O'Toole had no handout, and offered no link to his talk so we could not go home and study his statistics.
I am a follower of Randal O'Toole, actually a stalker. I've read his material; I've responded to him online when Comments are allowed. I am actually fascinated by this persona. So, when a friend offered to take me along to Racine to hear him, I jumped at the chance (too far for a bike ride on a Tuesday night).
Randal (a Cato Institute Fellow) changed his talk a bit over the past few months. Instead of closing with a report on his "hobby," he opens up with his hobby - refurbishing trains (for museum purposes); point is - no one should subsidize my hobby. Got it, Randal.
Opener. To measure his audience he uses what any smart speaker will use, something engaging. A suggestive remark about the recent health care bill (just passed) brought a roar of approval and applause from his audience of about 200. He knew; they knew; they are on the same side: distrust of government, the theme of the evening, repeated ironically by elected officials and the candidates for office running on Tea.
The Tea audience was polite. My companion has been in transit discussions in Racine, so she was concerned she'd be put on the spot publicly (even though she has a better grasp of the facts than Mr. O'Toole or Rep. Vos). But nothing dramatic happened at all. The audience appeared to have no awareness of the dimensions of the debate about public transportation and accepted anything said by O'Toole or the local Rep, Robin Vos ("I will lay down on the tracks to stop KRM.")
O'Toole loves the big adjective; the sweeping No.
"I evaluate [in his book] every single rail transit line in the country and find out whether it's cost effective and it turns out, of course, they're not."
O'Toole has a sea of bar graphs in which the car always appears to be the superior creation of the human.
One web site he referenced: http://www.movingcooler.info But I find there is nothing on that site that remotely reflects O'Toole's point of view. He used MovingCooler to characterize the cost of removing carbon from the atmosphere (even while making sure his audience understood that he did not believe in human-created global warming). I could not find his point in that site.
He had no handout, and offered no link to his talk so we could not go home and study his statistics.
What he did have is an unquestioning audience. I did not ask questions because I was, in a word, reluctant. I had no reason to expect a reply to me that would reflect the facts on the ground and did not wish to be used.
Driverless Cars, his big fancy.
He mesmerized his audience with a few video clips of driverless cars and claims that a car will have sensors using GPS that notice pedestrians and measure down to 2 centimeters. He sketched highway traffic as bumper to bumper, perfectly safe no matter what surprise another driver impose. When I drive or bike I keep an eye on the rear view mirror for a drunken driver. I'm not sure how a driverless car will be able to make a judgment about that. His slide showing cars in the wake of a truck leading a parade of motorists in a "cloud" of digital information reminded me of lemmings. If the truck were to swerve to avoid, say, a deer or a person, just what kind of instruction can be programmed into a system like that to avoid a pile up?
Yet digital chip may be the reliable part. What should give us pause is that braking systems vary in their effectiveness. And the system will have a fraction of a second to adjust to the braking of other cars in that cloud.
A year ago he was saying that driverless cars are merely one software update away from reality. He's cooled down a bit, but now claims each car will have enough intelligence to make its passengers safe. So he wants the system to be installed in each car. Can we get a cost on that before we invest in more roads?
Would it be like air travel in fog? Perhaps, but the required closeness of cars to each other raises the stakes for quality control.
And so he reassured his audience: you do not have to change anything. Keep your car; it's cost effective, as long as the government only builds roads, and eats up farmland - issues he never touches.
His hybrid car will make cost per mile cheaper but that will build political power for more road building, and land consumption, as population grows.
He, and talk radio folks love to use the word "coerce" to report official government plans on anything, particularly housing and transportation. I suspect it's mental inertia. There is an unwillingness on the part of many humans to appreciate varieties of lifestyle, while being enamored of one's own choice: two cars, land, and a single family house.
Talk about transportation infrastructure drives O'Toole to impress the audience that the government is going to "force" you to ride trains or buses. The documentation O'Toole offers (but he does not tell his audience) contains an analysis of rising oil prices nudging more people to use public transportation. See Moving Cooler Executive Summary
He could tell his audience to read that. Well, if he did not have an agenda, or a book to sell.
O'Toole loved to characterize Portland. A few good chosen slides, and jokes, and the usual remarks about the incompetence of his (he lives there) local government. Easy blather.
He touched on the rising value of the single family home in Portland, but did not explain the dynamic - how values rise. And in that way he shortchanged his audience who, I'm told, came from the western part of Racine County. If the City of Racine had a dynamic modern transportation system, with KRM, the population would trend back to the city because of the lower overall cost of living, leaving the western part of Racine even more protected from sprawl. These folks are actually inviting the problem they believe they are voting against.
Other noteworthy O'Tooleisms:
"buses are always more cost effective than street cars"
"street cars go only 7 mph" [hoping there are no travelers in this audience]
"we've [Portland] created a shortage of land for houses" [but also a high value of housing in urban centers]
Old trick up his sleeve: he is still comparing new cars to rail: "actually automobiles have become far more energy efficient in the last few years ... " And then uses his favorite car-versus-train argument: cars of the future will be more efficient than our diesel trains of today.
Hmm. trains never improve?
Yup, O'Toole is stuck there; no progress in his brain. He says it's all about having a free market, but he dodges the free market response to his position: All forms of transportation benefit from energy breakthroughs. O'Toole loves the free market when it serves his point.
O'Toole claims every rail car in the country is 5/6 empty, or 1/6 full. He does not document this statistic. Nor does he offer an average, which is the number that transit managers use to design routes.
He loves bar graphs that show Dollars Per Ton of Carbon removed from the atmosphere. No reference to where he fetched his numbers but I do believe these Dollars are investment dollars. And rail does require a higher investment, but the cost to operate and maintain rail done right is overall lower than building roads and subsidizing cars. So he buffaloes his audience by confusing a mortgage with your family's checkbook.
O'Toole is opposed to all public transportation. "Collective transportation will be functionally obsolete."
Traffic coordination will reduce pollution. Welcome to Milwaukee. We have good signal coordination in Milwaukee and we still have major ozone warnings)
O'Toole loves extravagant numbers, said that it cost "...billions and billions of Euros to build" this bridge.
Wikipedia reports otherwise: The Millau Viaduct ... cost up to 394 million.... with a toll plaza costing an additional 20 million....
He loves to divide up rail money and virtually spend it to buy "each" train rider a car. Again, I believe (I can't be sure without his formulas) he is mixing capital costs with operating costs. He has a formula to "to give every round trip rider [on whatever train] a new Prius every year for the rest of their lives."
This throwing about of dollars characterized the Representative's remarks later. Telling his Racine audience that KRM will cost "them" $13 million even though most of the money comes from Milwaukee's airport, the car rental fee and other non-Racine sources.
Details make for a tougher presentation; and O'Toole prefers to be the life of the party.
I was reminded as I listened to the tone of his voice, reassuring, confident, a sly chuckle in his intonations - I was reminded of an experience I had many times as a child. You see, there was a farmer's market in front of my house in Hales Corners. And this gentleman from (he claimed) Florida who befriended a isolationist secretive Native American tribe and garnered secrets from them about snake oil. The crowd was amply entertained (especially when he brought out the rattlesnake) and the dollars came forward for his oils and soaps. He knew how to work a crowd. The slick traveling salesperson may well be a perennial American phenomenon - hopefully "choo choo" (talk radio's best joke) will go the way of "snake oil" as an icon of deceit. Trains no longer Choo; they hum - and, do you have a problem with that? Well, where the deer and the antelope play, they might be too quiet.
About Representative Robin Vos
Rep. Vos made a big point that night of saying (to applause) that he is going back to Madison to "fight" for a binding referendum in all RTA legislation. His rhetoric is fake; he knows better.
The binding referendum is now accepted; it is in all the RTA bills, because elected officials do not want to be accused of raising taxes; they want it clear that we are raising taxes on ourselves. Still, elected officials are so afraid of the "T" word that even Vos' binding referendum gives none of them comfort to do the will of the people of Milwaukee County. And Vos builds political power by yammering about a fight that is over.
Enough, then. We should be able to make this choice without meddling from outsiders like Waukesha and from people like Western Racine County who have forced the binding referendum into state legislation. OK, but we voted and now let us run our County the way we choose.
Vos did ask the Racine County Board to meddle in the decisions of the City of Racine and the County of Milwaukee.