Category Archives: Urban areas

Resisting Rail

San Antonio, notes Texas Public Radio, is “the largest city in the country without a rail system to move” its residents. As a result, the article implies, people are “stuck behind the wheel,” and the article’s headline asks, “Should San Antonio Reconsider Rail?”

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, of course, suggests that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But more important, the article is guilty of the Politician’s Fallacy, which is: “1. We have to do something [in this case, about congestion]. 2. This [rail] is something. 3. We have to do this [build rail].”

Before jumping to any conclusions, San Antonians should ask how well rail is moving people in other cities. The first point to note is that, when TPR says that San Antonio is the largest city not to have rail, there are only six larger cities to consider. We don’t think of San Antonio is being the nation’s seventh-largest city, but it is true because Texas cities have strong annexations powers, so tend to be much larger than cities elsewhere. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are also among the nation’s eleven largest cities.

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Atlanta’s Streetcar Named Disaster

The Antiplanner’s friend, Benita Dodd, reviews the Atlanta streetcar on the second anniversary of its inaugural run. It was supposed to cost $72 million to build. It cost $97 million. It was supposed to cost $1.7 million a year to operate. It actually costs $5.3 million.

It was projected to earn $420,000 a year in fares. During its first year, it earned nothing because it was free. In the second year, the city began charging $1 a ride, and it earned under $200,000. When it was free, it carried 2,600 riders a day. After they began charging, ridership fell to less than 1,500 a day, less than half the projected number.

It normally runs on Saturday nights until 1 am. Last Saturday, “to accommodate large crowds” for New Years Eve, the city stopped running it at 4:30 pm. (Despite the absurdity of the claim that not running the streetcar will accommodate large crowds, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reprinted the city’s press release word for word.) Naturally, after all these great successes, the city wants to build 22 more miles of streetcar lines.

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The $4.5 Billion New Year’s Party

New York City celebrated the new year by opening the insanely expensive Second Avenue Subway. Just two miles and three stations long, this subway line cost nearly $4.5 billion, or more than $35,000 per inch, making it the most expensive subway in the world.

Of course, not all of that money went for digging tunnels and laying track, which cost “only” $734 million (which is still more than $5,000 per inch). The three stations cost $800 million each. But that’s not all: to complete the Second Avenue subway, the city also spend $500 million on engineering and $800 million for “management, real estate, station artwork, fare-collection systems and other sundry items.” If the entire New York City subway system cost that much, it would have cost more than $500 billion, or roughly the cost of the entire 47,856-mile Interstate Highway System in today’s dollars.

Of course, the city didn’t pay for it alone. The federal government chipped in at least $1.3 billion. The state of New York put in some money, but much of the money probably came from bridge tolls paid by auto drivers. Actual riders of the Second Avenue subway will pay very little of the cost and what they do pay will be paid indirectly.

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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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