Sam Stein at the Huffington Post frets that “Obama’s vision for high-speed rail is in danger of stalling out.” Where has he been the last three years? High-speed rail was in danger of stalling out in 2010, when Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin elected governors who turned back funds for their states’ programs. Today, Obama’s “vision” is dead, and so is high-speed rail in this country.
Unlike air and highway travel, with Obama’s high-speed rail vision, you won’t be able to get from anywhere in the country to most other places in the country.
Like other rail nuts, Stein tries to make it appear we are in some kind of race for supremacy with Japan and other countries. “With countries like Japan already investing in the newest form of rail technology –- magnetic levitation, which LaHood called “way too expensive” for the U.S. –- the nation is very much set to be left in the proverbial dust.” The problem is that “the newest form of rail technology” is just as obsolete as the previous form. Stein might as well worry that we aren’t keeping up with the Japanese on floppy disk technology.
One of the many inane things about Obamacare is the Cadillac tax, which punishes employers who provide their employees with “too much” health insurance. The Democrats who supported this are now having to deal with the fact that the employers most guilty of providing Cadillac health insurance are public agencies. Of these, transit agencies have some of the most expensive plans of all.
The Cadillac tax, which takes effect in 2018, is 40 percent of health insurance costs above $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. As of 2013, Portland’s TriMet reported it was providing health coverage averaging $21,000 a year for individual plans. The agency asked employees to accept a cut to $19,000, but even if the union accepted, this remained well above the federal limit. The recent BART strike was over the same issue.
Even if TriMet negotiated a lower rate, it is likely to rise by 2018 due to inflation. Assuming most employees are on the family plan, paying the Cadillac tax for TriMet’s 2,400 employees could cost as much as $20 million per year, which is about 5 percent of the agency’s operating budget. TriMet was already threatening to cut service by 70 percent if unions did not agree to lower benefits. The Cadillac tax could make this even worse.
A California judge has refused to allow the California High-Speed Rail Authority to sell $8 billion worth of bonds to begin construction of the project. The judge said the authority had failed to meet legal requirements necessary to begin construction.
Not everyone was thrilled about the high-speed train.
The authority had filed a “validation” lawsuit last March, challenging anyone in the state to argue that it didn’t have the right to build. A variety of groups, including Kings County Board of Supervisors and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, rose to the challenge. As a result, Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the authority had failed to show that it was “necessary and desirable” to sell bonds and begin construction.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune frets that “getting around the Twin Cities is nearly as costly as housing.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer expenditure survey, the average resident of the Twin Cities spent $10,359 on shelter in 2012 and $9,897 on transportation.
“In 2007, the annual cost of housing was $3,173 more than annual transportation costs,” says reporter David Peterson. “By 2012, the gap had shrunk to $462.” Without any grounds for doing so, Peterson speculates that “rising transport costs may also be due in part to our sprawling development patterns, leading to lots of long and congested single-motorist drives.”
Let’s test that theory. The BLS estimated that the average consumer spent $8,806 on transportation in 2011. Thus, the 2012 costs were 12 percent higher than in 2011. Does Peterson really think that the Twin Cities sprawled enough in one year to drive up transport costs by 12 percent?
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and two other senators and joined Representative Tom Graves (R-GA) and 18 other representatives in introducing the Transportation Empowerment Act. This bill would phase out most federal involvement in surface transportation, including 80 percent of the federal gas tax, over five years. In the meantime, federal funds would be given to the states as “block grants” with few strings attached.
As the Antiplanner reads the bill, funds would be distributed to the states using the same highway formulas now found in MAP-21, the 2012 transportation bill. The transit formulas are dropped. However, if a state determines that the highway funds it receives are in “excess of the needs of the state” for highways, that state may use those funds for any surface transportation program including transit and intercity rail.
The bill limits distributions in the first year to about $38 billion, which is the current estimate of gas tax revenues in that year. However, if revenues fall short of that estimate, the bill states that no more funds may be distributed than are actually collected. The gas tax and distributed funds are cut in half in the second year, then by approximately 33 percent per year over the next three years.
Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) says bicycle riders pay more than their fair share to use the roads, so they shouldn’t be asked to pay more. How do they figure? According to them, 83 percent of Portland cyclists also drive a car, so they pay gas taxes. That’s like saying, “I paid for this hamburger, so why are you also asking me to pay for French fries?”
“If bicycle riders paid a fee proportional to the damage they cause on roads,” says a BTA infographic, “it would amount to a few cents a year.” Okay, no problem with that.
But they aren’t satisfied to do little damage while sharing the road with cars. They also want one-fourth or more of the lanes of existing roads rededicated to the sole use of cyclists. Who paid for those lanes? Not cyclists, at least not from riding their bicycles.
Yesterday, someone told the Antiplanner that rail advocates in their city cited five rail transit lines as successful examples of commuter rail. These five–Utah’s FrontRunner, Dallas-Ft. Worth’s Trinity Railway Express, the northern Virginia Railway Express, the Puget Sounder, and Denver’s Eagle 3P project–are all examples of transit agencies spending gobs of money on projects that accomplish very little.
Here is an alternate view of each project. Unless noted, transit data not taken from the briefing paper are from the National Transit Database published by the Federal Transit Administration. Data on the percentages of commuters riding transit are from the decennial censuses.
FrontRunner: From 1999 to 2011, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) spent more than $1.7 billion (in 2011 dollars) in capital expenditures on its commuter rail lines. It now has two lines: Ogden to Salt Lake and Provo to Salt Lake, over which it runs 27 trains each way each weekday. Although some trains run through from Ogden to Provo, counting the Ogden-Salt Lake and Provo-Salt Lake trains as separate trips, there are 108 trips per day.
Transit advocates often argue that a particular city or region must spend more on urban transit in order to support the growth of that region. To test that claim, the Antiplanner downloaded the latest historic data files from the National Transit Database, specifically the capital funding and service data and operating expenses by mode time series. These files list which urbanized area each transit agency primarily serves, so it was easy to compare these data with Census Bureau population data from 1990, 2000, and 2010.
The transit data include capital and operating expenses for all years from 1991 through 2011. I decided to compare the average of 1991 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 1990s, and the average of 2001 through 2010 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2010s. In case there is a delayed response, I also compared the average of 1990 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2000s. Although it shouldn’t matter too much, I used GNP deflators to convert all costs to 2012 dollars.
I had to make a few adjustments to the population data to account for changes in the Census Bureau’s definitions of urbanized areas. Between 1990 and 2000, the San Francisco-Oakland and Los Angeles urbanized areas were split into several parts, so I added up the various parts for 2000 and 2010 data. At the same time, the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach urbanized areas were merged, so I added these three for 1990. The Oklahoma City urbanized area was radically reduced in size, with the apparent but incorrect result that it had lost population between 1990 and 2000. I used the growth rates for the Oklahoma City metropolitan statistical area instead. Since they are served by the same transit agencies, I combined Boulder and Denver data as well as Salt Lake, Ogden, and Provo-Orem data.
A group in Maryland is promoting magnetically levitated trains in the New York-Washington corridor. “Superconducting” maglev, says the group, is the “next generation of transportation.”
Superconducting maglev train being tested in Japan. Wikimedia commons photo by Yosemite.
Get real. Japan is proposing to build such a line from Tokyo to Osaka: 320 miles for a mere $112 billion. That’s $350 million per mile, or twice as much as the current estimated cost of California high-speed rail boondoggle (about $100 billion for 440 miles). Except for contractors, nobody is too happy about the cost of that line.
Transportation blogger Jim Bacon attended the American Dream conference and has a few words to say about Dale Moser’s presentation about Megabus. Bacon also comments on the debate that took place Sunday night over the proposition that Congress should abolish New Starts and distribute the same amount of money using a formula based on transit ridership or fares.
This debate was supposed to be about the ethics of Congress giving transit agencies incentives to choose high-cost transit systems when lower-cost systems would work just as well. But it descended into a debate over rail transit. I argued that, with a formula fund, transit agencies would be free to spend their share of the formula on rail transit if they wished, but would not be rewarded for choosing rail over less-expensive buses.
My opponent, Art Guzzetti, of the American Public Transportation Association, argued that capital projects can’t be built with formula funds; they require dedicated funds. I responded that all federal highway funds are formula funds and have been used on such capital projects as the Interstate Highway System. The difference is that the Interstate Highway System was built with user fees in the form of gas taxes, and only built at the pace that gas tax revenues allowed, while transit agencies want to build expensive rail lines regardless of the fact that user fees will not pay for the capital, maintenance, or even much of the operating costs.