Monthly Archives: September 2012

Privatize or Contract Out?

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.

Comparing a transit agency to its peers is like criticizing a bank robber for stealing more than home burglars. The fact is that they are both ripping people off, and just because some are a bit less rapacious doesn’t make them any more morally correct.

Private jitney in direct competition with MARTA bus.

So the Antiplanner has a more aggressive agenda: complete privatization. Atlanta is one of the few cities that doesn’t outlaw private transit in competition with the public agency, and as a result it has a number of private jitneys that operate without subsidies and often charge riders less than MARTA. The jitneys even stop at MARTA’s bus stops.

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Jerry Brown Tries the Google Car

California Governor Jerry Brown rode in a self-driving car with Google co-founder Sergey Brin on their way to Google headquarters, where Brown signed legislation creating a framework for introducing driverless cars into California by 2015. Meanwhile, automakers are incrementally automating driving with the introduction of a variety of new technologies.

On October 23, Volvo and the Embassy of Sweden are co-sponsoring a Washington, DC seminar to discuss the policy implications of autonomous vehicles. The seminar will include speakers from Volvo, Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Center for Automotive Research. The Antiplanner can’t make it, but readers in the Washington DC area may want to reserve a spot.

Volvo’s contribution to the technology focuses on road trains, in which a lead vehicle is driven by a professional and other vehicles can follow without active drivers. The system has been tested in Spain with just 20-foot gaps between vehicles. Volvo hopes the system will also improve fuel economy by about 20 percent.

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What Is Middle Class?

Critics of Mitt Romney laughed when he said that “middle-class income” was “between $200,000 and $250,000” when what he actually said was that it was “between $200,000 and $250,000 or less” meaning that the $200,000 to $250,000 was the upper limit. As the Huffington Post points out, Democrats including Obama and Pelosi have also used that definition. Of course, both Romney and Obama have incomes well above that amount.

But all of these views are wrong, because classes such as middle class are not defined by income. As Michael Zweig writes in The Working Class Majority, “just looking at a person’s income doesn’t tell us anything about how the person got the income, what role he or she plays in society, how he or she is connected to the power grid of class relations.”

What Romney, Obama, and the various pundits are referring to is middle income, not middle class. As only 16 percent of U.S. households earn more than $100,000 a year, and only 4 percent more than $200,000, the upper limit for middle income is probably much lower than $200,000. But I suspect Romney stated it the way he did to preserve the claim that he has no desire to raise taxes on anyone below that limit.

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USA Today‘s Interesting Arithmetic

USA Today reports that “fewer Americans commuting solo.” As the story says, “The dismal economy and skyrocketing gas prices may have accomplished what years of advocacy failed to: getting more people to stop driving solo.”

To put some numbers on this, Wendell Cox
points out that the number of people commuting solo has declined from 104.86 to 105.64 million. That’s a minus 780,000-person decline, also known as an 780,000 person increase.

A few days ago, USA Today reported that “bikes rule the road” in Portland. In fact, the 17,000 people commuting to work by bicycle reported by USA Today increased to nearly 19,000 in 2011, but this still represents less than 7 percent of commuters. So in what sense can 7 percent “rule the road”? Perhaps only because the 202,000 commuters (73 percent) who drive to work live in fear of hitting a cyclist.

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Amtrak Shrugged

Watching one of the first showings of part II of Atlas Shrugged was a surrealistic experience after testifying to the House Transportation Committee about Amtrak. In the movie, government officials piously argue that for the “greater good” (a phrase that turned out to be just as deadly in Harry Potter as in Atlas Shrugged) they need to provide “guidance” to the nation’s capitalists–and the more guidance they give, the more capitalism fails, which justifies even more guidance.

In the hearing, I testified that Amtrak can’t be reformed because as a government entity it will also be controlled by politics, and the only solution was privatization. This led Peter DeFazio, my own former congressman (I moved to an adjacent district four years ago) to ream me out for not having faith in government.

“You don’t believe government should run our air traffic control? You don’t believe government should run our highways? You don’t believe government should subsidize the Port of Los Angeles?” Before I could fully answer each question, he would roll his eyes and interrupt me with incredulous moans. Fortunately, one of the other committee members rescued me and gave me a chance to answer.

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Back in the Air Again

Today the Antiplanner is in Washington DC to testify at a hearing on Amtrak subsidies. The Antiplanner will tell the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee that it should “support privatization of Amtrak, in the context of a broader effort to end federal subsidies to and unfair taxation of all forms of transportation.”

My testimony points out that Amtrak is the most costly form of intercity transportation we have, costing (with subsidies) about 60 cents per passenger mile, compared with about 16 cents for air travel and less than 10 cents for the “new model” of bus service pioneered by Megabus. While Amtrak is a little more energy efficient than flying, at the rate both modes’ energy efficiencies are changing, by 2030 flying will require less energy to move passenger miles than Amtrak (and so will driving).

With Amtrak fares costing, on average, twice airline fares, Amtrak is really just a subsidy for the rich. The testimony speculates that, if Amtrak were privatized, we would see a growth of “cruise trains” in the West similar to Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer, which now has four or five different routes including one that starts in Seattle, Washington. But even if we did not, the country would be better off relying on cars and relatively unsubsidized buses for short distances and airlines for long distances.


Cities Growing Faster Than Suburbs–NOT!

A few months ago, several news outlets reported that new census data showed that the cities were growing faster than the suburbs. This brought comfort to those urban planners who believe that inner cities are better than suburbs and that most people would prefer to live in them if only they understood all the benefits.

It turns out that, as a writer for NewGeography discovered, the reports are pure bunkum. A Census Bureau document specifies that city-suburb population estimates were based solely on “the extrapolated county estimates down to each subcounty area within a county based on 2010 Census proportions.” In other words, if a central city held 40 percent of the people in a county in 2010, the Census Bureau presumed that 40 percent of the region’s growth would be in the city.

Maybe next year the Census Bureau can just turn over the counts to urban planners who will assign population growth to politically correct areas such as Portland and record population declines in politically incorrect areas such as Houston. After all, why bother doing a census if the numbers are simply going to be extrapolated from the previous census?


Highway Fund Uncertainty Leads to Ratings Cut

Citing uncertainties about the health of the federal Highway Trust Fund, Fitch has cut its ratings on state highway bonds in several states from AA- to A+. The bonds being cut are “grant anticipation revenue” or GARVEE bonds, which are supposed to be repaid out of federal grants.

In recent years, Congressional overspending of the Highway Trust Fund has required Congress to periodically appropriate general funds to transportation. Fitch is worried that Congress may fail to provide such funds, and is also concerned that recent passage of a two-year (instead of the traditional six-year) reauthorization of federal transportation programs creates uncertainties about those programs.

Certain transit agencies also saw their ratings cut from A- to BBB+. These include the Chicago Transit Authority, New Jersey Transit, and the Alaska Railroad, all of which receive federal transit funds out of the Highway Trust Fund. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the highway portion of the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in 2014 and the transit portion will run out in 2015.

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DC Metro Continues to Decline

It’s a sign of distinction that the Washington Metro Rail system has not one but at least two blogs dedicated to documenting the system’s poor operating condition. One of the blogs reports that, in July, MetroRail suffered from nearly 500 problems that led to a “deviation from normal scheduled service,” all but about 20 of which were due to maintenance failures.

The other blog reviews a recent WMATA report on the system’s health and concludes that “it’s the trains, stupid,” meaning that the train cars are experiencing so many breakdowns that “Metro should lay off the track work for a while” and concentrate on repairing the railcars.

The problem with that is that tracks and signals are responsible for lots of problems too. Broken rails are common, with an average of nearly one cracked rail a week in 2011. Faulty signals, of course, were responsible for the crash that killed nine people in 2009. Signals may cause the fewest number of equipment-related train delays, but nobody wants to admit they were busy fixing doors but letting people die because they neglected the signals.

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Clackistanis Threaten Portland Light Rail

In all the times it has been on the ballot, Clackamas County has never voted for Portland light rail. But Portland planners were determined to run a light-rail line into the urban heart of the county, so they persuaded the county commission to give them $20 million of the $1.5 billion cost of the 7.7-mile rail line.

Residents, who had previously recalled several city commissioners from office over light rail, didn’t take this sitting down. Instead, a group that calls itself “Clackistanis” put a measure on the ballot directing the county commission to spend no county resources on light rail without voter approval. The commission responded by scheduling a $19 million bond sale to take place a few days before the vote.

Rail opponents filed a lawsuit attempting to stop the measure. The county responded by canceling the bond sale just a day before the Oregon Supreme Court issued a restraining order against the sale.

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