Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Katy tolls underpriced? plus anti-BRT bias and TED

My TEDx Houston presentation went incredibly well.  Thanks to everyone for their support.  There should be a video available within a few weeks, but until then you can download a pdf of my TEDx slides here or they're also permalinked in the right-side Links column.

I'm crunched for time this week, so just a pass-along of a couple of interesting items from Reason's Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter.  Highlights mine.  Bottom line: we should be doing a lot more cost-effective signature bus and BRT instead of light rail, and congestion-priced toll lanes are adding a lot more value to society than we've been assuming - and we need a lot more of them.

New BRT Report Pulls Back the Veil

I’ve been a fan of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for many years now, ever since learning of the very impressive system in Curitiba, Brazil (and years later, the equally impressive BRT system on Bogota, Colombia). What has continued to surprise me since then is how infrequently U.S. metro areas opt for BRT, going instead for far more costly and less flexible rail transit systems. So I’m delighted to introduce you to the best report I’ve seen on BRT possibilities in the United States. Released last month by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, it’s called “Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit.” (www.itdp.org/documents/20110526ITDP_USBRT_Report-LR.pdf)

Let me first caution you that, as the term is used in this country, there are two different forms of BRT: BRT-lite and BRT-heavy. The former is often called “rapid bus” and is exemplified by LA Metro’s highly successful Metro Rapid: limited-stop service using specially marked buses in mixed-traffic lanes on major arterials throughout Los Angeles County (like Metro's signature lines). At very modest cost, Metro Rapid has achieved large gains in bus ridership in numerous L.A. corridors. The new ITDP report is about only BRT-heavy—express services using specialized buses operating mostly on bus-only right of way, on arterials or freeways, with stations rather than just bus stops and many other special features (off-board fare collection, high-level boarding platforms, etc.). The report makes a good case that even though this kind of BRT is far more costly than BRT-Lite, it is less costly than light rail and far more flexible. The report presents a point-scoring system to rate any BRT-heavy system as to how close to “world standard” it is, and also provides profiles of five currently operating U.S. BRT-heavy systems.

While all that is good, some of this has appeared in other BRT reports in recent years. What is unique about the ITDP report is its Chapter V: “BRT and the Feds.” For years I’ve wondered, for all BRT’s advantages and the Federal Transit Administration’s recent encouragement of BRT, why nearly all FTA transit grants go to rail projects. Chapter V lifts the veil and explains why. One problem, already pretty well known, is Congress’s tendency to earmark favored transit projects, even when they score poorly in FTA’s evaluation process. But far more serious are the flaws in that evaluation process, which the report discusses under the heading “Leniency of Federal Funding Criteria Towards Dubious Rail Projects.” Local agencies are required to conduct an “alternatives analysis,” but they are allowed to rig the game. One way is to not include a BRT alternative at all, only the required “no-build” alternative. Another is to use “mode-specific constants” when comparing BRT with rail—an arbitrary factor that builds in an assumption that BRT will attract lower ridership per route-mile (or other parameter) than rail. Other techniques are simply wildly over-optimistic ridership estimates and the selection of weak alternatives. The report illustrates these kinds of “deck-stacking techniques” as used for the Woodward Avenue corridor in Detroit, the Purple Line project in Maryland, and the Dulles Corridor in Virginia (West Falls Church to Dulles Airport).

In addition to criticizing the FTA for allowing that kind of deck-stacking, the report also notes with dismay the watering down of FTA cost-effectiveness criteria in recent years, most recently FTA’s consideration of adding additional environmental or development factors, which would further reduce the weighting given to cost-effectiveness. And the authors add that “further complicating the appraisal process is only likely to make it even less transparent. This could invite further gaming of the assessment process by project proponents in favor of politically desired outcomes.”

After all these words of praise, I do have one objection. As near as I can tell, the only place in the whole 80-page report where priced lanes (HOT or express toll lanes) are mentioned is in the Introduction, on page 7. Everywhere else in the report, the discussion is always about the necessity of having bus-only lanes for BRT, even if this means taking away existing general-purpose lanes. Yet as Ted Balaker and I pointed out six years ago in a Reason Foundation study, variably priced lanes such as HOT lanes are the virtual equivalent of exclusive busways, offering enormous potential for BRT-heavy service without requiring transit agencies to pay the large capital (and political) costs of acquiring and building exclusive bus-only guideways. (http://reason.org/news/show/virtual-exclusive-busways)

This is a point the FTA still does not appear to appreciate. In a report whose authors were willing to speak truth to power and make strong pro-BRT recommendations, their failure to urge the FTA, state DOTs, and local officials to act on the synergy between BRT and priced lanes is an enormous missed opportunity.

Are Managed Lanes Under-Priced?

The question of how to price congestion-relief toll lanes is still a live issue. An important new paper adds to our knowledge of how heterogeneous people’s value of time savings may be in congested expressway corridors. Unlike previous studies of this issue, which have relied primarily on the 15-year-old 91 Express Lanes in California, this new research is based on people using the relatively new managed lanes on the Katy Freeway (I-10) in Houston, opened a couple of years ago. The paper is “Variation in the Value of Travel Time Savings and Its Impact on the Benefits of Managed Lanes.” The authors are Sunil Patil (RAND Europe), Mark Burris and Douglass Shaw (Texas A&M), and Sisinnio Concas (Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of Florida). (http://ssrn.com/abstract=1808035)

Patil, et al. understand that revealed preference surveys typically yield low average values of time for commuters, yet they appreciate that those choosing to use managed lanes (MLs) may have much higher values of time for the trips they decide are worth paying for. So they set out to test the hypothesis that people’s value of travel time savings (VTTS) would be higher for what they defined as “urgent” trips. They administered an on-line survey to thousands of people who use the Katy Freeway and have a choice to use its two MLs in each direction. A total of nearly 3,000 people answered all the questions. Among other things, each was presented with a randomly selected pair of questions about mode choice, under ordinary conditions and in an “urgent” situation. There were six of the latter, including travel to an important meeting or event, running late to an appointment or meeting, being worried about arriving somewhere on time, etc.

The complete survey data were analyzed using both a multinomial logit model (MNL) and a mixed logit model. The full methodology is explained in the paper, but here I will focus on their findings. Overall, they found that the estimated value of travel time savings “is much higher for all of the six urgent trip situations than for non-urgent situations.” The highest values were obtained for the “running late to appointment or meeting” situation, where the VTTS ranged from $27.90/hour to $47.50/hour. Those values are 3.8 to 5.5 times greater than the implied average VTTS for an ordinary situation (holding all other factors, like time of day, direction, etc. constant). They also found, consistently, that the VTTS for urgent trips was actually higher for lower-income drivers (household income less than $50,000/year) than for middle-income drivers ($50-100K/year). In fact, their results show that “many of the travelers from the medium and low-income groups who are on urgent trips will have VTTS greater than that of travelers from the high-income group on ordinary trips.” The authors guess that this “might be attributed to the fixed-schedule constraints associated with lower-paying jobs,” which strikes me as plausible.

The implications for DOTs and toll road companies planning managed lanes projects are profound. Their traffic and revenue projections should not assume that all ML users are engaged in ordinary trips; doing so could significantly understate the travel time benefits of the MLs. The authors illustrate this with a few numerical examples, and suggest that in some corridors “it is possible that the majority of ML travelers are on urgent trips.” While it may be difficult to accurately estimate the percentage of ML customers who will be making urgent trips, failing to take this into account may leave significant money on the table. This research also suggests that instead of merely analyzing variable toll rate structures that will maximize either throughput or revenue, ML traffic and revenue studies should also look into maximizing the economic value of the project. To be sure, this will end up being about the same as maximizing revenue, but the assumptions used in the arriving at that value will be different, seeking to factor in the extent of urgent-trip usage in the MLs.

From a macro perspective, it seems to me that the more we learn about how heterogeneous travelers’ value of time really can be, the stronger the case becomes for premium-priced express lanes—as opposed to charging an average peak-period toll to all expressway users.

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At 6:00 AM, June 15, 2011, Blogger Peter Wang said...

The Katy tollway needs to be priced higher, and priced in REAL-TIME, to keep congestion from forming, to keep service levels high. It gets way too crowded. It's too cheap.

YES to heavy BRT. When can we have ours on FM1960 / SH6? "Only" 500,000 people live within a 2 miles (bike ride) distance of this roadway, from Bush-IAH to Sugar Land!

At 11:44 AM, June 16, 2011, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


The deck stacking by the FTA on evaluation of rail projects, done under pressure from the usual interest group suspects, has been happening over the past decades in every single sphere that the federal government touches.

And the FTA is no different. The FTA, presumably in the beginning operated according to the Progressive Woodrow Wilson theory of administrative government, writes up all kinds of rules to scientifically evaluate transit projects, only to come under pressure from members of Congress and the government transit constituency to water them down and build projects with big dead weight losses and zero marginal value.

It's this kind of run away government that led to the explosion into existence of the Tea Party movement. The problem is that the wolves and sharks have been at the table for a very long time and they aren't going away without a fight to the death.


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