Thursday, September 26, 2013

A 21st Century Transportation System: Pedal to the Metal

I frequently call attention to the “inconvenient truth” about transportation funding, which is that even the most ambitious funding initiatives that get bandied about at the federal and state levels are pretty much limited to patching up our inherited, legacy transportation system.  They do little to plan, design, and build a 21st Century system (see my posting here).  That comment is sometimes followed up by a question to me: so what does a 21st Century transportation system look like?
That’s a good question, and one that some of us are working away at.
One possible answer is put forward by Michael Hoexter and his recent “Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan” (posted on the New Economic Perspectives website here).  Hoexter approaches the question from the view that the climate change crisis will require an urgent, radical response.   He also deals with many non-transportation issues (the Plan is aimed at “energy system transformation”).  But I’ll limit my remarks to his agenda for surface transportation.  His main goal is to “electrify land-based transportation and machines,” under which he lists eights specific objectives:
1.  Shift long­distance freight transport to electrified rail or electrified grid­charged or powered trucks.  Build out rail infrastructure to allow modal shift to rail versus road.
2.  Shift freight and passenger fleets to battery electric transportation with battery swap or in­motion inductive charging capability.
3. Build high speed rail, electrified express rail or equivalently rapid electrified public transit between major cities to replace much short and middle distance air travel.
4.  Shift high traffic public transportation routes to electrified commuter rail, light rail, subway, elevated rail, trolleybus, street car or electric bus.
5.  Build electric vehicle charging infrastructure in multifamily, single family residences, office parking facilities and public streets.
6.  Build rapid charge, roadway charging, and/or battery swap infrastructure to facilitate electric vehicle travel over middle and longer distances.
7.  Increase electrical energy storage performance by a factor of 2 per decade.
8.  Facilitate transition from self­driven to programmable computer driven autonomous vehicles (increasing capacity of existing road infrastructure and reducing emissions).
Interestingly, most of the technology to make these changes is already available or reachable within the near future.  And all of them make pretty good sense to me.  As always, the institutional issues are the tough ones.  The toughest of these eight are probably number 1 and number 2, dealing with freight.  Building an electrified Steel Interstate and shifting long-haul freight to it is not something we can easily figure out.
And in case you were wondering, the author recognizes the importance both of land use planning and of decarbonizing electricity supply.

Hoexter goes into a lot of other issues involving climate change and related social and political concerns – all controversial – but on the transportation side, at least, I’d give him high marks for a envisioning a real 21st Century transportation system.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gizmodo Calls Attention to Freeway “Cap Parks”

Gizmodo has published a nice intro (here) to the subject of freeway “cap parks” – the decking of freeway sections in CBDs.  The examples given are Boston and Dallas (built) and St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Chicago (planned or proposed).  Of these examples, Boston is by far the most extensive and the most important in terms of its impact on the city.  In fact, the Boston Central Artery wasn’t really decked – the elevated highway was torn down and replaced with a tunnel.  And although the Big Dig project had it problems (the Gizmodo writer calls it “infamous”), the results are truly transformative.
Missing from the story is Seattle, where putting the Alaskan Way viaduct into tunnel could mimic Boston’s success.
Certainly the other examples mentioned have or will benefit from putting some sort of covering.
How about some more opportunities for the future:
·      Philadelphia – I-95 still separates center city from the waterfront, despite some small “caps.” 
·      Atlanta – The worst.  The Downtown Connector runs like a river of magma through the heart of the city.
·      Hartford – I-84 is already the subject of local efforts to tame it.

These projects can be very expensive, but I don’t consider them frills.  I think that a successful 21st century city has to tame its highways – especially in the city centers – and decking can be a tool to do that.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Paul Krugman’s “Tragic Waste” for the Economy is also a Tragic Waste for Transportation

Paul Krugman writes eloquently (here) of the “tragic waste” we have subjected ourselves to over the past five years through a weak response to the economic disaster – a waste of human resources through unnecessarily high unemployment and a waste of opportunities for higher production and growth. 
I would just add that we can see that waste in high relief in the transportation sector. 
Krugman notes the “could have beens” that would have flowed from a vigorous federal spending program – essentially an ongoing Stimulus over five years.  Just consider the “could have beens” if the Transportation Stimulus had been carried forward each year!  The construction sector would be in full recovery, the general economy would be reinvigorated, and think of what could have been built!  We could have made a serious dent in the backlog of deficient legacy infrastructure and even made a good start toward building a 21st century transportation system.  (Remember how cheaply projects could be built at the bottom of the economic slump?)
And – as I have often noted (see my 2010 presentation on the subject here) – significantly ramped up transportation spending doesn’t have to be a long-term deficit inducer.  The trick is to ramp up motor fuels taxes (that’s right) after ramping up spending, at a rate linked to economic recovery.  In the long run, higher motor fuels taxes don’t burden the economy that much, and if applied correctly, can encourage beneficial transportation decision making while funding more transportation options for people.

As Paul Krugman notes, the political ingredients have not been in place to support the kind of Stimulus that would have gotten us out of the hole in a timely manner.  The same is certainly true of transportation spending, where even the meager amounts of investment we are making now are funded on a hand-to-mouth basis.  But, hey, we are still in the hole, so why not start climbing out now?