Highway User Fees

The American Petroleum Institute has a web page showing how much of the price you pay for gasoline goes to the government in each state. They include ordinary gas taxes as well as sales taxes on gasoline, but not taxes paid by the oil companies themselves.


Click image to go to the API web site for more detail.

Their goal, I suppose, is to show that the oil companies aren’t making anywhere near as much profit off of gasoline as the government is. But the map also shows some clear geographic differences. First, the lowest taxes are in the sunbelt, while the highest are in ultra-blue states on the coasts and upper Midwest. Second, the range in gas (excise) taxes is quite wide, from 10.5 cents per gallon in New Jersey to 37.5 cents in Washington state.

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More Expensive Than It Should Be

The Economist reports that housing in China is “cheaper than you think.” The magazine-that-calls-itself-a-newspaper’s measure of affordability is the average price of a 100-square-meter (1,076-square-foot) home divided by average household income.


Older mid-rise homes in Shanghai are torn down and replaced with high rises. Flickr photo by Paolo Vasta.

In megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, such a house costs nearly 15 times the average incomes of those cities. Not to worry, says the Economist: in medium and small cities, housing is only about 8 times average incomes. As of November, the national average is 8.9 times.

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Buying a Self-Driving Car

BMW has announced that it will demonstrate a valet-parking car at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month. This is more than a car that can parallel park by itself. Instead, it is a car that can cruise through a parking garage until it finds an empty space and park there until recalled on a smart phone (or smart watch), at which time it will drive itself to the car’s owner.


Official BMW photo of a car supposedly demonstrating self-parking capabilities. Click image for a larger view.

BMW hasn’t said yet when this feature might be available to actual car-buyers. Some suggest that it might be available on BMW 7-series cars in 2016, but that is only speculation.

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Time to Go on a Diet?

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx wants you to go on a diet–a road diet. “A typical road diet takes a segment of four-lane undivided roadway and reconfigures it into three lanes with two through lanes and a center two-way left turn lane,” he says.

The theory behind a road diet is simple. From now on, order all of your clothes at least one full size too small for you. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to fit into those clothes.

Foxx argues that road diets can make roads safer and don’t reduce travel times despite a lower capacity. But do they really do that, or do they just force the traffic to go somewhere else, like the excess flesh that hangs out of someone’s too-tight clothes?

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Amtrak’s Questionable Numbers

Last week, Portland’s city auditor discovered that the city had been overstating streetcar ridership by 19 percent. It turns out that the Portland Streetcar isn’t the only government-sponsored transportation enterprise that has problems with simple arithmetic.

The January issue of Trains magazine reports that Amtrak has been overcounting its riders for years (the story, “Ridership down, revenue up,” isn’t available on line). It had to reduce its F.Y. 2014 ridership numbers by 705,000 because it actually started counting the number of people who ride its trains using “uncollectible multi-ride tickets” rather than just estimating them. That’s only about 2.3 percent of total 2014 ridership, but it meant that it had to show a decline from 2013 instead of the expected increase. (This is also noted in a footnote on page A-3.5 of Amtrak’s September, 2014, performance report.)

This 2.3 percent isn’t as drastic an overcount as 19 percent, but it spurred me to look at Amtrak’s historic numbers. When counting the number of trips people take on Amtrak each year, the railroad’s business has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990. But when measured in passenger miles, the growth has been less than 10 percent. This means that the average length per trip has declined from 273 miles in 1990 (and a peak of 286 miles in 1993) to just 215 miles in 2014.

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Liberals and Libertarians

Brutality on the part of overly militarized police forces. Too many people in prison due mainly to a war on victimless crimes. Routine torture. The national surveillance state. A president who believes he can remotely kill anyone he wants without trial or due process.

Assett forfeiture. States and cities that routinely take away people’s property rights without compensation or take people’s property with compensation to give to private developers on the pretext that, because the new owners will pay more taxes than existing owners, it is in the public interest.

These are a few of my least-favorite things about America today. This list heavily overlaps eleven reasons why liberal Dave Lindorff is ashamed to be an American. On most of these issues (except, perhaps, regulatory takings), liberals and libertarians are in full agreement.

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A Streetcar Named Liar

Everything you’ve heard from the city of Portland about its streetcar lines is a lie. That seems to be the conclusion of the latest review of the operation by the city of Portland’s own city auditor.

Portland Streetcar, the private organization contracted to run the streetcar for the city, claims to have met the city’s on-time goals. The audit finds that it hasn’t. Portland Streetcar claims to have increased ridership by 500,000 riders in fiscal year 2014. The audit finds that that Portland Streetcar overstated ridership by 19 percent and actually ridership was 1.1 million trips less than claimed.

The auditor is also unimpressed by claims that the streetcar has generated billions of dollars worth of economic development. “Based on studies [Portland Bureau of Transportation] provided to us,” says the audit, “we conclude this research has yet to describe a causal relationship of how streetcars may affect economic development.” In other words, it’s just another fabrication.

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The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Falling Gas Prices

A left-coast writer named Mark Morford thinks that gas prices falling to $2 a gallon would be the worst thing to happen to America. After all, he says, the wrong people would profit: oil companies (why would oil companies profit from lower gas prices?), auto makers, and internet retailers like Amazon that offer free shipping.

If falling gas prices are the worst for America, then the best, Morford goes on to say, would be to raise gas taxes by $6 a gallon and dedicate all of the revenue to boondoggles “alternative energy and transport, environmental protections, our busted educational system, our multi-trillion debt.” After all, government has proven itself so capable of finding the most cost-effective solutions to any problem in the past, and there’s no better way to reduce the debt than to tax the economy to death.

Morford is right in line with progressives like Naomi Klein, who thinks climate change is a grand opportunity to make war on capitalism. Despite doubts cast by other leftists, Klein insists that “responding to climate change could be the catalyst for a positive social and economic transformation”–by which she means government control of transportation, housing, and just about everything else.

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High-Speed Rail from Dallas to Ft. Worth?

In the hierarchy of dumb projects, building a high-speed rail line to connect two cities that are just 32 miles a part would rank very high. Yet the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration are proposing just that: a line from Dallas to Ft. Worth. They are currently asking for comments on the scope of the environmental impact statement, due next Monday, December 15.

Not surprisingly, the biggest beneficiary of this project, so far, is Parsons Brinckerhoff, which seems to have its fingers in every ridiculous rail project in the country. One of the company’s employees is acting as “communications manager” for the project and delivering PowerPoint presentations about it to the public.

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Portland Housing: Density at Any Cost?

Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, recently released its 2014 Urban Growth Report, which projects that the region will gain 300,000 to 500,000 new residents between 2010 and 2035. The report suggests that it may not be necessary to expand the region’s urban-growth boundary to house those new residents because people are willing to live in smaller homes on smaller lots.

That’s an extremely distorted view of the future, says Gerard Mildner, an associate professor of real estate finance at Portland State University’s Center for Real Estate. In a paper titled, Density at Any Cost (which was also published in the Center for Real Estate’s quarterly report), Mildner argues that Metro’s report “distorts economic data and will lead the region to make decisions that will harm economic growth.”

Not only will Metro’s vision make single-family housing more expensive, says Mildner, it will increase the cost of rental housing. Contrary to claims that more people want to live in smaller quarters, achieving Metro’s goals will require “multi-billion dollar unfunded mandates on local government to subsidize housing and transportation projects.” Nor will Metro’s plans be good for the environment, since they will just lead a lot of people to move “from our region to places in the southeast and southwest United States where carbon emissions will be higher” because those places require more air conditioning and use more fossil fuels to generate electricity.

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