Monthly Archives: May 2012

CNN Does a Number on HSR Numbers

CNN reports that the cost of California high-speed rail has tripled, and it correctly points out that federal taxpayers will be expected to pay for most of it. While this is a somewhat belated report, it is nice to see this boondoggle get the attention it deserves.

CNN gets some numbers wrong; as the Antiplanner has previously noted, the original $34 billion cost was adjusted for inflation while the current $98 to $108 billion projection is not, so the cost estimate has really doubled, not tripled. But the basic point is correct. This project really made no sense at $34 billion. It certainly makes no sense at the much-higher current projected cost, whatever that is.

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Two Driverless Models

After demonstrating its driverless car to Nevada’s governor, Google obtained the first official license for a self-driving car.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Volvo is pursuing the convoy model of driverless cars. In this model, a human-driven truck or bus takes the lead and anyone whose car has the appropriate technology can follow with the cars being driven by signals from the lead vehicle.

That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think it will go very far. People won’t want to pay for the added hardware in their cars until there are a lot of highways with a lot of professionally driven vehicles providing the lead service. Trucking companies will have little incentive to add the electronics their trucks would need to become lead vehicles, which means government will need to subsidize it. Until lots of cars have the equipment needed to take advantage of those services, governments will have little incentive to provide the subsidies.

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Time to Say “No”

Peter Rogoff, the FTA administrator who once said the federal government should say “no” to cities that want federal grants to build rail lines they can’t afford to maintain, is unable to say “no” to Portland when it asked the feds to pay half the cost of a ridiculously expensive light-rail line. Moreover, Rogoff insists that local voters can’t say “no” to providing local funds that their elected representatives have committed to the project.

That’s something of a double standard. Rogoff knows full well that the federal government can still say “no” to funding its share of the project even after he has signed the “full funding grant agreement.” The law specifically states that when such agreements are funded out of “general funds” (as New Starts are), they are a “contractual obligation of the Government to pay the Federal share of the cost of the project only to the extent that amounts are appropriated for such purpose by an Act of Congress” (see p. 493). So Congress can still say “no.”

The light-rail line in question is expected to cost $1.5 billion for just 7.4 miles, making it one of the most expensive light-rail lines ever built on a per-mile basis. By comparison, Portland first light-rail line, which was ten miles longer, cost only about $200 million. The communities the new line will serve, once it leaves Portland, have voted against funding it every time it has been on the ballot.

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Poverty Reduces Congestion

The soviets had a successful policy for minimizing traffic congestion: keep people too poor to drive. Environmentalists today want to use the same policy: tax the heck out of gasoline; prevent the development of Alberta tar sands (“keep the tar sands oil in the soil” says one group); stop the development of natural gas.

The policy seems to be working. Thanks to the recession, Inrix says traffic congestion has declined in most U.S. urban areas. The worst congestion now is in Honolulu, followed closely by Los Angeles.

Inrix scores are based on actual measurements of traffic. A score of 10 means it takes an average of 10 percent more time to get anywhere in an urban area than it would take without congestion. Since that’s a 24-hour average, a score of 10 probably equals a score of 30 or 40 during rush hour–that is, rush-hour travel takes 30 or 40 percent more time than if there were no congestion. Honolulu’s 2011 score of 24 must represent a score of 50 or more during rush hour.

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California Is Dying

The Obama administration has announced that it wants to spend a half-billion dollars buying high-speed rail cars in an obvious bid to create more businesses beholden to the administration as well as to its rail program. But more and more people are turning against the president’s dream of being the Eisenhower of high-speed rail.

The Wall Street Journal calls the California high-speed plan the Kafka Express. Michael Lind, of the center-left New America Foundation, realizes that high-speed rail is the wrong future. Yet Jerry Brown is so insistent on building it that he’s willing to sacrifice welfare and other social programs.

In response to pressure from the federal government to start construction, the president of California’s senate has asked the federal government to commit itself to put up several tens of billions to finish the project. Of course, with resistance to the project in Congress, that’s not going to happen.

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Ho Hum, Another Airline Merger

American and US Air are thinking of merging, so naturally it’s time for a scare story about how mergers will lead to higher prices. Not likely.

A few years ago, there were six big airlines, but four of them–Delta & Northwest, United & Continental–merged into two. But Southwest is now one of the big four, Jet Blue is growing fast, and Alaska Airlines is growing and reaching into new markets. Meanwhile, Delta and American both carried about 5 percent fewer passengers in 2011 than they did in 2006.

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Dirty Politics in Lane County

In Oregon’s primary election this past Tuesday, Andy Stahl, who frequently comments on this blog, lost his bid to become Lane County (Oregon) commissioner. It is hard for me to tell this story, as I am one of the reasons he lost.

His opponent was Pete Sorenson, a four-term incumbent. I’ve known Pete for about as long as I’ve known Andy (meaning 35 years), and while I can’t say we were friends, we were always friendly. In the late 1970s he worked for Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver and I worked (as a very low-paid consultant) for the Oregon Wilderness Coalition (now Oregon Wild) helping Weaver’s staff justify their boss’s support for wilderness even though he represented the congressional district that cut more national forest timber than any other.

In the early 1980s, Sorenson went to the University of Oregon law school, and I frequently saw him on campus when I was studying economics. Over the next several decades, we would meet at conferences or bump into each other in Eugene and exchange war stories about various environmental issues. When I started proposing free-market reforms of the Forest Service in the late 1980s, he always listened politely and expressed sympathy with my growing fiscal conservatism.

Recently, however, Pete got in trouble over Oregon’s open meetings law. Apparently, he and one or two other county commissioners conspired to make certain budgetary decisions in private against the advice of the county attorney. In a sharply worded decision, an Oregon judge found that Pete and another commissioner “willfully violated” the law, though he found the third commissioner innocent. Neither of the guilty commissioners ever expressed any contrition or remorse, instead insisting they were being persecuted as the most liberal members of the commission.

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Toodling Around DC in the Google Car

The Google car is in Washington, DC, and the Antiplanner managed to hitch a ride around downtown. My host, Anthony Lavandowski–sometimes driving, sometimes just sitting in the driver’s seat–answered a number of questions about the car.

The Cato Institute’s David Boaz stands next to the Google Prius. In addition to the spinning laser sensor on top of the car, note the infrared sensors in the front bumper (there’s a similar one in the center of the back bumper). The laser sensor finds nearby objects while the infrared sensors can detect objects much further away. Click on any photo for a larger view.

He said the car and hardware cost about $100,000, but Google has just a handful of them. When they go into mass production, he estimated an ordinary car could be retrofitted for a couple of thousand dollars. Some cars already have many of the sensors the Google car uses, so the cost of retrofitting such cars would be much lower.

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Obama Plays Hardball with California

The Obama administration is threatening to take back the $3.3 billion high-speed rail grant to California if the state legislature fails to approve the state’s high-speed rail plan by the end of June. Legislators had planned to hold some hearings this summer so they could base their decisions on actual facts rather than politics. Ironically, when California Republicans in Congress proposed to rescind the money, they were told there was no legal way to do it.

The High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest plan cuts Anaheim and Orange County out of the picture, alienating another group of voters and officials. Despite these cuts, the agency still expects to spend $68 billion building from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This is far more than it told voters it would cost when it asked them to approve the plan in 2008, and even if the legislature allows the authority to sell bonds to match the federal grant, the agency has less than 10 percent in hand.

A reporter at the Los Angeles Times did a little arithmetic and calculated that, to complete the first 130-mile segment in the Central Valley by 2017 as planned, the authority will have to spend $3.5 million per day. With the possible exception of war time, this is probably more than any one entity has ever spent on one project before. The implication is that the authority, which hasn’t been able to adequately manage anything yet, doesn’t have the capability of effectively spending that much money.

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Let’s Be Like Europe and Build More Trains!

One recently revealed aspect of the European debt crisis is the role European passenger trains played in running up national debts. The Greek rail system, for example, has debts of $13 billion, or about 5 percent of Greece’s gross national product. Rail workers get paid so well that it would be cheaper to hire taxis to move passengers, at least if the taxis carried two or more passengers at a time.

Greece spends $1.20 per passenger mile on passenger trains. That’s twice what the U.K. spends, but even the U.K. trains are hardly a model of efficiency considering that driving in the U.S. costs only about 35 cents a vehicle mile, including subsidies to highway. Divide that by however many passengers you think are in the cars to get an average cost per passenger mile.

Spain, meanwhile, went so far overboard in building high-speed rail lines that it recently shut one down because it was attracting only nine passengers a day. That’s what happens when you let politicians decide where the trains should go.

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