The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

21 April 2005

Down the middle of downtown

ODOT says the rerouted Crosstown Expressway section of I-40, assuming Congress passes the necessary funding, will open in the fall of 2008, and the movers and shakers are pondering what's going to happen when downtown is no longer bisected by the Interstate.

Which, if you ask me, is a little silly, since they're not removing the old road, only downgrading it to a boulevard. The things they could have done south of the Crosstown, they could have done earlier; the change in the freeway route merely makes them easier to contemplate.

And I'm still vexed about the destruction of the Union Station railyard, which insures that if they ever do decide to build a passenger-rail system in the city, it will cost a whole lot more, since they will have to recreate all that infrastructure from scratch. There are philosophical reasons to dismiss rail transit — mainly, almost all such systems built recently are heavily subsidized because they don't earn back their costs in fares — but you could scrap the bus system for the same reasons, and nobody (well, maybe your friendly neighborhood hard-core libertarian) is arguing for discontinuing the buses. (Chris? Jacqueline?)

On the upside, this further enhances the reputation of downtown Oklahoma City as a place where things are happening, which is a few steps up from its immediate post-Pei Plan status as the Land of the Living Dead.

Posted at 7:51 AM to City Scene

Well, the biggest part of the problem is that automotive infrastructure has been heavily subsidized, and so it's not a level playing field between mass transit and cars. This is particularly extreme in Oklahoma.

Once upon a time, we had a private rail system here in OKC, but decisions by government at all levels killed it.

Posted by: Chris at 9:13 AM on 21 April 2005

Aside from neighborhood streets, it's pretty rare to find any automotive infrastructure that isn't government-built and -owned. And those neighborhood streets almost always end up government-owned anyway.

The exceptions tend to be private toll roads, of which there aren't many in the world. And I seem to recall there's a provision in the U.S. Constitution about Congress having the power to establish "post roads"...

Posted by: McGehee at 10:33 AM on 21 April 2005

South Carolina Electric and Gas Company used to run the buses in Charleston and Columbia; if I remember correctly, this was something inflicted upon them by the state. (You want to keep the power franchise, you run the transit system.) The usual "regional transit authorities" are now running them.

Posted by: CGHill at 7:37 AM on 22 April 2005

Obviously roadways are almost universally government funded. My point is that automobile infrastructure was not just provided but in fact overwhelmingly preferred, to the point of eradicating rail. This was in many ways the general movement across the country after World War II but it was particularly so in Oklahoma.

I'm enough of an anarcho-capitalist libertarian to believe that an entirely private transportation system would work, but back in the real world that isn't going to happen any time soon. I'd like to move towards something that would allow more of a market-driven approach, rather than a politically driven one, but I'm not quite sure how it could be done.

Posted by: Chris at 8:33 AM on 22 April 2005

I wouldn't compare buses to rail. They don't lose money quite as fast in my experience, and it's a lot easier to sell them off, modify capacity and change routes.

Posted by: J Bowen at 5:58 AM on 24 April 2005

Spring, 2003

From 2-2-03 SUNDAY OKLAHOMAN - Quotes from Oklahoma 5th District Congressman Ernest Istook:

"You will always operate in the red if your revenue is only a fraction of your costs. If you can't stay in business by charging fares that cover your expenses, then how can you justify staying in operation? That's the problem for Amtrak.

A fair system puts the emphasis on honest user fees. People that use transportation should be supporting it. That's the problem with Amtrak. When people take a trip on the train and 90 percent of the cost is subsidized, that's a problem ... that's the way it works out on the Heartland Flyer."

From an April, 1991 position paper opposing heavier multi-trailer trucks on Oklahoma highways by the late Bobby Green, PE, that era's director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation:

"The Department and the Federal Highway Administration believe the trucking industry should pay the costs of the damages its heavy trucks cause to the state's highways, roads and streets. The industry has never paid its fair share of such costs, leaving the lion's share to the average taxpaying motorists who are imperiled by sharing the roadways they support with the heavy trucks they must also support..."

"As a result of the continual increases in truck sizes and weights, as well as the phenomenal growth in the numbers of heavy trucks using these major routes (a 38% increase between 1980 and 1990), Oklahoma's highway facilities are deteriorating at a rate which exceeds our financial capacity to replace or even repair them."

From U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater's cover letter to U.S. Congressmen accompanying the 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study:

"The heaviest trucks continue to substantially underpay as they did in 1982."

Will Rogers once said, "We're all ignorant, just about different things." The business of our governments is often complex and hard for regular folks to follow. Responsible elected representatives work to inform and enlighten their constituents - not to use their ignorance against them. Claims by some politicians that Amtrak and mass-transit systems, alone, must be "subsidized" but that highways are "paid for by those who use them" are misleading. Even a superficial review of the Federal Highway Trust fund numbers from 2001 reveals the truth about federal highway funding: The Highway Trust Fund is a "respectable front" behind which the driving public is forced by the policies of their elected officials to massively subsidize the commercial trucking industry.

2001 Total Non-Mass Transit contributions to the Federal Highway Trust Fund: $26,573,772,000.00

2001 Gasoline and Gasohol tax revenues to FHTF: $17,940,926,000.00 (67%)

2001 Diesel and special fuels w/ tire, truck, bus and trailer excise tax
and Federal HVUT (Heavy Vehicle Use Tax) added: $ 8,975,476,000.00 (33%)

Our governments do not hold the commercial trucking industry to the same standards some politicians require of Amtrak and mass transit. In Oklahoma, alone, taxpayers face over $11 billion in unfunded highway maintenance need on existing roads - forced to take responsibility for massive unrepaid roadway damage inflicted by big trucks. This situation is mirrored in every state in the Union.

A standard 5-axle semi-trailer truck operating at or near its maximum legal gross weight (80,000 lbs) inflicts pavement damage equal to 9,600 automobiles. Illegally overweight trucks create much more damage than this. Pavement damage increases exponentially as axle-loading increases. Heavy truck volume on US highways has skyrocketed in recent years. Oklahoma roads alone saw VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) by heavy trucks more than double between 1996 and 1999, from 5.6 billion miles annually to 13.4 billion miles. Interstate highways were designed in the 1950s - when semi-trailer trucks were about half the size they are today - to safely carry 6% truck volume in rural areas. Today, I-35 in Carter County, Oklahoma (Ardmore area) carries 30% heavy trucks while I-40 in Washita County (Clinton area) carries 46%.

Virtually all the vehicular damage to public roads is done by heavy trucks. The trucking industry contributed, at most, only about one-third of the monies comprising the Federal Highway Trust Fund in 2001, leaving the rest to the charge of the unknowing taxpayers. Who is looking out for the interests of the taxpayers in this matter? Not many of their elected representatives, to be sure.

Don't let anybody tell you "AMTRAK is the nation's most subsidized transportation." In the 2003 federal budget, highways got 31.8 billion dollars. Airlines got 13.57 billion (Aren't airlines supposed to be "self-sustaining private businesses?"). Amtrak's annual federal appropriations in recent years have hovered between $521 million and $571 million. The rail passenger service's 2003 funding request was a comparatively modest $1.2 billion - and THAT'S "what all the fuss was about."

Meanwhile, we can add the overwhelming costs of the yearly death toll in American highway accidents to the real cost of 50 years of one-sided government transportation policy. Over 40,000 Americans die each year on our nation's roadways - a price quietly accepted by most of us. ("Only" about 58,000 Americans died in the entire Vietnam war and that brought out riots in the streets.) Aside from the fatherless or motherless children - or the grieving parents - or entire families wiped out in seconds, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported a few years back that its research revealed that the monetary cost, alone, of deaths on American highways exceeds the national debt each year. Despite the dramatic media coverage anytime there's a passenger train wreck in America, and although certainly not as sophisticated as French and Japanese bullet trains with their exclusive, no-grade-crossing rail corridors (neither of which has ever produced a single passenger fatality), Amtrak train accidents have produced only about 100 passenger deaths since the service began business in 1971.

Aside from problems with peace time travel security, the inherent problems with American highways and airlines have lately also become recognized as a national security problem. Only about 2% of the trucks coming across our southern border can be inspected. Trucks go everywhere and could carry anything. The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb delivered in a domestic truck. Terrorists used American airliners as their weapons on 9-11-01. Conversely, American Railroads moved 90% of U.S. war materiel and over 97% of the nation's organized troop movements in World War II while simultaneously handling virtually all the transportation needs of the domestic economy. Not only did American railways whip German superhighways during that great struggle, they proved themselves virtually immune to sabotage and misuse by enemies; moreover, when the war was over, the railroads did NOT present American taxpayers with a huge bill for "unfunded maintenance requirements." (In fact, in 1943, congress declared that U.S. railroads, by that time, had completely repaid the federal government every dime ever invested in their original construction. When does the American trucking industry get such a declaration?)

Fifty years of politically driven, selective subsidy of highways and airlines to the detriment of other modes has left the nation with a transportation system that's not only unusable by many Americans, but is fundamentally insecure and subject to being used against us by our enemies. Not only was Amtrak the only intercity passenger system universally operating following the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01, Amtrak provides the only reasonable-cost, small-town-accessible alternative to highways and airlines available in most of America.

Passenger rail is cheap, safe, energy-efficient - and SECURE. So why do so many of America's politicians HATE it?

TOM ELMORE, Executive Director
North American Transportation Institute
PO Box 6617
Oklahoma City, OK 73153-0617
Tel: 405 794 7163
Fax: 405 799 2541

North American Transportation Institute is an independent 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to keeping the taxpayers informed about what's REALLY going on in transportation policy made by their elected officials. NATI is wholly supported by the gifts of interested individuals, and does not take support of any kind from any transportation business interest.

Posted by: Tom Elmore at 8:27 AM on 26 April 2005

And to think I thought I had an upper limit on comment length. :)

Posted by: CGHill at 8:57 AM on 26 April 2005

Yeoww! I'm sorry! My first post(not much of an excuse -- but "the one I'm using..."). I'll try to do better next time.


Posted by: Tom Elmore at 12:36 PM on 26 April 2005

Not to worry. I'd probably have heisted most of it for a piece of my own later on. :)

Posted by: CGHill at 5:59 PM on 26 April 2005