Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How Many Bird Strikes...

The Federal Aviation Administration recently released data about the number of bird strikes (plane-bird collisions) in the United States, and it is a number that surprised many people: more than 73,000 bird strikes in the last eight years (and the FAA believes only 20% of strikes are even reported). Previously, the downing of a plane in the Hudson River in January because of a bird strike seemed like a bizarre rarity; the data has changed our perception. While in some ways it is reassuring that major problems from bird strikes are so infrequent, the number of strikes is still of concern because they present a real, if unusual, danger. Of broader importance, however, is the power this new information gives us to assess which methods of bird strike prevention work best and whether progress can be made to decrease the number strikes.

The issue of data about bird strikes holds a lesson for transportation more generally because, as the saying goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Although the FAA has kept data about bird strikes for many years, the number of strikes has increased annually since the early 1990s, indicating that either there are more collisions occuring, increased reporting, or the FAA is not taking effective action. (We should note that the annual number of flights has increased over that time period as well, however.) Hopefully, public scrutiny will incentivize progress in reducing the number of strikes. There are a number of methods of deterring birds from near airports, including annoying noises, habitat manipulation, use of predators, shooing of birds, and shooting of birds. Data can illuminate which methods work best, and the public can judge whether their local airports are taking effective action. In short, it is good news that the FAA is tracking data, and it is of equal importance that the data is now available for public assessment.

One of the National Transportation Policy Project’s consistent themes has been the need for performance measurement and accountability. As the bird strike example shows, measurement and accountability should go hand-in-hand. Accountability is impossible without data, but data alone does not mean much unless it can be used to find best practices and reward good performance. Increased transparency should be at the core of a new approach to transportation performance and accountability.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Is Failed Midway Airport Deal a Blow to Infrastructure Privatization?

Earlier this week the planned sale of Midway airport to private investors by the city of Chicago fell through. Observers such as the Wall Street Journal are calling it a blow to the privatization of infrastructure more broadly. Whether that is true or premature, it highlights an important issue for transportation policy: The private appetite for infrastructure will inevitably ebb and flow with market conditions, experiencing booms and busts over time like other areas. Public policy must take this into account when considering the role that private capital can and should play in infrastructure investment.

In recent years the ability of private capital to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure has been highly touted – leaving the impression that private money can fill a substantial portion of the current investment shortfall. When interest rates are low and credit markets are loose the potential of public-private-partnerships (PPPs) looks much rosier. It becomes easy to imagine that the flow of private money will persist indefinitely, that somehow infrastructure investment is an investment class immune to traditional booms and busts, that it can always and forever provide investment. Under this view, it becomes possible to imagine that the public is best served by abdicating its traditional role as provisor of infrastructure.

Although we have just built up a bit of a strawman to knock down, the outgoing administration had an explicit policy against raising federal fuel taxes and in favor of leveraging private capital as a substitute. It is good public policy to harness private capital when available and appropriate, but similarly it is poor public policy to rely on that private capital for essential infrastructure investments. Public money will always have an important role in infrastructure investment – especially as a consistent provider when the market is not responding. There is also a specific federal role to be played in addressing critical investments of national importance. There is, without a doubt, a beneficial role to be played by PPPs, but the limitations of that approach have become apparent in the current economic crisis. Public policy must take all this into consideration in the upcoming authorization bill when weighing how public and private money can be used to achieve the greatest good.

-Daniel and Joshua

Friday, April 3, 2009

High-Speed Rail Money Should Be Spent on Actual High-Speed Rail

A disturbing trend has emerged in the debate about how to spend the billions of dollars that the stimulus package dedicates to high-speed rail (HSR). The trend is towards spending the money on marginal improvements to existing routes rather than true investment in new high-speed ones. For example, a recent panel of witnesses before a House Appropriations subcommittee argued that the money “would best be used on incremental speed increases for current routes.” The general reasoning behind this argument is that HSR is costly, takes years to build, and the returns are relatively uncertain. Therefore, improving existing train speeds from say 79mph to 90mph is the better way to go. If this is the route chosen, the money might as well not be spent at all.

The general concern about HSR is that it may not be the most cost-effective way to spend transportation money. That argument is, for now, irrelevant; the stimulus money is going to HSR in some form regardless. The more important issue at this point is, we could argue, more political: if the public is told that billions are being spent on HSR but all the money gets frittered away on marginal improvements to existing lines, the broader goal of actual high-speed rail will be tarnished. A marginal improvement to existing train service is not game-changing, and would do little to reinvigorate the mode. Moreover, true HSR offers travel, business, and quality of life gains that marginal improvements will never provide.

While it is true that HSR will not be seen within the next few years, that’s not a good reason to avoid making investments in it. Recognizing that stimulus money is intended for shovel ready projects, it may not be possible for all of the $8b allocated to be spent on HSR; but surely a significant amount can, and the priority should be to spend every dime that we can on actual HSR project development. Whatever money is left over can then be prioritized to more marginal improvements in select corridors with an eye to the future.

HSR can likely provide significant benefits in select corridors, and those corridors have already been generally identified. One corridor that is moving forward with HSR is the California route between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Investing the stimulus money in this corridor (or in real development of another corridor like the Northeast or Chicago) is one way to make sure that in the not too distant future the country actually has a viable example of truly high speed 220mph trains, not Amtrak trains that can go 90mph instead of 79mph.

In other circumstances and for other transportation modes the argument to make marginal improvements might be the prudent one. But when it comes to HSR, the bold course is the right one.

-Daniel Lewis