Tag: transportation

Driverless Nevada

In Gridlock, I argued that the next great improvement in human mobility will come not from rail transit or high-speed rail but driverless cars. Companies such as GM and Volkswagen have invested heavily in research and development of cars that can drive themselves, and I expected that they would soon begin lobbying state legislatures to change laws to allow such driverless cars on the road.

As it turned out, the lobbying was done not by an auto company but by Google, which has tested driverless cars (developed by the same Stanford University engineers who designed Volkswagen’s driverless cars) throughout the state of California. Google decided Nevada would be a good state to start legalizing driverless cars, and last week the Nevada legislature agreed.

By coincidence, Volkswagen has announced that it will soon offer semi-driverless cars for sale. The cars will include a “temporary auto pilot” that can stay within speed limits, steer within lane indicators, pass slow-moving vehicles, and avoid collisions on the highway. The cars will not be able to navigate city streets, but that will come soon.

The introduction of true driverless cars will significantly expand personal mobility because anyone—not just people over 16 who can pass a driver’s test—will be able to use them. Driverless cars will reduce congestion and improve safety. The new mobility will significantly change the way we live. And the cars will render obsolete any and all rail transit and moderate-speed rail lines now being planned or under construction long before taxpayers finish paying the heavy debts incurred to build such lines.

Thursday Links

Transportation: Top Down or Bottom Up?

America’s transportation system needs more centralized, top-down planning. At least, that’s what the Brookings Institution’s Robert Puentes advocates in a 2,350-word article in the May 23 Wall Street Journal.

If that seems like an unlikely message from America’s leading business daily, perhaps it is because Puentes couched it in terms such as “spending money wisely,” solving congestion, and “adhering to market forces.” But not-so-hidden behind these soothing phrases is Puentes real argument: “America needs to start directing traffic” by developing “a clear-cut vision for transportation.” Such a vision “must coordinate the efforts of the public and private sectors.”

“The big question,” Puentes says, “is how much it will all cost.” This is a diversion from the real big question, which is: who will do this coordination? In Puentes view, the answer is smart people in Washington DC who can best determine where to make “critical new investments on a merit basis” using such tools as an infrastructure bank.

One of the results of that system, Puentes makes clear, will be more spending on transit so that commuters have “more transportation choices.” He specifically mentions the ridiculous Subway-to-the-Sea being planned in Los Angeles. Never mind that, as the Antiplanner has previously noted, Puentes’ goal of extending transit to more jobs is both extremely expensive and will have little impact on actual transit ridership.

The real problem with America’s transportation system is not a lack of vision but too many people with visions trying to impose them on everyone else through lengthy and expensive planning processes. A bridge or road that once might have taken five years to plan and build now takes twenty or more, if it ever gets built at all, thanks to all these visions. (Of course, when it comes to expensive rail transit projects, Puentes thinks Congress should waive environmental impact statements and other expensive planning processes.)

The real solution is not more top-down planning but a bottom-up system that responds to actual user needs rather than to inside-the-beltway visions. That means funding transportation out of user fees and not out of infrastructure banks, which–no matter how “merit-based” in intent–will alway end up being politically driven.

In a bottom-up system, individual transit and highway agencies (or better yet transit and highway companies) would be funded by their users, so they would have incentives to provide and expand service where needed by those users. Such a system would be far more likely to relieve congestion, save energy, and meet Puentes’ other goals.

Thanks to our heavily planned and heavily subsidized transit industry, the average urban transit bus uses 80 percent more energy per passenger mile than Amtrak. But that’s not because Amtrak is energy-efficient: the average Amtrak train uses 60 percent more energy per passenger mile than intercity buses. Unlike both Amtrak and urban transit buses, private intercity buses aim to meet market demand, not political demand, so they tend to fill about two-thirds of their seats while Amtrak fills only half and transit buses less than a quarter.

Achieving a bottom-up transportation system means getting the federal government out of transportation decision-making. One way would be to have states take over federal gas taxes as proposed by New Jersey Representative Scott Garrett.

To the extent that the federal government distributes any transportation funds to states at all, they should be distributed using formulas, not grants, because formulas are much harder to politically manipulate. Ideally, the formulas should give heavy weight to the user fees collected by each state to reinforce, rather than distract from, the bottom-up process.

Puentes’ top-down vision will waste hundreds of billions of dollars on little-needed transportation projects while it does little to relieve congestion, save energy, or reduce auto emissions. A bottom-up process will save taxpayers money and increase mobility, which should be the real goals of any transportation policy.

The Administration Concedes Defeat

To sell his high-speed rail program, President Obama desperately needed a success story—a high-speed train operating during his administration that would awe the public and lead to a national demand for more such lines. That success story was going to be Florida’s Orlando-to-Tampa line, the only true high-speed route (as opposed to speeding up existing trains by 3 to 5 mph) that could have been completed during Obama’s term in office (assuming he is re-elected).

Anticipating that success, the administration drafted a proposal to use federal gasoline taxes and a “new energy tax” to fund $53 billion for more high-speed rail lines over the next six years. (The proposal also included $250 billion for highways, $120 billion for urban transit, $27 billion for “livability,” and $25 billion for an infrastructure bank.)

The chances of that happening died when Florida Governor Rick Scott decided to turn back the $2.4 billion in federal dollars dedicated to the Orlando-Tampa line. To maintain momentum behind high-speed rail, the administration could have given all of that money to California, the only other state proposing to build true high-speed rail.

Instead, the Department of Transportation gave nearly $1 billion of the $2.4 billion to Amtrak and states in the Northeast Corridor to replace worn out infrastructure and slightly speed up trains in that corridor, as well as connecting routes such as New Haven to Hartford and New York to Albany. Most of the rest of the money went to Midwestern states—Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri—to buy new trains, improve stations, and do engineering studies of a few corridors such as the vital Minneapolis-to-Duluth corridor. Trains going an average of 57 mph instead of 52 mph are not going to inspire the public to spend $53 billion more on high-speed rail.

The administration did give California $300 million for its high-speed rail program. But, with that grant, the state still has only about 10 percent of the $65 billion estimated cost of a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, and there is no more money in the till. If the $300 million is ever spent, it will be for a 220-mph train to nowhere in California’s Central Valley.

In essence, the administration has given up on high-speed rail. New York Times editorial writers haven’t figured that out yet, opining that Florida Governor Scott made a dreadful mistake when he rejected the rail money. In fact, as tax activist Doug Guetzloe told a Tampa newspaper, “Federally funded rail is like being given a brand new Maserati and then you have to pick up the gas and the insurance — forever. The car looks great, but the costs will kill you.”

The Times suggested that Florida taxpayers will resent Scott’s decision whenever they are stuck in traffic. But no one seriously believes that intercity rail will ever relieve traffic congestion, most of which is in cities, not between them. In its original application for high-speed rail funds, Florida’s DOT admitted that Orlando-to-Tampa traffic grows more every five years than all the cars the trains were expected to take off the road, so at best high-speed rail was a very expensive and temporary solution to congestion.

Outside of the Times editorial offices, most transportation experts agree that the President’s high-speed rail program is over and his draft transportation bill is dead on arrival. Taxpayers throughout the country should thank Scott (as well as Ohio Governor John Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) for saving them the hundreds of billions of dollars that Obama’s program would have eventually cost.

A Ban On “Walking While Wired”?

New York state senator Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) is crusading to ban pedestrians’ use of cellphones and other mobile devices while crossing the street. It’s for your own good, you must understand:

“When people are doing things that are detrimental to their own well being, then government should step in.”

The Daily Caller asked me to write an opinion piece about this proposal so I just did. Excerpt:

Phone use on the street has become near-ubiquitous in recent years, yet over nearly all that time — nationally as in Gotham — pedestrian death rates were falling steadily, just as highway fatalities fell steadily over the years in which “distracted driving” became a big concern.

In the first half of 2010, the national statistics showed a tiny upward blip (0.4 percent), occasioned by a relative handful of fatalities in a few states. Even a spokesman for the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, Jonathan Adkins, seems to agree it’s premature to jump to conclusions: “You don’t want to overreact to six months of data,” he told columnist Steve Chapman.

Like others who seek quasi-parental control over adults, Sen. Kruger tends to infantilize his charges. He told the Times: “We’re taught from knee-high to look in both directions, wait, listen and then cross. You can perform none of those functions if you are engaged in some kind of wired activity.”

This drew proper scorn from columnist Chapman: “Actually, you can perform all those functions and dance an Irish jig, even with text messages or rock music bombarding you.” That some ear bud devotees don’t take due caution is no reason to pretend they can’t.

C.S. Lewis, Lily Tomlin and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood all get walk-on parts as well.

Gingrich & Woolsey on Energy

The other day, The Wall Street Journal provided a public service by lambasting Newt Gingrich for his absurd speech to the ethanol lobby in Des Moines last month (money line:  ”Obviously big urban newspapers want to kill it because it’s working, and you wonder, ‘What are their values?’”).  Today, Gingrich and fellow ethanol-maven James Woolsey struck back in those very same pages.  In doing so, Gingrich provided yet more evidence that he’s intellectually unfit for office.

“It is in this country’s long-term best interest,” he said, ”to stop the flow of $1 billion a day overseas.”  Really?  So money sent overseas is gone forever.  News to me.  The only thing you can buy with dollars earned from oil sales to the U.S. is to buy things denominated in dollars or to exchange them so that someone else can.  And we sell a lot of stuff to foreigners that are denominated in dollars (treasury bills for one) and that money comes right back to the good old U.S. of A.

But put that aside.  If Gingrich really believes this, then why not just ban all imports all together?  Is that what the GOP is about these days - rank gooberism on trade?

And one other thing; the U.S. does not spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil.  It spends about half that; $530 million a day (in 2009 anyway).

“[I] co-produced a movie with my wife, Callista, ‘We Have the Power,’ that argued for an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy which would maximize all forms of domestic energy production.”  Apparently, being a pol means that one doesn’t have to pick and choose between investments a, b, or c.  We’ll just mandate everyone invest in everything that can attract a lobbyist. 
When you hear this stuff about an ”all of the above” energy strategy, what you’re hearing is a complaint that the Democrats aren’t subsidizing enough of the energy industry.  They are too tight-fisted with the public purse.  They are not ambitious enough in their planning.  And while Republicans bang the table for more, more, and more handouts to private corporations, liberals like Amory Lovins (prominent left-of-center energy guru) and Carl Pope (former head of the Sierra Club) call for zeroing out everyone’s subsidies and leaving the energy market the heck alone (at least when it comes to this matter).  It’s a mad, mad world.
 
“Nevertheless,” says Gingrich, ”the Journal attempts to equate my career-long commitment to increased American energy production with the anti-energy agenda of President Obama. This is a laughable charge, especially considering I have been one of the most vocal opponents of the president’s energy policies since he took office.”  Perhaps, but on this matter, Gingrich is attacking the administration from the Left.  
 
Even more amusing was James Woolsey’s lecture to the editorial board over what it means to be a conservative.   “We could not help wondering,” he asked along with his co-author, Gal Luft, ”why the Journal, despite its commitment to free enterprise, chose to attack Newt Gingrich for his call to open vehicles to fuel competition, which would cost auto makers under $100 per new car.”  Well Jim, a commitment to free enterprise is a commitment to allow enterprises to be free to produce whatever they want.  Of course, if Woolsey had read Gingrich’s speech to the ethanol lobby, he would not need to wonder - it’s about their sick, twisted values.
 
Nonetheless, Woolsey claims that such a mandate ”is perfectly in line with conservative economic principles.”  That may be true given what conservatives believe about economics.  But it’s not consistent with a principled support for a free market.
 
Finally, “Challenging Mr. Gingrich’s conservative bona fides based on his support for breaking oil’s virtual monopoly over transportation fuel is not only myopic but also the best gift the Journal can give OPEC.”  But … oil dominates the transportation market because it is a heck of a lot cheaper than any other fuel.  If it weren’t so much cheaper than ethanol, then we would have no need for such massive subsidies for the same.  The same goes for electric cars.  If and when that changes, oil’s “monopoly” will crumble.  Until then, taking oil out of transportation markets simply takes cheap fuel out of transportation markets.  It would be fun to watch a Gingrich/Woolsey ticket run on that.

Privatize the FAA

Bloomberg is reporting more bad news for the nation’s air traffic control system, which is run by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is $500 million overbudget and six years behind schedule on a $2.1 billion technology upgrade project.

The FAA has a long history of mismanaged technology projects, and so the latest screw-ups are nothing new. Yet the nation needs high-tech advances in air traffic control more than ever to ease our increasingly congested airspaces.

There is a better way to run air traffic control—a private sector way, as Canada has been demonstrating. In 1996, Canada converted its government air traffic control system to a private nonprofit corporation. Nav Canada has been a smashing success, providing an excellent model for possible U.S. reforms.

A December 24 story in the Financial Post describes how Nav Canada is a world leader in efficiency, safety, and technology under private management. “A once troubled government asset, the country’s civil air traffic controller was privatized 14 years ago and is now a shining example of how to create a global technology leader out of a hulking government bureaucracy.” It really is an impressive story of pro-market reform.  

Canada’s system recently won an award from the International Air Transport Association. The IATA said that “Nav Canada is a global leader in the efficient implementation and reliable delivery of air traffic control procedures and technologies.”

We should have that type of efficient air traffic control system in this country. Privatizing the FAA should be a high priority for the next Congress.

See here for a discussion on privatizing air traffic control.