Category Archives: Transportation

Autonomous Cars — a Cheap Economic Boost?

Who needs to build new roads or create tolled express lanes when the driverless car revolution is almost upon us? Clifford Winston and Quentin Karpilow suggest that autonomous cars will reduce traffic congestion by boosting highway throughput, creating a huge boost to economic productivity and output.

In a new paper published by the Mercatus Center, “A New Route to Increasing Economic Growth: Reducing Highway Congestion with Autonomous Vehicles,” Winston and Karpilow write:

Widespread adoption of autonomous (driverless) vehicles —- which American and foreign technology companies and automakers are actively developing, testing, and perfecting, with some industry leaders and US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx expecting driverless vehicles to be available to the public by 2021 —- could reduce highway congestion by greatly improving the flow of traffic and by reducing vehicle accidents without significantly increasing the monetary cost of commuting.

Using our estimation results for California and conservatively extrapolating to the nation, we find that the adoption of autonomous vehicles could have potentially large macroeconomic stimulative effects. Specifically, in a given year, a 50 percent penetration rate for autonomous vehicles (i.e., half of the vehicles used by motorists would be driverless) could add at least $214 billion in GDP, 2.4 million jobs, and $90 billion in income to the US labor force.

Read the paper and decide for yourself if this analysis holds water. If it does, Virginia needs to jump on board the autonomous-automobile train (pardon the ironic metaphor). Early-adopter states will enjoy tremendous economic advantages over the laggards. It could be the least expensive economic boost ever.

Virginia’s Infrastructure Deficit

Virginia's infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

Virginia’s infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

I have often opined on Virginia’s hidden deficits — fiscal time bombs in the form of budgetary gimmicks, pension under-funding, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. These problems are national in scope, and Virginia has been somewhat less derelict in its duty than other states, but sooner or later the Old Dominion will have an ugly confrontation.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) rams home the message. The U.S. overall infrastructure rates a D+ rating. Virginia-specific infrastructure rates a C-. (For whatever reason the 2017 national report card links to the 2015 Virginia report card.)

Here’s a summary of the ASCE’s run-down of major infrastructure categories.

Bridges. Virginia has 20,977 bridges and culverts, and their overall health is in decline due to age and lack of funding. Fifty-six percent are approaching the end of their 40-year anticipated design life. Some 30% are more than 50 years old. In 2013, 23% were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  “Available funds are often used to address immediate repair or replacement needs, leaving few remaining funds for preventative maintenance. … The statistics indicate an impending peak of replacements which may be required within the next 10 years.”

Dams. Virginia’s dam inventory continues to grow older and more susceptible to damage. The majority were built in the 1950-75 era, and their average age is 50 years old. Of the state’s high-hazard dams, 45% have conditional certificates, indicating that they do not meet current safety standards. The rehabilitation cost for high- and significant-hazard dams is estimated to be $392 million.

Drinking water. Virginia has 2,830 public water systems supplying drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians. A large number of these systems have passed 70 years in age. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment showed that Virginia waterworks need nearly $6.1 billion over the next 20 years. “Deferral of the necessary improvements has worked so far, but can result in degraded water service, water quality violations, health issues, and higher costs in the future.”

Parks & recreation. Park attendance in Virginia is on the rise, and state parks are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation. The ASCE commentary vaguely states that “a lack of commitment to adequately fund and maintain our facilities will change things for future generations.”

Rail and transit. The report focuses mainly on the inadequacies of funding for passenger rail, which must share rail lines owned by railroad companies that give their own commercial traffic priority. Virginia did recently set up a Rail Enhancement Fund, and it created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, although it did not actually put any money into the latter. “The current funding is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rail and passenger service or to complete the much-needed rail infrastructure improvements and upgrades.”

Roads. The condition of Virginia roads is tolerable from a maintenance and safety standpoint, but traffic congestion in the Washington and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas has a huge negative economic impact. The average Washington-area commuter experiences 74 hours a year of delay. Despite an increase in transportation funding in 2013, “a network that has grown by 14% over the last 35 years and with every dollar buying less construction work, more funding is needed to maintain safe roadways while adding needed capacity, making this a  high priority for Virginia.”

Schools. More than 1,800 public school buildings serve Virginia’s K-12 students. A comprehensive 2013 analysis found that 60% of schools are at least 40 years old. Estimated renovation costs exceed $18 billion for schools more than 30 years old.

Solid waste. Virginia’s solid waste infrastructure is in “good” condition. Increased recycling, a reduction in out-of-state waste, and the addition of 11 additional waste facilities have increased the state’s capacity from 20 years to 22 years.

Stormwater. About one-third of Virginia’s stormwater infrastructure is more than 30 years old, and much of the remainder was built 25 to 30 years ago. Most stormwater infrastructure has a 50- to 100-year lifespan. But the ASCE report is not impressed. “There are shortcomings to address for state-level, standardized reporting, public education, and ensuring a dedicated source of funding commensurate with the economic benefits of a healthy Chesapeake Bay and Virginia ecosystems.”

Wastewater. Virginia has $6.8 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, a 45% increase from ASCE’s previous report card in 2009. That includes $1 billion for combined-sewer overflow, and much  more to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean water standards. “Virginia has made progress with considerable investments and has a comprehensive plan, but has tremendous challenges ahead.”

I don’t share the ASCE’s sense of urgency for every category. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, there are alternatives to building more road and transit projects: (1) reforming land use to provide a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities, and (2) accelerating the Uber-ization of ride sharing in order to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. I also question whether 40 years is an appropriate standard for rehabilitating or replacing school buildings. Clearly, many schools need rehabbing, but the study may overstate the number.

Even with these caveats, Virginia’s infrastructure deficit runs into the billions of dollars. And this analysis does not address recurrent flooding, an increasing problem in Hampton Roads. On top of all the other issues mentioned above, hardening the region’s infrastructure will cost billions of dollars of dollars more.

Update: Charles Marohn over at the Strong Towns blog eviscerates the ASCE report, which he describes as a “propaganda document.”

The reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Sixty years of unproductive infrastructure spending later, we are awash in maintenance liabilities with no money to pay for them. This is what happens when you have a government-subsidized, Ponzi-scheme growth system that, at all times, lives for the next transaction. America is all about new growth, which is why we don’t even bother to question the findings in a study like this.

Is Virginia Ready for the Transportation Revolution?

The 21st-century transportation revolution is undermining core pubic policy assumptions about surface transportation. Will Virginia change its thinking?

The 21st-century transportation revolution is undermining core pubic policy assumptions about surface transportation. Will Virginia change its thinking?

The 21st-century transportation revolution is shifting into higher gear. Technology companies, automobile manufacturers, and energy companies are reassessing the future to see how they  might exploit emerging trends. Where it all goes, nobody yet knows. But state and local governments, which build the infrastructure this emerging industry will run on, need to pay attention.

Highlights from an IHS Markit study, “Reinventing the Wheel,” appear in a Wall Street Journal advertorial today.  The thrust is that the surface transportation industry has not seen this much turmoil since the invention of the automobile more than a century ago. Three trends are converging in ways that are difficult to divine:

  • The rise of driverless cars
  • The rise of electric vehicles
  • The rise of mobility as a service

Of the three, the concept of “mobility as a service” — the idea that people don’t need to own their own automobiles but can order transportation when and where they need it — is potentially the most transformative. “Mobility as a service,” says the essay, “offers a new form of affordable, convenient, and time-effective transportation that could increase miles traveled around the world.”

Uber, which has first-mover advantage in ride-hailing, now has a market capitalization of $68 billion — more than any of Detroit’s “big three” automotive companies. China’s Didi ride-hailing company averaged 20 million rides per day in the second half of 2016.

The invention of ride-hailing apps for automobiles is just the beginning. “Mobility as a service is in its infancy, and even newer business models may appear soon enough,” says the essay. “In Europe we could foresee a modal switch from public mass transit to new forms that offer a different service experience than trains, metros, or buses.”

(We’re already seeing experiments in ride-sharing such as carpools and commuter buses. I fully expect ride-hailing apps to rejuvenate mass transit in the form of jitney-like van services. The advantage of van ride-sharing is that vans, which carry smaller numbers of passengers, can convey people from Point A to Point B with greater flexibility and precision than buses and trains that must stick to fixed routes at fixed times. Uber-ized vans won’t provide as much flexibility and precision as single-occupancy automobiles, but they will provide rides at a more affordable price — potentially for less than mass transit — thus making the service available to a much broader market.)

Mobility as a service has enormous momentum. And it overlaps with two other significant changes: driverless cars and electric vehicles.

“Removing the driver from the car would lower the cost of ride-hailing, thereby opening up access to new population segments,” the essay suggests. Technology companies such as Google and Apple, with some of the largest cash reserves globally, have the resources to overcome technology challenges (and, I would add, the liability issues surrounding car crashes and injuries).

Electric vehicles could diminish the resistance of those who fear that an increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled would increase air pollution and CO2 emissions.

There is one more element in the transportation revolution that the essay overlooks, and that is the assumption that automobiles must be four-seaters. As seen in the photo of experimental Toyota vehicles above, designs for single-seaters are multiplying, even as we see innovations such as battery-assisted bicycles. Such vehicles will bring down the cost of mobility as a service even more.

This multi-faceted transportation revolution is being driven mainly by companies outside Virginia. But, as the essay makes clear, the new technologies and business models will play out on local roads and streets. “The forces driving change will interact in different ways across the globe,” says the essay. “The key decision-makers may well be cities. Some may make bets on all all-electric fleets, while others could see more rapid adoption of autonomous vehicles.”

How will Virginia respond to the transportation revolution? In the previous post, I noted that state government faces a long-term structural mismatch between revenue and spending. Unless we are willing to raise taxes, we must fundamentally re-think how government delivers core services. The mobility revolution offers a once-in-a-century opportunity to do things differently — to provide more mobility for more people at less expense. Will we take advantage of this opportunity, or will we continue, out of institutional inertia, doing things the same way we always have?

Vehicle Miles Traveled: Where the Action Is

Where Vehicle Miles Traveled has increased the most, 2002 to 2015, as shown on this map of VDOT's transportation districts.

Where Vehicle Miles Traveled has increased the most, 2002 to 2015, as shown on this map of VDOT’s transportation districts.

A few days ago I published a graph showing that Virginia has experienced a modest increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) since 2002, but I couldn’t draw any meaningful conclusions. Statewide numbers obscure the traffic dynamics in different parts of the state, and I didn’t have the time to drill deeper.

Inspired no doubt by my sparkling prose, Carol Bova took the trouble to compile the VMT numbers broken down by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)’s nine transportation districts between 2002 and 2015. As the beneficiary of her exertions, I no longer have any excuses.

The data make it very clear: While Virginia roads and highways are getting more congested overall, some are getting congested faster than others. Indeed, some parts of the state are de-congesting (if that’s a word). This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Virginia’s demographic trends. The districts with stagnant VMT are experiencing stagnant or shrinking populations.

The overwhelming increase in VMT occurred in the  yellow oval in the map above. Other than an anomalous jump in Interstate traffic in the Staunton district — either Interstate 81 is getting very busy or Northern Virginia’s Interstate 66 commuter shed has leaped over the Blue Ridge Mountains — the overwhelming majority of the traffic growth occurred in just four districts: Northern Virginia, Richmond, Fredericksburg and Culpeper. Those four districts saw an increase of 13.2 million Vehicle Miles Traveled over the 13-year period — four times more than the 3.1 million increase for the other five districts combined.

Even this conclusion cries out for more granularity. The growth in VMT was almost assuredly more concentrated than a glance at transportation districts alone would show. The growth in the Richmond district occurred mainly in the Richmond metro area, not the rural expanse to the south. Likewise, growth in Culpeper and Fredericksburg assuredly took place in the counties in the growth path of metropolitan Washington. (Charlottesville might have added a small kicker for the Culpeper region.)

For all the region’s traffic bottlenecks, the percentage VMT growth in Hampton Roads was modest — on a par with Roanoke/Salem, a less populated transportation district. The Lynchburg district tread water, while the Bristol district lost traffic.

As an aperitif, here is a breakdown of the Vehicle Miles Traveled in absolute numbers (not percentage growth) broken down by transportation district in 2015. While traffic volume may be increasing the fastest in the Culpeper/Fredericksburg exurbs, the districts representing the three main metros — and that includes Hampton Roads — still predominate.

VDOT data exists to drill down locality by locality to confirm or rebut my tentative conclusions. If I ever have the time, I will compare 2002 and 2015 VMT for each Virginia locality and map the percentage increase with Exel’s cool new data mapping software (assuming I can figure out how it works). But don’t hold your breath. My sponsors keep me busy with energy and higher-ed.

Axes Fall after People Express Loan Guarantee Blows Up

People Express aircraft at Newport News/Williamsburg Airport. Photo credit: Daily Press

The executive director of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport has been placed on administrative leave in the wake of a scandal involving the use of $3.55 million in state funds to help make good on a loan guarantee made to People Express airline.

The airport had backed the loan as part of a deal to get People Express to provide discount passenger service to the Newport News/Williamsburg area. The episode did not turn out well. People Express fell $100,000 behind in its passenger facility charges, and the Peninsula Airport Commission told the airline in 2014 to leave after less than three months of operation there. The company subsequently filed for bankruptcy.

Meeting in a closed session, the commission approved using the $3.55 million state funds plus $1 million in federal funds to meet its loan obligations. Such a use violated a 30-year state policy. Virginia’s transportation secretary Aubrey Layne called it the largest unauthorized use of state aviation funds ever, reports David Ress with the Daily Press.

Support for the airport evaporated as the state, the City of Hampton and the James City County Economic Development Authority decided to withhold payments to the body. In the most recent developments, reported this morning, the Newport News City Manager has resigned as an airport commissioner, the commission ended its six-decade-old relationship with its law firm, and the airport’s executive director Ken Spirito was put on paid administrative leave until completion of  a state audit.

Bacon’s bottom line: Let this be a warning to citizens serving on local commissions, authorities and other public entities. It seems easy and painless to guarantee a loan as a way to lure a business to your community. But if the loan needs a guarantee, there’s probably a lot of risk attached to it, and you could very well be on the hook for it. That’s what officials of the Peninsula Airport Authority learned to the detriment of their careers.

Kudos to the Daily Press, by the way, for bird-dogging this story every step along the way.

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.