ADC Asks Congress to Reformulate New Starts

ADC has joined with eighteen other national and state think tanks in asking Congress to reform the New Starts program that funds most new rail projects. ADC offered three arguments against the current process:

  • New Starts effectively gives cities and transit agencies incentives to propose the most expensive projects they can in order to get the most federal money.
  • As a discretionary fund (meaning the money is spent at the discretion of the president), New Starts is also political, giving the president power that Congress shouldn’t grant.
  • Finally, New Starts is inequitable, leading a few states and urban areas to get far more money per capita than the rest of the country.

In the last major transportation bill in 2012, Congress converted other discretionary funds, including the bus and bus facilities fund, ferry and ferry facilities fund, and congestion mitigation/air quality fund, to formula funds, meaning they are given to states and metropolitan areas based on such factors as population. ADC has asked Congress to turn New Starts into a similar formula fund, preferably one based on the user fees transit agencies earn from their customers. This would give agencies incentives to operate more for transit riders than for rail contractors.

In support of these ideas, ADC sent a letter to Pennsylvania Representative Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. A nearly identical letter was sent to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. A third letter was sent to Missouri Representative Sam Graves, chair of the House Highways & Transit Subcommittee. Finally, a letter was sent to Louisiana Senator David Vitter, chair of the Senate Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee.

No actual legislation has been written and ADC’s letter merely serves as a policy recommendation for the future. If you would like to support this policy, you can download a generic version of the letter which you can rewrite to send to your senators and representatives.

ADC’s letter cites three reports to support its policy recommendation. First is a Reason Foundation report showing that discretionary funds are highly politicized. This is supported by a GAO report that shows these discretionary funds are often inefficiently used. Finally, a Cato Institute report found that New Starts funds give cities and transit agencies incentives to waste money, putting a heavy burden on taxpayers.

Fall Newsletter

Thanks to hard work by ADC members, voters rejected light-rail projects in Austin, Texas and Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida. Activists also halted streetcar projects in Arlington, Virginia and San Antonio, Texas.

This is the top story in ADC’s latest newsletter. Get all the details and other stories as well by downloading it now.

2014 American Dream Conference

These files were presented at the 2014 Preserving the American Dream conference in Denver on September 19-21. A complete agenda shows when each presentation was given.

PowerPoint Presentations

Session 1: Debate Over Tolls and Public/Private Partnerships

Robert Poole: The Case for Tolls and PPPs

Greg Cohen: The Case Against Tolls and PPPs

Session 2: Transportation

Christian Holter: Struggles and Successes of Private Transit in America

Session 2a: Transportation Issues

Alan Pisarski: Where Is VMT Going?

Marc Scribner: The Future of Automobility

Session 2b: Transportation Finance

Baruch Feigenbaum: The TIGER Program–Discretionary Grant or Political Tool?

Session 2c: Data Workshop

Wendell Cox: Urban Data (10 MB)

Session 3: Land-Use Issues

Wendell Cox: Britain’s Declining House Sizes (13 MB)

Session 3a: Sustainability vs. Freedom

Rick Harrison: Sustainable Suburban Development Can Defeat Social Engineering (108 MB)

Thomas Wambolt: Problems with TIF

Session 3b: Fighting Sustainability Plans

Mark Gotz: Fighting Southern Florida’s Seven-50 Plan (14.1 MB)

Video on slide 9 of Mark’s show (12 MB)

Peter Singleton: Fighting Plan Bay Area

Session 3c: How to Review Transportation Plans

Thomas Rubin: How to Review a Transit Plan (10.8 MB)

Randal O’Toole: How to Review a Regional Transportation Plan (19 MB)

Session 5b: Getting out the Message

Sharon Nassett: Stopping Wasteful Projects Through Citizen Advocacy

John Anthony: Shattering America’s Trance (2.0 MB)

Jim Karlock: How to Make YouTube Videos

Mimi Steel: Fighting a Plan After It Has Been Approved (5.1 MB)

Videos associated with Mimi Steel’s presentation (107 MB).

Size not shown for files smaller than 2 megabytes.

Supplemental Papers

Marc Scribner on Regulation of Self-Driving Vehicles

Which Way for the Highway Trust Fund

Emily Goff on Bringing Transportation Decisions Closer to the People: Why States and Localities Should Have More Control

Tom Rubin on Strategy for Preparation of NEPA/CEQA Administrative Record

Selling the Northwest Passage, an article about a proposed third bridge across the Columbia River

Survey of St. Johns-Lombard about transportation issues

A Line in the Sand, an article about Sharon Nasset and the Columbia River Crossing

Interesting Data (Excel Files)

Most of the files below are from the 2012 American Community Survey, a Census Bureau survey of more than 3 million households. Some of the files for urbanized areas may not include data for smaller urban areas because the sample size wasn’t large enough for statistical accuracy.

How people with no cars get to work by urbanized area

How people with no cars get to work by state

How people get to work by income class by state

Median home price to median family income ratio by urbanized area

Median home price to median family income ratio by state

This spreadsheet is a summary of the 2012 National Transit Database, which includes data for nearly all transit agencies and modes in the nation. An Antiplanner post explains most of the rows and columns in the 1.8-MB spreadsheet.

Because Exclusive Bus Lanes Aren’t Expensive Enough

Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.

These lanes are exclusively dedicated to buses, but transit agency officials say they need to replace them with rail because there is no room to run more than one bus every eight minutes.

Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.

Continue reading

Who Uses Transit?

Rail advocates often call me “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.

Nationally, after adjusting for inflation, the APTA transit fact book shows that annual taxpayer subsidies to transit operations have grown from $1.6 billion in 1970 to $24.0 billion in 2012, yet per capita ridership among America’s urban residents has declined from 49 to 44 trips per year. A lot of that money ends up going to unionized transit workers, but the scary thing is that these workers have some of the best pension and health care plans in the world that are mostly unfunded–which means that transit subsidies will have to increase in the future even if no one rides it at all.

Capital and maintenance subsidies are nearly as great as operating subsidies, largely due to the industry’s fascination with costly rail transit. In 2012, while taxpayers spent $24 billion subsidizing transit operations, they also spent nearly $10 billion on maintenance, and more than $7 billion on capital improvements. In 2012, 25 percent of operating subsidies went to rail transit, but 56 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of capital improvements were spent on rails.

Continue reading

Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next ten years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in twenty years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. These technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictabie, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so.

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employment centers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will miles of driving decline due to increased carpooling or will it go up due to the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or doing other tasks that don’t require lots of supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

Continue reading

Facts versus Ideology

Debates over smart growth–sometimes known as new urbanism, compact cities, or sustainable urban planning, but always meaning higher urban densities and a higher share of people in multifamily housing–boil down to factual questions. But smart-growth supporters keep trying to twist the arguments into ideological issues.

The choice should be yours: suburbs, or . . .

For example, in response to my Minneapolis Star Tribune article about future housing demand, Thomas Fisher, the dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, writes, “O’Toole, like many conservatives, equates low-density development with personal freedom.” In fact, I equate personal freedom with personal freedom.

. . . New Urbanism. Flickr photo by David Crummey.

Continue reading

Bus Shelters for the Poor, Trains for the Rich

Low-income residents of the Twin Cities can rest easy, as planners at the Metropolitan Council, the area’s regional planning agency, are proposing a regional transit equity plan. According to the Metropolitan Council’s press release, this equity plan consists of:

  1. Building 75 bus shelters and rebuilding 75 existing shelters “in areas of racially concentrated poverty”; and
  2. “Strengthen[ing] the transit service framework serving racially concentrated areas of poverty” by building bus-rapid transit and light-rail lines to the region’s wealthy suburbs.

The blue line, the yellow line to St. Cloud, and the green line between the Minneapolis interchange and St. Paul Union Depot are open; the next priority is the green line from the interchange and Eden Prairie.

Bus shelters for the poor, light rail for the rich: that sounds equitable! Of course, the poor will be allowed to ride those light-rail trains (for example, if they travel to the suburbs to work as servants), but for the most part, the light rail is for the middle class.

Continue reading

Ignoring the Law of Supply and Demand

The Twin Cities Metropolitan Council is currently writing the Thrive Plan, which–like so many other urban plans today–aims to cram most new development into high-density transit centers. To justify this policy, the council naturally hired Arthur Nelson, the University of Utah urban planning professor who has predicted that the U.S. will soon have 22 million surplus single-family homes on large lots.

Click image to download a copy of the report.

“Demand for attached and multifamily housing in the Twin Cities will continue to grow,” trumpets the Met Council’s press release about Nelson’s report on Twin Cities housing. That, of course, is what the Met Council wanted Nelson to “prove,” which is why they hired him. However, his report can’t really justify the Met Council’s plans.

Continue reading