- Urban freeway teardowns begin
- State DOTs accelerate highway capacity expansion
- Equity concerns pose problem for express toll lanes
- A physicist’s warning about hyperloop
- Federal EV charging plans fall short
- Ocean shipping problems—and non-solutions
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Two important developments regarding urban expressways took place within the past month or so.
First, on May 31, New York State’s Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) announced that its plan to demolish I-81 through downtown Syracuse and replace it with a boulevard had received approval from U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Second, on July 1, DOT’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced the notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) for its Reconnecting Communities program, which offers both planning grants and (de)construction funds to remove or deck-over urban expressways that divided communities when they were built in the 1960s.
Tearing out urban freeways has long been a goal of the Congress for a New Urbanism (CNU), whose latest list of “freeways without futures” totals 15, including I-81 through Syracuse, I-35 through Austin, and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York City (I-278).
In my book Rethinking America’s Highways (University of Chicago Press, 2018), I examined CNU’s claimed success stories, and found that their handful of cases were mostly stubs of planned but never-built freeways (Milwaukee and San Francisco), so their claim that after removal the former freeway traffic “just melted away” is hardly applicable to an Interstate that is a key link in a metro area’s overall mobility.
In researching this article, I talked with several transportation experts involved in debates over the Syracuse I-81 project. A former DOT Secretary pointed out that never before has a key link in a major (two-digit) Interstate been proposed for deconstruction—and questioned whether this is even legal. Attorneys working with opponents shared with me letters sent to FHWA and NYSDOT arguing that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) failed to properly consider all the impacts and had not examined alternatives to the teardown, as opposed to single-mindedly pursuing the “long-standing predetermined option” of the boulevard (termed a “community grid”).
Also of interest was a submission to FHWA dated March 10, 2022, arguing that the Final EIS and Record of Decision would violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The letter argued that the replacement of the freeway by the “community grid” would inflict serious harm, in the form of traffic congestion and vehicle emissions, on Syracuse’s South Side community, home to more than 61% of the African-Americans that live in Onondaga County. It also pointed out that the plan is inconsistent with the 1999 Southside Transportation Study, which argued that, “Limiting commuter traffic traveling through the study area would assist in the preservation and enhancement of the pedestrian nature of this area.”
Fortunately, contrary to some deconstruction dreams, there are alternative ways to reconnect communities that were bisected 50 years ago by freeways. Where these corridors are still key links in the overall metro area traffic flow, they can be replaced by tunnels (as in Seattle and Boston) or by depressing the freeway lanes below grade and decking over the surface, as long ago took place for portions of I-5 in Seattle, I-10 in Phoenix, I-35 in Duluth, MN, the Woodall Rogers Freeway in downtown Dallas, and I-70 in St. Louis—and recently completed on a formerly elevated section of I-70 in Denver. Projects now planning to deck over freeways (which would be eligible for grants under the new Reconnecting Communities program) include the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo and the Rose Quarter section of I-5 in Portland.
In the April 2022 issue of this newsletter, I summarized the results of a study assessing the costs and benefits of decking over, rather than demolishing an urban freeway. Analysts Jeffrey Brinkman and Jeffrey Lin of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia drew on data and economic models to evaluate a hypothetical project to deck over a 4.5-mile stretch of I-95 in Philadelphia (where other portions of I-95 and I-676 have already been decked over). Their estimate of the cost of their proposed I-95 project was $2.25 billion. That happens to be the official NYSDOT estimate for tearing down I-81 and replacing it with the “community grid” boulevard. Putting I-81 below grade and decking it over would be a far better solution for Syracuse.
Politico recently reported, somewhat critically, on congressional support for projects that will add highway capacity. “Appropriators on Wednesday appeared to advocate for widening highways where bottlenecks are constraining freight movement—a recommendation that would contradict DOT’s policy of avoiding highway expansion,” opens the article. The nerve of those appropriators!
Despite last fall’s “guidance memo” from the Federal Highway Administration suggesting that in applying for the expanded federal discretionary grant programs in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), state transportation departments would be wise to focus on projects that better maintain existing infrastructure rather than projects that add capacity to highways. Nevertheless, state DOTs and toll agencies are moving forward with major projects to expand capacity.
In fact, there is a good case for adding highway capacity in at least three kinds of situations: adding to capacity in states with fast-growing populations (hoping to at least stay even), replacing obsolete bridges (and adding new lanes to cope with future growth or to eliminate bottlenecks where a bridge has fewer lanes than the highways on either end), and adding lanes in highway corridors where truck traffic is expected to grow by 40% or more by 2040.
Much of the capacity expansion under way or planned falls into one or more of these categories. Here are some examples.
Adding More Capacity to Keep Pace with Fast Population Growth
Texas (#1, at 15.3% population growth 2019-2020) is:
- Extending the Grand Parkway around Houston by 53 miles;
- Widening 9.3 miles of the Dallas North Tollway from three to four lanes each way and adding managed lanes to several congested freeways in Dallas;
- Widening I-35 through congested San Antonio and Austin.
Colorado (#2, with 14.5% population growth)
- Widening 13 miles of I-70 west of Denver to eliminate the notorious bottleneck at Floyd Hill;
- Continuing to add express toll lanes to congested freeways in the Denver metro area.
Florida (#3 at 14.2% population growth)
- The Central Florida Expressway Authority will invest $4 billion over the next five years to add capacity to and improve its tollway network in the Orlando metro area.
- Florida’s Turnpike is widening its southern link in Miami-Dade County from four to eight lanes each way.
- The Turnpike mainline is being widened in Palm Beach County and west of the Orlando metro area.
Arizona (#6 at 13.9% population growth)
- The state DOT has approved $6.7 billion for roadways over the next five years.
- Projects include a $990 million widening of the remaining portion of I-10 in Phoenix with only two lanes each way (a major bottleneck);
- Another project will widen a stretch of I-17 north of Phoenix.
South Carolina (#8 at 11.3% growth)
SCDOT has embarked on a program to widen much of its Interstate system, including:
- I-85 in Greenville and Spartanburg Counties ($1.26 billion);
- I-26 between Columbia and Charleston ($1.7 billion);
- And, completing the I-526 loop ($2.3 billion).
Replacing Obsolete Bridges
- Alabama DOT is gearing up for its $2.7 billion plan to upgrade its Bayway and add a new, higher bridge across the Mobile River, partially financed by tolls.
- Kentucky and Ohio are nearing agreement on a plan to replace the obsolete Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River, at an estimated cost of $2.8 billion.
- Kentucky and Indiana have begun construction of the $1.2 billion I-69 bridge across the Ohio River.
- Louisiana DOT is moving forward with two major bridge replacements: the $850 million I-10 Calcasieu River Bridge and the $2.5 billion I-10 Baton Rouge Bridge.
- Oregon and Washington are nearing agreement on the replacement bridge on I-5 across the Columbia River, at a cost that may reach $5 billion.
These bridges will each add lanes compared with the existing crossings, to remove a current bottleneck and account for likely traffic growth over 50+ years.
Adding Truck Lanes to Key Truck Corridors
A 2013 Reason Foundation policy study analyzed FHWA Freight Analysis Framework projections of truck traffic on major Interstate routes. It identified 11 multi-state corridors that were forecast to reach or exceed 40% of all VMT as trucks by 2040. They include east-west routes:
- I-10 from California to Mississippi
- I-30 in Arkansas and Texas
- I-40 from California to Tennessee
- I-70 from Missouri to Pennsylvania
- I-76 in Colorado
- I-80 from Nebraska to Ohio
- I-84 in Idaho.
North-south corridors needing dedicated truck lanes are:
- I-65 in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana
- I-69 in Indiana
- I-71 in Kentucky
- I-81 from Tennessee to Pennsylvania
Given the explosion in truck traffic due in part to the growth of online shopping, those projections of needed truck-only lanes are likely conservative at this juncture.
The bottom line is that there is an enormous, well-justified need to expand the capacity of selected highways and bridges—not everywhere, but in high-growth states, where obsolete bridges also fail to provide enough capacity, and where truck traffic is projected to grow to unprecedented levels. State DOTs and toll agencies that are pursuing such projects should be thanked, not criticized.
Equity is becoming a core concern for many state transportation departments. And express toll lanes, which are perceived by some politicians as being too expensive for users, are at the tip of the spear. Many DOTs have started workgroups or contracted with consulting companies to research ways to improve express toll lane equity.
Some of the studies are politically directed. For example, in 2019, the Washington state legislature ordered the Washington State Transportation Commission to examine how a low-income toll program could operate for the express toll lanes on SR 167 and I-405 in the Seattle metro area. Together with WSP, the commission conducted a study that looked at five types of discounts: percentage discount, fixed discount, fixed toll credit, fixed number of free toll trips, and/or a lower maximum toll. The study scored the programs based on user benefit, program cost, operational benefit, and feasibility. The two that scored best were a fixed number of free trips and a fixed amount of toll credits.
Some equity projects are more of a spur-of-the-moment reaction to public concerns. Elizabeth River Tunnels, which operates the downtown and midtown tunnels in the Hampton Roads, Virginia region, was under intense pressure from then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to offer relief from high tolls and late fees. Today, the Abertis-operated tunnels allow drivers with an EZ-Pass who make eight or more trips per year and earn less than $30,000 per year to use the tunnel for $0.75 per trip, about 1/3 the price for other EZ-pass users.
Another option is for agencies to offer a discount for the first month of service for new customers. In Los Angeles, for example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is offering a one-time toll credit of $25 to low-income households who set up their FasTrak account. In Southern California, vehicles with three or more people already travel toll-free on the I-10 and I-110 express toll lanes. Yet, the agency is offering a toll credit to residents who make up to $27,180 for a single person to $93,260 for a household with eight members.
Other regions are proposing different programs. In 2017, Minnesota approved a program providing annual toll credits for express toll lanes, which has yet to be implemented. Toll agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area have proposed a percentage discount on every toll that low-income drivers pay. And Colorado is examining how it might implement low-income discounts on express toll lanes (ETL) on I-25 and I-70.
Providing discounts for those paying for highways is a relatively new development. No government provides discounts for fuel taxes paid, and there are not typically discounts for tolls paid on traditional turnpikes.
There has not been a major outcry from current low-income ETL customers for discount programs. An earlier University of Washington study found that the lowest-income quintile using the I-405 ETLs benefitted the most from variably-priced toll lanes. That’s because lower-income motorists use these optional lanes when the time they save is deemed to be worth more than the cost of the toll, such as when they are running late for work or when they need to pick a child up from daycare before late fees kick in.
While recent attempts to address equity are sincere, they are also inherently problematic for the management and operation of express toll lanes. The most serious problem with discounts and free trips is that they undercut the ability of variable tolls to reduce traffic congestion. Drivers that receive discounts are not likely to be as sensitive to the price in the lane as other drivers. With fewer vehicles responsive to changes in toll rates, the lanes may lose their effectiveness in providing uncongested travel options for drivers—the entire purpose of express toll lanes. And that harms regular customers as well as express bus services that use the ETLs. Artificial toll caps have created similar problems on express toll lanes on I-95 in South Florida and I-405 in Seattle. Other express toll lanes are mandated to provide free or discounted passage to electric vehicles or motorcycles, which also reduces pricing’s power. Yet, the Washington report does not acknowledge or attempt to remedy how discounted tolls limit pricing’s effectiveness.
A second problem with offering toll discounts is that it reduces the toll revenue. For public agencies, this may make the difference between being able or unable to build, maintain, and operate the toll lanes. And when money gets tight, maintenance often gets cut. For private concessionaires, these programs can make a viable project not viable, resulting in delays or cancellation of the construction of new express toll lanes.
Third, discounts disincentivize commuters from using transit. With some ETL projects, toll rates help pay for express bus service. Reducing the toll rates makes driving cheaper and makes providing transit more challenging. It incentivizes single-occupant commuting and traffic congestion, exactly opposite of what most metro areas are trying to achieve.
Highway providers should operate like utilities but they seem to be under more pressure than other utilities to offer special discounts. A better solution is to provide transportation vouchers to low-income households. If those households want to use express toll lanes, then they could use the vouchers to help cover the costs. But they should also be able to use the vouchers on other transportation options, such as buses and express buses operating in the express toll lanes. In addition to reducing costs to low-income commuters, vouchers allow tolled roads to operate more like utilities, give the commuter power over his/her commute options, and better address the transportation equity challenges.
On May 26, a website called Bigthink.com published an article called “Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Is Possible. How Badly Do We Want It?” The piece raised some concerns I’d written about and others that were new to me. The author, Tom Hartsfield, was also new to me. The Bigthink website identified him as a physicist living in Los Alamos, NM. His articles on the site cover a wide array of technology topics, and the two that I read (on subjects I’ve seriously researched) looked sound. So I’m summarizing the main concerns in his article.
He first explains that hyperloop is a proposed system that would propel passenger modules through long-distance tubes evacuated of nearly all air, to permit speeds potentially in excess of 700 miles per hour due to almost no air drag. Hartsfield then turns to the physics problems. His main concerns are with the near-vacuum tube. First, as I have written previously in this newsletter, he explains the need for airlocks at hyperloop stations, to separate the near-vacuum in the tube from the atmospheric pressure in the station and its boarding platform. That’s the easy problem to solve, but never seems to get mentioned (or costed-out) in the glossy studies urging near-term construction of passenger-carrying hyperloop systems.
Maintaining the near-vacuum in those very long tubes is a bigger challenge than most hyperloop boosters have acknowledged. To ensure there are no leaks, he recommends that the hundreds or thousands of miles of tubes be constructed of steel, which is much stronger than glass, plastic, or aluminum. (Note: the difference in air pressure between an airliner in flight and the atmosphere outside is small compared with the needed atmosphere inside the passenger pods versus the near-vacuum in the tube.) But if the tube segments are welded together, then the entire (thousand-mile?) tube would expand and contract with temperature changes, and its support must allow these expansions and contractions. Alternatively, if numerous tube sections are joined together by some means other than welding, then every one of these joints is a potential source of failure.
Potential disasters are Hartsfield’s main concern. If any of the hyperloop developers have carried out what we in aircraft engineering (my first job out of MIT) called a “failure modes and effects analysis,” they’ve kept the results to themselves. Hartsfield points out that if a joint fails, air would rush into the vacuum, creating a shock wave that would travel down the tube at the speed of sound. (I cannot verify that speed, but it is plausible.) If the breach occurs behind the train of pods, he claims the shock wave wouild destroy the train and kill its passengers.
What if, for some reason, the pod-train stops moving, somewhere in vacuum tube? With the pods’ limited on-board air supply, how would passengers escape out of the hermetically sealed tube? This safety/evacuation concern may require that the whole thousand-mile tube be able to be shut down in sections in the event of such a failure, which would bring at least some of the other pod-trains to a halt and likely require their passengers also to evacuate once their tube section was filled with air at atmospheric pressure.
Finally, Hartsfield also points to external damage to the tube. Suppose some kind of vehicle crashes into the tube, or somebody takes a shot with a 50-caliber bullet? Would the tubes be tough enough to survive without a breach that would let in an uncontrollable continuous blast of air? And to protect against this, would there have to be extensive monitoring and security, far more than is required for railroad lines? Or would all the tubes have to be underground, at considerably greater construction cost?
Some of these concerns may be exaggerated, and perhaps some hyperloop developers have proposed solutions. But nothing about safety and security has appeared in any number of supposed hyperloop feasibility studies, which often appear to be written as promotional documents to attract taxpayer funding. Until independent engineering studies—especially concerning failure modes and effects analysis—are carried out and can be peer-reviewed, I will remain skeptical that hyperloop has any real likelihood of becoming a new mode of intercity passenger travel.
Last month, U.S. DOT released its proposed regulations for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, governing the $5 billion (over five years) allocated in formula funds by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Among the requirements in the proposed regulation are the following:
- Electric vehicle (EV) charging facilities must have at least four DC fast chargers, each of which must be capable of delivering 150 kilowatts per vehicle while all are in operation.
- Charging stations must provide secure payment methods that accept major credit and debit cards.
- All traffic control devices and highway signage must comply with existing federal regulations.
- Chargers must display the price in dollars per kilowatt-hour.
- Charging ports must have annual “uptime” ratios of 97% or greater.
Those are relatively innocuous regulations, but the concerns being raised by state DOTs deal with two matters that are part of federal law. The 2021 IIJA requires states to provide EV charging stations every 50 miles along major highways. And long-standing federal law prohibits commercial services at the rest areas on Interstate highways (other than the exempted service plazas on tolled Interstates). Both policies are raising concerns at state DOTs in rural and western states.
Jennifer Hiller’s June 14 front-page Wall Street Journal article, “Plan for EV Chargers Meets Skepticism in West,” addressed both concerns. In Montana and other western states, “there are plenty of places where it’s well more than 50 miles between gas stations,” Rob Stapley of the Montana Department of Transportation told Hiller. And even where there is a potential location (e.g., an exit) there might not be any nearby source of enough electricity to supply a charging station that meets federal standards. A Utah DOT official told Hiller that sites with lighting and amenities are often located five-to-10 miles further than the 50-mile requirement.
Hiller’s article also points out that rest areas on Interstate highways do have electricity service, but even if there is enough capacity to provide four DC fast chargers, the rest areas lack food and shopping services that EV customers could use while they wait for their EV to be charged. New Mexico DOT’s Joe De La Rosa argued that the ban on commercial services leaves states with unappealing choices for EV charging: “The reason [rest areas] exist is that there’s nowhere else to stop. This is the middle of nowhere.” This makes a nonsense out of claims from the ban’s supporters that any commercial services at rest areas will take business away from gas stations and convenience stores at Interstate off-ramps. Idaho Gov. Brad Little (Republican) and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (Democrat) sent a letter to FHWA on behalf of western governors asking for flexibility in locating EV chargers.
The role of the truck-stop and convenience store industry in lobbying to keep the commercial services ban in place continues to attract criticism. Aaron Gordon of Motherboard, on June 13, published “Big Truck-Stop Lobby a Huge Roadblock for Rural Electric-Vehicle Charging.” Like Hiller’s Wall Street Journal story, Gordon focuses on western states. As an example, he cites a 70-mile stretch of I-90 in Wyoming between Gillette and Buffalo, with a rest stop halfway between them at Arvada (population 33). If sufficient electricity could be added to the rest area, it would be the only feasible location for a charging station.
Gordon quotes convenience-store lobbyist Doug Kantor saying, “You can’t really have businesses develop at exits if you have them at rest stops.”
Needless to say, there are few convenience stores in Arvada. Truck-stop lobby group NATSO, the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, argues that if rest areas are allowed to have EV chargers, this will “discourage existing refueling stations . . . from investing in charging infrastructure.”
That is also nonsense, since a typical gas station with six or eight pumps cannot afford to give those spaces to vehicles that would occupy them for 30-to-45 minutes rather than the five minutes it takes to fill up the gas tank and use the restroom.
The federal ban on commercial services at Interstate rest areas is a significant obstacle to electric vehicle charging on Interstate highways in the western states. There are no good reasons for keeping this anachronism in the federal code.
When President Joe Biden signed the Ocean Shipping Reform Act into law on June 16, he promised it would “lower shipping costs.” The law increases the regulatory power of the Federal Maritime Commission and mandates new disclosure requirements, but it will not address the root supply and demand imbalances responsible for snarled supply chains and logistics congestion. While there are no quick and easy solutions to these problems, certain policies could relieve some of the pressure. Unfortunately, politicians are continuing to look in all the wrong places for ideas and risk worsening the problems they claim they are trying to address.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every link of our global supply chains in numerous ways, with labor and capital shortages and misallocations hitting producers, carriers, shippers, distributors, and retailers from the raw materials to finished consumer goods. Price and time uncertainty has grown and tempers have flared. The uncomfortable truth for politicians is there are no quick and painless solutions to these myriad problems. What is needed is patience and systematic thinking to identify and jettison policy impediments to inevitable market adjustments. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, many politicians in both major political parties have instead opted for panic and cheap demagoguery.
These noxious politics were on display in the bipartisan Ocean Shipping Reform Act that became law in June. The original House version of the bipartisan bill (H.R. 4996) was introduced by Reps. John Garamendi (D-CA) and Dusty Johnson (R-SD). Their bill would have worsened our supply chain choke points by limiting carriers’ options to clear bottlenecks. Most bizarrely, it would have authorized price controls on detention and demurrage fees charged to customers who are late to pick up or drop off shipping containers, one of the few pro-velocity tools carriers possess. It was the maritime equivalent of removing congestion pricing because gridlock got worse.
What ultimately was signed into law by President Biden was the Senate’s version (S. 3580), which omitted or watered down the most counterproductive elements of the Garamendi and Johnson bill. But Rep. Garamendi returned with new maritime legislation introduced in late June, the American Port Access Privileges Act (H.R. 8243).
Like Rep. Garamendi’s previous efforts, this bill was seemingly written in support of California’s agricultural exporters without a lot of concern for on-the-ground transportation realities. Among other provisions, it would give preference to carriers who book at least 51% American exports as determined by weight or container volume. A shipping industry source said if adopted in practice, a vessel loaded with 51% typical U.S. agricultural containers would literally capsize due to excess weight.
Rather than proposing legislation that would sink ships in America’s harbors, Rep. Garamendi and his colleagues ought to focus on real problems and work to identify real solutions. Low-hanging fruit would include repealing the Jones Act, which requires that only American-built and -flagged vessels can move domestic goods between two U.S. ports. Its total impact on the economy may be small, but the Jones Act fails to achieve each of its claimed objectives and disproportionately harms Americans living in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
Another idea would be to focus on ensuring modern technologies and practices are adopted at U.S. ports. This is much more complex and politically difficult and would require relaxing the stranglehold that the longshoremen unions have on America’s ports. On the West Coast, a labor contract dispute threatens to exacerbate congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle nearly half of the U.S.’s containerized imports from Asia. The primary source of friction between port operators and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is the union’s absolutist opposition to any cargo handling automation at these two adjacent ports.
Peter Tirschwell, vice president of maritime, trade and supply chain at S&P Global Market Intelligence, wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal (“More Supply-Chain Disruptions Are Coming,” June 30) that, “the West Coast ports risk becoming uncompetitive if they don’t automate. Other ports have done so and it’s one of the reasons some of the notable West Coast facilities are at the bottom of global port-productivity rankings.”
In fact, only two U.S. ports—the ports of Virginia (#27) and Miami (#39)—appeared in the top 50 most-productive global ports on the Container Port Performance Index 2021’s statistical rankings, which is jointly produced by the World Bank and S&P Global Market Intelligence. It should not be surprising that the Port of Virginia is America’s most automated port and has avoided the severe congestion problems common at more labor-intensive U.S. ports.
In an ideal world, politicians would reject their worst impulses to “do something,” accept that there are no painless short-term solutions to pandemic-induced market turmoil and work to eliminate legacy barriers to free enterprise to set the stage for more dynamic and resilient global supply chains. But in the real world, it looks increasingly likely that a global recession that tamps down goods demand and tightens labor markets may be the solution. A recession would both ease logistics congestion and distract politicians from making their counterproductive policy responses to it. They probably won’t want to claim credit, though.
IBTTA Response to Tolling Interoperability Article
The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association published a critical response to Baruch Feigenbaum’s June article in this newsletter, which discussed the industry’s slow progress in implementing nationwide interoperability of electronic tolling. The commentary by Mark Muriello defended the industry’s current approach of seeking multi-protocol solutions rather than a universal transponder. The piece is posted on the IBTTA website here .
Chicago Skyway Concession May Be Sold
Bloomberg News reported on June 8 that two of the three Canadian pension funds that own the 99-year concession for the Chicago Skyway “are exploring the sale of their lease.” Both OMERS Infrastructure and Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) are working with advisor Evercore on the potential sales. Together with Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (OTTP), the pension funds acquired the Skyway Concession Company from the joint venture of Cintra and Macquarie in 2015, paying $2.84 billion. Each pension fund owns one-third of the concession. The Bloomberg report cites a consultant’s estimate that the Skyway is now worth more than $4 billion.
Texas High-Speed Rail Company Loses Management Team
Engineering News-Record reported in its June 27/July 4 issue that the chief executive officer of Texas Central Railroad had resigned, along with the entire board of directors. Chairman emeritus Richard Lawless said he remains involved as a shareholder representative, and the company is currently being run by a senior manager from FTI Consulting, which has advised firms on bankruptcy and reorganization. Texas Central has planned to build a 236-mile high-speed rail system between Houston and Dallas. Legal challenges to right-of-way acquisition were settled last month when the state’s Supreme Court ruled that Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way. Inframation News cited cost estimates for building the high-speed line at between $18 billion and $30 billion.
Boring Company Gets Approval for Expanded Las Vegas Tesla Tunnels
The city of Las Vegas approved a 50-year non-exclusive agreement with Elon Musk’s Boring Company to build five miles of its Vegas Loop serving the downtown area with five stations. The agreement is similar to the one the company signed with Clark County last October for the other 29 miles of the 34-mile system. The company will cover the cost of building the system, while hotels and other venues will pay for stations on their properties. The completed loop will include both Allegiant Stadium and the Harry Reid Airport.
India Planning $4.5 Billion Highway P3 Leases
The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) plans to offer 14 highway assets totaling 1,750 km on long-term P3 leases between now and March 2023, reports Inframation News (June 2, 2022). This announcement marks the continuation of India’s highway asset monetization, otherwise known as infrastructure asset recycling. Since 2018, NHAI has raised $2.2 billion from leases in its Toll-Operate-Transfer (TOT) P3 model, under which the wining bidder pays an upfront fee and takes responsibility for operating and maintaining the highway for the duration of the lease.
Google Maps Now Includes Toll Road Cost
Until recently, Google Maps implicitly treated toll roads and toll lanes as something to avoid, simply by warning drivers the “this route includes tolls,” even though such routes are generally the fastest option. But a new policy will include the real-time toll amount, enabling motorists to make an informed choice about the value of taking the faster tolled route. The June 14 Mashable article explaining the new policy shows a “Route Options” screen that Google Maps users can preset, to include “avoid tolls” or “see toll pass prices.” As of the date of the article, the feature was live for “nearly 2,000 toll roads in the U.S., India, Japan, and Indonesia,” with “more countries coming soon.”
Pennsylvania Turnpike Offers New Off-Line Cash Option
Because a fraction of its customers lack credit/debit cards, the Pennsylvania Turnpike last month announced a new option under which those customers can pay their toll bills using cash. The Turnpike is partnering with KUBRA Cash Payment Network, which operates kiosks in retail outlets such as 7-Eleven, Dollar General, CVS, and elsewhere. The Turnpike has completed its conversion to all-electronic tolling, via either E-ZPass Toll-by-Plate. The latter requires sending bills, and the KUBRA deal enables them to be paid in cash. Puerto Rico’s toll roads implemented toll transponder accounts in 2000, under which customers can replenish their accounts using cash at retail kiosks. Florida’s Sunpass system subsequently implemented a similar system.
Macquarie Rebalancing Highway Assets
Australian infrastructure investor Macquarie has announced two asset divestitures, and there is active interest in both. On June 14 it announced the sale of its majority stake in the Goethals Bridge P3 (between New Jersey and New York). Macquarie Asset Manager holds 90% of the 40-year DBFM concession. Separately, Macquarie is selling its interest in a portfolio of toll roads in India, with interest already expressed by investors Adani Transport, AP Moller, Cube, and KKR.
California Appeals Court Decries CEQA Abuse
The First District of the California Court of Appeal upheld approval of a 43-unit residential property, following what law firm Holland & Knight characterized as “years of NIMBY obstruction, government resistance, and numerous court challenges.” The court expressed dismay at the misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which it said has devolved into “a formidable tool of obstruction” of needed projects.
Build America Bureau May Sell Stake in SH 130 Toll Road
In the bankruptcy of the concession company that financed and built the tolled 41 miles of SH 130 between Austin and San Antonio, Texas, the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program converted its project loan into a 34% equity stake in the reorganized company. U.S. DOT’s Build America Bureau (which manages the TIFIA portfolio) is exploring the sale of its stake, according to several sources contacted by Inframation News (June 24, 2022). The majority equity holder, Strategic Value Partners, does not have plans to sell its stake, according to another source.
ASU Researching More-Durable Pavements
The Southwest Pavement Technology Initiative at Arizona State University is working with industry sources to develop recipes for stronger, more cost-efficient roadways. Another aspect of the project is pavement for autonomous vehicles—such as heavy trucks and their platoons. The results might inform future projects to add dedicated truck lanes to Interstate highways.
Privatize the York City Ferry?
A provocative commentary from the Independent Institute compares the performance of private ferry services in the New York City metro area with city-owned ferries, finding the latter as having high costs and low ridership. For example, in 2019 the cost per trip on the city’s ferries was $13.83, but the fare charged was only $1.00. Read the details here.
Correction to Last Month’s Article on Truck Electrification
Several readers pointed out an error in the article “Battery-Electric or Hydrogen Fuel Cell for Heavy Trucks?” in the June issue of this newsletter. In the paragraph comparing the weight of conventional, battery-electric, and hydrogen fuel cell tractors, the correct weight of the battery-electric tractor is 32,016 pounds, compared with 21,337 pounds for the fuel cell tractor and 18,216 pounds for the internal-combustion-engine tractor. The online version of the June issue has been corrected.
“Not only do community groups block explicitly green developments; they have weaponized environmental regulations in their quest to do so. . . . Although well-intentioned, these rules have provided a means for disgruntled locals to pile on delays to projects they don’t like, whether or not they have a legitimate environmental complaint. As the economist Eli Dourado has noted, environmental impact statements used to be pretty short—some just 10 pages. But after years of judicial decisions expanding what is expected from an EIS, the average length of these reports is now roughly 1,600 pages, and they can take 4.5 years to complete, all without actually requiring any environmental protection at all. The primary output of the regulation is delay.”
—Jerusalem Demsas, “Community Input is Bad, Actually,” The Atlantic, April 29, 2022
“Services designed to carry white-collar workers into city centers, such as the London Underground and commuter railway lines, are quiet because more of these people now toil in spare bedrooms and garden offices. Buses are busier because they are used by students, shoppers, and manual workers who cannot avoid traveling. . . . Like Wile E.Coyote running off a cliff, politicians tend to talk as if nothing has changed. . . . But changes in working habits are likely to endure. A survey by the Office for National Statistics in early April found that 23% of all [UK] businesses and 43% of professional-services firms expect a permanent increase in home working.”
—“The Future of Transport: The Road Not Taken,” The Economist, May 21, 2022
“Location-based payment systems are as ubiquitous as a credit card. They are inexpensive to install in terms of physical infrastructure (GPS location based) and the back-office operations (text, email, and chat supported) are extraordinarily convenient. Immediate customer notification occurs automatically, identifying customer actions needed that can then be universally performed by the customers on their smart device. These payment systems offer the opportunity to easily and quickly subscribe to a payment service that can assist both frequent and infrequent users of transportation facilities. . . . These systems are being incorporated into onboard vehicle systems. While these systems are complementary to existing RFID operations, they also offer the opportunity to expand beyond toll roads to include parking, subways, buses, ferries, and other modes of transportation, as well as commercial transactions. This payment linkage will provide direct support for the ongoing maintenance and construction of transportation infrastructure.”
—Harold Worrall, “The Future of Toll Payment,” IBTTA Tolling Points, June 15, 2021
“The major question for pavements is whether or not our infrastructure is capable of sustaining the loads from those trucks traveling in platoons. In our research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s University Transportation Center at the University of Michigan, we have been studying deformation resistance of different structures and mixes under different loading configurations associated with truck platoons.”
—Hasan Ozer, Arizona State University, in “Building Stronger, More Cost-Efficient Roads,” Arizona State University, June 10, 2022