Q&A: Pushkin Kachroo, Director of UNLV’s Transportation Research Center
MONA SHIELD PAYNE / SPECIAL TO IN BUSINESS LAS VEGAS
Fri, Sep 3, 2010 (3 a.m.)
Transportation frequently is listed as one of the biggest issues facing the Las Vegas business community, and UNLV has a facility, researchers and educators to address those challenges.
Pushkin Kachroo is an engineering professor and the director of UNLV’s Transportation Research Center.
The author of eight books in the past 10 years with a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of California and math from Virginia Tech, Kachroo has developed a discipline in engineering that he calls “transportronics” that blends transportation research with electrical engineering.
Kachroo says transportation management is evolving and new technology skills are necessary to keep up with advancements.
Kachroo talked with In Business Las Vegas about Southern Nevada and California highways, high-speed trains and aviation in the Southwest:
IBLV: Many people may not even be aware that UNLV has a Transportation Research Center. What does it do and how many researchers are involved?
Kachroo: Transportation is important to any civilization. If you take a look at the Roman civilization, the roads that were built were important to the success of the empire. How fast you can move people and goods is crucial. We saw this again in World War II in Germany. That’s when we decided to put our resources (into the interstate highway system). While transportation is important, it has many challenges. Typically, about 45,000 people a year die on U.S. highways. Billions of dollars in productivity are lost every year because of the extra time spent on highways. It’s easy to see just looking at it in Las Vegas. Look at it nationwide and you realize what a big problem it is. So we work closely with the Nevada and U.S. Transportation departments and the local agencies — the Regional Transportation Commission, Las Vegas, Clark County and others. An academic environment is an ideal place to work from because we have students and instructors involved in detailed research.
Describe some of the research projects you and your staff have under way.
It’s a dynamically changing environment, so it’s constantly moving. Our researchers consist of faculty, graduate and undergraduate students and the number changes every year. We have two big problems: safety and throughput. For safety, you can see how many people are dying, let alone being injured, many of them seriously. We have a project that reviews about how much it costs, how much time it takes when someone is injured. When you compute it and quantify it, the costs are tremendous. Then, there’s congestion. It’s not that serious here, but if you look at big cities such as Washington and L.A., it’s much worse. But it’s going to get worse here if we don’t look at solutions.
One solution, of course, is to add more traffic lanes. If you add more lanes, traffic density will go down, and maybe there will be fewer accidents. It sounds easy enough, but in fact it’s problematic. Take a city like San Francisco, for example. How much does a house there cost? Remember, you don’t need that one house (to get the right of way to build a traffic lane). If you build a lane, we’re talking about houses from one end to the other. Forget about building the highway. Just to buy the right of way is going to cost you so much. How fast do you have to keep buying and building and buying? It isn’t sustainable and we can’t keep doing that. Building is not a solution, but we’re at capacity, so we have to build. What do we do?
For the throughput problem, take a look at the freeway ramps as an example of how technology can help. At what rate do you control the ramps? The same is true for signalized intersections. If you’re driving through a signalized intersection and you’re sitting there and there’s nobody there, you would say, “This is not running at capacity.” If I’m waiting there and nobody else is there, this should be a green light for me. It’s possible if you’re sensing what’s happening and you have a feedback control. The system is watching with sensors and then you have the capability of processing that information and responding to it. That’s feedback control, and that’s my area of research. Using technology, we can get much more out of our system so we can move people more safely and increase our throughput capacity without building more.
One of your projects is the design of incident management systems. Why is this important?
It’s important because of the cost of an incident is tremendous.
What do you mean by “incident?”
It’s a traffic collision, maybe something overturned. Incidents can be really bad or not that bad. They can involve a fire or emergency vehicle or tow truck, depending on the severity. It can cause a lane to be stopped or a complete highway to shut down. Once an incident occurs, it can result in safety issues or secondary incidents. Actually, 27 percent of all incidents are secondary. So you want to get through it as quickly as you can. If you slow down suddenly, it may result in another incident. So incident management means that if you save 10 or 15 minutes in an incident, not only are you saving the productivity loss that happens when everybody slows down, you’re also reducing the probability of another incident. And every incident costs a lot of money.
So we work with the different agencies and collect data. We work very closely with FAST (Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation). When you enter the FAST facility, it looks like “Star Trek.” There are cameras and monitors everywhere. We get the data transmitted here to UNLV directly. So when we do incident management and gather and process all that data, we’re looking at how to reduce the time it takes to clear an incident and to make the scene safer. We try to quantify the performance (of responding workers). When they’re delayed by an incident, a lot of people get upset and they ask questions about how much is being spent for transportation. If I were to tell people at the transportation agencies, “You know, a lot of people think they’re spending too much money on transportation.” Let’s stop everything for an hour and see what it does to the economy. Once you realize and analyze that, you realize that a transportation system that you take for granted saves every company here a lot of money every day.
The Nevada Transportation Department just broke ground on a widening project for U.S. 95 in the northwest valley. Included is a big push for high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Does Southern Nevada really need this or our leaders just trying to emulate Southern California? Does the average driver care?
Every issue has so many different facets, and it’s hard to answer a question like that quickly because there are so many unknowns. How much traffic is going there? What kind of people are driving there? What kind of trips are these? When you make it high-occupancy, how many people will travel together? How many people will move there? There’s a potential to get so many cars off the system. Your travel time is reduced and the number of accidents declines. In general, the aim of high-occupancy lanes is to reduce the number of vehicles that use the system. The question is how many people in that area is there a potential for and by encouraging people, how many will use it? I haven’t seen the details of the plan. In general, high-occupancy vehicle lanes are a good idea, but it’s hard to say how they will affect traffic.
The Nevada Transportation Department is close to completing express lanes on Interstate 15, between Russell Road and Sahara Avenue. Will those lanes be able to accomplish what they’re designed for? Do you think we’ll see more of these types of lanes in the future, on U.S. 95 or the Las Vegas Beltway?
The express lanes were designed to improve safety and throughput so that people can drive fast and reliably from Point A to Point B in less time. Given that it accomplishes that task, do you think we should continue to build systems that reach those goals? Of course. If you build systems that make your travels more reliable, safe and quicker, there’s no reason not to do it more. But the data need to bear out that it works.
Many people think there will be a disaster in Boulder City when the dam bypass opens as trucks and other traffic that had diverted through Laughlin will travel right through town on U.S. 93. How serious is the threat? Has enough been done to plan and mitigate the potential problem?
We’re looking at truck traffic in our area in general, not just this situation in Boulder City. We’re gathering data and doing studies on the possible ways of dealing with truck traffic. Do we have separate lanes? Do we have a completely separate highway or pieces of highways specifically for trucks? Trucks bring issues to our transportation system. One is the pure volume. When you’re talking about big trucks, everybody’s mobility is affected. The Nevada Transportation Department has projects looking at the impacts of trucking in this area on a long-term basis. While the solutions aren’t necessarily clear, there are many alternatives to look at — separate lanes, maybe restricted separate lanes. Or maybe tolling for trucks versus nontrucks.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s transportation lobbyist says the so-called High Desert corridor between Victorville and Palmdale, Calif., would go a long way toward easing congestion between Southern California and Las Vegas by providing a new route to reduce traffic. Your thoughts?
Will it make a difference? Absolutely. But the question is not the benefit, but the cost-benefit ratio. Building more roads will almost always make our movement better. But at what cost is the question. And it’s not the cost now and the benefit now. It’s the cost over time and the benefit over time. Southern Nevada used to grow at a rate of around 100,000 people a year. Imagine the impact of that on transportation. Now, that’s all changed. But it makes you appreciate the challenge of designing a system with the cost-benefit analysis as a part of that.
How important is developing U.S. 93 to interstate highway standards as the proposed Interstate 11 in terms of moving goods and travelers between Arizona and Nevada?
It’s a similar analysis. The question becomes, “Should we invest in it now? Or a year from now or two years from now?” How do we do it? There’s a list of projects that have been planned over the years. Some have been funded and some are waiting to be funded. There’s a systematic way of looking at it through analysis. When you complete the analysis, you can determine that it may be worth funding this project and another one and it becomes a competition between funding one over another. That’s when you start looking at how much traffic is generated and how much benefit one project would have over another. So when you ask, “Is I-11 a good idea?” Yes. “Is it better than another project?” You have to do the comparative analysis.
Higher gasoline taxes or toll roads?
As I’ve mentioned, mobility is extremely important. If we all realize and understand that, we’d put more value to it. Unfortunately, people think it’s a birthright to be able to move. Mobility is the key to economic development and economic success. Maintaining the roads we have is a part of that. Recently, we’ve had examples of bridges collapsing. It’s not even building new ones. Right now, the country doesn’t have enough funds based on the taxes we pay even to maintain what we have. The question to me is — to us — is are we aware of how important mobility is? When the bridge collapses, suddenly you don’t have a way to get to work anymore. It’s a domino effect. I hope the leadership is mature enough to understand that effect. Knowing that we can’t even maintain the system we have now and that mobility is the backbone of our economy, it’s a big concern.
So, do you pay for that mobility with higher gasoline taxes or toll roads?
Right, gasoline taxes versus toll roads. It depends. When you talk about toll roads, are we talking about tolling everything? Or are we talking about tolling on building a road between Point A and Point B? That might answer a question about a specific location, but it doesn’t address the bigger question I’m asking — the entire system. You can use tolling to take care of some roads in private-public partnerships. Maybe people would then realize that they’re paying for the service I’m getting from this road. What about the rest? Do you think they’re free? Every time you drive on that road, you know you’re using something. Should we pay for what we use? That’s capitalism and I love capitalism. You use something, you pay for it. If you don’t, the system becomes corrupt and things fail and once things fail, everybody pays the price. When it comes to tolling, the question becomes, “Do you toll everything? What about maintaining the old stuff? Are tolls going to pay for the entire system? What’s going to happen to the private-public partnership? The answers aren’t that easy and aren’t that clear.
How can mass transportation be improved in the Las Vegas Valley?
A lot of people ask the question about why transportation works in Europe but we can’t do it as well here (in the United States). If you look at a city like Washington or New York, it works because it’s so densely populated. When I go there, I don’t want to drive. Here, I have to consider the cost because (the construction) is not cheap. And I have freedom with a car. I do an analysis in my head and make a decision about what to do. When I drive here, I easily waste an hour of my day, and I consider my time precious. When I drive and I’m watching the distance between my car and the one in front of me, it’s like a video game that I get tired of playing. I end up listening to pop music that isn’t very interesting, so I’m wasting my time. But the system does give me some freedom. Until we reach that optimum mass of people so that it costs less, it’s not going to happen. That’s why if there’s a government incentive and a short-term horizon to pay for it, more people will use it and it will become more economical to operate. In general, I’m a big fan of reliable, omnipresent public transportation, but to get there, it’s going to take some evolution. It’s even more challenging here because of our lack of population density. Because of our tourism economy where almost everybody goes to the Strip, it makes the most sense to start there with an efficient mass transit system.
Is there any hope for expansion of mass transit in the valley with light rail, the expansion of the monorail downtown and to the airport, etc.? Why or why not?
There’s a lot to look at on that. You have to look at the numbers — about 3.5 million tourists (per month) — and look at the cost of the right-of-way and the technology and see if it makes sense economically. The Strip is expanding and a lot of it is not walkable. There are casinos opening in more faraway places such as M Resort. When I first came here, there was no M. Some transportation systems, like rail, need a lot more infrastructure. But if it’s a bus, the road is already there. So the cost of rail, the ridership, the revenue, the comparisons to bus, projected ridership over several years all go into the cost-benefit equation.
Which of the existing high-speed transportation proposals between Las Vegas and Southern California makes the most sense?
(Laughs) You probably have realized that the answer to almost every question from me is the same. When these people (developers of the DesertXpress and maglev proposals) came, I was asking for details. I haven’t seen all the numbers. With maglev, the mechanical friction is gone, but there’s a price to pay to levitate. It makes it faster and a better ride and there’s less noise. But there’s more cost per mile as a result. If you look at DesertXpress, you could build it much quicker. Which one would I go for? Without the numbers, I can’t answer that. The numbers for how much money is needed to invest today are different for each project as well as how much benefit we get tomorrow. It’s similar to buying stock. Do you invest for the short term or the long term to get the best return?
So DesertXpress and the maglev developers have not shared those numbers with you and the institute?
No. At the forums on these that we had at UNLV, everybody was talking about prospective partnerships. But as an engineer, unless I see details with signatures and everything else, I don’t believe anything. They talk about all these partnerships and all this money. Maybe it’s true, but I have no way of knowing.
Do either of the “cruise trains,” the Las Vegas Railway Express X-Train or D2 Entertainment’s Z Train Ltd., make sense when high-speed rail is so imminent?
First of all, I’m not sure how imminent it is because it’s expensive. I would rather see all the numbers than focus on what sounds good. I want to see how fast it goes, reliability factors, how much it’s going to cost to build it and who the leadership is. I want see those details. And that’s true of X, Y, Z, Alpha, Beta and Delta as well with real analysis.
How serious is air-traffic congestion between Las Vegas and Los Angeles?
From my office, I can see planes coming in to McCarran (International Airport), so I know how much time there is between arriving flights. The amount of traffic is tremendous. You can tell by just seeing it — or hearing it — just how packed our airport is.
Should Clark County pursue construction of a new airport in Ivanpah Valley, south of Las Vegas?
For a while, we were at a point where we were operating close to capacity (at McCarran). One thing you need at an airport is space. We can improve mobility with trains, but we’ve discussed how long that’s going to take. I’m hoping that we’re going to see more technology companies locating here, and I hope the Transportation Research Center can help with that process. For now, it’s a service-based economy, and it’s all about bringing people into town to be entertained. We can do that with more roads and make it safer for them to travel. The same is true for airports. Eventually, we’re going to need more capacity. How big the airport is and where needs analysis.
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