Cash For Clunker Systems

 

shutterstock_82828816What can be said about the Federal New Starts Fund? Other than explicitly favoring a legacy technology over any and all potential alternatives, contributing to rank partisanship, wasting federal dollars on unneeded projects, and risking lives, it’s a total winner.

The fund doles-out approximately $2B a year in grants to municipalities looking to expand their light rail systems. However, it makes no funding available either for maintenance of existing systems, or for alternative transportation systems, such as buses, which are often cheaper, more efficient, and often safer (I’m ignoring the matter of whether or not local systems should even be federally funded to begin with). As such, city officials — already over-eager for photo-ops of new construction– are further tempted by a huge pile of cash for slick new projects, regardless of whether or not that’s what best serves their constituents. It’s also highly politicized in that having a Democrat representing you on the relevant committee is almost a guarantor of disproportionate funding; the opposite is the case if you’re represented by a Republican.

The Cato Daily Podcast has the full story:

Here in Boston, residents are still smarting from the worst season of delays the MBTA has ever suffered. Service across the entire system was completely shutdown on at least four weekdays last month. On at least two days that it was working — my iPad froze (literally) while I was waiting for a train, the schedule being completely abandoned and no one having the slightest clue as to when the next one would arrive. Obviously, the unprecedented snow is the closest proximate cause, but the T is notoriously behind on maintenance (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year) and has an incredibly old fleet. Many of the train cars are so old, that the maintenance yard actually has to manufacture repair parts from scratch. The four-story parking garage at Quincy Center is in such bad shape, that it’s been completely shuttered for the last two years ago.

But while everyone in the state is scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to repair the existing system, we’re also receiving $1B in Federal subsidies to help us put a new, 4.7-mile branch on the Green Line. No one else will be able to get to work if it snows again — let alone park their car — but at least the mayors of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford will have something to brag about come election time.

On their behalf, thanks America.

There are 31 comments.

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  1. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    It’s free money.  What’s the problem?

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Fred Cole:It’s free money. What’s the problem?

    We owe it to ourselves!

    ;-)

    • #2
  3. gts109 Member
    gts109
    @gts109

    “[M]y iPad froze (literally).” lol

    Did it recover?

    • #3
  4. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @PleatedPantsForever

    TM – stop complaining and just enjoy the new monorail, like they enjoy their monorails in Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook.

    What if we made you conductor?

    Just remember……..

    Mono means one and rail means rail

    • #4
  5. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @Manny

    We have a serious aging infra structure problems in most cities across the countries, and yet we are wasting money on rail systems that no one ever uses.  Big friggin waste.  Wrong priorities.

    • #5
  6. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Tom,

    NSF, NIH, NASA…when it comes to pure basic research the government can play a long term role. However, increasingly with the advent of enviro-energy polemics, the government is just idiotic. It pours money into hopelessly wrong pc technologies and passes up great opportunities in pragmatic technologies that are not politically correct.

    All the King’s horses and all the King’s men make dumb even dumber.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #6
  7. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    James Gawron:NSF, NIH, NASA…when it comes to pure basic research the government can play a long term role

    That is highly debatable.

    And by that I mean, the Cato Institute had an event debating that topic:

    http://www.cato.org/multimedia/events/does-public-funding-science-enhance-scientific-progress

    • #7
  8. x Inactive
    x
    @CatoRand

    I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for “elevated” but which is actually a system that’s a mixture of elevated trains, ground level trains, and subways.  Whatever it’s altitude, however, one thing you can say for it is that its track don’t cross streets at ground level and don’t stop for traffic.  It will rumble along over you, under you, or beside you, but not in front of you.

    I was totally shocked recently when someone told me that wasn’t the case for “light rail.”  I’ve never been on “light rail” transit in my life, and couldn’t really picture it, but a friend from Minneapolis was visiting a week or so ago, and he told me that — at least there — the darn things stop for auto traffic.  They don’t build them with dedicated routes so they can keep going.  Is this true?  Does anyone know?  Because that sounds like the most insane thing I’ve ever heard.

    • #8
  9. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Fred Cole:

    James Gawron:NSF, NIH, NASA…when it comes to pure basic research the government can play a long term role

    That is highly debatable.

    And by that I mean, the Cato Institute had an event debating that topic:

    http://www.cato.org/multimedia/events/does-public-funding-science-enhance-scientific-progress

    Fred,

    Cato makes a good case. However, long term goal directed pure research expands the knowledge base and trains the most sophisticated next generation of technical people. Surprisingly, if this is done right, as it was first done in the 1950s, we are not talking about a great deal of money. Projects like the one that Tom is talking about wind up costing much much more. They also invade the market place with preconceived ideas that can drive it in the wrong direction. This is a double disaster.

    I suppose it is only my intuition but a small amount of pure research funding judiciously applied has a long term positive effect. This may be very hard to quantify. Of course, the nature of polemical ideology is not conducive to the ‘judicious’ application of anything.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #9
  10. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Light rail has made good sense in San Diego, Los Angeles-Long Beach, San Francisco and Portland; maybe it’s a west coast thing. The trains are popular and the projects are less prone to going over budget than heavy rail subways.

    There are certain types of city-suburb combos that lend themselves to light rail all over the world; examples are mid-sized cities with big university or medical complexes, or tourist destinations. These offer large volumes of often car-less people. There’s a reason Las Vegas has a monorail; it’s not related to idealism. It’s also why driverless cars aren’t going to be a killer refutation of mass transit, any more than Segways did; one doesn’t replace the other nearly as much as boosters claim.

    But it’s not good everywhere, and it’s not like magic seeds that make new businesses spring up wherever it goes. Some routings are stupid, and some towns lack the density to make a line worthwhile. Liberals need to learn that.

    Conservatives need to get over a conviction that transit never works anywhere because it wouldn’t work in Pinpoint, GA or Kalispell, MT.

    • #10
  11. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    I am heavily involved in both light rail and heavy rail operations around the country.  I can tell you, maintenance is usually poorly done or not done for 2 reasons.  Lack of cash and unions.

    Lack of cash is because there is only one rail system in this country that pays for itself…Metro rail in New York.  They have enough riders.  All other rail systems are subsidized.  Most of them heavily.

    The other problem is unions.  Almost all passenger rail operations are unionized.  That means the cost is higher and the work much less efficient.  For example, the Coaster line in Southern California was operated by Amtrak.  A few years ago, the operations were taken over by a private company.  On-time performance went from less than 50% of the time to 98% of the time in less than one year.  Amtrak=Unions.

    There is a bill in the New Mexico State House working its way to the Senate that would sell the local RailRunner train system between Albuquerque and Santa Fe to a private company (any private company.) RailRunner spends $40+ million a year.  Ridership is abysmal.  Revenue is about $3 million a year.  For that kind of money, you could buy each rider a new Mercedes and give it to them.

    • #11
  12. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Cato Rand:I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for “elevated” but which is actually a system that’s a mixture of elevated trains, ground level trains, and subways. Whatever it’s altitude, however, one thing you can say for it is that its track don’t cross streets at ground level and don’t stop for traffic. It will rumble along over you, under you, or beside you, but not in front of you.

    I was totally shocked recently when someone told me that wasn’t the case for “light rail.” I’ve never been on “light rail” transit in my life, and couldn’t really picture it, but a friend from Minneapolis was visiting a week or so ago, and he told me that — at least there — the darn things stop for auto traffic. They don’t build them with dedicated routes so they can keep going. Is this true? Does anyone know? Because that sounds like the most insane thing I’ve ever heard.

    Some do, some don’t. In LA, the routes are separated for most of their length, but the last miles and final stops into the terminal city are street level (a few duck underground to mitigate street traffic).  The reason why so many people are exasperated with D.C.’s new fledgling system is precisely what you bring up: it was routed like a bus, right along the curb, but unlike a bus it can’t get out of the way in case of a breakdown. Dumb.

    • #12
  13. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    Cato Rand:I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for

    Dude, do you really need to explain to everybody what an El is?  Didn’t everybody learn it in like third grade?

    • #13
  14. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    James Gawron:I suppose it is only my intuition but a small amount of pure research funding judiciously applied has a long term positive effect. This may be very hard to quantify.

    I do not doubt that at all.  I reject the notion that it should be funded by the government.

    • #14
  15. x Inactive
    x
    @CatoRand

    Fred Cole:

    Cato Rand:I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for

    Dude, do you really need to explain to everybody what an El is? Didn’t everybody learn it in like third grade?

    I don’t know.  I doubt everybody.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another system quite like it anywhere in the world, so I’m not sure it’s all that common.

    • #15
  16. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    Cato Rand:

    Fred Cole:

    Cato Rand:I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for

    Dude, do you really need to explain to everybody what an El is? Didn’t everybody learn it in like third grade?

    I don’t know. I doubt everybody. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another system quite like it anywhere in the world, so I’m not sure it’s all that common.

    Yeah.  Not anymore.  But 80 years ago.  Whatever tiny mid-west flyover backwater you live in just hasn’t caught up yet.

    • #16
  17. Yutch Coolidge
    Yutch
    @Bigfoot

    Cato Rand:

    Fred Cole:

    Cato Rand:I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for

    Dude, do you really need to explain to everybody what an El is? Didn’t everybody learn it in like third grade?

    I don’t know. I doubt everybody. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another system quite like it anywhere in the world, so I’m not sure it’s all that common.

    The Moscow metro-rail system reminds me of a gigantic Chicago “El.”

    There are a few differences: the metro(subway) runs on time and most stations have a wait of no more than 3 minutes during daytime.

    The rail system also runs reasonably close to schedule and is (for Russia) quite  comfortable and speedy.

    I am puzzled how a highly centralized/socialist society like Russia can operate relatively fast and efficient transportation systems while many in the US are a disaster.

    • #17
  18. user_280840 Inactive
    user_280840
    @FredCole

    Bigfoot:

    Cato Rand:

    Fred Cole:

    Cato Rand:I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for

    Dude, do you really need to explain to everybody what an El is? Didn’t everybody learn it in like third grade?

    I don’t know. I doubt everybody. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another system quite like it anywhere in the world, so I’m not sure it’s all that common.

    The Moscow metro-rail system reminds me of a gigantic Chicago “El.”

    There are a few differences: the metro(subway) runs on time and most stations have a wait of no more than 3 minutes during daytime.

    The rail system also runs reasonably close to schedule and is (for Russia) quite comfortable and speedy.

    I am puzzled how a highly centralized/socialist society like Russia can operate relatively fast and efficient transportation systems while many in the US are a disaster.

    They’re not all disasters.  As much as it pains me to say it, sometimes governments can do things fairly well.  (Its just that the private sector can almost always do it way better.)

    • #18
  19. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    The Moscow Metro is terrific, no doubt about it, but the main reason for that is the Russians are willing to spend a lot on it. In Soviet days it was one of the country’s most visible boasts. Unlike Americans, Russians accept that much of a country’s wealth will be spent looking the capital city look good (we do it, but we don’t accept it without a scowl.) Like New York’s, the Moscow system is so large it benefits from “network effects”; it goes everywhere, so people use it.

    It should be noted that unlike New York, most Moscow trains are not air conditioned. Much of the equipment is fully amortized on the books, a polite way of saying they’re living off the capital of the Soviet past. It’s a fairly spartan system with some ornate showpiece 1930s stations.

    One real, but two-sided virtue of Russia: a willingness to use cheap, proven technology in preference to the stuff that excites enthusiasts, whether it’s railway equipment, space capsules or battle tanks. Innovation is slow, but the trains show up and the Soyuz flies.

    • #19
  20. x Inactive
    x
    @CatoRand

    Bigfoot:

    Cato Rand:

    Fred Cole:

    Cato Rand:I live in Chicago, home of the venerable “El” which is short for

    Dude, do you really need to explain to everybody what an El is? Didn’t everybody learn it in like third grade?

    I don’t know. I doubt everybody. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another system quite like it anywhere in the world, so I’m not sure it’s all that common.

    The Moscow metro-rail system reminds me of a gigantic Chicago “El.”

    There are a few differences: the metro(subway) runs on time and most stations have a wait of no more than 3 minutes during daytime.

    The rail system also runs reasonably close to schedule and is (for Russia) quite comfortable and speedy.

    I am puzzled how a highly centralized/socialist society like Russia can operate relatively fast and efficient transportation systems while many in the US are a disaster.

    3 minutes is a little ambitious, but the El runs awfully regularly during the day.  I never wait 10 minutes, and usually less than 3.

    • #20
  21. ParisParamus Member
    ParisParamus
    @ParisParamus

    Well, I’m kind of a sucker for rail, but have to oppose this kind of thing.

    BTW, rail is, and will be used in Boston.  I’m going to google that the new Green Line is all about…

    • #21
  22. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    New Starts is better than it used to be about wasteful spending on systems that could not recover enough in the farebox to cover operating expenses.   They got shook up when the Surface Transportation Authorization bill came up called SAFETY-LU.  There was reaction that had been building ever since Don Pickrell blew the whistle in his landmark article in 1992.   It had one of the all-time best titles in surface transportation:  “A Desire Named Streetcar.”

    http://www.csus.edu/indiv/c/chalmersk/ECON251FA12/ADesireNamedStreetcar.pdf

    Fiscal conservatives in congress required transit start-up environmental documents to include estimates of revenue that could pass some reasonableness tests.

    In response, the pro-transit folk came up with “Small Starts,” which still allows for boondoggle spending to launch high-capacity transit ventures, but limits the total costs.   The W years also took more wind out of the transit party’s sails.

    Fiscal reality seems to be coming at last to the transit movement.   There is a lot of interest these days in express bus systems.

    • #22
  23. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    That’s a high protein comment, MJ, thanks! Bus rapid transit has been very successful here. Abandoned or saleable railroad right of way is (maybe ironically) often suitable for fast conversion to bus-only traffic, as we do here on the MTA Orange Line. It’s still not dirt cheap, but it’s flexible and works well, and if the line really does take off, as the Orange Line has over two decades, it’s a pre-made route to go to the next stage and install light rail to what’s now a proven area of demand.

    Trackless trolleys are another hybrid that was probably more common after the war than today, but they also make sense in some areas. You have to install the electric overhead lines, but you don’t touch the street, and the electric buses have some of the virtues of rail (quiet, fast acceleration) and some of buses (they can usually get out of the way of an accident).

    There, by the way, is the one grain of truth in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”s transit story. General Motors wasn’t trying to replace trolleys with cars, but with buses, either electric or diesel (GM made both).

    • #23
  24. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    So… a billion or more spent on absurd and antiquated systems at the exact moment self-driving shuttles become a viable option. I see. Brilliant.

    • #24
  25. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @ArizonaPatriot

    I can’t understand all of this opposition to light rail.  Light rail is good.  It is green.  The OP makes this clear.  It’s the Green Line that’s being extended in the Boston area.  Our future prosperity depends on green jobs and green energy.  Besides, light rail runs on electricity, while those stinky buses run on fossil fuels, which puts carbon into the atmosphere.  I never see or smell any carbon emissions coming from power lines.  Also, buses aren’t cool.  Light rail is cool.

    Don’t you understand that we are destroying the planet.  We need to do something or sea levels are going to rise, like, 500 feet, and there are going to be more hurricanes, and more tornadoes, and more rain, and more droughts, and more snow, and, you know, the climate is going to change.  The climate has never changed before.  Change is bad.  Well, climate change is bad.  I think it’s bad because it is hopeless.  Hope and change is good.  And the hopeful change that is good is green energy and green jobs like these great light rail projects.

    Don’t you care about the children?  Don’t you care about the coral reefs?  And the polar bears, let’s not forget those adorable polar bears.

    Also, don’t you people understand economics?  Government spending on light rail will stimulate the economy and create jobs.  In fact, the only reason that the recovery has been so weak, I mean the only reason that the great recovery engineered by President Obama isn’t even better, is that the federal government is on an austerity program, with a measly $2 billion a year available for important infrastructure investments like these light rail projects.  This spending isn’t enough to stimulate the economy.  The government needs to spend something like $2 trillion more a year to stimulate the economy.  Paul Krugman said so, and he has, like, a Nobel Prize in economics.

    • #25
  26. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    Federal stimulus funds did help pay for city bus systems.  Bloomington, Indiana got a new bus terminal using said funds.   They also got Federal money to build a bike trial downtown at a cost of $3 million per mile.  Thanks to all of your for your contribution53c9f53d497a2_image.

    bmgts_phototour29

    • #26
  27. Big John Member
    Big John
    @AllanRutter

    The contrast between the expanding Green line and the collapsing existing system represents the age-old fight between capital and O&M. Not only are the funding streams different, the respective constituencies are too. In new starts, there are engineering firms that design infrastructure and equipment, there are rolling stock/power systems/signal and train control manufacturers and the contractors that build the rails, bridges and everything else. The only constituencies for O&M are the people riding the trains and the Union forces doing the equipment maintenance. The federal funding for new stuff is much more generous than ongoing operating support.

    Just as donors are more likely to give money for a new building (hospital, university, concert hall, museum) than endowments for ongoing support, so too do federal transportation funding programs (highways too) favor construction rather than maintenance.

    • #27
  28. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @Manny

    Arizona Patriot

    I can’t understand all of this opposition to light rail. Light rail is good. It is green. The OP makes this clear. It’s the Green Line that’s being extended in the Boston area. Our future prosperity depends on green jobs and green energy. Besides, light rail runs on electricity, while those stinky buses run on fossil fuels, which puts carbon into the atmosphere. I never see or smell any carbon emissions coming from power lines. Also, buses aren’t cool. Light rail is cool.

    Don’t you understand that we are destroying the planet. We need to do something or sea levels are going to rise, like, 500 feet, and there are going to be more hurricanes, and more tornadoes, and more rain, and more droughts, and more snow, and, you know, the climate is going to change. The climate has never changed before. Change is bad. Well, climate change is bad. I think it’s bad because it is hopeless. Hope and change is good. And the hopeful change that is good is green energy and green jobs like these great light rail projects.

    Don’t you care about the children? Don’t you care about the coral reefs? And the polar bears, let’s not forget those adorable polar bears.

    Also, don’t you people understand economics? Government spending on light rail will stimulate the economy and create jobs. In fact, the only reason that the recovery has been so weak, I mean the only reason that the great recovery engineered by President Obama isn’t even better, is that the federal government is on an austerity program, with a measly $2 billion a year available for important infrastructure investments like these light rail projects. This spending isn’t enough to stimulate the economy. The government needs to spend something like $2 trillion more a year to stimulate the economy. Paul Krugman said so, and he has, like, a Nobel Prize in economics.

    LOL, excellent.  You had me fooled at the first paragragh but I’m glad I read on. ;)

    • #28
  29. user_138562 Moderator
    user_138562
    @RandyWeivoda

    Arizona Patriot:

    In fact, the only reason that the recovery has been so weak, I mean the only reason that the great recovery engineered by President Obama isn’t even better, is that the federal government is on an austerity program, with a measly $2 billion a year available for important infrastructure investments like these light rail projects.

    I especially love this line.  Did you originate that yourself or is that a quote from an MSNBC host?  It sounds like something you would hear from Ed Schultz or Al Sharpton.

    • #29
  30. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @KermitHoffpauir

    Capital investment without necessary maintenance funding is long a government thing.

    Why are all of those emergency response mobile command posts rotting in various and sundry fields for over a decade now?

    What will become of all those armored “military” vehicles that local governments have been given?  Heck the MRAP that DHS sent from El Paso to Albuquerque ran out of fuel without a budget to refuel for the return trip, PLUS had problems with local authorities due the driver did not have a CDL.

    That has long been a problem with the Federal Wildlife Refuge system.  They had plenty of bucks to buy up marshland, ring with a levee along with cross levees to create a number of impoundments but often the outer levee fails due lack of maintenance funds while also altering local hydrology and damaging private marshland nearby.

    A quite famous disaster, at least among local outdoorsmen, was Little Pecan Island, in coastal Louisiana.  An individual with somewhat deep pockets wanted to prove that restoring and managing wetlands had commercial value.  He took a marsh which had been devastated by constant saltwater intrusion, and imitated natures seasonal ebb and flow of brackish/fresh water via weirs.  The project was returning value with commercial wild caught shrimp and crab production.  Along with that were commercial guided fishing trips and waterfowl hunting.

    The Feds decided they could do it better and declared imminent domain, obtained the private refuge, and within a few years it fell into disrepair with most of the weirs having failed and saltwater intrusion once again destroying fresh/brackish water flora.

    So, you can see that the problem that the Feds have had for decades is not bright shiny new capital projects but maintaining what has been built.  That will continue in perpetuity.

    • #30

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