Category Archives: Urban areas

Milwaukee Streetcar Debate Continues

Supporters of a Milwaukee streetcar boondoggle are chiding a city alderman for expressing the fear that streetcar passengers could be vulnerable to crime. Apparently, opponents of progressive ideas like streetcars aren’t supposed to use real facts when making the case against those ideas.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports crime by transit mode. When those numbers are compared with passenger miles by transit mode, it turns out that light-rail riders are far more likely to be victims of crime than bus riders. Light-rail riders are three times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted, twice as likely to suffer aggravated assault, and five times as likely to be robbed as bus riders. Yet anyone who points this out is apparently “fear mongering.” Streetcars aren’t exactly the same as light rail, but they share one feature that buses don’t have: the driver is often in a separate compartment from the passengers, so can’t do as good a job monitoring passenger behavior.

On the other hand, the Wisconsin Reporter reveals the “incestuous relationships” among streetcar supporters, all connected together by a PR firm called Meuller Communications. All this really points out is that streetcars involve lots of money and lots of people want to get in on the action. Contrary to some, the Koch Brothers don’t stand to make a dime if streetcar lines are not built, but many other people and companies stand to make millions if they are built. For this reason alone, Milwaukeeans should be wary of any claims made for streetcars.

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Keeping Austin Weird

With Austin’s light-rail ballot measure going down in flames last November due to its high costs, rail transit advocates have conceded defeat, folded up their tents, and gone home. Ha, ha, just kidding; actually, now they are talking about subways.

Although someone prepared this map of an Austin subway system more as a joke than anything else, it has been used in news reports about proposals to build subways in the Texas capital.

“What do most major popular cities that continue to grow and be vibrant have in common?” asks Tom Meredith, former CEO of Dell Computer, which is headquartered in Austin. His answer? “Subways.”

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Smoke on the Water

“On behalf of the Board of Directors and all Metro employees, I offer my deepest condolences to the family of the passenger who died yesterday following the incident on the Yellow Line,” said chairman Tom Downs of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority yesterday. “Please know that once the cause of this incident is understood, we are prepared to take the actions needed to prevent this from happening again.”

But WMATA isn’t prepared to prevent this from happening again, and that’s the problem. We know it isn’t prepared because it has had this problem before and didn’t solve it then.

“Smoke poured into Metro subway tunnels again last night,” reported the Washington Post back in 2007. At the time, officials claimed the source of the smoke was “baffling,” but the article provided some clues to the answer. The problem seemed to lay with smoldering fiberglass insulators, which “can last for years if they are in dry areas but only several months if in wet areas.”

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Sloganeering Won’t Make Transit a Success

Last week, officials of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) celebrated their successes over the past year. Their theme was that the state of MARTA was “good to great.” MARTA CEO Keith Parker expressed MARTA’s policies with the acronym SEAT: “Service, Economy, Arts, and Technology.”


A MARTA heavy-rail train. Wikimedia Commons photo by RTABus.

The truth is that MARTA is something of a paradox. On one hand, it has built a reasonably efficient 52-mile-long rail system: fares cover 40 percent of operating costs, which is much higher than the transit industry’s overall 25 percent; railcars carry an average of 26 passengers, which is more than Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington’s heavy-rail systems; and they consume less than 2,000 BTUs of energy per passenger mile, which is second only to New York City subways in terms of energy efficiency.

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Cost Overrun; Revenue Shortfall

To almost no one’s surprise, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) has announced that the rail project it is building will cost at least 10 to 15 percent more than estimated, while the revenues from the general excise tax that is supposed to pay for the project are, so far, $41 million less than expected.

A 10 to 15 percent cost overrun isn’t large as rail projects go, but this is an expensive, $5.2-billion project to start with, so 10 to 15 percent is $500 million to $780 million. HART officials blame the cost increase partly on the lawsuits that, unfortunately, failed to stop this waste of money, but even they say that the delays only increased costs by $190 million. Since the project isn’t even supposed to be completed until 2019, there is plenty of time for overruns to mount up to be far greater than projected today.

Rather than make the sensible move and simply cancel the project, the city is debating how to pay for the overruns. One idea is to divert to rail $200 million in federal money that is now being spent on Honolulu buses. Another idea is to extend the excise tax, which was supposed to expire in 2022, for a much longer period of time. Either way, they would take money that would have been spent on something productive and devote it to a complete boondoggle.

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In the Spirit of the Season

Supporters of Portland’s authoritarian planning have responded to Portland State University professor Gerard Mildner’s critique of that planning in the spirit of the Christmas season. They welcomed his report, “Density at Any Cost, with open arms, agreeing to have a free and open discussion of the issues.

Just kidding. Instead, they responded like little children, calling Mildner names. “UGB denier.” “Libertarian activist.” “An outlier, unrepresentative of most of our relevant experts.” And that’s just what his fellow academics at Portland State University called him.

Mildner in fact agreed that his views were unrepresentative of others at PSU’s urban planning school. “Hiring in the School of Urban Studies and Planning self-selects for people sympathetic with Oregon’s urban planning system,” he suggests, so it’s clear his views aren’t going to align with others in that school. An economist himself, Mildner works at PSU’s Center for Real Estate, which has one foot in the urban planning school and one foot in the business school–and the Antiplanner suspects Mildner’s views have more support at the latter.

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A Streetcar Named Liar

Everything you’ve heard from the city of Portland about its streetcar lines is a lie. That seems to be the conclusion of the latest review of the operation by the city of Portland’s own city auditor.

Portland Streetcar, the private organization contracted to run the streetcar for the city, claims to have met the city’s on-time goals. The audit finds that it hasn’t. Portland Streetcar claims to have increased ridership by 500,000 riders in fiscal year 2014. The audit finds that that Portland Streetcar overstated ridership by 19 percent and actually ridership was 1.1 million trips less than claimed.

The auditor is also unimpressed by claims that the streetcar has generated billions of dollars worth of economic development. “Based on studies [Portland Bureau of Transportation] provided to us,” says the audit, “we conclude this research has yet to describe a causal relationship of how streetcars may affect economic development.” In other words, it’s just another fabrication.

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Portland Housing: Density at Any Cost?

Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, recently released its 2014 Urban Growth Report, which projects that the region will gain 300,000 to 500,000 new residents between 2010 and 2035. The report suggests that it may not be necessary to expand the region’s urban-growth boundary to house those new residents because people are willing to live in smaller homes on smaller lots.

That’s an extremely distorted view of the future, says Gerard Mildner, an associate professor of real estate finance at Portland State University’s Center for Real Estate. In a paper titled, Density at Any Cost (which was also published in the Center for Real Estate’s quarterly report), Mildner argues that Metro’s report “distorts economic data and will lead the region to make decisions that will harm economic growth.”

Not only will Metro’s vision make single-family housing more expensive, says Mildner, it will increase the cost of rental housing. Contrary to claims that more people want to live in smaller quarters, achieving Metro’s goals will require “multi-billion dollar unfunded mandates on local government to subsidize housing and transportation projects.” Nor will Metro’s plans be good for the environment, since they will just lead a lot of people to move “from our region to places in the southeast and southwest United States where carbon emissions will be higher” because those places require more air conditioning and use more fossil fuels to generate electricity.

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Oregon Office of Economic Ignorance

The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis recently published a four-part economic assessment of the “Portland housing bubble.” Written by an economist named Josh Lehner, the assessment looks at a lot of data but misses the elephant in the room, which is how land-use regulation has affected Portland housing.

Housing prices have risen to pre-financial-crisis levels, says Lehner, and Portland’s rental market has an inordinately low vacancy rate. New construction of both single- and multi-family homes is mostly at the high end. Lehner looks at these facts with alarm, but it never occurs to him that there is a simple remedy: end all of the land-use restrictions.

Land-use regulation not only makes housing more expensive, it makes housing prices more volatile, that is, more prone to bubbles. This is because, when supply is limited, a small increase in demand translates to a large increase in price rather than an increase in supply. Conversely, a small decrease in demand translates into a large decrease in price.

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