Category Archives: News commentary

Streamlining Infrastructure Approvals

President Trump issued an executive order yesterday aimed at streamlining the federal approval process for infrastructure projects. Contrary to the impression given by press reports, the order doesn’t repeal any environmental laws or rules. All it really does, the White House explains, is require federal agencies to work together to speed existing approval processes with a target of issuing permits within two years–which is hardly very fast.

Since it isn’t clear to the Antiplanner that the lengthy process of writing and revising environmental impact statements has done much to protect the environment, streamlining would seem to be a good idea. The real problem is not that federal projects threaten the environment–some do, but most don’t–but instead that they threaten the economy by wasting a large share of nation’s resources on projects that produce little value.

For example, the Washington Post published an op-ed yesterday about Maryland’s Purple Line light-rail project. This project would spend more than $5 billion to build and operate a transit line that, the environmental impact statement admits, will actually increase congestion. Since this is conveniently ignored by project advocates, it reveals one of the weaknesses of the environmental process: the documents produced are so lengthy and complex that almost no one read them. Continue reading

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House Bill Kills Tiger, Cuts New Starts,
Keeps Amtrak, Earmarks Gateway

The House Appropriations Committee has released a proposed 2018 transportation funding bill that follows the administration’s proposal to end the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. This program, which spent $500 million a year funding numerous streetcar projects and other boondoggles around the country, was originally created to stimulate the economy. While there is no evidence that it actually did stimulate the economy, the economy arguably doesn’t need to be stimulated any more.

The bill funds $2.75 billion (a $500 million reduction from 2017) for the transit capital investment program (a.k.a. New Starts) and directs the Secretary of Transportation to “continue to administer” the program in accordance with the law. However, it doesn’t specifically mandate that the secretary sign any new full funding grant agreements, and so long as they remain unsigned, projects without such agreements can’t be funded.

As the Antiplanner predicted, the House rejected the administration’s proposal to stop funding Amtrak long-distance trains. Half the states are served only by long-distance trains, so cutting those trains effectively tells half of Congress that their interests are less important than those of the other half. The administration would be done better to propose to give Amtrak incentives to increase ridership in the form of 10 cents in subsidies per passenger mile carried. Since current federal subsidies average more than 20 cents a passenger mile (plus more from the states), this proposal would have led to a debate over “how much should the subsidy be?” rather than “which states should get subsidies?” Continue reading

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Administration Blinks in Budget Showdown

The Trump administration released its proposed 2018 budget yesterday to great fanfare and gnashing of teeth over proposed cuts to the so-called safety net. The truth is that the document released yesterday actually has less information in it than the budget blueprint that was released a couple of months ago.

More significant is the decision of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to provide $647 million of the $1.75 billion needed to electrify commuter trains in San Francisco, a project opposed by every Republican member of Congress from California. The Caltrains commuter trains carry just 4 percent of San Francisco Bay Area transit riders, and the environmental assessment for the project predicts (on page 3-159) that, by slightly speeding trains, electrification will increase ridership by less than 10 percent. The project will be completed in 2021, just about the time that shared, self-driving cars start to take away far more riders than electrification could ever hope to add.

Caltrains electrification is just one of nearly two dozen transit projects funded in the recent 2017 appropriations bill that have no full-funding grant agreements, and Trump’s budget blueprint proposed to sign no more such agreements. The other projects are just as ridiculous as Caltrains, but unlike Caltrains many actually have the support of local Republicans. Now that Chao has caved on Caltrains, how is she going to be able to resist funding the other projects? Continue reading

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Transit Crime

Is there an upsurge in crime on and around transit, and if so, why? A few days ago, a Portland woman was stabbed at a light-rail stop, supposedly by a complete stranger. The very next day, a remarkably similar report came out of Tempe, Arizona, except in this case police said the victim and alleged perpetrator were acquaintances.

A month ago, a gang of at least 40 teenagers boarded a BART train and, while some held the doors to prevent the train from leaving the station, robbed seven passengers and beat up two or more who refused to cooperate. Continue reading

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How About Just Tear Them Down

Business Insider must have been channeling some urban planning magazine last week when it asked what could be done with the hundreds of shopping malls suffering from the great retail apocalypse caused by Amazon and other on-line retailers. The publication’s answers leaned heavily to uses that need government subsidies, including art galleries, classrooms, community gathering spaces, indoor farms, farmers markets, public libraries, public walkways, and other public spaces.

The Antiplanner remembers when Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, decided it needed new office space, so it bought a former Sears Roebucks building. It could have torn down the building and built a new one for $15 million. But to prove its commitment to reuse and recycling, it converted the existing Sears store into an office building. The cost? $30 million.

The humorous postscript was that the Sears building was so old that its toilets had never been hooked up into Portland’s sewer system. For years after Metro–the agency whose mission was to protect the region’s water, air, and land–moved in, it was dumping raw human sewage into the Willamette River. If they had simply replaced the building, they would have discovered the need for hook ups right away. Continue reading

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The Sausage Gets Made

Fiscal year 2017 is more than half over and Congress has finally passed a spending bill for the year. This has led to endless debates over whether Trump won, the Democrats won, or anybody won. However, Trump proposed a “budget blueprint” for fiscal year 2018 that said little about 2017, while this spending bill is for 2017, so it would be premature to say that Trump won or lost.

Among other things, the budget blueprint called for halting funding to transit capital projects (“New Starts”) other than projects that have already received full-funding grant agreements (or, in the case of small starts, small starts grant agreements). In other words, any project on this list that is not marked “FFGA” or “SSGA” in the fourth column would not be funded under Trump’s budget. Continue reading

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Happy Compensated Emancipation Day

The reason why you don’t have to file your income taxes until tomorrow, April 18 this year is that today is a holiday in the District of Columbia (which means DC IRS workers get the day off) to celebrate the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862. Under this law, Congress appropriated a million dollars to buy DC slaves for $300 each, thus freeing 3,185 slaves.

Britain had freed slaves without violence in 1834 through compensated emancipation. Abraham Lincoln had long supported the idea of compensated emancipation, having introduced a bill for it during his time in Congress in 1847-1848. Robert E. Lee and many other Virginians also supported the idea.

The objections came from abolitionists, who felt slavery was immoral and slaveholders shouldn’t be compensated, and from slaveowners in the deep South, where cotton was a primary crop and cotton picking was such an undesirable job that they feared they could only produce it with slavery. Someone patented a mechanical cotton picker in 1850, but apparently it didn’t work very well for mechanical pickers didn’t replace humans for another hundred years.

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Amtrak Is More Expensive Than You Think

While the Antiplanner was preparing to take Amtrak trains from Portland to Washington, DC, Amtrak was suffering from a spate of derailments, one near Chicago Union Station on March 26 and two in New York’s Penn Station on March 24 and April 3. Moreover, Amtrak now admits that it knew about the defective track that led to the Penn Station derailments, and didn’t fix it because it didn’t realize how serious the problem was.

Tracks are held in place by ties that were once all made of wood but that lately have been made of concrete. The Penn Station tracks still had wood ties, and an assessment before the accident found that some of the ties were partly rotted away. Replacing ties is difficult on heavily used rail lines, so Amtrak didn’t replace them right away, a mistake that led Amtrak’s CEO to make a public apology.

The accidents led New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to withhold state funds that New Jersey Transit pays to Amtrak to run its trains on Amtrak’s tracks. I suppose if I were paying money for a service, I would withhold funds if the service turned out to be unsafe. But Amtrak needs money to replace ties, so withholding funds might be the wrong solution in the long run.

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“Something Is Wrong & It’s Holding Us Back”

“The United States of America is truly an exceptional country,” says controversial JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, “but it is clear that something is wrong — and it’s holding us back.” Dimon’s annual letter to shareholders identifies some of the things that are wrong and suggests ways to fix them.

Dimon is controversial simply because he headed one of the nation’s leading banks at the time of the 2008 mortgage crisis, yet to the Antiplanner he was one of the heroes of that crisis. The mortgage bond market was invented by JPMorgan, but when Dimon became CEO he recognized the market wasn’t viable and ordered the bank to stop trading such bonds. When Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual went broke because of their heavy involvement in such bonds, it could have precipitated a major financial crisis, and Dimon agreed to take over those banks to avoid that crisis

Such takeovers are the standard way the U.S. government has dealt with failing banks, and they are not a gift to the banks doing the takeovers. The banks agree to accept the defunct banks’ assets and (much larger) liabilities in order to keep the monetary system going as well as to save the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation billions of dollars it would have to spend paying off insured depositers.

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The Future of Brightline

Mexican conglomerate Grupo Mexico is acquiring Florida East Coast Railway for $2.1 billion. This raises questions about the future of Brightline, FEC’s planned moderate-speed rail line that was previously called All Aboard Florida. Brightline is scheduled to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale in July, and extending to Miami in August.

Phase two of Brightline is to be an extension to Orlando, which would require construction of about 40 miles of new rail line that would be used almost exclusively for passengers. FEC estimates this will cost more than $1.0 billion.

Brightline claims its trains will operate at 80 to 125 miles per hour. But it is promising to deliver people the 65 rail miles from Miami to West Palm Beach in 60 minutes. That’s an average speed of–let me see–65 miles in 60 minutes (counts on fingers) works out to just 65 miles per hour. That’s certainly faster than existing commuter trains, which require about 100 minutes for the same trip (making many more intermediate stops). But it’s not significantly faster than driving, which Google says takes about 70 minutes.

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