- Trucking research spotlights parking and EV charging needs
- Despite setbacks, automated vehicles progress
- Another hyperloop startup calls it quits
- Why cars are so popular in America
- Do “skinny roads” save lives?
- California trucking confronts EV mandate
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Last month, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) re-released its Dec. 2022 analysis of the trucking industry’s need for a huge expansion of heavy-duty fast-charging stations and safe overnight truck parking spaces. For long-haul trucking, the two needs are closely related.
The report is organized around three “challenges” facing truck electrification: electricity supply and demand, electric vehicle production, and truck charging (and parking) requirements. All three are critically important, and solutions are not currently in sight.
This newsletter has featured articles on the contradictions in current federal and state electricity plans, which do not seem to recognize that the current priority on phasing out all fossil fuel electricity generation within the next two decades—while simultaneously shifting surface transportation from fossil fuel to electricity—will require adding at least 40% to total electricity generation within that period. There are no current plans to do anything like that. In addition, the huge increase in planned wind and solar electricity generation (in places where there is lots of sunshine and/or lots of wind) will require a significant expansion of high-voltage long-distance transmission lines, few of which are actually being developed.
The “Challenge One” section of the report provides a good primer on the current U.S. electricity system. It also estimates the additional electricity needed to convert 100% of the U.S. vehicle fleet to electricity. For light-duty personal vehicles, ATRI’s estimate is 26.3% of total 2019 electricity consumption. A similar set of calculations for the U.S. truck fleet would require another 14% of all electricity. Together, the total for all U.S. motor vehicle electrification would be a 40% increase in electricity consumption (and hence generation, which would be somewhat greater due to losses incurred in long-distance transmission).
I have one caveat regarding this part of the report. Most of the 14% needed for truck electrification is for heavy-duty (Class 7 and Class 8) trucks (10.6% out of the 14%). Left out of this ATRI report is the likelihood that long-distance big rigs will far more likely be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which yield higher payloads, longer range, and much shorter refueling time. This was documented in a previous ATRI report, “Understanding the CO2 Impacts of Zero-Emission Trucks,” from May 2022. To be sure, hydrogen must be produced, and that process will require electricity. But when the current ATRI report discusses truck charging requirements, it assumes that all Class 7 and Class 8 trucks will be battery electric vehicles (BEVs) that need to be recharged rather than having their fuel cells refilled. That’s a very worst-case assumption.
“Challenge Two” covers the costs and uncertainties of producing enough electric vehicle batteries for 100% motor vehicle electrification. This material mostly repeats detailed information in the above-noted May 2022 ATRI report, reviewed in the June 2022 issue of this newsletter. Those problems are increasingly being discussed in transportation and electrification media and are amply supported by ATRI’s footnotes to recent research. This section of the report assumes current lithium-ion batteries, since they are the current state of the art. However, very large amounts of research and development money is being spent worldwide on alternative battery designs, so this section may be overly pessimistic.
Interestingly, this ATRI report reproduces a portion of the table from its May 2022 report comparing heavy truck parameters for current diesel big-rigs with battery-electric versions, showing the lost amount of payload of the BEV version due to the substantial weight of the batteries. Omitted is the far more attractive hydrogen fuel cell data from the May 2022 report’s comparable table.
The “Challenge Three” section of the report makes clear the connection between the dire shortage of safe overnight truck parking spaces and the land area needed for long-distance truck charging. It includes useful information such as comparing the time it takes to refuel a diesel big rig (5 to 12 minutes) and to recharge a truck-size battery pack using a direct current fast charger (DCFC) recharging to 80%— between 2.9 and 5.7 hours, depending on the battery capacity. It also notes that “Truck parking and truck charging will see very similar peaks in demand.” It points out that with such significant charging times, the truck could not move from the charger when charging is complete because the driver could not go on duty (from a federally mandated rest period) to move the truck.
For its case study of a truck parking/charging scenario, the ATRI researchers used truck GPS data from an I-10 rest area in Pecos West County, Texas. The data showed that this rest area has 67 truck parking spaces with an average of 369 unique truck visits per day. The researchers predict that time-related charging problems will mirror those found in this truck parking example, but they note that at busy times, trucks can park in ad-hoc spaces, but no such option will exist for charging at busy times. The researchers also estimated the number and cost of DCFCs needed for heavy-duty combination truck recharging. At a realistic rate of five daily charging events per charger, about 321,000 chargers costing about $36 billion would be needed. They also note that to avoid vandalism and address out-of-service chargers, charging areas will need to have attendants on hand at all times.
The main conclusion of “Challenge Three” is that “Truck charging availability will be the truck parking crisis 2.0.” Charging battery-electric big rigs will be limited by federal hours of service (HOS) regulations and parking availability. Among the barriers are “laws preventing commercial charging at public rest areas.” Both private truck stops and public rest areas have a scarcity of available parking spaces.
This appears to be the closest any trucking organization has come to suggesting that the federal ban on commercial services at Interstate rest areas has passed its expiration date. A growing number of state departments of transportation (DOTs) would welcome the opportunity to have investors finance large-scale expansion of Interstate rest areas on truck-intensive Interstates (as tolled Interstates have been doing over the past decade). Indeed, land-scarce truck stop chains might be invited to join such public-private partnerships (P3s) to expand rest areas with the services long-haul trucks (and motorists) will need as motor vehicles are increasingly electrified.
Note: for some details on the potential of Interstate rest areas, go here.
The final quarter of 2023 was a season of bad news for automated vehicles (AVs). After struggling for a couple of years, once-leading AV truck developer TuSimple finally called it quits in the U.S. But by far, the worst story was about General Motors’ subsidiary Cruise. The fallout from the robotaxi company’s mishandling of an October incident in San Francisco forced out top leadership and dramatically scaled back near-term expansion plans. Despite the overwhelmingly negative press coverage that closed out 2023, several AV developers continued to make progress on establishing their safety cases. As we enter 2024, we can expect multiple developers to pivot from proving safety to demonstrating commercial viability.
On Oct. 2, a jaywalking pedestrian stepped into moving traffic in downtown San Francisco and was struck by a hit-and-run driver. The pedestrian was flung over the hood of the car and directly in front of a GM Cruise robotaxi traveling in the adjacent lane. The vehicle attempted to steer away from the pedestrian and braked hard but was unable to avoid striking the woman. After it came to a stop, the robotaxi then attempted to pull over out of the traffic lane. In most crash contexts, this pullover maneuver makes sense and mimics the expected post-crash behavior of human drivers. But in this case, the woman had been pinned under the vehicle, and she was dragged approximately 20 feet, causing her additional injuries.
Cruise claims it began investigating the crash immediately, which it completed on Oct. 23. A day later, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Cruise’s testing and operating permits, and the company halted its on-road operations nationwide. Cruise then initiated a formal recall through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Nov. 7, announcing it would be updating its collision detection subsystem before resuming on-road operations. But these actions—plus allegations that Cruise initially withheld information about the post-crash dragging from regulators—proved to be too little, too late for the company’s leadership team.
CEO Kyle Vogt and Chief Product Officer Dan Kan, the pair who founded Cruise in 2013, resigned on Nov. 19. Nine other executives from Cruise’s legal, government affairs, commercial operations, and safety and systems departments were ousted in mid-December. A quarter of the company’s workforce was laid off as GM canceled Cruise’s plan to expand to more than a dozen cities in 2024, announcing it will instead “relaunch ride-hail in one city to start, and enhance our safety standards and processes before we scale.”
Cruise’s newfound precarity demonstrates how vital transparency and trust are to commercializing AVs. In contrast to Cruise, its chief competitor, Waymo, has taken a slower approach to commercial service expansion. At the same time, Waymo has placed a larger emphasis on conducting and sharing its internal safety analysis. In September, Waymo and the Swiss Reinsurance Company released preliminary research which found that Waymo’s driverless robotaxis in Phoenix and San Francisco led to a 76% reduction in property damage claim frequencies relative to the human driver baseline, while eliminating bodily injury claims.
In December, Waymo released two additional preprint studies: the first on developing human driver benchmarks from police-reported crash data to gauge the relative safety of AVs, and the second comparing 7.14 million miles of fully driverless Waymo operations to those human driver benchmarks.
Those 7.14 million miles of driverless operation were conducted through Oct. 2023 in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Francisco. When comparing Waymo’s human driver benchmarks derived from police-reported crash data with Waymo crashes submitted to NHTSA, Waymo estimated its robotaxis produced a 57% reduction in the police-reported crash rate and an 85% reduction in the “any injury reported” crash rate. This translates to 17 fewer injuries and 20 fewer crashes compared to the human driving benchmark over the same number of miles in the same areas.
While this is far from definitive, and the Waymo researchers emphasize that building the safety case for AVs is ongoing and multifaceted, these preliminary results bolster the growing evidence that robotaxis operating with paying customers today are already improving road safety.
However, establishing safety is far from the end of the road for demonstrating the value of AVs. In his SmartDrivingCars newsletter, Princeton engineering professor Alain Kornhauser commended Waymo for its safety-focused approach while noting that improved safety is necessary but not sufficient for AVs to succeed. “What Waymo needs to do is to quickly focus its more fundamental attributes of flexibility in time and space of giving safe rides, thus delivering an extremely high level of service, safely and affordably,” wrote Kornhauser. This is to say, while improving the safety of the product is very important, AV developers must eventually pass the market test by demonstrating they can provide more efficient transportation of people and goods.
This sentiment was echoed by Don Burnette, CEO of AV truck developer Kodiak Robotics, at the end of December. “Safety First, Autonomy Next: 2024 Drive to Driverless!” wrote Burnette in a statement. Burnette provided additional information on Jan. 9 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, announcing Kodiak plans to begin driverless runs between Dallas and Houston later this year. Driver-out operations are necessary for commercial viability, something “middle-mile” AV trucking developer Gatik aims to demonstrate in 2024.
Gatik’s niche focus on short-haul trucking to address “logistics pain points” has proven to be a successful pitch to large shippers such as grocery giant Kroger, which announced a multiyear deal with Gatik in December. Gatik and Kroger plan to begin “freight-only” fully driverless operations in Texas by the end of 2024. Noted AV consultant Richard Bishop reported that Gatik “committed to deliver not just freight but reliability, uptime, and other factors that Kroger’s human-driven truck fleet is struggling to fulfil.” This is precisely the sort of value proposition AV developers must make to customers if they are to pass the market test. So, despite the widely covered AV mishaps in 2023, there is good reason to be optimistic about AVs in the new year.
Infralogic reported (Dec. 21) that U.S.-based Hyperloop One was ceasing operations, also reported by Bloomberg News that day. It was founded in 2014 and, at one point, was named Virgin Hyperloop when Richard Branson invested in the company. But after the firm announced its shift from transporting people to transporting freight, Virgin withdrew its name. Dubai’s DP World, which had also invested in the company as its majority investor, is expected to take possession of its intellectual property, according to Infralogic. One of its assets is a test track in Nevada.
Hyperloop One studied potential projects in India and the United States but never came close to attracting either permission to develop an actual project or a business plan showing that the venture would likely be viable. In previous issues of this newsletter, I have cited studies suggesting several apparently unsolved problems with the concept. Among these are the following:
- How do you sustain a near vacuum in tubes of a thousand miles or more?
- How large are the energy costs to propel the vehicles and maintain the vacuum?
- Has anyone designed airlocks adjacent to the stations to permit the transition from vacuum in the tube to normal atmospheric pressure where people and cargo will be loaded and unloaded?
- Has anyone designed switches (turnouts) for the tubes, to permit one line to branch off from the main tube?
- How would emergency evacuation of passengers take place?
To my knowledge, these engineering problems have not been addressed in any published material, which means either they have not been addressed or the answers have been shielded from peer review by outside subject-matter experts. And until solutions to those problems are worked out, we have no idea of either the full construction cost or the full operating costs of a hyperloop system.
It may turn out that hyperloop is one of those impossible dreams that sounds cool when first presented but faces serious engineering constraints as well as questionable business cases. Alain Kornhauser of Princeton University recently commented on the demise of Hyperloop One as follows:
“Since [19th century pneumatic tube inventor] Alfred Beach, if not before, folks have understood the fundamental opportunity of pneumatic mobility in tubes. Low friction and a small differential pressure between front and back—and Boom! . . . Not only does propulsion (and suspension) have to be efficient and inexpensive, the guideway has to be really inexpensive because one needs a substantial amount of guideway to achieve any kind of scale. Consequently, all successful modes of transport have inexpensive/dumb ways and expensive/intelligent vehicles—air/airplanes, water/boats, hard surface/car, rails + ties + crushed rock/locomotive.”
A friend sent me a fascinating Substack column by Glenn Mercer, “Why the Car Is So Hard to Displace,” from October 2022. While older, it’s a summary of a 2021 paper published in Nature Sustainability, “The Value of Car Ownership and Use in the United States,” by Joanna Moody (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Elizabeth Farr (MIT), Marisa Papagelis (Wellesley College), and David R. Keith (MIT).
The paper seeks to explain why—despite all the efforts over decades to persuade Americans to use mass transit, ride-hailing services, travel by bike or walk, and use other modes—personal vehicles are the overwhelming choice of individuals and households, apart from very dense downtowns, such as Manhattan. The paper’s authors decided to tackle this question by applying a method called “willingness to accept compensation.” Essentially, they asked a large sample of large urban area residents how much they would need to be paid to give up using each of a list of transportation modes for a year.
Their surveys took place among residents of the metro areas of Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, and Washington D.C. Each respondent was asked how much they would need to be paid to give up using each of nine transportation modes and three communications modes for a year. The results may be surprising:
|Personal car 1
|Personal car 2
Personal cars 1 and 2 are arrived at by two different experimental designs, so you should interpret the value of a personal car as between $11,000 and $17,000 per year.
I agree with blogger Mercer that these are astonishing differences, and we can all ponder the reasons for these results. I think Mercer is on the right track in suggesting that the car outperforms the others so greatly because it might not do everything best, but “it does almost everything well enough,” as he puts it, to be better than the alternatives in most cases.
The survey questions did not discuss the cost of using each alternative, but the study authors note that using the AAA figure for the annual cost of car ownership of $9,300, the survey shows people valuing their car as more than that ownership cost estimate. (Mercer and some others argue that the AAA figure is too high because it assumes a new car when many people buy used cars.)
The report’s authors estimate the $11,200 amount people would need to be paid to give up car use for a year as being composed of two parts: the use value ($4,700) and the ownership value ($6,500). The use value is the ability to go from one point to another. The ownership value (also called the option value) is that the car gives you the option of having the car available at all times, without the waiting you’d face in most other modes. And that includes the option, on the spur of the moment, to stop at Starbucks along the way. They conclude:
“This finding runs counter to the narrative that people are behaving irrationally by owning a car because they underestimate the true cost. Instead, we find that people value owning the car high enough to make the private cost worthwhile. Indeed, 58% of this value is in owning the car, compared with 42% in using it, suggesting that the value of the car goes well beyond the trips that it provides.”
This paper sheds some useful light on the failure of decades-long efforts to “get people out of their cars and onto transit” and more recent attempts to greatly increase urban density in the quest for a “15-minute city.”
In November, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health released a report titled “A National Investigation on the Impacts of Lane Width on Traffic Safety” by Shima Hamidi and Reid Ewing along with seven supporting researchers. The study examined whether and in which cases it makes sense for cities to narrow roadway lanes from 12 feet to 9 feet or 10 feet. The conclusion is that narrower street lanes in central cities can save lives.
While the study makes some valid points, suggesting a new one-size-fits-all approach to replace the current one-size-fits-all approach is a problem and may not be effective on busier streets.
For its sample size, the study chose 1,117 street sections from seven different cities. It used a binomial regression analysis to examine the relationship between length, width, and non-intersection crashes (ignoring intersections). The study found that narrower lanes can reduce the number of crashes. Specifically, on roads with speed limits of 20-to-25 miles per hour, there is no statistically significant difference in the number of crashes for streets with nine-foot lanes compared to 10, 11, or 12-foot lanes. However, there is a statistically significant difference on roads with speed limits of 30-to-35 miles per hour with nine-foot lanes compared to 10, 11, or 12-foot lanes. The researchers believe the difference is due to the lanes’ effect on speeding, which is more pronounced on higher-order roads (for example: collectors as opposed to local streets).
The study does note that narrow lanes are not appropriate on all streets. Streets with significant transit or freight travel and speeds of more than 35 miles per hour need lane widths of 11 feet to accommodate those vehicles (most commonly arterials).
In practice, Vermont is the only state to have implemented a nine-foot minimum lane width in any situation, and only in limited cases.
The report recommends that the American Association of State Highways and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) street design standards use a 10-foot wide default lane instead of a 12-foot wide default lane for city streets. If a wider lane were necessary, traffic engineers would have to justify its creation by showing the need (for example, a high volume of trucks or buses).
A more intriguing recommendation is a context classification system in which a department of transportation would look at the area’s needs in choosing road designs. In this holistic approach, one road could have nine-foot lanes with bicycling lanes while truck-heavy corridors would have 11-foot lanes. There would not be any default standard.
Unlike many documents, the report also focuses on cost-effectiveness measures. Instead of spending millions of dollars to build new infrastructure for a small number of users, it suggests re-striping existing roadways. It reminds readers that the AASHTO guidelines are not set in stone and details why cities might want to modify them in certain situations. As someone who has been recommending that cities create three-foot wide bicycle lanes in each direction on four-lane collectors by narrowing 12-foot lanes to 10 ½-foot lanes for 10 years without much success, I applaud this approach.
However, I have a couple of concerns. First, I agree with Randy McCourt, former president of ITE, that nine-foot-wide lanes with speeds above 30 miles per hour could be a safety problem. McCourt expressed his concerns in an interview in an NPR piece.
Simple physics dictates that automobiles traveling faster need more of a buffer, and nine feet may not be enough. And the report is a little vague on how many trucks or how many parked cars could safely be on the roads before the narrow lanes become unrealistic.
Are two parallel-parked cars per 100 feet okay?
Some quantitative metrics would help. Parts of the report are also very prescriptive, particularly one of the recommendations, which replaces one set of overly burdensome regulations (12-foot lanes in all situations) with another (10-foot lanes in all situations). The alternative Context Classification System seems like a better fit.
The report also ignores a key non-engineering reason that state transportation departments haven’t narrowed lanes: our country’s legal system. State Departments of Transportation are very concerned that they will get sued if they do anything that deviates from the norm. Historically, courts have looked at past implementation practices as the standard, even if they are not the best solution. If DOTs follow the AASHTO standard and there is a fatality, they are less likely to lose a lawsuit than if they try something that is new and unproven. For innovative practices to thrive, legal reform may be needed.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) last year released an Advanced Clean Fleets Regulation under which any new big rig trucks registered in the state must be either a battery electric vehicle (BEV) or a hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) electric. Since trucks generally have a higher turnover rate than personal vehicles, the purpose of the regulation is to force a rapid replacement of diesel trucks with electric trucks.
Expensive BEV and HFC trucks are gradually becoming available, but none are really in mass production at this point. Besides their considerably higher purchase price, the new electric trucks have serious operating limitations. For drayage trucks that move shipping containers between the ports (Los Angeles and Long Beach) and myriad terminals, warehouses, and distribution centers, the limitations of currently available BEV big rigs are very serious.
Wall Street Journal reporter Sierra Dawn McClain rode along with a drayage truck driver and wrote about her experience on the WSJ op-ed page on Dec. 30. She saw first-hand the extra time and miles driven, due to the need to recharge the truck’s batteries and how this reduced the number of “turns” (runs to and from the port) the driver could carry out each day. On the day she rode with him, the driver managed just two turns; the time-consuming battery charging for those turns totaled two and a half hours of charging time, not including the extra driving time to and from the charging stations. With a diesel truck, the driver said he could make up to six turns per day, compared to only two on the day in question.
One other point the reporter noticed was the reduced payload his rig could handle, compared with a diesel truck. Because the batteries weigh far more than a full tank of fuel, the payload of a BEV truck is significantly reduced. The company he drives for uses its BEV trucks for lightweight loads such as consumer electronics and toilet paper. (And as I noted in an article last year, Pepsico uses its Tesla BEV trucks for lightweight loads like potato chips, rather than heavy loads of soft drinks in glass bottles.)
California trucking companies got a temporary reprieve from the Jan. 1, 2024, start of the Advanced Clean Fleets Regulation, but not due to any concern for the costs to trucking companies and shippers. The necessary waiver that allows California to regulate truck emissions in this way was not applied for until November 2023, although the regulation was adopted in April 2023. Politico reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) typically takes six months to review such waiver requests, but how long this relief will last is impossible to predict.
Louisiana Narrows Sites for New Mississippi River Bridge
This month the long-discussed toll-supported bridge across the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will enter the “environmental assessment” phase with the final three alternatives in design and location being assessed. The new bridge is intended to reduce serious traffic congestion in the Baton Rouge area, caused in part by the limited capacity of the existing I-10 bridge across the river. The new bridge will link SR 30 on the east side of the river with SR 1 on the west side, just as the I-10 bridge does.
California Faces $4.4 Billion Highway Funding Shortfall from EV Growth
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office projects that over the next decade, the shift from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric vehicles will reduce state fuel tax revenue by $4.4 billion. A recently introduced electric vehicle registration fee is projected to recover only $1.1 billion over the same decade, according to the LAO’s report. Some anti-highway groups are calling on the state legislature to simply spend less on highways rather than seek to replace the revenue. Others support building on several road user charge (RUC) pilot projects already carried out in California to replace lost highway user tax revenue with a new per-mile charge.
Yet Another Reason to Expand Electricity Generation
The Biden administration’s plans call for shifting all current U.S. energy generation to 100% non-carbon-based sources within the next two decades. But merely doing that would leave the country woefully short of electricity. Replacing all internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles with electric vehicles will require 30% to 40% more electricity to be generated nationwide. The introduction and large-scale use of artificial intelligence (AI) will require yet another increase in electricity production, as The Wall Street Journal technology columnist Christopher Mims reported in the Dec. 16 edition. Mims cites an estimate from Alex de Vries at Vrije University Amsterdam that global production and use of AI microchips will require the equivalent of 15 one-gigawatt nuclear power plants. Overall, he projects that the electricity needed to power the world’s data centers could increase 50% by 2027.
Argentina Bill Would Authorize More Infrastructure Public-Private Partnerships (P3s)
The sweeping reform bill introduced by Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, would allow private investors to buy existing public works and authorize the development of new infrastructure via design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) P3 concessions. The 351-page omnibus reform legislation faces steep hurdles in the Argentine Congress, where Milei’s coalition has far less than a majority of members.
Medium-Duty Electric Trucks Enter U.S. Market
The first 50 Daimler Truck’s new Class 4 and Class 5 cab-over electric trucks arrived in the United States in November. The new Rizon brand trucks are aimed at local goods movement, where trucks operate from terminals equipped with charging stations The Rizon trucks’ batteries are smaller than those in over-the-road Class 7 and Class 8 trucks and do not require heavy-duty fast chargers. They will qualify for California zero-emission incentives. Daimler Truck estimates that it will import at least 1,000 of these new trucks to this country during 2024.
Oregon-Washington I-5 Bridge Gets $600 Million from Feds
The $7.5 billion project to replace the aging I-5 bridges across the Columbia River last month received notice that it has been allocated $600 million from the federal Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. The project plan already includes projected toll revenue to finance 19% of the project’s cost, and the two state governments have agreed to put in $1 billion each. That leaves a large unfunded hole in the budget that could be significantly reduced by eliminating the planned light rail lines across the bridge, replacing them with variably priced express toll lanes that would provide fast and reliable express bus service between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, while increasing the fraction of the bridge paid for by toll revenues.
Construction Delays Hit New York State Thruway Service Area P3 Project
The $450 million public-private partnership project to rebuild and modernize 23 of the 27 service areas on the New York State Thruway has experienced a bond “outlook” downgrade (from stable to negative) by Fitch Ratings. This is due to delays and cost overruns due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the skyrocketing of construction costs since the project’s financial close in 2021. This project is the sixth long-term service plaza modernization P3 since 2010, and it is the largest of the six. Others include Florida’s Turnpike and the Indiana Toll Road.
BQE Reconstruction Hits Local Opposition
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) is an aging urban Interstate (I-278) connecting those two boroughs of New York City. It’s badly in need of rehabilitation/reconstruction. For historical reasons, one section of the BQE is owned by the city of New York, and that has enabled an anti-expressway coalition to gain a high profile in opposing reconstruction. The coalition is putting forth the slogan “a new way, not the highway.” Among their ideas, per a Dec. 14 Politico article, is that “maybe boats are a better way to get some goods back and forth than trucks.” They hope that whatever gets approved for the central section, the “triple cantilever” in Brooklyn Heights, will shape the reconstruction of the southern and northern sections of the BQE.
Office Vacancies and Transit Ridership Decline
A Dec. 20 front-page story in The Wall Street Journal found that “office demand shows no sign of returning to pre-pandemic levels.” Based on key-card data from 10 major cities, Kastle Systems estimates that office occupancy is about half its pre-pandemic level. Research based on mobile phone data puts the occupancy rate at 60-65% of pre-pandemic levels. These figures do not bode well for office leases and mortgages that will expire in the next several years. Vacant offices are a major factor in the continued decline in urban transit ridership and farebox revenue.
Recovering High Collection Costs from Toll Customers
The pay-by-license plate system is easy for motorists but tough on the operators of toll roads and bridges. It costs far more to have to send bills and get customers to pay them, compared with transponders (like E-ZPass) with pre-paid accounts. So it’s encouraging to see the New York Thruway taking this disparity more seriously in its toll increases that took effect Jan. 1, 2024, on the Mario Cuomo Bridge—tolls which hadn’t been increased since 2010. The increase for E-ZPass customers is 8.7%, but for pay-by-plate customers it’s 47% this year, rising to 81% by 2027. I have not seen credible figures on the comparative collection costs, but toll-by-plate revenue costs far more than twice as much to collect, so this change is a step in the right direction.
Toyota Teases a ‘Miracle’ EV Battery
Among the companies working on solid-state batteries is Toyota, the world’s second-largest auto company by sales (after Volkswagen). It has lagged in electric vehicles, focusing mostly on hybrids instead. But several 2023 news stories (e.g., the Financial Times in October) reported that Toyota has developed a solid-state battery that can provide a 931-mile range, be recharged in 10 minutes, and would weigh and cost half as much as today’s lithium-ion batteries. If Toyota has actually accomplished all of this and can mass-produce the batteries, it will revolutionize electric vehicles.
California Seeks P3 Advisor for Another High-Speed Rail Project
Infralogic reported (Dec. 13) that the Los Angeles County Public Works Department has issued a request for proposals for a P3 advisor for a new high-speed rail project. This one is called the High Desert Corridor, a 54-mile route that would link Palmdale to Victor Valley. That route was proposed 20 years ago as a highway linking I-5 with I-15, with a focus on truck traffic. Today’s dream is to link the planned Brightline West rail line to the planned but unfunded southern section of the California high-speed rail line that would eventually link Los Angeles to San Francisco; its route would go through Palmdale. Last month, Los Angeles County won a $500,000 federal planning grant for this new rail project. And for an update on California’s Los Angeles to San Francisco project, see critic Wendel Cox’s op-ed, “Biden’s $3.1 Billion Ticket to Nowhere,” in The Wall Street Journal.)
“Federal debt is soaring to dangerous levels. Debt held by the public now tops $26 trillion, or $200,000 for every household in the nation…The nation is headed toward a fiscal crisis…Congress has balanced the budget in just 14% of the years since 1930, and deficits are trending ever higher. Fortunately, there is another way to avert fiscal disaster: phase out $1.3 trillion a year in federal subsidies for state and local activities such as K-12 education, low-income housing, welfare, urban transit, and Medicaid. Devolving funding for state and local activities would slash federal deficits and stabilize the debt. As the federal government cut subsidies, the states could downsize programs or they could fill the funding void with their own resources. In the latter case, the states would do so with current revenues—not debt—because they have extensive constitutional, statutory and economic restraints limiting debt issuance.”
—Chris Edwards, “The Solution to Soaring Debt,” NationalReview.com, Dec. 18, 2023
“If people are asked what is holding the energy transition back, the answer often involves grid connections. There are seemingly never enough connections available in the right place at the right time for anyone’s liking, and ready access to the grid is often quoted as the first reason why one location is chosen over another. This is no wonder when getting connected can take 15 years or more in the UK, and investments in the European grid are less than half of what they should be to accommodate the transition, according to the Federation of the European Electric Industry. Still, there is nothing like scarcity to focus the mind. In this case, the realization is dawning on the infrastructure industry that grid connections are the be-all and end-all for a power project.”
—Anne-Louise Stranne Petersen, “The Vanishing Case for Batteries in a Smarter World,” Energy Transition Monthly, Dec. 6, 2023