Monthly Archives: September 2011

Blame the Insurance Company

Here’s a tip for transit agencies: Buy insurance guaranteeing ridership revenue so that, when you screw up and ridership declines, you can sue the insurance company to cover the revenue losses. That’s what Washington MetroRail has done in response to ridershop losses that it claims resulted from the 2009 accident that killed 9 people.

According to Metro, delays in repairs led to systemwide losses of 6 million trips, which would have produced about $13 million in revenue. So it wants its insurer to cover those revenue losses. The Washington Examiner article about the lawsuit strongly hints that at least some of those ridership losses might have been due to the shrinking economy instead.

What the article doesn’t say is that the accident was caused by Metro’s own failure to adequately maintain its signaling system. Why bother to maintain your rail lines when your insurance company is obligated to cover your losses when the system fails?

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Triple-A Sues PATH

The American Automobile Association is suing the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PATH) for raising bridge tolls. AAA doesn’t oppose tolls, but it does oppose tolls whose revenues won’t be spent on activities that have a “functional relationship to transportation.” Since these bridge tolls will be used to subsidize the new World Trade Center, AAA argues they are illegal under federal law.

The Antiplanner cheers AAA’s suit, but wonders why the association didn’t sue PATH years ago when the original World Trade Center was also being subsidized by bridge tolls. Maybe the current political environment has emboldened AAA to be a little stronger in representing its members’ interests.

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DC Congestion the Worst

The Texas Transportation Institute has published its 2011 urban mobility report, and this year it is based on real measurements of actual congestion rather than formulas. According to the report, in 2010 the nation’s worst congestion was in Washington, DC, where the average commuter wastes 74 hours a year sitting in traffic compared with only 64 hours in Los Angeles, which long was rated as having the worst congestion.

While that’s great news for pundits who want to write about how the nation’s capital is thriving while the rest of the country is miserable, it doesn’t ring true to the Antiplanner. According to 2008 data published by the Federal Highway Administration, the nation’s most productive highways are in Los Angeles.

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What Is Middle Class?

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Proctor & Gamble was no longer marketing to the middle class but instead has a two-tier marketing strategy (if you don’t have a subscription, you can get the gist of the article here). This has led to all kinds of discussion by the chattering class about America’s disappearing middle class.

The implication of the WSJ article is that Proctor & Gamble is marketing to an upper class and a lower class. The Antiplanner disagrees. What we are seeing instead is a re-bifurcation of what for a time was commonly called the middle class into what sociologists usually define as the middle and working classes.

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High-Speed Rail Is Still Dead (and Let’s Keep It That Way)

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to spend a token $100 million on high-speed rail after its own transportation subcommittee had zeroed out funding for the program. The purpose, said a rail advocate with US PIRG, is “to keep things on life support until Congress comes to its senses.”

The only way Congress will “come to its senses” and support high-speed rail is if the Democrats take control of both the House and Senate. Does anything think that is going to happen soon? It doesn’t seem so inside the beltway, but to the Antiplanner, $100 million is a lot of money. To just casually throw that around to keep a rightfully defunct program on life support is ridiculous.

Interesting that US PIRG gets described as a “consumer advocacy group.” The PIRGs were consumer advocates when they were challenging bait-and-switch marketing or promoting auto safety. But promoting a huge construction program whose product few consumers were use is not consumer advocacy; it is corporate advocacy. the Antiplanner wonders how long it will take before progressives come to their senses and figure that out.

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Here We Go Again

Density is good. That’s the message from Ryan Avent, a writer for The Economist, whose new ebook, The Gated City, received a boost from a promotional op ed in the New York Times.

Density, according to Avent, makes people wealthier, happier, and more productive. The data he uses to support these ideas, however, are suspect. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to grasp the distinction between metropolitan area and urbanized area. He understands that metropolitan area is the wrong measure of an urban area’s density, so he uses a weighted-average density of census tracts in a metropolitan area. A metropolitan area such as San Jose, whose urban area density is the third-densest in the nation, ends up appearing less dense than New York, whose urban area is considerably less dense but which has a high density core.

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Sorry Smart Growthers, Baby Boomers Aren’t Interested

One of the articles of faith among smart-growth advocates is that retiring baby boomers will want to move into downtown or suburban high-density, mixed-use developments. In 2009, “Chris” Nelson himself came to Damascus, a very low-density suburb of Portland, to tell residents how wonderful it would be if they rezoned their city for high-density housing. (Nelson is the University of Utah planning professor who claims the United States will have 22 million “surplus” single-family homes by 2025 because so many Americans will prefer to live in multifamily housing.)

A recent survey of affluent baby boomers tossed some water on this theory. The survey found that 65 percent of baby boomers plan to stay in their current homes when they return (down from 80 percent of their parents). Of the remaining 35 percent, only 4 percent say they want to move to a downtown condominium and just 3 percent say they want to live in a suburban condo. By comparison, 14 percent say they hope to move to a resort community.

This suggests that twice as many want to move to lower densities as those who aspire to higher densities. While this survey was only of high-income baby boomers, I suspect the answers of other baby boomers wouldn’t be much different. Any investors who put money into downtown or suburban condos based on Nelson’s ideas are likely to lose that money.

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Another LRT Exceeds Minimalist Expectations

Norfolk Virginia finally opened its light-rail line, and ridership “exceeds expectations” at 5,600 riders a day. Considering they run 212 trains a weekday, that’s just over 26 passengers per train. How many 40-passenger buses would have been needed to handle all that traffic?

Of course, the rail line exceeded expectations in many other ways as well. The 7.4-mile line was originally expected to cost less than $200 million. The final cost was at least $120 million over that. It was also supposed to be open for business in 2008. They exceeded that expectation as well. The original projection was for 10,500 weekday riders by 2021. They’ll have to double ridership to meet that. A lot of city and transit officials also expected the rail line would be a feather in their caps. Instead, they were lucky not to be tarred and feathered when they were run out of town over cost overruns.

Despite the underestimated costs and inflated ridership numbers, the Federal Transit Administration gave Norfolk light rail a “not recommended” rating in 2004. Too bad the agency changed its mind (or had its mind changed for it by Virginia’s congressional delegation). They could have saved taxpayers a lot of money on a truly wasteful project. But that’s the story of all light rail in a nutshell.

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Be Careful What You Wish For

A House Natural Resources Committee bill would turn national forests into fiduciary trusts mandated to produce both a minimum amount of timber and a minimum amount of revenues for the counties in which the forests are located. Thus, the Antiplanner’s original proposal to turn federal lands into fiduciary trusts become increasingly warped.

A fiduciary trust requires a trustee (who manages the trust), a beneficiary (who gets the benefits of the trust), a trustor (who sets up the trust), and a trust corpus or assets that are to be managed. Trusts differ from ordinary government agencies in that the trusts are obligated to manage the assets solely for the beneficiaries, which is a lot simpler than the multiple jobs of most agencies (create jobs, help local clients, keep politicians happy, etc.).

The Antiplanner’s original idea was that public lands would be managed by two trusts. One would produce maximum revenue by selling, leasing, or otherwise permitting various land uses. Some of the revenues would go to the Treasury but some would go to the second trust which would be obligated to maximize the value of any non-revenue producing resources such as endangered species. The amount of revenues the first trust would produce would depend on how much it could profitably produce without harming the long-term productivity of the land (which trustees are also obliged to protect). The second trust could use some of the revenues to buy or lease resources from the first and not use them if it felt that would be the best way to achieve its mission of maximizing non-market values.

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Ten Best Transit Cities? Not!

Someone asked the Antiplanner to comment on this list of the supposed ten best transit cities in the nation. The list includes, in order, New York, Denver, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, Portland, Washington, San Jose, Honolulu, and Salt Lake City.

This is supposed to be for students, but it must really be for students who lack analytical skills. To the Antiplanner, a transit system is a good system if it carries a lot of people. If it is not carrying a lot of people, it doesn’t matter how pretty their trains are, it doesn’t deserve to be on anyone’s ten-best list.

The list is correct that New York is number one. Washington and Boston, despite having increasingly decrepit rail systems, also deserve to be on the list. Honolulu? Absolutely. Denver, Los Angeles, San Jose? Not hardly. Portland, Salt Lake City? Marginal.

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