Tag: highways

Rethinking America’s Highways

In 1985, Reason Foundation co-founder and then-president Robert Poole heard about a variable road pricing experiment in Hong Kong. In 1986, he learned that France and other European countries were offering private concessions to build toll roads. In 1987, he interviewed officials of Amtech, which had just invented electronic transponders that could be used for road tolling. He put these three ideas together in a pioneering 1988 paper suggesting that Los Angeles, the city with the worst congestion in America, could solve its traffic problems by adding private, variable-priced toll lanes to existing freeways.

Although Poole’s proposal has since been carried out successfully on a few freeways in southern California and elsewhere, it is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it ought to be given that thirty years have passed and congestion is worse today in dozens of urban areas than it was in Los Angeles in 1988. So Poole has written Rethinking America’s Highways, a 320-page review of his research on the subject since that time. Poole will speak about his book at a livestreamed Cato event this Friday at noon, eastern time.

Because Poole has influenced my thinking in many ways (and, to a very small degree, the reverse is true), many of the concepts in the book will be familiar to readers of Gridlock or some of my Cato policy analyses. For example, Poole describes elevated highways such as the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa as a way private concessionaires could add capacity to existing roads. He also looks at the state of autonomous vehicles and their potential contributions to congestion reduction.

France’s Millau Viaduct, by many measures the largest bridge in the world, was built entirely with private money at no risk to French taxpayers. The stunning beauty, size, and price of the bridge are an inspiration to supporters of public-private partnerships everywhere.

Beyond these details, Poole is primarily concerned with fixing congestion and rebuilding the nation’s aging Interstate Highway System. His “New Vision for U.S. Highways,” the subject of the book’s longest chapters, is that congested roads should be tolled and new construction and reconstruction should be done by private concessionaires, not  public agencies. The book’s cover shows France’s Millau Viaduct, which a private concessioner opened in 2004 at a cost of more than $400 million. Poole compares the differences between demand-risk and availability-payment partnerships – in the former, the private partner takes the risk and earns any profits; in the latter, the public takes the risk and the private partner is guaranteed a profit – coming down on the side of the former.

This chart showing throughput on a freeway lane is based on the same data as a chart on page 256 of Rethinking America’s Highways. It suggests that, by keeping speeds from falling below 50 mph, variable-priced tolling can greatly increase throughput during rush hours.

Infrastructure We Don’t Need

Here’s the great thing about driverless cars: They will need no new infrastructure because the people designing them are making them work with existing infrastructure. All they ask is for cities and states to fill the potholes and do other basic maintenance.

Here’s another great thing about driverless cars: Most congestion results from slow human reflexes, and simulations show that congestion will significantly decline if as few as 5 percent of vehicles on the road are driverless. So, even if you don’t have a driverless car, you will benefit from others being driverless.

So why is Bexar County (San Antonio) Commissioner Kevin Wolff proposing to use federal infrastructure dollars to build new interstate highway lanes open only to driverless cars? On one hand, they don’t need special lanes. On the other hand, separating them from other traffic eliminates the congestion relief benefits they can provide.

Kevin Wolff is the son of Nelson Wolff, San Antonio’s leading streetcar supporter and a long-time proponent of pork barrel in general (among other things, he has a stadium named after him). Kevin opposed the streetcar, but he supported another even more foolish rail-transit proposal.

The state of Texas is planning to add four lanes to relieve congestion on Interstate 35 in San Antonio. All four would be “managed,” meaning tolled to make sure they never get congested. Wolff’s idea is to dedicate two of those lanes to driverless cars, which means two fewer lanes for other people to use.

Kevin says he floated his driverless-lane idea to the Trump Administration, which has proposed to spend $20 billion on “innovative” infrastructure projects. “They told me, ‘This is just the kind of proposal we want to fund,’” he said.

Actually, it is just the kind of proposal they should not fund. It isn’t necessary. It doesn’t relieve congestion and will probably make it worse than having four managed lanes. It doesn’t help restore crumbling infrastructure. It merely adds more infrastructure that won’t have a source of funds to maintain it.

State of the Union’s Infrastructure

Remember America’s crumbling infrastructure that supposedly needs trillions of dollars for maintenance and rehabilitation? President Trump doesn’t. Instead, the seven sentences in his State of the Union speech that focused on infrastructure talked about building “gleaming new” projects rather than fixing existing systems. 

The only news is that he is upping the ante from $1.0 trillion to “at least $1.5 trillion.” More disturbingly, other than mentioning an “infrastructure deficit” – which could just as easily be interpreted to mean a shortage of new infrastructure as a deficit in maintenance – Trump said nothing about fixing existing infrastructure. Instead, he wants to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways.”

Why? We have plenty of railways. Though the railroads have trimmed the nation’s rail mileage by 45 percent since 1916, they move more freight than ever and seem to be quite capable of adding capacity where they need it without government help. High-speed trains, meanwhile, are pointless when we have planes that can go twice as fast and don’t require hundreds of billions of dollars of supporting infrastructure.

Nor do we need more interior waterways. The ones we have are government subsidized and paralleled by railroads that could easily replace them if subsidies ended tomorrow (as they should). Fixing the Jones Act to allow low-cost shipping to Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico is more important than adding new waterways in the contiguous 48 states.

Our state and interstate highways and bridges are actually in better shape than ever. City and county roads aren’t doing as well and many urban roads are heavily congested, but these are local problems, not federal ones. They are best handled by fixing the system of user fees that should pay for them, such as by Oregon’s experiment with mileage-based user fees (in which I am a participant). More federal funding would only allow the states to delay making those changes.

Finally, our transit systems – especially the most important ones in New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area – are suffering from overspending on gleaming new transit lines and neglect of the existing ones. More new lines will only make that problem worse.

In short, President Trump has fallen for the politician’s fallacy of preferring ribbons over brooms – that is, building new infrastructure rather than maintaining the old. This is underscored by a leaked infrastructure plan that outlines seven different initiatives and programs, none of which is focused on repairing or rehabilitating America’s existing infrastructure.

This country may need some new infrastructure, but mainly it needs to better utilize and take care of the infrastructure it already has. Since politicians seem to be incapable of doing that, and since user-fee-funded infrastructure tends to be far better managed and maintained than politically funded infrastructure, Congress should focus on returning as much infrastructure as possible to funding systems that rely on user fees, not taxes.

Reversible Lanes, Not Trains

In the days before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes. As people in the rest of the nation watched videos and photos of bumper-to-bumper northbound traffic on Interstates 75 and 95, while the southbound lanes were nearly empty, most had one of two reactions. Some said, “If only Florida had large-scale passenger train service that could move those people out,” while others asked, “Why aren’t people allowed to drive north on the empty southbound lanes?” 

The aftermath of the storm has already opened a debate over what Florida should do to increase its resilience in the future: build more roads or build more rail lines. The right answer is neither: instead, state transportation departments in Florida and elsewhere need to develop emergency plans to make better use of the transportation resources they already have. 

Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that’s simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people–free of charge–out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transportation evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people on three different routes. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida’s first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

At the same time, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. The most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lanes on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn’t even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic.

Federal Gas Tax: LaHood Makes No Sense

Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood lobbied for a federal gas tax increase in a Washington Post letter the other day. The letter captures the illogic and misrepresentation that influences the highway funding debate.

Hugh Hewitt was right on target in his May 31 op-ed, “Trump should raise this tax,” about boosting the federal gas tax to address our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased in 24 years. Imagine living today on the same salary you made in 1993. That’s the dire situation facing our infrastructure: We’re supporting our roads and bridges using outdated budgets that fail to meet the demands of 2017.

On this important issue, Congress must look to the 22 states that have raised their gas taxes since 2013. States leading the way are “red” states such as Wyoming, Georgia and Idaho and “blue” states such as California, Maryland and Vermont. The list also includes New Jersey, with a Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature. Infrastructure is a bipartisan issue. It’s time our federal government takes the action for which Republicans and Democrats have been tirelessly advocating.

Over the years, gridlock and finger-pointing have prevented real action on addressing our infrastructure challenges. All the while, traffic congestion has worsened, potholes have multiplied, and our roads and bridges have further deteriorated.

Here are some problems with LaHood’s position:

First Problem. As former transportation chief, LaHood must know that his own department publishes data showing that the condition of the nation’s bridges has steadily improved for two decades, while the condition of highways has been stable in recent years and improved in some cases since the 1990s. (Highway data summarized here and here. Bridge data here). Why does he say “… bridges have further deteriorated” when he surely knows that is not correct?

Second Problem. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and its real value has eroded since then. However, the gas tax rate was more than quadrupled between 1983 and 1993 from 4 cents to 18.4 cents. The 1983 rate would be 9.8 cents in today’s dollars, so the real gas tax rate has risen substantially since then. Even if “potholes have multiplied,” the blame would go to the increasing diversion of plentiful gas tax funds to non-highway uses such as urban rail.

Third Problem. The final issue is the internal inconsistency of LaHood’s position. His first paragraph complains that federal gas taxes are not high enough. But his second paragraph says that 22 states have raised their own gas taxes in just the past four years, which logically negates the need for a federal gas tax increase. The states that have the highest demands for new highway funds are apparently already taking action. Great, problem solved.

In my new Cato study on infrastructure, I note that 98 percent of U.S. streets and highways are owned by state and local governments. The states are entirely capable of funding such infrastructure they own without federal aid. States can tax, borrow, collect user charges, and attract private investment to fund their highways, bridges, airports, and seaports.

Are there any advantages to raising federal gas taxes over raising state gas taxes? How is federal funding of state-owned infrastructure superior to state funding? LaHood and other advocates don’t tell us. Instead, they wave their arms, prattle about crumbling roads and multiplying potholes, and always demand more centralized spending and control.

Protect Your Privacy and Save Money by Telling NHTSA No to the Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications Mandate

Comments on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s proposed vehicle-to-vehicle communications mandate are due next on Wednesday, April 12. This is one of the rules that was published just before President Trump was inaugurated. If approved, it will be one of the most expensive vehicle safety rules ever, adding around $300 dollars to the price of every car, or (at recent car sales rates) well over $5 billion per year. 

Despite the high cost, the NHTSA predicts the rule will save no more than 31 lives in 2025, mainly because it will do little good until most cars have it. Yet even by 2060, after consumers have spent well over $200 billion so that virtually all cars would have it, NHTSA predicts it will save no more than 1,365 lives per year. 

The danger is not that it will cost too much per life saved but that mandating one technology will inhibit the development and use of better technologies that could save even more lives at a lower cost. The technology the NHTSA wants to mandate is known as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), a form of radio. Yet advancements in cell phones, wifi, and other technologies could do the same thing better for less money and probably without a mandate.

For example, your smartphone already has all the hardware needed for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Since more than three-fourths of Americans already have smartphones, mandating similar technology in new cars is redundant. Since that mandate will take more than a decade to have a significant impact on highway safety, NHTSA could see faster implementation using smartphones instead. It could do so by developing an app that could communicate with cars and provide extra features on the app that would encourage people to download and use it.  

All of the benefits claimed for the DSRC mandate assume that no other technology improvements take place. In fact, self-driving cars (which will work just as well with or without vehicle-to-vehicle systems) will greatly reduce auto fatalities, rendering the projected savings from vehicle-to-vehicle communications moot.

A mandate that one technology be used in all cars also opens the transportation system to potential hackers. The communications would necessarily be tied to automobile controls, which means that anyone who understands it could take control of every car in a city at once. If individual manufacturers were allowed to develop their own technologies, the use of multiple systems would make an attack both more difficult and less attractive.

There is also a privacy issue: vehicle-to-vehicle also means infrastructure-to-vehicle communications, raising the possibility that the government could monitor and even turn off your car if you were doing something it didn’t like, such as drive “too many” miles per year. That’s a very real concern because the Washington legislature has mandated a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. Oregon and possibly other states have passed similar rules.

Comments on the proposed rule can be submitted on line or mailed to:

Docket Management Facility, M–30
U.S. Department of Transportation
West Building, Ground Floor, Rm. W12–140
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE.
Washington, DC 20590.

Trump and Democrats Issue Competing Infrastructure Plans

Senate Democrats have proposed an infrastructure plan that calls for $1 trillion in federal deficit spending. In detail, the plan calls for:

  • $100 billion for reconstructing roads and bridges;
  • $100 billion to “revitalize Main Street,” that is, subsidies to New Urbanism and affordable housing;
  • $10 billion for TIGER stimulus projects;
  • $110 billion for reconstructing water and sewer;
  • $50 billion for modernizing rail (Amtrak and freight railroad) infrastructure;
  • $130 billion to repair and expand transit;
  • $75 billion for rebuilding public schools;
  • $30 billion to improve airports;
  • $10 billion for ports and waterways;
  • $25 billion to improve communities’ resistance to natural disasters;
  • $100 billion for a next-generation electrical grid;
  • $20 billion for broadband;
  • $20 billion for public lands and tribal infrastructure;
  • $10 billion for VA hospitals;
  • $10 billion for an infrastructure bank;
  • $200 billion for “vital projects” that “think big,” such as building “the world’s fastest trains.”

In response, someone has leaked what is supposedly the Trump administration’s own list of 50 infrastructure priority projects. It includes such boondoggles as a Dallas-Houston passenger rail line, the congestion-inducing Maryland Purple Line, the $14 billion Hudson River tunnels, and completion of the $2.2-billion-per-mile Second Avenue Subway. Except for the Dallas-Houston line, most of the passenger rail projects were already pretty well decided, but they are still foolish investments that will cost a lot and return little to the economy. There are supposedly more than 250 other projects on a priority list, but it isn’t absolutely certain that this list was endorsed by Trump or merely proposed to him.

Update: While I am now certain that the supposed Trump priority list was really “fake”—that is, not really from the administration—it appears that the reason why the Dallas-Houston line was on the list is that it is supposed to be entirely privately financed. While I am skeptical that private funders could profitably build and operate such a line, if they could, it would be appropriate (though unnecessary) to have it on such a priority list.

What most people have been calling Trump’s infrastructure plan calls for giving tax credits to private investors who spend money on these kind of infrastructure projects. This has some virtues over the Democratic proposal of direct federal spending:

  1. While the Democrats take a top-down approach dictating where the money will go, Trump leaves the setting of priorities to state and local governments, which have already approved most of the projects on his top-50 list;
  2. Where Democrats would commit the federal government to spend an arbitrary amount of money whether it needs to be spent or not, Trump lets state and local governments decide how much to spend and how they will pay for it;
  3. Where Democrats would add $1 trillion to the deficit, Trump relies on a tax credit program that will cost the feds no more than $167 billion per trillion in spending (less, obviously, if less than $1 trillion is spent);
  4. Where a lot of the Democrats’ money would go down a rat hole, at least some of federal tax credits that Trump’s plan would issue will be offset by the reduced use of tax-free municipal bonds and taxes paid by companies and workers earning the money.

Typical of central planners, the dollar figures in the Democrats’ plan are completely arbitrary.

  • Why should trains and transit, which carry 1 percent as many passenger miles as roads, get roughly as much money as roads and bridges (and probably more considering much of the $200 billion “vital infrastructure” fund would go for high-speed rail)?
  • Why spend $40 billion expanding transit and no money expanding highways when highway use is growing faster than transit in most places and most years?
  • Why no money for upgrading the air traffic control system (which is on Trump’s top-50 list)? I don’t support the use of tax dollars for such things, but it is a huge oversight from a plan predicated on the idea that federal central planners know the best places to spend your money.
  • Why $110 billion on water and sewer, and not $100 billion or $120 billion? It seems the point of these numbers is to add up to a nice round $1 trillion while divvying up the money to special-interest groups.
  • For that matter, why any at all on water, sewer, and the electrical grid when these should already be adequately funded through user fees?
  • Why is education even on the list when the federal government has never spent more than token amounts of money for school infrastructure?

My complaints about the Trump plan have been:

  1. It’s not really a plan—it’s just one funding tool;
  2. It doesn’t prevent state and local governments from spending the money on completely looney projects such as the aforementioned Dallas–Houston high-speed rail; and
  3. The private-partnership aspect has confused many people into believing that it will only fund projects that can be paid for out of user fees when in fact most projects would require state and local taxpayers to ultimately repay the private contractors out of tax dollars.

While these are valid complaints, the Trump plan is more bottom-up than top-down, as most if not all of the projects on the possibly fake priority list are supported by state and local officials. And while Trump brought a new idea to the table, the Democrats’ plan is the same old borrow-and-spend formula that they have used in the past. This is actually worse than tax-and-spend because taxing and spending doesn’t leave huge debt problems and interest payments for the future.

While we can hope that Trump’s projects will rely more on user fees more than taxes, at the moment the score has to be Trump 1/2, Democrats minus 1.

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