Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Public Input Isn’t a Good Thing


I shall now utter what amounts to heresy in current public policy thinking. Getting the public’s input isn’t always a good thing. In fact, it can often lead to paralysis. Why? Because no matter how good a project might be, there will always be those who oppose it. Unfortunately, those opponents usually are louder than those in favor of a project, even if they are numerically weaker

That’s because of the stronger motivation inherent in opposing an initiative.  Think for a moment: when have you ever seen someone stage a protest in favor of a project? Now think about the last time you heard of a lawsuit being filed to stop a project or, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, someone chaining themselves to a tree to stop a bulldozer. 

That latter example comes from Atlanta, where the Presidential Parkway was stopped mid-construction through a combination of protests and lawsuits. The original plan, backed by former President Jimmy Carter and the Georgia DOT, would have resulted in a limited access, elevated highway east of downtown Atlanta. The impacted neighborhoods, many of which were undergoing the initial stages of gentrification, fought against it with lawsuits and the occasional protestor firmly attached to a tree. 

Imagine a freeway opposition so successful, the government has to put up a plaque to commemorate their efforts. This plaque is in Freedom Park, where officeholders originally wanted a wide expressway to be built. Photo courtesy of Keizers/Wikipedia.
The lawsuits were more successful at delaying construction, but the protests gradually soured politicians’ attitudes towards the project. Construction was cancelled and the Georgia DOT learned the hard way that politicians prefer for problems to go away quietly, rather than become more distracting over time. Today parkland and a grade-level boulevard named Freedom Parkway fills a space that, for at least a few years, was an eerie world of unused bridge supports rising like Roman ruins from the red Georgia clay.

These opponents were certainly helped along by the inherent flaws in what was a wasteful project. After all, Atlanta’s expressways are little more than multilane parking lots for several hours each workday. The neighborhood this road would have bisected, Inman Park, later gentrified into one of the most expensive in Atlanta. If an elevated, pollution-spewing expressway had been built, would anyone have wanted to live near it? Probably not.
A traffic jam in Atlanta. Would you want to live near this? Photo courtesy of Atlantacitizen/Wikipedia.
Fair enough, but does an opposition lose when a project isn’t so flawed? No, for on July 31st of 2012, voters in the Atlanta metro area voted against a local option sales tax (T-SPLOST) that would have paid for a vast array of transportation projects. Most of that revenue (52%) would have gone to new transit programs, but a lot would have gone to roads, too. While only 1% would have gone to bike and pedestrian facilities, it must be remembered that such projects are fairly cheap, as I pointed out when I wrote about Complete Streets Policies.

So, why did the opponents win in this case? Ironically, it was the actions of the policymakers that ensured their victory. Georgia’s elected and appointed officialdom opted for a funding option that required a referendum. A referendum is the purest form of citizen input on policy, so a win for the proposal would be inoculated both it and its sponsors against the all-too-common charge that officials didn’t get enough feedback from the public. But if you look at the assortment of special interest groups that opposed it and why, a pattern emerges:

1.       The Sierra Club opposed it because too much money was allocated to roads.
2.       The NAACP opposed it because not enough money was being spent in poor, largely black portions of the area.
3.       The Georgia chapter of the Tea Party opposed it because it was a tax increase, period.

See the pattern? The opponents were all taking purist positions in line with the political agenda.  Simple positions make for good soundbites in a political fight. 

On the other side were most major employers in Atlanta, including Coca-Cola, plus various political figures such as the Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, who was elected with strong support from the City’s African-American electorate. They were comfortable with messy compromises, as this proposal essentially was, because they operate in an environment that requires compromise to function, i.e. the real world.

But compromises make lousy rallying cries. It’s much easier to yell “No new taxes” than it is to yell “It’s not perfect, but what is?” In a referendum contest, the motivated minority is going to vote; the apathetic majority won’t, unless there’s something else bringing them to the polls. They aren’t going to show up for a referendum or a boring primary in mid-summer. That’s why T-SPLOST went “t-splat”.

So, are policymakers trapped? If they fail to consult the public, are they doomed to suffer headline-grabbing protests and expensive lawsuits? If they do ask for public input, will their plans always be derailed by small groups of motivated opponents? No, but they can only avoid these fates if they pay attention to conditions on the ground.

In the case of the Presidential Parkway, leaders failed to recognize that entire neighborhoods were rebelling against their plans. Neighborhoods can easily sway elections for city council, Mayor, or legislative seats because of their concentration of votes. Officeholders facing such a hotbed of hostility must either find a way to placate these constituents or start packing up their offices. 

Those who didn’t rely on electoral support from these areas, such as Georgia DOT board members, failed to realize that their constituents were those same officeholders that came under intense pressure from the neighborhoods they represented. These elected officials weren’t going to stick their necks out for a project that would cost them their office.

For the T-SPLOST issue, policymakers didn’t understand that it’s not always a good idea to punt the ball. Stretching the football metaphor further (this is Georgia we’re talking about, after all), the ball should have been run, because the defense wasn’t deep. The opposition consisted of a few special interest groups that could sway the outcome of an election if only their motivated supporters showed up.

Transit proposed for the Atlanta Beltline. With funding defeated by a coalition of the Sierra Club, NAACP, and the Georgia chapter of the Tea Party, how will it ever be funded? Enjoy the traffic jams, y'all! Rendering courtesy of the Atlanta Beltine, Inc.
The bottom line is that policymakers need to pay attention to how concentrated the opposition is. If it appears to be very concentrated and strong, extensive public outreach isn’t a bad idea as it could save a lot of time, money, and political embarrassment. 

However, if the angry faces they see at public hearings and meetings are the same ones seen at EVERY public hearing, regardless of the topic, they may very well be looking at a scattered, weak opposition that doesn’t have the backing of the public at large. That’s what happened in Georgia’s referendum. Unfortunately, in the current skittish climate of public policymaking, it’s a scenario that will likely play out repeatedly.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Complete Streets---Coming to Eat Your Shrubbery?


When you read the phrase, “Complete Streets”, what do you think of? If you’re from a rural area, or a poorly-run major city, you might think it refers to streets that are paved and free of Fiat-swallowing potholes. It’s actually an initiative that’s simply common practice in other developed countries: a Complete Street takes into account all users, not just cars. 

Those other users typically include pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. For pedestrians, sidewalks and safe crossing points are installed. Cyclists might get a dedicated bike lane or off-road cycletrack. Accommodating transit could be as simple as creating pull-outs for buses or as elaborate as a dedicated lane for the bus or streetcar.
A crosswalk along the Fall Line Trace in Columbus, GA. Cyclists are protected by a HAWK signal. Photo by author.
Allowances are also supposed to be made to allow for access by those with disabilities as well. This could mean audible pedestrian signals so that those with vision impairments can cross safely. For those in wheelchairs, ramps would be installed at all crossing points.

These are just a sampling of the changes a Complete Streets program can bring. You might think that there’s nothing even slightly controversial about any of these. You would also be very, very wrong.

Even something as seemingly correct as transportation accommodations mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can incite opposition from organizations such as the Heritage Foundation. If helping the most physically vulnerable in our society can arouse irritation, imagine the anger at spending taxpayer dollars on those who are simply trying to get about in something other than a car. In the run-up to passage of a transportation funding bill in June of 2012, Senator Rand Paul attempted to eliminate all funding for bike and pedestrian improvements.  The Senate rejected his amendment with 60 Senators voting against it, but 38 Senators thought his amendment was a good idea. 

Their argument centered on the need to divert the money to fix bridges, which by some estimates could cost $71 billion. The elimination sought by Senator Paul would have diverted $900 million at the most to that effort. In other words, those who voted for elimination thought they could achieve fix a major problem with a little over 1% of what was needed. That might have paid for painting a few railings somewhere, but not much else. However, the occasional budgetary complaint from politicians isn’t the biggest problem faced by Complete Streets proposals.

The more pervasive opposition stems from far more mundane concerns. Some residents may complain that a sidewalk in their yard would be too much of an imposition because some of the tree canopy or landscaping would need to be removed. This raises a rather crucial question: should the needs of the pedestrians, such as kids walking to a school bus stop, be secondary to those of the residents’ shrubbery?

To answer this, the benefits of Complete Streets must be weighed against the hassles. As it turns out, they are an incredibly effective expenditure of transportation dollars, especially given their low cost---relative to a freeway widening or other big-ticket item. The Federal Highway Administration found that installing sidewalks can reduce accidents involving pedestrians walking along roadways by 88%! Bike lanes installed in New York City have been credited with a 28% reduction in crashes.
Let’s not forget the convenience benefits, though. As I said, transit is supposed to be incorporated into a Complete Streets Policy. If a dedicated lane is possible, the speed benefits can be significant. At least, that’s what a UC Berkeley Study found in Seoul, South Korea, where bus speeds nearly doubled once dedicated lanes in the median were opened. Faster service typically translates into more users, which in turn means less pollution being inhaled by local residents. 

So, Complete Streets programs have benefits, but a lingering fear remains among those unfamiliar with the concept. They fear that planners will foist a one-size-fits-all approach upon them. Granted, planners haven’t done themselves any favors by insisting on standards designed to accommodate worst-case scenarios. In the case of lane widths, planners may express reluctance to narrow them to less than 12 feet, even though current federal standards allow widths all the way down to nine feet. Why? Because they will  want to allow enough space for the largest fire engine (10 feet) or the largest tour bus (8 2/3 feet). Instead of procuring or allowing vehicles that fit the roads, some planners may want to make the roads fit the vehicles. 

It gets worse. The ADA mandates a clear width minimum of 3 feet for walkways. That’s not a sidewalk width recommendation; that’s how much space must be kept clear of obstructions. ADA guidelines call for the placement of wider sections of 5-6 feet every 200 feet to allow for two users to pass each other, but this is often misinterpreted as a mandate to make an ENTIRE sidewalk 5-6 wide. That’s fine for newly-developed areas, but terrible for areas that are already established. Lots of shrubbery faces its doom, unless planners show some flexibility.

Happily, Complete Streets policies as adopted around the country are demonstrating this flexibility. That’s probably because the pressure for adoption is a bottom-up process emanating from citizens, rather than a top-down approach from a bureaucracy. 

Consider two of the Complete Streets resolutions that I’ve been a part of. The City of Alexandria’s Complete Streets Resolution doesn’t insist on rigid standards, but simply demands consideration of all uses. This is also true of the Washington metro area’s regional Complete Streets policy, which is essentially a recommendation of best practices.  This is hardly surprising. Alexandria has centuries-old streets in the Old Town neighborhood with narrow sidewalks and, in some cases, cobblestones. Washington has the Georgetown neighborhood, which is very similar. Both cities also have sections built in the car-dependent mid-20th century, with minimal pedestrian accommodation. How is a one-size-fits-all policy even conceivable?
A crosswalk in Old Town Alexandria. Notice the signage and bulb-out to shorten the crossing distance. Photo by author.
Complete Streets policies are nothing radical. Their cost is a pittance compared to what urban expressways such as Washington’s Intercounty Connector cost (a cool $2.5 billion). And it’s highly unlikely that they will turn into overpriced parking lots, as urban expressways always do.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Can Transit Ever be a Free Ride? In Vienna, Perhaps


If there’s one debate in transportation that’s never-ending, it’s the argument between those who say transportation systems should be free for the disadvantaged and those who believe that these systems must be self-sustaining or even profitable. The former group claims that low-income riders are dependent on mass transit to get to their low-paying jobs, so fares must be kept at nominal levels without regard for operations and capital improvement costs. The latter thinks that all entities, including governments, should be run like private companies and earn a profit. Sadly, both sides are living in a fantasy world.

In San Francisco, advocates for low-income students are pushing the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to offer free passes to disadvantaged youth. Their argument is based on the claim that school bus routes are being cut back and students’ families can’t afford to pay full price for MUNI fares. Fares climbed nearly 1.6% in July 2012, representing a 70% increase over costs in 2009. As exorbitant as that increases appears, it still leaves MUNI fares at a cheaper level than Boston and New York. But that’s small comfort to someone who suddenly can’t afford to ride.

Yet the need to raise fares was very real. This transit agency, like Washington’s Metro and virtually every other system around the US, had deferred maintenance for years thanks to a budget shortfall that’s over $20 million dollars this fiscal year---and climbing. In some cases, MUNI had gone so far as to use Glad garbage bags to insulate wiring on their fleet of electric buses. This sort of ingenuity is commonplace in underdeveloped countries. Perhaps an application for UN aid is in order if the fare increases don’t work out.

A Muni bus free of garbage bag insulation. Photo courtesy of Sam Bowman/Wikipedia.

So, is the only option to raise the fares forever upwards? That’s fine if you don’t mind catastrophic levels of vehicular traffic on the road. Part of the main justification for mass transit is to provide an alternative to sitting in traffic for hours on end. A fare rise will screen out those who either can’t afford it or simply don’t think the expense is worthwhile. Those who drop out of the transit system will inevitably get in their cars and attempt to drive on overburdened roads, thus leading to traffic jams.

Driving can appear to be a cheaper than transit to users because roads in the US are heavily subsidized. You seldom pay a toll, so the only cost is time and gas. Congestion pricing has been proposed in a number of cities, but many drivers don’t like the idea of suddenly having to pay for a road that they used to drive on for free. The scheme works well in London, but that didn’t stop an uproar from occurring when New York City proposed a congestion charge for Manhattan. 

A rare case of roads paying for themselves: the London Congestion Charge zone. Photo courtesy of Nevilley/Wikipedia.
Keeping prices for mass transit at a lower level would appear to be the best way to alleviate congestion, just to keep drivers off the road. But in terms of funding, you’re right back to where you started. The subway/streetcar/bus network will be overburdened and unable to pay its own way. Happily, there’s a way around this predicament.

Vienna in Austria recently reduced the price of its yearly passes from EUR 449 to EUR 365. The monthly passes dropped from EUR 49.50 to EUR 45. That’s a decline of over 18% and 8% respectively.
How can Vienna’s transit system keep going with such a dramatic cut in fares? Simple: they make up the revenues elsewhere.  Vienna is cleverly forcing occasional users to choose a long-term investment by raising single ticket fares 11% to EUR 2. The occasional riders are now faced with a stark choice: shell out more money to maintain the option of transit use or make a commitment that will save them a lot of cash, but will bind them to a transit mode for the long term. The rational ones will choose the discounted pass.

Vienna's streetcar fleet (part of Wiener Linien), now available at lower prices! Photo courtesy of Martin Ortner/Wikipedia.
Vienna will forego some cash from those who switched from full price single tickets to the discounted annual passes, but someone who buys a one-off pass does not have the same motivation to return to the system that an annual pass holder does. The annual pass holder has invested in multiple trips and is unlikely to let them expire, as that would be tantamount to throwing money away. The occasional single-ticket user has no such motivation. It’s the same principle that operates behind frequent flyer miles and other reward programs. However, there’s still lost revenue to be made up, as the existing user discount amounts to EUR 31 million. How does Vienna plan to make up the remaining balance?

It helps that the sales volume for the annual passes has jumped by 16% (60,000 additional passes). That’s an additional EUR 5 million in the coffers. As any big box retailer will tell you, the key to success is volume.
Fare dodging is another loss area that Vienna is tackling with vigor. The penalty for being caught without a ticket used to be EUR 70. It’s jumped a staggering 43% to EUR 100. Those users that are caught will obviously have an additional encouragement to buy an annual or monthly pass.

Does this mean that Vienna’s transit will be completely self-sustaining or even profitable? Of course not. But then again, the alternative---driving---isn’t, either. At least this model offers some measure of financial sustainability, fairness of access, and congestion improvement. That’s surely better than the model of deferred maintenance, endless fare increases, and capital starvation dominant in the US.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

America's Fear of Trains


America’s political elite has an unusual phobia. They are terrified of large, metal machines that are guided by rails. This doesn’t apply to all large metal machines, such as SUVs. They just can’t abide the ones with rails underneath them. 

A recent blog from the Heritage Foundation provides the clearest example of this irrational fear by using the headline, “Transportation Secretary Wants Us to Be Like Communist China!” You might expect Secretary LaHood to appear wearing a Mao suit, but apparently his sin was to call for more investment in high-speed rail (HSR). He further offended Heritage by comparing America’s commitment to HSR to China’s and found it lacking.

China's High-Speed Rail in service. No sign of terrified Heritage Foundation writers in this picture. Photo courtesy of Khalidshou/Wikipedia

Those who oppose rail transit tend to gravitate towards the same talking points as in Heritage’s blog. They are:

1.       It’s fiscally irresponsible, since passenger railroads always need subsidies.
2.       The public will never ride in trains because they love their cars so much.
3.       A federally-funded HSR program is an intrusion on states’ rights.

The first point is perhaps the oddest. Heritage cited a Voice of America article that, in turn, cited China’s Academy of Science’s claim that fares from the Chinese HSR system would never be enough to pay off the construction loans. A large portion of these costs may be generated by corruption, which Heritage insinuates is inevitable in big government projects. Heritage appears to be unaware that government corruption in China isn’t just limited to big rail projects. 

I would imagine that the assumption that HSR and corruption go hand-in-hand would be quite a surprise to Germany, builder of the ICE bullet train, and Japan, home of the Shinkansen. Both nations ranked far higher than China on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and slightly higher than the United States.

A corruption-free German ICE train. Photo courtesy of Sebastian Terfloth/Wikipedia.

Cost estimates for US HSR projects range from $50 million ---via an American Enterprise Institute scholar---to a range between $35 million and $50 million---courtesy of a former chairman of California’s High Speed Rail Authority.  That sounds pretty high, until you compare it to the cost of a toll-free interstate highway. A simple upgrade of the Century Freeway in Los Angeles and various routes in Orange County cost between $25 million and $29 million per mile (inflation adjusted from 1994 levels). That’s money thrown into the gas tank and burned, because in less than five years those improvements will have no effect on these roads’ level of service. Just try driving these routes in the late afternoon to verify. Plus, it’s all being paid for out of taxes (fuel and general revenues, mostly). How’s that for a subsidy?

So what about the second point? Will the public refuse to ride a high-speed train? Acela, the high-speed train running from Washington to Boston, certainly isn’t running empty. In the first six months of FY 2012 ridership hit 1.6 million passengers. That’s comparable to traffic out of Washington’s Reagan National Airport bound for New York and Boston on the US Air and Delta Shuttles. Acela isn’t exactly cheap, thanks to Congress’s attempts to starve Amtrak of subsidies, but it takes you directly to Manhattan. The Delta Shuttle out of Washington takes you to LaGuardia Airport in Queens. Expect a hefty cab fare to get into the city, because there’s no rail connection of any kind.

California’s HSR will tie the state’s two largest metropolitan regions together. Opponents claim its first leg will be underutilized, since it will not reach either San Francisco or Los Angeles. However, this is not unprecedented: the first long-distance superhighway built in the US, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, didn’t reach either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. It stopped well short of both because builders were using the right-of-way of an unbuilt railroad to get at least some of it built quickly and cheaply. That’s EXACTLY what HSR planners in California are doing. We all know the impact of this first superhighway: rail travel, which had been dominant, declined and nearly died off entirely. The car became supreme because it was perceived as being faster.  That perception is steadily weakening on the highly-congested Interstate 5 corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles, so HSR has some competitive space to get established.

This segues into Heritage’s final point that these decisions are best left to the states. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was a state effort, so opponents might point to this as an example of state-led innovation. However, efforts to expand the nation’s network of superhighways crept along at a Model T’s pace until passage of the Interstate and Defense Highways Act (aka the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956) under President Eisenhower. 

This includes Pennsylvania’s own efforts to add onto the Turnpike. The first stretch opened in 1940; it wouldn’t reach Philadelphia until 1950. The proposed extensions to other parts of the state would not get built until Eisenhower’s Interstate program came into existence in 1956. That’s right---it took federal involvement to get things done.

This is the inherent weakness in the argument of those who view federal programs as an intrusion into states’ rights. To think that California could build an entire HSR line without massive federal assistance is as absurd as expecting Pennsylvania or a more rural state like Alabama to build their interstate highway system without any help. 

Perhaps the final irony in all of this is that the Heritage Foundation, a group traditionally allied with the Republican Party, is arguing against the approach endorsed by that same party at its founding. As Patt Morrison pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, the Republicans incorporated in the mid-19th century federal funding of a transcontinental rail link to California into their party’s platform.  They did not insist that Nebraska self-finance its section. Corruption was rife in the project, as China is experiencing with their HSR, but it’s hard to argue that the Transcontinental Railroad was a mistake. In fact, it’s hard to see how the US could have become an industrial powerhouse without it.  

A train in a museum display going nowhere, rather like Heritage's vision for the US transportation system. Photo by the author.
It’s just as difficult to imagine how the US can sustain its global economic position today if it fails to embrace the same transportation technology now in place in Germany, Japan, and China. Nobody gets ahead if they let their fears paralyze them. Let’s hope the Heritage Foundation and its allies get over their rail-phobia soon.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Overhead Power Lines: Transportation’s Achilles Heel


Bad Weather + Overhead power lines = Explosion. Photo courtesy of Robert Lawton/Wikipedia
A power outage shuts down a major metropolitan area. Customers are outraged. Politicians demand answers. The utility company responsible issues a full page ad to apologize. 

Am I referring to Washington, DC in July of 2012? Yes to the first part, no to the second. I’m referring to the outage of February 2010 and July of the same year. PEPCO, the utility serving the city of Washington and some of its suburbs, was forced to issue a public apology for failing to keep their grid up and running. The need for an apology stemmed from the fact that this was not the first time power had failed because of a shoddy network. The Washington Post found a persistent pattern of failure going back to 2005.

So what does this matter to transportation planners? Plenty--- all of the smart technology linking traffic signals, road sensors, cameras and so forth depends on power. When power dies, the signals die with it. Those charged with monitoring transportation find themselves in the dark figuratively, and perhaps literally, as they can’t see what’s happening with dead sensors and cameras. 

Mass transit staff have the greatest challenge of all, as a subway train isn’t going anywhere without electricity through the third rail. Buses are hamstrung by those darkened traffic lights, especially since those intersections will revert to all-way stops that half of the drivers ignore. 

One final problem for the transportation grid occurs when downed power lines block streets entirely. In the aftermath of the July 2012 storm, some streets in the Washington region remained blocked by wires nearly a week later. This demonstrates the fundamental issue with the power grid: exposure to inclement weather.

In the United States most utility companies prefer to place their transmission lines aboveground. The appeal is obvious. It’s quick and cheap. Unfortunately, that leaves wires exposed to lightning and winds from thunderstorms, hurricanes and derechos. A tree falls on the line, pulls down a couple of poles, and a surge travels through the line overloading transformers. Replicate this over a wide area, and the utility is facing a large bill. If the outage area is big enough, line crews will have to be brought in from out-of-state to assist with rebuilding the electrical grid. Expensive as this is for the utility, the solution---burying the lines--- is worse.

How expensive is putting the lines underground the way they often are in private developments? Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit funded by the utilities, estimated an astronomic  sum between $5 million to $15 million per mile. The Washington Post reports North Carolina came up with a number of $41 billion that would have to be spent over a 25 year period to bury its lines after a particularly bad winter storm. Private developers can more easily afford  this option because of the relatively short distances involved. 

However, if the price tag for widespread burial sounds unaffordable, consider the costs of an unreliable power grid and paralyzed transportation network. The gross domestic product of the Washington metro area is approximately $425 billion per year, or about $1.16 billion per day. Therefore, a week’s worth of outages could conceivably cost the region over $7 billion. Suddenly, North Carolina’s supposedly crippling $41 billion cost spread out over 25 years to bury wires doesn’t look so bad.

Cost isn’t the only factor in this equation. A lack of willpower is probably the biggest impediment to improving power supply reliability. Electricity providers in the US are mostly publicly-held companies with stock held by large, institutional investors. These investors focus on short-term profitability in the company they choose to invest in, not long-term costs for the economy as a whole. That weakens any incentive on the part of utility company CEOs to endorse a massive improvement to the power delivery system, even if their companies are amazingly profitable and could endure the cost. It would entail adding a big expense to the bottom line. It’s easier to justify the expense of repair, since that involves a necessity---it’s hard to charge customers for power they aren’t getting.

Utilities certainly are amazingly profitable. PEPCO reported a net income of over $250 million in just one year; previous years have been as high as $400 million. Dominion Power, which is responsible for supply (and outages) in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, clocked in a net income of $1.4 billion in 12 months.  That’s a little over $100 million per month. So, if the utilities aren’t hurting for money, why aren’t politicians able to require improvements?

The main reason is the massive lobbying that utilities engage in. In one year PEPCO spent $3.8 million on lobbying  elected officials in the District and Maryland. That buys a lot of persuasive power that can easily overwhelm the diminishing complaints of an apathetic electorate.

I know it seems odd that voters would forget the hassle of an outage and not turn up the heat on the political class, but that’s exactly what happens. Voters are angry when their power goes out, but quickly get over their anger once it comes back on. Without voter anger driving political action, the pressure for change falters. Without this pressure, rate increases keep getting approved by the controlling authorities. Life goes on as before until the next outage. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But let’s suppose someone else adds up the damage from outages caused by exposed transmission lines. What action can they take? The weak spot for utilities is their profitability: cut into it, and they will react. The institutional investors will demand as much. 

Putting a cap on rate hikes doesn’t address the issue by itself. Plus, any cap will weaken over time as public memory of a blackout fades. A permanent solution that targets lax behavior is needed. Ironically, that solution is the same one used to keep you and me from parking our cars in the middle of a travel lane: assess a fine. Only in this case, the fines would hit whenever an overhead line fell and blocked a route.
This directly punishes a utility for failing to anticipate risks their systems pose to the transportation network. The fines could escalate according to the importance of the route blocked. The lowest would be for obstructing a driveway, since that affects one household, while the highest would be for blocking a high-capacity road or transit line affecting potential thousands of commuters and deliveries. If a utility allows their lines to be exposed to the risk inherent in aboveground placement, those fines will add up to a level that will cause a few shouting matches in their boardrooms. 

James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic that the perception that America is falling behind isn’t confined to our own chattering classes. It’s also a view shared by many in Europe and Asia that’s growing because of our failure to push for improvements to our infrastructure. The Washington power outage of 2012 will almost surely reinforce this impression. Our best hope is to make the status quo more expensive than major change. In truth, it already is for the economy as a whole, but few seem to realize that we are all shareholders in that venture.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Traffic Is Water, and Other Bad Assumptions in Transportation Planning


Here’s a question for you to consider: if a road is congested, should it be widened? If you answered yes, can you name a major urban highway widening project that didn’t revert within five years to the same average traffic speed as before the expansion?

Widening a road to alleviate congestion is an intuitively obvious solution to most Americans.  Generations of planners reinforced this thinking when they told Americans that traffic is like water: if you have too much flowing in a channel, you need to widen it. 

You can see this attitude in play all over the US. Whenever a road gets busy, planners and commuters look for ways to widen it, no matter what the effect may be on communities abutting the road. Arlington, Virginia homeowners along Interstate 66 near Washington are constantly under threat of a major widening because commuters further out think a wider road will speed up their drive times.

Too bad it wouldn’t work. Atlanta widened the Downtown Connector (I-75/85 from just north of downtown to just north of Atlanta Airport) from six lanes to twelve lanes in the 1980s. HOV lanes were added in the 1990s. Guess how much faster traffic goes today versus the 1980s? If you answered “no faster”, pat yourself on the back and send your resume to your nearest DOT. 

The ever-expanding Downtown Connector in Atlanta, GA. Look, in the distance you can see it growing AGAIN! Photo courtesy of Connor Carey/Wikipedia.
Need another example? Try this: a project infamous for its $15 billion cost is The Big Dig, or Central Artery Project, in Boston. The Big Dig’s main source of fame is the removal of an ugly elevated highway that divided the city, but it’s also supposed to provide some congestion relief. However, the Boston Globe reports that commutes are actually worse than ever with travel times actually doubling several years after completion. Removing one traffic bottleneck, as in this case, does no good for the bottlenecks that remain and may exacerbate the problem by tempting more drivers onto the roads. 

One of the tunnels built for the Big Dig in Boston, MA. Photo courtesy of Rene Schwietzke/Wikipedia
This demonstrates the basic fallacy with the traffic-as-water theory: water is not a rational actor. Water can’t be tempted. Likewise, if water’s flow is too great, it can’t opt to move its source closer to its destination. Nor, for that matter, can it move its destination closer to its source. 

Human beings do this all the time. That’s why home prices in close-in, walkable neighborhoods around large urban centers throughout the US held steady or increased in recent years, while prices in far-flung neighborhoods melted down faster than a Japanese nuclear power plant. 

In the Washington, DC area, home foreclosures in the suburbs form what some real estate experts describe as a “ring of fire”. The center is nice and cool---at least, the fires of foreclosure don’t rage there. But in the outer counties such as Loudoun in northern Virginia, empty McMansions abound. Derelict subdivisions are seldom viewed by young buyers as great places to bring up families. 

The inner suburbs and downtown areas were already enjoying resurgence thanks to their vastly shorter commute times, so their vibrancy was a natural lure to these new homeowners. Why live in a depressed area a long drive from work when you can live in a fun place that allows you a multitude of commuting options?
So, the debate is settled: there’s no more need to expand transportation options to the suburbs because they are emptying out, right? Well, not everyone agrees with that assessment. Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, thinks that the migration into the cities could reverse once the economy recovers. The flight to the suburbs that outweighed central city growth in every decade since the 1920s would restart once mortgages became obtainable.

As a result, some planners think we should expend resources expanding suburban commuter options just as we did in the past, even if the assumptions behind that decision appear uncertain. But is it smart to spend billions of dollars on a scenario that, while once was almost a certainty, seems to be fading into history?

If we look to other developed nations, such as those in the European Union or Japan, where do we see the most expensive real estate? Inevitably, it’s in the urban core where transport links are the most robust. The low-income residential areas are located on the distant periphery. 

Perhaps that’s the hidden story here: America’s urban development isn’t taking a pause from its normal pattern of urban rot and suburban boom. It’s resetting to what is the normal global pattern: popular cores with declining demand further out. If so, America’s planning meme is in need of a reboot, or else a lot of money will be wasted.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Breaking News on Transportation Funding!


Congress reached a deal late on Wednesday (6/27) to fund transportation through 2014. Like an attempt at sausage making, it’s a bit of a mess. States can opt out of federal mandates to build bike facilities, something Republicans from southern states were keen on eliminating. Beautification mandates can also be discarded. 

The decline of a dedicated funding source for transportation continued. Since the gas tax is slowly withering thanks to inflation, Congress was forced to raid the general fund to the tune of $5 billion. They also pulled $3.7 billion from a fund to fix leaking underground fuel tanks, so good luck with your groundwater quality. Gas guzzlers and imported cars play a role in funding, with $700 million pulled from the former’s tax and $4.5 billion from the latter’s tariff. 

For my analysis of alternative proposals, see my earlier post, How to Pay for Roads. You can read about my own proposal for using weight as the basis for a replacement tax in my follow-up post, How to Pay for Roads, Part 2.

Democrats focused on the fact that funding will be maintained at current levels with a slight adjustment for inflation, perhaps creating three million jobs. As Barbara Boxer put it, “This job creation is the critical focus of Democrats because we know that the unemployment rate in construction is at an unacceptable level.” 

The fight re-commences in two years…