Monthly Archives: October 2011

LaHood Looks Forward to “Wonderful Opportunities”

Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood announced recently that he plans to step down from his post at the end of President Obama’s first term and that he is looking forward to some “wonderful opportunities” in the private sector. This naturally raises the question of what kind of opportunities await a bumbling has-been who betrayed his party’s principles in order to unconditionally support a president of the opposite party.

For example, the former Republican congressman from Illinois recently charged that Republicans in Congress today oppose Obama’s transportation policies because they “don’t want Obama to be successful.” Since Obama’s policies call for spending hundreds of billions of dollars the nation doesn’t have on transportation projects the nation doesn’t need, it is more likely that fiscal conservatives don’t think those policies can be successful at accomplishing anything other than wasting money on a grander scale than any other domestic project in history.

LaHood’s only worthwhile legacy will be his emphasis on transportation safety, something that’s been forgotten by many planners who are willing to make streets more dangerous in order to achieve their goal of getting people out of their cars. (When told that his work for bicycle safety makes him a “hipster,” he replied, “I don’t even know what that term means.”) Unfortunately, LaHood’s safety concerns have not been strong enough for him to actually investigate whether the things he wants to impose, such as seat belts on buses, are cost-effective ways of improving safety.

The office of Secretary of Transportation has somehow become a “throwaway” position that recent administrations have used to make their cabinets appear more diverse. Bush kept a Democrat, Norman Mineta, in the office while Obama appointed a Republican, LaHood. We’ll see what the next administration does. As someone commented on the Washington Post web site, after Obama’s first term, “The other members of the cabinet will be leaving as well.” Maybe, if Republicans can find a credible alternative.

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Getting Priorities Straight

Facing a $12 million to $17 million budget shortfall next year, Portland’s TriMet transit agency is cutting bus service for lack of funds. But it has enough funds to spend $250,000 on a giant sculpture of a deer with a baby face.

The agency has already cut bus service by 13 percent and light-rail service by 10 percent in the last two years. Yet it is spending at least $3 million on “art” as part of its $200-million-per-mile light-rail line to Milwaukie, one of the most wasteful rail projects ever. As a matter of policy, TriMet spends 1.5 percent of its capital expenditures on art, even though it is not required to do so.

After all, the most important thing is to keep Portland weird, not to actually provide transportation to people who need it. In furtherance of that goal, TriMet recently hired a multicultural manager and a transit equity manager, no doubt paying both more than $100,000 a year.

TriMet asked the public for ideas to help it close its budget gap. Most of the ideas involved taxing someone else such as auto drivers or out-of-town visitors. How about ending capital-intensive projects and focusing on providing efficient transit service on routes and schedules that fill up the buses so that losses are minimized? I bet they never thought of that one.

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RIP Bill Niskanen

The Antiplanner was saddened to hear that William Niskanen, who for more than two decades chaired the board of the Cato Institute, died yesterday morning after suffering a stroke Tuesday night. Niskanen was a tenured professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1975 when he took a job as chief economist with the Ford Motor Company. He was fired from that job five years later when Ford wanted to lobby for restrictions on auto imports and he told them, “a common commitment to refrain from seeking special favors [from the government] serves the same economic function as a common commitment to refrain from stealing.”

After a short stint teaching at UCLA, President Reagan named Niskanen to his Council of Economic Advisors, and Niskanen eventually chaired that council. His obituary doesn’t say so, but I am pretty sure he was dismissed by Reagan in 1985 for disagreeing with some of the deficit spending that Reagan was incurring.

Niskanen’s habit of putting principle over self-interest made him a perfect fit for the Cato Institute, which–for those who don’t know–is sort of the Earth First! of free-market groups. Where Earth First!’s motto is “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth,” Cato’s motto could be “No compromise in defense of personal and economic liberty.” Cato was only six years old in 1985 and it counted itself fortunate to be able to attract a scholar of Niskanen’s caliber.

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California Bus Association

The Antiplanner spent the last couple of days at the annual meeting of the California Bus Association, which left me unable to post as I was too cheap to pay the hotel $9.95 per day for Internet access even though the nice people at the Bus Association would probably have covered the cost. In any case, I learned a lot at the meeting that I’ll probably comment on in future posts.

I’ve never been to a bus association convention before, but my impression was of a thriving, growing industry. Hundreds of different companies offer scheduled and charter bus services; there are quite a few different manufacturers; and new buses feature intriguing technologies including adaptive cruise control, vehicle stability control, and on-board fire detection and suppression. Moreover, the market is rapidly shifting in an endless series of buy-outs and mergers. It felt more like Silicon Valley than a nearly-100-year-old industry that had been in decline from before 1980 to some time in the last decade.

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Department of Irony

Officials from Aurora, Colorado are in a tizzy because someone conducted some focus groups to see what taxpayers thought of a $300 million subsidy to a proposed hotel. Such focus groups “violate the ethics code for economic development organizations in the region,” said Tom Clark, the executive vice-president of Denver’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

Apparently, it is perfectly ethical to steal money that taxpayers had allocated to schools, fire, and police and give it to a private developer, but it is unethical to ask those taxpayers how they fell about such theft. Colorado’s “taxpayer bill of rights” prevents governments from raising taxes by more than a certain percentage each year–but tax-increment financing, the main source of subsidies for the proposed hotel, is exempt from this law.

“You can’t work against your neighbor, and you can’t run around them,” Clark said. “If you do, you’re subject to permanent expulsion from the Metro Denver EDC.” Of course, it is always possible that some people don’t want to be a part of Clark’s cozy little club of thieves.

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2010 Census Data

Despite huge efforts to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles, nearly 8 million more people drove alone to work in 2010 than in 2000, according to data released by the Census Bureau. Wendell Cox’s review of the data show that the other big gainer was “worked at home,” which grew by nearly 2 million over the decade.

Transit gained less than a million, but transit numbers were so small in 2000 that its share grew from 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent of total workers. While drive alone grew from 75.6 percent to 76.5 percent, the big loser was carpooling, which declined by more than 2 million workers. As a result, driving’s share as a whole declined from 87.9 percent to 86.2 percent.

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Donor States? Recipient States?

Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation uses 2009 data to show that more than half the states send more gas taxes to the Treasury than they get back in federal transportation dollars. But the GAO uses 2005 through 2009 data to argue that, in fact, all the states have gotten back more than their residents paid in gas taxes.

It is likely that both are correct. Particularly in 2007 and 2008, the federal government spent more on surface transportation than it took in. If you spend more than you receive, then all everybody wins–except whoever has to eventually make up the difference.

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Jerry Brown Scores Again

The Antiplanner applauds California Governor Jerry Brown–who proposed and ultimately persuaded the legislature to kill urban redevelopment agencies–for vetoing a bicycle bill last week. The bill would have required motorists to slow down to 15 mph if they were passing a bicycle and unable to give the cyclist at least three feet of room.

Proponents argued that this was for cycling safety, but as the Antiplanner has previously pointed out, most car-bicycle accidents take place at intersections, while only a tiny number consist of the car hitting the cyclist while overtaking it from the rear. Thus, this bill would have imposed a huge cost on auto drivers–and, as Brown pointed out, could lead to more auto-to-auto accidents–while doing little for bicycle safety.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is flying to Denver today for three presentations. First, I’ll speak about the futility of government planning to a group called Hear Us Now in Thornton. The event will take place tonight at 6:00 pm at that bastion of free-markets (they don’t take TIF money), Gander Mountain, 9923 Grant, Thornton (accessible from Thornton Parkway or 104th).

Tomorrow (Wednesday, October 12), I’ll speak to the Boulder Land Use Coalition about the destructiveness of comprehensive planning. The event is from 11:30 am to 3:00 pm at the Olive Garden, 2685 Pearl Street, Boulder, and lunch is $20 per person.

Tomorrow night, I’ll speak to Liberty on the Rocks about the environmental impacts of rail projects. This will take place at Choppers Sports Grill, 80 South Madison Street in Cherry Creek, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. All three events are open to the public.

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Inside the Consulting World

Last Saturday the Antiplanner participated in a conference about the Columbia River Crossing, a government-planning effort aimed at replacing a bridge that doesn’t need to be replaced so Portland can sneak its light-rail system (and associated land-use planning) into Vancouver, Washington. One of the more fascinating presentations at the conference came from Tiffany Couch, a forensic accountant who has been studying the budget of the planning team called the Columbia River Crossing.

It is public knowledge that this team has already spent $130 million doing nothing but pushing paper around. Since the bridge itself could be built for less than a billion dollars, that’s a healthy share of the cost. Of course, the planners’ goal is to spend well over $3 billion on the bridge, which would include money for light rail and other bells and whistles that are probably just as unnecessary.

What the public didn’t know, until Ms. Couch’s presentation (4 MB PPTX file), was that almost all of this $130 million was paid to one consulting firm. In 2005, Couch revealed, ODOT and WSDOT issued a “notice to consultants” that they wanted to hire someone to write the environmental impact statement for the project (page 17 of Couch’s presentation). “The project team anticipates the total cost of the environmental phase to be in excess of $20 million.” It asked consultants to submit and proposal with a list of their qualifications.

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