transit

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.

Trump Plan Probably Won’t Repair Crumbling Infrastructure

The White House released President Trump’s infrastructure plan today, which calls for spending $200 billion federal dollars as seed money to stimulate a total of $1.5 trillion on “gleaming new infrastructure.” Almost lost in the dozens of pages of documents issued by the administration is that the reason why the federal government supposedly needs a new infrastructure program is that our existing infrastructure is crumbling, and the reason it is crumbling is that politicians would rather spend money on gleaming new projects than on maintaining the old ones.

The White House proposes several new funding programs. The administration could have dedicated one or more of these programs to maintenance and repair of worn-out infrastructure. Instead, all $200 billion can be spent on new projects, and knowing politicians, most of it will be. To make matters worse, funds for most of the programs would be distributed in the form of competitive grants, but experience has proven that competitive grants are highly politicized. 

“In the past, the Federal Government politically allocated funds for projects, leading to waste, mismanagement, and misplaced priorities,” agrees White House economic advisor Gary Cohn. The administration’s solution, Cohn continues, is to “stimulate State, local, and private investment.” In other words, instead of most decisions being made by Washington politicians, they will be made by local politicians. But if local politicians were any better at maintaining infrastructure, then we wouldn’t have tens of thousands of local bridges classed as “structurally deficient” and the New York, Washington, Boston, and other subway systems wouldn’t be falling apart.

The White House says that the federal funds it proposes to allocate to infrastructure may be spent on either new construction or maintenance, which is an advantage over some existing federal programs that can only be spent on new construction. But just because they can be spent on maintenance, doesn’t mean they will be.

The New York subway system is falling apart because the city doesn’t have enough money to maintain it. Yet it has enough money to spend $10 billion on a tunnel between Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal for Long Island Railroad trains, which the New York Times has called “the most expensive subway in the world.” It also has enough money to build the eight-mile Second Avenue subway, which at $2.1 billion a mile must be the second-most expensive subway in the world.

The Good and the Bad of Public-Private Partnerships

President Trump has reportedly expressed reservations about public-private partnerships, but White House economic advisor Gary Cohn is still enthusiastic about building the administration’s fabled infrastructure plan around them. Not everyone realizes, however, that there are two very distinct kinds of public-private partnerships, which I call the good kind and the bad kind. I’d like to believe that it is the bad kind that worries Trump while it is the good kind that encourages Cohn.

The good kind of public-private partnership is more formally known as a demand risk partnership. In this case, the public partner essentially gives the private partner a franchise to build a road or some other infrastructure. The private partner is allowed to collect tolls or other revenues from the infrastructure for a fixed period of time, usually three or four decades, after which ownership and management of the infrastructure is turned over to the public partner (who may contract it out again). The key is that private partner accepts all of the risk that the revenues may not cover the costs. The I-495 Capital Beltway express lanes are a demand risk partnership.

Helping People Reach Jobs

What is the best way to help low-income people – a group that disproportionately includes blacks and Latinos – get access to jobs? That question is certainly not answered by a report from left-wing think tank Demos. The report is aptly titled To Move Is to Thrive, but its subtitle, “Public Transit and Economic Opportunity for People of Color,” gives away its real agenda: more subsidies to the transit industry.

Written by Algernon Austin, the author of America Is Not Post-Racial, the report observes that “people of color” are less likely to own cars and more likely to be transit-dependent than white people. But Austin ignores the obvious and best solution, which is to give low-income people (regardless of color) access to cars. Instead, his report promotes “transit-focused infrastructure projects” in minority neighborhoods.

Since 1970, this nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on transit infrastructure projects. These projects have been disproportionately directed towards middle-class neighborhoods because middle-class people are the ones who pay for them through their taxes and the ones whose political support is needed to build them.

At the same time, the high cost of these projects has often forced transit agencies to cut bus service to low-income neighborhoods. This has happened in Atlanta, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and numerous other places, often resulting in overall declines in transit ridership.

The New York Times Is Wrong About Transit’s Effect on Urban Development

The New York Times has once again published a report claiming that transit hubs are a “growing lure for developers.” The Times published a similar story eight years ago, and I quickly showed that subsidies from tax-increment financing (TIF) and other government support, not transit, was what stimulated those developments.

So has anything changed since then? Nope. The first development described in the recent story by Times reporter Joe Gose is Assembly Row, in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Is it subsidized? Yes, with at least $25 million in TIF along with other state funds. Far from being “free money” as its advocates claim, TIF steals from school districts and other agencies that rely on property taxes to subsidize developers.

Then Gose mentions Chicago’s Fulton Market, downtown Kansas City, Austin, and Denver’s RiNo neighborhood. Fulton Market just happened to receive at least $42 million in support from the city of Chicago, much of which comes from TIF

Supposedly a new streetcar sparked a revitalization of downtown Kansas City. But could it be that revitalization was due more to Kansas City’s twenty-four downtown TIF districts?

Gose doesn’t specify a particular neighborhood or development in Austin, Texas. Of course, Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in America, so anything that’s open for development is going to be developed. But not satisfied to let the market work, Austin has heavily bought into the use of TIF districts. Transit is an afterthought in Austin, carrying less than 1 percent of the passenger travel; the city’s sole rail line was a huge flop that cost way more than expected and now carries fewer than 1,500 round-trips per weekday.

Denver’s RiNo neighborhood–RiNo being short for River North–is growing thanks to at least $44 million on infrastructure improvements in that neighborhood, plus additional TIF funds for special projects.

In Washington, DC, Gose mentions a $3 million project “in Washington’s fast-growing Capital Riverfront neighborhood.” That’s the same neighborhood that received at least $198 million in TIF subsidies.

An Electrifyingly Bad Decision

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s decision to give $647 million to California to electrify a San Francisco commuter rail line tells states and cities across the nation that they should plan the most expensive and wasteful infrastructure projects they can and the Trump administration will support them. The Caltrains electrification project had no political, economic, social, or environmental justification, so Chao’s support for the project despite its lack of virtues does not bode well for those who hoped that the Trump administration would take a fiscally conservative stance on infrastructure and transportation.

The California project had already been funded by the Obama administration, but it was a last-minute approval by an acting administrator who immediately then took a high-paying job with one of Caltrains’ contractors. When Chao took office, every single Republican in the California congressional delegation asked her to overturn the decision, and she agreed to review it. Even some Democrats opposed the project, meaning there was far less political pressure to fund it than many other equally wasteful programs.

Caltrains carries just 4 percent of transit riders in the San Francisco Bay Area, and based on the dubious claim that electric trains would go a little faster than Diesel-electric trains, the environmental assessment for the project predicted that electrification would boost ridership by less than 10 percent. It would save no energy and have a trivial effect on air pollution. 

Instead, the main purpose of the Caltrains project was to wire the way for California’s bloated high-speed trains, which at least initially would use the same electric power to get to San Francisco. Normally, high-speed trains would not use the same track as ordinary commuter trains, but the costs of the high-speed rail project have risen so much that the state’s rail authority is cutting corners wherever it can. One result is that the project, if it is ever completed, won’t really run trains at high speeds for much of its route.

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