Greater Greater Washington

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Lunch links: Bad land use decision edition


Proposed donor wall inside the MLK Memorial Visitors Center. Image from the MLK Memorial foundation.
Like lawn gnomes in the nation's front yard: The Examiner looks at "mall sprawl", the constant pressure from interest groups (and caving by Congress) to put more and more memorials on the Mall despite a 2003 law that said they wouldn't do it. Newer ones aren't just a simple statue or wall, either: they come with visitors' centers, that explain the memorial, sell books, and clutter the landscape. Memorial organizers even want this one to contain a huge wall recognizing not great civil rights leaders, but big donors who gave money to build the memorial.

Congressional whack-a-mole: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton spends a huge amount of her time fighting bills to add new memorials which pop up with alarming frequency. Harriet Tregoning, no surprise, has the better answer: "A high-performing transportation system" to get people from the Mall to other memorial sites throughout the city.

New York isn't always more progressive: NYC DOT is now one of the nation's best, but their land-use decisions aren't as good (the inverse of DC's situation, where OP is the most progressive and DDOT is mixed). In Manhattan's Hudson Yards area, atop rail yards on the West Side and the last major undeveloped parcel around Midtown, Extell wants to build a big-box Costco with 2,300 parking spaces, Streetsblog reports.

The rest of Midtown, all the way to both rivers, is entirely walkable and has some of the lowest rates of car ownership and car commuting in the country; the last thing we should be building is an auto-oriented retail complex. The Bloomberg administration proposedsuccessfullyother suburban-style megaprojects like the Bronx Terminal Market in its early years, making Bloomberg a pretty bad mayor on smart-growth policy until his congestion pricing epiphany.

Seriously, we subsidize cars a lot: Slate has an article examining the many ways we subsidize auto ownership. Ryan Avent would add how gas taxes don't cover the costs of even building the roads themselves, let alone the other, subtler subsidies the Slate article lists.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Regarding the car subsidies...., as much I suspect the author is probably right in the big picture, it doesn't make any sense to consider the gasoline tax as a road "subsidy." Since the vast majority of gasoline is paid for by motor vehicle users and motor vehicles are using roads the vast majority of the time, it's really just a fee.

If that fee covered 100% of all road spending by the government, there would be no subsidy. It's like calling a tax levied on an airline ticket to pay for the FAA a "subsidy." No, users of the FAA are being charged by the FAA.

Granted SOME flights requiring above average effort from the FAA might be subsidized by flights requiring less than average effort, but the community as a whole is paying for what it's using.

Back on the gas tax, I'm sure it DOESN'T cover 100% of all road spending, but calling the gas tax a subsidy really makes me question there rest of the author's arguments.

by AE on Jul 31, 2008 2:10 pm • linkreport

AE: The author of the Slate piece isn't saying the gas tax is a subsidy. He's saying that road spending and tax credits are subsidies, which they are. Gas taxes offset some of that, but not all; plus, gas taxes supplant other sales taxes, so we are foregoing sales tax revenue (which usually goes to general programs) to devote money specifically to roads (and still not cover all the costs).

by David Alpert on Jul 31, 2008 2:15 pm • linkreport

Also, the gas tax is not a fee, it is a tax. There is leakage in both directions (i.e. not all gas is used on roads, and not all revenues are spent on roads).

It may function somewhat like a fee, but it is not and should not be talked about as such.

Gas tax receipts are not tied to a certain area. That's why we have donor states and recipient states. If you were to break it down by metro areas, you'd find that the vast majority of gas is used in metro areas, yet they get a disproportionately small portion of the funds. Similarly, many older, industrial and higher population states donate to rural sunbelt ones.

Furthermore, we should stop treating the gas tax like a user fee because of the negative externalities to using gas. Nevermind the obvious environmental and air quality issues, congestion and transportation problems alone justify the use of gas tax receipts for transportation as a whole, not just roads. Mass transit is not only good in its own right, but helps the road network work better for things that transit cannot handle (like delivery trucks, emergency vehicles).

by Alex B. on Jul 31, 2008 3:51 pm • linkreport

I've taken another look, and I guess I must have read it a bit too quickly since it doesn't really discuss the gas tax in the way I thought it did. Still, considering that the article is focused on "subsidies" and it doesn't subtract how much comes from gas taxes, it never provides any evidence that there IS a subsidy. Not that there isn't, just that it's still kinda fluffy.

by AE on Jul 31, 2008 4:17 pm • linkreport

There is an article I read on the history of rail transportation in the United States and I think it makes a really good case that policies of the 50's and 60's pretty much intentionally destroyed passenger rail. Taxes assesed on Rail went to building airports and highways all over the country. Onerous regulations limited the speeds at which trains could run (we had 110 mph trains between Denver and Chicago back in the 1930's!!!), all contributing to the pathetic rail network that we have today. At one point we had the best rail and mass transit systems in the world. We can and should do better. This is the link (a long but good read): http://web.archive.org/web/20010614133724/wwics.si.edu/outreach/wq/WQSELECT/TRAIN.HTM

by NikolasM on Aug 1, 2008 10:17 am • linkreport

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