- How will “remote work” change land-use and transportation?
- Attacks on priced managed lanes have negative consequences
- A new milestone for self-driving cars
- BRT that underperforms
- Brightline West pulls bond offering
- Debating priced managed lanes in Maryland
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
A report just out from Upwork Global presents new data on the larger impacts of the still-unquantified shift toward significantly more telecommuting—or “remote work” as the author, labor economist Adam Ozimek, terms it. “Remote Workers on the Move” documents surprising shifts in where remote workers plan to live.
Ozimek surveyed 20,000 people to learn about their moving intentions. His report is based on those survey findings, along with census and real estate data. A brief summary of Ozimek’s findings:
- Remote work will increase migration in the U.S. Between 14 and 23 million Americans are planning to relocate as a result of businesses’ increasing acceptance of remote work. As a result, near-term migration rates could be three to four times what they normally are.
- Major cities will see the biggest out-migration. 20.6 percent of those planning to move are in a major city.
- People are seeking less-expensive housing. More than half (52.5 percent) of those planning to move are seeking a house significantly more affordable than their current home.
- People are moving beyond regular commute distances. 54.7 percent of planned moves are to locations more than two hours away from their current location, which is beyond most people’s tolerance for daily commuting.
- The highest-priced housing markets are taking the biggest hits. Rental data from apartments.com shows that the top 10 percent most-expensive markets are losing tenants at a much greater rate than markets in the bottom 10 percent.
Upwork’s interest in these findings is their implications for employers. But my interest is their implications for transportation and land-use policy. So my first task was to see if there is corroborating information from other sources. There’s plenty of that.
Emil Frankel of the Eno Center for Transportation cites outmigration from major cities to their suburbs to suggest that metro areas will become more decentralized, with implications for significant changes in transit systems.
Demographers Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin, in “America After Covid: What Demographics Tell Us,” draw on census data on migration and several experts’ predictions of possible permanent shifts to greater remote work to suggest a continuing shift from cities to suburbs and from major metro areas to smaller ones.
Reason magazine reporter Christian Britschgi draws on Realtor.com data to document “Massive Rent Declines in America’s Most Expensive Cities Prove, Once Again, that Supply-and-Demand Is Real.”
Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Grant used housing market data to inform his Oct. 14 article, “Renters Flock to Suburbia, Upending an Urbanization Trend.” And fellow WSJ reporter Katherine Bindley found numerous examples of remote workers moving to small towns far from major technology hubs, in her November 2nd article, “Tech Workers, Free to Roam, Put Down Roots in Mountains.”
I kept all of the above in mind as I read a new report just out from Transportation for America (a division of Smart Growth America) titled “Driving Down Emissions: Transportation, Land Use, and Climate Change.” The thrust of this report is that in order to reduce CO2 emissions from motor vehicles, America must reduce the extent of driving and densify urban land uses, creating large amounts of walkable, bike-able live/work neighborhoods. Amazingly, this report ignores the decentralization that has been evident in census data since well before the pandemic, as well as recent shifts to telecommuting. It states as a fact that, “Decades of out-migration from cities has ended in most big cities and most are experiencing a rebirth of new residents and investment,” and even claims that this alleged trend “has not been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Four years ago, my Reason colleagues produced an analysis of four national studies that assessed the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of this kind of “reduce driving and increase density” strategy for CO2 reduction and concluded that it would be both costly and ineffectual. There are far more cost-effective ways to reduce CO2 emissions from motor vehicles, which, incidentally, are a far smaller part of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than often claimed. T4A includes a pie chart showing that “transportation” accounts for 28 percent of U.S. GHG emissions—but only 59 percent of that is passenger vehicles. In other words, the personal vehicles T4A is concerned about account for only 16.5 percent of the total. And those emissions are headed steadily downward in the coming decades, without T4A’s preferred policies.
First, as ever-higher federal miles per gallon requirements on new cars lead to fuel-sipping cars replacing old gas guzzlers, annual gallons sold will be on a long-term downtrend in coming decades. That is why state departments of transportation are ramping up pilot projects to test mileage-based user fees as the replacement for shrinking fuel-tax revenues. Second, CO2 emissions are greatest in stop-and-go congestion, compared with steady flow at 45 miles per hour—and that is what variably priced express lanes are delivering (and which pricing freeway general lanes could do even more). Third, electric vehicles—which the report dismisses as not coming soon enough—are already getting federal and state subsidies, and are likely to get more in the next Congress.
And in terms of time frames, even if the remote work was not going to reduce urban densities, the idea of massively densifying the land-use patterns of largely suburban America by 2030 or 2035 is utopian. And it is far less likely to occur than increased government support for the transition to electric vehicles.
Last month I reviewed the important new report, “Emerging Challenges to Priced Managed Lanes,” originally proposed by the Transportation Research Board’s Managed Lanes Committee and released earlier this year as NCHRP Synthesis 559. That report identified two of the states experiencing a serious political backlash against priced express lanes as Texas and Florida. In the former, the governor and legislature have forbidden TxDOT to use any state highway funds for new tolled projects, and the legislature has refused to approve any new toll-revenue-based public-private partnership projects in recent years. And in Florida, a legislative contingent from Miami-Dade County each year manages to get their statewide colleagues to enact new restrictions on tolling and priced express lanes, nominally affecting only that county but actually having statewide implications. These measures are now inflicting serious damage to plans for regionwide express toll lane networks in Dallas and Houston, as well as in the Miami metro area.
A recent article by Dug Begley in the Houston Chronicle shows how the TxDOT Houston district is responding. Begley summarizes that office’s rationalization by saying that “[TxDOT] officials simply recognize that they are running out of room, cannot rely on toll lanes to curb congestion, and need support from across the region to accelerate projects they are planning.” He quotes TxDOT district planning director James Koch saying, “It’s just real estate out there. We are obviously not going to double the size of the facilities we have, so what do we do with the space we have?”
What seems to be happening is that projects originally planned as priced managed lanes are now being considered as transit lanes or possibly lanes reserved for electric or automated vehicles. The problem with transit-only lanes is that even the most optimistic projections of commuter bus demand would hardly ever lead to more than one bus per lane per minute. Counting a bus as equivalent to 1.5 passenger cars, that is the equivalent of 90 vehicles/lane/hour. Variably priced express toll lanes can handle 1,800 vehicles/lane/hour at a steady 45 mph, so a bus-only “managed lane” would waste 95 percent of its expensive capacity. As for EV-only or AV-only lanes, there is no good reason to separate out those vehicles, and it will probably be a decade or two before there are enough of either kind to use all the capacity of an AV or EV “managed lane.” Plus, there is emerging evidence that mixing AVs with regular traffic can lead to traffic-smoothing consequences (see News Notes).
Begley’s article uses a rectangle of four freeways near downtown as a case in point. TxDOT is considering “express lanes—perhaps elevated” on north-south I-610 for use by cars and buses. And on the stretch of I-10 in this rectangle, the project to add transit lanes “could be redesigned later as managed lanes,” according to a graphic within the article. Another component, for the I-69 portion, suggests “two-way managed or express lanes.” This artful use of terms may reflect a near-term accommodation to the state legislature’s tolling ban, with the hope that by the time such projects reach the construction stage, a legislative majority will have come to understand the value of variably priced express lanes to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow. Or this might suggest projects that are being designed to be converted to pricing after they are built, if and when the politics change. Still, in contrast to the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area, which was much farther along in creating its express lanes network by the time the tolling ban was imposed, the Houston area has far fewer priced express lane-miles in operation or close to opening.
Redefining express lanes is also on Florida DOT’s agenda in Miami-Dade County. As I noted in the February 2020 issue of this newsletter, in recent years legislators from that county have gained passage of a number of anti-toll laws, most recently in the 2020 session cutting the size of the recently opened express toll lanes on the Palmetto Expressway from two lanes to one lane each way, and requiring an additional entry point. Several years before, they enacted what I have termed a “poison pill” for express toll lanes statewide. It requires the variable price to be cut to the minimum amount (currently 50 cents) for any time period in which the express lanes fail to meet the federal standard of 45 mph 90 percent of the time during peaks. Because of a price cap (which FDOT has not been allowed to increase), the maximum toll of $10.50 during the northbound peak period on the I-95 express lanes is not high enough to cope with a physical bottleneck at the obsolete Golden Glades Interchange. So nearly every weekday afternoon, FDOT can charge only 50 cents when they probably need to charge $15. The resulting congestion lets the anti-toll faction crow that “priced express lanes are a failure.”
Unfortunately, it appears that FDOT is not going all-out to educate the Miami-Dade public about the benefits of priced express lanes or taking the courageous step of raising the price to whatever level is needed to restore free flow (given the lack of funding for a major redesign and replacement of the obsolete Golden Glades interchange). Instead, it appears to be studying ways to get greater use out of the I-95 express lanes by encouraging more carpools and transit to use the lanes. While that might sound trendy and popular, it would add to congestion and make it less worthwhile for current paying customers to continue using the lanes. Destroying the value of what has been one of the country’s most successful priced express lane projects would be a real tragedy.
Last month, Waymo made headlines when it announced it would be opening its automated taxi service, Waymo One, to the general public. The Alphabet subsidiary formerly organized as the Google Self-Driving Car Project said on Oct. 8 that it was re-opening fully automated rides (with no “safety driver”) to pre-screened customers and their guests in the Phoenix metro area. Most significantly, the company said that in “over the next several weeks” it would expand ridership eligibility to the general public, who will be able to download smartphone digital hail apps much like they can do today with Uber or Lyft. Waymo’s apparent entry into limited common carrier service raises a number of interesting issues that deserve attention.
Later in October, Waymo published two white papers, Safety Methodologies and Safety Readiness Determinations and Public Road Safety Performance Data, both of which provide a great deal of transparency into how Waymo is developing the safety case for its Waymo Driver SAE Level 4 automated driving system. In contrast, Tesla Motors released a beta version of “autosteer on city streets,” an SAE Level 2 driver assistance system the company envisions as an important stepping stone to higher levels of automation. Tesla has publicly shared very little on how it is building its own safety case. The company’s latest move was harshly criticized by industry group Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), which said in a statement, “Public road testing is a serious responsibility and using untrained consumers to validate beta-level software on public roads is dangerous and inconsistent with existing guidance and industry norms.”
Without wading into the debate on Tesla’s beta version release, it is clear Waymo currently has the better automation system, an actual automated driving system the company feels confident enough to use for ride-hailing open to the general public, albeit in a small area of metropolitan Phoenix. Waymo’s entry into common carrier service—or at least something resembling common carrier service—represents an important milestone for automated vehicles. It also raises a number of questions about Waymo’s ambitions and their interactions with public policy.
First, how rapidly can Waymo One expand its Phoenix service area? Waymo allows interested parties to sign up to be alerted when service is expanded into their areas but is otherwise noncommittal about expansion timelines. The company has indicated that it will soon be bringing back safety drivers in some of its Waymo One service vehicles in order to expand the Phoenix service area. This suggests any expansions will be somewhat labor-intensive and take time.
Second, what impacts might Arizona policy have on future Waymo One service? Arizona currently lacks binding automated vehicle policy, although as I noted in a recent Reason Foundation policy brief, Arizona’s light-touch automated vehicle regulatory environment is underpinned by inaction from the legislature and questionable uses of the governor’s executive order powers. Arizona is largely a policy blank slate that could become supportive or restrictive toward Waymo and others depending on political winds and the whims of politicians. Careful appeals for a form of regulatory certainty that respects innovation will likely be made in the near future.
Third, can Waymo One’s Arizona service be replicated in other states? Waymo states that it has tested its vehicles in 10 states and 25 cities, “from sunny Phoenix, Arizona to rainy Kirkland, Washington, across the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan, through Death Valley heat, and in foggy San Francisco to ensure that our vehicles learn to drive in a variety of challenging weather conditions.” That said, a disproportionate amount of that testing has taken place in its current Waymo One operating zone, just 50 square miles in the Phoenix East Valley area. Earlier this year, Waymo announced it would begin mapping Interstates in New Mexico and Texas for its automated heavy trucks, so an expansion into more of the Sun Belt may be on the horizon. The policy environment in the larger Sun Belt is generally similar to Arizona’s, although the weather gets significantly wetter as you move east.
Finally, will future federal policy be supportive or restrictive? There are currently seven active rulemaking projects related to automated driving systems at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A new administration could choose to continue those rulemakings or chart its own regulatory path from scratch. A choice of the latter option would likely delay modernization of federal motor vehicle safety standards that is necessary to allow vehicles equipped with automated driving systems to be produced and deployed in large numbers. Congress has so far failed to enact national automated vehicle legislation, but has indicated that it will begin working on new legislation in early 2021. While there are innovation risks associated with any future federal action, federal inaction has spurred counterproductive actions in a number of states. Policy uncertainty is likely to remain in the coming years until key technical standards and test procedures are published.
Waymo has made a remarkable amount of progress in its few years of existence. Its expansion of ride-hailing outside of the Phoenix East Valley area and its move into highway freight are likely to be cautious and slow. (Don’t plan to let your driver’s license lapse just yet!) This is entirely understandable given the large amount of uncertainty. By the same token, when it comes to automated vehicle policy, legislators and regulators at all levels of government should adopt a corresponding cautious and slow approach.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and priced express lanes are a high-performance combination. Rather than seeking to maximize person-throughput by exempting carpools from tolls (which reduces the congestion-reducing benefits of pricing), getting long-distance express bus service to use the priced lanes increases person-throughput while maintaining effective pricing to keep all traffic flowing smoothly. In this kind of BRT, the same bus that uses the uncongested express lane corridor begins its trip on surface streets picking up passengers from locations such as park and ride lots (in the AM peak) or from employment centers (in the PM peak). This gives express bus commuters something close to a door-to-door trip.
All too many planned BRT systems, however, seek to emulate rail transit, running only from station to station, which means nearly all of the passengers must use one mode to get to the station, ride the BRT bus to a station somewhere near their destinations, and potentially take a third mode to their real destinations. And unlike the BRT/priced express lane model, this kind of BRT nearly always makes use of an exclusive guideway, whose cost comes from general taxpayers. By contract, in many priced express lane corridors, the toll-paying customers cover most or all the costs of the guideway.
A rail-emulating BRT system is getting close to approval in Miami. It’s the East-West Corridor—part of Miami-Dade Transit’s plan to add six transit corridors under its 2016 Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit (SMART) Plan. The Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) board voted this month to select this BRT-only plan as the locally approved alternative (LPA) for this corridor. The project must still be approved by the Miami-Dade County Commission before a funding plan can be developed; the cost is estimated to be $418 million, far less than the rail transit alternative estimated at $2.35 billion. And some BRT funding is likely to be available from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program. The BRT project is clearly more cost-effective than the rail alternative.
However, consider the downsides. The longest part of the route will use the median of the Dolphin Expressway, the busiest (and often highly congested) east-west toll road in the region. It will use the space that would have otherwise been available for variably priced express lanes, a key missing link in the regional express lanes plan. Instead of offering express service from western suburbs to key destinations such as Miami International Airport (adjacent to the Dolphin Expressway) and downtown Miami, the bus-only service will operate from station to station, with three station stops on the Dolphin itself. That will require building elevated stations to cross over traffic lanes so as to reach bus boarding platforms in the center of the expressway. Hence, what economists call the “opportunity cost” of using the Dolphin’s remaining right of way just for buses is the benefits for auto commuters from having variably priced express toll lanes that they could use in order to avoid chronic congestion on the Dolphin, paying extra for time-sensitive trips.
Three BRT routes are planned for this East-West corridor, each operating at 15-minute headways during peak periods. That would mean four buses per hour for each of three routes, for a total of 12 buses per hour. If the project were instead developed for express bus service, without the three intermediate stops along the Dolphin, and access was provided for variable-toll-paying customers to use the lanes, there would be up to 1,800 paying customers per hour in those lanes—rather than only 12 buses.
I wrote a policy brief on this corridor in 2017, with the aid of a senior traffic and revenue consultant familiar with the corridor. We estimated speeds in the general lanes and a proposed bus/toll lane in 2025, 2030, and 2035, compared with a bus-only lane with various numbers of buses. The bus-toll alternative—with 25 buses per hour plus toll-paying autos—led to significantly reduced congestion in the general lanes, with annual motorist time savings of 1.9 million hours by 2035 and additional revenue from the variable tolls in the bus/toll lanes of $21.7 million per year as of 2035. All that will be given up if the bus-only plan is implemented on the Dolphin Expressway.
Last month’s issue included a News Note about Brightline West launching an offer to investors for $3.2 billion in “green bonds” for its planned electric train service between Victorville (in the California high desert) and Las Vegas. Morgan Stanley, as the lead book runner, expected the unrated (junk) bonds to be priced and sold by about Oct. 5. Well, it’s now the first week of November and the bonds have not found buyers, and that’s after Brightline (and parent company Fortress Investment Group) took several steps to make them more attractive.
In several stages throughout the month, they reduced the size of the offering from $3.2 billion to $2.4 billion. And they increased the amount of equity Brightline would commit to the deal to more than 30 percent of the estimated $8 billion price tag. By Oct. 23, the allocation of tax-exempt bonds from the California Infrastructure Development Bank had been cut from $2.4 billion to $2.2 billion, and the allocation from the Nevada Department of Business and Industry was cut from $800 million to $200 million. And still no deal.
On Nov. 1, Fortress announced that the project was being postponed, due to the inability to sell the bonds. California Treasurer Fiona Ma said the bond capacity allocated to Brightline West will be returned to the state and used for other projects, such as affordable housing. Just the week before, the company launched a glossy website, brightlinewestconstruction.com.
Why were investors so cool to these bonds? Bloomberg’s Romy Varghese, in an Oct. 7 article, provided some clues, by unveiling some of the information being presented to potential bond buyers. In a video shown to such prospects, the company “predicted profit margins of at least 70 percent.” Its trains would provide a three-hour trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, compared with six hours by car. The article also noted that Morgan Stanley “pitched corporate junk bond buyers and overseas investors and suggested yields as high as 7.5 percent”—about four times what the highest-rated state and local government bonds pay.
Note that what is being pitched to these bond buyers is not the $8 billion line between Las Vegas and Victorville (90 miles northeast of downtown LA) but the eventual system (at unknown cost and opening date) from LA’s Union Station. Overseas investors unfamiliar with southern California geography may miss this point.
But they also may be familiar with several governmental high-speed rail providers in Europe that claim to make profits.
First, European high-speed rail companies’ bizarre accounting statements count large operating subsidies as “revenue,” as documented some years ago in a report by Amtrak’s Inspector General. And second, only three HSR lines in the entire world claim to be covering their construction costs as well as operating and maintenance costs from farebox revenues. There are no federal or state operating subsidies for U.S. high-speed rail, so where is the debt service on these bonds supposed to come from?
I also have to question the claim that this project will provide high-speed rail service between (eventually, someday) downtown Los Angeles and downtown Las Vegas. That distance is 258 miles (via the proposed route), and if a nonstop trip takes three hours, that’s an average speed of just 86 miles per hour. Why is the company going to the extra expense of planning to buy locomotives with a top speed of 200 mph, and the higher cost of more-precise track required by such speeds? That’s not what it did with the far more modest Brightline train in Florida, which is sharing track and right of way over most of its route with sister freight rail company Florida East Coast. I’m on record stating that this Florida service, once the northern extension to Orlando is completed, has a chance of being profitable. That seems highly unlikely for Brightline West.
The state of Maryland is currently holding environmental hearings on the first phase of a $9 billion plan to add variably priced express lanes to the Maryland side of the Capital Beltway and I-270. The first phase adds four variably-priced toll lanes to I-270 between I-495 and I-370 and to I-495 between the Potomac River and I-270. The $9 billion project, financed completely by the private sector, would be the largest highway public-private partnership (P3) in the world. (Later phases would add lanes on I-495 to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and on I-270 to Fredrick).
But opponents in Montgomery County, Maryland, including a gaggle of anti-development groups, are pulling out all of the stops to kill the project.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), all major roadway expansion projects must include a full environmental impact statement (EIS). The EIS must evaluate the benefits of a specific project and the cumulative environmental impacts arising from it. Project sponsors must develop a reasonable range of alternatives that accomplish the purpose and need while considering impacts to socioeconomic, cultural, and natural resources. Some environmental groups believe this means that if there is any harm from the project it should not be built. But the NEPA statute is written only to ensure that any planned project improvements do more good than harm.
Public reviews, particularly community hearings, are a critical part of any megaproject. By their nature, public hearings attract folks with the strongest emotional responses to projects. Drivers and transit users who will benefit from the widened I-270 and I-495 project aren’t going to spend their time praising federal and state governments for their outstanding environmental documentation. But detractors will scour the EIS for any potential flaw.
It is also true that the state will have to buy a limited number of properties for the expansion. And if that limited number of properties happens to include your house, you have a strong personal stake in this project.
But many who spoke at the hearing aren’t individual homeowners. Many do not live anywhere near the first phase of the project. Some do not even live in Maryland. In fact, the vast majority of speakers in the Aug. 25 morning hearings that I attended were from well-organized environmental groups that have both the time and the budget to oppose this type of project. Many of these groups believe any development action, including cutting down overgrown weeds, will harm their quality of life. And some made uninformed, inaccurate statements.
Environmental review meeting attendees are typically the residents with the strongest feelings or the ones with the most free time. But the attendees are not necessarily the residents impacted most by the project. In this case, some claimed that the project would decimate wildlife. Others argued that it would destroy popular parkland. Still others argued that the state should spend money on more rail transit. Let’s examine each of those claims.
Wildlife counts show that Montgomery County has an above-average wildlife habitat for a suburban area. The county may not have the wildlife diversity of Yosemite, but achieving that level of diversity would require a different climate, larger elevation change, and the removal of most of the Montgomery County residents. Montgomery County has far more acres of parkland per capita than the national average. Quantity of parkland is important, but so is quality.
The state is already building light-rail transit with the Purple Line via another public-private partnership. The project is slated to run from Bethesda to New Carrolton about five miles away from the express lanes project. The I-270 and I-495 express lanes are being funded with private financing based on toll revenue. Folks who never take the express lanes won’t have to pay for them. The state is also adding express bus service to make use of the express lanes’ uncongested capacity, which will enable faster and more-reliable express bus service. And the toll-paying passenger vehicles— not the transit agencies— will pay the costs of the new lanes. Building more rail lines, as opponents urge, would require taxpayer funding that the state does not have. Any additional east-west rail project would duplicate the Purple Line.
The public review process can be frustrating for all involved but there are three things project sponsors can do to improve the process. First, construction companies should explain NEPA’s statutory role of weighing the positives and negatives of a proposed improvement. Second, project sponsors should use detailed mapping tools to better inform residents and employees of the district. These folks should be invited to public meetings and online communications. Finally, project sponsors should take comments from all interested parties including environmental groups, but also acknowledge that these groups may be overrepresented at public meetings and may not necessarily represent the will of the community.
$2.1 Billion Sydney Highway Tunnel Offers Traffic-Relief Benefits
On Oct. 31, the new NorthConnex Tunnel opened to traffic in Sydney, Australia. It was built to relieve traffic congestion on a parallel arterial, Pennant Hills Road, which has 21 traffic lights. Though the twin tubes were built to accommodate three lanes each way, the tunnel opened striped for just two lanes in each direction. One of the goals of the project is to remove 5,000 trucks per day from the arterial, by banning them from operating on it during peak periods, which requires them to pay tunnel tolls. The flat-rate toll is $5.60 for cars and three times that for trucks. The construction cost per lane-mile for the 5.6-mile tunnel works out to be $62.5 million, using the built capacity of six total lanes.
Reimagining Transportation Policy During and After COVID-19
What permanent changes may result for transportation once the pandemic is over? In a recent Reason Foundation policy study, analyst Randal O’Toole uses federal data sources to quantify potential changes in telecommuting, auto travel, urban transit (whose numbers all interact) as well as estimates of changes in land use, intercity transportation, and freight. Even modest changes in mode share and locational preferences could produce significant changes in transportation.
Louisiana’s First Highway P3 Paves the Way for Others
That’s the assessment by P3 analyst Eugene Gilligan, writing in the Oct. 2 issue of Inframation News. The first project was the Belle Chasse Bridge and Tunnel Replacement, won by a team led by Plenary Americas. The project reached financial close in December 2019, after the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development worked out modest toll rates for the replacement bridge, in the face of opposition in relatively low-income Plaquemines Parish. Having negotiated a winning deal, Louisiana DOTD has its sights on a much larger P3 for 2021: replacing the aging Calcasieu River Bridge on I-10. It will once again seek a revenue-risk P3 model, under which the project is financed based on projected toll revenue.
Car Sector Comes Roaring Back, says Wall Street Journal
In a front-page story on October 29, Wall Street Journal reporters found that the U.S. auto industry “has bounced back stronger and faster than many expected” Several auto companies reported record profits for the third quarter. The reporters cited hunkered-down consumers being “willing to splurge more on their vehicles and fixing up their homes.” Other factors include very low-interest rates and in some cases government stimulus payments to consumers.
Fitch Expects Most U.S. Toll Roads to Weather the Pandemic
On Oct. 28, Fitch Ratings released a commentary finding that “most U.S. toll roads have enough financial flexibility to weather the global coronavirus pandemic,” assuming economic conditions continue to improve. Since last year’s peer review of U.S. toll roads, Fitch upgraded two and downgraded two others. It also changed the rating outlook on eight systems to negative, but it has now returned the outlook for two of those to stable after they implemented toll rate increases. One of the two that were downgraded is the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which is still legally appealing a 2019 state law that would replace its board and curtail its future bonding.
Proposed Federal Law Would Ban Sale of New Petroleum-Fueled Cars
Seeking to emulate California Gov. Gavin Newsome’s regulatory strategy to make non-electric new car sales illegal after 2035, companion bills to do likewise have been introduced in Congress. The bills, while seemingly unlikely to pass in the short-term, would ban non-electric personal vehicle sales as of 2035 and require half of all new-car sales to be electric by 2025. The House sponsor is Rep. Mike Levin (D, CA) and the Senate sponsor is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D, OR). Merkley had introduced a less-drastic bill several years ago that would have ended non-electric vehicle sales by 2040 as part of an economy-wide shift to non-petroleum energy by 2050.
EV Battery Fires Affect Most Makes
Wall Street Journal reporter Ban Foldy reported (Oct. 20) that BMW, Ford, GM, and Hyundai have joined Tesla in having their EVs and hybrids occasionally catch on fire, due to their lithium-ion battery packs. Foldy reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating reported fires in Chevy Bolt vehicles, while Ford has delayed the launch of its next hybrid Escape due to this problem. Hyundai is recalling 77,000 Kona SUVs in response to about a dozen battery fires, and BMW has recalled about 27,000 plug-in hybrids worldwide.
More Agencies Phasing Out Cash Tolls
Manual toll collection is on its way out at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s three major Hudson River crossings. The Holland Tunnel is within two months of going cashless permanently, while all-electronic toll collection for the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge is expected to be ready within 18 months. A similar process is underway nationwide in Japan, with the Transport Ministry announcing plans to replace all remaining cash tolling on its many tollways with all-electronic tolling. Only 10 percent of its customers still pay with cash, but the cost of collection is much higher for cash tolls.
A Century of Fighting Traffic Congestion in Los Angeles
In an unprecedented historical and analytical overview, UCLA’s Martin Wachs and two graduate students have compiled a history of attempts to reduce traffic congestion in Los Angeles. One surprising finding is just about every proposed solution has been tried and failed—including densification, dispersion, rail transit, jobs-housing balance, and continued capacity expansion. The one policy that has only been tried a bit is congestion pricing, which is the underlying message of this history.
Truck Manufacturers Pursuing Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Despite the negative publicity about electric truck start-up Nicola, a growing number of truck producers are investing seriously in hydrogen fuel-cell production, especially for long-distance, over-the road trucks. Daimler, whose U.S. brands are Freightliner and Western Star, has shifted its fuel-cell efforts from cars to trucks; it has also formed a joint venture with Volvo to develop fuel cells for trucks. Both Toyota and Hyundai are also developing hydrogen fuel cell trucks for the North American market. “The bigger and heavier the truck, the more fuel cells seem to be the better solution,” said Hyundai’s director of product strategy to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Enough lithium-ion batteries to power a long-distance big rig would weigh over 25,000 lbs.—far more than the claimed weight of hydrogen fuel tanks and fuel cells.
Alabama Voters Reject New Toll Road
Voters in Baldwin County on Nov. 3rd voted to reject the proposed Baldwin Beach Express toll road project. The $100-million toll-financed project would have linked an existing toll road to I-65, as a faster route to the beach and as a larger hurricane evacuation corridor.
German Truck Tolls Ruled Excessive by European Court of Justice
In a victory for European trucking companies, the European Court of Justice last month ruled that toll charges must not include the cost of policing the highways. The relevant European Union directive requires that toll revenue be used only for infrastructure costs, and policing is not that kind of cost.
Transit Agency Spent $20,000 per “Bike and Ride” Space
The Department of Transportation Inspector General’s office reviewed the Bike and Ride project of the Washington Metro, at the request of a Senate committee. The analysts focused mostly on the East Falls Church and Vienna Metro stations but also reviewed data for the College Park facility, that was already completed before the audit began. The transit agency spent over $5.9 million on the three facilities, and only two of the three have opened after five years of construction. For the total of 304 bike parking spaces planned, the cost works out to nearly $20,000 per space.
Model Suggests Benefits from Mixing AVs and Conventional Vehicles
What will happen to traffic flow as autonomous vehicles start to enter the fleet? A study that modeled this appears in the Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical. Amir Goldental and Ido Kanter’s modeling showed that even as few as 5 percent AVs on a multilane freeway can actually improve traffic flow. The key is for small groups of AVs to self-organize into groups that split the traffic flow into controllable clusters. Their model showed up to a 40 percent improvement in traffic flow and speed. The paper is titled, “A Small Number of Self-Organizing Autonomous Vehicles Significantly Increases Traffic Flow.” This research may call into question the idea of creating separate lanes for automated vehicles.
Truck Platooning Technology for over 1,100 Truck Tractors
Freightwaves reported last month that technology company Locomation has announced a purchase order from Wilson Logistics of Springfield, MO. Locomation will equip 1,120 of Wilson’s truck tractors with its Autonomous Relay Convoy technology, starting in early 2022. The Freightwaves article noted that the second and third trucks in a platoon might not need a driver, but its article did not say whether the system to be installed in the Wilson trucks will have that capability.
Hyperloop Test Track to Be Built in West Virginia
Virgin Hyperloop has announced that its $500 million hyperloop certification center and test track will be built on a former coal mine site in West Virginia, near the Maryland border. The test track will be six miles in length—longer than any existing test track, but it’s not clear what top speed can be achieved in that length, considering both acceleration to that speed and subsequent deceleration. Virgin Hyperloop’s existing test track in Nevada is only 1,640 ft. long.
Transit Agencies Have $49 Billion in Unfunded Retirement Liabilities
A recent commentary by Marc Joffe of the Reason Foundation’s Pension Integrity Project reviewed the financial statements of 30 large U.S. transit systems. The resulting table identifies $31 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and another $18 billion in unfunded post-employment benefit liabilities for these transit systems. By far the largest total—$27 billion—belongs to New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority; in second place is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, at just over $4 billion in unfunded liabilities.
Think Tank Critiques Proposed Cascadia High-Speed Rail
The Washington Policy Center has released a study challenging many of the assumptions made in a Business Case Analysis of the proposed 466-mile high-speed rail system linking Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The critiqued report was produced by a consultant for the Washington State DOT. Having observed the HSR debacle in California, I read this critique with interest, and I think it has raised many serious questions. To see for yourself, go here.
Link Correction Re Last Issue’s BRT Overview
A link in the October issue for Randal O’Toole’s valuable comparative assessment of various bus rapid transit (BRT) systems contained a typo. The best correct link is here. Apologies for the error; please try again to access this excellent assessment, “Rapid Bus: Finding the Right Model.”
“Connecticut should embrace public-private partnerships (P3s) as a means of accelerating these infrastructure projects. Private-sector partners can utilize the ‘design-build-finance-operate-maintain’ model that has been successful in other states like Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Texas. . . . But the P3 concessionaires want a return on their money. Availability payments use revenue streams like taxes, fees, and tolls to compensate the concession company, based on achieving milestone and operational performance standards. In exchange, the P3 concessionaire accepts certain obligations and risks, including construction cost overruns, late completion, and risks related to operations, maintenance, and rehabilitation. Let’s face it: for highway projects, tolls would need to be the primary repayment source. The decision made against tolls last December will have to be revisited.”
—State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg and Michael Imber, “Connecticut Needs Its Own New Deal to Rebuild Our Broken Infrastructure,” The Connecticut Mirror, Oct. 15, 2020
“I think the pushback on managed lanes is bad branding—the labels focus on negatives like tolls instead of positives like speed. . . . [I suggest] the branding ‘MaX Lanes’ instead, standing for Managed eXpress Lanes, but with a tagline of ‘moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed’—an objective which almost nobody disagrees with. That kind of branding could go a long way in helping to sell these kinds of projects. . . . It’s not copyrighted—anyone can use it.”
—Tory Gattis, founding senior fellow, the Urban Reform Institute, email to Robert Poole, Oct. 14, 2020
“Of course, a streetcar isn’t inherently a racist transportation mode. But because they often cost so much, cover such small areas, and carry heavy associations with racist movies from the 1940s, progressive urbanists tend to see trolleys more as glorified theme part rides than as meaningful transit. And they also don’t do much to combat car dependency, cut congestion, or even improve roadway travel speeds.”
—Kea Wilson, “Study: Streetcars Symbolize the Dangers of ‘Colorblind’ Transit Planning,” Streetsblog, Oct. 26, 2020