Tag: transportation

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.

Washington Metro’s Problem: Too Much Money

The terrible Washington Metrorail crash that killed nine people has led to calls for more money for transit. Yet the real problem with Washington Metro, as with almost every other transit agency in this country, is that it has too much money – it just spends the money in the wrong places.

“More money” seems to be the solution to every transit issue. Is ridership down? Then transit agencies need more money to attract more riders. Is ridership up? Then agencies need more money because fares only cover a quarter of the costs.

Yet the truth is that urban transit is the most expensive form of transportation in the United States. Where the average auto user spends about 24 cents per passenger mile, transit costs more than 80 cents per passenger mile, three-fourths of which is subsidized by general taxpayers. Subsidies to auto driving average less than a penny per passenger mile. Where autos carry 85 percent of American passenger travel, transit carries about 1 percent.

When Congress began diverting highway user fees to transit in 1982, it gave transit agencies incentives to invest in high-cost transportation systems such as subways and light rail when lower-cost systems such as buses would often work just as well. Once they build the high-cost systems, the transit agencies never plan for the costs of reconstructing them, which is needed about every 30 years. The Washington Metro system, which was built as a “demonstration project” in the 1970s, is just a little ahead of the curve.

Now over 30 years old, Washington’s subways are beginning to break down. Before the recent accident, some of the symptoms were broken rails, smoke in the tunnels, and elevator and escalator outages.

Now we learn that the National Transportation Safety Board told Metro in 2006 to replace the cars that crashed on Monday because they were in danger of “telescoping,” which is what killed so many people in Monday’s accident. Also, the brakes were overdue for maintenance. Metro responded that it planned to eventually replace the obsolete cars, but didn’t have the money for it.

But it does have money to build an expensive new rail line to Tysons Corner and, eventually, Dulles Airport. Planners had originally recommended running bus-rapid transit along this route, but that wasn’t expensive enough so Metro decided to go with rails instead – at ten times the cost of the bus line.

The simple problem is that we have forgotten about the need to weigh revenues and costs. Instead, transit has become a favorite form of pork barrel and, for the slightly more idealistic, a method of social engineering, meaning a part of the Obama administration’s campaign to “coerce people out of their cars.”

That’s one more government program we can do without.

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.