The White House has applauded Portland and fifteen other local governments as “climate action champions” for promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the White House should have waited to see whether any of the communities managed to meet their goals before patting them on the back.
Take Portland, for example. The Northwest city’s modest goal is to reduce Portland and Multnomah County emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Planners claim that, as of 2010, the city and county had reduced emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels. However, this claim is full of hot air as all of the reductions are due to causes beyond planners’ control.
Almost two-thirds of the reduction was in the industrial sector, and virtually all of that was due to the closure in 2000 of an aluminum plant that once employed 520 people. The closure of that plant hasn’t led anyone to use less aluminum, so all it did was move emissions elsewhere.
The Highway Trust Fund hasn’t worked, says a new report from the Eno Transportation Foundation, so Congress should consider getting rid of it and funding all transportation out of general funds. In other words, the transportation system is breaking down because it has become too politicized, so solve the problem by making transportation even more politicized.
Click image to download this 3.2-MB report.
Eno (which was founded by William Phelps Eno, who is known as the “father of traffic safety”) claims this report is the result of eighteen months work by its policy experts. They should have worked a little longer, as the report’s conclusions would only make things worse.
The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis recently published a four-part economic assessment of the “Portland housing bubble.” Written by an economist named Josh Lehner, the assessment looks at a lot of data but misses the elephant in the room, which is how land-use regulation has affected Portland housing.
Housing prices have risen to pre-financial-crisis levels, says Lehner, and Portland’s rental market has an inordinately low vacancy rate. New construction of both single- and multi-family homes is mostly at the high end. Lehner looks at these facts with alarm, but it never occurs to him that there is a simple remedy: end all of the land-use restrictions.
Land-use regulation not only makes housing more expensive, it makes housing prices more volatile, that is, more prone to bubbles. This is because, when supply is limited, a small increase in demand translates to a large increase in price rather than an increase in supply. Conversely, a small decrease in demand translates into a large decrease in price.
The Washington Post has a story on Oregon’s United Streetcar company, which is supposedly geared up to manufacture 24 streetcars a year but has only managed to sell 18 and delivered all of them late. The story comes complete with photos of federal officials like Tim Geithner wearing ill-fitting sack suits like soviet commissars as they inspect the heavily subsidized factory.
For the Post, the story is not so much that the streetcars were delivered late, or that they were ineptly built, or that they cost $4 million while the Czech streetcars that they copied only cost $1.9 million. Although the article alludes to these problems, what appears to upset the Post the most is that giving millions of dollars in subsidies to an Oregon company that never built a transit vehicle in its life didn’t miraculously create a manufacturing powerhouse that is exporting streetcars all over the world. For some reason, other countries don’t want to pay twice as much for streetcars that are delivered late and fail to live up to promised specifications.
United Streetcar only managed to sell streetcars to three cities–Portland, Tucson, and Washington, DC–and they all signed contracts before the company developed its track record of late deliveries. Given that record, it isn’t surprising that other cities that are thinking about streetcars aren’t planning to buy Oregon.
Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?
All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.
At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?
The Antiplanner grew up in the 1960s, when racism was rampant, we were fighting an undeclared and, many believed, immoral war on the other side of the world, and air pollution was so thick in American cities that visibility was often significantly reduced. By the time I was out of college in the mid-1970s, the war was over, racial discrimination seemed to be history, but the environment still appeared to be in trouble. I elected to spend my career working on environmental issues.
“My whole thing is that the world needs to wake the fuck up,” said 27-year-old Ferguson resident Darren Seals. “When a boy was just laying here dead, we didn’t get all this attention. Burn Quick Trip down and now everybody coming. That’s sending off the wrong message. We got to start valuing life more than we value material. It’s been more about the rioting than the boy being dead. His life is more valuable than any of that. It shouldn’t be money over everything. It should be life over everything.” Flickr photo by Youth Radio.
It turns out that was the easy choice. Today, air pollution is practically nil in all but a few major urban areas. Rivers and streams are also mostly cleaned up. At least 5 percent, and probably much more, of the land area of the United States is in a wilderness or other classification that will never be developed.
The evidence continues to grow that so-called transit-oriented development (TOD) is more oriented to subsidies than it is to transit. A new GAO report found lots of places where rail transit failed to stimulate new development. In many if not most of the places it found TODs, “supportive zoning, planning, infrastructure investments, and tax incentives” played a major role in seeing them built.
Based on this, it is not surprising that a suburb along the Minneapolis-St. Cloud NorthStar commuter rail line has had to reduce density expectations in order to attract any development near a station on that line. Similarly, Denver RTD’s latest TOD update admits that one of the lessons RTD has learned is that “trains don’t create markets” (p. 4), and the update proceeds to outline many of the incentives RTD and local governments are providing to see TODs built.
So it is disappointing when The Economist, a magazine that usually does its homework, accepts without question transit agency claims that the Atlanta streetcar will lead business “to soar” for shops along its route. The magazine-that-calls-itself-a-newspaper considers the streetcar to be proof that “Americans are slowly warming to public transport,” when in fact all it proves is that American cities will take federal dollars for any crackpot scheme the feds are willing to fund, even if that scheme involves disrupting traffic and building housing that few people would live in unless it was subsidized.
John Naviaux, an undergraduate student at UC Irvine, compared the greenhouse gas benefits of getting people out of their cars and onto buses and found that, while it saved a little carbon dioxide, it wasn’t worth the huge subsidies required. As his faculty mentor, David Brownstone, comments, “there are no significant CO2 emissions benefits from moving a traveler from a personal automobile to an Orange County urban bus. This is a strong negative result since the Orange County bus fleet is among the cleanest in the world with almost all buses running on natural gas, and this shows that it will be difficult to reduce CO2 emissions in the U.S. by simply getting more people to use urban mass transit.”
The Antiplanner has the highest respect for Dr. Brownstone, but there may be a couple of problems with Naviaux’s paper. First, he counted all the subsidies to bus transit against the savings in greenhouse gas emissions. Transit advocates would be quick to point out that there are supposedly other benefits from transit, so greenhouse gas reductions are merely the icing on the proverbial cake.
Even if you don’t buy this argument–and the Antiplanner thinks the social benefits of transit are a lot smaller than many transit advocates claim–Naviaux compared the average emissions from cars with the average emissions from existing buses and the average subsidies from running those buses. But many conceivable bus improvements could significantly increase average bus occupancies at a very low marginal cost.
Count on someone at the Washington Post to play the race card in the postmortems over the Arlington streetcar. “Lower-income, racially diverse South Arlington has been counting on the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects to deliver a jolt of growth,” says Post columnist Robert McCartney. The county board’s decision to kill the streetcar will therefore “deepen” the “class and racial divisions” that afflict the county.
Yet the people who were against throwing close to $600 million down a couple of ratholes ($358 million for the Columbia Pike streetcar and $227 million for a Crystal City streetcar) aren’t racists. They were just unlike McCartney in their ability to see through the rhetoric and lies used to promote these boondoggles.
Compared with buses, streetcars are inferior in every way but one: they are slower, have fewer seats, add more to congestion, and when one breaks down they all have to come to a stop. The only thing that streetcars excel in is spending other peoples’ money. After seeing the county blow through nearly $1 million on a bus shelter that didn’t even shelter bus riders from the elements, voters were fed up with spending what was supposedly other peoples’ money.