Category Archives: Transit and Transportation

A price tag on congestion

The research organization TRIP finds that traffic congestion comes at a steep price for drivers in the Washington, DC area. They determine that congestion and poor road conditions cost drivers $2,195 annually in lost time and the added vehicle operating costs of driving on congested, poor quality roads.

TRIP supports increased infrastructure spending, and I haven’t looked into their methodology, but undeniably DC-area drivers waste copious time sitting in traffic. Despite this, a Washington Post poll finds that Maryland drivers do not support higher taxes to pay for road expansion or maintenance. Perhaps increased taxes are unpopular because state residents believe that transportation projects involve wasteful spending that won’t improve conditions for drivers. Additionally, they may realize that traffic congestion is very difficult to overcome in a world of zero-price roads. Because additional roads lower the time cost of driving, additional lanes induce more people to drive farther. Building enough roads to eliminate congestion for everyone who would like to use them at zero-price in DC’s rush hour might not be possible, as reducing the region’s congestion problems would even lead more people to move to the area.

An alternative to raising taxes to fund new road construction would be to implement congestion pricing on area roads. Roads could be electronically tolled and priced at the rate that will eliminate congestion, varying with driver demand. So far municipalities have tended to implement congestion pricing on new highways. Here in the DC area, the 495 Express Lanes opened in November with congestion pricing. The new lanes were funded primarily by a private company, and the tolls are not yet meeting revenue projections; many drivers are choosing to continue driving on more congested, zero-price roads. However, congestion pricing doesn’t necessarily need to be implemented on a new road. Alternatively, policymakers could implement congestion pricing on existing roads or on specific lanes to reduce congestion for those willing to pay.

Tolls are often politically unpopular because, as Donald Shoup points out in The High Cost of Free Parking, people are often very opposed to paying user fess for a provision that has previously been funded by taxpayers broadly. However, the gains from congestion pricing may outweigh the political costs. Allocating road use through prices puts roads to higher-value uses. Assuming that TRIP’s estimate of the cost of congestion is correct for the average driver, this cost will vary widely among drivers who value their time differently, and drivers will value their own time differently depending on the day and the importance of being on time to their destination. Thus pricing roads according to demand allows those who have flexible schedules to drive when roads are otherwise uncrowded, and those who place a high value on their time will be willing to pay a high toll for the convenience of saving time and reaching their destination promptly.

 

Virginia’s transportation plan under the microscope

Last week Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell shared his plan to address the state’s transportation needs. The big news is that the Governor wants to eliminate Virginia’s gas tax of 17.5 cents/gallon. This revenue would be replaced with an increase in the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent. This along with a transfer of $812 million from the general fund, a $15 increase in the car registration fee, a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles and the promise of federal revenues should Congress pass legislation to tax online sales brings the total amount of revenue projected to fund Virginia’s transportation to $3.1 billion.

As the Tax Foundation points out, more than half of this relies on a transfer from the state’s general fund, and on Congressional legislation that has not yet passed.

Virginia plans to spend $4.9 billion on transportation. As currently structured, the gas tax only brings in $961 million. There are a few reasons why. First, Virginia hasn’t indexed the gas tax to inflation since 1986. It’s currently worth 40 cents on the dollar. In today’s dollars 17.5 cents is worth about 8 cents. Secondly, while there are more drivers in Virginia, cars are also more fuel efficient and more of those cars (91,000) are alternative fuel. In 2013, the gas tax isn’t bringing in the same amount of revenue as it once did.

But that doesn’t mean that switching from a user-based tax to a general tax isn’t problematic. Two concerns are transparency and fairness. Switching from (an imperfect) user-based fee to a broader tax breaks the link between those who use the roads and those who pay, shorting an important feedback mechanism. Another issue is fairness. Moving from a gas tax to a sales tax leads to cross-subsidization. Those who don’t drive pay for others’ road usage.

The proposal has received a fair amount of criticism with other approaches suggested. Randal O’Toole at Cato likes the idea of Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) which would track the number of miles driven via an EZ-Pass type technology billing the user directly for road usage. It would probably take at least a decade to fully implement. And, some have strong libertarian objections. Joseph Henchman at the Tax Foundation proposes a mix of indexing the gas tax to inflation, increased tolls, and levying a local transportation sales tax on NOVA drivers.

The plan opens up Virginia’s 2013 legislative session and is sure to receive a fair amount of discussion among legislators.

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8’s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

Fiscal Tactics and the Columbia Pike Trolley

The Columbia Pike Trolley does not have a reputation for popularity among some local residents of Arlington County, VA. In a previous post, I noted the concerns voiced on local blogs and community boards that the $261 million trolley is several times more expensive than the alternatives. In addition, it is feared the trolley will not relieve congestion but will interrupt spontaneous economic development. The Green Party calls it, “the urban renewal trolley for the rich.” Part of the economic development plan involves demolishing older apartment buildings, raising rents.

How will officials try to finance the streetcar?  The plan requires the majority of funds come from local sources (seed money is being provided by a federal program). One possibility is they will dodge voter approval by raising revenue bonds instead of general obligation bonds (GO bonds). The reason is that in order to issue GO debt (which is backed by the full faith and credit of the government), the County would need to put the bond issue on the ballot. But they are worried about voters rejecting it. Revenue bonds don’t require voter approval since they are backed by an independent revenue stream; in this case, future revenues from the government’s surcharge on commercial real estate.

Locals may not have their chance to approve or reject the project, however. The Arlington Sun Gazettte reports that according to Virginia law Arlington as a county – not a city – government, “does not have the power to have a referendum on a topic or subject matter, like cities [do].” The decision to move forward or stop the project thus rests with the County Board.

Map of proposed Columbia Pike streetcar system

The plan is an example of what I define as “fiscal evasion.” These are maneuvers governments employ to defer or obscure the full costs of spending by evading rules or constructing loopholes. Not to be confused with venal gimmicks, fiscal evasion is often built into the rules. It is undertaken by, “circumventing statutory or constitutional budget rules, or through the weak design of such rules.”  In other words this approach is perfectly legal. Since revenue bonds don’t need voter approval revenue bonds present the “funding path of least resistance,” from the viewpoint of trolley advocates.

 

 

The True Cost of the Columbia Pike Trolley: Priceless

A proposal to build a trolley car system on Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia continues to provoke strong reactions from residents. The County Board estimates it will cost between $214 million and $261 million to build and between $19.5 million and $25 million to operate and maintain.

As the PikeSpotter calculates, that’s $200 million more to build than the next best option: an enhanced bus line. Why the County Board’s push for a $50 million per mile streetcar system?

According to advocates, the Pike Transit proposal will relieve area congestion, spur economic activity and promote environmental sustainability.

However, residents from all sides of the political spectrum appear to disagree with the County Board. Arlington Yupette says the Pike Transit plans are “elitist” and intended to drive out middle class and working class residents by driving up rents. The end result: the “Clarendonization” of South Arlington. Some point to the need for resources to be directed to the overcrowding in county schools. And still others highlight the high likelihood of such projects becoming boondoggles.

Given the anecdotal lack of popular support expressed by area residents, why are officials persisting? Public finance holds a key. Should the county go ahead and commit to build a rail line here is how it will be financed. Thirty percent of funds will come from the  New Starts/Small Starts federal grant program and 14 percent from the state of Virginia. The remainder is to be provided by Arlington and Fairfax Counties.

Is this fiscal illusion at play? The Small Starts Program will provide up to $75 million if the local government provides a match. County Board officials are confident that Arlington and Fairfax can foot $140 million (Arlington will pay 80 percent of that) with the state of Virginia kicking in a further $35 million. Because a chunk of the cost of building the rail line can be externalized, that is, passed on to state and federal taxpayers, it looks like a bargain…at least for a fleeting moment. It’s still about $170 million dollars more than what it would cost to add more buses.

And there are more complications that arise from mingling federal, state and local dollars as noted by the Sun-Gazette. Virginia is a right to work state. Are union employees required to work on the rail line since the project will receive federal dollars? If yes then the increased labor costs will make the project even more costly to the county. (Lieutenant Governor Bolling believes Virginia state law trumps federal law in the matter.)

While new estimates continue to push the costs higher, at least one Arlington County Board member is undeterred by fiscal considerations, “This is a project that has the most potential to help us achieve our environmental goals and livability goals. We think it will have a very high return.”

That is, the costs of building the streetcar line are concrete, and the returns are mired in the counterfactual.

 

 

 

NYC Taxi Reform Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Next week, New York Governor Cuomo is likely to sign a bill that will marginally increase competition in the NYC cab market. The new rule will allow passengers to hail some livery cars in outer boroughs and add 2,000 additional medallions for yellow cabs with wheelchair access.

Via Flickr user Ian Caldwell

The auction of these medallions  is projected to raise $1 billion. This figure might seem outlandish, but last month two medallions sold at auction for over $1 million. That’s right, it costs $1 million for the right to drive a cab in NYC, not accounting for any of the costs associated with owning and operating the vehicle.

The price tag of these medallions that are sold to the highest bidder demonstrates that in a free market, many more drivers would enter the cab industry. Artificially constraining the supply hurts both consumers and those who are not able to drive a cab because they are unable to purchase a medallion.

Unsurprisingly, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade remains strongly opposed to this bill. The increase in the supply of medallions will lower the value of the medallions that cab drivers and larger medallion companies already own. Their lobbying efforts reflect their desire to profit through the political system.

While this increase in the number of medallions available for yellow cabs and allowing some livery cars to be hailed represents a small improvement for New Yorkers, the reform does not go nearly far enough. For real reform, Mayor Bloomberg should look to Indianapolis.

Before Stephen Goldsmith was elected as the city’s mayor in 1991, the number of cabs permitted in Indianapolis was limited to 392. Goldsmith created a Regulatory Study Council whose first project was to reform taxi regulations. The RSC recommended eliminating regulatory barriers to entry and allowing cab drivers and companies to determine their own prices. In a case study of regulatory reform in Indianapolis, Adrian Moore writes:

The main resistance came from existing taxi companies, and initially much of the city and county council sided with them in the name of the “public interest.” However, the support for reform by seniors, the inner city poor, minorities, the Urban League, and the disabled soon brought many of them over to the RSC’s side. The RSC expected little support from Democrats on the council, but the strong support for deregulation from that party’s traditional constituents turned the tide.

Some price controls remain in the Indianapolis taxi market, but the city has seen an increase in supply, a decrease in fares, and an improvement in service. Indianapolis and New York City are of course very different, but the laws of supply, demand, and rent-seeking are the same everywhere. By phasing out the medallion system, New York City would benefit consumers and allow many more people to make a living driving cabs. Medallion owners who have invested in some cases over $1 million in the current system would need to be compensated in some way, but not by continuing to profit at the public’s expense.

Taxi protests around the world

Yesterday, in Athens, taxi workers went on strike to protest the country’s recent deregulation of their industry. To comply with IMF recommendations, Greece has increased the number of permits available for taxi drivers.

This policy is not an austerity measure per se, but rather a liberalization of the taxi industry, not requiring a change in government spending or taxation. As taxi drivers protest, other Greeks should be celebrating this measure — it will mean more cabs are available at lower prices.

Here in Washington, DC, taxi drivers are also up in arms. Two drivers associations are suing Mayor Vincent Gray and the DC Taxi Commission because of the 2008 switch from fares based on zones to meters. Some drivers say their pay has dropped by 30 percent as a result. They are correct that the meter rate is determined arbitrarily, but most likely the current rate is higher than the market rate would be. As in Athens, the  number of cabs allowed to operate in DC is artificially capped. Jim Epstein writes at Hit & Run:

Since 2010, the D.C. Taxi Commission hasn’t been issuing licenses to new cabbies. There’s no official waiting list, but a representative from the commission told me she receives calls “all day, every day” from potential applicants. In other words, want-to-be cab drivers are clamoring to get into the industry at the going rate.

In both cities politicians have earned favor with cab drivers by restricting their number to keep rates high. But liberalizing taxi policies will benefit all city residents — especially potential new cab drivers — except those who have historically been sheltered from competition.

Parking Perspectives

In New York City, urban planners are considering new rules which would make it more difficult for developers to construct parking garages, the Wall Street Journal reports.  Currently, parking garages are prohibited if they are expected to increase congestion:

The current process requires developers to show that their garage won’t adversely affect traffic congestion in the immediate neighborhood. Some transportation advocates want the city to take a broader view when considering the issue of congestion, which could make it harder for developers to get permits.

Parking is a complex issue in planing regulation.  On the one hand, some urban critics argue that subsidized parking facilitates urban sprawl by allowing people to easily rely on cars for transportation without bearing the full cost of driving and parking.  On the other, privately-managed, unsubsidized parking garages offer a relatively efficient way for commuters to park in high-density areas while better internalizing the cost of this behavior.

As New York City may move toward limiting parking garages, others are celebrating their contributions to city life.  Baltimore author Shannon McDonald has recently written The Parking Garage: Design and Evolution of a Modern Form, exploring the architectural and utilitarian contributions of American garages.  She points out that in addition to serving the need for storing vehicles in high-density places, entrepreneurs have recently developed new uses for garage roofs including green roof parks, swimming pools, and solar energy plants.

On the Diane Rehm Show with McDonald, Robert Puentes of the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institute points out the if municipalities broadened the role of the private sector in parking garage provisions, they could unleash incentives for entrepreneurs to improve the mix of uses of existing garages.

Camera Controversy

As city budgets may be in even more budget trouble than their state counterparts, mayors are looking for creative ways to raise the revenues needed to cover their expenses. In recent weeks, some cities have looked to drivers as a source of these revenues, angering many residents.

Up and down California, cities have used red light cameras as a way to raise funds, with drivers crying out that they are an unfair way of issuing fines. Thursday, South San Francisco began issuing tickets to red light runners caught on camera after four years of debating the issue at city council.

In Anaheim, however, city council members have moved to ban red light cameras, a step that would require voter approval. Officials there have announced that they will not use the enforcement of driver safety as a source of revenue. Mayor Kurt Pringle told The OC Register:

“It’s very discouraging when government thinks its sole purpose is … to use public safety as a revenue-raising tool.”

However, other city officials assert that red light cameras both benefit taxpayers by raising revenue and reduce traffic accidents. The LA Times reports:

The city’s red-light camera program, one of the largest in the nation, has drawn praise from supporters who say it helps efficiently police dangerous intersections, discourages red-light running and frees up patrol officers for other duties.

Regardless of the costs and benefits of red light cameras, they put city officials in the questionable position of profiting from dangerous drivers. Like excise taxes that raise revenue from citizens’ dangerous or unhealthy behavior, red light cameras are an inappropriate revenue source.

State Subsidy Reliance

Like many state services across the country, the Phoenix area’s new light rail system is facing cuts because of budget shortfalls. Like many transit systems, the light rail is funded by a combination of fares and subsidies that come from the local, state, and federal governments.

This payment arrangement makes transit systems vulnerable to volatility in government budgets as well as business cycle fluctuations. An Arizona Republic article explains:

The money shift reflects how much of Maricopa County’s voter-adopted plan to expand transit service in the next 15 years has fallen victim to the economy. That includes some extensions of light-rail lines.

“We’ve pretty much gutted all of our future capital projects that aren’t federally funded in order to keep service intact,” said Paul Hodgins, a planner at the Regional Public Transportation Authority, which manages bus service in much of the Valley.

When new Metro Chief Executive Officer Steve Banta begins his first day on the job in two weeks, one of his first actions will be to review cuts with his new board.

Metro covers about a quarter of its costs from fares, and depends on sales-tax revenue from Phoenix and Tempe and general-fund money from Mesa. With tax revenue down, cuts look inevitable.

In New Jersey, a state that, like Arizona, has a very large budget deficit, legislators are facing similar challenges.  Governor Chris Christie is leading an effort to privatize state services to save taxpayer money and increase efficiency.

While privatization can be a solution to curbing government costs and improving service to constituents, the process must be undertaken transparently.  The New Jersey Star Ledger warns that previous projects were fraught with corruption:

A privatization effort under former governor Christie Whitman that turned auto inspections over to Parsons Corp. in the 1990s was called a “mammoth boondoggle” by investigators. Parsons was criticized for hiring an array of politically connected subcontractors.