Month: December 2014

No Wonder Portland Can’t Afford to Maintain Streets

The Portland City Council seems determined to raise taxes to pay for street maintenance. But the City doesn’t have a revenue shortage problem; it has a spending misallocation problem, which continues to grow.

The latest example is a proposal to begin collecting and publicizing energy consumption data from about 1,000 of the largest commercial buildings in the city. This is being proposed as part of the city’s Quixotic attempt to “fight climate change.” Proponents claim soothing words that the regulation would “provide market recognition to those who perform really well” on some arbitrary energy consumption scorecard.

In fact, this is just an effort to shame building owners, managers, and tenants into adjusting their behavior to conform to the political edicts of City Hall. Commercial buildings consuming “too much” energy will receive a Scarlet Letter and be harassed by bureaucrats and activist groups into expensive energy conservation retrofits, many of which will make no financial sense.

The cost of city oversight? At least one full-time employee. This is why city streets are falling apart. Too many bureaucrats are pushing papers for programs that are irrelevant to the core functions of government. The Council should kill this idea before it goes any further.

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Tide Goes Out on Ocean Energy

A new report released by Cascade Policy Institute concludes that the public-private partnership Oregon Wave Energy Trust has failed to achieve a return on public investment.

The Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET) is a nonprofit, public-private partnership established by the Oregon State Legislature that works to “responsibly develop ocean energy by connecting stakeholders, supporting research and development, and engaging in public outreach and policy work.” Since its inception in 2007, OWET has received nearly $12 million in public funding from the Oregon Innovation Council (Oregon InC), another government-sponsored entity. OregonInC claims its initiatives must earn a profit, but that is clearly not the case with OWET. None of the money spent to date by OWET has led to any profitability.

Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. commented, “Electric utilities in Oregon, both public and private, are quite capable of generating and delivering power to their customers. If wave power is a good idea, utilities themselves will bring it to commercial scale. If it’s a bad idea, taxpayers should not be forced to bear all the risks of early-stage experiments.”

The Cascade paper, entitled Waiving Profitability, recommends that Oregon legislative leaders “should closely examine all state-sponsored venture capital funds to determine if grant recipients will ever become financially self-sufficient, as originally envisioned. OWET would be an excellent place to start.”

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No Wonder Portland Can’t Afford to Maintain Streets

The Portland City Council seems determined to raise taxes to pay for street maintenance. But the City doesn’t have a revenue shortage problem; it has a spending misallocation problem, which continues to grow.

The latest example is a proposal to begin collecting and publicizing energy consumption data from about 1,000 of the largest commercial buildings in the city. This is being proposed as part of the city’s Quixotic attempt to “fight climate change.” Proponents claim soothing words that the regulation would “provide market recognition to those who perform really well” on some arbitrary energy consumption scorecard.

In fact, this is just an effort to shame building owners, managers, and tenants into adjusting their behavior to conform to the political edicts of City Hall. Commercial buildings consuming “too much” energy will receive a Scarlet Letter and be harassed by bureaucrats and activist groups into expensive energy conservation retrofits, many of which will make no financial sense.

The cost of city oversight? At least one full-time employee. This is why city streets are falling apart. Too many bureaucrats are pushing papers for programs that are irrelevant to the core functions of government. The Council should kill this idea before it goes any further.

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Report Shows No Return on Public Investment for Oregon Wave Energy Trust

PORTLAND, Ore. – A new report released by Cascade Policy Institute concludes that the public-private partnership Oregon Wave Energy Trust has failed to achieve a return on public investment.

The Oregon Wave Energy Trust (OWET) is a nonprofit, public-private partnership established by the Oregon State Legislature that works to “responsibly develop ocean energy by connecting stakeholders, supporting research and development, and engaging in public outreach and policy work.” Since its inception in 2007, OWET has received nearly $12 million dollars in public funding from the Oregon Innovation Council (Oregon InC), another government-sponsored entity. OregonInC claims its initiatives must earn a profit, but that is clearly not the case with OWET. None of the money spent to date by OWET has led to any profitability.

Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. commented, “Electric utilities in Oregon, both public and private, are quite capable of generating and delivering power to their customers. If wave power is a good idea, utilities themselves will bring it to commercial scale. If it’s a bad idea, taxpayers should not be forced to bear all the risks of early-stage experiments.”

The Cascade paper recommends that Oregon legislative leaders “should closely examine all state-sponsored venture capital funds to determine if grant recipients will ever become financially self-sufficient, as originally envisioned. OWET would be an excellent place to start.”

Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Cascade promotes public policy solutions that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. The full report, entitled Waiving Profitability: The Oregon Wave Energy Trust’s Failure to Achieve a Return on Public Investment, may be viewed here.

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Portland’s Streetcar Audit: What Went Wrong?

Last Thursday, auditors released a report questioning the Portland Streetcar’s performance. Ridership counts were inflated by 19%. Several additional metrics, including hourly vehicle operating costs and on-time performance, were either unreported or deemed not suitable for use. What went wrong?

First, too much data wasn’t reported. This includes measures for frequency of service, vehicle failure, and fare survey results. Other useful metrics, such as fare box recovery ratio, were simply incapable of being measured, due to a lack of data collection.

Second, when data existed, much was unreliable. Portland Streetcar uses surveying and self-reporting for many of its metrics, and these methods are prone to high error rates. Automatic passenger counters were recently installed to improve ridership accuracy. However, only six of the seventeen cars were outfitted, decreasing their overall effectiveness.

Finally, oversight was lacking. Performance reports were found to be incomplete with questionable results, an issue frequently overlooked by the Portland Bureau of Transportation. More troubling, the City does not have a systematic approach for using performance information to guide management decisions, leading to several missed opportunities for improvement.

Portland Streetcar has a long way to go before its metrics can be trusted again. While increased governmental supervision might sound enticing, there is a better way forward. Portland Streetcar should follow reproducible research principles and make its raw, unaggregated data easily available. This would allow anyone the ability to challenge their findings and methodology, the ultimate form of public oversight.

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Why Do City Leaders Keep Portland in the “Transportation Dark Ages?”

In November, Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, and Tigard joined Vancouver, Washington in welcoming ridesharing juggernaut Uber to operate legally in their cities. Last weekend, Uber began operating in Portland without permission, in effect daring the authorities to stop it. While the City has issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber, more than 10,000 people have signed an online petition asking Mayor Hales to let the company operate in Portland.

Until now, most major cities have granted virtual monopolies to a few taxicab companies on the assumption that government must protect both the livelihoods of drivers and the safety and convenience of passengers within their jurisdictions. But in a truly free economy, we should celebrate the technological innovation that allows people with cars to make money by giving rides to people who want them.

The “sharing economy” stems from the realization that all of us own assets that we may not use all the time, whether it’s a spare bedroom in your home (think Airbnb), or an automobile that sits in your driveway for hours a day. It’s time for Portland to live up to its hype and let young (and not so young) creatives do what they do best—create services that the rest of us want and need. It’s time to legalize transit freedom and bring Portland out of the Transportation Dark Ages.

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Portland Should Join the “Free World” of Ridesharing

In November, Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, and Tigard, Oregon joined Vancouver, Washington in welcoming ridesharing juggernaut Uber to operate legally in their cities. Conspicuously absent from this list was the region’s largest city, Portland, which became virtually surrounded by the smartphone app transit economy. Then, on the evening of December 5, Uber began operating without permission in Portland, in effect daring the authorities to stop it.*

If Soviet East Berlin couldn’t keep Western freedom out by building its infamous Wall, what chance does Portland have keeping its residents from exercising their freedom to choose ridesharing within arbitrary lines on a map?

Until now, most major cities have granted virtual monopolies to a few taxicab companies on the assumption that government must protect both the livelihoods of drivers and the safety and convenience of passengers within their jurisdictions. Economists will tell you that here, and in virtually every government-regulated industry, “the regulated end up capturing the regulators.” In this case the taxicab companies end up influencing government regulators to protect them from competition at the expense of the public.

Such influence is now ending in many cities, thanks to the rise of mobile applications, but it’s still going strong in Portland. So strong that a recent study of 50 large American cities gave Portland a grade of “F” for Transportation-Friendliness, primarily because it is so hostile to ridesharing.

Ridesharing can mean anything from carpooling with your neighbors to using a mobile app to summon one of many cars in your community whose owners are willing to drive you for money to your destination. Drivers can work as much or as little as they wish, “clocking in” to the app and out of it to fit their own lifestyles.

The new app economy has sprung up over a few short years, thanks to the creativity and productivity unleashed after another American “Berlin Wall” was torn down. The mandated breakup of the government-protected monopoly Bell Telephone System in 1982, and the rise of the Internet a few years later, led to the smartphones we all hold in our hands today. Going from no mobile applications in 2007, some two billion people worldwide now use them to improve their lives.

Mobile apps do virtually anything you can think of, from facilitating your online banking, to investing, to checking your health status…to helping you find quick, reliable transportation through companies such as Uber, Lyft, and a host of others.

Uber requires that drivers pass background checks, carry the proper insurance, own relatively new cars, etc. The beauty of ridesharing apps is that they can let drivers and passengers know something about who they’re riding with through instant feedback on the app. You can see your driver’s name, photo, car, license plate number, and rating by other passengers before ever getting in his or her car. Likewise, the driver can know your name and reputation assigned by your previous Uber drivers. Such feedback encourages everyone to be on their best behavior.

Uber requires that you pay with a previously enrolled credit card. No cash changes hands in the car, which may mean speedier and safer transactions. And, before ordering a ride the app can estimate the cost of your trip (often lower than a taxi) and how many minutes it will be before your car arrives. Note that nothing stops current taxicab companies from doing these same things―except perhaps government regulations.

This isn’t all about Uber. Uber is simply the largest ridesharing company at the moment, having just closed a $1.2 billion investment round that values the company at $40 billion. But if Uber fails to innovate or succumbs to recent bad publicity, it could end up like other also-ran technology firms. No ridesharing company has government-monopoly protection to shield it from your choosing another provider.

Beyond opening up transportation options for the public, ridesharing companies open up income-generating opportunities for car owners. In a truly free economy, we should celebrate the technological innovation that allows people with cars to make money by giving rides to people who want them.

The sharing economy itself stems from the realization that all of us own assets that we may not use all the time, whether it’s a spare bedroom in your home (think Airbnb), or an automobile that sits in your driveway for hours a day.

In city after city, people recognize the benefits of allowing ridesharing companies to operate. Portland Commissioner Steve Novick apparently justifies his decision to wait by saying he wants to find “…a way to adopt a less anachronistic [taxicab] system without destroying people’s livelihoods.” There is a way, Commissioner. Rather than imposing anachronistic regulations on ridesharing companies, remove them from the taxi industry and let everyone earn a living by offering customers more and better service.

Recently, more than 40 Portland business leaders demanded taxi reforms, calling on the City Council to legalize ridesharing. They wrote,

“…We have confidence you will see the laws and regulations that protect the taxi industry here in Portland for what they really are: outdated….They’re making people wonder―how can a taxi industry lobby keep Portland from being counted among the progressive, forward-thinking cities that are providing their residents and visitors with fast, easy, on demand services like Uber and its peers.” 

It’s time for Portland to live up to its hype and let young (and not so young) creatives do what they do best—create services that the rest of us want and need. It’s time to legalize transit freedom and bring Portland out of the Transportation Dark Ages.

* On December 8 the City issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber for 5pm December 11 and asked a Multnomah County judge to stop Uber from operating in Portland. Within less than 24 hours of these developments, Uber’s online petition asking Mayor Hales to let Uber operate in the City gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

 

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Press Release: Report Shows No Return on Investment for Portland Seed Fund

December 3, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org
 

PORTLAND, Ore. – A new report released by Cascade Policy Institute concludes that the managers of the publicly financed Portland Seed Fund cannot provide documentation to show any positive return on investment for the millions of dollars spent on risky start-up ventures.

The Portland Seed Fund is a public-private venture intended to close a funding gap for entrepreneurs. It invests $25,000 in each startup selected and reserves money for follow-up investments as well. The City of Portland, the City of Hillsboro, and the State of Oregon (through the Oregon Growth Account) supplied most of the money for the first Seed Fund and a significant portion of the second Seed Fund. So far, the public funds amount to $3.4 million, with another $100,000 likely to come from this year’s Portland Development Commission (PDC) budget. The City of Portland and the Oregon Growth Account are the two biggest supporters, each contributing $1.5 million or more.

The Portland Seed Fund has spent large amounts of taxpayer money to subsidize private-for-profit companies, yet governments which gave money could not provide information about the success of those expenditures when questioned by Cascade researchers. It is not even clear that there are any defined expectations for this fund. Very little information is available, and the average taxpayer would have no way of knowing where tax funds are being spent. The Seed Fund is not even listed on the City of Portland’s Investment Reports.

Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. commented, “The Portland Seed Fund allows politicians to play at being venture capitalists―without any of the personal risks that real venture capitalists bear. This is a misuse of taxpayer funds.”

The Cascade paper urges the City Councils of Portland and Hillsboro, and Oregon’s state legislators, to have public discussions about the Seed Fund, and either explain why tax funds are being spent on private companies or shut the Fund down.

Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Cascade promotes public policy solutions that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. The full report, entitled The Portland Seed Fund: Planting High Hopes, Reaping Few Results, may be viewed here.

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The Governor’s Budget: Much More Than Beer Money

Governor John Kitzhaber released his proposed 2015-17 budget this week. Critics were quick to argue that it’s either too much or too little, depending on their point of view. Media reports focused on his General Fund budget which, at $18.6 billion, would be an eleven percent increase over the current budget.

In an attempt to make this number seem inconsequential, one person commented on an Oregonian story that $18.6 billion over two years works out to about $6.50 per day per Oregonian. He characterized that as less than the price of one beer at a Blazer game, and noted that with the Governor’s budget “you get a whole state, and you’re only renting the beer.”

But that’s less than one third of the story. While the General Fund is, in effect, the discretionary part of the budget funded primarily by state income tax revenue, the All Funds budget is much larger.

At $66.5 billion, the Governor’s All Funds budget proposal is more than three-and-a-half times bigger than the $18.6 billion General Fund amount. Much of that comes from fees and federal funds, but it’s still our money.

So, in the words of that one-beer-a-day commenter, the Governor’s total budget proposal actually would buy every Oregonian three Blazer game beers a day. Put in a more meaningful way, that’s $16,625 over the two-year period for every man, woman, and child in the state. Or, $66,500 for a family of four. Now that’s real money.

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