Reducing the Costs of the Purple Line

Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan has said he would approve the costly Purple Line light-rail project provided the cost could be “dramatically” reduced. In response, the Antiplanner presents this modest proposal.

The proposal calls for using buses instead of rail, which reduces costs by 98 percent. The resulting bus service would be far more frequent than rail, should be as fast or faster (which isn’t hard because the rail line would average less than 15.5 mph), and would have lower operating costs and far lower maintenance costs. The same analysis would apply to Baltimore’s proposed Red Line, but the Antiplanner hasn’t worked up the numbers in detail.

While the rail project would significantly increase traffic congestion, the state could spend 1 or 2 percent more of the savings from canceling rail on things like traffic signal coordination and other intersection improvements that would relieve congestion for everyone, rather than just a few transit riders. The result is a win for taxpayers, a win for transit riders, a win for commuters, and a loss for rail contractors.


Spend More or Less on Infrastructure?

USA Today thinks the federal government needs to spend more on infrastructure. An opposing view suggests that most of any spending increases would go for unnecessary new projects, not for repair of existing infrastructure.

Certainly, something must be done about the impasse over the federal transportation bill. But increased spending isn’t necessarily the solution; we first need to make sure that the money that is being spent is going to the right places.


Two-Month Extension for Highways/Transit

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. Compounding this was a decision in 1998 to mandate that spending equal to the projected growth in fuel taxes. When fuel tax revenues stopped growing in 2007, spending did not, with the result that annual spending is now about $13 billion more than revenues.

Under Congressional rules, Congress must find a revenue source to cover that deficit. The Antiplanner’s 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 as 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.

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Purple Line Decision Near

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan says the $150-million-per-mile cost of the proposed Purple light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton is “not acceptable.” The Maryland Department of Transportation thinks that it can reduce the cost by 10 percent, but that probably isn’t enough, considering that Hogan wants it to be “dramatically lower.” Hogan promises to make a decision in the next month.

Before he does, the Antiplanner thinks he should know that, no matter how much the planners say it will cost, it always costs more. From that view, a 10 percent reduction probably means 30 percent more than the current projected cost.

Instead of building light rail, Maryland could just run buses. The Antiplanner estimates that a fleet of 70 buses could provide service every two minutes in each direction. If buses operated on this schedule during rush hours and at half that frequency during off-peak hours and on weekends and holidays, they could carry as many people as the 69,000 that light rail is optimistically projected to carry at a lower operating cost and for about 2 percent of the start-up cost of light rail. Would a 98 percent reduction in costs be dramatic enough for the governor?


This Is Why You Should Give Amtrak More of Your Money

An Amtrak locomotive caught fire yesterday on its way from Chicago to Milwaukee. Fortunately, all 51 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.

At about the time the locomotive was burning, a reporter was telling the Antiplanner that “everyone” in Washington was saying that the Philadelphia accident proves that Amtrak needs more money. No doubt the Wisconsin incident will add fuel to this fire.

But go back and read the first paragraph: There were only 51 passengers on this train. All of them could have fit on one motorcoach, many of which have 52 to 57 seats (and Megabus’s double-decker buses have 80 seats). The Horizon coaches used on this train typically have 60 seats, which means the train was less than one-sixth full. According to Amtrak’s performance report for fiscal year 2014, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains filled an average of 36 percent of their seats in 2014, or less than two Megabuses.

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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 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 realize 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?

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Thanks, New Balance

Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is $9 billion in debt. It has at least a $3 billion maintenance backlog. It must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing, but its maintenance budget this year is just $100 million. So when Boston shoemaker New Balance said that it was willing to spend $16 million building a new commuter rail station next to its headquarters, and to pay to maintain that station for the next decade, Boston transit officials were overjoyed.

The Atlantic calls this a public-private partnership. While it might be considered appropriate that employers help pay for transit stops that serve their employees, there’s another question no one else seems to be asking: how much will the transit line to serve this stop cost taxpayers?

The station is on a transit line that recently has had poor commuter-rail service because the passenger trains conflict with freight trains. In 2011, the state had to pay CSX $100 million to move most of its freight trains elsewhere. Since then, the state has spent more than $40 million upgrading the line. While New Balance might pay to maintain the station, taxpayers will have to pay to operate trains on the route.

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You’ll Have to Build It to Find out the Cost

California Representative Nancy Pelosi famously told Congress it would have to pass the Obamacare bill to find out what it said. Now California officials are telling residents they will have to spend tens of billions of dollars building the San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed rail line to find out how much a ticket will cost. As one official says, “We will not know until late in the game [meaning after the line is built] how everything will turn out.”

On one hand, all of the ticket prices quoted to date–which range from $50 to $105 a ticket–are based not on rail costs but on airline prices: the quoted fares are set to be below, and supposedly competitive with, airfares. On the other hand, the ballot measure approved by voters in 2008 requires that fares cover operating costs–and proponents claimed that the trains would earn such a large operating profit that private investors would willingly put up billions in exchange for being able to keep those profits.

The high-speed rail authority projects that the line will attract 18 million to 31 million riders a year and, at the currently projected ticket price of $86 from LA to San Francisco, would earn $700 million more per year than its operating costs. Yet even the low figure of 18 million is unrealistically high. In 2014, Amtrak attracted fewer than 12 million riders on its Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor, which has more people today than the California corridor will have in 2030. While Amtrak’s trains aren’t as fast as the California rail line might be (although it won’t reach its full promised speed until sometime after 2040), the Northeast Corridor is anchored by the New York urban area’s 19 million people. By comparison, the middle of the California route is Fresno with fewer than 700,000 people. That means most of the trips in the Northeast Corridor are less than 250 miles long, while most in the California corridor would have to be much longer for it to be a success.

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Paying for Rail Transit

Last week, San Antonio voters overwhelming approved of a measure forbidding the city’s transit agency from building any rail transit lines without voter approval. While that seems like a no brainer, opponents contended that it was unfair to single out rail transit for such a measure just because rail cost 50 to 100 times as much as bus transit.

Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is still trying to decide whether to cancel the $2.5 billion Purple Line (not to mention Baltimore’s $3 billion Red Line). Rail supporters were disappointed that he cut tolls on bridges and toll roads, since they figured that any surplus tolls should have gone to their pet project.

Rail supporters are claiming that the evil Cato Institute is leading a major campaign to undermine their plans. In fact, with the exception of the Antiplanner and maybe one other person, no one at Cato has put much thought into the Purple Line, as they are working on such relatively trivial things as reducing conflict in the Mideast, improving health care, and keeping government from watching everything we do.

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Portland’s Housing Future

The Antiplanner spent yesterday in the Portland, visiting the neighborhood where I grew up and seeing the new homes springing up in people’s backyards, sideyards, frontyards, and just about anywhere where there is a little open space. Portland planners say that 55 percent of new homes built in the next two decades will be multifamily or single-family attached homes (row houses). If the single-family homes being built in my old neighborhood are good examples of the kind of single-family planners want for the remaining 45 percent, they won’t be any more attractive than the 55 percent.

Economist Bill Reid argues that Metro planners are greatly overestimating the desire for multifamily housing. Based on a survey published by Metro itself, Reid predicts that Metro’s plans will result in a shortfall of more than 40,000 single-family detached homes. Unfortunately, Reid’s study doesn’t seem to be available on line, but it is described in this Portland Tribune article.

Predictably, one of the comments on the Portland Tribune article lauds Metro and urban-growth boundaries for protecting Oregon from becoming like “overcrowded California.” In fact, these policies are deliberately designed to turn Portland into another overcrowded California urban area.

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