February 2008 Archives

Briefly noted: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, has a Ph.D. in Engineering and Traffic/Transportation Planning.

Central Corridor plan finalized

As suggested earlier on these pages, the approved plan for the Central Corridor is at grade through the University of Minnesota campus, closing Washington Avenue to traffic. See the article in the Pioneer Press:

The line is drawn -

A lot of details still need to be worked out.

Minnesota raises gas tax

From Strib: House overrides governor's veto on transportation bill

From PiPress House votes to override Pawlenty veto of transportation bill

"A $6.6 billion transportation bill is on the verge of becoming law after the Minnesota House voted for the first time to override a veto from Governor Tim Pawlenty."


From PiPress the bill will:
" Raise the gas tax by 8 1/2 cents a gallon by 2014. The increases would be phased in, going up 2 cents next month, another half cent on Aug. 1 and 3 cents on Oct. 1. After that, it would go up half a cent a year for six years.

Some 3 1/2 cents of the gas tax increase would be dedicated to paying the debt service on $2 billion in road and bridge bonds. That part of the tax would expire when the bonds were paid off in 2047.

...

Increase the sales tax in the seven-county metro area by a quarter of a cent to pay for bus and rail transit. The measure would raise the sales tax 0.25 percent to 6.75 percent in suburban cities, 7.25 percent in St. Paul and 7.40 percent in Minneapolis. Advocates said it would double the number of buses in the metro area and ensure construction of the Central Corridor light-rail line between St. Paul and Minneapolis. The bill also adds a $20 sales tax to motor vehicles sold in the metro area.

Outstate counties could impose up to a half-cent sales tax for specific transportation projects if voters approve.

Boost license tab fees on newly purchased cars and trucks. If you keep your current vehicle, your fee would not go up. But if you buy a new car in Minnesota or a used car from another state, you would pay a fee of 1.25 percent of the purchase price. That would be $250 on a $20,000 car. The fee for that car would drop 10 percent a year.

The current maximum tab fee is $189 and drops to $99 the second year the owner has the vehicle. The minimum license tab fee would remain $35.

To offset the gas tax increase, the bill provides a $25 tax credit for low-income taxpayers. The credit would go to single people earning less than $22,390 a year and couples earning less than $32,720. They would not have to own a car to qualify for the credit.

The bill would launch a massive road and bridge construction program. It calls for borrowing $1 billion over the next two years, with $600 million earmarked for repairing or replacing the state's 13 most dangerous bridges. Starting in 2010, it authorizes borrowing $100 million a year for roads and bridges.

The bill also would add 40 troopers to the State Patrol."


... about time. Optimal? No. Satisficing? Yes.

Obama's Transportation Plan is now posted here (pdf).

I quote it in its entirety:

" BARACK OBAMA: STRENGTHENING AMERICA’S TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE


TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE
Strengthen Core Infrastructure: As our society becomes more mobile and interconnected, the need for 21st-century transportation networks has never been greater. However, too many of our nation’s railways, highways, bridges, airports, and neighborhood streets are slowly decaying due to lack of investment and strategic long-term planning. Barack Obama believes that America’s long-term competitiveness depends on the stability of our critical infrastructure. As president, Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority.

Support Amtrak Funding: Barack Obama has been a strong supporter of federal financial support for Amtrak. Obama believes we need to reform Amtrak to improve accountability. In many parts of the country, Amtrak is the only form of reliable transportation. In the U.S. Senate, Obama is a cosponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Innovation Act of 2007, a leading act to provide long-term federal investment to Amtrak. As president, Barack Obama will continue to fight for Amtrak funding and reform so that individuals, families and businesses throughout the country have safe and reliable transportation options.

Support Development of High-Speed Freight and Passenger Rail: Barack Obama supports development of high-speed rail networks across the country. Providing passengers with safe high-speed rail will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation’s transportation infrastructure. Our domestic rail freight capacity must also be strengthened because our demand for rail transportation has never been greater, leaving many key transportation hubs stretched to capacity. Obama is committed to renewing the federal government’s commitment to high speed rail so that our nation’s transportation infrastructure continues to support, and not hinder, our nation’s long-term economic growth.

Strengthen Metropolitan Planning to Cut Down Traffic Congestion: Barack Obama believes we must take steps at the front-end as well as the back-end of the planning process to cut down traffic congestion in our large and medium-size cities. Obama supported a measure authored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) to mandate states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies that incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of sidewalks and roads. As president, Obama will work to provide states and local governments with the resources they need to address sprawl and create more livable communities.

Strengthen Air Transportation in Underserved Areas: Obama has worked across party lines to protect funding for the Essential Air Service program, which provides vital funds for air transportation in rural areas. Obama supports the continuation of the Small Community Air Service Development Program that helps small and mid-sized communities attract new air service, which is critical to local economic development. Obama will work to improve the effectiveness of these programs and increase the availability of rail transportation options for residents of rural communities.

Modernize Infrastructure on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers: Obama strongly supported the Water Resources and Development Act, which will provide funding for modernizing the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers’ system of locks and dams. The bill will also provide funding for environmental restoration along the upper Mississippi. The decay of existing locks and dams has led to stagnating economic development for areas along the river, including Iowa, because of the decreasing ability of farmers and other producers to ship their goods both domestically and internationally. Obama’s work to pass the Water Resources and Development Act has been praised by the National Corn Grower’s Association and the American Soybean Association. As president, Obama will continue to ensure that the federal government invests in upgrading our national transportation infrastructure for agricultural and commercial goods.

Improve Transportation Access to Jobs: Three-quarters of welfare recipients live in areas that are poorly served by public transportation and low-income workers spend up to 36 percent of their incomes on transportation. Barack Obama has spent years working to improve transportation access for low-income Americans. As an Illinois state senator, he was the chief sponsor of the bill that created the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Transportation, a body that was charged with building public-private partnerships to help connect low-income Americans with jobs. As president, Obama will work to eliminate transportation disparities so that all Americans can lead meaningful and productive lives. Obama will double the federal Jobs Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program to ensure that additional federal public transportation dollars flow to the highest-need communities and that urban planning initiatives take this aspect of transportation policy into account. JARC funds have been used to connect low-income workers around the country with job opportunities.

Improve and Modernize Air Traffic Control: Because of an outdated air-traffic control system and overscheduling at airports already operating at full capacity, there were a record number of flight delays during the first half of 2007. Moreover, the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to work well with our nation’s air traffic controllers, neglecting to treat them with the respect they deserve. There are nearly 1,100 fewer air traffic controllers working in U.S. air traffic facilities today than three years ago, despite increasing air traffic.

Obama will work with Congress to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system and he will direct the new FAA Administrator to work cooperatively with the frontline air traffic controllers to restore morale and improve working conditions and operations at the agency.

SAFEGUARD TRANSPORTATION FROM TERRORISM
Protect Transportation Infrastructure from Terrorism: The federal government’s National Asset Database, which is intended to guide homeland security priorities, lists 77,069 potential U.S. targets including petting zoos and popcorn factories. Experts say this database is not useful for homeland security planning. Barack Obama's Department of Homeland Security will develop a meaningful critical infrastructure protection plan across the nation and will work with the private sector to ensure that all high-risk targets are prepared for disasters both natural and man-made.

Bolster Airport Security: Between October 2005 and January 2006, Government Accountability Office investigators were able to smuggle bomb components past federal screeners at all 21 airports they targeted. And airline passengers are still not screened against a comprehensive, accurate terrorist watch list. As a result, almost six years after 9/11, we still have a security system that results in eight-year olds and grandmothers being repeatedly questioned and even stopped from flying. Developing a comprehensive, accurate list must be a priority and used in a way that safeguards passengers' privacy while ensuring the safety of air travel. As a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Barack Obama believes we must redouble our efforts to determine if the measures implemented after 9/11 are adequately addressing the threats our nation continues to face from airplane-based terrorism. Obama has supported increased numbers of federal airport screeners and improved funding for aviation security.


Safeguard Mass Public Transportation: Every weekday, Americans take 34 million trips on public transportation systems to get to work, school and beyond. Even though recent attacks have happened on public transit in Madrid, Mumbai and London, the Bush administration has invested only a small fraction of the $6 billion that transportation officials have said is necessary to implement needed security improvements. Barack Obama believes that this critical hole in our homeland security network must be addressed. He will fight for greater information-sharing between national intelligence agents and local officials and provide local law enforcement agencies with the everyday tools they need to protect their transportation systems. As a U.S. Senator representing Chicago, Illinois, one of the nation’s major rail transportation hubs, Obama has consistently advocated stronger rail and transit security programs. "

Obama's transportation plan is long on "strengthening" "improving" and "modernizing". It is a little short on "funding", or on tying revenue to benefits. As a proponent of transparency in government, Obama should be in favor of direct user charges where possible and against hidden subsidies (which lead to over-consumption and economic externalities).

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.

Minnesotans for Global Warming

M4GW: Minnesotans for Global Warming ... just remember where you stand depends on where you sit.

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.

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

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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.

Another study on Using GPS Mobile Phones as Traffic Sensors, this from Berkeley. See earlier Transportationist post for some discussion of this. Also see Evaluation of Cell Phone Traffic Data, a study underway by my colleague Henry Liu.

1. WiFi trial comes to San Francisco's BART trains

Wireless internet connectivity could give transit a major boost over driving (surfing and driving don't mix). Especially on transit systems geared to the upper middle classes like commuter rail. Wifi on bus might not have the same appeal.

2. Contactless payment trial goes live on San Francisco's BART

Of course other cities have had this for years in Japan, and this improves upon contact-based systems like Octopus in Hong Kong, Oyster in London, by using cell phones. Unfortunately there are no standards for using cell phones for contactless payment in the US, so while it is technologically feasible, it might not be adopted due to a lack of standardization.

Apparently, a number of important internet backbone cables serving India and Iran have been severed recently: It's 2008 -- Do You Know Where Your Internet Cables Are?.

This is similar in structure to highway network links being severed, except imagine there were only 3 links into the country, and they all failed in one week. Might this be Non-random?

3D London Tube Map

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Londonist: 3D London Tube Map (using Google maps and a geographically accurate map).

Legible London

Via diamond geezer: Legible London is an attempt to create a standardized pedestrian navigation system for central London, replacing and improving upon the 33! existing systems. It is an interesting read (pdf) and I think would be valuable in places not quite as complicated as London (i.e. almost everywhere except Tokyo, and may be there too).

By making walking easier, the planners hope to reduce reliance on public transport, which is excessively congested, in part due to the schematic tube map which distorts distances.

If they are successful, they may create a system as iconic as the Underground maps and logo.

Of course the trick with any of these things is not just first installation, but keeping the system live, rather than just a decaying artifact from 2007. But it would seem quite valuable, it just has no source of income for support. (advertising or sponsorship would be a natural, but would be potentially be an ugly blight).

A camera to catch HOV lane cheaters

From the Evening Standard: Camera that can catch lone drivers in car-sharing lanes.

This has always been a difficult problem for authorities, as enforcement has in the past required human eyeballs. Researchers have experiment with infra-red to determine the heat profile inside the car, but that was apparently problematic. But in the home of the panopticon, cameras (with appropriate recognition systems) will be able to identify the number (and apparently race) of passengers in the vehicle.

Do it yourself traffic engineering

Via Boing-boing, a man who decided to roll his own ... Man Jailed For Creating Crosswalk, Vows More

"MUNCIE, Ind. -- Whitney Stump didn't like watching drivers ignore the stop signs at the intersection outside his home, so he asked the city to paint crosswalks there.
When the city said no, he made one himself. And the city wasn't appreciative."


David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

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