Monthly Archives: November 2009

Subsidies More Than the Homes Should Cost

A story caught my eye that the state of Oregon is giving “$70.5 million in loans and tax credits to contractors throughout the state that will help fund 444 units of affordable housing.” That’s almost $159,000 per “unit.”


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Portland’s Uptown Tower received $128,000 in subsidies per housing unit.

The article doesn’t say how much is tax credits and how much is loans, but a news release from Oregon Housing and Community Services indicates it is mostly tax credits and grants. The total funds listed in the press release fall short of $70.5 million, but the grants and tax credits provided to individual projects often exceeded $100,000 per home.

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This Just In: Highways Are Subsidized

The Pew Charitable Trusts looked at highway revenues and found that they fail to cover highway costs. Only 51 percent of the cost of highways came from user fees in 2007, says Pew.

According to a Pew data file, 2007 highway user fees totaled to $98 billion while “non-user revenues” spent on highways totaled to $70 billion and another $25 billion came from bond issues. I’ve checked Pew’s source data (table HF-10 from Highway Statistics) and the numbers are accurate.

However, the Antiplanner has a few quarrels with Pew’s interpretation of the data. Most important, Pew counts as “user revenue” a number that the federal government identifies as “highway user revenues used for highways,” which in 2007 was $97.9 billion. But users actually paid $124.5 billion. Just because federal and state officials diverted most of the different to mass transit and non-transportation related funds doesn’t mean they aren’t paid by users.

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BART to Nowhere

Of all places, why does San Francisco BART want to build a new line to Livermore? Not that Livermore is truly nowhere, but a line to Livermore would merely be an extension of one of the worst-performing parts of the BART system.

Opened in 1997, BART’s 13-mile branch to Dublin is probably the least-used branch of the BART system. In its first full year of operation, it added only 11,000 weekday riders to the system, which means it carries, on a per-mile basis, about a third as many riders as the rest of the system. Yet BART planners predict that extending this line another 10 to 13 miles to Livermore will add another 30,000 or more daily riders.

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Our Real Competition

Two decades ago, the Antiplanner predicted that the big battle for world supremacy in the twenty-first century would be between authoritarian capitalism — as then represented by Singapore but being emulated on an experimental basis by China — and democratic capitalism. Someone said to me, “No, it is going to be between radical Islams and the West.” But I never worried about radical Islamic countries because they had no ability to create wealth. “A society that cannot accept interest rates cannot grow and compete,” I answered.

The attacks on September 11, 2001, seemed to cast my hypothesis into doubt. But the real loss of 9/11 was not the World Trade Center, but our own good sense. Instead of saying, “This was the act of a few radical nuts,” we decided to start two costly wars against two countries, at least one of which had nothing to do with 9/11. If the terrorists’ agenda was to get us to waste resources and weaken our economy on an overreaction against them, they succeeded brilliantly.

I was reminded of this when Robert Reich made a similar statement about authoritarian vs. democratic capitalism on Sunday’s This Week with David Stephanopoulos — and George Will more-or-less agreed. This came out of President Obama’s recent trip to China, which has focused attention on the real competition we face. China is not necessarily our enemy, but those who want to preserve what they regard as the benefits of democracy — such as free speech, individual rights, and protection for minorities — need to understand that we are likely to lose all of those benefits if we cannot compete against China.

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The Future of Intercity Passenger Transport

Early this week, the OECD’s International Transport Forum held a conference in Madrid on the Future of Interurban Passenger Transport. To a large degree, however, it was more a symposium on planners’ fantasy of intercity passenger transport.

At least, that’s what appears from looking at the subjects of the symposium’s papers. Five of the papers dealt almost exclusively with intercity rail, two (both from North Americans) with intercity highways, two with airlines, and only one with buses.

Yet the reality of intercity passenger transport is very different. Highways are by far the dominant carrier, even in Europe and Japan. Airlines are next, and rail tends to be last. Buses are also ahead of rail in most countries.

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Short of Money? Call in Federal Regulators

In 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 298 subway cars in the Washington Metrorail system are “vulnerable to catastrophic telescoping damage” and should be replaced or reinforced immediately. They weren’t, which was a major reason why nine people died in a rail collision last June.

In 2007, supposedly failsafe circuits in Metrorail’s train detection and control system began to “intermittently malfunction.” This contributed to at least one near miss before the fatal crash, and was the other major reason why nine people died in June.

Clearly, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is short of funds. It still has not begun to replace the 298 cars; instead, it is merely inserting them into the middle of trains so that, in the event of a crash, the will be buffered by newer (and hopefully stronger) cars.

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The Compact City Myth

Can smart growth — compact development combined with alternatives to the automobile — play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Five recent studies — from the Urban Land Institute, Center for Clean Air Policy, Brookings Institution, Cambridge Systematics, and the Transportation Research Board (TRB) — argue that it can.

Today, the Cato Institute releases a review of these five reports that shows that smart growth is an expensive and risky way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will take decades to implement and even longer to determine whether or not it is working.

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The Antiplanner’s Library: Climate-Constrained Transportation

Smart-growth advocates say we must reduce the growth of driving to meet greenhouse-reduction targets, because otherwise driving growth will exceed the per-mile reductions in emissions that result from technological improvements. This argument is refuted by four MIT researchers in a new book on highway and air transportation.

The flaw in the reasoning of the smart-growth advocates is that they look no further than the fuel-economy (CAFE) standards set by the Energy Independence& Security Act of 2007, which required automakers to sell cars averaging 35 mpg by 2020. The MIT researchers go far beyond that, considering alternative engines, vehicle designs, materials, and fuels. They also look at the bigger picture, asking what is the cost-effective share of emission-reduction targets that should be met by passenger transportation. (They don’t say much about freight.)

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The Movement to Driverless Cars

The idea of driverless cars is beginning to catch on. An intermediate step, road trains, is being planned in various parts of Europe. Under this concept, one vehicle (identified in the news stories as being driven by a “professional driver”) leads the way, and others get in line. The drivers of the following vehicles can read, watch a movie, or go to sleep until they decide to leave the train.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s Audi division plans to test its completely driverless technology with a high-speed drive up Pikes Peak. Volkswagen also speculates on what cars will be like in 2028.

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The Kelo Conceit

It is hard not to gloat over the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s infamous Kelo decision. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, the city of New London, Connecticut spent $78 million condemning people’s homes and bulldozing them away, and the development that was supposed to happen in that area has flopped and looks like it may never take place. (With the help of many supporters, Kelo’s own home was disassembled and moved to a new location.)

Pfizer, the company whose “world-class” research and development offices were driving New London’s plan for condos and other trendy developments, recently merged with another company and has announced it is moving out of New London. As a result, even after the economy recovers, the development that New London wanted to put on Susette Kelo’s neighborhood will probably never happen.

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