May 14, 2007

Congestion tolling and privately operated roads—An idea whose time has come?

As our roads become increasingly congested, tolling and privatization of highways will be increasingly important lifelines, especially for large urban economies. The idea that motorists should pay tolls when driving on congested highways has long been advocated by economists. Conceptually, the “public” part of highway transportation is limited to the necessary intervention by public authorities to strategically acquire land for transportation and assure that all have access to travel freely in pursuit of commerce and recreation. However, the individual’s use of a roadway is often “private” in that it imposes congestion costs on other drivers (and some pollution as well). That is, in the motorist’s decision to use a road, the individual driver does not consider the congestion costs imposed on other drivers, thereby leading to the overuse of limited public roadway capacity. As a remedy, congestion tolls bring these individual driving decisions back into line with the greater public good. As the degree of road use (and congestion) varies by time of day and by day of the week, so should the amount of tolls vary accordingly.

After a long hiatus, interest in congestion tolling and privately operated roads has been climbing. European and Asian cities have made innovative headway in congestion fees. Both Stockholm and the City of London have implemented motor vehicle charges for the privilege of access to their central area; so has Singapore. Most recently, New York City has proposed to charge auto motorists $8 for the privilege of driving around Manhattan during peak traffic hours, with higher fees for those driving trucks.

Such actions are largely being spurred by rising congestion—which did not materialize overnight. The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) creates a “travel time index” that indicates the relative change in travel time from peak traffic to free-flow traffic. In a TTI report, Chicago in 1982 had a travel time index of about 1.2, meaning that given a 40-minute commute during a free-flow period, a person driving during peak hours would drive about 48 minutes (20% longer than it “should” take). This had climbed to 57 percent longer by 2003. In four major cities of the Seventh District, the added time to a commute during peak hours has increased from 14% in 1982 to 46% in 2003.

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Prior to the recent spate of toll programs, some highway authorities experimented with non-price-rationing measures such as “high occupancy vehicle” (HOV) lanes. To curtail congestion, HOV lanes set aside and dedicated freeway lanes to those vehicles, including cars and buses that have multiple occupants. Unfortunately, the results were sometimes disappointing in relieving congestion because HOV lanes merely attracted vehicles that already contained multiple occupants, without prompting a significant number of single-passenger motorists to carpool. So, too, the dedicated HOV lanes, while often uncongested, tended to push even greater congestion onto unrestricted lanes of the highway.

In response, the so-called “high occupancy toll” or HOT lanes have sometimes been called into action. HOT lanes are essentially HOV lanes that allow single-occupancy vehicles to motor in them—but for a price.

What has brought us to this state of affairs? Under the best of circumstances, motorists prefer to drive when and where they choose at no charge. But Americans’ penchant for driving has far outrun our financial ability to build roads. Lifestyle changes have tremendously raised the miles traveled in cars by U.S. households. Rising household incomes have lifted the desires for ever larger houses and lots, which are, in turn, often satisfied by homes located quite far from work sites. In addition, owing to the desire for residential privacy, homes are often built on dead-end or nonthrough streets, which has aggravated traffic on the major arterial roads surrounding residential communities.

Also, the rising trend of two-earner households makes it difficult for both earners to simultaneously live near their workplaces. More generally, there are extensive logistics (and driving miles) for today’s American family to coordinate their many trips for work, shopping, education, and recreation. By one estimate (DOT), highway travel miles climbed 23.4% from 1995 to 2005 in comparison to a population increase of 11.4%. To accommodate such rising traffic, road expansion has climbed by only 2.6% over the same period.

Many observers recognize that improved community land use planning could help curtail our appetite for driving. For example, allowing developers to build high-density apartment-type residences around existing commuter rail stations would allow at least one of a household's commuters to keep a car parked during the workday commute. So, too, stronger community planning efforts to assure that households of modest means can find affordable housing could help curtail the need for very long commutes. In the Chicago area, for example, policy think tanks such as Chicago Metropolis 2020 and the Metropolitan Planning Council spearhead efforts and programs that promote such community planning. Still, however sensible such planning may be, there has been very little of it implemented in many U.S. cities to date, and so, the increased commuting has often overtaken existing roadway capacity.

In past decades, state governments have often tried to keep pace with rising demands for driving and for far-flung housing by building more roads, including freeways. Several forces are now conspiring to slow such construction, especially tight fiscal conditions. The primary source of highway grant assistance to states, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, is replenished from the federal tax on gasoline. But the tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not been raised since 1993 so that while revenues do rise somewhat along with vehicle miles traveled, they do not keep pace with rising gasoline prices and higher milage automobiles. Meanwhile, the revenue resources of state governments have also been besieged. Many state gasoline taxes are themselves imposed on a stagnant "cents per gallon" basis, and the voting public strongly resists the raising of gasoline taxes—especially as motor fuel prices have put increased pressure on household budgets over the past three years.

This leaves state government officials in a quandary, since the costs for competing public services, especially health care, education, and prisons, are concurrently squeezing state budgetary funds. State and local governments are hard pressed to even maintain existing highways, let alone fund expansions to curtail growing traffic congestion.

In addition to charging tolls, elected officials are also responding by increasingly turning to the private sector to assume responsibilities that include the financing, planning, marketing, construction, operation, and pricing of roads and bridges. Many combinations and arrangements of these functions are being attempted, from simple outsourcing of management and toll collection of highways to the all encompassing long-term leasing of highways as a publicly regulated private business entity.

Increased congestion and financial stress are not the only reasons behind the privatization and tolling of transportation infrastructure. New and improved technologies for payment of highway tolls have recently come to the fore. In contrast to the driver of yesteryear who had no option but to deal with the delay-plagued coin and cash toll booths, today’s driver can often make payment with little or no slowing down. Toll payments can be made online by transponders carried within vehicles or offline by remiote reading of license plates.

Seventh District initiatives lie at the recent epicenter of these movements in the U.S. In particular, the City of Chicago entered into a 99-year lease to a private consortium in 2005, turning over operational responsibility for and revenue returns from an 8-mile stretch of toll highway called the Chicago Skyway. By many accounts, the City benefited greatly from this transaction, while the public interest of drivers was also well served by enhanced operational efficiencies. The City of Chicago used income from the deal to retire existing debt on the Skyway infrastructure, and with the remaining revenue, it also set up a trust fund and purchased a sizable annuity that will help finance the city’s general operating funds well into the future. The driving public now enjoys rapid roadway maintenance and toll collection and eased congestion, albeit with prospective increases in toll fees.

Following Chicago’s lead, the Indiana Finance Authority leased its east–west toll turnpike for $3.8 billion in 2006. In large part, Indiana will use the proceeds to fund and maintain highway infrastructure throughout the state.

Meanwhile, in an effort to reduce rush-hour congestion around the Chicago area, the Illinois Tollway Authority introduced differential time-of-day pricing for only trucks in 2005. This program also doubled tolls for drivers in autos who choose to pay by cash at toll booths rather than by electronic transponder as they drive through rapidly. Revenues from these schemes are being used for repairs and expansion of the tollway system; they are also being used for the capital costs of new and reconfigured “open road” (or no-stop) toll collection system, which enables vehicles to pay tolls while traveling at highway speeds.

As the Illinois Toll Authority and other examples show, privatization and tolling of roads are separable actions. But in some ways they reinforce one another. Turning one’s operations over to private companies may provide one way to overcome the public’s resistance to congestion pricing, especially in contrast to government authorities who may be encumbered or distracted by non-transportation responsibilities or political constraints (i.e., the lack of political will to appropriately price use of the asset). Privatization potentially may also allow the operational authority to change pricing regimes and payment technologies more quickly in response to changing roadway conditions. Also, cost efficiencies and service quality are presumably improved when private agencies are watching the bottom line, though this has not always proved to be the case.

Still, the issues inherent in privatization schemes are contentious with respect to both purported operational efficiencies and sound fiscal management by governments. In awarding operational and pricing autonomy to private companies, it is not always clear whether the public interest is less than optimally served in favor of the profitability of the private operator. In particular, monopoly-type pricing by a private operator may be worse than publicly directed underpricing of congested facilities. Similarly, the data collected from the publicly rather than privately operated system may be more readily available for systemic public land use and transportation planning across entire metropolitan areas. For these reasons, as they enter into such partnership arrangements, elected officials must carefully craft contract terms and then follow up by monitoring the private companies during the terms of the contract.

Other concerns center on the behavior and actions of governments when they first enter into such agreements. Upfront revenue windfalls from the leasing of public infrastructure may cloud the judgment of governments and elected officials. Without proper disclosure and oversight of government by the public, the sale and leasing of transportation infrastructure to private buyers may pander to the near-sighted proclivities of elected officials. To plug current budget holes, or to plump up current spending for self-motivated reasons, public officials may unwisely commit large revenue streams immediately received from the sale or lease, while concurrently widening future budget deficits by eliminating public revenue streams. As always, the voting public and their representative think tanks must be on guard to oversee the terms of public–private partnership arrangements.

Elected officials must also represent and protect the public’s interests in matters of fairness and equity. Lower-income households are those who will be disproportionately burdened to pay for the use of less-congested roadways. In many ex-urban and suburban places, lower-income households must travel long distances to access their workplaces. Equity concerns are often compelling, since these workplace commutes are often lengthened by land use restrictions undertaken in high-income communities that limit the availability of affordable housing near work sites.

In response to equity concerns, some states and localities are adding capacity and subsidies to public transportation—both light rail and buses. When funding is short, as it usually is, governments often earmark part of highway toll revenues to such dedicated purposes.

However, for many households, public transportation is not an option. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, only 4.7 percent of workers currently use public transportation. The table below shows average usage of public transportation for Seventh District states. Public transportation is, of course, more viable in densely populated places, including large cities such as Chicago. Since large cities also coincide with highway congestion and tolling practices, the use of tolls to fund public transportation subsidies will work better there.

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The use of congestion pricing, privatization, and new payments technologies remain in their infancy. Yet, because of the ever-increasing demand for driving, accompanied by little highway expansion and poor land use planning, heavy congestion will soon be a reality in many communities. For this reason, the Federal Reserve Bank will hold a one-day workshop this June to understand how pricing schemes, public–private partnerships, and emerging payment mechanisms can be used to address congestion and efficiency in commuter networks.

Posted by Testa at 6:11 PM | Comments (2)

December 4, 2006

Chicago Plans for Freight

The Chicago area economy developed on its ability to move freight. With heightened global trade, Chicago area freight transportation has grown rapidly and it is projected to continue to do so, leading to added congestion on highways that are shared by automobile drivers and trucks alike.

This raises important questions as to how the Chicago region should plan future modifications to its transportation infrastructure. The answers are not completely obvious for several reasons. To some degree, Chicago’s economy is shifting toward high-valued service production and away from freight-laden manufacturing. As a result, the value of Chicago’s existing roadways to bring workers to and from their offices is rising in relation to their value for moving goods around and through Chicago. And even with some concerted and likely expensive actions to expand and reconfigure infrastructure, there does not appear to be room for all roadway (and rail) traffic.

Building roadway capacity to serve all possible traffic is not an option. To do so would be too expensive in both construction costs and in taking up limited urban land. Yet, the region will want to act to maximize its ability to handle as much freight (and auto traffic) as possible. And so, in addition to some expansion of transportation capacity, the region will need to determine the most critical infrastructure to repair and build. So too, the region will need to engage in more efficient planning on the location of housing and commercial activity in order to economize on overall travel demand. Finally, more rational operational and pricing policies allocating existing transportation infrastructure will need to be adopted.

Rising global trade has dramatically added to cross-continental freight traffic through Chicago from imported goods landed on the East Coast going west and from the West Coast headed east. Much of this freight activity takes place in Chicago’s large railroad yards and side tracks. Chicago is also a major destination and transfer point for freight carried by truck. Because highway overpasses and underpasses for rail have not been constructed everywhere or they are of insufficient height, auto and truck traffic becomes further congested and delayed.

Adding to local truck-related congestion is the fact that, in order to accommodate rising freight traffic in a cost effective way, goods are now hauled in standardized containers. These containers are often transferred between transportation modes within Chicago, especially by “lifting” containers from truck to train and train to truck. According to World Business Chicago, the Chicago area now ranks among the top five cities in the world in container “lifts” behind Hong Kong and Singapore, where freight lifts mainly take place onto and off of large ocean-going vessels.

The strongest impulse of local policymakers is to find ways to keep transportation flowing through Chicago and possibly build on it as the opportunities arise. By one estimate, rail freight companies and their suppliers employ about 37,000 workers in the Chicago area, while trucking accounts for another 50,000 jobs.

In addition, proximity and low-cost access to delivered goods support income and jobs in related industries. The Chicago region and surrounding Midwest continue to host one of the nation’s largest concentrations of manufacturing establishments, in part due to these transportation advantages for bringing in raw materials and shipping out more-finished products. So too, Chicago remains a major center of wholesale and warehousing operations for its own manufacturing companies and for the greater Midwest region. Even aside from these related industries, as the nation’s third most populous metropolitan area, Chicago needs significant local freight capacity just to supply goods to its own consumers and households. Such freight-carrying ability translates into lower cost of living and greater variety of goods in generally attracting workers and other residents.

Further opportunities for Chicago to handle freight are in the offing. Much global freight now travels through the Panama Canal. Over the next few years, the canal will reach maximum capacity, while its ability to handle large vessels is becoming somewhat obsolete. Although Panama is planning to upgrade the Canal, during the interim the demands on overland inter-continental freight as a possible alternative will rise considerably. Here, Chicago’s history as a railroad town figures prominently, since the nation’s major railroad lines converge in Chicago. Much of the nation’s long-haul railroad freight now travels through the Chicago region, with much of it being transferred from one line to another, or to and from another mode of transportation, especially trucks.

To make headway in accommodating freight, local initiatives have been formed as public–private partnerships. One such partnership is the CREATE rail infrastructure improvement program. The program is a cost-sharing partnership among the Chicago region’s railroads, the City, and the State of Illinois, which will loosen bottlenecks in railroad freight flow through the city.

More comprehensive approaches are also underway to plan for and accommodate more transportation. A new agency (CMAP) has recently been created, consolidating the Chicago area’s existing transportation planning agency with its land use authority. It is anticipated that more careful and coordinated consideration of the region’s land use, housing, and transportation will reduce overall highway travel demand in the region by both cars and trucks. Freight traffic considerations and opportunities are also explicitly on CMAP’s agenda as the agency works to promote collaborative planning in the Chicago region.

From a cost–benefit standpoint, it would be foolish, even it were feasible, to expand infrastructure to meet all possible freight traffic. Land is scarce and expensive in Chicago, which argues against unlimited expansion of land for use in freight transportation. Local benefits of infrastructure expansion may be especially limited for freight that flows through Chicago without off-loading. In these instances, the benefits of Chicago’s freight capacity are more national in scope, or perhaps of benefit to the broader Midwest region. For this reason, projects such as CREATE are requesting that the federal government as well as private freight carriers help finance local infrastructure.

New pricing policies that charge freight users for roads and rail can also help to ration limited roadway capacity and allocate it toward its highest value use. For example, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority now charges higher fees for driving during peak traffic times on its highways in and around Chicago. At the same time, electronic payment of tolls helps to speed both cars and trucks through toll stations. In looking for further improvements, policy makers in the Chicago region can examine a host of models and experiments from around the world that are pricing highway congestion, often in combination with privatized ownership or operation of transportation infrastructure.

The Chicago region cannot probably accommodate all of the nation’s freight needs in coming years, nor would it want to do so. Still, Chicago’s built legacy of infrastructure affords it opportunities for further growth and development in the freight arena and in spin-off economic development activities. Through thoughtful planning and evaluation, cost-effective operation, and well-structured pricing mechanisms, the Chicago Region can realize a broader scope of development opportunities.

Posted by Testa at 10:04 AM | Comments (3)

June 19, 2006

Logistics and the Midwest

Transportation of goods and materials seems to be as important as ever in the U.S. economy. Rising personal income in the U.S. begets greater demand for goods, and these goods must be transported from their place of production to the places where households consume them. In addition, as global trade has expanded, goods are purchased and transported from afar to an ever greater extent. Meanwhile, the physical production processes in manufacturing now have longer supply chains of parts and inputted materials around the world, which help take advantage of the differences in labor costs and skills in different countries, further magnifying transportation demands.

Such transportation activities have long been more important to the Midwest economy. The movement of materials, parts, products, and finished goods is as much a part of its commerce as farming and manufacturing. But the nominal values of farming and manufacturing are diminishing in the region as a share of the Midwest economy. Can the same be said of goods transportation and logistics?

Upon initial consideration, we might think so. However, the aforementioned trends in global trade and transportation may also tend to heighten transportation demands in (and across) the Midwest region. So, too, many Midwest manufacturers have adopted so-called just-in-time (JIT) production technologies in manufacturing. JIT production methods put a premium on low inventories everywhere along the supply chain. And to accomplish these low inventories, JIT production methods make heightened use of the transportation of parts and materials.

The figure below displays transportation and warehousing output as a share of Midwest total output and as a share of U.S. total output (figures quoted are in nominal dollars and exclude personal air transportation). True to form, the Midwest has been an intensive user of transportation and warehousing services. A closer look at the transportation subsectors reveals that rail, air freight, trucking, and warehousing are more concentrated here than in the overall U.S. Pipelines and seaports are less represented.

It is somewhat surprising that the nominal share of output devoted to goods transportation has declined over time in both the region and the nation since 1947. This means that either fewer transportation services are being demanded or that productivity gains are delivering greater actual or “real” transportation services, but doing so at a lower price.

The latter wins hands down. An examination by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that real output growth in warehousing and transportation lagged badly from 1947 to 1987, averaging a growth rate 2.3 percent per year over this forty-year span. This is well below the growth of overall output, which was 3.6 percent per year.

However, in the more recent period from 1987 to 2000, real output in the sector did outpace overall economic growth, 4.6 percent versus 3.3 percent.

Two general phenomena explain the more recent resurgence in real output growth in transportation and warehousing. The more recent period has experienced rapid growth in global trade. Since 1987, for example, the sum of goods exports and imports in the U.S. economy has grown from 14 percent to 21 percent, as measured against total gross domestic product (GDP).

Since 1987, however, this surge in demand for transportation services has only held the sector’s nominal share of GDP in place. That is because productivity gains, coupled with competition, have held down costs and prices for transportation services. A survey article in this week’s Economist, describes the productivity gains taking place in logistics sector, “Like information on the internet, goods are moving around the world with ever greater efficiency.” As a result, from 1987 to 2000, average prices in the sector rose at only one-third the pace of the overall average price rise of GDP.

What are the origins of the sector’s productivity gains? Technological improvements in logistics communication, as well as the intermodal shipment of goods in standardized containers, have allowed transportation services to be produced with fewer inputs of real resources. Competition among service providers, partly owing to deregulation, has also spurred technological gains while holding down prices near to the costs of production.

Is the Midwest developing a sharper specialization in transportation and warehousing? The chart below looks at the ratio of the shares of transportation and warehousing output from 1963 to 2004 for both the region and the nation. Over the past 15 years, the Midwest’s share is widening its relative concentration in the production of goods transportation and warehousing. It may be the case that the central location of the Midwest, coupled with its established transportation infrastructure and its logistics know-how, are buffering the region’s economy with growth in transportation services.

Posted by Testa at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

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