VMT and GDP

The most recent issue of The Review, a publication by transportation consulting firm Steer Davies Gleave, has an interesting graph on the relationship between GDP and VMT.

GDP VMT

As the graph makes clear, VMT does not always track the growth (or decline) in GDP.  Explaining this relationship between driving and economic activity, the article reasons:

When highway construction and growth in car ownership peaked in the 1950s, a strong bidirectional link between VMT and GDP was observed. In contrast, analyses examining more recent years, when highway construction subsided and car ownership reached saturation, reveal a weaker correlation between the two variables.

For a time in America’s history, VMT grew in lockstep with GDP. But in recent years the two variables appear increasingly disconnected, particularly since the recent depression. We are still figuring out what the post-housing crash world looks like, but data like this suggests that growing the economy does not require increasing the amount we drive.

Ranking Transit Accessibility

Andrew Owens and David Levinson at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies have released Access Across America: Transit 2014. The study examines the accessibility to jobs by transit in 46 large metropolitan areas in the United States. It claims to be “the most detailed evaluation to date of access to jobs by transit,” and is unique in that it “allows for a direct comparison of the transit accessibility performance of America’s largest metropolitan areas.”  Atlanta did not fare well, ranking 30th out of the 46 cities. The AJC has a short piece on the study and WIRED magazine has a longer one.

The study’s focus on accessibility is part of an emerging shift in transportation planning away from congestion and throughput as the key metrics for evaluating our transportation system. We travel because we need to get somewhere – work, school, the store, etc… – and accessibility measures how easy it is to get there. Congestion, in contrast, measures the condition of the road used to travel to a destination.  But focusing on congestion ignores other factors that make it difficult to reach a destination, like the distance that must be traveled. And congestion is largely meaningless for non-automobile trips like walking or taking the train.  Accessibility offers a superior metric because it is mode neutral and because it measures what we actually care about – how easy it is to get where we are going.

Accessibility is a function of both transportation and land-use decisions, which has important policy implications. There are two broad avenues to increasing accessibility: improving transportation systems and altering land-use patterns. Neither of these things can be easily shifted overnight, but over time they do change—both through direct plans and action and through market forces.

Cities that scored well in the study combined relatively dense land use with fast, frequent transit service. As the report’s online mapping tool illustrates, metro Atlanta’s transit accessibility is relative strong in the urban core but declines quickly as one moves away from the MARTA rail system.

It is not surprising that metro Atlanta, with its sprawling land use and limited transit service, struggles with accessibility generally and transit access to jobs specifically.  Comparing Atlanta to high-scoring San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the study notes that all three have heavy rail systems but Atlanta scored significantly worse due to its decentralized job distribution. As metro Atlanta’s transit service expands for the first time in years and its real estate development increasingly focuses on infill development, particularly TOD, improvements in transit accessibility are likely to follow.

The authors plan to update the Access Across America study annually, allowing Atlanta’s accessibility to be viewed both as a snapshot in time and a long term trend. It will be interesting to see how the Atlanta Streetcar, MARTA’s TOD initiatives,  and the (potential) expansion of MARTA into Clayton County improve accessibility in the region.

Assessment to Implementation

After public meetings in April and August, GDOT will soon finalize an update to Georgia’s State Rail Plan. This plan is required under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act and is a prerequisite for certain federal funds. The previous version of the plan, adopted in 2009, focuses on the status of Georgia’s existing rail network and provides a high level assessment of the state’s rail needs. But the 2009 version lacks a clear strategy for how to address Georgia’s rail needs in light of limited funding and restrictions on the use of state motor fuel tax receipts. As a result, Georgia’s rail program has not advanced much in the intervening years.

The Southern Environmental Law Center submitted written comments to GDOT on the Rail Plan Update, including five recommendations for how to build the business case for rail investment in Georgia.

  1. The Rail Plan Update Should Include a Review of the Rail Programs in Peer States.

The obstacles to greater rail investment are not unique to Georgia. Every state faces limited transportation funding and many states have similar legal restrictions on the use of gas tax revenues. To increase Georgia’s implementation of its rail program, it should begin by surveying how other states have addressed these same obstacles. This survey should not only include the amount of funds available, but also the sources of those funds and the process for prioritizing projects. After completing this peer state survey, the Rail Plan Update should recommend a target investment amount and funding program (or suite of programs) that could be used to achieve the necessary level of rail investment.

  1. The Rail Plan Update Should Identify Georgia’s Top Priority Rail Projects and Quantify the Benefits of Those Projects.

The Rail Plan Update should not only identify Georgia’s rail needs in the aggregate, but also provide a method for quantifying the benefits of particular projects and prioritizing their relative importance. Rail projects are too often dismissed as costly and ineffective, but these criticisms are frequently founded on a lack of information and appreciation of the projects’ benefits. Clearly stating the benefits of individual projects and committing to use performance as the basis for selecting projects will help build the necessary support for a more robust rail program.

  1. The Rail Plan Update Should Identify Existing Rail Investment Opportunities.

The Rail Plan Update should also identify methods for funding rail projects that are currently under-utilized or under-deployed in Georgia.  For example, Georgia should explore greater use of public-private partnerships as a tool for delivering road projects. Georgia uses P3s with increasing frequency for road projects, but the state’s P3 law covers rail projects as well. Both freight and passenger rail offer unique opportunities to partner with the private sector.

Georgia could also fund the non-road accounts in the State Infrastructure Bank to help finance rail projects. Initial seed funding in these accounts could be used to establish a revolving loan program for rail projects throughout the state.

Georgia should also take greater advantage of the flexibility provided in existing federal program funds. Several existing federal programs, including the National Highway System Program, the Surface Transportation Program, and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program, can be used for rail projects in the right circumstances. Georgia should offset the limits on its state gas tax funds by prioritizing the use of these flexible federal funds for non-road projects.

The State Rail Plan Update should carefully examine these and other policies as strategies to facilitate greater rail investment in the state.

  1. Georgia Should Integrate Its Roadway and Intermodal Planning.

Georgia should also work to better integrate its road and rail planning. Whether moving freight or people, Georgia’s transportation needs are expected to continue growing over coming years. Finding the most efficient, and cost-effective, ways to meet these needs requires GDOT to look for the best solution irrespective of mode. This analysis should include identifying areas where rail might be a more cost effective solution (such as long distance transportation of commuters or freight) and carefully examining the projects in the pipeline to ensure that rail options are fully vetted in these situations.

  1. GDOT Must Position Itself To Capitalize on Unexpected Opportunities.

Even if funding for rail projects is currently limited, GDOT should nonetheless continue developing a pipeline of projects in order to capitalize on unanticipated funding opportunities. When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was adopted in 2009, states with shovel-ready rail projects reaped the benefit of unanticipated federal funding through the law’s intercity rail and TIGER programs. At the state level, Georgia’s Transportation Investment Act and the upcoming referendum on MARTA in Clayton County presented (or will present) opportunities for rail investment not anticipated when the last State Rail Plan was drafted.

It would be shortsighted to assume that the only funding opportunities available in the future are those available today. Accordingly, GDOT should ensure that it has high quality, shovel-ready projects in the pipeline so Georgia can capitalize on any future funding opportunities.

 

These five steps alone will not transform Georgia’s rail program. But they are logical first steps to help move the State Rail Plan from a wish list to a to-do list.

Build Today, Pay Tomorrow

I-285_at_SR_400_Interchange_Reconstruction_Artistic_RenderingWhen Governor Deal and GDOT announced their plan to fast track the reconstruction of the I-285/GA 400 interchange, the project was heralded as “the state’s top transportation priority and one of the worst bottlenecks in the nation.”  Plans to improve this interchange (actually two separate projects) were already on the books and slated for construction in the 2020s. But the project is now set to start construction in 2016 and open to the public in 2019.

Advancing this project required not only a change in priorities but also a change in funding. The new proposal will use a Design-Build-Finance (DBF) public private partnership to advance funding for the project now, rather than wait until those dollars became available later. According to GDOT’s fact sheet:

As currently envisioned, Georgia DOT would make payments to the private firm on a fixed payment schedule, to be finalized as part of contract negotiations. During the project’s active construction time period, the contractor would receive pai1ial payment for work completed; the remainder of the payments would be deferred until after the construction is completed, when GDOT would continue to make payments to the contractor on a fixed, negotiated schedule until all expenses have been paid.

The appeal of this arrangement is that the project will be delivered sooner; the downside is that the private partner’s profit increases the cost of the project.  A recent ARC presentation quantifies exactly how this new arrangement will change the amount and structure of the project’s cost.

TIP_Amendment 285 400

(This cost increase likely reflects other factors in addition to financing costs, such as updated engineering and right of way estimates.)  

GDOT has considered various repayment curves for how and when the project would be paid off.  The two curves below (one for the collector-distributor portion of the project and one for the interchange redesign portion) show that the DBF arrangement would not only increase the project’s total cost but also distribute repayment over a longer period of time.

285 400 Spend Curve CD

285 400 Spend Curve Interchange

If GDOT adopts this repayment schedule, the 400/285 project would be completed in 2019 but not paid off until 2027.  And those last payments in 2027, totalling $62 million, are over 20% of the state’s current $270 million capital budget.

Given the project’s perceived importance and likely popularity with the electorate, GDOT and the Governor may believe that the additional cost is money well spent. But deferring payment puts long term constraints on our transportation options. Georgia already has more of its transportation budget tied up in debt service than neighboring states. And this proposal suggests that we remain intent on building projects today but paying for them tomorrow.

Educating Clayton

MARTA has released a presentation and a FAQ to help educate residents of Clayton County about MARTA and the upcoming referendum. Of particular interest is the updated map and timeline of proposed bus service. The maps is very similar, but visually simpler, than the previous version and also includes the timeline for easy reference. MARTA’s full presentation is here and […]

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Cost Per Mile

Critics often discuss the cost per mile to construct, operate, and maintain transit projects.  Below, from GDOT Commissioner Golden’s presentation to the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure, are some similar figures for roads.

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