Oregon is the slowest state in the West. No other western state has such slow speed limits. Nationally, only Hawai’i is slower.
Texas, meanwhile, is the fastest state in the country. On a two-lane rural road, for example, Oregon allows speeds no higher than 55 mph; Texas may allow 75 mph. On a four-lane freeway, Oregon may allow 65 mph; Texas freeways are often 80 mph.
When a state highway enters a city with stop lights, Oregon speed limits slow to no more than 45 mph; Texas may keep speeds as high as 75 mph. That’s right; you can be legally driving at 75 mph and suddenly have to stop at a red light.
After years of indecision and short-term extensions, the House of Representatives passed a six-year transportation bill yesterday. Since the bill is not much different from a bill passed by the Senate a few months ago, it seems likely that the two will agree on a final bill later this month.
One of the main obstacles to the bill has been fiscal conservatives (and some liberals) who objected to $80 billion of deficit spending over the next six years. Many of the conservatives wanted to cut spending to be no more than gas tax and other highway revenues; the liberals wanted to raise gas taxes to cover the deficits and provide revenues for even more spending on roads and transit. Instead, the House stayed the course of spending more than is available, using various accounting tricks to cover the deficits.
What really happened is that newly minted House Speaker Paul Ryan wanted to prove his worth, so he twisted enough arms to get the bill passed. The bill even includes reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which many conservatives hated. Apparently, the long-term opponents of this bank and transportation deficits just gave Ryan his honeymoon and allowed the bill to pass without a big fight: only 64 members of the House voted against the final bill.
Peter Callaghan, a reporter for the Minneapolis Post, has figured out that rail transit planners routinely overestimate transit ridership. He calls this the Pickrell Effect, after US DOT researcher Don Pickrell, whose 1990 report found that most rail projects underestimated costs and overestimated ridership.
(Callaghan doesn’t mention the other Pickrell Effect, which is that government employees who report such shenanigans are likely to be sent to the local equivalent of Siberia. For his effort, Pickrell was told by a Deputy Secretary of Transportation that he would never be allowed to work on a transit study again.)
Callaghan does say that Pickrell’s study led to “more scrutiny” by the Federal Transit Administration, resulting in “a measurable improvement in forecasts, with mixed results.” Which is it: an improvement or mixed results? Callaghan says that a 2003 FTA study found that, of 19 projects since the Pickrell report, “only” eleven greatly overestimated ridership while eight came within 20 percent of ridership estimates.
Portland columnist Steve Duin laments that the city is not doing more to make housing affordable. He proposes to either tax new homes and use the money to build affordable housing or to mandate that developers to sell or rent a certain percentage of their new homes at below-market prices (inclusionary zoning).
The problem with either of these policies is that they create a few “affordable” homes by making housing more expensive for the vast majority of renters and homebuyers. Taxing new homes obviously makes them more expensive. But like the rising tide lifting all boats, it also raises the price of existing homes because sellers of those homes see that their competition–new homes–is more expensive so they can ask for more too.
Research has shown that inclusionary zoning leads developers to build fewer homes and then to sell the market-rate homes they do build for higher prices to make up for the losses on the below-market homes. Since inclusionary zoning pushes up market rates for new homes, that same rising tide makes all other homes less affordable as well.
“Innovation” means introducing new things. But to be successful, innovators don’t just introduce new things, they introduce things that are cheaper and better than what preceded them. Steam trains were a successful innovation because they were faster and less expensive than horses and wagons. Automobiles were successful because they were faster and less expensive than trains. But if automobiles had come first, no one would have successfully introduced the “innovation” of steam trains.
A New York transit advocacy group called the Transit Center has a very different view of innovation. As expressed in the above graphic from its recent report, A People’s History of Urban Transit Innovation, innovation doesn’t mean finding new things or finding ways of doing things better for less money. Instead, it means selling the public on old things that are more expensive and less effective than what we already have.
The Antiplanner is going on a road trip from Oregon to Texas for the annual American Dream conference. Along the way, I’ll visit some national parks and national forests and probably wish I was in a fully self-driving car. Postings may be light for the next few days unless I find WiFi in the woods.
Speaking of self-driving cars, I keep reading articles arguing that we’ll have to teach ethics to self-driving cars. Given a choice between killing the occupant of a car or two people outside, should the car kill the occupant because the good of the many outweighs the good of the few? Given a choice between hitting a pedestrian and hitting another car full of people, should the car kill the pedestrian?
These are ridiculous questions. No one, not even a computer, is going to have time to count the number of occupants in another car and compare them with the number in a crowd of pedestrians before deciding which way to turn. The real ethical choice is to avoid the collision in the first place. A few accidents are inevitable, but something like 90 percent of auto accidents are due to human error. hose who want to argue ethics today are missing the point: take away the human error and everyone will be a lot better off.
After three months of debate, Congress has agreed to extend federal highway and transit spending for three weeks. Authority to spend federal dollars (mostly from gas taxes) on highways and transit was set to expire tomorrow. The three-week extension means that authority will expire on November 20.
Many members in Congress hope that the three-week delay will allow them to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a six-year bill. Among other things, the Senate version spends about $16.5 billion more than the House bill, $12.0 billion on highways and $4.5 billion on transit. The two bills also use different sources of revenue to cover the difference between gas tax revenues and the amounts many members of Congress want to spend.
To cover this difference, the Senate bill, known as the “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act” or DRIVE Act, provides three years of funding by supplementing gas taxes with new customs, air travel, and mortgage-backed securities guarantee fees. The House bill, called the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act, doesn’t offer any source of funds; instead, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster merely expressed hope that the House Ways & Means Committee would find a source of funds.
The Los Angeles Times has a special report finding that the California high-speed rail project will cost far more and take far longer than the rail authority is promising. The official cost estimate remains $68 billion for an abbreviated system despite the fact that a 2013 Parsons Brinckerhoff report to the authority said there was no way the project could be done for that price.
P-B’s report was “never made public” and the rail authority refused to release it under the state public records act. However, “an engineer close to the project” slipped a copy of the report to the Times.
The rail authority has established a record for ignoring such reports. In 2012, another consultant told the authority that costs should be revised upwards by 15 percent. The authority simply fired the consultant.
The Antiplanner’s recent coverage of housing affordability has focused on single-family homes. But a recent article by Andrew Jakabovics points out that rents are also rising, both in dollars and in the percent of people’s incomes that it consumes. “About half of all renters live in housing considered unaffordable,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, Jakabovics says. Since 2000, the share of renters spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent has grown by more than 40 percent.
Unfortunately, Jacabovics never discusses the real cause of this problem or the great geographic disparities in rents. A close look at the data (American Community Survey table B25071) reveals that renters are hardest hit in Florida, Hawai’i, California, and Oregon, all states with strong growth-management laws. (Florida weakened its law in 2011, but few if any regions have weakened their growth-management plans since then.) Meanwhile, rental housing is still very affordable in states such as Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.
Hawai’i and California aren’t surprising, but it is a bit surprising to see Oregon near the top of the list. Oregon’s “smart-growth” policies were supposed to avoid this problem by building a lot of multifamily housing in place of the single-family housing that has been made unaffordable by the urban-growth boundaries around every city in the state. But this clearly hasn’t worked.
New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Bill English, is an antiplanner. “The justification for planning is to deal with externalities,” he noted in a speech given a few weeks ago. But, he continued, “what has actually happened is that planning in New Zealand has become the externality. It has become a welfare-reducing activity.”
As is the case in many American (and Canadian and Australian) urban areas, planning has added tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of a home in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest urban area. Recent New Urbanist rules, English says, “add $50,000 to $100,000 to the cost of an apartment.” Even more costs are added by Auckland’s urban-growth boundary. One study found that the costs of one of these rules were six times the benefits.
It’s even worse than English says. Planning has become a way for the middle class to keep the working class out without being overt about it. It has become a way for relatively wealthy people to enhance their wealth at everyone else’s expense. Planners’ build-up-not-out mentality ends up destroying the character of the cities it is supposed to save. Finally, planning results in serious intergenerational equity problems, as parents get rich off their housing equity while children can’t afford to live in the cities in which they grew up.