Posts tagged ‘Phoenix’

Arizona Near Last in Local Food Consumption -- Good!

Our local fishwrap laments:

The local food movement in Arizona needs just that – movement.

While some shoppers enjoy spending their Saturday mornings at local farmers markets, new research indicates Arizona lacks per-capita sales in the local food industry.

The 2015 Locavore Index found that of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Arizona has the second lowest per-capita sales for local foods.

Here is a scoop for you:  We live in the middle of the freaking Sonoran desert.   It is a terrible place to grow most foods.  In fact, it is an environmentally awful place to grow food.   Local food folks somehow have gotten locked into transportation costs as the key driver of food sustainability that they want to focus on, but transportation costs are 10% or less of most food costs.  A small savings on transportation is absolutely dwarfed, from a productivity and resource use standpoint, by the productivity of the soil and the fit of the climate with whatever is being grown.

Here is one way to think of it -- yes, locally grown food may not have to be transported very far, but every drop of water for food grown here in the Phoenix area has to be brought hundreds of miles from declining reservoirs to grow that food.

The movement seems to imply that locally grown food is more healthy.  Why?  Why is an Arizona tomato healthier than a California tomato?

Finally, the micro-trade-protectionism is pretty funny:

If local Arizonans start buying more local food, the economy may benefit as well.

When buying local grown food, “the money stays here in the local economy, as opposed to buying something in a national chain,” said R.J. Johnson, a sales representative for Blue Sky Organic Farms in Litchfield Park. “You buy something locally, 75 percent of that money stays here in town.”

This is so economically ignorant as to be beyond belief.  If more people are growing food here locally (something that is likely a fairly unproductive task given our climate), what productive tasks are they giving up.  And this is a national effort -- are they really with a straight face telling every single state that they should buy more locally so their money stays at home?  Isn't that just one big zero sum game (actually a negative sum game because you lose benefits of specialization and comparative advantage).

Race and Petty Traffic Laws

When you hear that police pulled someone over for the totally BS charge of a "partially obscured license plate with only one light," can't you just assume the driver is probably black or Hispanic?

If I were a Mexican in Phoenix, I would do a full walk-around checking my vehicle before every trip.  A visiting friend once asked me if the fact that Hispanics all seem to drive so slow was a cultural thing and I said that more likely, they know they will get busted for going even a hair over the speed limit.

A few years ago I wrote vis a vis our infamous SB1070

When Kris Kobach says "In four different sections, the law [SB1070] reiterates that a law-enforcement official 'may not consider race, color, or national origin' in making any stops or determining an alien's immigration status," he is ignoring reality.  The law asks police to make a determination (e.g. probable cause that one is an illegal immigrant) that is impossible for actual human beings to make without such profiling.  It's like passing a law that says "police must drive their cars 30 miles a day but can't drive their cars to do so."  The reality on the ground here in Arizona is that, illegal or not, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been using racial profiling to make arrest sweeps for years, and his officers have become masters at finding some pretext to pull over a Mexican they want to check out  (e.g. the broken tail light).   Words in this law about racial profiling are not going to change anything.

Update:  I forgot this story from 2008, which is a great example of what I am talking about here

Arrest records from crime sweeps conducted by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office add substantial weight to claims that deputies usedracial profiling to pull Latino motorists over to search for illegal immigrants....

even when the patrols were held in mostly White areas such as Fountain Hills and Cave Creek, deputies arrested more Latinos than non-Latinos, the records show. In fact, deputies arrested among the highest percentage of Latinos when patrols were conducted in mostly White areas.

On the arrest records, deputies frequently cited minor traffic violations such as cracked windshields and non-working taillights as the reason to stop drivers.

"These are penny-ante offenses that (police) almost always ignore. This is telling you this is being used to get at something else, and I think that something else is immigration enforcement against Hispanic people," Harris said....

Phoenix Light Rail: We Spent $1.4 Billion (and Growing) To Subsidize ASU Students

The AZ Republic has some of the first information I have ever seen on the nature of Phoenix light rail ridership.  The first part confirms what I have always said, that light rail's primary appeal is to middle and upper class whites who don't want to ride on the bus with the plebes

Light rail has changed the demographics of overall transit users since the system opened in 2008, according to Valley Metro.

Passengers report higher incomes than bus riders, with more than a quarter living in households making more than $50,000 a year. Many riders have cars they could use.

The 20-mile system running through Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa recorded more than than 14 million boardings last year. Still, census data estimate less than one-third of 1 percent of Phoenix commuters — or about 2,000 people — use rail as their main transportation to work.

.0033% huh?  If we built similar facilities to serve everyone, it would only cost us about $420 billion at the rate of $1.4 billion per third of a percent.

But I thought this next bit was the most startling.  I always had a sneaking suspicion this was true but never have seen it in print before:

While the much larger bus system reaches most corners of the Valley, light rail connects specific destinations along a single line. Nearly half of light-rail riders are enrolled in college.

I must have missed this in the original sales pitch for the light rail line: "Let's pay $1.4 billion so ASU students can get to more distant bars."   Note that by these numbers, students likely outnumber commuters 10:1.  Doesn't bode well for light rail extensions that don't plow right through the middle of the most populous college campus in the country.

Postscript:  They don't break out people riding to get to sporting events downtown, but sporting events make up most of the largest traffic days on the system.  From my personal acquaintances, many people use light rail as a substitute for expensive downtown parking at sporting events, parking (often semi-illegally) near light rail stops and taking the train the rest of the way in.  On the whole, its not very compelling as a taxpayer to be helping to subsidize someone else's parking.  And from a municipal fiscal standpoint, it means that light rail fares may be cannibalizing (on a much greater ratio than 1:1 given the price differential) parking fees at municipal parking lots.

Why Valley Metro (Phoenix Light Rail) Can't Be Trusted and Shouldn't Be Given More Tax Money to Play With

I was reading this article in the Arizona Republic (which is generally an unskeptical cheerleader for light rail investments) and looking at the claim that Valley Metro (the operator of Phoenix light rail) had a 45% fare recovery ratio in 2013.  One would think that means that their fares cover 45% of their costs -- which would be awful for any real enterprise but is pretty good for government-run rail systems.

But in fact, Valley Metro (along with rail supporters in the Administration) stack the deck by defining most of the costs out of this metric so it looks far better than it really is.  In fact, by my reading of their financial statements, the true fare recovery is at best 15.2% and likely much worse.

Here are the Valley Metro financials for 2013, from their annual report



Look at their costs of $75+ million and fares of about $12.8 million.  How do they get to 45%?  Simple -- they leave the majority of their costs out.  They exclude administrative costs, financing costs, and depreciation (essentially their capital cost) from the equation.  This means that their fare recover is 45% -- IF you ignore their large administrative costs and you ignore the $1.4+ billion the line cost to build.   Further, because of the way the government does its finances, it is also missing any financing costs (interest and such on debt).

So the true cost recovery, stated in a way that  a reasonable person would think about such a number, is 16.8% at best.  If one takes into account the $8.28 million in "non-operating expenses" the number is 15.2%.  And it is even lower if you were to include interest and other financing costs.

I am sure Valley Metro will argue that this is the way the Feds measure it.  I don't care.  It has an obligation to accurately report its financial position to the public who is paying for it, particularly when the public is considering further investments in the form of higher taxes.  The 45% is a meaningless number that is crafted solely to make light rail look financial stronger than it really is.

This, by the way, is why total ridership of rail + buses has stalled since the construction of the light rail line.  Light rail is so expensive per rider that it is starving cash from the rest of the system.

The Most Racist Housing Markets Are In... San Francisco

In advance of the Obama Administration trying to pursue cities and neighborhoods for not being sufficiently racially integrated, Cato has an interesting take on the question.

The real problem with housing affordability is not at the community level but at the regional level. In a region that has few land-use restrictions, a community that has attracted wealthy people is not going to have much of an effect on the affordability of the region as a whole because builders can always construct more affordable housing elsewhere. The problem is in regions with urban-growth boundaries and other restrictions that limit the construction of affordable housing over the entire region.

If HUD were to apply disparate-impact criteria to regions, it might look at the change in African-American populations between 2000 and 2010. Nationwide, the black population grew by 11 percent in that time period, which was about 1.3 percent faster than the population as a whole. Regions whose black populations grew less than 1.3 percent faster than their whole populations could be considered guilty of housing discrimination.

Based on this, the most racist major (more than a million people) urban area in America is San Francisco-Oakland. Though that region’s population grew by 285,000 people between 2000 and 2010, or 9.5 percent, the region’s black population actually shrank by nearly 49,000, or 14.2 percent, for a difference in growth rates of minus 23.7 percent.

That decline was entirely due to strict land-use policies that prevent development outside of the 17 percent of the region that has already been urbanized, making the Bay Area one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation. Moreover, a recent planto improve affordability by following HUD’s prescription of building more high-density housing was found to actually reduce affordability.

Other major urban areas that would be found racist include Austin (-21.5% difference between black and overall population growth), Riverside-San Bernardino (-17.5%), Honolulu (-15.4%), San Diego (-14.6%), Los Angeles (-14.5%), Bakersfield (-13.6%), and San Jose (-11.1%). All of these regions except Austin have some form of growth-management policy, while Austin has become the least affordable housing market in Texas due to local housing policies.

By comparison, the least racist major urban area is Salt Lake City, whose black population grew 57 percent faster than its total population. Other non-racist areas include Minneapolis-St. Paul (42%), Phoenix (34%), Providence (25%), Boston (19%), Las Vegas (17%), Columbus (14%), Orlando (14%), Atlanta (13%), Tampa (13%), and Miami (10%). Of these, only Providence and Boston are surprises since both have serious housing affordability problems.

The folks at Cato argue that the HUD's preferred approach of promoting high-density housing actually makes the problem worse.  This should not be surprising, since Federal policy driven by New Deal Democrats is responsible for most of the worst segregation issues in major cities.

Great Example of Concentrated Benefits / Dispersed Costs Cronyism: New Phoenix Rail Tax

The hefty sales tax that funds Phoenix light rail deficits is about to expire, and as is usual, politicians not only don't want it to expire but they want to double it so they can build more over-priced rail lines.

One of the reasons that stuff like this is so hard to fight is a phenomenon called "concentrated benefits but dispersed costs."  This means that, particularly for certain crony handouts, the benefits accrue to just a few actors who, due to the size of these giveaways, have a lot of financial incentive to promote and defend them.  The costs, on the other hand, are dispersed such that the final bill might only be a few dollars per taxpayer, such that no individual has much incentive to really pay up to support the fight.

A great example of this is sugar tariffs.  These raise the price of sugar (as well as reducing our choices and effectively promoting imperfect substitutes like HFCS) so we as consumers should all fight them.  But the higher cost of sugar might only cost us, say, $20 each a year individually.   Are you really going to donate $100 in a political cause to save $20?  On the other side, these tariffs create millions and millions of dollars in profit for a few sugar producers, such that they have a lot of money and incentive to spend big on lobbying to keep the tariffs in place.

The new Phoenix light rail tax increase gives us a yet another sad example of the phenomenon:

Construction companies, engineering firms and transit service providers are the biggest early supporters of the Proposition 104 campaign to expand Phoenix transportation, while the group fighting the proposed tax increase still seeks major funding.

The MovePHX campaign, supporting the bus, light rail and street improvement plan going before city voters in August, raised $382,900 from March through the end of May, according to finance reports filed Monday.

Opposition group Taken for A Ride — No on Prop 104 received just under $417 from individuals over the same period. A second campaign committee opposed to the proposition formed after the contribution reporting period ended....

More than half of the contributions to the MovePHX campaign during the reporting period came from engineering, design and construction firms, including many that were hired for design and consultation on the Valley's first stretch of light rail.

The largest single donation came from We Build Arizona, a group of engineering, contracting and transit organizations that donated $125,000 to the campaign. TransDev and Alternate Concepts, Inc., which hold bus and light rail service contracts, contributed more than $35,000 combined.

A combined $30,000 came from police, firefighter and food and commercial worker union political action committees.

$382,900 to $417.  That is why cronyism is so prevalent.

Is the Light Rail Fail Moving to Las Vegas?

Patrick Everson has the first of a two-part series of editorials in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on light rail.  In this first part, he is nice enough to refer to much of what I have written here about the problems with Phoenix Light Rail.  You can find his editorial here.

Transit Net Transit Ridership Does Not Go Up When Cities Build Rail

As I have written before, Phoenix has seen its total transit ridership flat to down since it built its light rail line.  This after years of 6-10% a year increases in ridership.  Most cities, even the oft-worshipped Portland, have seen the same thing.  Here is the chart for Phoenix (if you look closely, you can see how they fudged the bar scaling to make light rail ridership increases look better).



The reason is that per passenger, or per mile, or per route, or whatever way you want to look at it, rail systems are 1-2 orders of magnitude more expensive than buses.  Since most cities are reluctant to increase their spending on transit 10-100x when they build trains (and to be fair, proponents of rail projects frequently make this worse by fibbing about future costs and revenue expectations), what happens is that bus routes are cut to fund rail lines.  But since buses are so much cheaper, 10 units of bus capacity, or more, must be cut for each one unit of rail capacity.

The Anti-planner shows us an example in Honolulu.  No, the line is not finished so this effect has not happened yet, but you can see it from a mile away:

The city and state officials who promoted construction of Honolulu’s rail transit line now admitthat they don’t know how they are going to pay for the cost of operating that line. Between 2019, when the first part of the line is expected to open for business, and 2031, those costs are expected to be $1.7 billion, or about $140 million per year. In 2011, the annual operating cost was estimated to be $126 million a year.

Honolulu has about a hundred bus routes, which cost about $183 million to operate in 2013, or less than $2 million per route. The rail line will therefore cost about 70 times as much to operate as the average bus route.

So they have budgeted no money for operations, and are probably underestimating net operating costs as their revenue projections, as discussed later in the article, are transparently over-optimistic (this is always a good bet, since 99% of rail projects under-estimate their costs and over-estimate their ridership).  The rail line will cost as much to operate as 2/3 of their city's entire bus system, which is extensive and well-used. So how many bus routes will be cut to fund this one route?  10?  30?  70?

By the way, beyond the obvious harm to taxpayers, the other people hurt by this are the poor who are disporportionately bus users.  Rail systems almost always go from middle/upper class suburbs to business districts and seldom mirror the transit patterns of the poor.  Middle class folks who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus love the trains, but these same folks already have transportation alternatives.  The bus lines that get cut to fund the trains almost always serve much lower income folks with fewer alternatives.

Writing A More Accurate Headline: Phoenix Cities Take Big Loss on Superbowl

For reasons I will not get into yet again, cheer-leading local sports subsidies is essentially built into the DNA of most big city newspapers.

Last week our paper ran this headline:

'15 Super Bowl visitors boosted tax revenue by double digits


Combined sales tax revenue for January and February totaled $14 million in roughly similar categories for restaurants, bars, hotels and retail in downtown Phoenix, Westgate and Scottsdale. That was up 19.5 percent over the same time a year ago.

That sounds awesome.  Take that, all you public subsidy skeptics.   Giving the Superbowl the benefit of the doubt and ignoring things like growth and the really good weather this winter, that is $2.28 million increase in taxes which we will generously ascribe all to the Superbowl.  And probably mostly taken from non-Arizonans, so its like free money.

It is only later in the article that the paper sheepishly inserts this:

Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale and tourism bureaus from Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa combined to spend more than $5.6 million on Super Bowl events and public safety.

So we spent $5.6 million (probably under-estimated) to make $2.28 million (probably not all Superbowl related).  The headline was thus a total crock of Sh*t but typical of how, in small ways and large, the media helps push for bigger and bigger government.  I am sure the hotels and restaurants did well -- if so, then they are free to form a consortium to pay for the Superbowl's cost next time.  Or better yet, have some other sucker city host it and I will happily watch on TV.

Update:  I missed this part:

The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority and Glendale provided a $6.2 million rebate to the NFL on Super Bowl ticket sales, said Kevin Daniels, authority chief financial officer.

I can't tell from the article if that $6.2 million is or is not in the numbers above.  I presume it is netted out before hand so that the gain in sales tax would be $6.2 million higher than reported above if this provision did not exist.  But this does mean that another valid headline would be:

Nearly 75% of Superbowl Sales Tax Gains Given to the NFL

Oceania, Arizona

My little town that in the Phoenix area is apparently setting up surveillance cameras all over town, hidden in fake cacti.   This never once was discussed in any public meeting, and residents only found out about it when the cameras starting going up.

Residents were alarmed to see the cactus cameras popping up throughout the town over the last few days with no indication of what they were being used for as city officials refused to explain their purpose until all the cameras were installed.

Town leaders initially declined to even talk to local station Fox 10 about the cameras, with Paradise Valley Police saying they were “not prepared to make a statement at this time.” The network was similarly rebuffed when they attempted to get answers on license plate scanners that were being installed in traffic lights back in February.

Fox 10’s Jill Monier was eventually able to speak to Town Manager Kevin Burke, who admitted that the cameras were being used to “run license plates of cars against a hotlist database.”

When asked why officials had been secretive about the cameras, which are being placed on the perimeter of the town, Burke asserted that there was “nothing to hide” and that the cameras wouldn’t be activated until privacy concerns had been addressed.

“Shouldn’t that have been vetted before they even went up?” asked Monier, to which Burke responded, “It probably is fair.”

This appears to be part of the on-again-pretend-to-be-off-again DHS program to set up nationwide tracking of license plates.  Ugh.  Really gives a creepy Owrellian vibe to our town name of "Paradise Valley".  More good news:

The American Civil Liberties Union subsequently revealed that the cameras were also using facial recognition technology to record who was traveling in the vehicle “as part of an official exercise to build a database on people’s lives,” reported the Guardian.

Lack of Hotel is Not a Market Failure -- It Was a Market Success

For some reason, it appears that building hotels next to city convention centers is a honey pot for politicians.  I am not sure why, but my guess is that they spend hundreds of millions or billions on a convention center based on some visitation promises.  When those promises don't pan out, politicians blame it on the lack of a hotel, and then use public money for a hotel.  When that does not pan out, I am not sure what is next.  Probably a sports stadium.  Then light rail.  Then, ?  It just keeps going and going.

I thought we in Phoenix took some kind of prize with this:

The city-owned Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel has lost so much money — more than $28.2 million total — that some city leaders say the hotel must be put in the hands of the private sector.

They also worry that the hotel, Arizona's largest with 1,000 rooms, could harm other projects in the downtown core.

When Phoenix leaders opened the Sheraton in 2008, they proclaimed it would be a cornerstone of downtown's comeback. They had one goal in mind: lure big conventions and tourism dollars. Officials argued the city needed the extra hotel beds to support its massive taxpayer-funded convention center a block away.

But apparently things are even worse in Baltimore:

The city-owned Hilton Baltimore convention center hotel lost $5.6 million last year — a worse performance than 2013 despite its close location to Camden Yards and the Orioles' playoff run.

It was the seventh consecutive year that the hotel has underperformed financially, according to an audit of financial statements presented Wednesday to the city's Board of Estimates. Under the deal's initial projections, the hotel was supposed to be making $7 million in profit by now — pumping that mone into the city's budget....

The hotel has lost more than $70 million since it opened.

I am sure that politicians in both cities called the lack of a hotel a market failure.  But now we see that it was a market success.  All the companies who chose not to build a hotel with private money obviously knew what they were doing, and only the political benefits of pandering the the public at large and a few special interests in specific made it seem like an attractive investment to city politicians.  Which is all pretty unsurprising, since hotels have pretty much been built off every exit ramp in this country, so there seems to be no private inhibition towards building hotels -- just towards building hotels in bad locations.

Government's Systematic Indifference to Capital Maintenance

There is one thing you can almost always assume with government managed land and infrastructure -- facilities will likely have a large deferred maintenance backlog.  Two examples:

These problems are ubiquitous.  You can point to any government parks agency, and most any transit agency, and you will find the same problems.

Why?  Well, I have not studied the problem in any academic sense, but I am face-to-face with the problem every day in parks.

Let's start with the reason that is not true -- that somehow budgets can't support capital maintenance.  I know for a fact that this is not true in parks.  We operate over 100 public parks and are totally up to date with all maintenance and have no deferred maintenance backlog.  This is despite the fact that we work with only the fees paid by visitors at the gate.  Government agencies typically supplement fees at the gate with an equal amount of tax money and still don't keep up with maintenance.  So the issue may be costs or priorities, but the money is there to keep parks fixed up.  (I am willing to believe the same is not true of large transit projects, but these projects are known in advance not to be able to cover their lifecycle costs with revenues, and simply hide that fact from taxpayers until it is too late.  Thus the sales tax increase that is being requested in Phoenix to keep our new light rail running).

I think the cause lies in a couple areas related to government incentives

  1. Legislatures never want to appropriate for capital maintenance.  If the legislature somehow has, say, $100 million money it can spend on infrastructure, their incentives are to use it to build new things rather than to keep the old things in repair (e.g. to extend a rail line rather than to keep the old one fixed).
  2. If you want to understand a government agency's behavior, the best rule of thumb is to assume that they are working to maximize the headcount and the payroll budget of their agency.  I know that sounds cynical, but if you do not understand an agency's position or priorities, try applying this test:  What would the agency be doing or supporting if it were trying to maximize its payroll.  You will find this explains a lot

To understand #2, you have to understand that the pay and benefits -- and perhaps most important of all -- the prestige of an agency's leaders is set by its headcount and budgets.  Also, there are many lobbying forces that are always trying to pressure an agency, but no group is more ever-present, more ubiquitous, and more vocal than its own staff.   Also, since cutting staff is politically always the hardest thing for legislators to do, shifting more of the agency's budget to staff costs helps protect the agency against legislative budget cuts.  Non-headcount expenses are raw meat for budget cutters, and the first thing to get swept.  By the way, this is not unique to public agencies -- the same occurs in corporations.   But corporations, unlike government agencies, face the discipline of markets that places a check on this tendency.

This means that agencies are loath to pay for the outside resources (contractors and materials) that are needed for capital maintenance projects out of their regular budgets.  When given the choice of repairing a bathroom at the cost of keeping a staff person, agencies will always want to choose in favor of keeping the staff.  They assume capital maintenance can always be done later via special appropriation, but of course we saw earlier that legislators are equally unlikely to prioritize capital maintenance vs. other alternatives.

The other related problem faced is that this focus on internal staff tends to drive up pay and benefits of the agency workers.  This drives up the cost of fundamental day to day tasks (like cleaning bathrooms and mowing) and again helps to starve out longer-horizon maintenance functions.

As proof, you only have to look at the mix of agency budgets.  Many parks agencies (e.g. New Jersey state parks, which I have studied in depth) have as much as 85% of their budget go to internal staff.  My company, which does essentially the same thing (run parks) has about 32% of our budget go to staff.  State parks agencies have 50% or more of their staff in headquarters or regional offices.  In my company, 99% of the staff is in the parks.

I don't think that these incentives problems can be overcome -- they are simply too fundamental to how government works.  Which is why I spend my working hours trying to convince states to privatize the operation of their recreation facilities.

Phoenix Wants to Double the Light Rail Tax

Our great city is proposing to double the sales tax increase dedicated to light rail and make the increase permanent.  This all so we can spend more money to shift people from busses to a mode that is more than 10x more expensive per passenger mile.

I Believe the Trend Was Caused by All the Things I Believed Before I Investigated the Trend

This is so common that there ought to be a name for it (perhaps there is and I just don't know it):  Writer does a story or study on some trend, in this case the downfall of the enclosed shopping mall.  In each case, the writer discovers that such malls died because of ... all the things the writer already holds dear.  If the writer hates American consumerism, then the fall of such malls is a backlash against American consumerism.

It is interesting to note that all of the ideas quoted are demand-side explanations, e.g. why might consumers stop going to large enclosed malls.  And certainly I find the newer outdoor malls more congenial personally, but this can't be the only explanation.  Here in north Phoenix, I can see the dying enclosed Paradise Valley Mall out my window, but just a few miles away is the Scottsdale Fashion Square, a traditional mall that appears to be going great guns.  Ditto the Galleria in Houston.  Perhaps part of the answer is that enclosed malls were simply overbuilt and that people are willing to drive a bit to get to the best enclosed mall in town rather than a smaller version closer to their home (certainly Mall of America made a big bet on that effect).

But it also strikes me there are supply side considerations.  The mall out my window is a huge waste of space, surrounded by parking lots the size of a small county.  And it's just retail.  Modern outdoor malls allow developers to mix shopping, living, and office space in what looks to my eye to be a much denser development.  All these malls have stores on the ground floor with condos and offices up above.  To my not-real-estate-trained eye, this would seem to increase the potential rents in a given piece of land and provide some synergies among the local businesses (e.g. office workers and residents eat and shop in the mall shops).  In some sense it is a re-imagining of the downtown urban space in a suburban context.  This is ironic because it is something urban planners have been trying to force for decades and here comes the free market to do it on its own.

People also like going to newer facilities.  Just ask hotel owners.  If owners do not totally refresh a hotel every 20 years or so, people stop visiting and rates fall.  The same is true of gas stations and convenience stores.  When I worked at Exxon briefly, they said they budgeted to totally rebuild a gas station every 20 years.  So it is not impossible there is a big supply-side explanation here -- if people are reluctant to go to establishments over 20 years old, then visitation of enclosed malls should be collapsing right about now, 20 years after they stopped being built.  A shift in developer preferences could be a large element driving this behavior.  I don't insist that the supply side and real estate incentives are the only explanation, but I think they are a part of it.

Is Phoenix Light Rail Fudging Its Charts to Look Better?

I bring your attention back to this chart from this post the other day about light rail killing transit growth.


I have no evidence that this chart was deliberately manipulated, but somehow the light rail ridership bar for 2014 got exaggerated.  It certainly seems suspicious.  Light rail ridership went up from 2013 to 2014 by only about 45,000, or 0.3%.  This is negligible  We should not even see the bar move.  Note the total ridership in 2011 and 2010 when ridership fell by 86,000 but the bar lengths are almost indistinguishable.  The rail ridership looks to my eye like the bar is 7-9% longer, not 0.3% longer.  In fact, the bar for 2014 clearly goes past the halfway point between 10 and 20, despite the fact that 14.3 should be less than halfway.  In fact, the 2014 rail increase of 45,000 is graphed as visually larger than the 1.3 million decrease in busses.

The Graveyard of Cronyism

Phoenix businesses add hundreds of jobs every week.  However, the only jobs that every get subsidized are in sexy businesses.  That is because the subsidies themselves make zero sense, from an economic or public policy standpoint.   The point is not to create jobs, but to create press releases and talking points for politicians and their re-election campaigns.

And there is little that is sexier to politicians spending taxpayer money to get themselves re-elected than solar and Apple computer.  Which brings us to this plant in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix), which I am calling the Graveyard of Cronyism.


This plant was built by First Solar to build solar panels.  I would have to quit my day job and work full-time to figure out all the ways this plant was subsidized by taxpayers -- special feed-in tariffs for First Solar customers, government tax breaks for solar panel purchases, direct government subsidies and grant programs for solar panel purchases, the DOE loan guarantee program for solar... etc.  In addition, the City of Mesa committed $10 million in infrastructure improvements to lure First Solar to the site.  I can't find what economic development incentives there were but there must have been tax abatements.  In addition, the company was promised a further $20 million in economic development funds from the County, but fortunately (unlike most such deals) the funds were tied to hitting employment milestones and were never paid.  First Solar never produced a single panel at the plant before it realized it had no need for it.

More recently, Apple and sapphire glass manufacturer GT Advanced bought the empty plant from First Solar.  And again there was much rejoicing among politicians locally.  Think of it -- Two great press release opportunities for politicians in just three years for the same plant!  I never feel like we get the whole story on the development deals offered for these things but this is what we know:

Brewer and the Arizona Legislature approved tax breaks related to sales taxes on energy at manufacturing plants. The state also put the Apple/GT plant into a special tax zone that pays a 5 percent commercial property tax rate. Most Arizona companies pay a 19 percent rate this year and an 18.5 percent next.

[In addition,] Apple was slated to received [sic] $10 million from the Arizona Competes Fund for the Mesa factory. The Arizona Commerce Authority — the privatized state economic development agency which administers the $25 million sweeten-the-deal fund along with Gov. Jan Brewer — said neither Apple nor GT Advanced (Nasdaq: GTAT) have received any money.

Well, it turns out that artificial sapphire sounds really cool (a pre-requisite for crony deals) but it is not so great for cell phones.  Apple went another way and did not use the technology on iPhone 6 -- not just for timing reasons but because there are real issues with its performance.

So a second crony buys the plant and does not even move in.

What's next?  I am thinking the best third tenant at the sexy-crony nexus would be an EV battery plant, or even better yet Tesla.  It is too bad Fiskar motors went out of business so soon or they would be the perfect next crony fail for this site.

Phoenix Light Rail Update: We Spent $1.4billion+ to Reduce Transit Ridership

Check this graph out from the Phoenix Metro web site.  It shows bus ridership in years past, and more recently both bus and light rail ridership.

click to enlarge


You can see a few things.  First, note that almost all the rail ridership came at the expense of bus ridership.  It  was almost a pure 1:1 substitution.  The bus ridership, even with a half year of light rail being open, was 65.7 million in 2009.  Total ridership was only 67.6 million in 2010 and 2011.  Yes there is a recession here, but of the 12 million or so in light rail ridership, at least 10-11 million of that came out of buses.  Essentially, we paid $1.4 billion in capital costs to move 10 million riders to a mode of transit that is at least an order of magnitude more expense.  Nice work.

Second, note that after over 12 years of growth, with the onset of light rail transit ridership has stagnated for 6 years.  Some of this, at least initially, is likely due to the recession but in fact recessions are supposed to spur transit ridership, not reduce it, as people look for lower cost alternatives.  There is a good explanation for this.  Because light rail is so much more expensive, the cost per rider for the entire transit system has skyrocketed.  With budgets unable to be increased this fast (and with fares covering only a tiny percentage of rail costs), the system must cut back somewhere.  Since rail can't really be cut back, bus routes are cut.

If we had seen the same growth rate from 2009 to 2014 as we had seen in the twelve years prior, we should have over 86 million trips in 2014 (note these are fiscal years, and fiscal year 2014 is already closed, so this is not partial year data).

We paid, and continue to pay (since rail must be subsidized heavily) billions of dollars to reduce transit ridership.

More Bipartisan Cronyism in Phoenix: Subsidizing Real Estate so that Future Transit Expenditures Can Be Justified

Yuk.  $14 million giveaway to developer

Last week, Phoenix City Council members approved a deal for the $82 million high-rise, mixed-use Phoenix Central Station. The development at Central Avenue and Van Buren Street will include about 475 apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

As part of the deal, Phoenix would give the developer, Smith Partners, a controversial tax-abatement incentive called a Government Property Lease Excise Tax for the tower portion of the project. The agreement allows developers to avoid paying certain taxes through deals that title their land or buildings to a government entity with an exclusive right to lease the property back.

In this case, the city already owns the land, but the developer will eventually take title over the building. The arrangement allows them to not pay property taxes for 25 years, which a city official estimates would be $600,000 to $900,000 per year based on conversations with the developer. However, the developer will make smaller lease payments back to the city, and, after eight years, pay taxes on those lease payments.

The agreement requires the developer to pay the city a portion of its revenue, which will net the city an estimated $4.4 million over the first 25 years

The difference from the $4.4 million they will actually pay and 25 years at $750,000 in property taxes is about $10 million (fudging concerns about present value and such).  I used to be OK with anything that reduced taxes for anyone, but now I have come to realize that discounting taxes for one preferred crony just raises taxes for the rest of us.  [Props to Republican Sal Deciccio for being one of two to vote against this]

Here is my guess as to what is going on here.  Phoenix paid a stupid amount of money to build a light rail line that costs orders of magnitude more money than running the same passengers in buses.  One of the justifications for this gross over-expenditure on the light rail boondoggle was that it would spur development along the line.  But it is not really doing so.  Ridership on light rail has been stagnant for years, as has been transit ridership (most of the light rail ridership gains simply cannibalized from bus service, shifting low-cost-to-serve bus riders to high-cost-to-serve train riders).

So they need to be able to show transit-related development to justify future light rail expansions.  Thus, this subsidized development along the rail line.

I will make a firm bet.  Within 5 years we will have Phoenix politicians touting this development as a result of the light rail investment with nary a mention of the $10 million additional taxpayer subsidy it received.

Penny-Ante Police Harassment and the Poor

The other day I wrote:

[Cars owned by African-Americans in Ferguson] are stopped at about a 6x higher rate for "equipment" deficiencies than whites.  Nitpicky regulations on car conditions (in Arizona your licence plate frame cannot cover any part of the word "Arizona" on the licence plate) are the great bugaboo of the poor and a nearly unlimited warrant for the police to stop minorities.  Mexicans here in Phoenix will tell me "woe to the Mexican who drives around here with a broken tail light -- he will be pulled over 3 times a day to have his immigration status checked".  In Phoenix, at least, stops for equipment issues are roughly the equivalent of pulling someone over for "driving while brown."  Even beyond the open-ended warrant these silly violations give the police, the fines and court costs create meaningful indebtedness problems for the poor which are hard to overcome.

Alex Tabarrok highlights some numbers from Arch City Defenders

new report from Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal defense organization, shows that the Ferguson municipal courts are a stunning example of these problems:

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority (67%) of
residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of

I can testify to that last point.  I worked in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years, which ironically is located in one corner of Ferguson.  One of the unwritten bennies of working there was the in house legal staff.  It was important to make a friend there early.  In Missouri they had some bizarre law where one could convert a moving violation to a non-moving violation.  A fee still has to be paid, but you avoid points on your license that raises insurance costs (and life insurance costs, I found out recently).  All of us were constantly hitting up the in-house legal staff to do this magic for us.  I am pretty sure most of the residents of Ferguson do not have this same opportunity.

Racial Profiling in Ferguson

The Washington Post has numbers on the much higher rate at which blacks are stopped and/or searched in Ferguson vs. whites.  By itself, while that is a useful pointer to a discrimination issue, someone might argue that blacks in the area commit more crimes per capita and thus warrant more stops.

There is one bit of data in the Post's numbers that can be used to partially address this.  The data says that blacks have their cars searched much more frequently than whites.   Blacks have their cars searched 12.13% of stops while whites have their cars searched only 6.85% of stops.  But this understates the disparity, since blacks are stopped at a higher rates than whites.    Taking the disparity in stops in to account, blacks are searched at a rate 6 times higher than for whites.

The interesting part is in the data on contraband hit rate, ie the rate that searches uncover something illicit.  The contraband hit rate for white car searches is 57% higher than for black car searches.  In other words, it is more likely searches of white cars will yield something illegal.  Which tends to undercut the argument that the greater rate of black car searches is somehow justified.

By the way, I want to highlight one other figure.  Black cars are stopped at about a 6x higher rate for "equipment" deficiencies than whites.  Nitpicky regulations on car conditions (in Arizona your licence plate frame cannot cover any part of the word "Arizona" on the licence plate) are the great bugaboo of the poor and a nearly unlimited warrant for the police to stop minorities.  Mexicans here in Phoenix will tell me "woe to the Mexican who drives around here with a broken tail light -- he will be pulled over 3 times a day to have his immigration status checked".  In Phoenix, at least, stops for equipment issues are roughly the equivalent of pulling someone over for "driving while brown."  Even beyond the open-ended warrant these silly violations give the police, the fines and court costs create meaningful indebtedness problems for the poor which are hard to overcome.

(As a mostly irrelevant aside, I worked essentially in one corner of Ferguson in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years.  Like many of the inner ring of suburbs in St Louis, this is not a wildly prosperous area but it also is not Somalia.  Driving at night I was much more nervous in the neighborhoods both due south and due East of Ferguson).

Update:  Via Zero Hedge

20140814_shoot (1)

In Defense of Phoenix Parks

Apparently Phoenix does not rank so well among cities in terms of parks.  I find these surveys next to worthless, since they tend to reflect the biases and preferences of the authors.  If the authors really like public pools, your city better have a lot of those or they will be ranked low.

For those considering the Phoenix area, here are three dimensions on which our parks are fabulous:

  • We have large wilderness areas and whole mountains right in the middle of the city.  South Mountain park, Piestewa Peak (formerly Squaw Peak park) and Camelback Mountain are all right in the middle of town.  The offer some of the best urban hiking and climbing I have ever encountered.  I can't think of a city I have been in with anything similar -- Boulder Mountain park is kind of similar (and better) but it is adjacent to the town, not right in the middle.
  • If you or your kids play soccer or baseball, we have some of the best sports fields options in the country.  Soccer is a huge game hear for kids and adults, and we have lots of options, including a number of indoor locations for the hot summer time.  Our baseball fields are unparalleled.  I don't like the fact we have built so many spring training locations for professional teams with public money, but the one upside is that there are a lot of beautiful baseball fields available any month except March.  My son has been playing on MLB fields since he was in 8th grade.
  • We have tons and tons of golf.   I am not a golfer, but we have over 200 courses in the county.  This means competition.  Which means reasonable rates.  And they are all open to the public (I can only think of 3-4 courses in the area that are country club courses for members only).  I can walk to two different, quality courses that have great rates, particularly after 1PM and during the summer time.

One other dimension related to recreation.  I know places like Boulder and Portlandia have the reputation of being biking cities, but Phoenix is a pretty big biking town.  No, we don't bike to work much due to the climate, but wide flat streets and large areas without much traffic and nice vistas (e.g. the Paradise Valley area) make it a popular biking area.

Exaggerating Transit Use for Fun and Higher Taxes. Or How PIRG Supports the 1% over the 99%

The Arizona PIRG has a report that can be summarized as "transit is increasing fast, driving is falling, all of our future investment should be in transit".  The Valley Fever blog has the story:

Arizonans are driving less, and relying more on public transportation, according to a report from the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The shift is causing the Arizona PIRG Education Fund to recommend that public officials shift funding away from more highway projects, and more toward other transportation options."

"We recommend that transportation officials and elected leaders look at the data today, and not outdated assumptions, to make sure that any highway projects are absolutely necessary," Arizona PIRG Education Fund executive director Diane Brown tells New Times....

In the Phoenix metro area, the light rail opened in late 2008 and is already experiencing ridership numbers that weren't projected to be reached until the year 2020. In 2013, the Valley Metro transit system experienced a record high annual ridership, and between 2007-2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million - an increase of 25 percent. The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority recently saw its highest monthly ridership in October 2013. And in Yuma, ridership on Yuma County Area Transit has tripled since 2011.

The report suggests that public officials re-allocate their focus and funding, away from building new highways and toward more transportation options.

This is a fantasy.

There is an enormous amount of obfuscation going on here.  The percentage rise of public transit trips is actually the miracle of small numbers -- small changes on an even smaller base.  The point of these charts is to try to say that Arizonans use a lot of transit and we should dump more billions into these projects.  As it turns out, despite all the huge public investment, transit is still a rounding error.

Note that, from their own report, driving vehicle miles per capita are 9175 per person per year.  So lets look at transit.  They exaggerate by showing averages for Phoenix and Tucson, where transit use is higher, not for the whole state like they show vehicle miles.  The total state transit miles per person in the same year, using their numbers, turns out to be as low as 64 (if no one outside of Phoenix or Tucson uses transit) and as high as 110 (if everyone outside of Phoenix and Tucson uses transit at the same rate as in the cities).  The likely number is around 75.

This means that after all these billions and billions of transit spending, transit trips are 0.8% of vehicle trips (75 vs. 9175). That is a rounding error.  You sure wouldn't get that impression from the report.  The Public Interest Research Group has a funny view of "public interest", putting the desired transportation mode of the 0.8% over the desired choice of the 99.2%

Well, you say, I should compare the increase in transit to the decrease in driving.  OK.  Again using their numbers:  Vehicle driving miles went down 348 per capita over the study period.  In the same time, per capital transit miles went up by about 26 in Phoenix and Tucson (likely less in the state as a whole).  So, at best, transit ridership accounts for about 7% of the drop in driving.

This is not nothing, but hardly justifies the enormous increase in transit spending over the last 15 years and the billions and billions in capital investment.

Oh, and by the way, Phoenix Light Rail ridership has cannibalized bus ridership about 1 for 1.  That means all that investment in light rail has just shifted riders to a more expensive, less flexible transit mode.  But that is another story.

Trend That Is Not A Trend: Creating a Trend From Measurement Changes

I was watching some excellent videos of recent Phoenix dust storms roll across the city.  I started thinking about a joke story:

Scientists report that the number of Phoenix dust storms have likely increased substantially since 1990.  Before that date, almost no cell phone videos exist of large dust storms in Phoenix.  Today, one can find hundreds of such videos on Youtube, mostly from the last three or four years.  Obviously we are seeing some sort of climate change

This would clearly be absurd -- there has been a change in measurement technology.  No cell phone cameras existed before 1990.  But equally absurd examples can be found every day.

  • With the summer of the shark, an increase in frequency of media coverage of shark attacks was mistaken for an increase in frequency of shark attacks themselves.
  • With tornadoes, improving detection of smaller twisters (e.g. by doppler radar and storm chasers)  has been mistaken by many (cough Al Gore cough) for an increase in the frequency of tornadoes.  In fact, all evidence points to declining tornado frequency
  • With electrical grid disturbances, a trend was created solely by the government owner of the data making a push with power companies to provide more complete reporting.
  • I have wondered whether the so-called cancer epidemic in India is real, or the results of better diagnosis and longer life spans

Postscript:  I remember when I first saw one of these storms rolling towards me after I moved to Phoenix.  Perhaps I should not have read Stephen King's The Mist, but I honestly wondered for a minute if I would live to regret not hopping in my car and racing to stay ahead of the wall coming towards me.


"Trend that is not a trend" is an occasional feature on this blog.  I could probably write three stories a day on this topic if I wished.  The media is filled with stories of supposed trends based on single data points or anecdotes rather than, you know, actual trend data.  More stories of this type are here.  It is not unusual to find that the trend data often support a trend in the opposite direction as claimed by media articles.

Reminder: Until Very Recently, The Left Was Touting the VA as a Great Model for Government Run Health Care for All

This is from Kevin Drum in 2007:

As regular readers may know, Phil Longman thinks the VA model of healthcare is the best around. In the October issue of the Monthly, he takes his admiration to another level, suggesting that the best way to provide healthcare to the 45 million uninsured in America is via — what? I guess you'd call it a franchised version of the VA. Basically, the federal government would offer struggling municipal hospitals a trade: if you adopt the VA's management guidelines, the government will pay you to care for all those uninsured folks currently jamming up your emergency rooms and driving you bankrupt. Deal?

The supposed reason is that great panacea, electronic medical records, cited by the Left as the solution to all woes as often as the Right mentions the Laffer Curve.

"Since its technology-driven transformation in the 1990s...the VA has emerged as the world leader in electronic medical records — and thus in the development of the evidence-based medicine these records make possible." Hospitals that joined Longman's "Vista network" (his name for the VA-like franchise he proposes) would have to install the VA's electronic medical record software and would "also have to shed acute care beds and specialists and invest in more outpatient clinics." By doing this they'd provide better care than any current private network and do it at a lower cost.

Since that time, the Left has mostly stopped talking about the VA as a miracle solution, because it is becoming clear that the VA cuts costs the same way every state health care agency cuts costs -- by restricting capacity, leading to huge waiting times, and rationing care.  The scandal here in the AZ VA is just the latest

The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that dozens of VA hospital patients in Phoenix may have died while awaiting medical care.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said staff investigators also have evidence that the Phoenix VA Health Care System keeps two sets of records to conceal prolonged waits that patients must endure for ­doctor appointments and treatment.

"It appears as though there could be as many as 40 veterans whose deaths could be ­related to delays in care," ­Miller announced to a stunned audience during a committee hearing Wednesday.

Supporters of government health care like t o waive their arms about magic bullets, but the only strategy that has ever reduced costs in government health care systems is rationing and queuing (which is also a form of rationing).  Resources are always scarce, but the question is whether we want our health care rationed by government beauracrats or by ourselves.  The latter can only happen if we get away from first dollar and single payer medicine and find a way to get real, transparent price signals (which is the way every other service in this country is managed).

Update, Via Greg Mankiw:

"In Britain, even though they're already paying for the National Health Service, six million Brits—two-thirds of citizens earning more than $78,700—now buy private health insurance. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 travel out of the U.K. annually, spending more than $250 million, to receive treatment more readily than they can at home."

Which is the exact same way we run our education system -- everyone has to pay for a basic crappy level of the government monopoly product, and then if you can afford it you pay again to get a better private product.

Why Do We Manage Water Via Command and Control? And Is It Any Surprise We Are Constantly Having Shortages?

In most commodities that we consume,  market price signals serve to match supply and demand. When supplies are short, rising prices send producers looking for new supplies and consumers to considering conservation measures.  All without any top-down intervention by the state.  All without any coercion or tax money.

But for some reason water is managed differently.  Water prices never rise and fall with shortages -- we have been told in Phoenix for years that Lake Powell levels are dropping due to our water use but our water prices never change.  Further, water has become a political football, such that favored uses (farmers historically, but more recently environmental uses such as fish spawning) get deep subsidies.  You should see the water-intensive crops that are grown in the desert around Phoenix, all thanks to subsidized water to a favored constituency.   As a result, consumers use far more water than they might in any given year, and have no natural incentive to conserve when water becomes particularly dear, as it is in California.

So, when water is short, rather than relying on the market, politicians step in with command and control steps.  This is from an email I just received from state senator Fran Pavley in CA:

Senator Pavley said the state should consider measures that automatically take effect when a drought is declared to facilitate a more coordinated statewide response.

“We need a cohesive plan around the state that recognizes the problem,” Pavley said at a committee hearing. “It’s a shared responsibility no matter where you live, whether you are an urban user or an agricultural user.”

Measures could include mandatory conservation, compensation for farmers to fallow land, restrictions on the use of potable water for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), coordinated publicity campaigns for conservation, increased groundwater management, and incentives for residents to conserve water. Senator Pavley noted that her hometown Las Virgenes Municipal Water District is offering rebates for customers who remove lawns, install rain barrels or take other actions to conserve water.

Pavley also called for the state to create more reliable, sustainable supplies through strategies such as capturing and re-using stormwater and dry weather runoff, increasing the use of recycled water and cleaning up polluted groundwater basins.

Note the command and control on both sides of the equation, using taxpayer resources for new supply projects and using government coercion to manage demand.  Also, for bonus points, notice the Senator's use of the water shortage as an excuse to single out and punish private activity (fracking) she does not like.

All of this goes to show exactly why the government does not want a free market in water and would like to kill the free market in everything else:  because it gives them so much power.  Look at Ms. Pavley, and how much power she is grabbing for herself with the water shortage as an excuse.  Yesterday she was likely a legislative nobody.  Today she is proposing massive infrastrure spending and taking onto herself the power to pick winners and losers (farmers, I will pay you not to use water; frackers, you just have to shut down).  All the winners will show their gratitude next election cycle.  And all the losers will be encouraged to pay protection money so that next time around, they won't be the chosen victims.