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.

 

TriMet’s Edifice Complex

Recently TriMet announced that after two years of planning for an expensive new “bus rapid transit” line from Gresham to Portland, the new service would actually take 8-11 minutes longer than current buses.

Over in Southwest Portland, TriMet is planning a $2 billion light rail line to Bridgeport Village near Tualatin, a suburban shopping mall.

Agency planners are fascinated with shiny new objects, but most riders don’t benefit. For example, between 2000 and 2015, TriMet opened five new rail lines, but the total vehicle-miles of daily transit service actually dropped by 5%.

It’s time to admit that TriMet’s basic business model is becoming obsolete. The agency is a sluggish monopoly that takes years to bring new service to market, while customers live in a smartphone world where they have millions of choices and same-day delivery.

In particular, the coming era of driverless vehicles will create entirely new businesses that will free riders from the tyranny of fixed-route transit service. Legacy systems such as TriMet will be stuck with a vast network of aging infrastructure that will be too expensive to maintain.

We don’t need another light rail line to Bridgeport, or a bus rapid transit line to Gresham. What we need is new vision of mobility in Portland.

(revised 4/6/16)

Where Did President Obama Stay in Cuba?

This week, Barack Obama became the first U.S. President in nearly 90 years to visit the country of Cuba. While security concerns may have prevented him staying in a private home rented through Airbnb, he would have had some 2,700 such homes to choose from in Havana alone.

The amazing thing is that Cuba is a communist country, yet it allows short-term room rental services to operate, while some major American cities such as Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles do not.

While the American President likely rode through the streets of Havana in his own armored limousine, he apparently could have ridden in one of those iconic 57 Chevys if the driver had one of the still rare and expensive Cuban email accounts. Such ride-sharing services are also allowed in Havana, while Uber and Lyft are still fighting powerful taxi monopolies in some American cities.

We can have legitimate disagreements about normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba; but we should applaud the movement toward private home ownership and use, and the entrepreneurial opportunities its communist government now allows.

It will be ironic if Cuba comes into the modern free-market era at the same time that some American politicians try to impose more government restrictions on the very economic freedoms that many Cuban refugees risked their lives to achieve by coming here.

Portland Chases Another Dream

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that Portland is one of seven cities still in the running for a $50 million grant as part of DOT’s “Smart Cities” challenge. Portland is proposing to build “smarter streets” that talk to self-driving cars and to develop an app that will decrease reliance on private automobiles.

This is not a joke, and it’s not another episode of Portlandia. There are actually federal bureaucrats who think that putting sensors in streets to talk with computerized cars is important, and that Portland is capable of running such a system.

Apparently, they are unaware that Portland’s street system is so run down that the city could be the film location for a Mad Max movie.

And given the region’s obsession with 19th century street cars that move more slowly than pedestrians, why would anyone think Portland is capable of being a national leader in 21st century roads?

This is a city that tried to prevent car-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft from legally operating here last year. No fancy street sensors were required; the necessary smart phones were already in the hands of potential customers. All the City Council needed to do was get out of the way, and even that was too complicated for them.

We should let Google worry about autonomous cars. Portland should stick to something simple, like filling potholes.

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