A Note on the Future of American Transportation

» Objections to the Obama Administration’s high-speed rail initiative are indicative of a broader distaste for any public transportation spending.

The glee expressed by the commentariat — most conservative, though some to the left — over the decaying support for investing in the nation’s intercity rail system has been a telling indication of the degree to which too many Americans are willing to gloss over the demands of this growing country.

Convinced both that it would be too expensive to construct anything we do not already have and that the United States is so hewn to its automobile-oriented, mid-century landscape that it cannot change, this perspective appears to be gaining currency. To ill effect.

Though the conversation being had on the future of American transportation has been framed in terms of high-speed rail, a mode that has captured the minds of some and raised fury in others, the truth is that the ideological war being waged against increased investment in infrastructure applies to all modes of transportation. The crusade against government spending extends universally — and that means bike paths, light rail, and highways.

Yesterday’s Economist story on the nation’s transportation problems notes some of the most serious problems facing the world’s biggest economy: Infrastructure spending that is less than half of that in Europe and a third of that in China in terms of GDP; far too few funds dedicated to the maintenance of existing infrastructure; very low gas prices compared to just about everywhere else. Considering the lack of investment, the results are unsurprising: Very high traffic fatality rates and some of the longest commute times in the developed world. Not to mention our continued dependence on the congestion-causing, sprawl-inducing, pollution-generating private automobile.

Since 1990, the U.S. has added 60 million inhabitants, equivalent to the population of France. And yet our inflation-adjusted federal spending on transportation has declined, not just per capita but overall. The fuel tax has remained at 18.4¢ per gallon on gasoline in real dollars since 1993. 18.4¢ in 1993 is worth 27¢ today, which means that we have effectively reduced our annual buying power for roads, transit, and intercity rail by about 30% over the past 18 years. With gas prices rising and no political incentive to increase taxes, we will reduce our buying power even more over the next decade.

Are we out of our minds?

For those who want to remedy these issues, the political atmosphere in Washington is toxic: There is simply no real leadership on increasing public investment. As if compelled to express themselves through theatrics, members of the House and Senate — on both sides of the aisle — are now threatening to vote against raising the American debt ceiling because they think we should “do something” about the deficit. Doing something for them, of course, means reducing government expenditures, whether in the form of aid to the poor or, in this case, transportation.

In transportation, we are shying away from major new projects like high-speed rail because they do not fit in with contemporary American commuting trends — forgetting the fact that the U.S. car reliance is a constructed one. We spent massively to create the highway network, and the result is that it is now the backbone of most Americans’ daily commutes. There was nothing natural about that process, and no reason to think that it cannot be reversed if we thought differently about our transportation system development. We are adding population at such a quick rate that we could encourage different commuting trends if we want to, but only if we invest the resources to do so.

Much of the recent conversation has been about increasing funds for transportation by “leveraging” private-sector funding through an infrastructure bank or public-private partnerships, usually in the form of toll roads. While these are realistic ways to increase investment, they can not be expected to keep up with the demand of Americans for more accessibility — especially if we have any interest in encouraging the sustainable growth of our cities.

Private sector actors will invest in new highways on greenfields because they can be assured that they can pay off initial construction costs through tolls. These projects, however, have the enormously problematic effect of increasing sprawl and decentralization by improving accessibility to places at the far extents of our metropolitan areas. In the long term, allowing such projects to dominate the nation’s infrastructure investments means a giveaway to developers of exurban communities. Should that be a national priority?

It is possible to collect funds by tolling urban roadways or selling those assets to private investors. Yet, as proven by the experience in New York, introducing charges on existing free roads is not a policy that can be implemented easily. Even if it were, in most places collected revenues by a private road corporation would only go to the upkeep of the affected roads and into the pockets of shareholders, not to a region’s broader transportation network.

Moreover, though it may sound appealing to simply sell off infrastructure assets to private corporations and tell them to take responsibility for charging customers for their use of the system, doing so would fail to absorb the negative externalities resulting from congestion, pollution, and second-order effects like suburban sprawl and income inequality. Transit systems, which operate at a loss because they offer social remedies to each of those problems, would have no hope surviving in such a system.

Indeed, the government must play the key role in developing the transportation system. Only the public sector, with the ability to take out loans at low interest rates, can make investments that are designed with the society’s long-term interest in mind. Only the government can accept losses in part of the transportation system because it recognizes that those losses represent gains to the society in other ways. To expect the private sector to fill those shoes would be absurd.

Though they influence it, political leaders react to the demands of their constituents; if popular sentiment were clearly oriented towards increased government investment in transportation, there would be political effort extended towards it. Can we criticize the lack of public interest in the subject? After all, we have spent the last decade yelling back-and-back across the aisle over proposed projects, calling every scheme a “boondoggle” no matter its individual merits. And despite going on a road binge for the past sixty years, congestion is worse than ever in most metropolitan regions. The suburban dream of shopping malls and single-family homes continues to exist for many, but it has degraded into abandonment and foreclosure for too many others. So why spend on more?

Those in favor of increased infrastructure investments must make a stronger argument demonstrating why investments today can result in more positive effects in the future. From my perspective, redefining transportation policy with an emphasis on efforts to improve our cities through densification and the choice of alternatives to the automobile will represent an important and realistic effort to improve the country’s transport system. Yet that cannot occur without serious support from public sector actors who appear to have left the country.

140 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Well said!

    That’s all I have to say, but your platform appears to disapprove of brevity (“Your comment was a bit too short”) so here are some more words.

  • On a related note, does anybody know when the DOT will release where the Florida HSR money will go?

    • AlanF

      No word that I have seen. But I would guess they might announce the re-allocated grants in the next several weeks. The clock is ticking on the $1.6 billion of stimulus money which has to be obligated and put to work by September, 2012 and finished by September, 2017. With over $9 billion in application requests, most of them worthy projects for funding, and combined with uncertain prospects for future funding in the next several years as discussed in this blog, not an easy decision to determine how to best divide up the $2.03 billion.

    • Maybe they’re waiting for the Florida Supreme Court to redecide this?

    • Woody

      My search skillz must be pathetic. I can’t find the date. And I know that my memory skillz have become pathetic. But iirc, LaHood said the grant announcements will be some months away, like August 1 or even later.

      The FRA is considering this set of applications de nevo, not just grabbing a billion’s worth from the top of the “almost” pile from the previous set. And in fact, many of the proposals are brand new, many others are new-and-improved. That’s because many states that simply weren’t ready with serious applications last round — yes, New York, I’m looking at you — got their act together and came up with proposals worth serious consideration this time.

      • Bob

        The Florida HSR money has begun to trickle out of DC:

        http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-high-speed-rail-0505-20110504,0,7779074.story

        First stop $186 million in Illinois.

        • Woody

          Keeping a secret — with Congress in on it? Impossible!

          “The U.S. Department of Transportation notified Congress this week that $400 million of the $2.4 billion in funding that the governor of Florida rejected has been reprogrammed to other states.”

          I came here looking for news of the other $214 million revealed to Congress. The suspense is killing me!

          LaHood and team may have decided to speed things up before the Ayn Rand cultists could vote to delete more of the unallocated funds. Maybe the lag now is because they need to clear all the joint press releases with the Congressional and other supporters like Sens Durbin and Kirk, Gov Quinn, et al.

          Hey Chris! Here’s that Republican in office you were looking for: Kirk of Illinois is supporting HSR, or at least H(er)SR. And I’m proud for him. Luckily he isn’t up for a primary challenge from the Tea Baggers for another five years.

          • AlanF

            Have not seen any info on who might get the rest of the $400 million. However, after the FY10 rescissions, there is $400 million left from the FY10 HSIPR funds to be reprogrammed. Since Illinois is providing a 25% state match of $62 million, they may be getting their funding from the FY10 pot which is what the $400 million is referring to. We will know soon enough.

            Too bad that there is not $2.43 billion to re-distribute from the FL HSR funds and another $2.5 billion from FY11 funding later this fiscal year. I assembled a list of the state and Amtrak applications for the Florida HSR funds and the $4.9 billion could be put to good use on all those applications.

        • Woody

          Monday we learn the next set of HSR grants:

          So says Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation,
          “U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is making a “major announcement” on high-speed rail on Monday in New York and Detroit, according to an advisory his office sent out today. He’ll be in NY’s Penn Station and Detroit Station later in the day.”

          Looks good for some work on the Wolverine line Detroit-Chicago. The NEC is probably going to get a nice chunk, too, maybe Penn Station upgrades, maybe the new tunnel, maybe the route thru Jersey, and maybe even a little for the Empire Corridor, but probably not.

          Thanks to those who fear a possible future more than they care about the millions of unemployed people today, there’s just not enough money in the federal pot.

  • Alan Kandel

    @Yonah – “From my perspective, redefining transportation policy with an emphasis on efforts to improve our cities through densification and the choice of alternatives to the automobile will represent an important and realistic effort to improve the country’s transport system.”

    Understanding this, this should be a wake-up call. Why it’s not, is perplexing.

  • Dom

    I’m not convinced that the federal arena is the appropriate place to talk about transportation anymore… The polarization is too stark and the incentives are simply not there for many politicians since the benefits of almost all transportation projects are most palpable at the local level. Just because the current mess was created by federal action doesn’t mean that more federal involvment is the response… That’s sort of like the highway planner’s response of adding another lane when a freeway gets congested. I think a more sensible solution will be for local and state governments to take action to combat sprawl on their own, where costs and benefits can be more directly aligned. One of the side effects of sprawl and auto-domination is increased selfishness, making it difficult to convince people that their tax dollars should fund a transportation project 1,000 miles away. Local referenda to fund transit projects have been far more successful recently than has any federal movement to increase transportation spending. While the power of the federal government is appealing, weilding it has become politically infeasable, so effective action will have to come from the local level.

    • EngineerScotty

      The current federal climate for shrinking the size of Federal government might present an opportunity to simultaneously reduce federal taxes and relieve Uncle Sam of the responsibility for funding local infrastructure–or, at the minimum, converting the existing funding structures into a fixed grant program, where states and larger municipalities are given transportation dollars to spend how they wish.

      Some transit activists I know don’t like this idea, as they don’t trust many local governments to make wise choices; and many local governments would simply spend the money on roads roads roads, or once unconstrained by FTA cost-effectiveness criteria, on blatant boondoggles.

      OTOH, Federal involvement doesn’t prevent either, and a transit-hostile administration could essentially prevent any transit projects from being funded anywhere, if it wished. Right now, many of the strings attached with federal grants (capital expenses only, the whole NEPA process, etc.) lead many regions to have distorted funding priorities.

      And if places like Florida want to build more highways, I say let ‘em–they’ll regret it when gas is $8 a gallon.

      • Adirondacker12800

        I say let ‘em–they’ll regret it when gas is $8 a gallon.

        Then the fine upstanding citizens of the strong independent red states will be screaming for a federal program to fund trolley buses or something. And they’ll get it because whatever Real Americans want, they get.

        • Beta Magellan

          No, they’ll ask for a full repeal of the gas tax and probably (deficit-financed) subsidies to motor fuel, plus unlimited drilling and another middle eastern war.

          • Ocean Railroader

            These waste fill eastern wars are a perfect way to weaken our county beyound repair in that they take away our best troops and resources. If say a jet fighter is worth a $100 million to $50 and a enemy has a cheap weapon that they can use to destory these things which costs them a million or two million to build or operate then they can win war of nibbling at the US intill it falls. In that say the US spents a trillion dollars to spend in a war such as this but the enemy has cheaper toolsthat is only with a few hunderd million they could easly bankrught us by knocking out five or six of our high priced things while we keep destorying hunderds of their low cost things. Anotehr thing with these wars in middle east is they have no defeinded saying of did we win or not win? Or what exactly are we doing over there and what are we trying to do with the locals?

          • Stan D.

            I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what would happen, Beta Magellan. I’m not optimistic about the prospects of the US to move away from the sprawl/highway/auto model. Case in point, now would be a perfect time to start planning for the future but you see transit projects nationwide (FL, OH, WI) being slashed and the highway industry is still being pandered to (Kasich canceled the Cincinnati streetcar project because the state of Ohio was “broke”, but had no problem approving $400+ million for highway expansion). Apparently they’re going to have to pry the steering wheels from our cold, dead hands.

    • Frank

      I just don’t see how devolving everything to the local level gets HSR built. A project like this requires nationwide coordination.

      • EngineerScotty

        For HSR, this is likely true.

        An important strategem is to tie HSR funding to funding for other national-scope modes (Interstate highways and aviation).

        The shift-to-local strategy might be beneficial to transit, however.

        • Beta Magellan

          It’s also beneficial for maintenance. One of the big issues in Illinois is that our gas tax dollars generally go to expansion elsewhere (we’re the fourth biggest donor, IIRC), and the only way to get them back is to either expand or, in the case of transit, claim that renovation is tantamount to expansion.

          If we did see a shift to local taxes, we’d probably see something similar to Canada—a stronger concentration on urban infrastructure (which would almost certainly be more road-oriented in the US) and near-complete stasis on intercity transport—look at Canada’s lack of progress on HSR, despite having a fairly strong corridor from Montreal to Toronto (or, in the longer run, Quebec City to Windsor).

      • Chris

        I don’t see why this is true, or even if it is why federal coordination requires federal domination of spending. Most of the European HSR network (similar scale) was built piecemeal. Also, intercity passenger travel is of vastly lower economic significance and far more substitutable, so that the prospect of pushing its funding 100% into the private sector is less troublesome.

        • Max Wyss

          Well, the European HSR network was (and is) built piecemeal, because there are no “United States of Europe”. The pieces of the “European” HSR network are built by the different European nations. The EU has no power over transportation lines; the EU did specify “corridors” (essentially for freight), but the only thing they can do to get them implemented is to provide subsidies. The actual construction is done by the involved nations.

          There is only a minimal number of High Speed Lines crossing borders in Europe: the Channel tunnel (in operation), the connection between Lille and Bruxelles (in operation), the connection between Bruxelles and Amsterdam (partly in operation, partly in commissioning), the connection between Narbonne and Barcelona (under construction).

          The high speed trains between France/Belgium and Germany cross the border on conventional lines, which have been upgraded.

          The problem with private involvment in infrastructure is that there are very few enterprises which can and are willing and able to invest for really long term. Building and maintaining infrastructure is a “very long term” business. Operation is a bit different. Private infrastructure is vulnerable to “private” interests (as it has been proven big time in the US, and the results were anything but positive).

          • The main difference between the US and Europe here is the power of the federal government versus the states. The US has a strong federal government today, which accounts for a large majority of taxes and spending; states do not have much leeway to decide spending priorities. In Europe, the vast majority of spending and taxation is done by individual countries and their states, so a country can decide to build an internal network and expand from there. Back when the US had a weak federal government, states could and did build major infrastructure as they still do in Europe: both the Erie Canal and the Main Line of Public Works were state projects.

            • Adirondacker12800

              States did it until recently. NJ Turnpike, NY Thruway, MassPike, PA Turnpike etc. There’s still large projects undertaken by quasi government entities. Has it’d down sides. The Stegosaurus on Church St for instance. Nice balance for the rest of the extravaganza going on down there.

              • Yes, but turnpikes will never create a connected national intercity transport system, anymore than building bullet train corridors between the origins/destinations able to justify them on 200 mile to 500 mile passenger trips would do.

              • Adirondacker12800

                The people of Indiana never saw a need to build a toll road through Iowa to eventually get to Wyoming. They did see a need to build one between Illinois and Ohio. Ohio built one between Indiana and Pennsylvania. These all eventually connected up into a network, that still exists. Between Boston and Chicago, Chicago and Washington DC. The states managed to do that with minimal Federal intervention. Unless airplanes are banned the HSR network is never going to “national” it’s going to be east of the Mississippi and in California. Maybe one day between Portland and Vancouver. Salt Lake City is never going to have intercity HSR. There aren’t any cities close enough.

      • It only gets HSR built if there is a dedicated intercity transport account in the system, and there are a range of projects that are permitted uses of intercity transport account funding into.

        Then the HSR corridors that get built are those that can get certified as a valid interstate transport project, and then get enough intercity transport account holders to sign onto funding the project.

        Different projects would qualify for allocations over different numbers of years.

    • Even for local rail, federal help is needed, because the feds need to come up with modern regulations, standards, etc. Small cities are paying through the nose for consultants and waivers and litigation and small rolling stock orders.

      • Max Wyss

        Federal involvment would not be needed per se.

        However, in order to make federal involvment not necessary, the legal structures have to be set appropriately, as well as the regional/local entities have to have the financing means and powers.

        The need for federal involvment in the US is a structural issue.

        • Max,
          Once one concludes that oil-based transportation is not sustainable at the same rate for the next 25 years, then you have to conclude an Interstate HSR Network is needed to handle population growth and be an green alternative to long drives and short flights.

          We could not have built the Interstate Highway System without 75-80% federal funding & construction regulation. The problem with NO federal funding and lower federal regulation in HSR development is that we can not have consistently high performance standards, national coverage and great connectivity.

          Ergo, we can not have an Interstate HSR Network without substantial smart Federal involvement.

          • The federal government did two separate things when it built the roads. First, it provided money and a national map. Second, it provided a set of standards for width, clearances, design speeds, and so on. The first function was not necessary – states and private interests built turnpikes before the 1950s. But the second function was important for roads and is critical for rail, where, unlike with cars, the technology used for the tracks and the technology used by the train must be perfectly compatible.

            • Adirondacker12800

              Don’t necessarily need the government for that. North American railroads with some minor exceptions are standardized. … the gauge wars were over by the 1880s. On the other hand who knows how many decades it would have taken to make air brakes mandatory equipment if it hadn’t been for the Federal Government.

              • I think there are more standards than just the gauge: signaling (this is a big one), overhead electrification, cant deficiency, radii, platform lengths/heights, buff strength…
                It seems so far the feds are way behind.

                But the feds also provided money. If they would today just do a 50% match on all state rail projects with a good benefit/cost ratio, then States could probably do a lot of projects on their own.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Everything east of the Rockies is going to NEC-ish. The service from Buffalo to New York is going to go to Penn Station or maybe Grand Central. The service from Pittsburgh is going to pass through Philadelphia on it’s way to NY or DC. NEC platforms at 25kV/60Hz using a uniform signal system. The far ends of the Midwestern system are eventually going to Pittsburgh and Buffalo. If the Midwest picks something other than NEC standards that means a trip from Cleveland to Philadelphia means a change of trains in Pittsburgh. Or a trip from Toledo to Albany means a change of trains in Buffalo. Same thing happens on the way south out of Washington DC. If Atlanta has two different platform heights that means a trip from Birmingham to Charlotte has a change of trains in Atlanta. …. everything east of the Rockies is going to be NEC-ish.
                It means the intercity local passing through Cleveland can stop at Cleveland West, Cleveland, and Cleveland East before heading to Buffalo, Albany and Boston. Means Cleveland can piggyback their order for 50 MUs onto AMT’s piggyback order for 100 MUs that they piggybacked on NJTransit’s order for 300 MUs.
                Or Cleveland can pick it’s own platform height. Different from the one Midwest HSR picked which isn’t the same as NEC HSR. Three different sets of platforms in downtown Cleveland. The CTC center will be complex and failure prone because of the overlapping signal systems…..

              • Adirondacker, the FRA’s new standards for railcars are compatible with the Superliners and not with the NEC, or for that matter with modern railroading practices.

              • Adirondacker12800

                The new cars will be middle aged by the time you can take something electric all the way to Buffalo. they are going to go everywhere except the NEC.

              • aw

                There is also a single-level spec. which is compatible with high-level platforms.

              • Those specs suck, too. Yes, they’re compatible with what Amtrak is used to, but not with what modern vendors make. An unmodified Talent, Desiro, FLIRT/GTW, and Coradia should all be legal on US tracks, modulo platform height and loading gauge. Ideally the same should be true of the E231 Series, the KiHa 283, and whatever Kintetsu plops on its tracks.

              • Adirondacker12800

                And in 2013 when the FRA is satisfied that SEPTA won’t suffer another nervous breakdown over modern signals they will consider it. Unfortunately the specs are being written today.

              • Nothing prevents the FRA from also mandating modern signaling and not just a nebulous freight-friendly PTC system.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Nothing is preventing the FRA from doing that except that the government is infested with free market ideologues who would whine endlessly if the FRA did that. The Class Is realize that it would be really really stupid to come up with 5 different systems and seem to be migrating to something ERTMS like but are calling it ICBS.

              • The free market ideologues don’t really care, or at least the ones who aren’t in the pocket of the Koch brothers don’t. On the contrary, they like the idea of improving transit by removing regulations and trade barriers.

                The reason the FRA insists on its relevance is pure institutional inertia.

          • Max Wyss

            ThomasD, note that my comment was about regional transportation. Regional transportation systems can be (sometimes even should be) in the responsibility of regional organs.

            Interregional transportation must be planned, build and mainly paid for on a national level.

            • “Interregional transportation must be planned, build and mainly paid for on a national level”

              So we’re on the sam page Max.

              But one key problem I keep hearing from Conservatives is that we should only build HSR in the Northeast, as though HSR is only suitable for that region. Thats nonsense. California is already headed for population density similar to Spain, who is building (successfully patronized) HSR lines. The Midwest is in desperate need for a network and should link to the Northeast. Anyone who’s been stuck on I-95/I-85 freeways between Atlanta-DC already knows that we should be should be building that HSR line connected to the Northeast. Amtrak patronage in the Pacific Northwest is already a growing success before the upgrade to 110 mph completes.

              When one weighs the big carrots & sticks, the evidence is compelling that we need a robust operational Interstate HSR network by 2035. It will cost taxpayers roughly $500B in 2011 dollars.

              If we did not have such national debt and slow economic recovery, the President should have proposed $120B/6years. Given the state of our budget and economy, the Presidents’s $53B/6 year HSR proposal is still a fiscally sound approach easily paid for with wasteful Defense cuts.

  • Patrick M

    This is a good big picture piece, and diagnoses the visible symptoms of our current moment of national malaise regarding infrastructure.

    I cannot read it, though, without thinking about how most of our governance structures are not set up in keeping with how people live and travel, particularly at the metropolitan level, where people might travel on average 10-20 miles every day by car for a good job, 0.5 – 5 miles for grocery and other shopping, etc., and through suburban land use planning are presented with comparatively few choices to walk anywhere.

    Funneling transportation priority setting through the Senate, at 2 reps per state, is completely at the wrong scale of the problem. The pass-through of federal funds through State DOTs and their rural highway leanings does not help either.

    At this point, I’m interested in moving past party labels with anyone who wants to have a conversation about finding a way to live as a nation with lower-cost/low-public-investment areas and higher-cost/higher-public-investment areas in terms of transportation, with a separation of the country into MPOs and RPOs, and a requirement for all muncipalities or counties to join one or the other, and to specify conditions under which they can or would choose to switch from the lower cost to higher cost arena.

    Are there conservatives who are willing to get a gas tax that is one-third of that in urban centers in certain suburbs and exurbs, as long as they have no right to ask the higher-tax areas for revenue for their projects? Are there liberals who would accept this bargain from the other side if it meant all of their highways had to be tolled to keep them in a state of good repair, and public parking spaces were all market priced like SFPark?

    The bottom line: if communities are willing to pay for things with their own money, we need institutions that let them do that and get out of their way.

  • Andrew

    It’s really hard to justify infrastructure investment when your country is spending $3.3 TRILLION dollars a year on maintaining its empire through 3-5 wars and some 950 military bases around the world.
    At that rate, we’d be building true HSR in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya before the first bucket of concrete in poured in the US.
    Keep in mind that Europe and China aren’t involved in global overseas wars. France, Italy, Britain, Japan and Germany wouldn’t have been able to build their HSR lines, highways, or other modernizations of their infrastructure if they were still involved in overseas wars or trying to maintain their former empires.
    Keep in mind that it’s a lot harder to say that infrastructure investment is a “waste of money” when you’re not mounting huge deficits and having to go QE# to pay off your debtors.
    That SHOULD be what’s focused on, but the only politicians I hear that want to pull out the Wars are Ron Paul and several other members of Congress.
    Although he isn’t for federal involvement in infrastructure investment, he would say that just cutting that while ignoring the wars and entitlement programs is just a complete joke.
    (ie, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0uppEzkOwM&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFaUXUMOybY)
    Keep in mind that the wars aren’t even included in the budget because they’re considered to be “emergency spending”.

    Keep in mind that we weren’t able to build the Interstate Highway System and all the other things until WWII was over.

    • Ocean Railroader

      China has a lot more freedom then we do when it comes with dealing with the world in that they only go out to places that they need to talk to get resources that they don’t have in their own county which benfits them in that when they do something in another part of the world they are getting reources that they can use in return. While we try to be the big kid on the block and try to be everywhere all the time and when ever these screwed up goverments and counties have something go wrong they scream as load as they can for us to get into it like trying to beat up a tar baby in that all you do is get in a very sticky sutation that never ends.

      China on the other hand can sit back and watch a screwed up county rip itself apart and no one says anything bad about them about why man didn’t you go get in and give out aid to go help them? In that they rarely acitvly go jump into a overseas war over something unless they have a real resource they can take out and bring back to their county. China has a lot of things going for it in that it dosen’t have as much pressure on it as the US does in that the US is always trying to be the big kid on the block while China is the really big kid who sits there but dosen’t excert himself so that the other kids on the block who want to be the big go after the US instead.

    • Andrew,
      How convenient of you to talk about withdrawing from all wars and but only mention neo-Libertarian Ron Paul by name and link. There are many Democrats who want us out of foreign wars without the anti-federal government excesses supported by Ron Paul and his son.

      • Nathanael

        Many many MANY Democrats. Entire *organizations* of Democrats devoted to getting out of the foreign wars.

  • Ocean Railroader

    The $5.00 gas and the coming $6 and $7 dollar gas will take care of a lot of the out of control sprawl we are talking about here only it’s going to deal with our sprawl like a jack hammer and rip things apart on it’s own. There are signs of this happening right now in that I was at the local Amtrak station and the parking lot and the station where packed to the gills and they said it was a noramal day and yet it was packed to the gills. It at least looked like it would need a station five times bigger and a parking lot eight times bigger then what it had now to meet future demand. Also the people their where not all low income poor people but many everyone from across all incomes. So the $4.00 dollar gas prices are changing the 1950’s ideas of cars and gas prices.

    • Wad

      Even I am not so confident that high gas prices will necessarily deactivate sprawl or swing the pendulum toward urban, automobile-independent environments.

      It’s just as probable that Americans would rather destroy economic value just to hang on to their automobiles. That’s what happened in 2008.

      The orgiastic spending binge that had been our way of life (non-negotiable, so Dick Cheney says) since the mid-1990s came to a halt, and consumers had to focus on the basic obligations.

      On the one hand, it forced generations of people to be responsible for the first time in a long time — or for younger generations, the first time in their lives.

      On the other hand, responsibility wrecked the economy.

      Spending is a capital cost. The basics are operating costs. Capital costs go to costs and benefits in the future. Operating costs cover past obligations.

      Americans took capital (their spending money) and had to put it into operating costs (their past obligations). This is the economics of poverty.

      Americans are willing to trade a lot of their future for a tank of gas.

      • Andrew

        “Responsibility wrecked the economy”

        We must have a really bad economy then.

        A lot of the younger people (LIKE MEEEEE!!!) would rather have a future than a tank of gas. What really sucks is the “entitlement” of the older generations (like the Baby Boomers) who would trade whatever they have for a tank of gas and a social security check.

      • Part of holding onto the automobile was a collapse in demand for houses in outer suburban developments from which they could no longer afford to drive to work.

        The costs of Federal level spending are the resources taken from an existing use and diverted to whatever it is that the Federal government is spending on. At current rates of unemployment and capital utilization, spending where a substantial share goes to putting otherwise idle labor and equipment to work is quite cheap.

    • Nathanael

      Ocean, curious what station you’re describing, just for my mental notes.

      • Bob

        I don’t know the station that Ocean is describing but his description fits my experience with stations in Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh.

  • Louis

    While I understand your general despair, this blog is one of the few places that gives me hope for more diverse transit options in the future, as you show how much progress is being made at the regional/municipal level.

    But, I think your assertion that transit investments must be made with public dollars is a bit narrow. The golden age of transit policy, in my mind, was not the 1950s to the 1970s, when we saw direct federal investment in transportation and transit, but the 1870s to the 1920s, when government helped spur transportation investment by private companies by promising them access to land (first railroads, and later streetcars and subways).

    If governments bid out the rights to build transit lines, and offered bidders free land (which they would take through eminent domain) and the right to operate the line for a fixed amount of time (say, 20 years), we would see more investment. If a government offered such a deal, I don’t think they’d have any trouble attracting investors, provided they could redevelop the land around, say, half or one-quarter of the stations.

    In addition, transit advocates need to recognize that many in the transit sector (i.e., bus drivers unions, construction companies) are not their allies, but often impediments to progress. As a “last mile” service, buses are essential to a good transit system, but buses are often poorly run and inefficient due to union rules. The success of the French company Veolia shows how much room there is to improve in bus transit. Likewise, construction costs are outlandish in the U.S., and yet I don’t see transit advocates talking about ways to reduce costs through expedited bidding and review processes.

    Finally, while I’d like to think that high gas prices will eventually force people to live more densely, the typical car driver will be able to get by just fine with an electric vehicle, which drops the costs and (some) of the pollution associated with gas guzzlers. While sprawl may slow due to lifestyle changes, I don’t think an increase in the price of gas will do it.

    • Ocean Railroader

      These companies should not get free land in that all the places they run though the land is already is owned by people and in order for that to happen a lot of people would have to be kicked out of their homes so that privet milti billion and muti million dollar companies could take it and sell it to put in shopping malls and condos and that something out of Russia or China

      • Nathanael

        Remember, the free land was only possible due to stealing it from the Native Americans. I don’t think that’s a model we want to replicate.

        On top of that, look at the early railroads built in the East without free land, such as those in upstate New York. It was quite difficult to get the land for them. In the end, most railroads had to be given special powers of eminent domain in order to assemble the land at all. (In the UK, they got individual Acts of Parliament!) The ones which didn’t get this help have horrendous, roundabout routings.

        As long as you’re giving the railroads special powers normally reserved for government, I would much prefer they were under the control of elected governments.

    • Stan D.

      Opposition to public transportation because it is a public facility rather than a private one (ostensibly so) is only half the reason that politicians of the right dislike it (public facilities don’t turn a profit, and according to their Randian mindset, this is plain evil).

      The rail concerns don’t have the money to contribute to politicians to insure their influence in Congress, and thus, these concerns don’t represent an important corporate constituency. The right wing would still support a road project funded with government money over a plan to aid private companies build rail because oil, asphalt, and auto are major campaign contributors and steel and the train companies (the few that exist in the US) aren’t. This is, of course, in addition to their ideological objects to rail as a public transport system and the fact that it has a “European” (i.e. non-American) air about it.

    • “If governments bid out the rights to build transit lines, and offered bidders free land (which they would take through eminent domain) and the right to operate the line for a fixed amount of time (say, 20 years), we would see more investment. If a government offered such a deal, I don’t think they’d have any trouble attracting investors, provided they could redevelop the land around, say, half or one-quarter of the stations.”

      That’s pure speculation. If it was such a good idea, California HSR would only have to buy the land and turn it over to private companies. But as we see, private companies who support HSR want public funds to cover 65-75% of the construction costs before they stick a toe in the water.

      • Louis

        @ThomasD My understanding is that the California HSR project never offered companies rights to the stations as well. I don’t know what the value is of state-owned property in California, but surely it’s more than the cost of building HSR.

        @Ocean Railroader There’s still lots of undeveloped land out there, and there’s a long precedent for the U.S. taking land from others (i.e., Native Americans) and redeveloping it. I’m not suggesting that governments refuse to compensate people at all, just that they do so at minimum cost.

        @Stan D Our best hope is that other countries that do build rail/transit start to compete for projects in the U.S., because they need more customers for the state-owner or state-backed companies. Just as the U.S., supports Boeing’s and Lochkeed-Martin’s attempts to sell military equipment overseas, we’ll see China, etc., get into the rail market in the U.S. I don’t know if conservatives will like it any more, but if the transit is being build in “liberal” states/regions, they won’t be able to stop it.

    • Wad

      Louis wrote:

      If governments bid out the rights to build transit lines, and offered bidders free land (which they would take through eminent domain) and the right to operate the line for a fixed amount of time (say, 20 years), we would see more investment.

      This isn’t the 19th century when we were asking railroads to sprout civilizations. We’re facing the challenge of integrating transit into established communities. There’s no upside to be made on land plays. The development picture is now about attracting higher values in an existing location. The ante is a lot higher.

      Plus, blank-slate development is sprawl by another name. Also, evoking the 19th century as a golden age for transportation cannot be decoupled, so to speak, from the genocide it entailed. The railroad boom sure wasn’t a golden age for the Indians.

      If a government offered such a deal, I don’t think they’d have any trouble attracting investors, provided they could redevelop the land around, say, half or one-quarter of the stations.

      This isn’t done because of eminent domain (the governments have to pay market value for the land they take), the legal entanglements thereof, and the market risks the governments inherit by becoming a landlord.

      When it is done, it’s already happening, though not a turn-key as you describe. Portland may be the only area that does what you say.

      In most other cities, a transit agency may have a more passive role in development. For a major capital project, the transit agency may have acquired surplus land around a station. Usually, the way the land is developed is through an auction-reserve system.

      A transit agency may unload land because it needs the money, or multiple developers have expressed interest in the land. It would then be put up for auction, or a developer can settle for a fixed reserve price.

    • Its quite possible to offer “free land”, if that is in the form of a zoning easement that allows development higher, with more mixed use, and with more residence per lot than is allowed under the normal government policy mandating sprawl development.

      Capturing part of the value of that “free land” would entail an incremental property tax on the portion of the property that would not be allowed to exist without the easement.

      • Market Urbanism is telling me that a New York City neighborhood recently used the zoning easements as an excuse to downzone, telling developers that they can always provide more affordable housing and get the bonus if they want the old floor area ratios.

        • I am shocked, shocked, that a human institution is open to abuse. Any in New York City, of all places, where the developers have such sterling reputations.

          • Right. So don’t go out and say zoning bonuses are pure upside; they’re not.

            • Allow me to quote the section where I did not say that “zoning bonuses are pure upside”

              Its quite possible to offer “free land”, if that is in the form of a zoning easement that allows development higher, with more mixed use, and with more residence per lot than is allowed under the normal government policy mandating sprawl development.

              Capturing part of the value of that “free land” would entail an incremental property tax on the portion of the property that would not be allowed to exist without the easement.”

              And the part where I did say it:

              ” “

              No amount of facts on tap protects an argument from logical fallacy, and straw man is still a logical fallacy.

              • The issue is “free land.” This extra land is not free; in practice, it corresponds to general downzoning of “normal government policy mandating sprawl,” so that at the end it’s just an extra mandate or tax on transit-oriented development.

                (I don’t know if you’ve read Termites in the Trading Systems, but if you have, what I’m describing is exactly analogous to the book’s criticism of bilateral trade agreements and most favored nation designations.)

  • We should emphasize the importance of more Rapid Transit and HSR construction vs. more Super-Highway and Airport runway construction by showing:

    * how many freeways would have to be double-decked or land takings for more lanes
    * show new suburban communities affected with airplane noise & pollution
    * model the dip in travel due $8-10 gasoline
    * model higher airfare for short flights

  • Tom Marney

    I spent several years in the late ’90’s/early ’00’s as an activist on transportation and development issues in Gwinnett County and the Atlanta region. My self-chosen specialty was respinning sprawl issues in such a way as to appeal to the interests and mindset of conservative suburbanites: sprawl isn’t just low-density development– it’s development that dumps huge external costs onto the community at large. Sprawl exists largely because we subsidize it– by recovering external costs through user fees, especially impact fees, we could blunt the effects of sprawl AND cut taxes for most residents of our suburbs. And: People who choose to live a higher-density, urban, transit-dependent lifestyle are doing a great service to suburbanites, especially compared to those who opt for high-density but utterly car-dependent living in suburban apartment complexes. Suburbanites should give them a hand, especially if it costs next to nothing.

    All of this was easy, fun, and ultimately ineffective, because… most conservatives are motivated by psychocultural factors that prevent them for recognizing their own interests, let alone acting upon them. And since I more or less gave up the fight in 2002 (after working to kill the Northern Arc), it’s gotten far worse. The Republican Party is far more interested in a Pavlovian electoral base than in what happens do the country.

    I fear and suspect that the situation won’t change until the system collapses even more convincingly than it already has. How low is down? I guess we’ll find out.

    • Nathanael

      If I can be hopeful for you, the situation is better in some regions of the country than others.

      Regions where the Republicans are being marginalized and their Pavlovian base has shrunk to numbers too small to reliably win elections with them.

      Georgia — well, you were fighting the good fight, but if you’d been in the Northeast or the Upper Midwest or the West Coast, you might have actually had a *chance*. Maybe not much of one, but some.

  • What you said, Yonah. It looks like a national version of what happened in New York in the 1960s and 70s: amidst unwillingness to raise taxes, cut other spending, or engage in non-military deficit spending, the first thing that goes on the chopping block is maintenance and infrastructure. Any in-house expertise usually goes as well. It continues until things fall apart, and due to lack of in-house people who know what to do, the cost of repairs is astronomical.

  • Wad

    Are we out of our minds?

    Short answer: Yes.

    Long answer available upon request.

  • Wad

    California HSR can’t offer any development rights because the stations would serve developed, settled cities.

    • Wad

      The comment was for Louis at 30 April 2011 at 14:01.

    • If new rail corridors in Hong Kong can offer new development rights, its hard to believe that California would be unable to do so.

      The problem with building bullet trains corridor on that model is the high average distance between stations, and the higher capital cost per mile over any given terrain, meaning less money raised per mile against a capital need for more money per mile.

      Its more a prospect for providing local finance for local transport corridors.

    • BBnet3000

      They are doing a pretty big development around the Transbay Terminal in Downtown San Francisco of all places, so I think there are plenty of development opportunities available around the CAHSR stations.

      San Jose is building a big low density apartment complex and parking lot around their station as well…

  • Chris

    I would say that the goal needs to be “get more dollars invested in transportation projects”. Proponents should not be locked into the investments being done publicly and by the federal government.

    With the US federal debt rating in danger of being downgraded, and with such a strong backlash against enormous deficits, major new federal spending programs just aren’t going to happen.

    We should be finding new ways to get private-sector capital involved, and new ways to let the states handle transportation investments. (States are broke, too, so that may not work.0

    • Woody

      Nobody is broke. That is a partisan campaign claim.

      The U.S. government revenue and spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is well within the ‘normal’ range, especially considering our costly involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen (list still in formation).

      During World War II, the government spending percentage was far, far more than today. That war and those deficits were followed by an economic boomtime that lasted more than two decades, while taxable income and tax revenues soared, and spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product settled into the ‘normal’ range, plus or minus 20%.

      If the U.S. had the taxes and the rates we had during the boom years under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, there’d be no big federal deficits to scream about. Our public and our politicians have chosen to reduce taxes for most of the past 30 years, during which recent history our families’ taxable incomes have been flat, and economic growth has never matched the post-World War II boom years.

      States are certainly in a pinch, for governmental and economic reasons having little to do with possible excess spending here and there. By their Constitutions, every state must present a balanced budget. So during economic hard times, when personal incomes drop, business activity stagnates or retreats, and unemployment rises, the states suffer from lower tax revenue. Due to the Constitutional requirements they must then cut spending to match the lower revenue.

      From an economic point of view, this policy is idiotic. Except for Ayn Rand cultists and a handful of other crackpots, every economist agrees that government spending should go up during recessions and depressions, to compensate for the lost economic activity. (They also believe the spending should flatten out or even decrease during the good times, and admittedly, with human nature that is harder to do.)

      But as an economic policy, at this time our governments should be spending more at all levels. If the states are not allowed to do it by Constitutional constraints, then more federal aid should be given to them (as during Obama’s insufficient Stimulus program). To cut spending in a time when the citizens most need help only leads to Pointless Pain.

      ———————-

      Putting that matter aside, I do agree with emphasizing states’ rights and states’ responsibilities.

      The federal hand is very heavy on the states now. For example, the recent Governor of Pennsylvania proposed to toll I-80 that crosses the northern part of the state between the New York Metro area and the Midwest. (The southern part is traversed by I-76, which is already tolled, being better known as the Pennsylvania Turnpike.)

      It seemed like a good plan to me. I don’t know who pays for the on-going maintenance of I-80, but I’d wager that the citizens of Philly and its suburbs pay more than their share of these costs. Shifting those costs from the State of PA to the users of the highway seems only fair. And the plan to use a bit of surplus raised from the proposed tolls to help pay for transportation projects elsewhere in the state, such as the Keystone Corridor and Philly commuter rail, seemed like a decision best left to the state level.

      But the feds said, “No way” to toll an existing Interstate highway.

      Let’s give the states the right to decide about tolling Interstates within their own boundaries.

      As a tax-and-spend liberal, another Repub theme I would embrace is deregulation. The Repubs want to deregulate private businesses, and I want to deregulate state and local governments. The other day I saw the claim that involving federal funds in a public transit project, rail or bus, adds 12 years to the process. (That helped explain to me why Salt Lake City had rushed ahead to build several rail lines without any federal funds.)

      I know the arguments for government accountability, and I never underestimate the ability of a local government to screw things up, or the ability of politicians to succumb to corruption. But 12 years is a HUGE problem. No wonder so many voters are disinclined to support projects that will not be finished before they die!

      Surely the length of time between local concept and federal sign-off could be cut in half without too much waste resulting. Maybe you’ll think I’m far too tolerant of waste, but I could stand to see a few million spilled due to haste on, let’s say for instance, the $461 million Charlotte-Raleigh corridor, than to see the project to stretch out until I am dead and gone. I’d gladly risk that in some cases the *second-best* projects, as measured by strict return-on-investment measures, got funded — and finished in 6 years — than to wait 12 years to finish the very, very best ones instead.

      The time value of money, or the value of having a project in use rather than stuck for years in the pipeline, completely overwhelms any petty differences about whether, for example, that $461 would have been better spent on, say, the Keystone Corridor or central Jersey upgrades. If North Carolina is ready to go, let’s not wait around until Pennsylvania or New Jersey or Missouri gets ready. Let’s go with what we have, and if the other projects turn out to be 3% better, or even 30% better, dammit, let’s try to get to those unfairly overlooked later, when we have some successful projects coming on line, not stuck in the 12-year pipeline of perfection.

      • Chris

        Woody, I’ll respond to this:

        “Nobody is broke. That is a partisan campaign claim.”

        The US is taking on way more debt than it will be able to afford in the future. Some states have such large budget deficits that their ability to repay debt will also be impaired. See, e.g.:

        U.S. Warned on Debt Load
        Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2011
        “A blunt warning Monday from a credit-rating firm about the U.S. government’s mounting debt pushed stock markets lower…’
        ““More than two years after the beginning of the recent crisis, U.S. policymakers have still not agreed on how to reverse recent fiscal deterioration or address longer-term fiscal pressures,” wrote Standard & Poor’s credit analyst Nikola Swann.”

        California debt rating cut as cash crunch looms
        Reuters, Jan. 13, 2010
        “California’s main debt rating was cut on Wednesday by Standard & Poor’s, which said the government of the most populous U.S. state could nearly run out of cash in March — and another rating cut might follow.

        The state government’s budget gap of nearly $20 billion over the next year and a half leaves it in a precarious situation, requiring tax increases or spending cuts, either of which may slow economic recovery, the agency said in a statement.”

        • Adirondacker12800

          The US is taking on way more debt than it will be able to afford in the future.

          Or taxes are too low to support a modern society. Depends on your point of view.

          • Chris

            Adirondacker12800, I’d agree with you in that taxes are too low to support the spending that we’re doing. Even if that’s how it’s phrased, the government is broke- it does not have the money available to support current spending levels, since Obama gave in to Republican insistence and agreed not to raise taxes on “the rich” as part of a recent deal.

            • Nathanael

              With regard to the federal government, the point about “can’t go broke” is that the debt can always be monetized, if Congress agrees (which it has in the past, though not that often).

              Is the federal debt so large that monetizing it would result in massive inflation? All credible economists (by credible I mean their predictions have panned out) say “not yet”. Though if we keep on with near-zero taxes on the superrich, some (the older schools) say that eventually it will be.

              (The MMT school says, pretty much, that it can only cause inflation if monetized during a boom, and that any amount can be safely monetized during a bust, unless the government is fundamentally distrusted for unrelated reasons. We don’t know whether they’re right or not because supermassive monetization — of debt levels even larger than this — during a bust — with a government whose writ still works — has been tried essentially never, so we don’t have the evidence.)

              I otherwise agree with you — Obama caving into Republican insistence on keeping the estate tax on multimillion dollar estates at 0% and the capital gains tax at two brackets of 0% and 15% is an insanely inappropriate move from a policy standpoint and makes it much harder to fund anything.

        • Nathanael

          For the record, the S&P “warning” about the US’s debt load was widely perceived as more evidence that S&P is peddling bullshit. Look up James Galbraith’s reaction, which was essentially “They couldn’t rate mortgage-backed securities, why should we think they can rate sovereign debt?”

          US borrowing prices dropped, showing that US debt remains in high demand.

          • Chris

            The Federal debt is approaching 100% of US GDP. Say what you want about S&P, but that’s a fact. Thank goodness that current interest rates are low, but if they ever approach what they were in, say, 1989, about 1/3 of Federal spending per year would be required just to pay interest alone. Add in Social Security, Medicare, etc., and there’s ZERO left for HSR. This level of spending cannot go on forever.

            • Private debt is 2.5x, while the biggest single slice of Federal debt is Federal debt owed to itself.

              120% of GDP Federal Debt was no big drag on the economy in the 1950’s, when we pursued a monetary policy of low and stable interest rates and we spent a much bigger share of our GDP on productive investment in infrastructure and education.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Lest we forget… in 2000-2001 the discussion was focused on what happens to the economy when the Federal Debt disappears. We then elected Republicans, the same ones whining endlessly about the debt now, who let said it didn’t matter in 2006. the same ones who let it explode.

              • In the 1950s, the US spent very little on social services and quite a lot on defense. The military was about 10% of GDP then, versus 5% now, because that was the only form of Keynesian spending that both parties as well as the Dixiecrats could form a consensus on.

            • Nathanael

              Japanese government debt has been well over 100% of GDP for years, and is now approaching, IIRC, 200% (I may have that estimate low). They have no trouble borrowing at rock-bottom rates.

              The fact is that debt/GDP ratio means *nothing* — that’s what a careful study of many countries across a long time period tells us.

              • Nathanael

                FYI, Chris, the problem is not high spending, but low revenue, i.e. taxes (on the rich) are too low and the economy is in bad shape. (This is easily documented, I’ll just point you to Krugman’s blog for the charts.)

                The only way interest rates can really go up is if the economy recovers. (Japan’s economy *never* recovered, so interest rates are still low.)

                If tax rates are set at an appropriate level (i.e. not the current ludicrously low rates of less than 15% for people with serious money), then when the economy recovers, the government takes in more money and the deficit problem cures itself. (Unless, of course, irresponsible Republicans demand that taxes be cut, like they did when Clinton ran a surplus.)

                The fact is that most Republican politicians don’t care about debt or deficits, no matter how much they talk about them. They just want to cut taxes on the rich and cut spending on everyone else. Surplus? Deficits? The national Republican leadership has prescribed the same thing (cut taxes for the richest, cut services for everyone else) no matter what, since Reagan. (The exception was Bush I.) It’s Voodoo economics, of course. (And Bush I is the one who coined the term.)

              • Chris

                No, I disagree that the problem is only taxes that are too low, and plenty of others agree with me. Obama’s bipartisan budget commission recommended cutting spending and lowering taxes. (I read Paul Krugman in the NYT, but I read others who are less ideological as well.)

                Greece, Portugal, Ireland, etc. have all had extensive problems repaying debts and borrowing more (and can borrow more only at inflated rates of interest) due to their high debt loads.

                If the US spent less on other programs, including entitlements (and defense), it would have more money available for HSR, and there would be less ideological resistance on the right to HSR spending.

              • Chris

                Correction to my own post: Obama’s budget commission recommended cutting spending and increasing taxes.

                Any budget balancing that involves only raising taxes but not cutting spending is dead in the water with a GOP House, anyhow, so it’s a moot point.

              • Greece has a high debt load, Portugal a moderate one, and Ireland a very low one.

                The Republicans would vote down any deficit-cutting proposal that raised taxes, even if it split the difference 50/50 with spending cuts. Clinton passed his 50/50 budget without a single Republican vote, and the Republican caucus has gotten more radical since 1993.

        • States pay back debt with someone else’s money, so they can be forced into default if they are unable to get the money required to service a given debt. Now, most credit rating downgrades of state governments today are more about state politics being broken in terms of the political will to raise the money that is most readily available … but still, a state could be forced into default ~ even more a city, where the state that they are in may tie their hands in terms of taxes and fees allowed to be charged.

          The federal government is the monopoly issuer of sovereign currency: it can’t be forced into default.

      • Chris

        Also, not every state has to present a balanced budget. New York, for example, has a multi-billion dollar budget deficit this year.

        • Nathanael

          New York has crazy budget rules. Unfortunately, this is related to the crazy legislative rules (empty seat voting! changing committee members on the fly!), which are designed to maintain the “three men in a room” system.

          The only hope of changing this “three men in a room” system appears to be to knock the Republican cabal — Joe Bruno’s cabal, still, even though he himself left — out of the State Senate. We can deal with Shelly Silver’s cabal in the Assembly afterwards if he keeps causing trouble, but he seems to be less intransigent about “good government” reform than Joe Bruno’s cabal.

          But enough about Albany…

      • Adirondacker12800

        They also believe the spending should flatten out or even decrease during the good times, and admittedly, with human nature that is harder to do.

        We came to a consensus to do just that in the late 90s. Remember all the talk about what would happen in 2010, 2012 when the Federal debt, not the deficit, would disappear?

        Let’s give the states the right to decide about tolling Interstates within their own boundaries.

        Been there done that back in the 50s. Didn’t work out too well because the nice tolled interstate grade state highway eventually runs up the border of a state filled with people unimaginative enough to not understand why an interstate grade highway is a good thing. That and you end up with the Delaware Turnpike in places like Delaware. But there’s no reason why moderate tolls can’t be used to fund things like mass transit. Keeps cars off the toll road for one….

        Surely the length of time between local concept and federal sign-off could be cut in half without too much waste resulting.

        Been there done that too. If the process isn’t excruciating slow and deliberate it opens up the process to lawsuits that the process wasn’t slow and deliberate enough and that every last option wasn’t explored in great detail. California has been studying high speed rail for over a decade. They came to decision about a corridor. The people unhappy about that decision are plotting all sorts of ways to revisit. If they succeed the “other side” will then have an opportunity to demand that it be re-revisited. Anyway, doing it fast would mean doing it expensive. Which would then open up the debate about why doing it fast is so expensive and why don’t we do it slower and cheaper. Which brings the whole process to a halt while they re-decide if the process is working…….
        …. I watched while the Interstate to Nowhere sat for 25 years while there were challenges to the “lets do it fast” decisions. Too so long that the paved but never driven on sections needed to be repaved before the newly built “missing link” section opened.

      • Nathanael

        “The Repubs want to deregulate private businesses, and I want to deregulate state and local governments. The other day I saw the claim that involving federal funds in a public transit project, rail or bus, adds 12 years to the process.”

        Painfully enough, this is approximately accurate, according to studies. :-P

        It varies depending on how bad the state laws are. California state money causes multi-year delays (and those don’t *stack* with the federal delays), and California’s not-well-designed CEQA process means that even all-local projects incur multi-year delays. But in contrast, in a state with a relatively streamlined state process, like Washington State or Illinois or New York, federal money incurs enormous delays. (And those states don’t have the fastest state processes, they just don’t have the endless delays of California’s process.)

    • Nathanael

      Well, maybe if I become a billionaire, I’ll build a privately funded passenger rail line to my home town. And take the profits, too.

      I think that’s not the socially optimal outcome, but hell, in this country, why should I care? Half the population doesn’t seem to care, so why should I help them?

      On the third hand, I’d rather live in a country where government at least tried to provide infrastructure, so maybe I’d just move abroad.

  • Danny

    Excellent post.

    Personally I think the critical thing to address when public opinion dictates lower spending is the issue of where to cut the spending.

    Unfortunately, most people would answer that question with a very predictable “Anywhere but here!”. In terms of transportation infrastructure, we need to face the facts. HSR is no doubt beneficial, but without urban intracity transportation, our economy will be brought to its knees.

    In the most simple terms, urban transportation affects far more people on a far more regular basis than HSR could ever hope to. And at its very core economic level, urban transportation has a magnitudes-stronger cost/benefit ratio to our economy and society.

    • Danny,
      To my knowledge, most of this forum is pro-Additional Rapid Transit funding and acknowledge the Rapid Transit carries more people than an Interstate HSR Network would. The best economic objectives are not to play Rapid Transit Funding vs. HSR funding.

      The economic objectives for expanding Rapid Transit and building an Interstate HSR Network in deficit reduction times is to eliminate foreign oil-dependency, wealth transfer to foreign countries, highway costs of additional freeway lanes and airport runways, while creating jobs that can not be exported.

      • Danny

        I realize that. But reality dictates the decisions that we make. And the reality of the matter is that transportation spending is being cut, and hard decisions must be made to allocate that spending appropriately. And with that in mind, any decision to allocate any of our limited funding toward HSR would be misguided.

        • Woody

          Looks like we are down to two (and barely two) HSR projects under discussion for the next few years, California and the Northeast Corridor. The Chicago-St Louis line is the demonstration project for High(er) Speed Rail with top speeds of up to 110 mph and shared right-of-way with freights, but it certainly is not HSR, nor is Charlotte-Raleigh. The remaining grants will mostly speed up existing Amtrak trains, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

          We’ll see continued funding of California’s HSR, with much kicking and screaming from the anti-Obama forces, but we are in too deep to turn back. Then in a decade or so we’ll see a brand-new HSR line in operation, and see if it works as promised. If it does or doesn’t will change the game for sure.

          Meanwhile, if we’re real lucky we’ll see the beginning of serious work on the NEC, especially if Mica and others can reframe this project as being forced down Obama’s throat. (Remember how Br’er Rabbit begged for any horrible fate, do anything, please, just don’t throw him in the briar patch?)

          Next, if the country follows the economic policy of Ayn Rand, we’ll soon reach a point where the government of China will tell our government what to do. That’s how empires work; ours is going, theirs is arriving. Perhaps China (and the rest of the world) will insist on measures to reduce the wasteful consumption of fossil fuels, which causes problems all over the earth.

          Then like India under the Raj, we will import the needed manufactured products from the dominant country. Are the Randians ready to see us bringing in from China the solar panels, wind power equipment, electric vehicles, and HSR and transit equipment we’ll need to comply with emergency worldwide standards that include a cap on per person consumption of CO2-generating fuels?

          • Andrew

            So in other words, Ayn Rand’s path leads to America losing its sovereignty to a Chinese Empire/Global Government?

            • Woody

              Ayn Rand’s theories are found in a book or two, just as Karl Marx’s theories were found in a couple of books. But in the real world, neither Rand nor Marx pointed to any period of economic history that served as precedent for how their ideas would pan out in actuality.

              I’m not into joining cults and following the theories of maximum leaders who have “figured it all out”. I prefer to look at what has happened in the past, or is happening elsewhere currently, and make policy based on what has been shown to work.

              So yeah, I think Ayn Rand’s path is quite as likely to reach as happy an end as Karl Marx’s path. It won’t be pretty. As someone said, the closest current real world example of Randian pure unregulated capitalism and powerless government is Somalia.

          • Nathanael

            We may well be for status as a Chinese economic colony (which wouldn’t be so bad really, compared to if the theocrats get what THEY want). I know some people who have, among other things, an amazing new solar panel design. A major, forward-thinking rich solar billionaire is seriously interested in manufacturing them.

            Oh yeah. He’s Chinese. He’s apparently considering making the move to a Western country though. He might move to Canada.

            :-P The US is really having some very serious problems. The elites who aren’t crazy right-wingers don’t seem to know how to stop the crazy right-wingers.

            • Owen

              In the 1980s, we were all going to be owned by the Japanese.

              China WILL experience a crash eventually and a massive correction. No economy in modern history has sustained such a fever-pitch boom as China for more than a few decades.

              Look at Japan. In the 1960s they were laying the groundwork; the 1970s everybody started to take them seriously and were marked with rapid expansion built mostly on sound fundamentals; in the mid 1980s the boom crossed into the realm of the irrational, and about 1990 they crashed.

              If China follows approximately the same pattern, the 1990s were their decade for laying the groundwork, the 2000s were for massive expansion. Somewhere about the middle of this decade (think when the world economy really picks up again) people will be searching for more places to invest their money, but the good opportunities that actually made sense and were fundamentally sound will have been mostly exhausted; with people desperate to find somewhere to invest their gobs of cash, they will cross into the realm of the irrational, and five to ten years later, with property values ridiculously over-inflated and billions invested into questionable business plans, crash. I would argue that it’s completely inevitable, just from looking at patterns from developing economies all over the world. I don’t buy the notion that China’s strong central government and a generally submissive, obedient populace, they will be able to regulate and decree their way out of what is an inevitability.

              • Nathanael

                Oh yeah, the only question is if they’ll be set for a “soft landing” from their economic crash.

                Japan had a strong social safety net and strong infrastructure, hence a soft landing, and they still have a high real standard of living. (They *weren’t* ready for a massive earthquake and tsunami to be exacerbated by criminal irresponsibility at their nuclear reactors, however.)

                The US did *not* have what was needed for a soft landing, and has had much more pain from its economic crash than Japan has had from its.

                If China manages a “soft landing”, then the US, otherwise repeated all of Japan’s mistakes, will still end up losing out badly. (Though other countries may perfectly well do better than China, the US won’t be one of them.)

                And if China manages to engineer an actual recovery after its bust, rather than propping up zombie banks, China will be doing better than both the US and Japan.

                There’s no particular reason to believe that the world economy will “really pick up again” on its own. If busts are exacerbated by terrible government policy, you can just have decades of grinding deflation — even combined with inflation in staple prices. And indeed that seems to be what one of the political parties in the US is hell-bent on.

                I would not be surprised if China’s government is learning from the mistakes of Japan and the US and Europe. Though you never know, they could always be run by idiots too.

        • Danny,

          I realize that 2011 HSR funding is cut. I also realize that in past years, Highway funding dominated Transit funding 5 to 1, while Amtrak received crumbs because the constituents of both BOTH parties wanted more Highway construction. Though Rural Repubs continue fighting for Highway funding, times have changed for Demos, Indies and urban voters.

          More Demos now know that 70% of our oil consumption is for Transportation and that the invasion of Iraq was about Oil. And since the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill, more Demos and their constituents will fight to the death to prevent off-shore drilling in CA, OR, WA and FL. In 2010-11, we’ve been witnessing this transition of Urban Demos and Indies fighting for more Rapid Transit, HSR and Renewable Energy funding, while taking away the oil company tax breaks.

          As Senator Feinstein reminded me in a letter response, the next funding battle in 2012 is for $53B/6 years proposed for HSR as part of the larger Surface Transportation Funding. Based on the many HSR funding applications, we know that HSR funding is critical to Demos, Indies and some Repubs in electoral vote-rich CA, OR, WA, NY, MA, CT, RI, MD, PA, IL, MO, MI, VA, NC, NJ and WI, if only to upgrade existing Amtrak service. Furthermore, voter re-districting per the 2010 U.S. Census will strengthen urban voting districts more than rural voting districts. As the economy recovers, more traffic congestion is returning, even after car pool lanes have been added.

          Each month more Demos and Indies feeling the sting of high gasoline prices, traffic congestion and wanting to avoid more Oil conflicts, are shifting their demands towards more balanced Transportation from their state and federal politicians. So even if 2012 Federal Transportation budget matches 2011, more Urban voters will demand a higher % of HSR and Rapid Transit funding relative to the % of Highway funding.

          For all those reasons I dare say in 2012, the biggest question for HSR funding will be, how many lines will be funded for 220 mph vs. 110 mph service.

        • Wad

          Danny, “any decision to allocate any of our limited funding toward HSR would be misguided” is the economics of poverty.

          When operating costs raid capital costs (a payment on benefits and costs in the future), the past consumes the future in the present. And there will be less of a future for the past to consume. This is the mindset that keeps poor individuals and nations stuck in the poverty cycle.

          Generally speaking, an operating cost is something paid to recover an exhausted good. Food, rent and gasoline are good examples of operating costs. The calories in food, the monthly period of rent, and the burnt fuel in the engine have all been consumed and there’s no physical way of getting them returned.

          Losses can only be cut or diverted from capital.

          By consuming capital — in this case, HSR to maintain existing transit service — the needs of the immediate past foreclose on future benefits of capital costs.

          While we won’t see HSR in the short-term, the long-term gain is beneficial for both high-speed rail and local public transit. HSR will catalyze local economies through development, increased consumer spending, more jobs and yes, higher tax revenues.

          Those tax revenues will help ease the operations funding crisis we see right now.

          Second, HSR will add additional ridership to existing transit networks. Each passenger added improves the productivity of transit vehicles, which means lower costs per passenger mile.

    • Nathanael

      Where to cut the spending?
      (1) The military. Terrible cost-benefit ratio, terrible economic “multiplier” on spending, and infamous for completely insane pork, plus which it’s a HUGE amount of money.
      (2) Private health insurance companies. Leeches. Switching to single-payer (Medicare for all) would save many billions off the bat, billions spent for useless paper-pushing. Switching to an NHS or VA hospital type system would save even more.
      (3) Subsidies to agribusiness. Some of these actively harm the environment and human health and really, really need to be cut.
      ….

      Transportation is underfunded period, so transportation shouldn’t be pitted against other transportation, but if we HAVE to…. urban expressways need to go. They’re very expensive and very ineffective.

      • Chris

        Spending cuts must involve cuts to entitlements. We’re getting to the point at which entitlements and interest on debt take up all tax dollars received, leaving no room for anything, including HSR.

        • Adirondacker12800

          How about spending cuts to Defense? The trillion dollars or so we spent on it the past decade has bought us what exactly?

          • Chris

            It brought us no more successful terrorist attacks on the mainland US and the passing of Bin Laden. We spend more on entitlements than defense anyway and entitlement spending is growing faster than defense spending.

            • Wad

              We spend more on entitlements primarily because public healthcare spending has to chase private healthcare costs that are growing dangerously high.

              • Chris

                If it’s private healthcare costs that are growing “dangerously high” (and I agree that they are), why didn’t Obamacare solve that problem? Whatever the reasons for healthcare costs being out of control, they are so high that they are squeezing out funds that would otherwise be available for infrastructure projects.

              • Wad

                Chris wrote:

                If it’s private healthcare costs that are growing “dangerously high” (and I agree that they are), why didn’t Obamacare solve that problem?

                I won’t use ObamaCare because the term is a politically loaded slur. A basic lesson in U.S. Government would show that it would be more accurately called CongressCare, as it had wrote the health care reform bill. Obama had enacted the bill Congress wrote; if he didn’t like Congress’ final version, he could have vetoed it. We don’t have the reform bill by unitary executive fiat.

                Anyway, health care reform deliberately avoided attempts at addressing the cost issue. Nobody wanted costs controlled. The medical sector didn’t want to give up any profits. Hospitals, educational sectors and workers didn’t want to constrict the labor pool. The insured didn’t want to get any less or worse than they had now.

                Health care reform did solve the coverage crisis, though. We shall see how well it reduces the numbers of the uninsured. The best parts of health care reform are the extensions of dependent care until age 26 and the ban on pre-existing conditions as a basis for denial of coverage.

                The age-26 extension is great because it helps young adults age 18-25 get or keep health insurance. This is a point in life where college-age students, or post-college adults, often take entry-level jobs that don’t offer health benefits and don’t offer enough cash to make health insurance worthwhile.

                The pre-existing conditions provision corrects a market distortion: the insurance companies cream-skimming and externalizing adverse risk populations. People denied health insurance would either have to go on Medicaid, thereby putting adverse risks on the public ledger, or if their incomes are too high for Medicaid, paying all costs out-of-pocket and putting the collections burden on medical professionals.

                The coverage burden is solved, but costs will go higher. Government will save some money by having the cost burden of some adverse-risk patients now covered privately (off the public ledger), but this means that private premiums will now be higher because the pre-existing condition law means insurance companies are now forced to cover a more expensive risk group.

              • Nathanael

                The failure to eliminate private insurance companies — pure profit-skimmers — means a failure to address private healthcare costs. :-P Of course, the law PROHIBITING Medicare from negotiating drug prices (you can thank G W Bush for that one) doesn’t help with costs either.

            • Very little of US defense spending was involved in finding Bin Laden, which according to the AP writeup was mostly intelligence work. The war in Iraq had no effect, and neither does most of the global force projection.

              That said, you’re right that the US spends more on health care and Social Security (each) than on the military.

            • Nathanael

              Riiiiight. Alon discredited your false claims about the utility of military spending.

              Regarding “entitlements”. First of all, Social Security pays for itself; it is in profit and will continue to pay for itself until at least 2041, which is a bit far in the future to be worrying about. What isn’t paying for itself is the *rest* of the US budget — NON-entitlement spending, which keeps borrowing from Social Security.

              Medicare and Medicaid are having cost problems, most of which could be solved by adding the healthy people to the mix, and having everyone pay into a simple Medicare-for-All system. Currently the government programs cover the old, the very poor, and the very sick, the most expensive patients, while everyone else gets gouged by private “insurance” companies. Everyone else could pay less than they’re paying to private insurers now, get better care from Medicare, and leave enough of a surplus to cover a bunch of the costs of the very sick who are already being covered.

              This is all simple and well understood.

        • Woody

          Chris, The supposedly urgent need to cut entitlements is another partisan claim, also incorrect. Repubs have been against Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etc. since before they became law. The current bogus is just “more so”.

          Have you considered a proposal called The People’s Budget?

          It’s here:
          http://cpc.grijalva.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=70

          Pretty simple concepts:

          Pay for foreign wars instead of putting them on the credit card by ENDING these apparently never-ending wars, and otherwise cutting waste in the Pentagon.

          Restore tax rates, almost all on the rich and super rich and corporations, to the levels that prevailed when the economy was actually growing instead of stagnating, as it is now after 10 years of tax cuts for the rich and powerful.

          Cut health care costs by enacting the public option (Medicare for all who will pay the premiums), negotiating Rx drug prices instead of subsidizing the big pharmaceutical companies, etc.

          End or at least reduce other corporate welfare, e.g. the subsidies to oil and coal companies, and by taxing hedge fund managers and financial speculation.

          Invest in job creation, education, infrastructure, clean energy, etc to restore consumer purchasing power and get the recovery going and increase tax revenues. (Surface transportation bill of $213 billion).

          Reduce interest charges by cutting war spending; raising taxes on the rich, super rich, speculators, and corporations; bringing down medical costs; and increasing tax revenues.

          There’s more, but you get the drift. It’s an attempt to restore the policies from the Post World War II boom years under Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, et al., to follow a proven successful economic history instead of an economic cult’s theories.

    • But a majority of people live in suburbs and an even larger majority of growth in the last decade took place in suburbs.

      We need to develop economically sustainable, which is to say Energy Independent, local transport in suburban settings. HSR can play a strategic role in that, in providing the HSR station as a patronage anchor to start building the transport system around.

      With $5b~$8b per annum appropriated to HSR, front loaded by a Development Bank, we get substantial progress across the country on an ammount that is close to rounding error compared to the Defense Budget, while building systems that will not compete for scarce operating subsidies desperately needed by local transport corridors.

      • Wad

        Bruce, energy independence is a chimera.

        Any fuel source we, as in humans anywhere, will be at some point be exhausted. At this point in time, we are faced with the prospect of peak energy — not just peak oil. Petroleum was the most energy-efficient fuel source in the history of human civilization. We do not know of anything else that can match petroleum.

        There are replacements, but none of them pass the three rules of the S.O.S. (Supply, Output, Scale) test.

        There are few feedstocks that could match the geological payload of petroleum.

        There are fewer materials that can match the work output of a petroleum-powered engine.

        There are fewer still fuels that allow for more quantities of fuel to be burned, more machines to burn them, and have it all done at a lower per-capita cost or fuel efficiency.

        Name any other fuel source, and you’ll see that none can match the supply, output or scale of petroleum.

        Ethanol or other biofuels: Supply is plentiful and infrastructure is easy to scale, but output is significantly worse.

        Hydrogen: Supply is plentiful, output is nonviable because it is an energy sink, scale is prohibitive.

        Electricity: Supply is variable depending on source used to create it, output is significantly diminished, scale potential is improved. Electricity is better used on mass transit vehicles tethered to a continuous source rather than batteries.

        Natural gas: Supply is plentiful but subject to the same peaking as petroleum, output is mildly diminished, scale is proving to be difficult and has been limited to public-sector fleet vehicles.

        • Nathanael

          Solar power will not be exhausted. More accurately, when it is, it’s game over for life on Earth anyway, so it won’t matter.

          Yes, we have to adapt to a world of essentially fixed energy input: the input from the sun. It’s time to stop using up fuel stored millions of years ago.

          • Wad

            Solar: Virtually unlimited supply, significantly worse output, slow progress made on scaling.

            We’re generally looking at one side of an advantage of an energy alternative, not all three.

            Solar power solves our supply problem, but there’s a serious problem with output. How many oil-barrel-equivalents of energy do you have to input to make the solar panels? Then, how many oil-barrel-equivalents of energy do you get from the life cycle of the solar panel?

            Right now, solar panels are an energy sink. They require more energy inputs to make than they return into use. You can get the same effect from ordinary batteries.

            • Do you have a citation for the claim in the last paragraph?

              • Adirondacker12800

                Energy input can’t be higher than street price unless there’s subsidies like there is with ethanol.

              • Sorry, I don’t understand. Every form of energy has an EROEI. For a solar panel, this means the energy it generates from the sun per unit of energy that went into manufacturing and installation. Since in sunny regions solar panels have a electric bill payback time of 8 years, shorter than their lifespan, this suggests that their EROEI is above 1 and they are not energy sinks.

              • Adirondacker12800

                We agree. They can’t sell you a $100 of solar cell and spend $150 in energy to make it. If you can get enough energy out of it for it pay itself off you didn’t put more energy into than it generates.

  • Nathanael

    I’m only staying in this country because my parents won’t leave.

    The future for the US in the medium term is bleak. It doesn’t have to be that way, but a powerful movement of very ignorant and regressive people has been making sure it is that way.

  • Danny

    In other words, “anywhere but here”. You are a little too late in the game for that. The funds have already been cut.

    I agree with you about everything you said (except the NHS/VA crap), but at this point in time it is just as useful as wishing we had spent money on HSR in the 70s.

    • Transport Infrastructure is a long term investment in productive capacity, so this is not just looking at the short term prospects of the 2011/12 Congress as looking forward to the 2013/2014 Congress ~ which on the time scale we have to think in for transport infrastructure investment, is also in the short term.

  • Chris,

    Since this is TTP, I’ll only address the transportation and energy for transportation side of your argument as it relates to cutting national debt.

    If you’re being intellectually honest, conversations about cutting national debt, and “paying our way” are really about placing the Wealth of a Nation on fiscally solvent footing. A good indicator of wealth for any nation is having positive cash flow (solvency) rather then negative cash flow (internal debt & wealth transfer to foreign nations). All nations incur debt for public-assisted transportation, but call it “Infrastructure investment.” So excluding a toll roads that have repaid their construction costs and pay all their maintenance costs, all Public Transportation projects are contributing to national debt.

    And if you continue being intellectually honest, then you acknowledge Highway spending is the worst Public Transportation mode at paying its way ($19B/year gas tax vs. $47B/year spent on Highways). In fact, Highway spending costs the general tax fund much more Transit and Amtrak funding combined and while omitting its higher externality costs (CO2 emissions, smog leading to lung diseases, more land required for parking, etc) compared to Transit and HSR.

    even in the worst economic times, we can not escape the fact that our nation must spend money on public transportation. Failure to do so directly translates into a lost of productivity, less safety and politicians thrown out of office. So the questions posed starkly before us today are:

    * what types of transportation do we want to have for this century
    * can we reliably get energy to power those modes of transportation
    * can our transportation moses reduce traffic congestion in light of pop. growth
    * can we incrementally pay for new construction and maintenance of transportation modes
    * will our chosen transportation modes increase the Wealth of our Nation

    Its a given that electric and hybrid cars must be a strong part of our transportation future, but they do not fit every traveler/commuter’s budget now nor will widening freeways reduce traffic congestion. Its also a given that we need a lot more Transit, but that only addresses travel within our cities. Airlines are embracing a business model optimized for Trip Times of 3 hours or longer. That means flights under 450-500 miles are, in general, becoming less profitable to airlines who increasingly want to reallocate airport gates for >500 mile flights that are more profitable.

    But what about this HSR mode of transportation traveling 155-224 mph being embraced by every other leading and developing nation in the world? Excluding the handful corruption cases, why are their economists, politicians, transportation planners and citizens buying into HSR? Could it be that nations like France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan stumbled into more Wealth for their Nation –enough to justify investing 1-8% of their GDP on HSR?

    We can imagine the cost of gasoline at the pump when oil costs $250-300/barrel. But they already feel the sting of high gasoline prices 10-20 years before we do. Considering the billions in wealth that transfers out to foreign oil producers, those nations had plenty motivation to ramp up HSR and Transit construction in 1980-2000 without waiting for Electric Cars and Smart Highways.

    Similarly, if we build the Interstate HSR Network by 2035, we can cut 0.5 billions barrels of foreign oil consumption/year. I welcome a more refined s barrels of foreign oil calculation, but its a rough number based on California HSR forecasts of oil savings extrapolated across the high traffic, HSR corridors of the nation. Now imagine oil costing $400/barrel by 2035. I think you know where I’m headed with this argument.

    America’s wealth retention increases by roughly $200B per year, if we have an Interstate HSR Network by 2035. Of course, you can play with the variables to get a higher or lower wealth savings forecast, but the bottom line is investing $500B (per Secretary LaHood) to build an Interstate HSR Network that substantially increases our Nation’s Wealth and will run at healthy profit.

    Can we incrementally pay for it? Yes! Once we’re out of Iraq, begin draw down from Afghanistan, and eliminate oil company tax breaks in 2011, beginning 2012 there is more than enough funding to invest $9B/year ($53B/6years) as proposed by President Obama. We can ramp up investment in 2017 after lowering federal and state deficits. HSR corridors take 10-15 years to build and oil costs are lower today, so its prudent to accelerate construction asap in order to reap the most financial benefits.

    In conclusion Chris, what do you think is the smarter way to increase the Wealth of a Nation? The short term appeal saving of an affordable $9B/year for HSR with the long term sting of transferring enough foreign oil payments to build a new Interstate Highway System

    OR

    Begin investing $9B/year ramping to $24B/year to directly keep $200B/year in America’s bank account by 2035? This no-brainer logic is similar to why parents invest in college education for their kids.

  • Progressive Capitalist

    Similar to their philosophy on transit, the Feds should just get out of the business of maintaining highways, as well as lower their match for new roadways comparable to transit.

    I’d personally like to see lower taxes and spending at the Federal level. Below are some ideas:

    1. Switch to state and local gas taxes for non-Interstate system maintenance. More urban states can then fund small transit projects, vehicles, and maintenance out of their taxes. Cities and regional authorities can also levy their own taxes.

    2. Allow states to use tolls on Interstates for their maintenance. Also encourage revenues on HOT lanes to be used for maintenance of BRT and express bus systems.

    3. Only for major capital projects (including HSR and New Starts) should the Federal government still have a role, but ideally only at a 50% match and through competitive grants. An infrastructure bank could be funded without raising any taxes on the Amercian electorate, but rather ending oil company tax breaks. Also allow state and local governments to borrow against this account with Los Angeles-like plans that pay back into the fund.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Red states will never go for it. They’d lose too much subsidy. Anyway it’s much more fun to stand around and complain about how much the Federal government spends while you suck up great big drafts of Federal subsidies.

      • Some of them might. The biggest, Texas, is a net donor of gas taxes, and in fact gets the minimum number of cents on the gas tax dollar allowed by law. (I believe 92).

  • Having worked in the early days of the modern Light Rail Transit development, I can add to this discussion by pointing out that the U.S. Federal programs were mainly a drag on development. That’s why Light Rail was developed first in Alberta (in spite of attacks by some in Ottawa) with provincial and city funding.

    The original San Diego line avoided Federal programs. The original (1973) Portland Light Rail study was conducted outside of the Federally-controlled (FHWA) planning process by the Oregon PUC. Portland used a clever interpretation of new Federal rules for its project funding. The original Denver LRT project was done without Federal funding.

    But wait, there’s more! Federal officials first, then Amtrak second, tried to kill the Cascade corridor on the grounds that there was no potential for intercity rail service in a place that they had difficulty finding on a map. Years later, state governments in that region had to go to Spain for help, the first time that had happened since Juan de Fuca dropped by.

    There certainly are Federal roles that can be helpful, but writing rules for 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, US VI and sovereign Native American reservations tends to lag behind the pace of modern society.

    Years ago, John Kneiling in Trains Magazine predicted that our geography would evolve into city-state clusters around international airports. That generally is what is happening, with Federal programs actually pushing toward that. In a sense, the Federal government is undercutting the rationale for its existence.

  • Anandakos

    “Are we out of our minds?”

    Most assuredly “Yes”, Yonah; most assuredly. All that sugar, pork and Fox red-meat rots the brain.

    I’m old now and have maybe another year to work as a full-timer who commutes to an I/T job. I’ll have to do something to augment my Social Security income, but it doesn’t have to pay much, so I expect I’ll find some place that wants a semi-retired National Merit Finalist who worked 25 years as a large Oracle database consultant to put in two days a week keeping their accounting systems alive.

    So I will soon be sitting back and laughing at the “average Americans” paying $10/gallon to get to their ever-more-tenuous, ready-to-be-outsourced jobs.

    Thirty years ago when Saint Ronnie tore down the solar collectors on the White House to make his churlish point, alea jacta erat. We had the opportunity to remake our economy on a sustainable base and we pissed it away in our narcissistic, greedy “American exceptionalism”.

    Now, since we’ve got what is essentially a negative net worth nationally (No, all those houses and buildings aren’t worth $60 trillion dollars if nobody can afford to work and live in them) there is insufficient wealth left to make the transition. It would have been a near thing even had we continued on Carter’s path but it’s impossible now. As you point out so cogently, our sprawling car-centric infrastructure is nearly three times as extensive as it was in 1980.

    Remember the scenes in Dr. Zhivago after Yuri comes back from the war to his former mansion? Welcome to America in 2020. Four out of five of those suburban McMansions will be abandoned and derelict while the fifth will have fifteen poverty-stricken people living in it.

    And to think we voted for this stupidity over and over and over again.

    I for one am looking forward to a severe bout of Schadenfreude.

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