Monthly Archives: July 2012

“You’ll Be Given Cushy Jobs”

Mame Reiley, a professional political activist who supports liberal Democratic causes in Virginia, recently resigned from the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority (WMAA), the entity that is extending Metrorail to the Dulles Airport. Immediately upon resigning, the authority hired her as an “advisor” and will pay her $180,000 a year.

Since she supposedly resigned from the board for health reasons, the Antiplanner has to wonder if she is really worth $180,000 a year. Is this her reward for helping plan the WMAA’s political campaigns to finance the insanely expensive rail line? Or does the authority expect to tap into her expertise as it negotiates the final pieces of funding for the project?

In any case, expensive projects such as airports and rail lines attract political attention because of their potential to provide cushy jobs for their political supporters. The Washington Examiner identifies four other authority board members who received contracts ranging from $42,000 to nearly $1 million from the authority. While most would call this a conflict of interest, to some it is merely politics as usual.

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Because $117 Billion Wasn’t Expensive Enough

In 2010, Amtrak proposed to spend $117 billion to upgrade its Boston-to-Washington high-speed rail corridor. This idea was so unrealistically expensive that the Antiplanner called it “gold-plated high-speed rail.”

Apparently, Amtrak wants platinum plating instead, as its 2012 update to the proposal has raised the cost to $151 billion. This includes some additional bells and whistles, including a $7 billion revamp of Washington, DC’s Union Station (see Amtrak’s report for complete details).

Amtrak either hasn’t heard or doesn’t care that high-speed rail is dead (except for a train to nowhere in California) or that the federal government is about out of money. Instead, says Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, it wants to be “ready” in case someone accidentally drops $150 billion or so in its path.

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RTD Fools the Wall Street Journal

“Denver rethinks the modern commuter,” heralds the Wall Street Journal. The article goes on to say that, instead of building parking lots at its rail stations, Denver is encouraging developers to build high-density, mixed-use developments. Somehow, this is supposed to be news.

Let’s think this through. First of all, no one is “rethinking the modern commuter.” The Census Bureau reports that transit carried less than 5 percent of Denver-area commuters in 2010, while more than 85 percent drove. Instead, what RTD, Denver’s transit agency, is rethinking is the role of public transit.

The old-style public transit system used cheap, flexible buses whose routes could be altered overnight to take people from where they were to where they wanted to go. When Denver first built rail, it substituted expensive but glamorous trains for inexpensive buses, but still allowed people to go from where they were–provided they were willing to drive to a park-and-ride station–to where they wanted to go–provided they wanted to go downtown.

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More Tales of Rail Failure

The ink is barely dry on California legislation to start building high-speed rail, and now they reveal a $2.5 billion hidden cost that wasn’t included in previous estimates, that being the cost of tunneling the final mile into San Francisco. It shouldn’t really matter, as they don’t have the money to build the last 130 to 150 miles of rail from the Central Valley to San Francisco anyway.

On top of that, California residents are discovering that their high-speed rail authority has been keeping controversial aspects of the planned route as secret as possible, at least until it is too late for people to do anything about it. For example, the plan calls for running the track 75 feet above the city of Alhambra, which is likely to be a major eyesore.

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Brookings Discovers Driverless Cars

Brookings Institution economist Clifford Winston points out in the Wall Street Journal that driverless cars will render high-speed rail and urban real transit even more obsolete than they already are. The Antiplanner, of course, brought driverless cars to the attention of WSJ readers two years ago.

Winston’s major point is that, rather than build high-speed rail, we should concentrate on rebuilding and redesigning our highway system to prepare for the increased driving that this new technology will inevitably bring about. He proposes, for example, to create more highways dedicated to cars rather than open to both cars and trucks. Such roads could be built with thinner pavement and narrower lanes. This might make sense, though the benefits of having multiple kinds of vehicles sharing the costs of the same infrastructure seem very high.

Some states simply refuse to consider the effects this new technology will have on travel habits. Oregon, for example, has proposed a 2050 strategic transportation plan that counts on getting people out of their cars and onto transit, leaving the highways for trucks. This simply is not going to happen, but never underestimate the ability of Oregon planners to substitute their own fantasies for reality.

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Land-Use Regulation & Income Inequality

Harvard economists have proven one of the major theses of American Nightmare, which is that land-use regulation is a major cause of growing income inequality in the United States. By restricting labor mobility, the economists say, such regulation has played a “central role” in income disparities.

When measured on a state-by-state basis, American income inequality declined at a steady rate of 1.8 percent per year from 1880 to 1980. The slowing and reversal of this long-term trend after 1980 is startling. Not by coincidence, the states with the strongest land-use regulations–those on the Pacific Coast and in New England–began such regulation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Forty to 75 percent of the decline in inequality before 1980, the Harvard economists say, was due to migration of workers from low-income states to high-income states. The freedom to easily move faded after 1980 as many of the highest-income states used land-use regulation to make housing unaffordable to low-income workers. Average incomes in those states grew, leading them to congratulate themselves for attracting high-paid workers when what they were really doing is driving out low- and (in California, at least) middle-income workers.

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The Stigma of Buses

Margaret Thatcher was once quoted as saying, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” In fact, according to Wikiquotes, “There is no solid evidence that Margaret Thatcher ever quoted this statement with approval, or indeed shared the sentiment.” Nevertheless, people still insist that buses carry a “stigma” not shared by trains.

Portland transit expert Jarrett Walker argues that “we should stop talking about ‘bus stigma.'” In fact, he says, transit systems are designed by elites who rarely use transit at all, but who might be able to see themselves on a train. So they design expensive rail systems for themselves rather than planning transit systems for their real market, which is mostly people who want to travel as cost-effectively as possible and don’t really care whether they are on a bus or train.

This view is reinforced by the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union, and particularly by a report it published written by planner Ryan Snyder. Ryan calls L.A.’s rail system “one of the greatest wastes of taxpayer money in Los Angeles County history,” while he shows that regional transit ridership has grown “only when we have kept fares low and improved bus service,” two things that proved to be incompatible with rail construction.

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Entropy Killing DC Metro Rail

Washington Metro’s computers crashed twice this past weekend, forcing all trains to stop and stranding passengers for up to 30 minutes. This is just the latest example of how the aging transit system is slowly falling apart.

It is hard to imagine today what kind of computers Metro used in 1976, when it opened DC’s first new rail line. Programming probably used COBOL or some other now-archaic language. (The Antiplanner has heard rumors that the COBOL programmers who wrote the software that runs the San Francisco BART system refuse to ride the trains.) Anyone who has an older computer knows that things go wrong and those cumulative failures add up until eventually the system just does not reliably work.

In any case, the Metro system has roughly a $10 billion maintenance backlog. As a result, rails break; trains fall apart during operation; computers crash; and the agency’s bureaucracy can’t even keep up with the problems.

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California Rail Follies

The California legislature based its approval of the sale of billions of dollars of bonds to start construction of high-speed rail partly on claims that the rail line would help revitalize California’s economy. But now a study from UCLA finds that Japan’s high-speed rail line, one of the most popular in the world, failed to boost that nation’s economy.

“Rather, the evidence suggests high-speed rail simply moves jobs around the geography without creating significant new employ- ment or economic activity” says the study. “As an engine of economic growth in and of itself, CHSR will have only a marginal impact at best.”

The California High-Speed Rail Authority responded to the study by trotting out an architect who claimed all sorts of benefits for the train. Asking an architect to respond to an economic analysis is like asking a plumber for a second opinion on your cancer diagnosis. The plumber might give you the answer you want, but probably not the right answer.

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Metro Says Heat Wave Not “Extreme”

A Washington, DC, Metro train broke down for unknown reasons and another one jumped the tracks in another routine day for DC rail transit. The derailment was caused by a “heat kink” in the tracks, and Metro says it normally slows down trains during “extreme heat,” but hadn’t decided to do so in this heat wave.

Metal expands when it gets warm, and railroads used to leave gaps between the rails every 35 feet or so to allow for such expansion. But modern railroads weld the rails together to form a continuous ribbon that is prone to kinking at high temperatures. To deal with this, they use special allows that, they hope, won’t buckle in hot weather. The alloys used on Metro rails are good to temperatures up to 95 degrees, which DC exceeded for 11 days straight. Apparently, no one at Metro remembered to issue the slow orders.

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