The Antiplanner was in Phoenix this week debating light rail with proponents of a ballot measure that would increase sales taxes in order to expand that city’s rail system. In addition to a public forum, a brief debate was televised and is available on video.
After the Antiplanner’s review of the existing light-rail line debunked claims that the line stimulated $7 billion in economic development, Valley Metro published a new paper claiming that it stimulated $8.2 billion in development. This $8.2 billion still includes projects that haven’t yet (and may never be) built. However, the new paper does not provide a complete list of the developments supposedly built because of the light rail, and the agency has been unresponsive to requests for such a list, but it is clear Valley Metro merely counted anything that happened to be built within a half mile of a light-rail station without asking whether those projects would have been built without the rail line.
In their campaign for the ballot measure, proponents claim the increased sales tax will provide money for repaving and improving streets. It is clear from the city’s transportation plan, however, that most if not all of the street money will be used to reduce the capacity of streets for cars in favor of more room for buses and bicycles (see exhibit A on page 18). Even if the city intended to improve streets, any light-rail cost overruns would quickly eat up most of the street money.
Yesterday, the Senate passed a six-year transportation bill that increases spending on highways and transit but only provides three years of funding for that increase. As the Washington Postcommented, “only by Washington’s low standards could anyone confuse the Senate’s plan with ‘good government.'”
Meanwhile, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy says the House will ignore the Senate bill in favor of its own five-month extension to the existing transportation law. Since the existing law expires at the end of this week, the two houses are playing a game of chicken to see which one will swerve course first and approve the other house’s bill.
As the Antiplanner noted a couple of weeks ago, the source of the gridlock is Congress’ decision ten years ago to change the Highway Trust Fund from a pay-as-you-go system to one reliant on deficit spending. This led to three factions: one, mostly liberal Democrats, wants to end deficits by raising the gas tax; a second, mostly conservative Republicans, wants to end deficits by reducing spending; and the third, which includes people from both sides of the aisle, wants to keep spending without raising gas taxes.
The Antiplanner has an op-ed about transportation gridlock in The Hill. It is similar to, but a bit more detailed than, my post here a few days ago.
One of the commenters says, “Is it any surprise that Obama and the GOP leadership are in agreement on the one truly indefensible position on this issue? ‘Just raise the spending and issue more debt to cover it’ is obviously what has put the federal government in the abysmal fiscal condition it is. It is the thinking of selfish politicians whose only concern is for their short term poitical benefit. . . . There are only two responsible positions. Either cut the spending or raise taxes to pay for the spending.” This reflects my view as well.
Phoenix voters will decide next month whether to extend the current transit sales tax (set to expire in 2020) through 2050 and increase it by 75 percent (from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent). This would supposedly be enough to fund at least three more light-rail lines plus several bus-rapid transit lines.
According to Valley Metro, this beautiful vacant lot across the street from a light-rail station is Escala on Camelback, a mixed-use development with 160 condos and 15,000 square feet of retail space that was supposed to be completed in Fall, 2010. It remains vacant today.
The big argument from rail advocates is that Phoenix’s first light-rail line, which opened in December, 2008, generated $7 billion in economic development. Not so much. A new report from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club shows that the light rail generated very little, if any, new development.
Continued and increased federal funding of highways and transit is vitally important, says Jack Schenendorf in a paper titled, The Case Against Transportation Devolution. Devolving transportation to the states “would conflict with the nation’s long and unbroken history of federal transportation investment, balkanize the nation’s transportation networks, cause a substantial drag on the economy, and bring about a host of other serious problems.”
Schenendorf may be a Republican, but that doesn’t make him a conservative, at least not in the fiscal sense. He was the chief of staff for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 1995 to 2001. Those happen to be the years when committee chair Bud Shuster (R-PA) made himself known as “one of the most shameless promulgators of pork-barrel spending in all of Congress.” Shuster has all sorts of highways, museums, and buildings named after him throughout his district and state, and he paved the way for his son, Bill, to take his seat when he retired. Today Bill also chairs the House T&I Committee.
Also during those years, Congress passed the 1998 transportation bill, TEA-21, which happened to be the first law that mandated increased spending every year even if revenues did not keep up. While that only became a problem in 2007, it is the main reason why Congress is gridlocked today. In other words, Schenendorf is part of the reason why the federal transportation funding process has broken down.
Congress has three work weeks to figure out what to do about the highways & transit law that expires on July 31. As noted here a month ago, Congress remains gridlocked over the issue. Two weeks ago, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee bravely passed a bill that increases spending by 3 percent, but failed to spell out where that money would come from.
That’s the heart of the issue: Congress is spending $52 billion a year on highways and transit, but is collecting only $40 billion a year in gas taxes and other highway user fees. Though there are just two political parties, the gridlock results from the fact that there are four different factions, each with its own solution to the problem of how to reconcile the difference between spending and revenues.
First are those who want to raise highway user fees to cover the entire $52 billion, and maybe a little more. A six-cent increase in taxes would cover the $52 billion, while even a nine-cent increase would still result in a tax that, after adjusting for inflation, would be less than it was in 1994, the last time it was increased.
Despite continued evidence that high-speed rail is a waste of money, reporters still write articles lamenting that high-speed trains in America are “elusive.” It’s elusive for a simple reason: it makes no sense, being slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than both.
Due to the high costs, high-speed rail projects proposed more than 100 years ago were similarly flawed. In 1893, someone proposed to build a 100-mph line straight from Chicago to St. Louis for $5.5 million–around $135 million today when using GNP deflators but more than $6.5 billion when measured as a share of the economy at the time. The proposal went nowhere.
Then, in 1906, someone proposed a similar, 100-mph line from Chicago to New York called the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line (several railroads at that time were named “air line” probably because they wanted to indicate they offered the shortest route between two points). The line would have either no curves or none that trains couldn’t negotiate at 90 mph. It would have no grade crossings so wouldn’t have to stop for other trains or risk hitting cars crossing its tracks.
A writer for Electronic Design magazine named Lou Frenzel opines “that the driverless car is not a good idea.” His argument comes down to, “I don’t know anything about it, but I can think of lots of problems that I don’t imagine anyone at Google has ever thought of.”
For example, he asks, can self-driving cars operate at night? Can they handle rain, fog, and snow? Can they find a parking space in a garage? Can they make left turns?
The fact that all of these questions have been asked and answered by Google, Volkswagen, and other companies developing self-driving cars makes Frenzel’s article pretty insipid. For example, most of these cars rely on radar, infrared, and/or laser beams, none of which care whether it is day or night. Infrared can also “penetrate smoke,rain, snow, blowing sand, and most foggy conditions,” though in heavy fog, a self-driving car would slow down, just as a human-driven car should do.
Yesterday, the Oregon Department of Transportation began accepting applications from volunteers willing to switch from paying gas taxes to mileage-based user fees. The experimental program is limited to 5,000 volunteers and apparently the applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Oregon’s gasoline tax is 30 cents a gallon, so if your car gets 30 miles per gallon, you currently pay about a penny per mile. The initial mileage-based fee is 1.5 cents per mile, the same as if your car gets 20 miles per gallon. It will be interesting to see if most of the people who sign up drive gas guzzlers that get less than 20 miles per gallon.
A little-known conflict over the electromagnetic spectrum could shape self-driving cars for years to come. On one side is “an ecosystem of companies” that have developed vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems and the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC), which wants to mandate such systems in all cars and trucks, which together want the Federal Communications Commission to dedicate the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum to such systems. On the other side are WiFi developers and advocates who would like to open parts of that spectrum to WiFi use.
The V2V people say that such systems are essential for improved auto safety and self-driving cars and don’t want to share the spectrum with millions of WiFi users. However, General Motors and Cisco have thrown a monkey wrench into their case with an announcement that they plan to test WiFi for V2V communications.
Volvo and other companies have already shown that WiFi alone can provide adequate V2V communications for platooning cars down a highway. In such platooning, a lead vehicle does the driving and numerous following vehicles, spaced as little as five meters apart, merely mimic the lead vehicle’s speed and direction. Such platooning would obviously greatly increase highway capacities.