Cato Institute’s O’Toole Calls High-Speed Rail “the Next Boondoggle”
Author Randal O’Toole is probably Mayor Dave’s worst nightmare.

The title of his new book, Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck In Traffic And What To Do About It, would suggest simpatico with the Mayor’s rail advocacy, but it’s actually a critique of various forms of transportation, including commuter and high-speed rail. Suffice to say, he doesn’t come down on the same side as the pro-rail Mayor of Madison and Governor of Wisconsin.

They recently celebrated the $800 million allocated to build the Milwaukee to Madison “high-speed” rail line, part of $8 billion in federal stimulus funds awarded to 13 high-speed rail corridors nationwide, which O’Toole describes in his book as “the next boondoggle.”

O’Toole, a researcher at the Cato Institute, will be in Madison on March 24 as part of his book tour, but also to challenge some of the assumptions of local officials.

His main point of emphasis will be that, in addressing the future of transportation in the U.S., there ARE sensible alternatives to being railroaded with what is essentially 1930s technology. Instead of trying to make motor vehicle travel a hassle, which he says is being done deliberately to get people out of their cars and onto transit, he advocates some simple measures to increase the capacity of existing roads and move toward more of a “user pays” approach to various modes of transportation.

The message: “Here’s a pro-mobility alternative to spending a lot of money on high-speed rail that nobody’s going to ride,” he said. “We can use our roads better than we’re using them today.”

Many of them are technology enabled. Just as pollution from vehicles has been curtailed by technology like the catalytic converter, O’Toole sees technology as a tool for improved road and highway flow.

It may come as a shock to naïve taxpayers who just assume that traffic signal coordination is designed to be efficient, but that’s hardly the case and it’s costing commuters time and fuel. O’Toole cited research out of California that high-tech traffic signal coordination alone could reduce fuel consumption by 7%.

“We have good methods of traffic signal coordination that weren’t available many years ago,” he noted, yet some cities admit they don’t want to coordinate traffic signals because it would encourage people to drive. One traffic sign in Boston actually said: Signals set to require frequent stops.

Not every community operates this way.
Gridlock cites San Jose, Calif. As an example of a city that reduced travel times by 16% and saved an estimated 471,000 gallons of gasoline per year after investing $500,000 in coordinating traffic signals at 223 intersections. O’Toole notes that such concessions to mobility reduce the air pollution that transit advocates, if you’ll pardon the pun, rail against. In the San Jose example, the fuel savings translates into an annual reduction of 4,200 tons of green house gas emissions.

Unfortunately, Sacramento transportation planners didn’t get the memo when they updated their plan documents. In a chapter titled “Faith Based Transportation Planning,” O’Toole recounts how transportation planners in California’s capital city admitted in 2006 that plans written for their region “during the past 25 years have not worked out.”

Said O’Toole: “They said for the past 25 years, we’ve been planning to make Sacramento more congested and get people out of their cars. It hasn’t worked. People are still driving their cars. They are not using transit. What are we going to do? We’re going to make it even more congested.

“How do they get away with it? Because nobody has the time to read these four-volume [planning] documents that are thousands of pages long.”

“Smart Cars” could play role
A second step, one that also could reduce traffic congestion, would be to encourage the use of advanced cruise control and other “smart car” features. Also called adaptive or intelligent cruise control, it not only enables drivers to maintain a pre-set speed, it also adjusts speed to that of a preceding vehicle, allowing cars to maintain a safe distance from each other. It works best in non-congested traffic, and while it’s more of a safety feature, it has a positive effect on road capacity, fuel consumption, and therefore carbon emissions.

“A lot of congestion takes place because of slow human reflexes,” O’Toole said. “In Minnesota, researchers have calculated that with advanced cruise control, a lot of congestion will just go away.”

Pay it forward
No matter what mode of transportation you favor, O’Toole believes users should have to pay for it. He believes user fees provide a link between users and producers because they tell users how much it costs to provide a good or service, thereby discouraging people from over use. Yet whenever the subject of toll roads is raised in Wisconsin, there is a reflexive revulsion and politicians don’t even attempt to engage the public in making the case.

“First of all, we’ve paid for roads with gas taxes, and that’s just not going to work very well because of more fuel efficient cars,” he explained. “The amount of money you pay in gas taxes per mile today is half of what your parents paid in 1960, so gas taxes are just not a good way to pay for roads.”

He contends that user fees like tolls or congestion pricing, when properly designed, allow people to choose which roads they go on based on the cost of those roads. Congestion pricing, also known as value pricing, is when high-traffic roads are priced higher, and O’Toole said it increases the capacity of roads to move cars. Some cities are adopting congestion pricing one lane at a time, but there are initial political battles because the benefits are only understood with experience. “I understand Norway decided to use congestion pricing for an entire freeway, and polls show that 60 to 70% of the people opposed it. A year later, they did more polls and more people supported it after seeing the benefits,” O’Toole noted.

Lost decades
O’Toole is among those who question whether the Milwaukee to Madison line, or any light rail or high-speed rail line, can operate strictly out of revenue from the fare box. The only rail line that does, between Tokyo and Osaka, serves a corridor populated with 60 million people. Another Japanese rail line “kind of” breaks even, he added, but most of the rest are big money losers.

“It’s a big drain on taxpayers in Japan, which is why they call the last 20 years the lost decades in Japan,” he stated. “The Japanese government is spending enormous amounts of money on high-speed rail as a stimulus package to get out of the economic crisis brought on by a property bubble. Here we are, we have our own property bubble 20 years after Japan’s, and our federal government is doing the same thing.”

Nevertheless, rail still has strong support in the U.S. O’Toole believes rail and non-highway modes of transportation are likely to dominate the next federal transportation bill for several reasons. One reason is that there is a huge rail lobby in the nation’s capital, and the highway lobby has been reduced to insignificance. The highway lobby basically consisted of users and highway builders, and most of the highway builders can make more profits building railroads. The American Public Transportation Association, a key pro-transit group, has a budget that is about five times greater than the highway user groups in D.C.

They are fighting over a lot of taxpayer coin. In addition to the $8 billion approved for high-speed rail, another $2.5 billion is in the 2010 federal appropriations bill, which was enacted in 2009, and there is the proposed $500 billion, six-year federal transportation reauthorization bill, which includes $50 billion for high-speed rail. Some think the reauthorization will be taken up this year, but O’Toole thinks 2011 is more realistic.

“The other reason [for rail’s dominance] is that politicians just like pork,” he said, noting the proliferation of earmarks in federal transportation bills over the past 30 years. “In some cases, they are paying for 100% of these projects. In other cases, they are providing half the money, and local politicians are never averse to ‘free’ federal money.”

The “free” part ends, O’Toole noted, when state or local taxpayers have to subsidize the actual operation of rail lines. Consider New York City, which has 40% of the nation’s transit ridership and covers 70% of transit operating costs through the fare box, making it the most cost effective transit system in America. Yet the metro New York system still is billions of dollars in the hole even with deferred maintenance.

“They are talking about raising fares and they are hungry for every tax they can get to fund it,” he stated. “Many of their transit lines need repair and they can’t afford to do it.”

Transit subsidies are 100 times greater than highway subsidies, in large measure because transit fares only cover between 4 to 40% of operating costs in the 60 major U.S. urban areas, except New York. In Milwaukee, the operating ratio (operational costs covered by the fare box) is 31%, while in Austin, Texas, a college town comparable to Madison, it’s only 4%. O’Toole writes that in 2006, transit agencies spent an average of 42 cents on capital improvements for every $1 spend on operations, and none of those capital costs are covered by fares.

Madison stops
O’Toole’s March 24 visit to Madison includes a midday engagement, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Waunakee Village Center, 333 S. Madison St., and a late afternoon (5:30 to 6:30 p.m.) talk at the UW Engineering School. Admission to the Waunakee program is $8 and due by Monday, March 22. For more information or to RSVP, call the Waunakee Chamber of Commerce at 849-5977 or sent an e-mail to

Other Madison (and Wisconsin) references in Gridlock:

  • Making the charge that rail construction costs are frequently underestimated and the benefits are overestimated, primarily to gain project approval, O’Toole cites a Transport 2020 transportation analysis for Dane County and Greater Madison from 2002 to describe an episode of “strategic misrepresentation” involving the engineering and consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, also known as PB. (Transport 2020 was conducted by a consortium of local governments).

    In one blatant example of strategic misrepresentation, PB compared a proposal to bring rail transit to Madison, Wisconsin with simple improvements in business service,” he wrote. “To its dismay, the company found that bus improvements alone attracted more riders than bus improvements combined with rail transit. Later, PB admitted that it crippled the bus alternative, making it appear that rail transit was needed to boost transit ridership. When the government agency [Transport 2020] that hired PB presented the results to the public, it never mentioned the bus alternative at all, making it appear that rail transit was the only way to attract people to transit.”

  • Regarding the overemphasis on transit: In a table illustrating transit’s share of funding and ridership, O’Toole notes that in the Madison metropolitan area, transit carries only 4.9% of commuters to work, yet transit consumes 19% the region’s capital funds. Nationwide, only New York area transit carries more than 15% of commuters, yet more than 30 metro transportation plans propose to spend more than 20% of their capital funds on transit. The imbalance is particularly acute in the Twin Cities, where 70% of the region’s capital funds are devoted to transit, yet a tiny 4.8% of commuters actually take transit to work.
  • On what O’Toole called the overemphasis on land-use regulation to alter transportation choices, he lists Madison as one of 25 metro areas with a “strong” (as compared to “moderate” or “none or minor”) planning emphasis on land-use regulation. In that category, Madison is joined by population centers like Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and the Twin Cities. Milwaukee was one of 33 cities in the none-or-minor category.
  • In terms of the disposition of 2006 state highway user fees (gas taxes, motor vehicle registration fees, and other fees), Wisconsin devoted 45% to state roads, 40% to local roads, 8% to transit, and 3% to general-fund use. Some states, like Wisconsin, share a healthy portion of the highway user fees with local governments, while others keep most of that revenue for themselves.

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