Tag: rail transit

Lessons from the New Transit Data

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Times observes, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements. 

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places. 

APTA wants people to believe that transit is an increasingly important form of transportation. In fact, it is increasingly irrelevant. Although urban driving experienced a downward blip after the 2008 crash, it is now rising again, while transit outside of New York City is declining. Source: Urban driving data from Federal Highway Administration, urban population from the Census Bureau, and transit numbers from APTA. Transit PM = transit passenger miles.

Rail and bus ridership have grown in Seattle and a few other cities, but the point is that construction of expensive transit projects with federal funds is not guaranteed to boost transit ridership. In many cases, overall transit ridership declines because the high costs of running the rail systems forces transit agencies to cut bus service.

APTA wants more federal funding because many of its associate members are rail contractors who depend on federal grants to build obsolete transit systems. Light-rail lines being planned or built today cost an average of more than $100 million per mile, while some cities have built new four-lane freeways for $10 million to $20 million per mile, and each of those freeway lanes will move far more people per day than a light-rail line. 

Congress will be reconsidering federal funding for highways and transit this year, and APTA wants as much money as possible diverted to transit. President Obama has proposed a 250 percent increase in deficit spending on transportation, most of which would go to transit.

Transit only carries about 1 percent of urban travel, yet it already receives more than 20 percent of federal surface transportation dollars. Since most of those federal dollars come out of gas taxes, auto drivers are being forced to subsidize rail contractors, often to the detriment of low-income transit riders whose bus services are cut in order to pay for rail lines into high-income neighborhoods.

The real problem with our transportation system is not a shortage of funds, but too much money being spent in the wrong places. New York City transit was the only major transit system in the country that covered more than half its operating costs out of fares in 2012; the average elsewhere was less than 30 percent. Funding transportation out of user fees, such as mileage-based user fees and transit fares, would give transportation agencies incentives to spend the money where it is needed by transport users, not where it will create the most pork for politicians. 

Obama’s New Transportation Chief Wants Streetcars for Everyone

America’s transportation system will continue to grind to a halt under President Obama’s pick for transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx. Currently mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Foxx strongly supports streetcars and other obsolete forms of transit.

It is a measure of the glacial pace of America’s political system that Obama had nearly 16 months’ notice that current Secretary Ray LaHood planned to step down at the end of Obama’s first term, yet the president required another three months before finding a replacement. If the administration has anything to say about it, American travelers will move at the same glacial pace: the streetcars that Obama, LaHood, and Foxx want to fund are slower than most people can walk.

Transit advocates often point to Charlotte as an example of a successful lightrail line (more accurately described as a “low-capacity-rail line”). With success like this, I’d hate to see failure: the line cost more than twice the original projection; generates just $3 million in annual fares against more than $20 million in annual operations and maintenance costs; and collects of an average of just 77 cents per ride compared with nearly a dollar for other light-rail lines. Now Charlotte wants to extend the line even though a traffic analysis report predicts that the extension will dramatically increase traffic congestion in the corridor (see pp. 54-56).

Foxx believes rail transit “drives economic development,” says George Washington University Professor Christopher Leinberger approvingly. “The goal of any transportation system, especially rail transit, is not to move people,” Leinberger argues. “The goal is economic development at the stations.”

Anthony Foxx certainly believes that. “If we didn’t do streetcar,” he asked the Charlotte city council during a debate, “does anybody have an idea how we’re going to revitalize” downtown Charlotte?

Rail advocates claim that Charlotte’s low-capacity-rail line helped revitalize neighborhoods along the line. However, a study by transportation expert David Hartgen concluded that most of the billions of dollars of development that was planned along the line was never built. Of the developments that were built, most would have taken place without the line, Hartgen found, though not necessarily in exactly the same locations.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: transportation spending generates true economic growth only if it results in lower-cost, faster, and/or more convenient movement of people and goods. Streetcars and low-capacity rail are more expensive, slower, and for all but a tiny number of people less convenient than the alternatives, whether buses or cars. Even if you reduce transit rider costs by subsidizing them to the hilt, someone has to pay the subsidies and that slows economic growth.

Foxx is blissfully unaware of this and we can expect him to continue LaHood’s policy of giving away as much money as possible for transit projects that are as expensive as possible and move few people while creating more congestion for everyone else.

Washington, DC: Congestion King

The Texas Transportation Institute has released its annual urban mobility report, and Washington, DC once again takes the crown of wasting the most time and fuel per commuter. Though the urban mobility report makes some questionable claims about the congestion relief provided by urban transit, not even DC’s expensive Metro rail system has kept traffic from costing the average DC-area auto commuter $1,400 a year in wasted time and fuel.

Of course, one reason DC is number one in congestion is that, with the growth of government during the recent recession, it has enjoyed far more job growth than most other major urban areas. Yet, if rail transit really were such a good way to relieve congestion, it should have been able to absorb that growth.

Instead, the rail system operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is actually losing capacity as maintenance shortfalls force the agency to run smaller trains and those trains become less reliable. Last summer, when passengers on the Green line were stranded and had to walk along the rail line in the summer heat, WMATA promised that the agency would improve its safety procedures and keep people better informed.

Yet just last week, several rush-hour trains on the Green line were again stranded for hours without power. Temperatures on underground trains quickly rose to 90 degrees or more, leading some passengers to get sick and others to force the doors open so they could escape. One passenger reported that the only message they heard from WMATA was, “At this time, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING, I repeat, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING.” How reassuring.

DOT Moves to Support Even More Wasteful Transit Projects

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is proposing new rules that would allow it to fund exceedingly wasteful rail transit projects that do nothing to relieve congestion. While the existing rules require transit agencies to demonstrate that proposed new rail lines are at least minimally cost effective, the proposed rules focus instead on such vague criteria as “livability” and “environmental justice.”

This rule goes back to 1991, when Congress created the “New Starts” fund to provide grants to transit agencies that want to build new rail lines or other fixed transit lines (such as busways). There were no limits on how much transit agencies could ask for, and the agencies quickly discovered that cities that proposed the most expensive projects got the most money. This sent the cost of rail projects soaring.

For example, in 1986–before New Starts–Portland completed a 17-mile light-rail line that cost about $200 million. In 1998, after New Starts, it completed a 13-mile light-rail line that cost $950 million. Both received the same percentage of federal matching funds, but the second line was “gold plated” as part of Portland’s effort to capture “its share” of the New-Starts pot. Predictably, the city is now working on a 7-mile line that will cost $1.5 billion.

In an effort to put a cap on this wasteful spending, the Bush administration passed a rule in 2005 requiring that New Starts projects meet a minimum test of cost effectiveness. That test required that projects cost no more than $24 for every hour of time that the transit project saved travelers, including both transit riders and highway travelers who enjoyed congestion relief from the project. Even $24 an hour is pretty wasteful considering that most bus improvements save time at a cost of only $1 to $6 an hour, but the rule did put a damper on some excessively wasteful rail proposals.

Also in 2005, Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer persuaded Congress to create a “Small Starts” program for streetcars and similar projects costing less than $100 million. Blumenauer and others were angered when the Bush administration wrote a rule requiring transit agencies to prove that streetcars were cost effective relative to improved bus service. Since a single streetcar costs ten times as much as a bus, there is no way streetcars can be more cost effective than buses, so no streetcar projects were funded out of Small Starts.

Unlike the Bush administration, the Obama administration has drunk the Kool-Aid of streetcars and rail transit. In 2010, Secretary of Transportation–or, as I prefer to call him, Secretary of Immobility–Ray LaHood announced that he was changing the rules so that he could fund streetcars and other wasteful projects out of Small Starts and New Starts. (Funds for the streetcar grants that LaHood provided to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, Tucson, and other cities came out of stimulus monies, not Small Starts.) LaHood has freely admitted that his goal is to “coerce people out of their cars.”

Ironically, soon after LaHood’s announcement, the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Peter Rogoff, gave a speech castigating transit agencies for seeking funds for new rail projects when existing rail transit lines suffer from a $60 billion maintenance backlog. “Paint is cheap, trains are expensive,” Rogoff said, observing that agencies that paint buses a special color and call them a special bus often gain as many new riders as agencies that build expensive rail line. The DOT soon removed Rogoff’s speech from its web site, but copies have been preserved here.

Cato’s 2010 comments on LaHood’s proposal pointed out that a true cost-effectiveness analysis, which is required by law, requires transit agencies to compare rail proposals with a full range of alternatives. The draft rules that the FTA released in January, 2012, however, only require agencies to compare the cost effectiveness of rail against doing nothing.

Moreover, instead of measuring cost effectiveness by the number of hours of time the projects save travelers, the proposed rules would measure it by the number of new transit riders the project is projected to gain. This means that projects that increase congestion (by, for example, building streetcar lines in streets or running frequent trains across grade crossings), wasting most people’s time, will actually score higher because planning models assume congestion leads more people to ride transit.

Cato’s comments on the proposed rules also point out that the law requires the FTA to account for the effect of projects on congestion and mobility. However, the law does not allow the FTA to consider livability, environmental justice, or the other new criteria proposed in the rules. The draft rules therefore violate the law in several places.

Comments on the proposed rules are due March 26 and can be submitted on line. While it is uncertain whether LaHood will pay any attention to your comments, what is clear is that the Obama administration is more interested in imposing its utopian view of how people should live on American cities than it is in increasing people’s freedom and mobility.

Norfolk Light-Rail Scandal

Another city has discovered that light rail is not the road to utopia. In 2007, Norfolk, Virginia decided to revitalize its downtown by building a rail transit line. That line is now 45 percent over budget and its opening has been delayed by more than 16 months.

When Flickr user DearEdward took this construction photo in July, 2008, Norfolk officials were promising to open the light-rail line in December, 2009 at a cost of $232 million. Now the cost has grown to $338 million and the opening delayed to late in 2011.

A 45-percent cost overrun is about average for rail transit construction, but it has hit Norfolk particularly hard. In 2007, the Federal Transit Administration agreed to fund 72 percent of the then-projected $232 million cost, with the Commonwealth of Virginia and city of Norfolk each funding about half the remainder. Since the feds did not agree to cover any of the cost overruns, the overruns represent a near-tripling of the costs to state and city taxpayers.

Furious about the unexpected costs and delays., the Hampton Roads Transit board (which consists of city councilors from the cities the agency serves) forced the agency’s general manager to retire. A month ago, a state audit found that the Norfolk city manager and transit planners knew about the cost overrun long before they bothered to tell the city. As a result, both the city manager and the agency’s agency’s head planner resigned this week.

On top of cost overruns are construction delays. Originally scheduled to open to the public in December 2009, opening was delayed until May 2011. But now the transit agency admits it won’t even meet that date and can’t say when it will open.

Meanwhile, far from becoming a place “where people can work, shop, eat, and play,” Norfolk’s downtown now features “hundreds of empty condos, apartments, and storefronts.” The latest news is that a major supermarket is closing after a mere three years in business. While the truth is that the relative handful of people who are expected to ride the light-rail line are not enough to revitalize any downtown, lengthy construction delays certainly don’t help.

The best thing Norfolk might do now is to abandon the light-rail line and dedicate the $10 million or so that it will cost to subsidize rail operations to improving bus service in the city and its surroundings. Unfortunately, doing so means that it would have to refund the federal government the $168 million that it contributed to the line. As a result, city taxpayers will have to throw good money after bad by funding tens of millions in operating subsidies for the next several decades.

FTA Chief: Paint Is Cheaper Than Trains

In March, Cato published my review of every rail transit system in America (as of 2008), showing that in nearly every case buses would have been more cost-effective at moving people. This same view was expressed last week by a surprising source: Peter Rogoff, the Obama administration’s appointee in charge of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Appropriately, Rogoff spoke before the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, whose transit system, he pointed out, is in a “grim” state. Nationwide, he noted, America’s transit industry suffers from $78 billion worth of deferred maintenance – most of which is due to rail transit lines that cities cannot afford to keep in shape. Rogoff was disturbed that cities were asking for federal grants to build more rail lines when they can’t keep the existing trains in a state of good repair.

Rogoff says he has been telling transit managers, “if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?” Cities that build “shiny new rails now … need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.”

“Let’s start with honesty,” he said: “Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.” He suggested that, instead of expensive trains, many cities can attract just as many riders onto transit by painting buses on specific routes in distinctive colors (as Boulder, CO has done).

Part of the problem, Rogoff knows, is that Congress has given cities incentives to build high-cost transit projects. To address this issue, the last transportation bill, in 2005, included a section requiring the Federal Transit Administration to evaluate the incentives created by federal funding.

Unfortunately, the FTA dropped the ball: the resulting report said nothing about existing incentives and addressed only the question of whether new incentives could be created to encourage agencies to bring their properties up to a state of good repair. While that is a laudable goal, it is an input, not an output.

According to historic data published by the American Public Transportation Association, the productivity of public transit – outputs per unit of input – has declined dramatically since the federal government began funding transit in 1964. From 1964 through 2008, the inflation-adjusted cost of operating transit increased by more than 360 percent, while transit ridership grew by a mere 24 percent and fares by 62 percent.

Ultimately, transit should be privatized, but in the meantime Congress or the administration can adopt a race-to-the-top program similar to the one the administration is using to improve education. Rogoff should direct his agency to rewrite its incentive report before Congress takes up transportation again in 2011.

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