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An Infrastructure Fix

President Dwight Eisenhower wrote his name in concrete by building the interstate highway system. President Donald Trump has made infrastructure one of his signature issues, perhaps because he too likes to write his name on big projects. If the new administration approaches the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure armed with some innovative ideas, it can do more than pour concrete. It can write President Trump’s name in history.

Infrastructure usually isn’t glitzy. Much of it, such as our water and sewer systems, should be neither seen nor heard—unless we’re talking about the Trumpian solid-gold toilet recently installed at the Guggenheim in New York (yes, you can use it). Much of the work our infrastructure needs is repair or replacement, which draws little public attention. Not even a vice president is likely to show up to cut a ribbon on 100 miles of resurfaced highway.

Yet infrastructure, especially transportation infrastructure, offers some opportunities that are huge, huge. They begin with addressing the long-standing problem that when federal and state governments speak of “transportation,” they usually mean “highways.” Call it the Trump Transportation Rebalancing Act.

Highways are favored over all other modes—rail, air, and water—to a degree that is shameful. All levels of government now subsidize highways to the tune of $70 billion annually, as revenue from gas taxes, fees, and tolls covers less than 50 percent of highway costs. The $42 billion we spend annually on the federal level for highways dwarfs what we spend on other transit: $11.8 billion. The latest transportation bill to pass Congress, the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act of 2015, perpetuates the wide disparity through 2020.

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President Trump has an opportunity to fix this. The market for travel options other than driving is there. Young people are less focused on cars than were previous generations. They want good public transportation, and they move to cities that offer it. Many of the people who voted for Donald Trump cannot afford to buy a new car, the average price of which now exceeds $33,000. The annual ownership cost of a car is estimated by AAA at $8,698. If public transportation allows a household to own fewer cars, the savings are, well, huge.

The left presents all public transportation as a service for the poor. But rail transit—commuter trains, subways, light rail, and streetcars—carry large numbers of people who vote Republican. They know that while time behind the wheel is wasted, they can work on the train. Few people who own a car will take a bus instead, but they will ride rail transit. From President Trump’s perspective, rail transit is transit “for us”—something that, as a New Yorker, he knows well.

People also want more intercity passenger trains, and better ones, too. Contrary to the critics’ talk of “empty trains,” Amtrak’s trains are often full to the point where would-be riders are turned away. Young people enjoy traveling by train. Older folks, whose vision and reflexes aren’t what they were, need trains; driving is no longer a safe option. Winter weather turns roads to sheets of ice, but the trains still run. Nor is Amtrak a big money-loser; it covers 70 to 75 percent of its operating costs from fares. And travel by train is one of the few nice things ordinary Americans, the people who elected Donald Trump, can still afford.

The Trump Transportation Rebalancing Act we envision begins by replacing the Highway Trust Fund with a Transportation Trust Fund. That includes Amtrak, finally giving it a reasonably predictable source of income beyond fares. Requests for road funding and transit funding get the same treatment. Both receive the same level of federal support as a percentage of the project’s cost. The time from conception to project completion is equalized so a rail transit line can be built as rapidly as a new road. Most importantly, the percentage of total federal transportation dollars going to highways and to other modes of travel is rebalanced toward the latter, giving us a transportation system for the 21st century, not the 1950s (as much as we prefer that decade in other ways).

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That act should be followed by a Trump project for the ages: we’ll christen it the Trump Passenger Train Revival Act. Not many decades ago, you could go from anywhere to anywhere in America by train, safely, comfortably, reliably. President Trump brings those passenger trains back through a huge expansion of the Amtrak network. More trains are added to existing routes and more routes are added to the current skeletal network. The Northeast Corridor gets its due, including new tunnels under the Hudson in New York, but so does the rest of the country. Amtrak just got a superb new president, Wick Moorman, a former president and CEO of the Norfolk Southern Railway. He knows how to run a railroad, and he will use Amtrak’s new funds wisely.

The Passenger Train Revival Act is not about building high-speed rail. That will come in time, when demand justifies it. In every other country, high-speed rail lines have been constructed only when existing rail lines reached capacity. Building high-speed lines on routes that have had little or no passenger service in decades is a shot in the dark. President Trump’s new passenger trains run fast enough so that journey times are less than going by car. But high-speed rail is built only where the private sector is willing to fund it, as now appears to be the case in Texas between Dallas and Houston.

This act also challenges Amtrak with competition. Any private railroad that wants to run its own passenger trains again, rather than let Amtrak operate over its rails, can bid for a portion of Amtrak’s subsidy. As a businessman, President Trump understands that competition cuts costs and improves service.

Complementing President Trump’s Passenger Train Revival Act should be the Trump Streetcar Restoration Act. As a New Yorker, President Trump will not hate cities, as too many Republicans seem to do. He knows that for a region to be prosperous, the city at its core must boom. The decline of our cities may have begun when we ripped out the streetcars, which, unlike buses, people liked to ride. Now, all over the country, new streetcar lines are being built, and with them come billions of dollars in redevelopment. So President Trump brings the streetcars back.

This means more money for building streetcar lines. But if that money is to buy what it should, it also means a major reform in the way we fund streetcar (and light-rail) construction. At present, consultants and contractors are ripping the public off. They’ve got their hands into the till up to their elbows, pushing the price of streetcar and light-rail construction up far beyond what it should be. Streetcars are technologically simple, or they ought to be. The old ones were, and they worked fine. Now we see new lines projected at costs exceeding $100 million per mile, which is absurd.

The Trump Streetcar Restoration Act is therefore best accompanied by President Trump instructing the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to set “should cost” limits on streetcar and light-rail construction. These reflect best practices, surveyed on a worldwide basis, for keeping costs down. Final figures will require more study, but as starting points we suggest $25 million per mile for streetcar and $40 million per mile for light rail. If a city wants to spend more than that, fine. But it’s on its own nickel. The “should cost” figures are all FTA will fund. We expect “should cost” will bring soaring rail-transit construction costs back down to earth. The cheaper streetcar and light-rail lines are to build per mile, the more miles we can build.

These are Trumpian Big Ideas. But a few smaller ideas would help round out the Trump transportation program. Every city should be encouraged to designate a grid of streets, sufficient to go anywhere, as “Bicycles Only” in event of a gas shortage (which we can expect to have on occasion). What keeps many people from riding bikes on roads is fear of being hit by a car. Take the cars off the streets in that grid, except for local traffic, and people can go where they need to be on bicycles, safely. The plan could be exercised on holidays, giving people who may not normally cycle on roads a chance to experiment. If they like it and come out in growing numbers, more bike lanes can be built for them, or some streets might be permanently designated “Bicycles Only.”

One of the most inefficient mandates ever laid on public transportation is the Americans With Disabilities Act. It has forced transit agencies to spend millions of dollars on facilities that, in many cases, are seldom if ever used. The handicapped lobby insists that cost can be no object in their quest to create a world where handicapped people can live as if they were not handicapped. Sorry, but no one has a right to as much tax money as they want. ADA should be reformed to take costs into account. The law has been in place long enough to see which of the facilities it mandates are used and which are not. Requirements for the latter should be scrapped, and limits should be set on what percentage of a transit agency’s budget can be spent to provide special services. Uber and Lyft hold great potential to provide handicapped service at a much lower cost.

Some of the above proposals will save money; on net, the package will cost money. Where is that money to come from? From raising the gas tax. The federal gas tax should be the primary if not the only source of funding for the Transportation Trust Fund.

But there is a way to raise the gas tax that might actually benefit people who drive. As we are seeing at present, when gas prices fall, people stop buying fuel-efficient cars and stock up on SUVs and trucks that get poor gas mileage. Then, when gas prices shoot up, they find they can’t afford to fill the tank. The Cadillac Escalade gets parked and they are back to riding the bus.

We propose that the Trump gas tax should work like this. First, the administration announces that the price of gas—not the tax—will go up by so much per year. Let’s say a quarter per gallon. The tax rises or falls however much is necessary to deliver gas at that price. People would know what the price of gas is going to do when they buy a car. When you are on a budget, predictability is important. Of course, gas prices may fluctuate somewhat because of local factors, and the market could drive prices up so far and fast the tax could not be cut enough to compensate. But in normal times, the Trump gas tax should make gas prices predictable while raising new revenue.

[1]As we said at the beginning, beyond transportation, infrastructure isn’t sexy. But when it comes to two vital networks, water and electric power, national security should lead President Trump to take action. At present, both the power and the water system throughout the country depend on computers. That makes them vulnerable to hacking and to electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) or other directed energy attacks. The latter can come from natural as well as human sources. Water is more important than power. If tens of millions of Americans’ homes and communities have no water, with none in prospect, most quickly become refugees.

Our water and power systems, especially the former, need manual backups. Just a few decades ago, they were run without computers. The people who know how to do that are mostly still alive. We need to learn from them how they did it before their knowledge is lost. Then, we need to game major, widespread system disruptions and determine how we cope with them. If President Trump wanted a big program to make Americans secure where they live, he might consider drilling a hand-pumped well for every urban and suburban residential block. That would be the best insurance he could buy us, and would put lots of folks to work as well.

President Hoover has Hoover Dam, FDR has the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Ike has the interstate highway system. Each is a memorial to a president who wanted to do something big. The opportunities are there for President Trump to do the same. Short of building a pyramid, infrastructure offers him the best opportunity to put his name up in lights. 

William S. Lind is the director, and Glen D. Bottoms the executive director, of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "An Infrastructure Fix"

#1 Comment By DanJ On January 26, 2017 @ 2:14 am

Very good article.

Discussions on high-speed rail too often focus on the forefront of technology, super-duper trains that go 300mph and are prohibitively expensive to build. Instead, look into existing alternatives. Several European manufacturers already make trains that run very comfortably at 150+ mph. The technology is relatively cheap and they use existing tracks, albeit improved. No need to reinvent the wheel!

As for cars, the true revolution is just around the corner. Self-driving cars will change everything within 15 years. You need not own the car, but pay for the service of having a car show up at your doorstep when you need it, and drive you where you want to go. Build a swimming pool where your garage used to be. Less need for parking space and less congestion in city centres too.

#2 Comment By Winston On January 26, 2017 @ 2:42 am

Rail and buses are way to go, especially as boomers age and Millenials prefer cities. In the smartphone age people want to meet up and do things together at drop of hat and living in burbs gets in way of that.

People who think having kids will mean people will move to cities are off. I know people who were brought up in suburbs, and have by choice brought their children up in cities!

#3 Comment By PAXNOW On January 26, 2017 @ 4:32 am

I agree with the need to rebuild and redevelop U.S. infrastructure. I do not believe the implosive nature of our current diverse body-politic will allow this to be done efficiently by government entities. How many dalmatians vs. terriers? It is easier to monitor inefficient policies (terriers v dalmatians) than to ensure true productive efficiency by using resources in their highest and best uses.

#4 Comment By DJ On January 26, 2017 @ 8:07 am

woa woa woa, you can’t support public transit. Public transit would be used by poor inner city people to come out to the suburbs and then the suburbanites would have to see poor people and minorities and let them work there or even worse steal from them.

The only conservative place I know of that is pro-transit is Utah, and I grew up there and after moving to Milwaukee, where the suburbs are so anti-transit that it’s mind boggling, I’m not sure how you’ll ever hope for wide conservative support for transit. It’s a common joke in the city that the conservatives in the suburbs wish the poor minorities in the cities would get jobs, but just not the jobs that are available near them.

#5 Comment By Fred Bowman On January 26, 2017 @ 8:16 am

Would love see to see this happen.

#6 Comment By Nelson On January 26, 2017 @ 9:31 am

The left presents all public transportation as a service for the poor.

Do they? Mostly I’ve seen that attitude from the right. Either way, that line should have been edited out because it detracts from an otherwise insightful article.

#7 Comment By KevinS On January 26, 2017 @ 10:03 am

“Some of the above proposals will save money; on net, the package will cost money. Where is that money to come from? From raising the gas tax.”

There are two problems with this. First, just like sales taxes, raising gas taxes is regressive and will fall hardest on the struggling working class that voted for Trump. Second, most of the Republican Party is in the grips of anti-tax fundamentalism and will not agree.

#8 Comment By Ben Stone On January 26, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

Sorry, never going to happen. Updating America’s infrastructure costs money, a LOT of money, and America simply doesn’t spend money any more. We don’t take on great, society-wide achievements anymore because half of our nation has a crippling hatred of government.

We squabble over every penny with nothing but pathological short-term thinking. The only change to infrastructure the Right will allow is probably selling it off to private entities and making every road, bridge, and stoplight in America a toll funded private venture.

#9 Comment By dead mexican voter On January 26, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

Please explain the advantage of streetcars over buses. Buses need no additional infrastructure. Maybe $100m per mile is high, but you try tearing up major streets, closing them and dealing with God knows what’s running under them. Streetcars cannot move over to the curb to pick up and drop off passengers, tying up traffic. You state that people prefer streetcars to buses. Yes, it is because they are novelties and “quaint”. They would prefer commuting via roller coaster until the novelty wore off. Streetcar promoters have shown economic boosts. However, most streetcar creation has been a part of a broader downtown revitalization effort, and it is impossible to single out the particular advantage of streetcars vs buses.

#10 Comment By grumpy realist On January 26, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

This article seems more a case of wishful thinking “what Trump would do if he were my ideal POTUS” rather than an analysis of what’s actually likely to happen.

I mean, look at how he’s managing to make mice feet out of the entire “wall on the border” idea.

#11 Comment By Dan On January 27, 2017 @ 9:30 am

Good luck getting this great idea past Paul Ryan and the house freedom caucus

#12 Comment By Jack On January 27, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

Didn’t Obama’s initial stimulus bill include billions in funding for the building of new passenger trains? I was living in Wisconsin at the time when Gov. Walker rejected the money from the stimulus to pay for high speed rail that would connect Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay to Chicago simply because it was Obama money. I’m all for rail – and would love to see Trump do this – but it would be awfully ironic.

#13 Comment By Joe On January 28, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

Monorail!

#14 Comment By Dale McNamee On January 28, 2017 @ 4:15 pm

And busses can go to areas and be re-routed unlike fixed rail and get to areas not served by streetcars, subways,and light rail…

Streetcars lost out to busses for that reason and busses lost out to cars once people found them far more convenient, especially if one worked the 3-11 and 11-7 shifts and did the family grocery shopping and not “minimalist”shopping ( cute little bags and boxes,etc.)

I was never a fan of city living…Even in the “gentrified” sections…

I like having a lawn and backyard and neighbors that I don’t have to watch constantly…

#15 Comment By mo’ better choo-choo On January 28, 2017 @ 8:57 pm

+1 for more (and much better) Amtrak. And not just for the NE Corridor.

#16 Comment By Wizard On January 29, 2017 @ 1:46 am

What a tremendous collection of bad ideas. Dumping more tax dollars into passenger trains and streetcars would be a boondoggle of epic proportions. These things went away for sound economic and technological reasons, not because of some great conspiracy. If you can point to a single rail project anywhere in the US in the last few decades that has come in on-time and on-budget and generated ridership anywhere near the (systematically inflated) projections, I’d love to hear about it.

The tax proposals are even worse. One reason the gas tax doesn’t raise enough money for road construction, maintenance and repair is that too much of the money it does raise is diverted to rail lines, bike paths and other completely unrelated uses. Suggesting that we do even more of this shifting flies in the face of logic.

As for using taxes to price-fix gasoline, I can’t think of a more wrong-headed, dangerous idea. No one with any understanding of basic economics can possibly think price-fixing is good. Prices communicate important information, and distorting that information leads to nothing but perverse incentives. Not to mention, tying the tax to fluctuations in the price of gasoline will result in a wildly unreliable revenue stream, which is precisely what you don’t want for funding long-term infrastructure investments. Let’s imagine gas prices spike because of lower oil production, problems at a major refinery or whatever. Tax revenues fall drastically, but the retail price of gasoline doesn’t change, giving customers no incentive to conserve. How on earth is this a good idea?

Congratulations to dead mexican voter for being the only commenter who seems to have any real understanding of this. To his comments, I’d just like to add that buses have one other tremendous advantage over streetcars: flexibility. Building new streetcar tracks is expensive and time-consuming, and removing old, unused tracks isn’t cheap or quick either. By contrast, buses that run on ordinary streets can easily be re-routed to adjust to shifts in population and ridership.

#17 Comment By Cindy On January 30, 2017 @ 2:32 pm

What advantages does rail (streetcar and commuter) have over buses?

1. Carry more passengers per hour.
2. Dedicated right of way.
3. Preferential signaling.
(2 and 3 move passengers faster)
4. Stimulate private investment along route. Buses don’t stimulate investment specifically because they ARE flexible. See @ freeway offramps. Same principle.

It’s not either/or but yes/and for those communities where rail makes sense due to demand. Buses provide feeder service to both commuter rail and streetcars. As ridership increases, transit planners and elected officials can decide when it’s time to invest.

Driving won over rail largely because the government decided driving should win. Gas prices were very low. The cost of ownership was falling. Planners didn’t understand the ramifications of massive highway construction projects or of zoning.

When Congress relieved the rail companies of the requirement to provide passenger rail (in exchange for the free land they were given as incentive to extend rail across the country)in 1958, they inadvertently and simultaneously made the transportation system more fragile and made lower-income families reliant on a form of transportation that would eventually become quite costly.

@wizard, see San Joaquin Regional Rail (ACE).

#18 Comment By BradD On January 30, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

I think the issue of car vs public transport is we act like cars were never subsidized to win. It was never a fair shake when it came to support for cars over public transport. We can see, obviously, that government support for highways far exceeds that of other modes of transport. After all I own a car yet it sits idle for 90% of the day. Heck, I own two cars and my wife’s is idle for even longer than that. Cars only make sense if we take away other options.

#19 Comment By Tomonthebeach On January 30, 2017 @ 11:28 pm

If you want to see rail done right, look at the DC Metro system. It bears out what Cindy suggested that rail creates business corridors. It also speeds up the commute home – ask anybody dying of old age in Beltway traffic.

While Wizard is right about over-runs, s/he confuses the politics of getting appropriations (low-ball the cost and time) needed to get the job done at all. Most rail systems seemt to be jammed at rush hour within 5 years. You have to wean people off of familiar cars to unfamiliar rail.