Tag: new york city

A Streetcar Named Undesirable

New York is far denser than any other large American city, with an average of 27,000 people per square mile compared with 2,500 to 4,000 for most American cities. Although the city is criss-crossed by an extensive subway system, there are still some neighborhoods that are more than half a mile from a subway station.

So naturally, what those neighborhoods need is an ultra-low-capacity, high-cost form of urban transit: a streetcar. At least, that’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio thinks: last week, he proposed to spend $2.5 billion building a 16-mile streetcar line connecting Brooklyn with Queens.

This is such a dumb idea that even transit advocates oppose it. Streetsblog observes that the proposed streetcar route doesn’t easily connect with subway stations that would give riders access to Manhattan. It also argues that bus-rapid transit  (which New York calls “select bus service”) makes a lot more sense than streetcars.

TransitCenter advocate and Brooklyn resident John Orcutt argues that “the American streetcar ‘renaissance’ of the past 15 years has mainly turned out turkeys”: slow (“Reporters for The Oregonian, CharlotteFive and Atlanta magazine have all laced up sneakers and outraced their local streetcars on foot”), expensive (“L.A.’s streetcar has seen its initial cost estimate more than double”), and underperforming (“ridership on Salt Lake City’s S-Line is less than half of planning projections”).

TransitCenter head David Bragdon, who previously was president of Portland’s Metro Council, agrees. “Most streetcar projects in the U.S. provide slow, unreliable service that does not serve many people,” Bragdon noted, urging New York not to “repeat the mistakes of other places and spend $2.5 billion if the result is not useful transportation for riders.”

While Portland often claims its streetcar is a great success, it has inflated ridership numbers by at least 19 percent and gained most of the ridership it by offering free rides to most passengers for the first dozen years of operation. Even though it supposedly started collecting fares from all riders in 2012, average fare revenues in 2014 were still just 4 cent per trip, showing that no one is enforcing the fare.

TransitCenter also questions de Blasio’s claim that streetcars will generate enough new development to pay for themselves. “Much of the property adjacent to the route is undergoing large-scale development without the spur of a new transit proposal,” says a TransitCenter blog post. “Would more value be realized by supporting transit projects of proven effectiveness in other parts of the city?” In fact, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, streetcars don’t generate any economic development unless that development gets additional subsidies. Even Portland’s city auditor agrees.

Few of the critics have commented on the high cost of de Blasio’s proposal. Portland spent just under $150 million on its 3.3-mile Eastside streetcar line, which it said somewhat proudly was the most expensive streetcar line ever built. De Blasio’s line would cost more than $150 million per mile. Labor costs in New York may be somewhat higher than in Portland, but I don’t know of any inherent reason why construction costs should be more than three times as much as elsewhere.

Nor does anyone raise the capacity issue. For safety reasons, a single streetcar line can only support about 20 cars per hour. When jammed full, with most people standing and packed together more closely than most Americans are willing to accept, a streetcar is rated to hold about 134 people, for a throughput of 2,680 people per hour in each direction. By comparison, New York City’s subways can move close to 50,000 people per hour, and buses on city streets with a dedicated lane and parking strip can easily move more than 10,000 people per hour (and nearly double that on double-decker buses), most of them comfortably seated. Plus, if a bus breaks down, others can go around it while if a streetcar breaks down most of the line must shut down as they are built with few passing tracks.

Also little noted is the conflict between bicycles and in-street rails. New York has seen a quintupling in bicycle commuting since 2000, and streetcar tracks are a major hazard to these cyclists. A survey of 1,520 Portland cyclists revealed that two-thirds “have experienced a bike crash on tracks.”

The real purpose of the streetcar is to give the owners of housing projects that are currently under construction along its proposed route a Disneyland-like ride they can use to distinguish their projects from others in the city. They won’t get it very soon, however: de Blasio’s plan calls for construction to begin no sooner than 2019 and completion in 2024. For a lot less money, the city could start a locally branded bus service in a few months that wouldn’t cause as much congestion and wouldn’t create a street hazard for cyclists.

The irony is that de Blasio campaigned for office on the claim that, unlike his predecessors, he wouldn’t cowtow to developers. Now, when the city has far higher transportation priorities elsewhere, he wants to blow $2.5 billion on a toy train that, at best, will slightly enhance the value of developments that are being built anyway and at worst add to congestion and make streets more dangerous for cyclists.

Are Almost All NYC Public Schools Actually Voucher Schools?

A popular knock against vouchers and other school choice programs is that private schools do not serve many students with disabilities, whereas public schools serve everyone. If that’s true, then the vast majority of public schools in New York City must actually be private.

According to a federal investigation just rejected by the de Blasio administration, the large majority of New York City elementary schools – 83 percent – are not “fully accessible” to students with disabilities. That forces many disabled students to travel far afield from their local public schools, which are supposed to serve every zoned child. The U.S. Department of Justice’s letter to the city laying all this out contains this anecdote:

In the course of our investigation, we spoke to one family who went to extreme measures to keep their child enrolled in their zoned local school, rather than subject the child to a lengthy commute to the closest “accessible” school. A parent of this elementary school child was forced to travel to the school multiple times a day, every school day, in order to carry her child up and down stairs to her classroom, to the cafeteria, and to other areas of the school in which classes and programs were held.

After the Sheldon Silver Conviction

The federal corruption trial of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has concluded with a conviction on all counts, despite his lawyers’ interesting argument that trading favors — in this case, funneling state grant money to a doctor’s clinic in exchange for highly lucrative asbestos-claim referrals to Silver’s law firm — is just the way everyone does politics in New York. It’s a huge win for Preet Bharara, who holds Rudy Giuliani’s old job as chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan — often seen as the only jobholder capable of cleaning up New York politics, because all the relevant actors within the state government itself are too compromised one way or another.

Ward heelers and frank rogues are common enough in Northeastern politics, but Silver always presented himself as something else, the voice of conscience speaking for every kind of progressive movement in New York. He had won the National Conference of State Legislatures’ “William M. Bulger Excellence in State Leadership Award,” delightfully named after the notorious boss of Massachusetts politics. Silver had the power, but he also had the pretensions.

This Is the Housing Market You Wanted, Hillary Clinton Staffers

The New York Times reports:

For decades, idealistic twenty-somethings have shunned higher-paying and more permanent jobs for the altruism and adrenaline rush of working to get a candidate to the White House. But the staffers who have signed up for the Clinton campaign face a daunting obstacle: the New York City real estate market….

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign prides itself on living on the cheap and keeping salaries low, which is good for its own bottom line, but difficult for those who need to pay New York City rents….

When the campaign’s finance director, Dennis Cheng, reached out to New York donors [to put up staffers in their apartments], some of them seemed concerned with the prospective maze of campaign finance laws and with how providing upscale housing in New York City might be interpreted.

Here are some words that don’t appear in the article: rent control, regulation, zoning. But those are among the reasons that housing is expensive in New York. As a Manhattan Institute report noted in 2002:

  • New York City and State have instituted policies that severely distort the dynamics of housing supply and demand. Only 30 percent of the city’s rental units, for instance, are subject to market prices. These distortions—coupled with Rube-Goldbergian environmental and zoning regulations—have denied New York the kind of healthy housing market enjoyed by most other major cities.

And a report by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko for the Federal Reserve Board of New York Economic Policy Review suggests that “homes are expensive in high-cost areas primarily because of government regulation” that imposes “artificial limits on construction.”

As I’ve said in other contexts: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the government to control rents and impose regulatory costs on the building of housing, then you can expect to see less housing and thus more expensive housing. Welcome to your world, Hillary Clinton staffers.

Turning New York City into Detroit?

I recently speculated whether Detroit’s fiscal problems should be a warning sign for the crowd in Washington.

The answer, of course, is yes, though it’s not a perfect analogy. The federal government is in deep trouble because of unsustainable entitlement programs while Detroit got in trouble because of a combination of too much compensation for bureaucrats and too many taxpayers escaping the city.

A better analogy might be to compare Detroit to other local governments. Some large cities in California already have declared bankruptcy, for instance, and you can find the same pattern of overcompensated bureaucrats and escaping taxpayers.

And the same thing may happen to New York City if the next mayor is successful in pushing for more class-warfare tax policy. Here are some excerpts from an excellent New York Post column by Nicole Gelinas:

Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio…thinks New York can hike taxes on the rich and not suffer… De Blasio’s scheme is this: Hike income taxes by 13.8 percent on New Yorkers making above half a million dollars annually….After five years, de Blasio would let this tax surcharge lapse, and — he says — find another way to pay.

But there’s a big problem with de Blasio’s plan. Rich people are not fatted calves meekly awaiting slaughter.

In 2009, the top 1 percent of taxpayers (the 34,598 households making above $493,439 annually) paid 43.2 percent of city income taxes (they made 33.9 percent of income), according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Each of these families paid an average $75,477. No, most people won’t up and leave (though if 20 percent did, they’d leave New York with less money than before the tax hike). But they can rearrange their incomes. Unlike most of us, folks making, say, $10 million have considerable control over how and when they get paid. That’s because much of their money comes from cashing out a partnership, or selling stock or a house or a painting. To avoid a tax hike, it’s easy enough for them to pay themselves earlier by selling their stuff earlier — before the tax hike. The city made $800 million in extra taxes last year because rich people sold their stuff before President Obama increased investment taxes in December. Or, people can pay themselves later — after the five years’ worth of higher taxes are up.

Gelinas makes some very important points. She warns that the city would have less money if just 20 percent of rich people escaped. She doesn’t think that will happen, but she does explain that rich people can stay but take some simple steps to reduce their taxable income.

Send This Napoleon Back, Waiter: Appeals Court Flunks NYC Soda Ban

Welcome news from New York: a unanimous four-judge appeals court has confirmed a trial court order striking down the New York Department of Health’s attempt to ban large soda portions. The decision is here, Newsday coverage here, and our earlier coverage here.

The appeals court ruled that in enacting the ban the NYC department of health had overstepped its legally granted powers. As I observed in this Commentary article in March, New York has its own distinctive body of law by which courts step in to prevent administrative agencies from claiming quasi-legislative powers not clearly delegated to them, the rules laid out in a 1987 case called Boreali v. Axelrod. The appeals court agreed with trial court judge Milton Tingling that Boreali was directly controlling, and that the department had clearly overstepped Boreali’s ban on essentially legislative action by an administrative agency. (Why, you ask, don’t federal courts apply as tough a standard to keep administrative agencies in Washington, D.C. from arrogating to themselves essentially legislative functions? Good question…)

Although the appeals court did not reach the issue of whether the Bloomberg rules were “arbitrary and capricious,” and although neither it nor Judge Tingling reached the underlying issues of individual consumer choice that are at stake, this was far more than just a “win on a technicality.” The rule that government agencies cannot overstep their lawfully granted powers is a vital one in protecting the liberty of the citizen. On this issue, and not this alone, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has acted more as a Napoleon issuing peremptory dictates than as an elected executive carrying out the will of legislators on the City Council and in Albany. 

Napoleons of the political class are a good bit more dangerous to us all than the sugar-laden Napoleons of the bakery shelf. We should rejoice that this one is getting sent back to the kitchen.

When Government Is The False Advertiser, Cont’d

Mayor Bloomberg’s New York City health department has come in for repeated criticism in this space and elsewhere for crusading against salty and fattening foods through ad campaigns that manipulate viewer reactions in ways that border on the misleading and deceptive (“What can we get away with?” famously asked one official). They’re at it again. On January 9, Gotham’s for-your-own-good crew unveiled a new ad warning “Portions have grown. So has Type 2 diabetes, which can lead to amputations,” dramatically illustrated with a photo of an obese man with a stump where his leg had been. But as the New York Times reports, city officials “did not let on that the man shown — whose photo came from a company that supplies stock images to advertising firms and others — was not an amputee and may not have had diabetes.” Instead, they just Photoshopped his leg off, which certainly got the effect they were looking for, albeit at the cost of photographic reality. At an agency developing an ad campaign for a private company, someone might have advised adding a little fine print taking note that the picture was of a model and had been altered, lest the manipulation turn into the story itself, or even attract the interest of federal truth-in-advertising regulators. But the Bloomberg crew probably isn’t worried about the latter, given that their constant stream of hectic propaganda is fueled by generous grants from the federal government itself. Such grants also helped enable a contemplated booze crackdown exposed by the New York Post this month—quickly backed off from after a public outcry—that would have sought to reduce the number of establishments selling alcohol in New York City.

While on the topic of nannyism, the Times also reported this week that Penn State researchers found that the fad for banning so-called junk food in schools had no apparent effect: “No matter how the researchers looked at the data, they could find no correlation at all between obesity and attending a school where sweets and salty snacks were available.” Number of “food policy” types quoted in the article admitting “maybe we were wrong”: zero.