Transportation & Infrastructure

The Deadliest Way to Travel? Not by Rail.

Christopher Ingraham: “For all of Amtrak’s troubles, rail travel is still incredibly safe in the United States, especially compared with other forms of travel.”

Apart from automobiles, “there’s one more travel method that is far and away more deadly than all the rest. In the chart below, I added the fatality rate for motorcyclists. Note that I had to adjust the scale considerably to accommodate the sky-high rate of 213 deaths per billion miles.”

The Sad State of America’s Infrastructure

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New York Times: “Investigators into the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia are focusing on excess speed, but there is a related issue: the overall condition of Amtrak and the nation’s infrastructure. One of the reasons that American trains should not travel 100 miles an hour in many places is that the state of our rail system — like the state of our bridges, highways and airports — is not good.”

“Many airports here look dilapidated relative to those in Asia and Europe. Roads are choked with traffic. The fastest train from Boston to Washington takes about six and a half hours. The fastest train from Paris to Marseille — a slightly longer distance — takes just over three hours.”

A Solution to the Crumbling Rail System: More Republican Passengers?

Philip Bump: “Congress has delayed passing long-term legislation to fund Amtrak since 2013, instead repeatedly reauthorizing existing funding levels. The last time it passed a long-term bill, in 2008, the vote passed only after a rail disaster.”

“The constant struggle of Amtrak to get funding derives largely from the fact that not very many Americans use the rail system. Ridership is heavily centered in the Northeast, in the corridor between Boston and Washington where Tuesday’s accident occurred. But more than that, ridership is unevenly distributed politically. Data from the National Association of Railroad Passengers shows the number of passengers that get on or off the train in any given congressional district, and reveals an obvious reason why Republicans might not be too concerned about funding the system.”

“There are 184 congressional districts in which not one person got on or off a train in 2014 … Of those 184 districts, 116 are currently represented by Republicans. On average, ridership in Republican districts was about 41,000 in 2014 — compared to 261,000 in Democratic districts.”

Where Are the Real Problems in Our Rail System?

Christopher Ingraham: “Caught between increasing ridership and flat funding in recent years, Amtrak has been forced to choose between running the trains on time, or running them safely. Data from the Federal Railroad Administration suggests they’ve recently opted for the latter, as the accident rate has been in decline.”

“Taken together, these numbers suggest that Amtrak is making progress on track repair and on better training its operators and putting better safety standards in place. But the equipment failure numbers speak to the state of relative disrepair in Amtrak’s rail fleet, which averaged nearly 30 years old in 2012.”

“Passenger injuries are becoming more common. An American Enterprise Institute analysis earlier this year noted that rail injury rates in the U.S. are considerably higher than in Europe: ‘Adjusted for passenger miles traveled, Amtrak’s passengers get injured 58 times as often as those on French railroads,’ writes Kevin A. Hassett.”

What Makes a Car Unsafe?

Malcolm Gladwell: “The public approach to auto safety is preoccupied with what might go wrong mechanically with the vehicles we drive. But the chief factor is not what we drive; it is how we drive. Richard Schmidt, who is perhaps the world’s leading expert on pedal error, says that the Toyota sudden-acceleration controversy ought to have triggered a national discussion about safer driving. He argues for overturning the deeply held—and, in his view, irrational—proscription against two-foot driving. If drivers used one foot for the accelerator and the other foot for the brake, he says, they would be far less likely to mistake one pedal for the other. Accidents could be prevented; lives could be saved.”

“But in order to talk about solving the pedal-error problem you have to accept the fact that, when it comes to saving lives, things like the number of police on the road, and the price of alcohol, and the techniques we use to drive our cars are vastly more important than where a car’s gas tank is mounted.

The Highway of the Future

David Hartgen: “In coming decades, most existing highways will be modernized, resurfaced or repaired. Innovative highway designs like diverging diamond interchanges, high-speed directional ramps, partial-access arterials and frontage roads will increase traffic capacity and safety. Pop-in uniform bridge designs and task-force construction contracting will allow for rapid replacement.”

“Electronic communications will be key in many areas, particularly as vehicles get better at sensing one another and adjusting automatically to maintain safe distances. This emerging capability has huge potential to significantly increase road capacities and to decrease travel times. Traffic congestion on major highways, already beginning to level off, may even decline. Legal speeds could increase to 90-plus miles an hour, where separated roadways for trucks and electronically connected vehicles justify it.”

“In short, 2050’s highways will mean greater mobility, fewer accidents, less fuel consumption, and reduced pollution and other environmental impacts.”

Which State Has the Most Dangerous Bridges?

Christopher Ingraham provides a map of the regions in the U.S. with the highest percentage of bridges deemed by the Federal Highway Administration as ‘structurally deficient.'”

“Structural deficiency sounds scary, and it is, sort of. Deficient bridges are, broadly speaking, safe to drive across. In an interview last year with CBS, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that structurally deficient bridges “need to be really either replaced or repaired in a very dramatic way.” He went on: “I don’t want to say they’re unsafe. But they’re dangerous.”

“Twenty two percent of Pennsylvania’s 23,000 highway bridges are deficient, which, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of driving up I-81 in that state, you know in your heart to be true. Twenty one percent of Iowa’s bridges don’t make the grade. Same goes for 20 percent of South Dakota’s, and 18 percent of Oklahoma’s. These percentages are all considerably higher than the nationwide average of about 10 percent.”

“Nevada is doing the best job of keeping its bridges up to code — fewer than 2 percent of that state’s bridges are deficient. Likewise only 2 percent of Florida and Texas bridges are deemed deficient, and 3 percent of Arizona and Utah’s.”

Republican Roadblocks to Investment in Public Infrastructure

Paul Krugman contends that the government’s inability to invest in infrastructure is due to “the destructive ideology that has taken over the Republican Party.”

“We have huge infrastructure needs … and the federal government can borrow incredibly cheaply — in fact, interest rates on inflation-protected bonds have been negative much of the time (they’re currently just 0.4 percent). So borrowing to build roads, repair sewers and more seems like a no-brainer. But what has actually happened is the reverse. After briefly rising after the Obama stimulus went into effect, public construction spending has plunged. Why?”

“In a direct sense, much of the fall in public investment reflects the fiscal troubles of state and local governments, which account for the great bulk of public investment.”

But “once the G.O.P. took control of the House, any chance of more money for infrastructure vanished.”

“And it’s all about ideology, an overwhelming hostility to government spending of any kind. This hostility began as an attack on social programs, especially those that aid the poor, but over time it has broadened into opposition to any kind of spending, no matter how necessary and no matter what the state of the economy.”

“We need public investment; at a time of very low interest rates, we could easily afford it. But build we won’t.”

Toll Road Bankruptcy Underscores Nation’s Infrastructure Crisis

Financial Times: Indiana Toll Road Concession Company’s decision to file bankruptcy Monday reflects “rising indications that the century-long love affair between Americans and their cars might be cooling as young city dwellers are driving less.”

“The fall in traffic volumes on US roads since 2004 has undercut the financial assumptions behind a series of deals devised in the middle of last decade during an infrastructure investment boom.”

“Companies that bought a series of assets – including roads and container terminals – have had to restructure their obligations.”

“Average miles driven per person in the US are down sharply since reaching a peak in 2004 as demographic, economic and lifestyle changes have prompted people to use cars less. Many toll road projects have suffered from the relative lack of congestion on competing untolled roads that were severely overloaded when privatisation deals were struck.”

A Sad Excuse for a Highway Funding Bill

New York Times Editorial Board: “The enormous cost to society of poor infrastructure grows every year, and most of the blame can be placed directly on a Congress that refuses to collect and spend enough money to fix it.”

“On Tuesday the House made the situation worse with a sad excuse for a highway funding bill: A 10-month measure that keeps spending at an inadequate level and does not address the dwindling revenues that keep producing all-too-familiar cliffhanging crises.”

“This crisis was entirely foreseeable and was brought about by the ideological refusal of Congressional Republicans to raise the gasoline tax — the traditional method of paying for road projects, because it allows those who benefit from better roads to pay for them.”

“People of both parties ride in cars or take trains and buses, but they are being let down by politicians pretending that essential public works don’t come with a price tag.”

Funding America’s Highways: An Insane Definition of ‘Fiscal Responsibility’

Josh Barro comments on lawmakers’ desire to find a politically expedient solution to replenishing the Federal Highway Trust Fund rather than one that is financially viable.

“And that’s something everybody in Congress knows: The hunt for ‘pay-fors’ — deficit-cutting measures to offset things like replenishing the Highway Trust Fund — is not so much about keeping the economy strong. It’s more about being able to announce that the Congressional Budget Office said your plan wouldn’t raise the deficit over the next 10 years. That works even if, as with the latest Republican proposal, you take all the added corporate tax revenue over the 10-year window to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent for just five additional months. Yes, even if we run with this gimmick, Congress will be back in January, trying to find a way to claw the fund out of insolvency again.”

“If you define ‘fiscal responsibility’ solely in terms of whether the federal budget deficit grows or shrinks over a 10-year window, you can reach the conclusion that the foregoing plan serves the goal of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ Which only goes to show that politicians in both parties have settled on an insane definition of ‘fiscal responsibility.’”

Obama Warns of Job Loss Due to Inaction on Infrastructure Projects

New York Times: “President Obama called on congressional Republicans on Tuesday to take quick action to fund infrastructure projects throughout the country, arguing that failing to do so could mean huge layoffs for Americans this year.”

“The president said that if Congress did not act in the next couple of months, states would have to decide which projects to continue and which to halt, ultimately placing as many as 700,000 jobs at risk.”

“He made a pitch for his own infrastructure plan: a four-year, $302 billion initiative unveiled this year that would pay for renewing the transportation fund in part by closing corporate tax loopholes.”

“And in keeping with his recent tactic of going around his Republican critics with executive action — which has prompted threats of a lawsuit by Republican congressional leaders — the president said he would not wait for Congress to act on infrastructure investments or a host of other priorities that he said they had neglected.”

A Solution to the Dwindling Highway Trust Fund

Christopher Ingraham: “The U.S. Highway Trust Fund is nearly broke, and the reason why is simple: the federal gas tax is about 20 years behind the times. The highway fund relies on the federal gas tax as its primary revenue source, and that tax has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1994.”

“The economically sensible fix would be to index the gas tax to inflation, or even to set it as a percentage of the price of gas.”

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