Posts tagged ‘mass transit’

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.

 

Highway Bait And Switch

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein both complain that Congress is letting America's highways fall apart by not raising the gasoline tax.  They complain that current gas taxes are no longer high enough to cover costs, as the Federal highway trust fund is empty.  Apparently, Congress and the President were always blithely happy to raise the gas tax to whatever it needed to be to cover costs, and now this current Congress is departing from the historic norm:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

But here is what happened since 1993:  Roughly a third of highway taxes are diverted to local mass transit and other oddball non-highway projects.  Simply devoting all the highway trust fund to, you know, highways would add an effective 6-7 cents to the gas tax money without actually raising the tax.

Here is what is going on:  The Left loves mass transit projects, particularly urban rail.  Of all government transportation projects, these have by far the highest cost per passenger mile of anything we do, so diverting money to these projects reduces the bang for the buck but the Left loves these projects for social engineering reasons I will discuss in a post soon.

The Left knows that these transit projects will not stand up well in the appropriations process.  Kansas taxpayers are not going to be happy about paying for another couple miles of the LA subway system.  They will ask, rightly, why local urbanites can't pay for their own damn transit projects if these projects are so great.  But taxpayers generally support tax hikes for highways. So what does a politician on a transit mission do?  He sells the gas tax to the public on it being dedicated to highways.  Then he switches the money away from highways to transit.  This leaves highways falling apart.  So he can again go to taxpayers asking for money, ostensibly for highways, but of which a good portion will eventually be siphoned off to transit (and squirrel bridges and whatever).  Repeat.

In effect, calls for raising the gas tax are NOT to repair highways.  This is a bait and switch.  Gas taxes are sufficiently high enough to fully fund highway work if it was all applied to highway work.  Proposed increased in gas taxes are needed to pay for the continuing diversion of highway funds to egregiously expensive transit projects.  Congress is right to stop this shell game.

Are We Getting Anything Out of Transit Spending?

In the 2012 budget, the DOT will spend about $59.4 billion on highways and $30.2 billion on transit and rail (source).   Highways are getting a smaller and smaller portion of what we think of as the Federal highway budget, with transit and rail spending almost 50% the size of highway spending.  For what results?

Despite huge efforts to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles, nearly 8 million more people drove alone to work in 2010 than in 2000, according to data released by the Census Bureau. Wendell Cox’s review of the data show that the other big gainer was “worked at home,” which grew by nearly 2 million over the decade.

Transit gained less than a million, but transit numbers were so small in 2000 that its share grew from 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent of total workers. While drive alone grew from 75.6 percent to 76.5 percent, the big loser was carpooling, which declined by more than 2 million workers. As a result, driving’s share as a whole declined from 87.9 percent to 86.2 percent.

Though they get less money in absolute dollars, transit and rail have for years gotten wildly disproportionate amounts of money compared to their ridership.  This is not an accident of timing -- rail and mass transit costs per passenger mile are simply way higher than for cars in all but a few very specific high-density urban areas.

Much of this Federal spending is a huge waste of money, made worse by the fact that local authorities who get this money have little incentive to use it wisely.  Its time for the Feds to get out of the transit funding business.  If LA wants more subways, let them pay for it.

"Livability" Means Sitting in Traffic

Via the anti-Planner, comes this amazing slide from a presentation by the city of Omaha on their new initiative for "Livable Transportation" (ppt presentation).   Ray LaHood recently asked that all transportation authorities include "livability" in the next round of their 5-year transportation plans.

What does "Livability" even mean?  Well, I was not sure.  This is one of those vague happy-sounding words that give liberals a hard-on in the context of government programs but generally just end up being an excuse for the exercise of state power at the expense of individual choice.

But in this case we don't have to guess, because in the presentation linked above we have the following as the first slide in the presentation, defining livability in this context:

I kid you not -- the two key steps in livable transportation are apparently increasing delay in auto commutes and increasing the cost of auto commutes.   Wow, that certainly sounds like something that will make my life better  (on the bright side, it strikes me as a goal that the generally-incompetent government can actually achieve).

Of course, the issue is not really about livability, but about the imposition of a few intellectuals' disdain for cars on the rest of us.

And if you want to look for the financial incentives, the size of government per passenger-mile of commute is maximized with rail mass transit.   First, this is because rail is simply more expensive than driving -- way more expensive - - per passenger mile in any Western city like Omaha, even when all the costs of driving are considered.  Second, with rail, the government nationalizes things like driving and maintenance that you do yourself or are done by private actors, and brings them in-house to be performed by powerful government unions.

Postscript: Left unsaid in any of this presentation is how increasing commute delay leads to keeping  jobs and businesses in the lower left.  That strikes me as a non sequitur of epic proportions.

Cargo Cult Economics

I thought this article interesting - the hypothesis that communist countries pursued a sort of cargo cult economic policy.  Since they did not really understand economics (and as communist countries have banned many of the most important processes for economic growth), communist leaders tried to emulate successful western nations by copying high-profile bits of their economy.  For example, since Western nations were prosperous and had early on built big steel industries, communist leaders decided that building big steel industries would make them prosperous.

It falls somewhat short as a framework for explaining communist economies, but I do think that this cargo cult mentality was an important part of their thinking and even is a part of progressive thinking today.  After all, if you willfully deny classical economic theory as well as the power of individual action and private initiative, you have to fill in the blanks somehow.

High speed rail and mass transit strike me as classic modern examples -- great cities of the world have large mass transit systems so therefore if our city builds a rail system we will become great.

Mass Transit and Energy Use

The Anti-Planner argues that mass transit will never be energy efficient, mainly because it is virtually impossible to improve occupancy.  The arguments for transit saving money all tend to include the line "will be efficient when occupancies increase" but he shows pretty clearly why that is probably not going to happen.

Also note pages 2-15 and 2-16 of this report.  Compare the trends of auto and airline energy intensity with rail and bus.  While cars and planes have decreased their energy use per passenger mile by quite a bit, rail has been flat and buses have been getting worse.  In fact, auto transit became more energy efficient than buses twenty years ago and continues to get better.   Airline travel has become nearly as energy efficient as Amtrak.

Update on Rail Subsidies

As an update on my rail subsidy post, I saw a relevant post from the Thin Green Line yesterday.  At least, I suppose, transit supporters are honest:

When I talked to Dave Snyder earlier this month about a fix for mass transit in the Bay Area, he told me, "Somehow or another we've got to get more money from driving."

However, I thought this was a hilarious lack of perspective:

...one side effect of the green revolution has been a growing awareness of how much roads cost. I imagine you'd be surprised to learn that building a road"”not maintaining it, just building it"”costs more than $16 per square foot.

I have no doubt that this person, who is a strong light rail supporter, honestly thinks this is a lot of money.  But I did the math in my comments on his post:

$16 per square foot for highway should be considered a bargain. This means that a twenty foot wide two-lane highway is $320 per linear foot.

The Phoenix light rail system cost $1.4 billion (thats building it, not maintaining it) for 20 miles, which at 34,000 boardings per week day is carrying somewhat less traffic than the capacity of a two lane highway. However, it cost $13,258 per linear foot, or 41 times your highway numbers. Which is why highway users easily pay the full cost of their transportation infrastructure through their gas taxes, but transit users don't even come close.

In Phoenix, light rail fare revenues cover only 7% of its operating and capital costs. Which always has me scratching my head when people say light rail is somehow more "sustainable." If running trains requires, as you suggest, draining resources from millions of people just to move thousands, how is it sustainable?

Light Rail Alternative

Apparently, Phoenix is experimenting with a new style of bus transport that looks and operates like a train:

The Mesa Link debuted the same week as light rail. For now, Link involves a fleet of 10 buses. Each $756,000 vehicle carries a transponder to coordinate traffic lights and keep the bus on schedule for a 12-mile run in 45 minutes.

It's the start of a much more ambitious program.

Over the next few months, the Regional Public Transportation Authority, which coordinates Valley Metro bus service, will build stations and add technology to the Mesa line to give it more of the pace and feel of a train.

Basically, they are building the thing to look and operate like a light rail train, only running on tires on the existing road.    The travel time may seem slow, but it is nearly identical to the average speed of our light rail line (20 miles in a claimed 70 minutes, though a number of riders say its slower).  And the capacity is nearly identical.

So with the same speed and the same capacity and similar scheduled service with similar style stations, here is the real appeal:

In 2010, a second line will be created to run 12 miles along Arizona Avenue in Mesa and Chandler. It will feature 10 stations and cost $28 million for construction and the purchase of nine buses. Future lines are planned for Scottsdale Road, Baseline Road and Chandler Boulevard.

The 20-mile light-rail line cost $1.4 billion to build.

Holy cr*p.  $70 million a mile for light rail vs. $2.3 million a mile for this system.   That is 30x cheaper.  The only discernible difference is one runs on steel rails and the other on tires.  Oh, and the rail line, in most places it was built, completely removed up to two lanes of existing roadway capacity, while the bus-type system leaves the roadway intact and just uses a fraction of one lane's capacity.

Now, I would have to sit down and look at the numbers and the service profile to decide if this new bus system made sense financially vs. the old bus system, but why are we even considering extending light rail?  And why oh why did we build this white elephant in the first place.

Massive Campaign to Bring Back Indentured Servitude

On several occasions I have have lamented the declining standard of activism:

Activist:  A person who believes so strongly that a
problem needs to be remedied that she dedicates substantial time to ...
getting other people to fix the problem.   It used to be that activists
sought voluntary help for their pet problem, and thus retained some
semblance of honor.  However, our self-styled elite became frustrated
at some point in the past that despite their Ivy League masters degrees
in sociology, other people did not seem to respect their ideas nor were
they particularly interested in the activist's pet issues.  So
activists sought out the double shortcut of spending their time not
solving the problem themselves, and not convincing other people to
help, but convincing the government it should compel others to fix the
supposed problem.  This fascism of good intentions usually consists of
government taking money from the populace to throw at the activist's
issue, but can also take the form of government-compelled labor and/or
government limitations on choice.

It seems that there is a surprisingly large coalition ready to take this to its logical extreme:  A group called Service Nation is set to spend a ton of money lobbying the government to create a program to force every young person into servitude by 2020.

Not satisfied with taking 20-40% of our income to spend as they see fit, the government hopes also to be able to order around the labor of millions of young adults.   I feel like I am reading some bizarre historical re-enactment of the Soviet or Chinese youth programs.  This whole program, which I am tentatively going to label "happy face fascism," makes me so sick I can't even address it further tonight.  More later.

PS:  This is, not coincidentally, exactly the idea Obama has been pushing (here and here).  I say not coincidentally, because this is how one skirts stupid campaign finance laws - you get your supporters to take your top campaign planks and run with them as "independent" efforts that are not subject to campaign finance restrictions.

PPS: Just to head off an argument that came up last time in the comments, I have been a consistent opponent of the military draft as well.

Update:  I know the allusion is over-used, but we are in 1984-land when people keep using the term "voluntary universal national service" as do the leaders of this effort.  By universal, they mean that everyone has to do it.  So they are calling for "national service that everyone is required by law to perform but is voluntary." I do not think that word means what you think it means.

The solution is to develop a system of voluntary universal national
service for our country and for the world. To call upon all young
adults to take at least one year to learn the hard and rugged skills of
practicing idealism.

Yes, lets teach them the "hard and rugged skills" of being forced to do labor that no one is willing to pay for voluntarily, so must be performed by slaves instead.

Another thought:  TJIC made a relevant observation to this the other day:

I'm seeing more and more grudging praise for the efficiency of the Chinese dictatorship these days.

It tends to go something like this:

Sure, sure, they're horrible, and democracy is better, but if they
decide that they need to put in { more mass transit | a factory | a new
canal | an Olympic village }, they just tell everyone in the village
"move!", and the job gets done.

I get the same impression.  Service Nation is the end result of such thinking.

Clarification:  Service Nation denies they support mandatory service, and have removed the word "universal" from their site.  However, it should be noted that many of the prominent supporters and board members of Service Nation have individually advocated for mandatory service.  Also, no denial that they are seeking to create a new, massive government beauracracy.

Twisted Into Pretzels

A few weeks ago, Kevin Drum had a post on shale oil development, quoting from a speech by Congressman Ken Salazar.  It is hard to really excerpt the piece well, but my take on their argument against shale oil leasing is:

  • Shale oil technology is unproven
  • The government is leasing the shale oil rights too cheap
  • There is already plenty of shale oil land for development, so new leases won't increase development
  • This is just being done by the Bush Administration to enrich the oil companies
  • The administration is rushing so fast that Congress has not had the chance to put a regulatory regime in place

In many ways, the arguments are surprisingly similar to those against new offshore and Alaskan oil leasing.  Through it all, there is this sort of cognitive dissonance where half the arguments are that the oil won't be developed, and the other half seem to be based on an assumption that a lot of oil will be developed.  For example, how can the leases be "a fire sale" if shale oil technology is unproven and development is not likely to occur?  I would say that if these assumptions were true, then any money the government gets for a worthless lease is found money. 

Similarly, how are oil companies going to enrich themselves by paying for leases if the technology is not going to work and no development is going to occur?  This same bizarre argument became Nancy Pelosi's talking point on offshore oil leasing, by saying that oil companies were somehow already cheating us by not drilling in leases they already have.  Only the most twisted of logic could somehow come to the conclusion that oil companies were enriching themselves by paying for leases were they found no developable oil.

From the standpoint of Democratic Party goals, there is absolutely nothing bad that happens if the government leases land for oil shale or oil drilling and oil companies are unable to develop these leases  (there is some small danger of royalty loss if leases are not developed when they could be economically, but most private royalty agreements are written with sunset periods giving the lease-holder a fixed amount of time to develop the lease or lose it -- I don't know how the government does it).  The net result of "no drilling" or "oil shale technology turns out not to work" is that the government gets money for nothing. 

Here is the problem that smart Democrats like Drum face, and the reason behind this confusing logic:  They have adopted environmental goals, particularly the drastic reduction of CO2 in relatively short time frames, that they KNOW, like they know the sun rises in the east, will require fuel and energy prices substantially higher than they are today.  They know these goals require substantially increased pain and lifestyle dislocation from consumers who are already fed up with fuel-cost-related pain.  This is not because the Democrats are necessarily cruel, but because they are making the [faulty] assumption that the pain and dislocation some day from CO2-driven global warming outweighs the pain from higher priced, scarcer energy.

So, knowing that their policy goal is to have less oil at higher prices, and knowing that the average consumer would castrate them for espousing such a goal, smart Democrats like Drum find themselves twisted into pretzels when they oppose oil development.  They end up opposing oil development projects because in their hearts they want less oil around at higher prices, but (at least until their guy gets elected in November) they justify it with this bizarre logic that they oppose the plan because it would not get us oil fast enough.  The same folks who have criticized capitalism for years for being too short-term focused are now opposing plans that don't have a payoff for a decade or so.

At the end of the day, most Democrats do not want more oil developed, and they know that much higher prices will be necessary to meet their climate goals.  It sure would be refreshing to hear someone just say this. As I wrote at Climate Skeptic, the honest Democrat would say:

Yeah, I know that $4 gas is painful.  But do you know what?  Gas
prices are going to have to go a LOT higher for us to achieve the CO2
abatement targets I am proposing, so suck it up.  Just to give you a
sense of scale, the Europeans pay nearly twice as much as we do for
gas, and even at those levels, they are orders of magnitude short of
the CO2 abatement I have committed us to achieve.  Since late 2006, gas
prices in this country have doubled, and demand has fallen by perhaps
5%.  That will probably improve over time as people buy new cars and
change behaviors, but it may well require gasoline prices north of $20
a gallon before we meet the CO2 goal I have adopted.  So get ready.

Postscript:  By the way, oil companies have been trying to develop shale oil since the 1970s.  Their plans went on hold for several decades, with sustained lower oil prices, but the call by the industry to the government for a clarified regulatory regime has been there for thirty years.  The brief allusion in Salazar's speech to water availability is a valid one.  I saw some studies at Exxon 20+ years ago for their Labarge development that saw water availability as the #1 issue in making shale oil work.

PPS:  I mention above that the pain of fuel prices not only hits the wallet, but hits in term of painful lifestyle changes.  One of the things the media crows about as "good news" is the switch to mass transit from driving by a number of people due to higher oil prices.  This is kind of funny, since I would venture to guess that about zero of those people who actually switched and gave up their car for the bus consider it good news from their own personal life-perspective.  Further, most of the reduction in driving has been the elimination of trips altogether, and not via a switch to mass transit.  Yes, transit trips are up, but on a small base.  95%+ of reduced driving trips are just an elimination of the trip.  Which is another form of lifestyle pain, as presumably there was some good reason to make the trip before.

Update: Updated on Canadian Oil Sands production here.  Funny quote:

Fourth, and potentially most important, the U.S. "green" lobby is
pushing legislation that could limit purchases of oil sands products by
U.S. government agencies based on its GHG footprint.  It would be well
beyond stupid for Congress to prohibit our buying oil from Canada while
we increase buying it from countries that threaten our security.  But
just because something is stupid certainly does not mean Congress may
not do it.

The Rail Transit Debacle

The Anti-Planner links an absolutely scathing article in the Miami Herald on the absolute disaster they have made of their mass transit system.  This is a great summary:

Miami is just one more example of the points the Antiplanner keeps making about rail transit:

1. Transit agencies might run excellent bus systems. But when they
start building rail, they quickly get in over their heads by optimistic
forecasts, unforeseen costs, and the sheer humongous expense of
building dedicated transit lines.

2. Though all rail systems require periodic expensive maintenance,
few transit agencies set aside any money for this because it is easier
to spend the money now and let future managers worry about the future.

3. Though the rail systems are usually built to serve downtown
white-collar workers, in the end it is the transit-dependent people who
rely on buses who pay the cost.

4. There is only one thing rails can do that buses can't do better,
faster, and more flexibly, and that is spend a lot of your money.

I would like to observe one other thing at work in the Miami example that looks to be exactly what we are facing here in Phoenix in the next election.  Miami offered up a transit tax referendum for something like $800 million.  They promised a mix of highway improvements and rail.  In several cases, including the upcoming referendum in Phoenix, I have tried to warn people that the people who put these referendums together are rail-ophiles.  They have learned, however, that rail alone won't sell a bond issue or tax, so they throw in a bunch of highway improvement promises, which people really will pay for, as window dressing.  Often, however, these improvements never get done, as they are empty promises to sell the tax.  We see exactly this in Miami:

But five years and more than $800 million later, the county has spent more
than half the new money on routine Transit operations and maintenance while adding 1,000
jobs to the payroll.

   There were initial achievements. The county added 11 million miles of bus service, gave
free rides to seniors, and briefly experimented with 24-hour rail. It spent $40 million on
hundreds of tiny public-works projects....

   For example, here is the cost estimate that was attached to the 44 road projects that
county commissioners asked for: $0. The projects have since been estimated to cost
$428.2 million.

   Nor was any money earmarked for an unspecified number of flyover intersections on the
list of promised improvements. Such projects, which involve raising an existing road to
pass over another, cost as much as $18 million apiece today. None have been built.

So this tax was sold in part as a highway improvement tax, but $0 was actually budgeted.  The highway piece was a lie to sell the tax.  Beware Phoenicians.

Taking A Peak Inside the Sausage Factory

Our governor is pushing for a one percentage point increase in the state sales tax as well as increased developer impact fees to fund a series of transportation projects.  Like most modern transportation bills, they are sold as a way to improve state road and highway capacity (something most people support), but it turns out that these projects are but window-dressing. Much of the money in the proposed bill goes to a series of dubious mass transit projects, including the oft-discussed mythical passenger rail line between Tucson and Phoenix.  None of these projects make sense in spread out, low density cities like Phoenix or Tucson that have no real city core, which is why they face a lot of opposition.

Well, our governor has cut a deal to try to get more support for her pet projects, and boy does it look ugly:

Some Republican
state lawmakers on Monday blasted a "backroom deal" between Gov. Janet
Napolitano and a Valley home-builders group that would exempt
residential developers from sharing a portion of the costs of a major
transportation initiative in exchange for a $100,000 contribution to
boost the signature-gathering campaign.

Under the agreement, the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona
agreed to withdraw their opposition to a state trust-land initiative
backed by Napolitano. In return, developer impact fees would no longer
be part of the transportation initiative's approach to raising money.

We Know How You Should Be Living

TJIC has a nice post on the arrogant paternalism inherent in urban planning.

The Party is making decisions about how we should live, and then, eventually, telling us about them.

The aim is to have 80 percent of new housing and new jobs in cities
and larger municipal centers such as Framingham, Peabody, Norwood, and
Marlborough. That would enable more people to walk or use mass transit
and thereby reduce traffic and pollution, according to the plan.

So, of the million possible variables, the ones they've chosen to
optimize are the minimization of the average distance one has to drive
to get to work.

Things they have implicitly then de-prioritized:

  • open space per family
  • privacy per family
  • floor space per family
  • minimal overall commute time per individual
  • noise abatement
  • etc.

I liked this bit:

The problem is, the statists don't really care about green space per
se. They care about government owned (or at least government
controlled) green space. Which is better? 20 acres of land lumped into
a government owned wetland sanctuary that no one ever visits, or 20
houses, each on 1 acre lots, covered with gardens, yards, trees, and
tree-houses? The government employee doesn't get to meddle in the
individual lots, so he's always going to say that the government owned
patch is better.