Overtaxed and Underbuilt

By John A. Charles, Jr.

An Oregon Legislative committee is proposing a massive series of tax increases to pay for various transportation projects.

The proposal calls for higher taxes on vehicle registration, increased gas taxes, a new sales tax on motor vehicle purchases, a statewide employee tax to subsidize transit, and a new bicycle sales tax.

While there are many bad ideas on this list, perhaps the most offensive is the sales tax on vehicle purchases. It is being crafted so that most of the money would be diverted from highway maintenance into something called the “congestion relief and carbon reduction fund.”

Anything that includes “carbon reduction” in the title is guaranteed to be a boondoggle.

Before this proposal goes any further, legislators should consider a bill simply focusing on improving the road system. We all benefit from better roads.

In addition, they should try to charge people based on actual road use, not the mere ownership of vehicles. The gas tax is a good surrogate for this, so it would make sense to increase the gas tax rate while lowering vehicle registration fees. This would be fair to motorists, while still raising the funds needed for road improvements.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Oregon Politicians Support Better Roads, Just Not Here

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Recently the Oregon Legislature held a hearing on HB 3231, a bill promoted by Rep. Rich Vial (R-Scholls) that would authorize the formation of special districts for the purpose of constructing and operating limited-access highways.

Opponents made many of the same arguments they’ve been using for decades: new highways threaten farmland; increased driving will undermine Oregon’s “climate change” goals; and we can’t “build our way out of congestion.”

Perhaps the most comical opposition argument was made by Marion County, which sent all three of its Commissioners in a show of force. The Commission Chair concluded his remarks by saying, “We understand progress; we just want that progress to go somewhere else.”

Oregon stopped building new highways in 1983 after I-205 was completed. Elected officials came to believe that our needs for mobility could be met through increased urban densities, massive subsidies for public transit, and various forms of “demand management” to entice or even force people out of their cars.

The new approach didn’t work.

It turns out that manipulating urban form through land-use controls has very little influence on driving. Sure, you can regulate suburbia out of existence through density mandates, as Metro is doing. You can also reduce the parking supply and bring light rail right to someone’s front door.

But no matter how much some people fantasize about using alternatives to cars, it’s not very practical. Midday meetings, post-work errands, childcare obligations, and countless other demands lead people to rationally opt for driving for most trips.

That’s why, after a 20-year spending binge of $3.67 billion for new rail lines, TriMet’s share of daily commuting in Portland actually dropped from 12% in 1997 to 10% in 2016.

Auto-mobility is a wonderful thing, and there is no reason to feel guilty about new roads. For one thing, driving is strongly associated with economic growth. According to ODOT, for every job created in Oregon, we can expect an additional 15,500 miles of auto travel each year. If you’re in favor of new job creation, you have to accept increased driving as a logical consequence.

Moreover, the emissions associated with driving are now so minor that the real concern should be reducing air pollution from congestion. Vehicles sitting in gridlock have per-mile emissions of infinity; getting those vehicles into free-flowing conditions will improve local air quality.

Autos generally have the lowest emission rates when traveling at steady speeds of around 50 MPH. This is also a driving speed that makes most drivers happy, especially at rush hour. The way to accomplish both goals is through the construction of new highways when needed, coupled with the use of variable toll rates (also known as “dynamic pricing”). This could happen under HB 3231.

Across the country, dozens of impressive new highways are being built, many with private financing. Dynamic pricing is being be used to pay off bonds and eliminate congestion. This is the progress that most commuters dream about.

Unfortunately, it probably won’t happen here. Oregon politicians only support progress somewhere else.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in the Portland Tribune on April 25, 2017.

The Greatest Challenge to Traffic Safety? It’s Not Residential Speed Limits

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Earlier this week the Oregon House of Representatives passed HB 2682, which will allow Portland to lower traffic speeds on residential streets from 25 MPH to 20 MPH. This was hailed as an important step towards reaching the city’s goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2025, but in reality the bill is mostly symbolic.

First, HB 2682 only affects residential streets. Most traffic fatalities occur on higher-speed arterials.

Second, reducing travel speed is just one of many factors in traffic safety, and not always the most important. According to the 2015 Portland Traffic Safety Report, 54% of fatal crashes involve alcohol or drugs. When pedestrians are involved, 30% of fatalities involve either an intoxicated walker or driver.

Traffic speed is a factor, but 80% of Portland’s fatalities and serious injuries occur on the 19% of roadways that are posted at 30 MPH or higher. None of those roads will be affected by HB 2682.

The ubiquitous use of digital devices by motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians represents the greatest new challenge to traffic safety. Unfortunately, people who would rather text than watch the road are unlikely to be helped by a law that reduces speeds in quiet neighborhoods from slow to slower.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Let’s Build Some Highways

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon stopped building new highways in 1983 when I-205 was completed. Top planning officials began espousing a philosophy of spending money on rail transit rather than roads. The government also used the power of zoning to crowd more people into urban centers, in the belief that high density would lead to less reliance on cars.

The new strategy failed.

The Portland regional transit agency, TriMet, was given more than $3.6 billion to build a light rail system; yet between 1997 and 2016, TriMet’s market share of all commute trips in Portland fell from 12% to 10%. As a result, traffic congestion has become a major barrier to regional mobility.

Now a bipartisan group of legislators, led by Republican Rich Vial of Wilsonville and Democrat Brian Clem of Salem, has introduced a bill that would jump-start the highway-building process. HB 3231 would authorize cities and counties to jointly form special districts for the purpose of building and operating limited-access public highways.

If built, such highways would likely be financed through loans, with debt service paid off by tolls.

So far HB 3231 has not received a public hearing. It should. Motorists deserve all the highways they are willing to pay for. Let’s give them a chance to vote with their dollars for a better road system.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Oregon Taxpayers, Not Riders, Pay Most Costs of Public Transit Operations

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In a recent interview with the Portland Business Journal, Chris Rall of Transportation for America argues for increased state support of public transit service. He says that Oregon only covers three percent of the operating costs of transit, while other (unnamed) states pay for 24 percent.

I don’t know the source of Mr. Rall’s claim, but the audited financial statements for the largest transportation districts in Oregon show a very different picture.

In FY 2016 TriMet had total operations revenue of $542,200,000 but only $118,069,000 came from passenger fares. That means TriMet riders received a 78% subsidy from other sources.

At Lane Transit District in Eugene, passenger fares in 2015 were only $7.2 million, while total operating revenue was $60.9 million. Non-riders paid for 88% of operations.

For Cherriots Salem-Keizer transit, public support totaled 94% of all operating revenue in 2015.

Undoubtedly the largest subsidy goes to the Portland-Eugene passenger rail line operated by ODOT. For every one-way ticket sold in 2015, the public paid $120.

Before state legislators approve any more subsidies to transit, they should require that transit operators recover at least 50% of costs from customers. If riders are only willing to pay 10 percent, why should taxpayers have to pick up the rest of the tab?


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Car Ownership Is Not a Crime

By John A. Charles, Jr.

A bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would impose a $1,000 ownership tax every five years on automobiles more than 20 years old.

Fortunately, leaders of the Republican Party quickly denounced it; and without bipartisan support the bill has no chance of passage. The chair of the House Revenue Committee, Rep. Phil Barnhart of Eugene, has announced that the bill is dead.

The fact that this legislation was even introduced points to a conceptual problem shared by many lawmakers: They think that owning a vehicle is undesirable and should be taxed.

But owning a car imposes no cost on the public; it’s the use of the vehicle that we should be concerned with.

As one legislator told me many years ago, “I own four cars—but I only drive one at a time!”

Since we do need money for improved roads, any transportation tax should focus on road use. One option would be to lower the cost of vehicle registration in exchange for a small increase in the gas tax.

Motorists deserve all the roads they are willing to pay for. Raising the gas tax would give drivers a chance to vote with their tires for a better road system.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Policy Picnic – November 16, 2016

Please join us for our monthly Policy Picnic led by

Cascade’s President and CEO, John A. Charles, Jr.


Innovations in Highway Finance

All over the world, new highways, bridges, and tunnels are being built, paid for with tolls. But these not your grandfather’s tolls, and there are no toll booths. These are collected electronically, with variable price rates to ensure traffic speeds of 45 MPH or better. This presentation will summarize the latest roadway projects and the implications for Oregon.

Admission is free, but reservations are required due to space limitations. You are welcome to bring your own lunch; light refreshments will be served.

 

Cascade’s Policy Picnics are generously sponsored

by Dumas Law Group, LLC. 

Dumas Law Group

“Beyond Traffic” Has a Different Meaning in Portland

Portland is one of seven cities still in the running for a $50 million grant as part of the “Beyond Traffic” challenge sponsored by the federal Department of Transportation.

While the idea of solving traffic congestion sounds great, that is not an actual goal of Portland planners. In fact, local officials are trying to make traffic worse, by downsizing roads and lowering traffic speeds. As part of this campaign, a northbound travel lane on Naito Parkway was recently removed, and later this year two lanes on Foster Road will be eliminated.

Portland planners think we drive too much, so they want $50 million in federal funds to develop new data collection systems to encourage people to travel by bus, train, or bike. Since most people prefer a car, this will be a big waste of public money.

The transportation challenge for Portland is the need for an expanded highway system. Experimenting with technologies such as electronic tolling as a way of paying for that expansion might have been a useful grant application. But Portland planners don’t want to grow the system; they’d rather keep it small and congested, then use fancy technology to entice a few people onto a slow bus.

This is not a plan that will move us “beyond traffic.”

Updated as of 6/22: According to The Oregonian, the U.S. Department of Transportation has selected Columbus, Ohio as the winner of the federal “Smart City-Beyond Traffic” competition.

With this distraction out of the way, perhaps city planners can turn their attention to something more useful, such as finding ways to actually reduce traffic congestion in Portland.

Voters Decided to Leave Themselves Stranded by the Side of the Road

In the month since voters in Austin, Texas upheld new city regulations on ridesharing companies like Uber, the law of unintended consequences has been confirmed.

Austin’s highly regulated taxi industry got the city to impose strict regulations on their competition, but Uber and Lyft threatened to pull out of the city rather than comply with rules they said would be bad for them and their customers. The ridesharing companies backed an initiative to repeal the regulations.

As one pundit noted, a majority of voters decided “…to leave themselves stranded by the side of the road frantically searching for a ride. Well, that’s not what they’d say they did. Strictly speaking, they voted to stick it to corporate interests—by supporting political interests who favored other corporate interests.”

The unintended consequences of that vote included about 10,000 ridesharing drivers losing their employment, bars losing business as people had fewer ways to get home safely, and disabled residents looking for new ways to get around the city.

The market responded quickly with unregulated “black market” services such as Austin Underground Ride springing up to meet demand.

Austin voters may not have realized that the only way big corporations become big in a free market is by meeting consumer demand. In this case, Uber and Lyft may become a little bit smaller, but everyone in Austin lost some of their transportation freedom.

New Report: Transportation Funding Should Be a State and Local Responsibility

Study Finds That Transportation Funding Should Be a State and Local Responsibility

May 4, 2016 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.

503-242-0900

john@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, Ore. –  In a study released today by Cascade Policy Institute, economist Randall Pozdena recommends that transportation regulation and finance devolve from the federal government to state and local governments. In addition, the study recommends that most transportation taxes be replaced with targeted user fees, to ensure that those who pay for services receive benefits commensurate with those payments.

For over 30 years, the federal government has assumed a disproportionately large role in the regulation and subsidization of transportation services. Yet, most travel is local. For instance, the Cascade research paper found: 

  • More than 50% of all household trips, by all modes, are less than five miles long
  • More than 90% are less than 20 miles
  • 92% of freight shipments are less than 500 miles, by weight

Despite the dominance of local travel, 32% of all transportation funding flows through federal processes.

Of the various transport modes, private freight, airline travel, and pipeline shipments are the least regulated and least subsidized. These modes benefit from high levels of private ownership and capital investment, subject to normal market discipline.

Highway travel and transit suffer from the most distortions and cross-subsidies through federal intervention. As a result, most urban areas face growing levels of traffic congestion, and large urban transit systems are seriously (and often tragically) under-maintained.

The transit industry, which has steadily become a government-sponsored enterprise since passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964, is the sector most in need of a new business model. According to Dr. Pozdena,

“By definition, transit trips are extremely short and not important parts of larger networks. Federal and state governments should be out of the transit sector altogether, and rely on fare box revenue to ensure that the cost of the service is worthwhile to the user.”

For comparison purposes, Dr. Pozdena calculates that it costs roughly $60,000 to recruit one new additional transit rider in Oregon, which is 10 times the cost of providing new highway capacity for one additional auto commuter.

The Portland region in particular suffers from a mode imbalance in which vast sums of federal and state dollars have been spent on lightly-used passenger rail lines, while new highways and bridges have been canceled or delayed. This problem can be solved by inviting private investors to build needed new facilities through toll-based payments, and implementing time-of-day pricing schemes to ensure free-flow travel conditions on the regional highway system.

Last week the Oregon legislature announced the formation of an 18-person task force to study transportation funding for the 2017 legislative session. According to John A. Charles, Jr., CEO of Cascade Policy Institute,

“The Oregon Legislature has struggled unsuccessfully for decades to devise a sustainable transportation funding system. As yet another task force prepares to scale the fortress wall with the same weapons used in previous assaults, members should consider a new approach including targeted user fees rather than broad-based taxes, electronic tolling and variable pricing, elimination of political mandates prohibiting new highway facilities, and market-based reforms including privatization.

“These principles work everywhere else in the economy; they would work in the transportation sector as well, if we allowed them.”

The full report, Devolution of Transportation: Reducing Big Government Involvement in Transportation Decision-Making, can be downloaded here.


Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. To that end, the Institute publishes policy studies, provides public speakers, organizes community forums, and sponsors educational programs. Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS code 501(c)(3). Cascade neither solicits nor accepts government funding and is supported by individual, foundation, and business contributions. The views expressed in Cascade’s reports are the authors’ own.

 

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