The University of Minnesota’s resident civil engineering guru is known around the world as The Transportationist. Professor Levinson will join us to talk about the Twin Cities, traffic, streetcars, and why we don’t yet have hover bikes?
Doors at 6:00 – Show at 7:00
Tickets: $10 at the door OR $7 in advance, or $7 at the door with student I.D., kids under 12, or with a Fringe Button.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul region has many, many municipalities. Though I hear at international conferences that we have metropolitan government here, that seems a Viking marketing myth (much like the naming of Greenland).
In fact, depending on how you count, the region has 189 Minor Civil Divisions (MCD).
Each is a local unit of government, which may have police, fire, roads, schools, parks, libraries, and many other public services (the scope of services varies, and some jurisdictions share services, and school districts have other boundaries).
Is this too many or too few? In Maryland there are 23 counties (including Baltimore City), and very few incorporated cities. For most people, the county is the smallest unit of government. Thus there is one less layer of government, and the counties achieve economies of scale.
“[M]unicipalities within a region [offer] varying baskets of goods (government services) at a variety of prices (tax rates). Given that individuals have differing personal valuations on these services and varying ability to pay the attendant taxes, individuals will move from one local community to another until they find the one which maximizes their personal utility. The model states that through the choice process of individuals, jurisdictions and residents will determine an equilibrium provision of local public goods in accord with the tastes of residents, thereby sorting the population into optimum communities. The model has the benefit of solving two major problems with government provision of public goods: preference revelation and preference aggregation.”
Thus we can dial-up the mix of public services and taxes we want by “voting with our feet”.
I am mixed about this. While I am skeptical there are a lot of economies of scale to be had at larger units of government (and there are many diseconomies of scale to be had as well),there are some. But it doesn’t make sense to me that we need 3 layers of government in the roads operations business (state, county, and city), and a fourth (metropolitan) in the roads planning business, when many places get by with 2. We seem to get a lot of buck-passing, and remote governance. Now this isn’t inherently a flaw with minor civil divisions. It is an argument that either cities give up their roads to the county, or the county turns back its roads to the local jurisdictions within.
The difficulty with this is, as many Streets.MN readers know, that e.g. the Hennepin County public works agency is not very innovative or progressive, and tends to resist things likebike lanes and roundabouts, which the city sometimes supports. So why are there Hennepin County roads in Minneapolis, surely the City can manage things adequately? The evidence for this is that most counties are smaller (in population and tax base) than the City of Minneapolis. To do this the City would need to be given the funds the County would have spent in the City anyway. This comes back to highway finance formulas at the State level, and allocation of country property tax revenue. We should of course have a higher state gas tax to replace the local property tax for local roads. But even without that, allocation of funds is a political problem, not a law of nature, and can be overcome if people can agree we are over-governed.
Minneapolis is one thing, what about a smaller municipality, like Richfield, or Lauderdale? If an MCD is too small to manage its roads, it can join with neighbors, just as municipalities often join for libraries or schools, or police. Or there can be some cities which manage all their roads, and others which let the county manage all their roads.
The transportation sector is rife with technology/policy mismatches. We often seek new to develop or deploy technologies to solve what are ultimately policy problems; and we often try to implement policies to solve what are ultimately technical problems. Attaching the correct domain to the problem is the first step in solving it.
As an example of the first, consider any transportation investment aimed at expanding capacity to address congestion. The policy failure here is the lack of peak-period pricing (and secondarily location-specific pricing) that would ration scarce capacity. Instead we move to a ‘predict and provide’ mode, and where we fail to provide, we ration by queueing. Whether or not we should build a project to expand accessibility from a place, we should not expand capacity to expand accessibility only at a given time-of-day until we have properly priced the network, so that travelers consider the externalities they impose and pay the full marginal costs of their trip.
The best illustrations include your typical freeway widening. A widening by definition just expands capacity (which is only relevant in the peak hours), and does nothing to expand accessibility during the rest of the day, since no new places are connected. The road may very well be congested, which is what you would expect when you give something valuable away at below marginal cost. The capacity expansions often don’t have the desired effect on congestion reduction due to induced demand in the short run, and induced development in the longer run.
Transit projects are often billed as “congestion reducing”. This is the one of the worst reasons to invest in transit. It is as if we said a new highway reduces crowding on the bus or the bike lanes. Transit investments should be justified by the benefits they provide to existing and new transit users, not on some marginal third-party actor. Yet we see this claim allthetime. [I know, the claim is marketing to induce non-users to see a benefit for the enormous subsidy they are providing, but it is intellectually dishonest]. I won’t say there is never a highway congestion reduction by-product, as if the project does gain new riders, at least some of them may have otherwise been driving a car during peak times, but that is a third-order effect that often does not appear in the traffic statistics.
As an example of out-of-sync policy approaches to technical problems, consider emissions reduction. Automobile emissions are a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is public health. Emissions can be thought of as a logical chain of calculations like this:
The land use and transportation planning side of things (policy) tries affect behavior to reduce number of vehicle trips and average trip length. The technology side of the equation tries to improve fuel efficiency and reduce pollution per unit of fuel burned. There are policies that can encourage the development of the technology (CAFE standards) and technologies which can reduce average trip length, like elevators and skyscrapers. But the opportunity to practically eliminate emissions can only come from driving one of these numbers to zero.
My bet would be that it is far easier to change the power plant on the fleet (through electrification), and the pollutants per gallon through more efficient combustion if you continue to burn liquid fuel, than to get number of motor vehicle trips or trip length close to zero. In the US, we might be able to take baby steps towards behavioral change, but we are starting from an existing built environment, an existing economic make-up, and existing transportation networks that took a century to build and will take a century to unwind. We have climbed Mt. Auto, and atop Mt. Auto, Mt. Not-Auto is very distant.
In short I claim the vehicle fleet, which turns over every 10 or so years, is more malleable than land use, which turns over every 50 years, or road networks, which effectively don’t turn over, or travel behavior in the absence of pricing.
This is not to say people should not be encouraged to walk (or bike if masochistic) and locate near jobs if feasible. Similarly, developers should not be needlessly discouraged or prohibited from high densities so long as they internalize costs or pays off the losers. But the reasons behind that are fundamentally private (that is what people prefer) rather than for the good of the environment. Preferences too are malleable, to a point, but reprogramming 300 million individual, customized brains takes time and effort, and the population only turns over generationally.
I walk (even in the snow and ice). There are many reasons people may want to not drive their car, or not drive as much. Personal cost and pleasure are among them. But to promote those policies as serious efforts to address pollution problems, when technical solutions are available is Sisyphean. Induced demand rears its beloved head. A large part of the reductions in VMT from one set of sources will be eaten by another, even if we have macroscopic trends working (very slowly) in a favorable direction, like peak travel.
There are potentially effective travel demand management (TDM) strategies. Pricing (as per above) is the most effective, if only it could be implemented. By all means, impose a carbon tax, but that will have very small effects on overall behavior unless the tax itself is very large.
Sadly, most policies, short of pricing, aimed at TDM have been dismally unsuccessful. Land use changes are slow at best, and there is little guarantee that new development will do much to actually reduce vehicle emissions, most people don’t work or live on site, and new transit oriented developments are not in dense environments to do enough to enable people to forego much auto travel.
Similarly, improving the efficiency of roads (transportation systems management or TSM) through strategies like improved signal coordination and ramp metering are modest in their gains.
This is the classic hammer/nail conundrum. Some people want to help save the world. This is a wonderful and potentially socially-productive endeavor. Yet, their only tool is a hammer. Their conclusion is that saving the world is a nail, when it is really a snowglobe. We would be better served by finding nails for the hammer users, and rags for the snowglobe tenderers.
To get meta about this, policies which provide proper incentives can help match the wannabe heroes with the real Penelope Pitstops . Technologies can help with the matchmaking market as well, as has proven so popular in the dating world.
It is March 1, 2013 and apparently a sequester is going to be implemented by the US Federal Government. Most sectors of government are going to be cut by some fixed amount. Much has been written about how stupidthis is. The proximate cause is the immediate stupidity of politicians trying to create a Sword of Damocles above their colleagues to get them to do something less stupid. There is a root cause. This is what I call the “Lump of Government Mistake”.
Almost all agencies of the federal government are on the general budget, paid for from general revenue, with an annual appropriate cycle. This need not be the case.
We should have many separate agencies, each with their own user-based revenue sources, for as many parts of government as possible. For instance Highways already have a Highway Trust Fund (underfunded perhaps, but that is a relatively simple problem if there is an actual desire to govern responsibly).
Air Traffic Control should be handled by a private corporation paid for from some kind of user fee on aircraft movements, like it is in Canada or New Zealand, not part of the Lump of Government.
National Parks should be owned by a Foundation (or better multiple Foundations) that charges admission to users to cover costs, not part of the Lump of Government.
Food Inspection Services should be a Non-Profit Corporation paid for by a small tax on food producers (like the Food Marketing Boards) and administered separately, not part of the Lump of Government.
We can go on and identify many parts of government that can easily be hived off into separable, self-sustaining, non-profit organizations.
Once we did that, the threat of Sequester disrupting the obviously generally useful things that happen to be socialized in the US makes a lot less sense.
Clearly there are exceptions, true public goods like National Defense and Foreign Relations perhaps. Research is another example. Similarly interest (and principal) on the accumulated debt needs to be handled somehow. Everyone receives “defense services” from the Department of Defense (whether you want it or not), so it needs to be paid for from a general revenue source. But this need not be the same general revenue source as used for income redistribution (like Social Security), or health insurance (like Medicaid or Medicare). In fact it is not. Social Security taxes pay for Social Security. Why should not Defense taxes (e.g. a VAT) pay for Defense. If Congress wants more, it raises the VAT rate associated with Defense, if it wants less, it lowers the rate.
The National Science Foundation similarly should not be subject to the vagaries of annual budgets. Like any good foundation, it should have an endowment, and live off the interest.
Every function would have its own associated source of funds and rates, and would stand or fall on its own merits. Horse trading would still exist, but this notion of cutting useful self-sustainable services as collateral damage for reducing the Defense sector would be eliminated.
In the text of the 2013 State of the Union (via MinnPost), transportation gets an important shout-out, with special attention to Fix-It-First:
“America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs. And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I’ve seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.
Tonight, I propose a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children. Let’s prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let’s start right away.”
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. This deficit is in part due to a prioritization of new projects over care for existing infrastructure and contributes to a higher-cost, lower-return system of investment. This paper proposes a reorganization of our national highway infrastructure priorities to “Fix It First, Expand It Second, and Reward It Third.” 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.
Matt Kahn and I didn’t invent the slogan, it’s been around for a while, though our take is a bit more than a slogan, and more hard core than what was adopted in Map-21 (which does move in the right direction, but not far enough).
Still, not everyone likes the idea, the Public Works Finance, e.g.
“There are certainly problems with the decentralized system. Some Canadians want a national transit agency. Fragmented governance in regions makes coordination difficult, and perhaps a stronger regional agency is needed. Most difficult, perhaps, is that many cities forego transit service all together. The city of Guelph, for instance, has 120,000 people but no bus service. However, eliminating unproductive transit so that resources can be used elsewhere is actually good policy. But by nearly every measure Canadian transport policy outcomes are superior to US outcomes. Whether US transport finance and policy devolves to the states remains to be seen, but it certainly isn’t something that should be dismissed as inferior to what we have now. It may well be better.”
TransLink is the multi-modal transportation organization for Greater Vancouver, BC, and it is unlike what we see in the States. It is in fact, closer to the idea described in Enterprising Roads, a transportation utility with autonomy constrained by oversight.
One of the key points to consider is that metropolitan Vancouver has a transit mode share of 21%, comparable with much larger Toronto and Montreal (though behind metro New York’s 30%, it is well ahead of Seattle’s 9%), despite ranking 34th in population. Some of that has to do with institutional factors and governance.
TransLink describe’s its organization in a long, though well-done and readable, report:
The province agreed to provide six cents of tax room from the provincial fuel tax, which would be a major funding source, and also give the GVTA the parking sales tax revenue. The GVTA would have the ability to generate a steady stream of revenue through levying taxes; however, any increase in taxes would have to first be approved by the GVRD board. The only increase the GVTA could implement on its own was to transit fares.
“You can look at it as if it’s no different from water or sewers, or any other kind of utility,” Cameron said. “So what are the financing principles behind those utilities? They’re user pay, essentially. You use water and sewer revenues to pay for water and sewer services, and the aim was to get transportation services to be autonomous, self-financing, self-constructing utilities.”
Canada should consider exporting this model of governance to the US.
To read the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report is to believe congestion has more than doubled since 1982 (really between 1982 and 2000). From one perspective, of course congestion must have risen, demand (Vehicle Miles Traveled, Population, etc.) increased significantly over this period while supply (Lane Miles of Road Capacity) did not increase at nearly the same rate.
But I was alive in 1982, I was in cars at that age (and driving myself the next year) (in Central Maryland). I remember congestion in the 1980s. To misquote Lloyd Bentsen, “Congestion was a friend of mine”, and TTI seems to be saying to 1982 “You’re no congestion”. But congestion doesn’t seem appreciably different from today. People complained about it then as much as now. Some bottlenecks have been fixed, new ones have emerged.
So I wonder whether congestion did, in fact, “double”.
1. Measurement issues. Continuous roadway travel time measurements were a lot scarcer in the 1980s than today. Freeways now have loop detectors on every segment, whereas there might have been a permanent recording station every 5 or 10 miles in the 1980s, so a lot more had to be estimated and approximated. There are still no good arterial measurements, the most recent Urban Mobility Report uses GPS data from Inrix, and this will clearly come to dominate congestion measures. Notably, including this measurement forced TTI to re-estimate downward their historical congestion measurements.
2. Definition: As noted by Joe Cortright’s report Driven Apart, mobility is not accessibility. A city where I can reach everything in 10 minutes, but travel at 30 MPH (when freeflow is 60 MPH) is more congested than one where I can reach everything in 30 minutes, but can travel at freeflow conditions. The TTI in a sense penalizes efficient land uses.
3. Induced Demand: Highway expansion tends to get used up (this is not a bad thing of itself, just a thing), so much of road expansion gets eaten up in more traffic. Similarly highway reduction reduces travel. Duranton and Turner write “We conclude that an increased provision of roads or public transit is unlikely to relieve congestion.”
This does not explain why congestion is under-estimated in the past though.
4. Congestion vs. Speed: Travel times on journey to work increased only marginally over this period. Average distances for trips rose faster than travel times, indicating average travel speeds increased. So even with increasing congestion, if travelers shifted to relatively faster (e.g. suburb to suburb freeways) from slower (e.g. suburb to city arterials), congestion can rise on each link, but travel speeds still increase. See The Rational Locator for an example of this.
5. Perspective: This previous point about perception can be refamed as one of perspective. There are differences between spatial averages (which TTI uses) and person-based averages (which individual observers perceive). So the person based average for any metropolitan resident may be the same, but the amount of space (network) covered by congestion may increase if the total amount of space which is developed increases. Similarly, if there is peak spreading, congestion occurs over a longer duration.
However, TTI is not simply saying that the amount of area that is congested increased, they are claiming, for Washington DC the delay per person increased from 20 hours per year in 1982 to 74 hours in 2010.
I am willing to believe that with recent measurements, 74 hours per year for an average commuter in DC is plausible in 2010, since that is just under 10 minutes each way each day for 225 work days per year. 10 minutes of delay on a 30 minute commute means the freeflow time on that commute (un-delayed, e.g. Sunday morning) was 20 minutes. This seems about right for the “average” commuter. Rush hour is when everyone has to slow down.
But this implies in 1982 that delay was less than 3 minutes a day per commuter each way. That seems unreasonably small when you think about it, I could have spent 3 minutes at a traffic light in DC at the time, and that certainly constitutes delay. They are saying for every person who had a 10 minute delay, 2 people had 0 delay to get an average 3 minute delay, and that is not the metropolitan Washington I was familiar with. Congestion was sufficiently important than that radio stations had regular traffic reports, and traffic helicopters, it was not something insignificant.
Of course this is impossible to fully validate, as we cannot go back in time and accurately measure speed. The best I could think of was using the Google NGram feature to track mention of some keywords in books. This proves nothing unfortunately, and suggests a small uptick in the word “traffic” in the 1990s, but is interesting none-the-less.
One however can imagine the motivation for wanting congestion to appear lower in the past than it actually was. This means congestion is rising faster, and thus creates a greater claim on the public weal than if congestion were always with us at roughly the same level.
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.