Metrics we need: claim that an expensive and lengthy construction project will cut delays 50%

With the unveiling of the reconstructed Jane Byrne Interchange in Chicago, this promise was made:

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Illinois Department of Transportation engineers are promising a 50% improvement in traffic delays as the interminable Jane Byrne Interchange rebuild wraps up…

It’s estimated the redo could save more than $180 million hours annually in lost productivity from workers in traffic jams and result in a one-third reduction in greenhouse gases.

Can we start tracking this immediately and see if the promise is true?

With numerous major projects facing longer-than-predicted timelines and significant cost overruns, perhaps this is a way forward in marketing. Ignore the extra time and money; it will be worth it!

At the same time, why not use similar metrics for all sorts of infrastructure projects? Infrastructure is needed for many areas of modern life to go well. Yet, people may not want to endure construction or costs. Promises like this at least fix a number on what people might experience as a positive outcome. And if the modeling is so difficult, does this mean that it might be hard to justify a big project? (I could imagine a different number that is also accurate but less negative: without this project, there will be this % of a negative outcome.)

The American difficulty in building and funding major infrastructure projects, California high-speed train edition

The cost and time needed to build a high-speed rail line in California keeps increasing:

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A New York Times review of hundreds of pages of documents, engineering reports, meeting transcripts and interviews with dozens of key political leaders show that the detour through the Mojave Desert was part of a string of decisions that, in hindsight, have seriously impeded the state’s ability to deliver on its promise to create a new way of transporting people in an era of climate change…

When California voters first approved a bond issue for the project in 2008, the rail line was to be completed by 2020, and its cost seemed astronomical at the time — $33 billion — but it was still considered worthwhile as an alternative to the state’s endless web of freeways and the carbon emissions generated.

Fourteen years later, construction is underway on part of a 171-mile “starter” line connecting a few cities in the middle of California, which has been promised for 2030.

Meanwhile, costs have continued to escalate. When the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued its new 2022 draft business plan in February, it estimated an ultimate cost as high as $105 billion. Less than three months later, the “final plan” raised the estimate to $113 billion.

This is not the first time this has happened in the United States. Many major projects, ranging from highway construction to tunnels to bridges, involve expanding timelines and budgets. Even though people may not care as much about these changes once the project is done and things work, the extra time and money comes from somewhere and can affect a lot of people.

There must be some major projects that are completed on time and on budget. Are these properly celebrated?

The home of the brave and the (electric F-150) pickup truck

With all of the talk of the electric Ford F-150, I ran into this statistic about sales of the current F-150:

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Still, if you’re going to pick an electric ambassador to the gas-loving masses, it would be hard to do better than the F-150. The truck has been the best-selling vehicle in the country for decades; more than 2,450 Americans buy a new one every day.

This is a hard number to understand. Roughly 2,500 a day? Some context might help. Americans like driving. They purchase millions of vehicles each year. According to Statista, they purchased over 11 million in 2020. Back in the early 1980s, the number was just over 2 million but there was a steady rise from the early 1990s to the late 2000s and then again in the last decade.

The anecdotal evidence I have matches these numbers. Having spent much of my life in the suburbs, I do not recall seeing many pickup trucks when I was younger. They were more of an occasional sighting, Now, there are pickups all over the place in all different sizes. The F-150 is indeed popular as are numerous other makes and models. The pickup is now a normal suburban vehicle.

According to Edumunds, the F-150 dominates car sales across the United States (and some other vehicles, including pickups, lead in a small number of states).

This reminds me of a magazine advertisement I used for years in my Intro to Sociology course. The ad was two pages and showed a parked pick-up truck within a swampy area. Sitting by the truck were roughly 15 dogs and standing nearby was the solitary man with his gun and camo. All of it screamed individualism and male vehicle. And this message is repeated over and over in television ads for trucks during sporting events and in many other places.

The electric pickup has the chance to keep Americans driving for decades in the big vehicles there are used to. There might still be a range issue for longer trips. But, imagine pickups that can accelerate even faster and just need to be plugged in at night.

The later costs of sprawl

One writer suggests the sprawl of the Sun Belt leads to significant costs down the road:

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Over time, growth has reduced those advantages. Jobs and people moving to states like Texas and Georgia slowly bid up the price of land and labor. Ample spare capacity for land and transportation infrastructure — think six-lane highways — let sprawl be a growth outlet for decades, but over time congestion and distance from airports and job centers raised the cost of sprawl as well. The 2008 financial crisis arguably busted the sprawl model in the largest Sun Belt metros of Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, where until the onset of the pandemic single-family building permits had lapsed to 35% below the 2006 highs, despite those metros still having reputations for sprawl and fast growth…

What’s needed to maintain past growth momentum and meet the expectations of these new populations is a continued push up the value chain towards local economies based on knowledge work, with higher-paying jobs and college-educated workers. The specific services or investments needed to lure these types of jobs and workers will shift with the political winds — it might be a greater investment in schools and universal pre-K programs today, and transportation infrastructure tomorrow. It’s the same kind of policy arms race these communities have been accustomed to for decades, only with more services replacing low taxes as the policy lever.

For now, the most likely tweaks to the governance model will probably be incremental — stormwater improvements, sidewalk construction and other “complete streets” projects, modest increases to educational funding — simply because the votes aren’t there to raise taxes enough for the kind of revenue needed for bigger changes.

But these tensions aren’t going away. It’s eventually going to require larger investments than current leaders and older voters are willing to make. Ultimately, the choice for these communities is to spend the money needed to stay competitive in the new arms race, or lose out to places that will.

In the United States, growth is good. Communities need to grow to show that they are exciting, thriving places. New residents and businesses signal good things to come.

But, the piece quoted above notes the longer-term possibilities of such growth. What happens after the fast growth slows or ends? Is it sustainable? How do communities switch from fast growth to mature growth or stability? My own research in the Chicago suburbs suggests this is not necessarily an easy switch. When the land starts to or does run out, communities have to make important decisions. Should they grow through increased density and/or allow taller buildings? How much will it cost to maintain all of the existing infrastructure? How much redevelopment or teardowns will take place? Even during the high growth periods, the costs can increase – see battles within sprawl over the costs for new schools and who pays – let alone as the sprawling areas age.

More broadly, what happens to sprawling suburbs decades after the sprawl has ended? We can now look back at numerous postwar suburbs and see what happened. The Levittowns always draw some attention for the ways they changed and are still the same. Many of these suburbs are over a half century old (though others are newer). These communities revolve around single-family homes and driving, among other things, and this might continue for decades. Or, it might not if conditions and ideologies change.

Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs

A financial adviser warns people moving from the city to the suburbs about several costs they might not consider:

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A larger house equals larger monthly bills…

More space requires more furniture…

You may need a car…

It’s more expensive to commute to work.

A few thoughts on each of these:

  1. The larger monthly bills could vary quite a bit across suburban homes depending on the size of the home, the costs in each municipality, and whether the home is updated (think insulation, efficient appliances, etc.). Best to check on these costs in each possible residence.
  2. There are multiple ways to get cheaper furniture to reduce costs. Not all rooms have to be fully furnished (perhaps less entertaining during COVID-19 helps with this). Rather than focusing on furniture, why not buy a smaller house? Wait, Americans need somewhere to put all their stuff (including furtniture)…
  3. Yes, most suburban living will require a car unless living within walking distance of needs and work or living in an inner-ring suburb with great public transportation. Cars are not cheap once you add up car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance. And cars need parking and storage space with many desiring a garage on their property for that, adding to property costs. But, Americans like their driving in the suburbs.
  4. Commuting can be financially costly as well as stressful. The time might not be as much of an issue (though certain routes in certain locations certainly add up) as the inability to do much else while driving.

Thinking more broadly about suburban costs, I wonder if presenting potential suburban residents the full array of problems with suburbs – financial costs, exclusion, limited cultural amenities, moral minimalism – would change people’s minds. The suburbs have a certain appeal in American life and the suburban single-family home is a strong draw to many.

Calculating the costs of commuting versus benefits of living further from work

INRIX recently published data on traffic and congestion in major American cities with Boston leading the way. Here is one of the data tables:

INRIXcongestion2020

When put in these terms, it looks like commuters lose a lot of hours and money by sitting in traffic. In addition to the time it should take to commute by car, drivers in Boston lose over 6 days to congestion and over $2,000 dollars. The cost for the city/region is huge when all the drivers are added together. In New York City, $11 billion lost!

On the other hand, people keep commuting. Why would they do this in light of these costs? The pull of the suburbs and locations away from their work is strong. Perhaps workers should be able to live near their work but a good number choose or are pushed to locations far from their jobs. And they might be willing to put up with these costs because the places where they live offer other good things (and measurable benefits). In American life, suburbs offer single-family homes, places for family life, and more. Losing 100+ hours in traffic each year in the biggest cities could be tolerable if it comes with a bigger, cheaper home in a well-regarded community.

In an ideal world, workplaces and communities that people want to live in and would thrive in would be located near each other. Sometimes they are but often they are not. In a country where Americans and their government have prioritized certain things – driving over mass transit throughout metropolitan regions, for example – even the hassles of commuting make some sense.

Buying and demolishing expensive suburban homes to expand I-294

Acquiring property for right-of-ways for highways and other uses can get expensive. Here are a few examples of the Illinois Tollway purchasing homes in Elmhurst and Hinsdale:

A two-story, 3,145-square-foot house in Elmhurst that was built in 2005 and that the Illinois Tollway bought for $710,000 has a date with a wrecking ball later this year. It’s one of the more unusual aspects of the upcoming $4 billion widening of Interstate Highway 294…

The house due to be razed, at 505 E. Crescent Ave. in Elmhurst, abuts a noise wall that parallels a ramp linking Interstate Highway 290 to I-294. The Illinois Toll Highway Authority needs the house’s 0.3-acre parcel to provide room for an interchange ramp, said tollway spokesman Dan Rozek. It’s the only house in Elmhurst that the toll authority intends to acquire…

While the tollway’s plans call for just that one house acquisition in Elmhurst, the tollway intends to acquire and demolish some 11 homes farther south in Hinsdale for the project, many of which are on Harding Road and Mills Street. In a reflection of the relatively high cost of homes in Hinsdale, the tollway paid even more for two Hinsdale homes than it did for the Elmhurst acquisition, shelling out $870,000 for a house at 621 Harding Road and $825,000 for a home at 645 Harding Road.

However, most of those pending Hinsdale demolitions are of homes that are much older than the one in Elmhurst. Of the Hinsdale acquisitions, the house that was most recently built is a four-bedroom, 2,346-square-foot, neo-eclectic-style house at 417 Mills Street, which was built in 1996. The tollway acquired that house in December for $700,000.

Suburban areas have lots of homes adjacent to highways and relatively few meet this fate. And such homes can be worth quite a bit even with all that noise if located in the right community and with the right features (such as plenty of square footage and a recent build).

This is a reminder that perhaps the best lesson to take from all of this is for leaders and planners to do these sorts of things earlier rather than later to save money. If the plan is always to add lanes – which probably just encourages traffic rather than relieving congestion – then do it earlier. These more recent homes might never have been built and communities could plan earlier for such major changes to residential areas.

Informing the public about delays in completing large public projects

The reasons for delayed Jane Byrne Interchange project in Chicago are only now trickling out to the public:

In January 2015 — just over a year into construction — university workers noticed the building had been sinking and shifting, leaving cracks in the foundation and making it impossible to shut some doors and windows, according to court records…

Over the next 1½ years, IDOT blamed engineering firms it had hired for missing the poor soil conditions that contributed to the problem. That led to a redesign of a key retaining wall that boosted costs by $12.5 million and dragged out that part of the project at least 18 more months…

IDOT’s Tridgell gave the Tribune a list of other reasons for delays. Among them: The city was leery of shutting down ramps and lanes on many weekends because of festivals and other events. And other local agencies required extra permits and reviews for work…

UIC’s Sriraj said public outreach is challenging on big projects, with no “gold standard” on how much is appropriate.

The public is likely not surprised that such a large project is behind schedule and over budget. This is common on major infrastructure projects. They just want the project done. (And I’m sure some of the cynical ones will note that even when the Byrne project is done, repaving of its surfaces will probably begin again very soon.)

Is this expectation of poor performance what then allows public agencies to not have to explain further delays and costs? Realistically, there is little the public can do whether they know about the delays and cost overruns or not: the construction keeps going until it does not. And the article hints that there is possibly little the state can do to compel contractors to do better work. So, because the news looks bad, is it just better to sit on the information?

I would prefer it work this way: given that such large projects affect many people and involve a lot of taxpayer dollars, the public should have access to clear timelines and explanations for delays. Many people won’t care, not matter how much information is available. But, in general, public life is valuable and information should be widely available and not hidden for fear of angering people or avoiding blame. At the least, knowing about delays and increased costs could theoretically help voters make better choices in the future about leaders who will guide these processes.

Where the money goes when you buy a gallon of gas

An overview of the problems electric cars pose for funding road maintenance includes a breakdown of where the money for each gallon of gas goes:

About half goes to the drillers that extract oil from the earth. Just under a quarter pays the refineries to turn crude into gasoline. And around 6 percent goes to distributors.

The rest, or typically about 20 percent of every gallon of gas, goes to various governments to maintain and enhance the U.S. transportation’s infrastructure.

Currently, the federal government charges 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, which provides 85 percent to 90 percent of the Highway Trust Fund that finances most on highways and .

State and local government charge their own taxes that vary widely. Combined with the national levy, fuel taxes range from over 70 cents per gallon in high-tax states like California and Pennsylvania to just over 30 cents in states like Alaska and Arizona. The difference is a key reason the price of gasoline changes so dramatically when you cross state lines.

I would guess few drivers have a sense of where money at the gas station goes. Instead, they likely just react to increases or decreases in prices and when prices go up possibly grumble about who is being made rich.

Naperville train parking permits require 7 year wait yet parking lots are 88-90% full

Long waits – seven years or so – for a parking permit at the busy downtown Naperville train station are not new but recent data hints that those parking lots are not full every day:

Of the 1,681 spaces at the Naperville station, 918 are dedicated to quarterly permit holders but those spaces generally don’t fill up. Because about 10 percent to 20 percent of permit spaces are left empty on average, Naperville oversells the number of permits for each of the three dedicated lots.

“Our spaces that are dedicated for quarterly permit holders, the utilization there is significantly lower than what we see for our daily fee spaces. Our daily fee spaces are generally fully occupied by about 6:30 (a.m.),” Louden said…

Naperville issues 850 quarterly permits for the 526 spots in the Burlington lot, which sees an average utilization rate of 89 percent, according to a presentation from city staff. The city issues 185 permits for the Parkview lot’s 110 spaces and sees an 88 percent utilization rate. And 474 permits are issued for the 282 quarterly spaces in the Kroehler lot, which sees a 90 percent utilization rate…

“For a lot of communities, what we would recommend at CMAP is to better manage the parking supply by using pricing as you would with any other economic good,” Bayley said. “It’s about incentives as well as disincentives, and really the disincentive is going to be the cost and the wait list.”

Parking can be a difficult commodity to manage. In suburban areas, it is often expected to be plentiful and free. Americans love to drive. Yet, keeping parking prices low and having a good amount of availability can influence behavior. If parking is easy, there is little incentive to do something else instead. Plus, there is a bigger picture to keep in mind. As the article asks, it is good in the long run to provide spaces that enable driving or is it better to develop and promote alternative forms of transportation?

There are numerous ways Naperville could get creative in promoting higher utilization rates. The article mentions raising prices but they could also notify certain permit holders about their spots being empty and talk about the possibility of reducing permit spots and replacing them with daily fees.

I wonder if there is are two other groups the Naperville needs to hear from:

(1) those who do not buy quarterly permits yet are unsuccessful when they try to find a daily spot. What do they do – then drive into the city? Take another form of transportation? What about the people who are not daily commuters but who might occasionally want to ride the train into the city – can they access a spot?

(2) people who do not purchase a quarterly permit but instead rely on day-to-day parking. Why are they willing to do this and can they always get daily spots