Monthly Archives: July 2008

We Still Aren’t Giving Up Our Cars

U.S. DOT data show that Americans drove almost 10 billion fewer vehicle miles in May, 2008 than in the same month of 2007. Urban driving declined by 5.8 billion vehicle miles, or about 3.4 percent. For the first five months of 2008, Americans drove 2.5 percent less than the same period in 2007, while urban driving declined by 2.1 percent.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the decline in gas purchases is leading to financial problems for highway agencies dependent on gas taxes. Naturally, transit lobbyists want more money spent on mass transit even though the latest data for transit, for March 2008, show a decline in ridership from March 2007.

What is the appropriate policy response? A month or so ago, the Antiplanner conducted an unscientific survey of readers asking how they were coping with high gas prices. Based on this survey, the Antiplanner concluded that most people were reducing driving slightly by trip chaining and eliminating unnecessary trips, while few were switching to transit or other modes.

Commuting guru Alan Pisarski agrees. “while American lifestyles are sure to undergo a shift” due to high gas prices, he says, “it will not be away from the automobile.” The biggest short-term shift, he says, will be to drive the more fuel-efficient of the multiple cars most families own. The long-term shift will be to buy more fuel-efficient cars in the future.

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Railroad Gets Burned

The Union Pacific Railroad has agreed to pay the Forest Service $102 million — the largest wildfire settlement in history — for causing a fire in California’s Feather River Canyon. Though railroad employees were almost certainly responsible for the fire, the UP could have used some better lawyers or, better yet, some economists among their expert witnesses.

Normally, if you start a fire that gets out of control, you are responsible for paying suppression costs — in this case, $22 million. But this time, the judge also ordered the railroad to pay the estimated damage to “public scenery and recreation and habitat and wildlife,” which added $80 million to the total. On top of that, the UP may have to cover the Forest Service’s costs of reforesting the burned acres.

At first glance, this sounds just. Except it isn’t clear to me that the fire actually did any damage to scenery, recreation, habitat, or wildlife. On top of that, if the Forest Service is so concerned about such damage, why didn’t it do something to fix the problems as soon as the fire was put out? In fact, it did nearly nothing for years.

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Another Grandiose Plan Flops

Taxpayers in Coos County, Oregon, have suffered from numerous grand plans, mostly promoted by the local port districts. The latest one appears to have reduced air service to the region.

The story began in 2003, when the Coos County Airport District asked voters for higher taxes so it could build a fabulous, $20 million air terminal for the North Bend Airport. North Bend is served by Horizon Airlines, which provides five flights a day in the summer, three in winter. The existing terminal was quite sufficient for this service, but district officials darkly warned that, if voters voted against the new terminal, Horizon might pull out altogether.

The new, $20 million terminal.

They were right: I voted against the terminal, and now Horizon is pulling out. But it wasn’t my fault; instead, Horizon’s decision was the direct result of the district’s wheelings and dealings.

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Urban Renewal: Time to Declare Victory and Go Home

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that an urban renewal project that began in the City’s Fillmore District in 1948 is about to sunset. The City’s web site claims the project “has set the stage for the rebirth of a rich and vibrant street life.”

But the director of the City’s Redevelopment Agency tells the Chronicle a different story. “The agency’s time there has not been a happy story,” he says. The little good that has happened in recent years is not “making up for the damage that was done in the early days.”

San Francisco’s Western Addition, of which the Fillmore District is a part. Some of the apartments in the foreground were no doubt built on the sites of former Victorian homes.
Flickr photo by pbo31.

California passed an urban-renewal law in 1945 giving cities the authority to clear out “blighted” areas. Cities were allowed to determine whether a neighborhood was blighted by, among other things, the percentage of non-white people who lived in the neighborhood. The Fillmore District was 60 percent black, ergo it was blighted.

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Energy Crisis Solved?

“You never know what the future will bring,” says Steve Polzin, of the Florida Center for Urban Transportation Research. “If we are not careful, we could do some things that would make corn ethanol look like a wise investment.”

What things are those, Steve? For his answer, take a look at his July 11 article in the Urban Transportation Monitor. The recent Surface Transportation Policy Commission recommended investing in intercity rail, saying that trains “consume 17 percent less energy per passenger mile than air carriers and 21 percent less than automobiles.”

But, Polzin notes, the recently passed Energy Independence Act requires autos to become 40 percent more efficient in the next 20 years, and the next generation of airplanes is also likely to be at least 17 percent more efficient than the current one. So, Polzin asks, why should we “spend decades and billions for intercity rail”?

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Oil Subsidies Less Than 0.4 Cents Per Gallon

It is an article of faith among planning advocates that the automobile is heavily subsidized and those subsidies include subsidies to the oil industry. What the innumerate can’t understand is that the automobile is so heavily used that what subsidies there are amount are tiny when measured per passenger mile.

As has been previously noted here, highway subsidies amount to less than half a penny per passenger mile. By comparison, transit subsidies are more than 61 cents per passenger mile.

But what about subsidies to the oil industry? A recent paper from the Energy Information Agency compares federal subsidies to all forms of energy. According to table 36 of this report (on physical page 128, numbered page 108), subsidies to oil and natural gas amount to 3 cents per million BTUs.

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Smart and Dumb at VTA

San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has announced that it will start a bus-rapid transit service from Santa Clara to Alum Rock. This was originally supposed to be a light-rail line projected to cost nearly $400 million. As bus-rapid transit, it will cost only $128 million. The light-rail line would not open until 2021; BRT will begin in 2012. Light rail would operate every 15 minutes; BRT every six. BRT was also projected to attract nearly three times as many riders at a lower operating cost than light rail.

Has sanity somehow struck the nation’s worst-managed transit agency? Apparently not, for VTA also looks set to ask voters for a 1/8-cent sales tax to pay for a BART line to San Jose. This sales tax would raise the $42 million per year that VTA estimates it needs just to operate this line. Actual construction — the cost of which is now estimated to be well over $6 billion — would have to be funded out of other money.

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Is a Treehouse an “Accessory Building”?

One of the predictable consequences of intrusive government land-use regulation is that people come to view the regulations as entitlements. So, when someone builds an innocent treehouse for their children, some neighbor is likely to complain that the treehouse violates city zoning laws.

In New York, neighbors complained when someone built a treehouse less than 40 feet from the property line in a zone requiring 40-foot setbacks. The city said the ordinance applied to any building more than 8 feet tall. The treehouse was less than 8 feet tall, but because it was in a tree the top was more than 8 feet off the ground. If this meant it was 8 feet tall, it was an “accessory building” and required a permit. In this case, the town zoning board ruled (in 1985) that it was not.

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FasTracks off the Track?

According to Kevin Flynn of the Rocky Mountain News, Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) has admitted that it can’t build the FasTracks system that it promised when it asked voters for a tax increase in 2004. Even after cost-cutting measures, such as smaller stations and less security, the agency has previously admitted that the project that was supposed to cost $4.7 billion will actually cost $6.1 billion.

But Flynn expects the latest estimates, due to be made public next month, will be “substantially” higher. On top of that, the sale tax revenues that were expected to pay for FasTracks are coming in well short of predictions. As a result, RTD says it will have to either ask voters for more money, take more time to build the system, or cut back on the length of some of the lines.

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Ride Mass Transit? Hardly

Smart growthers and other rail nuts love to talk about how rising fuel prices are leading people to ride mass transit. The truth is that, in March, 2008, driving experienced one of the greatest declines in history (from March of the previous year), but mass transit ridership also declined. So people are hardly taking transit as a substitute for driving.

Instead, says Nielsen, people are spending less on discretionary items, combining trips, and buying in-store brands instead of name-brand items. Riding transit? Not so much.

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