In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and profitable), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, and taxpayers had spent well over a trillion dollars improving and operating urban transit systems. Yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.
The share of households that owns no vehicles has declined from 22 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today, while the share owning three or more vehicles has grown from 3 percent to 20 percent.
Although 7.76 million isn’t a few, commuting is only a small share of the travel people do. In 2014, Americans drove 5.1 billion miles a day in urban areas, which (at 1.67 people per car) works out to 3.1 trillion passenger miles per year. The 57 billion passenger miles carried by urban transit was just 1.8 percent of the total. Add walking, cycling, motorcycles, and other forms of travel, and transit’s share is even smaller.
After more than a year of shut-downs, slow-downs, and break-downs, the Washington Metro rail system still faces a huge maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, rail opponents in Hawaii placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post begging President Trump to cancel funding for that city’s increasingly expensive rail project.
Click image to download a PDF of this ad.
The 20-mile Honolulu line was originally projected to cost $2.8 billion. Then it rose to $3.0 billion. By the time construction began, the projected cost rose to $5.1 billion. Now, the Federal Transit Administration says the final cost may be more than $10 billion. Although the agency denies the cost will be that high, it admits it doesn’t have enough money to finish the project. The federal government agreed to cover $1.5 billion and has paid half of that. The ad implores Trump not to pay the other half.
In 2015, the American Public Transportation Association issued a press release whose headline claimed that transit ridership in 2014 achieved a new record. However, the story revealed that 2014 ridership was the highest since 1956. That’s no more a record than if it was the highest since 2013.
The truth is that America’s urban population more than doubled between 1956 and 2014. Using the ridership number that really counts–trips per urban resident–2014’s number was a near-record low of 41 trips per person. The only time it was lower before 2014 was a few years in the mid-1990s, when ridership dropped to as low as 38 trips per person. The rate may fall to nearly that level in 2016.
Fifty-three years ago, the transit industry was mostly private and earned a net profit. Today, it’s almost entirely publicly owned, and subsidies have grown out of control. It’s time to take a stand and say all transportation subsidies are bad, but transit subsidies are the worst.
The National Transit Database says agencies spent more than $64 billion in 2015 yet collected less than $16 billion in fares. They carried about 55 billion passenger miles, for an average cost of $1.15 per passenger mile, of which 87 cents was subsidized. No other major mode of passenger transportation is anywhere near this expensive.
Americans spent about $1.1 trillion buying, operating, repairing, and insuring cars and light trucks in 2015, but they also drove their autos nearly 2.8 trillion miles. At average auto occupancies of 1.67 people (see table 16), that’s 4.6 trillion passenger miles by auto, for an average cost of about 24 cents per passenger mile. We don’t have 2015 data yet, but in 2014, government agencies spent about $72 billion subsidizing roads (add the $98 billion in “other taxes and fees” to the minus $10 billion in “less amount for nonhighway purposes” and the minus $16 billion for “less amount for mass transportation”).
After holding a final public hearing last night, officials in Durham, North Carolina will probably decide next week to build a $3.3 billion ($2.4 billion construction plus $900 million interest on debt) light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. It is hard to imagine any place that is more poorly suited for rail transit.
The region’s population density is less than 2,000 people per square mile. Except for the universities, there are no real concentrations of jobs. The biggest job center in the region, Research Triangle Park, has about 50,000 jobs spread out over 11 square miles, but it isn’t even on the proposed light-rail line. To make matters worse, the proposed 17.7-mile rail route is so circuitous that someone on a fat-tire bicycle could probably beat the train by taking a shorter route.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was pleased to announce last week that it would not be delaying any rush-hour trains due to maintenance work for a few days. However, starting this week, rush-hour frequencies on the Yellow Green Lines would be reduced by 20 to 50 percent, and part of the Green Line will be completely shut down for two weeks.
All of which has just become business as usual in Washington. The real news is that WMATA plans to raise fares and cut service by up to 25 percent on July 1. Rush-hour fares will go up a dime, non-rush-hour by a quarter, and trains will stop running at 11:30 pm most days, instead of the current 12:30 am.
The big cut, however, will be to rush-hour service. Trains that now operate 10 times an hour will be cut back to 7.5 times an hour, effectively a 25 percent cut in service. Passengers can therefore expect a 33 percent increasing in crowding. Or, more likely, the system will lose even more riders.
The reason why you don’t have to file your income taxes until tomorrow, April 18 this year is that today is a holiday in the District of Columbia (which means DC IRS workers get the day off) to celebrate the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862. Under this law, Congress appropriated a million dollars to buy DC slaves for $300 each, thus freeing 3,185 slaves.
Britain had freed slaves without violence in 1834 through compensated emancipation. Abraham Lincoln had long supported the idea of compensated emancipation, having introduced a bill for it during his time in Congress in 1847-1848. Robert E. Lee and many other Virginians also supported the idea.
The objections came from abolitionists, who felt slavery was immoral and slaveholders shouldn’t be compensated, and from slaveowners in the deep South, where cotton was a primary crop and cotton picking was such an undesirable job that they feared they could only produce it with slavery. Someone patented a mechanical cotton picker in 1850, but apparently it didn’t work very well for mechanical pickers didn’t replace humans for another hundred years.
While the Antiplanner was preparing to take Amtrak trains from Portland to Washington, DC, Amtrak was suffering from a spate of derailments, one near Chicago Union Station on March 26 and two in New York’s Penn Station on March 24 and April 3. Moreover, Amtrak now admits that it knew about the defective track that led to the Penn Station derailments, and didn’t fix it because it didn’t realize how serious the problem was.
Tracks are held in place by ties that were once all made of wood but that lately have been made of concrete. The Penn Station tracks still had wood ties, and an assessment before the accident found that some of the ties were partly rotted away. Replacing ties is difficult on heavily used rail lines, so Amtrak didn’t replace them right away, a mistake that led Amtrak’s CEO to make a public apology.
The accidents led New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to withhold state funds that New Jersey Transit pays to Amtrak to run its trains on Amtrak’s tracks. I suppose if I were paying money for a service, I would withhold funds if the service turned out to be unsafe. But Amtrak needs money to replace ties, so withholding funds might be the wrong solution in the long run.
After traveling three days and three nights in coach, I treated myself to a sleeping car on the last leg of my journey to Washington, DC. Most Amtrak sleeping cars have a shower and I appreciated using it after having slept in my clothes for three nights. The sleeping room was clean and everything was functional, but it was, of course, very small. I also noticed that all of the seats in the Sightseer Lounge car swiveled, so I guess the ones on the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr were just rusted in place after all.
Given that the East has a lot more people than the West, you’d think Amtrak would have more trains connecting the East Coast with the Midwest. In fact, there are the same number of trains from the nation’s heartland to the West Coast as there are to the East Coast, which is four–or or three-and-a-half since one on each side of the country goes just three days a week. The eastern trains are the Lakeshore Limited from Chicago to New York and Boston; the Capital Limited from Chicago to DC, the Crescent from New York to New Orleans, and and the three-day-a-week Cardinal from Chicago to both New York and Washington. The Cardinal must attract mainly local traffic as it takes nearly 24 hours to go to DC and 28 to New York compared with 17 to DC on the Capital Limited and 19 to New York on the Lakeshore.
The original California Zephyr had five dome cars and was timed to allow passengers to see the best scenery in the Sierra Nevada and Colorado mountains in the daytime and to pass through the relatively boring deserts and prairies at night. Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge car, shown below, is no dome car, but at least the timing has been retained. The Sierras were particularly impressive this trip as there was still a lot of snow.
The problem with the Sightseer Lounge is that, unlike a dome car, it is really hard to see out of both sides from any given seat and, of course, you can’t see in front of you at all. To make matters worse, all but two of the chairs have been bolted in place so that they don’t swivel, which everyone wants to do as the scenery goes by or switches from one side to another. The same thing was true on the Coast Starlight lounge car, so it appears to have been planned rather than just a rusting of some of the swivel chairs.