New York City’s Only Hope

Back in 2010, when the Federal Transit Administration admitted that the transit industry had a $78 billion maintenance backlog, America’s largest transit system seemed to be in the best shape of those with legacy (older than 40 years) rail lines. Having undergone its own crisis in the 1970s, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority appeared to be adequately funded and was not suffering the huge problems faced by transit agencies in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington.

No more. While Boston, Chicago, and Washington transit systems are worse than ever (and Philadelphia’s is only slightly better off), New York’s subways seem poised to catch up. According to Streetsblog, between November, 2012 and November, 2016, weekday subway delays grew by 322 percent.

To be fair, one month (November) is probably not a long enough period to measure a trend. Comparing MTA’s February 2012 and 2017 performance reports, the subway’s on-time record fell from 85.4 percent in 2011 to 66.8 percent in 2016. Part of the cause is an increasing failure rate of MTA’s rolling stock, which grew from one failure every 172,700 miles in 2011 to one every 112,200 miles in 2016. Both of those numbers indicate serious problems. On top of this, most of the subway system’s escalators and elevators are also out of service. Continue reading

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FTA New Starts Report for 2018

The Federal Transit Administration released is annual recommendations for 2018 federal capital grants to local transit projects, a.k.a. New Starts report. Usually, the report went through all sorts of gyrations rating each projects by various criteria.

This year, the criteria, or rather criterion, was simple. Had the FTA already agreed to fund the project with what is known as a full-funding grant agreement, or FFGA? If yes, then the project would be funded. If no, it would not be funded.

Yet a footnote indicated two exceptions: “The FFGA for the Caltrain Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project is planned to be signed shortly and the Maryland National Capital Purple Line FFGA remains under review due to pending litigation.” Yet neither of these exceptions should be made. Continue reading

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Administration Blinks in Budget Showdown

The Trump administration released its proposed 2018 budget yesterday to great fanfare and gnashing of teeth over proposed cuts to the so-called safety net. The truth is that the document released yesterday actually has less information in it than the budget blueprint that was released a couple of months ago.

More significant is the decision of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to provide $647 million of the $1.75 billion needed to electrify commuter trains in San Francisco, a project opposed by every Republican member of Congress from California. The Caltrains commuter trains carry just 4 percent of San Francisco Bay Area transit riders, and the environmental assessment for the project predicts (on page 3-159) that, by slightly speeding trains, electrification will increase ridership by less than 10 percent. The project will be completed in 2021, just about the time that shared, self-driving cars start to take away far more riders than electrification could ever hope to add.

Caltrains electrification is just one of nearly two dozen transit projects funded in the recent 2017 appropriations bill that have no full-funding grant agreements, and Trump’s budget blueprint proposed to sign no more such agreements. The other projects are just as ridiculous as Caltrains, but unlike Caltrains many actually have the support of local Republicans. Now that Chao has caved on Caltrains, how is she going to be able to resist funding the other projects? Continue reading

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Transit Crime

Is there an upsurge in crime on and around transit, and if so, why? A few days ago, a Portland woman was stabbed at a light-rail stop, supposedly by a complete stranger. The very next day, a remarkably similar report came out of Tempe, Arizona, except in this case police said the victim and alleged perpetrator were acquaintances.

A month ago, a gang of at least 40 teenagers boarded a BART train and, while some held the doors to prevent the train from leaving the station, robbed seven passengers and beat up two or more who refused to cooperate. Continue reading

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Sometimes the Answer Is “Yes”

As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?

The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.

Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading

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Making the Problem Worse

Oregon is responding to its housing affordability crisis by doing all the wrong things. The crisis is due to a shortage in supply which in turn is due to urban-growth boundaries.

So the legislature legalized inclusionary zoning ordinances and Portland passed one. Such ordinances require developers to provide a certain percent of the homes they build to low-income people at below-market rates. In response, developers are building fewer homes, exacerbating the supply problem. City officials “hope the slowdown is temporary,” but that hasn’t proven to be the case in other cities that passed inclusionary zoning ordinances.

Now the state legislature is considering a bill to provide $5 million to help first-time home buyers make down payments on homes. This will have the effect of increasing demand, which will only drive up prices even more. Continue reading

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How About Just Tear Them Down

Business Insider must have been channeling some urban planning magazine last week when it asked what could be done with the hundreds of shopping malls suffering from the great retail apocalypse caused by Amazon and other on-line retailers. The publication’s answers leaned heavily to uses that need government subsidies, including art galleries, classrooms, community gathering spaces, indoor farms, farmers markets, public libraries, public walkways, and other public spaces.

The Antiplanner remembers when Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, decided it needed new office space, so it bought a former Sears Roebucks building. It could have torn down the building and built a new one for $15 million. But to prove its commitment to reuse and recycling, it converted the existing Sears store into an office building. The cost? $30 million.

The humorous postscript was that the Sears building was so old that its toilets had never been hooked up into Portland’s sewer system. For years after Metro–the agency whose mission was to protect the region’s water, air, and land–moved in, it was dumping raw human sewage into the Willamette River. If they had simply replaced the building, they would have discovered the need for hook ups right away. Continue reading

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The Antiplanner’s Library: Bike Battles

University of Wisconsin historian James Longhurst has written a book about the history of conflicts over cyclists’ rights to use the road. As Longhurst points out, cycling has gone through a number of “booms,” starting in the late nineteenth century, then during World War II, later with the growth of environmentalism in the 1970s, and most recently in the last few years. As a cyclist myself, I was familiar with most of this history except for the WWII part, and as near as I can tell Longhurst’s account is accurate.

However, as illustrated in the video below, Longhurst approaches the debate as an environmental issue, which leads him in the wrong direction. Treating cycling as an environmental issue leads to the conclusion that bicycles are morally superior to automobiles because they use less energy and pollute less. That leads to demands that cyclists be allowed special rights, such as the right to unnecessarily block traffic or use the middle of a lane even if it slows auto traffic. Continue reading

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Who Is to Blame for Downtown Sacramento?

If anywhere is a poster child for the effects of light rail on economic development, it is downtown Sacramento. Sacramento was one of the first American cities to build a modern light-rail line, opening its original 10-mile line in 1987 just a year after Portland’s. Since then it has extended that line and built two more, all of which go downtown, for a total system that is 45 miles long (compared with 60 miles in Portland).

Downtown Sacramento is mostly low-rise buildings with a few scattered high rises. Flickr photo by Sacramento Real Estate Photography.

As the capital of the nation’s most populous and possibly richest state, Sacramento is no small town. The urban area had 1.8 million people in 2015, slightly less than Portland and slightly more than San Jose. The city itself had half a million people, more than Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis. Continue reading

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Wave Bye-Bye

One of the projects likely to die if Congress doesn’t overrule Trump’s plan to stop funding new rail transit projects is the Wave, a 2.8-mile long streetcar line proposed by Broward County for downtown Fort Lauderdale. In order to assess the impacts of Trump’s proposal on Fort Lauderdale, the Antiplanner reviewed the environmental assessment (EA) and other documents for the Wave.

For $200 million, Broward County can buy five streetcars like this one and build 2.8 miles of track for them to run on plus a maintenance facility. The county would also have to pay nearly $4.9 million per year operating the streetcars every 7-1/2 minutes. Wikimedia commons photo by Cacophony.

Broward County wants to build the Wave because it believes it will stimulate economic development in downtown Fort Lauderdale, an area that is in the midst of a development boom without the streetcar. According to the EA, the transportation benefits of the streetcar are only about 20 percent of the costs, but the EA claims that the economic development benefits will make up the difference. Continue reading

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