Tag: transportation

The Who-Gets-to-Decide Crisis

“There is now a consensus that the United States should substantially raise its level of infrastructure investment,” writes former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers in the Washington Post. Correction: There is now a consensus among two presidential candidates that the United States should increase infrastructure spending. That’s far from a broad consensus.

“America’s infrastructure crisis is really a maintenance crisis,” says the left-leaning CityLab. The “infrastructure crisis is about socialism,” says the conservative Heritage Foundation. My colleague Chris Edwards says, “There is no widespread crisis of crumbling infrastructure.” “The infrastructure crisis … isn’t,” the Reason Foundation agrees.

As left-leaning Charles Marohn points out, the idea that there is an infrastructure crisis is promoted by an “infrastructure cult” led by the American Society of Civil Engineers. As John Oliver noted, relying on them to decide whether there is enough infrastructure spending is like asking a golden retriever if enough tennis balls are being thrown.

In general, most infrastructure funded out of user fees is in good shape. Highways and bridges, for example, are largely funded out of user fees, and the number of bridges that are structurally deficient has declined by more than 52 percent since 1992. The average roughness of highway pavements has also declined for every class of road.

Some infrastructure, such as rail transit, is crumbling. The infrastructure in the worst condition is infrastructure that is heavily subsidized, because politicians would rather build new projects than maintain old ones. That suggests the U.S. government should spend less, not more, on new infrastructure. It also suggests that we should stop building rail transit lines we can’t afford to maintain and maybe start thinking about scrapping some of the rail systems we have.

Tentative Steps Away from the Gas Tax and towards a Better System

The state of Oregon recently began a pilot program with 1,000 drivers, which charges those drivers a fee based on the miles they drive, rather than a gas tax. Several states are looking closely at Oregon’s experiment. This could mark the beginning of a major change to a much better way to finance our roads.

The states care about Oregon’s experiment because the gas tax is a lousy user fee that doesn’t come close to capturing the true cost a driver imposes on the state when he drives, whether via the wear and tear his vehicle causes to the highway, the congestion his presence on the road exacerbates, or the pollution his car emits. An optimal user fee would attempt to capture each one of those and charge a fee based on where a person drives, how much he drives, the amount of congestion on the roads he is on, and his car’s emissions. Oregon’s simple experiment captures none of that—it consists solely of a 1.5 cent per mile charge, coupled with a fuel tax credit—but with today’s technology a more advanced system could easily be implemented.

The advantage of having a sophisticated user fee for drivers is that it could dramatically lessen congestion on a road: if you charge a high fee when roads get crowded, people will postpone trips, carpool, work at home, or take mass transit. Since the majority of auto pollution comes from cars stalled in traffic, the reduction in smog would be significant. Such a user fee would also help states reduce how much infrastructure they have to build by smoothing out demand.

The complaint against such schemes is that they have the potential to invade privacy—a valid concern, but one that can be addressed with adequate regulation, and an open source software system that can be examined by anyone to determine if it is sufficiently secure.

What We Know About Fatal Tesla Accident

Numerous media stories have reported the first fatality in a self-driving car. The most important thing to know is that the Tesla that was involved in the crash was not a self-driving car, that is, a car that “performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip” or even a car in which “the driver can fully cede control of all safety-critical functions in certain conditions” (otherwise known as “level 4” and “level 3” cars in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s classification of automated cars). 

Instead, the Tesla was equipped with an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) that performs some steering and speed functions but still requires continuous driver monitoring. In the NHTSA’s classification, it was a “level 2” car, meaning it automated “at least two primary control functions,” in this case, adaptive cruise control (controlling speeds to avoid hitting vehicles in front) and lane centering (steering within the stripes). BMW, Mercedes, and other manufacturers also offer cars with these functions, the difference being that the other cars do not allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel for more than a few seconds while the Tesla does. This may have given some Tesla drivers the impression that their car was a level 3 vehicle that could fully take over “all safety-critical functions in certain conditions.”

The next most important thing to know about the crash is that the Florida Highway Patrol’s initial accident report blamed the accident on the truck driver’s failure to yield the right-of-way to the Tesla. When making a left turn from the eastbound lanes of the highway, the truck should have yielded to the westbound Tesla. Still, it is possible if not likely that the accident would not have happened if the vehicle’s driver had been paying full attention to the road.

Mobileye, the company that made the radar system used in the Tesla, says that its system is designed only to prevent a car from rear-ending slower-moving vehicles, not to keep them from hitting vehicles laterally crossing the car’s path. Even if the sensors had detected the truck, automatic braking systems typically can come to a full stop only if the vehicle is traveling no more than 30 miles per hour faster than the object. Since the road in question is marked for 65 miles per hour, the system could not have stopped the Tesla.

Thus, the Tesla driver who was killed in the accident, Joshua Brown, probably should have been paying more attention. There are conflicting reports about whether Brown was speeding or was watching a movie at the the time of the accident. Neither were mentioned in the preliminary accident report, but even if true it doesn’t change the fact that the Tesla had the right of way over the truck.

Just two months before the accident, Duke University roboticist Missy Cummings presciently testified before Congress that auto companies were “rushing to market” before self-driving cars are ready, and “someone is going to die.” She didn’t mention Tesla by name, but since that is so far the only car company that allows American drivers to take their hands off the wheel for more than a few seconds, she may have had it in mind.

Tesla’s autopilot system relies on two forward-facing sensors: a non-stereo camera and radar. Tests by a Tesla owner have shown that the system using these sensors will not always stop a vehicle from hitting obstacles in the road. By comparison, the Mercedes and BMW systems use a stereo camera (which can more quickly detect approaching obstacles) and five radar sensors (which can detect different kinds of obstacles over a wider range). Thus, in allowing drivers to take hands off the steering wheel, Tesla may have oversold its cars’ capabilities.

The day before information about the Tesla accident became publicly known, the National Association of City Transportation Officials issued a policy statement about self-driving cars urging, among other things, that drivers not be allowed to use “partially automated vehicles” except on limited access freeways because “such vehicles have been shown to encourage unsafe driving behavior.” While this would have prevented the Tesla crash, it ignores the possibility that partial automation might have net safety benefits overall.

A few days after the accident became publicly known, NHTSA announced that traffic fatalities had increased by 7.7 percent in 2015, the largest increase in many years. As Tesla CEO Elon Musk somewhat defensively pointed out, partial automation can probably cut fatalities in half, and full automation is likely to cut them in half again. State and federal regulators should not allow one accident in an ADAS-equipped car to color their judgments about true self-driving cars that are still under development.

Transit in Turmoil

Last week’s resignation of Michael Melaniphy as CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a sign that more people are seeing that America’s transit-industrial complex has no clothes. Melaniphy’s departure comes on the heels of the withdrawal of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) from APTA membership.

MTA’s complaint is that APTA has failed to help the seven “legacy” transit systems, that is, rail systems that are more than 40 years old, that are suffering from severe maintenance backlogs. These transit systems, which are in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, carry nearly two-third of the nation’s transit riders yet–thanks in part to APTA lobbying–a disproportionate share of federal transit dollars go to smaller cities that are building new rail systems that they won’t be able to afford to maintain.

In 2010, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that the legacy rail systems (plus Washington and Atlanta) needed nearly $60 billion to restore them to a state of good repair. Yet little was done, and the latest estimate is that the maintenance backlog has grown to more than $93 billion. Meanwhile, with APTA’s encouragement, Congress has spent something like $15 billion supporting the construction of new rail systems in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland.

Even the transit systems that suffer from maintenance backlogs are spending precious resources building new rail lines because that is what Congress will fund, not maintenance. Thus, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is spending $3 billion on a light-rail line to Medford even as it let its maintenance backlog grow to $7.3 billion. The Chicago Transit Authority is spending $2.3 billion extending its Red Line even as its maintenance backlog exceeds $22 billion. The San Francisco BART system is suffering frequent breakdowns and has a $9.7 billion maintenance backlog, yet is spending $6.3 billion on a line to San Jose that partly duplicates existing commuter rail service.

Meanwhile, other cities seem to be racing to see who can spend the most on their own rail transit expansions. Having just finished spending $1.5 billion on a seven-mile light-rail line, Portland wants to spend $2 billion on a new 12-mile line. Seattle just spend $1.9 billion on a three-mile light-rail line and is now spending $3.7 billion on a fourteen-mile line to Bellevue. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to spend $120 billion on new transit lines, including the construction of a nine-mile light-rail tunnel to the San Fernando Valley that will cost nearly $1 billion per mile. 

Despite their expense, none of these light-rail lines are anything like the Washington or other subway systems. The “light” in light rail refers to capacity, not weight: light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit, capable of carrying only about a quarter as many people per hour as a subway or elevated line. In 1981, San Diego opened the nation’s first modern light-rail line at a cost of $5.6 million per mile (about $12.5 million in today’s money); the cost of the average line being built today is $163 million per mile, yet those new lines won’t be able to carry any more people than the San Diego line.

These new rail lines do little good for transit riders, mainly because their high cost eventually forces most transit agencies that build them to cannibalize their bus systems. For example, construction of new light-rail lines forced San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority to reduce bus service by 22 percent since 2001, leading to a 32 percent decline in ridership

It’s no surprise that APTA sheepishly reported last month that the nation’s overall transit ridership declined in 2015. While APTA blamed the decline on low gas prices, the truth is (as noted here last year), if you don’t count the New York subway system (whose ridership has been growing in response to rising Manhattan employment), nationwide ridership has declined for the past several years. 

Why are we spending so much money building new rail lines when it doesn’t help, and often hurts, transit riders? Part of the answer is Congress likes shiny new projects more than maintenance. But part of the answer is that APTA’s membership is stacked with manufacturers and suppliersconsultantscontractors, and land developers who build subsidized projects next to rail stations. Although New York’s MTA carries nearly 37 percent of all transit riders in the country, its membership dues covered less than 2 percent of APTA’s budget because APTA gets most of its money from non-transit agencies. Thus, like Congress, APTA is biased towards new construction.

For example, APTA claims to be an educational organization, yet it hasn’t done much to educate Congress or the public about the long-term costs of rail transit and the need to almost completely and expensively rebuild those rail lines every 30 years or so. After all, this message could undermine support for building new rail transit lines in cities that don’t need them.

People who support the needs of actual transit riders, rather than rail snobs (people who say they’ll ride a train but not a bus) or contractors, should use these facts to persuade Congress to stop funding obsolete rail transit systems when cities desperately need things that will truly relieve traffic congestion and cost-effectively improve everyone’s mobility.

NY MTA to APTA: Quit Wasting Our Money

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has formally quit its membership in the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the nation’s principle transit lobby. In a harshly worded seven-page letter, MTA accused APTA of poor governance, an undue focus on small transit agencies, and having an embarrassingly large compensation package to APTA’s president.

The MTA and its affiliates, Metro North, the Long Island Railroad, and New York City Transit, together carry 35 percent of all transit riders in America. Since MTA’s ridership has been growing while transit elsewhere has declined, this percentage is increasing.

Yet APTA’s focus has been on lobbying for increased funding for smaller agencies, including building new rail transit lines in cities that haven’t had rail transit and extending transit service in smaller cities and rural areas that have had little transit at all. As a result, says the letter, MTA has been short-changed by roughly a billion dollars a year in federal funding that it would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried.

This accords with the finding of a Cato policy analysis that found that New York has been shorted half a billion dollars a year in discretionary transit funds. Since discretionary funds make up less than half of all federal transit funds, it is easy to imagine that the nation’s largest urban area is losing a billion dollars a year to smaller cities that are not making effective use of those funds.

The Washington Metro Strategy

The Washington Metrorail system is completely shut down for a safety inspection today after having suffered another fire on Monday. As Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, wants people to know, “Safety is our highest priority.”

The Washington Post says that this decision confirms that Metro is “a national embarrassment.” In fact, the shutdown appears to be a classic Washington Monument strategy, in which bureaucrats try to make budget shortfalls as painful as possible in order to get more money out of Congress or other legislators. Instead of shutting the entire system down, Metro could have done the necessary inspections between midnight and 5 am, when the trains aren’t running. If the full inspections will take the 29 hours the trains won’t be running Wednesday and Thursday morning, then doing them at night would take just six days.

There is no doubt that fires are serious; one in January, 2015, killed someone and hospitalized scores of others. But the fact that these two fires were more than fourteen months apart suggests that there isn’t a major risk of another one in the next few days.

Metro’s fundamental problem is that it uses an expensive, obsolete technology. The federal government paid to build the system, and local governments pay to operate it, but no one ever budgeted for maintenance costs. These costs become especially high after the infrastructure reaches about 30 years of age. The earliest parts of the Metro system will be 40 years old this year, and they have steadily deteriorated over the past decade.

A one-day inspection is not going to solve Metro’s problems. Metro did plenty of inspections since the January, 2015 fire, but that didn’t stop the March, 2016 fire from taking place. Moreover, fires are only a small part of Metro’s problems.

Other problems include worn-out railcars; replacement cars that are late because they are “beset with problems”; an unreliable automatic train operating system that Metro has been slow to restore since the 2009 accident that killed nine people; old rails that are prone to cracking; unreliable elevators and escalators; and a workforce that has so little concern for safety that train operators risk collisions by running red lights at least once a month, plus many more. No wonder Wiedefeld admitted, several months after becoming general manager, that problems are “worse than I thought.”

Fixing these problems is going to require around $10 billion, several years of work, and an overhaul of Metro’s bureaucracy to restore the safety ethic that ought to be, but isn’t, a part of Metro’s culture. That’s billions of dollars that won’t be available to relieve traffic congestion, repave Washington’s crumbling streets, provide safer bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and improve the bus service that is used by more than one out of three of the region’s transit commuters.

Lots of federal workers take the Metro. But the Census Bureau says that less than 10 percent of commuters in the Washington urban area (which includes parts of southern Maryland and northern Virginia) take Metro subway and elevated trains to work. (Another 6.6 percent take buses and a small percentage take Maryland or Virginia commuter trains.)

Instead of spending all that money on just 10 percent of commuters, it’s time for Metro to seriously consider replacing its worn-out rail system with economical and flexible buses. For a little more than $1 billion, Metro could buy enough buses to replace all of its railcars, leaving several billion dollars left over to spend on other transportation improvements that will benefit bus riders along with everyone else in the region, not just those who take Metro rail to work. It sounds radical, but at some point Metro will have to admit that it can’t afford to maintain its high-cost rail system, and buses are the low-cost alternative.

Not-So-Rapid Transit

Washington, DC opened its long-delayed streetcar for business on Saturday. Actually, it’s a stretch to say it is open “for business,” as the city hasn’t figured out how to collect fares for it, so they won’t be charging any.

Exuberant but arithmetically challenged city officials bragged that the streetcar would traverse its 2.2-mile route at an average speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour, taking a half hour to get from one end to the other (which is 4.4 miles per hour). If there were no traffic and it didn’t have to stop for passengers or run in to any automobiles along the way, they admitted, it would still take 22 minutes (which is 6 miles per hour).

“After more than $200 million and a decade of delays and missteps,” observed the Washington Post, “it took the streetcar 26 minutes to make its way end-to-end on the two-mile line. It took 27 minutes to walk the same route on Saturday, 19 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes to bike and just seven minutes in a Uber.” After all the costs are counted, the Uber trip probably cost less.

The streetcar opening caught the attention of the Economist, which called it “pointless” because it follows a route that is already served by a bus that is faster, can get around parked cars that are slightly sticking into the right of way, and actually goes somewhere beyond the already gentrifying H Street neighborhood. Despite the problems and criticisms, DC officials were already talking about extending the line another 5 miles. 

Washington isn’t the only city caught up in the streetcar fad. Following Portland’s example, Atlanta, CharlotteCincinnati, Kansas City, and several other cities have opened or are building streetcar lines. Most of these lines are about two miles long, are no faster than walking, and cost $50 million or more per mile while buying the same number of buses would cost a couple million, at most.

Portland wants to build 140 miles of streetcar lines. At the average cost of its most recent line, this would require as much money as it would take to repave every street in the city–streets that are falling apart because the city doesn’t have enough money to maintain them. According to the latest census, seven times as many downtown Portland employees bicycle to work as take the streetcar, but another survey found that two out of three Portland cyclists “have experienced a bike crash on tracks.” 

New York’s Mayor de Blasio wants to spend $2.5 billion on a 16-mile streetcar between Brooklyn and Queens. Apparently that city is so flush with cash that it doesn’t have anything better to spend its money on than a slow transit line that won’t even stop near a subway station.

These cities argue that streetcars stimulate economic development. Yet a recent study sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration found that not only was there no evidence of such stimuli, none of the cities that had built streetcars were systematically measuring such impacts. Instead, most were busy subsidizing or coercing (through prescriptive zoning) new development along the streetcar routes.

In fact, there is no reason to think that a slow, congestion-causing, bicycle-accident-inducing rail line would promote new development. Streetcars were technologically perfected in the 1880s, so for Washington to subsidize the construction of a streetcar line today is roughly equal to New York City subsidizing the opening and operation of a factory in Manhattan that would make non-QWERTY typewriters, or Los Angeles subsidizing the manufacture of zoopraxiscopes. Rather than build five more miles of obsolete line, the best thing Washington can do is shut down its new line and fill the gaps between the rails with tar.