Ethics Presentation Proposal

David Wagner 2007/09/04 16:59

United States v. National City Lines and the Ethics of Transportation Engineering Economics

This presentation uses the case of United States v. National City Lines as a backdrop to consider the economic analysis of modern transportation infrastructure, and how engineers can make sense of the often heated rhetoric expounded when discussing transportation issues.

The ethical issues presented include the obligation of engineers to choose the method of economic analysis appropriate for the issue at hand, in the same way they are obliged to choose the appropriate method of analyzing the forces a structure or pressures in a pipe network. Although not often recognized, failure to provide the correct economic analysis of a transportation proposal can ultimately result in failures as dramatic and damaging as the collapse of a bridge or the explosion of a pressure line. Gridlock, road rage, traffic accidents, and tailpipe air pollution potent enough to cause illness and death are all largely the result of transportation infrastructure failure. This presentation shows how this can come about because the economic analyses used to justify transportation project funding are often flawed or incorrect.

Public funding of transportation is often not analyzed correctly. Analysts may incorrectly apply cost-minimization or time-to-payback analyses when the goal of public spending is to maximize service. Even when a maximized-service analysis is correctly identified, service is often incorrectly defined in the economic model. For example, a route planner may define service as miles of transportation provided per person and incorrectly plan circuitous routes to maximize the distances traveled by riders.

But perhaps the most egregious error can often be seen when comparing alternative modes of transportation. When discussing the court case, the modern defenders of National City Lines often claim how streetcars were not 'profitable' compared to bus lines. To come to this conclusion, the profitability of the streetcar lines required considering the fares collected offset by the costs of the right-of-way purchase, track installation and maintenance, and rolling stock purchase, operation and maintenance. The analysis of bus lines, however, only includes the fares collected against the purchase, operation and maintenance of the vehicles; the remaining costs having been successfully externalized. From the city's point of view, however, these costs are still paid by citizens. In addition, other service factors such as increased travel time are simply ignored.

This presentation attempts to show how engineers can correctly consider transportation infrastructure economies.


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