Tag: transit

Privatize or Contract Out?

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.

Comparing a transit agency’s efficiency to its peers is like criticizing a bank robber for stealing more than home burglars. The fact is that they are both ripping people off, and just because some are a bit less rapacious doesn’t make them any more morally correct.


Private jitney in direct competition with MARTA bus.

So I suggest a more aggressive agenda: complete privatization. Atlanta is one of the few cities that doesn’t outlaw private transit in competition with the public agency, and as a result it has a number of private jitneys that operate without subsidies and often charge riders less than MARTA. The jitneys even stop at MARTA’s bus stops.

Many of the jitneys serve Atlanta’s Hispanic communities. One curiosity: according to one report, most MARTA drivers speak only English while most jitney drivers speak only Spanish.

Given that private operators provide transit service without subsidies, how can MARTA justify spending $400 million a year in taxpayer funds on transit? One reason is that MARTA spent $4 billion building a 52-mile rail system that serves a tiny fraction of the Atlanta metropolitan area. When counting amortized capital costs, this rail system costs about 50 percent more to operate, per vehicle mile, than MARTA buses, which themselves cost far more than private buses.

Construction of the rail system aimed to attract middle-class commuters out of their cars, but was done at the expense of limiting bus service to working-class neighborhoods. Although greater Atlanta’s population has grown by more than 150 percent since it started building rail transit, MARTA has done very little to expand bus service. As a result, transit’s share of Atlanta-area commuting declined from 11.0 percent in 1970 to 4.1 percent in 2010, which is hardly an endorsement of rail transit.

Contracting out and the other actions proposed in the KPMG audit can save a little money, but that savings will probably just be wasted on some other part of the transit system. In the long run, such reforms do little more than rearrange the deck chairs as the boat is sinking. Complete privatization would save Atlanta-area taxpayers more than a billion dollars every four years and still result in decent transit service to Atlanta neighborhoods that want and need it.

Fixing the House Transportation Bill

After catching flack from both fiscal conservatives and the transit lobby, House Speaker John Boehner has postponed consideration of a surface transportation bill. Fiscal conservatives (including my fellow Cato scholar Michael Tanner) objected to the bill’s deficit spending; transit interests (including Republicans from New York and Chicago), objected to the bill’s lack of dedicated funds to public transit.

Here are a few things you need to know about the transportation bill before it comes up again in a couple of weeks. First, the legislation now in effect, which passed in 2005, mandated spending at fixed levels even if gasoline taxes (the source of most federal surface transportation funds) failed to cover that spending. Gas taxes first fell short in 2007 and the program has been running a deficit ever since. Although the 2005 bill expired in 2009, Congress routinely extends such legislation until it passes a replacement bill.

Unlike the 2005 law, the controversial House bill only authorized, but did not mandate, deficit spending. Actual deficit spending would be considered on a year-by-year basis by the House and Senate appropriations committees. Should they decide not to deficit spend, passage of the House bill could potentially save taxpayers more than $60 billion over the next five years. Failure to pass a bill will only lead Congress to continue to deficit spend.

Second, transportation is big-time pork. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is the largest committee in Congressional history because everyone wants a share of that pork. Fiscal conservatives’ dreams of devolving federal transportation spending to the states run into the roadblock made up of members of Congress from both parties who don’t want to give up the thrill of passing out dollars to their constituents.

The highway bill wasn’t always pork. When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, it directed that gas taxes be distributed to states using formulas based on such factors as each state’s population, land area, and road miles. While Congress tinkered with the formulas from time to time, once the formulas were written neither Congress nor the president had much say in how the states spent the money other than it was spent on highways.

That changed in 1982, when Congress began diverting gas taxes to transit–initially about 11 percent, now about 20 percent. The 1982 bill also saw the first earmarks; the 10 earmarks that year exponentially grew to more than 6,000 earmarks in the 2005 reauthorization.

Ron Paul recently defended earmarks, saying “Congress has an obligation to earmark every penny, not to deliver that power to the executive branch. What happens when you don’t vote for the earmark it goes into the slush fund, the executive branch spends the money.” But the Highway Trust Fund was not a slush fund; because it was distributed to the states by formulas, the executive branch had no say in how it would be spent.

In 1991, however, Congress decided to put billions of dollars of transit’s share of gas taxes into “competitive grant” programs. While competitive grants supposedly supported the best projects, in fact they were mainly slush funds distributed on political grounds either through earmarks or by the president.

The biggest competitive grant program is “New Starts,” which supports construction of new transit lines. Since the main way cities could get more money from this fund was to build the most expensive rail transit lines they could, New Starts gave cities incentives to replace low-cost buses with high-cost trains.

All over the country today, cities are waiting for Congress to pass a pork-laden transportation bill so they can continue to build ridiculously expensive rail transit lines, at least half of whose costs would be covered by the feds. Portland, Oregon, which spent about $200 million building a 17-mile light-rail line in 1986, now wants to build a 7-mile light-rail line at a cost of $1.5 billion. Honolulu wants to build a 20-mile elevated rail line for $5.1 billion.

Baltimore, whose transit ridership has declined by more than 20 percent since it started building rail transit in 1982, wants to spend $2.2 billion on a 15-mile light-rail line, nearly 80 percent of whose riders are expected to be people who were previously riding much more economical buses. San Jose wants to spend more than $5 billion building a 16-mile extension to the San Francisco BART system even though the project’s environmental impact statement says that it will not take enough cars off the road to increase speeds on any highway by even 1 mile per hour.

In 2005, then-Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters attempted to limit such wildly expensive projects by issuing a rule that rail lines could cost no more than $24 per hour that they saved travelers. Congress immediately exempted the San Jose BART line and several other projects from the rule. Planners tinkered with the numbers for other projects so that an amazing number appeared to cost around $23.95 per hour. Of course, after they received funds from the Federal Transit Administration, costs rose and ridership declined.

For example, in 2000 Minneapolis sought federal funds for what was to be an 80-mile commuter-rail line costing $223 million and projected to carry more than 10,500 riders per day in its first year. By 2004, the cost was up to $265 million but the line would only be 40 miles and was projected to carry just 4,000 riders per day. The line actually ended up costing $317 million, half of which was paid for by the feds, and in fact ended up carrying only about 2,200 riders per day in its first full year of operation, and even fewer in its second year.

To keep transit agencies from having to deal with Mary Peters’s pesky cost limit, the Obama administration proposed last month to rewrite the rules for New Starts. The new rules replace Peters’s $24 per hour limit with such subjective criteria as “livability,” “environmental justice,” and “multimodal connectivity.” In other words, cities can justify and the Secretary of Transportation can award grants for fantastically expensive projects based on just about any reason at all.

The House transportation bill addressed all of these issues. In addition to ending the 2005 bill’s mandatory spending, it completely eliminates earmarks and rededicates gas taxes to highways and put them all in formula funds. The deficit spending is almost all for transit, and while the bill still includes a New Starts program, it insists that projects be judged using firm quantitative criteria, not meaningless terms like livability.

Most importantly, the bill provides a path for the devolution that fiscal conservatives want. By taking all of the pork out of the gasoline tax, the bill makes it far more likely that Congress will be willing to devolve the tax to the states in the next go-around in about 2017.

Not surprisingly, the bill raised the ire of not only fiscal conservatives but the powerful transit lobby (which, because contractors can make far more profits building $100-million-per-mile rail lines than $10-million-per-mile highways, is far better funded than the supposedly powerful highway lobby). Transit advocates would prefer to retain transit’s 20-percent share of gas taxes than rely on Congress to fund transit out of deficit spending or some hoped-for oil and gas royalties.

As I see it, the bill’s authorization (but not mandate) for deficit spending was an attempt to get Democrats to support the elimination of earmarks and other pork. Since that has apparently failed, I would suggest another form of compromise.

First, end deficit spending, which means a bill that authorizes about $190 billion instead of $260 billion over the next five years. Second, distribute the money to the states exclusively through formulas with no earmarks and no competitive grants. Third, assuage transit interests by allowing the states to spend the money on either highways or transit, with no set formula for how much can go for either one.

Finally, encourage the states to spend the money as cost-effectively as possible by building user fees (defined as state or local taxes or fees paid by users that go to the facilities those users use) into the formula for allocating federal funds to the states. I have proposed a formula based 50 percent on user fees, 45 percent on population, and 5 percent on land area. This initially results in states getting about the same federal dollars as they receive today but gives states incentives to cater to users rather than politicians by investing their funds in projects the produce the most user fees. Most important, by taking the pork out of the gas tax, this keeps open the path to devolution in the next reauthorization cycle.

High-Speed Federalism Fight

In October, I speculated that the upcoming elections could be the nail in the coffin for the Obama administration’s plan for a nationwide system of high-speed rail. Indeed, some notable gubernatorial candidates who ran, in part, on opposition to federal subsidies for HSR in their states proceeded to win. However, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made it clear in a recent speech to HSR supporters that the administration intends to push ahead.

LaHood’s message was targeted specifically to incoming governors John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, who argued that HSR doesn’t make any economic or practical sense for their states.

LaHood said that states rejecting federal HSR subsidies won’t be able to reroute the money to other uses, such as roads. Instead, LaHood said the rejected money will redistributed “in a professional way in places where the money can be well spent” — i.e., other states. And sure enough, other governors were quick to belly up to the Department of Transportation’s bar in order to grab Ohio and Wisconsin’s share.

From the Columbus-Dispatch:

New York Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo has said he would be happy to take Ohio’s money. Last week, California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein wrote LaHood saying that California stands ready to take some, too, noting that several states that elected GOP governors this month have said they no longer want to use the rail money for that purpose.

“It has come to our attention that several states plan to cancel their high-speed rail projects. We ask that you withdraw the federal grants to these states and award the funds to states that have made a strong financial commitment to these very important infrastructure projects,” Boxer and Feinstein said in their letter to LaHood.

This is a textbook example of why the Department of Transportation should be eliminated and responsibility for transportation infrastructure returned to state and local governments. If California wishes to pursue a high-speed rail boondoggle, it should do so with its own state taxpayers’ money. Instead, Ohio and Wisconsin taxpayers now face the prospect of being taxed to fund high-speed rail projects in other states.

If California’s beleaguered taxpayers were asked to bear the full cost of financing HSR in their state, they would likely reject it. High-speed rail proponents know this, which is why they agitate to foist a big chunk of the burden onto federal taxpayers. The proponents pretend that HSR is in “the national interest,” but as a Cato essay on high-speed rail explains, “high-speed rail would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

Making Transit More Cost-Effective

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has asked for public comment on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s proposal to eliminate a rule that limits federal funding of particularly wasteful rail transit projects. The Cato Institute has submitted comments arguing that, instead of eliminating the rule, the FTA should strengthen it, but also give transit agencies more flexibility in defining the goals of new projects.

Since 1970, American cities have spent nearly $100 billion building new rail transit projects, and tens if not hundreds of billions more running them. While new rail lines appeal to the egos (and campaign coffers) of elected officials, they do little that could not be accomplished for a lot less money by simple improvements in bus service. Even Peter Rogoff, the Obama administration’s appointee in charge of the FTA, recently admitted that “paint is cheap, rail systems are very expensive,” meaning that painting buses a special color and running them on specific routes can accomplish just as much as spending billions on new rail construction.

To place some limits on the most wasteful rail projects, the Bush administration wrote a “cost-effectiveness rule” in 2005. This rule requires transit agencies to calculate how many hours of people’s time major new transit projects will save each year, and divide that into the amortized capital cost plus the annual operating cost of the project. If the resulting cost is more than about $24 per hour (the actual amount varies with inflation), the FTA refused to fund it.

This rule was controversial within the transit industry and Congress immediately waived it for a few particularly expensive projects such as a Washington Metrorail line to Dulles Airport and a BART line to San Jose. So rail advocates were thrilled when LaHood announced in January that he wanted to repeal the rule. Before he can do so, however, the rule has to go through a public review process.

Since January, however, Rogoff gave his speech questioning whether the nation should build new rail projects when an FTA report found that cities with rail transit are unable to keep the lines they have in a state of good repair. So it is possible that the FTA will be open to new ideas. In 2005, the original rule generated only 50 comments, mostly from transit agencies, so a strong public response to the proposed new rule could sway the agency to actually make it stronger, thus saving taxpayers lots of money and heartache in the future.

The main thing fiscal conservatives want is a requirement that agencies proposing rail transit consider a full range of alternatives, such as bus improvements, reduced transit fares, and converting high-occupancy vehicle lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes that are dynamically priced to insure that buses (and others) using the lanes are never delayed by congestion. The main thing the transit agencies want is the ability to calculate cost effectiveness based on factors other than the amount of time people save. The Cato Institute’s recommendations meet both these goals by allowing agencies to use any true outputs, such as cleaner air, energy savings, or increased personal mobility, and requiring them to calculate the cost per unit of each output for a variety of alternatives.

The deadline for comments is August 2. People who want to comment can go to regulations.gov to type their ideas directly on the web or submit comments in a Word or text file. You don’t have to write comments as long as Cato’s. The most important things to say are that the FTA should require transit agencies to consider a full range of alternatives and that the FTA deny funding to any alternatives that are significantly more expensive than the others in meeting environmental and social goals. You can also simply endorse the Cato Institute’s comments.

Wednesday Links

  • Idea of the day: Repeal the 16th Amendment, which  gives Congress the power to lay and collect taxes. Replace it with an amendment that requires each state to remit to the federal government a certain percent of its tax revenue.
  • Economist Richard Rahn on the necessity of failure in the market: “When government becomes a player and tries to prevent the failure of market participants, its decisions are almost invariably corrupted by the political process.”
  • Read up on Goodwin Liu, Obama’s nominee for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals: “Liu’s confirmation would compromise the judiciary’s check on legislative overreach and push the courts not only to ratify such constitutional abominations as the individual health insurance mandate but to establish socialized health care as a legal mandate itself.”
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LaHood Eliminates Cost-Efficiency Rules

Last week, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that federal transit grants would now focus on “livability.” Buried beneath this rhetoric is LaHood’s decision to eliminate the only efforts anyone ever made to make sure transit money isn’t wasted on urban monuments that contribute little to transportation.

Back in 2005, then-Transportation Secretary Mary Peters stunned the transit world when she adopted a “cost-effictiveness” rule for federal transit grants to new rail projects. In order to qualify, transit agencies had to receive a “medium” cost-effectiveness rating from the FTA, meaning they had to cost less than about $24 for every hour they would save transportation users (either by providing faster service to transit riders or by reducing congestion to auto drivers). This wasn’t much of a requirement: a true cost-efficiency calculation would rank projects, but under Peters’ a project that cost $0.50 per hour saved would be ranked the same as one that cost $23.50 per hour. But any projects that went over the $24 threshold (which was indexed to inflation – by 2009 it was up to $24.50) were ruled out.

After unsuccessfully protesting this rule, transit agencies responded in one of four ways. Those close to the $24 threshold cooked their books to either slightly reduce the cost or slightly increase the amount of time the project was supposed to save. Those that were hopelessly far away from the $24 threshold, but had powerful representatives in Congress, obtained exemptions from the rule. These included BART to San Jose, the Dulles rail line, and Portland’s WES commuter train. Those that didn’t have the political clout either shelved their projects or, in a few cases such as the Albuquerque Rail Runner commuter train, tried to fund them without federal support.

In 2007, when Congress created a fund for “small starts,” Peters imposed another rule that transit agencies would have to show that streetcars were more cost-effective than buses. This led to further protests because the the money was “supposed to be for streetcars” – the provision had been written by Earl Blumenauer, who represents Portland, the city that started the modern streetcar movement. But everyone knew streetcars would never be as cost-efficient as buses. This meant that, except for Portland, virtually every agency that had wanted to waste federal money on streetcars shelved their plans.

Until now. LaHood’s announcement means that cost is no longer an issue. If your project promotes “livability” (which almost by definition means anything that isn’t a new road) or “economic development” (meaning it will be accompanied by subsidies to transit-oriented developments), LaHood will consider funding it, no matter how much money it wastes.

Many transit agencies are elated. Cities from Boise to Minneapolis to Houston now see that their wacko projects that defy common sense now have a chance of getting funded.

The bad news for transit agencies is that this doesn’t mean there will be any more money for transit. Instead, there will be more competition for the same pot of money. Not to worry: House Democrats plan to open the floodgates to more transit spending as soon as they can get federal transportation funding reauthorized. This means taxpayers can expect to see more of their money wasted and commuters can expect congestion to get worse as more of their gas taxes are funneled into inane rail projects.

Turning Transportation Funding Upside-Down

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar (D-MN) has released more than 100 pages of documents describing how he wants to run federal transportation programs over the next six years. He proposes to spend $500 billion on highways and transit, which is a huge increase over the $338 billion authorized for the last six years.

Congress authorizes federal transportation spending in six-year cycles. In 1956, when Congress created the Interstate Highway System, it dedicated gas taxes and other highway user fees exclusively to highways. But in the 1982 reauthorization, it began diverting a small amount of gas taxes to transit.

Today, about 20 percent of the federal gas taxes you pay go to subsidize transit, while the other 80 percent supposedly go for highways — though much of that is wasted in planning and earmarks. Nationally, highway subsidies — mostly at the local level — average about a penny per passenger mile, while transit subsidies — much from your federal gas tax — average more than 60 cents per passenger mile.

Since 1982, transit has received hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies from highway users. Yet in 2008 — supposedly a boom year for transit because of high gas prices — per-capita transit ridership was lower than it was in 1990, though higher than in 2000.

Oberstar considers this to be a great success. Building on that “success,” he effectively wants to turn the formula around: 20 percent for highways and 80 percent for transit. The executive summary of his plan supposedly “provides $337.4 billion for highways.” But, in fact, only $100 billion of this is dedicated to highways; most of the rest is in “flexible funds” that states and cities can spend on either highways or transit. Nearly $100 billion goes for transit, and $50 billion goes for high-speed rail. The remaining $12.4 billion goes for safety programs.

Oberstar’s detailed plan proposes to burden the Federal Highway Administration with an “Office of Livability.” This office would oversee land-use plans that all major metropolitan areas would be required to write; these plans would attempt to coerce people out of their cars by increasing population densities, spending flexible funds on transit, and spending highway money on reducing, rather than increasing, road capacities.

Page 38 explains that this is because past transit investments have “paid off” so well: transit carried 10.7 billion trips in 2008. The fact that this represents less than 1 percent of passenger transport is discreetly overlooked, especially by transit advocates who think they should get at least half of all transportation dollars.

For those who truly care about mobility, the saving grace is that the government is running out of money and cannot possibly afford Oberstar’s program. Even the Highway Trust Fund has run dry because the last reauthorization allowed Congress to spend more money than the revenues produced from gas taxes. Considering that President Obama is opposed to increasing the gas tax, no one has any idea where Oberstar thinks he is going to find $500 billion.

As a result, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on behalf of the Obama administration, wants to delay reauthorization for 18 months. Of course, Oberstar thinks this is a bad idea — it delays his moment in the sun, possibly until a time when he no longer chairs the committee.

The real problem, however, is that most people in Congress and the administration no longer see the value in funding transportation out of receipts or any connection at all between benefits and costs. Instead, it is just a big game of pork barrel and, for the slightly more idealistic, social engineering. All this lends credence to the idea that we should simply privatize our highways and transit systems.