Major highway projects continue in the year of COVID-19

The old Chicago joke goes that there are two seasons each year: winter and construction. During COVID-19, road construction goes on even with less driving, limited budgets, and the potential for sickness to spread among workers. First, an editorial update from the Chicago Tribune on the long-lasting Jane Byrne Interchange work in Chicago:

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The arrival of 2021 means we’ll soon be in Construction Season Nine of a notorious project that the Illinois Department of Transportation initially said would take four and a half years to complete.

We refer of course to the glacially paced reconstruction of The Jane Byrne Construction Museum. We use that respectful moniker — always capitalize The, like The Ohio State University — for what old-time Chicagoans used to call the Jane Byrne Interchange…

Whatever the reason, drivers who didn’t abandon the interchange years ago have, in recent days, found the final four rebuilt ramps open. Museum work has shifted to the mainline Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways — although we trust that, somewhere, IDOT also is building a museum wing to house its excuses for the years of delays and cost overruns: poor soil conditions, unhelpful rules from Chicago’s City Hall, mistakes by engineering firms, utility rerouting, the diversion of resources to emergency repair projects elsewhere, and on and on…

Surely you aren’t surprised that the cost has grown by some 48%, from $535.5 million to $794 million. Most museums recruit donors to cover their big projects. The Jane Byrne Construction Museum instead gets public dollars. Which has us wondering how many gazillion gallons of amply taxed gasoline burned into the atmosphere as all those mummified motorists sat and sat.

Second, a group puts together an annual list of road construction boondoggles. About this year’s selections:

Highways often get greenlit for expensive work because they require engineering upgrades or significant maintenance. The projects in PIRG’s least-wanted list go beyond those basic needs. Like the group’s previous boondoggle roundups, this one calls attention to taxpayer-funded projects set to consume environmental resources, cut through existing communities, and lock in decades of new carbon emissions, for what PIRG argues is little payoff in congestion relief or economic growth. The 2020 report arrives as the ongoing pandemic clobbers state and local budgets and dramatically reshuffles travel patterns.

The largest on the list is Florida’s M-CORES project, a $10 billion, 330-mile plan to build three toll roads through rural southwest and central Florida. Dubbed the “Billionaire Boulevard” by critics who characterize the project as a handout to developers, a state task force recently found a lack of “specific need” for any of the roads, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas.

There’s also the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass, a $7.3 billion highway set to loop around the eastern side of Cincinnati. Originally proposed by a local homebuilder as a replacement (and then some) for the aging bridge that leads into downtown Cincinnati, the 75-mile, four-lane bypass is designed to divert trucks passing through the region on Interstate 75, easing congestion for local drivers, boosters claim. But the report’s authors state that the highway is projected to add thousands of new vehicle trips per day, encouraging sprawl and contradicting Cincinnati’s goals to increase “population density and transit-oriented development” and decrease fossil fuel use by 20%.

No highway policy critique would be complete without a contribution from Texas. The $1.36 billion Loop 1604 Expansion in San Antonio would add four to six additional lanes on 23 miles of an existing four-lane highway, as well as new frontage roads and a five-tier interchange with Interstate 10. Texas DOT says that the new lanes are needed to keep up with population growth, but transportation planners say that the principle of induced demand would cancel out the benefits while adding pollution. The PIRG report puts it this way: “Additional capacity causes more driving and congestion.”

These summaries of major highway projects provide good reminders of several features of such undertakings:

  1. They often require years of planning and years to complete. From start to finish, this could cover a decade-plus. They take a lot of effort to get going across numerous agencies, governments, and actors and have their own kind of inertia as they move toward completion.
  2. These projects are often intended to make driving easier. Adding lanes and capacity can also attract more drivers. In a country devoted to driving, these contradictory ideas can go together. And the roads and systems for driving keep expanding and evolving.
  3. The costs are huge and the efforts required massive. Yet, the average driver may think about nothing but the congestion caused by the construction.
  4. When completed, such roads (and other significant infrastructure projects) can be impressive in their scale. (Whether this is the best use of the land or moving people around leads to other arguments.)

While these articles do not address this, are there significant infrastructure projects that drivers and residents would be pleasantly surprised to find that had been completed during COVID-19?

Using old technology to get around twenty-first century cities

Tom Vanderbilt considers how innovation in transportation affects urban life:

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And yet, there was something else that struck me about that scene in New York. For all its feeling of novelty, just about every one of those ways that people were getting around were technologies that dated back to the 19th century. The subway? It officially opened in 1904, but its basic technology was first demonstrated in 1869—the year Jesse James robbed his first bank. The car? Karl Benz sold his first in 1885. The bicycle? 1860. Ferries have gotten a revival in New York City in the past decade, but they have been around since the Dutch. Even e-scooters, which could be read as some Millennials-led plot on boomer NIMBYs, were piloting New York City streets—albeit powered by gas—more than a century ago…

It raises the question: Why hasn’t there been more innovation in transportation? Why is the 21st-century street still being trod by 19th-century vehicles? The pandemic gave the world a pause, the sort capable of disrupting entrenched habits—Zoom changed our notions of social connectivity almost overnight. Had a similar glitch in the matrix allowed us the temporary means to envision better—safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient—ways to move around?

Transportation tends to resist rapid innovation. There’s the simple physical bounds of being human; as of yet, we can’t be zapped through the ether. The form of cities, built up over centuries, also makes wholesale change difficult. Transportation, too, must account for the way people actually want to move around: It needs to go to where people want to go and get them there reasonably quickly; it needs to be stored and then be available when you want it. Proposed innovations like Personal Rapid Transit (little pods that run on elevated rails), or the “Travelator” (moving sidewalks) have largely failed, outside of places like airports, either because there’s no room (or money) to build them or because they don’t carry enough passengers to where they actually want to go. The Hyperloop, for all its promise, can’t get around the idea it might take longer to get to a terminal in either San Francisco or Los Angeles than it would to travel between them…

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. One way to look at this would be that the cities of today are still addressing the problems of the past few centuries. With the rapid urbanization of many major cities within the last century or two, how could any city coherently address transportation? The growth – often celebrated
  2. Transportation is not community destiny. And yet, changes in transportation technologies shaped numerous communities at key moments. The stretch from roughly the 1820s to the 1950s brought trains, streetcars, subways, bicycles, and automobiles/trucks (and not including airplanes and changes in ships that enabled more and faster travel between cities). This brought unprecedented speed to humans. It enabled commuting. As prices dropped, the modes became accessible to millions.
  3. I wonder if the true innovation with transportation technology in the future would involve new communities or cities developing around new technologies. Retrofitting the cities of today to new technologies limits options, is costly, and will require lots of time. If we are locked into streets and transportation grids once designed for cars, we can only do so much. But, if whole new places can arise, more opportunities might emerge.

“Zoom towns” better have good Internet capabilities

“Zoom towns” are areas of the United States that are gaining residents due to people trying to move away from COVID-19 cases:

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Like a lot of other vacation destinations — the Hamptons, Cape Cod, Aspen and so on — the Truckee housing market is booming during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s up over 23% since last year, according to data from Redfin, a real estate brokerage. Truckee is part of a trend that realtors and journalists are calling “Zoom towns,” places that are booming as remote work takes off.

There are numerous ways that these new full-time residents might transform their new communities, particularly if they are people with more resources.

But one issue for these growing communities involves infrastructure: how prepared are they to host more Internet traffic? Since March, much activity has moved online: work, school, social gatherings, public meetings, etc. Are there some places better equipped to handle all of this increased streaming? Are “zoom towns” the kinds of places that have robust Internet capacity? This might not be a big problem in suburbs of major cities (such as New Yorkers headed out to New Jersey) or for people who move from major city to major city (from San Francisco to Austin) but it could be for others who head to smaller communities or vacation towns.

What the COVID-19 pandemic could do is help remind Americans of the need to improve networks that enable computer, smartphone, and tablet activity. We do not just need to maintain what already exists; this pandemic has highlighted what was already going to happen: an increased need for streaming and conducting activity online. Without good infrastructure development in this area, future opportunities may not exist. Or, particular locations or kinds of places can be harmed or left behind, leading to or growing digital divides. From rural communities to poorer communities in and around cities, residents need decent Internet speeds to live during COVID and flourish afterward.

Aiming for resilient suburbs with long-term thinking about development

Fate, Texas, almost thirty miles northeast of Dallas, has grown rapidly in recent decades. But, the community is aiming for a different kind of suburban growth:

This financial distress is the inevitable endgame of a development pattern that doesn’t generate enough private wealth to sustain the public investment that supports it. So Fate planning staff began asking developers to document the ratio of public to private investment for every proposed project. This process lends itself to difficult, adult conversations about the long-term fiscal impacts of near-term growth. And elected officials in Fate have proved willing to have those conversations. The next challenge: bringing the public along with an affirmative vision of a financially resilient future for the small city…

What’s difficult is fostering such a conversation while the continued booming growth of North Texas drives developers to seek permission to build in Fate now, not a decade from now. One approach the city has taken is to work with the developers of in-progress or phased projects to alter their M.O. moving forward…

The city finds developers amenable to such voluntary amendments, because there is usually some overlap in interests. A more compact development pattern that integrates single-family homes with townhomes, apartments, or mixed-use development, for example, can simultaneously shore up the city’s revenues and render development more profitable in the long run. Still, residents are struggling with getting more and more neighbors, and with the high taxes they have to pay to special districts that facilitated the first waves of growth…

This path forward, if the city can manage it, entails actively pursuing high-quality, compact downtown development that pays its bills—now and in the long run—as a proof of concept, a way to demonstrate to residents that this path can lead to a desirable, prosperous community. It would be a gamble on the proposition that most people, in North Texas or elsewhere, aren’t unshakably anti-walkability or anti-urbanism. It would be a bet that the right kind of strong neighborhood will change some hearts and minds. Fate’s plan to attract new residents to the city—people looking for something different than what Richardson or other nearby towns have to offer—might just work in the long run.

In the United States, municipal growth is good but that does not necessarily mean it is sustainable in the long run. At the least, suburban communities can only grow so long in generating more and more subdivisions until they run out of land. As this article notes, the infrastructure of suburbia can be expensive to maintain as growth slows.

There are multiple solutions communities can pursue:

1. Like in Fate, consider the long-term early on to hopefully avoid other problems down the road.

2. Slow growth/limited development. This helps avoid the big boom suburbs can face for a short stretch that occurs and disappears quickly.

3. Just keep growing; if the open land runs out, start building up. Population growth can come through multiple paths.

If the bigger picture is correct (titled “the Growth Ponzi Scheme”), then many suburbs will have much to reckon with in the coming decades.


Property massively misvalued by accident, consequences to come

Correctly entering property values into tax databases is an important task. When it goes wrong, lots of people might have to pay:

The 1,570-square-foot house built in 1978 on 2 acres in an unincorporated area of the county was recorded in 2019 tax rolls with a market rate value of more than $987 million and an overestimate of about $543 million in taxable value. In reality, the property should have only had a 2019 taxable value of $302,000, according to county property records.

That error — which the Wasatch County assessor explained possibly occurred when a staff member may have dropped their phone on their keyboard — has resulted in a countywide overvaluation of more than $6 million and revenue shortfalls in five different Wasatch County taxing entities.

The biggest impact was on the Wasatch County School District, unable to collect nearly $4.4 million already budgeted.

Wasatch County officials say they “deeply regret” the error and are reviewing policies and procedures to ensure it never happens again. But they’re also warning Wasatch County taxpayers they will likely see an increased tax rate over perhaps the next three years to make up for the lower amount collected in 2019.

Communities rely on correct property assessments to lead to paid taxes which then generate monies for local governments and services. If something goes wrong in that pipeline – here it was a wrong value which was not caught for months – then essential services may not be provided. This all happens in the background, making it essential infrastructure that like other public works do not often get recognized unless it goes really wrong.

One thought: could the software or databases have a built-in checker that would flag significant year-to-year changes? In this case, a significantly higher assessment one year could trigger a warning to check the numbers again.

A second thought: do we know anything about the correctness of entries in such databases? Are they 99% accurate, 99.9% accurate, 99.99% correct? Even at these high rates of accuracy, a few incorrect values could make a difference.

Cost and time overruns on public projects do not matter once the task is done

In a look at the troubled construction of the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco, one civil engineer puts the problems in perspective:

Paul Gribbon, a civil engineer who brought Portland, Oregon’s $800 million Big Pipe sewer project in on schedule and within budget, points out that, along with cost and time overruns, there’s another general law regarding megaprojects. “Once it’s up and running, once there’s a shining new bridge or light-rail station, people tend to forget about how much it cost, in all senses of the word.”

If the project eventually gets done and it all works, life moves on and the delays, frustrations, and extra monies fade into the past.

But, such challenges seem to be common in at least a few major American infrastructure projects in recent decades. What could help reduce these odds? Or, are these projects so complex that even a small issue – such as cracked steel beams in San Francisco – can create significant ripple effects and headaches?

My guess is that the civil engineer is correct: after delays and blown budgets, people just want something to work. The frustration during the process will dissipate as the public takes it as normal. They will feel relieved when the troubles are over. Yet, the long-term goal across all these projects should be to continue to seek timeliness and on-budget performance as the size of these projects can influence numerous other civic and municipal priorities as well as create inefficiencies for many.

Trying to revive buses in American cities

A new book looks at how buses could become more viable transportation options. From the author of the book:

One of the statistics that is telling in the book is that when you look at bus ridership in a place like Germany, the people who ride the bus have the same median income as the average German. In the U.S., they’re much poorer. At the same time, it’s not a service that actually serves low-income people well at all. So is it really for them? It’s really a system for people who don’t have alternatives…

One of the biggest omissions from federal policy is that federal transportation programs are almost always about building things. But the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground…

There’s a cycle between culture and reality. We design bus systems that are really inconvenient, and that only people without great alternatives will use, and that colors how decision makers think about who bus riders are. And that’s really important to disrupt.

One of the promising things you see in places that are improving bus service is how quickly it can turn around. You just provide more service in a route, and upgrade the shelters, and you see ridership increasing. We have this terrible conception of the so-called captive rider in transportation planning, when all the actual data shows that basically everyone has choices, and sometimes those choices can be pretty inconvenient, like having to get a ride with your friends, or having to walk four miles to work. Transit service can always deteriorate to the point that people are going to choose something else. But as you make bus service better, more and more people start gravitating towards it. It’s a very natural thing.

There a lot of issues to overcome in addition to the ones cited above. In my mind, buses have one major advantage over other forms of mass transit: they utilize existing roads and highways to provide mass transit. It would take a lot to reverse the American preference for driving and all that comes with it. Of course, as the article notes, buses that crawl along in traffic like cars and trucks may not be very attractive to riders and may require dedicated lanes. Similarly, buses in sprawling areas may not work as well if people are not willing to start at a common location and give up some freedom of mobility. (The discussion in the article revolves around cities but there are denser suburbs – and suburban like areas of some cities – where buses might work.)

The discussion hints at a related issue: there has to be enough bus service to be attractive but getting people to ride the bus in the first place is difficult when driving a car is a culturally preferred option as well as the option that best suits the existing infrastructure. How many local governments are willing to stick with busing even when it might not be successful at first? Furthermore, would increases in service be accompanied by changes in development policy that would seek to create housing and jobs along bus transit corridors?

Reading the full discussion, it does seem it might not be too difficult to revive bus transit in big cities. On the other hand, bus transit is a hard sell in many American communities and a long-term commitment from all levels might be needed before significant change occurs.



Resistance to 5G: technological progress versus local zoning and control

Americans like local control and they like technological progress. So what will happen when municipalities refuse to install or significantly slow down the installation of 5G units the federal government has approved?

If someone is tracking all of these cases, it would be interesting to know how many communities are resisting this because of (1) alleged health threats or (2) resistance to being told that they must install these or (3) that some of these boxes are located near homes. Of course, it could be a combination of the three in some places but even then, I wonder what is the more convincing argument at (1) the local level and (2) at higher levels.

In the long run, I assume federal requirements would supersede local land use restrictions. But, what if there are scores of communities that resist? Or, what if the resisters are more powerful communities and residents? Infrastructure is a pretty important feature of modern society and allowing some communities to opt out may not be optimal. There is always some cynicism that wealthier communities can resist land use changes better because their resources allow them to challenge change. Would 5G installations then go in places that cannot as easily resist? Does this foreshadow a technological landscape where resources and ideology lead to more uneven distribution of basic technological infrastructure?

One possible compromise in many communities: ceding that the federal government has approved this but then refusing to install them in residential areas. I do not know how this would affect 5G coverage but I imagine moving the units out of sight of homes and residential units could do a lot of good.

1859 Chicago gas pipe finally out of service

Infrastructure in American cities can go back a ways. See this recent case in Chicago involving a gas pipe:

A small crowd gathered as a flatbed truck carefully backed into position next to a cavernous hole in the ground that revealed the retiree: a 17-foot-long piece of cast-iron pipe, believed to be the oldest natural gas pipe in the city of Chicago.

The pipe was in operation from 1859 until just last week, when the last customer relying on it officially switched over to a modernized polyethylene natural gas main, said Andy Hesselbach, Peoples Gas vice president of construction.

When the retiree began its work, the streets were paved with dirt and frequented by horse-drawn carriages. The Great Fire of Chicago wouldn’t occur for 12 years…

Replacements are prioritized based on risk, he said. In the last 30 years, the pipe excavated on Friday experienced 30 leaks, making it a prime candidate. Not every pipe that is retired is excavated, he said. Some are left in place while a new main is installed nearby.

Building good infrastructure to support all sorts of positive social and economic activity requires regular attention and maintenance. The cost to replace infrastructure can often seem prohibitive but upgrades are needed for systems that can be improved upon and/or consistently need repairs. Of course, it would be best to build for the long-haul at an efficient price from the beginning but this is not always possible as technology and places change.

Viewing city-to-city trains as public goods and not profit generators

An overview of what expanded Midwest city-to-city train service could look like includes a call to recast the purpose of trains:

Matthews said it is important for Congress to realize that passenger rail offers a public good, just as street lights do. The question is not whether the Southwest Chief makes money, but whether the community makes money because the train is there.

As the thinking about more train service in the Midwest between major cities continues, it will likely take a lot to shift perspectives from making money to providing a public good. If more service is provided, will more people ride it? Of course, it is hard to know what could come of more service until it actually happens. My guess is that we are still a long ways off in the United States from more train service – people still like their cars – and it would be difficult to funnel money from other transportation budgets – such as road maintenance and construction – to trains.

This call for a shift in perspective could serve as a general reminder for all infrastructure projects: focus less on the cost now and think more broadly about what that piece of infrastructure enables. Roads, power lines, water, railroads, and more enable other activities to take place that depend on solid infrastructure.

This also reminds me of sociologist Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. As railroads emerged in the mid-1800s, Dobbin argues France employed a top-down centralized strategy for railroads in the country, Britain had the most laissez-faire approach, and the United States was in the middle with some government support for railroads. While that occurred at the beginning of the railroad age, much of that transportation money in the United States has gone to roads and highways for roughly a century.