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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Nice site for Railfans

I particularly love the name of this site… dogcaught. Lots of very nice photos.

Politics in Transportation Funding

Yonah Freemark over at The Transport Politic laments the broken funding structure of transportation projects:

But in a country where the vast majority of people drive to fulfill the majority of their transport needs, it would be politically untenable to suggest that most roads money be transferred to transit users.

True. We spend money on gas to fuel our cars. We pay gas tax when we fuel our cars. We expect that tax to better the driving environment for our cars. Pretty simple relationship.

Nonetheless, the American transport funding mechanism is routed in the user fee, a product of a certain logic that assumes that people should pay for what they use.

I disagree here. Our transport funding mechanism isn’t entirely rooted in a user fee… it’s rooted in a gas tax. If it’s a user fee then it’s predicated upon the wrong idea, that the good I’m using is gas. The reality is that I’m using infrastructure. Gas is my fuel, but when I drive from point A to B I’m consuming the infrastructure. I’m placing wear and tear on the infrastructure.

If I buy a Nissan Leaf I suddenly stop paying the gas tax… but I’m still consuming the infrastructure. If Doc Brown installs a “Mr. Fusion” unit in his Delorean he stops paying the gas tax… but he still consumes the infrastructure. That’s why a true user fee is a good idea. The logic “that assumes that people should pay for what they use” is the right logic. It’s just distorted through Disparate Funding Structures (one of our main problems).

Yonah finishes by throwing out two solutions to the funding structure problem:

But a right-headed long-term approach would require that either we pull the national government out of the transport financing game altogether, or that we pull away from the direct connection between highway user fee collections and spending.

I think he’s on the right track when he mentions pulling the national government out of the transport financing “game.” Such an appropriate word there. One of our other main problems, the fact that Politics Trumps Solutions, has turned our transportation funding into a game where the States are unwitting contestants in a sort of Survivor-esque reality show.

Now, how do we go about pulling the national government out of the “game?”

“Moving Things”

Another transportation blog I recently discovered, Cap’n Transit, has started an interesting series of articles on “moving things,” ie. freight hauling. You should read these little snippets. I especially appreciate some of the information and data he links to in these articles.

One quote caught my attention:

Reducing highway and fuel subsidies is one way to make the cost of trucking more apparent.

This is touching on a solution to one of our problems, the True Costs are Hidden. Fuel taxes (with generous help from the general federal budget) fund our highway infrastructure and therefore hide some of the costs associated with shipping freight or transporting people by car.

We need to reduce the subsidies to the highways and at the same time require shipping companies (and motorists perhaps) to directly fund the infrastructure they are using. This will put the different modes of “moving things” on more equal footing.

Amtrak’s $100-Million Trains

Fred Frailey did some digging and found some stupefying numbers for the yearly operations of select Amtrak passenger trains.

I’m old enough to not be frightened by big numbers. But I have to admit catching my breath when I saw what it costs Amtrak to operate three of its most popular and endearing trains. We’re talking nine digits.

via Trains Magazine.

I’ve had the opportunity to ride one of these trains, the Southwest Chief. For a nostalgic railfan like myself it was a great time. However, it took over 9 hours to travel from Chicago to Kansas City. This is not the model of efficient transportation. I suppose that’s further exemplified in the numbers Fred dug up… $103-million in costs, $62-million in revenue. There’s a reason the private railroads started dumping passenger service throughout the 1960′s… it was not tenable. Apparently it still isn’t.


Many of the photos I post here will also be available at this Flickr link. Enjoy!


Time for another railroad photo.

Tehachapi 20060729

Back in 2006, while driving from Los Angeles to the Sierras, we stopped in to see if we could catch a train coming up Tehachapi Loop. We nearly missed this one.

Privatized Transportation Works

Dave Talley, superintendent of Norfolk Southern’s Lake Division, wrote a great op-ed in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

The freight rail network has been a bright spot in a troubled economy. That’s because freight railroads, unlike trucks, airlines or barges, have been using private capital to invest in the rail network and facilities in northeast Indiana and around the country.

A small caveat here. The railroads do use some federal money through FRA grants that seem to generally be dispersed through state DOT’s. If you look through these grants though, the dollar amounts are a fraction of the capital that the railroads put into their own infrastructure.

All the same, Dave’s point is important. These private companies, the freight railroads, have shown amazing resiliency in the midst of economic problems. They aren’t waiting around for a bailout.

Even through the recession, railroads such as Norfolk Southern steadfastly have stayed committed to providing safe, reliable, efficient and affordable service, employing people in well-paying jobs that support families and communities.

Safe, reliable, efficient, affordable. Can we say these same things about our public transportation and its infrastructure? Not always.

…since 1980, freight rail industry has invested $480 billion to maintain and modernize the nation’s rail network so taxpayers don’t have to.

Looking ahead, these investments are not slowing down. In 2011, freight railroads plan to spend a record $12 billion of their own money on capital expenditures – on things like upgrading tracks, new fuel-efficient locomotives and new intermodal facilities.

Yeah, the $1 million and $5 million grants listed on the federal grants site don’t really touch the figure the railroads are fronting on their own.

Vehicle Miles Tax

Here’s a great idea with typically poor execution by the politicians. A vehicle miles tax.

The whole approach to this is wrong though. The White House issues a draft reauthorization bill that includes this idea but then promptly disowns the idea publicly. It’s like they are trying to gauge opposition rather than solve a problem.

First of all, if you are going to restructure the funding of road projects, you need to go all the way. Kill the gas tax. It’s not doing the job and, as it is, if we want to reduce gas consumption then gas tax revenue will be shrinking anyway. Remove the gas tax and replace it with a vehicle miles tax.

Secondly, why do we need to accompany this with a proposal for a spooky, big-brother-esque, tracking device in every car? Cars track their own mileage via the odometer. It’s already a Federal offense to tamper with odometers (see Motor Vehicle Cost Information Act, 49 U.S.C. Section 32704). Just require an odometer reading every year with vehicle registration. The States already have the resources in place to collect this information.

You are NEVER going to get people to accept an additional tax to pay for their roads. However, a substitute tax that presents a better funding structure and produces a tangible result (ie. better roads) will probably pan out. The number of miles driven, and thus the amount of demand placed on the infrastructure, will be proportionate to the funds collected.

The best solutions are often the simplest. What am I missing?

Ford Lowering Hybrid Costs

In an all-out effort to lower the cost of their hybrid offerings Ford has in-sourced (is that a word?) nearly all of its hybrid technology. Ford designed its own hybrid battery, which will soon start production in Ford’s Rawsonville, Michigan plant, as well as its own hybrid transmission, to be produced in Detroit.

Software development for the hybrids has also been brought in-house. The results? Costs on Ford’s newest generation of hybrids dropped by a cool 30%…

via Gas 2.0.

Speaking of hybrids, this is promising news. One barrier to hybrid car adoption has been the price premium. Make the price equal and you are on the way to a wider adoption of this technology.

I’m still not convinced hybrid is the endgame for automotive transport, but its certainly a step in the right direction.

Mazda Unveils All-Gasoline Engine?

Their new SkyActiv all-gasoline engine 2.0 liter, 155 horsepower will allow the 2012 Mazda3 to boast a hybrid-esque 40 miles-per-gallon.

via Gas 2.0.

Very interesting. I gotta admit that engines like these sure take the bang out of hybrids. In my opinion, hybrids just aren’t quite there yet. A diesel Jetta can beat out a hybrid… as could my 1987 Honda Civic SI that I purchased very used in 2004. I could pull 42 mpg out of that car.