“People care about flooding…they don’t care about stormwater management”

An article discussing the difficulties of avoiding flooding in a sprawling city like Houston includes this summary of a key problem:

One problem is that people care about flooding, because it’s dramatic and catastrophic. They don’t care about stormwater management, which is where the real issue lies. Even if it takes weeks or months, after Harvey subsides, public interest will decay too. Debo notes that traffic policy is an easier urban planning problem for ordinary folk, because it happens every day.

It is difficult to get people interested in infrastructure that does not effect them daily or they do not see it. Yet, flooding is a regular issue in many cities and suburban areas and it can be very hard to remedy once development has already occurred. Indeed, it is difficult imagine abandoning full cities or major developments:

The hardest part of managing urban flooding is reconciling it with Americans’ insistence that they can and should be able to live, work, and play anywhere. Waterborne transit was a key driver of urban development, and it’s inevitable that cities have grown where flooding is prevalent. But there are some regions that just shouldn’t become cities.

Given the regularity of flooding in developed areas, it is interesting to consider that there are not more solutions available in the short-term. Portable and massive levees? Water gates that can be quickly installed? Superfast pumps that can remove water?

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.

A downside of private streets: who exactly owns it?

There is a dispute about the ownership of a wealthy private street in San Francisco:

Tina Lam and Michael Cheng of San Jose said that in 2015 they were looking at parcels being auctioned online by San Francisco’s tax office when they saw a description of “this odd property in a great location.”

“Part of Pacific Heights, the right location, land in a good neighborhood. We took a chance,” Cheng told the San Jose Mercury News. He said they bought the land sight-unseen, beating out 73 other bidders and dropping $90,000 for the street and its common areas…

The Presidio Homeowners Association, which has maintained the space since 1905, blames a wrong address for the misdirected tax bills at $14 a year, bound for an accountant who had not worked for the association since the 1980s. The debt grew to $994, and the street was sold to recoup additional fees and penalties.

But the association did not know the back taxes threatened ownership of the street, the suit against Lam said. No notices were posted on the street, and no one on Presidio Terrace knew it changed hands until May 2017, when an investor representing Lam asked whether the association wanted to buy it back, according to the suit.

Is an odd case like this enough to suggest that having private streets is a bad idea in the first place? While the municipality does not have to pay the same costs to maintain the infrastructure, it seems like the private street is often an attempt by wealthier residents – whether homeowners or firms – to control their settings. And then there is a compelling reason for local government to make a claim to the street, there is a fight from the owners who felt that this property was theirs.

What it would take to approve Musk’s Northeast Corridor hyperloop

Elon Musk may have verbal approval for his underground hyperloop but there is much more work to be done to get the project underway:

“It means effectively nothing,” says Adie Tomer, who studies metropolitan infrastructure at the Brookings Institution. “The federal government owns some land, but they don’t own the Northeast corridor land, and they don’t own the right-of-way.” Sure, having presidential backing isn’t bad—but it is far, far from the ballgame…

First, you have to get the OK from all the states and cities and municipalities involved. This is essential because Musk promises this Northeast hyperloop will pass through city centers, so he’s counting on tunneling under places where lots of people live and work and play. Judging by the the official responses from local agencies and politicians along the proposed route, this process is not quite underway. “This is news to City Hall,” the press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. Looks like the Boring Company has a lot of boring meetings with public officials ahead of it…

And then there’s the little problem of moolah. Just updating the current Northeast corridor railroad—you know, the one run by Amtrak—to high-speed rail standards would cost an estimated $123 billion. Tunneling will be even more expensive. Musk has promised his boring technology will speed up the construction and bring down costs. But boring will never be cheap, especially in populated areas. Carving less than two miles of tunnel under New York for the Second Avenue Subway took $4.5 billion. Even if this hyperloop were entirely privately financed, it would take lots of zeroes…

By law, projects need to be evaluated for the potential environmental consequences of their construction and operations, to create what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement. Federal agencies generally take a while to prepare these documents: One 2008 study found the average writeup took three and a half years, and some have taken as many as 18. They also cost a lot to prepare—millions and millions in government funds.

That is a lot to take on. I’ve seen suggestions in recent years that the United States is no longer able to tackle needed large infrastructure projects. In the past, large projects could be accomplished such as the intercontinental railroad or Hoover Dam. Today, American projects lean more toward interminable delays and huge cost overruns. In contrast, some other countries do not get bogged down in the same ways. Sure, some of that might require more authoritarian regimes – such as the new Silk Road railroad in China or the growth in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – but things get done!

Moving forward, is there a way for a country like the United States to undertake large innovative projects without all the bureaucracy that slows it down? Can we still take risks? Musk’s hyperloop might be a perfect test case: the technology barely exists so it might be an incredible risk. But, the payoff could be tremendous (and not just necessarily for the intended purpose of a new transportation technology but the other helpful pieces that come along the way – including a way forward across multiple governments and requirements).

Aging and complex infrastructure, losing over 1 billion gallons of water

Rockford, Illinois is likely not alone in such problems: losing lots of water in a complex city system.

But city meters show just 5.1 billion gallons made it to customers. That means 1.3 billion gallons of water were lost last year alone. That’s enough water to fill 1,968 Olympic-size swimming pools or 10.4 billion water bottles…

Water loss is a challenge that plagues water utilities across the nation, some of which are also battling a dwindling or damaged water supply because of climate change. As temperatures across the United States rose over the past decade because of climate change, heavy runoff led to a deterioration of source water quality in some areas of the country, damaged water utility infrastructure in others and brought on drought in the West that crippled water supplies, according to the American Water Works Association.

A consultant with specialized equipment that “listens” to pipes and can detect changes in frequency identified the locations of at least 39 previously undetected leaks after monitoring 250 miles of pipe across the southwest quadrant of the city. Some of the city’s oldest infrastructure is located in that area, Saunders said.

Eight service lines were leaking 70 gallons per minute, four water mains were leaking 60 gallons per minute, 18 valves were leaking 51 gallons per minute and nine hydrants were leaking 9 gallons per minute. The previously unreported leaks were repaired, preventing an estimated 99.8 million gallons of water a year from leaking out of the Rockford distribution system.

What is a few hundred million gallons of water here and there? Infrastructure is not typically sexy but replacing aging systems – think water, gas, electricity, mass transit, and more – is necessary while also time-consuming and expensive.

I’m wondering why it took so long to try to reduce these leaks. Would an electric company or gas company accept such a percentage of lost product? Water is a unique product in the US. On the consumer end, it is probably much too cheap – it encourages overuse and waste. Does the same thing happen on the municipal end?

Subways: “New York City is the demented spin-off of Settlers of Catan”

The New York subway system has some problems:

New York City subway service isn’t consistently bad. It isn’t consistently anything. It mixes days of normalcy with surprise disasters whose disruptive effect is something like an air-raid drill, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded underground, while their kids wait at schools, their office chairs sit empty, and their shifts begin. If, as former New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere once put it, transportation is “the game board upon which the economy is played,” New York City is the demented spinoff of Settlers of Catan. The board changes every day, with a debilitating effect on businesses, birthday parties, and everything in between.

That delays have tripled in four years, that subway ridership is declining, that bus ridership is plummeting—these things should alarm Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and bears ultimate responsibility for its failings, despite his protests otherwise….

Last Monday, the MTA announced a six-point plan to address delays. “Decades of underinvestment … has led to a system that is excessively vulnerable to failures,” the statement read. (Interestingly, New York has been governed by a Cuomo for 18 of the past 35 years.) The order includes some good news, like the imminent arrival of newer subway cars and deployments of teams to handle broken signals and sick passengers, two major causes of delays. It also appears to have been devised rather quickly—an MTA board member found out about it from the press—and as such, does not account for the subway’s two biggest problems: its ancient signal system and its insanely high construction costs.

Those two things are interrelated and together account for virtually every other problem with the subway. Signals break, hinder the deployment of countdown clocks and driverless trains, and prevent trains from running closer together. High costs impede the development of 20th-century signal technology and other capital improvements, including region-altering projects like the Triboro RX and low-hanging fruit like reopening closed subway entrances. (Read Alon Levy’s excellent coverage of the cost issue and weep.) As long as the MTA fails to address these issues, its troubles will continue.

Bonus points for working Settlers of Catan into a discussion of infrastructure. At the same time, the roads of Settlers might be crazy (particularly when they are blocked by other players) but wouldn’t a better analogy be to a transportation game, perhaps Ticket to Ride?

Seriously though, cities and other levels of government ignore infrastructure at their own peril. It may be easier in the short-term to push off the repairs and costs but the problems only continue to affect users and then are even more costly in terms of money and time down the road.

Which comes first on a mass scale: electric cars or driverless cars?

The car of the future could be quite different but what exactly it will be is still up in the air. Will it be an electric car? We need some significant infrastructure for that to work:

But here’s the thing. As a piece of new driving technology, the Bolt totally works. But the adoption curves and take-up rates of new technologies aren’t driven simply by the efficacy of the technology in and of itself. New innovations require infrastructure to reach their full market potential. Often that infrastructure has to be built by companies other than those who build the original products. And right now, electric cars remain hindered by a massive infrastructure gap…

Tesla has dealt with the infrastructure challenge by building its own network of proprietary superchargers—stations that only Tesla owners can use. But it’s a closed system, and it is part of what makes Tesla a luxury product. Non-Tesla users are out of luck. And while some of the big automakers are establishing partnerships with charging networks, none has taken it upon itself to build the dense, easily accessible, and highly functional network of charging stations that is needed. So it’s great that the Bolt feels like it belongs in everyone’s garage. But until that gaping infrastructure gap is bridged, it won’t be in nearly as many as it could be.

And working out all the kinks of driverless cars and then making them affordable to the mass market may take a while:

Despite technological advances, accidents like these reduce consumer trust and send companies back a few steps. A true autonomous future is perhaps as far away as 50 years, considering all that needs to happen to ensure safety and prepare the average driver.

While one will see the occasional driverless car zipping tech execs around Silicon Valley, new connected cars will still be out of reach for most families.

The internal combustion engine vehicle with a human driver may prove to have quite the staying power. How about we envision the electric self-driving vehicle for all several decades down the line?

Another thought: given all that would need to be done to completely switch over to either option, could the money and time be better spent on other problems?