Category Archives: Transportation

Amazon-ification and Vehicle Miles Driven

I visited my daughter Sara the other day and was amused to note that delivery services had dropped off two cardboard boxes in front of her house. When I stepped inside, there was a third box, still unopened. Three packages delivered in one day. Wow, thought I. My wife and I might average one delivery per week. Upon my further inquiries, Sara revealed that she also had begun ordering her groceries online and having them delivered to her doorstep as well.

Sara is the mother of a three-month-old infant, so running errands is a serious chore. I understand why she might be willing to pay a modest delivery fee in exchange for greater convenience, especially when she’s juggling baby care with handling the administrative work for her husband’s law practice.

There’s a lesson here for public policy. The rise of e-commerce and home delivery is changing America’s driving habits, especially among younger people less entrenched than carmudgeons like me in their customary way of doing things. Instead of driving to the grocery store and perhaps combining it with one or two other errands, such as depositing a check or picking up a prescription, more and more people are opting for online delivery.

Online-delivery option takes people like Sara off local streets and roads. In the argot of transportation planners, it reduces the number of trips per household. For decades, the propensity for Americans to take an increasing number of trips per day fed the increasing number of cars on the road. According to Federal Highway Administration data, the average number of trips per household increased from 2.3 in 1969 to 3.3 in 2009, and the number of daily vehicle-miles driven per household increased from 34 to 58.1.

Conversely, more e-commerce means there are more delivery trucks roaming around our metropolitan regions and dropping off more packages than ever.

Here’s a big question for public policy wonks: Are we as a nation experiencing a net gain in vehicle miles driven or a net loss as a result of e-commerce? My hunch is that the trend is bringing about a net reduction in driving. While the typical American stops at one or two retail/service locations on average for each trip, I’m surmising that delivery trucks are stringing together long chains of drop-offs, using computer algorithms to plot the shortest, most efficient routes. (This may be true even for grocery store deliveries by refrigerated trucks.)

In sum, I would expect the net result to be positive for society — fewer vehicle miles driven, fewer vehicle emissions, and less congested streets. (But more cardboard boxes in the landfill.)

While positive overall, one might argue, this trend does not help our biggest headache: rush hour congestion caused by people driving back and forth from work. But even here, I expect there will be a modest benefit from home deliveries. Working people typically tack errands onto their commutes home — picking the dry cleaning, stopping at the grocery store, whatever. Insofar as home deliveries displace those rush-hour errands and shift the trips to non-rush hour times of the day, they might alleviate rush hour traffic to a modest degree.

The truisms that have underpinned our transportation planning are shifting under our feet. Smart planners will take into account the impact of e-commerce and home deliveries before investing billions of dollars on new roads, highways and mass transit projects on the assumption that the trends of the past 30 years can be confidently projected into the next 30 years.

Pony Up, D.C. Or Else!

Uh, oh, the Metro funding deal isn’t sealed yet. The Washington, D.C., city council could be the spoiler. While Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has asked council to back a $178.5 million annual increase in funding for the commuter rail system to go along with $154 million from Virginia and $150 from Maryland, a council faction by Chairman Phil Mendelson is balking.

Reports the Washington Post:

Mendelson (D) and five other council members sent Bowser a letter late Wednesday saying the city should give Metro only $167 million a year. The letter also says the District should contribute no more than Virginia and Maryland, contrary to the Virginia plan that stipulates each jurisdiction make a proportional contribution based on a funding formula that takes into account things such as ridership, population and number of Metro stations. …

Repeating arguments made by city officials in the past, Mendelson and the council members said that formula is unfair to the city, partly because the District has a smaller population than the Virginia and Maryland suburbs served by Metro.

But, as the Post points out, the District has 40 Metro stations, compared to 26 in Maryland and 25 in Virginia.

Furthermore, I’d add, the reason Metro finances are a wreck is that D.C. representatives on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board have insisted on not increasing fares and have been supportive of labor agreements that have run up operating costs and built up massive unfunded retirement liabilities. Virginia needs to stick to its guns, and D.C. needs to pony up $178.5 million.

Localities, Get in Front of the Transportation Revolution

An Amazon delivery drone — requires no additional investment in roads and highways.

After the General Assembly hashed out a deal this weekend providing the Washington Metro system with an additional $154 million per year in state funding, local Prince William County leaders expressed discontent that more funding for Metro means less money for roads and highways.

Lawmakers had to divert roughly $80 million from regional transportation projects administered by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to hit that dollar amount, reports Inside NoVa, “perturbing officials in counties without Metro stations.”

“This is hugely problematic to us,” said Vice Chair Marty Nohe, R-Coles, who also serves as chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to fund the sort of megaprojects we’re known for if we lose this money.”

My reaction to the road-builder lobby is the same as it is to the mass transit lobby. The United States is in the early stages of a transportation revolution in which Mobility as a Service will challenge traditional transportation modes such as mass transit and single-rider, owner-occupied vehicles. It is entirely foreseeable that time- and route-flexible shared ridership services in cars, vans, and buses will take away market share from route-fixed and schedule-fixed mass transit enterprises. Likewise, Mobility as a Service will be cheaper than car ownership. While affluent households will always want to own their own car, many will find the Mobility-as-a-Service option to be preferable.

Inevitably, we will see changes in driving patterns — changes that we cannot accurately predict. But committing ourselves to spending billions of dollars on road and highway projects on the assumption that the driving patterns of the past 50 years will remain the same over the next 10 years is nothing short of insane.

Prince William County, like every other jurisdiction in Virginia, needs to get in front of the Uber revolution and ascertain what kind of public investments (hopefully modest) will encourage mobility entrepreneurs to introduce new super-flexible shared ridership services to their locality. As a next step, they might explore how to reduce the number of automobile trips by expediting Amazon-like home delivery services. The transportation policy of the future should focus not on building new highway capacity but on reducing the number of trips.

Approving Metro’s Bare-Bones Capital Budget

Over the weekend the General Assembly agreed to give the Washington Metro $154 million a year in permanent new funding on the condition that Maryland and Washington, D.C., make up the balance of $500 million in new funding, reports the Washington Post. Maryland has passed its own $150 million funding bill, and the District will likely approve at least $150 million more.

Let’s assume for a moment that all the details are worked out, that all three jurisdictions come up with $450 million to $500 million a year for Metro, and that Congress adds $150 million a year to what the federal government has been contributing. Does this latest injection of money get the troubled bus and commuter-rail system out of the woods?

Metro has identified $25 billion in capital “needs” over the next 10 years. The bulk of these needs entail SGR (state of good repair) investments of $15.5 billion to maintain existing capital assets necessary for system preservation. The $25 billion figure also includes $7 billion in “new” needs which “address remediation of hazards or crowding on the rail system in core areas,” plus “unallocated” needs that include regular repairs and maintenance and services.

The added $600 million a year from Uncle Sam, the District, and the states will suffice to cover the critical state-of-good-repair needs and nothing else. Here’s what taxpayers will get for their money:

  • Replacing the 1000-series rail cars, installing a new radio system and cellular infrastructure, and replacing track circuits and power cabling where necessary.
  • Replacing power cable insulators on deep tunnels of the Red Line and other lines particularly where water intrusion occurs, which can disrupt service or cause the need for more frequent and costly repairs.
  • Replacing worn components of track and tunnels on all lines, necessary for safety and service delivery.
  • Upgrading the signaling system, which controls the movement and speed of trains, necessary for safe operations and on-time service delivery.

Nothing fancy here. Hopefully, these investments will reverse the deteriorating quality of service that has caused so many riders to desert Metro. But many desired investments will not be made. I have seen no analysis of what that portends for the quality of service.

The proposed FY 2019 budget for Metro includes no fare increases or service reductions. The operating budget assumes that management can limit spending growth to $12 million, or less than one percent “despite cost growth for legacy commitments, mandates and inflation.”

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld acknowledges that there are “substantial and ongoing risks” in the proposed 2019 budget. Foremost among these are ridership uncertainties in response to telework, gas prices, alternative transportation modes; collective bargaining; and unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: I continue to believe that the emerging Uber-like Mobility-as-a-Service transportation model poses an enormous threat to all existing transportation modes — both the own-it-yourself automobile model and fixed-route mass transit model. In an affluent society, there will always be some people who want to own their own automobiles allowing them to travel when they wish and with whom they wish, so privately owned automobiles will always be with us. But I’m not confident that there will always be people who prefer to ride in fixed-route, fixed-schedule buses and trains instead of flexible-route and flexible-schedule buses, vans, and cars.

I’m pretty sure that Metro, no matter how competently managed, will continue to loser riders, and that it will be coming back to taxpayers with tin cup in hand in another 10 years. If declining ridership doesn’t do the trick, unfunded retirement liabilities will.

Who Needs a Car, or Bus, When You’ve Got Uber?

The Uber revolution keeps on churning. The transportation service company has finally rolled out a service in the Washington region that resembles the kind of ride-hailing jitney service that I long predicted eventually would enter the marketplace. This service is potentially so disruptive that it could drive public mass transit out of the market for all but the highest-volume transportation corridors — although Uber denies that such is its aim.

From the Washington Post:

Beginning Wednesday … riders will be directed to pickup points within two blocks of their origin and dropped off within two blocks of their destinations, according to Uber. Riders will endure a slightly longer wait for a driver match — up to two minutes — while Uber works to place them along the optimal route. They then will be instructed where to catch their ride.

The perk for riders? Discounted trips. Express Pool is up to 50 percent cheaper than ride-splitting option UberPool and 75 percent cheaper than UberX, the door-to-door ride-hailing service, Uber says.

Finding rides won’t be a problem. Uber has 50,000 active drivers in the Washington region.

Hopefully, local governments will not throw roadblocks in Uber’s way to protect their local transit authorities. Rather, they should ask themselves what they can do to make the service operate more efficiently. In particular, they should proactively brainstorm with Uber to see how to make it easy for riders to congregate at loading spots and for Uber drivers to access them without blocking traffic.

This Metro Deal Literally Smells

As the General Assembly debates the state’s contribution to the bailing out of the Washington Metro system, Virginians are continually reminded of the company’s history of dysfunctional management. The latest news from the Washington Post:

An investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General has found that the grimey, orangey-brown, 1970s-era carpet installed in Metro trains are the product of “exceedingly stringent” requirements likely written to favor one supplier. The 100 percent pure virgin wool specification is no longer in use in the industry.

The recently concluded investigation found Metro’s standards for its carpeting were unchanged for two decades and that no other vendor could plausibly compete for the contract.

Moreover, the carpet lacked a required coating to prevent fungus and mildew, according to Metro Inspector General Geoff Cherrington — though it did meet standards for being fire-resistant and mothproof.

Further investigation found the carpet’s compliance testing was not being performed by an independent facility, as Metro requires, but by a laboratory with ties to the carpet manufacturer.

“The director of the lab used by the vendor is married to the Chief Financial Officer of the company that provided the vendor a line of credit” for the carpet order, according to a synopsis of the investigation included in a report to the Metro board.

Over the years, the WaPo reports, the carpet became known for collecting dirt and grime. “Riders are especially put off by the way it soaks up liquids — be it rain, slush, spilled beverages or um, other fluids — and smells.”

Meanwhile, back in the General Assembly, Republicans are far less amenable than Democrats to providing Metro the $150 million a year in additional support the ailing mass transit agency has requested to work down a maintenance backlog that has contributed to safety incidents, schedule delays, and declining ridership.

The new version of a bill sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has been unanimously approved by the House Transportation Committee and will serve as the basis for negotiations with the state Senate over a final Metro funding bill, reports WTOP. Hugo’s proposal would provide Metro $105 million a year, less than the roughly $150 million requested, and provide the funds only if Metro limits operating spending increases to 2 percent per year.

Further, the bill requires studies and reports on Metro’s governance, labor agreements and the federal law that outlines arbitration rules. “Reforms have to go hand in hand with the money,” Hugo said.

Unlike the proposal recommended by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Republican proposal would not immediately require changes to Metro’s Board.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is Virginia’s one opportunity to hang tough and demand long overdue managerial, labor and governance reforms to Metro. Once legislation is passed and the money starts flowing, the Commonwealth loses all leverage over the mass transit system. While the current senior management appears to be more competent then its predecessors, the mal-governance of the system has been spectacular, and it costing Virginia taxpayers (especially Northern Virginia taxpayers) dearly. Without fundamental reform, Metro will remain a festering, oozing, pustular sore that will continue to drain Virginia’s scarce transportation resources.

Noooooooooo! Not another Cville Bypass!

State Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, has filed a resolution and budget amendment to study building an eastern bypass around U.S. 29 around Charlottesville, reports the Daily Progress. During the McDonnell administration, Charlottesville residents managed to kill a proposed $230 million western bypass around the city in favor of making extensive improvements to U.S. 29 itself. Now Peake wants to try building a bypass around the eastern side of Charlottesville. Danville built a bypass and Lynchburg built one, he says, and it’s reasonable to ask Charlottesville to build one, too.

I understand Lynchburg’s fixation on the Charlottesville bypass. Back in the days when interstate highways were being mapped out, Lynchburg drew the short stick and got… bypassed. U.S. 29, a state highway, became its major industrial access corridor. But local land use decisions in Charlottesville and Albemarle County gunked up the highway with shopping centers, malls, stop lights, curb cuts, and other encumbrances. U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville became, in essence, a suburbified Main Street at the expense of travelers passing through. Lynchburg residents had every right to complain.

But $230 million is a lot of money, and analysis showed that construction of a bypass, which would circumvent only a fraction of the congestion, would save only a few minutes in travel time. The Virginia Department of Transportation instead invested in the money spot improvements that, along with stoplight synchronization, have eased congestion somewhat.

Enough time has passed, however, that Peake wants to try again, this time exploring the potential for a bypass east of the city.

This proposal won’t fly any more than a western bypass. For starters, an eastern bypass would be longer, hence more expensive. Second, most Charlottesville-Albemarle residents don’t want a bypass, period, they will oppose it with every fiber of their being, and the politics will be just as ugly this time around as it was for the western bypass.

Third, Peake is overlooking an emerging threat to travel times on U.S. 29 — the gunking up of the entire highway between Charlottesville, Warrenton and Northern Virginia. As the Northern Virginia development blob penetrates ever deeper into the rural hinterlands, the highway is attracting more exurban-style development. It seems as if a new stoplight is added with every passing year. While the stoplights tend to be miles apart, the sheer number of delays are equivalent to what travelers encounter in Charlottesville.

Peake and his fellow Lynchburgers should fear the stroadification of the entire highway north of Charlottesville. (Stroads are dysfunctional street-road hybrids, which U.S. 29 is becoming.) Instead of pushing for an expensive, unpopular bypass, he should work on legislation that safeguards the integrity of the remaining highway portion of U.S. 29 by limiting direct access to it.

Want Amazon? Fix Metro, says Wiedefeld.

If Virginians want Amazon to locate HQ2, its second headquarters, in the Washington area, they need to help fix Metro, the region’s ailing commuter rail service. That was part of the message delivered by Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld yesterday to the House Appropriation Committee’s Transportation subcommittee.

The Metro needs at least $15.5 billion in capital spending over the next decade to address a massive maintenance backlog, address safety issues and keep commuter trains running on time. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe included $150 million a year for Metro in the state budget on the condition that Maryland and Washington, D.C. contribute their share.

A functional Metro is crucial to winning Amazon, which has indicated it will invest $5 billion in a new headquarters complex, Wiedefeld told legislators, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“They want transit, and they want it to work well,” said Wiedefeld, who told the delegates that he has cut hundreds of positions, revised ethics and nepotism policies, and imposed controls on workers’ compensation and employee absenteeism in his efforts to right what has been seen as a woefully mismanaged transit system. WMATA also now has its first-ever preventive maintenance program, he said.

Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland are among the 20 locations that made Amazon’s top 20 list of prospects for its second headquarters complex. Amazon has declared that mass transit is a key factor in its site-selection process.

Bacon’s bottom line: It would be helpful to know what inducements Virginia has offered the technology giant to choose a location near Washington Dulles International Airport, but it is standard practice not to reveal such details. Likewise, it would be easier to justify shelling out extra billions for the Metro if we knew the odds of landing Amazon, but Amazon is not about to tip its hand. As usual, legislators and the public are in the dark, trying to make a multibillion-dollar decision on the basis of incomplete information.

A New Generation of Fuzzy Thinkers for Henrico

Henrico County has flipped from a majority-Republican to a majority-Democrat board of supervisors. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. If Democrats nudge the county toward more rational, Smart Growth-like land use patterns — more infill, more density, more mixed use, more walkability — it could be a good thing. If they push the county into ill-thought-out spending initiatives, it could be a bad thing.

Based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage of a two-day board retreat, it looks like spending will top the list. The three Democratic members of the board indicated their desire to expand the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company) Route 19 to the Short Pump retail center at an estimated cost of $800,000 annually.

The purported benefit is greater access for job seekers. Tyrone E. Nelson, representing the Varina district at the east end of the county, said he could not understand why a county with a budget of nearly $1 billion had not yet devoted funds to bring bus service to the employment center. “I still don’t understand why it’s like pulling teeth to get public transportation to Short Pump. This is a 2018 need.”

His fellow Democrats expressed the same sentiment. “We’re not doing enough for job access,” said newly elected Courtney Lynch. “When you look at things we should spend money on, this should be something where we can get creative and get things done.”

Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that helping people gain access to jobs is a worthy goal. We want people to work so they can support themselves and their families. In Henrico County, the poorest residents tend to live in the far east end of the county, far from the affluent Short Pump commercial district where many jobs are available. GRTC already runs buses out Broad Street to Costco, and the expansion would extend the service a few miles more at seemingly modest cost.

That makes sense as a starting point for an inquiry: Hey, extending the bus line just a couple miles more would provide passengers access to a whole bunch of jobs they can’t reach now. Let’s take a closer look and see if it makes economic sense. From what I glean from the Times-Dispatch article and county documents, however, the supervisors skipped that let’s-see-if-it-makes-economic-sense step.

Henrico County Public Works has posted a slide presentation online covering proposed investments in roads, highways, sidewalks, bike trails, and mass transit. The slides contain a lot of information, but not everything that we, as citizens need to reach an informed conclusion. Perhaps the speaker making the slide presentation had more to say about the economics of bus service, but there is no indication of it in the Times-Dispatch article.

Let’s start with the map at atop this post. The big blue circle on the right is Mr. Nelson’s supervisor district. The small blue circle on the left is the Short Pump employment center. To get there, Nelson’s job-seeking constituents must take the bus into downtown Richmond where they would transfer to another bus running out to Short Pump.

The first question is how many passengers avail themselves of the bus service to access retail and service jobs along Broad Street at present? One hundred a day? A thousand? Ten thousand? Presumably, existing passenger loads would give us an order-of-magnitude idea of what might be expected if we extended the line. Alas, existing passenger numbers are not provided.

The more pertinent question is how many additional passengers are projected to avail themselves of the bus service going all the way to Short Pump. Again, in orders of magnitude, are we walking about 100 passengers, 1,000, or 10,000? This would seem to be a critical matter because, if the new service costs $800,000 a year to operate to benefit 100 passengers daily, we’re talking about an annual subsidy of $8,000 per passenger — an extraordinary sum. Why not just buy each passenger a new car? If we’re talking about benefiting 10,000 passengers, then the subsidy is only $80 per passenger, a nominal sum in which the social and tax benefits clearly outweigh the expenditure. If we’re talking about something in between, then the decision is not so clear.

As always, we should ask if there are alternative expenditures of money that would yield greater social benefits. Eight hundred thousand dollars is a nice chunk of change. I were a supervisor representing Nelson’s district, I would convene a meeting of GRTC, Uber, Lyft, Bridj, and other transportation-service companies and ask them, what kind of service could you provide my constituents for $800,000 worth of subsidies? Could you provide more point-to-point service providing more convenient schedules and shorter travel times, making it even easier to make the trip and find a job? Can you come up with a more imaginative solution than simply extending the existing bus schedule?

When such basic questions go unasked, we can be assured that money will be ill spent. Truly, Henrico has entered a new era — from one in which it made lousy land use decisions to one in which it will make lousy spending decisions.

Your Tax Dollars at Work: VDOT Snow Removal Edition

VDOT snow removal. Photo credit: Reston Now.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has largely cleaned up its act from the early 2000s when construction projects routinely ran behind schedule and over budget. But this story from Inside NoVA makes one wonder if its internal controls are still up to snuff.

Five people, including two state transportation officials, pleaded guilty this week to a bribery scheme involving more than $10.3 million in snow removal contracts, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. …

Over five years, Kenneth Duane Adams, 42, of Fairfax, and Anthony Willie, 55, of Culpeper, made agreements with several owners and operators of trucking and snow removal companies seeking work during snow storms, [U.S. Attorney’s Office Joshua] Stueve said, including Rolando Pineda Moran, 46, of Alexandria, and John Williamson, 51, of Springfield.

Beginning in the late 2012 and continuing through the 2016‑2017 snow season, Willie and Adams would often meet the snow removal contractors at local restaurants, grocery stores and parking lots in Burke and Fairfax, collecting approximately $440,000 in cash bribes, Stueve said.

Adams also pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine after law enforcement recovered approximately 129 grams of cocaine and related drug paraphernalia at Adams’ residence during the execution of a search warrant. Stueve said Adams also admitted to previously distributing cocaine to others, including several of his colleagues at VDOT, and to obtaining cocaine from a relative of one of his VDOT co-workers.

It’s not clear from the story how the authorities were tipped off to the bribes and drug distribution. If VDOT’s internal auditors discovered it, well, we can infer that its internal controls are working, even if a bit belatedly. If local cops or state police uncovered the wrongdoing, then VDOT needs to take a closer look at its controls. Time for random drug tests, perhaps?

(Hat tip: Larry Gross)