14.8.15

HOT LANES.

It's the dog days of summer, with high humidity, and time for Congress to get out of the malarial swamps of Washington, D.C. after throwing some cold-patch into the highways, er, the Highway Trust Fund.
Congress has managed to avoid a shutdown of highway funding for another three months, but pushed the difficult questions of how to pay for the nation's road and rail projects long-term into an already bursting fall.

The Senate on Thursday passed a pair of measures: one to authorize the Highway Trust Fund for six years with three years of funding and a second, three-month extension already passed by the House to keep the fund afloat. The Senate passed the House patch ostensibly to buy time for both congressional chambers to come to a long-term agreement.
And thus, more things to do once the fall session convenes, and the opportunity to strategically shut the government down draws near.  But that's business as usual.  (Why should the Highway Trust Fund be any more sound than the Social Security Trust Fund?)

Perhaps the next time a major bridge collapses, policy makers might be amenable to doing something other than passing another emergency appropriation or posturing about "crumbling infrastructure."  (Speaking of which, Union Pacific, apparently without any major fanfare, replaced most of the concrete cross-ties on the north main that were installed as part of a track replacement in 2007.  The idea is that concrete ties last longer than the wood ones.  There might have been some litigation here, but no posturing in Congress, just protection under Form B and the maintenance equipment out on the line.)

And the way forward for the highways has been available for years.  I'm still cleaning out a backlog of posts that for one reason or another interested me but couldn't get to them at the time.  Today, some goodies from 2009 about High Occupancy Toll lanes.  (Must have been preempted by final exams and preparations to participate in a faculty search, judging by the dates.)  First, the general principle.
"The reason they're becoming more popular is that they relieve congestion," says Anthony Downs, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution.
But there are people still in need of enlightenment.
"Why would you put a toll on I-95 when you already have tolls on the (nearby Florida) Turnpike?" says James Vamper, 45, owner of Supreme Limousine Service. "That is absolutely ridiculous. I don't think this is fair for the small-business person … or for poor people."
Because if there are two comparable roads, one tolled and the other not, all the toll evaders will go to the un-tolled road, which will delay the limousines. And you'll see a lot more heavy trucks on the un-tolled road, pounding it to pieces.  (Don't get me started on the way some trucking companies evidently instruct their drivers to avoid the Illinois Tollway and use U.S. 30 and Illinois 23 and 38 instead, never mind the congestion and road-breaking that follows.)

And as of six years ago, it is the Southern states that have decided toll lanes (there are few full turnpikes) are not some damfool carpetbagger notion.  As the article puts it, "Toll roads — or at least plans for them — are becoming as common in Dixie as pecan pie, pickups and porch swings."

In part, that's local governments responding to the lack of serious action in Washington.
The nation's primary source of revenue for transportation projects, the federal gas tax-supported Highway Trust Fund, is shrinking as many Americans drive less and operate more fuel-efficient vehicles. "We have a transportation funding crisis," says Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. "Governors and mayors … are saying, 'Look, I'm not getting any help from the federal government. I'm going to bootstrap solving the problem myself. I'm going to go for tolling.' "
Congestion pricing follows congestion, and congestion might follow air conditioning or civil rights or Republican fiscal policies at the state level (graduate programs have dissertation proposal deadlines, I just offered three) and economists understand something about pricing in the presence of congestion.
Tim Lomax, a congestion expert at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, says tolling is catching on in the South for a simple reason: Sustained population growth means the region is running out of interstate capacity.

"If you have a bunch of free (interstate) capacity, you don't need tolls," he says. "Not until you get to the point where you have congestion, and your state DOT has difficulty building for that larger population. Until the 1980s and 1990s, in cities like Nashville, Knoxville (Tenn.) and Charlotte, you had pretty good capacity. There was congestion in certain corridors, but it wasn't the all-encompassing Chicago- or Los Angeles-kind of problem."

Even with all the proposals for toll roads in the region, legions of vociferous opponents to the concept still abound. [Dave] Thomas, the South Carolina state senator, is one of them.

"The problem with tolls is that once you have them, rarely can you get rid of them," he says. "With revenue sources dwindling all over the place, states are becoming desperate. But once (tolling becomes) a revenue source … it never goes away."
Nor, Mr Thomas, should it. Pricing at long run incremental cost yields the funds to keep the roads in a state of good repair, and to add capacity.  And if the Southerners, bless their hearts, start thinking about commuter, regional, and accelerated Passenger Rail when they discover that there are limits to building more roads, why, here are some ideas they might consider.

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