Month: May 2013

Beaverton Wants More Affordable Housing

By Doug DeFilipps

The Beaverton City Council is considering exempting non-profit organizations that open new affordable housing units from paying the city’s property tax. An associate planner for the city said that “affordable units [are] going to be a major challenge in the future” because “[t]he housing market is tight, and a lot of affordable units in Beaverton are occupied by residents who could pay more but opt for cheaper housing.”

If the goal is affordable housing, then the city should ease the tax and regulatory burden on all development and businesses. That way it would be easier for developers to build new housing, and housing would become more affordable. If a major cause of the lack of affordable housing is “people who could pay more but opt for cheaper housing,” then it makes sense to try to give everyone more, less expensive options.

Developers of affordable housing should not be given special treatment. Why should other developers, not to mention businesses and residents, be taxed more than these affordable housing groups? Why should they be forced to make up the shortfall?

Government entities, including the Beaverton City Council, have an obligation to treat all citizens and businesses fairly and equally, and not to pick favorites.

Doug DeFilipps is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University.

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Cascade in the Capitol: Testimony Against Local Tobacco Tax Proposal

John A. Charles, Jr. submitted testimony on Monday to the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue, speaking against a proposal to allow counties to impose local tobacco taxes.


Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO 

Before the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue

Regarding HB 2870-A

April 29, 2012 

 

I am writing in opposition to HB 2870-A.

This bill suffers from an inherent contradiction in its twin policy objectives: raising money and reducing tobacco consumption. For one to succeed, the other must fail.

None of the proponents want to admit this. They prefer to claim that the primary goal is “public health.” However,  the bill only requires that a minimum of 40% of the proceeds be spent on tobacco use prevention and cessation programs, which means that 60% of the funds will go for other uses. This clearly shows that public health is not the primary motivation behind the bill, revenue generation is.

If we admit that this is just a money bill, then there is no compelling argument in favor of taxing a product used by only a fifth of the population, in order to create a revenue stream that will likely benefit everyone. The only reason such bills get introduced is because it is politically easy to pick on a minority group engaged in a habit that is publicly scorned.  But we should not tax minorities just because we can.

If local governments genuinely want to spend more money on tobacco cessation programs, they already have access to the MSA settlement funds. Oregon has received over $1 billion in MSA money since 1998, but virtually none of it has gone to directly help smokers. Since that was one of the express purposes of creating the fund, I’d suggest local governments direct their lobbying efforts at state legislators who continue to use revenue from the MSA as an all-purpose slush fund.

Between state and federal tobacco taxes, plus the price hikes needed by the major tobacco companies to make the MSA payments, tobacco users have paid more than their fair share for any so-called “negative social externalities” associated with smoking. Please leave them alone by tabling HB 2870.

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WES at 4: Still a Financial Train Wreck

February marked the four-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the 14.7-mile commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. While the train’s owner, TriMet, has emphasized the steady growth in ridership over time, the truth is that WES has been a failure. Daily boardings are still far below the opening-day forecast, and taxpayers subsidize each rider by nearly $40 per round trip.

Although WES was 15 years in the making, it was always a project in search of a purpose. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for HWY 217; (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development;” or (3) a way of providing “another option” for travelers. None of these arguments holds up to scrutiny.

During legislative hearings in Salem, representatives from Washington County claimed that WES would take 5,000 motor vehicles per day off of nearby highways. But WES is not even capable of doing that because it only runs 8 times (each direction) over a four-hour period in the morning, and 8 more times in the afternoon, with seating capacity limited to 154 or less on each trip. The train does not run at all on weekends.

In contrast, both HWY 217 and I-5 are heavily used throughout the day, every day of the week, by passenger cars, trucks, buses and emergency service vehicles. WES only caters to passengers.

During its best hours of performance, the total number of passengers traveling on WES is less than 0.5% the number of motorists traveling on HWY 217/I-5 at those same hours. Moreover, every time WES crosses Scholls Ferry Road or any of the other busy East-West thoroughfares, it ties up dozens of vehicles for 40 seconds or more. Since the train itself typically only carries 20-50 passengers per trip, this means that WES actually has made Washington County congestion worse than it was before the train opened.

WES also will not be a catalyst for “transit-oriented development,” because the train stations are a nuisance, not an amenity. The noise associated with train arrivals was always underestimated and has proven to be a significant problem for nearby businesses and residents.

As for the hope that WES would provide “another transit option,” there were already two TriMet bus lines providing over 4,000 boardings per day in parallel routes prior to the opening of WES. Commuter rail simply replaced inexpensive bus service with a massively subsidized train.

Several key statistics summarize the problems with the train:

  • WES was originally projected to cost $65 million and open in 2000. It actually cost $161.2 million and opened in 2009.
  • TriMet projected an average daily ridership of 2,400 weekday boardings in the first year; actual weekday ridership was 1,156 in 2009 and has grown to 1,639 in 2013. Since each rider typically boards twice daily, only about 820 people actually use WES regularly.

To truly appreciate the high cost of commuter rail, we need to compare it with other types of service offered by TriMet: light rail and bus. The following are averages for the month of January 2013.

Operating cost per

Vehicle-hour

Operating cost per

Originating ride

Operating cost per

Vehicle-mile

Bus

    102.14

    3.97

    7.94

MAX

     282.13

    2.52

   18.84

WES

$ 1,251.94

$ 20.31

$ 57.30

The operating costs for WES are 12 times higher per hour than bus service, but the public benefits are not 12 times higher. In fact, WES is not even equal to bus service; it is far less flexible, and the equipment is unused most of the time.

TriMet recently predicted that within the next decade, more than half of all bus routes will be eliminated due to operating losses if something doesn’t change. The Board places the blame for this on a labor union contract that saddles the agency with the costliest employee benefits package in the nation. But the union did not force management to build an absurd commuter rail line; that was a choice made by the Board alone, without any consideration of the legacy costs it would impose on future riders.

There will be no happy ending to this story. WES is destined to be a one-hit wonder―an expensive monument to the egos of Westside politicians and TriMet managers. Taxpayers would be better served over the long term if we simply cancelled WES, repaid grant funds to the federal government, and moved the few WES customers back to buses.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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School Choice Results Trend Positive in New Study

School choice programs empower parents to choose the schools their children attend―public or private―by allowing parents to direct a portion of public education funding for their child through tax credits, scholarships, vouchers, and education savings accounts. School choice programs are among the most prominent and successful reforms in education today.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has released a new report examining 23 empirical studies of school choice programs. The report is authored by scholars at the University of Arkansas, Harvard University, the Federal Reserve Bank, Stanford University, and Cornell University.

According to the study, “[o]pponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.”

More than 250,000 students attend private schools through 41 school choice programs in 22 states and Washington, D.C. Expanding educational options through widely accessible school choice programs for all children can deliver the kind of dramatic improvement American schools desperately need to meet the diverse needs and aptitudes of all students. Putting parents back in charge is the way to revolutionize education today.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

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