Category Archives: News commentary

ARTIC Chill

Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?


All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.

At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?

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Racism, War, and the Environment

The Antiplanner grew up in the 1960s, when racism was rampant, we were fighting an undeclared and, many believed, immoral war on the other side of the world, and air pollution was so thick in American cities that visibility was often significantly reduced. By the time I was out of college in the mid-1970s, the war was over, racial discrimination seemed to be history, but the environment still appeared to be in trouble. I elected to spend my career working on environmental issues.


“My whole thing is that the world needs to wake the fuck up,” said 27-year-old Ferguson resident Darren Seals. “When a boy was just laying here dead, we didn’t get all this attention. Burn Quick Trip down and now everybody coming. That’s sending off the wrong message. We got to start valuing life more than we value material. It’s been more about the rioting than the boy being dead. His life is more valuable than any of that. It shouldn’t be money over everything. It should be life over everything.” Flickr photo by Youth Radio.

It turns out that was the easy choice. Today, air pollution is practically nil in all but a few major urban areas. Rivers and streams are also mostly cleaned up. At least 5 percent, and probably much more, of the land area of the United States is in a wilderness or other classification that will never be developed.

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Skeptical about Streetcars? You’re a Racist!

Count on someone at the Washington Post to play the race card in the postmortems over the Arlington streetcar. “Lower-income, racially diverse South Arlington has been counting on the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects to deliver a jolt of growth,” says Post columnist Robert McCartney. The county board’s decision to kill the streetcar will therefore “deepen” the “class and racial divisions” that afflict the county.

Yet the people who were against throwing close to $600 million down a couple of ratholes ($358 million for the Columbia Pike streetcar and $227 million for a Crystal City streetcar) aren’t racists. They were just unlike McCartney in their ability to see through the rhetoric and lies used to promote these boondoggles.

Compared with buses, streetcars are inferior in every way but one: they are slower, have fewer seats, add more to congestion, and when one breaks down they all have to come to a stop. The only thing that streetcars excel in is spending other peoples’ money. After seeing the county blow through nearly $1 million on a bus shelter that didn’t even shelter bus riders from the elements, voters were fed up with spending what was supposedly other peoples’ money.

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Columbia Pike Streetcar Cancelled

The county board for Arlington County, Virginia, has voted four-to-one to cancel all planning for a proposed $358 million, 7.7-mile streetcar line along Columbia Pike. This should also effectively shut down planning for a Crystal City streetcar that was projected to cost $227 million.

The decision came on the heels of board member John Vilstadt’s re-election with 56 percent of the vote. Despite being an incumbent, Vilstadt was running at a disadvantage as an independent in a strongly Democratic district. Streetcar supported had hoped that Vilstadt’s election in a special vote last spring was “a fluke.” Yet, by making the streetcar the centerpiece of his campaign, he was able to prevail against a strong Democratic challenger.

Local political experts predicted predicted that Vilstadt’s decisive victory would kill the momentum behind the streetcar. “There is no way” that board members who are up for re-election next year can win “if they’re running as pro-streetcar candidates,” said Ben Tribbett. Tribbett’s prediction has come true. At least three of the other Arlington board members could read the election returns and agreed with the board chair that “the only way to move forward together … is to discontinue the streetcar project.”

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Too Many Goals

Last week, the director of the Civil Rights Division for Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD), Kenneth Hardin, was indicted for having allegedly “corruptly solicited and accepted money from a person intending to be influenced and rewarded in connection with RTD business.” While no further details were provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver, it is reasonable to speculate that Hardin is being accused of accepting a bribe to give a minority preference to a potential contractor that wasn’t really minority owned.

Federal regulations require transit agencies that receive federal funding “To ensure nondiscrimination in the award and administration of DOT-assisted contracts.” The best way to “ensure nondiscrimination,” the regulations go on to say, is to set aside a specific percentage of contracts for “disadvantaged business enterprises.” By definition, a “disadvantaged business” is one that is at least 51 percent owned by minorities, women, or other “individuals who are both socially and economically disadvantaged.”

In other words, and something that will not surprise anyone familiar with American civil rights laws, the rules require that agencies ensure nondiscrimination through discrimination. In RTD’s case, the agency is committed to making sure that at least 15 percent of its contracts go to disadvantaged businesses, and Hardin’s job was making sure that happened.

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Linking Users and Producers

After last week’s election, the Antiplanner failed to note that Seattle voted strongly against another monorail boondoggle. More than 80 percent of Seattle voters agreed this would be a waste of money.

At the same time, nearly 60 percent of Seattle voters agreed to increase subsidies to bus service by raising sales taxes and imposing a $60 a year fee on auto owners. According to census data, 21 percent of Seattle commuters take transit to work. It seems surprising that many if not most of the people who drive to work would be willing to tax themselves to support transit, especially since what they are really doing is supporting light rail, to which the Puget Sound Regional Council allocates all the big bucks while bus transit gets cut.

Texas voters agreed to dedicate half of oil & gas severance taxes to road construction and maintenance. This is expected to generate about $1.7 billion a year.

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What Should Republicans Do?

Republicans have taken both houses of Congress and are eager to make changes. But they haven’t collectively decided what those changes should be. Here are some suggestions.

1. Learn from history.

At least since the Clinton administration, and to some degree for a couple of decades before that, this country has suffered from a consistent pattern. First, one party takes the White House and Congress. Thrilled with the taste of power, they overreach, provoking a backlash. As a result, the other party soon takes control of at least one house of Congress, leading to gridlock for the next several years.

Republicans should seek to avoid this scenario this time around. Instead of immediately trying to pass legislation that will please certain of their constituents, Republicans should think about how they can stay in power for more than a few years. That means an incremental approach to change, but each increment should be designed to make the next increment more, not less, politically feasible.

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Voters Reject Taxes

Light rail lost in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida by 62 to 38 percent. Light rail in Austin is going down by 58 to 42 percent. A transit tax in Polk County, Florida, is also losing.

Not all transportation taxes are losing. Voters in Alameda County (Oakland), California, approved a sales tax that will provide some money for roads but will mostly go to transit and bike/pedestrian paths. Clayton County, Georgia approved a sales tax to bring Atlanta transit into the county. But Maryland voters agreed to protect gas taxes and other highway funds from being diverted to other uses, while Wichita voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have funded a variety of things including transit.

The big news for transportation activists, however, was the strong rejection of light-rail ballot measures in Austin and Pinellas County. Opponents in Austin were better funded than those in Pinellas County, and even some rail supporters joined the opposition in Austin saying that the proposed route wasn’t the best place for a light-rail line. Opponents in Pinellas, meanwhile, had to overcome strong support from most local media and borderline-illegal campaigning in favor of rail by the transit agency and other government agencies. So it was a surprise to see that Pinellas voters rejected rail by an even larger margin than those in Austin.

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Indiana Tollroad Operators File for Bankruptcy

The consortium that paid $3.8 billion to lease the Indiana Tollroad filed for bankruptcy yesterday. The operators–a Spanish company named Cintra and an Australian company named Macquarie–said that revenues were up and costs down, but it wasn’t enough for them to keep up on their mortgage payments.

According to toll-advocate Robert Poole, the problem was that Cintra-Macquarie had structured its debt to require a large payment after ten years, but the recession prevented it from collecting enough money to meet that schedule. On the other hand, toll critic Terri Hall argues that the bankruptcy helps demonstrate that such leases are inappropriate and cronyistic.

Coincidentally, Poole and Hall debated tollroads and public-private partnerships at the American Dream conference in Denver last Friday. (The debate also included Greg Cohen of the American Highway User Alliance.) Hall argued that long-term leases allowed governors such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels to collect and spend large sums of money during their administrations but left travelers paying heavy tolls for generations to come.

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What Happened to Progressives?

“Fifty years ago this month, Berkeley was the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement,” intones Robert Reich. “Now, Berkeley is moving against Big Soda” by imposing a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks.

Naturally, Reich fails to see the irony that a city known for freedom is now attempting to take away people’s freedom. Of course, a one-cent-per-ounce tax doesn’t really take away freedom to enjoy sugary drinks. Nor does quadrupling the price of housing take away freedom to live in a single-family home. The whole point is to reserve these privileges for the wealthy, who no doubt are considered refined enough to appreciate the homes and drinks they consume.

The same people who supported free speech are those who support taxing behaviors they don’t approve. They don’t believe the government should have the right to censor what we say, but they do believe the government should have the right to censor what we consume or where we live. I hope some cultural anthropologist has studied how the Progressives managed to transition from suspecting government to loving it.

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