Category Archives: Transportation

His Share of the Take

The CEO of Valley Metro, Steve Banta, “went golfing on workdays, took 50 days off that did not count as vacation time, flew first class and failed to provide documentation for his expense reports,” says the Arizona Republic. Banta and his wife spent $26,000 of taxpayer money flying 56 times between Portland and Phoenix for “relocation-related trips.” A city auditor found $272,449 in “unallowable or questionable” expenses.

After the Republic revealed these excessive expenses, Banta, who previously worked for Portland’s TriMet, resigned. But then he changed his mind and, when Valley Metro’s board wouldn’t give him his job back, hesued Valley Metro for “wrongful termination and breach of contract,” asking for $1.65 million. The case was settled last week: without either side admitting any wrongdoing, Valley Metro will give him $125,000 severance pay.

Strangely, the Republic blames Banta’s behavior on Valley Metro, which “created a system that allowed him to” do these things. But that’s not really fair. On one hand, the public has a right to expect that any public official who is paid $265,000 a year will be honest in their use of taxpayer money. On the other hand, the real problem is that Valley Metro, like TriMet and so many other rail transit agencies, has become a giant scheme for transferring billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to the pockets of rail contractors, manufacturers, and operators. It is only natural that agency officials seeing all that money going out the door for truly trivial transportation benefits would want to get their fair share of the take.

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Driving Alone to Work without a Car

The share of American workers who live in households with no vehicles yet nonetheless drive alone to work grew from 20.4 percent in 2014 to 20.9 percent in 2015, according to the latest American Community Survey. This growth came at the expense of slight declines in carpooling, transit, work-at-homes, and “other” (taxi, bicycle, motorcycle), while walking to work increased slightly. No one knows for certain how people with no cars drive alone to work, but most probably use employer-supplied vehicles.

You can download 2015 commuting data by numbers of vehicles in the household for the nation, states, and counties, cities and other places, and urbanized areas. For comparison, 2014 data for the nation, states, and counties, cities, and urbanized areas are also available.

Only 4.5 percent of American workers live in households with no vehicles, a share that remained stable from 2014 to 2015. Nearly a third of them are in the New York urban area. Outside of the New York area, the only places with double-digit vehicle-less households tend to be in the Boston, San Francisco-Oakland, and Washington, DC urban areas.

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The Feds Regulate Self-Driving Cars

The Department of Transportation says that it plans to issue a series of rules for self-driving cars that will potentially preempt state laws and regulations. This comes after lobbying by Google, which was disappointed when a state law that Google had supported led the California Department of Transportation to issue rules that forbade the use of cars that didn’t allow human drivers to override. Since Google was planning cars that didn’t have steering wheels and other controls that drivers could use, the state rule conflicted with Google’s goals.

The Antiplanner has urged against federal regulation, fearing that the feds would be as likely to get it wrong as the states, whereas if the states were left to regulate, at least a few states would get it right and the others would emulate their examples. Federal regulation wouldn’t be bad if the rules were perfect, but how likely is that?

For a more detailed free-marketeer’s view of the Department of Txansportation’s proposal, see Marc Scribner’s analysis. Here, I want to focus on one thing: the debate over fully autonomous vs. semi-autonomous vehicles.

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2015 Commuting Data

The share of commuters driving alone to work grew from 80.0 percent in 2014 to 80.3 percent in 2015, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This increase came at the expense of carpoolers; the share of people taking transit, walking, and cycling remained the same.

The Census Bureau posted 2015 data early this month, giving data junkies lots of information to play with. The bureau has conducted the American Community Survey every year since 2005 based on surveys sent out to about 3.5 million households each year. This makes it far more reliable than a typical poll, which usually surveys only a few hundred people. However, the data should still be used with caution for small categories, such as the number of Latinos living in households with no cars who walk to work in Buffalo, New York.

To save you time, the Antiplanner has downloaded journey-to-work data, table B08301, for the nation, states, and counties, urbanized areas, and cities and other places. For comparison, I’ve also posted the same raw data for 2014: nation, states, and counties, urbanized areas, and cities and other places.

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Is Mobility a Right or a Privilege?

Michael Lind, a co-founder of left-leaning New America, is urging the federal government to create universal mobility accounts that would give everyone an income tax credit, or, if they owe no taxes, a direct subsidy to cover the costs of driving. He argues that social mobility depends on personal mobility, and personal mobility depends on access to a car, so therefore everyone should have one.

This is an interesting departure from the usual progressive argument that cars are evil and we should help the poor by spending more on transit. Lind responds to this view saying that transit and transit-oriented developments “can help only at the margins.” He applauds programs that help low-income people acquire inexpensive, used automobiles, but–again–thinks they are not enough.

Lind is virtually arguing that automobile ownership is a human right that should be denied to no one because of poverty. While the Antiplanner agrees that auto ownership can do a lot more to help people out of poverty than more transit subsidies, claiming that cars are a human right goes a little to far.

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San Diego Boondoggle Funded

Thirty-five years ago, San Diego kicked off the light-rail fad when it opened the San Diego Trolley, the nation’s first modern light-rail line. The city paid $18.1 million for the right of way and $87.5 million to build 13.5 miles of rail line. Two years later, they double-tracked the line bringing the total cost, including right of way, to $137.35 million, or just slightly more than $10 million a mile. In today’s dollars, that would be $23 million a mile.

Now San Diego is planning a new light-rail line that will cost a mere $2.17 billion for 10.9 miles of line, or slightly less than $200 million a mile–and that’s only if there are no cost overruns. That’s more than eight times the cost per mile of the first line. Ridership is likely to be no greater and probably less than the first line. Despite the high cost, the Federal Transit Administration has agreed to fund half the cost.

What is it about transit planners that they see nothing wrong with this kind of cost escalation? Transit advocates claim that transportation spending has multiplier effects that generate net benefits for the economy. But considerable academic research suggests that the government multiple is negative (or, depending on your formula, less than one), meaning every dollar of government spending translates to less than a dollar of additional gross national product (or national wealth). The truth about the multiplier effect probably depends on what the government spends its money on, but billions spent on low-capacity rail lines almost certainly have negative multipliers.

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Asking the Right Questions About Infrastructure

“The American economy is a growth Ponzi scheme where we try to . . . generate a short-term illusion of wealth by having our cities, neighborhoods and families take on enormous long term liabilities,” says Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn in an interesting article about the so-called infrastructure crisis. What he calls the “Infrastructure Cult” leads the nation to go deeply into debt building more and more infrastructure without ever asking “why do these investments not generate enough productivity — enough real return — to be sustained?”

Marohn and the Antiplanner have had our differences in the past. Marohn thinks the suburbs are dead. He thinks most urban arterials, which he derisively calls “stroads,” should be designed downwards in ways that will vastly reduce mobility.

When addressing an issue such as infrastructure, it is important to ask the right questions. So far as I’ve quoted above, Marohn has done so. However, I fear he will miss one important question, which is: How should we measure whether particular infrastructure investments generate enough productivity to be worthwhile?

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Amtrak’s Gold-Plated Trains

Amtrak’s plan to use most of the $2.45 billion “loan” it received from the Department of Transportation to buy new high-speed trains for the Northeast Corridor has come under fire from, of all people, a high-speed rail advocate named Alon Levy. The new trains will cost about $9 million per car, which Levy points out is nearly twice as much as France is paying for Eurostar train cars. The reason for the high cost is that the new trains can go more than 200 mph and tilt on curves more than any previous trains.

Levy is a transportation writer who takes a highly mathematical approach to reviewing proposals and who says he is for “good transit” but against boondoggles. He says the problem with the expensive new trains is that Amtrak tracks can’t support trains that are as fast as they can go, and in order to support such fast trains, they would have to reduce curvature so much that they wouldn’t need to tilt as much as the new trains. Levy argues that Amtrak should have spent less on the trains and more on the infrastructure needed to boost speeds. As another high-speed rail advocate put it, “They need to speed up the slow bits first, which isn’t something you do by blowing money on trains.”

Amtrak hopes that Democrats will sweep Congress this November and give it the $290 billion it wants to rebuild the Northeast Corridor to higher speeds. But, as Levy points out in other articles, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor plans are far more expensive than they need to be.

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DC Metro’s Accelerating Decline

Washington Metro Rail ridership in the second quarter of 2016 (the fourth quarter of Metro’s fiscal year) declined a whopping 11 percent. The drop in ridership started before major service disruptions in order to do track maintenance began in June: ridership in May, for example, was 9 percent lower on weekdays and 20 percent lower on weekends than in 2015.

Bus ridership for the quarter was 6 percent lower than in 2015. For all of F.Y. 2016, rail ridership was 7 percent lower and bus ridership 4 percent lower than in F.Y. 2015.

Metro officials offered several explanations for the decline, including lower gas prices, loss of public confidence in the system’s reliability and safety, and the early blooming of cherry blossoms that normally attracts many tourists. But ridership has declined in every year since 2012, suggesting that at least some of the decline is irreversible.

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Rail Transit’s Endless Hunger for Money

In 2008, Santa Clara County voters approved a sales tax increase to build a BART line to San Jose. But cost overruns have forced the county’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to go back to the voters for yet another tax increase. To make it more attractive, it says only a quarter of the tax increase will go to BART while the rest will be used for highways, bikeways, and some transit projects.

As described in the San Jose Mercury-News, the list of projects looks balanced: $1.5 billion for BART, $1.2 billion for street repairs, $1.85 billion for highways, $1.0 billion for CalTrains, $500 million for “transit for vulnerable and underserved populations,” and $250 million for pedestrian and bikeway improvements. A closer look at the measure, however, reveals that it is anything but balanced.

The $1.2 billion for “street repairs” is actually going to go for “complete streets” programs, which means taking away street capacity from cars and giving it to transit, bikes, and pedestrians. A significant chunk of the $1.85 billion for highways will actually go to constructing bus-rapid transit lanes, and some may even go for a new light-rail line. Motor vehicle users will be lucky to see any projects that actually relieve traffic congestion.

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