Stupid is as stupid does

The Thinker by Rodin

Apparently, I missed this law enacted in 2005 before Republicans were routed out of control of Congress. The bill was labeled the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users” otherwise known by that ever popular acronym SAFETEA-LU. What? You never heard of it either? Well, these things happen. I had not until I read this story in today’s Washington Post. Only a very stupid Congress could pass such an asinine law. It had to be one vested in obsessive and anal adherence to its bizarre political ideology at the expense of all common sense. Doubtless it was a congress full of bizarre ideologues like this one. In other words, it comes courtesy of our late and unlamented Republican congress. Moreover, only a very stupid president could have signed it into law, and we sure have one of those now.

It would be much more appropriate to have called it the STUPID: The Scatterbrained Transportation Umbrella Program from Insipid Dunderheads. The provision of note is the one that cuts federal funding for regional transportation systems that provide charter buses for special events. Apparently, by doing so private charter bus services might be undermined. The effect of this law locally is to make it difficult or impossible for Metrobus to provide buses for special events that it is uniquely qualified to handle safely, efficiently and conveniently.

For example, not everyone drives to FedEx Field in Lanham, Maryland to see the Washington Redskins play. Some want to take the Metro. Unfortunately, Metrorail does not have a station at FedEx field, so Metro has been conveniently providing shuttle bus service pre and post games for fans. According to Metro, 1300 buses last year alone were chartered to get people to and from Fedex Field. Patrons get off at Metro’s Landover Metrorail Station and give the bus driver a five-dollar bill. In return, they are quickly driven to the stadium in time for their game and get a convenient ride back to the Metro station after the game.

Thanks to SAFETEA-LU, this is ending. Metro would first have to check with dozens of charter bus companies in the region to see if they are interested in providing the service. The law discourages metropolitan transit systems from competing with the private sector for these events even though they already have the infrastructure in place to provide the service, and all parties are comfortable with the service provided.

It is not as if Metro is making any profit from the service. Part of its “problem” is that it is a non-profit agency. Maybe that was the real issue that chafed at Congressional Republicans. According to Metro’s press release in 2007, it provided 2,500-chartered buses and earned $1.6 million dollars for these services. It made no profit off these deals. Turn the job over to the private sector, assuming it could provide the number of buses needed for the event, and the price is likely to rise substantially.

Is Metro particularly concerned about this loss of business? Not really, since they never earned more than pocket change off the service. They are concerned about chartered bus services delivering customers to Metro stations where they are currently not allowed. The drivers who operate these charter buses are not familiar with Metro’s rules. Likely some of these buses are too long or too high to even get into the Metro stations. As for passengers, primarily they want to get to and from the game. Yet because of SAFETEA-LU they are likely to have to pay more for the privilege. Ah, the joys of free enterprise!

In short, the law creates a new large and unnecessary inconvenience for riders and Metro. Moreover, not only Redskins fans will be inconvenienced. Also affected are patrons who want to take Metrorail to Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia. The Filene Center there holds myriad concerts during the summer. In 2009, patrons will not be able to step onto a Metrobus at the West Falls Church Metro Station to get to Wolf Trap. For 2008, Metro has received a waiver to continue the service, perhaps because shows start this weekend and it is impossible to find a chartered bus service in time. The waiver might also have something to do with Wolf Trap Farm Park patrons tending to be pretty well moneyed. It may not be a good thing to tick these people off.

In satisfying the holy grail of competition, our unlamented late Republican congress once again conveniently bypassed the sanity test. This portion of the law at least is shortsighted and dumb. It is also bothersome and likely more expensive to riders. It adds to Metro’s hassles, since they have to deal with the logistics of training charter bus companies to adhere to its rules and regulations. It is also likely wasteful, because Metrobus has the buses and the drivers readily at hand who can provide the service.

“Stupid is as stupid does,” Forrest Gump informed us back in the 1994 movie. I guess compared to squandering trillions on an unnecessary war in Iraq, this is a venial sin. Nonetheless, we will be dealing with the legacy of stupid laws like this one for some time to come. I hope in the wash of pressing business for our new Democratic president and our expanded Democratic congressional majority next year, rescinding these silly provisions of this law will not be overlooked.

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