Saturday, August 10, 2019

Benefits of the I-45 Expansion and the High Cost of Electric Buses

This week's post is a guest post by Oscar Slotboom

North Houston Highway Improvement Project (IH 45 expansion)
Recent Chronicle reporting on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project has been somewhat one-sided against the project. The Chronicle gave heavy publicity to the "boondoggle" report by a special interest group. On July 14 Tory posted a link to the response by Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation debunking the biased report. On July 14 the Chronicle featured an anti-project op-ed in the first page of the Sunday opinion section, which at 1818 words was far longer than the usual 700 word limit.
To bring some balance to the issue, I submitted a pro-project outlook op-ed and the Chronicle kindly published it this past week on August 3 (online) and August 8 (print). In short: I enumerate the extensive benefits this project will provide for mobility, downtown improvement and enhancement of adjacent neighborhoods, concluding that the project is a vital investment in Houston's future.
  •   Houston needs the I-45 expansion
  • PDF of online version (permalink, login not required)
  • PDF of print version, abridged from online version (permalink, login not required)
67% of weekday peak-period traffic on downtown freeways is passing through downtown, not originating from or going to downtown destinations. These trips are virtually impossible to serve with traditional public transit, since they are coming from dispersed locations and going to dispersed locations. The value of 67% was derived from the 2014 official traffic study, and is summarized below.

Freeway % Through Traffic Lanes
Through Lanes
Through Lanes
45 SB 62% 4 2 (50%) 3 (75%)
69 SB 72% 5 2 (40%) 3 (60%)
10 WB 71% 4 2 (50%) 4** (100%)
288 NB 76% 4
69 NB 50% 5 2 (40%) 4 (80%)
10 EB 69% 5 2 (40%) 4** (80%)
45 NB * 4 2 (50%) 3 (75%)
Average 67% 45% 78%
*Available data is not consistent with other freeways **IH 10 express lanes (2 each way) counted as only one each way due to one-lane entrance/exits

The capacity percent for through lanes is a simplification since in some cases connections occur before the narrowest point, but it is a good indicator for comparison. The existing downtown freeways have around 45% through capacity, compared to 67% of travel demand. The NHHIP will increase through-capacity to around 78%, well above 67%.

Due to the insufficient downtown through capacity, nine of the top 20 most congested freeways in Texas are included in the NNHIP or are immediately adjacent to it. The #1 most congested freeway segment in Texas is the West Loop between IH 69 and IH 10. Of course, plans to add lanes to the West Loop were canceled in the early 1990s, and this is the result - tens of thousands of people suffering in more severe traffic every day because of that bad decision.

Rank Freeway Limits
1 610 West Loop I-69 to I-10
2 IH 69 Southwest Freeway West Loop to SH 288
5 IH 69 downtown SH 288 to IH 10
10 IH 45 North Freeway Loop 610 to Beltway 8
11 IH 45 downtown and Gulf Freeway IH 10 to Loop 610 South
12 SH 288 South Freeway Loop 610 to IH 45
16 IH 10 downtown IH 45 North Freeway to IH 69 Eastex Freeway
17 IH 10 West (inside Loop) West Loop to IH 45 North Freeway
18 North Loop West IH 45 North Freeway to IH 10 Katy Freeway
20 IH 45 North Freeway IH 10 to Loop 610
Electric Buses
A couple recent articles about electric buses caught my attention.

The Dallas Morning News recently analyzed an implementation of 7 electric buses run by DART and concluded that the initial cost and overall lifetime cost of the electric buses is much higher than conventional diesel buses. Our million-dollar bus doesn't add up. We did the math
"The buses gobble up vast quantities of electricity for very little distance. Between seven buses recharging 34 times every weekday, the city spends about $1,000 per day on power for the electric buses. The city also spent over $800,000 on the new charging stations alone, which will need upkeep of their own over the years. ...Given all these costs, a simple net present value calculation shows that we'll spend nearly half a million more for a single electric bus over the course of its lifetime — or, the cost of a new diesel bus."
An article in Wired, Why Electric Buses Haven't Taken Over the World—Yet, explains why a conversion to electric buses is going to be difficult and expensive. In short, the entire workflow and infrastructure for servicing buses is going to need to be rebuilt, at a very high cost.
"But charging stations are expensive—about $50,000 for your standard depot-based one. On-route charging stations, an appealing option for longer bus routes, can be two or three times that....Then agencies also have to get the actual electricity to their charging stations. This involves lengthy conversations with utilities about grid upgrades, rethinking how systems are wired, occasionally building new substations, and, sometimes, cutting deals on electric output."
My conclusion from these articles is that there's no need for Metro to be an early adopter of electric buses. It's just going to cost a lot of money, and any air quality benefit would be negligible with a small percentage of electric buses in the fleet. Thankfully, it appears that Metro is proceeding slowly on electric buses, mainly due to concerns over the ability of electric bus air conditioning to meet summer needs.

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