Good Transit – Transit as a Good

Due to a peculiar aspect of American exceptionalism, unlike most countries, we persist in governing transit as if it were a public good. This misleading and inaccurate model prevents consideration of policies that will lead to better transit.

Public services are often provided by the public sector. However, not all public services are public goods – following the economic definition of public goods as neither excludable nor rivalrous, and thus capable of only being provided by a government or government-like entity. Many public services which are provided by the public sector in one place and time, are privately or cooperatively provided at other points in time (college is an example).

Every time someone arrives at a station or boards a bus, they must pay or can be prohibited from riding (or fined after the fact in the case of proof-of-payment systems). To be clear there are free transit systems, but that is by choice, they are excludable if not excluding. Many such as the Campus Connector on my own University of Minnesota campus don’t charge, but are also not particularly useful to non-members of the university community. These are functionally excludable, in that they are only of value to people in a particular geography.

Transit is in the short run sometimes rivalrous (when congested, if I have a spot on the train, you might not), sometimes not rivalrous (when uncongested, we can both sit on the bus – though stopping for me adds time for you), and in the long-run anti-rivalrous: the more people who use transit, the better transit gets. The Mohring Effect observes that each additional bus per hour lowers waiting times and schedule delays for travelers. Further note that creative scheduling (express plus local, e.g.) can lower travel times as well. We might extend that observation spatially as more direct routes are implemented with higher demand, reducing travel distances and thus times. Transit is a great mode in relatively dense areas where “everybody” uses it.

These characteristics define transit as more club-like than public. If we talk about transit accurately as a club-like good we can consider different types of institutional structures beyond the government department or agency, such as the utility model. Its institutional organization should reflect that.

My earlier post: Club Transit, discusses some of the ways we might reframe transit as a club good, with members rather than users.

It’s “only” 5 minutes, or Green Line Delay Monetized

Jim Walsh reports in the Strib

“According to timetables released before the line opened, a trip from Union Depot to Target Field was expected to take about 48-49 minutes. Metro Transit officials said last week that the westbound Green Line is averaging about 54 minutes, end to end and that the eastbound train is averaging about 53 minutes.”

If we take these numbers at face value, the train is 5 minutes late on average. (It is probably worse than this from a user perspective, because the times when it is late is when more riders are on the train to experience its lateness, when few riders are on-board in off-peak periods, it probably runs much closer to on-time).

He also reports 30,000 rides per day using the line. I don’t know the average length of trip, but let’s assume it is 1/2 the distance of the line. (This may be too long, but it off-sets the fact that more people experience the delay than the on-time conditions). Thus the average passenger trip would be delayed about 2.5 minutes.

There would be 75,000 person minutes of delay per day. There are 1440 minutes in a day, so about 1250 hours per day, or 52 person lives are lost to excess time on the train.

At a Value of Time of $15 (just as a point of information MnDOT now uses $16 for auto-value of travel time savings per person hour, but maybe transit users have a lower VOT because they don’t mind being delayed so much because they can do other things on the train) per hour, this is $18,750 per day or $6.8 Million per year.

Over 30 years, this is $205M without discounting. With discounting at 2% this is about $152M.

In short, this is not a small miss that we can just ignore (saying that it’s only 5 minutes and no one goes end to end anyway), and everything that can be done should be done to make the line go as fast as possible with a minimum of delay.

This does not even consider the lower operating costs to MetroTransit from less delay.

The Transportation Empowerment Act vs. Phasing in Devolution One EV at a Time

Reihan Salam at The Agenda discusses The Transportation Empowerment Act as a Model for Conservative Policymakers

In short the TEA would ” lower the federal gas tax while shifting virtually all responsibility for funding existing and new roads to state governments over five years”.

This is in contrast with current law, which would keep the federal gas tax the same (and thus decreasing in buying power), or proposals to raise the gas tax to maintain buying power in the face of declining fuel sales due both to fuel economy and declining vehicle travel. This problem will worsen with fleet electrification.

The vast majority of travel is within the same county, and thus certainly the same state (See The Hierarchy of Roads, the Locality of Traffic, and Governance for data from GPS from Minnesota), especially for big states in the western half of the US. Thus the problem is largely a state not national problem. Where there is a large share of interstate travel, states are fond of tolls (as in the northeast corridor) [See my dissertation: On Whom the Toll Falls for theory and Why States Toll for empirical evidence].

I am very empathetic with the idea of Subsidiarity, that we should deal with problems at the lowest reasonable scale of government.  This mismatch (or correspondence problem) of jurisdictional authority and the locale of the problem leads to many inefficiencies. Just as the federal government should not fix potholes on my local street, and my homeowners association should not have a nuclear policy, roads should be dealt with, and funded, closest to the user without incurring excess costs due to losing economies of scale. States should (and in many case did) raise their gas taxes, and further share that revenue with local levels of government (replacing local property taxes and other sources of general revenue), to fix today’s potholes and weak bridges. (Or perhaps there would only be one level of government operating and maintaining all levels of roads in states, which might be more efficient – it is what many other utilities do).

However, I am also empathetic with the idea that there is an existing source of revenue (the existing level of federal gas tax) on which there is consensus, which should not be thrown away so that 50 more difficult political fights can be had to achieve the same level of revenue. Most of the federal gas tax is returned to the states in proportion to the amount that was generated in those states, and while there are federal government rules and regulations and stipulations that add to the cost of doing business, most of those rules and regulations are well-intentioned.

The conclusion I have come to is we should keep the federal gas tax at the level it is at, dedicate it to specific national purposes (Maintaining and Rehabilitating the National Highway System - i.e. Fix-it-First) and allow it to fade away in importance over time. While of course it is technically possible to make this change in five years, I think it needlessly accelerates the process. (I am also aware of the Overton Window, and staking out a more extreme position helps move the dialog in that direction.)

There will be inevitable change in highway funding with electrification, and little would be lost waiting until EVs and HEVs are, say, 25% or 50% of the fleet, and the country is ready for some form of state-based mileage fee in lieu of gas taxes, administered with an emergent national standard so there don’t have to be 20 transponders in each car or 50 vignette stickers on your door.

In the end not all problems are federal problems and not all solutions are federal solutions. But there are real problems, and immediately lowering the federal gas tax exacerbates the short run problem in transportation. I am not convinced that this cold turkey strategy of phasing out gas taxes in 5 years (or at at least luke-warm turkey) outweighs the negative effects of federal funding, such as building a more capital intensive system than states themselves could justify if they bore all the costs, and raising costs all around.

See also: Fix It First  and Enterprising Roads

The Transportation Empowerment Act as a Model for Conservative Policymakers | The Agenda

Reihan Salam at The Agenda writes  The Transportation Empowerment Act as a Model for Conservative Policymakers. He quotes Enterprising Roads. He writes:

Meanwhile, other conservatives states might eventually establish public road enterprises, as the University of Minnesota transportation economist David Levinson has proposed:

The United States should follow Australia and New Zealand’s lead, and transform its state Departments of Transportation (or the highways divisions thereof) into separate, publicly regulated, self-financing corporate entities. Full-cost accounting—as already performed by Arizona’s Department of Transportation—constitutes a necessary first step in this direction. In making the transition, policymakers should strive to impose regulation only where absolutely necessary, to minimize the anti-competitive effects of any such regulation, and to leave social objectives to the government, thereby freeing road enterprises to focus on economic ones. Accordingly, road enterprises should be permitted to pursue cost-effective contracting and public private-partnerships as they see fit.

The new road enterprises should also be given latitude to make greater use of user fees—as opposed to general revenue—for funding their activities. Such charges are not just more efficient and equitable than traditional funding sources; if properly designed and implemented, they are also better suited to reducing congestion through effective pricing. Vehicle-miles-traveled charges, weight-distance charges and electronic tolling are all options that road enterprises should be free to pursue.

Over time, states will develop transportation strategies tailored to their particular circumstances. Densely-populated states like New York and New Jersey might choose to devote resources to creating Helsinki-style mobility networks while a state like Utah might instead choose to invest in a more expansive road network to support exurban development. States would no longer be hampered by the imperatives of national politics, and the most cost-effective, consumer-friendly state transportation bodies will find eager imitators across the country.

 

Just say ‘no’ to a gas tax increase | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

David Riemer in the The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal opines  “Just say ‘no’ to a gas tax increase

It takes only a few minutes of driving on Wisconsin streets in winter (or even in summer) to reach the same conclusion about local roads and bridges that national experts Matthew Kahn (University of California, Los Angeles) and David Levinson (University of Minnesota) reached in 2011 about the dismal condition of the country’s state highways: “The roads and bridges that make up our nation’s highway infrastructure are in disrepair as a result of insufficient maintenance — a maintenance deficit that increases travel times, damages vehicles and can lead to accidents that cause injuries or even fatalities.”

He further correctly diagnoses the problem:

As we drivers make our way through city streets, along local roads and down big highways, we still use up a huge volume of gas. When we refuel at the pump, our gas purchases give government — the state Department of Transportation and the federal DOT — hundreds of millions of tax dollars. License fees add additional large sums to government’s coffers.

The problem is that our state DOT, the Wisconsin Legislature and Wisconsin governors have refused to return to local government a large share of the tax revenue that is generated by driving on local streets in the first place.

Cities, villages, towns and counties cannot fix local roads with dollars that the state DOT refuses to send them. Nor can local governments afford to underfund public safety (police, fire, etc.) or other vital local services in order to literally fill in the potholes. Nor do local taxpayers and governments want — and state law makes it tough for them anyway — to raise property taxes to fill in the potholes.

So the potholes go unfilled, or get patched too late or imperfectly, year after year after year.

Where, then, do the gas tax dollars that local drivers pay end up instead? The sad answer is that, regardless of which party controls power in Madison, the state DOT sucks up most of the huge sum of gas tax revenue already collected from local drivers, and siphons it off to DOT’s wasteful pet projects.

Rather than fix local roads with tax revenues generated by local driving, DOT diverts hundreds of millions of gas tax dollars to pay to widen interstate highways that already are wide enough. And DOT diverts hundreds of millions more to finance new roads that are simply not needed.

My co-author Matt Kahn comments “David Levinson and I have had a good run with our Hamilton Project paper.”

The Green Line’s first month is in the books | Star Tribune

Jim Walsh over at the Strib writes  “The Green Line’s first month is in the books“. [quasi-paywall]  He quotes me:

Picking up the pace

One number that continues to vex Metro Transit, however, is a slower-than-advertised travel time.

According to timetables released before the line opened, a trip from Union Depot to Target Field was expected to take about 48-49 minutes. Metro Transit officials said last week that the westbound Green Line is averaging about 54 minutes, end to end and that the eastbound train is averaging about 53 minutes.

On a Tuesday morning last week, a westbound trip took 67 minutes while an eastbound trip took 57 minutes. The next morning, a westbound train took 61 minutes while an eastbound trip finished in an hour.

Traffic lights along the route — even at quieter cross streets — are clearly slowing travel times, said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in transportation. Officials decided not to give the Green Line what is called pre-emption — the ability to change a light to green when a train approaches. Doing so would speed the train, but probably slow car traffic.

Trips taken Tuesday and Wednesday included several minutes stopped at traffic lights.

“That is just seriously bad engineering,” Levinson said. “If you are serious about transit and encouraging people to take transit, you need to make it as efficient as possible. My guess is that politicians don’t understand the intricacies of traffic signal design.”

John Siqveland, a spokesman for Metro Transit, said officials continue to look at making improvements, including “the sequencing of Transit Signal Priority to allow light-rail trains to continue through these smaller cross streets continuously.”

 

by David Levinson

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,848 other followers