Tag: transportation

Why Trains in Europe Function So Badly

Over at KiwiReport, a writer named Serena Carsley-Mann asks a good question: “Why do trains in America function so different from trains in Europe?” Unfortunately, she mistakenly thinks the problem is that “trains in America function so badly.”

In fact, America has the most efficient rail system in the world. It is European trains that function badly. I’ve discussed this before in my blog, but since writers like Carsley-Mann continue to get it wrong, it is worth repeating.

According to a Pew study, freight shipped by truck uses about ten times as much energy, and emits far more greenhouse gases, per ton-mile than freight shipped by rail (see page 2). Because rail cars weigh more, per passenger, than automobiles, rail’s comparative advantages for passengers are much smaller, and unlike trucks it will be very easy for cars to close the gap: a Prius with a average of 1.67 occupants, for example, is more energy efficient than almost any Amtrak train. Thus, to save energy, it is better to dedicate rail lines to freight rather than to passengers.

This is what the United States has done, but it is exactly the opposite of what Europe has done. According to a report from the European Union, 46 percent of EU-27 freight goes by highway while only 10 percent goes by rail, while in the U.S. 43 percent goes by rail and only 30 percent by road. Thus, we’re using our rail system far more effectively than Europe. This is not just from an energy view but also from a consumer-cost view, as rails cost less than trucks for freight but more than cars for passengers.

Confusion over Infrastructure

The Christian Science Monitor thinks that the Democrats wrote their infrastructure plan as a “political bridge to President Trump.” Fox News thinks that Trump might “get on board” the Democrats’ plan. Statements like these show that many reporters–and by extension members of the public–haven’t yet figured out the real issues behind the infrastructure debate.

As Business Insider points out, there’s a bigger difference between the two sides over “how it’s paid for” than “what gets built.” The Democrats want the federal government to spend a trillion dollars, money it would have to borrow. Trump wants private investors to spend their own money. Never the twain shall meet. 

But Business Insider doesn’t understand how Trump’s idea will work. If Trump is going to rely on the private sector, it says, then only projects that generate revenue will be built because “projects that don’t generate revenue for the private sector generally don’t get financed.” But there are two kinds of public-private partnerships. The kind that Business Insider is writing about is called demand risk because the private partner takes the risk that tolls, fares, or other user fees won’t repay the cost.

The second kind is called availability payments because the government agrees to pay the private partner the cost of the project over time, whether or not anyone pays user fees or even uses it at all. In this kind, the public takes the risk. While I much prefer the demand-risk form because I think nearly all infrastructure ought to be paid for out of user fees, Trump may be happy to go with availability payments so long as state or local governments are making the payments, not the feds. Democrats in Congress don’t like either one because they short-circuit their ability to appear to give gifts to their constituents.

Trump and Democrats Issue Competing Infrastructure Plans

Senate Democrats have proposed an infrastructure plan that calls for $1 trillion in federal deficit spending. In detail, the plan calls for:

  • $100 billion for reconstructing roads and bridges;
  • $100 billion to “revitalize Main Street,” that is, subsidies to New Urbanism and affordable housing;
  • $10 billion for TIGER stimulus projects;
  • $110 billion for reconstructing water and sewer;
  • $50 billion for modernizing rail (Amtrak and freight railroad) infrastructure;
  • $130 billion to repair and expand transit;
  • $75 billion for rebuilding public schools;
  • $30 billion to improve airports;
  • $10 billion for ports and waterways;
  • $25 billion to improve communities’ resistance to natural disasters;
  • $100 billion for a next-generation electrical grid;
  • $20 billion for broadband;
  • $20 billion for public lands and tribal infrastructure;
  • $10 billion for VA hospitals;
  • $10 billion for an infrastructure bank;
  • $200 billion for “vital projects” that “think big,” such as building “the world’s fastest trains.”

In response, someone has leaked what is supposedly the Trump administration’s own list of 50 infrastructure priority projects. It includes such boondoggles as a Dallas-Houston passenger rail line, the congestion-inducing Maryland Purple Line, the $14 billion Hudson River tunnels, and completion of the $2.2-billion-per-mile Second Avenue Subway. Except for the Dallas-Houston line, most of the passenger rail projects were already pretty well decided, but they are still foolish investments that will cost a lot and return little to the economy. There are supposedly more than 250 other projects on a priority list, but it isn’t absolutely certain that this list was endorsed by Trump or merely proposed to him.

Update: While I am now certain that the supposed Trump priority list was really “fake”—that is, not really from the administration—it appears that the reason why the Dallas-Houston line was on the list is that it is supposed to be entirely privately financed. While I am skeptical that private funders could profitably build and operate such a line, if they could, it would be appropriate (though unnecessary) to have it on such a priority list.

What most people have been calling Trump’s infrastructure plan calls for giving tax credits to private investors who spend money on these kind of infrastructure projects. This has some virtues over the Democratic proposal of direct federal spending:

  1. While the Democrats take a top-down approach dictating where the money will go, Trump leaves the setting of priorities to state and local governments, which have already approved most of the projects on his top-50 list;
  2. Where Democrats would commit the federal government to spend an arbitrary amount of money whether it needs to be spent or not, Trump lets state and local governments decide how much to spend and how they will pay for it;
  3. Where Democrats would add $1 trillion to the deficit, Trump relies on a tax credit program that will cost the feds no more than $167 billion per trillion in spending (less, obviously, if less than $1 trillion is spent);
  4. Where a lot of the Democrats’ money would go down a rat hole, at least some of federal tax credits that Trump’s plan would issue will be offset by the reduced use of tax-free municipal bonds and taxes paid by companies and workers earning the money.

Typical of central planners, the dollar figures in the Democrats’ plan are completely arbitrary.

  • Why should trains and transit, which carry 1 percent as many passenger miles as roads, get roughly as much money as roads and bridges (and probably more considering much of the $200 billion “vital infrastructure” fund would go for high-speed rail)?
  • Why spend $40 billion expanding transit and no money expanding highways when highway use is growing faster than transit in most places and most years?
  • Why no money for upgrading the air traffic control system (which is on Trump’s top-50 list)? I don’t support the use of tax dollars for such things, but it is a huge oversight from a plan predicated on the idea that federal central planners know the best places to spend your money.
  • Why $110 billion on water and sewer, and not $100 billion or $120 billion? It seems the point of these numbers is to add up to a nice round $1 trillion while divvying up the money to special-interest groups.
  • For that matter, why any at all on water, sewer, and the electrical grid when these should already be adequately funded through user fees?
  • Why is education even on the list when the federal government has never spent more than token amounts of money for school infrastructure?

My complaints about the Trump plan have been:

  1. It’s not really a plan—it’s just one funding tool;
  2. It doesn’t prevent state and local governments from spending the money on completely looney projects such as the aforementioned Dallas–Houston high-speed rail; and
  3. The private-partnership aspect has confused many people into believing that it will only fund projects that can be paid for out of user fees when in fact most projects would require state and local taxpayers to ultimately repay the private contractors out of tax dollars.

While these are valid complaints, the Trump plan is more bottom-up than top-down, as most if not all of the projects on the possibly fake priority list are supported by state and local officials. And while Trump brought a new idea to the table, the Democrats’ plan is the same old borrow-and-spend formula that they have used in the past. This is actually worse than tax-and-spend because taxing and spending doesn’t leave huge debt problems and interest payments for the future.

While we can hope that Trump’s projects will rely more on user fees more than taxes, at the moment the score has to be Trump 1/2, Democrats minus 1.

The Feds Want to Track Your Car

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC) formally proposed to mandate that all new cars be equipped with “vehicle-to-vehicle” (V2V) communications, also known as connected-vehicle technology. This would allow vehicles stuck in traffic to let other vehicles know to take alternate routes. It would also allow the governments—or hackers—to take control of your car anytime they want.

The good news is that the Trump Administration will take office before NHTSC has a chance to put this rule into effect, and may be willing to kill it. The bad news is that this rule will feed the paranoia some people have over self-driving cars.

This article, for example, considers self-driving cars to be a part of the “war on the automobile” because they offer an “easy way to track the movements of individuals in society.” In fact, the writer of the article is confusing self-driving cars with connected vehicles. As I’ve previously noted, none of the at least 20 companies working on self-driving cars or software appear to be making V2V an integral part of their systems. This is mainly because they don’t trust the government to install or maintain the infrastructure needed to make it work but also because self-driving cars don’t need that technology.

There are good reasons to be paranoid about connected-vehicle mandates. First, they will give government the ability to control your car, and some governments in the United States have shown that they are willing to use that control to reduce your mobility. The state of Washington, for example, has mandated a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. This is a state that has forbidden people to build homes on their own land if they live outside of an urban-growth boundary. If they can’t reduce per capita driving through moral suasion, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that they will just turn peoples’ cars off after they have driven so many miles each month.

Second, if every car uses exactly the same vehicle-to-vehicle software, they will be incredibly vulnerable to hackers. Remember that hackers figured out how to remotely control a Jeep that Chrysler had wired to the cell phone network. Chrysler responded by recalling 1.4 million cars to install a firewall between the network and the car’s operating system. But now the government wants to mandate that all cars connect their operating systems to the cell phone or other wireless network, with no firewalls allowed.

While the risks of mandatory V2V systems are significant, the benefits are tiny. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes that, “As NHTSA readily admits, hypothetical safety benefits of the mandate will be trivial for the next 15 years, at which point far superior automated vehicle technology may be deployed to consumers,” especially if manufacturers aren’t locked into technologies prescribed by the government.

People should not be paranoid about self-driving cars because none of the technologies required for self-driving cars would allow someone to remotely control your car. But people should be paranoid about V2V communications, especially those mandated by the government. Some auto makers are already offering various connected technologies with their cars, such as OnStar, which leaves it up to consumers whether they want to buy those kinds of systems and gives manufacturers incentives to keep their systems hack-proof. But government mandates for connected vehicles are both dangerous and pointless.

Fake News Harms Our Economy

Democrats complain that fake news stories from web sites supposedly linked to Russia undermined the electoral process. The Antiplanner has been concerned with a related issue for some time, which is fake news stories inspired by Russia that undermine our economy. Here are a few of those stories that I hope Democrats will disavow.

Fake News Item #1: Urban sprawl is paving over all of our farms

This is an old one that has been used to justify central planning similar to that done in the Soviet Union. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the contiguous 48 states have 900 million acres of agricultural land, of which we use only about 40 percent for growing crops. The acres used for crop production have been declining, not because they are getting paved over, but because per-acre yields of most crops are growing faster than our population.

Meanwhile, the department also says that just 84 million acres have been urbanized. This is a little less than the Census Bureau’s estimate of 106 million acres, but either way, as the Department of Agriculture says, urbanization is “not considered a threat to the Nation’s food production.”

Fake News Item #2: Suburbs make people fat

This fake story came out when a fake-news group did a study that found a “small” correlation between suburbs and obesity, then loudly proclaimed that they had proven that suburbs make people fat. They ignored the truth that correlation does not prove causation, and later studies found that, if people in suburbs weigh slightly more than people in cities, it is because overweight people choose to live in the suburbs. Thus, the real story is that overweight people helped to make the suburbs, not the other way around.

Fake News Item #3: Urban transit saves energy

This fake story has been retold so often that people take it for granted. In fact, as the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book reveals, the average car used about 3,122 BTUs per passenger mile in 2014 while the average transit bus used 3,829.

While some rail transit lines (notably the New York subway) used less energy than cars, calculations based on the National Transit Database reveal that, on average, transit used 3,141 BTUs per passenger mile in 2014. Moreover, of the 50 largest urban areas, just five have transit systems that use less energy per passenger mile than driving. Most transit also produces more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao

President-elect Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, may provide some clues about his infrastructure policies. High-speed rail advocates have hoped that Trump will support their boondoggles, and his big talk about infrastructure spending as an economic stimulus has done nothing to dim those hopes. Chao may be leaning in that direction as well.

Chao was previously Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, and prior to that served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush. Born in Taiwan in 1953, Chao’s father was captain of a merchant marine vessal. In 1961, the family moved to the United States where her father started the Foremost Shipping Company, which now owns at least 15 ships. 

Chao received a degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1973 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1979. Just seven years later, she was made Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration in the Department of Transportation. Two years after that, she became chair of the Federal Maritime Commission, and Deputy Transportation Secretary a year after that. In 1993, she married Mitch McConnell.

As deputy transportation secretary, she let it be known that she thinks the United States has built about enough highways, and she has the respect of the heavily subsidized passenger rail industry. Thus, she may be inclined to support light rail, high-speed rail, and other transportation projects that many (including this writer) consider to be obsolete in today’s world.

Digging a hole in the ground, lining it with concrete, and filling it up could be considered “infrastructure,” but it won’t contribute much to the national economy. Transportation infrastructure adds to the nation’s gross domestic product only if it increases passenger travel and/or freight shipments. Rail projects aimed at getting people out of cars, buses, and planes will actually reduce the nation’s GDP because they cost more than the forms of travel they are supposed to replace.

Meanwhile, much of the Interstate Highway System is at the end of its service life. Washington Metro recently announced it needs to spend $25 billion on “capital needs” (maintenance) over the next ten years to keep its trains going. The New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francsico, and Atlanta transit systems have similar needs and similar budget shortfalls. 

Trump and Chao will have to decide if America should rebuild its existing infrastructure or let that infrastructure fall apart as it builds brand-new infrastructure that it won’t be able to afford to maintain. Even with the tax breaks proposed in Trump’s infrastructure plan, the country won’t be able to do both. While Chao may turn out to be Trump’s least controversial nomination, the actions she takes as secretary will be heavily debated.

Amtrak’s World-Class Losses

Amtrak issued its F.Y. 2016 unaudited financial results last week with a glowing press release claiming a “new ridership record and lowest operating loss ever.” Noting that “ticket sales and other revenues” covered 94 percent of Amtrak’s operating costs, Amtrak media relations called this “a world-class performance for a passenger carrying railroad.” The reality is quite a bit more dismal.

Many new high-tech firms attract investors despite losing money, but a 45-year-old company operating an 80-year-old technology shouldn’t really brag about having its “lowest loss ever.” The “world-class performance” claim is based on the assumption that passenger trains all over the world lose money, which is far from true: most passenger trains in Britain and Japan make money, partly because they are at least semi-privatized.

Moreover, a close look at the unaudited report reveals that Amtrak left a lot of things out of its press release: passenger miles carried by Amtrak declined; ticket revenues declined; and the average length of trip taken by an Amtrak passenger declined. The main reasons for Amtrak’s positive results were an increase in state subsidies (which Amtrak counts as passenger revenue) and a decrease in fuel and other costs.

Ridership grew by 1.3 percent, but passenger miles fell because the average length of trips fell by 3.1 percent. One of the biggest drops in trip lengths was on the New York-Savannah Palmetto. Starting at the beginning of F.Y. 2016, Amtrak added stops at Metropark, New Brunswick, Princeton Junction, and Baltimore-Washington Airport, effectively turning the supposedly long-distance train into a Northeast Corridor train. In 2015, the train’s average trip length was 396 miles, but in 2016 that dropped to 257 miles.

A decline in passenger miles means more empty seats. In 2015, Amtrak filled 51.4 percent of its seat-miles; in 2016, this fell to 50.0 percent. In other words, the average Amtrak train is half full; when was the last time you were on a half-full airliner? The biggest declines were on the Washington-Richmond state-supported train, the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight, and the Auto Train.

Some trains did show an increase in passenger miles. One of the biggest increases was the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, which saw an 11 percent increase in passenger miles and a 16 percent increase in revenues. This train is supported by Indiana, which got fed up with Amtrak service and contracted it out to another operator, Iowa Pacific. Amtrak is a “partner” because it allows people to make reservations on the train from its web site. But the lesson may be that privatization (or semi-privatization) can result in bigger ridership gains than Amtrak.

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