Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Asphalt Empire Strikes Back

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

UPDATE by Robert: Sen. Kit Bond, Republican from Missouri, is offering two anti-transit amendments - including one that would kill the $2 billion in high speed rail funding currently in the Senate version of the stimulus. Contact both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to let them know those amendments must be defeated - and while you're at it, ask Boxer's office why the hell they're advancing the cause of carbon pollution and global warming denial by helping Inhofe.

Dianne Feinstein DC office: (202) 224-3841
Barbara Boxer DC office: (202) 224-3553

Obama's silence on all this is also rather deafening. He has allowed Republicans to narrowly define what is stimulus and what is not - he hasn't mounted a strong defense of including mass transit funding as stimulus, and hasn't spoken out against Republican demands to gut the stimulus package. A new president with extremely high approval ratings should not be letting his administration get tied down by these Lilliputians, yet here we are.

UPDATE 2 by Rafael: Right now, Republicans are playing hardball. There will be no broad bipartisan majority because House Democrats will not accept a completely watered down bill in conference. The idea of stripping down the bill to the elements the GOP already agrees with in order to pass something, anything, Real Soon Now is a bad one because it does not require Republicans to voting for less palatable policies down the road.

Democrats may be able to bribe at least one Republican Senator into breaking ranks this time or, they may succeed in calling the GOP's bluff by forcing them to read telephone books for a while while thousands are losing their jobs every day. I'd quite like to see the latter happen just to underline how anachronistic the whole concept of filibusters is in the 21st Century.

However, given the gravity of the situation, it might make more sense for President Obama, Sen. Reid, a small group of Rockefeller Republican Senators and Speaker Pelosi to hammer out a European-style formal coalition agreement for a two-year legislative agenda. It would be more diplomatic to show deference to Senate Minority Leader McConnell, but this isn't about playing nice. It's about cobbling together a narrow, filibuster-proof majority. This is also why I didn't include House Minority Leader Boehner in the above list - his job for the next two years is to articulate the GOP alternative to the Democratic agenda, not to govern.

The alternative to a stable coalition agreement is to fight over each and every amendment of each and every bill, wasting precious time while the economy is tanking. Consumer and business confidence will only recover once there is visible evidence of a coherent strategy going forward, one that absolutely should include HSR as a means to gradually wean the nation off its addiction to oil.

Original post begins here:

Streetsblog SF warns that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is about to enter into an unholy alliance with Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). They plan to introduce an amendment to add $50 billion for highway construction to the stimulus bill (h/t to Robert Cruickshank). This comes on the heels of the GOP blocking a $25 billion amendment sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) for highways, water and mass transit, ostensibly because no compensating cuts in other spending were offered. The Senate did pass one amendment: "Most consumers who buy new cars, minivans or light trucks by the end of the year would get tax deductions for the sales or excise taxes and the interest on their loans. Sponsor Barbara Mikulski , D- Md. , estimated that a family would save about $1,500 on a $25,000 vehicle. The key vote on the $11 billion measure was 71-26".

It is understandable that lawmakers are worried about the deteriorating state of the economy and focusing on the short-term issue of preserving and/or creating jobs. The DOTs of many states have a lot of planning expertise in highway projects, so most of their "shovel-ready" projects relate to roads. It's quite likely that there are at least $80 billion worth of road and road bridge repair projects around the country. If the bill contains verbiage targeting the funds that specifically, the Boxer-Inhofe amendment may make sense. However, it is not in the long-term interest of the country to substantially expand highway capacity in the context of this stimulus bill.

Similarly, it may make sense to provide tax breaks that generate demand for new cars, lest one of the Big Three goes belly-up. If that were to happen, it would amount to more than just job losses. The domestic automakers opted out of social security and Medicare decades ago, when that seemed like a good idea. Instead, they committed to providing pensions and health care to their retirees themselves. With Chapter 11 unlikely to succeed for an industry that depends on long-term relationships with its customers, bankruptcy would quickly lead to Chapter 7 a.k.a. liquidation. That would saddle the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation and either Medicare or Medicaid with the burden of providing a taxpayer-funded safety net for hundreds of thousands of retired auto workers that never contributed a dime towards these programs during their working lives.

However, the devil is once again in the details. A blanket tax break for the purchase of just any new car encourages the purchase of cheap gas guzzlers. Germany has taken a different approach: it limits its incentive to new car buyers who agree to scrap their old jalopies. The idea is to finally take cars without catalytic converters or with antiquated diesel engines off the roads to improve air quality. The US has a different problem: low average fuel efficiency. Therefore, any tax break for new car buyers should be limited to models that get at least e.g. 30mpg in the 2008 combined drive cycle and then only if the old vehicle was both rated at less than e.g. 22mpg in the old combined drive cycle and is scrapped.

The excessive dependence of the US transportation sector on fuels derived from oil exposes the economy to volatility in the price of that commodity. In particular, it was the assumption that gasoline would always be cheap that prompted cities to promote low-density urban sprawl in favor of high-density transit-oriented development. Combined with generous tax breaks and exotic mortgages for home buyers, this led to a large asset bubble that was massively reinforced by the securitization of mortgages by investment banks and insurance companies. The run-up in the price of oil, triggered by a combination of robust worldwide growth, a temporary lack of reserve production capacity plus rampant speculation, caused that bubble to burst.

In other words, the most obvious approach for a stimulus in the short term - perpetuating the status quo - risks cementing the same car culture that enabled the current economic meltdown in the first place. There were many other contributing factors, but creating funds and incentives for highway expansion and purchases of gas-guzzlers would simply set the scene for a repeat performance in the future.

It is essential that strings be attached to the stimulus measure to ensure long-term strategic objectives are not sacrificed on the altar of short-term expediency. Moreover, it would be extremely foolish to raid transit and intercity rail funds to expand those for highway construction and new car purchase incentives. Diversification of primary energy sources for the transportation sector is a national security issue, as is tackling wasteful congestion on the nation's roads.

Electric trains remain the only proven technology for moving large numbers of people over long distances safely with a small land use footprint, zero tailpipe emissions and without using a drop of oil. Blind faith in the holy grail of advanced automotive batteries is a risky bet and does nothing to address land use and congestion issues. It would be better to hedge by promoting the development of transit networks, folding electric bicycles and bicycle lane/path infrastructure to complement high speed intercity rail. Of course, as Trains4America reports, there will be conflicts over how to use the limited rights of way that remain after half a century of disinvestment in passenger rail services. Atlanta is one such case, the whole Altamont HSR vs. BART extension controversy in the Bay Area is another.

Bottom line: if funds are added to boost road and road bridge repairs and incentives to improve the average fuel economy of the nation's car fleet, there should be concomitant increases for electric rail and bicycle infrastructure funds to facilitate long-overdue changes in land use policies and oil consumption patterns. Note that vehicles running on grid electricity will only yield reductions in CO2 emissions if that electricity is generated from renewable sources. The stimulus bill already contains funding to build up that capacity, but the real value of electrification is that it dissociates primary energy sources and energy use in the transportation sector.

That means increases in the transportation infrastructure portions of the bill - including incentives to buy more efficient and/or electric vehicles - can be paid for either by deferring tax breaks or, by deferring the construction of renewable electricity generating and distribution capacity (or a combination of the two). As always, the art is to find an appropriate balance without breaking the bank.


Francesco said...

I posted this on the Overhead Wire and ill say it again with more emphasis now that I read that Boxer is going in bed with Inhofe. Inhofe is a monster. Boxer is the senator from southern california, which is nothing but a big asphalt parking lot/freeway anyway. It doesn't surprise me. These people are terribly pathetic....I feel utterly betrayed by the democrats. Moreover, I feel like I irrationally got swept up in the Obama delirium. Obviously, what we have is better than before, but seriously what we have here is American politicians acting like---shocking!!!---dumb average Americans. Har har, highways=good, cars=good, trains=bad, transit=bad.

Their lack of will power to do something visionary and sustainable is pathetic. I've called and emailed multiple times over the last 2 weeks, nothing. My senator and representative here in Indiana haven't even responded, despite the fact that upgrading the line to Chicago to HSR has been a big priority for Northern Indiana communities for a long time and would really help the area economically. Totally Pathetic!

I also worked campaigning in CA for the HSR there for 6 months. People on the peninsula are being NIBYS now, big surprise. Just like those Sierra Club kooks (very much like people who live in Marin County--Land Rover limousine liberals) who don't want HSR because it will disrupt wildlife, namely antelope or something like that, but still have no problems filling up the Land Rover to drive to their castle perches in the Rockies spewing tons of CO2 in the air and getting 7 miles per gallon. They all have this in common, they talk the talk but act like republicans as soon as it comes time to walk the walk. At the end of the day they talk about education and turning the lights off in your house and car-pooling... fuck that I want to see engineers drawing up plans and caternary poles.

I'm sick of it all. I almost feel like our vision for America with sustainable transit oriented communities and walkable cities is a pipe dream. I'm afraid our Barack took advantage of our good will.

Francesco said...

Oh and Rafael, you sound like you finally love Big Brother. Maybe I'll end up loving Big Brother too....

Rafael said...

@ Francesco -

lots of people are very frustrated by the Democrats' willingness to yield to the GOP minority when it fails to reciprocate. The root cause of this problem is the three-fifths rule for cloture on Senate debates, which arguably perverts the concept of majority rule for the sake of "checks and balances". But that's the lay of the legal land, so even a landslide victory means the US is permanently saddled with what the French call "cohabitation". Politics is the art of the possible.

That said, Gov. Lynch (D-NH) made a big mistake when he appointed a Republican to fill the seat Judd Gregg has vacated. He should have looked for a way to let voters decide the successor for themselves. It's quite possible they would have chosen a Republican, but at least the Democrats would have had a chance to reach a filibuster-proof majority. Appointing a Democrat or and Independent who would have caucused with them was a legal possibility, but it would have invited voter backlash in 2010.

With 60 seats in the Senate, Dems could reduce the threshold for cloture votes, effectively putting an end to filibusters forever. As it is, I'd at least like to see the Dems force the GOP to actually read from telephone books for a week while the economy is going down the toilet. It would be brinkmanship, but after all the bipartisan efforts the Dems have already made, it's essential to get at least one Republican to break ranks.

I'm not sure what the Big Brother a.k.a. permanent government surveillance comment is all about.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Actually Francesco, Boxer hails from Marin County. Both of our US Senators are from the SF Bay Area.

yeson1a said...

Is this guy Inhofe the same person when he was in congress always worked to kill Amtrak? I think so..look at his statement on transit and then look at the amount he thinks is ok for oil well he is from OK!
Anyway Cailfornia just got its bond rating downgraded this morning.

Rubber Toe said...

Guys, please keep us posted on the transit status in the stimulus bill. Though I haven't been posting much lately, I have been following this story...

If it wasn't so serious, given the amount of money being spent in the stimulus and the state of the economy, the lack of transit money in the legislation would almost be funny when you consider stories like the following:,0,7454963.story

Short Version: Agriculture in California could disappear completely because of the loss of the Sierra Nevada snowpack (which has already started). Almost completely due to global warming.

Ignoring for the moment whether you happen to believe in global warming or not, the administration and Dr. Chu are on record as believing this is a very important issue. Given that, why on Earth are the PTB in congress so hell bent on building more highways and stimulating the use of more cars?

It's completely at odds with the big picture. It must be a combination of the powerful lobbies of the oil and auto industries, combined with the apparent urgency to "do something" even though that something might be at odds with not only our long term energy security, but perhaps even our very survival if you believe that article.


ladyk said...

This all causes me to be a little more fatalistic. But in fatalism there can be realism and even optimism. Only a crisis can cause large numbers of people to question basic assumptions and reorder priorities. You'd think this crisis is big enough, but what the heck... Apparently, the American people have a remarkable ability to take pain. So we will have to wait for the next, even bigger crisis to do the trick and initiate what Schumpeter called 'creative destruction'.
When it comes to all the problems of transportation and energy we are talking about, I like to compare this situation to the 'Five Stages of Dying' which are really the 'Five Stages of any Human Crisis'. All of it a little exaggerated:

1. Denial: The status quo. Gas prices down. No problems at all. If we only built more highways/roads...
2. Anger: Gas prices up. Congestion. Anger in the populace (directed at whom? Oil companies? 'Speculators'?). 'Do something!' people scream at their politicians. But what?
3. Bargaining: We will drive hybrid SUVs. Hydrogen cars will save us. Electric cars will save us. People get temporarily creative with car sharing etc.
4. Depression: Why can't we keep our current lifestyle and affluence? Why is our wealth evaporating? Why is the world around us (Middle East etc.) burning up?
5. Acceptance: We can't conduct our business the way we have been doing for the past decades. Aggressive strides in efficiency, alternatives and a different economy and lifestyles have to be made. Let's get to work.

We have been cycling through the first three stages for quite a long time. If we are more masochistic than reasonable the pain will have to increase to the level of a double whammy of an economic crisis + energy crisis in order to catapult us and especially our elected 'representatives' to stages four and five. Seems like we are one cycle short.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I totally agree, ladyk. The sad irony is that here in California, voters showed they were already at stage 5 by approving Prop 1A as well as the train measures in LA, San José, and Marin-Sonoma. Yet Washington DC, Obama included, seems mired in stage 1.

Alon Levy said...

Rafael, it's not exactly yielding. The Democrats know that one of the reasons Bush failed was that he was never willing to listen to the other side, and insisted that his own approach was completely right and everyone who said otherwise was a traitor. Outwardly they say that Bush's problem was that he was a conservative Republican, but their action suggest they know better.

Just like the experience of trigger-happy Nixon created overly decent Carter, and the experience of weak Carter created Reagan and his boosterism and denial, so did the experience of Bush's cowboyism create the over-cautiousness of Obama and Reid.

Rafael said...

@ RubberToe -

as long as some California farmers insist on growing thirsty crops like rice, alfalfa and grass for cows, news of impending doom strike me as exaggerated.

Sure, farmers in the southern Central Valley have long since switched to drip irrigation and crops such as walnuts that require little water. However, climate change is a very gradual process so nothing we do now is going to have an immediate impact. Long-term, sure, but meanwhile farmers may well go out of business or decide to "farm" solar panels or oil algae instead instead.


Btw, I recommend you check out a book by Henrik Svensmark and Nigel Calder titled "The Chilling Stars - A Cosmic View of Climate Change", Totem Books, ISBN 978-184046866-3. It describes a new theory of how the decay of high-energy cosmic rays into muons - short-lived cousins of electrons - may be implicated in the initial stages of cloud formation in the atmosphere. Experiments with modified cloud chambers appear to bear this out.

Garden-variety stratocumulus clouds below around 10,000ft have a strong net cooling effect, because they reflect more incoming sunlight from above than infrared radiation from below. The exception are the poles, because ice sheets are even better reflectors of incoming sunlight than the tops of clouds. Svensmark argues that without blankets of such clouds over the oceans, the earth would in fact be much hotter. The total amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has several times the greenhouse effect of the total amount of CO2 from all sources, but low clouds have a countervailing effect.

The high-energy rays - essentially, ions accelerated to relativistic speeds - are formed after supernovae and cannot be blocked by the earth's own magnetic field, but the sun's much stronger field has an effect. According to the theory, whenever the sun is magnetically active - such as in the 20th century - fewer of them reach the earth, reducing the cloud cover.

Conclusion: while CO2 is undoubtedly a greenhouse gas (cp. Venus), H20 and cloud formation may play a far more important role in climate change that is widely assumed. IFF additional experiments at CERN and elsewhere confirm the new theory, we should still moderate our consumption of fossil fuels, there are sound geopolitical reasons and environmental reasons (cp. Tennessee coal sludge spill, acidification of the oceans) for doing so.

However, it might be possible to buy more time for the transition by developing technologies and legal procedures to artificially increase cloud cover at the right altitude to induce some cooling. Doing so over the Pacific might actually increase rainfall in California and increase the thickness of the snowpack in the Sierras.

Mind you, many climatologists. meteorologists and atmospheric physicists are still highly sceptical of the cosmic ray theory. If nothing else, climate research has become a multi-billion industry. Tenured professors will need a lot of convincing before they are prepared to jettison the existing theory, in which changes in cloud cover are a consequence of CO2-driven global warming, rather than a driver for global cooling.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Cowboyism works politically and the public loves it. Their objection to Bush was that he was completely unable to govern the country effectively - but that was an effect of the content of the policies, not their aggressive (and highly effective) salesmanship of them.

Obama has drawn the wrong lessons, and Reid has long ago proven his inability to lead and therefore his irrelevance.

Rubber Toe said...

On Monday, Congressional Republican leaders put out a list of what they call wasteful provisions in the Senate version of the nearly $900 billion stimulus bill that is being debated...

$850 million for Amtrak.


This should give you some idea of what some congress critters think of spending money on rail.

bossyman15 said...

mmmm i afraid i agree with some of the cnn's list.

like this one

• $2 billion earmark to re-start FutureGen, a near-zero emissions coal power plant in Illinois that the Department of Energy defunded last year because it said the project was inefficient.

• A $246 million tax break for Hollywood movie producers to buy motion picture film.

• $650 million for the digital television converter box coupon program.

• $448 million for constructing the Department of Homeland Security headquarters.

• $248 million for furniture at the new Homeland Security headquarters.

but some of the list I think are not wasteful and should stay.

• $1.4 billion for rural waste disposal programs.

• $125 million for the Washington sewer system.

• $6 billion to turn federal buildings into "green" buildings.

• $500 million for state and local fire stations.

• $650 million for wildland fire management on forest service lands.

• $1.2 billion for "youth activities," including youth summer job programs.

• $850 million for Amtrak.

Ian said...

i hope the fact that difi's lines are busy and boxer's inbox is full is due to all of us protesting kit's amendments. i'm tentatively hopeful that the action alerts the transit blogs are putting out are working, and hope they continue to kill the highway funding.

so ironic, how republicans are trying to be the good spending fairies. i'm sorry, the last eight years lost you that title. they should get no privileges. they definitely have NO credibility, in the matter..

bossyman15 said...

on other note
here's the scan of article in san jose mercury news today.

Adam said...

Has the domain "subways not expressways dot org" been created yet?

Because people need to realize that mass transit is EXACTLY what our country needs right now.

I actually went to school in St. Louis, and I'm no fan of Kit Bond. The guy screwed up Missouri. A LOT. I hope Claire McCaskill can see past this.

Oh, and I sent an alert to Senators Menendez and Lautenberg.

political_i said...

If we've tried being polite to them and they've given us the deaf ear, then what will get them to listen? Must we say we will not vote for them ever again? Do we need to start treating them like they are? (aka idiots)

Until they turn the ear to the citizens, we're not going to get anywhere and I think it is time we take action into our own hands. The media and political game is against us and we need to take it to the editorials, make it a hot issue of why we have not done this? If they wont take action and are instead against us, we might as well put up as good of a fight

Spokker said...

"mmmm i afraid i agree with some of the cnn's list."

I agree with some on the CNN list too. And there's some I don't agree with but I would let go anyway.

However, I'm adamant on funding rail transit and mass transit as a whole so I would be less likely to compromise on those things.

Brandon in San Diego said...

What are summer-time gas cost projections?

Assuming it is high, the reaction would be fear in the market and transit agency's or advocates citing increased rider demand... but there transit is too strained.

Then, you get republican's getting behind transit infrastructure in the stimulus.

Anil Chand said...

Some time you can find high speed rail get accident. if train will move with medium speed then it harms for all and their not be a accidental cause.

The Luxurious train and those train which are go for tourist places be move on medium speed.

Spokker said...

Now that is some odd spam if I ever saw it.

This train in India will solve California's transportation needs.

Alon Levy said...

Cowboyism works politically and the public loves it. Their objection to Bush was that he was completely unable to govern the country effectively

Yes, and that was because he and the people he listened to were cowboys.

He ignored the Generals who said he needed more troops in Iraq, and instead planned the invasion based on the fantasy that the US would hand over power to Chalabi and be out by the summer of 2003. He appointed cronies to important government posts, leading to the disinvestment that turned Katrina from a run of the mill hurricane to a disaster with a four-figure death toll. And he pushed excessive tax cuts without cutting spending, leading to large deficits even in times of growth, which many economists now say will make the stimulus more painful and less effective.

JAtik said...

Yes there is a highway bias. But the explanation may be simpler that conspiracies. Transit is a blue state need. Credible HSR projects are located in blue states (California and the northeast). It should be no surprise that Republicans (who tend to be from flyover states) are not enthusiastic. Someone needs to make the case that folks in the Dakotas benefit from California's High Speed Rail.

Robert said...

Can't get through on either Senator's phone line - no surprise there. I went to their websites and emailed them.

Jim said...

Just imagine what could be done if they put the entire 800 billion into infrastructure only.

Jim said...

Check my math but: 800 billion if divided and dispersed based on population... 800 billion divided by 250 million american is 3200 per person times 37 million californians means 118 billion for california. So I say they should do it that way. 800 billion would build just about everything we need in calif.

Rafael said...

@ JAtik -

HSR might well make sense in Texas and Florida. Also between Atlanta and Nashville - Georgia wants water from the Tennessee river - plus Atlanta to DC. Some of these states went for Obama this time, but except for DC none of them are solid Dem territory.

As for the Dakotas: they need more road and airport capacity per resident than California, because they are so sparsely populated. California has long been a net contributor to the federal budget, whereas the Dakotas have probably been net recipients.

So if California wants to build itself an HSR system because the alternative would cost twice as much, I don't see why the red states should quibble with that.

@ Jim -

the regular annual Pentagon budget (sans Iraq and Afghanistan) has grown from around $200 billion under Clinton to over $500 billion under Bush. The GAO recently estimated that $295 billion were wasted in the Bush years because defense contractors were not held accountable for delays and certain products that did not meet spec.

Heckuvajob, Rummy et al.

Even the arch-conservative Reason Foundation admits that the US could switch the US to 100% renewable electricity in just 10 years for $300 billion a year, unrealistically assuming zero volume discounts from manufacturers.

The Germans are figuring out how to manage a grid fed by a mix of dependable and less dependable sources.

Brandon in San Diego said...

The US population is approximately 303 million.

Senator Reid, I think that is who it was, recenlty stated that they think they have teh necessary votes for the stimulus bill with at least 2 republicans willing to save teh country crossing party lines.

However, I have seen no word in what would be ina paired down stimulus bill... although apparenlty recent discussions included the removal of projects that do not speak to the provision of jobs.... and substituting some programs (note, not projects), into a standard annual omnibus appropriations (spending) bill.

In my mind, that woudl probabaly include 'transit captial assistance'.

Alon Levy said...

Just imagine what could be done if they put the entire 800 billion into infrastructure only.

State governments would have to raise taxes and cut essential services. Health and education would be neglected. Business would be arranging its operations based on the expectation of a tax increase in 2011. And people who don't work in construction wouldn't get much more money in their pockets.