Car Subsidies & Ebbing Vehicle Miles Traveled

8:43 pm in Uncategorized by BruceMcF

Earlier this month, the philly.com website of the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a story, “Drop in traffic on area highways forces review of plans.”┬áIt cites several “area” road funding decisions based on assumptions of growing traffic, which turned out to be false:

  • A $2.5b New Jersey Turnpike widening justifiedm in 2005, by projections of a 68% increase in traffic volumes over the coming 25 years … where turnpike traffic in 2013 is only 90% of 2005 levels
  • The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission undertook to provide up to $900m in annual funding for other roads around the state, based on projections of Turnpike traffic growth of 3% to 5% … while to date, there hasn’t been any appreciable traffic growth
  • The Scudder Falls bridge taking I-95 over the Delaware River was a four lane bridge that the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission decided in 2003 to replace with a nine-line $328m bridge based on projected traffic increases of 35% by 2035 … and to date, that growth in traffic has not yet materialized

The article poses the question of “whether” the traffic growth that went away following the Panic of 2008 and which hasn’t shown up in the ensuing Depression of 2008 to, optimistically, 2015, might not ever turn up.

Well, it probably won’t. And that raises the follow-up question, what are we going to do about it?

On Being Puzzled that After Things Change, They Are Different

It is instructive to follow the reactions to people within the Road Building Establishment to questions from Inquirer Staff whether the motor vehicle traffic growth might not be coming back:

‘If these trends continue, it would definitely change the way we need to plan for our transportation future,’ said Chris Puchalsky, associate director of systems planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. ‘But I think the jury is still out on that . . . we need two or three more years of data.’

Traffic predictions for the planned new Scudder Falls Bridge over the Delaware River between Bucks and Mercer Counties were revised downward in 2010, said Joseph Donnelly, spokesman for the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. And yet another traffic study, costing $452,128, was ordered in October, to get a better handle on future traffic and revenue. But Donnelly said a new bridge was needed, regardless of how projections may change, because ‘the bridge has trouble handling the traffic it has now.’

Likewise on the $2.5 billion widening of the New Jersey Turnpike between Exits 6 and 9, according to Turnpike Authority spokesman Thomas Feeney. ‘Even if traffic volumes on the turnpike remained flat forever, the widening would have been necessary,’ Feeney said. ‘That widening area is one of the worst bottlenecks on any highway in New Jersey. . . . The additional capacity is needed today, and the benefits are going to be immediately apparent to drivers as soon as the project is completed this November.’

Its unclear whether this is going to continue, and we needed those projects anyway. The challenge, of course, is that when funding is based on asking cars to pay some share (though, of course, less than half) of the costs that they impose upon the transport system, the ability to pay is different if we project ahead from the present day, as opposed to projecting ahead based on 20th century experience.

This is a particular challenge for the State of Pennsylvania because, as the article notes, in 2007 Pennsylvania adopted a plan to fund road and transit projects at levels of up to $990m/year, based on expected rising Turnpike traffic levels and the planned conversion of I-80 into a toll road. You know the saying that “two out of three aint bad”? Well, on the two assumptions Pennsylvania’s policy was based on, they are zero for two … and yes, that’s bad.

Inquirer staff interviewed the Dean of the Rutgers School of Planning and Public Policy, who laid the difficulty in forecasting traffic growth on two factors:

  • the preferences and behavior of Millenials, who are on average less enamored with driving than generations that came of age in the 20th century; and
  • weak economic growth since the start of the 2007-9 Recession.

The Millennial Generation and Social Technology

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