Category Archives: Transportation

Skeptical about Streetcars? You’re a Racist!

Count on someone at the Washington Post to play the race card in the postmortems over the Arlington streetcar. “Lower-income, racially diverse South Arlington has been counting on the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects to deliver a jolt of growth,” says Post columnist Robert McCartney. The county board’s decision to kill the streetcar will therefore “deepen” the “class and racial divisions” that afflict the county.

Yet the people who were against throwing close to $600 million down a couple of ratholes ($358 million for the Columbia Pike streetcar and $227 million for a Crystal City streetcar) aren’t racists. They were just unlike McCartney in their ability to see through the rhetoric and lies used to promote these boondoggles.

Compared with buses, streetcars are inferior in every way but one: they are slower, have fewer seats, add more to congestion, and when one breaks down they all have to come to a stop. The only thing that streetcars excel in is spending other peoples’ money. After seeing the county blow through nearly $1 million on a bus shelter that didn’t even shelter bus riders from the elements, voters were fed up with spending what was supposedly other peoples’ money.

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The So-Called Cost of Free Employee Parking

A new report from two pro-transit groups, the Frontier Group and the Transit Center, argues that allowing employers to deduct parking costs from their income when calculating their profits (and, thereby, their taxes) represents a $7 billion subsidy to driving. This subsidy, the report claims, adds significantly to highway congestion.

Baloney. First of all, just like providing office space to office workers and factory space to factory workers, providing parking is a cost of doing business. No one would argue that employers should charge their employees rent for the office or factory space they use. Why should employers charge for parking space?

Second, even if this were a subsidy, it has nothing to do with traffic congestion. The report claims that ending the tax break would reduce auto commuting by 2 percent. That’s probably high: just ending the tax break wouldn’t necessarily cause all employers to begin to charge for parking. But even if the number is accurate, the authors clearly don’t understand how congestion works.

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Columbia Pike Streetcar Cancelled

The county board for Arlington County, Virginia, has voted four-to-one to cancel all planning for a proposed $358 million, 7.7-mile streetcar line along Columbia Pike. This should also effectively shut down planning for a Crystal City streetcar that was projected to cost $227 million.

The decision came on the heels of board member John Vilstadt’s re-election with 56 percent of the vote. Despite being an incumbent, Vilstadt was running at a disadvantage as an independent in a strongly Democratic district. Streetcar supported had hoped that Vilstadt’s election in a special vote last spring was “a fluke.” Yet, by making the streetcar the centerpiece of his campaign, he was able to prevail against a strong Democratic challenger.

Local political experts predicted predicted that Vilstadt’s decisive victory would kill the momentum behind the streetcar. “There is no way” that board members who are up for re-election next year can win “if they’re running as pro-streetcar candidates,” said Ben Tribbett. Tribbett’s prediction has come true. At least three of the other Arlington board members could read the election returns and agreed with the board chair that “the only way to move forward together … is to discontinue the streetcar project.”

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Doubts About Self-Driving Cars

A new poll finds that nearly two out of three auto owners think self-driving cars are a dangerous idea. Slate writer Lee Gomes argues that self-driving cars may never happen. Both are wrong.

The pollsters don’t argue that self-driving cars actually are dangerous; only that “automakers will have to work to win over car shoppers who think some of the technology makes vehicles more dangerous.” But they really won’t; they just have to make the technology available to early adopters, and as those pioneers prove it to work, more people will want it.

Gomes’ argument is that Google’s self-driving car critically depends on accurate maps, and such maps are expensive and time-consuming to make. Moreover, Gomes adds, keeping the maps up to date with daily changes in routes, traffic signals, speed limits, and other factors will be nearly impossible.

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Too Many Goals

Last week, the director of the Civil Rights Division for Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD), Kenneth Hardin, was indicted for having allegedly “corruptly solicited and accepted money from a person intending to be influenced and rewarded in connection with RTD business.” While no further details were provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver, it is reasonable to speculate that Hardin is being accused of accepting a bribe to give a minority preference to a potential contractor that wasn’t really minority owned.

Federal regulations require transit agencies that receive federal funding “To ensure nondiscrimination in the award and administration of DOT-assisted contracts.” The best way to “ensure nondiscrimination,” the regulations go on to say, is to set aside a specific percentage of contracts for “disadvantaged business enterprises.” By definition, a “disadvantaged business” is one that is at least 51 percent owned by minorities, women, or other “individuals who are both socially and economically disadvantaged.”

In other words, and something that will not surprise anyone familiar with American civil rights laws, the rules require that agencies ensure nondiscrimination through discrimination. In RTD’s case, the agency is committed to making sure that at least 15 percent of its contracts go to disadvantaged businesses, and Hardin’s job was making sure that happened.

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Linking Users and Producers

After last week’s election, the Antiplanner failed to note that Seattle voted strongly against another monorail boondoggle. More than 80 percent of Seattle voters agreed this would be a waste of money.

At the same time, nearly 60 percent of Seattle voters agreed to increase subsidies to bus service by raising sales taxes and imposing a $60 a year fee on auto owners. According to census data, 21 percent of Seattle commuters take transit to work. It seems surprising that many if not most of the people who drive to work would be willing to tax themselves to support transit, especially since what they are really doing is supporting light rail, to which the Puget Sound Regional Council allocates all the big bucks while bus transit gets cut.

Texas voters agreed to dedicate half of oil & gas severance taxes to road construction and maintenance. This is expected to generate about $1.7 billion a year.

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Bike Path: $85 Million Per Mile

Apparently, the Netherlands has run out of rooftops, as it is currently installing solar panels in bike paths. The cost for a pilot project is 3 million euros (about $3.7 million) for 70 meters (230 feet) of bike path. That’s equal to $85 million per mile.

The article doesn’t say, but the Antiplanner estimates from the photos that the path is four meters wide. That means it is costing more than $13,200 per square meter or about $1,225 per square foot.

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Transportation Views

A couple of the Antiplanner’s faithful allies have presented recent research that is worth noting. First, Alan Pisarski, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on commuting trends, takes a look at highway use and the induced demand myth.

His first conclusion is that the recent halt in the growth of driving is due to the economy. Inflation-adjusted per capita incomes today are still below what they were in 2007, so it is natural to expect that driving would be lower. In 2013, however, auto purchases grew and he anticipates that miles of driving will soon start growing at least in pace with the population.

Second, Pisarski points out that new highways may result in more driving, but this is a positive benefit, not an argument for not building more roads. Highway “expansion improves and expands choice for both previous and new users,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if transportation did not impede people from acting on their economic and social interests?”

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Why Do Transit Commuters Take Longer to Get to Work Than Drivers?

Nationwide, the average worker spends 24.7 minutes, each way, traveling to and from work. People who drive alone spend 24.4 minutes; people who carpool spend 28.0 minutes; people who walk take 11.9 minutes; and people who take transit take 48.7 minutes.

In other words, people who take transit spend almost exactly twice as much time en route as people who drive alone. Why? The simple answer is that transit is slower. But this flies in the face of the idea that people have a travel-time budget that limits the total amount of time they are willing to spend traveling each day (or week).

Is the travel-time budget idea wrong? Or do people who take transit have different travel-time budgets than people who drive? Or is the travel-time budget different if, when you are traveling, you can relax and read your iPad or do something else entertaining than if you have to face the work and stresses of driving?

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Voters Reject Taxes

Light rail lost in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida by 62 to 38 percent. Light rail in Austin is going down by 58 to 42 percent. A transit tax in Polk County, Florida, is also losing.

Not all transportation taxes are losing. Voters in Alameda County (Oakland), California, approved a sales tax that will provide some money for roads but will mostly go to transit and bike/pedestrian paths. Clayton County, Georgia approved a sales tax to bring Atlanta transit into the county. But Maryland voters agreed to protect gas taxes and other highway funds from being diverted to other uses, while Wichita voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have funded a variety of things including transit.

The big news for transportation activists, however, was the strong rejection of light-rail ballot measures in Austin and Pinellas County. Opponents in Austin were better funded than those in Pinellas County, and even some rail supporters joined the opposition in Austin saying that the proposed route wasn’t the best place for a light-rail line. Opponents in Pinellas, meanwhile, had to overcome strong support from most local media and borderline-illegal campaigning in favor of rail by the transit agency and other government agencies. So it was a surprise to see that Pinellas voters rejected rail by an even larger margin than those in Austin.

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