Category Archives: Transportation

Yes, Virginians, You Are Driving More

Are Virginia’s roads getting more congested? After several years of respite, it appears that they are.

Several days ago I took note of national data indicating that time taken by the average commute was getting longer. I wondered if, as seemed logical, Virginians were driving more. My quickie data search showed that, in fact, the total number of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the Old Dominion had increased 2% between 2014 and 2015, but I didn’t have time to compile the numbers going back any further so I didn’t know if the upward surge — and 2% in this context is a surge — or a blip.

Carol Bova took the trouble to do just that. Over the 12 years between 2002 and 2015, she found, VMT in Virginia increased 9.8%. Within that overall number, there are a couple of points worth noting.

First, the strongest growth occurred during the real estate boom of the early 2000s. After peaking in 2007 and 2008, VMT declined measurably, plateaued, and then picked up in the last couple of years.

Second, growth has been strongest on Interstates (up 10.7%), followed by primary roads (up 9.4%), and weakest on secondary roads (up only 5.9%).

Third, Interstate traffic in 2015 surpassed the previous peak by more than 2 million miles. Primary road traffic is near its previous peak, but not quite there yet. And secondary road traffic remains well below its previous summit.

(For data junkies, I will post the raw numbers in the comments.)

American Commutes Are Getting Longer

Graphic credit: Washington Post

Commutes have gotten longer in the past five years, reversing a ten-year tend in which they got shorter. So says the Washington Post based on the latest American Community Survey and Gallup polling data.

Even more discouraging for anyone hoping for less congestion, less gasoline consumption, fewer CO2 emissions and better public health, extreme commuting of 90 minutes are more is increasingly the most rapidly of all (by 8% in 2015 compared to the  year before) while the shortest commutes (less than five minutes) actually declined 2%.

The Washington Post data is national, and we cannot assume that the same trends are being replicated here in Virginia. In a cursory search this morning, I could not find long-term trend numbers for Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the Old Dominion but Virginia Department of Transportation data indicates that inhabitants drove 2.0% more in 2015 than in 2014 — 226.4 million miles. One year may or may not mark a trend.

Graphic credit: Washington Post

If there’s any consolation in the numbers, it’s that telecommuting continues what seems to be a slow, steady rise. This trend does not seem be correlated,  however, with length of commutes or vehicle miles traveled. Instead, the persistence of the trend probably reflects continued improvements to technology, increased deployment of broadband and growing acceptance of telecommuting in the workplace.

Longer commutes were not supposed to happen. Cities were revitalizing, suburbs were urbanizing, Millennials were shunning automobiles, developers were building more walkable communities, and states were investing in mass transit. But commuting defied expectations. The American people have confounded the experts and pundits (including me).

The Washington Post quotes Brookings Institution researcher Adie Tomer as saying suggesting that jobs are de-densifying, forcing people to drive longer distances, and suburban jurisdictions continue to develop low-density housing. Assuming that analysis is correct, the question is why. Frankly, I haven’t been following the urban-development blogs like I used to, so I don’t know what spin the Smart Growth people are putting on the data. And, sadly, no one in Virginia seems to be taking much notice.

Update: I corrected the percentage increase for Vehicle Miles Traveled in Virginia between 2014 and 2015. The correct percentage increase is 2%. Hat tip to alert reader Carol Bova.

More Hidden Deficits: Bad Bridges and Bad Metro

Virginia has its share of bad bridges.

Bad bridges. Image source: USA Today

Update on America’s hidden deficits: Nearly 56,000 bridges across the country are structurally unsound, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), as reported by USA Today.

More than one in four of the bad bridges are at least 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work, according to the ARTBA analysis. Thirteen thousand are along interstates that need replacement, widening or major reconstruction. Virginia falls in the middle tier of states where the percentage of bad bridges ranges between 5% and 8.9%.

Don’t county on the federal government for help — unless the Trump administration moves ahead on its fiscally unsustainable $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan. The U.S. highway trust fund spends $10 billion a year more than it takes in. The USA Today article did not say how much it would cost the country to remedy the structural deficiencies.

Bacon’s bottom line: Welcome to the American way of building infrastructure. Uncle Sam subsidizes the up-front costs and the fifty states eagerly jump on board. Forty or fifty years later, the bridges wear out. The states haven’t salted away any money to fix them, and the feds say,” So, sorry, we only fund construction, not maintenance and repairs.”

If you want to build roads, bridges, highways, airports, and mass transit, you need a plan for long-term financing. Otherwise, you’re just creating a huge problem for the next generation. Eventually, the bills come due. If we can’t afford to fix what we’ve already built, we have no business building new stuff we can’t afford.

But we build new stuff anyway. A case in point comes from Loudoun Now: New estimates suggest that Loudoun County’s payments to the Washington Metro could run as much as $27.9 million higher than expected — double what was expected. (The number may be somewhat overstated because it includes the cost of a bus service, which Loudoun is already providing.)

Loudoun doesn’t have a station on the Metro Silver Line yet, but it will in a couple of years when Phase 2 is complete, and it will have to start paying its share of operations and capital costs. Unfortunately for Loudoun — and this was entirely predictable because METRO’s fiscal ills have been well known for years — METRO needs much more money than in the past to compensate for decades of under-funding and scrimped maintenance.

METRO’s problem has been brewing for decades. Fiscal conservatives have been sounding the warning for years and years. Government officials been making financial projections that everyone knows, or should know, have no basis in reality. But everyone pretends everything is fine to keep the gravy train rolling.

If it’s any consolation, $28 million is no big deal in a county budget that runs $2.4 billion a year, says county finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau. who also represents the county on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “We’re the jurisdiction that’s building $35 million in elementary schools ever year.”

Hmmm…. I wonder if the county is socking away any money for maintenance, repairs and replacement of all those elementary schools. I would be astonished if it is.

More P3s Coming. Taxpayers, Hang onto Your Wallets

The twice-bankrupted Pocahontas Parkway: Virginia's poster child for failed P3s.

The twice-bankrupted Pocahontas Parkway: Virginia’s poster child for failed P3s.

by Randy Salzman

The history of American transportation “public private partnerships” indicates that virtually all P3 shell companies go bankrupt before paying back federal loans and the “private activity bonds” which they sold to finance part of the debt.

When these firms go bankrupt, who loses? Taxpayers. We get stuck (1) with paying back the money Uncle Sam lent the privates; (2) paying off bonds guaranteed by the state; and (3) picking up the maintenance costs. As a practical matter, the supposedly entrepreneurial, risk-taking private sector doesn’t take nearly as much risk as taxpayers do.

Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s secretary of transportation, recognized that his predecessor gave away Virginia’s transportation future with $6 billion (yes, with “b”) in 2012 through P3s. He has undoubtedly done a much better job negotiating Virginia’s latest P3, the I-66 project, but he’s a state official and has been interested in protecting Virginia taxpayers; not federal taxpayers. Most of us pay both state and federal taxes.

The I-66 partners are putting up over $500 million. Obviously, they expect to realize a profit or they wouldn’t have submitted the bid. That’s simple business and should underline, even if nothing else, what a horrifying reality previous P3s were for state and federal taxpayers. That 460 Mobility Partners put up zero dollars for the disastrous Suffolk-to-Petersburg connector under the McDonnell administration and walked away with $350 million is almost criminal.

The issue is especially timely now that President Trump is promoting public-private partnerships as a tool for increasing infrastructure spending and stimulating the economy. He has proposed $137 billion in federal tax credits for  investors who commit to financing infrastructure, which would transfer even more risk from the private sector to the federal government.

The justification for P3s is that the private sector can build and operate projects more efficiently and economically than government can. But the public record is splotchy, and the news media needs to dig into it. In the U.S., more than a dozen billion-dollar transportation P3 projects have gone bankrupt. Even the Indiana Toll Road, the poster child for the privatization of transporation infrastructure, went belly up in 2015.

Cintra, which won the I-66 contract, went belly-up this spring with Texas SH-130, a toll road from San Antonio to Austin. Heavily promoted by former Texas governor and present U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, the project was absurd from the gitgo. The highway is located is only 20 miles east of an existing interstate, I-35. Even though Texas increased speed limits to the highest in the nation, few drivers were willing to pay tolls to use the road. SH-130 is so underutilized that airplanes have on at least two occasions landed on it! The project generated less than half the traffic and income that Cintra cronies projected when bonds were sold and federal loans obtained. Even though Texas bought down the tolls (wasting additional taxpayer dollars), Cintra’s shell company still went bankrupt and taxpayers were will be stuck paying off the bonds.

We taxpayers are told, pre construction, that tolls will pay off P3 bonds and back the notes. Even honest media such as The Washington Post parrot that line without  examination. Yet no one can find a single instance in which a  U.S. P3 toll road has generated the projected traffic or income. There is no bell curve of successes and failures that as one would expect if the forecasting of future traffic and future income was done correctly.

Inevitably, a few years later, after all the politicians and reporters have changed, the same excuse is given as the reason for the eventual bankruptcy:  “For XXX reason, the drivers didn’t show up as expected and, reluctantly, the poor private had to give up the ghost.” Never do P3 advocates suggest that bankruptcy was the business model.

Here in Virginia, our first P3, Pocahontas Parkway outside of Richmond, has gone bankrupt twice (yes, twice) in a little over a decade. The owner: an Australian infrastructure company, Transurban. Since then, Transurban participated in the Capital Beltway Express public-private partnership. After CBE took in only one-fifth the projected tolls, the company had to restructure its debt on the project. Despite those negative experiences, Transurban is building the Interstate 95 HOT lanes and competed unsuccessfully for the I-66 project.

If Transurban keeps losing its shirt on P3s, why does it keep coming back for more? I cannot prove it, but I strongly suspect that the company hires the smartest lawyers and smartest financiers to structure the P3s so as to offload risk and ensure the company comes out whole regardless of what tolls are generated. The P3 contracts runs hundreds of pages, and I question whether anyone in the McDonnell administration truly understood them, or even read them as they farmed out negotiations to private law firms that proudly on their websites the great returns they got for private investors.. Continue reading

Who Needs Amazon Drones When You’ve Got a Starship Robot?

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded.

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded. The company claims the devices are “inherently safe and can navigate around objects and people.”

A robot developed by Starship Technologies, of London, can make deliveries in urban environments. Capable of carrying loads as large as two grocery bags, this “personal courier” can make deliveries of groceries, wine, flowers, whatever, within a three-mile radius. Customers can track the robot’s location location on a smart phone.

“Our delivery platform will launch a new era of instant, unscheduled delivery as well as significantly lower the costs of shipments,” says the Starship website.

Legislation allowing the use of Electric Personal Delivery Devices (EPPDs) in Virginia unanimously passed the state Senate today.  The bill marks the first statewide approval of EPDDs operating on sidewalks, shared-use paths, and crosswalks in the United States, according to a press release issued by the office of Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who patroned the bill. A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Delegates.

“Starship Technologies is delighted with the passage of Senator DeSteph’s legislation from the Senate, and the team is excited about the opportunity to bring this technology to the Commonwealth of Virginia” said Allan Martinson, COO of Starship Technologies.  The bill was supported also by the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, and other Virginia officials have targeted unmanned vehicles as an economic development opportunity for the state. Drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has held up their deployment for safety reasons, but the use of ground-borne robots on public roads and sidewalks are governed by the states. Virginia also is playing a leading role in the research of driverless cars.

Impact on human settlement patterns… The Starship robot could tilt consumer preferences for urban areas over suburban. As a practical matter, the device can travel only where there are sidewalks and where development is compact. As much as I would love to order my Kroger groceries online (which I now can do) and have them delivered by a robot, there is no sidewalk in suburban Henrico County the device could travel to reach me. The street network and relatively high density of the City of Richmond would be far more suitable. In the grand scheme of things, delivery-by-robot is a small amenity. Still, it is one more reason to move from the ‘burbs into the city.

MTR, Would You Take over Metro, Please?

MTR, the Hong Kong commuter rail system, is arguably the world's most efficient.

MTR, the Hong Kong commuter rail system, is arguably the world’s most efficient.

Here’s an idea for readers to chew on while the Big Bacon is on vacation: How about privatizing the Washington Metro system? Honk Kong privatized its subway system in 2000, and it has worked out pretty well.

Writing on the Cato Institute blog, Chris Edwards quotes a report by McKinsey:

Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation has defied the odds and delivered significant financial and social benefits: excellent transit, new and vibrant neighborhoods, opportunities for real-estate developers and small businesses, and the conservation of open space. The whole system operates on a self-sustaining basis, without the need for direct taxpayer subsidies.

MTR’s railway system covers 221 kilometers and is used by more than five million people each weekday. It not only performs well—trains run on schedule 99.9 percent of the time—but actually makes a profit: $1.5 billion in 2014. MTR fares are also relatively low compared with those of metro systems in other developed cities. The average fare for an MTR trip in 2014 was less than $1.00, well under base fares in Tokyo (about $1.50), New York ($2.75), and Stockholm (about $4.00).

The ratio of passenger fares to operating costs is a high 185 percent, which means that fares cover not only operating costs but a share of capital costs. MTR raises other funds for capital from real estate deals under which it gains from land value increases near stations — a concept known as “value capture” that we have touted on this blog. MTR is so highly regarded in the mass transit world that it has contracted to run commuter rail systems in cities China, the United Kingdom Sweden and Australia. Why not Washington? (Hat tip: Tim Wise.)

Bacon’s bottom line: It would be unrealistic to expect Hong Kong results in in the Washington Metro. For one reason, Hong Kong is far more densely populated and rail is a more attractive option compared to driving. For another, it’s not clear whether Washington Metro could extract the same economic benefit from putting real estate deals together that MTR could. Zoning controls and land use planning may work very differently in the U.S. than in Honk Kong.  But the idea certainly appears to be worth pursuing. If MTR could do no more than bring operational efficiencies to Metro, Virginians would benefit from better service and lower subsidies.

Transportation Revolution Ain’t Slowing Down

Don Perrone epitomizes the transportation revolution. Project manager at Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, he displays the innards of his self-driving car.

Don Perrone epitomizes the transportation revolution. Project manager at Crozet-based Perrone Robotics, he  displays the innards of his self-driving car. Photo credit: Daily Progress.

Just a reminder of how rapidly technology is transforming automobiles and transportation, I submit two stories published yesterday….

From the Daily Progress: Perrone Robotics, a Crozet-based software company, is testing automated and fully autonomous vehicles on Virginia roads. Although driverless cars in Virginia must be manned, the laws regulating autonomous driving are more accommodating here than in many other states. “It’s pretty much an open playing field,” said Greg Scharer, Perrone’s chief operating officer “Virginia has a ‘tabula rasa’ on [automated vehicle] legislation.”

California may be dominating the transportation revolution, but Virginia is a player. Virginia Tech runs one of the nation’s leading transportation research centers in Blacksburg. And in 2015 Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the opening of the Virginia Automated Corridors, a 70-mile network of highways and arterial roads in Northern Virginia outfitted with high-definition mapping and data acquisition systems to support automated-vehicle testing. Those assets, with a friendly legal climate, makes Virginia an attractive location for research on autonomous vehicles.

Meanwhile, an MIT study hints at what carpooling options created by companies like Uber and Lyft, can accomplish. Smart phones and algorithms can accomplish amazing things. Says lead author Daniela Rus:

Instead of transporting people one at a time, drivers could transport two to four people at once, resulting in fewer trips, in less time, to make the same amount of money. A system like this could allow drivers to work shorter shifts, while also creating less traffic, cleaner air, and shorter, less stressful commutes.

The MIT team found that 95 percent of demand would be covered by some 2,000 10-person vehicles, compared to the nearly 14,000 taxis that currently operate in New York City. The algorithm works in real-time to reroute cars based on incoming requests and can dispatch idle cars to areas with high demand, says the MIT article.

Virginia doesn’t have any localities with the population density of New York. But cut the ride-sharing trips in half or two-thirds and you still have a remarkable reduction in the number of vehicles on the road. It makes no sense to spend multi-billions on new highways and transit projects when this potential lies within our grasp.

Who Will Champion Mobility as a Service?

Uber was just the first step. The App-algorithm-transportation revolution will evolve into Mobility as a Service.

Uber was just the first step. The App-algorithm-transportation revolution will evolve into Mobility as a Service. Virginia Virginians lead the way or fall behind?

Around the world, companies and muncipalities are experimenting with Mobility as a Service (MaaS). Fast Company describes how a new company, MaaS Global, is changing the thinking about transportation, in Helsinki, Finland:

If you need to go somewhere, you pull up a new app, which calculates the best way to get there—public transit, a bike-share bike, taxi, a rental car, or a combination. Instead of buying individual tickets, you pay a monthly fee of €249. …

Users can choose to link their calendars with the app, so routes will be planned in advance. With each trip, it’s possible to make a choice of transport mode based on what’s cheapest or greenest or most convenient—or mood….

MaaS Global is “in talks” with several cities in North America, Fast Company says. The company may or may not have devised a viable economic model — a fixed monthly prescription that doesn’t vary by usage seems problematic to me. But the company is only one of many experimenting in this space. Sooner or later, someone will figure out how to make it work.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’ve often referred to the integration of smart phones, algorithms and transportation as the Uber revolution because the ride-scheduling company Uber developed it first. But Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is much bigger than Uber, and its potential ramifications are even more far reaching. First and most important, it can save people money and expand their transportation options, thus improving their quality of life. Second,  MaaS could reverse the decades-long decline in shared ridership, meaning that we can get much more mileage (so to speak) out of our existing infrastructure.

Virginia can continue approaching transportation as it always has — by building new stuff, at a cost of billions of dollars a year — or it can foster the growth of Mobility as a Service. We Virginians need to ask ourselves, how can we encourage innovative transportation companies to set up shop in Virginia? We reached the right solution with Uber and Lyft, enabling them to compete in the transportation marketplace. That was a good start,  but what else can the public sector do to create a welcoming environment for entrepreneurs to expand beyond what is essentially a taxicab service?

The idea is just hanging out there, waiting for a champion. We probably can’t expect much from Republicans and Democrats, who are beholden to entrenched special interests. (The “transportation” sector has contributed roughly $35 million over the past decade to Virginia political candidates, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.) Republicans are the party of roads, and Democrats the party of mass transit. Both transportation modes are more than a century old, and both have much to fear from the MaaS revolution.

Only one party, the Libertarian Party, is the natural home for entrepreneurs and innovators who seek to disrupt the status quo. If Libertarians want to broaden their popular appeal by creating community-based, private-sector solutions for real-world challenges, then they should lead the charge for Mobility as a Service.

Washington Metro Needs another $1 Billion… Fast

The Washington Metro train wreck keeps piling up.

Washington Metro needs another $242 million from Virginia and its localities over three years.

The train wreck of the Washington Metro keeps piling up higher. The Washington Post sums up the situation this way: Local governments are “alarmed” as Metro says it needs an extra $1 billion over the next three years from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has earned credibility as an executive willing to make tough decisions, such as shutting down rail service at times and locations where maintenance and repairs are urgently needed. Now he’s telling local governments in the Washington area that fulfilling his goals for safety and reliability — needed to reverse a continued decline in ridership — will cost them an additional $1 billion over what they’ve budgeted for the next three years. That translates into a 36% increase in annual operating subsidies. Writes the Post:

According to Metro’s new forecasts, the District’s total contribution for operations and capital would jump from $467 million in the current budget year to $735 million in fiscal 2020. Maryland’s total would rise from $479 million to $727 million, and Virginia’s would increase from $332 million to $574 million. (Metro’s fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30.)

“We have a $40 billion investment [in Metro], and it’s 40 years old,” said Wiedefeld. “As we replace that, there’s big numbers going forward, and they grow with inflation. . . . Either we start to wrestle with this so it’s where we want it to be, or we just push it down the road.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Maintenance is a bitch, especially when you fail to properly fund it over 40 years. Politicians love the accolades for building new highways, bridges and transit projects. Of course, the ribbon-cutters are long gone when the infrastructure wears out and someone else has to pay to fix it. I wonder how many other Metros there are in Virginia, quietly racking up unfunded maintenance liabilities while nobody notices.

CTB Approves $4 Billion Interstate 64 Project

CTB approves $4 billion project to benefit Interstate 64, Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

The CTB approved Option A, one of four options, to relieve chronic congestion on Interstate 64 and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

Wow! The Commonwealth Transportation Board  approved yesterday a $4 billion plan to expand the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and widen twelve miles of Interstate 64 from four lanes to six. Said Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne after the vote: “Historic day for Hampton Roads and the state.”

The Virginian-Pilot provides these details:

The additional lane capacity in each direction would likely be high-occupancy toll lanes, which would require that a car carry three people to avoid a toll during peak hours. Vehicles with one or two people could choose to pay a variable toll based on congestion during peak hours. The Commonwealth Transportation Board will be able to weigh in later on the “managed lane” concept.

Buses would use the new lanes, too.

The existing lanes will remain free.

Funding will come from tolls and bonds, regional gas tax revenue, and federal loans.

Bacon’s bottom line: Northern Virginians have had to learn to live with HOT lanes, and now Hampton Roadsters will, too. Nobody likes paying the tolls, but the money to widen highways and build the tunnel has to come from somewhere.

Should Hampton Roadsters (or Virginians) pay higher gasoline taxes to improvements on Interstate 64? Nobody likes gasoline taxes either — especially if they’re not the ones benefiting from the project.

Should VDOT toll the new tunnel and its companion tunnels in order to lower the tolls? That, too, is a non-starter. No one likes paying a toll where they weren’t paying one before.

How about tolling just the new tunnel? That’s the plan! No one loses. If traffic is logjammed and you desperately need to get to the other side of the river, you can pay a toll (which will vary, depending upon demand) for an expedited trip. But you don’t have to pay the toll if you don’t want to. You can join the schlubs in the slow lanes, and you’re no worse off than before.

If you carpool or ride a bus, you’re better off. You can use the HOT lane for free, and you don’t wait in the schlub lanes.

Even if you’re a schlub, you’re probably better off. The slow lanes will be less congested than they would have been without the project. The HOT lanes will divert toll payers, carpoolers and buses who would have been clogging the slow lanes with you.

I haven’t seen how the deal or financing is structured, so I can’t comment on the soundness of the Interstate 64 plan. But construction of a HOT lane is both morally and politically defensible.