Taking Taxpayers for a Ride

Steve Chapman

4/28/2011 12:00:00 AM - Steve Chapman
It's often been said of Barack Obama that his policies are "data driven" -- meaning that whatever his ideological inclinations, he pays attention to dispassionate analysis of real-world evidence. His approach was a refreshing contrast to George W. Bush and John McCain, with their ostentatious reliance on gut instinct.

This administration gives due deference to nerds. Obama's former budget director, Peter Orszag, once boasted, "Whether it's health care, education or even the war in Afghanistan, the president and his team are big believers in the power of information."

But someone didn't tell the Secretary of Transportation. Ray LaHood is to information what kryptonite is to Superman: In his presence, it becomes powerless.

The former Republican congressman made that clear on a visit to Chicago last week, apparently smarting from a spate of unwelcome publicity about air traffic controllers. Some have been caught dozing off on the job, and others let the first lady's plane get too close to a military jet on its approach to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

One suggestion to promote alertness is to let controllers working overnight shifts take naps on their breaks. It was proposed by a joint task force of the Federal Aviation Administration and the controllers union. It's allowed in Germany and Japan. It was suggested by Mark Rosekind, a sleep scientist who serves on the National Transportation Safety Board.

But LaHood couldn't care less. "The one thing we won't let happen is let controllers sleep in control towers," he huffed in a meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board. Why not examine the evidence? "I've already decided that's not needed," he retorted. Would anything change his mind? "No."

He does not like to be confused by the facts. It's no surprise, then, to hear the secretary applaud the success of his rule imposing heavy fines on airlines that keep planes on the tarmac for more than three hours awaiting takeoff. In 2009, LaHood announced the regulation, proclaiming that "airline passengers have rights" -- correcting an oversight by the framers of the Constitution, who carelessly omitted those.

Today, he scoffs at critics who predicted the change would lead to more canceled flights. But the evidence vindicates the criticism. The change did reduce the number of planes stranded for more than three hours. But aviation consultants Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks found that last year, flight cancellations increased by 42 percent.

Maybe those are a reasonable price to pay to prevent long waits on the runway. But you can't balance the cost against the benefit if you ignore the cost. LaHood, however, has no use for tedious number-crunching.

Nowhere is his indifference to data more obvious than on high-speed rail. "This is what the American people want," he declared. "If you build it, they will come."

The question, though, is not whether anyone would ride high-speed trains, but at what price. If Americans want a high-speed rail system so badly, will they be willing to pay fares that would cover the expense of operating trains?

"I think it will cover operating costs," said LaHood. "During better economic times, operating costs were covered by the Chicago Transit Authority."

No, they weren't. The CTA never comes close to breaking even on operations. In 2006, the last full year before the recession hit, its revenues from fares, advertising, concessions and the like covered only 55 percent of those costs.

No mass transit system in the country charges riders enough to offset the expenses of running trains -- much less the cost of capital. Amtrak loses hundreds of millions a year, and it makes an operating profit only on its somewhat high-speed Acela Express between Boston and Washington.

That's why Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida have turned down mountains of federal cash for high-speed rail. They fear being saddled with a big bill to build and operate expensive systems that will never live up to ridership projections.

Rail buffs counter that highways and airports get subsidies, too. In fact, motorists pay more in federal gas taxes than the federal government spends on roads. Air travelers get a small subsidy -- about $6 per 1,000 passenger-miles in 2002, compared to $159 for mass transit riders and $210 for Amtrak passengers.

But all this is beside the point. In LaHood's Department of Transportation, data doesn't drive. Data gets run over.