Topic: Energy and Environment

Washington Metro’s Problem: Too Much Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Transportation Funding Upside-Down

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair James Oberstar (D-MN) has released more than 100 pages of documents describing how he wants to run federal transportation programs over the next six years. He proposes to spend $500 billion on highways and transit, which is a huge increase over the $338 billion authorized for the last six years.

Congress authorizes federal transportation spending in six-year cycles. In 1956, when Congress created the Interstate Highway System, it dedicated gas taxes and other highway user fees exclusively to highways. But in the 1982 reauthorization, it began diverting a small amount of gas taxes to transit.

Today, about 20 percent of the federal gas taxes you pay go to subsidize transit, while the other 80 percent supposedly go for highways — though much of that is wasted in planning and earmarks. Nationally, highway subsidies — mostly at the local level — average about a penny per passenger mile, while transit subsidies — much from your federal gas tax — average more than 60 cents per passenger mile.

Since 1982, transit has received hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies from highway users. Yet in 2008 — supposedly a boom year for transit because of high gas prices — per-capita transit ridership was lower than it was in 1990, though higher than in 2000.

Oberstar considers this to be a great success. Building on that “success,” he effectively wants to turn the formula around: 20 percent for highways and 80 percent for transit. The executive summary of his plan supposedly “provides $337.4 billion for highways.” But, in fact, only $100 billion of this is dedicated to highways; most of the rest is in “flexible funds” that states and cities can spend on either highways or transit. Nearly $100 billion goes for transit, and $50 billion goes for high-speed rail. The remaining $12.4 billion goes for safety programs.

Oberstar’s detailed plan proposes to burden the Federal Highway Administration with an “Office of Livability.” This office would oversee land-use plans that all major metropolitan areas would be required to write; these plans would attempt to coerce people out of their cars by increasing population densities, spending flexible funds on transit, and spending highway money on reducing, rather than increasing, road capacities.

Page 38 explains that this is because past transit investments have “paid off” so well: transit carried 10.7 billion trips in 2008. The fact that this represents less than 1 percent of passenger transport is discreetly overlooked, especially by transit advocates who think they should get at least half of all transportation dollars.

For those who truly care about mobility, the saving grace is that the government is running out of money and cannot possibly afford Oberstar’s program. Even the Highway Trust Fund has run dry because the last reauthorization allowed Congress to spend more money than the revenues produced from gas taxes. Considering that President Obama is opposed to increasing the gas tax, no one has any idea where Oberstar thinks he is going to find $500 billion.

As a result, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on behalf of the Obama administration, wants to delay reauthorization for 18 months. Of course, Oberstar thinks this is a bad idea — it delays his moment in the sun, possibly until a time when he no longer chairs the committee.

The real problem, however, is that most people in Congress and the administration no longer see the value in funding transportation out of receipts or any connection at all between benefits and costs. Instead, it is just a big game of pork barrel and, for the slightly more idealistic, social engineering. All this lends credence to the idea that we should simply privatize our highways and transit systems.

Not So Free Love in San Francisco

Yet again the city of San Francisco is demonstrating its “love” for humanity.  By threatening to fine them for getting their garbage wrong.

Reports MSNBC:

Trash collectors in San Francisco will soon be doing more than just gathering garbage: They’ll be keeping an eye out for people who toss food scraps out with their rubbish.

San Francisco this week passed a mandatory composting law that is believed to be the strictest such ordinance in the nation. Residents will be required to have three color-coded trash bins, including one for recycling, one for trash and a new one for compost — everything from banana peels to coffee grounds.

The law makes San Francisco the leader yet again in environmentally friendly measures, following up on other green initiatives such as banning plastic bags at supermarkets.

Food scraps sent to a landfill decompose fast and turn into methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. Under the new system, collected scraps will be turned into compost that helps area farms and vineyards flourish. The city eventually wants to eliminate waste at landfills by 2020.

Chris Peck, the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of an ordinance as tough as San Francisco’s. Many cities, including Pittsburgh and San Diego, require residents to recycle yard waste but not food scraps. Seattle requires households to put scraps in the compost bin or have a composting system, but those who don’t comply aren’t fined.

“The city has been progressive, and they’ve been leaders and it appears that they’re stepping out of the pack again,” he said.

San Francisco officials said they aren’t looking to punish violators harshly.

Waste collectors will not pick through anyone’s garbage, said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Sunset Scavenger Co., which handles the city’s recyclables. If the wrong kind of materials are noticed while a bin is being emptied, workers will leave what Reed called “a love note,” to let customers know they are not with the program.

“We’re not going to lock you up in jail if you don’t compost,” said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom who proposed the measure that passed Tuesday. “We’re going to make it as easy as possible for San Franciscans to learn how to compost.”

A moratorium on imposing fines will end in 2010, after which repeat offenders like individuals and small businesses generating less than a cubic yard of refuse a week face fines of up to $100.

Businesses that don’t provide the proper containers face a $500 fine.

Most everyone wants to be loved.  But this sort of government “love” we can all do without!

Cash for Clunkers Lesson: How to Use the $$ to Buy a Gas Guzzler

My son’s station car is an old Ford Explorer AWD which, despite being a V-6, was rated at about 15 mpg.  Approaching 100,000 miles, the SUV’ s resale value is very low.

The House approved a bill to give him a $3,500 voucher to buy a car that is supposed to get only 18 mpg, or $4,500 if it gets 20 mpg.  Only 18-20 mpg?  That’s not moving us much closer to President Obama’s pie-in-the-sky 35.5 mpg goalpost is it?

Consider how easy it would be to game this giveaway program by using that $4,500 voucher to buy a big SUV or V-8 muscle car.

First of  all, with Chrysler and GM dealerships folding, it should be easy to buy a mediocre Chevy Cobalt or Dodge Caliber for about $10,000 more than the voucher.

What you do next is sell that boring econobox, even if you end up with $1,000 less than you paid – that still leaves you with $3,500 of free money, courtesy of taxpayers.

As this  process unfolds, the flood of resold small cars will make it even  harder for GM, Chrysler and Ford dealers to get a decent price for small cars, because of added competition from new cars being resold as used.

That’s their problem, not yours.

So, take the $9,000 net from reselling the crummy little car plus the $4,500 from Uncle Sam.  Then use that $13,500 to make a big down payment on a used Cadillac Escalade,  Toyota Tundra pickup or Corvette.

File this under “unintended consequences” (my own file is running out of space).

Which Is Greener?

Which uses less energy and emits less pollution: a train, a bus, or a car? Advocates of rail transportation rely on the public’s willingness to take for granted the assumption that trains – whether light rail, subways, or high-speed intercity rail – are the most energy-efficient and cleanest forms of transportation. But there is plenty of evidence that this is far from true.

Rail advocates often reason like this: the average car has 1.1 people in it. Compare the BTUs or carbon emissions per passenger mile with those from a full train, and the train wins hands down.

The problem with such hypothetical examples is that the numbers are always wrong. As a recent study from the University of California (Davis) notes, the load factors are critical.

The average commuter car has 1.1 people, but even during rush hour most of the vehicles on the road are not transporting commuters. When counting all trips, the average is 1.6, and a little higher (1.7) for light trucks (pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs).

On the other hand, the trains are rarely full, yet they operate all day long (while your car runs only when it has someone in it who wants to go somewhere). According to the National Transit Database, in 2007 the average American subway car had 25 people in it (against a theoretical capacity of 150); the average light-rail car had 24 people (capacity 170); the average commuter-rail car had 37 people (capacity 165); and the average bus had 11 (capacity 64). In other words, our transit systems operate at about one-sixth of capacity. Even an SUV averaging 1.7 people does better than that.

When Amtrak compares its fuel economy with automobiles (see p. 19), it relies on Department of Energy data that presumes 1.6 people per car (see tables 2.13 for cars and 2.14 for Amtrak). But another Department of Energy report points out that cars in intercity travel tend to be more fully loaded – the average turns out to be 2.4 people.

“Intercity auto trips tend to [have] higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates,” says the DOE. “On average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips.” Moreover, the report adds, “if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat – making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

Projections that high-speed rail will be energy-efficient assume high load factors (in the linked case, 70 percent). But with some of the routes in the Obama high-speed rail plan terminating in such relatively small cities as Eugene, Oregon; Mobile, Alabama; and Portland, Maine, load factors will often be much lower.

Even if a particular rail proposal did save a little energy in year-to-year operations, studies show that the energy cost of constructing rail lines dwarfs any annual savings. The environmental impact statement for a Portland, Oregon light-rail line found it would take 171 years of annual energy savings to repay the energy cost of construction (they built it anyway).

Public transit buses tend to be some the least energy-efficient vehicles around because agencies tend to buy really big buses (why not? The feds pay for them), and they run around empty much of the time. But private intercity buses are some of the most energy efficient vehicles because the private operators have an incentive to fill them up. A study commissioned by the American Bus Association found that intercity buses use little more than a third as much energy per passenger mile as Amtrak. (The source may seem self-serving, but DOE data estimate intercity buses are even more efficient than that–compare table 2.12 with intercity bus passenger miles in this table).

When it comes to energy consumption per passenger mile, the real waste is generated by public transit agencies and Amtrak. Instead of trying to fill seats, they are politically driven to provide service to all taxpayers, regardless of population density or demand. One of Amtrak’s unheralded high-speed (110-mph) rail lines is between Chicago and Detroit, but it carries so few people that Amtrak loses $84 per passenger (compared with an average of $37 for other short-distance corridors).

Meanwhile, transit agencies build light-rail lines to wealthy suburbs with three cars in every garage. With capacities of more than 170, the average light-rail car in Baltimore and Denver carries less than 15 people, while San Jose’s carries 16. For that we need to spend $40 million a mile on track and $3 million per railcar (vs. $300,000 for a bus)?

If we really wanted to save energy, we would privatize transit, privatize Amtrak, and sell highways to private entrepreneurs who would have an incentive to reduce the congestion that wastes nearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year (p. 1). But of course, the real goal of the rail people is not to save energy but to reshape American lifestyles. They just can’t stand to see people enjoying the freedom of being able to go where they want, when they want to get there.

Americans Want Global Warming Action Now

Dana Milbank has the evidence:

For the past few years, liberal activists have gathered in Washington each spring for the Take Back America conference….

But now that Obama has actually taken back America, the activists at this year’s gathering feel a bit like the dog that finally caught up with the car. Organizers changed the name from Take Back America to America’s Future Now, but that didn’t prevent a sharp decline in participation. …

Hickey estimates attendance dropped from 2,500 last year to 1,500 this year, and even that may overstate things. At yesterday morning’s four concurrent “issue briefings,” 585 chairs were set out. Only 213 of them were occupied, including just 15 for the session on global warming.

Obama’s Energy Reading

The Washington Post writes about how President Obama became obsessed with grabbing our complex energy systems by the scruff of the neck and shaking them into something more appealing to Ivy League planners. I was struck by this vignette:

But even before the late-night session in July, Obama had begun to educate himself about energy and climate and to use those issues to define himself as a politician, say people who have advised him. He read a three-part New Yorker series on climate change, for instance, and mentioned it in three speeches.

It’s great that he read a three-part series in the New Yorker. But has the president ever actually read anything by a climate change skeptic? Actually, a better term would be “a climate change moderate.” Leading “skeptic” Patrick J. Michaels, for instance, of Cato and the University of Virginia, isn’t skeptical about the reality of global warming. His summary article in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers begins:

Global warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975.

But he also notes that climate change is complex, and its policy implications are at best unclear. “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.” The flawed computer models on which activists rely cannot reliably predict the future course of world temperatures. The apocalyptic visions that dominate the media are not based on sound science. The best guess is that over the next century there will be very slight warming, without serious implications for our environment our society. Michaels’s closing appeal to members of Congress would also apply to President Obama and his advisers:

Members of Congress need to ask difficult questions about global warming.

Does the most recent science and climate data argue for precipitous action? (No.) Is there a suite of technologies that can dramatically cut emissions by, say, 2050? (No.) Would such actions take away capital, in a futile attempt to stop warming, that would best be invested in the future? (Yes.) Finally, do we not have the responsibility to communicate this information to our citizens, despite disconnections between perceptions of climate change and climate reality? The answer is surely yes. If not the U.S. Congress, then whom? If not now, when? After we have committed to expensive policies that do not work in response to a misperception of global warming?

Please, President Obama – in addition to the lyrical magazine articles on the apocalyptic vision that you read, please read at least one article by a moderate and widely published climatologist before rushing into disastrously expensive policies.