Learning to Love Your Traffic Engineer – Standards

Wednesday, December 11 by JerryFoster

Using Desired Operating SpeedTo learn to love our traffic engineers, we have to understand why they don’t feel they have the authority to design roads to meet citizens’ needs – the standards won’t let them.

Marohn notes that standards are “the engineering profession’s version of defensive medicine.”

Gary Toth invites us to “marvel at how thoroughly the transportation establishment delivered on its perceived mandate”, including  “language/terminology; funding mechanisms; curriculum at universities; values; and policies. Common professional organizations… reinforce and standardize this… at a scale that has rarely been matched by any other profession.”

Citizens should note that engineers are required to follow the standards for traffic signals (Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices) – the others are guidelines.

Toth advises “Design manuals often present standards in ranges from minimum to desirable. Has the designer selected the desirables instead of minimums?” Residents will want the minimums, as the “desirables” are from the point of view of creating a wider, straighter and faster roadway.

Conventional DesignIn this series, we’ve set up a “straw man” based on traditional engineering practices. The critique reported here comes from within the profession, however, and context sensitive standards such as NJDOT’s Smart Transportation Guidebook have been published that, if implemented, will significantly improve livability, which is the goal of the WWBPA.

We’ve seen how standards’ flexibility enable engineers to design bike and walk friendly roadways, so in our next installment, we’ll look at liability concerns.

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Learning to Love Your Traffic Engineer – Cost

Wednesday, December 4 by JerryFoster

NJ.COM Picture

NJ.COM Picture

To learn to love our traffic engineers, we must understand why they prioritize cost least when designing roadway improvements. Cost varies a lot – $1M / lane mile is a general rule of thumb, but the NJ Turnpike’s current expansion costs $14.7M / lane mile and Boston’s Big Dig cost $136.2M / lane mile.

Standard engineering practice is to build for more speed, which means more and wider lanes, plus expanded roadside sight distances, which may require purchasing right-of-way, etc., all adding to the cost. Also, engineers are required to forecast volume 20 years into the future and build for anticipated increases.

But other factors are at work – e.g. a 1961 bridge in Washington State cost $159M in today’s dollars, but the replacement is projected to cost $4.6B, including 2 additional lanes.

This dramatic $4B increase over inflation points to issues on the process, financial and political sides, including the revolving door between government and private industry, politicians’ dependence on corporate contributions to get re-elected, government dependence on borrowing to finance road projects, even “commonplace” corruption, according to a New York State report.

If nobody has an incentive and/or is held accountable for cost containment, neither politicians nor engineers, it’s easy to see why it’s not a priority.

We’ve finished examining how citizens prioritize safety, cost, volume and speed differently than traffic engineers, so our next installment will look at one reason engineers use to convince us that they know best – because of the standards.

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