- FHWA vs. the bipartisan infrastructure law
- Beware the “induced demand” calculator
- Amtrak expansion and freight rail
- Traffic congestion is back, INRIX documents
- Mobile River toll bridge back in play
- Automated big rigs hauling freight
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Anti-highway and “smart growth” organizations lobbied hard for any new federal transportation infrastructure law to focus on “fixing it first” when it comes to highways, for expanding transit and passenger rail funding more than highway funding, and for interpreting highway safety mostly as protecting bicyclists and pedestrians using the roads. These groups would have cheered if the House version of the surface transportation reauthorization bill had passed, but it got dropped because it had no chance of passing in the Senate. Instead, the House eventually agreed to the Senate-generated Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which became commonly referred to as the bipartisan infrastructure law (BIL).
The BIL includes a relatively traditional five-year reauthorization of the federal highway and transit program (albeit with larger-than-usual increases for transit and Amtrak). The anti-highway folks consoled themselves with the law’s large increase in the number and funding of discretionary programs, which enable U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) to define the criteria for projects it likes—which turn out to be anti-highway, fix it first, more transit, and an emphasis on bicycling and walking. That caused shockwaves at state transportation departments and at AASHTO, their association. As David Harrison reported in The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 7), AASHTO Executive Director Jim Tymon said, “We’ve never seen anything on this scale before . . . the number and scale of discretionary programs. . . [They] are going to allow the administration to pick the projects that really fit their policy lens.”
But then the other shoe dropped. On Dec. 16, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Acting Administrator Stephanie Pollack released a six-page guidance memo on how state DOTs should interpret the enlarged formula-funded programs. In effect the memo said, we advise you to interpret the formula programs as if they were based on “fix it first” principles, and that state DOTs should make sure to allocate some of their funds to local and tribal governments to fix their streets and roads, too. They should “prioritize projects that move people and freight by increasing the efficiency of existing roads and highways over projects that expand the general purpose capacity of roads and highways”—something that is nowhere in the bipartisan infrastructure law. The memo also reminds state DOTs that projects that add capacity for walking and biking generally get a free ride from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, unlike projects that add highway capacity (hint, hint).
A state DOT director sent me a memo prepared by the AASHTO board (and sent to all state DOTs before Christmas) raising a number of questions about this unprecedented FHWA “guidance.” The memo reminds recipients that the actual bipartisan infrastructure law “provides state DOTs with full flexibility in how investment decisions are made. The FHWA memo can be read to suggest that FHWA has the authority to require states to invest Federal funds in certain types of projects and the authority to restrict them from investing in other types of projects.” That is decidedly not so. AASHTO will be developing a formal reply to FHWA and is seeking inputs from its member DOTs.
Not mentioned anywhere in the AASHTO documents I’ve seen—and this is solely my own view—is that the combination of this “guidance” memo and the huge expansion of discretionary programs hands FHWA a powerful tool for intimidation. It can basically convey to state DOTs the following: ‘If you guys want to have any chance of capturing some of the vast new sums of discretionary grant money, maybe you’d better allocate your formula funds in accordance with our guidance.’
This is clearly not what Congress intended. The actual law that was passed by both houses is bipartisan and represents a carefully worked-out consensus in the Senate, which the House eventually agreed to. The Senators who forged this bipartisan law should rein in what appears to be FHWA running amuck, as if something like the discarded House bill had been enacted. FHWA should comply with the law as written and rescind this intrusive “guidance.”
Recently, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) created the State Highway Induced Frequency of Travel (SHIFT) calculator that purports to measure long-run induced vehicle miles traveled and emissions impacts from capacity expansions in urban areas. The calculator uses lane miles and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) data from FHWA. It was modeled on a calculator the group created for Colorado.
Unfortunately, the calculator makes questionable assumptions, has major limitations and calculates induced demand incorrectly. Its real goal seems to be to prevent the construction of any new urban roadway miles.
The calculator treats all new travel as bad. Yet, increasing roadway capacity in urban areas has at least three benefits. First, new road capacity creates economic benefits. It allows employees to reach a larger number of employers in a given time, creating a better match between employees and employers. It promotes economic activity by increasing the number of consumers that can reach businesses in 15 minutes.
Second, new roadway capacity has safety benefits. Many suburban roadways are widened from narrow, curvy two-lane roads to four-lane divided highways, partly for better mobility but also for increased safety.
Third, new roadway capacity can reduce greenhouse gas emissions if it allows free-flowing traffic to replace stop-and-go traffic (free-flowing traffic generates less greenhouse gas emissions).
The calculator has other limitations. It examines principal arterials (including Interstates and other freeways) only. That’s not ideal because widening a collector may impact a parallel arterial. But since the calculator does not have data for the collector, it would be unable to explain how a widened arterial might decrease travel on the collector. The diversion of traffic from a more-local to a more-regional highway would be considered a positive by most neighborhood groups. And the calculator is unable to analyze rural areas. While induced travel is a bigger problem in urban areas, it also exists in some rural locations.
Further, the calculator fails to differentiate between priced and non-priced capacity. Adding variably-priced express toll lanes to an Interstate has been proven to reduce induced demand compared with adding general purpose lanes. Further, express toll lanes encourage solo commuters to switch to vanpools or buses, a policy that opponents of new VMT should want to encourage.
But the calculator’s biggest problem is that it is technically inaccurate. Instead of separating existing trips made at a different time or on a different roadway from new trips, the calculator assumes all new travel that happens at a given time at any given point is induced demand. I’ll use the proposed addition of two express toll lanes in each direction to I-35 in Austin, Texas, to illustrate the point. Anti-roadway groups label five types of roadway travel as induced demand. (A more in-depth commentary on induced demand by Arizona State University professor Steve Polzin is available here).
The first type is demand attributed to growth in population, employment, or activity. I-35, which has not been widened in more than 30 years, is much narrower than similar Interstates in Texas’ other major metro areas: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio. Between 2010 and 2020, Austin’s population increased by 34%. TxDOT has proposed widening I-35 to accommodate that new growth, not create new demand.
The second type is demand associated with redistributing existing travelers. Let’s assume that TxDOT is able to widen I-35 as planned, and some traffic switches from Loop 1 (aka the Mopac expressway) to the I-35 express lanes to travel from downtown to Round Rock. Those vehicles switching highways do so because I-35 is closer to their origin and destination. In fact, using I-35 leads to fewer vehicle miles traveled and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
The third type is demand associated with travelers changing their commute times. For example, let’s say that a commuter would prefer to leave work at 5:30 pm local time, but chooses to wait until 6:30 pm due to traffic congestion. With the new variably-priced toll lanes, she chooses to leave at 5:30 pm and is able to cook dinner instead of ordering take-out. Switching the time of her travel does not increase VMT. In fact, the ability to cook at home instead of ordering take-out reduces overall VMT.
The fourth type is demand associated with shifting from alternative modes and the fifth type is demand associated with new trip generation. Both of these types can be induced demand.
When I entered each of the five scenarios into the RMI induced demand calculator, the calculator indicated that each one would induce the same amount of travel. They would each create 801 to 1,201 million new VMT per year, burn 53 million more gallons of gasoline, and create 6.4-12.3 million more metric tons of carbon dioxide. Yet the increase in population, changes in travel routes, and changes in travel times are not inducing any new travel. Shifting alternative modes induces some new travel while the new trip generation is the only scenario that induces significant new demand. The calculator should produce at least three (and ideally five) different sets of numbers for the five scenarios but it produces only one set. Since the calculator makes so many assumptions, it functions as a black box using faulty inputs. A simpler description of how it works might, unfortunately, be—garbage in, garbage out.
To its credit, RMI noted that the calculator is “…(B)est used to understand order-of-magnitude impacts, rather than precise, project-specific outcomes.” Unfortunately, that did not stop some of RMI’s partners from making unsubstantiated claims. Streetsblog claimed, “A groundbreaking new calculator gives advocates the tools they need to instantly show the real impacts of proposed highway expansions in their communities — and the experts behind the project hope that transportation agencies will someday be required to use it, too.”
For highway users, Streetsblog’s comments show that some groups are likely to use this faulty tool to try to prevent state transportation departments from building any new urban highway capacity. Project experts need to explain the flaws and limitations of this calculator so that transportation agencies are not hoodwinked into using this flawed tool.
November’s enactment of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law (BIL) was unprecedented in many ways, as was discussed in detail in last month’s issue of this newsletter. Perhaps the biggest winner was struggling intercity passenger railroad Amtrak, which currently serves less than 0.1% of person trips in the U.S. As Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation pointed out, the $66 billion in BIL intercity passenger rail funding is equivalent “to the total amount appropriated by Congress for the Federal Railroad Administration (including all pass-through grants to Amtrak) for fiscal years 2004 through 2021, inclusive of the [Obama administration’s] ARRA stimulus and all the recent COVID aid.”
Much attention has been given to the unique opportunity for Amtrak to finally address long-standing infrastructure needs along its principal Northeast corridor, for which it will receive $30 billion of that $66 billion in total rail spending. But what Amtrak chooses to do—and what regulators allow it to do—outside the Northeast corridor may have the biggest societal impacts due to the potential for negative interactions with freight railroads.
The BIL appropriated $16 billion for Amtrak’s national network, which operates on tracks owned by host freight railroads. These routes are heavily subsidized by state and federal taxpayers and carry a vanishingly small share of America’s passenger traffic. But because this 20,000-plus-mile network snakes through 46 states, it can always count on majority support among the 100 U.S. Senators—the primary “customers” of Amtrak’s national network.
In the May issue of this newsletter (“The Coming Conflict Between Freight Rail and Amtrak Expansion,” May 12), I discussed an ongoing dispute between Amtrak and freight carriers CSX and Norfolk Southern between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans. Amtrak suspended Gulf Coast service after Hurricane Katrina washed away much of the track in 2005. Restoring service without negatively impacting freight traffic has been estimated to be extremely costly, with a mid-range estimated cost to freight railroads (commissioned by the Florida DOT and conducted by HNTB) coming in at $1.2 to $1.3 billion in 2018 dollars.
In 2020, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak agreed to jointly commission a new Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) modeling study from HDR that was supposed to be completed by December of that year. But when HDR encountered a software problem that delayed its final analysis, Amtrak unexpectedly pulled out of the study and in March 2021 petitioned the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to compel the freight carriers to grant Amtrak access to their facilities so passenger rail service could be restarted in 2022. The railroads, freight customers, and passenger railfans have been battling before the Board ever since. In November, the STB granted Amtrak access to CSX’s Choctaw Yard in Mobile for planning purposes, but a hearing has yet to be scheduled on Amtrak’s service restoration petition, casting doubt on Amtrak’s ability to restart Gulf Coast service in 2022 even if it prevails.
The Gulf Coast dispute between Amtrak and host freight railroads is viewed as a bellwether case in Amtrak’s goal of launching dozens of new passenger routes on freight tracks across the country. Amtrak has a strong ally in the Biden administration, which has committed to “sparking the second great railroad revolution.” While certainly not pocket change, $66 billion in federal intercity rail spending over five years is less than what private freight railroads invest in their networks with their own funds. This suggests that whatever happens with the $16 billion in Amtrak national network taxpayer subsidies will be neither great nor revolutionary.
Wasteful transportation expenditures are hardly unique to passenger rail generally or Amtrak specifically. But what makes this move by Congress especially concerning is the potential for inefficient Amtrak trains to displace efficient freight trains. Under federal law, Amtrak has legal priority over freight trains on the freight carriers’ own tracks. Due to the differences between freight and passenger trains—namely speed and length—increasing passenger train density on freight tracks will cause significant disruptions to freight rail operations. Rail shippers in the Gulf Coast have understandably sounded the alarm to the STB that restarting Amtrak service without additional infrastructure capacity would negatively impact their businesses.
Faced with less-reliable freight rail service, some shippers would shift their traffic to trucks. And herein lies the Biden administration’s rail policy dilemma: trucks produce about 10 times as much carbon dioxide per ton-mile as freight trains in the U.S., according to 2021 documentation from the Environmental Protection Agency. Pushing even a small share of freight rail traffic onto the highways would increase the transportation sector’s emissions intensity and undermine the Biden administration’s professed interest in greening transportation. Subsidizing unpopular Amtrak service is not only a bad deal for taxpayers; it’s bad for the planet.
We’ve been lonely in warning about the Biden administration’s contradictory rail policy agenda for some time, but the mainstream political press may be taking notice. A recent editorial from the Bloomberg Opinion Editorial Board harshly criticized Amtrak’s expansionist agenda (“Don’t Add to Amtrak’s Boondoggles,” Dec. 29). The Bloomberg editors rightly conclude, “Even on optimistic assumptions, a decades-long expansion of passenger rail is a grossly inefficient way to fight climate change.”
In December traffic data firm INRIX released its 2021 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard. It reports congestion data for the top 25 U.S. metro areas, the top 25 European metro areas, and the top 10 cities in the United Kingdom and in Germany. Also included are data on the 25 worst corridors in the United States and the 10 worst corridors in the U.K. and in Germany.
One of the most striking findings is that only four U.S. metro areas make it onto the table of the world’s 25 most-congested ones: New York (5th), Chicago (6th), Philadelphia (13th), and Boston (18th). The non-U.S. metro areas in that top 10 are London (1st), Paris (2nd), Brussels (3rd), Rome (7th), Bogota (8th), Palermo (9th), and Istanbul (10th). What is common to all 10 most-congested metro areas? All are what can be called legacy transit cities, with a concentration of jobs in the traditional central business district and well-developed rail transit systems. This is the model we are told is “smart” growth (high density of jobs and residents, ample mass transit)—yet these are the world’s most congested metro areas.
Here’s another interesting result. Comparing the tables of the 25 most-congested metro areas in Europe with the 25 most-congested U.S. metro areas, in Europe the average per-commuter delay ranges from 148 hours per year in London to 65 hours in Berlin. By contrast, the U.S. average delay per commuter ranges from 102 hours (New York) to just 21 (Phoenix). And the average delay for the 25 European cities is 94 hours compared with 51 hours in America’s top 25. What brings down the U.S. average are the much lower delay totals for lower-density, suburban metro areas such as Houston (58 hours), Atlanta (53), Dallas (44), Denver (40), Austin (32), Las Vegas (28), and Phoenix (21). In other words, the very model denounced as “suburban sprawl” seems to result in decidedly lower congestion than in high-density, transit-rich metro areas.
One of the reasons for the lower congestion levels in suburbanized metro areas is the suburbanization of jobs that has followed the suburbanization of housing over the past 70 years in the United States. The freeway and tollway networks that have been created to serve these growing areas are an effort to connect anywhere to anywhere via multimodal (car, bus, and truck) roadway networks.
The INRIX analysts collect billions of anonymous data points each day from mobile devices, navigation devices, connected vehicles, fleet vehicles, and road and garage infrastructure, covering all roads. Thus, it is well suited to cover the trips being made from anywhere to anywhere in every metro area surveyed.
To be sure, in nearly all the metro areas covered in this report, traffic levels and delay hours in 2021 were lower than in 2019, since all areas were recovering from pandemic-induced working from home and shifts away from transit to cars. By December 2022 we will be in a better position to assess how much traffic and congestion have returned to “normal.”
More than a year after the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) of the counties on either side of the Mobile River in Alabama gave in to anti-toll sentiment, killing the original $2.1 billion toll-financed public-private partnership plan to replace the aging Mobile River Bridge and the parallel Bayway causeway, both MPOs voted last month to revive the original project.
Many months of debate, as well as discussions with Alabama DOT, led the MPOs to conclude that while the original fully toll-finance project was too ambitious (and was estimated to have required passenger car tolls of $3 to $6), the prospect of losing a $125 million federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) Grant, opposition from the trucking industry to a scheme that would have tolled only trucks, and the drawbacks of first doing only a replacement bridge with the other needed improvements stretched out over 25 years all led to a serious rethinking. As a result, both the Eastern Shore MPO and the Mobile MPO voted on December 15 to endorse a comprehensive solution, but with tolls to be charged only on the replacement bridge. Other crossings of the river—especially the Bayway—must remain non-tolled for passenger vehicles. The existing $125 million federal INFRA grant (which would have expired in September 2022 unless the project was moving toward construction) must be used, and the state must put in at least $250 million. Moreover, the project must be owned by the state, not by any U.S. or foreign private company.
This is good news for east-west mobility in Alabama and Florida, as well as being an important step toward rebuilding and modernizing aging I-10. And assuming ALDOT agrees to these conditions, the project could return to the original concept of being a toll-financed P3. Under such design/build/finance/operate/maintain (DBFOM) agreements, the state remains the owner of the infrastructure, but the P3 firm has ongoing stewardship responsibilities to operate and maintain the project for the life of the long-term agreement.
Two points about the tolling provisions will need further analysis to ensure a financeable project. First, an investment-grade traffic and revenue study will be required, including estimates of truck toll revenue and of diversions by passenger vehicles to non-tolled alternatives. That will determine how much additional state funding may be required to make the project viable.
Second, the MPOs’ provision that the tolls expire as soon as the original debt has been paid off should be open to serious discussion. Assuming 30-year toll revenue bonds, if issued in 2025 they would be paid off in 2055. By that point, electric vehicles might have become 40-50% of all personal vehicles and a smaller fraction of trucks, and ever-higher federal mpg requirements will have further reduced gasoline and diesel consumption—and hence state fuel tax revenue. Alabama will need a new highway funding source by that point, and the bridge will still have operating and maintenance costs. The bridge will have had a replacement funding source in place for three decades. What sense would it make to throw it away at that point in time?
Incidentally, a poll of 455 registered voters in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, conducted after the MPOs’ December 15 decision, found that 75% supported the new framework for the Mobile River Bridge and Bayway. The poll was commissioned by the nonprofit Coastal Alabama Partnership.
Recent months have seen a growing number of announcements of planned and under-way examples of big-rig trucks hauling commercial freight for mainstream trucking companies in Texas. These trucks are equipped with SAE Level 4 automation, which means they can operate without a safety driver on specific types of roadways (e.g., limited-access Interstates) and in certain types of weather (e.g., not yet in snow and ice).
Last summer J. B. Hunt announced plans to test Class 8 trucks using Waymo automation to haul freight between Houston and Fort Worth along I-45. Embark Trucks, which automates existing trucks which it uses to haul freight, announced plans to serve a route between Houston and San Antonio, presumably along I-10. The company has been working with Texas A&M University to test its autonomous capabilities before putting them into service on public roads. Aurora, another developer of truck automation, plans to operate a subscription-based freight hauling system with Uber Freight. That service launched in December between Dallas and Houston. Uber Freight’s local partners handle the last-mile portions of these trips. In the shorter-haul sector, Gatik opened an autonomous trucking hub in Fort Worth for its 20 ft. and 24-ft. Level 4 box trucks, which make “middle-mile” delivery runs from warehouses to retailers.
I have increasingly come to see freight hauling as the most likely initial success for vehicle automation, because there are clear economic benefits. Once safety regulators are comfortable with omitting the onboard safety driver, a 600-mile run that currently takes 22 hours for a driver to complete manually (due to mandatory non-driving time under federal Hours of Service regulation) could be accomplished in 12 hours. That’s a major cost-saving. (Without a driver on board, if the automation encounters a situation it cannot handle, a fail-safe system must be able to slow and stop the truck out of traffic lanes and call for help.)
Another promising approach may be truck platooning, in which only the lead truck has a human driver, with several others trailing behind without drivers, under control of the lead truck’s automation. One of the pioneers in this approach is Locomation, which last June announced an eight-year agreement with flatbed carrier PGT Trucking. Under the agreement, Locomation will deploy 1,000 autonomous relay convoy (ARC) systems on more than 30 of PGT’s routes.
As with robotaxis and automated air taxis, these are still early days for truck automation. But major truck original equipment makers (OEMs) are nearly all investing in automation platforms, as Daimler is currently doing with Waymo. They see the potential for increased trucking productivity which Level 4 automation can bring about.
Virginia Considers Adding Missing Link to Beltway Express Lanes
Over the past 20 years, Virginia DOT has used long-term, revenue-risk DBFOM P3s to build a network of express toll lanes in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. The network includes most of the I-495 Beltway—but not all of it. In December VDOT launched an environmental study of closing that 11-mile gap (between I-95 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the east). Counting both operational express lanes and others already under construction, the network will reach 90 route-miles by the end of 2022. VDOT will consider using another P3 for the 11-mile addition, assuming the new study shows it to be feasible.
Recharge an Electric Vehicle in Five Minutes?
A new kind of cable for charging electric vehicles (EVs) is under development by engineers at Purdue University, with patent protection pending. The problem with fast charging today is the heat generated by energy traversing the cable. The Purdue invention uses a new way to cool the charging cable that reportedly can deliver a current 4.6 times that of the fastest existing chargers. If this pans out, it could lead to fast charging in as little as five minutes. The research is part of a joint Purdue/Ford Motor Co. R&D program. The Purdue news release notes that, as of November, the prototype had not yet been tested on EVs. But laboratory tests show that it can handle a current of more than 2,400 amps—far more than the 520 amps delivered by today’s fastest chargers. If this proves to be both feasible and affordable, it could dramatically change EV charging.
P3 Express Toll Lanes Get BBB Ratings
Fitch Ratings has upgraded its ratings of the financing used by LBJ Infrastructure Group for the express toll lanes P3 project on the LBJ Freeway in Dallas. Senior secured notes, Private Activity Bonds, and the project’s TIFIA loan were all upgraded from BBB- to BBB. Fitch noted that “the facility has recovered from the pandemic broadly in line with Fitch’s projections,” and that “above-average population and employment growth is expected to drive traffic growth at solid levels over the long term.” The $2.6 billion project added up to three express toll lanes each way to what had been a highly congested stretch of I-635 in Dallas, using an innovative design that did not widen the freeway’s footprint.
$2.5 Billion Tunnels Project in Melbourne
As part of an $8.35 billion P3 project called the North East Link, a construction consortium (Spark) headed by Webuild and John Laing Investors was recently awarded a $2.48 billion contract to build twin 3-lane tunnels 6.5 km in length, reports World Highways. Spark will also hold a 7.5% stake in the P3 company that will operate and maintain the North East Link project once it is completed. The overall project fills in a missing link in Melbourne’s freeway network between the M80 and the Eastern Freeway.
India Continues Highway Asset Recycling
The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) announced plans to raise $400 million via a new Infrastructure Investment Trust announced last month. Either two or three existing highways will be up for monetization in 2022. In its 2021 monetization, NHAI offered a set of five operating toll roads totaling 390 km in the states of Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Telangana, with lease terms of 30 years for each tollway. Investors in that round included Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Ontario Teachers’ Pension plan, each holding 25% of the investment trust. Other investors include insurance companies, banks, and other financial institutions. That monetization yielded $675 million.
Millennials Power Housing Market
Despite a later start in going from renting to owning, the millennial generation is now the largest participant in home-purchase loans, according to a front-page Wall Street Journal article on December 15. The pandemic and the expansion of remote work appear to be factors motivating the shift to home ownership by this generation. The article cites CoreLogic data showing that millennials in 2021 accounted for 67% of first-time home purchase loan applications and 37% of repeat home purchase applications. So much for the notion that, unlike their predecessors, millennials prefer to rent downtown and avoid car ownership. They are now becoming suburban homeowners like previous generations.
Auto Alliance Favors EV Charging at Interstate Rest Areas
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which includes nearly all U.S., European, and Japanese automakers plus startups such as Argo and Cruise, and tech companies such as Panasonic and Texas Instruments, issued a three-page document last month, “Planning for the Electric Future: Charging Station Attributes.” Among its many sensible recommendations is the following, under the heading of EV Charging on Federal Highways: “EV charging should be permitted at federal highway and Interstate properties. With [current] federal restrictions on the location of EV chargers on federal highways, guidance from the White House, U.S. DOT, and DOE will be essential for states regarding the $5 billion in EV charging funding allocated via highway formula.” Incidentally, the new tolled Bengaluru-Mysuru expressway in India will get 14 EV charging stations, according to The Times of India.
Cap, Don’t Remove, Freeways that Divide Communities
The Cross-Bronx Expressway is one of the highways that Robert Moses forced through various parts of the New York City metro area in the 1950s and 1960s. Its 6.5 route-miles cut the Bronx in two. On the other hand, it is one of the busiest freeways in the metro area. Fortunately, rather than proposing its removal, a coalition has devised a plan that would put a deck or “cap” over the below-grade portions, reconnecting neighborhoods with parks and other local land uses. The state DOT has recently allocated $2 million for a feasibility study of capping the two miles that are below grade, at an estimated cost of $1 billion. Projects like this have been implemented in Atlantic City, Dallas, Denver, Duluth, Phoenix, and Seattle, as well as a number of locations in Europe.
Nikola and Tesla Close to Introducing Electric Big Rigs
Last summer Tesla’s Elon Musk announced that its promised Tesla Semi will be produced at its under-construction Gigafactory in Austin. Tesla is also using a few Semi prototypes to deliver cars from its production facility in Fremont, CA to Reno, described as a “fantastic test route.” Competitor Nikola in December delivered its first Tre battery-electric drayage trucks to Total Transportation Services, a company serving the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The Tre has a range of 350 miles and is aimed at regional deliveries, not long-haul freight. Nikola now projects deliveries of its long-distance hydrogen fuel-cell trucks in 2023.
Politics Upending Toll-Financed Causeway Upgrade in Miami
Concerns over likely increased tolls are leading Miami-Dade County officials to rescind the under-way competitive bidding process and possibly start over sometime in 2022. The original unsolicited proposal from the Plan Z consortium called for toll-financed replacement and refurbishment of the tolled Rickenbacker Causeway’s aging bridges and the addition of bikeways and revenue-generating concessions and event spaces along the four-mile causeway linking the mainland with affluent Key Biscayne. The project’s future is now up in the air.
Amtrak Intends to Compete with Texas Central Railway
As part of its $16 billion plan to expand its intercity passenger rail service, Amtrak is proposing more-frequent service between Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston, the sole route of Texas Central, the planned partially-privately financed high-speed rail service. Since Amtrak is heavily subsidized by taxpayers and charges fares on inter-city trains far below its operating cost, this proposal should be seriously questioned. Then again, struggling (non-subsidized) inter-city bus lines are facing similar threats of highly subsidized competition from Amtrak. How is this in the public interest?
Useful Overview of U.S. Freight Network
Given all the concern over U.S. supply-chain problems, The Road Information Program (TRIP) has produced a useful overview, “The U.S. Freight Network’s Critical Role in the Supply Chain.” Drawing on various federal data sources (including the still-unreleased 2021 DOT Conditions & Performance Report), it details where congestion is worst, the top 20 truck bottlenecks, the top 25 domestic freight corridors (ranked by travel time reliability), and recent data on the condition of major highways and bridges. Go here.
Pennsylvania Legislator’s Plan to “Fix” Turnpike’s Missed Revenue
Since the Pennsylvania Turnpike sensibly shifted from cash to all-electronic tolling early in the pandemic, it has lost $104 million in revenue due to toll evasion (about 7% of total revenue). State Sen. Marty Flynn has a proposal: require the Turnpike to hire back toll collectors to take cash tolls at “high-density locations.” No cost estimate was provided for this proposed mandate, but it would make far better sense to spend the money on proven techniques for getting evaders to pay up, as used by successful toll roads around the country. And if the Turnpike is forced to hire toll collectors, good luck getting rid of them once the evasion problem has been fixed.
Houston I-45 Project Moving Forward Again, for Now
Texas DOT’s $10 billion plan to rebuild I-45 and its connections to I-10 and I-69 on the east side of Houston has received federal permission to continue design work on a section of I-69 and a nearby interchange, while FHWA continues its investigation of possible civil rights violations due to the project’s large planned property takes in low-income and minority communities.
Bullish Forecast for Toll Road Traffic
Rating agency Moody’s Investors Service, in a report released on December 2, estimates that the median toll road will gain 2% more traffic and 4% more revenue in 2022. The vast majority of U.S. toll roads report that their traffic had returned to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association. One of the few outliers is the Golden Gate Bridge, still impacted by the large increase in working from home.
Maryland Purple Line Gets New Design-Build Contractor
The troubled Purple Line light rail project, which has been seriously delayed by right of way acquisition problems and environmental opposition (leading to the withdrawal of its original design-build team) finally has has a replacement contractor. Purple Line Transit Partners, the P3 company doing the project, in November announced that a team of Dragados USA and OHL USA will be the new design-build company. The project was financed as an availability-payment (AP) design-build-finance-operate-maintain P3.
“Environmental Activists Want to Engineer a Utopia”
That is the title of a thoughtful article stimulated by last fall’s Conference of the Parties (COP26), which aimed to generate commitments from more than 100 national governments on reducing their carbon footprints. Author Michael Sena explains the important differences between a top-down, centrally planned approach to this problem and a more pragmatic engineering approach. The piece appears in the January 2022 issue of Michael’s excellent newsletter on transportation, The Dispatcher. Go here.
How Behavioral Biases Lead to Cost Overruns and Under-Performance
Megaprojects expert Bent Flyvbjerg has a new journal article that seeks to explain in greater depth the underlying reasons why such projects nearly always experience cost overruns and shortfalls in projected performance. He plumbs the relatively new field of behavioral economics for answers. “Top Ten Behavioral Biases in Project Management: An Overview” appears in Project Management Journal, Vol. 52 (6) pp. 531-546.
“[O]nly 8% of the distance traveled by land in the EU is by rail. Even in the most train-happy countries, Austria and the Netherlands, the figures are 13% and 11%. In [EU] countries, more than 75% of land travel is done by car. Statistics on cross-border rail are patchy, but EU figures show that people made only 6.5 million international trips by train from Germany in 2019. They made 110 million by air, just to other countries in the EU. Shifting a significant share to rail will require huge investments.”
—”EU Railways: Disoriented Express,” The Economist, Nov. 13, 2021
“In the 1980s and 1990s, special interest groups successfully blocked adoption of so-called longer combination vehicles. Utilizing those longer tractor-trailers could have allowed freight to move more efficiently in fewer trucks. That could have meant less tailpipe emissions from big rigs, less-crowded highways, and a less-severe driver shortage. But we caved to special interests and their fear mongering. With autonomous trucks, we can’t repeat this mistake. We must look past the fear and the special interests’ doomsday scenarios and focus on the competitive positioning of our nation’s economy.”
—Christopher Thornycroft (Redwood Logistics), “The U.S. Can Be a Leader in Autonomous Trucks—Or Get Left Behind,” TransportDive, Dec. 6, 2021
“As the firms have discovered, their businesses are less perpetual motion machines than real-world flywheels that inevitably lose energy to friction, says Jonathan Knee of Columbia Business school and author of a book entitled The Platform Delusion. The network effects have proved much weaker than expected. Many users switch between Uber and Lyft. Drivers also flit between them, or to delivery apps, depending on which model offers the best pay. This bargaining power from both sides means the system does not become self-reinforcing after all.”
—Schumpeter, “The Flywheel Delusion: Uber, DoorDash, and Similar Firms Can’t Defy the Laws of Capitalism After All,” The Economist, Nov. 13, 2021