Posts about Libertarians
The US Department of Transportation has announced a third round of its TIGER grant program. Critics of TIGER, like CEI's Marc Scribner, are again bashing the program, this time because it focuses on "livability" instead of exclusively pushing driving.
To Scribner, driving everywhere is what real Americans want, while anyone who prefers the ability to walk to stores and parks is just following a "fad" that's best mocked with the tired old anti-urban tropes like "schlepping organic groceries" and "yuppies slumming in 1980s New York."
He criticizes TIGER for not giving more money to car infrastructure even though it got more funding than any other mode, and calls past TIGER projects "duds" just because they don't meet his personal goals while achieving just what the cities and states, and people living there, had hoped. Who's pushing a lifestyle now?
Scribner's first criticism is that not enough money is going to cars, the mode he wants to put above all. He writes, "When TIGER II grants were announced, only a third of funding went to road projects. 'Livability,' you see, really means, 'go to hell, drivers!'"
If getting one third of transportation money is being told to go to hell, cyclists would love to be asked to go there.
While he is correct that roads only got 29% of the money, what he doesn't mention is that it got more than any other mode, which hardly sounds like the anti-car agenda he makes it out to be. Roads received 29 percent of TIGER II funding, while 26 percent went to transit, 20 percent to rail, 16 percent to ports, four percent to bicycle and pedestrian projects, and five percent for planning grants.
In TIGER I, the three largest projects were freight rail projects. Perhaps Scibner thinks moving freight more efficiently is "anti-mobility."
And some projects that aren't labelled as "road" projects will actually improve driving. For example, the CREATE project in Chicago, which received money in TIGER I, lists "reducing motorist delay due to rail conflict at grade crossings" as one of their top goals.
Thus, it's laughable to state that roads and drivers are being ignored, but for Scribner getting anything less than 100% of the money is to be ignored. State and local DOTs see it differently. In the first round of TIGER funding, only 57% of the money applied for was for roads.
Scribner makes much of the fact that some modes of transportation are used by a small group. Only 5.5% of commuters in Salt Lake City, which won money for a streetcar, use transit. Only 0.3% of commuters bike commute in Fayettville, AR, which won a grant for a 36-mile bike trail.
But this only proves that we've done a lousy job of creating choices. We built entire regions of our country around driving, built roads designed to maximize driver speed, didn't bother with sidewalks or creating roads that invited cyclists, created a fractured and slow transit system and look, now no one takes transit or walks or bikes. That no one uses a non-existent option is not evidence that the option shouldn't exist.
Scribner's other criticism is that the process uses livability as a standard for making grants. In his usual self-contradictory style, he frequently refers to "livability" as vague and meaningless, while simultaneously linking to a USDOT definition of the term.
"We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live."
(That same link is tied to the words "all sorts of silly investments" even though the author at the link only worries that it will cause silly investments. There is no evidence of such investments. One person's worries hardly constitutes fact.)
USDOT even has a detailed website that more clearly defines what livability means.
And there's a technical reason why livability matters for these grants. In TIGER II, HUD kicked in $40 million to encourage transit-oriented development (one part of livability according to DOT's definition).
Scribner refers to the Razorback Greenway and Salt Lake City Streetcar as "duds" which, considering that neither has finished construction yet, is a bit premature. To Scribner, even if both projects meet or exceed the goals outlined in their TIGER grant applications they'll be duds because they don't meet his goals. It's like calling the Apollo program a dud because it didn't cure cancer.
But $15 million for a 36 mile transportation project compares pretty favorably to something like the 18-mile, $2.566 billion Intercounty Connector. The Greenway will only need 321 users per day to match the user/dollar ratio of the ICC.
Luckily, USDOT is moving away from the windshield perspective of Marc Scribner, and TIGER III has the potential to be a real success, as long as you don't define success only in terms of moving cars.
Let's say you have some opinions about what Metro should do, but you actually know almost nothing about Metro's actual policies. You might talk to your friends about it or comment on blogs, but it's unlikely the Washington Post will put your ideas on its Sunday local opinion page.
Unless, that is, you work for the Reason Foundation. The Post published an op-ed from Reason's Sam Staley, who shows he knows little about Metro by suggesting a policy that's already in place today: peak-of-the-peak fares.
Nobody must have checked with the Post's own transportation writers, like Bob "Dr. Gridlock" Thomson, who know plenty about transportation. Thomson showed his thorough comprehension of the complex issues around transportation with a very thoughtful analysis of the 2030 Group transportation priorities report.
In his op-ed, Staley writes,
Metro must set fares based on consumer demand by applying market-based pricing. Metro is leaving tens of millions of dollars on the rails simply because its fares don't capture the full higher value that riders are willing to pay at premium travel times.Staley apparently didn't bother to look up Metro's fare structure before writing the piece. Because it already includes almost exactly what he suggests.
Peak of the peak pricing was a part of last year's fare increase, adding a 20¢ surcharge for trips in the busiest 1½ hour in the morning and evening. It's proven fairly unpopular, but revolved around the very ideas Staley is promoting, that people are willing to pay more at peak times (or if they're not, can ride the system earlier or later).
The specific peak-of-the-peak fare could probably use some tweaking to work better. It doesn't really quite match demand, either in terms of time or geography, but it's a close approximation. Many riders, though, would rather just remove the policy entirely, arguing that it's too confusing.
Still, the general concept is a sound one. It does make sense for Metro to capture the value it provides to riders. It's already doing that to a greater extent than almost any other system: according to statistics published in April, Metrorail is recovering 81% of its operating costs just from fares alone. Even when mixing in the lower cost recovery bus system, WMATA has one of the highest farebox recovery ratios in North America.
If it's good policy to have transit make back most of its costs from its users, what about other modes of transportation, like roads? Everything Staley says about Metro makes equal sense for driving. It's busiest at one time of day, to the point of being too crowded. Just as pricing the busiest lines at the busiest times of day has some economic logic to it, so does pricing the busiest roads at their most crowded.
Staley also suggests a "value capture" mechanism for WMATA to keep some of the tax revenue that comes from greater development around Metro stations. That would let the economic growth that transit brings help pay for transit. Again, it's a sound idea, though Staley seems not to understand the dynamics of the DC region in his explanation. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at this in more detail.
There are a lot of people in the Washington region who have very thoughtful and thoroughly informed recommendations about Metro. There are many transit advocates like the Action Committee for Transit, Coalition for Smarter Growth, MetroRiders.Org, Sierra Club Sustainable Metro DC campaign, and many more. There are the people from the Board of Trade, whose opinions I sometimes strongly disagree with but who are never just ignorant.
There's also the transportation team at the Post, led by the very knowledgeable and always thoughtful Bob Thomson and recently made stronger with the addition of Dana Hedgpeth covering Metro. Coming down at the opposite end of the ignorance-knowledge spectrum is Thomson's article today about the terrible 2030 Group report. I was very nervous about what the Post would write about this story, since 2030 employs a high-powered PR firm which promoted the study far and wide.
A few recent Post traffic articles (by other reporters) have unquestioningly bought into whatever spin comes in a press release, like Ashley Halsey III's coverage of a Governors Highway Safety Association report on traffic fatalities which blamed pedestrians or the flawed TTI report that mis-measured traffic congestion.
Thomson, on the other hand, penned a paragon of what a traffic study analysis article should be. He looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the report, and not just by quoting one person in favor and one opposed, but by actually understanding the intricacies of the issue.
Thomson notes that the study looked at "what transportation programs are most needed to ease congestion, [but] this is not how governments and commuters think." Instead, congestion relief is one priority along with "the creation of new travel options, economic development and neighborhood revitalization."
He notes how it's tough to assign credibility to a study which relies on anonymous "experts" and ends up suggesting many of the same projects the authors already were promoting, but also argues that these problems "[don't] mean the ideas are bad or unworthy of discussion."
While giving most of the article's space to explaining specifically what the study advocates, he also cautions about drawing too many conclusions from "experts":
Still, there's a problem with asking transportation professionals for solutions, and it's the same type of problem that was defined by a psychology professor named Abraham Maslow: "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."Thomson is far less skeptical of an Outer Beltway crossing of the Potomac than I'd like him to be. He writes, "Drivers stuck on the Dulles Toll Road before the Beltway each morning have said they would love to see a new bridge farther west on the Potomac River to draw off traffic."
In the case of the transportation engineers, designers and planners, their main solutions are expensive transportation projects. There are many serious obstacles to those solutions, and plenty of alternative ideas coming from outside the ranks of transportation professionals.
But this illustrates exactly the problem with this proposal: these drivers he's citing don't actually want the crossing, they just want other people off the road to ease traffic. Building a new road doesn't actually relieve traffic, as even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges. So these commuters Thomson hears from might think they'd benefit from a new crossing, but they really won't.
Every reporter should read Thomson's story as an example of how to thoughtfully analyze, rather than regurgitate, a report that comes out from a group with an agenda and a well-funded PR operation. And every editor should look at Staley's piece as a cautionary tale to beware op-eds on local issues from national organizations with an agenda, a well-funded PR operation, and little actual knowledge of local circumstances.
Many conservatives, especially tea party conservatives, strongly believe in removing powers and taxes from the federal government and transferring power to states and localities. At the moment, this view has strong support in Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Is this necessarily incompatible with the goals of urbanists, even progressive ones? In many ways, the two movements could find a lot of common ground if they can move past mutual distrust and some overheated rhetoric. To its credit, the tea party opposed Governor McDonnell's plan to borrow to build more roads, for example.
Both DC and Northern Virginia counties pay taxes to a higher level of government which then returns significant amounts of that money directly according to a formula. Both also have limits put on their autonomy by that higher level of government; in DC's case, it's the feds, and for Virginia, it's the state government. Much of the money that doesn't come back to the locality turns into subsidies to other areas.
Tea partiers don't like this because the state is telling local government what to do, and charging a lot of money; urbanists don't like this because places which make efficient land use choices that minimize government spending on infrastructure just end up subsidizing places which don't. Can both find common ground to reduce this practice and give local areas more autonomy?
One House Republican floated the idea of exempting District residents from federal income tax (though his spokesperson says it's not on the table). A group of Republicans also proposed cutting off all federal funding for a variety of DC functions, which leaders say would be "catastrophic" for DC.
If combined, however, DC could raise its own income taxes to recover some of the missing cost. The Republican Study Group wanted to cut $210 million from DC-related spending plus the $150 million a year to WMATA, whereas DC residents paid $3.6 billion in taxes last year.
If both measures passed together and Congress didn't try to stop DC from raising its local income tax to compensate, the District might be able to cover the $210 million on its own and even pay the federal share of WMATA's capital contributions out of the new revenue, and still keep taxes lower on average.
Let's also cut the National Park Service's budget while also eliminating its authority over all parks in DC except for the Mall area.
The federal government also gives each state, including DC, money for Medicaid, transportation, and many other types of payments allocated by formula. Medicaid and transportation, in particular, come out of payroll taxes and gas taxes, and it's not clear if the $3.6 billion number includes those. It can't include everything, since one IRS list says total federal tax receipts from DC total over $20 billion. Brookings estimated that DC received $2.7 billion in formula money in 2008.
Would conservatives and tea party activists like this? Anyone who simply wants to see lower taxes might be somewhat but not entirely pleased. Those who want to give more power to lower levels of government, however, ought to find common cause with those who chafe at federal policies which deprive metropolitan areas of the ability to set their own priorities and the fruit of their own economic activity.
Similar principles apply in Virginia. The state government collects many taxes and pays them to localities by formula. The Dillon Rule limits the abilities of counties to set many of their own policies. If the Virginia tea party indeed wants to see counties and cities do more legislating for themselves, perhaps both urbanists and tea partiers can support repealing the Dillon Rule and those state taxes, and letting individual counties decide if they want to assess comparable taxes to cover those programs or not.
Virginia tea partiers likewise could support letting the Northern Virginia counties directly raise the money they pay to WMATA, instead of having the state collect it from Northern Virginia taxpayers, and to keep WMATA Board membership in the hands of local officials instead of state ones.
Likewise, Northern Virginia counties, working together, should set their own transportation priorities. Why not give each county or city its own share of the gas tax directly, and let them fund transportation improvements in their own areas or use that revenue in other ways as they see fit?
The Washington region would become much more self-sufficient, which is something tea partiers and urbanists should both be able to support. Liberal local governments might still choose to levy taxes to pay for various services, but shouldn't that be a local decision? The federal government or state government in Richmond would be making fewer decisions affecting residents' everyday lives, which is a good goal.
When DC officials rezoned the land north of Union Station to create NoMA, they triggered the creation of a brand-new neighborhood. Unfortunately, they forgot to leave space for a park, and created an economic dynamic that virtually ruled out any parks. Last week, Tommy Wells introduced a bill to try to fix this glaring omission.
As Michael Neibauer explains in a Business Journal article (unfortunately behind the paywall), NoMA has no parks in its 358-acre territory, a "major oversight."
Basically, before the rezoning, a number of different property owners had some land that was fairly valuable. After the rezoning, they all had land that was extremely valuable. Then, many of them sold the land to developers. The developers paid a high price, knowing that they were entitled to build 10 FAR on their sites. But that also meant the developers now have to build 10 FAR to cover their investment.
DC created a lot of value when it upzoned the land. But that value all went instantly into the pockets of the current owners of the land. It increased the likelihood of the land being developed, but it also made it almost impossible to ask for any amenities, like parks.
Plus, the height limit means that developers can't get their 10 FAR by, say, building a 20-story building on half the lot and retaining the rest for a park. DC can't even give this right to a single property owner for a single park.
This is exactly the mistake Larry Beasley warned against in his recent talk. Instead of simply adding as-of-right height, he suggested coupling higher development with requirement to provide various amenities. This is the approach Montgomery County is using at White Flint, for example. This means that a portion of the economic gain goes to the property owner, but some of it can go to making housing more affordable, or providing parks, or schools, or bike paths.
According to the WBJ article, Wells proposes allocating up to $51.5 million in tax revenue from NoMA into a special fund, but only if the revenue exceeds the 2010 level so it doesn't take away from the District's budget.
The NoMA BID and local developers support the plan, but perhaps they should also support increasing their tax rates a bit, at least in the future for a number of years, since they will benefit from the park and can sell units for more money (which will also generate more property tax).
And in the future, all cities and towns should avoid making the same mistake. Libertarian-leaning urbanists like Market Urbanism have recommended fewer development restrictions and greater reliance on the free market. In many cases that makes a lot of sense, but the NoMA experience shows a need for at least some mechanism to reserve for public goods some of the value an upzoning generates. Is there a more free market way to handle this?
Washington, DC is one of a handful of cities that requires tour guide licenses. As a guide in DC, I'm required to fill out some forms, pay some fees, and sit down for a written test.
Thanks to some recent reforms within the District's Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), this a relatively painless process. I did it in DC and New York, and am none the worse for wear.
The crux of their argument:
"The government cannot be in the business of deciding who may speak and who may not," said Robert McNamara, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm with a history of defending free speech and the rights of entrepreneurs. "The Constitution protects your right to communicate for a living, whether you are a journalist, a musician or a tour guide."
This is similar to a lawsuit filed in Philadelphia by the Institute of Justice. In that case, it was to stop a proposal to start up a licensing regime, here it's to get rid of a longstanding one.
Now, I'm as fierce an advocate of our First Amendment rights as the next guy, but I'm having a hard time seeing how my Constitutional rights are being stepped on. Certainly, I had to take and pass a written test, but once that level of knowledge is demonstrated, I'm under no compunction to say anything. If I want to tell you that Robert E. Lee is in the back of Lincoln's head, or that Dan Brown was right about an eternal flame in the Capitol, or heaven forbid, Tomb Guards are doomed to life of sobriety, no government bureaucrat can stop me. I might not get hired again, but that's no business of the state's.
Which is not to say I'm disappointed in this lawsuit. Sure, the Constitutional underpinnings are shaky, but why have a test in the first place? It was poorly written (although DCRA is in process of updating it), and poorly represents the body of knowledge commonly used in a DC tour. Taking a written test simply shows you can memorize a certain amount of knowledge.
I know many people, while not being licensed guides, could step out on the street today and talk intelligently about this city. Conversely, I sadly know quite a number of fully licensed guides who fall for any ridiculous chain mail passed around. The license, in my opinion, is no great indicator of DC knowledge.
Nor is the license program enforced. I've never had someone ask to see it, nor have I even heard of someone doing so. Generally, a certain number of tours are around the monuments whose guides are unlicensed. Now, I will say most tour operators will ask to see your license before hiring you, but if there is zero enforcement, why bother getting one?
So, it looks like the beginnings of a fun debate. Let's get a bag of popcorn and watch the games ensue!
The Cato Institute is one of the leading Libertarian think tanks in the country, but they have long had a big problem. Their foremost writer on transportation and urbanism, Randal O'Toole, doesn't actually believe in Libertarianism.
Although he never uses these exact words, his basic position on all things urban is that 'a large portion of the market prefers auto-oriented suburbia, therefore the state should mandate and heavily subsidize auto-oriented suburbia' (here's a recent example).
It's a profoundly anti-Libertarian position, and it has tarnished Cato's reputation in the field for years. How can they be taken seriously in discussions about cities when their senior fellow on the subject is such an obvious hypocrite?
It is gratifying, then, to find other Cato writers speaking more reasonably about the subject. On Tuesday, Cato published a blog post by writer Timothy Lee titled Free Parking and the Geography of Cities, in which Lee makes the well-founded point that government regulations requiring large amounts of parking in every development inherently make walking impractical, which discourages people from walking, which encourages car use, and that therefore such regulations manipulate the free market.
Progressive blogger Matt Yglesias agrees, and notes that such manipulations instigate a "feedback loop" in which every car-oriented development increases the impracticality of walking, which in turn begets more car-oriented development.
These ideas are a key part of contemporary urban planning. It has long been a mystery to planners why, at least on this issue, Libertarian groups like Cato should be opponents rather than allies.
Lee's piece is just one blog post, but hopefully it is representative of a shift at Cato away from O'Toole-style reactionism against change, and towards a more intellectually honest assessment of what a genuine free market would actually mean for our built environment.
Hat tip to Ryan Avent for succinctly summing up O'Toole's position.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
- Latest Metro map drafts add Anacostia parks and other tweaks
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- Parklets give every block a little park
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools