Category Archives: Transportation

Oregon Starts Mileage-Based User Fees

Yesterday, the Oregon Department of Transportation began accepting applications from volunteers willing to switch from paying gas taxes to mileage-based user fees. The experimental program is limited to 5,000 volunteers and apparently the applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Oregon’s gasoline tax is 30 cents a gallon, so if your car gets 30 miles per gallon, you currently pay about a penny per mile. The initial mileage-based fee is 1.5 cents per mile, the same as if your car gets 20 miles per gallon. It will be interesting to see if most of the people who sign up drive gas guzzlers that get less than 20 miles per gallon.

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WiFi Yes, V2V No

A little-known conflict over the electromagnetic spectrum could shape self-driving cars for years to come. On one side is “an ecosystem of companies” that have developed vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems and the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC), which wants to mandate such systems in all cars and trucks, which together want the Federal Communications Commission to dedicate the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum to such systems. On the other side are WiFi developers and advocates who would like to open parts of that spectrum to WiFi use.

The V2V people say that such systems are essential for improved auto safety and self-driving cars and don’t want to share the spectrum with millions of WiFi users. However, General Motors and Cisco have thrown a monkey wrench into their case with an announcement that they plan to test WiFi for V2V communications.

Volvo and other companies have already shown that WiFi alone can provide adequate V2V communications for platooning cars down a highway. In such platooning, a lead vehicle does the driving and numerous following vehicles, spaced as little as five meters apart, merely mimic the lead vehicle’s speed and direction. Such platooning would obviously greatly increase highway capacities.

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So Much for Low-Capacity Rail

When Orlando decided to fund and operate a commuter train, many residents probably thought they could take the train to major events. Orlando expects to attract 120,000 people to its fireworks show this July 4th, but none of them will take the train to the site.

We’ve all heard the claim that a rail line can move as many people as an eight- (or sometimes ten-) lane freeway. Not so much. Orlando’s billion-dollar commuter-rail line carries less than 2,000 people to work each weekday morning and home in the evenings. (Amortized over 30 years at 3 percent, it would have cost less to buy every single daily round-trip rider a new Prius every year for the next 30 years.)

The train doesn’t normally operate on weekends, though it has done so for smaller special events in the past. But this Fourth of July it won’t, says the city, because of “total train capacity, safety and security, hours of operation, pedestrian wayfinding and transport operations between the downtown stations and Lake Eola, and funding availability.”

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Red Light for Red, Yellow Light for Purple

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced Thursday that he was cancelling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with a caveat that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.

The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.

Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.

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BRT Capacities Greater Than You Think

A group called the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) strongly supports bus-rapid transit, saying that “BRT systems can be built in a fraction of the time of light rail, and BRT can cost 30 times less to construct and 3 times less to operate.”

ITDP’s proposal for “Gold Standard” bus-rapid transit in Boston. Click image to download the 17.7-MB report.

In major urban areas, the organization promotes what it called “Gold Standard” BRT, which means dedicated bus lanes designed to minimize conflict with other traffic, off-board fare collection, and platform-level loading and unloading. ITDP argues that such BRT can move far more people than light rail and nearly as many as the most crowded heavy-rail lines. “BRT also has the added ability . . . to offer a mix of local, limited, and express services, and to save time by eliminating inconvenient transfers.”

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TOD Coming to Pittsburgh

Yet another example of light rail spurring economic development comes from Pittsburgh, where the Port of Allegheny County has approved $12.5 million in public subsidies for a $42.5 million transit-oriented development. Since the development will include 152 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space, that’s a subsidy of more than $82,000 per apartment. The subsidies will also help pay for a 541-space parking garage.

Don’t be impressed by 15,000 square feet of retail space: that’s about the size of a new Trader Joe’s. The average Trader Joe’s is about 12,000 square feet, but the newer ones are bigger. Of course, if they actually attract a Trader Joe’s, they might be able to fill the apartments, but the fact that Pittsburgh has one of the most affordable housing markets in the country probably means there is little demand for stack-and-pack living.

So once again it is proven that light rail doesn’t stimulate economic development; it merely stimulates subsidies for economic development. Pittsburgh officials complain that “transit-oriented development is very difficult in Pennsylvania” because “there is no dedicated funding source” that can be used to subsidize it. So why are they bothering? Apparently just because they want to follow the latest fad.

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There Are No Excessive Commutes

It is sad to see that the notion of “excessive commutes” is still around. This is the idea that, if we all lived close to our work, we could drive less and all be happier.

The Antiplanner tried to demolish this myth fourteen years ago in The Vanishing Automobile, but now Daniel Schleith, a geographer from the University of Cincinnati, is bringing it back. Schleith calculated the “minimum commute” that would be required in the nation’s 25 largest urban areas if jobs and housing in those areas were “balanced,” and compared that with the actual average commutes in those areas. The difference between the two is the “excess commute.”

This method makes two related and equally fallacious assumptions: First, that the only purpose of transportation is to get to and from work, and second that the only factor that should be involved in choosing a home location is proximity to work. In fact, commuting makes up only less than 20 percent of our travel, and the other travel we do is only one of the many factors that might lead us to choose a home location that isn’t as close as possible to work.

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DC MetroRail Still Dangerous

Accidents on the Washington MetroRail system killed 17 people between 2005 and 2010. Although there have been only three fatalities since the end of 2010, a new Federal Transit Administration report warns that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) remains lax about safety and numerous dangerous situations remain.


Several people died in a 2009 collision when one of the system’s original cars “telescoped” into another. The National Transportation Safety Board ordered WMATA to replace those older cars, but it is still running them. Wikimedia Commons photo by the NTSB.

Most media attention has been given to FTA’s findings regarding WMATA’s rail control center. The control room is understaffed, says the report, and what staff members they have are poorly trained and frequently distracted by cell phone calls, muzak, and other things unrelated to their work. The report hints that some accidents that WMATA has previously blamed on train operators may actually have been the fault of train controllers, whose actions were rarely questioned.

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Is All Aboard Florida a Scam?

All Aboard Florida is a plan by the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) to run moderate-speed passenger trains from Miami to Orlando. Where a highway trip over the route takes about four hours, FEC promises train times of just three hours. While an airline trip is just an hour, when an hour is added for going through airport security, FEC thinks their route will be competitive.

The railway’s ridership study estimates the operation will attract 4 million riders per year by 2019 and that the fares these riders will pay will be enough to operate the line as well as cover the capital cost of building 40 miles of new rail between the FEC’s current tracks in Cocoa and Orlando Airport. However, a counter-study by Brown University economist John Friedman and funded by Citizens Against Rail Expansion, which opposes the train, disagrees.

Friedman estimates the line will only attract 1.5 to 2.0 million passengers a year and the fares they will be willing to pay will come nowhere near covering the railroad’s costs. As a result, it will have losses of more than $100 million per year and will soon default on the debt it plans to incur to build the new line.

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Streetcar Entitlements

The response of Sacramento streetcar advocates to voter rejection of their pet project reminds me of a little boy who has a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get the expensive Christmas present he wants. Like the little boy, it apparently never occurs to the streetcar crowd that the extraordinarily high cost of their scheme was too much for taxpayers to support. Instead, they act like they are entitled to the streetcar, and anyone who doesn’t want to help pay for something they will never use is just a grinch.

Building a streetcar requires tearing up perfectly good pavement that can be used by cars, trucks, and buses and inserting tracks. The cost of one mile of streetcar line can be more than the cost of a mile of a suburban four-lane freeway, yet the streetcar will never move more than 2 or 3 percent as many passenger miles per day as that freeway.

The streetcars themselves have fewer seats than a standard, 40-foot bus, yet cost nearly ten times as much and occupy more street space and so contribute more to congestion. Analysts predicted that a proposed streetcar in Anaheim would reduce the capacity of the streets to move cars by four times as much as the number of cars it would take off the road.

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