Category Archives: Urban areas

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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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Federal Transit Administration has informed Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) that it will not help cover cost overruns associated with the agency’s 20-mile rail line. The project was originally supposed to cost about $5.1 billion, which was already ridiculously expensive, but now is projected to cost at least $8 billion and possibly as much as $11 billion.

The FTA has a long-standing policy that it won’t help cover cost overruns (a policy that is sometimes overturned by Congress). But in this case, the FTA has added a new twist. In light of the cost overruns, HART has proposed to build just part of the project, leaving uncompleted the five miles of the line that would have attracted the most riders. But the FTA says that, in that case, it won’t be giving HART $1.55 billion that the agency is counting on. That means HART won’t even be able to complete the part of the project that it planned.

HART says it is examining its alternatives and hopes to have a viable proposal before FTA by the end of the year. But it probably isn’t looking closely at the most reasonable alternative, which is to completely abandon the project. While it has already sunk several billion into it, abandoning it would save taxpayers billions more in construction costs not to mention an estimated $126 million a year in operating costs. Since the city of Honolulu spends less than $185 million per year operating about 100 bus routes, $125 million is a phenomenal amount of money to spend on just one rail route.

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Treating the Symptoms, Not the Problems

Portland-area politicians love to build things. In 2004, Multnomah County, the county in which Portland is located, built a new jail, called Wapato, at a cost of $58 million even though county officials knew they had no money to operate the jail. It has been empty ever since.

Now officials want to spend $60 to $100 million building a shelter for the homeless near terminal 1, a former port facility on the Willamette River. So someone came up with a bright idea: why not use Wapato Jail as a homeless shelter?

One argument against the idea is that most homeless people gravitate towards downtown. But terminal 1 isn’t downtown either. Another is that Wapato isn’t set up as a homeless shelter. But it would cost a lot less converting it to a homeless shelter than to build a brand-new one.

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A Mere $54 Billion for Light Rail

Seattle’s regional transit agency, Sound Transit, wants voters to approve a tax increase so it can spend another $54 billion on new light-rail lines. The agency’s first light-rail line went 86 percent over its original projections, but the agency assures the public that it has realized that voters are so innumerate that it no longer needs to low-ball the cost estimates in order to get tax increases approved.

To promote its plan, the agency has hired Peter “Paint Is Cheaper Than Rails” Rogoff to run the agency and get federal grants. Rogoff argued in 2010 that buses can attract as many riders as trains, and that “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.” Of course, he must believe that rail makes more sense than buses for Seattle, or he wouldn’t have taken this $298,000 per year job (a $118,000 increase over his previous job), right?

Seattle’s first light-rail line cost $3.1 billion in 1995 dollars, or $4.8 billion in today’s dollars for about 20 miles, for an average cost of $240 million a mile. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, out of nearly 1.6 million commuters, a respectable 160,000 took the bus to work in the Seattle urban area in 2014 but fewer than 3,000 took light rail while another 7,500 took commuter rail or streetcars to work. It’s possible that some survey respondents were confused and marked streetcar or commuter rail when they meant light rail, but it is still an insignificant number.

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Forward into the Past Via VIA

The San Antonio urban area has about 1.9 million people today and, if it keeps growing at recent rates, will add 1.6 million more by 2040. VIA, the region’s transit agency, gets most of its money from a one-half-cent sales tax, so by 2040 it will get about 80 percent more tax revenues.


Click image to download this 40-MB PDF.

The agency is hungry for more, however, so it has written a long-range plan called Vision 2040. Actually, to call this a plan is generous; it is actually more of a sales brochure, as it doesn’t consider any alternatives, any impacts of the proposal, or any real information about costs. Instead, it merely says that it wants increased taxes to provide bus-rapid transit on exclusive bus lanes and possibly light rail–in other words, transit infrastructure that might have been useful a few decades ago, but certainly won’t be useful a few decades from now.

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Don’t Blame Housing Affordability Problems on the Free Market

Miami is one of many places where housing prices have reached crisis levels, and the Miami Herald editorial board blames the problem on the free market. Only government intervention in the form of subsidized low-income housing will fix it, says an August 3 editorial.

Wrong. Government caused the problem in the first place. No matter what the cause, subsidized housing for a few low-income people will not solve it, except for those lucky few.

Despite being one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, Florida housing remained affordable up through 2000. Miami was generally the state’s least-affordable housing market, probably because an influx of immigrants kept median incomes down. But from 1959 through 1999, median home prices remained between two and three times median family incomes.

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DC Metro Spirals Into Chaos, Taking the Purple Line With It

Judge Richard Leon apparently invalidated Maryland’s Purple Line project just in time to prevent the Federal Transit Administration from giving the Maryland Transit Authority nearly a billion dollars for construction. Naturally, rail supporters are outraged by his decision.

The Washingtonian, for example, calls the decision “ridiculous” because it was based on declining Metro rail ridership and “the Purple Line will not be part of Metro.” But the article admits that 27 percent of the projected Purple Line riders will be transfers to or from Metro, so if Metro ridership declines, the Purple Line’s will as well.

The National Environmental Policy Act is supposed to be a procedural law, the Washingtonian complains, so why is Judge Leon allowing substantive issues such as ridership influence his decision? The author of this piece is obviously not an attorney and probably didn’t even read Judge Leon’s decision, or he would understand that getting the numbers right, as the judge demands, is procedural. He might also be able to read between the lines of the decision and see that Leon realizes this project is a turkey, and is using ridership as just the most obvious reason to overturn the decision to build the low-capacity rail line.

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Purple Line Opponents Win in Court

A federal judge has vacated the decision to build the Purple light-rail line in suburban Washington, DC, effectively delaying and possibly halting the project. Judge Richard Leon’s decision said that “recent revelations regarding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s ridership and safety concerns” had persuaded him that projected ridership numbers for the Purple Line were overly optimistic.

Some Purple Line stations were planned next to Metro Rail stations and projections for light-rail ridership depended partly on the continued growth of Metro Rail ridership. But, largely due to safety issues, Metro Rail ridership has declined every year since 2009, noted Judge Leon, and this meant that the Purple Line ridership numbers, which were calculated in 2009, would probably be lower as well.

“WMATA and the FTA’s cavalier attitude toward these recent developments raises troubling concerns about their competence as stewards of nearly a billion dollars of the federal taxpayers’ funds,” wrote the judge. The Purple Line would be built and operated by the Maryland Transit Authority, not WMATA, but, the Judge Leon noted, this doesn’t mean that declining Metro ridership wouldn’t have an impact on Purple Line ridership.

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