Monthly Archives: April 2012

You Lose Some, You Lose Some

In February, Amtrak proudly opened what it claimed was the first high-speed rail line outside of the Northeast Corridor. An investment of $32 million in train control and signaling systems now allow it to run trains the 80 miles between Kalamazoo, Michigan and Porter, Indiana, at 110 mph. Since trains were previously operating at 95 mph, this improvement saves travelers 7 minutes.

Barely a month later, Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks east of Kalamazoo, issued orders slowing Amtrak trains from 79 to 25-30 mph. This will add 45 to 90 minutes to the trip time between Chicago and Detroit.

Norfolk Southern says its freight trains are not time sensitive and it is perfectly happy running those trains at 25 mph. So it sees no reason to restore the track to 79 mph standards. While it would welcome federal investments in its track, it also has a policy of not allowing passenger trains to run faster than 79 mph on the same tracks as its freight trains, no matter how good the track and train control systems are.

Sounds like a lose-lose situation to me. Taxpayers lose a lot of money making trivial improvements to a transportation system that hardly anyone uses. The few people who use it are subjected to delays and lengthy trip times in spite of the spending.

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The Hidden Cost of Congestion

Nine months ago, Los Angeles had to close a major freeway for maintenance for a few days, which some people predicted would lead to such terrible traffic jams that they called it carmageddon. In fact, a lot of people stayed home and the predicted jams didn’t materialize.

Instead, Los Angeles is now experiencing a population explosion. Who could have predicted that keeping traffic moving is an important way of preventing overpopulation?

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Living in a Fantasy World

Here’s a great idea: when people stop driving their cars, build light-rail down the freeways and turn the rest of the freeway space into buildings and parks. Think about what that means.

Despite claims that rail transit can move as many people as a 10-lane freeway, the reality is that the average two-track light-rail line moves about as many people as one-fourth of a freeway lane. None move more than about half a freeway lane.

So suppose we replace our six-lane freeways with the functional equivalent of half a lane. That means our transportation systems will move only about one-twelfth as many people. Who wins? The high-paid singles and double-income no children who can afford to live next to a light-rail station. Who loses? Most families with children and anyone who can’t afford half-million-dollar two-bedroom condos.

The good news is that, so far, no public money has been spent on this. But it won’t be long before some smart-growth planner proposes such a thing.

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Electric Cars Will Save Us — NOT!

Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report that found–surprise, surprise–electric cars aren’t all that green (at least from a climate view) if the electricity used to recharge the cars comes from burning fossil fuels. Yet, in a Colbert-like manner, a colleague of one of the report’s authors asks in a blog post if electric cars are “a good choice or the best choice for lowering global warming emissions?”

As the New York Times points out in its coverage of the report, driving a Nissan Leaf in Denver produces about the same emissions as driving a 33-mph gasoline-powered car. The report doesn’t look at the life-cycle costs, nor does it look at the marginal cost of new electricity.

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Transportation Bill Going to Conference Committee

The House and Senate plan to hold conference committee negotiations over the transportation reauthorization bill. Early this year, the House Transportation Committee had approved the most fiscally conservative reauthorization bill considered by congress since 1991, if not since 1982. Yet the bill never reached the floor of the House due to opposition from fiscal conservatives who said that the bill wasn’t fiscally conservative enough.

So the negotiations will center around the Senate bill, which is far from fiscally conservative in any sense of the word. It requires far more deficit spending than the House bill. It continues to divert a huge share of federal gas taxes to transit, which the House bill would have ended. And it includes all sorts of provisions that have nothing to do with transportation. In short, it is basically a continuation of the 2005 law with a few minor expansions of government power and spending.

Naturally, House Democrats are elated. Transportation writer Ken Orski says it is likely that numerous “questionable items . . . have been slipped into this massive 1,600-plus page bill” (which is nearly twice as long as the House bill had been). The real fiscal conservatives in the House better do everything they can to kill the conference bill or the gamble they waged killing the House bill will come back to bite them.

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Innovative (Meaning Insane) Land-Use Policy

The Belgian Port of Antwerp needed to expand. But Belgium has a policy that any greenfield development must be offset by set-asides of already developed land. So the residents of an entire town were forcibly evicted and their town declared a “new nature preserve.”

The buildings in the town were not leveled, and instead planners are allowing them to decay through “natural reclamation.” This has led to a lot of graffiti, which happens to be the subject of the news article that is linked to above.

How long before such a policy makes its way to the western hemisphere? Considering how strict are the urban-growth boundaries in California, Oregon, and other states, it is likely that someone will soon propose it here. In California, the Sierra Club once demanded that developers of an area that was inside of the San Jose city limits donate $100 million to land-conservation efforts, leading the developers to quit the project. In Oregon, the Portland Business Alliance estimates there are no more than nine industrial parcels of land in the Portland area shovel-ready for projects, not because planners haven’t added to the urban-growth boundary but because the additions came with so many requirements before they can be developed that no development is likely to ever take place.

Portland in particular loves to brag that it is a European city, so don’t be surprised if the Keep-Portland-Weird crowd are the first in America to come up with a zero-net-development policy.

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The Non-Story Story

Nearly two years ago, the Federal Transit Administration released a report saying the transit industry has a $77 billion maintenance backlog. So why is the Associated Press making a big deal of this report now?

“Americans are turning to trains and buses to get around in greater numbers than ever before,” says the AP. “The aging trains and buses they’re riding, however, face an $80 billion maintenance backlog that jeopardizes service just when it’s most in demand.”

The article’s writer never critically examines the claim that Americans are riding transit “in greater numbers than ever before,” and it is flat-out wrong. The American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report says that Americans took 10.4 million transit trips in 2011.

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Declares or Declared?

“California Declares War on the Suburbs,” reports Wendell Cox’s op ed in the Wall Street Journal (or at least the headline so reports). This has led to all sort of supporting commentary in the conservative blogosphere, along with articles from the left that claims Cox is full of it.

All the Antiplanner wants to know is why anyone thinks this war on the suburbs is anything new? Cox’s article referred to a proposal “to require more than one-half of the new housing in Los Angeles County and five other Southern California counties to be concentrated in dense, so-called transit villages.” But this is really nothing new.

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Book Review: All the Devils Are Here

In the Antiplanner’s recent review of Margin Call, I wrote, “No bank secretly realized that mortgage-backed securities were worthless and unscrupulously sold them to unsuspecting buyers.” The authors of All the Devils Are Here would apparently disagree.

Unlike most of the books about the financial crisis that the Antiplanner reviewed last year, which each tended to focus on one slice of the crisis, All the Devils attempts to track the entire crisis, from the beginnings of the mortgage securities market in the 1980s to the crash in September 2008. It relies heavily on many of the same books the Antiplanner reviewed, including Tett’s Fool’s Gold, Cohan’s House of Cards, and more. However, the lack of footnotes makes it difficult to tell which claims are based on which sources. Although one of the co-authors claims that they interviewed lots of people, virtually all of them supposedly asked for anonymity, so little can be verified. The book doesn’t even come with a bibliography.

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Wishful Thinking

Have American cities stopped growing at the urban fringe? Some people think so based on a trend of one or two years during the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Antiplanner’s loyal ally, Wendell Cox, doesn’t think so.

Are Americans shifting in droves from from cars to public transit? Based on similar short-term evidence, Colorado PIRG and US PIRG think so. The Antiplanner thinks this is just wishful thinking on the part of those who don’t like suburbs or automobiles.

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