The Super-Commuter and Transportation Policy


By Carson Qing

In our recently released super-commuter study, we defined a potential super-commuter as an individual who works in the core county of one metropolitan labor market, but lives in another metropolitan area, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool. Using these definitions, super-commuters may include individuals who commute daily, weekly, monthly, or may not even commute at all, working remotely. Below is a chart of the most common super-commutes in the United States.

The Arizona Sun Corridor is the most prominent super-commute corridor in the nation, based on the 10 core counties of the largest metropolitan labor markets. Residents from the Tucson area commuting to the Phoenix area (Maricopa County) account for 3.6% of the latter’s workforce, or 54,400 total. Robert Lang and Arthur Nelson have conducted extensive research on the growing convergence between metropolitan regions, and first coined the term “Sun Corridor,” which they predict will become the next Dallas-Fort Worth, merging into a mega-region of 9 million people over the next few decades.

Transportation planners in Arizona are already quite familiar with the impact of that super-commutes are having along the Sun Corridor. Arizona DOT planners estimate that already lengthy super-commutes on Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix would take more than twice as long in 2050 due to a doubling in travel demand, even if the road were to be widened, primarily due to population and economic growth, as well as the already substantial volume of daily commutes between the two cities. Consequently, DOT officials are in the early stages of studying the impact of a multi-billion dollar intercity passenger rail line connecting the two cities in anticipation of the mega-region’s emergence and to sustain its current economic and demographic growth. Establishing a rail corridor may allow land use planners to shape development patterns in a way that e  nhances mobility between the regions and further alleviates the anticipated traffic congestion along the I-10 corridor. The Phoenix-Tucson rail initiative exemplifies how the emergence of the super-commuter during the past decade is already making a significant and important impact in regional transportation policy. On Thursday, I will discuss what the private sector has already done to facilitate these super-commutes nationwide.

Toll Debate Heats Up in the West

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Each day, nearly 24,000 vehicles race through a 30 mile stretch of Interstate-15 that pierces the northwestern corner Arizona. This segment of the highway – known as the “Arizona Strip” – looks much like the rest of I-15 as it traverses through the Mojave Desert, serving as a vital freight link between Southern California and points West. Many drivers don’t even know they have entered Arizona.

One-fourth of traffic on the Arizona Strip is freight trucks. Photo courtesy of Gannett.

 

But the state ignited a firestorm of controversy when it submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation last week to begin tolling that 30-mile segment for everyone but Arizona residents.

In documents submitted to the federal government’s tolling and pricing office, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) states that it is seeking to participate in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program. That program, authorized in 1998, allows up to three segments of the Interstate Highway System to be tolled by states to finance roadway improvements or expansion. Two other states have been granted permission to toll Interstate highways: Interstate 70 in Missouri and Interstate 95 in Virginia.

Detail of Arizona's proposed project area. Courtesy of ADOT.

ADOT contends that a new toll would raise up to $393 million over a 30 year period to fund vital roadway improvements, including bridge superstructure improvement, pavement rehabilitation, and safety enhancements. In its application, ADOT admits that tolling existing interstate capacity is “not popular,” but that a new source of revenue is necessary to carry out necessary improvements and tolling is the “most equitable method of accomplishing it on this very unique and isolated section of roadway.”

The proposal was immediately criticized by officials in neighboring Utah and Nevada. “If Arizona has been negligent in its maintenance of I-15, it should not try and foist its responsibility onto highway users or neighboring states who already pay into the system with their own tax dollars” Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert said in a prepared statement. The Las Vegas Review-Journal called the plan a “money grab…built on the backs of Nevada and Utah residents and commercial haulers.”

With shrinking revenues and constricted budgets, however, many states do not have other options to finance necessary highway improvements. Several states, most recently Virginia, have pursued public-private partnerships to begin tolling segments of existing state highways or newly constructed Interstate highways.

It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing.  According to the Federal Highway Administration figures, 32 states have developed a total of 280 toll projects between 1991 and 2009, roughly divided between newly constructed toll highways and toll-backed improvements to existing facilities. Toll roads now account for nearly one-half of newly constructed access-controlled expressways.

As Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell explained after his state received approval to begin tolling a segment of Interstate-95, “limited funds and growing capital and maintenance needs have led to deficient pavement and structures, congestion, higher crash density, and safety concerns. This approval is a major step toward funding critical capacity and infrastructure investment needed in this corridor.”