Category Archives: Urban areas

Still Unreliable After All These Months

When Denver’s new airport rail line experienced severe glitches shortly after it opened, including malfunctioning crossing gates and a lightning strike that shut down the entire line for seven hours, among other problems, transit officials assured the public that they were just getting the bugs out of the system. But now, more than six months after it opened, the bugs are still thriving.

The crossing gate problem is so severe that the Federal Transit Administration has threatened to shut down the line until it is corrected. The contractor that built and operates the line tried to claim the lightning strike was an act of God, so the contractor shouldn’t be held responsible, but Regional Transit District officials responded that they had pointed out the company’s design was vulnerable to lightning as early as 2013, yet the company did nothing to fix the flaw. Meanwhile, the system continues to perform unreliably.

Now RTD has been forced to admit that two other lines being built by the same company won’t open on time. RTD claims that it saved money by entering into a public-private partnership for the line in what is known as a “design-build-operate” contract. In fact, it saved no money at all, but was merely getting around a bond limit the voters had imposed on the agency. If the private contractor borrows a billion dollars or so and RTD agrees to pay the contractor enough to repay the loan, the debt doesn’t appear on RTD’s books. Taxpayers will still end up paying interest in the loans, which actually makes it more expensive than if RTD had stayed within its debt limit.

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Portland: Still the Model for Unaffordability

The Census Bureau estimates that the city of Portland is growing by more than 10,000 people a year while the Portland urban area is growing by more than 40,000 people a year, or more than 100 people a day. Despite, or more likely because of, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on growth planning, the region is doing a very poor job of producing the housing those people need to live in.

Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, brags that not only is the region following most of the advice recently offered by the White House for making housing more affordable, it actually pioneered several of the techniques. Yet according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Portland-area housing prices are currently growing at 13 percent per year.

Metro has an article describing some recent housing developments that inadvertently reveals just why housing is getting so expensive. Continue reading

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El Paso Falls for Streetcar Scam

El Paso is spending $90 million building a 4.8-mile streetcar line. For that price, they could have built close to 9 miles of four-lane freeway. The streetcar will connect the University of Texas El Paso with downtown, which suggests that they don’t expect many students to go downtown. If they did, they would have provided a bus service, which would have been faster and could move more people per hour.

In the course of paying for the streetcar, the city paid $3.2 million to an email phishing scammer. Two payments intended for the construction company were “misdirected” to another account. The city discovered the scam in early October and tried to cover it up but held a press conference about it yesterday.

The Antiplanner applauds the city for admitting it fell victim to a phishing scam. Now I’m waiting for the city to admit that it fell victim to the streetcar scam. That will be harder. Washington DC, for example, is home to one of the most embarrassing streetcar failures in the country, yet it is already planning another line. El Paso is more likely to argue that the phishing scam it fell for will promote economic development than admit that the streetcar it is building is also a scam.

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This Is Why They Call It “Lie Rail”

When the Antiplanner spoke in Norfolk two years ago, my opening line was “They should call it lie rail because everything about light rail is a lie.” The proponents of building light rail in Virginia Beach have certainly proven that to be true.

Above is an advertisement for the ballot measure. In addition to saying, “Reduce Traffic Congestion,” which it won’t do, it says, “Connect the Oceanfront, ODU [Old Dominion University], Airport & Naval Base.” Yet the ballot measure proposes to increase local property taxes to build a three-mile, $300 million light-rail line that won’t go to any of those places. They say they have long-term plans to build extensions to those places, but they also say that don’t plan to come back and ask for more tax increases.

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Don’t Ride the Tide-tanic

The Wall Street Journal suggests that a light-rail line that is on next week’s ballot in Virginia Beach would end up being “empty trains to nowhere.” That’s based on the fact that the existing Norfolk light-rail line that this one would connect with is one of the emptiest in the country with the highest subsidy per rider. The only problem with the Journal‘s article is that it doesn’t acknowledge the much larger light-rail boondoggles on the ballot in Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities.

As it happens, the Antiplanner is flying to Virginia Beach today to participate in an open forum about the light-rail proposal. The forum will take place Wednesday evening. If you are in the Hampton Roads area, I hope to see you there. In the meantime, due to the length of the flight, I may not have a chance to post here tomorrow.

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Portland, Thy Name Is Density

Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is following the White House’s advice by proposing to increase the densities of nearly two-thirds of the city’s single-family neighborhoods. Under the proposal, duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units would be allowed in single-family areas.

The plan also proposes to limit the size of a home to about half the square footage of the lot it is on, while at the same time allowing buildings to cover a larger area of the lot. That’s supposedly to prevent McMansions, but it also just happens to encourage people to build two separate homes on one lot (one of which would be called an “accessory” unit).

Portland’s current mayor, Charlie Hales, is a strong advocate of densification–so long as it isn’t in his backyard. When the city proposed to increase densities in Eastmoreland, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods on the city’s east side, residents strongly protested. Hales, who just happens to live there, backed them up. Judging from the map on page 14 of the proposal, neither Eastmoreland nor the wealthy Tualatin Hills neighborhoods are among those that would be rezoned. Continue reading

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Densification the Hammer; Cities the Nail

With 560 murders this year and counting, Chicago has become known as the murder capital of the nation. Some take issue with this, noting that Chicago’s murder rate per 100,000 people is much lower than many other cities including Baltimore, New Orleans, and Newark. Yet the moniker has stuck, leading many to ask why Chicago violence is so bad.

According to Atlantic‘s CityLab and Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, the answer is urban sprawl. Both say there is a strong correlation between declining city populations and rising crime.

Of “the six U.S. cities that have earned the dubious distinction of official ‘murder capital'” over the past 30 years, says CityLab, four have had declining populations. The Metropolitan Planning Council points to a study that found, “almost all of the crime-related population decline is attributable to increased outmigration rather than a decrease in arrivals.” The solution, both CityLab and the MPO argue, is to promote gentrification and immigration.

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Your Government at Work

The city of Portland, which likes to call itself “the city that works,” subsidized the renovation of a 50-unit downtown apartment building. The apartments will now be made available to people who earn less than $15,400 a year.

“In Portland, we strongly believe that downtown should be a place where people of all incomes can live,” said city commissioner Dan Saltzman. One problem with that philosophy, as Willamette Week‘s Nigel Jaquiss points out, is that the city spent $514 per square foot renovating those apartments. For a lot less money, it could have built twice as many brand new apartments elsewhere in the city.

In many ways, Portland is the model for nearly all of the policies advocated in the White House policy paper described here yesterday: minimum-density zoning, streamlined permitting for developers who want to build high densities; all single-family neighborhoods put in zones allowing accessory dwellings; lots of neighborhoods zoned for high-densities and multifamily housing; tax-increment financing and property tax abatements to subsidize density; and elimination of off-street parking requirements (which is the only policy discussed in detail by a Washington Post article about the White House paper). Yet, despite doing all of the things that the White House recommends to make housing affordable, Portland politicians claim that the city is suffering from a terrible housing crisis. Of course, most of the ideas proposed to solve the crisis, such as rent control and inclusionary zoning, will just make it worse.

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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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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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