Topic: Energy and Environment

Washington, DC: Congestion King

The Texas Transportation Institute has released its annual urban mobility report, and Washington, DC once again takes the crown of wasting the most time and fuel per commuter. Though the urban mobility report makes some questionable claims about the congestion relief provided by urban transit, not even DC’s expensive Metro rail system has kept traffic from costing the average DC-area auto commuter $1,400 a year in wasted time and fuel.

Of course, one reason DC is number one in congestion is that, with the growth of government during the recent recession, it has enjoyed far more job growth than most other major urban areas. Yet, if rail transit really were such a good way to relieve congestion, it should have been able to absorb that growth.

Instead, the rail system operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is actually losing capacity as maintenance shortfalls force the agency to run smaller trains and those trains become less reliable. Last summer, when passengers on the Green line were stranded and had to walk along the rail line in the summer heat, WMATA promised that the agency would improve its safety procedures and keep people better informed.

Yet just last week, several rush-hour trains on the Green line were again stranded for hours without power. Temperatures on underground trains quickly rose to 90 degrees or more, leading some passengers to get sick and others to force the doors open so they could escape. One passenger reported that the only message they heard from WMATA was, “At this time, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING, I repeat, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING.” How reassuring.

Rearranging the Park Benches

Our cities are in trouble. Most have huge unfunded pension and health-care obligations. Their infrastructure is old and so poorly maintained that it can’t power a football stadium for the full length of a game. Their schools have significantly lower high-school graduation rates than the suburbs, even after accounting for differences in incomes. Housing in many cities is unaffordable, roads are congested, and jobs are fleeing, even in supposedly urban industries such as high tech and finance.

Urban planner Richard Florida has a solution: President Obama should create a new federal Department of Cities. That’s right up there with rearranging the benches at Battery Park before Superstorm Sandy hits.

Like many planners, Florida believes problems can be solved from the top down. He is famous for urging cities to adopt policies that make housing unaffordable, forcing poor and moderate-income people out, thus increasing average incomes and making it look like the cities have attracted high-income “creative” people.

Now, relying on pre-recession data, Florida argues that “cities and metros are the engines of our economy,” and thus deserve their own cabinet-level department. By the same logic, maybe we should create a Department of Texas and North Dakota, as those two states seem to have been the engines of our economy since 2008. I am sure a federal DoT&ND could do much to muck up the growth of those states that is partly taking place because the state legislatures have so far kept their hands off.

California Irrigation Supplies Water to Phoenix

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

California’s Central Valley is one of the true wonders of the agricultural world.  Prior to settlement, it was grassland in its northerly regions (around Sacramento) and desert at the southern end (Bakersfield).  As a result of irrigation from water stored both in the ground and in the many rivers that drain into it, this 1 percent of the nation’s cropland produces 8 percent of our national agricultural output (by value). That doesn’t count the equally productive but much smaller Salinas Valley, which is likely where your artichokes came from.

John Christy, a fellow-lukewarmer (and a Valley native) who is also state climatologist for Alabama, has published extensively that irrigation has changed the Valley’s climate, resulting in a warming produced not by carbon dioxide but by water vapor, which tends to skew heating into the night.

Everything else being equal, increasing the surface moisture in a hot-as-heck environment (like the Central Valley) will increase atmospheric instability, and, given proper conditions, should result in increased convective (thunderstorm) activity. Add in that prevailing mid-atmospheric winds in this region blow from west to east, and you wind up running the increased water vapor uphill into the Sierras, the Wasatch, and the Rockies. That’s pretty much guaranteed to increase thunderstorm activity.

A newly published study fleshes this out with a computer model, and finds that irrigation in the Central Valley of California not only adds water to the local environment but also alters the regional climate across the Colorado River Basin, increasing summer precipitation by 15 percent and Colorado River flow by nearly 30 percent. Those are big numbers and important ones, given the water needs of some 35 million people from Las Vegas to Phoenix to L.A.

‘La, La, La—I Can’t Hear You’

Here is an interesting essay/blog post from James Annan, a scientist with the Global Change Projection Research Programme of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, and a leading researcher into constraints on estimates of climate sensitivity. Annan has long-held the opinion, borne from his own investigations, that the bounds of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates of the earth’s climate sensitivity are too wide, especially at the high end.

The IPCC’s “fat right-hand tail” of their distribution of possible climate sensitivity values means that the IPCC maintains that there is a non-negligible probability that the earth’s actual climate sensitivity—the global average temperature rise from a doubling of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration—is upwards of 6°C (11°F) and perhaps has high a 10°C (18°F).  If the climate sensitivity were indeed this high, we’d be in a bunch of trouble. And so long as the IPCC concedes that this possibility exists, it allows folks to gin up truly alarming scare stories for what lies in ahead if we don’t immediately and drastically curtail carbon dioxide emissions.

But Annan has been arguing for years that the IPCC’s stance is scientifically unjustified.  And a host of recent scientific studies, including several of his own, seem to have made this point abundantly clear.

But apparently the IPCC is slow to let go of its alarmist notions.

In his recent post, Annan points out that the now-under-construction Fifth Assessment Report from the IPCC (which is due out later this year), continues to hang onto the fat right-hand tail of the distribution, even in the face of a large and growing body of research to the contrary.

But what I find most interesting in Annan’s post is his opinion and insight as to why the IPCC is behaving this way. Annan suggests that the IPCC is more tied to the results of “a small private opinion poll” than it is to the broader literature when it comes to the climate sensitivity estimates. 

LaHood’s Legacy

Best known for admitting to the National Press Club that the Obama administration wants to “coerce people out of their cars,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has announced his plans to leave office as soon as a replacement can be found. Aside from an admirable emphasis on transportation safety, the main legacy he leaves behind is a record of wild spending on ridiculous projects that do little to improve transportation but do much to add to the nation’s debt.

Much of that spending came out of the 2009 stimulus bill. Prior to the stimulus bill, a Bush (II) administration rule required that most spending on transit projects meet certain measures of “cost effectiveness.” Streetcars, for example, had to be cost-effective relative to buses, which they never are, so no streetcar projects could be funded. The stimulus money was exempt from these rules, so LaHood immediately gave funds to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Tuscon for new streetcar lines. LaHood then announced that he was rescinding the Bush rule, an action that was formally completed on January 9 of this year.

Similarly, at the request of the Obama administration, the stimulus bill included $8 billion for so-called high-speed rail projects. But most of the projects funded are anything but high speed. Vermont, for example, spent $52 million speeding up a New York-to-Burlington train to an average of 38 miles per hour. Washington State is spending $590 million speeding up a Portland-to-Seattle train from an average of 53.4 to 56.1 miles per hour.

The main criteria for elibility for these funds was not whether a project was worthwhile but whether the environmental documentation had been written. Florida, for example, had written an environmental impact statement for high-speed rail that concluded that the environmental costs exceeded the benefits, but LaHood was happy to give the state $2.4 billion to build it anyway until the state had second thoughts.

As a result, cities and states all over the country are scrambling to write environmental impact statements for all sorts of inane projects so they will be ready the next time the floodgates of federal spending open. Reconnecting America, a pro-transit group, has cataloged more than 600 transit plans under way in more than 100 metro areas. These include 125 streetcar projects in at least 50 cities which may now be eligible for funding now that the Bush cost-effectiveness requirement has been eliminated.

Altogether, the nearly 500 projects for which costs have been estimated would require more than $250 billion in capital expenditures, which rail advocates lament mean that it would take more than 100 years of federal funding at the current rate to fund them all.

Goodbye, Secretary LaHood

Just 12 hours ago I expressed disappointment that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had expressed his intent of “sticking around for a while” as a cabinet member in President Obama’s second term. Now – I suppose it’s just coincidence – LaHood says he’s departing after all. Promoted as the Republican in the Obama cabinet (at least the one left after the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), the former Illinois Congressman has been a veritable fount of anti-libertarian proposals and regrettable policy decisions over the past four years: 

  • LaHood’s best-known crusade, against “distracted driving,” enthusiastically built on earlier Washington initiatives muscling into traffic laws formerly decided at the state and local level. While he did back off earlier press reports that had him favoring a national ban on cellphone use in cars, even handsfree, he promoted such wacky ideas as having cops peer down into cars from overpasses to see whether drivers are paying enough attention to the road, and mandating technologies that would automatically disconnect phones in moving cars (what could go wrong?).
  • Known while in Congress as friendly toward pork-barrel projects, LaHood provided a bipartisan gloss for his free-spending department: the Post recounts his efforts “helping implement billions of dollars in transportation projects from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and promoting the plan to wary Republicans.” Combining his two enthusiasms, LaHood pushed a program of local “nanny grants” that drew resistance from House Republicans.
  • After trial lawyers and feckless reporters ginned up an “unintended acceleration” scare against Toyota, LaHood wasn’t in a position to reverse the engineering judgment of the career technical staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who concluded the scare (like earlier ones against Audi and other makes) was bogus. But he seems to have done what he could to make life hard for the foreign-owned automaker, levying heavy fines over disclosure issues and delaying the release of the technical findings exculpating the company. Some felt that as a high officer of a government that had taken over and was running competitors GM and Chrysler, LaHood was in a bit of a conflicted position as judge-and-sentencer of Detroit’s envied Japanese rival.
  • Early speculation on a replacement includes the name of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He’d probably leave me nostalgic for LaHood.

Crowdfunding Science

File this under “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

While it seems hard to believe (as attested to by the growing budget for National Science Foundation) federal and state budget decisions are apparently putting the squeeze on some forms of government-funded science, and so some scientists are seeking alternative ways of raising funds for their projects of interest. One such “novel” method is a direct appeal to the masses for support.

Witness this announcement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Crowdfunding Science: Appealing to the online community for research money

Event Date: January 29, 2013 12 p.m. Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. GMT, 6 p.m. CEST

With federal and state funding for science on the downward trend, many young scientists are bypassing the grant writing process and appealing directly to the public via the Internet for money to support their research. Crowdfunding, as it is known, holds huge potential for scientists who can effectively capture the imagination of the public and get them to open their wallets in support of science.

In AAAS MemberCentral’s webinar “Appealing to the online community for research money”, we’ll look at #SciFund Challange, a website that helps researchers get their projects funded by the public, and we’ll also hear from two scientists who successfully funded their projects via the crowd. We’ll find out what they learned along the way, share tips on how to reach your funding goal and give you an opportunity to ask the panelists questions.

This seems a step in the right direction towards producing better-justified science projects that will be done for a lot less money with a lot more transparency.

How this fits in to a University setting should be interesting. Almost certainly it will bring the often exorbitant overhead rates for science funding into focus.  Most schools tack on an additional 50% or so which goes from the producer departments (science and engineering) to those that can’t carry their own weight.  Will the “crowd” accept being dunned for work they don’t support?  If this caught on, maybe our schools would better serve the market rather than centrally planning their own.

It’ll be interesting to see how this method of fundraising develops, but from the surface, it seems a positive development.