Tampa-area voters will be spared the expense of having to go through another campaign to build an obsolete transit system in the city thanks to a 3-to-2 vote against the project by Hillsborough County commissioners. Voters already rejected the light-rail project once in 2010, and voters in neighboring Pinellas County voted against a connecting rail project in 2014.
In the end, it was a close thing. The swing vote on the county commission, Victor Crist, said he made his decision during a three-hour public hearing at which half the witnesses favored the project and half opposed. But to get a realistic look at the reality of urban rail transit, Crist and his fellow commissioners need only look at their neighbor to the south, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
As the Antiplanner noted the other day, Puerto Rico is $70 billion in debt, and one of those billions is for the Tren Urbano, a rail system that opened in 2004. Not only are local residents having to repay that $1 billion, they have to spend nearly $50 million per year to keep it operating, partly because ridership is less than half of what was projected.
The San Jose Mercury News points out the “staggering drop in VTA bus ridership” and suggests “dramatic changes” are needed to reverse that decline. However, it misses the elephant in the room, namely that the drop in ridership is directly due to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) cutting bus service in order to fund its rail transit fantasies–fantasies that have been repeatedly endorse by the Mercury News.
The Mercury News reports “ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001.” This understates the problem as light-rail ridership actually grew by about 19 percent during this time period, mainly because of an expansion of light-rail lines from 29.2 route miles in 2001 to 40.5 route miles in 2014. The small ridership increase gained by a 44 percent growth in route miles is distressing in itself, especially considering that the area’s 13 percent population growth accounts for most of the light-rail ridership growth.
The real tragedy is what happened to bus ridership, which declined by 32 percent from more than 48 million trips in 2001 to less than 33 million in 2014. (Light-rail and bus ridership and service numbers are from the National Transit Database Historic Time Series.) As it happens, in the same time period vehicle miles of bus service fell by 22 percent, a drop that explains most if not all of the decline in ridership.
The Honolulu city auditor’s review of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) found numerous problems, including the use of obsolete and unreliable decision-making tools, failure to analyze major changes in the planned rail line, and leasing more office space than the agency needs. The rail line HART is constructing is already 25 percent over budget, and based on the problems found in the audit, the auditor “anticipate[s] additional cost overruns.”
Rather than fix the problems, HART officials chose to attack the messenger, claiming that the audit (which had been requested by the city council) was “politically motivated.” When the auditor shared a confidential draft of the audit with HART, HART shared it with unauthorized people, attempted to intimidate the auditors, and went to the press to attack the auditors before the audit was made public.
Not many people believe the agency’s attack on the city auditor. Honolulu’s mayor asked the the chair of HART’s board and another one of its board members to resign, perhaps hoping to use them as scapegoats for the project’s failings. Yet shaking the top of the agency won’t help fix the fundamental problems, which are that a $6 billion construction project is really beyond the region’s needs or the agency’s abilities.
The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has formally quit its membership in the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the nation’s principle transit lobby. In a harshly worded seven-page letter, MTA accused APTA of poor governance, an undue focus on small transit agencies, and having an embarrassingly large compensation package to APTA’s president.
The MTA and its affiliates, Metro North, the Long Island Railroad, and New York City Transit, together carry 35 percent of all transit riders in America. Since MTA’s ridership has been growing while transit elsewhere has declined, this percentage is increasing.
Yet APTA’s focus has been on lobbying for increased funding for smaller agencies, including building new rail transit lines in cities that haven’t had rail transit and extending transit service in smaller cities and rural areas that have had little transit at all. As a result, says the letter, MTA has been short-changed by roughly a billion dollars a year in federal funding that it would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried.
Despite a “growing population, a rebounding economy, growing total employment, and an aggressively argued hypothesis that the millennial generation is meaningfully different than their forefathers,” says transportation researcher Steven Polzin, “transit ridership has remained stubbornly modest.” That’s a generous view that takes into account slow ridership growth between 2012 and 2014 but ridership declines in 2015.
Polzin points to numerous factors that work against transit: lower fuel prices, increased auto sharing, increased cycling and walking, and diminishing returns on extensions of existing transit services. He also points out that, contrary to claims that Americans are substituting transit for driving in large numbers, recent data suggest that “the new normal for travel trends is looking more like the old normal.”
However, he misses a couple of key points. First, Polzin compares transit ridership over time with the population, concluding that per capita transit ridership “is a pretty straight horizontal line since about 1970.” In fact, he should have compared transit ridership with the urban population, as few rural residents are served by transit. Since the urban population is growing faster than the overall population, per capita urban transit ridership has declined by about 15 percent since 1970. This makes transit’s future appear even dimmer than Polzin suggests.
In a move that surprised no one, the staff of TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, wants to build light rail instead of bus-rapid transit between Portland and Sherwood. Since the Obama administration no longer requires transit agencies to do a rigorous alternatives analysis, this decision was based on subjective criteria and erroneous assumptions, yet will probably not be challenged by either TriMet’s board or the federal government that will have to pay for most of the line.
TriMet’s last light-rail line cost about $168 million per mile. This proposal is for an 11.5-mile line that will cost at least $2 billion, or $174 million per mile. Of course, that cost is likely to go up. By comparison, Portland’s first light-rail line cost only about $28 million per mile in today’s dollars.
A state auditor says TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, is falling behind on light-rail maintenance. TriMet’s general manager says that the agency’s pension and health-care obligations are so great that it will have to cut all transit service by 70 percent by 2025 to meet those obligations. So naturally, it makes perfect sense to talk about spending $2 billion that the agency doesn’t have on another low-capacity rail line.
Transit ridership in 2015 was 1.26 percent less than in 2014, with bus ridership falling by nearly 3 percent. But transit advocates wanted to lead with good news, so Progressive Railroading‘s coverage is headlined, “rail ridership increased as overall public transit use dipped 1.3 percent.”
Why did rail ridership increase? In the case of heavy rail (subways and elevateds), the answer is that New York is enjoying its “largest jobs boom ever,” so subway ridership there grew by 14 million annual rides. Heavy rail as a whole grew by only 9 million annual rides, so take away New York and nationwide subway/elevated ridership declined. Among the big losers in heavy rail were Baltimore (-11%), San Juan (-15%), Los Angeles (-5%), and Washington DC (-4%). Of course, rail supporters in most of those cities still want to build more train lines.
For light rail, the answer is that Minneapolis-St. Paul opened its new Green line. This boosted the region’s light-rail ridership by 7 million rides, without which nationwide light-rail ridership would have declined by 5 million annual trips. Among the biggest losers were Baltimore (-15%), Cleveland (-6z%), Los Angeles, and Sacramento (each -5%).
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) wants voters to give it $120 billion over the next forty years so it can build more rail projects that are already obsolete. Among other projects, it proposes to build a nine-mile light-rail tunnel between west LA and the San Fernando Valley that it estimates will cost at least $8.5 billion, and probably much more. That’s a billion dollars a mile, which is neither a misprint nor an April Fool’s joke.
The plan, which will probably be on the November ballot, includes some new roads as well as trains. But Metro proposes to spend twice as much on new transit construction as on new road construction, plus lots more on transit operations. As little as 19 percent of the funds would be spent on highway projects.
In 2008, Metro persuaded voters to dedicate a half-cent sales tax to transit for 30 years, which is estimated to bring in $34 billion. Now it wants to double that tax and extend it to 2057, which is estimated to bring in $120 billion on top of the $34 billion it is already getting.
Betteridge’s law states that, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” While there are exceptions, a headline in the Guardian reading, “Could Miami’s rail project be test model that could change mass transit in US?” isn’t one of them.
The article claims that Miami is installing a new light-rail system being built with the financial support of Hitachi and Ansaldo. None of this is true. What is true is that Miami is spending close to $314 million buying new railcars from Ansaldo (now a subsidiary of Hitachi) that will operate on the city’s 32-year-old heavy-rail system, a system that is such a failure that it should have been scrapped rather than supplied with new and expensive ($2.3 million apiece) railcars.
It’s ironic that a left-wing publication like The Guardian is effectively acting as a corporate mouthpiece for an international conglomerate. But all you have to do is mention the words “public transit” and progressives will fall over themselves to support you no matter how expensive and ridiculous your plans.
Sacramento’s Regional Transit District (RT for short) is facing an existential crisis. The region’s transit ridership fell by 22 percent between 2009 and 2014, and preliminary information indicates another 6 to 7 percent decline is likely in 2015. The agency’s January, 2016 performance report shows a 9 percent decline from January 2015.
A light-rail train trundles its way through downtown Sacramento. Flickr photo by PaulKimo9.
Some of this downward spiral is due to low gas prices, but much of it is due to an 18 percent reduction in bus service and a 7 percent reduction in light-rail service between 2009 and 2014. Declining tax revenues after the 2008 financial crisis forced these service cutbacks. In turn, reduced ridership means reduced fare revenues, and RT has responded by raising fares, which is not likely to do ridership any good. RT is also thinking about asking voters for a tax increase, but with just 2.7 percent of the area’s commuters taking transit to work, support for the transit system may be slim.