Topic: Energy and Environment

America 2050: Forget the Forgotten Mode

Half truths, innuendo, and pseudo-science form the basis of a response to my recent Cato paper, Intercity Buses: The Forgotten Mode. The response is produced by America 2050, a project of the Regional Plan Association, a New York City–area regional planning organization. The response’s basic thesis of the response is that intercity buses have a role to play in a “balanced transportation system,” but they are “no replacement for high-speed rail.”

Of course, my report never argued that buses were a replacement for true high-speed rail. But it did show that existing bus schedules in many corridors are faster, more frequent, and charge far lower fares than Amtrak in the same corridors. Of course, there is a “replacement” for high-speed rail: it is called “air travel” and it is far faster and costs about a fifth as much per passenger mile as Amtrak’s Acela.

In any case, America 2050 says my report ignored “one of the most powerful arguments for rail: providing an alternative to highway congestion.” I didn’t address that argument in the paper on buses because, as I’ve shown in other papers, it’s a bad argument. Highways move about 85 percent of all passenger travel and more than a quarter of all ton-miles of freight in this country. If they are congested, maybe we should relieve that congestion rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an elitist rail network that won’t relieve congestion and won’t carry more than a tiny fraction of the number of people (and none of the freight) moved on the highways.

But we can’t fix highway congestion, says America 2050: “providing additional road space does not solve congestion; in fact it creates additional demand for driving.” That’s another bad argument, for four reasons. First, my bus paper never advocated building new roads, and if asked, I would have suggested relieving congestion using congestion pricing of roads before building new capacity.

Second, the idea that building roads creates demand is totally absurd. As my friend, Wendell Cox, says, it is akin to saying that building maternity wards leads people to have more babies.

Third, those who argue that we shouldn’t build roads because people will drive on them are effectively arguing that government shouldn’t provide anything that people will use; only what they won’t use (such as high-speed trains). If that’s the case, government should just get out of the transportation business entirely and leave it to the private sector.

Finally, most congestion is in cities, not between them, so building rail lines between cities isn’t going to help much. Of course, planners don’t want to relieve congestion anywhere because they hope congestion will persuade a few people to stop driving.

America 2050 goes on to say that “one railway with a single track in each direction has the capacity to transport as many people per hour as sixteen lanes of highway.” While I could dispute that number, even if true, capacity doesn’t matter unless people actually use that capacity. Amtrak has 6 percent of the passenger market between Boston and Washington; highways, mainly Interstate 95, have 80 percent. Interstate 95 and parallel roads probably have less than 16 lanes, yet they carry 13 times as many passenger miles.

“High-speed trains allow passengers to bypass this congestion,” America 2050 goes on to say, “bringing passengers directly into center cities.” Yes, but who wants to go directly into center cities? Less than 8 percent of American jobs and less than 1 percent of America’s population lives in city centers (which is why I call high-speed rail “elitist”). In many, if not most, urban areas, more people and more jobs are located near airports than near train stations, and virtually everyone is near a highway.

America 2050 then challenges some of my numbers that it says are “flatly incorrect.” “To count passenger miles,” says the article, “O’Toole uses the American Bus Association’s 2005 Motorcoach Census, which counts passenger-miles logged by intracity airport shuttles, sightseeing tours, and private commuter buses, amongst other categories that are not making cross country or intercity trips.” America 2050 clearly did not read my paper carefully: first, I used the 2007 Motorcoach Census, but, more important, I counted only those passenger miles (about a quarter of the total) attributable to scheduled intercity buses.

When comparing bus to rail safey, “O’Toole counts passenger miles only for Amtrak trains, while counting fatalities for all passenger trains, including commuter rail,” says America 2050. Again, America 2050 did not read carefully. National Transportation Statistics reports that commuter trains suffered about 20 to 60 fatalities per year over the past two decades; the fatalities I reported ranged from 3 to 24 per year (except in 1993 when there were 58), which obviously does not include the commuter rail fatalities. That 1993 number may have skewed my data upwards; but rail fatalities are nevertheless higher than bus fatalities per billion passenger miles.

America 2050 then goes into the topic of subsidies, noting there are large subsidies to highways. “Recently, the Highway Trust Fund has received bailouts of $8 billion in 2008, $7 billion in 2009, and $20 billion in 2010.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, those bailouts were not subsidies to highways; they were subsidies to pork barrel. If Congress had not diverted a third of gas tax revenues to non-highway projects, and then mandated spending on those projects even if gas tax revenues fell short, the bailouts would not have been necessary.

Admittedly, there are highway subsidies, mainly at the local level. But when compared with highway usage, which is on the order of 4 trillion passenger miles and 1 trillion ton miles of freight per year, the subsidies are trivial: about a penny per passenger mile at most. Since intercity buses operate with about twice the occupancy rates of other vehicles, subsidies to them are probably much lower (and were taken into account in the numbers my paper cited). By comparison, subsidies to Amtrak are close to 30 cents a passenger mile and subsidies to most high-speed rail lines will be much more.

America 2050 concludes by saying, “Intercity buses provide a valuable service and are an important part of a complete and balanced transportation system.” Who can argue with “balanced”? With respect to buses, America 2050 would give the high-use transport corridors—the cream of any transport service—to subsidized rail, leaving the dregs to buses (which would then require subsidies to serve those dregs).

The question is: How do you measure “balanced”? Apparently, America 2050’s answer is “balanced means taking the fees you pay to drive and spending them on my favored mode of transport while you sit stuck in traffic.” By contrast, my answer is: if it can be done without subsidies, it is balanced. Let’s just end the subsidies to all modes of transportation and see what happens.

How’s that Big-Government Environmentalism Workin’ For Ya’?

I don’t know what conclusion the correspondent who sent me this pair of articles meant for me to draw, but I think they nicely illustrate how centralizing power with the federal government fails to advance environmental values, while eroding others.

First, there’s the AP story showing deep and extensive ties between offshore oil and gas companies and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation. That’s the renamed Minerals Management Service, the agency that was supposed to prevent things like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last summer.

Everyone dreams of a “real regulator” that will clean up industry, protect public values, and smartly manage economic activity. What you routinely end up with is a pro-industry self-dealing agency that fails to protect the values it was assigned while mismanaging productive activity. Case in point.

Next, woe be it to the environmental activist who goes monkey-wrenching government-industry plans. Tim DeChristopher has been sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10,000 for derailing a government auction of oil and gas leases near two national parks in Utah. DeChristopher ran up bids on 13 parcels totaling more than 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, then failed to make good on his bids.

I suspect I would find DeChristopher’s environmentalism at least overwrought, but when did it become a criminal offense to default on an auction bid? When the government got into the business, that’s when. Instead of, say, pre-qualifying bidders, it evidently just uses its monopoly on coercion to lock up people who mess around with its action.

Command-and-control is probably the simplest way to advance environmental values, but it has failed so dramatically so many times, and it fosters a punitive state that jails its citizens. The simplest way to advance environmental goals may not be the best.

If you prioritize the environment, and if you’ve read this far in this post, I suspect you might be willing to consider more harmonious ways of pushing for a greener planet, ways that respect and use private property rights and that don’t put people in jail. Free-market environmentalism exists, though it’s a ways off from here.

New Light on Paternalism

Yesterday Mario Rizzo pointed out a couple of new studies on the unexpected results of paternalist policies designed to “nudge” Americans into making what their betters consider smart decisions. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Energy Secretary Steven Chu sums up the paternalist view very concisely. Opposing a House bill to repeal the 2007 federal law that effectively outlaws incandescent light bulbs, Chu says:

We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.

Exactly. The government wants to take away our choice. It wants to take away our right to make our own decision. It doesn’t trust us to make our own choices. And why should it? Secretary Chu won the Nobel prize in physics. He’s obviously smarter than we are.

Sure, some people just don’t like fluorescent light. Some people don’t like the way the new bulbs come on slowly. Some people don’t like the curlicue look. Some find that they don’t in fact last longer than incandescent bulbs. Some are skeptical about promises of long-term savings, or simply prefer to spend less now.

But none of that matters to Secretary Chu and other paternalists. They know that these bulbs are best for us, and so they “are taking away a choice” that they don’t think people should make. That’s the difference between the libertarian and paternalist views in a nutshell.

EPA Gives Millions to Enviro Groups That Sue it

It’s all a happy circle of funding, as John Merline reports at Investor’s Business Daily: the Environmental Protection Agency gives millions in grants to green organizations that perennially sue it demanding that it regulate more things. When the EPA settles or loses those suits, it then awards the groups millions more in attorneys’ fees under the federal Equal Access to Justice Act and other “one-way” attorney’s fee provisions (called “one-way” because they allow winning plaintiffs to collect fees from defendants, but not vice versa).

“The EPA isn’t harmed by these suits,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, who was an EPA official during the Bush administration. “Often the suits involve things the EPA wants to do anyway. By inviting a lawsuit and then signing a consent decree, the agency gets legal cover from political heat.”

Holmstead called this kind of litigation “sweetheart suits.”

As blogger Coyote puts it, “Our rulers are pretty good at finding tricky ways to expand their power.”

I go into much more detail on collusive public-sector litigation in chapter 8 of my new book Schools for Misrule. Other government agencies, much like the EPA, use settlements of pressure-group lawsuits as a way to go along with desired expansions of power; corrections and foster-care systems commit to step up program offerings and (no! anything but that!) seek higher funding to accomplish their missions; union-allied public-sector managers give away the store on employee benefits disputes, and so forth (scroll to “Consent of the Governors”). From New York to Alabama, state education departments have covertly or even openly assisted lawsuits against themselves intended to force spending expansion. And once sweetheart negotiations result in an adverse consent decree, with little or no formal input from taxpayers, parents, or other affected constituencies, the locked-in big-government policies can be nearly impossible to unlock later on, should voters’ moods change.

With a few exceptions, as with Prof. Ross Sandler and David Schoenbrod’s superb critique Democracy by Decree, these methods of agency governance are virtually uncontroversial and indeed highly popular in legal academia — and no wonder, since they transfer much power over public policy to a corps of “public-interest” litigation professionals who tend to be products of the finer law schools. But others, particularly Western land activists and Republicans in Congress, are skeptical. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) points out that since a rules revamp in 1995 the federal government no longer even tracks EAJA fee payouts in any organized manner, which makes it harder to catch double payments as well as suggestive patterns in which (critics have charged) certain environmental groups have filed hundreds of suits, assembly-line style, and cashed them in for fees. Lummis and home-state colleague Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) have introduced a bill called the Government Litigation Savings Act that would, among other provisions, reinstitute data collection regarding EAJA outlays, limit the size of awards to $200,000 per case and the number of annual awards to a given group to three, and cap hourly attorneys’ fee awards at an inflation-indexed $175/hour. (Sen. Orrin Hatch, another co-sponsor, summarizes the provisions here.) Whatever the merits of individual details, the bill furnishes a jumping-off point for a public debate that’s long overdue.

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.

In Global Warming Case, Supreme Court Reaches Correct Result But Leaves Room for Mischievous Litigation

In the important global warming case decided today, American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court unanimously reached the correct result but one that still leaves room for plenty of mischievous litigation.  While it’s clearly true that, as the Court said, the Clean Air Act and the EPA exist to deal with the claims the plaintiffs made here—that the defendants’ carbon dioxide emissions are pollutants that cause global warming—the Court left open the possibility of claims on state common-law grounds such as nuisance.  And it unfortunately said nothing about whether any such disputes, whether challenging EPA action or suing under state law, are properly “cases and controversies” ripe for judicial resolution.

The judiciary was not meant to be the sole method for resolving grievances with the government, even if everything looks like a nail to lawyers who only have a hammer.  This case is the perfect example of a “political question” best left to the political branches: The science and politics of global warming is so complex and nuanced that there simply isn’t a judicial role to be had.

As Cato’s amicus brief argued, the chain of causation between the defendants’ carbon emissions and the alleged harm caused by global warming is so attenuated that it resembles the famed “butterfly effect.” Just as butterflies should not be sued for causing tsunamis, a handful of utility companies in the Northeastern United States should not be sued for the complex (and disputed) harms of global warming. Even if plaintiffs (here or in a future case) can demonstrate causation, it is unconstitutional for courts to make nuanced policy decisions that should be left to the legislature.  Just as it’s improper for a legislature to pass a statute punishing a particular person (bill of attainder), it’s beyond courts’ constitutional authority to determine wide-ranging policies in which numerous considerations must be weighed in anything but an adversarial litigation process.

If a court were to adjudicate claims like those at issue in American Electric Power and issue an order dictating emissions standards, two things will happen: 1) the elected branches will be encouraged to abdicate to the courts their responsibilities for addressing complex and controversial policy issues, and 2) an already difficult situation would become nearly intractable as regulatory agencies and legislative actors butt heads with court orders issued across the country in quickly multiplying global warming cases. These inevitable outcomes are precisely why the standing and political question doctrines exist.

Dissatisfaction with the decisions and pace of government does not give someone the right to sue over anything. Or, as Chief Justice Marshall once said, “If the judicial power extended to every question under the laws of the United States … [t]he division of power [among the branches of government] could exist no longer, and the other departments would be swallowed up by the judiciary.”

The Myth of the Senior Transit Rider

According to Transportation for America — which is largely a shill for the transit industry — the nation is about to face a new crisis: a shortage of mobility “options” for retiring baby boomers. According to a report published by the group on June 14, “By 2015, more than 15.5 million Americans 65 and older will live in communities where public transportation service is poor or non-existent.”

The appropriate answer to that, of course, is “So what?” Most seniors don’t ride transit. Census data show that more than 12.5 percent of all Americans are over 65, yet data from the American Public Transportation Association show that only 6.7 percent of transit trips are taken by senior citizens. The average American rides transit less than 34 times a year; the average senior citizen less than 18 times a year.

Putting that into perspective, the 2009 National Household Travel Survey says Americans over 65 take an average of 1,168 trips per year, nearly all by automobile. Transit serves only 1.5 percent of those trips. This survey of the travel habits of more than 300,000 people also found that senior citizens travel an average of 8,250 miles a year by car. Transit carries seniors an average of less than 100 miles a year, or about 1.1 percent of the total of transit and auto travel.

Despite this, Transportation for America joins the American Public Transportation Association in using the supposed needs of senior citizens to justify more transit subsidies. They say additional federal subsidies are needed to give seniors “options.”

But think about it. Baby boomers have driven cars for almost their entire lives. Nearly all of them will keep driving until they are physically or mentally unable to do so. At that point, they are probably not going to be capable of walking the quarter mile to the nearest bus stop or the half mile to the nearest rail stop that Transportation for America defines as “transit accessible.”

Those baby boomers who prefer transit over driving can do what everyone else does who prefers one set of services over another: locate to where the services they prefer are the greatest. In the case of transit riders, that generally means dense central cities.

Instead, Transportation for America wants transit agencies to extend frequent bus or rail service to every remote suburb where there might be a few people over 65 — not because those people want to ride transit, but to simply give them “options.” In order to pay for service extensions to suburbs, many transit agencies have reduced transit service in the central cities where most transit riders are actually located. As a result, since 1985, per-capita transit ridership has plummeted in such major urban areas as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

Congress expects to pass legislation this year that will decide how to spend $40 billion in annual federal gas tax revenues over the next six years. In recent years, 20 percent of those gas taxes have been spent on transit. Transportation for America’s goal is to further increase that share. But after decades of huge transit subsidies, per-capita transit ridership today is no greater than it was in 1970 — mainly because the subsidies have focused on extending transit service to those who don’t need it rather than providing better service to those who do.

Americans will be better off by privatizing transit. Private operators will provide better service to those willing to live in denser, transit-friendly neighborhoods without wasting a lot of money trying to attract a few suburbanites out of their cars.