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.

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.

The Feds Want to Track Your Car

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC) formally proposed to mandate that all new cars be equipped with “vehicle-to-vehicle” (V2V) communications, also known as connected-vehicle technology. This would allow vehicles stuck in traffic to let other vehicles know to take alternate routes. It would also allow the governments—or hackers—to take control of your car anytime they want.

Happy Birthday, Gabriel Roth

Gabriel Roth, who turns 90 years young today, is a rock star among transportation economists, and a special inspiration for those of us who support reducing the federal government’s role in transportation. According to his C.V., Roth earned degrees in engineering from London’s Imperial College in 1948 and economics from Cambridge in 1954.

Big Brother Wants to Run Your Self-Driving Car

As part of his 2017 budget proposal, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx proposes to spend $4 billion on self-driving vehicle technology. This proposal comes late to the game, as private companies and university researchers have already developed that technology without government help. Moreover, the technology Foxx proposes is both unnecessary and intrusive of people’s privacy.

In 2009, President Obama said he wanted to be remembered for promoting a new transportation network the way President Eisenhower was remembered for the Interstate Highway System. Unfortunately, Obama chose high-speed rail, a 50-year-old technology that has only been successful in places where most travel was by low-speed trains. In contrast with interstate highways, which cost taxpayers nothing (because they were paid for out of gas taxes and other user fees) and carry 20 percent of all passenger and freight travel in the country, high-speed rail would have cost taxpayers close to a trillion dollars and carry no more than 1 percent of passengers and virtually no freight.

The Obama adminstration has also promoted a 120-year-old technology, streetcars, as some sort of panacea for urban transportation. When first developed in the 1880s, streetcars averaged 8 miles per hour. Between 1910 and 1966, all but six American cities replaced streetcars with buses that were faster, cost half as much to operate, and cost almost nothing to start up on new routes. Streetcars funded by the Obama administration average 7.3 miles an hour (see p. 40), cost twice as much to operate as buses, and typically cost $50 million per mile to start up.

The point is that this administration, if not government in general, has been very poor at choosing transportation technologies for the twenty-first century. While I’ve been a proponent of self-driving cars since 2010, I believe the administration is making as big a mistake with its latest $4 billion proposal as it made with high-speed rail and streetcars.

The problem is that the technology the government wants is very different from the technology being developed by Google, Volkswagen, Ford, and other companies. The cars designed by these private companies rely on GPS, on-board sensors, and extremely precise maps of existing roadways and other infrastructure. A company called HERE, which was started by Nokia but recently purchased by BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen, has already mapped about two-thirds of the paved roads in the United States and makes millions of updates to its maps every day.

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