December 17, 2009

Washington Avenue Bridge to receive $56 million re-decking

From Finance and Commerce Washington Avenue Bridge to receive $56 million re-decking to prepare it for Central Corridor LRT.

A major question remains unanswered. Why is it being kept open to traffic while construction is underway? Construction would be shorter, safer, and probably cheaper if the whole thing were closed. No traffic catastrophe would ensue, as the unexpected closure of the I-35W bridge and the planned closure of Mn36 showed, and it would be a good test of whether it could be permanently shut to auto traffic after Central Corridor opens on Washington Mall.

At least they are designing for 3 car trains, which the rest of the corridor seems not to be, lest the cost effectiveness index somehow slip.

December 9, 2009

Most Intelligent City


What U.S. city has the most intelligent citizens? According to Travel + Leisure's 2009 America's Favorite Cities Survey, the answer is simple: Minneapolis-St. Paul.

December 7, 2009

Cities along Northstar corridor wait for development

Cities along Northstar corridor wait for development by Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio December 7, 2009

St. Cloud, Minn. -- Minnesota's first commuter rail line has been up and running for three weeks now, but it has yet to spur any development along the route of the train.

The article implies Northstar has failed because there is no development after 3 weeks. That is unreasonable. The better argument is that Northstar has been in the works (planning plus construction) for some 5 years, and no development has occurred yet. Certainly once construction started, it could be seen as a government commitment.

I suspect there will eventually be some development, but exurban development does not justify the enormous subsidy.

November 30, 2009

Mpls.-to-Duluth rail price tag climbs to $1 billion

From Strib: Mpls.-to-Duluth rail price tag climbs to $1 billion Calling at Coon-Rapids/Foley, Cambridge, Hinckley, Sandstone, and Superior. A maximum speed of 110 mph.

By PAUL LEVY, Star Tribune Last update: November 29, 2009 - 10:48 PM

The cost of the proposed high-speed Northern Lights Express rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth has gone up -- way up -- to nearly $1 billion, according to state officials.

Even the more conservative estimate of $615 million recently advanced by supporters of the rail line is nearly double last year's $360 million price tag.

November 16, 2009

All aboard! Northstar glides into the sunrise

From MinnPost: All aboard! Northstar glides into the sunrise

Northstar opened today - the Twin Cities can check one more urban gadget off the list, we now have (technologically incompatible) commuter rail and light rail. Take that cities with only one rail mode.

August 26, 2009

Google LatLong: Arterial traffic available on Google Maps

Arterial traffic available on Google Maps for selected cities (including Minneapolis).

It seems they are doing it from Google Maps for Mobile, and getting automatic feedback of location from GPS-enabled online users (and thereby deriving speed). Clearly this is a good thing for traffic data nerds, and critical mass for arterial travel times is a good thing, even if Google winds up being the dominant provider.

Open House for Franklin Ave/East River Road Intersection | Bridgeland News

I attended the Open House for Franklin Ave/East River Road Intersection, where the County and consultants revealed their plans. These are described in the (what I thought was defunct) Bridgeland News article.

My views are here.

In short, instead of a Monderman-esque Shared Space, or even a roundabout, they are tweaking the signal timings and reconfiguring the approach lanes. The main change there is on the Franklin Avenue bridge, which will reduce to 1 lane in each direction on the west side, and flare to two lanes at the approach. This will no doubt improve things (in terms of vehicle delay from most approaches and pedestrian delay) over the baseline, and at least it is relatively cheap, but this, as they officials admit, is a short-term fix, and the intersection will need to be revisited post-Central Corridor.

June 26, 2009

Comments on Long-Range Funding Solutions Symposium

On June 24th, MnDOT held a "Long-Range Funding Solutions Symposium" to examine issues associated with the long-term funding of transportation. I was asked to be a discussant. These are my comments in extended form.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss the topics raised today.

First, MnDOT has identified $50 Billion of unfunded "needs" for additional resources of which 86% are for the purpose of "mobility" over the next 20 years. I am not clear as to how these needs were identified, but several points should be kept in mind. First, this is a slow-growing region (and outside the Metro a declining state). It has 5 million people now, and at best is growing at about 1 percent per year. Second, per-capita Vehicle Miles Traveled has been flat for almost a decade, and overall VMT growth has been flat for about half a decade. There are several reasons for this, most recently recession and high gas prices, but I think the most important is market saturation. if speeds are not growing (because we have maxed out the network given current technologies and face diminishing marginal returns to new road construction), and people have finite time, they choose not to devote additional time to travel (and thus distance). Fortunately, since the I-35W Bridge Collapse, MnDOT has adopted a "fix it first" approach, so that system preservation, operations, and maintenance get the largest share of the existing budget, and comprise the first funded element of needs.

We cannot know what "needs" for mobility are if we have an unpriced (or underpriced) transportation system. People will always over-consume if they are subsidized, and people do not presently pay for the congestion externality they impose on others. Once we have something like marginal cost pricing (or a second-best version thereof), we can determine which links generate more revenue than they cost to operate and maintain, and that will signal where capacity should be added, where the benefits of added capacity outweigh the costs.

Another way of thinking about what $50 billion means is that Minnesota is a state of 5 million people, so that amounts to $10000 of new construction for each resident of Minnesota (because this is above and beyond the funded part which takes care of preservation (we hope)). Over 20 years, $10000 per capita is $500 per year, or about $0.50 per trip. But that $0.50 per trip is not to pay for existing infrastructure, that is to pay for new infrastructure those travelers may or may not use; or if we were to charge users, we would be looking at 10 to 100 times as much per trip, as the new capacity built for $50 billion will serve only 10% to 1% of trips, most trips will continue to use pre-existing infrastructure.

We could also talk about mobility vs. accessibility, and why is it important to enhance mobility, but that is another long discussion, and the reader is referred to the Access to Destinations study for details.

Attention is a scarce resource, spending time on non-starters like $50 Billion in "mobility" needs detracts from real problems with existing infrastructure.

In short, the $50 Billion suggested comprises Wants not Needs. (as Jim Erkel calls it the Rolling Stones theory of transportation finance ... You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need).

Second, we need to re-examine the institutional structure of transportation funding and administration. We should consider a public utility model where a transportation authority or utility with independence from the legislation and executive branch of government determines how much is required to maintain (and as necessary expand) the transportation system, with oversight from a Public Utility Commission or similar. This would resemble how Natural Gas and Electricity and Water and Sewer in many places are currently delivered. Like those, transportation is a utility that has costs that users should bear as directly as possible. The user fee notion would be embedded into the governance structure of such a transportation authority. The British might call this a Transportation Trust. We could consider how this is organized at different levels of government (keeping state and local separate or bringing them together?)

Third, Value Capture has not been fairly characterized in the presentation made today. If we do not have road user fees, transportation creates value for land-owners. (If we do have marginal cost user fees, a closed system, and invest the revenue in transportation, making some simplifying assumptions, we would not have additional land value associated with investment (in the absence of agglomeration economies)). Since we do not have road user fees, value is created. Several of the methods proposed by the value capture study hold promise for financing transportation systematically, not just at the project level.

Fourth, in the short-term (next decade or so), gas taxes, indexed and adjusted appropriately should be used to fund transportation, as they are administratively much more efficient than road user charges. They have several advantages: foremost they are cheaper to collect than most of the proposed VMT charges. An annual odometer reading is certainly a similar alternative, but that does not have the environmental benefits of discouraging motor fuel consumption and encouraging better mileage. Ultimately as the fleet becomes electrified, the gas tax becomes a better and better incentive to move in that direction. If today 100% of the drivers use gas and pay for 100% of roads (which I recognize is not strictly the case at the state level, but is simply illustrative), and next year only 50% of drivers used gasoline, the remaining 50% would pay for all of the roads by doubling the gas tax. That provides a somewhat stronger incentive to switch to electricity. If the following year another 25% switch to electricity, than 75% use electric and 25% use fuel and pay the motor fuel tax, which is now 4 times as high. Eventually this becomes unsustainable as the last drive of a gasoline-powered car could not possibly afford 100% of the road system's costs, but in the meantime the incentive works in the right direction for the environment, and since government is always a lagging indicator, retaining the gas tax for as long as tenable should be considered the near term solution, with continuing research into road pricing, additional demonstration, and deployment of select strategies like High Occupancy Toll lanes. See Beyond the gas tax for a further discussion.

At any rate, as I have learned today, in Minnesota transit funding depends on the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax, so I will do my part to help fund transit and buy a car.

June 17, 2008

Is Minneapolis Ready for GOP Convention?

From Newsweek, an article on the Convention and the I-35W Bridge, Bridges: Is Minneapolis Ready for GOP Convention?

John Hourdos and myself are quoted on page 2.

(I know, the article headline asks if Minneapolis is ready for the convention when it will be in St. Paul).

June 12, 2008

U changes direction on light-rail trains

From the Strib: U changes direction on light-rail trains The U will now support LRT on Washington Avenue at-grade with appropriate traffic mitigations, eliminating cars from a section of the roadway.

The official statement is here.

June 6, 2008

Comments on the Central Corridor

I have written a memo for the University of Minnesota administration outlining my views on the proposed Central Corridor, in particular its course through campus. This is based on my thoughts and a number of meetings with University of Minnesota staff, but reflects solely my own judgment. The download is about 10 MB in .pdf (it includes images).

Download file

Text after the jump (for figures, see the .pdf file above)

Continue reading "Comments on the Central Corridor" »

February 28, 2008

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.

December 15, 2007

Central Corridor on Washington Avenue

In response to letters from the President of the University of Minnesota, former U of Mn Regent, Peter Bell, currently Chair of the Metropolitan Council now endorses Central Corridor on Washington Avenue at grade.

Now maybe someone will seriously consider getting private cars off of Washington Avenue if it is such a safety and congestion trap (which of course it would be were cars, buses, trucks, light rail, pedestrians, and bicyclists trying to simultaneously use that space). The price would be much lower than a tunnel (some paint, some bollards, and a "Do Not Enter" sign for starters).

Think about it this way, construction is effectively going to close Washington Avenue to traffic anyway for some period of time, just keep it closed.

This not too technical link might help some university officials rethink the issue.
From Induced Demand to Reduced Demand


Effects of Roadway Capacity Reductions.

The I-35W Bridge collapse provides another example. 140,000 trips crossed the Mississippi River Bridge before the collapse, according to MnDOT's Nick Thomson (presented at a seminar at the University of Minnesota), only 90,000 can be accounted for on other crossings.

Should Washington Avenue really be carrying traffic through campus? Should campus have a major thoroughfare in its midst?

April 13, 2007

Twins ballpark will have Minnesota flavor

Twins ballpark will have Minnesota flavor ... it is surrounded by parking ramps. Even parking ramps look nice in watercolor.

November 30, 2006

On "A Streetcar Named Development", Streetcars, Buses, and Signs

In this week's Downtown Journal Online, an article "A Streetcar Named Development" discusses the potential for streetcars for Minneapolis.

Streetcars would be the third distinct rail technology that the Twin Cities would have introduced in the course of a decade, following LRT and commuter rail, and of course bus remains. This technology proliferation is one of several issues that has been inadequately addressed. The greater the number of distinct technologies used, the lower the economies of scale that can be achieved with any one of them. While they serve somewhat different markets, they also serve overlapping markets, yet no consideration was given to using technology A in market B.

The more important concern is revealed by the closing quote from Teresa Wernecke, director of the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization. '“With rail, you know where you’re going,? Wernecke said.' The implication is that with bus you don't. Why should that be?

The answer is the under-investment in buses over the past 50 years, in particular the lack of signage. Staff I have spoken with at the Metropolitan Council seem to think it would be too expensive to have simple signs which actually told you what bus stopped where and when (since the schedules apparently change). But it is not too expensive to deploy 3 new rail systems to make up for the institutional inadequecies of Metro Transit's bus operations.

To illustrate, compare this typical bus stop sign from Minneapolis
Minneapolis Bus Stop

With this one from London
London Bus Stop

While this sign certainly does not solely explain London's higher transit ridership, it helps considerably. The F helps orient you from which stop (among many), which are all shown on a map. The sign tells you where you are and where the buses go, and which buses go there. The schedule shows you the frequency (or schedule) of buses. Further there are maps at every stop, along with schedules.

It might surprise people to know, but bus mode share in London (18%) is as high as Underground and Surface Rail combined (17%) according to Transport for London.

Other factors include traveler information, designated bus lanes, frequent shelters, etc. But underlying this is the attitude that buses should be given full support as a transit mode.

It is too bad Minneapolis is choosing to throw money at streetcars at $30 million per mile and provide no additional service rather than using those scarce resources to create a world-class bus system.

-- dml

September 5, 2006

Access to Destinations Report Released

Our first report in the Access to Destinations Series: Development of Accessibility Measures
has finally been released.

The most interesting finding (which still awaits corroboration) is that despite the rising congestion of the past decade, accessibility in the Twin Cities region (measured as the number of things (jobs, workers, etc.) that you can get to in a fixed period of time) has been improving. Clearly this would be because there are more things per unit time, not because you can cover more distance per unit time. Increasing density increases accessibility, this is why cities form in the first place, it is nice to see it in the data. More in the final report. Thanks to my colleague Ahmed El-Geneidy who did most of the number crunching.

Continue reading "Access to Destinations Report Released" »

May 27, 2006

A Dream of Fields

Minnesota's Governor Pawlenty signs Twins stadium bill , bringing to an end the incessant pestering/lobbying/threatening by the Minnesota Twins for a new ball field at the public's expense.

Continue reading "A Dream of Fields" »

May 2, 2006

The world loves a train ride

The Minnesota Streetcar Museum, Minnesota's "other light rail" will be open for rides again. See related article in the Strib about rail nostalgia, when life was simpler and trains were faster than cars. All obsolete transportation systems become rides, what will we do with interstates once we get flying cars?