Confederacy of Dunces

16 03 2010

In the wake of the City Council passing the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan and the impending opening of commuter rail, we here at The Placemaking Institute have been ebullient about the prospects for Austin’s future. Upon arriving to work this past Thursday, however, we found Our Most Senior Fellow slumped over listlessly disconsolate. We asked, “Is there something wrong?” He did not reply. So again, “What’s the matter?” we asked. He tried but could not reply.

And when he is struck speechless we know that something’s gone really wrong.

So very much concerned we endeavored to find out by cajoling, by prying, and finally by imploring – all to no avail; for several days he could only wince at the ceiling before again hanging his head, which he would sometimes pound. We grew quite alarmed, especially when he began shaking all over as if palsied with anger before tossing a wadded up newspaper ball at us: a Statesman article from March 10th headlined “Mayor, council reverse stance on November rail election.

In outright disbelief we proceeded to read that “Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who during his 2009 campaign pledged to push for a bond election this year on an urban rail system, said Wednesday he no longer supports a November 2010 rail vote because too many important questions remain unanswered” including “the question of where a train would cross the lake — on South First Street or Congress Avenue or on a new bridge nearby,” who the rail operator might be, the impact of construction, and the questions remaining about possible funding sources. “The City Council’s six other members quickly took the same position, effectively ending the chance that voters this year will be asked to approve an electric light rail or streetcar system. Leffingwell and other council members, however, said they support the idea of urban passenger rail and left open the possibility that a rail bond election could occur in 2011.”

By now stalking back and forth at an alarming rate, “Bosh!” Our Most Senior Fellow exclaims, “Bosh I say! As Leffingwell himself once said we must stop thinking small! Because immediate action is needed! Such dire congestion straits as Austin’s make these concerns of theirs for all intents and purposes niggling! Much like the ERCMP the initial stage of any Urban Rail system should be construed as a vision of what must occur if Austin is to truly further itself along the path to Progress! Delays cost MONEY! And lead to production time issues! There comes a point at which you throw your hands up in exasperation and despair and ask are all the dunces in confederacy against Austin?”

We second his emotion. (On a more positive note, politicians usually break their campaign pledges well before this, no?)

The Ramones: “Third verse same as the first/But a whole lot louder and worse”

[source] “Steel railroad ties are generally unpopular with U.S. railroad operators and transit agencies because, among other problems, they contribute to signal failures. And they’re significantly more expensive than standard wooden ties. That didn’t deter Capital Metro from buying 65,000 steel ties for $4.5 million and installing 46,000 of them in recent years. Though that process started before the agency decided to build a passenger rail system that would rely on electronic signal equipment, installation of steel ties continued even afterward. The agency has removed some of the steel ties along its Llano-to-Giddings freight line, 32 miles of which will be shared by passenger rail, and sold others at a loss…Capital Metro said further removal of steel ties probably will be necessary, especially if the agency someday expands commuter rail east to Manor and Elgin.”

Cleaning out our notebook

1 02 2010

2009 VMT Perceptions and Demand Survey Central Texas

Vaporizing the Gas Tax Myth: “The federal gas tax, now set at 18.4 cents per gallon, was last increased in 1993. A combination of inflation, changing driving habits — due in part to higher gas prices (quick note: not quite true; over the course of the past twenty or so years gas has gotten 17% more affordable when CPI adjusted) — and better fuel economy of our cars has robbed it of much of its purchasing power. In fact, the trust fund is broke, needing infusions from the general treasury totaling more than $15 billion in the last year alone. The way we fund our roads is at odds with almost every other public policy America has adopted. While proposed climate change legislation, green energy initiatives and even our foreign policy demand that we move away from a dependence on oil, we pay for our transportation system almost entirely by using more of it. In the short-term, we need to consider an increase in the gas tax. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s the only way we can ease the congestion we face. At last count, that congestion costs every traveler in the U.S. $750 a year. A gas tax increase between 5 cents and 8 cents each year during the next five years will cost average Americans only $10 to $20 each month per car. In Britain and much of Europe the gas tax is nearly $4 per gallon, 20 times the federal tax in the U.S. In the long-term, we must move away from the gas tax to solutions that actually charge people for the roads they use, including a vehicle miles traveled user fee, congestion pricing for peak hours and more toll roads. We’re willing to pay for actual use of other utilities — like electricity, water and natural gas — why not our roads?”

To give just one example, TxDOT, recently concluded that the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes — just 16% of the total cost…And an individual’s approximate yearly gas tax (quick calculation based on 12,000 miles driven/year) = about $350/year/individual

Sustained Long-Term US Gasoline Demand Growth Unlikely

(source) “If you don’t like gasoline taxes, here’s an alternative: a tax on the number of miles you drive in a year. The Texas Transportation Commission has directed a fresh study of the idea, and it is not alone. There are pilot projects in other states and nationally to gauge how such a tax would work. Texas transportation officials say the study is meant to help give lawmakers information on options ahead of their next regular session in 2011, when they confront a funding squeeze that is expected to drain the highway fund of money for new construction contracts by 2012. “We need to think differently about how we fund transportation,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said at a Texas Taxpayers and Research Association forum in November. Delisi said the vehicle-miles-traveled tax idea is controversial, but should be discussed because revenue from the state’s main source of transportation funding, the motor fuels tax, is declining. The gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.”

Quick note: If one further thinks about it, due to hybrids requiring massive batteries which, in turn, require massive amounts of heavy metals which, in turn, require massive amounts of energy to extract and transport, the “environmental footprint” of a hybrid, may very well be higher than that of a gas-driven comparable model.

From AAA’s 2008 Your Driving Costs report (Quick note: Reducing an individual’s VMT will free up disposable income that can be spent elsewhere, like for actual goods and services locally):

Miles/Year   10,000 15,000 20,000
(in cents)        
small sedan   55.1 42.1 35.7
med. sedan   71.9 55.2 46.9
large sedan   85.8 65.1 54.8
average   71 54.1 45.8

(source) “The claim to a link between economic growth and vehicle mileage – that, in other words, auto travel is essential to keeping U.S. productivity high – remains controversial and much-debated in transportation policy circles. One notable recent flare-up in that debate took place on National Journal’s blog after road lobbyist Greg Cohen, referring to an October paper [PDF] released by the Cascade Policy Institute, contended that “it’s not simply a correlation but VMT actually causes economic growth.” Now economist Todd Litman, founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, has taken direct aim at the mileage-growth arguments made by Cascade’s Randall Pozdena. In a paper [PDF] prepared for next week’s Transportation Research Board conference in D.C., Litman charges that Pozdena’s research “misrepesents” the relationship between prosperity and VMT “in important ways.” Litman questions Pozdena’s conclusion, based on the below chart, that “increasing a country’s income by 10 percent appears to increase its use of energy by the same percentage.”

(source) According to Litman: “Recent research shows that per capita economic productivity tends to increase as public transit travel and land use density increases in a community, and declines as per capita motor vehicle travel and roadway supply increases. This reflects transportation cost savings and agglomeration efficiencies from more efficient transport and land use policies. Images and more detailed information can be found in these reports.”(source) “By increasing transportation system efficiency, Win-Win strategies increase economic productivity and support economic development. They do this by reducing inefficiencies such as traffic congestion, road and parking infrastructure costs, accident and pollution damages, and the cost burden of importing petroleum to fuel vehicles. Here are some examples and their typical VMT reduction impacts”:

 Pay-As-You-Drive insurance and registration fees (8-10%)

 Efficient parking pricing and cash out (6-10%)

 Efficient road pricing (3-6%)

 Mobility Management programs (4-8%)

 Transit & ridesharing priority (3-9%)

 Walking & cycling improvements (2-6%)

 Smart growth planning reforms (4-12%)

 Freight transport management (0.5-2%)

 Carsharing (1-2%)

 Tax shifting (5-15%)

 Vehicle Miles Traveled Reduction Targets: Will This Strategy Get the Desired Results? [from the Transportation Research Board’s 89th Annual Meeting (January 10-14, 2010)]

A Compendium of Research Papers and Information

Socially Optimal Transport Prices and Markets Principles, Strategies and Impacts

Promoting public health through Smart Growth

Key Relationships Between the Built Environment and VMT” (quick note: based on this author’s other work and his “think tank” connections, he’s  irrationally anti-Smart Growth and a pro-road partisan but has put together a great bibliography at the end)

Evaluating Transportation Economic Development Impacts Understanding How Transport Policy and Planning Decisions Affect Employment, Incomes, Productivity, Competitiveness, Property Values and Tax Revenues

Investments in transit produce 19 percent more jobs than an equivalent investment in new road and bridge projects

Portland’s Streetcar Oriented Development

Development ROI for Streetcar Lines
  Initial Track Miles Capital Cost/Mile Total Capital Cost Development Investment ROI Expansion Planned
Kenosha, Wis. 2.0 $3.00 $6.00 $150 2,400% Yes
Little Rock, Ark. 2.5 $7.84 $19.60 $200 920% Yes
Tampa, Fla. 2.3 $24.35 $56.00 $1,000 1,686% Yes
Portland, Ore. 4.8 $11.38 $54.60 $2,300 4,112% Yes

All costs in millions of dollars. Tampa’s costs include land acquisition.

“Operating costs per passenger for light rail are between 25 percent and 75 percent lower than for buses, through a combination of more carrying capacity, higher levels of ridership, more efficient grid-connected electric power (using only one fifth the energy per passenger-mile), and much lower maintenance costs for the vehicles… In fact, according to a study of light rail in Texas, each percent shift in travel from automobiles to transit produces almost $3 million growth in regional income and over 200 new jobs.”

Density and Urban Rail

(source) “This paper examines economies of scale and density in urban rail transport. It isolates the effects of constant and non-constant returns on output and productivity growth using data relating to 17 rail systems in cities around the world. Estimates reveal constant returns to scale but increasing returns to density. The productivity model shows that total factor productivity change has been of great importance in differentiating the output performance of urban rail systems. Our analysis of average labour productivity confirms the importance of shifts to other factors of production and technological change in explaining changing levels of output per worker.”

“A number of myths about rail transit have long been promoted by the automobile industry, the highway lobby and other special interest groups that are opposed to balanced transportation. The most common of these myths as well as the realities are provided HERE.”

“This table, Annual Unlinked Passenger Trips and Passenger Miles for Urbanized Areas Over 1,000,000 Population, Fiscal Year 2004, from the American Public Transit Association, shows that the more dense a rail transit system is, the more it will be used. For example, passenger miles in Chicago are some 30 percent higher than Los Angeles, despite the larger population in L.A. Particularly telling is a comparison of Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC – each with relatively much more developed rail transit systems – with Miami, Dallas, and Houston.”

(source) “Real world experience in the U.S. and other countries has demonstrated repeatedly that rail transit does not necessarily require high population densities to be successful. And there are numerous urban areas in the U.S. that have densities sufficient for rail. An example is Salt Lake City, which has a population of only 181,743 and a density of 1,666 per square mile. The population for the urban area as a whole is about a million. Its new, two-line light rail system is heavily utilized with more than 53,000 riders per day, far more than even the most optimistic original projections. This success has resulted in strong pressure to construct more lines to serve additional parts of the city and suburbs.”

(source) “This bulletin summarizes current concerns about improving public transportation and compares the distinguishing characteristics of the different modes of urban rail transit. It provides an overview of the history of rail transit in the state and outlines the evolution of current rail proposals for southeastern and southern Wisconsin. It also surveys the experi­ences of comparable urban areas outside the state.”

(source) “This paper describes the potential use of the financing strategy of value capture or benefit assessment for an urban mass transportation project. The paper describes the legal background to the use of benefit assessment, and the process of implementation for the first construction phase of the Los Angeles Metro Rail project. The process of developing the benefit assessment structure was a consultative one, utilizing technical inputs from a team of specialist consultants, a task force consisting of major developers and property owners in the affected area, and politicians representing many of the interests in the region. The initial benefit assessment districts were set up to raise $130 million of the cost of the first 4.4 miles of the rail project, and are based on the benefits accruing to certain categories of property in the vicinity of stations. The assessment would be collected for about 18 years and bonding would be used to provide the capital at the time of construction. The paper describes the procedure for setting boundaries, the structuring of the assessment rates, the definition of benefiting properties, and the uses and tenure of the assessment. In almost all cases, the theory of value capture indicated a different result than was achieved from a consensus of the task force, and the nature of these differences is explored in the paper. The establishment of the benefit assessment districts withstood early court challenges, but has subsequently been appealed and was overturned on appeal. Action is pending with the Supreme Court currently, and efforts are also underway to pass new legislation to deal with some of the issues raised in the court proceedings.”

Environmental Protection Agency Publishes Draft Report for External Comment on the Feasibility of Incorporating Climate Change Information Into Land Protection Planning

All the news that’s fit for you (VII)

9 12 2009

“Are Central Texans ready to drive less so that we can become a more sustainable region? Well, about half of us are, suggests a recent survey by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. So correspondingly, the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board – which decides how federal transportation funds get spread among local road and transit projects – agreed this month to pursue a long-range plan that devotes about half of its future budgets to more “sustainable” projects. (That is, projects that support density over sprawl and that create alternatives to driving – in the interest of air quality, the environment, climate action, and citizens’ pocketbooks.) As logical a policy as cutting the baby in half? Perhaps. But the Nov. 9 board commitment does signal a sea-change shift for Central Texas away from our historical top three transportation priorities: new roads, big roads, and more roads”:

“The City of Austin’s push toward a November 2010 passenger rail referendum could pick up speed Thursday, when the City Council will consider a $1 million contract to design a route and refine what has been a rough $600 million cost estimate”:

“Analyzing Federal Highway Administration data dating back to 1957, the dawn of the Interstate system, Subsidyscope researchers found that non-users of the highway system contributed $70 billion for nationwide road construction and maintenance in 2007. In 1982, by contrast, highway contributions from non-users totaled just $35 billion (in 2007 dollars). Today’s study also found that the share of road funding generated by user fees fell to 51 percent in 2007, down from 61 percent just a decade earlier…What has caused the government’s increasingly rapid dependence on non-road user fees — which more often than not take the form of direct transfers from the Treasury — to pay for roads? Subsidyscope points out that the federal gas tax has stayed stagnant since 1993, rapidly losing value as inflation climbs, but the growing popularity of bond issuances as a way to pay for new roads is also a factor”:

“Forty, fifty years ago, (pedestrian safety was an afterthought).” “U.S. 40 is classified as a principal arterial highway – a category of road that was identified in a recent report as especially hazardous for pedestrians. These are the heavily used, generally four-lane or more highways where pedestrian traffic is not separated from vehicular traffic as it is on interstates. They are typically roads that preceded the interstate system and evolved in an era where the car was king. The report earlier this month by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project identified highway design as one of the main culprits in pedestrian fatalities. Entitled “Dangerous by Design,” the study said an analysis of federal data showed that more than half of the 9,091 pedestrians killed on U.S. highways in 2007-2008 died on principal or minor arterial roads. According to the report, such roads are especially dangerous when they run through urban areas – accounting for 56 percent of pedestrian deaths…”It’s the fact that everything is so spread out that it’s hard to know where pedestrians are really going to want to cross the roadway,” said Andrew E. Ramisch, a consulting engineer with the Product and Highway Safety Institute in Montgomery Village”:

“In general, intersection density in metro Portland needs to grow about six-fold to achieve the walkability, mobility, and environmental benefits that the smart growth movement is aiming for, according to Gwin. If that happens, people will drive less.  Carbon emissions will fall. The goal, as he sees it, is creation of ‘transit-oriented communities’ — something broader than ‘transit-oriented development,’ which tends to be concentrated close to the transit stations. ‘For us to have the kind of environments we want, we have to find a way to fund the local street network…I can’t see any other way than through federal policy.’ Federal funds are allocated mainly to highways and arterial roads, with the intention of increasing mobility and reducing congestion. Gwin thinks a portion of this money should be shifted to local street networks. ‘We’re going to have to recognize there’s not as much importance in creating state networks as in creating local streets — to make good cities'”:

“Prior to the financial crisis, our study and others had concluded that the current baby-boom cohort of near retirees were surprisingly well-prepared for retirement compared with similarly aged households over the past quarter century. Unless there is a strong recovery of asset values in the next few years, that favorable assessment is no longer true”:

“The latest surveys of employers and households both show continued deterioration in the U.S. job market. For the 22nd consecutive month the number of payroll jobs fell. In view of the turnaround in GDP statistics in the July-September quarter, the continuing decline in both manufacturing and service-sector employment is especially disheartening. The combination of rising output and shrinking payrolls means that employers are still scrambling to find ways to produce more output with less labor input. The latest productivity numbers, released yesterday by the Labor Department, confirm that U.S. output per hour is rising strongly. This is good news for companies’ costs and possibly for future wage gains, but it is bad news for job seekers”:

“Today’s youngest Americans are likely to be worse off than their parents”:

“In the debate over climate change legislation, most of the attention to date has focused on cleaner energy sources, and more efficient technologies like electric cars. Surprisingly little attention has gone to one of the largest drivers of climate-changing emissions: the urban structure of our cities, towns and suburbs. There are important reasons why this is so – and why it must change”:

(Propaganda from elsewhere) “With 20,000 delegates, advocates and journalists jetting to Copenhagen for planet Earth’s last chance, the carbon footprint of the global warming summit will be the only impressive consequence of the climate change meeting. Its organizers had hoped it would produce binding caps on emissions, global taxation to redistribute trillions of dollars, and micromanagement of everyone’s choices”:

(A quick sidenote:) “Osama bin Laden was “within the grasp” of US forces in late 2001 but escaped because then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejected calls for reinforcements, a hard-hitting US Senate report says”:

All the news that’s fit for you (VI)

30 11 2009

A wonderful resource: The H+T Affordability Index:,%20MO–IL

“In a draft long-range comprehensive transportation plan, VIA unveiled in September a proposal that calls for a mixture of light rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit to crisscross the city, connecting neighborhoods, cultural centers and major employers. The system also would tie into a proposed commuter rail that would connect San Antonio to Austin…Building a rail system is a lengthy process — from identifying funding to conducting environmental studies and actually building the system. Muñoz and others say they hope a starter streetcar system could be built quicker. There’s no firm timeline yet, though Muñoz has said he hopes to break ground in two or three years”:

“Seattle has a plan. So do Tampa, San Diego, Portland, Denver, Nashville and Calgary. Vancouver is the exemplar, a city that has used a developer bonus system to encourage density downtown while assuring that the city core doesn’t become a forest of bulky high-rises with a scarcity of parks, public amenities or places for moderate-income people to live. Now it’s Austin’s turn. On Dec. 17, the Austin City Council is scheduled to vote on proposals for a voluntary program under which downtown developers would be rewarded with extra space or height for their projects if they provide certain community benefits, such as affordable housing, child care services or cultural spaces”:

“The current economic crisis is not only a national crisis; it is also a metropolitan crisis. And soon the downturn will bring a local government fiscal crisis. Given the normal lag time of 18–24 months between changes in the economic cycle and its impact on city fiscal conditions, local officials anticipate that the next year or two will bring large-scale city government layoffs, deep cuts to local government services, and halted or delayed capital projects. Just as federal stimulus package spending trails off, city fiscal dynamics could well place a serious drag on economic recovery”:

“Just this past week leaders in Congress and the president’s own Economic Recovery Advisory Board have called on the federal government to pump billions of dollars into new roads, bridges and rails. Of course, we’ve seen this before. Since the time the Interstates were finished transportation has been more about job growth than the national economy. President George H. W. Bush was widely quoted in 1991 when he said the federal transportation law he signed ‘could be summed up in three words: jobs, jobs, jobs.’ But this approach ignores the real power of infrastructure to generate productive, sustainable and inclusive long-term growth, not short-term jobs… to truly produce real prosperity, federal leadership, as with the interstates in the 1950s, is more necessary than ever and should advance an updated vision identifying strategic, transformative infrastructure investments of critical importance to national economic competitiveness. That vision should include robust plans for freight movement, the electric grid, and water infrastructure across state borders and between metropolitan areas. We also need the federal government to empower our metropolitan areas to use infrastructure and mechanisms like congestion pricing and transit to improve mobility and choice and enhance sustainable patterns of development”:

“As cities grow, aging sewer systems are having trouble keeping up with increasing amounts of waste. Often, the result is sewer system overflows that end up directly in waterways…many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways. In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency. Not even one-fifth of those systems were ever handed fines for their violation of the Clean Water Act”:

“Even after a global housing crash, the Bank still shockingly supports expanding the securitized mortgage markets that were responsible.  On this issue it at least deserves applause for consistency. Publishing when housing stock in rich countries was still ludicrously overvalued, its economists informed us that conditions were ‘quite optimistic on the likely trajectory for growth in housing finance.’ The ‘genie’ of deregulated housing finance, they argued, ‘is out of the bottle, and if prudently managed, can be expected to confer enormous benefits.’ Post crash, we still find the Bank’s ideological guns blazing. Its landmark 2009 development report…calls on emerging countries to ‘expand the securitization of mortgages.’  The latest urban strategy more chastely advises countries to pursue profitable secondary mortgage markets ‘as a source of long term capital for financial institutions.’ How well has that approach to real estate finance worked lately?”:

“Despite gains in the 1990s, the last decade has seen jumps in poverty in rural areas, where rates continue to exceed the national average…The increase in the number of poor Americans was heavily weighted in rural communities. Rural counties were home to just over 16% of the nation’s population in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But 33% of the increase in the number of poor Americans from ’03 to ‘08 — more than one million people — was found in rural counties. As a result, the gap between the poverty rates in urban and rural America widened, doubling between 2003 and 2008”:

“To thrive, suburbs might become more urban”:

“Walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods do more than just lower greenhouse gas emissions of their residents – they save them money ($31 million) too, states a new report, “Windfall for All”, from the Bay Area’s TransForm, a coalition of over 100 non-profits…(which found that people in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego who live near public transportation on average emit fewer carbon emissions and spend billions less on transportation compared to people who live in areas where public transit is scarce”:

“Just as websites have attracted millions of users by offering services for free and public schools have long waived tuitions in favor of the ability to offer guaranteed universal education, some contend that by opening up turnstiles and getting rid of the farebox, transit agencies could serve legions of new riders for whom the typical fare presents just enough of a financial or psychic barrier to keep them in their cars…Proponents argue that free transit’s ability to remove cars from the road and therefore decrease congestion, curb pollution and foster more livable cities would more than justify the added burden on public coffers. It would even reduce insurance claims, since cars that stay in garages don’t get into accidents. Olsen also argues that fare-free transit would save money because it would eliminate what he considers an unacceptably costly infrastructure to collect fares”:

All the news that’s fit for you(V)

23 11 2009

Will Austin vote for urban rail in November 2010?:

“The incomplete roadway ramps on MoPac just south of Hwy. 290 will no longer lead to nowhere…The design for the project is mostly complete, with construction set to begin in fiscal year 2011. The completed project should be open to traffic during FY 2012. Cost of the project is estimated to total approximately $13 million. The City of Austin will finance the entire project upfront, with TxDOT paying the city 80 percent of the project’s cost back over a 10 to 15 year period”:

“In 1949, President Harry Truman convinced Congress to break with the past and inject the federal government into process of developing cities and financing housing. The 1949 Housing Act expanded the availability of federal insurance for home mortgages, igniting the growth of new suburbs farther and farther from the centers of our cities. Together with federal highway funds that came a few years later, the 1949 law started what we now describe as ‘suburban sprawl.’ The two initiatives put Americans on the path of long commutes, heavy traffic, air pollution, water shortages, and a long-term increase in carbon dioxide emissions, which fuel global warming…The time has come to declare that the ‘General Motors model’ of urban planning is officially bankrupt. We must reinvest in existing urban centers, because reusing the infrastructure and restoring underutilized real estate is far more environmentally efficient than new construction, no matter how green that construction is. It’s also time to change local land use laws to promote more compact development around transit and the availability of affordable housing close to jobs and services. A reversal of the ill effects of sprawl will take committed local officials who are willing to change land use policy and zoning even in the face of resistance. Architects, real estate developers, bankers, and city planners must collaborate to create vibrant urban spaces that meet consumers’ needs”:

“We’re trundling along in the infrastructure equivalent of a jalopy, with bridges rotting and falling down, while other nations, our competitors in the global economy, are building efficient, high-speed, high-performance infrastructure platforms to power their 21st-century economies.  We used to be so much smarter about this stuff. A recent publication from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution reminds us that: ‘Since the beginning of our republic, transportation and infrastructure have played a central role in advancing the American economy — from the canals of upstate New York to the railroads that linked the heartland to industrial centers and finally the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation. In each of those periods, there was a sharp focus on how infrastructure investments could be used as catalysts for economic expansion and evolution.’ Policy makers all but gave up on that kind of thinking years ago. America’s infrastructure, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades, and it shows. Felix Rohatyn’s book on the subject, ‘Bold Endeavors,’ opens with: ‘The nation is falling apart — literally'”:

“The recession and housing collapse have halted four decades of double-digit growth for nearly half of the nation’s biggest rapidly expanding suburbs.Twenty-four of the 53 cities of 100,000 or more that grew by at least 10% every decade since 1970 lost population in the last two years. Fifteen are likely to end the decade with less than a 10% gain in population, largely because of recent losses…Bedroom communities now must rethink their future and become ‘a little less sprawly, a little more village-like with clustered development, denser housing,’ Lang says. ‘The irony is that if they want to keep growing, they must grow as cities, which is diametrically opposite of how they got so big in the first place’…The 2010 Census will reveal whether new bedroom communities are emerging at the far edges of metropolitan areas or if growth will occur in older boomburbs that transform into more urbanized centers”:

Zombie subdivisions:

“Commercial real estate loans are typically provided on terms of five to seven years. That means that in the next two years a billions of dollars worth investments in construction will need to be repaid just as the current value for those properties has plummeted. About $500 billion will come due in 2010 alone and an equal amount every year through at least 2012, according to the Federal Reserve. Many banks…are facing huge numbers of possible defaults by builders who erected thousands of office towers, condominiums and shopping centers with the easy credit available five years ago. With few tenants, those developments are turning into what industry insiders call zombie buildings. Next year ‘looks like an unavoidable bloodbath for a multitude of ‘zombie’ borrowers, investors and lenders”:

“The strategy outlook at JP Morgan is little changed over the last week despite some sobering news out of the labor department last Friday. The bad news on jobs is no longer a surprise to investors and history has shown that past jobless recoveries were dealt with fine by most major asset classes. Although the jobless recovery creates some greater headwinds than most recoveries it is not an immediate headwind as JP Morgan analysts continue to see a flight into equities as portfolio managers chase performance in to year-end. While many investors (including your truly) have expressed their dislike for the Fed’s liquidity induced ‘recovery’ JP Morgan sees no issues with it. In fact, they see it as a normalization of the allocation of capital in the markets”: (except of course for those who are jobless)

All the news that’s fit for you (IV)

17 11 2009

“Planners and transit buffs routinely make the case that Bay Area residents can reap benefits by living close to their jobs and the errands of the day.  Now comes a study that translates the payoff into dollars and cents – such as how the average San Francisco household spends roughly $500 less on transportation each month than households in such suburban outposts as Antioch or Livermore…Much of the text restates a case made many times before: that there’s a disconnect in the region between where people work and where people live, resulting in a squeeze on working-class families who must either endure long commutes or endure exorbitant housing prices”:

How Exurban Development helped bring down the US Economy; New research about the recession has also bolstered one of transit’s central premises — that highway-driven sprawl is bad for a city’s economic health. Recent studies at the University of Utah, for example, concluded that foreclosure rates in the Washington area were much lower in counties served by the Metro rail system, compared with the next ring of counties farther out, and that home prices in Phoenix had also fallen in direct proportion to the distance from downtown”: plus

“If we are going to spend billions rehabbing the highways, shouldn’t we, at the same time, invest in adjacent rail lines like the 800-mile high-speed rail system voters approved last year in California.  The corridors are also perfectly suited for the transportation of energy. Power generated from rural wind farms and solar plants could run through lines buried under the highways to big cities where electricity is needed. The plug-in hybrid vehicles that will someday use the highways could charge up from this grid. And when left idling, these cars would also be able to supply power back to the grid at times of peak demand, while their owners work or shop by the roadside”:

“Americans that have visited Europe or Asia have likely experienced modern high speed rail systems…Will our system look anything like these? The answer, as transportation wonks already know, is no. Even the $8 billion appropriated by the stimulus is a small portion of the funds required to implement even a portion of Obama’s plan. This became painfully obvious at a briefing sponsored by the Rappaport Institute I attended recently, where Federal Railway Administration Administrator Karen Rae described how they viewed the $8 billion a modest sum to invest strategically in the rail network, sometimes for trains running well below Obama’s 100 mph goal”:

“In Norwood Ohio, locals refer to the day the last Camaro rolled off the assembly line of the General Motors plant as Black Wednesday. It was 1987, and 4,000 people in the city of 22,000 lost their jobs, while the 3 million sq. ft. plant that had pumped life into the city since 1923 lapsed into vacancy and neglect…On the brink of economic disaster, city leaders were desperate for solutions…“In the long run — best thing that ever happened,” says Mayor Williams of the plant closure…Belvedere’s $100 million Central Parke project launched a metamorphosis of the city, from a blue-collar, factory-driven locale to a town with elegant workspaces”:

“One thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit. Its size, scale, and powerful brand image are attracting not just the region’s but the world’s attention. It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit”:

“Chrysler has disbanded the engineering team that was trying to bring three electric models to market as a rush job, Automotive News reports today. Chrysler cited its devotion to electric vehicles as one of the key reasons why the Obama administration and Congress needed to give it $12.5 billion in bailout money, the News points out”:

“For the first time in four decades in the luxury-home business, executives at John Wieland builders are thinking the unthinkable: Maybe houses in the South don’t really need a fireplace. They’re also wondering whether new homes require 4,700 square feet of living space. Or private theaters with 100-inch screens. Or super-size-me foyers…”You have to keep taking things out until you hit a critical point where people reject your product,” said Jeff Kingsfield, senior vice president of sales at Smyrna-based John Wieland Homes & Neighborhoods.  It’s an experiment brought on by necessity”:

All the news that’s fit for you (III)

12 11 2009

The following is from the foreword of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons:Rebuilding the nation’s passenger railroad has got to be put at the top of our priority list. We had a system not so long ago that was the envy of the world; now we have service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The tracks are still lying out there rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. The job doesn’t require the reinvention of anything — we already know how to do it. Rebuilding the system would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs at all levels. The fact that we’re barely talking about it shows what an unserious people we have become. Rebuilding the American passenger-railroad system has an additional urgent objective: We need a doable project that can build our confidence and sense of collective purpose in facing all the other extraordinary challenges posed by the long emergency — especially rebuilding local networks of commerce and relocalizing agriculture”

“What does Buffett’s purchase (of Burlington Northern Santa Fe) mean for the nation’s energy future? (He said) his decision was “a bet on the country” as well as a bet on the viability of cleaner transportation…Buffett’s interest in the transport sector could be a harbinger of greater private-sector involvement to come — thus bolstering Democratic lawmakers as they make the case for more transit, bridge, and road repair money to hasten the nation’s economic recovery”:

“If Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has his way, Los Angeles County is about to embark on a commuter rail building boom the likes of which the region has never seen. On Friday, the mayor will unveil an ambitious but politically risky transportation plan that fast-tracks several high-profile rail projects to be completed within the next decade… “Yes this is a stretch-goal, yes this is going to be tough, but I think by now folks shouldn’t count me out,” Villaraigosa (said.) “The fact is that this is the most important thing that we can do to alleviate congestion and gridlock, to improve the quality of our air and to really vindicate the people’s will for the need to address transportation.” The mayor scored a big victory last year when voters approved a sales tax measure to help fund the projects, which include a subway to the Westside, the extension of the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley, the extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica and new rail lines down Crenshaw Boulevard and through downtown LA”:

“This research suggests that creating a more diverse and efficient transport system may be among the most cost-effective ways to improve public health, and improving public health is one of the largest benefits of improving alternative modes (walking, cycling and public transit), encouraging more efficient travel patterns, and creating more accessible, multi-modal communities… The US has the highest per capita traffic fatality rate among peer countries… data indicate that obesity rates are inversely related to use of alternative modes…Public transit reduces pollution emissions per passenger-mile, and transit-oriented development provides additional emission reductions by reducing per capita vehicle travel”:

“Health Impact Assessment (HIA) measures potential health effects that a project or policy—such as a housing development or traffic ordinance—might have on a population. Ideally, such assessments, which can vary widely in scope from quick to extensive, are performed before a project is built or a policy is implemented, allowing decision makers to incorporate recommendations that would minimize negative health effects”:

Major real estate report: shift to urban living is “fundamental,” outer suburbs may “lack staying power”:

Somewhat dated yet strangely timely research

6 11 2009

High speed rail appears to be the costliest of the three modes for the corridor analyzed. But rail’s full costs are close to highway transportation, and social costs are lower. However, highway’s lower per user infrastructure costs compensate for the greater external costs than high speed rail. Users bear many highway costs: accidents and congestion are imposed by one driver on another, and so are internal to the highway transportation system as a whole…The implications of this are clear and far reaching. They suggest that the most cost effective high speed rail configuration in California would be as an alternative to highway, rather than to air transportation:

The Heartland Light Rail project represents Kansas City’s biggest infrastructural investment in decades. The ballot initiative for the light rail project was voted down three times until it was finally approved in November 2006. Using best estimates of construction costs, operating expenses and federal funding, I estimate the net present value (NPV) of the project to be negative $343 million. From a standard NPV perspective the Kansas City light rail transit (LRT) system is unlikely to break even. However, if the negative externalities of auto travel and the positive externalities associated with light rail are properly accounted for in a comprehensive social costbenefit framework, investment in the Kansas City LRT system becomes an increasingly feasible option:

All the news that’s fit for you (II)

5 11 2009

Economic crises have a strange way of catalyzing market and policy innovation. The Great Recession is no different. In the midst of rising unemployment, increasing poverty and battered industries, the next economy is slowly coming into view. The Seattle region may just lead the way. But it won’t be easy. To maximize Seattle’s strengths as an innovative, progressive city, renewed civic collaboration and shrewd government intervention, on the small and large scale, will be necessary. This next economy will be a low (or at least reduced) carbon economy, altering our energy sources, the products we buy, the location and form of our communities, and how we get around…And, perhaps most important, it will be metropolitan led:

Sure, there are scare campaigns for cars out there, but what if we just cut to the chase. Much like smoking. Only a couple of decades ago cigarettes were an integral part of life, whether you smoked or not. That has changed radically. I am certainly not comparing the dangers of smoking to the dangers of driving, I just think that we could borrow freely from the health warnings now found on cigarette packs around the world:

How Detroit, the Motor City, turned into a ghost town; Wall Street is celebrating a recovery in the US economy, but the future looks increasingly bleak in America’s industrial heartland:

The real reason for Detroit’s immense population flows seems not to be the car industry, but the car itself. The rise of the suburb has contributed to the fall of the inner city. The figure shown above provides startling information about the relation between the construction of express ways and the condition of the inner city. In fact Detroit is drained by the mass introduction of the car, and has become dependent on the construction of them at the same time. Detroit’s population halved within 50 years, changing the city from a vibrant metropolis into an urban vacuum:

AARP’s “Living in a Post-Car World”…Ray LaHood (R): “People want alternative forms of transportation; they don’t want to own two or three cars. And they want green space, biking and walking paths, but they want the amenities, too—access to shopping, restaurants, health care”:

Really, really, really, really, really neat-o keen potential innovations in mobility:

All the news that’s fit for you (I)

30 10 2009

“Cars could someday find themselves in the same struggle for acceptance as cigarettes”:

“The hop-on, hop-off nature of streetcars increases walkability, allowing you to ditch your car and wine and dine downtown with ease. The good news is that Dallas is pushing ahead with plans for a downtown streetcar network. Just last week, the Transportation and Environment Committee began reviewing a proposed route. ‘This would just be the beginning of a network that would bring neighborhoods together. It would give downtown the vitality you see in Zurich'”:

“With a unique approach Odense Municipality has submitted a masterplan for sustainable transport solutions that are intended to lead the way towards the goal of CO2-neutrality in 2025…The aim is to change habits…Overall the ambition is to have 60% more bike rides and 60% fewer traffic deaths in 2025, to increase the travels by public transport with 200%, to reduce driving in the city with 25%, to have 75% less people burdened by harmful pollution and 90% less burdened by traffic noise. The Plan for Traffic and Mobility is expected to be adopted before the summer 2009”:

“President Obama billed the $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail as the ‘first step’ toward a nationwide system of European-style bullet trains linking the nation’s largest cities. But now his administration must take the second step: figuring out how and where to spend the cash among more than $50 billion worth of proposals from across the country. It is a tricky endeavor. If Federal Railroad Administration officials pick too many projects, they risk spreading the cash too thin, leaving little tangible evidence to point to when it comes time to ask for the next round of federal investment. Choose only one or two larger projects, and they could alienate needed political allies that hail from states that are overlooked. Any near-term failures — either in moving too slowly or picking the wrong projects — could threaten to derail the larger effort”:

“Rendell argues that a nation-wide high speed rail network is critical and called for a ‘dedicated federal government capital budget’ to fund the program. ‘We have just been nibbling at infrastructure,’ Rendell argued. Rendell sees a dedicated ‘infrastructure bank,’ which would ‘take the politics out of transportation decisions,’ funneling funds to high speed rail, transportation rehabilitation, and transportation improvement projects. Rendell noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers said the U.S. needs to invest $2.2 trillion to ensure the country’s future competitiveness. In addition to strengthening the U.S. competitive position, Rendell argues that high speed rail would help restore the U.S. construction and manufacturing base, and ‘bring millions or tens of millions of jobs and new factories.’ Rendell compared current opposition to a country-wide high speed rail network to the early opposition against the Erie Canal. He noted that the $9 billion investment in the Erie Canal was repaid within nine years, and the investment helped revolutionize the U.S. economy”:

“More than two-thirds of Houstonians are ready for tighter land-use restrictions in the wake of several high-profile conflicts between developers and neighborhoods in recent years, according to a Houston Chronicle poll. Out of 601 people surveyed between Oct. 12 and 15, 71 percent said they strongly or somewhat agree that ‘Houston should enact tougher land use restrictions'”:

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