Another Way Government Boosts the Cost of Rail Transit

October 31, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

While consultants, contractors and local politicians are the main sources of unnecessary costs in constructing rail transit, the federal government also does its bit. Perhaps the worst case is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is undoubtedly the most expensive and least useful mandate Washington has ever laid on transit. Millions have been spent on facilities that are seldom or never used.

Another way the federal government boosts the cost of rail transit is the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) buffer strength requirements. These specify such high values for longitudinal compressive strength in commuter rail cars and some other rail transit vehicles that few if any foreign designs can meet them. That prevents us from buying rail cars off the shelf.

Because the United States is a small market for rail passenger equipment, when we cannot buy off the shelf, prices soar. Manufacturers must either design something new or heavily modify a design for a small build. They amortize those design costs over just a few rail cars, raising prices. Manufacturing costs too usually drop as the size of the build increases.

So why does FRA insist on unique buffer strength requirements? Because, as is so often the case with regulatory agencies, it pays no price for unnecessarily raising other people’s costs. If the higher costs mean the country has less rail transit, what is that to the FRA? Expanding rail transit is not its mandate.

There is an easy fix for this problem: Congress should overrule the FRA and abolish current buffer strength requirements. The FRA and allied Safety Nazis will howl, but common sense says that if a rail car is safe enough for Brits, Swedes, Germans, and Frenchmen (maybe even Italians), it is safe enough for Americans. We are not talking about importing cars made out of jute from Bangladesh.

If rail transit is to continue to expand during the coming economic depression, there most be a rigorous effort to comb out all unnecessary construction costs. Ideally, the federal Department of Transportation would undertake such an effort. In the case of FRA buffer strength requirements, it can run the comb through its own hair first.

Obama’s American Jobs Act

October 7, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The first thing people need to understand about President Obama’s American Jobs Act is that it will be wholly ineffectual in creating jobs. Jobs manufactured by federal programs have no effect on the real job market. When the (borrowed) federal money runs out, the jobs end. The supply-side economists are correct: the only way to grow the real economy and create real jobs is by cutting marginal tax rates. While the President’s proposal includes some tax cuts, it does not cut marginal rates. Its long-term effect is therefore nil.

The American Jobs Act’s effects on public transportation and intercity rail will be similarly modest. It includes some worthwhile proposals, especially $9 billion for bringing transit systems into a state of good repair and $2 billion to improve intercity rail service. The $4 billion the Act includes for high-speed rail is either a misnomer or a fantasy. If it means higher-speed rail, achieved incrementally on existing tracks, that is not what the term “high-speed rail” means internationally. If it does meet the international definition of 250 kilometers per hour, then it is fantasy. The money would be do better service if it were simply allocated to improving regular passenger trains, raising the funding for that to $6 billion.

But all of this is just hot air anyway, if the Obama administration past performance is any indication. Why? Because public transit and passenger rail are not on its list of high political priorities. That means the White House will not put enough political muscle behind its proposals to get them enacted.

When Barack Obama was elected, many of the liberal pro-transit groups were in ecstasy. I cautioned them then that they had to consider two factors, not just one. The first, which was the only one they thought about, was the new administration’s policies on transit and passenger rail. The second, which they neglected, was where both stood as White House priorities.

As the administration’s subsequent performance has made clear, the answer to the second question is, “so low on the list that they are out of sight.” As the House vaporized most of DOT’s requests, the White House was silent and inert. Measured by its actions rather than its words, it simply doesn’t give a damn about transit and trains.

A cynic might note that sitting silent and inert has been the Obama administration’s posture on everything that comes before Congress. But that doesn’t change the fact that the transit and passenger rail elements in the American Jobs Act are meaningless unless the White House is willing to fight for them. I’ll bet doughnuts to celery it won’t.