Category Archives: News commentary

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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Trump to Congress: Eliminate New Starts

When Elaine Chao was confirmed as Secretary of Transportation, rail advocacy groups were optimistic that she and the administration would look favorably towards more funding for rail “infrastructure.” So when Trump’s budget came out, they were shocked, or pretended to be shocked, that Trump proposed cuts to transit, Amtrak, and TIGER grants carried over from the 2009 stimulus program.

Transit cuts were part of Trump’s “attack on cities,” said urbanist Yonah Freemark. No, it was more like part of Trump’s hostility to pouring money down a rathole that produces no benefits.

As the Antiplanner explains in this op-ed in the Morning Consult, New Starts funding is worse than trying to create jobs by digging holes and filling them up. At least the holes, once filled, don’t impose any further obligations on society, but cities that build New Starts projects are legally obligated to continue operating and maintaining the projects for decades. Most of these projects have high costs and negligible benefits.

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Did Nader Really Call Apple a Monopoly?

“Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, concerned about fake news prevalent on social media sites, believes Congress should weigh in with antitrust legislation targeting Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple,” reports the Washington Examiner. Say what? Just what do Microsoft and Apple have to do with so-called fake news? How are any of these companies monopolies? Is Ralph Nader getting senile or was he misquoted?

YouTube has a video of part of his comments that he gave at an event commemorating the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. It doesn’t show the whole event, but it appears that one of the other speakers or someone in the audience said something positive about the role of social media in mobilizing grassroots activism.

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