- How “citizen voice” helped triple the cost of Interstates
- Canada points the way on modernized highway rest areas
- Truck automation developers take on tough problems
- Bus yard P3 captures value for transit
- Metro Silver Line to Dulles Airport: the truth comes out
- Countering the “freeway fighters”
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Economists have documented that the real cost per mile of constructing Interstate highways tripled between the 1960s and 1980s. A study by Leah Brooks of George Washington University and Yale University’s Zachary Liscow looks into what factors led to this increase—and suggests that the rise of “citizen voice” seems to have played a key role.
Their 2019 research digitized annual state-level construction spending per mile of Interstate from 1956 to the 2010s. The major cost increase was in place by the 1980s. The report finds that it was not due to increases in the costs of labor or materials during those years. What did increase dramatically was real per-capita income and housing prices, which suggests that more-affluent households demanded more expensive highways (e.g., noise walls) and/or were more effective at “voicing their interests in the political process” in the post-70s era. Among their findings on this is that land-use litigation explains about a quarter of the increase in costs.
A key factor in enabling “citizen voice” to affect the construction of Interstate highways was the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which requires environmental reviews of projects with significant federal funding. But it was not just the statute itself. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled (in Citizens to Protect Overland Park v. Volpe) that citizens could sue administrative agencies over environmental impacts. Brooks and Liscow don’t discuss the cost of lengthy delays imposed by ever-more-complex environmental reviews, but those delays (assuming the project eventually gets approval to be built) do add to its cost. Their focus is on the high cost of changes to highway design that result from such litigation, for which they find empirical evidence.
Besides presenting statistical data on the increased use of noise walls, circuitous routing, elevated and depressed sections, and more on- and off-ramps, they also illustrate with a case study. I-696 in Detroit was built in two sections, the first in the 1960s and the second in the 1980s, at three times the cost per mile. The latter faced “decades of opposition” from citizen groups, leading to a final design that depressed the entire leg and built three 700-foot-long plazas decking over the highway, plus noise walls along most of its length.
Brooks and Liscow do not argue that these kinds of changes were unwarranted. One can argue that the initial Interstates imposed negative externalities on adjacent areas that were not compensated for those bearing the burdens. The question many thoughtful commentators are now asking is whether the empowerment of endless litigation by opponents of projects has gone too far, sometimes killing beneficial infrastructure improvements in transportation and energy infrastructure.
Back in March, Ezra Klein had a lengthy opinion piece in the New York Times along these lines, as did Jerusalem Demsas in The Atlantic. Even legislators in deep blue California have begun questioning the state’s version of NEPA (CEQA) for preventing new housing and green infrastructure projects.
No one is arguing for the repeal of NEPA or CEQA. The question is whether citizen-voice litigation has gotten out of control. The noteworthy Transit Costs Project at New York University’s Marron Institute has found that those European countries with significantly less-costly transit megaprojects have little or no citizen litigation but have strong environmental review laws. If we ever get back to bipartisan federal policymaking, there might be a critical mass of support for reforming NEPA, as a compromise between advocates of needed energy infrastructure (high-voltage transmission lines, solar power fields, pipelines) and advocates of needed transportation infrastructure (highways, transit, and occasionally airport runways).
Inframation News (Aug. 10, 2022) reported that Alberta Transportation (the province’s transportation agency) has issued a Negotiated Request for Proposals (NRFP) for the development and operation of Commercial Safety Rest Areas along its major highways. Proposals are due Jan. 9, 2023, and a shortlist will be announced in March, with preferred proponent(s) selected in April.
Like the United States, Canada has minimally-equipped rest areas, and in Alberta the majority “have low utilization by the traveling public due to a lack of amenities and inadequate washroom facilities,” according to the NRFP. The agency envisions a long-term public-private partnership (P3) lease agreement with one or more proponents for the 18 rest areas to be redeveloped. Potential commercial services include car and truck fuel, electric vehicle (EV) charging, convenience store, and quick-service restaurant facilities.
This sounds a lot like what U.S. toll roads have been doing over the past decade or so. As I documented in a March 2021 Reason policy study, six major toll roads (including Florida’s Turnpike, the Indiana Toll Road, and the New York Thruway) have entered into 30-35-year P3 leases to redevelop their service plazas, contracting with commercial providers such as HMS Host and Areas USA. These are basically design-build-finance-operate-maintain revenue-risk (DBFOM) P3s in which the private partner finances and rebuilds the facilities based on the projected revenues over the term of the lease agreement (with some revenue shared with the toll road owner). Private investment in these projects ranges from double-digit millions for smaller toll roads to $450 million for the New York Thruway’s 27 service plazas.
This would be an appealing proposition to many state DOTs, which lack any dedicated revenue source to maintain or redevelop their minimal-service Interstate highway rest areas. That’s because providing commercial services at those rest areas is still illegal under a 62-year-old statute that bans commercial services at those rest areas (but exempts toll roads). That ban has only two supporters: the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO). By contrast, the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association (OOIDA) has long supported repealing this archaic ban.
There are two urgent reasons to repeal the ban (which is in Section 111 of Title 23 of the U.S. Code): the growing shortage of safe overnight parking for long-distance trucking and the need for electric vehicle charging on long-distance Interstates.
The ongoing growth of e-commerce means more trucks on the road than ever before. ATA and OOIDA note that for every 11 truck drivers nationwide there is only one truck parking space. Investors such as Timber Hill Group are gearing up to invest in truck parking, but they can’t do that at Interstate rest areas due to the federal ban. Truck parking is particularly tight along major freight corridors, David Heller of the Truckload Carriers Association told TransportDive back in May. State transportation departments cannot afford to expand their Interstate rest areas, but investors might well be willing to do so, if that became legal.
The other need is for electric vehicle charging facilities on long-distance Interstates. In public comments on the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) new $5 billion program to help states pay for adding EV charging “along” (i.e., within one mile of) rural Interstates, a number of state DOTs have asked for waivers so they could install EV charging facilities as those rest areas, owned and operated by private companies, not the state. The trucking industry wants far more powerful EV chargers for its big rigs, ideally rated at over 1 MW vs. 350 KW suggested in the federal guidelines. That’s more than they are likely to get, unless it’s part of an investor-financed P3 that would make the most sense to be located at Interstate rest areas.
One of these days, ATA and NATSO are going to have to bite the bullet and concede that the 62-year-old ban on commercial services has outlived its usefulness. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what happens in Alberta. Will U.S.-based Flying J (a NATSO member in good standing) join a consortium to bid on Alberta commercial-service rest area modernization?
Last month’s issue discussed the continued progress and challenges with heavy truck automation (“Autonomous Trucks Making Progress—But Aren’t There Yet”). While “we are not yet ready for fully autonomous commercial service,” developers appear to be increasingly focusing on the practical operational issues that must be addressed prior to commercial deployment, including emergency fallback, interactions with first responders, and adverse weather conditions.
For an automated driving system (ADS) to qualify as Level 4 as defined by SAE International’s consensus standard J3016—with Level 4 being the level of automation at which human operators can be eliminated (in certain operational design domains)—the ADS must be capable of automatically performing a fallback to a minimal risk condition (i.e., “a stable, stopped condition”) in the event of an ADS failure. In May, a leading developer of Class 8 Big rig automation, Kodiak Robotics, announced it was deploying such functionality in its test vehicles. “There’s over 1,000 metrics the truck is constantly monitoring many times per second,” Kodiak CEO Don Burnette told Forbes. “If anything becomes abnormal, if there’s any diagnostic that triggers, then the Fallback kicks in and is safely able to bring the truck to a safe stop on the side of the road; then that system can ask for help remotely from our remote operations.”
But once ADS-equipped vehicles are stopped, they may not be able to resume operation with the assistance of a remote operator, as Burnette says, such as after a collision or mechanical failure that renders the vehicle inoperable. In those cases, police and firefighters may be the first to respond to the scene. This raises numerous questions as to how these first responders should safely interact with a disabled ADS-equipped truck. ADS-equipped trucks will also need to be able to identify and pull over for emergency vehicles. The broader automated vehicle industry has been working on first responder interaction plans for several years and some jurisdictions now require that these plans be filed prior to on-road testing.
In late June, Embark, another developer of Class 8 truck automation, conducted a public demonstration with the Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County Sheriff’s Office on a stretch of SH 130 outside of Austin where sheriff’s deputies successfully completed a traffic stop of an Embark truck. Emily Warren, Embark’s head of public policy, told FleetOwner that the company’s emergency vehicle interaction capability “was designed to work seamlessly within existing law enforcement workflows, without requiring new training or technology investment by first responders.”
Embark’s “Autonomous Truck Law Enforcement Interaction Procedure” provides more detail on the mechanics involved. When a law enforcement vehicle behind an Embark truck activates its lights, Embark’s ADS first alerts a remote technician to request confirmation that a traffic stop has been initiated. If the remote technician does not respond within a certain window, the ADS makes the default assumption that the truck is being pulled over and exits the roadway onto the shoulder. Decals on the outside of the truck provide an Embark support phone number, a digital display indicates whether the truck is safe to approach, and an exterior combination lockbox contains required documents such as registration, proof of insurance, and bill of lading. With the assistance of a remote technician, the law enforcement officer on the scene can be guided over the phone to complete the traffic stop. To see it in action, Embark has produced a narrated video of the SH 130 demonstration.
One of the most challenging operational hurdles facing commercial deployment of automated trucks is adverse weather. As was discussed in this newsletter in April (“Could Automation Replace Most Long-Haul Truck Drivers?”), a recent study found that restricting automated truck operations to the 11 Sun Belt states largely free of snow and ice would impact only 10% of human truck driver operator-hours in the U.S.
In May, Embark reported successful trials of its Vision Map Fusion technology conducted on snowy Montana roadways in winter 2022. On a 60-mile route between Clinton and Missoula, Embark found that its technology would allow for it to meet acceptable shipper delivery windows 90% of the time in conditions with up to one-sixth of an inch per hour snowfall and one inch of roadway snowfall accumulation. Its Vision Map Fusion technology relies heavily on cameras to account for degraded LIDAR performance during moderate snow events.
These advances show automated truck developers are serious in deploying nationwide in real-world conditions. However, much more work remains to be done for commercial deployments to be viable. One area to watch relates to emergency signals for stopped trucks. When drivers must pull their trucks over to the side of the road, federal regulations (49 C.F.R. § 392.22) require that they place warning triangles or flares 100 feet in front and behind of their trucks within 10 minutes of stopping. This poses obvious compliance problems for driverless trucks, and it is so far unclear how automated trucks will meet this requirement, among others that presume a human driver is present and capable of exiting the cab to perform necessary duties.
When investors examine public-private partnership opportunities, they don’t typically consider California the land of opportunity. While the State Route 91 express toll lanes project in Orange County was the first transportation P3 in the country, the Golden State has been in a dry spell. Most P3 projects in California have several challenges to overcome. Complicated environmental rules make building any piece of infrastructure challenging. And the Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG), the union for Caltrans engineers, has fought most P3s like they’re an existential threat.
However, California’s self-help counties (with their own dedicated transportation sales taxes) have been more adept at navigating environmental rules. And PECG does not represent their employees. Los Angeles Metro converted the I-10 and I-110 high-occupancy vehicle lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes using a design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) P3. And the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA, also known as MUNI) is in the process of procuring the Potrero Bus Yard project, one of the most innovative P3 transit projects to date.
Built in 1915, the Potrero Bus Yard is situated on 4.4 acres. SFMTA maintains six bus routes that served 100,000 MUNI customers (2019 pre-COVID number) from the yard. Originally operated as a streetcar facility, the yard can accommodate 138 40-foot and 60-foot buses. However, MUNI is transitioning to an electric vehicle fleet. And the building, which is more than 100 years old, has long been obsolete; it does not meet current seismic or safety standards. Given the city’s density, SFMTA cannot expand the size of the yard or find new land to build a new facility. Therefore, SFMTA needs to modernize the facility to accommodate electric vehicles.
In 2019, SFMTA announced the Potrero Yard Modernization Project P3 that will replace the two-story maintenance building and bus yard with a modern, three-story, efficient bus maintenance and storage garage. In addition to modernizing the bus yard, the project is designed to address another one of San Francisco’s major problems: housing. The project adds 575 residential units of housing to the bus yard making it a rare residential/industrial mixed-use project.
The project has made steady, albeit somewhat slow, progress. In Aug. 2020, SFMTA issued a request for qualifications. In December, SFMTA shortlisted Potrero Mission Community Partners led by John Laing and Edgemoor, Potrero Neighborhood Collective led by Plenary US, and Potrero Yard Community Partners led by Fengate. In April 2021, the agency issued a request for proposals. In Jan. 2022, teams responded to the RFP and in June SFMTA requested revised proposals from the teams led by John Laing and Edgemoor as well as the team led by Plenary.
Most importantly, the political establishment is behind the project. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a special exemption from the city’s administrative codes and voted to advance the project.
In many ways, a bus yard is the ideal 2022 transit public-private partnership project. Compared to its pre-COVID-19 numbers, rail ridership has dropped by as much as 70% while bus ridership is only down 40%. And those buses need some place to be stored overnight and maintained. Even in the six legacy rail cities (Chicago, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C.) a far higher percentage of commuters have returned to buses compared with rail. This trend is partly because transit-dependent riders, who are more likely to use buses, tend to have occupations, such as store clerk or machinist, that require a physical presence. Transit-choice riders, who are more likely to use trains, are more likely to have jobs that allow them to work from home at least part of the time. Given that federal funds incentivize construction rather than the maintenance of transit lines, local operators need to maximize the use of innovative financing for bus maintenance.
But there are two other non-transportation reasons why these projects are likely be attractive. The first is environmental. Many transit agencies are converting their buses from internal combustion engines run on diesel to battery-electric power. While buses powered by electricity are problematic in very hot climates, many cities including San Francisco don’t have to worry about these types of weather challenges. The federal government is also incentivizing the purchase of electric buses with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s $10.25 billion Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Formula Program. Many environmentalists who do not traditionally support transportation projects, see this P3 as an opportunity to increase the share of electric vehicles. Others are happy to support any program that does not expand roadway capacity.
The second group supporting the project is advocates for more housing. The median price of a house in San Francisco is around $1.5 million. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $3,600 per month. The P3 requires the winning bidder to build half of the 575 residential units being added to the yard as “affordable” to those with moderate income. And while the 575 overall units are a drop in the bucket of needed housing in the area, building more of these projects across the city and the whole Bay Area, in addition to some needed zoning reforms, could start to create enough new housing to make a difference. Often, advocates for low-income housing do not support P3s. But a P3 that builds affordable housing in the most expensive major city in the country is too good to ignore.
Many years ago the cost of extending the new Silver Line heavy rail project to Dulles International Airport and beyond appeared to be well beyond the funds available to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the regional transit agency that runs the Washington, D.C., metro system. The alternative analysis that WMATA prepared was criticized for stacking the deck in favor of heavy rail by only assessing bus rapid transit-lite and no-build as alternatives. An obviously more cost-effective alternative would have been adding express toll lanes to the Dulles Toll Road and offering express bus service on them. It was also believed by knowledgeable transportation observers that the Federal Transportation Administration scoring of WMATA’s request for grant funds was fudged so as to make a poor project eligible for funding.
But a complete funding package for the massive $4 billion heavy rail project was still unresolved in 2005. Under Virginia’s pioneering Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) accepted unsolicited proposals from potential private partners (such as the 2002 proposal for what became the I-495 express toll lanes P3). As a means of covering Virginia’s likely share in the Silver Line project, VDOT was open to “asset recycling” P3 proposals for the Dulles Toll Road, in which private companies might make a large up-front payment to long-term lease the Toll Road (with promised improvements), and VDOT could use the up-front payment as part or all of its share of the Silver Line construction cost.
As Public Works Financing reported in its Nov. 2005 issue, five P3 teams made proposals. Four offered up-front payments to help pay for the Silver Line expansion: Autostrade, Haney Company, Transurban, and Cintra. A fifth proposal from developer Christopher Walker proposed adding express toll lanes to the Toll Road, I-66, and SR 28 as an alternative to extending the rail line to the airport. But the next month, aiming to pre-empt those private-finance proposals, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) proposed that it take over the Toll Road and use increased toll revenue to pay for the heavy rail project. Its aim was to be sure the Silver Line actually got built all the way to the airport. The proposal caught VDOT and the private bidders by surprise. MWAA sent its proposal not to VDOT but to the state Rail and Public Transportation Department, as well as then-Gov. Mark Warner and Gov.-elect Tim Kaine. Despite concerns over the legality of shifting the Toll Road to MWAA, Gov. Kaine in March 2006 signed an agreement that shifted the toll road and made MWAA responsible for completing the $4 billion project based on toll revenues.
The public rationale for making toll road customers pay for the rail line was that the Silver Line would get many people off the toll road because they would switch to the Silver Line to get to the airport. The deal put MWAA in charge of managing the huge construction project and the power to enact increase after increase in toll rates to pay for the escalating costs. MWAA had no experience building a rail line, and its shortcomings in project management led to construction flaws and change orders that increased the overall cost. The toll to travel the full length of the Dulles Toll Road was just $1.25 at the time the deal was signed. After many years of increases, the MWAA board in May discussed yet another increase, to $6.00.
But now, with the line close to opening at Dulles Airport, the truth about the rationale for the deal comes out. In a Washington Post interview (Aug. 27) with airport director Richard Golinowski, we find the following questions and answers:
Q: “How will the opening of the second phase of the Silver Line [to the airport] affect Dulles?”
A: “It’s going to be good for the airport. I think, ultimately, it will bring more employees to the airport than it will passengers. But that’s good. If we can get employees to the airport more easily—transporting them via public transportation rather than driving on the roads every day—I think it’s going to be good for the area.”
Q: “Why won’t more passengers use it? Is it because it’s such a long ride from downtown DC?”
A: “I don’t think it’s a time thing. I think it’s quite frankly, it’s a luggage thing. People don’t want to carry luggage on the Metro. They’d rather drive or take an Uber, take a taxi or have somebody drive them to the airport with their luggage.”
Thanks for coming clean on this, Richard. That was just as true in 2006 as it is now. A fine time to tell us.
An anti-highway group called StrongTowns.org last month released “10 Recommendations for Freeway Fighters,” described as answering the need for ammunition by those working on “the relocation or removal of highways in American cities.” Author Jay Arzu provides brief descriptions of the 10 points, which I summarize here so that state transportation departments and other members of the highway community can know what may be coming at them.
Rule #1: “Highway-to-boulevard projects should focus on neighborhood reconnection and reinvestment for current residents of the area,” Arzu writes. This seems to assume that the current residents are the same ones there when the freeway was built 40 years ago; it is mainly an argument against “gentrification”—i.e., keeping the residents in place rather than offering them buyouts so that economic development can occur (assuming the freeway is actually removed).
Rule #2: “Any plan to remove a highway must include the input of local residents, and must employ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in design, implementation, and construction,” StrongTowns says.
DEI is the current buzzword used by some for social planning, rather than letting residents make their own decisions on what is best for them. He also recommends letting a social-activist group speak for all the residents, rather than finding out what individuals, families, and business owners prefer.
Rule #3: “Traffic data will always be used as an excuse for why a highway shouldn’t be removed,” says Arzu. As if disrupting urban area travel patterns would have no impact on thousands or millions of other people? And commercial vehicles?
Rule 4: “Trust your city’s street grid.” Street grids can increase or restrict mobility depending on how they are configured and managed. There is nothing inherently better in whatever the current grid happens to be.
Rule 5: “Create visuals/renderings showcasing the opportunities for your city if the highway was [sic] removed.” Pretty pictures are designed to be persuasive, but they may not reflect what is actually doable or affordable.
Rule 6: “When you remove a highway, traffic will not come!” This is a mantra of the Congress for a New Urbanism, and the historic examples it cites are not removals of entire freeways but tear-downs of stubs of freeways that were never completed (e.g. the stub of Central Freeway in San Francisco and the stub of the Park Freeway in Milwaukee). Those making this argument—that if you remove capacity the traffic will disappear—also argue that the “iron law of freeway congestion” says that if you add lanes, they will quickly fill up and be congested. Neither is generally true, and one claim contradicts the other.
Rule 7: “Get the development community on your side.”
In this telling, developers are the friends of teardowns. Yet most developers want to build profitable projects (i.e., gentrify under-developed areas).
Rule 8. “Land trusts/banks are a huge asset.”
Land trusts and land banks require financial and development expertise that is unlikely to be present in “community-based organizations.” And what is left out of this recommendation is the owners of the properties in the relevant area, who probably don’t want their properties turned over to a land trust or land bank.
Rule 9: “In the long term, take control of MPOs and DOTs.”
Well, MPOs and DOTs, don’t say you weren’t warned!
Rule 10: “No highway is permanent!”
True, highways wear out and need to be rebuilt, the same as bridges, water and sewer systems, etc. His example of the removal of Harbor Drive in Portland is highly misleading since it was replaced by brand new I-5, which runs parallel to former Harbor Drive, which was turned into Waterfront Park.
Maryland Express Toll Lanes OK’d by FHWA
After some initial dithering that aroused fears of political stonewalling, FHWA on Aug. 26 issued its Record of Decision formally approving the final Environmental Impact Study. Sources told Reason that concerns raised by opponents about the MDOT’s traffic & revenue study were evaluated by DOT experts and found to be groundless. MDOT and the Accelerate Maryland Partners P3 coalition have been under way on preliminary work via a pre-development agreement (PDA). The consortium hopes to reach financial close on the long-term concession for the project by year-end. The $5 billion project will replace the aging American Legion Bridge on I-495, adding express toll lanes to it, which will continue northward to I-270 and extend along that Interstate to Frederick, M.D.
Puerto Rico Seeking P3 Lease of Four Toll Roads
In latest example of U.S. transportation asset recycling, the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority (P3A) has issued a Request for Qualifications for P3 consortia that would finance, upgrade, operate, and maintain PR-20, PR-52, PR-53, and PR-66. As with the P3 leases of the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road, the P3A seeks to maximize the upfront payment in order to reduce the outstanding debt of the state’s bankrupt Highways & Transportation Authority.
Cintra Proposes Express Toll Lanes on I-77 South of Charlotte, N.C.
North Carolina DOT has revealed the identity of the company that submitted an unsolicited proposal several months ago to add express toll lanes to I-77 from downtown Charlotte to the South Carolina border. The proposal is being reviewed by the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) at NCDOT’s request. Cintra is the primary company in the consortium that financed, built, and operates express toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte. That project was controversial during the planning and construction phases but has delivered the traffic flow and congestion reduction that was promised. The new project will cost an estimated $2.3 billion, which Cintra has said it could finance based solely on projected toll revenues.
Macquarie Selling Its Stake in Goethals Bridge Concession
Inframation News reported last month that Macquarie Asset Management is seeking bids from potential investors in its 40-year P3 concession that replaced the aging Goethals Bridge between New Jersey and Staten Island. Macquarie is seeking to sell its 90% stake in the concession, and the likely buyers are infrastructure investment funds. Since construction was completed in 2018, there is no longer construction cost risk, and the value of the remaining years of the concession will be a function of operating and maintenance (O&M) risks. There is minimal revenue risk, since the project was financed based on availability payments from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the bridge’s owner.
PennDOT Faces Bridge Replacement Funding Problem
Due to a new law that restricts new tolls on all lanes of a highway in Pennsylvania, PennDOT’s plan to use a toll-financed DBFOM P3 to replace nine major bridges on Interstate highways in the state now faces a financial problem: where to find $2.8 billion, the estimated cost of replacing the nine bridges. Thus far, the preliminary development agreement (with Bridging Pennsylvania Partners, led by Macquarie) is still in force, enabling preliminary work to continue. The P3 could still be used, financed by availability payments, but PennDOT would have to identify 40 or 50 years’ worth of funds it could dedicate to the P3—which would come from somewhere else in its budget.
New Jersey Launches MBUF Pilot Project
NJDOT is recruiting volunteers to take part in the state’s first pilot project to evaluate a mileage-based user fee replacement for its per-gallon gasoline and diesel taxes. As in other MBUF pilot projects in the eastern half of the United States, motorists will be given a device that plugs into the OBD port beneath the dashboard to record miles driven, with either a GPS or non-GPS option. That parallels the multi-state pilot project that I participated in several years ago, managed by The Eastern Transportation Coalition. In the New Jersey pilot, volunteers will receive up to $100 for completing the project.
San Francisco HOT Lanes Network Is Expanding
More high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes will open by the end of the year on 22 miles of US 101 between Redwood City and the San Francisco Airport (SFO). This is the second phase of a project that encompasses US 101 in both San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. The system uses switchable transponders; with three or more people in the vehicle, there is no charge, but variable tolls are charged for two-person and one-person vehicles. Certain categories of “clean air vehicles” get discounted tolls.
Kansas and Oklahoma Shifting to Cashless Tolling
Over the next two years, the Kansas Turnpike Authority intends to eliminate cash toll payments, removing 20th-century toll booths and collecting all tolls via either KTAG transponders or license-plate imaging and billing. The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority is doing likewise, and last month completed conversion to cashless on its Chickasaw Turnpike. Already converted are the Kilpatrick, Kickapoo, and Bailey Turnpikes. The OTA completion date is 2024, the same as in Kansas.
Toll Road Widening Under Way in New Jersey
Evidently, someone didn’t clue in the New Jersey Turnpike and Atlantic City Expressway that senior officials at FHWA prefer increased maintenance to capacity additions. Gov. Phil Murphy last month approved the NJ Turnpike’s $4.7 billion plan to widen the toll road’s extension to the Holland Tunnel, a notoriously congested segment. And the toll-funded Atlantic City Expressway is planning and designing a widening project in Camden and Gloucester County.
Dubai Toll Operator Initial Public Offering
Bloomberg News reports that Salik, the company that provides toll collection services for the Dubai expressway system, is planning an initial public offering of shares in September. The company has said it hopes to raise $1 billion via the IPO.
User Cost per Mile or User Cost per Time Saved?
In a thoughtful empirical study, Robert Bain and Sylvain Senechal question the widespread use of toll charge per mile as the best measure to use in a value for money (VfM) analysis of toll roads. They suggest that this metric is not very useful, compared with measuring the value of time saved. They present data comparing these two metrics for an array of U.S. toll roads, showing that some provide poor value for the money spent by their customers. The paper, which was published in the September issue of Infrastructure Investor, is online and can be downloaded at no charge.
Automated-Only Lanes Authorized in Michigan
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in July signed a law that allows Michigan DOT to designate some roadway lanes for autonomous vehicles only. At best, this appears to be premature. Highway lanes are costly to build and maintain, and adding such lanes when there are basically no automated vehicles (AVs) in regular use would appear to be a poor use of limited highway dollars. The alternative of converting an existing lane to AV-only poses the practical problem of shifting all the cars, trucks, and buses that currently use that lane into other lanes, increasing their congestion levels. This is also the primary drawback of converting a GP lane to a bus-only lane. Unless there is very frequent bus service with high load factors on each, the result will be fewer passenger miles per hour in the converted lane.
Possible Extension of SH 288 Express Toll Lanes
The relatively new express lanes (called the Brazoria County Expressway) on SH 288 heading south from Houston may be extended further south, eventually to Houston’s outer ring road, the Grand Parkway. The Houston Chronicle reports that county officials are looking into the feasibility of an initial extension past Meridiana.
SANDAG Moving Forward with Added Road User Charge
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) has received approval from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) of its $172 billion Regional Transportation Plan. The plan includes a highly controversial county “road user charge,” which officials admit is an added tax that will be used largely for non-highway projects. While CARB said the plan complies with air quality regulations, it asked “how, if at all, the revenue estimates in the Plan are expected to change as a result of the [SANDAG] board’s direction to remove the road user charge.” The road user tax would be in addition to the state gasoline tax and a planned state road user charge, contrary to the growing number of state pilot projects that explicitly envision such charges as replacing, rather than adding to, existing fuel taxes.
Questions for Amtrak’s Board
In a Sept. 6 opinion piece, the Eno Center for Transportation’s Jeff Davis offers three questions the U.S. Senate should ask the Amtrak board nominees. The questions all relate to Amtrak’s bizarre not-private/not-government status that enables it to operate behind closed doors in ways that neither a publicly traded business nor a government agency can do. Needless to say, these are also subjects that Congress should be addressing.
“The community-input process is disastrous for two broad reasons. First, community input is not representative of the local population. Second, the perception of who counts as part of the affected community tends to include everyone who feels the negative costs of development but only a fragment of the beneficiaries. . . . Even a demographically representative community meeting would systematically err on the side of blocking vital infrastructure. The downsides of new development tend to be very localized: loud noises from construction, or an obscured view. As a result, opponents can easily find one another and form a political bloc. By contrast, the beneficiaries are either unknown at the inception of the project . . . or extremely diffuse . . . . The political coalition broadly in favor of new housing, transit, and renewable energy exists, but not at the project-by-project level. This asymmetry means that opponents of a new project will always have the upper hand.”
—Jerusalem Demsas, “Community Input Is Bad, Actually,” The Atlantic, April 22, 2022
“[Amtrak has] ridership issues on many existing routes while promoting unrealistic ideas for route expansion that are likely to deepen already-existing operating losses . . . . Amtrak executives receiving huge bonuses right now only furthers Committee Republicans’ ongoing concerns with the taxpayer-subsidized passenger railroad. Amtrak has time and again shown that it isn’t a good steward of taxpayer funds, and Congress needs to ensure that going forward it uses this funding more responsibly.”
—Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR), “Bonus Bashing,” Politico, Aug. 10, 2022
“Today the DC circuit court released its decision, siding with the Federal Communications Commission, on its reallocation of part of the 5.9GHz band. It’s a big win for the FCC and a big loss for the auto industry, which has promised to use the airwaves to improve safety through a technology called ‘vehicle-to-vehicle’ (V2V) or ‘vehicle to everything’ (V2X) communication. The problem, as hilariously put by Judge Justin Walker in his opinion, is that this technology has never really existed. It was one of those ‘just around the corner’-type innovations that has always been promised but never actually delivered. It was a fantasy, and today the court’s basically said as much.”
—Andrew J. Hawkins, “The Auto Industry Lost Its Spectrum Fight with the FCC because V2V Was Always a Fantasy,” The Verge, Aug. 12, 2022
“Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science, consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”
Correction: This post has been updated to note the ban on commercial rest areas is 62 years old, not 72.