Blowing Rock ONE on ONE With…Nick Tennyson, Former NC Secretary of Transportation

Blowing Rock ONE on ONE With…Nick Tennyson, Former NC Secretary of Transportation
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By David Rogers. June 7, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Former North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Nick Tennyson recently stopped in Blowing Rock for a visit and agreed to sit down with Blowing Rock News for a discussion of a wide range of transportation-related issues relevant to Blowing Rock, the High Country and beyond.

COVER IMAGE: Nick Tennyson addresses audience in a bridge dedication.  All photographic images used in this article by Katy Warner, NCDOT

Tennyson is the former Mayor of the City of Durham (1997-2001) and also served as the Executive Vice President of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange, and Chatham counties from 1995 to 2013, when he became Chief Deputy Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). He became Acting Secretary of Transportation in 2015 upon the resignation of Tony Tata, then was appointed to the Secretary’s post on a permanent basis by then Governor Pat McCrory on August 6, 2015.  He stepped down from that role with the election of Roy Cooper who, as the new Governor, would later name his own appointee to the position.

What we found in Tennyson was a deep-thinking transportation strategist with a firm grasp of the relevant issues. He didn’t balk at any questions, candidly noting when he didn’t feel qualified to articulate an answer. Those occasions were few.

The scope of our conversation touched on, among others, including many relevant nuances of these:

  • the U.S. 321 widening project
  • the perceived speeding problem on Valley Blvd. and whether signal lights or other alternatives might solve it
  • the lower speed limit between Blackberry Rd. and Kirby Mountain Rd. once the road was straightened and widened to four lanes
  • the durability of our roads and the specifications used to build them
  • how transportation infrastructure is financed, the development of toll roads
  • the idea of connectivity in transportation and autonomous vehicles

U.S. 321 Project

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Let’s talk about the favorite topic of everyone in town and that is the widening project on Valley Blvd. What special problems did you see with this in terms of getting things accelerated toward completion?

NICK TENNYSON: Special problems that come with a project like that are the same kind of problems that come with remodeling a house. As a contractor, you are trying to do your work while people are still trying to live in the house.  So everything about a widening project that is a problem starts with the fact that you are trying to do it while people are still trying to use the highway.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: It’s disruptive.

NICK TENNYSON:  Yes, it is bigtime disruptive in the best of circumstances. And in this instance, where that transportation artery is so critical to the economic health of this entire region, not just Blowing Rock, that disruptive aspect is even more significant.

You are dealing with pent-up demand that is hard to satisfy.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Because, at least coming from the south, it is one way in and one way out, basically.

NICK TENNYSON: Exactly. The other thing, and this really extends the analogy of remodeling, is that usually it is taking place long after it should have. So you are dealing with pent-up demand that is hard to satisfy.

Then, of course, we got into the problem of the contractor that had to be replaced on the job.That puts you in a situation where you have to regain people’s trust because they start to think, “Wait a minute, you said this was going to happen on a certain schedule and now it’s not going to happen on that schedule?”

So some of the conversations get more negative than they do if you are working straight through a project without those kinds of interruptions, such as losing the primary contractor over an unforeseen circumstance or event.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Was there a learning curve that had to be experienced by the successor contractor, who had to come in and see what the earlier contractor, in this case Taylor & Murphy, had done,  to understand what maybe their approach was and how it might be different than how the new contractor would tackle the job? Are there different approaches?

NICK TENNYSON: I don’t think that was probably the issue other than having to deal with the particular specifics of this topography, this challenge geologically, and the various special things about the project that the Town had wanted to see done, like the retaining wall.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: The reason I ask that is because the successor contractor and sub-contractors seemed to take a much different approach to certain aspects of the project. Where it seemed like Taylor & Murphy was taking a more aggressive approach, for instance, in taking away some of the rock face below Cliffdwellers Inn, just blowing away big chunks of it, the Maymead-led group that followed seemed to nibble at it more. I guess you would call it a kinder, gentler approach.

NICK TENNYSON: I guess some of your questions like this are going to expose that as Secretary I wasn’t involved in some of the technical aspects. That would have been handled by the chief engineer.

This project, the way it progressed, was just about par for the course.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: OK, so on a somewhat related topic…There was a lot of discussion about alternative routes for U.S. 321 if it needed to be built.  A lot of folks were apprehensive about a wider thoroughfare dividing the town while some business owners feared that it might enable people to just breeze right past Blowing Rock.  How much did the controversy leading up to a final decision about the path of the road…how much of that was unusual compared to other projects, because I think this was first talked about in the late 1980s, as I recall.

NICK TENNYSON: To put that question into perspective, understand that I come from Durham.  We had a road on the thoroughfare plan in the mid-1960s and it just got started a year and a half ago. It was project #72 in a numbering system where we are in the #4,000’s today. It was a controversial project in Durham. It would get just to the point of being started and then there would be a group that would rise up with objections. So all of this is to say that this project, the way it progressed, is pretty much par for the course. For any project that is going to have a major impact on a certain area there are going to be aspects that people feel negatively about. The opponents can be very specific in making those objections.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: I recall when I first moved up here that there was already intense debate about the path alternatives, from a by-pass a bit to the east, or a by-pass the other direction, or going right straight through town following the already existing path.

NICK TENNYSON: Right. And that kind of scenario is completely typical.

So we, in a way, with our design are allowing people to make an illegal choice.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: A couple of years ago the then newly formed Blowing Rock Civic Association put together a public meeting at Blowing Rock Country Club with members of the NCDOT leadership team. It was kind of a friends of the governor meeting to say hey, let’s get this project done.  Are those sorts of meetings or events constructive?

NICK TENNYSON: Well, most of those sorts of things are constructive as long as they are for the purpose of getting the project done. From time to time meetings like that are convened, but the objective of the organizers is not to get the project done, but to get it killed. My sense is that meeting was important and got the attention of the highest levels of the Department of Transportation, making us aware of and engaged in the need to find an expeditious path out of the problem. So yeah, I think that meeting was a good thing.

As long as it is a group of people who have accepted the transportation solution and they are ready to move forward, it can have a good effect.  Too often there are people who come to meetings like that, though, and want to argue about something three or four decisions ago. You can’t go back and change what was done.

Speeding On Valley Blvd.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: OK, a current question related to the widening of U.S. 321 through town, along Valley Blvd. There is a big concern about speed with the road being straightened and widened. The concerns coming into town from the south begin, really, at Green Hill Rd., but they intensify as you go around the curve at South Main St. into that long straight stretch to the Tanger Outlets. Even though the speed limit is 35, often cars are going much faster. I came back from Lenoir a couple of days ago and hit that stretch of straightaway where South Main St. intersects. I was going 35, but there were cars just flying by, a few apparently at twice my speed. I understand that the DOT’s primary mission is to free up the flow of traffic, to facilitate people getting places, but of course the mission statement at least gives lip service to safety, too. How can we address the speed issue proactively, without having law enforcement officers positioned every 100 feet of the roadway, writing tickets?

Ultimately we need to have drivers observing the law.

NICK TENNYSON: In the context of that sort of highway, the design of the road would be for it to operate safely at some specified speed within some margin of error. For example, let’s say it is a 55 miles per hour road and you have a four-lane road with a straight, relatively flat stretch like that. You have to know at some level that people are going to be exceeding the speed limit, because that is routine. So you have some sort of buffer of design to operate safely. All that does is enable people who choose to exceed the speed limit to still go through that curve (safely).

Nick Tennyson, right, speaks with Paul Broyhill, left. That is former NCDOT board member Jim Palermo in the center, during the dedication of The Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge in Blowing Rock.

In other words, the design is supposed to accommodate safe travel. So we, in a way, with our design are allowing people to make an illegal choice. If you designed it so that it was safe only up to 35 mph, given people’s driving patterns you would end up with a great number of accidents.

I think it has to be an enforcement question. It is a question of people understanding safe operation. Tragically, fatalities on highways in North Carolina happen way too often and speed is one of the primary contributing factors.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation, I think, has an obligation to build roads that are adequate for the mobility task assigned. Then, as a society, either through enforcement or the process of promoting the value of keeping ourselves and others around us safe, we need to have drivers observing the law.

It was impressive to see people employed by the NCDOT whose job is to make systems function in a way that defeats human nature.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: It came up at a Town Council meeting a couple of months ago when Police Chief Tony Jones gave a presentation on this issue and alternatives for slowing people down that perhaps one strategy would be to employ more stoplights.

NICK TENNYSON: The problem with signals is that they do slow people down, but drivers often speed up after the signal thinking, “I’m going to make up the time that I just lost sitting at that signal.” People jackrabbit away, they speed to try and get through a yellow light.

As Secretary of Transportation, it was impressive for me to see the people employed by the NCDOT whose job it is to make systems function in a way that defeats human nature. For example, the way that signals don’t immediately go from red to green when the opposing direction signal goes red.  There is a period where it is red for all directions. If you had that timing wrong or where people get the timing in their heads and know that they have a couple of seconds to go through the intersection even if it has already turned red…Human beings are sometimes tough to keep safe, especially if they aren’t working in that direction themselves.

Human beings are tough to keep safe if they aren’t working in that direction themselves.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: We now know there is going to be a signal put in at South Main and Valley Blvd. finally. Somebody in the DOT finally admitted that one is needed there.

NICK TENNYSON: It is really very frustrating. I have often joked that on the back of everybody’s driver’s license it says that you are a fully qualified transportation engineer. We all carry it.

All of these are system-wide, experience-based decisions. There is some range of objective criteria that over time has been developed for when a signal is going to do more good than bad.

I can tell you this, that once that signal is put into place, in some leg of that intersection there will be an increase in rear-end collisions where people don’t know the signal is coming, or whatever. Those collisions wouldn’t have happened but for the signal.

So it really is a series of tradeoffs. It may be that that one should have been put in earlier.  I don’t really know the specifics of that decision. But I can tell you that putting in a signal or not putting it in is not based on a whim. It is based on some set of objective criteria.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Chief of Police Tony Jones stated at that Town Council meeting that speed has been an issue on Valley Blvd. for a while now. He explained that other municipalities use various strategies for slowing people down, such as roundabouts, speed bumps, etc., but he stated that for a U.S. highway most of those techniques or strategies are unavailable because they are not permissible to be used on a state or federal highway. He suggested the comparison radar signs showing your speed side by side with the posted speed limit.

One of the Commissioners said during the meeting that he had mentioned everything EXCEPT signal lights.  Frankly, if you know the area, in addition to the signal light at South Main, I would put one at Green Hill Rd., at Country Club Dr., and one at Food Lion. That is based on local knowledge about what the demographics are in this area.

Take Country Club Dr., for example. You have something like 60 homes back in there that use Country Club Dr. as their access point. Many are seasonal, but some are not.  And frankly, you have a lot of Country Club members who turn left out of Country Club Dr. and drive to Green Hill Rd. and turn left again to go to one of the few hundred homes back up that way.

NICK TENNYSON: What this all comes back to is that you spend a certain amount of money to have a certain amount of throughput available.

Nobody at NCDOT is opposed to that principle of operating safely.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Throughput being…

NICK TENNYSON: Mobility, cars going along this road. And every time you do something to cut down on that capacity, then you increase the risk that you are going to see the kind of congestion that you had when it was a two-lane road. It’s counter-productive.

When you put in a traffic signal, you are saying, “I will have zero throughput for some percentage of the time because there is some percentage of the time that the signal is going to be red in the direction of the desired throughput.

Again, it is always a tradeoff. What generally happens as these things evolve is that as the road improves traffic congestion is relieved, then commercial or residential activity along that route increases. As that occurs, people along the route want access to their businesses. They want signal lights or they want driveways. So then as congestion builds back up, the next thing we know is that people want us to build a by-pass.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: So you end up with an Interstate around the congestion…

NICK TENNYSON: It needs to be operated safely. Nobody at DOT is opposed to that principle of operating safely. But there are solutions that are used, such as something called a synchronized street. In that instance, you can’t make crossing movements across. You can’t make a left in a lot of places, it is right in and right out. You have to go up and make a U-turn. Those are put in across the state in a lot of locations. The result is a tremendous decrease in the crash and fatality rate in the places where they are put in.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: I wish that where they are forcing the  U-turn there was a little more room to complete the turn. You can tell by all of the tire marks on the curb and up onto the sidewalks that there isn’t enough room at most of those places along Valley Blvd.

NICK TENNYSON: Yeah, I understand.

Lowering Speed Limit From 55 to 50 After Widening And Straightening Highway

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Well, one other issue related to U.S. 321 before we move on and it is kind of the inverse of the speed issue on Valley Blvd. That is the stretch below Blowing Rock from Blackberry Rd. to Kirby Mountain Rd., where a few years ago they completed the widening and straightened the highway, too, but then lowered the speed limit from 55 when it was a winding, 2-lane road to 50 now.

There is a basis for every decision.

That makes zero sense to lay people like me. I have been told that it was “engineered” for 50, which is even more infuriating because it insults our intelligence to think that you widen a road and straighten a road and then tell people it is only engineered for a slower speed than you went before.

I’ve been to other areas of the country, including growing up in California. My uncle was a chief engineer on many of the freeways in Southern California.  If you have a curve where it may not be safe to go the regular speed limit for the rest of the road, then they put up a yellow sign showing that there is a sharp curve ahead and that the suggested speed limit is slower. But you don’t sacrifice what you call throughput in the major stretches if a wider, straighter highway just because of a couple of curves.

Why not leave the speed limit at 55, what it was on the old 2-lane road, and have signage pointing out the problem areas?

NICK TENNYSON: The only thing that I can suggest is that you talk with the engineers at the DOT in Raleigh. Talk with the safety gurus. They are the pros when it comes to speed levels and signage and how they interact. It is one of those cases where there is system-wide and nation-wide experience in engineering highways. If they made that decision…I am not saying that it is not challengeable or that it might not be reviewed, but there is a basis for every decision.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Well, I asked a couple of engineers assigned to the job and they said that is the way the road was engineered. I contend that if you straighten a road and widen it, but supposedly engineer it for a slower speed than it was before the road that was replaced, those engineers should be fired. But beyond that it is an irritant to drivers throughout the High Country as well as others down below who have to use that highway and be artificially slowed down going up or down that stretch.  I am not the only one who has tested it, but I’ve gone 65 and 70 through the whole thing, including the curves, quite safely. Ok, the curves were starting to feel a little uncomfortable at 70, but that is where you put up those little yellow signs that give a recommended speed for curves ahead.

NICK TENNYSON: I hate to plead ignorance, but that is why I refer you to the experts that know. Maybe it is a mistake and needs to be reviewed, but certainly I am not the guy qualified to make that decision.

Paying For Highway Infrastructure With A Broken Revenue Model

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: OK, broader questions. A couple of years ago Blowing Rock News hosted a workshop in which your predecessor, Tony Tata, was a lead participant. I billed it as a community forum on what I termed the “looming crisis in transportation in North Carolina.”  You have increasing population so greater use of the transportation infrastructure. Highways are getting more use, but the source of revenue to build and maintain roads and highways may not be keeping pace because of more fuel efficient vehicles. The DOT’s revenue source is the fuel tax at the gas pump. But if cars are using less fuel, whether because they are hybrids or all-electric or just better internal combustion engineering, less fuel is being purchased relative to the wear and tear on the highways.

The yield expressed as revenue per mile traveled is going down.

NICK TENNYSON: Well, that is accurate, but perhaps expressed differently. The yield expressed as revenue per mile traveled is going down. The actual number of dollars is going up because of increased vehicle use – due to higher population and stronger employment. We’re not necessarily getting less fuel tax revenue, but there are a greater number of users and greater use of the system we are trying to pay for with revenue that has not kept pace.

That’s happening on the mileage front. The most significant impact on the available revenue is that the federal gas tax has stayed the same since 1993. If it was accurate at the time as an expression of a unit of demand vs. revenue ratio, it is not anymore. The value of the dollar compared to 1993 is down about 50%. So if was right then – and of course that is questionable – there is no way it is right now.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: You mean, it should be higher now?

NICK TENNYSON: It would have to be higher to be the same, in terms of the actual purchasing power of the dollars paid.

The numbers in terms of revenue that the NCDOT works with are so big that a lot of people can’t imagine that we are having a revenue problem. And, frankly, there are things about all systems that can be more efficient, including the NCDOT. However, a billion dollars is approximately what North Carolina gets every year as our portion of the federal highway tax. That is money that is collected through the pump or, more accurately, at wholesale distribution levels. There are only four or five actual payers of tax in North Carolina.  When you pump gas into your car and pay at the retail register, somebody is being reimbursed for taxes that they have already paid.

The numbers that the NCDOT works with are so big that a lot of people can’t imagine that we are having a revenue problem.

The service station operator is not paying the taxes to the government, but he is paying the tax as part of the wholesale price he is paying to the distributor. He essentially paying back the people who have already paid the tax.

Money from the federal gas tax goes into the Federal Highway Trust Fund and then is allocated to both transit and highway use. The transit systems across the country (both new starts like Charlotte and older systems) get money from the transit fund.  Our billion is from the highway portion and it is only used for highways. It is used in our road and bridge construction process and to do some work on maintenance of the federal Interstate system.

So the Highway Trust Fund allocates money based on congressional actions that have occurred over the years. We get back about 95 cents on a dollar of what is paid in from North Carolina in federal gas taxes.  So we get that billion dollars and that is allocated to build roads.

A billion dollars seems like a lot of money. It IS a lot of money. There is no way that I would say it isn’t a lot of money. However, a billion is a thousand million. To put it in perspective, to build a two-lane road in the Piedmont part of the state – not in the mountains, or in the coastal plain where there is a lot of water to deal with – but to build a two-lane road in the Piedmont area is about four million dollars per mile.

That includes the cost of right of way, the proportionate share of a bridge that happens every so often, and the cost of construction.

If you do the math, that means that billion dollars is about 250 miles of two-lane road.  In a state that already has more than 80,000 miles of state-maintained highway, 250 miles is not a lot.  In a state with 100 counties and you are telling every county they get 2 and half miles of road each year. In a lot of counties that might be a big increase over what they are currently getting, but in others it is a drop in the bucket compared to their needs. So 250 miles of road expressed over a 100 counties is really not a lot.

All of this comes back to the point, I feel, that people don’t have a sense of the scale of the challenge. And they don’t have a senses that at certain points you have lost the ability to maintain our mobility through building and maintaining roads. That comes back to your question of population growth.

Yes, we have population growth and we have it unevenly across the state. People arrive here and are not assigned to someplace to live, they go to where they want to go. In the case of retirees and vacation travel, a lot of it is to the mountain area, or out to the coast.

The larger drivers of population growth have to do with economic activity. That is concentrated in those major urban areas.  And in those urban areas, there is a concentration of time when people want to travel.  For work, that is during rush hour. They all want to be on the road at the same time, 9 and 5, or thereabouts.

When you look at it, our highway system is a utility, just like electricity and gas, but we pay for it on a flat rate basis. Once you pay your gas tax, your drivers license and the registration on your car, you can consume anywhere you want to, any time you want to, all you want to.

With all of the other utilities, they have recognized that there is a peak hour problem, which in a lot of cases they solve the problem through pricing mechanisms. For transportation revenue, there is no pricing mechanism.

Toll roads are another form of “use taxes”, just like fuel taxes at the gas pump.

On those occasions where that has been imposed around the country, manifested as toll roads, it is very unpopular. In those localities where toll roads are built all over the nation, not just in North Carolina, there is resistance to toll roads as a mechanism for user fees.

Ironically, the whole gas tax mechanism is predicated on the basis that users should pay. The gas tax is a user fee, just as toll roads are a user fee.

If you get 30 miles to the gallon, you are getting more miles driven on that revenue unit, that one gallon of gas, vs. a car getting 15 miles to the gallon. So back to your original point, there is a greater demand increase than there is revenue increase even though the overall revenue is going up with population growth and overall more miles being driven. North Carolina has experienced gas tax revenue increases, but it doesn’t keep up with the demand for road construction, repair and maintenance.

The cost for the project on U.S. 321 is huge in terms of the construction challenges…

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: $66 million I think…

NICK TENNYSON: Yeah, but when you get into the urban areas the road may be relatively simple from a geographical, geological and topographical point of view, but buying the right of way can suddenly get cranky. There are plenty of instances around North Carolina where the right of way costs are more than the actual construction costs.

So this is all just to recite the (funding) challenge. We have had almost a hundred years of the gas tax. It started in 1921. It was a penny a gallon in North Carolina. That is about 13 cents today.  In 1921, thanks to the bonds that were passed to be repaid by that penny a gallon, there were 8,000 miles of hard surface road, state-maintained road, built in North Carolina. Now there are more than 80,000 miles of roads. Proportionately, when you consider that we only have a 35 cent state gas tax now, you can make the argument that there have been substantial savings over the years in terms of efficiency in operating the highway system.

Buying right-of-way can suddenly get cranky.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: What is the state tax contribution to the overall revenue?

NICK TENNYSON: You have a billion from the federal tax and the state tax and fee revenue amounts to about three and a half billion. (Fuel tax, DMV fees, and tax on cars purchased.) The total budget is about four and a half billion. About a $1.6 billion goes into what is called the trust fund, which goes toward new construction. About $2.5 billion goes to maintenance costs across the state, but if we have a bad winter it is a little more. The remainder goes to other transportation modes (rail, aviation, ports, ferries, and bike and pedestrian) plus the administrative costs of operating the department.

As a department, the NCDOT has moved aggressively to preservation efforts as distinct from repairs. If you have a major bridge and you can spend $5 million on that bridge and extend its life for 30 years, that is a good investment even if it is not at a point today where it actually needs repair. But it might be at a point where renovation will extend its life.  Sometimes it is tough to make that decision because you have a lot of people competing for that same dollar. Those others may be seeing bridges that actually need to be replaced, so it is hard to spend money on one that really doesn’t need to be replaced.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Other than generating use tax revenue through toll roads, are there any other mechanism alternative for solving this imbalance.

NICK TENNYSON: Sure. A lot of this is the challenge of deciding what is the right investment in the right location. I am not a person who will tell you that everyone should bicycle and there are many places in North Carolina where bikes don’t have any real utility in terms of providing transportation.

But in urban areas of North Carolina, there have been local communities that have invested heavily in making it safe and convenient to use bicycles. A lot of the downtown congestion problems, of providing mobility for people, can be solved using tools that are different than we had even 20 years ago.

With Uber available or use of a bicycle to commute back and forth to work, there are transit options, certainly right now in Charlotte. And car rentals for even just a few hours…all of those things contribute.

A lot of this comes back to making sure that land use decisions are logical. When you make a decision about access to property, you have to be making that decision with some sort of long-term view in mind. As you add driveways you reduce the capacity of the road because you introduce potential conflicts with slower traffic.

Traffic achieves its maximum level of throughput at 45 mph.

In Wilmington, for example, they have wonderfully wide roads, but they seem to have a driveway every 100 feet. As a result, traffic congestion and the risk of running into someone coming into or out of one of those driveways increases.

So the alternatives are land use planning, making our investments in a timely manner, or things like behavior modifications among the people in terms of speed.

Traffic  achieves its maximum level per lane at about 45 miles per hour. Everybody wants to go 70, but the way you get the most cars, which is about 2500 vehicles per hour at the peak, is about 45 mph, partially due to the willingness of drivers to leave less space between cars.  If everyone would just go 45, the capacity of the road would go up. But most people want to go a lot faster.

And then they want to be able to weave in and out of lanes and they want to be able to text at the same time!

Every road system in the state would operate at a much higher rate of throughput if we didn’t have to deal with accidents.

The way we have chosen to pay for transportation has been a user fee model. There are variations on the user fee.

Not only do people want to go 70, they want to weave in and out of lanes — and they want to TEXT at the same time!

This is not a proposal for North Carolina because it has lots of problems, but in Shanghai, China, as I understand it, for $13,000 per year you get a special license plate that allows you to use the freeway. Without that license plate, you cannot use the freeway. For those people that can afford it, there is the road. Now that would be completely repugnant to everybody that I talk to in the United States.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: The ultimate toll!

NICK TENNYSON: Yes. But the toll mechanisms that have gotten a lot of attention lately, and let’s use the example of what is being put into place in Charlotte right now, charge a toll based on the congestion on the road – usually varying with the time of day. In projects like this, there are general purpose lanes on which no toll is collected and no reduction in the number of general purpose lanes. But for the additional capacity that is required at peak hours, you put an additional user fee on it, which is that extra toll lane.

It stands to reason for me, because we build for the capacity that is needed as sort of the base line, but then for the peaks you are able to handle the extra without completely shutting down the traffic. If you just build wider and wider roads, you get wider and wider traffic jams, such as the pictures you see of Atlanta and Los Angeles.  The roads got wider, but the traffic didn’t go away. Once the traffic catches up with capacity, then everybody stops.

So those pricing mechanism have a place. They are something that has to happen.

The tantalizing future is this whole connective vehicle question. It is true that that 2500 vehicles per hour throughput can increase if average speed goes up when all of the vehicles are somehow connected with each other and nobody wrecks. They are just moving through in the autonomous future that we have, closer together.

When you engage cruise control, you have stepped into an early world of autonomous vehicles.

The problem with relying on that as a solution starts with the problem with convincing guys our age. At one point we were all going to get a jet pack and that future has never arrived. But when you are trying to solve traffic congestion you get to the point of asking how many vehicles are you going to have on the road?  Will connected vehicles mean fewer vehicles on the road at peak hours?

Right now you look out the window and you see a bunch of cars that are parked.  People don’t use their cars more than about 10% of the day. But that 10% of the day when you want to move your vehicle for some purpose, in urban areas in particular, is when other people are wanting mobility, too. It is concentrated.

So what is going to have to happen with autonomous vehicles, especially at peak hours, is people are going to have to be willing to ride with each other. Right now, that vehicles per hour number translates to people per hour because for the most part we are going one person per car.

There has to be behavioral change or technological change.

FUTURE THINK: Changes In Transportation

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: Well, for this whole idea of connectivity, the idea of The Jetsons is pretty appealing maybe, but from a practical standpoint we’ll have to phase into it because not everyone will be able to afford the connected car. How do you phase into that?

NICK TENNYSON:  Yeah, all of that stuff is way, way far into the think tank world. First of all, autonomous vehicles are already here at a certain level. When you put on your cruise control, you have made a step into an autonomous vehicle because you have turned over to the vehicle the speed at which you are going to go down the highway. The newer editions of that are the vehicles that are able to sense the environment around them. Controlling when you might drift out of lane, for example. Coming back to the maintenance issue, one of the areas where we can improve is to feed from our lane markings better information to those vehicles equipped with those sensors.

They are also going to have to account for the fact that your ’67 Chevy doesn’t have autonomous capability.

When it snows, lane markings are not visible, but on a large part of our highway system, the markings are word and not visible on a clear day. We need to do a better job of maintaining road markings in order to make the system work more safely and efficiently.

When you get into this autonomous vehicle world, the people who are driving this are the people trying to make vehicles work and work safely. But they are also having to account for the fact that your ’67 Chevrolet doesn’t have autonomous capability. So their (newer) vehicle has to be smart enough not to hit you or to sense what you are doing.

I doubt it will be a switch that gets flipped, but it will probably involve restricted lanes. It will probably involve use of certain capacities if your vehicle has certain characteristics. But that will put us right back in this big equity fight of “Hey, wait a minute, I paid the bill on that highway, what do you mean I can’t drive on certain portions of it.”

You have to go through a period of tradeoffs and it is a challenge in the metro areas. The future workforce is attracted to places where they can get around. If the only way you can get from A to B is to get into a traditional car, you are going to lose out on the younger workforce and that means you are losing out on the key economic driver.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: One other area of interest…You talked a bit about preservation…There are a number of people who have lived in other areas of the country who suggest that the specifications for the roads here are not up to snuff in terms of the asphalt. I know someone, for instance, from upstate New York who says we have weather up there that is much worse than here in the mountains of North Carolina, but the roads last 10 times longer. Is there a certain set of specifications in the road material that maybe can be improved?

NICK TENNYSON: Sure. The asphalt that is put down has a projected life. If you use concrete, there may be a longer projected life for the initial installation, but the asphalt is easier to renew. So once you get out to about 50 years, it turns out the cost of doing either one is about the same.

We have standards that trade off the cost vs. the time frame. I wouldn’t be conversant with the specifics of upstate New York vs. the weather profile of Boone, but I can tell you that it is analyzed and is a matter of concern. It is also very important to remember that the subsoil, the roadbed, contributes greatly to your success in maintaining the quality and durability of the road.  Of the 80,000 miles of state-maintained roads and highways, 60,000 miles of that are in what we call our secondary system. In all but five other states, those would be referred to as county roads that are maintained with funds from property taxes and such. That secondary system is usually older, not built to the same standards for subsurface preparation that exist today.

We have had situations around the state where we have had to get replace concrete before it really should have worn out, and a lot of that has to do with the roadbed on which the road was built.

A lot of these things are a “learn as you go” kind of challenge. You try to beat them with research, but ultimately from time to time you just have to suck it up and pay for installation plans that weren’t adequate to the demand.

We spend a lot of time at the NCDOT studying this question of using the best and least maintenance material because of all the fixed cost problem that you have upfront.

BLOWING ROCK NEWS: I think the critic’s question is whether the specs for a two-lane road on the coast the same as the two-lane road in the mountains?

NICK TENNYSON: The asphalt mixes are going to be different, but you really shouldn’t be relying on me or any other bureaucrat for the best answer to that question. You need to be talking to the technical guys at the DOT.

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