Congratulations to Kristin Carlson for successfully defending her MS Thesis: “Accessibility Impacts of Bus Access to Managed Lanes” at the University of Minnesota Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering on August 22, 2017. The thesis will be made publicly available soon.
This research introduces a method to measure changes in transit accessibility resulting from adjustments in bus-highway interactions. Operational differences between general purpose (GP) and managed lanes (ML) are measured using average travel time. Changes to transit travel time are systematically introduced to General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data through the use of the StopTimesEditor computer program developed for the purpose of this analysis. The methodology is tested on two express bus routes in the Minneapolis – St. Paul region (Twin Cities). The change in operating speed along portions of the selected transit routes is translated to changes in the job accessibility of the surrounding communities. The percent change in the worker-weighted average job accessibility for the area surrounding the transit routes and for the entire metropolitan region are 12% and 0.25% respectively. The methods introduced in this study can be used to evaluate the accessibility impacts of different highway operating environments for buses, or estimate the accessibility outcomes of different bus-highways scenarios.
The Cahill Expressway in Sydney, the city’s first expressway, opened in 1958, connecting the Eastern suburbs to the Harbour Bridge. After the Harbour Tunnel opened in 1992, traffic was halved, the section’s Eason or being eliminated. Looking at a map, you can see the Harbour Tunnel and Harbour Bridge approaches join north of the Harbour, and basically form an upside-down V-shape, with the Circular Quay section forming a cross, the segment turning the upside-down V into an A.
Traffic counts for the Cahill Expressway at Circular Quay are given for 2012 as about 20000 average annual daily traffic in each direction. While certainly non-trivial, this is also not a lot for two lanes in each direction, equivalent to a four-lane arterial. And when the system is working, all of this traffic has alternative routes, as the route is topologically similar to the classic Braess Paradox.
The Braess Paradox observes that under certain circumstances an additional link increases total travel time, and is dysfunctional, because of the difference between the costs that travellers pay and the costs they impose by congesting others. While it is hard to prove such cases in the real world, there is no reason for this link to exist in the post-Tunnel configuration except as a backup when the Harbour Tunnel is closed or constricted to divert traffic to the Harbour Bridge.
If this section of the Cahill were to be removed, many of its access and egress links could be removed as well, creating additional space and sunlight in the constricted central business district. Southbound traffic would decide north of Sydney whether to diverge for the East or West and then take the Bridge or Tunnel, with no recourse except for city streets. Northbound traffic from the East would take the tunnel to cross the Harbour or exit onto city streets. The operators of the tunnel should be pleased.
Suppose the Circular Quay section were closed. The expressway lies on the upper deck of a double-deck elevated structure, with an elevated railway (the under-rated John Bradfield‘s City Circle, completed in 1956) immediately below. So the whole structure cannot easily come down. Instead the expressway deck can be repurposed, much like New York’s High Line and other infrastructure reuse projects, as a pedestrian overlook (there is already a sidewalk) on the north side, with the south side hosting restaurants and open-air cafes with a gorgeous view of the Harbour.* I am sure urban designers could come up with some lovely watercolour renderings.
While all of this undoubtedly requires study and many, many consultant contracts, it is really easy to test the actual traffic effects (and would make a nice Master’s Thesis project). Close the ramps for a few weeks “for repairs”. This must happen from time-to-time anyway. Perhaps there is a ‘natural experiment’ coming up, or recently passed, when this happened. Monitor traffic elsewhere in the system. Evaluate the consequences.
The hypothesis is that traffic conditions are no worse overall (system travel time is unchanged or lower), though selected links may in fact be worse off while others are improved. Given the reduction in merges and diverges, I suspect more links are improved than worsened.
If this hypothesis is borne out, there is less total travel (fewer vehicle kilometres traveled) in the city, travel is faster, and most travellers are better off.
In recent decades there has been a trend for cities to close obsolete freeway sections. San Francisco famously took down the Embarcadero Freeway for instance, opening up the waterfront. Seoul removed the Cheongyecheon freeway and restored a river. There have been others. While removal of this section of the Cahill is not likely to have the same effects, as the elevated railway will remain, it still could be beneficial. Proposals to demolish the entire Cahill, which bisects major parks the Botanical Gardens and the Domain have also been discussed, though burying them under air rights park seems a far simpler and less controversial proposal, and less like to strand the Harbour Tunnel.
Update July 28: A reader writes:
I think you are seriously wrong about the Cahill Expressway and its utility.
It is effectively the artery that feeds and drains the eastern side of the CBD for we who live on the north side (and who I might add paid for it!) and without it the eastern side of the CBD would be near impossible if not extremely inconvenient to access. It cannot be accessed from the tunnel and otherwise requires traversing the city not fun normally and a nightmare right now.
And I think it is a lot prettier – if that can ever be used about 1950’s engineering – than the much loved EL in Chicago and other insertions into older cities to make them work.
And you can at the very least watch the NYE fireworks from it! Or pre 911 you could.
– apart from anything else it is part of JJC Bradfield legacy and that is by popular consensus untouchable!
I am referring only to the section on Circular Quay. How hard would it be to connect Bridge Street only to the tunnel? I know everything takes too long and costs too much, but I bet with a concerted effort, if there weren’t any significant underground utilities, this would be under a month. This configuration is only the way it is for historic reasons (the Bridge was first), no one would configure it that way now.
A better argument for keeping it might be that the Harbour Tunnel is more congested than the Bridge. But surely they are in equilibrium because traffic has sorted itself out, and will do so with any other change, and road changes would be reflected in different effective catchment areas and changed patterns (longer distance trips might use the bridge to the Western Distributor to the Cross City Tunnel instead of the Harbour tunnel for instance. And with all of the development going west of the city (rather than East, where the Ocean lies), shouldn’t traffic from the east be steered away from the Bridge toward the Tunnel)
Now I guess Kirribilli is more difficult to access via the Tunnel than the Bridge, but isn’t that what the ferry is for?
Of course the irony of Bridge Street leading to the tunnel is also a worthwhile reason.
I will leave the aesthetics to the eye of the beholder, but the structure wouldn’t fully come down unless there was a solution for the trains.
* A single lane passage for emergency vehicle could be maintained if necessary.
I recently had dinner with Fred Salvucci in Santiago Chile, among other topics, he talked about complaints about environmental regulation. He made a point any queueing theorist could appreciate. He argued that environment regulations are not slowing down transportation projects as a whole. There is only so much federal (and state) funding, and that is the real bottleneck. Loosening environmental regulations will not make any more projects get built in any given year.
He adds ” A further concern that I have is that many DOTs are most concerned with maximizing construction volume, so are likely tempted to skew their candidate projects towards the simpler to get through the environmental process. These projects may actually be the least important ones to actually implement, so there is likely a perverse outcome in terms of project portfolio.”
Of course it may affect the sequence of projects, projects with more environmental problems, or more social impacts which induce well-heeled people to use environmental regulations as a roadblock, may get deferred for simpler projects without such problems. But shouldn’t they in a functioning democracy?
If environmental costs are real, and we think they are, that should make projects more expensive in order to ameliorate such costs, either through avoidance of creating the damages in the first place, or compensating the losers. This higher costs reduces the number of projects that can be done with the money. So it goes. All the low hanging fruit was eaten years ago.
If those projects still pass a Benefit / Cost test after amelioration, then sure, build them. That is of course less likely than if transport investments export environmental costs to the health sector or agriculture, or property values, or anywhere else that it is not properly accounted for.
Google has been secretly working on a car. We knew that they were working on autonomous vehicles, but they have also been redesigning the car for an autonomous world and came up with a pod car. The design will be familiar with those who have been following Personal Rapid Transit, though an important difference is that it is in principle trackless (or rather the entire road network has been sufficiently mapped in detail so the whole world is track, rather than bespoke track).
The promotional video is below:
The newest vehicle is designed for slow speed (25 MPH) on campuses, and is especially light. The low mass is important as it saves energy but also causes less damage when it accidentally hits something or someone. Combining the low mass with the lower likelihood of a crash at low speed will magnify its safety advantage for non-occupants in this environment compared with faster heavier vehicles (which privilege the safety of the vehicle occupants).
While I had been assuming the first market for autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles would be the relatively controlled environment of the freeway, the relatively controlled environment of low-speed places makes sense as well. These are two different types of vehicles (high speed freeway vs. low speed neighborhood), and though they may converge, there is no guarantee they will, and perhaps today’s converged multi-purpose vehicle will instead diverge.
There has long been discussion of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, ranging from golf carts to something larger, which are in use in some communities, particularly southwestern US retirement complexes. In Sun City, Arizona, for instance, people use the golf cart not just for golfing, but for going to the clubhouse or local stores.
They can do this because local streets are set with low speed limits, and there are special paths where they are not.
How many places already fit this bill:
Neighborhoods in master planned communities
Note that many of these places have gotten a bad rap from the current flavor of urban planning which decries non-gridded networks. However keep in mind that non-grids have the advantage of discourage through traffic. Perhaps roads are too wide or too fast in these places, but that is much easier to fix through traffic calming than a too connected network.
We will not only be able to deal with such ideal places. We will also need to do retrofits.
How many places could fit this bill:
Cities designed before the automobile, where the grid can be retrofitted to disallow high-speed traffic
Anywhere there is space to retrofit a slow network in parallel with the existing fast network
So will people buy such cars with limited speed? Many will as a second or third vehicle, as they already do with golf carts. The arguments are very similar to those about electric vehicles.
The opportunity arises with Cloud Commuting, when such cars, as they are autonomous, come to you. They will be dispatched when they are practical for the trip at hand, which may either be a short distance within a `slow space place’, or can travel along a `slow path’ between nearby places.
This slow path is of course faster than bike paths and sidewalks, but slower than Principal Arterials and freeways.
Retrofitting cities for transportation has a long history, cities and transportation co-evolve. We redesigned our cities, which had originally emerged with human and animal powered transportation, first for streetcars, and then for the automobile, and in some larger cities for subways. We have also redesigned our taller buildings for escalators and elevators.
We have already differentiated speed on links, and setting speed limits is one of the key jobs of the traffic engineer in ensuring safety. This is not only on the link in question, but important for other links as well. Travelers shifted away from freeways and onto less safe rural roads when the speed limit was set to 55 MPH in the 1970s, and back when it was raised in the 1980s, improving overall safety, though not necessarily safety on the freeways themselves (See Lave and Elias 1994).
As part of an expansive budget bill signed into law last week, state lawmakers nudged transportation officials to boost the speed limit to 60 miles per hour on lane miles where it can “reasonably and safely” be done. By 2019, traffic engineers must examine every mile of road with a 55 mph limit and determine if it is prudent to go higher.
It’s an enormous undertaking. There are 6,771 miles on two-lane/two-way state highways now covered by a 55 mph limit. Officials figure they’ll get through about one-fifth per year, starting as soon as next month. They will analyze each stretch’s crash history, design, lane width, sight lines and ditch slope.
“The fact we’re studying the roads does not mean you can jump to the conclusion that all roads will be raised to 60 miles per hour,” said Peter Buchen, assistant state traffic engineer at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
But the agency has been moving in that direction. In 2005, the department bumped the limit to 60 mph on 791 miles of two-lane highways and added another 750 miles last year. Buchen said those were prime candidates — straight, wide-open stretches with clear sight lines and low incidence of crashes. He said limits on hillier, curvier highways probably won’t budge.
So I will posit several Axioms about transportation
Axiom 1: Some roads should be fast – The aim of transportation is connecting people with destinations. They can connect with more destinations if they can do so in less time. Ceteris paribus, faster roads will take less time.
Axiom 2: Some roads should be slow – Some roads serve neighborhoods and have traffic that is not just motor vehicles. Ceteris paribus, slower roads are more likely to ensure safety, a high quality of life, and increased interaction within the neighborhood. Without loss of generality, let’s call these roads streets.
Axiom 3: Fast roads attract traffic from slow roads – In general, people prefer to spend less time traveling, and will spend less time on faster roads. These roads will attract more people. There will be net reductions in traffic on streets that are made slower and net increases in traffic on roads that are made faster.
We thus should redesign our road hierarchy with these axioms and the possibility of slow vehicles becoming mainstream, developing a slow network so that these neighborhood vehicles cannot not only travel within neighborhoods or on campuses, but between them.
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.”
I had a media inquiry a year ago on “Why we become such bad drivers when it snows”, I didn’t take it, but the question is interesting in a sense. Unlike the rain in southern California, it always snows in Central Minnesota, so this is a recurring question.
Several things happen when it snows:
1. Roads are slipperier and require longer braking distances. People recognize that roads are slipperier and give increased spacing (following headway in the jargon) to the car in front. Instead of following at a 2 second headway (remember the 2 second rule from Driver’s Ed), they may follow at a 3 second headway. Since there are 3600 seconds in an hour, a 2 second headway implies 1800 vehicles per hour (traffic engineers will note of course that capacities per lane on freeways are often greater than this in good conditions, implying a shorter than 2 second headway). A three second headway implies a service flow or capacity (Qmax) of 1200 vehicles per hour. If the underlying demand (those who want to use the bottleneck at that time) remains unchanged at 1800 vph (say it snowed surprisingly in the middle of the day), then instead of serving 1800 cars, a bottleneck would serve only 1200 in an hour. This implies a queue 600 cars long. That is non-trivial.
2. Roads are slipperier. People recognize that roads are slipperier and drive slower to reduce braking distances, especially on roads which curve.
Kyte et al. “The effects of poor weather conditions on free-flow speed on a rural Interstate freeway are considered. It was found that free-flow speed is affected by pavement conditions, visibility, and wind speeds. It is also suggested that poor weather conditions occur with some degree of frequency in a number of U.S. cities and that the effects of poor weather should be considered in such cases as part of capacity and level-of-service analyses.”
3. Roads are slipperier. People insufficiently recognize that roads are slipperier and instead of giving increased spacing choose to crash into the vehicle in front of them. This temporarily reduces capacity to zero as the drivers sort out the situation.
Khattak and Knaap “significant increase was observed when winter snow event injury and noninjury crash rates (crashes per million vehicle kilometers) were compared with equivalent winter nonsnow event injury and noninjury crash rates. The data were then analyzed for injury occurrence. Results of a logit model indicated that crash injury occurrence on Interstate highways in Iowa depended on traffic, road geometry, and number of vehicles involved in a crash. Another finding from the logit model was that crashes during snow events were less injurious compared with equivalent nonsnow event crashes. Snow event–specific crash data were then analyzed to study the effects of snow event elements (e.g., snowfall intensity) on injury occurrence in vehicular crashes.”
4. Snow does in fact reduce demand. People choose not to go out when it snows. Arthur Huang and I conducted some research on Minnesota travel patterns statewide and found these elasticities (so if it snows, there is a 5.9% reduction in demand and 63.9% increase in crashes in the 3am to 9am time period). The reduction in demand seems to be less than the reduction in capacity, so queueing increases on roads at or near capacity in the absence of snow.
9pm – 12am
A. Huang, D. Levinson / Journal of Safety Research 41 (2010) 513–520
Others have found significant results as well:
Datla and Sharma “The commuter roads experience lowest reductions in traffic volume due to cold (up to 14%) while the recreational roads experience highest reduction (up to 31%). Impact of cold on off-peak hours (-10% to -15%) is generally higher than peak hours (-6% to -10%) for commuter roads and an opposite pattern is observed for recreational roads (peak hour reductions of 30–58% and off-peak hour reductions of 18–30%). A clear indication of reduction in traffic volume due to snow is also observed for all types of highways.”
So I wouldn’t say we become bad drivers. We are bad drivers, we just reveal it when the environment changes to the unexpected.
(This presents one more argument for robot cars. They can’t overcome the physics of braking distance or eliminate congestion, but they can in principle better assess road conditions and be less likely to crash.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
“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.”