Category Archives: Roads and Highways

$40bn “fix it first” plan headlines Obama’s infrastructure push

I get quoted in Global Construction Review: $40bn “fix it first” plan headlines Obama’s infrastructure push

In his State of the Union address last month, US President Barack Obama proposed investing $50bn, starting right away, on the country’s transportation infrastructure.
Of that, $40bn would go toward the upgrades most urgently needed on highways, bridges, transit systems, and airports in what the White House has dubbed a “fix-it-first” policy.
“The national transportation system faces an immense backlog of state-of-good-repair projects, a reality underscored by the fact that there are nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges in the country today,” the White House said in a statement.
Mr Obama’s plan, which would need congressional approval, also proposes attracting private investment by pairing federal, state, and local governments with private capital, in what’s being called the “Rebuild America Partnership”.
And a third plank in the President’s infrastructure push is cutting red tape. Through a “historic modernisation of agency permitting and review regulations, procedures, and policies”, the President hopes to cut in half the duration of typical infrastructure projects.
The “fix-it-first” element of the plan received a muted welcome from Professor David M Levinson, an expert on the economics of infrastructure at the University of Minnesota.
“The priority should clearly be on repair because most of the system is built out, and we’ve had nationally declining travel over the last 10 years, so there’s not a major need for expansion nationally,” he told GCR.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has warned of an investment gap of $846bn in surface transportation
“The general problem is that the median age of an interstate highway link in the US is almost 50 years old now, and the expected lifespan of such links was in the order of 50 years.
“Generally most of the infrastructure that has got to be there 10 years from now is there now, and if we want it to be there ten years from now we need to fix it.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has warned of an infrastructure investment gap, between now and 2020, of $846bn in surface transportation. If not addressed, says the ASCE, this shortfall will hurt the US economy.
Is $40bn enough?
“No,” Prof Levinson said. “No one really knows what’s enough. It’s about the equivalent of one year’s federal spending on roads. So it would be like adding an extra year to the decade, or 10% more over 10 years. It’s not trivial. It’s not going to solve the problem, either, but it’s a real amount of money.”
He also questioned the wisdom of infrastructure investment driven by the federal government.
“The states should be addressing this,” he said. “They can prioritise things locally, they know where the issues are, and they’re the beneficiaries.
“They know how much they need to spend locally to satisfy the local risk-reward, benefit-cost ratio. The federal government allocates things by formula and that means there’s a major inefficiency there.”

Should we end the Federal Surface-Transportation Program ?

Reihan Salam at NRO on Ending the Federal Surface-Transportation Program Might Be Crazy in a Good Way :


So far, the most attractive realistic proposal for reforming federal highway expenditures is ‘Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third: A New Strategy for America’s Highways’ by Matthew Kahn and David Levinson, which calls for the following:

First, all revenues from the existing federal gasoline tax would be devoted to repair, maintain, rehabilitate, reconstruct, and enhance existing roads and bridges on the National Highway System. Second, funding for states to build new and expand existing roads would come from a newly created Federal Highway Bank, which would require benefit-cost analysis to demonstrate the efficacy of a new build. Third, new and expanded transportation infrastructure that meets or exceeds projected benefits would receive an interest rate subsidy from a Highway Performance Fund to be financed by net revenues from the Federal Highway Bank.

But now Rohit Aggarwala of Bloomberg Philanthropies has called for a more radical approach, which might garner bipartisan support while forcing believers in competitive federalism to ‘put up or shut up.’ The proposal closely resembles an idea floated by Christopher Papagianis, my erstwhile Economics 21 colleague. Aggarwalla calls for abolition of the federal gasonline tax and the devolution of responsibility over surface transportation to state governments:
Getting rid of the tax would force a serious discussion in each state about how, and how much, to fund roads and transit. States could choose to reimpose the same tax, or they could set a different rate based on their desired level of transportation spending. They could choose to raise other kinds of revenue to pay for roads and transit — such as sales taxes, property taxes, local taxes or tolls. Or they could simply reduce their transportation spending. “

I have been thinking about this for a while.
In the wake of MAP-21, it is worth reflecting on “Why is there a federal role?” In short the argument against are that the system exists, most is traffic local, and the states are perfectly capable of managing and preserving the system, since they already do. All they need to do is raise their gas tax by the amount the federal tax is reduced, and they are no worse off (assuming all federal transportation funds come from the Highway Trust Fund, which is less true than it used to be.
The federal role could be reduced to research (which might look self-serving as I am a researcher, but I support a federal role for this outside my field as well, since research is a public good with positive externalities), and safety regulations.
One argument against the Aggarwala position is that it is needlessly cumbersome to to fight 50 gas tax fights in 50 states, there is a strong convenience of existing revenue source, and this greatly reduces political transaction costs, since it is the status quo.
A second argument against is that we essentially need to rebuild the Interstate in place, and this recapitalization is a national need, just as the initial construction was, justifying a national funding source. We would not want one state to let its existing Interstates devolve to rubble due to poverty, even if it mostly hurt them. I don’t think that would happen (at least not at a large scale), but clearly different states would have different investment levels without the federal minimum funds.
I suggested in Enterprising Roads that state DOTs be transformed to be more like public utility than a branch of government.
Norton (in Fighting Traffic) defines ” a public utility was not just an enterprise ‘of real public importance,’ but also one in which competition was unfeasible.” That seems to be an accurate representation of most roads in the US. We could argue about long distance roads being competitive, but there are large network economies at the local level, and while we could think about what might happen with atomistic competition (a really neat idea), it is not practical implementability in the short run.
We don’t have or need federal funding of the backbone public utility electric grid (though there is regulation, and I am sure some subsidies somewhere), and seem to do ok, surely roads are similar. However, in the absence of that public utility transformation and movement to fuller understanding of direct user fees as the best funding source, avoiding 50 political battles and relying on the status quo funding (which is also an indirect user fee) for a few more years, and directing that existing funding, seems to me a good second-best solution, better than immediate complete devolution. Of course, one could argue that devolution might help force the transformation, so this is not obvious.
Looking for rationales for the highway program I stumbled on the following. In part this falls under the category: We have learned nothing in 30 (60) ((90)) years. The following paper could easily have been written today.
Gomez-Ibañez, Jose, (1985) Chapter 7 “The Federal Role in Urban Transportation” in
Quigley, John M., and Daniel L. Rubinfeld, editors American Domestic Priorities: An Economic Appraisal. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Rationale for Federal Aid
Whatever the appropriate level of urban highway investment, one key issue is why the federal government should be so heavily involved. Since 70 percent of the United States population lives in urban areas, the majority of the country clearly has a strong interest in urban highways. At least in theory, however, our federal system reserves powers and responsibilities to state and local governments unless some compelling and distinct national interest is involved. This devolution of responsibilities is based both on democratic ideals and the pragmatic argument that those who are closest to a problem often know best how to solve it.
The principal rationale for federal highway aid programs has been the national interest in an intercity transportation system that serves long-distance or interstate as well as local traffic. When federal highway aid began in 1916, the road system was largely unpaved and road construction and maintenance were the responsibility of county governments. The counties were notorious for their failure to cooperate in improving roads that served more than one county, perhaps because their dependence on property tax revenues made it difficult to finance improvements that served more than local needs. An interconnected road system would benefit all, it was argued, by promoting interstate commerce and reducing the social and political isolation of rural communities. The federal government gave highway aid directly to state governments, on the theory that states would have more interest than counties in promoting an intercity highway system.[18]
While federal intervention may have been needed to promote an interconnected highway system seventy years ago, it may be unnecessary today. Thanks in part to early federal aid, each state now finances and administers its own system of trunk highways, leaving county and city governments responsible mainly for local or secondary roads. Federal aid may not be necessary even to induce states to build a coordinated interstate highway system. In the decade before the Interstate System was funded,
for example, many Eastern and Central states cooperated in the construction of an interconnected system of limited-access toll expressways that allowed motorists to travel between New York and Chicago or Boston and Albany without ever having to stop for an intersection or traffic light. Toll financing had eliminated the problem of using local taxes to support interstate travel and by 1956, when Interstate funding ended the boom, around 12,000 miles of toll expressways had been built, started, authorized, or projected.[19]
To the extent that there is a distinct national interest in the highway system, it applies more clearly to roads that primarily serve long-distance and interstate rather than local travelers. Although Interstate System planners rationalized the inclusion of urban segments on the grounds that interstate traffic often originates or terminates in urban areas, urban expressways probably have a limited claim to federal aid, since their design is largely dictated by peak-hour local commuting traffic.
Perhaps the strongest argument for a federal role is in the areas of highway research and demonstration projects. Research on pavement durability, highway planning techniques, and highway safety measures is of potential benefit to all states. Since no single state captures all the benefits, there is little incentive for a state to fund research alone. The federal government, however, can consider the benefits to all states in designing its research program.

He also wrote a section on Mass Transit

The Federal Rationale
The rationale for federal involvement in urban mass transit shares many of the weaknesses of the rationale for federal aid to urban highways. The argument most often cited in the early 1960s debates over the initial federal capital grant program was the need to counterbalance federal highway aid. The federal and state highway trust funds, all financed with dedicated gasoline taxes, were thought to have induced state and local governments to channel too much capital spending into highways and too little into mass transit. Transit had declined because of undercapitalization, the argument continued, and federal transit aid was needed to correct the imbalance.[47]
The failure of the transit investments of the 1970s to increase ridership significantly suggests that undercapitalization was probably not a major cause of the decline of mass transit patronage. Rising real household incomes, suburbanization of jobs and residences, and other demographic trends probably played more important roles in the postwar patronage losses. Even if local governments had seriously over-invested in highways and underinvested in transit, a massive new transit aid program may not have been the correct answer. By subsidizing both the highway and transit modes the federal government might reduce the balance between transit and highways only at the risk of overcapitalizing transportation in general. Reducing or eliminating the federal highway aid program might have encouraged more balanced spending on all forms of transportation.

Notes
18. Gifford, “The Federal Role in Roads”; Burch, Highway Revenue and Expenditure continue
Policy ; and John B. Rae, The Car and the Road in American Life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1972).
19. Rae, The Car and the Road , pp. 173-82.
47. For examples of this argument see Lyle C. Fitch and Associates, Transportation and Public Policy (San Francisco, Calif.: Chandler, 1964); Thomas E. Lisco, “Mass Transportation: Cinderella in Our Cities,” The Public Interest no. 18 (1970): 52-74. The contrast between the overcapitalization and the demographic hypotheses was shown most clearly in George W. Hilton, “The Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Program,” pp. 131-44 in Perspectives on Federal Transportation Policy , ed. James C. Miller, III (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1975); and George W. Hilton, Federal Transit Subsidies (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1974).

Enterprising Roads: Improving the Governance of America’s Highways

enterprising_roadsp1

Recently published:

Most roads in the United States are owned and managed directly by government, with funding for construction and maintenance derived primarily from taxes on gas. For many decades, this system worked well enough, despite widespread problems with congestion and road quality. Recently, however, rising maintenance costs and falling fuel tax receipts have begun to call into question the sustainability of this model.
At their current levels, gas taxes will not provide the revenue needed to maintain America’s roads satisfactorily, let alone to rejuvenate and extend the network where necessary. Yet, direct political management hinders the development of new revenue streams, leads to operational inefficiencies and hampers innovation. Put simply, the organizations that built the U.S. highway networks are no longer suited to running them.
A better approach is urgently needed. Ideally, the organizations that manage roads should be able to finance road construction and maintenance through the sale of bonds, without requiring direct consent from higher political authorities. And they should be able to cover the costs of those bonds by charging for road use. More generally, they need to be capable, energetic, ingenious and ready to act. And for all those reasons, they need greater autonomy.
This paper argues that roads should be managed by independent enterprises, with a clear mission of providing service to customers. One way to achieve this, while maintaining overarching political control—and thereby prevent abuses of monopoly power—is to convert existing government operated road management organizations (such as the state Departments of Transportation) into regulated public utilities.
Within such a framework, a wide variety of ownership structures are possible, ranging from municipal- or state-ownership to mutual- and investor-ownership. Each structure has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, but all are superior to the existing system in one crucial respect: they clearly orient the road enterprise away from day-to-day politics and toward providing value to their users.
The regulated public utility model is already well-established in other important sectors in the U.S., including water, energy and telecommunications. Indeed, around 10% of wastewater utilities, 20% of water utilities, most pipelines, electric utilities, natural gas utilities, and virtually all telecom and cable utilities are investor-owned.
Internationally, the regulated public utility model is already operating successfully in transportation. The New Zealand Transport Agency, for example, has an independent board of directors who appoint the CEO, and works in accordance with a performance agreement negotiated with the New Zealand Ministry of Transport. Management is separated from governance, and service delivery is separated from policy. New Zealand’s approach has delivered large efficiency gains without compromising service levels.
Australia’s state road enterprises, meanwhile, demonstrate the benefits commercialization could bring to state Departments of Transportation in the U.S. By contrast with their American equivalents, Australian road enterprises—like New South Wales’s Roads and Traffic Authority or Victoria’s VicRoads—are innovative and highly business-like.
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.
There is no single formula for success. Road enterprises will learn by doing, and by trialing alternate strategies. The U.S. has 50 separate laboratories of democracy in which road enterprises and state authorities can experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t. There will be successes and failures along the way: successes will be replicated; failures will be eradicated. It is only by establishing a learning process like this that innovative progress in surface transportation can be made.

When You Plan, You Begin With A B C | streets.mn

Andrew has a nice, long-awaited post unlocking the Twin Cities street alphabets @ streets.mn: When You Plan, You Begin With A B C :

“I was driving through Uptown with a friend in 2004 when it hit me: these streets are in alphabetical order! As a visitor I was impressed by such orderliness; a month later I moved to Minneapolis (not because of the street names—or at least, not entirely because of them). I learned about the second alphabet while visiting friends in Linden Hills, but it wasn’t until several years later than some random Google Maps browsing revealed not two but eight (okay, maybe just 7 and 1/13th) sequences of alphabetically-ordered street names extending west from Aldrich. By this time I also knew of the presidential sequence in northeast Minneapolis, and more map browsing revealed some others.”

Broken pavement theory

Mike Hicks @ streets.mn: Good transit needs good roads | streets.mn:

“Streets and highways that see lots of bus traffic should be prioritized for repair and repaving projects, and not just because it would help the bus glide along more smoothly. Much like the broken windows theory of crime, I feel that there’s a strong case for a similar “broken pavement theory” related to the quality of life in a neighborhood.
Minneapolis and Saint Paul have begun attacking some long-damaged streets in the past few years, and it’s often remarkable to see the road surface and sidewalks in a pristine state. Battered pavement is often a sign of bureaucratic paralysis brought on by budgetary belt-tightening over the course of years and decades. As freeways were built in the latter half of the 20th century, city streets were often left to rot.
While a lot of attention goes into designing and maintaining parks and plazas as public spaces, streets are the most basic type of public spaces I can think of. They should be treated with respect, and designed to facilitate many different modes of travel. Better surfaces don’t just help cars or buses—well-designed spaces make things more comfortable for cyclists and pedestrians, and improves the value of properties along the way.
Next time you feel that busted old street, think about the decisions that led to it becoming a low priority, and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Americans support gas taxes for roads.

Asha Weinstein Agrawal: What Do Americans Think About Federal Tax Options to Support Public Transit, Highways, and Local Streets and Roads? Results from Year 3 of a National Survey :

“The survey results show that a majority of Americans would support higher taxes for transportation—under certain conditions. For example, a gas tax increase of 10¢ per gallon to improve road maintenance was supported by 58 percent of respondents, whereas support levels dropped to just 20 percent if the revenues were to be used more generally to maintain and improve the transportation system. For tax options where the revenues were to be spent for undefined transportation purposes, support levels varied considerably by what kind of tax would be imposed, with a sales tax much more popular than either a gas tax increase or a new mileage tax.

Marked Crosswalks Considered Harmful

AbbeyRoad

In 1968 there was a famous Computer Science article Go To Statement Considered Harmful by Edsger W. Dijkstra (of algorithm fame). It says in part:

My second remark is that our intellectual powers are rather geared to master static relations and that our powers to visualize processes evolving in time are relatively poorly developed. For that reason we should do (as wise programmers aware of our limitations) our utmost to shorten the conceptual gap between the static program and the dynamic process, to make the correspondence between the program (spread out in text space) and the process (spread out in time) as trivial as possible.

In early 21st Century America, pedestrian crosswalks may be marked or unmarked. Whether a crosswalk is marked is functionally based on the whim of the traffic department. A fuller discussion of issues about “how” to use crosswalks (from the Town of Brookline, Massachusetts) is here, but not “when” to use them, hence my use of the term “whim”, which says engineering studies are required, but does not have hard and fast rules about application.
Interesting the Brookline document asserts:

Marked crosswalks are viewed widely as “safety devices,” and most municipalities give the pedestrian the right-of-way when within them. However, there is strong evidence that these facts prompt many pedestrians to feel overly secure when using a marked crosswalk. As a result, pedestrians will often place themselves in a hazardous position by believing that motorists can and will stop in all cases, even when it may be impossible to do so. It is not unusual for this type of aggressive pedestrian behavior to contribute to a higher incidence of pedestrian accidents and cause a greater number of rear-end collisions. In contrast, a pedestrian using an unmarked crosswalk generally feels less secure and less certain that the motorist will stop and thereby exercise more caution and waiting for safe gaps in the traffic stream before crossing. The end result is fewer accidents at unmarked crosswalks.

Implicitly the document blames pedestrians for asserting their rights, rather than drivers for violating them.
I posit that if you are a trained, but human driver, whose “intellectual powers are rather geared to master static relations” you will generally respect crosswalks. You will believe, just as all stop signs are marked, all legal crosswalks are marked. As “our powers to visualize processes evolving in time are relatively poorly developed” you will disrespect unmarked crosswalks, since if they were legitimate, you reason, they would be marked. You may not even notice them if they come from side streets for which you have no stop sign of traffic signal. They only appear relevant when there is a person surprising you in the road. Hence you will be aggressive to pedestrians trying to cross at unmarked crosswalks, as you will (wrongly) believe you have the right-of-way. Pedestrians will in turn be intimidated as suggested by the Brookline document above. Research about driver and pedestrian behavior can be found in this paper by Mitman et al. It notes:

Driver yielding behavior was a statistically significant variable at all six observation sites. For all road types, pedestrians in the marked crosswalk were more likely than pedestrians in the unmarked crosswalk to have drivers immediately yield the right-of-way to them.

and

Average gap acceptance was a statistically significant variable at five of the observation sites. At all five locations, pedestrians in the unmarked crosswalk were more likely than pedestrians in the marked crosswalk to wait for larger gaps in traffic before crossing. This finding was consistent across all road types.

The empirical findings are sound as far as they go. I disagree with the recommendations.
The problem is inconsistent ambiguity.
Solution A. Mark all crosswalks.
If we were completely consistent about where pedestrians might be found, (i.e. crosswalks) that would be acceptable, drivers and pedestrians would both understand the law. It would be clearly spelled out to drivers where pedestrians might be, including smaller intersections that might otherwise be raced by. It would be bad from a pedestrian rights perspective, as it over channelizes walkers and gives too much power to cars.
By implication, it requires pedestrians to use only marked crosswalks. It in a sense delegitimizes jaywalking. It increases pedestrian travel times. As Peter Norton notes in Fighting Traffic:

“Before the American city could be physically reconstructed to accommodate automobiles, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where cars belong.” “Until then, streets were regarded as public spaces.” [Quoted in Planning Pool]

In practice, we will not mark all crosswalks. The vast majority of intersections in the US are unmarked, and no one wants to spend the money to mark them all. Hence if we claim to adopt solution A, we will in fact resign ourselves to inconsistent ambiguity (false certainty) or crosswalk markings.
Solution B. Unmark all crosswalks.
In contrast, if we were completely (i.e. consistently) ambiguous about where pedestrians would be, that would be good from both a safety perspective, and in the long run, a pedestrian rights perspective. While in the mixed environment, pedestrian might wait more, in the no crosswalks environment, pedestrians will be cautious where they are now reckless. But pedestrians would also be more assertive in more places (those without crosswalks now) as they would know that drivers would be also be more cautious. This strategy will make both drivers and pedestrians more aware of their surroundings since pedestrians might be anywhere. (See shared space.)
In addition to unmarking all crosswalks, we should put up periodic reminder signs/messages to drivers when entering new districts, leaving freeways, etc. that pedestrians have the right-of-way. We might put up markers where pedestrians have died to somber-up drivers. (Further, we ought to develop some hand-signal communication protocol so pedestrians can signal drivers they are about to enter the roadway. Reuben Collins has a nice discussion here.).

It is the false expectation of consistency that causes many of the 4,280 pedestrian deaths per year in the United States.
I strongly prefer Solution B. Do we have any examples of this in the United States over a widespread area? A single street with shared space would be insufficient to draw conclusions.
Comment: this is the same argument as about Class III Bikeways. Since Class III Bikeways give bicyclists no advantage, they imply to drivers that on any unmarked road, they have rights over bikes (when they don’t).
Comment: Yes I did see a driver yell at a pedestrian for crossing an unmarked crosswalk again today, and the intimidated pedestrian ran after trying to yield the road.