Commentary From the Mile High City

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Joshua Sharf

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January 22, 2009

Freedom of Movement

Colorado Democrats are getting ready to spend more money we don't have on a proposal to study ways of extracting more from you. And to watch where you're driving, to boot.

Nestled in the details of a major transportation proposal this year is an idea that could revolutionize how Colorado pays for its road and bridge projects.

The proposal, from statehouse Democrats, calls for pilot projects to study whether the state should do away with its gas tax and adopt a system in which drivers are charged based on how many miles they drive.

"What policymakers are looking at is a sustainable revenue source that they can count on," said Jim Whitty, an Oregon Department of Transportation official who has become a guru of mileage-based fees.

Glenn Reynolds has already made the privacy and efficiency arguments against this idea.

But I particularly like this part:

Whitty said one of the chief benefits of a mileage-based system is its malleability. It can be customized to charge people more for driving at rush hour or less for driving in rural areas. It can tax Hummers at a higher rate than Priuses.

Which means that the real goal here isn't the money, or even taxing in proportion to road wear and tear, it's more government-as-behavior-modification. The reason they're being "forced" to such extreme measures is that high gas prices have pushed people into conserving. In other words, they're already doing what the gas taxes are designed to make them do. So the obvious answer is to find substitutes.

In the future, people will eventually catch onto this game and just keep doing whatever it is they want to do in the first place, as not doing so isn't going to save them any money, anyway.

January 15, 2009

Borrow In Haste, Repay At Leisure

Colorado Republicans have proposed mortgaging government property to pay for transportation projects, up to $500 million.

The Democrats, naturally, want to raise your taxes permanently instead, and would net only half the amount the first year.

Right now, Colorado general revenue bonds, which are basically secured only by the moral obligation of the state to pay its debts, are paying about 1.5% yield to maturity. Paid back over 15 years, that's about $35 million a year in payments, or about $6 a person per year, for $500 million.

The Democrats want to secure a permanent funding stream out of your pockets, at about 4 times that rate, in the middle of what they've consistently called the worst economy since the Great Depression.

The Republicans want to borrow at a ridiculously low interest rate, heading into what will likely be an inflationary environment sometime in the next two years. That inflation will only increase borrowing costs.

The Democrats want to build in more structural spending, and then, when inflation eats away at the value of the taxes they're collecting, complain about shortfalls and raise rates again.

And this is without ditching TABOR.

September 26, 2008

The FasTracks Light At The End of the Tunnel

Really is the headlight on an oncoming train. So, RTD has announced that it won't be able to finish FasTracks without a tax increase, otherwise, the last rail won't be laid down until it's time to start replacing what's working now.

The Regional Transportation District says it would need a 0.2- to 0.3-cent hike in the metro sales tax - half again or more of the original FasTracks sales tax increase - to build what was promised to voters in 2004.

Absent other new revenue from federal, state, regional or private sources, meeting the original 2017 completion date and building out all 10 corridors to their planned end points would require the extra tax on top of the 0.4-cent hike voters approved four years ago.

So this white elephant that I see whizzing by me - mostly empty - every morning as I drive down I-25 is looking so swinish there isn't enough lipstick in the front range for RTD to make it look better. I could take the thing into work, except that I'd either have to drive to the station or take two buses on the way in and a call-for shuttle once I got down here.

When A-I came up last year, I calculated that this little property tax increase - the one they asked about, as opposed to the one they didn't - was going to cost me three months of my retirement. Looks like we're about to be up to a full half-year. Which is good, because I can spend the extra time riding the Light Rail from station to station.

March 29, 2008

Denver's Red Light Cameras

So some cities are capable of learning, after all:

Denver is re-examining its plans for its first red light cameras after a Rocky Mountain News investigation found that the locations had short yellow lights, which could make the intersections ticket traps and accident hot spots.

Traffic engineers will do a quick study of the four camera locations to determine whether the yellow signal should be increased from the legal minimum of three seconds - timing that's considered appropriate for 25 mph traffic.

This has been a problem for years in other places, and the report cites studies elsewhere are motivating this re-examination,

I have to agree with one of the commenters, though: red-light running may be a sport out here, but it could be contained by timing the lights. As near as I can tell, the lights were last recalibrated when horses were competing with cars, and the program hasn't been revisited since. If you're going against what used to be the traffic flow 25 years ago, you can hit just about every red light on a major street like Monaco.

You want to help accomplish everything the Greenies say we should be trying to? You want to improve actual fuel efficiency and cut down on pollution? You also want to help the economy be more efficient? Keep the traffic moving. And on the surface streets, that means timing the lights strategically.

July 5, 2007

Northeast Corridor Pastimes

I'm writing this from the train, between New York & Philadephia, from the much-coveted Dining Car (excuse me, "Food Service Car"), Now With 120V Outlets!. I had forgotten just how industrial and, worse, post-industrial the landscape is on the Northeast Corridor. Seriously, if half of what remains of the buildings weren't covered in bright, fresh-looking graffiti, the company on the train would be welcome reassurance that you weren't living through "Miri," which was bad enough as a third-season episode.

Still, it's fun to look for company names on bombed-out buildings and Google them. For instance, the long-forgotten Blumenthal Brothers Chocolate and Cocoa Company yields this, from March 1929:

Blumenthals. Famed among cocoa makers are the Hershey Chocolate Co., the Walter Baker Co. (Postum subsidiary) and the Blumenthal Bros. There are five Blumenthals, Joseph, Meyer, Aaron, M. I., and Jacob; but Joseph, the president, is more potent than his brethren. Last week he bustled busily over the Exchange. He is a small, thin man (hardly five feet tall) with a brown suit which he has worn so consistently that it is indelibly associated with him. Of German descent, he is an Orthodox Jew, and rarely visits the Exchange on Saturdays except when there is a very threatening bear market. The main plant is in Philadelphia; the New York office, at No. 16 Exchange Place, is small as to staff and scarce as to furniture. On the walls hang many photographs of family Blumenthal groups—the various Blumenthals with their wives and children and an old group picture of the five brothers. The Blumenthals are best known through their Raisinettes, a specialty consisting of a chocolate-embedded raisin. Another good Blumenthal seller is a peanut coated with chocolate. All the Blumenthals are excellent pinochle players.

"A peanut coated with chocolate." They also invented these.

February 13, 2006

Ask Not For Whom the Road Tolls...

Also last night, we talked about tolls on new roads and lanes as a possible answers to congestion and future needs. As my favorite local VC says, "I remain skeptical."

Tolls roads seem to suffer from the same inverted cash flow structure as, say, water. Almost all of their costs are fixed, while almost all of their revenue is variable. This puts the toll road operator in a bind where there are other alternatives, either existing routes or a boost in telecommuting. The operator presumably has set his rates at something close to the optimum level to begin with. Lowering rates will cause the very congestion his customers are paying to avoid, and raising them will either drive off traffic, or create resentment among increasingly captive commuters.

Just privatizing operations doesn't change the basic economics. And it's no good saying that the bonds are market-tested. Markets funded the dot-com boom as well. They may be the best system around, and in the long run, a pretty good one, but markets are still subject to fads, herding, and other mistakes. And don't underestimate the pressure that a financially-strapped government can bring to bear on the underwriting banks.

I remain not hostile, but skeptical.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud