According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the costs of congestion have quadrupled since 1982. The Antiplanner has often argued that cities have deliberately allowed congestion to increase in the erroneous belief that more congestion would lead people to stop driving and start riding transit or use other modes of travel. However, the evidence for this is merely anecdotal; it’s hard to imagine city officials admitting even in private memos that congestion was their goal.
An article in last Friday’s New York Post, however, makes the case that congestion is deliberate. “City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles,” reports the newspaper that was founded by Alexander Hamilton. The article specifically blames “today’s gridlock” on the “Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.”
Sensational news, perhaps, but not necessarily persuasive. The article attributes this information to “high-level sources,” later saying it comes from “a former top NYPD official.” While the article offered specific examples of ways the city has increased congestion, including the conversion of auto lanes to bicycle lanes and restrictions on the ability of drivers to make turns at many intersections, it offers no documentation that these things were done specifically to make auto drivers miserable.
When Elon Musk first proposed the hyperloop–a transportation tube between Los Angeles and San Francisco–the Antiplanner panned the idea saying that it would cost a lot more than Musk claimed, that passengers would be reluctant to be accelerated to high speeds in a windowless capsule, and that a point-to-point technology wouldn’t be able to compete with the door-to-door convenience of the automobile. Recently, New York magazine has published an article confirming the first point and possibly the second.
In “A Kink in the Hyperloop,” writer Benjamin Wallace recounts efforts by venture capitalists to put together a company called Hyperloop One that would build and operate the hyperloop. Most of the article deals with personal frictions between the various players, but a telling statement near the end of the article blows up the entire idea: “The projected cost-per-mile has gone from 6 percent to 60 percent of that of California High Speed Rail.”
Musk’s original cost projection for a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line was $7.5 billion. If costs have increased ten times, the current projection must be $75 billion.
An op-ed in the New York Daily News argues that Trump’s infrastructure plan “will result in wasteful spending and do little to fix crumbling facilities or promote economic growth” unless it is properly targeted, and the best way to target is to spend only on infrastructure that can be built and maintained with user fees.
The country should also avoid building new infrastructure that will soon be obsolete. For example, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) spent nearly half a billion dollars building the Airport Connector, a 3.2-mile elevated cable-car line to the Oakland Airport. BART expected to cover operating costs by charging people $6 to travel between the airport and the nearest BART station. Instead, it is losing money, and they are blaming Uber and Lyft. It was a dumb idea even if they did recover operating costs, but new technologies have made it even dumber still.
The Trump Administration needs to learn the Antiplanner’s Law of Transportation Infrastructure: Any transportation technology that requires new infrastructure is doomed to failure because it will be unable to compete against technologies using existing infrastructure such as the nation’s hundreds of commercial airports and millions of miles of highways.
In what may turn out to be his least controversial cabinet nomination, President-elect Trump has picked Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation. Chao was previously Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush and Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush. She has also served as director of the Peace Corps and worked as a distinguished fellow for the Heritage Foundation.
Chao was born in Taiwan and when she was 8 years old her family emigrated to the United States, where her father ended up founding a major shipping company that owns a fleet of at least fifteen ships. She earned a degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1979.
Many people in Washington are talking about infrastructure spending. Infrastructure is a bi-partisan issue, because every elected official is happy to spend other people’s money on projects that will get their names in the paper and contributions to their re-election campaigns.
George Will throws a dose of cold water on the party when he points out that it’s hard to spend money on infrastructure when we’ve thrown up so many roadblocks in the form of environmental reviews. But that’s not the real problem with infrastructure spending. The real problem is that we really don’t need any new infrastructure.
Most writers assume that government spending on infrastructure has a multiplier effect: that every dollar spent will generate more than a dollar of gross domestic product. That worked for early highway spending, which generated a huge amount of new travel and shipping that didn’t exist before. It won’t work for most infrastructure spending today.
Amtrak issued its F.Y. 2016 unaudited financial results last week with a glowing press release that claimed a “new ridership record and lowest operating loss ever.” Noting that “ticket sales and other revenues” covered 94 percent of Amtrak’s operating costs, Amtrak media relations called this “a world-class performance for a passenger carrying railroad.” The reality is quite a bit more dismal.
Many new high-tech firms attract investors despite losing money, but a 45-year-old company operating an 80-year-old technology shouldn’t really brag about having its “lowest loss ever.” The “world-class performance” claim is based on the assumption that trains elsewhere lose money, which is far from true: most passenger trains in Britain and Japan make money, partly because they are at least semi-privatized.
Moreover, a close look at the unaudited report reveals that Amtrak left a lot of things out of its press release: passenger miles carried by Amtrak declined; ticket revenues declined; and the average length of trip taken by an Amtrak passenger declined. The main reasons for Amtrak’s positive results were an increase in state subsidies (which Amtrak counts as passenger revenue) and a decrease in fuel and other costs.
When Denver’s new airport rail line experienced severe glitches shortly after it opened, including malfunctioning crossing gates and a lightning strike that shut down the entire line for seven hours, among other problems, transit officials assured the public that they were just getting the bugs out of the system. But now, more than six months after it opened, the bugs are still thriving.
The crossing gate problem is so severe that the Federal Transit Administration has threatened to shut down the line until it is corrected. The contractor that built and operates the line tried to claim the lightning strike was an act of God, so the contractor shouldn’t be held responsible, but Regional Transit District officials responded that they had pointed out the company’s design was vulnerable to lightning as early as 2013, yet the company did nothing to fix the flaw. Meanwhile, the system continues to perform unreliably.
Now RTD has been forced to admit that two other lines being built by the same company won’t open on time. RTD claims that it saved money by entering into a public-private partnership for the line in what is known as a “design-build-operate” contract. In fact, it saved no money at all, but was merely getting around a bond limit the voters had imposed on the agency. If the private contractor borrows a billion dollars or so and RTD agrees to pay the contractor enough to repay the loan, the debt doesn’t appear on RTD’s books. Taxpayers will still end up paying interest in the loans, which actually makes it more expensive than if RTD had stayed within its debt limit.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to spend twice as much on infrastructure as whatever Hillary Clinton was proposing, which at the time was $275 billion. Doubling down again in a speech after winning the election, Trump now proposes to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure over the next ten years.
President Obama had proposed to fix infrastructure with an infrastructure bank, though just where the bank would get its money was never clear (actually, it was perfectly clear: the taxpayers). Trump’s alternative plan is for the private sector, not taxpayers, to spend the money, and to encourage them he proposes to offer tax credits for infrastructure projects. He says this would be “revenue neutral” because the taxes paid by people working on the infrastructure would offset the tax breaks. In short, Trump is proposing tax credits in lieu of an infrastructure bank as a form of economic stimulus.
America’s infrastructure needs are not nearly as serious as Trump thinks. Throwing a trillion dollars at infrastructure, no matter how it is funded, guarantees that a lot will be spent on unnecessary things. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser recently pointed out in an article that should be required reading for Trump’s transition team, just calling something “infrastructure” doesn’t mean it is worth doing or that it will stimulate economic growth.
Retired General Motors executive Bob Lutz ruminated recently about the future of self-driving cars. He imagines “they’ll look like telephone booths laid down” and they won’t need to be streamlined “because they’ll be electronically linked in a seamless train on the freeway moving at say 200 mph.” This will happen in 15 to 25 years “depending on how quickly governments are willing to invest in the road technology needed for a fully automated. . . system to work.”
What Lutz is describing is Futurama, not the television show but the General Motors exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. That exhibit imagined that highways would have embedded infrastructure that vehicles could electronically read and follow to get to where their occupants wanted to go.
But that’s not how most auto and software manufacturers are designing their self-driving cars. Instead, as the Antiplanner has noted before, they assume that the government will provide no infrastructure other than what is already in place, and all of the electronics and software needed to guide the cars will be on board the vehicles themselves.
As the Antiplanner writes, it appears that Donald Trump will defy most polls and become the next president. While many people claimed his rhetoric was racist, the Antiplanner and others argued that he appealed to members of the working class who felt downtrodden by elitist policies.
Still, too many election results last night represented a victory of the elites over common sense. There is no better example of elitist thinking than light rail, which many people support because they are too snooty to ride a bus.
There were nearly 50 transit measures on various local ballots yesterday, and I haven’t looked at them all. (Update: APTA says 72 percent of yesterday’s transit measures passed.) But the biggest boondoggle appear to be winning, including Los Angeles’ $120 billion transit measure M and Seattle’s Sound Transit 3. It looks appears San Jose’s measure B, which would raise taxes to fund cost overruns for the BART line to San Jose, is winning.