Bring Back Tar & Feathering

There are three articles that are worth your time.  The first is the longest and least immediately relevant locally, so maybe print it out, take it home, and read it if you’re into the low tech version.  Or save it to your pocket and read it on the train or something.

First, is Rick Robinson on the promise of smart city technology and how it has yet to be realized.

Second, somebody I’ve been following for a long time since his days at MIT researching transportation, Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic, who is now at the Chicago regional MPO doing cool things like creating the TOD calculator, published an op-ed on best practices for streetcars and transit in general, really.  Key quotes:

“…experience shows that this [De Blasio’s proposed Brooklyn streetcar] project’s success depends on more than just a pair of tracks and new trolley cars.  A streetcar line that actually improves quality of life for New Yorkers must be fast, frequent, and reliable – all of which require redirecting street space away from private automobiles…”

“In most American cities with streetcars, success has been limited by faulty design.  Forced to share lanes with automobiles, the streetcars get held up in traffic.  Unable to maneuver out of their tracks, unlike nimbler buses, they get stuck behind stopped cars or delivery trucks.”

And now, my favorite piece from my morning news reading comes all the way from Tampa Bay on the infamous (I’m assuming) Suncoast Parkway, a tollroad that is vastly underperforming revenue projections yet is set to expand because goshdarn it, some guy really wants it expanded.  That it is operating below projections is an issue, but not the only issue.  Had it achieved its projections, that would mean new car trips that didn’t previously exist because the road was intended to serve hypothetical future growth.  The real issue is had that growth occurred (but didn’t, which is a huge bet with taxpayer money in its own right), it would be capitalizing on a captive market of its own creation.  That’s terrible public policy.  More:

“They’re building this highway for cars that don’t exist yet,” said Ralf Brooks, an attorney who’s trying to get the route moved so it won’t obliterate a historic site in the Withlachoochee State Forest. “Is this just a way to make money for the companies that build roads and donate to candidates? Or are they trying to bring traffic to the developers?”

1 – If such growth were to occur, it could occur anywhere and in just about any form.  However, there is only so much growth to go around.  They bet on the come but crapped out.  On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves if building roads in the middle of nowhere for $500 million to stir growth is the kind of growth a place needs.  It may be quantitative growth in that the land area of a metro gets bigger (unless it cannibalizes from existing areas as sprawl often does), but is it qualitative?  Does it improve people’s lives?  Is it best to continue to sprawl outward?  Would that infrastructure money be better spent focusing growth inwards and upwards to allow the private real estate market to deliver more sustainable development in better land use patterns?  These are rhetorical questions.

That same DOT consultant, San Francisco-based URS Greiner Woodward, provided overly sunny financial projections for the Veterans Expressway in Tampa; the Seminole Parkway near Sanford; the Polk Parkway near Lakeland; and the Garcon Point Bridge near Pensacola. In a 2000 interview with the Times, URS officials said they were “basically guessing.”

2 – I mean, anybody who has followed stories of traffic modeling and forecasting knows it’s a wild guessing and game and utterly full of merde, but you rarely get the people paid to shovel it to actually admit it.

But the Suncoast was always built on a foundation of dreams. When the $507 million toll road from northern Hillsborough to Hernando County first opened, its supporters were sure it would spark a massive building boom. New homes and stores would pop up all over. They would fill the 42-mile toll road with cars and trucks and the state’s coffers with money.

3 – This is called subsidizing sprawl under the misguided expectation that user fees (tolls) would pay off the upfront cost for the infrastructure.  However, tolls depress demand.  That’s what they’re good at.  You raise costs you diminish demand (unless you have a captive market – which, mind, isn’t yet there).  This is why tolls are good at demand management.  Want less congestion?  Toll existing capacity where the most congestion occurs, be that on highways or say Central London with congestion charges for entering the area.  What they’re VERY bad at doing is financing new capacity while also being expected to leverage new growth that must be marketed to by saying, “oh yeah, you’ll have a cheap house in the middle of nowhere and you’ll also have to pay x dollars a day just to get around.”

It’s a simple equation.  A) Tolls reduce demand and thus are good at decongesting certain corridors, areas already congested.  B) Because of massive over-extension of public infrastructure (highways, sprawl, etc.) and thus public tax dollars, highway builders turned to tolls as a new source of revenue to keep the trough full for the little piggies.  Because of A), they fail at B).

Their desire for development fueled the wildly overblown projections by URS, which two years ago was taken over by a rival, Aecom, which now holds the $5.9 million annual contract for making toll road projections.

4 – That’s an awfully big annual fee for shoveling shit and calling it gold.  BRB, writing a proposal to do the same.

Ignoring Florida’s history of real estate boom-and-bust cycles, URS in its Suncoast 1 projections didn’t account for a housing slowdown, which eventually came with the housing crash and the 2008 Great Recession.

5 – Oops.  I always thought the growth trend line extended towards infinity.

As a result, the development boom that the road was intended to spark never caught fire. Land along the parkway is so empty of development that a SuperTarget store that opened to take advantage of the expected population boom closed in January.

6 – I include this because there are certain MPO transportation agencies, not saying whom, that define this as economic development.  Economic development is new demand, not the provision of stuff.  This is where the difference between quantitative and qualitative growth is critical.  Quantitative growth is largely superficial, fragile, and unsustainable.

The Suncoast 2 has been in the works for years, and drawing opposition all along. When the DOT first held a public hearing on it in 1997, more than 600 people sent in written comments, and 545 were completely opposed.

Three years later, opponents collected 4,700 signatures on a petition opposing the road.

7 – Yet, it still went forward.  YOU CAN’T STOP PROGRESS HIPPIES!

8 – It gets worse, but I don’t want to copy/paste the entire thing.  Hint: the expansion is set to wipe out a national historically registered place, the lack of growth put the project on hold in 2008, but Florida’s new governor is dumping more taxpayer money into the project to keep it alive.

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