Tag: Washington DC

Does DC Need Metro Rail?

Yesterday’s shutdown of the Washington Metro rail system was supposed to result in horrible congestion. In fact, as reported in the Washington Post, congestion was “normal,” with a little heavier traffic than usual in some places and lighter in others.

A few people hadn’t gotten the word, but most made other plans. Some people took the bus, but many buses had empty seats. Some people took taxis, but some taxi drivers reported no more business than usual. Pedestrian and bike traffic across the Key Bridge doubled, but that just meant 1,150 more than usual. Capital Bikeshare parking slots downtown were full, indicating more people used them to commute to work than usual. 

Uber, Lyft, and ZipCar all had good days, showing that private enterprise is alive and well. Some commuters vowed to buy a car and stop taking the Metro, more because it was generally unreliable than this particular shutdown. 

The Washington Post’s architecture critic claims that the shutdown happened because “we decided to let our cities decay.” In fact, it’s because politicians decided that spending money on new construction projects, such as the Silver and Purple lines, would benefit their political careers more than spending it maintaining the existing system.

Before that, it’s because politicians decided to saddle Washington with an expensive, obsolete technology that the region can’t afford to maintain. Metro needs to spend $1.1 billion a year on maintenance to keep the system from deteriorating; it spent about a third of that in 2014, so it’s getting worse every year.

Yesterday’s lack of chaos suggests that Washington can get along without the rail system. It certainly can’t afford to keep it. It’s time to think about alternatives.

The Washington Metro Strategy

The Washington Metrorail system is completely shut down for a safety inspection today after having suffered another fire on Monday. As Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, wants people to know, “Safety is our highest priority.”

The Washington Post says that this decision confirms that Metro is “a national embarrassment.” In fact, the shutdown appears to be a classic Washington Monument strategy, in which bureaucrats try to make budget shortfalls as painful as possible in order to get more money out of Congress or other legislators. Instead of shutting the entire system down, Metro could have done the necessary inspections between midnight and 5 am, when the trains aren’t running. If the full inspections will take the 29 hours the trains won’t be running Wednesday and Thursday morning, then doing them at night would take just six days.

There is no doubt that fires are serious; one in January, 2015, killed someone and hospitalized scores of others. But the fact that these two fires were more than fourteen months apart suggests that there isn’t a major risk of another one in the next few days.

Metro’s fundamental problem is that it uses an expensive, obsolete technology. The federal government paid to build the system, and local governments pay to operate it, but no one ever budgeted for maintenance costs. These costs become especially high after the infrastructure reaches about 30 years of age. The earliest parts of the Metro system will be 40 years old this year, and they have steadily deteriorated over the past decade.

A one-day inspection is not going to solve Metro’s problems. Metro did plenty of inspections since the January, 2015 fire, but that didn’t stop the March, 2016 fire from taking place. Moreover, fires are only a small part of Metro’s problems.

Other problems include worn-out railcars; replacement cars that are late because they are “beset with problems”; an unreliable automatic train operating system that Metro has been slow to restore since the 2009 accident that killed nine people; old rails that are prone to cracking; unreliable elevators and escalators; and a workforce that has so little concern for safety that train operators risk collisions by running red lights at least once a month, plus many more. No wonder Wiedefeld admitted, several months after becoming general manager, that problems are “worse than I thought.”

Fixing these problems is going to require around $10 billion, several years of work, and an overhaul of Metro’s bureaucracy to restore the safety ethic that ought to be, but isn’t, a part of Metro’s culture. That’s billions of dollars that won’t be available to relieve traffic congestion, repave Washington’s crumbling streets, provide safer bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and improve the bus service that is used by more than one out of three of the region’s transit commuters.

Lots of federal workers take the Metro. But the Census Bureau says that less than 10 percent of commuters in the Washington urban area (which includes parts of southern Maryland and northern Virginia) take Metro subway and elevated trains to work. (Another 6.6 percent take buses and a small percentage take Maryland or Virginia commuter trains.)

Instead of spending all that money on just 10 percent of commuters, it’s time for Metro to seriously consider replacing its worn-out rail system with economical and flexible buses. For a little more than $1 billion, Metro could buy enough buses to replace all of its railcars, leaving several billion dollars left over to spend on other transportation improvements that will benefit bus riders along with everyone else in the region, not just those who take Metro rail to work. It sounds radical, but at some point Metro will have to admit that it can’t afford to maintain its high-cost rail system, and buses are the low-cost alternative.

Not-So-Rapid Transit

Washington, DC opened its long-delayed streetcar for business on Saturday. Actually, it’s a stretch to say it is open “for business,” as the city hasn’t figured out how to collect fares for it, so they won’t be charging any.

Exuberant but arithmetically challenged city officials bragged that the streetcar would traverse its 2.2-mile route at an average speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour, taking a half hour to get from one end to the other (which is 4.4 miles per hour). If there were no traffic and it didn’t have to stop for passengers or run in to any automobiles along the way, they admitted, it would still take 22 minutes (which is 6 miles per hour).

“After more than $200 million and a decade of delays and missteps,” observed the Washington Post, “it took the streetcar 26 minutes to make its way end-to-end on the two-mile line. It took 27 minutes to walk the same route on Saturday, 19 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes to bike and just seven minutes in a Uber.” After all the costs are counted, the Uber trip probably cost less.

The streetcar opening caught the attention of the Economist, which called it “pointless” because it follows a route that is already served by a bus that is faster, can get around parked cars that are slightly sticking into the right of way, and actually goes somewhere beyond the already gentrifying H Street neighborhood. Despite the problems and criticisms, DC officials were already talking about extending the line another 5 miles. 

Washington isn’t the only city caught up in the streetcar fad. Following Portland’s example, Atlanta, CharlotteCincinnati, Kansas City, and several other cities have opened or are building streetcar lines. Most of these lines are about two miles long, are no faster than walking, and cost $50 million or more per mile while buying the same number of buses would cost a couple million, at most.

Portland wants to build 140 miles of streetcar lines. At the average cost of its most recent line, this would require as much money as it would take to repave every street in the city–streets that are falling apart because the city doesn’t have enough money to maintain them. According to the latest census, seven times as many downtown Portland employees bicycle to work as take the streetcar, but another survey found that two out of three Portland cyclists “have experienced a bike crash on tracks.” 

New York’s Mayor de Blasio wants to spend $2.5 billion on a 16-mile streetcar between Brooklyn and Queens. Apparently that city is so flush with cash that it doesn’t have anything better to spend its money on than a slow transit line that won’t even stop near a subway station.

These cities argue that streetcars stimulate economic development. Yet a recent study sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration found that not only was there no evidence of such stimuli, none of the cities that had built streetcars were systematically measuring such impacts. Instead, most were busy subsidizing or coercing (through prescriptive zoning) new development along the streetcar routes.

In fact, there is no reason to think that a slow, congestion-causing, bicycle-accident-inducing rail line would promote new development. Streetcars were technologically perfected in the 1880s, so for Washington to subsidize the construction of a streetcar line today is roughly equal to New York City subsidizing the opening and operation of a factory in Manhattan that would make non-QWERTY typewriters, or Los Angeles subsidizing the manufacture of zoopraxiscopes. Rather than build five more miles of obsolete line, the best thing Washington can do is shut down its new line and fill the gaps between the rails with tar.

Washington Metro Getting Ready for Bankruptcy?

As I noted last week, Los Angeles is not the only region experiencing declining transit ridership. Another is Washington, DC, where a recent report from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA aka Metro) revealed that ridership has fallen to the lowest level since 2004. Ominously, the agency’s financial situation is so bad that it has hired a bankruptcy attorney to help it deal with its problems and is reshuffling its top management, forcing at least one executive to retire.

As detailed in the actual report to the agency’s board, rail revenues and ridership in the first half of F.Y. 2016 are both down by 7 percent from the same period in F.Y. 2015. Metrorail ridership peaked in 2009, and if the second half of F.Y. 2016 is as bad as the first, annual ridership will be down as much as 30 percent from that peak despite a 15 percent increase in the region’s population. Bus ridership and revenue in 2016 is also down but by only about 3 percent below 2015.

Move DC or Move Out of DC?

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.

Click image to download the plan’s executive summary. Click here to download other parts of the plan.

The plan would discourage auto driving by tolling roads entering the district and cordon-pricing. Tolls aren’t necessarily a bad idea: as I explained in this paper, properly designed tolls can relieve congestion and actually increase roadway capacities. But you can count on DC to design them wrong, using them more as a punitive and fundraising tool than as a way to relieve congestion. Cordon pricing is invariably a bad idea, much more of a way for cities to capture dollars from suburban commuters than to influence travel habits.

The plan assumes that the district’s population will increase by 170,000 people over the next 25 years, which is supposed to have some kind of apocalyptic result if all of those people drive as much as people drive today. The district’s official population in 2010 was 602,000 people, a 155,000-person drop from 1970. While Census Bureau estimates say the district’s population is once again growing, it doesn’t seem all that apocalyptic if the population returns to 1970 levels.

The Census Bureau estimates that 54 percent of people employed in the district drove to work, while only 37 percent took transit in 2012. Since part of the MoveDC plan calls for discouraging people outside the district from driving to work in the district, it appears the goal is to cut that 54 percent by more than half. DC’s plan to discourage driving by taxing commuters through cordon pricing is more likely to push jobs into the suburbs than to reach this goal.

Congestion isn’t a serious problem in the district, mainly because the legal height limit prevents Manhattan-like job concentrations. Instead, the main congestion problems are on the highways entering the district. These problems can be solved through congestion tolls, which would encourage some travelers to shift the time they drive. Because road capacities dramatically decline when they become congested, keeping the roads uncongested would effectively double their capacity during rush hour, which ironically could allow even more people to drive to work. DC’s anti-auto planners won’t want to do that, which is why they are likely to focus more on cordon pricing than congestion tolling.

If reducing congestion isn’t the issue, then what is the goal of the anti-auto emphasis? MoveDC says it is “rapidly rising travel costs, and concerns about rising carbon emissions.” People deal with rising travel costs by replacing their cars less frequently and buying more fuel-efficient cars when they do replace them. MoveDC’s solution is to substitute high-cost urban transit for low-cost driving, even though transit actually emits more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than driving.

Philly Schools—Is Money Really the Problem?

House majority leader Eric Cantor is in Philadelphia today to pick up Attorney General Eric Holder’s gauntlet. Holder’s DOJ has filed suit to shut down a Louisiana school voucher program that serves an overwhelmingly African American population, on the grounds that… it’s bad for African Americans. Cantor vows to fight the DOJ if Holder doesn’t drop the suit, and he’s delivering his message at a Philly charter school serving mostly African American kids—one that has about six times as many applicants as it has places.

Apart from its proximity to DC, Philly might seem an odd location for Cantor’s presser, but the city of brotherly love is going through an educational drama of its own. The Philadelphia School District has had budget problems for years. It’s seen horrendous violence, plummeting enrollment, and commensurate staff layoffs and school closures. Most media accounts bewail lack of funding as the key problem. Salon.com recently ran a story with the subhead: “Pennsylvania’s right-wing governor drains public schools of basic funds.” CBSNews laments “the same old problem: not enough money.”

What those and all other Philly school district stories I’ve seen have in common is that they fail to say how much the district actually spends per pupil. Not having attended journalism school, I missed whatever class teaches education reporters to omit the single most important fact in their stories, so allow me try to fill in the blank.

A quick Google search reveals that Philly’s 2013-14 budget is $3.03 billion (p. 50), of which $862 million is for charter schools. The district serves 136,000 students in its regular public schools and another 63,000 in charter schools. So the regular public schools, the ones that are being “systematically murdered” by budget cuts, spend $15,941 per pupil. That’s about $3,000 more than the national average. It’s also $1,600 more than the day tuition at Temple University. The city’s charter schools receive about $2,300 less than the regular public schools.

That’s not to say that the district’s classrooms are fully stocked with supplies or that the city’s best teachers are paid what they’re worth. What it does suggest is that the cause of those problems may have less to do with the amount of funding available than with the way it is allocated. After all, Washington, DC spends around $29,000 per pupildouble what Philly does—and it performs worse in both reading and math by the 8th grade.

Sorry about the Recession, America, But Don’t Worry about Washington

The Census Bureau reports, says a Wall Street Journal article, that between 2000 and 2012 “median household incomes for the nation as a whole dropped 6.6% — from $55,030 to $51,371.” There’s reason to doubt that real incomes are actually down over such a long period. But growth is certainly slow.

Except in Washington. The Journal notes:

The income of the typical D.C. household rose 23.3% between 2000 and 2012 to an inflation-adjusted $66,583, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, its most comprehensive snapshot of America’s demographic, social and economic trends. …

The Washington, D.C. metro area — which includes the surrounding suburbs in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia — has it even better, with a median household income of $88,233 that ranks highest among the U.S.’s 25 most populous metro areas. Tampa, Florida’s median income, by contrast, is under $45,000….

[Washington’s]  local economy is expanding faster than the broader nation, and its property market is soaring, thanks in part to increased federal-government spending and an influx of federal contractors, lawyers and consultants.

As we’ve written here many times, a rising tide of government spending may be bad for the American economy, but it’s great for the Washington area.

Washington is wealthy and getting wealthier, despite history’s slowest recovery in most of the country. As we’ve said here before, this of course reflects partly the high level of federal pay, as Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven have been detailing. And it also reflects the boom in lobbying as government comes to claim and redistribute more of the wealth produced in all those other metropolitan areas. 

Money spent in Washington is taken from the people who produced it all over America. Washington produces little real value on its own. National defense and courts are essential to our freedom and prosperity, but that’s a small part of what the federal government does these days. Most federal activity involves taking money from some people, giving it to others and keeping a big chunk as a transaction fee.

Every business and interest group in society has an office in Washington devoted to getting some of the $3.6 trillion federal budget for itself: senior citizens, farmers, veterans, teachers, social workers, oil companies, labor unions - you name it. The massive spending increases of the Bush-Obama years have created a lot of well-off people in Washington. New regulatory burdens, notably from Obamacare, are also generating jobs in the lobbying and regulatory compliance business.

Walk down K Street, the heart of Washington’s lobbying industry, and look at the directory in any office building. They’re full of lobbyists and associations that are in Washington, for one reason: because, as Willie Sutton said about why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”