from Randal O'Toole's Transportation Newsletter #24 15 July 2014
The war against the automobile is being waged on three fronts:
1. Congress to Pass Short-Term Fix to Highway Fund 2. Metropolitan Planning Organizations Write So-Called Sustainability Plans 3. Cities and Transit Agencies Plan Obsolete Rail Transit Systems 4. Preserving the American Dream Conference
1. Congress to Pass Short-Term Fix to Highway Fund
Congressional authority to collect the federal gasoline tax expires
on September 1 and, more important to some, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money at about the same time. The media has inundated the public with dire warnings of what will happen if the trust fund is exhausted and how our highways are crumbling and need federal funding.
In fact, our highways are in good shape: the number of bridges that are structurally deficient has declined by 50 percent since 1990 and the average smoothness of pavement has improved each year. The trust fund is running out of money because of overspending, not underfunding: Congress has diverted at least 20 percent of gas taxes to non-highway programs and mandated spending even if revenues weren't sufficient to cover those costs.
A proposal to increase gas taxes by 12 cents a gallon was enthusiastically endorsed by Democrats in Congress who want more money to spend, but was entirely unnecessary for America's highways or transportation in general. Fortunately, it appears this proposal will not pass. Instead, Congress appears likely to pass a very short-term bill that will replenish the trust fund and reauthorize the gas tax for less than a year. That means we can expect this debate to pop up again next Spring.
Unstated is that both parties hope to make gains in the 2014 elections, and if one house or other switches party whichever one that is in power thinks it will be able to do what it wants in 2015. If instead the Republicans continue to hold the House and the Democrats hold the Senate, then next year will see the same near-gridlock as this year.
2. Metropolitan Planning Organizations Write So-Called Sustainability Plans
Early in Obama's first term, the secretaries of Transportation and Housing & Urban Development and the director of the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to jointly require that metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) write "smart-growth" plans for their regions. This would be done through the regional transportation plans that MPOs are required to update every five years.
To promote this idea, in 2010 and 2011 the administration gave $165 million in "sustainability planning" grants, ranging from $225,000 to $5 million, to 58 cities, states, and--mainly--MPOs. Now the plans funded by these grants, and similar plans in other cities, are being released, and they all call for the same pack-and-stack policy: invest in transit rather than highways and somehow require that most if not all new housing and other development take place in transit corridors. Plan Bay Area (for the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose region) and Plan Lafayette (for a Louisiana city of 100,000) both followed this pattern. Now the Twin Cities Thrive 2040 plan and Chattanooga's Thrive 2055 plan appear on the road to following the same pattern as well.
To justify these one-size-fits-all plans, several of the planning agencies have hired Arthur Nelson, a University of Utah planning professor who claims that Americans want to move into smaller homes and estimates the U.S. will have 20 million surplus single-family homes by 2025. His analysis are shallow and poorly documented. Over the past few months, I've had a running debate with Twin Cities planners who support the region's plans to concentrate most new housing in transit-oriented developments. I encourage people in other regions to engage their MPOs in similar debates and will be glad to help.
3. Cities and Transit Agencies Plan Obsolete Rail Transit Systems
Except in extremely dense urban areas--and New York City is the only one this dense in the United States--urban rail transit is obsolete, and will become even more obviously obsolete as driverless cars enter the market in a few years. Yet cities and transit agencies all over the country are pressing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on streetcars and billions on light rail.
Austin, Tx and St. Petersburg, FL will vote on light rail this November. San Antonio, Anaheim, St. Paul, Santa Ana, CA, and Arlington, VA are among the many cities pushing to fund and build streetcar lines under the mistaken belief that an 8-mph, low-capacity streetcar alone will somehow generate billions of dollars worth of economic development, and San Antonio may vote on this in November.
Watch my page on Cato's web site or my blog for a soon-to-be-released paper on why rapid buses can do better than light rail at a lower cost.