Today, the Cato Institute releases my policy paper on the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program that gives about $2 billion a year in grants to cities to build new streetcar, low-capacity rail, and other rail transit lines. My basic argument is that nearly all of the billions spent on this program since 1992 have been wasted, mainly because rail transit is obsolete except in a few extraordinary places such as Hong Kong.
The paper starts by quoting FTA administrator Peter Rogoff, who in a 2010 speech chastised the transit bureaucracy for asking his agency for money to build rail lines when they couldn’t afford to maintain the lines they already have. “Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive,” he said. “You can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.”
My paper points out that Rogoff’s own agency, with the complicity of Congress, is the main reason so many cities want to build rail lines they can’t afford to maintain. Although Congress set competitive grant criteria such as “cost effectiveness,” when the FTA tried to implement that criteria Congress simply exempted favorite projects from the rule. More recently, the FTA has rewritten the rule so it is now meaningless.
The Antiplanner is testifying this morning before the House Public Lands Subcommittee in favor of allowing federal land agencies to charge dispersed recreation fees (agencies today can charge for developed recreation, but not dispersed). My testimony is only two pages long, as it is supplemented by a just-released Cato Institute report on the same subject.
The report spends several pages debunking arguments against recreation fees, but my testimony concentrates on three arguments in favor. First, my proposal calls for half of all recreation fees to go the Treasury, which will help reduce the cost to taxpayers of managing federal lands.
Second, fees will lead to better land management. In particular, dispersed recreationists (whose activities today are, by law, fee-free) prefer landscapes that have healthy, natural ecosystems; diverse wildlife habitat; and clean water. So dispersed recreation fees will give managers incentives to provide more of those things.
The Antiplanner is traveling to Washington DC today where I’ll testify tomorrow before the House Public Lands Subcommittee on federal land recreation fees. By an extraordinary coincidence, tomorrow the Cato Institute will release my policy paper recommending that Congress allow the Forest Service, Park Service, and other public land agencies to charge recreationists fair market value to use the public lands.
On Wednesday, I’ll participate at a Hill briefing on transportation issues. By a not-so-extraordinary coincidence, Cato will release my new policy paper arguing that the “New Starts” program of federal funding for new rail transit projects gives transit agencies incentives to develop high-cost, rather than low-cost solutions for transit. The paper reviews, among other plans, Maryland’s Purple Line light-rail proposal and shows that it will cause more congestion, use more energy, and emit more pollution than not building it–points that should already be familiar to Antiplanner readers.
A middle-class urban planner sees a working-class neighborhood and says, “I wouldn’t want to live there. That neighborhood must be blighted.” So the planner convinces the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars revitalizing the neighborhood: clearing older buildings and replacing them with new high-density, mixed-use developments that the middle-class urban planner wouldn’t want to live in but thinks others should enjoy, often tying such neighborhoods together with a billion-dollar rail line.
Lo and behold, the plan “works” in the sense that housing in the area is now more expensive and suddenly the working-class families are priced out of the market. So the middle-class planner says, “What a terrible shame. We need to spend more money subsidizing affordable housing.” This makes the planner feel less guilty even though someone else’s money is used to subsidize the housing and the people getting the subsidized housing are most likely friends of the developer who just graduated from college and are therefore “low income” at the moment even though they can expect to be high income soon.
Then comes along a middle-class journalist who doesn’t understand the problem. The problem is not, as this article suggests, that rail transit has boosted property values (which it hasn’t, really–see this post to understand what is going on). The problem is that government should have kept out of the development business in the first place.
Some called it the Great Society Subway, and like a metaphor for the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s grandiose plans, the Washington Metro Rail system is slowly breaking down. No less than the Washington Post calls it “a slow-rolling embarrassment whose creeping obsolescence is so pervasive, and so corrosive, that Washingtonians are increasingly abandoning it.” System ridership is down by 5 percent from a year ago even though other transit agencies in the region have seen growth.
“Last Monday morning, all five Metrorail lines were beset by mishaps, the second such one-day calamity in three weeks,” the Post editorial continued. “The comatose escalators; the crumbling ceiling at Farragut North, year after year after year; the funereal lighting; the frequent signal problems; the routine single-tracking that makes weekend Metro use torturous–all of this takes a toll on riders that Metro officials too blithely dismiss.”
Metro’s general manager gets paid $350,000 a year to watch the trains and rails rust away, and as if that isn’t enough next year Metro’s board is giving him a raise to $366,000. One excuse for such high pay for what amounts to a failure is that it wasn’t all his fault; but really, why should managers of rail transit agencies get paid so much more than managers of agencies that only run buses?
Those who believe in human-caused climate change often point out that skeptics are most likely to be economic conservatives who don’t like the idea of problems that can’t be solved by the free market. But the accusation goes the other way as well: believers are most likely to be self-described progressives who love big government and are thrilled by the idea of a problem that can only be solved by making government bigger.
This was recently pointed out by Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute (and co-authors of “The Death of Environmentalism“). One of their main exhibits is a 2011 article from The Nation by Naomi Klein.
“Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action,” says Klein. “Climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.” Those “progressive demands” include “publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as ‘people’ under the law”; “ending the cult of shopping” along with all economic growth except “for parts of the world still pulling themselves out of poverty”; and of course “subways, streetcars and light-rail systems that are not only everywhere but affordable to everyone [and] energy-efficient affordable housing along those transit lines.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that the “latest urban trend” is “less elbow room” as measured by an increase in accessory units and additional homes built on the lots once occupied by only one home. To illustrate this “trend,” the Journal had to travel to Vancouver, BC, which Wendell Cox ranks as second only to Hong Kong as the least affordable urban area in the English-speaking world.
That lack of affordability, in turn, can be traced to the region’s mindless pursuit of densification via urban-growth boundaries. In other words, this “trend” may actually be just a response to planning-induced housing shortages, not to any real desire of people to double up on individual home sites.
Consider, for example, some other evidence: the Census Bureau says that the average size of homes built in 2012 reached a record 2,340 square feet. More than 40 percent of homes are now built with four bedrooms. Even new condos have reached a record average size of more than 1,400 square feet. The average size of rental apartments, however, is a paltry 1,110 square feet.
“Feds ask states to sideline driverless cars,” warns Forbes magazine. That’s actually a bit of a stretch. What the 14-page report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “recommends” is that states authorize self-driving cars for testing only, and that states that want to permit “non-testing operation of self-driving vehicles” should at least require that a licensed driver be in the driver’s seat ready to take over if the car reaches a situation it can’t handle. That’s pretty much what is happening anyway.
As Wired magazine notes, “the feds have no clue how to legislate autonomous cars,” mainly because they are “far behind the times . . . with regard to emerging technology.” The feds “want rules, but don’t want to inhibit innovation; they don’t want to pass laws at the federal level (just yet), but don’t want individual states going it alone.”
The federal government once funded research into driverless cars, but ignominiously cancelled the program in 1998 for specious reasons. The administration in 1998, as today, had an anti-auto agenda, so the Antiplanner wouldn’t trust the feds to oversee driverless car programs. They would probably insist on more central control and then do what they could to sabotage the program.
Young people have been told so often that they are especially virtuous for living in inner cities and riding transit instead of driving that they have developed a serious epidemic of smugness. For example, one writes that “my generation is car-sharing, using transit, walking, biking and generally using any number of forms of transportation that are far more energy-efficient and less carbon-dependent. We support high-speed rail, view climate change as a real threat and are eschewing suburban sprawl that has consumed precious land and energy.”
There are lots of things wrong with these claims, but the biggest is the idea that young people today are somehow different. In reality, every demographic group is growing faster in the suburbs than the cities. Reports of rapid inner city growth are often based on very tiny numbers: a couple of decades ago, hardly anyone lived in downtown, thanks mainly to urban planners who used federal urban renewal money to clear minorities, single men, and others out of downtown areas. When you start at near zero, any growth at all will be a large percentage, but it doesn’t indicate a major trend.
Last Friday, opponents of California’s high-speed rail line told a California state judge that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not met all the requirements to start building the first stage of the state’s high-speed rail line. As approved by voters in 2008, the law requires, among other things, that the authority identify the “sources of all funds to be invested in the corridor, or usable segment thereof” and hat the “authority has completed all necessary project level environmental clearances necessary to proceed to construction.”
So far, the authority only has funds to build a portion of the “minimum operable segment” from Madera to the San Fernando Valley and environmental clearances for only 29 miles of this segment. Opponents argued that the authority could not begin construction until it met these requirements.
The state did not attempt to refute these contentions but merely argued that when the legislature authorized the sale of $2.6 billion in bonds it effectively negated these legal requirements. The plan “was deficient,” admitted the deputy attorney general who argued the case. “The Legislature looked at it and said, we would like more, but this is what we’ve got and it made its decision. Those are political decisions that I can’t comment on.” As a result, she added, the judge has no authority to overrule the legislature.