Thursday, January 29, 2009

Traffic declining, freeways expanding

Traffic in Orlando is declining, according to HNTB, which is profiting from designing unneeded freeway lanes in Wisconsin, where driving also has dropped. Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Doyle wants to allow the gas tax to increase without legislative votes and is proposing to waste stimulus money on the ill-considered plan to expand North-South I-94 (a project pumping millions into HNTB's coffers).

Oh, by coincidence, HNTB is a major contributor to Gov. Doyle's campaign and inauguration funds.

Government and firms that buy government at work.

From the Orlando Sentinel:

Traffic continues to fall on greater Orlando toll roads -- yet another sign of the region's deepening economic crisis.

Tolls paid to drive on the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority's network of highways have dropped 8 percent in the past year, and agency managers do not expect a turnaround any time soon.

The authority, which operates 100 miles of toll roads, decided Monday to cut its budget by almost 11 percent to make ends meet. Even more reductions could be in store if traffic decreases further.

"Happy, happy, joy, joy," authority chairman Rich Crotty said sarcastically.

Traffic and revenue have been falling year over year since March. Crotty and agency analysts peg the drops more to job losses than gas prices, which peaked last year at more than $4 a gallon but have since fallen below $2. The jobless rate in greater Orlando, meanwhile, has steadily risen to 7.7 percent.

"It's the economy across the board, with an emphasis on unemployment," said Crotty, who is also Orange County's mayor.

People, he said, do not drive as much when they do not have a job. As proof, he pointed to a chart, compiled by traffic consultant HNTB, showing traffic consistently remaining below last year's numbers even as the price of gasoline fell to near $1.50 a gallon, before rising this month.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Stimulating us backwards in time

It's hard to know if the House Dems are spiking their beverages with illicit drugs or really do believe that the 1950s were the golden days of America, but their stimulus package suggests that are delusional or delusionally nostalgic: highway, highway, highways.

It's if they believe that global warming is off the front pages so may not exist any more.

It's if they believe that oil prices are low right now, so the supply must be unending.

There is $30 billion for highway construction in the bill and $10 billion for transit. Here is what some other folks around the country are saying:

The Transport Politic:

We’re not particularly impressed; compared to $30 billion for highway construction, there is $10 billion for non-automobile uses here, and only $1 billion of that will go to New Start projects, $2 billion to modernization, and $1 billion to intercity rail. $6 billion will go to new or renovated equipment such as buses.

Why is this plan insufficient? For one, as the bill points out, there is a $50 billion backlog of repairs needed to be made to public transport, but only $2 billion is allocated for such investments. As we wrote early in the history of this blog, the number one need for transit in the United States is modernization of existing transit systems. New York’s Subway and Chicago’s L, among many others, desperately need to be rebuilt. This bill does not do much to help along that process.

Second, the bill does virtually nil for intercity rail, providing only $1.1 billion for Amtrak and state-based rail provision. The bill notes that the Northeast Corridor alone needs $10 billion in upgrades. How will this funding solve that problem, or tackle those of other corridors around the country? Where’s the money for high-speed rail operations?

Third, there’s only $1 billion set aside here for New Start grants. The fact of the matter is that the Second Avenue Subway’s First Phase alone will cost more than $4 billion. This money will do little to improve funding for transit agencies that are excited to get new rail and bus lines under construction.

And then there’s the $30 billion set aside for highways. Is this going to go towards more unnecessary roads? Did the dramatic reduction in traffic over the past eight months impress anyone in Congress? Or will this money go solely to needed repairs? This question has yet to be answered.

That said, there are possibilities for transit in other sections of the plan. $25 billion of the money to be redistributed to states for budget relief will go to paying for “essential services.” There doesn’t seem to be a reason that states couldn’t use that money for transit operations, which are facing record deficits around the country and which will not be able to take advantage of the $6 billion in buses this bill offers if they can’t hire drivers!

$31 billion is set aside to modernize public infrastructure with the goal of energy savings; there’s no reason that station and track improvements couldn’t fit in with this section of the bill.

But overall, the bill lacks any overriding ambition, and seems to be willing to provide only the modicum of funding with little attention to greater goals or even current needs. This is an early draft of legislation that still has a long way to go, so it may be too early to be making assumptions. But while this economic stimulus bill could be the foundation for a radical change in the way transportation is funded in the United States, what we’re getting here is nothing of the sort.

Greater Greater Washington:

House Democrats have released a draft of the federal stimulus package. Among the $275 billion in spending is $30 billion for highways and $10 billion for transit. That's still way too much highway money, but at least it's a big small step up from the existing status quo which gave only 3% of federal money 20% of federal transportation money to transit.

Most of the highway money will go to new sprawl-inducing lane miles. "In 2006, the Department of Transportation estimated $8.5 billion was needed to maintain current systems and $61.4 billion was needed to improve highways and bridges." And the plan's authors don't appear to have heard of induced demand, writing, "These projects create jobs in the short term while saving commuters time and money in the long term." Actually, since the 1950s we've learned that many highway project don't actually save time or money in the long term.

Design New Haven:

Unfortunately, according to the draft plan, the vast majority of the $40 billion in transportation funds would most likely go towards expanding superhighways in places like the deserts of Utah, not investing in the types of 21st-century infrastructure that can get the residents of the nation's major metropolitan areas to work efficiently, safely and without owning a car -- even though over 40% of New Haven residents commute by means other than private automobile. Despite all the evidence that transit-oriented development creates jobs by dramatically saving large numbers of people time and commuting expenses, the stimulus bill seems more like it is shaping up to be a recipe for oil company profits than for smarter growth in metropolitan areas like New Haven.

Bottom line is that it appears that Congress believes that highways should be expanded even as bridges across the country continue to catastrophically fail and crumble; even as families, children and senior citizens literally find it impossible to walk more than a couple of blocks in their own neighborhoods due to the lack of proper pedestrian facilities; and even as many major cities less than 30 miles apart - like Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven - continue to have absolutely no viable mass transportation connections.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A federal gas tax hike is recommended (again)

A national commission is expected to recommend a 50% increase in the federal gasoline tax, according to the Associated Press.

A federal commission created by Congress to find a way to make up the growing revenue shortfall in the program that funds highway repairs and construction is talking about increasing federal gas and diesel taxes.

A roughly 50 percent increase in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes is being urged by the commission until the government devises another way for motorists to pay for using public roads.

The 15-member National Commission on Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing is the second group in a year to call for increasing the current 18.4 cents a gallon federal tax on gasoline and the 24.4 cents a gallon tax on diesel. State fuel taxes vary from state to state.

In a report expected in late January, members of the infrastructure financing commission say they will urge Congress to raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon and the diesel tax by about 12 cents to 15 cents a gallon. At the same time, the commission will recommend tying the fuel tax rates to inflation.

The commission will also recommend that states raise their fuel taxes and make greater use of toll roads and fees for rush-hour driving....

A study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies estimated that the annual gap between revenues and the investment needed to improve highway and transit systems was about $105 billion in 2007, and will increase to $134 billion in 2017 under current trends.

Projected shortfalls in revenue led the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, in a report issued in January 2008, to call for an increase of as much as 40 cents a gallon in the gas tax, phased in over five years.

Highway maintenance would take a hit

Funding for highway maintenance would be increased just 1% in 2010 and 2011, increasing available funding by a total of $5.6 million, under the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's budget request.

"Routine maintenance of the STH system is achieved primarily through contracts with each of the state’s 72 counties, WisDOT said in its request. "In general, program costs continue to increase even without increases in service levels. Annual adjustments in routine maintenance contracts for labor and equipment as well as the cost of salt are driving most of these increases. In addition, new lane miles and more traffic require additional resources."

The agency also raised the specter of service cuts if it does not get enough money, but did not suggest that it could reallocate resources within its requested $5.9 billion bienniel budget.

"If adequate funding is not provided, the program must prioritize its activities and then reduce or eliminate service and/or capital expenditures for repairing and replacing signs, repainting pavement markings, etc."

Gov. Doyle does a U-turn on gas tax indexing

Gov. Doyle might have whiplash as a result of the sharp turn-around on gas-tax indexing: he was against it before he was for it.

Doyle told the Wisconsin State Journal last week that the state should reconsider its 2005 repeal -- which Doyle supported -- of the law that allowed the gas tax to increase automatically every year at the rate of inflation. (It's so inconvenient to make legislators actually vote on tax increases.)

From the story:

"The simple fact is that where Wisconsin went, where Republicans took us, is unsustainable for transportation (infrastructure), where you say, that's basically it on the gas tax, regardless of what the costs are and what the needs are," Doyle said in a year-end interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. "I think that indexing had served us pretty well for a long period of time."

Wisconsin's motor fuels tax is now 30.9 cents per gallon, which as of January made it second only to the 36-cent tax in Washington state, said Dale Knapp, research director for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. Wisconsin also adds 2 cents per gallon for an environmental clean-up fund...

Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the governor was going back on a change that created "greater accountability" for taxpayers by making lawmakers vote on each increase in the gas tax.

"Consumers have finally found some relief at the pump, and now the governor wants to increase their burden during these uncertain economic times," he said.

Spurred by conservative talk radio and bloggers, the movement to repeal the automatic increases took the Capitol by surprise three years ago, overcoming initial concerns from Doyle and the then Republican leadership of the Legislature.

Signing the repeal three years ago, Doyle said, "It's not appropriate to raise taxes every year automatically, without elected officials having to stand up and be accountable to the people who are paying taxes."