[FoRK] Bridge fall down got BOOM

Stephen D. Williams <sdw at lig.net> on Mon Aug 6 10:43:52 PDT 2007

Gordon Mohr wrote:
> Stephen D. Williams wrote:
>> While the incentives for rapid repair certainly do work, private toll
>> roads seem to be a disaster.
> I've read your description of the situation below several times and 
> can't identify what's wrong.
> You describe toll roads that are "convenient" "usually reasonably 
> fast" and "well-maintained" and charge anywhere from 6 cents to 80 
> cents per mile. What's the disaster?
Disaster may have been an overly strong term, but here are the negatives:

The owners have never made a profit, or even close apparently.  They are 
pushing to drastically increase rates at the end to get to a profit 
before time runs out.  It seems like a disaster for them.

The rate is exorbitant for a 5 mile trip.  (The price is the same 
whether you are traveling 2 miles or 9.)

The speed limit was raised to 65 rather than 55 to encourage usage, 
although the speed limit was not raised on the old toll road or other 
surrounding roads, even though the nominal speed is at least 72.  There 
is a clear case of keeping limits low to create ticket revenue at the 
county and police whim while making political deals to make the Greenway 
attractive.  I haven't found evidence that Virginia requires traffic 
studies like Wisconsin, California, and others do by statute.

For quite a while, no other road development took place on secondary 
roads which created huge traffic problems for the whole area.  For 
people who can't afford the Greenway, or are taking routes that don't 
benefit from it (many), it has been a disaster in terms of traffic speed.

In the last year, suddenly, quite a transformation has been accomplished 
on Route 28, a North / South connector that went from surface 
intersections to impressive flyovers.  The decision was finally made and 
agreed to for funding of the extension of the subway, "Metro", out 
through Dulles Airport to Ashburn.  All of this is about a decade too 
late, but is promising.
> Perhaps, there was a problem with promising these roads would become 
> toll-free in 20 years, a silly government-like pandering economically 
> irrational giveaway. (20-year-old roads need at least as much 
> continuing investment as new roads.)
> You also mention some sort of equity issue with the state of 
> Virginia's county-based apportionment of tax revenues.
> What do those problems have to do with private roadways?
Southern Virginia votes itself far more than its share of tax revenue 
for roads; this has been going on for at least two decades.  The 
resulting shortfall helped lead to toll roads in areas that were 
generating the vast majority of tax revenue and free highways in the 
rest of the state where little revenue was generated.  Most of Northern 
Virginia is, in some sense, double taxed for transportation and still 
gets very slow reaction to traffic problems.

> - Gordon
>> I live 4 blocks from the "Greenway" in Virginia.  It is convenient,
>> usually reasonably fast, but pushing $4 for 5 miles of travel.  The
>> road is about 11 years old and the owners, who are pushing for $6
>> fees, have never made a profit, but only have 20 years to do so.
>> The most of the rest of the travel to DC is on the Dulles Toll Road,
>> owned by the airport authority and managed by the counties and/or
>> state.  Those tolls are $0.25-$0.50; approx. $0.85 for a full
>> traversal of about 15 miles.  Apparently, several decades ago when
>> that toll road was built the promise was made to the public that there
>> would only be tolls for 20 years...  While well maintained, there's no
>> chance of dropping tolls now.
>> Worse, N. Virginia, where most of the population and traffic is, has a
>> minority of counties and so is raided as far as infrastructure tax
>> money is concerned by Southern Virginia.
>> Toll roads, toll bridges, red-light cameras, and other such revenue
>> generators are frequently poor choices for privatization due to the
>> conflict of interest between users and owners.  Most optimizations by
>> the owners are negatives for users.  Privatization and incentivation
>> works well when optimizing profit coincides with benefits to users and
>> the public.  One example of an abuse is the lowering of yellow light
>> times shortly after installing red-light cameras, clearly an abuse
>> whether by a municipality or company, but more egregious in the latter
>> case.
>> sdw
>> Gordon Mohr wrote:
>>> Fortunately, the trends toward privatizing roadways and automated
>>> toll collection offer a lot of economic incentive for performing
>>> any necessary bridge work.
>>> With private bridges:
>>> - there's a clear nexus of responsibility, from a product liability
>>>  perspective. (The finger-pointing between different agencies and
>>> levels of government will be frantic in coming days.)
>>> - there are direct economic incentives -- revenues! -- to maintain
>>> asset functionality and expand effective capacity. (It's not just a
>>>  cost that only gets leadership attention when (a) there's a
>>> headline-making disaster; or (b) there are contracts to hand out to
>>>  cronies.)
>>> - time-variable tolls can ameliorate congestion and delays,
>>> reducing pollution and queuing cost losses
>>> Bridges are excludable and (to a significant extent) rivalrous, so
>>> there's no inherent reason to expect they can't be primarily
>>> financed/supplied as a private good. Public provision is just a
>>> habit, now dangerously inefficient, left over from olden times.
>>> An economically essential roadway can be built very quickly if the
>>> incentives are right. One instructive example is the recent damage
>>> to the I-580 overpass in the East Bay, where bonuses for timely
>>> completion got repairs done by the private contractor in 1/3 the
>>> time estimated by the state transportation agency. [*]
>>> - Gordon
>>> [*] "A-MAZE-ING His reputation on the line, contractor finishes
>>> repair early, and I-580 opens"
>>> http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/05/25/MNG6EQ1IDG1.DTL 
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