Reducing Car Taxes Not the Best Option for the Poor

Update: Rep. elected Norton clarified online that his intention is to lower the rate of taxation in cities like Pawtucket, which have a higher car tax, while raising the tax in municipalities like Jamestown to compensate. I wouldn't object to this change, as already noted below. 
The key is holding the state assembly to this promise. As Norton jockeys with other state reps., I wonder whether there will be a push to amend his proposal to lower the car tax in poorer cities without replacing that revenue with a higher tax in wealthier areas. It's something we should keep our eyes on.

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I don't think this will be a giant surprise for anyone reading this blog regularly, but I'm not a proponent of lowering car taxes.

The issue has come to the forefront of campaigning again, this time by State Representative elect David Norton of Pawtucket.

There's some nuance here. Since we stopped having a state car tax under the Carcieri administration, individual municipalities have had to set their own rates, and poorer communities have set higher rates than more affluent ones. I agree with Norton about this discrepancy, which is definitely unfair.
Here's where I disagree with Norton's overall goal of lowering car taxes as a means of putting money into the economy.

The first problem I see is that lots poor, elderly, disabled, and young people do not drive. Owning a car is not exclusively a middle class or upper class thing, but it is disproportionately so. So it's absolutely true that there are poor people out there struggling to pay for a high car tax, but there are also lots of poor people for whom a lower car tax will have no effect whatsoever, and plenty of people who aren't poor who will reap awards those poor people don't get.

Stated another way, if you were going to give back $1,000 in car tax to someone, why not give back $1,000 in some tax that affects everyone? Why not target your tax cut more carefully to the poor, so as not to miss anyone? The car tax does hit some poor people, but lowering it requires that poor people ante-in and buy a car in order to get a benefit, and that to me is unfair.

The second problem I have with lowering the car tax is that the United States is riding a fantasy that driving is affordable as the default way of getting around. It isn't that other countries don't drive, or that people in other countries don't own cars, but the amount of driving (VMT) and the amount of car ownership is much lower. The 6/10 Connector (which incidentally, Norton supports turning into a boulevard, at least judging by his favoriting history on Twitter) is a really emblematic example of really expensive infrastructure that encourages driving, discourages anything that isn't driving, and puts our state in debt. Yet, nationwide as well as here in Rhode Island, we're floating this idea that making driving more affordable is a progressive value, and to my mind that's chasing a ponzi scheme.

Countries with very egalitarian wealth distribution typically have high car fees. Yes, it's true that if you live in Denmark or the Netherlands, where the tax on a car can be much higher than in Rhode Island, that it's going to be hard as a poor person to own a car. But it's also going to be harder to be a poor person, because if you're focusing your social policy on things that directly reduce poverty, instead of routing them inefficiently the way the U.S. does, you're going to have better housing security, food security, educational opportunity, and health outcomes.

Why is lowering car taxes such a popular and recurrent idea? I think the reason is that it's an ordinary nuisance, but one that isn't seen as political. If I tell you that we should have a comprehensive health service to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, that issue (in America) has been marked as left-of-center. But lowering the car tax appeals to people in a kind of apolitical way. You can find people who want to vote for Donald Trump who like the idea, just as much as you can find liberals. But I think we ultimately have to face the fact that higher car charges save poor people money. The current system tries to uphold universal driving as the ideal, so that people who might benefit best from a robust transit or biking system have to buy all the expensive accouterments of car ownership. Along with militarism, I think car culture is one of the things that has most stood in the way of a more democratic and egalitarian U.S.

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Sam Bell Calls for Gov. Raimondo to Turn Around on 6/10

Sam Bell of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats writes compellingly today in the Projo about why Gina Raimondo and RIDOT Director Peter Alviti need to change course on the 6/10 Connector (he includes a mild jab at Mayor Jorge Elorza as well, who, although a boulevard supporter, has been criticized by some for not pushing back hard enough against RIDOT).
From Sam's piece:  
Urban highways always create massive traffic problems, and 6-10 connector is worse than most. Porous street grids are great for absorbing blockages, but the 6-10 interrupts Providence’s grid system, forcing traffic travelling through the center of our city through a few chokepoints. Across America, city after city has torn down urban highways and found improvements in traffic flow. 
More troublingly, these highways choke off neighborhoods and spread blight throughout our city. When the 6-10 was built, slicing through Olneyville, it destroyed Providence’s vibrant “second downtown.” Today, it continues to divide our city, walling off communities with swaths of urban decay. Unsurprisingly, it is Providence’s poorest communities that are hardest hit.
Some may remember that Sam's first mention on this blog was my tirade against his anti-Sakonnet toll piece (Sam views tolls as regressive; I tend to think we work really hard-- too hard-- in this country to make driving an accessible activity, and end up as a result having some of the lousiest public amenities of any Western country). In any case, Sam and I may not always agree, but I'm glad he's around fighting for progressive causes. 

I hope Sam's letter will change some minds in Gov. Raimondo's office, and perhaps embolden Mayor Elorza to fight harder.

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A RIDOT Compromise

Officials at RIDOT have recently reached out to ask me to participate in a meeting to forge a compromise on the 6/10 Connector. From talking to other people who are interested in this, I've gathered that this was a fairly broad invitation to a lot of people, though I'm not clear just how many yet.

I feel like the effort at dialogue is a welcome one, but I'm very wary. The governor has not signaled her openness to any meaningful compromise on this issue, and I would like to avoid having my presence at RIDOT headquarters serve to formalize the state government's decision to completely ignore the needs of the City of Providence. So here I'm outlining what my demands are of the governor's office and RIDOT.

You probably know that the governor recently unilaterally decided to rebuild the 6/10 Connector as-is. Nominally there is a process for discussion on this, but in the governor's words, we're supposed to "wrap it up" in sixty days, after which presumably the Connector will be rebuilt as the governor sees fit. Gov. Raimondo did wobble a bit in public questioning days after her initial announcement, seeming to indicate that she would be open to any plan that was safe, affordable, and practical. She then recanted on that position. If we're going to participate in public meetings, it's not to legitimize that kind of arbitrary power. The governor needs to put all options back on the table.

The main strength I think we have is to articulate what our position is publicly, and call on the public to back that position. Assuming that there's any inherent integrity to "the process" is naive. There is no integrity, except that which is pushed unwillingly on public officials.

Here is what RIDOT must do if it's going to "compromise":

We all agree that the public should not be left at risk from unsafe bridges. If the Huntington Bridge is unsafe, it should be closed to trucks, and if necessary, to cars. Oddly, the bridges remain open to cars and trucks, and given the governor's past record of conveniently finding unsafe bridges in the right place at the right time for her policy goals, it leaves the public suspicious. To be clear, I don't think the suspicion should be about whether the bridges are in good condition or not. The suspicion is that concerns about safety are being manipulated in order to derail public opposition to the governor's positions. 


We shouldn't fear shutting down bridges, because we understand that traffic is able to accommodate tremendous losses of capacity and function just fine. In fact, that's the basis for the first highway removals. Highways collapsed, and then there was surprisingly not much of a problem. It happened in New York with the West Side Highway. It happened when four highways fell at once in San Francisco (two were ultimately removed). It happened in a more orderly way when Seoul, South Korea removed fifteen highways and replaced some of them with mere rivers. The most famous, Cheongyecheon, was based on Waterplace Park. It carried 60% more vehicles than the 6/10 Connector, but the South Koreans saw fit not only to remove it, but to replace it with nothing but a natural reclamation.

Cheongycheon, based on Waterplace Park, removed a highway that had carried 160,000 vehicles. RIDOT estimates the 6/10 Connector at around 90,000 to 100,000 vehicles. Some side streets were left parallel to the river, but nothing at all like a large road of any kind.

If RIDOT deems it inappropriate to shut the bridges down, it should use temporary braces to maintain their safety. RIDOT Director Alviti and Governor Raimondo have stated on numerous occasions that it doesn't make sense to put temporary braces that cost $5-$6 million on bridges in order to tide the problem along. This is really clever rhetoric, but doesn't actually make any sense. The amount of money we're looking at spending on the 6/10 Connector is anywhere between $600 million to $1 billion dollars if the highway is rebuilt as-is. Our best guesses about how much the boulevard model could save are in the order of magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars. So saving $5-6 million in order to assure that we can spend several hundred million extra on a project of dubious value is not smart.

The public has favored the boulevard through the process. There have been rumblings of dissent from some quarters, but one should read between the lines of that dissent to see where it comes from. The Projo, for instance, recently ran an editorial praising the governor for her "smart decisions" on the 6/10 bridges. The editorial reads like, and probably is, a press release, and it gets a lot of the basic facts wrong. It says the governor is smart for saving money, since the surface boulevard is clearly more expensive (not true: see comments from RIDOT Dep. Director Peter Garino here). It also conflates the surface boulevard and the highway cap, which are two totally different plans. You can even look to sources like the comments section of the Projo for further evidence of this: some people do comment that they'd like the highway rebuilt as-is, but those people always cite cost. People who don't follow the process closely have, like the Projo, gotten confused about what the highway cap is and how it differs from the boulevard, and so they assume the boulevard is more expensive. It doesn't do justice to these people's point of view to build the highway either, since what they're stating is that they'd like the cheapest option. (It's also, by the way, quite clear that a boulevard would best serve the needs of drivers, whether or not that point is realized by suburban mayors).

I'm in favor of completing the public process instead of fast-tracking anything, but I think that if there is a fast-track, that Providence Planning should be the decider of what that is. The governor held a press conference with four mayors, two of which people whose towns don't have the 6/10 Connector (Mayors Lombardi and Avedisian of North Providence and Warwick, respectively), and one of whom was a mayor of a town where Route 6 W exists, but where no changes are proposed within the town's borders (Mayor Polisena of Johnston). Providence is the only municipality that is actually affected by the 6/10 Connector, and it is the only municipality that has any right to make a decision on it. Having the mayors of Warwick and North Providence join the press conference was clearly a power-play by the governor, and if she doesn't back off from these kinds of power-plays, she shouldn't expect a second term of office.

Bottom line: any proposal that rebuilds the highway over the wishes of Providence is not a compromise. A compromise is when everyone at the table gives and takes something to get where they need to be. The boulevard itself is a compromise, because what would serve Providence best is to build nothing. The boulevard is a way to accommodate the interests of people who wish to have a large road, while also meeting the needs of neighbors who wish there was none. The governor must support the public process.

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#NewExcusesRI

I really think the governor is getting sloppy with her excuses. She cites safety emergencies every time! Let's send her some #NewExcusesRI so that next time she can tell us something more convincing.

I'll start us off:
My dog ate the suitcase full of donations from the construction trades, and so I had to get another suitcase of donations from the construction trades.
Seriously, I had to go take a walk around the block when I saw this headline:


From tweet by Dan McGowan

Governor Raimondo needs to come up with some more excuses for bad transportation ideas:
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has asked state transportation officials to speed up a plan to move most of the buses out of Kennedy Plaza, but it remains unclear when the overhaul of the downtown hub will begin. 
In an interview this week, Raimondo said safety remains her primary concern in a downtown area that has seen the tragic death of woman who was hit by a Peter Pan bus last month as well as a spike in nuisance crimes in 2016. 
“I would like to move the buses out of Kennedy Plaza and I am directing my team to work harder to accelerate that,” Raimondo said. “I’m worried about safety.”
This is the second time this week (see #1) that Raimondo has cited safety as a way of bolstering a state of emergency, both times in order to lay the smack down on transit (though don't be fooled, Raimondo has been using safety as a way to push her agenda on transportation since before this week too).

I have written something each of the times that someone was hit by a bus in Kennedy Plaza, and I have concerns about it too. Moving the buses to a different location does not mean that no one will ever be hit by a bus. It simply means they'll be hit by a bus in a different location. 

My particular concerns have been that planners in the city, and at the state level, have tended to suggest that bike-bus combo lanes are a great idea. The logic behind this idea seems to be that both are types of transportation that aren't cars, but there's no further thinking put behind that. Buses obviously need to have their own lanes in order to go quickly and efficiently through the city, while bikes need their own lanes to allow people who are not comfortable going quickly in mixed traffic to have a safe space. These are obviously two completely at-odds goals.

There are a lot of nuanced things that could be said about Kennedy Plaza. The first is the fact that not all of the buses currently at KP should be there. Bus systems are best designed as pulsing networks of frequent routes on a grid, which allows riders the ability to go anywhere to anywhere quickly. Clearly, having the buses all go to one central point is not the best system.

That's a different point than the one the keeps coming up with Rhode Island politicians-- which can essentially be summed up as "get rid of those bus people." Paolino would like to see buses moved to Allens Avenue. Clearly (haha!) this is motivated by his interest in putting transit where it is most useful, rather than, say, relegating it to the "margins of the city."

Raimondo's manufactured emergency belies the fact that her administration has been an open enemy of everything that might make the state a decent place to walk, bike, or take a bus. Flanked by Joe Paolino, Providence's anti-transit ultra-villain, Raimondo would like you to believe this policy move is about the safety of pedestrians. Maybe someone should show her this, and ask her why her 6/10 Connector policy is so car-oriented.


See article at Streetsblog.


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Gina Raimondo to End Public Process on 6/10?

Gina Raimondo has done the impossible: she's united left and right, rural and urban, throughout all of the State of Rhode Island and its Providence Plantations.


Rhode Island is among only three states in the nation that are losing population: Michigan and Maine are the other two. Providence is among the top cities for urban decay due to overinvestment in highways, while as the second-densest and smallest state in the union, it has a dwindling transit ridership. Yet Gov. Raimondo has overseen the expansion of the road system in order to move jobs around within our state's famously tiny borders. 

Now the governor has shut down the public process around the 6/10 Connector, crying concerns over safety. This is clearly a lie.

It's not a lie in the sense that the bridges on 6/10 are safe. Everyone agrees that they are unsafe. It's a lie because RIDOT has used fear about the safety of bridges throughout the entire process as a way of derailing discussion. The mere fact that bridges are in poor shape does not necessitate their being replaced as-is, especially when even the Tea Party-- yes, that Tea Party-- thinks that the boulevard is a better idea than rebuilding 6/10 (suburban liberals agree too, and so do libertarians, a surprisingly large contingent in the Ocean State).

RIDOT officials were not concerned about moving the process along quickly when they delayed Providence from having public forums on the subject, then stonewalled Providence Planning and almost didn't show up. The meetings did happen, many months after they were originally planned, and they looked like this:
The only people that don't agree with the boulevard are RIDOT officials, and Gov. Raimondo.

Director Peter Alviti of RIDOT has stated that the boulevard would created horrible traffic, yet RIDOT knows that this is not the case.

Despite awareness that boulevards like the Champs-Élysées carry as much traffic as 6/10, and despite decades of evidence that removing highways has no impact on traffic congestion (other than occasionally to improve it), RIDOT has presented intentionally misleading information to the public. And yet no organized effort has formed among the public to continue the highway as-is.
It's hard not to lose faith. I'd like to ask all Rhode Islanders to keep backing Providence's mayor, Jorge Elorza, as he pushes back against this effort to short-circuit the public process.


Keep fighting, Rhody.

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Small Change Arguments, When Big Changes are Needed

It's the parking that makes Thayer lively, when you really think
about it.
Don't fling a coin at a beggar, make real change. That's my message to Thayer Street

(of course, don't tell the Avon Cinema's owner, the Dulgarians, because they're upset about coin flinging-- to parking meters at least-- and beggars).

I've probably been among the chief rabble-rousers against the Avon Cinema's obnoxious anti-parking meter campaign. There are some legitimate complaints that can be made about the specifics of the parking meters in the city, but Avon's owners the Dulgarian brothers have taken the campaign too far.

I've started bringing my complaints to the attention of the @ThayerStreetPVD account, because I think the merchant district should be aware that it's anchor theater is turning off customers left and right.

Thayer Street's twitter account has since started posting positive stuff about bikes and transit. Stuff like this:
I want to say, for the record, that I appreciate the kindly tone. Thayer Street is not Avon Theater, and while I think customers should still appeal to the merchants' association as a way of putting pressure on Avon to calm-it-down, they shouldn't stand directly responsible for the Dulgarians' antics.

But I also want to use this as a conversation piece to show how tokenizing the efforts around bikes are on Thayer.  I have the bike benefits sticker and use it from time to time. It saves me 10% off a coffee, perhaps, which is $0.20. It's less than the twelve minutes charge on a parking meter (admittedly, the benefit can be somewhat larger on some items-- but, for instance, I don't necessarily want a free cookie at Subway. I'm a goddamned adult!).

What's also annoying about the bike benefits is that I can't get them as a pedestrian. Presumably (at least the way I calculate it in my head) the bike benefits are a quiet way of thanking us for not taking up parking, or not polluting. The many times I take the bus or walk to Thayer, I get no benefit.

I'm also annoyed because, well, this:
Thayer Merchants' Association actively sought the demolition of seven multifamily houses for a "temporary" (we'll see) parking lot on Brook Street. This is a way bigger move against bikes, walking and transit than any of the small symbolic stuff it's done to supposedly promote biking.

The way you reward cyclists is not with a dumb sticker on one's helmet (don't get me started. . . ) that one has to remember in order to get the (very small) benefit. The way proper rewards for not using a car are given out is by charging the market price for parking, not tearing down the fabric of the neighborhood to create more parking, and creating great places to bike.

Thayer Street, by the way, is not a great place to bike. It's a mediocre place to bike that seems okay as a biking location because it is surrounded by a city with no bike infrastructure whatsoever.

If you ask me, Thayer Street shouldn't have any parking, save for delivery vehicles. It should be Church Street, Burlington:


I'm joining many people who have said they will not patronize the Avon Theater until it stops this dumb anti-meter campaign. I call on the Thayer Street Merchants to get some control over the Avon, lest the effect spill out across the street. And Thayer Street's businesses need to stop being anti-student and start being pro-transit, pro-biking, and pro-walking in ways that are less tokenizing. You want to impress me with how urbanist you are? Stop the dumb anti-meter campaign, and start pushing hard for more frequent transit schedules and protected bike lanes on streets like Waterman and Angell. 

Until then, it's just meaningless Twitter fluff.

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@ThayerStreetPVD would like me to correct a small error in the article:
Incidentally, the comments I made about the Thayer Merchants Association backing the demolition of housing were factually correct, it's just that the Twitter account isn't the merchants.

A Conversation with Rep. David Cicilline

I spent two hours last night volunteering for Rep. David Cicilline's campaign. Sept. 13th is a primary, and while under a thriving democracy there would be no reason to expect Cicilline to fall to his (strange) challenger, the problem with American democracy is that very few people turn out to actually vote. So please do vote, and when you vote, cast your ballot for Rep. Cicilline.


Rep. Cicilline has, like the entire Rhode Island delegation, at times done things with road funding that I don't particularly agree with. I've covered heavily the begging and pleading that Senator Whitehouse did to get federal funding for the Viaduct, because I find that monstrous interchange to be a terrible invasion of urban space that worsens climate change and wastes tax dollars and land. Whitehouse wasn't alone in this, it's just that his signature issue is supposed to be climate, and I've found his advocacy on behalf of large road projects to be particularly troubling. Cicilline was no different on the Viaduct, and even featured it in one of his ads:




This is the kind of issue where, unfortunately, many Democrats go wrong, because they see the positive "government building things for citizens" side of things without seeing the "this particular thing is a gigantic urban planning mistake and shouldn't be repeated" side.



That said, what convinced me to step up and phone-bank for Rep. Cicilline was his public advocacy on behalf of the 6/10 Boulevard. He met on Newsmakers to talk about it, and said that it was important for us to knit together our urban streets, comparing it to the I-195 Project in scope for the city.

I met with Cicilline in Lippitt Park during a farmers' market, when he was rushing around to collect signatures to be on the ballot. I stopped to talk to him, and he surprised me when he connected my name (James Kennedy) to the blog Transport Providence and said that he follows me on Twitter (I knew he follows me on Twitter, but I figured it was a staffer). We talked a bit, and when I mentioned Rhode Island having lost the federal grants for 6/10, his initial reply was "Oh, yeah, that's a shame. Sheldon worked really hard on that. I'm going to have to talk to him." I told Cicilline that no, actually, I think it's a great thing that we lost the money because maybe it will hold RIDOT to the boulevard approach, which is cheaper. Cicilline surprised me again when he took that point in stride and thought about it. I reminded Congressman Cicilline that RIDOT is still working hard on their ridiculous "hybrid" highway model, and he said, "I think that's a horrible idea. I think we need to build it as a boulevard."

So points for Cicilline.

I don't regret phone-banking for Cicilline. He's a good advocate on many issues I care about outside of transportation. When I came home from phone-banking last night, though, I saw this tweet, which made me cringe a bit.




Environmentalists had been working really hard to question the rationale behind public funding for sewer extensions alongside additional road interchanges and local tax exemptions to help Citizens Bank move its operations from Providence to Johnston. The plan would tear down acres of forest, add infrastructure we needed to take care of, and add drivers to the roads at a time of a climate crisis. Citizens agreed to pay half the cost of the upfront construction of the road interchange, which sounds generous, if you ignore the other tax incentives and the fact that the Narragansett Bay Commission will continue to have to maintain this infrastructure for decades. It's classic ponzi scheme of the suburbs territory.

Here's what Citizens had to say about the deal as it went down:


Of course, the suburbs are cheaper than the city because we subsidize all the expensive parts (enter, Rhode Island delegation).

Who's smiling away in this picture but Congressman Cicilline? And, of course, "Time to Wake Up" Sheldon Whitehouse?

To the credit of Cicilline, I had just tweeted out an entreaty to my followers to volunteer for his campaign, when I all but ambushed him in the thread by continuing to talk about my criticisms of his shoveling. Cicilline didn't shy away from the conversation, and I hope it made an impression on him (I've having trouble properly embedding this tweet conversation, so check it out here).

Just to reiterate from the tweet conversation: Johnston isn't even in Congressman Cicilline's district. 

The 6/10 Boulevard is too important not to go out and vote for Cicilline on the 13th. Please do. Please also take a moment to email or tweet the congressman and ask him to stick to his guns on the boulevard. RIDOT very much values the kind of development projects that are capital heavy and appear to create jobs while also destroying our long-term prosperity. We're going to need people in the congressional delegation to push back on that. It's to Cicilline's credit that he engaged in this conversation, and I hope he will do so more.

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