compete for long-term contracts to design, finance, build, operate, and maintain major highways and bridges. The companies recoup their investments by charging tolls. . . . . People are tired of sitting in traffic ââ?¬â?? and they are willing to buy their way out. Toll roads are more equitable than gasoline taxes because you only pay for the roads you use. And the private sector, unlike the government, builds roads based on where demand is highest ââ?¬â?? not where a politician or special interest group wants a pork project. We can rehabilitate our aging infrastructure. We can relieve traffic congestion. And we can transform our roads and bridges into a 21st century network that offers increased mobility for individuals and businesses. But to do so, we are going to have to break free of the old model that relies only on government to pay for, build and maintain our highways.

Second, an LA Times editorial today–aptly titled “Kids aren’t carpoolers”–makes the case that we’ve been making for some time (most recently here and here): HOV lanes don’t work:

Research shows that most of the people who use carpool lanes, which typically require two occupants per vehicle, aren’t teaming up to get to work. They’re usually families going to school, the mall or somewhere else. A mom who is allowed to use the carpool lane because she’s got an infant strapped in the back seat is not helping to get cars off the road; that kid wasn’t going to be driving even if he weren’t sharing a ride. Meanwhile, many of the state’s carpool lanes are at or near capacity; at rush hour they’re often as slow as the other lanes. (The Legislature is partly to blame for this. In 2004, it passed a shortsighted law allowing solo drivers of hybrid cars to use carpool lanes. No such incentive was needed to boost the sales of hybrids.) This isn’t to say that widening the 5 and 405, as Caltrans proposes, is a bad idea. But with the state investing billions of dollars in new carpool lanes, it makes sense to revisit the rules on their use to make them more efficient. Some traffic experts, notably the libertarian scholars at the L.A.-based Reason Foundation, propose turning carpool lanes into toll lanes. Buses and registered vanpools could still use them for free, but everybody else would have to pay. It’s a notion worthy of study, especially considering the success of the 91 Express toll lanes in the median of the Riverside Freeway.

[one caveat–the Times argues that a better solution than HOT lanes would be to require at least two occupants of vehicles using carpool lanes be licensed drivers, arguing that it would free up HOV lanes for actual carpoolers. In addition to the impracticality of enforcement, you would lose the invaluable benefit of pricing. Pricing is the only known way to maintain free-flowing lanes and ensure sustainable, long-term congestion relief.] Lastly, Reason’s 16th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems was cited in two editorials today– one in the Philadelphia Daily News and another in the Providence Journal.