light rail

Saving Cities from Bad Federal Policies

Since 1992, federal taxpayers have helped fund construction of urban rail transit lines through a program called New Starts. This program is due to expire in 2020, and today the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on whether or not to renew it.

No doubt most of the witnesses at the hearing will be transit agency officials bragging about how their expensive projects have created jobs and generated economic development. But a close look at the projects built with this fund reveals that New Starts has done more damage to American cities than any other federal program since the urban renewal projects of the 1950s. Here are eight reasons why Congress should not renew the program.

1. New Starts encourages cities to waste money. The more expensive the project, the more money New Starts provides, so transit agencies plan increasingly expensive projects to get “their share” of the money. As a result, average light-rail construction costs have exploded from under $17 million per mile (in today’s dollars) in 1981 to more than $220 million a mile today.

2. New Starts encourages cities to build obsolete technologies. There are good reasons why more than a thousand American cities replaced their rail transit lines with buses between 1920 and 1970: buses cost less and can do more than trains. A train can hold more people than a bus, but for safety reasons a rail line can only move a few trains per hour. A busway can move hundreds of buses and twice as many people per hour as any light-rail line. As one recent report concluded, “there are currently no cases in the US where LRT [light-rail transit] should be favored over BRT [bus-rapid transit].”

3. Rail transit often increases congestion. Light rail, streetcars, and even new commuter-rail lines often add more to congestion by running in streets or at grade crossings than the few cars they take off the road. The traffic analysis for Maryland’s Purple Line, for example, found that it would significantly increase delays experienced by DC-area travelers.

4. New Starts forces transit agencies to go heavily in debt. New Starts pays only half of construction costs, and transit agencies often borrow heavily to pay the other half. This leaves them economically fragile so that, to avoid going into default in an economic downturn, they are forced to make heavy cuts in transit service.

May Transit Ridership Down 3.3 Percent

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. 

Transit Death Watch: April Ridership Declines 2.3 Percent

Nationwide transit ridership continued its downward spiral with April 2018 falling 2.3 percent below the same month in 2017, according to data released yesterday by the Federal Transit Administration. Commuter-rail ridership grew by 3.5 percent, but light-rail, heavy-rail, hybrid rail, streetcar, and bus ridership all declined. The biggest decline was light rail at 5.5 percent.

The Case for Neglecting Transit

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.

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.

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.

Ten Reasons Portland Transit Is Not a Model for Other Cities

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx came to Portland, Oregon last week to tell TriMet, the region’s transit agency, not to apologize for spending $204 million per mile on its latest light-rail line. Although that is eight times as much (after adjusting for inflation) as the region’s first light-rail line, Foxx noted that regions “need to have bold visions” and that, as a model for the rest of the country, Portland was “building for today and for the future.”

Residents of Austin, Durham, St. Petersburg, and many other cities are being told they need to emulate Portland by building their own expensive light-rail lines. Here are ten reasons why they should reject Portland as a model for their own transit and transportation systems.

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