February 2011 Archives

Some links:

Some links to articles about our recent Brookings report:

Fix It First

The local policy shop Growth and Justice has a well-informed policy brief: Shifting Gears to Ease Congestion: Improving Travel and Travel Choices in the Twin Cities Area

There are a few key points: despite congestion, the Twin Cities has shorter than average commute durations; money should be spent on repair and preservation more than new capacity; support managed lanes to give travelers reliable choices; and allow development to build more densely; accelerate transit investments.

The long version of the report is here.


Rutherford's Den

In the wake of the recent tragic Earthquake, I posted our photos taken in Christchurch in 2004, when we visited for the second International Symposium on Transportation Network Reliability: MobileMe Gallery - New Zealand - Christchurch: ""

We really liked the place, it seemed to represent the idealized (and ideal) English small town, and of course hope they recover quickly.

Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third: A New Strategy for America's Highways - Brookings Institution by Matthew E. Kahn, Professor of Economics, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and
David M. Levinson, RP Braun/CTS Chair in Transportation, University of Minnesota

Abstract: 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.

Read the full discussion paper
Read the brief

Tim Lee on congestion prices

Tim Lee on congestion prices

This is a useful perspective, though not quite right, for a variety of reasons; among them the idea that roads only are paid for once, forgetting maintenance and reconstruction costs.

He also uses supermarket lines as the metaphor, but forgets time of day pricing in movies, restaurants, transit, and other transportation services.

He is right about about public skepticism though.

Blue Ribbon Transportation

Maryland's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding issued its report (pdf) last week. It was chaired by my former boss Gus Bauman.

Maryland's highly-regarded transportation network is the lifeblood of the State, directly affecting every citizen and the essential viability of our economy. Yet the State's transportation system finds itself on the verge of financial collapse unless action is taken now to change course for a new, more secure, heading.

We must put the trust back in the Transportation Trust Fund. And we must replenish the depleted coffers of the Trust Fund. We cannot accomplish the latter without also accomplishing the former. They are inextricably linked -- without re-establishing public trust in the inviolability of the Trust Fund, there will be little faith by the public that raising revenues for its transportation needs will correspondingly address those needs as promised.

I think this is critical for the future of transportation in the US. Trust funds comprised of user fees need to be dedicated to transportation. Transportation, like other public utilities, should be funded by those who benefit. If it is publicly operated, those user fees are sometimes called taxes (motor fuel taxes) or tolls, but they are no different in function than the water bill, electric bill, or natural gas bill, which charge according to use. It would be a mistake to conflate transportation funding with other aspects of government, which are also important, but whose benefits are distributed across the whole population and cannot be associated with users or direct beneficiaries. It would probably be helpful in this regard if DOTs were instead called Transportation Utilities or Road Authorities, and considered separate from the general budget.

Taxing gasoline is often seen as a nice revenue source for governments, especially in other countries. From a fund-raising perspective, gasoline consumption has some nice properties, it is especially inelastic to changes in price, demand drops only a little when prices rise a lot, and the transaction costs of collection are very low (you only need to check the refineries not each gas pump).

I don't object to using gasoline taxes as a way of internalizing the air pollution externality, (and discouraging pollution), as it is a convenient tax with low collection costs, whose use is roughly proportional to pollution and carbon emissions. So long as this pollution and carbon tax is dedicated to reversing the pollution and health damages caused by burning fuels, this is just another user fee, in this case paying for the use of clean air and good health that are inputs to transportation. The amount of this tax is debatable, in the US it is surely too low now (about 0, since the existing taxes largely go to infrastructure), while in some European countries it might be too high (considering the amount of gas tax above and beyond what is spent on highway infrastructure may more than pay for the environmental and health effects). Carbon taxes have not yet been an easy sell in the US, but perhaps as part of a more general reform, where the funds from the tax are coupled with many other changes, this has possibilities, and if it can be shown these taxes are dedicated to some necessary service (paying for the related costs of environmental cleanup e.g.)

Further, gasoline should not be exempted from general sales or value added taxes, otherwise you have a cross-subsidy to motorists from the general population, lowering the general cost of consuming auto travel relative to other types of consumption.

But for general revenue, it is unreasonable to have a special tax on transportation fuels (after the pollution/health tax). The logic is sometimes put that gasoline taxes can operate as a 'sin' tax (like those on tobacco or alcohol). But if the pollution and health tax is accounted for and the money just goes to general revenue (or has sometimes been proposed, social security), you are asking for a subset of the population to pay extra for services they do not receive extra of.

I should also note, in Maryland's report there is a shout out to Value Capture, on which I and colleagues Adeel Lari and Jerry Zhao gave some advice to the state last summer:

4. Value Capture. Value capture refers to a funding mechanism in which increases in private land values generated by a new public investment, such as a transportation system investment, are at least partially "captured" through a land related tax or special assessment. The Commission will seek to better understand the ability to implement value capture approaches in Maryland and their funding potential.

Our new Brookings report (available tomorrow) makes the Economix blog of the New York Times:

Fix Old Roads, Instead of Constructing New Ones, Report Urges - NYTimes.com

February 24, 2011, 3:50 PM
Fix It and They Will Come
On Friday morning, the Hamilton Project will release a few new proposals for helping fiscally struggling state and local governments keep their roads, bridges and other infrastructure in decent shape. One of the proposals fits a theme I've been writing about recently: making government programs less wasteful.

This proposal comes from Matthew Kahn of the University of California, Los Angeles, and David Levinson of the University of Minnesota. The title summarizes it: "Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third."

Mr. Kahn and Mr. Levinson call on the federal government to devote its current funding for highways to repair, rather than to the construction of new highways. As they note, the reverse happens all too often:

The way the federal government allocates money for transportation infrastructure investments is one reason why the United States is experiencing a maintenance shortfall and falling returns on new investment. Federal highway infrastructure spending is allocated based on a series of subjective criteria that typically do not require any stringent analysis of expected benefits versus costs. Because there is often public pressure to build new projects using scarce funds, adding capacity often comes at the expense of supporting and enhancing existing infrastructure.

We build roads we don't need instead of fixing aging roads that we do need. The Kahn-Levinson solution would force state and local governments to spend their federal dollars on repair and to raise money from investors for new construction.

New roads would have to be able to pay for themselves -- "through direct user charges and by capturing some of the increase in land values near transportation improvements" -- or investors wouldn't finance them. A newly created Federal Highway Bank would serve as an intermediary between the investors and the state and local governments.

Finally, roads that exceeded expectations -- were completed ahead of schedule, for instance, or reduced traffic more than expected -- would be eligible for a federal interest-rate subsidy, through the highway bank.

The idea strikes me as promising. The big question, it seems, is how Congress can be persuaded to get out of the business of shiny new roads and concentrate instead on the unglamorous repair work.

The Hamilton Project -- which is a branch of the Brookings Institution and tends to be filled with once and future Democratic policy makers -- will host an event on Friday to discuss its new proposals.

Ars Technica on Calling all cars: cell phone networks and the future of traffic describing the Mobile Millennium project at Berkeley.

Brookings Institution will be hosting an event on State Roads to Economic Recovery: Policies, Pavements, and Partnerships - Brookings Institution.

Event Information
When Friday, February 25, 2011 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM
Where Falk Auditorium
The Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

As the U.S. economy begins a slow climb to recovery, state and local governments are still reeling from the impact of the Great Recession. Revenues have plunged while the demand for key state and local services has soared. Meanwhile, unemployment remains stubbornly high.

On Friday, February 25, The Hamilton Project and the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings will host a forum on state strategies that can help close budget deficits while also growing state economies and creating much-needed jobs. Brookings Vice President Bruce Katz will moderate a panel of policy experts and state leaders, including former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, now a senior fellow at Brookings, and Michael Finney, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The panel will discuss a range of fiscally responsible policy ideas to build the foundation for the next economy.

A second panel of economic experts, moderated by Hamilton Project Director Michael Greenstone, will discuss three new policy proposals to help state and local governments invest more efficiently in infrastructure to promote their long-term economic competitiveness. These papers provide a new approach to arranging public private partnerships to create greater public value and reduce risks; a reorganization of our national highway infrastructure priorities; and the establishment of a not-for-profit, independent advisory firm that would help reduce borrowing costs for municipalities and increase returns for investors. Former Under Secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation Tyler Duvall will serve as a discussant for the proposals.

I will not be at the event in person, though I will be there in spirit and online, while Matt Kahn presents our joint paper, which is almost ready to be released.

(This is probably the most important work ever to be written on highway finance by two authors who walk to work).

From AP Fla. scraps high-speed rail plan pushed by Obama

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott canceled plans for a high-speed train line between Orlando and Tampa promoted by President Barack Obama, saying Wednesday it would cost the state too much even with $2.4 billion in federal help.

Cost overruns could put Florida on the hook for another $3 billion and once completed, there's a good chance ridership won't pay for the operating cost, meaning the state would have to pump more money into the line each year, Scott said.

"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," the Republican governor said in a press release issued after he informed U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood of his decision.

It seems the federal government is having money "giving away" money for high speed rail. The federal government really should have focused on the Northeast Corridor, where it at least has a fighting chance.

Time, Travel, and Traffic

Levinson : Warren Lecture Series: Time, Travel, and Traffic

Time, its perception, and its valuation are central to traveler decision-making. This presentation reports on a series of experiments and analyses to uncover how individual travelers value and perceive time under alternative conditions. Using data from stated preference studies, driving simulators, field experiments, and revealed choice monitored using GPS, we are able to ascertain differences in valuation of time and errors in the perception of travel time that affect behavior and may explain some of the difficulties in modeling human behavior and challenge underlying but unvalidated assumptions.

This was live last Friday (Feb 11, 2011), a replay will be available here soon.

The slides can be downloaded.

WaPo reports on a Rockefeller Foundation survey: Americans rank transportation needs high but don't want to pay the costs

The Rockefeller Foundation infrastructure survey found ... Seventy-one percent opposed a gas tax increase, 64 percent were against new tolls on existing roads and bridges, and 58 percent said no to paying for each mile they drive.

While 66 percent said they thought spending on infrastructure is important, the same number of those surveyed said the government didn't spend transportation money efficiently.

In other news, people want both a free lunch and a free ride. This is the problem with opinion polls, the choices need to be spelled out, e.g.

Which would you rather have: roads with 2 more potholes per mile, or a 5c/gallon increase in the gas tax.

Which would you rather have, a 1 percent chance the bridge you are on will collapse in the next year, or a 5c /gallon increase in the gas tax.

This is called stated preference analysis, and it is used in serious research.

Then people could make choices about the value of the risk and inconvenience before them. Otherwise of course people oppose taxes, and of course people don't trust other people to spend their money.

sorting out rail-bus differences

Jarrett Walker writes in the Human Transit blog about: sorting out rail-bus differences

Claims for the intrinsic superiority of rail over buses often arise from people's actual experience of using the rail and bus systems in a particular city. In these situations, you're not comparing the intrinsic benefits of rail technology with the intrinsic features of bus technology. You're comparing a particular rail system against a particular bus system. Obviously, those two systems are different for many reasons other than the rail-bus difference. But it's easy to assume that the rail-bus difference necessarily implies all the differences that you experience between your own rail and bus options where you live.

In 2009, the popular American weblog the Infrastructurist asked its readers whether streetcars are better than buses, and why. Readers came up with 36 reasons, which formed a good summary of popular perceptions about the rail-bus distinction.

Of the 36 reasons, only six refer to an intrinsic difference between bus and rail technologies. All the others fall into two categories, which I'll call misidentified differences and cultural feedback effects.

Read the whole post ...

A really cool animation of Auckland's transit network using Google Transit Feed data.

An animated map of Auckland's public transport network from Chris McDowall on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Pat Doyle of the Star Tribune for an article on High Speed Rail. For some reason, I don't see it there, (and I don't get the paper), but it did show up in the Grand Forks Herald: Plans for Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed train hit speed bump

MINNEAPOLIS - Prospects for a high-speed train between the Twin Cities and Chicago in the foreseeable future have disappeared, the casualty of funding shortfalls and political priorities.

The refusal of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to accept federal money to build a link in the line "does kill it ... at least for the short term," said Jerry Miller, chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission. "We could be talking 10 to 15 years."

But transportation officials in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the federal government are continuing to work on proposals for a high-speed line, committing $1.2 million to plan possible routes in case prospects improve over the next few years.

While Minnesota says a system could be running by 2017, there is no indication that enough federal or state money will be available to make it happen.

After 15 years of pursuing high-speed rail from the Twin Cities to Chicago, advocates are focusing immediate attention on simply upgrading existing Amtrak service by adding a daily train or nudging up speeds.

The dashed prospects for high speed come as President Obama vowed in last month's State of the Union address to make it available to 80 percent of Americans by 2035.

Obama dedicated $8 billion in stimulus money for high speed -- defined as 110 miles per hour or faster. But Walker's decision to reject $810 million of it to build a link between Milwaukee and Madison resulted in those funds being re-routed to other projects. Walker said the line would have cost Wisconsin millions to operate.

"It pretty much kills it until he's no longer governor, for starters," said David Levinson, a professor with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. "Even if he's no longer governor, the federal government might not be interested in funding high-speed rail at that point. ... I don't know if that window will ever come back."

Advocates aren't giving up.

"We're not dead," said Dan Krom, who directs Minnesota's passenger rail program and has worked for more than a decade on high-speed rail. Wisconsin's rejection of federal money "doesn't stop our work in getting to Chicago."

It takes several years to select a route and complete engineering work, he said, and "administrations can change."

Others moving ahead

While the Twin Cities-to-Chicago project has stalled, other regions are moving ahead. Illinois is using $1.1 billion in federal money to begin building high-speed from Chicago to St. Louis. California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to help finance a San Diego-to-Sacramento line.

America 2050, a coalition of regional planners and academics supported by foundations, last month ranked urban corridors on their suitability for high-speed trains. It considered population, employment, transit ridership, air ridership and highway congestion in scoring the corridors.

The Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked fourth in the Great Lakes Region, behind Chicago-Milwaukee, Chicago-Indianapolis and Chicago-Detroit, but ahead of the Chicago-St. Louis line under construction.

"The Chicago-Minneapolis corridor may have the edge, because of the larger air market and the strength of ridership on the Milwaukee-Chicago section of the corridor," the study said.

Nationwide, the Twin Cities-Chicago corridor ranked 23rd out of 86 corridors, outscored by many routes in the northeast and in California.

In an effort to gauge business support for high-speed rail, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce asked members if they supported the Milwaukee-to-Madison link as part of a system "connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities." They split, 214-214, on the question.

"There was no solid way to push," said Timothy Sheehy, president of the association.

Cost concerns

"We vehemently oppose the Milwaukee-to-Madison line," said Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie. While not commenting on whether the governor might ever support a Twin Cities-Chicago line, Werwie said, "We cannot saddle our taxpayers with another ongoing operating-subsidy cost."

Krom acknowledges that operating costs are a challenge, with gasoline taxes designated for highways. "They don't have a sustainable funding source," he said of high-speed lines.

Wisconsin already faces a projected $3.6 billion budget gap and Minnesota faces a $6.2 billion deficit.

A line between Chicago and the Twin Cities running at speeds of 110 miles per hour could cost $1 billion to $4 billion to build. But a 200 mph system that would be an alternative to air travel could cost $25 billion to $30 billion.

"Nobody wants to spend money because of the deficit, ... and these services don't pay for themselves, unfortunately," the U's Levinson said.

But Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, says high-speed transportation will save energy and serve "a more mobile workforce ... making cities and regions more attractive to young people.

"These are long-term, expensive projects that do require a far-reaching vision about what we want to be."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Matt Yglesias writes about Adventures in Occupational Licensing: North Carolina Traffic Engineering Edition

He writes:

I'm assuming this effort to deploy occupational licensing law to harras someone isn't going to hold up, but maybe I'm wrong:

After an engineering consultant hired by the city said that the signals were not needed, Cox and the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners' Associations responded with a sophisticated analysis of their own.

The eight-page document with maps, diagrams and traffic projections was offered to buttress their contention that signals will be needed at the Falls of Neuse at Coolmore Drive intersection and where the road meets Tabriz Point / Lake Villa Way.

It did not persuade Kevin Lacy, chief traffic engineer for the state DOT, to change his mind about the project. Instead, Lacy called on a state licensing agency, the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors, to investigate Cox.

As ever, it's important to distinguish this from a law against fraud. Obviously people shouldn't be allowed to misstate their credentials, be they engineering credentials or whatever. But nobody's alleging fraud here:

Cox has not been accused of claiming that he is an engineer. But Lacy says he filed the complaint because the report "appears to be engineering-level work" by someone who is not licensed as a professional engineer.

Essentially the work is too good for a non-engineer to be allowed to produce.

Distance discount rate


From TechCrunch Distance discount rate (a gravity model by any other name still smells as sweet).

It seems people report a high value of time.

- dml

Snow (1963)

A scored 8 minute film about British railway and snow. Discussion here

H/T Metafilter

The report from an AASHTO conference this past September is now out: The Forum On Funding And Financing Solutions For Surface Transportation In The Coming Decade Conference Report (pdf)

The problem is laid out, some solutions are offered. I have a bit in there on value capture.

From search engine land ... Google: Bing Is Cheating, Copying Our Search Results

"Google has run a sting operation that it says proves Bing has been watching what people search for on Google, the sites they select from Google's results, then uses that information to improve Bing's own search listings. Bing doesn't deny this."

Corporate cheating like this is common. I have heard that McDonald's spent a lot of time determining where to open up a restaurant, while Burger King just found a property near McDonald's. This is a leader/follower game. In this case however, Google made some intentionally absurd search queries and results to trap Bing, and Bing fell for the trap, as if McDonald's had built in Potemkin Village, and Burger King followed.

Transportation has had similar copy-cat experiences, consider the number of trans-continental railroads in the United States built in the 19th century. Or copy-cat car designs. In this case the copying occurred without any human check on the output, which is what makes it more interesting.

I have had students plagiarize before, some so badly they left the copyright symbol on their cut-and-paste masterpiece. I guess Microsoft was too lazy to do the real work of designing in a search engine that produced good results, so they just copied someone else's.

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

View David Levinson's profile on LinkedIn

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