Category Archives: Transportation

Federal Transit Inequities, Part 2

A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner presented data showing that the distribution of federal transit dollars to urban areas was highly uneven, ranging from 26 cents per transit rider to $2.17 per transit rider. The main factor that appeared to make a difference was whether the urban area was building expensive new rail transit lines.

A close look at the data reveals another difference: whether the urban area is in a state that has a representative on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Over the past six years, states with a Democrat on the committee received an average of $120 million to $160 million more than they would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried in the area. States with a Republican on the committee didn’t fare as well, actually losing money in the 111th Congress (when Democrats held both houses) and making only about a third as much as Democrats in the 112th and 113th congresses.

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Self-Driving from San Francisco to New York

A self-driving car traveling from San Francisco to New York is about half-way through its journey, having reached Ft. Worth, Texas yesterday. The car is an Audi, but its self-driving electronics have been designed by Delphi, an auto supply company. Like Continental and Bosch, Delphi has been developing its own self-driving hardware and software.


This raw AP video gives an idea of Delphi’s plans.

They left Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, on March 22 and took the long way around, first going south to Los Angeles where they could test the software in heavy traffic. The goal is to arrive in time for the New York Auto Show, which begins a week from today.

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Withholding Funds to Improve Transit

The Washington Metro rail system is falling apart. Should local governments (which are responsible for most operations and maintenance costs) “key their payments to a certain number of problem-free rush hours, say 10 or so to start, before the payment is made?” a Washington Post reader asks Dr. Gridlock. “Maybe then they would be forced to make things run better.”

Dr. Gridlock points out many of the problems with this idea (some delays aren’t the transit agency’s fault, withholding money could make delays worse). “The key isn’t a rigid system of financial penalties,” he concludes. “It’s a question of getting the region’s governments to pay attention to how their money is being spent.” In other words, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) just has to persuade local governments to give it more money.

The good doctor misses the point, however, which is that politicians are always going to underfund maintenance because it isn’t highly visible. They want to be seen doing big things; updating signals, keeping insulators dry, and replacing dangerously obsolete railcars with new ones that look identical on the outside just isn’t sexy enough compared with building a Silver Line or a Purple Line.

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Requiem for a Streetcar Company

The United Streetcar Company was supposed to create 300 full-time jobs and bring millions of dollars into the Oregon economy. Based on these promises, the company’s parent, Oregon Iron Works, lobbied hard to get a $4 million federal grant to build its first streetcar, which was an almost exact copy of streetcars that Portland had purchased from the Czech Republic for $1.9 million apiece. The Oregon congressman who earmarked the grant for the company confidently predicted that it would sell a billion dollars worth of streetcars to American cities in the next twenty years.


United Streetcar received $4 million to build this prototype car. The car never worked very well and fixing it cost another $3 million. Wikipedia photo by Steve Morgan.

The state of Oregon then put up $20 million in lottery money, which Portland used to order six new streetcars. Various problems forced the company to more-or-less arbitrarily reduce the order to five streetcars for the same price. “You’re not getting less,” gushed the company president unapologetically, “I actually think you’re getting more.” She later took a job as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for manufacturing, proving once again that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

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Rail Transit Debates

Debate over the Maryland Purple Line continues. The governor is expected to make a decision in a few months.

Debate over a proposed streetcar in Sacramento begins. The measure will be voted on by local residents in May.

Debate begins over funding for two new light-rail lines in Vancouver, BC. Proponents include a council of suburban mayors, all of whom no doubt hope that light-rail lines will eventually be built to their cities. (The Antiplanner will have more to say about this one in a few days.)

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$10 Billion for a Bus Terminal

As if it isn’t bad enough that New York City is spending $2.2 billion a mile building a new subway, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says that replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal will cost $8 billion to $10 billion. That estimate is up from a mere $800 million a year ago.


Some have called the Port Authority Bus Terminal one of the ten ugliest buildings in the world. Wikipedia photo by Roger Rowlett.

Port Authority officials “hope” that the federal government will pay for most of it, just as the feds paid three-fourth of the cost of the World Trade Center transit hub, which came in at $2.8 billion. Much of the current terminal is used for parking, shops, advertising, and other income-producing activities, yet it still manages to lose $100 million on operations.

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Denver’s RTD Makes the Case for Lying

Denver RTD Makes the Case for Public-Private Funding, says Progressive Railroading. In fact, Denver’s Regional Transit District is making the case for lying to the voters about everything possible in order to get as much of their money as possible.

The first lie was that FasTracks, Denver’s rail transit plan that Progressive Railroading calls “one of the largest transit expansion programs in the country,” would cost $4.7 billion. Soon after the election, RTD admitted the real cost would be $7.9 billion. Thanks to the recession, the cost has supposedly fallen to $6.9 billion, but none of these estimates include interest and other finance charges.

The second lie was that RTD would build six new light-rail or other rail lines. In order to get the support of all of the suburban mayors in the region, RTD had to promise to build all the lines at once, as mayors realized that any that were deferred to later would probably never be built. Today, RTD realizes that the Northwest line to Boulder and Longmont is just far too expensive and will carry too few riders to be worthwhile. But that applies to the rest of them too, it’s just that RTD doesn’t have enough money to build them all.

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Driving Reaches Record Levels

Americans drove more than three trillion miles in 2014, exceeding this number for the first time since 2007 and for only the third time in history. Actually, this isn’t quite a record, as the Department of Transportation estimates Americans drove 3.016 trillion miles in 2014 vs. 3.031 trillion in 2007. But if the American Public Transportation Association can get away with calling 2014 ridership levels a “record” even though it is only the 45th highest level of transit ridership in the past 103 years, then we can call 2014 driving a record when it is the second-highest level of driving in history.

Low gas prices may be responsible for the surge in driving in December–a 5 percent increase over December 2013. But the chart above shows that driving began to accelerate in April, while the chart below shows that gas prices didn’t begin falling until August, so improvements in the economy must be responsible for much of the increase.

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Already Built, DC Streetcar May Be Shut Down Before It Opens

Washington’s H Street streetcar line may be shut down before it even begins operation. In testing since last fall, the line has already experienced collisions with 11 automobiles and one railcar spontaneously combusted.

DC has already spent $200 million on the project and once had planned to spend a total of $2 billion on streetcar lines in the district. But, aside from accidents, testing revealed that the streetcars created major congestion problems and slowed down buses that carry people to work on H Street. The city predictably blames most of the accidents on the auto drivers, but if the city hadn’t put the streetcar there, most of the accidents never would have happened.

“I’m not going to ask for money from the citizens of this jurisdiction nor from this council for something I can’t manage,” says the director of the district’s Department of Transportation. The city has asked the American Public Transportation Association–hardly an unbiased source–to review the streetcar project.

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Todd Litman Misses the Point

Denver’s light rail hit and critically injured another pedestrian last week, temporarily shutting down most of the city’s light-rail trains. Meanwhile, transit apologist Todd Litman calls the Antiplanner’s assessment of light-rail dangers “a good example of bad analysis.” Light rail is more dangerous than cars and buses, he says, only because “light rail transit only operates in dense city centers where there are frequent interactions between various road users.” He suggests that cars and buses “might” be nearly as dangerous in similar situations.

The argument that “light-rail only operates in dense city centers” is questionable, but even if it were true, cars are still safer in those areas, which Litman could have learned by checking available data from the Department of Transportation. Highway Statistics table FI-220 lists highway fatalities by road type. Table VM-2 lists vehicle miles of travel by road type. We can divide through to compare fatality rates per billion miles of travel. Most of the vehicle miles are cars and light trucks containing an average of 1.67 people per vehicle (table 16).

The data show that motor vehicle accidents kill about 6.8 people per billion passenger miles on local urban streets, the most dangerous streets in urban areas. Urban collectors have only 3.6 fatalities per billion passenger miles; freeways just 2.5 to 2.8; and other arterials 4.6 to 5.9. All of these are well below light rail’s 12.5 fatalities per billion passenger miles. Commuter rail, incidentally, has 8.7 fatalities per billion passenger miles, while heavy rail and buses both work out to 4.5 fatalities per billion.

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