Topic: Energy and Environment

Curricula with an Agenda? It Ain’t Just Big Coal

Today the Washington Post has a big story on efforts by the coal industry to get public schools to teach positive things about — you guessed it — coal. The impetus for the article is no doubt a recent kerfuffle over education mega-publisher Scholastic sending schools free copies of the industry-funded lesson plan “The United States of Energy.” Many parents and environmentalists were upset over businesses putting stealthy moves on kids, and Scholastic eventually promised to cease publication of the plan.

Loaded curricula designed to coerce specific sympathies from children, however, hardly come just from industry, as the Post story notes. Indeed, as I write in the new Cato book Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, much of the curricular material put out at least on climate change is decidedly alarmist in nature, and is funded by you, the taxpayer. In other words, lots of people are trying to use the schools to push their biases on your kids, which is an especially dangerous thing considering how unsettled, uncertain, and multi-sided so many issues are.

In light of the huge question marks that exist in almost all subjects that schools address, the best education system is the one that is most decentralized, in which ideas can compete rather than having one (very likely flawed) conclusion imposed as orthodoxy. And it would be a system in which no level of government — either district, state, or federal — would decide what view is correct, or what should be taught based on the existence of some supposed consensus, as if “consensus” were synonymous with “absolute truth.” What is truth should not be decided by who has the best lobbyists or most political weight, nor should children be forced to learn what government simply deems to be best.

Of course, there are some people who will decide that they are so correct about something that it would be abusive not to have government force children to learn it. If their conclusion is so compelling and obvious, however, no coercion should be necessary to get people to teach it to their children — it should be overwhelmingly clear. More importantly, if there is controversy, efforts to impose a singular view are likely to fail not just with the children of unbelievers, but for many of the children whose parents share the view. As significant anecdotal evidence over the teaching of human origins has stongly suggested — and new empirical work has substantiated — when public schools are confronted with controversial issues, they tend to avoid them altogether rather than teach any side. In other words, efforts at compulsion don’t just fail, they hurt everyone.

Educational freedom, then, is the only solution to the curricular problem. If you want full power to avoid the imposition of unwanted materials on your children, you must be able to choose schools. And if you want to ensure that your kids get the instruction you think every child should have, everyone else must have that ability, too.

House Republicans Target Amtrak

House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica (R-FL) and Rail Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) announced that they will draw up legislation that would kill Amtrak’s desire to develop and operate high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor:

We plan introduce legislation to separate the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak, transfer it to a separate entity, and begin a competitive bidding process that would allow for a public-private partnership to design, build, operate, maintain, and finance high-speed service. Our plan would do so in a dramatically shorter time, in closer to 10 rather than 30 years, and at a fraction of the $117 billion cost proposed by Amtrak, while creating new jobs.

Randal O’Toole says that “Rail fans feel threatened by the proposal because they know that, if the Northeast Corridor is ever spun off as a private operation, support for Amtrak subsidies in the rest of the nation will dwindle.” Not surprisingly, Amtrak booster Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) thinks that “privatizing” the Northeast Corridor is a bad idea:

Let’s not forget: Congress created Amtrak in 1970 because the private railroads could no longer sustain inter-city passenger service on their own,” he said. “When I was building my business, I learned firsthand — if you want to be successful tomorrow, you must begin laying the foundation today. The same principle applies here. If we want to leave our children and grandchildren a better country, we must make smart investments on their behalf — and that means investing in Amtrak.

Dumping more taxpayer dollars into Amtrak will “leave our children and grandchildren” with more debt – not a better country as Lautenberg absurdly claims. And as a Cato essay on Amtrak subsidies explains, it was decades of taxes and burdensome government regulations that sped the demise of private passenger rail:

Decades of taxes and burdensome government regulations sped the demise of private passenger rail. Railway companies pay income taxes and substantial property taxes, costs that are not borne by government-owned highways. And during World War II, the federal government imposed a special 15 percent excise tax on train tickets, which was not repealed until 1962.

The railroads were rapidly losing customers in the mid-20th century, but government regulators created hurdles to letting them shed services as quickly as demand was falling. Most state governments imposed regulatory restrictions on the discontinuance of train routes. And beginning in 1958, Congress handed the ICC nationwide power to restrict the discontinuance of train routes. Attempts by the railroads to eliminate unprofitable passenger routes were met with political resistance in Congress.

The ICC’s micromanagement of the railroads was damaging. It took the ICC a decade to approve the merger of the struggling Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads into the ill-fated Penn Central. By the 1960s, the railroads’ crucial freight operations were losing ground to trucks and needed to adjust their shipping rates in order to remain competitive. However, the ICC insisted on maintaining a suffocating regulatory rate structure, which reduced the ability of the railroads to adapt to market conditions.

The railroads were also burdened with unionized workforces, which raised labor costs and reduced the management flexibility of companies to respond to the rapidly changing marketplace. For example, even though the job of stoking the old steam engines had been eliminated, railroad unions fought for 35 years to keep firemen in diesel locomotives.

After a number of major railroads, including Penn Central, went bankrupt in the 1960s, Congress and President Richard Nixon stepped in to take unprofitable passenger rail off the hands of the struggling railroads by creating a new federal rail corporation, Amtrak. Pressure from passenger rail advocacy groups and labor unions also led to Amtrak’s creation.

I’m not ready to hop on board Mica and Shuster’s plans for a federal “public-private partnership,” especially since they can only say that their eventual plan will “reduce” and “potentially eliminate” the need for federal subsidies. I’d prefer true privatization and a “bottom-up” approach to transportation. Regardless, halting Amtrak’s high-speed rail dreams would be a step in the right direction.

Transportation: Top Down or Bottom Up?

America’s transportation system needs more centralized, top-down planning. At least, that’s what the Brookings Institution’s Robert Puentes advocates in a 2,350-word article in the May 23 Wall Street Journal.

If that seems like an unlikely message from America’s leading business daily, perhaps it is because Puentes couched it in terms such as “spending money wisely,” solving congestion, and “adhering to market forces.” But not-so-hidden behind these soothing phrases is Puentes real argument: “America needs to start directing traffic” by developing “a clear-cut vision for transportation.” Such a vision “must coordinate the efforts of the public and private sectors.”

“The big question,” Puentes says, “is how much it will all cost.” This is a diversion from the real big question, which is: who will do this coordination? In Puentes view, the answer is smart people in Washington DC who can best determine where to make “critical new investments on a merit basis” using such tools as an infrastructure bank.

One of the results of that system, Puentes makes clear, will be more spending on transit so that commuters have “more transportation choices.” He specifically mentions the ridiculous Subway-to-the-Sea being planned in Los Angeles. Never mind that, as the Antiplanner has previously noted, Puentes’ goal of extending transit to more jobs is both extremely expensive and will have little impact on actual transit ridership.

The real problem with America’s transportation system is not a lack of vision but too many people with visions trying to impose them on everyone else through lengthy and expensive planning processes. A bridge or road that once might have taken five years to plan and build now takes twenty or more, if it ever gets built at all, thanks to all these visions. (Of course, when it comes to expensive rail transit projects, Puentes thinks Congress should waive environmental impact statements and other expensive planning processes.)

The real solution is not more top-down planning but a bottom-up system that responds to actual user needs rather than to inside-the-beltway visions. That means funding transportation out of user fees and not out of infrastructure banks, which–no matter how “merit-based” in intent–will alway end up being politically driven.

In a bottom-up system, individual transit and highway agencies (or better yet transit and highway companies) would be funded by their users, so they would have incentives to provide and expand service where needed by those users. Such a system would be far more likely to relieve congestion, save energy, and meet Puentes’ other goals.

Thanks to our heavily planned and heavily subsidized transit industry, the average urban transit bus uses 80 percent more energy per passenger mile than Amtrak. But that’s not because Amtrak is energy-efficient: the average Amtrak train uses 60 percent more energy per passenger mile than intercity buses. Unlike both Amtrak and urban transit buses, private intercity buses aim to meet market demand, not political demand, so they tend to fill about two-thirds of their seats while Amtrak fills only half and transit buses less than a quarter.

Achieving a bottom-up transportation system means getting the federal government out of transportation decision-making. One way would be to have states take over federal gas taxes as proposed by New Jersey Representative Scott Garrett.

To the extent that the federal government distributes any transportation funds to states at all, they should be distributed using formulas, not grants, because formulas are much harder to politically manipulate. Ideally, the formulas should give heavy weight to the user fees collected by each state to reinforce, rather than distract from, the bottom-up process.

Puentes’ top-down vision will waste hundreds of billions of dollars on little-needed transportation projects while it does little to relieve congestion, save energy, or reduce auto emissions. A bottom-up process will save taxpayers money and increase mobility, which should be the real goals of any transportation policy.

High-Speed Rail and Federalism

Florida Governor Rick Scott deserves a big round of applause for dealing a major setback to the Obama administration’s costly plan for a national system of high-speed rail. As Randal O’Toole explains, the administration needed Florida to keep the $2.4 billion it was awarded to build a high-speed Orlando-to-Tampa line in order to build “momentum” for its plan. Instead, Scott put the interests of his taxpayers first and told the administration “no thanks.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the administration is going to dole the money back out to 22 passenger-rail projects in other states. Florida taxpayers were spared their state’s share of maintaining the line, but they’re still going to be forced to help foot the bill for passenger-rail projects in other states.

Here’s Randal’s summary:

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.

Why should Floridians be taxed by the federal government to pay for passenger-rail in the northeast? If the states in the Northeast Corridor want to pick up the subsidy tab from the federal government, go for it. (I argue in a Cato essay on Amtrak that if the Northeast Corridor possesses the population density to support passenger-rail then it should just be privatized.)

I don’t know if taxpayers in Northeast Corridor would want to pick up the federal government’s share of the subsidies, but I’m pretty sure California taxpayers wouldn’t be interested in footing the entire $65 billion for their state’s high-speed boondoggle-in-the-works. As I’ve discussed before, the agitators for a national system of high-speed rail know this:

If California’s beleaguered taxpayers were asked to bear the full cost of financing HSR in their state, they would likely reject it. High-speed rail proponents know this, which is why they agitate to foist a big chunk of the burden onto federal taxpayers. The proponents pretend that HSR rail is in “the national interest,” but as a Cato essay on high-speed rail explains, “high-speed rail would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, congressional Republicans aren’t happy that the administration is taking Florida’s money and spreading it around the country:

Monday’s announcement drew criticism from House Republican leaders, who questioned both the decision to divide the money into nearly two-dozen grants around the country—instead of concentrating it into fewer major projects—and the fact that many of the projects will benefit Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger-rail operator.

I heartily agree with the Amtrak complaint, but I’m not sure why as a federal taxpayer I should feel better about instead “concentrating [the money] into fewer major projects.” Subsidizing passenger-rail is no more a proper role of the federal government than education or housing. Unfortunately, for all the criticisms of the Obama administrations and the constant talk about spending cuts, Republicans don’t appear to possess much more desire to limit the scope of the federal government’s activities than the Democrats.

See this Cato essay for more on fiscal federalism.

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.

Dodging the High-Speed Bullet Train

President Obama’s dream of connecting 80 percent of Americans to a high-speed rail line appears to be dead. Congress appropriated $8 billion for high-speed rail in the 2009 stimulus bill and $2 billion more in the 2010 appropriations bill. But, after newly elected governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin rejected high-speed rail projects in those states, Congress declined to include any more funds in 2011 and it is unlikely to spend any more on this boondoggle as long as Republicans have a hold on the House.

What will Americans get for the $10 billion or so already committed?

  • California appears ready to spend $5.5 billion building a 220-mph rail line from Corcoran–a town south of Fresno mainly known for the prison housing Charles Manson–to Borden–a ghost town north of Fresno. Considering that trains were not scheduled to stop in either Corcoran or Borden, this will truly be a train to nowhere.
  • Illinois is spending more than $3 billion adding three trains per day (to the current five) between Chicago and St. Louis and increasing average train speeds from 51.6 to 56.8 mph, saving train travelers a half hour on the current 5.5-hour trip. Illinois hopes to eventually boost average speeds to 72.6 mph, but that will require more money.
  • Washington state is spending $700 million adding two trains per day (to the current three) between Seattle and Portland and increasing average train speeds from 53.4 to 56.1 mph, thus saving rail travelers 10 minutes on the current 3.5-hour journey.
  • North Carolina is spending $545 million adding two trains a day (to the current three) between Charlotte and Raleigh and increasing speeds from 54.1 to 57.7 mph, thus saving travelers 12 minutes on the current 3.2-hour trip.

There are a few other even less-inspiring projects, and the administration has yet to decide what to do with the $2.5 billion that Florida turned back to the feds. But it is clear that the administration’s plan to dazzle Americans with an exciting new infrastructure project comparable to the Interstate Highway System has failed.

When first announced, Obama’s plan was well received by people who had taken high-speed trains in Europe and Japan. Obama’s strategy was to quickly build an 85-mile high-speed line connecting Tampa to Disneyworld in Orlando, which would open before the end of Obama’s presumed second term. This, he hoped, would inspire politicians elsewhere to demand similar lines in their states. He also hoped the fact that China was building a $400-billion high-speed rail network would be a “sputnik moment” forcing Americans to support our own rail system. Rarely mentioned was the total cost of Obama’s plan, though Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood finally offered an estimate of $500 billion.

Reports from Cato, Reason, and others attempted to dampen people’s enthusiasm for this expensive program. The real turning point, however, was the November, 2010 election. Republican gubernatorial candidates in Ohio and Wisconsin promised to kill the trains if elected. However, Rick Scott–the Republican candidate for governor in Florida–the linchpin of Obama’s plan–was on the fence.

The incumbent governor, Charles Crist, wanted to anchor the Tampa-to-Orlando train with light rail in Tampa and commuter rail in Orlando, and to do so light rail was on the ballot in Tampa. A few weeks before the election, Wendell Cox, who had written on high-speed rail for Reason, and I spoke to Tampa Tea Party members and inspired them to fight both the light rail and high-speed rail. Despite being outspent by 50-to-1, light rail opponents prevailed at the polls in November, winning by 58 to 42. The momentum from this victory helped them persuade Scott, who narrowly won the governorship, to kill high-speed rail in February.

In April, National Review Online credited Cato, Reason, Heritage, and the Florida Tea Party with killing high-speed rail. The day after the article appeared, Congressional leaders agreed to zero-out funding for high-speed rail in the 2011 budget. It appears likely that, other than minor improvements to Amtrak’s Boston-to-Washington corridor, high-speed rail is dead, at least for now.

Once the darling of the media, high-speed trains are now closely scrutinized. The New York Times published an op ed calling Obama’s plan “a fast train to nowhere.” Instead of praising China’s high-speed trains, the Washington Post has declared them a “train wreck.”

The big question is California. The state currently has only about 10 percent of the funds it needs to build a line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Scrambling to close a $28 billion deficit in its 2012 budget, the legislature is not likely to find any more state funds for this megaproject. Unless a miracle occurs, it appears the only added impact of Obama’s dream will be the cost to state taxpayers of running a few extra trains per day in Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington.

AEP v. Connecticut: Global Warming as Political Question

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the massive greenhouse-gas suit. Like the other “big” global warming/climate change suits, this one suffers from a basic and incurable defect: it seeks to undermine the separation of powers established under the U.S. Constitution by inviting the courts to address “political questions” of a sort properly resolved by other branches of government. As Cato’s amicus brief by Ilya Shapiro and Evan Turgeon explained in the case of Comer v. Murphy Oil:

“[W]hile it executes firmly all the judicial powers intrusted to it, the court will carefully abstain from exercising any power that is not strictly judicial in its character, and which is not clearly confided to it by the Constitution.” Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 355 (1911). A dispute is not “judicial in its character” when, among other reasons, the plaintiff does not have “standing” or the claim raises a “political question.” … And the political question doctrine, for which “the appropriateness under our system of government of attributing finality to the action of the political departments and also the lack of satisfactory criteria for a judicial determination are dominant considerations,” Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 454-55 (1939), isolates the judiciary from policy disputes the Constitution assigns to the democratic process.

By its nature, global warming is exactly the sort of policy question traditionally entrusted to the political branches: it is wholly unsuited to individualized justice based on links between particularized emissions and particularized effects, its proposed remedies are much disputed and likely to be the result of inevitably arbitrary compromise, sovereign negotiations with foreign actors play a crucial role, and so forth. As the courts have long recognized, one does not generate a case for judicial action simply by piling atop each other the propositions “something needs to be done” and “the political branches have not done it.” Indeed, the Obama administration itself has more or less invited the Supreme Court to dismiss the action on political-question grounds.

The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review the American Electric Power case and then filed another amicus brief on the merits. Anyone interested in how the complexities of the Court’s “political question” doctrine apply in this case should read – in addition to Ilya Shapiro’s blog posts here and here – this new article in the Federalist Society’s publication Engage by Megan L. Brown of Wiley Rein LLP, who has served as Counsel of Record to the Cato Institute in its amicus briefs in this area. Brown provides a thorough explanation of why all three of the major warming suits fail the justiciability test, why Justices Kennedy and Breyer may be worth watching as “swing” votes in AEP, and how the new case affords the court a chance to revisit its problematic pro-regulatory holding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007). (More from Brown in this Christian Science Monitor op-ed.)

Also worth reading on this subject: Harvard professor Laurence Tribe, by no means known as a general skeptic of environmental regulation, who has assisted the defense side in this litigation and explains some of the reasons in a new Boston Globe op-ed.