Automobile Finance Infrastructure

U.S. PIRG Slams American Transportation Priorities as Roads Fall Apart

» State DOTs spend too many of their funds on road construction, when they really should be focusing on maintenance.

A year ago, the Federal Transit Administration released a report on the state of good repair of the nation’s transit agencies. The study articulated a massive need for maintenance work on the country’s rail systems and suggested that the federal government contribute an additional four billion dollars annually to its fixed guideway modernization program, which funds capital improvements for existing transit systems. In the ensuing months, the Congress made no such effort.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the American highway network is no better off. After more than half a century of major federal investments in new roads for the Interstate Highway System, there is plenty of repair to be done. According to a new report from U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), 150,000 miles of road, including 45% of federal highways, are in less than good condition, as are 71,000 bridges, about 12% of all spans. Yet the federal government is investing far less than necessary to bring those rights-of-way up to par, and states are often working actively against policies that promote maintenance rather than new construction.

The Federal Highway Administration has suggested that the U.S. would have to spend $100 billion or more annually to maintain roads at their existing quality levels. That’s $30 billion more than is spent on roads altogether today, much of which goes to new highways.

For American transportation advocates, the study’s conclusions should serve as prime ground for a reevaluation of current spending priorities. Nevertheless, lobbying groups such as AASHTO (the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) continue to promote road expansion as the key to the country’s transportation future. But do we have the money to maintain our existing roads even as we build new ones?

U.S. PIRG’s report, Road Work Ahead, puts the country’s transportation conditions in context: “One thing is for sure: the deterioration of our roads and bridges is no accident. Rather, it is the direct result of countless policy decisions that put other considerations ahead of the pressing need to preserve our investment in the highway system.” Authors Travis Madsen, Benjamin Davis, and Phineas Baxandall highlight two principal problems: A political advantage in focusing on ribbon cutting rather than maintenance and a lack of federal oversight to ensure a state of good repair.

These structural problems are compounded by the fact that maintenance costs increase exponentially the longer they’re delayed. It’s better to perform constant, cheap check-ups than to have once-in-twenty-years surgery.

But politicians see immediate benefit from building new roads. More capacity is visible and seen as positive, compared to the often-intrusive work required to maintain existing highways. Meanwhile, while states generally perform maintenance using in-house workers, they typically contract out for new roads; it’s no coincidence that private highway interests gave more than $130 million to state and federal candidates in 2008. The lack of evaluation from the federal government for new road construction — unlike, for instance, the transit New Starts major capital works program — means that there is no interference from above, so a new road will be built if a state decides it wants it.

Meanwhile, though the U.S. Secretary of Transportation has the theoretical right to withhold federal highway funds if states fail to maintain roads, that power is not exercised frequently, according to the report. This means that the DOT will continue to transfer billions of dollars every year to states for new highways even as roads fall apart.

For the study’s authors, a “fix it first” policy is necessary. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

Nevertheless, AASHTO, which represents the state departments of transportation, has begun a campaign for massive road expansion. The lobby, which is led by transportation officials from Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah (guess their primary interests), suggests that “Even with strategies to reduce traffic and improve transit, highway system expansion is critical.”

AASHTO’s own report on the future of American transportation, released on Monday, suggests $375 billion in highway investments over the next six years, much of which would be used for the construction of new roads. Following the guidance of its members, AASHTO argues that 90% of funds should be simply transferred to states through a formula without guidance from Washington.

This strategy is disappointing from two perspectives: one, it is clearly focused on system expansion, rather than a renewal of the existing infrastructure in spite of the maintenance backlog highlighted by the U.S. PIRG report; two, though AASHTO claims to be interested in shifting trips to transit, it would spend almost four times as much on roads as public transportation.

What’s perhaps most problematic about AASHTO’s strategy is that it argues that urban areas, more than rural sections of the country, should focus on system expansion. It apparently hasn’t occurred to the organization’s leadership that those places are the prime ground for transit growth, or that the most congested metropolitan areas (L.A., New York, Chicago, and Washington) have little room for more roads. U.S. PIRG’s conclusion that metropolitan areas suffer far more than rural zones from poorly maintained roadways suggests that the focus there should be reconstruction, not new construction.

Like it or not, the United States has a limited pot of transportation dollars. It would be a pity to see so much money be poured into new highways as the old ones rot away.

Image above: Pavement, from Flickr user sfllaw (cc)

Automobile Sustainability

Who’s Afraid of the Electric Car?

» Does the $25,000 fully electric Nissan Leaf muddle environmental arguments in favor of transit?

Nissan’s new Leaf, expected to reach American shores this December, represents nothing less than a revolution in thinking about automobile propulsion: it is the first modern, reasonably priced, four-door car powered completely by electricity. It is the opening slide in what is likely to be an avalanche of such vehicles coming to market over the next decade — Chevrolet’s electric-for-40-miles Volt is arriving later this fall as well at a higher price point. The significance of their collective potential environmental benefits cannot be dismissed.

The immediate consequences of the replacement of at least a segment of the American vehicle fleet with electric cars will be positive: an immediate elimination of local point-source pollution, lessened street noise in the urban environment, and of course a reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, at least by individual consumers. These are advances that must be applauded.

The widespread availability of electric cars will make one argument made by transit proponents harder to advance: that riding trains and buses is better for the environment. In cities where the electric grid is powered by renewable or nuclear energy, these vehicles will produce zero carbon — also true of electric trains, but not of diesel or even hybrid buses, which will continue spewing pollutants into the atmosphere.

But transit must continue to compete from an environmental perspective, or it will lose some of its appeal; the arrival of the electric car is a direct challenge to the claim that public transportation is greener. But it’s not too late to make that argument — there are significant ecological advantages of mass transit even if they share their propulsion technologies with some automobiles. The contention that transit is the more sustainable answer to questions of mobility has not suddenly expired.

The clearest flaw in the argument for electric cars is that the majority of electricity produced in the United States — almost 75% — comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels. This means that “clean” cars like the Nissan Leaf are simply shuffling pollution production elsewhere, not actually getting rid of it. This would not be true if American power were produced like it is in France, where about 90% of power is carbon-free, and where a switch to electric cars would mean a vast reduction in air pollution overall. At least for now, though, the widespread adoption of electric cars in the U.S. will require a large ramping-up of power generating capacity and therefore increase pollution from power plants, not necessarily generating a net benefit, even as there is a significant decrease in air pollution in congested urban areas.

If all transit vehicles switched to electric propulsion and public transportation absorbed a much larger percentage of the commute market, on the other hand, they would require less overall electricity because they’re more energy efficient per passenger. So even if everything were electrically powered, transit would still have some advantages.

Second, electric cars may be environmentally responsible in operation, but their manufacturing and disposal require a significant energy expenditure: between 10 and 20% of overall lifetime energy use. Transit vehicles last longer and are used more intensely than automobiles, meaning that their per-rider-mile manufacturing and disposal costs are significantly lower than those of cars.

But all of the discussion about the relative ecological advantages of cars and public transportation vehicles ignores their greater effects on the human environment, and that is the basis of the primary argument transit proponents must use to defend the environmental credibility of buses and trains. Transit nurtures the creation of dense urban environments in which the majority of trips are made by carbon-free walking and in which people live and work in energy-efficient multi-story buildings. A society dependent on automobiles cannot establish such sustainable communities and will ultimately always depend on energy-heavy single-family homes and private vehicles. There’s no getting around that fact, Nissan Leaf or not.

Electric vehicles could play an auxiliary role as the basis for new car-sharing efforts, but the implementation of electric chargers on the street for private users seems far off. Nissan and other auto companies are expecting most of their customers to refill their vehicles in their private garages overnight, not exactly an urban-friendly scheme.

Nevertheless, transit agencies still have an obligation to increase the efficiencies of their vehicle fleets — primarily by increasing ridership and maximizing the number of riders per bus or train. There’s nothing wrong with finding as many ways as possible to reduce energy consumption.

Image above: Nissan Leaf, from Nissan

Automobile Infrastructure Light Rail Portland

Controversial Portland Columbia River Crossing Under Pressure to Move Forward, Despite Flaws

» Bridge connecting Oregon and Washington planned for construction start in 2012, with light rail link included. But its new road capacity isn’t needed.

In most cities, this debate would have ended years ago, and the results would have been far less pretty. The governors of both states involved are highly supportive of the freeway project, and they’ve unearthed enough financing to pay for it. With state departments of transportation pledging their involvement and money, there wouldn’t been much of margin for substantial change.

Yet the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing has been plagued by delays primarily because Portland prides itself on being one of the most ecologically aware North American cities, and therefore one of the least inclined support increased freeway capacity. Something had to be done — the existing bridge is structurally unsound and congested at rush hours — but in this region, the only way to garner support was to ensure the inclusion of a public transit component and reduce the number of traffic lanes.

So the $3.6 billion bridge currently being advocated by both governors and the local trade unions will include ten lanes of traffic (rather than 12) and a new light rail line (rather than buses, as originally suggested) when it opens for service in 2018. It would be a trade-off transit activists in most cities would accept as a grand compromise.

The Columbia River Crossing replacement project has been in planning for decades as an essential reinforcement of the primary road link between Portland and Vancouver. The $829 million light rail project is part of Portland’s planned large transit network expansion and recently received a “medium” rating from the Federal Transit Administration, allowing it to move ahead with federal funding. There has recently been a dramatic change of heart in favor of rail on the part of Vancouver’s leadership, who represent a population that defeated a transit extension from Portland in a referendum fifteen years ago.

But much of the Portland region’s citizenry remains concerned about the construction and future effects of the new bridge, and rightly so. Does the I-5 corridor need more road capacity? How can the cities be sure that the project will reduce congestion, rather than induce more demand?

Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt sent a letter last month to their respective governors asking for the project to be run by local authorities, rather than by the state highway department. Each has asked for fundamental changes to the project, which may include reducing the number of traffic lanes and eliminating planned toll lanes to be used to pay back the cost of the bridge over the long term. They want to prevent the project from becoming a financial nightmare — a possibility considering the debt each state will take on to pay for the scheme.

On the other hand, neither municipal leader is a full-on bridge opponent, nor is either interested in restarting the project entirely.

But grassroots opposition continues unabated. A number of local groups have demonstrated some of the principal flaws of the proposal: It will increase sprawl by encouraging faster and longer commutes into downtown Portland; it will reduce congestion for a period of just 12 years, after which traffic will slow down again because more people will choose to drive at rush hours because of increased capacity; it will enable a 34% increase in automobile traffic, exactly the opposite of what a self-proclaimed environmentally friendly region would want; and, if it’s tolled, as planned, it will simply encourage the greater use and eventual congestion of I-205, which runs parallel to I-5 just up down the river.

The Crossing’s environmental impact study claims that overall traffic on the corridor would actually fall with the completion of the bigger bridge — a bizarre outcome predicted by an evidently skewed traffic forecasting model. Experience across the United States over a period of decades has demonstrated concretely that more highways almost universally produce more roadway use.

The expansion of the Columbia River Crossing also fails to address traffic choke points elsewhere along I-5, meaning that congestion will simply move to other parts of the roadway, not actually solving many existing problems with the highway’s capacity.

A series of excellent videos produced several months ago by Nick Falbo promote a series of alternatives to the multi-billion dollar project. By ramping up transit options and enforcing congestion pricing on the existing bridge, the states could limit traffic while also encouraging a modal split to transit. A bigger, faster-flowing highway as currently envisioned would actually be a disincentive to the use of transit, no matter how nice the light rail line is. The bridge, though currently structurally deficient, could be reinforced and last decades more without a problem — at a far cheaper price.

What no one seems to be taking seriously enough is the potential for transit to take a higher modal share of existing traffic using the bridge.

The planners at the Columbia River Crossing project conducted a study of the origins and destinations of drivers using the corridor last year, and the results are compelling — if anyone chose to take advantage of them.

Based on my understanding of the data, of the 70% of drivers using the bridge for local purposes (30% of trips are through-trips, according to the environmental impact study), a full 25% of southbound automobilists are headed downtown, where there is already excellent transit available, and to which light rail from Vancouver would run directly. Meanwhile, 27% of driver destinations are within the zip code covered by the Yellow Line light rail, the same corridor that would head into Washington state. A full 15% more are headed to destinations just east of downtown, where the Red and Blue Lines light rail corridors provide easy access.

If you were to assume that the new bridge was not built and that instead congestion pricing and the light rail extension were implemented on their own, the current 3,300 weekday transit trips over the bridge could expand exponentially. Many of the current congestion woes could be alleviated simply by transferring downtown and near-downtown-bound drivers to a different mode of transportation. If the transit component of the bridge is a given, shouldn’t it be designed to work well? How can it attract the maximum number of riders when the highway bridge just adjacent has been expanded massively?

Building a new light rail line even as you’re expanding the highway next door is no rarity in the U.S., where the road and public transportation lobbies are mutually dependent. Sadly, policies that encourage transit even as road construction continues apace do little to affect commuting habits, as has been demonstrated by Portland over the years. The city has seen little increase in transit mode share despite huge investments in new light rail lines.

Nonetheless, even if the existing plan were implemented, Portland would still be getting a far more generous project than typically results from road expansion. The degree to which a pro-transit mentality in the city has encouraged the inclusion of light rail in the project should be replicated elsewhere — road projects like this should be required to incorporate a major transit component, and that’s exactly what Oregon and Washington’s highway planners have agreed to do here. When compared to state department of transportation elsewhere, that’s something to celebrate.

Image above: Potential look of bridge, from Columbia River Crossing

Automobile General Paris

Is Car Sharing Good for Cities?

» Paris offers up Autolib’, intent on duplicating the success of the Velib’ bike program. But is car sharing counter-productive?

In the United States, cars offered by companies like Zipcar have become a common sight in city centers and around university campuses. For people without access to an automobile, these shared vehicles can provide valuable extra mobility, especially for those who are less confident on bike or for people who need to get places not easily accessed by mass transit.

A growing conflict in Paris over the installation of a new sharing system, however, raises some important questions. Is car sharing necessary or even a good idea for dense cities where public transit is ubiquitous and where most goods can be bought within walking distance? What are the best modes for service implementation?

According to Zipcar, each shared vehicle takes fifteen to twenty personal vehicles off the road. This is made possible because of Zipcar’s low rates, starting at $8 hourly and $77 daily, along with a $50 annual subscription charge, collectively small enough to convince people to abandon their cars or to avoid buying them at all. The end result, at least theoretically: fewer cars on the road, more efficient use of each automobile, and fewer parking spaces needed. It has proven a cheaper alternative to taxis and car rentals and has been quickly adopted.

The problem, of course, is that many of the people using car sharing programs once weren’t using any cars at all, meaning that the easy access to vehicle actually means an increase in overall car use. Zipcar’s campaign earlier this year to convince New York City pedestrians that they could be getting around more quickly in an automobile suggests that the service’s best market is among people who are currently walking, biking, or taking transit to get to work. Should cities be encouraging car-share programs if the end result is to convince people who don’t use automobiles today to use them in the future?

On the other hand, it is true that car sharing vastly expands the mobility of people without cars, especially at nighttime, when congestion is less of a problem and when transit is less reliable. It allows carless urbanites to buy products at places like Ikea, often situated in places difficult to reach by transit. It opens up the idea of being car-free to college students and residents of small towns.

Just as Paris took bike sharing to the extreme with Velib’, it wants to take car sharing to the next level with Autolib’. With 1,000 stations located on the street or in underground parking garages in the city and in 30 surrounding communes, the service would offer 3,000 cars available throughout the day by 2011. Every vehicle would be electric so as to reduce pollution levels. At the cost of four to five euros each half hour, with a 15-20 euro subscription fee, the service would be more expensive than its North American cousin.

The goal? Liberating 20,000 parking spaces in the city and dramatically reducing the number of inhabitants who own private vehicles.

Unlike most existing programs like Zipcar, Autolib’ would let customers pick up cars and return them in different locations, just as Velib’ allows with bikes. This difference spins the concept of car sharing, making it imaginable for people to drive to work on a daily basis using the vehicles — not true with Zipcar, which forces you to return the car to where you picked it up, and within a short period of time, unless you want to pay a large fee.

Principally because of this difference, the French Green Party has come out strongly against what is a project of the Socialist Party, despite the fact that the two are politically in control of both the region and city in a coalition. According to the Greens, the 4 million euros it would cost to get the system up an running could be better used — especially since the environmental benefits of the project are questionable. They claim that while they are in favor of more traditional forms of car sharing, Autolib’ wouldn’t work efficiently because it would encourage more frequent use of motorized vehicles by people who currently take the subway or ride bikes. Instead of encouraging longer-distance trips, as does Zipcar, Autolib’ would provide inhabitants the ease of making short hops just about anywhere, minimizing the benefits of bike or train travel.

The fact that, according to a study supporting the project, more than 50% of the people interested in subscribing to Autolib’ currently don’t have a car suggests both that public transit has failed to fulfill every transit market and that car use may actually increase as a result of the system’s implementation. Autolib’ might be one solution — but further expanding transit offerings is also a possibility.

This argument rings true for Paris, where literally everyone in the city is within 500 meters of a Metro station and where 20,000 bikes are offered at the measly price of a 29-euro annual subscription. If you want to implement car sharing without stimulating more driving, it should prioritize longer-distance travel and infrequent trips; frequent trips should be covered by public transport and short hauls in the car should be taken in taxis.

In the U.S., car sharing might also have the negative effect of increasing car use in cities like New York and San Francisco, each of which have heavily transit-dependent populations that would likely be switching into automobiles, not out of them. It might make more sense to focus car sharing efforts in places that lack reinforced public transportation provisions — ideal if the goal of car sharing is to cut down on the number of people who own cars, rather than put people who currently don’t use them into them.