- Congestion still a major problem
- Amtrak’s future up for debate
- Could the Jones Act be repealed?
- Toll road ramp-up periods
- Seattle’s next Lake Washington bridge project
- Upcoming Conferences
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
The 2012 Urban Mobility Report, dated December 2012, was released last month by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which again produced it in cooperation with traffic data from INRIX. Overall, as the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession, congestion is inching up slightly, but does not approach the peaks it reached in 2005-07. Overall travel delay due to congestion totaled 5.5 billion hours, the same as the previous year, with average delay hours per auto commuter up slightly and the cost of wasted time and fuel increasing from $120 billion to $121.2 billion (compared with a peak of $131.2 billion in 2007).
There are some changes in rankings of the largest urban areas. On a per-commuter basis, the annual figures for the top five metros are as follows:
The rankings are a bit different when it comes to the aggregate effects on the urban area, where the total impact is more directly related to total urban area population:
|Total Delay Hours
|Total Congestion Cost
One of the things managed lanes research has discovered in recent years is that many commuters are willing to pay not only for time savings but also for significantly greater reliability of trip times. So I am glad to see that the report includes a new index. In addition to the now-familiar freeway travel time index (the ratio of average trip time during peaks compared with uncongested non-peaks), the report now includes a freeway planning time index (the ratio of the amount of time you need to allow to be sure of reaching your destination on time X% of the time, compared with the uncongested trip time). On this measure, the results show some surprising differences:
PTI80 measures how much time you need to allow to be sure of reaching your destination on time 80% of the time. So as you can see, although the DC metro area has a travel time index of 1.38 (meaning a trip averages 38% longer during peak periods than at off-peak times), its PTI of 2.58 means you need to allow 2.58 times as much as the uncongested trip time to be sure you get there by your desired time 80% of the time. And note how three smaller metro areas-Austin, Honolulu, and Portland-are in the top five for most- unreliable trip times during peak periods. With their combination of high TTI and high PTI, all three would be good candidates for priced managed lanes.
Also released in February was a report from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) on commuting times in 2011. While the main focus of “Out-of-State and Long Commutes: 2011” is what the title implies, this report provides some useful context for the Urban Mobility Report. Figure 1 shows national average one-way commute times (all modes) from 2000 through 2011. As author Brian McKenzie notes, “[n]ational average travel time fluctuated little between 2000 and 2011”-indeed, it bounced around a bit between 25 and 26 minutes, with no overall trend.
Based on data in the last several Commuting in America reports, as well as recent work by Peter Gordon of USC, the explanation for this stability (which extends back into the 1990s) seems to be the continuing suburbanization of jobs and relocation of people’s residences, as employers and employees adapt to chronic urban congestion by relocating. This kind of spontaneous decentralization within urbanized areas is the opposite of what many planners continue to call for-and seek to accomplish by larger subsidies for transit and zoning for higher densities. But it looks to me as if decentralization is winning out, as indicated by the remarkable stability of commute times, despite both chronic congestion and “smart growth” planning efforts.
Five years ago, Congress enacted the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008, a five-year reauthorization of Amtrak. So PRIIA reauthorization is on the agenda of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee this year. And that explains why we have seen a growing number of articles and policy papers on Amtrak’s future in recent months.
I had high hopes for the report released earlier this month by the Brookings Institution. Though its title, “A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail,” raised a caution flag, I hoped that this wording implied at least a recognition that with the federal government under enormous fiscal stress, Amtrak should be refocused on the commuter and short-haul (under 400 mile) routes where it loses the least taxpayer money. And the report does acknowledge this, noting that “short-distance routes are the engines of Amtrak ridership,” accounting for 82.9% of its ridership last year, and nearly all the increase since 1997 (the trough of Amtrak ridership since its creation). The report further notes that “only ten metropolitan areas are responsible for almost two-thirds of Amtrak ridership.” And it documents the increased trend of recent years for states that host these relatively popular routes to help subsidize them.
When it comes to the long-distance routes, which are money sinks, the report switches gears. Instead of talking about operational efficiency, it claims these routes are the “geographical equity portion of the network,” even though they handle only 17% of total passengers while racking up 43% of operating costs. But cut them out in order to make the rest of the system closer to self-supporting? Unthinkable! These routes provide “unique national connectivity,” ignoring the far larger role of scheduled intercity bus service-a mode that goes completely unmentioned in the report.
Along the way, I’m sad to report, the Brooking report perpetuates a number of myths about Amtrak. Here are several of them.
Myth #1: “Amtrak boasts 75% of the share of the passenger rail/aviation market between New York and Washington.”
FACT: But Andrew Selden, Vice President for Law & Policy of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, points out that according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, “Amtrak holds a market share for intercity travel in the Northeast Corridor [NEC] of well under 2%.” The Amtrak figure repeated by Brookings omits both passenger car and intercity bus passenger miles. Selden also notes that Amtrak’s load factor even on its premium-service Acela trains is only 50%, and conventional train NEC load factors are only 40%. So Amtrak can’t sell more than half the capacity it currently offers in this, its best corridor by far.
Myth #2: “Amtrak ridership grew by 55% since 1997, faster than other major travel modes, and now carries over 31 million riders, an all-time high.”
FACT: In a recent brief for Cato Institute, Randal O’Toole notes that using 1997 as the base year distorts the comparison, since that was the low point in Amtrak ridership. Going back to 1991, Amtrak passenger miles have increased only 8% between then and 2012, during which time airline passenger miles increased 68%. Amtrak’s share has also declined when measured per capita (passenger miles divided by population). In 1991 Amtrak’s annual ridership averaged 25 miles per person; today it has declined to 22 miles per person. That compares to 1,800 miles of air travel per person in 2012 and 4,200 miles of intercity passenger car travel per person. Overall, Amtrak carries just 0.36% of intercity passenger travel today, compared with 0.45% in 1991.
Myth #3: “Operating balance” vs. profitability.
FACT: Instead of measuring Amtrak by the normal accounting rules of profit and loss, the Brookings report measures the routes in terms of “operating balance”-meaning operating revenues vs. direct operating costs. O’Toole notes two big problems with this. On the revenue side, state subsidies are included along with passenger fares. And on the cost side, the report accepts Amtrak’s screwy accounting that treats maintenance as a capital cost and therefore excludes it from operating costs. Even with all those flaws, of the 28 short-haul routes that Brookings touts as (together) showing a positive operating balance, only three are actually positive, with the revenue from the NEC carrying the other 25 loss-makers.
Myth #4: “Washington’s historically outsized support of other transportation modes.”
FACT: This throwaway line alludes to many rail advocates’ distortion of the meaning of federal subsidies (equating total dollars spent with “subsidy”). But a subsidy is a grant of general tax money to cover the difference between what a transportation mode generates itself (in fares and user taxes) and its total capital and operating costs. The DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics published a landmark report on this in 2004, quantifying the extent of federal subsidy per passenger mile (1990-2002) for each mode of intercity passenger travel (though leaving out intercity bus, which gets very close to zero subsidy). The results were as follows:
|per thousand passenger miles
|per thousand passenger miles
|per thousand passenger miles
(The reason the highways figure is negative is that the feds collected slightly more in highway user taxes than they spent on highways.)
I report all this in sorrow, as a life-long railfan who has ridden passenger trains on every continent except Asia. I have high hopes for the privately funded passenger service, All-Aboard Florida, under development in this state by Florida East Coast Railway, and will probably use it for trips to Orlando, if it proves competitive with (not very good) airline service. But Amtrak in its current form has proved to be a costly failure. At the very least, Congress should stop the bleeding by terminating its long-haul routes, and relying more on the states to support those short-haul corridors they think worth subsidizing.
I’m not sure how many readers are aware of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, generally known as the Jones Act. For 90 years, this piece of protectionist legislation has been a politically sacred cow. It requires that all water-borne shipping from one U.S. port to another-whether along inland waterways, along coastwise routes, or between the mainland and Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico-be provided only via U.S.-made vessels, owned by U.S. companies, and operated by U.S. crews. The original rationale for this was national defense-but post-World War II, the military has made voluntary deals with major U.S. airlines to make certain planes available in times of military need, and the same could be done for ocean vessels. Today, the Jones Act is supported mostly by the seafarers unions and the dwindling number of companies that own and operate Jones Act ships.
The consequences of this legislation are many, and nearly all negative. My MIT classmate William Hockberger (naval architecture) described the impact on the U.S. marine industry to me this way:
“Our coastal and seagoing fleet is pathetic, along with the marine industry that is supposed to provide and sustain it, as a result of the ‘protection’ that has prevailed for most of our country’s existence. If ship operating companies could buy ships on the open market, if shippers could use ship services provided by any company in the world (subject to some basic rules regarding human and environmental safety), if the money to buy the ships could come from anywhere, and crews didn’t have to be mainly U.S. citizens, we could have a marine industry much larger than it is and the economics would be very different. The cost of using a ship [versus some other mode] would be much lower, and in many cases a ship would be the preferred alternative.”
The very high costs resulting from the Jones Act have basically killed nearly all proposals for so-called “marine highway” shipping. Recent reports from the Maritime Administration, the Congressional Research Service, and the Center for Commercial Deployment of Transportation Technology have all blamed the high costs imposed by the Act for the lack of progress in coastwise shipping.
Other victims of the Jones Act are the people and industries of Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, who pay what amount to monopoly prices for transportation of the food, consumer products, and energy that must be shipped in from the mainland.
And then there are U.S. ports and waterways. The Jones Act also applies to all dredging vessels, ballooning the cost of maintenance dredging of inland waterways and deepening of major harbors.
Although the Jones Act has long been a sacred cow, there are several straws in the wind suggesting that change might be possible. Last November Honolulu attorney John Carroll filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government, arguing that the Act violates the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and subjects Hawaiians to a shared monopoly on shipments of imported goods. It seeks damages and a halt to enforcement of the Act.
Last month Americans for Tax Reform took up the cause, arguing that the Jones Act should be repealed because, among other things, it is driving up the cost (and reducing the extent) of shipping gasoline by water from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast.
And then there is the proposed free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union. Among the items on the agenda for this proposed deal, according to The Economist, is to eliminate the protectionist restrictions on shipping imposed by the Jones Act.
As I noted in last month’s issue, Congress is planning to enact a new Water Resources & Development Act this year, dealing with both harbors and inland (as well as coastwise) waterways. This would be a good opportunity to tackle the reform or repeal of the Jones Act, a precondition for new investment in America’s maritime industry.
I see it happening again and again. A new toll road or express lanes facility opens up, and a few weeks later the media report that it’s a failure, because not very many drivers are using it. Most of the time, low early traffic simply reflects the time it takes for all potential customers to try out the new roadway and decide if the improved travel is worth the cost of the toll charge. It makes a lot more sense to take a careful look after a year or so, during the later stages of what toll people call the “ramp-up” period.
A classic case of media frenzy was the opening of the express toll lanes (converted from former HOV lanes) on a stretch of congested I-85 in metro Atlanta, in October 2011. Initial tolls were way too high, and the shift from HOV-2 to HOV-3 (fully justified by the previous failure of the lanes to meet FHWA performance requirements) led to a lot of annoyed former HOV-2 commuters initially staying in the congested general-purpose lanes. The first month saw an average of only 7,273 daily (weekday) trips, reflecting both driver unfamiliarity and too-high tolls. But fast-forward to October 2012 and the picture looks much brighter. The tolling algorithm is now working fine, average weekday trips climbed to 17,701, and the average toll per trip was just $1.51.
SANDAG in January announced results for the first full year of operations of its expanded (four lanes, 20 miles) I-15 Express Lanes between San Diego and Escondido. Prior to this project, average travel time on I-15 in this corridor was about 40 minutes; thanks to the Express Lanes, it is down to about 30 minutes. Both carpool use and transponder use are at all-time highs. Work is under way for the 2014 debut of new Bus Rapid Transit service using the Express Lanes, via direct access ramps from adjacent stations with park and ride lots.
Maryland’s InterCounty Connector is a kind of express toll lanes on steroids, in that it is an 18-mile, variably priced, all-electronic toll road linking I-270 on the west with I-95 and U.S. 1 on the east, north of and parallel with the northern portion of the highly congested Beltway. Data on traffic and revenue for the first 10 months of toll operations were released in December. They showed a steady increase in use, up 46% in the nine months from January through September. Weekday traffic by that point was running in the mid-30,000s, not a huge amount for a six-lane facility, but fairly close to traffic projections, considering that the final two miles between I-95 and U.S. 1 are still under construction. Time savings are somewhat less than expected, due to the 55 mph speed limit in effect during 2012, which is now being increased.
Given these results, I’m not dismayed that the first six weeks of operations on the new I-495 Capital Beltway Express Lanes in northern Virginia showed that initial daily traffic of around 15,000 had increased to around 24,000 by January, with 93% paying tolls and 7% getting free passage as HOV-3 carpoolers. According to Dr. Gridlock in The Washington Post (January 13th), the toll to go the full 14 miles ranged between a low of $1.65 and a high of $3.70, hardly the sky-high tolls that some had predicted. Needless to say, we will have a much better idea of how these lanes are doing when they reach their first anniversary late this fall.
There are two major bridges across Lake Washington, linking Seattle to Bellevue, Redmond, and other eastern cities in the Puget Sound metro area. The floating bridge that carries SR 520 across the lake is in bad shape and needs to be replaced. After several years of effort, Washington State DOT was able to persuade the legislature and opinion leaders that the $4.1 billion cost of the replacement bridge was so high that toll financing was needed to pay for part of the construction cost. And given the high levels of peak-period congestion experienced on the existing bridge, they opted to use variable pricing and all-electronic tolling. Tolling on the existing 520 bridge was allowed to begin prior to the start of construction on the new bridge, to raise more of the needed cost from toll revenue. And with all those decisions under way, voters rejected an anti-tolling ballot measure in 2011, indicating majority support for the 520 tolling.
About six weeks ago I got a call from a Seattle reporter seeking my comments on the latest tolling proposal. WSDOT is now considering putting tolls on the I-90 bridge, to which a portion of rush-hour traffic has shifted to avoid the tolls on the 520 bridge. The tolling is primarily to help fund the still-unfunded portion of the 520 construction cost, which TollRoadsNews.com put at $1.4 billion in a Feb. 11th article. The reporter asked if this was unprecedented, and I told him that the only similar case I knew of was for the Midtown Tunnel project in Norfolk, VA, where tolling of two existing tunnels is helping to pay for a third, new one.
What the reporter did not tell me was another element of the I-90 proposal. In addition to charging tolls on the unimproved I-90 bridge, the current plan is to use 26% of the bridge right of way for a new light rail line across the lake. The I-90 bridge consists of two floating spans: one has three westbound lanes plus two reversible HOV lanes and the other has three eastbound lanes. No additional lanes are in prospect.
This strikes me as a very bad deal for the 160-200,000 commuters who use the I-90 bridge each weekday. Not only will they have to pay tolls for the same old bridge, but they will have two fewer lanes to handle their traffic, due to the lanes (presumably the two reversible HOV lanes) being taken for the light rail line, which few will be able to use conveniently (i.e., door to door, like they can their cars).
A far better alternative is staring WSDOT in the face: convert the HOV lanes to reversible priced express lanes, with as much Bus Rapid Transit service as the market will bear. With fast, reliable trip times, BRT would be very competitive with driving in the congested general-purpose lanes, and drivers willing to pay for a faster, reliable trip would gain access to the express lanes, as well. That would be a win-win for motorists and transit riders alike. Here’s hoping that WSDOT’s Environmental Assessment on the project, just getting under way, will give full consideration to this cost-effective alternative.
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.
Innovations Conference on Asphalt & Transportation, April 2-3, Par-a-Dice Hotel, East Peoria, IL (Robert Poole speaking). Details at http://icat.bradley.edu.
Transportation Finance & Mileage-Based User Fee Symposium, April 14-16, Doubletree Philadelphia City Center, Philadelphia, PA (Adrian Moore speaking). Details at: www.ibtta.org/events.
RAND Primer on Mileage-Based User Fees. Paul Sorensen, Liisa Ecola, and Martin Wachs of RAND Corporation have produced a very useful primer called “Mileage-Based User Fees for Transportation Funding.” In plain English, it covers the basics of why a shift from fuel taxes to MBUFs is needed, what most of the likely alternatives are, what pilot programs have been done or are under way, and some promising strategies for making progress. My one complaint is that the report implicitly accepts the premise that the end goal is a single, all-purpose system rather than a possible multi-tier system (e.g., all-electronic toll collection for limited-access highways and an odometer-based charge for all other miles). “Mileage-Based User Fees for Transportation Funding” is available at www.rand.org/pubs/tools/TL104.html.
LA Opens Managed Lanes on I-10. LA Metro’s second express lanes project opened last month on the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10). The project converted the former El Monte Busway HOV lanes (one each direction) to two express toll lanes each way. Free passage is available to HOV-3 vehicles, discounted trips to HOV-2 vehicles, and variable-price trips to everyone else. Like LA Metro’s first express lanes on I-110, which opened last fall, the 10 Express Lanes require all users to have a switchable transponder to indicate how many people are in the vehicle on each trip.
Priced Managed Lanes Primer Now Available. The Federal Highway Administration has released its new Priced Managed Lanes Guide, a much-needed handbook for transportation planners, state DOTs, MPOs, and others interested in state-of-the-practice information on this important tool for congestion relief. You can download it from: www.ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/fhwahop13007/fhwahop13007.pdf.
Toll Interoperability Planned for Texas and Oklahoma. Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and Texas DOT are working to make their electronic toll systems interoperable by next year, according to Tollroadsnews.com (Feb. 15th). This will make it possible for a user of any of the three transponder systems in Texas (TollTag, EZ Tag, and TxTag) to use the transponder on Oklahoma Turnpike facilities, and likewise for Oklahoma PikePass members when they drive in Texas.
Devolving Transit to States and Metro Areas. Demographer and transit researcher Wendell Cox provides a data-filled critique of federally subsidized urban transit in a new Backgrounder from the Heritage Foundation. “Transit Policy in an Era of the Shrinking Federal Dollar” should be read by everyone concerned about the future of transit, whether or not they support the continuation of the current federal role in funding it. Go to: http://report.heritage.org/bg2763.
Turkey Rejects Toll Road Privatization Offer. Turkey’s ambitious plan to lease for 25 years ten toll motorways (totaling 1,425 miles) and several toll bridges is on hold, after the government rejected the winning bid of $5.7 billion as too low. Several commentators, including Rob Bain of RBconsult, faulted the government for bundling the facilities into a single package, rather than offering the motorways separately. In addition to creating a giant monopoly provider, the amount of capital to be raised limited the number of bidders, reducing the amount bid.
Self-Healing Coating for Concrete. The journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces reports on a South Korean development of a self-healing protective coating for concrete pavement. It contains microcapsules that open in the event of a crack, releasing a sealant that is activated by sunlight. The journal is one of a number of publications of the American Chemical Society.
Tampa to Launch MetroRapid Bus Service. Taking a cue from the successful limited-stop “BRT Lite” Metro Rapid service in Los Angeles, Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit has announced the launch of its first MetroRapid route this coming June. As in Los Angeles, the buses will make limited stops, spaced between 2,600 and 4,000 feet (versus 750 to 1,250 foot spacing for regular buses). They will be equipped with GPS and equipment for traffic signal priority.
ICC Speed Limit Increase. Maryland’s variably priced all-electronic toll road, the InterCounty Connector, will have its speed limit increased from 55 mph to 60 mph, the Maryland Transportation Authority announced last month. And it could go even higher, if the General Assembly passes a bill to increase the speed limit to 70 mph, as available on many Interstate highways. A competing bill, however, would mandate the new 60 mph limit.
All LA Traffic Signals Now Synchronized. Last month the City of Los Angeles announced the completion of its $410 million project to coordinate all 4,400 traffic lights citywide. The agency estimates that the new system will increase arterial travel speeds by an average of 12%, reducing the average motorist’s time stuck in arterial traffic by nearly one day per year.
Feedback on Deficient Bridges. Former Kansas DOT Secretary E. Dean Carlson emailed me about last month’s article in which I distinguished between functionally obsolete and structurally deficient bridges, citing the latter as far more urgent to deal with. He pointed out that far more lives are lost each year, on average, from fatal accidents due to functionally obsolete bridges. I have not had the time to look into this, but he suggested the Fatal Accident Reporting System maintained by NHTSA as a source of data.
Map Showing Amtrak and Intercity Bus Routes. In last month’s article on the rapid growth of scheduled intercity bus service, I suggested that it would be useful to have a map comparing Amtrak and intercity bus routes. Reader Daniel Hoff of the American Bus Association pointed me to this map that you can visit online: http://www.aibra.org/pdf/usmap.pdf.
“Amtrak is a prime candidate for the budget guillotine. Deficit reduction should focus on programs that are unneeded, ineffective, or wasteful, lessening the pressure on more valuable activities . . . . Choices need to be made. Sure, if some Amtrak routes can stand on their own, let them be privatized. Sure, if states and localities want to subsidize rail projects-including high-speed rail–let them. After all, the benefits of most transportation projects are local. But the federal government should leave the train business. And it is a business, not a public service, because private markets already provide what Amtrak is selling. Almost anyone riding Amtrak can find other ways to travel (car, plane, bus). The fact that a program so weak has so many defenders is yet more evidence why our budget debates are stuck.”
-Robert J. Samuelson, “The Expensive Amtrak Fantasy,” The Washington Post, March 5, 2013
“Nearly all opponents to vehicle-miles fees express fears that government will invade people’s privacy. But this is a red herring. None of the dozen or so pilot projects that have been planned to date would allow anyone to keep track of where people go or when they go there. All they do is record how much people spend as they use the roads. People concerned about privacy should worry more about telephones and credit cards, where the government actually does invade people’s privacy.”
-Randal O’Toole, “Will Vehicle-Mile Fees Be a User Fee or a Tax?” Cato at Liberty, Jan. 22, 2013
“Federal billions cannot overcome the fact that electric vehicles and plug-in electric hybrids meet few, if any, of real consumers’ needs. Compared with gas-powered cars, they deliver inferior performance at much higher cost. As an American Physical Society symposium on battery research concluded last June, ‘Despite their many potential advantages, all-electric vehicles will not replace the standard American family car in the foreseeable future.'”
-Charles Lane, “The Electric Car Mistake,” The Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2013
“In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Transport Geography, planners Shin Lee and Martyn Senior of Cardiff University found that the evidence for light rail reducing car use is unclear. Lee and Senior discovered that car ownership and car commute share often continue to rise in these corridors, and that ridership growth is often the result of travelers shifting over from buses-not cars. . . . This work makes a good contribution to our understanding of urban transit. . . . For starters, it offers a sound piece of advice: cities considering a light rail system should strongly consider whether improving the local bus system would be cheaper and just as effective.”
-Eric Jaffee, “Does Light Rail Really Encourage People to Stop Driving?” The Atlantic Cities, Feb. 26, 2013
“The CEO of Siemens was a bad example for the President to use [in his State of the Union address]-Siemens is a huge high-speed rail contractor, so of course its CEO would say that upgrading to high-speed rail will create jobs. It would also make his company vastly richer. The President’s statement would have had much more meaning if he had quoted any CEO on Planet Earth other than that of a primary infrastructure contractor. The CEO of InBev Anheuser-Busch would doubtless tell you that a federal program to pay ten million citizens to stay home and drink beer all day instead of going to work would lead to great job creation in the brewery industry-but he’s not exactly an impartial observer, is he? CEOs will say all manner of things if you promise to write them a nine-figure check.”
-Jeff Davis, “President Sends Strong but Contradictory Infrastructure Message in SOTU Speech,” Transportation Weekly, Feb. 14, 2013