UnSound Transit

The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mass transit users save $9500 per year says APTA

America is Dropping Cars and Hopping Trains, but Transit is Pressured

Posted: November 11th, 2008 10:42 AM EDT

Stephanie I. Cohen

NATION - Higher fuel prices over the past two years combined with household fiscal concerns are leading record numbers of Americans to ditch their cars and hop on trains, subways and buses each day, a pattern that if sustained would help the U.S. to reduce fuel consumption and cut tailpipe emissions.

But transit agencies are facing a classic Catch-22: Just as public transit is seeing record-breaking levels of users and more cars sitting in the suburbs, state and local governments are struggling to find dollars for transit improvements and expansions needed to bring more riders onboard.

"Throughout the state of Georgia and across the nation, transit providers are stretching every available dollar to meet rapidly increasing demand," Beverly Scott, general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority told congressional lawmakers last week.

"Numerous projects on the drawing boards throughout my state are unfunded, simply because of a lack of available funds at the state and local levels for transit investment," she added.

Public transit in the Atlanta metropolitan area served over 14 million customers in September, a 13.3% increase in total ridership over September 2007, according to officials.

The pattern is similar in many regions of the U.S. In the second quarter of 2008 commuter rail ridership showed a double-digit jump in cities throughout California, Maine, Florida, Pennsylvania and Florida, compared with the same quarter a year ago. Commuter rail service moves commuters between urban and surrounding suburban areas.

Amtrak reported an 11% jump in users last year.

In 2007, 10.3 billion trips were taken on public transportation, the highest ridership number in 50 years, according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Total figures at the end of 2008 are expected to set a new record.

The switch for most drivers is being prompted by a desire to cut transportation costs. On average, a transit user saves more than $9,500 a year by taking public transportation instead of driving, according to a 2008 report by the American Public Transportation Association.

"Rising gasoline costs have contributed significantly to our ridership growth," William Crosbie, chief operating officer of Amtrak, told Washington lawmakers last week.

More riders, more costs

Yet as oil prices surged over the past year, the number of miles drivers logging on U.S. roadways steadily dropped while public transportation trips simultaneously rose, according to analysts.

Waves of new riders can create a tailwind when systems that are already functioning at full capacity become strained and revenue that comes from riders doesn't actually cover operating and fuel costs, as is the case in many areas of the country today. Over one-third of the urban rail stations in the country are considered "substandard" by the Department of Transportation.

Cities all over the country are in need of transit dollars. The Muncie, Ind., transit system needs $2.1 million to buy four replacement hybrid buses. The Denver, Colorado Regional Transportation District, which witnessed a 13 % jump in riders last year, is looking for $235 million to finance transit station improvements and expand service, while New York City needs $680 million to revitalize stations and improve rail lines.

But instead of expanding service, a recent survey showed that 35% of public transportation providers have been forced to cut or plan to cut the level of passenger service they provide in spite of the growing demand, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

The culprits? Local governments are grappling with budget deficits, shrinking contributions form Washington for transportation projects, and increased operating costs for transit services.

Add to this the fact that public transit operators run into the same fuel costs problems that drive commuters to rails and buses in the first place.

Clarence Marsella, the general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District, noted in a recent presentation that more riders equal more costs and that small increases in the price of diesel fuel can lead to a $100,000 jump in annual operating costs for the Denver transit system.

Fuel costs for the Denver system for 2009 are expected to be roughly double what they were in 2007, while overall ridership increased by 10% over the past year, according to Marsella.

Going private

At the same time, expanding public transportation -- adding more service to more locations -- requires money that is becoming increasingly hard to find. This has led some local officials from San Francisco to Philadelphia to seek out private dollars -- from private equity firms and investment banks -- to cover the cost of capital investments.

Current government estimates indicate the U.S. will need to pump as much as $60 billion into public transportation and infrastructure projects in the coming decades. According to the Department of Transportation, $21.8 billion is needed to maintain and improve the country's transit systems annually.

The National Council for Public Private Partnerships has been holding presentations across the country to educate officials on how to tap private sector capital to fund public transportation projects, and shift the construction costs and operational risks to the private sector.

Private funding for public projects isn't new and the number of projects using private funds seems to be growing. In late September, John Hancock Life Insurance Co. and two other partners announced they had won a $2.5 billion, 99-year lease to operate and develop Chicago Midway Airport. If completed, the airport would be the first privatized major airport in the U.S. In April, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced he would pursue private partnerships to fund transit projects.

But some Washington lawmakers remain uneasy with private control over public assets. This week, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters noting that the current financial crisis on Wall Street is leading to more and more so-called public-private partnerships that lack "adequate transparency" to protect the public's interest.

"We are particularly concerned about efforts by private investors to exploit the financial crisis to place a number of the nation's transit agencies at risk of default and financial collapse," the letter said.

Seatle Light Rail: cost of reducing carbon is ludicrous

Seattle’s Expensive and Ineffective Rail Tax Proposal
Rail tax advocates are at it again in a number of US metropolitan areas, including Seattle. A recent story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer caught our attention because of claims being made proposed rail expansions that would be financed by a proposed tax increase. Two issues stand out:

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: According to the article, the proposed plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the Seattle area by nearly 100,000 metric tons annually. Sounds like a big number. It isn’t. Based upon previously announced Sound Transit spending announcements (an equivalent increase of $1.1 billion annually, including capital and operations costs), the cost of this reduction would be about $11,000 per metric ton. That is 220 times the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change ceiling of from $20 to $50 per ton (the amount of spending per ton is the maximum amount necessary to accomplish deep reversal of GHG concentrations between 2030 and 2050). The Sound Transit plan is not only expensive in general terms, it is profligate in the amount of spending required to reduce GHG emissions. This is illustrated by the fact that at $11,000 per metric ton, it would cost more than double the Gross Domestic Product each year to reduce US GHG emissions by 50 percent --- an often cited goal.

Traffic Reduction: The article also cites a Sound Transit report indicating that the expanded rail system could reduce driving by 30 percent. Never before has there been a forecast of such a reduction in traffic in any urban area in the world and surely it won’t happen in Seattle. Indeed, it would be charitable to call the 30 percent reduction prediction “laughable.” In other rail projections, the expected traffic reduction rarely exceeds 1 percent, and even then is not achieved. Despite having studied transportation investments for decades, never before have we seen such absurdity. If Sound Transit were subject to the same regulations as apply to used car salesmen, heavy fines and even jail terms might be in the offing.

Source Wendall Cox

The Myth of Light Rail being Green

Another green tale is derailed

Milwaukee Journal May. 11, 2008

Does Mother Earth really want Milwaukee to build light rail? Maybe not.

Rail backers lay out lots of reasons, none yet convincing, for why we should spend a billion bucks to install trains. Their trump is the environment - that it is rail alone, and not buses in whatever form, that uses energy efficiently and emits less carbon.

Only that's not true. Light rail in practice uses about as much energy to move a passenger a mile as does your average car, reports transit expert Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank. When it comes to carbon dioxide per passenger mile, light rail beats the average car only in some cities - mainly where electricity doesn't come from coal or oil. Nearly everywhere, you put out less carbon by driving a Prius than by taking the train.

This isn't what most people expect. Still, O'Toole, a longtime critic of light rail, confined himself to data from federal transit and energy agencies. When I checked with head researcher Steven Polzin at the transit-friendly National Center for Transit Research, he said the numbers were good and the conclusion true. Most people assume rail is far more efficient, "but the empirical data isn't very compelling," he said.

Two trends are at work, says Polzin. Even as car mileage has been rising, by about 1.5% a year, light rail has not been getting more efficient, "mainly because we made it bigger and nicer." The vehicles grow heavier, air conditioning better, lighting brighter, the station's got an escalator - it adds up.

If you fill the trains, per-passenger energy use is lower, but, says Polzin, the average load per railcar has fallen in the long run as rail expands to more marginal markets. The share of commuters taking public transportation has fallen in 20 of 25 cities since the installation of light rail or, for older systems, since 1970, say federal figures. Most of those lured by trains came off buses, not out of cars.

The upshot, says O'Toole, is that while light rail puts out about 0.36 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile - and more than a pound a mile in Baltimore, Pittsburgh or Cleveland - a hybrid Prius puts out 0.26.

Minneapolis actually did lower carbon emissions with its light rail line, saving 16 million pounds of carbon dioxide when passengers switched from buses. It's also saving millions more by replacing old buses with hybrid-electrics. But while light rail cut carbon at a cost of $2.20 a pound, says O'Toole, buses did it for 60 cents.

Cost counts. If you really want more people to ride, you have to make their wait shorter and their trip faster. "Riders are not sensitive to steel wheels or rubber tires," he says. "They're sensitive to frequency and speed." Spend less than the $83 million a mile that Minneapolis' planned second line will cost and you can afford more frequent service. For most places, says O'Toole, you do better if you buy buses, especially smaller, cheaper ones.

This is what's on the table in Milwaukee - bus rapid transit, in which hybrids run frequent service on reserved lanes with few stops. Other cities have installed it for about $1 million a mile.

It's also got a big efficiency advantage, Polzin notes: Because buses have a much shorter lifespan than railcars - 12 years vs. 40 - and because hybrid technology means they're becoming more efficient, you're more likely to be riding on something clean. With rail, newer technology means you have to replace the whole system. With buses, you can start buying, say, fuel-cell vehicles the moment they come out.

Which counts if your aim is cleaner air. All it lacks is that indefinable panache of riding rails or paying extortionate transit taxes. Buses, even rapid, hybrid ones, by comparison seem plebian, almost as much as O'Toole's other suggestion for cleaner air: fixing road bottlenecks and timing traffic signals so cars carrying the other 98% of us don't waste time flatulating in traffic jams.

It doesn't feel as green. But what counts, feelings or facts?

Green benefit of light rail is vastly overstated

The carbon cost of building and operating light rail

Rail mass transit is supposed to be good for the environment. But a leading critic of Sound Transit's Link light rail project offers metrics that suggest the environmental costs are much higher than those of more vanpools, more carpools, more buses, and, particularly, more bicycling.
By Emory Bundy

Excavating a six-mile, twin-bore tunnel and hauling away the rocks and muck is like digging a huge hole and pouring money in it. The lesson has been confirmed by the Beacon Hill tunnel, an experience so sobering that it prompted Sound Transit, which is building light rail from downtown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to bail out of a First Hill station, to save $350 million and reduce risk exposure. Sound Transit pegs the cost to tunnel north from downtown Seattle at $500 million per mile.

Worrying financial costs aside, what about the environmental costs and benefits of rail transit? Surprisingly, rail's environmental costs are quite adverse.

Start with the tunneling, which turns out to entail a prodigious outpouring of energy and release of greenhouse gases. To extend light rail service north from downtown, the next phase, Sound Transit will have to dig through and remove more than 600,000 cubic yards of rock and muck – equivalent to a pile of debris 350 miles long, three feet wide, and three feet high. Sound Transit plans to expend lots of energy digging and excavating that stuff: 17.4 trillion British Thermal Units, according to its environmental-impact statement, equivalent to the energy in 140 million gallons of gasoline. That much gas, or diesel, would fill 8,000-gallon tanker trucks lined up from Seattle to Canada. If all the energy consumed by tunnel-excavating and hauling is generated by gasoline or diesel, it will emit nearly 1.3 million tons of greenhouse gases, CO2, into the environment.

As an offset, Sound Transit claims it will save 14,000 tons of CO2 annually by running light rail trains on electricity, sparing the region emissions that otherwise would be generated by automotive traffic. Even if granted, it would take 90 years from completion of the line to break even on the energy transaction. If Sound Transit should manage to cut tunnel-related greenhouse emissions in half, by aggressive use of hydro electricity and human labor, an implausible proposition, it still would take 45 years to break even.

Moreover, the agency's calculations assume no improvements in automotive fuel efficiency. Yet Congress in this session might enact a measure to raise average mileage from 25 to 35 miles per gallon by 2018. That one conservation measure, a 40 percent per mile improvement even before the tunnel will be complete, would extend Sound Transit's greenhouse gas pay-back period to the year 2088.

Further, public transit's contribution to fuel efficiency is exaggerated. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's 2006 Data Book, per-passenger energy consumed by rail transit is only 19 percent more fuel efficient than today's automobiles (2,784 vs. 3,445 BTUs per passenger mile). If the improvements before Congress are enacted, shortly cars will be more energy-efficient. Bus transit already is 25 percent less fuel-efficient than cars (3,445 vs. 4,323 BTUs).

And the data make the energy performance of rail transit appear better than it really is. The reason is urban rail in the U.S. primarily is used in New York City, where it's more fuel-efficient than elsewhere, due to the packed subways. Here, the local rail energy consumption average is inferior to New York's.

The most cost-effective and energy-efficient transportation option, it turns out, would be making more productive use of existing capabilities. There is a lot of spare capacity on King County Metro Transit buses and those of other local agencies, even on a large share of the rush hour routes. One obvious way to use that spare capacity is to make more of the bus rides free or much lower-cost. But when Chuck Collins, former Metro Transit director and former chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council, put forth his Ride Free Express plan to make markedly better use of existing transit capacity, and incrementally strengthen the most heavily-used routes to handle new levels of demand, Sound Transit and its political allies tromped on it.

vanpools would be another easy way to increase utilization of our present systems. According to the Department of Energy, vanpools are three times more fuel-efficient than transit, 1,294 BTU's per passenger mile. They're far less costly to operate and much more flexible than rail transit. But they're discriminated against, as a commuting mode. Bus transit is heavily subsidized, rail transit is hugely subsidized, while vanpools are but slightly helped. Today, Sounder commuter rail costs $20 per boarding (one-way trip) to operate and, factoring in annualized capital costs, a total of $100 per boarding. (The average fare is less than $3.) Van-pooling, by contrast, is almost 100 percent paid for by those who use it.

vanpools could swiftly surpass Sound Transit rail in ridership, at a tiny fraction of the cost, with superior energy efficiency. Again, Sound Transit and its allies stomped on this idea, also pushed by Collins, and the environmental community sat on the sidelines.

There are numerous other environmental costs to rail. Sound Transit is paying nearly $393 million, almost five times the "very conservative" price tag it told voters, to gain access to Burlington Northern Santa Fe's rail corridor between Everett and Seattle for the Sounder trains. A substantial chunk of that money will be used by the railroad to encroach on Puget Sound tidelands – one of the largest industrial fills of tidelands since Washington adopted the Shoreline Management Act in 1971. For most of the distance, the line runs right along the shoreline, not many feet above high tide, which might be oblivious to the impact of global warming.

Another environmental drawback is that Sound Transit actively promotes and subsidizes sprawl by operation of Sounder commuter rail. It provides spacious, handy free parking at all Sounder stations and intends to build a lot more so people can live hither and yon, drive their single-occupancy vehicles to the train, and take long, lavishly subsidized trips to downtown Seattle to work. The same perks are provided for Tacoma Link, as a commute avenue to downtown Tacoma. Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl illustrated the inducements to sprawl in the February/March 2007 edition of Mass Transit Magazine, which featured her on the cover: "Because I ride the train, I talk to customers a lot," Earl declared. "There was a guy I just started chatting with, and he said his wife and he wanted to live more in the country. They've always been in Seattle and wanted to raise their children in a more suburban-type setting. And he said the only way that made it possible was Sounder."

But the greatest harm to the environment and the public comes when you calculate the lost opportunities. Much could be done to move people and reduce congestion in energy-efficient, cost-effective, health-enhancing ways, but Sound Transit is sucking up a huge share of the fiscal oxygen. Vanpools and better use of existing transit have been mentioned. Carpools are a third option. Incentives and programs to increase carpooling just a little would take more cars off the road, and save more energy, than anything Sound Transit aspires to do, and do it much faster, more reliably, with less risk. Completing the HOV system and instituting congestion pricing should be high priorities.

The leading forfeited opportunity is bicycling, the best possible transportation mode: cost-effective, energy-efficient, non-polluting, and healthy – save for the danger from surrounding cars.

Largely due to poor civic leadership, people are oblivious to the role of bicycles in numerous modern, European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. These cities might be flatter than Seattle and more compact, but modern bicycles and good route selection cope well with hills, and northern Europe is more afflicted with snow, ice, and cold. "Two-wheels rule the roads, it's difficult to get lost, and there are bike paths everywhere," a New York Times story about Amsterdam recently declared. "The best way to get around is by bike or on foot."

A quarter-century ago, Amsterdam and Copenhagen were accumulating heavy automotive traffic, more congestion, more accidents, squeezing out bicycles and pedestrians, just like American cities. Since then, they've worked and invested to facilitate and promote bicycling and walking, reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gases, improve air quality, enhance the health of participants, and radically reduce the frequency of accidents. Much of the focus has been the provision of safe, exclusive corridors, often taking lanes or even streets that had been dedicated to (or encroached on by) automobiles. Also key is paying close attention to safe crossings, so that children, even young children, can safely bicycle to school, as most now do.

In those cities, the market share of transit is six to eight times what it is here – 16 percent in Amsterdam and 20 percent in Copenhagen, contrasted with less than 3 percent in Sound Transit's domain. Bicycling outstrips transit, with market shares well beyond 20 percent and growing. Here, it's roughly 1 percent.

Most local folks own bicycles, but they won't think of bicycle commuting because it's dangerous, for lack of safe routes. With a modest commitment, good planning and execution, and some of the money currently siphoned out of the economy by Sound Transit, bicycling could quickly surpass transit in market share.

On March 7, City Council member Peter Steinbrueck hosted a civic forum featuring Brian Hansen, a bicycle planner from Copenhagen. The large audience got a picture of what an enlightened city can do to improve and extend bicycle commuting and, by doing so, save energy and money, reduce greenhouse gases, and improve health and safety. Not to be upstaged, especially not by Steinbrueck, four weeks later Mayor Greg Nickels announced his $240 million bicycle plan, an impressive number, although there is only $27 million in hand to support it over the next 10 years.

Sound Transit compounds the bicycle imbalance by poor planning to facilitate cyclists. Recently it announced that light-rail cars will accommodate 200 passengers (by cramming them on) but only two bicycles. Two!

They just don't get it

Source crosscut 2007

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Washington State Ferries plans to save money by building boats out of state

Ferries built out of state could cost state less

Washington State Ferries could save millions of dollars by opening new ferry construction to shipyards outside the state, slowing the vessel speed and idling slower at the docks.

By Susan Gilmore

Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington State Ferries could save millions of dollars by opening new ferry construction to shipyards outside the state, slowing the vessel speed and idling slower at the docks.

Further, the state should put off building two new 144-car boats and instead build four like the 64-car boat planned for the Port Townsend-Keystone route.

Those findings were presented Monday to the Joint Transportation Committee (JTC), by consultant Kathy Scanlan of the Cedar River Group, a public-policy consultant used frequently by the ferry service.

The JTC, comprised of state lawmakers, was created during the 2005 legislative session to review and research transportation programs and make recommendations to the Legislature and state government.

Consultant and naval architect John Boylston, who contracts with the Cedar River Group and the JTC, also briefed the lawmakers, saying the state could save 20 percent in ferry-building costs if the bids were open to any U.S. shipyard. Currently, bids are accepted only from Washington shipyards.

He said in Mississippi labor is 20 percent cheaper than here, and steel prices here can be 30 percent higher than on the Gulf Coast.

Boylston said Halter Shipyards in Mississippi built the first Island Home, a model being considered for the Port Townsend boat which is now in use in New England. Halter told him it could build a Washington Island Home ferry for $47 million, far below the single $65 million bid offered last week by Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle.

But what Todd and Boylston said drove up the cost, in part, was the state's 18-month construction schedule — something Boylston said is impossible for any shipyard to meet. If Todd gets the bid, it will pay $6,000 each day it is late.

Boylston said Todd's bid seemed reasonable. The Halter estimate didn't include extra design work, required bonds, which would add $2 million to the price, an estimated $2 million to bring the boat to Washington and the estimated $2 million penalty Todd will face for a delivery one year late — which Boylston said is certain to happen.

The state plans to decide in the next two weeks whether to accept Todd's bid.

In other findings given to the JTC by Scanlan:

• Reducing vessel speed by 1 knot (1 knot equals about 1.15 mph) could save $6 million a year — 12 percent of fuel costs — although it could affect schedules. Slowing idle speeds at the dock from 60 rpms to 30 could save $27 million between 2009 and 2030.


• The state should put off until 2021-2030 construction of two of proposed six new 144-car boats now in the design phase, and instead build four Island Home boats to serve Port Townsend, Point Defiance and the San Juan Island inter-island route.

• The state's cost estimate for the 144-car boats is low. The state's estimate is $115 million per boat in 2008 dollars; the consultants put the cost at $135 million.

The JTC was also given ferries' new customer survey, Monday. It found:

• There's been a sharp drop in commute trips on the ferries, from 68 percent of the total in 1993 to 48 percent this year.

• Ferry fares could rise as much as 60 percent before the cost of lost riders exceeded revenue from higher fares.

• Fewer than one in 10 riders say they could change their travel habits to avoid peak commutes.

• A 20 percent fare increase would decrease those driving on the ferries by 9 percent, increase those walking on by 9 percent and increase the percentage of those who wouldn't take the trip by 53 percent.

• When asked important issues on their ferry-riding decision, time was three times as important as cost.

Tolls without the toll-booth heading for SR 520 and I 90

Toll-booth-free tolling on SR 520 and I-90

As early as 2010, the east-west transportation corridor could see a return to the pay-as-you-go model, done without the slowdown of a toll booth.

By Matt Rosenberg
November 18, 2008.

The State Route 520 Tolling Implementation Committee's "November Scenario Evaluation" document (pdf) released last week shows that the most robust regional financing for replacing the dangerously sub-par 520 bridge comes from time-variable tolling starting in 2010 and tolling the parallel I-90 span across Lake Washington, starting in 2010 or 2016. Tolling in this key east-west corridor would be done on the fly, electronically, with vehicle windshield transponders and overhead gantries — no toll booths. Tolls that vary by time of day are likely, though flat rates are also an option. Special lanes that would be free to buses and ride-sharers could be made available to solo drivers, for a price.

The committee's members are WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond, Puget Sound Regional Council Executive Director Bob Drewel, and Washington State Transportation Commission board member Richard Ford. This latest analysis, along with public comment, will inform a January 2009 final report from the committee to the state legislature, which is then to approve a tolling plan for the SR 520 bridge and perhaps the I-90 bridge as well. Then, specific toll rates would be set by the state transportation commission and approved by the legislature, with construction of pontoons for the new 520 bridge beginning later in 2009 if all goes as envisioned.

The weary and crowded 1963-vintage 520 bridge connects Seattle with Eastside job centers such as Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland but is at major risk of catastrophic failure in a 70 mph windstorm, or earthquake. At the same time, growing regional traffic congestion has prompted a public warming to expansion of regional transit, and bettered the odds for a system of electronic, time-variable tolling on major highways and state routes across metro Puget Sound. A priced-lanes pilot project for carpoolers and solo drivers is already underway on SR 167, and flat-rate electronic tolling in place, to rave reviews, on the new southbound span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The 520 tolling committee's latest report reveals that:

# Starting tolling in 2010 instead of at bridge completion in 2016 would pry loose an additional $400-$500 million, lowering the costs of bond borrowing for construction, which is to be repaid by tolls;

# The most revenue toward completion of the $3.7 to $3.9 billion project comes from tolling both the SR 520 and I-90 bridges starting in 2010 ($2.4 billion, Scenario No. 9) or 520 in 2010 and I-90 in 2016 ($2.4 billion, Scenario No. 4);

# One-way tolls on both bridges would range from 75 cents off-peak to $2.95 at peak hours in Scenario No. 9, and from 75 cents off-peak to $3.25 at peak in Scenario No. 4;

# Tolling 520 alone starting in 2010 (Scenario No. 7) would cut peak-hour traffic volume in the vicinity of 17 to 26 percent while peak-hour flow would rise three to seven percent on I-90;

# Tolling both 520 and I-90 starting in 2016 (Scenario No. 9) would deliver peak-hour volume cuts of 10 to 11 percent on 520 and 12-16 percent on I-90, as commuters shift travel times or use transit;

# Time-variable tolling increases peak-hour speeds on 520 by 13-16 mph, nearly double the speed gain from flat toll rates.

Tolling opponents somehow imagine they are due a free ride because the construction, maintenance, and operations costs of Puget Sound roads and bridges, as population continues to swell in coming decades, can somehow all be covered by the incredible shrinking gas tax and ... what? More sales tax hikes or vehicle fees? They're nice if you can get 'em, but the well only runs so deep.

Pay as you go is the way to go in this day and age — coupled with cost-saving, performance-based consortium contracting to design, build, operate, and maintain surface transportation facilities and systems.

The four-lane SR 520 bridge across the lake is to be replaced with a six-lane structure. Current plans call for two "general purpose" lanes and one high-occupancy vehicle lane in each direction, the former would be tolled via either a flat or time-variable rate if a plan is adopted. This is confirmed by WSDOT, though it can get a bit confusing because one doesn't necessarily think of general purpose lanes as being tolled. On the I-90 bridge, the agency also confirms, tolling would be on all general purpose vehicle lanes, except under one scenario that exempts eastbound traffic from Mercer Island. On both bridges the possible HOV lane could be designated a High Occupancy and Toll (HOT lane), free to transit and ride-share vehicles, but also available, for a toll, to solo drivers.

The more time-variable tolling, and the sooner, the better: It will further drive alternative choices such as ride-sharing and telework, and raise more money for regional surface transportation needs, transit included.

The policy decisions to come on tolling the SR 520 bridge, and perhaps the I-90 bridge as well, are an important turning point for the state and region. Going forward, a broad regional plan to implement time-variable tolling on several highways and major state routes is needed. That would allocate scarce peak-hour capacity, ease congestion, and help pay for billions more in needed safety, repair, and mobility improvements on I-5, SR 99, SR 704, SR 509, US 2 and I-405/SR 167.

The question is, how serious are we about doing this? The legislature will provide the first piece of the answer when it next meets.
Editor's Note: This article first appeared at Cascadia Prospectus.

Matt Rosenberg is a senior fellow at the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a transportation think tank that is part of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. E-mail him at mattr@discovery.org.
View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2008/11/18/520-bridge/18637/

Friday, November 14, 2008

DC sluggers worry HOT lanes will destroy their free rides

Slugs' Fear HOT Lanes Will End Free Rides
Carpoolers' Worries Not Fully Weighed, N.Va. Official Says

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008; B01

Commuters who carpool along the Interstate 95/395 corridor to the Pentagon or the District continue to raise concerns about the proposed HOT lanes that will replace the HOV lanes from Dumfries to the 14th Street bridge.

The carpoolers, also known as "slugs," accept free rides from strangers, allowing drivers to use HOV lanes that require a minimum of three passengers per vehicle during rush hours. The slugging system in Northern Virginia is considered to be among the most extensive and successful in the country.

Slugs fear that allowing toll-payers into the existing carpool lanes will tempt affluent drivers who now welcome passengers to drive solo instead. Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a frequent slugger, last week called for an independent study of how the HOT lanes would affect the impromptu carpooling system. He also complained that the private companies planning the toll lanes have not fully addressed the questions and concerns of slugs and HOV drivers.

Stewart said he is skeptical of the plans because they are taking a system that works and turning it over to private companies. He also raised safety concerns about operating three traffic lanes in the two-lane footprint.

Slugging is thought to date to the early 1970s, when commuters hoping to form carpools for the HOV lanes would gather at bus stops. Slug is the term for a fake coin in a bus farebox, and it is believed bus drivers characterized the waiting carpoolers that way because the commuters, although waiting at bus stops, were not bus riders.

State officials said they have no desire to discourage the practice.

"Why on earth would we be building 6,700 commuter [parking] spots in the corridor if we were not serious about HOV and transit?'' Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer asked. "Slugging and transit are the most efficient and environmentally friendly transportation alternatives out there."

The goal of the HOT lanes is to use variable pricing to keep the lanes free-flowing. There is no upper limit on toll rates. Drivers who don't want to pay can use the free, non-HOT lanes. The companies that plan to convert the two-lane HOV facility into a three-lane toll highway say they will still allow carpools of three or more to ride free. But hybrid cars with fewer than three passengers, which are now largely allowed in HOV lanes, will have to pay the tolls, which could top $1 a mile. The companies also say they will create additional entry and exit points and crack down on cheaters, who they say make up 20 percent of the current HOV traffic flow.

The project also includes $195 million for the state to increase transit along the I-95/395 corridor, said Young Ho Chang, project manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Stewart said he was afraid that the toll lanes would harm sluggers by clogging up the lanes.

"We need some guarantees here, not promises," Stewart said.

Last month, Prince William supervisors passed a resolution demanding all correspondence between VDOT and the companies sponsoring the project, Transurban and Fluor Corp. The resolution also demanded that representatives appear before the board to answer questions by February.

On Thursday, representatives of Transurban and VDOT met with Stewart for a previously scheduled meeting to update him and other Prince William officials. Stewart invited the media and said he hoped the companies and VDOT would be more forthcoming with their plans.

Experts are divided over the impact the project might have on sluggers. Some think that drivers with the financial means would pay the tolls to avoid the hassles of picking up passengers. Others say that slugging will increase as drivers try to avoid paying the fluctuating tolls.

If traffic bogs down, "we'll just raise the price until we chase everyone else off," said Timothy Young, development manager for Transurban, who attended the meeting with Stewart.

During the meeting, company officials declined to share projections about how many vehicles might use the HOT lanes, saying the information was proprietary. They also said many other financial and operational details were not available because the companies have not completed negotiations with VDOT, which owns the HOV lanes.

Company officials said they have held focus group discussions with sluggers but did not commit to an independent study, as requested by Stewart.

Young said the company and VDOT have held dozens of informational meetings with stakeholders in Prince William and other jurisdictions the project would affect. The project, which would extend the current HOV lanes south to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County, is undergoing review for federal environmental approval. He said he hoped that VDOT would complete the environmental process by the end of the month and that the project would receive federal approval by the end of the year. Then the companies and VDOT would negotiate a financial agreement by next fall.

A second phase, which would extend HOT lanes to Massaponax in Spotsylvania County, has just begun the federal environmental process, which could take 18 months to complete.

Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007 caused by "Design errors" concludes NTSB

NTSB: Design errors caused 2007 bridge collapse

WASHINGTON (AP) — Undersized steel reinforcing plates were cited Thursday as the chief cause of last year's deadly collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis. Federal investigators also said the plates were overstressed by almost 300 tons of construction material piled on the bridge.

Investigators told the National Transportation Safety Board that the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge on Aug. 1, 2007, was unavoidable once gusset plates in the center span failed.

When that happened, it dragged other sections of the bridge and rush-hour commuters into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring 145. The plates are commonly fused to intersecting beams to reinforce the connection.

Investigators focused on the U-10 gusset plates, which were designed at only half the required thickness. But they also discussed the construction materials on the center span over the Mississippi River.

"Had the gusset plates been properly sized, this bridge would still be there," said Bruce Magladry, director of the NTSB's office of highway safety.

Board members criticized Minnesota officials for allowing 287 tons of construction materials to be stockpiled on the bridge's center on the day of the collapse. During rush hour that evening, the bridge shuddered and then dropped into the river.

Investigators told the board that Minnesota did not have any policy on weight added to bridges for construction projects.

Minnesota's transportation commissioner, Tom Sorel, attended the hearing and told reporters, "We've changed our specifications to make sure that doesn't happen again." Sorel became commissioner this year.

Investigators said the half-inch thick plates were inadequate to handle traffic and other stress factors and did not meet engineering guidelines when the bridge was built in 1967.

The board's final ruling was expected Friday.

In a statement, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had come in for some criticism on bridge upkeep, noted that the board ruled out corrosion or cracking, adding that the design flaw "was unrelated to subsequent inspections or maintenance of the bridge."

But board member Debbie Hersman noted that a Minnesota transportation official had noticed bowing, or bending, of the U-10 gusset years before the collapse, and the state took no action.

NTSB officials said that was because gusset plates were always assumed to be the strongest link. Hersman suggested that assumption was unfounded. Other board members agreed.

"Where does this urban myth come from that gusset plates are so strong?" she asked.

The bridge was called "fracture critical." That meant a failure of any number of structural elements would bring down the entire bridge.

Safety board investigator Jim Wildey said there is "nothing inherently dangerous" about this type of bridge, as long as each structural element is designed to withstand the expected stress loads.

In St. Paul, Minn., a group of collapse survivors gathered at a National Guard armory to watch the NTSB presentation on the Internet. Michele McLane, 41, said the hearing was "the last door to close for me."

McLane, who drove her car safely off the northern end of the span, said the experience left her emotionally traumatized. "I finally get it now," she said. "I finally understand."

During Barack Obama's campaign for the White House, he cited the bridge collapse and called for spending more on crumbling highways, bridges and tunnels.

In July, the House passed legislation authorizing an additional $1 billion next year to rebuild structurally deficient bridges on the national highway system. The bill would require states to come up with repair plans for troubled bridges.

The Senate has yet to act on the bill. If no action is taken during a lame-duck session that starts next week, lawmakers would have to start anew on the legislation in January.

Light Rail wins in Seattle, LA,; loses in Kansas City and San Jose

Rail transit ballot measures lost in Kansas City and San Jose, but won in Seattle, Sonoma-Marin counties, and Los Angeles. From the point of view of sensible transportation policy, the biggest disaster of the election was passage of the California high-speed rail measure.

Sometimes I think it is wonderful that we can live in a country that is so wealthy that we can afford to build rail lines that cost five times as much per mile as freeway lanes yet carry only one-fifth as many people. But, as it turns out, we really can’t afford to do so.

The bursting of the stockmarket bubble in 2001 would have sent us into a recession but for the increase in consumer spending that resulted from the housing bubble. Now that the housing bubble has burst, our weak economy stands naked and trembling for all to see. Yet this did not much dampen enthusiasm for ridiculous rail projects.

First, the good news. After rejecting light rail seven times, then approving a plan that turned out to be unworkable, Kansas City once again resoundingly defeated a new light-rail plan. It would be nice to think that after 56 percent of voters rejected this plan that it will stay dead and buried, but these things always come back.

As it came back to Santa Clara County, California, which in 2000 approved a sales tax increase for a BART line from Fremont to San Jose. But the line turned out to cost a lot more than expected, so votes were asked for another sales tax increase. The latest count says that 66.27 percent said yes, which means that it failed because California requires a two-thirds majority to pass tax increases. But it was painfully close.

In two other ballot measures, San Jose residents gave up what little oversight they have over the nation’s worst transit agency, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Under VTA’s charter, the agency must submit its transportation plan to the voters every six years. In measure C, VTA asked voters to approve a plan that it had not yet completed. In measure D, VTA asked voters to repeal the requirement that it submit plans to the voters. Both passed by huge margins.

In Los Angeles, the “red” subway line is, by all accounts, a failure, costing 50 percent more to build than the original estimates and carrying less than half as many people as estimated. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was content to focus instead on light rail. But L.A.’s new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, wanted to complete the “subway-to-the-sea” line, and he managed to persuade 67.4 percent of voters to raise sales taxes to do so.

The “SMART” train is a proposed commuter-rail line in Sonoma and Marin counties that would end near (but not at) a San Francisco ferry terminal but otherwise not approach any major job centers. Voters twice before failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to fund it, but in this case, the third time’s the charm.

Finally, California high-speed rail passed with 52.2 percent of the vote. This commits California to spend $9 billion starting construction on what ultimately will be a $50 to $60 or more billion megaproject.

Backers of the plan are counting on getting matching or even more than matching funds from the federal government. They may even get it, but not without starting high-speed rail crazes in other parts of the country.

It is widely agreed that government failure caused the current economic crisis (though not everyone agrees on just what that failure was). Ironically, as NBC anchor Brian Williams noted during Tuesday night’s election coverage, “There is evidence that more people are now viewing government as the solution and not the problem.” It will be sad indeed if we end up suffering from more government failures as a response to government failures of the past.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Vote No on Pop 1 again

Op-Ed - Vote No on the 'rail package'

By John V. Fox and Carolee Colter

Monday, October 27, 2008

Last year, we urged readers to oppose Proposition 1, the regional transportation package that was placed on the November '07 ballot. That $18 billion measure, including $7 billion for roads and most of the rest for light rail, was soundly defeated. But somehow the Sound Transit board interpreted that to mean they could come back again this November with another $18 billion ballot measure, only this time stripped of the roads component.

Repackaged under the banner "transit now," Proposition 1 would pay for construction of 34 additional miles of light-rail track, additional Sounder train service to the south, a First Hill streetcar, and a handful of express buses.

Even without roadway funding, it's still a global-warming, carbon-emitting lemon of a proposal and here's why:

- The measure allows Sound Transit to extend the existing sales tax of 0.04 percent and raise it by another 0.05 percent. This would bring Seattle's total sales tax burden to nearly 10 cents on the dollar - perhaps the highest rate in the nation. While the agency says the $18 billion package ($23 billion with interest) will be paid off in 2038, they've structured the tax to allow collection through 2053 and in an amount that literally would exceed $100 billion. Clearly officials lack confidence they can complete these light rail extensions within budget.

- It's a misnomer for Proposition 1 supporters to label this proposal "transit now." Light rail funded by the measure won't come on line until at least 2023. Meanwhile Seattle and the region continue to add population and commuters at an alarming rate - over 300,000 new residents since 2000. If we're going to get people out of their cars, we can't wait 15 years for a transit solution. As County Executive Ron Sims recently said, "We can't wait even 15 months." Sims, by the way, is one of the few regional leaders with the courage to speak out against Proposition 1.

- With gas prices rising, King County Metro reports a phenomenal increase in bus ridership - up 9 percent over the summer when ridership normally dips. Now with over 400,000 riders per day, area buses are crammed to the gills. At a time when we should be dramatically expanding the bus system, Sims reports that Metro lacks even the funding to maintain current levels of service. He's called for fare increases and asked Metro to tap into its reserve fund to make up the shortfall. For a fraction of the cost of Proposition 1's light rail extension, we could dramatically expand the number of buses and add dozens of new routes and truly provide "transit now."

But alas, Prop 1 allocates only about 2 percent of its total package for buses. To quote Sims again, "The plan provides just 60 new buses for the three-county area, half of which will not be in service until after 2015. That adds just an average of 1.3 new buses per year in each of the three counties for the next 15 years." Contrary to the claims of Prop 1 supporters, if we pour nearly all our transit dollars into a staggeringly expensive rail system, there's little left over for real solutions like buses, vans, carpooling, shuttle service, bike, and pedestrian amenities.

- Nothing exemplifies our misguided transit priorities more than our area leaders' obsession with rail - a plan that according to one study will serve only 0.4 percent of all trips in 2030. Earlier this summer area leaders including Mayor Nickels and members of our City Council had an opportunity to insist that a significant chunk of Prop 1's funding go to buses and other non-rail transit solutions. Rail is at least 40 percent more expensive to operate than buses (not counting the cost of adding several $100 million rail stations along each route). Instead, these officials asked that money's be inserted in the Prop 1 package for a costly toy of a streetcar line on Capitol Hill. Last year those same officials chose to divert monies Metro had dedicated for new bus routes in Seattle and instead use them to cover a portion of the operating costs for Paul Allen's South Lake Union Streetcar.

- Finally, and most damning of all, Prop 1 locks us for decades into an unsustainable car dependent pattern of growth. Our state's former Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald said it best in a recent issue of Crosscut, the local online magazine. Light rail, he says, assumes that most of the region's growth will be concentrated in or near the major urban centers including Bellevue, Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett. But despite our local government's best efforts to concentrate growth along or near planned rail routes serving these areas, it's simply not happening. Population and jobs are exploding on the margins of the region's growth boundaries in areas like Monroe, Marysville, Mount Vernon, Mill Creek, Issaquah, Sammamish, Snoqualmie, Dupont, Duvall, Bonney Lake, and a dozen other formerly rural areas. These areas cry out for creation of small transit centers with buses, vans, car pools, paths and bikeways running to and from those hubs. Lacking funding for these solutions (because most of our area transit dollars are being poured into rail) folks in these outlying areas have no choice but to continue to drive their cars.

As the rail line for Rainier Valley makes clear, light rail is not really about transportation. It's about real estate, displacement, and gentrification. Consider that most of the small businesses and residents displaced by light rail construction were low income and minorities. It's the rail lobby and real estate interests driving Prop 1, hiding under the illusion that this plan will curb use of cars and promote "sustainable" patterns of growth.

On the contrary, passage of this measure will lock us into a regional growth scenario that will keep us and our children and our children's children dependent on the automobile for decades to come.

Vote "NO" on Prop 1!

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter may be reached via wseditor@robinsonnews.com

Please share your point of view on this story. Comments posted with First and Last names will be considered for publication in the print edition. You may request that your name not be published. You may also send your comment directly to the editor at wseditor@robinsonnews.com.

Gerry wrote on Oct 27, 2008 5:43 PM:
" So, an effective, reliable, quality mass transit system is going to create car dependency, eh? Amazing these two were given an inch of column space.

As is usually the case with most rail opponents, John Fox and Carolee Colter are fighting a totally different battle: density, and re-development. In their effort to excuse and encourage suburban sprawl, these perma-activists are actually fighting the good things rail delivers: dense, affordable human-scale housing around rail centers. But, if your lot in life is to ignore middle income residents - in favor of the very poor and very rich - light rail is the big, bad boogeyman.

John Fox fought the redevelopment of Holly Park, and the quality of life enhancements which came along with it. Light rail, again, was the evil instrument of modernity in the Rainier Valley...and that so-called "gentrification?" Well, yeah. Property values go up when drug dealers and gang violence goes down. You can tell John Fox and his one-man-band The Seattle Displacement Coalition are really looking out for the little guy.

Carpools and vanpools for suburbanites - and lousy bus service for the urban poor - instead of a quality, reliable mass transit system? Give me a break. This is crusty, car-centric old Seattle in its last throes. Living in the past, rather than looking to the future, is a sure way to sink all boats. "

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rossi acknowledges WA State budget deficit would defer his transportation plan

Dems blast Rossi for admitting policies will take time to implement

State Democrats are pouncing on an article by the Everett Herald's Jerry Cornfield published Wednesday revealed that, in light of the state's projected budget deficit, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi admitted that two of his top priorities, his massive transportation plan and repealing the estate tax, would be placed on the back burner.

Cornfield writes that although Rossi still touts these plans on the campaign trail, he has come to acknowledge their delay in interviews because of the priority of the state budget. Still, Rossi is far from abandoning them entirely.

"I have to right this ship first," Rossi said in the article. "We are going to get all the projects started within the first four years. The whole goal is to get all of them finished in 12 years."

Meanwhile both Gov. Gregoire's campaign and the state Democratic Party are calling Rossi's admission deceitful, and implying that the budget is the reason that Gregoire has refrained from making similar plans.

Gregoire has pointed out the additional financial burden Rossi's transportation plan would have on the state's projected budget deficit numerous times, including during some of the debates.

"Why does Rossi continue to tout his broken promises on the stump and in his ads? Breaking campaign promises even before the campaign is even over must be pretty embarrassing," said Aaron Toso, spokesman for Gregoire for Governor, said in a statement. "Voters shouldn't believe anything he has to say."

Rossi has made similar claims about Gregoire's campaign promises dating back to the 2004 campaign and stem cell research facilities.

The state party, as usual, released a more harshly worded statement condemning Rossi's acknowledgement.

"Republican Dino Rossi has demonstrated he will do or say anything to get elected, offering such ridiculous promises and outrageous claims that he's been forced to abandon them before the election even occurs," said Washington State Democratic Party spokesman Kelly Steele. "While Gov. Gregoire has maintained a budget surplus and has already taken fiscally-responsible action to cut any projected deficit in half, Republican Dino Rossi continues his used car salesman-like pitch to voters - saying whatever he thinks they want to hear - even after admitting he can't deliver on his promises. Quite simply, there's no reason to believe a single word Rossi says."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The so-called myths of light rail...which may actually be true

Seattle never 'misses a chance to miss a chance' on light rail

The only thing keeping it from succeeding here are the myths propagated by foes, says this economics journalist. Here's a line-by-line debunking.
By Jon Talton
October 23, 2008.

At least two big rail transit measures are on the ballot around the country this November, maybe more. In Seattle, voters will be asked to approve light-rail expansion. And in California, there's a truly transformative measure to build a high-speed rail network.

Both will probably fail, both due to the financial crisis but, sadly, also to the pervasive myths and muddled thinking that keep America frozen with an increasingly unworkable 1965 transportation network. This post will attempt to take a few of these on:
Myth #1: The problem can be solved by adding more buses.

Many people who claim to support transit advocate expanding bus service, saying buses are cheaper and more flexible. Unfortunately this is also the bait-and-switch position of anti-rail, anti-transit forces — they will initially support bus transit but then oppose actually funding it. In any event, while buses have their place, they are not enough for a balanced, multi-modal 21st century transportation system.

Buses get stuck in the same traffic congestion that snarls cars — and politicians will never create enough bus-only lanes to alleviate this. In downtown Seattle, a bus-rider's heaven, buses are routinely clotted up, even with bus lanes. Your bus is not only late, but it can be the fourth or fifth one back in a line stopped to take on passengers. Good luck getting there if you walk slowly. Buses with stairs are hard for many people to enter. And buses have a stigma in many communities. As I say, buses have a valuable place. But they can't replace rail for reliability, ease of entry, ease of riding, rider appeal, and passenger-miles-per-unit of energy.
Myth #2: Pave, baby, pave.

We've been adding more roads for years, and traffic congestion just keeps getting worse. Metro Phoenix is a laboratory example of this. But the phenomenon was first noted with the parkway construction and other car-based projects of Robert Moses in New York in the 1930s: These roadways actually become "congestion generators." Nevertheless, this is the American mindset. In supposedly "green" Washington state, the Republican candidate for governor promises to build and widen roads, and he's neck-in-neck in the race.

But the case against more roads goes deeper than the fact that wider freeways, etc., often just don't work. The automobile is a key factor behind metropolitan air pollution and global warming. Now it is going to be a victim of peak oil. Any replacement vehicles will be much more expensive than the internal combustion engine running on light sweet crude that was abundant in 1965, but will grow less so every year ahead. So we're going to need transportation alternatives.
Myth #3: Public transit is too costly.

The news media and the conservative "think tanks" obsess about the price tag of transit projects (an exception is this LA Times endorsement). They never talk about the real costs of freeways and roads — not just the nominal price of paving, etc., but the huge, embedded expenses associated with increased pollution, increased warming, loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl and the destabilization of neighborhoods and urban cores.

Highways actually don't pay for themselves. And there's not a transportation system in the world that isn't subsidized (look at our serial airline crises, and this with a host of hidden subsidies already). It just matters how a society sets its priorities. Thus, Europe has advanced bullet trains, intercity trains, light rail networks, subways — and China is building them. Several European city-pair routes have seen high-speed rail kill off the (more polluting) airline competition. Cost? These projects only get more expensive every time America refuses to build a system.

The more troubling aspect of this argument brings us back to the poisonous and decadent myth that has been foisted on the American people since 1981 that tax cuts are free, and they can get something for nothing. If previous generations had followed this bread-and-circuses illogic, we wouldn't even have a nation. Public works are the foundation of an advanced civilization, and "the free market" alone won't provide for the public good. Government intervention, starting with Abraham Lincoln, created the transcontinental railroad. It built the airline system, even as passenger railroads were taxed to death. It built the Interstate highway system. All this without a second peep about that extra dime or quarter from the average taxpayer. Now we face entirely new competitive and indeed civilizational survival realities, but "it costs too much."

Another aspect of cost that gets no attention is how well-funded (and well concealed) the opposition is. The sprawl, road-building, oil, and auto industries have been successfully defeating transit initiatives for decades. Conservative "think tanks" (i.e., advocacy groups grinding out fake research that always supports their position), also very lavishly funded, have a fetish against transit — something about the fear of maybe riding in the same rail car as a brown person. On the other hand, there is no big money, pro-transit lobby in this country.
(Seattle-specific) Myth #4: It's not perfect enough.

Seattle never misses a chance to miss a chance to build a great mass transit network — all the while bemoaning how far behind Portland it is. And no measure put before voters reaches the desired perfection — as if that happens anywhere.

Large public works usually have to make political and other compromises. That happens in democracies. The Tennessee Valley Authority could have been "better" — but it turned out pretty damned good. Now, the Sound Transit measure takes a long time to build out. Well, that's because backers are terrified of asking voters to approve more money to build it faster. At least it's a start.
Myth #5: People won't ride it.


Amtrak ridership is at records, and this with a vastly underfunded system. It was amazing watching the every-other-day train stop at 3 a.m. in Cincinnati — once a major passenger rail hub — and a crowd of people waiting to get on.

Imagine how it would work with a convenient and frequent set of trains on high-speed roadbed. Amtrak corridor service in such places as California, the Northeast, the Northwest, even Michigan, is doing especially well. Light-rail systems routinely break ridership projections. This is not 1965. America is denser, more urban, and many people are sick of driving. They long for alternatives.

So here we go again? Can we still build a 21st century civilization in the United States? Maybe a President Obama will start to turn things around. A President McCain promises to defund Amtrak, and that's just the start.

Jon Talton is a freelance writer and business columnist for The Seattle Times. A journalist for nearly 30 years, he blogs regularly at Rogue Columnist, where this post first appeared.
View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2008/10/23/transportation/18584/

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rossi will defer his transportation plan due to WA state economic crisis

Two of his big plans -- money for roads and eliminating the estate tax -- would take back seat to a balanced budget, the candidate says.

By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
OLYMPIA -- Voters counting on Dino Rossi for a quicker fix to transportation problems and demise of the death tax may be waiting longer than they expect.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rossi is delaying pursuit of those two key promises separating him from Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, blaming a worsening state budget outlook as the cause.

"First off we have to right the ship, financially," Rossi said.

If elected, Rossi said he won't try to divert hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax into road projects in the next two years because the money may be needed to help overcome a projected $3.2 billion shortfall.

Likewise, he will wait at least two years before proposing to eliminate the estate tax -- a source of roughly $105 million a year since 2005.

"We are going to be facing a tough biennium. He realizes the first thing he'll have to do in office is to balance the budget," said Jill Strait, Rossi's campaign spokeswoman.

Changing how the state funds transportation and erasing the estate tax are two of the most established planks in Rossi's platform.

He acknowledges his shift in position on them in interviews. In front of crowds, he's still touting his transportation plan and his commitment to repeal the estate tax, without mentioning any delays.

It's a significant new shift, said Gregoire's campaign spokesman Aaron Toso. Those have been two of Rossi's few specific proposals in this campaign, he said.

"Rossi is breaking his campaign promises before the campaign is even over," Toso said. "There isn't a reason for voters to believe anything Rossi has to say."

Toso added, "At least Rossi finally agrees that his campaign promises would create an additional $1.3 billion 'Rossi deficit' on top of any projected shortfall."

Rossi's adjusted stance won't matter for voters because at this stage, emotion, more than any issue, is influencing them, said Republican political strategist Dave Mortenson.

"At this point in the campaign voters are tired of the rhetoric. It boils down to what their gut feeling is," he said.

Terry Thompson, a campaign consultant for Democratic candidates, said he didn't think it will sway many voters either and shows Rossi is "exercising caution" in his positions at this stage.

Rossi made a big splash in April when he laid out a $15 billion transportation plan. The majority of the cost is for major road projects to be finished in the next 12 years. The list includes $600 million worth of improvements on U.S. 2.

Roughly half the money for Rossi's plan comes from using 40 percent of the sales tax collected on the sale of new and used cars. That money, estimated at about $400 million a year, now goes into the general fund for programs such as education and health care, rather than roads.

Since April, the deficit projection grew from $2.5 billion to its current $3.2 billion, prompting him to rethink his strategy, Rossi said.

"I have to right this ship first," Rossi said. "We are going to get all the projects started within the first four years. The whole goal is to get all of them finished in 12 years."

Rossi did not say how he will generate money for those projects like U.S. 2 that are not now funded in the state transportation budget. Strait said it is his goal to be tapping into the sales tax by the end of his first term.

The inheritance tax is a defining issue for the candidates.

In 2005, after a state Supreme Court decision invalidated an old estate tax law, Gregoire had it rewritten and pushed for its reinstatement. Voters later affirmed it.

According to the governor's budget office, 99.5 percent of estates do not pay the tax.

Since it came back on the books May 17, 2005, 808 estates have paid $314.5 million, said Glenn Kuper, spokesman for the Office of Financial Management. The money is earmarked for education.

Rossi wants to get rid of the tax and to scale back taxes paid by businesses. While campaigning, he says taking those steps will help small companies and create jobs.

Yet in an interview, he said he will put off reducing any taxes until the state starts taking in more money than it is spending.

"Once we get that on the right plane, there will be monies available above the line of spending that could be available for potential tax reductions," he said.

Strait said that will not likely occur until at least 2011.

Eyman's I-985 attacked for reducing incentive for cities to introduce red light cameras

Eyman's I-985 invites road tragedies


DURING THE past decade, our state's less savvy citizens have seen voting for Tim Eyman's tax initiatives as a pain-free way of giving local government a poke in the eye.

The officials so often abused by the initiative kingpin -- Eyman talks endlessly of an unnamed "they" and "them" -- bend over backward to ease the impact and maintain pared-down essential services.

Initiative 985 carries more pain -- physical pain.

Vote in favor of the initiative and your kid may get smashed in the legs by fenders of a car running a red light, or your grandmother killed as she uses a crosswalk after getting off a bus.

Why? Initiative 985 erects a financial barrier that will prevent cities from installing or maintaining cameras at busy and dangerous intersections.

"Traffic cameras are an attempt to begin to level the playing field between powerful cars and human bodies out there. Eyman could give a rat's rear about that," said Andrea Okomski, whose son, Joe, suffered permanent injuries when hit by a car on North 85th Street.

Lori Koidal has become an activist for pedestrian rights since her mother was killed last year by a driver who ran a red light at a busy Kenmore intersection. The driver was not found criminally liable.

"It makes me mad to see something gain traction, and then not happen," Koidal added. "Something CAN work, and this takes it away.

"We're talking about holding people accountable for their actions. If you know there is a camera, you're going to be less likely to run a red light. You will be more likely to slow down."

Eyman, not surprisingly, takes a different view. Displaying the insight that marks him as a leader of bitter men, he used a Friday e-mail to blast traffic cameras as "a lucrative cash cow profit center."

The initiative would take away from cities all of the fines and penalties raised by traffic cameras. The money would instead be sent to a state decongestion fund. It would be used to time traffic lights rather than installing cameras to monitor traffic at sensitive intersections and around schools.

"I hate those cameras, but I believe in them. They make me be careful," King County Executive Ron Sims said in a Seattle CityClub debate with Eyman.

Sims draws on personal experience. He was hit by a car after school as a third-grader in Spokane.

We've seen a common pattern on previous Eyman initiatives. The Elway Poll, about two weeks out, shows a sharp decline in voter support. But time runs out on opponents.

Eyman squeaks through with about 51.12 percent of the vote. He loses in King County but carries rural areas by heavy margins. A guy who could strut sitting down, he then descends on Olympia and claims to be a tribune of the regular guy.

The traffic camera issue is making him squirm.

He tried the Big Brother gambit before CityClub, claiming there is "a little bit of ACLU in all of us." He has tried to demonize camera makers for contributing to the campaign against I-985.

How much is the anti-985 war chest? It totaled $186,000 as of Friday, compared with the $6.2 million raised by supporters and opponents of Initiative 1000, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Above all, argues Eyman, "I-985 removes the profit motive for photo red light cameras and photo speeding cameras."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the consequences. The cameras become unaffordable to install or maintain.

Eyman has recently heard that message from both the Renton and Burien city councils. He was told in Renton that cameras have cut speeding around schools and freed up police officers to pursue criminals.

Will cities continue to install cameras if money from fines gets sent to Olympia? "We would not be able to afford them," Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said on a recent podcast.

The national growth of intersection accidents underscores a need to do exactly what Eyman's initiative would render fiscally impossible.

Drivers running red lights cause more than 100,000 crashes a year, killing nearly 1,000 people and injuring 90,000 others. According to the Federal Highway Administration, this has become a leading cause of fatal collisions in metropolitan areas.

"This should be viewed as an outrageous epidemic," Richard Retting, chief traffic engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the Ladies Home Journal. "We're not talking about a rare illness that requires decades of billion-dollar research to prevent or cure. This is a situation where people are dying from something that's 100 percent preventable."

Okomski makes another telling point. We simply don't have enough police to make people be civil on the road, or to cover intersections prone to side-impact "T-bone" crashes.

Yet, I-985 is aimed at preventing the prevention. Eyman doesn't stand for tax relief. He is promoting road kill.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How to pay for the Nation's roads - a case for public private partnerships

How to pay for the roads still traveled

Notwithstanding increasing mass transit ridership and more prudent use of cars, automobiles will dominate U.S. transportation for decades to come. So how do we pay for roads? Variable tolling is one answer, and in the age of GPS the logical next step should also be explored: a fee on miles traveled everywhere by individual vehicles.
By Matt Rosenberg
October 21, 2008.

I had a telling conversation with an old friend several months ago, a devoted environmentalist who's a community college biology teacher living south of San Francisco in a pleasant small town abutting the Pacific. I don't recall how it came up, but she declared, "We've just got to get more people out of their cars." Then came a pregnant pause, followed by her admission that of course, because of where they lived and worked and their packed daily schedules, she and her husband drove themselves and their children everywhere.

I've been thinking about this lately because, well, the roads are still chock full of cars and trucks, and despite an uptick in transit and bicycle use, traffic is still congested here in metro Seattle, and metro regions nationwide. Meanwhile, U.S. surface transportation needs will require some $12.5 trillion (yes, with a "t") over the next 50 years, according to a landmark federal report issued this year. But the way we fund such projects is broken, relying too much on dwindling by-the-gallon gas taxes due to improved fuel efficiency, and ever more difficult local and regional sales tax hikes.

The historical trends show whopping increases in U.S. miles driven and gasoline supplied. We've gone from 2 million barrels of gas a day in the 1950s to more than 9 million per day by 2007, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that U.S. vehicle miles traveled (VMT) multiplied more than fourfold from 1960 to three trillion in 2006. Though the term "highway" is sometimes attached to VMT, they are estimated monthly for all U.S. roads and streets, drawing from data gathered at 4,000 continuous traffic counting locations.

What of the future?

BTS projects that VMT will grow by more than half the current level to 4.7 trillion in 2030, while U.S. population grows about 23 percent from 2005 to 2030. In Washington state, annual VMT nearly doubled between 1980 and 2007, and is projected to rise another 54 percent by 2030.

In the four core counties of metro Puget Sound, daily VMT has more than doubled between 1980 and 2007.

During the oil and gas price run-up earlier this year, drawing considerable media attention were marginal decreases, of a few percentage points only, in monthly and calendar year-to-date U.S. VMT compared to a year ago. Even a slight dip in VMT draws notice in a time when some celebrate the end of suburbia and advocate "carectomies."

One can hope. These days, it seems that every seminar addressing surface transportation and every green "visioning" session includes earnest discussion of how to "reduce vehicle miles traveled." To the skeptic, the imperative sounds like one of those wishful commands sported on the seven-bumper-stickered Subaru Outbacks endemic to Seattle, like "World Peace Now," or "End Poverty." It's an appealing idea, sure. But the devil is in the details.
The infrastructure crumbles

In the meantime, there's still a pressing need to deal with roadway and bridge wear and tear, and increased congestion resulting from exponential VMT growth during a post-Interstate-building era when transportation investment chronically lagged. One reminder comes via veteran Chicago Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch, who this month wrote that despite a five percent regional drop in VMT, traffic congestion there has remained high. One big reason:

Roadways were already so badly saturated with traffic before the recent spikes in fuel prices that the decline in miles traveled hasn't significantly loosened the gridlock.

Most daily trips in metro regions actually aren't to and from work, a point often overlooked. But many of those trips by their nature are less likely to involve transit. If you're going to Costco or Lowe's or Target, to your in-laws in Olympia or friends in Lynnwood, to curriculum night at your kid's school across town, or your cottage on Whidbey Island, you're most likely to be driving. Of total daily trips in the four-county core of the Puget Sound region, only 4 percent were via scheduled public transit, according to a 2006 Puget Sound Regional Council survey (second paragraph of p. E-6, here).

Work-related travel is somewhat more predictable, and there's more room, potentially, to change behavior and actually get some people out of their cars, some of the time. But progress there had been scant. The BTS also reports that — based on federal surveys and Census data — between 1989 and 2006 the percentage of U.S. workers for whom the principal means of transport to work was solo driving remained at 76. Those workers usually carpooling declined very slightly, to 10 percent of the workforce over the same 17-year stretch, and those usually taking public transportation decreased from 4.6 percent to 4.3 percent. Walking, biking, taxi, and "other" principal means of conveyance to work grew from a combined 4.7 percent of the workforce in 1989 to 5 percent in 2006, while telecommuting increased from 2.6 percent to 3.9 percent.

Numbers for 2007 and 2008 will likely show some decrease in solo driving to work, and a shade more transit use nationally, but without drawing up a whole new landscape, prospects remain iffy for reducing VMT or merely curtailing its growth.

As politically unpalatable as it seems now — and that would be "very" — some experts believe within a few decades we'll be tolling not just managed highway lanes with time- or congestion-related variable fees but tolling every mile traveled, via GPS devices planted on most if not all vehicles. "VMT tolling" or "mileage fees" have already been studied in Puget Sound and Oregon, and imposed on heavy trucks in Germany. This month, the Atlanta Regional Commission mused publicly about the unsustainability of the federal gas tax and the attractiveness of mileage fees. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

The board of the Atlanta Regional Commission is studying the idea of eventually dropping the federal gas tax, the main source of transportation funding, as it looks for "sustainable" transportation funding. The gas tax doesn't rise with inflation and gets weaker every year. The ARC, metro Atlanta's planning agency, hasn't approved a final statement on the issue and has no authority to implement it. The agency is giving its recommendations to Congress, as it begins to look toward renewing the multiyear federal transportation funding law.

The gas tax is charged as cents-per-gallon instead of cents-per-dollar, so the same size tank always reaps the same amount of money in taxes, no matter how much the price of gas goes up. In addition, as people get more fuel-efficient cars, they use less gas, and so pay less gas tax. The ARC suggests more research on one of the more talked-about ideas, an odometer charge, or vehicle miles traveled. Such a charge would tax drivers by the amount of miles they drive. The idea is for drivers to pay for the wear they put on the roads. Depending on how sophisticated the tracking is, it could send the tax paid directly to the jurisdictions whose roads the driver uses. To avoid getting weaker every year, as the gas tax does, it would have to be designed to rise with inflation.

For now, to untie Atlanta's grimly congested traffic, the state transportation department is pushing a $400 million-plus plan to convert the region's 44 miles of carpool lanes to electronically-tolled high-occupancy and toll (HOT) lanes, which are open to carpoolers and transit for free, and to solo drivers for a variable fee depending on time of day or congestion levels. Nearly half of the spending would be for added bus service and park-and-ride lots along the HOT lane corridors.

Closer to home, the rationale for considering mileage fees was also well-stated by Oregon officials. A report from ODOT to the Legislature makes the case for advance planning even if political acceptance isn't an immediate prospect.

The first question people ask about the pilot program for mileage fees is, "Why are you doing this?" The answer is simple. Oregon is preparing for the day when a substantial number of motorists are driving highly fuel efficient vehicles and no longer paying enough gasoline taxes to support their road system. ... that day may come about ten years from now. No one in Oregon proposes immediate implementation of an electronically collected mileage fee. Investigation and preparation for a new revenue system, however, is warranted because of the long lead time necessary for any change.

The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial last month titled "America's Broken Infrastructure," provocatively argued:

The vehicle mileage tax is probably the answer. Rather than taxing people based on the amount of gas they buy, it would tax them based on the number of miles they drive. Most likely, this would be done by installing tamper-proof devices in vehicles that would transmit mileage information to a tax office, though the data also could simply be confirmed by a certified mechanic. Some states are performing pilot studies on mileage taxes, but they're a long way from having all the bugs worked out — there are serious technical and logistics questions, not to mention privacy concerns (many people are uncomfortable beaming information about their driving habits to the government). Nonetheless, a mileage tax makes sense because it rightly puts the burden for building and maintaining roads on the shoulders of those who use them, even if they happen to drive high-mileage cars.

I'll admit to deep ambivalence about tolling every mile traveled. It's not about the privacy concerns, which to me seem exaggerated. But mileage fees feel like pervasive fiscal over-reach, no matter how reasonable the peak-hour charges and how meaty the off-peak discounts which would need to be part of any such package. I always eschew a car rental agreement that includes any kind of mileage fee. So I'm not supporting mileage fees here, and Cascadia Center has made no such endorsement, either. But we have hosted public conversations on the topic, and the national dialog on mileage fees will continue to gain impetus because tax funding for surface transportation will need to be leavened more and more with a variety of updated pay-as-you-go strategies.

Whatever one's feelings — and they are likely to be intense — mileage fees with off-peak discounts, and a robust but revenue-neutral national carbon tax could drive increased off-peak travel, greater transit usage, and tele-work.

How soon any of this will happen, if ever, is unclear. What's more clear now is that we like living in the suburbs and that driving is often a necessity. In the suburbs, housing costs are less, though bargains have crept toward the edges, which in turn increases VMT. Suburban public schools aren't always ideal but are much less problematic than urban public schools. More and more jobs are dispersed across metro regions, in varied suburban locales. Meanwhile, the vision of "living close to work" is reality only for a lucky, small slice of the populace.
The shortcomings of present gas taxation

Puget Sound voters will get a chance to weigh in on a $17.9 billion second-phase Sound Transit proposal next month that would extend the starter north-south light rail line in both directions and east, and add to existing ST express bus and commuter rail service. Other regional needs include replacing the shaky Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington; fixing dangerous Highway 2 in Snohomish County; revising tangled interchanges and repairing cracked pavement on Interstate 5 in Seattle (a crucial but unfunded $2 billion job that's rarely discussed); and building key missing links in Pierce County, such as the Cross-Base Highway and the Highway 167 connector to the Port of Tacoma.

Funding the roads piece, and any major additions to the regional transit infrastructure beyond the pending "Sound Transit 2" plan, will be daunting. Regional taxpayers here aren't a bottomless well. And the federal role in surface transportation funding has been heading into permanent decline, as Atlanta's planners and the Los Angeles Times both pointedly note. The federal gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993, and no amount of Beltway jabber and finagling will produce any substantive hike in it soon, or quite possibly ever again. The federal gas tax trust fund was poised to land about $4.3 billion in the red by last month's end, but as Logistics Management reports, Congress threw the troubled account a one-year life preserver of $8 billion from the U.S. Treasury General Fund.

State gas taxes, which often support state bonding for transportation projects, are losing buying power, too. Oklahoma's road and bridge bonds are getting pricier because of tighter credit. Connecticut couldn't find a refinancing deal for highly-rated transportation project bonds worth nearly half a billion dollars, a never-before challenge for a state with serious surface transportation needs. Syndicated columnist Neil Peirce writes in The Seattle Times, "The Wall Street fiscal crisis effectively shut the state-local government sector out of borrowing." Well before that storm hit, state transportation project budgets had already been smacked by sharply rising costs for construction materials and equipment fuel, plus a tightening global labor market. India, China, and other fast-developing nations are on a global road building binge.

It's true that a proposed U.S. infrastructure bank could raise some $60 billion over 10 years for deserving projects. That'd be a start, but as Congressional Quarterly reports, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, in a major report issued earlier this year, said $225 billion per annum is needed for the next 50 years for repairs and upgrades to meet future needs. That's $12.5 trillion. The commission noted that current expenditures are less than 40 percent of their recommended yearly nut and that future funding will need to be closely tied to cost-benefit analyses and performance-based outcomes. Expect some major wrangling next year when the new Congress takes up reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, which is rather hopefully named the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act, a Legacy for Users — or SAFETEA-LU to you. The commission's scarifying estimate dovetails, roughly, with one by the American Society of Civil Engineers: Just to get moving on vital projects, the nation's infrastructure needs an infusion of $1.6 trillion over the next five years.

A promising development, as much or more for its cost-saving peak-hour rationing incentives as for its revenue-raising potential — is variable-fee highway tolling, now spreading across the U.S., often in so-called HOT lanes. A HOT lane pilot project is under way on Highway 167 in metro Puget Sound, and a federal grant to help fund the Highway 520 bridge replacement requires state legislative approval of pricing on 520.
Even Democrats embrace public-private partnerships

Whether Puget Sound decides to move toward regional variable-fee highway tolling, there's another important tool we're going to be hearing more about: public-private partnerships, or P3s, which help share taxpayer risk and dramatically speed up project delivery. They're not a solution for every occasion, but they deserve leeway to support more of our region's and nation's staggering surface infrastructure needs. P3s are widespread in Europe, Canada, and Australia and now are beginning to gather steam stateside.

High-profile Democrats such as Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley are all supporters. The new, Democratic Governor of New York, David Paterson, is interested in transportation P3s, too.

P3s need not involve the sale of public assets such as highways and bridges or transit systems but, rather, the leasing of such facilities, which then yield toll or fare revenue for the private operators. These operators are not reviled foreign sovereign concerns. They are either transit service firms or special "private" infrastructure investment groups which may be headquartered in Europe or Australia but are increasingly bankrolled by U.S. public employee union pension funds or those of building trades unions. Those funds have lost some value in their stock portfolios lately, but they're still flush and see infrastructure as good risk diversification for their long-term obligations to pensioners.

The Washington State Investment Board, representing a slew of state employee retirement funds, plans to invest 5 percent of its sizeable portfolio in infrastructure. The board explains here (p. 2) that it has come to view "tangible asset types" (other than real estate and) including infrastructure as capable of producing "long-term" and "high-quality" revenue streams. A number of others public employee union pension funds in North America have invested in infrastructure, and more have announced similar plans.

They tend to go with the private infrastructure investment groups because directly buying state highway bonds doesn't meet their fiduciary duties to pensioners. Interest earnings on state bonds are tax-exempt, so interest rates are correspondingly a bit lower. Yet public pension funds are already granted a tax exemption on interest earned, so unlike individual investors they have no financial incentive to go for the state bonds. In fact, they have a disincentive, as Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation explains.

For the WSIB and most other public-employee pension fund managers, investing in privately held companies is simply a part of smart portfolio diversification and risk management. As of last year, WSIB had already earned $9.7 billion in private equity profits since 1981 and had one-seventh of its portfolio in private equity.
The proliferation of P3

Can P3 investments that are paid off in toll revenue still prove viable as worries persist about gas prices and road travel volume? In a word, yes. Travelers value their time most of all; private vehicles are usually more direct, flexible and faster than transit; and tolls for managed lanes guaranteed to maintain traffic flow of 45 mph or higher yield a valued benefit, like housing, utilities, and groceries. This perspective cuts across income levels. UCLA and USC researchers in a case study released this year found a sizable percentage of lower-income drivers used HOT lanes and that it was less regressive in terms of tax policy for them to pay related tolls versus sales taxes for transportation projects.

Fears tend to be overblown about runaway toll rates to cover P3 finance costs and profit margins. Governments retain control over P3 toll rates and transit fares. The contracts between private partners and governments are long-term, usually 35 years or more. That's plenty of time to make the margins. In the meantime, P3s deliver transportation projects sooner rather than later or not at all, thus providing quantifiable economic benefits that are rarely counted by critics.

A slew of P3s and traditional-procurement projects studied by The University of Melbourne showed the P3s were up to 30.8 percent more cost-efficient from inception; that cost overruns were nearly non-existent for P3s; that they were completed faster, even when large; were far more transparent; and their benefits tended to be underestimated because the hefty value to the public of quicker project completion and integrated professional management aren't part of the present calculus.

Cal Marsella, the Executive Director of Denver's Regional Transportation District, which is now pursuing a P3 bid process (and, yes, perhaps a small sales tax hike) to complete an over-budget regional light rail program within the original timeline, states in this presentation that P3s can save 10 percent to 25 percent in the design-build phase and 10 percent to 30 percent in the course of operations and maintenance.

This approach to P3s emphasizes bundling of design, construction, operations, and maintenance services provided by private consortiums of industry-leading transportation firms. The payments occur over time and can be pegged to strict contractual performance standards. Exemplified in British Columbia, it's a strategy well-suited to controlling cost overruns during construction, meeting construction deadlines, limiting operations and maintenance costs after project delivery, and ensuring good service. Partnerships BC has employed design-build-operate P3 contracts, or some variation thereof, to construct a new rapid rail line to the airport and the suburban center of Richmond, to rebuild the treacherous road north to Whistler before the 2010 Winter Olympics, and to develop an electronically-tolled bridge across the Fraser River in Vancouver's east suburbs.

The American Public Transit Association in a white paper on public transit P3s says they're no silver bullet but need to be encouraged as part of the financing mix and as a good management tool. Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America are far ahead of the U.S. in implementing public transit P3s, APTA says, although Houston, the Bay Area, and Denver are highlighting the approach. Private investment in transit-oriented development is a related tack and should be encouraged, according to APTA, by working with developers to learn their needs and by encouraging value-capture strategies pegged to new development around transit stations. To facilitate broader consideration of highway and transit P3s, APTA's P3 task force has drafted model legislation for state governments to consider.

Another organization, the National Council For Public-Private Partnerships, holds a special conference this week on transit P3s, including officials from the regions of Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte, as well as federal figures and private firms.
Zero miles, shared miles, efficient miles

While the U.S. struggles to fund the surface transportation infrastructure backlog and shift the balance from fossil-fueled vehicles to greener alternatives, the world is undergoing a vehicle population boom. A New York University study projects total vehicle stock will more than double globally between 2002 and 2030, with the highest annual percentage growth rates in vehicles per 1,000 population in Asia and South America.

BTS data show that since 1960, the number of passenger vehicles in use globally has about quadrupled, while the U.S. share of that total has decreased more than five-fold. Global commercial truck population is five times greater over the same period, with the U.S. share holding steady at less than a third.

However, in the U.S. we tend to drive longer distances and use a disproportionate share of available fossil fuels. The holy grail in the auto industry is substitution of renewable-source electricity for fossil fuels, in "flex-fuel" plug-in hybrid cars. The vision is that they'll be able to run not only on clean electricity (itself a major undertaking) but also net-green second generation bio-fuels, which don't require acres of food-producing farmland to grow.

GM, Toyota, Ford, and Chrysler are among the automakers focused on bringing plug-in electric flex-fuel hybrids to market in the next few years, with lithium ion battery packs. Those haven't been fully debugged, but engineering teams are working hard to do so. Congress has passed a tax exemption of up to $7,500 per vehicle for plug-in buyers, and large government and corporate fleet purchases would allow manufacturers to scale up production for the masses.

There are still environmental and financial reasons to try to engineer boundaries on growth of vehicle miles traveled. A good framework was provided last month in Redmond by Microsoft Chief Environmental Strategist Rob Bernard at Cascadia Center's "Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation" conference. (TVW video of Bernard and a full transcript of his remarks.)

Bernard set out a hierarchy of descending transportation preferences that he calls "zero miles, shared miles, and efficient miles":


The first priority entails schedule-juggling and trip avoidance through tele-work from home, with small meetings as needed in locales near workers' home bases. More than a few Microsoft employees have discovered they can meet near home at a coffee shop rather than drive to Redmond, Bernard said. An astounding 40 percent of the workforce at British Telecom (a Microsoft client) work from home regularly, Bernard said.

With current virtual conferencing tools, and an emphasis on "deliverables" from tele-workers, many other employers — albeit not those in fields such as manufacturing, construction, or retail — could raise their percentage of tele-workers.

"Shared miles" would cover public transit, but at present transit routes here just aren't convenient for that many people, said Bernard. He evangelized for an alternative of matching ride-sharers on the fly through smart carpooling, using networked real-time data on the shifting locations and schedules of riders. The same basic principles could help better consolidate freight shipments, said Bernard.

"Efficient miles" entail alternative fuel breakthroughs and more of the real-time traffic data purveyed by companies such as the Microsoft spin-off Inrix, of Kirkland, to help drivers optimize routes and departure times.

As far as behavior change around driving, there's a long way to go. If we were constantly reminded of the cost to the infrastructure every time we used it, would that change our actions enough to make a difference, a "zero miles more often" difference? It's not unimaginable.

For surface transportation funding, the federal teat is running dry. States and especially regions will shoulder the brunt in coming decades as we try to catch up before the rising tide of population threatens to overwhelms us. So we're going to have to do a few things differently. We can start sooner, or we can start later. But the longer we wait, the higher the price.

Matt Rosenberg is a senior fellow at the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a transportation think tank that is part of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. E-mail him at mattr@discovery.org.
View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2008/10/21/transportation/18586/

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