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States That Ban Traffic Safety Cams Put Their Own Residents’ Lives at Risk

In France, speeding cameras are credited with saving more than 15,000 lives over seven years. Image: Accident Analysis and Prevention

Speed cameras are credited with saving more than 15,000 lives over seven years in France. Image: Accident Analysis and Prevention

In Ohio, lawmakers are now poised to outlaw traffic safety cameras, needlessly obstructing efforts to save lives. Similar bills were taken up this year in statehouses in Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri. According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, 12 states have laws that forbid speed cameras under most circumstances.

If enacted, these laws will certainly end up costing a lot of innocent people their lives. A 2010 review of dozens of studies indicates that speed cameras always have a positive effect on street safety, typically reducing fatality rates by around 30 to 40 percent where they are installed. One of the most impressive case studies, on a national scale, is France.

Since the French government began its crackdown on speeding about a dozen years ago, annual traffic fatalities have been reduced by more than half, from 7,242 in 2002 to 3,250 in 2013. That is more than double the rate of improvement in the United States over the same period. Researchers attribute a major portion of that reduction to the installation of about 3,000 speed cameras across the nation.

Following the adoption of a new set of street safety policies by President Jacques Chirac in 2002 — including stricter penalties for traffic violations — and the installation of cameras in 2003, enforcement of speeding increased dramatically, from about 100,000 tickets per month to about 500,000. About 87 percent of those citations were issued by cameras.

In a 2012 study in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention, researchers set out to determine how many deaths and injuries were prevented by France’s wide-scale adoption of automated speed enforcement, developing statistical models to isolate the effect of the cameras. In the first two years following implementation, they estimate that speed cameras prevented 4,498 fatalities.

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Despite Saturday’s Tragic Crash, Divvy Has a Strong Safety Record

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Travis Persaud.

Last weekend, medical student Travis Persaud was struck by two different drivers while riding a Divvy bike on Lake Shore Drive, a limited-access highway where cycling is prohibited. Persaud, 25, is the only person ever to have been critically injured while riding bike-share in Chicago since the system launched in June 2013.

Around 2:50 a.m. Saturday, Persaud was biking north on the highway near the Belmont exit, according to Officer Ana Pacheco of News Affairs. The 27-year-old male driver of a Mitsubishi told police the cyclist “was swerving between the two rightmost lanes” of the drive, Pacheco said. Persaud then “collided with and was thrown under” the car, according to Pacheco.

Another driver in a Nissan stopped in the second-rightmost lane to try to help Persaud, Pacheco said. However, a third motorist in a Honda was unable to stop, striking first the Nissan, the cyclist, and then the Mitsubishi, she said.

Persaud was taken to Illinois Masonic Hospital in critical condition, according to Pacheco, and was the only person injured during the chain-reaction crash. The Honda driver, a 22-year-old male, was cited for driving without insurance. “Alcohol is believed to have played a factor in this accident, as the investigation revealed that the bicyclist had a high level of alcohol in his system,” Pacheco said.

A passenger in the Mitsubishi, which was in service as an Uber vehicle at the time, told DNAinfo on Saturday that Persaud’s left foot was severed and that there was a large cut on his head. However, an update DNA posted this morning stated that the cyclist did not lose his foot, but instead suffered a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder.

Persaud is currently in a medically induced coma, his father Frank told DNA. “His prognosis is critical, but he is stable… It will be a long road to recovery, but it’s looking upward.”

Travis Persaud is a third-year medical student who had recently moved to Chicago to do a ten-month rotation at Mount Sinai Hospital, his father said. The family told DNA that Travis lives in an apartment near the crash site, and they think he was trying to cross Lake Shore Drive in order to go home when he was struck.

This is the third media-reported case of a Divvy rider on a limited-access highway in Chicago, including a woman who was spotted on Lake Shore Drive in the summer of 2013, and a woman who was seen on the Dan Ryan in October. Several commenters on the DNA articles about Persaud ridiculed the cyclist for his poor judgment in biking on the drive while intoxicated, and argued that this case is evidence that Divvy is inherently dangerous.

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Congress Gives Itself More Free Parking Than Its Own Rules Allow

How much are these free parking spots worth? Probably more than the $250 parking benefit Congress allows. Photo: ##http://www.jmt.com/project-portfolio/us-senate-parking-lot-study/##JMT##

How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo: JMT

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.

Here’s the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it’s shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That’s a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It’s hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we’re talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don’t like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

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What Would a National Vision Zero Movement Look Like?

About 300 street safety leaders attended Transportation Alternatives' first-ever symposium on Vision Zero last Friday, Photo courtesy of TA

About 300 street safety leaders attended Transportation Alternatives’ first-ever Vision Zero symposium last Friday. Photo courtesy of TA.

Earlier this week, New York-based Transportation Alternatives released a statement of 10 principles that emerged from the Vision Zero symposium the group sponsored last Friday. It was the first-ever national gathering of thought leaders and advocates committed to spreading Vision Zero’s ethic of eliminating all traffic deaths through better design, enforcement, and education.

I caught up with Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, to hear more.

First, let’s talk about last Friday’s event. What was the best thing that happened there?

Noah Budnick. Photo courtesy of TA

Noah Budnick. Photo courtesy of TA

The momentum that was built was incredible. To me, that was the highlight. This was kind of the coming-out party for Vision Zero as a national movement.

What do you see as the goals of a national movement? Would that mean lots of cities working on this, or is there actually a role for the federal government? What could they do to promote Vision Zero?

The federal government could set federal goals and benchmarks in line with Vision Zero, creating policies that require states and cities and metro areas to set goals to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. And it’s really important that that’s tied to funding.

It starts with a simple matter of leadership, which is stating that traffic deaths and serious injuries are preventable. They’re not accidents. That change in thinking is an incredibly important first step.

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Today’s Headlines

  • IL Supreme Court Dismissed Class Action Lawsuit Against Red Light Cameras (DNA)
  • State Legislators Say They’ve Reached a Deal on Regulating Ride-Share (Sun-Times)
  • MPC Roundtable Discussed the CREATE Program to Address Rail Congestion
  • LFT Crash Survivor Calls for Better Bike/Ped Separation on the Trail (Active Trans)
  • Park District Plans to Hike Metered Parking Rates in 2015 (Tribune)
  • Drivers Will Pay Up to $1.90 to Use Elgin-O’Hare Tollway (Tribune)
  • Why Do Local Uber Drivers Sometimes Give Their Passengers Poor Ratings? (DNA)
  • Metra Expanding Service for Mag Mile Lights Fest (Tribune)
  • CTA Announcing Schedule for New, Decorated “Holiday Bus” Today (RedEye)
  • A Look at Albany Park’s WIG Bike Bag Business (DNA)
  • John’s Bike Advocate Rap Battle Cartoon, With Bonus Rhymes by Streetsblog Staff (Planetizen)

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA

Note: Streetsblog will be offline for maintenance this evening, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. CST.

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Couple Hopes Amenities Will Make Café a South Loop Cycling Hub

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The new cafe’s bike-centric logo.

Two members of Chicago’s XXX Racing team plan to open a new café at 18th and Indiana, with a number of features they hope will entice bike commuters to stop in for a cup, a bite, or a beer.

The eatery is named the Spoke & Bird, after its bike-friendly aspects and co-owner Alicia Bird. It will include ample bike parking, a repair stand in the patio, and possibly an on-street bike corral and/or a nearby Divvy station. The café is located a stone’s throw from the bike path and overpass near 18th and Calumet, which the owners point out is the only route to the lakefront between Roosevelt and 31st.

“We think our proximity to the Lakefront Trail, and all the activity in the South Loop, will make us a hub for people traveling on bikes between downtown, the South Loop, and beyond,” said Scott Golas, Bird’s business and romantic partner.

The café will be located in the former Café Society space. It’s housed within a three-story Chicago Park District fieldhouse, which recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation, including the addition of children’s science labs. Just east is the historic Glessner House, and to the south is a park that includes the Clarke House, Chicago’s oldest standing residence, built in 1836.

Golas, who founded the software firm Xmplify, and Bird, a designer and project manager who worked at Café Society since early 2013, bought the café in July and closed it for renovations last month. They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising an additional $70,000 to overhaul the 4,200 square foot patio and renovate the kitchen.

Pending city inspections, the couple hopes to launch the Spoke & Bird on December 13. “When it reopens, it will be like night and day,” Golas promised.

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The Great Traffic Projection Swindle

This is the final piece in a three-part series about privately-financed roads. In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the Indiana Toll Road as an example of the growth in privately financed highways, and how financial firms can turn these assets into profits, even if the road itself is a big money loser. In this piece, we examine the shaky assumptions that toll road investments are based on, and how that is putting the public at risk.

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A consultant predicted traffic on the Indiana Toll Road would rise 22 percent in seven years. Instead, traffic fell 11 percent in eight years. Photo: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

For privately financed toll road deals, traffic projections are critical. These forecasts tell investors how much revenue a road will generate, and thus whether they should buy a stake in it, and what price to pay. While traffic projections have underpinned the rapid growth in privately financed highways, the forecasts have a dismal track record, consistently overstating the number of drivers who will pay to use a road.

Private toll roads have been sold to the public as a surefire something-for-nothing bargain — new infrastructure with no taxes — but it turns out that the risk for taxpayers is actually substantial. The firms performing traffic projections have strong incentives to inflate the numbers. And the new breed of private finance deals are structured so that when the forecasts turn out wrong, the public incurs huge losses.

Given the huge sums of money involved, even small errors in traffic projections can result in huge problems down the line — and, as Streetsblog has reported, traffic projections everywhere have tended to be wildly off-target. A whole financing scheme, meant to last for generations, can easily be sunk in just a few years by exaggerated traffic projections. The Indiana Toll Road, purchased in 2006 for $3.8 billion, is a great example. The firm that owned it, ITR Concession Co. LLC, declared bankruptcy in September.

Wilbur Smith Associates had predicted that traffic volumes on the Indiana Toll Road would increase at a rate of 22 percent over the first seven years. Instead, traffic volumes shrank 11 percent in the first eight. The result was financial disaster for the concession company, owned jointly by Australian firm Macquarie and Spanish firm Ferrovial. By the time they filed for Chapter 11, debt on the road had ballooned to $5.8 billion.

The company blamed the recession for putting a damper on truck traffic. The same story was offered on another bankrupt Macquarie-owned project, San Diego’s South Bay Expressway. But is that explanation sufficient?

UK-based consultant Robert Bain literally wrote the book on traffic projections, warning in 2009 against forecasters who blamed faulty predictions on the economy [PDF]. Commenting on the flurry of global toll highway bankruptcies that was just starting then, Bain said they had “less to do with the present economic climate, and more to do with a market readiness to be seduced by hopelessly optimistic traffic and revenue projections.”

Bain went on to list 21 ways in which forecasters systematically overestimate future traffic. Each one may tilt the forecast by a tiny amount, but cumulatively they result in huge errors. Some of the errors indicate that forecasters have not yet acknowledged the broader decline in driving and sprawl underway, while others “underestimate the reluctance of some to paying tolls.” Bain argued for a paradigm shift in the use of traffic projections, recognizing that many of them “resemble statements of advocacy rather than unbiased predictions.”

Phineas Baxandall, a senior researcher with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who’s written extensively for Streetsblog on trends in driving, says the engineering firms that provide the figures know how things work. “Companies seeking investment for privatized toll roads shop for the forecasting they want,” he said. “[There's] no incentive to tell bad news. And if the deal appears promising, then the forecasting company gets other opportunities to sell further analysis, legal advice, raising debt, selling equity, etc.”

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Talking Headways Podcast: I’m Not a Scientist

podcast icon logoDo you ever think about the ecology of the city you live in? Not just the parks and the smog. Scientists are starting to examine urban ecosystems more holistically: the trees and the concrete, natural gas lines and soil, water pipes and rivers. The natural and the synthetic feed off each other in surprising ways. We’re not scientists, but we found it interesting.

Then we move from the ecosystem to the highway system — specifically, the argument made by Evan Jenkins in The Week to abolish the National Highway System. Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns thinks it’s a good idea. Jeff and I aren’t so sure. Could rail really pick up the slack? Would states make better decisions? What funding source would replace the federal gas tax?

Enjoy this, our 42nd episode of Talking Headways. Find us on the Twitters already. And oh yeah, also on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Regional Transit Ridership Is Down for the Second Year in a Row (Sun-Times)
  • CTA Passes 2015 Budget With No Fare Hikes, More Service (Tribune)
  • State Rep Gives Up on Attempt to Override Quinn’s Veto of Ride-Share Bill (Crain’s)
  • San Hamel’s Lawyer Is Considering a Run for State’s Attorney (Sun-Times)
  • Developer Proposes Mixed-Use, Low-Parking Building Next to Montrose Brown Station (DNA)
  • 35th/Ashland Makeover, Including Wider Sidewalks, Will Wrap Up Soon (DNA)
  • Tacqueria Coming to Granville Stop; No Word If Station Will Get a Burrito Tracker (DNA)
  • Free Bikes Offered to Tenants of Building Owned by, Ironically, FLATS (DNA)
  • Terry’s Byke Haus Badly Damaged By Fire; Giant Waving Gorilla Spared (NBC)
  • Video: An Operator’s-Eye View of a Brown Line Ride (DNA)

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA

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How Macquarie Makes Money By Losing Money on Toll Roads

This is the second post in a three-part series about the Indiana Toll Road and privately financed highways. Read part one.

When you invest in Macquarie Atlas Roads, now-worthless shares in the Indiana Toll Road (and four “Other Toll Roads”) are an almost-free bonus with your purchase of shares in APRR, which runs profitable toll roads in France. Image: Macquarie Atlas’ September 2014 Investor Presentation

Macquarie Group, the gigantic Australian financial services firm with some $400 billion in assets under management, has made a lot of money in the infrastructure privatization game.

The publicly traded company owns the Brussels Airport, the Dulles Greenway, telecommunications towers in Mexico, a wind farm in Kenya, and much more. One of those assets was the Indiana Toll Road, which Macquarie purchased in 2006 with Spanish firm Ferrovial — whose most profitable assets include Heathrow Airport and the 407 toll road ringing Toronto. The Indiana Toll Road was housed in a spinoff company called ITR Concession Co. LLC., which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in September after a disastrous eight-year run.

Macquarie and Ferrovial paid the state of Indiana $3.8 billion for the Indiana Toll Road. At the time, it was the largest infrastructure privatization deal in U.S. history. Eight years later, the road was saddled with an astounding $5.8 billion in debt, far beyond the original, unexpectedly-high purchase price.

Traffic fell well short of the projections offered by the engineering firm Wilbur Smith (now CDM Smith), and the company blamed the bankruptcy on the fallout from the recession.

But some observers also pointed to the risky financing underlying the deal. Macquarie and Ferrovial each chipped in just $374 million of their own money to finance the deal. The other $3 billion was borrowed from seven European banks, six of whom have since been bailed out by their respective governments.

Granted, the deal happened in 2006, when debt was flowing freely. According to a 2007 profile by Fortune’s Bethany McLean, Macquarie borrowed its billions using loans resembling a balloon mortgage. It would purchase a type of derivative, called an “accreting swap,” to get a low teaser interest rate, all the while assuming that a refinance was just around the corner. But when credit markets froze entirely, Macquarie couldn’t extricate itself from punishing interest payments.

McLean cited the example of the Macquarie-owned Chicago Skyway: “In 2007 the Skyway will pay interest of just $129,000 on $961 million of debt. But the interest payment for 2018 is to be $480 million — that’s not a typo.”

That helps explain how Macquarie and Ferrovial ended up owing almost twice as much as they paid for the Indiana Toll Road, after collecting tolls for eight years.

Randy Salzman, associate editor of Thinking Highways North America, has reported extensively about P3s, saying that it’s common for privately financed roads to go bankrupt. He says that firms acquiring infrastructure typically provide very little of their own cash, and because of a complicated mix of fees and tax breaks, they may benefit financially even when the deals go sour.

“You’d think that they wouldn’t be investing in these things because so many of them go bankrupt,” he said. “You’d think that the money would be running away.”

But Salzman says he’s seen these kinds of bankruptcies happen over and over again. “The only question is when.”

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