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Out of Control Policy Blog Archives: 5.12.13–5.18.13

How to Avoid Closing Washington State Parks

Many thanks to the Washington Policy Center for publishing my legislative memo today on how to avoid the closure of dozens of Washington State parks, as Gov. Inslee has proposed if his tax increase package fails to advance. Here's an excerpt:

The threat of closing five dozen state parks is yet another variation on the well-worn “Washington Monument Syndrome” tactic designed to threaten closure or disruption of popular amenities if tax increases are not approved.

Political tactics notwithstanding, Washington’s state parks system does indeed face significant funding challenges. General fund appropriations for parks have been on the decline for years, a predictable circumstance in a fiscal football game in which funding for major spending priorities like education, healthcare, public safety and public-sector retiree benefits increasingly crowds out funding for the “nice-to-have” amenities like state parks. The sooner that policymakers and citizens understand this basic trajectory is only going to intensify — and that new solutions are needed to sustain the “nice-to-have” items like state parks — the better.

Some in Washington have begun to realize this when it comes to parks. In recent years, the legislature pushed the Washington State Parks Commission to pursue financial self-sustainability, and to its credit, the agency has pursued a range of strategies that include staff reductions, an increasing reliance on user fees and non-recreational leases, and expanding revenue-generating assets within the parks themselves. While these actions have not solved the funding challenge, they have been useful steps to keep the parks system afloat.

Short-term infusions of funding along the lines proposed by the governor are not a sustainable financial strategy if the goal is to keep parks open and thriving for the long term. Washington, like many other states, is due for a major rethinking of the structure and operation of the parks system itself. […]

Though it may be anathema to the preconceived visions held by some parks advocates, there is indeed a strong role for private-sector and non-profit operators in the state parks. For example, nonprofits played a major role in taking over operations of dozens of California state parks to help avoid closure amid 2012’s budget battles, and many municipal parks, zoos and aquariums, including New York City’s famed Central Park, have long been operated by nonprofit conservancies and “friends” groups.

Read the whole thing here or here for more on the role of the for-profit sector in operating Evergreen State parks.

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Give Managed Lane Conversions Time

Los Angeles’ new I-10 and I-110 HOT lanes have been a source of controversy. I wrote in a Los Angeles Daily News Op-Ed that there is a learning curve to any change and it may take up to a year for highway and transit users to receive all of the benefits of the conversion. After 12 months, the HOT lanes in L.A. are likely to significantly benefit highway users and bus riders. 

To reduce provide more reliable travel times and improve transit services, many state DOT’s are converting High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Northern Virginia, San Francisco and Seattle have all made these conversions. 

Unfortunately, these conversions are rocky. Single occupant drivers have to decide when the travel time-savings are worth paying a small toll to use the lane. All motorists need to understand the new traffic patterns. Transit users have to acquaint themselves with the new more dependable transit services. These conversions are challenging; it typically takes up to one year for everyone to receive the maximum benefit from the lane. The roughest opening of a HOT lane was the I-85 conversion in metro Atlanta. However, since opening 18 months ago trips in the lane have almost tripled. 

The complete Op-ed is available here.

The new toll lanes on Interstate 10 and the 110 Freeway have opened to a lot of complaints, particularly from drivers not using them. While some have shaved 30 minutes or more off of their commutes by using the toll lanes during rush hour, many other drivers are understandably upset that traffic has gotten worse in the non-toll lanes. 

Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Northern Virginia, San Diego and Seattle have all converted car-pool lanes to toll lanes in recent years. And as drivers learned how to get the most value out of the lanes and save the most time, the lanes grew in popularity.

Atlanta converted car-pool lanes to toll lanes last year and had a rough start. But since October 2011, the number of toll lane trips has grown 270 percent, from 160,000 to 440,000 trips as of March 2013.

In Minneapolis, where car-pool lanes were converted to toll lanes in 2005, 76 percent of the public is satisfied with the toll lanes and 85 percent are satisfied with the traffic speed. 

The rest of the Op-ed is available here.

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Latest Articles on Reason Foundation

Why is the CDC Being Anti-Science on State Liquor Privatization?

When policymakers in any of the liquor "control" states—the 17 states (plus parts of Maryland) that still, puzzlingly, retain Prohibition-era, psuedo-Soviet state-run liquor stores and/or a state-run liquor wholesale business—broach the subject of liquor privatization, government unions and anti-alcohol activist opponents raise fears that privatization will bring an increase in alcohol-related societal malaise, including more drunk driving, more binge drinking and more underage drinking.

The academic evidence for these predictions are thin at best, and more recent research from Duquesne University scholars Antony Davies and John Pulito suggests quite the opposite.

That hasn't stopped the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from stepping in to muddy the waters on privatization. In fact, the CDC's independent advisory board—the Community Preventative Services Task Force—has gone on the record officially opposing any further privatization of state liquor monopolies, a position now echoed by the CDC itself. (Forget for a moment that the cat's already way out of the bag, as 32 states have never had state-run liquor monopolies to begin with, and Washington State voters opted to privatize their state-run wholesale and retail systems last year).

The primary justification for the CDC's stance is an analysis the task force conducted reviewing 17 different studies on privatizing retail alcohol sales, which concluded that "[t]he evidence consistently showed that privatization of retail alcohol sales was associated with a substantial increase in per capita sales of the privatized beverages." (p.425) The report and task force recommendation has been received by government unions and anti-liquor activists as manna from heaven and has been widely used in states like Pennsylvania to scare policymakers, media and citizens into believing that privatization will bring untold social horrors (again, despite the lack of said horrors in the 33 states already privatized).

However, two recent media articles call the CDC report's analysis and findings into question. First, Forbes ran a lengthy article yesterday by contributor Trevor Butterworth that debunks several key aspects of the study. Here's a teaser:

In examining 17 studies on the effect of privatization, the Task Force found that the median consumption of alcohol increased by 44.4 percent. Did this increase lead to an increase in harm? The two studies addressing the issue had mixed results and “methodological limitations;” but “Single Distribution Theory,” for which the Task Force said there is “extensive evidence,” shows that a mean increase in alcohol consumption leads to an increase in overall risk.

This all sounds quite persuasive – and why would anyone not trust an independent expert task force advising the CDC on the best scientific evidence? Well, the first problem is the extensive evidence that Single Distribution Theory does not explain the relationship between the availability and consumption of alcohol – so extensive, in fact, that the theory was largely abandoned in the early 1990s for its inability to explain, and in many cases, fit the empirical data on alcohol consumption.

Read the whole thing for a rich debunking of the CDC's findings. Skipping to the punch line:

Of course, whatever way you parse the recommendations of the Task Force, and their adoption by the CDC, such reasoning is about as robust as Styrofoam. This is an astonishing abuse of data in the service of trying to sway legislation – and one which points to an agency being driven by politics and ideology, and not by science.

In addition to the Forbes article, The Inquirer in Philadelphia recently published an op-ed by a former chair of the American Medical Association, Dr. Raymond Scalettar, who is also a clinical professor of medicine at GWU Medical Center and a medical adviser to the Distilled Spirits Council. Dr. Scalettar writes that the studies reviewed by CDC do not support the claim that privatization would harm public health:

Robert Brewer, who leads the alcohol program in the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, has repeatedly pointed to a review by CDC's Community Task Force. It found a 44 percent median increase in per capita sales of privatized alcoholic beverages within jurisdictions that underwent privatization of retail alcohol sales.

Unfortunately, Brewer has never explained what the 44 percent estimate really means. This data, which has been presented out of context, is misleading and useless in the Pennsylvania privatization discussions.

The 44 percent figure was derived by analyzing 17 studies that looked at the impact privatization had on the privatized beverage. The 44 percent growth estimate is not an estimate of total alcohol consumption, nor is it an estimate of alcohol-related harms.

Of the 17 studies analyzed, six showed no increase in consumption, and four showed only moderate increases. This fact alone would give most researchers pause with regard to any kind of sweeping conclusion.

Importantly, the Community Task Force's review found no pattern of increased alcohol-related harms in the studies it analyzed, which ultimately is what the public is most concerned about.

Again, readers should review the whole article for Scalettar's full critique. He concludes:

The CDC has the imprimatur of a respected, science-based government organization. Brewer has the responsibility to honestly present research in an unbiased, forthright manner so the public and elected officials can make decisions based upon the best available evidence.

Both articles provide ample evidence that policymakers and citizens in the 17 "control" states like Pennsylvania should take the CDC's anti-privatization stance with a major grain of salt, as it rests on a dubious scientific foundation. But the big question that still remains unanswered is why is the CDC being so anti-science on liquor privatization? Could it, as Butterworth suggests, be driven more by political and ideological considerations? That would certainly be unfathomable in this day and age, right?

For more, see here for my recent writeup on developments on state liquor privatization from Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2013.

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