BS on Amtrak

The motto of the Democrats is that they can never let a good crisis (or tragedy) go to waste. Before the bodies were even cold from the recent Amtrak train crash, the Left Wing was claiming that it was obviously Republicans’ fault. They had “gutted” infrastructure spending and “slashed” Amtrak spending and if they hadn’t, we’d have had a positive control system that would have slowed the train down. My favorite rant is here in which Thom Hartman manages to blame Reagan, work in a Somalia comparison and say our system should be more like Spain’s (which had a far deadlier high-speed train crash just two years ago).

There’s only one problem with all this. It’s bollocks:

In the federal budget, Amtrak is within the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The president estimated that fiscal 2015 outlays on the FRA would be $3.6 billion. Of that, $250 million is for Amtrak operating subsidies, $1.1 billion is for Amtrak capital grants, $1.8 billion is for high-speed rail grants, and the rest is for safety, research, and other rail activities.

The chart shows total FRA outlays from 1990 to 2015 in current dollars (not adjusting for inflation). Outlays have soared in recent years, partly due to rising high-speed rail spending. During 2009 to 2015, high-speed rail grants were $2 million, $16 million, $304 million, $513 million, $768 million, $1.1 billion, and $1.8 billion. But even aside from that spending, FRA outlays were up modestly over the past decade.

The problem with Amtrak is that many of its routes do not make economic sense. Because of politics, the company is forced to run services through low population regions that have few passengers. Passenger rail makes sense in the Northeast corridor, but few other places in America—at least within today’s costly and unionized rail structure. The distance from Boston to Washington, D.C. is less than 500 miles, yet Amtrak operates a 21,000-mile system through nearly all the states. Money that should be used on maintenance and upgrading in the Northeast is being used on services elsewhere in the country that lose hundreds of dollars per passenger.

In short, much of the money that could be going to maintain Amtrak is going to subsidize pointless light rail systems in cities that can’t use them. The Fed is also throwing money at high-speed sinkholes that will never happen.

The lack of a positive control system was instantly cited as the reason for the crash. The problem is that the line already has the system:

The Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night was equipped with an automatic speed control system that officials say could have prevented the wreck, which killed eight passengers and injured hundreds. But the system, which was tantalizingly close to being operational, was delayed by budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules, officials said Thursday.

In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.

We’ve see this all the time from the supposedly fact-based Left Wing. Every time a tragedy happens — a shooting, a derailment, a hurricane — they can tell you what went wrong before the smoke has even cleared. They can tell you the motivations of people who messed up. And somehow, miraculously, it always comes down to Republican budget cuts.

Japan’s bullet train is often dragged out as the example of what we should be doing on rail. This ignores two things: 1) Japan is a lot smaller and its population more concentrated that the United States; 2) Japan’s rail system is privatized. As far as I can tell, they only get government subsidies to build new track or expand their capabilities. But their bullet trains operate at a profit.

This tragedy wasn’t a result of evil Republican budget cuts or Reaganism. We’re still not sure what happened. But as far as government policy goes, it was a result of a blundering agency and a government that is committed to building rail where it isn’t needed instead of maintaining it in the one place — the Northeast Corridor — where it makes sense.

What Kelo Hath Wrought, Part 487

Take this as one of your semi-regular opportunities to say, “Fuck you, John Paul Stephens”:

James Dupree is a world-renowned artist and native son of Philadelphia, who is about to see his art studio turned into a grocery store, thanks to the rubber-stamp review that passes for judging when his city exercises the power of eminent domain.

James’ artistic accomplishments are truly awesome. He has five paintings in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Others can be found in the National Museum of Art in Cardiff, Wales; the Schomberg Museum in New York; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

You can see the Philadelphia Museum of Art from James’ studio. It is located in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia, where James grew up. The studio was a dilapidated warehouse when he purchased it for a little under $200,000. He spent $60,000 installing new electrical equipment and plumbing, $68,000 on roof repairs, and thousands more on renovations, furnishings and appliances.

The investment paid off, for James and for Mantua. What was once a dead, abandoned building is now alive and bustling with activity. James has hosted and taught art classes at his studio and has plans to start a mentorship program in order to give artists an environment where they “can create serious work and receive the support and freedom to explore new ideas.”

Dupree Studios is as much of a part of Mantua as James Dupree. It is a monument to the kind of creativity, hard work and dedication that has always been associated with the American spirit.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority has decided that this isn’t good enough. They want to lowball Dupree, bulldoze the building he restored and put a grocery store and a parking lot there. Pennsylvania strengthened its laws protecting citizens from eminent domain. But the PRA seized his home four days before the law took effect.

Think about that. When this state tried to put the kibosh on this sort of nonsense, the authorities in Philadelphia went on a shopping spree to make sure they stole people’s building while they still could.

Now two judges have basically said, “meh”. There is still a chance to save his studio through political pressure on the local government. But this shouldn’t be necessary. It wouldn’t be necessary if five assholes in robes had not decided that forcing Person A to sell to Person B constituted “public use”.

Monday Roundup

I get backlogged on stories. And I hate open tabs. So here’s a smattering of stories I don’t have time to do full blog posts on but thought were interesting.

  • The White House put the kibosh on the Platinum Coin idea, the IOU idea and the 14th Amendment idea and the President had a presser today calling on the GOP to raise the debt ceiling. The death of the Coin caused much angst among the Platinum Front of Judea crowd (who also turned on Jon Stewart when he ridiculed the idea). But it’s yet another data point showing that as dumb as the President can be, he’s not as dumb as his supporters.
  • A good read on a pair of developers who have taken on Philadelphia’s entrenched trade unions. They bid out a project, gave a little over half the contracts to non-union businesses and became the target of union wrath and violence. A peace has been reached but the terms are unclear: the unions are saying the developers’ next project will be all-union, the developers are saying they’ll bid it out to everyone. It will be interesting to see if this cracks the trade union stranglehold on Philadelphia business or if the Pestronk Brothers give in.
  • The minute I heard Lance Armstrong was interviewing with Oprah, I knew he was going to confess. The sky is turning red with lawsuits and the Feds may get involved as well. This is going to get ugly.
  • At the President’s Reddit chat, one question he ignored that has gotten some fun discussion is “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?” I’m not surprised he skipped it since it was probably much more substantive than most of the other questions. To me, it’s not even a question. You choose the horses. Ducks look nice on TV and they behave in a pond. But, like almost all fowl, they can be nasty violent dangerous creatures when they want to be. Horses, too, of course. But I’ve found birds to just be plain mean. Must be that dinosaur heritage.
  • Military suicides hit a record last year. It doesn’t seem to get that much attention, how much strain these wars are putting an increasingly narrow sliver of our nation. Let’s hope our politicians take a break from creating crises to figure out something that will help.
  • I’m sure we can have an argument about one of those things.