Back to the Future with High-Speed Rail

March 11, 2009


If I hear one more article about the promise of high-speed rail in New York I think I’m going to gag.

Does anyone remember the promise of the Buffalo subway system?  That service to nowhere cost the government somewhere around $500M back in the early ’80s.  Ridership never came close to justifying the cost.  You think high-speed rail across the upstate region is going to suddenly make Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Albany chic destination spots? Amtrak with all its millions in government help couldn’t do it, not while it shares the same rails with slow-moving freight trains and dilapidated stations.

And until you solve the problem of obtaining easy last-mile travel once you step off the train, city-to-city high-speed rail will remain unattractive.   So far, that last-mile discussion hasn’t even begun.

While construction of a rail line may have some short-term (very short-term) benefits to a few laborers scattered across upstate New York, rail’s life cycle costs are enormous.  We have spent the past 30 years proving that such rail service can’t exist without subsidies; why would we want to subject ourselves and our children to that kind of future penalty?

Let’s get real.


Counties with the Heaviest Tax Burden

September 27, 2008

Niagara County residents carry the heaviest property-tax burden in America, according to a new report from the Tax Foundation.

This week’s Buffalo Business First article (not yet available on line) reports that the average Niagara County household pays 2.92% of the value of their home to taxes.  It amounts to 5.0% of the homeowner’s yearly income, $2,802 on a home valued at $96,000.  [Note to self:  It also means your average home is not worth twice your annual income].

The noticeable thing about this article was that of the top 12 counties, 10 of them are in New York.  Erie County ranks 7th nationally; we pay 4.7% of our income in real estate taxes.  By percentage of home value, the most taxed California county ranked 570th out of 788.

But surely, Californians must pay lots of taxes because their home values are so huge, right?  Nope.  If you rank the counties by amount paid, the first California county to make the list comes in at 25th.  There are 6 New York counties ahead of it (including #1 and #3) and combined, New York/New Jersey take 21 of the top 25 spots.

In 2007 the U.S. median real estate tax was $1,838.  In Erie County it’s $2,822.

When we add school and state income taxes to our annual burden it’s little wonder that our take-home pay doesn’t go far, why businesses have difficulty staying in and coming to New York State, and why so many people leave.  And yet in 38 days, nearly every one of our incumbent state legislators will be re-elected.

I do not expect tax equity to come from within the marble halls of Albany’s legislative complex.

August 1, 2008

Today’s Buffalo News reports (on its front page, no less) the recently-launched website SeeThroughNY, which provides bunches of information on New York State government spending – when you can get on the site.  It’s a little busy right now, and running really slow, but it’s a nice, clean-looking site that I’ll be perusing from time to time.

What caught my eye in the article was not the description of the website but this remark:

Praised by government watchdog roups, the Empire Center’s Web site includes the entire payroll – more than 263,000 names – of workers in the state’s executive branch, Legislature and judiciary.

263,000 state employees, not including schools?  And that’s just government at the state level!  That’s one state worker for every 73 state residents.  So that got me thinking about where New York ranks in public employees versus other states.  From the 2006 census, my state is, surprisingly, 42nd in public employees per capita but fourth in average state salary ($57K/year); only California, Connecticut and New Jersey have higher average salaries.  I guess we do a pretty good job – relative to other states – of limiting state employment.  I would not have believed this had I not dug into the census site.  Granted, some states (like New York) also have significant other layers of government and some states don’t, but I was still surprised at the numbers.

I would like to know the total number of public employees per state.  To do this I’ll have to dig into local and county government census data as well, not an easy task.  I’ll post more quantitative results whenever I get around to it.