Saturday, April 26, 2008

Transportation Trivia

I got to spent a day and a half last week at the 3rd Annual Texas Transportation Forum, organized by, mainly, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Not only were the vegetarian meal options surprisingly creative and delicious (the last policy conference I was at the vegetarian dishes seemed rather like afterthoughts), the discussions and panels were surprisingly compelling. TxDOT ended the last legislative session having tested the lege's patience for building more toll roads, though privately managed toll roads remain their primary strategy for funding transportation projects (projects meaning more roads).

Some of the interesting and/or troubling things I learned about the state of transportation in our fair state:
  • Texas has he largest highway system in the nation, though also one of the largest (in terms of both population and geography) metropolitan areas without a major highway, the Rio Grande Valley.
  • Texas's population is growing fast. In the next two decades it's likely to be awarded two more congressional seats, while New York is likely to lose some due to declining population.
  • Neither the state nor federal Motor Fuels Taxes, historically the primary funding mechanism for highway repair and construction, have been raised in over 15 years. The costs of highway construction labor and materials have raced way ahead of inflation, while the Motor Fuels Taxes have fallen way behind.
    • Texans pay $.20 per gallon to the state in tax, but since that tax has not been raised since 1991 it's basically worth about $.13 per gallon (in adjusted dollars) now. Many people at this conference agreed that any "toolbox" for transportation funding needs to include a newer gas tax...
    • ...Except for Rep. Mike Krusee (R- Round Rock) who, in spite of having authored a bill last session that would have raised and then indexed the gas tax (so that it automatically keeps pace with some economic indicator) now feels the gas tax is unfair. Every one who buys gasoline is paying it, but the tax goes towards state highway construction and maintenance. So, his logic is, people who live in the city and may use the highways less, are subsidizing the lifestyles of people who choose to live further out and then spend more time sitting in highway traffic during rush hours.
  • Lots of states are having problems paying for their existing and new highway infrastructure, and this status quo will not give rise to a robust transportation system. Thus, 29 states have entered into public-private partnerships to help pay for highway projects (toll roads, mainly, but also multi-modal systems).
  • Public transit systems, since they are necessarily an open infrastructure and first responders in a crisis, are attractive terrorist targets (as in London and Tokyo). The challenge is how to balance safety with efficiency.
    • There are over 10 billion passenger trips on public transit each year; that's almost 17 times the number of domestic air travel trips. Penn Station in NYC handles the volume in one morning what O'Hare Airport in Chicago does in 2.5 days.
  • 42,000 people die on roadways annually. In urban areas alone these deaths have costs associated with them that exceed $164 billion.
  • There is fancy, futuristic technology being developed to reduce these deaths, their attendant costs, and also be easier on the environment.
    • These include intelligent cars that can sense when the driver is sleepy; nterpret it's 360 degree surroundings (as in, be able to distinguish between a paper bag in the street and a small child in the street and react accordingly); driverless vehicles for both transporting small numbers of people in enclosed environments and also large numbers in a public transit system.


Fox said...

I don't mean to put you on the spot, but reading these notes made me think of some questions:

1. Did they have any stats on drunk driving deaths? And if so, how much they've either increased or decreased?

2. What do you think about McCain's summer gas tax vacation? Since that is a federal tax, does it effect state funds for infrastructure? (It's hard for me to believe Texas lawmakers that they don't already have enough of our money for such projects.)

3. Is there (was there?) ever any debates/discussions over the NAFTA superhighway or Trans-Texas Corridor at forums like this?

Ha... sorry to ask you all that... just thought you might be a good source! :)

bryan h. said...

All very reasonable, fair questions.

1) None of the forum sessions I attended had anything to say about the rate of death from drunk driving. The session about the futuristic technology did allude to the 42,000 annual highway deaths several times, but the context was how we shouldn't be complacent about such random slaughter.

2) I have mixed feelings about the gas tax at both the state and federal level. The problem is that there really isn't enough money with either government for all the highway creation and maintenance needs; at it's present rate the gas tax is pretty useless. I say either raise it or suspend it, but even raising it doesn't cover the costs. This is a tough one; I think all the presidential candidates have reasonable positions on this subject. I've become pretty sympathetic to toll roads lately.

3) There was some debate about the NAFTA highway and whether it's a bigger boon to above-board commerce or things like drug dealing and illegal immigration. I believe it was the people from El Paso and Midland who took the position that drug dealers and undocumented immigrants don't require fancy highways; they'll happily make do with what they've got. It's the rest of it, the commerce we really want, that goes someplace else when there isn't infrastructure to support them.

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