Surface Transportation Innovations #84
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Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation Innovations #84

Questioning travel time index

In this issue:

  • Questioning the Travel Time Index
  • Obama’s $50 Billion Proposal
  • Two Cheers for the Miller Center Report
  • A Sensible Freight Bill
  • Brownfield Leases, Again
  • More on Heavier Trucks
  • ·Upcoming Conferences
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quotes

Is the Travel Time Index Invalid?

Transportation blogs and newsgroups have been buzzing over a new report from CEOs for Cities, released Sept. 29th, claiming that the much-used Travel Time Index (in the annual Urban Mobility Report (UMR) from the Texas Transportation Institute) does not accurately measure traffic congestion. Here’s a sample of media coverage, this one from ABC News: “Which city has the worst traffic? For years now we have been hearing about the notorious traffic jams of Los Angeles, the worst in the nation. But now a new study is saying hold on – Nashville, TN actually has the worst traffic, and LA is way down the list at number 17.”

My first reaction was to dismiss this as ludicrous. Having commuted in LA congestion for nearly two decades (and having sampled numerous other metro areas), the idea that congestion could be worse in Birmingham, Richmond, and Raleigh than in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Washington, DC is inherently implausible. But the report, called “Driven Apart,” is more substantive than I expected. (

The basic argument, backed up by some number-crunching, is that the travel time index (the ratio of trip time during peak periods and the same trip during non-peak periods) is unreliable because it ignores the distance traveled and hence total time spent in congestion. From the get-go, this is misleading, since the Urban Mobility Reports always include the annual delay hours per peak traveler, and those track pretty well with the travel time index for the large, congested metro areas:

Rank Rank

Metro Area Delay Hours/Traveler Travel Time Index

Los Angeles 1 1

Washington, DC 2 4

Atlanta 3 10

Houston 4 11

San Francisco 5 3

Dallas/Ft. Worth 6 12

San Jose 6 8

Orlando 6 17

San Diego 9 5

Detroit 9 20

Miami 11 5

New York 14 5

Chicago 21 2

Source: 2009 Urban Mobility Report, Table 1

The underlying theme of the CEOs for Cities report, written by Portland-based economist Joe Cortright, is that if only cities were denser, like Portland, people on average would have shorter-distance commute trips, so they would spend less time stuck in traffic. Cortright uses a calculation procedure to estimate trip lengths from other UMR data, a procedure some researchers have questioned due to limitations of the underlying data.

In Cortright’s report, sprawling Nashville supposedly has a much longer average commute than denser Chicago-indeed, he ranks Nashville as the worst commute and Chicago as the best. Yet data from the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey (ACS) show the former’s average auto commute time as 23.6 minutes compared with Chicago’s 28.7 minutes. Even if the latter has a shorter average distance, it has a longer commute time due to far more congestion and lower average speeds.

Another limitation in making these comparisons stems from the way the Urban Mobility Report itself deals with mass transit trips. They are counted as having zero delays during peak periods, which may be true of rail but is certainly not true of bus. That means a metro area with a lot of transit use shows up in the UMR with less calculated “delay hours” than one with little transit use (compare Chicago with Los Angeles on delay hours in the table above). But actual transit travel times need to be taken into account. Data from the ACS yield a weighted average peak travel time (in areas of 500,000 or more people) of 25.2 minutes for driving vs. 48.1 minutes for transit.

Cortright does raise some interesting methodological questions about how the UMR estimates the Travel Time Index and the amount of excess fuel consumed due to congestion, and I’m sure UMR‘s long-time authors David Schrank and Tim Lomax will respond in due time. But from what I’ve seen so far, the verdict on the case Cortright’s “Driven Apart” seeks to make is: not demonstrated.

Thoughts on Obama’s $50 Billion Proposal

President Obama’s Labor Day proposal to have the federal government put an extra $50 billion into transportation infrastructure-roads, rail (including high-speed rail), transit, airports, and air traffic control-is still a source of confusion, even after follow-up presentations in recent weeks from DOT Secretary LaHood and various senior DOT officials. If this is to be net new money, it will have to be general fund money, since there is nothing extra in either the Highway Trust Fund or the Aviation Trust Fund. But if by some fiscal sleight of hand the proposal is meant to borrow against future revenues coming into those funds (whose user taxes the Administration has said it will not increase), there is a serious threat to the integrity of both Trust Funds-especially if money would be taken from either Trust Fund for modes such as freight rail and high-speed rail that are not currently eligible.

Also telling was the President’s deliberate use of the term “Transportation Trust Fund,” when no such entity exists. But that usage is consistent with the Sept. 28th testimony of DOT Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz, who told the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee that “we need to be able to direct our transportation funds toward whichever mode of transportation-or combination of modes-can most effectively achieve them. So we need to step away from the traditional stove-piped approach to transportation funding.” Well, you can either have user fees (under which users pay and the same users benefit-the principle underlying both the Aviation and Highway Trust Funds) or you can have a giant punchbowl with any number of straws for drinking out of it. But if most of those with straws are not putting anything into the bowl, then the ones who are contributing will be getting short-changed. The virtue of “stove-pipes” (i.e., separately funded modes) is precisely the users-pay/users-benefit principle, which is seriously at risk in the current administration.

I find it especially troubling that LaHood, Kienitz, and other officials defend mode-neutrality on the grounds that they will be replacing formula-driven and earmarked funding with decisions based on “enhancing competition, innovation, performance, and real analysis.” That sounds good until you look carefully at how they address high-speed rail. From the President on down, the only proffered rationale for putting tens and eventually hundreds of billions of tax dollars into HSR is that, as Kienitz told the EPW Committee, “people want high-speed rail.” Well, people may want a door-to-door limo service paid for by federal taxpayers, but that does not make it a sound investment. I have yet to see a shred of analysis from DOT justifying HSR as more cost-effective than either self-supporting intercity bus service or self-supporting short-haul airline service–or showing that HSR can reduce greenhouse gases from transportation at a reasonable cost (such as less than $50/ton). “People want it” is not “real analysis.”

I find only one bright spot in this proposal: that its advocacy of a National Infrastructure Bank may increase the odds of expanding the successful TIFIA loan program. Unfortunately, the term “national infrastructure bank” (NIB) means different things to different people. Some congressional advocates envision it as largely a grant-making entity, doling out money for public housing, public libraries, school buildings, etc. in addition to transportation infrastructure. Others, such as Robert Wolf of UBS Americas, urge that it make “loans that will generate returns, which means focusing primarily on projects with user fees or other dedicated revenue sources,” selected “on the basis of rigorous cost-benefit analysis conducted by experienced industry experts.” That kind of program (which already exists in TIFIA) can and will leverage private investment, if adequately funded and kept focused on loans to investment-grade projects. Demand for TIFIA loans vastly exceeds current funding, but there seems to be bipartisan support for expanding it. That would be a wiser course than either borrowing $50 billion for added infrastructure spending or creating an open-ended grants-and-loans NIB.

Two Cheers for the Miller Center Proposals

Last year I was invited to take part in a gathering at the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. The goal of this invitation-only conference was to develop a new transportation agenda for the United States. I could not attend due to a schedule conflict, but despite the participation of a number of very solid people, I did not expect the resulting report to be more than the usual good-government stuff.

I’m happy to say that the resulting report, “Well Within Reach: America’s New Transportation Agenda,” has significantly exceeded my expectations. While here and there it makes genuflections to currently trendy ideas (such as livability, “fix it first,” and high-speed rail), most of what it calls for would be a big improvement over the status quo. (

Its assessment of the failures of the status quo is largely on target, though it too-uncritically accepts estimates from the 2007 Policy and Revenue Commission about the size of this country’s infrastructure investment shortfall (which are way too high because the numbers used did not include a meaningful benefit/cost screen, such as 1.5). But it 10 principal recommendations are largely on target. These include the medium-to-long-term need to replace the fuel tax with a better user charge-a VMT charge, to retain the users-pay/users-benefit principle. They also recommend significantly increased use of tolling and public-private partnerships to generate not merely more investment but more-productive investment. And they call for further streamlining of the project review process, to get needed infrastructure approved for construction in a much more timely manner.

One of the report’s most important recommendations-one which has been missed by most of the other major reports released over the last five years or so-is that we need to rethink the federal role in transportation. Here is a brief excerpt:

It may be worth considering a new paradigm that explicitly distinguishes the federal “role” from the federal “interest.” Not everywhere there is a federal interest is there also an appropriate federal role. Given that federal resources are unlikely to be sufficient to address every need in which there is a potential federal interest, Congress should reassess its core national priorities for transportation and then limit the federal role to support those priorities. That would mean ending federal participation that fall outside identified national priorities.

Commentator Ken Orski has called my attention to a proposal currently making the rounds that appears to be responsive to this call. It would be a three-year bill that would focus only on core elements in highways and transit, letting states take over programs such as Enhancements, Livable Communities, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) that respond primarily to local priorities and offer mostly local benefits.

Thus, while the Miller Center report is not quite what I would have written, it will add considerable value to the forthcoming debates on reauthorization.

Finally, a Sensible Freight Bill

For far too long, goods-movement has been something of a step-child in U.S. transportation policy. To be sure, our deregulated and self-supporting freight railroads do a fine job of hauling bulk commodities and, increasingly, intermodal containers. Trucks carry the lion’s share, by value, of all freight moved in this country, but they share our inadequate highway infrastructure with cars, vans, buses, and miscellaneous other vehicles. And while federal cost allocation studies show that heavy trucks don’t pay their full share of highway costs, neither do they get the level and quality of service that efficient goods-movement requires.

But when a bill called the FREIGHT Act was introduced in both houses of Congress in July, I wrote somewhat critically about it in this newsletter. It would direct federal funds to all freight modes (including freight railroads) except trucking, and specified no funding source. I worried that this might be yet another raid on the already inadequate Highway Trust Fund, to benefit those who pay nothing into that fund.

So when I wrote my column for the September issue of Public Works Financing, I laid out some thoughts on what a sensible federal goods-movement policy might be. First, I said, avoid creating a common-pool fund, since that will inevitably lead to cross-subsidies for modes that don’t pay, paid for by those who do. Instead, create several strategic freight funds-one for highways, one for ports, one for railroads, one for waterways-each paid for by a user tax or fee agreed to by the users of the respective mode. Each would be governed (or at least advised) by a stakeholder board, under the principle of “user pay means user say.” Those boards would weigh project proposals and decide which would add the most real value for their mode. Multi-modal and inter-modal projects would involve joint investments from two or more of these funds, paid for in proportion to their importance to the modes involved.

To my surprise, within a day or two of submitting my copy, I received news releases announcing the introduction of the Freight Focus Act of 2010 (HR 6291) by Rep. Laura Richardson (D, CA). While it only calls for creating a single Goods Movement Trust Fund, it is also based on ensuring that “if funding came in from a specific mode, those funds will be dedicated to projects for that mode.” The bill includes a 12-cent/gallon increase in the diesel tax paid by trucks, but is drafted to permit the addition of other user taxes-potentially from railroads, port users, and waterway users. It would also create a National Freight Advisory Committee–a stakeholder body to help develop a “national freight plan” and to provide input into funding priorities. The measure has received kudos from the Coalition for America’s Gateways & Trade Corridors, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, and the American Trucking Associations.

This is a huge improvement over the vague and unfunded FREIGHT Act. While not precisely what I suggested in my column, it provides a framework for bringing about much-needed strategic investment in goods-movement infrastructure. If you would like a copy of my PWF column, “A National Freight Policy?” just email me your request.

Brownfield Leases Rise Again

Given the backlash in some quarters against the long-term leases of the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road, I’ve assumed that leasing existing toll roads (“asset monetization”) was pretty much over. The attempt to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike created a political firestorm in 2008, after which proposals to do likewise in several other states faded away.

But the political furor was never really justified by inherent shortcomings of such leasing. To be sure, we can have legitimate debates about the use of the lease proceeds, about up-front payments vs. revenue-sharing, about the length of the lease term, about amending the concession agreement during its term to address new situations, and about competition/compensation provisions. But in principle, there is not that much difference between the long-term lease of an existing toll road (brownfield) and a long-term lease agreement to create, operate, and maintain a new toll road (greenfield). Over a 30-, 50-, or 75-year period, significant capital investments will be required in both cases, and all the operating and maintenance responsibilities are the same. A well-drafted long-term concession agreement for either brownfield or greenfield toll road will cover much the same ground.

So it may be a sign of the financially stressed times, as well as growing sophistication about long-term concessions, that several existing toll roads are now candidates for long-term leases. The better-known case is Puerto Rico, where four teams have recently been short-listed to compete for leases of two existing toll roads, PR-22 and PR-5, with the RFP expected shortly, reports Public Works Financing‘s September issue. This is the first of four toll road concessions Puerto Rico expects to offer, with the other three involving more new construction. (Details on Puerto Rico’s privatization program, including the RFP once it is issued, can be found at

The same PWF issue also took me by surprise in reporting that the E-470 Authority in Denver has begun looking into a long-term concession for their 47-mile tolled beltway. The board’s rationale is apparently a defensive move, to safeguard the toll road against a potential state takeover. The cash generated by a long-term lease could be used by the eight local governments that created the Authority for other transportation projects. E-470 has maintained an investment-grade rating for its senior bonds from Fitch Ratings, despite weak economic conditions. Fitch cites “conservative financial management” which provides “a significant cushion against lower-than-expected toll revenue.”

Follow-Up on Heavier Trucks

My article last issue suggesting that an increase in truck weights on Interstates may be justified brought a flood of responses from civil engineers. While not disagreeing with my conclusion that pavement damage would be mitigated by an additional axle, they took serious issue with my suggestion that an additional annual fee from heavier-truck operators would adequately address the impact of 97,000 lb. trucks on bridges. I will summarize some of the things I’ve learned on this question.

The most important factor is the standard used to estimate a bridge’s safe load-carrying capacity. I wrote mostly about the widely used HS-20 (dating to 1944), but a bridge designer tells me that the assumed weight under that standard is only 72,000 lbs, compared with the current federal maximum of 80,000 lbs. The current design load standard for highway bridges is the more stringent HL-93. He also tells me that about 40 state DOTs use the bridge management system PONTIS to record bridge condition and ratings, which makes a very large database available for determining how many bridges would become “deficient” due to a change in allowable truck weights.

That’s important because my article assumed that states adopting a higher limit (such as the proposed 97,000 lbs.) would restrict trucks of that weight to Interstates. But “since the highway network is robustly connected, any vehicle can cross any bridge on the system. . . . Since there is no reliable way to limit heavy vehicles exclusively to Interstates, it is unconservative to design off-system bridges for lighter loads.” This is a question of enforceability, and I invite reader comments about the degree to which such restrictions are, in fact, enforceable.

On that issue, one reader sent me a 2008 report produced by the Virginia Transportation Research Council on that state’s overweigh permit fee structure. It made for eye-opening reading. Like most states, Virginia exempts some overweight vehicles from its weight limit, and grants permits for others, in exchange for paying modest fees. Some types of permits prescribe restricted routes for those overweight vehicles (so there comes the enforcement question, again). The researchers developed both a pavement-damage model and a bridge damage model, so as to estimate the cost of damages from overweight vehicles in comparison to the permit fee revenue. Exempt, by statute, from paying overweight fees, are haulers of concrete, solid waste, sand and gravel, farm products, containers, and several others-a highly questionable practice. Table 5 in the report shows that bridge damage for most types of permitted trucks is from 2 to 6 times more than the amount of the permit (e.g., a 3-axle dump truck causes $277 in damage vs. a permit fee of $45).

There was also this disturbing statement on p. 9 of the report: “[O]nly 30,000 of the 92,000 overweight permitted vehicles were capable of damaging state-maintained bridges. The estimated FY07 cost of moment-related damage to bridges was $23.7 million, however. It did not appear feasible to distribute total bridge damage costs across such a small number of overweight vehicles [which would mean an average fee of $790/year]. VTRC researchers, therefore, sought to develop a calculation method for bridge damage that would equitably distribute some amount of the bridge damage costs across vehicles causing the damage.”

Taken together, these points suggest to me that a lot more work needs to be done before any state could responsibly implement a 97,000 lb. maximum gross weight, even if Congress raises the federal ceiling to that level.

Upcoming Conferences

Note: I don’t have space to list all the transportation conferences going on; below are those that I or a Reason colleague am participating in.

TEAMFL Fall Quarterly Meeting, Oct. 20-21, Coconut Grove, FL, Mayfair Hotel Spa. Details at: (Robert Poole speaking)

Mobility 21 Southern California Transportation Summit, Oct. 29, Anaheim, CA, Disneyland Hotel. Details at (Adrian Moore speaking)

Georgia Legislative Policy Briefing, Nov. 13, Atlanta, GA, Westin Buckhead Atlanta. Details at: (Robert Poole speaking)

ITS California Annual Meeting, Nov. 16, Berkeley, CA, Doubletree Conference Center. Details at (Adrian Moore speaking)

Public-Private Financing and Investment Strategies, Dec. 13-15, San Francisco, CA, Grand Hyatt. Details at Ybarra speaking)

Transportation Research Board 90th Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, multiple hotels. Details at: (Robert Poole and Adrian Moore speaking)

News Notes

Learning from Australia’s P3 Experience

One of the most insightful reports I’ve ever read on public-private partnership (P3) toll roads was released last month (though it carries a July 2010 date) by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. MTI Report 09-15 is called “Policy issues in U.S. Transportation Public-Private Partnerships: Lessons from Australia,” by David Czerwinski and Richard Geddes. It chronicles the Australian experience and offers lessons learned for U.S. transportation policymakers, including thoughtful discussion of such issues as risk allocation, non-compete and compensation clauses, potential market power, and concession length. Highly recommended! (

Brookings Book on Transport Privatization and Deregulation

Last Exit is the name of a challenging new book by Brookings transportation scholar Clifford Winston. Drawing on his long career studying the economics of transportation (both air and surface), Winston summarizes the benefits that have accrued from the deregulation of airlines, railroads, trucking several decades ago, but laments the many inefficiencies that remain in our transportation infrastructure, many of which stem from government ownership, politicization, and remaining regulations. Suggesting that there could be major gains from privatization and further deregulation, Winston lays out the case for privatization experiments. (

Follow-Up on Marine Highways

In last month’s issue, I criticized a recent National Freight Cooperative Research Program report on marine highways for not including repeal of the Jones Act in its recommendations. Bill Rogers, a senior program officer at TRB, wrote to remind me that “Cooperative research programs can’t make policy recommendations to the federal government because we are not subject to FACA [Federal Advisory Committee Act]. We can make policy recommendations to all others.”

World Bank on High-Speed Rail

Drawing on global experience with high-speed rail projects, a World Bank research team has produced a balanced look at when and where HSR makes the most sense. It correctly views HSR as a premium product dependent on large numbers of people being willing and able to pay premium fares, noting that HSR fares in Japan are twice those of ordinary passenger rail and three times as high in China. “High-Speed Rail: The Fast Track to Economic Development?” by Paul Amos, Dick Bullock, and Jitendra Sondhi, July 2010. (

Eating Their Own Cooking

My hat is off to George Greanias, president and CEO of Houston Metro. As reported in the Houston Chronicle on Sept. 28th, Greanias “will require [Metro’s] senior managers to ride a bus or light rail line 40 times per month. Some of these same executives will have to give up their company cars or car allowances.”

Sweden to Add a Second Congestion-Priced City

Gothenburg will soon join Stockholm in charging drivers for access to the streets within its central city. Parliament gave its consent last spring, and the system is expected to begin operations at the beginning of 2013. Net revenues will be used for transportation investment in Gothenburg, including a $2 billion rail tunnel and a $450 million road tunnel. (Public Works Financing, June 2010)

Expand Rural Interstates, Says New AASHTO Report

In the third of its series of reports on the need for added highway capacity over the next several decades, the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials has called for expanding the capacity of existing rural Interstates, upgrading selected rural highways to Interstate standards, and connecting newly urbanized areas to the Interstate system. The report notes that over the next 30 years, 80% of population growth is expected to occur in the South and West, yet the Interstate map was drawn up in the 1940s, for a far different United States. You can download “Connecting Rural and Urban America from

Further Information on Private Commuter Buses

Last month I mentioned the Silicon Valley phenomenon of luxury commuter buses. Shortly after writing that, I came across a report on this topic from ITS Berkeley. Actually, it’s an article by Christine Cosgrove in the Berkeley Transportation Letter, “Private Commuter Buses: Rogue Operation or New Model?” summarizing a 45-page study. You will find it at

New Zealand Agencies Must Consider P3 Alternatives for Large Projects

According to an article in the New Zealand Herald, the country’s Infrastructure Minister, Bill English, announced in August that public agencies that propose infrastructure projects with a life-cycle cost greater than NZ$25 million must consider and evaluate a P3 alternative. This idea could be adapted to U.S. state DOTs as an amendment to existing P3 enabling legislation.

Quotable Quotes

“A Republican majority, elected on a pledge to put an end to runaway [federal] spending and to shrink the size of government might well decide to strip the [reauthorization] legislation of prescriptive programs of a non-essential nature, focus on the core highway program and investments of high national priority, and let states assume responsibility for discretionary programs that meet local political objectives or are primarily of local benefit (and there are lots of those!). In sum, a Republican victory in November foreshadows major changes in the scope of the federal-aid program.”

–C. Kenneth Orski, Innovation Newsbriefs, Vol. 21, No. 21, Sept. 24, 2010 (

“The construction industry, organized labor, and their advocates in Congress have long fed this disconnect by constantly making the debate on federal infrastructure spending all about the dollar amounts spent and the number of jobs created per billion dollars of expenditure-rather than whether the underlying projects are worthwhile in their own right. . . . In one respect, the job creation aspect of construction has been decreasing steadily for the same reason that has disrupted much of the rest of the U.S. industrial economy-automation and the efficiency revolution. During the stimulus debate, those who called for a direct federal workfare program similar to the WPA were rarely taken seriously by those familiar with construction, because the nature of construction jobs has changed so much since the Great Depression. WPA was able to create over 3 million manual labor jobs building roads and buildings because the primary method of earthmoving and aggregate laying at that time was pickaxe, shovel, and wheelbarrow.”

–Matt Bai, “Crisis Past, Obama May Have Missed a Chance,” New York Times, Sept. 6, 2010.

“Government planners can’t accurately predict what we will want or need in the future, so long-range transportation plans may lock agencies into plans and projects that will make no sense. Twenty years ago, no one could have predicted the Internet; or that telecommuters would outnumber transit riders in the vast majority of urban areas; or that intercity bus services (driven by on-line ticket sales) would be growing for the first time in decades; or that FedEx, UPS, and DHL would be making daily deliveries on almost every residential street in America. Just as plans written 20 years ago would be wrong about these things today, plans written today and projected out 20 years from now will also be wrong.”

–Randal O’Toole, “Faith-Based Transportation Planning,” in Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It, Cato Institute, 2009

“It’s not a matter of navigation or no navigation. Choices need to be made everywhere. The fact is that the [waterways] system has become so unproductive and so totally political, instead of focusing on meeting carefully identified needs for the nation. The next WRDA [Water Resources Development Act] is going to have to start asking basic questions about setting priorities, or it won’t have the support it would need to happen.”

–David Conrad, quoted in R. G. Edmonson, “Engineered to Fail,” The Journal of Commerce, Aug. 16, 2010.

“In my opinion, we in the U.S. have for too long failed to truly face up to the fact that the old ways of funding our surface transportation programs are simply not going to work for the future. We now need to decide if we are serious about making private investment and P3s part of the solution to meeting our transport requirements, or see that private capital go to our neighbors in the Americas, such as Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. The U.S. P3 process is seen as costly, politically risky, complicated, and unpredictable by would-be investors. There are currently only five or six major P3 projects under development in the U.S. Canada is expected to close 30 projects this year, and 50% of the infrastructure in Chile is funded by the private sector. Infrastructure remains an attractive asset class, and the U.S. market can represent a significant emerging market to private sector funds if we create a more welcoming environment for private investment.”

–Mary E. Peters, former Secretary of Transportation, “Are We Serious about Public-Private Partnerships in the U.S.?” Infrastructure Investor, October 2010.