Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | January 27, 2010

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Becky FengerIgnoring costs

State government seems to be more corrupt than ever. The Arizona Department of Transportation has been playing fast and loose with the rules for years, of course, but their boldness has reached new levels.

ADOT Procurement is now taking a position against competitive bidding for consulting work. Employees have been told that no outside bidders may be solicited for work unless no one on the state on-call contract list wants the job. This will boost the prices the state pays for the work. Such a policy does nothing to benefit taxpayers or drivers. It does, however, help assure the cash flow of the big consulting firms.

On the national level, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that he is eliminating cost-efficiency rules. Federal transit grants will now focus on “livability.” Beware when you hear these cuddly words out of the mouths of politicians. This means cost is no longer an issue (not that the feds have really cared that much anyway).

Randal O’Toole at the Cato Institute explains that if your project promotes livability (which can mean almost anything one wants except the building of a new road) or “economic development” (which means it will be accompanied by subsidies for “transit-oriented developments”), then Secretary LaHood will consider funding it no matter how much money it wastes. This is no joke.

It also comes at a time when the politicians are becoming ever more infatuated with high speed rail, probably as a direct result of Obama’s slick move of inserting $8 billion for high speed rail into the economic Stimulus Bill early last year. As transportation expert Wendell Cox reports, more than 250 applications from 30 states totaling $57 billion soon poured in as a result of dangling all this free money. It’s the nature of the beast.

The problem with diverting money from building roads and freeways to light rail transit and commuter rail is that the government planners who are trying to wedge us out of our cars are making traffic congestion worse by doing so. Cato Institute is publishing a book that O’Toole has been working on for years called Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About it. He makes the point that little-used high-speed trains and urban transit lines are not only incredibly expensive, but they waste energy and hurt the environment. Yes, that’s right. Learn more at www.cato.org.

hugh hallmanHere in the Valley, Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman is urging ADOT to divert $1.3 billion from expanding I-10 near the Broadway curve. He wants it used for commuter rail, which he proudly boasts may carry as many as 18,000 passengers per day by the year 2030. Of course, currently there are about 80 million person-miles of travel per day on the region’s roads and about 300,000 trips per day through the Broadway curve section of 1-10. In addition, the estimated cost per passenger mile for commuter rail is about $1.50. This is at least three times higher than the cost per person-mile for travel in automobiles. That goes right along with Ray LaHood jettisoning cost-efficiency considerations.

Back in 2005, then-Transportation Secretary Mary Peters stunned the transit world, O’Toole writes, when she adopted a cost-effectiveness rule for federal transit grants to new rail projects. They had to cost less than about $24 for every hour they would save transportation users. The projects weren’t ranked, but even then the scallywags would cook their books to meet the figure or obtained exemptions from their Congressional buddies.
Then in 2007, Peters imposed another rule that transit agencies would have to show modern streetcars were more cost-effective than buses. Since this was impossible to do (modern streetcars can never compete with buses in costs to taxpayers), most cities gave up on that plan. Now, LaHood has invited the porkers back to the trough in a big way. We should decline the invitation.