Category Archives: Planning Disasters

Governor’s “Advisor” Actually Paid Lobbiest

Before being shut down, the Columbia River Crossing–a consortium of eight government agencies–spent $170 million. The lion’s share of that went to one consulting firm, David Evans and Associates, which was supposed to write the draft and final environmental impact statements for the bridge.

In fact, it turns out that Evans hired a lobbyist to convince the Oregon state legislature to appropriate well over $400 million to built the bridge. But the lobbyist, Patricia McCaig, never registered as a lobbyist or revealed her source of income. Instead, she claimed to be a “special advisor” to the governor.

Although McCaig’s true job was made public by Willamette Week last February, no one in the state government did anything about this likely violation of Oregon’s lobbying law until after the legislature adjourned. Now, the Oregon State Ethics Commission says it is investigating McCaig for possibly violation of eight different laws. It seems likely that Evans also hired someone to lobby the Washington state legislature, which narrowly defeated a bill providing funds to the project.

The dark nature of the consulting world–where government agencies overpay consultants to do various analyses and then the consultants promote the projects–always seemed apparent. But this is the first case in the Northwest at least where a consultant was caught redhanded covertly spending money lobbying for an expensive project. This is just one more reason why government should avoid doing megaprojects like the Columbia River Crossing, which involved a bridge, a light-rail line, reconstruction of numerous highway intersections, and other work.

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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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Suburbs Burn as Swedes Reject TODs

Reports of riots in Stockholm suburbs probably brings to American minds images of single-family homes and SUVs burning. Though Stockholm has plenty of American-style suburbs, the riots were not in those areas.

Instead, they were in high-density housing projects that Sweden built in an effort to promote transit ridership, which planners today would call “transit-oriented developments.” Most Swedes, however, refused to live in these projects, so they became home to Sweden’s second-class citizenry, namely immigrant and often Muslim workers.

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The Continuing Saga of the American-Made Streetcar

Portland Streetcar, the non-profit organization that operates streetcars in Portland, is demanding that the city cough up $145,000 to fix its brand-new, American-made streetcar. Let’s take a look at the history of this car.

First, the city used its own money to buy streetcars from the Czech Republic for an average of $1.9 million apiece. Each streetcar has just 30 seats, but the cost per vehicle is about six times greater than a 40-seat bus. But that wasn’t expensive enough.

The most recent expansion of Portland’s streetcar system was funded by the federal government, which has a buy-America requirement. So Oregon’s congressional delegation and lobbyists persuaded the Federal Transit Administration to give Oregon Iron Works $4 million to build a prototype streetcar. The company used plans purchased from the Czech manufacturer of Portland’s streetcars to effectively produce a replica of those cars.

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Planning Is Destroying Britain

The Economist reviews housing prices in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, and what do you know, it finds that high housing prices are due to urban planning. “The biggest constraint on development in London is the Green Belt,” says the magazine that calls itself a newspaper. “Tt runs (with perforations) all around London, to a depth of up to 50 miles, and bans almost all building on half a million hectares of land around the city.”

Ah, but Britain has 62 million people in an area slightly smaller than the state of Oregon (94,000 vs. 98,000 square miles), so those greenbelts are needed to preserve farms, forests, and open space, right? Not really.

As a BBC writer points out, urban areas cover just 6.8 percent of the United Kingdom (10.6 percent of England, 1.3 percent of Scotland, 3.6 percent of Northern Ireland, and 4.1 percent of Wales). Moreover, much of the land inside those urban areas is open space, so less than 2.3 percent of England, and even smaller proportions of the rest of the kingdom, have been “paved over.”

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Crony Infrastructuralism

Last night, the Antiplanner dreamed that Apple, the company with the highest market capitalization in the world, was spending some of its $97 billion in cash on roads, bridges, and other local infrastructure. A crazy idea, I know, but then, in the dream, some politician says, “What a great idea! Let’s create some TIF and special assessment districts so other corporations can help our infrastructure too.”

Somewhere between dreamland and waking up, I tried to explain why this was a bad idea. Suppose a town has two business districts, I said, and one is doing poorly compared to the other, possibly because it is older. Shops, restaurants, and other tenants turn over frequently, vacancy rates are high, and the shops that do exist tend to be downscale, including thrift stores and antique malls. The other district, perhaps because it is newer, is doing much better.

Suppose the city creates a special-assessment district around the older area and uses the funds to update the infrastructure. Unfortunately, the assessments, i.e., taxes, paid by the property owners in the district force them to raise rents, which causes even more turnover. The other district will probably complain and demand its own infrastructure improvements, which the wealthier property owners will more easily afford and thus give that district an even greater advantage over its rival.

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Another Bad Idea

Someone named Marc Fasteau urges the United States to adopt an industrial policy. Because, after all, it worked so well in Japan (two lost decades of nearly zero economic growth), China (rapid growth but rampant corruption), and Germany (which has fined one of its biggest manufacturers more than $1.5 billion for bribing local officials to sell its products).

Fasteau’s column is accompanied by the above mindbogglingly complex (and almost unreadable) chart showing how five federal departments or agencies would work with banks and corporations to create a US Tech Strategy Board that would engage in a “technology based planning system.” This system would be sure to bring the rapid pace of technological advancement in computing, biotech, and other fields to a near standstill. The board would no doubt endorse high-speed rail, minicomputers, composting toilets, and other “modern” technologies.

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World Boondoggle Center

The World Trade Center that was destroyed almost ten years ago was a frequently photographed symbol of New York City, but it was also a huge boondoggle of the New York & New Jersey Port Authority that was heavily subsidized by motorists paying bridge tolls. So of course, it is completely appropriate that the building that will replace it will be an even bigger boondoggle, costing $3.3 billion. As New York Times columnist Joe Nocera says, this is “an example of just about everything wrong with modern government.”

Still under construction.
Flickr photo by Sergey Shpakovsky.

This price tag will make it “by far, the most expensive office building ever constructed in America,” yet it “will add 2.6 million square feet of office space in a city that doesn’t need it.” At the time the original, 13.4 million-square-foot World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11/01, Manhattan already had more than enough vacant office space to make up for it. At the most recent report I can find, downtown Manhattan alone currently has more than 10 million square feet of vacant space.

The building will be just one part of “a staggering $11 billion worth of government-sponsored construction,” says Nocera, including a subway station that is already $1 billion over budget. How fitting that we celebrate the attack that led to the most expensive war we’ve ever fought with the most expensive war memorial ever built. Of course, somewhere with 72 virgins, Osama Bin Laden is laughing away, because what better way to defeat the Americans than to get them to spend themselves into oblivion.

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Arithmetic-Challenged Favor High-Speed Rail

On Monday, the Washington Post published a devastating critique of high-speed rail written by journalist Robert Samuelson. In fewer than 800 words, Samuelson blows up just about all the arguments put forth in favor of rail. An 8-word summary: costs are too high and benefits too low.

One person who remains unconvinced is the popular innumerate, Matthew Yglesias. Normally I would not personalize an issue by calling attention to someone’s disability, in this case Yglesias’ inability to deal with simple arithmetic. But by describing me as a “car-subsidy shill,” Yglesias shows he is math challenged.

Apparently, if you believe, as I do, that all modes of transportation should be paid for by users, and not by tax subsidies, then you, too, are a “car-subsidy shill.” Here is a simple lesson in arithmetic: if users pay for all of something, then subsidies are zero. That makes me a “zero-subsidy shill.”

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The Climate Trust Scam

A couple of years ago, the Antiplanner described a Portland program of accepting carbon-offset funds to do traffic signal coordination. While I support signal coordination, the claimed benefits seemed outlandish. When I found out that the money came from an organization called Climate Trust that was co-founded by the director of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development, I smelled “scam.”

I didn’t pursue it any further, but it turns out I was right. According to this 2009 report from the Cascade Policy Institute, the Portland-based Climate Trust has been legally extorting money from energy companies for more than a decade and then failing to spend that money on activities that truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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