As the Antiplanner noted last week, Los Angeles is not the only region experiencing declining transit ridership. Another is Washington, DC, where a recent report from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA aka Metro) revealed that ridership has fallen to the lowest level since 2004. The agency’s financial situation is so bad that WMATA’s number-two executive has resigned and, ominously, the agency has hired a bankruptcy attorney to help it deal with its problems.
As detailed in the actual report, rail revenues and ridership in the first half of F.Y. 2016 are both down by 7 percent from the same period in F.Y. 2015. Metrorail ridership peaked in 2009, and if the second half of F.Y. 2016 is as bad as the first, annual ridership will be down as much as 30 percent from that peak despite a 15 percent increase in the region’s population. Bus ridership and revenue in 2016 is also down but by only about 3 percent below 2015.
Metro rails ridership declines, continued the report, are due to declining service reliability. Median travel times, the unpredictability of travel times, and the frequency of major service delays have all increased.
The Antiplanner was in Washington, DC on Tuesday to testify before the Federal Land Action Group, an unofficial Congressional committee made up of representatives from western states who support more local control of federal lands. Several of the committee members expressed the opinion that federal land would be better managed by the states because the easterners who made up a majority of Congress didn’t understand the West.
While I believe the federal lands could be better managed, I had to throw cold water on some of their ideas. The real debate, I said, wasn’t between easterners and westerners. It was between urbanites who have little connection with agriculture, forestry, and mining, and ruralites whose jobs depended on those sectors of the economy. Ninety percent of residents of the West live in urban areas that occupy just one percent of the land, and–unlike forty or so years ago–few if those urbanites have jobs that directly depend in mining, logging, or farming.
The population of the most rural state in the West, Montana, is 55 percent urban; Wyoming and Alaska are 65 percent; Idaho and New Mexico from 70 to 80 percent; and all the others are more than 80 percent urban. Many people in these urban areas moved to or stay in the West because they love the easy access to recreation on federal lands, and polls show that most of them support continued federal ownership of these lands. Can anyone really think that ranchers and other rural interests are going to get more sympathy from the West’s urbanites than those from the East?
Last week, the Antiplanner highlighted an LA Times story showing that Los Angeles transit ridership was dropping despite billions being spent on transit improvements. A blogger named Ethan Elkind wrote a response arguing that a graph in the Times story was unfair because it showed that Los Angeles transit ridership peaked in 1985.
That high point was reached, says Elkind, because L.A. County had kept bus fares at 50 cents for three years in the early 1980s. After the region started building rail, it raised fares and ridership declined. “So choosing 1985 as your baseline is like climate change deniers choosing an unusually warm year in the 1990s to show that global warming hasn’t really been happening since then,” says Elkind. (A better analogy would be transit advocates’ habit of using 1995–a low transit year nationwide–as a starting point to show increasing transit ridership.)
New York is far denser than any other large American city, with an average of 27,000 people per square mile compared with 2,500 to 4,000 for most American cities. Although the city is criss-crossed by an extensive subway system, there are still some neighborhoods that are more than half a mile from a subway station.
So naturally, what those neighborhoods need is an ultra-low-capacity, high-cost form of urban transit: a streetcar. At least, that’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio thinks: last week, he proposed to spend $2.5 billion building a 16-mile streetcar line connecting Brooklyn with Queens.
For most of Obama’s years as president, he has opposed raising the gas tax. Now, in his last, lame-duck year, he is proposing a $10 per barrel tax on oil. Since a 42-gallon barrel of oil produces about 45 gallons of gasoline, Diesel, jet fuel, and other products, this is roughly equal to a 22 cent per gallon gas tax, well above the current 18.4 cent tax.
The distinction between Obama’s oil tax and a gas tax is that the oil tax wouldn’t go into the Highway Trust Fund, where up to 80 percent goes for roads and 20 percent goes for transit. Instead, he proposes to spend $20 billion per year on alternatives to autos, including urban transit, high-speed rail, and mag-lev. Another $10 billion per year would be given to the states for programs that would supposedly reduce carbon emissions such as “better land-use planning, clean fuel infrastructure, and public transportation.” Finally, $3 billion would go for self-driving vehicle infrastructure that is both unnecessary and intrusive.
Obama proposes that the oil tax be phased in over five years, so that $33 billion is the average of the first five years; when fully phased in, the tax would bring in nearly $60 billion a year. This would be a huge slush fund for all kinds of social engineering programs.
In mid-December, the Federal Transit Administration posted 2014 transit data on line, then withdrew it–but not before the Antiplanner was able to download most of the data tables. Two tables that were not available then were “Service” (including such things as vehicle revenue miles, passenger miles, and average daily trips) and “Vehicle Inventory” (including the number of vehicles and number of seats and standing room per vehicle).
The FTA has reposted all of the tables, including the two tables that were previously missing. Those two tables are dated today, so I appear to have downloaded them almost as soon as they were posted. Most of the other tables date to mid-December, so it is likely that few changes or corrections were made since then.
I’ve added the new data to my master spreadsheet and posted it for your convenience. This takes the information I consider the most important, including costs, ridership, fares, and energy consumption, from eight different spreadsheets and puts them in one spreadsheet.
Remember peak oil? Remember when oil prices were $140 a barrel and Goldman Sachs predicted they would soon reach $200? Now, the latest news is that oil prices have gone up all the way to $34 a barrel. Last fall, Goldman Sachs predicted prices would fall to $20 a barrel, which other analysts argued was “no better than its prior predictions,” but in fact they came a lot closer to that than to $200.
Low oil prices generate huge economic benefits. Low prices mean increased mobility, which means increased economic productivity. The end result, says Bank of America analyst Francisco Blanch, is “one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history” as $3 trillion remain in consumers’ pockets rather than going to the oil companies. The Antiplanner wouldn’t call this a “wealth transfer” so much as a reduction in income inequality, but either way, it is a good thing.
Naturally, some people hate the idea of increased mobility from lower fuel prices. “Cheap gas raises fears of urban sprawl,” warns NPR. Since “urban sprawl” is a made-up problem, I’d have to rewrite this as, “Cheap gas raises hopes of urban sprawl.” The only real “fear” is on the part of city officials who want everyone to pay taxes to them so they can build stadiums, light-rail lines, and other useless urban monuments.
Last week, the Antiplanner commented on a proposed passenger train between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Yesterday, The Advocate, a New Orleans weekly, published an op-ed on the same train.
The article calculates that the subsidy per ticket will average $44. Considering that the proposed fare is only $10 for the first few years, rising to $13 after ten years, this would be a horrendous subsidy, at least compared with other intercity trains. Subsidies to the average Amtrak train are about equal to the ticket price, not three to four times the ticket price. On the other hand, subsidies to urban transit average $3 for every dollar paid in fares.
In comments on the op-ed, one of the defenders of the proposed train says, “in the 1930s in the middle of a Depression we built a network of airports that served as foundation for a commercial airline industry we see today.” The two clear differences are that most airports pay for themselves with landing fees, and the airline industry in the 1930s was rapidly evolving and growing. By comparison, the technology for the proposed train hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and passenger train ridership is declining. It is a continual source of amazement that so many Americans consider subsidies to an obsolete forms of travel such as streetcars, light rail, and intercity rail to be normal and acceptable.
Gabriel Roth, who turns 90 years young today, is a rock star among transportation economists, and a special inspiration for those of us who support reducing the federal government’s role in transportation. According to his C.V., Roth earned degrees in engineering from London’s Imperial College in 1948 and economics from Cambridge in 1954.
In 1959, he began research into improved road pricing systems. This led to his appointment to a Ministry of Transport commission that published a 1964 report advocating pricing congested roads in order to end that congestion.
In 1966, the Institute for Economic Affairs published his paper, A Self-Financing Road System, which argued that user fees should pay for all roads, and not just be used to relieve congestion. Roads should be expanded, Roth noted, wherever user fees exceeded the cost of providing a particular road, but not elsewhere.
Eau Claire, Wisconsin–whose urban area barely has more than 100,000 people–is located on Interstate 94. United Airlines offers residents two daily flights to Chicago. Greyhound has buses to Chicago and Minneapolis, while Jefferson Lines has buses to Green Bay and Minneapolis.
But that’s not enough for members of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, who want train service from Eau Claire to Minneapolis and Chicago. Why? Because millennials don’t want to drive; everybody wants to take the train; only cities with trains will grow in the future; blah, blah, blah.
People who believe this line of drivel probably don’t want to know the real data. In FY 2015, Amtrak carried 6.60 billion passenger miles, down from 6.65 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, in the 12 months ending in November, 2015, Americans drove 3.14 trillion vehicle miles, up 3.6 percent from the previous 12 months.