Category Archives: roads

Salting the roads

Good piece in the Toronto Star today on the tradeoffs governments make to keep the roads clear of snow and ice in Canada’s cold climate:

Our roads may stay snow-bare, but our heavy dependence on road salt is toxic to the environment.

The salt burns trees, chokes vegetation, and contaminates soil. It depletes water of oxygen, and is toxic to many fish. Salts also accelerate the corrosion of automobiles, roads, bridges and sidewalks.

So why do we keep using piles of the stuff?

It comes down to money. Salt is cheap. There are less harmful alternatives – some man-made, others naturally derived, from corn or sugar beets for example – and many jurisdictions in the United States, such as Colorado, New Jersey and Ohio, are beginning to put them into heavy use. But they are expensive.

The fact that Toronto and the province have all but passed them over in favour of salt underscores a cold calculation: To the government, reducing environmental harm is apparently not worth the extra cost.

A revolutionary idea for congestion pricing


How about letting the municipalities through which toll roads run have the money?

We propose a new way to create political support for congestion pricing on urban freeways: distribute the toll revenue to cities with the tolled freeways. With the revenue as a prize, local elected officials can become the political champions of congestion pricing. For these officials, the political benefits of the toll revenue can be far greater than the political costs of supporting congestion pricing. If congestion tolls were charged on all the freeways in Los Angeles County, for example, and the revenue were returned to the 66 cities traversed by those freeways, we estimate (using a model first developed by Elizabeth Deakin and Greig Harvey) that each city would receive almost $500 per capita per year.

That this idea is in any way controversial speaks to the bizarre way we handle the construction and financing of roads in both the United States and Canada.

Some roads are administered by cities, some by regional governments (where they exist, they often build and maintain arterials), some by states or provinces (major divided highways), and some even by federal governments (continent-spanning routes). Where there are no effective junior governments, way out in the hinterland, it can make sense for higher levels to step in, but it’s absurd that Los Angeles County doesn’t control its own freeways, or that Highway 401 through Toronto and Autoroute 40 through Montreal aren’t controlled by those mature cities’ governments.

This often creates an accountability gap, where city politicians who actually have to answer for traffic problems often can’t do much about them without largesse from higher-up governments that have little practical interest in dumping vast piles of money down to help municipal councils out. And when they do it, cities often treat the cash as found money, spending it fast and freely because they don’t have to account for it themselves.

If city councils set road tolls and also got to spend them, it’d be good news for traffic control, good news for transportation planning generally, and good news for keeping governments accountable to voters.

Window-dressing the Ontario election campaign

Falling with grace

“Falling with grace.” Credit: Flickr/Memotions

When the political parties in Ontario’s election campaign are supposedly trying to outcompete one another on green issues and the best the mainstream parties can do is that one of the leaders will be riding in an SUV instead of a bus, it’s not much of a fight. (Kudos to the Toronto Star, though, for taking the time to ask exactly what form the carbon offsets some of them are buying will take: solar water-heating projects in Ontario itself, not some fly-by-night tree-planting Potemkin operation someplace nobody will ever inspect.)

The intersection of environmental concern and economics should be front-and-centre in this campaign, instead of relegated to the B list of political issues. The A list consists of one item so far, with the election just about a month and a half away: the question of extending public funding and supervision to currently private religious schools, which would supposedly cost about $400 million out of a $95-billion provincial budget and which nobody was talking about a month ago.

Relegated to positions of lesser importance:

  • Ontario’s energy future. We’re and struggling to close a 4,000-megawatt coal plant. The governing Liberals have had n success reducing consumption and contracting for — not yet delivering, but it’s a long process — greener and more renewable power sources, but is it enough and is it happening fast enough. What are we going to do when our nuclear plants, the backbone of the publicly owned generating system, reach the ends of their lives in 10 to 20 years? We need to make those decisions now.
  • Ontario’s industrial future. We make a lot of big cars, and the auto and parts plants have historically provided many thousands of good jobs at good wages. Big cars aren’t selling like they used to. The governing Liberals have spent hundreds of millions to help automakers retool and redesign, but is that the right approach? And if so, is it enough?
  • Ontario’s transportation future. Most transportation of people and goods in this very large province happens on six- and four-lane divided highways. Is that system going to last? Should we be thinking about rail or shipping?
  • Ontario’s climate future. Are we making any plans whatsoever for adapting to a warming planet?

These are burning questions of science, economics, urban and rural planning, and yes, even ideology. The answers matter.

The tyranny of the single-number index

TreeHugger’s Collin Dunn offers up this simple comparison of the costs of transportation in a short, short post:

52.2 — the average cost in the US, in cents per mile, of driving a car alone, according to AAA. Compare that to…

20.7 — the average cost in the US, in cents per mile, of riding public transportation, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Which reminded me of this column from last weekend, by the Globe and Mail‘s Neil Reynolds (full disclosure: for whom I once briefly worked), on a study compiling the total energy costs of many, many cars, from conception to being driven. The results from CNW Research were expressed in easy-to-grasp dollar figures:

Compare the SUVs against the hybrids and you get a sweep in favour of conventional technology. The best-rated smaller SUVs are more than twice as eco-friendly as the hybrids: Dodge’s Durango, $1.57; Ford’s Explorer, $1.61; Chevrolet’s TrailBlazer, $1.61; Jeep’s Grand Cherokee, $1.80.

More remarkably, one of the larger SUVs, Ford’s Expedition, beats the hybrids with an eco-cost of $3.54.

CNW found wide differences, however, within classes of vehicles. For 18 models of luxury cars, the average energy cost is $4.45. Yet the best of these luxury cars are superior, in lifetime energy use, to hybrids.

Both sets of figures come loaded with caveats.

CNW Research even included a note (PDF) saying its figures for cars such as the Prius could be misleading, since so much original work had been done on the Prius that has only been spread out over a couple of years and one model, whereas Hummers, for instance, use a lot of established technology (adding less energy in the design phase) and spread the costs of innovation across several models.

At TreeHugger, the comments thread is full of “But what about..?”s and “This doesn’t consider…”, most of which complaints are true. The cost of taking public transportation is heavily and directly subsidized, for instance, and that’s not reflected in the price. But then, so’s the cost of driving, on smooth and well-signaled roads, and that’s not reflected in the price, either. People pay for both out of their taxes, so they’re real costs, just not coming out of people’s wallets right off. Besides, who cares what the average cost is? What’s it cost me? is the real question.

But nobody’s going to remember these warnings and reservations. Instead, we have masses of complex information condensed into single, easily remembered, inherently problematic and frequently misleading figure.

Consumers need information like this, but to make useful decisions, simple one-number indices aren’t good enough.

Resources aren’t infinite

Traffic jamAn exchange I had with commenter “George in Toronto” about the price of municipal water has been playing in my head. George argues:

[In Toronto,] the water course is Lake Ontario. Any water that Toronto does not use simply continues East until it reaches the Atlantic. And any water that is used, in most cases returns to the lake through the sewer system. In Toronto, water is truly free. You can walk down to the beach and take a bucketful at any time.

You can, I argue, but only if seven million other residents of greater Toronto didn’t get there first. If they did, there’d better be a system that limited them to one bucket each. Otherwise, you’re going home with an empty bucket.

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute argues at the institute’s blog today that, if I read him right, essentially all roads should be toll roads. Certainly that all crowded roads should be.

If charging does not deter traffic, the charge is not high enough. There is some price at which the traffic will flow. If the charge makes people avoid the morning peak, all the better…

The market is the best way of allocating most resources, roads included. Of course, you have to cut the other taxes on motoring, and provide realistic alternatives for those priced out by the charge. But without some such solution, congestion will inevitably get worse: and that costs businesses and the public dear.

Which puts him in practical agreement with Steven Cohen and Jacob Victor of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who are at Grist Mill today arguing for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion charge plans:

Some critics erroneously view congestion pricing as yet another expensive environmental protection program that would operate at the expense of economic productivity. But the success of the plan reflects the fact that many business and political leaders, like Bloomberg, finally realize that environmental sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand.

(I had trouble deciding what to quote from Cohen and Victor’s short essay; the whole thing is very much worth reading.)

What the water and road-capacity issue have in common is this: We have a lot of water and we have a lot of roads, but these things are not infinite. When we think of any resource — a watershed, space in a highway system — as infinite, we eventually run into problems, and adapting to solve those problems is a shock.

  • We thought the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought the seas’ capacity to absorb waste liquids was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought our lakes’ and rivers’ and aquifers’ capacity to provide fresh water was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought when roads got clogged, we could widen them and solve the problem. Doesn’t work like that.
  • We thought when we started to run low on spare electrical power, we could just build more power stations. Not quite.
  • With water, there’s a more immediate concern than the natural supply: the treatment plants reach their limit and the pipes reach their capacities long before the lake runs out.

The challenge is that with all these resources, we’ve built systems that assumed that there would always be more fuel, more water, more room for waste in the air. The limits on these things are very high, but limits there are. And as soon as there’s any degree of scarcity at all, the rules have to be different. Suddenly, we need to ask who has the most right to these things. We can try to set up systems to make sure everybody gets what they need, but we cannot let everybody have what they want.

Now we have to adjust — to a reality that has always been there, we just haven’t realized it — and that hurts.

(Photo credit: “.“, Flickr/fffriendly.)

The real price of a toll

tollboothMark Thoma at Economist’s View takes an interesting look at this New York Times story about how tolls demonstrably rise sharply after the introduction of quick-payment technology like transponders:

After an electronic system is put in place, tolls start rising sharply. Take two tollbooths that charge the same fee and are in a similar setting — both on highways leading into a big city, for instance. A decade after one of them gets electronic tolls, it will be about 30 percent more expensive on average than a similar tollbooth without it. There are no shortage of examples: the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge, among them.

The E-ZPass economy is indisputably more convenient. It saves time and frustration. But the old frustrations that came with cash also brought a hidden benefit: they forced you to notice that you were spending money. With electronic money, it’s much easier to be carefree.

Marketers understand this dynamic well, which is a big reason they promote refillable gift cards and other forms of money that don’t feel like money. Part of what’s so intriguing about Ms. Finkelstein’s work is that it suggests that government officials may be coming to understand the dynamic, too.

The writer, David Leonhardt, looks at it from the consumer-affairs angle and wonders whether governments that install these fancy electronic payment systems, rather than forcing drivers to stop and throw coins in a bin or hand bills to a worker in a tollbooth, jack up the prices as soon as drivers stop actively thinking about paying them.

But what if tolls people scarcely notice don’t achieve the desired effect of reducing traffic on a premium road? That’s Thoma’s hypothesis:

One thing to note is that after the E-ZPass system is installed, waiting times fall, frustration falls, and the inconvenience of not having correct (or any) change also falls. Thus, the economic cost is lower even if the dollar cost of the toll stays the same, and this would cause the quantity of trips demanded to increase.

It certainly fits with current thinking about the effect of roads on transportation happens: the basic assumption is that as many people will drive as can stand to — so if you widen a road because it’s clogged with cars, it’s only a matter of very little time before the damn thing is full up again. The cost of gasoline is a factor and the convenience of alternatives such as mass transit is a factor, too, but they’re not very important compared to the appeal of a big wide smooth road with nobody but you on it.

So while the dollar cost of a toll is an issue, perhaps a greater consideration for drivers is the inconvenience of paying it. Which, interestingly, is how Leonhardt gets into the story in the first place. This is his story’s second paragraph:

I spent a good part of my childhood summers at the Jersey Shore, and the tollbooths on the parkway always seemed to be a cruel final obstacle between me and the beach. Every 15 minutes or so, our car would have to stop yet again to drop a measly quarter in a bucket.

Maybe a nickel would have been enough.

(Photo credit: “Toll Road,” Flickr/billjacobus1)

What are gas taxes for?

Gaspump2The U.S. federal government is experimenting with ways of replacing some or all of its gasoline tax with a system that would charge drivers according to how many miles they drive, according to North Carolina’s News & Observer. About 450 drivers in its coverage area, which includes some extremely high-tech–savvy folks, will be participating in a technical test of a GPS system that’ll track their driving.

The problem, evidently, is that drivers are switching to high-efficiency cars, and road-construction costs are going up.

Lew Rentel of Morrisville drives one reason our road money is running low — a Toyota Prius.

Rentel, 69, used to drive a hulking Lincoln Aviator that burned up a gallon of gas every 13 miles. With 48.6 cents in state and federal taxes per gallon, he was paying the government 3.7 cents for every mile he drove.

But he ditched the luxury SUV for what he called patriotic reasons: to help fight global warming and cut our need for foreign oil. Now with a thrifty hybrid that gets 44 miles per gallon, Rentel has cut his tax payments to barely a penny per mile.

He realizes that people like him are doing less to help pay for the roads.

“Something’s going to have to be done,” said Rentel, a retired UPS executive. “You’re either going to tax by the mile, or you’re going to tax some other way.”

According to the News & Observer, the gap is so great that the federal Highway Trust Fund, which depends on gas taxes, is expected to go from an $8.9-billion surplus this year to a deficit by 2009. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it’s actually worse than that — a report from last March (PDF) seems to say pretty plainly that the fund has been in deficit since 2000 and is down to $9 billion, which in highway-construction terms is like being down to whatever cash is in your wallet right now.

So they’re trying to figure out what to do, and finding ways to make people pay by the mile is at the top of the list.

The Iowa researchers will outfit volunteers’ cars with computers and satellite gear to record where and how far they drive. Each month, the volunteers will receive sample bills for how many miles they have driven. Their mileage fees will be compared to the per-gallon taxes they pay now. Congress is considering a call to boost new-car fuel efficiency standards by about 40 percent, to an average of 35 mpg, by 2020. By then, some Americans will be driving cars that use no gas or diesel fuel — and pay no fuel taxes.

Taking gasoline consumption as a proxy for road usage was always questionable, though it was certainly convenient for quite a while there. The taxes have always sent a mixed message, though, particularly since gas taxes are always thrown into the “sin tax” category with liquor and cigarette taxes. Are they taxes on sin or user fees for the roads? What if the money goes to mass transit (as some of the trust fund actually does)? What, precisely, is the rationale behind the tax? If you’re a legislator levying a tax and you can’t give a specific answer to that last question, you’re eventually going to have problems.

This is a variation on the problem with giving hybrid cars access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes even if there’s only a driver in them — are HOV lanes a congestion-fighting measure or a way to reward the environmental benefits of carpooling? Don’t know? Better figure it out, or else your policy on who gets to use them isn’t going to make any sense.

It’s never made sense to charge people buying gasoline for their lawnmowers a fee to go for highway maintenance, just as it doesn’t make sense that cyclists get to use the roads for free (or at least only for the portion of their income and other taxes that go for road maintenance). These have been minor evils in a system whose efficiency has overriden those considerations, though. It hasn’t mattered till now, when a whole lot of people are looking for ways to use the roads in ways that happen to involve not paying for them, based on the system we’ve set up.

I think the lesson applies to another great big policy question: carbon taxes. I’m still vacillating on the usefulness of carbon taxes versus the other measures that are available for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, but this gas-tax problem seems like a worrisome parallel: If using gas consumption as a proxy for road usage gets us into trouble eventually, what problems might we be setting ourselves up for if we use the purchase of carbon-based fuels as a proxy for greenhouse-gas emissions?

One is that if I’ve already paid a zillion bucks in tax for the coal that powers this generating plant I own, I don’t have a lot of incentives to sequester the carbon dioxide the thing emits. Heck, I’ve already paid for all that stuff, so why would I pay extra to keep it contained?

Unless there’s some separate incentive system — rebates on the tax if I sequester the carbon — in which case it seems to me that a carbon tax’s key selling point, its simplicity, is right out the window.

(Via Planetizen. Photo credit: “Gas pump,” Flickr/romulusnr.)