Monthly Archives: August 2009

Vehicle-Mile Fees Without GPS

One of the perennial concerns about paying for roads through a vehicle-mile fee rather than a gas tax is protecting privacy. While this can be done using a GPS system, such systems would require a lot of new infrastructure to collect the data.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have proposed an alternate system that relies on existing cell phone infrastructure and the electronics that have been built into virtually all cars at least since 1996. A device would be added to each car that tallies miles driven and text-messages mileage data when it is within range of the cell phone network.

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Imperial Washington

Much has been written about how the recession has led to a transfer of power from Wall Street to Washington, and you might think this is a good thing if you are naive enough to think Washington is more democratic than markets. But Joel Kotkin points out something even more serious: power is shifting from all American cities to Washington.

Wall Street traders might have, for a time, captured a greater share of national wealth than they once did. But they never tried to tell the rest of us where to live, how to travel, or what kind of jobs can locate in your city. Washington is poised to do just that.

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High-Speed Rail EIR Inadequate

A California judge ruled yesterday that the environmental impact report (EIR) written for the California high-speed rail project is inadequate and must be done over. Shortly before the ruling, Quentin Kopp — a powerful politician who formerly chaired and still sits on the rail authority’s board — called the lawsuit “frivolous” and predicted that it would be thrown out.

But Judge Michael Kenny concluded (750KB pdf) that the high-speed rail proposal was too vague. As a result, the EIR contained “an inadequate discussion of the impacts of the Pacheco alignment alternative on surrounding businesses and residences which may be displaced, construction impacts on the Monterey Highway, and impacts on Union Pacific’s use of its right-of-way and spurs and consequently its freight operations.”

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Growth Management Is an Elite Good

Thomas Ragonetti has practiced land-use law for more than three decades and taught land-use planning at the University of Denver since 1993. This has led him to the same conclusion as the Antiplanner: “Growth management is inherently an elite or luxury good.”

“The wealthy will always win a bidding war for the most desirable dwellings while the poorer classes end up being squeezed,” Denver Post writer Vincent Carroll explains. “The more extreme the growth management, the farther it will slice up the income scale.”

So Colorado has Boulder, one of the nation’s earliest practitioners of growth management, whose housing is more expensive (relative to incomes) than 90 percent of the rest of the country. Most of the 10 percent that is more expensive is in California, most of whose coastal cities having practiced growth management almost as long as (or longer than) Boulder. Of course, the people in these cities mostly regard themselves as “progressive,” meaning they care about poor people — they just want them to live somewhere else.

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Light Rail Is Deadly, So Give the Feds More Power

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has published data verifying the Antiplanner’s conclusion that light rail is just about the most dangerous form of urban travel in America. Not necessarily dangerous to the riders; just to anyone who happens to be nearby. Of course, we always blame the accidents on the people who get hit.

So what is the FTA’s conclusion? That it needs more power to regulate transit safety. We heard the same thing after the Washington MetroRail crash that killed nine people: just give the FTA power to regulate transit safety.

That’s a pretty dumb idea considering it was the FTA that funded all those rail projects in the first place. Unlike subways, light rail sharing the right-of-way with cars and pedestrians is inherently dangerous, like putting a vicious dog in a room with nursery school children. Having someone monitor the dog is not going to help much if the dog is faster than the guard. A real solution to safer transit is to stop building light rail. Then no one would be needed to regulate it.

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Glaeser Looks at High-Speed Rail

In a four-part article on the New York Times Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser scrutinized high-speed rail and concludes that the benefits are overwhelmed by the costs. Part one focused on construction costs and concluded that true high-speed rail would cost about $50 million per mile.

Part two compared the costs with the benefits to users and calculated that, even using the most optimistic ridership numbers, the costs would be at least three times the benefits. Part three added in environmental benefits, and even with generous assumptions about those benefits concluded that total benefits still fall far short of the costs.

Part four asks whether high-speed rail would cause cities to become more centralized or if it would simply lead to more sprawl as distant towns effectively become suburbs of major cities. Glaeser takes the questionable position that centralization is a good thing, and he questions whether high-speed rail would contribute to that supposedly desirable outcome. But he concludes that, even if high-speed rail makes cities more centralized, the benefits of such centralization would still fall short of the costs of the rail projects.

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Transportation Energy Data

The Department of Energy has just published the 28th edition of the Transportation Energy Data Book, including data for 2007. Since this was the source of some of the Antiplanner’s data used to compare energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of cars vs. rail transit, it is worth taking a look to see what has changed.

Two of the most important pages contain tables 2.13 and 2.14, physical pages 64 and 65. These list the energy consumption per passenger mile of various forms of transportation between 1970 and 2007.

The tables indicate that, between 2006 and 2007, energy consumption per passenger mile of cars increased by 0.1 percent. For light trucks, it decreased by 0.9 percent, but for transit buses it increased by 1.3 percent. Airlines reduced energy consumption per passenger mile by 3.0 percent; Amtrak by 5.1 percent; and light/heavy rail transit by 4.8 percent. However, commuter rail energy consumption per passenger mile increased by 4.4 percent.

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High-Speed Mythology

The Midwest High-Speed Rail Association (MHSRA, as distinguished from the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative or MRRI) has a web page that supposedly separates facts from fiction. In fact, this page plays fast and loose with the facts. Since many of the “fictions” that the group supposedly exposes are from the Antiplanner, I’ll take this opportunity to respond.

As you read through the MHSRA’s supposed list of fictions, keep in mind that the reports the MHSRA is reviewing were written in response to Obama’s and MRRI’s plan to boost the speed of Midwestern and other passenger trains on existing freight lines to 110 mph. The MHSRA wants to build brand-new tracks that will allow much higher speed passenger trains. Without making the distinction, it often conflates these two proposals, responding to criticisms of 110-mph trains by arguing that the criticism is wrong when applied to 150-mph or faster trains. In fact, proposals for 150-mph or faster trains have their own flaws that the MHSRA conveniently ignores because they were rarely mentioned in reviews of 110-mph rail proposals.

Supposed fact: Critics of high-speed rail are “advocates for the status quo,” meaning “gridlock, high fuel costs and severe pollution.” Reality: The critics cited by the MHSRA (Cato, Heritage, and Reason) all support devolution of federal transportation programs to the states, an end to all transportation subsidies, and cost-effective means of enabling mobility while protecting the environment. This is hardly the status quo and is arguably further from the status quo than advocates of high-speed rail.

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Travels with the Antiplanner – #1: The Table

As everyone knows, the oil companies pay the Antiplanner to conspire with General Motors to force everyone who walks, bicycles, or rides trains to drive instead. So naturally, when I get some time off, my favorite forms of recreation are hiking, cycling, and rail fanning.

Last weekend, I took a few days to hike in Oregon’s Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. My objective was to climb the Table, a flat-topped feature unusual for a volcanic landscape. I first noticed the Table last summer when I hiked part of the Pacific Crest Trail through the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness.

The Table from the Pacific Crest Trail. Click any image for a larger view.

The maps show no trails or easy approaches to the top of the Table. It was also too far to reach and return in one day, and for the last decade or so I’ve limited myself to dayhikes, not overnight backpacks. So getting to the Table became a personal challenge.

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No BART Strike

The Census Bureau says that about 5.1 percent of commuters in the San Francisco-Oakland urban area take the Bay Area Rapid Transit to work, compared with 10 percent who ride bus or light rail and 72 percent who go by auto. So naturally, the media predicted complete chaos if BART workers went on strike, as they threatened to do yesterday.

As it happens, last-minute negotiations helped to avert the strike, possibly because union leaders realized that public sentiment was against them. Of course, we don’t yet know what final deal was reached; historically, transit agencies cave into the unions, but this time BART is feeling such a pinch that it may not have given up too much.

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