Category Archives: News commentary

Kneel and Salute the Flag

A national anthem is but a song. A flag is a piece of cloth. Yet, like the wafer that turns into the body of Christ and the wine that turns into His blood, some transubstantiate these symbols into the idea of the United States as a country. Those who are not awed into submission by these symbols, they say, should be shunned by society and fired from their jobs.

Yet the United States of America is neither a religion nor a feudal aristocracy. Americans refuse to bow and scrape before monarchs, so why should we treat a song or a piece of cloth in ways that we don’t feel compelled to apply to human leaders?

The transubstantiation of a piece of cloth into the country is made explicit when we “pledge allegiance to the flag . . . and to the republic for which it stands.” Yet this pledge was written by a socialist who believed American children were too individualistic and needed to be instilled with a sense of collectivism. This makes it especially ironic that a political party that claims to believe in freedom insists on the pledge of allegiance and standing for the national anthem, while the more collectivist party accepts resistance to those traditions. Continue reading

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Reversible Lanes, Not Trains

Predictably, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, some people are saying that Florida would have been better off trying to evacuate people with passenger trains than over the highways. No one knows exactly how many people did evacuate south Florida, but after the state ordered 6.3 million people to leave their homes, photos of bumper-to-bumper cars on Interstates 75 and 95 became a staple of hurricane reporting.

Rail advocates like to claim that rail lines have much higher capacities for moving people than roads, but that’s simply not true. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved 300,000 people–free of charge–out of the city in what was probably the largest mass transit evacuation in American history. While impressive, it took the railroad five days to move all of those people. Even accounting for improvements in rail capacities in the last century, moving 6 million people out of south Florida by rail would take weeks, not the four days available between Florida’s first evacuation orders and the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

Certainly, the state of Florida could have done more to relieve congestion on major evacuation routes. As near as I can tell, the most it did was to allow vehicles to use the left shoulder lane on part of I-75 and part of I-4 (which isn’t even a north-south route), but not, so far as I can tell, on I-95. What the state should have done, since there was very little southbound traffic, was to open up all but one of the southbound lanes of I-75 and I-75 to northbound traffic. Continue reading

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Bike Share Programs: Why?

After less than a year of operation, Baltimore is shutting down its bike share program for a month because so many of its bikes were stolen or are heavily damaged. The program began last November with a 175 bikes–40 percent of which had electric boosters–available for rent from 20 different locations, soon increased to 200 bikes and 20 stations.

One cyclist spent a day recently visiting all 25 stations and found only four bikes available to potential renters. The city says the private partner that is running the operation is upgrading the locks to reduce theft. In the meantime, the city has two full-time employees tracking down the GPS-equipped bikes so that other people can repair them and put them back into service.

Baltimore is far from the first city to have problems with its bike-share program. Seattle’s is attracting only half as many riders as expected. Bike share programs in New York, San Francisco and many other cities have also had problems. Continue reading

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Zoning Wouldn’t Have Saved Houston

The rain hadn’t stopped falling before numerous commentators blamed Houston’s flooding on a lack of zoning. This is simply untrue.

First, flood-plain zoning focuses on “high-risk” areas, which by definition means areas in the 100-year floodplain. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require that homes they mortgage be covered by flood insurance if they are in zone A or V, which means the 100-year floodplain.

But the Houston flooding resulting from tropical storm Harvey was a 1,000-year flood. That means neither zoning nor insurance would have made a difference for the homes outside the 100-year floodplain. At least half of all the homes damaged by Harvey flooding were in the “moderate-risk” zone in the 500-year floodplain but outside the 100-year floodplain, and more were in the low-risk area outside the 500-year floodplain. Continue reading

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Let the Property Owners Decide

The Houston flooding isn’t even over yet, and planners are already blaming it on urban sprawl. That’s absurd: if 30 to 50 inches of rain fell on New York City, Los Angeles, or anywhere else over a weekend, they would have flooded too.

The Antiplanner is not an expert on hydrology, but I do know a couple of basic principles. First, the way to minimize flooding is to minimize the percentage of each acre of land that is rendered impermeable by development. Second, high-density development leads to a higher percentage of land that is impermeable. This means that sprawl is a natural defense against flooding.

Planners would like you to believe that concentrating development on a smaller land base, even if that land is made mostly impermeable, is better because more land is left permeable. But all that does is concentrate the flooding in the developed area. Continue reading

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For Sale: Eclipse Glasses, Slightly Used

The Antiplanner’s eclipse was nearly smoke-free, thank you. In fact, I was in one of the best places in the nation to watch the eclipse, as we were also cloud-free.

Waiting for the eclipse near Camp Sherman.

Prior to the eclipse, many people were predicting chaos and even a “disaster nightmare.” “Officials are bracing for toilet shortages, cellular blackout zones and the potential for emergency service vehicles to be stuck in traffic.” Continue reading

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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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