Friday, October 10, 2008

Transportation Sector Bonded to Credit Crisis

By Karl Vilacoba

Jim Calpin is a successful public finance banker on Wall Street, but don’t ask him what’s next in this turbulent economic climate.

“We don’t know. The crystal ball at Merrill Lynch is broken,” Calpin told an audience of about 200 at “Beyond the Gas Tax: A Symposium on Funding Future Transportation Needs,” held Tuesday in Syracuse, N.Y. As he spoke, the Dow Jones was well on its way to a 508-point plunge for the day.

What Calpin can say for sure is that the credit crunch crisis is beginning to hamper transportation agencies’ ability to do business. If it continues, he said, it may cripple them.

Even agencies with AAA bond ratings are having trouble getting bond financing now, according to Calpin, who specializes in transportation infrastructure for Merrill Lynch. The funding they’ve been able to secure doesn’t stretch as far as it did a few months back. Calpin displayed a graph showing the dramatic rise in interest rates banks charge public agencies for bonds – the 5 or 6 percent charged in recent months is now closer to 9 or 10 percent in many cases. With their buying power sinking, agencies are going to have to do even less with their already tight budgets.

The indicators he’s seeing are not encouraging. Some of the financial sector’s largest bond insurers are going under fast. America’s financial fears are contagious and spreading globally. Not even tolling revenues are immune. In Orlando, collections are down about 15 percent, in part because unemployment is so bad, he said.

None of this is bound to make Congress’ job any easier drafting the next transportation funding bill.

“Something’s got to give,” Calpin said. “We’ve got to get a new playbook in Washington when we look at [SAFETEA-LU] re-authorization.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't Vote and Drive

By Karl Vilacoba

Your odds of getting killed driving to the polls on Election Day are higher than New Year’s Eve or Super Bowl Sunday.

A new study of U.S. presidential election days from Jimmy Carter in 1976 to George W. Bush in 2004 found an across the board rise in fatal crashes during polling hours. The researchers compared the same hours on the Tuesdays immediately before and after the election days and found fatality rates were 18 percent higher.

Donald Redelmeier, a researcher form Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, Canada, and Stanford University statistician Robert Tibshirani hypothesized that the combination of the country’s reliance on auto travel and the mobilization of about 55 percent of the population to vote might lead to a rise in fatal motor vehicle crashes. Their investigation concluded that presidential election days averaged 24 fatalities and 800 serious injuries more than normal. The risk was reportedly bi-partisan, as crashes spiked regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was elected.

The study mentioned speed, distance, distraction, emotions, confusion over how to get to the polling station and unfit drivers taking to the roads as possible explanations. In a video interview on Sunnybrook’s website, Redelmeier also said rushing could play a part. “I think it’s more of a reflection of speeding to the polls, or away from the polls, or trying to jam one more thing into an already busy day,” said Redelmeier, also a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

The researchers suggest that election organizers stress the importance of safety when encouraging people to get out and vote. Other interventions worth considering might include subsidized public transportation, setting up polling places within walking distances, remote voting or stronger traffic enforcement on election days.

The full study was published in the Oct. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.