Monthly Archives: January 2011

Is It Real or Is It Portlandia?

If you buy more than $50 worth of stuff, Office Depot will deliver for free. But they might deliver it in a carbon-spewing truck, so the city of Portland has given a $6 million, five-year contract to a delivery company that promises to deliver office supplies by electric-powered tricycles.

B-Line’s slogan is “sustainable urban delivery”–but is it financially sustainable?

As Bojack says, “It’s dopier than any parody that Fred Armisen will ever appear in.”

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Yield to Transit’s Moral Superiority

Everyone knows that transit is morally superior to automobiles, so it is no surprise to see state legislatures passing laws requiring auto drivers to yield to buses when they are pulling into traffic from bus stops. The stated reason for the law–that “the inability of buses to get quickly back into the traffic flow after a stop was hurting their on-time performance”–doesn’t hold water: if buses can’t meet the timetable, change the timetable.

Yield-to-bus laws will not significantly increase transit ridership, but they will create major problems for everyone else. Giving buses a traffic advantage over cars will probably actually increase traffic congestion. It will also lead to more accidents as many motorists will not understand why buses have the right-of-way in situations where other vehicles would not. But such considerations are unimportant when the powers that be decide that it is essential to give an advantage to the less-than-2-percent of motorized passenger travel (in Denver) that uses transit over the 98 percent that uses autos.

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Regulating to Prevent the Last Crisis

In addition to mentioning high-speed rail a couple of times, President Obama’s state of the union speech mentioned the need to regulate the finance industry to prevent the kind of global crisis that took place in 2008. This received one of the loudest applauses of the evening as it has become conventional wisdom that the crisis was due to banker greed and the lack of regulation. “The main cause of the crisis was the behavior of the banks–largely a result of misguided incentives unrestrained by good regulation,” says Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

An alternate view is provided by Jeffrey Friedman: the crisis was actually caused by too much regulation, most of which had been written precisely to prevent such crises. But instead of preventing financial panics, successive waves of regulation each laid the groundwork for the next crash. Friedman presents his view in a new book, What Caused the Financial Crisis, which also includes the paper by Stiglitz that contains the above quote.

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State of the Federal Budget

In his state of the union address, President Obama proposed to build a high-speed rail network reaching 80 percent of Americans within 25 years. But he also proposed to freeze domestic spending for five years. These two goals are incompatible. We can build that rail network, but it will not lead to the economic revival Obama envisions; it will only make it harder to reign in government spending.

More than three-fourths of federal revenues go for just four things: social security, medicare, medicaid, and interest on the national debt. By 2020, those four things will consume more than 90 percent of federal revenues. By 2030, they will consume all of those revenues.

At least, that’s the projection made by a November 15, 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office. It has apparently become news now because the national debt exceeded $14 trillion for the first time on January 20.

One possible lesson from this is that, if you want to build an expensive high-speed rail network or some other costly project, you better do it now while the federal government is still solvent. A more responsible lesson should be that we shouldn’t expect the federal government to things for us that the market can do better (and at no cost to taxpayers). If private investors won’t build high-speed rail, maybe we don’t really need high-speed rail.

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More Security Issues

The Antiplanner is having a battle with someone who is hacking this blog. They are somehow signing up as a user and giving themselves administrative privileges over the site. Then they add some software which is probably spreading viruses across the Internet or something. There doesn’t appear to be any risk to users, but I’ve added more security features and, of course, deleted the phony users.

The vast majority of the 1,300 users who have signed up to make comments on this site appear to be phony, probably bots that signed up to write spam comments. The site’s spam filters prevent that, but I decided to delete a few hundred users who have suspicious email addresses. I apologize if I accidentally deleted a real user; if that happened to you, I hope you will forgive me and sign up again to submit some comments.

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Heritage: Postpone Reauthorization

Congress is scheduled to reauthorize federal surface transportation funding this year, but faithful Antiplanner ally Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation recommends that it postpone reauthorization for two years. In the meantime, Utt would suspend all earmarks and grant programs (such as New Starts) and just give that portion of the money to the states and let them spend it on transportation as they see fit. In the parlance of transportation funding, such funds would be “flexible,” meaning they could go for either highways or transit.

Utt also says the states should get no more money than is actually coming into the highway trust fund from gas taxes and other federal user fees (mainly truck taxes). This doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but the last reauthorization required Congress to appropriate a specified level of funds to the states even if revenues failed to cover those funds.

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Housing and Economic Growth

Nations with well-functioning housing markets that are responsive to changes in demand will be more likely to grow faster than nations with strict land-use regulation, says a new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report is a part of a series of studies known as Going for Growth that are promoting economic development.

The report (which is also summarized in this presentation) compared housing markets in more than 20 leading nations and showed that those with less regulation tended to have more affordable housing whose prices were less volatile. Some of the data in the report, however, were overly simplistic: the United States and Canada, for example, were each considered as single housing markets, when in fact housing policies and market conditions vary tremendously from state to state, province to province, and metro area to metro area.

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Editing Comments

This site was briefly shut down yesterday when our server noted unusual activity. I did a scan of the site and found some malicious code in the comment editor plug in. I also discovered some anonymous person of foreign persuasion had made themselves into a site administrator. I deleted that user, changed the passwords, and deleted the comment editor.

I have now installed a new comment editor that hopefully will not be so vulnerable to hackers. The new editor is supposed to allow users to edit their comments, but only for 90 minutes after they have made the comment. Let me know how that works for you.

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House Transportation Subcommittee Chairs

Yesterday, Representative John Mica, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced the names of the chairs and members of the committee’s various subcommittees. The good news for those who believe in user-fee driven transportation is that the chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee is John “Jimmy” Duncan, Jr., who is probably one of the four or five most fiscally conservative members of the House. The good news for those who believe in high-speed rail subsidies is that the chair of the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, which oversees Amtrak, is Bill Shuster, who has a history of sending pork to his district in Pennsylvania.

Not your George Bush conservative: Rep. Duncan questioning the high cost of the war in Afghanistan.

Representing Knoxville, TN, Duncan is a hardcore paleoconservative. For those not familiar with the nuances in the conservative community, paleos are almost the polar opposites of neoconservatives. Paleos hated George W. Bush with a passion. Duncan himself voted against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as every stimulus bill. He thinks global warming is a scam, so he probably won’t be persuaded by many environmental arguments. Like almost all members of Congress, Duncan has taken advantage of earmarks, but he supports legislation to ban them and wants to cut federal spending.

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Spend It While You’ve Got It

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown said that the state’s financial problems are so bad that it should end urban-renewal subsidies. So the state’s urban-renewal agencies have selflessly stepped up and turned over surplus funds to the state to help it solve its financial problems.

Just kidding. Instead, redevelopment agencies all over the state have decided to blow their budgets by committing as much of their funds as possible before the state can take control.

This is no surprise and it shouldn’t dampen efforts to revoke urban-renewal powers. Because most of today’s urban-renewal tax revenues are dedicated to paying off urban-renewal bonds, the greatest benefit from ending urban renewal will be in stopping the sale of any further bonds.

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