Low-Speed, Infrequent Rail

Quentin Kopp, who once chaired the California High-Speed Rail Authority and led the effort to persuade voters to pass the 2008 law authorizing its construction, is speaking out against the project as currently planned. To succeed, he says, high-speed rail needs to run on dedicated tracks at high speeds and frequencies.

Instead, the current plan calls for California’s high-speed trains to run on the same tracks as slower Amtrak and commuter train. This will greatly reduce the average speeds because high-speed and conventional trains can’t be safely operated together. The current projected frequencies are two to four trains per hour (half in each direction), while Kopp says 10 to 20 trains per hour is needed for the trains to be “financially secure,” which presumably means that fares cover operating costs as required by the 2008 law.

When Kopp first proposed the project, it was supposed to cost $33 billion. Now it is expected to cost $68 billion for slower, less-frequent trains. Kopp has personally been involved in legal challenges against the project.

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Defining Suburbs

Based on surveys asking people whether they thought the lived in urban, suburban, or rural ares, Trulia economist Jed Kolko has defined the borderline between urban and suburban as 2,213 households per square mile (slightly less than 3.5 per acre), while the line between suburban and rural is 102 households per square mile (about 1 household every 6.3 acres). Based on this, Kolko concluded that less than half of many cities are truly urban.

Specifically, as shown in an article in Slate, 100 percent of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, Boston, and Baltimore are urban. But less than half of Phoenix, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Columbus, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Louisville, and Tucson are more than 70 percent suburban. Only 3 percent of Seattle, but 43 percent of Portland, are suburban.

Kolko isn’t the first to define urban and suburban using demographic rather than political criteria. The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, did a similar analysis last year. Looking at urban areas rather than cities, he defined areas as pre-auto, early auto, late auto, and exurban. The pre-auto areas included all areas with a median home construction date before 1945, areas with more than 7,500 people per square mile, and areas where non-auto commute shares exceeded 20 percent. The early auto areas were those remaining areas with median home construction dates before 1979; late auto had median home construction dates after 1980; and exurban was all land in the metropolitan statistical area but outside the urbanized area.

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Amtrak & Innumerate Liberals

A number of articles in National Review last week supported the Antiplanner’s view that more infrastructure spending wouldn’t have prevented the May 12 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia. Rich Lowry says Amtrak is a huge waste that carries so few passengers that it is “a rounding error of American transportation.”

John Fund shows that Congressional budget cutting wasn’t responsible for the crash. Ian Tuttle considers the “rush to blame the Amtrak crash on infrastructure” shortfalls to be “shameful.” And Charles Cooke points out that the ones who were quickest to jump on the infrastructure bandwagon were mainly from the left.

Of course, all of these writers are on the right and thus would be expected to decry Amtrak. (There are some conservatives who support Amtrak and rail transit, but they are social conservatives, not fiscal conservatives.) Similarly, Amtrak supporters generally come from the left.

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In Memoriam: the Fifth Amendment

The Antiplanner spoke in Spokane last Friday at the annual meeting of Spokane chapter of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights. The focus of my presentation was how cities have eroded the property rights protections of the Fifth Amendment in order to promote the density schemes of urban planners.

The Fifth Amendment, which says that government may not take private property for public use without due compensation, was once interpreted to mean that government cannot take private property for private use at all and must pay compensation when it takes it for public use. But over time it has come to be reinterpreted to mean that government can take property rights through regulation without compensation and it can take private property from one owner and give it to another private party with compensation.

Several Supreme Court decisions have led to this result, but three are probably the most important: The Euclid decision legalized zoning to prevent nuisances; the Penn Central decision approved takings of property rights through land-use regulation even when there was no danger of a nuisance; and the Kelo decision allowed cities to take peoples’ land by eminent domain to give to private developers even when the land wasn’t blighted. All of these rulings have one thing in common: the Court said that the cities involved could ignore the traditional interpretation of the Fifth Amendment because they had written an urban plan. No wonder urban planners have so much power: the Supreme Court has given any city that employs one a get-out-of-the-Fifth-Amendment-free card.

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Reducing the Costs of the Purple Line

Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan has said he would approve the costly Purple Line light-rail project provided the cost could be “dramatically” reduced. In response, the Antiplanner presents this modest proposal.

The proposal calls for using buses instead of rail, which reduces costs by 98 percent. The resulting bus service would be far more frequent than rail, should be as fast or faster (which isn’t hard because the rail line would average less than 15.5 mph), and would have lower operating costs and far lower maintenance costs. The same analysis would apply to Baltimore’s proposed Red Line, but the Antiplanner hasn’t worked up the numbers in detail.

While the rail project would significantly increase traffic congestion, the state could spend 1 or 2 percent more of the savings from canceling rail on things like traffic signal coordination and other intersection improvements that would relieve congestion for everyone, rather than just a few transit riders. The result is a win for taxpayers, a win for transit riders, a win for commuters, and a loss for rail contractors.

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Spend More or Less on Infrastructure?

USA Today thinks the federal government needs to spend more on infrastructure. An opposing view suggests that most of any spending increases would go for unnecessary new projects, not for repair of existing infrastructure.

Certainly, something must be done about the impasse over the federal transportation bill. But increased spending isn’t necessarily the solution; we first need to make sure that the money that is being spent is going to the right places.

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Two-Month Extension for Highways/Transit

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to extend federal funding for highways and transit for two months. The Senate is expected to pass similar legislation later this week. While transportation bills normally last for six years, this short-term action, which followed a ten-month extension last fall and a two-year extension in 2012, has proven necessary because no one has been able to rustle up a majority agreement on the federal role in transportation.

For those who haven’t followed the issue, the federal government collects about $34 billion a year in gas taxes and related highway user fees. Once dedicated to highways, an increasing share has gone for transit and other uses since the early 1980s. Compounding this was a decision in 1998 to mandate that spending equal to the projected growth in fuel taxes. When fuel tax revenues stopped growing in 2007, spending did not, with the result that annual spending is now about $13 billion more than revenues.

Under Congressional rules, Congress must find a revenue source to cover that deficit. The Antiplanner’s colleague at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, thinks that the simple solution is for Congress to just reduce spending by $13 billion a year. That may be arithmetically simple, but politically it is not as too many powerful interest groups count on that spending who have persuaded many (falsely, in my opinion) that we need to spend more on supposedly crumbling highways.

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Purple Line Decision Near

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan says the $150-million-per-mile cost of the proposed Purple light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton is “not acceptable.” The Maryland Department of Transportation thinks that it can reduce the cost by 10 percent, but that probably isn’t enough, considering that Hogan wants it to be “dramatically lower.” Hogan promises to make a decision in the next month.

Before he does, the Antiplanner thinks he should know that, no matter how much the planners say it will cost, it always costs more. From that view, a 10 percent reduction probably means 30 percent more than the current projected cost.

Instead of building light rail, Maryland could just run buses. The Antiplanner estimates that a fleet of 70 buses could provide service every two minutes in each direction. If buses operated on this schedule during rush hours and at half that frequency during off-peak hours and on weekends and holidays, they could carry as many people as the 69,000 that light rail is optimistically projected to carry at a lower operating cost and for about 2 percent of the start-up cost of light rail. Would a 98 percent reduction in costs be dramatic enough for the governor?

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This Is Why You Should Give Amtrak More of Your Money

An Amtrak locomotive caught fire yesterday on its way from Chicago to Milwaukee. Fortunately, all 51 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.

At about the time the locomotive was burning, a reporter was telling the Antiplanner that “everyone” in Washington was saying that the Philadelphia accident proves that Amtrak needs more money. No doubt the Wisconsin incident will add fuel to this fire.

But go back and read the first paragraph: There were only 51 passengers on this train. All of them could have fit on one motorcoach, many of which have 52 to 57 seats (and Megabus’s double-decker buses have 80 seats). The Horizon coaches used on this train typically have 60 seats, which means the train was less than one-sixth full. According to Amtrak’s performance report for fiscal year 2014, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains filled an average of 36 percent of their seats in 2014, or less than two Megabuses.

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Too Much Money Going to the Wrong Places

It appears that the Amtrak crash that killed seven people Tuesday resulted from speeding, but big-government advocates are already using this accident to make their case for more infrastructure spending. In fact, the problem is not too little money, but too much money going to the wrong places.

In 2008, President Bush signed a law mandating that most railroads, including Amtrak, install positive train control (PTC) by December of 2015. PTC would force trains to slow or stop if the operator ignored signals or speed limits.

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama asked a Democratic Congress to give him $10 billion to spend on high-speed trains, and Congress agreed. Not one cent of that money went to installing PTC in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

PTC would have prevented this accident. There was plenty of money available to install it, but the Obama administration, in its infinite wisdom, chose to spend it elsewhere. Two days ago, it would have been embarrassing to realize that the government-run Amtrak hadn’t yet completed installation of PTC on its highest-speed corridor. Today, it’s a tragedy. But how is it the fault of fiscal conservatives?

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