This issue of Surface Transportation News is also available online here.
- Experts spar over induced demand and freeway expansion
- Analysis, not knee-jerk reactions for Ohio train derailment
- Which state DOTs plan to fix major truck bottlenecks?
- TRB report on Black Americans and transportation
- Hyperloop startups losing ground
- How is Denver doing on Vision Zero?
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
I-35 through downtown Austin is massively congested much of the day. That’s hardly surprising since both Austin and Texas have been growing by leaps and bounds for several decades (with no end in sight), while I-35 through central Austin still has not had a significant expansion since 1974. Trying to accommodate today’s traffic flow with the capacity of 50 years ago is like trying to put 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound sack.
Yet opponents of expanding I-35 in Austin raise the concept of “induced demand,” which some refer to as the “iron law of freeway congestion.” The idea is that it’s pointless to add capacity because the improved traffic flow will (only) lead to more vehicles choosing to use the freeway, yielding renewed congestion.
One of those who raised this argument is professor and engineer Kara Kockelman, who teaches transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. In a recent piece by Kelsey Thompson of KXAN, Kockelman said that roadway improvements can lead to people changing their behavior, such as living further out in the suburbs or making trips during peak periods that they used to make at off-peak times. “By opening up I-35,” she told KXAN, “what we do is increase the attractiveness of that corridor for longer distance travel.” Also, after a long construction period, “There’ll be a lot of pent-up demand just waiting to get onto that road when it fully opens,” Kockelman added. That’s all true, but it’s not the end of the story.
At about the same time, another transportation expert, Steven Polzin of Arizona State University, published an article on Planetizen, “Induced Travel Demand Induces Media Attention.” He points out that in fast-growing states, most new highway demand comes from population growth and new jobs, not from “induced” travel. Second, he notes that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita have leveled off in the past decade, so traffic congestion will likely not grow as fast in coming decades, other things equal. Third, Polzin points out that trips accommodated by an expanded highway can provide a number of benefits, such as:
- Residents getting access to better jobs and businesses with better selections and lower prices;
- Businesses having access to a larger labor pool, and larger customer and supplier bases;
- Enabling emergency vehicles getting where they are needed faster;
- Pulling cut-through traffic out of neighborhoods; and,
- Enabling parents to get home in time for family meals and activities.
Some of those benefits might not be long-lasting, especially as places like Austin continue to grow. But neither expert mentioned a way to make the expansion benefits last longer: add market-priced lanes instead of free lanes, so the pricing will enable high-value trips to take place even during peaks when the free lanes are getting jammed. Those can be personal trips (to the airport to catch a plane, getting to day-care in time to avoid late fees), enabling express buses to run consistently faster and more reliably, and letting emergency vehicles get where they’re needed quickly, for example. Kockelman mentions toll roads but not express toll lanes. In Houston and especially Dallas/Ft. Worth, the express toll lanes are popular and much-used. But even there, where they have proven their usefulness and popularity, regional plans for a whole network of express toll lanes have been thwarted by the Texas state legislature, which has banned any new Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) support for tolled projects, and any new long-term public-private partnerships (P3s) financed by toll revenues.
TxDOT’s earlier concepts for I-35 in Austin called for adding express toll lanes (also known as priced managed lanes). But as I noted in the August 2022 issue of this newsletter, due to the legislative ban, TxDOT’s current plan is to spend $4.9 billion of taxpayers money to add “non-priced managed lanes” to I-35 in Austin. In plain language, that means old-fashioned, ineffective high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Based on past history, if built, those lanes will likely be either too empty (wasting costly pavement) or too full (fam-pools, cheaters). Without pricing, there is no “management” of HOV lanes.
In a recent presentation in Ft. Worth, I pointed out that TxDOT’s current plans to add HOV lanes to I-35 in Austin, I-35 in San Antonio, and I-635E in Dallas total $8.1 billion. On average, revenue-financed highway projects like express toll lanes need only 20% from the state DOT with all the rest financed based on toll revenues. Were those three projects carried out via revenue-financed P3s, TxDOT would save 80% of that $8.1 billion to spend on other projects statewide. That ought to appeal to legislators from smaller cities and rural areas. And it would produce a much more effective and long-term solution for the antiquated I-35 through Austin.
On Feb. 3, a 149-car freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Legitimate concerns regarding its hazardous material cargo and the potential impact on the local community soon morphed into a highly politicized and incoherent public debate on rail safety. Without knowing the causes of the derailment, it is premature to suggest any policies to prevent similar accidents from taking place in the future.
Of the 38 cars that left the track in East Palestine, 11 were tank cars carrying hazardous materials. These cars then caught fire and ignited an additional 12 cars that had not derailed. The train crew was able to decouple the lead locomotives from the train and flee a mile east while emergency responders began fighting the fires and instituted a one-mile radius evacuation zone surrounding the site.
By Feb. 5, emergency response personnel had extinguished the fires but noticed the temperature was still rising in a tank car carrying more than 115,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride, indicating a chemical reaction was taking place that could cause an explosion. This led to an expansion of the evacuation zone to a two-mile radius, after which emergency responders manually emptied five tank cars carrying vinyl chloride into containment ditches, where it was then burned. There have been no reported injuries or fatalities, although regulators are still investigating environmental and health hazards that may be present.
In the weeks following the accident, mainstream media outlets took an unusually heightened interest. This was accompanied by an outpouring of demagoguery and conspiracy theories from numerous politicians, pundits, and activists. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the causes of this accident, but its preliminary report published on Feb. 23 suggests an overheated wheel bearing failed immediately prior to the derailment.
The NTSB’s clear early reporting on the known facts has helped quell some of the misinformation firestorm, but false and misleading claims about the accident are still being circulated and continue to drive the debate on potential policy responses. Policymakers should proceed with caution and develop an understanding of the particular facts of this accident and the relevance of various regulatory proposals before acting.
The suggestion that the Trump administration’s rescission of Obama-era requirements on electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes is a potential cause of the derailment is false on its face. That 2015 rule was criticized by rail carriers for having costs that exceeded the benefits. In the FAST Act, the 2015 multiyear surface transportation reauthorization, Congress included provisions at Section 7311 that ordered studies on ECP brakes from the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences. Congress also required the secretary of transportation to reanalyze the benefits and costs of the rule based on this revised expert input and to repeal the ECP brake requirements if it was determined that the costs exceeded the benefits. Consistent with the law, the Department of Transportation (DOT) rescinded the ECP brake requirements in 2018 following the updated benefit-cost analysis.
But most important to the East Palestine derailment is that even if the ECP brake rule had withstood congressionally ordered scrutiny, it would not have applied to this train. That is because the Norfolk Southern train did not consist of enough hazardous materials railcars to trigger those repealed requirements. The false claims about the ECP brake rule led NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy to take to social media to correct the record a week before the release of NTSB’s preliminary report.
In another social media spectacle, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) got into a heated argument about automated track inspection (ATI) technologies that also are irrelevant to the East Palestine accident. Sec. Buttigieg implied that Sen. Rubio’s past support for ATI ran counter to rail safety. This is untrue. As I’ve written at length, regulators themselves have found that ATI provides safety benefits over traditional human visual inspections. The issue is that the Federal Railroad Administration during the Biden administration has been shutting down successful ATI pilot programs and denying waivers requested to expand the use of ATI, apparently at the request of unions representing track inspectors. In this case, Sen. Rubio was right to criticize the Biden Department of Transportation for adopting less-safe rail policy.
But Sen. Rubio has also offered up red herrings following this accident. He most recently joined a bipartisan group of populist senators to introduce the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which closely mirrors the regulatory demands made by Sec. Buttigieg prior to the release of the NTSB’s preliminary report. President Biden quickly endorsed the bill. Among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that trains have at least two crewmembers on board, a longstanding priority of organized labor that fears emerging automation technologies. The Department of Transportation is currently pursuing this rule on its own and has admitted that it does not possess “any meaningful data” to support the conclusion that two-person train crews are safer or that one-person crews are less safe (see Reason Foundation’s response to this proposed rule). What’s more, the Norfolk Southern train had three crewmembers in the locomotive cab at the time of derailment and there is no indication that the crew played any part in the accident.
There may be an appropriate role for policymakers once the causes of the East Palestine accident are determined. However, it is important to recognize that rail accident rates are at or near historic lows across all incident types, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. Further, statistics from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration show that rail is far safer than trucks in transporting hazardous materials, meaning that rail-specific hazardous materials regulations should be balanced against the safety implications of a potential modal shift to trucks likely to occur if rail transportation costs rise. While especially challenging in a polarized and hot-tempered political environment, responsible policymaking will require careful analysis, not reflexive regulation.
Ever since 2002, trucking research organization the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) has been using truck GPS data to identify the top hundred truck bottlenecks across the 48 contiguous states. Its latest annual report was released last month and is available here.
In most prior years, when I have written about this annual survey, I’ve reported little change from year to year: the same bottlenecks keep appearing, in pretty much the same order of awfulness (e.g., Fort Lee, NJ, where I-95 intersects with SR 4 is nearly always #1). But this year, there is actually some good news. Transportation departments in several states have included fixing a number of these chronic bottlenecks in their current plans.
I had time to review only the top 20 bottlenecks, those with the worst chronic traffic congestion. And the winning DOT is Georgia’s. Its current plans are to reconstruct and modernize all of nine of its ATRI bottlenecks, all in the Atlanta metro area and most of them involving I-285, the Atlanta ring road known locally as “the Perimeter.” Georgia’s six major bottlenecks in the top 20 to be rebuilt are as follows:
|#4||I-285 at I-85 north|
|#13||I-75 approaching Atlanta from the southeast|
Texas has four bottlenecks in the top 20:
|#3||Houston I-45 and I-69/US59|
|#11||Houston I-45 at I-10|
|#16||Dallas I-45 at I-30|
|#19||Houston I-45 at I-610|
TxDOT tells me that all four are in its 10-year Unified Transportation Program.
Fast-growing Nashville has one of the top 10 bottlenecks: I-24/I-40 at I-440 East. It will likely be addressed in the state’s forthcoming public-private partnership and choice-lanes legislation, but that legislation has not yet cleared the Tennessee legislature.
Cincinnati has the #15 bottleneck, where I-71 and I-75 come together to cross the Ohio River. That bottleneck will be addressed by the $3.2 billion Brent Spence Bridge project, which will improve the existing bridge and reserve it for local travel and build a new double-deck bridge parallel to the existing one to accommodate both I-71 and I-75. That project has won $1.6 billion in federal grants, to be supplemented by Ohio and Kentucky state transportation funding.
Louisiana made #20 on the list, with the notorious bottleneck where I-10 and I-110 intersect in Baton Rouge, near the I-10 bridge across the Mississippi River. Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) has an ongoing contract for the reconstruction and widening of this segment of I-10. In addition, DOTD is in the planning stage for an additional bridge across the Mississippi, which should also improve traffic flow in the Baton Rouge area. Last fall, a planning study narrowed the locations for the Mississippi River Bridge South project to just three.
California has three of the top 20 bottlenecks, all in the greater Los Angeles area. My three Caltrans contacts confirmed that one of the three—SR 60 at SR 57—will begin reconstruction this spring. But there are no plans within the next 10 years to deal with the other two.
The Chicago area has three bottleneck interchanges in the top 20, but thus far, I have not identified any projects that would directly address any of them.
This is the most positive assessment I’ve made of the annual ATRI report, with serious plans to address more than half of the top 20 bottlenecks. Kudos to the DOTs of Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas for taking these bottlenecks seriously.
In order to better understand transportation’s effects on black Americans, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) is in the process of producing a five-volume study on racial equity. The full title is Racial Equity, Black America, and Public Transportation. The first volume was released in early January.
What is TCRP, and how does the process work? TRB committee members write problem statements for further research and submit them to TCRP staff. The staff meets to select which problem statements should get funded for research, with a focus on statements that are timely and innovative. Once a statement is selected, TRB staff forms an oversight committee of TRB committee members. The oversight committee fine-tunes the topic parameters, issues a request for proposals from contractors, and then selects the winning contractor team based on qualifications.
The first chapter of volume one explains the report’s purpose of understanding how transportation impacts affect black people by linking transportation and the civil rights movement. The second chapter describes the research approach, which sorts government policies into different categories, such as land use. The third chapter discusses economic policies, including housing and transportation, white flight, and spatial mismatch. The fourth chapter discusses health impacts, including air pollution impacts and pandemic policies. The fifth chapter examines social causes, including gentrification and policing. And the sixth chapter includes potential solutions, including changing metropolitan planning organizations’ (MPO) policies.
The report details some clearly racist policies. In chapter 3, section 3, the authors note that often urban Interstates were routed through black communities even when it was not the shortest route. These routings were designed to place a barrier between the central business district and the community. For example, in Atlanta, I-75/I-85 was built in a semi-circle instead of a straight line to separate downtown from the Old Fourth Ward. This occurred even though a straight line would have been cheaper and safer.
In chapter 3, section 4, the authors note how cities such as Denver have prioritized rail construction for a limited number of white constituents while providing insufficient bus service to a larger number of bus riders. The authors also note how most post-World War II heavy rail systems served to move upper-middle-class white residents from the suburbs to downtown, demolishing parts of places like West Oakland, CA, in the process. The authors also note the role of the Bus Riders Union, which successfully sued the Los Angeles County transit provider to force the agency to increase bus service instead of building rail lines. (Unfortunately, once the court-ordered consent decree expired, the transit provider returned to its past ways). In chapter 5, the authors note how bike lanes and light rail can raise property values, forcing out black residents. This occurred in Seattle due to new light rail stations and in Fresno due to a new mixed-use infrastructure project.
But sometimes the report strays from transportation. While some of this research is useful, I question what it is doing in a transportation publication. For example, the report has an entire section on housing discrimination. It details how both the former Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration had loan programs that discriminated against black homeowners. Only $120 billion, or two percent of program funds, were disbursed to African Americans. The report also includes an entire chapter on health. The report details the siting of hazardous landfills in North Carolina and Texas, neither of which are related to transportation.
In its conclusions, the report highlights how MPOs need to do a better job of representing all interest groups, not just white business interests, as well as how some transportation ballot measures which did not include projects important to black residents failed. But it does not offer a solution for either. Some of the report’s implied solutions could make the outcomes worse. For example, demolishing Interstate highway segments would likely lead to gentrification displacing black residents. It is far from ideal to live adjacent to a highway and have to deal with increased noise and tailpipe emissions. But it is better than losing your house because you cannot afford to pay the property taxes.
There are also some statements that seem to counter the report’s goals. In one section, the authors note that whites have much shorter travel times to work despite commuting longer distances. The study asserts that the reason is automobile ownership, and if blacks had owned automobiles at higher rates, then travel times would have been the same. If that’s true, maybe the policy should be to subsidize vehicle purchases instead of transit systems, as some transportation economists have recommended.
Finally, I’ll be curious to see the full policy recommendations in volume 3. The report details a 500-year-plus history of racist policies and suggests that government actors are still racist. If the government is so bad, why not look to the private sector or non-profit actors to solve the problem?
Comedian Dave Barry told a joke about how driver #1 got a flat tire because driver #2 intentionally threw a bunch of nails on the road in front of driver #1’s vehicle. Yet driver #1 went to driver #2 to repair his tires. If the government caused these problems, the authors need to make sure their recommendations don’t rely on the people who created the problems to solve them.
Ten years ago, Elon Musk introduced a ‘new’ concept that I’d studied in a mechanical engineering course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s: Build evacuated tubes with capsules powered by linear induction motors for truly high-speed surface transportation. We fledgling engineers were excited by the concept, but we had no real idea of how to estimate its cost or solve a number of technical problems. Musk ‘gave away’ the idea, rather than committing to develop it, but that did not dismay half a dozen start-up companies. A recent Bloomberg article recounts that “Hyperloop Dreams Endangered After SPAC Deal Fails” tells part of the story.
Reporter Sarah McBride recounts the 2022 decision by Richard Branson’s Hyperloop One to slash its staff and shift its focus to freight rather than passengers. Not much has been heard from it since then. Her main focus is on Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (known as Hyperloop TT). It had planned to go public on the New York Stock Exchange this month, via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), but the SPAC recently backed out, and the offering was scrapped. Recent startup failures include Swissmetro SA (liquidated in 2009) and Arrivo (shut down in 2018).
Hyperloop TT claims to be the leader in this field, touting its full-scale test track in Toulouse, France, pictured in the Bloomberg article. Actually, it’s only 1,000 feet long, far too short to demonstrate accelerating a capsule to 600 miles per hour and then decelerating to a safe stop—which nobody has ever accomplished. In my most recent newsletter article on hyperloop (May 2022), I cited a number of problems about which no solutions have been put forth by advocates or any of the startup companies:
- Maintaining a vacuum in tubes of a thousand miles or more;
- The energy cost of both propulsion and vacuum maintenance;
- Airlocks in stations, to permit the transition from vacuum in the tubes to passenger ingress and egress in normal air pressure;
- Turnouts (switches) in the tubes and how they would work; and,
- Emergency evacuation of passengers.
In a previous article (July 2020), I wrote about two hyperloop studies, one by Lux Research on technical barriers and the other on Hyperloop TT’s proposed Chicago to Pittsburgh route, whose economics are highly questionable. Several years ago, I attended a session on that project at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting, which was mostly analysis-free hype that was so egregious that I sent a protest to the TRB’s executive director. That project is still being touted by various public agencies in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest. As of now, that appears to be the company’s only live prospect. Bloomberg’s McBride recounts previous company efforts in South Korea (2017), China (2018), and Abu Dhabi (2018), all now defunct.
My skepticism remains, since no solutions have been offered for hyperloop’s technical questions, nor have there been objective benefit/cost analyses following normal best practices. It appears that potential investors are taking note of these shortcomings.
As cities across the United States grapple with traffic fatalities, many have adopted the Vision Zero concept. Vision Zero was started in Sweden more than 25 years ago. It is an effort to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by some future date. Unfortunately, most of the U.S. cities that adopted the policy don’t have good before-and-after data, so it is difficult to determine whether Vision Zero works.
Denver, in contrast, has robust data. The city adopted Vision Zero in 2017 and set a goal of zero traffic fatalities by the year 2030. Yet a new report by Randal O’Toole for the Thoreau Institute examining the impacts of Vision Zero policies on traffic fatalities in Denver found that the city’s plan has so far failed to meet most of its goals.
The report begins with an analysis of Denver’s 48-page Vision Zero Action Plan. The plan seems to be full of platitudes instead of policy solutions. In the third section, titled, “What We’re Doing,” two of the three pages discuss what steps the city is taking, such as:
- Adding flashing lights to alert motorists of a pedestrian crossing;
- Reducing speed limits on a street that had seen several accidents; and
- Changing a traffic signal to include a protected left turn to minimize conflict between pedestrians and automobiles.
The report’s biggest criticism of the action plan is that while it does list the changes the city is pursuing, the plan does very little to show that these changes will reduce traffic fatalities, especially by enough for the city to meet its 2030 target of zero fatalities. In addition, the vision does little to address motorcyclist safety, despite motorcyclists being the most at-risk group on Denver streets.
The report delves into traffic fatality trends in Denver. While there were zero bicycle fatalities in 2020, the report stresses that that’s not necessarily thanks to Vision Zero changes. Denver also had zero bicycle fatalities in 2006, 2009, and 2013. O’Toole found that a five-year average is a far better indicator of actual trends. Likewise, the report notes that the 33% increase in fatalities during the five years ending in 2020, has not been caused by Vision Zero. The real problem is that Vision Zero is not addressing the factors that lead to fatalities.
Next, O’Toole breaks down fatalities by mode of transportation. The report found that pedestrian fatality rates were 50 per billion pedestrian-miles, bicycle fatality rates were 25 per billion bicycle-miles, motorcycle fatality rates were 130 per billion passenger-miles, and automobile fatality rates were 1.3 per billion passenger-miles. Motorcyclists are 100 times more likely to die in traffic accidents than auto users, pedestrians are 40 times more likely, and bicycle riders are 20 times more likely. O’Toole stresses that these are “rough approximations.”
To provide a fuller picture, the report reminds readers of the benefits of the automobile. From the automobile “democratizing mobility” thanks to the affordability of Henry Ford’s Model T, to the increased number of jobs accessible to workers, automobiles brought a host of benefits to the country and the world. The development of highways and streets also has benefits that aren’t just for automobile users. Roads are essential for emergency services and freight, but the former is most relevant to Vision Zero’s goal of saving lives. O’Toole cites a University of Colorado-Boulder study, which found that “for every pedestrian whose life is saved by slowing of auto traffic, 85 people would die due to delays in emergency services.”
In order to reduce pedestrian fatalities, we need to understand that most such fatalities happen at night because pedestrians are intoxicated, cross away from crosswalks, or are among the homeless suffering from mental illness.
O’Toole offers specific suggestions for policies that Denver’s Vision Zero Action Plan fails to include. Each of the suggestions is based on Denver data, and most rely on separating different modes from one another, via methods such as pedestrian barriers to discourage crossing away from crosswalks, separate bicycle boulevards, and a law mandating that motorcyclists wear helmets.
Most critically, the city should start to use a data-driven approach based on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool, which would prove invaluable as a means of finding where Denver’s problems lie.
Automobile users have become something of a scapegoat for traffic fatalities. Both the report and Vision Zero advocates are right that roadway design is an important aspect of any move to protect non-automobile users; but O’Toole is also right when he says that Denver’s attempt at Vision Zero seems like little more than an attempt to get fewer people driving. Cities that try to encourage a modal shift for citizens often accomplish little more than creating an automobile-hostile environment.
The city of Denver has a lot of work to do to come anywhere near its goal by 2030 since its current Vision Zero approach is not going to reduce traffic fatalities to anywhere near zero.
Charlotte Express Toll Lanes Green-lighted
On Feb. 15, the Charlotte, North Carolina, Regional Transportation Planning Organization gave the North Carolina Department of Transportation the green light to proceed with plans to procure a project to add two express toll lanes each way to I-77 between the city and the South Carolina border, less than 10 miles away. NCDOT is expected to request proposals for a revenue-financed long-term public-private partnership (P3), similar to the procurement of the express lanes on I-77 north of the city. NCDOT last year received an unsolicited proposal from Cintra, the developer/operator of the existing express lanes, proposing an express toll lane project on the southern corridor. The project is expected to cost in the vicinity of $2 billion.
Toyota Opts for Electric Vehicle Future
The last hold-out among major auto producers last month announced a change of direction. Toyota will now increase its focus on electric vehicles (EVs), following the shift to new CEO Koji Sato, who will take office in April. Sato has called for an “EV-first mindset” that will include a new EV-specialized manufacturing platform. The first of the new EVs will be introduced as Lexus models, while production will continue on its current hybrids and EVs on conventional assembly lines.
Congressman Calls for State Tolling Flexibility
Politico (March 2) reports House Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR) told attendees at the AASHTO legislative conference that he would like Congress to give states the flexibility to toll their own roads. “It’s an important revenue stream, potentially, for states that currently don’t have it… It sounds like I’m cheerleading for tolling — I’m not. I’m cheerleading for giving the states the flexibility to be creative.” And on the same day, Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Voss announced he will try again to get tolling legislation enacted in that state.
Park Over Pittsburgh Interstate Wins Awards
A 2022 project built a park over below-grade I-579 in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District. The park includes green space, story walls, outdoor classroom space, an amphitheater, and bike and pedestrian paths. The park helps re-unite a community that was divided by the Interstate more than 60 years ago. The project won an Outstanding Civil Engineering Award from ASCE and also a 2023 PCI Design Award from the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute.
New Express Toll Lanes Coming to Ft. Worth Area
Under a pre-existing long-term DBFOM P3 concession, Cintra will add one general purpose lane and one express toll lane each way to the congested Loop 820/SH-121/183 Airport Freeway corridor in northeastern Tarrant County. The project is estimated at $300-350 million. Cintra expects the financing, based on projected toll revenue, to be finalized by the end of the year. This expansion is part of the company’s 2009 long-term concession for the North Tarrant Express project, which required the lane additions to be added by 2030. This project appears to be the only express toll lane addition in Texas, due to the legislature’s decade-old moratorium on approving new P3 projects.
Top U.S. City Offices Only Half Full
National data on office occupancy tracked by Kastle Systems shows that as of January 2023, the average office occupancy was only 50.4% of pre-pandemic levels. Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom told the Washington Post that “Office numbers have flatlined,” due to the increase of flexible work practices between office and home. “Longer run, work from home will clearly rise, as the technology supporting this is improving rapidly.” Also shaping the future of cities is out-migration and in-migration. Data on home searchers from Redfin.com finds 20-30% of local house-hunters in 10 major metro areas are searching elsewhere. For example, the top destination New Yorkers are researching is Miami, and the top destination for Seattle searchers is Phoenix.
First Express Toll Lanes Project in Kansas Breaks Ground
US 69, reportedly the busiest highway in Kansas, will have the state’s first express toll lanes in operation within two years from last month’s ground-breaking, according to the Kansas DOT. The project will add one express toll lane each way in the median of US 69, from 103rd St. to 151st St., the most congested segment. Variable tolls will be used to keep the new lanes from getting overcrowded (and hence, congested). Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly reminded reporters that the new lanes are a choice, available for those with time-sensitive trips and willing to pay for faster and more reliable travel. “This highway is a huge innovation for the state of Kansas,” Kelly added.
Rhode Island DOT Appeals Bridge Toll Decision
Last year a federal court ruled that Rhode Island’s program to charge tolls only to heavy trucks was discriminatory and violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Last month, the Rhode Island DOT asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to review the lower court’s decision, saying that the case raises “important questions related to federalism.” As I wrote at the time, I agree, and I hope the Court of Appeals sustains the lower court’s ruling. The Commerce Clause was included in the Constitution in part to prohibit states from charging tariffs on movements across state borders, which the discriminatory Rhode Island truck tolls were shown to be.
FHWA Replaces “Fix It First” Guidance Memo
Under new Administrator Shailen Bhatt, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has replaced the controversial “guidance” memo issued in Dec. 2021, which implied that state DOTs should prefer projects to fix deferred maintenance to those that expand capacity. After protests from state DOTs in fast-growing states, Republican members of Congress, and a number of business groups, the new policy memo defers to state decision-makers on how to prioritize highway spending and also clarifies that the document “does not have the force of law.”
Three More States Taking Action on Mileage-Based User Fees
In December, the Washington State Transportation Commission voted in favor of replacing per-gallon fuel taxes with per-mile charges. It urged legislators to replace state fuel taxes with per-mile road user charges beginning in 2027. Louisiana’s Department of Transportation & Development announced in February that it plans a state-funded mileage-based user fees pilot project covering up to 4,000 vehicles. Also in February, Oklahoma DOT briefed the state’s transportation commission on its road user charge pilot project, called Fair Miles Oklahoma, to begin in July. Oklahoma’s legislature in 2021 authorized ODOT to create and manage such a pilot project.
Xoox Autonomous Vehicles Operating on Public Road
Xoox, Inc., a self-driving startup owned by Amazon, has developed a passenger shuttle without a steering wheel or other driver controls. Last month it began shuttling employees between its two main buildings in Foster City, CA, on a mile-long stretch of public roadway, at a top speed of 35 miles per hour. Xoox has a state permit to operate driverless on this roadway. Bloomberg reported that Xoox believes this is the first time a vehicle with no onboard controls has operated on a public road.
BP Acquires Major Truck Stop Company
Last month, oil company BP announced the $1.3 billion acquisition of Travel Centers of America, the operator of 281 truck stops near major highways. In a presentation on the deal, BP illustrated a potential future travel center offering EV charging for trucks, a convenience store, biofuels, and eventually hydrogen refueling. Given the national shortage of safe overnight truck parking spaces, and also of EV charging, perhaps BP has the clout to get Congress to repeal the 1960 federal ban on commercial services at Interstate highway rest areas. Even the American Trucking Association’s research arm acknowledges that the ban is an impediment to expanded truck parking and electric vehicle charging.
FDOT Planning to Extend I-4 Express Toll Lanes
One year after their opening on 20 miles of I-4 in Orlando, the express lanes’ success is leading Florida DOT to start researching extensions. Over 10 million trips were taken in the lanes’ first year, with an average of 28,000 drivers per day using them. Studies are under way on extensions of the lanes both north and southwest of Orlando, since major congestion occurs on both of those I-4 segments.
“Modal Shift to Cleaner Transport Fails to Materialize”
That is the headline on a release from OECD’s International Transport Forum in Dec. 2022. The study collected transportation data from the years 2010 through early 2020 from OECD member countries. Some of the findings were that “the share of passenger transport by car increased for all reporting countries between 2010 and 2021,” that “inland freight transport does not show a shift to more-sustainable modes,” and that “rail passenger transport in Europe . . . dropped 51% between 2019 and 2021.”
Ford Dumps EV Startup Rivian
Electric vehicle maker Rivian, which is producing and selling its EV SUVs and pickup trucks, had a terrible 2022. Its share price dropped 82%, wiping out over $75 billion in value. That was bad news for early investors Amazon and Ford Motor Co. Luc Olinga of The Street reported last month that Ford, which had invested $1.2 billion in Rivian, sold 91 million shares early last year before the price plunged, making a gain of $1.8 billion. It sold another 25.2 million shares in May for $700 million, and another 51.9 million shares in the third quarter for $1.8 billion. Overall, at year-end, Ford reported a net loss of $7.4 billion on Rivian and another $2.7 billion loss on Argo. Amazon has not sold its Rivian shares.
Some Good Reading
“Driverless Work Vehicles: On This Side of the Horizon” is a well-researched global overview of commercial applications of autonomous vehicles.
“Off the Rails: Minnesota Transportation After COVID-19” is Randal O’Toole’s across-the-board assessment of what Minnesota transportation planners might do to adjust to our post-COVID world, published by the Center of the American Experiment.
“The relationship between land use and traffic generation has been known for many decades. There’s nothing particularly new here, although I’m sure the [Baltimore] article will be circulated by the ‘highways are evil’ crowd. The supposed solution in this article is that Americans should live like Europeans, that is, densely packed 900 square-foot apartments in metropolitan areas. My common answer to persons telling me how we should have public transportation like Paris (or fill in the blank) when they return from their vacation is, ‘We can have a European transportation system if we want to live like Europeans.’ Americans have chosen the quality of life they want to enjoy for their families, and it is not the one envisioned in this article.”
—Pete Rahn, private online commentary, Feb.5, 2023 (used with permission)
“The notion of access vs. mobility is a common thread in all our work. Just about everything in America focuses toward mobility for multiple sound reasons. If you want standard store white bread, the nearest 7-11 will do. But if you want really great Russian black bread with raisins, I know this really great baker in Baltimore! . . . Favorite restaurants, family, and friends all live at distances. They don’t optimize access to you, mostly. . . . If I work at 7-11, I can likely walk to work. If I teach in a university, and shift to another, it is likely 10-15 miles away. Do I move every time I change jobs? The decline of the “center” for shopping, for entertainment, for jobs is a major factor. Small metros are the last bastion of a heavy focus on the center; as that metro grows, satellite centers become alternatives.”
—Alan Pisarski, private online commentary, Feb. 6, 2023 (used with permission)
“Across the rich world, the commercial property industry is in a grim state. Tenants have come to terms with the fact that working from home is here to stay, and are downsizing appropriately. In cities such as Hong Kong, London, and Paris, vacancy rates have hit record highs. Another indicator of the darkening mood is that global investment in offices last year fell by 42%, compared with a 28% drop for property as a whole. A recent paper by Arpit Gupta of New York University and Vrinda Mittal and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh of Columbia University forecasts that offices in New York could lose almost 40% of their value between 2019 and 2029, equivalent to $453 billion.”
—”Property: The View from the Top,” The Economist, Jan. 21, 2023
“Automated container handling is essential to quicken the pace of cargo movement through port facilities. The technology is costly, and longshore labor unions are fiercely opposed. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has held up contract negotiations for months over the issue. Lack of automation is one reason U.S. ports rank low in global productivity relative to ports in China and the Middle East. Ensuring quick container flow through ports must be an economic priority, regardless of union concerns.”
—Peter Tirschwell, “How to Prevent the Next Supply Chain Crisis,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 6, 2023