August 22, 2014

The Future of Transit

My colleague Joe Miller just wrote a piece asking if Kansas City really needs rail transit at all, as many claim. His conclusion: It does not. Not only have rail transit options fared poorly at the polls, but they also are expensive and not a guarantee of improved development or transit.

Recently in San Antonio, voters were outraged over their city’s efforts to fund a streetcar without a public vote. As a result, the council is adopting a proposal that

“would amend the city charter so that no money could be spent on streetcar or light rail, nor would the city grant permission to use city streets for those kinds of rail projects, unless a majority of voters agrees to it.”

Opponents in San Antonio echo arguments elsewhere, that transit needs can be met much more efficiently through existing or new technologies such as rapid transit like the MAX bus or through driverless cars. Technology of Tomorrow shows a video summarizing their viewpoint. The video contains a segment of a TED talk by (speaking of creative class) Sebastian Thrun, director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University, in which he says [starts at 16:30],

“If you’re one of these people who argue the only way to solve the congestion problem is to move traffic off the road on to rail, think again. We have the space, we’re just not using it.”

The advent of driverless cars and their impact on urban transit is nothing new. We’ve written about their impending arrival in Kansas City, and we’ve lamented City Hall’s inability or unwillingness to prepare for it. It’s difficult to know exactly if or when driverless cars will be in every driveway and precisely what effect they will have on a traffic system. But if Kansas City wants to be the city of the future, it needs to prepare to quickly integrate all the opportunities the future presents, not protect the special interests of their cronies or rebuild the infrastructure of the past.

The problem in Kansas City is that government does not appear to respect the will of voters on this matter, unlike San Antonio. Despite tenuous claims of need, despite the cost, despite numerous ballot defeats, despite coming new technologies, City Hall can be expected to try again to come at voters with expensive rail proposals regardless of what better options new technology presents.

Education: A Brief History Of Federal Overreach

When Americans think of federal overreach in education, they might think of programs like Race to the Top, Common Core, or No Child Left Behind, but federal education interventions began long before the Age of Standardized Testing.

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted a series of welfare programs called the War on Poverty. One of these programs was Head Start, a program aimed at preparing low-income children for kindergarten.

Also under the umbrella of the War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted in 1965. The purpose of ESEA was to start funding schools with federal money, but it forbade a national curriculum.

Under President Jimmy Carter’s administration, the Department of Education was founded in 1979. Just a few years later, in 1983, the American public was shocked by the findings of A Nation at Risk, a report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education during President Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton left their mark on standards-based education in the 1990s with America 2000 (Bush) and Goals 2000 (Clinton).

In 2001, President George W. Bush reauthorized the ESEA under a new name, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education began awarding states with flexibility waivers from NCLB if they did things like adopt Common Core or evaluate teachers based on student achievement.


In just 50 years, federal oversight in education has grown and evolved. On the anniversary of one of LBJ’s key initiatives, some are calling for even more government intervention to fix the inequalities that still plague the United States today.

But federal intervention will not solve Missouri’s education problems—just look at the results. Few would argue the education system in America is in good shape, or that every child is receiving a quality education. So why institute more government intervention?

If the past 50 years has taught us anything, it’s that Missouri needs to enter a new era of education reform, one in which choice and competition are embraced.



August 20, 2014

Normandy Transfer: An Evolving Story

After Friday’s decision by Judge Michael Burton that Francis Howell, Ritenour, and Pattonville School Districts would have to accept Normandy transfer students, Normandy parents exhaled a sigh of relief.

They thought the judge’s decision meant that all children were now able to return to the three school districts they had transferred to last year after the transfer law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court.

To their credit, this was how Ritenour and Pattonville interpreted Judge Burton’s decision. The two districts decided to accept all transfer students who had reapplied for the 2014-15 school year.

However, Francis Howell opted to accept only the one child named in the lawsuit, excluding the 350 other students who had reapplied for transfer.

Now, the fate of nine more Normandy students is in the hands of a judge. Attorney Joshua Schindler will appear in court today, fighting again for the rights of Normandy children to attend an accredited school of their choice.

Regardless of the judge’s decision concerning the several children named in this lawsuit, Francis Howell and Ferguson-Florissant should accept all Normandy transfer students.

Normandy HS

These children have made their choice. Their choice should be respected, not just because it’s legally sound, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Does Kansas City Need Rail Transit?

After downtown voters rejected a taxing district for the expansion of Kansas City’s streetcar, rail proponents are looking for a “sellable” plan for streetcar expansion. To rail supporters, any future transit plan must include rail. As the Star put it:

“Good, smart transit—a mix of buses rails, and other people movers—is a vital component of any successful city.”

But does a city really need a streetcar, or for that matter any type of light rail, to be successful?

Certainly many cities in the United States, more than 50, have some form of fixed rail transit. The largest rail systems are the New York City Subway and the Chicago L, but many small cities like Kenosha, Wis., Little Rock, Ark., and Tucson, Ariz., also have light rail or streetcars. However, many cities, large and small, do not have rail transit. Cities like Honolulu, San Antonio, Orlando, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati have been popular cities to work and play in for many years without much or any fixed rail. These cities, and many others like Kansas City, rely on bus systems.

There’s no reason why Kansas City cannot continue to rely on buses. Whether it’s rapid transit or simply providing service to wide areas, buses are capable of meeting cities’ needs in most situations. For example, the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus system had more than 314 million boardings in 2012. KCATA only had around 16 million boardings that year. The limits of KCATA’s bus system is yet to be reached.

While rail systems may be necessary in cities with significant congestion and population densities, nowhere does Kansas City have population or traffic to make rail necessary. And while it is not necessary, rail has its drawbacks, paramount of which is cost. For instance, Kansas City’s proposed streetcar expansion (less than 10 miles of routes) costs were more than double the entire capital spending on KCATA’s 250-plus bus fleet from 1992 to 2002.

b v R

Rail supporters contend that rail transit creates development, drives density, and is necessary to make Kansas City an attractive city for people to live in. But much of that belief is based on anecdotal evidence from successful cities with rail, usually ignoring places where rail has failed to drive development. Cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Saint Louis have seen little regeneration from their rail lines, some of which cost more than a billion dollars.

Kansas City needs efficient transit that serves the community. It does not need rail to be successful, and residents should not let city officials with status anxiety waste hundreds of millions just to say Kansas City has rail.

August 19, 2014

The Transfer Law: Another Disappointment

Cameral Cotton’s children were deeply saddened when they learned they would not return to Francis Howell School District. Cameral’s three children transferred from Normandy School District after the state’s transfer law was upheld last summer.

Through a series of legal maneuvers, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the State Board of Education attempted to prevent students, like Cotton’s children, from transferring from Normandy Schools Collaborative.

First, Normandy was unaccredited, then nonaccredited, and most recently, “accredited as a state oversight district.” However, the transfer law, which states that a student living in an unaccredited district can transfer to an accredited district, prevailed Friday when Judge Michael Burton ruled that Ritenour, Francis Howell, and Pattonville School Districts would have to accept transfer students.

8-19 post

Cotton rejoiced when she saw the news over the weekend, only to learn from Francis Howell School District that the decision extended to just the children named in the lawsuit. Only one Normandy student will be returning to Francis Howell. Because Cameral Cotton did not participate in the lawsuit, her children will remain at Normandy.

Cotton’s daughter, Mar’Kita, dreams of becoming a history teacher for Teach for America. Her son, Mark, just wants to get into college. Both of these children blossomed at Francis Howell, and yet, they must remain in a school that, they believe, failed them.

If the transfer law was upheld for a few students, then it should be upheld for all students. Cameral Cotton should not have to wait for another class-action lawsuit just so her children can attend an accredited school. Burton’s decision may just apply to a few students, but the logic behind his decision applies to all Normandy students.



August 18, 2014

New Study Looks at Growth of Non-Teaching Personnel


Sparkly, purple, and lined with a shiny metal band, my retainer was wrapped in a napkin while I ate my school lunch throughout elementary school. “Don’t you lose that retainer,” I can still hear my mother saying. Inevitably, I lost it at lunch, and I knew there was only one place it could be.

Inside the trash can, remnants of sloppy joes and sour milk splattered the edges of the bag. A cafeteria worker, realizing what had happened, pulled the trash out and began to dig. “Here you go,” he said and returned the retainer to me.

I recalled the cafeteria worker who helped me find my retainer after I read Fordham Institute Research Analyst Matt Richmond’s report, The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach.

The report’s findings are startling. Over the past 60 years, schools have increased non-teaching personnel positions by 702 percent. It also found the U.S. spends more than double what Korea, Mexico, Finland, Portugal, Ireland, Luxembourg, Austria, and Spain spend on non-teaching staff salaries and benefits.

As the study’s title, and my own personal vignette, suggests, these workers are both seemingly underappreciated and overlooked. We know little about the non-teaching part of the education industry, except that it has grown at a much faster rate than students. One study showed that if non-teaching personnel grew at the same rate as the student population, American public schools would have an additional $24.3 billion annually.

This is not to say that schools would be better off with less non-teaching personnel, but if Missouri schools want to get serious about spending efficiently, then collecting specific data on non-teaching staff is a good place to start.

August 15, 2014

Kansas City Transit: Light Rail Never Sleeps

Because voters in downtown Kansas City rejected a plan for a streetcar expansion, Kansas Citians might have hoped for a short reprieve from expensive rail transit projects. But it wasn’t to be. In November, Kansas City residents will be asked to vote for a ¼-cent and 1/8-cent tax increase to implement Clay Chastain’s $2.4 billion light rail plan.

In a strange twist, the ballot language will not mention a rail plan. That’s because city leadership has fought Chastain’s rail plan for years, even going to court to prevent it from making it on a ballot. Although the city has now lost that fight, because officials and Chastain could not agree on ballot language that included the rail plan, voters will be asked to decide on tax increases for “capital improvements” and “transportation.”

City leadership has described Chastain’s plan as unfeasible, and it does not take much math to figure out why. A 3/8-cent sales tax increase would net Kansas City approximately $30 million per year. However, just the initial part of the plan (a line from downtown to just south of the Plaza) would have $1.4 billion in upfront capital costs and $11 million in yearly operating costs. Assuming that the line can be built for $1.4 billion and that no major capital costs are incurred for 25 years (25 years is also the lifespan of the taxes), the plan has a $900 million funding shortfall.

Light Rail Icon

Supporters of the plan hope that 60 percent or more of the necessary funding will come from the federal government and private donations. However, because the city leadership and MARC back a streetcar, not light rail, plan, the federal government might not give the project much support. Even if the federal government does provide funding, it would be unlikely to exceed 50 percent of total capital costs, not nearly enough to cover the shortfall. Bottom line, it might not be financially possible to implement the rail plan even if the proposed sales tax increases pass.

But imagine that everything breaks in the plan’s favor. Say the tax increase passes, the federal government provides 50 percent of the capital costs, and more than $200 million in private support materializes. After all that, Kansas City would have one light rail line from the Plaza to downtown. Hardly a transportation revolution worthy of $1.4 billion. But for some rail supporters, that does not matter. The initial rail line is a part of a larger dream; a dream that involves many more lines and billions more taxpayer dollars. Voters get to decide whether this plan, at least, is finally put to bed.

August 13, 2014

Streetcar Fever: Is it Now Or Never To Expand The Kansas City Streetcar?

Following the defeat of their expansion plan in Kansas City, today, streetcar proponents are wondering aloud about how to move their project forward – and fast. The mayor has vowed that the city’s leadership is not going tolet it go,” and supporters are considering how to form a new streetcar district that can win prompt voter support.

Clearly, one thing streetcar proponents do not want to do is wait to see the results of the initial streetcar line, but why the rush? Why do city officials think the streetcar expansion proposal is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”? Some streetcar proponents fear that the Republicans might win the presidency and stop giving money to transit, and at more than $50 million a mile, streetcar projects are just too expensive for cities to undertake without federal help. As one streetcar supporter put it, “Do you think President Ted Cruz would fund urban transit?”

The answer to that question is yes, actually, if history is any guide. Below is a chart of federal spending on capital improvements for transit, through two Republican and Democratic presidents.


While the Obama administration has increased support for transit, the George W. Bush administration was also a big spender. What’s more, a future Republican administration is unlikely to be catastrophic for transit funding, as almost 80 percent of funds come directly from a federal Mass Transit Account. This account will continue to provide a baseline of transit funding under any new administration.

What streetcar advocates really have to fear is not the defunding of urban transit, but the defunding of streetcars in favor of other forms of transit. Past administrations favored transit projects that reduced congestion or improved mobility, so streetcars received few federal dollars. The Obama administration’s desire to use transit projects to create “livable communities” has made federal streetcar funding possible.

But if the more than 10 planned streetcar projects are as successful as proponents hope – both in terms of development and boosting transit – the next administration (Team Red or Blue) would likely fund more streetcar projects. Only if the streetcars fail to meet expectations, given their massive cost, would federal money dry up for streetcars.

Perhaps it’s that possibility – that streetcars face a tough accounting in future– that has supporters in a rush. What’s certain is that federal transit funding is not going anywhere, and if streetcars are so great for urban areas, the money will be there if Kansas City ever decides to expand its streetcar line. And if streetcars turn out to be an urban planning fad and that funding disappears? Kansas City will be better off for its caution. When it comes to expanding the streetcar, Kansas City residents should feel free to emulate the streetcar and take it slow.

August 12, 2014

That Burns & McDonnell TIF And Vandalism

Earlier this year, the Kansas City Council voted to use tax dollars to subsidize a project for Burns & McDonnell, one of the nation’s largest engineering firms. The Tax Increment Financing (TIF) site — a property featuring a former synagogue and school but otherwise dominated by a large parking lot — is literally next to the company’s world headquarters. We wrote at the time the TIF was being considered that the subsidy would be a poor use of limited public resources, especially for a successful firm that could certainly afford to expand and build upon a vacant property adjacent to its own.

Of course, Burns & Mac got its taxpayer subsidy, in part because of the “vandalism” that had occurred inside the empty buildings. In a hearing before the Kansas City TIF Commission, Scott Belke, the consultant who prepared the blight study, said, “This is one of the most vandalized buildings I’ve seen in my 29 years of work.” Thus, TIF supporters argued, the site and buildings needed to be remediated … with taxpayer support.

Belke admitted in questioning that he has never failed to find a site blighted, and that’s no surprise; we at the Show-Me Institute have been unable to find any case in the entire state of Missouri where a consultant has not considered a proposed TIF site blighted.

So, how were the buildings remediated? They … were bulldozed.


Why was vandalism even considered a reason for blight if the entire structure was going to be razed anyway? Burns & Mac was never going to inhabit the synagogue; the building’s condition was, in practice, irrelevant to what Burns and Mac’s plans were for it: destruction. The only reason the building’s condition was an issue was because it was a foothold for the company to steer taxpayer dollars to its project, through TIF. That’s a cynical and objectionable path to getting city taxpayer money, but that’s business as usual in Kansas City.

Some people believe in the power of TIF, and perhaps it has a role to play in some development projects. But in Kansas City and elsewhere in Missouri, TIF is so frequently used and abused — and not even in legitimately blighted urban areas for which TIF was intended — that the whole enterprise has become a farce: a farce, as in this case, that enriches wealthy developers at the cost of city taxpayers.

New Tech To Improve Parking In St. Louis City

Last week, officials with the City of Saint Louis announced their decision to install a new type of parking meter. This is the result of months of a competitive process and trials at specific locations in the city. The winners of the $5 million contract were Xerox and Parkmobile. The city’s plan to update street parking is a win-win situation, with opportunities to implement demand-based pricing as well as maximize the performance of the city’s meter system.


Above is one of the pilot units of Xerox’s solar-powered IPS single-space meters. The meters accept both coins and credit cards (although the minimum time for a credit card purchase is 1 hour). The Parkmobile app allows people to pay over their phone by space number. The app can warn costumers when only 15 minutes remain, and if the overall time limit is not expiring, users can renew their spot over the phone.

Upgrading the city meters can aid both the city’s bottom line and those people looking for parking. For the city, it reduces the cost of enforcement, as officers can know where expired meters are and focus their ticketing efforts. Moreover, the city can use the data from both the meters and the Parkmobile app to measure the performance of certain parking areas, allowing variable pricing to maximize city revenue.

From the perspective of those looking for parking, the city’s effort to properly price and enforce meter limits can mean more available parking. The new meters and Parkmobile app will make payment convenient and mark the end of having to feed the meter. Additionally, the mobile apps and parking meters may allow people to find available parking by providing information on available spaces, eliminating the hassle of cruising for parking, and decreasing urban congestion. Finally, the city is also conducting a study that might result in the removal of parking meters that do not generate enough revenue for their upkeep. That type of optimization, which saves the city and drivers, is long overdue.

For the City of Saint Louis to realize these benefits, officials must be prepared to coordinate data collection to create a more market-oriented street parking environment. If the city can manage that, and take advantage of rapidly improving software capability, these updates will improve the lives of city residents and the city’s bottom line.

August 11, 2014

Krugman Upended By His Own Logic

In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman made the assertion that “self-proclaimed libertarians deal with the problem of market failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining government as much worse than it really is.”

According to Krugman, the “self-proclaimed libertarians” are either stupidly or maliciously engaged in “projection” – attributing base motives to their political opponents that underlie their own highly prejudicial reasoning.

Kudos to Per Bylund, a research professor at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University, for flipping the situation around and pointing out how all you need to do is to replace “libertarian” with any of the words that Krugman might use to describe his own thinking to see a wonderful example of projecting your own intellectual failings onto others of the opposite persuasion.

As Bylund observed in today’s “Keynesiasn/progressives/(whatever) like Krugman deal with the problem of government failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining the market as much worse than it is.”

August 7, 2014

Kansas City Streetcar District Fails To Win Support

On Aug. 5, voters in downtown Kansas City rejected a Transportation Development District (TDD) that would have funded a half billion dollar streetcar expansion plan (60 percent to 40 percent). The city’s streetcar plan was expensive and had little transportation merit, making this result welcome news for those who support sound transportation policy in the Kansas City area.
Light Rail Icon

The Kansas City streetcar plan required the approval of a TDD to provide local funding. Because voters rejected the formation of the TDD, the project lacks local funds and, thus, cannot proceed. But this is unlikely to be the last we hear of plans to expand the streetcar. Some Kansas City officials have made it clear that they view this election as just a setback for their vision of an extended streetcar system. The mayor stated:

“It’s very possible either way, but we’re not going to just roll over and let it go…We’ve got to continue to look for options to get the job done.”

That might mean a newly drawn TDD or some other tax increase that will provide enough local funding to apply for federal grants.

However, for the time being, the election has halted any streetcar expansion plans. Let’s hope the ultimate result of the election is a renewed focus on efficient transportation policy for all of Kansas City.

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