Monday, December 19, 2005

Political Train Wrecks

It's the season for disgruntled editorial writers and columnists, and they're getting antsy over what Gov.-elect Tim Kaine and the GOP-led General Assembly will do about transportation. Not to mention the influential home- and road-buildingn lobbies. The question of funding unfortunately seems to be crowding out discussion of the other key policy issues. Virginian-Pilot columnist Margaret Edds on Sunday predicting 'a whole bunch' of political train wrecks, and lamenting what a lousy jobs the state's leaders have done so far.
'Officials agree that transportation is a mess and 2006 is the year to fashion a fix. But when it comes to paying for roads, empowering cities and counties to curb development and guaranteeing that transportation taxes won’t be diverted to education, Gov.-elect Tim Kaine, the state Senate and the House of Delegates might as well be speaking German, Spanish and French.'
Meanwhile, the Roanoke Times today blasts the GOP's anti-tax true believers, and directs readers to this column by Felix G. Rohatyn, an investment banker, and Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, chair the Commission on Public Infrastructure of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
'Private investment has led U.S. economic growth for two centuries, but it could not have done so without a series of complementary public investments in canals, railroads, roads, the airspace system, water projects, public transportation, public schools and the like, which improve business productivity and our standard of living while generating significant increases in private-sector employment.'
The Roanoke Times wishes that thinking would carry the day in Virginia:
'Such vision is in desperately short supply in Virginia, where too many leaders seem to think the huge funding gap in transportation -- and other critical infrastructure areas -- can be magically bridged by one-time infusions from the general fund and the eternal promise of waste cut from state government.'
Maybe I've missed it, but the House coalition seems to have gotten by so far without a detailed explanation of what Virginia's transportation network will look like in 10, 20 years under their approach.


At 10:56 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

There is no plan that includes goals, milestones, schedule, and resources.

Goals might be something like:
1) Average travel speeds across the sate of 30 mph. (or some suitable figure, I don't know what is reasonable.)
2) Reduction in emissions by 5%.
3) Establishing an agreed upon model for measuring systemwide transportation efficiency, and setting a goal to meet.

Milestones might be something like:
1) Determine the 30 worst bottlencks in the state and devise plans to resolve them over 20 years.

Schedule might be something like: Resolve seven major bottlenecks every three years.

Resouces required, of course, would depend on the goals and schedule set.

Here is an example of what system level thinking might look like from the congressional budget office:

"In particular, new heavy rail systems appear much less energy-efficient than new bus services, when the energy needed to build roadways and track, the energy needed to manufacture and maintain vehicles, the energy used to heat and light stations, the energy required to drive to stations, and the directness of alternative modes of travel are taken into consideration. The principal reason for this is that the limited route mileage of rail systems necessitates a high degree of auto travel to and from stations, resulting in overall, door-to-door travel patterns that are less energy-efficient than rail travel by itself. As illustrated in Figure 2, a typical trip on a new heavy rail system requires about twice as much energy per mile as does a typical trip by bus, all things considered. Old heavy rail systems, located in concentrated urban areas where stations are easily reached by foot and by bus, rank only slightly behind bus in terms of their modal energy requirements. Vanpools use the least energy, whereas single-occupant automobiles and dial-a-ride service use the most.....A typical mile of travel diverted to carpools saves more energy than does diversion to any mode other than vanpools."

The situation is even worse if high speed rail is considered because of the high quality dedicated track and grade separation that is required. Yet in spite of these obvious facts we still see pressure to increase rail service even when it would result in an overall system degradation of service.

Another example goes like this: If we could move 20% of auto traffic to trains, it would reduce congestion such that the remaining 80% would be able to travel relatively freely. Therefore auto drivers should be willing to pay for this benefit. How much would you have to charge auto drivers and transfer that benefit to train riders to induce them to switch? My personal guess is that might be as much as $15 or $25 per trip, on top of the current subsidies, because train travel is slower and less convenient. The closer you get to 20% diversion, the more it costs because fewer people are available to choose from that have working conditions, or train options available.

Even if you could verify that this resulted in improved overall system performance and lower costs, this might be a hard sell, and that's just the transportation system, alone. If we consider everything else, then it gets harder.

A sustainable area is one in which the transportation, housing, labor, and environmental markets
interact in such a way that the sum of all positive externalities stemming from
the interactions is larger than the sum of the negative
effects caused by the interactions. If those affected by positive issues can compensate those affected by negative outcomes, and still be ahead, then the area is both sustainable and equitable.

I don't think we know anywhere near enough to solve this problem, and the political train wrecks you describe will be the result of one special interest or another getting shorted in the process.

Considering that we are faced with the certainty of 2 million more residents, the idea of empowering our cities AND our counties to curb growth seems to me to be a non-starter. That growth is going somewhere, and it need to go where it won't cause further degradation to the system.

Where exactly that is has never been determined satisfactorily.

Surely there are economies of development that can be classified in terms of scale, scope, and complexity. Just as surely, beyond a certain size there are diseconomies such as pollution, congestion and sustainability.

While some attempts have been made to determine optimum size and density no cogent determination has been made, although there is a lot of wild unsubstantiated theory being promoted.

Optimum size apparently depends on what is being produced, and how the area operates with respect to the larger economy, and other factors THAT CHANGE OVER TIME.

"A purely ecological approach to urban sustainability would suggest that that the goal
of sustainability is not possible, since cities depend upon imports and exports of
resources and waste. The nature of the urban environment is such that it has very little
assimilative capacity. Most resources are imported into cities and waste exported, so
cities what ever their size not only impact on their own environment, but on
surrounding environments too." What this suggests is that when calculating the alleged efficiencies of cities we need to include the cost of their environmental footprint, and cities need to pay their full external costs.

Instead, what we see is that the cities continually attempt to capture more external resources, without cost to themselves. We see this in far flung subsidies to urban transportation systems, like Metro, and calls for commuter taxes.

We can attempt to modify land use through policy, such as zoning, but such policies are still subject to economic and environmental limitations. Such policies are not without cost and equity considerations. But primarily, land use is a function of transportation availability.

We need to be able to recognize and sum over all the benefits and all the costs of land use and transportation to be able to determine the least cost and most equitable solution. Calls for ameliorating one kind of cost externality (cars don't pay their full way, scattered housing doesn't pay its full way, etc.) or another can only aggravate inequity and imbalance and inefficiency, unless we consider all the externalities we can identify simultaneously.

I believe that is the point of Rohatyn's comment on the necessary co-operation of private and public investment.


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