To save its infrastructure, America needs more toll roads

The sun shines on the Los Angeles freeway. Image: Getty.

In today’s America, we have come to take for granted the sad state of the national transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 report card gave the nation a D+ grade on its roads, bridges, and ports.

There was a time when a D+ was not acceptable. There was also a time in the US when A+ was the standard. Now failing is the standard. This D+ rating left the news cycle faster than an average commuter gets home on our overly congested highways.

As I write this piece, I’m sitting stalled on Amtrak headed from Washington, DC to New York’s Penn Station due to a derailment in Penn Station. As a Nevada Department of Transportation board member and long time transportation advocate, I am all too familiar with this experience and storyline.

We all know that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and congestion is at an all-time high. Americans have been forced to just accept long commutes and spending less time at home with their families.

It is also simply accepted that the deterioration of our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure is due in large part to the fact that our Congressional leaders no longer have a vision for the infrastructure that moves our $18.5trn economy and over 321m Americans. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower had the courage to force Congress to invest and begin building the Interstate Highway System we have today. Unfortunately, today’s congressional leaders would rather stop progress than make progress, and Americans go on suffering. 

But there is hope. Many regions are passing their own transportation referenda to fund transportation investments and improvements. Voters approved more than $200bn in transportation ballot initiatives this past November, and many regions are increasing the use of toll lanes and roads to reduce congestion to pay for infrastructure.  

Yet, this is not enough. Fuel revenues are decreasing due to the increased investments of electric and hybrid vehicles, and overall higher fuel efficiencies in today’s vehicles. If governments does not routinely raise fuel taxes and/or index them to inflation, and if some mechanism is not implemented to capture the increased number of electric and hybrid vehicles road usage, then America’s infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.

One way forward is the increased usage of toll roads. As we move to a transportation system that will include electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and connected or autonomous vehicles, we clearly have the means to ensure all road users can help directly fund the roads they use every day – not just the ones that burn lots of gas.


Americans clearly see the need for investments in greater mobility to help our economy grow. Take, for example, the recent passage of Measure M in Los Angeles. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA Metro CEO Phil Washington courageously made sure the ballot measure passed with over 71 percent of approval by Angelenos.

Why? Angelenos are fed up with congestion and lack of Congressional leadership. Measure M is the first ever transportation initiative with no sunset provision, creating an endless funding stream for LA Metro to invest in transit, local streets and roads, bridges, buses, and highways.

Another example is the recent opening of Express Lanes on State Route 91 in Riverside County, California, one of the nation’s most congested commutes. SR 91 is a critical route for the regional economy because it moves the workers for Orange and LA Counties from their homes in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Toll lanes now run from the City of Riverside all the way to southern Orange County. The toll lanes are now working at near capacity due to the great need for mobility improvements in the region. 

Toll lanes work and more regions and states should begin to initiate the inclusion of these lanes to reduce congestion, improve mobility and improve the driving public’s quality of life. 

There is no magic formula to funding our infrastructure. We need every tool available to improve America’s surface transportation infrastructure, and toll roads belong as part of that multifaceted toolset.  

Tom Skancke is chief executive of TSC2 Group, a management consulting firm, and is executive director of the Western Regional Alliance, an association of western transportation and metropolitan planning organisations. This article reflects his own views, not those of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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