How AVs may affect private investment in new roads

Re-posted from John Niles on the End of Driving blog, 22 Sep 2017

Maryland Proposes $9B Public-Private Partnership To Widen I-495, I-270, MD-295.

Reuters (9/21, Shepardson) reports on Thursday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) proposed “an ambitious $9 billion public-private partnership” to “add four new lanes to the Capital Beltway (I-495)…and four new lanes on Interstate-270.” Hogan said he wants “private developers to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain” the new lanes. The Washington Post (9/21, McCartney) reports the proposal “would also widen the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD 295) by four toll lanes after taking over ownership from the federal government.” Under Hogan’s proposal, “only the new lanes would have tolls; the others would remain free.” Hogan said “the plan would not cost taxpayers any money” because of the private-sector involvement; “instead, he said, because of the toll revenue, the state could potentially reap billions of dollars of additional funds.”

All these lanes might well be used heavily if autonomous vehicles are mostly privately owned and sprawl increases. Perhaps they will be under-used if AVs are mostly shared and people more generally take up denser living. Or they might have less traffic if autonomous microtransit or other unforeseen innovations such as the Hyperloop or next-generation virtual presence holds sway.

Any consortium bidding on such projects needs clauses providing for considerable flexibility for monetization. Any public authority needs to consider potentially better transportation uses for a $9,000,000,000 investment, P3 or no. Consider accelerating autonomous microtransit to an earlier deployment on existing lanes as a way to avoid additional lanes. This would also take less time to realize.

We need the investment. We need the mobility. But digital mobility changes the solution space from the 1980s toolkit proposed here to one updated for 2030. Proposals like this one and others need to think through that.