If Roads Were Regulated Like Rails, Everyone Would Drive A Cement Mixer

If highways were regulated like railways, you would drive a vehicle like this.

In the 1970s, the federal government instituted automobile regulations to increase vehicle fuel efficiency — in part by decreasing vehicle weight.  The initiative, called “CAFE” or “Corporate Average Fuel Economy,” has been renewed and enhanced as recently as 2007.  Heavier vehicles tend to be safer vehicles, but Congress and the President have judged that the gain in efficiency at the cost of safety is worthwhile and justified.  The stakes are high; roads are dangerous, automobile accidents are common, and literally thousands of people die each year as a result of the CAFE efficiency standards.  The government made a tough choice and for four decades the decision has withstood constant scrutiny.

At the same time, the government has been encouraging heavier, more polluting, less useful passenger trains.  Although rail collisions are rare (particularly compared to auto accidents) the federal agency in charge of the national rail system has strongly discouraged lightweight railcars from the national rail network.  Never seen a single-car train beyond the interior suburbs?  That’s because generally they aren’t allowed there.  Trolley and subway cars operate only on closed-off portions of the rail network that are physically disconnected from the national rail network.  Passenger trains must be bulked up in weight to be allowed on traditional rail corridors, even where freight traffic is rarely seen.  For example, the Acela Express Amtrak trainset nearly doubled in weight to comply with the regulations, and as a result it developed numerous design and performance problems.

To recap: the feds required passenger trains to get heavier or be banned from the basically safe national network at the same time that other federal regulators have required passenger cars operating on a dangerous road system to shrink in mass.

The two sets of regulations could not have been more different.  Imagine for a moment what the roads would look like if they were operated like the rails.  So much for the freedom of the open road; that would be history.  If you owned a subcompact car– or an SUV for that matter– you would only be able to drive on your driveway, unless you first put up barriers to block off the local road network from the national road network.  To be able to drive on a national highway or Interstate, you would need to buy a vehicle the size of a cement mixer, and fill it with cement.  Everyone would be required to do this, because (in the language of the rail regulators) otherwise the passenger automobiles would be too lightweight to avoid deforming in a head-on collision with the heaviest tractor-trailers on the road.  Vehicle fuel efficiency of these passenger-cement-mixers would be abysmal, people would be forced to pay for excessive vehicles and unwanted tons of cement, and maintenance costs for the vehicles and roads would be much higher.

In effect, rail regulations would convert a useful network of highways into isolated islands of local roads interspersed by connections that are accessible only to impractical overweight passenger vehicles.

No one would seriously suggest that we should have regulations on the highway system like the ones that have been imposed on the rails.  That begs the question why we have such onerous rules for trains.  A passenger train that can survive a high-speed collision with a locomotive may well be safer to its passengers in that respect.  However, the result of the requirement has been a far less connected and useful, and far more expensive, passenger rail system that has forced more and more people into their automobiles.  And automobiles are proven to be far more lethal to passengers than trains, in addition to the deleterious impact of automobiles and asphalt on the environment.

So in its zeal to make passenger trains safer by making sure that no passenger rail car on the national network will deform if was unfortunate enough to collide with a coal freight train (whether or not anyone could remember a coal train operating in that location), the federal government has undermined the competitiveness of rail technology and forced everyone to take much more serious risks on the highways, where the risk of death is many times higher than the rails.  And where no one expects a passenger automobile to bounce back from a head-on collision with a semi-trailer.

Maybe it’s time that regulators considered that heavier passenger trains and a less connected rail system are not actually a safer or more convenient for the public at large.  A lighter passenger train (or trolley service on regular railways) operating on the national rail network might help drivers off of the roads … and that alone would save lives.

Waiting With a Bicycle at a Light that Never Turns Green

A change in the law governing bicycles recently was in the news.  In January, the Massachusetts legislature adopted a regime of traffic-ticketing to enforce existing laws that require bicyclists to, for example, stop at red traffic lights.

The Legislature was wise to insist that bicyclists err on the side of safety and caution.  Someone on the road has to, and it probably won’t be automobile drivers, chatting on cell phones and shuffling through the songs on i-pods.

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

Traffic Sensor Doesn't Notice Bikes

So here’s a question:  what is a bicyclist lawfully required to do when the light never turns green?  It’s a frequent problem.  Modern traffic lights (i.e. the ones used everywhere except the city of Boston) are triggered by sensors that detect automobiles.  Roll over the sensor in a Chevy, and the light turns green.  Roll over the sensor on a Raleigh bicycle and … the light stays red.  It never turns green.  Ever.  Roll back and forth on it.  Jump up and down.  Nothing.

The question is sort of academic; the obvious answer is that you treat the traffic signal an ornament with little relevance to a bicyclist … but still you do so at your own risk — risk of physical injury and risk of legal jeopardy.  Injury because the lights are most frequently used at the most dangerous intersections.  There is a chance that the ornament will be you.  Jeopardy because who is to say the law enforcement officer will agree with your choice.  And it takes some significant waiting and experimenting to be sure the sensor really doesn’t work; that’s not a small inconvenience with traffic lights every few blocks.

I wish I had the answer.  It’s unfortunate, but perhaps the only safe thing to do is to drive.

Modest Proposal: Roll Back the MA Gas Tax to 1999 Level

Last week the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged the nation to raise the gas tax.  The Chamber reasoned that the federal gas tax is too low because it was set years ago as a fixed number of cents per gallon; inflation has eaten away much of its value.  A higher gas tax would make more funds available to pave the nation with asphalt, and it would create greater incentives to avoid inefficient energy use.  You can guess which benefit the Chamber is more interested in discussing (hint: it isn’t conservation).

In addition to the federal tax, many if not all states assess an additional local tax.  In Massachusetts, the state part of the tax is a 21-cent surcharge per gallon of gasoline.  But that method of calculation is new.  From as early as 1949, Massachusetts assessed the tax as a percentage of the cost of wholesale gasoline, rather than by the gallon.  As a result, the tax kept pace with inflation, unlike its federal counterpart.  The system worked because when prices increased with inflation, so too did the total tax collected.  The initial tax rate was 10%; in 1991 it increased to 19.1%.

Then in 2000 the Cellucci administration, in a moment of weakness, addressed rising gasoline prices by converting the flexible 19.1% tax into a flat 21-cent surcharge per gallon of gas.  It was an obscure change with dramatic results.  For the rest of the decade, the tax lagged significantly behind inflation and coffers ran dry of money that might have been used for transportation purposes.

If the gas tax today was calculated the same way as in 1999, the current rate for the gas tax would be about 30-cents per gallon.  That’s 9 cents per gallon more than the current tax.  (The official wholesale price of a gallon of gas was $1.57 in the last month for which the figures are available (April)).  But unfortunately the change was made in 2000 and we’re still suffering the impact; transportation revenues have not kept pace.

Recently, the Governor proposed a 19-cent increase in the gas tax, to 40 cents per gallon.  The Massachusetts Senate characteristically dismissed the idea of an increase saying the Legislature had voted against it.  The Governor and the Legislature obviously realize that the Commonwealth needs to raise more money to maintain the existing level of services.  Toll hikes and increases in the gas tax apparently have been ruled out.  Only an increase in the statewide sales tax– which doesn’t apply to gasoline– has been approved; one wonders about the equity of taxing everything except transportation to fund transportation needs.

So here’s a modest proposal.  Why not roll back the gas tax to 1999 levels … and once again calculate the tax as 19.1 percent of the wholesale price of gasoline (30-cents per gallon in April).  Throw out the flat tax of 21 cents per gallon.  The proposal would allow the Governor to raise additional transportation funding from a source other than general funds, and the Legislature credibly could claim that it acted responsibly to undo a heedless stealth tax cut that was implemented in the hazy days of 2000.  A functional 9-cent per gallon increase in the tax would fall roughly at the midpoint of the Governor’s proposal (19-cent increase) and the Legislature’s proposal to do nothing.  And the old method of computing the tax naturally keeps pace with inflation — meaning the tax won’t need to be revisited for some time.

So how about it?  Why not revert to a formula for the gas tax that served the Commonwealth well for about fifty years: switch back to calculating it by percentage of price, rather than per gallon.