Tag: transportation

Ray LaHood as Santa Claus

U.S. News & World Report’s columnist Paul Bedard reports that Transportation secretary Ray LaHood told him that it’s fun playing Santa Claus to states and cities around the nation.

So let’s take a look at some recent examples of DOT gift-giving with federal taxpayers’ money:

  • DOT’s Federal Highway Administration helped restore an old brewery in Petosi, Wisconsin with a $450,000 gift. That should make taxpayers want to drink.
  • Dolgeville, New York intends to use DOT stimulus money to repair sidewalks even though the village acknowledges that the new sidewalks will have to be torn up and replaced again due to impending water and sewage line upgrades. Keynes would be particularly proud of this one. Last year the city received a $1 million gift from DOT for the “installation of period street lights, trees, accent pavers, street furniture and sidewalk improvements” on the city’s Main Street.
  • The Michigan Department of Transportation plans on spending $5 million in federal DOT money on a bunch of projects that are of unquestionable national importance: cobblestone streets in Grand Rapids; exhibits at the Detroit Science Center; rehabilitating the historic Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad Engine House in the Upper Peninsula; a bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians over the Clinton River in Utica and bike racks at several locations in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

These projects might be worthwhile, but they should be paid for by the local interests who can best judge their worth.

In his 1932 book, Congress as Santa Claus, constitutional scholar Charles Warren offered a prescient warning on the dangers of federal subsidization of state and local affairs:

The continuance of this practice of shifting to the National Government responsibility for payment for matters which formerly were dealt with by individual initiative, by community cooperation, by voluntary organizations, or by local or State governments – the continuance of this practice of making drafts on the National Treasury to carry out purposes not within the enumerated or implied powers of the National Government will inevitably have two results.

So far as these Government donations consist of direct appropriations for private or local interests, they will deaden and finally destroy the eagerness or willingness of State Governments and local communities to pay for their own needs. So far as they take the shape of the so-called Federal Aid laws for local projects to be matched by local appropriations, they will have ‘a tendency to induce excessive expenditures by State and municipal governments, with top-heavy bond issues and oppressive local taxation.’

I doubt in Warren’s worst nightmares could he have envisioned the examples of DOT spending above, let alone the existence of a $90 billion federal Department of Transportation.

Raising an Eyebrow at LaHood’s Toyota Remarks

In response to the large recalls affecting several Toyota models, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday advised Americans to “stop driving” their Toyotas. In testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, LaHood said:

My advice to anyone who owns one of these vehicles is stop driving it, and take it to the Toyota dealership because they believe they have the fix for it.

Later in the day, he elaborated:

I want to encourage owners of any recalled Toyota models to contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible. NHTSA will continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues.

As Transportation Secretary in an administration that is politically vested in the success of General Motors (recall how taxpayers were forced to take a 60% stake in GM for $50 billion+), was LaHood exploiting an opportunity to tip the scales further in GM’s favor? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but as long as GM remains nationalized, any comments by administration officials on matters affecting the auto industry should be viewed skeptically and through this prism, as they can irresponsibly move markets.

Pork Politics

Last night I received a press release from the National Republican Senatorial Committee entitled “Lincoln Votes to Protect Millions in Taxpayer Funds for Little-Used Pennsylvania Airport.”  Lincoln would be Arkansas Democrat Senator Blanche Lincoln.  According to the NRSC press release:

In a remarkable vote on the Senate floor this afternoon, U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) made clear that despite rising federal deficits and a record national debt, she still stands firmly on the side of more wasteful Washington spending.  Lincoln today helped defeat an amendment, offered by U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), to the annual transportation appropriations bill that would end taxpayer subsidies for the John Murtha Airport, a little used 650-acre facility in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that has received at least $200 million in taxpayer funding.  U.S. Congressman John Murtha (D-PA), who the airport was named after and who has been the subject of a number of ethics-related stories in recent months, has personally directed $150 million in federal funds to the facility even though it only has 3 flights daily to one destination: Washington, D.C.

When I went to the NRSC’s website I noticed similar press releases for other Democrat senators who I’m assuming are on the outfit’s election hit-list.  Having never received an NRSC press release before, I’m assuming I received this one because I ripped Senator Lincoln in a blog post last week.  If that’s the case, I’m impressed with the NRSC’s resourcefulness.  Regardless, it made me curious to find out if any Republican senators voted with Lincoln and the other Democrats.

In fact, yes, two Republicans did vote to keep the federal money flowing to Murtha’s airport:  George Voinovich of Ohio and Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri.  Both are members of the third party in Congress: Appropriators.  Given that he is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, it’s not a surprise that Bond voted against an amendment unfriendly to a larded-up transportation appropriations bill.  Both are retiring at the end of their terms in 2010, so the NRSC apparently wasn’t too worried about charges of hypocrisy.

With the exception of the aforementioned, all Republican senators voted for the amendment, including appropriators like Murkowski, Collins, Cochran, and Bennett.  None of those folks are exactly known as fiscal tightwads.  So what gives?  Will these senators be headlining tea parties in the near future?

The truth is it’s just politics.  The Republicans are in the minority and got kicked out of the majority by voters due in part to years of fiscal profligacy.  I’m sure more than a few believed this was the type of vote that will help them curry favor with the growing swarms of voters upset with Washington’s out-of-control spending.  It probably helps a smidgen (sarcasm intended) that the airport in question is located in Pennsylvania, home to two Democrat senators, one of which is recent Republican defector Arlen Specter.  Oh, and it’s Democrat John Murtha’s airport.

I’m wondering where these Republican votes to eliminate pork were when I was working with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) several years ago to kill funding for the Bridge to Nowhere and other assorted congressional slop.  At the time, Republicans were in the Senate majority. For example, on the Bridge to Nowhere vote, our amendment went down 15-82.  Only 11 Republicans supported the amendment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m pleased to see almost all Republicans (and five Democrats) vote to stop funding Murtha’s airport.  But their votes were driven by political considerations and not a new-found zeal for reigning in federal spending.  And let’s face it, defunding the Murtha airport is merely symbolic given that it would save peanuts.  So let’s see what happens on a vote to strip funding for the entire transportation program that subsidizes the other small airports in this country, many of which probably wouldn’t exist were it not for the federal cheese.  Of course, someone would have to actually introduce such an amendment first.  Senator Coburn or DeMint?

Government Pays $4 Million for a Bike Rack

bike rackThe $4 million Union Station Bike Transit Center is scheduled to open in Washington, DC on October 2nd.  According to an August Washington Post story, 80 percent of the cost of this opulent bike center is being borne by federal taxpayers via the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Look, I harbor no animosity against bike riders, but under what authority – legal or moral – does the federal government tax me in order to build bike centers for parochial, special interests?  The Constitution?

But let’s pretend – and I mean pretend – that such federal expenditures are legitimate.  The Post article say the center will have 150 indoor bike racks and 20 outdoors.  A recent NPR article says it will hold 130 bikes.  Whatever the figure, at a cost of $4 million, it comes out to around $25-$30 thousand per bike.  And, yes, I recognize that the “1,700-square-foot building west of the station will also have changing rooms, personal lockers, a bike repair shop and a retail store that will sell drinks and bike accessories.”  But the ultimate purpose is to hold bikes.  In my mind, the extra extravagance merely reflects the fact that taxpayers are picking up the tab.

There’s the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.  In this case, it’s more like 4 million:

bike rack 2

There you go, America.  Your taxes are funding this multi-million dollar bike rack in Washington, DC – the beneficiaries of which will probably be the same Capitol Hill lobbyists and congressional staffers who spend all day pilfering your paychecks.

Tuesday Links

High-Speed Fail

In a four-part series on the New York Times Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser scrutinized high-speed rail and concluded that the benefits are overwhelmed by the costs. After making generous assumptions regarding the costs, user benefits, environmental benefits, and effects on urban development, Glaeser concludes that all the benefits of high-speed rail would still be less than half the costs.

As Washington Post writer Robert Samuelson observes, the Obama administration’s vision of high-speed rail is “a mirage. The costs of high-speed rail would be huge, and the public benefits meager.” Yet even Samuelson falls victim to the common assumption that high-speed rail “works in Europe and Asia” because population densities in those places are higher than in the United States.

The truth is that high-speed rail doesn’t work in Europe or Asia either. Japan and France have both spent about as much on high-speed rail as they have on their intercity freeway systems, yet the average residents of those countries travel by car 10 to 20 times as much as they travel by high-speed rail. They also fly domestically more than they take high-speed rail. While the highways and airlines pay for themselves out of gas taxes and other user fees, high-speed rail is heavily subsidized and serves only a tiny urban elite.

Obama uses the fact that France, Japan, and a few other countries are racing one another to have the fastest high-speed trains to argue that we need to join the race. That’s like saying we need to spend billions subsidizing buggy whip or horse collar manufacturers or some third-world country will beat us in those technologies. The fact is that high-speed trains will never be as fast as flying on long trips and never be as convenient as driving on short trips, and there is no medium-length trip in which high-speed rail can compete without heavy subsidies.

The rail advocates go ballistic whenever anyone questions their fantasies, mostly engaging in ad hominem attacks (“you must be paid by the oil companies!”) or accusing skeptics of lying about rail. The reality is that Glaeser (like me) “almost always prefer trains to driving.” If anything, he was too generous in many of his assumptions about high-speed rail.

For example, Glaeser built his case around a hypothetical high-speed line between Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston, the nation’s fifth- and sixth-largest urban areas which together house close to 10 million people and are located about 240 miles apart, supposedly an ideal distance for high-speed trains. If the numbers don’t work for this market, how are they going to work for Eugene-Seattle, Tulsa-Oklahoma City, New Orleans-Mobile, St. Louis-Kansas City, or any of the other much smaller city pairs in the Obama high-speed rail plan?

The rail nuts don’t want to hear Glaeser’s (or Cato’s) numbers because they fantasize the Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” myth; that building rail will “create the demand for the rail lines.” That may have been true in nineteenth-century America, when no alternative forms of transportation could compete with rail. But it wasn’t true in twentieth-century France or Japan (where heavily subsidized high-speed rail carries only 4 to 6 percent of passenger travel), and it won’t be true in twenty-first-century America.

Building high-speed rail will be like standing in the chilly vestibule of an Amtrak train in mid-winter Chicago and burning million-dollar bills to keep warm. But that’s what happens when you base your transportation policies on a slogan from a Kevin Costner movie rather than on real data.

Making Airline Travel as Unpleasant as Possible

The Transportation Safety Administration long has made air travel as unpleasant as possible without obvious regard to the impact on safety.  Thankfully, the TSA recently dropped the inane procedure of asking to see your boarding pass as you passed through the checkpoint – a few feet away from where you entered the security line, at which point you had shown both your boarding pass and ID. 

However, there are proposals afoot in Congress to set new carry-on luggage restrictions, to be enforced by the TSA, even though they would do nothing to enhance security.  An inch either way on the heighth or width of a bag wouldn’t help any terrorists intent on taking over an airplane.  But the proposed restrictions would inconvenience travelers and allow the airlines to fob off on government what should be their own responsibility for setting luggage standards. 

TSA also has restarted ad hoc inspections of boarding passengers.  At least flights as well as passengers are targeted randomly.  After 9/11 the TSA conducted secondary inspections for every flight.  The process suggested that the initial inspections were unreliable, delayed passengers, and led experienced flyers to game the process.  It was critical to try to hit the front of the line while the inspectors were busy bothering someone else.  There was no full-proof system, but I learned that being first or second in line was particularly dangerous.

Finally TSA dropped the practice.  And, as far as I am aware, no planes were hijacked or terrorist acts committed as a result.  But TSA recently restarted the inspections, though on a random basis.

I had to remember my old lessons last week, when I ran into the routine on my return home from a trip during which I addressed students about liberty.  Luckily I was able to get on board, rather than get stuck as TSA personnel pawed through bags already screened at the security check point.

There’s no fool-proof way to ensure security for air travel.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to inconvenience passengers while only looking like one is ensuring airline security.