Author Archives: The Antiplanner

About The Antiplanner

The Antiplanner is an economist with forty years of experience critiquing public land, urban, transportation, and other government plans.

U.S. Land Worth More Than $23 Trillion

A new study from the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that America’s land, exclusive of buildings or other improvements, was worth nearly $23 trillion in 2009. It has undoubtedly increased since then. The analysis, which was summarized in a Wall Street Journal blog post yesterday, presents estimates by state (for the lower 48 states only) broken into three categories: federal, developed, and agricultural.

Nationwide, the three categories add up to about 76 percent, leaving 24 percent in an implied “other” category. However, in a few states, the three categories add up to more than 100 percent, suggesting that developed federal lands are counted both in the developed and the federal categories. There may also be some overlap between federal and ag land.

Most of the important data are found in table 3, which the Antiplanner transferred to a spreadsheet for a more detailed review. The table shows that, nationally, ag land is estimated to be worth an average of about $2,000 an acre. However, it is worth much more–$5,000 to $16,500 an acre–in a few smaller eastern states including Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The higher values in these states probably reflect the competition for that land by exurbanites.

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A Source of Humiliation

Japan has test-run a mag-lev train at faster than 600 kilometers per hour, a fact that is ” further humiliating the US rail industry,” says Business Insider. As an American, I feel totally humiliated by this test.

After all, after spending more than $100 billion (about $350 million per mile) on infrastructure that will require millions of dollars of precision maintenance each year, Japan will have a Tokyo-Osaka train whose normal top speed of 500 kph will be barely 60 percent as fast as the cruising speed of a Boeing 737-600 and less than 55 percent as fast as the cruising speed of a Boeing 787. Compared with mag-lev, those airplanes require hardly any infrastructure: a few acres of approximately smooth runways, a few air terminals, and air traffic control.

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Because We Don’t Want Them

Why can’t America have great trains?” asks East Coast writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in the National Journal. The simple answer is, “Because we don’t want them.” The slightly longer answer is, “because the fastest trains are slower than flying; the most frequent trains are less convenient than driving; and trains are almost always more expensive than either flying or driving.”

Van Zuylen-Wood’s article contains familiar pro-passenger-train hype: praise for European and Asian trains; selective statistics about Amtrak ridership; and a search for villains in the federal government who are trying to kill the trains. The other side of the story is quite different.

For example, he notes that Amtrak “ridership has increased by roughly 50 percent in the past 15 years.” But he fails to note that the biggest driver of Amtrak ridership is gasoline prices, which 15 years ago were at an all-time low (after adjusting for inflation). Now that prices are falling, so is Amtrak’s ridership.

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Rail Transit and Reauthorization

The Cato Institute will publish a new report tomorrow looking at the inequities of federal transit funding. Antiplanner readers can download a preview copy today; many of the results in the paper have previously been reported here.

The Antiplanner has argued for years that federal transit funding was inefficient because it encouraged transit agencies to choose high-cost alternatives in any transit corridor. The new paper shows the results of this inefficiency: transit agencies that have persuaded local politicians to go along with these high-cost alternatives have ended up with as much as eight times more federal transit dollars per transit rider than agencies that settled for low-cost alternatives.

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The Future of Oil

Bloomberg argues that “supply alone is [not] behind the plunge in crude prices to $50 a barrel.” Instead, demand for motor fuel has slacked off due to lack of growth in driving combined with more fuel-efficient cars and more competitive electric cars.

The electric cars argument is specious, as too few of them have been sold to have much of an impact. The lack of growth in driving has already begun to turn around. Bloomberg itself demolishes the argument that supply isn’t the major factor with its very next story, which reports that Saudi Arabia greatly stepped up oil production in March, partly to meet the country’s “growing domestic requirements” and partly, no doubt, to hurt American or possibly Russian producers.

There is no doubt that cars are becoming more fuel efficient, but that is offset by the huge increase in cars sold in China, where auto sales have exceeded those in the United States since 2009. Besides, gasoline only accounts for about 19 gallons of product from a 42-gallon barrel of oil. Some of the rest goes to Diesel fuel, but most goes into other products for which demand is not likely to decline.

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Oregon’s Next Bad Idea

Oregon’s House of Representatives passed a bill to legalize inclusionary zoning. In memory of Bart Simpson, this should be called the “I Didn’t Do It Act,” as the reason for Oregon’s low housing affordability compared with most other states is the legislature’s continuing support for land-use regulation and urban-growth boundaries.

Inclusionary zoning requires home builders to dedicate a fixed share–usually around 15 to 20 percent–of the housing units they build to low- and moderate-income buyers or renters. Research by economists from San Jose State University has conclusively proven that inclusionary zoning laws actually make housing less affordable. This is because builders respond by building fewer homes and by charging more for the non-subsidized units to pay for the ones that they are required to subsidize.

Inclusionary zoning is legal in California, where housing is far less affordable than in Oregon. But inclusionary zoning is not really about making housing affordable; it is more about assuaging liberal consciences for adopting policies that make housing less affordable. If they can force greedy homebuilders to supply a handful of homes for less than market value to needy people, then they don’t have to feel so bad about everything they did that mucked up the housing market.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is flying to Dallas today to participate in a Cato event tomorrow. My topic will be “Maintaining the Texas Miracle,” a subject I previously covered in Austin (clicking on the link downloads an 8-mb PowerPoint show).

On Friday, I’ll give essentially the same presentation in Houston. In both cities, I seem to be a warm-up act for other speakers, including the Danish journalist, Flemming Rose.

If you are in either Dallas or Houston, I hope to see you there. Naturally, in my off-hours I’ll be exploring both cities in search of Neapolitan pizza. I expect to find some in Dallas tonight and some in Houston Friday night, but my air travel between the two cities Thursday will force a late-night pizza that day. If you have any suggested pizzerias, don’t hesitate to let me know.

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“Little Boxes” Was About Skinny Houses

In 1962, folksinger and Quaker activist Malvina Reynolds wrote Little Boxes, the theme song of the anti-sprawl movement. Popularized by Pete Seeger in 1963, the song is popularly supposed to be a protest against suburban homes and is often associated with Levittown.


Aerial view of homes in Westlake.

In fact, the Levittowns in New York and Pennsylvania were planned and built years before Reynolds wrote her song, and it is quite likely that Reynolds, a Californian, never saw them. Instead, according to her’ daughter, “My mother and father were driving south from San Francisco through Daly City when my mom got the idea for the song. She asked my dad to take the wheel, and she wrote it on the way to the gathering in La Honda where she was going to sing for the Friends Committee.” Pressed to define exactly where she was when she was inspired, Reynolds said it was in the Westlake District.

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Doomed to Repeat It

Hampton Roads Transit, which serves Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Newport News, is having a difficult time. Ridership for the first seven months of fiscal 2015 (which began in July) is down 9 percent from 2013, and 2013 ridership wasn’t so hot in the first place. Financial records show that the revenue per rider, at 98 cents per trip, is 8 cents more than the agency’s target, but the cost per rider, at $5.41 per trip, is 73 cents less than targeted, so fares are only covering 18 percent of operating costs.


Click on the image to go to the page where you can download the draft environmental impact statement–comments due May 5.

What to do in this situation? For any transit agency, the solution is obvious: build more light rail. The region’s one light-rail line opened 16 months late and cost 60 percent more than projected. It was supposed to carry 10,400 riders per weekday in its opening year; it actually carried less than 4,400. While it was up to 5,500 in 2013, the 23 percent drop in light-rail ridership so far in 2015 suggests that the average this year will be even less than in the opening year.

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Turning Portland into San Francisco

Portland is “going to look like San Francisco in 10 years,” predicts real estate broker Douglas MacLeod. That’s because people like him are buying homes, demolishing them, and replacing them with two, three, or four skinny houses–houses as narrow as 15 feet in width but (unlike row houses) with around ten feet of space between them.

This continuing process has enough Portlanders upset that the city council recently voted to require developers to notify nearby homeowners at least 35 days before they begin demolition of a home, not that the homeowners will be able to do much about it. It has also led the Oregonian to commission these interactive graphics showing where homes have been replaced and how fast they are being demolished.

Of course, few are willing to discuss the real answer, which is to abolish or at least greatly enlarge Portland’s urban-growth boundary. The 2010 census found that Oregon is 98.8 percent rural, and more than 80 percent of its residents are confined to the remaining 1.2 percent that is urbanized.

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