Tag: transit

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.

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.