Tag: transportation

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.

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.

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