Topic: Energy and Environment

Fixing the House Transportation Bill

After catching flack from both fiscal conservatives and the transit lobby, House Speaker John Boehner has postponed consideration of a surface transportation bill. Fiscal conservatives (including my fellow Cato scholar Michael Tanner) objected to the bill’s deficit spending; transit interests (including Republicans from New York and Chicago), objected to the bill’s lack of dedicated funds to public transit.

Here are a few things you need to know about the transportation bill before it comes up again in a couple of weeks. First, the legislation now in effect, which passed in 2005, mandated spending at fixed levels even if gasoline taxes (the source of most federal surface transportation funds) failed to cover that spending. Gas taxes first fell short in 2007 and the program has been running a deficit ever since. Although the 2005 bill expired in 2009, Congress routinely extends such legislation until it passes a replacement bill.

Unlike the 2005 law, the controversial House bill only authorized, but did not mandate, deficit spending. Actual deficit spending would be considered on a year-by-year basis by the House and Senate appropriations committees. Should they decide not to deficit spend, passage of the House bill could potentially save taxpayers more than $60 billion over the next five years. Failure to pass a bill will only lead Congress to continue to deficit spend.

Second, transportation is big-time pork. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is the largest committee in Congressional history because everyone wants a share of that pork. Fiscal conservatives’ dreams of devolving federal transportation spending to the states run into the roadblock made up of members of Congress from both parties who don’t want to give up the thrill of passing out dollars to their constituents.

The highway bill wasn’t always pork. When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, it directed that gas taxes be distributed to states using formulas based on such factors as each state’s population, land area, and road miles. While Congress tinkered with the formulas from time to time, once the formulas were written neither Congress nor the president had much say in how the states spent the money other than it was spent on highways.

That changed in 1982, when Congress began diverting gas taxes to transit–initially about 11 percent, now about 20 percent. The 1982 bill also saw the first earmarks; the 10 earmarks that year exponentially grew to more than 6,000 earmarks in the 2005 reauthorization.

Ron Paul recently defended earmarks, saying “Congress has an obligation to earmark every penny, not to deliver that power to the executive branch. What happens when you don’t vote for the earmark it goes into the slush fund, the executive branch spends the money.” But the Highway Trust Fund was not a slush fund; because it was distributed to the states by formulas, the executive branch had no say in how it would be spent.

In 1991, however, Congress decided to put billions of dollars of transit’s share of gas taxes into “competitive grant” programs. While competitive grants supposedly supported the best projects, in fact they were mainly slush funds distributed on political grounds either through earmarks or by the president.

The biggest competitive grant program is “New Starts,” which supports construction of new transit lines. Since the main way cities could get more money from this fund was to build the most expensive rail transit lines they could, New Starts gave cities incentives to replace low-cost buses with high-cost trains.

All over the country today, cities are waiting for Congress to pass a pork-laden transportation bill so they can continue to build ridiculously expensive rail transit lines, at least half of whose costs would be covered by the feds. Portland, Oregon, which spent about $200 million building a 17-mile light-rail line in 1986, now wants to build a 7-mile light-rail line at a cost of $1.5 billion. Honolulu wants to build a 20-mile elevated rail line for $5.1 billion.

Baltimore, whose transit ridership has declined by more than 20 percent since it started building rail transit in 1982, wants to spend $2.2 billion on a 15-mile light-rail line, nearly 80 percent of whose riders are expected to be people who were previously riding much more economical buses. San Jose wants to spend more than $5 billion building a 16-mile extension to the San Francisco BART system even though the project’s environmental impact statement says that it will not take enough cars off the road to increase speeds on any highway by even 1 mile per hour.

In 2005, then-Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters attempted to limit such wildly expensive projects by issuing a rule that rail lines could cost no more than $24 per hour that they saved travelers. Congress immediately exempted the San Jose BART line and several other projects from the rule. Planners tinkered with the numbers for other projects so that an amazing number appeared to cost around $23.95 per hour. Of course, after they received funds from the Federal Transit Administration, costs rose and ridership declined.

For example, in 2000 Minneapolis sought federal funds for what was to be an 80-mile commuter-rail line costing $223 million and projected to carry more than 10,500 riders per day in its first year. By 2004, the cost was up to $265 million but the line would only be 40 miles and was projected to carry just 4,000 riders per day. The line actually ended up costing $317 million, half of which was paid for by the feds, and in fact ended up carrying only about 2,200 riders per day in its first full year of operation, and even fewer in its second year.

To keep transit agencies from having to deal with Mary Peters’s pesky cost limit, the Obama administration proposed last month to rewrite the rules for New Starts. The new rules replace Peters’s $24 per hour limit with such subjective criteria as “livability,” “environmental justice,” and “multimodal connectivity.” In other words, cities can justify and the Secretary of Transportation can award grants for fantastically expensive projects based on just about any reason at all.

The House transportation bill addressed all of these issues. In addition to ending the 2005 bill’s mandatory spending, it completely eliminates earmarks and rededicates gas taxes to highways and put them all in formula funds. The deficit spending is almost all for transit, and while the bill still includes a New Starts program, it insists that projects be judged using firm quantitative criteria, not meaningless terms like livability.

Most importantly, the bill provides a path for the devolution that fiscal conservatives want. By taking all of the pork out of the gasoline tax, the bill makes it far more likely that Congress will be willing to devolve the tax to the states in the next go-around in about 2017.

Not surprisingly, the bill raised the ire of not only fiscal conservatives but the powerful transit lobby (which, because contractors can make far more profits building $100-million-per-mile rail lines than $10-million-per-mile highways, is far better funded than the supposedly powerful highway lobby). Transit advocates would prefer to retain transit’s 20-percent share of gas taxes than rely on Congress to fund transit out of deficit spending or some hoped-for oil and gas royalties.

As I see it, the bill’s authorization (but not mandate) for deficit spending was an attempt to get Democrats to support the elimination of earmarks and other pork. Since that has apparently failed, I would suggest another form of compromise.

First, end deficit spending, which means a bill that authorizes about $190 billion instead of $260 billion over the next five years. Second, distribute the money to the states exclusively through formulas with no earmarks and no competitive grants. Third, assuage transit interests by allowing the states to spend the money on either highways or transit, with no set formula for how much can go for either one.

Finally, encourage the states to spend the money as cost-effectively as possible by building user fees (defined as state or local taxes or fees paid by users that go to the facilities those users use) into the formula for allocating federal funds to the states. I have proposed a formula based 50 percent on user fees, 45 percent on population, and 5 percent on land area. This initially results in states getting about the same federal dollars as they receive today but gives states incentives to cater to users rather than politicians by investing their funds in projects the produce the most user fees. Most important, by taking the pork out of the gas tax, this keeps open the path to devolution in the next reauthorization cycle.

Transportation Agreement Seems Remote

House Republicans and Senate Democrats remain at loggerheads over the future of federal highway and transit funding. Although House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica introduced a compromise transportation bill this week, few are pleased with his proposal. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, for example, calls it “the worst transportation bill” he has ever seen.

Congress passes legislation defining how federal gasoline taxes and other highway user fees will be spent every six years, and the most recent bill lapsed in 2009. Although the revenues all come from highway users, public transit agencies and other interests have captured increasing shares of the funds in successive bills passed since 1982. To please the wide range of interest groups who benefitted from this spending, the 2005 bill (which itself was two years late) made spending mandatory, meaning annual appropriations bills could not refuse to spend the money even if gas taxes failed to cover the costs—which they did after 2008, forcing Congress to transfer general funds to the Highway Trust Fund. In addition, Congress added more and more earmarks to the bills, increasing from 10 earmarks in 1982 to more than 6,000 in the 2005 bill.

The struggle today is between the Democrats (and others) who want to keep spending like there is no tomorrow and the Tea Party Republicans who want to reduce spending to be no more than actual revenues and eliminate earmarks and other pork.

One major source of pork is so-called competitive grants, which are mainly for transit. Although most highway funds have been distributed to the states using formulas based on such things as population, land area, and road miles, competitive transit grants are handed out on a project-by-project basis. Though the money was supposed to be used for the best projects, in fact most of it was distributed based on political power.

Mica’s compromise would keep spending at current levels—which are as much as $10 billion a year more than revenues—but include no earmarks and replace all competitive grants with formula funds. Instead of pleasing everyone, the compromise has simply ticked everyone off.

LaHood and various transit advocates are upset because they lose their funds dedicated to light-rail, streetcar, and other rail transit construction. Conservative groups hate the bill because it almost certainly will require deficit spending.

Mica could have compromised in the other direction: reducing spending to be no more than revenues, but maintaining competitive grants, earmarks, and other pork-barrel programs. This might have been more successful, as fiscal conservatives couldn’t complain about deficit spending while pork-barrelers could point with pride to the earmarks they were funding.

The negative response to Mica’s proposal makes it unlikely that Congress will pass a bill this year. Instead, it will have to once more extend the 2005 bill (which it has already done eight times), as the current extension expires on March 31, 2012. But the extensions maintain spending at current levels, which means the Highway Trust Fund is quickly running out of money.

Advocates of increased spending claim funds are needed to repair crumbling infrastructure. But America’s highways and bridges are actually in pretty good shape, partly because they are largely paid for out of user fees. The infrastructure that is crumbling is mainly those things paid for out of taxes, such as urban transit systems, which have at least a $78 billion maintenance backlog. Even President Obama’s head of the Federal Transit Administration complains that transit agencies are too eager to get federal funds to build new rail lines when they can’t afford to maintain the ones they have.

The real question is why the federal government should be involved at all in highways, urban transit, bike paths, and other surface transportation projects. State and local governments, not to mention private transportation companies, are more likely to make wise transportation investments and less likely to be swayed by pork barrel. Congress should simply eliminate the federal gas tax or, as some have proposed, allow states to opt out of federal programs by raising their gas taxes by the amount of the federal 18.3-cent-per-gallon tax.

Such alternatives will be taken more seriously if Tea Party candidates win more Senate and House seats in the 2012 election. If they lose seats, however, Congress is more likely to raise gas taxes so the transit industry and other interests can continue to get their largely undeserved shares of highway user fees.

‘Professor Cornpone: Ethanol Lobbyist Newt Gingrich—and the Future of the GOP’

The title is from a Wall Street Journal editorial in January of 2011. I commented on Gingrich’s response to that editorial in the following excerpt from a chapter I wrote for a recently published book by Robert E. Looney, ed., Handbook of Oil Politics, Routledge (2012):

Even if draconian belt-tightening by U.S. motorists could significantly reduce the world price of oil (which is highly doubtful), the benefits of cheaper oil would by definition accrue to other countries.   If the U.S. allowed its own industries and consumers to benefit from the supposed drop in world oil prices (as a result of breaking the oil cartel), that would undo the effort to cut imports.  Most petroleum consumed in the U.S. is not used by passenger cars and demand for petroleum among commercial, industrial and non-auto transportation sectors would rise if any induced reduction in the world oil price was allowed to be matched by a lower domestic oil price (rather than being offset by taxes or rationing).

Consider the protectionists’ old idea that money spent on buying something useful from another country is just lost to the U.S. economy, so we would be much better off buying everything close to home (regardless what it costs, though they never say that).

Attempting to defend ethanol subsidies and mandates, for example, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wrote, ‘It is in this country’s long-term best interest to stop the flow of $1 billion a day overseas… . Think of what $1 billion a day kept in the U.S. economy creating jobs, especially energy jobs which cannot be outsourced, could do.’  That is, of course, a totally false choice.  Apologists for subsidies and mandates are not proposing to pay the same price for domestic fuel as we could otherwise pay for an energy-equivalent amount of imported oil – replacing $1 billion of imported fuel with $1 billion of domestic fuel.  They are talking about paying much more for domestic fuel than we pay for imported oil.   Why else would they be asking for subsidies, tariffs and mandates?

Paying much more for something as important as energy, whether directly or through taxes, makes an economy poorer, and being poorer is no way to create ‘green jobs.’  Money wasted on something like ethanol which politicians favor is money that could otherwise have been spent on something else that consumers favor.

 

Is California High-Speed Rail Dead?

The CEO and board chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority have resigned in disgrace over erroneous cost projections. A peer-review commission created by the California legislature says the authority’s high-speed rail plan is “not financially feasible.” Surveys show a majority of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in the state all oppose construction.

Yet the authority’s scheme to build a new rail line capable of moving trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes won’t die unless the state legislature kills it. Officially, the authority plans to begin construction by September 2012, despite the fact that it has less than 10 percent of the money it needs to complete the project.

The tide definitely turned against the plan when the authority published a new business plan admitting that estimated inflation-adjusted construction costs had more than doubled from $43 billion to $98.5 billion. Moreover, under the new plan the promised 220-mph trains would not roll until 2033, more than a decade later than voters were promised in 2008.

The authority’s credibility was further reduced when it admitted that the million jobs it promised were really job-years, and that no more than 60,000 jobs would be created at any given time (and even that was probably an exaggeration). These revelations cost the project the editorial support of a number of major papers that had previously endorsed the project.

The 2008 ballot measure that voters narrowly approved authorized the sale of $9 billion in bonds that would eventually have to be repaid by state taxpayers. But those bonds could only be sold if they were matched by funds from federal or other sources. The Obama administration has given the state about $3.5 billion (giving the authority a total of $7 billion) on the condition that construction begin by September 30 and that the first segment constructed be in the Central Valley. The latter condition was made just before the 2010 election in a blatant effort to assist the election campaign of Representative Jim Costa (D-CA) of Fresno (who subsequently won re-election by a mere 3,000 votes).

Journalists are now questioning every aspect of the project. The latest story is that “doubts [are being] cast on cost estimates” for the alternative to high-speed rail, which is better highways and airports. I pointed this out back in 2008 in a Cato report showing that the highway-airport alternative did far more to reduce congestion than the high-speed rail line, suggesting that a highway-airport alternative that accomplished the same congestion reduction as the rail line would have cost much less.

What raises doubts now is the way the cost of the alternative has crept up. When the authority was insisting that the rail line could be built for $43 billion, its highway-airport alternative was estimated to cost $100 billion. When the rail cost jumped to nearly $100 billion, the highway-airport cost mysteriously increased to $171 billion. “There is some dishonesty in the methodology,” says a University of California, Berkeley transportation engineer. “I don’t trust an estimate like this.”

California Republicans have introduced a bill in the state legislature to prevent any bond sales that would fund the initial construction out of Fresno. Some Democratic legislators question the project, but it retains the endorsement of Governor Jerry Brown, and since Democrats have majorities of both houses of the legislature, anything could happen.

If the legislature doesn’t kill the project, the authority will spend the money it has available to build track capable of moving trains at 220 mph from somewhere south of Fresno to somewhere north of Fresno (though probably not all the way from Bakersfield to Merced). A handful of daily Amtrak trains might use those tracks, probably at no more than 110 mph, to save their passengers a few minutes on their trips from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The authority will be betting that someone will come up with the other $92 billion, but at the present time neither the federal government nor the state government has the cash.

All this has made rail advocates increasingly desperate. While supporters hysterically talk about California’s population growing to 50 million people, the truth is that, by the time the state could ever finish a high-speed rail line, the technology will have been completely superseded by such things as driverless cars and improved air service. Although the failure of the California scheme will end Obama’s dream of a national high-speed rail system, California needs high-speed rail like it needs a $100 billion hole in its budget.

Solyndra: A Political-Energy Company

Good reporting shouldn’t go unnoticed just because it appeared during the week after Christmas, so let me draw your attention to a comprehensive article on the front page of the December 26 Washington Post by Joe Stephens and Carol Leonnig:

Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama’s green-technology program was infused with politics at every level, The Washington Post found in an analysis of thousands of memos, company records and internal ­e-mails. Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials….

The documents reviewed by The Post … show that as Solyndra tottered, officials discussed the political fallout from its troubles, the “optics” in Washington and the impact that the company’s failure could have on the president’s prospects for a second term. Rarely, if ever, was there discussion of the impact that Solyndra’s collapse would have on laid-off workers or on the development of clean-energy technology.

Did you know that when the president visits a factory, his aides tell the workers what to wear? Keep digging in the documents:

Like most presidential appearances, Obama’s May 2010 stop at Solyndra’s headquarters was closely managed political theater.

Obama’s handlers had lengthy e-mail discussions about how solar panels should be displayed (from a robotic arm, it was decided). They cautioned the company’s chief executive against wearing a suit (he opted for an open-neck shirt and black slacks) and asked another executive to wear a hard hat and white smock. They instructed blue-collar employees to wear everyday work clothes, to preserve what they called “the construction-worker feel.”

This story has all the hallmarks of government decision making: officials spending other people’s money with little incentive to spend it prudently, political pressure to make decisions without proper vetting, the substitution of political judgment for the judgments of millions of investors, the enthusiastic embrace of fads like “green energy,” political officials ignoring warnings from civil servants, crony capitalism, close connections between politicians and the companies that benefit from government allocation of capital, the appearance—at least—of favors for political supporters, and the kind of promiscuous spending that has delivered us $15 trillion in national debt. It may end up being a case study in political economy. And if you want government to guide the economy, to pick winners, to override market investments, then this is what you want.

More on Solyndra here and here.

The Government Must Compensate for Property Damage Even If Its Taking Was Only ‘Temporary’

Cato today filed an amicus brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States.  Here’s the case:

The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission owns and operates 23,000 acres of land as a wildlife refuge and recreational preserve; the preserve’s trees are essential to its use for these purposes. Clearwater Dam, a federal flood control project, lies 115 miles upstream. Water is released from the dam in quantities governed by a pre-approved “management plan” that considers agricultural, recreational, and other effects downstream. 

Between 1993 and 2000, the government released more water than authorized under the plan. AGFC repeatedly objected that these excessive releases flooded the preserve during its growing season, which significantly damaged and eventually decimated tree populations. In 2001, the government acknowledged the havoc its flooding had wreaked on AGFC’s land and ceased plan deviations. By then, however, the preserve and its trees were severely damaged, so AGFC sued the government, claiming damages under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

The district court awarded $5.8 million in lost timber and reforestation costs based on the substantiality of the government’s flooding and the foreseeability of the damage it caused. The Federal Circuit reversed that decision, holding that the flooding of private land can never be a taking unless that flooding is permanent. It further held that, in determining whether the government’s intrusion on AGFC’s land was permanent or temporary, courts must focus on the character of the policy behind the intrusion rather the effects of the intrusion itself. A taking cannot have occurred here because each deviation from the plan constituted a “temporary” policy, the court concluded, so AGFC had no constitutional remedy.

AGFC is asking the Supreme Court to review its case; the Court itself has recognized that something less than a permanent invasion of land can constitute a compensable taking. Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on a brief urging the Court to hear the case and uphold the Fifth Amendment rights of property owners whose land is destroyed by the federal government. Our brief highlights the conflict between the Federal Circuit’s decision and both Supreme Court and lower court precedent. First, an invasion of land by flooding is no different from an invasion of land by any other means. Second, the government’s self-professed “intent” that a possible taking be “temporary” should have no bearing on whether a Fifth Amendment remedy exists when that taking has, in fact, occurred. Instead, the relevant inquiry should be whether the government caused permanent damage and, if so, how much.

The Federal Circuit’s new rule — that, so long as it might be “temporary,” no government flooding can be remedied under the Fifth Amendment — runs afoul of the letter and spirit of a constitutional provision meant to compensate property owners for government intrusions on their land. We urge the Court to grant AGFC’s petition and maintain constitutional protections for private property.

The Supreme Court will decide in the new year whether to take the case, and would hear argument in the fall if it does.

Fun with Grammar

Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post writes:

Less than a week before U.N. negotiators convene in South Africa for a new round of talks aimed at forging a global climate pact, a hacker has released an apparent second round of e-mails from the University of East Anglia in Britain that seek to portray climate scientists in a negative light.

Now let’s break that sentence down. Could it really be the e-mails from the climate catastrophists that “seek to portray [themselves] in a negative light”? Surely not. Rather, it appears that the sentence was intended to read something like this:

…a hacker believes that the apparent second round of e-mails from the University of East Anglia that he released today portray climate scientists in a negative light.

If there’s any embarrassment to the writers of the e-mails, after all, surely it was not intended. In any case, it’s not the release of the e-mails that might “portray [some] climate scientists in a negative light,” it’s the e-mails themselves.

More on the original Climategate here. Ongoing posts at this climate-skeptic website. And as you hear terms like “skeptics,” “deniers,” and so on, remember what Pat Michaels wrote in the 2009 Cato Handbook for Policymakers:

Leading politicians and media figures are insisting that Congress make
global warming a very high priority. Global warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975.

But global warming is also a very complicated and difficult issue that
can provoke very unwise policy in response to political pressure. In 2005, for instance, Congress clearly made a very bad decision about climate change when it mandated accelerated production of ethanol. Critics had argued then that corn-based ethanol would actually result in increased carbon dioxide emissions. An increasing body of science has since verified this position. Further, corn-based ethanol is responsible in part for the skyrocketing price of corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat since the mandates began.

Although there are many different legislative proposals for substantial
reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, there is no operational or tested suite of technologies that can accomplish the goals of such legislation. Fortunately, and contrary to much of the rhetoric surrounding climate change, there is ample time to develop such technologies, which will require substantial capital investment by individuals.

He’s a skeptic about the predictions of catastrophic and imminent threats, not about the existence of modest global warming.