- More alleged highway boondoggles
- President-elect Biden may face a truck vs. rail dilemma
- How to improve federal transit policy
- Toll road traffic recovery estimates
- Denver toll road might be leased
- Paperback edition of Rethinking America’s Highways
- News notes
- Quotable quote
Last month brought the release of the sixth annual report on highway boondoggles, selected and critiqued by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). It would be tedious to go through all seven projects to point out problems with PIRG’s assessment, but there are some fundamental problems with the report’s rationales. That’s not to say that every billion-dollar-scale highway project proposal would pass a serious benefit/cost analysis. One of the projects in this new report, for example, is a $206 million interchange proposed for I-57 in Illinois, nominally to provide access to the long-proposed but never started “third Chicago airport” near Peotone—probably a poor use of transportation funds compared with many other needs in Illinois.
But PIRG’s overall critique rests on dubious premises, which their report lays out before describing this year’s alleged boondoggles. They are as follows:
“Highway expansions are expensive and saddle states with debt.”
It’s not news that major highway projects are costly, and since highway user taxes have failed to keep pace with either traffic growth or construction costs, many states issue bonds to finance such projects. There is nothing wrong, in principle, with using long-term financing for long-lived infrastructure. Railroads, utilities, and toll roads do this routinely.
“Highway expansion doesn’t solve congestion.”
The fallacy here is “solve.” Highway expansion to keep pace with growing demand is as sensible as expanding schools or municipal water systems to keep pace with growth. PIRG cites the alleged “iron law of freeway congestion,” but there is no such thing —as many researchers have explained. For more on induced demands claims and research, go here.
“Highway expansion damages the environment and our communities.”
Here, PIRG continues to draw on the first two decades of forcing urban Interstates through lower-income communities, which no one is doing anymore. In fact, two of the projects in PIRG’s previous boondoggle reports—I-70 in Denver and I-95/SR 836 in Miami—are reconnecting neighborhoods that were split by early urban Interstate projects. As for the environment, PIRG ignores the ongoing transition from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric vehicles (EV). Yes, that will take several decades, but these improved highway projects will last far beyond the EV transition years.
Strangely, not included on this list, but coming up repeatedly in their project critiques, is PIRG’s disdain for suburban landscapes. Again and again in these pages, improved highways are condemned for fostering “sprawl,” as if the large majority of Americans have not demonstrated through their choices that they prefer low-density suburban living and working.
Here and there throughout the report, there are misleading or flatly incorrect statements. For example, in discussing highway public-private partnerships (P3s) on page 7, the authors claim that in P3s like SH 130 and Camino Columbia in Texas that filed bankruptcy, such projects were bailed out by taxpayers. That’s false; in both cases, the original developers lost their equity and creditors took a haircut, but new operators acquired those nearly new toll roads at bargain-basement prices and kept them in operation, with no subsidies asked for or provided.
In criticizing the proposed $7.3 billion Cincinnati Eastern Bypass, PIRG cites a finding that the project would increase the number of vehicles crossing the nearby Brent Spence Bridge by “thousands of trips per day.” But when you check the endnote for this point, that turns out to be just a 2.4 percent increase.
And the main citation provided for the report’s critical assessment of the proposed Florida M-CORES toll roads is a study by Cornell Consulting, which turns out to be a student club at Cornell University.
At least PIRG is transparent about the limited impact of its series of highway boondoggle reports. Appendix A provides a complete list of all 51 projects, grouped into five categories, as follows:
- Cancelled: 4 projects
- On hold: 5 projects
- Under study: 17 projects
- Under construction: 18 projects
- Completed: 7 projects
In other words, only 8 percent of the projects PIRG has targeted have been cancelled, while 49 percent are either completed or under construction.
It’s also dismaying that, despite the report including “road pricing measures” in its suggested transportation policies (page 7), PIRG’s list of 51 boondoggles includes a dozen projects that add variably-priced express toll lanes to congested freeways and another project, I-5 in Portland, that would variably-price all lanes on the Rose Quarter portion of that congested urban freeway.
During the past decade, federal and state policymakers have pursued minimum crew-size rules for railroads operating in their jurisdictions. On the campaign trail, President-elect Joe Biden indicated his administration would pursue such crew-size minimums. Despite the appeals to safety made by proponents of these regulations, the available evidence does not support these claims.
In addition, railroad worker unions fear future advances in automation will lead to workforce—and dues—reductions, and appear to hope forced crew-size minimums can buy them some time.
And herein lies the tension between key Biden allies: crew-size minimums designed to benefit organized labor would disadvantage rail relative to truck competition while a shift of freight traffic from rail to more-polluting trucks would increase the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of the transportation sector, cutting against President-elect Biden’s stated environmental policy goals.
In 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed a rule that would have required trains operating on the national rail network to be staffed by at least two crewmembers unless railroads successfully petitioned for a special exemption to operate a train with fewer than two. FRA’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) conceded that “FRA cannot provide reliable or conclusive statistical data to suggest whether one-person crew operations are generally safer or less safe than multiple-person crew operations.”
Pushback against FRA attempting to act in the absence of safety evidence led to the NPRM’s subsequent withdrawal by FRA in 2019. While this debate played out at the federal level, a number of states have attempted to impose their own minimum crew-size laws. In its 2019 withdrawal of the NPRM, FRA noted that these state laws are invalid under federal law, and these state laws are currently being challenged around the country.
Like the safety basis for minimum train crew-size regulations, the economic rationale is similarly weak. Railroad employee unions that promote these rules are primarily motivated by fear that train automation technologies will eventually replace their dues-paying members.
This is likely a short-sighted strategy. Forcing railroads to shoulder above-market labor costs in perpetuity is likely to ultimately backfire on union members by reducing rail’s long-term competitiveness. Freight rail competes intensely with over-the-road trucking. While rail can offer a number of advantages over truck competitors, especially for bulk commodity traffic, trucking dominates surface transportation cargo movements and this dominance is growing. A comparison of the 2012 and 2017 editions of the Commodity Flow Survey shows that trucking enjoyed a 6.4 percent traffic increase to 1.3 trillion annual ton-miles moved while freight rail saw a 31.9 percent decline to 824.8 billion annual ton-miles.
This divergence occurred at a time when the railroad industry was implementing a multibillion-dollar unfunded mandate from a 2008 federal law to install positive train control (PTC), which refers to a suite of communication and automation technologies aimed at improving safety. The trucking industry is currently investing in automation technologies to improve safety and reduce labor costs. If the trucking industry successfully automates its operations while railroads are saddled with inflexible crew-size regulations, rail’s competitiveness will continue to fall relative to trucks. This would inevitably lead to a smaller railroad workforce and fewer dues-paying union members.
But the biggest problem facing the incoming Biden administration on this subject is the environmental impacts of competing freight transportation modes. While trucking emits far more greenhouse gases than rail in part owing to its greater share of total freight traffic, trucking also emits approximately seven times as much carbon dioxide per ton-mile as rail. Disadvantaging freight rail relative to trucking through a train crew-size mandate would thereby increase the transportation sector’s emissions intensity and contradict President-elect Biden’s stated goal of reducing the negative environmental impacts of transportation.
In addition, President-elect Biden has a well-known affinity for Amtrak, on which he regularly commuted from Delaware to Washington as a senator. However, more than 95 percent of the track on which Amtrak runs is owned by freight railroads. Generations ago, European governments made a conscious decision to prioritize passenger service over freight on their rail networks. Today, rail constitutes just 13 percent of intra-European freight ton-miles. In the U.S., freight rail’s share of ton-miles is 26 percent.
If the Biden administration and Congress were to significantly increase national Amtrak service, passenger rail’s legal priority over freight operations would lead to freight rail service degradation, incentivizing shippers to shift to trucks and worsening environmental outcomes.
As is typical during political campaigns, the Biden campaign made major promises to both labor and environmental activists. For years, Democratic leaders have sought to link these two interest groups through a “blue-green alliance.” But train crew-size minimums benefit labor at the expense of the environment, which may set up an early transportation policy flashpoint between two key Biden administration constituencies.
As noted above, President-elect Joe Biden has long been an Amtrak booster. But as a senator from a crossroads state he has long had an interest in all transportation modes. Democrats are eager to focus on mass transit policy, which they believe has been ignored under the Trump administration.
It’s unclear what policies the department will pursue under Biden and incoming Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. During his presidential campaign, Buttigieg called for implementing a mileage-based user fee and improving safety. But he didn’t release any detailed mass transit recommendations.
Many environmental and transportation groups, such Transportation for America and Transit Center, have an ambitious Green New Deal for transit that would expand capital funding for new transit projects, provide operating subsidies, encourage transit-oriented development, and research barriers to equitable transit provision. Proponents argue that such a program would create millions of jobs and increase mass transit ridership somewhat. Politically, appropriators would need to find the billions to fund such a program. Over the last four years, President Trump and Republicans oversaw a dramatic increase in federal debt and deficits, so it will be worth watching whether there is a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure spending or if Senate Republicans, now in the minority, try to resurrect concerns about federal spending.
But more concerning for taxpayers and policymakers is that this transit-centric approach would double down on a rail-intensive center-city vision of mass transit that hasn’t made sense for the United States in 50 years. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mass transit ridership was declining in 49 of the 50 largest metro areas. And the only region where it was increasing, Seattle, which has been building a hugely expensive light rail system.
However, there are a number of other infrastructure changes that Buttigieg could make that would be cost-effective, would likely have bipartisan congressional support, and be good policy. Reason has long detailed why the federal government should not fund transit, which is primarily a local and regional service. But that view will have no traction in the new administration so let’s look at how to make the current federal role in more cost-effective.
The first change that Biden and Buttigieg should seek to make with Congress is to switch the two major mass transit grant programs (5307 and 5311) from prioritizing new construction to prioritizing maintenance (state of good repair). On the highway side, more federal programs fund ongoing operations and maintenance than fund new construction. But most transit programs prioritize new construction. And transit capital projects can be matched at a rate as high as 80 percent while operating projects are matched at only 50 percent. As a result, transit agencies, such as the Washington Metro Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), are funding ill-advised projects that shouldn’t be priorities. For example, WMATEA is extending the Silver Line to low-density exurban Virginia at a huge cost, while its existing trains catch on fire. Moving forward, transit capital projects should be funded at 50 percent max, while operating projects are funded at 80 percent.
Another change that the Secretary of Transportation nominee, Buttigieg, and Congress should adopt is changing how transit projects are funded by making those decisions based on the project’s average cost to transport one rider on one trip. The primary justification for providing taxpayer funding to transit is supposed to be to help working-class residents reach jobs. But, unfortunately, some transit systems have built inefficient light rail lines that are both expensive and carry few passengers. Using the cost-per-trip metric would reward transit agencies with high ridership and low costs, which should be a goal of any government program.
Another useful change would be to bring parity to bus funding and rail funding. The majority of funding in the Urbanized Area Formula Grants, State of Good Repair Grants, High-Intensity Fixed Guideway Program, and the General Funded Program supports rail. For State of Good Repair grants, the rail formula program provides $2.4 billion in funds while the motorbus State of Good Repair program provides a mere $71 million. Clearly, it costs more to maintain rail than buses, but buses comprise more than 95 percent of all the transit nationwide. Buses are also more cost-effective outside of all but the nation’s largest metro areas.
A fourth change—encourage transit to shift from getting across-the-board subsidies to getting funds to provide vouchers for low-income riders, with affluent riders paying market-based fares. Both an Urban Institute study and a Brookings Institution study detailed how provider subsidies contribute directly to transit’s inefficiency. Since provider grants subsidize all commuters, regardless of income, the transit subsidies must be far larger than what it would cost to provide service to low-income commuters. If the government is going to focus on transit it should direct user subsidies in ways that benefit riders who need assistance.
Finally, if the incoming administration develops a discretionary grant program similar to Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) or the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants, the process should have quantitative metrics. Funding should be awarded based on costs-per-rider, innovation and technology improvements (will the funds lead to something new and different?), and transit connectivity.
While vehicle miles of travel (VMT) have recovered significantly since their lowest levels during the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, and the distribution of vaccines likely bodes well for increased economic activity later this year, there is still uncertainty about VMT— and therefore about the finances of toll roads and other tolled projects such as express toll lanes.
Back in August, a Streetsblog article touted a report from KPMG that suggested post-pandemic VMT could be 9 to 10 percent less than before. I downloaded that report, “Automotive’s New Reality: Fewer Trips, Fewer Miles, Fewer Cars?” It actually said that VMT could decrease “up to 270 billion” annual miles, but the graph shows a range of 110 to 270 billion, which is far less drastic.
The main source of KPMG’s projected decrease in VMT was that 10-to-20 percent of the workforce could shift to working at home, rather than commuting to work, with a whole page showing the assumptions that went into that calculation. Another page of the report shows their projected decrease in VMT due to increased online shopping. And another page cites factors that could increase personal VMT, in particular a possible shift of 40 percent of mass transit users potentially shifting to personal vehicles, ride-sharing, and carpools. But those changes do not appear to have been offset against the declines from commuting and shopping. So the net decline could be more like 3-to-4 percent as opposed to 9-to-10 percent.
For some additional perspective, let’s look at what the bond rating agencies are thinking as of last month, with positive vaccine news now playing a role. In a report on toll finance issued Dec. 3, 2020, Moody’s revised its toll roads outlook for 2021 to “stable,” based on toll road demand projected to grow along with gross domestic product (GDP) and employment. The report noted that strong commercial traffic will offset any remaining shortfalls in passenger traffic. Moody’s also pointed out that consistent toll rate increases (e.g., annual inflation indexing) give toll roads more ability to keep their finances in shape (by comparison to tax-funded roadways). And the report also said Moody’s could change its outlook on the toll road sector to positive if the rapid distribution of vaccinations reduces or eliminates restrictions on commercial and recreational activities.
But what about priced managed lanes, whose rationale is to offer relief from congested freeway lanes during commuting hours?
In December, Fitch Ratings affirmed its BBB rating on the toll revenue bonds for Transurban’s I-95 Express Lanes corridor in northern Virginia, with an outlook of stable. The rationale is that the facility has strong demand, a high degree of pricing flexibility, and conservative financing. Fitch’s model shows the facility should have an average debt service coverage ratio of 2.1X from 2021 through 2040. This may be stronger than the average express toll lanes project, but Scott Zuchorski of Fitch provided some perspective to the editor of Public Works Financing in an article in that newsletter’s November issue. As editor Mike Bennon wrote, there is evidence that even with less congestion, people are still paying to use these lanes, probably more for the reliable trip times than for time savings, per se. And some users may have some or all of their variable toll payments reimbursed by their employers.
Bennon also pointed out that most of the managed lanes that were financed based on their projected revenues were financed relatively conservatively, in part because the concept was new to the financial community. In addition, most of these projects received low-interest, flexible TIFIA loans. He continued: “These factors, as well as liquidity and debt service reserves, will likely drive future credit risk for project-financed managed lanes and other toll roads. . . . So far, at least, ratings revisions have been minimal despite severe [initial] traffic reductions.” Summing up, he quotes Zuchorski saying, “We certainly forecast a recovery as economic restrictions are eased. Determining when that will occur is as simple as forecasting the end of the pandemic.”
An unsolicited proposal from a global toll road company is under discussion in the suburbs of Denver. The toll road in question is E-470, which forms the eastern half of a nearly-completed beltway around the metro area. The company which is seeking the lease is ROADIS, which operates 1,900 km of toll roads overseas and is wholly owned by PSP Investments, one of Canada’s largest public pension funds.
The proposal was made last year and was quickly rejected by the E-470 Authority, which operates and manages the toll road on behalf of the three-county and five city governments that own the road and created the Authority to run it. The authority, which all agree is competent and has done a good job managing the facility, gave as its reason for rejecting the offer that it has no policy that allows it to consider unsolicited proposals (which is unlike the Colorado Department of Transportation’s High-Performance Transportation Enterprise and Denver’s Regional Transportation District). But the authority’s extensive criticisms of the ROADIS proposal suggest that it feels threatened and wants to preserve the status quo.
ROADIS valued E-470 at $9 billion, which enabled it to propose that if the 50-year P3 lease were accepted, it could pay off the agency’s existing revenue bonds, fully fund the planned capital investments (and do this sooner than now planned), create a frequent-user discount program, limit annual toll rate increases to an inflation index, and make an upfront payment to the eight jurisdictions totaling $4.2 billion.
While some view this offer as too good to be true, the net valuation is within the range of what other toll roads have seen in U.S. and overseas P3 leases in recent years. And with state and local transportation budgets in Colorado being less than desired, the offer has attracted interest from business and government people in the suburbs involved. The result was the formation last year of the 14-member E-470 Citizens Review Committee (CRC) chaired by Bob LeGare, former mayor of Aurora. It held five public meetings last year, and on Jan. 5 released its “Review of the E-470 Public-Private Partnership and the ROADIS USA Unsolicited Proposal.”
In its report, the CRC answers most of the objections raised by the authority, clarifying that since the $4.2 billion would be paid up-front and the toll rates would be capped via provisions in the 50-year lease, the risks alleged by the authority are not realistic. The report also points to comparable leases of the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road, both now being managed by concession companies owned by U.S. and Canadian public pension funds.
The report concludes with three recommendations. First, the E-470 Authority should follow the lead of other transportation agencies and adopt a policy on accepting and evaluating unsolicited proposals. Second, the ROADIS proposal should be widely discussed in each of the eight jurisdictions that own the toll road, and which provide its eight board members. And finally, if that board (as opposed to the authority’s management) sees merit in leveraging the toll road’s asset value, it should prepare and release a request for proposals from any qualified team that might be interested in submitting a P3 lease proposal.
I am pleased to announce that due to good sales of the original hardcover edition of my 2018 book, Rethinking America’s Highways, the University of Chicago Press has published a paperback edition, available now at a lower price than the hardcover book.
Readers of this newsletter can obtain this book at a 20 percent discount by following the instructions on the book flyer, accessible by following this link: Rethinking America’s Highways flyer paperback
The book received endorsements from former Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, urban policy innovator Steve Goldsmith of the Kennedy School at Harvard, Reihan Salam of the Manhattan Institute, and Prof. Rick Geddes of Cornell University, among others.
Two Major I-10 Bridge Replacements on Tap in Louisiana
Louisiana legislators approved the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development’s plans to use a toll-financed public-private partnership (P3) to replace the aging I-10 bridge over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles, which is estimated to cost $600-800 million. LDTD Secretary Shawn Wilson has made the case that the state does not have the funding to develop the replacement bridge conventionally. A similar situation exists for the needed $1 billion replacement of the ancient I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, but no consensus has been reached on either the location of the new bridge or about a toll-financed P3 approach.
Walmart to Begin Autonomous Truck Deliveries
After 70,000 miles of on-road testing in 2019-2020, Walmart says it will begin regular use of autonomous two-axle box trucks to make deliveries from warehouses to stores in Arkansas. The test phase involved a safety driver in each of the temperature-controlled trucks, but in 2021 the trucks will operate in fully autonomous mode. In parallel, Walmart will open a second route in Louisiana, linking a warehouse to a Walmart Supercenter 20 miles away. The automation partner for this project is startup company Gatik, based in Palo Alto and Toronto.
Cost-Based Electronic Tolling
Two privately-owned toll bridges have announced 2021 toll rates that reflect the difference in collection cost between prepaid transponder accounts and license-plate billing. The Jordan Bridge in Chesapeake, VA will charge cars $2.65 for E-ZPass (transponder) customers versus $5.75 for those billed after their license plate has been imaged. And the just-opened Cline Avenue Bridge in East Chicago, IN, announced similar rates: $2.50 for transponder accounts vs. $5.50 for license-plate billing. Most toll roads charge somewhat more for license plate billing, but few reflect the real cost-of-collection differential as well as these two, both owned and operated by United Bridge Partners.
Solid-State Batteries Could Revolutionize Electric Vehicles
In a Jan. 2 article, Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen Wilmot discussed battery start-up QuantumScape, which has raised capital from investors including Bill Gates and Volkswagen. Its solid-state battery eliminates the liquid electrolyte in lithium-ion batteries, which eliminates the fire danger, reduces the battery’s size and weight, permits faster charging, and supposedly has a longer useful life. The solid-state batteries are still under development, and the biggest unknown appears to be their cost. Wilmot says “the technology probably won’t be cost-competitive with today’s batteries until the late 2020s at the very earliest.”
New Toll Road to Help Speed California Border Crossing
California and San Diego are collaborating to create a third border crossing with Mexico three miles east of the current Otay Mesa crossing. The new port of entry would be served by a new four-lane toll road to connect the Otay Mesa East entry point with the state highway system. The aim of the project is to reduce the average wait time for trucks from 150 minutes to 20 minutes. In 2019, 1.25 million trucks used the existing Otay Mesa port of entry, which is this country’s second-ranked port for trade with Mexico, after that of Laredo, TX.
Amazon Unveils Robotaxi Prototype
Zoox, Inc., an autonomous vehicle startup acquired in 2019 by Amazon, last month unveiled a fully autonomous (no driver controls) robo-taxi with four seats. It has an electric motor at each end and a top speed of 75 miles per hour. It is capable of operating 16 hours on a single charge, the company says. Its plan is to develop an app-based ride-hailing service in places such as Las Vegas and San Francisco, with ambitions to do likewise in European cities. The Zoox vehicles are in production at a factory in Fremont, CA, with an annual capacity of 10,000-15,000 vehicles. The vehicles have passed federal motor vehicle crash tests and are equipped with airbags for each passenger.
Drayage Drivers Would Pay Tolls for Dedicated Lanes in Los Angeles
Owner-operators of trucks used in drayage (short trips between seaports and distribution centers) would be willing to pay modest tolls to use truck-only lanes if they existed on certain freeways in the greater Los Angeles area. That is the main finding of a study by Joseph Kim and others from Cal State Long Beach, published by the Mineta Transportation Institute in Oct. 2020. Factors leading to a willingness to pay were value of time, value of reliability, and increased safety. The freeways in the study included I-5, I-405, and I-710.
New Loop Tunnel Approved for Las Vegas
Elon Musk’s Boring Company received a special-use permit from the city of Las Vegas to extend its existing vehicular tunnel system by 4.6 miles to serve the downtown casino district. Boring Company CEO Steve Davis assured the City Council that the project would require “zero” taxpayer dollars, being paid for instead by the commercial property owners that will be served by it. The existing tunnel system links the facilities of the Las Vegas Convention Center campus via two 0.8-mile tunnels, which are complete but not yet in use. In a related December development, the Convention and Visitors Authority board eliminated a noncompete agreement that had given a monopoly to the financially troubled Las Vegas Monorail.
Tolled P3 Causeway on Tap for South Padre Island, TX
A top priority for Cameron County officials is getting a second causeway connecting South Padre Island with the mainland. Given state and local funding limitations, the model being pursued by the county’s Regional Mobility Authority is a public-private partnership (P3) financed by toll revenue. The effort has the support of State Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D), which is important given the state legislature’s refusal over several biennial sessions to authorize any new P3s or any toll projects that include TxDOT funds.
Apple Planning an Automated Car
A Dec. 22 article in The Hill revealed that Apple plans to produce its own automated car, under a previously undisclosed effort called Project Titan. The target date for the first production vehicles is 2024. The article reported that the project is being led by former Tesla staffer Doug Field, now an Apple vice president. The plan reportedly includes a new battery technology that could “radically” reduce battery cost and increase the vehicle’s range.
$1.4 Billion Tampa Highway Project Delayed
Due to pandemic-related budget reductions, Florida DOT has delayed a $1.4 billion highway project in Tampa from FY 2024 to FY 2026. The project is Tampa Bay Next Segment 4, which will rebuild the I-275/SR 60 interchange. Also delayed is Segment 5, which will add express toll lanes from that interchange to downtown Tampa. Those projects were delayed to preserve funding for Tampa’s much-needed Howard Frankland Bridge replacement and the Gateway Expressway, both of which are already under contract.
Bestpass Exceeds 10,000 Customers
The company that provides transponder accounts for trucking companies, enabling nationwide electronic tolling and weigh-station bypass, announced last month that it now has more than 10,000 customers, with more than 630,000 active transponders on the road, and an average of 280,000 transactions per day. And for toll roads that provide rebates of state highway user taxes (Massachusetts Turnpike and New York Thruway), Bestpass also handles that process for its customers.
More Toll Facilities Going to Cashless Tolling
As of Jan. 1, all toll bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area have gone to permanent all-electronic toll collection, via either prepaid transponder (Fastrak) accounts or license plate invoicing. The same is true of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s Holland Tunnel and the Staten Island toll bridges (Bayonne, New Goethals, and Outerbridge). The agency’s Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington Bridge will go all-electronic within the next 18 months.
Wyoming Legislature Considering Road Usage Charges
Legislators in Wyoming are considering a bill that would move toward per-mile charges to replace per-gallon fuel taxes. The plan calls for reconfiguring state fuel taxes to generate the same revenue as the planned per-mile charge, but this would apply only to Wyoming-registered vehicles. Out-of-state vehicles would pay the new per-mile charge, which could be adjusted for inflation every three years. Once a national or regional road usage charge system is agreed to, then all vehicles operating in the state would pay those charges, and state gas taxes would end.
PrePass Plus Now Available on E-470 in Colorado
Trucks using the PrePass Plus system for electronic tolling and weigh-station bypass can now use that system to pay their tolls on the E-470 tolled beltway around the eastern half of the Denver metro area. The PrePass transponder is compatible with E-ZPass, FasTrak, SunPass, and other electronic tolling systems.
Equal Federal Funding for Highways and Transit?
Now that federal general support monies supplement the amount collected from federal highway user taxes, Smart Growth America proposed that Congress spend half of the Highway Trust Fund on transit, leaving only half the total for highways. My Reason colleague Marc Scribner posted a recent commentary showing how unfair that would be to motorists and truckers who still provide the lion’s share of the money via what are still supposed to be “highway user taxes.”
Lessons from the Obama Administration’s High-Speed Rail Program
With the new Biden administration widely expected to seek large federal funding for Amtrak and high-speed rail, I wrote a Reason commentary summarizing the disappointing results of the Obama administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program. Doing something similar would likely produce similar results.
“The migration out of large cities isn’t new, but it has accelerated during the pandemic. While some are fleeing for the comfort of the suburbs, moving trucks are also rolling into cities such as Austin, Sacramento, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City. These spots feature lively culinary, cultural, and social scenes that appeal to younger crowds who enjoy an urban lifestyle but find New York, the Bay Area, and other large metro areas too dense or expensive.”
—Konrad Putzier, “Austin Gets Boost from Covid-19,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9, 2020
“In my view, the business case for DSRC was never made. Surprisingly, there are no serious benefit/cost studies focused on its presumed unique characteristics across the range of active safety applications. As a government-developed technology and system, it required a significant public investment in a separate public communications infrastructure—and strong interest from the automobile industry never developed as, over time, many of the intended functions of public-sector infrastructure-based connected vehicles were overtaken by evolving vehicle-based technologies such as emergency braking and collision warning—from both a safety perspective and as a marketable vehicle attribute. In addition, many of the low-latency connected vehicle functionalities argued as the original justification for DSRC appeared to be substantially supportable by improved cellular (5G) that has the additional benefit of widespread industry momentum. Thus, it became (like so many other government-sponsored technologies) bypassed by both private-sector technology and business models.”
—Steve Lockwood, email to various transportation colleagues, Dec. 10, 2020 (used with permission)
“Waymo has confirmed that a car produced by a reputable car maker, FCA, equipped with several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of additional equipment, software, and remote oversight, can be made to travel at low speeds in its lane without wavering into parked cars or crossing the median into oncoming traffic, that it can stop at stop signs and traffic lights, follow the rules of the road, and stop when someone or something crosses its path when it has the right of way. This is a good second step; the first was leaving the lab and venturing out into traffic. Other companies would do well to follow Waymo’s careful path,”
—Michael Sena, “Is Waymo’s Driverless Taxi Service Now for All?” The Dispatcher, December 2020