Monday, March 18, 2013

How many economists does it take……..?

How many economists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  I don’t know.  The answers I have found to this question are not funny – I may have to write one!
How many economists does it take to successfully influence passage of a transportation funding package?  That’s easy –  57!  Or at least that will be the right answer if Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s funding package for transportation (and education) is passed by the legislature.
A total of 57 economists from a wide variety of Massachusetts colleges (including MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Brandeis, etc.) signed on to a statement (here) saying that “maintaining and expanding an efficient, sustainable transportation system is critical for Massachusetts businesses and the state's workforce” and that the Governor’s revenue and investment plan is “critical to improving the long-term economic strength of our state.”
Now, most of the content of the economists’ statement is pretty straightforward and even obvious – or it would have been considered obvious a few years ago.  But it’s good to see this clear confirmation by professional economists of the critical importance of the transportation system (and a parallel education plan).  Will it help?  We’ll see.  Meanwhile I’m going to keep working on the lightbulb problem.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

PennDOT does first-rate performance management report – Will it help raise money?

More and more state DOTs are doing serious performance management programs and using them as the basis for reporting to their legislatures and publics.  The latest is from PennDOT, which has done a first-rate job with its new “TransportationPerformance Report: Pennsylvania 2013.”
There are (it seems to me) three keys to doing a good performance management report: selecting the best metrics, doing great graphics, and being ruthlessly and transparently honest with the reader.  These are not easy to do – and PennDOT does them very well!  I particularly like the graphics, which are always tricky.
(BTW, the gold standard for performance management reporting is still Washington state DOT.  See their Grey Notebook.)
One of the great motivators for all performance management efforts is the desire to encourage confidence from the legislature and the public and, therefore, to encourage the flow of funding.  PennDOT’s report clearly documents what the needs are on the ground, what the agency is doing to meet those needs, and what resources they need to get on with the job.  Will it help them in the current funding debates in the legislature???  We can only hope.
There are some (in my opinion) important missing pieces in the 2013 report:
·      Land use and transportation – PennDOT has been a leader in this field but has nothing to show for it in the report.  What are they doing to advance the SmartTransportation Guidebook? (FYI, now 5 years old, done in conjunction with New Jersey DOT, I confess a paternal interest.)
·      Climate change and energy independence – Needs to be on the shortlist of critical issues.
·      Bike/ped issues – Some valuable safety metrics, but what is the agency doing to actively promote bike/ped transportation?
·      Transit – A lot of good information, but what is PennDOT doing to encourage mode shift and make transit available to more people?
·      PennDOT – It’s great to see the efforts the agency is making to be more efficient and to incorporate best practices in management and technology.  I’d also like to see what efforts are under way or contemplated in making the agency more multimodal, more responsive to 21st century challenges, more diverse (in all ways) in staff, and more collaborative and customer-oriented in culture.
Maybe in the 2014 report?

Monday, March 11, 2013

New DC Streetcar Website

The new DC streetcar system is getting closer to reality – revenue service should start later this year on the first segment – and DDOT has a neat new website (here) to keep up with the news.
DC is planning a 37-mile system which will fill in major gaps in Metro coverage and will also stimulate economic development in key corridors.  They are really doing this the right way.  The new streetcar lines are being designed and built in coordination with the Great Streets program, which lines up plans and resources to accelerate redevelopment.
The DC plan is ambitious and seems right on target.  What is not as ambitious as I would like to see is the fact that the 37-mile system is a “30-year vision.”  This is a national problem, not a DC problem, but why is this not a 10-year vision?  (Mayor Villaraigosa had the right idea.)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

New Hampshire advances a gas tax increase!

Kudos to the brave 207 members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives who voted on March 6 to advance a bill to increase the gas tax by 15 cents over four years!  The bill got a unanimous vote in committee and attracted 15 Republican votes on the floor (Concord Monitor story here). 
Committee chairman David Campbell, in his report, noted the dire state of the state’s roads and bridges and argued that “the only way to begin to correct the problem is by properly funding the repairs of our crumbling infrastructure. Only money, not words and not ideology, will fix roads and bridges.”
On the floor, Rep. John Cloutier gave an upbeat assessment of the bill’s chances: “I believe that today is finally the day when this House stands up and says that we’re going to invest in our infrastructure, we’re going to put a halt to the gradual deterioration of our infrastructure and we are going to return to New Hampshire’s traditional, bipartisan policy of caring for its roads and bridges.”  Let’s hope!
Unfortunately, that spirit hasn’t touched everyone, with one opponent calling the tax increase “a stunning overreach of government.”  (I’d have to call that a stunning overreach of rhetoric.)
Future prospects for the legislation are mixed at best.
By the way, I rather like how New Hampshire refers to its motor fuels tax as a “road toll.”

Thursday, March 7, 2013

“Plugless and wireless” takes another step forward in Germany

Bombardier is putting its “plugless and wireless” charging system for electric vehicles to the test in Mannheim, Germany (Wired story here) on select bus routes.  Electric buses will be charged using magnetic chargers in the pavement at bus stops that only become activated when the vehicle stops on top of them.  The system is safer and less unsightly than catenary wires (or certainly third rails) while extending the range of vehicles.  Bombardier is already in field trials for the same system (PRIMOVE) for trams in the German city of Augsburg.  Plugless and wireless charging has been experimented with for automobiles and trucks but it’s not clear how big a deal that will be.  For buses and light rail (when running in streets) it looks like a real winner!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Connecticut does a new energy strategy

Many states have published comprehensive energy plans (or climate change plans, they are often very similar) in recent years, and I had occasion recently to look at the newest and one of the best: Connecticut’s (link here).
I focused, not surprisingly, on the transportation piece, which I was pleased to see managed to keep that difficult balance of being both aggressive and realistic.
Their 5 recommendations for the transportation sector:
1.     Promote the use of highly efficient vehicles for passengers and freight.  This one’s pretty obvious.
2.     Develop a clean vehicle/clean fuels technology platform in Connecticut.  The report notes that 92% of the state’s electricity comes from natural gas or nuclear power, so switching from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles can have immediate benefits.  One of the best initiatives here is the commitment to install 10 fast chargers for EVs on Connecticut’s interstate highways, mainly at service plazas.  That could really be a tipping-point strategy.
3.     Facilitate transit-oriented development to increase mobility and create more livable communities.  Wisely, Connecticut plans to get the most value they can from the large investments being made in the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed rail line and the CTfastrak bus rapid transit system and use them as springboards for good TOD.
4.     Follow best practices to improve the efficiencies of the transportation system.  They mention traffic signal timing, but more could definitely be done in this category.
5.     Develop sustainable funding sources for an efficient transportation system.  Yes!  It’s good to see the argument being made that there is a clear connection between how a transportation system is funded and what it can accomplish.  This helps prepare the ground for future funding initiatives.
I suppose if I had one quibble on the technical side it would be with the projection that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will continue to grow at the same rate over the next 25 years as it has in the past 25 years.  I think recent data suggests that this is not all certain. 
At any rate, another first-rate product from Connecticut!