Tag: transportation

Platitudes Won’t Solve Metro’s Problems

The Washington City Paper asked “thirteen riders, advocates, and experts” how to fix the Washington Metro Rail system. Former Metro general manager Dan Tangherlini and former DC DOT director Gabe Klein offered banalities about “putting the customer first.”

Smart-growth advocate Harriet Trepaning thinks Metro “needs a different kind of leader,” as if changing the person at the top is going to keep smoke out of the tunnels and rails from cracking. She admits that “I don’t think we’ve been straight with anybody, including ourselves or our riders, about what it really takes to [keep the rails in a] state of good repair.” But her only solution is to have “a dedicated source of revenue,” i.e., increase local taxes for a system that already costs state and local taxpayers close to a billion dollars per year.

Coalition for Smarter Growth director Stewart Schwartz and former APTA chair Rod Diridon also want to throw money at it. Others dodge the money question and suggest that Metro do all sorts of things that it can’t afford and doesn’t have any incentive to do anyway.

Only one writer–yours truly–dared to suggest that “rail was probably the wrong choice for D.C.” for the very reason Tregoning suggests: Metro planners and managers have deceived themselves and the public about how much it truly costs to keep it in a state of good repair. Moreover, in the long run–10 years–“shared, self-driving cars are going to replace most transit.”

In the short run, tnstead of building the Purple Line, completing the Silver Line, and rebuilding the other rail lines, Metro should “seriously consider replacing” some of its worn-out rail lines “with bus-rapid transit.” This way, it won’t be stuck paying for a bunch of white elephants when people discover that shared, self-driving cars are less expensive, more convenient, and more reliable than trains. Unfortunately, these suggestions are likely to fall on deaf ears even though they are the most affordable ones offered.

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.

Lone Star Rail Insanity

Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).

Click image to download a PDF version of this map.

By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.

Lone Star is asking the San Antonio city council for $500,000 to help pay for an environmental impact statement and other studies. Austin has supposedly already agreed to fund its share, though it isn’t in the city’s budget.

Lone Star is promising 32 trains (16 each way) carrying 20,000 riders (10,000 round trips) per day at fares of up to $12. That’s more than 600 riders per train; though some may not go the entire distance, it still seems high. Megabus currently operates three buses a day that take 85 minutes between the two cities at fares of $1.50 to $7.50. It seems likely that if there were 20,000 people per day wanting to pay $12 to take the trip at the same speed, Megabus would find them.

If the goal is to relieve congestion on I-35, two new lanes would probably cost less than a billion dollars and would be capable of moving far more vehicles per day than Lone Star would take off the road. Of course, the highway is probably not congested over the entire route, so two new lanes for the full length probably aren’t necessary. Besides, self-driving cars will probably go on sale and eliminate any need for passenger trains before the first Lone Star train would turn a wheel.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, who famously cancelled the city’s even more backwards streetcar project, says that Lone Star isn’t one of her priorities. “There will be benefits from this alternative transit option, but we have to be good fiscal stewards,” she added. Local taxpayers should hope that she and the San Antonio city council can resist the starry-eyed Lone Star plan.

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.

Red Light for Red Line, Yellow Light for Purple Line

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced today that he was canceling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with some caveats that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.

The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.

Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.

Two-Month Extension for Federal Highway and Transit Funding

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to extend federal funding for highways and transit for two months. The Senate is expected to pass similar legislation later this week. While transportation bills normally last for six years, this short-term action, which followed a ten-month extension last fall and a two-year extension in 2012, has proven necessary because no one has been able to rustle up a majority agreement on the federal role in transportation.

For those who haven’t followed the issue, the federal government collects about $34 billion a year in gas taxes and related highway user fees. Once dedicated to highways, an increasing share has gone for transit and other uses since the early 1980s. A 1998 decision to mandate that spending equal the projected growth in fuel taxes compounded the problem. When fuel tax revenues stopped growing in 2007, spending did not and thus annual spending is now about $13 billion more than revenues.

Under Congressional rules, Congress must find a revenue source to cover that deficit. My colleague at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, thinks that the simple solution is for Congress to just reduce spending by $13 billion a year. That may be arithmetically simple, but politically it is not. Too many powerful interest groups count on that spending who have persuaded many (falsely, in my opinion) that we need to spend more on supposedly crumbling highways.

Too Much Money Going to the Wrong Places

It appears that the Amtrak crash that killed seven people Tuesday resulted from speeding, but big-government advocates are already using this accident to make their case for more infrastructure spending. In fact, the problem is not too little money, but too much money going to the wrong places.

In 2008, President George Bush signed a law mandating that most railroads, including Amtrak, install positive train control (PTC) by December of 2015. PTC would force trains to slow or stop if the operator ignored signals or speed limits.

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama asked a Democratic Congress to give him $10 billion to spend on high-speed trains, and Congress agreed. Not one cent of that money went to installing PTC in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

PTC would have prevented this accident. There was plenty of money available to install it, but the Obama administration, in its infinite wisdom, chose to spend it elsewhere. Two days ago, it would have been embarrassing to think that the government-run Amtrak hadn’t yet completed installation of PTC on its highest-speed corridor. Today, it’s a tragedy. But how is it the fault of fiscal conservatives?

This accident is just one more example of a political fact of life: Politicians are more likely to put dollars into new construction, such as high-speed rail, than to spend them on safety and maintenance of existing infrastructure. As John Nolte says on Breitbart, “Amtrak is not underfunded; it is criminally mismanaged.”

Transportation journalist Don Phillips presents one example of Amtrak mismanagement in the June issue of Trains magazine: instead of promoting a culture of safety, Amtrak has a culture of don’t care. Phillips points to a February report from Amtrak’s Inspector General that found that Amtrak has the least-safe working environment of any major railroad. Amtrak employees are more than three times as likely to be injured or killed on the job as employees of BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, or Union Pacific.

This poor record, says the report, is a direct result of a lack of accountability “at all levels.” Employee injuries in 2013 were only one-twelfth as likely to result in disciplinary action as in 2009, resulting in employees who believe today that they “can ignore rules and safe practices with impunity.” Safety is of so little importance in the organization that three out of four of the employees interviewed by the inspector general believed that Amtrak’s safety record was better, not worse, than other railroads.

One reason why Amtrak has a poor safety culture may be that Congress has legally limited Amtrak’s liability for any single crash to $200 million. Imagine the outrage if Congress limited the liability of oil companies, pipeline companies, Monsanto, or other private corporations. Yet the progressives who wrote Amtrak legislation considered such a liability limit perfectly acceptable.

If Congress were to respond to this crash by increasing federal infrastructure spending, it is all too likely that much if not most of that money would go for useless new projects such as new high-speed rail lines, light rail, and bridges to nowhere. We don’t need intercity trains that cost several times as much but go less than half as fast as flying; we don’t need urban trains that cost 50 times as much but can’t carry as many people per hour as buses; we don’t need new bridges if bridge users themselves aren’t willing to pay for them.

As I’ve documented elsewhere, infrastructure that is funded out of user fees tends to be better maintained than infrastructure that is funded out of tax dollars. User fees also give transportation managers signals for where new infrastructure is really needed; if people won’t pay for it out of user fees, it probably isn’t necessary.

Before 1970, America’s transportation system was almost entirely funded out of user fees and it was the best in the world. Since then, funding decisions have increasingly been made by politicians who are more interested in getting their pictures taken cutting ribbons than in making sure our transportation systems run safely and smoothly.

This country doesn’t need more infrastructure that it can’t afford to maintain. Instead, it needs a more reliable system of transport funding, and that means one based on user fees and not tax subsidies or federal deficit spending.