Surface Transportation Newsletter #112

Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation Newsletter #112

Highways and bridges are not crumbling, fixing structurally deficient bridges

In this issue:

America’s Highways and Bridges Are Not “Crumbling”

For the last several years President Obama has frequently called for a $50 billion one-time infrastructure program to deal with America’s “crumbling” highways and bridges, a call he repeated in his Feb. 12th State of the Union address. Just a week before, outgoing Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said that “America is one big pothole right now.”

My colleagues and I at Reason Foundation have long called for additional-but wiser-investment in transportation infrastructure. But it’s been hard to square that nuanced position with claims that our infrastructure is in bad shape and getting worse. This week, we released a quantitative study demonstrating that this is not the case. In the new study, “Are Highways Crumbling? State and U.S. Highway Performance Trends, 1989-2008,” Prof. David T. Hartgen and two co-authors review 20 years of federal highway and bridge data (from 1989 through 2008) on seven key indicators of conditions and performance. Overall, the data show substantial improvement on all seven measures (though performance varies considerably by state).

Here is the national summary, showing the percentage change in the indicators over this 20-year period, as well as the level of each indicator in the last year, 2008:

Measure Percent Change 2008 Condition
Rural Interstates in poor condition -70.8% 1.93%
Urban Interstates in poor condition -18.0% 5.37%
Rural arterials in poor condition -79.5% 0.53%
Urban Interstates, percent congested -7.6% 48.61%
Bridges, percent deficient -37.2% 23.72%
Fatality rate per 100 million miles -42.1% 1.25
Rural primary roads, percent narrow lanes -25.4% 9.62%

Overall, this is an excellent track record-for example, reducing the extent of rural Interstates in poor condition by more than 70%, to a new low of less than 2% by 2008. These improvements were made possible by substantial real growth in highway and bridge investment over those two decades. For example, after adjusting for inflation, spending per mile on Interstates increased by 60% in real terms over this period. Per-mile spending increased at even faster rates in high-growth states such as Florida and Texas, both of which have made serious use of toll finance to supplement funds available from federal and state fuel taxes.

There are, however, some dramatic differences in performance among the 50 states. Eleven of those states posted gains on all seven indicators (including Florida, Missouri, and Virginia). Numerous states showed gains on five or six of the indicators. Five states achieved gains in only three of the measures (Hawaii, Mississippi, New York, Utah, and Vermont). And bringing up the rear was California, whose performance improved only on two indicators: urban congestion down 2.1% and narrow rural lanes improved by nearly 48%.

Deficient bridges get a lot of attention, so here I must point out that federal highway statistics on “deficient” bridges include two different kinds of shortcomings. The scary kind is bridges that are structurally deficient; the other (larger) category is functionally obsolete (e.g., having substandard lane-width and/or insufficient lanes). The 2012 Bridge Inventory compiled by Better Roads magazines found 72,114 functionally obsolete bridges at all levels of government and 63,543 structurally deficient ones. While both are important, the structurally deficient ones correctly get greater emphasis from state DOTs.

Table 6 in Hartgen’s report compares the deficient bridge (combined totals) performance of all 50 states. The ones that made the greatest reductions in their backlogs during the 20-year period were, in order, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri, and Alabama. But 10 states, at the bottom of the list, actually showed worse bridge conditions at the end of those 20 years: this dishonor roll consists of OR, SC, OH, UT, AZ, ID, RI, MA, AK, and (bringing up the rear) HI. In terms of the fraction of all bridges listed as deficient in 2008, the worst state is Rhode Island (53.4%), followed by PA (38.7%), HI (38%), and NY (37.1%).

The complete Hartgen report is available at:

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What to Do About Structurally Deficient Bridges

Despite significant progress in reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges over the past 20 years, that progress is no reason for complacency. Yet the condition of federal and state budgets makes it pretty clear that there will be no $500 billion crash program to fix all 63,000-odd bridges still categorized that way. So how do we go about rationally prioritizing bridge investments in this critically important category?

To get a handle on the problem, we first need a little history. The federally aided National Bridge Inspection System began in 1972, in the aftermath of a bridge collapse in Ohio. The primary means used by state DOTs is annual visual inspections by bridge technicians, who may receive as little as three weeks of initial training and a week per year of refresher training. By 2001, after enough questions had been raised about the accuracy and reliability of visual inspection, FHWA published a study called “Reliability of Visual Inspection for Highway Bridges.” ( It found the practice to be subjective and highly variable, with significant differences among different inspectors grading the condition of the same bridge. A 2006 TRB Circular included a paper by Richard Walther and Steven Chase, “Condition Assessment of Highway Structures: Past, Present, and Future,” which concluded that “The key to improving our bridge management and funding allocation tools is to recognize that visual inspection is the limiting variable,” and indicating that reported “condition states are grossly defined and so subjective in nature that accurate quantification of bridge deterioration and its change over time is impossible.” (

The implication of these assessments is that we don’t really know how many of the bridges now listed as structurally deficient actually are. In order to allocate limited bridge repair resources to where they will do the most good, visual inspection needs to be supplemented (or replaced) by better methods. It turns out there is a fledgling industry that employs an array of technologies for this purpose: ground penetrating radar, geotechnical monitoring, static load testing, and ongoing structural monitoring using a combination of in-place sensors, wireless communications, and the internet.

At a recent event that I spoke at in Atlanta, I had a long discussion with the CEO of one of the companies in the Advanced Condition Assessment Technology (ACAT) industry, Peter Vanderzee of LifeSpan Technologies. In follow-up emails, he provided a lot of useful background information on this subject, including-at my request-a list of seven competitors in this industry. (Their names are Advitam, Bridge Diagnostics, Inc., Canary Systems, Chandler Monitoring, GeoComp, Olson Engineering and Instruments, and Smart-Structures.) He tells me that his company and competitors “are finding that 30 to 50% of bridges evaluated are in better to much-better condition than visual inspection initially determined.”

In other words, by using ACAT to supplement or replace visual inspection, state DOTs would gain far more precise measures of which bridges need either replacing, repairing, or can safely be kept in service for much longer, safely (with continued monitoring, of course). Yet the ACAT industry is frustrated, first by what they see as the inherent conservatism of most state DOTs and the lack of any guidance from FHWA on the wisdom of going beyond unreliable, subjective visual inspection.

Three factors may lead to fairly rapid change in bridge inspection practice, though. First is that the MAP-21 legislation requires states to develop “data-driven, risk-adjusted” asset management plans for their highways and bridges. The ACAT industry people think this could shift state DOTs toward more rigorous bridge inspections. A second factor is the ongoing budget crunch, which will force DOTs to figure out how to prioritize spending on everything, including the problem of structurally deficient bridges.

A third factor may be the threat of litigation. Attorney Barry LePatner, author of the book Too Big to Fail, about bridge collapses, makes an aggressive legal argument that in future bridge collapses, plaintiffs could argue that a state DOT that failed to use state-of-the-art condition assessment to spot impending failure could be subject to a finding of gross negligence-which could override normal legal protection offered by a state’s sovereign immunity. His firm has created a website with a 50-state map of the locations of 7,980 bridges that are defined as structurally deficient and are also fracture-critical (i.e., the failure of a single structural member could cause it to collapse). You can click on your state and then zoom in for details on the bridges of this kind that are closest to where you live or work. (

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Intercity Bus Service Continues Rapid Growth

A new report from the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University finds that, once again, intercity bus service outpaced all other modes of intercity passenger travel in 2012, with overall growth of 7.5%, compared with 3% for intercity rail and less than 1% for scheduled airlines. The total number of daily, schedule departures by intercity bus lines grew from 3,608 at the end of 2011 to 3,879 by the end of 2012.

While traditional carriers, such as Greyhound and Peter Pan are still the largest in overall volume, their growth was only 1.4% in 2012. As in each previous year since 2006, the majority of the growth came from what the report describes as discount carriers, typified by BoltBus and Megabus, each of which launched many new routes. This discount sector grew by 30.6% last year. Note that this report, and the Chaddick Institute’s Intercity Bus Database, excludes “Chinatown” operators and other small operators that often do not provide scheduled service. It does include 92 scheduled operators, of which 15 are categorized as Discount and the balance are Conventional.

Figure 2 in the report shows notable 2012 new routes by conventional carriers Greyhound and affiliates, Peter Pan, and Trailways. Greyhound Express launched new routes linking several major Florida cities to Atlanta, and linking Atlanta to Birmingham, Jackson, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. It also linked Oklahoma City to Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. It added new routes in the Midwest as well as service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Sacramento, San Jose, and San Francisco.

In the discount category, BoltBus created a Pacific Northwest division, with services linking Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. And Megabus launched new routes in the Texas triangle (competing with Greyhound Express) and in California (likewise), as well as new routes linking Nashville to Dallas via Little Rock, Atlanta to Memphis via Birmingham, and Nashville to Chicago via Louisville. Smaller discount carriers offered new routes in the Northeast and the South.

An appendix to the report discusses various corporate and regulatory developments in 2012, which make fascinating reading as these companies experiment with new ways of providing service, but are too much for this short article.

If you were to overlay a map of service provided (at significant taxpayer expense) by Amtrak and the total service provided by the intercity bus industry, I’m sure you would find that nearly all major Amtrak routes now have scheduled intercity bus service, in many cases with competing carriers. Some of these express services offer faster trip times than Amtrak, at least until billion-dollar upgrades of selected Amtrak corridors with mostly federal tax money increase average Amtrak speeds. Yet intercity bus receives no taxpayer subsidies. For some historical reason, these carriers pay a lower federal diesel fuel tax than do trucks, but eliminating that differential would make hardly any difference to the economics of intercity bus.

In other words, there is a very real transportation policy question that Congress should be asking. At a time when the unsubsidized, taxpaying intercity bus industry is growing steadily and meeting the demand for scheduled intercity passenger transport, why should scarce federal tax money be spent on Amtrak’s intercity routes (apart, perhaps, from the Northeast Corridor, where that service has the potential of at least covering all of its operating costs)? This question needs to be asked when Congress turns to reauthorization of the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIA) this year.

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The Waterways Funding Model Is Broken: Will Congress Fix It?

America’s waterways are important arteries for shipping bulk commodities. That system consists of 12,000 miles of river channels in 27 river systems, with 207 lock chambers at 171 lock sites. The average age of federal locks is 60 years, and more than 10% were built in the 19th century. Many have chambers only 600 feet long, about half the length of a modern lock; that short length requires many barge tows to be broken up into segments, significantly delaying their movement. In addition to aging and obsolete locks, many of the river channels regularly silt up and require dredging.

Operation and maintenance of this entire system is the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. And needless to say, the funding system is a politicized mess. Unlike the railroads (with which barges compete), the waterway operators have historically put forth economically dubious arguments about the great public benefits the waterways provide to argue for mostly federal taxpayer funding. So when the barge industry touts its freight movements as being so economical, that’s because the government’s hand is leaning heavily on the scale, disguising the true cost of building the locks, and operating and maintaining the whole system. Barge operators do pay a small tax on diesel fuel which goes into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. That fund pays for half the cost of large construction projects; federal taxpayers (you and I) pay the other half. In addition, federal taxpayers cover 100% of the operating and maintenance costs of the entire waterways system. Last year the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee estimated that, overall, waterways users pay for only 8% of the total annual costs of the system-compared with 100% for railroads and close to that for air carriers.

T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster has promised action this year to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act; hearings on doing this have already begun in the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. Several bills have been proposed that would tweak the status quo, for example by modestly increasing the barge diesel tax. But bolder change is in the wind, because at least some waterways user groups have become frustrated by the agonizingly slow process of getting the Army Corps to replace obsolete locks and the huge gap between the investments they would like to see and what they credibly fear will be shrinking federal general funding in the years ahead.

Last month an amazing document arrived in my email. It was the executive summary of a study done by the Texas Transportation Institute called “New Approaches for U.S. Lock and Dam Maintenance Funding,” January 2013. It was commissioned by a waterways user group, the Soy Transportation Coalition. While carefully documenting the dire condition of the waterways and their locks, it analyzes several alternatives to the status quo. One is based on the principle that “a predictably good inland waterways system is better than a hypothetically great one.” In other words, instead of continuing to advocate for large numbers of costly lock replacements, the available dollars would go a lot farther if invested strategically in preventive maintenance-which the report terms a “repair and sustain” approach.

Even more impressive is the report’s review of how major port and waterways projects are paid for overseas. As in the private sector, such major capital are financed-i.e., revenue bonds are issued, to raise the capital for a new lock, waterway, or port facility up-front, and the bonds are paid off from user-fee revenue. The report describes how the Panama Call expansion is being financed this way, as well as the Belgium Deurganck Lock project at the Port of Antwerp. These projects are even described as using “a toll approach” to generating the revenue.

And this report is not the only straw in the wind. A 2012 report by the Corps’ own Institute for Water Resources offered a possible new approach to waterways funding, under which public-private partnerships would be created to improve, operate, and maintain infrastructure for individual waterway segments. “Financing for these actions would be secured in private capital markets with revenues to repay the financed activities earned from a combination of vessel user fees (segment fees or lockage fees) and appropriations.” Such waterways PPPs already exist in France, by the way.

Do you hear an old paradigm cracking down the middle? I think I do. And I hope the waterways user community will unite around these kinds of ideas, since the old model is not delivering the kinds of investment needed to modernize U.S. waterways.

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DC Area Residents Prefer Express Toll Lanes

Thanks to a grant from the FHWA’s Value Pricing Program, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board and the Brookings Institution conducted a series of detailed workshops to explore area residents’ reactions to several forms of congestion pricing. More than 300 people took part overall in the five workshops, each taking up half a day. After background briefings on the extent and nature of traffic congestion and a primer on how highways are funded, participants were presented with three potential forms of congestion pricing:

Scenario 1: variably priced lanes on all major highways, such as those that had just gone into operation on the Capital Beltway.

Scenario 2: pricing on all major roads and streets-basically a VMT fee to replace the gasoline tax.

Scenario 3: priced zones, i.e., cordon pricing as in central London and central Stockholm.

The several accounts I’ve read pretty much agree on participants’ reactions. By far the most popular was Scenario 1-express toll lanes. The more this scenario was discussed, the more support it developed, ending up with 60% in favor and 31% opposed. Participants also appreciated the synergy possible between a network of priced lanes and region-wide express buses (BRT) using that uncongested network. The VMT charge, Scenario 2, was the least popular, and got less and less support the more it was discussed, ending up at only 10% in favor and 86% opposed. How much of this was due to it being presented in a way that stimulated Big Brother surveillance fears is hard to tell from the accounts I’ve read, but this finding should serve as a serious caution light to mileage-based user fee advocates (myself among them) that the “all-purpose GPS box in every car” approach is not going to fly. Scenario 3, cordon pricing, apparently attracted less interest either pro or con than the other two, but ended up with 50% in favor and 34% opposed.

This was a worthwhile exercise, and we clearly need a lot more discussions with the motoring public, both to get people to understand why the current funding system is beginning to fail and to understand what the alternatives are.

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Upcoming Conferences

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

Realistic Solutions to America’s Transportation Problem, Feb. 21, Georgia Tech College of Business (Rm. 101), Atlanta, GA (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details at:

Innovations Conference on Asphalt & Transportation, April 2-3, Par-a-Dice Hotel, East Peoria, IL (Robert Poole speaking). Details at

Transportation Finance & Mileage-Based User Fee Symposium, April 14-16, Doubletree Philadelphia City Center, Philadelphia, PA (Adrian Moore speaking). Details at:

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News Notes

Federal Court Zaps Biofuels Mandate. The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit overturned the EPA’s mandate that large quantities of “cellulosic ethanol” be produced and blended into gasoline. The ethanol industry was unable to produce any meaningful quantities of such fuel in either 2011 or 2012, and hence was forced by EPA to purchase “waiver credits” for failing to comply with the mandate.

Electronic Tolling Interoperability Advances in the East. December brought an announcement that users of Sunpass in Florida and Quick Pass in North Carolina will be able to use their transponders in the others’ territory starting in July. The move is the first step toward full interoperability between Florida and all 15 states in the E-ZPass territory in the Northeast and Midwest, since North Carolina has implemented interoperability with E-ZPass as of January 3rd. Georgia’s State Road & Tollway Authority is also moving toward E-ZPass interoperability. Both the Alliance for Toll Interoperability and the I-95 Corridor Coalition played key roles in bringing these developments about, reports

Rethinking Highway Governance. In a challenging new policy study, noted transportation engineer David Levinson of the University of Minnesota suggests it is time to rethink how roads are funded and managed in the United States. The regulated public utility model is already in use in both Australia and New Zealand, and Levinson suggests drawing on their experiences to create such road enterprises in the United States. “Enterprising Roads: Improving the Governance of America’s Highways,” can be downloaded from:

Wisconsin Commission Recommends Funding Plan. Adopting what it called a “balanced approach” to resolve the state’s transportation funding shortfall, the 10-member Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission recommended increasing existing highway user taxes, thereby retaining the user-pays principle, while calling on its congressional delegation “to support federal legislation that would allow states more flexibility to toll on the National Highway System.” Their report is available at:

Florida DOT Proposes More Regional Toll Agencies. Florida DOT’s legislative package for the 2013 session continues the state’s increasing reliance on tolling and public-private partnerships. Embracing a 2012 recommendation from the Reason Foundation, the legislation would permit the creation of new regional (multi-county) toll agencies in those urbanized areas of the state currently lacking them, such as Northwest Florida and the Suncoast area north of Tampa. The Miami, Orlando, and Tampa areas have well-established toll agencies, while the Jacksonville area and Southwest Florida already have such agencies on paper, to be activated when the need arises.

Rethinking the Benefits and Costs of Fossil Fuels. Noted environmental scholar Indur M. Golkany has written a thoughtful policy paper on the role that fossil fuels have played in human civilization. “Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity” is worth reading as we continue working to develop policies to minimize the negative externalities from fossil fuel use. The paper is Policy Analysis No. 715 from the Cato Institute, released Dec. 20, 2012. (

New Honorary Members of IBTTA. Jack Finn of HNTB and Ken Philmus of Xerox Corporation have been named Honorary Members of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, the organization announced on January 28th. Both have spent decades advancing the case for toll finance nationwide and are highly respected experts in this field. Congratulations Jack and Ken!

Cornell and George Mason Launch Infrastructure Programs. Belated congratulations are in order to two highly respected academics who last year launched infrastructure programs at their universities. Prof. Rick Geddes (who served on the National Surface Transportation Policy & Revenue Commission several years ago and is the author of the excellent book The Road to Renewal) launched the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy to improve the delivery, maintenance, and operation of infrastructure in the United States. ( At George Mason University, Prof. Jonathan Gifford created the School of Public Policy’s Transportation Public-Private Partnership Policy Project, in conjunction with the Virginia Office of Transportation PPPs. ( Gifford is Associate Dean for Research in the GMU School of Public Policy and the author of Flexible Urban Transportation. I look forward to great work from both of these new efforts.

Submerge Kansas Turnpike?. Fiscally conservative Gov. Sam Brownback has put forth a controversial proposal to merge the self-supporting Kansas Turnpike into the state DOT, alleging an unsupported $15 million per year in operating cost savings. I wrote a critical assessment of this proposal, which you can read at:

PPP Toolkit Now Online at FHWA. FHWA’s Office of Innovative Program Delivery has unveiled its new Public-Private Partnership (P3) Toolkit, which includes seven informative fact sheets (on topics such as Value for Money Analysis) and three P3 Evaluation Primers, as well as an Orientation Guide, an analytical tool called P3 Value, and a set of FAQs. Go to:

Update on to January Article. Mike Hancock, Kentucky’s Secretary of Transportation, emailed me in response to last month’s article about recent toll-financed bridge projects. He emphasized that Kentucky’s decision to procure its new bridge conventionally, rather than using toll finance, was not because it lacks P3 or tolling legislation but was rather because “our choice of delivery model was deemed best for our state.”

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Quotable Quotes

“I don’t think [market pricing] is a concern [with the I-495 Express Lanes] at all. That was the deal to begin with-everybody knew. First of all, you don’t have to use it. There is a parallel free roadway still there. And secondly, the deal right from the get-go was no cap on the tolls, and the operator is going to manage those tolls to keep the road congestion-free. So if you don’t like the tolls, tough beans. It’s not like anything has been taken away-it’s an add. And the politicians are protected because there is nothing they can do about it anyway. That deal’s been signed. So I don’t see price as a problem. There may be some people who make a little fuss about it, but I don’t think that is in any way a threat to the viability of the project or of doing things of this nature in the future.”
-Ronald F. Kirby, Transportation Director, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Public Works Financing, December 2012

“Why should we oppose a tunnel option that removes no trees, no homes, no natural features? Why should real environmentalists oppose an alternative which would help relieve horrific neighborhood cut-through congestion, while reducing fuel consumption and pollution, allowing our next generation of hybrids and electric vehicles to operate more efficiently? . . . I have always very strongly opposed the surface I-710 alternatives which would do terrible damage to our historic communities and urban environment. But the half-truths and outright lies I’ve heard lately about the 710 tunnel option appear to be based on emotionalism and hype, not facts. . . . I’m a pro-jobs environmentalist who strongly supports consideration of the tunnel alternative.”
-Bob Huddy, former SCAG transportation planner, “710 Freeway Coalition Weekly Update,” Dec. 14, 2012

“Congress could close the [budget] gap by just spending no more money than it takes in. As it happens, the annual [Highway Trust Fund] deficits are roughly equal to the amount Congress diverts to non-highway projects, so it is not that highways aren’t paying for themselves; they just aren’t paying for the pork Congress wants on top of roads. It is ironic if not hypocritical for highway opponents to insist on diverting billions of dollars from gas taxes to transit and other non-highway programs and then proclaim that such deficit spending proves that highways are subsidized.”
-Randal O’Toole, “Will Vehicle-Mile Fee Be a User Fee or a Tax?” Cato at Liberty, Jan. 22, 2013

“Today, the private sector helps deliver excellent public transit in many cities. In fact, some 20% of transit systems today contract out all or portions of their operations to the private sector. That’s up from less than 10% in 1998. I am not referring to outsourcing payroll or other administrative services, which is a small step that won’t fix the broader problem. Professional transportation providers can deliver high-quality bus and rail service at lower cost, preserving and creating well-paying jobs with good benefits. Their size, years of experience, systems, technology, and business processes enable them to create efficiencies that make their service more affordable. To take one example, the city of Denver contracts over half of its transit system and realizes savings of 26%. The Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida estimates that private contractors average 25% savings over the public sector.
-Tom Downs, “The Best of Both Worlds in Transit,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 12, 2012

“Instead of pouring money into subsidies and direct production support of existing, inefficient green energy, President Obama should focus on dramatically ramping up investments into the research and development of green energy. Put another way, it is the difference between supporting an inexpensive researcher who will discover more-efficient future solar panels-and supporting a Solyndra at great expense to produce lots of inefficient, present-technology solar panels.”
-Bjorn Lomborg, “Climate-Change Misdirection,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24, 2013

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