Surface Transportation News: Annual Highway Report Rankings, Concerns About Electric Vehicles, and More
ID 66113674 © Bryan Roschetzky |

Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News: Annual Highway Report Rankings, Concerns About Electric Vehicles, and More

Plus: Replacing obsolete interstate bridges, how to establish the safety of automated vehicles, trucks and mileage-based user fees, and more.

In this issue:

Annual Highway Report Analyzes State Highway Systems’ Performance
By Baruch Feigenbaum

Reason Foundation recently released its 25th Annual Highway Report, a yearly evaluation of the conditions and cost-effectiveness of state highway systems. The report uses data reported by states to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) as a condition of receiving their federal highway funding. The FHWA data are supplemented with bridge data from Better Bridges magazine and congestion data from INRIX. The report compares each state’s highway spending against its highway system’s performance to provide policymakers and taxpayers with an assessment of value-for-money spent.

Continuing a national trend over the last 20 years, the overall state highway system performance improved slightly. Most of the trouble spots are concentrated in the lowest-scoring 10 states, which have a disproportionate share of the highway problems and reduce the overall system performance.

This year’s Annual Highway Report examines 13 categories; four categories measure state spending and nine measure performance. Across the country overall, seven of the nine performance categories improved: Rural Interstate Pavement Condition, Rural Arterial Pavement Condition, Urban Arterial Pavement Condition, Structurally Deficient Bridges, Fatality Rate, Rural Fatality Rate, and Urban Fatality Rate. The two performance categories where conditions worsened: Urban Interstate Pavement Condition and Urbanized Area Congestion. Unfortunately, this increase in system performance comes at a substantial cost. Capital and Bridge Disbursements increased by 8 percent, Maintenance Disbursements by 14 percent, Administrative Disbursements by 8 percent, with Total Disbursements up by 9 percent.

For this newsletter’s audience, it’s particularly important to note that the report is a measurement of the roadways that each state owns and operates, not a ranking of the state departments of transportation. We also made one methodological change in this year’s report worth noting. Instead of calculating disbursement rankings using lane-miles, we used an average of centerline-miles, lane-miles, and vehicle-miles traveled per lane-mile. Centerline-miles are the length of the highway system (a five-mile road equals five centerline-miles). Lane-miles are the length of the highway system multiplied by the number of lanes on a highway (a five-mile road with two lanes equals 10 lane-miles while a five-mile road with six lanes equals 30 lane-miles). Vehicle-miles traveled per lane-mile are the total amount of miles traveled on the state highway system divided by the lane-miles in the state (100,000 vehicle-miles traveled per year divided by 200 lane-miles of roadway equals 500 vehicle-miles traveled per lane). We made this change in an ongoing effort to be fairer to all the states. While a centerline-miles ranking may favor rural, less-populated states, a vehicle-miles traveled per lane-mile ranking may favor urban, more-populated states. Therefore, we believe a composite measure can help provide a more accurate, richer dataset.

Generally speaking, this change had a modest effect on the report’s overall rankings. Eleven states saw a movement of 10 positions or more in the rankings. Arkansas, Mississippi, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Iowa improved dramatically in the overall rankings—by 23, 17, 16, 14, and 11 positions, respectively. In contrast, Wyoming, Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Oregon, and Vermont saw their rankings worsen by 25, 21, 19, 17, 16, and 11 positions, respectively.

For the past three editions of the Annual Highway Report, North Dakota has been the top-performing state in the study’s overall performance and cost-effectiveness rankings. But the state’s overall ranking is not a function of placing number one in any particular category. Rather, North Dakota ranks first overall because it scores in the top 30 in nearly all—12 of the report’s 13—categories. And it ranks in the bottom 10 states in only one category—Structurally Deficient Bridges. Its next-worst rankings are 28th in Urban Arterial Pavement Condition and in Rural Fatality Rate. Solid performance in nearly every category is what drives North Dakota’s overall ranking.

A far more-populous state, Missouri, ranks second overall in the report. Missouri also benefits from consistency across the board. Missouri does not rank in the bottom 10 in any of the 13 categories. Its worst ranking is 33rd in Structurally Deficient Bridges. Missouri shows that a more highly populated state (18th largest), with a large state highway system (7th largest by mileage), can rank highly in the report’s overall rankings and can serve as a model for other large states looking at lower rankings.

The worst-performing state is once again New Jersey, which ranks well in only two categories. The state ranks 3rd in Overall Fatality Rate and 4th in Rural Fatality Rate. But New Jersey is last in the overall rankings because of its poor performance in a large number of categories. The state has the highest Total Disbursements, Capital/Bridge Disbursements per Mile, and Maintenance Disbursements per Mile. It also ranks in the bottom five in Administrative Disbursements Per Mile and Rural Arterial Pavement Condition. In short, New Jersey spends far more money on its roads than the average state for a small state highway system that performs worse than average.

We frequently hear that it is unrealistic for New Jersey to have the same performance as North Dakota. But states such as New Jersey could focus on improving pavement conditions and reducing traffic congestion. It ranks in the bottom 10 in three different pavement condition categories, for example. Improving pavement conditions would help its rankings. Or, New Jersey could choose to focus on efficiency and reducing its spending somewhat, which would also significantly help its rankings. Reducing the state’s per-mile expenditures to levels that are comparable with states with similar geographic characteristics, such as Maryland, would help.

While it may be unrealistic for the worst-performing states to become top-ranked states quickly, they can make tangible progress on road conditions, deficient bridges, traffic congestion, and improve in ways that take them closer to average performance- and spending-levels for similar states.

States that rank poorly can also learn from other nearby states. Each state has strengths and weaknesses. For example, Georgia has long been an expert at maintaining high-quality urban Interstate pavement at an affordable cost. In contrast, Arkansas struggles at maintaining high-quality pavement. Thus, Arkansas officials might consider looking at the rankings and speaking with Georgia’s transportation officials about how they maintain their pavement quality. Transportation departments can use the report to see which states are succeeding in various categories and take the best practices from a variety of places.

» return to top

Replacing Obsolete Interstate Bridges Via Toll Financing

Replacing obsolete bridges on major Interstate highways is once again under discussion in several places, including in Alabama (I-10), Kentucky (I-71 and I-75), Louisiana (I-10), and Oregon (I-5). The circumstances differ in each state, and tolling is at various stages of discussion.

Most recently in the national news has been the closure of the Brent Spence Bridge, which conveys I-71 and I-75 across the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, KY. On Nov. 11, two trucks collided on the bridge, damaging both levels (including melting concrete pavement on the lower deck). The bridge has been closed since then for repairs and is supposed to reopen before Christmas.

Opened in 1963 with a design target of 80,000 vehicles/day, it carried nearly double that amount last year. Discussions of a toll-financed replacement (like the two new bridges across the Ohio River between Louisville and southern Indiana) has been going on for over a decade, but tolling has been repeatedly stymied by die-hard opposition from Kentucky legislators from the Covington area. The current bridge closure has focused new attention on the bridge’s obsolescence and the need to replace it—with toll financing being one of the most viable approaches. It’s conceivable that some kind of frequent-user toll discount could pass muster as both legally- and politically-feasible.

Frequent-user discounts may also be a key to reviving plans that were abandoned last year for replacing the obsolete Mobile River Bridge which serves both long-distance and commuter traffic on I-10, crossing the Mobile River in Alabama. A $2 billion project that was expected to have a $6 toll each way failed to gain political support from either metropolitan planning authority (MPO) on the two sides of the river. But the Alabama Department of Transportation (DOT) is willing to try again. It was invited to make a presentation to the eastern shore MPO in January, and several Baldwin County commissioners made supportive comments at the MPO’s November meeting. County commission member (and MPO board member) Joe Davis said that the need for the replacement bridge has not gone away, and it’s time to restart the discussions. Davis said, “We are talking about bringing up the same purpose, and we are looking for new circumstances. I’m not opposed to a toll as long as the locals have a free option,” which was not provided in the previous ALDOT plan.

As reported in last month’s newsletter, Louisiana DOTD hopes to build on its success in a partially toll-financed public-private partnership (P3) project (to replace the obsolete Belle Chasse Bridge and Tunnel near New Orleans) by going forward with a similar approach to replacing the much larger Calcasieu River Bridge on I-10. LaDOTD leadership understands both toll finance and revenue-based P3 concessions, and the private sector will likely respond positively to a request for qualifications for the project next year.

Finally, a Nov. 24 Portland news story, “Tolls Are a ‘Given’ for New I-5 Bridge as Lawmakers Talk Replacement,” highlighted the issue in Oregon. Replacing that obsolete bridge has been debated for more than a decade, and because it involves both Oregon and Washington state lawmakers, a previous bridge replacement plan was scrapped in 2014. One big factor in that failure was Oregon’s insistence that the bridge design include light rail tracks in both directions, significantly increasing the bridge’s size and cost. Express toll lanes and bus rapid transit would provide a much lower-cost (and more flexible) mass transit component. There is still no design for this new attempt, but cost estimates based on adjusting the 2014 plan put the cost at between $3.2 and $4.8 billion. Like the other Interstate bridges in this story, the I-5 bridge serves both local (commuter) and long-distance travel.

» return to top

RAND Study: How to Establish Automated Vehicle Safety
By Marc Scribner

An October report published by RAND Corporation (“Safe Enough: Approaches to Assessing Acceptable Safety for Automated Vehicles,” Oct. 29) provides a thorough overview of the various methods of establishing automated vehicle (AV) safety. The report is a product of both a literature review and a series of interviews with AV experts and stakeholders. The conclusions largely reflect the facts that these technologies are novel, rapidly evolving, and poorly understood by those not involved in their technical development. If there is one major takeaway most relevant for policymakers, it is that it’s premature to proceed with detailed and prescriptive public regulations. Only as safety evidence is accrued under developers’ varied approaches to safety will imposing minimum regulatory requirements on AVs, like those that currently apply to conventional motor vehicles, become appropriate.

The report divides approaches to assessing AV safety into three categories. The first is safety as a measurement, a quantitative, data-driven approach that relies on leading and/or lagging measures. Lagging measures, such as average crash rates, are commonly used today for conventional vehicles, but given the novelty of AVs, lagging measures do not yet exist for them. In contrast, leading measures can rely on data measuring “roadmanship,” a new concept for evaluating how an AV is adhering to the rules of the road, executing “reasonable behavior on the road,” and “contributing to the harmonious flow of traffic, not impeding traffic.” An example leading measure mentioned by interviewees is an AV’s near-miss rate.

The second approach is safety as a process, a qualitative approach focused on compliance with rules or norms. These could be formal, such as complying with technical standards or regulations, or informal, such as ensuring a developer has adopted a robust culture of safety within its organization.

Finally, there is safety as a threshold, where an AV’s performance is shown to meet a safety measurement or a safety process. One challenge here is in deciding whether a safety threshold should be based on human driving performance, the potential performance of automated driving system technology, or some absolute safety goal such as Vision Zero’s zero crash fatality ideal.

These three approaches to assessing AV safety—measurement, process, and threshold—are not suggested to be stand-alone. Rather, say the RAND report authors, “these approaches complement, support, and interact with each other.” For instance, evidence collected on safety measures and processes could be used to support a determination of meeting a safety threshold. Similarly, processes and measurements can build on one another as processes are refined and checked against measurements. The report provides examples of how these safety approaches can work together to communicate to the public about AV safety, such as an AV’s fatal crash rate (measure) is lower than that of the average human driver (threshold).

While understanding how to make the safety case for AVs is vitally important for future deployment and public acceptance, it is worth noting that most of the measures, processes, and thresholds remain under development. As such, rather than prescribing detailed rules for AV developers and operators at this time, the RAND report’s authors recommend that the federal government undertake research in two areas: human driver data and safety assessment options. The former is to allow more comparisons between technology capabilities and real-world behavior, and the latter is to expand the toolset available to regulators, which has traditionally centered on lagging measures and regulatory process compliance.

As for competently regulating AVs safety similar to how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issues and enforces Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for conventional vehicles, the report suggests the near-term prospects are slim. In a footnote, the RAND authors note that interviewees “observed that a certain amount of penetration of the fleet (perhaps 20 to 30 percent) is needed before there are enough data to do the analysis required for regulation.”

In addition, the interaction between software engineering and mechanical engineering is very new to regulators, and this interaction in automated driving systems is far more complex than anything seen in advanced driver assistance systems available on the market today.

Fortunately, savvy regulators appear to understand this challenge, with one government official interviewed in the RAND report saying, “A premature imposition of operational standards could be counterproductive or ineffective. . . . It is better to not establish performance measures up front—it is better if that happens through a sort of evolutionary process.”

Some political activists demand strict AV regulation today, despite the growing expert consensus that detailed rulemakings are inappropriate given the state of technological development and understanding. It is certain that regulators and their overseers in the legislative branch will face ongoing pressure to blindly regulate automated vehicles, actions that would threaten technological progress and the potential safety and mobility benefits of automated vehicles. The question is, will regulators continue to reject these misguided demands from activists or bow to political pressure?

» return to top

What We’ve Learned About Trucks and Mileage-Based User Fees

About a decade ago I debated the tax policy official of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) on the subject of transitioning U.S. motor vehicles from per-gallon fuel taxes to per-mile charges. He was strongly opposed. First, he saw no need for such a change, since projections of diesel fuel use at that time showed continuing upward growth. But more fundamentally, he equated per-mile charges with two things ATA historically opposed: tolls and weight-distance taxes. I did not change his mind that day, but I hope I got the ATA audience to start thinking about this eventually needed transition.

The good news is that in the last few years, the trucking industry has shown an increased willingness to consider the subject. Trucking companies participated in a California road user charge pilot project several years ago, and last year 60 trucks from four trucking companies took part in a large Multi-State Truck Pilot project carried out by The Eastern Transportation Coalition (formerly the I-95 Corridor Coalition).  Last month, I attended a webinar on the subject and downloaded the impressive July 2020 final report on this project.

The most important lesson learned from this trial is that “trucks are not simply big cars.” In other words, trucking is a complex, multi-faceted industry, with many types of vehicles and a number of quite different market niches (such as truckload, less-than-truckload, specialty (tank, flatbed, etc.), drayage, etc.) and different types of operators: for-hire fleets, private fleets (e.g., Walmart), owner-operators, etc. In addition, there are institutions in place for trucking that may actually make it easier to convert this segment of motor vehicles to mileage-based user fees (MBUF).

One of the most important institutions is the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA). Agreed to by the lower 48 states and 10 Canadian provinces, it serves cross-border trucking by providing a way to divide up fuel taxes paid by trucks among the jurisdictions they drove through. Trucking companies register with the state of their headquarters and need only file a single quarterly fuel tax return in that jurisdiction. IFTA gets data on the number of miles these trucks drive in each jurisdiction and the amount of fuel purchased in each, so it can carry out its clearinghouse function and divvy up the fuel tax revenue appropriately. In principle, this would provide a way to calculate rebates of fuel taxes during the transition to mileage-based user fees (MBUFs), so that the trucking company would end up paying the MBUF instead of the state fuel tax.

Actually doing this would be more complicated. First, only certain categories of interstate trucks must sign up with IFTA today, so IFTA’s scope would have to be expanded. Second, it would be more practical if the reporting were changed to monthly rather than quarterly. Third, IFTA is not set up to return funds to individual companies; today it only redistributes fuel tax monies among states. But the fact that such an organization already exists and is well-regarded by the trucking industry is very positive.

One problem that surfaced in the truck pilot project was the difficulty in making the hypothetical per-mile charge revenue-neutral with current fuel taxes. How much fuel a truck uses (and hence how much fuel tax it pays) depends on its gross weight, age and condition, terrain (steep grades vs. flatland), etc. The pilot used the average miles per gallon (mpg) of each participating truck fleet to estimate its fuel taxes paid, but used a per-mile charge for each state aimed at revenue-neutrality. But due to the differences in average mpg among the companies, those with fuel-guzzlers ended up with a rebate smaller than their tax while those with newer, more fuel-efficient engines came out ahead. This was somehow deemed unfair, but I see no practical way that a per-mile charge could (or should) be tailored to individual fleets—any more than fuel tax rates or toll rates are.

Besides educating the MBUF community on the complexity of trucking and the existence of useful institutions such as IFTA, the truck pilot broke new ground with the trucking industry itself. The Coalition created a Motor Carrier Working Group with broad industry representation. According to the report (p. 3-2 and 3-3) the group agreed that:

  • “MBUF should be assessed because transportation revenue is not keeping up with infrastructure needs”;
  • “MBUF is considered a more attractive future option compared with tolling”;
  • “Dedicating MBUF revenue to transportation will help with motor carrier support.”

The group understandably expressed concerns about potentially high administrative/collection costs, transparent rate-setting, new layers of complexity, etc.  But the fact that such a group now exists is a very positive sign, compared to the situation a decade ago.

More good news is that the coalition is launching a larger phase two trucking pilot, with 200 commercial vehicles (mostly big rig Class 7 and Class 8) that will include more states and be six months in duration. I’m sure a lot more will be learned from this additional pilot project.

» return to top

New Approaches to Managed Lane Occupancy Enforcement
By Baruch Feigenbaum

There are now more than 60 variably-priced managed lanes projects in operation around the country. In the gold standard—express toll lanes—all vehicles pay a toll except buses and registered vanpools. In these lanes, enforcement is easy because all automobiles that don’t pay tolls are violators.

However, many priced managed lanes projects offer discounts or free passage to carpools. Some charge tolls only during peak periods. While these policies can make the roadway more challenging to use for the customer, these policies were put in place because the lanes were converted from HOV lanes or for other political or policy reasons.

One of the most challenging aspects of priced managed lanes is therefore occupancy enforcement. DOTs, MPOs, and the private sector are working on solutions. Four technologies were spotlighted at an IBTTA/TRB webinar last month—three focused on enforcement and one based on verification.

Transurban has modified its enforcement system for the I-95, I-395, and I-495 toll lanes in Northern Virginia. Currently, customers can switch their transponder settings between carpool and solo. Unfortunately, many customers leave their transponder in the carpool setting even when they are traveling alone. While the system accurately identifies violators, state police can pull over only two out of every thousand violators. Additionally, the beacons that spot potential violators are in set locations and violators know the locations.

Transurban has recently implemented four steps to improve enforcement. For its top violators, it uses repeat-violator beacons that flash a different color, which has increased compliance by 80 percent. It has added mobile beacons that can be moved to various locations. Transurban sends email notifications that have increased compliance by another 1 percent. And it has added enforcement signs that have increased compliance by 3 percent. Toll violators can also choose to enroll in the toll correction program. In this program, customers in the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane that rode alone and “forgot” to switch their transponders can pay the toll but not any extra fees.

Los Angeles Metro has installed an infrared camera system for its I-10 and I-110 high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. During peak periods, three or more-person vehicles travel free of charge. During off-peak periods, vehicles need only two people to use them free of charge. Before adding cameras, the violation rate was as high as 30 percent. In 2015, when the cameras were added they accurately detected violators 85 percent of the time. Today, that number is closer to 90 percent, and in the next few years, L.A. Metro expects the accuracy to reach 95 percent.

The program is not without its costs. Operations and maintenance cost $11 million per year. The cameras are placed in a two-lane cross-section on I-110 and a one-lane cross-section on I-10. The cameras take pictures from the front and the side to double-check accuracy. A Metro staffer must examine every photo to make sure any potential violation is genuine.

Utah DOT has a one-lane per direction 72-centerline mile express lane system on I-15. It features a switchable transponder, but those who carpool don’t have to have one. Enforcement was not a priority for the Utah Highway Patrol, with an annual budget of only $100,000.

To increase enforcement, UDOT is taking a two-pronged approach. First, all express lane users will be required to have a transponder (as is increasingly the practice on HOT lanes nationwide). Currently, many drivers violate the policy by traveling solo without a transponder. Second, UDOT is starting a Ride Flag pilot program that matches cell phone occupants at the start and end of the trip. Drivers who make a minimum of eight trips per month are eligible. The system takes a photo of all occupants at the start and end of the trip. Currently, tolls are waived for the pilot. There is some opposition to requiring carpoolers to have a transponder. But other drivers want the ability to switch from solo-mode to HOV-mode mid-trip as they pick up passengers.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) takes a different approach, stressing occupancy verification, not enforcement. It puts the burden of proof on the occupants to demonstrate that they are a carpool. Per Texas law, the system cannot be used to register a violation or collect revenue. Carpools get a 50 percent discount during peak periods. Within the next few years, the HOT lane network will be 120 centerline miles.

Under the old enforcement structure, there were a number of challenges. Drivers of a carpool had to register 15 minutes before they used the lanes. Enforcement costs were $2 million per year. Police were able to pull over only two to three vehicles in an hour. District attorneys refused to take violators to court because it was not considered a moving violation. And the actual HOV violation rate was between 30 and 50 percent.

With NCTCOG’s new system, from Go Carma, drivers download the app and enter their transponder and license plate numbers. Passengers are also required to download the app so the system knows that they are part of a carpool. Since January 2020, there have been 35,000 users representing 30,000 vehicles. The overall program satisfaction rate is 83 percent. Violating the user agreement comes down to paying the correct toll. The average violation rate is 2.7 percent. Nearly 99 percent of violators change their behavior after receiving up to four warnings. If they don’t, they are suspended from using the lanes, but the suspension rate is so far less than 1 percent.

NCTCOG and GoCarma have spent the last two years working to ensure seamless integration with Cintra (the concession operator), Transcore (TXDOT’s back-office integrator), and the North Texas Tollway Authority, which manages the metro area’s electronic tolling.

While all four systems are an improvement over manual enforcement, Go Carma’s system appears to be the best approach at this time. The system uses smartphone technology and does not require any guessing on vehicle occupancy on the part of law enforcement personnel or costly staff time examining occupant photos. In addition, it is not punitive, so customers cannot complain that the system seems to be primarily about revenue generation.

The market has provided several different approaches to dealing with HOT lane cheating and it will be interesting to see if one emerges as the clearly most cost-effective approach.

» return to top

Toll Agency Politicized in Houston

Back in September, the governing body in Harris County, Texas—the Commissioners Court—voted 3-2 to take over the respected Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA). They created a government corporation that will divert toll revenues to things like flood control and help to pay for deepening the Houston Ship Channel. This political move undercuts the widely followed principle of most U.S. tolling: users-pay/users-benefit. Harris County will receive a $300 million lump sum from HCTRA, followed by $90 million a year indefinitely.

Another part of the deal calls for refinancing HCTRA’s $2.7 billion worth of toll revenue bonds to take advantage of today’s historically low-interest rates, with estimated savings of $60 million per year. That’s a move HCTRA could have made on its own, in the interest of delivering better value to its toll-paying customers. And its well-managed counterpart in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area—the North Texas Tollway Authority—the same month announced its own debt refinancing, but without any revenue diversions.

The Houston change was decidedly political, with the three Democratic commissioners voting in favor while the two Republicans voting against it. One of the Republicans, Steve Radack, was quoted in the Houston Chronicle saying, “This is a money grab. They are going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via property taxes.” Also opposing the takeover was David Hagy, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies, who supported the sensible refinancing but not the county’s money grab. And the Transportation Advocacy Group urged the Commissioners to at least use the diverted funds for transportation purposes.

I wonder how the rating agencies will view this politicization. HCTRA’s current bond indenture, as well as state law, limits the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, and highways, according to a Q&A provided by the Harris County budget office. If that’s true, there might be grounds for bondholder litigation.

Moreover, while short-term thinking would say this is only a small amount of revenue diversion, the real danger is that it sets a precedent and provides no safeguards against future raids on HCTRA’s toll revenues. Transportation professionals know what has happened to the Pennsylvania Turnpike when that state’s legislature imposed Act 44 mandating that the Turnpike divert $450 million per year to the state DOT for transit subsidies. The Turnpike has had to significantly increase its bonded indebtedness, and enact large annual toll rate increases to meet the new debt service. That same fate could await HCTRA’s toll payers the next time Harris County faces budget shortfalls.

» return to top

Some Concerns About Vehicle Electrification

There is considerable momentum behind the idea that since transportation is a major source of CO2 emissions, the answer is to convert cars and trucks to electric power, via either battery packs or hydrogen fuel cells. But there is a large caveat to this prescription. Recharging huge numbers of electric vehicle battery packs or producing huge volumes of hydrogen will require a vast expansion of electricity generation. That’s obvious for battery recharging, but it’s also essential for hydrogen fuel cells because the known methods for producing hydrogen are themselves dependent on large amounts of energy, usually electric power.

A long article in The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 26 looked at California’s ambitious plans to phase out fossil-fueled vehicles over the next 15 years. Its headline conveys the challenge: “California Wants Cars to Run on Electricity. It’s Going to Need a Much Bigger Grid.” And the idea that this can be done entirely via solar cells and wind farms is simply not credible. Already, California’s electricity grid runs short of juice in late afternoons and early evenings when the sun is fading and the winds may not blow. The idea that EVs themselves can feed power into the grid at those times is silly. There is no known way they can do this while moving, and to think that once people get their EV home and plugged in they will allow it to be drained overnight to feed the grid—rather than itself drawing power from the grid to be recharged for the next day’s driving—is very naive.

A problem I have not seen addressed previously is the inefficiency of the energy currently used to generate electricity for the utilities that supply the grid. Michael Sena, the editor-publisher of the excellent transportation and technology newsletter The Dispatcher, addresses this problem in the lead article in its Dec. 2020 issue: “The Vehicle Fuel Debate Has Been Hijacked.” Drawing on findings by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Sena argues that simply converting vehicles to electric propulsion will shift the CO2 emissions problem to the expanded electric power system. No one seriously thinks that solar and wind will displace all the sources of “baseload” power, which must continue to be a large part of the expanded electricity system. Fossil fuel electricity generation uses only 30 to 42 percent of the energy inherent in the fuels burned; the rest is simply waste heat. Sena cites the large increases in energy conversion efficiency that are possible if conventional steam turbine systems were replaced by combined-cycle systems. And if I remember correctly my thermodynamics classes at MIT, he’s right.

But it’s not clear that replacing all current electric utility systems with combined cycle systems is the best way forward. There are two other sources of baseload power that emit zero CO2 and are too often neglected by policymakers these days: hydroelectric and nuclear. The “green” agenda of most environmental groups want to tear down dams and close down nuclear power—both policies that California has embraced. Since the EV future desired by the incoming Biden administration and the leaders of a growing number of states requires a large expansion of electricity generation—including a large expansion of dependable baseload power—it is irresponsible not to consider the most cost-effective ways of expanding baseload power. My guess is that expanding zero-emission nuclear will end up as more viable than replacing all steam-turbine systems with combined-cycle systems, especially since the latter still depend on fossil fuels.

» return to top

News Notes

How Much Did Last Decade’s High-Speed Rail Funding Accomplish?
That’s the subject of a just-released Reason Foundation policy study, by demographer and transportation analyst Wendell Cox. It reviews the results of projects accounting for 80 percent of the federal funding provided under the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program enacted by Congress in 2009. The relatively poor results constitute a warning flag for president-elect Joe Biden’s promised “rail revolution.”

Elizabeth River Crossing Sells for High Multiple  
On Nov. 9, the long-term toll concession for the Elizabeth River Crossing (ERC) project in Virginia was acquired by a consortium of toll-road company Abertis and Manulife Investment Management. The value of the deal was $2.38 billion, with Abertis and Manulife providing 50 percent of the price as an equity investment. The sellers are Macquarie Infrastructure Partners II and Skanska AB. The deal valued the ERC concession at 39.7 times its 2019 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) of $60 million. The original concession was financed via $272 million in equity plus tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs) and a TIFIA loan, both of which will continue to be paid back out of toll revenues.

West Connex Concession Offered for Sale
The cash-strapped New South Wales (NSW) government announced on Nov. 6 that it will sell the remaining 49 percent of the 33-km WestConnex toll motorway in the Sydney metro area. The majority 51 percent stake was purchased by Transurban in 2018 for $6.76 billion, and observers expect that company to be among the leading bidders for the other 49 percent. In keeping with its policy of asset recycling, the NSW government plans to use the proceeds for additional transportation infrastructure in the metro area. A financial analyst quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald estimated that the 2020 decline in traffic volume would not affect the sale price, “given the long-term nature of the investment.”

Pennsylvania DOT to Use Toll-Based P3s for Major Bridge Upgrades
PennDOT last month announced a Major Bridge P3 program, under which it will seek private-sector proposals to reconstruct and rehabilitate major bridges financed via tolls. The tolls will be all-electronic, using the E-ZPass system that exists throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The Tribune-Democrat reported, “Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they support a move by a state public-private partnership that would allow tolling of traffic on major bridges.” This response likely reflects the success of PennDOT’s prior Rapid Bridge Replacement P3, though that project, focusing on smaller bridges, did not involve tolling.

Colorado May Use Toll-Financed P3 for Widening I-70 Bottleneck
A much-needed $700 million project to widen a six-mile four-lane section of I-70 is beyond Colorado DOT’s current resources. So its High-Performance Transportation Enterprise is looking into the possibility of private investment. The alternatives for this difficult section are either a tunnel or an elevated viaduct. The sections of I-70 east and west of this bottleneck are both six-laned. The existing four-lane section includes two bridges that have “long-term maintenance problems.” I-70’s capacity for the bottleneck section drops by 2,400 vehicles per hour, resulting in “paralyzing traffic” on the way from Denver to mountain ski resorts.

Megaprojects Are in Question Post-Covid-19 in Japan and the UK
In Japan, reductions in rail ridership, as well as falling population, have generated calls to reconsider the $84 billion maglev project, the Linear Chuo Shinkansen between Tokyo and Nagoya. The cost is so high because 90 percent of the 178-mile route is planned as tunnels. The original opening date was 2027, but costs and decreased ridership may lead to its cancellation. In the United Kingdom, the HS2 line between London and Birmingham is also under fire, now that its cost is estimated to be well over $100 billion. Critics within the Treasury, the House of Lords, and some former cabinet members have said the project’s traffic projections post-COVID-19 look shaky, and the cost is now three times its original estimate.

Transportation Ballot Measures Pass, But Some Were Not Offered
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) reported that over 300 transportation ballot measures were voted on last month, and 94 percent of them passed, authorizing $14 billion of additional spending. But four years earlier, measures worth $207 billion were on that November’s ballot, of which 74 percent passed. Large measures in the San Francisco Bay Area and several other California metro areas were put on hold due to the pandemic. Among those voted down was a $5 billion measure in Portland, Oregon.

P3 Express Toll Lanes Open in Houston
The SH 288 express toll lanes opened to traffic on Nov. 16. The $1 billion project was developed under a 49-year revenue-risk toll concession. The consortium includes ACS Infrastructure, InfraRed Infrastructure Fund, and several other firms comprising Blueridge Transportation Group. The project added two express lanes each way along a 10.3-mile section of SH 288, from the Harris County line to U.S. 59 in Houston. The project included two major interchanges, 16 new flyover ramps, and new direct connectors to several key destinations.

Three Bidding for Second Concession in Chile
The original concession that built the Ruta 5 toll road from Talca to Chillan will expire this year, so competition is underway for a new concessionaire. Last month, three teams were short-listed, headed by Cintra, China Railway Construction, and Sacyr. The winner will be required to invest $806 million in improvements, including a 55 km bypass and widening a 30 km section. It will also upgrade the tolling system to electronic tolling.

Cline Avenue Bridge’s Last Segment Installed
The toll-financed bridge in East Chicago, Indiana, reached a milestone last month, as the last precast section was hoisted into place, completing the bridge deck. The project replaces an obsolete bridge that was closed in 2009. The bridge is a project of United Bridge Partners, which has financed it based on projected toll revenues. Construction began in June 2017 and the bridge will open sometime this winter.

Georgia Working on E-ZPass Interoperability
The State Road & Tollway Authority, which has already made its Peach Pass transponder system interoperable with toll roads in Florida and North Carolina, has a new milestone in its sights: joining E-ZPass. The current schedule calls for finalizing the arrangements with E-ZPass by the end of 2021. That will mean that nearly all toll roads and bridges east of the Mississippi will be accessible via any of the various state-issued transponders, and motorists will receive a single invoice or statement of all their toll transactions.

Honolulu Scraps P3 for Over-Budget Rail Project
With its cost now ballooned to $11 billion (twice the 2012 estimate), Honolulu’s mayor and city council abandoned support for a planned availability-payment P3 to complete the partly built system into downtown Honolulu. They requested a one-year extension of the Federal Transit Administration’s grant deadline, by which time the city must demonstrate a plan to actually finish the project. With support for the P3 now gone, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) announced plans for a design-build procurement instead.

$1.3 Billion P3 Project in Atlanta
Georgia DOT has short-listed three teams to bid on its $1.3 billion express toll lanes project for SR 400. The teams are led by ACS/Itinera, John Laing/Acciona, and Meridiam. The project includes adding two buffer-separated express toll lanes each way on 16 miles of SR 400 north of I-285. The 35-year concession calls for the winning bidder to design, build, finance, and maintain the new lanes over a 35-year operating period. The new lanes will become part of an evolving Georgia Express Lanes network in the Atlanta metro area.

Split Tolling Ended on Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
A fad from pre-electronic tolling days was one-way tolling on major bridges, applied enthusiastically to the toll bridges in the New York and San Francisco metro areas. The idea was to save money on toll collectors, with toll booths at only one end rather than both. Of course, to the extent that tolls (especially variable tolls) control congestion, that effect would be lost in the non-tolled direction. And in the New York area at least, truckers and others figured out ways to avoid paying tolls by taking advantage of the non-tolled directions, which often put trucks on routes through areas where they would not normally go. This anachronism ended on Dec. 1, at least on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge between Staten Island and Brooklyn. From now on, electronic tolling will prevail in both directions.

UK Adopts Cashless Tolling for New Tunnel
The $2.4 billion Lower Thames Crossing will be equipped with free-flow, all-electronic tolling, according to current plans by Highways England. The mega-project will build the UK’s longest highway tunnel, at 2.6 miles. The project is intended to relieve congestion at the Dartford Crossing, nearly doubling the capacity across the Thames River. Another stage of the project will widen the roadways approaching these two crossings. The Lower Thames Crossing will use tunnel boring machines to create the planned twin tubes. Work is scheduled to begin in 2022.

Washington State Tunnel Wins National Award
The Grand Prize winner in the 13th annual America’s Transportation Awards competition is Washington State DOT for its $3.3 billion two-mile SR 99 Tunnel Project. It replaced an obsolete SR 99 viaduct along the waterfront. The competition is sponsored by AASHTO, AAA, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Last month’s issue included a News Note about an important new UCLA policy paper on 100 years of efforts to combat highway congestion in the Los Angeles metro area. Several readers had trouble finding the paper online, so here is the best link to use.

» return to top

Quotable Quote

“This [post-COVID-19] prospective future no doubt would come as a disappointment to Urban Triumphalists, who insist the value of cities is due to economies of agglomeration resulting from face-to-face interaction. . . . While historically in-person contact has driven economies of agglomeration, and ‘why be in cities but to be near other people,’ the question remains: Must it always be so? Mega-cities were largely non-existent in the pre-Industrial Revolution period when the economies of agglomeration were often outweighed by the diseconomies. Cities will not be abandoned quickly; transitions are long, but we may be nearing ‘peak city.’ This shift undermines all the place-based strategies that economic development organizations have been promoting for decades.”
—David Levinson, “The New Normal: Mobility and Activity in the ‘After Times’,” Transportist, Nov. 3, 2020

» return to top