Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fox 5 (WTTG--TV) automobile-centric perspectives in transportation reporting (and tolls)

We were watching the news the other night and there were three transportation stories.  All were very much "driven" by the perspective of the car driver.  One was on automobiles taking cuts at the intersection of the Key Bridge and Canal Street in Georgetown and repainting to create a distinct "island" and the installation of .lane delimiters to prevent that behavior.  The newscasters were proud because this was done in response to one of their previous stories.  (I've already forgotten the second story.)

High Occupancy Toll Lanes on Freeways and mistaken charges.  The third story ("Man gets $17000 E-ZPass fine for unpaid $36 express lane tolls") was about how a guy got screwed by TransUrban, the operator of the High Occupancy Toll lanes in Northern Virginia, the I-495 Express Lanes.

He had a transponder and automatic replenishment on his EZPASS account, but on some trips the transponder wasn't acknowledged by the recording equipment.  (Most new tolling systems don't employ toll booths, but automatically record and bill trips through the system.)

He said he wasn't notified of the trip recordation errors.  He ended up getting 17 summons--each with a $1,000 fine--for each unpaid trip.  The FOX5 investigative reporter helped him get this knocked down to under $15 each, but he was still screwed.

Then there was the inane discussion between the anchors and the reporter about the toll system, etc., that was pretty much devoid of substance.  Certainly they didn't provide any substance of how the lanes came to be.  Or that there isn't a good system for dealing with these kinds of problems, because the toll roads are controlled by a private operator, not the State of Virginia.

Image from AA Roads.

The real issue of HOT Lanes and private sector operation of roads.  While the newscasters were patting themselves on the back for helping the guy, they didn't show much knowledge or depth about the culture behind the HOT lanes scheme--which is pushed by conservative interests, and apparently is a big agenda item of the libertarian Reason Foundation, which has published a number of reports on the topic.

While the lanes are touted because they provide "free" access for HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) and transit use, the vast majority of users are single occupant vehicles.  In short, HOT lanes add capacity for the people willing to pay.

The Miami Herald has a nice investigative piece, "Toll lanes becoming all the rage in Florida," on the back story behind the creation of these types of freeway lanes in Florida.  Of course, providing that level of information is beyond the depth and capacity exhibited by local television news programs, including WTTG-TV.

Also see "The hidden price of public-private partnerships" from the Toronto Globe and Mail. From the article:
Governments are essentially “renting money” they could borrow more cheaply on their own because it’s politically expedient to defer expenses and avoid debt, Prof. Boardman added. P3 has become a “slogan” with often dubious benefits, he said. 
Based on a new study of 28 Ontario P3 projects worth more than $7-billion, University of Toronto assistant professor Matti Siemiatycki and researcher Naeem Farooqi found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts. That’s mainly because private borrowers typically pay higher interest rates than governments. Transaction costs for lawyers and consultants also add about 3 per cent to the final bill.
The states say they don't have money for freeway expansion, so the private sector builds the lanes in return for multi-decade long contracts.  For example, the concession for the Midtown Tunnel in Norfolk, Virginia is 58 years.

In Virginia and Maryland, HOT lanes were initiated by Republican governors, but are now part of what is considered normal, standard operating procedure.

Arlington County's principled opposition.  Because Arlington County, Virginia's Master Transportation Plan is specifically focused on reducing single occupancy vehicle trips they did not approve of extending such lanes on freeways (I-395 ad I-66) in their county.  And that is the rub.  Do such lanes encourage more driving or ease congestion?

Needless to say, the Washington Post editorial page didn't favor Arlington's position ("When plan = vision and policy is consistent:; Arlington County and HOT lanes").

Note that the ArCo opposition wasn't about tolls, but about the way such lanes promote more driving.  (They may or may not have a position on privatization as well, but that wasn't an element of the suit.)  The County was punished by the State Legislature for their opposition, and retaliated by taking away the county's ability to assess tourism taxes on hotel stays.

Tolls and the Silver Line.  Tolls have been a major funding source for the Silver Line, paying upwards of 50% of the total cost.  The State of Virginia has provided very little funding towards the system's construction.

Besides federal funding, the majority of funding has come from tolls assessed on the Dulles Toll Road, control of which was transferred to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is the agency given ultimate responsibility for funding the Metrorail expansion project, because of the ostensible reason that the purpose of the line is to provide access to Dulles International Airport (cf. "Short term vs. long term thinking: transit, the Washington Examiner, Fairfax/Loudoun Counties vs. DC").

Prices have escalated over the course of the construction of Phase One, which added five stations serving Tysons Corner, McLean, and Reston in Fairfax County, opening for service in July, and will continue to do so ("Silver line changes equals higher toll road charges," WUSA-TV).

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At 7:51 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

A number of the Macquarie highway projects are fading.

Overly optimistic demand is certainly part of it.

But highway infrastructure projects are always a financing game. You think you can borrow money more cheaply than a state and build a guaranteed revenue.

That window is closing.

The DTR is a disaster. Robber barrons all over again.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I meant to write about the Indiana Toll Road bankruptcy but didn't get around to it. Obviously, there have been a number of similar bankruptcies in Southern California.

In SoCal this has ended up beneficial for the locality, since the private sector takes the haircut and they buy the infrastructure at a discount.

I don't think that's possible in IN.

2. interestingly, I didn't read the piece, despite the bankruptcy in IN, there is a project moving forward in IL.

3. Anyway, with the decrease in VMT--which we both agree it's too early to say if this is a change in behavior or just a function of the recession--these deals seem more risky.

VMT is still down. But car sales had been up.

At 10:05 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Behavioral patterns -- wanting commute less -- are very real.

Driving patterns, not so much.

VMT is a macro measurement - it isn't designed to measure behavior. It serves as a proxy for the entire economy. It is why VMT doesn't really track gas prices. People may drive less if gas prices go up. The economy?

Car sales are stable. Truck sales are way up. Both are up because of financing.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

also this, from Walmart quartely report:

"Wal-Mart's supercenters suffered a .3% same-store sales decline in the second quarter compared with last year. During the same period, foot traffic for Wal-Mart's U.S. stores fell by 1.1%.

By comparison, Wal-Mart's smaller-format stores, or Neighborhood Markets, generated same-store sales growth of 5.6% and traffic increased by 4.1%."

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, the thing about WM data is that it also reflects that their customer base skews poor and has still been disproportionately impacted by the recession. But I'm sure there's an element of reduced driving as an impact too.

At 1:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, to use British supermarket lingo, consumers are becoming more "promiscuous", shop at various stores, and shop more often (not the once a week trip, which the giant WM stores are better suited for)


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