Nationwide transit ridership in May 2018 was 3.3 percent less than in the same month of 2017. May transit ridership fell in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas. Ridership in the first five months of 2018 was lower than the same months of 2017 in 41 of the 50 largest urban areas. Buses, light rail, heavy rail, and streetcars all lost riders.
These numbers are from the Federal Transit Administration’s monthly data report. I’ve posted an enhanced spreadsheet that has annual totals in columns GY through HO, mode totals for major modes in rows 2123 through 2129, agency totals in rows 2120 through 3129, and urban area totals for the nation’s 200 largest urban areas in rows 3131 through 3330.
Declines in 2018 continue a trend that began in 2014. Year‐on‐year monthly ridership has fallen in 21 of the last 24 months and all of the last seven months. The principle cause is likely the growth of Uber, Lyft, and other ride‐hailing services, but whatever the cause, there seems to be no positive future for public transit.
Of the urban areas that saw ridership increase, ridership grew by 1.2 percent in Houston, 2.2 percent in Seattle, 2.4 percent in Denver, 1.2 percent in Portland, 5.0 percent in Indianapolis, 7.8 percent in Providence, 7.2 percent in Nashville, and an incredible 63.1 percent in Raleigh. Most of the growth in Raleigh was students carried by North Carolina State University’s bus system.
On a percentage basis, the biggest losers were Miami, Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Milwaukee, all of which saw about 11 percent fewer riders in May 2018 than May 2017. Ridership fell 9.2 percent in Phoenix, 8.0 percent in Jacksonville, 7.2 percent in Virginia Beach‐Norfolk, 6.4 percent in Dallas‐Fort Worth, 5.9 percent in Atlanta, and 5.6 percent in Philadelphia.
Numerically, the biggest losses were in New York, whose transit systems carried 12.7 million fewer riders in May 2018 than 2017; Boston, ‑4.1 million; Los Angeles, ‑2.4 million; Philadelphia, ‑1.7 million; and Miami, ‑1.4 million. Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, and Phoenix all lost more than half a million monthly riders.
Some people have argued that ridership is declining because of cuts to transit services. Others have concluded that the cuts to transit service “mostly followed, and not led falling ridership.” The posted spreadsheet includes data for vehicle‐revenue miles of service that could support either view.
Transit service in both Houston and Seattle grew by 2.6 percent, supporting Houston’s 1.2 percent and Seattle’s 2.2 percent ridership gains. Indianapolis’ 5.0 percent increase in ridership was supported by a 9.9 percent increase in service. Service declined 2.0 percent in New York and 3.7 percent in Los Angeles, either reflecting or contributing to falling ridership in those urban areas.
However, ridership declined 2.5 percent in San Diego despite a 10.9 percent increase in service. Ridership in San Jose fell by 4.2 percent despite a 2.4 percent increase in service. Jacksonville’s 8.0 percent loss of riders came in spite of a 2.6 percent increase in service.
It seems clear that service levels are only one of the factors influencing transit ridership. Moreover, there appear to be rapidly diminishing returns to service: large service increases are needed to get small ridership gains. On the other hand, ridership declines reduce agency revenues forcing reductions in service, leading to further ridership declines: a classic death spiral.
Transit industry leaders must be hoping for some kind of catastrophe that will send gasoline prices above $4 a gallon, for that is probably the only thing that could save the industry from its current trajectory. That is unlikely, and the industry is not worth saving any other way.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has just published a paper on the economic cost of failing to modernize transit, referring to the roughly $100 billion maintenance backlog built up by U.S. transit agencies, mostly for rail transit. In fact, a strong case can be made that—with the possible exception of New York—American cities shouldn't restore deteriorating rail transit systems and instead should shut them down as they wear out and replace them with buses where demand for transit still exists.
APTA claims that not restoring older rail systems will reduce "business sales" by $57 billion a year and reduce gross national product by $30 billion a year over the next six years. Reaching this conclusion requires APTA to make all sorts of wild assumptions about transit. For example, it states that a recent New Orleans streetcar line stimulated $2.7 billion in new infrastructure. In fact, that new infrastructure received hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies and low-interest loans from Louisiana and New Orleans. In any case, APTA fails to make clear how rehabilitation of existing infrastructure could generate the same economic development benefits as building new infrastructure.
American taxpayers already pay more than $50 billion a year to subsidize transit. Essentially, APTA wants taxpayers to give transit agencies an additional $100 billion to keep transit systems running. I would argue that federal, state, and local governments should provide none of that money. Instead, the best policy towards them is benign neglect.
The Maryland Transit Administration suddenly shut down the Baltimore Metro last week, forcing commuters and other riders to find alternatives with less than 24 hours’ notice. The state said an inspection had found unexpectedly excessive wear on the rails that could have caused a derailment, and it plans to keep the line closed for a month while it fixes the problem — and then to close it again this summer for further work.
The coincidence that the shut‐down took place the same day the White House announced its infrastructure plan led the Washington Post to call the metro the latest poster child for the need for more infrastructure spending. In fact, it is a poster child for less infrastructure spending, as it should never have been built in the first place.
Productivity of United States Metro Systems
Thousands of Trips Per Year
|New York Subway||3,211||5,699||$1.64|
“Subsidies” equal operations & maintenance divided by fares. Source: 2016 National Transit Database.
As the above table shows, Baltimore’s metro is one of the least‐productive and most subsidized heavy‐rail lines in the country. It’s even worse when stacked up against metro’s worldwide. Of 158 metros for which data is available, Baltimore’s ranked 150th in trips per station and 152nd in trips per mile.
A 1990 US DOT report found that the first 7.6‑mile segment was supposed to cost $800 million to build but actually cost $1.3 billion (about $1.5 and $2.4 billion in today’s dollars). It was supposed to carry 103,000 riders per weekday, but in its early years it only carried about 43,000. Maryland has since extended the line to 17 miles, yet weekday ridership in 2016 was less than 41,000, effectively meaning the extensions attracted no new riders.
To make matters worse, Baltimore bus ridership declined from 106.1 million trips the year the Metro opened to 75.6 million trips in 2016. Since Baltimore light‐rail and Metro lines together carried less than 20 million trips in 2016, transit ridership would have done better if the state had put a much smaller amount of money into bus improvements.
Baltimore Metro cars have 76 seats yet carry an average of just 11.5 riders over the course of a day, which is fewer than the 13.5 passengers carried by Maryland Transit buses. Buses also cost less to operate: in 2016, MTA spent $15.73 per vehicle‐revenue mile on operations and maintenance for its buses but $17.60 per mile for its Metro railcars.
In other words, buses could have performed the job of the metro for a lot less money. Now that the line is more than 30 years old and worn out, it should be replaced with buses. Instead, they are going to spend millions of dollars making token fixes and let passengers suffer increasing reliability problems.
Naturally, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan blames previous administrations for underfunding maintenance. Yet he has been in office now for more than three years, so he can’t really blame the problems on previous administrations. Why didn’t the transit authority detect the track wear sooner? Why weren’t they able to fix the problem when they were recently single‐tracking the line for maintenance work?
One answer is that Hogan and his Department of Transportation have been focused on new projects rather than maintaining old ones. He was the one who decided to build the Purple Line, which will cost more than $2 billion and make congestion worse. He is also pushing for a ridiculously expensive mag‐lev line from Baltimore to Washington.
This is what politicians, even supposedly fiscally conservative ones like Hogan, do: go for the glory rather than the mundane. That’s why Trump’s infrastructure plan should, but doesn’t, dedicate funds to maintenance rather than new construction. That’s why infrastructure should be funded out of user fees rather than taxes. Unfortunately, for too many the only lesson of the Baltimore Metro line is that someone else ought to pay more money to keep it running.
Washington Metro should raise bus fares and cut service as a part of a plan to restore its rail system to its former greatness, recommends a report by former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. The report hasn’t been released yet–in fact, it has apparently been sitting on the Virginia governor’s desk for several weeks–but the Washington Post obtained a copy just in time for the report to have no influence on Virginia’s recent election.
Parts of the report are predictable, such as a recommendation that Metro obtain a source of “dedicated funds,” meaning a tax dedicated to it so it won’t have to be responsive to local politicians. However, LaHood’s mandate was to come up with a specific funding source acceptable to regional political interests, and he failed to do so.
What was not predicted was a finding that Metro “offers more [vehicle‐hours of] service per rider than other large transit agencies.” Based on this finding, LaHood recommended cutting back service. The report notes that service levels were “average when compared to peers” until the opening of the Silver Line led to increased service hours coinciding with a decline in ridership.
So as the Silver Line has not only hurt the rail system, LaHood now recommends that Metro fix the problem by cutting back on service. But he does not recommend cutting back on Silver Line service. Instead, LaHood wants Metro to cut back on bus service (which he says is also above average) and raise bus fares. Ironically, this echoes my recent commentary noting that transit agencies often pay for the high cost of rail by cutting bus service.
Another of LaHood’s findings is that Metro’s costs are “average” compared with its peers. But, as former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith once noted, you can’t find out whether a public agency’s costs are reasonable by comparing it with other public agencies; you need to compare it with private operators. For example, Denver’s RTD contracts out half its buses to private operators that consistently charge RTD about 52 to 53 percent of the amount RTD spends running its own buses.
LaHood could have recommended that Metro contract out its bus service. In 2016, it spent $15 per vehicle‐revenue mile operating its buses. Denver’s RTD spent $11 per vehicle‐revenue mile on its buses, but paid private contractors less than $6 per vehicle‐revenue mile on the buses they operated. Based on this, Metro’s costs may be “average” but are not reasonable.
Rather than save money by contracting out service, LaHood wants bus riders, who are disproportionately black, to pay more for less service in order to make up for Metro’s incompetence in managing its rail system. Meanwhile, he did not propose to raise fares for rail riders, who are disproportionately white.
In short, LaHood’s long‐awaited report not only does not come up with a magic formula for a sales tax or another tax to help pay for rehabilitating Metro rail, the proposals he makes would actually do more harm than good for Metro’s transit‐dependent population. Raising bus fares and cutting service is likely to accelerate declining ridership, which is exactly the opposite of what Metro wants to do.
Meanwhile, LaHood’s proposals to change Metro’s board could be considered a way of tinkering with the deck chairs as the ship is sinking–except that it is in line with Metro’s larger objective of becoming less dependent on and less responsive to local elected officials. Metro wants to be its own taxing district with its own board that will do whatever Metro’s staff tells it. Yet there is no evidence that this model works particularly well in other regions; instead, it merely takes the agency one more step away from the users it is supposed to serve.
LaHood apparently never considered asking Metro riders to actually pay for the service they use. But if users can’t be expected to cover the costs, maybe we don’t really need to provide the service. Unfortunately, if anyone in the DC area was looking for creative solutions to Metro’s problems, LaHood was the wrong person to ask.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's decision to give $647 million to California to electrify a San Francisco commuter rail line tells states and cities across the nation that they should plan the most expensive and wasteful infrastructure projects they can and the Trump administration will support them. The Caltrains electrification project had no political, economic, social, or environmental justification, so Chao's support for the project despite its lack of virtues does not bode well for those who hoped that the Trump administration would take a fiscally conservative stance on infrastructure and transportation.
The California project had already been funded by the Obama administration, but it was a last-minute approval by an acting administrator who immediately then took a high-paying job with one of Caltrains' contractors. When Chao took office, every single Republican in the California congressional delegation asked her to overturn the decision, and she agreed to review it. Even some Democrats opposed the project, meaning there was far less political pressure to fund it than many other equally wasteful programs.
Caltrains carries just 4 percent of transit riders in the San Francisco Bay Area, and based on the dubious claim that electric trains would go a little faster than Diesel-electric trains, the environmental assessment for the project predicted that electrification would boost ridership by less than 10 percent. It would save no energy and have a trivial effect on air pollution.
Instead, the main purpose of the Caltrains project was to wire the way for California's bloated high-speed trains, which at least initially would use the same electric power to get to San Francisco. Normally, high-speed trains would not use the same track as ordinary commuter trains, but the costs of the high-speed rail project have risen so much that the state's rail authority is cutting corners wherever it can. One result is that the project, if it is ever completed, won't really run trains at high speeds for much of its route.
The American Public Transit Association (APTA) has a new report on the economic impact of President Trump’s proposal to stop wasting federal dollars on digging holes and filling them up. Actually, the report is about Trump’s proposal to stop wasting federal dollars building streetcars, light rail and other local rail transit projects, but the two have almost exactly the same effect.
The APTA report says that digging holes and filling them up would provide about 500,000 jobs (though it really means job‐years, that is, 500,000 jobs for one year). Since APTA says it would take ten years to dig and fill the holes that Trump wants to stop funding, that’s 50,000 jobs a year.
However, nobody wants a job digging holes and filling them up. What they want is income. Since there is no market for refilled holes, the only source of income for digging and filling holes is tax dollars. So what APTA really wants Congress to do is take money away from workers and then give it back to them and call it jobs. That’s not very productive.
The APTA report also says that refilled holes create economic development that will generate another 300,000 more jobs (which again really means job‐years). Supposedly, people like living, shopping, and working next to refilled holes and so they will clamor to have homes, stores, and offices built next to those holes.
I don’t believe that’s true, but let’s say it is. If we don’t dig and refill the holes, people will still need to live, shop, and work somewhere. So the homes, stores, and offices will still be built, though (if you believe in the hole‐location theory) they might be built in some part of the city other than next to the undug holes. Thus, digging holes creates zero net secondary jobs.
In fact, digging and refilling holes probably creates negative secondary jobs for the cities digging them because someone has to pay for those holes. The federal capital grants program only pays half the cost of digging and refilling the holes, and the locals have to pay for the rest. After the holes are dug, local taxpayers have to pay most of the cost of maintaining the refilled holes as settling is likely to occur. The local construction and maintenance costs put a huge burden on the local tax base, and some businesses are likely to locate in a city that isn’t obligated to pay for such holes.
In comparing streetcars, light rail, and other forms of rail transit to holes, some people might think I am unfair to holes. After all, holes don’t require annual operating costs like rail transit, and their maintenance costs are also a lot lower. For example, Washington DC used federal dollars to dig some holes and put trains in them, and now it faces a $25 billion maintenance backlog. If they had just left the holes empty, or filled them with dirt–or better yet not dug them at all–they wouldn’t have to worry about who is going to pay for that backlog.
As Will Rogers once said, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” The rail transit construction of the past 50 years has dug a huge hole that has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and coincided with (and arguably contributed to) a decline in per capita transit ridership.
Whether we are talking about holes or building rail transit, the effect is the same. APTA wants Congress to take money from taxpayers so it can give it back to them and claim it is giving them jobs. APTA also wants local governments to take money from taxpayers so they can claim they are making cities more productive. But neither holes nor rail transit produce the income needed to sustain jobs nor do they make urban areas more economically productive. All they do is enrich a few contractors while adding to the overall tax burden. That’s why I think Trump’s policy of ending federal support to holes and other strictly local projects is a good idea.
On the heels of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that found that Washington Metro "has failed to learn safety lessons" from previous accidents, Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld will announce a plan today that promises to disrupt service for months in an effort to get the lines safely running again. While ordinary maintenance can take place during the few hours the system isn't running every night, Wiedefeld says past officials have let the system decline so much that individual rail lines will have to be taken off line for days or weeks at a time to get them back into shape.
The Washington Post blames the problems on "generations of executives and government-appointed Metro board members, along with Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending." That's partially true, but there are really two problems with Metro, and different parties are to blame for each.
First is the problem with deferred maintenance. The Metro board recognized that maintenance costs would have to increase as long ago as 2002, when they developed a plan to spend $10 billion to $12 billion rehabilitating the system. This plan was ignored by the "Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending" and who decided to fund the Silver and Purple lines instead of repairing what they already had.
Second is the problem with the agency's safety culture, or lack of one. According to the NTSB report, in violation of its own procedures, Metro used loaded passenger trains to search for the sources of smoke in the tunnels. Metro at first denied doing so, then said it wouldn't do it any more. But Metro's past actions sent a signal to employees that passenger safety isn't important.