Archives: May, 2010

FTA Chief: Paint Is Cheaper Than Trains

In March, Cato published my review of every rail transit system in America (as of 2008), showing that in nearly every case buses would have been more cost-effective at moving people. This same view was expressed last week by a surprising source: Peter Rogoff, the Obama administration’s appointee in charge of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Appropriately, Rogoff spoke before the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, whose transit system, he pointed out, is in a “grim” state. Nationwide, he noted, America’s transit industry suffers from $78 billion worth of deferred maintenance – most of which is due to rail transit lines that cities cannot afford to keep in shape. Rogoff was disturbed that cities were asking for federal grants to build more rail lines when they can’t keep the existing trains in a state of good repair.

Rogoff says he has been telling transit managers, “if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?” Cities that build “shiny new rails now … need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.”

“Let’s start with honesty,” he said: “Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.” He suggested that, instead of expensive trains, many cities can attract just as many riders onto transit by painting buses on specific routes in distinctive colors (as Boulder, CO has done).

Part of the problem, Rogoff knows, is that Congress has given cities incentives to build high-cost transit projects. To address this issue, the last transportation bill, in 2005, included a section requiring the Federal Transit Administration to evaluate the incentives created by federal funding.

Unfortunately, the FTA dropped the ball: the resulting report said nothing about existing incentives and addressed only the question of whether new incentives could be created to encourage agencies to bring their properties up to a state of good repair. While that is a laudable goal, it is an input, not an output.

According to historic data published by the American Public Transportation Association, the productivity of public transit – outputs per unit of input – has declined dramatically since the federal government began funding transit in 1964. From 1964 through 2008, the inflation-adjusted cost of operating transit increased by more than 360 percent, while transit ridership grew by a mere 24 percent and fares by 62 percent.

Ultimately, transit should be privatized, but in the meantime Congress or the administration can adopt a race-to-the-top program similar to the one the administration is using to improve education. Rogoff should direct his agency to rewrite its incentive report before Congress takes up transportation again in 2011.

Grenades and Paramilitary Policing

Aiyana Stanley-Jones, seven years old, was shot during a police raid on her home in Detroit.

The police threw a grenade through a window and then entered as they sought a murder suspect.  Paramilitary weapons and tactics too often lead to unnecessary deaths and injuries.  Rep. John Conyers wrote a letter to the Attorney General, asking him to monitor the case.  In that letter, Conyers cites the Cato work, Overkill. That’s a start, but Conyers should go to work in the Congress and stop the Pentagon practice of selling surplus military equipment to local police departments.  More here [pdf].

Update: Radley Balko has more on this incident here.

Charles Murray in Slovakia

Cato co-sponsored a successful conference in Bratislava, Slovakia last week with Trend business magazine, “Slovakia at the Crossroads of Reform.” At a time when the crisis in the eurozone is exposing the unsustainable nature of the European welfare state – and one month before general elections in the country – the event brought together international experts and political and opinion leaders from a broad ideological spectrum, including from the newly formed classical liberal party, Freedom and Solidarity, which is now polling at 10-11 percent. Here’s a video of Charles Murray’s timely keynote address on “Freedom in the 21st Century.”

$288/Month for an Upper East Side Studio

“Rent Control Is a Vanishing New York Treasure,” proclaims the headline over a New York Times story. Like Josh Blackman, I think “treasure” isn’t the right word here: “anachronism”, “disgrace” and “abject policy calamity” are more like it.

P.S. The Times article sympathetically depicts a Gotham tenant who pays the legally dictated rent of $288 to live in one of the nation’s most desirable neighborhoods. You guessed it: he feels put upon in that situation, believes his landlord should be doing much more to spruce up the place, and has teamed up with Manhattan State Sen. Liz Krueger to pursue his fight.

Support for Repealing ObamaCare Hits 63 Percent

The polling firm Rasmussen Reports reports:

Support for repeal of the new national health care plan has jumped to its highest level ever. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 63% of U.S. voters now favor repeal of the plan passed by congressional Democrats and signed into law by President Obama in March.

Prior to today, weekly polling had shown support for repeal ranging from 54% to 58%.

Currently, just 32% oppose repeal.

The new findings include 46% who Strongly Favor repeal of the health care bill and 25% who Strongly Oppose it.

Repeal the bill.

Cato’s Amicus Brief Helps School Choice Get to the Court; Congrats, IJ!

As Andrew Coulson noted, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, the education tax credit case whose cert petition Cato supported with an amicus brief.  So we didn’t get the summary reversal we optimistically hoped for but I’m confident that this means only that the Ninth Circuit’s reversal will have to wait 8-10 months.  Congratulations to Tim Keller, Dick Komer, and our friends at the Institute for Justice, which successfully litigated the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case that is the pro-school choice precedent the Ninth Circuit so blithely ignored here. 

I should note that ours was one of only three amicus briefs filed in this case, and studies have shown that the first few such briefs increase chances of Supreme Court review significantly (having more than about three seems to be redundant).  Which isn’t to say that we take credit for the successful strategy that IJ and its co-counsel are pursuing – indeed, as is good appellate practice, we coordinated with IJ so our brief would offer the Court some arguments and nuance for which the parties’ briefs didn’t have space – but it is gratifying to see the Court impliedly see the validity of our position.  We will of course be filing again at the merits stage, which briefs won’t be due for a few months.  The Court will likely hear the case in late fall, so we should expect a final decision in winter 2011.

For all the filings in the case, see its SCOTUSwiki page or its Supreme Court docket page.  I blogged about the case here and here and George Will wrote about it last week.  Andrew also blogged the original Ninth Circuit decision here.