Archive for the ‘Transportation Bill’ Category

More High Speed Notes

August 26, 2009

Freakonomics blogger Eric Morris seeks to “start the debate” on high speed rail with his buddy Ed Glaeser, except that I don’t usually seek to start debates with authoritative titles like “the bottom line on high speed rail.”  Yesterday, Stephen Dubner did him one better by categorically denying peak oil – which kind of misses the point of what the broadest definition of peak oil means.

I’ll give the folks over at Reason this – they’re far more honest with their headlines.

Sam Staley, Reason‘s transportation guy, has a post up criticizing high speed rail’s role as a job creating stimulus program.  Given where politicians on both sides of the aisle set the bar with their hyperbole, this isn’t saying too much.  Staley writes:

In April, President Barack Obama claimed “my high speed rail proposal will lead to innovations in the way we travel” and new rail lines “will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve.”

Even House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who voted against the stimulus bill, now wildly praises rail’s job-creation potential, writing, “It is estimated that creating a high-speed railway through Virginia will generate as many as 185,500 jobs, as much as $21.2 billion in economic development, and pull nearly 6.5 million cars off the road annually. Providing a high-speed rail service from Washington, D.C. to Richmond will drive economic development throughout our region for many years to come.”

Now, the political realities of the day mean that everyone wants to talk about creating jobs, whether you’re the President or a member of the minority party with a chance to bring home some money to your district.    The numbers on jobs are grossly inflated, enough so that they don’t pass the smell test.

Both Staley and Morris, despite my disagreement with their conclusions, raise interesting points about alternative avenues of investment.  Staley harps of freight rail while Morris angles for more investment in urban mass transit. What both miss, however, is that high speed passenger rail improvements are complimentary programs to improved freight rail and urban mass transit.

Given the (apparent) early favorable returns for ‘high speed’ rail projects that fall just a bit short of TGV-esque speeds, the kinds of improvements to existing freight rail corridors (grade separation, signaling improvements, etc) will benefit passenger trains and freight trains alike.  Since railroads are mostly privately owned, they don’t have a lot of incentive to undertake expensive infrastructure upgrades for modest increases in speed, even though they’ll gain a great deal from them.   Throw in a little incentive from the government, however (in exchange for improved passenger rail operations), and you’ve got a different situation.

Likewise, passenger rail can deliver people directly to city centers and other walkable places.  Eric Morris argues that that money should be spent on urban mass transit – but a cursory look at urban mass transit needs shows that the overall needs are so great, it’s kinda useless to split hairs at this point.  We need money for both inter and intra city transport infrastructure.

Rail stations are the kind of focal points that make great trip generators for mass transit systems.  However, Staley points out the catch-22 of this argument – while Morris wants more transit, Staley uses the lack of transit as an argument against rail:

Consider a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or Chicago to St. Louis, for a typical high-speed train traveler. You’ll likely have to drive to the train station and pay to park. Once arriving in downtown St. Louis or San Francisco, you will likely have to take a taxi or rent a car to get to your hotel or meeting place (which is likely to be outside the central business district). The reliable, diverse, and nimble transit system that many advocates envision surrounding high-speed rail stations simply doesn’t exist in most cities today, limiting the appeal of trains.

When determining whether to build the chicken or the egg first, why not start and do both at the same time?

Hmmmmm.  If only we had some sort of national transportation law to guide us on this…

Counter-intuitive traffic

July 20, 2009

Perhaps the most confusing element in convincing the public about certain traffic improvements is the fact that traffic often behaves counter-intuitively.  We often think of traffic like water – if you remove some capacity from a stream, that water has to go somewhere.   In fact, traffic often behaves more like a gas – it expands to fill the volume given.  Conversely, when space is restricted, the same amount of gas will still fill that volume.

Obviously, this is a gross oversimplifaction of things.  The context of each situation matters a great deal, but for the most part, traffic fills the space available to it.

With that in mind, there are a couple of nice pieces circulating about traffic and how we deal with it:

Streetfilms visits the closures of Broadway at Herald Square in New York, noting how this particular closure has both increased available pedestrian space as well as improved traffic flow by vastly simplifying complex turning movements.

In a similar vein, Tom Vanderbilt (of Traffic fame) has a great piece up at Slate concerning the rise of the roundabout and some of the counter-intuitive effects they have.  Vanderbilt notes the disconnect between our common perceptions about roundabouts and the reality.  For example, we think they’re unsafe when they’re actually more safe.  We also think they’re slow (which they often are) yet they manage to move more traffic through the intersection in the same period of time – slower top speed, but faster average speed.

Ryan Avent has a couple of interesting posts on the potential for charging for roads based on vehicle miles traveled, rather than gallons of gas consumed.

The first concerns tolling technology.  The University of Minnesota has a cheap and easily installed device that could track miles traveled using mostly existing technology from on board car computers and SMS text messaging – thus using cell phone services rather than GPS based technology.  Such a device would seem to be both more cost-effective than GPS based systems and would also ameliorate some of the big brother privacy concerns with a VMT tax.

Discussion in the comments quickly returned to the idea of why a VMT tax is even necessary – why not just increase the gas tax? Avent’s second post takes this question on:

Several things to note. First, as I mentioned in the original post, this technology might also make it easier to do congestion tolling, which would be of enormous economic and environmental benefit. Second, I think we should increase the gas tax, whether or not we adopt a VMT. Oil dependency is pretty obviously a nefarious economic force, and I think it’s worth encouraging drivers to get off the black stuff. I’m also clearly in favor of carbon pricing, which would have a small but positive impact on gas prices.

Third, increasing gas taxes isn’t a very good way to pay for long-term infrastructure expenses, because higher gas taxes make people use less gas. So you increase the tax, and then people substitute away from the tax, reducing revenue, and then you can increase the tax again, and consumers will substitute away even more and revenues fall again, and so on. Higher taxes encourage efficiency, then a move to hybrids, and then a move to electrics, at which point you no longer have any tax revenue.

All good points.  Raising the gas tax now will help bridge the gap we have in transportation financing, as well as provide some much needed incentives to continue the shift towards both driving less and doing so in more fuel-efficient vehicles.  But this obviously is not a long term solution, and that’s where a VMT tax comes into play.

The devil, of course, is in the details.  Using VMT as a revenue stream is a great idea in the abstract, but that presumes heavier, road-damaging trucks will be taxed more than light cars.  As Ryan notes, linking such a mechanism with the ability to charge tolls is also an intruiging idea, as not every vehicle mile is equal.

Nevertheless, this will be the front line for the new transportation bill.  Without a stable funding source, financing infrastructure improvements will be difficult.

Also on the Avent watch – Ryan has a nice smackdown at Streetsblog of some conservative think tank dreck on the transportation front.


July 17, 2009

Lots of open windows in my Firefox browser, so here’s a link dump:

Beeee-autiful. Dr. Gridlock reports that lots of Metro stations will be getting a nice cleaning over the next couple of months.  He also links to a Post story about the process of cleaning a station from March of this year.  The following stations will be spruced up:

Major Enhancements: Dunn Loring, East Falls Church, Eisenhower Avenue, Forest Glen, Medical Center, Potomac Avenue, Twinbrook, Wheaton, White Flint, U Street, Vienna, West Falls Church.

Mini Enhancements: Ballston, Bethesda, Brookland, Court House, Foggy Bottom, Franconia-Springfield, Friendship Heights, Rockville, Shady Grove, Smithsonian, Virginia Square, Woodley Park.

The enhancements really make a huge difference.  The stations seem lighter and more welcoming.

Freakonomics had a nice post with some links to a few old studies noting how closing roads sometimes improves traffic flow.   This particular case is from Vancouver, but this is precisely the logic behind the pedestrianization of Times Square in New York.  In certain situations, this kind of action can be a win-win-win – you improve traffic flow by simplifying the turning movements and signals, you increase pedestrian space and safety, and you maintain the urban design that makes Times Square an actual square.

The New York Times paints a portrait of the infamous Randal O’Toole.  It’s somewhat sympathetic, but does a decent job of letting O’Toole’s constant obfuscation collapse under its own weight.

The Wash Cycle notes of upcoming efforts to add murals to retaining walls and underpasses along the Met Branch trail.  The Union Station rail corridor – both connecting to the Metropolitan Branch towards Silver Spring and the Northeast Corridor towards Baltimore – is a vital rail link, but also an undeniable barrier in the area.  Public art along some of those underpasses can be a great way to make those links more attractive to cyclists and pedestrians.

With the Metropolitan Branch trail, it’s vital to ensure as many vertical circulation access points as possible – make it easy to shift levels between the trail and the street grid.

Nevertheless, this kind of mural is a great example of an easy public art project that can be a huge asset to the area.

Streetsblog’s DC folks try to document the hierarchy of decision making on the transportation bill. Making a law is always like making sausage, but this particular sausage seems far more complicated than most.  The House folks are fighting a two-front war against both the Administration and the Senate.  That’s a tough road.

Cities Getting the Shaft

July 14, 2009

I’ve got a couple of articles I’ve been meaning to write about for a couple of days.

First, the New York Times has a nice piece on how cities are losing out on their fair share of the stimulus money.

“If we’re trying to recover the nation’s economy, we should be focusing where the economy is, which is in these large areas,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which advocates more targeted spending. “But states take this peanut-butter approach, taking the dollars and spreading them around very thinly, rather than taking the dollars and concentrating them where the most complex transportation problems are.”

The 100 largest metropolitan areas also contribute three-quarters of the nation’s economic activity, and one consequence of that is monumental traffic jams. A study of congestion in urban areas released Wednesday by the Texas Transportation Institute found that traffic jams in 2007 cost urban Americans 2.8 billion gallons of wasted gas and 4.2 billion hours of lost time.

Ryan Avent also chimes in:

It’s absolutely crucial that the new transportation bill do more to focus spending at the metropolitan level. And indeed, this is one of the goals of the Oberstar transportation bill. As that is unlikely to get anywhere in this legislative session, it would be nice if in filling the highway trust fund’s budget gap the Congress tacked on a reform giving states an incentive to use federal money where the people are — for the sake of short and long term economic performance.

I don’t have anything to add other than to emphasize the importance of keeping our cities humming along.  They are the economic engine.  I will again emphasize my thought that we can kill a couple birds with one stone here – given the simultaneous needs to increase transportation funding and reform the way we distribute those funds, as well as the stimulative effects such spending will have.

To Toll or not to Toll, that is the question.

Chris Bradford offers a nice summary of a great back and forth between Yonah Freemark and Ryan Avent on the need and desirability for tolling congested roadways.  Chris summarizes the dispute well, documenting Ryan’s desire to reduce congestion and Yonah’s concern about such charges being regressive.  However, Chris raises several key points:

Second, tolls encourage a number of shifts.  Yes, shifts to transit, which seems to be Yonah’s main concern, at least when the transit system is underdeveloped.  But they encourage other shifts, too.  Shifts to other routes and shifts to other times.   Commuters are the least likely to be nudged to other routes or times.  The most sensitive are those who use congested roads for local trips.  Take the soccer mom who hops in the SUV and enters a congested highway to get to the grocery store a mile down the road.  She imposes enormous costs on others.  Tolls make her internalize those costs and nudge her to use the local streets.

This is a crucial element that’s often overlooked.  Performance pricing, whether for congestion or parking or transit usage, will encourage mode shifts, temporal shifts, and spatial shifts.  It’s vitally important to consider all three potential shifts and plan for them accordingly.

Green Spaces in DC

My friend and colleague Mike Lydon forwarded me a great page from the National Building Museum’s Green Building exhibit.  The site has nice little videos on several DC neighborhoods, emphasizing their green aspects.  The videos include profiles of Dupont Circle, U Street, Columbia Heights, and (soon) Barracks Row.