Monthly Archives: December 2012

San Jose Transit Is Still Near the Top

That is, near the top of the list of the nation’s worst transit systems, says the San Jose Mercury-New. “The near-empty trolleys that often shuttle by at barely faster than jogging speeds serve as a constant reminder that the car is still king in Silicon Valley,” says the paper, “and that the Valley Transportation Authority’s trains are among the least successful in the nation by any metric.”

Many if not most San Jose light-rail “trains” are just one car long, which means they aren’t really trains at all. Considering an average load of just 18 people, the first third of this articulated railcar would be more than enough to handle the demand most times of the day.
Flickr photo from Albert’s Images.

Five years ago the Antiplanner declared the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to be worst-managed transit system. Is it still the worst? It has a lot of competition, including Baltimore, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, yet VTA manages to remain competitive.

In terms of number of riders per light-rail car, VTA carried an average of just 18.3 in 2011, a number lower than all other light-rail systems except Buffalo (17.0) and Baltimore (18.2). Fares from San Jose’s light-rail riders cover just 15.7 percent of the trains’ operating costs; only Baltimore, at 12.0 percent, is lower. Counting just operating costs, taxpayers pay nearly $5 to subsidize each light-rail trip, an amount exceeded only by Dallas and Pittsburgh light-rail systems. Overall, I’d say Baltimore’s is the worst system, with San Jose’s a close number two.

Continue reading

Share

Failing the Intelligence Test

Garl Boyd Latham, of the Texas Association of Railroad Passengers, predicts that San Antonians will be “pleased by streetcars once they are running.” His response to the Antiplanner’s op ed critiquing the city’s streetcar plan basically amounts to, “don’t confuse me with the facts; I know what I believe.”

To be precise, Latham says, “An astute man can prove anything he wanted with facts and figures,” then argues that the Antiplanner “manufactured an artificial reality through the manipulation of facts.”

One of those supposed manipulations is my claim that streetcars cost more than buses. Latham admits the capital costs are high but claims that, once built, streetcars have “a minimum life expectancy of a half-century or longer,” which will be surprise to the Federal Transit Administration (or just about anyone in the transit industry), which says streetcar vehicles last about 25 years, and other streetcar infrastructure lasts no more than 30 years. Not even counting maintenance, FTA data clearly show that streetcars cost far more to operate–either per vehicle mile or per passenger mile–than buses.

Continue reading

Share

Defining Success for Amtrak

The Auto Train, which carries passengers and their autos between Virginia and Florida, was a “private failure” but a “public success,” says the January, 2013 issue of Trains magazine. For those who don’t know the story, the Auto-Train began as a private venture when a Department of Transportation employee named Eugene Garfield took a DOT feasibility study and $56,000 of his own money to begin the service from Lorton, Virginia (outside of DC) and Sanford, in central Florida. When it began service a few months after Amtrak took over most of the nation’s passenger trains, the Auto-Train was heralded as a great success, earning a profit as early as its second six-months of operation.

The original Auto-Train.

In 1974, however, Garfield bet the company starting a second route from Louisville to Florida, hoping to capture some of the Chicago market. Even without this failed investment, the profits Auto-Train reported only covered operating costs, not maintenance. As so many railroads have done in the past, it was deferring maintenance hoping for more profits to cover those costs in the future. That deferral contributed to at least two accidents that cost the company millions of dollars. The hoped-for long-term profits didn’t happen–Trains reports that it only netted a profit in 1973, ’74, and ’75–and the company went out of business in 1981.

Continue reading

Share

The Benefits and Costs of Tolling

The costs of collecting electronic tolls are rapidly declining, particularly for roads that only accept electronic tolls. In 2009, when I was writing Gridlock, the best available estimates indicated that 12 to 23 percent of toll revenues went to collection costs, compared with just 3 percent for state gas taxes.

However, a recent paper from the Reason Foundation claims that the costs of collecting electronic tolls has now fallen to be almost as low as the costs of state gas tax collections. Moreover, once the benefits of using tolls to relieve traffic congestion are considered, tolls become a far less costly way to pay for roads.

Those traffic congestion benefits are the reason why the Antiplanner recently proposed that highways be refinanced out of tolls in the form of vehicle-mile fees rather than gas taxes. Congestion imposes a $100 billion-plus annual cost on Americans; we know how to fix it, and the only thing preventing that solution is inertia.

Continue reading

Share

Who Needs Freedom When You Have Obamacare?

“When does regulating a person’s habits in the name of good health become our moral and social duty?” Dr. David Agus asks in a New York Times op ed. The answer, says Agus, is “when all of us are stuck paying for one another’s medical bills (which is what we do now, by way of Medicare, Medicaid and other taxpayer-financed health care programs).”

In other words, one of the costs of Obamacare and other government health assistance is that we lose our freedom to eat what we want and behave how we like. Agus uses this reasoning to argue that, just as we require people to use seat belts when they drive on public roads, we should require that most men over 45 and women over 55 take a daily dose of aspirin.

The gentle readers of the New York Times respond mainly by arguing that not everyone would benefit from taking aspirin or that some other treatment should be mandated as well. Out of 107 comments, fewer than a half dozen mention that Agus’ reasoning takes away people’s freedom.

Continue reading

Share

The Stupidity Cliff

A common saying (sometimes attributed to Samuel Francis, but I first heard it before he is supposed to have said it) inside the DC Beltway, at least among fiscal conservatives, is that America has two political parties: the Evil Party and the Stupid Party. It appears to the Antiplanner that the Stupid Party has once again found itself in a no-win situation over the co-called fiscal cliff.

Republicans have promised no increase in taxes, while Democrats want to increase taxes only on the rich–those who earn more than $250,000 a year. The latest Obama plan projects that such a tax increase will yield about $140 billion a year over the next ten years. Since fewer than 3 million tax filers earn more than $250,000 a year, that works out to an average $50,000 or so increase in annual taxes per person.

The idea of creating a fiscal cliff–a deadline by which Congress must reduce deficits or face automatic tax increases and spending cuts–may have sounded great to fiscal conservatives when it was first proposed. It doesn’t look so good now. If Republicans agree to Obama’s tax increase, they will be accused of breaking their promises. If they allow the country to go over the cliff, Democrats will respond next year with a middle-class tax cut that Republicans will find difficult to reject, else they’ll be blamed by all taxpayers, not just the wealthy ones, for raising rates. Either way, Dems win, Reps lose.

Continue reading

Share

Back On Line

It took several days to transfer all the files, but the Antiplanner has a new web host and it seems to be working fine. I lost the last post and I think some of the comments on the next-to-last post, but I’ll live with that rather than try to recover them. I’ll be playing with the appearance for a while, so expect a few minor changes. Overall, I want it to be simpler than the previous multi-themed set up. New posts start on Monday, December 17.

Share

What’s Wrong With TIF

Many people see the problems with tax-increment financing and think that TIF laws need reform. But in fact, no reforms will work; tax-increment financing should simply be abolished. The Antiplanner attempted to explain why in Boise last week, and here is a summary what I said. (Click any of the charts for a larger view.)

Suppose there is a school district, fire district, sewer district, or some other agency that gets its revenues from property taxes. Then suppose that a city proposes to establish a TIF zone within that taxing district.

Continue reading

Share

State & Local Corporate Welfare

State and local governments spend $80 billion a year trying to attract businesses away from each other, reports the New York Times. This is a giant zero-sum game, the paper suggests, and in fact may even slow growth in some areas by increasing the tax burden. The Times even admits that it has received $24 million in subsidies from the city and state of New York over the past 12 years.

Coincidentally, the Antiplanner is back in the air today to Boise, where I’ll be speaking to legislators about the follies of tax-increment financing (TIF), which is one of the main ways local governments subsidize corporations. Idaho cities and counties spend more than $50 million a year on TIF, which is a lot for a small state: nearly 20 percent of the property taxes collected in at least one county goes to TIF subsidies.

When Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, 10 percent of his salary came from TIF. Rather than be seduced by the money, he realized the folly of giving cities the power to effectively steal money from other tax entities. In 2011, he persuaded the California legislature to abolish TIF in California, the state that had invented it in 1952 and which up to that time was doing more TIF than all other states combined. Other states should follow suit.

Share