The Antiplanner is in Washington DC today to participate in a debate over the Purple light-rail line–or, as I like to call it, the Purple Money Eater. In conjunction with this debate, the Maryland Public Policy Institute will release a detailed critique of the proposed low-capacity transit line; Antiplanner readers can download a preview today.
Predictably, rail supporters are claiming that the supposedly evil Koch Brothers “dispatched” me to fight this rail project. In reality, I doubt that light rail is even on the Koch Brothers’ radar screen, since there is no light rail in Kansas (where they are headquartered) and no proposals for any as far as I know. (Could it be that’s not a coincidence?)
We’ll see what the rail supporters say tonight. If you are in the DC area, I hope to see you in Silver Spring at 7 pm.
Rumors about Apple, which has the highest market capitalization of any company in the world, are an industry in itself, so the rumor world was thrilled to learn that Apple had leased a modest Dodge Caravan and was driving it around Silicon Valley festooned with cameras, Lidar, and other devices.
Meanwhile, Apple has hired hundreds of auto engineers away from Tesla, General Motors, Ford, and other companies with the goal of putting as many as 1,000 of them to work on the so-called Apple Car. (Ironically, less than a month after being fined more than $100 million for agreeing not to poach employees from Google, Adobe, and Intel, Apple is being sued by battery maker A123 for allegedly poaching its experts.)
Smallter Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, by the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce, argues that human innovation will save the planet from climate change and other projected catastrophes. As the title suggests, most of that innovation has to do with making things smaller, faster, etc., but Bryce especially focuses on power density, that is, the amount of energy produced by a machine per kilogram weight of that machine. Thus, steam engines are more powerful than horses; internal combustion engines more powerful than steam; and jet engines more powerful than internal combustion.
Bryce’s formula, with modifications, applies to transportation and other issues as well. For transportation, the key factors are faster, cheaper, safer, and more convenient (convenienter?). From the beginning of the nineteenth century, every major technological innovation in transportation revolutionized society by improving most or all of these factors. The next major innovation–self-driving cars–will definitely improve all four.
Ridership on Atlanta’s new streetcar is 18 percent below projections–and the projections assumed patrons would be charged a $1 fare, but (as of the date of the ridership numbers) the city was still offering free introductory rides. Meanwhile, operating costs have proven to be a mere 50 percent more than projected.
Washington, DC’s new streetcar hasn’t yet opened for business, but it has already proven to be hot–as in one of the streetcars being tested on H Street caught fire the other day. DC residents aren’t exactly looking forward to the streetcar, which is increasing traffic congestion and slowing bus service in the corridor. This is just one more example, locals note, of “corporate welfare and the edifice complex.”
Just outside of DC, a new report reveals that the Maryland Transit Administration has done a poor job of tracking consultant costs on the proposed Purple and Red lines. This doesn’t bode well for taxpayers if construction ever begins on these two lines, both of which are expected to cost more than $2 billion.
Here’s another article claiming that the fact that cities are foolish enough to accept federal grants to build streetcars proves that “America has a renewed desire for streetcars.” The article then lists eleven streetcar projects–some of them under construction, others still in early planning phases–as evidence.
One of the projects is in Kansas City, where less than a year ago voters rejected a plan to expand the starter-system funded by the feds. Another city was Milwaukee, where voters have repeatedly rejected light rail, commuter trains, and other rail boondoggles. A third city was Cincinnati, where voters elected a mayor who promised to cancel the streetcar–but was unable to override the majority of the city council. Considering opposition to streetcars in Arlington, San Antonio, and other cities, there is hardly a groundswell of support for these obsolete systems.
The pro-streetcar article is on a website called FutureStructure, which is basically a rah-rah site for people interested in profiting off of government infrastructure spending. Many readers no doubt drooled over the 11 streetcar projects in the article whose average cost was $37 million per mile, ranging as high as $79 million in one case. Considering that it costs less than a quarter of that average to build a mile of four-lane urban freeway and that streetcars are slower than buses and have far lower capacities, these are insane amounts to spend–unless of course, you are the one profiting from government contracts.
More people are taking up the call to promote buses rather than build trains. As the Antiplanner noted on February 10, the average number of people on board a transit bus has declined from 15 in 1979 to about 11 today.
Just one week later, New York Times writer Josh Barro argues that if some people won’t ride buses because they “carry a ‘shame factor,'” it makes more sense to spend a little money improving the public image of buses (as Midttrafik is doing) than to spend a lot of money building rail lines that are no faster than buses.
Now that Honolulu’s insanely expensive, low-capacity rail line is under construction (and over budget), Oahu land-use advocates are upset that the city wants to rezone 1,289 acres of farms for residential development. At least some members of the city council claim to have been shocked to learn that just 17 percent of the island is still suitable for farming while 27 percent has been urbanized.
Sadly, efforts to protect farmlands in Hawai’i are something of a joke considering that Hawai’i’s land-use laws–the strictest in the nation–were supposedly passed to protect farmlands and yet in fact are responsible for destroying Hawai’i’s agricultural industry. The land-use laws made Hawai’ian housing so unaffordable that farmers can’t pay workers enough for them to be able to live there. As a result, the state has lost most of its pineapple, sugar cane, and other crop production to other Pacific islands such as Fiji.
Comparing a map of Oahu land-use designations with the route of the rail line reveals that the rail line will cross only a few tiny areas of land zoned for farming. In fact, a lot of the land around Kapolei that is zoned urban hasn’t yet been developed and could still be used for farming, but why bother if you can’t afford to grow crops?
Federal funding for new rail transit lines has led to an inequitable distribution of funds among urban areas. This can be shown by downloading the historic time series data for capital funds from the National Transit Database. These numbers extend from 1991–which, coincidentally, is the year Congress created the New Starts program–to 2013.
Gross domestic product price deflators can be used to adjust all dollars to 2013 values. Finally, the National Transit Database’s historic time series for service data gives transit ridership for the same years. The time series show which urban area each transit agency primarily serves, so I added up the capital funds and ridership numbers by urban area.
The detailed results for 488 urban areas can be downloaded in this spreadsheet, while the basic results for the nation’s 50 largest urban areas are in the table below. Though there are a few surprises, the results mostly confirm my hypothesis that the best way for an urban area to get lots of federal transit funds is to build new rail lines.
A pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in Denver last Thursday, February 12. The very next day, another pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in San Jose.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 40 people were killed in light-rail accidents in 2012. This is the most since at least 1992 (the earliest year for which I have numbers available). While the numbers vary from year to year, in all the years since 1995, light-rail accidents killed 333 people.
A few days ago, the Antiplanner mentioned that auto accidents kill about 34,000 people a year. That sounds horrible, and it is, but unlike light-rail numbers, auto fatalities have been declining. More important, light rail carried just 26.7 billion passenger miles in all the years between 1995 and 2012. By comparison, highway vehicles traveled nearly 3 trillion vehicle miles in 2012 alone. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per car (see page 33), that’s 5 trillion passenger miles.
One of the arguments for building expensive rail transit lines is that some people have a perception that only losers ride buses. Instead of lamenting that it does’t operate more rail lines, a transit agency in Denmark, Midttrafik, has a couple of advertisements presenting the bus as a superior mode of transportation.
The first ad is a couple of years old, having come out in September, 2012. It starts out with someone’s ear to the pavement–listening for the bus the way people purportedly listened to rails for the coming of a train. As people board the bus, rails are fleetingly visible in the foreground. The bus is shown doing “cool” things such as doughnuts in a parking lot.