The Most Racist Urban Area in America

Yesterday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved a new fair housing rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. This follows the Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing HUD to use disparate impact as a criterion for determining whether a community is guilty of unfair housing practices.


Racists. Wikimedia photo by Bernard Gagnon.

In one form of disparate impact analyses, HUD compares the racial makeup of a city or suburb with the makeup of the urban area as a whole. If the city doesn’t have enough minorities, it is presumed guilty and must take steps to attract more. Under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, that could mean subsidizing low-income housing or rezoning land for high-density housing.

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Portland Cuts Police to Fund TODs

The Portland Tribune reports that the number of police officers in Portland has declined by 9 percent since 2001, even as the city’s population grew by 13 percent, resulting in a 20 percent decline in officers per capita. This decline is typical for a city that is neglecting its streets, its schools, and other essential services all so that it can fund streetcars and transit-oriented developments.

The Portland Development Commission (the city’s urban-renewal agency) is using tax-increment financing (which is a polite term for stealing) to gobble up as much tax revenue as it can. According to the State Department of Revenue, that’s nearly $100 million per year (see page 45). Since nearly all of that development would have taken place without the subsidies (though perhaps not as dense as planners would like), that’s $100 million that’s not available for police, streets, schools, and other services that depend on property taxes.

All of that urban renewal isn’t doing much to create jobs. Oregon was just ranked the second-worst state to make a living in due to its high cost of living (meaning housing costs), low average incomes, and the highest income taxes in the country.

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America’s First High-Speed Rail Project

Despite continued evidence that high-speed rail is a waste of money, reporters still write articles lamenting that high-speed trains in America are “elusive.” It’s elusive for a simple reason: it makes no sense, being slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than both.

Due to the high costs, high-speed rail projects proposed more than 100 years ago were similarly flawed. In 1893, someone proposed to build a 100-mph line straight from Chicago to St. Louis for $5.5 million–around $135 million today when using GNP deflators but more than $6.5 billion when measured as a share of the economy at the time. The proposal went nowhere.

Then, in 1906, someone proposed a similar, 100-mph line from Chicago to New York called the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line (several railroads at that time were named “air line” probably because they wanted to indicate they offered the shortest route between two points). The line would have either no curves or none that trains couldn’t negotiate at 90 mph. It would have no grade crossings so wouldn’t have to stop for other trains or risk hitting cars crossing its tracks.

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Say Yes to Self-Driving Cars

A writer for Electronic Design magazine named Lou Frenzel opines “that the driverless car is not a good idea.” His argument comes down to, “I don’t know anything about it, but I can think of lots of problems that I don’t imagine anyone at Google has ever thought of.”

For example, he asks, can self-driving cars operate at night? Can they handle rain, fog, and snow? Can they find a parking space in a garage? Can they make left turns?

The fact that all of these questions have been asked and answered by Google, Volkswagen, and other companies developing self-driving cars makes Frenzel’s article pretty insipid. For example, most of these cars rely on radar, infrared, and/or laser beams, none of which care whether it is day or night. Infrared can also “penetrate smoke,rain, snow, blowing sand, and most foggy conditions,” though in heavy fog, a self-driving car would slow down, just as a human-driven car should do.

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Oregon Starts Mileage-Based User Fees

Yesterday, the Oregon Department of Transportation began accepting applications from volunteers willing to switch from paying gas taxes to mileage-based user fees. The experimental program is limited to 5,000 volunteers and apparently the applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Oregon’s gasoline tax is 30 cents a gallon, so if your car gets 30 miles per gallon, you currently pay about a penny per mile. The initial mileage-based fee is 1.5 cents per mile, the same as if your car gets 20 miles per gallon. It will be interesting to see if most of the people who sign up drive gas guzzlers that get less than 20 miles per gallon.

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WiFi Yes, V2V No

A little-known conflict over the electromagnetic spectrum could shape self-driving cars for years to come. On one side is “an ecosystem of companies” that have developed vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems and the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC), which wants to mandate such systems in all cars and trucks, which together want the Federal Communications Commission to dedicate the 5.9 gigahertz spectrum to such systems. On the other side are WiFi developers and advocates who would like to open parts of that spectrum to WiFi use.

The V2V people say that such systems are essential for improved auto safety and self-driving cars and don’t want to share the spectrum with millions of WiFi users. However, General Motors and Cisco have thrown a monkey wrench into their case with an announcement that they plan to test WiFi for V2V communications.

Volvo and other companies have already shown that WiFi alone can provide adequate V2V communications for platooning cars down a highway. In such platooning, a lead vehicle does the driving and numerous following vehicles, spaced as little as five meters apart, merely mimic the lead vehicle’s speed and direction. Such platooning would obviously greatly increase highway capacities.

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Austerians or Common-Sensicans?

The Greek debt crisis has Paul Krugman waging a verbal war against those he called Austerians, meaning economists who think the solution to being up-to-your-ears in debt is to cut back on spending. (It’s also a pun on Austrian economics, which generally opposes government intervention in just about anything.)

“Greece was overspending, but not by all that much,” claims Krugman. “It was over indebted, but again not by all that much. How did this turn into a catastrophe that among other things saw debt soar to 170 percent of GDP despite savage austerity?” The answer, he argues, is the austerity measures themselves “are the obvious culprits.”

Never mind the fact that tax avoidance in Greece is a national sport, that Greece doesn’t bother to make sure people pay user fees for public services like rail transport, and despite collecting so little fares the country lavishly pays rail workers an average of nearly $75,000 a year so that the rail system costs seven times as much to operate as it returns in revenues. Krugman’s solution is to spend more, thus effectively excusing people for not paying taxes or fares and for demanding high pay and pensions for jobs that produce little economic benefit.

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So Much for Low-Capacity Rail

When Orlando decided to fund and operate a commuter train, many residents probably thought they could take the train to major events. Orlando expects to attract 120,000 people to its fireworks show this July 4th, but none of them will take the train to the site.

We’ve all heard the claim that a rail line can move as many people as an eight- (or sometimes ten-) lane freeway. Not so much. Orlando’s billion-dollar commuter-rail line carries less than 2,000 people to work each weekday morning and home in the evenings. (Amortized over 30 years at 3 percent, it would have cost less to buy every single daily round-trip rider a new Prius every year for the next 30 years.)

The train doesn’t normally operate on weekends, though it has done so for smaller special events in the past. But this Fourth of July it won’t, says the city, because of “total train capacity, safety and security, hours of operation, pedestrian wayfinding and transport operations between the downtown stations and Lake Eola, and funding availability.”

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Red Light for Red, Yellow Light for Purple

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced Thursday that he was cancelling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with a caveat that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.

The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.

Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.

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BRT Capacities Greater Than You Think

A group called the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) strongly supports bus-rapid transit, saying that “BRT systems can be built in a fraction of the time of light rail, and BRT can cost 30 times less to construct and 3 times less to operate.”

ITDP’s proposal for “Gold Standard” bus-rapid transit in Boston. Click image to download the 17.7-MB report.

In major urban areas, the organization promotes what it called “Gold Standard” BRT, which means dedicated bus lanes designed to minimize conflict with other traffic, off-board fare collection, and platform-level loading and unloading. ITDP argues that such BRT can move far more people than light rail and nearly as many as the most crowded heavy-rail lines. “BRT also has the added ability . . . to offer a mix of local, limited, and express services, and to save time by eliminating inconvenient transfers.”

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