April 19, 2006

Sims Gets On The Bus

Bus_1Is it a miracle? Can it really be so? Did I just read about a transportation plan that's actually useful and affordable? That can happen soon but also has long-term benefits?

I'm stunned by King County Exec Ron Sims' proposal to increase the sales tax to fund better bus service. For an additional 1/10th of a penny per dollar, Sims believes the county can drastically improve bus service--increasing the frequency and speed of routes and adding capacity to boot. (The Seattle Times reports; the P-I editorializes in favor.)

I have no idea what prompted Sims' outburst of sanity. These days, Puget Sound residents are accustomed to pony up for outlandish schemes of miracle monorails, glammed-out streetcars, multi-billion dollar tunnels, and vast highway expansion measures. (Not to mention problem-plagued light rail, the one transit option that's almost a reality.) Buses, on the other hand, are not especially sexy and they don't come with big-ticket political bragging rights. They're just staid, effective, flexible, and affordable. And--oh yes--they're already working so well that they're over-subscribed, at least in the city.

So on the upside, Sims' bus boosting proposal will improve mobility in the near future. On the downside, it doesn't promise flying saucers or citizen jet-packs, and it doesn't come with a flock of crazy-eyed proponents. (I do have a non-humorous quibble; but more on that later...)

Improving bus service is critical to the continued health of Seattle and the rest of King County too because it makes density work. As the region's density increases it should be able to leverage ever more viable transit--with more people in a neighborhood, it makes sense to run more buses, more often.

This morning as I was shuffling onto the 28 Express--a double-length bus crammed so full that we were standing in the aisles the entire length of the coach and crowding up near the driver--I wondered for the billionth time when Metro would start running twice as many buses. I also wondered why I wasn't on my bicycle. And I wondered whether I should drive more often. I'll bet my not-especially-dense Ballard neighborhood could fill double the buses, especially as more frequent departures tapped latent demand. And as nearly every week reveals new townhouses going up in formerly low-density lots, and condos rising along busy corridors, I wonder if we couldn't fill triple the buses.

So I'm all for Sims' bus proposal. All for it. I just hope that it doesn't get swamped by the headline-grabbers like the Alaska Way Viaduct tunnel, the regional transportation improvement ticket that voters will see this autumn, and all the other kooky multi-billion dollar career-makers. I'm hoping that local leaders--and local voters--remember that bus service works and it's a bargain.

Now a quibble. Why sales taxes? Most King County residents are already paying 8.8 percent and sales taxes are regressive, falling hardest on those who can least afford them. That's a problem, I think, in a county that's struggling with affordability issues. (Admittedly, some of that regressivity is mitigated because the higher taxes pay for bus service, which is especially important to lower income folks.) Wouldn't a better way to fund buses be something ingenious like a fee or tax based on the value of cars. Something more or less exactly like the monorail fee? *

* Yes, I know that such a tax/fee would require enabling legislation from Olympia. Enable it already. It has a host of benefits: it's progressive (because owners of more expensive cars pay more), it's nicely symmetrical (because it provides an incentive to switch from car to transit), and it's deductible from federal income taxes. It's also potentially localizable, meaning that your car tab renewal fee could pay for transit in your neighborhood. If West Seattle gets drastically better bus service, then West Seattle car owners could pay the bill. But if you live in Duvall and don't see many buses anyway, your fee could be proportionally lower. In any case, it would probably be far, far cheaper than the current monorail fee that's just about to expire.

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April 10, 2006

Hitting the Sweet Spot

Here's a cool graph from the Puget Sound Regional Council that illustrates the "sweet-spot" for highway speeds.  Apparently, traffic throughput is maximized at about 1,800-2,000 cars per highway lane (the horizontal axis) when vehicles are moving somewhere between 40 and 50 miles per hour (the vertical axis).

As the graph shows, when speeds are lower than that, or higher than that, then highways aren't operating as efficiently as they might.

So it would seem (to me at least) that a key ingredient in reducing demand for new highways is to keep traffic on existing roads flowing at somewhere between 40 and 50 miles an hour, even at times of peak demand.  How to do that?  Metered on-ramps help; so would tolling the most congested highways.

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March 28, 2006

Alan (Heart) This Report

A year ago, Seattle Mayor Gregg Nickels assembled a “Green Ribbon Commission” to advise him on how to keep his trend-setting Kyoto pledge.

Last week, the commission released its report.

The global significance and political symbolism of the event have drawn much well-earned comment. The report itself has not.

How is it? Superb. I’m in love.

It’s well researched, innovative, and (mostly) courageous.

(Full disclosure: the commission is also full of friends and even funders of Northwest Environment Watch. Click through the break, and you'll see I’m not just sucking up.)

It recommends many of the policy solutions that we've become convinced are smart and systemic. A sampling of the 18 highly praiseworthy recommendations:

Lead a regional partnership to develop and implement a road pricing system (about which we’ve written much). Road pricing is the only way to solve congestion, and it’s a potent stimulant for alternatives to driving.

Implement a commercial parking tax (ditto). Taxing parking is a great way to pay for alternatives.

Expand efforts to create compact, green, urban neighborhoods (double ditto). Ultimately, compact neighborhoods are the real alternative to driving.

What’s left to say? I’ll stifle a long list of wonkish addenda that I scribbled in the margins (ideas for refrigerator bounties and lightbulb brigades), and limit myself to three things: a curiosity, an observation, and a regret.

My curiosity: The report mentions that 25 percent of Portland’s arterial streets have striped bike lanes, while only 1.5 percent of Seattle’s do. Could those numbers be right?! Wow.

My observation: The report calls for a regional road pricing system – right on! When reading Clark’s post about Stockholm, it occurred to me that the ideal opportunity for a downtown (London-style) tolling anywhere in Cascadia would be when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is torn down. Whatever it’s ultimately replaced with, construction will take years. And during that period, local leaders will have an unusual degree of political cover to implement ambitious steps such as congestion pricing.

My regret: In a report that’s courageous enough to suggest parking taxes and regionwide tolls, it’s disappointing to see the veil of politeness descend in one case that’s critically important—the case of highways reconstruction.

Early in the report, the commissioners plead for a measly $57-73 million a year extra to fund transit improvements that they call “the keystone for other actions.” Then, on page 21, buried in a discussion of “leveraging state and regional action” the Green Ribboners finally refer to the elephants in the living room—the huge highway rebuilding projects planned for the city:

"For example, decisions on major transportation infrastructure improvements, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the two Lake Washington bridges, must closely consider the climate impacts of investment alternatives."

That statement is true, of course, but it’s awfully mild. It’s a bit like a report on global disarmament only mentioning thermonuclear weapons in a footnote. Here’s what I (the impolitic dreamer) wish the commissioners had said,

"The mere fact that city leaders are seriously considering rebuilding multibillion dollar freeways through our city—while the ice sheets are melting, our snowpack is dwindling, our transit system is starved, our bike lanes are few and glass-strewn, and a quarter of our streets lack even sidewalks—is proof that we still have terribly far to go. Freeways are giant emissions generators. They’re the antithesis of climate leadership. We should never build another one in this or any other city. We should begin to tear them down."


Well, anyway, I’m still in love with this report.

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March 03, 2006

Tax-deductible Wildlife

Here's an interesting solution to a problem I blogged about a few weeks ago: states like Oregon are losing money to fund wildlife biology and habitat management. Traditionally, these activities have been funded by various hunting and fishing fees; and as the rod and gun sports have waned in popularity their revenue has dried up too. That leaves states less able to pursue wildlife and biological research--not to mention basic land and water conservation--which are hugely important for protecting natural resources.

The solution, in Oregon at least, is to allow tax payers to check a box on their state income tax forms and then make a tax-deductible contribution to non-game wildlife conservation. As far as I can tell from the Oregonian article, the contribution is above and beyond whatever taxes an individual owes. Still, it seems like a good way to encourage wildlife aficionados to make a voluntary contribution to Oregon's natural heritage. This sort of revenue-generation must certainly be more popular than access fees like parking at USFS trailheads and state parks--fees that have proved less than popular in the Northwest.

I'm intrigued by this idea, partly because the revenue is important and partly because it shifts the funding away from hunting and fishing and toward wildlife watching. I imagine the funding shift will also be reflected in the research and conservation priorities that the money pays for. Too bad it can't happen in Washington (because there's no state income tax and hence no form with a handy box to check).

Anyone else know of similar stuff happening elsewhere? 

UPDATE: And by the Oregonian, of course, I meant the Salem Statesman-Journal. Of course. Here's the article. (Thanks, Grace.)

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February 28, 2006

Drivers Wanted

There's been a bunch of comment in the blogosphere today about hiking gas taxes -- with the rough consensus that it's ok environmental policy, tough on the poor, and politically risky (though perhaps not quite as unthinkable as it once was). 

So it's interesting to note that Oregon -- often considered a policy innovator among US states -- is in the middle of an experiment that could eventually lead to a repeal of the state gas tax.

Oregon's transportation department is recruiting volunteers to test a system that would charge people based on how far they drive, not on how much gas they use. The trial will test two rate structures -- some participants will pay a flat rate of 1.2 cents per mile, while others will pay a variable rate depending on whether they're driving during rush hour; a control group would continue to pay normal gas taxes. (See here for details, or if you're interested in volunteering.)

The state is interested in this sort of approach for a bunch of reasons, but if I read things correctly, they're mostly worried that gas tax revenues are poised to fall, perhaps significantly, over the upcoming years.

Here's the issue: if gas prices remain relatively high, or keep rising over time, economists project a gradual per-capita decline in gas consumption, as people replace their cars with more efficient ones. And if cars keep getting more and more fuel efficient, then total gas revenues could actually fall, even as the demands on the road network increase. Ultimately, states may be forced to choose between continual gas tax hikes and persistent funding shortfalls for roads -- both of which are bound to make lots of people unhappy. Under a pay-by-the-mile system, however, transportation funding would be keyed to how much people actually drive -- so the state would still keep up its funding no matter how efficient the cars get.

Obviously, shifting from gas taxes to mileage-based taxes has some signficant downsides. First, the gas tax does create a slight incentive for fuel-efficient cars; getting rid of it could put Hummers on a more even footing with hybrids. And second, it's not entirely clear that a falloff in highway funding would be a bad thing. Obviously, most drivers want the roads maintained in good working order; but, in my mind at least, a lot of highway spending seems like it's pretty wasteful.

That said, we've been pretty interested in the pay by the mile idea, despite the potential downsides. Fully developed, the technology could facilitate two innovations that could be far more powerful at promoting fuel conservation than the exisiting gas tax. First, the same technology used to track mileage for taxing purposes could also be used for a more comprehensive congestion pricing system -- which could simultaneously clear up congestion, reduce driving, and promote bus ridership by keeping streets and highways flowing. And second, it could pave the way for Pay-As-You-Drive car insurance, which would have the same effect on driving overall as roughly doubling the cost of gas. 

If you want to get really fancy, you could even fine tune the pay-by-the-mile taxes, to increase fees for cars with the worst pollution or CO2 emissions, the most road space (SUVs require longer stopping distances, and tend to use up a little more space on streets and highways), or the worst safety records.

Of course, pay-by-the-mile taxes suffer from one huge drawback: they're much more complicated than gas taxes, not just because they require special technology but also because a properly "fine tuned" system -- one that accounts for all the different externalities of driving, ranging from pollution to congestion -- could be pretty incomprehensible to the average driver. And mileage-based taxes would be vulnerable to all sorts of political shenanigans, as car manufacturers would jockey for special exemptions or rates for certain kinds of vehicles. All of which means that, even though I'm very excited by the tests, I'm not yet ready to support the idea -- and certainly not until we see how drivers really react to the system.

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Poll: Americans Hate/Love Higher Gas Tax

Gas_pump_3 Americans strongly reject new gas taxes. According to a new NY Times/CBS poll, 85 percent oppose higher federal gas taxes. Not too surprising--except that the very same poll also found something quite different...

Americans strongly reject support new gas taxes--so long as the tax revenue is earmarked for specific investments. The most popular investment? Fighting global warming. 59 percent would support a gas tax if the result was less climate change. Slightly less popular was reducing dependence on foreign oil: 55 percent supported the tax in that case.

So surely gas tax increases would be super-popular if they abetted core American desires like fighting terrorism and reducing income taxes? Uh, nope. Only 28 percent would support a higher gas tax if its intent were to reduce other taxes. And only 24 percent would support it as a measure to fight terrorism.

I'm not sure I understand what exactly the poll reveals. But my hunch is that when it comes to gas consumption we Americans are a conflicted bunch; and we tend to see our fossil fuel use in ethical or even moral terms. We're not necessarily interested in paying more for gas in order to take home bigger paychecks, or even to defend ourselves. But when it comes to offsetting some of the harm of gasoline use--things like climate change--we would support higher gas taxes with a landslide.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 17, 2006

Accounting for Endangered Species

In the Washington Post today, an ominous headline for endangered species: "The True Cost of Protection?"

Dust off your sense of outrage, fellow taxpaying Americans, because as the article informs us, protecting endangered species cost $1.4 billion in 2004. So magnificent is that figure that the writer sneeringly suggests that king salmon are so called because recovering them cost the princely sum of $160 million in '04. By the tenor of the piece we are supposed to feel that spending $5 million on gray wolves is magnanimous, while spending $11,000 on a rare species of beetle is the height of absurdity.

What's truly outrageous is the intimation that somehow the species themselves are to blame for their costly predicament. Like lazy welfare queens, these imperiled animals should pony up. Never mind that wild Columbia River king salmon are perhaps 1 percent of historical abundance because a welter of industries were given free rein to destroy them. Clearcuts, dams, voracious fisheries, nuclear plants, pesticides... the list of culprits is long and it is to them that the $160 million bill should be assessed. The cost is not of "protection" as the writer asserts, it is instead the cost of heedlessly trampling ecosystems.

It's apropos that the headline editor added a question mark because, in truth, none of the dollar figures cited in the article actually amount to the "true cost" of protection. Like a blinkered accountant tallying only expenses but not revenues, the article utterly fails to mention any of the monetary benefits of species recovery. (And I won't even mention the inestimable non-monetary ones). Study the "costs" of protection for a moment and you'll see that the figures just don't add.

In the Yellowstone region, University of Montana economists have estimated that gray wolves have generated $23 million dollars in tourism to gateway towns. Add to that the many millions of dollars in central Idaho and the Upper Midwest, where gray wolves are also rebounding, and it turns out that wolves not only pay for themselves, they pick up the tab for those good-for-nothing salamanders, and still return a hefty dividend to taxpayers.

In Idaho, fully functioning sport salmon fisheries have been valued as high as $544 million per year. Though that estimate is disputed, it's for just one year for one of the several states where that $160 million was spent in 2004 to assist king salmon.

I could go on and on. The point is, the "true cost" of endangered species protection is much lower than the greenbacks that the US Fish & Wildlife Service lays out. It's even possible that the investment is actually a net benefit for the economy, if one bothers to factor in the revenues of wildlife-based tourism, ecosystem services, and sport (and commercial) fisheries. And that's just the dollars and cents, which is a lamentably poor way to value our natural heritage.

Even if they never do hold steady jobs and pay back what they rightfully owe us taxpayers, protecting and restoring endangered species is worth the price. When I consider the meaning of those species, their uniqueness in geography and history and their symbolism of wildness, $1.6 billion just doesn't seem like very much money to me. Especially when I remember that it's spent on species across the entire country--from Florida manatees to Northwest salmon.

Where I live, in Seattle, officials are just about to plunk down $3.5 billion in tax dollars to build a 2 mile long tunnel. Enough said.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

February 16, 2006

Do Mess With Taxes

The basic point here (NY Times, registration required) is pretty good: the idea of coupling a gasoline tax increase with a cut in payroll taxes deserves a much closer look.  It makes sense as a policy -- gas taxes should be higher, and a payroll tax cut could help soften the blow.  Plus, pairing a tax increase with a tax cut seems to draw far broader political support than a straight-out hike in gas taxes:

The gasoline tax-cum-rebate proposal enjoys extremely broad support. Liberals favor it. Environmentalists favor it. The conservative Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker has endorsed it, as has the antitax crusader Grover Norquist. President Bush's former chief economist, N. Gregory Mankiw, has advanced it repeatedly.

Ok, so it's a good idea.  But I can't help myself -- I'm going to pick some nits.

First, I think it's going too far to claim, as the article seems to, that it will be easy to sell this kind of thing to the public. Voters seem to forget about tax cuts: for example, in the runup to the 2004 election -- and despite the administration's efforts to tout their income tax cuts -- US voters were more likely to say that their taxes had gone up over the previous 4 years than down.  On the other hand, everyone knows when gas prices go up -- it's emblazoned over every filling station.  So people will be reminded of the tax increase every day, but notice the tax cut they only see if they look carefully at their payroll records.  That's a pretty good recipe for outrage, unless you work really, really hard to explain to people what's happening.

Second, there are still some regressive effects here.  If you're a retired senior, you don't pay payroll taxes -- so you'll see no benefit from the payroll tax cut.  But you'll still be hit by higher gas taxes.  Same thing if you're unemployed.  (Undoubtedly the AARP, among others, will have a few things to say about this.) 

Third -- why just gas?  I know, I know, oil makes us vulnerable to foreign political shocks, sucks money out of the economy, yada yada.  But gas represents only 43 percent of total US petroleum consumption (see here for details); so we should be taxing all petroleum consumption, not just gas.  And more broadly, natural gas and coal are both major greenhouse gas sources -- coal even moreso than gasoline.  Coal-fired power plants are also bad news for air quality, and put mercury in our fish.  And natural gas production within the US is headed in the same direction as oil--down--which means that soon enough our natural gas imports will start sucking serious money from the economy, just as oil imports do now.  All of which suggests to me that a broader tax on carbon, or natural resource use, would be better than just a tax on gas -- and might even allow for steeper payroll tax cuts.

And finally -- gas taxes are all well and good.  But they're not the be-all-end-all when it comes to promoting fuel efficiency.  Pay by the mile car insurance and feebates get even less air time in policy circles than tax shifting -- but arguably would be just as effective, if not moreso, at promoting fuel conservation. Obviously, I'm always glad to see gas taxes discussed in a public forum.  But it would be even niftier to see other worthwhile ideas get some attention.

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February 01, 2006

Principles of the State of the Union Address

I hadn't intended to join the cacaphony of bloggers and pundits who are Monday-morning-quarterbacking the State of the Union address. But NEW's all-star board member, Laura Retzler, asked a great question last night that I've been puzzling over since: what's NEW's take on Bush's plan to end the nation's addiction to oil?

It later occurred to me--too late to answer Laura--that my reply should have been rather obvious to me. NEW is developing a concise statement of values and principles, that will orient and unify our research. Among these values are two that are especially germane to energy security: "make prices tell the truth" and "build complete, compact communities."

In his speech Bush called out technological innovation as the primary way to break the addiction. Certainly he's right that technology should play an important part in diversifying our energy portfolio--especially certain types of biofuels, new clean energy sources, and lighter-weight vehicles, for just a few examples that NEW promotes. Yet technological solutions may not be the surest path to ending our addiction.

That's where NEW's principles come into the picture.

"Making prices tell the truth" is especially important. The price of gasoline does reflects only the direct costs of extracting, refining, and distributing it, not the full costs that are externalized to society, such as air pollution, climate change, and even entanglement in unstable regions. By the same token, "free" parking often carries with it high costs, similarly externalized. With a smart restructuring of parking incentives, including parking taxes, there's reason to believe we can achieve substantial gains in both energy efficiency and conservation.

Another of the principles, "build complete, compact communities," would improve home energy consumption and render driving, which has high energy demands, optional or even irrelevant for many people. We already know that compact urban development with good transit and pedestrian alternatives yields dramatic reductions in energy need, even while it boosts health for residents.

NEW's principles may not point to flashy promises of zero-pollution cars or safe nuclear energy. (And they may not come with strings attached to big subsidies.) But they point to hidden levers in our economy and society--small tweaks that can yield outsize results for energy security.

So that's may belated reply, Laura. Thanks for setting me to thinking about this.


By the way, here's the full text of Bush's remarks on energy last night:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources, and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative, a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.

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December 13, 2005

Gas Fees: The Good, The Bad, and The Curious

I'm not sure, exactly, whether this news is promising or disappointing: the San Jose Mercury News reported last week that environmental advisers to Governor Schwarzenegger are calling for a new fee on gasoline that would help pay for incentives to reduce climate-warming emissions.

The good news here is that they're considering fees on gasoline in the first place. 

The bad news is that the proposed fees are tiny -- just 2.5 cents per gallon, which isn't enough to affect consumption more than a nominal amount.

The good news is that the fees will go to a good cause: there are a lot of inexpensive ways to reduce emissions, so the fees, as small as they are, could do a lot of good -- especially considering that California uses about 15 billion gallons of gasoline per year, so a 2.5 cent per gallon fee would raise $375 million per year. 

The bad news is that opponents are already up in arms, blasting the idea as an unnecessary new tax on gas.

Of course, there's also a curiosity here that's worth noting.  The proposed gasoline fees are similar to the "public goods charge" already levied on electricity bills.  But it seems as though the outrage about new "taxes" is largely reserved for gasoline; fees on electricity get a pass.  Which suggests that gasoline holds a special place in the American psyche -- we pay close attention to anything that can make gas prices go up, but let similar price increases in other parts of the economy slide by unnoticed. 

One possible explanation for this is that we're a car oriented culture, and that we've come to prize cheap, unlimited mobility.  I think that's only partially true.  To me, it seems that we pay so much attention to the cost of gas because it's the only commodity whose price is regularly and consistently advertised on busy streets. Day to day, most people get much more information about gas prices -- which stations have cheap gas, what the recent price trends have been -- than about anything else they buy.  The way that gas is advertised has made us super-attentive to its price. 

Which makes me wonder what the world would be like if the harmful side effects of gasoline (money shipped out of the local economy; greenhouse gas emissions; cost of foreign entanglements; etc.) were advertised as broadly as its price.

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