Transportation

Because being there is what's most important, WPC's Center for Transportation researches and analyzes the best practices for relieving traffic congestion by recapturing a vision of a system based on freedom of movement.

What's New

Viaduct performance analysis underestimates road demand

December 15, 2008 in Blog

First of all, despite the years of trouble with replacing the Viaduct, I am pleasantly pleased with the state's current process of comparing the list of possible scenarios. Typically, spending in transportation is tied to political agendas and which constituency has the most influence. Surprisingly, this new method is right in line with WPC's call for tying transportation spending to performance measures and weighing how each option achieves them.

But reviewing some of the underlying modeling used to define the performance of each scenario shows the measures are based on unrealistic assumptions.

Take for example the following table (page 6) presented to the Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which shows the mode share of each scenario as i!
t compares to today's mode share.

Mike_Chart

The modeling shows an 8% to 11% drop in Single Occupant Vehicle (SOV) use, and a corresponding increase in non-motorized (walking and biking) and public transit use. In other words, Viaduct planners are assuming that about 10% of those who currently drive into the city will switch to transit, biking or walking over the next seven years.

Most everyone who uses the Viaduct is driving into Seattle from some other place. None of those people will switch to biking or walking because its too far away. So the mode-switch to non-motorized forms
of transportation simply will not happen. Sure, more people will walk and bike with the new
improvements but they will not be the same people who currently drive on the viaduct.

As far as those people switching from SOV's to transit...transit options already exist today.
So adding more transit will not convince current SOV users to make the switch. Just look at historical mode share patterns to see t!
hat building more transit does not translate into a greater share of people using it.

Sure, some might. But Viaduct planners are assuming a 10% switch in seven years! That simply will not happen. If they are not using transit today, the likelihood they will switch in the next seven years is extremely low.

The assumption that about 10% of motorists will no longer drive into the city over the next seven years is unrealistic and underestimates road demand in Seattle. As a result, the surface options probably appear more favorable than they normally would.

Cities looking for hand outs, too

December 11, 2008 in Blog

With all the talk about infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy, groups are lining up with cup in hand. According to this AASHTO news bulletin, the state has identified 60 projects at $1.339 billion, that are "ready to go." I'm working on obtaining the full list of projects, but apparently public records doesn't mean what it used to.

Now it appears that cities are lining up also. According to the US Conference of Mayors, which Mayor Greg Nickels is Vice President, 427 cities have more than 11,000 projects, in ten different sectors, (including transportation) "ready to go."

Here are the cities that were used from Washington:
Auburn, Bellevue, Bremerton, Edmonds, Everett, Kirkland, Lakewood, Pacific, Redm!
ond, Renton, Seattle, Snoqualmie, Spokane, Tacoma, and Yarrow Point.

Here is the full report, which unlike that state's wish list, does include specific projects.

State Transportation Budget Troubles

December 8, 2008 in Blog

During last week's House Transportation Committee hearing, OPR reported on the health of the state Transportation budget.

Heading into the 2009-11 biennium, there is now a $71 million funding gap between projected revenues and current projected expenditures. Perhaps more alarming is that over the next 16 year construction horizon, an important timeline for the remaining Nickel and TPA gas tax projects, the projected funding gap balloons to $4.6 billion. And this is in addition to the $3.8 billion funding gap experienced during the last two legislative seesions, which, through a series of budget maneuvers and project delays, the legislature was able to fund.

The governor will get the first crack at bridging these shortfalls with her proposed budget and I imagine it will in!
clude further delaying several Nickel and TPA gas tax projects.

You can read more about which projects were delayed in 2008 here: 11 Gas Tax Projects Delayed

The assault on personal mobility continues

December 4, 2008 in Blog

Have you noticed what interest sector is missing in the two advisory groups that are working toward a solution on 520 and the Viaduct?

Both groups have representatives from a variety of interests, including agency officials, labor unions, transit advocates and local communities. In fact, based on the membership of each group, one could argue that public transit interests are overrepresented.

But neither group includes representation from the one sector that cares the most about congestion relief, drivers. And not just the organizations who represent the interests of motorists, but also absent are the organizations who argue on behalf of freight issues.

This becomes more alarming when you consider tolling will be included in at least the 520 project.

Wh!
o pays tolls? Drivers. Who doesn't pay tolls? Public transit.

And given the Climate Action Team's recommendations to limit how much people drive, it should be no surprise to anyone that the final selections chosen will worsen traffic congestion as to create personal and economic disincentives to drive.

Doesn't anyone read the transportation revenue forecast?

November 21, 2008 in Blog

The front page in today's Seattle Times has an article on the transportation budget and how lawmakers suggest "the bad economy won't stop" projects. Consider this quote from the article:

"We're not impacted by the shortfall in the operating budget," said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chair of the House Transportation Committee. "Our projects are moving forward as scheduled."

Actually, the Office of Financial Management recently released its quarterly revenue forecast
for the transportation budget. It shows that over the next 16 year
construction horizon, (an important time frame for the Nickel and TPA
gas tax projects) transportation revenues are $1.352 billion lower than
projected from the baseline, which was updated during the 2008
legislative session. And this does not yet include the labor and
material cost increases that are expected to drive the shortfall even
higher.

And the suggestion that transportation projects are "moving forward" is not true. Earlier this year, we released a study, Despite Claims, Gas Tax Projects Are Not on Track, that shows how the legislature delayed several Nickel and TPA projects so far beyond their original completion dates that you have to wonder whether they will be completed at all, especially with the Nickel is scheduled to sunset. 

Earlier, I wrote about how the legislature funded the previous holes in the gas tax projects. In just the last two years, cost increases and slower revenue growth created a $3.8 billion hole in the Nickel and TPA projects. !
Through a series of budget maneuvers and project delays, the legislature was able to fund the deficits.

But after bridging $3.8 billion, the Legislature is probably out of
tricks. They will either have to outright cancel some projects or fund
them from a different revenue source, like the general fund. Both of
which are highly controversial.

Given the $5 billion general fund deficit and the $1.3 billion revenue shortfall in the transportation budget, transportation projects are in trouble.

When the desire to spend public resources on functions that do not belong to government threatens those functions that do, taxpayers end up with neither.

November 19, 2008 in Blog

This article in today's Everett Herald, Out-of-state
competition could trim $146 million off cost of ferries, analyst says
, highlights resistance to allowing companies outside of Washington State to build ferry boats.

"We need to put people to work here in the state of
Washington," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman
of the Senate Transportation Committee. "If we're going to create jobs we
ought to be doing it right here. I'd rather be putting people to work than
paying out unemployment."

Except, taxpayers don't pay taxes to create jobs--Taxpayers pay taxes to fund vital public services. Given that the newly projected general fund budget deficit is about $5 billion and the
anticipated shortfall in transportation revenues is currently $1.4 billion
, it's unlikely the state will have any additional money to give the contract to build the Port Townsend-Keystone ferries to Todd Shipyards.

When the desire to spend public resources on functions that do not belong to government threatens those functions that do, taxpayers end up with neither.  

Performance-based transportation policy, should focus on traffic relief

November 18, 2008 in Blog

Often, spending transportation taxes is tied to agendas that don't have any relationship to specific performance measures, like congestion relief. This concept was highlighted in an audit conducted by the Washington State Auditor's Office.

In a new report published by the Heritage Foundation, “Reforming
State Transportation Policy: Washington State’s Efforts to Implement
Performance-Based Policies
,” I argue the value of using
performance measures to understand what is working and what is not when
policymakers make decisions on spending transportation taxes. 

Across the country, spending is too often tied to political agendas and
the wishes of influential constituencies, not objective measures of public
need, such as safety and congestion relief.

As policymakers look at
maintaining and expanding transportation infrastructure, they need to make
decisions based on proven, meaningful benchmarks. Otherwise, as we have seen in Washington State, the spending may not
have any relationship to the one solution taxpayers want most: congestion
relief.

Read the full report here: Reforming State Transportation Policy: Washington State’s Efforts to Implement Performance-Based Policies


National Report Recommends Tying Transportation Spending to Performance

in Press releases

Seattle – The Heritage Foundation, a nationally recognized Washington DC-based think tank, has released a new report highlighting transportation spending in Washington State.  In “Reforming State Transportation Policy: Washington State’s Efforts to Implement Performance-Based Policies,” Michael Ennis looks at the value of using performance measures to understand what is working and what is not when spending transportation taxes.  Ennis is director of the Center for Transpor

Port of Seattle claims its shrinking, but taxes grow 11%

November 12, 2008 in Blog

Based on this editorial by Port Commissioner John Creighton and Port CEO Tay Yoshitani, taxpayers in King County might think the Port of Seattle is making the tough and responsible financial decisions required in a tough economic climate. They even say this:

In response, we're tightening our belt throughout the port, cutting
overhead spending, leaving some chairs empty and deferring certain
projects. But we must continue to invest in projects that generate jobs
and help the port thrive in a fiercely competitive global market.

But one of the top PI stories today includes this one: Port votes to increase taxes 11% next year

The Port of Seattle thinks the best way to get the economy moving again is to make the cost of owning a home more expensive. This seems to contradict the state's plan to make home ownership less costly.

Further, over half of the Port's tax revenue will go toward paying for past financial obligations. Given the Port of Seattle's recent audit history, the tax increase is more of a bailout, rather than an economic stimulus.

Masking the redistribution of wealth with the transportation infrastructure deficit

November 7, 2008 in Blog

You do not need to look very
far to see what
the government's newest response will be to stabilize the  economic volatility in our country: public works spending, particulNew Dealarly in the
area of transportation infrastructure.

Similar to Roosevelt's New
Deal programs in the 1930s, this approach would be another significant
expansion of government....and on the heels of the federal bailout, which by
some estimates, is the largest intrusion of government in the private market in
history.

Highlighted by the
Minneapolis bridge collapse and the growing negative economic impacts caused by
traffic congestion, there is no doubt that this country has a large
transportation infrastructure deficit. So disproportionate spending increases
in transportation infrastructure might be welcome by some unusual allies and
may avoid the "socialist" accusations that usually follow such large
scale market manipulations.

Here is a great article
written by Ken Orski that discusses the background on the current issues
surrounding transportation infrastructure spending.



October 30,
2008

Support for Increased
Public Infrastructure Spending is Growing


The push to
increase investment in public infrastructure is gaining momentum. It is stoked
by the prospect of another "stimulus" (or "economic
recovery") package, a portion of which would be dedicated to roads,
bridges, transit and other public infrastructure. Supporting the initiative is
an influential coalition of trade associations, public interest groups and
labor unions including the American Road and Transportation Builders
Association (ARTBA), Associated General Contractors of America, National
Association of Manufacturers, American Public Transit Association (APTA),
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), U.S. Conference of Mayors, and a
host of local governments.

While some
observers question the effectiveness of infrastructure spending as a short-term
economic stimulus on the grounds that public works projects cannot be launched
quickly enough, proponents, such as AASHTO’s John Horsley, argue that
there are many projects that could be advanced to construction within 90 days
if additional funds were made available. In a briefing paper prepared for an
October 29 congressional hearing on public infrastructure (see below), the
staff of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure cites a
January 2008 AASHTO survey of State Departments of Transportation that
identified 3,071 "ready-to-go" highway and bridge projects at a total
cost of $17.9 billion. A further 559 "ready-to-go" transit projects
at a total cost of $8.03 billion have been identified in an October 2008 survey
by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Congressional
Hearing on Public Infrastructure Investment

Support for
a second stimulus package was plainly on display at an October 29 hearing of
the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The hearing was convened
at the request of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lay the groundwork for
legislative action in the next Congress.

Witnesses
gave the Committee ample ammunition why an economic recovery program with a
strong focus on infrastructure investments would be desirable. New Jersey
Governor Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and former Michigan Governor John Engler, now
president of the National Association of Manufacturers emphasized that the
initiative is needed not just as a short-term stimulus to create jobs and
assist in national economic recovery but also as part of a needed long term
strategy to repair and expand the nation’s infrastructure. Witnesses provided
many specific examples of ready-to-go projects. Lest the hearing be perceived
just as a forum for special interests to plead for increased funding for their
favorite local pork barrel projects, Committee Chairman James Oberstar stressed
the need for applicants to prioritize their wishlists based on objective standards
of need. He elicited a promise from Governor Corzine that he would
"strictly adhere" to doing just that.

John Irons,
Research and Policy Director of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute,
was the only witness to address the issue of financing. He testified that, in
his view, the recovery package should be deficit financed. "While deficits
should not be ignored," he said, "deficit reduction must take a back
seat to short-term stimulus." Allowing a temporary increase in the
national debt next year to levels no higher than what we averaged in the 1990s
(46.1% of GDP) would allow room for about $900 billion in additional debt"
Irons testified. Infrastructure investments should be seen as an insurance
policy against a prolonged downturn, he added, to counter the argument about
the time lags encountered in construction contracts

Additional
support for increased spending on transportation infrastructure came from state
transportation officials. Meeting on October 20 in Hartford CT, the American Association
of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) called for an overall
$545 billion investment in surface transportation infrastructure over a period
of the next five years (2010-2015). The recommended allocation would provide
$375 billion for highways, $93 billion for transit, $42 billion for freight
improvements and $35 billion for intercity passenger rail. Increased federal
funding would be coupled with national performance standards set to achieve
national goals.

Support
for the stimulus bill is not unanimous

Support for
a stimulus bill and increased infrastructure spending is not unanimous. In
another congressional hearing, held concurrently by the House Ways and Means
Committee, witnesses offered a more skeptical view. Governor Mark Sanford
(R-SC) opened his testimony with a ringing plea not to approve the contemplated
stimulus package, arguing that the money "may in fact further infect our
economy with unnecessary government influence and unintended fiscal
consequences." "Common sense voices from both sides of the aisle are
raising red flags about our national deficit," he warned. Government
spending has grown 57 percent this decade alone and if the stimulus passage is
passed, this year’s budget could top $1 trillion — adding to the over $10
trillion national debt, Sanford said. State debt across the country has also
increased by 95 percent over the past decade because of "unsustainable
spending growth," he added.

Another
skeptical witness, economist Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute,
argued that, while in theory, increasing infrastructure spending could reduce
the severity of a recession, in practice timing lags make it difficult to
deliver the stimulus at the time it is needed. He cited the Congressional
Budget Office and a long list of economists in support of his conclusion.

Long
contracting lead times was also the reason why the White House and
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters have come out in opposition to the
stimulus package, with Peters citing past experience with time lags encountered
in construction contracting. On Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader John
Boechner (R-Ohio) added to the skeptical opinion, saying that he would reject
any bill that includes "hundreds of billions in new pork-barrel spending
masquerading as economic stimulus."

Ronald Utt,
transportation analysts at the Heritage Foundation pointedly reminded people
that infrastructure provided and operated by the private sector, such as
pipelines, electric power plants, transmission grids and telecommunication
networks do not seem to suffer from an "investment deficit. "Our
infrastructure is deficient only where it relies on the public sector for
maintenance and rehabilitation," Utt wrote in an October 23 Heritage
Foundation commentary entitled "Is America’s Infrastructure ‘Crisis’ Just
Another Crisis for Socialism?". According to Utt, the solution is not to
pour more billions of dollars into a public works program but to begin shifting
more responsibility for the maintenance and operation of infrastructure from
the public to the private sector. It’s an observation that may have
considerable merit, but nonetheless is full of irony in these days of what is
becoming the largest expansion of the federal government’s role in the economy
since the 1930s.

Private
Investment in Infrastructure

The
transportation stakeholders are not the only ones supporting greater investment
in infrastructure. That also seems to be the sentiment of private investors.
Infrastructure is one of the "rare bright spots in a tumultous
market" wrote editors of Financial News. Several executives of
private equity firms whom we encountered at a recent New York meeting,
concurred.

While the
age of highly leveraged deals may be over, they said, there are still billions
of dollars in domestic and foreign infrastructure funds waiting to be invested
in transportation facilities. Toll roads appeal to long-term investors because
they generate strong demand even in times of slower economic growth and produce
steady and predictable cash flow relatively unaffected by economic downturns.
And long-term investors such as pension funds and insurance companies require
stable, income-oriented investments to match their long-term liabilities and
payout obligations. Given the current volatility of the equities market, the
low interest rates of the government bond market and the risky nature of
investments in corporate credit instruments and real estate, infrastructure is
now seen as a "safe haven" for long-term investors, a senior bank
official told us. The reported decline in toll revenue in recent months is seen
as a passing phenomenon tied to a recessionary economy. In the long run, toll
roads have lost none of their revenue earning potential.

Of more
consequence to the prospects for private investment in infrastructure, the
private equity executives warned, is the nature and extent of the expected
government oversight to be placed upon private toll concessions. If the capital
market should conclude that legal restrictions and regulatory barriers placed on
such concessions are too onerous and burdensome, investors (especially foreign
investors) may decide that investing in U.S. infrastructure is not worth the
trouble and they will turn instead to infrastructure investment opportunities
abroad. Such a decision, in the judgment of the private equity executives,
would be most unfortunate for it would deprive fiscally strapped state and
local governments of a much needed source of capital to modernize and expand
public infrastructure.

Calls tor
increased spending on public infrastructure began before the current push for a
stimulus package. We called attention to them already one year ago ("The
Infrastructure Financing Debate is Gaining Momentum", NewsBrief, November
2007) and again in March of this year ("The Problem of Infrastructure
Deficit is Attracting Growing Attention, NewsBrief No.9, March 2008). The
infrastructure debate was triggered by the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, an
incident that jolted the public into realizing that we have allowed our
transportation infrastructure to seriously deteriorate through decades of
under-investing. But the earlier debate always assumed that additional spending
on infrastructure would require new sources of funding and a major financial
contribution by the states. The stimulus advocates, on the other hand, are now
pushing for deficit financing and a 100 percent federal share.

Which
point of view prevails will depend upon internal discussions among fiscal
conservatives and liberals within the Democratic party, since the Democrats are
virtually assured control of Congress, probably with expanded majorities. On
Capitol Hill, conservative Blue Dog Democrats will argue that, with this year’s
deficit potentially approaching $1 trillion, now is not the time to abandon the
pay-as-you-go rules which hold that any spending increases must be offset by
equivalent new revenues (or spending cuts). The liberals, on the other hand
will argue that, with a deepening recession and growing unemployment, containing
the deficit is the last thing on their mind. That posture was epitomized by a
remark by House and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (quoted in the Wall Street
Journal, October 30): "For God’s sake," he said, "don’t ask me
where the money will come from. I’m going to the same place [Secretary of the
Treasury] Paulson went."

 

THE
NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE BANK

Along side
the stimulus package, the concept of a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB)
figures prominently among the infrastructure financing initiatives to be
considered in the next Congress. The purpose of the bank would be to provide
financial assistance to major public infrastructure projects "not
adequately served by current financing mechanisms." The concept has been
endorsed by presidential candidate Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi as
well as by a number of private and public sector figures such as Pennsylvania
Governor Ed Rendell (D-PA), former Treasury secretary Larry Summers and Senate
Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd (D-CT).

The Bank, as
initially proposed by Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Chuck Hagel in their
bill, S.1926, has been resurrected in a fresh and more elaborate form by
Everett Ehrlich and Felix Rohatyn in a recent article in The New York Review
of Books
("A New Bank to Save Our Infrastructure," October 9,
2008). Both Ehrlich and Rohatyn had been key figures in the CSIS Commission on
Public Infrastructure that had produced the original 2007 report recommending
the National Infrastructure Bank.

In its new
version, the National Infrastructure Bank would replace the various modal
programs as the source of capital for highways, mass transit, airports and
other public infrastructure. Rather than receiving grants through pre-set
federal formulas and congressional earmarks, states and other levels of
government would come to the Bank with investment proposals they wished to
pursue. Unlike NASTRAC, the entity proposed by the National Transportation
Policy and Revenue Commission, the bank would not act on a top-down comprehensive
plan for the nation’s infrastructure. Proposals for infrastructure investment
would continue to come up from state and local level. What would change
is the way projects are selected for funding. The Bank would rate projects and
set funding priorities using a set of objective criteria reflecting regional or
national significance, productivity and economic benefit.

The authors
have proposed that the Bank’s capital would come from the funds now dedicated
to existing infrastructure programs — about $60 billion annually.
Alternatively, the Bank could obtain its own capital by issuing long-term bonds
backed by its loan portfolio. The Bank could also rebundle its loans and sell
them to investors in the capital markets (not unlike Fannie Mae’s subprime home
mortgage securities but presumably backed by sounder, income-producing
projects.)

Whether
Congress could be persuaded to adopt an Infrastructure Bank along the lines
proposed by Messrs Ehrlich-Rohatyn is an open question. Asking Congress to cede
control over the federal public works programs, surrender its power to make
infrastructure investment decisions, and abolish all modal distinctions seems
far-fetched. Along with some members of the Transportation Infrastructure
Financing Commission, we think a more promising (and more congressionally
acceptable) model for the Bank would be the already existing Transportation
Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). The TIFIA program, which has
been in existence since 1998, provides federal credit assistance to
transportation projects of substantial regional or national significance.
Projects must be eligible for federal assistance under Title 23 and generate a
dedicated stream of revenue from user fees. TIFIA assistance can take the form
of secured loans for construction and permanent financing (for a term of up to
35 years); loan guarantees to institutional lenders making loans for projects;
and lines of credit that may be drawn upon to supplement project revenues.

Endowing the proposed National Infrastructure
Bank with TIFIA-like authority while expanding and liberalizing TIFIA’s
conditions (e.g. by adding Title 49 (transit) to the category of eligible
projects, substantially increasing its capitalization, and lifting the ceiling
on credit assistance (currently at 33 percent of project costs) would
accomplish all the purposes of the Dodd-Hagel bill while preserving the
existing balance of power between federal and state government.