Monthly Archives: April 2008

Bridge Plans Raise Crossing Controversies

A plan to spend $5.5 million to build a bike/pedestrian bridge in Portland that will probably carry only a few hundred people a day have generated a major controversy. Portland’s mayor has come out against the plan, local businesses have invested in studies challenging the plan, and the whole idea has become a major subject for talk radio and letters to the editor.

The new and old Sauvie Island bridges.
Flickr photo by Tokenhippygirl.

The plan was conceived when the Sauvie Island Bridge, north of Portland, was being replaced. Someone said, “Why don’t we take the old bridge and use it as a pedestrian/bicycle bridge across the I-405 freeway in downtown Portland?” City commissioner and mayoral candidate Sam Adams, who never met an alternative transportation project he didn’t like, immediately jumped on the idea.

UPDATE: Bojack presents an interesting analysis of the safety aspects of the proposed viaduct using Google street view photos.

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The Case for Low-Capacity Transit

Eugene, Oregon’s Lane Transit District (LTD) is facing the same problem that is no doubt confronting transit agencies all over the country. High gasoline prices are encouraging some people to leave their cars at home and take transit. But those same high fuel prices are threatening LTD’s finances and may force cuts in service.

As noted in the Antiplanner’s recent study on transit and energy, part of the problem is that transit agencies tend to buy buses that are far larger than they need. The average LTD bus has nearly 43 seats and standing room for 30 more, but carries only 12 passengers. Obviously, if your system is operating at only one-sixth of its capacity, you are wasting a lot of fuel.

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Wanted: Successful Government Projects

Environmentalists have raised the alarm about global warming. The U.S. government responds with massive subsidies to a biofuels program. Unfortunately, corn-based ethanol turns out to be even worse than gasoline in its emissions of greenhouse gases. Plus, the conversion of so much corn to ethanol instead of food has led to dramatically rising food prices and food riots all over the world.

Some call the ethanol program “the stupidist federal subsidy” that “makes gasoline costlier and dirtier.” The Antiplanner calls it government planning on a normal day.

Which raises some interesting questions: Have any major government projects ever been successful? If so, what is the ratio of unsuccessful to successful projects? And finally, what were the characteristics that made some of the projects successful while the rest failed?

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That’s Some Good Planning, Lou

In addition to its Metrorail subway system, Washington DC has some streetcars that you can ride. Unfortunately, to ride them, you have to travel to the Czech Republic.*

The city of Washington paid $10 million for streetcars three years ago, but never laid any tracks for them to run on. Nor does it have any idea when it might have such tracks. So they remain in Plzen.

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North Dakota Threatened by Sprawl? No, by Smart Growth

Lock your barns and get your guns — North Dakota’s precious farmlands are being threatened by urban sprawl. Or so some urban planners would have Dakota residents believe.

In reality, North Dakota is losing population, having declined from 642,000 in the 2000 census to an estimated 639,000 in 2007. But a handful of North Dakota counties have managed to eke out some growth, notably Cass County (home of Fargo) and Burleigh County (home of Bismarck, the state capital). Both are growing at a rate of about 1.5 percent per year, which puts them among the 450 fastest growing counties (out of more than 3,000) in the country. Still, there are plenty of larger counties whose populations are growing much faster.

Despite all its wild growth, Burleigh County still has only 77,000 people (58,000 of whom live in Bismarck). So when the Burleigh County Commission decided to update its 20-year-old comprehensive plan, instead of asking its tiny planning staff to do it, it contracted it out.

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The Magazine of Big Government

“What’s up with groups that argue for less government but see publicly built highways as an expression of the free market?” asks Alex Marshall, a columnist for Governing Magazine, in what is both a cheap and unoriginal shot at some of the Antiplanner’s friends.

Marshall finds it “exceedingly strange that a group of conservative and libertarian-oriented think tanks — groups that argue for less government — have embraced highways and roads as a solution to traffic congestion and a general boon to living,” while they “attack mass-transit spending, particularly on trains.” Among these peculiar people Marshall names Wendell Cox, John Tierney, Bob Poole, and some guy named RandalO’Toole (Marshall doesn’t say whether that is a first or last name).

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Earmarks Are Coconuts

The Antiplanner’s friends at Taxpayers for Common Sense alerted me to the latest earmark scandal, the earmark from nowhere. Apparently, the transportation bill approved by Congress in 2005 included an earmark to widen Interstate 75 in Florida.

But in the bill signed by the president, that earmark was mysteriously deleted and replaced by an earmark to add an interchange to I-75 at Coconut Road in Lee County. By an extraordinary coincidence, Representative Don Young, who chaired the House Transportation Committee, had just given a fundraising speech in Florida where he raised $40,000, much of it from developers who owned land adjacent to I-75 at Coconut Road.

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Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. The Antiplanner remembers the first Earth Day in 1970, when it was called the National Environmental Teach-In. As a senior in high school in Portland, I had already started my first environmental group, whose pretentious and somewhat ominous name was the “Regional Environmental Research and Control Organization,” which we abbreviated to “ERC.”

Since ERC was already up and running, we had one of the largest environmental teach-ins at any Portland school. We brought in State Treasurer (and future governor) Bob Straub, City Commissioner (and future major) Neil Goldschmidt, City Commissioner (and also future mayor) Frank Ivancie, as well as representatives from state and regional water and air pollution agencies.

In 1970, when Portland photographer Ray Atkeson tried to take a photo like this, there was so much pollution that he had to stitch together a photo of Mt. Hood on top of a photo of the city. Now the mountain is visible from the city on any sunny day.
Flickr photo by RG Photo.

The environmental teach-in changed my life. Up to then, I wanted to become an architect. Instead, I decided to save the forests by going to forestry school and then to work for environmentalists, which is what I did.

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Bye, Bye, American Pie

Michelle Obama has caught some flak over a recent statement she made in North Carolina: “The truth is, in order to get things like universal health care and a revamped education system, then someone is going to have to give up a piece of their pie so that someone else can have more.” This statement reflects a major difference in how two Americas — call them left and right — view the economy — call it pie.

As American as apple pie.

The left views the pie as fixed. If the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, the government should take some pie from the rich and give it to the poor.

The right views the pie as variable. If left to their own devices, private entrepreneurs will build wealth, making the pie bigger. If institutions are properly designed, eventually many people will get a share of that wealth. The left derisively calls this the “trickle-down theory.”

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TIF: Another Word for Stealing

If anyone still doesn’t believe that the whole idea of tax-increment financing, or TIF, is morally bankrupt, they only have to look at the latest shenanigans in Portland. The city took TIF money from the downtown Pearl District and used it to build a school at the opposite end of town.

What’s wrong with this? TIF is a California invention designed to kick-start development in blighted areas that otherwise might not attract private investors. Planners like to claim that TIF pays for itself, but in fact, new developments impose costs on fire, police, schools, and other public services, yet the taxes that would cover those costs are used to subsidize the development instead. This means everyone else in the city either has to pay higher taxes or accept lower services.

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