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Time to Shut Down the DC Metro Rail

Randal O’Toole

Highway traffic in the Washington DC metro area returned to 80 percent of its pre??pandemic levels in July, but DC transit carried only 16 percent as many riders as it did in July 2019. Metro’s own surveys have found that most of its riders don’t plan to return until and unless an effective COVID vaccine is found.

Given this, there is no better time to simply shut down the Metro rail system, thus saving taxpayers billions of dollars. Conceived with racist assumptions and faulty financial projections, the system has proved to be a financial and operational disaster. The region would do better rely more on cars and, in some places, buses.

When the system was originally designed, planners knew it would cost more than buses so they planned to build lines only into white neighborhoods because they figured blacks wouldn’t be able to afford the fares. When blacks objected, a line built into black neighborhoods in Anacostia was followed by a concerted effort by the DC government to gentrify the neighborhoods, forcing many families out.

As of 2018, the median income of DC??area transit commuters was more than $60,000 a year, which was 8 percent more than that of all workers in the region. More DC transit commuters earn above $75,000 a year than earn less than $35,000 a year.

Despite the high incomes of transit riders, fares don’t come close to covering the costs of running the system. As author Zachary Schrag documents in his book, The Great Society Subway, the original planners of the 103??mile rail system expected that fare revenues would cover 100 percent of operating costs and 80 percent of capital costs. As of 2018, fares covered barely half the operating costs and have paid for none of the capital costs, which turned out to be four times greater than anticipated.

The federal and local governments dealt with high costs by having the federal government pay most of the capital costs while local governments paid most of the operating subsidies. What neither took into account was that rail systems must be completely rebuilt about every 30 years. Metro’s staff warned as early as 2002 that the system would need billions for capital replacement over the next decade, but no one came up with the money.

Instead of rehabilitating the system, Virginia and Maryland politicians demanded that the federal government fund construction of the Silver Line in Virginia and Purple Line in Maryland, which together cost nearly $10 billion. The Silver Line actually harmed the system as a whole because it shares tracks under the Potomac River with the Blue and Orange lines, which were running at capacity during rush hours. Adding Silver Line trains meant cutting Blue Line trains that were carrying more riders than the Silver Line trains.

Meanwhile, the system decayed as predicted. In 2009, when the computerized signaling system that kept trains from crashing into one another failed, a crash killed nine people. Metro’s response to was to turn off the computers and let train operators, whose previous job had mainly been to open and close doors at the stations, drive the trains, resulting in jerky service and more crashes. When smoke in the tunnels from worn??out insulators killed a passenger in 2015, Metro’s response was to shut down its lines to inspect all of the insulators. But the fundamental problem of worn??out equipment remains, with at least two further smoke incidents in the last year alone.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the 2009 crash criticized Metro’s “lack of a safety culture.” More than a decade later, that hasn’t changed. A safety audit published last week by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission found that the agency still did not have a safety culture.

Metro often had rail operations employees working longer hours than specified by its own safety guidelines. It allowed employees to work with broken equipment and sometimes attempted “to manipulate safety event investigations that create unacceptable safety risks.” Metro, added the audit, was a “toxic culture workplace” that “includes racial and sexual comments, harassment, and other unprofessional behavior.”

When Metro’s current CEO, Paul Wiedefeld, took the job in November 2015, he promised to improve the safety culture. Instead, he has been besieged by revenue and budgetary problems that were made worse by the coronavirus. Last week, Metro released a budgetary report to its board projecting that–despite having received nearly a billion dollars from the CARES Act–it would have to cut 39 bus lines, reduce service on all the rail lines, and make numerous other cuts just to finish its current fiscal year–and the agency has no idea how it will continue operating next year unless the federal government provides another bailout.

All of these problems show that the region can’t afford to keep running the trains and will have to shut them down sooner or later. Given the few number of riders being carried at present, the best time to do so is now when it will cause the least disruption. 

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The Smokey View from the Northwest

Randal O’Toole

There are no clouds in the central Oregon sky today, but we are nonetheless living in dim times. With active wildfires on all sides of my home, we have some of the worst air pollution in the world.

It’s hard not to feel apocalyptic right now. In just four days, around 3 percent of western Oregon has burned, destroying hundreds of homes and other structures and forcing 80,000 people to evacuate. The good news is that it was not 500,000 people as reported in the media, but still, 80,000 is a lot, and many no longer have homes to return to.

I’ve been monitoring wildland fire policy for more than two decades, and this is the worst I have lived through. Still, this is far from a record year: though there have been lots of fires in the Northwest and northern California, fires are below average in southern California and much of the rest of the country.

One reason why we have seen bigger fires in recent years is that the Forest Service and other agencies have changed their firefighting tactics. For example, the Beachie Creek Fire near us was started by lightning on August 16. Located in a steep, inaccessible part of the Willamette National Forest, it smoldered on about 10 acres for ten days or so, then slowly increased over the following ten days to around 775 acres, then blew up, burning 132,000 acres in one ten??hour period–meaning it torched three acres per second–destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least two people.

A few decades ago, the Forest Service would have dropped smokejumpers by parachute on August 16 or 17 and had them directly attack the fire. But too many burnovers killing entire crews has rightly made the agency more protective of the lives of on??the??ground firefighters. Instead, it risks the lives of helicopter and air tanker pilots, five of whom have already died this year, having them dump water and fire retardant on the fires. During three weeks, they spent well over a million dollars doing this on the Beachie Creek Fire with dubious results.

Even when fires don’t escape, the tactics today emphasize indirect attack, meaning backfires, instead of direct attack. The result is that far more acres are burned, many of them lit by the firefighters themselves. Thus, based on acres burned, we can’t really draw conclusions about whether climate change or other factors beyond our control is resulting in more fires.

There are several major schools of thought about fire policy. One is that climate change has made fires worse and so we need to stop using fossil fuels and completely change our lifestyles to reverse this. I don’t buy this, as both the historic and prehistoric record (using things like soil profiles and tree ring analysis) indicate that an average of about 1 percent of the West has burned every year for thousands of years. After accounting for changes in firefighting tactics, I don’t see any indication that more acres are burning today because of climate change.

(On the other hand, and contrary to many climate??skeptic web sites, we can’t use the historic fire record to conclude that climate change isn’t happening either. The record shows that far more acres burned in the 1930s and 1940s than in the last few decades. What the record doesn’t say is that, in those years, the Forest Service opposed prescribed burning, which was widely practiced in the South, so it spitefully counted all acres of prescribed burning as wildfires.)

A second school of thought is that the 75 percent reduction in federal land timber sales between 1990 and 2000 is the problem, and if only we could increase timber cutting the forests would be healthier. The difficulty with this view is that timber cutting actually leaves forests more vulnerable to fire as it removes the big wood that isn’t very flammable and brings the fine wood and needles down from high in the air to the ground, where it is very flammable.

A third school of thought is that more than a century of fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up in the forests, making them more vulnerable to fire. This school calls for widespread fuel treatments, either physically removing the brush and small trees or burning them in place. In fact, wildland firefighting was never successful enough to have a significant impact on forest fuels. A Forest Service report several years ago concluded that the vast majority of western forests have not been ecologically changed by fire suppression.

The Forest Service currently spends $430 million a year on fuel treatments and Department of Interior and state agencies spend even more. Yet all the fuel treatments in the world aren’t going to save your house if firebrands from a lightning??caused fire seven miles away are blown by 50 mile??an??hour winds to your cedar??shake roof, which is what happened to many homes in Oregon last Monday.

My own view is that people in the West have to recognize that we live in a fire zone where roughly 1 percent of the natural landscape is going to burn each year no matter what we do. Instead of blaming these fires on public or private forest managers, we need to take responsibility to protect our own property and not rely on the Forest Service or other adjacent landowners to protect us.

That means the roofs and other parts of our our homes and other structures must be made of fireproof materials such as asphalt shingles, not cedar shakes. The walls can be wood, but our landscaping needs to follow defensible space or firewise principles so that, if it catches fire, it won’t generate enough heat to light structures on fire. The homes themselves should be at least 100 and preferably 150 feet apart so that, if one catches fire, the radiant heat from that fire doesn’t light up its neighbors.

Research by Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen has shown that such defensible space is both necessary and sufficient to protect structures from wildfire. It’s necessary because all the prescribed burning in the world won’t save your home if a burning ember from a lightning??caused fire 8 miles away lands on your lovely cedar??shake roof. It’s sufficient because it will protect your home even if neighboring forest landowners don’t do any prescribed burning or other fuel treatments at all.

This also means changing land??use policies adopted in California and other western states that promote dense housing. Urban??growth boundaries and zoning codes that mandate numerous homes on each acre even on urban fringes are asking for those homes to burn in wildfires. Cities need a buffer of low??density homes on one??acre lots to protect them from wildfires, and the lack of such a buffer is one reason why so many homes in Napa and other northern California counties have burned in the last few years.

If all homes and other structures in the wildland??urban interface met defensible??space standards, much of the $430 million that the Forest Service spends each year on hazardous fuels would not be needed, nor would much of the $2.5 billion or more that it spends on fire suppression.

Incidentally, the evacuation of 80,000 Oregonians should also alert transportation planners of the importance of having a good road network. Too many states and cities are trying to reduce road capacities. It’s called a “road diet” and it makes key evacuation routes unnecessarily congested. In 2018, a road diet in Paradise, California was blamed for the deaths of several people who were burned in their cars when they were stuck in traffic.

Before the Beachie Creek Fire blew up, the Forest Service posted a photo of two agency employees watching helicopters ineffectually dump water on the fire. The photo was titled “A Teachable Moment.” I hope the lesson we learned is that we need to take care of our own property and not depend on the government to protect us from natural wildfires that are beyond anyone’s control.

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The Idea of New York Is Dying

Randal O'Toole

A recent blog post by investor and stand??up comedian James Altucher arguing that New York is dead forever attracted the hostility of many New Yorkers. Fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote a New York Times op??ed calling Altucher a “whimpering putz.” Mayor De Blasio, naturally, agrees with Seinfeld.

The New York Post told Altucher to “drop dead,” noting that, if he really loved the city as he claims (he co??owns a comedy club there), he would stay and do his part to revive it. Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi suggests that New York is not only not dying, “the rich are moving out and the city is being reborn.”

With all due respect to these people, I think they missed the point of Altucher’s argument. New York as a city is going to survive. But New York as an idea, a place that builds wealth and fulfills dreams like nowhere else in America, will not. Not to put too many words in Altucher’s mouth, what is really dead is the idea that New York City or Manhattan densities are necessary to have a healthy economy and diverse culture.

Altucher pointed out that the pandemic has taught high??income people that they don’t need to deal with the congestion, high costs of living, homeless people, crime, and other stresses of the densest city in America. The things that made New York attractive are disappearing: lots of restaurants are permanently closed; lots of entertainment businesses promise to reopen next year, but no one knows if they will.

Mahdawi and others may be smugly happy to see rich people leave, which she hopes will make the city more affordable. But those rich people provide the start??up capital and the initial demand for all of the businesses that made New York City exciting.

The key to any thriving economy is exports, and what New York City exported was money. If the owners of that money decide they don’t have to be in New York City to export it, then the city loses the biggest driver of its economy.

The big danger is that the city will still be unaffordable after the wealthy people have left. Sure, rents will decline, but not enough to make it truly affordable. In 2017, median home prices in Manhattan were more than a million dollars, which was 9.4 times median family incomes. To be “affordable” (i.e., less than three times incomes) home prices would have to drop by more than two??thirds — much more if the exodus of high??income people pushes down median family incomes.

New York City’s construction costs have been the highest in the world. The people who paid those costs to build housing aren’t going to accept 25 percent or less of what they were expecting for the condos and apartments they have built. Instead, they’ll figure out other uses for that space and it won’t be available as housing.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a Cato Institute debate with market urbanist Scott Beyer over housing and land??use regulation, and Beyer’s main argument was that density has a value to businesses and personal interactions. It is quite likely that the COVID-19 virus has reduced that value to less than its cost.

Richard Florida got famous telling cities that what he called the “creative class,” the people who build wealth, were attracted to density. He still thinks they will return after the pandemic is over. But there is a very real chance that they won’t, and the longer the pandemic lasts the greater that chance will be.

After all, they will realize, even if someone finds a cure or vaccine for the virus, there will be something after that and something else after that. If they can conduct their businesses living and working in lower densities — and judging from the current state of the stock market, they can — then many will not feel the need to return.

The next time you fly into Newark, La Guardia, or JFK, there will still be skyscrapers across the Hudson or East river. If you want to watch a baseball game, the Yankees and the Mets will still be playing. But will New York still be the world’s wealthiest city, with more millionaires than any other city in the world? Quite possibly not. And the exodus of the wealthy is just a symptom of the city’s real problem, which is that the people who once made it great no longer believe it is necessary.

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A Project That’s No Longer Needed

Randal O'Toole

A proposed new 2??mile transit line connecting LaGuardia Airport with the New York subway system will cost $2 billion, make traffic congestion worse, dump 87,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and probably isn’t necessary due to the pandemic. The first three conclusions come from a draft environmental impact statement(DEIS) released last week by the Federal Aviation Administration, while the fourth is based on the huge changes in transportation habits that have already taken place as a result of the pandemic.

LaGuardia, the New York area’s smallest commercial airport. Photo by Patrick Handrigan.

According to the environmental impact statement, the new transit line, which would be an automated people mover, is needed primarily because of “increasing and unreliable travel times” to the airport as a result of traffic congestion. A survey of air travelers conducted by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (which runs the airport) found that slightly more than half of air travelers took taxis or ride??hailing services to the airport, another 36 percent took a car, and close to 6 percent took courtesy shuttles. Only 6.2 percent took mass transit.

A ridership study conducted for the DEIS projected that the people mover would increase use of mass transit to get to the airport to 10.1 percent. A few people taking taxis or other autos would let themselves be dropped off at the people mover station rather than the airport to avoid congestion, but most would still use highways to get to the airport. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the effects of the pandemic, which are likely to increase auto and reduce transit use to the airport.

How well does getting 3.9 percent of people out of their cars and onto transit relieve congestion? According to the traffic analysis conducted for the DEIS, it doesn’t. The analysis modeled traffic at a variety of intersections and highways around the airport and found that building the people mover would result in more intersections and roads whose traffic would be rated E (which is really crowded) or F (which is near??gridlock) than if the line isn’t built. So it fundamentally fails to meet its primary purpose, which is to relieve congestion.

Page 3–49 of the DEIS projects that constructing the people mover would produce 86,836 tons of carbon??dioxide??equivalent greenhouse gases. According to page 3–50, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the people mover would reduce driving enough to save a little over 6,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, meaning the construction cost would be recovered by the savings in a little over 14 years. However, this assumes travel patterns prevalent before the pandemic, which is unlikely. It also assumes that automobiles in the future will emit as much greenhouse gases as they do today, which is also unlikely given the growth of electric and other more??fuel??efficient cars.

We don’t yet know exactly how the pandemic is going to affect long??distance air travel. But it is practically certain to reduce short??distance air travel. People who were on the fence between flying and driving short distances are likely to decide that taking a personal vehicle is safer than using a crowded airport and crowded planes.

A disproportionate share of travel from LaGuardia is on smaller planes going shorter distances.

Of New York’s three main airports — LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark — LaGuardia is the one that mainly serves shorter flights. JFK is mainly for international flights and Newark does more transcontinental flights, while LaGuardia has no flights to cities west of Denver. While few people are likely to substitute driving for flying to Denver, many may substitute driving for flying from, say, New York to Burlington, Charlotte, Richmond, or other destinations less than 400 or so miles away. That means the pandemic will have greater long??term effects on LaGuardia than on New York’s other two airports, which is a major strike against building the people mover.

Comments on the DEIS must be submitted to the FAA by October 5. Given that the DEIS predicts that the project will fail to achieve its primary purpose of relieving congestion, the people mover made no sense even before the pandemic. But given the pandemic, this is a classic example of a project that should be shelved until we can get better information on how people’s travel habits will change in the long run.

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Transit “Is Riddled with Inequities”

Randal O'Toole

The transit industry has developed two systems: one for “choice” riders and one for “dependent” riders, “that is to say white and Black,” says urban planner Christof Spieler. A former member of the Harris County (Houston) Metro board of directors, Spieler points out one place where Metro offers riders a choice between bus??rapid transit and a local bus. The BRT is three times faster than the local bus, has plusher seats, and costs $3.25 a ride compared with $1.25 for the local bus.

Spieler makes many good points and I am glad that an urban planner is finally taking this issue seriously. Unfortunately, his inevitable solution — that we should spend more money on transit — is wrong.

Spieler never mentions the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union case, in which the NAACP represented minorities whose bus service had declined so that Los Angeles Metro could pay for new rail transit lines to middle??class neighborhoods, but maybe he was unfamiliar with that case. As documented here, LA Metro was ordered by the court to restore bus service for ten years, which it did. Bus ridership recovered, but as soon as the ten years was up, it cut bus service and went back to building rail transit.

The reason, it seems, is not that transit agencies are racist, but that most big??city transit planners design transit systems that they themselves would use, not systems needed by people who are too poor to have cars. Since bus??rapid transit and rail transit cost more than local buses, their fares should be higher, and such higher fares are no more inequitable than filet mignon costing more than hamburger.

Nor is this really about race; as with so many other things, it’s actually about class. Nationwide, only 9.8 percent of blacks take transit to work. Yes, that’s more than the 3.1 percent of non??Hispanic whites who take transit to work, but it still means that more than 90 percent of blacks don’t rely on transit.

The problem for transit agencies is that the fabled transit??dependent people have nearly disappeared. Since 1970, about when most public transit agencies were getting started, the share of households that have no cars has fallen by 50 percent — and most workers who don’t have cars don’t take transit to work anyway. In 2018, just 5.2 percent of people whose incomes were less than $25,000 took transit to work; most of them instead drove to work just like people in every other income class.

Having lost that market, transit agencies are desperate to justify their existence, so they aim for higher??income markets by building rail transit, bus??rapid transit, and various commuter transit systems. The result is the fastest??growing market for transit is people whose incomes are greater than $75,000 a year. Since it costs taxpayers more to carry these people than to carry low??income people in ordinary buses, this policy can’t be justified — especially since most of the taxes used to pay for transit are regressive.

Instead of lamenting the low??income people aren’t being catered to with fast transit vehicles and plush seats, Spieler should be pleased that the vast majority of low??income people have escaped their dependence on an inferior transportation system. On the basis of time, convenience, and cost, transit isn’t competitive with the automobile anywhere outside of Manhattan.

Instead of demanding more subsidies for transit aimed at making it “equitable” — an impossibility so long as most people have access to cars — Spieler should oppose regressive transit taxes and work with groups like On the Road Lending, a Dallas non??profit that is helping low??income people buy cars without having to pay exorbitant interest rates.

The great thing about highways is they are truly equitable. Yes, a Bentley may be a little more comfortable than a Nissan Versa, but both have equal access to the nation’s 4 million miles of highways, roads, and streets. That kind of access and equitability can’t be matched by transit in any way, so social justice warriors should give up on transit and focus on automobiles.

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Last Century’s Transportation Ten Years from Now

Randal O'Toole

With a presidential candidate known as Amtrak Joe, a House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee proposal to triple funding for intercity passenger trains, and a proposal before Congress to spend $205 billion on high??speed trains, it is likely that increased subsidies to Amtrak and faster trains will be promoted in the near future. That makes it worthwhile to look at how the last major push to spend money on passenger trains worked out.

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama persuaded Congress to spend $10.1 billion on “high??speed intercity passenger rail” projects. Obama used other federal funds to bring this up to $11.5 billion, all of which was partially matched by at least $7 billion in state and local funding. After ten years, at least some of those projects must be working, right?

Of course not. I recently reviewed the ten major projects that were funded with this money, ranging from $116 million spent in Maine to $4 billion in federal money and a total of at least $10.5 billion from all sources spent on California high??speed rail. The results are even worse than I expected.

A comparison of Amtrak’s 2009 timetables with the timetables for 2019 shows that all of this money produced almost no results. In one corridor, trains were speeded up from 40.7 to 45.0 miles per hour. In another corridor, frequencies were increased from two to four trains per day. Finally, new train service was provided to two towns in Maine whose combined population is under 30,000 people.

That’s it. Average speeds in the Maine corridor actually declined, as they did in two other corridors. The California high??speed rail project, of course, will probably never be completed. Amtrak spent $1.6 billion on the money pit known as the Northeast Corridor, which has a $52 billion maintenance backlog, so the money didn’t lead to any real improvements.

One of the more tragic results was in the state of Washington, which accepted $800 million to speed up and increase the frequencies of trains between Seattle and Portland. The speed??up wasn’t going to result from faster trains but from a new, shorter route. Although Congress had passed a law requiring the installation of positive train control, the state didn’t bother. On the first day of running trains on the new route, the engineer, unfamiliar with the route, missed a speed limit sign and crashed the train, killing three people. Today, trains in the corridor are no faster or more frequent than they were in 2009.

Personally, I love passenger trains, but the fact is that they are obsolete. They are expensive, requiring large amounts of infrastructure which must be precisely maintained at great expense. They are inflexible, so if travel patterns change they are left in the dust. They take years to plan and build, and no one really knows what transportation will be needed a year from now much less a decade from now. Unlike highways and airports, high??speed trains could never be expected to pay for themselves. Whether high??speed or conventional??speed, passenger trains are a technology we can live without.

In the end, it is pretty clear that this $18 billion was completely wasted, at least as far as improving passenger trains goes. That won’t be surprising to critics of megaprojects, but it should give pause to those who think that spending billions or trillions on an obsolete form of travel will improve the quality of life in America. For a complete review of all ten corridors, see my policy brief.

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Freeways: The Egalitarian Transportation

Randal O'Toole

In the past month or so, we’ve seen the destruction or defacement of statues of Confederate generals, the Father of our Country who was also a slaveowner, the Great Emancipationist, the Great Reconstructionist, and an Abolitionist. So it’s not exactly surprising that someone has proposed to bulldoze urban freeways because of the myth that they were located by racists through black neighborhoods.

There are a lot of institutions associated with American racism that I would abolish long before worrying about freeways. Start with public schools, many of which used to be segregated by law and many of which are still segregated, even in (perhaps especially in) the North.

Second would be public transit. Remember Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott? Many state laws used to require that people of color sit only in the back of the bus and give up their seats if a white person wanted them. Many transit systems, including those in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco??Oakland, are still semi??segregated today, with rail lines built to serve white neighborhoods while buses serving black and Hispanic neighborhoods are cut back to pay for the trains.

Of course, there are good reasons to get rid of public schools and public transit anyway, which are that they are heavy burdens on taxpayers that are failing to accomplish the goals set out for them. These reasons don’t apply to freeways, which mostly pay for themselves and which do a good, if not great, job of moving large numbers of people.

To deconstruct the myth that freeways have a racist heritage, we have to go back to 1890, when most urban jobs were in factories, most factories were downtown, and most factory workers weren’t paid enough for them to afford to take streetcars to work every day. As a result, they had to live within walking distance to work.

Since a single downtown block could hold thousands of factory jobs, residential blocks also had to hold thousands of people within walking distance of the factories. In big cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston, developers built five? and six??story walk??up apartments that often housed entire families in a single room. In smaller cities, the apartments were typically two? to three??stories, but often just as crowded. These buildings were called tenements and even in 1890 they were considered a disgrace.

After 1913, Henry Ford’s moving assembly lines increased worker productivity and pay enough that they could afford to buy cars and move to the suburbs. The factories also moved to the suburbs because moving assembly lines were more land??intensive than the previous factors. The tenements emptied out, but the buildings remained, occupied at lower densities and earning less rents for their owners.

After World War II, urban planners developed the theory that neighborhoods filled with such tenements were “blighted,” meaning no single landowner would spend money replacing or rehabilitating the buildings because no one would pay enough rent to justify the cost if they had to live next to other buildings that were slums. Only the government, the planners reasoned, could clear the slums.

So, in 1949, planners convinced Congress to create a federal slum clearance and urban renewal program. Properties were taken from landowners through eminent domain, residents were evicted, the tenements were bulldozed, and something else — sometimes low??income housing, sometimes luxury apartment buildings, sometimes civic monuments such as theaters and public buildings — would be built to replace them.

In 1955, the Bureau of Public Roads, with President Eisenhower’s blessing, presented its proposal for an Interstate Highway System to Congress, The engineers proposed to build highways between states but around most cities. People still had a conception of the different roles of federal and state governments in those days, and the engineers figured the federal government would build the interstate roads and if the states or cities wanted urban roads, they would build such roads themselves.

Urban mayors were having none of it, however. They wanted their “fair share” of federal spending, so they convinced Congress to kill the bill. The engineers went back to the drawing boards and added 3,000 miles of urban freeways to their plans. This satisfied the mayors, and Congress approved the bill in 1956.

The urban planners saw this as a great opportunity to expand their slum clearance programs. It was the planners, not the engineers, who routed the freeways through tenement neighborhoods. The mayors strongly supported this as they figured that buildings along the freeways would have their values enhanced by the roads and‘ end up paying more taxes than the tenements had been paying.

Many of the residents of the tenements were blacks, but many others were recent immigrants: Italians, Eastern European Jews, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other Hispanics. The blacks were victims of systematic racism that has kept black per capita incomes between 55 and 60 percent of white per capita incomes to this day. The immigrants simply hadn’t yet earned enough money to move to the suburbs. In my former hometown of Portland, a black neighborhood was bulldozed to build Interstate 5, while an Italian??Jewish neighborhood was bulldozed to build Interstate 405.

Time has disproven the theory that blighted neighborhoods couldn’t recover on their own. The urban planners were heavy??handed meddlers, but they weren’t racists; they weren’t even really classists (discriminating against lower classes).

Instead, they were architecturalists, discriminating against a type of architecture that most Americans didn’t want to live in, no doubt including most of the people who did live in them. After all, who wants to carry groceries up four or five flights of stairs? Ironically, today’s planners have come full circle and now discriminate in favor of four? and five??story housing projects, but that’s another story.

In any case, the freeways themselves are the epitome of anti??racism. Unlike public schools, the best of which are often open only to those who maintain promising scholastic records (which usually means whites and Asians), freeways are open to everyone. The freeways don’t care if you are driving a Rolls??Royce or a Yugo; you have the same right of access to them.

Even tollways don’t really discriminate. Most non??tolled freeways are paid for out of gas taxes, which means everyone is paying for them as they use them. The same is true for tollways, which have the advantage that the tolls can be varied to prevent them from becoming congested. Even poor people sometimes have to get to certain places on time, so they benefit from variable??priced tollways as much as anyone else.

Before the automobile was the golden age of urban transit and intercity passenger trains. While many anti??auto people speak of this era with fondness, the reality is that it was only a golden age for the upper classes. As noted above, most factory workers couldn’t afford streetcars. Most people couldn’t afford intercity passenger trains. Until automobiles became popular, it is likely that more than half of all Americans never traveled more than 50 miles from where they were born, or did so only once or twice in their lives.

In 1920, at the height of urban transit and passenger train travel, the average American traveled well under 1,500 miles a year by these modes. Today, 92 percent of America households own an automobile and the average American travels 15,000 miles a year in such automobiles, making them the most egalitarian form of transportation in history.

So let’s keep the freeways and save our wrath for institutions that truly deserve it: institutions whose history of racism continues to this day.

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Can Federal Assets Cover the National Debt?

Randal O'Toole

The federal debt is $26.3 trillion and growing, having increased by a trillion dollars in just 40 days prior to last Friday. There’s too much complacency about the size of that debt, and much of this complacency can be traced to a 2013 study by the Institute for Energy Research estimating the value of federal land and energy resources to be around $200 trillion.

Since then, that study has been cited in Forbes, Time, MarketWatch, and by various bloggers, as well as President Trump’s staff, all of whom argue that don’t need to worry about the size of the debt because we can pay it off by selling federal assets. Unfortunately, this is based on a serious misreading of the IER study, mainly that the study used gross resource values, not the prices the federal government could get for its resources.

For example, the study assumed that oil is worth $100 a barrel, which is the price at a refinery. From this must be deducted the costs of finding, extracting, and transporting the oil to the refinery. The federal government’s share of the oil it sells was about $12 a barrel in 2013 and, with declining oil prices, about $9 a barrel in 2019.

The Institute for Energy Research may have understood the difference between gross and net values, but none of the people quoting them did. Moreover, I haven’t seen any indications that the institute bothered to correct these misinterpretations.

Worse, federal resources include so much oil, natural gas, and coal that it will take hundreds of years to extract it all. Federal coal reserves in the contiguous 48 states alone represent 1,300 years of American coal consumption. This means we can’t simply multiply the price of coal per ton by the number of tons owned by the federal government; we have to discount future coal mining by an appropriate interest rate.

Using a 3 percent discount rate, and assuming federal oil, gas, and coal is produced at a rate equal to half of all U.S. production (which is far faster than it is being produced today), all energy resources owned by the federal government are worth around $2 trillion, not $200 trillion. At a 4 percent discount rate, the value is reduced to $1.5 trillion. Even these numbers are questionable because more than 80 percent of the federal government’s oil is shale oil, which is the most expensive to extract, so royalties paid by oil producers for that oil will probably be lower than for other energy minerals.

Further, it is easily possible that energy substitutes for oil, gas, and coal will become available and economical long before the federal resources are exhausted. You can see my detailed calculations along with other caveats in this four??page paper.

To this can be added the value of federal lands. The federal government owns about 623 million acres of land. A 2015 paper from the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated the 464 million acres of land in the contiguous 48 states was worth an average of $4,100 per acre, for a total of $1.8 trillion.

There are problems with this number as well. First, about a third of these lands are in national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges that Congress would never dare to sell. To collect total revenues of $1.8 trillion, the remainder would have to be worth $7,200 an acre.

Perhaps half of the remainder are forest lands, but such lands are generally not worth $7,200 or even $4,100 an acre. Weyerhaeuser recently sold 630,000 acres of forest lands in Montana for $230 an acre. Even in the Oregon Coast Range, which has some of the most productive timberland in the world, land typically sells for under $4,000 an acre. Timber and timberland values are low because, says the Forest Service, the United States is growing timber far faster than it is cutting it.

Some of the remaining land might be considered agricultural and is used for grazing cattle and other domestic livestock. But the United States has 1.1 billion acres of private agricultural lands and only uses about 350 million of them to grow all the crops we need to feed ourselves and our livestock plus export food and grow corn for ethanol. Most federal lands in Alaska, incidentally, are also in national parks and/?or are tundra that certainly can’t be sold for $4,100 an acre.

In short, the federal government is even less likely to get $1.8 trillion for its land than it is to get $2.0 trillion for its energy resources. Selling all of these resources will cover, at most, 14 percent of the national debt as it stood last week, and probably a lot less. This means no one should be complacent about the size of the national debt thinking that the federal government has the resources to cover it.

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Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

Randal O'Toole

It’s an election year, so it must be time for some grandiose infrastructure proposals. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has come out with a $494 billion five??year transportation proposal, which is a huge boost from Congress’ 2015 five??year spending package of $305 billion. Congress writes a new highway & transit package about every five or six years; the 2015 one expires on September 30 of this year.

In response, the Trump administration is rumored to finally be coming out with his $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Candidate Trump famously promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure in 2016 in response to Hillary Clinton’s proposal to spend half a trillion on infrastructure. Campaign background documents clarified that he didn’t expect the federal government to spend $1 trillion but merely to give private investors incentives to spend that much money. Nothing much happened with that plan after he took office.

Now that the 2015 highway & transit package is about to expire, the Trump administration is planning to build its infrastructure plan around its renewal. On one hand, the administration wants to spend less money that DeFazio’s plan. On the other hand, it wants to reach the magic number of $1 trillion. To do both of these things, it will propose not a five??year plan but a ten??year plan that spends less each year than DeFazio’s plan but more in total.

Specifically, the draft Trump package would spend $810 billion on highways & transit over ten years. To round the total up to $1 trillion, another $190 billion is thrown in for rural broadband, 5G cell services, and other non??transportation infrastructure.

Even $81 billion a year is far more than the federal government collects in highway user fees. When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956 and dedicated federal gasoline taxes and other motor vehicle excise taxes to that system, Tennessee Senator Al Gore — the former vice-president’s father — insisted that it be on a pay??as??you??go basis, in other words, that the highways would only be built as fast as the money came in for them.

Gas taxes are supposed to be user fees, but because we call it a tax, it got caught up in the pledges not to increase taxes many Congressional candidates made in the 1990s. As a result, the federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1993. Considering inflation and increased fuel economy, that means drivers are paying only about 40 percent as much today for every mile they drive as they did in 1993.

Instead of raising gas taxes, Congress increased deficit spending. In 1996, Congress abandoned Gore’s pay??as??you??go rule and decreed that the federal government should spend as much money as was projected to come in, not how much it actually collected. This became important in the 2008 financial crisis, when gas tax and other highway revenues declined. Since then, Congress has supplemented those revenues with something like $140 billion in deficit spending.

The Trump plan would have less deficit spending than the DeFazio plan, but considerably more than the 2015 transportation bill. While the 2015 bill required about $100 billion in deficit spending over five years, considering that the pandemic is reducing highway revenues the Trump bill is likely to require about $400 billion over the first five years and more after that.

In 1991, Congress created a program called New Starts to fund up to 50 percent of the cost of light??rail and other obsolete transit lines. By increasing traffic congestion and promoting high taxes and wasteful spending, this program has probably done more damage to American cities than any federal program since the urban renewal projects of the 1950s. 

The DeFazio bill would increase the federal government’s share of New Starts money to 80 percent. More wisely, the Trump plan would cut this program altogether and spend money instead on rehabilitating existing rail lines. Since the transit industry has a $100 billion infrastructure backlog, rehabilitation makes more sense than building new lines, but in many cases it would be better to simply replace trains with buses when the rail lines wear out.

Although the Trump plan would end New Starts, one draft of the plan would create a brand??new program promoting intercity passenger trains. Since they are just as obsolete as light rail, this would merely trade in one wasteful program for another.

None of these plans take into account the effect of the pandemic, which is likely to accelerate the decline in transit ridership and growth of auto driving. Transit ridership was already falling before the pandemic, and the pandemic reduced ridership for some transit agencies by more than 95 percent. Many of these riders will never go back to transit. Any infrastructure bill passed by Congress needs to account for these changes and the futility of trying to get people out of their cars when cars are the safest way to travel during an epidemic. 

Trump’s promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan conflicted with his promise to “drain the swamp” or reduce federal bureaucracy. We don’t need a federal program for 5G cell networks; private industry will do that. We don’t need a federal program for rural broadband; having slower internet is one the trade??offs people accept for living in rural areas. We don’t need to continue, much less expand, a federal program for the obsolete transit industry. Finally, we don’t need to use deficit spending to subsidize highways; highway users will pay for the roads they drive on if we ask them to, especially if they know the money they are paying isn’t be diverted to transit boondoggles. 

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New York MTA Forbade Employees from Protecting Themselves by Wearing Masks

Randal O'Toole

Last week, I pointed outrecent report that blamed much of the spread of COVID-19 in New York City on the subway system. Recently, I’ve collected a series of memos suggesting that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is specifically culpable in this spread.

During the 2012 influenza epidemic, the MTA issued a policy directive stating that the agency would keep a six??week supply of sanitizer wipes, sanitizer gel, and N95 respirators on hand for use by employees. The directive specifically stated that the masks would be available for bus drivers, station attendants, train conductors, and cleaners, among others.

The first COVID-19 death in America was reported by Washington state on February 29, 2020. Rather than make its supposed six??week stockpile of masks available to its employees, MTA issued a memo on March 6 forbidding employees from wearing masks, even if they had their own masks. The memo worried that, if bus operators and station attendants were allowed to wear masks, it could lead to “panicked purchasing of facemasks … thereby putting health care providers and their communities at greater risk.”

Admittedly, as of March 6, there was still some debate among epidemiologists about whether healthy people needed to wear masks to protect themselves from the virus. But it is one thing to not mandate that masks be worn; it is quite another to forbid employees from wearing them. MTA also apparently failed to follow its own policy directive to maintain a six??week supply of respirators.

Nine days later, on March 15, MTA reported that the first of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. However, it wasn’t until March 30 that MTA rescinded its order forbidding employees from wearing masks. It may only have been a coincidence that MTA’s CEO, Patrick Foye, had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before or that the first deaths of two MTA employees from coronavirus had taken place on March 26.

On April 9, MTA announced that it had acquired 75,000 masks and had made them available to its workers “since March 1.” Technically, that was true, but it didn’t begin distributing them until around March 31. When employees complained that MTA had not made the masks available before then, MTA officials grumbled that it was “a transportation organization, not a medical provider.” So much for the 2012 policy directive.

On April 16, MTA finally issued a bulletin mandating that both employees and passengers wear masks. But by that time, more than 70 MTA employees had died of the coronavirus and at least 6,000 were in quarantine.

The MTA also signed a stipulation with the local transit union agreeing to pay out $500,000 in death benefits to any active employees who died after contracting the coronavirus, without debating whether the coronavirus was the actual cause of death or whether the employee had been infected when on duty. Employees who had lost friends to the virus suspect that the agency agreed to this to minimize the chance of lawsuits for much larger amounts due to its failure to protect its own employees.

Now that the virus may be winding down in New York, several city council members are urging Governor Cuomo to shut down the subways. In retrospect, however, it is clear that Cuomo should have shut MTA down as soon as he realized the pandemic would be serious.

As I noted last week, academic studies published in 2011 and 2018, among others, made it clear that, in the event of a pandemic, transit systems would likely be a major source of infection. One even found that people who rode transit were nearly six times more likely to have acute respiratory infections than those who didn’t.

Rather than shut down, however, MTA and other transit agencies continue to operate, insisting that they are providing a vital service for “essential workers.” The reality is that those essential workers would be much safer getting to work in private automobiles than taking transit.

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Why Are Transit Systems Still Running?

Randal O'Toole

Sit??down restaurants and bars have been shut down. Public officials are discouraging or even forbidding people from doing “unnecessary travel,” even if it is to visit a second home where they might be able to socially distance themselves better than in their first, more urban home. All sorts of other rules are being passed, all supposedly for our own good.

So why are urban transit systems still running? A 2018 study found that “mass transportation systems offer an effective way of accelerating the spread of infectious diseases.” A 2011 study found that people who use mass transit were nearly six times more likely to have acute respiratory infections than those who don’t. Not surprisingly, a study published a few days ago found that New York City subways were “a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle — of coronavirus infection.”

Transit agencies say they are helping “essential workers” go about their business. But if they are so essential, isn’t it important to find them a safe way of getting to work? If we truly cared about people’s safety, then transit services should have shut down at the same time we closed other non??essential businesses and asked people to stay at home.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that 44 percent of all transit rides in 2019 took place in the New York??northern New Jersey urban area and, at last count, 45 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities were recorded in this same area. When I pointed this out to Hawaiian transportation engineer Panos Prevedouros, he did a more detailed analysis showing a strong state??by??state correlation between transit and coronavirus.

Unfortunately, the transit lobby has successfully turned government??subsidized transit into a sacred cow. Transit is supposedly greener than driving when in fact it’s an energy hog. Transit is supposedly needed to help poor people get to work when in fact the people most likely to commute by transit are those earning more than $75,000 a year.

When the pandemic took away most of transit’s customers, instead of shutting down, which would have been the responsible thing to do, transit agencies demanded that Congress give them $25 billion, tripling federal support to transit this year. Thanks to transit’s sacred cow status, Congress agreed without any serious debate.

Effectively, Congress rewarded the agencies for spreading disease. It would have been better to use that money to help transit??dependent essential workers buy a car so they could have a safe way of getting to work.

Now transit agencies are beginning to fret that they’ll need even more money soon. Instead, it’s time to shut down transit systems for the duration, and start a debate about what kind of transportation we will need with the pandemic is over.

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Resilient Transportation in a World of Black Swans

Randal O'Toole

The coronavirus pandemic is what risk analyst Nassim Taleb would call a black swan, by which he means an unexpected event that sends major shock waves throughout the economy. Black swans are unpredictable in detail, but it is very predictable that they will take place. The September 11, 2001 attacks; 2005 Hurricane Katrina; and 2008 financial crisis were all black swans.

Because they are unexpected, we haven’t done enough to make our economy and society resilient in the face of black swans. Our transportation system, for example, was disrupted in one way or another by all of the above??listed black swans.

In order to thrive in spite of such events, the United States needs a resilient transportation system, one that can keep operating both during and after black??swan events. It must be relatively immune from terrorist attacks, protect its users from infectious diseases, help people flee and recover from natural disasters, and not be disabled by a loss of revenues during recessions and depressions.

The good news is we already have such a system. The bad news is that powerful political forces have been seeking to dismantle it for many years, and have been partially successful at doing so. The system is motor vehicles and highways, and they are quite possibly the most resilient transportation modes ever designed.

Highways are rarely targeted by terrorists because they are so diffuse and there are so many alternate routes if one road is disrupted. Personal automobiles are the safest form of transportation during a pandemic. The fact that 93 to 98 percent of American households have ready access to an automobile makes them the ideal mode for evacuation during natural disasters. And due to its low operating costs the highway system is far less likely to be disrupted by declining revenues during recessions and depressions than airlines, railroads, or transit systems.

Despite these advantages, anti??auto groups have joined with urban planners to reduce the resiliency of our transportation network. They have opposed construction of new roads to keep up with population growth and successfully reduced the capacity of many arterials in what are called road diets, which convert street lanes to exclusive bus or bicycle lanes.

Fortunately, most Americans intuitively understand the benefits of automobiles: 91.5 percent of American households own at least one car and 95.4 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car (and of those who don’t, 20 percent still manage to drive alone to work, possibly in employer??supplied cars). To make our transportation system more resilient, the most important thing government can do is get out of the way.

That means ending subsidies to all forms of transportation and funding it instead exclusively out of user fees. Ending subsidies to roads would add about a penny per passenger mile to the costs of driving; ending subsidies to urban transit would add $1.01 per passenger mile to the cost of riding transit.

We also need to stop road diets and instead construct new roads (funded, of course, out of user fees) to meet the needs of a growing population. I also suggest that states develop evacuation plans that would include reversing lanes on multi??lane roads so that more people can leave an area threatened by natural disasters such as fires, floods, storms, or volcanos with a minimum amount of congestion.

Without biasing people’s personal choices in favor of one mode or another, these and similar steps can help the United States stay prepared for the next Black Swan, whether it be a natural disaster, pandemic, or some other completely unexpected turn of events. For more information about why motor vehicles and roads are the most resilient form of transportation and how we can reinforce the resiliency of that system, see my recent policy brief on the subject.

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Congress Should Be Skeptical of Transit Industry Demand for Bailouts

Randal O'Toole

According to Metro Magazine, transit agencies are now “demanding” that Congress give them $25 billion in bailouts due to COVID-19. This is roughly two years’ worth of federal subsidies to transit.

Unlike the airlines and other industries that get all or nearly all of their revenues from customers, transit agencies already get 50 to 90 percent of their operating funds from taxpayers. That means that, even with no customers, they could keep buses and trains running at reduced schedules.

But why are transit systems running anyway? In this time of social distancing, the safest form of transportation is your private automobile.

Research has shown that “mass transportation systems offer an effective way of accelerating the spread of infectious diseases within communities.” Agencies say they are staying open for the sake of “medical staff, first responders and other essential workers.” In other words, they are encouraging health care and other “essential” people to use the form of transportation whose riders are nearly six times more likely to suffer from upper respiratory infections than those who don’t ride transit.

Rather than give transit even more subsidies on top of subsidies, we ought to shut it down. We should then seriously consider ending subsidies to transit systems when the current crisis is over. Even New York should think about alternate arrangements as its transit systems have more than $120 billion in debts, unfunded maintenance backlogs, and unfunded health care obligations making them clearly unsustainable.

Other than New York, transit is an environmental and social justice disaster, as I’ll show in a forthcoming Cato paper. It uses more energy per passenger mile than the average car In 484 out of 488 urban areas and emits more greenhouse gases in 480 of those urban areas.

Low??income commuters were significantly less likely to ride transit to work in 2018 than in 2010, while transit’s major growth market is people who earn more than $75,000 a year. They don’t need the kind of subsidies we are giving transit, and transit agencies certainly don’t need $25 billion in bailouts today.

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We Were Warned

Randal O'Toole

We were warned. After September 11, 2001, historian Stephen Ambrose told us what to do.

“One of the first things you learn in the Army is that, when you and your fellow soldiers are within range of enemy artillery, rifle fire, or bombs, don’t bunch up,” wrote Ambrose in the Wall Street Journal. Now that the U.S. was under attack from terrorists, Ambrose urged the nation as a whole to learn the same lesson: “don’t bunch up.” “In this age of electronic revolution,” he noted, “it is no longer necessary to pack so many people and office into such small space as lower Manhattan.”

Ambrose’s advice was ignored. Manhattan’s population has grown by 100,000 people since 2001. Fitting this number of people on a 23??square??mile island is only possible because of transit systems that force people to pack themselves into buses and railcars.

Now, we are getting another lesson. Due to a novel virus, we are told to “socially distance” ourselves. But no one is telling us to drive our cars instead of riding transit. Instead, the transit agencies are still operating and giving out platitudes like we’re “wiping down the handrails” every day. Seattle’s Sound Transit is firmly responding to the crisis by “putting posters on vehicles reminding everyone” to wash their hands. San Francisco BART says it is running ten??car trains all day so people can stand as far from one another as possible.

It’s not just transit. The 9/11 attack had no effect on urban planners’ demands that we pack ourselves into denser and denser cities. Just last week, an affiliate of Smart Growth America issued a report saying that we should deal with congestion through densification which, the report admitted, would make congestion worse. No doubt the same organization is now coming up with some spin claiming that we would all be immune to the coronavirus if only we lived in denser cities.

Density–bunching up–makes us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It makes us more vulnerable to novel diseases. It makes us more vulnerable to crime, invasions of privacy, and traffic accidents. It makes us waste more time in congestion. Contrary to planners’ claims, people living in dense areas also pay higher taxes.

Densities and transit??dependence also makes us more vulnerable to natural disasters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, 1,200 people died, mostly because New Orleans had the second??lowest rate of auto ownership (next to New York) of any major city in the country. At the time, some urban planners had the gall to say that fewer people would have died if auto ownership rates had been even lower. In fact, a few weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit Houston, which has much higher auto ownership rates. Four million people successfully evacuated, nearly all by car, and fatalities were only a tenth of Katrina’s.

Some might argue that a few events over two decades shouldn’t dictate social policy. But what should dictate social policy? Should it be the personal preferences of individuals and families? The overwhelming majority of those individuals and families prefer to live in low??density housing and travel in private automobiles. We don’t need social policy to change that.

Instead, urban planners want to impose policies on us to get people on transit and into high??density housing. They want urban??growth boundaries that make land too expensive for single??family housing. They want to dedicate arterial lanes to buses and bicycles so the increased traffic congestion will force people to stop driving. They aren’t even sure why they want these things, but they’ve managed to convince many people that single??family homes and private automobiles are wasteful and evil despite the fact that both are more energy efficient than the alternatives of multifamily housing and transit.

Urban planners have been wrong about almost all of their grandiose plans in the past. They once cleared “slums” that forced the people who lived in them to move to even lower??quality housing elsewhere. They once built high??rises for low??income people that proved so unlivable that some were torn down after as little as 17 years. They once tried to reduce toxic air pollution by increasing traffic congestion that actually increased that pollution. We should stop listening to them.

Despite the reassurances of transit agencies that have irresponsibly encouraged people to bunch up on their vehicles, transit ridership is down by 50 percent or more in many cities. That’s a good thing, but Amtrak and transit agencies are already asking for bailouts to make up for their loss of fare revenues, even though existing subsidies make up more than three??quarters of transit funds and half of Amtrak’s funds so they could easily deal with reduced ridership simply by reducing service.

The American Public Transportation Association has sent out a notice to its members asking them to support “$12.875 billion [in federal funding] for public transit to offset direct costs and revenue losses of COVID-19.” That would effectively double federal subsidies to an industry whose customer base has been declining for years.

The federal government has already said that transit agencies can spend federal funds dedicated to capital improvements on operating costs instead so they can continue to operate empty buses and trains. Everyone wants a bailout, but transit agencies, whose ridership has fallen in each if the past five years, are least deserving of one.

Don’t bail out government??subsidized transit. Better to end the subsidies completely and let the agencies wither and die. Instead, help people who don’t have automobiles buy fuel??efficient cars so they can drive in vehicles that are safe from novel viruses. Give transportation vouchers to people who can’t drive so they can use taxis, ride??hailing services, or private transit while encouraging transportation providers (at least during times like these) to sterilize the vehicles after each use.

These policies will cost a lot less than the $54 billion a year we are spending on urban transit, which is a blight on our society that most cities, other than New York, don’t even need. And New York won’t need it either once people and jobs stop bunching up and move out to lower??density areas, as happened years ago in Chicago and other big cities.

Next, stop encouraging densification. Stop subsidizing transit??oriented developments. Stop demanding that single??family neighborhoods be rezoned for denser housing (which, paradoxically, will actually make housing less affordable). Abolish urban??growth boundaries and other restrictions on development at the urban fringe. If someone wants to live in a high??density building, that’s fine, but let the market determine how people live, not urban planning dogma based on a crazy lady who was right to question the high??rise housing projects but wrong to think that, because she liked Greenwich Village, it was the model for all urban life.

Social distancing–not bunching up–is the appropriate response in the presence of a novel disease. But it will still be the appropriate response after the COVID-19 virus is no longer a threat. Let’s hope people learn the lesson this time. For that to happen, we may need some government distancing.

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