- How will America replace 75,000 deficient bridges?
- Amtrak’s problematic Northeast Corridor improvement plans
- Transit’s dismaying recovery
- Electric utility challenges from vehicle electrification
- MBUFA conference offers insights on road user fee implementation
- Important new book for transportation wonks
- News Notes
- Quotable Quote
Last month, the Louisiana legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee voted not to proceed with a $2.1 billion long-term public-private partnership to replace the 71-year-old Calcasieu River Bridge on I-10 in Lake Charles. The 50-year public-private partnership (P3) would have relied on toll revenue bonds to cover more than half the project’s cost (in addition to federal and state transportation funds). However, due to concerns over tolling expressed by local residents and the state trucking organization, the committee ditched the plan by an 8-6 vote.
Left unanswered is how Louisiana will replace this aging bottleneck bridge, which does not meet Interstate standards and has only four lanes on a six-lane Interstate.
This is not just a Louisiana problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2023 National Bridge Inventory identifies 222,000 bridges needing significant repair or replacement. Among them are 75,000 bridges at or beyond their useful lives. The chief economist of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) estimates the cost of addressing the most critically important of those bridges at about $300 billion.
State departments of transportation that are focusing on their share of these deficient bridges are looking first to the federal government. For example, the obsolete 61-year-old Blatnik Bridge between Duluth, MN, and Superior, WI, is in dire need of replacement. Minnesota Department of Transportation (DOT) and Wisconsin DOT are working together on a replacement. With a price tag of $1.72 billion for the latest design, they are hoping for $1 billion from Uncle Sam (though they have each allocated $400 million for the project).
How realistic is getting half or more of the cost of a megaproject bridge from Congress?
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $10.6 billion in bridge formula funds this year and another $15.9 billion over the next three years. There is also a $10 billion Large Bridge grant program for bridges costing $100 million or more. That adds up to $36.5 billion, assuming Congress appropriates all the funds the legislation authorized. That’s about 12% of the $300 billion ARTBA estimate for the most critically important bridge replacements.
You can already guess what will be seen as essential once IIJA expires. A coalition will call for making the “one-time funding” boost from IIJA the new baseline for federal transportation funding. This assumes the next presidential administration and future Congresses continue to ignore the Congressional Budget Office’s warning about the unprecedented growth in the national debt, which, unless checked, will soon see interest payments taking up a larger share of the federal budget than national defense.
There are better ways to address the crisis of America’s aging bridges. To begin with, nearly all these bridges are owned and operated by state or local governments. The deferred maintenance and lack of responsibility for timely repair and replacement are theirs, and voters should hold them accountable. States that take responsibility for their major bridges can look to several proven models that address the huge capital expenditures for refurbishment and replacement and the ongoing need for proper stewardship. Two versions of long-term public-private partnerships offer the ability to use long-term financing for such bridges rather than relying on annual state transportation department cash flow or waiting to win a piece of the federal pie. And both build in long-term stewardship.
For an array of smaller bridges, a state DOT could use the successful Pennsylvania Rapid Bridge Replacement Project as a model. Pennsylvania refurbished 558 such bridges using a long-term design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) public-private partnership financed based on annual availability payments from PennDOT. The winning P3 team raised the capital needed for all the bridge projects based on the state’s commitment to the annual payments. Cost overruns and late-completion risks were transferred from the state to the private entity. The P3 entity also contractually committed to 25 years of proper maintenance. None of those benefits would have existed had those projects been funded over many years by federal grants.
For megaproject bridges, the wiser solution is a toll-financed DBFOM P3, like that used for the Elizabeth River Crossing tunnels in Virginia and the rejected Calcasieu Bridge in Louisiana. Toll financing has been used nationwide for major bridges, from the George Washington Bridge in the east to the Golden Gate Bridge in the west. In this type of P3, the state may pick up 20% to 50% of the new bridge’s construction cost, while the P3 entity finances the rest and again takes on significant risks, including cost overruns and inaccurate traffic and revenue projections. It also agrees to proper annual maintenance for the life of the long-term agreement (typically 50 years or more). This model is especially suited to megaprojects, which are inherently more risky than more minor highway and bridge projects.
Former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Herb Stein famously remarked, “If something cannot go on indefinitely, it will stop,” which became known as Stein’s Law.
Massive expansions of federal transportation programs based on funds borrowed from our grandchildren cannot go on forever. Wise legislators and state transportation departments should take this advice seriously.
The past several months have seen articles in the Washington Post, Politico, and other media about Amtrak’s efforts to move toward high(er) speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. The articles have focused mainly on a troubled contract between Amtrak and European train producer Alstom to replace Amtrak’s aging Acela fleet with an Americanized version of Alstom’s 160 miles per hour Avelia Liberty trainsets.
Most of the articles focus on a report by the Amtrak Inspector General, pointing out that the replacement trainsets are three years behind schedule. Although more than half of the 28 planned trainsets have been built, they do not meet Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety requirements, as well as having several other defects. While these problems are expected to be resolved by next year, the underlying problems with the Northeast Corridor will remain.
Since the United States has no home-grown passenger rail producers, Amtrak has to rely on the two major European ones, Alstom and Siemens. But Amtrak cannot simply import trainsets from them for two reasons. The first is Buy America regulations, which apply to most transportation improvements that rely on federal money. So Alstom has created a U.S. production facility in Hornell, NY, to produce the new trainsets for Amtrak. But they can’t simply produce here the trains they build and sell in Europe. European high-speed rail services (HSR) run on exclusive tracks for HSR-only service. All Amtrak trains operate on tracks shared by commuter rail and freight rail service. Therefore, European trainsets must be modified to comply with more stringent FRA crashworthiness regulations.
The recent articles discussed the new Alstom trains as providing 160 miles per hour speeds. That’s a significant distortion. Because of sharp curves, aging bridges and tunnels, and other shortcomings of the Northeast Corridor’s right of way, only 32 miles of track can handle 160 mph service. Amtrak’s current plans call for some trackage improvements over the next decade, which they expect would allow 160 mph service on 30% of the corridor by 2035.
From time to time, Amtrak (and passenger rail enthusiasts) have set forth plans for upgrading the Northeast Corridor to handle true high-speed rail, such as 200 miles per hour service.
“The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor” is an update of a plan released in July 2012. The major investment would be between New Rochelle, NY, and Providence, RI—an entirely separate high-speed corridor. The estimated cost of that plan, in 2010 dollars, was $117 billion. Adjusting that for Consumer Price Index inflation would bring that to $165 billion. But since transportation construction costs have more than doubled in the past decade, $230 billion would be more likely.
One other point is worth remembering. Most articles on the Alstom train sets referred to the Northeast Corridor as Amtrak’s ‘most profitable route.’ The 2012 Vision report also presents projections of the envisioned high-speed rail service in the corridor being profitable. Yet Amtrak does not release figures based on generally accepted accounting principles. There’s no depreciation, which has allowed Amtrak to hide accumulated tens of billions in deferred maintenance. It also treats as “revenue” the subsidies provided for Amtrak services in 18 states. Amtrak’s accounting has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, but some reporters continue to fall for its claims of Northeast Corridor profitability.
All that said, as I noted on a recent PBS interview program, years ago when I was making several trips a year that included both New York and Washington, D.C., I learned that the least-hassle way of getting from Manhattan to D.C. was by Amtrak. The Northeast Corridor does have a market niche. But that does not necessarily justify spending several hundred billion taxpayer dollars to make such trips a bit faster.
The 2022 figures from the National Transit Database were released last week. I compared the 2022 numbers to the 2019 numbers, and the results are not pretty. Virtually every transit system has lost ridership since 2019, some by more than 50%. I’ve compiled data from different modes in the largest transit systems in the metro areas of Atlanta, New York City, and Denver in the following table.
|Table 1: Sample Transit Modes in Three Metro Areas|
|Transit System||2019||2022||Percentage Change|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$3.16||$8.56||171%|
|GRTA Express Bus||Trips||1,894,119||371,158||-80%|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$10.99||$67.54||515%|
|Gwinnett Local Bus||Trips||1,084,022||826,619||-31%|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$8.07||$19.12||137%|
|New York City||Metro North Commuter Rail||Trips||91,433,762||54,517,695||-68%|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$13.76||$24.38||77%|
|New Jersey Transit Light Rail||Trips||5,417,348||3,489,489||-36%|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$4.42||$7.91||79%|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$5.46||$12.31||125%|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$5.81||$10.74||85%|
|Operating Costs per Trip||$5.47||$10.60||94%|
*BTUs, British Thermal Units, are units of energy that measure the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
The table has several takeaways. On none of these systems has transit ridership come close to fully recovering to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. For example, between 2019 and 2022, commuter rail ridership on the New York City Metro North system declined 68%. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transportation Authority (MARTA) heavy rail ridership declined by 60%, and Denver Regional Transit District (RTD) light rail ridership declined by 45%.
Farebox revenue also declined significantly. Each of these systems (except for the New York ferryboats) collected farebox revenue in both 2019 and 2022. Therefore, the difference is due to fewer riders. Revenue declined 72% on the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) express buses, 47% on New Jersey Transit light rail, and 70% on Denver’s light rail system.
Operating costs skyrocketed. Part of this is due to lower overall ridership. Systems that use the same number of vehicles with fewer passengers will have higher costs. A small amount of the change results from COVID-era policies, such as enhanced cleaning. Operating costs increased 137% on Gwinnett Transit’s local bus service, 125% on New York City’s ferry system, and 94% on Denver’s light rail.
Many transit systems have been touting themselves as a green alternative. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funded many green transit projects. The problem is that transit is only green when many people ride it. And despite fewer coal power sources, BTUs per passenger mile increased substantially between 2019 and 2022. BTUs increased 114% on MARTA’s rail system, 182% on New Jersey’s light rail system, 115% on New York’s ferry boats, and 28% on Denver’s local buses.
I want to make sure I present the data in context. Transit ridership increased slightly from 2022 to 2023. Most experts expect the 2023 numbers to show a 5-10% increase in ridership, and there may be another 5-10% increase in 2024 if fewer employees work from home. So, transit’s financial and ridership numbers are expected to improve slightly. But, that new normal will still be only around 80% of pre-pandemic ridership, at best.
Some transit systems have recovered faster than others. New York City was hardest hit by the pandemic and by people migrating to lower-tax, warmer climates. According to the Census Bureau, between 2021 and 2022, New York State lost 0.91% of its population, the biggest decline in the country. Therefore, some loss in transit ridership was outside of MTA’s control. However, Georgia’s population increased by 1.16% and Colorado’s by 0.49%. The population increases in those states were greatest in the Atlanta and Denver regions, yet transit ridership in those areas dropped significantly.
Overall, these numbers are very depressing. They back up what many transit industry executives expected: fewer riders and higher costs. And they explain why transit is heading toward a fiscal cliff. U.S. transit systems must make comprehensive changes for this “new normal.”
Transit-dependent riders have returned to the system faster because they are, by definition, dependent. And transit-dependent riders rely more on buses than rail. Further, bus is doing better than rail. In trips, Gwinnett County’s system lost the fewest riders, 31%. Denver’s bus system lost 47%, although that is similar to the light rail system’s 45%.
Therefore, transit systems need to focus on transit-dependent customers. Thankfully, some agencies have prioritized bus system redesigns by working with Jarrett Walker or another expert to ensure their system transports customers where they need to travel seven days a week. Unfortunately, others, such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, have focused on transit-choice customers.
Systems need to make other changes I highlighted in two recent policy briefs: Five Actions Transit Agencies Should Take Immediately, and Five Actions Transit Agencies Should Take in the Next Two Years. Charging choice riders the total service cost, replacing low ridership bus routes with paratransit, contracting out service, making greater use of intelligent transportation systems, partnering with ride-hailing services, and partnering with microtransit providers will reduce costs. Fully funding bus service for transit-dependent riders, making greater use of intelligent transportation technologies, partnering with ride-hailing services and microtransit providers, and providing transit service vouchers would help increase ridership.
We’re in a new normal, and transit executives must create a system based on that reality.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that U.S. electricity consumption (and hence production) will increase by 38% by 2050 to serve the projected growth in electric vehicles, both personal and commercial. That means more electricity generation, more transmission lines, and more distribution facilities. Most U.S. discussions of vehicle electrification concern personal vehicles, but an important new study focuses on the electricity needs of medium- and heavy-duty (commercial) vehicles (MHDVs).
MHDVs pose serious problems for electric utilities for two reasons. First, at least for battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), medium and heavy trucks have much larger battery packs and take longer to charge than personal vehicles. Second, truck fleets have bases in specific locations, not randomly scattered across the country. Long-distance trucking serves specific routes, not more or less everywhere, such as where personal vehicle owners live and work.
The new study is a joint effort of utility National Grid and Hitachi Energy: “The Road to Transportation Decarbonization: Readying the Grid for Electric Fleets.” I read the 51-page study and will attempt to summarize the most critical points.
The researchers selected a case study area in National Grid’s home states of New York and Massachusetts. It then selected sites likely to need significant amounts of new electricity within specific timeframes between now and 2045. They looked at 19 different distribution feeder lines in National Grid territory in summer and winter (when more electricity is needed). If demand gets near the limits of existing capacity, the consequences can be thermal overloading and voltage drops. They modeled three scenarios for each feeder line: available capacity (capable of handling more), constrained capacity, or contingency needs. Depending on how MHDVs increase over time, these facilities may need an additional distribution line, a new or expanded substation, or other improvements.
A lot depends on how fast trucking companies shift to electric propulsion. And this raises a problem for current utility regulation. Public utility commissions (PUCs) do not approve new transmission lines, distribution lines, substations, transformers, etc., based on uncertain projections. Yet how rapidly individual trucking fleets convert to electric propulsion is anyone’s guess. Another problem is how rapidly a utility could expand facilities serving specific locations, given the long lead times in purchasing new transformers and other gear. For electric utilities, a big risk is moving too soon (assuming the PUC allows it) to add distribution capacity and having it go underused for a period of time. For trucking companies, the risk is converting to electric propulsion but being unable to charge their vehicles due to grid constraints and long lead times for upgrades. Given that some fleets have made near-term commitments to electrification, the report notes:
“Delivering the new capacity [for early adopters] in time requires planning to start now. A typical electric distribution project could take 1-4 years to design, construct, and place in service. If there needs to be substation or transmission-level work, that timeline could be up to 8 years.”
Hence, a major recommendation of the report is that “regulatory and planning structures must evolve to accommodate MHDV electrification.”
I have just a couple of nitpicks for this important piece of work. On page 23, it suggests that utilities should use variable pricing to reduce the amount of charging done overnight because transformers need time overnight to cool off so as not to reduce their service life. This may be difficult or impossible for many truck-using businesses. Second, although the introduction to the report notes that some MHDVs may opt for hydrogen fuel cells (due to the large payload penalty from the weight of heavy-truck battery packs), all its scenarios seem to be based on 100% of truck electrification being via batteries. To be sure, electricity is needed to produce the hydrogen used in fuel cells. However, it is unlikely to be produced on-site at BEV recharging stations. Eliminating long-haul Class 8 big rigs from BEV demand projections would significantly reduce the capacity needed at MDHV recharging stations.
On Oct. 24, the Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance (MBUFA) held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. State departments of transportation, consultants, vendors, think tanks (including Reason Foundation, which was a sponsor), and other interested parties were in attendance. Top of mind were the two federal mileage-based user fee (MBUF) programs authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was enacted in Nov. 2021: the Strategic Innovation for Revenue Collection (SIRC) technical assistance grants to state and local governments and the National Motor Vehicle Per-Mile User Fee Pilot. Drawing on their varied MBUF testing and implementation experiences, MBUFA National Conference speakers offered numerous insights on near-term implementation challenges.
One question repeatedly asked in recent years is, what can additional state-level pilots tell us that we haven’t already learned from past pilots? The implication is that advocates of the MBUF transition should focus on deploying MBUF systems at scale rather than repeating rudimentary trials. This is a good question because the core purpose of a pilot is to test the feasibility of various approaches and reach meaningful conclusions, which can then be adopted by policymakers.
On a panel of experienced state MBUF program practitioners, speakers made the case for continuing state pilots. One was Maureen Bock, the chief innovation officer of the Oregon Department of Transportation, which operates the state’s OReGO program, the oldest of the four permanent state-level MBUF programs in the U.S. Bock noted that Oregon is currently developing a point-of-sale OReGO enrollment process in partnership with auto dealers. Another underexplored area that Bock hopes her state or another will soon examine is how to ensure administrative recordkeeping accuracy upon the transfer of vehicle titles.
Pilots conducted by states also need not take the same form. The Washington State Transportation Commission’s Reema Griffith found that low-cost virtual pilots can deliver valuable information, citing her commission’s experience with a mock online enrollment that was followed by a customer survey. These virtual pilots can be used to analyze specific functions or address narrow customer concerns, allowing states to cost-effectively fine-tune their MBUF programs.
The California Department of Transportation’s Lauren Prehoda argued that additional state pilots are not in tension with the long-term goal of MBUFs at scale. She noted that next year, California will conduct another pilot, this one involving real money transactions rather than simulated billing. She explained that a national interoperable MBUF network would be impossible without integrating each state’s motor vehicle registration database, so state pilots are very useful for figuring out the underlying technological and administrative infrastructure necessary to operate such a system in the future.
Adding support for continued state pilots was the Federal Highway Administration’s SIRC program manager, Carlos McCloud. He told attendees to expect the notice of funding opportunity by the end of November. Recognizing the important knowledge gained from past pilots, McCloud indicated that he would like to see state and local governments focus on the totality of their road networks, not specific corridors. This, he said, is critical for analyzing potential scalability. He encouraged partnerships to leverage unique local skills into larger state MBUF pilots, such as metropolitan planning organizations’ expertise in vehicle-miles traveled data collection.
With respect to the relationship between the national MBUF pilot and SIRC-supported state pilots, some states have expressed concerns about the federal government crowding out the work of the states. Jack Opiola, recently hired as the Federal Highway Administration’s national pilot program manager, reiterated that it was Congress’s intent for the federal government to learn from and partner with states to complement and enhance rather than supersede their state-level MBUF efforts.
Opiola emphasized that many details related to the size and scope of the national pilot need to be worked out—from technology review being initiated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to coordination with state DMVs on motor vehicle registration data—and that he encouraged states to continue sharing information on best practices once the federal advisory board’s membership is sworn in next year. Opiola envisions the national pilot as being able to bridge the growing gap on MBUF experience emerging between states, as well as focusing on problems such as nationwide interoperability that individual states are poorly equipped to address.
The presentations and conversations at the MBUFA National Conference last month provided good reason to be optimistic about finding a viable alternative to motor fuel taxation as the dominant source of highway user revenue. To be sure, many questions on implementation at both the state and federal levels need to be answered for this transition to be successful. But by all indications, the growing number of mileage-based user fee supporters are asking the right questions.
How did our current highway system come about? More specifically, how has its funding evolved over the past two centuries? This is the subject of an excellent new book, The Drive for Dollars, by Jeffrey R. Brown, Eric A. Morris, and Brian D. Taylor (Oxford University Press, 2023). While the subhead on the cover reads, “How fiscal policies shaped urban freeways and transformed American cities,” that is only one theme. What holds the story together is how paying for highways has changed and will almost certainly change again as we figure out how to shift from per-gallon fuel taxes to per-mile charges.
In my 2018 book, Rethinking America’s Highways, I included some aspects of the story told in far more detail by Brown/Morris/Taylor. Early in our history was the turnpike era, modeled after similar state-chartered turnpikes in Britain. But for other roads between cities, the custom was citizen obligations to put in a certain amount of time each year on road maintenance. And city streets were originally the responsibility of abutting property owners, which did not foster wider streets for greater access. That system evolved into local property taxes as the primary means of local road funding.
With the looming need for paved highways in the first two decades of the 20th century, Oregon legislators in 1919 invented the per-gallon tax on gasoline, and it was such a good idea that within a decade all 48 states had gas taxes, usually dedicated to state highways. One of the fascinating things I learned from this book is that generally, until after World War II, state fuel taxes were used only for state highways, not for major arterials in urban areas. Needless to say, as early parkway and freeway plans were being drawn up in the 1930s, urban officials and many residents resented the fact that urban motorists and trucks paid the same fuel taxes as rural motor vehicles but got no benefits for increasingly undersized urban roadways.
A very important part of the book is the evolution of what became the Interstate highway system. The idea of limited-access highways got its start with the creation of urban “parkways” by planners, including the controversial Robert Moses in New York, but also in other urban areas such as Los Angeles, where the Arroyo Parkway (today the Pasadena Freeway) pioneered the idea. Urban superhighway plans began in the 1920s (Detroit) and proliferated in the 1930s, but few were built except those like Moses’, which were financed based on tolls. After World War II, freeway plans proliferated in large metro areas (Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis, etc.), but few were built due to lack of funding. California legislators opened the door to freeways in 1947, allowing state fuel taxes to fund urban and inter-city highways. But as the authors point out at some length, the price of that funding was cities and counties ceding key freeway planning and decision-making to the state highway department. And that significantly changed how freeways were planned and built.
The authors then provide the most complete history I’ve seen of how the Interstate highway system came to be. As is fairly well-known, President Roosevelt liked the idea (as a jobs program), but there were major conflicts between the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and the White House. The famous (or infamous) BPR report, “Toll Roads and Free Roads,” purported to show that there was nowhere near enough demand in southern and western states to generate enough toll revenue to pay for a nationwide system, and that conclusion prevailed, even though President Eisenhower liked the idea. (The authors note a 1983 study by Jonathan Gifford of George Mason University pointing out that a successful tolled superhighway system would be a threat to BPR’s leading role—and indeed, once the Interstates were built, the demand far exceeded early projections.)
A 1955 bill in Congress to create a national highway system failed to pass, partly because of a lack of support from members representing urban areas. BPR saved the day by coming up with the infamous Yellow Book, which sketched in proposed Interstate routes within metro areas, and the resulting 1956 bill—which included a 90/10 split of federal and state funding—swayed enough urban votes for the bill to pass.
The rest of the book covers the rise and fall of the freeway era, compared with a less-intrusive parkway/freeway system that might have developed had Congress not bought off urban interests with nearly free federal money and state highway dimensions, speed limits, etc. They also discuss the benefits and costs of Interstate highways and their urban components.
This is not a book for general readers, but for transportation policy wonks, I consider it a must-read. I learned a lot from it, and very likely so will you.
Abertis Wins Puerto Rico Toll Roads Competition
Spanish toll road company Abertis was selected last month for a $5 billion, 40-year public-private partnership concession to finance, modernize, operate, and maintain four aging toll roads on the island. It will pay $2.8 billion to the bankrupt highway authority, paying off the agency’s debt and allowing it to focus on Puerto Rico’s non-tolled highways. Abertis will invest $2.3 billion to modernize and improve PR-20, PR-52, PR 53, and PR-6. Abertis already operates PR-5 and PR-22 under a 2011 P3 concession, as well as the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge connecting the San Juan airport to the city.
P3 Proposed for $4.5 Billion Austin I-35 Modernization
Last month, Austin City Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly urged the city government to support a long-term public-private partnership to finance and manage the I-35 project, which will widen and lower the Interstate through downtown Austin and add caps over much of the depressed highway; the concept is referred to as Cap and Stitch. The Texas Department of Transportation would have to persuade the legislature to grant an exception to its decade-long ban on new P3s. Project plans include adding two “managed lanes” each way, currently planned as high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Were they developed as express toll lanes, like those on the successful LBJ (I-635) P3 in Dallas, revenue-based financing might cover 80% of the $4.5 billion budget, freeing up $3.5 billion for other TxDOT projects statewide.
Charlotte Express Toll Lanes Speeding Up All Commutes
Since they opened to traffic in 2019 on I-77 north of Charlotte, NC, the 26 miles of express toll lanes have improved traffic flow during peak periods in the general-purpose lanes and the new priced lanes. The Charlotte Observer reported that rush hour drive times from downtown to Lake Norman have been cut by 15 minutes. The information had been requested by the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which is studying possible express toll lanes on I-77 between Charlotte and the South Carolina border.
Kodiak Robotics Running Autonomous Trucks Between Houston and Oklahoma City
FleetOwner reported last month that Kodiak Robotics has expanded its autonomous truck route from Houston to Oklahoma City. Over the last four years, Kodiak has delivered over 4,000 loads for global shipping company Maersk. It has expanded its customers for this route to Tyson, Ikea, C.R. England, and others. The trucks are equipped with the company’s Kodiak Driver automation suite that relies on cameras, lidar, and radar. Thus far, the trucks all operate with an onboard safety driver.
Virginia Studying Missing Link of I-495 Express Toll Lane System
Last month, Virginia DOT unveiled nine possible alternatives for reducing congestion along the I-495 Beltway between I-95 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River. The alternatives include adding one or two express toll lanes each way on the 11-mile stretch, adding one or two general-purpose lanes each way instead, or various transportation system management improvements in the corridor. The $6.8 million study is expected to lead to a preferred alternative being selected next spring. Virginia’s current express toll lanes operate on 90 route miles of highway.
Trucking Industry Experienced $94.6 Billion in Congestion Costs
We know that truck traffic has expanded much faster than personal vehicle travel, so it’s unsurprising that the cost of truck congestion reached a new high of $95.6 billion in 2021, the first post-pandemic year. The research was sponsored by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), relying on data from INRIX. Compared with pre-pandemic year 2016, truck congestion has increased by 27%. And the average cost per truck in 2021 was $6,924, a combination of wasted time and fuel. The extra 6.79 billion gallons of diesel fuel generated 69 million metric tons of CO2.
Electric Road Project Terminated in Sweden
One alternative proposed for the electrification of heavy trucks is to power them from an overhead catenary, like trolley cars. That would greatly reduce the otherwise enormous weight of battery packs that cut into a big-rig’s payload capacity. The Swedish Transport Administration (STA) launched a pilot project, and SCANIA, a provider of buses and trucks, offered a specially-equipped truck. STA planned to install the overhead system on a 30 km stretch of the E20 route. But as reported in the November-December issue of The Dispatcher, “When the bids came in for building the road infrastructure, the electricity delivery infrastructure, and the payment system, all the proposals were well over the budget . . . and a halt was called to the whole effort.”
Oregon I-5 Columbia River Bridge Replacement Plans Advance Tolling
The $6 billion project to replace the aging I-5 bridges between Portland, OR, and Vancouver, WA, is planned to start construction in late 2025 or early 2026. But tolling to pay for at least $1 billion of the bridge’s cost will begin in about two years, long before the replacement bridge’s projected opening date in 2033. That’s unusual but not unprecedented. Washington State DOT followed a similar policy for the replacement of the floating bridge on SR 520.
Major Cost Escalation on Bay Area Transit Projects
Two rail transit projects are setting new records for America’s costliest projects. The long-planned six-mile extension of BART to San Jose was originally estimated (in 2014) to cost $4.7 billion and be completed by 2026. The current estimate is $12.2 billion and completion by 2036. That works out to $2 billion per mile. But the long-planned San Francisco transit tunnel called The Portal—connecting the Salesforce Transit Center to the Caltrain station—is now estimated to cost $8.2 billion. Including all trackwork needed for the tunnel (2.2 miles), that works out to $3.7 billion per mile, but using just the tunnel length, the figure exceeds $4 billion per mile. A primary rationale for the tunnel is the supposed eventual arrival in San Francisco of the California high-speed rail line, whose construction cost has escalated to $128 billion and lacks most of the funding to proceed beyond the under-construction starter segment in California’s Central Valley.
Screens in Cars Considered Safety Hazards
A recent personal technology column in The Wall Street Journal cited increasing driver frustrations with complicated touch screens replacing basic control knobs in new cars. Columnist Nicole Nguyen cited a 2017 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which found that drivers take more than 40 seconds to complete a task on a screen—40 seconds when their eyes are off the road. She also cited a study by Swedish car publication VI Bilagare, which compared 11 new car models with an older Volvo. It found that using buttons for regular tasks was twice as fast as using the touch screens. Where is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on this subject?
Misleading Numbers on Dulles Metro Station Usage
An Oct. 5 story in the Washington Post presented some numbers on usage of the Dulles Airport station on the new Metro Silver Line. I’m indebted to Peter Samuel, former editor of Toll Roads News, for some math corrections. The article headline said one million people had gotten on or off at that station in the past year. It also said that 5,000 people a day used that station, but one million per year is 2,740 per day, not 5,000. The article also noted that in June, all six stations on the Silver Line totaled 4,535 on weekdays, and of that, only 1,316 were at the Dulles Station.
Florida Trucking Association President Honored
Dr. Alix Miller, CEO of the Florida Trucking Association (FTA), received the ATA Trucking Association Executives Council Presidents Leadership Award last month. Miller took the helm of FTA in 2021 after serving as its vice president of government affairs. According to the awards ceremony, she has “changed the culture and overall public and political perception of FTA.” Among her accomplishments was a successful legislative initiative against lawsuit abuse.
“Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, for instance, describes the 15-minute city as ‘not really a city at all. It’s an enclave—a ghetto—a subdivision.’ He added that the idea is a ‘dead-end which would stop cities from fulfilling their true role as engines of opportunity’ because in practice, it would undermine one of the chief benefits of urban living: connecting people. Urbanist Alain Bertaud has written that the 15-minute city is an idea of mayors who ‘pretend that a city is a complex object that must be designed in advance by brilliant specialists. They would then impose their designs on the city’s inhabitants who lack vision and genius.’ Bertaud notes that the 15-minute city would necessitate direct ‘government intervention in the job and retail market’ to ensure that all services are available locally and to minimize the kind of commuting for work that people in Western societies engage in to expand their employment opportunities.”
—Steven Malanga, “Urbanism’s Newest Controversy,” City Journal, Spring 2023