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Afternoon links: National trends, local impacts

How is your county doing with the Census?: Google created a real-time Census participation rate tool for the Census Bureau. Iowans seem to be doing a particularly good job of responding. About 25% of DC households have responded, compared to 29% nationally. Fairfax and Loudoun are at 34%. Mail your form back! (Lynda)

More development happening in cities: A new EPA report shows that infill development in urban neighborhoods continues to grow. Compared to the early and mid 90s, urban construction today makes up a much larger portion of regional building permits issued across the country. (Erik W)

Exurbs on the rebound or a dead cat bounce?: The latest home data shows a recent rise in home values in DC's exurban counties, but that's still a little bounce after a huge decline. Median sale prices in DC have risen since the start of 2009 and are stable over 5 years, while prices for the metro area as a whole are way down. (The City Fix)

Better cars better, but not salvation: Electric cars would be nice, but they're not the answer to all problems, argues Rob Pitingolo. They could reduce emissions, but wouldn't do anything for traffic, parking, and sprawl (Extraordinary Observations) ... The same goes for driverless cars, which Randal O'Toole recently exalted in the WSJ; they could increase throughput, but you'd still have to park them. Actually, the best effect of driverless cars could be to make buses much cheaper to operate.

What's Current: The difficult-to-read-online Current newspaper has a number of relevant articles this week, several referencing Greater Greater Washington.

On Page 1: After Kwame Brown scored political points with River East by suggesting a Circulator there, DDOT is studying the broader potential for Circulator expansion but "pausing" actual growth. Maybe turning the 30s into a Circulator would satisfy both Mary Cheh and Kwame Brown and make DDOT prioritize H and I Street bus transit?

Also on page 1, MWCOG isn't about to study tearing down the Whitehurst as the Foggy Bottom Association reported, though Carol Buckley quotes me saying it's not a bad idea to discuss what we'll do in 10 years when the road needs major maintenance. This was just on COG's list of projects, from which ideas (good or bad) never actually get deleted.

The above-the-fold story covers the proposed "N Street Follies" hotel. Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull seemed to express his agreement with some of the points I made, that the hotel should have less parking (since the N Street dead-end alley couldn't possibly accommodate parking traffic), and that the shadows cast on the Tabard are specifically disallowed by zoning.

Page 3 discusses the great streetcar wire debate. Dupont Circle Conservancy President Rauzia Ally talks about the organization's decision not to sign onto the anti-wire resolution, instead choosing to ask questions about power systems but being open to the hybrid approach if wireless is more expensive. Buckley quotes me again in the page 7 continuation where I actually praise the Committee of 100's efforts, insofar as they seek to get information to the public about the various options.

Thanks... I think: The Washington City Paper awarded us "Best News Source Unlikely to Be Distracted by News after Matt Johnson told Andrew Beaujon he was somewhat glad Catoe didn't tell bloggers he was resigning at the discussion the night before.

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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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Another thing I rarely hear when discussing the merits of electric cars is "what happens to all those middle east countries once people stop buying as much oil?" Sure, maybe we feel less inclined to send troops to die there just so Johnny can fill up his GMC Yukon XL, but what happens when the oil money dries up? Do we really want a string of Somalias across the middle east?

I'm not saying we're better off as we are now, but we're going to continue to have very, very difficult questions ahead of us, even if we develop the perfect electric car.

by Reid on Mar 26, 2010 3:36 pm • linkreport

There is a pretty good body of work around the mileage tax, which could be an alternative to the $.18 gas tax currently in place.

A mileage tax, tracked by GPS or other meter device, could account for congestion pricing, location pricing, vehicle type and a host of other variables.

It is something I hope policy makers are willing to entertain going forward, as there is a crisis of road and transportation funding as it is.

by Andrew on Mar 26, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

"good body of work around the mileage tax" means a bunch of out-of-work DOT officials want to go work for companies that will sell, maintain and bill every driver in America for the miles they drive. A highly invasive, expensive and stalinist system. There is an easy and good alternative: raise the gas tax. Even if 1/4 of cars in the near future move to all EV, a moderate raise in the gas tax will meet any and all funding for future roads.

With the focus on bikes and pedestrians, I think we should also be looking at taking bikes at point of sale for the use of roads, and perhaps we can put a small chip in everyone shoes to make sure they don't walk to much. Nike already has one.

Raise the gax tax, build dense, build some more transit, rinse and repeat. That will carry us far.

by charlie on Mar 26, 2010 4:16 pm • linkreport

"A highly invasive, expensive and stalinist system."

Please don't dilute the crimes of Stalin by associating it will technology barely more invasive than EZPass. It dumbs-down the discourse.

by Reid on Mar 26, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport

So the EV drivers are will be adding to congestion and at the same time won't be contributing at all to the maintenance of the roads?

It seems like a system, if it could be devised, to decrease the overall subsidy to road users would be a good thing. What would the gas tax need to be to cover the $225B in monies needed in the coming decades to ensure the roads are safe?

by Andrew on Mar 26, 2010 4:35 pm • linkreport

"technology barely more invasive than EZPass". Actually, you are right. A GPS chip that would check and monitor every road you drive on isn't from Stalin. He wasn't that good. That is straight from Orwell.

Andrew, off the cuff, in Virginia a modest increase in the state gas tax to about 35 cents would not only close any budget gap but fund additional improvements for the next 10-15 years.

Federal side, I don't know, but there are tremendous benefits to increasing the gas tax (less oil imports, carbon, etc)

You could also easily tax EV owners a small amount ($100) a year on the state level if they ever reach the point of saturation.

KISS. KISS. KISS.

by charlie on Mar 26, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport

Sure, maybe we feel less inclined to send troops to die there just so Johnny can fill up his GMC Yukon XL, but what happens when the oil money dries up? Do we really want a string of Somalias across the middle east?

We could always send them copies of "The Ant and the Grasshopper"...

by oboe on Mar 26, 2010 6:08 pm • linkreport

Charlie,
There's no need to even install a tracking mechanism in the first place since all cars already have one: the odometer. It's already a crime to tamper with your odometer. We could simply capture the odometer reading at every inspection and then tax accordingly.

by Reid on Mar 26, 2010 6:19 pm • linkreport

I have removed an inappropriate race-oriented comment by MPC concerning the Census.

by David Alpert on Mar 26, 2010 6:51 pm • linkreport

Actually if cars could drive themselves there'd be no need for on-site parking because they could valet themselves.

Or alternatively the entire concept of private auto ownership would be replaced by taxis. It would be cheaper to use such a service, since most of us take only a few trips a day and the population could share a relatively low ratio of vehicles to people. And instead of buying a pickup or SUV you only need on rare occasions, individuals could hail any type of vehicle best for the day such a small single-seat compact that extremely efficient.

What I worry about though is that all your movement could be controlled and tracked. Not just highways and roads but streets themselves could be tolled and private or accessible to only certain people. Walking and biking would be banned to remove any competition and there would be the argument that reducing people's mobility like this would reduce crime since then what would amount to a private police state could monitor and control everyone's behavior through their movement.

So yeah maybe its inevitable but I'm glad I am living the present then...

by TXSteven on Mar 26, 2010 6:52 pm • linkreport

Reid, oh come on. What inspections? Most cars don't get inspected annually. Now the feds want to look at my odometer?

On other note, it would be nice if insurance companies would reward you for not driving much, as instead of the minor 5-10% discounts we get now.

Look at the numbers: there isn't a problem and the fears of EV cars swamping the roads are just that -- fear. Plenty of room in the gas tax. As I said, this is just Mary Peters and her acolytes looking for lobbying money.

by charlie on Mar 26, 2010 7:50 pm • linkreport

I see that facts aren't welcome on the blog. You let urbanites perpetuate stereotypes about conservative rural folks perfectly fine but have no issues censoring me when I make a factually accurate comment about the response patterns of certain demographic groups.

by MPC on Mar 26, 2010 7:51 pm • linkreport

Just what we need - another tax.

by Fritz on Mar 26, 2010 8:14 pm • linkreport

It's karma. Censor me, and the Chinese spambots hit your sit. Or are you gonna censor this post too since I used the word "chinese"?

by MPC on Mar 26, 2010 10:35 pm • linkreport

@ charlie, Reid: I have to agree with charlie. The Dutch government has been trying to get something like this going for 10-15 years now, and they just can't get it done.

The technology really is not there (which keeps surprising me, but it appears to be an issue with keeping the massive amount of data accurate and stores in such a way that it can only be accessed for this purpose and not others). The privacy concerns are real and very serious. Mind you, gas is about $7 a gallon over there. There is a well established green party. There are socialist parties (plural) that would like nothing more than to pretty much outlaw car driving for environmental reasons. Cities are trying to increase parking rates for large cars (Hummers and SUVs). Congestion is ridiculous. Trains are overfilled. Clearly, it's time for unconventional measures. And even under those circumstances, the Dutch can't get it done. Left wing ministers. Right wing minsters that added miles and miles of asphalt. Nothing happened. Over a time span of 10-15 years.

So with that experience, I'd say there will be no GPS trackers in American cars in the near 25 years. The circumstances are way less favorable here.

So, just increase the d@rn gas tax. Just make it a percentage of the gas price, with a minimum or 50c a gallon or something. Lower other car taxes in return.

by Jasper on Mar 28, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

Jaspar, I believe the Danes also proposed a VMT tax which died an early death.

Many of the gas tax proposals I've seen have tried to link gas tax increases with decreases in SS or other income taxes, rather than relief from other "car taxes". Most states don't tax "cars". That sort of nullifies my argument that increase in gas taxes can accommodate future infrastructure costs, although what i am trying to argue is even a 5-10 cent increase in gas tax would cover those costs.

States moving to a car tax where you aren't taxed based solely on valuation, but rather engine displacement/MPG would be interesting. Would make old pickups/trucks really expensive to keep and hard to see it getting much support in rural areas. But it would be nice if the Virginia car tax, for instance, did give you some bonus for not driving much, rather than opening a crappy 10 year old car.

by charlie on Mar 28, 2010 1:40 pm • linkreport

I haven't thought much about this topic, but as vehicles shift to electric power, the government is going to have to tax something to keep the interstates and other federal-aid routes maintained. I'd be interested in seeing if simply tolling the roads is a better solution, because at least you could opt-out of EZ-Pass if you never go on highways.

Secondly, even if 10% of the population begins to charge their vehicles from the power grid, energy prices for people who don't even drive cars are going to increase.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 28, 2010 2:09 pm • linkreport

Tolls would be one option, but tolls only really work on freeway-type facilities and major bridges. They aren't going to do a bit to help the local arterail or the 2-lane agricultural road. Then you'll also have that group of drivers who complain about "double taxation" (having to pay both the toll and the gas tax).

by Froggie on Mar 29, 2010 7:19 am • linkreport

@ charlie: VA taxes cars through property taxes. However, the tax is next to nothing due to some crazy arrangement that forces all counties to send out SPAM to all car owners. Your point is taken though. Cars are way less taxed here than in Europe (see below).

I think we agree that a gas tax should be a % of the gas price. I was just proposing an absolute minimum value.

A gas tax does work as a tax on mileage by the way.

In the EU, cars get an EU version of the Energy Star system. The Dutch government has been raising gas tax for w while now, while reducing road taxes and the hated BPM (Tax on motorbehicles). BPM is 40% right now (was more). Aside from the BPM you also pay the regular 19% VAT (Yes, that's 59% tax on the purchase of a new car). Depending on the "energy star" rating, you get €1400 off, for clean tiny cars and another €1600 for dirty big cars.

http://www.autobelastingen.nl/text.php?t_ID=54 (in Dutch)

@ Neil: Tolling all roads has the same problem of privacy as keeping track of mileage and position. Will not happen.

Roads are part of the national infrastructure, and maintenance of that infrastructure is a basic government function (IMHO). The government should pay for it now from specific taxes, but from the general fund. Everybody benefits from infrastructure. Even people without a car.

by Jasper on Mar 29, 2010 9:55 am • linkreport

I am curious about the census:

The form asks about the number of people in the household on April 1. Given that, how is it possible to respond correctly before April 1?

by ah on Mar 29, 2010 10:13 am • linkreport

@ Neil -- what about local roads? Gas taxes also provide funding for local roads, whether federally funded or state funded. It's not like only Interstates benefit from gas taxes, but we're not about to put tollbooths on Connecticut Avenue.

by ah on Mar 29, 2010 10:15 am • linkreport

@ah,

The Census is supposed to be a snapshot of the county on April 1.

It's also asking how many people will be living at that residents on April 1. That means even if you're out of town on a business trip, you're still living at your home. Living is defined as where you sleep most of the time.

I don't know about you, but I can reasonably predict how many people will be living in my house two weeks out.

It's a good point, however - the Census keeps things that way for consistency and accuracy, but it sure isn't very intuitive.

by Alex B. on Mar 29, 2010 10:34 am • linkreport

@alex B. I agree with ah. Of course I could figure out what the census meant when it asked "how many live here on april 1" but the grammar/tense is wrong. The tensing sets up a contrdiction-send it in before April 1 but answer this question ON April 1. In your response Alex you use the correct tense "will be". Thats not what the census asked. If I were writing it I would have used more words to be more accurrate:"To the best of your ability, please record how many will live here on April 1".

by Bianchi on Mar 29, 2010 11:21 am • linkreport

@Jaspar; interesting data points. I knew the VAT for cars was out of control, but even for motorbikes. Ouch.

One part of the stimulus package last year was a federal tax rebate for state and local tax on cars. I though Cash for Clunkers was an OK idea, but the federal rebate was a bit too much.

Not sure what you mean by "SPAM" in terms of the VA car tax. The system we have now in VA is a compromise; allow taxation on real property by local authorities, but reduce that tax for the majority of cars and then provide a state subsidy to make up the difference. I always though (and was taught) that the car tax was an accidental function. With any use tax, you can be taxed for property but it is hard to keep track of it. With DMV, you can easily track cars and then tax them.

The car tax would have also been easier to swallow if it was pro-rated across the year like income taxes. That ability to do that wasn't around 20-30 years ago, and now setting up that billing system would be easier.

by charlie on Mar 29, 2010 12:17 pm • linkreport

@ charlie: VAT is still 19%. BPM is just an extra tax for motorvehicles. It used to be basically, your downpayment for road usage.

Cash for Clunkers was a good idea with an expected terrible outcome. The plan ended up being useless and worse than poorly designed.

The SPAM I was referring to was the "property tax relief for cars" mail I get every year. And yes, the system is abysmally designed. Subsidies on taxes are silly.

by Jasper on Mar 29, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

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