Monthly Archives: May 2017

Trump Releases Infrastructure Plan

Greater reliance on user fees, federal loans rather than grants, and corporatization are three keys to the Trump administration’s infrastructure initiative released as a part of its 2018 budget. The plan will “seek long-term reforms on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered, and maintained,” says the six-page document. More federal funding “is not the solution,” says the document; instead, it is to “fix underlying incentives, procedures, and policies.”

In building the Interstate Highway System, the fact sheet observes, “the Federal Government played a key role” in collecting and distributing monies to “fund a project with a Federal purpose.” Since then, however, those user fees, mainly gas tax receipts, have been “inefficiently invested” in “non-federal infrastructure.”

As a result, the federal government today “acts as a complicated, costly middleman between the collection of revenue and the expenditure of those funds by States and localities.” To fix this, the administration will “explore” whether transferring “responsibilities to the States is appropriate.” Continue reading

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Fake News from the New York Times

That well-known fake-news site, the New York Times, has once again published a report claiming that transit hubs are a “growing lure for developers.” The Times published a similar story eight years ago, and the Antiplanner quickly found that every single development mentioned in that story was subsidized with tax-increment financing (TIF) and other government support.

So has anything changed since then? Nope. The first development mentioned in the recent story by Times reporter Joe Gose is Assembly Row, in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Is it subsidized? Yes, with at least $25 million in TIF along with other state funds.

Then Gose mentions Chicago’s Fulton Market, downtown Kansas City, Austin, and Denver’s RiNo neighborhood. Fulton Market just happened to receive at least $42 million in support from the city of Chicago, much of which comes from TIF. Continue reading

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LA’s Rail Transit Problem

The Los Angeles Times reports that L.A. bus ridership is falling, so the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is “looking to overhaul the system.” Unfortunately, the Times didn’t make the effort to figure out the real problems, instead relying on transit agency claims that they were due to “factors beyond its control.”

In fact, in the past ten years, the number of vehicle miles of revenue bus service offered by Metro has declined by more than 21 percent, from 86.3 million miles to 67.7 million. Transit riders are probably more sensitive to frequencies than anything else, and this 21 percent decline probably did not involve the cutting of many bus routes; instead, it represents a reduction in the frequencies of most routes. That factor was completely within Metro’s control.

Metro’s bus ridership peaked at 399 million trips per year in 2007 (which buses traveled 85.4 million miles), but has since declined to 318 million trips. The 20.2 percent decline nearly matches the decline in bus miles. Continue reading

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New York City’s Only Hope

Back in 2010, when the Federal Transit Administration admitted that the transit industry had a $78 billion maintenance backlog, America’s largest transit system seemed to be in the best shape of those with legacy (older than 40 years) rail lines. Having undergone its own crisis in the 1970s, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority appeared to be adequately funded and was not suffering the huge problems faced by transit agencies in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington.

No more. While Boston, Chicago, and Washington transit systems are worse than ever (and Philadelphia’s is only slightly better off), New York’s subways seem poised to catch up. According to Streetsblog, between November, 2012 and November, 2016, weekday subway delays grew by 322 percent.

To be fair, one month (November) is probably not a long enough period to measure a trend. Comparing MTA’s February 2012 and 2017 performance reports, the subway’s on-time record fell from 85.4 percent in 2011 to 66.8 percent in 2016. Part of the cause is an increasing failure rate of MTA’s rolling stock, which grew from one failure every 172,700 miles in 2011 to one every 112,200 miles in 2016. Both of those numbers indicate serious problems. On top of this, most of the subway system’s escalators and elevators are also out of service. Continue reading

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FTA New Starts Report for 2018

The Federal Transit Administration released is annual recommendations for 2018 federal capital grants to local transit projects, a.k.a. New Starts report. Usually, the report went through all sorts of gyrations rating each projects by various criteria.

This year, the criteria, or rather criterion, was simple. Had the FTA already agreed to fund the project with what is known as a full-funding grant agreement, or FFGA? If yes, then the project would be funded. If no, it would not be funded.

Yet a footnote indicated two exceptions: “The FFGA for the Caltrain Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project is planned to be signed shortly and the Maryland National Capital Purple Line FFGA remains under review due to pending litigation.” Yet neither of these exceptions should be made. Continue reading

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Administration Blinks in Budget Showdown

The Trump administration released its proposed 2018 budget yesterday to great fanfare and gnashing of teeth over proposed cuts to the so-called safety net. The truth is that the document released yesterday actually has less information in it than the budget blueprint that was released a couple of months ago.

More significant is the decision of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to provide $647 million of the $1.75 billion needed to electrify commuter trains in San Francisco, a project opposed by every Republican member of Congress from California. The Caltrains commuter trains carry just 4 percent of San Francisco Bay Area transit riders, and the environmental assessment for the project predicts (on page 3-159) that, by slightly speeding trains, electrification will increase ridership by less than 10 percent. The project will be completed in 2021, just about the time that shared, self-driving cars start to take away far more riders than electrification could ever hope to add.

Caltrains electrification is just one of nearly two dozen transit projects funded in the recent 2017 appropriations bill that have no full-funding grant agreements, and Trump’s budget blueprint proposed to sign no more such agreements. The other projects are just as ridiculous as Caltrains, but unlike Caltrains many actually have the support of local Republicans. Now that Chao has caved on Caltrains, how is she going to be able to resist funding the other projects? Continue reading

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Transit Crime

Is there an upsurge in crime on and around transit, and if so, why? A few days ago, a Portland woman was stabbed at a light-rail stop, supposedly by a complete stranger. The very next day, a remarkably similar report came out of Tempe, Arizona, except in this case police said the victim and alleged perpetrator were acquaintances.

A month ago, a gang of at least 40 teenagers boarded a BART train and, while some held the doors to prevent the train from leaving the station, robbed seven passengers and beat up two or more who refused to cooperate. Continue reading

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Sometimes the Answer Is “Yes”

As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?

The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.

Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading

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Making the Problem Worse

Oregon is responding to its housing affordability crisis by doing all the wrong things. The crisis is due to a shortage in supply which in turn is due to urban-growth boundaries.

So the legislature legalized inclusionary zoning ordinances and Portland passed one. Such ordinances require developers to provide a certain percent of the homes they build to low-income people at below-market rates. In response, developers are building fewer homes, exacerbating the supply problem. City officials “hope the slowdown is temporary,” but that hasn’t proven to be the case in other cities that passed inclusionary zoning ordinances.

Now the state legislature is considering a bill to provide $5 million to help first-time home buyers make down payments on homes. This will have the effect of increasing demand, which will only drive up prices even more. Continue reading

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How About Just Tear Them Down

Business Insider must have been channeling some urban planning magazine last week when it asked what could be done with the hundreds of shopping malls suffering from the great retail apocalypse caused by Amazon and other on-line retailers. The publication’s answers leaned heavily to uses that need government subsidies, including art galleries, classrooms, community gathering spaces, indoor farms, farmers markets, public libraries, public walkways, and other public spaces.

The Antiplanner remembers when Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, decided it needed new office space, so it bought a former Sears Roebucks building. It could have torn down the building and built a new one for $15 million. But to prove its commitment to reuse and recycling, it converted the existing Sears store into an office building. The cost? $30 million.

The humorous postscript was that the Sears building was so old that its toilets had never been hooked up into Portland’s sewer system. For years after Metro–the agency whose mission was to protect the region’s water, air, and land–moved in, it was dumping raw human sewage into the Willamette River. If they had simply replaced the building, they would have discovered the need for hook ups right away. Continue reading

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