Posts tagged ‘Phoenix’

Adding Solar to Our House -- Here Is Why

UPDATE:  This article has been heavily edited.  It turns out that solar installations without extensive battery systems do NOT act as a backup to grid outages.  By utility rules, the solar system has to shut itself down when the grid shuts down.  I should have done better research, but frankly I could not believe that the system shuts down EXACTLY when you most need it.  For me this revelation (which came from several readers, thanks!!) was a bit like finding out that your flashlight has software to shut down when it is dark outside. 

Our house has always been a good candidate for solar.  It has a large flat roof, good sightlines to the south, and we live in just about the best solar location in the country (Phoenix).  The problem has been two-fold:

  • Even with large tax rebates and other subsidies (e.g. ability to sell power into the grid at retail rather than wholesale rates), the payback periods are long.
  • Given that we are working in 10+ year paybacks, it has never been clear to me that most panels have the life needed.  All solar panels degrade with time and sometimes fail and I am not sure most economics include those factors.

What finally changed our minds was a question my wife asked me a few months back.  She would really be distressed at losing the A/C during a Phoenix summer, and asked if we should get a backup generator.  I told her such generators were large and expensive, but that if we really wanted some grid backup in Phoenix, solar seems to make sense.  Sure, it only backs up in the day, but that is when we really need it here.  The backup aspect was the cherry on top of the economics that put us over the top.

We knew we did not want some sort of leasing or pay-for-power arrangement that would encumber our home if we ever had to sell it so that meant we could shop for about any sort of panel we wanted.  In shopping for things nowadays, there is seldom consensus on the best, but right now there seems to be a near consensus in solar panels.  The SunPower panels have the best efficiency, the lowest efficiency reduction from high temperatures, the least efficiency drop off with time, and the longest warranty.  You pay for all that of course and they are pricey, but I decided to go with the pricier panels where I could be more sure of the economics in the out years.  We have made other investments in our home that have essentially represented a decision to stay for the long-term, so we invested for the long-term here.  I will say that it is possible we could have gotten better economics with another panel that was cheaper, even considering a shorter life, but I did not do the math for every panel.***  The panels we are buying are a huge step ahead of the old ones, as they have built -in inverters in each panel and so they produce AC directly.  This greatly reduces the wiring and installation costs.

Interestingly, the efficiency did not buy us much (at least today) because our total installation was limited by our service panel limits, which total to 400 amps.  This means that the efficiency really only saved us roof space which we had more than enough of.  However, while I chose not to do a battery system this time around (too expensive and too many safety questions), I may do one in the future so I wanted space for more panels to charge a future battery system.

The total payback comes to just about 10 years for our system.  At historic cost of capital numbers this probably does not pencil out but today with ZIRP it makes sense, especially with the extra benefit of some immunity from outages.  Even to get to these numbers you folks had to chip in to help my economics, in the form of the 30% tax rebate you are giving me and the above-wholesale price you are paying me for power I put into the grid.  This payback is mainly from getting rid of a LOT of our on-peak power usage, which costs us way more per KwH than off-peak.  A second project to add more solar charging batteries for evening use will have more challenging economics and will likely have to be justified purely on grid independence.  On the other hand, your economics in another location may be better, since our off-peak power costs of around 10-12 cents is pretty cheap.  On the gripping hand, you may not have as good of a solar insolation factor where you live.  My summary is that if you live in certain parts of SoCal with high electricity rates, this is a no brainer; if you live where I do it is marginal but works if you value some grid independence; and most everywhere else it is a real stretch and maybe closer to a rich man's toy than a sensible investment**.  However, those of you who have had good economics doing this elsewhere are welcome to comment below.

I will give more reports in the future as we go through this.

**  I would argue that experience from some place like SolarCity does not necessarily count as they never have and (as part of Tesla) likely never will make money, so there is an added subsidy in the equation there from well-meaning but naive stockholders.

*** It is hard also to do the full installation math on every panel as most installers have a limited range they work with and we only had the energy and time to engage a few installers for quotes.

 

Update on the Phoenix Light Rail Fail

A few weeks ago I posted Valley Metro's own numbers that showed that the billions spent on light rail in the Phoenix area have done nothing but case the stagnation of transit ridership in Phoenix.  Light rail ridership actually fell substantially despite an expensive extension of the line.

Today, the Antiplanner has an update on light rail in Phoenix, and it is not pretty:

As of 2016, light rail carries less than 0.2 percent of all travel in the Phoenix urban area. The 2016 American Community Survey says that the same tiny percentage of commuters take light rail to work, which is unusual as transit’s commuter share is usually much higher than its total share. Phoenix light-rail ridership in the twelve months ending in June, 2018 was down 4.4 percent from the previous twelve months. Transit ridership for Phoenix as a whole is down 5.6 percent for the same time period.

Phoenix is one of many Sunbelt urban areas in which rail transit makes no sense at all. Aside from the Antiplanner’s argument that buses can move more people than light rail, rail systems only make sense where there is a high concentration of downtown jobs that a hub-and-spoke transit system can serve. According to Wendell Cox’s calculations, downtown Phoenix has only about 26,000 jobs, which is just 1.4 percent of jobs in the metropolitan area.

Phoenix is particularly unusual (though not unique) in that its suburbs are actually denser than the city itself. According to the 2010 census, the city of Phoenix has about 2,800 people per square mile, while its suburbs have nearly 3,500 people per square mile. With both jobs and population spread out, the region needs nimble, low-capacity transit if it needs any transit at all.

Arizona State University students make up a “substantial component” of light-rail riders. Until this year, students were able to buy transit passes for 200 for the nine-month school year, plus $75 for the other three months. The same passes would cost other members of the public $768 per year. Despite the steep discounts, student weekday ridership dropped by around 40 percent between 2011 and 2015.

The last paragraph reminds me that I forgot to discuss the issue with ridership and ASU students in my last post.  A huge portion of Phoenix light rail ridership comes from two sources:  subsidized ASU students and fans going to downtown sporting events.  This helps to explain why the commuter share of Phoenix ridership is so low -- essentially, many of the light rail riders are not commuters but in these two other groups.  Why we should be spending billions to subsidize bar crawls for already heavily-subsidized ASU students or to save sports fans money on downtown parking** is beyond me.

He has this good news:

The Phoenix city council is considering delaying or even killing some planned light-rail lines because it is concerned that city streets are falling apart and too much money is being spent instead on an insignificant form of travel.

** much of the downtown parking revenue for sporting events goes to the city and county, so cannibalization of this revenue is yet another hidden cost of light rail.

What Socialists (and Most Other People) Don't Understand About The Oil Industry

This same failure has happened over and over, at one time or another in Russia and Mexico and now in Venezuela.  Some tried to make it happen in the 1970's in the US, and Elizabeth Warren would still like to try, I bet.  Socialists take over the oil industry and revel in the first months about all they money they are able to divert to "social" expenditures.  Then, in a few year, it all comes crashing down.  This tweet from Michael Moore five years ago gives you a good idea of the thinking.

Socialists have always seen production and wealth creation as some sort of magic, a fountain in the desert where piggy rich people push to the front and take more than their fair share.  Oil looks to them as the ultimate example of this -- wealth just flows out of the ground and evil rich people at Exxon grab it all for themselves.

But in fact, oil is just the opposite of the magic fountain.  It takes a huge quantity of money and brains to get even one drop of it in usable form to your car.  Imagine trying to figure out where even to look for oil when it is hiding far under ground.  Or having to poke holes a mile into the ground from structures standing in 1000 foot deep water in the Gulf of Mexico.  And then transporting the oil hundreds or thousands of miles by pipeline and ship and train and truck.  And then carefully refining the oil almost molecule by molecule in multi-billion dollar facilities.  And then getting the usable parts to the right people, including distribution outlets for you and I on almost every corner of town.

Right now gasoline in Phoenix goes for about $2.85 a gallon, which is about $2.40 before taxes.  This is 60 cents a quart, which compares to the retail price of a bottle of water of about $2.00-$2.50 a quart.  It's a freaking miracle of modernity that you can fill your car this inexpensively.

Anyway, it turns out that oil is the ultimate "you have to spend money to make money" kind of business.  And once you spend all that money, you investment immediately starts dying.  Oil companies have to completely rebuild retail gas stations every 20-30 years.  Refineries have to be constantly updated with really expensive improvements to take advantage of new technologies, to adjust to changing markets and regulations, and to handle different types of crude oil.  And then there is oil production.  Drill a well today and the moment you open it up, the production starts to fall off.  The flow will drop, the percentage of water might increase-- a million things can happen and all of them bad.  To keep wells flowing companies constantly have to reinvest their profits in reworking the wells (fracking and such) and adding enhanced recovery systems.  As fields deplete, new wells have to be drilled in new locations or at new depths, or else whole new fields have to be developed to replace them.

The "greedy and short-term-focused" oil companies reinvest much of their earnings to make sure the supply of oil is sustained.  The "enlightened" socialists harvest all the cash they can and hand it to their cronies, allowing the production assets to fall apart and, eventually, their economy to collapse.

Another Phoenix Light Rail Fail: Light Rail KILLS Transit Systems

Well, another year's ridership numbers are out for Valley Metro and Phoenix light rail and they are just as grim as they have been every year since Phoenix spent the first $1.4 billion on the first leg of the rail system (source)

Now, this picture is bad enough, until you realize that Valley Metro completed a huge extension of the rail line in 2016.  In 2016 the line length was increased by 31% and the cumulative capital investment increased by 36%.  With, as you can see, essentially zero effect on rail ridership in red.  The only small highlight was that after falling for years, bus ridership actually perked up a few percent.  As you may remember from earlier posts, bus ridership could be expected to fall due to cannibalization from light rail, but in fact it tends to fall even faster than rail ridership rises, causing total ridership to fall.  The reason is that light rail costs at least an order of magnitude more (including amortized capex) per passenger mile than busses, and so light rail tends to starve the bus system of funds.  Every light rail system implementation has been met with the need to slash bus service to pay for the huge light rail costs.  So despite enormous operating subsidies and more than $2 billion in cumulative capex, rail ridership has been flat and total transit ridership has fallen.

But in fact the picture is worse than this when you look over a longer timeframe, which is why Valley Metro has probably changed their practice from graphing nearly 20 years of history to graphing just 6.  Here is an older chart of theirs I posted years ago: (the top year in this chart is the bottom year in the chart above)

I will get back to the annotation in a moment.  But notice that despite all the cost and disruption and higher taxes from the light rail system, total ridership this year of 66.8 million is less than any year since light rail was opened and baredly 8% higher than it was before light rail opened 10 years ago in 2008.  Just organic city growth and recovery of the economy since 2008 should have driven faster growth than this.  In fact, in the 10 years before light rail was opened, Phoenix transit ridership grew 70%.  If that organic growth rate in bus service had been allowed to continue without the backbreaking costs and limited capacity of light rail being added to the mix, we should have expected 105 million riders this past year, not 66.8 million.

The Sales Tax Problem for Small Businesses

I am, perhaps surprisingly to many readers, NOT going to go on a rant about the Supreme Court's decision yesterday that states can collect sales tax on interstate sales over the Internet, at least I am not going to rant about taxing internet sales per se.  Realistically, it was never realistic to think the government would keep its hands off this piggy bank, especially as Internet sales have skyrocketed.  However, this decision creates absolutely enormous practical problems for small businesses and Congress needs to act quickly to mitigate some of these.

The problem is the management problem this presents, particularly for many small retailers, and I don't think most consumers understand this.  Sales taxes seem simple from the consumer point of view -- say your sales tax rate is 7%, the cash register collects 7% and it all seems to be handled automatically.  But even at your local store, things can get complicated.  Your food purchases may well be taxed at a different rate (perhaps even 0%) than your other purchases.  You probably don't notice, but if you go over the city limits into a neighboring town or unincorporated area, the rates may suddenly be different.

Take Arizona, which seems from my experience to be roughly average.  The sales tax rate table is 18 pages long in a small font.  There are 29 separate rate categories which each have different rates in each of Arizona's 15 counties.    My business is in 6 counties and we have 3 rate categories that apply, or 4 if you consider items with no tax as another rate category.  This is 24 different state/county sales tax rates we charge.  But that is the easy part.  Because then there are, in addition to county taxes, 92 different towns and cities that have their own rate tables with up to 29 different rate categories that add to the base state/county rate.  Other states such as Washington (rule of thumb -- if the state has no income tax then it has a LABYRINTHIAN sales and business tax systems) have additional overlay taxes such as for transit and stadium districts.

When my company opens a new location, we have to spend hours on the Internet and with maps trying to figure out what sales taxes to collect, and even with good due diligence we sometimes get it wrong and find in an audit we are actually just inside or outside some line where the rate changes (we once had a location 30 miles outside of Seattle on a long dirt road where we found we had to collect the Seattle Rapid Transit tax).  Thatcher, AZ is a town of like 4000 people but has its own special sales tax rates -- do you know where the town line is?  Well neither do they, because last time I checked they did not have any sort of online lookup system to tell one automatically if the address is inside or outside the town and its sales tax district.

So it's a hassle for my business, but a one time hassle when we open a new location.  Now imagine that you are a small retailer on the internet selling fruit cakes.  You don't go out and establish sales tax locations, in some sense the location comes to you.  John Smith wants to buy a fruitcake and has an address that says Thatcher, AZ, but in the rural world one can easily have a town's name in your address but live outside of the town  (we have a campground with a Grant, Alabama address that is well outside of the city and tax limits of Grant but the town fathers come after us every year or so trying to see why we are not collecting their sales tax).  What sales tax do I collect from this customer?  Is there even a tax on food in that location?  If there is, there might be separate rates (as in California, for example) for prepared vs. packaged food.  What kind of food is my fruitcake?

But it actually gets even worse.  Because now all I have done is collect some amount of tax.  That is the easy part!  The hard part is registering with all the sales tax authorities to collect and pay the tax.  Well, you say, I guess I have to grit my teeth and register 50 times, which I can tell you is a gigantic pain in the ass because every state manages the process differently.

But even after registering in all 50 states, you are STILL not done, because many states don't have a fully unified sales tax collection system.  In Arizona, for example, the larger cities require their own registration and monthly reporting.  Each of these towns in AZ require a separate registration and monthly report:

Apache Junction,
Avondale,
Chandler,
Douglas,
Flagstaff,
Glendale,
Mesa,
Nogales,
Peoria,
Phoenix,
Prescott,
Scottsdale,
Sedona,
Tempe,
Tucson

Douglas, Arizona is a town of freaking 16,000 people but make sales there and you have to have a separate local registration and reporting.  And this list is for one not-very-urban state.  Currently my company does business in 9 states but we are registered and pay sales taxes to about 25 different authorities -- and we are mostly a rural business, so we are not in the larger urban areas that are more likely to have their own sales tax systems.

By the way, you might be thinking, "well, if I am a small business, I can just file with such and such authority in the months I have a sale there." Wrong.  Once you register and file once, you will be expected to file every time, even if they are zero reports.  The one source of relief is some states allow less frequent reporting.  It used to be there were states where I had low volume we filed once a year, but that seems to be a thing of the past.   Most states seem to have a minimum of quarterly reporting, no matter the volume.  Politicians want their money NOW (last sentence should be pronounced using Veruca Salt voice).

This is why businesses tend to have to sign up for very expensive sales tax management services.  But even that is not the end of difficulties, because registering for sales tax in an authority also forces one to register and pay other taxes and fees.  For example, Tennessee has another tax called the state and county business tax, which is essentially a revenue tax.  Even if you are an out of state company, you must file and pay this tax on any revenues.  If you sell in all of TN, that is one additional state registration and 95 different county registrations and 95 different county tax forms  (our company has to do about 8).  But wait, there is more!  Because a business also has to register with any of about 200+ cities in TN for payment of city business tax.  If you are selling all over TN, that is another 200+ registrations and 200+ annual reports (if this seems all very complex in TN, remember that TN has no income tax and note what I said earlier about the sales and business tax systems of states with no income tax).

I have written many times that regulation tends to benefit larger companies at the expense of smaller companies.  Who is more likely to be able to comply in this world I have described, Amazon or the fruitcake company?  Jeff Bezos is turning handsprings today because a) this kills a lot of his competition and b) to survive, many small venders will have to move to larger retailing platforms that can do some of the sales tax work, of which the largest and best is.... Amazon.

Congress needs to act.  It is going to have to be a compromise, because states are going to be putting a lot of pressure to let this situation stand because they want the money.  I would propose a national sales tax system on interstate retail sales that preempts any state sales taxes.  It will be hard to keep it from growing out of hand but it would be nice to establish a principal in law that the tax would be some sort of weighted average of the states' internal sales taxes.  The Feds would add a percent or two for themselves and there would be one registration for all -- as easy for me to do as it is for Bezos.  Yes, I know all the problems with this, but I don't think the status quo is tenable and I don't think Congress has the votes to go back to the old untaxed system, so this is the best we can expect.

Fraudulent Caller ID

You guys know me, I am not calling for some new law or government program.  But I would like to see the telephone companies exercise a little bit of basic professionalism.  The last several spam marketing calls (50/50 it is either for toner or credit card processing) have had legitimate-looking caller IDs that have caused me to actually pick up the phone when I would have normally let it ring through.  This morning's call from a credit card processor showed up as "Pediatric Urology" in Phoenix.  Really?  I guess they are pissing on my time, but other than that I think this is BS.  I don't think it is too much to ask that the caller ID match the business name or individual who is paying for the phone line.  I have this problem even more on calls to my cell phone where spam businesses have somehow obtained caller IDs that are just for individual's names.

Postscript:  It is amazing to me, given the sheer volume of calls I get for merchant (credit card processing) services that there actually seems to be an expectation someone might actually say, "wow, I never ever thought of accepting credit cards, tell me how it works?"  I find this super hard to believe but it must happen or else people wouldn't be paying a lot of real money to make these calls.  So PLEASE, all you business people out there, do not buy things from cold callers.  I promise you can just google whatever they are selling and likely find a better deal online.

Also, if you are starting your own business, do not -- whatever you do -- put any personal phone in your state business registration files.  These are the files all these spammers mine for prospects.  I finally had to change my home phone number because I made this mistake and we could not stop getting 5 phone calls a day from toner and credit card processing sales people.

A Little Bit of Model Railroad Progress

It has been a while since I blogged on my model railroad but unfortunately real life intervened and cruelly prevented me from working on my hobby for a while.  I have been making progress recently and thought I would post what I have been working on.  Believe it or not, there are one or two readers who actually write me for updates.

One thing I can do even when I am busy is make progress hand building turnouts.  These are some small #5 turnouts built with code 40 rail (perfect for eyesight destruction).  No way I could to this without the fabulous Fast Tracks construction jigs.

I built the main line out of code 55 flex track and am hand-building all the sidings and branch lines with code 40.  This lets me get the main line up and running fast while still being able to hand build some track, often the track closest to the front of the layout.  Below is the code 55 flex track main line after some test painting.  The one thing I do not like about flex track is that it always looks so uniform.  Even on good mainline track the rail and ties vary a lot in color, so I spray paint a base coat and use brushes to hand paint individual tiles and rail sections different colors to get some variation.

The switch in the foreground below is the first code 40 hand built track I have put on the layout.  It is a bit of a pain to join code 55 to code 40, so I wanted to experiment some.  Eventually I inserted a code 55 rail joiner in the mainline track, and the crushed the other end flat and soldered the code 40 rail to the top.  With some trial and error, this got both the rail tops at the same height.  I really love the look of real wood ties and the color variation you get naturally, which I accentuate some.

The biggest recent progress was I painted the back drop.  Since this is Phoenix I wanted some low haze but no clouds, so I used the tried and true method of blue at the top of the background and white and the bottom and blending them in between.  Came out pretty well, though this picture does not really do it justice because the lighting is not quite right yet.  I need to try it with a better camera.   The biggest problem I had was a classic Phoenix problem where the paint was drying too fast.  One of the hardest problems is that the Phoenix sky on certain days is so deep, deep blue that it looks unrealistic, even in real life, so I did not use the actual color for the top of sky that I see from my front yard, I backed it down a bit.

 

Oh, you can also see that I have put in the lighting.  As an experiment I used led light strings.  This avoids the directional shadow problem but I am not totally convinced I am happy with it yet.  I also have fluorescent lights installed for night effects, though I still struggle with the OBA / fluorescent paper problem here.  Anyone who has a source for matte (not gloss) OBA-free photo paper that is not too think (I often have to bend and shape the paper for projects) can certainly email me.   Paper models like these are more popular in the UK than in the US, but I have come to really like them in certain applications.  They just don't look good in night scenes when brick walls glow under black light.

In the plan I have locations vaguely blocked out for industries but I had not yet tested the sites against actual buildings I have in inventory or would like to put in.  Below I have a half-built grain elevator I was testing locations for.

That's it for now.  I am starting my big building project which is a scale refinery.  We actually don't have a refinery in Phoenix (closest is Yuma I think) but I worked in one years ago and love the look of them, especially lighted at night, so dammit I am going to have one.

On This Day In History...

It has never rained in Phoenix, at least in the last 120+ years when records have been kept.

Unsung Advantages of Phoenix

Yes, we have dust storms that put megatons of dirt in the air and force me to power-wash the walls of my white house every so often.  But the dust in the air also makes for the most amazing sunsets of any place I have lived.  This is a panorama I took on a walk this evening of about 270 degrees, so both west and east.  The sky was amazing in every direction, not just towards the setting sun.

The sunset behind palm trees is one of my favorite photograph subjects.  One example from a few days ago:

Update:  LOL, a reader says it looks just like the mural on the wall in the office in Scarface (warning: quite violent)

Travel Report from the Big Island

My wife's cousin is in management of a beautiful resort (Mauna Kea / Hapuna)  on the Kohala coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  I was asking him if it was OK to visit and you can feel the frustration of a resort executive in his reply:

Absolutely ZERO impact from Volcano….

Volcano is 120 miles away and has zero impact on MK. Since it has been rumbling we have had nothing but beautiful sky, perfect air and perfect water temperature.

Web site with air quality… http://www.hiso2index.info/ MK is about the same as Kihei in Maui… Kona occasionally gets not great with some Vog… So Kihei and MK are both at 14 right now. Kona is the worst at 46 on the west side (Still good) Phoenix is at 71; St. Louis right now seems the worst in the nation at 119. Worst are on the Big Island right now is Ocean View a little south west of the lava flows at 82.

Unfortunately, CNN makes it seem like everyone is wearing a gas mask and there is acid rain falling all over the place. The volcano is limited to a tiny area on the south-east coast and all Island in Hawaii and 90% of the big island and all of the Kohala Coast are not impacted. The impact from the Volcano for me is the same as you in Phoenix… ZERO….. Also no matter what it does it will not impact us… It is a shield volcano, not Mt. St. Helene so it can’t blow up and there is not enough lava in the chamber to cause any big issues other than right at its base…

The only time to “pay attention” is if Mauna Loa or Hualalai started to rumble. Both of those could have an impact on the west side of the island.

 

Another Reason I like Phoenix -- With Some Advice for Tourists

Much of Phoenix is generally pretty flat but at the same time we have peaks rising from right in the middle of the city to as high as 1400 feet above the mean ground level of the surrounding city (we are also ringed my mountains around at least three sides of the city, which is why we call ourselves the valley of the sun).  Anyway, here is a view from Camelback Mountain taken just the other day, probably the last day under 75 degrees we will have for 6 months.  This is a 360 degree panorama (you can see the same dude with bright yellow shirt on both ends).  You can click on it to get the full effect.

We took the Echo Canyon trail which is pretty challenging (there are several long stretches where one is basically climbing from rock to rock rather than just marching up a trail).  It is worth it though - it's pretty unusual to have this sort of climb and end up dead in the middle of a major city.  The one block of undeveloped space at the right end of the picture is actually prime real estate and would be all city-fied were it not for the fact that it is Native American tribal land, one of the fortunate tribes (unlike the Navajo) who were shoved onto cr*p land but land which eventually ended up near a major city and so became valuable.

Ironically, while most cities don't have any feature like this, we have at least two:  Not even 5 miles away is Piestewa Peak that is just a few feet shorter, has an easier trail, and oddly has a totally different geology (you can see it just to the left of center in this photo).  Piestewa Peak used to be known as, and is still referred to by locals, as Squaw Peak -- a name that has been officially deprecated for moderately obvious reasons of wokeness.  The city struggled for years with changing its name, not knowing what to change the name to, when opportunity emerged out of tragedy when a young, local Native American woman serving in the US Army was killed in the Middle East.  Piestewa Peak is surrounded by a large tract of open space that is hilly and largely pristine desert landscape (around the center of the photo).  It is so large that one hike in it and, despite it being right in the center of the city, one can completely lose sight of the city in all directions and really get a desert hiking experience without actually going out of town.

This is The Right Way To Encourage Local Investment: Regulation Reform, Not Subsidies

Via Zero Hedge:

Waymo, a unit of Alphabet, is set to launch a ride-sharing service similar to Uber, but with no human driver behind the wheel. Officials in Arizona granted Waymo a permit to operate as a transportation network company (TNC) across the state on Janurary 24, following the company’s initial application on Janurary 12, Bloomberg  reported.

The imminent release of a robotic fleet of fully autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans could be flooding the highways of Arizona, causing major headaches for Uber.

Since April of last year, Waymo has been experimenting with its self-driving fleet on the human guinea pigs of Phoenix, offering residents 24/7 access to the free ridesharing service. TNC status is a significant step for Waymo, because it now authorizes the company to start charging its passengers.

Waymo’s vehicles in the Phoenix area have driven more than 4 million miles on public roads. In November, the company said a portion of its cars in the Phoenix area were operating in fully autonomous mode, what’s known in industry parlance as level four autonomy.

My understanding is that Phoenix has become the world's center for testing and refining self-driving vehicles mainly by simply allowing it to happen when other municipalities threw up numerous regulatory hurdles (not just to self-driving cars but also, like Austin and Las Vegas, to ride-sharing companies).  I wish more business relocation competition among municipalities was on this basis rather than competing subsidy proposals.

I have seen driver-less Waymo vans a number of times around town, mostly around Tempe and Chandler.  They seemed to do fine once one gets over the shock of seeing the driver's seat empty.  I tried to sign up for their early rider program but apparently they are focusing on Phoenix's southeastern suburbs (e.g. Mesa, Tempe) right now.  I will try again as the program rolls out so I can publish a ride report here.  Probably I will hate it because the car will faithfully stay within the speed limit and thus drive me crazy.

This One Simple Trick Will Send a Lot of Municipalities Into Bankruptcy

The "trick":

Democrats in the state House have proposed issuing $107 billion in bonds to backfill the state’s pension funds, which are short $129 billion. Annual state pension payments are projected to increase to $20 billion in 2045 from $8.5 billion—not including interest on $17 billion in debt the state previously issued to pay for pensions.

At the request of state retirees, a University of Illinois math professor performed a crack analysis showing how the state could use interest-rate arbitrage to shave its pension costs. Under the professor’s math, the state could sell 27-year, fixed-rate taxable bonds and invest the proceeds into its pension funds. This would supposedly stabilize the state’s pension payments at $8.5 billion annually, save taxpayers $103 billion over three decades and increase the state retirement system’s funding level to 90% from 40%. Can the mathemagician make House Speaker Michael Madigan disappear too?

So what exactly does this mean? What is the trick?  Essentially, the trick is... investing using margin.  The professor's math was based on borrowing at 5% and then investing at 7.5% returns (the returns the pension funds have gotten over the last several years' bull market).    Ignore the fact that this rickety scheme probably will not be able to borrow at 5%, but likely at a higher rate.  Even at 5%, the problem is that if returns fall below the interest being paid on the bonds, the state and the pension funds are in worse shape than they were before.  If you saw a friend who was in the hole after a night of losing gambling who was trying to borrow more money from the house to try to make it all back, you would stop him, right?

Given the risk of falling short of covering the margin interest, one also has to worry about the portfolio asset allocation incentives here.  You certainly can't borrow at 5% or more and expect to make any money investing long-term in almost any sort of reliable bonds.  This is going to push the pension managers into riskier all-equity portfolios and even beyond into trying even riskier investments that have almost never worked out well for government pension funds.

I write all this because apparently this insanity is coming to Phoenix. ugh.

Update on the last point:  From today's WSJ:

A decade of low bond yields pushed some of the most stability-minded investors to dabble in risky investments that depended on markets being orderly. Now, those bets are looking problematic.

In the past, pension funds, endowments and family offices pursued relatively safe investments. After interest rates collapsed on the heels of the financial crisis, they ran into challenges paying pensioners and filling university budgets, and added riskier bets on hedge funds and venture capital in the hopes of winning better returns.

More recently, some of these investors also made big, unpublicized wagers seeking to benefit from what had been an unusually long period of low volatility, according to pension-fund consultants and others who deal with these institutions. The strategies, often involving the writing of complicated options contracts, were for years a source of easy money. Markets hadn’t been so calm since the 1950s.

Among those making such bets were Harvard University’s endowment, the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii and the Illinois State Universities Retirement System.

Yet volatility has now returned to markets, with a vengeance. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 2,400 points in a week, intraday market swings also surged. The Cboe Volatility Index, or VIX, a measure of expected swings in the S&P 500, closed at its highest level last week since August 2015, recording its biggest one-day jump ever on Feb. 5 as it surged to 37.32 from 17.31 the prior day.

The $16.9 billion Hawaii fund in 2016 began earning money selling “put” options—essentially a bet that markets would stay calm or rise. When markets fall, Hawaii is on the hook to pay out.

 

Hmm, I Think the Elephant in the Room on this Business Relocation is Being Ignored

Apparently some hot new auto company called Nikola Motors (in the class of companies to my mind like Tesla and Fiskar that have a sexy idea and a lot of cash burn) is relocating to the Phoenix area.  Ugh.  You know what that probably means:

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and Nikola Motor Company today announced the company has selected Buckeye, Arizona for its Nikola Motor Company hydrogen-electric semi-truck manufacturing headquarters facility. The new 500 acre, one million square foot facility will be located on the west side of Phoenix and will bring more than $1 billion in capital investment to the region by 2024.

"After 12 months, nine states and 30 site locations, ArizonaGovernor DuceySandra Watson and Chris Camacho were the clear front runners. Arizona has the workforce to support our growth and a governor that was an entrepreneur himself. They understood what 2,000 jobs would mean to their cities and state," said Trevor Milton, CEO and founder, Nikola Motor Company. "We will begin transferring our R&D and headquarters to Arizona immediately and hope to have the transition completed by October 2018. We have already begun planning the construction for our new zero emission manufacturing facility in Buckeye, which we expect to have underway by the end of 2019."

Nikola Motor Company designs and manufactures hydrogen-electric vehicles, electric vehicle drivetrains, vehicle components, energy storage systems and hydrogen stations. The company is bringing the nation's most advanced semi-trucks to market with over 8,000 trucks on preorder.

Nikola Motor Company selected Buckeye, Arizona due to numerous factors including the state's pro-business environment, engineering schools, educated workforce and geographic location that provides direct access to major markets.

How much do you want to bet that the number 1 reason for moving to Phoenix was left off the list: taxpayer subsidies.  Yep, I have not seen the deal, but my guess is that yet another company is going to get a piece of my profits transferred over to them because they make a better photo op and press release for politicians.  I am pretty sure that the statement "[arizona] understood what 2,000 jobs would mean to their cities and state" is code for "they offered us a pile of cash".

Postscript: By the way, I do like their idea of a hydrogen truck better than Musk's all-electric truck -- that is, if they can figure out how to scale up a hydrogen distribution system.

The Government Loves to Make Us All Criminals

Here in Phoenix, we use our fireplace pretty much once a year -- on Christmas Day, more as an aesthetic aid to the atmosphere and festivities rather than out of any real need for added warmth.  I bought a box of fire logs several years ago and there are still three left.

So of course the Arizona government, for seemingly the hundredth year in a row, has banned fires on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  They always have some story about some special weather condition or whatever, but oddly enough year-in and year-out these special conditions only seem to occur on Christmas.  Clearly, the ban is in place on these days because the government knows these are the only days people are interested in making fires, but the media every year credulously reports the situation like it is a total coincidence.

Goodfellas in Phoenix

It is not very often, at least any more, that I find reporting in our local paper captivating.  But this story about a New York mobster dropped into the witness protection program in Phoenix is fascinating.   I learned a couple of things.  First, the Feds seem to place a disproportionate number of their high-profile mafia turncoats into the Phoenix area.  And second, the portrayal of mobsters in Goodfellas or the Sopranos as people who simply cannot stop scamming seems spot on.  In this case, this particular mobster-in-hiding created an entire restaurant chain (Toby Keith's I Love this Bar and Grill) and used it as a vehicle for scamming tens of millions of dollars out of mall developers, who would pay him millions in up-front build-out money in exchange for signing long term leases he never meant to honor.

Terrible Symbolism

I know that many of my readers have more skepticism than I about open immigration.  We will leave that for another day.  But I am not sure how any American who prides themselves on American exceptionalism and our leading role in the world promoting freedom wouldn't cringe at seeing these pictures.  What a terrible image they will make running for thousands of unbroken miles.

I am not sure why we are going through all this engineering effort when we could just be borrowing from the experts:

Postscript:  Congrats to our local entrants from the Phoenix area firm that submitted by far t

he ugliest design.

Update:  Just to confirm, based on the comments:  Yes, I do not see an ethical difference between stopping people from coming in and stopping them from going out.    Others of you do see a difference, and we will have to disagree.  I don't think the Berlin Wall would have shifted from evil to OK had it been built by the West Germans instead to keep communists bottled up on their side.  I know folks love to use the home analogy, that it is OK to fence folks out of your home but a federal crime to fence them in.  But I have always thought equating a whole country to private property is a bad analogy.  Basically, such an assumption rests on socialist community property ownership assumptions.   A Mexican man wants to drive a car he owns, using gas he buys along the highway, along a road paid for with the gas taxes he just paid, to take a job at my company I freely offer him and rent an apartment I freely lease to him.  Voting, government benefits, holding office -- we don't necessarily have an obligation to offer any of those things, at least initially.  But I don't think it is ethical to erect this wall in his path to exercising free exchange.

Phoenix Transit Ridership Continues to Fall as Light Rail Investment Goes Up

Well, the numbers are in for the 2017 fiscal year (which ends June 30) and after another huge investment in light rail, Phoenix has lost more transit ridership.   From the Valley Metro web site:

First, credit where it is due.  After years of bizarre chartsmanship where bars on their graphs bore only a passing relationship to the numbers being graphed, Valley Metro seems to have adopted a new (or their first) graphing program.

As you can see, while light rail trips were up by about a million, bus trips were again down by over 2 million, for a net loss in transit ridership of over a million, the fourth year in a row this has been the case.  I had expected rail ridership to rise, since in 2016 the rail system was expanded by 31% in length and 36% in cumulative investment.  This extension resulting in a 15.6% increase in rail ridership between 2015 and 2017.  Early on, I got in a debate with supporters of the line arguing that since they had cherry-picked the densest corridor in town to start, incremental extensions would actually reduce ridership per mile because they would be serving less promising routes.  Supporters argued that I was ignoring network effects and that ridership would rise faster than line length.  I guess we are sorting out that argument now.

In the ten years leading up to the opening of the light rail line, transit ridership grew by an average of 6.7% a year in Phoenix.  In the 8 years since the rail line's opening, total transit ridership has fallen 1% per year.  This is a well known effect (at least well known to all but rail die-hards) that Randal O'Toole, among others, has been pointing out for years.  Since light rail is an order of magnitude more expensive to operate per passenger-mile, and since transit budgets are never infinite, growing light rail tends to strangle bus traffic, because bus routes and service have to be cut to feed money into the light rail money pit.  Since every dollar spent on rail moves fewer passengers than a dollar spent on buses, transferring money from buses to trail reduces total ridership.  It is worth noting that had the line not been built and bus transit had been allowed to grow as it had before the line, there might have been over 40 million more trips last year assuming pre-2009 growth rates.

Local Government Subsidies: Worse Than We Thought

I have written several times about the convention hotel the City of Phoenix built downtown.  At the time of that last article, it looked like the city would lose about $150 million total between the operating losses and the loss on the sale.   But incredibly, it is worse:

Last week, City Manager Ed Zuercher released an economic-impact report that revealed more details of the deal. Along with that, he also released a memo that contends the tax break wouldn't add to the city's losses.

According to Applied Economics, an outside consultant hired to do the report, the tax incentive would spare the buyer from paying an estimated $97 million in property taxes to the city, county, school districts and other taxing jurisdictions over 20 years.

$150 Million in Lost Tax Money Later, Another Sorry Tale Of Government "Investment" Hopefully Comes to An End

Years ago I wrote about the Sheraton hotel the city built:

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....

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.

Finally, we may be at an end, though politicians are still hoping for some sort of solution that better hides what a sorry expenditure of tax money this really was

Phoenix has entered into exclusive negotiations to sell the city-owned Sheraton Grand Phoenix downtown hotel —the largest hotel in Arizona — for $255 million.

The city signed a letter of intent with TLG Phoenix LLC, an investment company based in Florida, to accept the offer and negotiate a purchase contract, city officials announced Tuesday evening.

But the deal faces criticism from some council members concerned about the loss to taxpayers. The city also attempted, unsuccessfully, to sell the hotel to the same buyer for a higher price last year.

If Phoenix ultimately takes the offer, the city's total losses on the taxpayer-funded Sheraton could exceed $100 million.

The city still owes $306 million on the hotel and likely would have to pay that off, even after a sale. That would come on top of about $47 million the city has sunk into the hotel, largely when bookings dropped due to the recession.

...

In addition to taking a loss on the building, Phoenix would give the buyer a property-tax break — the city hasn't released a potential value for that incentive — and transfer over a roughly $13 million reserve fund for hotel improvements.

By the way, the hotel -- after just 9 years under city ownership -- will require a $30 to $40 million face lift from the owner.  Why do I suspect that part of the sales price problem is that the government, like with every other asset it owns, did not keep up with its regular maintenance?

Update:  Phoenix is in the top ten US cities in terms of hotel room capacity, so city government of course detects that there is a market failure such that the city ... needs more hotel rooms, so it gets the government in the business of building more.  Good plan.

Model Railroad Update

I can hear the reaction now:  Finally a break from free speech controversies and economic policy so we can get on with Coyote's promised increased focus on the world's geekiest hobby(tm).  So here is what has been happening on the new model railroad (in my tiny, but dedicated, hobby space)

I finished the main body of the railroad.  The two lines that cross at a junction in this section will actually continue around the walls in a loop, but I will add those narrow shelves later.  I added 1/8-inch lauan plywood on the frame.  In the lower left on my desk I am finishing the double crossing which effectively acts as the keystone of the layout, both visually and in construction.  I will lay that first and work outwards.

I use 2" foam as a base.  This is a good approach for modeling rail in the Phoenix area, which is largely flat in the areas I am modelling, but allows some undulations, washes, and canals to be easily carved out.

I printed the skeleton of the track plan in 1:1 scale and laid it out where it is going to go.  You can see the junction in the distance.  I did not like some of the aesthetics and wall spacing and building locations, and altered the track plan some after this test.  The next step is to reprint the full track plan and transfer it to the foam.  I do this using an older (sewing) pounce wheel, which I can run over outlines in the plan and it leaves a series of dots in the foam.  I say an older pounce wheel because the one I have looks like a very pointy spur, but my wife's new ones are not nearly as pointy and don't really work for this application.

After that, I will be to start laying down homosote roadbed for the main lines and start laying track, working out in all four directions from the junction.  As I do so, I will mostly follow the plan but I tend to adjust exact locations of turnouts and sidings as I go.

So Where Is The Climate Science Money Actually Going If Not To Temperature Measurement?

You are likely aware that the US, and many other countries, are spending billions and billions of dollars on climate research.  After drug development, it probably has become the single most lucrative academic sector.

Let me ask a question.  If you were concerned (as you should be) about lead in soil and drinking water and how it might or might not be getting into the bloodstream of children, what would you spend money on?  Sure, better treatments and new technologies for filtering and cleaning up lead.  But wouldn't the number one investment be in more and better measurement of environmental and human lead concentrations, and how they might be changing over time?

So I suppose if one were worried about the global rise in temperatures, one would look at better and more complete measurement of these temperatures.  Hah!  You would be wrong.

There are three main global temperature histories: the combined CRU-Hadley record (HADCRU), the NASA-GISS (GISTEMP) record, and the NOAA record. All three global averages depend on the same underlying land data archive, the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN). Because of this reliance on GHCN, its quality deficiencies will constrain the quality of all derived products.

The number of weather stations providing data to GHCN plunged in 1990 and again in 2005. The sample size has fallen by over 75% from its peak in the early 1970s, and is now smaller than at any time since 1919.

Well, perhaps they have focused on culling a large poor quality network into fewer, higher quality locations?  If they have been doing this, there is little or no record of that being the case.  To outsiders, it looks like stations just keep turning off.   And in fact, by certain metrics, the quality of the network is falling:

The collapse in sample size has increased the relative fraction of data coming from airports to about 50 percent (up from about 30 percent in the 1970s). It has also reduced the average latitude of source data and removed relatively more high-altitude monitoring sites.

Airports, located in the middle of urban centers by and large, are terrible temperature measurement points, subject to a variety of biases such as the urban heat island effect.  My son and I measured over 10 degrees Fahrenheit different between the Phoenix airport and the outlying countryside in an old school project.  Folks who compile the measurements claim that they have corrected for these biases, but many of us have reasons to doubt that (consider this example, where an obviously biased station was still showing in the corrected data as the #1 warming site in the country).  I understand why we have spent 30 years correcting screwed up biased stations because we need some stations with long histories and these are what we have (though many long lived stations have been allowed to expire), but why haven't we been building a new, better-sited network?

Ironically, there has been one major investment effort to improve temperature measurement, and that is through satellite measurements.  We now use satellites for official measures of cloud cover, sea ice extent, and sea level, but the global warming establishment has largely ignored satellite measurement of temperatures.  For example, James Hansen (Al Gore's mentor and often called the father of global warming) strongly defended 100+ year old surface temperature measurement technology over satellites.  Ironically, Hansen was head, for years, of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), so one wonders why he resisted space technology in this one particular area.  Cynics among us would argue that it is because satellites give the "wrong" answer, showing a slower warming rate than the heavily manually adjusted surface records.

Another Reason to Discuss Government-led Local Business Development

I have written many times about my frustration with cronyist business relocation incentives handed out by most local and state governments.  I have always considered these government incentives to be insanely unproductive spending, often taking taxpayer money to move a company as little as a few miles to get it over some artificial border.  One issue I have not considered in these critiques is whether the sorts of companies selected for relocation are really in the long-term interest of the local community at all.

Almost by definition, most relocation subsidies go to large, well-known companies.  This is for a couple of reasons.  First, large companies have the clout to lobby and demand such subsidies, clout smaller businesses do not have.  Second, politicians are handing out these subsidies in order to get re-elected.  The actual product of these subsidies is a press release and a blurb on the politician's campaign website.  A press release saying that your faithful governor has gotten Joe Smith's Widgets to move to Arizona is a lot less powerful than saying he got a branch of General Electric to move to Arizona.  In fact, the sexier the name the better, which is why politicians fall all over themselves to get Google and Apple and Tesla to come to town (despite the fact that in my observation, it is the staid old companies like Honeywell and Wells Fargo and such that tend to invest a lot more in their local communities).   We have a plant in the Phoenix area that has already had two subsidized sexy companies in it (First Solar and an Apple screen manufacturing partner) and now is empty yet again waiting for the next sexy crony.  Apparently, the state has agreed to subsidize Apple again to use it for a data center, though the move-in may be delayed as there was a large fire at the building when the solar panels on the roof caught fire.  Three sexy press releases for Arizona politicians for the same building!

Anyway, I was thinking about this when I read the piece below from Scott Sumner

This reminded me of a very interesting study that compared two cities in Michigan, Flint and Grand Rapids:

In 1946, sociologist C. Wright Mills and economist Melville Ulmer concluded the fortunes of two of Michigan's largest cities, Flint and Grand Rapids, were headed in opposite directions.Seventy years later, their predictions are getting new notice from academics.

The researchers warned Flint was overly dependent on its big employers even though its workers made 37 percent more than the national average at the time.

The warning seemed out of place. By 1950, Flint was labeled "the happiest city in Michigan" and the "epicenter of the American Dream," thanks to its thriving auto industry.

Grand Rapids, whose economy was defined by its numerous small businesses, was less flashy. But it offered its citizens more mobility and opportunity for its middle class that would help it survive tough times, the researchers concluded.

Flint was still booming in the late 1960s, so it looked like this 1946 prediction was wrong. But then the prediction suddenly came true. Flint's metro population fell from 445,589 in 1970 to 410,849 in 2015. In contrast, Grand Rapids has been booming, with its metro population soaring from 539,225 in 1970 to 1,038,583 in 2015. And both of these places are in the rustbelt state of Michigan.

Arizona State Legislature Considering Yet Another Awful Law, This Time Allowing Police Prior Restraint on Speech

It is hard to pick out the most egregious example of bad legislation that has been considered by our state legislature, but this one is certainly close:

Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything actually happened.

SB1142 expands the state’s racketeering laws, now aimed at organized crime, to also include rioting. And it redefines what constitutes rioting to include actions that result in damage to the property of others.

But the real heart of the legislation is what Democrats say is the guilt by association — and giving the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets of everyone who planned a protest and everyone who participated. And what’s worse, said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, is that the person who may have broken a window, triggering the claim there was a riot, might actually not be a member of the group but someone from the other side....

There’s something else: By including rioting in racketeering laws, it actually permits police to arrest those who are planning events. And Kavanagh, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups, “I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.’’

“Wouldn’t you rather stop a riot before it starts?’’ Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. “Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?’’

This is the sort of law that is almost guaranteed to be abused and enforced in an asymmetrical manner.  This is one of those laws where the "Am I comfortable giving my political opponent this sort of power" test is particularly useful.  Conservatives rightly complained about the Obama Administrations asymmetric IRS scrutiny on Tea Party groups, but this law would create a far greater potential for abuse.  We no longer have Sheriff Joe any more (which is one reason I don't join so many others in complaining about the election of 2016) but does anyone doubt that Arpaio would have used this law to shut down every pro-immigrant protest he could learn about in advance?

Why Is the Diet Coke Always Out of Stock?

As a purchaser of Diet Coke in the medium-sized bottles, I have come to notice that all the other Coke products are often fully stocked, but the Diet Coke is sold out.  In hotels, when I hit the vending machine, if one type of soda is sold out, it will be the Diet Coke.   Here is my grocery store this morning, with a sight I have seen many times at each of the three stores where I shop.  Note that there is full stocking of all the Coke SKU's with a huge gap where the Diet Coke should be.

I like business analysis conundrums like this, so I can think of three explanations:

  1. Observer bias:  It could be all the other SKU's are out of stock an equal amount of time, but since I am not looking for them I do not notice.  I will say that I began thinking about this years ago and over the last year I have tried to pay special attention each time to what is and isn't stocked, but this is still a very likely possibility.
  2. Diet Coke loses money:  It is possible that Diet Coke has the lowest margins for the local distributor.  They are committed to stocking it by Coca-Cola, but they intentionally keep the shelf stock short to minimize sales of a bad product for them.
  3. Lack of granularity in distributor stocking plans:  By this I mean, if a distributor uses one stocking plan and set of product ratios in all stores, it may be that certain products sell out in areas that are over-weighted towards liking that product.  My gut feel is that Diet Coke, vs. Coke, skews more suburban and affluent.   So if they stock to a single standard plan across Phoenix, there may not be enough Diet Coke inventory in suburban grocery stores and fancier hotel vending machines.  This is a sort of variation of the observer bias issue -- Coke has a stocking problem only in a few locations, but I preferentially shop in those locations.