A Monument to Optimism

“When you build a high-speed rail line,” says Washington governor Jay Inslee, “you are building a monument to optimism.” He is 100 percent correct except that he thinks that’s a reason to build it when in fact it is a reason not to build.

Inslee made the statement at a joint press conference with British Columbia premier John Horgan announcing that B.C. would contribute to the costs of a study of building a line from Seattle to Vancouver. Governor Inslee no doubt meant that spending money on high-speed rail represented optimism for the future of the Northwest. But what his statement really meant is that he is clueless about the extensive planning literature associating optimism bias with strategic misrepresentation, that is, lying.

The other half of Inslee’s phrase — monument — accurately describes the real purpose of high-speed rail. It’s not meant to be a mode of transport. Instead, it is a monument to the egos of politicians who get it built. Continue reading


Graphing the Transit Apocalypse

The Washington Post has declared the continuing decline of urban transit ridership an emergency. The Post takes it for granted that the real purpose of cities is to maintain the transit industry and not the other way around. While it is clearly an emergency for those obsolete transit agencies, especially ones saddled with even more obsolete rail transit systems, it isn’t an emergency at all for cities and individual travelers who are finding faster, more convenient, and often less expensive ways of getting around.

And the decline continues. Nationwide transit ridership in January 2018 was 2.5 percent less than in January 2017, according to the latest National Transit Database numbers posted by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This drop was even more significant because January 2018 had one more work day in it than January 2017.

Supposedly, according to experts consulted by the Post, we have to maintain urban transit because it is more “space efficient” than other forms of travel. Yes, it is real space efficient to have 60-passenger buses that drive around with an average of 9 on board, or 150-passenger (some claim 200) light-rail cars that carry an average of fewer than 23 on board (the averages in 2016). If you drive alone in your six-passenger SUV, your car is carrying a higher percentage of its capacity than the average transit vehicle. Continue reading


Charlotte Opens Light-Rail Extension

Last week, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) opened a 9.3-mile extension to its light-rail system. The extension cost $1.1 billion, or about twice as much as the city’s first light-rail line, which was about the same length.

Back in 2002, CATS did a major investment study that estimated the light-rail line would cost about $370 million (about $485 million in today’s dollars). The study found that rail would cost 80 percent more to build and slightly more to operate than bus rapid transit, yet buses would attract about 60 percent more riders than rail.

So naturally, they chose to build rail. As near as I can tell, bus rapid transit was not given any further consideration despite its clear advantages. Continue reading


Driverless Car Fatality in Arizona

A woman crossing a street in Tempe was struck and killed by an Uber autonomous car at 10 pm Sunday night. Although it is too soon to tell for certain, it appears that the accident could not have been prevented no matter who was in control of the car.

Scene of the accident. Scroll left to see the poorly designed pedestrian path that the woman was apparently using before crossing the street.

According to police, a woman pushing a bicycle laden with shopping bags stepped from the roadway median into 35-mile-per-hour traffic. The Uber vehicle, which had a back-up human driver behind the wheel, did not have time to even brake before it hit her. Continue reading


Seattle Fails the Streetcar Intelligence Test

Streetcars are supposed to be the least-expensive form of rail transit, yet Seattle is spending $177 million building a 1.2-mile streetcar line. At $147.5 million a mile, that’s more expensive than many light-rail lines.

The 1.2-mile City Center Connector will connect the 1.3-mile South Lake Union Trolley and the 2.5-mile First Hill streetcar.

Moreover, the plan of the city (which is building the streetcar) appears to be overly optimistic about both ridership and operating costs. The city already has two streetcar lines, and the new one will connect the two. But since the two existing lines parallel each other, connecting them — creating a U-shaped route — doesn’t necessarily make them a lot more useful to riders. As shown in the map above, the connecting line will give riders more access to downtown, but no one except a few streetcar enthusiasts is going to want to ride from one end of the South Lake Union line to the other end of the First Hill line. Continue reading


What’s Causing New York Subway Delays?

The Antiplanner was in Portland Wednesday to talk about light rail, which is why there was no post yesterday. I’ll be in Seattle tomorrow to again talk about rail transit. As of 2016, Sound Transit has spend $335 million (in 2016 dollars) on commuter buses that carry 64,000 weekday riders and $2.1 billion on commuter trains that carry just 16,600 weekday riders. Another example of poor planning.

Meanwhile, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has blamed increasing subway delays on overcrowding, an explanation that raised the Antiplanner’s skepticism, partly because the city’s subway system carried far more riders during and after World War II and didn’t suffer similar delays.

Village Voice writer Aaron Gordon is also skeptical, noting that ridership has declined for the last two years but delays continue to increase. Instead, he blames the delays on a deliberate effort by MTA to slow trains down. For safety reasons, MTA has reduced speed limits in many parts of the system and imposed penalties on train operators when they exceed the limits. While the trains can theoretically meet the schedules at the reduced speeds, a tiny delay can cascade into serious problems. Continue reading


More Evidence of Government Failure

The Antiplanner is fully aware that government doesn’t work, but I wish that politicians would stop trying to prove it. First, the Portland city council has decided to make permanent a temporary rule that requires landlords to pay moving costs of up to $4,500 for any tenants they evict without cause or whose rents they raise by more than 10 percent. Portland housing costs have been rising at faster than 10 percent per year for the past several years. this is supposed to control that rise.

Instead, what it will do will discourage anyone from renting a house or building apartments for rent. This will only make costs rise faster than before.

Second, the California legislature is proposing to allow San Francisco to use congestion pricing to deal with the world’s fifth-worst traffic congestion. Only the bill doesn’t really call for congestion pricing; it calls for cordon charges, that is, a fee for crossing a particular line in the city or urban area. As the Antiplanner has explained before, cordon charges don’t really relieve congestion; instead, their real goal is to raise money that cities can then waste on useless urban monuments. Continue reading


One More Reason to Kill the TIGER

The Department of Transportation announced half a billion dollars worth of TIGER grants last week. While some of these projects may be worthwhile, others are clearly wasted.

TIGER, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, was created by Congress in 2009 to help the nation recover from the Great Recession. Since that recession is supposed to be long over, the Trump administration wants to abolish the program. But members of Congress want to keep it because they see it as a form of pork barrel.

The good news is that none of this year’s TIGER grants are going for streetcars. One is supporting a bus-rapid transit project in Atlanta and a couple more are supporting transit centers in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Immokalee, Florida. Such infrastructure improvements are wasteful, especially when the money could be spent on repairing existing transit infrastructure (in Atlanta) or operating more frequent service (in the other two cities). The Atlanta BRT project is particularly questionable because it wasn’t on either the city’s or the transit agency’s lists of funding priorities; as one local web site says, the $12.6 million for this project is “a lot of money for a route that no one has heard of before and that never saw any public engagement.” Continue reading


California High-Speed Rail Update

Finishing the high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles is now expected to cost $77.3 billion, says the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest cost estimate. This is a big jump from the 2016 estimate of $64.3 billion and an even bigger jump from the $25 billion estimated in 2000, which was the only one available when voters approved the project in 2008. Completion has also been pushed back from 2020 in the 2000 plan to 2029 in the 2016 plan to 2033 in the latest plan.

While the cost increase has gotten a lot of media attention, less noticed is the fact that this $77.3-billion plan is for trains that will go at “speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour” and “typically” take “under three hours” to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The 2000 plan called for trains going 220 miles per hour and taking two-and-a-half hours from LA to San Francisco.

Of course, 220 “exceeds” 200 and two-and-a-half hours is “under” three hours, but the softening of the language makes it clear that the authority doesn’t expect to meet the original 2000 targets. This is partly because of a 2013 law effectively limiting speeds in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. A further quibble is that the “under three hours” estimate is for non-stop trains, and most trains “typically” won’t go non-stop. Continue reading


Washington High-Speed Fantasies

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says it will release its latest cost estimates today, which most expect will be much higher than previous estimates. “It’s going to be bumpy,” the rail authority’s new CEO, Brian Kelly, promises reassuringly.

Meanwhile, up north, the state of Washington is planning its own high-speed money pit, including a leg from Seattle to Spokane. A lobby group has already formed to agitate for such a project, based on the slogan “You deserve slower.” Oops, the slogan they are using is “you deserve faster,” but since the fastest high-speed trains are slower than flying, they will actually be slower. The Antiplanner wonders how many contractors and unions are a part of this coalition.

An initial study projected that the Seattle-Spokane route would cost $25 billion to $50 billion. The study predicts that fares will cover operating costs by 2055, but it fails to account for driverless cars, increased airline efficiencies, and other technical changes. The truth is that it would probably cost less to just give everyone a free airline ticket. Continue reading