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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TOD Coming to Pittsburgh

Yet another example of light rail spurring economic development comes from Pittsburgh, where the Port of Allegheny County has approved $12.5 million in public subsidies for a $42.5 million transit-oriented development. Since the development will include 152 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space, that’s a subsidy of more than $82,000 per apartment. The subsidies will also help pay for a 541-space parking garage.

Don’t be impressed by 15,000 square feet of retail space: that’s about the size of a new Trader Joe’s. The average Trader Joe’s is about 12,000 square feet, but the newer ones are bigger. Of course, if they actually attract a Trader Joe’s, they might be able to fill the apartments, but the fact that Pittsburgh has one of the most affordable housing markets in the country probably means there is little demand for stack-and-pack living.

So once again it is proven that light rail doesn’t stimulate economic development; it merely stimulates subsidies for economic development. Pittsburgh officials complain that “transit-oriented development is very difficult in Pennsylvania” because “there is no dedicated funding source” that can be used to subsidize it. So why are they bothering? Apparently just because they want to follow the latest fad.

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Housing Apartheid

Smart-growth land-use controls are creating a generation of renters and result in “social and housing apartheid,” say economists Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub. Writing from and about Auckland, New Zealand, they note that, since 1995, the cost of developable land has risen 73 percent faster than incomes (p. 52).

They admit that demand has played a role in housing prices, but not the principle role. “Over time, house prices can fluctuate considerably, but, in the normal scheme of things, only in a transitory way,” they write. “Prices will rise to signal the market to make more houses and then fall back when supply matches demand. But house prices can rise continuously, relative to incomes and rents, if there are physical or regulatory constraints that stop supply” (p. 51).

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There Are No Excessive Commutes

It is sad to see that the notion of “excessive commutes” is still around. This is the idea that, if we all lived close to our work, we could drive less and all be happier.

The Antiplanner tried to demolish this myth fourteen years ago in The Vanishing Automobile, but now Daniel Schleith, a geographer from the University of Cincinnati, is bringing it back. Schleith calculated the “minimum commute” that would be required in the nation’s 25 largest urban areas if jobs and housing in those areas were “balanced,” and compared that with the actual average commutes in those areas. The difference between the two is the “excess commute.”

This method makes two related and equally fallacious assumptions: First, that the only purpose of transportation is to get to and from work, and second that the only factor that should be involved in choosing a home location is proximity to work. In fact, commuting makes up only less than 20 percent of our travel, and the other travel we do is only one of the many factors that might lead us to choose a home location that isn’t as close as possible to work.

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DC MetroRail Still Dangerous

Accidents on the Washington MetroRail system killed 17 people between 2005 and 2010. Although there have been only three fatalities since the end of 2010, a new Federal Transit Administration report warns that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) remains lax about safety and numerous dangerous situations remain.


Several people died in a 2009 collision when one of the system’s original cars “telescoped” into another. The National Transportation Safety Board ordered WMATA to replace those older cars, but it is still running them. Wikimedia Commons photo by the NTSB.

Most media attention has been given to FTA’s findings regarding WMATA’s rail control center. The control room is understaffed, says the report, and what staff members they have are poorly trained and frequently distracted by cell phone calls, muzak, and other things unrelated to their work. The report hints that some accidents that WMATA has previously blamed on train operators may actually have been the fault of train controllers, whose actions were rarely questioned.

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