Hillsborough County Commissioners Vote No

Tampa-area voters will be spared the expense of having to go through another campaign to build an obsolete transit system in the city thanks to a 3-to-2 vote against the project by Hillsborough County commissioners. Voters already rejected the light-rail project once in 2010, and voters in neighboring Pinellas County voted against a connecting rail project in 2014.

In the end, it was a close thing. The swing vote on the county commission, Victor Crist, said he made his decision during a three-hour public hearing at which half the witnesses favored the project and half opposed. But to get a realistic look at the reality of urban rail transit, Crist and his fellow commissioners need only look at their neighbor to the south, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As the Antiplanner noted the other day, Puerto Rico is $70 billion in debt, and one of those billions is for the Tren Urbano, a rail system that opened in 2004. Not only are local residents having to repay that $1 billion, they have to spend nearly $50 million per year to keep it operating, partly because ridership is less than half of what was projected.

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Why the Dollar Works and the Euro Doesn’t

The Greek debt crisis led some people to wonder why a common currency works in the United States but not in Europe. Then came the Puerto Rico debt crisis. Yet what happened in Puerto Rico actually shows why the dollar works when the euro doesn’t.

Normally, a country that finds itself with unsustainable debt can devalue its currency. This reduces the standard of living for the country’s residents but makes it easier for the government to pay off whatever debt it owes in the local currency.

Neither Greece nor Puerto Rico have that option since their currency is shared with other nations or states. As a member of the euro zone, Greece can threaten to leave, destabilizing the entire system, unless other members put up with its profligate spending. Greece isn’t the only one: Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain–the so-called PIGS–all seem to have unsustainable debts that threaten the euro.

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The New Feudalism

Feudalism–an economic system in which all land is owned by the monarch and everyone else must pay rent to use that land–supposedly ended hundreds of years ago. But a map of the world showing the current status of property suggests that it is alive and well over most of the planet. Moreover, a new form of feudalism that nominally allows people to own land but severely limits what they can do with that land dominates much of the rest of the world.

For years, various surveys of economic freedom have attempted to portray the amount of liberty people enjoy in different countries. However, none of these surveys have explicitly included property rights as one of the measures of freedom, probably because there is no easy index for such rights.

That was supposed to be remedied by the new International Property Rights Index. This judges a nation’s respect for property rights using ten criteria. However, only one of these has to do with ownership of real estate, and none of them consider how regulated such owners might be. As a result, it gives high ratings to countries in which property rights are actually severely limited.

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San Jose Bus Ridership Plummets

The San Jose Mercury News points out the “staggering drop in VTA bus ridership” and suggests “dramatic changes” are needed to reverse that decline. However, it misses the elephant in the room, namely that the drop in ridership is directly due to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) cutting bus service in order to fund its rail transit fantasies–fantasies that have been repeatedly endorse by the Mercury News.

The Mercury News reports “ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001.” This understates the problem as light-rail ridership actually grew by about 19 percent during this time period, mainly because of an expansion of light-rail lines from 29.2 route miles in 2001 to 40.5 route miles in 2014. The small ridership increase gained by a 44 percent growth in route miles is distressing in itself, especially considering that the area’s 13 percent population growth accounts for most of the light-rail ridership growth.

The real tragedy is what happened to bus ridership, which declined by 32 percent from more than 48 million trips in 2001 to less than 33 million in 2014. (Light-rail and bus ridership and service numbers are from the National Transit Database Historic Time Series.) As it happens, in the same time period vehicle miles of bus service fell by 22 percent, a drop that explains most if not all of the decline in ridership.

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Britain’s Self-Inflicted Housing Crisis

The Antiplanner has spent the last week in Britain, and everywhere I went people were talking about Brexit: the vote in June on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Britain originally joined the union when it was a free-trade area, but since then it has grown increasingly intrusive on the economies of its member states.

While those intrusions are costly to Britain, the country’s biggest economic problem is self-inflicted: the housing crisis that makes Britain one of the least-affordable housing markets in the world. That crisis directly results from land-use laws passed to contain urban growth within specified boundaries. Since passing the first of these laws, the Town & Country Planning Act of 1947, British housing has not only grown more expensive, the nation has experienced four housing bubbles and collapses.

Until 1860 or so, all of the land in Britain was owned by an aristocracy that made up less than 4.5 percent of the population. Today, more than 60 percent of families nominally own the land they live on, though I use the word “nominally” because the official position of the government remains that “The Crown is the ultimate owner of all land in England and Wales.” This probably refers to alloidal title, while individuals may own a fee-simple title or freehold.

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Honolulu Madness

The Honolulu city auditor’s review of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) found numerous problems, including the use of obsolete and unreliable decision-making tools, failure to analyze major changes in the planned rail line, and leasing more office space than the agency needs. The rail line HART is constructing is already 25 percent over budget, and based on the problems found in the audit, the auditor “anticipate[s] additional cost overruns.”

Rather than fix the problems, HART officials chose to attack the messenger, claiming that the audit (which had been requested by the city council) was “politically motivated.” When the auditor shared a confidential draft of the audit with HART, HART shared it with unauthorized people, attempted to intimidate the auditors, and went to the press to attack the auditors before the audit was made public.

Not many people believe the agency’s attack on the city auditor. Honolulu’s mayor asked the the chair of HART’s board and another one of its board members to resign, perhaps hoping to use them as scapegoats for the project’s failings. Yet shaking the top of the agency won’t help fix the fundamental problems, which are that a $6 billion construction project is really beyond the region’s needs or the agency’s abilities.

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2012 Natural Resources Inventory Update

A few weeks ago the Antiplanner posted information about the 2012 Natural Resources Inventory. The post noted that the published documents broke down the amount of developed land in the nation by “large urban and built up” (meaning more than 10 acres of development), “small built up” (meaning more than a quarter but less than 10 acres) and “rural transportation,” but did not include a state-by-state breakdown of these categories.

Since then, the Natural Resources Conservation Service was nice enough to send me a spreadsheet with the state-by-state breakdown (for every state except Alaska). There are no real surprises with it, but I’ve posted it here as may be useful to readers.

One caveat is that the Natural Resources Inventory is a sampling survey, so it is always worthwhile to present it in conjunction with 2010 census data on urbanized lands. The Census Bureau’s definition of “urban” is a little different than the one used in the Natural Resources Inventory, but the two numbers together confirm that, for most states, the vast majority of land remains undeveloped.

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Growing Urban Areas Must Grow

The Antiplanner recently listed more than half a dozen academic papers that concluded that growth management makes housing more expensive. To this number might be added a paper (really a lengthy blog post with some neat graphics) by economist Issi Romem, who works for the real-estate web site BuildZoom. Romem finds that urban areas with unaffordable housing haven’t expanded geographically to match their population growth, while areas that have expanded geographically remain affordable.

An article in the Wall Street Journal breathlessly reports this as news, when it is only news to those who have drunk the kool-aide of urban planning. The writer of the article, Laura Kusisto, has apparently listened to too many urban planners herself, for she reports that urban “sprawl” has a “tendency to lead to oversupply that can lead home prices to crash.”

This is completely wrong; the cities that Romem reports have grown geographically did not bubble and crash in the 2000s. Instead, the urban areas that saw housing prices crash are the ones that tried to contain sprawl. Too bad the WSJ can’t afford to hire reporters who understand a smattering of economics, such as the fact that restricting supply makes a good inelastic which in turn makes its price more volatile.

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NY MTA to APTA: Quit Wasting Our Money

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has formally quit its membership in the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the nation’s principle transit lobby. In a harshly worded seven-page letter, MTA accused APTA of poor governance, an undue focus on small transit agencies, and having an embarrassingly large compensation package to APTA’s president.

The MTA and its affiliates, Metro North, the Long Island Railroad, and New York City Transit, together carry 35 percent of all transit riders in America. Since MTA’s ridership has been growing while transit elsewhere has declined, this percentage is increasing.

Yet APTA’s focus has been on lobbying for increased funding for smaller agencies, including building new rail transit lines in cities that haven’t had rail transit and extending transit service in smaller cities and rural areas that have had little transit at all. As a result, says the letter, MTA has been short-changed by roughly a billion dollars a year in federal funding that it would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried.

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Refugees or Immigrants?

Early this week, the Antiplanner listened to a presentation in Greece about the Syrian refugee crisis. The presenter noted that almost all members of the European Union had signed the Dublin agreement defining how countries should treat refugees. A major exception, however, was Turkey, which treated people fleeing Syria as potential immigrants rather than refugees. The speaker made it sound as though Turkey was heartless and uncaring about refugee problems.

Arda Akçiçek, a researcher at Istanbul’s Medipol University and activist with the Association for Liberal Thinking, has a very different view: by treating Syrians as immigrants rather than refugees, Turkey is treating them as potential economic contributors rather than likely recipients of welfare.

Some sheer numbers support this viewpoint. Germany has accepted something like 300,000 to 360,000 refugees, more than any other European nation under the Dublin agreement. The country has allocated more than $19 billion to refugees for 2016 alone, or roughly $55,000 per refugee.

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