- Rhetorical war on freeway expansion
- Misinformation on proposed per-mile charge
- Trucks as leading candidate for automation
- Transit’s near-term future
- Are electric cars less costly to maintain?
- Maryland toll lane opponents protest bottlenecks they caused
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Three recent articles illustrate the ramped-up efforts of many transportation advocates to discredit the expansion of congested urban freeways. There are many others, but these stories, in particular, caught my eye:
- “Democrats Look to Crush States’ Highway Habit,” Sam Mintz, Politico, July 16, 2021, about the now-dropped House INVEST in America Act;
- “How a Quality of Life Award for a 12-Lane Utah Highway Sums Up the Debate Over the Future of Transportation,” Ian Duncan, The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2021, criticizing AASHTO’s award for UDOT’s I-15 widening in Lehi, UT; and,
- “The Unstoppable Appeal of Highway Expansion,” David Zipper, CityLab, Sept. 28, 2021, blasting plans to widen I-35 through downtown Austin.
The common themes in all three pieces are that state departments of transportation (DOTs) reflexively build more highway capacity instead of assisting cities to expand transit, biking, and walking; that widening freeways is treated as futile (the alleged iron law of freeway congestion); and that highways are and forever will be a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and must be stopped from expanding on that premise.
I have written a critique of the leading academic paper that attempts to demonstrate the “iron law” that adding lanes to congested freeways is futile since they soon fill up with “induced demand.” That paper has methodological flaws and anti-highway people exaggerate what it actually claims. Much of what happens when a freeway is widened is explained by latent demand—trips that were previously made on other roads or by other modes that shift to the expanded freeway when it becomes available because the freeway is now a better alternative.
Another point generally ignored by anti-highway groups is the difference between fast-growing and slow-growing metro areas. The Central Florida Expressway Authority (funded by tolls) in June announced a five-year construction work plan totaling $3.2 billion, as it tries to keep pace with the extraordinary growth of the Orlando metro area. This is not a case of “If we build it, they will come.” Instead, it’s, “They keep on coming and are willing to pay for better mobility, so we’re going to keep building it.” I see nothing wrong with that.
In both the Utah (UDOT) and Austin (TxDOT) cases, the problem is that explosive urban growth has led to the freeway through downtown becoming a bottleneck, and that bottleneck risks harming the area’s economy. In Utah, Lehi is becoming a high-tech hub (“Silicon Slopes”), and the four miles of I-15 running through the city had not been widened since that portion of the Interstate was built decades ago. Local businesses campaigned hard for UDOT to fix the bottleneck by widening that stretch of I-15 to handle the much-increased traffic demand. The $415 million project added a lane in each direction, added frontage roads to assist local travel, provided access to a transit hub and a system of trails, and added pedestrian crossings. My only critique of this worthwhile project is that the additional freeway lanes should have been opened as express toll lanes, like those on I-15 in the Salt Lake City metro area.
In Austin, various plans have been produced for adding lanes to the I-35 bottleneck in this rapidly growing high-tech community (which is also the state capital). The best approach would be to emulate the successful express toll lanes project on the LBJ (I-635) freeway in Dallas. In that case, TxDOT had pledged, during a previous widening project, that there would be no further widening in the future. But with the growth of Dallas traffic, adding express toll lanes offered many benefits. The way to add them without widening the right of way was to dig a trench in the median of the right-of-way for the new express toll lanes (ETLs) and then rebuild the main lanes, cantilevered over the express lanes. That solution is tailor-made for I-35 in Austin, where there is large opposition to widening the highway (property takes) and also to elevated lanes (noise). The only problem with this solution is the Texas Legislature. Due to the election in recent years of anti-toll populist conservatives, TxDOT is forbidden to use tolling on any new project. And the legislature’s last three biennial sessions have failed to approve any proposed long-term public-private partnership (P3) projects, which is how the innovative LBJ express lanes project was financed and developed.
Another point that anti-highway advocates ignore is road pricing. Both Anthony Downs, who first wrote about the potential futility of freeway expansion, and Duranton and Turner’s paper that is portrayed as introducing the “iron law of freeway congestion,” have acknowledged that road pricing fundamentally changes the situation, providing a way to bring demand and capacity into some kind of balance. An honest debate about expanding urban freeways should always include the potential of pricing.
In previous issues of this newsletter, I have addressed the implicit assumption that highways are and always will be a major source of GHG emissions. Urban highway megaprojects projects being discussed today will take years to get through the planning process and more years to build. Federal policy, and the worldwide auto production industry, are committed to replacing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2035 or so. As ICE vehicles wear out and are replaced by EVs, projections by Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggest that by 2050 EVs may well constitute 50% of all U.S. light vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickup trucks), and perhaps 62% by 2060. Long-range transportation planning must take this transition into account, rather than planning future transportation based on yesterday’s vehicle technology.
A viral image circulated on social media suggested that the Senate-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contained a new “driving tax” “estimated to be 8 cents per mile.” In reality, mileage-based user fees (MBUFs) are not mandated by the Senate’s infrastructure bill. The all-volunteer pilot program that is actually proposed would charge test participants some undetermined amount but then refund the participants each quarter. The false claim, originally made by populist-conservative Newsmax TV, triggered Facebook fact-checking partner PolitiFact of the Poynter Institute to flag it and publish an article correcting the record. Reason’s Bob Poole and Adrian Moore were both interviewed for the Facebook/PolitiFact corrective. Similar fact-checks reaching the same conclusion were later published by the Associated Press and USA Today, among others.
To understand what the MBUF program contained in the Senate bill does and doesn’t do, it’s important to review the legislative text. Section 13002 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would establish a national motor vehicle per-mile user fee pilot. The three stated objectives are to test the MBUF concept, address the need for additional surface transportation revenue, and provide recommendations for implementing a federal MBUF in the future.
Participants are to be exclusively volunteers who get to choose between a variety of mileage recording devices that span the privacy/auditability continuum. In establishing a revenue collection mechanism, the Treasury is instructed to authorize independent and private third-party payment collectors that would then forward revenue to the Treasury, meaning the volunteer participants will be able to ensure that the government never accesses their individual mileage data. Further, subsection (m) explicitly requires the Treasury to pay volunteer participants for their estimated miles-driven each quarter. This amounts to a revenue impact of zero (and negative when you consider the program expenses).
This is all spelled out in relatively plain language in the text of the bill. It’s hard to see how any fair reading of the Section 13002 MBUF pilot program could lead one to believe this would constitute a new “driving tax,” especially when the effective rate would be zero due to the quarterly refunds made by Treasury to volunteer participants. This makes the “estimated to be 8 cents per mile” part of Newsmax’s false claim especially bewildering.
It’s unclear where Newsmax sourced the 8 cents per mile figure, or if it was sourced at all. While participants might face different per-mile rates based on the specific vehicle model they enroll in the pilot, the specific rates have yet to be determined. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests Newsmax was off by an order of magnitude. Preliminary data from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest Model Year 2020 light-duty average fuel economy is 25.7 miles per gallon. The current federal excise tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per mile. Thus, the light-duty fleet average per-mile rate is 0.72 cents per mile for the intended revenue-neutral replacement of fuel taxes.
Some might argue that the threat is whatever amount is beyond a revenue-neutral breakeven rate, from politicians seeking to tax Americans out of their cars. However, the idea that Congress will have an easier time raising a possible future MBUF than they have in raising federal fuel taxes is unsupported. While the vast majority of states have raised their fuel taxes in recent years to account for construction cost inflation, the federal fuel tax rates of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel have remained unchanged since 1993. Even a doubling of the MBUF fuel tax equivalent rate, which is equally as unlikely as a doubling of the federal gas tax, would result in a light-duty fleet average of less than 1.5 cents per mile.
To be sure, if this federal MBUF pilot program is enacted, the Departments of Transportation and Treasury will need to work hard to get it right. My Reason colleague Bob Poole warned in the August issue of this newsletter (“Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,) that “if incorrectly tested and implemented, the new federal program could easily be termed ‘yet another tax increase’ by many, including opponents looking to prevent an eventual shift from gas taxes to mileage-based user fees.”
It is both sound policy and politics to develop and promote MBUFs as a superior replacement, not a tarnished supplement, to fuel taxes. If they wish to see them eventually implemented, MBUF advocates must resist efforts to treat motorists as piggy banks.
The last few years have made it clear to most researchers on autonomous vehicles (AVs) that the original vision of go-anywhere, on any kind of road, in any kind of weather, with no driver or controls (i.e., SAE Level 5) is a long way off. The problems inherent in having all the needed kinds of sensing technology, fusing their information for instant decision-making, and actually replicating how a human driver reaches decisions are far from being solved. Hence, much of tech companies’ efforts today are on SAE Level 4 autonomy—no need for a human driver on some kinds of roads, in some kinds of weather, with backups of some kind available for situations that the artificial intelligence (AI) cannot handle.
When I first started reading and writing about AVs, I discovered the work of Steve Shladover of UC Berkeley, whose AV research goes back decades. In my book, Rethinking America’s Highways, I cited his seminal 2016 Scientific American article, “The Truth About ‘Self-Driving’ Cars,” which warned against much of last decade’s hype on the subject. So I was pleased to read his latest article on the subject in the same magazine, “’Self-Driving’ Cars Begin to Emerge from a Cloud of Hype.” In the article, Shladover explains the reasons why Level 4 is the best we can expect in the foreseeable future, and what it will take to get even that far. A very important point is that, “Even when ADS [autonomous driving systems] are able to drive vehicles without an onboard human driver as a backup, they will still need remote support from humans who are skilled drivers to handle ‘corner case’ conditions that the automation cannot handle.”
After laying all this out, and noting that there will be a lot of embedded costs, he suggests that these likely expenses “drive the business case for initial ADS deployment on commercial vehicle fleets that can be used throughout the day [and night?] to generate revenue.” And he reasons that commercial fleets are also more likely to be able to provide remote support for vehicles when needed (such as when an 18-wheel big rig gets a flat tire in the middle of the night on a rural Interstate). He suggests that the initial enthusiasm for urban ride-hailing services as the likely first large-scale use of ADS is not likely to pan out, since dense urban areas “are the most technologically challenging environments for ADS”—in contrast to long-haul trucking on Interstate highways.
My reading this year in FleetOwner and other freight media suggests that tech companies, truck manufacturers, and trucking companies are making serious strides in this direction. Six startup tech companies are focused on developing ADS for trucks: Aurora, Embark Trucks, Kodiak Robotics, Plus, TuSimple, and Waymo Via. Four of these, which are publicly traded as of this year, are together valued at $26 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. Rather than designing and building their own trucks, these companies are developing ADS packages to integrate into existing Class 8 trucks (over-the-road 18-wheelers) from producers such as Daimler Trucks, Kenworth, Navistar, and Peterbilt. And they are working with major trucking companies including FedEx and J.B. Hunt hauling actual freight on Interstates in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
These are all Level 4 operations today, with a safety driver in the cab to deal with contingencies, and also to drive the truck onto and off of the Interstate. But as Josh Fisher points out in “Trucking’s Self-Driving Future” (FleetOwner, April 2021), these test runs are just the beginning. Level 4 autonomy has the potential to yield large productivity gains in long-haul trucking. One near-term possibility (federal regulations permitting) is a Class 8 truck with two drivers, one of whom can sleep in the sleeper berth while the other drives. That truck could be in productive motion the majority of each 24-hour period, instead of only half of that period. That means much faster deliveries for truck freight competing with railroads.
Another way to accomplish this is truck platooning. Initial platooning, as planned by startup Locomation, envisions a two-truck platoon of Level 4 trucks, initially with a driver in both the lead truck and the following truck, but only one actually driving the platoon while the following driver’s truck is driven by the ADS, linked wirelessly to the lead truck. When the lead driver reaches his maximum-allowed driving hours, the following driver would move his truck into the lead, and the former lead driver could sleep. Eventually, there need not be a driver in the following truck, and the platoon could extend to three or four trucks (hopefully in dedicated truck-only lanes). Far from being a threat to truck drivers, as Diana Furchtgott-Roth pointed in a recent Forbes column, this kind of productivity-increasing automation could help solve the major ongoing shortage of long-haul truck drivers.
A lot of investor money is counting on this expanding Level 4 commercial truck scenario. I think their case is plausible, but note that it will take some key regulatory reforms to make it possible at significant scale.
When the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread in March 2020, transit ridership dropped through the floor. Ridership had already been declining for four years, but the social-distancing and stay-at-home orders caused a major plunge. Many daily transit riders avoided trains and buses as if there were a plague (which there was) and either worked from home, drove to work, or (in the limited situations where this was feasible) cycled or walked to work. Rail ridership dropped by more than 90% and bus ridership by 50%.
Fast-forward 18 months and mass transit ridership is still far below pre-pandemic totals. Bus ridership has recovered to 80% of pre-pandemic levels while rail ridership has recovered to only 40%. The different recovery rates are due to a variety of factors, including that those transit-dependent customers who largely ride buses were less likely to abandon transit and, if they had abandoned it, more likely to come back since they lack affordable alternatives.
With much lower ridership, transit agencies have lobbied the federal government for bailouts. Thus far, taxpayers have provided an extra $70 billion in federal funding to keep transit operating. This is more than 300% of transit’s average annual federal appropriations, a truly staggering number. These bailouts cannot continue indefinitely. The bipartisan infrastructure and surface transportation reauthorization bill includes $39 billion for public transit systems through 2026. But with current ridership totals, even that sum will not be enough for transit agencies to maintain their current level of service.
As transit agencies have continued to beg for funding, many mainstream news organizations have moved from supportive to questioning to skeptical about transit’s future.
Katherine Shaver at The Washington Post noted how workers no longer accept that it is inevitable to lose time to commuting. In interviews with employees across the Washington, D.C., region, the newspaper highlighted transit customers who have switched from transit to driving or cycling. Many workers needed time to adjust their daily routines. Initially, some missed the mental buffer the commute provided; others missed the interaction with other riders. But most former transit users are getting more exercise, enjoying more free time, and enjoying the change. Nobody thinks the commute of the future will resemble the pre-pandemic commute.
Thomas Day of Governing asks whether billions of federal dollars will bring commuters back to transit. And unless state and local governments make other policy changes, the answer is likely no. Most transit agencies have tried to appeal to both transit-choice and transit-dependent riders, and few have succeeded. Transit-oriented development can lure choice riders but the development often pushes up housing prices and displaces dependent riders to the suburbs. Suburban transit service is more expensive to operate and operates less frequently. The new trend of eliminating fares may increase transit-dependent ridership but it does little to draw choice riders. Eliminating free parking and single-family zoning could make a big difference, but both are unpopular with the population as a whole.
David Harrison of The Wall Street Journal points out that despite receiving billions in federal funding, deficits loom. One problem is the restrictions that Congress places on the money. Agencies cannot use funding from the surface transportation reauthorization for day-to-day expenses such as paying salaries and buying fuel. Instead, much of that money is dedicated to building new rail lines, even when agencies do not have the funds to operate existing lines. Federal transit policy is designed for politicians who love ribbon-cuttings as opposed to actual riders.
Nicole Friedman of he Wall Street Journal notes how the length of the commute to work is dropping in importance. This trend is concentrated in regions with the highest average housing price such as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. But these are also four of the seven regions with the highest number of transit commuters. In the two-year periods ending in 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019 the fastest home-price growth was in metro areas within a 10-20 minute commute of a job center. But in 2021, home values in neighborhoods with a 70-minute commute rose 30% outpacing a 9.2% price gain for 20-minute commutes and a 2.5% decline for 10-minute commutes. Now that many folks do not have to commute to the office every day, they are choosing to live in areas with little or no transit service.
Patrick McGeehan of The New York Times examined how ridership on New York City’s commuter rail lines may never recover. New York’s three commuter railroads have been particularly hard hit. Ridership is still less than half of what it was pre-COVID. The drop in monthly passes, purchased by the most frequent riders, has been the largest, declining from $300 million in revenue to $72 million in the latest fiscal year. Passengers are more likely to ride once or twice a week, and outside of traditional peak periods. The railroads recently pushed back expected ridership gains from fall 2021 to winter 2022 due to the outbreak of the delta-variant of COVID-19. Yet, the authority’s engineering consultant does not think ridership will reach 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels until 2025 or later.
It is an obviously challenging time for mass transit. And the five articles mentioned above highlighted legal and policy changes that need to be made. Transit agencies need to become proactive.
First, mass transit agencies would be wise to focus on transit-dependent riders. Transit-choice riders are going to become even more challenging to attract in the near-term, and doing so too often reduces the number of transit-dependent riders that can be served.
Second, transit agencies may need to make fixed-route service cuts. The recovery in transit ridership is progressing more slowly than forecast and all of the current service based on pre-pandemic travel patterns is not sustainable.
Third, instead of asking Congress for more money, ask for the ability to use the surface transportation reauthorization funds for day-to-day expenses. It is an easier ask politically and it focuses money on current needs.
Within the next six months, I will detail more comprehensive, long-term changes transit agencies should make in my forthcoming 21st Century Transit study. But for now, mass transit agencies that adopt the three changes detailed above will be making the type of short/medium-term changes needed to survive.
There is a widespread perception that although EVs cost more to purchase than comparable ICE vehicles, the EVs will cost less to repair and maintain. That’s plausible when you consider all the parts an EV doesn’t need: transmission, engine-related filters, engine cooling system, etc. Many models predict a significantly lower overall cost of ownership for EVs because of such factors. But these are still early days, and we are only beginning to get data on EV maintenance—and so far that evidence is mixed.
One recent study supports the conventional wisdom. It was done at Argonne National Laboratory, a part of the Department of Energy. The headline news was “Maintenance Costs of Battery Electric Vehicles Are 40% Lower than ICE Vehicles.” But Michael Sena, in the October 2021 issue of his excellent newsletter, The Dispatcher, explained how Argonne reached this conclusion. It used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 Consumer Expenditure Survey on the average maintenance costs of several dozen maintenance items on ICE vehicles (transmission service, timing belt, brake fluid, etc.). The researchers then subtracted from that table all the maintenance items not needed on an EV. By definition, this produced lower costs, since no actual data on the maintenance needed by battery EVs was available.
That shortcoming has been remedied to some extent by a new study carried out by business analytics firm We Predict. Its cost comparison was based on actual repair bills for 801,000 vehicles—both ICE and EV—for model year 2021. In the first 90 days of ownership, this study found, EV owners had maintenance bills averaging $123, compared with $53 for a new ICE vehicle. EV parts averaged $65 versus $28 for ICE, and labor costs averaged $58 for EVs versus $25 for ICEs. We Predict expects that longer-term maintenance costs will follow a similar pattern, but that remains to be seen. EVs are still a new phenomenon to most repair shops, and EV parts may not be as readily available.
One other recent study looked into the cost of collision repairs. CCC Intelligent Solutions obtained one year of data from direct repair program appraisals for repairs to non-luxury small cars that were still in “driveable” condition. The research compared only cars for which there were both ICE and EV versions (such as Chevy Bolt vs. Sonic and Nissan Leaf vs. Sentra). The average cost of repairs was 3% higher for EVs. Repairs to EVs averaged 22 labor hours compared with 25.6 hours for ICE cars, but the EV labor was less productive because more of technicians’ time was spent performing scans and calibrations as well as researching repair methods. Once again, these may be short-term problems, since few repair shops are fully up-to-speed on dealing with EVs.
Overall, then, these are early days, with limited production and use of EVs, compared with what we are likely to see a decade from now. The hypothesis of lower maintenance and repair costs for EVs may well be borne out when these vehicles become mainstream.
The final Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) on the scaled-back plan for express toll lanes (on the American Legion Bridge, on a short stretch of Beltway I-495 north of the bridge and on the I-270 spur heading northwest to I-370) was released at the end of September, to the expected chorus of cheers and jeers.
Proponents cheered the systemwide delay reductions of 18% during the AM peak and 32% during the PM peak, as well as the greatly-reduced property takes due to excluding from this project the rest of the Maryland portion of the I-495 Beltway, especially between the I-270 spur on the west and I-95 on the east.
Long-time opponents criticized the reduced time savings in some directions at certain times of day, compared with the earlier EIS that was based on adding express toll lanes (ETL) past I-370 all the way to Frederick, and on I-495 all the way to I-95. Where cars must leave the ETLs where they end (prematurely) there will be congested bottlenecks, of course. That’s why the original plan called for ETLs on all the stretches of this system of highways that experience serious AM and PM congestion.
Opponents’ objections delayed the needed EIS for the extension of the ETLs from the I-370 interchange northward to Frederick. Those lanes are still part of the current plan, but the SDEIS could only analyze project elements that already were approved. So the phony bottleneck north of I-370 had to be evaluated as if it was not going to be fixed by extending the new lanes to Frederick, though those additional lanes may take a few more years to be built and enter service.
Likewise, the same opponents who fought bitterly to prevent adding ETLs on the Beltway between I-270 and I-95 now damn the project for showing continued congestion on that long stretch. Officially, it is still the Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) plan to add ETLs to that corridor in a subsequent project, but gaining approval for that will depend on who succeeds Gov. Larry Hogan when his second term expires, so is hardly guaranteed.
On the other hand, the SDEIS shows very significant time savings in the AM southbound (peak) travel because travelers going that way will encounter no bottlenecks. After they cross the new American Legion Bridge heading into Virginia, they will reach the extensive ETL network that now encompasses I-495 to I-95, I-95 south well beyond the metro area, I-395 from the Beltway into D.C., and within another year or so on I-66 out to the far western suburbs. No bottlenecks there!
Express toll lanes in several other parts of the country have had troubles in places where the lanes encountered bottlenecks. In the Seattle area, the ETLs on I-405 heading north dropped from two lanes each way to one, creating a PM peak bottleneck. Fortunately, the project to add a second ETL there has been approved and is getting under way. In Miami, a physical bottleneck exists in the northbound (PM peak) travel in the I-95 ETLs: the complex, congested, obsolete Golden Glades Interchange where the Turnpike, I-95, and several major arterials converge with numerous lane changes. Redesigning and rebuilding that interchange is not in Florida DOT’s long-range plan, due to its estimated cost likely exceeding $2 billion. And since an anti-toll law passed by the state legislature several years ago forbids FDOT to charge a market-clearing price during serious congestion, opponents can call the northbound ETLs there a failure.
There is a possible path forward for Maryland DOT. Assuming the current project (including the extension to Frederick) works out well, its next step should be to consider alternative approaches for adding ETLs to the Beltway between I-270 and I-95 without the massive property takes in its now-rejected plan. One possible model is the ETLs added a decade ago to the LBJ Freeway (I-635) in Dallas. TxDOT had promised that this corridor would face no future widening, so the ETLs had to fit within the existing right of way. The innovative approach that Cintra developed and implemented added the express lanes in a trench (below grade) and replaced the general-purpose lanes, built partly cantilevered over the ETLs. It might turn out that the additional cost of adding ETLs this way would not exceed what MDOT would have had to pay to condemn all the properties needed under its original plan for that part of the system.
Bipartisan Bill Includes Major Environmental Streamlining
A positive result of the Trump administration’s mostly unrealized infrastructure plan was the One Federal Decision (OFD) policy, issued as an executive order in 2017 with bipartisan support. As explained by Jeffrey Rosen and D. J. Gribbin in a Sept. 29 column in The Hill, the measure dramatically streamlined the permitting process for federally assisted infrastructure projects, including a requirement that all the relevant agencies agree on a lead agency and perform their reviews in parallel, not sequentially. Unfortunately, President Biden rescinded OFD during his first week in office. The good news is that the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill awaiting a House vote devotes 15 pages to codifying OFD’s provisions, which again demonstrates the measure’s bipartisan support.
New Jersey Turnpike Now an Even Bigger Cash Cow
The $12.3 billion project for a new tunnel under the Hudson River, to be shared by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, will get a significant part of its budget from de-facto taxes on New York metro area toll road customers. The agreed-upon share of the cost coming from New Jersey, $1.6 billion, will be paid for by New Jersey Turnpike customers, out of revenues from last year’s 30% increase in toll rates. The source of New York’s $2.3 billion share has not been specified, but the bistate Port Authority of New York & New Jersey—which treats its toll bridges and tunnels as cash cows—will very likely tap them again for its $2.2 billion share. Treating toll roads as cash cows feeds opposition to tolling and should be rejected as a gross violation of the users-pay/users-benefit principle.
Transurban Invests $8.1 billion in Sydney Toll Project
Australia’s leading toll road company, along with several investment partners, has committed to investing $8.1 billion to acquire the remaining 49% of the huge Westconnex toll project concession that it did not already own. Its partners include sovereign wealth funds and public pension funds. Transurban is now the developer/operator of most of the toll roads in the Sydney metro area. Westconnex is a set of new tolled tunnels connecting several key links in Sydney’s tolled expressway network.
Another Aging Highway Viaduct Will Be Demolished
More than a decade ago, Boston made headlines by replacing an aging elevated I-93 through downtown Boston with a set of tunnels. Late last month, a long-running debate over another aging viaduct, this one on the Massachusetts Turnpike, was ended with the announcement of a $1.7 billion plan to replace the viaduct with an at-ground solution in the Allston area. A key to the project plan is converting a no-longer-used railroad yard owned by Harvard University into a mixed use development, including a new transit station, and enough room to include eight lanes of Turnpike, four lanes of Soldiers Field Road, and four rail tracks on the surface. The project will be partially funded by Turnpike tolls.
Commercial-Service Autonomous Vehicles OK’d for San Francisco Bay Area
Both Cruise and Waymo have received permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to operate some types of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in portions of the Bay Area. Cruise may operate light-duty commercial AVs on surface streets at a maximum speed of 30 mph—without a safety driver on-board. Waymo’s permit authorizes it to operate commercial AVs with a safety driver on public roads within portions of San Francisco and San Mateo Counties, at speeds up to 65 mph (presumably on freeways).
I-69 Toll Bridge Gets Clearance for Construction
The final environmental impact statement and record of decision for the I-69 ORX (Ohio River Crossing between Indiana and Kentucky) project received FHWA approval last month. The project will build a four-lane, 7,600-ft. long toll bridge across the Ohio River plus 11.2 miles of supporting roadway. The estimated construction cost is $1.5 billion. The bridge is a key link in the completion of the long-planned I-69, which begins in Michigan and ends in Texas. It will link the nearly-completed I-69 in Indiana with the mostly I-69-designated sections of existing parkways in Kentucky.
GoCarma Wins IBTTA Award
The HOV occupancy detection system developed by GoCarma has received a Toll Excellence Award from the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association (IBTTA). The system relies on detecting smartphones of vehicle occupants to qualify the vehicle for toll discounts in express toll lanes. It is in use on the TEXpress Lanes in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area, used by some 45,000 daily commuters.
PennDOT Selects Finalists for Toll-Financed Bridge Replacements
The P3 office of Pennsylvania DOT last month announced the selection of three finalists for its approximately $2 billion project to replace nine aging bridges on its Interstate highways. The teams are led by Macquarie, Kiewit, and Cintra/Itinera—all with considerable P3 and toll road experience. The RFP is expected to be released before the end of this year, and the winning bidder(s) will initially enter into a pre-development agreement (PDA) to scope out the design, constraints, and financing approach for each bridge project.
Miami Toll Road Extension Gets Green Light
A $1 billion southward extension of Miami-Dade Expressway Authority’s Dolphin Expressway (SR 836) received clearance last month from the state’s governor and cabinet members. It will be a 13-mile extension southward to the West Kendall area and will be called the Kendall Parkway. It has been opposed by environmental groups and NIMBYs on the usual grounds, in this case, because it is to be built just over the edge of the Miami-Dade County urban growth boundary (hence, on the edge of the Everglades), to avoid property takes in this mostly residential area.
U.S. VMT Nearly Back to Pre-Pandemic Level
Despite the continued increase in working from home, overall vehicle miles of travel (VMT) in July 2021 was 290.1 billion, nearly matching the 292.9 billion miles driven in July 2019. Although AM peaks are still lower than in recent years, overall travel is more evenly distributed during daylight hours, resulting in the return to nearly pre-pandemic levels. Transit ridership is still significantly lower than pre-pandemic ridership.
Which Form of Variable Pricing Works Better?
Ever since the first near-real-time adjustment of pricing on express toll lanes was introduced (and became the predominant form of pricing in such lanes), most analysts had assumed it would do a better job at managing traffic flow than time-of-day pricing (which may be adjusted only at quarterly or semi-annual intervals). But a new study suggests otherwise. Mark Burris and his Texas A&M Transportation Institute colleagues used data from a number of express toll lane projects to compare what they termed dynamic pricing and variable pricing. They found little difference between the two, in terms of keeping traffic flowing in managed lanes. The study was sponsored by the National Institute for Congestion Reduction.
Excellent Study of the Ports/Shipping Crunch
For most of this year, I’ve been reading regular reports on America’s clogged seaports, shortages of container chassis, disappointing performance of rail intermodal service, etc. But if you want to read one concise, substantive assessment of this problem, I recommend Scott Lincicome’s “America’s Ports Problem Is Decades in the Making,” on his Capitolism blog. U.S. ports are far less productive than many Asian and European ports, and the Jones Act leads to cargo that might go by river or the inland waterway system traveling instead by overloaded trucks and trains. Read and weep.
Locations Narrowed for $1 Billion I-10 Bridge Across Mississippi River
Having once been stuck in rush-hour gridlock on I-10 in Baton Rouge, I can well understand the need for a new bridge there. The Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development has been working with a consultant to identify potential routes and connections for the new crossing. Last month, the team announced that out of 32 initially proposed sites, they have narrowed this down to only 17. The next step, to be completed by autumn 2022, is to whittle those 17 down to three or four finalists for more detailed analysis and preliminary designs. There is no question that “There is going to be a toll on this bridge,” Eric Kalivoda of the Capital Area Road and Bridge District told the meeting that reviewed the 17 candidate sites. Toll modeling will be a “really big piece” of the next round of studies, consultant Kara Moree said.
A New Approach to Automating Vehicles?
In its Science & Technology section of the September 4 issue, The Economist reported on an alternative to the use of machine learning to train a vehicle’s automation system. The source is a paper in Artificial Intelligence by Mehul Bhatt of Orebro University (Sweden) who is also the founder of CoDesign Lab. His new software takes existing AI programs and couples them to what he calls a “symbolic reasoning engine.” It applies physics concepts to what occurs during driving, including the kinds of spatial relations that seem to baffle Teslas that run into stationary objects or try to drive underneath the trailers of 18-wheel trucks. Moreover, unlike with machine learning, this software can explain why it took the action it did. You can read the magazine’s summary, titled “AI for Vehicles: Is it smarter than a seven-month-old?”
Taxis Regaining Market Share in New York City
Business Insider (August 27) reported a 152% increase between April and July in taxicab transactions hailed via mobile app Curb. Reporter Allana Akhtar notes that the average price of a trip on Uber and Lyft increased 23% between January and June, possibly accounting for the increase in taxi use. By contrast, the average taxi ride decreased in price in both 2020 and again in 2021, reaching only $13.63 in June. It looks as if competition still works.
Climate Apocalypse or Just a Large Problem?
Since the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released several months ago, there have been competing points of view in blog posts and op-eds. Some portray the latest report as evidence that we are going to hell in a handbasket unless we take dramatic action very soon to completely decarbonize the economies of all countries. Others point to the same report to say that while we do have a big problem to address, it is far from being apocalyptic. The lesson I’ve drawn from reading several well-researched books and research papers is that it depends on which IPCC scenario you take most seriously. The apocalyptics rely on what is informally known as the “business as usual” scenario, in which there are no changes in the composition of energy use (technically RCP8.5), which is very far from what is actually happening. A far more realistic mid-range scenario shows that reaching a limited global temperature rise appears do-able, though with a lot more changes than have thus far been agreed to, especially by China and India. A good introduction to this subject is a paper in Issues in Science & Technology by Roger Pielke, Jr. and Justin Ritchie, “How Climate Scenarios Lost Touch with Reality.”
“[C]ost-benefit analysis must be done by an independent entity. . . . All cost-benefit analysis is subject to gaming, since assumptions about inputs are critical to the outcomes. When those who provide the estimates of benefits and costs are able to inflate the former and understate the latter, the results of the analysis may not be an appropriate ranking of potential projects. Rather than selecting the most attractive projects, the use of cost-benefit analysis may only identify the projects with proponents with the greatest proclivity to overstate benefits relative to costs.”
—Edward Glaeser and James Poterba, “Economic Perspectives on Infrastructure Investment,” Aspen Economic Strategy Group, July 14, 2021
“By 2018, the CEOs of the major companies that had invested most heavily in ADS [automated driving systems] (Waymo, General Motors, Ford, Aurora) were starting to make public statements tempering their earlier optimism by pointing out that the rollout of automated driving would be incremental, beginning with operations under constrained conditions in tightly restricted locations. At the pace they are now going, it will require decades to expand to anything approaching nationwide deployment. The organizational learning curve and costs have been much longer and higher than expected. After investing at least a decade and billions of dollars in ADS development, the companies have learned that the technical requirements to support widespread use of the technology are far more complicated than they had originally envisioned.”
—Steven Shladover (UC Berkeley), “’Self-Driving’ Cars Begin to Emerge from a Cloud of Hype,” Scientific American, Sept. 25, 2021
“All one needs is to look at the latest California Lawrence Livermore Energy Flow Map to seriously doubt that banning ICEs [internal combustion engine] vehicles in favor of EVs is going to deliver environmental benefits that are in line with the likely societal angst associated with the cure. It remains questionable that any environmental benefits accrue from switching from an ICE to an EV. The LL Energy Map shows that 40% of California’s electricity is now generated from natural gas. I’m assuming that California operates its electrical system so as to minimize environmental impact, so that it is burning natural gas only because the other, less-polluting, sources are maxed out. Thus, each new user of electricity in California, such as each conversion of an ICE to EV, will be powered by natural gas. Moreover, two-thirds of the generated electricity is lost (“rejected energy’) even before it gets to the car’s electric charger. So, one has to do some careful computations in the various scenarios to determine if powering personal cars with natural gas today in California is even infinitesimally better than with gasoline. (The answer is more obvious in Texas, where almost 30% of electricity today is generated by coal. Not even close!) For 2035, one needs to have a clear vision of how electric generation will evolve, how transmission losses can be reduced, and how improvements in the ICE may emerge before on institutionalizes executive orders aimed at the How.”
—Alain Kornhauser (Princeton University), “California Is Coming for Your Car,” Smart Driving Cars, August 2021