Air-powered Car Asymptotically Approaches Reality

From Popular Mechanics: Air-Powered Car Coming to U.S. in 2009 to 2010 .
“Company officials want to make the first air-powered car to hit U.S. roads a $17,800, 75-hp equivalent, six-seat modified version of MDI’s CityCAT (pictured above) that, thanks to an even more radical engine, is said to travel as far as 1000 miles at up to 96 mph with each tiny fill-up. “

Legislative Auditor Report on MnDOT

The Legislative Auditor report on Minnesota’s State Highways and Bridges report summary makes for interesting reading. (Full report here
“MnDOT is spending more—and a greater percentage of its resources—on trunk highway road and bridge construction than it did ten years ago.
MnDOT has increased the proportion of trunk highway spending dedicated to system construction, and decreased the proportion spent on operations, research, and support. In the 2002-03 biennium, about 63 percent of department spending was for road and bridge construction. Between 2003 and 2004, MnDOT reallocated over $36 million from its operating budget to fund highway construction. By the fiscal year 2006-07 biennium, spending on trunk highway road and bridge construction had increased to 71 percent of total spending.”
later the report says:
“Overall, trunk highway project investments have not aligned with the department’s stated policy of “preservation first.”
Between fiscal years 2002 and 2007, over half of MnDOT’s spending on construction contracts for trunk highway pavements was allocated to system expansion rather than preservation. In contrast, in fiscal year 2001, only 25 percent of pavement contract spending was allocated to expansion projects.”
Of course ribbon cuttings are better politics than resurfacing, and I guess this whole debate depends on what is defined as spending, what is preservation, and operations and maintenance and what is new construction.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation. Metro Division Transportation System Plan. Technical report, MnDOT, 2001.
which I cited in Forecasting and Evaluating Network Growth implies that 21% of the total budget is spent on construction and 79% is spent on maintenance. Now there are differences (that was metro rather than statewide among them), but it should be clearer as to what spending is for capital expansion and what for capital maintenance.
As the system matures, maintenance takes an increasing share of resources (as there is more network to maintain), and new construction gets more expensive (the most cost effective projects have already been done), so one would expect more on maintenance and less on capital expansion.
That said, ride quality, which is said to be decreasing, needs to be quantified in terms of its economic value. Wearing down roads without rebuilding or properly maintaining is spending future capital (presumably it is more expensive to repair the more damaged it is), but the economic cost of the poor ride itself (a slightly bumpier ride) does not *seem* like it should matter so much, there is no evidence people go slower or waste time due to a somewhat rougher service (assuming we are talking Minnesota conditions, rather than truly decrepit roads).

Open Street Map

Open Street Map is a project to have an open source street map of the world created by users. View a Historic animation of their progress.
Clearly the past few months have seen the addition of official databases (especially the US Tiger file). It is interesting how similar this growth is to wikipedia, which was organic, until Rambot started posting official Census data, vastly increasing the US geographic coverage of the encyclopedia, and then resumed its organic pace.

McCain and Transportation Policy

John McCain looks to be the Republican nominee for President in 2008.
What are his transportation policies?
As with Obama, there is no explicit transportation policy tab on the candidate’s web page. But we can ascertain a few things from his website and other sources: (quotes from website unless otherwise attributed)
(1) He is against earmarks. The good people of Arizona have been blessed by a Senator who refuses to bring home bacon on moral grounds.
“Ending Pork Barrel Spending: Year after year, powerful members of Congress divert taxpayer dollars to special interest pet projects with little or no national value. This practice is especially egregious during wartime, when any federal spending wasted on parochial programs to satisfy special interests represents a failure by the federal government to properly steward tax dollars. John McCain has steadfastly fought to reform this broken system and end the self-serving largesse that defines the current budget process.
As president, John McCain will oppose spending money on projects that siphon away tax dollars collected to fund these important commitments. Setting priorities, and keeping them, is a crucial step toward fiscal restraint and an important priority for a McCain presidency. Every dollar irresponsibly spent by Congress is a dollar diverted from pressing national priorities including lowering the tax burden on working Americans, supporting the men and women fighting the war on terror, making good on the nation’s financial commitments at home, including to senior citizens, and paying down the national debt.”
To wit: McCain voted against SAFETEA-LU, the last surface transportation bills on the grounds of pork. He does not however oppose in principle federal highway spending (McCain’s statement) , rather the specifics of the particular legislation, which he argues was inequitable.
(2) John McCain is a conservationist who is for clean air and believes in the existence of global warming (for a Republican, this is progress) and who “has offered common sense approaches to limit carbon emissions by harnessing market forces that will bring advanced technologies, such as nuclear energy, to the market faster, reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of energy, and see to it that America leads in a way that ensures all nations do their rightful share.”
(3) John McCain supports space exploration
“John McCain is a strong supporter of NASA and the space program. He is proud to have sponsored legislation authorizing funding consistent with the President’s vision for the space program, which includes a return of astronauts to the Moon in preparation for a manned mission to Mars. He believes support for a continued US presence in space is of major importance to America’s future innovation and security. He has also been a staunch advocate for ensuring that NASA funding is accompanied by proper management and oversight to ensure that the taxpayers receive the maximum return on their investment. John McCain believes curiosity and a drive to explore have always been quintessential American traits. This has been most evident in the space program, for which he will continue his strong support. “
(4) He seems to oppose Amtrak funding, which is not surprising given Arizona’s lack of service, and its consistent money-losing nature, see here , and supports state flexibility on using federal funds.
(5) He has generally opposed federal subsidies for ethanol, though he supports it if the price of oil is high enough to make it economically efficient.

Obama’s National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank

From The Page – by Mark Halperin , Senator Obama is proposing a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank today:
“For our economy, our safety, and our workers, we have to rebuild America. I’m proposing a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years. This investment will multiply into almost half a trillion dollars of additional infrastructure spending and generate nearly two million new jobs – many of them in the construction industry that’s been hard hit by this housing crisis. The repairs will be determined not by politics, but by what will maximize our safety and homeland security; what will keep our environment clean and our economy strong. And we’ll fund this bank by ending this war in Iraq. It’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money on putting America back together instead.?
This may be based on the Hagel-Dodd bill: National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007. Full text
The claim is that there is an under-investment in infrastructure, and this would channel some additional money that way. Clearly infrastructure investment levels as a share of GDP have been declining over time. This follows from it being a maturing sector of the economy, and if we had not had a decline in infrastructure spending as a share of the economy, we could not have a concomitant increase in the shares of other faster growing sectors (information technology for instance).
The key for a bank though is that it loans money and is repaid with interest. It tries to maximize return on investment. First, it needs to be depoliticized, which is promised by the Hagel-Dodd bill, but needs to be guaranteed. Second, there needs to be payback. It is not clear how “free” roads will be able to pay back loans for their construction. (No mention is made of toll roads or other repayment mechanisms). Clearly they may generate some economic growth, but with proposal suggesting that ” The financing package could include direct subsidies, direct loan guarantees, long-term tax-credit general purpose bonds, and long-term tax-credit infrastructure project specific bonds.” it seems more like additional federal disbursement than a conventional bank that gets a direct return.
The bill aims at large projects, the risk is they turn into mega-projects (like the Big Dig), whose benefits are elusive and costs are real. The opportunity is they do something great (like the original Interstate Highway System).
The key to note is that existing infrastructure is aging, and much of it does need to be repaired, rehabilitated, or replaced. One hopes this money is directed toward existing problems, rather on speculative new infrastructure. The United States highway system is mature. Until it can be replaced with something better (as railroad largely replaced canals), it needs to be maintained, and to some extent grown slowly, but if we are to make major new investments, they should lie along a new technological trajectory, not more of the same.
One of the positive attributes of such a bank however is that it moves infrastructure funding from a “pay-as-you-go” model (as with the current highway bill based on the gas tax) to one based on bonding. This helps temporally spread the costs across beneficiaries, and is how large long-term capital projects should be financed. (See my paper here (Published in Journal of Urban Planning and Development American Society of Civil Engineers 127(4) 146-157 (Dec))))

MidMorning Wednesday

I was at a transportation forum tonight that will be broadcast Wednesday (2/13/08) on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midmorning program.
The forum had 8 experts (1 of whom was me) and an audience of about 75 people. The audience got the most airtime and there was a disproportionate discussion of monorails and PRT. But there was some sensible discussion as well. My words constituted possibly 60 seconds of the whole event. Ah, Democracy.

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