Thursday, October 31, 2013

Time to Hit the (Overton) Window on Transportation Funding

Earlier this year I wrote a piece (here) about how an effort to radically change the Washington debate on Social Security benefits (don’t cut them, increase them!) could be used as a model for recasting the debate (or lack thereof) on transportation funding.
Now comes a new story (here) explaining how the effort to change the Social Security debate was consciously crafted to change the “Overton Window.”  The supershort explanation of the Overton Window is that public policy options are considered to be serious only if they fit within a narrow window of acceptability (the Overton Window).  So in the field of transportation finance, the conventional wisdom is that increasing taxes for transportation is politically infeasible and therefore is not a serious option.  That option is not within the current Overton Window.  Since all the “serious” options – within the current Overton Window – lead only to national decline, my answer (from the earlier piece) is: move the goalposts!  Or, in Overton parlance: widen the Overton window!

Whatever parlance or metaphor you prefer, it seems to me to be time to stop accepting failure as an option, let alone as a decree of the Fates.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sandy – One Year Later

There’s not much I can add to the one-year-later Sandy retrospectives in the New York Times and other sources.  They have covered many of the short-term and long-term impacts to transportation and other types of infrastructure.
Just two thoughts:
First, as some of us have pointed out (my comments a year ago here), the silver lining to the Sandy disaster, and other weather related disasters, could be that a growing majority of people involved in our public policy discourse will be climate change believers, not Flat Earthers.  I believe there have been signs of that, although it’s discouraging when we see the prime minster of Australia, whose country is literally on fire, holding steadfast to denial.
Second, it’s pretty clear that more and more public agencies – DOTs and others – are seriously incorporating climate change resilience and adaptation into their planning.  That will be very helpful in coping with future events.

Finally, just to give a little perspective, this photo shows Sandy damage still visible a few weeks ago in a wildlife preserve along the Delaware River about 60 miles inland.  Although the Jersey Shore and urban areas got the most news coverage in the Sandy aftermath, the damage to inland rural areas and woodlands was immense.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Electric Bikes Humming Along in Arlington

A new electric bicycle shop in Arlington, VA – Hybrid Pedals – is creating a lot of “buzz” (see their website here).  Alan Levine’s showroom is crammed with dozens of electric bikes: special built bikes (starting at around $1500), custom rebuilds (also at around $1500), folding bikes (for the Metro), and very high-end bikes (what Levine calls the “Lamborghini” of ebikes, for around $15,000!).  He is working on an order now for the Atlantic City Policy Department, who are buying 30 ebikes with very fat tires for riding up and down the beach.
Levine says that ebikes now make up better than 20 percent of bicycle sales in Europe, and he sees a similar trend here. 
The idea behind electric bikes, if you’re not familiar with them, is that you can use them like regular bikes, in bike lanes, etc., but can switch on the power for help getting up steep hills or on long commutes.  You can even go entirely electric if you choose, say to commute to work without working up a sweat. 
The good news about ebikes – as with electric cars – is that batteries continue to get lighter and more powerful. 
The electric bicycle is just one more development, along with bikesharing, that is making bicycle transportation a mainstream option.

Good luck to Hybrid Pedals! 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Keystone State Transportation Funding Still Hangs in the Balance

After a very solid, bipartisan vote for increased transportation funding in the Pennsylvania state Senate in June (45 – 5!), the funding bill’s future is still very much in doubt in the House of Representatives (see press update here).
The Senate bill (SB-1) isn’t perfect and lacks in substantive transportation reform measures.  Nevertheless, it provides a significant funding bump and a real rebound from the Act 44 debacle (which hinged on the failed proposal to toll I-80).
What I find most encouraging is, first, the real bipartisan support for a transportation revenue increase (at least in the Senate) and, second, the willingness to go to the motor fuels tax (although in a roundabout way) for revenue. 
The bill, if passed, will enable PennDOT to invest heavily in attacking the structurally deficient bridge backlog (in which it has the dubious distinction of leading the nation) and to provide stable funding for transit.  Hopefully, PennDOT will also use this as an opportunity (if the bill passes) to take on some other issues: a new Community Transportation Fund (based on the successful Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative of a few years ago), increased bike/ped funding, etc.

Stay tuned!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Blogger Argues EVs on the Verge of Causing Irreversible Changes in Auto Market

Having spent a good deal of time reading (and some time writing!) officially-sounding papers on electric vehicles, it was refreshing to read a posting by Daily Kos blogger Assaf Oron that provides a somewhat grittier analysis (here). 
Oron’s takeaway point: “EVs are very close now, perhaps a single year away, from attaining the critical mass and momentum needed to irreversibly affect the automotive-market economy.”
Oron does a pretty good takedown of some of the “conventional wisdom” negativity that often emerges from opponents – I use the term advisedly – of electric vehicles, although I am probably a bit more skeptical than he is about a quick blossoming of EVs. 
The most interesting part of the piece is his argument that electric vehicles are not really out of reach of average consumers.  Leasing an EV, he argues, is actually cheaper than owning and maintaining a middle-age conventional car. 
He also analyzes the market forces affecting EVs, particularly noting the successes of Tesla.

Oron ranges through a variety of EV issues in his string of posts on the subject, but, as I said above, the big takeaway is his assertion that we are rapidly approaching a tipping point at which EVs are no longer “the future” or a possible technological option but become a permanent part of our lives.  Is he right?  I’m not 100% sold on the proposition…but I’m probably 80% sold! 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Good New Summary Report on Reauthorization Funding Options

The Congressional Research Service has published an excellent new report summarizing the transportation funding options we are likely to look at during a Reauthorization legislative process (“Funding and Financing Highways and Public Transportation,” available here).
As they usually do, CRS manages to summarize a lot of material, some of it pretty complicated, in a readable document that policymakers can actually use.  The reader can quickly learn where we are in terms of federal surface transportation funding, how we got here, and what our options are for going forward (including “do nothing” and let the Highway Trust Fund shrink or disappear altogether).  Although most of this ground has been plowed before, two sections should be noted for their fresh treatment.  First, the paper describes the Trust Fund financing problem in a remarkably clear fashion, with both text and numbers.   A simple spreadsheet (yes, it is possible to use a simple spreadsheet to communicate complicated information!) sets out the shortfall in high relief.  Second, the authors provide a two-page legislative history of the motor fuels tax and the Highway Trust Fund over the past 30 years that reminds us not only of the controversial nature of the subject but also of the convoluted nature of the Congressional process.  These process issues are often given little attention, but they are important for the Capitol Hill audience for whom the paper is oriented.  (They are not for the faint of heart, being essentially a report from the industrial engineers at the sausage factory.)
However, I do have a few quibbles.  I have the same quibbles with most papers done on this subject, but I want to note them here as they can affect the policy process that the CRS paper will help to inform.
First, the authors call attention to the growing gap between motor fuels tax revenues and identified transportation needs, suggesting that Congress may need to find new sources of income.  One of the sources discussed later is indexing the motor fuels tax.  However, I think it is fairer to say that increasing the motor fuels tax and indexing it and maybe adding a few refinements would in fact solve the problem, at least for a considerable time
Second, the paper alludes in passing to the “political difficulty” of raising the gas tax, but I think does not fully recognize that the perception of that “political difficulty” is pretty much the only reason we are passing over the obvious solution (increase and index the gas tax) in favor of more exotic options.
Third, in common with most papers on the subject, the CRS effort, I believe, seriously underestimates the “political difficulty” of passing alternative taxes.  Do we really think that the anti-tax forces will be just fine with enacting a national sales tax or a VMT tax?  I don’t understand why we think that novelty will make the medicine go down better.
Fourth, I believe that the authors – again in common with many others – also seriously underestimates the likely opposition to a VMT tax due to the privacy issue.  True, they suggest that data collection not using GPS systems may provoke less resistance than a system that does.  That may be so, but remember we live in an age in which enacting a middle-of-the-road health insurance reform bill leads to talk of nullification and secession and in which scientists identifying the crisis of climate change are held to be fraudulent conspirators.  What do you think these people will say about a national VMT tax, even if it starts out on a low-tech basis?

Fifth, I would have preferred that the report more clearly point out the difference between “funding” and “financing” options.  I think many people still think of PPP and Infrastructure Bank money as “funding” rather than “financing.”  That’s like confusing money you get from a paycheck with money you get from a payday loan.  Last year (here) I called attention to language I like a lot in a GAO report:  “While these tools have promise to help meet increasing transportation demands, they are forms of debt that must be repaid, not new revenues.  New revenues for transportation infrastructure investments can come only from two sources: new taxes or new fees. Ultimately, raising new revenues or reducing transportation spending or both will be needed.”

Monday, October 14, 2013

Good Luck to yet another Blue Ribbon Commission – Indiana

Indiana has joined the ranks of states empowering a blue ribbon commission to deal with transportation issues.  Governor Mike Pence has announced the cochairs (press release here) and has given the group a mission: identify priority transportation projects for road, rail, air, and water (based on metrics they will develop) and “explore and monitor innovations in transportation infrastructure to keep Indiana on the cutting edge” (whatever that means exactly).  The governor has also stated three “guiding principles”: “taking care of what we have; finishing what we start; and planning for the future.”
All of that is fine, but does anyone notice anything missing? 
Is the commission going to be charged with creating an actual program, as opposed to just a prioritized list?  And will they also be charged with calculating the cost of that program and proposing options for raising the revenue to pay for it?

Hmmmm.  We’ll see.

Friday, October 4, 2013

New York, New York, It’s a Walkable Town!

Or at least it’s getting to be one.  I still find walking through the canyonlands of midtown Manhattan to be more work than pleasure, but even there the work done to tame Times Square (very much under construction) promises a bright future.  And strolling down Broadway is much more pleasant than it previously was, with many pedestrianized areas that seem to be very supportive of a revitalizing retail economy.  The older squares along Broadway (Madison Square and Union Square, in particular) I found to be delightful urban experiences on a beautiful Fall day. 
Kudos to Mayor Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Kahn, and New York City DOT for a fine job (amid the usual New York sound and fury) in planning and implementing a new way of thinking about transportation and land use in the city.
Social and economic trends are also making a big difference.  Many parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn – with a much better development scale for pedestrians than midtown – have seen major revitalization, with exciting residential, commercial, and cultural development.

For those of us that remember a grungier – and more dangerous – New York, these changes are heartening indeed.  And they show how solid (and sometime fearless) transportation policies can enable transformations that benefit everyone’s quality of life.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

High Line in Early Fall – Spectacular!

I’m sure there’s nothing new I can say about New York’s High Line (the former elevated freight rail line now repurposed as a landscaped walkway) but I will just note that a recent visit on a beautiful early Fall day confirms that this is one of the best pedestrian projects in the country.  Tourists from around the world (the variety of languages is amazing) come to walk the High Line, and with good reason.  Now open for four years, the High Line’s incredible views, lush landscaping, and well-maintained pathway combine to make the walk a delightful experience.  When the new Whitney Museum building opens in 2015 at the bottom end of the High Line, the whole area (the “Meatpacking District” describes its past) will be a real showcase.
Unfortunately neither the Whitney nor any other adjacent building has any direct access to the High Line, and apparently does not plan to. 
The High Line is maintained by its own nonprofit (link here) which has done a remarkable job. 

I know that the success of the High Line has started other cities thinking about how they can repurpose some of the odd remnants of infrastructure they are left with.  Can’t see to see some more creative projects!