Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A stunning drop in driving

American drivers rolled through 9.6 billion miles less in May than a year earlier, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

That's a big drop.

"We have seen the longest decline in vehicular miles traveled since we started collecting this data," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, quoted by CNN.

Peters said that in the first four months of this year, Americans traveled 40.5 billion miles less compared with the same period in 2007....Many of these commuters are flocking to trains, buses and bikes, or telecommuting from home.

Fewer miles and a surging demand for transit: That must be why our State Department of Transportation, governor and county executive want to build bigger, really expensive freeways that we can't afford to maintain while killing transit with a million tiny-to-medium-sized cuts.

The FHA said that driving in May experienced the third-largest monthly drop since the agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation that manages the nation's highways and bridges, began collecting data 66 years ago. It was the largest drop for any May, a month that usually sees driving increase due to the Memorial Day holiday, the agency said. Three of those largest monthly declines have occurred since December, as unusually high fuel prices take a toll on drivers.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Things fall apart...

A bridge in Sturgeon Bay had to be shut down Monday because it is in such awful shape. Pieces of it are literally falling off to the ground or water below.

Another sign of the messed up transportation policies in this state -- there is money for unnecessary expansion of North-South I-94 and to rebuild the Zoo Interchange on an accelerated timeline, but the Wisconsin Department of Transportation lets a bridge slide into such disrepair that it becomes a hazard. From the Green Bay Gazette:

STURGEON BAY — Even before the Michigan Street Bridge was shut down Monday because of "severe structural deterioration," city and Door County officials were trying to figure out how to reopen the span.

That includes providing round-the-clock, on-site enforcement of weight limits if the state lifts its ban and reopens the bridge, Sturgeon Bay Police Chief Dan Trelka said.

"We'd put a city police officer or Door County sheriff's deputy at either end and visually monitor what crosses," Trelka said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation shut down the bridge at 3 p.m. Monday as a result of deterioration observed during an inspection earlier this month, said Will Dorsey, operations manager for the state Department of Transportation office in Ashwaubenon.

Engineers were concerned about vehicles violating a 5-ton weight limit imposed several years ago to prolong the life of the bridge, Dorsey said.

"There were a number of vehicles well in excess of the 5-ton limit using the bridge," Dorsey said. "We've seen trailers, semis; and we are concerned for the safety of the traveling public."

With the shutdown of the Michigan Street span, all vehicle traffic was diverted to the Bayview Bridge that crosses on Wisconsin 42/57 on the east side of the city.

Michael Horne takes up the transportation fight

Michael Horne of MilwaukeeWorld has started a new blog, Getting Frank, devoted to dissecting Frank Busalacchi and his transportation policies.

Definitely a "must" to bookmark and follow.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Senate struggles with Highway Trust Fund fix

The US Senate is scrambling to shore up the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is tanking because of drop of gas tax revenue attributable to a drop in driving.

The ethically-challenged Charles Rangel is trying to push through a plan to transfer $8 billion from general US Department of Transportation funds to the highway trust fund.

But, as noted in The Hill, "several attempts to get the $8 billion transfer passed into law in recent weeks, however, have failed."

Last week Senate appropriators easily passed a fiscal 2009 transportation and housing spending bill that included language preventing the federal highway account from going into debt next year.

Senate Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said the $8 billion transfer would prevent a 34 percent cut in spending for highway projects.

But any attempt to fix the shortfall through spending bills is unreliable. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said only two appropriations bills will be completed this year and the rest — including the transportation and housing bill — will be rolled into a continuing resolution lasting into next year.

And while an $8 billion transfer may be a (very) short-term fix, what comes next? Higher gas taxes for people already struggling to fill their tanks?

Gas prices dropped 1/10%! Back to our SUVs!

Of course, prices are still well over $4 a gallon.

From the nicely-written This Week in Petroleum:

For the first time since June 23, the U.S. average retail price for regular gasoline did not increase; at 411.3 cents per gallon, the price dipped just a tenth of a cent. On a regional basis, prices were mixed, going up in the Midwest, Gulf Coast, and Rocky Mountains while dropping somewhat in the East Coast and West Coast. On the East Coast, the price dropped 0.8 cent to 407.1 cents per gallon. In the Midwest, the price rose 0.7 cent to 406.6 cents per gallon. Despite going up by 1.3 cents to 397.1 cents per gallon, the Gulf Coast price remained the lowest of any region and continued to be the only region where the price was under $4. For the second week in a row, the increase in the Rocky Mountains was the largest of any region, moving up 3.2 cents to 409.7 cents per gallon. The West Coast price dropped 2.5 cents to 441.5 cents per gallon. The average in California also went down, dropping 3 cents to 452 cents per gallon, still 136.2 cents higher than the price a year ago.

For the second week in a row, the U.S. average retail diesel price increased. The price strengthened 3.7 cents to another all-time high of 476.4 cents per gallon. The prices rose to new record highs in all five regions. The average price on the East Coast increased 3.3 cents to 482.2 cents per gallon. The price in the Midwest remained the lowest of any region at 469.8 cents per gallon, an increase of 4.4 cents. The average price in the Gulf Coast rose 4 cents to 473.7 cents per gallon. The Rocky Mountains had the largest rise of any region, jumping 4.6 cents to 471.8 cents per gallon. On the West Coast, the average price moved 2.3 cents higher to 490.9 cents per gallon. In California, the average price also increased, going up 2.5 cents to 502.6 cents per gallon.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Texas DOT: roads don't pay for themselves

The Texas Department of Transportation knows that no road pays for itself through tolls or gas taxes.

That is no surprise, really -- traditionally road taxes are collected in one area of a state and spent in another. For example, gas taxes collected in Wausau are going to be thrown away on expanding North-South I-94 where expansion won't help traffic times.

What is very nice about TDOT's methodology is that it recognizes the cost of a highway over its lifetime -- including the cost of maintenance. From TDOT web site:

When is a given road actually “paid for?”

Just like your car, it never is. You may have paid the note, but maintenance and fuel costs go on as long as you own the vehicle. Once a road is built, maintenance and rehabilitation costs last its entire life, generally about 40 years.

The decision to build a road is a permanent commitment to the traveling public. Not only will a road be built, but it must also be routinely maintained and reconstructed when necessary, meaning no road is ever truly “paid for.”

Until recently, when TxDOT built or expanded a road, no methodology existed to determine the extent to which this work would be paid off through revenues.

The Asset Value Index, was developed to compare the full 40-year life-cycle costs to the revenues attributable to a given road corridor or section. The shorthand version calculates how much gasoline is consumed on a roadway and how much gas tax revenue that generates.

The Asset Value Index is the ratio of the total expected revenues divided by the total expected costs. If the ratio is 0.60, the road will produce revenues to meet 60 percent of its costs; it would be “paid for” only if the ratio were 1.00, when the revenues met 100 percent of costs. Another way of describing this is to do a “tax gap” analysis, which shows how much the state fuel tax would have to be on that given corridor for the ratio for revenues to match costs.

Applying this methodology, revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon. This is just one example, but there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads we have analyzed pay for considerably less. To conclude, in the SH 99 example, since the traffic volume for that road doesn't generate enough fuel tax revenue to pay for it, revenues from other parts of the state must be used to build and maintain this corridor segment. The same is true across the state, meaning that, as revealed by the tax gap analysis, overall revenues are not sufficient to meet the state’s transportation needs.

This is miles ahead of our own Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which cites the $1.69 billion construction cost of rebuilding expanding that very same North-South I-94 as if that is the only cost associated with the project.

The Texas method is obviously more honest and transparent. We await WisDOT's adoption of it. And await and await and await....

Monday, July 7, 2008

This can't happen to us -- we're Americans!

Reality check, folks. It is happening to us Americans. Wel have to stand in line with the rest of the world for dwindling natural resources.

From a new report by CIBC World Markets, a Canadian investment bank:

With the basic laws of supply and demand no longer operative in crude oil markets, we are compelled to once again raise our target prices for oil. We are lifting our target for West Texas Intermediate by $20 per barrel to an average price of $150 next year and by $50 per barrel to an average price of $200 per barrel by 2010. Under prevailing refinery margins, that should translate into a near-$7 per gallon pump price within two years, a 70% increase from today’s already record levels....

As gasoline prices climb inexorably, American driving habits are going to have to undergo a massive change, mimicking the driving habits long adopted by Europeans who have faced much higher gas prices. Average miles driven will likely fall by as much as 15%, while the market share of light trucks, SUVs and vans will be literally halved, reversing the trend of the last fifteen years. But the most fundamental, and unprecedented change will be in the number of vehicles on the road.

Over the next four years, we are likely to witness the greatest mass exodus of vehicles off America’s highways in history. By 2012, there should be some 10 million fewer vehicles on American roadways than there are today—a decline that dwarfs all previous adjustments including those during the two OPEC oil shocks. Many of those in the exit lane will be low income Americans from households earning less than $25,000 per year. Incredibly, over 10 million of those American households own more than one car.

Soon they won’t own any....

Drum roll, please.

More fundamentally, the freeways are about to getless congested. (Emphasis added) Not only will the number of vehicle registrations in the United States not grow over the next four years, but by 2012 there should be roughly 10 million fewer vehicles on the road in America than there are today. For the past half century, America has spent the bulk of its infrastructure money on building highways—only to see that soon, $7 per gallon gasoline prices will lead to fewer and fewer people using them.

Will somebody wake up State Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi and tell him? He is snoozing gently in the past.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Phil Evenson denies it...correctly

SEWRPC Executive Director Phil Evenson dropped a line to flat out deny that he suggested using toll lanes to ease congestion as I, going off a JS story, said he did.

Evenson's right. He didn't say it. My apologies.

From his note:

The thrust of my too brief remarks at the WCAN (Waukesha County Action Network) event was on the eroding nature of the mainstay state funding source in Wisconsin for highways, local roads, and transit--the gas tax. All three systems will suffer if we don't begin to address this issue. My suggestion was to think about tolling the entire state freeway system whether congested or not. I did not advocate using tolls to lessen congestion, nor did I advocate the use of pricing to ensure congestion-free lanes, whether existing or proposed lanes. I did indicate that toll revenues could be a source of local funds for transit.

Video of the event is archived at Wisconsin Eye. Evenson's remarks did indeed focus solely on using road pricing as a way to fund transportation, including potentially transit. You can find the video here.