Saturday, February 18, 2017

Of Choke Points and Checkpoints

Of the 55,710 bridges in the U.S. that need structural reinforcement, only about 1,700 are on interstate highways. That is only 3% of the 56,448 interstate highway bridges. Another 10,000 or so (18% of all interstate bridges) are inadequate for the role they should be able to perform, e.g. they lack capacity. These typically result in traffic choke points.
Photo by Daniel Mennerich

The interstate highway system was built over several decades beginning in the mid-1950's. Back then, its bridges were built to last about 50 years, so the first refurbishment/replacement cycle began about a decade ago and will roll on for the majority of this century. If we were to keep pace with repairs of deficient bridges, deteriorating roads, and anticipated traffic growth on interstates, the maintenance cost would be about $1 trillion over a 30-year period.

DJ T-Rump wants to spend that amount over ten years to upgrade all vital U.S. infrastructure. If $33 billion per year of that $1 trillion is spent on interstates, then a ten-year program would include $670 billion for other areas of infrastructure, e.g. airports, telecommunications, pipelines, docks, and waterways. Which infrastructure to upgrade would be partly determined by builders, who might be asked to pay 18% of the cost to upgrade the systems, later recouping their 18% and more through tolls/usage fees. If the builders foresee insufficient usage, they won't risk bidding the job because their profits depend on the tolls they would collect from users.

One sticky wicket in this scheme is that, according to Ed Rendell, a chairman of the advocacy group Building America's Future, only about 500 of the country's structurally deficient bridges can be tolled. Even assuming all of those are on interstates, 500 is less than one-third of the 1,700 dying interstate bridges. Additionally, Congress would have to repeal a law that precludes charging tolls on interstates. Assuming they would do that, more of the cost to maintain interstate highways would fall on users particularly, rather than on gasoline and diesel purchasers in general, since much of the cost today is funded by fuel taxes. The growing number of hybrid and electric vehicle owners would thus join the rest of us in being charged their fair share of maintaining the system.

The market-driven selection of interstate bridge repairs means that some bridges would not be chosen for repair resulting in abandoned routes, shifting interstate travel to other roadways, and causing choke points. In effect, those choke points could serve as points of entry to regions with toll collection sensors tracking folks' comings and goings. Placed well enough before the choke points, these sensors could alert law enforcement of subjects of interest and facilitate arrests or detentions. These tolled choke points could also serve as border checkpoints, setting the boundaries for our future federated states.

When the Green Party takes over in four to eight years, they may try to magnify the choke point effect . The Green Party favors reduced driving and reversing the practice of more and more road construction. They also want to see more truck freight shifted to rail, which is more fuel-efficient. Cutting down on interstate access would support these objectives. Taken together, using market forces to inform construction decisions and charging directly for usage are steps that should reduce frivolous road trips and expansion of the interstate system. They may also facilitate the shift to a more regionalized economy and possibly even a federated polity.

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