Category Archives: Follow up

Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in Washington, DC, today attending a conference on mileage-based user fees. When my plane landed in DC at 3:50 pm, I turned my cell phone on and got a voice mail that Lars Larson wanted to interview me on his radio show about yesterday’s transit numbers. We arranged to have the interview begin at 4:20.

That put me in a dilemma. I had a meeting in the city at 5:30 and wanted to drop my luggage off at my hotel in Roslyn. If I waited to the the radio show before leaving the airport, I’d be late for my meeting. So I hustled to take the subway to Arlington and hoped I’d arrive before 4:20, as cell service doesn’t extend underground.

Roslyn is five station stops from National Airport. As I’m thinking about the irony that I’m depending on public transit to get to an interview where I expect to be critical of public transit, our train pulls into the third stop, which is the Pentagon. People stand up to get off the train, but the doors don’t open. The crowd of people outside the train who want to get on grows, but the doors don’t open. I’m afraid I’m going to miss my interview, and the doors won’t open. Finally, the driver makes an incomprehensible announcement and the train leaves–and the doors never opened. I no longer felt that riding transit to criticize transit was so ironic.

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Spitefully Closed

The Antiplanner went for a hike yesterday on a national forest, and nobody tried to keep me out because the government was shut down. National parks, however, are closed to the public during the shutdown.


Flickr photo taken at Saguaro National Park on October 1 by 666ismoney.

Some might argue that national parks have more at stake that shouldn’t be left to the mercies of unsupervised tourists. That may be true in some cases, though not in others. Moreever, when I visit a Forest Service web site, it offers me access to all of the documents and information that were available before the shut down. But when I try to access a Park Service web site, I get a message saying, “Because of the federal government shutdown, all national parks are closed and National Park Service webpages are not operating.”

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Hyperloop’s Real Problem

Most reviews of Elon Musk‘s hyperloop plan focus on technical questions. Will it cost as little as he estimates? Could it move as fast as he projects? Could the system work at all?

None of these are the real problem with the hyperloop. The real problem is how an infrastructure-heavy, point-to-point system can possibly compete with personal vehicles that can go just about anywhere–the United States has more than 4 million miles of public roads–or with an airline system that requires very little infrastructure and can serve far more destinations than the hyperloop.

Musk promises the hyperloop will be fast. But fast is meaningless if it doesn’t go where you want to go. Musk estimates that people travel about 6 million trips a year between the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban areas, where he wants to build his first hyperloop line. But these urban areas are not points: they are huge, each covering thousands of square miles of land.

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Operation Flower Destruction

Washington Metro trains catch fire. The trains are supposed to be run by computers, but since a June, 2009 crash the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) hasn’t trusted the computers, so it has human drivers who aren’t any more trustworthy.

With numerous elevators and escalators out of service and frequent train breakdowns, WMATA is subject to increasingly harsh criticism from even its usual friends at the Washington Post. Even WMATA’s high-paid general manager admits the agency is only half done with the repairs it has scheduled (which are probably less than it needs).

So what does the agency have its employees do? How about spend a day ripping out all of the flowers that a self-styled Phantom Planter put in at the Dupont Circle subway station? Because it would be horrible if non-agency approved flowers bloomed in red, white, and blue, as the planter expected would happen next month.

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Debate Over Plan Bay Area

The Antiplanner’s presentation at last night’s debate over Plan Bay Area is now available in PowerPoint or PDF format. You can also download Tom Rubin’s presentation in PDF format.

The debate was one-sided in the sense that close to 90 percent of the audience opposed the plan. One little incident sticks in my mind. During the debate, one of the plan’s supporters admitted that it was hard to predict the future, but added, “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’”

I am a stickler for sourcing such attributed quotes, and that didn’t sound like something Lincoln would say. So I pulled out my iPhone and looked it up. Sure enough, it has been attributed to Lincoln–and to Peter Drucker, and to some other people. But it seems the person who actually first said it was computer programmer Alan Kay in 1971. I hope readers will understand what I mean when I say that knowing that Kay said it gives it a completely different meaning than if Lincoln had said it.

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What Infrastructure Deficit?

An economist named Ed Dolan who lives in Washington state opines that the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge reveals an “infrastructure deficit.” That’s certainly the prevailing wisdom. But consider this.

The bridge collapsed because one of its supporting beams 14.5 feet above the pavement was hit by an oversized truck that should not have been on the bridge. If that oversized truck had hit that beam in 1955, the year the bridge was built, it would have collapsed then. Instead, the bridge stood for 58 years before being hit by such a truck.

Show me any bridge and I can conceive of a truck big enough to bring it down. That doesn’t prove we have an infrastructure deficit; it only proves that every bridge has a limit to what it can carry. Height and weight limits are posted for most bridges; the driver of the truck crossing the Skagit River last week apparently neglected to read the signs.

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Comments on Tyranny Bay Area

“Implementation of Plan Bay Area will require the demolition of more than 169,000 single-family detached homes, or one out of every nine such homes in the region, according to table 2.3-2 of the draft environmental impact report. Any earthquake or other natural event that resulted in this much destruction would be counted as the greatest natural catastrophe in American history.”

The Antiplanner would like to think this is one of the better opening paragraphs that I have written in some time. My complete comments on Plan Bay Area are now available for download.

In reviewing my previous post on this subject, my friend MSetty made the good point that Plan Bay Area planners put that 169,000 home figure in terms of a change in demand. Although 56 percent of Bay Area households live in single-family detached homes today, by 2040 only 39 percent will want to, so say the planners.

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Chinatown Bus Crackdown Based on Bogus Report

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation dramatically shut down more than two dozen “Chinatown” bus companies for safety violations. At the time, the Antiplanner expressed skepticism, saying that if the same criteria were applied to transit agencies such as Washington Metro or Boston’s MBTA, they would be shut down too. But the DOT said it relied on a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study that found that “curbside” buses were seven times more dangerous than conventional intercity buses.

Fung Wah, the original Chinatown bus company, was not one of the ones shut down in last year’s federal raids. Wikipedia photo by Toytoy.

Now, some people are challenging this study, saying that its methods were so faulty it may as well have been completely fabricated. The NTSB has a reputation for sound quantitative analysis, but this study was first questioned by Aaron Brown, a Wall Street financial analyst, who accused the NTSB of “statistical malpractice” for improperly manipulating data and refusing to release its raw data. Based on what data were available, Brown estimated that curbside buses were actually safer than conventional ones.

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Can’t Afford to Pay Bus Drivers, But . . .

Neil McFarlane, the general manager of Portland’s TriMet transit agency, stunned Portland-area residents recently when he warned that the agency would have to cut service by 70 percent unless unions agreed to reduced benefits in upcoming contract negotiations. When he did so, he piously noted that TriMet’s non-union managers have had a pay freeze for four years.

Turns out that pay freeze was more imaginary than real. In the last year alone, TriMet gave its managers pay increases totaling nearly $1 million. McFarlane alone received a 3 percent raise, which–considering his previous pay was $215,000 a year–means a $6,450 boost to his income.

TriMet’s financial woes are hardly new. Last year, TriMet made the largest service cuts in its history and also decided to start charging fares in what was formerly the downtown Fareless Square. Most of the streetcar line had been in Fareless Square, and as a result actual streetcar fare collections averaged less than 4 cents per reported ride.

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The Tax Foundation Responds to the Antiplanner

Last Thursday, January 17, the Tax Foundation (TF) issued a paper arguing that only 32 percent of state and local highway costs were paid out of user fees, while the remaining costs came from “general funds.” In a post here, I pointed out that, actually, user fees for highways cover 76 percent of the costs of roads and most of the remaining 24 percent come from interest on user fees before they are spend and bond sales that will be repaid out of user fees.

TF replied, saying the Antiplanner “conflates taxes and fees.” In fact, TF specifically said that state gas taxes are user fees, but somehow defined federal gas taxes as “general funds.” I simply argued that, to be consistent, TF should count federal gas taxes as user fees as well.

TF went on to say, the Antiplanner “suggests we include federal gasoline tax collections in state-local revenue.” Again, TF said that federal gas tax collections are “general funds” and I disagreed with that statement. If state gas tax collections are user fees, then federal gas tax collections are too. They are certainly not general funds, any more than state gas taxes are general funds, since federal law dedicates them to transportation projects and mostly to highways.

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