transportation

Saving Cities from Bad Federal Policies

Since 1992, federal taxpayers have helped fund construction of urban rail transit lines through a program called New Starts. This program is due to expire in 2020, and today the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on whether or not to renew it.

No doubt most of the witnesses at the hearing will be transit agency officials bragging about how their expensive projects have created jobs and generated economic development. But a close look at the projects built with this fund reveals that New Starts has done more damage to American cities than any other federal program since the urban renewal projects of the 1950s. Here are eight reasons why Congress should not renew the program.

1. New Starts encourages cities to waste money. The more expensive the project, the more money New Starts provides, so transit agencies plan increasingly expensive projects to get “their share” of the money. As a result, average light-rail construction costs have exploded from under $17 million per mile (in today’s dollars) in 1981 to more than $220 million a mile today.

2. New Starts encourages cities to build obsolete technologies. There are good reasons why more than a thousand American cities replaced their rail transit lines with buses between 1920 and 1970: buses cost less and can do more than trains. A train can hold more people than a bus, but for safety reasons a rail line can only move a few trains per hour. A busway can move hundreds of buses and twice as many people per hour as any light-rail line. As one recent report concluded, “there are currently no cases in the US where LRT [light-rail transit] should be favored over BRT [bus-rapid transit].”

3. Rail transit often increases congestion. Light rail, streetcars, and even new commuter-rail lines often add more to congestion by running in streets or at grade crossings than the few cars they take off the road. The traffic analysis for Maryland’s Purple Line, for example, found that it would significantly increase delays experienced by DC-area travelers.

4. New Starts forces transit agencies to go heavily in debt. New Starts pays only half of construction costs, and transit agencies often borrow heavily to pay the other half. This leaves them economically fragile so that, to avoid going into default in an economic downturn, they are forced to make heavy cuts in transit service.

150 Years of Boondoggles

Today is the 150th anniversary of the pounding of the gold spike that represented completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Union Pacific, which now owns the complete route, plans to bring its newly restored Big Boy steam locomotive to Ogden to recreate, with 4-8-4 locomotive 844, the joining of the UP and Central Pacific in 1869. Numerous museums and history societies are planning exhibits and meetings.

While it would be fascinating to watch the Big Boy operate, you’ll have to excuse me for otherwise being unenthused about this event. As I see it, the first transcontinental railroad was the biggest boondoggle in nineteenth-century America, and one that – as later railroads proved – we could have lived without. Unfortunately, it is still being cited as an example of why twenty-first century America should do even more foolish things like build high-speed rail.

Railroads were the high-tech industry of the mid-1800s. They revolutionized both passenger travel and freight movement and mode it possible to farm and extract resources in remote locations. Yet, like today’s high-tech industries, many planned and some actual railroads were little more than securities schemes to separate naive investors from their money. The first transcontinental railroad did so on a grand scale, relying not on naive investors but a gullible Congress willing to give away tax dollars and resources.

The story is told in detail in Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Stanford University historian Richard White. To entice investors into building a continuous line from the Mississippi River to the Pacific shore, Congress agreed to give the railroads 10 square miles of land for every mile of track. In addition, it would loan builders $16,000 a mile for construction on flat lands and $48,000 a mile in the mountains.

The leaders of the Central Pacific (which built from California) and Union Pacific (which built from the Mississippi) quickly realized that immediate profits could be made by contracting construction out to themselves. They created separate companies that built the railroads as cheaply as possible, then billed the government the full amount of the available loans. The railroads were committed to eventually repaying the loans, but that responsibility belonged to a different set of investors, while a narrow inner circle of each railroad’s leaders owned the highly profitable construction companies.

The Central Pacific even went so far as to hire a geologist who claimed that the Sierra Nevada Mountains started just outside of Sacramento, many miles away from the real mountains, so they could collect the full $48,000 a mile for that segment. Using techniques like this, the people who owned the construction companies earned millions of dollars in profits before the railroads were even completed.

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

Commuting in 2017

The total number of American workers who usually commute by transit declined from 7.65 million in 2016 to 7.64 million in 2017. This continues a downward trend from 2015, when there were 7.76 million transit commuters. Meanwhile, the number of people who drove alone to work grew by nearly 2 million, from 114.77 million in 2016 to 116.74 million in 2017.

Census Data Detail Transit’s Decline

Transit ridership has been declining now for four years, and the latest census data, released last week, reveal that the biggest declines are among the groups that you might least expect: young people and low-income people. These results come from the American Community Survey, a survey of more than 3 million households a year conducted by the Census Bureau. Here are some of the key findings revealed by the data.

Young People Are Deserting Transit

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