As long as I am in Australia, I should plug the Preserving the American Dream conference, which will take place just under eight weeks from now in Houston. We have an incredible line up of around four dozen speakers covering everything from ballot-box zoning to the reconstruction of New Orleans.
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Flickr photo by (and with the permission of) Sienna Plantation resident Adriana Rapolla.
Anyone concerned about property rights, growth management, zoning, traffic congestion, or the high cost of rail transit should attend. You will especially want to go on the Friday tour of Houston, where you will see the local light-rail line, controversies over high-rises in neighborhoods of single-family homes, and Sienna Plantation, a beautiful and affordable privately planned community in Houston’s suburbs.
If you are reading this on Friday, I am on a plane to Sydney, Australia, where I will speak on Monday at the Residential Markets Outlook Summit. I suspect when the conference was organized that they had no idea how dim the outlook would be at this time, so they asked me to talk about the wonders of planning in Portland.
On Tuesday, April 1, I will speak at the Sydney Mechanics School at 1 pm about how the “planning tax” made housing unaffordable and contributed to the current dim outlook for residential markets. Australian homebuilders, if not the rest of the country, are familiar with that, as the nation has been practicing smart growth for years and has some of the least affordable housing in the world. In any case, if you are in Sydney, please come and see me there.
The House Appropriations Committee has asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the possibility of merging the Forest Service into the Department of the Interior. This idea is raised about every decade or so and is beaten down by a combination of special interest groups who all fear they might lose from such a change.
About a decade ago, however, the Antiplanner made a prediction that the next administration that proposed such a merger would succeed, mainly because many of the special interest groups that once relied on the Forest Service — timber companies, ranchers, and miners — have been so shut out of the national forests that they would have no incentive to stop such a merger.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reports that 2007 transit ridership reached “10.3 billion trips . . . the highest level in 50 years, representing a 2.1% increase over the previous year.” APTA’s press release quotes its president, William Millar, saying, “Now with gas prices predicted to rise to $4 a gallon, there is a greater urgency for higher federal funding to expand U.S. public transportation systems so Americans have an affordable transportation choice.”
The Antiplanner is willing to admit that 2.1 percent is not miniscule. But let’s put APTA’s numbers into context. I’ll try not to repeat the points I made in response to APTA’s press release about 2006 transit ridership, most if not all of which are still valid.
APTA admits that high gas prices, not federal investments into transit infrastructure, are playing a large role in boosting ridership. The federal government has invested billions of dollars in transit every year since before 1990, yet transit ridership actually dropped every year from 1990 through 1995 (when gas prices were low), so more federal investments are not going to make much difference.
A month ago, the Columbus Dispatch published pro and con articles about whether mass transit should be privatized. Rather than ask any actual experts on transit, whoever put together the articles asked Kristina Rasmussen from the National Taxpayers Union to take the pro side and left-wing writer Wayne Madsen to take the con side.
Rasmussen did not make many of the important points that transit experts like the infamous Wendell Cox might have made, but she held her own. Madsen, on the other hand, scored some solid hits provided the readers did not know any facts.
The real estate market is tanking, and government-subsidized downtown booms are busting. But Gresham — Portland’s largest suburb, with more than 100,000 people — has a plan.
The new plan is going to make downtown a “vibrant” place by making it “the focus of the community.” Yeah, right. Downtowns haven’t been “the focus” of major cities since the 1960s. A focus, yes, but not the focus.
How will they do it? Why, with public/private partnerships, of course. In other words, subsidies. In other words, tax-increment financing.
Megabus is a spin-off from a U.K. company of the same name that is offering bus service along the lines of RyanAir and other European cut-rate airline companies. It is offering a few $1 seats along selected routes.
Take Megabus to Chicago from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukie, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.
Flickr photo by femaletrumpet02.
Most seats will go for around 10 cents a mile. For example, tickets for the 525-mile trip from Chicago to Kansas City are around $55 — if you want to go tomorrow. But when I chose this itinerary for a month from now the web site quoted me $43 for a daytime ticket, $15 for a nighttime bus. By comparison, Amtrak starts at $50.
Back in 1984, Miami opened a 20-mile elevated rail line. The line was so expensive, and ridership so poor, that the city never did much to expand the line (though it is getting in line for $1.4 billion in federal handouts for proposed expansion).
Flickr photo by .Zickie.
Now the railcars the run on the line are worn out. The transit system was supposed to overhaul the cars nearly a decade ago, but deferred it for lack of funds. Now it has to choose between spending $300 million on repairs or $350 million on a new fleet.
Flickr photo by ASurroca.
The Antiplanner suggests a third alternative: junk the system. Ridership has grown by a mere 26 percent since 1990. During the same time period, regional bus ridership has grown by 69 percent. Miami transit riders would do a lot better if some of that $300 or so million were put into bus improvements, Miami taxpayers would be glad to see the rest left in their pockets, and Miami sightseers would enjoy seeing more of the sky.
Here is another downtown boom that is not doing as well as expected. Housing prices are falling everywhere, but more in the downtown area than in the rest of the region.
Bob Poole points out that the National Surface Transportation Policy Commission is only one of two commissions that Congress created to study transportation issues. The other deals with infrastructure finance, and it put out an interim report that takes a serious look at a wide range of alternative funding mechanisms. The commission invites comments on their work to date.
Extending DC’s MetroRail to Dulles Airport may or may not be dead, but it is definitely a boondoggle.
Meanwhile, opponents of real solutions to congestion have to reach pretty far to argue against them. We can’t let “foreign dollars come in and buy infrastructure in this country that American people put down.” Why not, if it will reduce congestion? “The nation long ago settled that roads are public goods.” Yes, and look at how well that worked (hint: congested, falling apart, underfunded).
Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Antiplanner, whose ancestors were mostly Irish (with some Welsh thrown in). Some people try to find the pot at the end of the rainbow, but right now I am trying to find out what happened to the “rational” in rational planning.
It is the Antiplanner’s official position that long-range government planning cannot work no way no how. But it is a mark of how bankrupt the planning profession has become that many of its members never seem to bother to follow its standard planning system, which is known as the Rational Planning Model.
As defined by that noted authority, Wikipedia, the Rational Planning Model “is the process of realizing a problem, establishing and evaluating planning criteria, create alternatives, implementing alternatives, and monitoring progress of the alternatives.” This model, Wikipedia adds, “is central in the development of modern urban planning.”
If it is so central, then why do so few urban planners follow it? In particular, most plans that I have reviewed leave out step 3, “create alternatives.” They also leave out what should be step 4 (but which goes unmentioned by Wikipedia), evaluate alternatives. Which isn’t surprising if they don’t have any alternatives to evaluate.