November 2010 | Commentary | Checking In

Elephants Chasing TIGERs

Tags: Transportation Infrastructure, Legislation, Public Policy, and Regulations

Keith Biondo is the publisher of Inbound Logistics magazine.

It wasn’t that long ago that Rajahs in India used elephants to hunt tigers. It seems the hunt is on again. The recent Republican resurgence is hunting for a very specific type of TIGER: Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants as part of the TARP fund.

The latest round of grants continues the spending bias for passenger and other non-freight initiatives, as you’ll read in Joseph O’Reilly’s research on page 38. It is clear to some that these projects are not only wasteful, but divert much-needed resources for projects with the widest economic impact— freight infrastructure that touches the lives of millions of businesses, and hundreds of millions of citizens— not a few bikers, hikers, and trolley car riders. It is certainly clear to the new spate of incoming Republican governors.

I can offer anecdotal evidence to bolster the research in Joe’s article. One project I ride past daily is the multi-billion-dollar Train to the Plane monorail to Kennedy International Airport. Despite the hype, ridership has not appeared. One reason is that the rail line is not even connected to LaGuardia Airport, which is a few miles up the road. Taxis to both airports thrive.

Another project is the Frank R. Lautenberg Station in Secaucus, N.J., sporting a 20-foot-tall statue of the senator, and largely devoid of rail commuters who were supposed to materialize. Built in the middle of nowhere, the service leads to New York City 15 minutes faster if you get off one train and on another. And, Amtrak does not stop there. All this to save a few thousand passengers a few minutes? Lautenberg Station is the billion-dollar poster child of misdirected transportation infrastructure spending, especially given the needs of the port, airport, rail, and road infrastructure affecting millions within a few miles of this pyramid to pork.

The new TIGER grants continue this theme. For example, one $48-million (current cost projection, but you know how these things go) trolley project estimates 3,000 to 4,000 daily riders— $16,000 per person, not counting yearly maintenance costs. As Joe’s analysis shows, most of the projects exceeding $1 million go to non-freight infrastructure development.

Here’s where the elephants come in. N.J. Governor Chris Christie recently re-evaluated a multi-billion-dollar passenger train tunnel project connecting New Jersey commuters with New York City. The project’s original cost estimate has doubled, sticking a state that has recently clawed its way back from bankruptcy for $5 billion-plus. A meeting with the Governor and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood failed to produce the extra dollars needed to close the gap. Christie closed the gap by closing the project.

Another non-freight light rail project connecting Columbus to Cleveland, Ohio, prompted this comment from Governor-elect John Kasich: “Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future. The train is dead.” That’s $400 million-plus of taxpayer money saved, not counting the overruns and yearly maintenance costs.

In Florida, recent cost estimates for a high-speed rail link connecting Orlando with Tampa have doubled from $1.25 billion to $2.5 billion. At 168 miles, the project will end up costing more than $15 million a mile. Incoming Governor Rick Scott is re-evaluating that project.

Incoming Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pulled the plug on an $800-million-plus high-speed commuter rail link between Madison and Milwaukee. Examining the demographics in those locales calls into question the value of this project, which will easily top $1 billion if cost overrun history is any guide. The governor wants to redirect that money to “fixing roads and bridges” and will ask the incoming Congress to allow him to do that so he does not lose those TIGER funds. The new Congress likely will concur.

Setting aside current deficit and economic reasons for or against these projects, why the disproportionate emphasis on “transportation infrastructure” that will benefit the few over the many millions who will benefit from real transport infrastructure improvement?

LaHood’s now famous “table-top” speech last March at the National Bike Summit in Washington offers some clues. His mission, he explained to raucous applause, is to “get people out of their cars” by steering transport dollars away from highways and bridges toward hiking, biking, and streetcars.

Forget the carbon and productivity costs of congestion. The problem is, Mr. Secretary, that trucks use those roads, too, and that impacts the lives of millions of consumers, workers, and businesses by increasing costs at every supply chain touch.

And what of all those unfunded port, rail, air, and intermodal projects that will secure the future and jobs for the most Americans? A bicycle is not the mode to take us to that future.

What can you do? Send a worthy reminder to those making policy on this issue. Remember what Spock said in Star Trek II— The Wrath of Khan: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”