Surface Transportation News: Research on driving and transit, automated vehicle progress, and more
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Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News: Research on driving and transit, automated vehicle progress, and more

Plus: Urban containment brings unaffordable housing and reduced mobility, good news on reconnecting communities, and more.

In this issue:

Access to Jobs: New Research on Driving and Transit  

Readers of this newsletter may recall prior articles reporting on “access to jobs” studies carried out by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The broad conclusion of the series of studies is that in the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, a commuter can reach vastly more jobs in a given number of minutes via driving than by using transit. That is generally due to the dispersed locations of residences and employers. There is also a growing body of international research on the impact of journey-to-work time (or travel speed) on the economic productivity of metro areas.

I’m therefore pleased to report on a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that provides new findings on this subject. “More Roads or Public Transit: Insights from Measuring City-Center Accessibility,” by Lucas J. Conwell, Fabian Eckert, and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak was published in Jan. 2023 as NBER Working Paper 30877.

The authors’ innovation is to define “accessibility zones” surrounding the central business districts of the 109 largest U.S. and European cities. For each city, the study defined a set of car accessibility zones and transit accessibility zones. In keeping with established research on a metro area’s economic productivity, a premise of the study is that larger accessibility zones are associated with greater productivity. One broad finding is that compared with European cities, on average U.S. cities are twice as accessible by car as European cities, but are half as accessible by transit. This is obviously due to the much greater density of European metro areas compared with largely suburbanized America, and the corresponding differences in roadway networks and transit systems between the United States and Europe.

To simplify the modeling, the researchers divided commuting times into four groups: 0-to-15 minutes,16-to-30 minutes, 31-to-45 minutes, and 46-to-60 minutes. They defined the central business district (CBD) as the area with the highest economic productivity in the metro area and drew a 1-kilometer radius circle around the defined center. The median U.S. central business district accounted for 28% of all the employment within a 20-kilometer radius. They used Google Maps to construct the accessibility zones, using it to find the car or transit travel time to the CBD from any point in each land parcel. All the land parcels that enable a trip to the CBD in 15 minutes or less make up the 15-minute accessibility zone, and so on up to 60 minutes.

One of the most interesting results is that although Europe’s transit accessibility zones are all larger than those of the U.S., “car travel offers larger overall accessibility across all time distances in both Europe and the U.S.”  And that means that “U.S. cities enjoy greater accessibility overall because they have a comparative advantage in car-based commutes.” One reason for this is that, especially for longer-distance commutes, transit provides only “patchy” access. By contrast, car commuters can use a comprehensive roadway network that directly connects every point A to every point B. But that does offer an advantage to bus transit over rail transit.

Although the authors mention in their introduction that larger accessibility (via more possible trips within a given time frame) leads to greater economic productivity, their paper does not attempt to quantify the potential economic benefits of U.S. cities’ much greater accessibility. They do briefly discuss the limited impact that could be expected from “densification” policies. And of course, they discuss how “US cities’ car orientation comes at the cost of less green space, more congestion, and worse health and pollution externalities.” Assuming vehicle electrification continues, the health and pollution impacts should decrease in the coming decades. Also, with greater use of road pricing, urban traffic congestion can be reduced.

While this study would be even more impressive with quantified economic productivity estimates, it should help transportation planners think through trade-offs between highways and transit in the coming decades.

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Urban Containment Policies: Unaffordable Housing and Reduced Mobility

A new study from the Chapman University Center for Demographics and Policy called “Housing Report: Blame Ourselves, Not Our Stars,” makes the case that California’s urban containment policies have made housing increasingly unaffordable and are leading to out-migration from the state. Among 53 major U.S. metro areas, “those with more single-family housing and larger lot sizes (key indicators of lower density) have substantially better housing affordability [due to much lower land costs at the urban fringe].” By contrast, “the density-first policies of California’s key coastal metropolitan areas…have created the lowest levels of housing affordability,” write Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, the report’s authors.

This densification approach began in California in the 1970s, when “California planners became obsessed by ‘urban sprawl,’ which is the organic expansion of cities as populations and incomes increase. They launched a concerted effort to drive people into ‘living smaller, living closer’—whether they liked it or not.” But this urban containment anti-sprawl agenda severely limits or prohibits low-density housing on the periphery, where land is the lowest-cost. One of the first manifestations of this urban containment effort was the creation of the California Coastal Commission in 1972, which has made it extremely costly to build anything new within five miles of the ocean. By the 1980s, more than 900 growth control measures had been enacted by cities and counties in California. The idea then was to “preserve open space,” no matter the impact on housing affordability.

By the early 2000s, the urban containment approach got a new lease on life—and this is where transportation entered the picture. Environmental groups argued that car and truck use needed to be reduced because of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Urban containment was refashioned as a key enabler. A big report called “Moving Cooler,” published in 2009 by the Urban Land Institute, made highly unrealistic assumptions about how much of an urban area could be radically densified. Transportation groups urged the Transportation Research Board (TRB) to do a more rigorous assessment. Its report, “Driving and the Built Environment,” came in with far lower impacts of densification on transportation GHG emissions. Yet that more-rigorous study had essentially zero effect on California regulatory agencies and legislators, who since then have doubled down on their densification agenda.

As this subject continued to affect California land-use and transportation policies, my Reason Foundation colleagues took on a major project to assess the most-cited studies, including “Growing Cooler” and TRB’s “Driving and the Built Environment.” Reason’s urban containment study by Adrian Moore and Wendell Cox was released in March 2016. As Cox and Moore summarized it, The TRB study’s far lower and more realistic estimates of how much densification might actually occur led to very small greenhouse gas reductions (1.5% fewer GHGs if 25% of a metro area were densified). They made then-realistic projections of likely increases in vehicle fuel economy by 2050, and those GHG reductions dwarfed likely reductions from densification. They also noted that significant densification would increase traffic congestion, thereby adding to an urban area’s GHG emissions. In a subsequent section, they cited some of the research on commuting travel time and urban area productivity, pointing out that extreme densification would likely result in lower productivity due to people being unable to access most or all of an urban area’s job opportunities. This section of the report closes with the following:

“Urban containment policies seek to create ‘urban villages’ where people will use transit, bicycles, and walking to access nearby employment and other destinations, which urban planners expect will decrease traffic. But this is not borne out by experience. Research shows that employees do not typically choose their employers, and vice versa, based on proximity to a worker’s residence. Moreover, people generally do not choose their [other] destinations based strictly on whether they can walk, bicycle, or ride transit there…. Not only does densification decrease mobility and hamper productivity, but it also increases traffic congestion, which increases greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, urban containment strategies exacerbate the environmental and work commute problems they seek to solve.”

This study is at least as relevant today as it was when it was published in 2016. It should be required reading for policymakers committed to densification policies.

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New Automated Vehicle Report Shows Progress
By Marc Scribner
In May, Bishop Consulting released its first semiannual Automated Driving Industry Trends Report. The report is authored by Richard Bishop, one of the leading experts on vehicle automation who has been active in this space for more than three decades in both the public and private sectors. At 119 pages, it provides a comprehensive but easily digestible overview of automated vehicle (AV) development and deployment activities taking place around the world. Bishop’s trends report examines three AV vertical markets: private passenger cars, robotaxis/roboshuttles, and commercial trucks.

For passenger cars, Bishop notes that SAE Level 2 (defined by SAE International’s Recommended Practice J3016) advanced driver assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control coupled with lane-centering assistance are now widely available to consumers. Level 3 automated driving systems are now being offered on select models in select locations by Mercedes with several other automakers planning to introduce similar technologies. At present, Mercedes along with BMW are focusing their Level 3 technologies to operate at low speeds (less than 40 mph) in dense traffic conditions, colloquially referred to as traffic jam assistance.

However, Level 3 has been the most controversial automation mode. While these Level 3 systems can handle the entire dynamic driving task within their limited operational design domain, they require a fallback-ready user (either in the vehicle or remote) prepared to take over the driving task after a warning and transition period. The problem is that human-factors research using driving simulators has found that it can take up to 40 seconds for drivers to retake manual control and stabilize steering, which suggests that the hand-off period from automated to manual operation may be too long to allow drivers to safely mitigate hazards.

It is possible some of these risks can be mitigated by greatly limiting the operational design domain, such as by only allowing the system to operate on highways within a narrow range of traffic conditions, and with robust in-vehicle driver monitoring to ensure a fallback-ready user remains awake and alert. But some developers, such as General Motors, have suggested they may skip Level 3 altogether and introduce Level 4 automated driving systems to avoid these risks. When vehicles equipped with Level 4 automated driving systems encounter a problem, they are designed to automatically transition to a minimal risk condition, such as by exiting traffic lanes and stopping on the shoulder, thereby avoiding the problems inherent with transitioning to a fallback-ready user.

For passenger fleet vehicles such as robotaxis, developers are focused on Level 4 automated driving systems. For instance, Waymo and GM’s Cruise, the most well-known and advanced developers, are currently offering ride-hail service to passengers in Austin (Cruise), Los Angeles (Waymo), Phoenix (Cruise and Waymo), and San Francisco (Cruise and Waymo), and plan to expand to other metro areas over the next few years.

Outside the U.S., there may be even more reason for optimism about robotaxis. Bishop reports that in China, Baidu is offering driverless ride-hailing service in more than 10 cities through its Apollo Go platform. Most significantly, Baidu claims it can deploy in new cities with only 20 days of lead time, much faster than current competitors. If true, this suggests that the first “turnkey” robotaxi platform already exists, and this development greatly increases the likelihood that widescale deployments will occur globally within the decade.

Finally, Bishop provides an excellent overview of the automated commercial truck market. As was discussed in the April issue of this newsletter, the last year has been tough for AV truck developers in the U.S., several of which have scaled back their testing or even folded completely. While Class 8 automated long-haul trucking receives the most attention from the public and policymakers, several niche markets that Bishop highlights are showing more immediate promise.

Some companies, such as Plus AI, are marketing Level 2 advanced driver assistance systems to trucking fleet owners today with the hope of leveraging those lower-level automation systems to introduce Level 4 driverless operations later in the decade. Defense contractor Kratos is testing Level 4 short-haul truck platooning for agricultural shipping in North Dakota to address the insufficient pool of drivers. In Australia, Hexagon is developing a platform to move 100-truck platoons of iron ore more than 100 miles from mines to Port Hedland. The goal is to save on the expense of constructing a rail line, although Western Australia’s iron ore industry also developed the world’s first long-distance fully automated freight rail system, AutoHaul, which is owned by Rio Tinto Group.

Bishop Consulting’s Automated Driving Industry Trends Report is a valuable resource for industry researchers and policymakers seeking a broad understanding of the rapidly changing AV marketplace. Those who purchase the report will also gain access to a webinar to explore the topics further and to have their questions answered.

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Some Good News on Reconnecting Communities

I was alarmed when I first learned that the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law included funds for projects that would “reconnect communities” that had been bisected by the construction of urban Interstates and other freeways. My concern was that a whole raft of anti-highway groups have been producing target lists of freeways that should be torn out and replaced with boulevards, either ignoring the loss of key links in urban transportation or blithely claiming that in the handful of actual removals, the former traffic just “melted away.” I discuss several of these cases in Chapter 10 of my book, Rethinking America’s Highways.

Fortunately, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has shed some light on previous projects dealing with divided neighborhoods and projects that have received initial planning grants under the new federal program. (GAO-23-105575, May 2023) The good news is that a large majority of previous and potential projects have taken transportation impacts seriously by not removing the freeway (except in a few cases where traffic on the segment was low and declining) but rather by capping (aka “decking over”) the freeway.

The GAO team identified 36 projects either completed or in the planning or construction phase between 2012 and 2021. Of these, 11 were removals and the other 25 (69%) were caps. Of the 12 completed projects, 75% were caps and only 3 were removals. Similarly, of the 24 projects planned or under construction, 67% are caps over the freeway in question. And of the projects that did “remove” a freeway segment, two major ones replaced that segment with a tunnel: Boston’s Big Dig (I-93) and Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Among the capping projects undertaken or completed between 2012 and 2021, Appendix 1 shows the following as having been completed:

Klyde Warren ParkDallas, TX
City Arch RiverSt. Louis, MO
Presidio ParkwaySan Francisco, CA
Frankie Pl. ParkPittsburgh, PA
Golden ProjectGolden, CO
Central 70Denver, CO
Capitol CrossingWashington, DC
92nd Ave NE LidClyde Hill, WA
84th Ave. NE LidHunts Point, WA
Evergreen Point RoadMedina, WA

The same table lists the following planned capping projects:

The StichAtlanta, GA
Rondo Land BridgeSt. Paul, MN
Reimagine Cross BronxNew York, NY
I-10 DeckEl Paso, TX
Penn’s LandingPhiladelphia, PA
Park 101Los Angeles, CA
Hollywood Central ParkLos Angeles, CA
South Loop LinkKansas City, MO
Fort Washington WayCincinnati, OH
ReConnect AustinAustin, TX
Southern Gateway ParkDallas, TX
Richmond 300Richmond, VA
Montlake LidSeattle, WA
Lid I-5Seattle, WA

One interesting project not included in the GAO report, but which has received a “reconnecting” planning grant, is the West End project affecting I-77 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is neither a cap nor a removal of the freeway, but rather a reconfiguring of several expansive “cloverleaf” interchanges, freeing up considerable real estate for redevelopment. The project includes the planned continuation of the I-77 express toll lanes through downtown and their extension southward to the border with South Carolina.

The GAO report (p.24) points out the need for such projects to include both community and transportation objectives. It suggests the transportation objectives “may include” maintaining aging infrastructure and improving road safety, but it does not mention maintaining the connectivity and throughput of the freeway, especially if it is part of the Interstate Highway System. Later on, GAO notes that the team set up in the office of the secretary to oversee the pilot program has not created performance measures for it. One of those should be to ensure that the vital connectivity of the Interstate Highway System is not undermined by any of the “removal” projects. I noted in the July 2022 issue of this newsletter that the traffic analysis used to justify removing I-81 through Syracuse, NY, is among the subjects of litigation seeking to un-do the freeway’s removal.

The Reconnecting Communities pilot program received bipartisan support in the bipartisan infrastructure law. Congress should make sure that it does not undercut the mobility offered by our national system of Interstate highways.

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How Central Europe’s Transportation Compares with America’s
By Baruch Feigenbaum

Last month I was in Europe for a Transportation Research Board (TRB) traffic operations conference. I took some vacation time to travel around Central Europe. While I visited some exciting and depressing historical sites, I was most interested in the difference between the transportation options in Europe and the United States. Transportation has a major effect on a country’s economy.

I visited Bratislava, Munich, Prague, and Vienna. For a capital city, Bratislava is very small. One could walk from one side to the other in less than an hour. As a result, this piece will focus on the other three metro areas, which make a better comparison to U.S. metro areas.

Munich with six million residents is about the size of Atlanta. Prague and Vienna each have about three million people, similar to Denver.

All three cities have extensive transit systems with heavy rail, light rail operated in a dedicated right-of-way, streetcars in a shared right-of-way, limited bus-rapid transit, an extensive local bus network, and an intercity rail system. Unlike many U.S. transit systems, European systems tend to be clean, operate on time, and are safe.

U.S. transit agencies could learn one key lesson from their European counterparts. Most European systems contract with private providers for operations and maintenance. Similar to public-private partnerships (P3), these agencies issue requests for qualifications (RFQs) and requests for proposals (RFPs) and then choose the concessionaire with the best proposal to operate and maintain the system. The concessionaire must abide by all the terms in the contract such as system cleanliness, schedule adherence, and use of technology that improves the ridership experience. If the original concessionaire fails to abide by the contract, the transit agency can choose the second-highest-scoring bidder to step in and take over.

In the U.S., while Section 13C of the Federal Transit Act can make contracting more challenging, it does not prevent most U.S. agencies from entering into arrangements with the private sector. Most agencies contract out paratransit, commuter bus, and commuter rail. But few contract out heavy rail, light rail, or bus rapid transit.

However, European transit (not intercity rail) systems also benefit from more than €100 billion (as of 2009) in subsidies. A portion (€40 billion) are general budget subsidies, but the largest (€60 billion) come from fuel taxes.

This may benefit transit users, but it makes driving extremely expensive. The European Union requires its countries to set a fuel tax of at least $1.55 per gallon. Yet the Czech Republic and Austria have a fuel tax rate above $2.25 and Germany has a rate of almost $3.00.

And despite public relations efforts that would have you believe all European cities are quaint walkable towns, European cities share some characteristics with U.S. cities. Outside of their historical core areas, built well before World War II and designed around walking and streetcars, many cities have newer commercial and industrial areas designed around the car. And each encourages sprawl by having building height maximums, which limits development in the city center and forces development to the periphery. Both Prague and Vienna have large industrial zones east of the central city. For most of the working-class residents who live in these areas, driving is the best option. And these drivers are effectively subsidizing wealthier residents who use transit to commute to work in the urban core.

Driving in and between European cities is a mixed experience. The autobahns feature pavement that is smooth and drivers who are very attentive (due to more stringent license requirements and more rigorous enforcement). Speed limits on limited-access highways are also much higher (81 mph in most countries, no speed limit for automobiles in Germany) with the authorities allowing some leeway.

However, cities are a different experience. Unlike the U.S., cities have limited freeways, which has its advantages for communities but makes commuting take much longer. Less excusable is the lack of traffic synchronization on arterials, particularly in Prague and Vienna. Idling at traffic signals is not helping drivers, and it is increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

European railways are also very different. Since frequent passenger trains are the norm between most (but not all) major city pairs, rail transports a far smaller share of freight than in the United States. As a result, truck traffic is widespread on the autobahns and two-lane rural arterials. Even with better drivers, this can cause congestion and delays on rural roadways. It also increases the cost of goods, one reason that many consumer goods are much more expensive in Europe. It also increases greenhouse gasses since trucks emit more greenhouse gasses (per ton-mile) than trains. It is ironic that a continent as obsessed with climate change as Europe still relies so heavily on trucks.

Clearly, Europeans take great pride in their cities with parts of Prague and Vienna as UNESCO World Heritage sites. But the combination of building height limits, extremely high gasoline prices, and reliance on trucks for transport increases transportation costs and decreases economic activity. It’s also unclear how much these policies reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Based on my experiences in the cities mentioned above, my preliminary takeaway is that we in the U.S. have a more useful, cost-effective transport system for goods and people.

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What Trucking Needs On Long-Distance Highways

There is a national shortage of safe overnight parking spaces for long-distance trucks. Drivers who cannot find space in a designated rest area or turnpike service plaza often park illegally alongside off-ramps, where they are vulnerable to criminals. Many drive longer than they should seeking a safe place to park, risking fatigue and a higher probability of an accident.

Trucking industry think tank the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) lists expanded truck parking at highway rest areas as its number one priority in 2023. The industry has lobbied hard for a bill that recently passed the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee that would provide $755 million over three years for new truck parking capacity. Unfortunately, many existing rest areas and service plazas are said to be land-locked, which means expanding them would involve acquiring adjacent properties. If Congress approves that bill, it would provide $252 million per year, divided by 50 states, which would average out to just over $5 million a year per state. That won’t buy much real estate in most states.

The New York Thruway is tapping private capital to modernize its 27 service plazas, under a 33-year public-private partnership (P3) with infrastructure company John Laing. The $450 million project was financed upfront via private equity and $350 million in tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs). The John Laing consortium will use a share of the revenues generated from services provided at the plazas to service the bonds and (they hope) achieve a return on their equity. Five other tolled highway systems have used such P3s to expand and modernize their service plazas since 2009. (see “Rethinking Interstate Rest Areas”).

As part of planning its rest areas modernization, the Thruway surveyed its customers, including long-distance truckers. Their number-one priority (80%) was for more overnight parking, followed by access to showers (52%), access to a truckers’ lounge (37%), greater security (18%), and self-service laundry facilities (15%). In response, the modernization plan for four service plazas will include a separate truckers’ entrance, lounge, showers, lockers, and washers/dryers. And all the plazas will have an expanded choice of name-brand food and beverage outlets.

State transportation departments (DOTs) own the rest areas on Interstate highways. To expand their parking capacity, many would need significant funding to acquire additional land, either adjacent to an existing rest area or to create a replacement at a location with available land. If it became legal to locate commercial services at Interstate rest areas, large-scale P3s might well be feasible to acquire the needed land and attract commercial operators, a portion of whose revenues would become the revenue source for the P3 developer/operator.

As I’ve written previously, this will not be possible until Congress abolishes the 1960 federal prohibition of commercial services at Interstate rest areas. Many state DOTs support the repeal of this ban, and so does OOIDA (Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association), the smaller of the two national trucking organizations. The major opponent of repeal is still the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), which represents truck stops and fast-food and gas-station franchisees located at or near Interstate off-ramps. Their zero-sum view is that any business generated at new service plazas will be at the expense of retailers at the off-ramps. But trucking, in particular, is a growth industry, as indicated by the large and growing shortage of truck parking. This is not a zero-sum proposition.

Perhaps a clever state DOT will promote the idea of modernizing some of its Interstate rest areas as truck stops, inviting the truck-stop companies to take part in rest-area modernization P3 projects. If the truck stop industry could see this as a way to expand beyond its existing land-constrained locations, Congress might be persuaded to enact a pilot program under which willing state DOTs could test the waters for this approach.

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News Notes

Last Texas P3 Express Lanes Project Opens
On June 20, the ribbon was cut on a 7.2-mile northward extension of the express lanes on I-35 West in north Fort Worth. The extension, costing some $920 million, was financed in 2019 by P3 developer Cintra, based on projected toll revenue. That stretch of I-35W had been called one of the most congested freeways in Texas by the time construction began in 2020. The new TEXpress Lanes will speed travel between Fort Worth and the thriving Alliance Airport complex, which has become a multimodal transportation hub and logistics center. This P3 project was approved by the state legislature prior to its current policy of disapproving all TxDOT requests for more P3 projects.

India Building World’s Widest Tunnels
To improve travel on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, known as India’s first tolled expressway, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation is constructing a bypass of a valley that the expressway routes around. The solution involves boring 10-lane tunnels through two mountains and connecting them with a new cable-stayed bridge across the valley. When completed, the project will cut 30 minutes off the trip between Pune and Mumbai. The two tunnels will total 6.6 miles and are estimated to cost $816 million. The June 2 Times of India story did not include the cost of the new bridge, whose pillars are now in the final stages of construction.

New Orange County Express Lanes to Open This Year
A $2 billion project to add express toll lanes to highly congested I-405 in Orange County, CA is nearing completion and is expected to open to traffic before the end of this year, according to Engineering News-Record. The project is adding an ETL each way on a 16-mile section and two lanes each way on a shorter, more-congested section. This is only the second ETL project in Orange County, the site of the world’s first ETLs, on SR-91, which opened to traffic in Dec. 1995.

Brazil Opening $66 Billion Highway Portfolio to Investors
Inframation reported that at the Brazil Road Invest 2023 conference last month in Sao Paulo, the head of the Transportation Ministry, George Santoro, invited potential investors to individual in-person meetings in the third week of June. The 2023 plan is to offer five major highway P3 concessions this year, totaling $6 billion in investments. Road Transportation Secretary Viviane Esse stressed the importance of “free-flow tolling systems,” and offered additional points for bidders suggesting toll discounts of various sorts. The first two highway concessions will be auctioned in August and September. Separately, the state of Minas Gerais is working with state agency BNDES on feasibility studies of four new toll concessions, totaling over 3,100 miles.

L.A. Metro Introduces License-Plate Billing, for a Hefty Charge
After what it considered a successful pilot program of opening its I-110 and I-10 express lanes to those without transponders and pre-paid accounts, the Los Angeles County Metro board last month voted to make license-plate billing available permanently. But newly sensitive to the high cost of billing and collections, it will charge $8 in addition to the variable toll for those using the lanes without a transponder. By contrast, on the 12 new miles of express toll lanes on I-95 in Maryland, the proposed premium for pay-by-plate for two-axle light vehicles is only 36% more than the transponder toll, which is unlikely to cover the full cost of billing and collection. That modest premium is still fairly typical. But in Texas, the North Texas Tollway Authority has revamped its toll rate schedule. As of July 1, those without a transponder account will pay twice the rate for transponder customers.

Loadsmith to Equip 800 Trucks with Kodiak Automation
Supply Chain Quarterly reported that third-party logistics and transportation provider Loadsmith has ordered 800 autonomous vehicle systems from Kodiak Robotics and plans to use them for the highway portions of long-distance freight routes. The trucks will be equipped with “Kodiak Driver” starting in the second half of 2025. Their model calls for autonomous operation on Interstates and other long-distance highways, with local human drivers taking over for local pickups and deliveries. Shippers will use Loadsmith’s online system to book loads, and the trips will be monitored via the company’s Loadsmith Freight Network.

Fast-Growing Tampa Adding Tolled Capacity
A $595 million project in Hillsborough County (on the west side of Tampa Bay) is adding elevated express toll lanes above state highways 686A, 690, and I-75 approaching the Howard Frankland Bridge, which is being rebuilt with its own express toll lanes in both directions. Separately, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority is considering extending its Selmon Expressway by 10 miles further inland to serve rapidly growing suburbs. The project is estimated to cost $1.8 billion and would be financed by toll revenue bonds, assuming studies show enough traffic and toll revenue to finance the project.

P3 Developer Planning €3.5 Billion Upgrade of Italian Toll Roads
Inframation reports that P3 developer/operator Abertis is planning to invest €3.5 billion to modernize and expand the A4 and A31 toll motorways for which it holds long-term P3 concessions. The Infrastructure Ministry had asked the company for a feasibility study of modernizing the tollways to cope with increased traffic and economic development. It was due to submit the study by the end of June.

California vs. Texas on Autonomous Trucks
Headlines a day apart tell quite a tale. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram headlined a story, “Self-Driving Trucks Becoming Common on North Texas Roads.” It provided evidence that Texas’s permissive regulations and booming economy have attracted trucking companies and automation providers. Safety drivers are not required in autonomous trucks in Texas, though most companies still use them. The next day, an article on Politico Pro was headlined, “California Moves Closer to Requiring Humans on Board Self-Driving Trucks.” And three days later, Politico followed up with news that the state assembly had passed a bill requiring a human being to be on all trucks in California. The legislation is a priority for the Teamsters Union.

Norwegian Billion-Dollar P3 Reaches Financial Close
An 82-kilometer tolled motorway, including seven tunnels and 22 bridges, reached financial close in June, valued at €970 million. The P3 developer is Skanska. Though tolls will be charged, the financing model is based on availability payments from the government, which will also set and collect the tolls. Toll revenues will be applied to meeting the government’s availability payments. Construction is planned to begin shortly, with completion by Dec. 2028. Skanska’s concession will end in Nov. 2043.

Louisiana Feasibility Study for Elevated Commercial Corridor
The Louisiana Regional Planning Commission has contracted with GIS Engineering for a feasibility study of the St. Bernard Transportation Corridor. It will link the future Louisiana International Terminal, a $1.8 billion container terminal at the Port of New Orleans with I-510. The new terminal is being developed via a P3 involving the Port, the state government, and Ports America and Terminal Investment Limited.

KKR to Buy $1.1 Billion India Highways Portfolio
Private equity company Kohnberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) is the winning bidder for a portfolio of 12 highways from Indian developer PNC Infratech. Partnered with KKR are Cube Highways, Edelweiss, and Shrem Infrastructure Investment Trust, reported Inframation (June 15). Eleven of the highways were developed via India’s hybrid annuity model and the 12th is a build-operate-transfer toll road.

Minnesota Launches I-494 Express Toll Lanes Project
Work began last month on a $377 million project to add one E-ZPass lane each way to I-494 between Edina and Bloomington. The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s schedule aims for completion by autumn 2026. The project includes a number of bridge widenings and a new flyover ramp where I-494 and I-35W intersect. MnDOT says this is one of the largest construction projects in its history.

Colorado Begins I-70 Floyd Hill Widening
Construction was expected to start by July 1 on a $700 million project to widen I-70 in the Floyd Hill area west of Denver, considered the gateway to Colorado’s mountains. The project will add a third lane (as an express toll lane) westbound, rebuild aging bridges, add two miles of missing frontage road, and add various safety and environmental features.

Liberty Bridge Opens in Bay City, Michigan
The private toll bridge replacement in Bay City has opened to traffic and begun tolling. In its deal with the city government, Bay City Bridge Partners agreed that it will not charge tolls to city residents until 2028, if they register for a transponder. The rate schedule has three tiers, for light vehicles, medium vehicles (including two-axle trucks and pickup trucks pulling trailers), and heavy trucks. Non-residents with transponder accounts will pay $2 per crossing but will pay $5.50 if billed by license-plate number. Non-residents with transponder accounts in classes 2 and 3 will pay twice the light-vehicle rate if class 2 and four times the light-vehicle rate if class 3.

Florida Taxpayers Paying to Subsidize Toll Customers
In the first five months of 2023, Florida toll road frequent customers received $190 million in refunds of tolls they paid, thanks to a one-year giveaway program enacted by the state legislature last year. The shortfall in toll agency budgets was made up for by $190 million from general taxpayers, many of whom are less affluent than frequent toll road users. Dutiful toll road officials praised the one-year refund program as a wonderful benefit.

Europe’s Highest Bridge Gets New Owner
The spectacular Millau Viaduct, Europe’s highest bridge, has had a change of ownership. Developed and operated under a 75-year toll concession, the developer/operator was a joint project of infrastructure developer Eiffage and the investment arm of Caisse des Depots. Last month Eiffage, which already held 51% of the project company CEVM, bought the other 49% from its partner. Eiffage has a long history, first becoming known as the developer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A photo of the Millau Viaduct graces the cover of my book, Rethinking America’s Highways.

Fast Rebuilding of Interstate Highway Damage
Journalist John Fund had an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal summarizing two California examples of very rapid reconstruction of permanent replacements of badly-damaged freeway bridges. One example was bridge collapses on the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) in Los Angeles, due to the Northridge earthquake. The other was in 2007 at the MacArthur interchange in Oakland, following a tank truck fire. The first was fully rebuilt in 84 days; the other (with less total damage) took only 26 days. I doubt if today’s Caltrans would be capable of using large incentives and exemptions from regulations the way they did in those emergencies.

Perspective on the Traffic Impact of the Philadelphia Bridge Collapse
Anti-highway groups following the recent I-95 bridge collapse quickly claimed that the lack of a “carmageddon” due to the temporary closure of the damaged stretch of freeway demonstrated that we don’t need to add capacity to deal with traffic growth, because “more capacity generates more travel.” Reason reporter Christian Britschgi took these critics to task, in an excellent commentary, explaining the costs to motorists and bus riders from detours around the accident site. “The fact that [expanded] highways fill up with traffic shows that there was unmet demand for highway travel.”

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Quotable Quotes

“[]T]he ethanol mandate increases CO2 emissions, as more land is diverted to growing crops for fuel. A study last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted that the [federal] Renewable Fuel Standard has led to ‘substantially greater GHG emissions’ and ‘exacerbated other environmental problems,’ including poor water quality and soil erosion. But climate is not why EPA decided not to increase the ethanol mandate. Instead, EPA says projected gasoline demand is not expected ‘to recover to pre-pandemic levels and moreover is expected to be lower by 2025 than it was in 2022.”
—“Big Ethanol vs. Electric Vehicles,” Editorial, The Wall Street Journal,” June 24, 2023

“[T]he bill that lawmakers are now considering, called the Railway Safety Act, has almost nothing to do with what actually transpired [in East Palestine]. Take proposed crew size. For decades, railroads have been steadily reducing crews while improving safety. In the years ahead, large carriers would like to run trains with a single engineer—assisted by technology that detects signals, avoids collisions, and so on—thereby saving some $2.5 billion annually. It’s by no means a rash ambition. Some 95% of rail traffic in Europe is moved by one-man crews, while multiple studies have found no evidence that larger crews are any safer. . . . Proposed inspection requirements tell a similar story. Although train crews are qualified to carry out pre-trip inspections, the bill requires that a (unionized) mechanical inspector conduct an added examination at a specified inspection site. If the nearest one is further away than the train’s destination, the crew will need to push past its intended stop, wait at the site for the train to be inspected for the trip it has already taken, then reverse itself to get back to where it planned to go. Only in Congress does this kind of thing seem reasonable.”
—“Railway Safety Act Should Be Scrapped,” The Editors, Bloomberg, June 12, 2023 

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