Tag: transportation

Why Can’t We Have Great Trains? Because We Don’t Want Them

Why can’t America have great trains?” asks East Coast writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in the National Journal. The simple answer is, “Because we don’t want them.” The slightly longer answer is, “because the fastest trains are slower than flying; the most frequent trains are less convenient than driving; and trains are almost always more expensive than either flying or driving.”

Van Zuylen-Wood’s article contains familiar pro-passenger-train hype: praise for European and Asian trains; selective statistics about Amtrak ridership; and a search for villains in the federal government who are trying to kill the trains. The other side of the story is quite different.

Record Spending on Transit

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has issued its annual press release trumpeting the growth in transit ridership. Naturally, it selectively uses the data in order to get the best media attention.

For example, it claims that 2014 ridership set a record, which is true only if you don’t count any year between 1912 and 1957, during all of which transit carried far more people than it does today with almost no subsidies. Transit carried just under 10.8 billion trips in 2014, an increase of 101 million trips over 2013 but less than the 11.0 billion trips carried in 1956 (which doesn’t even include commuter rail and several other forms of transit that APTA counts today).

Second, APTA fails to note that all of the growth in ridership can be accounted for by increased usage of the New York City subway system. While national ridership grew by 101 million trips, APTA’s own ridership report shows that New York subway ridership grew by 107 million trips, or nearly 6 million more than the national gain. Without New York subways, whose ridership grew because of New York City’s rapid job growth, APTA would have had to report a national decline in ridership. Transit ridership grew in some cities, but it declined in many others, including Albuquerque, Austin, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Francisco (Muni), San Jose, and St. Louis, to name a few.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Falling Gas Prices

A left-coast writer named Mark Morford thinks that gas prices falling to $2 a gallon would be the worst thing to happen to America. After all, he says, the wrong people would profit: oil companies (why would oil companies profit from lower gas prices?), auto makers, and internet retailers like Amazon that offer free shipping.

If falling gas prices are the worst for America, then the best, Morford goes on to say, would be to raise gas taxes by $6 a gallon and dedicate all of the revenue to boondoggles “alternative energy and transport, environmental protections, our busted educational system, our multi-trillion debt.” After all, government has proven itself so capable of finding the most cost-effective solutions to any problem in the past, and there’s no better way to reduce the debt than to tax the economy to death.

Morford is right in line with progressives like Naomi Klein, who thinks climate change is a grand opportunity to make war on capitalism. Despite doubts cast by other leftists, Klein insists that “responding to climate change could be the catalyst for a positive social and economic transformation”–by which she means government control of transportation, housing, and just about everything else.

These advocates of central planning remind me of University of Washington international studies professor Daniel Chirot assessment of the fall of the Soviet empire. From the time of Lenin, noted Chirot, soviet planners considered western industrial systems of the late nineteenth century their model for an ideal economy. By the 1980s, after decades of hard work, they had developed “the most advanced industries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries–polluting, wasteful, energy intensive, massive, inflexible–in short, giant rust belts.”

Morford and Klein want to do the same to the United States, using climate change as their excuse, and the golden age they wish to return to is around 1920, when streetcars and intercity passenger trains were at their peak (not counting the WWII era). Sure, there were cars, but only a few compared with today.

The Purple Line Will Waste Money, Time, and Energy

Maryland’s Governor-Elect Larry Hogan has promised to cancel the Purple Line, another low-capacity rail boondoggle in suburban Washington DC that would cost taxpayers at least $2.4 billion to build and much more to operate and maintain. The initial projections for the line were that it would carry so few passengers that the Federal Transit Administration wouldn’t even fund it under the rules then in place. Obama has since changed those rules, but not to take any chances, Maryland’s current governor, Martin O’Malley, hired Parsons Brinckerhoff with the explicit goal of boosting ridership estimates to make it a fundable project.

I first looked at the Purple Line in April 2013, when the draft EIS (written by a team led by Parsons Brinckerhoff) was out projecting the line would carry more than 36,000 trips each weekday in 2030. This is far more than the 23,000 trips per weekday carried by the average light-rail line in the country in 2012. Despite this optimistic projection, the DEIS revealed that the rail project would both increase congestion and use more energy than all the cars it took off the road (though to find the congestion result you had to read the accompanying traffic analysis technical report, pp. 4-1 and 4-2).

A few months after I made these points in a blog post and various public presentations, Maryland published Parsons Brinckerhoff’s final EIS, which made an even more optimistic ridership projection: 46,000 riders per day in 2030, 28 percent more than in the draft. If measured by trips per station or mile of rail line, only the light-rail systems in Boston and Los Angeles carry more riders than the FEIS projected for the purple line.

Considering the huge demographic differences between Boston, Los Angeles, and Montgomery County, Maryland, it isn’t credible to think that the Purple Line’s performance will approach Boston and L.A. rail lines. First, urban Suffolk County (Boston) has 12,600 people per square mile and urban Los Angeles County has 6,900 people per square mile, both far more than urban Montgomery County’s 3,500 people per square mile.

However, it is not population densities but job densities that really make transit successful. Boston’s downtown, the destination of most of its light-rail (Green Line) trips, has 243,000 jobs. Los Angeles’s downtown, which is at the end of all but one of its light-rail lines, has 137,000 downtown jobs. LA’s Green Line doesn’t go downtown, but it serves LA Airport, which has and is surrounded by 135,000 jobs.

Montgomery County, where the Purple Line will go, really no major job centers. The closest is the University of Maryland which has about 46,000 jobs and students, a small fraction of the LA and Boston job centers. Though the university is on the proposed Purple Line, the campus covers 1,250 acres, which means many students and employees will not work or have classes within easy walking distance of the rail stations. Thus, the ridership projections for the Purple Line are not credible.

Making War on User Fees

The Highway Trust Fund hasn’t worked, says a new report from the Eno Transportation Foundation, so Congress should consider getting rid of it and funding all transportation out of general funds. In other words, the transportation system is breaking down because it has become too politicized, so we should solve the problem by making transportation even more political.

Eno (which was founded by William Phelps Eno, who is known as the “father of traffic safety”) claims this report is the result of 18 months of work by its policy experts. Despite all that work, the report’s conclusions would only make matters worse.

“The user pay principle works in theory,” says the report, “but has not worked in practice, at least as applied to federal transportation funding in the United States to date.” Actually, it worked great as long as Congress respected that principle, which it did from roughly 1956 through 1982. It only started to break down when Congress began diverting funds from highways to other programs. Then it really broke down when Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to spend more from the Trust Fund than it was earning from user fees. (It made the decision to spend a fixed amount each year regardless of revenues in 1998, but spending only actually exceeded revenues starting around 2008.)

Some argue that such breakdowns in the user-fee principle are inevitable when politicians get involved. This suggests that the government should get out of the way and let user fees work again. But Eno ignores that idea, and simply dismisses user fees altogether.

Eno suggests Congress has three options:

  1. Adjust spending to revenues, either by raising gas taxes or reducing spending.
  2. Fund some things out of gas taxes and some things out of general funds (which is more-or-less the status quo).
  3. Get rid of the Highway Trust Fund and just fund all transportation out of general funds.

“Any of these ideas would represent a dramatic improvement over the existing system,” says Eno, which isn’t true since the second idea is, pretty much, the existing system. But “based on our analysis, solution 3 is at least worth exploring.”

Who Is Transit for?

Rail advocates often call me “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.

Nationally, after adjusting for inflation, the APTA transit fact book shows that annual taxpayer subsidies to transit operations have grown from $1.6 billion in 1970 to $24.0 billion in 2012, yet per capita ridership among America’s urban residents has declined from 49 to 44 trips per year. A lot of that money ends up going to unionized transit workers, but the scary thing is that these workers have some of the best pension and health care plans in the world that are mostly unfunded–which means that transit subsidies will have to increase in the future even if no one rides it at all.

Capital and maintenance subsidies are nearly as great as operating subsidies, largely due to the industry’s fascination with costly rail transit. In 2012, while taxpayers spent $24 billion subsidizing transit operations, they also spent nearly $10 billion on maintenance, and more than $7 billion on capital improvements. In 2012, 25 percent of operating subsidies went to rail transit, but 56 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of capital improvements were spent on rails.

Who, other than rail contractors, union members, and other transit agency employees, is enjoying the benefits of all of these subsidies? To answer this question, I went to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey page and downloaded table B08519, which shows how people get to work by income class, for states and metropolitan areas.

Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. Those technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictable, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so. Consider these unknowns:

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car-sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or do other tasks that don’t require much supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?