Tag: transit

A Streetcar Named Undesirable

New York is far denser than any other large American city, with an average of 27,000 people per square mile compared with 2,500 to 4,000 for most American cities. Although the city is criss-crossed by an extensive subway system, there are still some neighborhoods that are more than half a mile from a subway station.

So naturally, what those neighborhoods need is an ultra-low-capacity, high-cost form of urban transit: a streetcar. At least, that’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio thinks: last week, he proposed to spend $2.5 billion building a 16-mile streetcar line connecting Brooklyn with Queens.

This is such a dumb idea that even transit advocates oppose it. Streetsblog observes that the proposed streetcar route doesn’t easily connect with subway stations that would give riders access to Manhattan. It also argues that bus-rapid transit  (which New York calls “select bus service”) makes a lot more sense than streetcars.

TransitCenter advocate and Brooklyn resident John Orcutt argues that “the American streetcar ‘renaissance’ of the past 15 years has mainly turned out turkeys”: slow (“Reporters for The Oregonian, CharlotteFive and Atlanta magazine have all laced up sneakers and outraced their local streetcars on foot”), expensive (“L.A.’s streetcar has seen its initial cost estimate more than double”), and underperforming (“ridership on Salt Lake City’s S-Line is less than half of planning projections”).

TransitCenter head David Bragdon, who previously was president of Portland’s Metro Council, agrees. “Most streetcar projects in the U.S. provide slow, unreliable service that does not serve many people,” Bragdon noted, urging New York not to “repeat the mistakes of other places and spend $2.5 billion if the result is not useful transportation for riders.”

While Portland often claims its streetcar is a great success, it has inflated ridership numbers by at least 19 percent and gained most of the ridership it by offering free rides to most passengers for the first dozen years of operation. Even though it supposedly started collecting fares from all riders in 2012, average fare revenues in 2014 were still just 4 cent per trip, showing that no one is enforcing the fare.

TransitCenter also questions de Blasio’s claim that streetcars will generate enough new development to pay for themselves. “Much of the property adjacent to the route is undergoing large-scale development without the spur of a new transit proposal,” says a TransitCenter blog post. “Would more value be realized by supporting transit projects of proven effectiveness in other parts of the city?” In fact, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, streetcars don’t generate any economic development unless that development gets additional subsidies. Even Portland’s city auditor agrees.

Few of the critics have commented on the high cost of de Blasio’s proposal. Portland spent just under $150 million on its 3.3-mile Eastside streetcar line, which it said somewhat proudly was the most expensive streetcar line ever built. De Blasio’s line would cost more than $150 million per mile. Labor costs in New York may be somewhat higher than in Portland, but I don’t know of any inherent reason why construction costs should be more than three times as much as elsewhere.

Nor does anyone raise the capacity issue. For safety reasons, a single streetcar line can only support about 20 cars per hour. When jammed full, with most people standing and packed together more closely than most Americans are willing to accept, a streetcar is rated to hold about 134 people, for a throughput of 2,680 people per hour in each direction. By comparison, New York City’s subways can move close to 50,000 people per hour, and buses on city streets with a dedicated lane and parking strip can easily move more than 10,000 people per hour (and nearly double that on double-decker buses), most of them comfortably seated. Plus, if a bus breaks down, others can go around it while if a streetcar breaks down most of the line must shut down as they are built with few passing tracks.

Also little noted is the conflict between bicycles and in-street rails. New York has seen a quintupling in bicycle commuting since 2000, and streetcar tracks are a major hazard to these cyclists. A survey of 1,520 Portland cyclists revealed that two-thirds “have experienced a bike crash on tracks.”

The real purpose of the streetcar is to give the owners of housing projects that are currently under construction along its proposed route a Disneyland-like ride they can use to distinguish their projects from others in the city. They won’t get it very soon, however: de Blasio’s plan calls for construction to begin no sooner than 2019 and completion in 2024. For a lot less money, the city could start a locally branded bus service in a few months that wouldn’t cause as much congestion and wouldn’t create a street hazard for cyclists.

The irony is that de Blasio campaigned for office on the claim that, unlike his predecessors, he wouldn’t cowtow to developers. Now, when the city has far higher transportation priorities elsewhere, he wants to blow $2.5 billion on a toy train that, at best, will slightly enhance the value of developments that are being built anyway and at worst add to congestion and make streets more dangerous for cyclists.

Approaching Peak Transit

“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so therefore fewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.

The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.

The situation is actually worse than the numbers shown in the article, which are “unlinked trips.” If you take a bus, then transfer to another bus or train, you’ve taken two unlinked trips. Before building rail, more people could get to their destinations in one bus trip; after building rail, many bus lines were rerouted to funnel people to the rail lines. According to California transit expert Tom Rubin, survey data indicate that there were an average of 1.66 unlinked trips per trip in 1985, while today the average is closer to 2.20. That means today’s unlinked trip numbers must be reduced by nearly 25 percent to fairly compare them with 1985 numbers.

Transit ridership is very sensitive to transit vehicle revenue miles. Metro’s predecessor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, ran buses for 92.6 million revenue miles in 1985. By 1995, to help pay for rail cost overruns, this had fallen to 78.9 million. Thanks to the court order in the NAACP case, this climbed back up to 92.9 million in 2006. But after the court order lapsed, it declined to 75.7 million in 2014. The riders gained on the multi-billion-dollar rail lines don’t come close to making up for this loss in bus service.

The transit agency offers all kinds of excuses for its problems. Just wait until it finishes a “complete buildout” of the rail system, says general manager Phil Washington, a process (the Times observes) that could take decades. In other words, don’t criticize us until we have spent many more billions of your dollars. Besides, agency officials say wistfully, just wait until traffic congestion worsens, gas prices rise, everyone is living in transit-oriented developments, and transit vehicles are hauled by sparkly unicorns.

Metro Flunks Snowstorm 101

For the past several years, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) has vied with San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority for the non-coveted title of “Worst-Managed Transit System in America.” It is still only January, but with its performance, or rather non-performance, during snowstorm Jonas, Metro appears to have already clinched the title for 2016.

 This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.

To start with, rather than try to provide transportation for people who needed to travel over the weekend, Metro pre-emptively shut down, ending all bus service at 5 pm Friday (well before the worst of the snow fell) and ending rail service for the weekend at 11 pm. By comparison, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)–serving an area that received much more snow than the district–kept its subways running throughout the weekend and kept its above-ground trains and buses going for as long as it could into the storm.

Metro could have followed MTA’s example by keeping the underground portion of its subways running–Ballston to Eastern Market, Medical Center to Union Station, and Fort Totten to Anacostia–all weekend, but chose not to do so. These lines cover much of the length and breadth of the district and could have provided vital transportation for many people. 

Metro’s excuses for shutting down were rather thin. It claimed that passenger safety was more important than the convenience of having service. But how safe is it to be out in a blizzard compared with riding on a subway? Metro also said it needed to put its employees to work to put it back in service on Monday. But the people who operate trains are not maintenance workers and union rules probably prohibited Metro from putting them to work shoveling snow.

Besides, Metro didn’t do a very good job of putting the system back into operation. Most of MTA’s above-ground trains were running by Sunday afternoon. MTA also put most of its bus lines back into service on Monday. Metro was content to open the subway portions of its lines on Monday, leaving its above-ground lines still closed, and to run just 22 out of its 325 bus lines.

Metro might argue that federal offices were closed Monday anyway, so the demand for its services was lower. But if Metro had been more on the ball, federal offices might not have had to close.

In short, MTA passes but Metro flunks Snowstorm 101. But Metro puts itself well ahead of the pack in the race to being the worst-managed transit agency of 2016.

Transportation Bill Steps Backwards

This week’s Congressional passage of the 1,301-page Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act represents, for the most part, a five-year extension of existing highway and transit programs with several steps backwards. Once a program that was entirely self-funded out of dedicated gasoline taxes and other highway user fees, over the past two-and-one-half decades the surface transportation programs has become increasingly dependent on deficit spending. The FAST Act does nothing to mitigate this, neither raising highway fees (which include taxes on Diesel fuel, large trucks, trailers, and truck tires) nor reducing expenditures.

If anything, deficit spending will increase under the FAST Act, which will spend $305 billion ($61 billion a year) over the next five years. Highway revenues, which were $39.4 billion in F.Y. 2015, are not likely to be much more than $40 million a year over the next five years, so the new law incurs deficits of about $20 billion a year. The law includes $70 billion in “offsets”–funding sources that could otherwise be applied to reducing some other deficit–which won’t be enough to keep the program going for the entire five years.

Three Months of Work to Write a Three-Week Bill

After nearly three months of debate, Congress has agreed to extend federal highway and transit spending for three weeks. Authority to spend federal dollars (mostly from gas taxes) on highways and transit was set to expire tomorrow. The three-week extension means that authority will expire on November 20.

Many members in Congress hope that the three-week delay will allow them to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a six-year bill. Among other things, the Senate version spends about $16.5 billion more than the House bill, $12.0 billion on highways and $4.5 billion on transit. The two bills also use different sources of revenue to cover the difference between gas tax revenues and the amounts many members of Congress want to spend.

To cover this difference, the Senate bill, known as the “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act” or DRIVE Act, provides three years of funding by supplementing gas taxes with new customs, air travel, and mortgage-backed securities guarantee fees. The House bill, called the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act, doesn’t offer any source of funds; instead, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster merely expressed hope that the House Ways & Means Committee would find a source of funds.

Despite the use of the word “reform,” the House bill doesn’t reform much other than to streamline environmental review, thus making it easier for cities and states to waste money faster. However, the bill does create new competitive grant programs, including a $4.5 billion program for “freight and highway projects” and a return to using competitive grants for buses and bus facilities. The Senate bill, meanwhile, creates a new “competitive grant” program aimed at “funding major projects.”

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

Eight years ago, I argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.

However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:

  1. Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
  2. Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system that it now expects to scrap for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
  3. One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
  4. Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
  5. WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
  6. Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
  7. Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
  8. That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.

A complete listing of Metro’s problems could fill a book (and in fact have already done so). The “solutions” implemented so far have been ludicrous. That idea that giving FTA safety oversight over WMATA would solve any problems relies on the fantasy that top-down bureaucracy works better at the federal level than the regional level. Meanwhile, NTSB’s proposal to transfer authority to the Federal Railroad Administration is more rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship than providing any real fix.

More Gridlocked Than Ever

Yesterday, the Senate passed a six-year transportation bill that increases spending on highways and transit but only provides three years of funding for that increase. As the Washington Post commented, “only by Washington’s low standards could anyone confuse the Senate’s plan with ‘good government.’”

Meanwhile, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy says the House will ignore the Senate bill in favor of its own five-month extension to the existing transportation law. Since the existing law expires at the end of this week, the two houses are playing a game of chicken to see which one will swerve course first and approve the other house’s bill.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the source of the gridlock is Congress’ decision ten years ago to change the Highway Trust Fund from a pay-as-you-go system to one reliant on deficit spending. This led to three factions: one, mostly liberal Democrats, wants to end deficits by raising the gas tax; a second, mostly conservative Republicans, wants to end deficits by reducing spending; and the third, which includes people from both sides of the aisle, wants to keep spending without raising gas taxes.

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