Friday, May 5, 2017

Talking Headways Podcast: The Urban Policy Translator

This week we’re joined by Shelley Poticha, director of NRDC’s Urban Solutions Program, who tells us about the organization’s new programs like SPARCC and the City Energy Project. We get into federal policy like the Clean Power Plan and the story of how FTA and HUD were finally connected, and we talk about The Next American Metropolis, the 1993 book about transit-oriented development she wrote with Peter Calthorpe.

Talking Headways Podcast: The Battery Powered Electric Bus

This week I’m chatting with Matt Horton of Proterra, a company that designs and manufactures battery powered electric buses. We cover the basics of electric buses, power consumption and recharging, the benefits and costs, as well as potential environmental effects.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Podcast: Saving Cities One Picture at a Time

This week on Talking Headways I talk with Chuck Wolfe about his new book, Seeing the Better City. Chuck shares how he makes urban diaries with images, and weighs in on the best ways for bloggers and urbanists to use pictures in their work and advocacy.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Podcast: The Future Is Not Far Away

Our guest this week is Sylvain Haon of the International Association of Public Transport ahead of the organization’s global summit in Montreal. We talk about big transit projects happening around the world, the transition toward mobility as a service, sustainable mobility planning in Europe, and how autonomous vehicles will complement transit in the future.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Podcast: Transport Oakland

I can’t believe this episode is finally out for everyone to hear! More than a year ago, I was approached by a colleague who told me that something big was happening in Oakland, and that I should monitor the process as the city put together a new Transportation Department.

Today I’m pleased to post the first (and hopefully not the last) episode in a series on the Oakland Transportation Department — how it came to be and what comes next. This installments follows a new advocacy group, Transport Oakland, as a parklet project they supported becomes political.

Future episodes will concentrate more specifically on the politics and mechanics of the department, but I thought this would be a good starting point. I hope you enjoy the launch of the series, and hopefully it won’t take another year to get to episode two!

Monday, April 3, 2017

It's Not Devolution, It's Spite

There's been a lot of discussion about devolution over the last few years.  We even had Bruce Katz from Brookings on the podcast to talk about the phenomenon in England where up until 2000, London didn't have a mayor or much say over local matters. 

But even before the new administration made the idea more real with threats to the New Starts and TIGER capital transit funding programs, there's been a push to discuss the idea even more.

On this blog, the idea was passed over briefly when talking about Caltrain funding getting pulled out right at the last second after over a half decade of planning for electrification, and I even think that devolution of some kinds might be a good idea.  But it shouldn't be punishment for political opposition.

But this weekend in Forbes another economics professor, this time libertarian leaning Jeffrey Dorfman at the University of Georgia, has come out in favor of what he calls de-federalization.  What we all know as devolution. 
While many city, state, and federal politicians are decrying the very idea of such transit funding cuts based on the harm that will befall their transit systems without access to such federal funding, what is missing from their argument is any explanation of why the federal government should have been giving them money in the first place.
He then goes on with the tired arguments of "transit doesn't pay for itself" and an interesting new wrinkle for me that sounds a bit too "let them eat transportation cake" for my taste "let's give poor people a tax credit".

Of course roads don't pay for themselves either but driving is such a virtuous activity it shouldn't be hindered in any way right?  Texas even calculated how much tax people would have to pay to break even.  But those analysis were taken down perhaps because they were too true.  Good thing we captured them.
Applying this methodology, revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, 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.
That's a 16% farebox recovery just for the tracks. The Center for American Progress also did an analysis looking at major roads and whether they paid for themselves.  The maps are great if you get a chance to look.

But then Professor Dorfman gets to some points I kind of agree with, but for different reasons.
For the most part, transit systems are local matters. Using federal taxes to collect money from the whole country and then send it back to each local transit system is a terribly inefficient way to raise money for transit and is also inherently unfair as different locales receive back either more or less than they paid in.
I would make the same arguments for red states taking blue state hand outs for freeways to fuel sprawl.  But here comes the cognitive dissonance... 
This common practice of using federal funds for local projects in order to hide the true cost should be stopped. The federal government should pay for the things that are truly national in scope (like the interstate highway system).

The only thing that is truly national in scope are the parts of the highway system that are outside of major cities where trucks conduct interstate commerce.  The majority of traffic in cities are not trucks just passing through. It's traffic for regional trips.  Houston's I-10 is now 26 lanes west of the 610 loop, those were created for the Louisiana to New Mexico traffic right?

But aren't most transit trips commute trips as well? And isn't interstate commerce done by train on tracks freight rail companies own and pay property taxes on? Should trucking companies be paying for the roads the operate on or do we see them as a public good? 

We can flip this back and forth and argue what is "national in scope" all day I'm sure.  The point is that it's often based on ideology and what is virtuous in the eye of the person doing the analysis.  In a true libertarian world they'd have a user fee on everything.  But I'm not sure how that works on local streets or things we want to incentivize like say, using more compact transportation modes for traveling into a dense city center because that's where economic activity happens due to agglomeration effects.

But this gets to another point about local decision making as well.  Urban areas are set up to be ruled by the forests.  MPOs are often stacked with suburban representatives and regional transit is hard to create with so many fiefdoms.  In a discussion about the recent highway collapse in Atlanta, New York Magazine goes through all the reasons why having 29 counties in a single metropolitan area makes it impossible to build useful transit. Our extremely racist urban pasts.
Metro Atlanta is scattered across 29 counties, which has made it easy to confine public transit narrowly to the heavily African-American Fulton and Dekalb counties.
Atlanta's history on this is well documented.  But what about other states who have libertarians who hate transit to begin with.  Like say...Texas.
Burton’s bill, which has passed through committee and is awaiting attention from the full Senate, would require that every city through which a commuter line passes hold an election before federal funds are accepted for the projects.
There's a lot to unpack in a bill like this.  Such as why does a city have veto power over a regional project.  Why are rail projects singled out?  I've asked this before, but why does a city need to vote for every single transit project but not a single highway project.  They are both regional projects.  They are both subsidized.  Some might argue we should have that power, I'm not so sure.

But it leaves a place for the federal involvement in large infrastructure projects. So let's not kid ourselves that there's something economic about devolution of transit and not roads to the local level.  And what does local mean anyway?  Because if we go to the state level we all know where the money will be re-purposed.

If we were going to be real about a devolution conversation, we wouldn't just start with the dirty hippy transit.  It's just sad that we know it's all for political show to "punish dirty cities"

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Podcast: APTA's Darnell Grisby

This week’s guest is Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association. We discuss the national drop in transit ridership, who rides transit in the United States, and federal policy going forward. Darnell also talks about new technologies that might be coming to transit agencies, including autonomous buses, better payment systems, and more.

Podcast: More Scenes for the Shared Use Mobility Summit

This week we’re time-warping back to a different era — last October, and the Shared Use Mobility Summit in Chicago. Laura Washington of the Chicago Sun Times hosted this panel featuring the Metropolitan Planning Council’s MarySue Barrett, the Shared Use Mobility Center’s Sharon Feigon, and Transportation for America’s James Corless.

They discuss what they think federal policy will be like with a new administration and what to expect from a Republican Congress. A lot has happened since then, but it’s still an enlightening discussion with valuable information about the nation’s current infrastructure policy situation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Time I Called an Economist "Dude" RE: Caltrain

I've never really been called an "angry blogger" before today. Guess there is a first time for everything.

I hate arguing on twitter.  I don't think fighting in 140 characters is useful and it always just makes me mad and entrenched.  I do love twitter for sharing information, which I do very frequently as many of you reading this know.

But today I just couldn't help myself.  Right after yesterday's Caltrain post I was particularly incensed by Dr. Matthew E. Kahn, an economist who teaches at USC writing exactly what I was annoyed at the day before.  He made even more assertions that bothered me and I felt I needed to call him out on it.
To which he replied...
I don't expect Dr. Kahn to know where I've worked or who I am but considering my previous work on the subject I was a bit shocked by this dismissive response. I've put together parcel data over time in GIS to study the value changes in streetcar lines and have contributed to a number of papers on the subject of transit and value capture so no, I don't need to study urban economics.  I get the concept.

In fact, I understand value capture related to transit very well because of my colleagues that wrote exclusively about it at CTOD.  Case in point.
What Nadine is talking about has been discussed many times in her work. We know from the research that value can't be generated in significant amounts to pay for transit without vacant land to goose the increment.   

It seems as if people see Value Capture as a panacea when in reality it's a scrap that's constantly fought over.  Want affordable housing? Use Value Capture! Want new infrastructure for dense infill? Use Value Capture! Want new transit infrastructure? Use Value Capture!  And in his longer than 140 characters here is what Dr. Kahn said:
In truth, a simple Ricardian model of land would predict that the main beneficiaries will be land owners 10 to 15 miles from Silicon Valley whose land is close to the Caltrain stations.  As the train becomes faster, these suburbs will enjoy a sharp growth in housing values. A simple theory of land value capture would say that these land owners should be taxed and the collected revenue can pay for the train.   Why do the Federal tax payers get a bill while the local land owners of the land near the now faster train stations get a $ profit windfall as their asset appreciates in value?  
This ignores all the existing demands on value capture mentioned above, and that Caltrain already exists and development near it is virtually blocked.  Increases in value aren't going to come specifically from Caltrain investment, but rather from zoning restrictions. No one in? Lots of demand? Value up! That's not to say we shouldn't be trying to capture some value, but it's not going to be $2B worth of value created to pay for the line.

But here are some of his other arguments that are to me nonsense.
1.  There are 40 million people in California.  If we all pay for this "key project", then we will pay a one time fee of $16 dollars to invest in this durable capital. This is the immediate proof that California could fund this improvement on its own.
I think we already did pay for the slice of the project when we sent our money to the federal government as taxes.  In applying for funding through New Starts, we're getting our money back.  If you want devolution, say devolution.  If you think we shouldn't fund regional transportation at the federal level, then let us keep our gas taxes. But in the system AS IT CURRENTLY EXISTS, If we don't apply for that money, someone in another city will.  We don't build a lot of freeways here so we're not getting back federal money on the peninsula we're sending in for either gas or income tax.

So don't tell me we could pay for it ourselves.  Yeah. We can. But that's now how federal transportation funding works right now.  The theoretical in all of this bothers me as attack.  Because we aren't repealing Prop 13 anytime soon and the federal process for capital improvements isn't gone yet.  And it's going to be hard to kill it.  Theories are great.  But label them hopes and unicorn wishes.  Not analysis.
2. If the main beneficiaries are Silicon Valley workers, who will have a faster commute --- why don't Silicon Valley firms pay for this themselves?  Why don't the commuters pay a higher fee for the train? They can work away inside this sardine box and Facebook and Google's profits rise as their productive workers make progress.
It's not all silicon valley workers, and many of these riders don't work for Facebook or Google or the giants because those workers ride their tech buses to work. As public transit, it should be affordable to everyone to make the economy work.  Perhaps they need an employment tax like Portland uses for Tri-Met, but ultimately electrification and speeding up the train allowing more people to take it benefits the environment and people that can't afford a car. 
Silicon Valley is a rich region.  Why on either equity or efficiency grounds does it merit federal transport subsidies? If this project is so valuable, why hasn't the local region figured out a local funding strategy?  My theory is simple.  Since the local political leaders thought that Hilary Clinton would be elected President, they chose to delay the project until her team agreed to provide the subsidy.  The temptation of waiting for other people's money caused an inefficient delay in launching a productive project (the faster train). Now a game of "chicken" is playing out .  I'm sure that speeding up the train is a good public policy. Now, there is a fight over who pays for it.  The winners from the local public good improvement should pay!
Sure! Caltrain officials just were waiting for Hillary to win. This is what made me tweet because its a stupid assertion that doesn't even make sense.  The federal funding process of capital projects doesn't follow a political cycle.  It happens when it happens because of all the analysis that needs to be completed behind the scenes. 

And the FTA has been funding projects since 1991 through different administrations. How is it so hard to think that good projects that get rated highly in a very scrutinized process (more than highways ever will be) wouldn't be approved even in a new Republican administration.  Perhaps they should have thought better because of the asshole tendencies of Trump.  But it was the minority party in the State of California at the federal level that pulled this for political and not value reasons. 

So now according to Dr. Kahn I'm an angry blogger.  I guess I also wear pajamas and live in my parents basement instead of doing my actual work as a transportation and planning consultant, podcast host, and aggregator of news about cities.  Perhaps my 8 years working for a well known non-profit research organization counts for nothing too.  At least my blog allows comments.  I wouldn't want Dr. Kahn to be inundated with views that challenge his blog assertions.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Caltrain Precedent

We know that transportation funding is in peril and even good projects like Caltrain seem to be in trouble.  But we must not freak out when we hear the President's budget just like we shouldn't have gotten too excited when a budget from President Obama came out.  Remember this?
Boosts Transit Funding: Obama proposes a large increase in transit funding, budgeting $23 billion in 2016 and a total of $123 billion to transit over six years. That would represent a 75 percent increase over current levels. The would go toward both expansions and the maintenance and improvement of light rail, BRT, subway, and commuter rail networks.
Ha! Never going to happen with a Republican Congress right? But the flip side is worse. Because we know what that Republican Congress wants to do with a transit budget. A new classic quote via CityLab.
After all, the Republican Party’s official platform calls for a total elimination of federal subsidies to public transportation.
CityLab covers even more issues that might arise from "sanctuary city" pushback too.

But if I may add something more to the conversation, the move to stop Caltrain from getting transit money through the New Starts or even Core Capacity funding programs seriously puts a damper on any future capital projects whether they are repairs or new.  Caltrain in particular has been 4 years in the New Starts program showing how long it takes to go through the federal funding process only to have it cut out. 

I think those saying "silicon valley is rich, they should pay for it" are missing the point. First is that we pay a significant amount of of tax to the federal government and should be able to recover that money.  It's not like the region is building new huge ass freeways all the time sucking up our tax outlay, Doyle Drive not withstanding. 

Second is that this is the process that has been laid out and the rules were followed and have been since 1991.  The process to get federal transit funding is way more rigorous even than getting highway funds.  Do I think it's perfect?  No.  But neither are state or local programs that prioritize projects like BART to San Jose or HOT lanes over needed transit connections and upgrades.  We must do better, but don't hang us out to dry on good projects because of a stupid grudge. Once the central valley Rs start a Hatfield McCoy, who knows where it ends.

The reason why I started thinking about this was seeing planning begin for a project in Norfolk and an alternatives analysis for a Pittsburgh to Oakland BRT line that has been discussed forever.  These projects haven't decided on funding yet but its possible they could go local.  Though that is unlikely to happen.  If federal funding dries up, so do these projects.  They are not in California, a place that values transit spending but rather states that aren't so keen on funding capital projects and regions that have somewhat tempered pasts on active transportation.

And sure you can argue for devolution but what are we devolving to?  States that don't give a damn about cities?  Regional MPOs dominated by the suburbs? In a perfect world we have a balanced transportation system funded by regional governments that know what needs to be done to facilitate travel.  But here in the real world, federal funding is necessary to cut through some of the crap cities have to go through to do projects they think are valuable. 

Moving the goalposts is a dangerous precedent to set on a project everyone agrees on except those who believe in loyalty over a pretty solid measured process.