Topic: Energy and Environment

Highways and Gas Tax Diversions

The federal government imposes a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. Lobby groups are pressing for an increase and President Trump has suggested that he may support one. But a federal gas tax increase makes no sense.

State governments own America’s highways, and they are free to raise their own gas taxes whenever they want. Indeed, 19 states have raised their gas taxes just since 2015, showing that the states are entirely capable of raising funds for their own transportation needs. State gas taxes average 34 cents per gallon.

Also consider that gas taxes used to be a more pure user charge for highways, but these days gas tax money is diverted to inefficient nonhighway uses such as transit. Politicians say, “We need a gas tax increase to fix our crumbling highways,” and then they spend the money on other things. It is a bait-and-switch.

Federal fuel taxes and vehicle fees raise about $41 billion per year. About 20 percent of those funds (about $8 billion) are diverted to transit and other nonhighway uses.

With state fuel taxes the diversion is even larger, as shown in this Federal Highway Administration table. In 2016, state governments raised $44 billion from fuel taxes, and they diverted 24 percent—14 percent to transit and 10 percent to other activities. Texas, for example, diverts 25 percent of its fuel taxes to education spending.

The states also raised $38 billion from vehicle fees. They diverted 34 percent of those funds—13 percent to transit and 21 percent to other activities.

In total, states raised $82 billion from fuel taxes and vehicle fees. They spent $59 billion (72 percent) on highways and $23 billion (28 percent) on other activities. If the highways in your state have congestion and potholes, it may because your government is taking money raised from highway users and diverting it to other activities.  

The chart below shows the shares of state fuel taxes and vehicle fees diverted to nonhighway uses. South Carolina, for example, diverts 31 percent.

Last year, South Carolina’s governor Henry McMaster vetoed a gas tax increase. He objected to his state’s diversion: “Over one-fourth of your gas-tax dollars are not used for road repairs … They’re siphoned off for government agency overhead and programs that have nothing to do with roads.”

As a rough user charge, gas taxes are a good way to fund highways, and our highways do need more investment. But motorists should be skeptical of gas tax increases until policymakers stop diverting funds to inefficient transit systems with declining riderships.

Many transportation experts say that the rise of electric vehicles will be the end of the road for gas taxes, and they are eager to impose new vehicle miles traveled (VMT) charges to fund highways. However, governments are diverting more than $30 billion in fuel tax revenues and vehicle charges a year to nonhighway uses. If that diversion was ended, these revenues could continue to be America’s highway funding source for years to come.

 

More on highways and the gas tax:

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation/federal-highway-policies

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/infrastructure-investment

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/chamber-commerce-misguided-gas-tax

https://www.cato.org/blog/federal-gas-tax-increase-misguided

https://www.cato.org/blog/federal-gas-tax-lahood-makes-no-sense

About 1,100 Puerto Rican Deaths from Maria — NOT 2,795 or 4,645

The estimated number of above-average “excess deaths” in Puerto Rico attributed to Hurricane Maria (Sept 20, 2017) is a difficult figure to estimate objectively.  Puerto Rico’s official figure of 64 deaths by December 9, 2017 (which the President remembered) counted only those deaths directly attributed to the storm and confirmed by medical examiners.  Most of the direct deaths from Katrina were from drowning – which is much easier to attribute to the storm than many other causes of death. Studies of Puerto Rican deaths from Maria aspire to account for a wide range of indirect effects that are presumed (not proven) to be consequences of the storm such as suicides and heart attacks, infectious diseases, and damage to electricity and therefore to dialysis and respirator equipment.

Among at least eight major studies of direct and indirect effects on mortality attributed to Maria, two outliers stand out as being 3-5 times larger than the others, which all cluster around 1000. The first big number was from Harvard. On September 13, Time said, “Harvard’s report, which was based on systematic household surveys throughout Puerto Rico, reached an estimate of 4,645 storm-related deaths between September and December 2017, many as a result of ‘delayed or interrupted health care.’”  Nonsense. The Harvard study extrapolated from only 15 deaths reported in a survey of 3299 households to estimate that “between 793 and 8498 people died … up to the end of 2017.” By adding 793 and 8498 and dividing the result by 2, Time and others came up with a totally meaningless “average” which were widely reported with predictable sensationalism: “The hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in September was responsible for more deaths than the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined,” exclaimed The Daily Beast.” In reality, these “estimates of death from people who were interviewed” are little better than an opinion poll, and finding 15 deaths out of a sample of 3299 can’t plausibly be multiplied into 4645 for the whole island.

The latest sensational estimate of 2,975 excess deaths over six months is from an August 28 report from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University  (GWU) commissioned by the Government of Puerto Rico. The study mentions two “scenarios” (census and displacement) yet only publicized the one with the biggest number: “Total excess mortality post-hurricane using the migration displacement scenario is estimated to be 2,975 (2,658-3,290) for the total study period of September 2017 through February 2018.” 

The 2,975 estimate only applies to the “displacement scenario.”  That is, the study “estimates cumulative excess net migration from Puerto Rico in the months from September 2017 through February 2018 and subtracts this from the census population estimates in these months.”  The population fell by about 8%, mainly due to migration rather than death, so the fact that there were more deaths than average after the hurricane means the death rate (deaths per thousand) rose more than the unadjusted statistics would suggest because the population is smaller.  But this issue is the number of deaths, not the death rate, and displacement (migration) did not make that number any higher than half a dozen other studies found (about 1000) much less three times higher.  

Government Crowd Out in Transportation

The existence of government infrastructure deters or “crowds out” private investment. Many airports, bridges, and urban transit systems in the United States used to be private, but during the mid-20th century entrepreneurs were squeezed out by governments.

The provision of federal aid or subsidies to government-owned airports, bridges, and transit facilities was a key factor in pushing out private enterprise. That is one reason why I favor repealing federal aid for transportation.

AIRPORTS

In the early years of commercial aviation, private airports served many American cities. For example, the main airports in Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. were for-profit business ventures in the 1930s.

The airports were generally successful and innovative, but they lost ground over time due to unfair government competition:

  • City governments were often eager to set up their own airports, even if private airports already served an area.
  • Cities issued tax-exempt bonds to finance their airports, giving them a financial edge over private airports.
  • Private airports pay taxes. Government airports do not, giving them another financial edge.
  • The U.S. military and the Post Office promoted government airports over private ones.
  • Federal New Deal programs provided aid to government airports, not private ones.
  • Congress provided aid to government airports for national defense purposes during World War II.
  • The federal Surplus Property Act after the war transferred excess military bases to the states for government airport use.
  • The federal Airport Act of 1946 began regular federal aid to government airports, not private ones.
  • The new Federal Aviation Administration in 1958 “prohibited private airports from offering commercial service.”

So governments banished entrepreneurs from a major part of America’s aviation industry. In the early 1930s, about half of the nation’s more than 1,100 airports were private, but by the 1960s, private commercial airports had mainly disappeared. Very sad, as I discuss here.

However, there is good news about airports. A privatized commercial airport industry is booming abroad, particularly in Europe. U.S. policymakers should let entrepreneurs take another crack at our airport industry.

BRIDGES

Bob Poole discusses government crowd out of private bridges in his new book Rethinking America’s Highways. In the 1920s, four main bridges built in the San Francisco area were private toll facilities. In the 1930s, the Golden Gate Bridge and Oakland Bay Bridge were built as government toll facilities.

Poole picks up the story:

All six of these bridges suffered declines in traffic and revenue due to the Depression, but the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate opened closer to its end and were therefore less affected. Their financing costs were also lower, with the Bay Bridge getting low-cost financing from the New Deal’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Golden Gate being able to issue tax-exempt toll revenue bonds, rather than the taxable bonds issued by the toll bridge companies.

In addition, the California legislature voted in 1933 to relieve the Bay Bridge of having to cover operating and maintenance costs out of toll revenues, allocating state highway fund (gas tax) monies to cover those costs. The four private toll bridges all went into receivership by 1940. Unlike the Ambassador Bridge (in Michigan), they were unable to work out refinancing plans and were eventually acquired by the state, with the Dumbarton and San Mateo transfers not taking place until the early 1950s; their shares traded on the Pacific Coast Exchange until then.

A similar fate befell many of the other 200-odd private toll bridges during the Depression. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation provided low-cost loans to public-sector toll bridges, but not to investor-owned ones. Relatively new government toll agencies offered buyouts to struggling bridge owners during those years. The New York State Bridge Commission bought four private toll bridges over the Hudson River; the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission acquired at least six private toll bridges; and the city of Dallas bought the toll bridge on the Trinity River in order to eliminate tolls.

By 1940, the Public Roads Administration (the former Bureau of Public Roads, now part of the Federal Works Agency) reported that the number of US toll bridges had declined to 241, of which 142 were still investor-owned. But nearly all the bridges had been bought out by toll agencies or state and local governments by the mid-1950s.

URBAN TRANSIT

The early history of urban transit in America is one of private-sector funding and innovation, as Randal O’Toole discusses in this study. Hundreds of cities had private streetcar and bus companies moving people in downtowns and the growing suburbs in the early 20th century.

As the century progressed, however, the rise of automobiles undermined the demand for transit. At the same time, transit firms had difficulty cutting costs because their workforces were dominated by labor unions and governments resisted allowing them to cut services on unprofitable routes.

The nail in the coffin for private transit was the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which provided federal aid to government-owned bus and rail systems. The act encouraged state and local governments to take over private systems, and a century of private transit investment came to a close.

This Transportation Research Board study discusses the decline of private transit:

As the declining fortunes of America’s cities gained national recognition during the 1960s, Congress passed legislation that for the first time gave the federal government a prominent role in the provision of urban transit. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (later redesignated the Federal Transit Act) provided loans and grants for transit capital acquisition, construction, and planning activities.

… Notably, only public entities could apply for the federal grants. Given the availability of federal aid, many cities, states, and counties purchased or otherwise took over their local rail and bus systems. Thus by the 1970s, a largely new model of transit provision—public ownership—had become increasingly prevalent in the United States. Many jurisdictions consolidated the operations of smaller private and public systems under the auspices of regional transit authorities. A few states, such as Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, formed statewide transit agencies.

… In 1940, only 20 transit systems in the country were publicly owned, and they accounted for just 2 percent of ridership. By 1960, although the vast majority of all systems were still in private ownership, properties in public ownership accounted for nearly half of all transit ridership, mainly because the country’s very largest systems were publicly owned. By 1980, more than 500 systems were publicly owned, accounting for 95 percent of ridership nationally.

In sum, the bad news is that when the government advances, the private sector retreats. But the good news we have seen around the world in recent decades is that when the government gets out of the way, the private sector steps in to provide better services at lower costs.

Further reading:

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/transportation

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/infrastructure-investment

https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/privatization

The Hurricane Last Time

As of this writing, Tuesday, September 11, Hurricane Florence is threatening millions of folks from South Carolina to Delaware. It’s currently forecast to be near the threshold of the dreaded Category 5 by tomorrow afternoon. Current thinking is that its environment will become a bit less conducive as it nears the North Carolina coast on Thursday afternoon, but still hitting as a Major Hurricane (Category 3+). It’s also forecast to slow down or stall shortly thereafter, which means it will dump disastrous amounts of water in southeastern North Carolina. Isolated totals of over two feet may be common. 

At the same time that it makes landfall, there is going to be the celebrity-studded “Global Climate Action Summit” in San Francisco, and no doubt Florence will be the poster girl.

There’s likely to be the usual hype about tropical cyclones (the generic term for hurricanes) getting worse because of global warming, even though their integrated energy and frequency, as published by Cato Adjunct Scholar Ryan Maue, show no warming-related trend whatsoever.

Maue’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy index shows no increase in global power or strength.

Maue’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy index shows no increase in global power or strength.

Here is the prevailing consensus opinion of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (NOAA GFDL): “In the Atlantic, it is premature to conclude that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on hurricane activity.”

We’ll also hear that associated rainfall is increasing along with oceanic heat content. Everything else being equal (dangerous words in science), that’s true. And if Florence does stall out, hey, we’ve got a climate change explanation for that, too! The jet stream is “weirding” because of atmospheric blocking induced by Arctic sea-ice depletion. This is a triple bank shot on the climate science billiards table. If that seems a stretch, it is, but climate models can be and are “parameterized” to give what the French Climatologist, Pierre Hourdin, recently called “an anticipated acceptable range” of results.

The fact is that hurricanes are temperamental beasts. On September 11, 1984, Hurricane Diana, also a Category 4, took aim at pretty much the same spot that Florence is forecast to landfall—Wilmington, North Carolina. And then—34 years ago—it stalled and turned a tight loop for a day, upwelling the cold water that lies beneath the surface, and it rapidly withered into a Category 1 before finally moving inland. (Some recent model runs for Florence have it looping over the exact same place.) The point is that what is forecast to happen on Thursday night—a major category 3+ landfall—darned near happened over three decades earlier… and exactly 30-years before that, in 1954, Hurricane Hazel made a destructive Category 4 landfall just south of the NC/SC border. The shape of the Carolina coastlines and barrier islands make the two states very susceptible to destructive hits. Fortunately, this proclivity toward taking direct hits from hurricanes has also taught the locals to adapt—many homes are on stilts, and there is a resilience built into their infrastructure that is lacking further north.

There’s long been a running research thread on how hurricanes may change in a warmer world. One thing that seems plausible is that the maximum potential power may shift a bit further north. What would that look like? Dozens of computers have cranked away thousands years of simulations and we have a mixture of results: but the consensus is that there will be slightly fewer but more intense hurricanes by the end of the 21st Century. 

We actually have an example of how far north a Category 4 can land, on August 27, 1667 in the tidewater region of southeast Virginia. It prompted the publication of a pamphlet in London called “Strange News from Virginia, being a true relation of the great tempest in Virginia.” The late, great weather historian David Ludlum published an excerpt:

Having this opportunity, I cannot but acquaint you with the Relation of a very strange Tempest which hath been in these parts (with us called a Hurricane) which began on Aug. 27 and continued with such Violence that it overturned many houses, burying in the Ruines much Goods and many people, beating to the ground such as were in any ways employed in the fields, blowing many Cattle that were near the Sea or Rivers, into them, (!!-eds), whereby unknown numbers have perished, to the great affliction of all people, few escaped who have not suffered in their persons or estates, much Corn was blown away, and great quantities of Tobacco have been lost, to the great damage of many, and the utter undoing of others. Neither did it end here, but the Trees were torn up by their roots, and in many places the whole Woods blown down, so that they cannot go from plantation to plantation. The Sea (by the violence of the winds) swelled twelve Foot above its usual height, drowning the whole country before it, with many of the inhabitants, their Cattle and Goods, the rest being forced to save themselves in the Mountains nearest adjoining, where they were forced to remain many days in great want.

Ludlum also quotes from a letter from Thomas Ludwell to Virginia Governor Lord Berkeley about the great tempest:

This poore Country…is now reduced to a very miserable condition by a continual course of misfortune…on the 27th of August followed the most dreadful Harry Cane that ever the colony groaned under. It lasted 24 hours, began at North East and went around to Northerly till it came to South East when it ceased. It was accompanied by a most violent raine, but no thunder. The night of it was the most dismal time I ever knew or heard of, for the wind and rain raised so confused a noise, mixed with the continual cracks of falling houses…the waves were impetuously beaten against the shores and by that violence forced and as it were crowded the creeks, rivers and bays to that prodigious height that it hazarded the drownding of many people who lived not in sight of the rivers, yet were then forced to climb to the top of their houses to keep themselves above water…But then the morning came and the sun risen it would have comforted us after such a night, hat it not lighted to us the ruins of our plantations, of which I think not one escaped. The nearest computation is at least 10,000 house blown down.

It is too bad that there were no anemometers at the time, but the damage and storm surge are certainly consistent with a Category 4 storm. And this was in 1667, at the nadir of the Little Ice Age.

Why Bitcoin Is Not an Environmental Catastrophe

The environmental impact of cryptocurrencies looms large among the many concerns voiced by sceptics. Earlier this year, Agustín Carstens, who runs the influential Bank for International Settlements, called Bitcoin “a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster.”

Carstens’ first two indictments have been challenged. Contrary to his assertion, while the true market potential of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other such decentralized networks remains uncertain, by now it is clear to most people that they are more than mere instruments for short-term speculation and the fleecing of unwitting buyers.

That Bitcoin damages the environment without countervailing benefits is, on the other hand, an allegation still widely believed even by many cryptocurrency fans. Sustaining it is the indisputable fact that the electricity now consumed by  the Bitcoin network, at 73 TWh per year at last count, rivals the amount consumed by countries like Austria and the Philippines.

Computing power is central to the success of Bitcoin

Bitcoin’s chief innovation is enabling payments without recourse to an intermediary. Before Bitcoin, any attempt to devise an electronic payments network without a middleman suffered from a double-spend problem: There was no easy way for peers to verify that funds promised to them had not also been committed in other transactions. Thus, a central authority was inescapable.

Is EPA Changing the Regulatory Paradigm?

Sometimes it’s worth reading the fine print in obscure regulatory proposals. One such example is contained in a “proposed rulemaking” by the EPA on what are called “dose-response models.”

Buried in the Federal Register a few months back (on April 30) is this seemingly innocuous verbiage:

EPA should also incorporate the concept of model uncertainty when needed as a default to optimize dose risk estimation based on major competing models, including linear, threshold, U-shaped, J-shaped and bell-shaped models.

Your eyes glaze over, right?

Instead they should be popping out. EPA is proposing a major change in the way we regulate radiation, carcinogens, and toxic substances in our environment.

Driverless Cars: You Heard It Here First

Lawrence D. Burns asks, in the Wall Street Journal and in his new book Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car, why the major automobile companies ignored the technology that could create self-driving cars and are now playing catchup to Google:

Early in 2011, two top engineers for Google traveled together to Detroit on what amounted to a diplomatic mission. They had just spent 18 months on a top-secret project called Chauffeur: the development of a car that could drive itself over 10 different 100-mile routes on public roads. Now they were looking for a partner to carry the project forward. “The idea was, if you’re going to make self-driving cars, you have to work with a car company,” recalls Chris Urmson, who made the trip with fellow engineer Anthony Levandowski. “Maybe they’ll sell us cars to build a fleet. Maybe we’re going to be retrofitting our stuff onto their cars to sell.”

But they couldn’t find any takers.

They might have been better prepared if they had read Cato analyst Randal O’Toole’s early warning, also in the Wall Street Journal but in early 2010:

Consumers today can buy cars that steer themselves; accelerate and brake to maintain a safe driving distance from cars ahead; and detect and avoid collisions with other cars on all sides. Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.

O’Toole’s article was based on his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About ItReading his manuscript was the first time I’d heard about the possibility of self-driving cars. You’d think Detroit would have been ahead of me, but maybe not so much.

Pages