JLF Memo
Jun. 3rd, 2011: - johnlocke.org Manage Subscriptions

In this issue: You don't own your trees, and irrational transit taxes
By Dr. Michael Sanera

The Albemarle Road Presbyterian Church in Charlotte was fined $100 per branch for excessive tree pruning for a total of nearly $5,000. Charlotte, like many North Carolina cities, has a tree ordinance governing what property owners can do with their trees. Several years ago a Raleigh car dealership was fined nearly $57,000 for improperly trimming its trees. Correction: "its trees" is not correct. Tree ordinances transfer ownership rights from people who think they "own" their trees to the city.

Economists define ownership as the ability to determine how the item is used, the right to the services of the item, and the right to sell or dispose of the item. I own my computer because I have the exclusive rights to its use, to benefit from its use and to sell, rent, or give it away as I choose.

In this case, the ordinance transfers private ownership rights to use the tree from the church to the city. If ownership rights are respected, the church has the right to trim, to cut down, and to sell "its trees" as it sees fit.

To make matters worse, the ordinance allows the church to avoid the fine ... by destroying the improperly trimmed trees and replacing them with new, properly trimmed trees. In other words, the city would tell the church to destroy its private property and then force it to buy replacement trees.

What is the justification for this ordinance? City officials believe their desire for tree-lined streets supersedes the ownership rights of individuals. Thus the ordinance determines how the trees are to be used. Viewed another way, city officials believe that the general public benefits from having tree-lined streets with trees trimmed according to their tastes, and they are willing to use the city's police powers to enforce their belief.

While this ordinance is legal, it violates the spirit of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that states that governments cannot take private property "for public use without just compensation." In a world that respects the constitutional protection of property rights, city officials who believe the public benefits from tree-lined streets would buy the land and the trees on those streets. Unfortunately, most cities in North Carolina do not respect property rights, and thus they use ordinances such as this one in Charlotte to steal the private property for the benefit of the public without just compensation.

Durham and Orange counties ready to put transit tax on the November ballots

The irrational urge to spend billions on light rail in the Triangle continues to gain momentum. Supporters have convinced themselves -- by ignoring the facts -- that spending $1.7 billion on transit improvements, including a light rail system to connect Triangle cities and counties, really would reduce congestion and pollution and make the area a "world class" community.

Elected officials in Durham and Orange counties are moving toward putting the half-cent sales-tax increase for transit on the 2011 ballot. If passed, the new revenue would help fund the $1.7 billion cost of the transit improvements, including the rail system. The same county commissioners are considering putting a quarter-cent sales-tax increase on the same ballot for schools, although the new revenue could be used for any legal purpose.

In what appears to be a cynical manipulation of voters to win approval of these new taxes, county officials appear to have chosen the 2011 ballot rather than the 2012 out of the belief that, since it also includes candidates for municipal offices, the 2011 ballot would bring out more liberal city voters, while the more conservative county voters would be more likely to stay at home.

The reason funding rail transit is an irrational decision is that it will not meet any of the stated objectives. It is all cost and no benefit.

Here are the facts:

  • Rail does not reduce congestion or pollution. Of the 22 cities with rail transit, only six carry more than one percent, and only one carries more than 3 percent of all of the motorized passenger travel in the area. How can taking less than one percent of the traffic off the roads reduce pollution or traffic congestion?

  • Even with all of the federal, state and local taxpayer subsidies, rail is losing market share in 20 of 25 cities with rail.

  • High gas prices do not encourage more rail transit. Europeans who face gasoline prices of $5 to $10 per gallon drive about as much as Americans.

  • Rail transit diverts funds from bus transit, thus reducing bus coverage and hurting low-income residents.

  • Rail does not create economic development in the form of Transit Oriented Developments (TODs); it just redistributes to different locations development that would have taken place anyway.

Here is what the Triangle could expect, based on Charlotte's experience:

  • A 130-percent cost overrun.

  • Half of the rail riders to be former bus riders, not riders diverted from autos.

  • A taxpayer subsidy of $6.30 per rail passenger trip.

  • A typical round trip commute to work to cost taxpayers $12.60.

  • Traffic congestion delays for the average auto driver to be reduced by 30 seconds.

  • Pollution to be reduced by about five hundredths of one percent.

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