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Out of Control Policy Blog Archives: 6.10.12–6.16.12

California Transportation Professor Makes the Case for BRT over Rail

Transit funding can be a contentious issue. While most transportation planners favor a local bus network as the backbone of a metro area’s transportation system, they are divided on whether higher volume corridors should be served by rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). While many regions have extensive transit plans, there is only a finite amount of funding available. Additionally, transit systems in most U.S. cities consume a sizable percentage of cities' transportation budgets but move only a small percentage of residents. In many regions politics, economics and regional infighting further complicate the situation.

In an interview I conducted with UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Dr. Brian Taylor, we discussed the cost, effectiveness, and politics of BRT versus rail in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has utilized heavy-rail, light-rail, BRT, express bus, and local bus. The many transit technologies make the city a good case study.

While Los Angeles is often considered a car-oriented metropolis with poor transit, this is not an accurate description. Los Angeles has a higher population density than any city in the U.S. including New York City. Los Angeles has the second lowest number of expressway miles per capita of any U.S. metro area. And it has one of the top ten transit systems in the country. In many ways Los Angeles is more similar to San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Seattle than Atlanta or Houston. 

In general Professor Taylor favors BRT over rail. Constructing a BRT line is much more cost effective than constructing a rail line. The savings allows more money to be spent on operating and maintenance costs that are often underfunded. 

Also interesting is Dr. Taylor’s study on the politics of transit:

Major capital projects are sexy ribbon-cutting events that also attract media attention. However, from a media standpoint increasing service quality or reducing headways are non-events. Elected leaders are often more concerned with building political capital than with implementing the most cost effective transit service and new rail service raises political capital. Taxpayers see a tangible product from their tax dollars, even if it is often not the best use of those tax-dollars.

Below is a sample of the interview. The full interview is available here

Baruch Feigenbaum, Reason Foundation: Do you support Rail or BRT for high volume corridors? What are some of the reasons? 

Professor Brian Taylor, Chair UCLA Department of Urban Planning: Typically, I favor BRT over rail. My goal is to provide the best overall transit service. BRT projects are much cheaper to build than rail projects. As a result more funding is available for maintenance and operations (O&M). O&M is not sexy and many transit operators neglect it. No matter how attractive the train is, if the service breaks down and the train suffers major delays people are not going to use it. Well-designed BRT can be just as successful as rail. Ridership numbers in comparable BRT and rail corridors are very similar. Finally, BRT is a better compliment to local bus. From an O&M standpoint there are cost efficiencies with operating one type of transit. There are fewer efficiencies in a combined rail and bus operation. Since a local bus system is the backbone of any transit network, other transit service should complement local service, not the other way around.  Economic development and other considerations are important, but they are not my primary focus. The most cost-effective transportation service is express buses because they move large amounts of people quickly and cheaply from one place to another. 

Feigenbaum: Discuss the speed advantages of BRT compared to traditional bus. 

Taylor: When L.A. started new BRT service, the BRT speeds averaged about 12 miles per hour or 50 percent higher than the local bus speeds. While 12 miles per hour does not sound fast, it is similar to the average operating speeds of rail lines. Metro, the local transit operator, was stunned with the large ridership increase from local bus to BRT. 

Feigenbaum: Transit suffers from risk and uncertainty issues. Discuss how BRT and technology can help reduce these issues. 

Taylor: As you mentioned transit suffers from risk and uncertainty issues. For example, one disadvantage compared to automobiles, bicycling or walking is the lack of user control. In most transportation modes, the user controls where and when they go. New technologies can give the rider more control. Intelligent Transportation (IT) systems such as Next Bus that detail when the next vehicle will be arriving are major advantages. With this technology, if one misses a bus and has ten minutes to wait he can grab a cup of coffee and come back outside knowing he will not miss his ride. Without technology people are left guessing about wait times. Because of this uncertainty they may vow to take transit less often. Either way the system has one more dissatisfied customer. BRT has another major advantage over rail. Because of its high costs the rail frequency is often 15 minutes or more outside peak periods. This is a long wait. With BRT, the frequency of service on some lines is 4 minutes or less. If you miss one bus, another is coming not far behind. 

Read the entire interview here:

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Bans on Plastic Bags Harm the Environment

With the urging of environmental groups backed by the celebrity firepower of actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the city of Los Angles banned plastic supermarket bags last week. The law received added support from the Los Angeles Times, which published a house editorial encouraging the city council to enact the ban. Without presenting any quantitative evidence, the editors wrote that plastic bags pose a "huge cost to the environment" and that reusable totes and paper bags are "better options." Unsupported claims to this effect are widespread in the press and among advocacy groups, but they are at odds with scientific data.

In 2011, the United Kingdom's Environment Agency released a study that evaluated nine categories of environmental impacts caused by different types of supermarket bags. The study found that paper bags have a worse effect on the environment than plastic bags in all nine impact categories, which include global warming potential, abiotic depletion, acidification, eutrophication, human toxicity, fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity, marine aquatic ecotoxicity, terrestrial ecotoxicity, and photochemical oxidation.

Furthermore, the study found that the average supermarket shopper would have to reuse the same cotton tote from 94 up to 1,899 times before it had less environmental impact than the disposable plastic bags needed to carry the same amount of groceries. This wide-varying amount of reuse that is required until the breakeven point is reached depends upon the type of environmental impact, but the median is 314 times, and it is more 179 times for all but one of the 9 impact categories.

For example, a shopper would need to reuse the same cotton tote 350 times before it caused less fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity than all of the plastic bags that it would replace over this period. Given the improbability that the same cotton tote would last that long (its expected life is 52 reuses), in most cases plastic bags will have less environmental impact.

Why is this? Because the environmental impacts of supermarket bags are dominated by the energy and raw materials needed to manufacture them. Plastic bags are inexpensive because relatively small amounts of energy and raw materials are needed to make them. These same attributes that make plastic bags affordable and light also make them easier on the environment than alternatives like paper bags and reusable cotton totes.

Critics of plastic bags frequently argue that they "take hundreds of years to decompose," and the LA Times editors advance this storyline by showing a picture of a dump with a caption that reads, "ENDURING: A plastic grocery store bag lies amid the trash at a Calabasas landfill." Such logic ignores reality in two key respects.

First, modern-day landfills are generally benign because they have composite liners, clay caps, and runoff collections systems. As explained in a 1999 paper in the Journal of Environmental Engineering, modern landfills have "minimum odor nuisance," "pose few problems after they are closed," and "are a tribute to sanitary engineering." Moreover, after being closed, landfills can be used for parks, commercial development, golf courses, nature conservatories, ski slopes, and airfields.

Second, even organic materials in landfills commonly take hundreds of years to decompose. Many people are ill-informed of this fact because of websites like WikiAnswers, corporations like Disney, major media outlets like CBS-and because they have been misled about this subject since their youth. Such misinformation flows from educational resources like the Environmental Education Exchange's middle school curriculum on recycling, which states that paper bags take about a month to decompose in a landfill. Nearly the same content appears on EducationWorld.com, which has been honored by Apple, Microsoft, and Encyclopedia Britannica as one the world's top education resources. These resources invoke the credibility of unidentified "scientists" to support this claim about paper bags and similar claims about other organic materials, but the scientific facts prove otherwise.

A study of landfills sponsored by the University of Arizona found that the tightly compacted contents of landfills create low-oxygen environments that inhibit decomposition. The details of the study were published in the book, Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage (2001), which explains that:

• "the dynamics of a landfill are very nearly the opposite of what most people think."

• landfills "are not vast composters; rather, they are vast mummifiers."

• "almost all the organic material" from the 1950s in a Phoenix landfill "remained readily identifiable: Pages from coloring books were still clearly that, onion parings were onion parings, carrot tops were carrot tops."

• much of the organic material in an ancient Roman landfill that was twenty centuries old had not fully decomposed.

Up until the second century A.D., most literature was written on papyrus, an organic paper-like product. Papyrus is very vulnerable to moisture and deteriorates quickly when handled, but some of these documents survived thousands of years to the present era simply because they were deposited in landfills and thus shielded from decay. Like disposable plastic bags, reusable cotton bags wind up in landfills at the end of their useful lives and will likely be intact hundreds or thousands of years from now.

Another common talking point about supermarket plastic bags is that they are rarely recycled, but this argument ignores the fact that a large portion of supermarket plastic bags (40% in the U.K.) are reused as garbage pail liners. Interestingly, the U.K. study found that it is better for the environment to reuse these bags as garbage pail liners rather than recycle them. This is due to the environmental "benefits of avoiding the production of the bin liners they replace."

Environmental impact studies can sometimes produce conflicting results, but Just Facts is unaware of any evidence that would overturn the general findings of the U.K. study. The study may even understate the environmental impacts of reusable cotton totes because it doesn't account for regularly washing them, which is recommended because they can harbor dangerous bacteria from meat drippings and other foods.

The study did find that with moderate reuse, plastic totes made from polypropylene are better for the environment than disposable plastic bags, but this doesn't negate the fact that standard plastic bags are a more environmentally friendly choice than so-called green alternatives like paper bags and reusable cotton totes. Thus, when governments outlaw plastic bags to "improve the environment," they actually create more pollution.

Editor's Note: This guest post was written by James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a nonprofit institute dedicated to researching and publishing verifiable facts about public policy.

Read more from Reason on plastic bags bans here.

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Utah Transit Authority's Lobbying is a Result of Federal Transit Policies

According to the Deseret News the Utah Transit Authority spends more on lobbying than any transit agency in the country. Utah, home to 2,800,000 people spends more on lobbying than does New York City’s transit agencies, which serve 16,000,000 people and than L.A.’s Metro, which serves more than 12,000,000 people. Utah’s spending also dwarfs Houston, Philadelphia and Denver. Utah spends more than Phoenix, Oakland, and San Jose combined. 

Further according to Deseret News: 

For its effort, the Utah Transit Authority has raked in more than $1 billion in federal funding — so much that state auditors say it might be left unable to maintain or operate its expanding light-rail and bus network on ordinary revenue. 

And there is this gem from spokesman Gerry Carpenter:

UTA makes no apology for hiring lobbyists it says have produced $500 in federal construction and operating funds for every $1 of compensation.

"We believe that money we've spent on government relations work has been very much worth it," UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City. "All you have to do is take a look at what we've managed to build here and continue to build." 

Sadly, high-profile lobbyists are very effective in obtaining federal funds:

UTA lobbyists come from a Who's Who of top Capitol Hill persuaders and connected firms. They include James C. Barker, who was chief of staff for former Sen. Bob Bennett, and Anja Graves, president of CHG & Associates and a former high-ranking U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official. Barker and Graves declined comment.

Carpenter said UTA's lobby team played a crucial role obtaining federal transportation funds, tracking legislation and coordinating with Utah's congressional delegation. 

As a result of the cash infusion the agency has overbuilt. Worse the agency lacks any long-term plan. The state’s auditors noted that the state has built so many track miles, it may not be able to maintain them all. A January auditing report faulted the authority for over-estimating revenue and understating expenses. The agency may have to cut service or force cities to raise taxes. 

Most transit agencies have long-term plans. Planning allows for better use of capital, cheaper bonding, and more extensive coordination. While planning is in theory a federal requirement some transit agencies find ways to skirt the rules. 

Utah’s transit operating style shows the underside of rail transit in the U.S. Federal laws encourage transit agencies to build, build, build. While the federal government provides generous subsidies to build lines, it provides little money to operate transit. These subsidies worsen the “front page news effect” of transit spending. Most transit agencies want to build their image. Shiny new trains generate more positive publicity than efficient existing service. Rail transit is no longer about serving the customers. It is now about making headlines so the transit agency can receive even more public money. 

Changing current federal laws that encourage capital projects over maintenance should be a priority in the next long-term transportation bill. The federal government needs to stop giving big subsidies to build new rail lines. And all transit agencies need to take planning seriously. Agencies should have both short and long term plans that are realistic. The process should be detailed and fact-based. It should not be designed to serve environmental or political interests.

Finally, more analytics need to be applied to the process. Realistic transit plans, accurate cost-benefit analysis, and actual service needs should be the major priorities. Restrictions on lobbying might work. But until project funding becomes more analytical, lobbying restrictions are pointless. Skilled lobbyists will find a way to navigate the restrictions. It has already become an arms race to hire the best and brightest rail transit lobbyists. And as long as the federal government thumbs its nose on analytics and funding operations, local governments with the best lobbyists are going to continue to receive the most money.

Unfortunately, the current department of transportation is moving away from analytics. The latest proposal from the Obama Administration is to decrease cost-benefit analysis and increase politically motivated spending. The Department of Transportation asked for comments for its proposal and my colleague Bob Poole submitted an excellent response.

Utah has long bragged about its excellent research and its success in receiving federal money. While the state has successfully mined the federal trough, we now know it has little do with research or analytics.

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Pennsylvania Announces Plans to Move Forward with Lottery Privatization

Following up on this post on state lottery privatization a few weeks ago, yesterday the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania announced that it plans to move forward with a bidding process covering the private management of the state lottery (a la Illinois).

From the Central Penn Business Journal:

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue is moving forward in a process to privatize the day-to-day operation of the Pennsylvania Lottery, enlisting its current machine operator and scratch-off vendor to assist in the search for management firms.

The state sent out a request in April for qualified companies. The response since then convinced the department, which oversees the lottery’s programs, that moving forward with the process would benefit the state, it said Tuesday in a statement.

The department is refusing to release the number or names of companies it’s talking to in the process ahead of bidding, holding that confidentiality will better serve competition, spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell said.

The state will continue to own the lottery and any management contract would require the company to demonstrate it will increase lottery revenue to benefit programs for older Pennsylvanians, according to the department.

[...] The state’s instant ticket and scratch-off game vendor, New York-based Scientific Games Corp., will be a consultant in the management firm search. If the state executes a management agreement, Scientific Games will continue as the lottery’s exclusive supplier of vending and technology services until December 2018, per its contract. A second contract ends in August 2017.

Scientific Games has not submitted its qualifications for the management contract and will not bid on such a contract because of its consulting role with the state in this process, the company said in a statement.

More details are available in the Department of Revenue's press release.

This seems like a sensible pursuit, as Illinois expects to receive approximately $1 billion in additional, net lottery revenues to the state over the next five years under their private management contract, relative to what the lottery projected under its own in-house operation. In an ideal world, this sort of commercial enterprise should be a stricly private sector function. But under federal law, states are the only entities allowed to operate lotteries, and full divestiture—or even a long-term lease—have been taken off the table as policy options for states. So Illinois pioneered the next best, feasible thing: hiring a private manager to run the enterprise like a real business, with all of the marketing, etc. bells and whistles that are not a core competency of government.

More to come as this develops, both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In the meantime, for more on the privatization of state lottery operations, see my article in Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2011, released last month.

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California High-Speed Rail Will Increase Pollution

The latest development in the California high-speed rail disaster concerns pollution. University of California-Berkeley professor Arpad Hovath explains that construction of the train will produce 10 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide per year. Electricity for the California trains will come from coal fired power plants leading to more pollution. In order to negate this pollution, the train would need extremely high ridership in the Central Valley something that would be nearly impossible to achieve. California HSR will likely be more polluting than air travel. 

Further according to federal biologists and as reported in the Los Angeles Times:

Eleven endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, would be affected, according to federal biologists. Massive emissions from diesel-powered heavy equipment could foul the already filthy air. Dozens of rivers, canals and wetlands fed from the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada would be crossed, creating other knotty issues.

Among the most difficult issues will be air quality, which is regulated across eight counties by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The district worries that the construction project would exacerbate already problematic levels of nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile compounds.

And other transportation researchers are raising complaints. According to University of Minnesota Transportation Engineering Chair David Levinson:

A study of BART (Lave 1976) estimated that more energy was used to build the system than will ever be saved by it.

Other modes are steadily getting cleaner, for instance fuel cell powered vehicles will emit only water and carbon dioxide. Any benefits from HSR depend on unproven forecasts. The energy for HSR must come from somewhere, if electric than probably coal or nuclear, both of which have some problems.

And project boosters have flip-flopped on skirting environmental reviews. Last month California high-speed rail chairman Dan Richard said that he was seeking environmental exemptions for the first 130-mile leg. Previously the chairman said he would not seek exemption from federal or state laws for the project. 

Let’s review the advantages and disadvantages of California HSR:

Disadvantages

  • The fourth business plan will save $30 billion compared to the third business plan. To reduce costs the new plan reduces train speeds near Los Angeles and San Francisco. In order to be successful, HSR has to be time-competitive with airlines. Reducing top speeds will significantly reduce the competitiveness of rail. While the Los Angeles and San Francisco transit networks are well developed by U.S. standards, they pale compared to many European and Asian networks. Cities need a quality transit network as a feeder system for a high-speed rail line. Additionally, the California plan’s ridership forecasts are based on inducing a large share of drivers to switch to high-speed rail. High-speed rail has not succeeded in luring drivers out of their vehicles anywhere in the world. Automobiles offer many benefits that trains cannot match such as flexibility and comfort. And considering all of these factors in other countries, the high-speed rail passenger mix has been 90% former flyers, 5% former drivers and 5% people who previously did not make the trip. 
  • The plan relies on billions of dollars of federal money that Republican House members are not going to appropriate.
  • The plan relies on funding from an untested cap and trade system. This revenue is supposed to be spent on environmental causes.
  • The agency believes some magical private investor will provide funds for the project. One advantage of the private sector is that it invests only in cost-effective projects. It would take real magic for investors to find California’s system a quality investment. 
  • The Los Angeles-San Francisco route is circuitous. The logical route would be a straight 380-mile track directly between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The 600-mile route serves residents in the central valley, not the intended big cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Obama administration mandated that service begin in the central valley far from Los Angeles or San Francisco. 
  • Building the train will increase pollution. Inducing travelers to ride trains may reduce air pollution but not nearly enough to overcome the pollution generated by rail construction. Governor Brown who has bent over backwards for environmentalists suddenly wants to abandon the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process.
  • The plan bases its congestion forecasts on major improvements in high-speed rail and no improvements in either automobile or plane technology. The report completely ignores Next-Gen technology in aviation and new quick, affordable bus services that link Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

Advantages:

  • Governor Jerry Brown leaves a legacy of degrading roads, failing schools, an insufficient power grid and a humongous budget deficit. I think this is another disadvantage but Governor Brown seems to be proud of this legacy.
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With School Choice Everyone Wins: Including Kids Taking Care of Their Sick Mothers.

Keven Teasley from the GEO Foundation in Indianapolis, which incubates high-quality charter schools and then supports their growth, sends word of their positive outcomes for charter school students and one student's story makes the compelling case for why we need school choice instead of  a one-size-fits all education. Kevin writes:

We are also celebrating the overwhelming community response to our new charter, Gary Middle College.  We planned to open this fall with 100 students but have received more than 225 applications.  We will be expanding our enrollment to 125 and planning to enroll more next year.  One young scholar applied because she can't go to a traditional school.  She needs to take care of her mother during the day because her father works during the day.  She can go to school at night--when GMC is open--while her father takes care of her mother.  

The GEO Foundation is an example of the kind of third party organiations that compete with school districts to govern and develop schools when the money is decentralized and follows students. The GEO Foundation is setting a high standard for charter schools in Indiana and shows that competition and choice can hep students and teachers but can also lead to competition between the best models for school governanace and human capitol development. Some more good news from GEO Foundation includes:

In Colorado Springs, we are partnering with Peter Hilts, former principal of the Classical Academy, one of the state's largest, oldest and BEST charter schools.  Peter is helping us bring Core Knowledge to Pikes Peak Prep, and lead the enrollment growth at the school.  With Peter's assistance, the school just received a donation of 8 2-classroom portables that will help the school double its enrollment over the next few years. 

Pikes Peak Prep received a "Governor's Award" from the Colorado Department of Education this year for its academic excellence, too.    

In Gary, we are celebrating having the only "A" charter school in all of Gary, Indiana. The school also boasts a 100% graduation rate and is the highest performing charter school in Gary.  The school is 94% poverty and received a $1.25 million renewable three-year grant this year to help grow and improve the high school opportunities.

The more we decentralize the funding at every level of school finance, the more organizations like the GEO Foundation have the opportunity to take on the status quo of school governance.

 

 

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Teacher Pension and Healthcare Reform Extends to Michigan

Building on the national momentum from Wisconsin and California cities, today the Michigan legislature is posed to pass a pension and healthcare reform package that will save school districts money and still offer teachers reasonable and even generous benefits. As Michigan Live reports:

State House members signed off on a pension reform bill that Republics said “saves” the system, but Democrats said breaks promises made to public employees.

The 57-47 vote sends the bill back to the state Senate, which is expected to take action this afternoon.

Republicans said the changes are historic, and will save school districts $300 million this year – and tackles a system they said built up $45 billion in unfunded liabilities.

And while the pension reform agreement does not move new K-12 workers into a strict 401 K plan as originally proposed, it does significantly reform the retirement system.

There is agreement, for instance, on doubling health insurance premiums for school retirees; eliminating health coverage in retirement for new workers hired after July 1 and instead putting an extra 2 percent of their compensation into a 401(k) plan; and "prefunding" retiree health benefits.Prefunding requires more money upfront from the state (and continues a 3 percent salary deduction for school workers that has been in effect for two years), but saves money in the long run because that money can be invested over 30 years.

Republicans said the changes are historic, and will save school districts $300 million this year - and tackles a system they said built up $45 billion in unfunded liabilities."We're not trying to attack teachers, we're trying to save the system," said state Rep. Chuck Moss, R-Birmingham. "System is unsustainable. The system is about to crash. This is not the time to flinch from reality."

These ongoing wins to get public employee costs in education under control, can only continue to make the Chicago teachers demands more laughable.

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Chicago Teaches 30 Percent Raise or STRIKE Ultimatum

 

Ignoring the economic crisis and the political reality facing teachers and unions this week more than 90 percent of Chicago teachers voted to authorize a strike if they cannot reach an agreement with the school board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel by the fall.

The Chicago teachers are demanding close to a 30 percent pay raise and class size capped at 23 students. As Allysia Finley pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: 

The union is demanding a 30% raise over the next two years and class sizes capped at 23 students. Mr. Emanuel wants to give teachers a 2% raise next year and establish a merit pay pilot program. The unions say they're entitled to more money since the district is requiring teachers to work 90 more minutes a day and 10 more days a year. A new law—which the state legislature passed almost unanimously last year—allows the district to impose such changes unilaterally.

The average Chicago teacher makes $76,450, nearly 30% more than the typical private sector worker in Cook County—and teachers work two months less a year. Their last five-year contract called for 4% annual raises. However, the district rescinded teachers' raises last year because its deficit ballooned to $700 million. Its deficit is projected to grow to more than $1 billion in the next two years due to soaring pension costs. Teachers can retire at age 60 with an annuity equal to 75% of their highest average salary, meaning that teachers earn more in retirement than most Chicagoans do on the job.

And Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation describes just why the teachers believe they deserve the 30 percent raise:

The union argues that Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) wants to extend the school day, and that the requested salary increase would compensate them for extending the school day from 5.5 hours—among the nation’s shortest school days—to 7.5 hours. Chicago Public Schools states that under the extended school day:

On average teachers will provide 5.5 hours of instruction (an increase of 54 minutes), receive a 45-minute duty-free lunch and 60-minute prep period and supervise the passing period. They will also be required to be on-site for 10 minutes before and after school.

The HORROR Never Stops. Oh for a 7.5 hour day, 10 months a year.

The Chicago teacher hard-line seems ill advised given where popular opinion about teachers unions is these days. The Wisconsin recall outcome notwithstanding, a new poll by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next found that the share of the public with a positive view of union impact on local schools has dropped by seven percentage points in the past year. Among teachers, the decline was an even more remarkable 16 points.

And it’s not just public opinion; union membership has been falling at an alarming pace. According to the Education Intelligence Agency:

You have to go all the way back to 1999-2000 to find an NEA budget with membership projections as low as the ones for 2013-14. NEA is planning for a cumulative loss of 346,000 full-time equivalent active, working members from its high-water mark just three years ago. That would be a drop of almost 15 percent.

While there is still a good chance a strike will be averted, the Chicago teachers willingness to threaten a strike as the main negotiating chip for demands that far exceed the compensation and pensions of the average Chicago worker, will not be the strategy they need to bolster the public employee union image nationwide. All indicators point to the fact that regular people, who make less money and have far less attractive benefits, are tired of paying more  to support unsustainable compensation and benefits for teachers. 

 

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Tolling May be Best Option for Constructing a Modern I-95 in North Carolina

Rebuilding and tolling I-95 has encountered resistance from North Carolina politicians. According to the Charlotte News and Observer:

Legislators on both sides of the aisle, and both sides of Interstate 95, are throwing roadblocks in front of a thoroughly unpopular proposal from the state Department of Transportation to finance a $4.4 billion widening project by collecting tolls from I-95 drivers.

State House and Senate members who represent I-95 counties have introduced bills to require an economic study on how the electronic tolling might hurt residents and businesses in Eastern North Carolina, and a traffic study on how U.S. 301 and other alternate routes might be overburdened by cars and trucks trying to dodge the tolls.

And they want to give the legislature the power to veto any I-95 toll plan.

“I’m very concerned about the economic impact along the I-95 corridor of even the discussion of tolling I-95,” said Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican who is one of the chief sponsors of the legislation. Newton said a Nash County site recently was eliminated from consideration by a company planning to build a distribution center with 140 workers, all because of DOT’s toll talk.

Newton and other toll foes say they agree that I-95 needs improvement, but they favor paying for it with the same tax revenues used to widen other roads. DOT proposed tolls after calculating that the I-95 upgrade would require every road dollar allocated to every county along the interstate for the next 60 years.

Newton said North Carolina has begun using tolls to finance new highway construction, but it should not use them to improve existing roads.

“It needs to be done; I-95 needs to be upgraded; it’s overdue in some areas for significant work,” Newton said. “But paying for the upgrades by tolling everybody along I-95 is not the answer.”

Implementing tolls is always controversial. However, NCDOT is undertaking a comprehensive study. First, the agency has convened a large number of groups including the Travel and Tourism Commission, the Chamber, the Trucking Association, Retail Merchants Association, Travel Industry Association, Farm Bureau and a North Carolina State University Economist. Many of these groups including the Trucking Association strongly oppose tolls. NCDOT has issued the request for proposals with a deadline of June 29th. 

Second, NCDOT is keeping an open mind. The study will consider tolling, other financial sources, and not improving the highway at all. The agency prepared this document with answers to frequently asked questions. 

Tolling is the most efficient way to improve I-95. With gas taxes local residents who never use the highway are paying to upgrade it. Tolling I-95 will allow gas taxes to be spent on other more localized road projects. Many local residents commute between home and work without using I-95.

NCDOT calculated that rebuilding I-95 without tolls would require all of the gas tax dollars in districts four and six (where I-95 is based) for sixty years. And NCDOT would be unable to widen much less maintain all other roads in the two districts. In North Carolina since all roads with the exception of neighborhood streets are state maintained, this would be a major problem. North Carolina awards highway money to its 12 DOT districts proportionally based on population. NCDOT could move money from the Charlotte and Raleigh districts, but then NCDOT would not be able to improve highways in those districts. Additionally, Charlotte and Raleigh politicians would be very unhappy. 

The reason that other expressways such as I-85 can be widened with existing funds, particularly the segment between Charlotte and Lexington, is because those NCDOT districts have larger populations. The I-95 segment covers more out-of-state travelers who do not pay gas taxes to North Carolina unless they stop for gas in the state. And since both South Carolina and Virginia have lower gas taxes, there is little incentive for motorists to stop in North Carolina. While North Carolina has a high absolute gas tax, this is partly the result of the state having the largest number of state maintained roads in the country.

State Senator Newton is concerned that the toll will harm low-income residents and force commuters to use alternate routes. The gas tax harms low-income residents far more than tolls. And local residents may receive a discount on the I-95 tolls. There is little evidence that suggests commuters choose alternatives to non-tolled routes. Alternative roads are often slow two-lane facilities with numerous traffic lights, twists, and local congestion. Interstate highways have higher speed limits and are safer and more direct.

There is no evidence that businesses bypass areas because of toll-roads. High-quality infrastructure is very important to businesses. Businesses typically bypass an area because it is too congested or lacks modern, safe infrastructure. I-95 through North Carolina is both congested and old.

North Carolina is not maintaining an existing expressway, it is rebuilding it. Maintaining an existing highway involves repaving and making minor bridge repairs. On the other hand, this project builds a whole new highway and replaces many of the older bridges. This is necessary since parts of I-95 are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Based on traffic engineering guidelines, I-95 should have 6-8 lanes in most North Carolina segments rather than its current 4 lanes. Most other southeastern states including Virginia, Georgia, and Florida have already widened I-95 or have plans to widen the highway over the next 20 years. 

When the U.S. chose to build an interstate system 50 years ago, due to political and density issues, congressional leaders chose to build a free highway network funded by a gas tax. At the time tolling required tollbooths that slowed traffic; electronic tolling was just a dream. President Eisenhower wanted tolling but realized he could not push it through Congress. New electronic tolling technology allows North Carolina to build a modern and safe I-95 that handles the traffic demands of today. State lawmakers should strongly consider this opportunity.

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Among Continued TSA Bungling, One Positive Sign

While the TSA continues to make major mistakes, the agency made one smart decision last week. The disciplining of 43 TSA employees at Southwest Florida International Airport proves that there are continuing issues at TSA. But the agency’s approval of private screeners at Orlando-Sanford Airport, indicates the agency may finally be considering the traveling public rather than itself.

Regarding the security lapse in Fort Myers according to the News-Press:

Five Transportation Security Administration workers at Southwest Florida International Airport have been fired and another 38 suspended after an internal investigation found they failed to perform random screenings last year.

The 43, a combination of front-line screeners and supervisors, represent about 15 percent of the roughly 280 TSA employees at the airport. The number of workers involved makes it one of the largest disciplinary actions TSA has taken in its 10-year history, TSA spokesman David Castelveter confirmed.

The workers were notified of their punishment Friday and are being given an opportunity to appeal, he said. The agency has brought in screeners from other airports to fill in.

During a two-month period last year, as many as 400 passengers who underwent routine screening never got additional random checks, Castelveter said. About 3.8 million passengers departed from the airport last year.

Castelveter said TSA officials were alerted by a fellow employee at the airport who reported at least one violation during the two-month period. The agency then conducted its own probe and found other violations. 

First, why was no one checking on the screeners? One problem with the federal government handling both the screening duties and overseeing the screeners process is that the same agency that is conducting the screening is managing the screening process. This is a conflict of interest. The DOT Office of Inspector General monitors the TSA but its job is to stop systematic problems--not this type of random problem. If the screening force is privatized, then the government will monitor the private contractors. There will be no conflict of interest for the government to release reports critical about the private contractors. But when the government monitors itself, taxpayers have to rely on the government to release audits critical of itself. 

In the Fort Myers situation, the TSA did not report the problem until more than six months after its occurrence. During the investigation the government kept the problem secret; nobody outside TSA was aware there was a problem. Did the screeners change their behavior in the last six months? Was this a problem up until the termination of 5 of screening supervisors? We do not know. 

Further, why were the screeners allowed to keep screening passengers? Why were they not placed on administrative review? And why did the review take so long? The continual screening of passengers by TSA employees when TSA leadership knew these employees were not doing their job is particularly troubling. Breaking of the incident on a Friday evening seems designed to quell media coverage. While it may not have been TSA’s intent, it appears the agency is trying to sweep this incident under the rug. 

Perhaps the most bizarre statement by came from TSA spokesman David Castelever. According to Castelever:

“It’s the random secondary (checks) that did not happen,” he said. “At no time was a traveler’s safety at risk and there was no impact on flight operations.” 

But if travelers are not at risk, why is TSA performing the random secondary checks? The agency has shifted its security approach very slightly to a more risk-based approach. While this is far short of the comprehensive shift needed, it is a step in the right direction. Yet the same TSA that for the last several years has been adamant about random searches is now claiming those random searches are not necessary. Has the agency changed its mind? I doubt it. The latest response seems geared more towards framing the media coverage and focused less on actual policy. 

However, TSA has taken one positive step. Earlier this week the TSA finally approved Orlando-Sanford’s application to use private screeners. (The airport is in the district of Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica’s district.) Earlier this year the TSA approved private screening for a seasonal airport at West Yellowstone, MT. The agency had previously denied both the West Yellowstone and the Orlando-Sanford applications.

Trying to understand TSA is frustrating. TSA did approve the Orlando-Sanford screening privatization and may consider adopting a more risk-based approach to airport security. But then the TSA sweeps a major problem under the rug while a high-placed agency spokesman denies the problem exists. What is going on? TSA’s first mission is to protect TSA; logic, rationale, and cost-savings are unimportant. This is typical behavior for a large U.S. government agency. Protect the agency but not the American people.

The question is whether TSA is serious about privatization and a risk-based system or is intent on trying to get Rep. John Mica off its back. I believe it is the second option; let us hope I am wrong. 

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Union-Propagated Red Herrings Continue to Mar Corrections Research

My latest reason.org commentary entitled Union-Propogated Red Herrings Continue to Mar Corrections Research begins:

Yesterday Mike Hall posted on AFL-CIO Now’s In the States blog about a recent report entitled, Prison Bed Profiteers: How Corporations Are Reshaping Criminal Justice in the U.S. from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD). Unfortunately NCCD falls for red herrings propagated by public employee unions like the AFL-CIO, while ignoring pressing issues facing the U.S. criminal justice system. Specifically, they blame the private sector for problems that are more strongly correlated with the criminal justice system as a whole.

After explaining that anti-privatization critics present some sound criticisms of the U.S. criminal justice system as a whole, but miss the mark by focusing on private sector partners, the piece continues:

Meaningful reform requires an all-of-the-above strategy, not a distracting debate over public vs. private sector prison operation. This can best be addressed by considering the three elements of the U.S. criminal justice system: criminal sentencing, facility environments and recidivism.

The piece goes on to explore how reform strategies for each of these elements of the system and highlights related Reason Foundation research. The piece concludes:

Ultimately, the private sector has proven to be a capable partner for the public sector and there’s no reason to ignore that success. As is always the case with privatization, rigorous contracting is necessary to achieve optimal outcomes. Blaming the private sector solves nothing. Instead, an all-of-the-above strategy is necessary to address the major challenges facing the U.S. criminal justice system.

For more, see the full piece available online here, and visit Reason Foundation's Prisons and Corrections Research Archive.

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Montgomery County BRT Plan is Good Start but Needs Modifications

Last month Montgomery County, Maryland released a final report on a countywide Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) system. While the report comes to the logical conclusion that building BRT is better than building new light-rail, parts of the plan need to be rethought. This wealthy county is an excellent transit market due to its population density and propensity to Washington D.C. Over the past 20 years many U.S. cities have built successful BRT lines. But Montgomery County is the first jurisdiction to propose building a complete network.

Consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) conducted an initial feasibility study and concluded that a countywide BRT system was feasible. A county transportation task force has been meeting since February 2011 to communicate with PB and prepare an official report for the public. The task force recommends 25 new lines totaling about 160 miles. The report offers growth estimates for the next 20 years to explain why new service is necessary. 

The proposed system could be built in nine to twenty years depending on the funding mechanisms chosen. Capital costs for the system are roughly estimated at $1.83 billion. Annual operating costs are estimated to be $1.1 million per mile. Although these costs are not cheap, they appear realistic compared to cost numbers for other U.S. BRT systems. Most importantly, for the cost of 1-2 light-rail lines, the county will be able to build an entire BRT network. In addition, BRT operating costs are somewhat lower than light-rail operating costs. The report is honest about the funding challenges; it states that its forecasts are merely estimates. More of this approach is needed in transportation; too many transit projects make wildly optimistic cost/benefit and revenue projections.

While Montgomery’s decision to build BRT offers many advantages over light-rail, there are several problems with its proposed system. One weakness is that system relies on dedicated guideways. Most Montgomery County highways do not have large medians to accommodate these new guideways. In most corridors exclusive guideways will require the construction of one-two additional lanes by using eminent domain to seize land. This will be very pricey especially in southwestern parts of the county. Adding lanes to I-270 or the Beltway could accommodate buses, carpools, and vehicles that choose to pay a small fee. Another strong option is building managed highways such as the InterCounty Connector. More is available on I-495 BRT here. In addition, homeowners are reluctant to sell their land either for sentimental reasons of because the funds offered for their property are below the actual property value. 

Another weakness is that the proposed Montgomery County system operates in a vacuum. Montgomery does not consider neighboring Prince Georges and Frederick counties in Maryland nor the District of Columbia, Fairfax or Loudoun counties in VA. The immediate Washington DC region consists of numerous counties in three states. One of the advantages of Planning agencies such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is that they approach commuting patterns from a regional perspective. This Montgomery plan that is clearly aimed at Montgomery politicians has few lines that reach outside of the county. Many people live in Montgomery County and work in the District and vice versa. Montgomery needs to work with its neighbors and amend the plan to make it regional. Montgomery also needs to consider routes that the state and other counties are already running.

There are other problematic parts of the report. First, new public transit systems have NOT been proven to lure people out of cars any better than existing systems. Second, there is an assumption that the state will pay the debt service because the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) is included in the area. The CCT is not directly related nor does the state have an infinite amount of money. State priorities are often political in nature. Projects in the home district of the State Assembly leaders or the Governor often receive priority.  

Finally two of the four arguments justifying the critical nature of this problem are problematic. While BRT technology could create live-work communities, the costs of a dedicated lane system increase the timeframe. And does everybody in Montgomery want to live in live-work-play communities? While I understand their appeal in Bethesda and Kensington, I have doubts about their success in Damascus and Sandy Spring.  Second, the county’s land use rules require it. Tying transportation to land use is important. But if making small changes to the land use map creates a better more cost effective system, then land-use changes may be justified. Yes, appropriate zoning and land-use rules are needed before transit can succeed. However, the land-use map is a living document; making minor changes from time to time is necessary. 

Montgomery County is one of the first places to study BRT service on a countywide basis. BRT is a cost-effective alternative to rail. However, to build the most effective, cost-efficient system the county needs to consider using shared guideways, cooperating more extensively with neighboring counties and states and making minor changes to its land-use map. While this study is an excellent first-draft, it needs a little more fine-tuning before it becomes the official county plan.

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