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This past February, while declaring that infrastructure shouldn’t be politicized, President Obama underscored its increasingly ideological nature in the United States. “Infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said in front of a recently renovated St. Paul, Minnesota, train station. “Unfortunately, there have been some Republicans in Congress who refuse to act on common sense proposals.”

In theory, infrastructure is not partisan, since both parties agree that it is highly necessary, and severely under-maintained. The divide is over which level of government should operate it. Since 1956, when the federal highway fund was formed, building transportation infrastructure, in particular, has been mostly a federal task, funded at 80 percent levels by the federal gas tax. But recent estimates suggest that the fund could soon run out, prompting the President that day to propose a new $300 billion plan.

Republicans, however, have long wanted to reduce Washington’s role in transportation, most recently through a bill that would nearly repeal the gas tax. They argue that by collecting this revenue and redistributing it to the states, the federal government now functions as a wasteful bureaucratic top layer, and that if states could just keep the revenue, more would go towards actual construction. A closer look at existing federal policy strengthens their point. Read More »

A CONGRESSIONAL BILL WOULD KILL THE GAS TAX AND REMOVE WASHINGTON FROM TRANSPORTATION POLICY

The notion that U.S. infrastructure is crumbling and underfunded has been common lately, and more such news came in February, when the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that the Federal Highway Trust Fund could soon run out. This spurred debate about what to do with the trust’s main funding source, the federal gas tax. Some legislators have long wanted to raise this tax, and President Obama recently proposed his own $302 billion funding plan. But one Congressman, Georgia Republican Tom Graves, has a better idea: nearly abolish the gas tax altogether.

Last November, Graves introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act, which was cosponsored through Senate legislation by Republican Mike Lee. By drastically reducing the tax, it would enable states to manage their own transportation policies, improving a process that has become massively inefficient under federal oversight. Read More »

INSTEAD OF PROTESTING BETTER PRIVATE TRANSPORTATION FOR OTHERS, SAN FRANCISCANS SHOULD DEMAND IMPROVED PUBLIC SERVICES

Recent opposition to two new private transportation services in San Francisco illustrates the city’s growing class conflict. But rather than discouraging these alternatives, the city should bridge the gap by improving its public transportation.

Both Uber, a San Francisco-based start-up that offers paid ridesharing services, and the so-called “tech buses” — a fleet of double-deckers that Silicon Valley companies now use to transport their San Francisco employees — have faced roadblocks.

Uber, along with similar companies like Lyft and Sidecar, has been targeted by regulations that for years made its services illegal in San Francisco. Companies were recently required by the city to pay for their tech buses, a response to several anti-bus protests downtown and in the Mission District.

Some criticism of these private services has been valid, such as concerns about road safety and infrastructure use. But much of it seems simply to be because these services are superior to the city’s public transportation. Read More »

IMPROVING THE DETROIT CHARTER IS ESSENTIAL TO THE MOTOR CITY’S COMEBACK

Six months have passed since Detroit declared bankruptcy, and over this time numerous ideas have emerged about how the former industrial power can scrap its way back. The wiser of these have resisted suggesting federal aid — which came nonetheless via a $300 million package from President Obama — and instead proposed that the city work on its own to institute growth-friendly reforms. These have included making Detroit a “charter city” along the lines proposed by Paul Romer (he was thinking of the Third World, but Detroit’s need is as great) or one of Rand Paul’s “economic freedom zones”; others suggest just selling off the city’s assets. In January, P. J. O’Rourke, in the Wall Street Journal, echoed several previous writers in proposing that the city become the American version of hyper-capitalist Hong Kong.

Tying these ideas together is the assumption that cities work best when they combine low taxes and light regulations with a public sector that is small and efficient and that holds businesses to clearly defined rules. Any one of these ideas would be sensible for Detroit, whose present government embodies the opposite. Today Detroit has one of the nation’s worst economic-freedom ratings, one of the most overstaffed public workforces, and the highest property-tax rates of any major city.

But the idea that Detroit could suddenly just create a cleaner government is unrealistic. It would be, as O’Rourke pointed out, politically infeasible in such an overwhelmingly Democratic city. And it would be legally infeasible because of the city’s governing document — the Detroit Charter. Read More »

DETROIT RECENTLY SUBMITTED ITS FINANCIAL RESTRUCTURING PLAN TO COURT AND APPROVED A PRIVATIZATION DEAL. HERE ARE SEVERAL OTHER PROPOSALS FOR TURNING THE CITY AROUND

Detroit submitted its long-discussed financial restructuring plan to federal court last week, but conflicting laws — and the magnitude of Detroit’s bankruptcy — could bring the plan before the Supreme Court, according to University of Pennsylvania Law professor David Skeel, speaking recently at the American Enterprise Institute.

The restructuring plan determined that employees will receive only one-third of their original claims for pension and health benefits, while secured bondholders will be paid in full. The question of how to pay creditors is complicated by an apparent contradiction in Michigan state law, Skeel said at the AEI panel. A federal statute enacted in 1939 enables cities to violate contracts during bankruptcy, but a 1963 state law, cited repeatedly by union advocates, states that public employees are entitled to their full pensions. Skeel said that the federal court is more likely to acknowledge the former law, because federal law trumps state law under the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause. He also noted that the 1963 provision is not truly secured even by Michigan’s constitution because the provision “was just a statement of intent” and a normal contractual obligation — meaning it is not immune from bankruptcy restructuring.

The other development last week was the city council’s approval of Detroit’s largest-ever privatization deal, for trash pick-up. Read More »

MAYOR MICK CORNETT’S CONSERVATIVE APPROACH REVIVES A MORIBUND OKLAHOMA CITY

It’s odd to think that either the Republican or Democratic party would overlook one of its rising local leaders. Generally, it seems that anytime a mayor or governor even trips into the national spotlight, he is immediately touted by party elders as the next big thing, whether or not he’s accomplished anything in office. But for ten years, one Republican has remained under the radar even while effectively leading a major city — normally hostile territory for the GOP. He is Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett.

Since 2004, Cornett has overseen the rise of Oklahoma’s capital from a backwater into a global metropolis. In March he will seek reelection to his fourth term, which would make him the city’s longest-serving mayor. So now is a good time to look back at his record and what it says about the national political picture. Read More »

BY OPPOSING DENSITY, SAN FRANCISCO’S SIERRA CLUB HINDERS ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRESS

Since 2006, developer Simon Snellgrove has fought to build a 12-story, mixed-use tower on a downtown lot near San Francisco Bay. The project cleared a major hurdle in 2012, when the city’s board of supervisors exempted it from an 84-foot-height limit, following extensive environmental review. But after a negative petition garnered 31,000 signatures, the project was put to the ballot in November’s election, and city voters rejected it by nearly two-to-one, forcing Snellgrove to go back to the drawing board. In many ways, the opposition to Snellgrove’s 8 Washington project represents everything that’s wrong with the anti-growth movement in U.S. cities today.

The very groups one might think would support a vertical and centrally located project such as 8 Washington opposed the plan ferociously. Affordability advocates called it a mere “luxury” condo, ignoring the $11 million the residence is expected to generate for the city’s affordable-housing fund. Neighborhood groups criticized the design by famed architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which would have fit in with surrounding towers. Nearby residents opposed the added foot traffic, despite having long decried the downtown business district’s deserted nighttime atmosphere.

The strangest opposition, though, came from San Francisco’s Sierra Club chapter, which helped fund the “No Wall on the Waterfront” coalition, ultimately killing a project that the environmental group might reasonably have endorsed. Read More »

SEATTLE INAUGURATES A SOCIALIST COUNCILWOMAN

To old-timers who have lived through New York City’s recent history, the election of Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio must have seemed odd. Here was a city that, even into the 1990s, was getting national press for its crime, business flight, and general “rotting” amidst years of left-wing rule. It wasn’t until after the pro-market reforms of mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg that New York reclaimed its role as America’s glistening metropolis. Yet this November residents, in a bout of amnesia, elected someone whose talk of government expansion resembled that made back when the city was broke and burning.

One week later, similar results surfaced 3,000 miles to the west in Seattle. There Kshama Sawant, a community college economics professor and Socialist Alternative Party member, was elected to city council, narrowly beating longtime incumbent Richard Conlin. Yesterday she became Seattle’s first socialist to be sworn into office in over a century, marking a political evolution that has resembled New York’s, and that may foretell the direction of other U.S. cities. Read More »

HAS ATLANTA LEARNED ITS STADIUM LESSONS?

There have long been two absolutes about sports stadiums, at least when built in America’s big cities. The first is the willingness of public officials to subsidize them, using hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to build monoliths that will supposedly spur jobs and redevelopment. The other is the substantial economic literature claiming that such benefits never materialize enough to justify the handout. In the last dozen years these notions have collided, as cities like Cincinnati, Detroit, and Miami have continued with the status quo, and funded new stadiums, while others, rather than bowing to billionaire owners, have watched their sports teams flee. The way Atlanta addressed its own stadium issues this year strengthened the dichotomy. Read More »

THE BART STRIKES SHOW WHY MORE OF AMERICA’S TRANSIT SHOULD BE CONTRACTED OUT

Bay Area Rapid Transit, the rail system that serves metro San Francisco, is running again, but only after a belligerent outburst by its workers that disrupted the Bay Area for months. This past July the agency’s unions, Amalgamated Transit Union and the SEIU, organized a five-day strike that affected 400,000 daily riders, from remote Contra Costa County commuters to Oakland residents forced to cram together on cross-bay ferries. California governor Jerry Brown helped restore services by declaring a 60-day cooling-off period between BART and the unions in August, but that produced another strike, four days long, in mid-October, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity and forcing Bay Area cities to compile makeshift transport plans.

Right before this second strike, a story from the other side of the globe highlighted one way cities like San Francisco can avoid such problems. Read More »

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