Notice how all that talk of global warming and energy independence goes away once price of gasoline goes up? The real policy, and the real values, may be found when scarce resources are being allocated, not when politicians are just talking — or pretending unlimited money can just be borrowed and never paid back. The policy is to discourage conservation, alternative energy, and domestic fossil fuel production and make energy imports more affordable – by cutting the gas tax. And to defer the cost of this, along with the cost of everything else, to a point in the future when today’s Generation Greed decisionmakers won’t be around anymore.
Ignore global warming if you want. The economic and national security consequences on our dependence on the global fossil fuels market has reared its head repeatedly for five decades and is now coming home to roost again, as the autocrats and dictators who control those resources (and hold our ever-growing debts) hold them over our heads.
In addition to what is being done, there is what is not being done. I already pointed out that anyone could cut the cost of gasoline per passenger in half almost immediately by carpooling. This post is about two more things that could be done in the intermediate term, but probably won’t be. Using some of the increasingly less valuable central business district office space for bicycle and e-bike parking. And expanding the rail system into a national conveyer belt, with platoons of self-driving flatcars with containers on top, powered by electricity from a third rail, circulating between intermodal terminals. Where trucks could pick them up and drop them off without having to drive long distances, solving a labor shortage and job quality issue in addition to an energy issue. These could be self-funding private initiatives with a little public help (or even just no excess bureaucratic hassle and tax burden), but that means there would be no special interest group cashing in. Therefore, there is no interest.
Most of those who will read this post know the financial issues with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Decades ago, funding for the agency’s capital plan was cut, and some capital funds were diverted to the operating budget as “reimbursable expenditures.” At the same time, effective fares were cut when the Metrocard was introduced, and current and – in particular former – MTA workers benefitted from a huge pension increase in 2000. The cost of capital construction contracts soared, due to pension increases for union construction workers and managers, and construction union pension underfunding, at about the same time. It was a political win for everyone – who is no longer around. The cost of all of this was borrowed or deferred, and today much of the money being paid to the MTA, in taxes, tolls and fares, is being sucked into the past.
As the years pass, meanwhile, major systems and components of the subway and commuter rail network continue to age, and eventually reach the point where they will either have to be replaced or start to fail and disrupt service more and more frequently. Perhaps to the point where entire lines have to be abandoned for years or decades, as two tracks on the Manhattan Bridge were. Or permanently, as the West Side Highway was. One of those systems is the signal system on the New York City subway, which is aging even as the cost of replacing the signaling on a line has exploded. The plan had been to gradually replace conventional railroad signaling with Communications Based Train Control (CBTC). But after decades of borrowing the MTA Capital plan came to a near halt after the Great Recession, and compared with the plans in place 17 years ago the MTA is way behind, without any hope, at recent prices, of ever being able to catch up. Can technology provide a way out?