The Wonderful World of TIF

City officials regard tax-increment financing as free money, when actually they are stealing it from other taxing entities. Nowhere is this more visible than with a special kind of tax-increment financing involving sales taxes. In Missouri, Colorado, and other states, private shopping malls and other retail districts can effectively assess their own sales tax, just like a government agency, and keep the money. Their patrons end up paying the tax but probably don’t realize it because taxes aren’t included in advertised prices.

Under Missouri law, a community improvement district can assess its own sales tax with the approval of all voters in the district. If there are no voters residing in the district, then a majority of property owners get to decide whether to assess the sales tax. Since other people will pay the sales tax while the property owners get the benefit, it’s an easy question.

The inequity of this system was made clear when a group of property owners in Columbia, Missouri defined their district in a way that, they thought, excluded all voters. As it turned out, there was one voter, and when she examined the proposal, she realized that it “just didn’t seem to be as good as they were saying to me at first.” As a result, the district may not hold the election, at least until it can figure out a way to gerrymander the sole voter out of the district (or perhaps bribe her into supporting their scheme).

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Metro Admits Light Rail Is Slow

Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, is proposing a “faster transit line to Gresham.” Gresham happens to be the terminus for Portland’s first light-rail line, which opened 29 years ago. But the “faster-transit” line will use buses, not rail.

Before the Gresham light-rail line opened, Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, operated express buses between downtown Portland and Hollywood, Gateway, Gresham, and other neighborhoods along the rail corridor. All of these were cancelled when the light-rail opened, even though the busses were faster than the trains. This is one reason why Portland transit ridership plummeted during the 1980s.

In proposing a faster-transit line to Gresham, is Metro tacitly admitting that light rail was a mistake? Only indirectly. The bus routes is is proposing won’t be express buses but bus-rapid transit, and as such probably will be a little slower than the light rail, at least between downtown Portland and Gresham. They’ll just be faster than the existing conventional bus service.

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A Businessman for President?

Donald Trump leads in the polls with 23 percent of Iowa Republicans, while Rand Paul, the most libertarian candidate of the bunch, scores a measly 4 percent. Perhaps the “libertarian moment” is already over.

The Antiplanner won’t comment on many of the things candidate Trump has said, other than they are often ridiculous. But one thing said about Trump is that he would make a better president because he is a businessman, not a professional politician. People apparently imagine that Trump’s business experience would make him a better guardian of taxpayer dollars.

In fact, there’s no reason to expect that. People who think business people would make good political leaders are confusing business with economics. Economists ask, “are the benefits greater than the costs?” and “who benefits and who pays?” Business people don’t ask these questions; they only ask, “can we generate revenues greater than costs?”

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Why Transit Systems Are in Such Bad Shape

“Why are our transit systems faltering just as more people than ever want to use them?” asks Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association, which has advocated urban planning in the New York metropolitan area since 1922. His answer is that it has to do with “with the way our government institutions are structured.” He is right in general but wrong on the particulars.


New York City subway and elevated train fares cover more than 60 percent of operating costs, but no maintenance costs. Wikipedia commons photo by AEMoreira.

Transit, at least in the New York metropolitan area, did just fine, he says, until the 1950s, when “the federal government started building the interstate highway system, offering big subsidies to states to connect to it.” When that happened, “mass-transit operators struggled to compete with these roads and started going bankrupt.” They were unwillingly taken over by the government, which “merged the workings of mass transit and toll roads to provide cross subsidies.”

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Enfantasize Silicon Valley

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which some consider the nation’s worst-managed transit agency, has a new program called Envision Silicon Valley. Despite the grandiose title, the not-so-hidden agenda is to impose a sales tax for transit.


A nearly-empty VTA light-rail car in Sunnyvale.

Any vision of Silicon Valley that starts out with transit is the wrong one. Except to the taxpayers who have to pay for it and the motorists and pedestrians who have to dodge light-rail cars, transit is practically irrelevant in San Jose.

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A Matter of Perspective

It looks like 2015 will be another record year for driving in America. Of course, that’s not saying much as the total amount of driving has been pretty flat since 2007.

DrivingvTransit70-14

Transit advocates will be quick to point out that transit ridership has grown faster than driving. But actually, it depends entirely on which years you pick. Preliminary information suggests that urban driving grew faster than transit in 2014. Since 2004, transit grew faster than driving in about half the years, and overall transit ridership grew by 12 percent while miles of urban driving grew by only 6 percent.

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Be Careful What You Wish For

Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, funds its hundreds of planners out of garbage fees, which is why Portland has the highest garbage collection costs in the Pacific Northwest. But Metro also encourages people to recycle in order to reduce their garbage refuse.

As a result, Portland garbage has declined enough to threaten Metro’s budget. Metro’s response, naturally, is to tax recyclables, which would probably lead some people to stop recycling.

Since transit is partly funded out of gas taxes, if most people actually stopped driving and started riding transit (which they show no inclination of doing in Portland or elsewhere), Metro would probably start taxing transit riders. And many places use inclusionary zoning or other housing taxes to pay for affordable housing for low-income families, so if builders stopped building high-end housing and started building exclusively for low-income families, Metro would start taxing the poor to pay for their housing. It seems likely that Metro hasn’t really thought this through.

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Oil Wars

Shortly after the Antiplanner commented on low oil prices last April, the Saudis admitted that their goal in flooding the market with oil was to drive out high-cost producers such as owners of shale-oil and off-shore wells. Now it appears that this policy has backfired on the Saudis, as their economy is hurting from the low oil prices while the shale industry continues to produce oil.

The problem for the Saudis, says one analyst, is that low prices might hurt high-cost producers, but the shale frackers “are mostly mid-cost.” thanks partly to new technologies. This means that, once they’ve made the initial investment in drilling and fracking, they can continue to extract oil, covering their operating costs even when prices are low and won’t be put out of business by a temporary surge in production in the Mideast.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government has seen its revenues decline by more than 30 percent. This has led Standard & Poors to downgrade Saudi credit ratings, saying that the country’s economy is “undiversified and vulnerable to a steep and sustained decline in oil prices.”

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Austin-San Antonio Rail Insanity

Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).


Click image to download a PDF version of this map.

By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.

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Portland Attracts the Creative Class by Increasing Congestion and Demolishing Neighborhoods

Joseph Rose, the Oregonian reporter who proved that streetcars are slower than walking, has left the paper’s transportation beat. So it took another Oregonian reporter, Andrew Theen, to make the brilliant discover that Portland highways really are at or above capacity.

Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who lives in the Portland area. According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s latest urban mobility report, Portland has more congestion today (measured by hours of delay per auto commuter) than Los Angeles did 30 years ago, when LA was considered to be about the worst congested city in the world.

It’s no wonder, since Portland and Oregon have added virtually no new road capacity since the 1970s, when the region’s population was about half what it is today. Although officials complained to Theen that new capacity was too expensive, the region hasn’t hesitated to spend roughly $5 billion on light-rail lines that carry an insignificant share of the region’s traffic.

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