This Week in Urbanism: Bad Urban Policy | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

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You’re listening to This Week in Urbanism from Missouri-Metro

I’m your host, Brian Adler. This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast. And, of course, If you haven’t yet noticed – this is the first podcast that I’m doing on camera. You’ll be able to stream this podcast, watching me make funny expressions, over at our Missouri Metro YouTube channel today. It’ll also be on the Missouri Metro website in the post for this podcast.

Today is April 8th, 2022, and today, we’re going to talk about some particularly bad urban, and by extension in this case, environmental policy. To do so, we’re going to shift our focus back toward the West Coast, where I like to use California as my personal urbanism punching bag.

And, to be fair to California, I want to say early on here that not all of this particular policy is bad. Just most of it. And it shows the colossally screwed up priorities that our leaders have – even “liberal” ones who you might often assume would be more allied with urbanist causes because of their direct links to active lifestyles, diversity, environmentalism, etc.

Anyway, on March 23rd, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a press release. It’s a bad press release. Most of all, it seems political. Here’s what’s happening:

The California Governor announced that he would seek to use $11 billion in unused American Rescue Plan funding to, say, ease the burden on commuters across the state. The biggest chunk of this money, totaling $9 billion, would be distributed to car owners across the state. How would that money be distributed? Well, it’s pretty simple, actually. Each individual car owner could receive $400 for each car in their name – up to two. That means, seemingly, if you’re a couple or have multiple family members, you could have 4, maybe 6, or 8 cars in a given family. And the money isn’t per person – it’s per car. That’s interesting, right? That means that 9 out of every 11 dollars spent on this program goes to car owners, even allowing double counting. An individual may receive, potentially, $800.

Speaking of double counting, that same individual who might receive $800 might see a host of other benefits, too. The other $2 billion is not simply just going to pedestrians, bikers, and transit users. Actually, here’s the breakdown:

  1. $750 million for grants to transit and rail agencies to provide free transit for 3 months. The order states that roughly 3 million transit users per day will see this benefit.
  2. About $600 million to pause some of the Diesel sales tax for a year
  3. About $520 million to pause the inflationary adjustment to gas and diesel taxes for a year
  4. Finally, $500 million toward pedestrian and bike projects.
  5. The plan also includes an additional $1.75 billion toward charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

So, that family getting checks that subsidize their car usage will also see their bills at the pump subsidized as well. And let’s be clear, subsidized by all residents of California, even those who aren’t using cars. When push comes to shove, we’re really only looking at a smidgeon over $1 billion toward pedestrians, bikers, and transit – which, of course, car users could theoretically choose to support too. Rather, even electric vehicle infrastructure gets more funding than actual environmentally conscious solutions.

So, let’s get real for a second here. Most of this funding is a slap in the face for environmental advocates, pedestrians, and transit users. Rather than incentivizing improved transit access, frequency, better routes, etc. – we’re going to see a short fare subsidy. If you thought, maybe perhaps that the program was lopsided toward cars, you’re going to love this. I looked at the LA Metro website and the 30 day passes are currently going for $50 dollars. That means, free fares for 3 months would only save you $150. That’s not insignificant in real terms, but it is insignificant when compared to the fact that a single car owner might receive $800 if they own two vehicles and then on top of that, also have their gas itself subsidized. I can’t exactly tell what’s going on perfectly with LA Metro’s fares, but it does seem that they’re already half off normal pricing for much of this year. So, to be fair, let’s double it. Even then, we get $300 for three months. See the disparity? It’s pretty clear and simple.

Better yet, none of these funds going toward transit are investments in long term solutions. Rather, instead of investing in more transit routes, train or bus frequency, or anything else that riders might expect to enjoy in the long term, this is just a short-term pocket-book adjustment that will simply disappear without really much to show for itself thereafter. Even if they were looking to do real transit improvement, we must also realize that $1 billion would hardly be enough for a simple new line in a city like St. Louis currently exploring a fixed-rail route along its North-South corridor. Let’s throw in LA property and labor prices and we can begin to see how, even if this were invested in a longer-term outlook, it wouldn’t do much good.

Okay, so what about the $500 million in pedestrian and bike infrastructure across the state? Actually, I like that! I wish there were so much more of it. The unfortunate truth is that we’re talking about a few major bike trails, at best, that can be completed with this amount of money. For reference, Los Angeles is currently working on a 32 mile bike path along the Los Angeles River that it has, believe it or not, been working on the last 25 years. Let’s not even go into how much quicker the region completes roadways. Anyway, I digress. Los Angeles itself is ponying up $15 million for the project, but requesting at least $197 million from the California state government. Woah! So we’re looking at $200 million for one project. Over $6 million per mile. While that might sound crazy, consider that even here in St. Louis, the Tower Grove Connector project with protected bike paths will in total cost just over $9 million. At just over 1.4 miles, we’re looking at a pretty similar $6 million per mile. In fairness, they’re also doing intersection, sidewalk, repaving, and traffic signal improvements – so it’s not quite a fair comparison.

Anyway, the point is that maybe, just maybe, you could complete two or two and a half major bike projects in and across the California region with this money. Maybe. If we’re talking fewer than 100 miles of bike paths and no transit infrastructure improvements, how and why would we expect anyone to really change their habits toward healthier and more environmentally friendly forms of transportation?

Then, consider the incentives headed in the opposite direction. For all California’s talk about wanting to become a green state, only a small fraction of these dollars is actually going toward electric car vehicle infrastructure. And, as we know, there are still a host of severe problems with electric cars. As we’ve discussed before, we don’t have enough lithium mines or the low-wage workers across the globe to fulfill the demand for cars that exists today if they were all electric. Our roadways aren’t prepared for the extra weight of battery-loaded vehicles, and our recycling programs can hardly handle plastic – and now you expect them to handle these toxic chemical byproducts? It’s all nonsense that we feed ourselves so we can blindly continue our habits simply assuming that someone else is taking care of our negative externalities.

Regardless, the main beneficiary of this program is the oil industry and our dependency on gas vehicles. At a time when gas prices are the highest, we could have leveraged this toward momentum on revolutionary projects. We could have induced demand toward better solutions. Rather, we coddled everyone. We let them know that it’s okay they keep driving an F-150 or two. We say we’re investing in alternatives, even though those investments amount to little more than a few miles of infrastructure, at best. We subsidize them two ways over, even. We pay them excessive and disproportionate amounts of money to cover what they’re paying at the pump, and then, when they get to the pump, we subsidize them again!

I don’t think I have the time or the research with me right now to talk about the impact on various socioeconomic classes here, but I do want you to consider this. A family with multiple SUVs is likely to be making more than someone riding the bus to work. Who benefits more in this scenario? Obviously those with more assets. That’s not to say they don’t need it – probably a lot of people are having a hard time. But who are we really helping here? Are Californian’s dollars really being spent in a way that they can be proud of?

Well, as a former Californian, my answer is no. But this is a case study that we must all be aware of. Here in Missouri, our legislators don’t even like electric vehicles – but for the wrong reasons. It’s not that they realize they’re just a false panacea. No, they simply don’t believe in Climate Change. Obviously that’s, well, probably worse. But it’s also just delusional in a slightly different way. Other states might see this allocation of funds and want to do something similar. They shouldn’t.

So, This Week in Urbanism, I’m hoping you’ll see how some dollars we allocate are really little more than an illusion. We need to demand more of our legislators in every state, and also not simply rest assured that electing someone who seemingly cares about Climate Change will actually lead to decent climate policy. The status quo is strong and entrenched and we seem to keep digging those trenches deeper, ignoring what we already know works. Okay, so not as optimistic as last week. But this is important. Here in St. Louis, as we’re about to allocate historic amounts of Federal money, let’s be careful we spend it on long-term solutions. We have a real opportunity here. And we cannot just squander it on feel-good, short-term, subsidies that fuel harmful industries and habits.

Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

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