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Interregional Travel: A New Perspective for Policy Making (2016)

Chapter: 7 Summary of Findings and Recommendations

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7

Summary of Findings
and Recommendations

Most long-distance trips begin in one metropolitan region and end in another 100 to 500 miles away. These short- to medium-length trips, which are referred to as “interregional” in this report, account for about three-quarters of all long-distance trips. A number of developments in recent years have emphasized the importance of this largest segment of long-distance travel. Two of them are California’s plan to invest more than $60 billion in a new high-speed rail line connecting the state’s northern and southern cities and the emergence of express bus lines serving the interregional corridors of the Northeast and expanding to other parts of the country. In these and other cases where new transportation services—some requiring large public investments—are being considered, interregional travel behavior, service options, and traffic flows need to be well understood. However, the 100- to 500-mile trip has been largely neglected in data collection, research, and transportation planning.

This study reviews

  • Interregional travel behavior and patterns, including traveler and trip characteristics and factors that influence travel choices, such as service price, accessibility, convenience, comfort, frequency, reliability, safety, and travel time;
  • The supply of interregional transportation infrastructure and services by automobile, airplane, bus, and train;
  • The characteristics of interregional travel markets and corridors that affect their suitability for service by particular modes of transportation, including spatial and demographic conditions as revealed by experience in the United States and in other industrialized countries;
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  • Planning, programming, and funding challenges that arise in the provision of interregional transportation, including those associated with forecasting travel demand and evaluating public benefits and costs associated with long-term government commitments to interregional transportation systems such as passenger rail; and
  • The data and analytical capabilities needed to plan and program transportation investments to serve interregional travelers.

The review confirms a general lack of information on this component of long-distance travel. The crossing of multiple states and metropolitan regions by many interregional travel corridors is suggested as a contributing factor. The scarcity of information on corridor traffic can combine with the practice of state-by-state and metropolitan-specific transportation planning to cause the chronic neglect of modes oriented to serving these multijurisdictional trips in the provision of infrastructure from a corridor-level perspective.

Intercity bus and rail systems have a strong interregional orientation. Both are sometimes used for trips as short as 30 or 50 miles, but less use is made of them for trips exceeding about 300 miles. The modest capital requirements of intercity bus services reduce the difficulty and the risk of entering and exiting from markets, which attracts private operators and lessens the need for public-sector planning and investment. In the case of the more capital-intensive intercity rail, government involvement is usually extensive, both in supplying the assets and in operating the service. The scarcity of detailed and up-to-date data on trip making and the absence of organizations and sources of transportation funding that align with interregional corridors are impediments to planning and investing in rail service. Significant attention is therefore given in this report to passenger rail.

Key findings from the study are summarized next. Deficiencies in travel data are discussed first. They hinder all but the most basic characterizations of interregional travel in the United States and impede the evaluation and planning of transportation infrastructure and services to accommodate this market. Despite the data shortcomings, enough information exists to describe the availability and use of the major transportation modes for interregional travel at a general level. The dominance of the automobile and the heavy use of airlines for interregional trips have been documented

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in this report, along with the recent proliferation of express intercity bus services. The limited availability of passenger rail in part explains the relatively small share of the country’s interregional trips provided by that mode. The study’s review of intercity rail service in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), Europe, and Japan offers insight into the prospects for increasing this mode’s role.

Although better travel data are needed for informing transportation investment decisions, evidence in this report indicates a significant gap in the decision-making capacity itself. The absence of funding sources and institutions that align with interregional corridors contributes to this deficiency. Experience at the metropolitan level suggests that overcoming this deficiency will help stimulate demand for better data and the use of state-of-the-art analytical tools to inform decisions. The chapter concludes with recommendations on how the federal government can help improve long-distance travel data, support the development and application of state-of-the-art analytical tools, and provide incentives for the creation of interregional planning entities to inform sound regional and corridor-level transportation decision making.

KEY FINDINGS

Because of outdated travel behavior survey data, long-distance travel is not nearly as well understood as local travel.

Understanding of long-distance travel in the United States is informed mainly by the American Travel Survey (ATS), a national survey of long-distance trips conducted in 1995. Changes in demographics, the economy, and technology suggest that these 20-year-old data may no longer be indicative of long-distance travel behavior. Since 1995, the country’s population has grown by 20 percent, become older, and continued to shift toward the newer metropolitan regions of the South and West, where transportation options differ. The average size of households has declined, the number of households with children has grown more slowly than the number of households without children, and the Internet has changed the relationship between information and travel. In addition, the

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transportation landscape has changed. Express bus companies offering curbside pickup and drop-off are serving short-haul, interregional markets in ways that were not anticipated just a few years ago. With the aid of state government subsidies, train frequencies have been increased in a number of interregional corridors. The deregulated airline industry has evolved, with discount carriers entering new markets. Travelers can now shop for transportation services on the Internet, a technology that had not been commercialized at the time of the ATS. With smartphones, tablets, and other portable electronic devices introduced in the past decade, people can work remotely and stay connected when they make trips out of town, which has undoubtedly had implications for travel demand. Even travel by automobile has changed markedly in 20 years. Advances in in-vehicle electronics and onboard communications, entertainment, and navigation systems have made trips by automobile safer, more comfortable, and more reliable, and thus the automobile is potentially more appealing for longer distances.

Certain travel relationships are unlikely to have changed fundamentally in 20 years. For example, there is little reason to believe that the tendencies of business travelers to select their transportation mode on the basis of schedule frequency, travel time, and reliability and of leisure travelers to place a greater emphasis on price have changed substantially since the 1990s. Nevertheless, a long-distance travel survey conducted today would likely reveal many travel patterns not observed in 1995, as would be expected after two decades of demographic, economic, and technological change. Use of data on travel behaviors observed a generation ago increases the uncertainty faced by today’s decision makers in planning and investing in transportation systems intended to be used for decades to come.

The automobile is used for most interregional trips, especially by families and other people traveling together for nonbusiness purposes. Understanding the strong appeal of driving for nonbusiness travel is critical in planning transportation investments to accommodate interregional travelers.

The private automobile has many service attributes that are distinct from those of other modes used for interregional travel. It can be used to haul

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specialized luggage and gear (e.g., camping and sports equipment), provides a means of local transportation at the destination, and can accommodate multiple people at little extra cost. During recreational and leisure trips, driving can provide the opportunity for viewing scenery, shopping, and visiting attractions en route. Driving also allows for customized scheduling of trips and unplanned changes without fare penalties. Because of these service attributes and nearly ubiquitous household car ownership, the automobile is used for most interregional trips, especially those made by families.

The automobile’s distinct service attributes have less utility to those who are traveling (a) alone and are thus unable to share fuel, parking, and toll expenses with others; (b) for business purposes and who place a high value on the time saved from faster travel and an ability to make productive use of time spent traveling; (c) on longer trips where the travel time advantages of airplanes and high-speed trains become compelling; and (d) to locations such as downtowns where the automobile is not needed for local transportation and where it may be costly to operate and park. Furthermore, driving is not an option for some travelers lacking access to an automobile or who feel unsafe or incapable of driving longer distances.

Airlines are seldom used for trips under about 200 miles, but they account for most of the longer interregional trips made by time-sensitive business travelers. They are used to an increasing degree by other travelers when distances reach several hundred miles and low-fare service is available.

Nearly all of the country’s largest cities have hub airports offering frequent nonstop service to other cities located 150 or more miles away. Large interregional markets, such as San Francisco–Los Angeles, Washington–New York, Dallas–Houston, and Chicago–Saint Louis, have several dozen flights per day, including flights from secondary airports providing travelers with additional schedule time and location options. Airlines compete mainly with the automobile in most interregional markets, at distances that differ for business and nonbusiness travelers. The combination of frequently scheduled flights and multiple airport choices is especially attractive to business travelers as trip distances approach

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200 miles. When distances exceed about 300 miles, air travel becomes increasingly competitive with the automobile for trips made by nonbusiness travelers. In metropolitan areas with multiple airports, airline schedule options can be attractive for interregional trips that begin or end in suburban locations.

The time penalty associated with ground access to airports, security lines, and check-in makes air transportation generally less competitive for shorter-haul than for longer-haul trips. Where service reliability is reduced because of airway congestion and flight options are limited by airport capacity and use restrictions, such as at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the appeal of flying diminishes. Relatively fast and frequent train service in the NEC competes with airlines for a large portion of business trips, especially between New York and Washington, D.C. However, in most interregional corridors in the United States there are no transportation alternatives to airlines for time-sensitive business trips, since intercity train service in most markets is infrequent and slow.

Sparse interregional train service throughout much of the country can be attributed to a number of factors. One is the preponderance of trains operating over the lines of private freight railroads, which limits the opportunities for competitive schedule times and frequencies.

Train ridership exceeds airline passenger traffic between New York and Washington, D.C., where Amtrak’s high-speed Acela service competes directly with airlines. The NEC contains some of the country’s most populous metropolitan areas. Many have retained relatively strong urban cores, where downtown train stations are served well by public transit and are convenient to neighborhoods, businesses, government offices, universities, and entertainment attractions.

About 40 years ago, the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad enabled Amtrak to purchase and preserve several hundred miles of right-of-way to be used mainly by passenger trains. This has been fundamental to the success of train service in the NEC. Although a number of interregional rail corridors outside the NEC—such as Chicago–Saint Louis and Seattle–Portland—have a modest amount of government-subsidized passenger service, the infrastructure there is owned and heavily used by

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freight railroads. Investments to make train service more competitive for travelers through more frequent and faster passenger trains operating on freight lines are generally not in the interest of the private railroads, who are concerned about interference with freight operations, their main line of business.

Amtrak’s ability to exercise control over its right-of-way in the NEC gives it greater opportunity in this corridor than elsewhere to compete with other intercity modes by increasing train frequencies and reducing schedule times. Even on the passenger-oriented NEC rail lines, however, the capacity for intercity train service is constrained by having to share track with eight commuter railroads as well as freight trains operating over portions of the corridor. Long-standing track-sharing arrangements, some originating in legislation, limit Amtrak’s ability to charge access fees that cover the costs associated with maintaining and renewing the NEC’s rail right-of-way. Allocating many of these costs and isolating the beneficiaries of specific infrastructure investments are difficult in a multipurpose corridor serving local, interregional, and longer-distance traffic. Amtrak’s ability to contribute to the maintenance and renewal of its NEC right-of-way is constrained by the abundant bus and airline service in the region, which creates a competitive limit on how high the railroad can raise its fares. Amtrak’s capacity to make targeted investments in the corridor is further limited by having to use part of its NEC passenger revenues to help sustain rail system operations more generally.

The recent and largely unanticipated proliferation of intercity express bus services illustrates the uncertainties associated with forecasting the demand for interregional travel and with anticipating the ways in which demand will be met.

When the ATS was conducted in 1995, the intercity bus industry was in the midst of a long-term decline in ridership and service levels. Over the past decade the industry has been revitalized. Express bus services have proliferated in the wake of the popularity of buses operating from curb-sides in New York and other major cities of the Northeast. The express bus appears to have filled a void in the low-fare and shorter-haul interregional market. It accommodates mostly solo travelers who lack access

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to automobiles, find driving too expensive or a car unnecessary at the destination, or want to make enjoyable or productive use of travel time through the use of onboard amenities such as Internet Wi-Fi.

Both the size of this segment of the interregional travel market and the capability of buses to serve it have been surprising. The intercity bus requires little capital investment and can quickly adjust schedules and service locations. Curbside service allows bus operators to reduce their fixed costs by dispensing with terminals and ticket offices. Customers can obtain schedule information and purchase tickets via the Internet, which allows carriers to provide more affordable fares and to adjust schedules and pickup and drop-off points. By providing point-to-point service, bus operators reduce schedule times and avoid the cost of coordinating a network of connecting bus lines. A high degree of asset mobility and low fixed costs allow ease of market entry and exit, which enables operators to explore new markets with less need for travel demand forecasting.

Once heavily concentrated in the Northeast, express bus lines have expanded to other regions. They now serve a wider mix of metropolitan locations, such as large universities and suburbs. The unanticipated popularity of these services shows how little is known about the demand for interregional travel and illustrates the uncertainty public officials face in assessing the benefits of adding new transportation capacity requiring large commitments of capital.

Despite the differences in geographic, historical, and policy settings, the provision of interregional transportation in Europe and Japan can inform U.S. decisions, particularly with regard to when and where to invest in intercity passenger rail.

The sparse passenger train service in the United States contrasts with its extensive availability in Europe and Japan. The cost of driving, including the price of motor fuel, is substantially higher in Europe and Japan, which tends to make train service more price-competitive. The combination of good public transit and strong city centers has given rail locational advantages over airports, which are often located on the edges of metropolitan areas because of noise and land requirements. In addition, to a greater extent than in the United States, most major European airports have imposed

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regulatory controls on airline takeoff and landing slots because of concern over capacity shortages. These supply constraints may be limiting the ability of airlines to offer competitive flight frequencies for the short-haul trips that can be made by rail and other intercity modes.

Despite these geographic, historical, and policy differences, the European and Japanese experience offers insights into the conditions conducive to investments in passenger rail to serve interregional markets in the United States. Experience in Europe and Japan suggests that rail is more competitive when it serves cities having neighborhoods, employment centers, and travel attractions near train stations and extensive, well-functioning transit systems that make station access fast and convenient for travelers. The centers of large Japanese and European cities are major attractors of business, shopping, and leisure trips and focal points of public transit networks. Thus for many travelers, downtown train stations are more convenient to access than are the airports located on the edges of metropolitan areas because of noise and land restrictions. In interregional corridors as long as 200 to 500 miles, Japan and the countries of Europe have found that trains must be capable of providing 2- to 3-hour downtown-to-downtown service with a high degree of schedule frequency to compete effectively with airlines.

Experience in Europe and Japan also indicates that the size and relative position of cities in a travel corridor can be important in providing frequent and efficient train service, particularly when a corridor consists of two or more large cities or a string of cities that can be served by a single line. Unlike buses, which can offer frequent service with as few as 40 passengers per trip, schedule-competitive rail service requires the demand to fill some 200 seats. The closely spaced and linearly aligned large cities along the east coast of Japan’s Honshu Island, sometimes referred to as a “string of pearls,” is the classic configuration for competitive passenger train service and the site of the world’s most heavily used passenger railway, the Tōkaidō high-speed line.

Both in Europe and in Japan, investments in substantially upgraded and new higher-speed rail lines have usually been made in corridors that already have high train ridership. Because their rail networks are devoted mainly to passenger trains, service levels can be expanded incrementally to a point where capacity limits and the demand for major service and infrastructure investments become evident. During the past 40 years, a

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number of European countries have upgraded their conventional passenger rail networks to allow trains to average about 90 miles per hour and to reach top speeds of about 125 miles per hour. The use of tilting trains for higher speeds through curves has been one way of accomplishing this. In some cases, particularly where there are capacity shortages because of high volumes of commuter trains or where existing infrastructure is of poor quality and difficult to upgrade, new rail lines have been built. When a new rail corridor is to be added, the incremental cost of designing and building it to accommodate even faster intercity trains may not be high. Nevertheless, trains capable of averaging 150 miles per hour or more have invariably required large investments in lines specially built for high speeds, with the necessary grade separation, curvature, and gradient. European and Japanese experience indicates that the break-even traffic volume, in social benefit–cost terms, for the development of a new 300-mile, specially built high-speed line is on the order of 10 million passengers per year; this figure varies with the circumstances of each line.

The European and Japanese experience with passenger rail has more direct relevance to the NEC than to other U.S. travel corridors. The NEC is unmatched in the United States in having so many large and closely spaced cities in a single corridor. The string-of-pearls alignment of the corridor’s cities is the classic configuration for efficient passenger train service. In addition, most of the NEC cities have retained strong downtowns served by extensive public transit systems. In the same manner as in Europe and Japan, the NEC’s publicly owned rail right-of-way is oriented toward passenger trains, which allows Amtrak to schedule intercity trains at speeds and with frequencies that would not be possible on facilities intended mainly for the transportation of freight. There is a large and well-established demand for passenger trains in the NEC; the conventional regional trains and premium-service Acela trains transport about 10 million riders per year. For public officials contemplating major rail upgrades, uncertainties concerning the demand and public benefits associated with the required public outlays may be substantial. These uncertainties are reduced when a large and well-established ridership base already exists.

Other large cities in interregional corridors in the United States have characteristics that may be conducive to expanded passenger rail service. Cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, Saint Louis, and Pittsburgh have vibrant downtowns that are well served by transit. The interregional

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corridor in California, extending from San Diego to San Francisco, approximates the string-of-pearls configuration, although it is longer than the NEC and contains fewer large intermediate cities. However, it lacks a large base of train ridership to inform rail investment decisions, and public officials in these cities and corridors face considerable uncertainty about the prospects of the investment attracting the necessary ridership demand. In contrast to the NEC, where most of the rail right-of-way is owned by Amtrak, the rail lines in most U.S. corridors are owned by freight railroads. Their operating requirements may preclude even the gradual expansion of train service to introduce competitive levels of schedule frequency and travel speed.

California officials are planning the construction of an alternative right-of-way dedicated to trains able to provide high-speed passenger service for most of the corridor’s length. Heavy investment in an untested passenger rail market is unusual by European and Japanese standards. Success largely depends on reliable forecasts of ridership based on data collection and analytical techniques such as surveys of individuals to ascertain their preferences in response to hypothetical service scenarios. California is proceeding with its plan despite the substantial uncertainties associated with not having a large rail ridership base that can reveal traveler demand. Ridership forecasts are based largely on airline traffic flows and analyst efforts to develop realistic choice-set scenarios for stated preference surveys. Most other interregional corridors in the United States present the same data and analytical challenges. The planned high-speed system in California is confined to a single state, which facilitated its approval. Most other interregional corridors in the United States pass through multiple states, and an institutional structure that could undertake the necessary data collection, analysis, and planning and that could make major investment decisions is lacking.

Because interregional travel corridors often span multiple states, many lack the coordinated planning and funding structures needed to ensure that investments in transportation capacity are made from a corridor-level perspective.

Numerous public and private entities are responsible for aspects of interregional transportation. In the case of highways and aviation, private

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individuals and companies supply the vehicles and operate the transportation services; federal, state, and local governments have varying responsibility for funding, planning, and operating most of the fixed infrastructure of roadways, airways, and airports. The coordination of the government’s responsibilities is made easier when a 100- to 500-mile interregional corridor is contained within a single large state such as California or Texas. However, it remains challenging because a diverse set of federal and state agencies can have jurisdiction over individual transportation modes.

Much of the transportation infrastructure in the United States is funded and planned by mode-specific programs and agencies. The traditional approach to funding highway and aviation infrastructure relies on revenues generated largely from fuel and ticket taxes that are credited to trust fund accounts intended to provide a stable funding source. Revenues are disbursed to state and local governments by using formulas and discretionary grants. Among the advantages of such dedicated accounts are the placing of the burden of paying for the public good directly on the users and the relative reliability and predictability of the flow of revenues. A disadvantage is that trust funds can reinforce a mode-specific approach to transportation planning and programming.

The combination of mode-specific transportation funding and multistate corridors can be particularly problematic for investments in intercity passenger rail. Amtrak’s public funding derives mainly from general fund appropriations by Congress and states, since revenues credited to highway and aviation trust funds cannot normally be used to pay for interregional rail infrastructure and services. Obtaining public funding and approvals for system investments is a continuing challenge for Amtrak, particularly as it tries to modernize the multistate and multipurpose NEC. More generally, the absence of planning and funding structures corresponding to the country’s interregional corridors means that regular evaluations of transportation needs and options are not undertaken.

To encourage the development of urban transportation systems that are integrated and function well across a metropolitan region, the federal government has long required state and local authorities to

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coordinate their urban highway and transit investments. Although such coordination is often challenging to implement, its goal is to guide transportation investments from a multimodal and multijurisdictional perspective that is informed by sound data and objective analysis.

Experience with the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) process indicates that an ongoing structure for multimodal and multijurisdictional decision making is conducive to the development of travel databases and analytical tools. The development and refinement of standard methods for travel demand forecasting, for assessing policy and investment options, and for collecting requisite data have been prompted by MPOs. The federal government, which mandates the MPO process, has provided leadership and resources to aid these efforts. The relative scarcity of data and analytical tools for interregional corridors is due in large part to the lack of interregional entities seeking such data and tools on a regular basis.

In the United States, the NEC is unique in having many of the geographic, demographic, and demand conditions that European and Japanese experience suggests are favorable to public investments in intercity rail. However, perhaps more than for any other U.S. corridor, its multijurisdictional setting complicates the provision of intercity rail and its coordination with the corridor’s other transportation modes.

This study did not examine each of the country’s interregional corridors in depth, but many findings point to circumstances in the NEC that are unique in the United States and deserving of special policy attention. The NEC is characterized by the following:

  • Numerous large metropolitan areas in the region are
    • – Well connected economically and socially, which creates densely trafficked interregional rail, air, and highway routes;
    • – Located within 100 to 300 miles of each other and positioned in a linear fashion that suits service by a single rail line;
    • – Served by extensive public transit systems capable of providing convenient access to downtown train and bus stations; and
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    • – Centered on cities whose downtowns are major origins and destinations for interregional travelers.
  • It has an electrified rail right-of-way that is devoted to passenger rail and is thus able to accommodate frequent, fast trains without being unduly encumbered by freight trains.
  • Its rail and bus ridership levels are comparable with those of corridors in other countries where sustained investments have been made to develop competitive rail service, in some cases by investing in high-speed trains.
  • Several major airports in the area have regulatory limits on daily flights, and there is general difficulty in expanding airport and airway capacity.
  • Its transportation infrastructure spans numerous states—too many to have generated a highly coordinated program contributing to the infrastructure’s development but too few to have strong national-level support.

The geographic, demographic, and travel demand circumstances of the NEC set it apart from other U.S. interregional corridors. The NEC presents far less uncertainty with regard to the potential for passenger rail investments, including investments in high-speed service, to confer benefits. However, the difficulties inherent in coordinating the planning and priority-setting of multistate corridors in general have hindered development of the NEC, particularly the maintenance and modernization of its passenger rail system. The rail right-of-way in the NEC has been the subject of special federal funding programs for decades. These efforts have often proceeded without the benefit of multimodal and corridor-level development plans.

The special circumstances of the NEC are a reason for treating it differently from other interregional corridors. The committee is not in a position to identify the NEC’s infrastructure priorities. Nevertheless, the experience in the NEC is characteristic of the challenges that arise in the planning, funding, and programming of transportation infrastructure from an interregional perspective. The actions recommended below are intended to address these challenges both in the NEC and in the country’s other interregional corridors.

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RECOMMENDATIONS

In the absence of institutions and funding programs that align with interregional travel markets, there is little ongoing planning and evaluation of transportation investment priorities from a corridorwide perspective. This situation may have contributed to the scarcity of interregional travel data and analytical tools for informing decisions requiring lasting public financial commitments, such as the development of high-speed railways.

The recommendations that follow are intended to help fill these gaps by (a) providing detailed and current data on long-distance travel behavior and activity, (b) furthering the analytical tools needed to inform public investments in interregional corridors, and (c) encouraging the formation of interregional planning bodies to help guide the investments. The long-standing metropolitan planning process not only offers a model for the interregional setting but also reveals the importance of leadership by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), to which the committee directs its three recommendations.

Recommendation: To inform public investments in transportation capacity to serve interregional and other longer-distance travelers, USDOT should support the establishment of a national data program focused on observing and understanding the behavior of long-distance travelers and the transportation services available to them.

Data on travel behavior are required for forecasting and analyzing the demand for public-sector investments in transportation infrastructure and services. Observing interregional and other longer-distance trips can be especially challenging because they represent a small portion of all trips, and their study requires creative means of surveillance. Standard surveys of individual and household trip making can be too coarse to capture many of these relatively infrequent trips; the repeated use of ad hoc surveys to assess individual investment proposals can be duplicative and costly. Data from the last national survey of long-distance travel are now 20 years old and no longer reliable for informing decisions about investments intended to serve travelers decades into the future. Box 7-1 gives examples of the activities, choices, and behaviors that an updated

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BOX 7-1

Examples of Long-Distance Travel Survey Data
Needed for Informing Transportation Planning
and Decisions

  • Origin and destination of trip
  • Purpose of trip—whether for business or nonbusiness reasons, with added details such as whether the trip was for leisure, a medical purpose, or a family visit
  • Transportation modes used, including line-haul modes and modes for accessing and egressing terminals
  • Other modes that were available and considered as alternatives
  • Time required for travel, including time spent on specific trip segments, such as during access and egress, waiting at transfer points, and during check-in and security screening
  • Travel party size and type, including household membership and relation of travelers in party
  • Key traveler descriptors, including age, sex, education, race, worker status, automobile ownership, and individual and household income
  • Expenditures on fares and other out-of-pocket items such as tolls and fuel
  • Motor fuel prices at time of trip (coded from secondary sources)
  • Residential and employment densities at origin and destination (coded from secondary sources)

long-distance travel survey could help capture to inform transportation planning and decision making.

The Transportation Research Board’s Special Report 304: How We Travel: A Sustainable National Program for Travel Data (TRB 2011) recommended that USDOT establish a National Travel Data Program, a key component of which would be a national program for passenger

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data collection and analysis. The report proposed that a large-scale household travel survey be conducted every 10 years and be supplemented by more frequent in-depth surveys. This committee does not know whether the recommended approach is the most desirable one. Technological developments are expanding opportunities for data collection, and other approaches may deserve consideration, such as the British National Travel Survey’s continuous survey of travel by individuals and households. The recommended USDOT data program would be expected to pursue the data collection strategy that best balances the objectives of obtaining detail and ensuring reliability and currency within budgetary constraints.

Data on transportation options as well as on why, where, and how people travel long distances are important. For example, the observation that few travelers use passenger train service in corridors where it is so infrequent or slow as to be almost nonexistent does not indicate how they would utilize a more competitive service. The availability and attributes of the long-distance modes can vary significantly by region of the country, as documented in this report. A more definitive characterization of the supply of transportation service offerings would be helpful in understanding the results of the recommended long-distance travel survey. For example, data on the choices travelers face in terms of service attributes such as frequency, speed, and cost, as well as data on local transportation access and egress options and the options available for those who lack access to a car, would be helpful. A national data program could offer guidance on characterizing interregional service offerings and on using the data for analytical and planning purposes.

Recommendation: USDOT should support the development and application of state-of-the-art analytical tools for planning and prioritizing interregional transportation investments, including methods for representing the uncertainties that can accompany decisions to invest in long-lived transportation systems that require forecasting of public benefits and traveler demand.

Investments in interregional transportation can involve large capital outlays for infrastructure intended to serve travelers decades into the future. The prospect of large capital commitments and the uncertain-

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ties of future travel demand may cause decision makers to postpone or neglect investments in infrastructure that would have conferred public benefits. Conversely, they may elect to proceed with large investments informed by evaluations of benefits, including forecasts of future patronage, that do not materialize. The decision to invest in a high-speed rail system illustrates the dilemma. In most U.S. corridors, intercity rail service is skeletal, and the demands of freight traffic impede the incremental addition of service to build a larger ridership base. Therefore, the forecasting of demand for a high-speed rail system must rely on alternative information-gathering methods such as stated preference surveys. The lack of an existing ridership base introduces additional uncertainties into a forecasting and evaluation process that is already complicated.

Uncertainty accompanies most large investments in transportation. Many of the analytical tools needed to inform decisions have been developed and are used regularly for transportation planning, particularly by MPOs prioritizing urban transportation investments. As discussed in Chapter 6, travel demand forecasting models have been improved substantially over the past 40 years, driven in large part by the demand from hundreds of MPOs. USDOT played an important role in the advancement of these models. It took the lead in developing urban travel forecasting methods and software. The committee believes that USDOT can play a similar role in adapting existing analytical tools for the interregional context. For example, USDOT can identify the types of forecasting models and specifications that are best suited to interregional corridors by surveying the analytical methods used by states and other countries and in other settings, such as urban transportation. To aid decision making, USDOT can help in identifying appropriate techniques for representing uncertainty and provide information relevant for many other needs, such as estimating the value of time, characterizing the service attributes of modes and their demand elasticities, and quantifying societal benefits and their incidence.

The Federal Highway Administration, as discussed in Chapter 6, has reviewed the travel demand forecasting models used by state departments of transportation and by other countries. It describes its efforts as providing “foundational knowledge to support long-distance modeling.” This work offers an example of how the federal government can help in

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advancing the state of the practice of interregional transportation planning and analysis. Great Britain’s Department for Transport has established formal guidelines for evaluating candidate investments in intercity rail, highway, and airport infrastructure. The guidelines are located on one government website, known as WebTAG,1 to provide easy access by public officials. USDOT could provide similarly accessible guidance.

Recommendation: USDOT should create, by seeking the authority from Congress as necessary, the incentives for states to collaborate in developing multimodal, interregional transportation planning and decision-making organizations. The incentives should be designed to allow states to choose whether to form such organizations and to provide the flexibility to structure them and define their responsibilities in ways best suited to meeting corridor-specific interests and needs.

A goal should be to encourage a transportation planning and decision-making process from an interregional perspective that is mode-neutral and informed by sound analysis. Because the supply of interregional transportation is a joint public- and private-sector enterprise, the involvement of the private sector in the process will be critical in informing the organizations’ planning and priority-setting. Planning and programming should be undertaken in a manner that does not routinely favor or neglect specific modes. All relevant modal interests should be involved, including private carriers of passengers and freight, as well as the planning organizations that serve the states and metropolitan regions in the corridor. These planning and decision-making entities could have a prominent role in identifying corridor-level capital spending priorities, planning specific projects aligned with these priorities, and applying for and aggregating funding for desired projects from multiple revenue sources.

The involvement of intercity bus companies, airlines, and railroads would help state and local transportation planners identify opportunities for increasing interregional service options and improving their performance for travelers. Broad participation will also counter tendencies

________________

1 https://www.gov.uk/transport-analysis-guidance-webtag.

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for mode-specific biases in project evaluations. Although the focus of this study is on passenger travel, most interregional transportation systems are also used to move freight. A broadly construed interregional planning body could help coordinate the use of these systems more effectively for passenger and goods movement, and broader policy interests such as congestion and climate change mitigation could be considered. Multistate compacts or regional organizations already in existence, such as the I-95 Corridor Coalition and the NEC Commission, could widen the participation of various modes, and their planning and priority-setting roles may be strengthened by USDOT’s incentives.

Access to transportation funding will be critical in motivating the creation of these entities and ensuring a mode-neutral orientation. Federal funding eligibility that is contingent on or made easier for projects developed by interregional planning bodies could stimulate and sustain interest. Mode-specific transportation planning has a long history in the United States. Its practice has been reinforced by federal and state transportation funding programs that depend on taxes and other revenues generated by highway and airline users and credited to highway and aviation trust funds. Restrictions on how the revenues credited to these trust funds are allocated, including eligibility criteria for specific modal projects, would be difficult to change fundamentally, since there are valid reasons for the restrictions. However, there is precedent for allowing limited diversions of trust fund revenues to other modes. An example is the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund. Even if a significant easing of trust fund restrictions is not practical or desirable, a substantial amount of public funding for transportation infrastructure is unrestricted and derived from general fund appropriations, such as funding for intercity passenger rail and for highway and transit spending not covered by trust fund revenues.

Congress has at times demonstrated an interest in supporting transportation projects in ways that place fewer restrictions on modal eligibility. The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program administered by USDOT is an example. Through such programs, interregional transportation projects developed on the basis of a long-range multimodal plan could be given funding priority. While only certain elements of such a modally diverse plan might be funded through the

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alternative programs, mode-specific funding could presumably be used to implement much of the rest.

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

Transportation infrastructure in the United States is seldom planned, constructed, or operated with interregional travelers in mind. However, from time to time the country’s interregional corridors are the subject of proposals for large transportation investments, particularly the supply of more frequent and faster passenger train service. Illustrative of this interest are the Obama administration’s 2009 plan to devote economic stimulus funds to intercity rail projects across the country2 and California’s program to invest in high-speed rail. Meanwhile, in the NEC, frequent intercity train service already exists, is heavily used, and is competitive with other modes. Prioritizing and paying for the large capital requirements of the corridor are long-standing challenges. In all of these cases, decisions have or are being made with potentially lasting impacts on the availability of transportation service and the funding for future capacity.

Fifty years ago, the building of the Interstate highway system and the granting of federal aid to assist cities in maintaining and providing mass transit transformed urban transportation. That transformation generated public policies intended to bring about a multimodal and multijurisdictional planning process underpinned by more rigor, rationality, and coordination in the programming of major transportation investments. In contrast to the goals of this metropolitan process, the provision of interregional transportation appears to be deficient. Basic information on travel behavior and demand and the analytical tools needed for planning and prioritizing major investments are lacking. The actions recommended in this report are intended to address this deficit and to aid in the development of a well-informed and well-guided interregional transportation planning and programming capacity.

________________

2 On February 17, 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included more than $8 billion in grants for intercity and high-speed rail projects. For more details on the plan, see USDOT 2009.

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REFERENCES

Abbreviations

TRB Transportation Research Board
USDOT U.S. Department of Transportation

TRB. 2011. Special Report 304: How We Travel: A Sustainable National Program for Travel Data. National Research Council of the National Academies, Washington, D.C. http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/sr/sr304.pdf.

USDOT. 2009. Vision for High-Speed Rail in America: High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan. April. http://www.apta.com/gap/legissues/passengerrail/Documents/FRA_HSR_Strategic_Plan.pdf.

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TRB Special Report 320: Interregional Travel: A New Perspective for Policy Making examines the demand for and supply of interregional transportation in the United States. Major additions to transportation infrastructure, including high-speed rail, are being considered for some of the country’s most heavily traveled 100- to 500-mile corridors. The availability and use of the automobile, airplane, and train for interregional travel are reviewed along with the rejuvenated intercity bus. U.S. interregional corridors and transportation options are contrasted with those in Japan and Europe, where substantial investments have been made in passenger rail.

Public investments in new, long-lived transportation infrastructure can be risky because of uncertainty about future demand and the development of new technologies and competing transportation services. Decisionmakers in interregional corridors face the added challenge of having to coordinate investments across multiple jurisdictions. The report recommends actions to reduce this uncertainty and create stronger institutional means for developing the country’s interregional corridors.

TR News 303 features an article on Interregional Travel: A New Perspective for Policy Making.

A video about the research is now available:

At the 2016 TRB Annual Meeting, January 10-14, 2016, a session entitled Interregional Travel: Policymaking from a New Perspective was webcast live. These videos provide an overview of various components of the project.

Introduction:

Part 1: Overview of Project Scope

Part 2: Data and Information Needs

Part 3: Intercity Bus Operations

Question and Answer Session

Presenters:

  • Tom Deen
  • Nancy McGuckin
  • Joe Schweiterman

Moderated by: Martin Wachs

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