Farms vs. Transit in Hawai’i

Now that Honolulu’s insanely expensive, low-capacity rail line is under construction (and over budget), Oahu land-use advocates are upset that the city wants to rezone 1,289 acres of farms for residential development. At least some members of the city council claim to have been shocked to learn that just 17 percent of the island is still suitable for farming while 27 percent has been urbanized.

Sadly, efforts to protect farmlands in Hawai’i are something of a joke considering that Hawai’i’s land-use laws–the strictest in the nation–were supposedly passed to protect farmlands and yet in fact are responsible for destroying Hawai’i’s agricultural industry. The land-use laws made Hawai’ian housing so unaffordable that farmers can’t pay workers enough for them to be able to live there. As a result, the state has lost most of its pineapple, sugar cane, and other crop production to other Pacific islands such as Fiji.

Comparing a map of Oahu land-use designations with the route of the rail line reveals that the rail line will cross only a few tiny areas of land zoned for farming. In fact, a lot of the land around Kapolei that is zoned urban hasn’t yet been developed and could still be used for farming, but why bother if you can’t afford to grow crops?

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The Inequities of Federal Transit Funding

Federal funding for new rail transit lines has led to an inequitable distribution of funds among urban areas. This can be shown by downloading the historic time series data for capital funds from the National Transit Database. These numbers extend from 1991–which, coincidentally, is the year Congress created the New Starts program–to 2013.

Gross domestic product price deflators can be used to adjust all dollars to 2013 values. Finally, the National Transit Database’s historic time series for service data gives transit ridership for the same years. The time series show which urban area each transit agency primarily serves, so I added up the capital funds and ridership numbers by urban area.

The detailed results for 488 urban areas can be downloaded in this spreadsheet, while the basic results for the nation’s 50 largest urban areas are in the table below. Though there are a few surprises, the results mostly confirm my hypothesis that the best way for an urban area to get lots of federal transit funds is to build new rail lines.

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Light Rail Increasingly Dangerous

A pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in Denver last Thursday, February 12. The very next day, another pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in San Jose.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 40 people were killed in light-rail accidents in 2012. This is the most since at least 1992 (the earliest year for which I have numbers available). While the numbers vary from year to year, in all the years since 1995, light-rail accidents killed 333 people.

A few days ago, the Antiplanner mentioned that auto accidents kill about 34,000 people a year. That sounds horrible, and it is, but unlike light-rail numbers, auto fatalities have been declining. More important, light rail carried just 26.7 billion passenger miles in all the years between 1995 and 2012. By comparison, highway vehicles traveled nearly 3 trillion vehicle miles in 2012 alone. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per car (see page 33), that’s 5 trillion passenger miles.

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Winners Ride the Bus

One of the arguments for building expensive rail transit lines is that some people have a perception that only losers ride buses. Instead of lamenting that it does’t operate more rail lines, a transit agency in Denmark, Midttrafik, has a couple of advertisements presenting the bus as a superior mode of transportation.

The first ad is a couple of years old, having come out in September, 2012. It starts out with someone’s ear to the pavement–listening for the bus the way people purportedly listened to rails for the coming of a train. As people board the bus, rails are fleetingly visible in the foreground. The bus is shown doing “cool” things such as doughnuts in a parking lot.

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A Lesson about Big Government

The resignation of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber after just a little more than a month of his fourth term in office could be seen as making a case for term limits. But really, it is a classic example of the pitfalls of using big government to solve social problems.

Oregon limits governors to two consecutive four-year terms. Kitzhaber was in the governor’s mansion from 1995 to 2003. Then, Putin-like, after letting someone else be governor for a couple of terms, he ran again and won in 2010. Despite warning signs from Pulitzer-Prize-winning Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss, Kitzhaber coasted to victory (endorsed by Jaquiss’ own paper, among others) over a Republican legislator who represented one of the least-populated, and therefore politically inconsequential, parts of the state.

What brought Kitzhaber down was clear evidence that his girlfriend, Cylvia Hayes, who called herself the First Lady of Oregon and bragged that she was his “policy advisor,” aggressively used her connections to the governor to get contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby the state on energy policy, among other things. Rather than attempt to show that Hayes was keeping her roles as First Lady and lobbyist separate, Kitzhaber stonewalled public access to emails and even reportedly ordered his staff to destroy thousands of such emails. It was this stonewalling, more than the corruption charges, that led major Democrats in the state to turn against the governor.

Kitzhaber is a charismatic man who has a reputation with working with people on both sides of the political aisle. Yet this is far from his first major political scandal that cost taxpayer millions and involved questionable actions on the part of his friends and associates.

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Forced to Drive?

Although the Antiplanner likes to keep up with the latest technologies, I’ve hesitated to use Twitter. As someone who finds it easier to write a 5,000-word policy paper than a 500-word op ed, the 140-character limit for tweets is painful to think about. But, in case you haven’t heard, I started tweeting last week under the name, of course, of @antiplanner.

So I received a tweet yesterday from the Antiplanner’s loyal opponent, Michael Setty, saying, “We improve the lives of Americans the less we force them to drive.” (Followed by, “And robocars won’t save us,” but I’ll focus on his first tweet here.)

Setty is paraphrasing Minnesota planner Charles Marohn who argues that transportation planners need to change the emphasis from increasing people’s mobility to reducing the amount we “force them to drive.” This is hardly new: the notion that some mysterious conspiracy has forced Americans to drive has underlain a lot of urban planning for the past several decades. It is pure baloney.

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Good-Bye, Ms Scott

Under fire from Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker for “unacceptable” interruptions in transit service, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s general manager, Beverly Scott, has resigned from her post. The immediate cause of those service interruptions, of course, was Boston’s record fall of more than six feet of snow in the past two weeks alone.

The underlying cause of those interruptions, however, is the aging and decrepit nature of the transit system. Burdened by $5 billion in debt that demands $422 million in mortgage payments a year–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget that ought to be going to maintain and rehabilitate the system–the T was simply ready to fail.

This failure can’t truly be blamed on general manager Scott, who has worked in Boston for little more than two years and before that was working for Atlanta’s transit system. Indeed, the blame belongs to politicians who agreed to borrow money to build rail transit extensions. Indeed, some of the blame could be put on Governor Baker himself, who helped develop the finance plan for Boston’s Big Dig.

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Boston’s Little Dig

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) has a problem. It has a $3 billion maintenance backlog, and must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing. It has all kinds of wonderful plans to close that backlog, but those plans are all in the future. In the meantime, its latest budget proposal spares less than $100 million for maintenance.

So suppose someone offered the T a billion dollars. Heck, suppose someone offered it $2 billion. What percent of this money do you think the T would spend on maintenance?

Score a point if you guessed zero, for MBTA is currently spending $2 billion–half from the state and half from the feds–building a 4.3 mile extension of its Green light-rail line from Cambridge to Medford. When completed, this line is projected to increase the T’s total ridership by 7,000 “new” transit trips per day. Since the T currently carries about 1.4 million trips per weekday, the extension will increase ridership by 0.5 percent.

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Most Americans Want a House in the Suburbs

Most Americans are happy with their commutes and would be willing to trade off even longer commutes in order to live in more desirable housing, according to a survey by YouGov. Moreover, the detailed results indicate that these preferences are almost as strong among 18-29 year olds as among older age classes. YouGov describes itself as a “market research and data company.”

Three out of four people in YouGov’s sample of 1,000 drive to work while 14 percent take transit. Since the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey found that 85 percent of Americans drive to work and only 5 percent take transit, it seems likely that YouGov’s sample was skewed to big cities where transit commuting is more popular. New York, San Francisco, and Washington are the only major urban areas in which more than 14 percent of commuters take transit to work.

This makes YouGov’s other survey results even more striking. The numbers suggest that anecdotes indicating that large numbers of Millennials want to use transit and live close to jobs aren’t supported by the facts. Among other things, the survey found that differences in commuting and other preferences between Democrats and Republicans are greater than between people in their 20s and people in their 50s.

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Say No to the Purple Line

The Washington Business Journal published an op ed casting doubt on the proposed, $2.4-billion Purple light-rail line in Maryland suburbs of DC. Since the article is behind a paywall, the Antiplanner is taking the liberty of reproducing it here.

The Journal edited out a few paragraphs; while I’m not complaining, I reinserted them here for sake of completion. Those paragraphs are in italics.

Guest Comment: The Purple Line? No thanks

Washington Business Journal: Feb 6, 2015, 6:00am EST
Randal O’Toole

In the wake of Larry Hogan’s election as governor, Maryland has been inundated with propaganda claiming the Purple Line light rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton will do everything from relieve congestion to revitalize the economy. This is all hogwash.

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