“Politics of pavement” amidst the start of construction season

Commuters and taxpayers may be unhappy with annoying roadwork but as this summary of upcoming projects in the Chicago region reminds us, roadwork is political:

With no state budget in sight as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner feuds with Democrats, the idea of a capital plan to fix infrastructure seems as likely as unicorns in hard hats.

That disconnect is not only strangling transportation funding in Illinois, it’s also thwarting a pet project of Rauner’s — adding tolled express lanes to I-55 in Cook and DuPage counties…

For the Illinois tollway, money’s not a problem. But the agency is locked in a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railroad over land it wants for I-490, a ring road around the west side of O’Hare International Airport.

If Canadian Pacific wins support from federal regulators in a pending case, it’s a potential catastrophe for the tollway.

Roads are power? Any major infrastructure project involves lots of money, voters, and jobs. Additionally, in a country where driving is so important, construction on major roads is a big deal.

So, is anyone winning the political battle through roads in the Chicago region? Big city mayors like to claim that they are different than national politicians because the mayors have to get things done. The same may be true for governors on infrastructure issues. Presumably, limiting the political battles over roads helps everyone win as costs are reduced (prices for big projects only go up over time) and residents can start experiencing the benefits sooner.

Honor a president…with a highway named after them

Chicago likes to honor famous people and politicians by affixing their names to roads so what would be a fitting honor for former president Barack Obama?

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, submitted a resolution to have the entirety of Interstate 294 named after President Obama. However, in the same week, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, indicated that he was moving to submit legislation that would rename much of Interstate 55 that passes through Illinois as the “Barack Obama Expressway.” The moves in Springfield led to chatter in the press and elsewhere about how to honor President Obama and his legacy.

Perhaps because driving is so ingrained in American culture officials like to rename roads and highways. A highway seems so dull here: it will be a staple of morning traffic reports (“The Obama is clogged from 159th to Cicero”) and make it into countless digital and print atlases. I imagine it takes time for a name change to switch over into normal use: is I-55 the Southwest Highway, the original name, or I-55 (when it was adopted into the Federal Interstate System), or the Stevenson (to honor an Illinois governor and twice-failed presidential candidate. How many people who live in the area say they drive the Reagan?

But, there are plenty of other infrastructure options: how about O’Hare Airport (named after a World War II aviator), one of the most important airports in the American system? How about a branch of the L? Think how many people travel on and would see the Obama Line and perhaps some politicians would rather be known for promoting mass transit. Of course, if you didn’t like a politician (not the case here), you could attach their name to something less worthy like a sewage treatment plant or a viaduct.

 

Getting big companies to pay more for local infrastructure

The mayor of Cupertino, California wants Apple to pay more for local roads and other services:

Many people in Cupertino, a 60,000-person town in the heart of Silicon Valley, are beginning to organize around their overburdened city. They claim the region is struggling with aging infrastructure and booming companies whose effective tax rate is often quite low. Frustrated by traffic and noise, some in Cupertino are trying to put a stop to more development, which they argue brings more congestion on the roads, parking and train system. But Chang says limiting new development would damage the regional economy and that the real solution should be higher taxes on the wealthy and companies such as Apple…

Convincing local politicians to battle Apple is hard, Chang said. He recently proposed that Apple – which is building a massive new campus its own employees nicknamed the Death Star, or more favorably, The Spaceship – should give $100m to improve city infrastructure. To move on the proposal, Chang only needed to get a single vote ‘yes’ among the three other eligible council members. He failed to get that vote…Meanwhile, the mayor of Cupertino plans to keep pushing Apple to contribute more to the town. Apple paid $9.2m in tax revenue to Cupertino in 2012to 2013, which was about 18% of the city’s general fund budget, according to an economic impact report. Coincidentally that was also exactly the same amount CEO Tim Cook was paid in 2014.

Chang is now working on proposals for a business employer tax that would make companies with more than 100 workers pay $1,000 per employee. Chang argues the employer tax is less regressive than the competing program: a higher sales tax.

Local politicians are often in a tough position in situations like this. Large companies provide prestige and jobs. Many communities would love to have white-collar offices that contribute property taxes and opportunities for local residents. These are such desirable facilities that states and communities race to the bottom in providing tax breaks. (See an example here as well as contrast this to a rural town rejecting a meat processing plant.) Yet, large companies may make heavy use of local services as well as be perceived as sending most of their profits out of the community. So, what do you do when your town needs to pay for roads or the police department or schools and the majority of residents don’t want to pay higher taxes?

I’m guessing that Cupertino has little leverage, particularly if fellow officials and residents are unwilling to go against the big company. Yet, perhaps sustained pressure and some negative publicity might help; one Chicago suburb and its large hospital reached an agreement to help the community meet basic infrastructure needs.

IL legislator drops tax by miles driven plan

Following up on last week’s post, it now appears Illinois will not have a new driving tax anytime soon:

The Illinois Senate president says he will not pursue a proposal to pay for road construction by taxing motorists by the miles they drive.

John Cullerton is a Chicago Democrat. He floated the idea last week because revenue from taxes on gasoline is declining. Cars are more fuel-efficient but they still wear out roads…

Cullerton posted on social media Friday that he intended the plan — which the Executive Committee aired on Wednesday — to spark debate about more efficient ways to fund road-building.

He says he “received a lot of constructive feedback” but will not pursue his plan.

Such a move was likely unpopular but withdrawing the idea doesn’t help the state move closer to the issue: how are roads going to be maintained and improved? Few people like to pay increased costs for infrastructure but they will certainly dislike it if the roads are not in good shape or major repairs cause headaches and future borrowing down the road.

With gas at a relatively cheap point, isn’t it time to at least consider raising the gas tax?

Cities will need to adapt to self-driving cars

If self-driving cars arrive soon, cities may not be ready:

Just six percent of long-range transportation plans in major US cities are factoring the impact of autonomous cars, according to a report released in the fall by the National League of Cities. That’s a bad sign. “Even though driverless cars may be shoehorned to fit the traditional urban environment in the short term, it won’t be a long-term solution for maximizing potential benefits,” says Lili Du, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at Illinois Tech.

The Driverless Cities Project is developing a comprehensive answer, folding in urban design, landscape architecture, transportation engineering, sociology, urban networks, and planning law. (The project is a finalist for the university’s $1 million Nayar Prize for research with meaningful social impacts.) The idea is to explore current research around the country, along with the more forward-thinking planning initiatives, and fold in their own studies to create a suite of guidelines—including model urban codes that determine so much about city environments—for municipalities to incorporate into their planning.

There’s plenty to consider. For example, we don’t know how parking will work for autonomous vehicles. Should cities be building lots outside urban centers? Is parking still necessary at all? Wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication will lets cars pack together more tightly, which raises questions about how we fit them onto our streets.

Their autonomous operation alone can obviate the need for traffic signals and road signs. That’ll go a long way toward beautifying city streets, Marshall says, but brings up other problems regarding pedestrian safety, speed limits, roadway design, and the need for and sizes of driveways and curbs. Even further, vehicle ownership and usage patterns will change, once we’re able to summon an autonomous car through an app and then shoo it away once it delivers us at our destination. Who’s going to own and operate those cars, and what will they do when not serving their owners? Park in the ‘burbs? Infinite-Uber-loop?

It sounds like there is a lot of good that could be done in helping to reverse the changes that occurred from the early to mid-1900s where cities were altered in significant ways – wider streets and smaller sidewalks, the construction of highways – to make it easier for cars to operate in the city. Of course, making some of these roadway changes doesn’t necessarily lead to a Jane Jacobs urban paradise. Take downtown Manhattan: you could reduce the size of roads and give pedestrians more space. Yet, the scale of the buildings often would not help; you can create all sorts of sidewalks but if they are shrouded in shadows from skyscrapers, is it inviting? Or, adding more pedestrian space may not necessarily lead to more lively street life if there isn’t a mix of uses to attract people. On the whole, having to emphasize cars less could be very attractive but a lot of additional work would need to be done to truly take advantage of the opportunity.

Self-driving cars require better maintained roads

Self-driving cars may have advantages but they might also require spending more on road upkeep:

Shoddy infrastructure has become a roadblock to the development of self-driving cars, vexing engineers and adding time and cost. Poor markings and uneven signage on the 3 million miles of paved roads in the United States are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps to compensate, industry executives say.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently called the mundane issue of faded lane markings “crazy,” complaining they confused his semi-autonomous cars…

An estimated 65 percent of U.S. roads are in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, with the transportation infrastructure system rated 12th in the World Economic Forum’s 2014-2015 global competitiveness report...

To make up for roadway aberrations, carmakers and their suppliers are incorporating multiple sensors, maps and data into their cars, all of which adds cost.

 

It would be interesting to see some estimates of the additional costs to keep roads at a level where self-driving cars can safely operate. Does the money saved in less congestion on the roads and fewer traffic accidents outweigh the new maintenance costs?

On the other hand, having to do more frequent construction may not affect drivers as much if all cars are self-driving. Since such vehicles are supposed to improve traffic flow, construction is something drivers wouldn’t have to handle – their cars would do it for them. And, if we have driverless cars, can we have driverless maintenance vehicles?

Hoping to retire the myth of widening roads to reduce traffic

Eric Jaffe provides a reminder that traffic is not lessened if there were just wider roads:

“Wider Roads = Less Traffic”—The most enduring popular traffic myth holds that building more roads always leads to less congestion. This belief is a perfectly logical one: if there are 100 cars packed into one highway lane, then building a second should mean there’s 50 cars in each. The problem, as transportation researchers have found again and again, is that when this new lane gets added the number of cars doesn’t stay the same. On the contrary, people who stopped driving out of frustration with traffic now attack the road with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

While residents of heavily congested metro areas have a suite of four-letter words to describe this effect, experts call it “induced demand.” What this means, simply put, is that building more road eventually (if not always immediately) leads to more traffic, not less. Fortunately, local leaders are starting to distinguish reality from myth when it comes to induced demand. Unfortunately, the best way to address it—congestion pricing—remains all-but politically impossible in the U.S. That pretty much leaves one thing to do: deal with it.

A congestion tax is one way to deal with the issue: make people think twice about driving into heavily trafficked areas. At the same time, broader solutions could be employed: planning communities and regions that don’t rely so much on solo driver trips (such as through denser development); increasing funding to mass transit and providing more regular service and/or more options; and finding other ways to cut incentives on driving such as increasing gasoline taxes or paying per mile for driving. Of course, these broader approaches may be asking too much as Americans still like the option of driving. But, it may take some bold politicians and municipalities to try congestion pricing and show that it can work before it is widely adopted.

In other words, you may be able to show studies that demonstrate how this myth isn’t true but perhaps Americans dislike the truth – and the solutions that go with – even more.