Lobbying for streetcars has become a “rare growth spot in an otherwise difficult business environment,” reports Politico. At least thirteen different lobbying firms are trying to help cities get federal money for building clunky, obsolete rail systems.
The article repeats the usual drivel about how streetcars revitalize neighborhoods and lead to billions of dollars of economic development. Since there’s absolutely no evidence of that outside of Portland, and the only redevelopment along Portland streetcar lines was supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, all the Antiplanner can say is that a lot of cities are going to be surprised when nothing happens where they build streetcars unless they sneak in their own subsidies to developers.
Imagine how proud the streetcar lobbyists will be as city after city clogs up its streets with slow-moving vehicles that carry hardly any riders because they are slower than walking for most people and slower than bicycling for just about everyone. Yes, they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren, they are the ones responsible for saddling the cities with high taxes in order to pay to operate streetcars that cost twice as much to run as buses and to spend even more maintaining rail lines that were obsolete almost a hundred years before they were built.
“Wimps didn’t build California,” claims this pro-high-speed rail video. Instead, California was built by “people with grit”: people like Walt Disney, who hated subsidies so much that he paid extra to have Disneyland get its electrical power from a private company rather than the public power company that served Anaheim.
If you have trouble viewing this video here, see it on Youtube.
“People said the Golden Gate Bridge was impossible,” the video says. It turned out to be possible because it was paid for entirely out of user fees, unlike high-speed rail whose costs would come mainly from people who would never use it.
The Antiplanner has been asked to talk about “Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan: 2011-2040,” prepared by the Utah Department of Transportation, Utah Transit Authority, and metropolitan planning organizations for Logan, Orem, Salt Lake-Ogden, and St. George. While that’s an impressive title and seemingly an impressive line-up of planning organizations, this is not a plan at all. Instead, it is just a wish-list of projects that the agencies would like taxpayers to fund.
Rational planners are supposed to set goals, identify a broad range of alternative ways of meeting those goals, estimate the benefits and costs of each alternative, use that information to develop an alternative that provides the most cost-effective approach, and then monitor to make sure the plan is really working as expected. This so-called unified plan, however, has no alternatives, no estimates of benefits, no cost-effectiveness analysis, no monitoring of past plans, and no evidence that any of this sort of information was used in coming up with the list of projects that dominates the document.
On top of that, trying to write a unified plan for all state transportation facilities, regional transit systems, and metropolitan areas makes the task all the more difficult. Of course, each agency that contributed to this unified plan has written its own plan and this wish-list is merely a summation of those plans. But I strongly suspect the plans written by the agencies are just as bad.
Mother Jones frets that moving “poor people to the suburbs is bad for the environment.” After all, it’s pretty meaningless if all these millennials moving to desirable inner-city neighborhoods to live low-impact lifestyles are merely forcing poor people to move to the suburbs where they will have to waste energy by driving a lot and heating their large homes.
The solution, the magazine suggests, is eliminating urban zoning that limit heights and densities. “Why are all the buildings [in Washington DC] merely six or 10 stories tall? Why not 40, when the prices indicate that the demand is there?” After all, polls of poor people show that “They would rather live in the projects than in a shelter.”
How generous of Mother Jones to wish that all poor people could live in the projects! But did anyone ask the poor if they would rather live in three-bedroom, single-family homes than in the project? The Antiplanner is all in favor of ridding the cities of zoning, but zoning also must be eliminated from suburban and rural areas. That way people can choose how they want to live based on the real costs, not on the artificially inflated costs found in places like Washington DC.
Today is the 175th anniversary of the birth of James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway and one of the great entrepreneurs of the late 19th century. As a railfan, the Antiplanner likes Hill because the Great Northern has always been my favorite railroad. It is only a coincidence that Hill’s politics were pretty similar to mine.
Hill in 1915.
Wikipedia describes Hill as a Bourbon Democrat, meaning a classical liberal who supported free trade and opposed government subsidies and legislative efforts to protect corporations from competition. As I detail in an article that should soon be published by the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, Hill also believed that the federal government should stay out of conservation issues as it would likely do more harm than good.
Robert Lang, a professor of urban affairs at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, thinks Las Vegas needs a low-capacity rail line (aka light rail). As the director of something called the Lincy Institute, Lang’s job is to “draw state and federal money to the greater Las Vegas” area, and low-capacity rail is one way to do that.
An ACE Gold bus-rapid transit vehicle in Las Vegas. With fancy vehicles like these, why does Vegas need low-capacity rail? Click this Flickr photo by HerrVebah for a larger view.
Of course, that’s not the way he puts it. He claims low-capacity rail has “transformed urban development patterns in the West” by changing “housing development from water-consuming single family homes to multifamily, mixed-use projects.” I guess he thinks people in multifamily, mixed-use projects don’t drink as much water as people in single-family homes. It’s also pretty clear he hasn’t read research by the Antiplanner and faithful Antiplanner allies such as John Charles showing that low-capacity rail attracts no new development unless it is accompanied by large subsidies to developers.
The Antiplanner wishes everyone an enjoyable holiday.
It would be nice to live in a free country where the government doesn’t spy on its own citizens, lie about it, and then try to prosecute the person who caught them in the lie.
It would be nice to live in a responsible country where people tried to find the best solutions to problems rather than use those problems as a way of promoting their preconceived agendas.
It would be nice to live in a tolerant country where mobility, homeownership, private property rights, and wealth creation were celebrated rather than demonized.
We don’t live quite in that country, but I encourage everyone to use Independence Day to resolve to make our country that way. Best wishes for the rest of the year.
The Antiplanner comments on another ridiculous streetcar plan, this one for Oklahoma City. Minneapolis reporter Marlys Harris responds, however, that streetcars “are adorable. Who wouldn’t want to ride a one-car choo-choo rather than a big, smelly bus?”
Harris is supposed to be an “an investigative reporter and editor with specialties in consumer protection and finance.” Perhaps someone should introduce her to the reality of government finance, which is that the more wasteful a project is, the more people who benefit from that waste will lobby to promote it. It might not hurt to let her know that streetcars don’t now and never did go “choo choo.”
The Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is one of those transit agencies that depends on annual appropriations for its operations, maintenance, and improvements. The agency bitterly complains that it doesn’t have a “dedicated fund” meaning a tax on something else that it can count on whether it serves its customers or not. It tried to get permission to have the state impose a toll on Interstate 80 and give SEPTA the money, but the federal government rejected the idea.
SEPTA high-capacity rail lines. Flickr photo by Joseph A.
In 2011, fares covered less than 29 percent of SEPTA’s costs, including both operating and capital costs. Local governments provided only 7 percent, the feds 20 percent (mostly capital funds), leaving the state to cover 42 percent of the agency’s budget. Without more money, says SEPTA, it will have to cut service.
Here is the second of my statements of principles for the New Year.
1. The Property-Rights Principle: Government should not regulate land uses except to prevent trespasses or nuisances.
People should be allowed to use their land in any way they see fit provided their use does not harm others (such as through air, water, or noise pollution) or violate contracts they have voluntarily agreed to. Any regulation beyond this “for the greater good” puts someone’s subjective notion of social values above individual rights.
Even if it could be proven that such regulations would benefit society more than they would harm individual property owners, government should not have this power because it invites abuse. If the social benefits are truly greater than the individual costs, then society should be willing to compensate the property owners.