When urban planners talk about infill, they make it sound so benign. “We’ve identified some vacant lands, and we’ll direct growth there instead of sprawling at the urban fringe.”
Portland builders often demolish one home and replace it with four “skinny houses” like this one.
In reality, infill can mean a complete transformation of neighborhoods, one house at a time. Hundreds of homes are being demolished each year to be replaced with either larger houses (such as this one that is four times the size of the house it replaced) or multifamily housing. Either way can be way out of character for the neighborhood.
This is happening in wealthy neighborhoods as well as working-class neighborhoods. The Antiplanner doubts that this is what people thought they were signing up for when they agreed to give a regional planning agency authority over their zoning codes. Residents of other regions need to beware of local officials offering the bring them the wondrous benefits of Portland-style planning.
Once declared dead, the $3 billion Columbia River Cross may yet be built. Despite the Washington legislature’s decision not to fund its share of the
boondoggle project, Oregon’s governor is twisting arms and holding a special session of the state legislature today to gain approval (and $450 million in state funds) for the bridge.
Some of the twisting appears to have been done in the Washington, DC office of the Coast Guard, which granted the bridge a permit despite the fact that it will interfere with navigation. The DC office apparently did an end run around the Coast Guard’s Seattle regional office, which had opposed the permit. Oregon has agreed to pay $90 million in compensation to three shipping companies whose operations will be affected by the bridge.
The Columbia River Crossing is a plan to build a new Interstate-5 bridge across the Columbia. The new bridge would have more and wider lanes than the existing one and would also have room for light rail. Some bridge opponents object to the added road capacity; others object to the light rail. All the opponents agree that a replacement bridge isn’t necessary as the existing bridge is in sound condition.
“Houston Housing Hits Hurdle,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The rapid growth of fastest-growing metropolitan area in America–gaining more than 120,000 people per year in the last decade–is fueled by cheap housing, but prices rose 12 percent last year.
Housing in the Woodlands, the Houston area’s oldest and largest master-planned community. Developers usually dedicate at least 20 percent of the land in such communities to parks and open space.
What’s made rapid growth possible is the growth of master-planned communities in which developers assemble thousands of acres, install streets, water, and sewer lines, and then sell individual lots to homebuilders and homebuyers. One the infrastructure is installed, a homebuyer can purchase a lot, get construction permits, have the house built, and move in within 120 days of closing on the land.
Developers eventually pay for the infrastructure by creating “municipal utility districts” or MUDs that then charge an annual fee to the homebuyers for 30 years–something like a property tax. This is a better way of financing infrastructure than through impact fees or other up-front costs, because such fees then get added to the general cost of all housing in a region. MUDs can be found throughout Texas, but about 40 percent of them are in the Houston area. In the short run, though, MUDs can only work if developers can find the funds needed to initially install the infrastructure.
The once-dead Columbia River Crossing, a $3.5-billion project to build a $1.0 billion bridge across the river between Portland and Vancouver, may be alive again. After the Washington legislature rejected the idea that Washington state taxpayers should contribute $400 million to the plan, Portland bridge supporters have come up with an idea: Just build the bridge, but nothing north of the bridge in Washington.
The plan basically called for a $1.2 billion bridge, a $1.0 billion low-capacity rail line, and $1.5 billion replacing all highway interchanges for miles north and south of the bridge. Although the new bridge would have more lanes than the current bridge, the highways leading to it from both directions would have no more lanes, so the total capacity would not be significantly increased.
The existing bridge is not in any danger of falling down, but Portland wants to cram low-capacity rail down Vancouver’s throat, and replacing the bridge is an excuse for doing so. To keep the plan alive, advocates suggest deleting all of the highway interchange reconstruction in Washington. If Washington decides to reconstruct those interchanges later, it can come up with the funds later. Of course, the plan still includes low-capacity rail.
Washington Metro trains catch fire. The trains are supposed to be run by computers, but since a June, 2009 crash the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) hasn’t trusted the computers, so it has human drivers who aren’t any more trustworthy.
With numerous elevators and escalators out of service and frequent train breakdowns, WMATA is subject to increasingly harsh criticism from even its usual friends at the Washington Post. Even WMATA’s high-paid general manager admits the agency is only half done with the repairs it has scheduled (which are probably less than it needs).
So what does the agency have its employees do? How about spend a day ripping out all of the flowers that a self-styled Phantom Planter put in at the Dupont Circle subway station? Because it would be horrible if non-agency approved flowers bloomed in red, white, and blue, as the planter expected would happen next month.
The Washington legislature refused to fund the state’s share of a proposed bridge across the Columbia River, proving that at least a few Pacific Northwest politicians still have an ounce of common sense. That doesn’t include the Oregon legislature, which had agreed to put up more than $400 million for the project.
As a result of the Washington legislature’s decision, the Columbia River Crossing office is closing its doors after having spent something like $200 million on a stupid plan for a new bridge that wasn’t going to be tall enough for existing river traffic and whose main goal was to send a low-capacity rail transit line from Portland to Vancouver, Washington.
The two bridges that the new bridge was supposed to replace don’t really need replacement. While one was built in 1913 (and the other in 1958). the older of the two could probably have been replaced for about half a billion dollars if it were really necessary. But the proposed new bridge and associated projects were projected to cost $3.4 billion.
Last Friday, Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) opened the West line, its latest low-capacity rail (formerly known as light-rail) line. Officials gave opening speeches claiming that they built the West line “within the adopted budget” and, at the end of the day, sent a memo to RTD’s board bragging that the new line carried 35,000 passengers on the opening day, well above the projected 20,000 per weekday.
Of course, the reason they carried so many people is that the line was free on the first two days. But RTD officials can hardly open their mouths without some lie coming out.
Start with the claim that they built it under budget. As the Antiplanner pointed out in an op ed in yesterday’s Denver Post, when RTD decided to build the rail line in 1997, it projected a cost of $250 million ($350 million in today’s money). As of 2009, the “adopted budget” was for $710 million, more than twice projected. The actual cost ended up being $707 million, allowing RTD to say it was under the budgeted $710 million but still more than twice the projected cost.
One of the intriguing things about rail transit is how much more the CEOs of rail transit agencies get paid than those of bus-only agencies. Yet that high pay comes with a high risk of failure and disgrace, as it is much more difficult to build and run rail lines than to simply manage bus service.
Case in point: Dan Grabauskas, CEO of Honolulu’s “rapid transit authority” and the highest-paid city official in Honolulu. What did Grabauskas do to merit this position?
It turns out that his main qualification is having helped run the Boston rail system into its present deteriorated condition. In 2009, Grabauskas resigned from that position in disgrace. Some claim he was forced out by a Democratic governor for the sin of being appointed by the previous Republican governor, yet there is no doubt that Boston’s rail lines were in terrible shape, with frequent delays, at least two recent crashes (including one blamed on rusty signal wires that killed a train operator), and miserable customer service.
Thanks to the industriousness of Portland’s creative class of young, well-educated people, Oregon now has the third-highest food stamp rate of any state in the country. As shown in the chart below, Oregon was disgustingly below average in the 1990s, but shot up in 2001, the year the Portland streetcar opened, and has been in the top three since about 2009. Today, it is behind only Louisiana and Mississippi (and, it might be noted, DC), states well known for their hard work and creativity.
It wasn’t easy for Oregon to achieve the status of being number three. Back in the 1990s, most Oregonians on food stamps were rural residents put out of work by the decline in federal land timber sales. But that can only go so far, as there aren’t that many sawmills left that remain to be put out of business. So the creative class got to work, making Oregon one of the first states to distribute food stamps in the form of an debit card so there would be no stigma put on those using it. In fact, the card is called the “Oregon Trail” card, thus identifying food-stamp recipients with the brave pioneers who first settled Oregon 170 years ago.
Neil McFarlane, the general manager of Portland’s TriMet transit agency, stunned Portland-area residents recently when he warned that the agency would have to cut service by 70 percent unless unions agreed to reduced benefits in upcoming contract negotiations. When he did so, he piously noted that TriMet’s non-union managers have had a pay freeze for four years.
Turns out that pay freeze was more imaginary than real. In the last year alone, TriMet gave its managers pay increases totaling nearly $1 million. McFarlane alone received a 3 percent raise, which–considering his previous pay was $215,000 a year–means a $6,450 boost to his income.
TriMet’s financial woes are hardly new. Last year, TriMet made the largest service cuts in its history and also decided to start charging fares in what was formerly the downtown Fareless Square. Most of the streetcar line had been in Fareless Square, and as a result actual streetcar fare collections averaged less than 4 cents per reported ride.