Differing transportation thoughts

Last week at Blue Ridge Forum, regular author Richard Falknor stepped aside for a two-part series by writer Peter Samuel, a specialist in writing about toll roads. In part one, Samuel advocated for a reduction in tolls and license fees, which was good, but in return we would have to endure this:

Fairness and efficiency will be best served by moving toward transport systems that self-finance with user fees: more precisely, fees-for-use roads should finance themselves with fees based on the cost of providing road service, road use fees, or tolls based on the distance traveled, the scarcity of road space, and the costs the vehicles impose.

Unfortunately, this raises the prospect of abuse by the state. Imagine portions of U.S. 50 and Maryland Route 90 becoming toll roads from the Bay Bridge to Ocean City, such as the bypass around Salisbury and any future routes around Easton and Cambridge. Sure, you could avoid the tolls and go through town but the traffic would become the same issue it was before the current U.S. 50 portion of the Salisbury bypass opened a decade or so ago. This would also be discouraging for truck traffic.

Maybe the best example of the problem with this philosophy is the Inter-County Connector between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The ICC, as it’s called, was in the pipeline for decades before finally becoming a reality under Bob Ehrlich, with Martin O’Malley finishing it last year. But the ICC isn’t popular with drivers because of its lower speed limit and heavy enforcement of traffic laws, so it hasn’t met revenue projections.

It’s likely Samuel is thinking more of the urban areas with their existing HOT lanes and other means to divide express traffic heading to the suburbs and local traffic which may hop on the highway for a couple exits. But Samuel’s second part discusses the fate of the Red Line in Baltimore and Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

In that case he is correctly diagnosing the problem with mass transit solutions such as these:

Project advocates list all the jobs created during construction, but this is only a measure of cost, and avoids the real question: what value are they creating?

In any enterprise there is positive net value if the users are paying sufficient user fees (fares) to both cover operating costs and provide a competitive return on capital (ROI).

To the extent fares won’t cover costs plus return on capital, we have a clear measure that the value to users falls short of costs, making the project a net loss to any operator.

Rail transit in Maryland presently collects in the ‘farebox’ less than 30 cents on the dollar spent on operating the system and, of course, makes no return on capital invested. Light rail is the very worst with lower farebox recovery (currently under 20 cents per dollar.)

Some of those results could be improved, but almost no rail system in America come close to the black (100 on the dollar + ROI).

If you read further, Samuel likes the concept of the Red Line but is concerned about the construction cost and likelihood of overruns. On the other hand, his thought on the Purple Line is that it should change its form and become a bus-only route. The construction would be far cheaper and the schedule could be more easily adjusted to suit the needs of consumers. That’s an approach which makes more sense, although one has to ask why automotive traffic couldn’t utilize the route then.

At the end of part two, Peter also adds a map of proposed changes, including a westward extension of the ICC which crosses over into Virginia and provides another Potomac crossing west of Washington, as well as an eastbound addition which connects to U.S. 50 near Bowie. Also noted is a “new span Bay Bridge.”

What I would propose, though, is a truly new span Bay Bridge that’s several dozen miles south and connects Dorchester County with Calvert County. There’s no question the environmentalists (and some of the locals) would scream bloody murder, but they would for any attempt at progress anyway.

I think this bridge would encourage more tourism from the Washington area and, if combined with an extension of I-97 to its original destination near Richmond, could open up the Eastern Shore as a new tourist destination as travelers seek an alternate route around the traffic presented in Baltimore and Washington. Adding a bypass around Easton and cutoff between U.S. 50 and U.S. 301 through Queen Anne’s County (paralleling or upgrading the existing Maryland Route 213) could make this route even more desirable. Samuel could even get the cutoff to be a toll route.

There is a lot which can be done in lieu of wasting money on the Red Line and Purple Line because both are destined to be money pits; on the other hand, investing in transportation alternatives which maximize options and freedom makes more sense. As Samuel writes:

Better mobility provides greater employment opportunities, better shopping choices, more specialized health and medical services, more social and family interaction, better education, sporting. and recreational opportunities.

Our travel is not frivolous. People don’t drive the Capital Beltway for the scenery. We travel because the trips provide value.

There would be value in having a second Bay Bridge as well as the other roads for which I advocated. People and goods could move more freely up and down the East Coast, avoiding the bottlenecks presented in northern Virginia and around Baltimore, while the Lower Shore would have more direct access to a route across Chesapeake Bay, allowing for easier movement west and south.

It’s time to think on a larger scale while accepting the reality that people want the freedom to be able to jump in their cars at a moment’s notice and go wherever they wish. Mass transit simply creates dependency on the provider and allows them some level of control of movement. That may be acceptable to some, but the rest of us want to get where we want to go as quickly as possible – on our terms – and this is where government can be of service to the public.