Monthly Archives: August 2012

Bloomberg: Taxpayers Gouged by Transit

Bloomberg News, or at least a writer named Stephen Smith, has discovered that the transit industry is gouging taxpayers with its schemes for high-cost rail transit and high-speed rail. Smith says there are two causes for this gouging.

First, “agencies can’t keep their private contractors in check,” and instead hire “consultants who consultant with consultants and advisers who advise advisers.” This drives up the cost of planning and building rail lines. Second, antiquated labor practices drive up the cost of operating the trains.

Smith makes good points, but his implicit assumption, that fixing these problems would make passenger rail transportation economically feasible, is wrong. He cites several examples in Europe and Japan of “how it ought to be done,” but the fact is that European and Asian countries are wasting their money on rail transit as well.

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Is Amtrak Cheaper Than Flying?

The London Telegraph reports that flying is less expensive than taking the train in about half the routes in Britain. This shouldn’t be a surprise: trains require far more infrastructure than planes and maintaining that infrastructure is expensive.

Passenger trains in the United States have an advantage over those in Britain: the former share most of their rail infrastructure costs with freight, but rails carry very little freight in Britain. According to data from the European Union, British lorries carry more than 6.6 times as much freight as trains, while data for the United States indicate rails carry at least 120 percent as much freight as the highways.

Partly due to this advantage, but mainly due to heavy subsidies from the state and federal governments, Amtrak fares are lower than airfares for many city pairs. Still, the airlines nearly meet and sometimes beat Amtrak fares in a number of corridors. American Airlines fares between Portland and Oakland start at $79 compared with Amtrak’s $80. Delta is $112 between Baltimore and Atlanta vs. Amtrak’s $115. Jet Blue is $60 between Los Angeles and Oakland, compared with Amtrak’s $56.

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Lance Armstrong and Climate Change

When Tyler Hamilton swore up and down that he didn’t use illegal blood doping to help win bicycle races, I believed him. Then he confessed that he did. When Floyd Landis insisted that he didn’t use testosterone to help win the Tour de France, I believed him. Then he confessed that he did.

So I probably should be suspicious that Lance Armstrong still insists he didn’t use drugs or other illegal enhancements to win seven Tours de France. But in this country we have this little thing called “innocent until proven guilty.” And, contrary to popular opinion, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has not proven Armstrong guilty.

Instead, the agency says, it has found that tests of some of his blood samples are “fully consistent” with blood doping. Armstrong, realizing the agency has absolutely no authority over him or the entities that actually awarded him his titles, decided that the agency was little better than a kangaroo court and quit fighting them. They agency says that is an admission of guilt, but all it really is is an admission of their impotence.

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A Carbon Tax for Thee, But Not for Me

California state universities are upset that a state law designed to reduce carbon emissions could cost them $28 million a year. “The University supports the creation of a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program,” says Anthony Garvin, who works in the office of the president of the University of California.

But, he goes on to say in a letter asking for relief from some or all of the cost, the University “is concerned that it is being disproportionately impacted by the proposed cap-and-trade rule and that its compliance costs will ultimately be borne by students, researchers, and patients to the detriment of teaching, research, and healthcare activities.”

Well, boo hoo. Just who does he think is going to ultimately bear the compliance costs on other entities such as electric companies, construction companies, hospitals, and so forth? The correct answer, of course, is consumers, businesses, and patients. Why should universities students, researchers, and patients get a special exemption?


Still Corrupt After All These Years

The Oregonian reports that construction of the Sellwood Bridge was rife with “graft, kickbacks and corruption”–or at least it was when the bridge was first planned 87 years ago. As comments to the article point out, not much has changed.

Today, the region is planning an expensive replacement bridge that is twice as wide as the existing one–but will have no more lanes of traffic. Instead, the additonal width is supposed to be for bicycles and pedestrians. The huge cost of that additional width, of course, is borne mainly by people who get around by automobile. Just down river, the region is building an even more expensive bridge that will solely be for light rail, bicycles, and pedestrians. Total passenger traffic on this bridge will probably be a fraction of one lane of the Sellwood Bridge.

Meanwhile, Portland has developed urban renewal to perfection. The city buys land for fair-market value, then removes obsolete structures and installs streets, water, sewer, and other infrastructure–all costs that developers would ordinarily have to pay themselves. Then the city sells the land at below-market prices to favored developers on the condition that they build high-density, mixed-use developments. In return, the favored developers make large political contributions and gush over the city’s transportation policies. Not quite the same as graft, kickbacks, and corruption, but close.

The good news is people are revolting against the system. Clackamas County residents calling themselves “clackastanis” are challenging urban renewal and light rail. Even inner-city residents are protesting new high-density developments that the city is planning without parking. Until the city and TriMet go bankrupt, however, these efforts probably won’t be enough to stop the Portland rail juggernaut.


The Antiplanner’s Library: Spreading the Wealth

Subtitled “How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities,” this book sounds like it is right up the Antiplanner’s street (since my home fortunately doesn’t have an alley). Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, argues that Obama intends to forcefully implement the smart-growth agenda in his second term, taking away people’s property rights; redistributing income; and forcing people to live in mixed-income communities.

Despite having less than 200 pages of text, the book is documented with nearly 500 endnotes. I agree with many of the arguments Kurtz makes. Yet I find myself repelled by the odor of paranoia that pervades the book. While the author documents particular reports and proposals from various planners and liberal activists, he fails to show that the ideas of people like Myron Orfield or David Rusk are central to Obama’s thinking. Instead, he relies on ad hominem attacks and guilt-by-association.

Central to the book is a group called Building One America, whose web site declares itself to favor “inclusion, sustainability, and economic growth,” and brags that it was recently “at the White House.” According to Kurtz, this group’s goals are to put urban-growth boundaries around every metropolitan area; force economic integration, that is, force all neighborhoods to accept residents of all income levels; and redistribute income from high-income neighborhoods and cities to low-income ones in the same region (p. 7).

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Amtrak Dominates? Not Really

The New York Times reports that “Amtrak Dominates Northeast Corridor Travel.” That’s absolutely true–as long as you don’t count buses. Or cars. Or intermediate points between Boston, New York, and Washington.

The Times says that Amtrak has a 75 percent share of the “air/rail” market between Washington and New York, but it only has a 54 percent share of the “air/rail” market between New York and Boston. It doesn’t say anything about intermediate points.

In a more realistic assessment, page 4 of Amtrak’s 2010 Vision for the Northeast Corridor reports that Amtrak carries 6 percent of travel in the Northeast Corridor, while planes carry 5 percent and the remaining 89 percent goes by highway. Amtrak doesn’t break out bus travel, but I estimate buses carry significantly more passengers than Amtrak, or approximately 8 to 9 percent of the corridor market.

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A Model for the Nation

Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood says that Washington DC’s Silver line is a “model” for “other places in the country.” Let’s see:

Is the line over budget? Of course.

Will the new line disrupt service on other transit lines? Totally.

Is the region building new rail transit lines even when it doesn’t have enough money to maintain existing lines? Absolutely.

Is the line being built mainly for the benefit of a few developers? I would say so.

Is the rail line being built by an agency known even to LaHood for its corruption? Yep.

Is the rail line being funded by stealing money from other transportation users? Naturally.

That’s quite a model you have there, Mr. Immobility.


300,000 Miles — Availability by 2017

Google says that its self-driving cars have now gone 300,000 miles with no accidents (except once when one of the cars was rear-ended at a stoplight).

Google released the above video a few months ago in celebration of reaching 200,000 miles. Everything in it seems normal until the car parks in a handicapped parking spot. I thought, “Whoa! Google is going to have to teach its cars not to use those spots.” Then the video revealed that the “driver” was, in fact, “well passed legally blind.” It was a moving demonstration of how self-driving cars will change our lives.

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How the Feds Put the Brakes on High-Speed Trains

It is an article of faith among passenger rail advocates that the federal government killed intercity passenger trains by subsidizing the Interstate Highway System. “There were a number of reasons for the rapid decline of rail passenger service, but the overwhelming factor was the explosion of government funding for new highways and airports,” says the Progressive Policy Institute, which adds, “In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate and Defense Highways Act.”

One major problem with this is that intercity rail ridership began declining decades before Congress approved the Interstate Highway System. As the chart above shows, per capita rail passenger miles peaked in 1919 and fell by half during the “roaring 20s.” They declined another 50 percent during the Depression, then grew to a second, but quite artificial, peak during World War II.

After the war, per capita passenger miles dropped precipitously despite rapid economic growth. By 1949, they had fallen to 1929 levels; by 1960–after Congress authorized the Interstate Highway System but before very many miles had been built–they had fallen to less than at the depths of the Depression. The interstates obviously had nothing to do with this. Since 1970–the year before Amtrak took over–they have hovered between 20 and 30 passenger miles per capita, or 10 to 15 percent of what they were in 1919.

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