Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood issued new rules for bike- and walkways and announced at the National Bike Summit that “This Is the End of Favoring Motorized Transportation at the Expense of Non-Motorized.” This led to more critical remarks from the BoydGroup, an aviation consulting firm that previously criticized LaHood for “advising” airlines not to oppose high-speed rail.
LaHood’s dichotomy between motorized and non-motorized transportation is politically astute but historically inaccurate. For most of the last century — roughly 1920 through 1990 — our institutions favored forms of transportation that paid for themselves as opposed to those that required huge subsidies. Those were primarily highways, aviation, and rail freight.
Last week, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority — a grandiose name for something that is little more than a state-funded study committee — proposed to spend close to $22 billion building new high-speed rail lines in Colorado. (Actually, $21.1 billion; the media rounded up to $22 billion.) Based on several highly questionable assumptions, these rail lines are expected to attract more than twice as many passengers as Amtrak’s Boston-to-Washington corridor and generate enough fares to cover their operating costs.
The $21.1 billion is only the initial cost estimate, of course. The real cost is likely to be close to twice that much if only because of political pressures to extend the rail lines to communities not on the proposed routes.
A $1.5 million feasibility study (scroll to the bottom to download the executive summary and the study itself) compared alternative rail technologies with top speeds of 79, 110, 125, 150, 220, and 250 mph. The 150 and 250 alternatives used maglev; the rest were conventional steel wheels on steel rails. The low-speed alternatives were rejected as not attracting enough passengers, while the maglev alternatives were rejected for having capital costs that were nearly three times as much as conventional rail. Two basic routes were considered, one north-south from Cheyenne to Trinidad and one east-west from Denver Airport to Grand Junction with branches to Aspen and Steamboat Springs.
All over the country, transit agencies splurge hundreds of millions of dollars building rail lines that hardly anyone uses, then declare the lines to be a great success. There is good reason for that: if they declare federally supported lines to be a failure and quit running them, they have to give the money back to the feds. Since there isn’t much market for holes in the ground, light-rail stations, and other expensive parts of rail infrastructure, it usually seems cheaper to just keep running the lines.
How do ordinary taxpayers judge whether a transit line is really successful or the transit agency is just claiming it is because it is too embarrassed to admit it wasted so much money? To answer this question, the Antiplanner developed six different tests, including profitability, effects on ridership, and the famous cable-car test, and evaluated more than 70 rail transit systems in about 30 cities using these tests. Cato is publishing the resulting report, “Defining Success: The Case Against Rail Transit” today.
“Let me give you a little political advice,” Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood told airline officials yesterday: “Do not be against high-speed rail.” Since airlines depend on the federal government to maintain and — they hope — fix the nation’s antiquated air traffic control system, they may feel like they have to follow this advice even though they are the most likely to be hurt by high-speed trains.
According to one aviation consultant who was present, LaHood’s statement was an “open threat to anyone who might question or oppose the administration’s as-is plan for high-speed rail.” Indeed, except for Southwest Airlines’ objection to high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas, no airline has spoken up publicly against the administration’s plans to heavily subsidize this new competitive threat to an already risky business.
As American Airlines CEO Gerard Arpy told the same conference, air travel in the United States is incredibly affordable, costing (he said) as little as 4 cents a passenger mile. (More like 14 by the Antiplanner’s calculations — see previous post — but that’s still less than a quarter of the cost of Amtrak and less than a fifth of the cost of high-speed rail.) Yet this highly competitive industry returns little profit to shareholders, and subsidized trains in key markets are going to make the airlines even more marginal.
What does House passage of a health-care bill mean for transportation and planning issues? For one thing, the bill just passed includes the now-familiar (but wrong) assumption that we can make people healthier through social engineering. More important, it means some in Congress are going to start gearing up for reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs (even though no one seriously believes a bill will be passed in 2010).
One idea that has been around for awhile is for an infrastructure bank. But as faithful Antiplanner ally Ron Utt points out, what people call an infrastructure bank will be far from a true bank. Instead, it is likely to turn into an open-bucket pork fest in which states and cities come up with the most wildly expensive, inane projects to make sure they get “their share” of the take. Yes, at least some of the money the bank gives out will be in the form of loans, but it will be easy for states to “borrow” money against the taxes they expect to collect someday from their taxpayers.
The bigger debate, of course, is going to be between collective transport and personal transport. The door-to-door convenience of driving is so great that, even with huge subsidies, it is hard to imagine collective transport ever taking significant market share away from the automobile. And yet people fantasize endlessly about the benefits of high-speed rail, streetcars, and so forth.
After two years of delays, Austin’s Capital Metro plans to finally begin operating its commuter-rail line today. This is not before at least one more example of the agency’s incompetence to build and run a rail line — it spent millions on steel ties only to discover they were not properly insulated for the system’s electronic signaling system.
The Antiplanner has often said that the only reason to build rail transit is if you have a lot of money burning a hole in your pocket, and that was apparently the case in Austin. Capital Metro had $200 million in the bank and feared taxpayers would cut its subsidy or demand that some of the money be given to other agencies. So it blew the money on commuter rail, is now nearly broke, and its general manager was forced to resign in disgrace. No doubt it will claim the commuter-rail line is a big success and ask voters for a tax increase so it can build more.
Matthew Yglesias is baffled by reality. At least, he finds the Antiplanner’s post about how zoning codes actually work, as opposed to how Yglesias imagines they work, to be “baffling and bafflingly long.”
He boils his case down to three simple statements:
- Throughout America there are many regulations that restrict the density of the built environment.
- Were it not for these restrictions, people would build more densely.
- Were the built environment more densely built, the metro areas would be less sprawling.
Reality is never so simple. As you can see, it all depends on statement 1: are there regulations throughout America that restrict density? As evidence that there are, Yglesias cited the Maricopa County Zoning Code, which he claimed allows development no denser than duplexes. Apparently, he didn’t read (or was baffled by) chapter 7, which allows housing at 43 units per acre, or chapter 10, which allows anyone with 160 acres to build as dense as they want.
“If you’re so smart,” people sometimes ask the Antiplanner, “why haven’t you published any articles in peer-reviewed journals?” Part of my answer is that I’ve seen so many peer-reviewed articles that are simply junk science that I don’t have much respect for the process. (The other part of my answer is that I am not seeking academic tenure, which used to be the major reason for writing peer-reviewed articles.)
A prime example of peer-reviewed junk science is the spate of articles a few years ago linking obesity to suburban sprawl. As noted here before, back in 2003 a group called Smart Growth America breathlessly announced a peer-reviewed study supposedly proving that sprawl “has a hand in the nation’s obesity crisis” which “demonstrate[s] the urgent need” for smart growth. Actually, the results of the peer-reviewed study were much weaker, only claiming that sprawl “had small but significant associations” with obesity.
Small is right. As Wendell Cox discovered, the data used by Smart Growth America indicated that residents of dense Boston weighed just 1.7 pounds less than Boston suburbanites, while those of denser Chicago weighed just 1.4 pounds less than that cityâ€™s least-dense suburbs.
The Forest Service has a problem. In 1974 and 1976, Congress passed laws requiring an elaborate forest planning process. That process turned out to be an utter failure. The plans collectively cost billions of dollars to produce, but they didn’t solve any problems and took so long to write that most were obsolete before they were signed.
Most people in the Forest Service know that planning is a waste, but the problem is that the planning laws are still on the books. Faithful Antiplanner ally Andy Stahl (who frequently comments on this blog) has a solution: rewrite the planning rules to create a highly simplified planning process that requires the absolute minimum under the law.
Urban sprawl is the result of central planning and zoning and therefore libertarians should support smart growth — at least that’s what some supposedly conservative, progressive, and anarchistic bloggers say. This all appears to be a response to James Kunstler’s previously noted rude snub of John Stossel.
Writing for The American Conservative, Austin Bramwell argues that sprawl is “mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.” As a result, “government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous.”
Anarchist Kevin Carson quotes Kunstler’s book, The Geography of Nowhere, as the authority for how planners like Robert Moses forced people to live in sprawl. “Local governments have been almost universally dominated by an unholy alliance of real estate developers and other commercial interests” that insisted on urban sprawl, says Carson.