The Gas Tax Isn’t Regressive, Part Three

(at least, not regressive across the spectrum) – as I’ve argued here and here, the gas tax doesn’t hit the poor that hard; it mostly hits the exurban parts of the middle class and leaves the rich alone. From my original article on the subject:

The supposed regressive nature of the gas tax is a fallacy – in fact, poor people spend far less proportionally on gasoline than do the upper-middle-class.
The gas tax isn’t purely progressive; though; the very rich actually spend less proportionally than do the upper-middle-class, due to their tendency to be either in the few healthy downtowns, or less need to drive overall.

Here’s another link I found today which asserts the same:


“A subsidy to new vehicles would be regressive. A tax on
gasoline is not regressive across the lowest incomes but is regressive from middle to high
incomes.”

Note that the internet is replete with sites which say that the gas tax is regressive, but the only articles or studies which actually include any supporting arguments are the few that claim that it isn’t regressive. This leads me to believe that the gas tax ISN’T regressive, for the reasons previously discussed, and that the ‘conventional wisdom’ is wrong here.

This is timely because of a current thread on Environmental Economics on this very subject. Amazingly, I’ve now provided THREE links which are credible and contain supporting evidence for the claim that the gas tax isn’t regressive across-the-board; for the most part blind assertion is still the only support for the ‘regressive’ position. Moral: Conventional Wisdom is hard to fight, even when it’s wrong.

CAFE versus gas taxes – which works?

Kevin Drum likes CAFE. He believes that gas taxes are highly regressive. He’s wrong. But which one ‘works’ better? His argument rests on the last 5 years of generally rising fuel prices versus vehicle sales.

The problem is that the rise in fuel prices recently has been seen by most Americans as the result of gouging, or the result of storms, or hippie environmentalists or <insert other crazy reason>. Key here is that all of those things are temporary. Now, if you’re one of the few people who follows the real oil situation you know that we’re probably in for a period of ever-higher spikes and plateaus (with intervening drops due to recessions, perhaps), but most people don’t know this stuff.

If you think the last couple of years are an anomaly, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a fuel-efficient car. Therefore, using that period as an example of how higher fuel prices don’t affect vehicle choice as much as CAFE did is foolish. Better to look at Europe, where CAFE-like standards don’t really exist; but at the time of vehicle purchase, it is understood that gas taxes are very high and likely to stay that way.

Anyways, CAFE doesn’t work half as well as a high baseline for gas prices does. The real reason? Once you buy your car, if gas prices/taxes are low, there’s no real incentive to leave it in the driveway on any given day. With higher gas prices/taxes, however, there is an incentive to leave it at home and take the bus, or carpool, or whatever.
Addressed as a quickie since so many people around the interweb keep repeating this canard.

Pastafarians unite!

I’ve never talked about religion on this blog, and haven’t said much about personal matters in general. Today, however, I am filled with the holy impulse to tell you about the real story behind the creation of the Earth. Please share and make sure that this correct version of our origin is discussed in schools alongside the so-called “Intelligent Design”.
Other links:

It’s Not Light Rail

Many people, including Lyndon Henry (who of all people ought to know better) are continuing the misleading practice of calling Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan “light rail” or “light rail like” or “light ‘commuter’ rail”, etc. This has done its job – most laypeople continue to call what ASG’s building “light rail” even though it couldn’t be further from the truth.

So a couple of days ago, a story showed up in Kansas City extolling the virtues of what turns out to be a similar “Rapid Bus” plan to the one being foisted on Central Austin as our reward for rolling over for Mike Krusee. The lightrailnow.org site which is at least somewhat affiliated with Lyndon has often published vigorous attacks on efforts to sell “rapid bus” schemes as “as good as rail” to the public. Lyndon was angry at this Kansas City effort, and I replied with a reminder that the politicking of himself and Dave Dobbs helped get the same exact thing for central Austin by his support of the ASG plan. Lyndon replied with his typical ASG cheerleading, and I just sent this in response:

— In LightRail_Now@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:
>Instead, it passed, and we have a rail project under way and
planning for additional rail transit installations now under way.
What we have underway is a commuter rail line which doesn’t and will NEVER go near the major activity centers of the region, doesn’t and will NEVER go near the major concentrations of residential density in the region, and doesn’t and will NEVER get enough choice commuters out of their cars to provide enough public support for expansions of the system.
What we have underway are some lukewarm half-hearted plans for expanding that rail network if Union Pacific can be convinced to leave their freight line behind, but, of course, it will all be moot, since the original line will be such a debacle that we’ll never get to the expansions.
This is a “one and done” line.
It skips the Triangle. It skips West Campus. It skips Hyde Park. It skips North University. It skips the Capitol. It skips the University. It skips most of downtown. It does not provide any service to the neighborhoods in Austin that most WANTED rail in 2000, nor will it EVER do so (even if the entire ASG plan is built).
It is NOT ANYTHING LIKE LIGHT RAIL. I don’t know how you can sit there and claim that it is. I know you’re not stupid, and had hoped you weren’t a liar.
_HOUSTON_ built light rail. _DALLAS_ built light rail. _PORTLAND_ and _DENVER_ and _SALT LAKE_ and _MINNEAPOLIS_ built light rail.
This plan is NOTHING like what they built. For you and Dave Dobbs to continue to call it light rail is dishonest, bordering on maliciously false.
What DOES it do? It goes past suburban park-and-rides (as the light rail plan would have). It allows fairly easy access to stations for the far suburbanites who LEAST wanted rail. It requires that all of those passengers, who are the MOST SKEPTICAL about transit, to transfer to SHUTTLE BUSES at the end of their journey if they want to go anywhere worth going.
There is zero chance that this line will garner substantial ridership, and thus, voting for this plan doomed Austin to no additional rail for a very long time, since it will have been ‘proven’ that rail ‘doesn’t work’.
As for your claims that Rapid Bus isn’t being sold here, bull. It was featured in the paper just a week or two ago, and is the ONLY service improvement being provided to the parts of Austin that want, and in any other city, would have gotten rail.
Mike Dahmus
Disgusted At Lyndon’s Dishonesty

Helmet science (for real)

Here’s an interesting paper on bike helmet design. Should be mandatory reading no matter which side of the debate you fall on, especially if you like to repeat stories about how a helmet ‘saved [some person’s] life’.

(Note for the record that I’m a skeptic; I wear one when mountain biking but never else, and won’t go on rides that require them, because I believe (and am backed up by real-world data) that biking isn’t that dangerous; that helmets haven’t had much impact on head injuries; and that wearing helmets helps perpetuate the myth that biking is too dangerous to do regularly.)

There is no lie brazen enough for the road warriors

A month or two ago I wrote a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser (we had just come back from there, and I was still reading the paper regularly online) rebutting the claims made by various right-wingers that Honolulu wasn’t dense enough to support rail. (As it turns out, if you’re measuring residential density, they’re the densest city in the country – yes, more so than even New York City!). This is coming up because Honolulu is attempting yet again to start a rail system after a disastrous flirtation with Bus Rapid Transit which ended as almost all such flirtations do – with a scaled back system that doesn’t perform any better than city buses, and thus didn’t attract any new riders.

Today I was reminded of this again since their their drive-time columnist included this small blurb at the end of his column:

Still think of Honolulu has a small town? Think again.
Emporis.com reports that Honolulu is fourth in the nation when it comes to the number of high-rise buildings (10 stories or more).
The company, which specializes in geography information, says there are 424 high-rise buildings in the urban core from Pearl Harbor to Hawai’i Kai. That’s enough to make us 14th in the world.
In America, only New York City (5,454), Chicago, (1,042) and Los Angeles (449) have more high-rises than Honolulu.

And yet, even in Hawaii, there are those (like Cliff Slater) who claim that rail won’t work in Honolulu despite the fact that it works in far less-dense cities and the fact that the huge tourist movement from the airport to Waikiki could fill up three or four rail lines in the blink of an eye.

How dense is dense enough? Clearly the only dense things here are the road warriors themselves.

Still Yes For Office Towers On Lamar

Another note I sent to the OWANA mailing list is below, recorded here for posterity and crackpottery.

I would take issue with the following characterizations made by charles:
charles price wrote:
>
> I am very much in favor of downtown densification, but very against
> allowing a zoning change here.
To most of Austin, including many people living in OWANA, downtown
begins at Lamar Blvd.
> Bear in mind that office is the highest dollar return on investment,
> the movie industry is in a slump, and there are two Alamo Drafthouse
> Cinemas within one mile.
You can’t walk to one of those two Alamos from OWANA or from downtown
lofts, and the other one is likely not going to be at its current
location much longer.
> The Nokonah got the neighborhood’s agreement to not oppose a variance
> when the developers promised retail and restaurants on the lower
> floors on Lamar. After it was built they rented it as office space to
> a realty. The Hartland bank Building got a height variance after we
> didn’t oppose when they promised forty percent residential usage. The
> residential didn’t happen. The AISD building got a density variance
> after they promised a significant residential component, which never
> happened. I don’t think we should let the city relinquish control
> unless it is tied to a specific proposal. And we need to not pay much
> attention to the promises until they are made in writing with an way
> to enforce them.
Agreed 100%. Any agreement the developer promises should be backed up
with a deed restriction, CO, or other such arrangement.
> The site is zoned to allow commercial and office development already.
> They want the zoning change so they can build a significantly larger
> office component and a large parking garage.
The site is currently zoned to allow typical low-density retail strips
and small-scale office. Not an appropriate scale for Lamar Blvd.
> A large parking garage doesn’t seem compatible with the types of
> arguments being presented here regarding creating an incentive for
> mass transit.
As a matter of fact, getting buildings built with parking garages is far
superior to keeping current buildings with surface parking. Yes,
ideally, they’ll provide less parking than suburban alternatives. Some
do, many don’t. But at least the streetscape is vastly improved, as is
the possibility that the parking won’t be free.
> If we want to encourage mass transit, which I do, we want new office
> projects to be built downtown, not on the perimeter in an area
> surrounded by quality residential fabric.
The east side of Lamar _IS_ downtown.
> Leave the zoning as it is and they can build a reasonable amount
> of retail and offices including their movie house, but they can’t
> build a ten-story office tower which would be very bad at this site.
A ten-story office tower ANYWHERE in downtown is EXACTLY what this city
needs, and quickly. Developing more offices in the suburbs, given the
oil situation we face, is criminally irresponsible.
>
> It is clear that offices increase traffic at peak traffic hours. More
> offices = more traffic. Downtown offices as an encouragement for mass
> transportation sounds good, but most office traffic will always be
> single occupancy vehicles.
1. When parking isn’t free (as it isn’t at many downtown garages),
there’s an incentive to carpool or use transit which most of us don’t
enjoy at our suburban jobs.
2. You can feasibly build HOV lanes (or managed lanes) which go
downtown, but you can’t feasibly build them out to sprawl-land. (You can
BUILD them, but they’ll never be used to capacity – this is why places
like Silicon Valley have poor performance from HOV while places like DC
do really well with them).
> Downtown densification is better if it includes residences, shops, and
> restaurants which encourage living downtown so that a significant
> component of the people do not need transportation because they’re
> already there.
Agreed. How many of the people living downtown currently work in the
suburbs? Shouldn’t we bring more office development to them? (I’d kill
to work downtown, but there simply aren’t enough technology firms down
there to make it possible for more than a privileged few – luckily I
just took a job that allows me to work from home, so I can finally end
my trip out to the 128, I mean 101, I mean 183 corridor).
> We need people living downtown, not finding new ways to get to
> downtown from their suburban sprawl.
We need both, unless you’re going to empty the suburbs entirely. People
commuting downtown from their suburban home is far better, overall, than
people commuting from one suburban location to another.
> I won’t repeat at length the arguments concerning fairness or justice
> regarding changing a zoning that was in place when neighbors bought
> their properties understanding what could and could not be built
> across the street.
None of the people complaining live on Lamar Blvd, so characterizing
this as “across the street” is disingenuous.
> Obviously, no one wants an atrocity to be built next to their house or
> condo. Can you imagine buying a beautiful fifth floor condo in the
> Nokonah with floor to ceiling windows and then find the city is
> changing the neighboring zoning to allow a parking garage at the same
> height forty feet away!
Yes, I can. It’s called “living downtown”.
> We need to work together as a neighborhood to oppose this type of
> sprawling, profiteering commercialism,
This is the worst misrepresentation in your note – this project is the
antithesis of “sprawling” by any reasonable definition of the term. Good
or bad is an opinion, but it’s NOT “sprawling”.
> even when it doesn’t directly negatively impact you as an individual.
> If we don’t all fight against negative developments all around our
> neighborhood, we will become like the area across Lamar from us or
> like West Campus.
Ironically, had West Campus allowed tall buildings, they’d be a lot
better off today. The poor investment in old low-density multifamily
student properties is a direct unintended consequence of ridiculously
STRICT zoning codes imposed on an area which should have been allowed to
grow UP, and never was.

Shoal Creek Update – May 17, 2005

I biked home from work on Tuesday (Too bad it’s Bike To Work Week, Not Bike From Work Week!) and went down Shoal Creek from Anderson to 41st. Report at the end.

The Chronicle has covered the recent brou-ha-ha, and kudos on the title. I have submitted a crackpot letter (check in a couple of days) which attempts to correct the misinterpretation of Lane’s excellent soundbite (the obstructions he refers to are the parked cars, not the curb extensions).

The ride home was pretty good, actually. About five passing manuevers were necessary, and on two of them I had a motorist stuck behind me; and neither one showed evidence that they were perturbed. Definitely above par for the new striping. I wish I could believe that the motorists are getting the message about the necessity to take the lane to get around parked cars, but the comments from the neighbors at that meeting lead me to believe that I was just lucky to get a couple of reasonable motorists this time.

Letter in Chronicle

Letter from me in today’s Chronicle. Text at the end of this dispatch.
and today’s Statesman takes up the same subject (Transit Oriented Development – commonly abbreviated as TOD) again – using East Hillsboro Oregon (suburb of Portland) as their model. When are the cheerleaders going to get it – you get TOD IF AND ONLY IF your rail line has demonstrated a year or three of high ridership from people who CHOSE to ride rail, not from people who HAD to ride public transit?
For the I Told You So watch:

A fight is looming: The neighborhood plans that already exist for Plaza Saltillo and the areas around the Lamar and MLK stops don’t call for the kind of intense density city leaders want around rail stations.

As I pointed out several times during the run-up to the election, one of the many problems with the routing of this commuter rail line is that it runs through neighborhoods that don’t want any additional development, rather than down Lamar/Guadalupe where additional development is regarded as inevitable (although my own wildly irresponsible neighborhood does their best to counteract city-wide sanity on this regard).

(Chronicle Letter):

Cold Water on TOD
Dear Editor,
I hate to throw cold water on the frenzy over TOD (transit-oriented development) [“Here Comes the Train,” News, Jan. 28], but it’s worth remembering that no commuter rail start in the U.S. in recent memory has generated any transit-oriented development worth noting. In fact, all of the TOD that has occurred in the U.S. in most of our lifetimes has been around light rail starts which had to first demonstrate a high level of ridership from new transit customers (i.e., not just those who used to take the bus, but new customers to transit).

This is how Dallas, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, and Minneapolis have gotten and are continuing to get great new urban buildings around their light-rail lines.

The key here is that thanks to Mike Krusee and naive pro-transit people in Austin, we’re not getting a rail line like those cities got (which goes where people actually want to go from day one); we’re getting one like South Florida got (which requires shuttle buses to get anywhere worth going). South Florida’s commuter line has yet (after 15 years) to generate one lousy square-foot of TOD.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

Letter to 590 KLBJ morning show guys

I just sent this letter to the 590 KLBJ morning show.

Mark and Ed,

I heard the interview of Councilmember Slusher this morning and had a couple of comments for you to keep in mind if you talk to him again. (I’ve been on your show twice now – I’m the guy from the Urban Transportation Commission – actually, I’m Slusher’s appointee, and he’s not real happy with me these days for obvious reasons).

I know you guys usually attack this from an anti-transit perspective, and I’m firmly pro-transit (and especially pro-rail transit). Most people in the media are inaccurately depicting this as a repeat of 2000 – where central Austin transit people voted overwhelmingly in favor of light rail, and the suburban voters voted overwhelmingly against. That’s not going to be the split this time – a lot of people who know and support transit are not happy with this plan from a pragmatic perspective.

Ed, you tried to raise a good point with the question about lack of service to south and central Austin. When Mr. Slusher responded with the Highland Mall (and other Austin stations), I think he knows that’s not what most people mean by “central Austin” – we mean “the highest density residential areas” such as West Campus, North University, Hyde Park, etc. None of the places where there exists sufficient density to support rail transit are being served by this plan.

I’m also disappointed that nobody brought up the biggest problem with this plan – the fact that it requires riders to transfer to shuttle buses to get to UT, the Capitol, or downtown office buildings. In other cities in this country, it is very clear that your first rail line must deliver most of its passengers to stations which are within WALKING DISTANCE of their final destination, if you want to attract any new passengers to public transportation. People who can choose whether or not to drive (i.e. they own a car and don’t have to pay a lot of money for parking) will not ride a service which sticks them on shuttle buses for the last leg of their journey. This is why South Florida’s commuter rail line, after a decade, is viewed as an expensive failure.

Even without stops in Central Austin, the line could be a moderate success if it delivered passengers to at least one of those three big destinations without a shuttle-bus transfer (this is why so many center-city people were pushing so hard for the line to be immediately extended to the Seaholm power plant with a stop at 4th and Congress).

Without any modifications, the anti-transit people should be very happy with this rail plan, because after people see empty trains running down this route, it will become conventional wisdom that rail can’t work in Austin. In fact, I believe that if this plan passes, it’s going to be the end of rail transit for the area for a generation or two, as it was for South Florida.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission