Top Twelve Transportation Priorities for 2012

Perhaps 2012 will be the year Congress and the President can agree on a new Surface Transportation bill. Below are my 12 transportation priorities in 2012.

1) A New Transportation Bill: The United States has not had a permanent transportation bill since SAFETEA-LU expired in 2009. The lack of a permanent bill prevents major investments in transportation infrastructure. Both the House and Senate appear interested in passing a bipartisan bill to improve members’ chances of reelection in the 2012 election. The White House has less incentive, and political infighting may delay a bill until 2013.

2) Greater consideration of Demand Management: Demand Management includes managing traffic congestion through pricing. Traditional approaches to fixing congestion include adding lanes or building new roads. These approaches are important and need to be a major part of the solution. However, in some cases there is not enough land or resources to build new travel lanes. Additionally, studies have shown an “induced demand for highway travel.” Since there is always an unmet need for trips, widening roads will create more trips. Drivers will also switch trips to a more desirable time or make trips that were otherwise inconvenient to make. Demand management can decrease congestion at a fraction of the price of expanding highways.

3) More openness to PPPs: Public-Private Partnerships are proven ways for the public and private sector to increase infrastructure. Although PPPs have operated for over 20 years in countries throughout the world, many U.S. states have been hesitant to use them. Many states face a funding crisis due to less fuel tax money combined with structurally deficient and functionally obsolete roads. PPPs typically cover 20% of more of the costs of a construction project.

4) The Funding of only national priorities with national funds: U.S. Transportation policy has evolved to fund almost anything in any way related to transportation. Removing invasive plants, constructing transportation museums, and building recreational trails are three of the more questionable uses. The new transportation bill should only fund nationally important priorities such as the interstate system, aviation, and if it ever makes economic sense, a passenger rail system. Absent a bill, lawmakers can still make changes to future surface transportation extensions or pressure the White House to provide grants only to nationally relevant projects.

5) A greater understanding of Land Use and Transportation: Many politicians continue to support building light-rail systems in places that cannot afford or support them. Density, parking requirements, zoning regulations, and other land use characteristics make a large difference in determining the placement of transportation systems. Since most development regulations are decided at the local level, a federal government trying to influence policy will have very limited success. Policymakers need to realize that creating a successful rail system is much more complicated than simply building it.

6) Eliminating the use of transportation funds for Economic Development Purposes: My friends in the Economic Development community will not like this suggestion. Much of today’s transportation policy is related to improving economic development. Often this development enriches large land-owners while increasing congestion for most travelers. The goal of good transportation planning is to move people from location A to location B. The four-step travel model includes trip generation, trip distribution, mode choice, and trip assignment. None of these steps include economic development generation.

7) A solution to the port funding problem: One of the most challenging tasks in Transportation is to understand how harbors receive money for port dredgings. Move over quantum physics–port dredging is more complicated. Following is the current port funding process. Harbor maintenance dredgings (continuously maintaining the depth of existing harbors) are funded by the Harbor Maintenance Tax. Only a small portion of the money collected from this tax is allocated to port dredgings. Much of the rest of the funding is allocated based on Office of Management and Budget priorities. Additionally, ports have different dredging needs based on the physical qualities of their harbors. While some ports may need dredging every few years, others never need dredgings. In anticipation of the new larger ships using the deeper Panama Canal, many east coast ports want to deepen their harbors permanently so these ships can unload in their ports. Funding for this dredging comes through a political process where each harbor begs for federal money. This is not an earmark process since there is no other method to get the funds. And private sector financing is not popular since most ports eventually receive federal funds.

8) Authorization of a new FAA bill: This is probably another casualty of the 2012 political year. The United States has lacked a permanent aviation bill since 2007 because of unionization issues, subsidization of rural airports, and the utilization of Reagan National airport. Democrats want to protect a new ruling by the National Labor Relations Board easing unionization and Republicans want to fight it. Neither side has been particularly creative in fixing multiple issues at one time. While all these issues are ultimately resolvable, 2012 will probably not be the year.

9) Implementation of an airport security system that makes sense: Today’s airport security system is expensive, intrusive, complicated, and ineffective in stopping many types of attacks. The TSA has responded to security threats by forcing passengers to put liquids in special bottles, increasing aggressive pat-downs, and using full body scanners. A better approach would be for the U.S. to develop a risk based airport security system. Such a system would separate travelers into low-risk, ordinary, and high-risk categories. This system would produce significant time-savings for most travelers. Such a system could provide better security at a significantly lower cost. TSA’s management duties need to be separated from TSA’s screening operation. To avoid this problem, the agency could contract out screening services with private companies.

10) Elimination of all national support for high-speed rail except in the northeast corridor: The Obama administration treats high-speed rail as a religion. The Congressional Research Service, Office of the Inspector General, and Amtrak produced reports that questioned high-speed rail in the United States. Unmoved, the administration awarded over $10 billion in grants. These grants have funded improved conventional rail service where speeds increased from 60 miles per hour to 70 miles per hour. Other grants have funded planning studies that show how unrealistic high-speed rail is in certain corridors. California’s winding 520-mile high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco new cost estimate for construction is almost $100 billion. This does not include the losses to operate the train. Republicans in Congress have eliminated funding for the program. But the administration promises it will find the funding. The only high-speed rail network in the United States that makes any financial sense is the Northeast Corridor. The administration could help Northeastern states improve the dismal condition of the tracks with $10 billion. I hope that in 2012 the administration will revise its program to fund only this corridor.

11) Promotion of intercity bus services: Instead of flushing cash into the caboose, the administration could help encourage express intercity bus service. Megabus, Bolt and others have revolutionized bus service by providing curbside buses that offer cheap fares throughout most of the country. Bus service between Atlanta and Charlotte starts at $2 per round trip. Bus service in more established corridors averages between $15 and $40. This service is typically significantly cheaper than Amtrak. Many carriers offer wireless service, ample legroom, and other amenities. Most companies have exemplary safety records that are better than Amtrak’s.

12) Acceptance of Light Rail’s limitations and usage of buses instead of streetcars: Politicians with the build trains and people will come mentality typically favor light rail. They see Light Rail as more attractive to potential customers than buses. However, modern buses can be very attractive. Bus-rapid-transit services in Brazil and Columbia carry more passengers per mile than most similar rail services in the U.S. And for the cost of one light rail line, a city could have quality bus-rapid-transit coverage on multiple corridors. Since Light Rail operates mainly in mixed traffic it offers no time-savings compared to buses. Both Light Rail and bus services can utilize priority signaling and cue jumpers to decrease travel times. As commuting patterns change, buses can be moved. Light Rail that relies on overhead wires cannot be moved. Light Rail or trolleys failed in the 1960’s because cars were cheaper, faster, and more convenient.