Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Fix Is In

Democrats blame the failure of the bailout bill on Republicans (even though 95 Dems voted against it). Republicans blame it on Nancy Pelosi. But the truth is that representatives on both sides of the aisle were primarily afraid of voters. If the plan passed and yet failed to turn the economy around by November 4 (and no one expects it to do that), anyone who voted for the plan will have a hard time getting re-elected.

But everyone in Washington agreed Something Must Be Done, and the Paulson proposal, as modified by Chris Dodd, was the only major plan on the table. So the real question was, which members of Congress had safe enough seats that they could vote for the plan?

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A Rail Vision for America’s Future

Suppose Barack Obama is elected president and appoints someone like Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer as Secretary of Transportation. Suppose further that California votes for high-speed rail. Then, even if some of the rail transit measures on the ballots in Kansas City, San Jose, Seattle, and Sonoma-Marin counties (have I missed any?) don’t pass, it is pretty clear there will be a strong push to build far more passenger rail in America.

How much rail is enough? How much will it cost? What good will it do? Let’s try to envision a rail future for America.

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Meltdown Myths

The Antiplanner is a microeconomist, and understanding the meltdown and various bailout proposals is a job for a macroeconomist, so I don’t claim to be completely on top of the situation. However, many of the things I read about the meltdown are clearly wrong. So today I hope to eliminate at least a few of the myths.

1. The problem is too many houses.

Economist Tyler Cowan, who is usually right on, misses the mark when he suggests (with tongue only slightly in cheek) that one solution is for the government to “buy or confiscate empty homes in those areas and destroy them. That will raise the price of the remaining homes” and end the mortgage crisis.

Paradoxically, the reason why home prices are declining in so much of the U.S. is not because there are too many houses, but too few. Cowan’s idea might work in Detroit, but in California it is exactly the wrong prescription. To understand this, we have to look at basic supply and demand.

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Harassing Rail Opponents

One thing you can say for rail transit advocates: They are consistent. Which is to say they are as unethical in their campaign tactics as they are about telling the truth.

Case in point: The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the main organization pushing for construction of a $3.2 billion $4.7 billion $6.0 billion who knows how many billion-dollar BART line to San Jose. After voters rejected a sales tax increase for the project in 2006, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) put another sales tax on the ballot for this November.

When opponents submitted their carefully documented arguments against the project to the county for publication in a voters’ pamphlet, an attorney who works for the Leadership Group took the statement to court, claiming it was misleading. Among other things, the attorney challenged the claim that VTA has the “worst-performing light-rail line in the country” (a claim that has also been made by the Antiplanner).

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Time for an Extreme Makeover

“We need an extreme makeover of national transportation policy,” Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution recently testified before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Considering that this country has thrown more than $100 billion down the rail transit rathole and gotten virtually nothing in return, it is hard to argue with that.

Unfortunately, Puentes has the opposite in mind. After all, his testimony is titled, “Strengthening the Ability of Public Transit to Reduce Our Dependence on Foreign Oil.” His argument is filled with errors, references to shoddy research, and undocumented assumptions about the magical abilities of rail transit to solve all our problems.

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His Lips Are Moving

I suppose Denver’s Regional Transit District general manager Cal Marsella has a right to call me a “paid political operative” in the opening paragraph of his reply to my proposal that RTD cancel its FasTracks rail plan. After all, I opened my article by noting that Marsella gets paid more than $290,000 a year.

Of course, that is many times more than I have been paid in my best year, and I was nice enough to not even mention his $10,000 “auto allowance” or his 12.5% bonus. Yet he calls my article “sour grapes invective” that is filled with “distortions, manipulations and factually inaccurate statements.” In fact, it is his article that is filled with distortions and manipulations.

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Financial Meltdown

Note: Updated in response to Monday’s news and opinion columns.

Last week’s excitement seemed to take many by surprise, yet it was in fact predicted by many. Start with Charles Morris, who began writing his 2007 book, The Trillion-Dollar Meltdown, in 2005.

“The whole world economy is at risk,” said The Economist, also in 2005. “It is not going to be pretty.” In 2004, the magazine-that-calls-itself-a-newspaper estimated that two-thirds of the world’s housing (by economic value) was “a potential housing bubble.” By 2005, it was calling it “the biggest bubble in history.” And, as it noted in 2003, “soon or later,” bubbles always burst.

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DC Leaders Want to Make Driving More Difficult

“D.C. leaders are considering traffic changes that would make driving in the city more challenging for commuters,” says NBC News. In order to “promote pedestrian safety, use of public transit, biking and walking,” they want to close a reversible lane and part of an Interstate freeway.

The more likely effect of such changes will be to drive more jobs to the suburbs. Washington already has lots of pedestrians and transit riders. Though cycling is iffy, closing a reversible lane isn’t going to help.

If you want to promote pedestrian safety, make pedestrians safer, don’t make driving more difficult. That’s like saying, “people move to the suburbs because suburban schools are better, so let’s ruin suburban schools to encourage people to move back to the city.”

Of course, that’s the way a lot of urban planners think.

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