Rio Grande Foundation president Paul Gessing recently sat down with KRWG’s Fred Martino. We discuss the Spaceport and ongoing issues there and then move on to talking about the 2018 Legislature and why voters should be so skeptical of government infrastructure projects.
(Albuquerque, NM) – The City of Albuquerque faces serious challenges. With the election for mayor and control of city council scheduled for October 3, it is clear that “the economy” and “crime” are the two issues of most importance to residents.
To assist candidates, the Rio Grande Foundation has outlined a detailed plan to improve Albuquerque’s fiscal condition and thus boost economic development and reallocate resources to effective crime-fighting. Ideas contained in “Fixing Albuquerque: Fiscal Policy” include:
- Right-size and re-evaluate employee compensation to more closely reflect private-sector reality. Beginning with a comprehensive study and analysis of municipal employment, city councilors and the next mayor must streamline the bureaucracy;
- Reduce the number of government-owned, city-run, taxpayer-financed facilities such as the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum and the Albuquerque International Sunport. Each of these facilities could at the very least be managed far more efficiently by private-sector providers. In some cases the facilities can be sold off completely;
- Albuquerque is among the minority of cities to not rely on private-sector providers for city-owned golf courses and solid-waste collection/disposal. For example, Rio Rancho’s trash is handled by Waste Management, Inc. and the City of Cincinnati’s municipal golf courses are managed by private contractors.
- Nearly 40 percent of the 165 American zoos accredited by the American Zoological Association—among them, zoos in Fort Worth, Cincinnati, New Orleans, San Diego, and Jackson, Mississippi—are run by private, nonprofit societies.
- Albuquerque’s poorly focused government and bloated payroll is illustrated by a lack of clear, simple, and achievable goals. The city’s “Goal Areas, Goal Statements and Desired Community or Customer Conditions” is a mish-mash of random and even conflicting objectives that often have little to do with making Albuquerque or any other city thrive.
The Rio Grande Foundation will send “Fixing Albuquerque: Fiscal Policy” to all active candidates for city office this fall, and hopes that it will form the basis for some hard discussions about streamlining and improving services and the cost of city government.
Albuquerque City Councilor Isaac Benton’s proposal to create a 2 cents-per-gallon gas tax will be voted on by the full council on June 5. If enacted, the tax would be a net negative for the city of Albuquerque. Aside from adding to an already-high local tax burden and disproportionately affecting low-income families, Benton’s tax would not do much to improve the city’s roads and have negative effects on its economy.
The proposed tax adds 2 cents per gallon onto the combined state and federal 35.4-cent tax. This is the same gas tax that has been in the crosshairs of legislative Democrats for further hikes as recently as this special session. Albuquerque residents already face the highest tax burden in the state as a percentage of income. A new gas tax will affect a large number of low-income families.
According to the Brookings Institution, 80 percent of households with annual incomes of under $50,000 drive cars, and a third of them own multiple vehicles. These vehicles are often older and less efficient. The well-off can easily afford a 2-cent tax due to their additional wealth and ability to buy new, efficient cars, but the disadvantaged must pay the same tax while earning less and filling their tanks more. While 2 cents sounds like a small burden, for workers whose main focus is putting food on the table for their families, every little bit counts.
A gas tax would also have negative effects on Albuquerque’s economy. The Brookings Institute notes that such taxes drain the economy of purchasing power due to their effects on low- and moderate-income families. Put simply, lower-income families generally spend most of their income, meaning that a spending increase in one area, like gas, means that spending decreases accordingly in other areas. Decreased spending harms the economy, especially one which is still recovering from a major downturn. Thus, families are hit with a double effect: first, they must pay more for gas and lose out on spending elsewhere, and then they must deal with the effects of a slow economy.
As the ordinance is written, the tax would be used to “rehabilitate transportation systems.” This could mean directly supporting or allowing existing dollars to be diverted to the controversial Albuquerque Rapid Transit program and the city bus system. Any gas tax paid by motorists should at least be dedicated to improving and expanding Albuquerque’s roads.
Additionally, as Benton himself said recently, much of the revenue will be allocated to “outdated” roadways that are functional but for some reason or another are not compliant with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. As well-intentioned as this may be, average Albuquerque residents and motorists want roads that get them from A to B with fewer potholes. As time passes, roads are being upgraded to comply with ADA. Adding a new tax onto the backs of local motorists now in order to comply with a law passed back in 1990 is ridiculous.
Even if the proceeds were dedicated specifically to roads, it is worth questioning what the city will receive in terms of “bang for the buck.” That’s because a significant portion of the money generated by the tax will be spent on the creation of a collection and auditing apparatus. Some of the revenue created would have to be spent on additional bureaucracy to collect, audit and set up an appeals process relating to the new tax.
Gas taxes aside, local taxpayers are facing increased tax burdens. Between Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque, gross receipts taxes applied to most purchases will have risen an astonishing 29 percent since 2000 once the latest round of tax hikes kicks in this July. We are reminded every day, whether from news reports or by just driving down the street, that our city has not recovered from the economic crisis of 2008. Raising taxes yet again is not likely to improve the local economy.
For nearly two years, skeptics, critics and opponents have assembled an impressive arsenal of arguments against Albuquerque Rapid Transit, the proposed dedicated busway along Central Avenue.
The mayor, seven of nine city councilors and the city’s transportation bureaucrats don’t care.
Adamantly committed to the project, and unpersuaded by intense public opposition and a plethora of policy-grounded objections, ART’s overseers have forged ahead. They’ve dedicated municipal-bond revenue to the busway. They’ve asked for, and secured, White House approval for $69 million in federal subsidies. And they had planned to begin construction in May.
But last month, two significant obstacles to ART emerged. One lawsuit, filed in state court, lists a number of small businesses and residents as plaintiffs. Another, filed in federal court, is backed by the “Coalition of Concerned Citizens to Make ART Smart,” an “unincorporated association,” as well as Jean and Marc Bernstein, the owners of the Flying Star restaurants.
The state complaint filed last month said Route 66 is “one of the most historic and well-known iconic roads in the U.S.,” and ART will impact “over 150 places on the National Historic Register.” The National Historic Preservation Act “requires that any federally funded undertaking” consider the impact on “any site, building, structure or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places,” the suit said. But the analysis of ART’s threat to history was perfunctory, the suit alleged. Plaintiffs requested “a full review of Historic Landmarks and the impact of the project there-on rather than the illegal cursory indication that no significant impacts would occur with regard to Historic Properties.” In addition, the complaint charged that ART would “constitute a complete nuisance and interference with the rights of the existing businesses to continue to contract with their customers and to function.”
The state complaint is strong. Its federal counterpart is stronger. The federal lawsuit charges that the city misrepresented the facts when it asked the Federal Transit Administration for an exemption to the requirement that ART account for its environmental footprint. Central Avenue isn’t known for rich wildlife, but the issue isn’t biology — traffic congestion, traffic patterns, economic vitality and the like, in an urban area must be assessed. Yet Washington approved the city’s request for an exclusion.
It gets worse. In its request to relax environmental scrutiny, according to the federal suit, the city answered “no” to the question: “Is the project likely to generate intense public discussion, concern or controversy, even though it may be limited to a relatively small subset of the community?” Whoa. Last summer, when the city applied for its exemption, the city was well aware of mounting citizen and business opposition. (And since then, resistance has only intensified.)
The federal complaint tacks on a number of other counts, including (like the state case) violation of the National Historic Preservation Act; violation of the state-level Prehistoric and Historic Sites Preservation Act; and nonconformity with the city’s “Complete Streets Ordinance,” which mandates that “the need to move vehicles efficiently” must be balanced with “placemaking, pedestrian-friendliness, historic preservation and economic development,” according to the suit.
We’ve long known that ART is wrong for Albuquerque. The corridor doesn’t have anywhere near the population density to support bus rapid transit. The project would severely reduce mobility by creating more traffic congestion, and is all but certain to put many Central Avenue restaurants and shops out of business. And Washington is nearly insolvent, with no surplus funds to spend on a dubious transit project in a city suffering from a high crime rate and subpar job growth.
Thanks to the state and federal lawsuits, we now know that ART has an even darker side. The city’s proposed busway likely violated federal law, a state statute and a local ordinance. Albuquerque’s residents and businesses should not have had to resort to the courts to block a proposal that’s sure to prove disastrous to both transportation and economic development in their struggling city. But let’s hope that the legal actions, however costly and time-consuming, help put a permanent end to Albuquerque’s budding bus boondoggle.
D. Dowd Muska is research director of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization.
(Albuquerque) The proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line is a solution in search of a problem, and our bankrupt federal government should steer clear of providing 80 percent of the infrastructure costs for this unnecessary project. That’s the conclusion of a new Rio Grande Foundation report, “Throwing Taxpayers under the Bus,” which analyzes the case for bus rapid transit along Central Avenue in New Mexico’s largest city.
“Throwing Taxpayers under the Bus,” authored by Rio Grande Foundation Research Director Dowd Muska, argues that the current Rapid Ride bus system along Central has been quite successful in generating ridership. Muska wonders what benefits, in terms of mobility, the new system will provide that the current system does not.
In fact, as Muska argues, in addition to the temporary construction which would tie up traffic throughout the Central corridor, the BRT would limit motorists’ left turns onto Central while removing two traffic lanes to make way for buses. The loss of traffic lanes would result in the elimination of parking along some of Central’s busiest corridors.
The cost estimate being put forth by the city today is likely to rise once construction gets underway, argues Muska. “Throwing Taxpayers under the Bus” cites Willie Brown, a former California politician, who once said, “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
Ultimately, as Muska notes, BRT advocates are less concerned about mobility within the Central Corridor than they are about “redevelopment” in the area. Advocates claim that so-called “Millennials” are avoiding Albuquerque in search of more densely packed urban areas.
This claim simply doesn’t hold water. As Muska points out, sprawling Western cities such as Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Dallas are growing rapidly and attracting young people. Albuquerque’s poor job growth is the likeliest reason for the city’s ongoing struggles to draw and keep Millennials.
With Washington trillions of dollars in debt, “Throwing Taxpayers under the Bus” concludes that an Albuquerque transit project in need of a purpose is unworthy of federal taxpayer dollars.
Randal O’Toole spoke earlier this week on the issue of Albuquerque’s transportation future. In particular he focused on the City’s proposed bus rapid transit system, the Rail Runner, and the future of transportation. The entire presentation is below (slides here). Below that are some of the most important slides from O’Toole’s presentation. If you want to get active against bus rapid transit, there is a grassroots activism organization called “Save Route 66.”
The proposed bus rapid transit system will increase congestion in the Central corridor, just ask the consultants tasked by the City with looking at the proposal:
Portland, OR, is often touted as a “model” for mass transit, but after spending billions of dollars, transit carries fewer passengers than it did in 1980:
Transit is a trivial portion of the transportation mix in Albuquerque:
Transit appeals to those who make almost nothing and those who have very high incomes and can choose to locate next to it. For working/middle class Americans, transit is far less useful:
Albuquerque’s bus system is not especially “green” when it comes to energy use. It’s hard to believe a new bus system will be a dramatic improvement:
The Rio Grande Foundation is launching a new radio show on a new home, “The Rock of Talk” 95.9FM and 1600AM. The show called “Tipping Point New Mexico” will air Saturdays weekly from noon to 3pm.
Hosts will rotate but will include RGF’s Paul Gessing, Dowd Muska, and Burly Cain.
Issues addressed on the show will include New Mexico’s economy and the importance of 2016 in turning our state around. If you want to participate in the discussion, you can call in at: 505-550-5500.
This week we’ll talk about Albuquerque Rapid Transit, the push by some to raise taxes in New Mexico, and more.
In the wake of two recent shooting tragedies and ongoing negative attention for the city of Albuquerque, Mayor Richard Berry has asked New Mexico’s Legislature to make changes to the pension system in order to allow police to return to the workforce. The Albuquerque Police Department says 135 officers need to be hired to fully flesh out the local police force.
Earlier this year, the mayor proposed spending an additional $4.7 million to comply with the U.S. Department of Justice’s reform demands at APD. We can all agree that public safety is the first and most important role of government. Unfortunately, there are always infinite wants and limited means to provide those, and it seems like local governments and the local citizenry have been unwilling to prioritize. Over the years, this has led to higher taxes and real economic harm.
At the start of the 2000s, Albuquerque’s gross receipts tax (GRT) rate stood at 5.8125 percent. Currently, it’s 7.1875 percent — an increase of 23.7 percent. That rate will further jump to 7.3125 percent when the recently-passed ABQ BioPark tax hike is in place, a nearly 26 percent increase since 2000. All those tax hikes of a “fraction of a penny” have added up over the years to real money.
Today, our city has 17,100 fewer jobs than at its pre-Great Recession employment peak in March 2007. Yes, New Mexico’s economy remains weak, but its largest city is not helping.
Unfortunately, we’re just getting started. For more than a year now, Berry and a majority on city council have been promoting a costly and unnecessary bus rapid transit system along Central Avenue.
There has been a decent amount of discussion in New Mexico over the future of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. The train runs on the tracks that were purchased by the State for the Rail Runner and run from Raton in the north through Albuquerque. The train then runs West through Gallup and Grants, but New Mexico doesn’t own those tracks.
Amtrak is demanding improvements to the tracks or they won’t run the trains anymore. As noted in the story, Gov. Martinez put up $1 million of our tax dollars as a “down payment” on the $4 million annually that Amtrak is asking for states through which the Southwest Chief runs.
The interview is below. My interview starts around the halfway mark. One interesting note is that the reporter who did the story is based out of Los Angeles. Even though the Southwest Chief travels between New Mexico and Los Angeles, as he notes, he flew home.
I was recently in Las Cruces and had a chance to sit down with Fred Martino of KRWG (the public television station in Las Cruces) to discuss what happened in the 2015 legislative session and special session. Las Cruces area state Representative Bill McCamley, a Democrat, was also on the air and, believe it or not, we found a few areas of agreement.