You’ll Have to Build It to Find out the Cost

California Representative Nancy Pelosi famously told Congress it would have to pass the Obamacare bill to find out what it said. Now California officials are telling residents they will have to spend tens of billions of dollars building the San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed rail line to find out how much a ticket will cost. As one official says, “We will not know until late in the game [meaning after the line is built] how everything will turn out.”

On one hand, all of the ticket prices quoted to date–which range from $50 to $105 a ticket–are based not on rail costs but on airline prices: the quoted fares are set to be below, and supposedly competitive with, airfares. On the other hand, the ballot measure approved by voters in 2008 requires that fares cover operating costs–and proponents claimed that the trains would earn such a large operating profit that private investors would willingly put up billions in exchange for being able to keep those profits.

The high-speed rail authority projects that the line will attract 18 million to 31 million riders a year and, at the currently projected ticket price of $86 from LA to San Francisco, would earn $700 million more per year than its operating costs. Yet even the low figure of 18 million is unrealistically high. In 2014, Amtrak attracted fewer than 12 million riders on its Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor, which has more people today than the California corridor will have in 2030. While Amtrak’s trains aren’t as fast as the California rail line might be (although it won’t reach its full promised speed until sometime after 2040), the Northeast Corridor is anchored by the New York urban area’s 19 million people. By comparison, the middle of the California route is Fresno with fewer than 700,000 people. That means most of the trips in the Northeast Corridor are less than 250 miles long, while most in the California corridor would have to be much longer for it to be a success.

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Paying for Rail Transit

Last week, San Antonio voters overwhelming approved of a measure forbidding the city’s transit agency from building any rail transit lines without voter approval. While that seems like a no brainer, opponents contended that it was unfair to single out rail transit for such a measure just because rail cost 50 to 100 times as much as bus transit.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is still trying to decide whether to cancel the $2.5 billion Purple Line (not to mention Baltimore’s $3 billion Red Line). Rail supporters were disappointed that he cut tolls on bridges and toll roads, since they figured that any surplus tolls should have gone to their pet project.

Rail supporters are claiming that the evil Cato Institute is leading a major campaign to undermine their plans. In fact, with the exception of the Antiplanner and maybe one other person, no one at Cato has put much thought into the Purple Line, as they are working on such relatively trivial things as reducing conflict in the Mideast, improving health care, and keeping government from watching everything we do.

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Portland’s Housing Future

The Antiplanner spent yesterday in the Portland, visiting the neighborhood where I grew up and seeing the new homes springing up in people’s backyards, sideyards, frontyards, and just about anywhere where there is a little open space. Portland planners say that 55 percent of new homes built in the next two decades will be multifamily or single-family attached homes (row houses). If the single-family homes being built in my old neighborhood are good examples of the kind of single-family planners want for the remaining 45 percent, they won’t be any more attractive than the 55 percent.

Economist Bill Reid argues that Metro planners are greatly overestimating the desire for multifamily housing. Based on a survey published by Metro itself, Reid predicts that Metro’s plans will result in a shortfall of more than 40,000 single-family detached homes. Unfortunately, Reid’s study doesn’t seem to be available on line, but it is described in this Portland Tribune article.

Predictably, one of the comments on the Portland Tribune article lauds Metro and urban-growth boundaries for protecting Oregon from becoming like “overcrowded California.” In fact, these policies are deliberately designed to turn Portland into another overcrowded California urban area.

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It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Ride

Last December, Honolulu’s rail transit project was estimated to be $700 million over budget. Now they are saying it is closer to a billion. Never fear, however: the state legislature just agreed to extend a half-percent excise tax, which was supposed to expire in 2022, indefinitely for five years to pay for the rail and its cost overruns.


Due to many sinkholes and other soil problems, the elevated Honolulu rail line looks to be a bumpy ride.

The legislature was reluctant to do so, but was persuaded after heavy lobbying by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Coincidentally, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that rail contractors and subcontractors have donated well over half a million dollars to Caldwell’s political campaign funds. This doesn’t include sub-subcontractors, which are so numerous that even the transit agency doesn’t know how many there are, much less who they are. (The story is behind a paywall, but it says prime contractors and their principals and employees have given the mayor nearly $324,000 while subcontractors have given nearly $243,000.)

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Peak Automobile?

Ever since some alarmist came up with the economically nonsensical term peak oil, we’ve been inundated with peak this, that, and the other thing. There’s peak helium. How about peak phosphorus?

More recently, the term has been twisted from a supply issue to a demand issue, such as peak smart phone. And now, peak car. Yet, reading about peak car, the Antiplanner can’t help but feeling that this is neither a supply nor a demand issue but more wishful thinking on the part of city officials who are doing their best to create auto-hostile environments.

Millennials don’t drive? It turns out that’s not true, just as it isn’t true that Millennials avoid the suburbs.

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The Cost of Regulation in San Diego

Last week, economists at the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute released a report estimating that government regulation increase San Diego housing prices–for both buyers and renters–by an average of about 40 percent. The report says that only 16 percent of San Diego County has been developed (the 2010 census says 18.5 percent), and almost all of the remaining land is off-limits to homebuilders. Yet, the report notes, a significant portion of that land “is geographically suitable for development.”

Although the land shortage is responsible for much of the regulatory cost, there are other costs as well. “The time involved in what is often a prolonged and complicated process . . . can add 15% or more to the price of a new house,” or more than a third of the total regulatory cost, says the report. This process can take 12 years or more before developers can start building a single home. Of course, the Antiplanner has argued that cities can only get away with imposing such an onerous process if they have shut off most vacant land from development through urban-growth boundaries and other regulatory tools.

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Making Transportation Less Wasteful and Unfair

The Antiplanner traveled from Louisiana back to Oregon yesterday and didn’t have time to write a lengthy post. So here is an op ed for your consideration. It briefly summarizes a report about federal funding of rail transit published by the Cato Institute last week.

Speaking of rail transit, rail systems in Boston and Washington have gotten so bad that a private bus company is attempting to replace them. Offering free WiFi, flexible pick-ups and drop-offs responsive to smart-phone apps, and prices “slightly more than public transit but significantly less than taking a taxi,” Bridj is providing service between major suburbs and downtown Boston and between Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill in DC.

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Spokane Rejects Transit Tax

Voters in the Spokane, Washington area appear to have rejected a proposed 50-percent increase in the sales tax used to support transit by a small margin this week. At the latest count, the vote was 50.5 percent against the tax and 49.5 percent in favor of it.

Click image to download the “public education” flyer distributed by Spokane’s transit agency.

A few hundred votes remain to be counted, but almost all of them would have to favor the tax to turn the election around. The measure lost despite the fact that the transit agency used taxpayer dollars to promote the measure with a one-sided “information mailer” distributed to voters. Tax proponents vowed to bring the tax back to the voters, saying that those who supported the tax did so with “a strong majority.”

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Lafayette Presentations

Lafayette, Louisiana would seem to be the last place in the world that you would expect to adopt a smart-growth plan. Yet the city adopted one recently and is now beginning to implement it by revising its zoning code. The Antiplanner believes that this code will make housing and other developments more expensive and slow the economic growth of Lafayette.

I suspect the problems can be traced to a decision made a couple of decades ago to consolidate the city and parish government. The argument at the time was that most people lived in one of six Lafayette cities and towns, and the few people scattered across the rural parts of the parish couldn’t afford to maintain the roads and other infrastructure. Consolidation was supposed to fix that.

Today, the roads are in worse shape than ever, both in the city and the parish, and congestion is a major local problem. When the parish asked for a tax increase to improve roads, the parish council at that time refused to guarantee that the money would actually be spent on roads, so the voters rejected the increase.

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A New Definition of Insanity

An insanely expensive light-rail project in Minnesota just got more insane. The cost of the Southwest light-rail line, which had previously been estimated at $1.65 billion for 15.7 miles, or just over $100 million a mile, is now estimated to cost $341 million more, or just shy of $2 billion. That’s $126 million a mile, or more than seven times the inflation-adjusted cost of the initial San Diego Trolley, the nation’s first modern light-rail line.

Considering that freeways with many times the capacity of a light-rail line can be built for about $10 million a mile, spending more than $100 million a mile on light rail makes no sense at all. The only way people could support it is if they have no understanding of numbers, which explains why many politicians do support it. The good news is that some in Minnesota are having second thoughts about the Southwest line, including Governor Mark Dayton (who professed to be “shocked and appalled,” though he doesn’t say why he wasn’t appalled at the previous price) and Metropolitan Council chair Adam Duininck.

As the Antiplanner has previously noted, Eden Prairie, the destination of this line, is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the Twin Cities area. In order to provide “transit equity,” regional transit planners have promised to build a few bus shelters in poor neighborhoods. That’s so equitable.

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