Tuesday, May 30, 2006

If you can't trust the CDC, who can you trust? 

Two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report saying that obesity was killing 300,000 Americans each year and was about to overtake smoking as the nation's leading cause of death. A few months later, the agency quietly issued a retraction, admitting it had made some arithmetical errors and overstated deaths due to obesity by several times.

Now one of the authors of that paper has been found guilty of cheating taxpayers by padding her expense accounts by more than $7,000. For example, she claimed a $106 cost was for "PowerPoint slides" when actually it was spent at Filene's Basement department store. Donna Stroup, the guilty party, has resigned her job and will be sentenced in July.

Not every government bureaucrat is dishonest. But the temptation to overstate a problem in order to get a larger budget for your department is always great. Officials whose budgets grow the fastest are considered heroes and are often given pay raises or promotions. Sometimes, it seems that the only way to get the attention of Congressional appropriators is with a crisis, which is why the news media makes everything seem like the end of the world yet the end never comes.

If you believe a problem is real, but don't think it is the end of the world, being honest about it may lead to your budget being cut in order to provide funds for someone else who claims their problem is the end of the world. This puts enormous pressure on people to exaggerate.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Speaking of crime at or near transit stations ... 

Body found at Rockville Metro station
Friday, May 26, 2006

by Warren Parish
Staff Writer

The body of a man was found at the Rockville Metro Station early this morning.

Police are withholding the name of the man, who they say was a victim of homicide, pending notification to the family.

The victim, described by police as Hispanic, was found in the bushes of the station’s Kiss and Ride parking lot along Rockville Pike by a Metro employee around 5:45 a.m.

Preliminary investigation revealed that the victim suffered gun shot wounds to his body, police reported. The cause of death will be determined after an autopsy by the Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore.

Md.: What's faster than E-ZPass? Just wait 

What's faster than E-ZPass? Just wait

By Larry Carson
Sun reporter

Originally published May 27, 2006

As motorists hit the highways this holiday weekend, more than half will be speeding through Maryland tolls with E-ZPass electronic transponders - a Memorial Day milestone that has planners thinking about the next stage: high-speed lanes that would allow cars to pass through tolls without slowing down.

Already in use in some states, the "full-speed" toll collection lanes are included in plans for the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County and in a widening slated for Interstate 95 north of Baltimore in the next few years. "Once the Intercounty Connector opens, we'll see a dramatic rise in the use of E-ZPass," said Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Secretary Trent M. Kittleman.

The new system will allow drivers to move at full speed while paying tolls electronically, either through E-ZPass or by photos of their license plates, though that will cost slightly more. Kittleman said a widened 10-mile section of I-95 north of Baltimore would also be equipped for separate high-speed E-ZPass-only use when it opens by 2011. Barring delays, portions of the ICC are expected to open in 2010.

East Coast: Rail Officials Promise a Faster Response to Future Problems 

Rail Officials Promise a Faster Response to Future Problems

By PATRICK McGEEHAN
Published: May 27, 2006

The widespread power failure that disrupted train service in five states on Thursday morning exposed shortcomings in Amtrak's system for evacuating riders from stalled trains, rail officials said yesterday, and they pledged to undertake steps to react faster if the problem should recur.

The electrical failure, which stranded tens of thousands of commuters in tunnels and between stations for hours, was the first of its kind in Amtrak's history, said Clifford Black, a spokesman for the railroad. Yesterday, Amtrak began stationing employees at three substations that previously had been monitored electronically, he said.

Mr. Black said Amtrak had not identified the cause of the electrical problem, which tripped circuit breakers from Maryland to Queens, shutting down power along more than 200 miles of track used by Amtrak and three commuter lines.

"They are going to stay there until we determine the cause," Mr. Black said. "Until we determine the cause, we can't be certain that it won't happen again."

See also:

Thousands Are Stuck as Trains in the Northeast Go Dark

The Passengers:
Reading. Cursing the Heat. Hiking to a Parking Lot.



What Went Wrong:
The Breakers Kept Tripping and the Substations Went Dark

Friday, May 26, 2006

Md.: Homeowner sues activist 


Some readers of this blog may be familiar with the controversy associated with Little Dobbins Island in the Magothy River, a saltwater branch of the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis. Seems that the owner of the island (you can see an image from above here, it's the smaller of the two islands) (re-)built a home without the appropriate permits.

My sympathies tend to run with the owner of the island (it's his land, after all), and I know how elaborate, expensive and long the approvals process is (and the lands along the Magothy River are hardly untouched or pristine), but I don't think I agree with his lawsuit against the person and groups that are opposing what he has done.

You can read more at the links below:

Washington Post: One Man Is an Island

Magothy River Association and Magothy River Land Trust

CBF Appeals Little Dobbins Island Variance Decision (Chesapeake Bay Foundation Web site).

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Light-Rail Stations Top List of Crime Calls 

Police say a light-rail station generates almost three times as many crime calls as the next highest location in Washington County, which includes the suburbs west of Portland. Two other light-rail stations are also in the top-five list of crime scenes.

Other areas on the top-ten list include shopping centers, a high school, two apartment buildings, and a hospital. Collectively, the three light-rail stations have generated 643 crime calls this year, while the other seven locations on the top-ten list have generated 782 calls.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Wal-Mart and Eminent Domain 

Last week, Florida news reports indicated that Wal-Mart was threatening landowners in Florida that if they did not sell their land to the retailer, the company would ask local officials to use eminent domain to take the land away from them.

Turnabout is fair play. Yesterday, San Francisco Bay Area news reports indicated that the town of Hercules, which does not want a Wal-Mart, was threatening to use eminent domain to take Wal-Marts land away and sell it to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or another upscale retailer.

"A big-box store is not part of our plan," said one resident. Another was more blunt: "I don't want to have anything ghetto around me." The city's plan calls for, surprise, "a high-density, mixed-use village." But what makes them think that Whole Foods, Trader Joes, or other upscale realtors want to be around them?

Now, Wal-Mart is apologizing for the Florida threat, saying that the threat of eminent domain was actually made by "an overly agressive site selection consultant." Wal-Mart says it should have reviewed the letter (actually an email) before it went out and deleted the eminent domain threat. It hinted that it might cut off its relationship with the consultant.

Can you imagine emailing someone an offer to buy their land with a threat that you will use eminent domain to take it if they don't accept their offer? Can you imagine threatening someone at all when you are trying to get on their good side?

The news reports do not indicate that Wal-Mart said it would never ask a local government to use eminent domain. It just said that threatening to do so "did not reflect the company's position."

On the other hand, identifying Wal-Mart with "ghetto" is reprehensible and borders on racism. Wal-Mart should be allowed to build where it has a market (and where the traffic to its stores do not unduly impact its neighbors). But it should not rely on eminent domain.

The High Cost of Land-Use Planning 

The San Francisco Chronicle published an intelligent, thoughtful op ed on the effects of planning on housing prices. I would say more good things about this op ed but it would sound immodest because I wrote it.

Meanwhile, a reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera had an article on the same subject yesterday that also quotes me. Boulder is famous for limiting building permits and buying up all the land around it as open space, something known as the "Danish plan" after Paul Danish, the former city commissioner who promoted the plan back in the 1970s.

Danish is also quoted in the article claiming that Boulder's high housing prices are due solely to its livability, not to any government restrictions on housing supply. Any place with lower prices, he says, must be "a really awful place to live." Since that takes in most of the United States, I guess this just confirms the oft-stated motto that Boulder is "25 square miles surrounded by reality."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

N.Y./N.J./Conn./Pa.: Bigger Houses, Longer Commutes 

May 21, 2006
Bigger Houses, Longer Commutes
By ELSA BRENNER

ON weekdays, Julie Kroloff sets the coffee maker for 5:45 a.m., then speeds through her kitchen in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., and grabs a cup to fortify herself for the long drive ahead. If Ms. Kroloff, a self-employed consultant, is on time, she backs out of the garage just before 6 and makes the trip from Dutchess County to her office in Midtown Manhattan in just under two hours. If traffic is heavy, Ms. Kroloff's 54-mile commute can take two and a half hours or more.

About the same time, in Burlington, N.J., south of Trenton, Ronny Byrd, a vault custodian for the Bank of New York, boards a bus bound for Wall Street. If the New Jersey Turnpike and the Holland Tunnel are not backed up, Mr. Byrd will reach his destination in two hours.

In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Atul Ramayani, a computer analyst, boards Metro-North's increasingly crowded 7:10 express bound for Grand Central Terminal. In all, Mr. Ramayani's commute takes close to two hours, including the 20-minute drive to the station and a 10-minute walk from Grand Central before he clocks in for the day.

Priced out of an increasingly expensive real estate market in close-in areas like Westchester, Bergen and Nassau Counties, some workers are pushing their commutes up to the two-hour mark, and even beyond.

It is the price they are willing to pay to own the home of their dreams, said Alan E. Pisarski, the author of a series of books titled "Commuting in America" (the third is being published by the National Academy of Sciences' Transportation Research Board).

"In essence, what this group of commuters is doing," Mr. Pisarski explained, "is contributing to their house payment with travel time."

Va.: As Loudoun Grows, So Do Its Families 

As Loudoun Grows, So Do Its Families

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006; Page A01

If suburbia has always been for child rearing, to enter the quaint and shaded 10-year-old neighborhood off Route 50 is to find the fertile epicenter of a county with one of the highest birthrates in the nation. Loudoun County rivals parts of suburban Utah, where the Mormon faith encourages large families, and areas such as Hidalgo, Tex., and Manassas Park, where large numbers of recent immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries account for the growth.

After decades of decline, birthrates in the United States, unlike those of most industrialized nations, have in recent years begun to tick up slightly, driven largely by immigration and to a lesser degree by people, including immigrants, who have followed the building boom into such counties as Loudoun and have produced, it seems, a mini baby boom of their own.

Colorado: The price of smart growth 

The price of smart growth

Communities debate how to follow Boulder's lead

By Eric Schmidt, Camera Staff Writer
May 21, 2006

With open-space and planning policies dating back four decades, Boulder was among the first American cities to curtail development with growth control and publicly funded land preservation.

The wisdom of what came to be known as "smart growth" remains up for debate. As communities east of Boulder's greenbelts establish growth limits and open-space programs of their own, the question is whether Boulder represents an example to follow or a mistake to avoid.

"I certainly take it as a compliment to be compared to the city and county of Boulder when it comes to open-space purchases," said Louisville Mayor Chuck Sisk, whose city has amassed about 2,000 acres of open space since the early 1990s. "If I can leave any part of a legacy for our children and grandchildren, that is what I would choose."

Yet in a March report titled "The Planning Penalty," Randal O'Toole, of the Independence Institute — a free-market think tank in Golden — cites Boulder as proof that slow growth and open space drive housing prices past what average residents can afford.

O'Toole estimates the combination adds $117,000 to the median price of a home in Boulder County, even when adjusted to reflect affluent residents' buying power. He writes that a planning-induced housing shortage added $3 billion to the cost of homes statewide in 2005.

[Click title above to read the rest (registration required)]

Friday, May 19, 2006

Book Review: Sprawl : A Compact History 

This review, by Slate's Witold Rybczynski is from November of 2005, but still worth reading.

In my opinion, the book itself is worth the cover "list" price of $27.50 (yes, I bought a copy).

Title: Sprawl : A Compact History
Author: Robert Bruegmann
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 1, 2005)
ISBN: 0226076903

This volume can be purchased from Amazon.com here.

Virginia, N.C. push for I-95 toll 

The AP is reporting, via the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that North Carolina and Virginia are considering a toll on I-95 at the state border.

Virginia, N.C. push for I-95 toll

Associated Press

May 19, 2006

RALEIGH, N.C. - North Carolina and Virginia hope to go into the toll road business together.

A law passed by Virginia's General Assembly in April and legislation filed this week in Raleigh would set up a toll booth at the border on Interstate 95, charging each passing car $5.

The money raised through the Virginia-North Carolina Interstate Toll Road Compact would be split between the states and used for improvements to the highway.

"We proposed this to get the discussion started about the concept," Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, said Thursday.

North Carolina's Transportation Department estimates I-95 through the state needs $4 billion in repairs. A broad gap between tax revenue and rising construction costs means state leaders must consider tolls and other fundraising sources, Jenkins said.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

N.Y.: Tramway Reopening May Wait Until Fall 

Tramway Reopening May Wait Until Fall

Published: May 18, 2006

The operator of the Roosevelt Island Tramway said yesterday that it would probably take 10 to 12 weeks to complete repairs and upgrades, at which point it will call in state inspectors to authorize the resumption of service on the line, which broke down last month, stranding dozens of people.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Md.: Mall's Comedown Taints Lerner Image 

What is left of Landover Mall is located next to the Capital Beltway in Landover, Maryland. You can see a map of the area on Google Maps here.

The site of the mall is between Brightseat Road and the Beltway. To the south of the mall is FedEx Field, where the NFL Washington Redskins play.

The Post article seems to imply that Landover Mall was killed by its owners, the Lerner family (who are the new owners of the Washington Nationals baseball club). I disagree. I believe that the development of far too many high-density, low-income garden apartment complexes (such as the ones along Brightseat Road, across the street from the mall), and the crime that has come along with those apartments, has much more to do with the death of Landover Mall.

DeadMalls.Com has an interesting feature on Landover Mall here.

Tax Break Credited In Saving Va. Land 

This Washington Post article describes Virginia's (and, to a lesser extent, Maryland's) land "conservation" programs.

I consider most of these to be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The following lines, from deep in the article, are relevant:

Critics view the tax credit less favorably. They say the program is a boondoggle for rich landowners that isn't adequately monitored for compliance. Landowners donate their easement to a third-party agency -- usually the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which then assumes responsibility to protect the easement. Easement donors qualify not only for the state tax credit but also for charitable deductions on their federal income tax returns. And they are eligible for major reductions in their local property tax bills.

"It's a huge scam," said Sally R. Mann, a property owner near Hamilton who believes her neighbor's use of his land for farming violates the terms of his easement. "The government is paying very wealthy people to live on their estates that they would never subdivide to begin with."

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the state agency that holds most easements donated in the state, disagrees. Easements are noted permanently on property deeds, making it almost impossible for property to be developed illegally, said Leslie Grayson, a stewardship director with the foundation. And the foundation employs field inspectors to investigate complaints and monitor compliance, she said.

Monday, May 15, 2006

N.Y.: Coming Through in the Clutch at Stick-Shift U. 

As a lifelong driver of cars (and over the past 25 years, mostly pickup trucks and SUVs) with clutches and manual transmissions, I found this article, about someone learning to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission in New York City traffic, to be rather amusing. I have to drive quite a lot in congested traffic here in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., so it's no big deal with all my years and miles of manual transmission driving.

I think it's still correct to say that everything else being equal, a vehicle with a manual transmission will tend to consume less fuel than a vehicle with an automatic gearbox.

What's Ahead for MAX? Death 

The Sunday Oregonian rhetorically asks about the future of Portland's light-rail (MAX) lines, while the Monday Oregonian provides an answer: another pedestrian fatality.

The Sunday article is reasonably fair and balanced, pointing out that MAX costs far more to build than bus lines, and while it costs less to operate than the average bus, fares collected by many of the more popular bus lines actually cover their operating costs while MAX operating costs are $1.18 more than fares. It also adds that bus ridership on "frequent-service bus lines" is growing as fast as rail ridership, implying that riders are sensitive to frequencies, not to whether the transit service is on rubber tires or steel wheels.

The article also mentions the claim that MAX generated billions of dollars of development projects, but points out that "Critics say growth would have fueled this development anyway." It adds that redevelopment along the latest route "has been underwhelming." Development on the airport line is now taking place with an IKEA and Costco, but these two retailers were not at all attracted by the light rail; instead, it is the proximity to Washington shoppers who won't have to pay sales taxes for what they buy in Oregon.

If the article was fairly balanced, the headline in the hardcopy edition -- but not the on-line edition -- was not. Instead, it erroneously claims, "the sleek, quiet MAX trains now carry one of every four commuters heading east or west." The truth is they carry one of every four downtown commuters heading east or west, but not commuters to other employment areas. Since downtown only has about 10 percent of the region's jobs, that just is not very many commuters.

D.C.: Supreme Court Rejects Commuter Tax Appeal 

Supreme Court Rejects Commuter Tax Appeal
May 15th - 11:05am

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal for the D.C. government to be allowed to impose a commuter tax.

The city wanted to tax about 500,000 people who come into town every day from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. It's suing to overturn a federal law requiring permission from Congress to do that.

Md./Va.: Commute's New Dawn 

Commute's New Dawn
The Path to New Wilson Span, and What Lies Ahead

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006; C01

About 11 a.m. Thursday, a new drawbridge half as heavy as the Eiffel Tower will be lowered over the Potomac River and the governors of Virginia and Maryland will walk from opposite shores to shake hands, signaling a new era for hundreds of thousands of commuters.

The transformation will be brought on by the opening next month of the first of two spans of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a muscular hunk of 25,000 tons of concrete and more than 30,000 tons of steel nearly two difficult decades in the making that promises to ease drives across the area -- at least for a while.

In a politically complex region that rarely agrees on how to solve its severe traffic problems, the bridge construction stands out as a success story. When the entire project is completed, Virginia and Maryland leaders will have joined hands to refashion 12 percent of the Capital Beltway and unclog the area's worst bottleneck.

Md.: Moving Up the Corridor 


Commercial Real Estate Report

Moving Up the Corridor
Frederick County Enjoys a Boom in Office-Building Development

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006; D01

Wearing black sunglasses, a starched white shirt and purple-striped necktie, Mickey Abrams drove his silver Mercedes convertible onto the freshly paved parking lot of his latest real estate venture in Frederick County one recent morning and surveyed the results.

He'd gotten a good deal on farmland just off Interstate 270 and Route 85, and put $9 million into building two one-story brick
office buildings with space adding up to the size of a football field. This spring -- five months after completion -- his brokers found two tenants -- Western Services Corp., a nearby software company that was expanding, and a Kaiser Permanente Inc. branch. They agreed to pay the going rate of about $16 a square foot.


Not bad, Abrams thought.

Just behind the two buildings, Abrams can see a source of more tenants: a steady stream of brake lights from cars and trucks heading south along Interstate 270 during the morning rush hour.

"All those employees spend an hour or more in the car instead of 10 minutes from their home to their office," Abrams said as the traffic crept past his office buildings.


It's importat to note that this segment of I-270 has not been widened or upgraded since the freeway was built - in the 1950's - and some proposals to widen have been rejected for the usual reasons.

80 Year Old Granny Poses Threat 

Long Branch, NJ - The city wants Anna DeFaria's home, and if she doesn't sell willingly, officials are going to take it from the 80-year-old retired pre-school teacher. In place of her "tiny slip of a bungalow" - and two dozen other weathered, working-class beachfront homes - city officials want private developers to build upscale townhouses. "We thought this was going to be our home forever," said DeFaria, sitting in a kitchen cozy with photos of children and grandchildren, quotes from the Bible and a game of Scrabble that she plays against herself. "Now they want to take it away. It's unfair, it's criminal, it's unconstitutional." DeFaria said she was offered $325,000 for the home she and her late husband bought in 1960 for $6,400. But it's not the money, she said: $1 million wouldn't convince her. "They're taking my home away - not my house. My home. My life."

D's & R's Both Back Corn Gas 

U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes didn't know his 2005 Chevy Suburban could run on fancy E85 corn fuel until Tuesday morning, when a staff member popped his gas cap after a news conference and filled it up with the $2.69-a-gallon fuel (a blend of 15% gas and 85% corn ethanol). The fuel is so rare fewer than 1 percent of all gas stations in the United States carry it. But E85 is considered more environmentally friendly than regular gasoline. Hayes introduced a bill he hopes will make the fuel more widely available. He wants to increase a tax incentive offered to gas station owners who install the hardware for the E85 fuel.

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Democrat from Lillington, introduced legislation Thursday to promote biofuels as an alternative to gasoline. The legislation would double the percentage of renewable fuel sold in the United States within six years. It would require that 75 percent of American-made cars be able to run on alternative fuels within six years. Etheridge wants to promote E85 fuel through a combination of incentives and requirements.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Early life in big yards key to health 

From The Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia) comes this report by Kara Phillips, dated 02-May-2006.

Thanks to Wendell Cox of Demographia and The Public Purpose for alerting me to this. Here are the first several paragraphs:

SOUTH Australian children with big backyards are less likely to be overweight and inactive than those with small courtyards, a study has found.

Preliminary data from the Flinders University Achieving a Healthy Home Environment study, which surveyed the homes and lifestyles of 280 southern suburbs families, found the size and set-up of homes contributed largely to how fit and healthy young children were.

Researchers looked at more than 75 physical and nutritional variables in each family home over the past year.

"We found the bigger the backyard, the more active the kids," said Flinders Medical Centre consultant pediatrician Dr Nicola Spurrier, who headed the study that will continue until next year.

"But we also found the amount of play equipment and play areas in a back yard had a big impact too."

The study also found 20 per cent of the children surveyed did not do 60 minutes of moderate activity each day and just 35 per cent watched less than the recommended two hours of TV.

[click the heading above for the rest of the story]

Friday, May 12, 2006

TOLLROADSnews: Goldman Sachs making pitch for Atlanta toll truckways 

2006.05.11
Goldman Sachs making pitch for Atlanta toll truckway on I-285 belt

Goldman Sachs (GS) has a proposal for financing truck-only toll lanes (TOTLs) on the western portion of the I-285 beltway around Atlanta GA, the Atlanta Journal Constitution is reporting. They say the New York based financial group - which has formed a fund for tollroad investments and is pitching concessions all over the country - will make a presentation to the state's policymaking transportation board at their monthly meeting next week. They are expected to follow up with a formal proposal under the state's public-private initiative (PPI) law.

See also Reason Public Policy Institute's TOLL TRUCKWAYS: A NEW PATH TOWARD SAFER AND MORE EFFICIENT FREIGHT TRANSPORTATION from 2002 (Adobe Acrobat .pdf, 533 KB).

And an AJC editorial from December 2005.

D.C. Councilman Barry involved in late night crash 

The Washington Post is reporting that Ward 8 member of the Council of the District of Columbia (and former Mayor) Marion S. Barry, Jr. was involved in a minor traffic crash in the 1000 block of First Street, S.E. early today (at 12:10 A.M.).



I find this interesting because Mr. Barry has long been an advocate for mass transit and an opponent of highway improvements in D.C. (see one example here), and is currently an alternate member of the Board of Directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which means he has a free, unlimited-use transit pass.

Wonder why Councilmember Barry wasn't riding transit?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Tri-Met Buys New Light-Rail Cars 

Although full funding for a new light-rail line along Interstate 205 has not yet been approved, Portland's transit agency, Tri-Met, has purchased $89 million worth of light-rail cars for that line. The agency is also moving ahead with plans to divert 28 bus routes from Portland's bus mall in anticipation of reconstructing the mall for light rail.

This reconstruction project is controversial because studies show the total capacity of the mall to handle transit passengers will be lower with light rail and buses interweaving than with buses alone. But downtown merchants made it clear that they would not accept light rail on any other streets. Since many of the merchants on the bus mall had already been put out of business by the mall, there were few there to protest. Tri-Met insists that mixing buses, light rail, autos, and pedestrians on the mall will be perfectly safe -- or, in any case, any accidents will be the auto drivers' or pedestrians' fault.

Such as the recent accident in which a Portland streetcar ripped off the door of an automobile when the motorist carelessly opened the door when the streetcar was coming by. According to the motorist, he looked for the streetcar, then opened the door, when suddenly "a speeding streetcar roared by, crashing into the door and tearing it off." But the city insists the accident was the motorists' fault because it is illegal to open your door in unsafe conditions. Besides, says a city official, the streetcars never go faster than 15 mph (7 mph average speed), which makes you wonder why anyone rides them. (Answer: few do.)

I suppose this accident is an example of what they mean when they say streetcars "calm traffic." For Tri-Met now wants to extend streetcar operations to the east side of Portland. The plan is to "cut through the heart of Central Eastside," thereby calming the traffic on busy streets such as King and Grand. Funds for congestifying, I mean calming those streets have been unavailable due to city budget shortfalls, but the streetcar should add plenty of congestion, I mean, calming.

I wonder how the motorists who use those streets will feel about that. As a cyclist, I am certainly glad I no longer live in Portland and have to deal with crossing lots of tracks in the streets. I am sure they would claim any accident was my fault. After all, they warned me:



In other news, Tri-Met plans to subsidize some transit-oriented developments on Interstate Avenue two years after it opened a light-rail line on that street. Early returns show the light-rail line carries fewer riders than the bus line it replaced.

Previous plans for one transit-oriented development fell through when the developer withdrew. But now, says a local resident, "suddenly things are beginning to pop," which I guess means that the city and transit agency have increased subsidies enough to attract some other sucker, I mean developer. It appears that this new development will be smaller but require more subsidies than the development that had previously been planned. No doubt it will be considered very successful, meaning vacancy rates will be no greater than 50 percent.

Another development of "affordable housing" will be on a site owned by Tri-Met. No doubt the agency will generously sell it to developers for less than Tri-Met's cost of purchasing it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

C. Walker Pours Withering Scorn on Rail-to-Dulles 

Chris Walker, a member and participant in the American Dream Coalition, has some choice words for Virginia's Dulles Rail project over at The Bacon's Rebellion Blog.

As an added bonus, Bacon's Rebellion has also posted an electronic copy of a letter that Chris recently wrote regarding transportation policy generally to the Honorable William J. Howell, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Status of State Property Rights Measures 

Planetizen presents a state-by-state review of property-rights legislation -- both on eminent domain and compensation measures similar to Oregon's measure 37 -- written by the Reason Foundation's Leonard Gilroy. This is a summary of a longer paper written by Gilroy and published by the Reason Foundation.

In the article, Gilroy mentions that the Wisconsin house passed a measure 37-like bill. However, a press release just issued by 1000 Friends of Oregon crows that the measure lost in the senate. Wisconsin property rights activists need to find a Dorothy English who can help people see how land-use restrictions are unfair (link goes to mp3 file of radio ad used in Oregon's measure 37 campaign).

Va.: To this elderly tenant, Smart Growth means eviction 

Much has been made of the success of redevelopment of various parts of Arlington County, Virginia - including the clustering of high-density apartments and townhomes around transit stations. But in discussing those success stories, the plight of the people forced out ahead of the redevelopment is rarely discussed. In this story, Washington Post reporter Annie Gowen discusses the the fate of Lillian Veney, a 79-year-old resident of Buckingham Village, an apartment complex that's still somewhat affordable, at least by Arlington standards.

Neighborhood's Guardian Cast Out of All She Loves:
Arlington Redevelopment Puts 'Mama' and Friends on Uncertain Path

"Me Too!" - Lake Oswego 

The following is from an article in the Lake Oswego Review written by Lee van der Voo:

Portland, OR - The Portland Streetcar may soon be bridging the six-mile gap from South Waterfront to the Foothills district. The Lake Oswego Downtown Transit Alternatives Advisory Committee is one of two groups studying ways to improve Highway 43. The proposed rail extension will serve the existing community as well as projected growth along the highway envisioning a pedestrian-friendly downtown in Lake Oswego’s future with additional housing and mixed-use development at the city’s core. DTAAC members will formally present the findings to the Lake Oswego City Council on Monday in their first step in a lengthy bureaucratic road to get federal dollars.

N.Y.: City Says Cabs Powered by Legs Must Be Regulated, Too 

From the New York Times:


The proposal, drafted by the Department of Consumer Affairs over several months and presented to the City Council on Friday, would require pedicab owners to pay a $125 licensing fee each year, and $70 for each additional cab, and to carry an insurance policy covering up to $1 million in liability.

Each pedicab would be limited to two adult passengers with one child 3 or younger. Each vehicle would have to have water-resistant hydraulic or mechanical brakes, emergency brakes, battery-powered headlights and taillights, turn lights, reflectors, side-mounted rear view mirrors and passenger seat belts. The pedicabs would be prohibited in parks, on bridges and in tunnels. Owners and drivers who violate the rules could have their licenses suspended or revoked, face fines of $200 to $4,000, and have their vehicles seized.


Wonder if anyone considered just regulating pedicabs for some (reasonable) degree of safety and insurance, and leaving it at that? Next thing to be required will be a taximeter, no doubt. Wonder if a slow pedicab driver would earn higher fares that way?

These vehicles seem (to me) to be highly appropriate in parks - why would they be banned from city parks?

All Powerful 'Comprehensive Plan' 

Durham, NC — The Kelo decision subjugating private property rights to economic-development interests grabbed headlines recently, but another danger to property rights has resurfaced from another quarter: arbitrary zoning decisions. A decision in one such case, struck City Councilman Paul Williams as unfair, and he had it reversed. In response, local planners have increased the paper work required of petitioners. If a petitioner wants to rezone property in a way that conflicts with Durham's comprehensive plan, the petitioner must not only apply for a change to the zoning map, but must simultaneously make an application to amend the comprehensive plan itself.

Reverse Eminent Domain 

Boulder City, NV - City residents could vote on a plan to make every man, woman and child there a millionaire with an initiative that could be on the November ballot. The ballot measure calls for the city to sell 167 square miles of undeveloped open land and would require the city to distribute the billions to the 15,000 residents. However, city officials said they intend to fight the forced land sale in the courts.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Humor: My Life Above Pottery Barn 

While the story above is from SFGATE.COM (the San Francisco Chronicle) and is intended to be humorous, there's a proposal here on the other side of the country in Montgomery County, Maryland to do just this, and potentially on a large scale. Read this (Adobe Acrobat .pdf, 110 KB) for more.

Not sure that I'd want to live on top of a Pottery Barn (or any other retail establishment, for that matter).

The Least Affordable Place to Live? Try Salinas 

Growth controls and population growth means a lack of affordable housing, especially in California. That's the point of this article from the New York Times.



Saturday, May 06, 2006

Stephen Colbert Nails Rep. Earl Blumenauer 

Comedy Central's "news anchor" Stephen Colbert grills Portland U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer about his stand on livable communities and cycling (warning: requires Windows Media Player, high-speed connection). To be fair, Colbert pretends to be a conservative Republican and in doing so makes fun of conservative Republicans, but we can still laugh. Blumenauer looks as though he doesn't understand this is supposed to be comedy.

Among the best lines:

Colbert: "What to you is a livable community?"

Blumenauer: "A livable community has a wide range of opportunities for people, single family, apartments, condominia"

C: "Where does my Hummer fit into that?"

B: "In many livable communities, a Hummer would be illegal and they are denied access to some neighborhoods."

C: "So you are for ghettoizing certain people because of their cars?"

B: "Play it by the rules."

C: "Rosa Parks did not fight for my Hummer to go to the back of the bus! Right?"

B: (looking confused) "Yes. I won't debate that."

Somehow, I doubt that a real reporter could get Blumenauer to say things like that!

Md.: New homes upstream, dry farm downstream 

Okay, my home state of Maryland is not known as desert or even "dry" country, because most of the time, the state gets plenty of rain (and some snow in the winter months).

But farmers are still vulnerable to the re-arranging of creeks and streams, even when the re-arrangments are carried out on the orders of county, state and federal environmental regulators, as can been seen from the plight of Joseph Mills, a Prince George's County farmer and reported by this Baltimore Sun article.

N.Y.: Spitzer Is Cool to Pataki's Plan for a Rail Link to Kennedy 

Spending billions of taxpayer dollars on new rail transit lines to airports is in vogue these days in some parts of the United States.

But it seems that New York State Attorney General (and leading candidate for governor), Eliot Spitzer, is less than impressed with the proposed $6 billion rail line from Manhattan to JFK Airport.

Maybe Mr. Spitzer should consider the European model, where train lines to airports have been financed, built and operated by the private sector, such as London's Heathrow Express and Stockholm's Arlanda Express?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Honey, I Shrunk the District [of Columbia] 

This is from from the Washington Citypaper, and describes the long-term decline in the population of the Nation's Capital, and some of the reasons why.

Shiny condos and a flashy marketing campaign haven’t solved the District’s epic population problem.

Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau seems to tell Washington it needs “city living, dc style!” more than ever.

For the past several years, the bureau and District officials have engaged in a regular, fiery, and utterly predictable tango. It goes something like this: The Census Bureau reveals numbers that show the District continues to empty; the officials complain like hell.

Today, the District is smaller in population terms than the three large suburban "Beltway" counties, Fairfax (Va.), Montgomery (Md.) and Prince George's (Md.). It wasn't always this way.

D.C.’s influence has outclassed its population for its entire history—but never more so than today. Whereas in 1950, Washington was the nation’s 9th largest city, it is now estimated by the Census Bureau to be the nation’s 24th largest, outsized by such rapidly growing burgs as El Paso and Fort Worth. Washington has less than 8 percent of New York’s population, but when it comes to media, culture, power, and people’s imaginations, D.C.’s still in the ballpark. When’s the last time you heard someone debate DFW vs. NY?

But for nearly half a century, D.C. and other U.S. cities have found it nearly impossible to maintain their populations, let alone attract new residents. It’s a trend that shows no sign of stopping: Census Bureau figures released last month show that from 2000 to 2004, 18 of the nation’s 25 largest metro areas had more people move out than move in. And a dropping population starts all sorts of downward spirals. Abandoned houses lead to crime, which leads to more abandoned houses. When children leave a school system, the buildings that held them remain, leaving surplus property that still needs to be maintained, sucking funds away from students who do stay. And it’s a failing school system that starts the most destructive downward spiral of them all, the one that kills the middle class.

See also this recent editorial by the Washington Post about the D.C. Public Schools.

And even though this Washington Monthly article by Jason DeParle is from way back in 1989, it still holds more than one nugget of truth.

The worst city government in America - Washington, D.C. - When it comes to screwing the poor and feathering their nests, the District of Columbia's bureaucrats take the prize.

Another Billion for the So What District 

Portland's high-density boondoggle, the South Waterfront (So What) District, cannot succeed without a billion-dollar light-rail line, says Portland city Commissioner Sam Adams. This is a big surprise to other members of the city council who have had their fill with subsidies and cost overruns to the So What District.

The owners of the Willamette River waterfront land where the So What District is being built originally proposed a moderately high-density housing project of two- and three-story buildings. But that was not good enough for Portland planners, who instead told the landowners that they should build twenty-story office, condo, and apartment towers. To support this development, the city offered the landowners all sorts of tax breaks and other subsidies.

The offices would serve a hospital district located in the hills above the Willamette River and the two were to be connected by an aerial tram that, when approved, was estimated to cost $15 million. So far the cost is up to $55 million -- and city planners admit that they knew the $15 million estimate was way too low when they presented it to the city council.

In addition to the aerial tram, the So What plan called for more than $200 million in other public funds, mainly financed out of tax-increment financing. City planners have already admitted that the tram is not the only public cost that they underestimated; the cost of street improvements are expected to go $50 million over budget.

To supplement the tram, the So What District is supposed to have a streetcar line connecting it to downtown. But now Sam Adams -- coached no doubt by Portland's transit agency -- says a streetcar is not good enough. He wants to run a light-rail line from downtown to So What and then build a $550 million bridge across the Willamette River and extend the light-rail to Milwaukie. Voters rejected funding for this light-rail line in 1998, but the transit agency has made it clear that it intends to build it anyway.

The bridge, of course, would be closed to cars. Meanwhile, another bridge over the river just south of the proposed one is crumbling and in danger of condemnation and the city says it does not have the $100 million it would take to replace it.

Debates over cost overruns and the aerial tram may cost one or two city commissioners their jobs in an election to be held on May 16. Commissioner Adams' timing in announcing that another billion dollars or so is needed for the So What District may add fuel to these city races.

Transit Money is A Waste 

Raleigh, NC - The John Locke Foundation says it's time for the state to put the brakes on funding for public transit systems across North Carolina. The state's 10 largest transit systems are eating up a larger chunk of the state budget, but they do little to meet their stated goals, the report says. "Contrary to popular belief, the 10 systems have a miniscule impact on congestion reduction or air quality improvement," said study author David Hartgen, Professor of Transportation Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte."The time has come to re-assess the direction of these systems and their roles in each community's transportation picture. While the state and federal transportation bill is growing, the transit systems are not drawing people away from the cars that clog city roads. The systems serve less than one-half of 1 percent of regional commuting and impact about one-quarter of 1 percent of regional air pollution or congestion."That's why Hartgen endorses an across-the-board reassessment of the role of transit services in the state's largest regions. He makes a series of recommendations for state and local leaders in his Policy Report.

Tired Analogy: David vs Goliath 

San Francisco, CA - The Hercules City Council will consider whether to use eminent domain to wrest a 17-acre property from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. after the nation's largest retailer rejected a city offer to buy the site with views of San Pablo Bay. Wal-Mart bought the property overlooking central Hercules in November after another developer received city approvals for a neighborhood shopping center. Then city planners recommended denying Wal-Mart's proposal for a big-box store on its property, saying the plan was not in keeping with what had been approved for the location, which commands a view of one of the Bay Area's most vaunted New Urbanist communities, with pedestrian-oriented streets and large open-space set-asides, as well as sweeping views of the bay.
The company withdrew its application. In response, the City Council voted to make an offer for the land for an undisclosed amount of money. Then Wal-Mart submitted a new application that it said substantially conforms to city requirements.
"What the council has said is that we want to buy the property,'' a City Councilman said, describing the tussle with Wal-Mart as a "David and Goliath'' struggle.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Blue prince for cities 

Agree or disagree with him, Britain's Prince Charles does say what's on his mind when it comes to planning.

The link above points to a story on the BBC's Web site, where there are provisions for people to comment about it.

Too bad that the story spends so much time with a U.S. anti-auto, anti-highway and anti-mobilitiy activist, Hank Dittmar.

Prince Charles is even featured in the current issue of the National Geographic magazine, which discusses his extensive holdings of real property in England, including the new urban community of Poundbury.

Springtime for Amtrak and America 

Springtime for Amtrak and America

by Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.
Backgrounder #1932

May 3, 2006

Because Amtrak’s most recent annual report reveals that financial and operational problems continue to worsen, the railroad’s new board and management should begin to eliminate some of its more wasteful routes: first, the Sunset Limited, with its $433 subsidy per passenger, followed by the Silver Service, with total losses exceeding $100 million in 2005.

Springtime for Amtrak and America
by Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.
Backgrounder #1932

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

From Joel Schwartz: Air pollution health risks: popular portrayals and scientific evidence 

Hot off the press from Joel are these:

Polls show that most Americans worry about air pollution.

Environmentalists, regulators, health scientists, and journalists are the main purveyors of public information about air pollution risks, and most of this information is indeed alarming. In a new AEI paper, Air Pollution and Health: Do Popular Portrayals Reflect the Scientific Evidence? I show that these popular portrayals create an appearance of much greater and more certain harm from current, historically low air pollution levels than is warranted by the underlying evidence. I also discuss how the incentives in air pollution health science and regulation encourage risk exaggeration.


On a related note, the American Lung Association has just released its annual State of the Air report. In a new column for Tech Central Station, I show how journalists and opinion leaders have completely missed the unprecedented decline in violations of the federal 8-hour ozone and annual PM2.5 standards during the last few years. For example, 43% of national ozone monitoring sites violated the standard in 2003, but only 18% in 2005.

Nevertheless, just as in previous years, State of the Air continues to claim that half of all Americans live in areas that violate the standard.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

New Orleans Announces Evacuation Plan 

Only eight months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin announced the city's evacuation plan in case a hurricane ever threatens the city. I am sure this will be a great relief to all of the people who were worried that a hurricane might cause one of the city's seawalls to fail.

Of course, New Orleans had an evacuation plan before Hurricane Katrina. David Brooks observed in the New York Times that this plan "must rank among the greatest emergency preparedness plans" ever written. The only problem was that no one bothered to carry it out.

The difference between the new plan and the old plan is that, under the new plan, when no one bothers to send buses to evacuate people who don't own cars, people will be allowed to carry their pets in the buses that don't show up. Under the old plan, people were not allowed to bring their pets, so some people decided not to go to the staging areas where the buses failed to show up.

Obviously, the new plan is far superior to the old one. I am sure that Mayor Nagin is hoping that it will help him win the run-off election so he can remain in office to welcome the next few hurricanes to hit the Gulf Coast.

Congrats to Ken Reid! 

Leesburg Today reports here that Ken Reid, member of the American Dream Coalition, has won election to the Town Council of Leesburg, Virginia.

I know Ken worked very hard on his campaign, spending a lot of time and a fair amount of money on the effort, and it seems to have been worth it!

Va.: Albemarle Boasts Largest Planning Staff - Lowest Housing Affordability 

Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum in Charlottesville, Virginia shared this new report with me, and you might find it interesting as well.

Albemarle County ranks lowest in housing affordability in the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) according to a new report issued today by The Free Enterprise Forum. The "Locked Out" report finds that just 16% of Albemarle homes are available to families earning median income. The report also finds Albemarle County has the largest planning department staff, the largest comprehensive plan and the longest approval time for subdivisions. Fluvanna County had the highest percentage of homes available to families earning median income.

Read the report at the link below:

Va.: Locked Out: The Impact of Local Regulation on Affordable Housing (Adobe Acrobat .pdf, 248 KB)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York 

In the N. Y. Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff makes several good points about the late Jane Jacobs:

... her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Ms. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city.

For New Yorkers, Ms. Jacobs's life remains suspended between two seismic events: The publication, in 1961, of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" and her showdown in the late 60's with Mr. Moses over a proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have reduced much of SoHo's handsome cast-iron district to rubble. The expressway was killed by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1969.

By then, Ms. Jacobs had fled for Toronto, and Mr. Moses, who died in 1981, had lost much of his power and prestige.

Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities.

The threats facing the contemporary city are not what they were when she first formed her ideas, now nearly 50 years ago. The activists of Ms. Jacobs's generation may have saved SoHo from Mr. Moses' bulldozers, but they could not stop it from becoming an open-air mall.

Dissolving Gridlock 

The web edition of the The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif. has an extensive feature entitled Dissolving Gridlock that should be of interest to many, even persons outside of California.

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