Rhode Island signs give cost, time under construction data

For over a year, Rhode Island has posted interesting signs in roadway construction areas:

Along with the name of the project, the signs note its estimated cost, the expected completion time, and a stoplight-style red, yellow and green dot system to show whether the project is “on-time and on-budget.”

“RIDOT believes the signs provide accountability and transparency by keeping the public aware of the status of the projects and helps keep the Department’s [project management] staff responsible for delivering them on time and on budget,” wrote DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin in an email…

Projects scheduled to finish on or before their expected completion date get green dots on their RhodeWorks signs. Projects that are behind schedule by six months or less get yellow dots on their signs and projects more than six months late get red dots.

There are no yellow dots on the budget side. Projects are either on budget and green or over budget and red.

Given how easy it is for infrastructure projects to go over time and over budget, this is an interesting approach. At the least, it provides the driver – the taxpayer – some idea of whether the project is meeting several key goals. However, as the article notes, it is less clear how this public information than translates into change in completing projects. Perhaps future signs should include additional information:

-The cost to everyone for the extra time and money involved (if the project is indeed over budget and past its intended completion date). Think of the business lost and the time wasted in traffic.

-Changes to the infrastructure process as a result of what was learned in this particular project.

-The punishment meted out to contractors and/or government officials for not meeting the goals.

I wonder if one incentive of making this data public is to overinflate cost and completion estimates so as to avoid public scrutiny through the signs.

Another danger of at-grade RR crossings: bike crashes

One at-grade railroad crossing in Knoxville, Tennessee illustrates the danger such crossings can present to bicyclists:

As many riders know from painful experience, crossing rails embedded in the street is a treacherous undertaking on a bike. There are at least 100,000 at-grade rail crossings in the U.S., not counting city trams and streetcars (which are also notorious for taking down cyclists). But it’s tough to gather data on how many crashes they cause because so few are communicated to the authorities. “The work I looked at, we saw people getting hauled off on ambulances and other things, but very, very few police crash reports,” says Cherry. “There’s a lot of rail infrastructure throughout Tennessee, and I can only imagine how many unreported crashes are occurring statewide or even nationwide.”

That’s part of what motivated Cherry and company to conduct what they call the nation’s first “empirical analysis of rail-grade crossings and single-bicycle crashes.” To them, the problem wasn’t with the cyclists. It was with the roadway design and the fact nobody knows, scientifically speaking, the best way to bike over railroad tracks….

Most experienced riders know the ideal way to do it: As the folks at Bicycling say, cross at a 90-degree angle. That’s the “gold standard” many infrastructure designers strive for. But in cases when the crossing has gaps running in different directions, it might be best to pedal through at 45 degrees. Of course, all this is more complicated when metal tracks are wet, a situation that can turn even a savvy cyclist into a hollering missile directed fast into the pavement…

After pondering a 90-degree crossing that would cost $200,000, partly due to the route being near a river and needing retaining walls, the city and the railroad company settled on a cheaper, roughly 60-degree “jughandle” detour on the side of the street where people were tumbling into traffic. “The total cost was $5,000 for all of that, which is unbelievable, really,” Cherry says. “This has been years in the making, with probably hundreds of crashes there, and it took $5,000 worth of in-house crew time and materials.” (The city later made the path on the other side, located on a greenway, angled to about 60 degrees.)

In addition to bicycles, at-grade crossings are notoriously dangerous for cars and pedestrians. All would do well to pay extra attention when crossing these, even if they are familiar or rarely involve trains. For example, there are several crossings I can think of within a ten mile radius that involve either extra bumpiness, steep approaches, or multiple train lines crossed at once.

While the solution above for bicyclists seems pretty simple, the long-term goal of reducing the number of such crossings is an expensive proposition. It is costly to build bridges and underpasses since in addition to the typical costs of building a bridge or underpass, a solution requires using more land (I recall a proposal to build an overpass in downtown Wheaton that would have obliterated a good portion of the downtown just to provide the necessary ramps) and it can be expensive to construct something while still allowing traffic through (even if roads are closed, trains have a much harder time finding alternative routes).

The methodology of quantifying the cost of sprawl

A new analysis says sprawl costs over $107 billion each year – and here is how they arrived at that figure:

To get to those rather staggering numbers, Hertz developed a unique methodology: He took the average commute length, in miles, for America’s 50 largest metros (as determined by the Brookings Institution), and looked at how much shorter those commutes would be if each metro were more compact. He did this by setting different commute benchmarks for clusters of comparably populated metros: six miles for areas with populations of 2.5 million or below, and 7.5 miles for those with more than 2.5 million people. These benchmarks were just below the commute length of the metro with the shortest average commute length in each category, but still 0.5 miles within the real average of the overall category.

He multiplied the difference between the benchmark and each metro’s average commute length by an estimated cost-per-mile for a mid-sized sedan, then doubled that number to represent a daily roundtrip “sprawl tax” per worker, and then multiplied that by the number of workers within a metro region to get the area’s daily “sprawl tax.” After multiplying that by the annual number of workdays, and adding up each metro, he had a rough estimate of how much sprawl costs American commuters every year.

Then Hertz calculated the time lost by all this excessive commuting, “applying average travel speed for each metropolitan area to its benchmark commute distance, as opposed to its actual commute distance,” he explains in a blog post…

Hertz’s methodology may not be perfect. It might have served his analysis to have grouped these metros into narrower buckets, or by average commute distance rather than population. While it’s true that large cities tend to have longer commutes, there are exceptions. New Orleans and Louisville are non-dense, fairly sprawling cities, but their highways are built up enough that commute distances are fairly short. To really accurately assess the “sprawl tax” in cities like those, you’d have to include the other costs of spread-out development mentioned previously—the health impacts, the pollution, the car crashes, and so on. Hertz only addresses commute lengths and time.

In other words, a number of important conceptual decisions had to be made in order to arrive at this final figure. What might be more important in this situation is to know how different the final figure would be if certain calculations along the way were changed. Is it a relatively small shift or does this new methodology lead to figures much different than other studies? If they are really different, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong but it might suggest more scrutiny for the methodology.

Another thought: it is difficult to put the $107 trillion into context. It is hard to understand really big numbers. Also, how does it compare to other activities? How much do Americans lose by watching TV? Or by using their smartphones? Or by eating meals? The number sounds impressive and is likely geared toward reducing sprawl but the figure doesn’t interpret itself.

As people use less water, utilities charge more

To make up for drops in revenue with reduced water use, water utilities have some ways to make more money:

When customers use less water, that means they’re paying less for consumption. This is a good thing, and not just because it’s more ecologically friendly. In the long run, conservation and efficiency are the cheapest ways utilities can avoid needing to develop new supplies in the future.

But in the short-term, conservation and efficiency can put utilities in a pinch, because their sales fall while fixed costs remain the same. Eventually, they need to find a way to make back some of that lost revenue to cover their costs…

That’s why lots of utilities are hiking up the volumetric cost of water itself, even as people are using less of it. But with equity in mind, many water experts advocate for tiered pricing, where customers who use less water pay less per unit. The more you use, the more you climb up pricing tiers. The larger the price increases between the tiers, the more of an opportunity utilities have to make up revenues—and send a message to ratepayers that they shouldn’t ideally be using so much. Likewise, water rates can fluctuate throughout the year, in accordance with use and weather patterns…

Between crumbling infrastructure and downhill sales, it’s going to be hard for utilities to avoid bumping up customer fees to manage systems more effectively. But they also need to start thinking differently about their own business model and how they communicate changes to customers, since those changes are going to be reflected in customer bills.

Which is to say that customers also need to adjust their expectations about water. Is water a commodity to be purchased at a given rate? Or is it more like a public service, like the police or court systems? It might be better to conceptualize it more like the latter.

The infrastructure for many of these systems are expensive and it needs maintenance. Plus, these utilities are usually companies that need to make some money. And, some have argued for years that Americans should pay more for water and other basic goods like this in order to have a better understanding of its value and its limited nature.

More broadly, this could bring American customers back to a recurring issue: at what point do changes due to environmentalism become too costly? This could be quite a shift for many utility users; if they use less water or electricity or natural gas, shouldn’t they save some money?

Homeownership continues to drop, housing costs rise

Twin trends in American housing: homeownership is down while housing costs increase. First, on homeownership:

Only about a decade ago, in 2004, 69.2 percent of all homes were occupied by their owners; the home ownership rate has since fallen to 63.4 percent, the lowest in almost fifty years despite some of the most attractive mortgage interest rates on record. In part this is due to the difficulty young couples have in qualifying for a mortgage, as once-burned, twice-fined and increasingly risk-averse banks, looking over their shoulders at their regulators, raise their lending standards.

But even a further loosening of credit standards that have already been relaxed for “jumbo” loans (in excess of $417,000 and $625,500, depending on the region) is unlikely to change the trend towards renting rather than owning, last month’s increase in construction of single-family homes notwithstanding. Jordan Rappaport and Daniel Molling, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas, find that adults in their 20s and early 30s, so called millennials, are not alone in preferring to rent rather than buy. Ageing baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, have tired of mowing, hunting for plumbers, fixing leaky roofs and coping with the nightmares that accompany realization of the one-time American dream of home ownership. They have accounted for the bulk of new renters, and are likely to continue to “be the main drivers of multifamily [apartment] construction as they age through their senior years,” conclude the Bank’s economists.

Second, on housing costs:

Consumer prices rose modestly in July, and according to the U.S. Labor Department those gains were largely due to a 0.4 percent increase in the cost of shelter—the government’s measure of housing costs. This was the largest increase in the shelter index since 2007.

While inflation for other Consumer Price Index (CPI) basket items has been decelerating, the inflation of shelter has only been going up since 2010. Compared with July of last year, shelter prices are up by 3.1 percent. In the coming months, shelter inflation is expected to continue…

Rising housing costs, paired with stagnant wages, are a big concern for most Americans because not only is rent often already the largest part of monthly expenses—it is increasingly becoming more expensive. One study found that half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Interestingly, this is getting very little attention from politicians. Let’s say a politician wanted to appeal to the masses in the United States. One traditional way of doing this has been to push homeownership, a strategy pursued from Presidents since the 1920s. Owning a home might be the modern equivalent of a chicken in every pot for Americans. Since owning a home has been viewed as an essential part of the American Dream, most politicians want to be viewed as in favor of expanding this opportunity. (Of course, there are other reasons for pushing homeownership including boosting the economy and fighting communism.)

Perhaps other issues are more pressing at the moment. Or, I suspect few leaders really know what to do about reviving housing given the efforts in the early 2000s to expand homeownership that contributed to a big economic bust. Yet, since most major politicians today want to appeal to the middle class (and they don’t pay much attention to the poor – another story for another day), this would be one easy way to go if they could just figure some sort of plan.

Road damage costs $515 per car per year

Urban roads that aren’t in peak condition cost individual drivers an average of $515 a year:

The numbers from TRIP show that 28 percent of the nation’s major roadways — interstates, freeways, and major arterial roadways in urban areas — are in “poor” condition. This means they have so many major ruts, cracks and potholes that they can’t simply be resurfaced — they need to be completely rebuilt.

Those cracks and potholes put a lot of extra wear and tear on your car. They wear your tires away faster, and they decrease your gas mileage too. All of these factors go into that calculation of $515 in extra annual cost, above and beyond what you’d pay to maintain your car if the roads were in good conditions…

The worst roads in America are in Washington D.C., where 92 percent of our major roadways are rated as “poor.” Conversely, zero percent of D.C.’s roads received a “good” rating in the Federal Highway Administration data analyzed by TRIP.  There is almost literally not a single good road in D.C.

But D.C. is a special case, since it is not a state and doesn’t have vast stretches of highway like most places in the U.S. do. So among the real states, the worst roads are in California where 51 percent of the highways are rated poor. Rhode Island, New Jersey and Michigan all have “poor” ratings of 40 percent or more. Dang.

The ending of this analysis is that we need to spend more on infrastructure. It may cost a lot to pay upfront costs to completely rebuild major roads (plus the time lost to congestion) but it may just pay off down the road with reduced costs for drivers. Such is the nature of infrastructure: well-spent money early on can save money and time later on. And, of course, there are better and worse ways to fight potholes.

But, there may be a second moral at the end of this story. Cars are expensive. You drive them off the lot and they depreciate. Gas prices are up and states are raising gas taxes. Insurance isn’t cheap and it is required. Maintenance can be pricey. New features – such as automation or backup cameras or alternatives to gas power – may just cost more. And to top it all off, many American settings practically require a car. (Indeed, this is a contributor to the spatial mismatch for jobs.) The whole system devoted to driving from cars to roads to garages requires a lot of resources that might have been spent elsewhere.

Will outlining the monetary and environmental costs of lawns change behavior?

Americans may like their green lawns around their single-family homes but they come at a cost:

These days, front lawns cost Americans $40 billion a year to maintain, and are spread over about 50,000 square miles—the land area equivalent of the entire state of Alabama.

This vast swath of ornamentally maintained land is generally bad for the environment. A lawnmower generates more greenhouse gas emissions per hour than 11 cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and lingers in the atmosphere for as long as 120 years. Swept into waterways, those fertilizers strip the water of oxygen, causing algal blooms and “dead zones” that kill freshwater and marine life.

Then, of course, there’s water use. Americans consume around 9 billion gallons of water a day on average on outdoor use—most of it watering their lawns. That’s more water than families use for showering and laundry combined. As populations rise, water needs will only get more taxing in many states.

The writer concludes by suggesting that California’s drought and trend-setting may just help limit lawns in the future. However, there are at least two major hurdles to overcome:

1. The cultural importance of a lawn should not be undervalued. The minor connection to nature (or “nature” modified appropriately by humans) is important.

2. Simply citing large numbers or figures like above may not go very far. In the abstract, $40 billion sounds like a lot until you consider what kind of money is spent on other things. Or, what might people do instead with that $40 billion? Even the environmental concerns – and the effects sound quite harmful – are more abstract since the consequences are pushed down the road either in time or place.

Perhaps the best way to combat the American lawn would be to change the American view of nature and what is appropriate around single-family homes. We have seen some of the shaming efforts in California, from overhead photos of celebrity compounds to neighbors reporting each other over water violations. This could be done more positively with incentives (such as being paid to remove turf in Western state) or new trends. What suburban resident would want to be the only one on the block with the green costly lawn if all the neighbors had moved on?