Tag: transportation

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.

Unfair Subsidies for Buses

Cato essays on the Department of Transportation contain a common theme: federal subsidies for various modes of transportation have stifled privately funded and operated alternatives. One emerging bright spot is private intercity bus companies.

From a Cato essay on Amtrak subsidies:

If Amtrak is privatized, passenger rail will be in a much better position to compete with resurgent intercity bus services. The rapid growth in bus services in recent years illustrates how private markets can solve our mobility needs if left reasonably unregulated and unsubsidized. A Washington Post reporter detailed her experiences with today’s low-cost intercity buses: “This new species offers curbside pickup and drop-offs, cheap fares, clean restrooms, express service, online reservations, free WiFi and loyalty programs … The bus fares undercut Amtrak and, depending on the number of passengers, personal vehicles.”

That’s why a story out of Minnesota is disturbing. According to the Duluth News Tribune, Jefferson Lines, which operates a bus line between Duluth and the Twin Cities, received $2.65 million in federal stimulus money to purchase five of the eight buses it has in service. One of Jefferson Lines’ competitors isn’t happy:

That angers Dave Clark, owner of Skyline Shuttle, which provides transportation from Duluth to the Twin Cities. Clark claims it’s unfair for Jefferson Lines to use government money to compete with his business and cut into his revenue.

“When there’s a market and they are competitors, it should be left to the market without government interference,” Clark said. “They could have taken the risk themselves, but they relied on the taxpayer to take the risk.”

The first problem is that federal taxpayers across the country are being forced to subsidize a private bus line in Minnesota. The second problem is that the government is effectively picking winners and losers in the market for intercity bus services. Instead of spreading transportation subsidies across every form of transportation, the federal government should cease with the seemingly endless interventions and allow free individuals to figure out what makes the most sense.

High-Speed Rail Battle

Wisconsin has become a battleground over the Obama administration’s plan to create a national system of high-speed rail. Of the $8 billion in HSR grants awarded to the states in the stimulus bill, $810 million of it went toward a high-speed route between Milwaukee and Madison.

Ironically, this Wisconsin “high-speed” route would only achieve speeds of 79 mph initially and 110 mph by 2016. As a Cato essay on high-speed rail points out, HSR aficionados don’t even consider 110 mph to be true high-speed. In fact, passenger trains were being run at speeds of 110 mph or more back in the 1930s. And those “high-speed” trains didn’t prevent the decline of passenger trains after World War II.

The Cato essay also notes that the 85-mile line between Milwaukee and Madison “is only a tiny portion of the eventual planned route from Chicago to Minneapolis, and no one knows who will pay the billions necessary to complete that route.” In fact, to build a national system of true high-speed rail on the 12,800 mile network envisioned by the administration, the cost could be close to $1 trillion.

Where would the money come from? State governments are hoping that it would be all from federal taxpayers. As I recently discussed, the states’ interest in grabbing new federal HSR money has dropped now that Congress is requiring a 20 percent state match:

The states already have dedicated revenue sources for federal highway aid matching requirements (also 20 percent). With state tax revenues flat due to the recession, where would the money come from to pay for high-speed rail projects? Proposing new taxes to fund high-speed rail would probably be political suicide. And most state policymakers recognize that shifting money away from more popular programs to pay for high-speed rail won’t be any more politically rewarding.

The issue is even affecting elections in states that are in line to receive federal funding for high-speed rail. Scott Walker, a Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, recently said he’d send back the $810 million in stimulus funds the state has received for a rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. Walker appears to understand that his state has more pressing infrastructure needs and that high-speed rail could become a fiscal black hole.

On Tuesday, Walker won the GOP primary to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who is an ardent supporter of the Milwaukee-Madison route. Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, supports the route’s construction. According to Stateline.org, the outgoing Doyle administration plans to have $300 million of the money under contract by January, which Walker says he would cancel if elected.

Wisconsin Democrats have made hay out of the fact that former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson first championed the idea of a regional network of high-speed rail. Unfortunately for HSR proponents, Thompson’s past involvement with federally-subsidized rail is a reason not to build the route.

From a Cato essay on Amtrak subsidies:

Amtrak reform legislation in 1997 stipulated that its board be replaced with a “reform board” of directors. The Clinton administration nominated, and the Senate confirmed, politicians that included the then-governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, and the mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith. Mayor Smith tried to create a route that would have lost millions linking Atlanta and Dallas via Meridian. Governor Thompson succeeded in creating a route from Chicago to Janesville, Wisconsin. It was eventually discontinued after Thompson’s departure from the board due to low ridership and financial losses.

As is the case with Amtrak, HSR can’t compete with more efficient modes of transportation like automobiles and airplanes without massive subsidies. At a time when the federal debt is heading toward the moon, policymakers should be looking to the private sector to take care of our transportation needs. The country simply can’t afford to sink taxpayer money into high-speed rail when it makes so little economic sense.

“We’re Talking Bridges…”

On Labor Day, President Obama announced his plan for an additional $50 billion in spending, mostly on transportation.  An area Obama specifically mentioned was more spending for bridges, playing on the widely held perception that America’s bridging are falling apart.  While clearly there are bridges that are greatly in need of repair and represent a threat to passenger safety, what has been the overall trend in bridge quality?  In one word:  improving.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics only about 1 in ten bridges today can be characterized as “structurally deficient”, this is, in need of serious repair.  This may sound high, but it is down from 1 in four back in 1990.  As one can tell from the accompanying chart, the percent of deficient bridges has been on a steady decline over the last two decades.

It is also worth noting that over 80 percent of the deficient bridges in the U.S. are in rural areas, and  subject to much less passenger traffic.  Many of these bridges likely see little, if any, traffic. 

Perhaps more important from the perspective of “economic stimulus” is that additional bridge construction and repair would take years to have any real impact on employment.  Rather than coming up with policies designed with solely political appeal in mind, the President and Congress should focus on broad policies that allow the private sector to determine what investment needs should be addressed.