Happy Thanksgiving; Travel Safe

The Antiplanner remembers a time when trains were about the safest way to travel. Today, it’s U.S. commercial airlines, which have carried close to five trillion passenger miles since 2010 without a single fatal accident. Amtrak, which carries about 1 percent as many passenger miles as the airlines, has an average of about eight passenger fatalities per year, or a little more than one per billion passenger miles. The occupants of automobiles suffer about four fatalities per billion passenger miles, with rural roads being more dangerous than urban ones.

However you decide to travel, the Antiplanner wishes you the best this holiday weekend.

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Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?

The collective stupidity of politicians and transportation agencies can be breathtaking. As of 2015, Boston’s transit system had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. But, instead of fixing it, the MBTA has been busy planning — and planning — and planning — a new rail line it won’t be able to maintain, the Green Line extension to Medford, Massachusetts.

Planning began, in fact, before 2005, which is the date of the project’s major investment study, which projected that it would cost $390 million. There’s been a little cost escalation since then: it is now up to $2.3 billion. That money could have done a lot to reduce the maintenance backlog.

Did I mention that the new line uses the right of way of an existing commuter rail line? Even with free right of way, it will cost $621 million a mile. And that doesn’t count all of the tens of millions spent on planning for more than a dozen years. Continue reading

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Making Both Autos and Highways Safer

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes that “America is now an outlier on driving deaths.” He is partly right and partly wrong.

He is right that auto fatality rates per billion vehicle miles in the United States are a little higher than in many other countries and that highway safety has grown in other countries faster than in the U.S. But this is because roads elsewhere were far more dangerous than they have been in the United States for a long time. The reality is that other countries have caught up with the U.S., not that the U.S. has fallen behind.

For example, according to data published by the OECD, in 1990 Austria suffered 32 deaths per billion vehicle kilometers compared with just 13 in the U.S. By 2014, Austria’s fatalities had fallen to 5.4, while the U.S. had fallen to 6.7. Yes, Austria’s had fallen more but only because they were so bad in the first place. Continue reading

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St. Louis Streetcar Broke Before It Begins

St. Louis has spent $51 million building a 2.1-mile streetcar line that may never run because the company hired to operate it is almost out of money. In 2015, St. Louis County gave $3 million to the Loop Trolley Company, which the company used to hire managers, drivers, and other employees to run the trolleys that were supposed to begin operation in spring, 2016.

However, the start of operations has been repeatedly delayed, most recently to mid-winter, 2018. Now the trolley company says it will be out of money before it can start, and it is demanding another $500,000 before a single streetcar turns a wheel in revenue service.

At the other end of the state, the Kansas City streetcar was supposed to have been a great success, carrying an average of 5,843 trips per day, but that’s because it is free. The Loop Trolley Company expects to charge $2 per two-hour period. That’s in the range of the Little Rock streetcar, which carried 153 trips per weekday in 2016, or the Tampa streetcar, which carried 645 trips per weekday. These two lines each cost taxpayers more than a million dollars a year to operate. Continue reading

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Affordable Is Not the Same as Affordability

Too much housing news is based on the failure to distinguish between affordable housing and housing affordability. Affordable housing is government-subsidized housing for low-income people. Housing affordability is the general level of housing prices relative to the general level of household or family incomes, often measured by dividing median home prices by median family incomes.

Areas where housing is affordable, such as Dallas or Raleigh, may still need some affordable housing for very poor people. But areas where housing is not affordable, such as Portland or San Francisco, will not solve their housing affordability problems by building more affordable housing. Despite this, politicians, reporters, and editors all promote more affordable housing to address housing affordability issues.

The San Jose Mercury News, for example, accuses Republicans of “sabotaging” the Bay Area’s affordable housing plans by cutting federal housing budgets. But the federal government didn’t impose urban-growth boundaries that have restricted development to 17 percent of the Bay Area, so why should federal taxpayers subsidize affordable housing that isn’t going to solve the region’s self-inflicted housing crisis? Continue reading

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Helping Low-Income People Reach Jobs

What is the best way to help low-income people — a group that disproportionately includes blacks and Latinos — get access to jobs? That question is certainly not answered by a report from left-wing think tank Demos. The report is aptly titled To Move Is to Thrive, but its subtitle, “Public Transit and Economic Opportunity for People of Color,” gives away its real agenda: more subsidies to the transit industry.

Written by Algernon Austin, the author of America Is Not Post-Racial, the report observes that “people of color” are less likely to own cars and more likely to be transit-dependent than white people. But Austin ignores the obvious and best solution, which is to give low-income people (regardless of color) access to cars. Instead, his report promotes “transit-focused infrastructure projects” into minority neighborhoods.

Since 1970, this nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on transit infrastructure projects. These projects have been disproportionately directed towards middle-class neighborhoods because middle-class people are the ones who pay for them through their taxes and the ones whose political support is needed to build them. Continue reading

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Speed Bumps on the Road to Driverless Cars

A company called Navya introduced a driverless bus in Las Vegas, and within two hours it was involved in a traffic accident. A semi-truck was backing up and grazed the fender of the driverless bus. All the blame was placed on the truck driver, but you have to wonder if a human driver would have avoided the accident by backing out of the way.

Meanwhile, Waymo has been demonstrating its driverless technology, and is even running its cars on public roads without a back-up driver at the wheel (there is a back-up driver in the back seat, but that’s an inconvenient location if they needed to take over). One writer describe’s Waymo’s technology as “so good, it’s boring,” noting that it can deal with pedestrians, cyclists, and even squirrels running in front of the cars.

But a top Waymo engineer frets that bicycle riders are so unpredictable that they may need electronically connect to driverless cars to protect themselves. While such connections may be nothing more than a smart phone app, some gram-counting cyclists may resist carrying any extra weight. Continue reading

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LaHood’s DC Rx: Raise Bus Fares, Cut Service

Washington Metro should raise bus fares and cut service as a part of a plan to restore its rail system to its former greatness, recommends a report by former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood. The report hasn’t been released yet–in fact, it has apparently been sitting on the Virginia governor’s desk for several weeks–but the Washington Post obtained a copy just in time for the report to have no influence on Virginia’s recent election.

Parts of the report are predictable, such as a recommendation that Metro obtain a source of “dedicated funds,” meaning a tax dedicated to it so it won’t have to be responsive to local politicians. However, LaHood’s mandate was to come up with a specific funding source acceptable to regional political interests, and he failed to do so.

What was not predicted was a finding that Metro “offers more [vehicle-hours of] service per rider than other large transit agencies.” Based on this finding, LaHood recommended cutting back service. The report notes that service levels were “average when compared to peers” until the opening of the Silver Line led to increased service hours coinciding with a decline in ridership. Continue reading

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Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train

Transit ridership is declining nationwide, yet the mayors of Nashville and San Antonio want to build multi-billion-dollar light-rail projects, notes a commentary in the Wall Street Journal. It’s behind a paywall and I might have reprinted it here, but I signed a four-page agreement that the Journal would have exclusive rights to it for 30 days.

However, the article’s subheadline, which I didn’t write, sums it up perfectly: “Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade,” observed the headline writer. “Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.”

Within the 800 words allowed for an ordinary op-ed, there wasn’t room for a lot of other points:

  • the cost overruns;
  • the ridership overestimates;
  • the implicit racism in spending billions to attract a few white people out of their cars while cutting bus service to minority neighborhoods;
  • the way almost any transit that operates in or crosses streets adds more to congestion than it takes cars off the road;
  • the fact that most rail lines have been built mainly to get “free” federal money; and
  • the fact that Nashville’s only rail transit today, the Music City Star, still carries only about 550 daily round trips, and it would have been less expensive to give every one of those daily round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every other year for as long as they operate the train.

Continue reading

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How Do You Define “Feasible”?

Democratic Party hopes to retake Congress soon have been buoyed by this week’s election. Whether it is in 2018, 2020, or later, whenever they eventually regain control, federal funding for high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects will likely be back on the table. Since the sole criterion for funding such projects in 2009 was whether they had completed an environmental impact statement, numerous states are currently working on or have recently completed such statements.

An example of the Texas Department of Transportation, which just announced that its final environmental impact statement showed that a high-speed rail line from Dallas to San Antonio was “feasible.” A conventional rail line from Oklahoma City to Dallas and a higher-speed line from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico were also considered feasible. This is good news for rail buffs, as it means Texas is eligible for federal funding to do more detailed studies.

Before you buy your tickets for a high-speed ride from Dallas to San Antonio, it is worth asking what the state means by “feasible.” According to table 3-4 of the alternatives analysis, the Oklahoma City-Dallas segment would cost $650 million to start up, none of which would ever be recovered from fares. In fact, fares would only cover 27 percent of operating costs. That’s feasible? Continue reading

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