Monthly Archives: February 2012

Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in Honolulu this week talking with people about the city’s planned $5.7-billion rail line. Rail advocates want to believe the rail plan is set in stone, but not everyone agrees.

The project still has many obstacles to overcome. If the transportation bill that Congress eventually passes recognizes fiscal realities, for example, the feds may not have the funds to contribute to half the cost of this $285-million-per-mile project. In any case, if you are in Honolulu this week, I hope to see you there.

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Letting the Infrastructure Crumble

Portland can spend hundreds of millions on streetcars and billions on light rail. But it is letting its most-valuable asset–the city’s $5 billion road system–fall apart, says an expose featured in yesterday’s Oregonian. The city’s transportation department, says the article, has enough money to hire eight new employees to oversee streetcars, build more than a dozen miles of new bike paths, and co-sponsor a Rail-volution conference in Los Angeles. But it doesn’t have enough many to repave any badly deteriorating street until 2017 at the earliest.

Even when the federal government was handing out stimulus funds in 2009, Portland decided not to put any of the funds into its streets. None of its projects, the city claims, were “shovel-ready” (as if the high-speed rail projects that did get funded were in any sense shovel-ready).

It is hard to see this as anything but malign neglect. Smart-growth advocates (such as Todd Litman, who the Antiplanner debated last week) insist they aren’t anti-automobile. But they are for spending all your transportation dollars on alternatives to the automobile even as your bridges and streets fall apart.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is headed to Vancouver BC this morning for a debate on whether smart growth and light rail should be applied in Vancouver suburbs south of the Fraser River. The other side of the question will be represented by Todd Litman. The debate will take place at 7:00 pm tonight at the Langley Municipal Hall. If you are in Vancouver, I hope to see you there.

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Toronto Transit Chief Fired

In an unusual move, Toronto’s transit commission fired its chief executive, Gary Webster, because he didn’t think it was cost-effective to build an expensive subway. (Usually, transit chiefs are fired for building an expensive rail line.)

Actually, Webster thought that light rail was more cost-effective than subways. But Toronto Robert Ford wanted subways. He asked Webster for an objective evaluation of the two, and Webster presented a persuasive report favoring light rail. Apparently, Webster didn’t get the memo that he was supposed to skew the analysis in favor of the mayor’s preferences. The mayor tried to bury the report, but when the city council voted to support light rail instead of subways the mayor retaliated by convincing five members of the nine-member transit commission to fire Webster “without just cause.” That decision will cost the city $550,000, Webster’s severance pay.

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Turnabout Is Fair Play?

Many people are chortling that the libertarian Heartland Institute, one of the leading skeptics of anthropogenic climate change, had documents about its campaigns stolen and published. This is only fair, they say, since Heartland didn’t complain when someone stole the emails of leading government-funded climatologists that showed that the scientists were manipulating the data to make global warming appear more real.

Now global warming activist Peter Gleick has admitted that he is the one who used subterfuge to obtain the Heartland documents. Heartland had claimed that one of the documents was faked. Gleick says someone sent him this document anonymously, and to confirm it Gleick called Heartland pretending to be a board member and asked to have the institute’s board reports sent to him. He then released all the documents, including the spurious one, to the press.

As the Wall Street Journal observes, what the documents actually reveal is that Heartland operates on a relative shoestring budget funded mainly by individual donors, not corporations or government. It did receive a small grant from the infamous (and libertarian) Koch brothers, but Heartland says that grant was for a health care project, not climate change. Heartland’s total annual budget of less than $8 million is a tiny fraction of the budget of such groups as Natural Resources Defense Council ($95 million) or World Wildlife Fund ($238 million). Yes, those groups do other things with their money but so does Heartland.

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Another Light-Rail Success Failure

Hampton Roads Transit is claiming success six months after opening its light-rail line in Norfolk. The line is carrying an average of 4,642 riders each weekday, which is far greater than the 2,900 that had been forecast.

“Crowds” of as many as dozens of people look bored and apathetic at the opportunity to take free rides on the opening day for Norfolk’s light-rail line, August 19, 2011. Flickr photo by D. Allen Covey, VDOT.

The only problem is that, back in 2003, Hampton Roads Transit confidently predicted the 7.4-mile-long line would carry 10,400 riders each weekday in its opening year. Deft last-minute re-predictions of much lower numbers allow the the agency to claim success when actual ridership is less than 45 percent of the original prediction.

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Back to the Drawing Board

Besieged by fiscal conservatives for deficit spending and by the transit lobby for eliminating a guaranteed source of transit subsidies, Speaker of the House John Boehner has postponed consideration of the transportation bill (which Roll Call calls the “transit bill” even though transit gets only about 20 percent of the money). In a post on the Cato Institute’s blog yesterday, the Antiplanner makes some suggestions for fixing the bill.

There are really three ways that House Republicans could try to compromise with Senate Democrats. One would be to include earmarks and other pork barrel in the bill, which Democrats and many Republicans love but Tea Party Republicans hate. The second would be to give more money to transit at the expense of highways–and in particular to allow transit to keep a share of federal gas taxes.

The third way is to spend more than the government is taking in. The 2005 bill provided guaranteed spending every year, but due to the recession gas tax revenues declined after 2007, leading to deficit spending. When House Republicans made a proposal last summer to reign in spending to be no more than revenues, Democrats wailed that the bill would cost thousands of jobs.

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The Rail Empire Strikes Back

Rail advocates responded to the Antiplanner recent visit to Charlotte, NC, by inviting William Lind, who bills himself as “a conservative who supports rail transit,” to comment on Charlotte’s proposed Red Line project.

“Real conservatives like commuter trains,” says Lind. How does he know? Because the average income of people who ride commuter trains in Lake County, Illinois is $74,000 a year, while the average income of bus riders in that county is $14,000 a year. Lind takes it for granted that everybody knows that rich people are conservative, and in Lind’s mind rich conservatives know that they deserve to have expensive, tax-subsidized trains while poor people should be happy with relatively inexpensive tax-subsidized buses.

Unfortunately, warns Lind, some rail critics “present themselves as conservatives, but they are not.” I don’t know who he is talking about, since the Antiplanner never presented himself as conservative. Lind goes on to say that these pseudo-conservatives are really libertarians, the difference being that conservatives support rail transit “depending on the project’s merits,” while “libertarians oppose all rail transit all the time.”

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Why Congress Should End New Starts

The House Republican transportation bill ends gas tax subsidies of transit and requires that any new rail projects receiving “New Starts” grants meet strict financial tests and not simply be awarded on the basis of some vague concept such as “livability.” In response, Secretary of Livability Ray LaHood says it is vital to keep funding transit out of gas taxes. As an example, he cites the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line, which he says is “an integral part of rebuilding the nation’s economy.”

Really? This 7.3-mile line line is expected to cost $1.5 billion and carry just 9,300 new riders (that is, people who weren’t previously riding the bus) each weekday. Since most people ride round trip, that 4,650 round-trip riders a day. The high cost is enough money to buy each of those new round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every year for the 30-year life of the project.

This will be the most expensive, and one of the least-used, light-rail lines in Portland. The light-rail will be slower than many of the buses in the corridor–buses that will be cancelled when the rail line opens.

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One More Chance

Construction on Honolulu’s ill-conceived rail line–at least $5.7 billion, and more likely at least $7 billion, for a 20-mile elevated line–is supposed to start next month. Polls indicate that voters who once supported the project have turned against it. Fortunately, Hawai’ians have one more chance to stop this idiotic project before too much money is wasted.

Artist’s conception of Honolulu’s planned elevated rail line.

The incumbent pro-rail mayor, Peter Carlisle, who filled the seat in a special election when the previous pro-rail mayor made an ill-fated run for governor, is up for reelection this year. A surprise entry into the race is Ben Cayetano, Hawai’i’s governor from 1994 to 2002, who decided to run solely to stop the rail project.

“Adding $5 to $7 billion in debt for an elevated, heavy rail system that will not reduce traffic congestion and will suck the air out of the city’s ability to provide more important basic services does not make sense,” says Cayetano in a comment posted on an interview where Senator Daniel Inouye endorses Carlisle. The only other major candidate in the race is also pro-rail.

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