Monthly Archives: February 2009

Obama Proposes $5 Billion More for HSR

Page 91 of the President’s 2010 budget proposes “a five-year $5 billion high-speed rail state grant program.” It also proposes to increase “funding for public transit to support commuters, improve air quality, and reduce greenhouse gases.”

The Antiplanner is all for improving the environment. But these are not the ways to do it. My research on public transit shows that transit does as much or more harm to the environment than autos. My research on high-speed rail shows that it is not much better — and any environmental benefits are entirely speculative since we have very little high-speed rail in the U.S.

In other news, pages 47 and 77 of the budget propose to take care of public land wildfire problems by dumping more money on them. Of course, that is what created the problems in the first place.

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Denver Transportation Plan

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about the future of the newspaper industry. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Denver Rocky Mountain News both appear on the verge of going out of business. Without newspapers, “corruption will rise, legislation will more easily be captured by vested interests and voter turnout will fall.”

Funny, I’ve always found that the big-city daily newspapers were the ones doing the most to cover up corruption and protect special-interest groups. Meanwhile, the weekly papers, like Portland’s Willamette Week are the ones doing the investigative journalism breaking the stories like the Goldschmidt and Adams scandals.

In any case, here is a lengthy article from a Denver newsweekly about the city’s strategic transportation plan.

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Obama’s Model for High-Speed Rail: Crédit Mobilier

“History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas,” President Obama told Congress last night. “In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry.”

The rails meet. Many versions of this photo, such as the painting below from the U.S. Capitol, sanitize it by removing the bottles of alcohol.

Aside from the simple factual issue that most of the first transcontinental railroad was constructed after, not during, the war, most of Obama’s audience would have forgotten that its construction caused one of the first and biggest financial swindles of the nineteenth century. That scandal was the result of a simple fact: such a railroad made no economic sense in the late 1860s.

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Flaws in the HSR Plan

When President Obama persuaded Congress to include $8 billion for high-speed rail in the economic stimulus, he had in mind upgrades to existing freight and Amtrak tracks that would allow trains to go as fast as 110 miles per hour. In a lot of places, the main upgrades that are necessary are improvements to grade crossings.

Under Federal Railroad Administration rules, no grade crossings are allowed when trains go above 125 miles per hour. At 110 to 125, an “impenetrable barrier” (such as this four-gate crossing) must block traffic at grade crossings. From 60 to 110, the FRA allows conventional two-gate crossings, that is, the gates only need to block the “entering” lanes of the road.

Last week, someone in Michigan drove his pickup around a conventional crossing (by driving in the “exiting” lane) and got clobbered by an Amtrak train going up to 65 miles per hour. Fortunately, the driver wasn’t seriously hurt, but think what kind of damage might have been done if the train was going 110 mph. (To be fair, under the Midwest Rail Plan, this particular route was slated for only 75-mph trains.)

The other good news is that none of the 20 passengers on board the train were hurt either. Twenty passengers? Why are we spending more than a billion dollars a year subsidizing Amtrak trains, much less considering spending tens of billions on high-speed rail, when some of those trains carry fewer than half as many passengers as could fit on a typical intercity bus?

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We Can’t Afford to Run What We’ve Got, So Let’s Go to China

Transit ridership is supposedly up, so naturally Denver’s Regional Transit District is eliminating 10 transit routes, including one light-rail route and several express bus routes. This bold move will cover less than 20 percent of the agency’s $23 million gap in its budget, suggesting Denver transit riders can expect lots more route cuts in the near future.

Meanwhile, RTD board members are letting taxpayers pay for their trips to China, $329 per night beachfront hotel rooms, and $70 dinners (unsupported by receipts). Due to declining sales tax revenues, the agency has imposed salary freezes on staff — except, of course, General Manager Cal Marsella, whose contract probably makes him the highest-paid public official in the state of Colorado.

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Obama’s Housing Plan

Help buyers who are under water? The Antiplanner is okay with that; it isn’t the buyers’ fault that urban planners made housing prices volatile (unless, of course, the buyers supported those planning restrictions).

Arrest the decline in housing prices? Not so smart. The real problem is that, even after the crash, prices are still way too high in California, Florida, and several other states. Median housing prices should be twice median family incomes. If they are any higher, they should be allowed to fall.

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California: Smart Growth & Broke

The state of California has a $41 billion budget deficit. This is even worse when you realize its total budget is $143 billion, so the deficit is is 29 percent of the budget.

The planning advocates who frequent this blog will deny it, but it is no coincidence that California has the strongest smart-growth laws in the nation and the worst deficit of any state in the nation.

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The Truth Comes Out

Nevada Senator Harry Reid was the first to publicize the last-minute insertion of $8 billion in the stimulus package for high-speed rail, so many people thought he put it into the bill in order to start funding a maglev line from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. However, Politico reveals that it was President Obama himself who wanted the provision.

Obama failed to communicate this desire until after the House passed its stimulus bill. When he told the Senate he wanted money for high-speed rail, it cut funds for highways, transit, and airports by $8.3 billion and added $2 billion for HSR plus $5.5 billion for “Discretionary Grants,” which presumably could go for either roads or transit.

Obama wasn’t satisfied with $2 billion for HSR; he wanted $10 billion. So Congress eliminated the discretionary grants and raised HSR money to $8 billion. Apparently, it didn’t want to increase total transportation funding above $46 billion.

Obama thinks building high-speed rail can be a part of “rebuilding America.” The Antiplanner, of course, is skeptical. But what kind of high-speed rail does Obama want? California’s 220-mph lines on exclusive rights-of-way? Or much-less-expensive upgrades to freight lines that will allow passenger trains to go, say, 110 mph? Neither will do much for personal mobility, but at least the latter will waste a lot less money.

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Metro Fail

In an effort to lead the region in becoming more sustainable, Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, invested resources in entirely the wrong areas and so failed to significantly reduce its own energy consumption and pollution. But don’t believe me; just read this report by Metro’s own auditor.

The audit found that 91 percent of Metro’s carbon emissions resulted from power consumption and gas flaring at Metro’s landfills. Metro spent 3 percent of its sustainability resources trying to reduce these outputs. Meanwhile, commuting by Metro employees accounted for just 6 percent of Metro’s carbon emissions. So naturally, Metro invested 59 percent of its sustainability resources trying to get its people to drive less.

The report doesn’t say whether Metro actually was able to persuade some of its employees to drive less, and Metro probably has no idea. This is completely typical of Metro planning: focus on the wrong problem, don’t measure the outcomes, declare victory, and go home. Only in this case, Metro has an internal auditor keeping it honest.

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Australia Forest Fires: Just Like American, Only Different

Australia’s tragic fires have reignited a debate over public land policies that echoes the same debates in the U.S. There’s the timber industry leader who says the fires could have been prevented if only the industry had been allowed to cut more trees. There’s the conservative columnist who suggests that environmentalists be lynched for preventing broadscale fuels reduction measures.

Flickr photo by Barnardoh.

Australian forests are a bit different from those in the U.S. Eucalypts tend to be very resinous in an ecologically calculated effort to dominate the forests by burning out the competition (and then grow back faster than anything else). Lodgepole pine is similar though it does not burn so explosively.

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