Trolley Follies

The Antiplanner’s recent review of a proposed streetcar in Fort Lauderdale compared data for a dozen streetcar lines operating in 2015. Left out were streetcars in Cincinnati and Kansas City, which began operating during 2016. Now the early results for those two lines are in, and–not surprisingly–they aren’t good.

When it was planned, the Cincinnati streetcar was projected to carry 4,600 riders per weekday (see p. 16). By the time construction began, officials reduced this to 3,200 trips per weekday, and by the time it opened they dropped it further to 2,600. Actual ridership in May, its ninth month of operation, was just 1,713 trips per day. Since the city was counting on fares to help pay for operations, the streetcar is expected to have a $474,530 deficit this year and will need even more money from the city next year.

The Kansas City streetcar, meanwhile, was projected to carry nearly 3,200 weekday riders at fares of $1.50 a ride. So the city was elated when ridership in the first couple of months was more than 6,000 trips per weekday. What they didn’t mention was that the rides were free, not $1.50. Judging by Atlanta’s experience, raising the fares to $1 would reduce ridership by 58 percent; raising them to $1.50 would reduce it even more. Continue reading

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Funding Infrastructure Repair & Maintenance

A new report from professors at Cornell University’s Program on Infrastructure Policy argues that the path towards fixing infrastructure involves user fees, public-private partnerships, and streamlined approval processes–all part of Trump’s infrastructure agenda. The report argues that current priorities are often misplaced, noting that more than half of state highway spending goes for new projects when more should be spent maintaining the roads that already exist. In particular, the report endorses mileage-based user fees to pay for roads.

Click image to download a copy of the report.

The report was published by the Committee for Economic Development, a branch of the Conference Board. Originally founded in 1916 to provide a business response to the labor movement, the Conference Board is now seen (according to Wikipedia) as the “progressive wing of the business community.” Indeed, recent reports criticize crony capitalism, advocate for more women on corporate boards of directors, and urge the elimination of many corporate tax breaks. Continue reading

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Infrastructure Week

The Trump administration has declared this to be “infrastructure week,” with President Trump and Elaine Chao partaking in a traveling road show to sell the administration’s ideas. Some people say that this is just a way to take the nation’s eyes off of the Comey hearings, and if so, it’s working as a lot of electrons and not a little ink are being devoted to infrastructure.

Others are claiming that Trump doesn’t actually have an infrastructure plan, but that’s not true, as the Antiplanner revealed last week. The plan isn’t 1,000 pages long, but it contains seventeen distinct proposals that have all been fleshed out in other places, including a variety of studies from Heritage, Reason, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and yes even Cato.

What really aggravates some people, especially Democrats, is that Trump isn’t proposing to spend a trillion federal dollars on hundreds of juicy pork barrel projects. Instead, he is proposing to leverage about $200 million in federal tax credits and other incentives to get the private sector to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure. Continue reading

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Bus versus Streetcar

The bus versus streetcar debate became personal in Washington DC when a Megabus rammed a platform for the H Street streetcar. The crash put the streetcar out of service for several hours, and that particular platform for many days.

As if in retaliation, a streetcar rear ended a DC bus, injuring ten transit riders. There were only eight passengers on the bus, so the other two must have been on the streetcar and the Antiplanner wouldn’t be surprised if they were the only passengers on board.

Of course, the entire streetcar system was put out of commission while the messes were cleaned from each of the accidents. If only they had a vehicle that could pass one that was stationary because of an accident or breakdown. Maybe someday someone will invent one.

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Stuck in Traffic? Blame the Planners

In 1982, the Twin Cities had the 35th-worst congestion in the nation. By 2016, it had grown to be the 17th-worst and amount of time the average commuter spent in traffic had quadrupled. If you are stuck in traffic in the Twin Cities, says this new report, don’t blame population growth; blame the Metropolitan Council, the region’s metropolitan planning organization.

Click image to download a 1.7-MB PDF of this report.

The Metropolitan Council’s official attitude is, “We can’t build our way out of congestion, so we will provide alternatives to congestion” in the form of light rail, bike paths, and maybe a few high-occupancy/toll lanes. The council’s 2040 plan has $6.9 billion programmed for transit improvements, $700 million for bike paths, and $700 million for road improvements. That means 8 percent of the funds goes for the 90 percent of the people who drive to work while 83 percent goes for the 6 percent who take transit. Continue reading

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The Golden Age

In response to criticisms about cramped planes, poor service, and hidden fees, commercial airline pilot and ask-a-pilot author Patrick Smith opines in the New York Times that there really was no golden age of air travel. “Yes, things were once a little more comfortable,” he says, but air travel costs only half as much today as it did 35 years ago. This is conservative: using the consumer price index, the average fare per passenger mile was 32.5 cents in 1980 compared with 14.2 cents in 2013, the latest year for which data are available.

Moreover, Smith says, more planes go more places with fewer stopovers shortening overall travel times. So even though there’s a little less legroom (“but only slightly”), travel times are shorter. He concludes by asking, “Do you really want to travel like people did in the 1960s? Are you sure?”

In the same way people nostalgically recall a golden age of air travel, many nostalgically think back to a supposed golden age of rail travel. Yet this was so long ago–roughly 1895 to 1925–that few people alive can really remember it. The nostalgia buffs remember that there were 9,000 intercity trains a day in 1920. What they forget is that those trains were expensive, slow, and uncomfortable. We can somewhat remedy the latter two problems today, but only by making them even more expensive. Continue reading

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Ten Things to Know About Megaprojects

Megaproject expert Bent Flyvbjerg–who is now at Oxford University–has a new book called, coincidentally, the Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management. His introduction, which he was nice enough to make available on line, introduces the Iron Law of Megaprojects along with “ten things you need to know about megaprojects,” at least if you think you are going to try to manage one.

The Iron Law is, simply, “Over budget, over time, under benefits, over and over again.” He says that 90 percent of megaprojects go over budget and most end up under performing. Continue reading

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Tax You, Tax Them, Tax Everyone Else

To help “close a budget gap,” Washington Metro is scheduled to raise fares and cut service later this month. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents 88 percent of Metro’s employees, calls this the “pay more, get less” plan.

In response, the union issued its own plan to cut fares and increase service. It could have called this the “pay less, get more” plan, but instead it called it “fund it, fix it, make it fair.” The union didn’t originate this slogan; instead, it seems to be a mantra for the “transit justice” community, which seems to believe that, because a few low-income people ride transit, everyone should be subsidized.

For the “fund it” part of the plan, the union calls for the creation of assessment districts that would pay fees–not taxes–to help run the system. The union plan tries to imply that only the wealthy owners of properties whose values are enhanced by the transit system would have to pay, but when an assessment district was created to fund construction of the Silver Line, owners of properties miles away from any transit station were forced to pay as much as those next door to a station. Continue reading

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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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