Tag: transit

America’s Socialized Transit

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.

Transit in Turmoil

Last week’s resignation of Michael Melaniphy as CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a sign that more people are seeing that America’s transit-industrial complex has no clothes. Melaniphy’s departure comes on the heels of the withdrawal of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) from APTA membership.

MTA’s complaint is that APTA has failed to help the seven “legacy” transit systems, that is, rail systems that are more than 40 years old, that are suffering from severe maintenance backlogs. These transit systems, which are in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, carry nearly two-third of the nation’s transit riders yet–thanks in part to APTA lobbying–a disproportionate share of federal transit dollars go to smaller cities that are building new rail systems that they won’t be able to afford to maintain.

In 2010, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that the legacy rail systems (plus Washington and Atlanta) needed nearly $60 billion to restore them to a state of good repair. Yet little was done, and the latest estimate is that the maintenance backlog has grown to more than $93 billion. Meanwhile, with APTA’s encouragement, Congress has spent something like $15 billion supporting the construction of new rail systems in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland.

Even the transit systems that suffer from maintenance backlogs are spending precious resources building new rail lines because that is what Congress will fund, not maintenance. Thus, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is spending $3 billion on a light-rail line to Medford even as it let its maintenance backlog grow to $7.3 billion. The Chicago Transit Authority is spending $2.3 billion extending its Red Line even as its maintenance backlog exceeds $22 billion. The San Francisco BART system is suffering frequent breakdowns and has a $9.7 billion maintenance backlog, yet is spending $6.3 billion on a line to San Jose that partly duplicates existing commuter rail service.

Meanwhile, other cities seem to be racing to see who can spend the most on their own rail transit expansions. Having just finished spending $1.5 billion on a seven-mile light-rail line, Portland wants to spend $2 billion on a new 12-mile line. Seattle just spend $1.9 billion on a three-mile light-rail line and is now spending $3.7 billion on a fourteen-mile line to Bellevue. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to spend $120 billion on new transit lines, including the construction of a nine-mile light-rail tunnel to the San Fernando Valley that will cost nearly $1 billion per mile. 

Despite their expense, none of these light-rail lines are anything like the Washington or other subway systems. The “light” in light rail refers to capacity, not weight: light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit, capable of carrying only about a quarter as many people per hour as a subway or elevated line. In 1981, San Diego opened the nation’s first modern light-rail line at a cost of $5.6 million per mile (about $12.5 million in today’s money); the cost of the average line being built today is $163 million per mile, yet those new lines won’t be able to carry any more people than the San Diego line.

These new rail lines do little good for transit riders, mainly because their high cost eventually forces most transit agencies that build them to cannibalize their bus systems. For example, construction of new light-rail lines forced San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority to reduce bus service by 22 percent since 2001, leading to a 32 percent decline in ridership

It’s no surprise that APTA sheepishly reported last month that the nation’s overall transit ridership declined in 2015. While APTA blamed the decline on low gas prices, the truth is (as noted here last year), if you don’t count the New York subway system (whose ridership has been growing in response to rising Manhattan employment), nationwide ridership has declined for the past several years. 

Why are we spending so much money building new rail lines when it doesn’t help, and often hurts, transit riders? Part of the answer is Congress likes shiny new projects more than maintenance. But part of the answer is that APTA’s membership is stacked with manufacturers and suppliersconsultantscontractors, and land developers who build subsidized projects next to rail stations. Although New York’s MTA carries nearly 37 percent of all transit riders in the country, its membership dues covered less than 2 percent of APTA’s budget because APTA gets most of its money from non-transit agencies. Thus, like Congress, APTA is biased towards new construction.

For example, APTA claims to be an educational organization, yet it hasn’t done much to educate Congress or the public about the long-term costs of rail transit and the need to almost completely and expensively rebuild those rail lines every 30 years or so. After all, this message could undermine support for building new rail transit lines in cities that don’t need them.

People who support the needs of actual transit riders, rather than rail snobs (people who say they’ll ride a train but not a bus) or contractors, should use these facts to persuade Congress to stop funding obsolete rail transit systems when cities desperately need things that will truly relieve traffic congestion and cost-effectively improve everyone’s mobility.

NY MTA to APTA: Quit Wasting Our Money

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has formally quit its membership in the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the nation’s principle transit lobby. In a harshly worded seven-page letter, MTA accused APTA of poor governance, an undue focus on small transit agencies, and having an embarrassingly large compensation package to APTA’s president.

The MTA and its affiliates, Metro North, the Long Island Railroad, and New York City Transit, together carry 35 percent of all transit riders in America. Since MTA’s ridership has been growing while transit elsewhere has declined, this percentage is increasing.

Yet APTA’s focus has been on lobbying for increased funding for smaller agencies, including building new rail transit lines in cities that haven’t had rail transit and extending transit service in smaller cities and rural areas that have had little transit at all. As a result, says the letter, MTA has been short-changed by roughly a billion dollars a year in federal funding that it would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried.

This accords with the finding of a Cato policy analysis that found that New York has been shorted half a billion dollars a year in discretionary transit funds. Since discretionary funds make up less than half of all federal transit funds, it is easy to imagine that the nation’s largest urban area is losing a billion dollars a year to smaller cities that are not making effective use of those funds.

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.

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.

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.