Tag Archives: highways

Time to Pretend to Get Serious About Traffic

It’s “time to get serious about fixing Austin’s traffic,” says a headline at KVUE. However, no one quoted in the article is actually willing to get serious about fixing Austin’s traffic.

Instead, the article is exclusively about Project Connect, a front group that has promoted light rail for Capital Metro, Austin’s transit agency. All of the “solutions” discussed in the article involve transit, including light rail and dedicated bus lanes, both of which will actually increase congestion.

Here’s why transit won’t work to fix traffic in Austin, which by some measures is the nation’s fastest-growing urban area. Between 2010 and 2015, the Austin urban area grew by 220,000 people, or 3.0 percent per year. Transit passenger miles, meanwhile, grew by 3.5 percent per year. Sounds pretty good so far. Continue reading


New Driving Data

The Federal Highway Administration has just released urban highway statistics for 2015, including the miles of roads and daily vehicle miles of driving by road type and “selected characteristics” for each urban area, including population, land area, freeway lane miles, and similar information. These data are quite useful as they allow interregional comparisons as well as, when combined with past data, a look at trends over time.

For example, the Los Angeles urban area is more than twice as dense as the Houston urban area, yet both report the same number of miles of driving per capita (see population note below). Though there is a weak correlation between density and driving, it isn’t as strong or as certain as urban planners would like you to believe.

As published by the FHwA, each table of more than 400 urban areas is divided into nine worksheets of 50 urban areas. Since this is clumsy, I’ve copied-and-pasted them into one worksheet each, which you can download for the miles of roads and selected characteristics. Continue reading


Stuck in Traffic? Blame the Planners

In 1982, the Twin Cities had the 35th-worst congestion in the nation. By 2016, it had grown to be the 17th-worst and amount of time the average commuter spent in traffic had quadrupled. If you are stuck in traffic in the Twin Cities, says this new report, don’t blame population growth; blame the Metropolitan Council, the region’s metropolitan planning organization.

Click image to download a 1.7-MB PDF of this report.

The Metropolitan Council’s official attitude is, “We can’t build our way out of congestion, so we will provide alternatives to congestion” in the form of light rail, bike paths, and maybe a few high-occupancy/toll lanes. The council’s 2040 plan has $6.9 billion programmed for transit improvements, $700 million for bike paths, and $700 million for road improvements. That means 8 percent of the funds goes for the 90 percent of the people who drive to work while 83 percent goes for the 6 percent who take transit. Continue reading


Will Trump Kill V2V Rule?

One of the many proposed rules published a few days before President Trump took office was a mandate that all cars built after 2020 come with dedicated shortrange radio communications (DSRC) so that they can talk with one another. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this rule will “prevent hundreds of thousands of crashes.” The rule is downloadable as a 166-page Federal Register document or a slightly more readable 392-page paper.

The mandate would add about $300 to the cost of every car, or several billion dollars a year. The radios would not add much weight to the cars, but once most cars have them the collective weight would increase fuel consumption by more than 30 million gallons a year.

In exchange for these costs, NHTSA estimates that the rule will save 23 to 31 lives by 2025. These numbers are small because the benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications are nil unless both vehicles in a potential communication have them. Since the average car on the road is more than 11 years old, it will take about that many years before most cars have V2V and many more years before nearly all cars have it. Yet even by 2060, NHTSA projects the technology will save only 987 to 1,365 lives.

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Transportation Safety

Last week’s commuter train crash in New Jersey has left people wondering how safe our transportation system really is. We can answer this question with data from National Transportation Statistics, which show passenger miles, fatalities, and injuries by mode of transportation since 1990.

Mode1990-1999Last 10 YearsChange
Scheduled Air0.30.0-92.5%
Light Rail14.013.5-3.4%
Heavy Rail7.64.5-40.5%
Commuter Rail11.78.9-23.7%
Table One: Fatalities per billion passenger miles by mode. As noted in the text, the most recent decade is 2005-2014 except for commuter rail, which is 2003-2012. Sources: Calculated from National Transportation Statistics, tables 1-40, 2-1, 2-34, and 2-35.

The statistics show transit data only through 2012, but the Federal Transit Administration has safety data for the years since then. Unfortunately, the Federal Railroad Administration, not the Federal Transit Administration, monitors commuter rail safety, and it doesn’t seem to publish those numbers, so we only have them through 2012.

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Traffic Fatalities Up Nearly 8 Percent in 2015

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 35,200 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2015, a 7.7 percent increase from 2014. This increase is a result of a combination of a 3.5 percent increase in vehicle miles of travel plus a 4.1 percent increase in fatalities per billion miles traveled.

The 32,500 number is a “statistical projection,” not an exact count, which won’t be available until this fall. NHTSA’s previous statistical projections have been fairly accurate; the estimate for 2014 turned out to match the final number exactly, while the average for the previous six years was off by only 26. The worst was in 2012, when the projection was 298 too high.

According to NHTSA’s estimate, fatalities increased the most in the Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington), with a 20 percent gain. Fatalities declined 1 percent in the South Central region (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas), while they grew from 4 to 10 percent in the rest of the country.

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Mobility, Planners, and Poverty

It’s amazing how someone can look at a basic set of facts and come up with completely the wrong conclusion. Such is an article in The Atlantic blaming urban poverty on highways.

“City planners,” says the article’s writer, Alana Semuels, “saw the crowded African-American areas as unhealthy organs that needed to be removed. To keep cities healthy, planners said, these areas needed to be cleared and redeveloped. Highway construction could be federally funded. Why not use those federal highway dollars to also tear down blight and rebuild city centers?”

Semuels then continues with the usual claims that highways divided neighborhoods and drained the cities of wealthy residents who moved to the suburbs, “taking with them tax revenues, even though their residents still used city services.” The result was concentrations of poverty in the cities.

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Relieving Congestion Saves Lives

As the Antiplanner observed yesterday, driving increased by 3.5 percent in 2015. Along with that increase came an 8 percent increase in traffic fatalities, according to the National Safety Council.

Six years ago, data revealed that 2009 traffic fatalities had declined by nearly 10 percent from 2008, which itself had nearly 10 percent fewer fatalities than 2007. This dramatic change left many experts perplexed. Some credited safer cars, but the Antiplanner suggested that much of the decline had resulted from the recession-induced decline in driving: 2009 miles were nearly 1 percent less than 2008’s, which were nearly 2 percent less than 2007.

If a slight reduction in congestion due to less driving could result in such a large decrease in fatalities, then similarly a reduction in congestion due to increased roadway capacity or other congestion-reducing measures could similarly save lives. Conversely, the Antiplanner suggested, cities that deliberately allowed congestion to increase in order to get people to stop driving were killing people.

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CBO Endorses MBUF

The Congressional Budget Office has issued a report encouraging Congress to promote the use of mileage-based user fees to pay for roads. The current highway funding process is very inefficient, says the report. For example, urban roads are most heavily used and need the most maintenance, but most maintenance dollars are spent on rural roads.

Click image to download this 1.6-MB report.

The report offers three solutions to this problem: mileage-based user fees; allocating spending on the basis of benefits and costs; and linking spending to “appropriately chosen” performance measures. The report does not say so, but the problem with the second and third solutions is that assessments of benefits, costs, and performance measures by government agencies inevitably become political. Attempts to use either of these solutions at the state level have had, at best, mixed results and in fact mostly negative ones.

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FAST Act Repoliticizes Transportation

Last week’s Congressional passage of the 1,301-page Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act represents, for the most part, a five-year extension of existing highway and transit programs with several steps backwards. Once a program that was entirely self-funded out of dedicated gasoline taxes and other highway user fees, over the past two-and-one-half decades the surface transportation programs has become increasingly dependent on deficit spending. The FAST Act does nothing to mitigate this, neither raising highway fees (which include taxes on Diesel fuel, large trucks, trailers, and truck tires) nor reducing expenditures.

If anything, deficit spending will increase under the FAST Act, which will spend $305 billion ($61 billion a year) over the next five years. Highway revenues, which were $39.4 billion in F.Y. 2015, are not likely to be much more than $40 million a year over the next five years, so the new law incurs deficits of about $20 billion a year. The law includes $70 billion in “offsets”–funding sources that could otherwise be applied to reducing some other deficit–which won’t be enough to keep the program going for the entire five years.

Aside from deficit spending, the greatest mischief in federal surface transportation programs come from competitive grants. When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, all federal money was distributed to the states using formulas. But in 1991 Congress created a number of competitive grant programs, supposedly so the money would be spent where it was most needed. In fact, research by the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation showed that Congress and the administration tended to spend the money politically, either in the districts represented by the most powerful members of Congress or where the administration thought it would get the greatest political return for its party.

The 2012 surface transportation law contained no earmarks and turned all but two major competitive grant programs into formula funds, thus taking the politics out of most transportation funding. This upset some members of Congress because they could no longer get credit for bringing pork home to their districts. So it is not surprising that the FAST Act goes backwards, putting more money into political grants than ever before.

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