Today, Denver’s Regional Transit District is celebrating the opening of a new 10.5-mile light-rail line in Aurora, Denver’s largest suburb. Part of the only planned rail route in Denver that isn’t focused on downtown, the line–which holds the distinction of already having killed a pedestrian before it even opened–is supposed to allow people at the Denver Tech Center, a large employment center in south Denver, to get to the airport without going all the way downtown first.
The green dashed line, known as the R line, opens today. Click image for a larger view.
The problem with this idea is that light rail is s l o w. The new line will average 16.5 miles per hour. Getting from Belleview, one of the Tech Center stations, to the airport by rail transit will require a change of trains in Peoria. The R-line is expected to take 45 minutes to get from Belleview to Peoria, and the A-line takes another 21 minutes from Peoria to the airport. Add to that up to an hour of wait time–both trains operate on 15-minute headways during rush hour and every 30 minutes the rest of the day–and you have a trip that can’t compete with driving, which takes just 26 minutes from the Tech Center to the airport. Plus, the Tech Center is so large that many offices are not within easy walking distance of a light-rail stop.
The Antiplanner has been writing about Washington Metro’s downward spiral for nearly two years, but the end may be in sight. According to Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, after 2018, “the game’s over.” Or, as Metro board chair Jack Evans says, if the problems aren’t solved by then, “the only option I see is to cut back on service enormously.”
That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Census data indicate that, in 1970 before any Metro lines were built, 17.61 percent of DC-area commuters took transit to work–virtually all on buses. In 2015, between buses, Metro rail, and Maryland and Virginia commuter rail lines, transit’s share was 17.58 percent. In the years since 1970 in which the census has surveyed people (every decennial census and every year since 2005), the highest it has ever been was 17.70 percent in 2005. So going back to buses wouldn’t need to reduce transit ridership. Since bus riders don’t have to worry about broken rails or smoke in the tunnels, replacing trains with buses might even increase ridership.
All of the delays suffered by passengers so Metro can do maintenance hasn’t seemed to improve reliability. Just a few days ago, trains on three lines were delayed so much that one rider tweeted, “An hour and 45 min into my @wmata commute, I’m finally BACK WHERE I STARTED! Gave up and went home.”
Washington DC’s H Street streetcar has failed in just about every way possible. The 2.2-mile line cost $200 million, which is enough to build ten to twenty miles of four-lane freeway; it opened years behind schedule; and–despite being free “for a limited time”–it carries a paltry 2,400 people per weekday, which in a sane world wouldn’t be enough to sustain a bus line, much less a more-expensive streetcar. Now, the city has decided to extend that “limited time” for four more years out of a fear that charging a fare would turn away the few riders they now have. Officials were acutely aware that Atlanta’s streetcar patronage fell by nearly 50 percent when it started charging a dollar fare.
Despite these problems, the city is still considering extending the streetcar line. One of the arguments for doing so, in fact, is that if the line is long enough, they might actually attract enough patrons to charge a fare.
But isn’t the streetcar stimulating economic development? Hardly. H Street was revitalizing itself long before the streetcar opened. No doubt streetcar advocates will pat themselves on the back because a Whole Foods is opening on the streetcar line next month. But the company signed the lease to move in back in 2013, well before the streetcar opened. Some will say this was in anticipation of the streetcar, but I suspect the company, all of whose urban stores are located next to parking garages, was more motivated by the fact that its customers would have 199 underground parking spaces available for their use. As any commercial realtor knows, parking, not transit, drives retail.
Speaking of congestion (as the Antiplanner was yesterday), a new congestion scorecard from Inrix estimates that congestion cost America $295 billion in 2016, which is more than 1.5 percent of 2016 GDP. Where the Texas Transportation Institute’s previous estimates of congestion costs counted only the cost to commuters, Inrix adds costs to consumers who must pay more due to freight trucks sitting in traffic.
Press reports indicate that Inrix’s found that Los Angeles is the most congested urban area in the world. But that was only by one measure and not necessarily the most important one. According to the full report, New York City had the most costly congestion, the most-heavily congested individual highway, and the highest congestion on arterials and city streets. While Los Angeles congestion cost $2,400 per driver for a regional total of just under $10 billion, New York congestion cost well over $2,500 per driver for a regional total of nearly $17 billion.
We can quibble over who is number one, but the point is that the real cost of congestion is almost twice as much as previous estimates (the last estimate by the Texas Transportation Institute was $160 billion) and growing fast. The Inrix scorecard ranks congestion in more than one thousand urban areas worldwide, and nearly every major urban area in the United States significantly rose in international rankings since 2015. That means our congestion is worsening faster than in other countries.
Good news: The United States had 56,000 structurally deficient bridges in 2016. That’s good news because the number in 2015 was nearly 59,000. In fact, the number has declined in every year since 1992 (the earliest year for which records are available), when it was 124,000.
The American Road and Transportation Builders thinks 2016’s number is a good reason to jump on the trillion-dollar infrastructure bandwagon in the hope that federal funds will be available to enrich its members. But this is a problem that is solving itself without any new federal programs.
The bad news is that highway fatalities in 2016 grew to more than 40,000, at least as reckoned by the National Safety Council. NSC’s numbers are about 7.5 percent higher than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s because the latter only counts deaths that take place immediately after accidents, but still this is a cause for alarm because as it indicates a 15 percent since 2011, or about 5,000 people a year.
A new paper with the above title by urban economists Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko provides more evidence to back up the Antiplanner’s recent paper on the New Feudalism. One of the major points of that paper was that the Obama administration’s plan to force suburbs to relax zoning codes to allow higher density housing is not the solution to housing affordability problems.
Glaeser and Gyourko point out that housing is affordable in most of the country despite zoning. In some parts of the country, however, “property rights have essentially been reassigned from existing land owners to wider communities, which have chosen to substantially reduce the amount of new building.” The result is that the supply curve for housing, which is nearly horizontal (meaning changes in demand have little effect on prices) in communities with traditional zoning, becomes very steep in the overly regulated communities (meaning small changes in demand can result in large changes in prices, i.e., prices will be more volatile).
Glaser & Gyourko make one interesting point that I had not raised. One of the impediments to housing production in California is a state environmental quality act that requires developers to assess the local environmental impacts of new housing. The result is that little new housing has been built in California, forcing people to move to places like Arizona and Texas. But California’s temperate climate means that greenhouse gas emissions there are far lower than in interior states. “If California’s restrictions induce more building in Texas and Arizona, which require far more artificial cooling,” says the paper, “then their net environmental [effects] could be negative in aggregate.”
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner reviewed the proposed Texas Central high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston and concluded it was not viable. Last week, the Reason Foundation released a much-more detailed review that reaches the same conclusion.
Reason’s report notes that Texas Central officials claim they won’t need any subsidies, but still plan to ask the federal government for government-guaranteed low-interest loans. While Reason joins with the Antiplanner in supporting private rail projects, the desire for government-backed loans, says Reason, makes it “critical to assess the viability of this project.”
Reason’s assessment concludes that Texas Central officials have overestimated ridership and underestimated costs. As a result, ticket revenues are likely to fall almost $100 million per year short of operations & maintenance costs. Of course, that means there would be nothing left over to repay the government-guaranteed loans, so lenders would be out about $18 billion. That’s based on a construction cost of at least $20 million per mile based on the fact that the only high-speed rail lines that have been built for less had cheap or free right of way. Since the line in Texas would go over mostly private land, the right of way isn’t likely to be cheap.
Yesterday, the Antiplanner noted that APTA has published its third quarter ridership report for 2016. The report shows that, nationwide, transit ridership was 2.9 percent less than the same quarter in 2015. Heavy-rail ridership fell by 2.5% and bus by 4.4%, while light rail grew by 4.1% and commuter rail by 0.5%.
In addition to Washington, DC, where heavy rail fell by 13.5 percent, some of the biggest heavy-rail losers include Baltimore, which also declined by 13.5 percent; Atlanta (-9%); San Juan (-8%); and Miami (-5%). Ridership grew in a few places, but that growth was swamped by the 1.4% decline on the New York City subway, which is by far the largest heavy-rail operator in the country.
The main reason light rail grew was the opening of new lines in Seattle and New Orleans, both of which saw growth of around 60 percent, as well as Los Angeles, which saw a 12 percent gain. Light-rail ridership also grew significantly in Baltimore (15%), Boston (13%), and Phoenix (+14%), but light-rail suffered declines of 5 percent or more in Buffalo (-15%), Dallas (-6%), Norfolk (-7%), Pittsburgh (-9%), Sacramento (-9%), San Jose (-12%), and St. Louis (-6%).
Third-quarter 2016 ridership on the DC Metro rail system was 13.5 percent less than in 2015, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s recently released ridership report. Of course, the Metro had frequent delays due to the “surge” maintenance work, but many of the riders lost may never come back.
More immediately, lower ridership means lower revenues, and that means Metro is forced to consider cuts to both rail and bus service. To fill in the gaps, Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has proposed to apply some of the federal dollars that are supposed to be dedicated to capital improvements to operating costs instead.
Worse, the agency’s inability to fix its poor safety record has led the Federal Transit Administration to punish it by reducing federal support by 5 percent. Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but when you are in a deep financial hole with a $6.7 billion maintenance backlog, every dollar counts.
One of the many proposed rules published a few days before President Trump took office was a mandate that all cars built after 2020 come with dedicated shortrange radio communications (DSRC) so that they can talk with one another. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this rule will “prevent hundreds of thousands of crashes.” The rule is downloadable as a 166-page Federal Register document or a slightly more readable 392-page paper.
The mandate would add about $300 to the cost of every car, or several billion dollars a year. The radios would not add much weight to the cars, but once most cars have them the collective weight would increase fuel consumption by more than 30 million gallons a year.
In exchange for these costs, NHTSA estimates that the rule will save 23 to 31 lives by 2025. These numbers are small because the benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications are nil unless both vehicles in a potential communication have them. Since the average car on the road is more than 11 years old, it will take about that many years before most cars have V2V and many more years before nearly all cars have it. Yet even by 2060, NHTSA projects the technology will save only 987 to 1,365 lives.