BC’s weekend reads

  1. The dangers of football safety equipment
  2. Want less pollution? Privatize the roads (just ask the bicyclists)
  3. Octopuses Are ‘the Closest We Will Come to Meeting an Intelligent Alien’
  4. Are Humans the Real Ancient Aliens?
  5. Tennessee Whiskey

Public Support for OReGO: Preliminary Results

tldr version;

Road pricing can be a useful means of addressing infrastructure fiscal issues, reducing congestion, and improving environmental quality and it has a chance of being implemented if advocates focus on mobilizing urban voters.

Thanks to all respondents.

This post is a quick detour from the NoL Foreign Policy Survey posts.

Among other projects I am working on, I am tinkering with a public opinion project aimed at the OReGO project. The OReGO is a pilot program operated by the State of Oregon to experiment with an alternative to the existing gasoline tax. Currently Oregonians pay 30 cents per gallon of gasoline, on top of the federal 18.4 cent per gallon tax. Volunteer participants of OReGO instead pay a charge of 1.5 cents per mile driven on state roads.


The primary goal of the program is to find a better way to fund the state’s infrastructure. The current system is inadequate because automobiles are becoming increasingly more fuel efficient and so, on a per mile basis, pay less for road use. Despite paying less these automobiles still rack up costs in road damage.

Advocates of OReGO, and other road pricing schemes, also hope that the program will serve as a means of combating congestion by making drivers more conscious of the marginal cost of their driving and encouraging them to avoid excess driving. The gasoline tax does this already, but very crudely in comparison.

Some advocates also hope to use road pricing as a means of improving local environmental quality and addressing climate change. Automobiles are a significant source of pollution and so reducing their use would yield environmental benefits. Even if the program kept the same number of cars on the road it could reap benefits if it reduced stop and go traffic; automobiles pollute more in stop and go traffic than free flow.

There is quite a bit of research from economists and urban planners on the issue, but public opinion research on it is relatively rare. What research exists tends to focus on either toll roads or in foreign regions. The reason for the gap in the literature is simple enough to explain – no jurisdiction in the United States has adopted road pricing. There have been a few small scale experiments, but they were largely engineering tests and surveyed only the opinion of participants. I hope to fill this gap in the literature by (eventually) conducting a large scale public opinion study of Oregonians.

The below pilot study had 220 respondents recruited through various Oregon sub-reddits (e.g. Portland, Eugene, and Salem). Respondents were obviously not representative of Oregon at large. The sample size was also small for an academic study of Oregon and there is a lot of noise. Most of the results presented are statistically insignificant. As a convenience sample though this survey was nonetheless useful. My goal in this survey was more about testing the survey before fielding it more broadly.

I thank all respondents to the survey – you’ve all helped the progress of science.

Survey Experiment Results:

The survey had a survey experiment. The purpose of survey experiments is to see how changes in phrasing, or other survey elements, influences response.

The experiment was in how OReGO was presented. Respondents were split into three sub-groups and received slightly different explanations of the program. In the base scenario they were told the program was simply a funding mechanism. In the congestion scenario they were also told about its possible congestion benefits. In the final they were additionally told about its possible environmental benefits.

OReGo is a pilot program currently being operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Participating drivers are being given the opportunity to pay 1.5 cents per mile they drive on public roads instead of the current 30 cent per gallon tax that the state of Oregon currently charges.

Advocates of OReGO, and similar road pricing schemes, argue that the program serves as a more dependable means of funding infrastructure than the current gasoline tax. They point out that as vehicles become more fuel efficient the amount that drivers pay per mile is decreasing, but costs associated due to road damage are not similarly decreasing. This means that in the long term the current gasoline tax will be unable to cover infrastructure costs. (/End of Base Scenario)

Advocates of OReGO also point out that the program can help reduce congestion by discouraging excessive driving and encourage the use of alternative means of transportation such as bicycling, walking, or transit. Although drivers currently pay for their automobile use in the form of the gasoline tax, many view it as a fixed payment. OReGO, which is charged on a per mile basis, may serve to make drivers more conscious of the marginal cost of their driving. (/End of Congestion Scenario)

OReGO could lead not only to reduced congestion, but could also serve to improve local air quality. One of the major sources of air pollution is automobiles, especially in stop and go traffic. (/End of Environmental Scenario)

Looking at support for adopting OReGO within five years the different treatments are little different from one another. The congestion treatment received a decline in support, but it is pushed back up in the environmental treatment.

I regret not adding a fourth group where respondents are told about the base option and the environmental benefits, but congestion is not added. As it is, it is hard to tell if the decline in support for OReGO in the congestion treatment is because people don’t care about ways to address congestion, or they dislike attempts at social engineering.


When we look at treatment effects among only those who identified living in an urban area the effects get more interesting. Urban voters were very responsive to the idea of environmental benefits and increased support for OReGO by over 10 percentage points.




What seems to be driving the difference in support for OReGO is inter-regional differences in perceived local air quality. Those who perceive local air quality to be ‘very good’ are least likely to support OReGO. This finding is exaggerated when looking at only urban respondents.

I played around to see if this was a statistical artifact from the above treatment; i.e. it is possible those who lived in ‘very good’ air quality regions received the ‘environmental treatment’  and I am picking up the latter effect. This was not the case.



Is this a simple case of those living in high quality areas having no interest in improving the region? A “I have mines” attitude. No. When I look at support for OReGO by how respondents judged local air quality had changed in the past five years, those who thought their local air quality was improving also had the highest support for OReGO.

There is a definite relationship here between support for OReGO and perception of one’s local air quality. I can’t put my finger on it just yet.


Bonus result: daily bicyclists are those most supportive of OReGO.


Around the Web: Notewriters Edition

Woah, it’s been a slow week here at NOL. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve been busy. Michelangelo and Edwin have both recently had their work published by the Cato Institute, and that’s cool.

I wish, of course, that my fellow Notewriters would toot their own horns a little more often, especially on the blog, but rest assured loyal readers, we’re staying busy.

Which MPOs are most efficient?

I have been working on a project to measure the efficiency of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). MPOs are one of the levels of government often forgotten. When we think of government we usually think of federal, state and local government. MPOs lay between local and state government. My local MPO for example, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) for example covers all of the southern Californian counties except for San Diego. Other MPOs, such as the Delaware Valley Region Planning Commission, cross over several states. Nominally MPOs are concerned with setting transportation policy, but in effect they have broad powers over many areas of regional economic development.

Most MPOs have no elected leadership and instead either appoint their own heads or draw from their constituent members. By no means am I a little ‘d’ democrat; I do not see much value in democracy to decide public policy. It is however concerning that these form of government have little oversight over them of any sort. My hope is that my work will provide much needed information on how well (or badly) these MPOs are doing their jobs.

I am attempt to rank MPOs on two basis: transportation services and air quality. Below is a ranking of the top 77 largest metro regions by their adjusted cost efficiency for providing transit services. I used metropolitan level data from 1991 to 2011 to construct these figures. By adjusted I mean that I attempted to take into account for factors that affect their cost efficiency, namely level of federal funding which is negatively associated with cost efficiency. I hope to be able to better calculate these figures in the future taking into account spatial factors that affect efficiency, but I have to start somewhere right?

1. Raleigh
2. Virginia Beach
3. Honolulu
4. El Paso
5. Orlando
6. Wichita
7. Memphis
8. Baton Rogue
9. Cincinnati
10. Indianapolis


70. Bridgeport
71. Akron
72. Seattle
73. Albuquerque
74. Knoxville
75. Worcester
75. Dallas
76. San Jose
77. McAllen

The full ranking can be found here: Efficiency Residual.


A Better Way to San Jose

Today I’m going to pick on the California High Speed Rail (HSR) project.  But that’s almost too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel.  So I’ll be brief and then propose a better alternative.

In case you don’t know, California voters passed an initiative in 2008 authorizing sales of bonds to finance a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles with branches to Sacramento on the north end and Anaheim on the south end.  Ten billion in state bond funds were to be matched by Federal and private funds.  The initiative also specified the running time and the fare to be charged.  (How many voters, who might balk at tax increases, understand that bonds have to be paid back with interest using tax revenue?)

Sure as God made green apples, the budget estimates have skyrocketed, the project scope has shrunk, and completion dates have stretched far out over the horizon.  In addition, citizens and local politicians along the route through the San Francisco Peninsula have risen up as one in response to the destruction and disruption that would accompany the construction and operation of the line through their back yards.  These are people in places like Palo Alto, many of them wealthy, articulate, and well-connected.  They appear to have succeeded in getting the Peninsula segment scaled down to a “blended system” where Caltrain and HSR trains share two tracks through most of the Peninsula rather than expanding to four tracks and wiping out hundreds of homes and businesses in the process.  There will likely be an initiative on the November ballot to kill the whole project and polls favor its passage.

For the record, I’m a rail fan.  I enjoy riding Caltrain to work, volunteering at the Western Railway Museum, and studying railroad history.  I’m fascinated by construction projects and still hold a license to practice civil engineering.  So if anything I should be biased in favor of the project but I hate it.

My alternative involves electric cars.  I know, they’ve been a flop so far (Obamacars?), mainly because the usable energy per kilogram of gasoline is about 35 times that of a lithium-ion battery!  A lot of smart people have been working on better energy storage devices and techniques with scant progress to date.

I propose that inductive pickup devices be added to electric cars and perhaps hybrids.  Induction coils would be buried in roadways like Interstate 5, the main SF-LA freeway.  This should make it easy to complete a long distance journey without stopping for a charge-up.  You would leave the freeway fully charged, probably with enough energy to complete your trip on conventional roads.

The payment for energy could be combined with a toll charge.  Tolls are a long overdue idea for roads like I-5 because they not only impose costs directly on beneficiaries but also because they enable congestion pricing – a toll that rises in times of heavy traffic and falls at other times.  This idea has already been implemented on a few California roads but on a very limited scale.  It has the potential to reduce congestion drastically, something carpool lanes have not accomplished.

A major advantage of this system over HSR is that it could be rolled out incrementally.  As soon as a few thousand cars were equipped with pickup devices and a few hundred miles of roadway fitted with induction coils, the benefits would begin.  In contrast, HSR won’t be much good until it’s completed all the way from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles.  A good estimate for that time is: never.  There’s a real chance that HSR will be abandoned after a lonely segment has been built through Central Valley farmland.

Another advantage of the roadway proposal is that cabling could be included with the induction coils for future automated operation.  Under this longer-range scenario control of your car would be taken by an automated system soon after you entered I-5.  You would be accelerated to 120 or 150 MPH and safely guided to your exit.  This is not so far-fetched given that Google has been running driverless cars around city streets with great success, though perhaps not on freeways as yet.

Now let’s compare two ways of getting a family from San Jose to Disneyland as an example.  First is high speed rail.  You pack the family into the car and head for the downtown station, where you pay a hefty fee for five days’ parking.  You buy tickets for all, get on your train, and arrive in Anaheim, or downtown LA if the Anaheim branch hasn’t been built.  You rent a car and away you go.  Cost?  You figure it out, surely several hundred.  Elapsed time, several hours in all.

I’ve already laid out the induction-drive car scenario.  You come and go when and where you want at a much lower cost and close to the same elapsed time with automated operation.

So there you have it.  Sure, the devil is in the details.  I’ve given only the barest outline, and yet I guarantee you that no matter how solid a case might be built up for a proposal like mine and no matter how preposterous HSR is shown to be, some will not be swayed.  I’m not thinking of those who are merely dazzled by renderings of sleek trains.  I’m thinking of people ranging from busybodies to downright sociopaths who, to one degree or another, hate the freedom that comes with car ownership and want to herd people into public transportation.  In such people we find the root of the HSR boondoggle and so many other social problems.