Archives for January 13, 2013

One Reason the PA Turnpike Commission is So Corrupt

Via Eric Boehm. Change the compensation package immediately!:

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is the five-member governing body, with four members selected by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The state Secretary of Transportation is the fifth member of the commission.

Commissioners are paid the relatively modest salary of $26,000 for their positions, which require them to be on-duty 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

But they seem to make up for the modest salaries with expense accounts that auditors deemed “overly generous and permissive,” in the new report.

The Turnpike Commission incurred more than $539,000 in expenses for the six people who served on the panel during the four-and-a-half years that the audit examined.

Get the Debt Ceiling Reporting Right

James Fallows:

1) Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.

2) For Congress to “decide whether” to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to “decide whether” to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.

Raising the debt ceiling is not a “concession” by Republicans. Congress must pay the bills for Congress’s spending. There is nothing to negotiate about.

Taking the Platinum Coin Off the Table Strengthens Obama’s Hand on the Debt Ceiling

Great points from Stan Collender. With no backup plan for the White House, there are only two choices for the House Republicans: clean increase of the debt ceiling or default. The clean increase is going to be maximally humiliating for the Republicans:

This is one of the toughest hardball negotiating tacts the Obama administration has ever taken with Congress on the budget. The White House effectively is saying to the House and Senate (but primarily to the GOP-controlled House), that not raising the debt ceiling will be judged to be their fault. By refusing even to consider alternatives such as the platinum coin and saying it will not negotiate on the debt ceiling, the administration is putting the onus unambiguously on congressional Republicans and saying they he will not provide them with an out of any kind. He’s saying “Raise the debt ceiling or suffer the consequences.”

Try to imagine the situation if the White House were decided to use the 14th amendment, the platinum coin or any other creative way to get around the debt ceiling: As soon as it happened, the focus would immediately shift from what Congress refused to do to what the president did. Most of the commentary and debate would be about whether Obama’s action was legal and constitutional, there would be constant hearings and likely calls for his impeachment.

But the White House’s statements about the 14th amendment and the platinum coin keep the focus laser beam-like on Congress. The only question now is whether the House GOP will play legislative chicken with the increase in the debt ceiling that will be needed some time in late February or will cave when the time comes.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Easton Parking

Easton’s taken some important steps toward pricing parking at market rates over the past year. Electronic meters will make paying for parking more convenient, the longer meter hours will help manage parking demand during peak times, and lower garage rates will improve sorting between garage and curb parking based on how long people plan to stay. Since the meters Easton is getting are the same meters used by SF Park, the city might eventually be able to offer lower curb meter prices during off-peak hours.

The politics of this issue are difficult because so many people mistakenly believe parking is a public good, not a market good, and they therefore believe that the government should provide it. But in fact parking has neither of the two qualities that a public good must have – a parking space is both perfectly rivalrous and perfectly excludable. If your car is parked in a space, mine cannot be. This makes parking a market good.

So we need to congratulate Easton’s political leaders for moving toward a policy framework that treats parking more like the class of good that it is. Bethlehem is the only other Lehigh Valley municipality that’s gotten this close to getting it right, so Easton deserves a lot of credit.

But I also want to keep pushing politicians to get parking policy all the way right, and persuade them to see it as a market good, and so I will keep the criticism coming alongside the praise.

I’ve seen Sal Panto argue that Easton needs to buy up surface lots to provide more parking, and now JD Malone is reporting that they are taking steps to seize a lot through eminent domain to provide more city-owned parking spaces:

To augment the city’s inventory of parking spaces, council approved the first step toward seizing a property. The parking lot, with a tiny bank building at 37-43 N. Fourth St., might be the future home of a multiple-story parking deck, according to Steckman.

The city offered owner Scott G. Kindred more than he paid in 2010 for the .35-acre parcel but was refused, Steckman said. Kindred paid $70,000, according to Northampton County tax records. Steckman said the building would be torn down and the lot would be resurfaced to provide more paid off-street parking. He also said the site could be used for a multiple-story parking deck in the future.

At the same time as the city’s been moving toward market rates for parking, they’ve also been doubling down on the idea of public provision of parking, which I think is mistaken.

The parcel at 37-43 N. 4th Street is certainly blighted, and it’s perfectly sensible that the city would want to see a change of use there. But seizing the property and turning it into a somewhat better-looking surface parking lot is still blight, because surface parking lots are all ugly. What you really want there is a nice new apartment building with ground-floor retail.

The counterargument I anticipate is that the city wants to eventually turn the surface lot into structured parking, but I would counter that the city shouldn’t be building any more parking garages. If there is demand for more structured parking spaces, then a private parking garage company will build a new garage. If the demand is really there, then it’s like the proverbial $5 bill on the sidewalk. If it’s real, somebody will pick it up.

Building and owning parking garages has got nothing to do with the government’s core business, which is providing true public goods and public services. The reason the city has to manage curb parking spaces is because they own the roads – they have no choice but to manage the demand for curb spaces. Parking garages, by contrast, do not have to be publicly-owned, and frequently are not in other cities. That’s better, since it means that parking garages are on the tax rolls, and smart cities can even levy a separate parking tax to pay for transportation infrastructure and maintenance.

The next round of parking policy-making in Easton should involve not more asset acquisitions but asset sales – selling off the city’s garage and surface lots to private owners, and finding a private developer to own and operate the garage portion of the intermodal center. Rather than buying up more parking assets, the better strategy for eliminating blight and surface lots downtown would be to replace the property tax with a land value tax. Lower or eliminate the tax on property improvements and raise the cost of owning vacant land, surface parking lots and underdeveloped parcels.