Category Archives: transportation

A Review of the DeBlasio Administration:  Spot Zoning, Unjustifiable Restrictions, and the Soft Corruption of New York’s Land Use Regulations, and Other Regulations

What would I have spent my career doing if I had stayed at the New York City Department of City Planning, instead of leaving 21 years ago?  Nothing good, based on what I know, and it’s a good thing I got out when I did.  New York City is gradually becoming a giant co-op board, with different rules based on who you are, and who you pay.  There are plenty of obsolete and unjustifyable restrictions and exclusions on the books, many dating from the early 1960s when city planners decided the city would have to become a second-rate suburb to survive.  And as I increasingly discover, any rules at all are optional for those on the political inside.

In fairness, New York City has never been a place of simple, fair rules strongly enforced against everyone.  The trend of pretending to be tolerant and open because you only oppose the businesses and buildings the lesser people might patronize, not the people themselves, not only pre-dates the DeBlasio Administration, it goes back hundreds of years.  In the 1850s, according to the book Gotham, snobs wanted to prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sunday, the only day off for working class Irish and German immigrants to gather in their pubs and beer gardens for a beer.  “Reform” mayor Fernando Wood gave them the rules they wanted, then used selective enforcement as a source of graft.  Astute reformers noted that Wood’s anti-vice crusades were highly selective.  His men rounded up streetwalkers but left brothels alone, raided the grubbier gambling dens but not the fashionable establishments, and bypassed Sunday saloonkeepers who voted the right way.

Still, the trend toward regulation by special deals for the special people got worse under special interest-backed Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and based on who is contributing money to whom, and what even 21st century “progressives” are like, the trend toward different rules for different people is likely to continue to get worse.

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Transportation and Energy: Two Things That Could Be Done But Won’t Be

Notice how all that talk of global warming and energy independence goes away once price of gasoline goes up?  The real policy, and the real values, may be found when scarce resources are being allocated, not when politicians are just talking — or pretending unlimited money can just be borrowed and never paid back.  The policy is to discourage conservation, alternative energy, and domestic fossil fuel production and make energy imports more affordable – by cutting the gas tax.  And to defer the cost of this, along with the cost of everything else, to a point in the future when today’s Generation Greed decisionmakers won’t be around anymore.  

Ignore global warming if you want.  The economic and national security consequences on our dependence on the global fossil fuels market has reared its head repeatedly for five decades and is now coming home to roost again, as the autocrats and dictators who control those resources (and hold our ever-growing debts) hold them over our heads.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2022/02/28/america-on-its-knees-thanks-to-generation-greed-mcmansions-and-suvs

In addition to what is being done, there is what is not being done.  I already pointed out that anyone could cut the cost of gasoline per passenger in half almost immediately by carpooling.   This post is about two more things that could be done in the intermediate term, but probably won’t be.  Using some of the increasingly less valuable central business district office space for bicycle and e-bike parking.  And expanding the rail system into a national conveyer belt, with platoons of self-driving flatcars with containers on top, powered by electricity from a third rail, circulating between intermodal terminals.  Where trucks could pick them up and drop them off without having to drive long distances, solving a labor shortage and job quality issue in addition to an energy issue.  These could be self-funding private initiatives with a little public help (or even just no excess bureaucratic hassle and tax burden), but that means there would be no special interest group cashing in.  Therefore, there is no interest.

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Sold Out Futures by State:  Debt and Infrastructure for FY 1972 to FY 2019

The federal government just passed a $ 1 trillion “infrastructure bill” that, for a while, will increase the amount of federal funding for infrastructure.  Most of the actual spending, however, will be continue to be done by state and local governments, just as has been the case in the past.  The modest increase in spending, adjusted for inflation, is intended to address a backlog of needed projects.  But federal funding is only one source of money for state and local infrastructure.  State and local taxes are another, and bonds, usually paid off over 30 years, are a third. 

The extent of infrastructure varies from place to place.  In rural areas the only public infrastructure might be a county or town road, supplemented by power supplied by a rural electrification co-op, and telephone and postal service cross-subsidized by those in cities.  Instead of paying for public water, sewer, and solid waste collection, people provide these for themselves.  In cities, on the other hand, there may be mass transit, public sidewalks, airports, seaports, public water, sewer, solid waste collection, and in some places public electric utilities.  So do low-density rural states spend less on, and receive less in federal funds for, infrastructure?  Do states with low past infrastructure spending also have low debts?  How are the estimated $1.4 trillion infrastructure spending shortage and the $3.2 trillion in state and local government debt distributed around the country?  Read on and find out.

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Sold Out Futures:  A State-By-State Comparison of State and Local Government Debts, Past Infrastructure Investment, and Unfunded Pension Liabilities Through FY 2019

In two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, with society under stress, we have seen increasingly strident political fights over whose cultural attitudes and preferences should be imposed on others, who should get to contribute less to the community, and who should get to take out more.  In the shadows, however, is a bipartisan consensus as to who should be made worse off and be sacrificed the rest of their lives to pay for it all.  Ordinary people in later born generations, those who will be living in the United States in the future.   The pandemic has given politicians of all alleged views, and the interest groups that back them, an excuse to do, to an even greater extent, what they have done for 40 years.  Cash in the common future to address the perpetual “emergency” of the present.

So it was in Washington in 2020 when The Donald and the Republicans, having already sent the federal debt soaring to cut taxes for the rich and then ran a federal deficit equal to one-quarter of the U.S. economy.

And so it is in Washington today, where Biden in the Democrats claim their plans will be “paid for” – meaning the burden shifted to the future would only be as great as it was under Trump and the Republicans.

It is in this context that for the fifth time, I have reprised an analysis of state and local government finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau, for all states and for New York City and the Rest of New York State separately, with data over 49 years, to determine the extent to which each state’s future had been sold out due to state and local government debts, inadequate past infrastructure investment, and underfunded and retroactively enriched public employee pensions.   You’d think that the extent of disadvantage for the later-born, and who benefitted from creating it, would be the number one issue in every state election, and the number one topic of debate in the media.  Instead, it remains under Omerta, especially here in New York.  Shouted down under the comforting culture war issues that Generation Greed prefers.  So, although standing up for the later born and common future may amount to nothing more than standing on the beach shouting into a hurricane as a social tsunami heads for shore, over the past month I have updated the “Sold Out Future” analysis with data through FY 2019.  This post, a national summary and explanation of where the data comes from and how it was used, and the next three, will show what I found.

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The MTA (and New York State and the New Federal Infrastructure Plan): Five-Plus Decades of Investing in the Suburbs and Disinvesting in the City

The era of large-scale federal infrastructure investment, from the 1950s through the 1970s, coincided with the era of suburban development and urban decline.  I don’t think that was a coincidence.  Cities had paid for their own infrastructure with local money, were still paying bonds for that infrastructure, and it was aging. The federal government then paid for brand new, up to date infrastructure for suburbs, and for rural areas that became suburbs, with taxes collected in part in cities, even as urban infrastructure declined.  Federal investment was limited to new infrastructure only at the time.  Most older central cities never recovered, and those that did only began to do so in the early 1980s, after the Reagan Administration cut federal investment and added local flexibility to how it was used.  More of it was then used to fix existing infrastructure, not just subsidize new suburban and exurban development.

Now it is 50 to 70 years later and the infrastructure of the suburbs is aging.  And because of lower densities, and thus more liner feet of road, water pipe, and sewer pipe per taxpayer, it will be more costly to replace with local taxes.  Some in the Strong Towns movement believe the suburbs are facing the sort of infrastructure decline the cities faced 50 years ago as a result. 

https://granolashotgun.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/teachers-pipes-and-pavement/

An issue that will be most acute in private communities responsible for their own local infrastructure, where people live so they can control who walks on their streets and not share a tax base with pre-1960 neighborhoods. Who will pay up when private sewage treatment plants fail and have to be replaced?  Did you hear about what happened at that collapsed Florida condo, where residents had argued for years about paying for fixes before disaster struck?

The older generations who live in these suburbs are used to getting things, but not fully paying for them.  The “I’ve got mine jack,” tax cut generations.  And here we have another federal infrastructure bill, enacted by suburban and Sunbelt Baby Boomers according to their preferred lifestyle, a lifestyle that poorer Millennials cannot afford and the global environment cannot sustain, to be paid for by those Millennials in the future, because most of it going to funded by soaring federal debts. With higher levels of governments (federal and state) making the choices as to how even the future money of city residents will be spent, how will New York and other older cities fare this time?

As an analogy this post will compare the suburban and city projects that the MTA promised in the Program for Action, released in early 1968 when it as formed, with the system expansions and maintenance of existing infrastructure that actually took place in the five-plus decades since.  And go from there.

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The Extraordinary Privilege of Private Passenger Cars in Metropolitan New York

What makes the transportation system of Metropolitan New York unique in the United States, and perhaps in the developed world?  You might think it is New York’s extensive rail mass transit network, including both heavy rail (subway) and three commuter rail lines. But similar networks exist in other older major U.S. metro areas such as Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco, and many global cities have even larger rail transit systems, compared with their populations.

In fact, what makes transportation in metro New York unique is something that is in some ways the opposite of extensive mass transit.  The large share of its grade-separated, limited-access expressway system that is restricted to passenger cars only, and thus excludes trucks, other commercial and service vehicles, and mass transit vehicles such as buses.   Expressways – hugely expensive to site, build and maintain; hugely destructive when built through developed areas; lacking the property tax benefit provided by adjacent land uses; and destructive to the value and use of adjacent land – represent major commitments of social resources.   Having many of those expressways restricted to a limited class of road users is a unique and extraordinary privilege, one that puts proposals to allocate a greater share of the space on other mixed-traffic roads to bicycles, buses, trucks and other commercial vehicles in perspective.

To show the extent of this privilege, and its consequences, I asked Susan Zwillinger of 4CGeoworks (Pittsburgh) to produce a cartogram map of the Major Roads and Paths of Metro New York.  It is shown below.

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Transportation Infrastructure: 2017 Census of Governments Data

For as long as I can remember, I have heard in the media that the United States doesn’t spend enough on infrastructure.  And for as long I as can remember, more and more money has been spent on other, more immediate priorities, even as federal, state and local government debts have risen.

On the other hand, I have come to see all such statements, by all interests, as essentially self-serving.  “Studies” are produced by interest groups seeking more for themselves, and pretending that they will be paid for by money dropping out of the sky, not by having other people left with less, now or later.  These are replicated by a media seeking an easy story.

So how much has the United States spent on infrastructure? How has this changed over time? And how does New York City, where the transportation infrastructure is smaller than it was 70 years ago as a result of the loss of the West Side Highway, and the 3rdAvenue and Myrtle elevated rapid transit lines, compare with the national average? Census of Governments data will be used to find out.

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MTA Signals: Can Technology Save Us From Politics?

Most of those who will read this post know the financial issues with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  Decades ago, funding for the agency’s capital plan was cut, and some capital funds were diverted to the operating budget as “reimbursable expenditures.” At the same time, effective fares were cut when the Metrocard was introduced, and current and – in particular former – MTA workers benefitted from a huge pension increase in 2000. The cost of capital construction contracts soared, due to pension increases for union construction workers and managers, and construction union pension underfunding, at about the same time.  It was a political win for everyone – who is no longer around.  The cost of all of this was borrowed or deferred, and today much of the money being paid to the MTA, in taxes, tolls and fares, is being sucked into the past.

As the years pass, meanwhile, major systems and components of the subway and commuter rail network continue to age, and eventually reach the point where they will either have to be replaced or start to fail and disrupt service more and more frequently.  Perhaps to the point where entire lines have to be abandoned for years or decades, as two tracks on the Manhattan Bridge were.  Or permanently, as the West Side Highway was.  One of those systems is the signal system on the New York City subway, which is aging even as the cost of replacing the signaling on a line has exploded.  The plan had been to gradually replace conventional railroad signaling with Communications Based Train Control (CBTC).   But after decades of borrowing the MTA Capital plan came to a near halt after the Great Recession, and compared with the plans in place 17 years ago the MTA is way behind, without any hope, at recent prices, of ever being able to catch up.  Can technology provide a way out?

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The National Transit Database: Comparative Operating Cost and Fare Revenue Trends from 2008 to 2018

It has been just under three years since I last downloaded and tabulated data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/metro-ny-transit-costs-data-from-the-2015-national-transit-database/

Since the data is published every year, I have long hoped that some other organization would use the data and publish reports showing what it says, having someone else to it as part of their job.  That hope increased after the New York Times used the data as part of its series on the New York City Subway.   And after Governor Cuomo directed the MTA to hire a consultant to study “MTA Reinvention.”  Moreover, the NTD now includes a spreadsheet titled “Metrics” with almost all the basic cost and service efficiency ratios one might want to see. As of the date of this post that spreadsheet for 2018 is on page 2 (tab at the page bottom), though it will be moving down as 2019 data is published.

https://www.transit.dot.gov/ntd/ntd-data

There has been, however, no public discussion of what National Transit Database data shows about New York’s transit system since the NY Times articles.   So rather than allow this information to remain among the unsaid, I decided to at least analyze the operating budget.  (I’m not sure there really is a capital budget, since under the prior MTA capital plan, regardless of what officially passed, most of the money never actually arrived and most of the work was never actually done).

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Infrastructure: Census of Governments Employment and Payroll Data for 2017

This series of posts based on Census of Governments state and local government employment and payroll data for March 2017 (and 2007 and 1997) continues with a post on infrastructure functions:  highways and streets, mass transit, air transportation, water transportation, government-run electric and gas utilities, water supply, sewerage, and solid waste management.  Along with related private sector activity.  When I joined New York City Transit out of graduate school in 1986, I was told it was the largest industrial/blue collar employer in New York City.  It probably still is, with the other functions described adding as many blue collar jobs, and jobs with contractors many more.

In the past 10 years or so, subway riders have experienced a drastic decrease in their quality of life despite rising fares, relative to the very low inflation of the period.  This is something I have attributed to costs from the past – the big pension increase in 2000, with huge costs deferred until later, and decades of zero state and city funding for the MTA capital plan, with money borrowed instead.  But after reviewing the data for these functions, I have begun to wonder if even worse is coming. And not just at the MTA. But we will have water!

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