Monday, April 22, 2013

Whither A State Of Transportation?

Sometimes it is quite difficult to determine on what subject I want to write and at other times the subject just leaps at me. Lately I have been reading about the transportation situation facing us locally and nationally and how we will pay for it.

With all of the construction workers out of work will a resumption of the highway building and other major building projects help solve the unemployment problem? Will spending more money on highways prove sensible while Americans are driving less and the younger generation is buying fewer automobiles?

Back at the end of March, the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer Inga Saffron, posited that perhaps we American's are a bit too haphazard about how we allocate our transportation funds. We tend to push for lane and intersection improvements to some of our arterial streets in Lexington, huge Interstate interchanges in downtown Louisville, and massive new bridge projects in Cincinnati and Louisville. But, when it comes to any sort of mass transit style proposal the masses go all livid about the freedoms of movement and choice which will be infringed.

Highway funding is becoming increasingly tight, in part because Congress and States are unwilling to raise the gasoline tax on steadily rising fuel prices. The American Society of Civil Engineers believe that we are so far behind on infrastructure repairs that they recently gave an overall D+ to the conditions of our nation's bridges and roads. One must realize that it is in the best interest of the ASCE to chase new construction projects for their members. I personally feel that this grade is not from design and age, but from simple overuse of a “free”amenity.

Around the same time, a writer for the Washington Post revealed that the famous Capital Beltway was slowly dying beneath the turning wheels of about a quarter-million cars a day. As they called it, “turning to mush”before their eyes. In what sounds like an excerpt from one of our Council work sessions, “... the older base layers under the asphalt, the surface is not able to absorb the pounding the way it used to...” was used to describe the continuing situation.

I don't believe that the Beltway or any of our primary arterial roadways will die, but they will need to be relieved of much of the stress to which we put them. U.S. drivers, and the commerce on which they rely, are riding on baby-boom-generation roadways, which like us boomers ourselves are no longer so steady and sound. Nearly a third of the nation’s major roads currently need significant repair or replacement, with a far higher percentage in the busiest urban areas, to meet the demand now placed on them.

Bad roads are partly a cause of sticker creep at the checkout aisle, just as the the cost of fixing them is about to cause sticker shock at the gas pump. Delays and bad roads add to the $25 billion in goods delivered nationwide every day which is naturally added to price tags at supermarkets and department stores.

Many state's officials see roads that need replacement and highways that need to be expanded. They cite statistics which show vehicle travel jumped by 39 percent from 1990 to 2008. Despite an acknowledged decline in vehicle miles traveled over the past 5 years, the forecast is to increase another 35 percent by 2030. 

Add to all of the above the comments I heard at the forum on climate change held last week at the University of Kentucky. 

In his presentation on looking for “Free-Enterprise Approaches to Energy Security and Climate Change.”, Bob Inglis, former U.S. representative from South Carolina, expressed his thoughts that sometime, in the near future, we will be traveling the highways in packs of high-speed, robot driven and individually powered vehicles.

According to one description that I have read, this would be a whole new world of cars are packed nose to tail traveling at speeds in excess of current limits. They will weave their way through unmarked junctions, with no traffic lights. Lane markings are non-existent, and stretches of road may switch from being one-way in one direction, to the opposite, with no warning. Perhaps most alarming of all, very few of the “occupants” have even passed a driving test. I see more similarities of riding high speed rail in this than shopping for the family car.

This sounds like Utopia if it occurs out on the open highway lie an Interstate, but do we want this in our urban areas and residential streets? Just when we have made good gains in taking back the streets (Complete Streets planning) from the free-wheeling autos, will we have to redouble our efforts again?

From my personal experience of Interstate driving, I am either passing the casual drivers and the revenue generating long-haul truckers or being passed by, largely singly occupied, long distance commuters, but the common theme is that, unless it is rush hour, we all have plenty of room. 

Efficiency and logic should dictate that these packs of robotic driven vehicles be composed of like vehicles. Trucks with trucks, SUVs with SUVs, single occupants with single occupants on down the line. Also considered should be the fuel and maintenance compatibilities of those allowed in each pack. Sounds like it may be simpler to take the train.

Such vehicles may be much more aware of their own positions and of those vehicles around them, but they also need to be aware of all other animate objects before they are allowed to roam our residential streets. I would worry less about the auto leaving the street than I would about the random child/toy or the stray pet/wild animal entering the roadway.

But, let us assume that all of these possibilities are accounted for and that there will be NO accidents (Yeah, I laughed at that also). If there are no accidents, then there is no one at fault and there is no need for insurance. Norm McDonald, Flo and that Allstate guy will have to join the gecko in the audition line for work. Darryl the “Heavy Hitter” and all of those other law firms will have to fight over the remaining legal claims.

Making further assumptions, I see all of the auto dealers trying to differentiate their models from the other mundane “hop in and let the robot have all of the fun” vehicles out there. There will be no “thrill of the open road” if all are running in packs and we are watching the scenery flying by. The “sports car handling” so familiar to the earliest baby boomers and lacking on most all SUVs and trucks will not be a selling feature unless you are buying antiques.

I worry that the free enterprise of this will inflate the ranks of the unemployed while not solving the infrastructure cost dilemma. Young people are driving less, automobiles are costing more (both initially and over their lifetimes) and the real-time level of wages is stagnant so who will be able to afford such extravagances? And will the roads be there upon which to use them?

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