Sunday, 11 July 2004


I can’t answer all of Will Baude’s questions, but I’ll give two of them a shot:

Why is a turnpike called a turnpike?

For that matter, what exactly makes a particular stretch of limited-access highway a turnpike?

Turnpikes were originally named “turnpikes” because that was the name of the turnstiles that were used at the toll gates; they started out as “turnpike roads” but the name was shortened to simply “turnpike” or even (particularly in the South) “pike.”

In general, a modern turnpike is a fully-controlled access highway (what engineers and Californians call a “freeway,” Britons would call a “motorway,” and francophones call an autoroute) that charges a toll for use; however, there are exceptions—most notably, the Connecticut Turnpike (part of Interstate 95), which stopped charging tolls after a nasty multivehicle accident at a tollbooth in 1985. Also, some contemporary turnpikes only charge tolls on part of their length—the Maryland Turnpike starts near Baltimore and runs to the Delaware border, but the toll is only charged at one location on the route.

So, in sum, the name “turnpike” is generally applied to roads that are, or used to be, toll roads, and there’s no particular logic to whether or not a particular toll road will be called a “turnpike.”

Monday, 5 July 2004

Trust fund follies

Chip Taylor notes the current congressional squabble over the distribution of highway trust fund money. He writes:

Of course, if every state got back exactly what its residents paid in, the main purpose of the federal tax and trust fund would be to allow the feds to dictate highway-related laws: drinking ages, BAC levels, open-container laws and the like. Come to think of it, that is likely the main purpose now.


Of course, now the sicko social scientist in me wants to construct an econometric model of state highway trust fund returns.

Sunday, 20 June 2004

Pothole politics

Kate of Small Dead Animals has visual evidence of the Saskatchewan NDP’s hostility to the United States.

Neoprohibitionists on Parade

Radley Balko is keeping an eye on the state-level activities of the increasingly prohibitionist (and increasingly misnamed) MADD and their pet state legislators. It’s not a very pretty picture.

Monday, 14 June 2004

Downtown livin' large

News like this makes me happy I decided to get an apartment in Belhaven rather than living in Ridgeland or northeast Jackson.

Of course, knowing my luck, this coming year will be the year Jackson finally decides to fix Fortification Street (which drives like it was last resurfaced during the Nixon administration) and they find the cash to stick in all the speed humps and roundabouts they want to put in the neighborhood.

Texas bringing WiFi to the highways

The Texas Department of Transportation plans to install free WiFi hotspots at all of its highway rest areas, after a pilot project at 4 rest stops along U.S. 287 found them to be a hit with the motoring public.

Tuesday, 8 June 2004

Innovations in transportation policy

I originally meant to discuss Virginia Postrel’s NYT piece from last month on the highway reauthorization bill, but got distracted. Luckily, she has resurrected the topic at Dynamist Blog, and given me something more to talk about:

New spending also ignores all the “micro allocative efficiencies” that transportation economists like Cliff Winston spend most of their time worrying about: Could pricing make roads more productive? Should we target spending and construction toward the most congested areas? Are the roads the right thickness? Should cars and trucks be segregated? Are construction costs artificially high because of Davis-Bacon and other political constraints? Are we building too many roads in rural areas? What is the right tradeoff between capital costs and maintenance? And so forth… These questions simply don’t get asked, because highway spending is entirely political. It isn’t about making the roads more efficient.

While I’ll concede that the bulk of the highway reauthorization is about new spending (whether for maintenance or new construction), I think many of these topics will be addressed in the eventual legislation. It expands the authorization of toll projects on existing free facilities for rehabilitation and expansion, as well as authorizing new pilot programs for congestion pricing and “high-occupancy/toll” lanes. FHWA and state transportation agencies have been experimenting with new and improved pavement technologies for years, leading to the development of Superpave™ and better standards for highway construction. The idea of separating cars from trucks has been advanced in other venues—Texas’ own Rick Perry has spearheaded the Trans-Texas Corridor project, which includes separate truck and car lanes as a central feature, while similar ideas have been explored for improving traffic flow in both urban areas (access to ports in southern California and the Detroit-Windsor border crossing) and on rural corridors (namely, the congested I-81 route in Virginia).

So, in sum, I think many of the questions are being asked—and answered. Looking for those answers in the national political process, however, overlooks the other areas of innovation—public-private partnerships, state transportation agencies, and (shockingly) the federal bureaucracy—where progress on ideas other than pure pork is being made.

Thursday, 22 April 2004

Ignoring the big SUV in the room

John Kerry is in denial over his ownership of a sport-utility vehicle. Like any responsible husband would, he blames his wife…

Surprisingly, though, he does fess up to owning a Dodge 600, a giant piece of 1980s Detroit iron that probably gets less gas mileage than his wife’s late-model Chevy Suburban.

Friday, 16 April 2004

DWLtW (Driving while listening to Wagner)

According to Britain’s RAC Foundation for Motoring, one should avoid listening to “Ride of the Valkyries” while driving. Other music to avoid, according to the RAC Foundation: “Firestarter” by Prodigy; “Red Alert” by Basement Jaxx; “Insomnia” by Faithless; and “Dies Irae” by Verdi.

Acceptible music for driving: “Mad World” by Gary Jules; “Another Day” by Lemar; “Too lost in You” by Sugababes; “Breathe Easy” by Blue; and Norah Jones – “Come away with me” by Norah Jones

One should also avoid any music ever featured in a Mitsubishi commercial.

Wednesday, 14 April 2004

Chicago, you're only a day a-way (from Memphis, at least)

I’ve arrived safe and sound in Chi-town. Illinois has to be the most boring state in the nation; the whole state is flat as a pancake as soon as you get north of Mount Vernon (where I-64 crosses the state on its way between Louisville and St. Louis), and it doesn’t get more exciting until you can see the Sears Tower about 300 miles (500 km) later.

I even tried going a different way than usual (“Surely this lake on the map means topography nearby,” I thought erroneously), and all I got for my effort was an extra hour of staring at endless farmland, although I at least got off I-57—in other words, at least the flat, boring farmland was different flat, boring farmland. (From Effingham, I took Ill. 32 to Ill. 121 to Decatur, then took U.S. 51 north to Bloomington, then I-55 into Chicago.)

Speaking of Effingham, that giant cross is just freaky. Say what you will about Southern Baptists, but at least they have the good taste not to inflict something so immensely gaudy on the motoring public (preferring, instead, giant fields of tiny crosses or trinities of smaller crosses that aren’t hazards to unsuspecting amateur pilots).

Now, off to get me a light dinner and to finish getting junk out of my car.

Saturday, 3 April 2004

Odd stuff in the Times

David Bernstein, among my co-blogger’s least favorite Volokh Conspirators, links a New York Times piece on the passage of the House version of the transportation reauthorization bill.

Now the article is written by “David Stout,” whose job apparently is to rewrite AP copy for the NYT website; to my knowledge, “his” articles never appear in print (and “he” may just be a pseudonym for a group of copy editors). What’s weird about the article? Let’s pull out some excerpts:

Regardless of the real figure, President Bush has threatened to veto the measure as too costly at a time that he and Congressional Republicans are supposed to be serious about holding down the federal deficit.

I believe this is a run-on sentence, to begin with. And the second half of the sentence looks like an editorial comment, not news reporting.

“Thirty billion, when you are cutting the deficit in half in five years, is real money,” Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said the other day, apparently with no humor intended.

“The other day” seems rather imprecise for dating a quotation for a newspaper article. And the statement that this was said “apparently with no humor intended” is a complete non-sequitor. (The quote appears to have been cribbed from this Carl Hulse article dated April 1.)

The highway-spending bill enjoys wide support among Democrats and Republicans alike because the members of both parties have something in common: their constituents use highways (and bridges and bike paths and other incidentals wrapped into the bill.)

Again, another strange paragraph; this one isn’t even punctuated correctly—the “incidentals,” by the way, include the entire Federal Transit Administration; a rather large “incidental,” wouldn’t you think? Strange.

(Hulse’s article in Saturday’s paper is far more coherent.)

Friday, 2 April 2004

Walkin' to my Escalade

Josh Chafetz and Andrew Sullivan have been having a bit of a back-and-forth over whether the gas tax should be raised. As Josh pointed out yesterday, such a tax would be highly regressive, particularly hitting the working poor in rural communities that don’t have mass transit.

It would also be bad policy for another reason: the gasoline tax is essentially a user fee. Most of the revenues of the federal gas tax are returned to the states (according to a rather arcane formula that just happens to shift funds from rural America to the Northeast) to pay for the federal share of major highway construction and resurfacing projects, while the rest of the money helps pay for the federal mass transit subsidy (thus, Mr. Sullivan, who doesn’t operate his own vehicle, receives a massive subsidy from those of us who drive). Diverting gas tax revenues to the general fund would arguably be even more crooked than diverting money from the Social Security tax to pay for the defense budget, or taking FICA receipts and using those to operate the postal service.

And, while I generally share their dislike for the sport utility vehicle (though am puzzled why comparably gas-guzzling vehicles like minivans escape their wrath), raising the gas tax would be a very crude instrument for reducing demand for SUVs: while people do respond to price signals over the long term, over the short run the demand for gasoline is rather price inelastic. But if your animus for the SUV is motivated by its gas-guzzling properties, rather than its appearance, you’ll be happy to know that Toyota will be introducing a hybrid gas-electric SUV next year, the Highlander Hybrid, which will provide “the fuel economy of a four-cylinder compact sedan.”

Update: Stephen Karlson properly takes note of the market-distorting effects of the rather arbitrary division between cars and trucks in the CAFE standard, which “effectively preclude some sport-ute and minivan drivers from substituting one size downward” to station wagons and large sedans.

Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Taking its toll

Today’s Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports that a bill authorizing toll roads in Mississippi is working its way through the legislature, and seems to have a pretty good chance of passage this year—it has the support of the entire (separately elected) Transportation Commission, and it’s already passed the full Senate and the House Transportation Committee.

So far, the only two projects singled out for tolling are a seven-mile connector between the state port at Gulfport and I-10 on the coast and the proposed airport connector between downtown Jackson and the metro airport in Rankin County. However, the bill opens the door for other projects to be tolled as well, provided there is a nearby free alternative, which means Mississippi’s part of the Memphis Outer Beltway, new Highway 304 between Collierville and Hernando, is a serious candidate, as the tolls would enable construction to begin years sooner than otherwise planned.

Sunday, 21 March 2004

Trolley boondoggle

Mike Hollihan pretty much sums up my feelings about the Madison Avenue trolley light rail line, a taxpayers’ boondoggle to end all boondoggles and a classic example of GNDN. Of course, the worst—a $400 million extension to the airport, with $100 million to come from both state and local government (and $200 million from Uncle Sam via your federal 18.4¢/gal gasoline tax)—is yet to come.

There is one bit, though, that I disagree with Mike on: he says the project is “a windfall for road builders.” Considering that the $100 million the state could kick in would match $400 million of federal money for a highway project (rather than $200 million for light rail), any sensible roadbuilder would favor building a highway. At $10 million per mile, the going rate for a rural Interstate highway, $500 million would build most of I-69 between Memphis and Dyersburg—and leave Memphis and Shelby County with $100 million in capital improvement funds for something else, like pretty much every road project on the Memphis/Shelby County long-range transportation plan. And, of course, the road-builders are getting their cash either way.

Saturday, 13 March 2004

Block 37

Stephen Karlson notes plans by the Chicago Transit Authority to create a new station in downtown Chicago that will finally link the State and Dearborn subways, and provide express service to both O’Hare and Midway airports. Speaking as someone who once made the mistake of trying to use the “L” to get from O’Hare to a hotel on the Magnificent Mile, which required changing from the Blue (Dearborn) to Red (State) lines, such a project can come none-too-soon.

These days, with the colossal pain in the ass that flying has become, I just drive to Chicago. It’s cheaper, even after paying to park downtown, and the extra time involved is only a couple of hours, if you compare flying direct on Northwest or American—going via another airline, such as Delta, will certainly kill any time savings of flying. (Amtrak usually costs more than flying.) The downside is that you have to drive both the most boring 250 miles of interstate highway in the eastern United States (roughly, I-57 from I-64 to I-80) and the second-most-boring stretch (I-55 and I-57 through Arkansas and Missouri)—really the only interesting parts are in the hills in southern Illinois and when you get to metropolitian Chicago.

Monday, 23 February 2004

Highway bill follies

James Joyner has linked a column by Bob “Endangering National Security Since 2003” Novak on the wrangling between Capitol Hill and the White House over the six-year transportation reauthorization bill, coined SAFETEA. As usual, the debate is mostly about how much money to spend and where to find the cash; many House members from both parties want an increase in the federal fuel excise taxes to fund a larger spending program of $375 billion over six years, while the White House wants to limit spending on highways and mass transit to $256 billion.

Tuesday, 17 February 2004

More on SUV safety

Following up on a post of mine from December, Gregg Easterbrook has an good article on SUV safety at TNR online. Choice quote:

Georgetown University professor Ted Gayer, writing in the March issue of the technical publication Journal of Risk and Uncertainty—which is edited by W. Kip Viscusi of Harvard, who is one of the nation’s leading academic conservatives—finds that having lots of SUVs and pickup trucks on the road increases total fatalities, by causing more deaths not just in regular cars but more deaths inside the SUVs and pickup trucks, too.

And just in case you don’t trust that scurrilous Gregg Easterbrook, here are a few quotes from the number two result from Google for “auto insurance rates suvs,” at

With larger cars on the road, drivers of small cars are at risk when they’re involved in a side-impact collision with pickups or SUVs. SUVs and pickups are generally heavier and higher riding so their bumpers can be deadly to smaller cars on impact.

Minivans don’t pose as much of a threat because they don’t weigh as much as SUVs. Their bumpers are often the same height as many smaller sized cars.

Since SUVs, minivans, and light trucks can be hard to handle and can cause more damage in the event of an auto insurance claim, auto insurance rates for these vehicles tends to be higher than for smaller cars.

If you want to know whether a vehicle is safe, ask the auto insurance companies. It’s their business to know.

Sunday, 8 February 2004

Buckling up

Today’s CA features an article on the latest effort to make Mississippi’s seatbelt law a “primary offense”, which would permit law enforcement officers to pull over vehicles whose drivers or passengers were not complying with the law. The article notes:

Nationwide, states that switch from secondary to primary seatbelt laws report a 10- to 15-percent increase in seatbelt use, according to the National Safety Council, an Illinois-based advocacy group. In Alabama, seatbelt use climbed from 52 percent in the year before the state passed a primary law to 79 percent two years later.

However, NHTSA data suggests that figure is overstated: their 2003 survey shows an 8% differential between states with primary and secondary laws. And the Alabama figures seem downright implausible—although, given that seatbelt use is trending higher in all states, not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

There are no fewer than six different bills that would make the seatbelt law a primary offense; they mainly differ in (a) whether or not the maximum fine per vehicle would be doubled* and (b) whether or not non-use of seatbelts can be considered contributory or comparative negligence.

Saturday, 7 February 2004

Flying Roadgeeks

The California Yankee notes the revelation from Oxford University researchers that pigeons navigate the same way pilots do under VFR: they just follow the roads.

Which makes one wonder: how did pigeons get around before the Romans?

Friday, 6 February 2004

Road-blogging at the CA

My neighbor Tom Bailey, a reporter at the Commercial Appeal, is doing some road-blogging on the CA’s web site.

My co-blogger has expressed skepticism about the Commercial Appeal’s in-house blogs in the past, although I can’t find the post. I can’t say anything bad about Tom’s blog, though, because he knows where I live. So let me just say “Prove him wrong, Tom!”

Friday, 16 January 2004

“Freeway” gaining ground in Tennessee?

It’s the equivalent of the “soda/pop/Coke” question for roadgeeks: what do you call a highway with fully-controlled access (i.e. a road like Germany’s autobahns, French autoroutes, British motorways, or American interstates), a freeway or an expressway ? The preferred engineering term is “freeway,” but “expressway” has quite an established tradition in many parts of the eastern U.S.—including much of the south. (Georgia is the only southern state that consistently refers to its freeways in public by that name, although “freeway” does seem to have gained some limited currency in Alabama as well.)

Yet “freeway” creep may be happening in Memphis. The Commercial Appeal‘s Tom Bailey Jr. uses the term in this Go weblog entry, and it’s used more often than “expressway” in the associated article in Friday’s CA.

Bailey also notes Dan McNichol’s visit to Memphis to view the Midtown interchange reconstruction. McNichol is the author of the 2003 book The Roads that Built America. McNichol’s book struck me, when I looked through it at Barnes and Noble a couple of weeks ago, as a more road-friendly but ultimately less engrossing take on the subject than Tom Lewis’ 1997 Divided Highways, which accompanied the PBS series of the same name.

Both books, alas, overlook the second great phase of freeway building that is now getting underway: not just the “Big Dig” style projects that will rectify the mistakes of the past, but also the grand plans like Interstate 69, Interstate 49, and Interstate 73/74, as well as the Trans Texas Corridor. These are the routes that will apply the lessons of Overton Park and the Vieux Carre without compromising the central goals of the Interstate system—improving mobility, bringing economic opportunity, and increasing safety.

Thursday, 15 January 2004

The proliferation of LEDs

Michael Jennings discusses the slow but steady progress of LEDs in replacing traditional incandescent lights. As he notes, they’ve become particularly common in traffic signals because they are brighter, last much longer, and have significantly lower power consumption than traditional lights.

Tuesday, 13 January 2004

Beltway tanker explosion

James Joyner, inquiring about the I-95 tanker explosion today, asks:

How one drives a tanker truck over a barrier from an overpass, I’ll never know.

It’s actually pretty simple. The tanker apparently hit the barrier on the overpass at excessive speed, which made it crash through the barrier of the flyover ramp from the I-895 Harbour Tunnel Thruway southbound to I-95 southbound and land on the northbound lanes of I-95 below. The concrete barriers on bridges and highways, like metal guard rails, are designed to deflect vehicles back onto the roadway to avoid catastrophic crashes like this, but there’s only so much force a static barrier can deflect.

Incidentally, similar accident in 1998 in Memphis, on the one-lane ramp that connects I-40 to the north side of the Memphis 40/240 loop, claimed eight lives, and is the impetus for rebuilding the I-240/40 Midtown interchange to move the 90° turn to ground level.

Of further interest:

  • Baltimore’s NBC4 has posted a collection of images from the crash.
  • Microsoft TerraServer has an aerial photo of the interchange; the ramp at the top is the one the tanker fell off. I-95 is the road running SW-NE, while I-895 leaves directly to the east.

Friday, 9 January 2004

Kate gets to play soccer mom

VK’s Jeep broke down today. The worst part? No, not the $40 cab ride because the tow truck driver wouldn’t let her ride with him (who’s ever heard of that?)... it’s this:

Oh, and did I mention that I’m driving a white minivan until I get my Jeep back? The pain. Oh, the pain.

Well, as someone who learned to drive in a Plymouth Voyager minivan and whose first car was a 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon… I can honestly say “I feel your pain.” (Karma has been kinder since, however.)

Update: John Jenkins’ first car was a 1986 Pontiac Grand Le Mans station wagon with faux wood paneling. I concede defeat in the crappy car rally (though I think the Grand Le Mans and Celebrity were basically the same body—but my station wagon, bought in 1992, didn’t have wood paneling; instead, it was blue). By the way, after I totalled the Celebrity in 1997, it was replaced with a blue 1989 Buick Regal coupe, which was sold in 2002.

Thursday, 1 January 2004

Congestion Charging out of the Budget Crunch

Steve Verdon discusses the possibility of congestion pricing making a difference in California’s budget woes and freeway congestion, and concludes that the benefits are likely to be far smaller than advocates suggest they will be.