The law that authorizes the federal government to collect gas taxes and spend them on highways and transit last expired in July. Normally, Congress extends the law for six years, but it is currently gridlocked and so in July it extended it through the end of October.
The Senate offered a six-year bill, but only had enough money to fund it for three years. Lacking a similar bill, the House passed the three-month extension and the Senate went along.
Now, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is rumored to have a six-year bill, or possibly a three-year bill. A minor stumbling block is that Republicans were proposing to cut spending for bicycles, which left Democrats incensed. A bigger stumbling block is that there is still no consensus about where the money is going to come from to cover the $12 billion to $15 billion annual deficits in the bill, as Congress is not willing to either raise gas taxes or reduce spending.
In his reflections on the debate we had last week, Charles Marohn’s main comment is that he found my ideas “utterly impractical.” What were those ideas? Privatizing local streets. Privatizing utilities. Privatizing other common goods.
Just how impractical are these ideas? Most utilities in this country are, after all private. Many streets are private–I live on one. St. Louis has privatized some of its streets.
During the debate, Marohn called himself a libertarian, but his response reveals him to be a progressive. Progressives believe that commonly owned resources are a good thing because they value the tragedy of the commons. Without the tragedy, there is no need for government intervention. Without a need for government intervention, the role of progressives is greatly diminished.
The big news in the railroad industry is that no one expects the railroads can meet the Congressionally imposed December 31 deadline to install positive train control, yet Congress has so far been unwilling to extend the deadline. Unless it does so, Union Pacific says it will stop allowing any passenger trains on its rails starting January 1. That means an end to many Amtrak trains as well as some commuter trains in California, Illinois, and elsewhere.
Positive train control would force trains to stop to prevent collisions if the train driver failed to act. Congress passed this law in 2008 after a Steve Ditmeyer, the problems that beset the railroads are partly their own fault. Ditmeyer points out that Burlington Northern installed positive train control on 250 miles of its track in the late 1980s and found that, if positive train control were designed to completely replace existing signal technologies, the costs would be partly offset by the reduction in signal costs while the benefits would not only include safety but a 25 percent increase in the capacity of single-track rail lines. The result was a three-to-one benefit-cost ratio. Unfortunately, rather than installing the technology over its entire railroads, a new BN president decided to focus his attention on merging with the Santa Fe.
Last week’s debate between the Antiplanner and Charles Marohn was supposed to be about urban planning, but it ended up being more about urban finance. Marohn had been hired by the city of Lafayette, Louisiana to help it decide where to fund its infrastructure. He and his organization, Strong Towns, advocates that cities use return on investment model to help make such decisions.
Marohn raised some legitimate questions about city finances. For example, in a typical subdivision, the developer builds roads and streets and then deeds them over to the city. The city collects property and sales taxes on the new development, which can be a windfall for many years. But then, after 25 years or so, the street needs to be repaved, and the cost of doing so may not be justified by the taxes collected from adjacent properties.
Arizona has just published a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed moderate-speed (80-120 mph) passenger train between Phoenix and Tucson. The 116-mile route is projected to cost $4.2 billion to $8.4 billion depending on the route. At the low end of this range, the cost per mile would exceed $36 million, which should easily be enough to add four new lanes to the existing freeway (not that it needs them).
Louisiana wants to spend a mere $260 million for a so-called commuter train between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Since then-state governor Bobby Jindal vetoed the idea of spending $500 million on a moderate-speed train in 2009, the new proposal is for a train whose top speed over the 80-mile route would be 79-mph. Initially, as few as one train per day would go each way, which pretty much make the idea a complete joke. Despite this, the idea is popular: at a recent forum for gubernatorial candidates, most candidates agreed that the state’s infrastructure was crumbling and they supported the idea of building more infrastructure that could crumble in the future.
Massachusetts officials are once again talking about connecting Boston’s North train station (which sends all-important trains to Portland, Maine) with its South Station. The connection, which would cover less than 3 miles, is estimated to cost $2 billion to $4 billion.
Canberra, Australia’s capital, is considering spending close to $1 billion building a light-rail line. But a new study by computer programmer Kent Fitch finds that shared, self-driving cars make a lot more sense.
Where light rail would lose money, a fleet of shared, self-driving cars could earn a profit. Where light rail would serve just one corridor, self-driving cars would serve the entire urban area. Where light rail would require a massive expenditure on new infrastructure, self-driving cars would use existing infrastructure. While light-rail would require people to walk to stations and wait for a railcar, more than 96 percent of self-driving car patrons would have to wait less than a minute for a car to meet them at their door.
Fitch observes that Canberra, being entirely a twentieth-century city, is simply not designed for public transit, which is why ridership on the city’s stagnant or declining. When a city is too decentralized for “medium-box” transit like buses, the solution is not to go to “big-box” transit, which only works if a lot of people want to go from point A to point B at the same time. Instead, the solution is smaller-box transit, such as shared cars.
As noted here a couple of months ago, the Antiplanner volunteered to take part in Oregon’s mileage-based user fee experiment. I promised an update on the program, but so far all I can say is that it seems somewhat disorganized.
Since the state was only accepting 5,000 volunteers, I signed up almost as soon as the web site began accepting applicants on July 1. It turns out I needn’t have rushed: after more than a month, only 700 people had volunteered.
On Thursday, September 10–a week from today–the Antiplanner will be in Lafayette, Louisiana to debate Charles Marohn, an advocate of “strong towns.” Of course, Marohn believes that we can have strong towns only through careful planning including such things as road diets, narrow roads, and transit–the usual anti-auto, anti-suburban prescriptions. In any case, if you are in Louisiana next week, I hope to see you there.