Friday, October 21, 2005

Cities, The Missing Voice in the Transportation Debate

I don't know what Gov. Mark R. Warner is expecting from his Commission on Transportation in Urban areas, but the study commission could have an interesting impact on the looming General Assembly debate on transportation funding. Why? Because the interests and perspectives of Virginia's cities have been largely absent from the debate so far, a debate that has been dominated by the interests of fast-growth counties grappling with congestion and, to a lesser extent, rural areas looking at road funding as an economic development tool.

Virginia's central cities are very different. They already have transportation infrastructure and, with spot exceptions like the Hampton Roads tunnels, congestion is tolerable.

Far from demanding huge injections of transportation funding, cities have every reason to fear a statewide transportation policy that would raise taxes on everyone, including city residents, and pour mega-billions into more suburban transportation projects. Commission members, here are your talking points:

First and foremost: A massive tax increase along the lines contemplated by suburban and rural legislators is anti city. A tax increase would transfer wealth from the cities to the suburbs and counties where most of the money would be spent.

Second, and a very close second at that: Suburban congestion is the city's friend. As congestion drives up the cost and inconvenience of living in the suburbs, it makes the urban core more attractive by comparison. Demographic trends, such as the migration of empty nesters back into the city, already favor cities. A transportation policy that increases subsidies for suburban sprawl as opposed to urban in-fill and redevelopment is clearly against the cities' best interests.

Third: An aggressive extension of roads into the metropolitan periphery would push economic growth and development farther away from the core cities, making retail and other service jobs even more inaccessible for the substantial populations of poor people living in the central cities. Most poor people can't afford cars, and mass transit doesn't reach the metropolitan fringe. Any transportation strategy that further isolates these poor people is economically wasteful and downright immoral.

Fourth: Suburban areas have created many of their congestion problems by perpetuating scattered, disconnected, low density growth and by adopting a blockage-prone artery-feeder road system in place of the more flexible grid-street system found in traditional cities. Instead of fixing their problems through higher taxes, more roads and the same kind of development, counties should focus their energies on building communities with a balanced and well-integrated mix of jobs/housing/amenities that require fewer, shorter car trips.

Fifth: Instead of adding expensive capacity, suburban counties should address congestion by managing demand: encouraging telecommuting, ride sharing, flex schedules and other inexpensive strategies.


At 5:55 AM, Blogger Steve Haner said...

Oh, Jim, where to begin. I just have time for a a couple of points.

First, if the tax increase you so fear is focused on motor fuels taxes, then people who live in cities and commute very short distances will pay the least. The toll roads being contemplated by those who eschew taxes would also have little impact on urban dwellers. The wealth transfer you fear is unlikely. In fact, living in town might become more fiscally attractive.

Second, with additional resources, there is the possibility to see increased funding for urban mass transit, interurban rail, and other transportation projects that would benefit cities or ease communting into cities.

Third, at the heart of the transporation debate is the maintenance issue. Solve that problem -- find a way to end the growing drain maintenance is putting on everything else in the budget -- and that is a huge step forward. Cities have massive maintenance issues. And I learned yesterday that when VDOT talks about its $2.9 billion maintenance backlog (based on pre-Katrina asphalt and steel prices), that does not include the cities and the two counties (Henrico and Arlington) who do their own maintenance program. Their needs were not catalogued. A general solution that provides maintenance and bridge money will do just as much for those cities.

At 6:29 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

There needs to a legislative effort to place more of the road maintenance costs on cost-causers -- heavy trucks. The Commonwealth has concluded that heavy trucks cause the same amount of road damage as several thousands of cars. The fees paid by owners and operators of these trucks are no where proportionate to the amount of road damage caused by their vehicles. Equity demands that this change.

As it economically reasonable for drivers to pay gas taxes and road tolls to support the construction and maintenance for roads, so too is it economically reasonable for owners and operators of heavy trucks to pay fees that are proportionate to the amount of damage caused to Virginia's roads. This one works for cities, suburban and rural areas.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Steve, You're right that the gas tax and tolls would be the most equitable way to raise revenues for transportation. Just one problem: Politicians are gas tax-phobic. I don't see how legislators can raise the kind of money they want (upwards of $2 billion a year) without jacking up the sales or income tax again -- which city dwellers would share in paying.

Toomanytaxes: I have heard many others say what you claim, that trucks don't pay their fair share. I would be very interested in seeing the documentation for that statement. If the evidence is strong that trucks are under-taxed, then I would agree with you that they should pay more. But I haven't seen the evidence, so I don't feel comfortable drawing a conclusion.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Pi r squared.

If the suburbs become more expensive due to travel costs and congestion the cities may become more attractive. Those that move there will bid up real estate prices causing the suburbs to become more attractive on a basis of total costs of transport and housing - same as now.

Calling suburburban congestion the cities friend is like asking for paralysis so your feet won't hurt. If tax increases are anti city, how is that worse than promoting congestiton that is anti everybody else?

The biggest lack of transport is not radial roads that push development farther out, but roads to connect the new ring cities like Fredericksburg, Centerville, Tysons and Culpeper, Manassas, Reston. Such roads would help support suburban infill and jobs creation that would allow people who already live there options other than jamming the radial roads.

Urban infill can only do so much. One thing it will do is cause more gentrification driving poor people out of the cities. We can see evidence of that in declining enrollment in ESL classes in Arlington and increased demand in Winchester, Front Royal, and Culpeper. Poor people who can't afford cars is one thing, but you don't do them any favors by making it so they can't afford housing, either.

It is true that if you have a blockage in an artery/feeder system it turns into a big problem quickly. But that system was invented because of problems caused by the traditional grid system. True enough, if there is a jam up in a grid system, you can find a way around. But that way around is going to involve multiple intersections, which are bottlenecks in their own right. this means that you have a way to travel but it is as slow or slower than just waiting for the bottlenck to clear itself. Also, the most expensive part of a road system is the intersections: the more you have the more the system costs.

This has been studied and the results show that the benefits claimed for grid systems don't exist. (As far as traffic flow is concerned. There may be other benefits.)

If suburban areas have caused their problems by scattered disconnected low density growth, then the solutions ought to be to connect them, add jobs that are not scattered, and increase density. But if we do that we should recognize there is no evidence whatsoever that cities can manage these problems more cost effectively, more energy effectively, or more pollution effectively, than suburban or rural areas.

I'll see if I can dig out the truck evidence. Since most of it is provided by trucking interests it tends to be equivocal, but there is enough information to draw your own conclusions.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

On trucks:
First a couple of notes on magnitude of the problem.

In Illinois, the 1992 auditor's report estimated that overweight trucks caused $50 million of road damage a year, which led to $93 million in vehicle damage.

North Carolina taxpayers are losing nearly $130 million a year because of damage to roads from trucks that weigh more than the normal limit of 80,000 pounds, according to a study by the state Department of Transportation.

The actual tab for heavy trucks is likely higher: That estimate does not include damage caused by fully loaded trucks allowed by the legislature to use secondary roads not strong enough to handle that much weight.

Next the physics:

Every axle passing over a highway consumes a portion of the pavement’s life. With each application of load, the pavement experiences compression and bending that eventually lead to rutting and cracking. Extensive road tests over the past fifty years have shown that the amount of pavement life consumed by heavy axles greatly exceeds the amount of life consumed by light axles.

Axle Weight Pavement life consumed compared to a 20,000 lb axle:

2000 0.001
10000 0.06
18000 0.66
20000 1.00
22000 1.46
24000 2.07

Two important concepts are evident from this table: •
First, heavy axles consume much more pavement life than light axles. Even a legal 20,000-pound truck axle consumes a thousand times as much pavement life as a 2,000-pound automobile axle.

Second, the amount of life consumed rises much faster than the axle weight. For a seemingly modest 10% increase in weight (from a legal 20,000-pound axle to an overweight 22,000-pound axle), the amount of consumed life soars by nearly 50%. A 20% overweight consumes more than twice as much pavement life as the legal load.

Then the social issues:

The violation rate increases sharply with a decrease in enforcement: In Virginia when high enforcement rates are in effect violations are only 0.5 to 2% but when low enforcement conditions are in effect, violation rates are 12 to 27%. Similar numbers have been shown in several other states.

Finally, This last document is from House Document No. 18
PUBLICATION YEAR 2001,In the Virginial legislative information system, so it's not like legislators shouldn't know this stuff:

“The damaging effect of heavy trucks on pavements is not a new concept. Results of the most comprehensive study ever conducted on the relationship between heavy vehicles and pavement damage8 demonstrate that an incremental increase in vehicle weight results in an exponential increase in pavement damage. For example, a single pass of a three-axle single-unit truck with a gross weight of 54,000 pounds (the maximum allowed before HB 2209) causes approximately 8,000 times the damage of an ordinary passenger car. Likewise, one pass of the same three-axle truck with a gross weight of 60,000 pounds (maximum allowed by HB 2209) would cause approximately 50 percent more damage than the 54,000-pound truck. Stated differently, for this truck class, an 11 percent increase in weight results in a 50 percent increase in damage. Consider the effects of raising the allowable weight of a five-axle semi-trailer from 80,000 pounds to 90,000 pounds in accordance with the increase allowed by HB 2209. With an increase in gross weight of only 10,000 pounds, or 12.5 percent, a single pass of the 90,000-pound vehicle causes 58 percent more damage than the 80,000-pound vehicle. These examples apply to pavements that are structurally adequate to support the stated loads. The percentage increase in damage resulting from the additional weight would be drastically higher for structurally deficient pavements.

The exponential increase in relative damage corresponding to an incremental increase in weight is due to the severe reduction in the number of vehicle load repetitions that will cause fatigue failure, which is the result of increased stresses and strains within the pavement structure. An analogy would be the consequence of repetitively bending a thin piece of metal by hand. The metal could survive an indefinite number of repetitions if the degree of bending were quite small (i.e., lighter loads, lower deflections). However, if the degree of bending were increased only slightly, the metal would fail in fatigue after a finite number of repetitions. When the magnitude of truck volume over many years is considered, the cumulative effect of the net increase in damage resulting from a corresponding increase in weight becomes exorbitant.”

In spite of this evidence, we actually have legislators who think lighter and fuel efficient vehicles aren't paying their way!

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

Ray Hyde: You've made a compelling case for substantial increases in the fees paid by heavy trucks to be devoted to road maintenance. Cost-based fees would also send an economically sound signal to the market; trucks would likely lighten their loads before going through Virginia, which, in turn, would reduce road damage. More important, high fees (and even higher fines for overweight trucks) would be be fair to drivers of lighter vehicles.

I wonder how much additional money would be in the Commonwealth's coffers for transportation improvements had it recovered all of the costs for road maintenance caused by heavy truck damage from the cost-causers.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Believe me, I worry more about heavy trucks than I do about terrorists.


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