Surface Transportation News: Highways Splitting Neighborhoods, Replacing Fuel Taxes, a High-Speed Rail Proposal and More
Photo 108043823 © Trong Nguyen |

Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News: Highways Splitting Neighborhoods, Replacing Fuel Taxes, a High-Speed Rail Proposal and More

Plus: Electric vehicle charging at Interstate rest areas, the costs of rail projects, and more.

In this issue:

What to Do About Highways That Split Neighborhoods

Many transportation experts are concerned by congressional and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) efforts to deem expressways that were built 50 years ago through low-income areas in cities as civil rights and environmental justice issues. The U.S. Department of Transportation has intervened in Texas DOT’s planned $7 billion widening of I-45 in Houston, and both the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan and the House’s surface transportation reauthorization bill include funding for “reconnecting communities.”

Many years ago I read Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, and gained an appreciation for why “freeway revolts” broke out in the 1970s over planned urban Interstates, some of which ended up being cancelled. And despite being an advocate for better highways, I do have concerns over the massive property takes proposed by TxDOT for the I-45 project. And even the Transportation Research Board (TRB) special committee report on the future of the Interstates suggested that some urban segments could be candidates for removal, while also calling for adding some new Interstate corridors and selectively widening many long-distance routes.

What would be a sensible approach to existing urban freeways that divided low-income neighborhoods 50 years ago? Here are some points to keep in mind.

  • The urban Interstates built through low-income areas were not part of the original plan, which was strictly inter-city. When the 1955 bill to create the Interstate program failed in Congress due to lack of support from urban members, the federal Bureau of Public Roads created a set of conceptual plans for urban Interstates, called the Yellow Book. Mayors and legislators were then keen on the prospect of 90% federally funded urban expressways, so the 1956 version of the Interstates plan passed almost unanimously.
  • Low-income areas were generally selected because the land values were lower, limiting the cost of acquiring the right of way via eminent domain. Many of these areas were multi-ethnic immigrant communities; this was before much of the move to the suburbs from many such neighborhoods. There may well have been a racial and/or ethnic elements to the selection process in some cases, but the right-of-way (ROW) decisions appear to have been based mostly on engineering and fiscal considerations. Another factor was widespread support at that time for so-called “slum clearance” and redevelopment.
  • Although we have no definitive data on who lived in bisected communities then, it seems likely that most of those whose lives were affected have either died or moved elsewhere. There is no way to re-create the former neighborhoods with their former residents. And recent in-depth articles on such former neighborhoods in New Orleans and Syracuse, for example, found many current residents concerned about gentrification if the aging freeways there were removed.

Any proposed remediation must consider both the residents of the affected area and the impact of replacing a limited-access expressway with local streets on overall metro area traffic flows. The Congress for a New Urbanism has touted a handful of “freeway removals” as big successes, claiming that former freeway traffic just melted away. Actually, nearly all the cases these groups cite are stubs—short portions of freeways that were planned but never built. Examples include the Park Freeway in Milwaukee and the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. They never carried much traffic, so replacement surface streets sufficed. But that does not mean tearing out a freeway that is an integral part of a metro area’s multi-modal (bus, car, and truck) highway system could be done without major impacts on traffic over the whole system. Any significant facility modification must be based on its current importance to the whole community, including its neighbors but also freight impacts in terms of ports, factories, etc. and impacts on interstate commerce.

In short, any proposed freeway removal requires careful analysis of actual neighborhood impacts as well as metro-area traffic impacts. And each situation is likely to be different from the others. I addressed this subject in Chapter 10 of my book, Rethinking America’s Highways. Here are some examples of solutions adopted in various large metro areas.

Decks and Lids: Removing aging elevated freeways and replacing them with below-grade freeways, covered over by decks or lids, is a solution adopted both overseas and in U.S. metro areas, including Dallas, Duluth, Phoenix, and Seattle. Currently under way in Denver is the reconstruction of I-70 between downtown and the Denver International Airport. The elevated section has been torn down and is being replaced by depressed lanes decked over with a park that will link the formerly divided communities on either side. The cost of this project is $1.2 billion.

Tunnels: Two major urban areas, Boston and Seattle, replaced aging elevated freeways with tunnels. Both projects maintained previous traffic flows on critically important links while opening up the surface area to new development. Both of these projects experienced large cost overruns, with Boston’s huge Big Dig ending up at $14.8 billion and the Seattle tunnel at $3.3 billion. Neither was carried out as a design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) public-private partnership (P3), unlike the Port of Miami tunnel which was delivered on-budget ($863 million) and nearly on-time, so tunnels should not be ruled out.

Widening Within the Existing Footprint: When the decision was made to add express toll lanes to the congested LBJ Freeway in Dallas, TxDOT faced a dilemma. During a previous widening, it had made a commitment to the city that this would be the last widening of the LBJ’s footprint. TxDOT’s RFP therefore suggested that the new lanes be added in a tunnel beneath the freeway. But the winning P3 proposal called for depressing the new lanes below the median and rebuilding the regular lanes cantilevered over the express lanes. The project cost was $2.6 billion, and it has been a big success. Note: it strikes me that something like this could be applied to the I-45 project in Houston, reducing or eliminating the need to expand its footprint and condemn 600 private homes, 486 units of public housing, 344 businesses, five churches, and two schools.

Rebuilding Better: In Miami, construction is about halfway complete on rebuilding a major interchange between north-south I-95, the east-west Dolphin expressway on the west and the I-395 causeway to Miami Beach on the east. The original 1960s construction cut a low-income minority community in half. Since this interchange is vital to numerous traffic flows, the key was to rebuild the interchange better. That is being done by replacing the ugly elevated east-west segment with a much higher signature bridge and an expansive park underneath. You can read a description and watch a video of this project. The project cost is $818 million.

Again, there are solutions that can reconnect communities and preserve regionwide mobility, but they are often costly. In some cases, these options may well be worth pursuing.

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FHWA Has Not Approved EV Charging at Interstate Rest Areas

In the May issue of this newsletter, I cheered an announcement from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that it was changing its interpretation of the 1960 law that prohibits commercial services at rest areas on non-tolled Interstate highways. FHWA’s announcement stated that under its Clean Energy and Connectivity (CEC) initiative, there would be two alternative paths for approving electric vehicle (EV) charging at such rest areas.

One path was for the EV charging to be “accommodated as a utility.” Under this approach, commercial activity restrictions would not apply unless the project qualified as an “automotive service station,” which is explicitly forbidden by the statute. The other path would consider a CEC project as an “alternative use of the right of way.” Under this approach, EV charging would be permitted as an “acceptable alternative use” of Interstate ROW if it complies with federal property management regulations.

However, a sharp-eyed former FHWA chief counsel emailed me to point out that I (along with the EV charging community) had been snookered. After reading the FHWA announcement more carefully than I had, he emailed the following:

“I think FHWA may have given with one hand and taken with the other. Based on the 4/27/21 memo, if using ‘accommodation as a utility,’ CEC projects are not subject to 23 USC 111 [the commercial activity ban] unless they are subject to 23 USC 111 (see first sentence on p. 3 of the memo). If using ‘alternative use of the ROW,’ CEC projects must comply with 23 US 111. If only Truth in Advertising applied to federal guidance!”

Two days later, my informant emailed again, to report “I did confirm with FHWA counsel that the ROW memo does not do anything re: 23 USC 111. No real commercialization is still the law of the land.”

Needless to say, this news sped through the electric vehicle charging community and seems to have led to the formation of an ad-hoc coalition favoring not just EV charging but full repeal of the 1960 ban on commercial services at Interstate rest areas. This may sound surprising, but there is a clear rationale for taking the broader perspective. For example, I am told that a leading EV charging provider opposes locating chargers at current rest areas—even if this were legal—because they are seen by many travelers as dangerous places at night, with no security and no other services, unlike turnpike service plazas. So legalizing only electric vehicle charging is unlikely to draw in private providers and would risk potential federal EV charging funds being wasted on chargers that would get little use.

The “INVEST in America” surface transportation reauthorization bill that recently passed the House does include (in Section 1211) repeal of the commercial services ban as it applies to EV charging, “fringe and corridor” parking facilities, and park & ride lots—but not any other commercial services such as restaurants and other shopping. So there is still a lot of work for the new coalition to do.

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A New High-Speed Rail Proposal That Dwarfs California’s

If you live in the Northeast, how would you like a train going 200 miles per hour that would get you from Boston to New York in a bit over 90 minutes? It would have tunnels under part of Long Island and under Long Island Sound. And best of all, it would be part of a region-wide passenger rail network spanning New England. And all for $105 billion, just a bit more than the likely $98 billion cost of California’s still unfunded Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail (HSR) project. If this sounds too good to be true, read on.

The project is called the North Atlantic Rail (NAR) project and it is being promoted in Congress by Rep. Annie Kuster (D-NH) and Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH). Several weeks ago I was contacted by Michael Graham of and invited to tape a podcast about this project. To to be able to comment intelligently, I spent most of a day reviewing the text and maps on the North Atlantic Rail website and also collecting recent unit cost data on various forms of passenger rail. That’s because the NAR proposal includes three forms of passenger rail: a new main high-speed New York-to-Boston corridor with those tunnels (Penn Station-Jamaica-Ronkonkoma-New Haven-Hartford-Providence-Boston); a set of Amtrak upgrades called a high performance inter-city network; and some new regional rail lines.

To get a ballpark estimate of the cost of this plan, I used the North Atlantic Rail “Early Action Projects” map, which includes the high-speed rail route, the Amtrak upgrades, and the earliest regional links to the Amtrak line—New Haven-Pittsfield, Springfield-Brattleboro, and Boston-Beverly). For the high-speed rail mainline, I used the cost per mile estimated in an Amtrak study several years ago: $1.3 billion per mile, for all-new right of way (as in the NAR plan). For the upgraded Amtrak lines, I drew on average unit costs from the Obama-era grants for such projects: $3 million per mile. And since the type of passenger rail intended for the initial regional rail projects was not specified, I used Federal Transit Administration (FTA) data for recent light rail lines at $105 million per mile. So here is how the early action projects penciled out:

  HSR: 267 miles (all new) at $1.3 billion/mile: $358.8  billion
  Amtrak upgrades: 267 mi. at $3 million/mile: 0.8  billion
  New regional rail: 109 mi. at $105 million/mile: 11.4  billion
  TOTAL: $371.0  billion

That’s a bit more than NAR’s estimate of $105 billion. And this is before adjusting these costs for typical rail megaproject cost overruns. In his well-known database of 258 global highway and rail megaprojects, Bent Flyvbjerg (Oxford University) and colleagues found that the average passenger rail project cost over-run was 45%. So if we apply this factor to the total I estimated above, the likely actual cost is more like $538 billion. That’s the cost, which presumably would come from federal taxpayers since there is no prospect of such a rail project generating revenues sufficient to cover debt service on construction bonds. So what are the offsetting benefits?

Faster travel times are always put forth for fast rail projects, but people can already fly from Boston-to-New York in less than an hour and a half via airlines whose airports and air traffic control system are almost entirely supported by user taxes, not by general taxpayers. (Rail proponents typically argue including time spent in airport security and at the airport would make rail’s times somewhat more competitive.) High-speed rail is also touted as a much greener mode than car, bus, or airline but those findings depend a great deal on how many passenger miles each mode carrier and their average load factors. In terms of CO2 emissions, a much cited 2010 study of the carbon footprint of the California high-speed rail project by Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath of UC Berkeley estimated that the carbon emissions from the project’s construction phase (all that concrete and steel) would take 71 years to be offset by potential savings from trips shifted from highways and air travel. Moreover, studies like that assumed that petroleum-fuel cars would continue in operation for the next 70 years, when the likely reality is that electric vehicles could already make up half or more of the U.S. vehicle fleet by 2050.

One other argument high-speed rail proponents are fond of is that passenger rail is discriminated against in federal subsidies. The numbers used to support this point to highway grants of up to 90% of some project costs and urban transit grants of up to 50% of project costs—all compared to the small annual sums Amtrak gets from the federal till. What is ignored in this comparison is that federal highway user tax revenue (until recent annual general-fund bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund) covered slightly more than federal highway spending. And, as noted above, commercial aviation gets almost zero federal subsidies. But Amtrak passengers pay no federal ticket tax like airline passengers do, and no federal fuel taxes like motorists and truckers pay. In fact, a recent update of a U.S. DOT study estimating the actual federal subsidy by mode (federal spending minus the mode’s user taxes) found the following:

  Amtrak $204 /passenger-mile
  Transit $142 /passenger-mile
  Air travel $3.62 /passenger-mile
  Highways -$0.79 /passenger-mile

These numbers show the nonsensical nature of periodic calls for creation of a federal Passenger Rail Trust Fund, to pay for expanded Amtrak and high-speed rail projects. What some rail supporters want is what transit got in 1982: a guaranteed percentage each year of federal highway user tax revenues. There is already a huge loss of public trust in the Highway Trust Fund, since it no longer adheres to the users-pay/users-benefit principle. Extracting even more highway user tax revenue for non-highway purposes would take these diversions to a new level, leaving even less funding for highway maintenance and repair.

Note: This information about the cost of the rail proposal in this section is incorrect. Please see an update and correction here.

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Assessing Utah’s Plan to Replace Gas Taxes
By Baruch Feigenbaum

Oregon was the first state to begin studying mileage based user fees (MBUFs) in 2001. Ten years later, the state began testing the technology and five years after that it implemented a permanent program open to 5,000 drivers. Over the last 10 years, six other states and two multi-state coalitions began testing mileage based user fees. Over the last five years Utah began studying mileage-based user fees and it recently implemented an MBUF for electric vehicles only. But last month, Utah unveiled the first proposal in the country that would require all automobile drivers to pay MBUFs by 2031. Unfortunately, being first is not always best, and Utah could learn a lot from Oregon.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has long been one of the premier state transportation departments, winning awards from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and placing in the top 20 in Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report every year. The state has a culture of good governance where political leaders engage in consensus building instead of confrontation. But that does not mean Utah’s approach to mileage-based user fees is best or its conversion will be easy.

Due to the gas tax’s declining purchasing power, Utah is expecting to fall behind on highway construction and maintenance. The state’s population has grown almost 20% over the past decade and it needs more infrastructure to accommodate that growth. But while the costs to build and maintain roads grow at 7% per year, gas tax revenue has grown at 1% per year. Over the next 30 years, UDOT projects that gas tax revenue will cover only 85% of the projects in Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan. 

UDOT examined two MBUF scenarios. Scenario A, which has a very aggressive timeline and uses manual odometer readings to report miles driven—likely when vehicle registration is renewed. Utah-registered vehicles with a fuel-efficiency rating over 20 miles per gallon (mpg) would pay the fee starting in 2024. Less fuel-efficient vehicles would be enrolled over the following seven years.

Scenario B, which uses the same technology, has a less aggressive timeline. In 2024, vehicles with fuel efficiency ratings over 30 miles per gallon would pay the mileage fee, with less fuel-efficient vehicles added in two-year increments. Scenario B also offers real-time technology-based features such as trip planning and monthly payment options as opposed to paying one large fee at vehicle registration renewal.

While Scenario A brings in $182 million more, Scenario B’s slower rollout is likely to improve public opinion of MBUFs. Further, paying a lump sum and annual registration fee at the same time could create equity problems. Out-of-state drivers and commercial vehicles would continue paying a gas tax.

I’m glad to see Utah adopting such an aggressive mileage-based user fees timeline. But I have a few concerns about the state’s approach.

First, it is critically important that UDOT refund all of the state gas tax to those paying MBUFs. Fears of double taxation are one of the primary obstacles to public support for mileage-based user fees. When a legislator asked how the state would ensure that people charged by the mile don’t also pay a gas tax, UDOT said it was unsure and that it would be up to the legislature to solve. One approach is to give fuel tax credits to participants, but it is unclear how much those tax credits might provide. Right now, it sounds as if only some of the gas tax revenue would be refunded by Utah. The transition to a MBUF system is intended to replace gas taxes, not supplement them.  If motorists perceive the change as a revenue grab, public support will plummet.

Second, the Utah system is one-size-fits-all. It is never ideal to force taxpayers to make a change while giving them only one option. The proposal does not offer a choice of technology. In contrast, Oregon offers drivers the choice of using an odometer reading, a GPS mileage based system without time of day features, and a GPS-mileage based system with time of day features.

The Utah system features one payment option, an annual payment. The Oregon system features pay as you go, post-pay, and quarterly payment options. It’s unclear who will operate the Utah system, but it could be the state. This would be a mistake, since pilot project participants in other states indicate that they are more likely to trust the private sector than the government with their personal information. Oregon has several private operators, including Azuga and Emovis, which handles the back office services of the state-run option as well.

In addition, the gold standard mileage-based user fee is a location-based GPS system that monitors the vehicle’s movement in real time. But given understandable privacy concerns drivers may have with the government potentially knowing their location, having a simple odometer reading is important for customers who do not feel comfortable with a GPS-based system. In Oregon, these customers are charged a slightly higher mileage rate. But for Utah not to offer a location-based system is stunning because a location-based GPS system is what allows some of the largest benefits of MBUFs. The system can charge variable rates to manage congestion, much as tolls do on over 60 priced express lanes around the country, including on I-15 in Utah. Current technology cannot offer this pricing option outside of freeways. The rate could also vary based on type of roadway, with Interstates and primary arterials having higher rates and local streets having the lowest rates. Currently, drivers pay the same gas tax regardless of how much they use each type of roadway.

Such varying rates help solve policy problems. Residents in rural areas pay less because, while they may travel further to work, they travel on roads that are less congested and less expensive to maintain. Lower-income residents typically travel in older less fuel-efficient vehicles, paying a higher share of gas taxes. Mileage-based user fees would reduce what they pay and allow for vouchers based on the number of miles driven where needed.

Finally, there is no mention of heavy-duty vehicles. The Utah plan is right to leave them towards the end, but heavy-duty vehicles need to start paying by the mile as well. Electric trucks are on the horizon, and given that trucks wear out roads much faster than cars, there is no reason that they should get a free pass.

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Getting Serious About Interstate Reconstruction

A number of environmentally-focused organizations, including Transportation for America, have emphasized America’s huge backlog of deferred transportation maintenance, arguing that a key element of any new infrastructure plan (and the pending reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program) should be a commitment to “fix it first,” i.e., to focus on rebuilding the infrastructure that already exists (though they somehow make an exception for transit and high-speed rail). And President Joe Biden’s infrastructure slogan is “build back better.”

You would think, therefore, that the aging of America’s most important public-sector surface transportation infrastructure—the Interstate Highway System—would be at or near the head of the line for being built back better. Yet the only explicit mention of the aging Interstates is the proposal discussed above to potentially remove portions of urban Interstates. Congress is seriously at fault on this, for ignoring the major study of the Interstate system’s future that it asked for in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, and which the Transportation Research Board delivered in December 2018. I’m sure members of Congress were shocked at the report’s estimate of the cost of rebuilding and modernizing the Interstates: about $1 trillion over the next two decades. Yet on an annual basis, that seems like small change in this age of multi-trillion-dollar new-spending proposals.

Into the breach comes transportation research nonprofit TRIP with a very timely report: “America’s Interstate Highway System at 65.” The executive summary alone should be required reading for every member of Congress and every staff member in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation. This 48,482-mile system includes 2.6% of all highway lane-miles but handles 26% of vehicle miles of travel. Last month, June, was the 65th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower signing the legislation that created dedicated highway user taxes and the federal Highway Trust Fund to build the system on a users-pay/users-benefit system.

The TRIP report updates some of the data found in the 2018 TRB study. For example, it provides tables showing which states have what fractions of Interstates in poor condition. No, they are not “crumbling,” but Hawaii leads the states with 23% of its Interstates in “poor” condition and 11 more with 5 to 9% in poor condition. Interstate bridges in poor or structurally deficient conditions are worst in West Virginia (13%) and Rhode Island (12%), and another eight states (including Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York) have between 5% and 8% of their Interstate bridges in that dismal shape. Eighteen states have between 50% and 87% of their urban Interstates defined as “congested,” with California leading the pack at 87% of its urban Interstate miles. Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report examines similar bridge, pavement, and traffic congestion data and ranks states on their performance and cost-effectiveness. 

TRIP also reports that the most recent U.S. DOT Conditions and Performance Report (released in 2019 but based on 2014 data) found that the backlog of Interstate improvements that can pass DOT’s benefit/cost test totaled $123 billion, which included $54 billion for pavement conditions, $37 billion for bridges, and $33 billion for needed lane additions. But DOT’s methodology has never considered a major need identified by the TRB special committee report: to replace aging sub-pavement and rebuild a large fraction of the overall system. That’s why the TRB report’s estimate of needed investment reached the $1 trillion level. And the TRB report did not include an estimate of redesigning and rebuilding the 50 to 100 bottleneck intersections across the country, nearly all of which are on urban Interstates. A recent report by ARTBA’s chief economist Alison Premo Black estimated that these bottlenecks cost trucking companies $42 billion worth of delays in 2019.

In my recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on the subject, I suggested that if Congress won’t include major Interstate reconstruction and modernization projects, in either a one-time infrastructure bill or the coming surface transportation reauthorization bill, then the least it could do is give states the tools to start doing the job themselves.

A growing number of states are doing studies on toll-financing the reconstruction and modernization of their Interstates, yet the House reauthorization bill (the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America Act, or the INVEST in America Act) would abolish the one federal program devoted to this process, the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP). It has never been used due to a built-in flaw. Besides being open to only three states, it would allow each to rebuild only one Interstate using tolls. As we saw when North Carolina tried to do this for its aging I-95, those who use that highway protested mightily against being the only state where residents were being singled out to pay tolls to finance Insterstate reconstruction. Instead of abolishing ISRRPP, it should be liberalized: opened to all 50 states and to any participating state setting forth a phased program to toll-finance the rebuilding and modernizing all its Interstates. (Note: Reason Foundation has drafted legislative language to implement this alternative, available on request.)

Thanks to TRIP for reminding us of the need to invest in our aging Interstates, and shame on Congress and U.S. DOT for ignoring this critically important need.

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Smart Columbus and the Limits of Smart Cities
By Marc Scribner

May 2021 marked the end of a five-year, federally funded Smart City Challenge experiment in Columbus, Ohio. The final report on the Smart Columbus Demonstration Program was released in June, and documents the challenges faced by the city to integrate new technologies and practices in a field dominated by marketing hype. Taken together, the results of the Smart City Challenge are very modest and suggest a much more cautious and selective approach is needed to harness new urban transportation technologies and practices in a way that adds value to communities.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation created the Smart City Challenge, which asked mid-sized cities to propose “ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.” The Department held out $40 million to the winning city. After 78 cities applied, DOT narrowed that down to seven finalists, with Columbus being announced the winner in June 2016 and entering into a formal agreement with DOT in August of that year.

Columbus had initially proposed 15 projects. However, after one year, the Smart Columbus Program was reorganized, and the number of projects was cut to nine. In 2019, that fell to eight, as Truck Platooning was removed, with managers citing technological limitations and complications with the private partner. The final eight projects evaluated during the demonstration program were:

  • Smart Columbus Operating System, a data exchange and analytics platform;
  • Connected Vehicle Environment, made up of more than 1,000 vehicles and 85 enabled intersections;
  • Multimodal Trip Planning Application, a smartphone app called Pivot that centralized payment and booking over multiple modes, including ride-hailing and scooter-sharing;
  • Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities, a smartphone app called WayFinder by AbleLink for the elderly and people with cognitive disabilities to help them navigate the city’s bus transit system;
  • Prenatal Trip Assistance, a program for pregnant women to schedule transportation to medical appointments;
  • Smart Mobility Hubs, six locations with interactive kiosks and space for multimodal transportation staging;
  • Event Parking Management, improvements to the city’s ParkColumbus app allowing for better parking facility reservation integration and improved routing during large events; and
  • Connected Electric Autonomous Vehicles, two mixed-traffic corridor demonstrations of low-speed automated shuttles.

The Smart Columbus Operating System was the most expensive project, costing $15.9 million. Smart Columbus managers were able to fold existing and new data into this new platform, increasing access for various participating agencies as well as open more data for independent analysis. The city plans to continue maintaining the platform, at least for the near-term, with surveys finding more than 70% of users were satisfied with the Smart Columbus Operating System.

Other projects showed less promising results. The Connected Vehicle Environment cost $11.3 million. While more than 1,000 vehicles participated, only approximately one-third of those were private vehicles. The system relied on an early connected vehicle protocol known as Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC), which is likely to be phased out of America’s airwaves by the Federal Communications Commission. Of the transit, freight, public safety, and private vehicle participants, 40% would not recommend the Connected Vehicle Environment.

The city spent $2.3 million developing the Pivot multimodal trip planning smartphone app. It was publicly deployed in December 2020 during the pandemic. By the end of March 2021, only 1,103 people had downloaded it to book 447 trips—or a cost of more than $2,000 per download or $5,000 per reserved trip. The city plans to maintain this app, which should improve cost-per-download and cost-per-trip metrics over time, but it remains to be seen what problem Pivot really solves. Smartphones themselves, by allowing users to operate multiple reservation apps and payment systems, already offer a centralized platform that Pivot is designed to create.

The Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities cost $494,000. It was used by just 31 travelers (along with 27 caregivers) to complete 82 trips over a full year, at an annualized per traveler cost of nearly $16,000 or $6,000 per trip. The few participants were generally satisfied, but Smart Columbus managers have not yet decided whether to or how to maintain a similar project into the future.

The city spent $1.3 million on Prenatal Trip Assistance. This project saw higher utilization than others, with 143 participants making 1,158 trips over 1.5 years. Still, this amounted to a $9,000 cost per participant or $1,100 per trip. Participants were satisfied with the project, but evaluators were unable to detect any positive health outcomes.

The $1.3 million spent on six Smart Mobility Hubs managed to facilitate just 1,084 bike-share trips during eight months, at a cost of $1,200 per bike trip. The $1.3 million spent on upgrading the ParkColumbus app may break even in the future if it generates greater parking net income for the city. One of the two Connected Electric Autonomous Vehicle deployment demonstrations was cut short after just two weeks when a passenger was injured. But even during operation, the shuttles were frequently stopped or slowed by precipitation, car exhaust during cold months, and sun glare. The service was relaunched in July 2020 as a food panty delivery service during the pandemic, which distributed 129,528 meals during its eight months of operation.

Taken together, the results of the Smart Columbus Demonstration Program are underwhelming. The benefits that did materialize were primarily in the form of lessons learned. Mobility for actual residents was barely impacted at all. While new transportation technologies offer a great deal of promise to improve the safety and efficiency of America’s transportation networks, most of these technologies are not ripe for deployment. Rather than pursue grandiose visions of smart cities, policymakers ought to focus on core responsibilities such as infrastructure state of good repair and access to proven transportation options. These conventional actions may not garner as much buzz, but they are much more likely to improve the lives of residents.

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Assessing Dueling Studies on the High Costs of U.S. Rail Transit Projects
By Baruch Feigenbaum

One of the challenges of building new infrastructure in the U.S. is very high construction costs. This is certainly a problem for roadways but the problem is especially bad for rail transit lines.

Yet whether those high costs are all that different from the costs of building similar projects across the rest of the world is up for debate. Two different think tanks—the Eno Center for Transportation and the Marron Institute at New York University—have compiled data on rail transit projects and reached two different conclusions. According to Eno, except for tunneling, U.S. rail projects are largely in line with or less costly than those around the world. According to the Marron Institute, U.S. rail projects are twice as expensive as rail projects around the world. Who is correct? The answer lies in which projects are included.

The Eno database includes 171 projects. Countries surveyed are limited to the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. According to Eno, U.S. costs average $162 million per kilometer compared to $138 million per kilometer for non-U.S. projects.

The Marron Transit Cost database includes 577 projects. Countries on all six of the inhabited continents are included. Average worldwide rail transit construction costs are below $300 million a kilometer, while in the U.S. they are more than $500 million a kilometer.

Eno limited its findings to the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia because of comparable political culture, government structures, and infrastructure development. Certainly, it is challenging to compare the U.S. to the Philippines or Uzbekistan, but a better comparison would be developed countries and developing countries. Eno managed to leave out many developed Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan that manage to build rail projects for far less than the worldwide average.

Eno includes 24 U.S. projects, compared with Marron’s 13 US projects. Eno includes more light rail projects, which are likely to be less costly to build than heavy rail projects. However, most of these projects were begun in the 1990s and 2000s. While some of these projects took more than 10 years to complete, important work including land acquisition and pre-engineering was completed before the project began. As transportation construction costs have exceeded inflation for the past 17 years, including projects from these earlier decades is problematic.

The majority of projects in the Eno database are light rail, and the majority of new U.S. rail lines are light rail.  The average cost of a light rail project receiving a Federal Transit Administration capital investment grant (CIG) in 2021 is more than twice the cost of a light rail project in Eno’s database. By one metric, between 1980 and 2020 the costs of light rail projects have increased by 700%. By including so many older projects, the Eno database gives the impression that light rail projects constructed today will be far cheaper than their actual cost.

Eno’s report has several takeaways. One Eno takeaway that I found curious is that light rail is not always cheaper than heavy rail. The rule of thumb has been that light rail is 25% less expensive per mile to build than heavy rail. In Eno’s database, light rail seems more expensive because several of the lines have heavy-rail-like characteristics, such as a separated right-of-way (Los Angeles Green Line). Additionally, streetcars, which are considered light rail in the National Transit Database, are not included in Eno’s database.

Both reports agree that the U.S. pays a premium for tunneled projects. According to Eno, projects that are more than 80% below ground cost $756 million per mile, which is more than three times the $215 million for non-U.S. projects. Marron found that five New York City heavy rail projects averaged $3.6 billion per mile, while eight other U.S. heavy rail projects averaged $872 million per mile.

While Marron’s Transit Costs database is more up-to-date and therefore more useful for examining proposed projects, it has two major weaknesses. It includes fewer U.S. projects and thus has a smaller sample size for U.S. interests. I think the more up-to-date, smaller sample size is preferable to a larger sample size that includes older projects with costs not relevant to today’s projects. But neither option is ideal. Additionally, the database does not distinguish between heavy rail and light rail. The two types of rail are different and separating projects out by type would make apples to apples comparisons easier.

The databases have other strengths and weaknesses. The Eno approach is helpful for researchers analyzing past projects. It can answer questions such as why did it cost more to build a light rail line in Dallas than Houston. By including a large number of U.S. projects it might also spotlight some case studies. But since Marron’s includes more recent projects and many more countries, I am more intrigued its database. And I’m hoping transportation researchers can start better answering the next question: how do we reduce these project costs? There are many reasons for the high costs: land acquisition costs, environmental reviews, special-interest delay tactics, public employee unions and special work rules, etc. How much does each of the factors add to the costs in the United States? And how have other countries better kept these costs in line?

Reducing rail transit construction costs is important for the few places in the U.S., such as New York City, in which new rail lines make sense. For everywhere else, the escalating costs of rail projects are one more reason to invest in bus rapid transit (BRT) instead. Mass transit agencies can build BRT for one-third to one-ninth of the cost of light rail lines. These bus lines have the same short headways, premium features, and land-use benefits as light-rail. BRT is the better, more cost-effective transit choice for most U.S. regions. 

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News Notes

Georgia Launches First Revenue-Risk P3 Projects
Georgia DOT recently announced that the next links in its expanding express toll lanes (ETL) network will be procured as a toll-financed design-build-finance-operate-maintain public-private partnership (P3) project. This procurement model is now planned for three ETL projects on I-285, known locally as the Perimeter (around central Atlanta): I-285 Eastside, I-285 Top End, and I-285 Westside. The shift also include changing the plan from one ETL each way to two, and using barrier separation rather than pavement striping. The projects will be procured and managed jointly by GDOT and the State Road & Tollway Authority (SRTA).

Troubled Italy Toll Road Concession Gets New Owners
A consortium of Blackstone Infrastructure Partners, Macquarie Asset Management, and state-owned CDP Equity (a sovereign wealth fund) are buying 88.06% of Autostrade per l’Italia, for $10.9 billion. Autostrade is Italy’s largest P3 toll road company but suffered public and political opprobrium after the tragic 2018 collapse of a major bridge on its toll road in Genoa (caused by failures in design, inspection, and government oversight). CDP will own 51% of the joint venture, with Blackstone and Macquarie each holding 24.5%. Autostrade’s credit rating is expected to be improved following the sale.

MPO Blocks Maryland Express Toll Lanes Project
The Washington (DC) Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board voted last month not to include Maryland’s huge express toll lanes project in its long-range transportation plan, specifically the upcoming air quality analysis of that plan. A project must be part of such a plan in order to get a federal Record of Decision, allowing it to proceed. This may be a temporary setback, and hearings are being held by the Maryland legislature regarding the project’s future. The Maryland project has strong support on the Virginia side of the Potomac, partly because it includes replacement of the bottleneck American Legion Bridge as well as eventually completing the express toll lanes network on the Maryland portion of the I-495 Beltway.

Express Toll Lanes Moving Forward in Sacramento
Officials in Sacramento and Yolo County have received an $86 million federal grant to begin planning and design of the region’s first express toll lanes, to be added to congested I-80, the only major highway between state capitol Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. ETLs have been under consideration by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments for several years. The project would add one priced lane each way on 17 miles of I-80.

Connecticut Enacts Truck Weight-Distance Charge
After years of studies of potential toll-financed reconstruction of its major highways, without gaining legislative approval, the Connecticut Legislature approved a heavy-trucks Highway User Fee, to begin in January 2023. Not a toll, the new tax would be based on vehicle gross weight and miles driven. Truck operators are supposed to apply to the state for a permit and report their annual mileage to state tax officials. There is both opposition and skepticism within the trucking industry over the plan’s workability and projected revenues. Like Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls, the Connecticut truck fee will likely face trucking industry litigation.

New Border Toll Road for San Diego
Caltrans, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), and Mexican government officials signed an agreement on June 28 for development of a new port of entry linked to a new four-lane toll road (SR 11) to connect the entry port to the state highway system. It will be California’s first new toll road since the SR 125 project 15 years ago, also in San Diego County.

Boring Company Tunnels Open in Las Vegas
Operations began the second week of June on the 1.5 mile tunnel loop developed and operated by the Boring Company beneath the Las Vegas Convention Center. The tunnel’s capacity is stated as 4,400 vehicles per hour at a speed of 35 mph. Users travel in Tesla electric cars among the three stations in the sprawling convention center. The company says the cost of building the loop was $48.7 million. It hopes to expand the tunnel to hotels and casinos on the Strip and to the nearby McCarran International Airport.

Kansas Express Toll Lanes Approved
Both the Kansas Turnpike and the State Finance Council gave unanimous approval to the Overland Park City Council’s requested project to add express toll lanes to congested U.S. 69.  The project will add one ETL each way between 103rd and 151st Streets. Once the new lanes are operational several years from now, Kansas will be the 12th state with ETLs in operation.

Dedicated Truck Lanes Planned for New Toll Bridge
The 5-mile, $4.5 billion Gordie Howe Bridge between Detroit, MI and Windsor, ON will include a number of advanced features, including dedicated truck lanes, traveler information systems, and an on-site weather monitoring station, project officials told the Detroit Free Press last month. The project is under construction with completion scheduled for late 2024.

Texas Central Signs $16 Billion Construction Contract
The privately financed start-up railroad company aiming to build a high-speed passenger rail system linking Houston and Dallas, last month announced that it has signed a $16 billion contact with Webuild, the Italian construction company that recently acquired U.S. company Lane Construction. No financing plan has been disclosed by Texas Central, which told ENR that it is “wholly focused on securing permanent funding, followed by the start of physical construction.”

Brightline West Announces, then Delays, New Bond Offerings
Two weeks after the company that plans to build a high-speed rail line between Las Vegas and Victorville, CA applied for $200 million in tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs) from the state of California, the company withdrew the request, saying it would wait until 2022; it said the same thing to the agency in Nevada that can authorize PABs. Earlier that month, California Treasurer Fiona Ma sent a letter to leaders of the Senate Commerce and House Transportation & Infrastructure committees urging federal policy changes that would enable private passenger rail companies to better compete with public agencies. Included was easier access to Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loans.

Bestpass Expands to Alabama
The company that provides consolidated toll management services for trucking fleets, Bestpass, announced in June that its toll coverage now extends to Alabama. Toll roads and bridges there have been developed and are operated by American Roads, using the 6C protocol. Bestpass works with each of the several electronic tolling protocols around the country and offers a 48-state transponder that is compatible with all the protocols.

Florida Cabinet Approves Extension of MDX Toll Road
A 14-mile north-south extension of the east-west Dolphin Expressway to serve the Kendall area of Miami-Dade County received the Cabinet’s approval, in a 3-1 vote, to proceed with the next step in developing the project, which is bitterly opposed by environmentalists. Opponents claim the expressway would be built “in the Everglades,” rather than just a few hundred feet beyond the county’s existing Urban Growth Boundary. The Cabinet rejected a 2020 administrative law judge’s ruling against the project.

Spain Announces Plan to Toll All Major Highways
In exchange for EU recovery funds, the Spanish government has agreed to turn all government-managed highways into toll roads by 2024, according to a May 5th report in Catalan News. The aim is to ensure that users themselves pay for the highways they drive on. This is reportedly one of the conditions the EU is demanding from member states in exchange for the European recovery funds. Spain has a huge highway network, including some 12,000 km of high-capacity roads. A number of those highways are already toll roads, some of them operating under long-term P3 concessions.

Elaine Chao Joins the Board of Start-up Truck Automation Company
Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has joined the board of Embark, a developer of software for automated trucks. Embark Trucks is one of the latest companies to go public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), raising $5.2 billion. Rather than developing automated trucks itself, Embark’s business plan calls for developing and selling automation software to existing original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of trucks.

Highways Predominate in $905 Million INFRA Grants
At the end of June, U.S. DOT announced the recipients of 24 grants under its INFRA program, totaling $905 million. Of the projects listed in the DOT’s announcement, 15 were highway or bridge projects, six were for port projects, two for railroads, and one for ITS (traffic signal improvements). Of the five largest grants, four were for improvements to Interstate highways, ranging from $50 million to $86 million.

Revising the Federal Highway Grants Formula
Since 2005, despite large changes in population and vehicle miles of travel (VMT), the congressional formula for dividing highway user tax revenue among the states has been unchanged. This is short-changing fast-growing states such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have introduced the Highway Modernization Formula Act to develop a new, data-based formula for highways and bridges. Since this is essentially a zero-sum game, it’s likely that losing states would outnumber winning states.

Adaptive Cruise Control May Pose Risks
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety several months ago released the results of a study which found that drivers using adaptive cruise control (ACC) were more likely to set their desired speed above the speed limit due to their perception that ACC would protect them from collisions. But that increased speed, the researchers found, resulted in a 10% higher risk of a fatal crash than manual drivers experience. The study was small, involving only 40 ACC drivers in the Boston area, and the crash-risk increase was estimated based on statistical analysis.

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Quotable Quotes

“Any car manufacturer who decides today that their future depends on car sharing or cars-on-demand, and who begins to wind down their sales, service and parts business to meet this future will not be around in ten years. I began writing The Dispatcher almost eight years ago with the message that driverless vehicles would not be the future of the car industry by 2020. As we have seen, it wasn’t then and won’t be for a very long time. I’m saying now that the future of the car industry will not be based on delivering mobility to people living in big cities. It will be based on delivering vehicles that people will drive or be driven in, just like they are today, until people can figure out a way of moving by the force of their own will rather than by an external force.”
—Michael L. Sena, “The Future of Mobility Is Slowly Coming Into Focus,” The Dispatcher, June 2021

“Today, state and local leaders are incentivized to ignore maintenance (which is typically not visible to the public), so they can spend those funds elsewhere. Yet poor maintenance practices damage the long-term quality of infrastructure and result in a maintenance backlog that must be met by future taxpayers. Not surprisingly, delaying maintenance also markedly increases overall life-cycle costs. As Larry Summers neatly summarized: ‘Prevention is cheaper than cure. Waiting for the road or bridge to collapse is much more expensive than buttressing the bridge before it collapses.’ In addition, estimates show that investing in maintenance pays off considerably with a 25 to 40 percent economic rate of return, potentially more in some cases.”
—D.J. Gribbin, “On Paving the Way for Funding and Financing Infrastructure Investments,” Testimony before the House Ways & Means Committee, Jan. 29, 2020

“This [millennial] demographic has long resisted many of the traditional generational norms, things like home ownership. But the pandemic has shocked this generation and accelerated their embrace of these types of activities. There continues to be a net migration out of urban areas largely driven by the millennial segment.”
—Hal Lawton, in Cathy Morrow Roberson, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” The Journal of Commerce, June 21, 2021

“Since Amtrak’s ‘Connects Us’ map (published yesterday in response to Biden’s plan) includes a proposed route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, I looked up bus and airline schedules. As near as I can tell, there are several dozen buses a day run by four different companies and several dozen planes a day run by eight different airlines between the two cities. Bus fares start at $20 and plane fares start at $20—not a misprint. The fastest buses take 5 hours 10 minutes. Planes take 70 to 80 minutes. When Amtrak last ran trains on that route, they took 6 hours 50 minutes. Amtrak simply won’t be able to compete. If Amtrak can’t compete on that route, how will it compete anywhere else? The bus industry needs to do a better job of letting people know that buses are often faster, with lower fares, and emit less than half as many grams of CO2 per passenger mile as trains.”
—Randal O’Toole, email to transportation colleagues, April 1, 2021

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