Tag: transit

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.

Which Is Greener?

Which uses less energy and emits less pollution: a train, a bus, or a car? Advocates of rail transportation rely on the public’s willingness to take for granted the assumption that trains – whether light rail, subways, or high-speed intercity rail – are the most energy-efficient and cleanest forms of transportation. But there is plenty of evidence that this is far from true.

Rail advocates often reason like this: the average car has 1.1 people in it. Compare the BTUs or carbon emissions per passenger mile with those from a full train, and the train wins hands down.

The problem with such hypothetical examples is that the numbers are always wrong. As a recent study from the University of California (Davis) notes, the load factors are critical.

The average commuter car has 1.1 people, but even during rush hour most of the vehicles on the road are not transporting commuters. When counting all trips, the average is 1.6, and a little higher (1.7) for light trucks (pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs).

On the other hand, the trains are rarely full, yet they operate all day long (while your car runs only when it has someone in it who wants to go somewhere). According to the National Transit Database, in 2007 the average American subway car had 25 people in it (against a theoretical capacity of 150); the average light-rail car had 24 people (capacity 170); the average commuter-rail car had 37 people (capacity 165); and the average bus had 11 (capacity 64). In other words, our transit systems operate at about one-sixth of capacity. Even an SUV averaging 1.7 people does better than that.

When Amtrak compares its fuel economy with automobiles (see p. 19), it relies on Department of Energy data that presumes 1.6 people per car (see tables 2.13 for cars and 2.14 for Amtrak). But another Department of Energy report points out that cars in intercity travel tend to be more fully loaded – the average turns out to be 2.4 people.

“Intercity auto trips tend to [have] higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates,” says the DOE. “On average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips.” Moreover, the report adds, “if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat – making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

Projections that high-speed rail will be energy-efficient assume high load factors (in the linked case, 70 percent). But with some of the routes in the Obama high-speed rail plan terminating in such relatively small cities as Eugene, Oregon; Mobile, Alabama; and Portland, Maine, load factors will often be much lower.

Even if a particular rail proposal did save a little energy in year-to-year operations, studies show that the energy cost of constructing rail lines dwarfs any annual savings. The environmental impact statement for a Portland, Oregon light-rail line found it would take 171 years of annual energy savings to repay the energy cost of construction (they built it anyway).

Public transit buses tend to be some the least energy-efficient vehicles around because agencies tend to buy really big buses (why not? The feds pay for them), and they run around empty much of the time. But private intercity buses are some of the most energy efficient vehicles because the private operators have an incentive to fill them up. A study commissioned by the American Bus Association found that intercity buses use little more than a third as much energy per passenger mile as Amtrak. (The source may seem self-serving, but DOE data estimate intercity buses are even more efficient than that–compare table 2.12 with intercity bus passenger miles in this table).

When it comes to energy consumption per passenger mile, the real waste is generated by public transit agencies and Amtrak. Instead of trying to fill seats, they are politically driven to provide service to all taxpayers, regardless of population density or demand. One of Amtrak’s unheralded high-speed (110-mph) rail lines is between Chicago and Detroit, but it carries so few people that Amtrak loses $84 per passenger (compared with an average of $37 for other short-distance corridors).

Meanwhile, transit agencies build light-rail lines to wealthy suburbs with three cars in every garage. With capacities of more than 170, the average light-rail car in Baltimore and Denver carries less than 15 people, while San Jose’s carries 16. For that we need to spend $40 million a mile on track and $3 million per railcar (vs. $300,000 for a bus)?

If we really wanted to save energy, we would privatize transit, privatize Amtrak, and sell highways to private entrepreneurs who would have an incentive to reduce the congestion that wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year (p. 1). But of course, the real goal of the rail people is not to save energy but to reshape American lifestyles. They just can’t stand to see people enjoying the freedom of being able to go where they want, when they want to get there.