Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Be Brave Child, Open the Closet, Look Under the Bed

The only real bogeyman is the one on your shoulder telling you there is one.

It's time for another thought exercise in relation to money, taxpayer dollars, where it goes, and why it goes there.  Today, we'll be exploring TxDOT's budget and the benefits of listening to the cat calls to fight congestion.  Ultimately, the real question we want to answer, or at the very least ask, is whether it's worth even trying to "fight" congestion.  

After all, as we know, congestion is like cholesterol.  There is good and bad types.  Lots of pedestrians on the street means active businesses, increased safety, and a healthier citizenry.  Everybody in cars means the opposite of all of those things, plus the added cost of increased infrastructure.  As a visual parable, here's Copenhagen by bicycle traffic count:

Copenhagen Bicycle Volume / Traffic Flow

We build our cities in the same manner, where the "trunks" get larger for more capacity as convergence of networks occurs in areas of highest demand, ie centers of activity such as downtowns.  However, in CPH this is strictly bikes which take up little more than one lane of vehicular traffic.  When everybody is in cars, well you can imagine just how much space that takes up.  That's why this diagram matters:

Because of the nature of cities as combustion machines of social and economic exchange, people will naturally converge at certain places to do business and socialize.  The top sketch shows conventional traffic planning that reacts to this convergence with increased corridor capacity whereas the bottom shows increased congestion is dealt with through increased network capacity, much like Vancouver's downtown (without highways) handles twice the capacity of the proposed highway plan to and through downtown Vancouver.  Oh, and you don't need a car to get around either.  Meaning less transpo cost to taxpayer, less infrastructure burden, and increased quality of life for the city.

Now for how we approach the epic struggle between man and congestion...
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First, the oft-cited number that the high clerics at the Texas Transportation Institute put together and distribute to their loyal crusaders is that congestion costs the country $110 billion each year.  Their conclusion of course, is that only increased highway capacity can solve this problem, and in turn, higher budgets allocated at the federal and state level to DOTs.  Nevermind that this congestion cost number pales in comparison to the truly high cost of car-dependence.  That's well-trod territory.  But if you like pictures, here you go:



Now let's play around with the math of that $110 billion number.

First, what does that mean for Texas alone?  Strictly going by proportion of the Texas population (26.06M) to the population of the country (313.9M), that's 8.3%.  That doesn't mean congestion costs Texas exactly $110B times .083, but we can assume it is somewhere around there, $9.13 billion each year.

That sounds like a lot.  But we haven't begun pricing TxDOT's solutions.  In this case, we'll use their proposed budget.  Right now, TxDOT's annual budget is about $2billion.  They're clamoring to double that, "just to keep up."  So that's $4 billion each year to TxDOT to maintain existing infrastructure while increasing capacity.

However, one year of work does very little.  These highway mega-projects can take 5 years.  Furthermore, that's $4B every single year in perpetuity.  That's 5 years worth of work to "solve" the problem of congestion for ever and ever, amen.  

So that's 5 years at $4billion each year of TxDOT's budget = $20 billion while they work on the problem.

PLUS, the $9.13 billion each of those 5 years.  Again, while they work on it because they haven't fixed a damn thing yet.  That's another $45.65 billion.  So we're up to $65.45 billion dollars from years 0 to year +5.  However, we see the light at the end of the tunnel!  Congestion is solved!  Now we'll save bazillions!  It only cost each person in Texas, impoverished and children included, $2,517 each.  And we haven't yet seen a single return on that investment.

Not so fast.  

We also know of that pesky little problem called induced demand.  And that cars immediately fill up 40% of the new highway capacity.  So even if we're assuming 5 years worth of TxDOT's budget can eliminate congestion altogether, we're only saving 60% of that $9.13 billion, or about $5.5 billion.  Remember, we're spending $4 billion in annual budget to save $5.5 billion, a net return of $1.5 billion.  Yay!  We win.  

Not so fast.  The next problem we encounter is that after 10 years new capacity fills to 100%.  There goes all of our hard work.  

If we interpolate the savings by year, it goes something this:

YEAR     CONGESTION SAVINGS
+5         -        60%
+6         -        54%
+7         -        48%
+8         -        42%
+9         -        36%
+10       -        30%
+11       -        24%
+12       -        18%
+13       -        12%
+14       -        6%
+15       -        0%

By dollar amount, according to that base congestion cost number of $9.13 billion this works out by year like this:

YEAR     SAVINGS (billions)          NET (savings minus budget)
+5           -        $5.4780               -                $1.48
+6           -        $4.9302               -                $0.93
+7           -        $4.3824               -                $0.38
+8           -        $3.8346               -                $-0.17
+9           -        $3.2868               -                $-0.71
+10         -        $2.7390               -                $-1.26
+11         -        $2.1912               -                $-1.81
+12         -        $1.6434               -                $-2.36
+13         -        $1.0956               -                $-2.90
+14         -        $0.5478               -                $-3.45
+15         -        $0                        -                $-4.00

This of course assumes TxDOT's budget remains at their proposed $4 billion per year and doesn't increase.  

Adding those net savings up from year +5 through year +15 means we're still losing $13.87 billion over that time span.  Adding in the yearly budgets from years 0-5, that means we're losing $33.87 billion.  And that number doesn't even factor in the full cost of congestion ($115.95B) plus expenditures ($64B) over those fifteen years, equaling $179.5B or $11,996,733,333.33 each year.  

And that's if we fight congestion the way the road builders incorrectly want to address the problem.  The real question is whether they really want to fix the problem...or just keep the gravy train rolling.  

Unfortunately, that's a train that can't run forever.  Solving congestion through supply-side measures of increased capacity undermines the nature of the city to function as a city.  The result is implosion via infrastructural burden overmatching the taxbase to support it.  The end game is Detroit.  Where congestion is truly solved once and for all.

The real answer is to fight congestion by getting people out of cars and providing real choice in transportation mode and route.  If cities want increased tax base, they require an infrastructure supportive of density and walkability.  Existing transportation agencies are incapable of providing that.