Funding Estimates, Courtesy of the CBO

The Congressional Budget Office has new budget estimates for the Highway and Transit Trust Funds, and the conclusions aren’t good:

  • The current trajectory of the Highway Trust Fund is unsustainable. Starting in fiscal year 2015, the trust fund will have insufficient amounts to meet all of its obligations, resulting in steadily accumulating shortfalls.
  • Since 2008, the Congress has avoided such shortfalls by transferring $41 billion from the general fund of the Treasury to the Highway Trust Fund. An additional transfer of $12.6 billion is authorized for 2014. If lawmakers chose to continue such transfers, they would have to transfer an additional $14 billion to prevent a projected shortfall in 2015.

The report’s graphics are pretty striking as well.

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Opening Our Eyes to Accessibility

Map of Access to Downtown Employment Center by Car and Transit from Plan 2040

David Levinson at University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies has released a new report entitled Access Across America.  An alternative to the Urban Mobility Report and other congestion-focused rankings, Access Across America focuses on accessibility as the key benchmark for a region’s transportation performance. Website is here; full report is here.

Accessibility describes the ease of reaching destinations, and is a function of both travel time on the road and the arrangement of activities with respect to the road network.  Unlike congestion, which measure how fast or slowly you can move on the network with no direct reference to where you can get, accessibility also reflects a region’s land use patterns.

Access Across America measures the accessibility of jobs by car in 51 U.S. metropolitan areas, and compares the current data (2010) to accessibility levels in 1990 and 2000.  Of the metro areas examined, the ten most accessible are:

        1. Los Angeles
        2. San Francisco
        3. New York
        4. Chicago
        5. Minneapolis
        6. San Jose
        7. Washington, D.C.
        8. Dallas
        9. Boston
        10. Houston

Among the study’s other findings:

  • In 2010, the average American could reach slightly fewer jobs by automobile than in 1990 but more jobs than in 2000;
  • Automobile speeds were faster in 2010 than in 2000 (and about where they were in 1990);
  • Job losses have limited accessibility gains associated with faster networks;
  • The average American city is slightly more circuitous in 2010 than in 1990 because roads in newer areas (suburban growth) are not as well connected as those in older areas of the metropolitan region; and
  • People living in many smaller metropolitan areas can reach as many jobs by car as people living in much larger areas within both the 10- and 20- minute time frames.

So how did Atlanta fare? Not so great:

 Atlanta, GA

Overall rank of accessibility to jobs by automobile: #28
In 10 minutes: #51
In 20 minutes: #51
In 30 minutes: #37
In 40 minutes: #15
In 50 minutes: #9
In 60 minutes: #9

In 2010, Atlanta was literally the worst city examined for the ability to access jobs within 10 or 20 minutes.  Its ranking gradually improves as the trips get longer and overall Atlanta is roughly in the middle of the pack.

The trend for shorter distance commutes is also striking.  According to the report, metro Atlanta added 521,000 jobs between 1990 and 2010.  Over that same period, the number of Atlanta jobs accessible within 0-10 minutes decreased by 32%, jobs within 10-20 minutes decreased by 31%, and the jobs within 20-30 minutes decreased by 29%.  In other words, metro Atlanta added a half million jobs over the last 20 years but those jobs are located a long way from where people live.

But all is not lost.  The region’s current transportation plans, including both the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan and Plan 2040, prominently feature assessibility as a key metric for transportation performance.  The specific variation on accessibilty used in both plans is the ability to access job centers within 45 minutes.

Map of Access to the Perimeter Employment Center from the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan

Map of Access to the Perimeter Employment Center from the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan

proposed update to the region’s project selection process under Plan 2040 likewise contemplates the continued use of this measurement.

The increased promence of accessibility as a transportation metric is an important step for the region because it reflects the interplay between transportation and land use.  A 40 mile commute on uncongested roads would not register on the Urban Mobility Report, but is still a long way to travel under any conditions.  Closer to reality, a 40 mile commute on congested roads is much more daunting than a 15 mile commute under similar conditions.  Access Across America‘s focus on accessibility is an important way to quantify the problem, and the use of this metric in the region’s transportation plans is a step toward the solution.

$1 Billion Buys You What?

What does $1 billion buy these days?

As boosters tout toll lanes as the region’s best transportation option, the Federal Highway Administration and Georgia DOT have released a “Reevaluation” of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Northwest Corridor toll lane project.  The document updates the 2011 Final EIS based on a number of changes to the project  including its new public-private partnership structure and transportation modeling developed as part of Plan2040. The Southern Environmental Law Center’s comments on the Reevaluation can be found here.

The Reevaluation’s new traffic modeling clarifies what this project will do and what it will not.  Further, it highlights the shortcomings of managed lanes as a regional transportation strategy.  What can we expect from the most expensive transportation project in Georgia’s history?

Using data from the Reevaluation, the table below shows the expected level of service for the project at various points along I-75 and I-575. (Level of service is a measure of congestion conditions, with A being the best and F being the worst).  The Reevaluation rates traffic condition at each of these intersections in two time periods: 2018 (around when the project would open) and 2035 (approximately 15 years into service).  A separate letter rating is  given for the “No Build” scenario, in which the project is not built,  the untolled General Purpose (GP) lanes and the tolled, Managed Lanes (ML) if the project is built.

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Level of Service Ratings for Northwest Corridor Project Based on Data from FEIS Reevaluation

Congestion in the Managed Lanes is expected to be consistently and considerably superior to congestion in the untolled, General Purpose lanes.  The Managed Lanes were also a clear improvement over doing nothing in the No Build scenario.  The results for the General Purpose lanes, however, were less promising.  Only four of the 64 locations showed any improvement and one of the intersections was modeled to get worse.  The remaining 59 intersections – 92% of those modeled – were no better after building the project.  In short, the project will greatly benefit the toll lanes but provide negligible benefit for the untolled lanes.

Why should this discrepancy concern us? After all, drivers in the Managed Lanes would pay the toll for premium service so why shouldn’t they expect better service? The project’s negligible improvement to the General Purpose lanes is important because, as the graphs below show, the vast majority of drivers will be in the General Purpose lanes.

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Distribution of Drivers by Lane Type in 2018 and 2035 (Average of Data from Reevaluation Tables 32 and 33)

The Managed Lanes operate by limiting access, so by their nature they have a finite capacity.  Even if more drivers were willing to pay the toll, the toll price would  increase until enough  drivers are priced out to keep the lanes moving freely.  The Managed Lane have high Level of Service ratings precisely because most people will not be using them.

Reading these graphics together, on any given day the vast majority of drivers on the Northwest Corridor will not benefit from the project because 94% to 98% of the drivers on the Northwest Corridor will be sitting in congestion just as bad as if the billion dollar project had not been built.  Drivers are being promised improved congestion but the Reevaluation shows that only 2% to 4% of them will actually see it.

Managed lanes are not intended to improve the performance of the road as a whole.  Drivers on the I-85 have come to appreciate this reality the hard way and drivers on the Northwest Corridor are on notice to temper their expectations as well.  But this begs the larger policy question – is a project that only works for 2-4% of drivers worth $1 billion?

What Does It Cost To Park?

Streetsblog reports on research by the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies examining the partial deregulation of parking requirements in downtown Los Angeles. The study finds that:

 [R]emoving parking requirements for a subset of buildings in downtown Los Angeles led to both more housing and a greater variety of housing. Not only were more units built, but these units were constructed in buildings and neighborhoods that had long been stagnant and underused. Further, a number of these buildings unbundled parking from rent, allowing them to target an underserved demographic—people without cars—and offer a lower-priced housing product.

Parking minimums require new development to provide a certain number of parking spaces based on the number of units  or square footage in the development.  The idea is to ensure that the new residents, workers or shoppers have a place to park. But these parking spaces come at at cost, both in money and space, so requiring a specific amount of parking can drive some types of development but discourage others. Washington DC, Santa Monica and Cincinnati recently joined the list of cities entertaining proposals to reduce or remove parking minimums in areas well served by transit in an effort to facilitate high density, transit oriented development.

Revisiting Atlanta’s parking minimums would be particularly timely now as the Downtown Streetcar continues construction, MARTA moves forward with development plans around key stations and the debate continues about development near the Beltline.  These projects tout transit access and contemplate less auto-centric development, so adjusting the applicable parking requirements could be a powerful tool to facilitate the right kind of development in these areas.

Atlanta’s zoning already shows preliminary steps in this direction.  For example, it waives the parking requirements for “retail and eating and drinking establishments within 500 feet of a MARTA rail station entrance … with a floor area of 500 square feet or less.”  But this research suggests that reducing or removing the parking requirement fundamentally changes the cost equation, allowing more affordable housing and redevelopment in areas where it would not otherwise be feasible.  Revisiting Atlanta’s zoning to strategically reduce its parking requirements can be a useful strategy to facilitate the right development around these key projects.