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OpenMarket: Automobiles and Roads

  • Long Mass Transit Commutes Are Horrible for Your Health

    May 20, 2015 5:12 PM

    Joseph Stromberg at Vox.com has an article up arguing that “commuting alone by car” is “associated with obesity, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, and general unhappiness” relative to other transportation modes. His solution to unhealthy lengthy commutes is to increase carpooling.

    Back in 2012, I argued against another now-Voxxer, Matthew Yglesias, on the supposed health harms of auto commuting. The problem, as Census data make clear, is that other than those who walk to work, people commuting by driving alone generally have the shortest commutes. Those using public transit take on average twice as long to make their commuting journeys as those who drive by themselves.

  • Not So Fast: Fatally Flawed Research Asserts Alcohol Taxes Save Lives

    May 12, 2015 10:52 AM

    Last month, researchers at the University of Florida published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that concluded, “Increases in alcohol excise taxes, such as the 2009 Illinois act, could save thousands of lives yearly across the United States as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce alcohol-impaired driving.” Their study presented the case that the 2009 tax increase resulted in a statistically significant reduction in alcohol-related deaths in Illinois. However, as I pointed out in a blog post, there only appears to be a reduction in fatalities because of the authors’ selective inclusion and exclusion of data. Rebecca Goldin, Director of STATS.org and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University, found even more flaws in the research.

    In her post, Rebecca takes a bird’s eye view of the crash data in Illinois between 1999 and 2013. She finds a steady decline during this 10-year period with “hardly anything special at all going on at the end of 2009.” Looking closer at the data, she noted (as did I) the curious exclusion of data after 2011. “Results should be resilient to changes in choices, such as whether to use data published 2011-2013,” Goldin notes. When added to the evaluation, this 2011-2013 data shows a small decrease immediately after 2009, but then shows a steady increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths in Illinois. She also found that as a proportion of total traffic fatalities, alcohol-related fatalities on the road have been increasing since 2009 (though only by 2 percent—a statistically insignificant amount).

    Of course, the real story here is that breaking the data at year 2009 may not be an appropriate way of measuring the trends, and certainly it’s not appropriate to “blame” the excise tax for the proportionally increased alcohol deaths in the context of decreasing deaths associated to alcohol. But by the same logic neither is it appropriate to conclude that the excise tax has been saving lives.

    Finally, in addition to the “creative math” and error of conflating correlation with causation (bad scientists, bad!), there’s another potential problem with the study. The grant provided by the National Institutes of Health lists the purpose as “to develop a research program of HIV prevention focused on the intersection of event-level alcohol use… and sexual partner selection among adolescents.” There is no mention in the grant description about taxes or motor vehicle crashes. I say this is a “potential” problem because I have been unable to get answers from anyone at the NIH or the University of Florida researchers who worked on the project. My questions were simple: What was the rationale behind using an AIDS grant for alcohol tax research? And is this sort of change in scope common practice?

    It’s one thing to have public health advocates peddling flawed research in order to advance personal agendas, but it’s another entirely to use taxpayer money to do so.

  • Why Is the Federal Government Threatening Times Square's Billboards?

    May 6, 2015 1:24 PM

    Colleagues tipped me off to an absurd news story about how the federal government is threatening to punish New York City for its famously gaudy Times Square electronic billboards:

    It is known as the “Crossroads of the World,” the “Center of the Universe” and “the Great White Way,” but Times Square could become like the “Black Hole of Calcutta” if the federal government has its way, CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reported Tuesday.

    The feds say many of Times Square’s huge and neon-lit billboards must come down or the city will lose about $90 million in federal highway money.

    The edict comes from a 2012 law that makes Times Square an arterial route to the national highway system. And that puts it under the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which limits signs to 1,200 square feet. It took the feds until now to realize that Times Square was included, Kramer reported.

    City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg agrees.

    “The signs in Times Square are wonderful. They’re iconic. They’re not only a global tourist attraction, they’re important to the economy,” Trottenberg said.

    She said she’s not going to let it happen.

    “We’re not going to be taking down the billboards in Times Square. We’re going to work with the federal government and the state and find a solution,” Trottenberg said.

    Some have suggested that this is an example of regulators run amok. It isn’t. This is a classic example of Congress passing stupid laws, ordering regulators to implement them stupidly, and then forgetting about them until unintended consequences spring up down the line. Allow me to explain what’s going on here, as virtually all the news articles and commentary out there provide next to zero context.

    As the article noted, in the last surface transportation reauthorization (MAP-21 Act of 2012), Section 1104 created what is now known as the “enhanced National Highway System.” The enhanced National Highway System refers to MAP-21’s amendment to 23 U.S.C. § 103(b)(2)(B) to include, “Other urban and rural principal arterial routes ... that were not included on the National Highway System before the date of enactment of the MAP-21.”

    In a nutshell, this provision added roads that meet the definition of “principal arterial” to the National Highway System that were not previously designated as components of the National Highway System. Why might someone want to do this? Because arterials not designated as part of the National Highway System are not eligible for Federal-aid Highway Program funding. Based on the current statutes and regulations governing National Highway System designations, roads evaluated to be principal arterials by the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Performance Monitoring System were automatically added to the National Highway System under Congress’s 2012 law. This included some roadways in New York City.

  • Google Now Opposes State Automated Vehicle Legislation?

    April 22, 2015 11:54 AM

    Back in 2012, I warned that California’s bill (now law) that would explicitly recognize the legality of automated vehicles and order state regulators to develop a detailed safety framework would tie the hands of innovators. In those days, Google was the chief proponent of such legislation, with California Gov. Jerry Brown signing the bill into law (sponsored by now-Secretary of State Alex Padilla) at Google’s headquarters, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin looking on.

    That 2012 law spawned a series of chaotic regulatory actions at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which has still failed to implement the required licensing and operations regulations and which also imposed regulations that forced Google to dial back its efforts to produce and test a fully automated vehicle on public roads. Ironically, these now-forbidden operations were likely completely legal before California enacted its autonomous vehicle law in 2012.

    Fortunately, Google appears to have learned from its mistakes and is now opposing a similar piece of legislation in Texas. The technology giant isn’t explaining its about-face in the Longhorn State, but the automakers’ chief lobby, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was more candid:

    The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

    “We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

    Gage said many of his group’s members are testing autonomous vehicle technology, but he could not say whether any are doing so on Texas roads or highways. Such testing would likely be legal here, as Texas law does not address self-driving vehicles, according to state officials. Google drove its self-driving car on Texas roads during a trip to Austin to promote the technology in 2013.

  • Could Alcohol Taxes Reduce Fatal Car Crashes?

    April 9, 2015 2:46 PM

    A new study from the University of Florida asserts that because Illinois instituted an alcohol tax increase in 2009 and the rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined 26 percent since 2009, the tax must certainly be responsible for the decline in deaths. Of course, news outlets have begun touting the study as evidence that increasing taxes results in fewer deaths. Are they right?

    A team of UF Health researchers discovered that fatal alcohol-related car crashes in Illinois declined 26 percent after a 2009 increase in alcohol tax. The decrease was even more marked for young people, at 37 percent.

    So, was it the alcohol tax increase that led to the state’s declining alcohol related traffic deaths? To answer that question, one need only examine the rate before and after the tax increase went into effect and compare it to the rest of the United States. Looking at these numbers (provided by DISCUS), it becomes clear that the rate of alcohol related traffic fatalities was declining faster in the year before the tax increase went into effect. Furthermore, since the state jacked up the alcohol taxes, Illinois has experienced a slower decline than the rest of the nation.

     

     

    Repeat after me: correlation does not equal causation. The study’s authors claim that since the 2009 tax increase went into effect, Illinois saw a 26 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. That certainly is an impressive decline. But just because two things correlate, doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship. For example, just because the divorce rate in Maine correlates almost one-to-one with the rate of margarine consumption in the U.S., it doesn’t mean one caused the other. 

    Furthermore, the whole nation saw a decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths between 2001 and 2011

  • Administration's GROW AMERICA Act 2.0 Mixes Bad with Good

    March 30, 2015 12:11 PM

    Today, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx unveiled the administration’s latest surface transportation reauthorization proposal. Like the previous White House bill, the latest iteration of the GROW AMERICA Act is unlikely to go anywhere on Capitol Hill. The president’s proposal to fund much of his increased infrastructure spending relies largely on a one-shot tax repatriation scheme, something that will do nothing to improve the long-run fiscal position of the Highway Trust Fund. In addition, the White House proposal would make the very wasteful TIGER discretionary grant program permanent. See this post for more on what good and bad surface transportation policy looks like.

    But the administration’s GROW AMERICA 2.0 proposal isn’t all bad. In fact, it contains two very smart elements that Congress should attach to their own reauthorization package.

    First, the administration proposal would repeal the current prohibition on states tolling their own Interstate segments, codified at 23 U.S.C. § 129, while also repealing the three-slot Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, which was established by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century of 1998 and has failed to promote Interstate reconstruction through tolling. Contrary to popular belief, the states, not the federal government, own and operate the Interstate Highway System. Currently, the only tolled segments of the Interstate system were grandfathered in by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. No federal-aid funds can be used to maintain these roads, which constitute a little over 6 percent of the Interstate Highway System. Tolling offers a number of advantages over fuel tax or non-user funding. Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole has developed a plan to reconstruct and modernize the Interstate Highway System through the use of all-electronic highway tolling, something policy makers should consider as an alternative to gas tax increases and Highway Trust Fund bailouts.

    Second, the current cap on tax-exempt private activity bonds, which bring financing parity to infrastructure development by allowing the private sector to take advantage of similar debt instruments as the public sector, would be raised from $15 billion to $19 billion (see 26 U.S.C. § 142(m)(2)(A)). Ideally, this cap would be repealed, but increasing it is at least a step in the right direction.

    To be sure, there is little in the latest GROW AMERICA Act for free marketeers to love. But Congress would be wise to take seriously the administration’s recommendations on Interstate tolling and private activity bonds.

    For more on federal surface transportation reauthorization, see CEI's agenda for Congress, Free to Prosper.

  • How Not to Fix, and Fix, Federal Surface Transportation Policy

    March 9, 2015 3:37 PM

    A lot of misinformation and scaremongering swells around transportation infrastructure policy in Washington. We are told our highway network is on the verge of collapse (false), that the federal role is the most critical component of government transportation infrastructure funding (false), and that things will only get worse unless we submit to massive federal gas tax increases (false). To be sure, there are many transportation projects that should be completed over the next two decades. But the “crisis” is politically manufactured. The infrastructure lobby does no one any favors by overstating the problem and supporting reckless and inefficient tax-and-spend policies.

    The “Crisis” in Context: Blame Mass Transit?

    Let’s start with the problem. As of January, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is projecting a 10-year $168 billion shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF). By 2025, CBO is projecting that the outlays from the HTF’s Highway Account will exceed revenues and interest by $16 billion (47 percent), with outlays from the HTF’s Mass Transit Account exceeding revenues and interest by $6 billion (150 percent). The HTF’s Mass Transit Account is in much worse shape over the long-run. It is also important to note that virtually every penny of the HTF’s Mass Transit Account is diverted revenue collected from drivers—2.86 cents of the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline excise tax and 24.4-cent federal diesel excise tax is dedicated to the Mass Transit Account.

    Why is there a Mass Transit Account in the Highway Trust Fund? Because President Reagan made a foolish decision in 1982 to dedicate 1 cent of the federal fuel excise taxes to mass transit, as urban liberals would have otherwise refused his gas tax increase for Interstate projects on equity grounds (fuel taxes can be quite regressive). So, this misguided horse trade from The Gipper is why nearly 20 percent of all federal surface transportation funds are now directed to mass transit, a mode that accounts for less than 5 percent of commuting trips. But it gets worse. Less than 2 percent of total trips, both commuting and non-commuting, are completed by mass transit in the United States. When we consider expenditures from all levels of government—federal, state, and local—we observe that mass transit receives approximately 25 percent of the nearly $210 billion spent annually on surface transportation. That’s 25 percent of total funding for less than 2 percent of trips.

    In most places in the U.S., transit is a white elephant mode backed by powerful environmentalists, developers, and unions that does nothing to mitigate traffic congestion, which was its primary stated purpose in the 1970s when the federal government first began making large capital grants for local transit systems. More troubling, the U.S. Department of Transportation currently estimates that America’s mass transit systems have an $86 billion deferred maintenance backlog and that transit agencies need to increase annual system preservation spending from $10 billion to $18 billion just to tread water. No one knows where this additional money will come from, yet politicians continue pushing disastrous transit system expansion plans.

    If we were to redirect federal highway-user revenues that are currently automatically directed to mass transit from FY 2016-2025, CBO’s projected HTF revenue-outlay imbalance would be reduced from -$168 billion to -$77 billion over 10 years. Ending the major highway-dollar diversion to transit is unlikely to happen, but it is important to remember that political pandering to the transit lobby is responsible for more than half of CBO’s current projected HTF fiscal woes. But even without ending HTF diversions to mass transit, given the federal government’s small role relative to those of state and local governments, that projected $168 billon HTF shortfall would only account for about 8 percent of total surface transportation expenditures through FY 2025 assuming no increases in state and local spending. Some “crisis,” eh?

  • Ridesharing and Regulation

    February 12, 2015 2:06 PM

    Earlier this week, I appeared on a Cato Institute panel organized by Cato’s Matthew Feeney, author of a new report on for-hire vehicle safety issues. Video of the event, which also included Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker, can be found here.

    The panel was titled, “How Should Ridesharing Be Regulated?” Naturally, being a general skeptic of regulation, I titled my presentation, “Why Should Ridesharing Be Regulated?” I noted that modern municipal taxicab regulations were crafted by the then-powerful streetcar lobby in response to new competition from jitneys and buses that occurred around 1915. By 1922, the streetcar industry’s main trade association, the American Electric Railway Association, was already crowing about its rent-seeking successes:

    In many instances, municipal action has solved the question, but the situation demands general power in regulatory bodies to prevent competition of jitneys and busses with essential street car service. In the meantime, regulatory bodies and the public realize that transportation by electric railways will always be necessary…

    Yes, those “always necessary” streetcars soon disappeared from the streets of U.S. cities, but the streetcar lobby’s efforts resulted in an entrenched taxicab cartel that supported the same types of anti-competitive regulations. Most major U.S. cities adopted regulations that established operating caps and minimum fare requirements through the Great Depression. Until the late 1960s, these rules went unchallenged. The 1970s saw a wave of several dozen cities deregulate their taxicab markets. Unfortunately, a number of the experiments were flawed and resulted in a number of cities reversing course and reregulating their taxicab markets. (For more on the regulatory history of the taxicab industry and the related economic research, see Reason Foundation Vice President Dr. Adrian Moore’s excellent literature review here.)

    Then Uber came. Cities are now facing great pressure to deregulate or at least accommodate Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and similar services that directly compete with taxicabs. However, I worry that some of these efforts, particularly the accommodationist strategy favored by Uber, risks locking in business models and restricting future innovation—particularly with the looming rise of autonomous vehicles.

    One thing that really gets my libertarian blood boiling is that “ridesharing” only becomes regulated when the driver turns a profit. Hitchhiking is legal and essentially unregulated in most U.S. states. Anonymous commuter carpools like D.C.’s slug-lines are entirely unregulated, although there are social etiquette “rules” that “slugs” are expected to respect. In fact, not only is charging your carpooling passengers for gas and even mileage depreciation legal and unregulated up until profitability, many government agencies actively encourage it. The bias against commerce runs deep in the U.S., despite our reputation as a highly individualist, pro-market nation—this just shows how horrible the anti-commerce biases are in other countries!

    I discuss this and more on the panel. Watch the whole thing here.

  • Transportation Roundup: Obama Budget, DOT 2045, and Sad Transcontinental Railroad Nostalgia

    February 4, 2015 1:32 PM

    The President’s FY 2016 Budget

    On Monday, the White House released its DOA FY 2016 budget. Like President Obama’s previous budgets, this one has no chance of going anywhere, with the latest iteration primarily lending itself to lame congressional Republican “Groundhog Day” jokes. The White House is expected to release its updated DOA highway bill, a “GROW AMERICA Act 2.0,” sometime in the coming weeks. Until then, we won’t know in detail the policies the White House hopes to see on surface transportation. 

    However, we know it will take the form of a six-year, $478 billion reauthorization that will rely on a $238 billion bailout of the Highway Trust Fund to be funded by a tax on foreign corporate earnings. The White House plan would also make the TIGER grant program permanent, “dramatically” (their word) increase transit spending, and attempt to turn the Highway Trust Fund into a general transportation slush fund in order to boost politically correct spending on high-cost/low-value passenger rail projects. 

    But there appears to be some good in there too. To the president’s credit, he is a strong supporter of private infrastructure investment and plans to expand the role of Private Activity Bonds (PABs). As he mentioned in his State of the Union address, President Obama wants to create a Qualified Public Infrastructure Bond (QPIB) program to support more public-private partnerships in airports, transit, solid waste disposal, sewer and water, and other types of surface transportation that aren’t currently permitted under the existing PAB framework. 

    While not mentioned, we hope President Obama’s GROW AMERICA Act 2.0 also includes a provision that would end the current federal prohibition on states tolling their Interstate segments for reconstruction purposes. Last year’s GROW AMERICA Act included such a provision. This is something Congress should seriously consider as they scramble to come up with new irresponsible strategies for bailing out the ailing Highway Trust Fund. Instead of a federal highway handout, they should give the states a hand up by empowering them to fund and finance more of their own infrastructure.

  • Invest in Transportation Act of 2015 Violates Fiscally Conservative Transportation Principles

    January 29, 2015 12:13 PM

    It was just announced that Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) would introduce the Invest in Transportation Act of 2015. The bill aims to offer an incentive to U.S. companies that are currently keeping $2 trillion in foreign earnings overseas to return some of these earnings. The repatriated earnings would then be subject to a favorable tax rate of 6.5 percent. While tax repatriation may be a good idea, it has nothing to do with infrastructure. Any tax revenue collected on returned overseas earnings should flow into the general treasury, not used to bail out the Highway Trust Fund.

    This huge violation of the user-pays/user-benefits principle is surprising given Sen. Paul's reputation as a libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative. The user-pays principle is the bedrock of sound transportation policy, as it offers a number of advantages over general revenue finding, including:

    • Fairness: Highway users benefit from the improvements their user fees generate.
    • Proportionality: Users who drive more pay more. Users who impose disproportionate costs, such as heavy trucks, are charged more.
    • Funding Predictability: Highway use and therefore highway user revenues do not fluctuate wildly in the short-run.
    • Signaling Investment: Revenue roughly tracks use, which provides policy makers with an important signal as to how much infrastructure investment is needed to maintain a desired level of efficiency.

    Sen. Paul joins a list of Republicans such as Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) who have endorsed similar unprincipled repatriation-based infrastructure funding in the past. Unfortunately, Sens. Paul and Blunt have good company in the current Congress. As it stands, the GOP's "conservative" solutions to Highway Trust Fund insolvency include raising the federal gas tax, a tax repatriation bailout, and creating a dangerous new non-user "drilling for roads" revenue stream. There is not even discussion of reducing outlays from the Highway Trust Fund to meet projected revenues. In fact, the last time the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was able to vote on non-binding motion to instruct that simply stated Congress would not spend more surface transportation money than it was projected to collect in user taxes, it received just 82 votes. No, every serious proposal from congressional Republicans involves bailouts, bailouts, and more bailouts.

    Meanwhile, President Obama has endorsed expanded highway tolling and leveling the financing playing field for public-private partnerships, two important measures long supported by free-market conservatives and libertarians. Will Congress's self-described fiscal conservatives embrace markets, spending restraint, and federalism, or will they support road socialist policies that move them to the left of the Obama White House?

    For some real fiscally conservative and free market transportation policy proposals, please see the transportation chapter of CEI's just-released "Free to Prosper" agenda for Congress.

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