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.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Podcast: Designing City Streets for People

This week Corinne Kisner and Matthew Roe of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) tell us about their influential series of street design guides — manuals that give transportation engineers “permission” to reorient streets so walking, biking, and transit come first. Listen in and learn how the guides are put together and how cities are using them to change their streets to prioritize people instead of cars.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Podcast: Transit Predictions for 2017 with Yonah Freemark

This week we’re joined by Yonah Freemark, author of the Transport Politic and Streetsblog’s new series Getting Transit Right. Each year, Yonah and I predict what’s in store for transit in the next 12 months and break down the results of last year’s transit predictions. In between, Yonah and I talk about high-speed rail, transit and development, Elon Musk’s crazy tunnel ideas, and the future of federal policy.

Find out why thousands of people love getting information about cities from The Overhead Wire. Sign up to Learn more.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Podcast: Can All Cities Be Great?

The guest this episode is Alexander Garvin, author of the recently released book What Makes a Great City. We chat about why people are an important factor in building cities and taking pictures; Houston’s Post Oak Boulevard is going to show up Chicago, San Francisco, and New York’s best streets; and Alexander’s heroes, from Edmund Bacon to Haussmann to Robert Moses.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Podcast: High Speed Rail Station Planning in France, Parts 1 & 2

In a two part discussion of French high-speed rail and cities, guest host and German Marshall Fund fellow Eric Eidlin interviews Stephan de Fay, executive director of Bordeaux Euratlantique, the public agency overseeing the redevelopment of Bordeaux’s main train station, and Etienne Tricaud, president and CEO of AREP, the French railway’s architecture office.

We thought you might find their thoughts on the subject illuminating so we pulled some specific quotes from Episode 1.  We'll be back with more in Episode 2 in a subsequent post.

A few quotes of significance from the first episode:

On the citizens mental map of France:
HSR has fundamentally changed the mental map of France. Time-space relationships are now completely different. The French now think of their country as a network of cities that are easily connected to one another. - Etienne Tricaud
On having experts in-house:
...we exist to take risks and to take decisions. At some point, we need to be able to evaluate things by ourselves. It is not our role to do architectural design, for example. But having people on staff who know how to design, and who therefore also know how to speak intelligently with people who design is very important. This in-house competency helps us to be more relevant, both in terms of the questions that we ask and ultimately the decisions that we make. - Stephan de Fay
On urban planning:
Fundamentally, architecture is space planning, it’s organization of the space. So early on, we need to think about the organization of the pedestrian spaces of the station, the organization of the surrounding district, as well as the layout of the local transportation systems that serve the station.- Etienne Tricaud
On value:
However, if the public sector leverages that value of the investment that it is making in transportation (HSR), additional public subsidy for urban development in station areas is not necessary. In our case, our expenditures are equal to our revenues. We invest one billion euros on the district around the station and we earn on billion euros through the sale of construction rights. - Stephan de Fay
The audio above was first posted at Streetsblog USA.

The audio above was first posted at Streetsblog USA.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Transit Trends Episode 10: Electric Vehicles and the Environment

Drive Oregon's vision for electric mobility includes more than just electric cars. We sat down with Jeff Allen, Executive Director of Drive Oregon, to discuss electric mobility innovation and the challenge of connecting with consumers.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Podcast: Innovation, Introverts, and Uber Wars

This week we’re joined by David Zipper, managing director at 1776 Ventures, a global startup hub based in Washington, DC. A veteran of the Bloomberg administration in New York City and the administrations of Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray in Washington, David discusses the deal DC struck with Living Social and the introduction of ride-hailing regulations during the city’s infamous Uber Wars. We also chat about transportation companies blossoming around the globe and what traits make for great innovators.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Podcast: Cities on a Hill with Francis Fitzgerald

This week we’re joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Francis Fitzgerald to talk about her 1986 book, Cities on a Hill. We discuss the different “visionary” communities described in the book, including Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, San Francisco’s Castro district, Sun City retirement communities, and Jerry Falwell’s moral majority in Lynchburg, Virginia. Francis also talks about living in New York City and restaurant culture in Vietnam. Fitzgerald’s latest book, The Evangelicals, is out April 4.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Podcast: Navigating Nairobi

This week’s guest is Stephane Eboko, chief revenue officer at Ma3route, a transportation information platform with over half a million users in Nairobi. Stephane tells about about the platform and how it helps people avoid traffic, interesting information from users reporting their experiences, and what travel on the private buses called Matatus is like in Kenya’s capital.