Why Do We Overlook a Golden Opportunity?

130+ acre working farm in Lower Macungie. If the township doesn’t get proactive in preservation this will be 300 units someday.

130+ acre working farm in Lower Macungie. If the township doesn’t get proactive in preservation this will be 300 units someday.

by Ron Beitler According to the One Lehigh Valley Local Food Economy Report – The biggest barrier to fostering a more robust local food economy is continued loss of farmland. 

Important to note since often overlooked: Agriculture IS a form of industrial infrastructure. Yet communities continue to pave over this invaluable asset only to replace it with uses that require additional infrastructure and strain local resources to sustain. Farmland is fiscally one of the highest value land uses in terms of liabilities vs. revenue.

  • Since 1930 the LV has lost 80% of it’s farms. Based on average diets Lehigh Valley farmers can only produce about 20% of the Valley’s food demands. With a market shift towards locally grown foods there is clearly money to be made in both local and regional economies.

All it takes are strategic investments in “food infrastructure” needed to support a local food economy. For ex: Aggregators, distributors, food business incubators, grain mills, and more food hubs. Even underserved and undervalued we already today have a local food economy that contributes $17 million annually to the LV economy. Continue reading

Freeways, New and Improved!

Freewaysby Michael Brown

Urban freeways provided unprecedented mobility for decades, and helped the United States sustain a strong economy throughout those decades.  But their success eventually became their demise.  They enabled far-flung lifestyles, which induced demand and congested them faster than we expected.  At first it was cheap and easy to convert medians and shoulders to lanes. Unfortunately that enabled even further driving from the next wave of fringe residents. Now it is getting too expensive to expand, and we know that congestion will return soon anyway.

But hey, we’re Americans! Big things are what we do!  Yes, the spirit is able, but when we think about that federal debt clock getting close to $20-trillion, a small voice inside gnaws at us, “You already spent all the money, and your children’s money too. Fort Knox is full of IOU’s to who-knows-who?  Even if you can get another loan from China – they’re figuring out that you’ll never pay them back – how can you do this in good conscience?”  And we respond, “But how can we not?  Mobility is life!  Mobility is the economy!  We can’t earn the money we need to get out of our debts if we can’t get around!”

There Are Solutions!  Before you get liquored up at the “Build-Your-Way-Out Bar & Grill” once more, READ THIS!!  Earlier articles in this series articulated the benefits of two freeway optimization strategies – congestion pricing and preventive ramp metering (sometimes called “Managed Motorways”).  Either system can optimize traffic flow (i.e., eliminate mainline congestion), but both come with negative side effects and political hurdles.  That’s why there are few examples!  HOT lanes are the baby steps we’ve been able to make because they’re politically acceptable.  But the bang-for-buck of HOT lanes is much less impressive than pricing or preventive metering. Continue reading

Critiquing the “Twenty Percent” Argument

(Cross-posted from www.planetizen.com)

I just received a email newsletter raising the decades-old argument that public transit gets too much federal support because transit gets 20 percent of federal funding for surface transportation, but its share of trips and transportation mileage is far lower.

One obvious retort to this argument is environmental: highway spending, by encouraging automobile travel to car-dependent places, increases vehicle miles traveled (VMT), thus increasing pollution—not just greenhouse gas pollution, but also more heavily regulated types of pollution such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter. To the extent that highway spending increases such social harms, one dollar of spending may be one dollar too much, let alone the tens of billions of dollars currently devoted to roads.

In addition, highway spending can create other negative side effects: for example, where jobs track new highways but public transit does not, a “spatial mismatch” exists between the pre-highway population and jobs; population was located in more urban areas, but the highway has shifted jobs into outer suburbs and exurbs. To the extent people react to this spatial mismatch by buying cars and driving more, they have suffered additional costs caused by government action. To the extent people too poor to buy cars cannot reach work, they have suffered an even more severe cost: the loss of job opportunities.

Furthermore, the “20 percent” argument overlooks both the impact of past spending and the existence of current non-transportation policies that effectively subsidize highways and sprawl.

In the first half of the 20th century, government at all levels spent liberally on highway, but streetcars (the leading mode of public transit in most of the United States) were a private industry, which meant that government’s job was to tax and regulate it. So in many places, roads got not only the money devoted to roads, but also the implicit subsidy that government created by taxing and regulating the competition. And over the course of the 20th century, transit received far less than 20 percent of government transportation spending. Continue reading

Utilities, Schools and Induced Demand

Cross-posted from cnu.org

Numerous commentators have questioned the view that increased highway spending reduces congestion, pointing out that highways may increase demand for driving, thus leading to more traffic.  In a recent newsletter, Robert Poole responds to the “induced demand” concept by writing:

 And this gets back to the question of how a highway provider should respond to increased demand from its customers. Should it tell the customers they are wrong to prefer personal mobility? Should an electric utility tell its customers they should switch to wood-burning stoves, rather than adding generating capacity? Should a school district not add schools to serve a growing population of families with kids? Infrastructure providers are supposed to provide the vital facilities that people need (and are willing to pay for), not tell them their preferences are wrong.

But the comparison between highways and other goods strikes me as not quite right.  The utility customers are presumably paying for their electricity.  By contrast, even if gas taxes were equal to highway spending (which they often aren’t) the highway system is rotten with cross-subsidies: because all drivers pay into the same gas tax trust fund, taxes paid by urban drivers can be used predominantly to serve rural drivers, or vice versa.  Moreover, highway spending may create externalities, because increased driving leads to increased pollution.  So yes, sometimes preferences are “wrong”, in the sense that accommodating them creates social costs.

What about the school district analogy?  Poole seems to think that it is axiomatic that of course school districts should add population where there are more children. But it seems to me that this need not be the case: school districts can always enlarge classes.  Here, as in the situation of highways, the right answer depends on externalities: do larger classes create worse educational results, thus creating societal externalities (such as stupider graduates who are less productive or more criminal)?  And does such harm outweigh the social costs of raising taxes to build more schools?  I suspect the right answer is: sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Arlington Scraps Streetcar Projects

Rendering of a Columbia Pike streetcar.

Rendering of a Columbia Pike streetcar.

by James A. Bacon

Arlington County’s surprise decision yesterday to cancel proposed streetcar projects for Columbia Pike and Crystal City should not be seen as a rejection of the concept of streetcars but a rejection of the funding mechanism chosen by the board that asked taxpayers to bear the fiscal risks while property owners enjoyed the benefits.

Arlingtonians, who voted John Vihstadt to the County Board earlier this month in an election that had become a referendum on the streetcar projects, questioned whether the $550 million price tag justified the purported economic development benefits. Board Chair Jay Fisette cited the decisive election results in canceling the project for which he and other board members had spent 15 years shepherding through the planning and fund-raising process.

One big problem for streetcar backers was defending the Columbia Pike project in the face of escalating cost estimates. The $358 million price tag was up $48 million from a federal cost estimate last year and up $100 million from a previous county estimate. County officials, with years of planning invested in the project, maintained that the benefits still outweighed the costs. A substantial majority of citizens were skeptical, and they said the county’s transportation needs could be met more cost-effectively with improved bus service. Continue reading

Not A “War on Suburbia” Election

(cross-posted from cnu.org)

According to Joel Kotkin, this month’s elections were really about the “progressives’ war on suburbia.” According to Kotkin, the Democrats lost because they are “aggressively anti-suburban.” Since I didn’t vote for President Obama, I leave it to his supporters to defend him.

However, I do think it is worth pointing out that cities and suburbs moved in the same direction this year. The Republicans gained several governorships this year (Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts). I couldn’t find city election statistics for Arkansas, but I was able to find city board of elections statistics for the other three states. In each, the Republican candidates for governor improved on their 2010 showing. In Massachusetts, Republican Charlie Baker gained 30 percent of the Boston city vote, up from 23 percent in 2010. This 7 point gain was equal to his 6.5 point statewide gain (from 42 to 48.5 percent) and exceeded his 4 point gain in suburban Middlesex County.

In Illinois, the Republican vote share increased from 17 to 20 percent. Kotkin asserts that this is a “laughably pathetic” vote share, but in fact the Republicans gained almost as much in Chicago as they did statewide. They gained 3 percentage points in Chicago, and almost 5 points statewide (from 46% to 50.8%). (To be fair, the Republican gained a little more in the Chicago suburbs, but that may reflect the fact that he is from suburban Chicago while 2010 nominee Bill Brady is from downstate).

In Maryland, the Republican vote share in Baltimore city increased from 16 percent to 22 percent, a 6 point shift, more than the vote shift in Prince George’s County near Washington (4 points) and almost as much as the 7-point vote shift in Montgomery County. (However, the Republican gained more votes in the Baltimore suburbs, which by Kotkin’s logic means that they must have revolted against a “progressive war on Baltimore.”)

In sum, Republican candidates gained votes in suburbia- but they gained votes in cities as well, often in roughly equal proportions.

Optimism Bias and Risk in Public Private Partnerships

tollsby James A. Bacon

Randy Salzman, a free-lance Charlottesville writer, has spent the last couple of years trying to understand how Public Private Partnerships (P3s) work in Virginia. If the private sector is supposed to be so much more efficient than government, he asks, how  come so many big P3 transportation projects in Virginia and across the nation have gone bankrupt? Why do private sector companies continue investing in similar projects despite the obvious risk? And what exposure do taxpayers when deals go bad? He doesn’t have any definitive answers, but he lays out a lot of good questions in the latest issue of Style Weekly.

Salz, an occasional contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion, gets closest to the truth when he mentions the “optimism bias” in traffic forecasts. In project after project across the country, private P3 companies and  their government partners have over-estimated traffic volumes on the roads they build. Writes Salz:

One study found that the projections tended to be 109 percent more than actual traffic — or more than double — and that nowhere in completed American P3s have actual traffic and toll income come close to projections.

Here in Virginia, flawed traffic forecasts were at the root of the Pocahontas Parkway debacle in eastern Henrico County and, if I’m not mistaken, the Dulles Greenway bankruptcy in Loudoun County (although that was not a P3 project). And there’s a very good chance that the Capital Beltway Express’s Northern Virginia HOT lanes project will experience a similar fate. Continue reading