Tag: transportation

The Economics of Amtrak

Amtrak’s co-CEO Wick Moorman has announced that the passenger railroad is thinking of offering a new service to compete with the airlines: economy seating that is crammed together as tightly as airline seats. This was immediately blasted by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), saying, “Amtrak should not throw out one of the best things about Amtrak and train travel — that is, you at least get a seat you can sit in and be comfortable.”

In fact, this idea makes no sense not because heavily subsidized train travelers somehow deserve more comfortable seats but because it would cost Amtrak more in lost revenues than it will save. Airlines fill 85 percent of their seats and on lots of flights they fill 100 percent. Amtrak fills only 51 percent of its seats, so cramming more seats into a railcar will simply mean more empty seats.

According to USA Today, Amtrak seat pitches–the distance from the back of one row of seats to the back of the next–are 39 inches for day trains and 50 inches for overnight trains. Airline seat pitches are 30 to 33 inches while buses are 28 to 31 inches. That means Amtrak could squeeze in four rows of seats where it now has three on day trains and five rows where it now has three on overnight trains.

Amtrak’s overnight trains rarely have more than four coaches. Substituting one economy coach for two regular coaches would save a little bit on fuel and maintenance and results in an overall loss of seating capacity. Many coach riders on the overnight trains are price sensitive, so most of the people attracted to the economy coaches would have otherwise taken the regular train. Thus, Amtrak is likely to lose more revenue than it gains by attracting few people away from buses or planes.

Federal Gas Tax: LaHood Makes No Sense

Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood lobbied for a federal gas tax increase in a Washington Post letter the other day. The letter captures the illogic and misrepresentation that influences the highway funding debate.

Hugh Hewitt was right on target in his May 31 op-ed, “Trump should raise this tax,” about boosting the federal gas tax to address our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased in 24 years. Imagine living today on the same salary you made in 1993. That’s the dire situation facing our infrastructure: We’re supporting our roads and bridges using outdated budgets that fail to meet the demands of 2017.

On this important issue, Congress must look to the 22 states that have raised their gas taxes since 2013. States leading the way are “red” states such as Wyoming, Georgia and Idaho and “blue” states such as California, Maryland and Vermont. The list also includes New Jersey, with a Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature. Infrastructure is a bipartisan issue. It’s time our federal government takes the action for which Republicans and Democrats have been tirelessly advocating.

Over the years, gridlock and finger-pointing have prevented real action on addressing our infrastructure challenges. All the while, traffic congestion has worsened, potholes have multiplied, and our roads and bridges have further deteriorated.

Here are some problems with LaHood’s position:

First Problem. As former transportation chief, LaHood must know that his own department publishes data showing that the condition of the nation’s bridges has steadily improved for two decades, while the condition of highways has been stable in recent years and improved in some cases since the 1990s. (Highway data summarized here and here. Bridge data here). Why does he say “… bridges have further deteriorated” when he surely knows that is not correct?

Second Problem. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and its real value has eroded since then. However, the gas tax rate was more than quadrupled between 1983 and 1993 from 4 cents to 18.4 cents. The 1983 rate would be 9.8 cents in today’s dollars, so the real gas tax rate has risen substantially since then. Even if “potholes have multiplied,” the blame would go to the increasing diversion of plentiful gas tax funds to non-highway uses such as urban rail.

Third Problem. The final issue is the internal inconsistency of LaHood’s position. His first paragraph complains that federal gas taxes are not high enough. But his second paragraph says that 22 states have raised their own gas taxes in just the past four years, which logically negates the need for a federal gas tax increase. The states that have the highest demands for new highway funds are apparently already taking action. Great, problem solved.

In my new Cato study on infrastructure, I note that 98 percent of U.S. streets and highways are owned by state and local governments. The states are entirely capable of funding such infrastructure they own without federal aid. States can tax, borrow, collect user charges, and attract private investment to fund their highways, bridges, airports, and seaports.

Are there any advantages to raising federal gas taxes over raising state gas taxes? How is federal funding of state-owned infrastructure superior to state funding? LaHood and other advocates don’t tell us. Instead, they wave their arms, prattle about crumbling roads and multiplying potholes, and always demand more centralized spending and control.

Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

Greater reliance on user fees, federal loans rather than grants, and corporatization are three keys to the Trump administration’s infrastructure initiative released as a part of its 2018 budget. The plan will “seek long-term reforms on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered, and maintained,” says the six-page document. More federal funding “is not the solution,” the document says; instead, it is to “fix underlying incentives, procedures, and policies.”

In building the Interstate Highway System, the fact sheet observes, “the Federal Government played a key role” in collecting and distributing monies to “fund a project with a Federal purpose.” Since then, however, those user fees, mainly gas tax receipts, have been “inefficiently invested” in “non-federal infrastructure.”

As a result, the federal government today “acts as a complicated, costly middleman between the collection of revenue and the expenditure of those funds by States and localities.” To fix this, the administration will “explore” whether transferring “responsibilities to the States is appropriate.”

The document contains a number of specific proposals:

  • Allow states to toll interstate and other federally funded highways;
  • Encourage states to fix congestion using “congestion pricing, enhanced transit services, increased telecommuting and flex scheduling, and deployment of advanced technology”;
  • Corporatize air traffic control, as many other developed countries have done;
  • Streamline the environmental review process by having a one-stop federal permit process and “curtailing needless litigation”;
  • Expand the TIFIA loan program and lift the existing cap on private activity bonds, both of which will make more money available for infrastructure without increasing federal deficits.

The paper also includes proposals for reforming inland waterways, the Power Marketing Administration, and water infrastructure finance. Like the transportation proposals, these call for increased reliance on user fees, corporatization, privatization, or loans rather than grants.

“Corporatization” means creating a non-profit or for-profit corporation that may be government owned but doesn’t necessarily rely on taxpayer subsidies. Comsat is a classic example, but Canada and other countries’ air traffic control systems work in this way.

Except for air traffic control reform, Trump’s plan isn’t fleshed out in detail. But these ideas have all been tossed around enough that everyone pretty much knows what they mean. Most importantly, they mean a significant change in the way Washington deals with infrastructure.

Because it doesn’t contain a list of projects that members of Congress could take credit for, the plan has received relatively little notice in the media. Democrats, of course, are unhappy with it, but they would be unhappy no matter what Trump proposed.

One of the more controversial proposals is to allow the states to toll interstate highways. “I don’t like paying for a road twice,” Representative Sam Graves (R-MO), who chairs the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Hill. But, given that Congress has had to inject tens of billions of dollars of general funds into the highway trust fund in recent years, what makes Graves thinks existing user fees are paying for the roads now? All roads need maintenance and occasional rehabilitation, so the fact that user fees paid for construction 50 years ago doesn’t mean that costs stop.

The most important point is that Trump wants user fees to pay a greater share of infrastructure costs. Naturally, the transit lobby, which represents the most heavily subsidized form of transportation, per unit of output, is upset about this. But Trump’s agenda sounds good to anyone who wants an efficient, user-fee-driven infrastructure program.

An Electrifyingly Bad Decision

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s decision to give $647 million to California to electrify a San Francisco commuter rail line tells states and cities across the nation that they should plan the most expensive and wasteful infrastructure projects they can and the Trump administration will support them. The Caltrains electrification project had no political, economic, social, or environmental justification, so Chao’s support for the project despite its lack of virtues does not bode well for those who hoped that the Trump administration would take a fiscally conservative stance on infrastructure and transportation.

The California project had already been funded by the Obama administration, but it was a last-minute approval by an acting administrator who immediately then took a high-paying job with one of Caltrains’ contractors. When Chao took office, every single Republican in the California congressional delegation asked her to overturn the decision, and she agreed to review it. Even some Democrats opposed the project, meaning there was far less political pressure to fund it than many other equally wasteful programs.

Caltrains carries just 4 percent of transit riders in the San Francisco Bay Area, and based on the dubious claim that electric trains would go a little faster than Diesel-electric trains, the environmental assessment for the project predicted that electrification would boost ridership by less than 10 percent. It would save no energy and have a trivial effect on air pollution. 

Instead, the main purpose of the Caltrains project was to wire the way for California’s bloated high-speed trains, which at least initially would use the same electric power to get to San Francisco. Normally, high-speed trains would not use the same track as ordinary commuter trains, but the costs of the high-speed rail project have risen so much that the state’s rail authority is cutting corners wherever it can. One result is that the project, if it is ever completed, won’t really run trains at high speeds for much of its route.

10 Reasons to Stop Subsidizing Urban Transit

As the Trump administration debates whether to help fund a $1.75 billion transit project in California that will do almost nothing to increase transit ridership, it is time to reconsider whether transit should be subsidized at all. Here are ten reasons to end those subsidies.

1. It’s the most costly transportation we have

In 2015, the transit industry spent $1.15 to move one person one mile, of which $0.87 was subsidized. No other major form of transportation is so expensive or so heavily subsidized. Auto driving cost about 26 cents per passenger mile of which subsidies were 2 cents. Flying was about 16 cents a passenger mile of which subsidies were also about 2 cents. Intercity buses cost about 12 cents a passenger mile of which subsidies were about 3 cents.

Other than transit, the most expensive passenger transport was Amtrak, which cost about 53 cents per passenger mile in 2015 of which 19 cents was subsidies. Not coincidentally, Amtrak is also government owned, suggesting that government ownership either makes transportation more expensive or government is stuck with the obsolete clunkers in the urban and intercity transport markets.

2. Subsidies haven’t increased ridership

Federal subsidies to transit began in 1965, when transit carried 60 trips per urban resident. Since then, federal, state, and local subsidies have exceeded $1 trillion (in today’s dollars), yet annual ridership has dropped to 40 trips per urban resident. Ridership responds more to changes in gasoline prices than to increased subsidies.

Since federal subsidies began in 1965, transit ridership has declined from 60 annual trips per urban resident to 40.

3. Few use it and fewer need it

In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and profitable), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.

The share of households that owns no vehicles has declined from 22 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today, while the share owning three or more vehicles has grown from 3 percent to 20 percent.

In 1960, 22 percent of American households did not own a car and transit subsidies were partly justified on the social obligation to provide mobility to people who couldn’t afford a car. Since 2000, only 9 percent of American households don’t own a car, so the market of transit-dependent people has dramatically declined.

Half the households with no cars also have no employed workers in the households. Of the 4.5 percent of workers who live in households with no vehicles, well under half–41 percent–take transit to work, meaning transit doesn’t even work for most people who don’t have cars.

Why Few Americans Use Transit

In 1964, most transit was privately owned, earned a profit, and was used by the average urban American 60 times a year. Then Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act, offering capital grants to cities that took over their transit systems. Since then, most transit has been municipalized, we spend nearly $50 billion a year subsidizing it, and today the average American rides transit just 40 times a year.

Transit advocates complain that Americans have some sort of irrational love affair with their automobiles. But Americans have excellent reasons not to rely on transit. Here are nine of them.

1. Transit is slow.

Most transit is much slower than driving, and a lot of transit is slower than cycling. While the average speed of driving in most American cities is more than 30 mph, and in some it is more than 40 mph, the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book admits that the average speed of rail transit is just 21.5 mph while the average speed of buses is 14.1 mph. That doesn’t count the time it takes to get to and from transit stops.

2. It doesn’t go where you want to go.

Most transit is oriented to downtown, a destination few people go to anymore as less than 8 percent of urban jobs and 1 percent of urban residences are located in central city downtowns. If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless as hub-and-spoke transit systems can require hours to take you to destinations that are only a few minutes away by car.

3. It’s expensive.

The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit. Transit fares in 2015 averaged 28 cents a passenger mile. That’s less than the cost of driving if you count all the costs of owning a car and are the only person in the car. But if you already own the car, the cost of one more trip is less than 20 cents a mile, and you save even more if you carry any passengers.

Making a Good Budget Great

President Trump’s 2018 budget takes a meat cleaver to many federal programs. In my issue areas–transportation, housing, and public lands–it would end the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program; end funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains; eliminate HUD community development block grants; and reduce funding for public land acquisition.

Trump calls this the “America First” budget. What it really is is a “Federal Funding Last” budget, as Trump proposes to devolve to state and local governments and private parties a number of programs now funded by the feds. In theory, the result should be greater efficiency and less regulation. However, in most of the areas I know about, Trump could have gone further and produced even better results.

Transportation: I applaud the elimination of New Starts, the program that encourages cities to waste money on obsolete transit systems, but am disappointed that Trump would continue to fund projects with full-funding grant agreements. There are several insanely expensive projects, including the Maryland Purple Line and the Minneapolis Southwest Line, that have such agreements but haven’t started construction and should be eliminated. A number of streetcar and bus-rapid transit projects also fall into this category. If Congress is willing to live with no more full-funding grant agreements, it should allow the administration to also review and eliminate projects that haven’t yet begun construction or have made only token construction efforts.

The proposal to eliminate Amtrak long-distance trains is politically problematic. Since Amtrak’s other trains reach just 22 states, while the long-distance trains add 26 more, this proposal will look like it is favoring some states over others. As an alternative, I would have suggested that the federal government offer to cover 25 percent (or less) of the fully allocated costs (including depreciation) of each train or route, including the Northeast Corridor. If fares don’t cover the other 75 percent, then state support would be required or the trains would be cut. This is much more fair, especially because some state-supported trains actually require subsidies per passenger mile that are much larger than many of the long-distance trains.

Three other transportation proposals look good. One would transfer air traffic control to an independent, non-governmental organization, which would quickly install new equipment and increase airline capacities and safety. A second would eliminate the so-called Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airports in smaller communities. Trump also proposes to eliminate the TIGER grant program, a relic of the 2009 stimulus bill, that has funded streetcars and other ridiculous projects.