Surface Transportation Newsletter #185
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Surface Transportation Innovations Newsletter

Surface Transportation Newsletter #185

Express toll lane networks proliferate, post-mortem on California high-speed rail, and more.

In this issue:

Express Toll Lane Networks Proliferate

Networks of variably priced express toll lanes (ETLs) are being developed in more than a dozen large metro areas, and their impact is starting to be reflected in the congestion figures for those regions. Before reviewing what is going on, I want to call your attention to a new (not yet published) paper on the subject by researchers from Cornell University and McGill University. “A Comprehensive Welfare Impact Analysis for Road Expansion Projects” uses transportation data from the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area to compare, quantitatively, the effects of four possible highway expansion options (in addition to doing nothing): adding a general purpose (GP) lane, adding a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, adding a priced ETL, or converting all lanes to conventional toll lanes. The priced ETL ranked highest in both regional economic impact and improving system-wide travel time, and was judged to produce the greatest increase in overall social welfare.

Those results are not yet widely known, which may be why ill-informed opposition still exists to some of the proposed projects. But overall, the picture is one of considerable progress toward entire ETL networks in some of America’s most-congested metro areas. Here is a brief recap as of first-quarter 2018.

California continues to make progress, with the largest set of projects under way in the greater Los Angeles metro area. The biggest project under construction is the I-405 ETLs in Orange County, and the county’s $43 billion long-range transportation plan includes adding ETLs to four additional freeways. Riverside and San Bernardino Counties are moving forward with ETLs for I-15 and I-10, respectively. LA County itself has plans for ETLs on a number of additional corridors, including I-105 and I-605. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the planned network keeps expanding, with projects getting under way on US 101 and I-680 adding important links to the network. A recent Bay Area competition selected the “Optimized Express Lane Network” as one of six transformative projects for the region.

Colorado DOT continues work on a Denver-area ETL network. By this summer, new ETLs will be in operation on C-470 (the east-west portion of the Denver ring road). Reconstruction of a 10-mile stretch of I-70 is under way, with the addition of ETLs in the median, and further projects will add ETL capacity to stretches of I-25 without such congestion-relief lanes. CDOT is also considering whether to add a westbound ETL to the stretch of I-70 in the mountain area west of Denver, to complement the eastbound ETL already in operation on that segment.

Florida DOT has committed to ETL networks in the state’s four largest metro areas, with a growing number of corridors in operation in the Miami metro area (and more in the planning stage), the huge I-4 Ultimate project under construction in Orlando, the first ETLs due to open very soon on I-295 in Jacksonville, and plans under way for ETLs in the Tampa Bay area including on the Veterans Expressway, on I-75, and on the replacement of the Howard Frankland Bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Georgia DOT is likewise under way on an ETL network for the Atlanta region. With corridors already in operation on portions of I-75 and I-85, the next major project will be ETLs on north-south Georgia 400 and on east-west I-285 (the northern portion of the I-285 ring road). The ETL network plan includes a number of additional corridors still to be designed.

Maryland, under the leadership of re-elected Gov. Larry Hogan, is proceeding with its $9 billion plan to add ETLs to highly congested I-270 and the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495). To link these projects with the emerging ETL network across the Potomac in Virginia, Hogan recently committed to widen or replace the American Legion Bridge, which conveys I-495 across the Potomac (and is wholly owned by Maryland). In addition, the state has begun construction on a project to extend northward the existing ETLs on I-95.

Texas DOT’s plans for additional ETLs in the Austin, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Houston metro areas have been curtailed by the Legislature’s moratorium on tolling for projects that use TxDOT money and another moratorium on new P3 projects. Still, ETLs authorized previously keep getting built and opened, most recently the 28-mile Midtown Express that opened to traffic in October in the DFW area. In Houston, the $1 billion 10.3-mile ETL project on SH 288 should reach completion this year, and Austin’s first ETLs on the MoPac Expressway are now in operation. And with a $1 billion expansion announced by Apple in the Austin area’s Williamson County, local officials are considering upgrading Parmer Lane with ETLs.

Virginia continues as a leader in developing an ETL network in the DC suburbs. The $3.5 billion I-66 (outside the Beltway) ETL project is under construction. Early in 2019 Virginia DOT announced another $1 billion worth of projects on I-95 and I-495, including three P3 projects to extend I-495’s ETLs 3 miles northward to the Maryland border and I-95’s ETLs southward 10 more miles to Fredericksburg. There is growing support from the business community in the overall DC/MD/VA metro area for a regional ETL network.

Washington State DOT is moving forward with the ETL corridor that will encompass the existing HOT lanes on SR 167 and nearly the full length of I-405, the main north-south route east of Lake Washington. Under construction is a long-needed direct connector between the SR 167 HOT lanes and the existing HOV lanes on I-405 between Renton and Bellevue. Those HOV lanes will be converted to ETLs in a $1.2 million widening project, to match those already in operation between Bellevue and Bothell. Another project, subject to legislative approval this year, would add a second ETL each way on I-405 between Bothell and Lynnwood, eliminating a current bottleneck.

Express bus service is an important complement to ETL corridors (and eventually networks). I’m aware of operational express-bus/ETL programs in Los Angeles, Miami, and northern Virginia, and planned for the I-405 corridor in the Seattle area. If readers know of others, I’ll be happy to note them in subsequent newsletters.

Long-term P3 concessions are a good fit for ETL mega-projects that involve adding lane capacity. Current users of P3s for such projects include Colorado, Florida, Texas, and Virginia, with Georgia and Maryland planning to use P3s for future ETL projects.

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Answering Populist Critiques of Tolling and P3s
By Baruch Feigenbaum

The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders shows the strength of populism, both left and right, in the United States. One thing these two political movements agree on is that tolling is somehow a bad policy. Unmoved by economic arguments, engineering studies, or common sense, these groups are trying (and in some case succeeding) to kill managed lane and P3 projects. Faced with unsupported claims from both extremes, most engineers and planners can relate to the Stealers Wheel song from the 1970s: “Stuck in the Middle With You.”

Texas is one of the centers of right-wing anti-toll populism. The past two legislative sessions have featured a flurry of anti-toll, anti-P3 bills. In 2017, the Texas House defeated Bill 2861 that would have allowed TxDOT to partner with the private sector to build, renovate or widen nearly 20 highways. In November 2017, Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick argued successfully for a freeze on new toll highways. Representatives have even authored bills that would remove tolls from every highway in the state. (TxDOT has calculated that removing tolls would cost $36.7 billion, to pay off existing toll revenue bonds, more than the agency’s entire budget for 3 years). A pending 2019 bill would require voter approval of all new toll projects. In response to the furor, the Texas Republican party switched from having a pro-toll platform to an anti-toll platform.

Maryland DOT’s plan to add variably-priced toll lanes, procured as P3s, to I-270 and I-495 outside the nation’s capital, has been opposed by left-wing anti-toll populists.  The significant congestion and safety problems with these Interstates are irrelevant to project opponents. Thirteen bills have been introduced in the Maryland Legislature to hobble or kill the projects.

Despite being from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the anti-tolling arguments can be remarkably similar. One of the most common is that since motorists pay gas taxes, adding tolls is double taxation. Yet in many states, the gas tax does not pay the full cost to build, maintain and operate highways. Neither the Maryland nor the Texas gas taxes have been altered significantly in 25 years. Inflation and increased vehicle fuel efficiency have eroded the purchasing power of the tax, causing its revenue to decline in real terms by 50 percent.

A related argument is that tolling is not a “fair” way to pay for roadways. In fact, tolling is based on the same users-pay/users-benefit principle as the gas tax. But unlike in Texas where 25 percent of the gas tax is dedicated to education and Maryland where gas tax revenue has been diverted to the general fund, tolling is dedicated to transportation improvements. Additionally, unlike the gas tax, whose revenues are spent statewide, tolls are dedicated to specific projects. And variable tolling is a powerful tool for reducing congestion.

Some call toll lanes “Lexus lanes.” Yet the five most common vehicles using express toll lanes are the Ford F-150, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Toyota Corolla. None are luxury cars. In fact, a recent study of Virginia toll lanes showed that there is a higher percentage of luxury vehicles in the general purpose lanes than in the toll lanes, meaning wealthy customers are less likely to use toll lanes than the general population. Motorists choose toll lanes for urgent trips, such as when running late for a business meeting, a plane flight, a doctor’s appointment, or picking up a child from daycare. Average monthly bills are less than $20. That same $20 buys only 6 gallons of gasoline, less than 1/3 of a tank for most vehicles.

Another common gripe is that tolls are state-imposed solutions and that local governments should have control over these highways. In reality, there are different types of roadways. Major highways–designed to move people and vehicles quickly across the state or throughout a large metro area–are the state DOT’s responsibility. Other roads that provide access to neighborhoods and local businesses are the local government’s responsibility. Local management of state roads would inhibit commerce, slow down travel, and increase freight costs.

Some residents oppose toll lanes or toll roads due to eminent domain concerns. No entity (public or private) wants to take residents’ property. It is expensive, legally challenging, and creates negative publicity. States are required to offer just compensation, although that may be cold consolation to those who have lived in that property their entire life. But the reality is that growing metro areas need additional roadway capacity and while a few people are displaced, thousands more benefit from the project.

Environmentalists’ main concern is increased greenhouse gas emissions. Yet emissions follow a U-shaped curve. They are greatest at low speeds and high speeds, but much lower in between. Increasing travel speeds in a congested corridor to 45-55 mph, as express toll lanes do, will actually reduce emissions compared with traffic operating in stop and go conditions.

Left populists complain that the express toll lanes are not a transit solution. But those lanes serve as an uncongested guideway offering reliable trip times for express buses, too. One reason people do not take transit is the travel speed. If commuters must sit in traffic, they would prefer to be stuck in their own vehicles. But transit on express toll lanes that runs largely at 55 mph has proven very popular in Los Angeles, Miami, Texas, and the Washington DC area. Transit agencies have added express bus service and some residents have switched from driving to riding the bus. In the Washington region, the biggest transit gap is suburb to suburb. The express lanes could fill that gap far more effectively than a new rail line to downtown DC.

Other concerns relate specifically to P3s. Right populists complain about international companies investing and profiting from toll roads. In reality, these private concessionaires don’t own the roads; they lease them. All P3s operate under concession agreements that the state can cancel if the concessionaire fails to honor the agreement. The concessionaire takes the risk; if traffic fails to meet its forecast and toll revenue is below expectations, the concessionaire–not the taxpayers–loses money. P3 concessions that went bankrupt during the Great Recession were a victory for taxpayers. Taxpayers got a brand new highway without having to pay for it. The way to increase the number of American companies operating in this space is to build additional P3 projects, not restrict them.

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Post-Mortem on California High-Speed Rail

Last month’s surprise announcement by new Gov. Gavin Newsom dramatically scaling back the $77 billion (and counting) Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed rail project has generated considerable discussion. For one thing, this was a large downsizing of the original plan, but Newsom’s announcement proposed expanding the initial segment from $10.6 billion (Madera to Wasco) to $15 billion (Merced to Bakersfield). In addition, he plans to continue the environmental studies for the hugely costly extensions to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

California is in a bind regarding the remaining installment of promised federal funds. The US DOT announced it will not send the remaining $929 million since the project for which the grants were allocated—Los Angeles to San Francisco—is not being built. Language to that effect is included in the grant agreement between the California HSR Authority and the Federal Railroad Administration. FRA actually has a legal basis to ask for its entire $3.48 billion back, though whether it will do that remains to be seen.

Among the many useful commentaries generated in response to this debacle, I commend several to your attention:

  • Jeff Davis, Eno Transportation Weekly, “Why the California Bullet Train Project Failed: 7 Worst Practices,” Week of Feb. 11, 2019
  • Megan McArdle, Washington Post, “Why the United States Will Never Have High-Speed Rail,” Feb. 28, 2019
  • Jeff Davis, Eno Transportation Weekly, “Population Density and High-Speed Rail,” Week of Feb. 25, 2019

In addition, a Wall Street Journal editorial on February 14th noted that one of the HSR planners’ dreams was to “someday turn Fresno and Merced into Silicon Valley suburbs [to] ease the Bay Area’s housing shortage.” Didn’t anyone in ever-greener California object to the HSR project enabling suburban sprawl?

California’s is far from the world’s only HSR debacle. Last August brought the shocking announcement (Nikkei Asian Review) that the four-year-old HSR line connecting Seoul to Incheon International Airport would be shut down; average daily load factor (percent of seats occupied) was only 23 percent, and total ridership was only 3 percent of what had been projected.

Another under-construction HSR project already in trouble is Britain’s HS2 to link London and Birmingham. Originally estimated at $44 billion, it is now up to $75 billion and counting, leading to calls for it to be terminated before completion. Critical articles have noted that the London station for HS2 is half a mile away from the HS1 train (to Europe via the Channel Tunnel), making a seamless connection between the two impossible.

For a well-documented and highly readable summary of HSR’s performance in Europe and Asia, I can recommend chapter 11 in Randal O’Toole’s new book, Romance of the Rails. There you will learn that the much-vaunted Japanese HSR system has led to such massive debt of Japan National Railway ($350 billion in today’s dollars) that it led to JNR’s partial privatization, with the government taking over most of the debt. The debt amassed by China’s very rapid HSR construction has contributed the majority of China Railway Corporation’s $640 billion debt. O’Toole also chronicles the poor financial performance of HSR in France, Italy, and Spain—each of whose systems is highly subsidized. You might also want to peruse O’Toole’s chapter on HSR efforts in the United States, “The False Promise of High-Speed Rail.”

Incidentally, Romance of the Rails provides an evocative history of the golden age of U.S. passenger rail, the history of urban transit, and the problems of today’s Amtrak and urban rail transit. I liked the book so much that I provided a dust jacket quote for it.

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INRIX  Re-Ranks the Most-Congested Cities

Last month big-data firm INRIX released its 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard. It provides new figures on rush-hour congestion’s extent and direct costs based on data from 200 cities in 38 countries, with an emphasis on the United States, the U.K., and Germany. Both the international and U.S. rankings differ considerably from the firm’s 2017 report, due to significant changes in methodology.

The 2018 rankings are based on an “impact” metric, which combines and weights several different congestion measures, including hours lost in congestion, cost of congestion per driver (i.e., intensity of congestion), and total cost of lost time in the entire metro area (magnitude of congestion). INRIX notes that the new methodology better reflects the more-constrained roadway systems of older cities, such as Boston and Chicago. Also, unlike earlier ways of defining lost time, the new method compares peak-period congestion not with theoretical free-flow conditions but with actual off-peak conditions—which may partly account for significantly lower reported congestion costs in the new report, compared with the 2017 report. Because those differences are quite large in some cases, the 2018 report has recalculated 2017 figures to present 2017-2018 comparisons using the new methodology.

First, some good news for Americans. Of the world’s 25 most-congested metro areas in 2018, only three are in the United States: Boston (#8), Washington (#19), and Chicago (#23). Moscow is now #1, followed by Istanbul, Bogota, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo.

Next, here are the numbers for 2018’s 10 most-congested U.S. cities in terms of the cost of lost time per driver (valued at the average cost/hour recommended by U.S. DOT):

1. Boston $2,291/year
2. Washington $2,161
3. Seattle $1,932
4. Chicago $1,920
5. New York $1,859
6. Los Angeles $1,788
7. Pittsburgh $1,776
8. Portland $1,625
9. San Francisco $1,624
10. Philadelphia $1,568

The other most relevant metric is the total cost of lost time in the metro area. Size matters, so these rankings are considerably different.

1. New York $9.5 billion
2. Los Angeles $9.3
3. Chicago $6.2
4. Washington $4.6
5. Boston $4.1
6. Miami $4.0
7. Houston $3.8
8. Atlanta $3.5
9. San Francisco $3.4
10. Philadelphia $3.3

Last year I reported that Dallas did especially well in the INRIX rankings, despite its huge size and rapid growth, and suggested that the metro area’s extensive use of express toll lanes might be a factor. As you can see from the above, Dallas is not in either top-10 list for 2018. Its cost per driver is a modest $1,065 while its total congestion cost (due to its size) is $3.1 billion, ranking it 11th on that measure.

In contrast to the annual mobility reports that have been produced for many years by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, INRIX is measuring congestion cost only in terms of lost time of commuters. Not included is wasted fuel due to stop-and-go conditions or the cost to truckers, which TTI’s reports included. What neither include is the loss of metro area economic productivity due to congestion, which some economists have estimated as potentially doubling the total annual cost of congestion, compared with only measuring lost time at an average value per driver.

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New Insights on Transportation and Land Use from Alain Bertaud

Alain Bertaud is a former World Bank urban planner, whose career has involved large metro areas around the world. Now a senior research scholar at NYU’s Marron Institute, Bertaud has authored a profoundly important book, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities (MIT Press, 2018). Every transportation planner should read this book, whose insights I can only suggest in this brief article.

Bertaud’s Chapter 2 sets the stage, discussing “Cities as Labor Markets.” He explains that large urban areas are more economically productive than small ones. This is because of the well-known economic effects of “urban agglomeration”—basically, the potential that more high-value connections between potential employers and prospective employees can come about in large urban areas. We can also observe that some large urban areas continue to grow, while others don’t—which suggests that planning policies might be responsible.

On that point, Bertaud takes issue with planners’ attempts to balance growth: “As a consequence of the planners’ hubris about the necessity of managing city size, many regional plans designed in the second half of the 20th century have promoted regulatory limits on the growth of large cities.” A few pages later comes one of Bertaud’s central insights: a metro area’s productivity “depends on its ability to maintain mobility as its built-up area grows.” In other words, the urban agglomeration benefits that increase the region’s productivity will continue “only if the transportation network is able to connect workers with firms and providers of goods and services with consumers.” The failure to manage the transportation network to maintain high mobility results in congestion.

The bottom-line point of this discussion is that “the effective size of the labor market depends on travel time and the spatial distribution of jobs.” Bertaud cites empirical research on urban-area productivity and travel time in Europe, Korea, and the United States. In particular, citing two key research papers, he concludes that “workers’ mobility—their ability to reach a large number of potential jobs in as short a travel time as possible—is a key factor in increasing the productivity of large cities and the welfare of their workers. Large agglomerations of workers do not ensure high productivity in the absence of mobility.” Bertaud concludes that “the main objective of planning should be to increase the speed of transport as a city’s size increases.”

These insights are expanded upon in much greater detail in the book’s longest chapter, on mobility (Chapter 5). I don’t have the space to summarize that, but a couple of key points are worthy of mention. First is that a poly-centric or widely dispersed pattern of job locations is more conducive to transportation that efficiently links workers to jobs than the 19th-century monocentric pattern, with a transport network focused on a “central business district.” Second, he explains that the trendy idea of “urban villages”—where people can live and work within walking or bicycling distance—is a recipe for stagnation. Yes, people might find “a” job in that village, but it is highly unlikely to be a high-productivity job. This planning policy would reduce, rather than increase, a metro area’s economic productivity.

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Truck Producers Continue Innovating

Automation and electrification are twin priorities of major truck producers in the United States and Europe. As Jim Mele of Fleetowner wrote in the November 2018 edition, the 2018 IAA Commercial Vehicles Show in Hanover, Germany “offered solid proof that trucks of all sizes are about to see some revolutionary changes.”

Electrification is advancing rapidly. Though a lot of media attention has focused on large Class 8 tractors for long-haul use (promised by Tesla and Nikola), most observers see local delivery as the best fit for first-generation electric trucks, given their modest daily miles of travel and the ability to recharge at a local base overnight. Next after that will be medium-duty trucks mostly for urban use—dump trucks, tow trucks, etc.

But there is progress on larger trucks as well. Daimler Trucks North America has formed an EV Council consisting of about 30 customers, to advise on topics such as charging/fueling infrastructure, range requirements, total cost of ownership, and related issues. The company is using a Class 8 eCascadia as part of a test fleet of 30 electric truck prototypes for customer testing.

Hydrogen suppliers and fuel-cell electric vehicle producers have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop and test hydrogen fueling components. One key aim is to develop interoperability so that a fuel-cell electric truck can refuel anywhere, just as a diesel truck can. Leading fuel-cell electric company Nikola surprised many observers by announcing last month that several of its models will be offered with either battery or fuel-cell electric propulsion. Only the Class 8 Nikola One will be offered as fuel-cell only.

As with electric propulsion, truck automation is likely to appear in various stages, with driver assistance features (Level 2) on the market first, followed by additional automation and vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity to enable platooning. Daimler last month announced its first Level 2 Class 8 truck, the 2020 Freightliner Cascadia. It will include adaptive cruise control, active brake assist, and active lane assist. Production will begin in July. Many observers expect platooning to begin on select long-distance routes within a few years.

Experts such as transportation economist Noel Perry and University of Pennsylvania sociologist Steve Viscelli expect long-haul trucking to be the segment where automation will have the greatest impact. Due to federal Hours of Service regulations, most trucks are driven only 8 or 9 hours per day. But with automation of the long-distance portion of the trip, the truck could be in motion nearly 24 hours a day, going from a terminal adjacent to an Interstate to a destination terminal also beside an Interstate. Human drivers would be responsible for getting the truck to the origin terminal and taking it from the destination terminal to a distribution center or other local destination. This would fundamentally change the productivity of long-haul trucking, while also solving the shortage of long-haul truck drivers.

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Upcoming Transportation Events

Note: We don’t have the time or space to list all transportation events that might be of interest to readers of this newsletter. Listed here are events at which a Reason Foundation transportation researcher is speaking or moderating.

Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana 9th Annual Conference, April 11, 2019, Crowne Plaza, Baton Rouge, LA (Bob Poole speaking). Details from: http://parlouisiana.org/annual-conference

5th Annual George Mason P3 Forum, April 23, 2019, George Mason University, Arlington Campus, Arlington, VA (Bob Poole speaking). Details from: http://p3policy.gmu.edu/index.php/2019/02/19/5th-annual-p3-forum

Future of Transportation in Wisconsin, April 26, 2019, Harley Davidson Museum, Milwaukee, WI (Bob Poole speaking). Details from: https://thompsoncenter.wisc.edu/upcoming-conference-b

60th Annual Transportation Research Forum, May 2-3, 2019, Capital Hilton, Washington, DC (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details from: http://annualforum.trforum.org/2019-annual-forum

Auto Haulers Association Spring Leadership Conference, May 6-8, 2019, Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway, Atlanta, GA (Bob Poole speaking). Details from: http://autohaulersamerica.com/upcoming-events

Princeton Smart Driving Car Summit, May 14-16, 2019, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ (Baruch Feigenbaum speaking). Details from: http://summit.smartdrivingcar.com

P3 Connect, May 16-19, 2019, Downtown Convention Center, Denver, CO (Austill Stuart speaking). Details from: https://thep3connect.org

IBTTA Summit on Finance and Policy, May 19-22, 2019, Loews Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA (Bob Poole speaking). Details from: https://ibtta.org/events/summit-finance-policy-0

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News Notes

Dedicated Truck Lanes for Truck Platooning Proposed in Los Angeles
Roads & Bridges has provided an update on the I-710 dedicated truck lanes planned to serve drayage trucks going to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. As illustrated in the article, the current plan is for these lanes to be built as elevated structures above the existing Long Beach Freeway right of way. The truck lanes will allow the use of connected vehicle technology to facilitate platooning of trucks in these dedicated lanes. The article, by Mark Jensen, is online at https://www.roadsbridges.com/tracking-out-road.

More Private Activity Bonds Proposed in Congress
At least two bills introduced in the new Congress include an expansion of tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds (PABs) that have been used to help finance long-term P3 transportation projects. A bipartisan bill by Sens. Cornyn and Warner would increase the current $15 billion federal cap on PABs to $20.8 billion. A separate bipartisan bill by Sens. Hoeven and Wyden would expand PABs and also create new tax credits for infrastructure projects in smaller states.

Affordability of Automated Vehicles Questioned
A Harvard Business Review article by MIT researchers Ashley Nunes and Kristen Hernandez has the provocative title, “The Cost of Self-Driving Cars Will Be the Biggest Barrier to their Adoption.” They collected data on vehicle ownership and operating costs in San Francisco, along with cost data from the taxi industry, and used these data to estimate the cost to consumers of using a robotaxi, compared with driving an older personally owned vehicle. Their surprising conclusion was that “using a robotaxi will cost consumers nearly three times more, on a per-mile basis, than owning an older vehicle.” Factors leading to this result included both the robotaxi’s expected utilization rate and the cost of safety oversight. Their research was supported by the MIT Energy Initiative’s Mobility of the Future study.

Amtrak CEO Proposes Major Restructuring
The CEO of Amtrak, Richard Anderson (former CEO of Delta Airlines), has proposed shifting the railroad’s focus to better serving its short- and medium-haul customers by curtailing money-losing long-distance routes. A lengthy Wall Street Journal article (February 21st) provided Amtrak’s estimated operating losses for 15 long-distance routes, most of which operate only one train per day. Moreover, most of the locomotives and cars used on those routes are nearing the end of their useful life. Anderson believes the railroad’s limited funds would be better spent on upgrading equipment and increasing frequencies on routes where it can compete better with driving and air travel.

AAA Documents Electric Car Battery Problem in Extreme Weather
Testing by AAA researchers of five electric car models found that at temperatures below 20 degrees (F), average driving range is cut by 41 percent. That’s because so much of the energy from the battery must be used to heat the car’s interior. A similar (but less drastic) problem exists in very hot weather. At temperatures of 95 degrees, when air conditioning is needed, driving range is cut by 17 percent.

Ohio Will No Longer Borrow Against Turnpike Revenue
Several years ago Ohio officials decided to “borrow” $1.5 billion from the Ohio Turnpike to use to improve other roadways in the state. To make up for the loss, the Turnpike had to increase toll rates 2.7 percent a year for 10 years. But the new administration of Gov. Mike DeWine now sees that as a short-term fix for a long-term transportation funding problem, and it is being called “irresponsible to continue.”

Boring Company Loses Chicago, Gains Las Vegas Project
Elon Musk’s Boring Company lost its proposed project for an express tunnel between the Chicago Loop and O’Hare International Airport, when new governor J.B. Pritzker cancelled the contract. But Inframation News reported on March 7th that the Boring Company has just been selected to design, construct, and operate a people mover for the Las Vegas Convention Center. The selection was made as part of a competitive procurement carried out by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. Its tunnels will link the Convention Center with downtown, the Strip, and the airport, at a cost estimated at between $35 million and $55 million. The construction costs will be paid for by the Authority.

TIFIA Loan for Houston’s Tolled Beltway
The Grand Parkway, a 180-mile tolled outer loop around the Houston metro area, is moving into construction of its last segments, on the eastern side. Some 44 miles of the Parkway, between US 59 and I-10, have garnered a $605 million loan from the federal TIFIA program, to assist in financing this $1.28 billion addition of 50-plus miles. The completion date is set for 2022.

What Happens When Everyone Needs a Robo-Taxi at Work Day’s End?
I’ve often questioned the notion that autonomous robo-taxis could provide personal mobility that is “equivalent” to that provided by individually owned cars. I was pleased to find that robo-taxi thought-leader Brad Templeton agrees that the “pick-up rush” at the end of the workday is an unsolved problem. As usual in his thought-provoking columns, he addresses this calmly, suggesting various aspects of solutions but also soliciting ideas from readers. This column is “Handling the Pick-up ‘Rush’ When Everybody Leaves at Once. (https://ideas.4brad.com/handling-pickup-rush-when-everybody-leaves-once)

Loss of Hudson River Tunnel Would Have Huge Economic Costs
The only rail link between Manhattan and New Jersey is the pair of tunnels originally built and operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which opened in 1910. They were badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy, and there is still no agreement on who will pay for their replacement. The Regional Plan Association in New York released a study last month estimating that if the tunnels were taken out of service without a replacement ready to take over, the economic costs would be $16 billion over four years. Nearly half a million people’s commutes would be affected, congesting alternative routes and leading to more accidents and air pollution, as well as job losses.

Sensible Book on Autonomous Vehicles and Mobility as a Service
Of an array of recent books on forthcoming disruptive changes in personal transportation, the most insightful, in my view, is The End of Driving: Transportation Systems and Public Policy Planning for Autonomous Vehicles. I confess to having read only the online chapter summaries, but based on that and my having read much other writing by authors Bern Grush and John Niles, this is likely to be a thoughtful and realistic assessment of these changes. The summaries are online at http://endofdriving.org/2018/06/25/the-end-of-driving-book-chapter-summaries

Electric Vehicles and Highway Funding
Most states have yet to introduce a highway use charge for electric vehicles, which contribute to road wear and congestion just as much as petroleum-fueled vehicles. Sen John Barrasso (R, WY) has reintroduced his 2018 bill that would end federal EV tax credits (which the Manhattan Institute estimates would save $20 billion over the next decade). But this year’s bill also includes a federal highway user fee for EVs, to be collected via income tax returns and used to shore up the Highway Trust Fund. Meanwhile, a new study from UC Davis recommends a per-mile charge for EVs, such as the mileage-based user fees that are the subject of a growing number of state (and multi-state) pilot projects.

Virgin Trains USA Proceeds with PABs, Drops IPO Plan
The proposed initial public offering of shares in Virgin Trains USA (formerly known as Brightline), was dropped in February, with the company proceeding toward a new issue of tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds to finance its soon-to-start-construction Phase 2 passenger rail line from West Palm Beach to Orlando. Some analysts think the prospects of an IPO will be brighter once service from Miami to Orlando begins, in about three years, after the Phase 2 construction and testing are completed.

Austin Billboard Promotes $8 billion I-35 Project
The massive project to relieve congestion on I-35 through downtown Austin has been stymied by 2017 state legislation putting a moratorium on both tolling and P3 projects. Last month Texans for Traffic Relief put up a billboard alongside I-35 headlined “Traffic sucks” and directing people to the website, Fix35Now.com.

Former Legislator Proposes Asset Recycling of Illinois Tollway
In an op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business, former Illinois legislator Jeff Schoenberg has proposed leasing the Illinois Tollway as a long-term P3, with the up-front payment transferred to the very under-funded state employee retirement systems. Last decade Schoenberg co-chaired a legislative panel that estimated that the 274-mile system could generate an up-front payment of between $15 billion and $24 billion. And given the increased value of the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road since they were leased last decade, he suggests the current value of the Tollway could be even higher.

More Federal Grants for MBUF Pilot Projects
Last month FHWA announced $10.2 million worth of grants to seven states to design and test “user-based alternative revenue tools” for highways. The largest grant ($3 million) is for a second phase of the multi-state I-95 Corridor Coalition project on the east coast. The second largest, at $2 million, went to Caltrans to further develop that state’s pilot Road User Charge (RUC), in the context of emerging transportation technologies. Another grant went to the 11-state Western Road User Charge Consortium.

Indiana Toll Backlash Continues
In response to last year’s action by Gov. Eric Holcomb to modify the long-term concession of the Indiana Toll Road—increasing truck toll rates and generating an additional $1 billion to be used for transportation and non-transportation purposes—the Indiana House last month voted unanimously to require the State Budget Committee to review all P3s or extensions that have a fiscal impact. The measure would also prohibit the executive branch from making transfers from the Major Moves Construction Fund.

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Quotable Quotes

“Rather than trying to convince the public of travel and location choices deemed by planners to be better, perhaps planners should surrender to the rather overwhelming evidence that individuals highly value the inherent flexibility of door-to-door, on-demand travel choices. The robust increases in auto ownership and the rather stunning success of ride-hailing services have shown consumers highly value convenience and flexibility in their travel choices.”
—Steven Polzin, “Transportation 2019—Looking Back, Looking Ahead,” Planetizen, January 3, 2019

“Washington politics are a blunt instrument, and probably won’t be able to narrow [various] differences. Illinois’ representatives aren’t going to give up some of the federal gasoline tax their constituents paid in order to improve highways in California. Indeed, if infrastructure funds are allocated by the federal government, political pressures will result in a fairly equal state-by-state distribution of the funds, which will fail to place funds where they are most needed. For this reason, officials in Washington should play a more limited role in managing highway and bridge infrastructure spending by letting states decide what to do with their own gasoline taxes. Shifting most of the funding and decision-making to the states and—even better—to local governments, helps ensure that our money goes where it is truly needed rather than to politically expedient projects.”
—Prof. Robert Kroll, “Infrastructure Returns as a Bipartisan Issue in Washington,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 13, 2019

“Back in December, when Waymo announced an Uber-style service called Waymo One that would shuttle drivers around Phoenix, Arizona, it made bold promises. . . . But Carl’s experience as he used the services in the patch of downtown Phoenix where they’re allowed to operate tell a different story—one in which Waymo’s self-driving cars struggle to make left turns, change lanes, or merge onto the freeway. In general, they run into difficulty with tasks that require a human-like sense of intuitive timing and an understanding of other drivers’ intentions, not just the ability to spot signs, obstacles, and road markings, at which Waymo vans have become adept. As for the [safety] driver chilling in the back seat? For now, a Waymo employee remains in the driver’s seat of every Waymo One trip and regularly takes over when the van gets confused.”
—Dan Robitzski, “Exclusive: A Waymo One Rider’s Experiences Highlight Autonomous Rideshare’s Shortcomings,” Futurism.com, February 28, 2019

“Autonomous trucks will fundamentally change the capability of trucks and the economics surrounding their use, because they involve lots of uninterrupted driving.”
—Steve Viscelli, in Neal Abt, “Automation: The Unstoppable Force,” Fleetowner, November 2018

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