Surface Transportation News #144

Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News #144

Improving Virginia's I-66 inside the Beltway | Will Los Angeles get its own P3 law?

In this issue:

Improving Virginia’s I-66 Inside the Beltway

A controversy is raging in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC over Virginia DOT’s proposal to convert I-66 between the Capital Beltway (I-495) and the District of Columbia into a set of HOT lanes. Currently, that four-lane stretch of I-66 operates as HOV-only during morning and afternoon peak period, with only carpools of two or more people allowed to use it. That was a compromise reached decades ago when this last portion of I-66 finally got built, after strenuous political opposition within Arlington County. Part of VDOT’s current proposal calls for-eventually-adding a third lane inbound but leaving just two lanes outbound, and there seems to be grudging acceptance of that by Arlington County politicos.

There are several serious problems with VDOT’s proposal. First of all, it is inconsistent with the emerging network of express toll lanes in the region: already in operation on the I-495 Beltway and on I-95 south of the Beltway, and in prospect for I-66 outside the Beltway and I-395 inside the Beltway. A network should have consistent policies on key features such as occupancy requirements for free passage. The express lanes on I-495, I-95, and planned for I-66 (outside the Beltway) are all HOT-3; it makes no sense for that requirement to change to HOT-2 once the customer crosses a line on the map. Secondly, the other parts of the network offer motorists a choice between a fast and reliable trip for a price and a slower, congested trip for free. No such choice would be offered under VDOT’s proposal for I-66 inside the Beltway.

In addition, the projected peak-period tolls on this project are between $7 and $9 one-way-a clear indication that there is not enough capacity in that corridor. VDOT’s plan calls for adding only an inbound lane “sometime before 2040.” That’s not good enough. I discussed this question with a former top official at VDOT and was told unequivocally that “There is room for three lanes in each direction without taking any [land].” In a few cases this would mean doing without a shoulder for 200-300 feet in order not to have to replace an existing overpass. But there are existing expressways elsewhere-and nearly all tunnels-without shoulders.

As for motorist choice, rather than charging a sky-high price for all lanes, if the corridor were widened to three lanes each way it could offer two-tier pricing, as already exists on PR-22 in Puerto Rico and will soon exist on as many as half a dozen toll roads in Florida. The new lane each way would offer dynamic-priced premium service, while the regular lanes would charge a more modest flat-rate toll during peak periods only. The premium lanes would also be the corridors for express bus/BRT service, which would be faster and more reliable thanks to the dynamic pricing aimed at maintaining Level of Service C (uncongested) traffic flow throughout peak periods.

The Washington Post reported (Oct. 1st) that Virginia House Speaker William Howell and other leading Republicans have criticized the current VDOT plan as “outrageously expensive” for commuters, and called on the governor and VDOT to produce a revised plan that includes adding lanes to this portion of I-66. The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance supports lane additions but opposes tolling. But toll revenue is

needed to pay for the lane additions, which will also provide the “virtually exclusive” guideway for future BRT service in the corridor. The solution is not pricing or lane-additions: it is both.

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Will Los Angeles County Get Its Own P3 Enabling Law?

California has long been seen as having the greatest need of all 50 states for large-scale investment in transportation facilities via long-term public-private partnerships (P3s). Although it enacted the nation’s first P3 law in 1989 (AB 680), that law authorized only a four-project pilot program, which led to only two tolled highway projects being developed. It was repealed in 2002. There was no serious effort to enact a large-scale transportation P3 measure until the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That effort eventually produced SB 4 in 2009, which allowed an unlimited number of projects but included a sunset date of Dec. 31, 2016. Thus far it has yielded only a single project, Phase 2 of the Presidio Parkway.

The problem is embedded in aspects of the law that give too much authority to micromanage P3 projects to Caltrans-which in practice means the unionized Caltrans engineers, members of Professional Engineers in California Government. PECG has opposed P3s from the early days of AB 680, has lobbied successfully to keep design-build from being a routinely used tool for transportation projects, and litigated against the P3 process used for Presidio Parkway. And when the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority embraced P3s in a big way several years ago, the assertion of Caltrans and PECG authority over numerous aspects of their first large project (ARTI) led to its being terminated-and has called into question LA Metro’s plans for even larger P3 projects.

While the P3 community has been lobbying hard to remove the sunset date from SB 4 (which is now Section 143 of the Streets & Highways Code), LA Metro has proposed a new law, Assembly Bill X 1-12, in the current special session of the legislature. It would delegate nearly all the authority for P3 projects in Los Angeles County to LA Metro, allowing it to use its own engineers and outside consultants for project design and development (rather than PECG members), let LA Metro establish its own performance measures for such projects, and “cooperate” via mutual agreement with Caltrans on questions dealing with “design, construction, maintenance, and operation of state highway facilities” in connection with a P3 project. Since these projects would be largely funded by toll revenues and local sales tax revenues, LA Metro would not have to seek approval of each one from the California Transportation Commission.

ABX 1-12 would also grant considerable tolling flexibility to LA Metro, ensuring that toll revenues from its P3 projects would go to it rather than to Caltrans, allowing tolling to continue past the end of a P3 concession agreement, and permitting excess toll revenues to be used for other highway (Title 23) projects in the county. And ABX 1-12 has no sunset date.

This effort at first glance looks like a real long-shot, except for a couple of key factors. First, LA County is solidly Democratic, in a state in which Democrats hold the governorship and large majorities in both houses of the legislature. So it’s conceivable that the legislature could make an exception for this powerful county, despite all-out opposition from PECG (which would still retain its current powers everywhere else in the state).

Second, in response to the idea that a mere county does not deserve to have its own P3 enabling law, consider that at 10.1 million people, LA County is the equivalent of America’s eighth largest state. It is bigger than Michigan (9.8 million), Georgia (9.7), North Carolina (9.5), New Jersey (8.8), and Virginia (8.0). A workable P3 law for LA County could unleash a sizeable pipeline of financeable transportation projects.

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The Senate’s Pathetic Pay-Fors

As we all know, the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) was intended to be fully self-supporting from the various federal taxes paid by highway users, mostly on gasoline and diesel fuel. But for most of the past decade, this user-tax revenue has been about $10 billion a year short of the roughly $50 billion a year Congress continues to spend on highways and transit. Because Congress refuses to set priorities among the myriad programs now funded by the HTF, each time it reauthorizes the program, under current budget rules it must find about $10 billion per year of “pay-fors” somewhere else in the federal budget-a combination of non-transportation spending cuts and revenue increases.

On July 30, 2015 the Senate passed a “six-year” reauthorization bill called the DRIVE Act, and various transportation groups are pushing hard for the House to do likewise. But the pay-fors in the DRIVE Act are a sick joke. First of all, as in prior under-funded bills, Congress counts as pay-fors changes that are supposed to occur over the next 10 years, some of which may never happen because no sitting Congress can bind a future Congress. Second, in the DRIVE Act itself, the alleged 10-year pay-fors provide only enough money to cover the first three of the bill’s six years.

And it gets worse. When the House subsequently passed a short-term extension of current law, it used $8.5 billion of the pay-fors the Senate had been counting on for its six-year bill. The adjusted total of Senate pay-fors, according to an assessment in Eno Transportation Weekly (Oct 2, 2015) is $36.1 billion. But the two biggest items on that grab-bag of spending cuts and revenue increases are highly questionable. Nearly half ($17.1 billion) is supposed to come (over 10 years, remember) from reducing the amount of interest the Federal Reserve pays to banks on funds they deposit with the Fed. A recent Bloomberg News headline notes that “Big Banks [Are] Working Overtime to Tweak Highway Funding Bill” to eliminate this change. The second biggest revenue increase is to sell 101 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve-at an average price of $89/barrel. Good luck with that one! The others are a rag-bag of small-change items, such as continuing the odious practice of shifting the proceeds from a per-passenger TSA tax (heretofore used to partly fund TSA’s budget) to support the HTF instead. Needless to say, airlines and other travel groups are lobbying hard against that pay-for.

This whole process makes a mockery of the users-pay/users-benefit principle on which the federal and state highway trust funds were based. And it threatens the integrity and independence of the Highway Trust Fund, as well. The HTF, like the other federal transportation trust funds, is exempt from across-the-board budget cuts-but only as long as it is at least 90% supported by user taxes and user fees. But for most of the last decade, with Congress using general fund money to cover about 20% of the annual HTF budget, that protection is technically not there. And that means if and when the federal budget is in a real crisis (say, when one of the entitlement trust funds goes belly up, which could happen within the next few years for at least one of them), the HTF itself would be subject to across-the-board budget cuts, instead of being exempted.

I understand why a large majority in both houses is unwilling to vote for an increase in federal fuel taxes: most voters oppose doing that, because they have lost trust in the Highway Trust Fund. But if that is the case, the wiser remedy is to figure out what the most important HTF programs are, fund those, and let the states take over the lower-priority ones, if they think they are still worth supporting. That would preserve the integrity of the HTF and might start rebuilding public trust in this currently mis-named entity.

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What to Make of “Excess Commuting”

Recently geography PhD candidate Daniel Schleith at the University of Cincinnati published a paper in which he calculated the “minimum commute” distance that would be exist in each of the largest 25 metro area if each had “jobs-housing balance.” He defined the difference between that and the actual average commute distance in each of the 25 as “excess commute” distance. He got a small flurry of publicity, and hosannas from various Smart Growth advocates.

But the underlying idea that jobs-housing balance is something that land-use and transportation planning should foster is foolish, for several reasons. First of all, people don’t work at a generic “job,” which is all that such studies can take into account. They seek out job opportunities that are the best fit for their skills, abilities, and desires. Second, people weigh a whole array of factors in choosing where to live, besides one person’s work location: the spouse’s work location, desirable surroundings, good nearby schools, plentiful shopping, recreational opportunities, etc.

Nearly all large metro areas encompass multiple counties. And we know from detailed data on commuting that there are large commuting flows among counties in these metro areas, as people seek out their best job opportunities along with their optimal housing locations. A great example appears in Brief 15 of Commuting in America 2013. Arlington County, VA (across the river from Washington, DC) has had near-perfect jobs-housing balance since 2000. But only 52% of its working residents have jobs in the county. And of all the 574,000 jobs in Arlington County, 272,000 are held by people who live in neighboring counties in Maryland, Virginia, or the District of Columbia. Arlington’s jobs-housing balance does not produce “minimum” commutes.

But if government policy somehow nudged or forced people to accept jobs within the county (or smaller geographical area) in which they lived, the result would be a lower-productivity urban area. That is the basic insight from the economics of urban agglomeration. Large metro areas are highly productive because they enable individuals to find a higher-paying job from a larger array of possible employers. And vice-versa for employers seeking the most-productive employees. More wealth-increasing, positive-sum transactions can take place in a large metro area.

The quality of the transportation system plays a major role in this process. Since most people have an implicit commuting time budget, the farther one can go in, say 30 minutes, the larger the array of accessible employment opportunities. Economists Remy Prud’homme and Chang-Won Lee amassed empirical data showing that when the area that can be reached in a given time period increases by 10%, the region’s economic productivity increases by 1.3%.

So instead of trying to create a meaningless “jobs-housing balance” in an effort to minimize commuting distance, the sensible policy is to focus on minimizing commuting time, so that people can gain access to a far wider array of possible jobs that are the best possible match for them. Longer but faster commutes lead to a more-robust urban economy.

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Tear Down Park & Ride Lots?

Last year Eric Jaffe of Citylab wrote a piece lauding the city of Calgary for planning to largely replace the parking lots at its Anderson light rail station with a mixed-use development. Total parking spaces would be cut from 1,750 to a mere 500. A grand example of transit-oriented development? Or an unwise decision that will reduce transit ridership?

Things look different to transit planners in both Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. LA’s most costly line, the heavy-rail Red Line from downtown to North Hollywood, has a chronic parking shortage at its suburban North Hollywood station. LA Metro estimates that it loses up to 1,500 riders a day, due to the lot filling up by 7:30 AM and people deciding to drive the rest of the way to downtown or wherever else they are heading. Metro plans to add another 200-space parking lot nearby, at an estimated cost of $1.4 million. Building a parking structure would cost many times that sum. But Metro’s chief planning officer Martha Welborn told the Los Angeles Times that “We’ve got to consider [more parking] because of how big and spread out we are.” Overall, half of Metro’s 80 rail stations have no parking.

The San Francisco BART system’s stations are mostly in the suburbs, and some have parking. But it is looking into adding parking structures to as many as a dozen more-urban stations in Berkeley and Oakland. If they build them all, the estimated cost will be $250 million. In Los Angeles, longer-term, Metro hopes to replace the North Hollywood parking lot with a parking structure, via a value-capture project. It aims to sell or lease the land to a developer that would build a mixed-use project including a parking structure for the Red Line station as part of the deal. BART should look into similar possibilities.

In South Florida, where I live, new park & ride lots created by Broward County Transit have been among the factors leading to very impressive ridership growth for relatively new express bus routes between the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale and downtown Miami, using the express toll lanes on I-95. One of those lots has already been outgrown, as express bus ridership continues to increase.

Citylab‘s Jaffe cited a study by Michael Duncan of Florida State University and David Cook of Virginia DOT, analyzing the park & ride lots serving stations on Charlotte’s relatively new LYNX light rail line. They analyzed seven such stations and used data on typical driving distance from homes to each station. For each station they next ran scenarios of what might happen if the park & ride lots were removed. If all the former parkers simply drove all the way to work, the average commuter would drive 9 more miles than at present (going just to the station). If LYNX retained all the riders (somehow), their model showed an average 8.3 mile reduction in drive-alone trips to the station-but that leaves unanswered how they would traverse those 8.3 miles. Not many would walk or bike; most would probably have their spouse drive them to the station. And in fact, the authors believe the scenarios in which most park & ride users give up on transit are the most likely for a suburbanized area like the portion of Charlotte where the stations have park & ride lots.

Overall, in suburbanized America, transit systems will likely be better off with park & ride lots than without them.

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Upcoming Transportation Events

Note: I don’t have the time or the space to list all transportation events that might be of interest to readers of this newsletter. Listed here are events at which a Reason Foundation transportation researcher is speaking or moderating.

U.S. Chamber Eastern Regional Affairs Conference, Oct. 14-16, 2015, Nashville, TN, Loews Vanderbilt Hotel (Adrian Moore speaking). Details at:

2015 American Metropolitan Planning Organization (AMPO) Conference, Oct. 20-23, 2015, Las Vegas, The Westin-Clark County (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details at:

Transportation Crossroads Conference, Nov. 6, 2015, Dallas, TX, Hilton Anatole (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details at:

2015 Infrastructure Investor LP Summit, Nov. 12-13, 2015, New York, NY, Westin Times Square (Robert Poole speaking). Details at:

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News Notes

Florida Scores Dual AASHTO Wins. In the 8th annual American Transportation Awards, administered by the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials, innovative P3 projects by Florida DOT took the top two honors. The Grand Prize (out of 48 candidate projects from 24 states) went to the $863 million Port of Miami Tunnel, developed under a 30-year P3 concession at a fraction of FDOT’s original $1.2 billion cost estimate. And the People’s Choice Award went to the I-595 project, under which this existing east-west expressway near Ft. Lauderdale was rebuilt with the addition of three reversible express toll lanes, under a $1.6 billion, 35-year P3 concession.

Express Lanes Speed Up I-405 in Seattle Area. In just their first week of operation, the 17 miles of express toll lanes on Washington State’s I-405 have had a major congestion-reducing impact. Traffic this October on I-405 is up 9% over last year, but overall travel times on the expressway are less than they were a year ago. That is due to the uncongested new capacity on the express lanes, which WSDOT estimates are saving peak-period commuters who use the lanes 15 to 25 minutes.

Toll Roads Are Thriving, Says Moody’s. In a new report issued on Sept. 1st, Moody’s Investors Service reports that revenues on U.S. toll roads increased by 5.6% in 2014 compared with the previous year. And the number of toll transactions increased by 2.8%. The balance of the increased revenue came from toll rate increases. A trend noted by Moody’s is an increase in the number of toll roads that now increase their rates annually by the amount of an inflation index such as the Consumer Price Index.

New Truck Productivity Proposal. With trucking companies suffering from a serious driver shortage, the idea of being able to haul more freight per driver has obvious appeal. Accordingly, Rep. Reid Ribble (R, WI) has introduced a bill that would increase the maximum gross weight of trucks on the Interstate highway system to 91,000 lbs. (from the current 80,000 lb. maximum). But trucks could only operate at that weight if they include a sixth axle to better distribute the weight and thereby limit pavement damage. As always, the proposal is being opposed by the railroad industry, while being supported by the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, comprising some 200 manufacturers, shippers, and trucking companies.

Beachline to Get Express Lanes, Service Plaza. The popular 54-mile Beachline Expressway toll road connects Orlando to Cape Canaveral and the nearby beach cities. It is currently only two lanes each way, but the Florida Turnpike Enterprise last month announced plans to add one lane each way as express toll lanes, as well as building a full service plaza where customers can refuel, have lunch, and buy souvenirs. The plan is estimated to cost $912 million and to be built in 2022-23.

Electric Cars a Drag on the Market. The resale value of mass-market electric cars indicates their declining popularity in a market characterized by the lowest gasoline prices in years. A report earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal found that a 2012 Nissan Leaf now sells for 72% less than when it was new, and a Chevy Volt sells for 69% less. By contrast, similar non-electric cars have depreciated a lot less. A 2012 Nissan Versa sells for 50% less than its new-car price, and a Chevy Cruz for 54% of its original price.

Toronto Expressway to Be Replaced via P3 Concession. On October 1st, the Toronto City Council voted to proceed with a P3 concession project to replace the aging and obsolete Gardiner Expressway. The estimated cost of the new expressway is $2.9 billion. The concession will be a 30-year design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) agreement. Procurement will be handled by Infrastructure Ontario, the province’s P3 unit. The initial target is to select the preferred bidder in 2016, to be followed by a six-year construction phase.

Megabus and RedCoach Partner with Transit Agency. Tampa’s Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) is partnering with two intercity luxury-bus providers, Megabus and RedCoach, to offer linked services. RedCoach now has Tampa-area stops at the airport, at the University of South Florida, and in downtown, each linked to HART transit routes. And under a recent 5-year agreement between HART and Megabus, the latter is providing express bus service from a local park-and-ride lot to the Marion Transit Center. Both Megabus and RedCoach provide long-distance service to other major metro areas in Florida

Express Toll Lanes for Chicago. New Illinois Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn told the board of the Illinois Tollway that he supports the toll provider’s study of the feasibility of adding express toll lanes to the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290). When he was with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), Blankenhorn supported adding express toll lanes to the Jane Addams Tollway and the proposed Route 53 extension. If any of these projects are approved, they would be the first express toll lanes in the Midwest.

The First Big Box Store in Davis. Davis is the home to the University of California at Davis, and like most university towns, tends to be quite politically liberal/left. Accordingly, when Target proposed building what would be the first “big box” store in the metro area, there was spirited opposition. Eventually, Target overcame that opposition and built the new store. And to many people’s surprise, it has become a very popular shopping destination. This story is related in Access, the quarterly magazine of the University of California Transportation Center, Issue 46, Spring 2015. Well worth reading for insights into the politics of suburban growth. (

Pennsylvania Turnpike Tiptoes into All-Electronic Tolling. Well, better late than never, I guess. The huge Pennsylvania Turnpike has announced a pilot program to try out all-electronic (cashless) tolling at two locations next year: the Beaver Valley Expressway interchange and the Delaware River Bridge in Bucks County. Customers will either use E-ZPass transponders or have their license plate imaged to create a bill.

Twin Cities Express Lanes Network Expanding. Minnesota DOT will open a new MnPass express toll lane project in December, on I-35E between St. Paul and its northern suburbs, with a second phase to follow a year later. Next year they will also begin expanding the existing express lanes on I-35W, in both northerly and southerly directions. In the planning stage are MnPass lanes on I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and five other corridors are being considered for such lanes.

Austroads Report on Private Investment in Truck Access. Can private investment be harnessed to improve highway access for commercial vehicles? That is the subject of a new report from Australia’s Austroads, “Improving Freight Vehicle Access through Direct Private Investment in Public Road Infrastructure.” You can download a PDF of the report at no charge, after registering. I have not read it, but the table of contents looks very interesting. Go to:

Express Lanes Handbook from FDOT. Florida DOT, one of the states that is pioneering express toll lanes, has released a detailed, 60-page Express Lanes Handbook, covering numerous aspects of this relatively new form of highway infrastructure. Go to:

Passenger Travel Facts and Figures 2015. The US DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics has released a 94-page report that provides demographic and economic data that affect the demand for passenger travel, performance data on the passenger transportation system, and energy and environmental factors. The report can be downloaded from:

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Quotable Quotes

“Federal, state, and local policymakers should focus carefully on facilitating movement toward direct user charges. . . . The first and most crucial reform is to adopt new policies that change the way customers pay for road usage, and thus the way America’s road system is funded. The fossil fuel taxes that support the Highway Trust Fund were reasonable proxies for user fees when they were adopted, because the trust fund ensured that those revenues were separated from pressures on the broader budget. That link has eroded over time as more trust fund dollars have been spent on non-road activities, such as transportation museums and bike paths, sometimes referred to as ‘leakage’ or ‘diversion’ out of the trust fund. Such diversion is likely to reduce public support for greater road-user fees in general, thus precluding its social benefits from being realized, which means Congress should focus on reducing or eliminating the diversion of user-fee revenue.”
-R. Richard Geddes, “America’s Transportation Challenges: Proposals for Reform,” American Enterprise Institute, September 2015

“[W]e will continue to have to replace the by-now 60-year-old base [of the Ohio Turnpike]. If we don’t replace and rehab the original structure that’s under our road, you can’t have a smooth ride on top of it, and maintenance costs go up. So we are under way with a 30-year program to replace all 241 miles of the Turnpike.”
-Randy Cole, Executive Director, Ohio Turnpike, quoted in Alison Grant, “Ohio Turnpike’s New Director Sees Driverless Trucks and Other Technological Shifts Around the Bend,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 4, 2015

“[A] huge misreading of trends relates to another key Democratic constituency, the millennial generation. Some progressives have embraced the dubious notion that millennials won’t buy cars or houses, and certainly won’t migrate to the suburbs as they marry and have families. But those notions are rapidly dissolving as millennials do all those things. They are even-horror of horrors-shopping at WalMart, and in greater percentages than older cohorts. Moreover, notes [Trulia’s Jed] Kolko, millennials are not moving to the denser inner-ring suburban areas. They are moving to the ‘suburbiest’ communities, largely on the periphery, where homes are cheaper, and often schools are better. When asked where their ‘ideal place to live’ is, according to a survey by Frank Magid and Associates, more millennials identified suburbs than previous generations. Another survey in the same year, this one by the Demand Institute, showed similar proclivities.”
-Joel Kotkin, “Countering Progressives’ Assault on Suburbia,”, July 10, 2015

“[T]raffic laws that have been created to manage and control human behavior may, in fact, need substantial modification when it’s an algorithm that is being managed so that it delivers the desired behavior. We have ‘stop sign’ laws not because society wants a vehicle to waste energy and time by legally requiring you to come to complete rest and then having to accelerate again. Instead, it has been deemed that, due to human perceptual limitations, the human driver must come to a complete stop in order to properly perceive that in both directions the way is clear to proceed ahead, else there would be a yield sign/law at the intersection. However, if the automated (and certainly the connected) vehicle has the sensory system to know that the way is clear without coming to a complete stop and can certify that knowledge to society, why should society require that vehicle to come to a complete stop? Same is true with speed limits. . . . It is a real shame that we have created a set of traffic laws, each of which has a wink. They are deterministic statements trying to manage and control a vast grey area. Since it will be necessary to have the human and the algorithm coexist, we are going to need to add to traffic laws what it is that society is trying to achieve or regulate.”
-Alain Kornhauser, Princeton University,, July 27, 2015

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