Surface Transportation News #146

Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News #146

The disappointing FAST Act | Commuting, land use, and economic productivity

In this issue:

The Disappointing FAST Act

Congress has finally reauthorized the federal highway and transit program, only 15 months after the previous authorization (MAP-21) expired. On the plus side, it provides reasonably assured funding for five years, at levels that are slightly higher than the projected annual inflation during that period. It also adds two new programs to invest in (mostly highway) freight infrastructure. On the negative side, one of them for the first time allows highway user-tax money to be spent on freight rail and ports, further diluting the users-pay/users-benefit principle.

When it comes to innovative financing, where Congress could have given states significantly more tools, the bill only made tweaks. There is no increase in the current $15 billion limit on issuance of federally tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs), which have been critically important in financing large public-private partnership (P3) projects. And the size of the useful TIFIA program has been cut way back, from $1 billion in the second year of MAP-21 to just $275 million per year for the next two years, increasing to $300 million by year five. That’s not as bad as it sounds, however, since that amount can finance up to $45 billion in new loans over the five-year period, according to Bryan Grote of Mercator Advisors.

In terms of new revenue sources, the bill further disappoints. The tiny pilot program to permit toll-financed Interstate highway reconstruction and modernization still has only three slots, but Congress added a use-it-or-lose-it provision that may motivate one or two of the current slot-holders to get serious about moving forward-or open up one or two slots to willing and able states. But Congress also failed to strengthen the requirements on participating states to ensure that the tolls are purely user fees and not a cash-cow revenue mechanism for their state DOTs.

The other small step forward for highway revenue is a modest funding program for “states to demonstrate user-based alternative revenue mechanisms that utilize a user fee structure”-i.e., mileage-based user fees. Individual states and groups of states are eligible to apply. It provides $15 million per year for next year and $20 million a year thereafter.

What Congress failed to do was to take any steps toward narrowing the sprawling program’s scope to enable its spending to stay within the amount of projected highway user tax revenue. Indeed, they made this problem worse by further expanding the scope of the program-to bridges not part of the National Highway System, more projects on “local roads and rural minor collectors,” and enabling TIFIA to make lots of smaller loans for rural projects. This continues a 50-year trend of adding anything that sounds good to what is supposed to be the federal part of a federal/state/local roadway infrastructure system.

In order to cover the cost of this ever-expanding scope, Congress once again had to come up with “pay-fors”-one-time measures to shift money from other parts of the government into the Highway Trust Fund. The $75 billion worth of pay-fors include two large raids on the Federal Reserve and selling 66 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to raise $6.2 billion (which could only happen if oil went up to $94/barrel-can’t these guys do math?). A recent analysis by Jeff Davis of the Eno Transportation Weekly found that nearly all the spending in this five-year bill will occur in those five years, but most of the pay-fors will take place in years six through ten.

Five years from now, when the FAST Act expires, the federal highway and transit program will be about 16% larger than it is now, and its highway user-tax revenue shortfall will be even greater. And nearly all the available one-time “pay-fors” will have been used. What will Congress do then?

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Commuting, Land-Use, and Urban Economic Productivity

Much of today’s urban transportation planning focuses on transit and “smart growth.” According to this set of ideas, suburbanization (aka “sprawl”) is bad and should be discouraged, while higher density is good and should be increased, so that “we can get people out of their cars” and do other good things like enabling lots more people to walk or bike to work. But what if this set of policies turned out to be a recipe for urban decline?

That is the implication of a pair of detailed papers released in January 2015 by the Marron Institute of Urban Management at NYU, both researched and written by Shlomo Angel and Alejandro Blei. If their analysis is correct (and I think it is), much of current transportation and land use thinking is mistaken.

“Commuting and the Productivity of American Cities” explains the basics of urban agglomeration economics-that we have large urban areas because a large and diversified mix of people and companies enables far more positive-sum transactions to take place (such as individuals finding jobs that best match their skills, and vice-versa for employers). The paper first provides empirical data for 347 U.S. metro areas, finding that the labor market-defined as the actual number of jobs reached in less than a one-hour commute-nearly doubles when the workforce of the metro area doubles. But the increase in commute time is only 7% rather than the expected 41%. They identify three mechanisms that lead to this empirical result: some increases in residential density, locational adjustments of residences and workplaces, and increases in commuting speeds thanks to better transportation infrastructure.

The main implication of this research is that “the more integrated metropolitan labor markets are, the more productive they are.” And therefore transportation policies should promote:

  • Speedier rather than slower commuting;
  • More rather than less commuting; and,
  • Longer rather than shorter commutes.

These policies expand the “opportunity circles” of both employees and job-seekers. But they are the opposite of what those who are promoting “jobs-housing balance” try to achieve: to get people to work closer to where they live, accepting a convenient job rather than the best (most economically productive) job.

The companion paper provides supporting evidence. It seeks to identify which of five possible models of urban form best represents the reality of today’s metro areas. These range from one with the largest fraction of jobs in a traditional central business district to one where jobs and people are in close proximity in small sub-centers across the urban landscape, minimizing commute distances (very high jobs-housing balance). The authors use a stratified sample of 40 of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas to identify how prevalent each of these models is:

  1. Monocentric (one central urban core with the majority of jobs)
  2. Polycentric (a small number of job sub-centers)
  3. Mosaic of many live-work communities (maximum jobs-housing balance)
  4. Maximum dispersal (commutes from everywhere to everywhere)
  5. Constrained dispersal (combination of 2 and 4).

For the 50 largest US metro areas in 2000, the median fraction of jobs in the urban core was 10%, so the monocentric model is a poor fit. Polycentric does somewhat better, with about 25% of jobs in sub-centers plus the CBD. The mosaic of live-work communities does worst of all, accounting for only about 7.7% of jobs. They end up concluding that the constrained dispersal model is the best fit for the actual data, with 75% of actual jobs dispersed, in a hybrid of the polycentric and maximum dispersal models. And while this outcome is not frozen for all time, they point out that “the future of our cities is path dependent,” meaning that they cannot simply be restructured into a different form by fiat.

The authors conclude that the productivity advantages of cities are now metropolitan in scale-specifically, that:

The agglomeration economies associated with clustering-a large and diverse labor pool, knowledge exchange within industries and across different sectors, shared infrastructure, shared inputs, shared services and amenities, a diverse industry mix that reduces economic shocks, and the presence of large internal markets-are all metropolitan in scope rather than pertaining to concentrations of people and jobs within metropolitan areas.

In order not to undercut metro area economic productivity, transportation and land-use policies should enable people and companies to maximize the size of their opportunity circles, by facilitating faster, longer-distance commuting.

Everyone concerned with transportation and land-use policies should read these important papers.

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Trucks and Automation

A recent news article in The Wall Street Journal included this provocative sentence: “Some of the features being added to trucks are similar to those in cars, but generally the move to autonomy in commercial and industrial vehicles is far ahead of the autonomous systems offered on most passenger vehicles.” My reading of both the freight transport media and technology publications leads me to agree.

The U.S. trucking industry is motivated by several driving forces to move into vehicle automation. First, there is a huge and ongoing truck driver shortage, especially for long-haul drivers, so technologies that either make truck driving less stressful or partially substitute for drivers can help with that problem. Second, tougher truck fuel-economy regulations will kick in over the next few years, putting a premium on fuel savings (even if the price of oil remains relatively low).

The initial technologies offer partial automation (Level 2 or 3) that provides driver assistance with such tasks as keeping a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and staying in lane. An example is the Highway Pilot feature now available on Freightliner’s Cascadia Evolution model, and by parent company Daimler’s Actros truck in Germany. Highway Pilot is a truck version of Adaptive Cruise Control, designed to be used on the highway but not in local traffic. If the system cannot see the road markings due to bad weather, or if such guidance clues are absent, the system alerts the driver to take over. A more-advanced version of Highway Pilot is installed on Freightliner’s Inspiration prototype vehicle, which has been licensed to operate on Nevada highways. This version includes on-highway steering, and qualifies as Level 3 automation.

I think the breakthrough application for long-distance trucking will be platooning. That requires Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control, enabled by software and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications among the two or more trucks operating as a platoon. The Federal Highway Administration has funded two test programs for truck platooning. One is run by the University of California’s PATH program, with Volvo Trucks, Cambridge Systematics, and others. The second program is managed by Auburn University, with Peterbilt Trucks, Peloton Technology, and the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). These and overseas platooning tests have documented 10% fuel savings for trailing trucks in a platoon (due to reduced aerodynamic drag) and up to 5% fuel savings for the lead truck (for the same reason). A separate FHWA platooning project for cars demonstrated platooning in September using five Cadillac SUVs equipped with CACC and V2V communications on a former naval air base in Pennsylvania.

I’m glad to see ATRI involved in one of these projects, since it is the primary trucking industry research organization and therefore better in tune (than academics) with the real world of truck companies and drivers. The big questions will revolve around when and where truck platooning will actually make sense. How feasible would it be for a company with a large fleet to have several of its trucks operating at the same time on the same long-haul route to obtain the benefits of platooning? Is it more realistic to have platoons form more or less spontaneously, via some Internet coordination, among trucks operated by different companies that happen to be heading in the same direction at the same time on I-70? Can trucks be added to and separated from ongoing platoons safely?

A second set of questions involves what corridors and what lanes such platoons will operate in, once the concept becomes well-accepted. If platoons of three to five 18-wheelers become common, how can smaller vehicles cope with getting onto and off of the Interstate when faced with a “wall” of big-rigs too close together to drive between safely? The advent of truck platooning may well strengthen the case for dedicated truck lanes, like those planned for the reconstructed and modernized I-70 across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Such dedicated truck lanes are also planned for I-710 in Los Angeles, which will be the site of the PATH truck platooning demonstrations.

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Reducing Bicycle-Motor Vehicle Crashes

America has a problem of conflicts between bicyclists and motor vehicles on urban roadways. Bicycle fatalities trended downward from 1975 to 2010, but increased 16% between 2010 and 2012, per a recent study from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). It also found that the fraction of these deaths that took place on urban roads changed from 50% in 1975 to 69% in 2012.

In response, bicycle advocacy groups are promoting their preferred safety agenda: convert as many streets as possible to “complete streets” with narrower car lanes, reduced speed limits, wide bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. This, of course, is also the agenda of groups like the Congress for a New Urbanism and Smart Growth America, which would be promoting those anti-car aims regardless of the trend in bicycle accidents. Be that as it may, those fatalities and injuries are a real problem, and have become a political problem in states-like Florida-that rank high in the bicycle accident statistics.

But the conclusion that the best way to reduce those accidents is to adopt “complete streets” has hardly been demonstrated. If we want to reduce bicycle-motor vehicle (BMV) accidents, the first step is to figure out their causes. Back in February (Issue No. 136) I raised the same question regarding pedestrian fatalities, and described a research report commissioned by Florida DOT that analyzed over 6,400 pedestrian-car crashes in the state between 2008 and 2010, about 10% of which involved fatalities. Careful analysis singled out particular signalized intersections with very high crash incidence, and suggested remedies. That’s a model of what should be done regarding BMV crashes.

The GHSA bicycle fatality study found that two-thirds of the cyclists who died were not wearing helmets, and almost 30% were legally drunk. So this is clearly not just a problem of roadway design. When Mother Jones magazine last January reported a similar 30% legally drunk figure for pedestrian fatalities, the anti-car Streetsblog USA blasted the magazine for “blaming the victim.” But these very real causal factors must be considered in any overall approach to increased bicycle safety.

In researching this article, I discovered a plethora of studies on BMV accident causes and potential remedies. A 20-page literature review is included in a November 2015 study for Oregon DOT by researchers at Oregon State and Portland State Universities. That report is “Towards Effective Design Treatment for Right Turns at Intersections with Bicycle Traffic,” Report No. FHWA-OR-RD-16-06, available online.

I also discussed the problem with a traffic engineer colleague. His assessment is that for major arterials that are a supplement to the freeway system of an urban area (typically with six or more lanes and speed limits up to 45 mph), the conflict between cars and bicycles is so great that bike lanes should not be located there. Parallel minor arterials as well as entirely separate bikeways (such as the partially completed 183-mile Greenway in the Fort Lauderdale metro area where I live) would be much safer alternatives.

To cite a local illustration of what ordinary people are up against, a news article last month in Fort Lauderdale described a community meeting held by the City of Fort Lauderdale to discuss alternatives for coping with chronic congestion on SW 17th Street, a major arterial (which is also a state highway) that serves Port Everglades and the Convention Center, as well as providing extensive retail services and access to neighborhoods on either side of the arterial. City planners pitched a multi-modal solution based on the complete streets idea, widening sidewalks and adding bike lanes (and maybe someday adding a streetcar line). According to the article, residents were not impressed. One businessman was quoted as wanting the emphasis to be on reducing congestion, not on bikes and pedestrians, because “the other 98% of us are going to have a hard time getting anywhere.” A civic association member asked about residents needing to shop for groceries, “Are they going to get on a bicycle, go to Publix, and get one or two shopping bags?”

Those are serious questions, and will likely to be ignored by city planners enamored of the complete streets approach. It seems to me that a state department of transportation, responsible for the mobility provided by the arterial grid, has an obligation to take the concerns of the 98% seriously.

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Express Toll Lanes and Transit: Partners, not Alternatives

From both sides of the country recent weeks have brought portrayals of express toll lanes as somehow being at odds with, or an alternative to, improved transit. Here are two examples.

In responding to last month’s release of the Reason Foundation’s proposed mobility plan for the Los Angeles metropolitan area, KPCC radio quoted Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, saying positive things about the plan, including its proposed region-wide network of express toll lanes. But he added that “where the plan falls short is in supplying a good alternative for those who can’t or don’t want to pay a high price for the privilege of driving. One alternative: robust public transit.” KPCC’s commentary acknowledged that the Reason plan “does call for more rapid bus service, using the proposed network of express lanes, but buses can’t match the speed and capacity of rail, especially over longer distances.”

The other example comes from Tampa, where Florida DOT is planning to add express toll lanes to I-4, I-75 and I-275. The plan is being fought by environmental groups and transit advocates, arguing that the emphasis should be on “21st century transportation solutions like rail and bus instead of more and wider roads.”

Both examples reflect a real misunderstanding of the inherent synergy between express toll lanes and express bus service. Express buses on the I-95 express lanes in Miami have been hugely popular, and generally travel nonstop at speeds of between 45 and 60 mph during peak periods, thanks to variable pricing that keeps the lanes uncongested. The brand new express toll lanes on US 36 between Denver and Boulder now host the Flatiron Flyer, a nonstop express bus service operated by the RTD in cooperation with Colorado DOT. Other express toll lanes with express bus service include:

  • SR 91 in Orange County, CA, with service by both Riverside Transit and Orange County Transit;
  • I-15 in San Diego, with Rapid bus service;
  • I-85 in Atlanta, with Xpress buses operated by GRTA;
  • I-10 and I-110 in Los Angeles, with buses from both LA Metro and (on I-10 only) Foothill Transit;
  • Both SR 167 and I-405 in Seattle, with service from Sound Transit and (on I-405 only) King County Metro;
  • On all of Houston’s HOT lanes, express bus service from Houston Metro;
  • I-394 and I-35W in Minneapolis, with express bus service by Metro Transit;
  • I-95 and I-495 in northern Virginia; and,
  • Planned express service by The T in Fort Worth on the forthcoming I-35W express toll lanes.

From the perspective of a transit agency, an express toll lane provides it with an uncongested high-speed guideway at zero capital cost (other than the cost of the buses). And a seamless network of ETLs, as planned in most of these metro areas, provides transit with the infrastructure for region-wide express bus service-again, without the massive infrastructure cost that a rail system of comparable geographic extent would entail-if it could somehow find the umpteen billions of dollars to build such a rail network.

That many people involved in debating transportation policy still don’t understand the transit benefits of express toll lanes and networks represents a failure on the part of state DOTs and others (like me) who do understand this synergy. We need to redouble our efforts to explain this win-win opportunity to editorial boards, opinion leaders, elected officials, and others.

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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.

Transportation Research Board 95th Annual Meeting, Jan. 10-14, 2016, Convention Center, Washington, DC (Bob Poole and Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details at: www.trb.org/AnnualMeeting.

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News Notes

States Take the Lead in Transportation Funding. While Americans continue to oppose increasing federal fuel taxes, voters at the state level continue to approve increased transportation investment. Of 37 state and local transportation funding ballot measures on November 3rd, nearly two-thirds received voter approval. While many of the measures were not user taxes, the results continue to reflect voter trust in their state and local transportation agencies, versus their distrust of Congress. The set of measures approved in Texas include reserving up to 35% of the annual vehicle sales tax revenues for the state highway fund. Due to anti-toll sentiment on the part of those who wrote this measure, none of this new revenue can be used for tolled projects-but there is no restriction on TxDOT continuing to use its existing highway money for the state portion of toll road and toll lane projects.

Virginia Opts for Toll Concession for I-66. Virginia DOT Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick announced Dec. 8th that the state has opted for the toll concession alternative to rebuild I-66 outside the Capital Beltway, adding two express toll lanes each way. The state had asked for expressions of interest by private consortia in three different procurement alternatives, and teams expressed interest in all three. But the toll concession approach was judged to achieve the state’s objectives while shifting significant risks to the concession company. VDOT expects to issue an RFP next year, and select the winning team by Fall, with financial close expected in Spring 2017.

Bankrupt Australian Toll Tunnel Acquired by Transurban. The AirportLink, a toll concession project linking downtown Brisbane to its airport, went bankrupt in 2013, as traffic and revenue came in at less than a third of projected levels. Last month, Transurban beat out other contenders to purchase the tunnel, acquiring it for $1.35 billion, which is about 30% of what it cost the original consortium to build the project. Transurban (which holds 62.5%) teamed with pension fund AustralianSuper (25%) and Tawreed Investments (12.5%) to acquire the tunnel. It has remained in operation during the bankruptcy process-and there were no taxpayer bailouts.

Financial Close for Huge Sydney Toll Project. Phase 2 of the $11.5 billion WestConnex project in the central and western suburbs of Sydney, Australia has reached financial close. The overall project will widen the existing M4 motorway (phase 1), build an eastern extension of the M5 motorway (phase 2), and build a connector between the M4 and M5 (phase 3). Phase 2 includes twin tunnels that will double the M5’s capacity and link it to Sydney Airport. Phase 2’s $3.5 billion budget is nearly all debt-financed, with tranches coming from banks, the New South Wales state government, and the federal government. A consortium of Leighton, Dragados, and Samsung won the concession to develop and operate the project.

Arizona Gets Three Proposals for South Mountain Freeway. Arizona DOT’s first major P3 project is the $1.9 billion South Mountain Freeway, to serve the Phoenix metro area. It has been in the region’s transportation plans since 1985, but has languished due to lack of funding. Its 22 miles will complete the Loop 202 Freeway. Apparently unwilling to use tolls as a revenue source, ADOT structured the deal as a government-funded 30-year design/build/maintain concession, to be funded by a combination of bond proceeds, federal highway funds, and local transportation sales tax revenues.

Miami SunPass Customers Get Rebates. Still facing a political backlash due to its recent conversion of its metro-area tollway system from occasional barrier tolls to being tolled on all segments, Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) agreed to pass along cost savings from a recent toll revenue bond issue to its customers. The rebates were offered to anyone with a Sunpass transponder who’d spent at least $50 in tolls on MDX facilities in 2015. Some 38,000 people applied, and on Dec. 1st MDX sent them checks (average amount $75) totaling $2.2 million.

Light Rail a Poor Fit for Suburban Metro Areas. Two recent columns provide a sobering analysis of the poor fit between trendy light rail projects and typical low-density suburban metro areas, especially in the Sunbelt. “Light Rail in the Sun Belt Is a Poor Fit” appeared on NewGeography.com on October 12th, authored by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox. And Kotkin did a lengthy solo commentary Oct. 30th for the Orange County Register: “How Commuters Get Railroaded by Cities.” The problem is a serious mismatch between light rail’s high capital costs and its (in most cases) very low ridership in these kinds of metro areas. Both pieces use hard numbers to make their case, and suggest that far more bang for the buck could be realized by improving bus transit systems for those who depend on transit for their mobility.

Kentucky Brings E-ZPass States to 16. After an initial rejection of its application, the board of the E-ZPass organization last month approved Kentucky as a full member. That brings the total states with inter-operable tolling using that system to 16. Kentucky will begin electronic tolling on the new toll bridges that will open next year across the Ohio River in the Louisville metro area.

Distracted Driving Getting Worse-But a Remedy Is Suggested. A recent study by AAA found that unsafe levels of mental distraction occurred even when drivers used hands-free technology in their cars. Potentially unsafe distraction times in these experiments ranged from 15 to 27 seconds, enough time for a car to travel the length of several football fields. AAA is now calling on auto companies and device developers to build in safeguards for their use while driving. In response, psychology professors Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris proposed one possible remedy. In “A Simple Solution for Distracted Driving” (The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1, 2015), they suggested the addition of a “driving mode” feature on mobile phones, tablets, etc. that would disable all communications between the device and the outside world-except for GPS, navigation apps, and emergency notifications. Windows 8 phones already have this feature, but fewer than 3% of new smartphones run Windows 8.

TIAA Partners with Infrastructure Developer ACS. Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and ACS Infrastructure Development have created a $665 million joint venture to invest in North American transportation infrastructure. This is yet another example of large pension funds diversifying their investment portfolios by investing in P3 infrastructure projects.

San Francisco Accepts Commuter Bus Shuttles. Despite opposition from community activists, the growing industry of employer-provided commuter shuttles (using vans and buses) has received the unanimous support of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. At present, about 8,500 employees who live in San Francisco use such shuttles to get to work, typically in Silicon Valley. The decision means a modest degree of regulation, primarily to ensure that the shuttles use designated pick-up and drop-off points rather than Muni bus stops.

China Completing Nationwide Electronic Tolling. China News Service reported last month that a nationwide electronic toll network has been completed in all but two provinces (Qinghai and Tibet). There are now 12,000 toll lanes across the country, serving 25 million customers.

Millennials Head for the Suburbs and Exurbs. New census data assessed by Brookings demographer Bill Frey, Chapman University’s Joel Kotkin, and real estate analyst Jed Kolko all point to the same conclusion: as the millennial generation matures, large numbers of them are moving from urban cores to the suburbs and exurbs of metro areas. Kotkin summarized these data and their implications in a recent piece for Forbes.com, reprinted as “So Much for the Death of Sprawl: America’s Exurbs Are Booming” (Nov. 4, 2015). Census data released in October showed net out-migration from urban cores to suburbs by those in their 20s. Real estate economist Kolko notes that the proclivity for urban living tends to peak in people’s mid to late 20s, when about 25% live in urban neighborhoods. By their mid-30s, this drops to 18%. In a study released earlier this year, The Urban Institute found that 80% of current millennial homeowners live in single-family homes, and that 70% of the entire generation expects to do so by 2020.

AASHTO and DOT on Transport Infrastructure Assistance. The U.S. DOT has launched the Build America Transportation Investment Center (BATIC) to assist state DOTs and other agencies in getting up-to-speed on innovative finance and procurement for transportation infrastructure. And AASHTO, representing the state DOTs, has launched a complementary effort, the BATIC Institute. The Institute “will assist state DOTs and their local partners in understanding and using all forms of transportation finance, including bonding, federal credit assistance, and public-private partnerships.” Assisting AASHTO with this effort are the National Conference of State Legislatures, the American Public Transportation Association, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Mercator Advisors.

VMT Continues Setting Records. Americans drove 3.12 trillion miles in the 12 months ended Sept. 30th, up 3.4% from the previous 12-month period. And VMT for the first nine months of 2015 is up 3.5% compared with the same period in 2014. The change reflects both the growth in employment (and hence personal income) and the large decrease in gasoline prices. These figures come from the latest FHWA Traffic Volume Trends, released late last month.

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Quotable Quotes

“[T]he ‘congestion caucus’ claims to be infrastructure supporters, but it supports only what it deems the right kinds of infrastructure. Overwhelmingly liberal and urban, this group’s goal is not mobility or even infrastructure. It’s social engineering: getting people out of their soulless single-family suburban homes and into vibrant multiethnic communities; having them ditch their environment-destroying SUVs in favor of sustainable light rail; and supporting the urban disadvantaged instead of a privileged suburban class. For the congestion caucus, expanding highways to reduce traffic jams is wrong, because it means more single-family homes, more SUVs, and more suburbanization. This neatly summarizes why they oppose increased infrastructure funding for road expansion. . . . The congestion caucus has been hammering home its message at every turn: ‘Federal support for expanding roads actually makes congestion worse.’ Nonsensical though this notion is, it is nonetheless now widely believed. To be sure, better urban planning and an increased role for non-auto alternatives will have to be part of the future transportation landscape. But if this comes at the expense of road expansion, the 85 percent of Americans who commute to work by car, and who waste nearly 7 billion hours yearly stuck in traffic, will suffer.”
-Robert D. Atkinson, “How Transportation Became the Latest Victim of America’s Culture Wars,” The Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2015

“Some commentators have suggested increasing the percentage of project cost that TIFIA loans may cover. Others have advised against such a change, because TIFIA’s purpose is to provide gap financing, as opposed to primary financing. Covering a greater fraction of project costs increases the riskiness of TIFIA’s loan portfolio while decreasing the number of projects it can support. Moreover, a benefit of gap financing is that the remaining portion must be obtained from other financing sources, which provides a valuable market signal regarding which projects are economically viable and which are not. As TIFIA’s portion of funding grows, the signaling value of market-based financing is diluted.”
-R. Richard Geddes, “America’s Transportation Challenges: Proposals for Reform,” AEI Economic Perspectives, American Enterprise Institute, September 2015

“McKinsey, a consultancy, reckons that in 2007-2012 investment in infrastructure in rich countries was about 2.5% of GDP a year, when it should have been 3.5%. If anything, the problem is becoming more acute as some governments whose finances have been wracked by the crisis cut back. In 2013 in the euro zone, general government investment-of which infrastructure constitutes a large part-was around 15% below its pre-crisis peak of 3 trillion euros, according to the European Commission. . . . In the same year, government spending on infrastructure in America, at 1.7% of GDP, was at a 20-year low. This is a missed opportunity. Over the past six years, the cost of repairing old infrastructure or building new projects has been much cheaper than normal, thanks both to rock-bottom interest rates and ample spare capacity in the construction industry.
-“Building Works,” The Economist, Aug. 29, 2015

“The desire for autonomous travel operates at the same biological level as our evolutionary proclivity to wage group war and our deep social inclination to engage in religion. Sociobiologist Edward O Wilson makes it clear that every trait we humans exhibit as a species can be traced back to a reproductive advantage for early humans. When we ask drivers to use an alternative to the personal car, we are asking something more fundamental than most of us realize. Even the individual driver, focused only on time and convenience, or operating out of habit, is unaware of the biological lock-in of his or her preference for automobility.”
-Bern Grush, “Social Evolution and Road Pricing,” Tolling Review (supplement to Thinking Highways, Vol. 8, No. 1, February 2015

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Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.