In 1960, when most of the nation’s transit was private (and profitable), 7.81 million people took transit to work. By 2015, the nation’s working population had grown by nearly 130 percent, and taxpayers had spent well over a trillion dollars improving and operating urban transit systems. Yet the number of people taking transit to work had declined to 7.76 million.
The share of households that owns no vehicles has declined from 22 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today, while the share owning three or more vehicles has grown from 3 percent to 20 percent.
Although 7.76 million isn’t a few, commuting is only a small share of the travel people do. In 2014, Americans drove 5.1 billion miles a day in urban areas, which (at 1.67 people per car) works out to 3.1 trillion passenger miles per year. The 57 billion passenger miles carried by urban transit was just 1.8 percent of the total. Add walking, cycling, motorcycles, and other forms of travel, and transit’s share is even smaller.
After more than a year of shut-downs, slow-downs, and break-downs, the Washington Metro rail system still faces a huge maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, rail opponents in Hawaii placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post begging President Trump to cancel funding for that city’s increasingly expensive rail project.
Click image to download a PDF of this ad.
The 20-mile Honolulu line was originally projected to cost $2.8 billion. Then it rose to $3.0 billion. By the time construction began, the projected cost rose to $5.1 billion. Now, the Federal Transit Administration says the final cost may be more than $10 billion. Although the agency denies the cost will be that high, it admits it doesn’t have enough money to finish the project. The federal government agreed to cover $1.5 billion and has paid half of that. The ad implores Trump not to pay the other half.
In 2015, the American Public Transportation Association issued a press release whose headline claimed that transit ridership in 2014 achieved a new record. However, the story revealed that 2014 ridership was the highest since 1956. That’s no more a record than if it was the highest since 2013.
The truth is that America’s urban population more than doubled between 1956 and 2014. Using the ridership number that really counts–trips per urban resident–2014’s number was a near-record low of 41 trips per person. The only time it was lower before 2014 was a few years in the mid-1990s, when ridership dropped to as low as 38 trips per person. The rate may fall to nearly that level in 2016.
Fifty-three years ago, the transit industry was mostly private and earned a net profit. Today, it’s almost entirely publicly owned, and subsidies have grown out of control. It’s time to take a stand and say all transportation subsidies are bad, but transit subsidies are the worst.
The National Transit Database says agencies spent more than $64 billion in 2015 yet collected less than $16 billion in fares. They carried about 55 billion passenger miles, for an average cost of $1.15 per passenger mile, of which 87 cents was subsidized. No other major mode of passenger transportation is anywhere near this expensive.
Americans spent about $1.1 trillion buying, operating, repairing, and insuring cars and light trucks in 2015, but they also drove their autos nearly 2.8 trillion miles. At average auto occupancies of 1.67 people (see table 16), that’s 4.6 trillion passenger miles by auto, for an average cost of about 24 cents per passenger mile. We don’t have 2015 data yet, but in 2014, government agencies spent about $72 billion subsidizing roads (add the $98 billion in “other taxes and fees” to the minus $10 billion in “less amount for nonhighway purposes” and the minus $16 billion for “less amount for mass transportation”).
After holding a final public hearing last night, officials in Durham, North Carolina will probably decide next week to build a $3.3 billion ($2.4 billion construction plus $900 million interest on debt) light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. It is hard to imagine any place that is more poorly suited for rail transit.
The region’s population density is less than 2,000 people per square mile. Except for the universities, there are no real concentrations of jobs. The biggest job center in the region, Research Triangle Park, has about 50,000 jobs spread out over 11 square miles, but it isn’t even on the proposed light-rail line. To make matters worse, the proposed 17.7-mile rail route is so circuitous that someone on a fat-tire bicycle could probably beat the train by taking a shorter route.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was pleased to announce last week that it would not be delaying any rush-hour trains due to maintenance work for a few days. However, starting this week, rush-hour frequencies on the Yellow Green Lines would be reduced by 20 to 50 percent, and part of the Green Line will be completely shut down for two weeks.
All of which has just become business as usual in Washington. The real news is that WMATA plans to raise fares and cut service by up to 25 percent on July 1. Rush-hour fares will go up a dime, non-rush-hour by a quarter, and trains will stop running at 11:30 pm most days, instead of the current 12:30 am.
The big cut, however, will be to rush-hour service. Trains that now operate 10 times an hour will be cut back to 7.5 times an hour, effectively a 25 percent cut in service. Passengers can therefore expect a 33 percent increasing in crowding. Or, more likely, the system will lose even more riders.
While the Antiplanner was preparing to take Amtrak trains from Portland to Washington, DC, Amtrak was suffering from a spate of derailments, one near Chicago Union Station on March 26 and two in New York’s Penn Station on March 24 and April 3. Moreover, Amtrak now admits that it knew about the defective track that led to the Penn Station derailments, and didn’t fix it because it didn’t realize how serious the problem was.
Tracks are held in place by ties that were once all made of wood but that lately have been made of concrete. The Penn Station tracks still had wood ties, and an assessment before the accident found that some of the ties were partly rotted away. Replacing ties is difficult on heavily used rail lines, so Amtrak didn’t replace them right away, a mistake that led Amtrak’s CEO to make a public apology.
The accidents led New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to withhold state funds that New Jersey Transit pays to Amtrak to run its trains on Amtrak’s tracks. I suppose if I were paying money for a service, I would withhold funds if the service turned out to be unsafe. But Amtrak needs money to replace ties, so withholding funds might be the wrong solution in the long run.
The Antiplanner is enjoying Amtrak’s California Zephyr through the Colorado Rockies today. Assuming all went well, I boarded the Coast Starlight in Portland on Saturday, then changed trains to the Zephyr Sunday morning, and will arrive in Chicago on Tuesday. From there I’ll take the Capital Limited to Washington, DC, all part of my research on the viability of passenger rail transportation in today’s America.
The California Zephyr near Granby, Colorado. Detail of photo taken by William Kratville for Amtrak in 2000.
I love passenger trains, but I planned this trip with some trepidation. I took Amtrak across the country many times in the 1970s, but since then Amtrak has succeeded in making its trains boring at best. My experience during the 1980s was that the seats were less comfortable, the overnight accommodations were prohibitively expensive, and the food was mediocre, leading me to switch to air travel for most long trips. Now I’m taking this trip to see if things have improved or are as bad as I remember them.
One of the bright spots amid the overall decline in 2016 transit ridership was Southwest Transit, a small transit agency connecting Eden Prairie and other communities with downtown Minneapolis. The agency carried 77,000 more bus riders in 2016 than 2015, a 7 percent increase.
Many of its bus routes would be replaced by, or at least have to compete with, the region’s Southwest light-rail line, which is currently projected to cost $1.9 billion. This would be a part of the same light-rail system that lost 40,000 riders in 2016. If built, it is clear that the Southwest light rail would take many of its riders from Southwest Transit, which costs far less to operate.
Metro Transit, which runs Twin Cities light rail and many of its buses (but not Southwest Transit buses) is responding to the decline in ridership by raising fares, which is a sure-fire way to cause ridership to decline even further. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton has proposed to spend $4 million on a “demonstration project” extending the Northstar commuter-rail line to St. Cloud. That’s the commuter-rail line that spent more than $17 million on operations and maintenance in 2015 to collect less than $2.5 million in fares from just 1,274 daily round-trip riders. It carried 11,000 fewer riders in 2016, so daily round-trip riders fell to about 1,250.
Comments on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration‘s proposed vehicle-to-vehicle communications mandate are due one week from today on April 12. If approved, this will be one of the most expensive vehicle safety rules ever, adding around $300 dollars to the price of every car, or (at recent car sales rates) well over $5 billion per year.
Despite the high cost, the NHTSA predicts the rule will save only about 25 to 31 lives in 2025, mainly because it will do no good until most cars have it. Yet even by 2060, when virtually all cars would have it, NHTSA predicts it will save only about 1,000 to 1,365 lives per year.
The real danger is not that it will cost too much per life saved but that mandating one technology will inhibit the development and use of better technologies that could save even more lives at a lower cost. The technology the NHTSA wants to mandate is known as dedicated short-range communications, a form of radio. Yet advancements in cell phones, wifi, and other technologies could do the same thing better for less money.