Wednesday, 23 May 2012

On the duty of advocates to be honest with the public

TollRoadsNews, a staple of my daily Google Reader diet, is an interesting blend of news on developments in the toll road industry (as the name would imply) with the often-unhinged rants of site proprietor Peter Samuel on developments in the toll road industry. Of late, most of these rants have been in support of the beleaguered owners of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, who have so spectacularly failed in their efforts to make friends and influence people in the Detroit-Windsor area that politicians on both sides of the border have decided to put them out of business once and for all by building a nearby bridge to siphon off the company’s traffic; the latter are so irritated, in fact, that they’d apparently rather spend hundreds of millions on a new project from scratch than just exercise eminent domain over the Ambassador Bridge, which presumably would be a far less expensive option.

Today, however, Samuel turns his ire on a local TV reporter in Houston who has the temerity to point out that the Harris County Toll Road Authority has reneged on a promise made in the 1980s to remove tolls once the Sam Houston and Hardy toll roads were completed and their initial construction costs were recovered. Now, it is true that circumstances have changed since those promises were made, but it is also true that the promise was made in the first place and that similar promises made elsewhere have, at times, actually been fulfilled (for example, in the case of the Kentucky parkway system, albeit in some cases due to the generosity of the federal taxpayer at the behest of Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky).

At the very least, the public is owed an explanation from those who made the promises as to why they were not fulfilled, particularly if the initial promises were disingenuous, at best. I don’t think Samuel would disagree with this notion in the general case (for example, given his apparently-conservative politics, I’d imagine he’d have rather choice words for the Obamacare advocates who are championing its mythical cost-savings), so it is disappointing that in this particular case he seems to be giving public-sector tollers a pass.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

We're immobile

Today’s Laredo Morning Times has a lengthy article discussing the wrangling over whether or not the various local government agencies should create a Regional Mobility Authority to help advance local transportation projects in a more timely fashion. Frankly I find this passage in the article to reflect the lack of contact with reality in the discussion:

Because other cities and counties in the state have created RMAs to build toll roads, RMAs are sometimes associated with tolls, according to Jerry Garza.

“I want to stress, and I cannot stress enough that we here in Laredo, Webb County would never consider a toll road,” Jerry Garza said.

He meant turning the loop into a toll road, but added that he personally would not support a toll road in any part of the county.

I think realistically, if Laredo wants anything beyond the bare minimum of transportation improvements, it is going to have to turn to using tolls to finance them. Certainly Laredo’s experience with tolls has been mixed—the spectacular failure of the Camino Colombia under private ownership being the most obvious example—but all four international road bridges are tolled with few objections in evidence. Tolls may be the only way to ensure that truck traffic—which is the user group most likely to see economic benefits from overpasses and direct ramps along the loop—is paying its fair share for avoiding congestion.

More to the point, despite the mini-revolt over tolls in Austin at the legislature, it is highly likely that federal and state transportation funds derived from gas taxes—to say nothing of carbon taxes, or however “cap-and-trade” will be implemented for motor fuels—are going to be diverted away from road construction to other efforts such as urban mass transit and high-speed rail (projects that, frankly, Laredo will see little benefit from in any realistic time horizon, unless private investors can be conned into building a high-speed rail line from Monterrey to San Antonio and building a station here too) or general fund demands like shoring up Social Security and Medicare. Like it or not, I think more tolls are coming sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Just what Texas needs: more elected officials

The geniuses up in Austin have diagnosed TxDOT’s problems and decided that the solution is, in part, to have an elected state transportation commission who doubtless will be high-minded representatives of the popular will rather than endless seekers of pork-barrel projects for their geographic districts. Because we all know how helpful having an elected State Board of Education has been in keeping politics out of the public school curriculum.

You can view all the lege’s sausage-making here; it’s a doozy. On the upside, at least they’re banning red-light cameras.

Monday, 20 April 2009

The perennial rail discussion

Reflecting a recurring theme at Signifying Nothing, the administration’s announcement of its plans to sorta-kinda invest in high speed rail brings out the predictable reactions: Cato says it sucks, the central planning enthusiasts love it, and Prof. Karlson and John Stilgoe remind us that relatively inexpensive, incremental improvements are probably a better use of taxpayer money than flashy bullet trains over the distances Americans are likely to travel by rail.

My view, as always, is that all of these promised lines are of little value if they are not connected to the transportation system that most Americans already use: airports and their associated amenities like safe long-term parking and the rental car counter.

Thursday, 5 March 2009


Laredo managed to wedge its way up to the trough to get $31.5 million in stimulus money (along with $57.2 million in other funds) to build the Cuatro Vientos project in south Laredo, which is basically a bypass for U.S. 83 (Zapata Highway). Hopefully TxDOT can move relatively quickly on this project, since I know based on the MPO long-range planning workshop I went to last month that folks on the south side have been looking for some traffic relief.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Circular thoughts

Via Tom Vanderbilt, Time reports on the burgeoning roundabout craze in the U.S. Money quote:

[I]n seven years, Carmel[, Indiana] has seen a 78% drop in accidents involving injuries, not to mention a savings of some 24,000 gal. of gas per year per roundabout because of less car idling. “As our population densities become more like Europe’s,” says Mayor Jim Brainard, who received a climate-protection award this year from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “roundabouts will become more popular.”

Alas, Laredo drivers will need to master driving in straight lines (much less going in circles) before roundabouts can succeed here. On the other hand, it’s impossible to run a red roundabout, so maybe there would be an improvement here after all.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Getting railroaded

Megan McArdle follows up on my previous post, which I think she took as being more critical of her position than I intended; I was attempting to use her post as a jumping off point for some broader thoughts on pluralism vs. centralism*, rather than a debate over the anarcho-libertarian “all government inherently sucks” position. Indeed, the continental model sucks on other dimensions, such as respect for private property rights and minority interests†, which might be more important to citizens in the Anglo-American tradition than efficiency or speed. Megan adds that we might potentially also blame government accounting methods, which sometimes fails to internalize costs properly.

* I don’t think the usual political science antonym for “pluralism,” “corporatism,” really works here; this is more a contrast between the pluralist, politically-egalitarian Anglo-American model and the elite, expert-dependent (Napoleonic/Confucian) continental model of bureaucratic decision making.
† In the Madisonian, not racial, sense.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Not government, but pluralism

Megan McArdle is answering questions by request from her readers; returning to a theme near and dear to Prof. Karlson’s heart, she again addresses why passenger rail sucks in the U.S.:

I am about to blame—you will perhaps be unsurprised—the government. Why isn’t there a high speed train from New York to Chicago? Well, first of all, this would greatly anger legislators from New York and Michigan, who like the fact that the Chicago train must pass through Buffalo and Detroit, even if this assures that almost no one with a job will actually use it.

There’s also the problem of the Federal construction process. The high speed train between DC and Charlotte was first conceived in the early 1990s. The EIS for this project will be completed probably sometime in 2010. Then we have to get final legislative authority. Then we have to put out the project for bids. By the time the thing is actually built, we’ll probably all have evolved an extra leg and be able to run faster than the high speed train.

Neither of these things are true of government in general. As a couple of her commenters point out, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Germany (where things are more of a work-in-progress) have managed to create impressive high-speed rail systems, as has (of course) France.

It’s in the Anglo-American countries where high-speed rail has hit a roadblock. The United States in particular has the ideal conditions for low support for efficient HSR: legislators with a great deal of autonomy from their parties and an interest in developing a personal vote through constituency service and pork-barrel spending, a geographically dispersed population, and few potential logrolls that can produce a majority vote in either house for practical HSR schemes. Even voter-initiated schemes in states fall prey to these issues; witness the California High-Speed Rail proposal, which has to promise future HSR access to as many communities as possible to maximize the chances of a funding referendum passing in November.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, the U.S. and Britain have much more stringent environmental review procedures than France and Germany—to say nothing of 1960s Japan, when official LDP policy was to maximize the amount of pork spending diverted to infrastructure companies, environment be damned—which (at best) lead to delays as the potential impacts, real and imagined, of projects are cataloged by the government and consultants and (at worst) allow every interest group and NIMBY under the sun multiple chances to stall the process along the way.

In an entirely different venue, compare the war on plastic bags in China (via Matthew Stinson’s shared items feed) and Laredo. Both situations involve “government,” but government is acting in very different ways. I personally wouldn’t trade our pluralist system for a more centralized one, but there are times the transaction costs associated with the former make one long for the latter.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

A very narrow definition of "policy"

Wired blogger Alexis Madrigal posts a map of gasoline prices nationwide and comments:

Note how similar gas prices are within individual states and how much they vary between states. Using just gas price data, you could practically draw the state lines, if they weren’t already inked in for you. Look at that Illinois-Missouri border!

This county-by-county highlights the importance of energy policy at the state level in driving prices, at least at the relatively small variations in price they are mapping here.

I know this is an amazing concept, but individual states set this thing called the “gasoline tax” at different levels. (A few states, including Missouri, also mandate a 10% ethanol blend to subsidize already overpaid and oversubsidized farmers kill most drivers’ gas mileage, thus actually increasing the quantity demanded of gasoline reduce our dependence on foreign oil.) Gasoline is essentially an easily-transportable commodity, and while there are some regional variations in formulation the marginal cost of those variations is rather low.

On a related note, acting Federal Highway Administration, er, administrator Jim Ray says it is time to decouple highway financing from the various motor fuels taxes levied by states and the federal government. Good luck with that.

Via Sully, who links without comment.

Friday, 23 May 2008

QotD, how to bamboozle the public the right way edition

Hei Lun Chan, in response to American Airlines’ decision to charge $15 per checked bag starting June 15:

They should have just raised prices by $15 then announce a ”$15 off if you don’t check any bags!!!” special.

The ultimate irony is that if they’d just raised each-way fares by $15, it would simply be another “the sky is falling because airfares are finally catching up to inflation for the first time since deregulation” story, but now American is cast in the role of being this side of the pond’s version of notorious buried-fee carrier Ryanair, which apparently combines Southwest’s low-cost business model with the customer service standards of your local DMV branch, at least until another of American’s dwindling band of competitors comes up with an even more boneheaded PR move like adding a cash-only “boarding fee” for use of the jetway to access the aircraft.

Given the ongoing fee-fest at the airlines, somehow trying to keep my elite status on Northwest for 2009 doesn’t seem quite so useless—although given that the only scheduled carriers that can take me anywhere other than Las Vegas from Laredo are American and Continental and driving to San Antonio to save time by avoiding a connection only works for places you can fly non-stop from San Antonio, much of that value is predicated on Continental continuing to honor Northwest status in 2009, which given the potential Northwest-Delta merger seems decidedly uncertain at present.

Monday, 21 April 2008

It's all Bush's fault

If you can’t drive anywhere in New Orleans for the next two days, blame the convergence of presidents Bush and Calderón and Prime Minister Harper on New Orleans. Not that the traffic report websites have bothered warning people that you’re not going anywhere fast near I-10 or the central business district for the next day or so.

I also blame the president for having to park farther away on St. Charles than I normally do this morning, even though it’s probably really just due to my arriving later than usual and the campus being crawling with admits checking out the university before forking over their parents’ hard-earned bucks to the Tulane Educational Fund.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

True local knowledge

Robert Lawson writes in passing:

Memphis’s Interstate BBQ is the best airport joint in America btw. It’s near gate B14—look for the long line of NWA pilots!

The real reason to fly through Memphis is the Lenny’s in the main part of the B concourse (near gate B3 I think). Either way, most of the guys in line in Memphis are probably Pinnacle pilots, not Northwest folks.

As for the “goner” status of the Memphis hub for Northwest, first Delta will have to figure out how to ditch all their regional jet contracts and find a way to continue Northwest’s tradition of soaking Memphis consumers without keeping the same availability of nonstop flights and rolling out the red carpet for Southwest—all those Shelby plates on cars at airport lots in LIT and BNA are just a hint of the level of business they could do out of Memphis against a retreating Delta.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

MUTCD proposed amendments

The Federal Highway Administration is taking comments on proposed amendments to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the book that dictates how federal, state, territorial, and local officials sign and mark streets and highways in the United States. The batch of proposed changes is pretty lengthy this time around, including new standards on consistent signing for toll roads, new recommendations on signs and pavement markings for roundabouts, and quite a few more pictographic signs replacing text legends borrowed from Canada and Mexico, including graphical “no passing,” “falling rocks,” and “no straight through” signs.

Other changes of interest, to me at least:

  • States and territories that currently use sequential exit numbers will be required to adopt distance-based (“reference location”) exit numbering.
  • New traffic signal standards for “protected/permissive” left turn signals that will apply to new installations only, including provisions for flashing red and yellow arrows.
  • Adoption of special warning signs for motorcyclists and a symbol for a hypothetical nationally-interoperable electronic toll collection system.
  • New “hybrid” signal types for usually-dark situations such as pedestrian crossings and emergency vehicle crossings.
  • A requirement that all speed limit drops of 10 mph or more include a new-style “speed limit ahead” sign (this last one is similar to a suggestion I made in the last round of changes).

Friday, 23 November 2007

If you build it, they will come (if there's parking and rental cars at the stations)

Megan McArdle asks “why is America’s high-speed rail so dreadful?”

I’ll one-up McArdle: why is America’s passenger rail, Acela or not, so dreadful? My answer is that it’s not integrated at all into the broader transportation system—in transportation planning parlance, there’s a lack of intermodal connections.

If I fly from New Orleans to Memphis or Chicago, I can park my car at the airport. When I get there, I can rent a car, or in Chicago I can get on the “L.” If I ride the train… none of the above, although if you wander the streets of Chicago for a few blocks you eventually would get to an “L” station. The only reason the Acela works on the NEC is because Washington, New York, and Boston all have effective mass transit networks that connect the center-city stations to other modes (air, car rental, or parking) in the suburbs.

To make high speed rail—or even higher speed rail—workable in America, it’s going to require that intermodal infrastructure to be in place. Which means, for practical purposes, the sensible course of action is to build the stations where the infrastructure is already there—at airports, which already have rental car locations and parking garages, along with transfers to and from air carriers. If that’s not practical, then convenient connection options between airports and rail are a must.

Update: More on this theme from Tyler Cowen and Stephen Karlson, the latter of whom reminds us that many of the barriers to high-speed operation of existing rail lines are political rather than economic.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Streetcar to Riverbend by Christmas?

We may be dodging streetcars in the 14th Ward sooner than we’d thought, if RTA‘s plans come to fruition:

If an aggressive plan being pursued by the Regional Transit Authority succeeds—and odds are it will—tourists and residents might get an unexpected Christmas gift. They’ll be able to ride the streetcar the entire length of St. Charles Avenue.

Fred Basha, the RTA‘s director of infrastructure, said Thursday that he’s convinced the streetcar line’s Calliope Street substation can generate enough power to move historic green Perley Thomas cars all the way from the Central Business District to South Carrollton Avenue. At the moment, service ends at Napoleon Avenue, about halfway along the St. Charles route.

The plan would not affect the rest of the streetcar route, along South Carrollton to South Claiborne Avenue, which would remain offline.

If the RTA can overcome three other obstacles, service along the length of the avenue could resume before Christmas Eve, Basha said.

The obstacles: The RTA has to have workers paint the poles that support the electrified system of overhead wires, which rainy weather could delay. Operators who were laid off after Hurricane Katrina must be rehired. And the state has to certify that the portion of the line between Napoleon and Carrollton is safe to use.

“There’s also some testing of that portion of the line that needs to be done, but I don’t expect that to be a problem,” Basha said. “It’s aggressive, but I think we can have it operational before Christmas Eve.”

The transit authority has seemed to be showing some renewed interest in fixing the section of the streetcar route around these parts in recent weeks. And getting the walking distance down to 7/10 of a mile may be enough for me to leave the car at home.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Streetcars being tested on St. Charles

The Times-Picayune reports something I noticed on my Friday trip to the Uptown post office: streetcars are being tested on the line between Lee Circle and Napoleon Avenue, although apparently not without minor hiccups. Alas, although there’s been a little visible work around Tulane, the odds of me still working there when the streetcars make it to Audubon Park seem slim.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Bridge drama

In the bad news department, the Hale Boggs Bridge on I-310 is falling apart faster than previously thought. In the good news department (sorta), LaDOTD has awarded contracts for widening the Huey P. Long Bridge, which has to be about the most terrifying bridge I’ve ever crossed as a driver in my life, not that I’m likely to be around here to see it finished.

Seeing more clearly with Clearview

While I was off the Internets, Simon Jackman took note of a New York Times Magazine article last Sunday on the typeface that’s sweeping the nation, Clearview, the replacement set of highway sign fonts which was authorized for widespread use a couple of years ago by the Federal Highway Administration after field experiments in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Clearview doesn’t seem to have caught on around these parts yet; the nearest installations I’m aware of are in Houston and a few sporadic signs in Arkansas, most notably at the rebuilt I-55/U.S. 63 interchange north of West Memphis.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

If you build it, people still won't come

Today’s USA Today reports on metropolitan St. Louis’ two biggest white elephants: Runway 11 at Lambert and the whole of MidAmerica. I’d find them more tolerable if the excess capacity translated into low airfares, but the discounters in St. Louis either have limited (Southwest, Midwest) or virtually nonexistent (Allegiant) networks—so unless the destination is Vegas or Orlando, most travelers would be better off at a real hub like Detroit or Memphis, instead of paying hub prices while living at the wrong end of a spoke.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Mike Munger might be my governor*

My ex-boss outlines his public education voucher proposal for North Carolina, which of course is far too sensible to become policy but nonetheless is quite appealing. Money grafs:

Now, it is true that not all charter schools are so successful, though it is also true that even the worst charter schools are no worse than the lowest-performing public schools. But think about it: what happens to a charter school that parents aren’t satisfied with? It closes, because its enrollments fall below the level required to secure sufficient funding to continue. What happens to a traditional public school that parents aren’t satisfied with? Nothing, because public schools are not just the last resort, they are the only resort for parents who are denied a choice.

Now, you can say that everybody has a choice. After all, there are private schools. And there is home-schooling. Both of these options have been selected more and more often in the past decade. Those choices are not enough, however. Private schools are not plentiful, and they are very expensive. Home-schooling is expensive too, in its own way, and not everyone is able to teach bright students the challenging material they need to know to succeed in the 21st century workplace.

Prof. Munger also responds to critics of his choice to use Amtrak to get to a conference in Charleston, a response that I suppose applies equally well to my choice to commute most days via Metrolink (even though it takes twice as long as driving and is a pain in the ass).

I will, however, add two minor quibbles: First, to the extent that our country’s involvement in the politics of the Middle East and other unstable regions of the world is driven by demand for oil, the critique that this involvement is tantamount to a subsidy to driving is only half-correct, as the other forms of transportation that are alternatives to driving either also require oil as a fuel, use a substitute fossil fuel (like coal or natural gas) whose price is dependent on the price of oil, or depend on electricity generated from fossil fuels. If Amtrak were run on electric power outside the Northeast Corridor, and the bulk of U.S. energy needs were supplied by renewable sources or nuclear power, my esteemed ex-boss’s account of implicit subsidies to passenger cars and airlines would be more convincing.

Second, highway fuel taxes account for a larger share of the funding of highway construction and maintenance than Mike’s account suggests; indeed, at the federal level the 18.4¢ per gallon tax is used almost exclusively for transportation—the bulk goes to highway construction and maintenance, although significant chunks of the money are diverted to the mass transit account and to “transportation enhancement projects” including non-motorized-vehicle projects and historical preservation. At the state level, however, Mike is correct that many states siphon money from their fuel taxes—typically of similar magnitude as the federal excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel—into general spending programs.

I suppose the moral of this digression is that I should start doing more transportation policy stuff in my research, since clearly I know far too much about it for it to be a healthy hobby.

* If I get a job in North Carolina (hint, hint). And Mike turns out to be the luckiest third-party candidate for a state governorship since Jesse Ventura.

Monday, 13 November 2006

A good distraction from grading exams

I have to say this is clever: a map of the motorway system of Great Britain in the style of a London Underground map (a map that, incidentally, the good folks at Metrolink might learn a few things from).

þ: TransportBlog.

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

The twelve minute rule

After various and sundry experimentation, I have concluded that no matter what I do, it will take me about 12 minutes to get to my Metrolink train Tuesday and Thursday mornings when I have my classes:

  • I can walk to the Richmond Heights station. This takes 10–12 minutes, depending on the signal phases along Brentwood Blvd.
  • I can drive to the Brentwood station—this takes about 7 minutes, but it takes me 5 to get in the car, get out, and walk through the parking garage construction zone to the station.
  • I can ride a bus (WashU Gold #1) along Brentwood to the Richmond Heights station. This takes less time, but to ensure I make the bus I have to leave the apartment 10–12 minutes before it would get to the station. And the bus only runs every 30 minutes, so unless I time things well I’ll get to the station faster if I walk.

The ideal solution to this dilemma, of course, would be if Metro had put a park-and-ride lot at Richmond Heights right next to I-170. Or if they’d stuck a station at Brentwood (or Clayton Rd) and I-170 or in Clayton Corporate Park.

I have also figured out that I can drive to the Forest Park station… but that doesn’t get me to work any sooner than the other options, and there’s the non-negligible risk of not finding parking when I get there.

So, the commute choice is basically driven by my level of laziness, how nasty the weather is, and whether or not I plan on doing any grocery shopping at Sam’s or Dierberg’s after work; if I do, then taking the car to Brentwood makes sense. But this also exposes me to the temptation of having dinner “out,” which makes the not walking worse.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

County government customer service

Last Thursday, I emailed the St. Louis County traffic division requesting a crosswalk signal be installed at a traffic light on Brentwood Blvd at the Galleria. Today, just six days later, it was installed and working, complete with buttons and everything. I have to say I’m most impressed.

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Triangle rapid transit plan on life support

Stephen Karlson and Craig Newmark take note of the most recent developments in the rapid transit plan proposed to link Raleigh and Durham, which has been placed on deathwatch after the regional transit authority has decided to stop seeking federal funding for the project.

I can’t say I’m particularly surprised, for a few reasons. First, not only does the region largely lack the sort of dense developments necessary to support transit, it also lacks the need for those dense developments. My suspicion, from looking around at the “transit-oriented development” going on here in St. Louis, is that most of these developments would end up attracting well-to-do people who like the cachet of saying they live on a transit line (and the amenities of new construction, with the pricetag to match) but end up using their car for everything anyway; while it may make for nice visuals outside the stations, the aesthetics probably don’t translate as well into ridership as one might hope.

Moreover, while a Raleigh-Durham link makes some logical sense to outsiders, it really doesn’t reflect commuting patterns in the region; people who work in Durham either live there or in Chapel Hill, and those who live in Cary work in Raleigh (or in Cary). There’s a giant state park in the middle where nobody can live. The only major magnet for commuters from both directions is Research Triangle Park, which is not the sort of employment center that attracts transit riders—most of the workers at RTP are “choice” commuters, who aren’t going to walk more than a block or two from a station or transfer to a bus to get to their place of employment. The bottom line is that this route wouldn’t serve many more people than the bus service already in place.

Saturday, 19 August 2006

The inner ring prepares to get ridin' dirty

Today’s Post-Dispatch has almost all the information you need to know about the grand opening of Metrolink’s Cross-County Extension next Saturday.