America’s environmentalists place undue emphasis on the role of automobiles in greenhouse gas emissions. Their goal of trying to reduce emissions by getting people out of their cars is expensive, self-defeating, and probably unnecessary.
According to the EPA, cars and light trucks emit less than 17 percent of the human-caused greenhouse gases produced in America. Moreover, both the percentage and the absolute level of auto emissions are steadily declining.
Meanwhile, the United States produces only about one seventh of the human-caused greenhouse gases produced in the world–about 6 out of 42 gigatons–and that too is declining (though the worldwide total is increasing). While one seventh is a lot for a country that has only about 4 percent of the world’s population, emissions in other parts of the world are growing rapidly.
During the Antiplanner’s visit to Washington DC last week, I tried to encourage people to think about the incentives created by federal transportation funding. But the first question on the minds of most of the people I talked with was, “How will we pay for highways and transit?”
From outside the Beltway, this question almost seems like nonsense. In fact, no one would have ever asked this question before 2008. When Congress set up the Highway Trust Fund in 1956, it decided to spend the money strictly on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning it wouldn’t spend any more than was collected in gas taxes and other highway revenues (mainly excise taxes on cars, trucks, and tires, most of which have since been repealed).
Pay-as-you-go had a disadvantage: when inflation hit, it seriously slowed the pace of construction because the gas tax wasn’t indexed to inflation. But the policy also had an advantage: since no one was borrowing money against anticipated future revenues, nearly all of the revenues could go for construction rather than a significant chunk going for interest and other finance charges.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner presented data showing that the distribution of federal transit dollars to urban areas was highly uneven, ranging from 26 cents per transit rider to $2.17 per transit rider. The main factor that appeared to make a difference was whether the urban area was building expensive new rail transit lines.
A close look at the data reveals another difference: whether the urban area is in a state that has a representative on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Over the past six years, states with a Democrat on the committee received an average of $120 million to $160 million more than they would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried in the area. States with a Republican on the committee didn’t fare as well, actually losing money in the 111th Congress (when Democrats held both houses) and making only about a third as much as Democrats in the 112th and 113th congresses.
A self-driving car traveling from San Francisco to New York is about half-way through its journey, having reached Ft. Worth, Texas yesterday. The car is an Audi, but its self-driving electronics have been designed by Delphi, an auto supply company. Like Continental and Bosch, Delphi has been developing its own self-driving hardware and software.
This raw AP video gives an idea of Delphi’s plans.
They left Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, on March 22 and took the long way around, first going south to Los Angeles where they could test the software in heavy traffic. The goal is to arrive in time for the New York Auto Show, which begins a week from today.
The Washington Metro rail system is falling apart. Should local governments (which are responsible for most operations and maintenance costs) “key their payments to a certain number of problem-free rush hours, say 10 or so to start, before the payment is made?” a Washington Post reader asks Dr. Gridlock. “Maybe then they would be forced to make things run better.”
Dr. Gridlock points out many of the problems with this idea (some delays aren’t the transit agency’s fault, withholding money could make delays worse). “The key isn’t a rigid system of financial penalties,” he concludes. “It’s a question of getting the region’s governments to pay attention to how their money is being spent.” In other words, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) just has to persuade local governments to give it more money.
The good doctor misses the point, however, which is that politicians are always going to underfund maintenance because it isn’t highly visible. They want to be seen doing big things; updating signals, keeping insulators dry, and replacing dangerously obsolete railcars with new ones that look identical on the outside just isn’t sexy enough compared with building a Silver Line or a Purple Line.
The Antiplanner is winging it to Washington to participate in a Friday Capitol Hill briefing on transportation issues. The Antiplanner will be presenting the results of new research on the equitability (or lack of same) of federal transit funding. If you are in DC, I hope to see you Friday if not before.
In the meantime, the lead article in U.S. News today is about infrastructure. Antiplanner readers may wish to comment on that article here.
The Antiplanner once wrote that “the definition of a socialist is someone who doesn’t understand that subsidizing something is not the same thing as making it affordable.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has often been called a socialist, and seems to fit the mold, proposing to make some housing “affordable” by confiscating money from others.
Specifically, de Blasio’s administration has demanded that, in order to get a permit to build a new school building, Collegiate School–a private school that traces its roots back nearly 500 years–must contribute enough money to build 55 units of “affordable housing.” Worse, those 55 units are estimated to cost at least $50 million (nearly $1 million per unit is affordable?), and if they cost more, Collegiate has to pay the difference. (If they cost less, the city pockets the difference.)
Even if the housing cost far less than $1 million per unit, 55 units of affordable housing aren’t going to have any influence on the affordability of New York City housing. Nor is it likely that whoever ends up living in those housing units falls into a conventional definition of the truly needy. Instead, like many of the beneficiaries of New York’s rent control and other housing laws, they will probably be middle- or upper-middle-class people who happen to be friends with the right people.
The Wall Street Journalobserves that high housing costs are hurting the California economy. This brilliant conclusion is based on a report by Mac Taylor of the state legislative analyst’s office. Unfortunately, the report misses a few important details and as a result comes to entire the wrong conclusion.
Housing is expensive, the report says, because California isn’t building enough of it. Well, duh. Why isn’t it building enough? According to the report, it’s because there is a “limited amount of vacant developable land.” The solution, the report concludes, is to build higher densities in the land that is available.
The United Streetcar Company was supposed to create 300 full-time jobs and bring millions of dollars into the Oregon economy. Based on these promises, the company’s parent, Oregon Iron Works, lobbied hard to get a $4 million federal grant to build its first streetcar, which was an almost exact copy of streetcars that Portland had purchased from the Czech Republic for $1.9 million apiece. The Oregon congressman who earmarked the grant for the company confidently predicted that it would sell a billion dollars worth of streetcars to American cities in the next twenty years.
United Streetcar received $4 million to build this prototype car. The car never worked very well and fixing it cost another $3 million. Wikipedia photo by Steve Morgan.
The state of Oregon then put up $20 million in lottery money, which Portland used to order six new streetcars. Various problems forced the company to more-or-less arbitrarily reduce the order to five streetcars for the same price. “You’re not getting less,” gushed the company president unapologetically, “I actually think you’re getting more.” She later took a job as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for manufacturing, proving once again that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Debate over the Maryland Purple Line continues. The governor is expected to make a decision in a few months.
Debate over a proposed streetcar in Sacramento begins. The measure will be voted on by local residents in May.
Debate begins over funding for two new light-rail lines in Vancouver, BC. Proponents include a council of suburban mayors, all of whom no doubt hope that light-rail lines will eventually be built to their cities. (The Antiplanner will have more to say about this one in a few days.)