Category Archives: Transportation

Overruns, Subsidies and Pollution

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

by James A. Bacon

Randal O’Toole, the Cato Institute’s transportation scholar, has penned a devastating take-down of Norfolk’s light rail system, the Tide. The rail line, which opened in 2011 60% over budget and 16 months late, ran operating losses of $12.5 million in 2012, about double projections. Farebox revenues covered about 5% of operating costs. Hoped-for redevelopment around the Tide’s eleven stations has yet to materialize. (The post is supposed to appear on O’Toole’s blog, The Antiplanner, but I could not find it there. I am relying upon an email version.)

Now, says O’Toole, the editorial writers at the Virginian-Pilot want to compound the folly by slashing fares from $1.50 per trip (before discounts), among the lowest in the nation, to $.50 in a desperate bid to jolt ridership and stimulate economic development. The problem with that idea, he says, is that it cannot generate sufficient ridership to encourage developers to build around the train stops. The idea would expand the operating deficit while doing nothing to build the property tax base.

Ironically, light rail, much beloved by environmentalists for taking CO2-emitting cars off the road, is more energy-intensive at low levels of ridership than automobiles. Writes O’Toole: “Norfolk’s rail line uses far more energy than cars: 5,400 BTUs per passenger mile in 2012 compared with an average of less than 3,400 for cars and 4,100 for light trucks (and 3,7000 for Hampton Roads buses).”

O’Toole continues:

Rail transit is supposed to be about bringing large numbers of people into major job centers. But there are no major job centers in the region, or at least none served by the Tide rail line: Norfolk has only about 24,000 downtown jobs, less than 3 percent of the metropolitan area. Transit subsidies are also supposed to help low-income people who don’t have cars reach jobs, but the 2012 American Community Survey found that only 2.6 percent of workers in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach urban area lack cars, and half of them travel to work by car, while only 32 percent ride transit.

In fairness to the Tide, the rail line’s financial performance has improved since 2012. A mid-2014 review indicated that farebox recovery had increased to 17.7% and the operating cost had declined to $3.4 million (or $6.8 million annualized).

Still, even the updated numbers call into question the wisdom of extending the line to the Virginia Beach resort district, a project that could cost more than $1 billion. Does Virginia Beach really want to spend hundreds of millions of its own money (the state and feds would pick up much of the tab) for the privilege of creating a permanent subsidy and tax drain at a time when Americans are driving less and congestion is easing?

Bacon’s bottom line: Mass transit is a great idea… when it works. But the fact that heavy rail has done wonders in New York City and the core Washington metropolitan area does not mean that light rail will have a similarly transformative effect in a sprawling, low-density metro like Norfolk-Virginia Beach. You can’t force-feed mass transit. Commuter rail requires high-density, mixed-use pedestrian friendly development around rail stations. That land use pattern does not exist in Norfolk/Virginia Beach right now. It will take appropriate zoning, years of re-development and public investment in creating walkable streets before there is any chance of generating sufficient ridership to justify the investment.

There is a logical progression for mass transit: Serve a transportation corridor with scheduled bus service and support it with higher-density, mixed-use rezoning. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs along the corridor to support it, upgrade the service to Bus Rapid Transit. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs to support another phase transition, upgrade the route to rail. That process could well take decades, too long a time to satisfy impatient environmentalists who want to save the world now. But it would be fiscally sustainable in an era in which Virginia local governments are increasingly hard-pressed to meet their obligations.

Meanwhile, the Uber-Lyft revolution continues to roil the transportation industry. Using smart phones to connect drivers with riders and writing algorithms that optimize the distribution of fleet vehicles serving different price points and demographics (Cadillacs for rich riders, vans for poor riders) could render much of our transportation infrastructure obsolete. I’m still waiting for a politician who says it’s time to prioritize ride-sharing over mega-road and transit projects. Surely, there’s someone out there!

Sharing Information to Gain Competitive Regional Advantage

by James A. Bacon

Very different models of regional competitiveness are emerging as people think seriously how to harness the power of smart cities. In metropolitan regions like Charlotte, Seattle and San Diego, for example, major property owners are collaborating with municipalities and power companies on communal energy-efficiency initiatives.

Tapping the potential of “smart grids” is a great idea. But that’s just a start. Udaya Shankar, a vice president with Xchanging, sees smart buildings as the foundation for smart cities. Writing in IoT World, he recommends that smart buildings pool information for mutual benefit. “When buildings operate in a silo, we gain no insight into the effects one has on the other, and if a smart city is the sum of its parts then there is something to be lost in keeping them separate.” He envisions a future in which smart buildings connect and talk to cities and to one another.

It’s an intriguing premise. Shankar provides few examples of what kind of information sharing property owners can share, but we can think of a few.

Smart grid. Almost all smart buildings draw electricity from the electric grid. They monitor their consumption carefully and have some flexibility as to how much they consume and when. Sharing this information can help the power company optimize its generation and transmission assets, benefiting everyone through lower rates.

Water. All smart buildings consume water. In many municipalities leaking water pipes is a major issue (up to 20 percent of all water is lost through leakage). Sharing of usage data can help water companies identify leaks, reduce water loss and delay the need for expensive capacity expansions.

Parking. Many smart buildings maintain parking assets for their employees: either open parking lots or parking garages. Sharing information about parking capacity and usage can help cities better match parking supply and demand. By optimizing the amount of valuable urban land dedicated to parking, cities can convert excess parking to more productive uses that yield more taxes.

Lighting. Cities operate street lights. So do many smart buildings. Sharing information can allow cities and building owners to reduce the wattage needed to light public spaces, thus conserving electricity and curbing light pollution.

Security. Smart buildings typically are equipped with security cameras to provide added security for occupants. Sharing video feeds with the city can provide law enforcement authorities with more eyes on the street, helping prevent and solve crimes.

Transportation. Smart cities utilize a variety of strategies — mass transit, walkable and bikeable streets, road improvements, car- and van-pooling — to manage traffic demand, many of which require cooperation with employers. Sharing information about employees and their transportation needs can help cities fight congestion.

We’re moving into a world where the sharing of information confers competitive economic advantage. Here in Virginia, we should start by encouraging state agencies and local governments to open up their data — not just to link to it from websites but to make it available so anyone, whether a business enterprise or a civic activist, to add value to it. Then we should start creating mechanisms whereby building owners can share information with local governments to tackle public challenges ranging from energy conservation to traffic congestion.

Communities that move first will gain competitive advantage. Those that are slow to adapt will fall behind.

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

Bob McDonnell. Photo credit: Washington Times

Bob McDonnell. Photo credit: Washington Times

OMG! Maureen and Bob McDonnell owed $75,000 on seven credit cards when Bob took office as governor in 2010. Their credit card debt peaked at $90,000 later that year. The first family managed to pay down its debt to around $31,000 the next year, apparently after Maureen inherited some money, according to the Times-Dispatch.

Think about it: They owned a McMansion in Richmond’s West End, a resort property in Wintergreen, and (co-owned) two beach properties in Virginia Beach. And had $90,000 in credit card debt. And racked up another $220,000 in debt from private individuals, including Jonnie Williams, Sr., president of Star Scientific, to keep their Virginia Beach properties afloat.

I’m wondering if this sheds light on McDonnell’s approach to government. The hallmark of his transportation policy was a willingness to borrow billions of dollars, and then to leverage that state debt through added toll-backed public-private partnership debt. Was there a connection between his views on personal debt and his views on state debt? Perhaps.

The common denominator, one could argue, was a proclivity to engage in best-case-scenario thinking and an inability or unwillingness to consider that things might go wrong. A more prudent man would not have allowed the state to get in the jam it did by rushing the U.S. 460 upgrade — a fiasco that could expose taxpayers to $300 million or more in losses.

As always, I’ll reserve final judgment until after I hear McDonnell’s defense. But I’m not feeling very charitably inclined toward the man at the moment.

– JAB

No Silver Lining for the Silver Line?

metro_map

Blue dot indicates chokepoint where the Silver, Orange and Blue lines compete for restricted capacity on the Potomac River metrorail tunnel.

by James A. Bacon

By all accounts the Silver Line extension serving Tysons, Virginia’s largest commercial district, has enjoyed a successful start. Ridership is strong and in line with expectations. But a new issue arises. How much of the Silver Line’s traffic is cannibalized from the Orange and Blue lines?

The problem is that the three Metro lines must squeeze through the same Potomac River bridge to enter Washington, D.C. That bridge has a finite capacity of 26 trains per hour.  Trains assigned to the Silver Line are trains that cannot run on the orange and blue lines.

Is this a problem? Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Oak Hill, worries that redistributing Metro riders between different lines will do little to alleviate regional traffic congestion. He broached the issue two days ago in a letter to Richard Saarles, CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

The primary problem created by the Silver Line is the fact that it operates by reducing peak period service on the Orange Line by 42 percent, from 19 to 11 trains per hour. Likewise, Blue Line peak service has been reduced from seven to five trains per hour. These ten former Orange and Blue Line trains now comprise the Silver Line during peak periods, for a net increase of zero Metrorail peak period trains on those lines. … The Silver Line does not represent increased train service, but only cannibalizes previous Metrorail service.

LeMunyon worries what will happen to the thousands of commuters who drive or take the bus from points west to Vienna, where they board the Orange Line. For many commuters, he maintains, switching to stations on the Silver Line will not be a viable option. It’s conceivable that Metro rail, after the expenditure of roughly $3 billion to build the Silver Line, actually could lose passengers. Former Orange Line commuters could switch to Interstate 66, making that freeway even more congested than it already is. “For these people,” he writes, “the Silver Line has no silver lining.”

In concluding the letter, LeMunyon said he hoped that WMATA would adjust the frequency of trains on each line to match customer demand, and if it made sense to move Silver Line trains back to the Orange Line that WMATA would do so.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is inconceivable to me that transportation planners did not take all of these factors into account when calculating the benefits of the Silver Line. If Orange or Blue Line trains are under-utilized at present, shifting some to a Silver Line running at full capacity actually could increase ridership. But, hey, you never know. It will be interesting to watch traffic counts at Silver, Orange and Blue line Metro stations and along Interstate 66 to see how commuters adapt.

I have to say, if it turns out that the expenditure of nearly $3 billion does not result in significant additional Metro ridership — one of the project’s big selling points — don’t be surprised to see lynch mobs forming.

Wild Ride

uber_poolby James A. Bacon

Last week Governor Terry McAuliffe gave the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services provisional permission to operate in Virginia as long as they comply with minimal standards for hiring drivers. Uber entered the Richmond marketplace around the same time, putting six cars on the road. Rates are competitive with those of local taxicabs but Uber offers the advantage of more timely pick-ups.

While taxicab companies are a political nuisance, using the regulatory apparatus in state after to state to block Uber from the market, the company’s toughest competitor is Lyft, according to a Wall Street Journal piece describing the relationship between the two San Francisco companies as “Tech’s Fiercest Rivalry.” Competition in the business of shared ridership, which includes other start-ups such as Sidecar, is intense. Companies are testing new innovations every day. Some ideas catch on, others fall by the wayside, but the business is evolving rapidly.

The latest permutation, rolled out by the two companies independently on the very same day, is carpooling. Lyft Line and Uber Pool let passengers ride with strangers and split the bill. While the innovation might reduce revenues temporarily, both companies are betting that they can more than offset the loss by growing the size of the shared-rider market.

This is entirely consistent with what I have long predicted: Shared ridership companies will continue to push their innovations “down market” — to less affluent customers — in order to build a larger customer base. Uber started as a company that provided luxury car rides at premium prices. Then it introduced UberX, which provides taxicab-comparable rides. Now it is moving into carpooling. A future next step — and if Uber doesn’t do it, someone else will — will be to introduce a jitney-like van service that provides rides along high-traffic transportation corridors at rates and schedules that are more than competitive with buses.

Hat’s off to the McAuliffe administration for fostering transportation innovation in Virginia rather than stifling it. Stick to your guns. If you think the taxicab companies can raise political hell, just wait until municipal transit companies start complaining that Uber or Uber-like companies are “skimming the cream” of their customer base. This ride ain’t over by a long shot.

Time for Lean Transit

San Francisco trolley

San Francisco trolley

William Lind suggests applying the principles of “lean urbanism” to rail mass transit, in effect creating a “lean transit.” Writing in the Center for Public Transportation, Lind is a rare conservative who supports mass transit. But he’s also a realist: He acknowledges that excessive government regulation drives up the cost of mass transit, especially rail, and makes it less competitive with streets and roads.

Writes Lind:

[The Americans with Disabilities Act] has proven the single most expensive, least useful mandate ever leveled on public transit.  Serving a small number of disabled people takes a large chunk of transit systems’ budgets, both capital and operating. Many of the special facilities ADA demands of transit systems are seldom if ever used.  If something intended to serve the disabled is frequently used, including by people who are not disabled but nonetheless find it helpful, I’m all for it.  But millions have been spent entirely uselessly.

ADA is only the beginning of expensive and generally useless over-regulation of transit.  One environmental revue of a proposed project makes sense, but often multiple such reviews are required.  FRA’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit.  A single commuter train accident in California led Congress to mandate positive transit control for all railroads, at a cost in billions and with no technology yet available to do the job.  The list is endless.

We need to be able to build streetcar and light rail lines much more cheaply if cities are to afford them. … Lean rail transit, like lean urbanism, requires deregulation, and it also requires an end to fascination with complex, expensive technology that is not needed.  The goal should be streetcar lines built for not more than $10 million per mile and light rail built for not more than $20 million per mile.

Liberals love rail mass transit, and then undercut it at every turn. Their solution? Bigger subsidies. No wonder the country is going broke.

– JAB

Union Presbyterian and the Parable of the Buried Talent

union_presby James A. Bacon

Union Presbyterian Seminary settled into its current location off Brook Road in northside Richmond in 1898, when industrialist Lewis Ginter donated land to the educational institution from the streetcar suburb he was developing. The seminary has been a good neighbor ever since, leaving a large tract of the land vacant as a park open to the public. Now the seminary needs some of that land to build new housing for seminary students and their families in place of antiquated housing that it provides at present.

The neighbors are up in arms. Many people who live nearby, it appears, are worried about the loss of open space, traffic and the impact on property values, according to the Times-Dispatch. A “crowd of hundreds” packed a meeting in the seminary auditorium when the institution unveiled a proposal to build 349 housing units. At one point, some in the crowd erupted in loud boos.

I find this extraordinary. Who do these people think they are? It’s one thing if the City of Richmond decided to sell a public park to a developer. It’s quite another when a private institution, which has been a foundation of the community for more than a century, wants to sell the land in order to preserve the viability of that institution. The seminary owns the land — not the neighbors!

The Presbyterian denomination has fallen upon hard times. The number of adherents is shrinking. Between 2008 and 2011, the denomination closed churches at the rate of 75 to 80 per year. Under the 2009-2014 strategic plan, Union Presbyterian slashed its budget by $3 million, reduced the number of students to 180 FTEs, and cut its faculty from 32 to 22.5 FTEs to align with the smaller student body.

Now the seminary is seeking to raise $75 million to reinvent itself — in effect, to stay relevant in a changing world. According to the 2014-2019 strategic plan, the campaign has raised $27.2 million, but achieving its goals also requires maximizing the value of its real estate holdings that have long laid dormant.

Here’s the killer. According to the T-D, the seminary could extract even greater profit from the property by building at greater density, as allowed under existing zoning, or by selling the land on the open market. It is not pursuing those options. The seminary wants to be a good neighbor. “We’re trying to do what’s right by the community and what’s right by the seminary,” said Andrew M. Condlin, a local land-use attorney.

Apparently, that’s not good enough. Some attendees took exception to the idea of the seminary erecting a four-story building at the corner of Brook and Westwood — as if a four-story building would be out of character for a higher ed setting!

They’re worried about traffic, too. Have these people been possessed by Beelzebub? The housing would be occupied by seminary students who would walk to the campus across the street! OK, some students might be married and have kids. Gee, spouses might drive to their jobs or run errands. I’ve driven on those Northside Streets and they are way under-utilized. Traffic fears are utter nonsense.

As for property values, adding quality density development will increase the value of property along the Brook Street corridor, not diminish it. More to the point, maybe the neighbors had better focus on what would happen to property values if Union Presbyterian closed its doors! Imagine the impact if the buildings were vacant and the landscaping was going to pot?

The incident brings to mind the parable of Jesus and the talents:

For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.  To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.  The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! … You should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten.

For years, Union Presbyterian had done the functional equivalent of burying its talent in the ground — to the benefit of its neighbors. It can no longer afford that luxury. It’s time to put that asset to work. Jesus understood how capitalism functioned and cited approvingly the investment of money to make more money. (He also thought that the kingdom of God was at hand and urged his followers to give their money away, but that’s a different issue.) The seminary is acting entirely within its rights. The neighbors ought to be darned grateful their input was solicited at all.

The people at Union Presbyterian are far too nice to say this but I will: It’s time for the neighbors to stop bellyaching over trivial inconveniences and time to help make sure the seminary is still around another century from now.

Tim Kaine Versus the Mole People

mole peopleThe Silver Line extending the Washington Metro to Tysons is scheduled to open Saturday, and people are getting excited about the impending event. Mass transit supporters are hailing the momentous achievement, which provides the impetus to transform Virginia’s largest business district into a more balanced, livable and walkable community. Indeed, there is much to celebrate.

But others are lamenting the plundering of Dulles Toll Road commuters to pay for much of the project, especially the soon-to-start second phase to Washington Dulles International Airport and beyond. Critics have ample grounds for their bitterness. The Silver Line constitutes a massive wealth-redistribution scheme. Riders and property owners enjoying windfalls in property values will pay for only a fraction of the cost of building and operating the system.

Some day, someone will write a book about the Silver Line project and the extraordinary political maneuvering it took to make it happen. When he (or she) does, they’ll find a treasure trove of source material in the Library of Virginia. The state library is archiving 1.3 million emails generated by Governor Tim Kaine and members of his administration. The Kaine Email Project is making those emails searchable and accessible online.

Out of the Box, the Library of Virginia blog, is highlighting correspondence regarding selected topics, including the furor over whether to build the Silver Line under ground or above ground where it ran through Tysons. The controversy was covered heavily by the press but the Kaine Email Project gives a closer look at Kaine’s decision-making process. In a quick and superficial perusal, I didn’t find any great surprises here — Kaine was a pretty straightforward guy — but the emails do show whom he communicated with as he worked his way through the controversy.

This email dated Dec. 12, 2006, and addressed to Chief of Staff Bill Leighty, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, Communications Director Delacey Skinner and Counselor to the Governor Larry Roberts, provides some color.

Yesterday in our leadership meeting, we talked about the rumor that the [Federal Transit Administration] would send me a letter saying “the choice not to pursue the tunnel was yours alone and we had nothing to do with it.” Last night, Lin Holton gave me a letter circulating in Northern Virginia. The Tysons Tunnel group asked William Coleman — former Secretary of Transportation under Nixon and Ford — to write a letter that seems to suggest that the tunnel or no tunnel decision was not the FTA’s but the Governor’s. This may be the rumored letter — or it may give a hint of what a forthcoming FTA letter would say. I will give the letter to Delacey — she can provide copies to you.

At some point, we will be asked for some statement on the whole thing. Just to have a statement ready if and when we need it — for a press response or for a letter to the Mole People or someone else — I thought I would put into my own words a quick narrative of the process up to this point, trying to be diplomatic and not heedlessly hack anyone off (i.e., Congress people, Fairfax, FTA, etc.)

It’s fascinating to see Kaine grappling with rumors, responding to the circulation of letters by advocacy groups and referring to “Mole People.” Is that what he called the tunnel zealots? Pretty funny.

– JAB

How to Convince Your Mom that Congestion Pricing Is Good

by Michael Brown

Odds are if you show up at a family reunion and try to convince your parents and siblings that congestion pricing is good, you’ll be lonely pretty quickly. People want the freeways to work but they hate paying tolls! If you are reading this, then you’re probably part of the choir. My goal isn’t to convert the converted as much as to provide new arguments and sound bites when talking to others.

So, how do we reach others? Millions must be convinced to put down their pitchforks long enough to test the theory and decide for themselves if congestion pricing is worthwhile. Elected officials are afraid to take a position contrary to polls, and polls are overwhelmingly dominated by uninformed opinions.

Too many citizens “learn” the issues of the day in 30-second television spots. Even those who make an effort to stay well informed are not the best ones to ask.  There are many fine teachers, dentists, and doctors with intelligent opinions but if you ask them about Congestion Pricing, most would focus on a single point – “double taxation.” Because no one listens long enough for a good explanation, politicians conform to polls of the uninformed rather than risk trying to change public opinion.

congestion_pricing1

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This is the fourth part of a four-part series.

Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4
=================

Geeks and used car salesmen

Congestion Pricing’s true believers are insiders who spend years exploring how market mechanisms can solve our transportation headaches. Typically, they are “nerdy engineer” types and Ph.D.’s at universities. They come up with great ideas but their main focus is convincing other geeks. Peer-reviewed articles loaded with incomprehensible equations and data may be good stuff and true, but the world will never move out of the congestion morass until the world “gets it” at the lowest-common- denominator level of things that matter to them.

Many geeks know Congestion Pricing is worth billions but they’re poor at delivering the message personally. So they set aside “public awareness budgets” that are embarrassingly tiny relative to the potential payoff. That’s like hiring a used car salesman to deliver the message. That approach may persuade a few but it won’t convince your mom – it won’t even reach your mom. Great ideas need great enlightenment efforts.

congestion_pricing2Evangelists and professional marketers

When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they actually had a hard time selling it. Everyone was intrigued, of course, but few understood how it could help them in a way that was worth the price. The airplane seemed like an exciting new toy that could kill you! So the Wrights became evangelists. They met with government officials and anyone else with the means and potential motive to buy, and sold them hard on dozens of potential uses. Now we could scarcely imagine the world without planes.

Think of the Bible. Many find it very difficult to read and hard to get excited about. But some people are very passionate about the bible, and very gifted at translating its meaning to large crowds. Congestion Pricing and Freeway Optimization have been peddled mainly by geeks and insufficient public awareness efforts. Are we really surprised that people are skeptical?

Gifted evangelists are essential but so is “Hollywood.” By that, I mean it takes people who have figured out how to sell stuff to people. We need marketing artists who can place an object in the hands of a big star, then watch that object fly off the shelf in the following month. For ideas worth billions, we should spend millions to attract the top-notch marketers, and give them a budget to craft emotionally persuasive visuals and sound bites. Continue reading

The Top Ten Positive, Sustainable Effects of Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing on the Capital Beltway Express

Congestion pricing on the Capital Beltway Express

by Michael Brown

This is the third part of a four-part series.
Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4

“Free” freeways aren’t as free as they used to be. Adding new capacity costs billions of dollars and mires communities in unaffordable debt. We can’t continue borrowing, taxing and building like we did a generation ago. In Parts I and II of this series, I outlined a  strategy for using tolls to limit access during periods of peak demand in order to avoid the roughly 30% capacity loss caused by overloading a freeway. Not only will this Freeway Optimization strategy help preserve the environment and reduce the fiscal burden on the next generation, it will provide tangible benefits today!  Here are the Top 10 Benefits of Freeway Optimization.

#10. Use more off-peak capacity

Freeways have a lot more capacity than we think. It’s just that much of the time it isn’t being used. If there are incentives to avoid peak travel, some people will shift some of their trips to off-peak periods — in effect utilizing some of that unused capacity.

Utah's FrontRunner

Utah’s FrontRunner

#9. Triple transit ridership

Salt Lake City recently opened FrontRunner, an 80-mile commuter rail line from Ogden to Salt Lake to Provo, that competes directly with Interstate 15. The price for a monthly pass is nearly $200, which, of course, drives off some would-be riders. But how many? In the 1980s Austin, Texas, tested “free fare transit” for over a year. Ridership system-wide nearly doubled. (Hasselt, Belgium, went fare-free in 1996 and by 2006 had increased ridership 13-fold.) Austin discontinued the program in part due to complaints of vagrants and in part to insufficient capacity to handle the volume. Today, smart cards can handle the vagrancy problem. Taking the Austin experiment as a benchmark of what free transit can do, Salt Lake could use revenue from congestion pricing to reduce or eliminate the fare on FrontRunner. Austin doubled ridership in an environment where driving was free and far less congested.  Imagine what could happen to ridership on Salt Lake’s FrontRunner if premium slots on I-15 at 5 pm were sold at fair market value, and proceeds were used to make FrontRunner free or very low cost! Judging from Austin, ridership could at least double if not triple!

#8. Recover lost 30% of capacity

As noted in Part 2, when the system fails, it is like having a V-8 motor that only fires on 5 cylinders — the freeway loses 30% of its capacity. Preventing failure ensures maximum value from your freeway infrastructure.

#7. Reduce spillover to side streets

A common objection to congestion pricing is that motivating drivers to leave the freeway will push them onto parallel arterials, displacing congestion from the freeways to the arterials. Seems logical, but it isn’t true. When freeways go into failure and lose 30% of their throughput, many of those drivers are already seeking other routes. With freeway optimization, the system intentionally hovers at about 5% under maximum throughput in order to avoid losing 30%. The net effect is that arterials could carry less traffic because freeways will carry more.

#6. Bring A Closer to B

When we had Free and Fast, we adopted far-flung lifestyles. There are benefits to sprawling cities but there are also many costs and side-effects. Congestion (Free But Not Fast) sets in , which forces us to shorten our overall driving – a good thing for reducing sprawl. But accepting congestion also means we’re not solving the problem, which is inefficient, frustrating and politically unacceptable. One last shot at Fast And Free requires adding capacity, which is becoming too expensive now and causes more sprawl. But a third way — Fast But Not Free using congestion pricing – can give us reliably high speeds while also discouraging excessive freeway usage.  To some, that may sound like social engineering. In reality it is just free market allocation of a limited resource.

#5. Make freeways more environmentally sustainable

With pricing, you don’t need to widen freeways. Just sell premium slots to those willing to pay. Those unable or unwilling to pay for any given trip will opt instead for transit, try parallel free roads, or travel during off-peak times.  The overall effect is to reduce congestion, dependence on foreign oil and the emission of Greenhouse gases – common ground for conservatives and liberals. Continue reading