Human Transit: transit and a shrinking u.s. government

Jarrett Walker makes a brilliant point about US transportation financing prospects. Human Transit: transit and a shrinking u.s. government:

“In other words, US urban policy would become more like that of Canada, a country where the Federal role in most urban matters is much smaller than in the US, but where cities, regional governments, and provinces are correspondingly freer to chart their own way, and pay for it.
It’s easy to imagine that more conservative states would just let their cities die through underfunding, but that’s certainly not happening in Alberta.  Canada’s most conservative province, a natural resource powerhouse that draws comparison to Texas in its boom times, has remarkably good inner-city transit policy and a continuous stream of provincial investment.  Calgary’s downtown commuter parking cost is about the same as San Francisco’s and the result is extremely strong ridership on its bus and light rail system, at least for commutes, and support for a dense core. 
The transition to a more Canada-like Federal role would be hell.  Everyone involved is understandably horrified by the prospect, including me much of the time.  But if the Federal budget-slashers win, US cities and states will be on that course whether they like it or not.  Are we sure the eventual outcome would be a disaster?”

Having just returned from Vancouver, I suspect Canada does better than the US on many infrastructure investment questions (collapsing concrete in Quebec aside). In the end, both the “left” and the “right” should welcome this outcome. Local governments, weened from Washington will make decisions that better fit local needs. Transit investment will increase in places where it should (and not where it shouldn’t). There will remain intra-metropolitan investment mismatches, but a lack of federal dollars may also disempower the MPO. At any rate, metropolitan mismatches are less odious than federal investment mismatches.
When the established interests start saying their “ohs noes” about the shrinkage of federal funds, think about our neighbor to the north. They somehow muddle through.

Panel finds flaws in high-speed-rail forecasts

Palo Alto Online reports Panel finds flaws in high-speed-rail forecasts:

Panel finds flaws in high-speed-rail forecasts
Peer-review group calls for changes in California rail authority’s ridership model
by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly Staff
The California agency charged with building America’s first high-speed-rail system has been using a flawed forecasting model to predict ridership for the proposed system, a peer-review panel concluded in a report that largely confirms previous criticism from transportation experts and rail watchdogs.
The five-member panel, which consists of professors and transportation experts, found that the ridership model, while “generally well founded and implemented,” suffers from a series of major flaws. These include insufficient consideration of socioeconomic factors; a bias in the survey data used as a basis for the model; and a failure to distinguish between short and long trips when calculating the impact of schedule delays.
The highly technical report, which was released in late July and covers the panel’s findings and recommendations during its January to March review period, confirms earlier findings from the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies and from the Palo Alto-based watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD). Both groups had criticized the methodology used by the consulting firm Cambridge Systematics and argued that the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s estimates of the number of people who would ride the rail system are too flawed to be used for setting policy.
The panel, which reports to rail authority CEO Roelof Van Ark, is chaired by Frank Koppelman, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Northwestern University. It also includes Kay W. Axhausen, a professor at the Institute for Transport Planning and Systems in Zurich, Switzerland; Billy Charlton from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority; Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto; and Kenneth A. Small, a professor emeritus in economics at University of California, Irvine.
The panel calls Cambridge’s ridership model “ambitious” and representing a “significant improvement in practice in several respects.” But the report also notes that “there are important technical deficiencies in the model and the documentation thereof.” It encourages the rail authority to lower its projections.
“The Panel has significant concerns about the model formulation, primarily with respect to specification that should have been addressed during previous work,” the report states. “Pending improvements to the model, we recommend that any use of the model include some steps to make the demand forecasts more conservative, especially in forecasts for financial (investment and risk) analysis.”

This is the right set of people to review the forecasts. The recommendation to the rail authority lower its projections is the critical one. The forecasts were unfortunately not conducted in a technically objective or neutral way. Lowering the forecasts however might result in a different outcome in an objective B/C analysis. Let’s see whether that comes to pass.

The importance of being early

Number of Commuters by Time of Day (predicted and actual) from Importance of Being Early by Parthasarathi et al.
Number of Commuters by Time of Day (predicted and actual) from Importance of Being Early by Parthasarathi et al.

Recently published:

  • Parthasarathi, Pavithra, Anupam Srivastava, Nikolas Geroliminis, and David Levinson (2011) The Importance of Being Early. Transportation 38(2) pp. 227-247 [doi]

    This research quantifies the relationship between the cost of earliness and lateness by empirically observing commute trips from two different sources. The first empirical analysis uses individual level travel survey data from six metropolitan regions while the second analysis uses traffic data from the Twin Cities freeway network. The analysis conducted in this research provides a method to estimate the ratio of the costs of earliness to lateness for different datasets. This can be a useful tool for traffic engineers and planners, to assist them in the development and implementation of improved control strategies for congested cities. The results also corroborates the hypothesis of earliness being less expensive than lateness and show that the finding holds steady over time and across different regions and levels.

Unbundling government

James Kwak: Understanding the Budget Deficits :

“If Medicare were fully self-funding, I think this would help clarify the relationship between taxes and benefits, and people would be more willing to pay the taxes necessary to get their benefits. As I said in the Atlantic column, how much you’re willing to pay for Social Security comes down to how much insurance you need, and that’s a question you answer differently from the abstract question of how much government you need. If the same were true of Medicare, it would be obvious that as health care costs rise in general, the amount we pay for Medicare should rise at the same rate. As it is, it’s hard to explain why general tax revenues have to go up constantly because of health care inflation. On the other hand, it’s possible that making government finances more transparent will just make people want to pay taxes even less, so I could be wrong.”

This applies manyfold to transportation. People thinking they pay taxes into a general fund and government produces (or doesn’t) transport will be a lot less motivated or trusting then if they pay tolls, charges, or fares to a Roads or Transit organization in exchange for services. Government should be unbundled.

Will The Federal Gasoline Tax Be Grover Norquist’s Next Hostage?


Matt Yglesias writes: Will The Federal Gasoline Tax Be Grover Norquist’s Next Hostage?


With the debt ceiling controversy all but resolved, and hostage-taking once again proven to be an effective strategy for achieving conservative policy goals, Washington is wondering what the next fight will be. Byron Tau and Ben Smith in Politico plausibly speculate that the scheduled September 30 sunset of the federal gasoline tax may be the culprit. The gas tax, in addition to serving important environmental goals, is the means by which the federal government finances investments in transportation infrastructure. Traditionally, reauthorizing the tax for that purpose has been uncontroversial (though the idea of raising it to finance needed infrastructure upgrades hasn’t been) but in this day and age everything could be on the table and Tau & Smith report that Grover Norquist seems to be at least considering the idea

“In general, ATR has always supported the idea of ending the federal tax on gas and having states pay for their own roads,” Norquist told POLITICO, but he declined to say whether he or his group plans to pressure congressional Republicans to let the excise tax expire.

“ATR would love to help begin such a dialogue,” he said.

“We’re monitoring the situation. I think that everyone on the Hill and most outside groups are pretty focused on the nation’s debt crisis,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the conservative Club For Growth, who also wouldn’t say whether his group wants the tax to expire.

There’s no denying that the gas tax is a tax, so in that sense it’s difficult to see why anti-tax groups wouldn’t argue against its reauthorization. More broadly, the traditional reason reauthorization has been uncontroversial is that neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to see infrastructure spending fall to $0 so nobody was willing to use the gas tax as leverage for concessions. But by the same token, the traditional reason the debt ceiling hasn’t been used as leverage for concessions is that neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to see the country default. This summer, however, the world has learned that Republican leaders can simultaneously agree that the debt ceiling needed to be raised while also demanding major policy concessions in exchange for agreeing to raise it. Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) is already pushing a transportation bill that will starve the country’s infrastructure and devastate job creation in both the short- and long-term. If the gas tax becomes a new hostage, the situation will only get worse.


It is important to remember that most travel is local, so there is a not beyond-the-pale argument for returning the responsibility to the states. Especially since the completion of the interstate system, the federal role has been drifting. There needs to be a strong rationale for federal involvement. This includes:

  • interstate commerce,
  • the use of untolling to avoid the beggar-thy-neighbor consequences of each state having toll roads,
  • a contract between states to ensures some minimum level of expenditure (and implicitly quality of service) across all states, this includes rebuilding the interstate highway system, which needs a major recapitalization.
  • a way of avoiding 50 fights about raising the state gas tax if the federal gas tax disappears.


However the gas tax should better be viewed (and legally restructured) as a user fee, so we can avoid this needless politicization.