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…

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Put Your Road on a Diet

Do you ever complain about the high speed of traffic near your house? When running local errands, do you sometimes glance down at your speedometer and start praying the local police are taking a donut break? If the answer to either of these is yes, there’s a good chance the roads in question are engineered for speeds that are too high. They may be wide and straight like an expressway, but with the hidden danger of cross-traffic and driveways.

In a lot of communities, residents along these overbuilt roads agitate to lower speed limits, but these are inevitably ignored by impatient motorists. In others, local planners opt for speed tables that slow traffic down with the implicit threat of jarring drivers’ teeth out. A better option that can’t be ignored and won’t damage your bone structure is a road diet.

A road diet is a narrowing of the amount of space available to vehicular traffic. For example, if a road is four lanes wide, a road diet might take it down to two through lanes, plus a center turn lane along with two bike lanes. This is exactly what the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) did to Lawyers Road in Reston, a community near Washington, DC. 
Lawyers Road in Reston, Virginia. Now you can turn left and ride your bike with less fear of imminent death. Courtesy of VDOT

By giving bicyclists their own reserved space, VDOT sought to reduce the risk of a car/bike collision. Traffic attempting to turn left could get out of the through lanes and into the center turn lane, thus reducing the risk of rear-end collisions. The center turn lane also served as a buffer between the through lanes, so head-on collisions would be less likely. 

So far, the diet appears to be working. An unscientific VDOT survey found that 69% of the respondents felt safer on the reconfigured road, while 47% biked on it more often. That perception of safety was real: crashes were down from 15 in the year before the diet to 3 in the first year afterwards. What is really interesting is that 71% wanted to see similar diets elsewhere in northern Virginia. 

Sounds great, right? Sure, but keep in mind that most people have no idea what a road diet is. When you tell them, “We’re going to narrow this road to make it work better,” they look at you as though you have begun speaking to them in an obscure Dutch dialect. I know this because I’ve tried it (the road diet suggestion, not the Dutch dialect). At least one person I floated the concept by vowed to fight to his last breath to stop it, because he thought it would hinder his daily commute. 

Cameron Street, a one-way route in Alexandria, Virginia near King Street/Old Town Metro Station. This is about as busy as it gets, yet some find the idea of replacing a vehicular lane with a bike lane to be tantamount to setting their car on fire. Photo by the author.

As a chocoholic would find when confronted with Mississippi Mud Pie, diets don’t always stick. A DDOT (District Department of Transportation) planner recently told me that Benning Road in Washington, DC underwent a road diet that created substantial backups at some traffic lights. Complaints from users and residents in the area forced the city to remove it. Why did it fail? Simple: the traffic count was too high.
Road diets only work if the road isn’t already a parking lot. One study from the University of Kentucky showed that success was likely if the traffic count was 17,000 vehicles or less per day. In some cases, that number could be as high as 23,000. That maximum depended on the side street volume and the number of traffic signals. Lawyers Road in Reston handled a mere 10,000 vehicles per day, perhaps explaining its success.

Road diets need not be confined to multi-lane thoroughfares. Two-lane roads can benefit from these. In a park near Williamsport, PA, planners narrowed the road by adding bike lane and closed a gap between two bike trails. Drivers slow down because they perceive their space as being tighter, like you might feel on a narrow mountain road. Drivers have been trained for generations to stay between the lines; bike lanes such as these play off of that indoctrination. 

Note how much narrower this road near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, looks with the bike lanes added. Although this location is semi-rural with long sight-lines, vehicles moved a lot slower than I expected. Photo by the author.

Going back to the Lawyers Road example, the success of this project has spawned an extension that will imitate the Williamsport example. VDOT is thinking of replacing each of the two 18-foot lanes with a 12-foot lane plus a 6-foot bike lane. Crash rates, based on previous experience, are expected to decline by 30%. Plus, cyclists who refuse to ride in traffic will be encouraged to use this route (see my previous post on the advantages of separating bikes and cars).

So, if transportation planners propose a road diet along your route, take a deep breath and don’t panic. Unless the traffic count is well over 20,000 vehicles today, which would be a major road as opposed to a simple street, traffic will actually flow better. Fewer crashes mean fewer bottlenecks. Plus, some of those people who blocked your path before might get out of their cars and use their bikes in lanes that are out of your path.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Folly of Brick Sidewalks

Every town in the US with a historic area, whether real or recreated, likes to replace their plain Jane concrete sidewalks with brick. It’s an expensive undertaking that’s also tough to maintain. Just think of all the times you’ve seen a missing brick in one of these walkways. 

Simple concrete slabs rarely disappear, though they may crack thanks to vandalizing tree roots or dimwitted contractors. Trees in urban areas are often planted in spaces too small for the root ball. A healthy tree will ultimately remedy the problem and bore underneath the paving, then slowly expand and lift everything above it. Bricks are easier to lift than slabs of concrete, but both will ultimately give way. 

It is true that brick has an advantage when it comes to trees, though. It can be a permeable surface that allows water to reach the roots. In the Netherlands, brick is used in both walkways and streets to allow the constant rainfall--- think Seattle, only with more wooden shoes--- to soak in rather than drain off. The appeal of this is obvious: much of the Netherlands is built on reclaimed land that’s below sea level. All that runoff has to be pumped up and into one of the many canals that are, in turn, pumped into the diked rivers. It’s much easier to just let a lot of it percolate into the soil. Their bricks are set in a sandy base that’s tamped down with what looks like a jackhammer that someone forgot to remove the protective cap from. Once the sand is thoroughly packed, a team of workers moves in to carefully place the bricks flush against each other, all the while cutting the bricks with what must be the world’s strongest powersaw blade so that there are no gaps at all. It’s a labor-intensive task that you won’t see too often in areas governed by cost-conscious (a polite way of saying cheap) politicians. 

Our version of brick sidewalks tends to be a choice between “good-enough” and “cheating”. The “good-enough” model is that the bricks are set haphazardly on soil (not necessarily sand) that’s been vaguely smoothed over. The undulating surface will worsen over time as seeping water erodes the uneven subsurface.
The “cheating” method involves setting the bricks in concrete. Any gaps are filled with concrete, so little brick-cutting is involved. Unfortunately, concrete tends to crack and crumble as the bricks expand and contract with the changes in the weather. That means the bricks will start to loosen and, inevitably, pop loose.
For someone with trouble walking or with vision impairments, loose or missing bricks can be a tripping hazard. If that person is elderly, a sudden fall is potentially dangerous. An undulating surface can be just as hazardous, as a brick’s edge might pop up just enough to trip someone. 

A brick sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Notice how it undulates towards the top of the picture. This one is actually in decent condition. Photo by author.
That permeability that’s so advantageous in the Netherlands can backfire spectacularly in the US. Some cities made the mistake of burying the bases of traffic signal poles underneath their brick sidewalks. Sure, it looked a lot better to have those unsightly metal bolts out of sight, but the water percolating through the brick rusted those same bolts. That’s why some cities such as Alexandria in Virginia are taking the wise precaution of replacing old, partly buried signal poles with new ones. Collapsing traffic lights are upsetting to both tourists and voters. 

The new traffic signals being installed in Old Town Alexandria, VA. The old signal is on the right. Note that its base is buried under the bricks, which trap moisture and rust the metal. The new signal on the left has an exposed base. Photo by author.
So given these problems, why are brick walkways so popular? Blame it on skewed priorities when it comes to preserving our historical sites. In the early 20th century, Colonial Williamsburg was rebuilt from ruins while colonial dwellings in Old Town Alexandria were rigorously preserved through the creation of one of the first historic districts. New urbanism developments such as Kentlands in Maryland emulated the colonial motif, right down to the brick walkways. By contrast, Native American burial mounds such as the Ocmulgee Old Fields in Georgia that are thousands of years older remain under threat of highway construction. The prevailing culture in the United States prizes the colonial aesthetic above all else.

So is there an alternative to dangerous, ill-constructed brick? Happily there is: stamped concrete. This surface is smoother than brick thanks to its inherent uniformity with as little as a 15% cost premium over regular, bland concrete. It spreads out like a regular slab, only with a stamping process to create a pattern. This pattern can mimic brick, if that’s what floats your colonial boat, right down to the color. That’s really the cool part: the concrete’s color doesn’t come from paint, but from a sort of dye that’s added into the mix prior to pouring. That means the color doesn’t flake off.

This stamped concrete is over 10 years old and shows no sign of cracking. It's located in front of the Courtyard Inn Center City in downtown Philadelphia, PA. It must endure a harsh freeze/thaw cycle and heavy vehicular traffic. Photo by author.
Yes, there are some negatives. As with any material, stamped concrete can crack if not poured properly. It’s always amazing to me how few contractors understand that expansion joints have to be put in between slabs. A single giant slab is doomed to crumble. 

Another drawback is public perception. Some preservation purists will insist on using real brick because it’s what the colonists used. Never mind that those lovely brick sidewalks and streets were either unpaved or lined with planks in the actual colonial era. It’s the perception, however erroneous, that counts with these folks. 

The bottom line is that any municipality of developer that wants to improve the ambiance of a given area should think twice about using brick as anything other than the façade of a building. As a paving material, it is costly and labor-intensive. Stamped concrete can look just as good, be safer to use, and last longer. Just be ready for some griping from a few purists.

Monday, June 18, 2012

How to Pay for Roads: Part 2

I recently summarized the various ideas on funding transportation being batted about by legislatures and Congress. Some of these were unremarkable, such as raising the gas tax. Some made so much sense that it was hard to understand why they haven’t already been embraced, as with indexing the gas tax to inflation. Some could be viewed as intrusive, as in the case of assessing taxes based on how many miles you drive. However, one option appears to have been overlooked: taxing all vehicles according to their weight.

Many trucking companies pay registration fees that can vary by weight, but these tend to be rather nominal amounts. Missouri’s annual fees for single unit trucks range from $15.75 to $100.75.  Alabama’s fees vary from $23 to $845. Virginia charges a flat fee of $13, then adds a range of $2.50 to $12 per 1000 lbs. Basically, no two states are alike.

For personal cars, Alabama, Missouri, and Virginia assess registration not just at different rates, but also with different standards. Missouri uses horsepower, apparently in an effort to punish Corvette owners. Alabama charges a flat rate of $24.25. Virginia uses vehicle weight for a range from $26.50 to $31.50. Virginia’s paltry amount probably just covers repaving the Governor’s driveway.

However, Missouri and Virginia go further by charging a personal property tax assessed according to the market value of the vehicle. Missouri uses 1/3 of the market value with the actual amount varying according to locality. Virginia uses the National Automotive Dealers Association Official Used Car Guide to establish the market value, then divides that number by 100, multiplies that by the tax rate ($4.57 in Fairfax County, a prosperous suburb of Washington, DC), then reduces the amount via a personal property tax relief measure enacted by a Republican governor in 1998. Clearly, simplicity in the tax code is not a high priority in Virginia.
Rather than these complicated maneuvers, what if we just used the weight of each and every vehicle to determine the tax to be paid? In fact, what if we dispensed with fuel taxes altogether and relied on weight alone? Let’s look at the positives first:

1.       Heavier vehicles, which inflict the most punishment on road surfaces, would be liable for the most tax. Essentially, it makes this into a use tax. Use up the road; pay to replace it.

2.       Lighter vehicles are more fuel efficient. It’s hard for a heavy Range Rover to get more than 20 miles per gallon, unless it’s rolling downhill with a hurricane pushing it along. A small Toyota Yaris can get twice that mileage, unless you drive angry. So, by taxing according to weight, we encourage the use of light vehicles that happen to be fuel efficient. 

3.       Encouraging more fuel efficiency decreases the necessity to either import oil or extract it from shale formations (via the infamous “fracking” process). The former reduces the strategic importance of the Middle East, where much of our defense budget disappears. The latter could protect shale-rich Appalachia from, believe it or not, earthquakes (the National Research Council found that pumping water into the ground can cause minor seismic events---fun!). 

4.       Growth in the economy and population will automatically yield growth in revenue. Both increase traffic, so more vehicles will be hitting the road. That means more revenue, though it could be slightly offset by declining vehicle weights as car buyers opt for lighter vehicles. A side benefit could be that revenues will increase fastest in those states experiencing rapid growth. These states typically find that they can’t keep up with rising transportation demand, as in the case of Virginia, Georgia, and several other Sunbelt states. But, with basing taxes on weight, that very demand growth generates an ever-growing revenue stream.

5.       It’s fairer this way. Does it really make sense to tax the driver of a Lexus CT hybrid (curb weight 3146 lbs) more than the driver of a Toyota Tacoma pickup (curb weight 3250 lbs)? The hybrid weighs less, so the road damage will be less. Plus, the hybrid uses less gas, thus making it more environmentally and geopolitically friendly. However, Missouri and Virginia will hit the hybrid owner with a higher tax bill because the car’s value is $10,000 higher than the pickup’s. 

Alas, every list of positives must be followed by a list of negatives:

1.       The trucking industry will cry foul. Trucks weigh more than cars, so guess who the greatest burden will fall upon? However, their business is also highly dependent on the good health of the crumbling interstate highway system. 
2.       Owners of large SUVs and pickups will be rather unhappy. They already are pretty unhappy with the fuel bills.  It’s always a bit of a shock to pull up at a gas pump and see that the previous customer racked up over $100. Tell that same person their tax may go up, and they vent their anger at the polls. Eliminating the fuel tax in return might take some of the sting out, though.

3.       Many states don’t charge a personal property tax. Any politician who attempted to introduce one without an offset like fuel tax elimination will feel considerable voter anger. This happened in Virginia, which is why officials introduced the partial rollback I mentioned earlier.

4.       The federal government and state governments would have to work together to apply this approach across all states. Otherwise, chaos will reign as individual states opt for extremely high tax rates on vehicle weights while others opt out entirely. 

So, is taxing by weight and removing all other fees the way forward? Or, is it a political dead-end like all of the other revenue proposals currently circulating? It’s something to think about the next time you drive across a long, rusty highway bridge.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Must All International Airports Be Bad?

I pointed out how Atlanta’s airport is too big to be considered convenient (unless you have rollerblades welded to your shoes). I told you about a planned airport near Beijing that will make Atlanta’s look tiny by comparison. You must be wondering by now if all international airports must be enormous. Surely a rule exists that mandates that terminal complexes at these airports be big enough to shelter the population of a major city.

Thankfully, no.  Monocle magazine recently named a relatively small international airport as the best in the world. The good news is that it serves as a convenient gateway to Asia for European travelers. The bad news, for US travelers, is that it’s in Finland. That won’t help me much the next time I have to fly to California, unless the small model for airport design takes hold here in the US.

Helsinki's main terminal---photo courtesy of Antti Havukainen/Wikipedia

Helsinki’s Airport (Helsinki-Vantaa) handles only about 14 million passengers per year. That’s roughly 15% of Atlanta’s total and 4 million less than Reagan National in Washington. However, the airport’s diminutive size in traffic volume obscures its excellent connections via the twenty airlines that serve it. 

Look at a globe and you will see why airlines fly there. Go over the Arctic and you find yourself in thriving eastern Asia. Go south or southeast and you’re in Eastern Europe. Northwesterly flights will take you to the Americas. Southwestern flights go to the heart of the European Union. 

Exterior of Helsinki Airport---photo courtesy of Aku/Wikipedia

I can hear your objections:

1.      Surely all of these connecting flights play havoc with travelers’ itineraries, right? It’s a small airport. The planes will stack up on the runway or circle the field forever, just as they do in Atlanta when the summer thunderstorms roll through.

Actually, no.  The typical transfer time from one domestic flight to another is 20 minutes. Compare that to London Heathrow’s appalling 45 minutes. Beijing’s Daxing Airport, a planned complex that will be far larger than Heathrow, will probably require several days to transfer. Business travelers changing planes will have to hurry, lest they hit retirement before reaching their connecting flight.

2.       Okay, but the weather in Helsinki must be a problem. This is Finland, after all. The airport’s latitude is the nearly the same as Anchorage, Alaska. Blizzards must be as common as takeoffs.

True, a Nordic winter would only be considered fun by a polar bear, but the Finns long ago figured out how to keep Helsinki’s three runways plowed. In fact, they are so good at keeping the airport open that delays due to snow seldom exceed 30 minutes. Think about that the next time you are marooned in Chicago waiting on O’Hare airport to reopen after a few inches hit the tarmac. 

Snow at Helsinki Airport. Imagine that! ---photo courtesy of Joi Ito/Wikipedia

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The small size of the airport makes it more manageable, whether from the viewpoint of a passenger or administrator.  Helsinki’s airport has a total landmass of between 8-10 square kilometers (5-6 square miles). Atlanta has a landmass of 19-20 square kilometers (12 square miles). For the passenger, that will most likely translate into a shorter distance to, from, or between gates at Helsinki than Atlanta. 

Aerial view of Helsinki Airport---Photo courtesy of Migro/Wikipedia

For the administrator, more developed area means higher maintenance and operating costs. Those costs get passed along to the airlines and to you, the consumer. I’ll bet the small model for airports is looking pretty good to you by now.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Son of the Airport that Ate Atlanta

I’ve already addressed the ever-growing creature that is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It’s a very hungry critter that has devoured whole neighborhoods and communities in the name of greater efficiency. However, that size came at the price of convenience, since it can take an hour to go from your arrival gate to your parked car.

Little did I expect to find an airport that is even more voracious for space: Beijing’s Daxing Airport. At a projected 54 square kilometers (33.5 square miles, for those of you too stubborn to embrace the metric system), it will dwarf Atlanta’s 19 square kilometers (almost 12 square miles). Granted, much of that space will be taken up by the nine runways to be built there. But just think of how big the terminal will have to be in order to service the flights filling up those runways. Don’t expect to book a flight there very soon: the projected opening isn’t until 2017.

If you think you’ve heard about a new airport in Beijing recently, you’re not suffering from déjà vu. The city expanded its main airport just prior to the start of the Olympics in 2008. Designed by the famous architect, Sir Norman Foster, the enlarged Beijing Capital Airport is capable of handling 75 million passengers per year. Unfortunately, usage is already past 73 million passengers per year and it cannot be expanded easily, or at all. It currently holds the rank of second-busiest airport in the world behind Atlanta’s airport.

It’s not foreign businesspeople who are jamming China’s airports, though. Most passengers flying through Beijing are domestic, which is pretty typical. As I pointed out previously, most of Atlanta’s passengers are on domestic flights. London’s Heathrow airport is perhaps one of the more unusual, as its passengers tend to be international. Interestingly, Daxing is likely to steal the title of world’s busiest airport for international passengers from Heathrow upon opening. Given how notoriously awful Heathrow is (the British comedy group Monty Python had a memorable song about its baggage retrieval system), you have to wonder about the desirability of that title. 

Civic leaders near big airports like to boast about where they rank on the “World’s Busiest” list. Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare are forever vying for the title of the world’s busiest (counting all passengers), because it conveys the illusion of economic vitality. I say illusion because most of the passengers at these airports never set foot in their respective cities; they simply connect to another flight straight out of there. At most, they might glimpse the skyline. 

However, cities with large, busy airports do boast flights to many destinations. That can make a difference in luring new investment to a region, but only if the airport is truly usable. Chicago O’Hare is known to be busy, but hardly convenient or pleasant. It ranked 6th in a recent survey by Travel and Leisure of the worst airports in the US.  The many expansions the airport underwent over the decades resulted in terminals that are laid out like an M.C. Escher drawing. Heathrow has a comparable layout, while Atlanta’s layout recently underwent a radical change with the addition of the international terminal on the far side of the property from the old (now domestic) terminal.

China’s planners opted to put Daxing airport 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of the city. It’s so far away that planners had to justify it by saying it was intended to serve cities other than Beijing. A new expressway will have to be built to it, along with a high-speed train line.

Ironically, it’s this latter item that could end up saving Chinese travelers from the purgatory of an airport that’s too big to traverse. China’s high-speed rail infrastructure topped 10,000 kilometers (6250 miles) in 2012, which makes it a viable competitor to domestic airlines. That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that the Chinese government has not kept up with where the money went very well. A massive embezzlement scheme is being blamed for rail disaster in 2011 that killed 40 passengers. Given how widespread Chinese government corruption appears to be, you have to wonder how safe their new airport will be.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

How to Pay for Roads

I want to thank everyone who drives a gas-guzzling SUV forpaying for the roads I drive on. You basically subsidize my ability to drive on smooth, high-speed expressways. Why? Simple: you have to fuel up more oftenthan I do, so you pay more in gas taxes. I drive a small, fuel-efficient car,so I seldom refuel.

Everything I said in that paragraph is a lie. If any of itwere true, our roads would be well-funded and maintained, because small carsremain less popular than big vehicles. We wouldn’t get the sensational mediastories about bridges collapsing due to poor maintenance or a lack ofinspections. And we certainly wouldn’t have Congress continually passingextensions to existing spending plans that so clearly fail to get the jobdone. 

Funding for road maintenance and construction is dependenton fuel taxes that are assessed at the federal and state levels, with thelatter varying state by state. These taxes seldom go up because politicians tendto enjoy being re-elected, or so I’ve noticed. No matter how well the economyis doing, the voters rarely tell their politicians they want taxes of any kind tobe raised. In a recession, those same voters tend to reach for their pitchforksand torches at the first hint of a tax rise. 

But surely there’s enough money coming in now, you say. Wejust need to cut costs to make those static tax dollars go farther, right? Well,you’ve forgotten about inflation. Even a little inflation makes those taxdollars slowly decline in value, so a dollar today isworth less than a dollar back in 2000. Inevitably, the tax revenues can’tkeep up with the costs to maintain and build roads, or anything else such astransit or pedestrian improvements.

That’s why some of the braver politicians are proposing newways to fund transportation. The proposals are a varied bunch, but few haveadopted widely because raising revenue is so often equated with tax increases. Hereare a few being bandied about, along with my own take on the positives andnegatives (with apologies to a certain spaghetti western).

  1. Sell off transportation assets to private companies and let them charge tolls:
The Good---Imagine you could get a toll road built quicklywithout the need to issue state bonds or raising taxes to finance construction.With this option, a private company or consortium finances and builds the road,then collects a portion (or all) of the toll revenue. The Capital Beltway innorthern Virginia is getting newlanes thanks to this sort of arrangement with Fluor and Transurban, two of the biggest playersin the major project arena. The lanes have many names: high-occupancy tolllanes (HOT lanes); Lexus lanes, as some would deride them; or Express Lanes, asthese companies recently re-branded them.

The Bad---Fluor-Transurban hope to make a lot of money offthe project, but there remains a risk of failure if the costs of using thelanes are too high. The tolls are variable, so a bottleneck caused by overusecould cause a spike. Plus, some users can get in them for free if they have twoother people in the car and possess a special kind of EZ-Pass transponder. Iftoo many vehicles ride for free in the express lanes, the tolls willautomatically go up thanks to the resulting congestion. 

The Ugly--- If financial failure occurs, the state takesover the lanes. Unfortunately, the state also gets saddled with the maintenancecosts. This is not as remote a possibility as it might seem, if you look atwhat is happening in the state of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania TurnpikeAuthority is, by some measures, broke thanks to spiraling debt costs and astate legislature that insists on taking out a large chunk of revenue. Thissegues to another idea being promoted for alternative funding, which is…

  1. Create a lockbox for transportation funds:
The Good--- This would prevent the grabby hands of electedofficials from pulling out funds from the transportation budget, or from tollroads, to spend on whatever pet project they are fixated on. 

The Bad--- It’s hard to get these measures passed in a downeconomy. Alaska recentlytried and failed to pass a transportation infrastructure fund. Part of thereasoning behind it was to create an alternative to declining federalwillingness to pay for Alaskan infrastructure. Unfortunately for this measure,other interests in the state were competing for those same state funds andprevailed.

The Ugly--- Legislatures have a tendency to find a wayaround these restrictions. In 2011 sevenlegislatures operating under these restrictions managed to circumvent them anddivert transportation dollars to other projects. In Texas the law requires that25%of the gas tax dollars go to the Permanent School Fund to provide help forthe public education system. Luckily for Texas schoolchildren, this diversionof funding to make their schools better hasn’t yet resulted in problems for thebridges the school buses cross (though one conservativethink-tank did caution that Texas highway standards are slipping). 

  1. Index gas taxes to inflation:
The Good---If nothing else, this will ensure that federalgas tax, frozen in place for nearly 20 years, would be able to keep up withescalating costs. Inflation is a natural product of a growing economy (pricedeflation is a hallmark of a depression), so it will be ever-present. Indexinga tax means that politicians do not have to take the unpopular step of castinga vote to raise a tax. It simply goes up as much or as little as inflationdictates, rather like a cost of living adjustment for social securityrecipients. It doesn’t hurt that making a gas tax more effective means thatboth resident and non-resident drivers end up paying the same for use of theroads. 

The Bad---Voting for an inflation-indexed gas tax can bespun by a political opponent as voting for a tax increase. That’s why thisapproach hasn’t taken off any better than a simple increase in the tax.

The Ugly---As fuel economy standards rise, the consumptionof gas declines. That means less gas tax revenue. The funding shortfalls maycontinue.

  1. Tax drivers according to the mileage they drive:
The Good---Taxing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is thought ofas a way to spread the costs around according to who is inflicting the mostwear and tear on the roads. Someone commutes 50 miles roundtrip to work eachday is clearly using the roads more than someone who drives 10 miles roundtrip. 

The Bad---Part of the purpose of this tax would be to removethe loophole enjoyed by hybrid, alternative fuel, and electric cars that usethe roads, but obviously don’t pull up to a gas station much (or at all). Thatmight make sense from a fairness standpoint, but this measure would punishthose who don’t use petroleum-based fuel. The continued use of this fuel isoften cited as a keycomponent in the rapidly-accelerating growth of greenhouse gases in theatmosphere. This growth is typically thought to be closely linked to the observed rise inglobal temperature levels. That seems like a steep price to pay for extratax revenue.

The Ugly---Rural users would take a big hit under thisscheme. Distances between where people live and where they shop, work, or gethospital care can be large, which would mean a high tax burden for those whoseincomes lag behind those of more urbanized areas. This could accelerate theemptying out of small communities throughout the American Midwest, where wholetowns are being abandoned today. Oh, and let’s not forget the problem ofenforcement. Would the government, whether federal or state, insist that youdeclare your odometer mileage or where you’ve driven? It’s a little hard to seeTea Party politicians going along with that.

  1. Borrow the money via bonds:
The Good---With the money in hand, construction can begin.Essentially, the government can borrow against expected future revenues to getthe infrastructure improved. That, in turn, helps to ensure those futurerevenues, as deteriorating roads and bridges can act as a cap on growth.

The Bad---Those bonds cost money in interest payments.Borrow too much and you end up spending tax revenues on paying interestcharges. 

The Ugly---The state of Pennsylvania found out the hard waywhat happens when bonds are embraced to closely. In the 1970s thetransportation program froze as thoroughly as the countryside in the westernhalf of the state in the winter when these costs outstripped the state’sability to service them. Projects across the state were shut down andmaintenance was deferred on what had been completed. One eerie remnant of thisperiod is the so-called “GoatPath Expressway,” which had many of its bridges completed and embankmentsgraded, but remains an unpaved grazing area for local farmers’ livestock. 

So, now that you’ve seen the options, what do you prefer?Check out the poll and vote. Comments are welcome!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Round and Roundabout

If you have ever been to a European city, you have seen a roundabout. If you have driven in Washington, DC, you have probably been trapped in one of our many traffic rotaries, or traffic circles as they are commonly called. What’s the difference? 

Modern roundabouts require drivers entering the circle to yield to traffic already in the circle. Old-school rotaries or circles often require traffic already in the circle to yield to cars entering the circle or, worse, have no controls at all over who has right of way.

Confused? Well, of course you are. That’s why old-school traffic rotaries/circles were ripped out en masse from the 1950s onwards and replaced with complicated traffic light arrangements. For example, the Traffic Circle Shopping Plaza in Columbus, GA, sits at an intersection on Victory Drive near the main gate to Fort Benning , but its namesake was demolished in the early 1970s. The replacement was a traffic signal, complete with left turn cycles and endless waits. But the long right-turn ramps hint at its former presence. 

Thomas Circle in its early days---courtesy of the Library of Congress
Unlike the rest of America, Washington kept its circles---with some unusual changes. Here, they were modified with local loops and express underpasses designed with the apparent intention of culling the herds of lost tourists wandering around town. At Thomas Circle, the simple loop was altered with an underpass in the 1940s. Dupont Circle, which dated from 1871, also got an underpass, along with a complicated service road system to separate local from through traffic. Its notoriety was such that it led to jokes in popular Hollywood films such as The American President (Castle Rock Entertainment, 1995), in which Annette Benning’s character warned the President, Michael Douglas, to stay away from it: “It’s murder this time of day.”

Annette Benning warns Michael Douglas about the dangers of traffic circles in The American President (Castle Rock/1995)
Roundabouts differ in that they have an inherent simplicity. Drivers stop at the entrance, look left, and then enter when it’s clear. Because they are looking left, their visibility is greater. The view is less obstructed than if they had to look to the right across the dash. Think of it as halting at a yield sign where a one-way street meets your path and the traffic is moving from left to right.  
How a roundabout works----courtesy of Wikipedia
Note that I say yield, not stop. Typically, traffic entering a roundabout isn’t required to come to a complete stop if conditions are clear. That means fewer backups, which can be particularly handy at freeway interchanges where congestion is most frustrating to drivers (based on my personal observation of horn usage).
Roundabout interchange in the Czech Republic---Photo courtesy Karelj/Wikipedia
That doesn’t mean that everyone is welcoming the roundabouts. In Las Vegas local media picked up on a lot of complaints from the public (and the police) about how confusing a new roundabout was. Local officials responded by increasing the amount of signage to better guide drivers. US drivers are used to traffic lights and stop signs and change is unsettling, as evidenced by one newspaper columnist in the Atlanta area who said,
“So for now, I’ll stand on my soapbox in the center of our downtown and shout NO! No to roundabouts! Rise up, fellow countians – it’s Independence Day once again. The Roundabouts are coming and with them will come higher taxes, job losses, and huge increases in law enforcement overtime.”
Yet old-style intersections bring tremendous risk in the form of high-speed crashes at right-angles. If one driver runs the light or stop sign and hits the side of another car in the intersection (commonly referred to as a t-bone impact), the chances of serious injury or fatality are higher than in a rear-end collision or a sideswiping impact as typically happens in a roundabout. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that installing roundabouts reduced overall crashes by 39% and fatal crashes by 76%.

The benefits of roundabouts are inducing a horde of cities to embrace them. Columbus, the city that obliterated its traffic circle, is now installing roundabouts in several neighborhoods. One neighborhood, Lakebottom (can you guess how it got its name?) has ten! However, perhaps the US champion of the roundabout is Carmel, IN with over 77 installed and plans for more. The Mayor was inspired by his trips to Britain, which originated the modern roundabout after importing the traffic circle from the US. In other words, the British fixed our traffic circles. 

The one major problem with roundabouts is what to do with pedestrians. If the crosswalks are placed too close to the intersection, traffic exiting the roundabout could collide with pedestrians who may not realize that a vehicle is entering their roadway. That’s a particularly big problem for pedestrians crossing from left to right (as viewed by a car entering the roundabout), since they will have their backs to the exiting traffic from the roundabout.

The solution is to move the crosswalk a short distance away from the roundabout. For low traffic areas, pedestrians will view traffic at right angles and be better able to judge when it is safe to cross. Where the traffic is particularly heavy, signals can be installed. The signals can be a standard traffic light (red/yellow/green) or flashing amber warning signals activated by the pedestrians. 

There is one final argument to be made in favor of the roundabout: it’s cheap. Traffic lights cost money to maintain and operate. The next time you see a traffic light with a burned-out green bulb, think about how much it costs to have a city worker come out with a truck, raise themselves up in the bucket, and replace that bulb. Odds are that a lane will be closed, which will lead to at least some congestion. Worse still, at some point in the near future the process will have to be repeated. And of course, there’s the electric bill to consider.

A roundabout might need a bit of repaving every few years and occasional sign replacement (There’s no fix for bad drivers). That’s less pressure on your wallet via taxes. Who’s against that?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Biking in the Street---Safe or Stupid?

I recently tried out Washington’s Capital Bikeshare (see previous post for description), and I lived to write about it. It’s not as difficult as you might think to bike in some neighborhoods of DC. In other neighborhoods, well, let’s just say that some street designs are better than others.

I wanted to enjoy the weather and still be a cheap so-and-so. My roughly 1.5 mile expedition was to start at Eastern Market and end near my wife’s office at Union Station. It was a fairly warm day, and I was wearing business attire, but that sort of distance on a bike is pretty tiny. The ride took me through quiet residential streets along the eastern edge of the Capitol fortress and its glowering guards, so traffic wasn’t an issue. At least, it wasn’t until I reached Columbus Circle in front of Union Station.

Columbus Circle is currently undergoing a major rehabilitation as part of an 18-month project to fix the plaza in front of the station and create some semblance of order to traffic flow in the area. To get to the bike-share location and turn in my bike, I had to cross this major construction zone and contend with erratic taxis, meandering buses, hordes of cars, and pedestrians who were just as hapless as I was.  All considered cyclists to be intruding on their space, based on the glares I received. So, this was a bad idea, right?

No, it just points out how one-size-fits-all solutions seldom work. In the quiet neighborhoods, riding in traffic is a perfectly safe and comfortable option, because there was so little traffic. Where the problem develops is in a confusing construction area with heavy, assorted traffic. Cyclists, such as myself, are put in a situation that feels unsafe. A solution to this would be a separate path for cycles, typically referred to as a cycletrack. Luckily, that’s exactly what is being installed nearby.
An example of a two-way cycletrack. Photo courtesy of NACTO.

On First Street, running north from Columbus Circle along the west side of Union Station to New York Avenue, DC intends to build a 2-way cycletrack that would allow cyclists to move through at least part of this congested area in dedicated lanes. Instead of dodging taxis, cyclists will be able to ride in peace…until they reach the end of the cycletrack, at which point the debate among cyclists begins.

You were probably expecting a debate between motorists and cyclists. Oh, no, this one is much odder.  While occasional cyclists might relish the idea of being off by themselves, some hardcore cycling commuters (these can travel 20+ miles each day) insist that they should be treated as exact equals to motorists. They have lost their fear of the car and view efforts to separate them from traffic as weakening their position in the traffic hierarchy. 

Perhaps they have a point, but would adopting their agenda really help get cities get people out of their cars and onto bikes? How many people reading this feel confident enough to bike in traffic?
The Federal Highway Administration ran a study a few years ago that showed how a lack of separate bike lanes can suppress bicycle commuting. The study showed that “cities with higher levels of bicycle
bike lanes per arterial mile.” In other words, if your city doesn’t have cycletracks, don’t expect to maximize the number of people biking to work. 
Atlanta's Beltline under construction. Photo courtesy of Keizers/Wikipedia.

Other cities are realizing that separate bike facilities are the way to go. In Atlanta the Beltline project will combine a bike path with capacity for the future addition of light rail. As the name implies, it will loop around downtown Atlanta and connect the nearby revitalized neighborhoods. Because it runs along an abandoned railroad, some of the street crossings will be at separated grades (via bridges). In essence, it will be an expressway for bikes. That may help promote the use of their existing bike lanes, but only if Atlanta ramps up enforcement. At least one local blog posts pictures of violators’ cars to shame the city government into doing just that.
Who do you call when it's a police car blocking the bike lane? Photo courtesy of MidtownCommuter/

In the end, whether biking in the street is a good idea depends on traffic conditions, the type of facilities offered, and personal comfort. The cyclist who bikes across an entire metropolitan area on a racing bike at speeds averaging over 20 mph will probably never use a cycletrack, so motorists will have to be firmly encouraged to share the road through stiff penalties if they fail to do so. Cyclists who are more occasional or at least less aggressive in their habits will need a separate facility. Given that this latter group is clearly the one where the growth potential is, cities need to get serious about catering to their preferences.