Surface Transportation News #190
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Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation News #190

Ten states exploring tolled interstates, the disconnect between automated vehicles and planners, and more.

In this issue:

Senate Surface Transportation Bill: the Good, the Bad, the Missing, and the Ugly

Late last month, just before leaving town for the summer recess, the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee approved its five-year surface transportation reauthorization bill. Like most such measures, it’s a very mixed bag, but in amidst continuing most of the dysfunctional status quo, there are several positive changes.

The Good

Sec. 3001 of the bill would continue and expand current federal efforts to encourage states (and groups of states) to do pilot programs testing how to implement mileage-based user fees (MBUFs) to replace declining fuel tax revenues in coming decades. It includes funds for additional state grants, some new federal R&D money, and funds for a federal MBUF pilot for trucks.

Title 2 of the bill, on innovative financing, expands the categories of projects eligible for TIFIA loans and includes some attempts at much-needed streamlining.

Another section would codify Exec. Order 13807, which established the One Federal Decision program to speed federal approvals for major projects.

Sec. 1404 would provide a new congestion relief program for urban areas, offering grants for projects that would toll all lanes of a congested Interstate, provided that (a) the maximum rate for trucks would be no more than five times the rate for cars, and (b) that toll rates not differ based on residency. The latter is consistent with the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution.

Sec. 1507 would require states that do Design Build Finance Operate Maintain (DBFOM) public-private partnership (P3) projects to report to the United State Department of Transportation (US DOT) on the terms of the deal, which sounds harmless to me, and the increased transparency could reduce the hesitancy of some legislatures and DOTs to embrace this important procurement method.

The Bad

Alas, most of the bill continues and expands the ongoing trend of making the federal highway and transit program ever-more detailed and focused on every level of government (federal, state and local), disregarding the sensible principle of subsidiarity (having each level of government do what it is best suited for). Here is just a smattering of hundreds of such provisions.

  • Contrary to a modest amount of scaling back of the “transportation alternatives” category two reauthorizations ago, Sec. 1109 would increase its annual funding, from the current $850 million to as much as $1.5 billion by 2025. This is the category that includes such local infrastructure as bikeways, recreational trails, sidewalks, etc. It would also expand the “Safe Routes to School” program to high schools (as if any high-schoolers actually walk or bike to school).
  • Along the same misguided lines, Sec. 1208 would increase federal funding for “Complete Streets,” another quintessentially local endeavor. And Sec. 1505 would make grants to facilitate the use of bicycles as emergency evacuation vehicles.
  • Two separate sections would divert highway user tax revenue to waterway projects. In Sec. 1115, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program would now include projects to modernize a lock, dam, or marine highway, and the new National Highway Freight Program (NHFP) would be able to do likewise.
  • Among the missed opportunities, in Sec. 1405, the NHFP would require state DOTs to assess the extent of parking and rest facilities for trucks—but would make no change in the 1956 ban on offering commercial services (such as electricity hookups, showers, and restaurant services) at Interstate highway rest areas.
  • Likewise, among the new climate-change provisions in Sec. 1401, there are grants for EV recharging and alternative fuel services along designated “alternative fuel corridors,” but again no mention of locating any of this right on the Interstates, where these services are most needed.

The Altogether Missing

Several key policy changes of great relevance to increased use of DBFOM P3 concessions were not included in the Environment and Public Works (EPW) bill.

  • Private Activity Bonds (PABs): The $15 billion cap that Congress legislated over a decade ago is nearly used up, and the program is no longer an experiment. The cap should be removed, making surface transportation PABs comparable to those used for other infrastructure, such as airports and seaport facilities, for which there is no cap. In addition, as recommended last year by the White House infrastructure proposal, PABs should be made applicable to P3s to rebuild and modernize existing infrastructure, rather than just for new (greenfield) P3 projects. (Note: this item may be within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee, which would account for its absence from this bill.)
  • Tolling flexibility: With nearly a dozen states discussing or considering toll-financed projects to rebuild aging Interstate highways and bridges, removing the 1956 ban on using toll financing on these facilities should be a priority.
  • P3 incentives: Both the White House proposal and ARTBA’s recommendations for the 2020 reauthorization bill include various federal incentives for states to enact workable P3 enabling acts and to actually use them for much-needed projects.

The Ugly

The worst part of the bill is that—like its last two predecessors—it would ramp up spending without an offsetting increase in user-tax revenue. It calls for spending $287 billion over five years, a 28 percent increase over the previous authorization. To be sure, EPW is not the Finance Committee, where tax increases must come from. But there is no sign of any coordination between EPW and Finance on this subject, nor have any serious revenue proposals seen the light of day. For the sad history of how politics led to such irresponsible outcomes, you should read Jeff Davis’s superb 2018 account in Eno Transportation Weekly, “Ten Years of Highway Trust Fund Bankruptcy: Why Did It Happen, and What Have We Learned?” Spoiler alert: nothing.

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Ten States Explore Interstate Tolling

Though Congress seems oblivious, at least 10 states are having discussions, and in some cases heated debates, overusing tolls to modernize and/or deal with congestion on some or all of their Interstate facilities. The interest is driven by a combination of factors: the very high cost of reconstruction, widening, and bridge replacement, along with the lack of anything like the original 90/10 federal/state funding that built most of the Interstates originally. After a brief recap of where things stand in each of the 10, we will zero in on the debate going on in Alabama.

Alabama needs to replace the major bridge on I-10 over the Mobile River, and Alabama DOT sees no way to do this $2.1 billion project without toll financing. More details below.

Connecticut has had several years of detailed studies, followed by a fierce partisan debate in the legislature over tolling all the Interstates and several other major highways to pay for reconstruction, widening, and possibly other things. When the 2019 legislative session ended without a bill, Gov. Ned Lamont called a special session and hopes to reach agreement on a scaled-back plan that would toll only at key highway bridges that need reconstruction.

Indiana DOT last year completed a strategic plan for the toll-financed reconstruction of all its long-distance Interstates, but the plan was greeted by Gov. Eric  Holcomb saying, in effect, ‘Not on my watch.’ Transportation observers in the state hope that once he is re-elected next year, he will agree to move forward with the plan.

In Illinois, support is building for a project to convert 45 miles of I-80 to a toll road, to pay for a $1.25 billion project that involves lane additions and replacing aging bridges over the Des Plaines River near a key intermodal facility. Both Illinois DOT and the Illinois Tollway favor the project, and there is significant local support due to the age and congestion on this stretch of I-80.

Louisiana has two major bridge-replacement needs, both on I-10. It has a P3 enabling law and a DOT director who favors using it. Both are billion-dollar-scale projects, one across the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge and the other further west in the Lake Charles area. Louisiana DOT is also proceeding with a much smaller P3 project, to replace the Belle Chasse Bridge.

Minnesota in January 2018 released a statewide tolling feasibility study, looking at a number of major corridors. So far, no specific projects have been identified for implementation.

Oregon DOT is in discussions with FHWA on using the federal value pricing program to toll all lanes of I-5 in Portland, and possibly using the bridge provision in federal law for toll-financed improvements to I-205 in the Portland area.

In South Carolina, Sen. Hugh Leatherman has proposed toll-financed reconstruction and widening of I-95, increasing it from two lanes each way to three, the configuration of I-95 across the border in Georgia.

Wisconsin’s 2019 legislature passed a transportation bill that included a phase two Interstate tolling study (similar to Indiana’s), but Gov. Tony Evers vetoed that provision in July.

Wyoming’s Joint Transportation committee called for a new study of tolling I-80 to pay for improvements and ongoing maintenance.

The debate in Alabama is furthest along since the I-10 bridge needs replacing, and ALDOT has done considerable study to estimate both the cost and the potential toll rates. The project includes rebuilding both the aging bridge across the Mobile River and the 7.5-mile Bayway that leads up to it, which needs to be elevated above potential flooding in future years. That total project is estimated at $2.1 billion, and the toll to go the full length (Bayway plus bridge) is estimated as $6 (though shorter trips, at lower tolls, would be possible).

That toll has become a major concern, given the lower incomes in Alabama compared with most other states that have major toll bridges, and the fact that a great many people in the Mobile metro area use the bridge and Bayway for daily commuting. Suburban city councils are passing anti-toll resolutions and suggesting any number of inadequate or unrealistic funding sources—including a letter to President Trump asking the federal government to pay most of the project’s cost. ALDOT has refuted many of these claims, but the opposition continues.

At the ARTBA P3 conference last month, state Sen. Chris Elliott suggested that the project might be scaled back to just the bridge replacement, which would significantly reduce the cost and the toll. ALDOT has proposed a frequent-user discount, available to commuters but not to the 60 percent of bridge traffic that is long-distance and mostly from out of state. I also suggest a peak/off-peak toll schedule that would give a break to commuters willing or able to use the bridge before or after the peak period. The frequent-user discount would not discriminate against out-of-state users, per se, since some of the commuters live across the border in Florida.

Opponents of tolling seem to imagine that, somehow, somebody else will pay for the bridge, relieving them of the obligation to pay for what they use. But actually, the toll plan is the best available way to accomplish that. Apart from an unobtainable windfall from Congress, all non-federal funding of the bridge would come mostly from Alabama funding sources. Yet with 60 percent of the traffic on the I-10 bridge being long-distance and mostly from out of state, non-Alabamans would be paying for nearly 60 percent of the bridge’s cost. I don’t think ALDOT has stressed that point enough. And the same is true for many long-distance Interstates.

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The Disconnect Between Automated Vehicles and Planners
By Baruch Feigenbaum

When automated vehicle (AV) development and research kicked into high gear in 2012, dozens of companies issued breathless press releases promising mass-produced Level 5 AVs within five years. (Automation levels are defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), with Level 5 being full automation.) Last year many pundits claimed Waymo was close to developing a Level 5 AV. Nissan and Tesla continue to claim they will have a fully automated vehicle within two years.

At this year’s 8th Annual AV conference sponsored by TRB and AUVSI, most attendees offered a more sobering analysis. Carmakers such as Volvo questioned whether Level 5 AVs were possible. Even the most optimistic AV proponents, such as Nvidia, admitted that Level 5 AVs are at least 10 years away. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and tech firms were honest about the technology failures in bad weather (rain and snow), multimodal environments (people and cyclists crossing streets) and other operating challenges. One breakout session examined how current laws require an AV to rigidly adhere to the speed limit even when human drivers do not.

At the same time, many AV experts still expect Level 4 AVs to become more widespread over the next five years. But Level 4 vehicles are only automated in some situations such as in managed lanes or on streets with speed limits of 25 miles per hour (mph) or less. And many Level 4 vehicle services still operate with a safety driver. Embark runs automated trucks on I-10 between California and Texas but has a safety driver in every vehicle in part due to disengagements that occur in bad weather. The biggest benefit to Peloton’s current platooning technology, which includes safety drivers in each vehicle, is fuel savings. And while many cities including Arlington, TX,  have self-driving shuttles, they generally operate at 10 mph or less and need detailed markers for wayfinding.

While this may sound sobering, the adoption of automated vehicles can still reduce fatalities, provide mobility to seniors and the disabled and improve productivity. But it’s not going to happen overnight or next year, or even in five years.

Yet not all AV stakeholders appear to be paying attention. While engineers and policymakers are revising their timeline and short-term goals for AVs, some planners and urbanists appear to be doubling down on unrealistic goals.

Last month, The New York Times and the Washington Post, published very different articles on AVs. The Times focused on the technical aspects of AVs, writing why AVs are “Way in the Future.” Author Neal Boudette included several telling quotes by auto executives such as Ford’s CEO Jim Heckett, who agreed the industry “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” and Argo AI’s chief executive Bryan Salesky who argued driverless cars are “way in the future.” The article details the challenge of AVs predicting human behavior such as a bicycle riding the wrong way or a street sweeper ignoring a traffic signal. Such “infrequent” events can affect 50 percent or more of trips, particularly in big cities.

The article noted that many companies which promised to roll out self-driving vehicles “at a very aggressive pace” have blown by deadlines and refused to provide a new timeline. AV development is moving more slowly in China, which is important because the AV market is global. And self-driving vehicles need to behave like conventional vehicles, or customers won’t be interested. Nobody is going to buy a vehicle which slams on the brakes every five seconds.

By contrast, the Post article focused on how, “self-driving Vehicles,” could “correct mistakes of the 20th-century auto.” Written by Katherine Shaver, the piece discusses the drawbacks of automobiles (congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and sprawl) without any discussion of the positives (better goods movement, more access to leisure activities and quicker commute times). The article also focuses on major metro areas such as Los Angeles and Washington without acknowledging that AVs are likely to affect mid- and small-sized metro areas differently.

My bigger concern is whether many of the changes discussed in the article are realistic in the next 30 years or ever. The article cites AVs traveling closer together, allowing cities to narrow lanes and increase space for cyclists and walkers. Yet vehicles traveling closer together need both connected vehicle technology and advanced Level 4 or Level 5 capability where the human driver never has to take control. That combination of technologies is years away—and roads will have to handle a mix of AVs and non-AVs for decades after real AVs first hit the market. Other planners worry that AVs could reduce transit usage. Yet, transit usage is already declining in almost every metro area due in part to ride-hailing services. A better approach might focus on redesigning transit systems for 21st-century cities instead of worrying what AVs will do to bus systems that have not been redesigned in 50 years.

The article makes several good points. Driverless cars may eventually change the location and amount of parking (though it’s far too early to start reducing parking capacity). And policies such as congestion pricing are the most effective way to manage congestion. (We could implement congestion pricing today; we don’t need automated vehicles).

But much of the article speculates on the future. And if transportation researchers could actually predict the future, we would be working on Wall Street, not in transportation. The best parts of the article were quotes from two experienced, respected planners. Florida State’s Tim Chapin argued that the “built environment” tends to be “very sticky” and slow to change, especially in comparison with the pace of technology. And Maryland’s Uri Avin, noted that “Everyone is guessing about future behavior and costs.”

Ten years ago few predicted that ride-hailing companies would disrupt the taxi industry. Two years ago few predicted the advent of electric scooters. We don’t know what transportation innovations will occur over the next 10, 20, or 30 years. Urbanists might be trying to solve a problem that won’t even exist in the future. Given the slow pace of AV development, it might be more productive for planners to focus on short-term challenges rather than their long-term desires.

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Truck Platooning Is Making Progress

At the Transportation Research Board’s annual automated vehicles (AV) conference last month in Orlando, truck automation pioneer Peloton Technologies announced that it is developing Level 4 technology to permit platoons with a human driver in the lead truck but no driver in the following truck. Thus, one driver would control two big-rigs, doubling the ton-miles per driver and helping the industry address its perennial driver shortage. This would be a substantial improvement in the business case for platooning, which thus far focuses only on fuel savings.

Peloton’s current Level 1 Platoon Pro system, with a driver in both trucks, is averaging more than 7 percent fuel savings in operations by six fleet customers in real-world conditions, as reported by FleetOwner magazine. Peloton CEO Josh Switkes declined to identify the companies or the states where they are using Platoon Pro, “but hinted that much of the activity has taken place in Texas.” He also noted that there is surprisingly little cutting in by motorists between the two trucks in these platoons (to which the trucks automatically adjust by increasing the spacing).

Platooning is still not allowed in the majority of states. Last month the Competitive Enterprise Institute released its fourth annual edition of “Authorizing Automated Vehicle Platooning: A Guide for State Legislators.” It identifies 20 states that have authorized some version of commercial AV platooning, and assesses the legislation of each. Ten of the states are rated as “green,” meaning platooning can take place without unnecessary restrictions on operations. The other 10 are in the “yellow” category, which means some degree of platooning is allowed, but with what CEI judges to be poorly justified restrictions. The remaining 30 states have no meaningful provisions for platooning.

Despite the encouraging news from Peloton, the United States lags behind Europe and Japan in truck platooning, as I learned during a session at the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in January. Rather than testing just two-truck platoons, officials and companies in both regions are testing or planning to test platoons ranging from four to seven trucks in length. In limited highway testing thus far, the problem of motorists cutting into multi-vehicle platoons has been observed and is considered a potentially serious problem. In both Europe and Japan, the plans call for these longer platoons to eventually have a driver only in the lead truck, with the automation system handling all the following trucks.

In the TRB presentations, there was no explicit mention of barrier-separated dedicated truck lanes (DTLs)—but one slide in the presentation from truck producer Scania showed a platoon in such a lane. If the future of platooning really is for multi-truck platoons with only a lead driver, I think there is a very strong case for adding DTLs to those Interstate highway corridors that are now (or are projected to be) major truck routes over the next several decades. Even with conventional 18-wheel big rigs, the safety benefits of DTLs are quite large, given how deadly car-truck collisions often are. Add to that the productivity gains from being able to operate longer combination vehicles (LCVs) in such lanes on Interstates where LCVs are currently banned, plus the safety and fuel-saving benefits of multi-truck platooning, and the case for DTLs is very strong.

That’s true even if multi-truck AV platooning is a decade away from commercial service. Designing, financing and rebuilding an aging Interstate—ideally with revenue bonds based on electronic toll revenues—will not likely lead to the first rebuilt corridors opening for business for about a decade. The time to start planning for such corridors is now.

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How Many Jobs Can Be Reached Via Bicycle?
By Baruch Feigenbaum

Seeking to build on its previous research on highway and transit job accessibility, last month the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota released a new study examining how bicycles connect workers with jobs. The study measures how many jobs can be reached by bike within a given amount of time in the 50 largest cities.

Researchers used the ‘Level of Traffic Stress’ metric that categorizes streets based on their attractiveness to cyclists by classifying cyclists into four groups: lowest stress, low stress, medium stress and high stress (The metric relies on many characteristics including bike lanes, street lane configuration and speed). The lowest stress group applies to children and adults not interested in cycling. The low-stress group is interested in cycling but unwilling to bike in or near busy traffic. The medium stress group is willing to tolerate busy traffic if there is designated space while the high-stress group is willing to bike regardless of traffic conditions. The study used OpenStreetMap road networks to determine the number of jobs that a worker can reach in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 minutes one-way by bike. The study weighted jobs that can be reached in 10 minutes the highest with each succeeding time interval slightly lower since commuters are more likely to cycle for shorter trips than longer trips. The authors included a weighted average of job travel time and the number of jobs for each time interval.

The report focused on the low-stress and medium-stress commuters since they make up the majority of cyclists. As expected, cities with more jobs (and logically more jobs that could be reached by cyclists) ranked near the top with a few exceptions. For the low-stress cyclists, the top five cities are New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, and Philadelphia. For medium stress cyclists, the top four cities are the same, but with Washington, DC, replacing Philadelphia.  Each of those top cities ranks in the top seven for total jobs, except Denver which ranks 18th. All of the cities in the top 10 for cycling access to jobs also rank in the top 20 for total jobs except for Portland, OR and San Diego.

The report tries to build on the accessibility by automobile and transit reports that the University of Minnesota released previously. But unlike the former modes, which are used for medium-long distance commutes, bicycles are used for short-distance trips. As numerous researchers, including Alain Bertaud of the World Bank and Solly Angel of NYU, have shown, the most effective way to increase job access is to reduce travel times, not travel distance. Large metro areas work well because of their very large number of employment options. Higher-speed travel options allow employees to reach many more jobs more quickly and provide employers with a larger, more skilled workforce.

Since bicycle speeds are generally less than half those of automobiles and transit vehicles, commuters will never be able to reach the same number of jobs they can by auto or transit. Compare the numbers below for high-density New York and lower-density Atlanta.

Bike Car
New York jobs reached:
  • Within 10 min.
0.4%   1%
  • Within 30 min.
2.5% 14%
  • Within 60 min.
7.2% 60%
Atlanta jobs reached:
  • Within 10 min.
0.04% 1.4%
  • Within 30 min.
0.17% 20%
  • Within 60 min.
0.24% 64%

 

The magnitude of the difference illustrates how automobiles predictably provide superior access to jobs compared to bicycles. The accessibility advantage of commuting by auto is one reason it is the dominant mode choice. Eighty-six percent of Americans commute to work by car, while five percent use transit and 0.6 percent cycle to work. Eight times as many people work from home today than cycle to work. While bicycling can be good exercise and is cheaper than driving, it is not a realistic option for the vast majority of commuters.

A laser focus on reducing travel distances sounds good, but it ignores many real-world factors. Residents choose housing based on many considerations: distance to jobs, price, parks, school quality, and access to shopping and entertainment. Some may make the tradeoff to buy a smaller house or live in a weaker school district, but others will not. One of the most popular development trends over the past 10 years has been mixed-use properties, in which folks theoretically live and work in the same area. However, retail employees generally cannot afford the housing in these developments and residents may not find suitable employment there.

Even if we assume that walking distance to jobs is a good metric, the study has other problems. Using the total number of accessible jobs and not the percentage of accessible jobs is biased against smaller metro areas. For example, New York City is rated the most accessible because it has more jobs than any other metro area. Logically, if there are more jobs, more can be reached via cycling. But New York City is far from a cycling mecca. Census data shows New York City’s cycling mode share is the same as the national average—0.6 percent. Percentage of jobs would give a higher rank to metro areas such as cities typically viewed as cycling-friendly, like Portland and Minneapolis, and be fairer to metro areas of all size.

Accessibility to jobs is critical for economic productivity. But we need to accept that automobiles do a far better job of connecting people with jobs than bikes, and focus on making roadway travel faster and easier.

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Could Suburbs Play a Role in Carbon Sequestration?

In 2008, the California legislature enacted SB 375, which might be considered declaring war on suburbia in the name of fighting climate change. The logic went like this: People who live in suburbs must drive to work; driving generates greenhouse gases; therefore we must restrict suburban growth and get people to live in denser urban areas where they can ride transit or bike to work instead of driving.

This logic is mostly wrong, given that today’s jobs are increasingly in the suburbs and most commuting is from suburb to suburb, rather than suburb to downtown. Over the next several decades, personal vehicles will be far more fuel-efficient, and a growing fraction will be electric. There is some evidence that the beefed-up infrastructure required to accommodate higher urban density would be more costly than suburban infrastructure. And some functions, such as electricity, can be provided by decentralized solar power.

But another potential argument for suburbia is its potential for carbon sequestration. Last month saw the publication in Science magazine of a major study on the potential of expanded tree cover to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Researchers Thomas Crowther and colleagues from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich estimated that there is space for more than one trillion new trees on 3.5 million square miles of land worldwide. And if aggressively planted over the next few decades, those additional trees could absorb nearly 830 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere—about as much as humanity has released over the past 25 years. This new paper is the latest in a string of such research papers in peer-reviewed journals, dating back to at least 2009.

Another new study, by Robin Chazdon of the University of Connecticut (published in Science Advances) found that the largest carbon sequestration potential from added tree cover (called afforestation) would be near tropical rainforests in places like Brazil and Indonesia. But Chazdon also found that every part of the world has regions with potential for productive tree planting.

Which suggests to me that both existing and new suburban residential developments could accommodate far more trees than they currently harbor. The suburb in which I live has a long history of encouraging robust tree cover—and it shows. Foes of “suburban sprawl” seem to think of suburbs as sterile places, largely devoid of wildlife. But my suburb seems to abound with wildlife: ducks, wading birds, squirrels, possums, raccoons, and even (recently) coyotes. Most suburbs could likely be home to far more trees if policymakers made this a priority. As conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University told an AP reporter covering the Crowther study, planting more trees would also help stem the loss of biodiversity.

Carbon sequestration is a critically important part of dealing with global warming. While reducing the output of CO2 and other greenhouse gases must proceed, once carbon is in the atmosphere it resides there for decades. Reducing that accumulated carbon is what carbon sequestration is all about. I have not seen any reliable estimates of the cost per ton of carbon removed, but my guess is that it will be lower than the cost per ton of many of the policy measures proposed for reducing the output of carbon from fossil fuel use and other sources.

If the suburbs can play a meaningful role in carbon sequestration, that is all the more reason for other states to avoid California’s ill-conceived policies against suburbia. Instead of the pejorative term “suburban sprawl,” maybe we should start thinking of Green Suburbia.

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Upcoming Transportation Events

Note: We don’t have the time or 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.

Rethinking America’s Highway Institutions, Sept. 13, 2019, Institute for Transportation Studies, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA (Robert Poole speaking). Details here.

Road Diets and Complete Streets Conference, Oct. 5, 2019, American Dream Coalition, Los Angeles, CA (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details here.

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News Notes

Florida Opens Express Toll Lanes on Toll Road
Urban expressways get congested, even when they are operated as toll roads, as many are in Florida. Rather than increasing all toll rates during peak periods, Florida’s Turnpike is adding express toll lanes to several of its urban corridors, giving customers a choice. The first to open, last month, was a four-mile stretch of SR 528 in Orlando. The agency is planning similar ETLs on toll roads in Miami-Dade County, the Tampa metro area, and on some stretches of the Turnpike mainline where widening projects are planned.

Ending HOV Discounts for Hudson River Bridge and Tunnels
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is implementing all-electronic tolling on the George Washington Bridge and the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. Once this conversion is complete, and there are no more human toll collectors, the long-standing HOV discount will be eliminated—because there will be no one to count the number of occupants in the vehicles. It turns out that only about three percent of the bridge and tunnel customers were making use of the discount.

Asset Recycling Continuing Overseas, Pleasing Infrastructure Investors
Although Australia pioneered and named the concept known as infrastructure asset recycling (selling or long-term leasing a revenue-producing infrastructure asset and using the proceeds to build or improve existing infrastructure that lacks a robust revenue stream), the successful federal incentive program Down Under ended several years ago. But Infrastructure Investor reports that two state governments—New South Wales and South Australia—are urging a revival of the policy. Meanwhile, both India and Indonesia continue to sell long-term P3 concessions for existing toll roads, with five such roads currently on offer in the latter.

New Toll Road Begins Construction in California
The long-planned SR 11 in San Diego County had its ground-breaking late last month. The $100-million project is supposed to complete the last section of this four-lane highway, linking the Otay Mesa border crossing with regional expressways SR 125 and SR 905. Tolls will be all-electronic and congestion-priced.

Portland Road Diet Worsened Congestion, Study Finds
The Cascade Policy Institute released a detailed study of a road diet plan whose effects include worse traffic congestion, less transit service, and no significant increase in bike and pedestrian traffic that had been projected. The study, “The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled,” is a valuable case study of how the local politics of transportation and smart growth led to unfortunate outcomes.

Colorado Adding New Mountain Toll Lane
The world’s only part-time express toll lane opened in 2015 on I-70 west of Denver. It serves eastbound traffic returning from ski resorts mostly on weekends, significantly relieving congestion. The new project, for which ground was broken last month, will provide a westbound counterpart ETL, extending 12 miles from the Veterans Memorial Tunnels in Idaho Springs to Empire Junction. The new $70-million lane is expected to open in the spring of 2021.

What Do Electric Vehicles Replace?
That is the question a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research seeks to answer. Authors Jianwei Xing, Benjamin Leard, and Shanjun Li modeled vehicle purchase data, using a large data set, and found that the vehicles that a new electric vehicle (EV) replaces tend to be relatively fuel-efficient, averaging 4.2 mpg above the fleet-wide average. They also found that federal income tax credits increased EV sales by 29 percent, but that 70 percent of the credits go to households that would have bought an EV anyway. The paper is NBER Working Paper 25771, issued in April 2019.

Millennials Flock To Suburbs—The Wall Street Journal
A front-page article on July 2nd documented a trend I’ve been writing about for several years—but which seems to have missed the attention of far too many transportation planners. There is ever-growing evidence that married couples of the millennial generation are seeking affordable housing in suburbia, especially in the Sunbelt. The article, “A New Generation Escapes City Life for the Suburbs,” provides examples along with data from the Census Bureau and the Brookings Institution on this large-scale trend.

Will Tolling Survive in Texas?
The 2019 legislative session made no changes in the populist anti-toll policies that have been in effect for several years, forbidding the use of tolls on any new project receiving state funding and also prohibiting any new long-term public-private partnership concessions. The results have been mixed. One major project—rebuilding and widening I-635 East in Dallas—is going forward with the existing express toll lanes being rebuilt as part of it. And new toll roads developed by regional mobility agencies continue: the tolled SH 45 Southwest opened to traffic last month in the Austin metro area. But plans for the last few segments of the Grand Parkway (the tolled outer beltway of the Houston metro area) are in question, with a decision required this year by the Texas Transportation Commission on whether to include these tolled segments in its 10-year highway plan. Local officials strongly support completion of the Grand Parkway, for which toll finance is necessary.

Miami-Dade Expressway Authority May Survive, Court Says
On August 9th, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that in enacting legislation earlier this year to wipe out the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX), the Legislature violated a Miami-Dade County home-rule provision in the state constitution. For now, the Expressway Authority will continue to operate its five toll roads while awaiting a predicted state appeal to the 1st District Court of Appeal. The offending bill (HB 385) stemmed from long-standing populist opposition to MDX’s tolling policies.

Electric Vehicle Growth Depends on Battery Technology
The April 20th issue of The Economist included an article documenting the growing investment by nearly all the world’s major auto companies in battery-electric vehicles. Included was a projection by Bloomberg New Energy Finance that worldwide new-vehicle sales of EVs may approach 60 million (out of about 108 million total) by 2040. But a July 19 article in the Wall Street Journal (“Electric Vehicle Face a Big Roadblock”) points out that current lithium-ion batteries are a potential obstacle. They currently account for 35 to 45 percent of the vehicle cost, and while battery costs have been trending downward, it is not clear how much lower they can go, partly due to the high cost of materials such as cobalt. “If the cost of batteries doesn’t continue to fall, long-range affordable EVs will remain a pipe dream,” the article concludes.

Maryland May Reduce Some Toll Rates
The Maryland Transportation Authority is considering several changes that could save its customers $28 million over five years. One would allow toll-by-plate customers to have pre-paid accounts linked to a credit card, at the same lower toll rate that applies to transponders. Another would reduce the toll rate for motorcycles. That would be a welcome relief for cyclists, who object to the nearly standard policy of long-distance toll agencies that charge the same rate for motorcycles as for passenger vehicles (on the grounds that motorcycles also have two “axles”?).

New Study of Pension Fund Investing in Infrastructure
As I reported last month, there is a growing worldwide trend of public pension funds seeking to increase their overall investment rate of return by adding revenue-producing infrastructure to their portfolios. There is a small but growing amount of research on this phenomenon. A recent working paper by Clive Lipschitz and Ingo Walter of NYU assesses this trend as positive but also notes some potential pitfalls. I’ve started to read the whole paper, but you might want to start with a good overview of it by my Reason colleague Marc Joffe of our Pension Integrity Project. His article is, “New Research Shows Opportunities and Perils of Pension Fund Investing in Infrastructure.”

Dedicated Truck Lanes on New Doha Ring Road
Doha, the capital city of Qatar, is under way on a multi-billion dollar 195 km ring road. It will have five general lanes in each direction, plus two dedicated truck lanes each way. A World Highways cover story (June 2019) cites two reasons for the truck lanes: increased safety and better traffic flow. The same benefits would apply if dedicated truck lanes were added to truck-intensive Interstate highways here in the United States.

Interoperable Electronic Tolling in Oklahoma and Texas
Customers with an Oklahoma Pikepass can now use that transponder on nearly all Texas toll roads, including those operated by TxDOT, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority near Houston, and the North Texas Tollway Authority in Dallas/Ft. Worth. Pikepass is also interoperable with the Kansas Turnpike Authority’s toll roads.

Misleading Headline on Transit and Obesity
The headline read, “Transit Use Reduces Obesity Rates.” But that’s not what the article said. It summarized research from the University of Illinois and Georgia Tech which found a correlation between increased transit use in a metro area and lower obesity rates in that metro area (comparing 2001 and 2009), and the summary made clear that the results do “not necessarily [show] that transit use reduces obesity on an individual level.” Unfortunately, the misleading headline was on a news brief in the May-June issue of TR News, the magazine of the Transportation Research Board.

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Quotable Quotes

“If suburban residents think traffic is bad now, let there be no delusions about the future without major road improvements: It will be unimaginably worse, no matter how many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in better subway, bus, and commuter- rail service. That will deepen the day-destroying commuter travails of hundreds of thousands of area residents. . . . In fact, Maryland has been making transit strides under [Gov] Hogan, a Republican who was instrumental in greenlighting the Purple Line light rail project and finding hundreds of millions of dollars from the region to improve Metrorail. Local elected officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who oppose his plan to widen the Beltway and I-270 conveniently never mention this. In demanding better transit but no major road improvement, they ensure a future defined by failure and economic anemia.”
—Editorial Board, “To Make a Dent in Commutes, Maryland Officials Need to Focus on the Roads,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2019

“The most crucial question is whether having a smart city will make us meaningfully better at solving urban problems. Data and algorithms alone don’t actually add very much on their own. No matter how much data a city has, addressing urban challenges will still require stable financing, good management, and effective personnel. If smart data identifies a road that needs paving, it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller. . . . Rather than chasing the newest shiny smart-city technology, we should redirect some of that energy toward building excellent dumb cities—cities planned and built with best-in-class, durable approaches to infrastructure and the public realm. For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight, and courage to use the best of the old ideas.”
—Shoshanna Saxe, “I’m an Engineer, and I’m Not Buying Into ‘Smart’ Cities,” The New York Times, July 16, 2019

“Mass-market OEMs are heading toward extinction, right? We all know that they will be killed by Tesla and robo-taxi companies like Cruise, Uber, and Waymo, who are just quarters away from developing perfect ‘self-driving’ technology—aren’t they? Let’s take a look at the 2018 production volumes for an indication of where the power really lies here:

  • Tesla:
about 250,000
  • Robo-taxis:
0
  • Mass-market OEMs
about 95 million

Does anyone seriously believe the traditional OEMs will supply robo-taxi companies in sufficient quantities to bring about their own demise? No, me neither. The threat from Tesla and mobility start-ups has been so massively overstated in these last five years—media hype and ambitious timescales cannot disguise the fact that ‘self-driving’ technology remains firmly in the R&D phase and is nowhere close to commercial deployment.”
—Colin Barnden, “For Mass-Market Cars, Forget L3-L5 Autonomy,” EE Times, June 24, 2019

“Overall, data suggest that we are not seeing a great ‘return to the city’ but, with few exceptions, a continued movement out to the suburbs and less dense cities, notably in the sunbelt. The spurt of urban core growth that occurred immediately after the housing bust turned out to be remarkably short-lived, with the preponderance of metropolitan growth—roughly 80%—returning, as has been the case since at least the late 1940s, to the suburbs and exurbs. Indeed, at no point did Census Bureau estimates show net domestic migration from suburbs to core cities, only a reduced rate of migration in the opposite direction.”
—Joel Kotkin, “The New Shame of Our Cities,” American Affairs, May 20, 2019

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