The Antiplanner is traveling to Washington DC today where I’ll testify tomorrow before the House Public Lands Subcommittee on federal land recreation fees. By an extraordinary coincidence, tomorrow the Cato Institute will release my policy paper recommending that Congress allow the Forest Service, Park Service, and other public land agencies to charge recreationists fair market value to use the public lands.
On Wednesday, I’ll participate at a Hill briefing on transportation issues. By a not-so-extraordinary coincidence, Cato will release my new policy paper arguing that the “New Starts” program of federal funding for new rail transit projects gives transit agencies incentives to develop high-cost, rather than low-cost solutions for transit. The paper reviews, among other plans, Maryland’s Purple Line light-rail proposal and shows that it will cause more congestion, use more energy, and emit more pollution than not building it–points that should already be familiar to Antiplanner readers.
Some called it the Great Society Subway, and like a metaphor for the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s grandiose plans, the Washington Metro Rail system is slowly breaking down. No less than the Washington Postcalls it “a slow-rolling embarrassment whose creeping obsolescence is so pervasive, and so corrosive, that Washingtonians are increasingly abandoning it.” System ridership is down by 5 percent from a year ago even though other transit agencies in the region have seen growth.
“Last Monday morning, all five Metrorail lines were beset by mishaps, the second such one-day calamity in three weeks,” the Post editorial continued. “The comatose escalators; the crumbling ceiling at Farragut North, year after year after year; the funereal lighting; the frequent signal problems; the routine single-tracking that makes weekend Metro use torturous–all of this takes a toll on riders that Metro officials too blithely dismiss.”
Metro’s general manager gets paid $350,000 a year to watch the trains and rails rust away, and as if that isn’t enough next year Metro’s board is giving him a raise to $366,000. One excuse for such high pay for what amounts to a failure is that it wasn’t all his fault; but really, why should managers of rail transit agencies get paid so much more than managers of agencies that only run buses?
“Feds ask states to sideline driverless cars,” warnsForbes magazine. That’s actually a bit of a stretch. What the 14-page report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “recommends” is that states authorize self-driving cars for testing only, and that states that want to permit “non-testing operation of self-driving vehicles” should at least require that a licensed driver be in the driver’s seat ready to take over if the car reaches a situation it can’t handle. That’s pretty much what is happening anyway.
As Wired magazine notes, “the feds have no clue how to legislate autonomous cars,” mainly because they are “far behind the times . . . with regard to emerging technology.” The feds “want rules, but don’t want to inhibit innovation; they don’t want to pass laws at the federal level (just yet), but don’t want individual states going it alone.”
The federal government once funded research into driverless cars, but ignominiously cancelled the program in 1998 for specious reasons. The administration in 1998, as today, had an anti-auto agenda, so the Antiplanner wouldn’t trust the feds to oversee driverless car programs. They would probably insist on more central control and then do what they could to sabotage the program.
Last Friday, opponents of California’s high-speed rail line told a California state judge that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not met all the requirements to start building the first stage of the state’s high-speed rail line. As approved by voters in 2008, the law requires, among other things, that the authority identify the “sources of all funds to be invested in the corridor, or usable segment thereof” and hat the “authority has completed all necessary project level environmental clearances necessary to proceed to construction.”
So far, the authority only has funds to build a portion of the “minimum operable segment” from Madera to the San Fernando Valley and environmental clearances for only 29 miles of this segment. Opponents argued that the authority could not begin construction until it met these requirements.
The state did not attempt to refute these contentions but merely argued that when the legislature authorized the sale of $2.6 billion in bonds it effectively negated these legal requirements. The plan “was deficient,” admitted the deputy attorney general who argued the case. “The Legislature looked at it and said, we would like more, but this is what we’ve got and it made its decision. Those are political decisions that I can’t comment on.” As a result, she added, the judge has no authority to overrule the legislature.
An economist named Ed Dolan who lives in Washington state opines that the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge reveals an “infrastructure deficit.” That’s certainly the prevailing wisdom. But consider this.
The bridge collapsed because one of its supporting beams 14.5 feet above the pavement was hit by an oversized truck that should not have been on the bridge. If that oversized truck had hit that beam in 1955, the year the bridge was built, it would have collapsed then. Instead, the bridge stood for 58 years before being hit by such a truck.
Show me any bridge and I can conceive of a truck big enough to bring it down. That doesn’t prove we have an infrastructure deficit; it only proves that every bridge has a limit to what it can carry. Height and weight limits are posted for most bridges; the driver of the truck crossing the Skagit River last week apparently neglected to read the signs.
Within minutes of the announcement that a bridge on Interstate 5 in Washington state had collapsed, people posted comments saying that this was further proof that our infrastructure was in terrible shape and that America was becoming a third-world country. The comments then descended into a debate over whether the Repubicans or Democrats were to blame for this sorry state of affairs.
This morning, the Washington Department of Transportation announced that the collapse happened when an oversized truck hit an overhead span. The 58-year-old bridge’s most recent maintenance inspection, in 2010, found that it was in “better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.”
Portland transit follies are increasingly scrutinized by the local media, something that should have happened years ago when there was still a chance of stopping projects such as the $1.5 billion boondoggle low-capacity rail line to Milwaukie. (The video below shows why it is such a boondoggle.)
Joseph Rose, the superreporter who can walk faster than a speeding streetcar, has found that the fare machines for Portland’s low-capacity rail lines are in service a lot less than the agency claims. Some are down more than 35 percent of the time. Since they give out $175 tickets to people who don’t pay their fare, this can be distressing.
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation dramatically shut down more than two dozen “Chinatown” bus companies for safety violations. At the time, the Antiplanner expressed skepticism, saying that if the same criteria were applied to transit agencies such as Washington Metro or Boston’s MBTA, they would be shut down too. But the DOT said it relied on a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study that found that “curbside” buses were seven times more dangerous than conventional intercity buses.
Fung Wah, the original Chinatown bus company, was not one of the ones shut down in last year’s federal raids. Wikipedia photo by Toytoy.
Now, some people are challenging this study, saying that its methods were so faulty it may as well have been completely fabricated. The NTSB has a reputation for sound quantitative analysis, but this study was first questioned by Aaron Brown, a Wall Street financial analyst, who accused the NTSB of “statistical malpractice” for improperly manipulating data and refusing to release its raw data. Based on what data were available, Brown estimated that curbside buses were actually safer than conventional ones.
The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, told a Congressional committee last week that highway user fees should be dedicated to highways and any federal subsidies to transit should come out of other funds. Unfortunately, we have become so used to the idea that everything should be subsidized that advocates of transit subsidies could get away with calling Poole’s ideas “crazy talk.”
Why is it crazy to think that user fees should go to the infrastructure that the users are using? I suppose the transit lobby thinks that some of the money people pay for clothes at Wal-Mart and J.C. Penneys should go to subsidize Paris fashions. Or that some of the money people spend on ordinary groceries should subsidize gourmet restaurants.
After all, transit–at least the kind of transit these people want–is a luxury, not a necessity. They want expensive transit systems aimed at getting relatively well-off people out of their cars. To pay for these systems, they want to tax the more-than-92 percent of mostly ordinary people who have and use cars as their primary modes of transportation.
Trains magazine columnist Don Phillips is an unabashed enthusiast for passenger trains. Yet his latest column lashes out at Amtrak for repeatedly misrepresenting the Acela–the closest thing Amtrak has to a high-speed train–as profitable.
“Seldom in my life have I seen such a mass of misinformation spread about any one subject as is being spread now about the American passenger train,” Phillips begins. “The misinformation is spread by confused and shallow politicians, young reporters who have no idea what they are talking about, and by Amtrak officials who have learned that they can count on the first two groups to not understand their technical jargon.”