Surface Transportation News #149

Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News #149

Managed lane projects: growth and growing pains | Concession company Chapter 11 filing

In this issue:

Managed Lane Projects-Growth and Growing Pains

Around the country, express toll lanes (aka managed lanes) continue to expand, bringing welcome congestion relief to clogged expressways. An informal tally of projects currently in operation, compiled by Chuck Fuhs (co-chair of the TRB Managed Lanes Committee) identified 475 route-miles of ETLs in operation, comprising 1,096 lane-miles of capacity. And dozens of other projects are under construction or in planning or procurement stages.

Last month Fitch Ratings released a “Peer Review of U.S. Managed Lanes” report, explaining how it evaluates the creditworthiness of project that have been financed and are under construction, as well as those in operation. These projects involve either some or all new capacity and hence require financing via a mix of debt and equity. Bond-buyers look to rating agencies like Fitch for an arm’s-length assessment of the bonds in question. I found it encouraging that Fitch has rated all the projects under review (including those under construction) as investment grade. Compared with conventional toll roads, there is greater volatility and uncertainty of traffic and revenue, which is one of the reasons debt-financed projects of this kind are often done as long-term concessions, in which the private-sector partner takes on the traffic and revenue risk.

Since my last update, a number of new projects have opened, been financed, or been proposed. Here are brief highlights.

  • Colorado: A 13-mile ETL opened Dec. 19 on I-70 west of Denver, operating primarily on weekends when I-70 is clogged with people going to and from ski resorts. And CDOT’s project to add ETLs to the C-470 beltway in Denver got a boost, with an official FHWA “finding of no significant impact,” clearing the way for construction of this $385 million project.
  • Florida: FDOT’s ambitious plans for a managed lanes network in Tampa (Tampa Bay Express) is being challenged by neighborhood protests over proposed land takes, as well as opposition from rail transit supporters who don’t appreciate the express-bus benefits inherent in a network of uncongested express lanes. Meanwhile, construction proceeds on the Veterans Expressway, where Florida Turnpike Enterprise is adding variably tolled express lanes to this long-time toll road.
  • Georgia: In January, Gov. Nathan Deal announced a $10 billion, 10-year transportation plan that will include major portions of GDOT’s planned region-wide ETL network in the Atlanta area (about $7 billion of the $10 billion total). New additions to the network will include the west, north, and east portions of I-285, plus new sections on GA 400, I-75, and I-85.
  • Illinois: The Stevenson Expressway (I-55) in Chicago may host the first express toll lanes in Illinois, as IDOT completes its alternatives analysis for this congested corridor. The legislature passed a resolution in February endorsing a P3 approach for such a project.
  • Texas: Despite an anti-tolls backlash in the Lone Star state, new ETL projects continue to be authorized, some that were previously approved for TxDOT to pursue and others sponsored by local MPOs or Regional Mobility Authorities. Recent projects include a 49-year P3 concession for the SH 288 toll lanes project in Houston and two such projects in Austin, US 183 and SH 71.
  • Virginia: The P3 community rejoiced when VDOT opted for a P3 toll concession for the addition of ETLs to 25 miles of I-66 outside the Beltway. A conventionally funded project will convert the HOV lanes on I-66 inside the Beltway to ETLs, while adding an additional tolled lane in one direction.

Despite this continued expansion, growing pains are being experienced by some of the projects. One example is bottlenecks where an ETL project terminates, and traffic from it must merge into the general-purpose (GP) lanes. At the southern end of the year-old I-95 ETLs in northern Virginia, the exiting ML traffic often overwhelms the GP lanes. In November, VDOT reached agreement with I-95 concession company Transurban to extend the ETLs two miles further south, enabling southbound ETL users to avoid conflicting with GP lanes users who exit near the current ETL terminus. Transurban also reached an agreement to extend the ETLs northward along I-395, to the District of Columbia line.

A similar bottleneck problem arose on the new I-405 ETLs in metro Seattle when they opened last fall. The northern portion of the project narrows from two ETLs each way to one, creating a serious bottleneck. Local media were filled with premature conclusions that the ETLs were not reducing congestion or had made congestion worse. WSDOT data show that overall commute times have improved for most 405 users: those traveling the full length, transit riders, and those using portions of the southbound lanes. But GP lane motorists making short trips as well as those affected by the northern choke-point have seen longer travel times. In February, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a relief plan from WSDOT that includes adding auxiliary lanes and allowing use of shoulders for certain stretches.

Another kind of problem has surfaced in California, where extensive ML network plans are under way in both the Los Angeles and the San Francisco metro areas. Several of the few ETL in operation so far are not fully delivering their congestion-relief promise-but this is not because the concept is flawed. Rather, political constraints are reducing the power of variable pricing to control congestion. Those constraints are two: mandating that HOV-2 vehicles go free and mandating that alternative fuel vehicles go free. On the SR 237 ETLs in San Jose, tolled traffic during peak periods averages only 17% of all vehicles-and whenever congestion reduces speeds below the federal standard of 45 mph, the policy is to exclude toll-paying vehicles altogether. That policy was in effect for 360 hours during FY 2015, I learned from a presentation at the TRB Annual Meeting in January. In recent years, the state has issued 85,000 green stickers authorizing hybrids to go free in HOV lanes and ETLs, and over 90,000 white stickers for electric and natural gas cars, with no limit in sight for the latter.

These policies threaten both the financial viability and the congestion-management effectiveness of the planned ETL networks. California should serve as an object lesson to DOTs and elected officials in other states. For financial viability, the only ETL freebies (besides buses and emergency vehicles) should be HOV-3s. There are other government policies (subsidies and rebates) to encourage alternative fuel vehicles. Uncongested ETLs themselves reduce emissions of both conventional pollutants and CO2, but variable pricing can only produce this worthwhile result if nearly all the vehicles in the lanes are charged. That will not be the case if current California freebie policies continue.

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Implications of Concession Company Chapter 11 Filing

Early this month, the SH 130 Concession Company in Texas filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company was formed by Cintra and Zachry to finance, build, operate, and maintain Segments 5 and 6 of the SH 130 toll road that parallels congested I-35 between Austin and San Antonio. As is usual in such situations, the company is continuing to operate and maintain the toll road during the bankruptcy process, while it continues discussions with its lenders on restructuring the project’s finances for the longer term.

P3 opponents have seized on this event, implying that it proves that P3s are a bad idea. While it might turn out to be a bad deal for the bond-holders and the equity providers (Cintra and Zachry), the restructuring should have no adverse impact on toll road customers or on taxpayers. There have been several such bankruptcy filings for U.S. toll roads during the past decade, and several others in Australia. In none of these cases have toll road users been adversely affected, nor have there been any taxpayer bailouts.

P3 concession projects that have filed for bankruptcy share one common feature. As Virginia DOT’s P3 Director Doug Koelemay pointed out in a January 29th Brookings post, the projects that have gotten into trouble all based their financial plans on overly optimistic traffic and revenue projections carried out prior to the Great Recession. The SH 130 project was financed in 2008, based on such projections. Projects in those years were also highly leveraged, with a high ratio of debt to equity. A large amount of equity provides a cushion, in case revenue goes below projections. In a toll road financial structure, all the debt providers are entitled to get paid on schedule; the equity providers are in second place. So if the financing is 80% debt, and toll revenues are only half what was projected, the company would be in a much worse situation than if only 60% of the financing was debt and needed to get paid out of the toll revenue.

There are two main alternative outcomes of the bankruptcy proceeding for a P3 toll road, depending on the numbers and the players involved. If the current traffic and revenue projections are positive enough, the bondholders may be willing to renegotiate the financing, altering the debt structure and/or requiring the equity providers to put in more equity. In that case, the concession company would continue as the operator of the facility. If no such agreement can be reached, the bondholders typically have the right to put the company into receivership, seeking a new concession company to take over the remaining years of the concession under an agreeable financing plan. In that alternative, the original equity providers might lose all of their equity investment-a risk they accepted when they invested.

This kind of situation demonstrates that risk transfer in P3 concessions is real. Everybody knows that “greenfield” (i.e., brand new) toll roads are risky endeavors. That is a good reason for shielding taxpayers from such risks, by finding private-sector investors with a solid track record of designing, building, and operating toll facilities who are willing to take those risks.

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Does Suburban Living Cost America $1.1 Trillion a Year?

Early last year I received a news release from something called The New Climate Economy. It was headlined, “Urban Sprawl Costs US Economy More than $1 Trillion per Year.” The claim seemed so fanciful that I did not download the report, but I did notice that NCE is a project of the self-styled Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, established by people in seven countries to promote what we know as “smart growth” policies in the name of combatting global warming.

But I did not have to wait too long before receiving a detailed critique of the NCE study from demographer Wendell Cox, courtesy of Chapman University’s Center for Opportunity Urbanism. “Putting People First” is described by the author as an alternative perspective with an evaluation of the NCE Cities “trillion dollar” report. It strikes me as a well-researched critique.

Cox first analyzes the $1.1 trillion cost estimate. This is nearly all derived from an estimate of externalities of low-density land-use and the resulting transportation. Cox finds that 90% of the total is due to supposed externalities from personal vehicle use. He first cites other experts, such as UC Davis economist Mark DeLucci, who notes that externality estimates can vary by a factor of 10 and are often highly subjective. For example, the NCE report uses $0.68 per passenger mile for total auto-use externalities-an order of magnitude larger than DeLucci’s own estimate. Cox finds numerous data and computational flaws in the externality analysis (such as ignoring that congestion costs are much higher in dense urban cores than in low-density suburbs). After adjusting for five such factors (including property tax and infrastructure cost differences), he finds that this set of adjustments alone reduces the $1.1 trillion estimate to $210 billion-82% less.

His next task was to evaluate factors left out of the NCE assessment. One of these is middle-income housing affordability. There is a large amount of data showing that urban growth boundaries and other smart-growth policies increase housing costs significantly, and Cox lays out this evidence in some detail to estimate the external costs of urban containment policy itself. Among those details is a study by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley, finding that regulatory constraints on housing cost the US economy $1.95 trillion in 2009-13.5% of GDP.

Yet another cost of urban containment policy is restriction of economic opportunities that should be available from urban agglomeration economies. As Alain Bertaud and others have pointed out, metropolitan areas are labor markets and their economic productivity depends on millions of positive-sum transactions being able to take place. This effect works to the extent that job-seekers can access a maximum number of potential jobs in a reasonable amount of commuting time. The NCE report promotes using transit, biking, and walking as the preferred means of commuting. But as Cox notes, “these modes of travel are incapable of unlocking the employment opportunities that exist throughout the modern metropolitan area.”

There is a lot more, but I think you get the idea. The NCE report grossly exaggerates the externalities of auto use, significantly underestimates the high economic costs of constrained housing markets, and urges transportation policies that would undermine the benefits of urban agglomeration economies. You can read the whole critique at www.demographia.com/puttingpeoplefirst.pdf.

Note: Some of these points also emerge from a paper presented at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board. In “Urban Sprawl Job Decentralization, and Congestion: the Welfare Effects of Congestion Tolls and Urban Growth Boundaries,” Wenjia Zhang and Kara Kockelman of UT Austin used a spatial general equilibrium model to analyze the impact of an urban growth boundary. Among other things, they found that the boundary leads to a loss of social welfare due to land rent escalation and limitations on job decentralization.

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Interest Grows for Interstate Tolling

Since the FAST Act failed to include any increases in the federal gasoline or diesel tax rates (and provided only a modest increase in planned spending, thanks to general-fund transfers), responsible state DOTs are searching for self-help ways to increase highway investment. A growing number of them are looking into reconstructing and widening their aging Interstate highways using toll finance. Among these are Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin.

The long-standing federal ban on using tolls on Interstates that are not currently tolled has been gradually liberalized since the ISTEA legislation in 1991. The three legal ways in which tolling can be applied to such Interstates are:

  1. Replacing a currently non-tolled bridge or tunnel on the Interstate, using toll finance (authorized by ISTEA);
  2. Deploying variable tolls to address traffic congestion on all lanes, if the state has been designated as a partner under FHWA’s Value Pricing Pilot Program (VPPP); and,
  3. Using one of the three slots in the Interstate Reconstruction Pilot Program (which Fred Kessler described in last month’s issue).

All three of these options are being considered by the states mentioned above.

Connecticut has been studying Interstate tolling the longest. The Transportation Finance Panel appointed by Gov. Dan Malloy released its report in January; its comprehensive recommendations included tolling and a state-of-the-art P3 law. Connecticut DOT in 2011 requested FHWA funding for a VPPP study of I-95 between the New York state line and New Haven. The study, by CDM Smith, recommended as the best approach the combination of value-priced tolling (all lanes, all vehicles) plus widening as “having the strongest potential for providing sustainable congestion relief to I-95.” If there is not similar congestion on the remainder of the state’s Interstates, Connecticut would need to make use of one of the other methods to use toll finance to reconstruct and, where justified, widen them. These include the eastern portion of I-95, I-84, and I-91 plus I-291, I-384, and I-395.

Indiana legislators have seen how privatization is revitalizing the Indiana Toll Road (I-80), and the chairman of its House Roads and Transportation Committee, Ed Soliday, has emerged as the champion of Interstate modernization via tolling. His 2016 transportation bill, which passed the House by 61-36, requests the state DOT to seek a slot in the federal pilot program so that at least I-65 and I-70 could be rebuilt and widened using toll finance. “These roads are [mostly] two lanes [each way], he told Transport Topics. “They’re not in great shape and have our highest maintenance costs. If we toll those roads, we could go border to border, east to west, north to south, with six lanes and maintain them in perpetuity.”

Missouri holds a slot in the three-state pilot program, and as of now seems to be the only one of the three where serious efforts are under way to make use of it. MoDOT held a workshop last October on tolling and P3s as potentially applied to rebuilding I-70 with dedicated truck lanes. Gov. Jay Nixon favors making use of their slot, and a bill has been introduced in the House that would enable both tolling and P3 procurement for this project.

Rhode Island legislators earlier this year passed, and Gov. Gina Raimondo signed, a controversial bill that would impose tolls on heavy trucks to help pay for repairs to or replacement of 650 deficient bridges. Rhode Island has the highest fraction of structurally deficient bridges in the nation, and a RIDOT analysis found that the state would save nearly a billion dollars by accelerating bridge repair and replacement. Compared with the original measure, the final compromise cut the amount of bonding in half, and also reduced the proposed truck toll rates. Regarding the Interstate bridges, the state is relying on method #1 above, and is currently working on a Memorandum of Understanding with FHWA. The trucking industry still opposes singling out trucks as the only highway users to be tolled, and may decide to file suit on grounds that such tolling is discriminatory, but if FHWA signs the MOU, the truckers may have difficulty prevailing, since RIDOT will argue that they have a rational basis for charging heavy trucks “more” than cars, given the far greater damage imposed on highways by heavy trucks. But the Rhode Island plan does not address the need to reconstruct its aging Interstates, which are just as ancient as those in neighboring Connecticut.

Wisconsin DOT is already under way with its plan to reconstruct and selectively widen its urban Interstates in Southeastern Wisconsin. In 2012 the state’s special Transportation Finance and Policy Committee reviewed a number of future funding options, including tolling. In the 2014 legislative session, concerns over excessive taxpayer-financed bonding led to cuts in what WisDOT had been expecting for the urban Interstates modernization. That led the agency to ask the 2015 legislature to fund a tolling feasibility study. The legislators agreed, authorizing $1 million for a study that is now under way by HNTB. It will generate a tolling how-to document, suggested statutory language and policy guidelines, and a traffic and revenue analysis for the entire 875-mile Interstate system in Wisconsin. Although there is no history of tolling in the state, about one million residents currently have I-Pass transponders from nearby Illinois, so modern electronic tolling is hardly unfamiliar.

Given how little use had been made of the three-state pilot program when Congress was developing the FAST Act, their skepticism about expanding the number of eligible states may have appeared justified. But it now looks quite possible that with the new use-it-or-lose-it provision, if slots open up next year, there will be applicants for them.

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Questioning LA’s Transit Blueprint

The Los Angeles Times on January 27th published a well-researched article calling attention to very inconvenient truths about transit in the metro area, and LA County in particular. The headline telegraphed the basic finding: “Southland Transit Agencies Report Shrinking Ridership as Investments Continue to Grow.” Reporters Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel informed their readers that, “Despite a $9 billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, [LA] Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.” Two large light rail extensions-the Expo line to Santa Monica and the Gold line to Azusa-are set to open this spring. And the agency plans to spend $12 billion more on rail projects over the next decade.

Several leading academic experts from UCLA and USC were quoted in the article expressing skepticism that this course is the best way forward. Nelson and Weikel also reported that other transit agencies in the metro area have also experienced what appear to be long-term down-trends in ridership, despite the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession. So have large transit providers in a number of other metro areas, including Chicago and Washington, DC. Yet in defending his agency’s rail transit agenda, Metro chief Phil Washington told the reporters the slump will reverse when the agency completes “full buildout” of the rail system, in coming decades. “We’re not building for today,” he told them. “We’re building for 100 years down the road.” Of course even 25 years from now, we are likely to have ubiquitous robo-taxis that could make much of conventional transit obsolete.

One of the things we all learned on Economics 101 is the concept of “opportunity costs.” The true test of whether $21 billion is a good investment is not just what that investment produces but what else could be done with that same money. One example, as laid out in the Reason Foundation’s November 2015 Southern California Mobility Study, would be a region-wide express toll lanes network that would provide the infrastructure-at no cost to the transit budget-for region-wide express bus service. Since toll-paying cars would provide a large revenue stream to pay debt service on revenue bonds, and conventional highway funds would supplement the funding, as needed, this network would be a free gift to all of the region’s transit agencies, who would only have to buy and operate a much larger fleet of express budgets. And if a set of major north-south and east-west arterials were converted to “managed arterials”-as also proposed in the report-that sub-network would feed the expressway express toll network in a seamless manner. (/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/southern_california_mobility_plan.pdf)

Needless to say, the Times‘ article was upsetting to many people, and a local blogger went to great lengths attempting to refute it. I was not persuaded by his piece, but was impressed by a detailed refutation of it by my friend and sometime colleague Tom Rubin. Tom’s piece is far too long to summarize here, but if you are interested you can find it online. (http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=11475)

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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.

Missouri Freedom Breakfast, April 13, 2016, Doubletree Hotel, Jefferson City, MO (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details at: www.missourifreedom.com

TRB 15th International Managed Lanes Conference, May 4-6, 2016, Hyatt Regency Miami, Miami, FL (Baruch Feigenbaum and Bob Poole speaking). Details at: http://www.cvent.com/events/15th-international-conference-on-managed-lanes/event-summary-d40624486a524f089008e8abfb946760.aspx

2016 Professional Engineers Conference, June 22-26, Fairmont Hotel, Dallas, TX (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details at: http://nspe.org/resources/2016-professional-engineers-conference

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News Notes

Declining Gas Tax Receipts. In the Congressional Budget Office’s January budget forecast, revenues from the federal gasoline tax are projected to decline by 18.3% over the next decade, yielding just $20.6 billion in FY 2026 compared with $25.2 billion in FY 2016. The hit to the Highway Trust Fund won’t be that drastic, though, due to continued modest growth in diesel and truck tax revenue. The net result will be a 5% decrease in HTF user-tax revenue by the end of the 10-year period.

I-77 Toll Lanes Project Fends Off Challenges. Despite having been financed last year and begun construction in November, the P3 concession project to add express toll lanes to I-77 in Charlotte is still under attack by populist opponents. But the opponents lost three times in the first months of this year. First, in early January a state court rejected Widen I-77’s argument that the concession contract is an unconstitutional delegation of taxing authority. That ignored the legal and common-sense difference between a user fee (optional) and a tax (mandatory), so the suit was dismissed. Next, the Charlotte City Council voted 7-4 to continue supporting the project. And finally, the MPO (Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization) reaffirmed its support of the project.

Alternative to I-84 Tunnel in Hartford. After cost estimates came in at $10-12 billion for replacing the aging I-84 elevated viaduct through downtown Hartford with a tunnel, Connecticut DOT went back to the drawing board with an alternative: lower that stretch of I-84 and put a deck over it that could be used as an urban park. The estimated cost is $4-5 billion. Similar decks over depressed freeways exist in a number of cities, including Phoenix (I-10), St. Louis (I-70) and Seattle (I-5). A final decision on the preferred alternative is expected by May.

Costs of Urban Containment Policies. In a new Reason Foundation study, demographer Wendell Cox quantifies the impacts of “smart growth” policies on people’s housing opportunities and personal mobility. The study draws on quantitative studies from the Transportation Research Board, the Urban Land Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. EPA. The full study is “Urban Containment: the Social and Economic Costs of Limiting Housing and Travel Options.” It is available at: /wp-content/uploads/2016/03/urban_containment_housing_travel_policy.pdf.

P3 Bill Near in Kentucky. Enabling legislation for long-term public-private partnerships (P3s) has passed the House and is being considered in the Senate, and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin has said he would sign it. The immediate need is to develop the long-planned Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River. That project also needs toll revenue, and that led Gov. Bevin to veto a previous P3 measure that lacked a tolling provision. This year’s bill says that a bridge toll can be implemented, but only if the legislature votes to approve it.

Car Sharing Won’t Dominate-BCG. A new global study of the potential of car-sharing finds that it is growing in Asia, Europe, and North America. But Boston Consulting Group’s report, “What’s Ahead for Car-Sharing? The New Mobility and Its Impact on Vehicle Sales,” projects that car-sharing will reduce vehicle purchases by about 1% in 2021 in the markets where car-sharing is available. BCG concludes that car-sharing providers “will not change the overall mobility market,” despite “changing the mobility business to a significant degree.”

Missouri DOT Educating Motorists on What They Pay. In response to numerous public opinion surveys that show most motorists have no idea how highway funding works, or what they pay for roadways, MoDOT has unveiled an online calculator that shows motorists what they are paying in fuel tax and vehicle license fees, and where the money goes. Called the “Transportation Dollar$ Calculator,” the online feature prompts users to enter their annual miles driven and vehicle miles-per-gallon. It then shows what taxes they pay and what a fuel tax increase would cost them. Kudos to MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna; I hope other state DOTs will do likewise.

North American Railroads’ Infrastructure Investment. The Economist reported last month (Feb. 13 issue) that over the decade from 2004 to 2014, the six major U.S. and Canadian railroads invested steadily, increasing the value of their fixed assets by 58%, to a new high of $250 billion. This entirely private investment continues to renew and improve this important freight infrastructure, while federal and state governments struggle to even maintain the conditions and performance of the U.S. highway system. The difference is that the railroads have a users-pay/users-benefit funding system that works.

Truck Platooning Trials Coming to More States. Accord to a recent report in Transport Topics, truck platooning trials have been held in Alabama, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, and Texas. The latter state’s DOT is working with its counterparts in Arizona, California, and New Mexico in hopes of doing a long-distance test next year of platooning from Houston to Los Angeles.

Seattle Tunnel Boring Resumed in February. A contact at Washington State DOT informed me that Bertha, the tunnel boring machine that is creating a deep-bore tunnel to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct in downtown Seattle, resumed tunneling on February 23rd. Despite the cost overruns due to the machine being stuck, with a broken cutter head, for more than a year, the tolled tunnel is expected to bring much-needed congestion reduction to Seattle when it’s completed.

Truck Parking Demonstration Project Under Way. The I-95 Corridor Coalition is in the initial “proof of concept” months of an online truck parking availability service. Drivers can log in to the Truck ‘N Park website to check on the availability of safe truck parking spaces at places along their I-95 route where they expect to need to stop and rest. Lack of such truck parking is a problem in many states, and according to a 2015 survey by Overdrive magazine, 12 of the 16 states in the I-95 Corridor Coalition are among the 20 worst states for very little truck parking-notably RI (2nd worst), CT (#3), DE (#4), NY (#5), NJ (#6), and FL (#7).

75% of Americans Leery of Self-Driving Cars. AAA polled a sample of 1,800 American motorists about their attitudes toward autonomous vehicles and found that 75% are not ready for hands-off driving. But most respondents would welcome driver-assist features such as lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and self-parking. Older respondents were significantly more leery about AVs than younger ones, and women more leery than men.

Major Highway Project Financed in Colombia. The first of many large-scale highway modernization projects under Colombia’s Fourth Generation (4G) highway concession program has been financed. Pacifico 3, in northwestern Colombia, will span 145 km at a cost of $882 million. It is being developed as a DBFOM concession, with a term of 25 years; the winning consortium will design, build, operate, and maintain the highway. The overall 4G concession program aims to upgrade and modernize up to 8,000 km of national roadways at a cost of $25 billion.

Has California Legislature Killed Xpress West Project?. Last month’s indefinite deferral of the unfunded southern portion (Bakersfield to Los Angeles) of the California High-Speed Rail (CHSR) project may have doomed the proposed private rail line, Xpress West, between Victorville, CA and Las Vegas. The latter project, called “a big boondoggle” by the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal last September, had been counting on being able to connect to the CHSR project via a link between Victorville and the CHSR stop at Palmdale. But according to Public Works Financing, “They just got a lot farther from going anywhere.”

Truck Platooning Clarifications. Richard Bishop, who chaired the recent ATA study on truck platooning that I wrote about last month, emailed to note that Florida’s 300 ft. separation between trucks is a long-standing regulation, not something proposed in connection with platooning. He also pointed out that for the foreseeable future, platoons will be limited to just two trucks, rather than the longer ones that I suggested could present problems for motorists.

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Quotable Quotes

“The purpose of public policy in cities is not to focus on a particular urban form, planning philosophy, type of housing, population density, or mode of transport. The purpose is rather to seek better lives for people. The most appropriate form of urban planning policy is that which facilitates better living standards and less poverty. There is increasing evidence that urban containment policy is not only irreconcilable with housing affordability and price stability but also with better standards of living and reduced poverty.”
-Wendell Cox, “Putting People First: An Alternative Perspective with an Evaluation of the NCE Cities ‘Trillion Dollar’ Report,” Chapman University Press, 2015 (www.demographia.com/puttingpeoplefirst.pdf)

“Many of the considerations that contributed to the slowdown in VMT growth in the early part of this century are still relevant . . . . The role of technology in moderating travel demand is still at work with e-commerce, distance learning, telecommuting, and improved travel logistics dampening demand. And those urban millennials may be contributing to moderated demand even if not to the extent hyped by advocates of declining VMT. But the desire to travel to pursue personal opportunity and pleasure remains potent. For a large share of the population, total travel demand is governed by resource constraints, both time and money, not a diminished desire to participate in activities-many that require travel. While few desire to commute farther and may not relish accumulating VMT for routine errands, the always-present and growing interest in accumulating life experiences rather than possessions may create more VMT for personal experiences and longer-distance social and recreational travel, counteracting the savings from greater urbanization, communications substitution for travel, or taking advantage of alternatives to personal vehicle for daily household-serving travel.”
-Steven Polzin, “So Much for Peak VMT,” Planetizen.com, March 8, 2016

“Instead of car-free cities, we are on the threshold of another mobility revolution that will make cars more common than ever: the self-driving car. Among other things, self-driving cars will change where we live and almost completely replace public transit systems. In 2013, America’s transit systems spent more than $60 billion carrying fewer than 59 billion passenger miles, for an average cost of $1.03 per passenger mile. By comparison, Barclay’s estimates that shared, self-driving cars will cost only 20 cents per mile. Since cars are also faster and more convenient than transit, transit will disappear except in places that are simply too dense to be served by automobiles, which in the United States mainly means New York City.”
-Randal O’Toole, “Transit Is Dead. Let’s Prepare for the Next Mobility Revolution,” The Washington Post, March 1, 2016

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