- Florida DOT opens world’s most-advanced express toll lanes
- EV charging will not target Interstate highways
- Mileage-based user fee study breaks new ground
- DOT’s unserious supply chain proposal
- The 15-minute city?
- An expert’s assessment of automated vehicles
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
At the end of February, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) opened to traffic its $2.4 billion I-4 Ultimate project, after seven years of construction to rebuild 20 miles of congested I-4 through downtown Orlando, with two express toll lanes added each way in the median. The project rebuilt 15 major interchanges and widened 140 existing bridges. I attended a briefing on the project in late January at the annual meeting of TEAM Florida, the toll industry organization in Florida. FDOT engineer Jeremy Dilmore provided many details of the project, leading me to conclude that it is the most-advanced express toll lane project implemented to date.
The express lanes are located in the median of the widened Interstate, with concrete Jersey barriers separating them from the general purpose (GP) lanes (in addition to a median barrier, of course), to provide additional safety and fewer illegal cut-ins through plastic pylons used on many other express lanes. Where feasible, entry and exit to the express lanes is provided via direct connection ramps and elsewhere via more-conventional slip ramps from the adjacent general purpose lanes. The express lanes are priced by segment, with six variable-toll gantries westbound and seven eastbound.
The redesigned and rebuilt I-4 for these 20 route-miles now includes ramp meters in use during high-traffic periods to smooth out the entry of vehicles into the general purpose lanes. Each ramp meter traffic signal’s green-light interval is based on actual I-4 traffic volume, rather than being pre-set for peak periods. Other sensors detect whether there is a backup onto the surface street feeding the on-ramp and adjust the signal timing accordingly.
As with other Florida express toll lanes, a transponder is required for use. License plates are read for identification and enforcement purposes, but there is no “toll-by-plate” option, which is more costly to collect. Compatible transponders, in addition to the statewide SunPass, include several other Florida transponders, Georgia Peach Pass, North Carolina QuickPass, and multi-state E-ZPass.
Eligible vehicles include any two-axle vehicle with one of the above transponders plus registered buses and vanpools. There are no high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) or “green” vehicle discounts or freebies, which would reduce the effectiveness of variable pricing and reduce the revenue needed to help cover the project’s $2.4 billion cost.
Not included in Mr. Dilmore’s slides but revealed during the Q&A period is this important development. FDOT has reached agreements with Waze and Google Maps to provide real-time data on posted variable toll rates on the I-4 express lanes so that travelers can make their own trade-off between avoiding the general purpose lanes congestion and the price of doing so. This is an important precedent that should be expanded to all high occupancy toll (HOT) and express toll lane facilities around the country.
Finally, it’s widely known that FDOT is already in the planning stages for extending these express toll lanes both northward and southward on I-4 in the coming years. But in addition, FDOT announced last month that it plans to use some of the new federal money allocated to Florida to fast-track the extension of the westbound toll lanes from where they end near Kirkman Road to facilitate access to Walt Disney World at Epcot Center Drive (SR 536). It will be a single westbound toll lane, eliminating what would otherwise have been a difficult merge.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released its National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Formula Program Guidance document on Feb. 10. Contrary to a Wall Street Journal headline the same day, the program will exclude Interstate highways from having electric vehicle charging facilities. The only change the guidance document made to the previous policy was that the new money should be spent on facilities located no more than one mile (as opposed to five miles) from an Interstate off-ramp.
Prior to releasing this document, FHWA had issued a request for information (RFI) about electric vehicle (EV) charging. Members of a large, ad-hoc coalition including state transportation departments, EV organizations, environmental groups, and others submitted comments by the Jan. 28 due date, arguing (among other things) for opening up Interstate rest areas to EV charging, despite the long-standing legal ban in 23 USC 111 that prohibits commercial services (other than vending machines) at rest areas.
The submission from the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association argued that the offending federal code section “should be revised to address barriers to sales of electricity along federal-aid highways” and more broadly “to allow commercial activity”—which would require a change in federal law. Ironically, the 2021 House surface transportation bill (rejected in favor of the Senate bill that became the bipartisan infrastructure law) included a legal change to allow electric charging at Interstate rest areas.
A number of members of the “23-111” coalition proposed a change that FHWA arguably could have made without new legislation. For example, the Ohio Department of Transportation’s submission argued that “FHWA can expand the definition of vending under 23 USC 111 to include EV charging, which would effectively eliminate the barrier at rest areas. The expansion would give State Departments of Transportation flexibility to engage public-private partners in the deployment of EV charging infrastructure, and drivers and fleet operators choice. . . . This administrative change can be executed immediately, under FHWA’s existing authority and without congressional approval.”
Given the very short time between the deadline to submit RFI comments (Jan. 28) and the release of the FHWA guidance documents (Feb. 10), one DOT director emailed, “Received guidance this morning. Fairly obvious that FHWA didn’t take RFI comments into account, since the comment period closed just 7 working days ago.” That jibes with this comment from a transportation colleague of mine: “That lines up with chatter I heard at the TRB [annual] meeting in early January, that FHWA’s guidance was already fully baked and that the RFI was just going through the motions.”
Whatever its reasons for ignoring the “vending machine” proposal, FHWA has set back what could have been a robust effort by state transportation departments and commercial partners to expand lackluster Interstate rest areas with convenient and easily accessible electric vehicle charging facilities, for motorists and commercial vehicles alike.
The idea of replacing per-gallon fuel taxes with per-mile charges (aka Mileage-Based User Fees—MBUFs) has received national attention since at least 2009, when Paying Our Way: A New Framework for Transportation Finance was released as the final report of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. After examining dozens of options, the commission members concluded that MBUF was the best and fairest approach. Since that time, a dozen states have embarked on pilot projects to test highway user reaction to paying per mile, rather than per gallon. Congress has been offering grant funds for these pilots since 2008, and much has been learned from them.
Last month, The Eastern Transportation Coalition (TET Coalition) released a report on what it has learned from several multi-state MBUF pilot projects, two of them involving serious participation from trucking company fleets. The 108-page report offers important findings and conclusions, based on those ambitious multi-state pilots.
First let’s review the major findings, which reinforce what single-state pilot projects have learned. After that, I’ll discuss the coalition’s important new findings on MBUFs and trucking.
One of the most important findings is that while motorist privacy is a well-known concern, the TET Coalition found that 52% of participants began the pilot with privacy concerns, but by the end of the pilot only 7% still had those concerns. The combination of having alternative ways of reporting miles driven, understanding what various technologies do and don’t do, and serious, believable privacy-protection rules seems to be responsible for that dramatic change. This is very positive for the future of mileage-based user fees.
Not mentioned in the report’s summary is the fact that the coalition’s pilots (like nearly all the others) stressed that the MBUF would replace fuel taxes, not supplement them. That is critically important for gaining enough public support to achieve the intended transition.
Another key finding debunks—with data—the widespread belief that shifting to per-mile charges would disadvantage rural drivers. The TET Coalition’s findings reinforce those of most state pilot projects—specifically, that on average rural drivers would pay a bit less under an MBUF system and urban drivers may pay a bit more. That is because—again, on average—rural residents drive older, less fuel-efficient vehicles so that even if they drive somewhat more miles per year than urban drivers, they would end up paying slightly less than they do under current fuel taxes.
Most of the drivers in the 2020-21 pilot were from Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The data for these states showed that the average rural driver in each would pay $9 less per year (DE), $13 less per year (NJ), $17 less a year (NC), and $34 less per year (PA).
In my view, the most important new findings in the 2020-21 national pilot concern the trucking industry. It included 221 trucks (mostly 80,000-pound Class 8 big rigs) from 21 different operators, logging 11 million miles that included all 48 contiguous states over the six-month National Truck Pilot. Each truck had an onboard unit provided by EROAD that recorded and reported miles, by state, and which interfaced with the existing International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) and International Registration Plan (IRP)—two institutions created decades ago to give state and (Canadian) provincial governments and the trucking industry the data needed to divvy up fuel tax revenues fairly.
In the TET coalition’s earlier truck pilot (2018-2019), the MBUF rate was linked to a truck’s miles per gallon category, in an effort to be “fair” to fleets with older and newer vehicles. One finding from that pilot was that this ended up penalizing trucks with the best fuel economy and undercharging those with the worst fuel economy (but which produce the same amount of wear and tear on the highway). The national pilot (2020-2021) shifted to a weight-based formula for the MBUF, so that trucks in a given weight category would all pay the same state per-mile rate. This sensible change came about in part due to the deliberations of the coalition’s new Motor Carrier Working Group, which includes members from trucking companies, trucking associations, truck producers, freight shippers, and regulators. While the working group is actively participating in MBUF pilots and policy discussions, it does so with the proviso that at this time, participation “does not equate to support of MBUF,” which is an understandable position at this stage.
The Working Group’s Rate Setting Task Force worked on that topic during 2021 and concluded that using weight is a better approach than mpg, as the basis for MBUF rates. Another key point was that policy makers should understand and work with the long-standing IFTA and IRP as organizations that could evolve to play key roles in operating a national approach to truck MBUFs. And the coalition’s report promises that “In future work, the coalition will test the feasibility of incorporating [truck] MBUF into the existing IFTA and IRP systems.”
Yet another strong recommendation from the working group is that funding increases over time from the shift away from declining fuel-tax revenue should be spent on roads and bridges, referred to as the truckers’ workplace. This is breakthrough stuff. The TET Coalition and the Motor Carrier Working Group deserve our appreciation for moving this country further toward a workable transition to mileage-based user fees.
On Feb. 24, exactly one year after President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14017 on America’s supply chains, the administration released a 10-point plan, seven agency-specific reports, and a summary “capstone report” aimed at diagnosing and treating America’s supply chain afflictions. Those materials are available here.
As expected, this anniversary fete was primarily about repackaging past campaign rhetoric and policy commitments to partisan political constituencies rather than advancing evidence-based policy to address specific problems. However, several claims made by the Biden administration, and in particular from U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), deserve closer scrutiny because they reflect a profound lack of seriousness. Some of these policy recommendations would worsen and prolong the supply chain crisis (and in some cases, already have)—something Congress should seek to avoid.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s report is titled “Freight and Logistics Supply Chain Assessment.” It contains 62 policy recommendations that follow from 17 policy goals, which in turn are categorized into five federal policy roles: infrastructure investment, planning and technical assistance, research and data, rules and regulations, and coordination and partnerships. Each of the 62 policy recommendations is characterized by anticipated impact, cost, and level of complexity.
While most would have little impact, some of the goals and policy recommendations are quite reasonable for addressing supply chain problems. For instance, as part of the federal role of “Infrastructure Investment” and under the goal of “Address supply chain bottlenecks,” recommendation eight reads, “Support State DOTs and the private sector to develop and implement strategies that expand truck parking availability consistent with local land use considerations and address safety of rest areas.” This was characterized as having a high impact, medium cost, and medium complexity.
Others are less reasonable and, in some cases, don’t mention that these policies have already failed. For example, as part of the federal role of “Rules and Regulations” and under the goal of “Support domestic production of critical equipment” (a dubious protectionist goal to begin with), recommendation 46 calls for “focus[ing] on increasing domestic manufacturing of new chassis, containers…”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has already implemented this policy, with the terrible results many predicted. Ignoring warnings from supply chain and logistics experts, the Biden administration increased the Trump administration-initiated tariffs on Chinese intermodal container chassis from 25% to 246% in 2021, more than tripling the price of these chassis that represented 85% of the market. Rather than bolster American competitiveness in chassis manufacturing, the Trump-Biden chassis import taxes exacerbated critical equipment shortages that have been identified as one of the primary supply chain chokepoints. Amusingly, the DOT report characterized this policy recommendation as having the highest impact, a medium cost, and medium complexity.
Recommendation 42 urges the administration to “consider the ways in which [trade policy actions] might impact relevant supply chains.” To be sure, DOT has no role in President Biden’s imprudent and destructive tariffs that he could unilaterally repeal at trivial cost to the Treasury, but this recommendation highlights the blinkered viewpoint presented in the DOT report and the shallowness of the administration’s entire E.O. 14017 dog and pony show.
Other lowlights include:
- Recommendation 7: Explore the potential to increase U.S.-flagged ships, shipping companies, and shipbuilding. The Jones Act and cargo preference laws have attempted to do this for more than a century. The results have been a moribund domestic shipbuilding industry, fewer transportation choices at higher prices, and more brittle international logistics networks.
- Recommendation 40: Urge Congress to eliminate the Fair Labor Standards Act motor carrier exemption. Setting aside the debate on the merits, increasing transportation costs would not improve the current supply chain situation.
- Recommendation 43: Support the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) in regulating ocean carriers to promote free and fair competition. This is in support of, among other things, a crackdown on detention and demurrage fees, which are effectively congestion charges and one of the few tools carriers possess to incentivize customers to increase container velocity.
But perhaps the strangest and most counterproductive recommendation in the DOT report relates to freight rail. Under the policy goal of “Strengthen market competition and fairness,” recommendation 45 reads, “Encourage the STB to require railroad track owners to provide rights of way to passenger rail and to strengthen their obligations to treat other freight companies fairly,” categorized as having a high impact, a low cost, with high complexity.
This is less of a recommendation than a clumsy reference to two ongoing proceedings at STB. The first relates to a petition filed by Amtrak demanding access to tracks owned by freight railroads between Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans. Along with the CSX and Norfolk Southern track owners, dozens of freight rail customers filed comments in opposition, warning of more delay and less reliable service that would result from granting Amtrak’s Gulf Coast petition. This is viewed as a bellwether case with national implications, as was discussed in the May 2021 and January 2022 issues of this newsletter. Reason Foundation also submitted comments to the STB in February.
The second relates to a proposal from the STB—previously endorsed in Executive Order 14036 from July 2021—that would modify regulations governing mandatory “reciprocal switching.” Reciprocal switching refers to a practice where one rail carrier exchanges the car(s) of another in order to allow a customer access to a facility served by only one carrier. This allows the competing carrier to offer single-line service to the customer even though its track does not physically reach a customer’s facility.
Railroads voluntarily enter into reciprocal switching arrangements when it makes sense for the parties involved, but railroads warn that a new mandate will increase operational complexity and result in travel delays. The Association of American Railroads offers an example where switching a single railcar requires 68 locomotive operations, the use of three switching yards, and six days to complete. And because this regulatory proposal aims to drive down rates similar to a price control, another anticipated outcome is reduced capital expenditure from rail carriers as investors move to safeguard their returns. Rather than improving the flow of goods and strengthening supply chains, the STB’s proposed reciprocal switching regulations would likely harm both short- and long-run supply chain resilience. Reason also submitted comments to the STB in February.
DOT’s report paints a troubling portrait of an administration failing to methodically identify and address very real supply chain challenges. There are no quick fixes to the supply chain crisis, but Congress could prevent the executive branch from making it worse through aggressive oversight, use of the Congressional Review Act, and exercising its power of the purse.
One of the trendier ideas in urban planning in recent years has been the “30-minute city.” It is being advocated by academics who focus on “access to destinations” rather than travel speed, including David Levinson, who pioneered some of the “access” studies when he was at the University of Minnesota. The idea is that cities and transportation should be modified so that every resident can get to all relevant destinations in 30 minutes. It hasn’t seemed to bother advocates of this idea that the University of Minnesota studies of access to workplaces showed that in the largest 50 U.S. metro areas, most people can reach the large majority of employment opportunities by car in 30 minutes or less. But they can access only a small fraction of job locations in 30 minutes via transit.
But more recently, some mayors and planners have upped the ante. As former World Bank urban planner and now New York University scholar Alain Bertaud pointed out in a new paper, one of the many candidates in last year’s race for mayor of New York City, Shaun Donovan, proposed making New York a 15-minute city. “With my 15-minute neighborhood plan, every New Yorker will have access to a great education, rapid transportation, fresh food, parks, and everything they need to live a high-quality life within 15 minutes of their front door,” Donovan said.
More worryingly, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has embraced the “15-minute city” idea. That, in part, spurred Bertaud to write his new short paper, “The Last Utopia: The 15-Minute City.” In the paper Bertaud presents data on Paris as it actually exists, evaluating the current accessibility of food shops, kindergartens, primary schools, and jobs within walking distance of people’s residences. Since the farthest an average person can walk in 15 minutes is about 1,125 meters (0.7 mile), one can draw a circle of that radius around each residence, an area of 398 hectares (983 acres). But given the pattern of Paris streets, he reduces this to a polygon of about 300 hectares (741 acres). That represents about 3.4% of the municipal territory, within which all the important destinations must exist. The density of Paris implies an average of 77,000 people within that polygon.
Drawing on the database of Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR), Bertaud finds that there are, on average, 59 bakeries and 197 food shops in such a polygon. (It is Paris we are talking about, after all.) Kindergartens and primary schools are also widely distributed, he finds (though private schools are not included in the database). But he points out that Paris does not have the kind of zoning restrictions typical of New York and most other U.S. cities, so the same finding is unlikely here.
Next Bertaud turns to cultural venues—concerts, ballets, museums. This presents a major challenge to the 15-minute city, since in Paris and everywhere else, such venues are few and far between—and the large majority are not reachable on foot in 15 minutes. “How many Parisians prefer to attend a concert, a ballet, or an opera at a neighborhood school rather than the Garnier Opera House, Operat Bastille, or the Bataclan? Not very many.”
Finally, he turns to jobs and commuting. Bertaud presents a bar graph showing what fraction of the Paris population has commuting trips of various durations. Only 12% can get to work in 15 minutes or less, with 65% having commutes between 15 and 45 minutes, 15% with 45 to 59 minutes, and 8% with 60 minutes or more. And this is just for the city of Paris, not for the much larger Paris metro area. In fact, many of those who work in the city commute from outside it, including from far suburbs. And a smaller fraction of those living in the city work outside it. As Bertaud observes, “While many jobs are available within walking distance, many Parisians choose a distant commute . . . . That is precisely how labor markets work.”
In other writings, Bertaud has described large urban areas as job markets, and explained that the benefits of urban agglomeration emerge from the higher overall economic productivity that comes from employers being able to find the most capable employees drawing on the vast population—which also holds true for employees being able to find the best job opportunity to maximize their own economic returns, job satisfaction, etc. Proposals that would (somehow) restrict people to finding “a job” within 15 minutes of their home are a recipe for economic stagnation. Any metro area foolish enough to attempt such coercive planning would pay a high price in lost economic productivity.
Note: I have previously recommended Bertaud’s book, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, MIT Press, 2018. It includes extensive discussion of transportation policies consistent with maximizing urban agglomeration benefits.
During the last 10 years, the development of automated vehicles (AVs) has cycled through at least three of the five phases of the Gartner Hype Cycle (Innovation Trigger, Peak of Inflated Expectations, Trough of Disillusionment). Attendance at the Transportation Research Board’s Automated Vehicle Symposium grew from fewer than 100 in 2012 to more than 1,500 in 2018. Along with the increasing crowds came an increasingly unrealistic deployment timeline for automated vehicles. For example, Nissan promised to bring a fully autonomous vehicle to market by 2020.
However, not everybody bought into the hype. One of the pioneers in the automated vehicle space is retired University of California Berkeley Professor Steve Shladover, who founded the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) in the mid 1980s. Shladover, who helps organize the TRB conference, has long been one of the most realistic, at forecasting AVs.
Predicting technological developments is challenging. For example, who thought that in 2022 due to a global pandemic and computer chip shortage that many customers would have to preorder their new automobiles? While few expect the trend of paying as much as $10,000 above sticker price to continue, most expect the large discounts to be a thing of the past. And since we live in a world in which outlandish headlines receive the highest readership level, the popular press has gone from hyping AVs to issuing doomsday predictions about AVs such as a Forbes article predicting that chip shortages will Slam Future Self-Driving Car Rollouts.
While pundits often swing from one outlandish prediction to another, Shladover provides a balanced view in the journal Sustainability article Opportunities, Challenges, and Uncertainties in Urban Road Transport Automation, which provides an overview of the current state of AV technology and an explanation of future development.
The article starts by providing some background on urban transportation. In the 1970s, automated people movers (both airport trains and pod-like vehicles) were introduced, but the latter have become obsolete due to the high per capita costs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) turbocharged AV research in the U.S., at the same time Europe and Japan began researching automated transportation systems.
After providing some definitions, Shladover lists the benefits of AVs such as reductions in crash frequency and severity as well as increased accessibility for disadvantaged drivers. But he points out there are numerous uncertainties such as investors’ patience, technology development, costs, and public attitudes.
Shladover examines AV technology by Operational Design Domain (ODD) such as geographic location, roadway class, and traffic control devices. After self-driving airport trains, the next least-complicated deployment is low-speed passenger shuttle vans, such as EasyMile. However, at current speeds, these services are too slow to be effective transport.
One promising technology is sidewalk robots. These devices transport restaurant meals or groceries, particularly for students living near universities. While these devices can reduce traffic congestion, they have their own challenges. For example, they would be most cost-effective in the densest settings, but how many sidewalks in Manhattan have room for these devices? They also face external threats. Young children might want to play with them and others might want to damage them.
Another application that is developing is package delivery. Growth in e-commerce and home delivery of food as well as the challenge in finding drivers may make this a commercially viable technology.
However, other areas are fading from interest. Automating ride-hailing has proven challenging because the urban environment in which these vehicles operate is the hardest to automate. In addition, this technology does not scale well; rain/snow complicate operations. Finally, COVID-19 has shifted research from manned to unmanned vehicles.
Developing personal AVs is very important to the automotive industry. However, while Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 2 AVs are becoming common, Level 3 AVs have not yet been introduced, and Level 4 AVs remain years away. Even when Level 4 AVs are deployed, they will only be used in selected locations. How many drivers, either for individual use or fleets, will pay extra for technology that can be used in a limited number of locations? And manufacturers will have to determine how to maintain and support the vehicles.
AV technologies need further refinement. While many vehicles have multiple sensors, these sensors are not great at predicting the future motions of actors. For example, my new Level 2 AV has 360-degree camera technology, lane-keeping technology, dynamic cruise control, emergency braking, and more. Yet the camera cannot pick up a vehicle traveling perpendicular to my vehicle. The dynamic cruise control keeps my vehicle too far behind the vehicle in front of me. And I would not bet my life on the emergency braking. Right now, these technologies are optional equipment designed to sell vehicles. For Level-4 AVs to become widespread, this technology has to be foolproof. Even then the automated driving system (ADS) software will not be able manage every situation it encounters and will need access to remote support options.
Further, public and private entities need to do a better job at providing the physical infrastructure such as pavement markings and signs as well as the digital infrastructure such as mapping and real-time traffic signal phases.
Deploying AVs comes with its own uncertainties. If the current shortage of computer chips has taught us anything, it is that companies need to allow enough slack for uncertainties. This uncertainty is not limited to parts but includes the amount of risk companies will accept for accidents, the infrastructure that AVs can use (managed lanes for example), and the amount of deadheading mileage for Uber and Lyft. There are also demand uncertainties including federal motor vehicle certification, public perception of the technology, and how the technology is portrayed in the media.
Therefore, Shladover expects AVs to lag electrification and shared-use (the other two of the three revolutions introduced by Dan Sterling of UC Davis). That prediction makes sense since there are 20 electric vehicles on sale for model year 2022 and two companies—LyftLine and UberX Share—that offer shared rides. Level 4 AVs are on the horizon, but developers have many miles to travel before they reach thier destination.
What Is—and Isn’t—Induced Demand?
Opponents of highway capacity expansion tend to label any project to add lanes to a bridge or highway as almost certain to “induce demand’—meaning to motivate people to take motor-vehicle trips that they would not otherwise have taken. Long-time highway and transit researcher Steven Polzin has provided a careful assessment of factors that may lead to highway expansion projects and shows that of five different causes, only two have some prospect of inducing new demand. “Induced Demand’s Effect on Freeway Expansion” is a must-read for state DOTs and MPOs. Go here.
Georgia DOT Shifts to Revenue-Risk P3 for SR 400 Express Toll Lanes
Echoing its 2021 decision to procure three major express toll lane projects on I-285 as revenue-risk DBFOM P3s, on Feb. 22 GDOT announced that has decided to re-start its SR 400 project using that procurement model. It will hold a virtual industry forum this month and plans to issue a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) in the second quarter of this year, with an RFP likely in the third quarter. The next P3 project to be launched after that will be the first of the I-285 projects, I-285/I-20 West, with an RFQ planned for the first quarter of 2023.
House Republicans ask Buttigieg to Rescind FHWA Guidance Letter
Nearly all GOP members of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee on March 7 sent a letter to DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg asking him to rescind the controversial “guidance” letter that FHWA released in December. It “impermissibly contradicts and seeks to replace sections of the [Bipartisan Infrastructure Law] and could “delay or deter critical road and highway expansion projects in clear defiance of the law and congressional intent.” The letter also argues that the guidance letter conflicts with the One Federal Decision policy which the BIL codified as federal law, limiting the environmental review process for all major highway projects to two years, “with no designation of priority.”
Virgin Hyperloop Abandons Passenger Market
In a surprising Feb. 22 announcement, Virgin Hyperloop announced that it was shifting its focus from passengers to freight, as a less-risky business plan. As part of this change in plans, it laid off 111 people—about half its staff. The change will simplify safety and regulatory burdens, noted 76% shareholder DP World, in comments to the Financial Times. Virgin Hyperloop says it is in discussions with 15 customers for a cargo version of hyperloop. The following week a group planning a high-speed passenger train between Dallas and Ft. Worth selected conventional high-speed rail over hyperloop, without reference to the recent Virgin Hyperloop decision.
Transportation Groups Oppose “Gas Tax Holiday”
A proposal from congressional Democrats would suspend the collection of the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gasoline tax through the end of 2022. A similar proposal to suspend the state gas tax in fast-growing Florida has been proposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis (who is also up for re-election in November) and by Republicans in other states. Highway and transit groups are united in opposing these proposals, which would create yet another shortfall in highway user tax revenue. Even without the proposed “tax holiday,” the Treasury Department’s March 2022 Bulletin projects that despite the huge general-fund bailout included in the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Highway Trust Fund will be $12 billion short by the end of the five-year reauthorization period (Sept. 2026).
Cruise Operating True Driverless Robo-Taxis in San Francisco
Beginning last month, autonomous vehicle startup Cruise is operating a limited number of truly driverless robo-taxis in a portion of San Francisco. Initially, there is no charge, but the company plans to offer fares lower than what Uber and Lyft charge, and hopes to make money since it will not have to cover the cost of a human safety driver in each vehicle. Competitor Waymo is operating an AV fleet there with onboard safety drivers that has served “hundreds” of rides per week, as of late February.
Brazil Announced Another Huge P3 Highway Program
World Highways reports that during 2022 the national government of Brazil will open tenders for 14 highway projects totaling $14.43 billion. These will all likely be toll roads, as in previous tenders using long-term public/private partnerships (P3s). In parallel, state governments such as Minais Gerais and Sao Paulo also have forthcoming tenders for large-scale P3 highway projects.
The Case for Solid-State EV Batteries
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has provided an article summarizing a new report from ADTechEX called “Solid-State and Polymer Batteries 2021-2031.” Without a liquid electrolyte as in current lithium-ion batteries, those under development are expected to have far less fire risk, use less-expensive materials, be thinner and lighter, be capable of much faster recharging, and retain their power capacity over as many as 5,000 charging cycles, rather than only 1,000. That’s a huge set of advantages, which is why lots of money is being spent on solid-state R&D. EVs, like autonomous vehicles, have been the subject of enormous hype, and the same might be true of solid-state batteries. But if they work out as hoped, they will revolutionize electric vehicles.
Financial Close for Another Virginia Express Toll Lanes Project
Back in October, Virginia DOT and Transurban reached a comprehensive P3 agreement to extend their existing express toll lanes network on the Capital Beltway (I-495) northward by 2.5 miles to the George Washington Parkway and the approach to the American Legion Bridge across the Potomac River to Maryland. A much larger P3 project, still in the final approval stages, will rebuild that bridge with express toll lanes added, and extend those lanes further north to I-270 and onto that urban Interstate. Transurban reached financial close on the I-495NEXT project on March 1. The financing is a mix of tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds (PABs), a TIFIA loan, a Virginia Transportation Infrastructure loan and sponsor equity.
Extension of Florida Toll Road Opens to Traffic
Late last month, a 13-mile northward extension of the Suncoast Parkway opened to traffic after several years of construction by Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. Another three-mile northward extension is scheduled to begin early next year. There is popular support for the project, both to relieve congestion on nearby highways and to bring economic development to this largely rural area south of the Tampa Bay metro area.
ATRI Lists Top 100 Truck Bottlenecks as of 2022
As it does every year, the American Transportation Research Institute has used truck GPS data from over a million freight trucks to measure traffic delays, most of them at major interchanges. The top 10 bottlenecks are all long-standing entrants on this annual table, with I-95 at SR 4 in Fort Lee, NJ once again in the number one position. Of the top 10, the only one that I know is scheduled for major reconstruction is the fourth-worst: I-285 at I-85 north in Atlanta, which is now planned as a revenue-risk P3 project by Georgia DOT, which will rebuild the interchange adding two express toll lanes in each direction. Another in the top 10—I-45 at I-69/US 59 in Houston—is the subject of an inquiry by U.S. DOT and may not go forward as planned.
Misusing License Plate Reading Systems?
A controversy is brewing on Marco Island, FL. There are only two bridges to gain access to the island. To identify vehicles associated with wanted persons, the island’s police department has deployed automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) on the island, and three residents have filed suit arguing privacy violations. That is not because of the ALPRs per se, despite headlines implying that. The privacy concern is due to the police department retaining all that information indefinitely. The problem is the database, not the ALPRs.
Toll Road Traffic Averaged 81% Recovery by September 2021
In a Feb. 16 report, Fitch Ratings recorded solid growth in traffic on America’s toll roads during the first three quarters of 2021. The comparisons are to 2019 data, considered the normal level of activity before the COVID-19 pandemic. The 81% figure is the average of all 50 toll facilities rated by Fitch, including bond-financed express toll lanes. In faster-growing states, toll traffic is higher than the average, and in some cases is now exceeding comparable 2019 data. On the other hand, toll bridges in the San Francisco area are showing slower than average recovery, apparently due to the high level of telecommuting in that region. The report is “U.S. Airports & Toll Roads Traffic Monitor,” covering third quarter 2021.
Musk Vegas Tunnel First Link Breakthrough
The Las Vegas Loop, being build by Elon Musk’s Boring Company has used its tunnel boring machine to drill the first link of the planned Vegas Loop. Named Prufrock-1, the machine broke through a concrete wall beneath Resorts World, linking it to the Las Vegas Convention Center, where the Boring Company’s initial 0.8-mile tunnel is in operation. The new 29-mile tunnel system, with 51 stations, is estimated to cost the company $52.5 million to build. The company hopes to recover its cost from the fares it will charge.
Nikola Motors Loses Staff, Adds Hiring Freeze, Says Elektrek
The company that made a big splash several years ago showing a sleek Class 8 truck apparently driving along a highway powered by hydrogen was actually a “glider,” filmed rolling along a downhill road not under its own power. The resulting publicity led to the ousting of founder Trevor Milton, who faces various fraud charges. Meanwhile, the new management announced plans to build battery-electric trucks in addition to hydrogen trucks, but has not produced or sold any of either. In early February, Electrek reported that key officials of its supply chain staff have departed and that the company has implemented a hiring freeze. Following the publication of its article, Nikola issued a statement saying the supply chain department is intact and that it continues to hire.
Oklahoma Turnpike Selling Bonds to Finance Turnpike Widening
The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority plans a $1.1 billion project to widen a 60-mile stretch of its Turner Turnpike (I-44) between I-35 and Bristow. It is one of the projects to be financed by an upcoming $5 billion bond issue. Other projects in the plan include widening a 12-mile stretch of the Will Rogers Turnpike and building a connector road between the Gilcrease Expressway and the Tisdale Parkway.
And Now for Something Completely Different
An article in Fast Company calls urban gondolas a “viable transit option” that a number of cities are taking a serious look at. A few existing systems exist, including in Medellin (Colombia), La Paz (Bolivia), and Ankara (Turkey). But so far the concept has not caught on here, except for short (less than one mile) tramways across rivers in New York (Roosevelt Island) and Portland, OR (Willamette River). Several transit agencies that looked into the idea seven years ago may seek funding from the newly expanded federal transit program. If any such proposals materialize, they should be required to demonstrate likely (not potential) passenger throughput in passenger miles per hour, compared with performance and cost figures for competing modes.
“Knock 18 cents off the price of a gallon, and it’s a fair bet that your local gas station would just raise the price by, to pick a number at random, 18 cents—padding its bottom line without giving you any discount. Not only that, but before Election Day the price of gas will go up and down approximately 267 times, because that’s the number of days between now and then. Maybe prices will be higher in December than they are now, and maybe they will be lower; no one knows for sure. So even if [the politicians] get a day’s worth of positive coverage about how [they] cut the gas tax to give folks some much-needed relief, they are likely to forget about it, if they ever hear about it in the first place.”
—Paul Waldman, “Federal Gas Tax Holiday Is a Foolish Idea by Democrats,” The Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2022
“Most people don’t know that the region was designed to have not one but three concentric roads around DC. That never happened, and we have all been paying the price for this inaction ever since. The level of congestion doesn’t just waste people’s time; it also costs the state more than $1 billion in economic activity, hampers job creation, and causes businesses to look elsewhere when relocating. Maryland is known for many great things, but increasingly it is gaining a reputation as a state that can’t get out of its own way when pursuing the big, meaningful projects that can really make a difference in the lives of our residents. The facts are simple. Traffic is back and will only get worse unless action is taken in the very near future. We can wish for things to be different. We can talk about supernatural policies that will remove people from their cars and make mass transit not only profitable but also desirable for most Marylanders—or, we can deal with reality. If we are serious about improving the lives of Marylanders, if we are serious about keeping up with Virginia and other regional powers, then we need to expand our highways and, in the process, expand what is possible for the state we all love.”
—Steven Courtien and Howard Levine, “Opinion: Maryland Can’t Wait for Traffic Relief,” The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2022
“[M]ayors and urban planners feel obliged to invent more glorious tasks to demonstrate their creativity during political campaigns. Mayors must now have a ‘vision’ rather than simply being competent managers of the capital represented by urban infrastructure and facilities. Urban planners often promote this confusion about mayors’ missions. They pretend that a city is a complex object that must be designed in advance by brilliant specialists. They would then impose their design on the city’s inhabitants, who lack vision and genius.”
—Alain Bertaud, “The Last Utopia: The 15-Minute City,” New Geography, Feb. 5, 2022
“Many activists . . . oppose any climate solution that past polluters might profit from. Thus, the White House advisory committee ruled that carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, and development of carbon markets (all of which are probably essential), could not be counted as ‘benefits.’ Other justice advocates oppose using hydrogen as a fuel, even when it is produced with renewable energy—apparently because it does not conform to their bucolic vision of a wind-and-solar powered world. The administration, to its credit, has pushed back. Yet the prominence it has given to such muddle-headedness has invited trouble.”
—“Environmental Justice in the Balance,” The Economist, Jan. 29, 2022