Monthly Archives: November 2017

2016 Highway Statistics Posted

The Federal Highway Administration has started publishing its 2016 Highway Statistics, including the latest data on highway miles, miles of driving, and road conditions. Most financial data are not yet available nor are driving data broken down by urban areas, but these should appear soon.

The data show that the number of bridges considered “structurally deficient” declined by nearly 5 percent from 58,791 in 2015 to 56,007 in 2016, continuing a trend that goes back to at least 1990, when 137,865 were considered deficient. The last American highway bridge to collapse due to a maintenance failure was Tennessee’s Hatchie River Bridge in 1989. I suspect that failure led the Federal Highway Administration to increase its monitoring of bridge conditions to encourage states to keep them maintained.

The new data also show that pavements in 2016 were slightly less rough than in 2015. The improvement was not uniform, however. The data indicate that pavements in Arkansas were much rougher in 2016 than in 2015, and the difference was so great that I suspect either a data error or someone in Arkansas was misreporting the data before 2016. Continue reading

Share

Tilting at Straw Men

So, your proposal to build light rail in Nashville has been slammed both locally and nationally. What do you do? Why, expand the proposal, increasing the expense from $5.2 to $5.6 billion.

You also defend your plan by setting up straw-men arguments against it and attacking those arguments rather than the valid criticisms of light rail. According to “transit skeptics,” says Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, “transit ridership has been declining for decades nationally, Nashville lacks the density for light rail and the rise autonomous vehicles is the answer for Nashville’s traffic.”

She responds that transit ridership has grown considerably since 1995. But, in fact, no one ever argued that transit ridership has been declining for decades. What they (or, in fact, I) argued was that per capita transit ridership has been declining for decades, which it has; that total transit ridership has been declining since 2014; and that the trends that are causing it to decline are not likely to change. Continue reading

Share

Amtrak: Big Nuisance or Vital Service?

Amtrak faces many of the same problems as urban transit: low gas prices, crumbling infrastructure, late trains, and declining service (Amtrak provided about 0.4 percent fewer seat-miles in 2017 than in 2016). Yet even as transit ridership is dropping, Amtrak ridership grew by 1.5 percent in F.Y. 2017. Moreover, ridership is growing in all three of Amtrak’s divisions: the Northeast Corridor, state-supported day trains, and long-distance trains.

Amtrak’s 2017 ridership growth was about twice the nation’s population growth, indicating per capita ridership is also growing. A lot of the new riders must have taken short trips, however, as passenger miles only grew by about a third of a percent.

Still, it is easy to overestimate the significance of Amtrak’s growth. Usage of many forms of transportation are growing. Domestic airline travel, for example, carries a hundred times as many passenger miles as Amtrak and is growing by 4 to 5 percent per year. Automobiles carry Americans 500 to 600 times as many passenger miles a Amtrak, and rural driving (the kind that competes with Amtrak) grew by 1.7 percent so far in 2017. Continue reading

Share

Happy Thanksgiving; Travel Safe

The Antiplanner remembers a time when trains were about the safest way to travel. Today, it’s U.S. commercial airlines, which have carried close to five trillion passenger miles since 2010 without a single fatal accident. Amtrak, which carries about 1 percent as many passenger miles as the airlines, has an average of about eight passenger fatalities per year, or a little more than one per billion passenger miles. The occupants of automobiles suffer about four fatalities per billion passenger miles, with rural roads being more dangerous than urban ones.

However you decide to travel, the Antiplanner wishes you the best this holiday weekend.

Share

Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?

The collective stupidity of politicians and transportation agencies can be breathtaking. As of 2015, Boston’s transit system had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. But, instead of fixing it, the MBTA has been busy planning — and planning — and planning — a new rail line it won’t be able to maintain, the Green Line extension to Medford, Massachusetts.

Planning began, in fact, before 2005, which is the date of the project’s major investment study, which projected that it would cost $390 million. There’s been a little cost escalation since then: it is now up to $2.3 billion. That money could have done a lot to reduce the maintenance backlog.

Did I mention that the new line uses the right of way of an existing commuter rail line? Even with free right of way, it will cost $621 million a mile. And that doesn’t count all of the tens of millions spent on planning for more than a dozen years. Continue reading

Share

Making Both Autos and Highways Safer

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes that “America is now an outlier on driving deaths.” He is partly right and partly wrong.

He is right that auto fatality rates per billion vehicle miles in the United States are a little higher than in many other countries and that highway safety has grown in other countries faster than in the U.S. But this is because roads elsewhere were far more dangerous than they have been in the United States for a long time. The reality is that other countries have caught up with the U.S., not that the U.S. has fallen behind.

For example, according to data published by the OECD, in 1990 Austria suffered 32 deaths per billion vehicle kilometers compared with just 13 in the U.S. By 2014, Austria’s fatalities had fallen to 5.4, while the U.S. had fallen to 6.7. Yes, Austria’s had fallen more but only because they were so bad in the first place. Continue reading

Share

St. Louis Streetcar Broke Before It Begins

St. Louis has spent $51 million building a 2.1-mile streetcar line that may never run because the company hired to operate it is almost out of money. In 2015, St. Louis County gave $3 million to the Loop Trolley Company, which the company used to hire managers, drivers, and other employees to run the trolleys that were supposed to begin operation in spring, 2016.

However, the start of operations has been repeatedly delayed, most recently to mid-winter, 2018. Now the trolley company says it will be out of money before it can start, and it is demanding another $500,000 before a single streetcar turns a wheel in revenue service.

At the other end of the state, the Kansas City streetcar was supposed to have been a great success, carrying an average of 5,843 trips per day, but that’s because it is free. The Loop Trolley Company expects to charge $2 per two-hour period. That’s in the range of the Little Rock streetcar, which carried 153 trips per weekday in 2016, or the Tampa streetcar, which carried 645 trips per weekday. These two lines each cost taxpayers more than a million dollars a year to operate. Continue reading

Share

Affordable Is Not the Same as Affordability

Too much housing news is based on the failure to distinguish between affordable housing and housing affordability. Affordable housing is government-subsidized housing for low-income people. Housing affordability is the general level of housing prices relative to the general level of household or family incomes, often measured by dividing median home prices by median family incomes.

Areas where housing is affordable, such as Dallas or Raleigh, may still need some affordable housing for very poor people. But areas where housing is not affordable, such as Portland or San Francisco, will not solve their housing affordability problems by building more affordable housing. Despite this, politicians, reporters, and editors all promote more affordable housing to address housing affordability issues.

The San Jose Mercury News, for example, accuses Republicans of “sabotaging” the Bay Area’s affordable housing plans by cutting federal housing budgets. But the federal government didn’t impose urban-growth boundaries that have restricted development to 17 percent of the Bay Area, so why should federal taxpayers subsidize affordable housing that isn’t going to solve the region’s self-inflicted housing crisis? Continue reading

Share

Helping Low-Income People Reach Jobs

What is the best way to help low-income people — a group that disproportionately includes blacks and Latinos — get access to jobs? That question is certainly not answered by a report from left-wing think tank Demos. The report is aptly titled To Move Is to Thrive, but its subtitle, “Public Transit and Economic Opportunity for People of Color,” gives away its real agenda: more subsidies to the transit industry.

Written by Algernon Austin, the author of America Is Not Post-Racial, the report observes that “people of color” are less likely to own cars and more likely to be transit-dependent than white people. But Austin ignores the obvious and best solution, which is to give low-income people (regardless of color) access to cars. Instead, his report promotes “transit-focused infrastructure projects” into minority neighborhoods.

Since 1970, this nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on transit infrastructure projects. These projects have been disproportionately directed towards middle-class neighborhoods because middle-class people are the ones who pay for them through their taxes and the ones whose political support is needed to build them. Continue reading

Share

Speed Bumps on the Road to Driverless Cars

A company called Navya introduced a driverless bus in Las Vegas, and within two hours it was involved in a traffic accident. A semi-truck was backing up and grazed the fender of the driverless bus. All the blame was placed on the truck driver, but you have to wonder if a human driver would have avoided the accident by backing out of the way.

Meanwhile, Waymo has been demonstrating its driverless technology, and is even running its cars on public roads without a back-up driver at the wheel (there is a back-up driver in the back seat, but that’s an inconvenient location if they needed to take over). One writer describe’s Waymo’s technology as “so good, it’s boring,” noting that it can deal with pedestrians, cyclists, and even squirrels running in front of the cars.

But a top Waymo engineer frets that bicycle riders are so unpredictable that they may need electronically connect to driverless cars to protect themselves. While such connections may be nothing more than a smart phone app, some gram-counting cyclists may resist carrying any extra weight. Continue reading

Share