Mystery train

Biden infrastructure plan building railroads to nowhere

It’s infrastructure week! You get a special, paywall-only post! (But you’re welcome to share it with others, hint, hint.)

A tiny part of the Biden administration’s $2.25 billion American Jobs Plan, aka the infrastructure package, would spend $80 billion upgrading Amtrak. (Saying $80 billion is a tiny part of any bill is … wow.) Another $85 billion is ticketed for mass transit, especially commuter rail.

The plans drew kudos from rail lovers, who continue seeing as a great deal boutique transportation a tiny sliver of travelers use that was inefficient before COVID and is likely to become even less appealing to riders and taxpayers after it. 

The most recent evidence of a fixed-rail boondoggle comes from a new Reason Foundation study by Steven Poizin, a former local transit agency official and university professor who most recently was a senior researcher for USDOT. 

Not surprisingly, use of public transit, mainly rail and bus, plummeted during the pandemic. Stores and offices were closed, and it was reasonable to question the safety of traveling in enclosed spaces before vaccines were widely available.

From the intro to the study:

The dramatic ridership reductions persisted as shutdowns were discontinued. Individuals who had to rely on public transportation returned but many others did not. Most public transportation trips remained lost as communication substituted for travel or commuters shifted to alternative modes, including newly acquired automobiles, that reduced exposure risk.

Ridership isn't likely to recover to pre-pandemic levels, perhaps ever. And yet federal transit planners are acting as if nothing happened or nothing will change. (Hence the president acting as if his old Acela-riding habits will resume, only without him on the train.)

Wrong.

In a recent newsletter, my former Reason Foundation uber-boss Bob Poole cites three prestige media stories saying changes wrought by COVID should shake transit planning to its foundation. 

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If you don’t believe Bob, there’s this:

“An immersive workspace is no longer limited to a desk in our Towers; the 9-to-5 workday is dead; and the employee experience is about more than ping-pong tables and snacks,” said Salesforce President Brent Hyder in a Feb. 9 memo to employees. (Emphasis added.)

Most Salesforce employees will work from home full-time; those who must go to an office would do so no more than one to three days weekly; only a handful would be in the company’s massive San Francisco Towers, or its other global office spaces, four or five days a week.

It’s one example, but the pattern is obvious.

The Poizin study also finds that, pre-COVID, the most environmentally friendly form of transit (calculating ridership with fuel cost per mile) was heavy rail, with cars and light trucks close behind. Since then, though, cars and light trucks became much “greener” than any mass-transit option. Uber and Lyft almost beat light rail.

Pouring billions of dollars into fixed rail makes about as much sense as scattering the money with a leaf blower, or setting it on fire. 

The good news here is that before the pandemic, Wake County taxpayers rejected light rail as a transit option. Instead, local officials are moving ahead with a defensible type of public transportation, Bus Rapid Transit. It’s a sensible, flexible way to move people who don’t have cars or who have them and would rather not use them for commuting or travel to special events like concerts or ballgames.

BRT vehicles resemble light rail cars; they often travel on dedicated lanes, so they can move faster than cars during rush hours. Plus, officials can change schedules and add or remove vehicles to satisfy demand. 

Fixed rail would have taken decades to build and operate. Before COVID, BRT buses were expected to be rolling by 2025. 

The Amtrak money probably is doomed, aka destined to be spent. Maybe we’ll get lucky and local transit dollars will be cut or diverted to vehicles (some) people use: buses.

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Weekend bonus!

Tomorrow, I’ll share my entire story from The Assembly in a separate newsletter to everyone, including freelisters. I’m also being interviewed about the story later today. That interview will head your way next week (unless you already subscribe to The Assembly; if so, you’ll get it Sunday).

The great Steve Howe

Happy 74th birthday (Thursday)! Whether it was with Yes, GRT, or Asia, he may be my favorite progressive rock guitarist. Primarily because he seamlessly integrates genres from classical to rockabilly in his playing. And he never learned to read music! Here’s a decent-quality live video of the two solo numbers he recorded in the early Yes years.