Move DC or Move Out of DC?

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.

Click image to download the plan’s executive summary. Click here to download other parts of the plan.

The plan would discourage auto driving by tolling roads entering the district and cordon-pricing. Tolls aren’t necessarily a bad idea: as I explained in this paper, properly designed tolls can relieve congestion and actually increase roadway capacities. But you can count on DC to design them wrong, using them more as a punitive and fundraising tool than as a way to relieve congestion. Cordon pricing is invariably a bad idea, much more of a way for cities to capture dollars from suburban commuters than to influence travel habits.

The plan assumes that the district’s population will increase by 170,000 people over the next 25 years, which is supposed to have some kind of apocalyptic result if all of those people drive as much as people drive today. The district’s official population in 2010 was 602,000 people, a 155,000-person drop from 1970. While Census Bureau estimates say the district’s population is once again growing, it doesn’t seem all that apocalyptic if the population returns to 1970 levels.

The Census Bureau estimates that 54 percent of people employed in the district drove to work, while only 37 percent took transit in 2012. Since part of the MoveDC plan calls for discouraging people outside the district from driving to work in the district, it appears the goal is to cut that 54 percent by more than half. DC’s plan to discourage driving by taxing commuters through cordon pricing is more likely to push jobs into the suburbs than to reach this goal.

Congestion isn’t a serious problem in the district, mainly because the legal height limit prevents Manhattan-like job concentrations. Instead, the main congestion problems are on the highways entering the district. These problems can be solved through congestion tolls, which would encourage some travelers to shift the time they drive. Because road capacities dramatically decline when they become congested, keeping the roads uncongested would effectively double their capacity during rush hour, which ironically could allow even more people to drive to work. DC’s anti-auto planners won’t want to do that, which is why they are likely to focus more on cordon pricing than congestion tolling.

If reducing congestion isn’t the issue, then what is the goal of the anti-auto emphasis? MoveDC says it is “rapidly rising travel costs, and concerns about rising carbon emissions.” People deal with rising travel costs by replacing their cars less frequently and buying more fuel-efficient cars when they do replace them. MoveDC’s solution is to substitute high-cost urban transit for low-cost driving, even though transit actually emits more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than driving.

Transportation Cliff or Pothole?

Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.

1. Why are we about to go off a transportation cliff?

Since 1956, federal highway programs have been financed with federal gasoline taxes. Those revenues go into the so-called Highway Trust Fund (“so-called” because it’s no longer very trustworthy) and then are distributed to the states for highway construction and maintenance. In 1982, Congress began dedicating a small but growing share of gas taxes to transit. Today, more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.

Congress reauthorizes this spending every few years. Traditionally, an authorization bill provides a spending ceiling. But the 2005 reauthorization bill made spending mandatory, meaning the ceiling was also the floor. (In 2012, Congress passed another reauthorization bill. That one didn’t mandate spending, but Congress went ahead and spent to the limit anyway, knowing full well that this would mean the Highway Trust Fund would be exhausted by sometime in 2014.)

When the 2008 financial crisis led to a reduction in driving, gas tax revenues failed to keep up with spending. Since then, Congress has had to supplement gas taxes with about $55 billion in general funds in order to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Anti-auto interest groups often portray these supplements as highway subsidies. But they would not be necessary if Congress weren’t diverting 20 percent of gas tax revenues to transit. Although more money goes to highways than to transit, because highways are so much more heavily used, federal subsidies to transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways.

The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.

We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion on transit since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (=op costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

(By the way, APTA responded to my statement that virtually all of the growth in ridership in 2013 took place in New York City, saying, “That statement is not true… . Many other systems across the country saw ridership gains last year.” But I never said that every single transit system outside of New York declined, only that the sum total, minus New York, declined, which is easily verified from APTA’s own data.)

APTA is correct that transit ridership bottomed out in 1995, at least according to its numbers. (Federal Transit Administration numbers are a little different and show ridership bottoming out in 1993.) But it is a stretch to say that subsidies are responsible for the growth in ridership since 1995 (or ‘93). Both operating and capital subsidies to transit have grown steadily since the mid 1960s, but ridership hasn’t always followed.

In particular, ridership declined through 1972 to about 6.6 million trips, then increased through 1980 to about 8.5 million trips, hovered around there for about a decade, then declined from 8.9 million trips in 1989 to 7.8 million trips in 1995, then increased to 10.5 million trips in 2008, and has hovered around there since then. If increased subsidies were responsible for the increase after 1995, why didn’t increased subsidies lead to increased ridership between 1965 and 1972 or between 1989 and 1995?

Transit Spending Slows Urban Growth

Contrary to the claims of many transit advocates, regions that spend more money on transit seem to grow slower than regions that spend less. The fastest-growing urban areas of the country tend to offer transit service mainly to people who lack access to automobiles. Urban areas that seek to provide high-cost transit services, such as trains, in order to attract people out of their cars, tend to grow far slower.

Transit advocates often argue that a particular city or region must spend more on urban transit in order to support the growth of that region. To test that claim, I downloaded the latest historic data files from the National Transit Database, specifically the capital funding and service data and operating expenses by mode time series. These files list which urbanized area each transit agency primarily serves, so it was easy to compare these data with Census Bureau population data from 1990, 2000, and 2010.

The transit data include capital and operating expenses for all years from 1991 through 2011. I decided to compare the average of 1991 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 1990s, and the average of 2001 through 2010 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2010s. In case there is a delayed response, I also compared the average of 1990 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2000s. Although it shouldn’t matter too much, I used GNP deflators to convert all costs to 2012 dollars.

Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008

The lies begin right in the headline of the American Public Transportation Association’s annual press release patting the industry on the back for carrying heavily subsidized riders last year. “Record 10.5 Billion Trips Taken On U.S. Public Transportation In 2012,” claims the press release headline.

Privatize or Contract Out?

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.

High-Speed Federalism Fight

In October, I speculated that the upcoming elections could be the nail in the coffin for the Obama administration’s plan for a nationwide system of high-speed rail. Indeed, some notable gubernatorial candidates who ran, in part, on opposition to federal subsidies for HSR in their states proceeded to win.

Subscribe to RSS - transit