Monday, September 25, 2017

Why more pavement won't solve congestion, no matter what Hogan says

Hogan's gigantic road expense proposal has caused consternation and derision among those who follow transportation policies, are transportation professionals, or promote smart growth.
This props wouldn't look much different if it had been designed by

However, the notion that more lanes must surely alleviate congestion is so pervasive, that in the interest of a broader understanding this topic, the topic will once again occupy this space.

Others have made very good arguments which are worth sharing, especially those which are economic in nature and compound the transportation arguments. In other words, Hogan's proposal is unsustainable and indefensible on account of all three pillars of sustainability: The environment, the economy and social justice!

Barry Rascovar has strong comments in Maryland Reporter:
Gov. Larry Hogan never met a highway project he didn’t like. He’s a 1950s type of politician – solve all the state’s transportation gridlock and congestion by paving the countryside with lanes of new concrete....It’s an all-highway solution straight out of the mid-20th century. [...]
Every expansion of I-495 and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway) has meant more cars on those roads and a quick return to the same level of congestion and added pollution. Los Angles has experienced the same thing with the famed I-405, where a $1.4 billion expansion didn’t help ease congestion at all.
Hogan’s no-cost-to-taxpayers assertion may sound good to voters, but there’s virtually no way he can make it happen. These are ultra-expensive projects. For starters, seizing private properties through eminent domain can’t be privatized and will be extraordinarily expensive in the high-priced Washington suburbs.
Hogan also says the state’s share of profits from the I-495 and I-270 toll lanes will pay for the four toll lanes on the B-W Parkway. That doesn’t compute give the woeful record of the state’s last two toll projects – the InterCounty Connector and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes from Baltimore to White Marsh. Neither has come near the revenue numbers anticipated prior to construction.
The Department of Legislative Services says that between now and 2022, Maryland’s tolling facilities will take in $267 million less than projected but operating expenses will be $588 million higher than anticipated. This will force $1.7 billion worth of cuts to future projects and reduce the toll authority’s ability to float bonds by $3.7 billion.
Adding Hogan’s toll-road projects, even with a public-private contract, will scare the heck out of bond-rating agencies, which know full-well the state isn’t getting a free ride on construction projects of this size.....There’s nothing in Hogan’s transportation vision that helps people at the lower end of the economy. No expansion of commuter buses, no shuttles connecting workers to spread-out job sites, no future mass transit such as a desperately needed east-west line through Baltimore.
Hogan at the ICC naming ceremony this month
Rascovar adds to the monetary concerns a few very practical traffic questions that are as basis as the observation that a chain is as good as its weakest link, or a highways is as good as its lowest capacity segment:
How in the world could Russell Street in Baltimore handle an additional two lanes of rush-hour traffic? Ditto as the BW Parkway flows into New York Avenue in D.C. It would be a nightmare. Arterial roads and cut-through streets in adjacent neighborhoods along these three interstate highways would be clogged. The law of unintended consequences could kick in.
Smart growth advocates point to land use implications that shortening trip times have.
“Adding four lanes to all these highways is insane, With everything we know about transportation, everything we know about car travel, everything we know about our transportation budget and all our needs, t's totally a bad idea.”” Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the smart-growth group 1000 Friends of Maryland.
Here is why: Every time a distance can be traveled in less time people will look for homes further away from their place of work since they set a mximum commute by how long it is and not how far it is. This behavior creates what transportation planners call induced demand, i.e. more people want to use the roadway, eating up the new road capacity. Worse, additional residential sprawl will also fuel demand on other systems, such as water and sewer, electric grids, fiber optic lines, schools, churches and the entire set of services people expect no matter how far away from a city or town they move.  This isn't just bad for the environment, it also bankrupts communities, another reason why Hogan's assertion that this won't cost tax payers anything is flat-out false. Conversely, with more concentrated and less wasteful land use traffic can go down a lot, one reason why most European countries have about half as many miles driven per person as Americans.

Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism makes the most elaborate cost and equity arguments:

Simple arithmetic says that if there are 4 free lanes and 2 toll lanes (what Hogan proposes for the Capital Beltway), more than 2/3 of the traffic must be on the free lanes -- otherwise the toll lanes would be more congested than the free lanes, and there would be no reason to pay the toll.  
When the free lanes back up, the only reason not to pay the toll is to save money.  How badly you need to save money depends, obviously, on how much of it you have, so upper-income drivers predominate on Lexus lanes.  Research confirms this common-sense conclusion. [...]
On Lexus lanes nearly all toll revenue comes in rush hour, because few will pay high tolls when the free lanes don't back up.  A pair of express lanes can carry 5 million trips a year if they fill up for 2½ hours a day in each direction.  Now, the payments on a 30-year $4.4 billion loan at 2½% interest are $209 million a year.  Dividing $209 million by 5 million, we see that the one-way toll from Frederick to Shady Grove would need to be $41 to pay off the construction costs alone.  [...]
Maryland's only existing Lexus lanes are the 8-mile-long I-95 express toll lanes north of Baltimore, which opened in 2014.  The price tag for this project soared from $645 million in 2004 to $1.49 billion in 2009.  The O'Malley administration trimmed the cost back to $1.1 billion by eliminating ramps onto the Baltimore Beltway, making the project significantly less useful.  Toll collections in 2015-16 were $11.4 million.  That's barely 1% of the price of construction, a fraction of just the interest on $1.1 billion, and nowhere near enough to cover operating costs and pay back principal. Some years ago, the State Highway Administration took a hard look at Beltway Lexus lanes -- and SHA blinked.  In 1996, it launched the Capital Beltway Study by scanning a wide variety of road and transit options.  The transit part of this study gave birth to today's Purple Line; the highway part continued separately.  Soon the agency decided that there was no way to squeeze in four more lanes at ground level; they would have to be elevated above the existing roadway.  But in 2004 SHA rejected this option too, declaring that "Construction costs are prohibitively high. Interchange ramps connecting to the elevated structure may be over 80 feet high."  
Pandering this much to your base can backfire as the President could have noticed on many occasions. Hogan has put the question of the inadequate mobility in our region on the front burner again.
Cartoon on Drivetribe

He is pretty much the only 21st century regional leader that still wants to solve the issue Robert Moses style. From San Francisco to LA and San Diego, from Denver, Co to Charlotte NC and from Pittsburgh to Fairfax, Va planners, politicians and people are aligned behind a strategy that shifts from the individual car as the backbone of metropolitan transportation to rail and road bus transit. Pretty much the only thing that Hogan's proposal highlights is that free unfettered access to highways is a thing of the past and demand based pricing is a tool to be considered, even though it requires a social net to protect the most vulnerable from regressive fees to drive. Another reason why paving over the landscape is so unimaginative is that it completely ignores the onset of autonomous vehicles. Those self driving cars operating in platoons can achieve higher speeds, cause less friction and are promising to move so much efficiency to existing roadways that they will most likely create congestion relief, at least until more sprawl will eat up the advantage. A prospect that is already frightening, without the existing roadways getting further widened.

It will be interesting to see how Hogan will deal with the realities noted above. He "railroaded" Baltimore without too much of a backlash by killing the Red Line. But he will have a much harder time with his Neanderthal transportation policies in the Washington suburbs.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related article on this blog: Hogan's $9 billion Lexus lane boondoggle

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