Surface Transportation News: Commercial Services on Interstate Highways, Mileage Fees, Urban Transit After COVID-19, and More
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Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News: Commercial Services on Interstate Highways, Mileage Fees, Urban Transit After COVID-19, and More

Plus: What we don’t know about per-mile highway charges, overblown concerns about impact of automation on trucking jobs, monorail projects proposed, and more.

In this issue:

It Is Time for Commercial Service Plazas on Interstate Highways

Only 5% of all Interstate highways, only those on the Interstates that are operated as toll roads, offer full services (food, fuel, parking, electric vehicle charging) for motorists. On the other 95% of Interstate highways, federal law prohibits any commercial services at “rest areas,” except vending machines.

In a new study, Reason Foundation suggests three reasons for Congress to repeal the long-standing ban. First, the Interstates need to be equipped with electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, a new national priority. Second, long-distance trucks face a large and growing shortage of safe overnight parking places, especially ones with services like food and showers. And third, state department of transportations (DOTs) are short of funds and plan to shut down some Interstate rest areas that have no available sources of revenue.

The commercial services ban was added by Congress in 1960, to protect small-town gas stations and restaurants that would be bypassed when traffic shifted away from older highways through towns and onto the new Interstates. The ban encouraged locals to build new gas stations and fast-food outlets at or near off-ramps of the new highways. And new companies developed full-service truck stops within a few miles of some of the off-ramps. Their trade association, the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), has lobbied hard against all previous efforts to repeal the ban.

NATSO’s argument ignores today’s need for more truck parking, more EV charging, and more food and beverage operations as part of revamped 21st-century Interstates. NATSO’s argument would be more relevant in a zero-sum world, where every sale at a new service plaza killed a sale at an off-ramp. But today’s and tomorrow’s need is for a large expansion of truck parking and electric vehicle charging. And the study notes that land near off-ramps has become very expensive, according to the Federal Highway Administration, making new or expanded facilities there unlikely.

Another factor is the plight of EV drivers suffering from “range anxiety.” Under current practices, EV charging stations “along” the Interstates can be up to five miles from an off-ramp and still be listed in a federal directory. The last thing an anxious EV driver needs is to get off the Interstate in the dark, in a strange place, and hope she can find her way to the desperately needed charging station.

The study found that existing Interstate rest areas are too small to be converted to commercial service plazas like those on turnpikes. So state DOTs would need to acquire more land for the new facilities. The study cites long-term public-private partnership deals on the Florida Turnpike, Indiana Toll Road, New York Thruway, and other toll roads that are financing the expansion and modernization of their service plazas, based on projected revenues from the revamped plazas. The same approach could be used to develop service plazas on the Interstates.

Previous efforts in Congress to repeal the ban fell victim to NATSO lobbying. The Reason Foundation study cites potential support from portions of the trucking industry (such as independent owner-operators) and likely support from supporters of nationwide EV charging stations. It notes that a House transportation bill that passed last year included an exemption for EV charging stations; that exemption was supported by the progressive Center for American Progress. Perhaps a de-facto coalition including owner-operator truck drivers, women in trucking, and advocates of electric vehicles can gain enough support to repeal this obsolescent ban.

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Urban Transit After COVID-19

Here is a recent set of headlines from a couple of reputable sources, to introduce a discussion of how urban transit will need to change when we enter the post-pandemic period:

The reporters of these stories reflect genuine concerns, but my impression is that many in the transportation community have not fully thought through the implications for urban transit in the “after” COVID-19 times.

One expert who has is Steve Polzin, a former transit official, university professor, and most recently as a senior advisor for research and technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation. After reading a detailed paper that he and a colleague produced while at DOT last fall, Reason Foundation commissioned Polzin to write a policy brief focusing specifically on how transit will have to change, and why. The new report, “Public Transportation Must Change after COVID-19,” was published last week and you can find it here.

Polzin first reminds us that in the five years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, transit experienced a significant loss of ridership, before appearing to stabilize at a lower level by 2019. Then the pandemic led to former transit riders avoiding buses and rail transit in favor of cars, bikes, walking, and working at home. Comparing January 2020 (pre-pandemic) with January 2021, unlinked transit trips were 65% less (though transit vehicle miles of service decreased only 23% for the same months).

Alas for those hoping for a post-pandemic return to “normal,” among the factors leading to permanent changes are, of course, some degree of permanent shifts to working from home, either part-time or full-time, along with the continued popularity of network companies like Lyft and Uber, a millennial generation that is getting older and buying houses in the suburbs, and a general movement of people and companies from higher-density to lower-density locations.

Polzin points out that even if many people work at home Mondays and Fridays, but still work in the office mid-week, this will “make it harder to justify peak capacity capital investments and complicate service scheduling.” In terms of permanent work-at-home shifts, he notes that if this share doubles from pre-pandemic levels of 5.7% to about 12% of people working from home, that could mean 15%-to-20% fewer downtown workers, a major change for downtown-focused rail transit systems.

Another section of the brief looks at declining vehicle occupancy by transit mode: bus, light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail. All four are down significantly, but some much more than others. And this makes a surprising difference in the environmental friendliness of these modes. Here is his comparison of pre-pandemic vs. December 2020 fuel economy of various commuter modes, drawn from the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center plus estimated occupancies from the National Transit Database. The metric is passenger miles per gasoline gallons equivalent; hence the highest numbers are best.

Commuting Mode Pre-COVID Current
Heavy rail 50.4 18.0
Automobiles 41.7 41.7*
Commuter rail 39.6 10.9
Light trucks/SUVs 36.1 36.1*
Transit bus 26.6 14.5
Demand response (Uber, Lyft) 9.2 9.2*

*assumed to be unchanged

As of December 2020, the most fuel-efficient means of commuting was the car, followed by light trucks—but only because occupancy embedded in the transit calculations was so drastically low. Obviously, when we get past the pandemic those figures should rise but whether mass transit will be able to rebuild enough ridership to be more fuel-efficient (and hence more carbon-friendly) remains to be seen, and as you can see from the current numbers, transit has a long way to go.

A major premise of the Biden administration’s transportation agenda is to greatly increase federal spending on transit, compared with only modest, constrained increases for highways (with very little scope for adding highway capacity). This approach poses major risks of putting billions of taxpayer dollars into projects that will have costs far greater than their benefits (e.g., light rail systems for medium-sized cities, megaproject expansions of heavy rail and commuter rail systems, etc.).

At the very least, it is premature at this juncture to commit funding for major new rail transit projects before we have some idea of the extent of transit ridership in the first several years after nationwide vaccinations.

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How to Not Win Support for Mileage-Based User Fees

Since serving on a Transportation Research Board special committee on the long-term viability of per-gallon fuel taxes in 2005 (see TRB Special Report 285, 2006), I have supported the eventual need for this country to transition from per-gallon fuel taxes to per-mile charges. The latter was the approach selected after more than a year of study by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission in its final report released in February 2009; my Reason Foundation colleague Adrian Moore was a member.

Since then, Congress has appropriated modest sums for state-based pilot projects to test various ways of recording and reporting miles traveled by cars and by trucks, coming up with new technologies and trying them out with volunteer drivers, and figuring out what forms of explanation resonate with motorists and truckers about replacing per-gallon with per-mile.

Unfortunately, the general public is still a long way from being sold on the concept. This is partly due to bad reporting, which all too often portrays a mileage-based user fee (MBUF) as a “tax” (which most people believe they would pay in addition to their existing gas taxes) and which generally implies that only a GPS unit in every vehicle can do the job—which people reject as Big Brother in Your Car. Even MBUF-friendly organizations sometimes use loaded words like “tracking your mileage,” which feeds the Big Brother paranoia.

Another bad influence is some advocates of mileage-based user fees (who generally refer to it as a vehicle-miles tax—VMT), who see in this needed change an opportunity to make evil drivers and truckers pay through the nose for all the damages motor vehicles do. I have sat through many TRB presentations that seek to quantify the per-mile costs of every externality they can think of, adding them up to as much as several dollars per mile, with only a few cents of the total dedicated to the capital and operating costs of the roadways themselves. An example of this was the headline on a March 24 webinar sponsored by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the Institute for Policy Integrity: “Addressing the Social Costs of Driving Through a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee.” This is absolutely the wrong way to win support from motorists and truckers.

Another kiss of death for reaching political consensus is singling out the trucking industry to be first. Some advocates of this point to Germany, where a truck-only toll program began back in 2002 with little fuss. But that ignores the fact that Europe does not have fuel taxes dedicated to highway funding, that a large fraction of the trucks on German autobahns are from other countries, and that they used to pay little or nothing to drive on those costly German highways. Both ITIF and the Congressional Budget Office have published reports suggesting that trucking be the pioneer to be per-mile charged. Just last month Politico reminded us that a senior Republican, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), last year proposed a per-mile truck tax, when he was still on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

I have debated this subject at several trucking conferences and I’ve seen first-hand how this industry is deeply opposed to a per-mile charge or tax, especially if it were to be applied first or only to trucks. The depth of this opposition was made plain when the trucking industry research group, ATRI, last month released “A Practical Analysis of a National VMT Tax System,” available on request from It’s a detailed 50-page analysis, but it appears to systematically err on assumptions and terminology to make a per-mile charge look as costly and impractical as possible.

First, it refers to the charge as a new federal tax (though acknowledging that it might end up being a fee rather than a tax). It downplays the impact of the ever-increasing fuel economy and seems blind to the increasing plans of auto and truck producers to shift to electric propulsion in coming decades. And its graph of federal fuel tax revenue is entirely historical, when credible projections of declining fuel tax revenues are plentiful. In its discussion of technology options, it lists five, all of which have been or are being tested in state and multi-state pilot projects. By defining system requirements maximally, it concludes that only a GPS-based system in every vehicle will suffice.

When it comes to the cost of per-mile charging, the report again seems to err systematically on the most-costly assumptions. First, it repeats the industry’s obsolete claim that the cost of collecting tolls consumes 15 to 30% of the toll revenue, which reflects late 20th-century costs when mostly cash tolling was mixed with some electronic tolling, and all toll systems had cumbersome back-office procedures. Empirical Reason Foundation research on new all-electronic toll roads found collection costs between 5 and 10% of revenue, and projected that all-electronic toll systems with incentives for pre-paid accounts linked to transponders could bring collection costs down to 5% or less.

The report’s long section on deployment, collection of mileage data, administration, and enforcement raises a number of questions, but draws mostly from state pilot projects numbering typically no more than a few thousand vehicles. Economies of scale that could apply in a large state system (California, Texas, Florida), a multi-state region, or a national system are acknowledged but not credibly estimated.

In its assessment of a potential “national VMT tax system,” the report calculates federal highway spending per vehicle mile traveled, for urban and rural roads, and concludes that “urban drivers currently subsidize rural roadways,” at least in terms of federal spending. By contrast, an admittedly dated Reason study of California’s total (state plus federal) highway system in 1995 found that rural motorists driving mostly on low-cost roads subsidized urban motorists driving on high-cost roads, since both paid essentially the same rate per mile via their gas taxes. ATRI’s report draws selectively from several state MBUF pilot projects to raise bizarre objections—for instance, assuming a county or metro area that has its own MBUF and charged time-of-day rates would somehow mean that “through a local VMT tax program . . . local governments could have more power over the nation’s transportation system in terms of collecting and spending revenue.” No, I don’t know what that means, either, especially since state and local governments own and are responsible for nearly 100% of the “nation’s” road system.

One of the report’s most egregious assumptions in doing calculations for a national VMT tax is assuming that 40% of whatever is raised by the tax would be needed for administrative costs, based on the tiny OReGO program in Oregon. This ignores the huge economies of scale likely in any nationwide MBUF implementation. And in its comparison Table 5 on cost to collect $33.5 billion in gross revenue, it pulls out of the air, with no source, a cost to collect the federal fuel tax of 0.2% of the revenue generated, rather than the industry’s usual 1% (and a more accurate 2% according to NCHRP Report 623). This is compared with the ridiculous 40% estimate for MBUF.

I will stop here, with two summary comments. First, it is very clear that at a national level, the trucking industry is seeking to make the case for per-mile charges look as bad as possible, despite the active participation of trucking companies in several state pilots and a more-recent multi-state pilot organized by the Eastern Transportation Coalition, that I summarized in Issue 206, December 2020.

Second, however, the ATRI report does identify numerous questions about technology, policy choices, scope, etc. that are being worked on in the state and multi-state pilot projects. More such research is vitally important, both to address the many unknowns but also to get a much better understanding of what highway users (including truckers) need to see before deciding that per-mile charging is the path this country will—at some point—need to embark on. It is very clear that it is much too soon for any government—state or federal—to implement a change-over from per-gallon to per-mile for all highway users. We have many miles to go and much more to learn.

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Overblown Concerns about Workforce Impacts of Automated Trucking
By Marc Scribner

In recent years, the prospect of automated vehicles has caused concern among organizations representing those in driver occupations. This fear is understandable since automated driving systems (ADS) that can fully automate the entire driving task would surely reduce demand for human drivers. However, the present state of ADS technology and realistic deployment scenarios suggest these fears are overblown. Since deployable ADS for long-haul trucking remains years away, and a gradual phase-in appears much more likely than an overnight switch, any future workforce displacement is likely to be dwarfed by normal driver turnover and attrition.

A recent Journal of Commerce story by William B. Cassidy highlighted growing interest in ADS among major transportation firms (“No assistance required,” Feb. 15, 2021). Automated truck developer “TuSimple announced a new executive advisory board that includes top executives from Schneider, Werner, US Xpress Enterprises, and Canadian National Railway,” writes Cassidy. “Each of these companies has invested in TuSimple, along with Union Pacific, UPS, vehicle manufacturers Navistar, Traton, and Volkswagen AG, and Nikola owner and advisory firm VectoIQ.”

But this interest has been tempered by a growing awareness of the challenges of achieving full automation. “Instead of replacing drivers, think of autonomous technology as ‘enhancing’ a truck driver’s ability to do his or her job, while improving his or her safety,” writes Cassidy. This is to say, lower levels of automation offer the potential to improve truck driver workplace conditions, rather than replace the workforce.

The prospect of completely eliminating the role of human drivers in heavy-duty trucks is likely many years away. Finch Fulton, formerly the deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy at the U.S.DOT and current vice president at automated trucking startup Locomation, recently told FleetOwner (“FMCSA driverless truck message stokes workforce fear,” March 17, 2021), “If you are a trucker today, you are unlikely to lose your job due to automation.”

In contrast, John Samuelsen of Transport Workers Union of America recently wrote to DOT urging a “reboot” on ADS policy to “carefully consider job impacts and workforce training and readiness as you ferret out policy choices around emerging transportation automation technologies.” (“Labor to DOT: Scrap Trump administration’s automated vehicles plan,” FreightWaves, March 24, 2021)

Setting aside the issue that safety regulators at USDOT are generally forbidden by law to take into account the workforce concerns Samuelsen expresses, unions representing drivers would better serve their members by reviewing and communicating the findings of a recent USDOT-commissioned study.

That study (“Macroeconomic Impacts of Automated Driving Systems in Long-Haul Trucking,” Jan. 28, 2021) by authors from DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center and Australia’s Centre of Policy Studies at Victoria University developed slow, medium, and fast adoption scenarios for ADS deployment in trucks and modeled various economic impacts, including those to the driver workforce. The researchers conclude:

“Assuming the occupational turnover remains near today’s levels, employment levels in the long-haul trucking sector will necessarily fall due to automation but will not force lay-offs in the slow and medium speed adoption scenarios. Only under the fast adoption scenario are lay-offs observed, but they are at most 1.7 percent of the long-haul workforce in a single year and the layoffs only occur during a five-year period. As a result, we conclude that long-haul truck drivers should be able to find employment as short-haul truck drivers, so the issue of lay-offs should not be a significant concern when considering the adoption of automation in long-haul trucking.”

To be sure, no one can predict the future. But absent a major breakthrough in ADS technology that would enable it to be deployed much more cheaply and quickly than experts expect, normal driver attrition from retirements and shifts to non-driver occupations is likely to equal or exceed any future driver layoffs caused by fully automated trucks. Indeed, it is quite possible that unfounded fears stoked by organized labor about imminent automation-spurred driver job losses may reduce the pool of drivers more than ADS technologies, if potential new recruits avoid driving occupations and existing drivers seek out other opportunities.

As required by current federal law, DOT policy should focus exclusively on the safety impacts of driving automation—and the potential of ADS and even lower-level advanced driver assistance features to improve highway safety is large. Claims suggesting imminent truck driver workforce catastrophe are baseless and serve only to degrade the quality of conversation on the societal impacts of automation.

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Monorail Projects Proposed in Los Angeles and Maryland

Some transportation ideas seem to pop up periodically, such as personal rapid transit and monorails. Yet neither has become mainstream, and I think that’s for good reasons. In this article, let’s take a look at recent proposals for a monorail on I-270 in Maryland and on the I-405 in Los Angeles. In both cases the proposed system would interface with an existing heavy-rail system and would be built as an alternative to links in planned networks of express toll lanes.

The I-270 proposal is being advanced by opponents of the governor’s plan for priced express lanes on the I-495 Beltway and I-270. It would extend for 28 miles, serve six stations, and have an average speed (accounting for stops) of about 36 miles per hour The nominal cost is $4.4 billion, which works out to $157 million per mile, which is quite low for rail transit. A study by Maryland DOT found that the project would be “feasible” but would attract most of its ridership from existing transit in the corridor, such as MARC commuter trains and express bus services. And since there is no identified funding source, this project is unlikely to be built.

In Los Angeles, LA Metro has decided against converting the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in the highly congested Sepulveda Pass portion of I-405, in favor of two competing rail transit alternatives: a subway tunnel underneath the mountains and a monorail built in the I-405 median. It has just signed pre-development agreements with the highest-ranked proposers of each alternative. The monorail would cover 15 miles, serve eight stations, and have an average speed of 37 miles per hour, including stops. At an estimated cost of $9.5 billion, its cost would be $633 million per mile, somewhat less than the subway alternative, which is estimated to cost $10.8 billion. As a point of reference in the DC metro area, the current extension of the Metro system’s Silver Line is $5.7 billion for 23 miles ($248 million/mile), but that project is way over its originally budgeted cost.

Were I asked, I would recommend against the monorail in both cases, on several grounds, even if it turned out to be somewhat less expensive in construction costs than conventional heavy rail. One reason is that it would add another type of vehicle and infrastructure to a region’s transit system. That would likely require separate maintenance facilities, different service workers (electrical, mechanical), and a different parts inventory—i.e., higher operating and maintenance costs. Second, in the event of monorail vehicles being offline for maintenance, heavy-rail cars could not be substituted, since these are two entirely different kinds of rail systems.

In terms of operational effectiveness, far more bang for the buck would be achieved in both Los Angeles and Maryland by express bus service in priced express lanes. This alternative would provide transit service much closer to being door-to-door, rather than from station to station. That’s because a smart express bus system uses the same vehicle to pick up commuters in their neighborhoods in the morning (often from park & ride or kiss & ride lots), speeds them past congestion faster than a monorail, and then drops them off near various employment centers.

From an environmental policy standpoint, remember that major transportation investment decisions that we make today are for projects we expect to be in service for many decades. Early in that time period, a transition to electric buses and personal vehicles will be underway in earnest. And under current review and planning requirements for major projects, neither a monorail, heavy rail or express toll lanes system that we decide upon today would be in operation until a decade or so in the future, and will then be in service for something like 50 years. If much of the Biden administration’s electric vehicle transition goals are achieved, we will be well on the way to an electric vehicle future by 10 years from now.

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News Notes

Conflict Between Restricting VMT and Reducing Carbon Footprint
In my March column in Public Works Financing, I took issue with the idea that federal and state policy should focus on reducing vehicle miles of travel and on not expanding highway capacity, on grounds that motor vehicles are and always will be carbon polluters. Highway modernization is a decades-long process, during which time electric vehicles will increasingly supplant petroleum-fueled vehicles. Likewise, within a decade or two, Level 4 autonomous vehicles will make highway travel more competitive with short/medium-length airline trips. Hence, long-term highway modernization (such as rebuilding the aging Interstate highway system) should continue. The column is posted here.

Texas Bill Would Allow P3 Toll Lanes for Austin’s I-35
The $7.5 billion project to rebuild congested I-35 through Austin could emulate the successful rebuild of a portion of the LBJ Freeway in Dallas, including express toll lanes and being procured as a long-term public-private partnership. That would be allowed if Rep. John Cyrier’s House Bill 2114 is passed in the current legislative session. Since 2017, no TxDOT project involving tolls or public-private partnerships has been allowed by the Texas Legislature, in response to a populist, anti-tolls backlash. Without this legislation, TxDOT plans to build the project without express lanes and to use billions in highway funds that would otherwise be spent on other projects statewide.

Traffic Back To Pre-Pandemic Levels
At the end of March, transportation data firm Inrix reported that daily VMT had exceeded pre-pandemic levels nationwide, though specific metro areas differed. Overall, passenger VMT was 112% of pre-COVID levels for the week ended March 19. Inrix uses anonymous data from cell phones to estimate VMT, and its reports generally predate those of the Federal Highway Administration by several months.

Pennsylvania Legislators Seek to Block Toll-Financed Bridge Replacement
PennDot’s ambitious $2.2 billion program to replace eight major Interstate highway bridges and rehabilitate another—carried out as long-term design build finance operate maintain (DBFOM) P3s and financed by newly authorized tolling—is being challenged in the state legislature. Companion bills in both houses would forbid any public-private partnerships (P3) that involve tolls unless the legislature explicitly approves the project. It would also make other changes to the state’s P3 law, which would constrain PennDOT’s ability to use this procurement method and might make the state less attractive to private infrastructure investors.

Restoring Trust in the Highway Trust Fund
In a recent commentary, I pointed out that the annual gap between federal highway user-tax revenue and federal surface transportation spending is almost entirely due to Congress’s spending on transit and other non-highway programs. The piece, therefore, suggests that if the highway user taxes were spent only on highways (and Congress then directly funded all the non-highway spending), two results might follow. First, highway users might be more likely to accept increases in user-fee taxes for better highways, and, second, there might be more careful scrutiny of surface transportation programs funded out of general funds.

Appeals Court OK’s Death of Miami’s Excellent Toll Road Provider
The Florida legislature’s 2019 law to abolish the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) and replace it with a no-expansion, more-politicized Greater Miami Expressway Authority, was upheld by an appeals court on April 1. That ruling overturned last year’s lower-court ruling that the law conflicted with Miami-Dade County’s home rule authority. While MDX is likely to appeal its death sentence, the force of that appeal would likely be diminished because the current county mayor supported the bill to abolish MDX, in contrast to the former mayor, who is now a member of Congress.

Electric Vehicle Transition Needs Massive Electric Power Expansion
Mandates for automakers to produce only EVs, and large federal expenditures for charging stations, will not ensure a viable transition to all-electric mobility. A study released in January by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that if 66% of personal vehicles are electric by 2050 (along with increased shares of electric space and water heating), the nation’s electricity system would have to nearly double. (Reuters, “EV Rollout Will Require Huge Investments in Strained U.S. Power Grids,” March 5, 2021). In other words, the challenge is not simply to replace remaining fossil fuel electricity production but to double the size of the electricity industry.

DOT Secretary Endorses Expanded Private Activity Bonds for Transportation
On March 25, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed support for increasing the cap on tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs) to bring more private capital into surface transportation projects. As reported by Inframation News, his comments were in response to questions from Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL). Buttigieg also endorsed the creation of a national infrastructure bank, as reported by Debtwire Municipals. In that same congressional session, the secretary also expressed strong interest in a per-mile charge to replace per-gallon fuel taxes, a statement that was later walked back by the White House.

“Could the Pandemic Spell the End of the U.K.’s High-Speed Rail?”
That was the surprising headline in a March 29 article in the New York Times. It focused on growing environmental opposition to HS2, the British high-speed rail project to link London with Birmingham (about 100 miles) and with two future links from there to Manchester and Liverpool. The first phase, under way, has ballooned in cost to $69 billion, and the total would be more than twice that if the later phases are built. Among opponents’ points is that it will take 120 years for the project to become carbon-neutral, due to the very large carbon footprint of HS2’s construction.

Over 220,000 U.S. Bridges Need Repair—ARTBA
An analysis of U.S. DOT’s National Bridge Inventory database reveals that in addition to 45,000 structurally deficient bridges, over 220,000 bridges need major repair or replacement. The American Road & Transportation Builder Association also noted that there is an average of 3,900 daily crossings on each of the 45,000 structurally deficient (SD) bridges. At the current pace of replacement, it would take 40 years to repair or replace the current backlog of SD bridges, but as bridges continue to age, more can be expected to be designated SD each year into the future. The states with the most serious SD bridge problems, in order, are Iowa, Oklahoma, Illinois, Missouri, and Louisiana.

“For Infrastructure Projects to Succeed, Think Slow and Act Fast.”
That was the headline on a March 31 Boston Globe op-ed by infrastructure experts Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Using the California high-speed rail project as an example of failure, they argue for more careful analysis prior to committing to a megaproject and then a streamlined path to approval and construction. It is politics that leads to both hasty approvals without serious benefit/cost analysis and to a convoluted and seemingly endless process of getting final approval to build. Flyvbjerg’s policy paper with many more details is available here.

I-80 Tolling Bill Makes Progress in Wyoming
Senate File 73, which would authorize a toll-financed master plan for redeveloping I-80 across the state—has passed its first vote in that chamber. The Wyoming DOT estimates annual unmet needs of $300 million. Among other things, I-80 needs more truck climbing lanes, and its pavement is aging, like that of most of the 50-60-year-old Interstate system. The bill contemplates the implementation of all-electronic toll collection on I-80 for both cars and trucks, though the 10-fold differential between car rates (2.5 cents/mi.) and heavy trucks (25 cents/mi.) is unprecedented, and this is sure to stimulate robust trucking industry opposition. The measure needs two more votes in the state Senate before being sent to the House.

The Painful Economics of Japan’s High-Speed Rail System
Many Americans, including new Transporation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, would like to see the United States emulate Japan’s national system of high-speed trains. From reading Randal O’Toole’s excellent book, Romance of the Rails, I already knew that this system was far less impressive than most non-Japanese believe. But O’Toole has recently published a fact-filled policy brief, recounting the actual costs, losses, and adverse consequences of this system whose first train began service in 1964. No one interested in a possible U.S. version should miss this brief, “Japan’s Addiction: The Dark Side of the Bullet Train.”

Electric Vehicle Share at Record Levels
According to an assessment by data firm IHS Markit, new EVs registrations in the United States reached 1.8% during 2020, a year with lower-than-normal new car sales. As the car industry began recovering late in the year, EV registrations in December 2020 reached 2.5%, the highest monthly total ever. The data company forecasts that EV sales in 2021 will be 3.5% and reach 10% or more by 2025. Market share is highest in the west, where 4.8% of new registrations are EVs; it’s 11% in the San Francisco Bay Area (which is no surprise to anyone who has driven around near Silicon Valley in recent years).

Ohio Turnpike Moving to Open-Road Tolling
By 2023, the Ohio Turnpike will have eliminated stopping at toll plazas for vehicles equipped with E-Zpass toll transponders, the Turnpike Authority announced last month. However, other major east-west toll roads, including the New York Thruway and the Pennsylvania Turnpike are far ahead. The former has recently eliminated all cash tolling, and the latter is underway on eliminating toll booths, aiming for all-electronic tolling by the end of this year.

Useful Overview of Federal Highway and Transit Programs
With both an infrastructure bill and reauthorization of the federal highway and transit program on this year’s agenda, an up-to-date guide on which federal transportation programs exist and what their revenue and spending data show would be very useful. The Congressional Research Service has done this, with its March 1 bulletin, “Highway and Public Transit Funding Issues.” Unlike some years ago when CRS reports were not readily available to the public, they are now all accessible here.

Should All Highways Be “Complete Streets”?
In another in a new Reason Foundation series of Debatable Ideas, I wrote a commentary explaining that repurposing certain local streets and roads with wider sidewalks and other amenities can make sense. But it takes issue that this concept should be applicable to major (six-lane or more) urban arterials, which serve a vital function as relatively fast supplements to the freeway system for cars, buses, and trucks. Go here.

Correction re Vehicle Occupancy Detection
Alert newsletter reader Brian Patno emailed to correct a statement in my paper on lessons learned from the US experience with HOT lanes, part of an OECD International Transport Forum workshop last fall. The original paper stated that several firms had prototype camera systems to count vehicle occupancy for HOV and HOT lanes, but that none were in regular use. Brian pointed out that Indra’s system is in use on Transurban’s growing system of HOT lanes in northern Virginia, beginning in summer 2020. I am glad to set the record straight on this.

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Quotable Quotes

“The administration (to its credit) is trying to move beyond the traditional framing of infrastructure policy as being all about how much money is spent. By the money metric, $1 billion spent on a project that brings tremendous benefits is the same as $1 billion spent on a dumb project that should never have been approved in the first place, and both support about the same number of construction jobs, which is why construction jobs are a bad metric of success or failure as well. . . . [I]t would be very ahistorical for Congress to give the Administration this much money and just let them choose projects without a very tight set of strings attached. It is doubtful that Congress could get away with actually earmarking projects that large, but a lot of negotiation between the Hill and DOT would need to take place in order to shake anything like that amount of money loose.”
—Jeff Davis, “What’s In the $2.3 Trillion Biden ‘Investment’ Plan?”, Eno Center for Transportation, April 2, 2021

“The New Starts [transit] process has historically been meaningfully influenced by ridership forecasts, which are now very difficult to do with any credibility until we have some sense of a post-COVID ridership/mode-choice response. It will be interesting to see if ridership is ignored and whether the non-federal share expectations change. It will also be interesting to see how communities react as it relates to providing capital match and operating funds. Given the zeal for free truly discretionary monies, we are likely to see some cringe-worthy New Starts applications.”
—Steven Polzin, email to Robert Poole, April 6, 2021 (used with permission)

“‘Intelligence’ needs to be in the [automated] vehicles. The “ways” (roadways in this case) need to be as simple, ‘dumb,’ and as cheap as possible to build and maintain. Consider air transportation: air is the way; consider maritime: water is the way; consider railroads: a couple of pieces of metal, some wood, and gravel is the way; consider pipelines: a pipe is the way; and finally roadways: a reasonably smooth hard surface with some paint is the way. We can barely afford to keep the hard surface somewhat smooth, and the paint situation is really bad. There is zero money to pay for and maintain a lot of gizmos along it to make it ‘intelligent.’”
—Alain Kornhauser, “Analysis: Will Intelligent Roads Finally Move Self-Driving Cars Into the Fast Lane?” Safe Driving Cars, Feb. 26, 2021

“Most toll roads did not need to draw on cash balances to pay debt service or balance financial operations, thus leaving them with solid liquidity positions well into the crisis. The combination of healthy debt service coverage ratios, a rapid traffic recovery, and solid liquidity leave toll roads well-positioned to withstand another potential time-limited shock, such as a period of weaker-than-expected economic growth or a second wave of lockdowns.”
—Scott Monroe (Fitch Ratings), in Kalliope Gourntis, “Demographics Will Also Determine US Toll Roads’ Comeback“, Infrastructure Investor, March 18, 2021

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