Category Archives: Transportation

Rail Troubles

The latest news from Hawai’i is that the Honululu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) lied to the city council when it told them the city’s rail project was $500 million to $700 million over budget. It turns out it’s really $910 million over budget. HART was just hoping to cover up $210 million of the deficit by quietly transferring bus money to the rail project.

Meanwhile, as fiscal conservative Larry Hogan is sworn in as governor of Maryland, rail advocates are doing a full-court press about how the state really needs to build the Purple Line, a light-rail line from the mighty city of New Carrollton (population: 12,000) to the city census-defined place of Bethesda (population: 63,000), passing through the census-defined place of Silver Spring (population: 77,000) on the way. The trains are expected to trundle between these suburbs at the breath-taking speed of not-quite 15.5 miles per hour, somehow attracting 69,000 daily riders along the way.

As shown earlier this week, the Maryland Department of Transportation has solid track record of overestimating light- and heavy-rail ridership by at least 100 percent. If it is built, the Purple Line is likely to be no exception. New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen line, which serves neighborhoods whose population densities are four times greater than those along the Purple Line and regional centers with far more jobs than suburban DC, carried just 44,000 riders per weekday in 2012. The Purple Line is not likely to be less than that.

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Keeping Austin Weird

With Austin’s light-rail ballot measure going down in flames last November due to its high costs, rail transit advocates have conceded defeat, folded up their tents, and gone home. Ha, ha, just kidding; actually, now they are talking about subways.

Although someone prepared this map of an Austin subway system more as a joke than anything else, it has been used in news reports about proposals to build subways in the Texas capital.

“What do most major popular cities that continue to grow and be vibrant have in common?” asks Tom Meredith, former CEO of Dell Computer, which is headquartered in Austin. His answer? “Subways.”

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Transit Ridership Overestimates

Following up on yesterday’s list of cost overruns, today the Antiplanner looks at ridership overestimates. The sample of projects today is slightly different, as several of yesterday’s projects are excluded for a lack of data while several projects are added that were excluded yesterday because they involved reconstruction of existing rail lines.

The table below shows that early ridership estimates average about 70 percent greater than the actual ridership of the project. Estimates for projects completed in the 2000s were slightly worse than estimates for projects completed in the 1980s. Estimates for 2010s projects were better, but the sample size is small.

The numbers in the table represent average weekday ridership. Most of these data are based on projections for the first year of operation, but some projects didn’t make estimates for that year so the DOT relied on estimates for a later year and tried to adjust the numbers based on the rate of growth in ridership. In two cases (marked with *) the projected year was 2010, so I used actual 2010 ridership. In a case marked **, the projected year was 2015, so I projected that year based on the growth rate through 2012.

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Rail Transit Cost Overruns

Rail transit projects typically cost about 40 to 50 percent more than projected, with some projects costing double the original projections and very few costing less than 20 percent more than the projections. The table below shows the projected and actual costs of 56 rail projects (and four bus projects). Most of the data are from a series of Department of Transportation reports, the first of which came out in 1990 (23.5 MB), with updates in 2003 (17.2 MB), 2007 (3.7 MB), 2008 (0.3 MB), 2011 (0.7 MB), 2012 (0.1 MB), and 2013 (0.8 MB).

I added five projects to those listed in these reports. One, the Los Angeles Blue Line, is documented in a 2006 paper by researchers at Northeastern University. All of the numbers in the paper are identical to the numbers in the 2007 DOT report except that the paper also has the Blue Line while the DOT report does not. I presume the methodologies are identical and that the 52 rail projects in the DOT reports and the Northeastern University paper are a representative sample, as the FTA would be unlikely to deliberately bias the sample to projects that went over cost by more than the average.

The other four projects I added were completed since 2009, the date of the last project studied in the DOT papers. I based the data for these projects on FTA New Starts reports and other official documentation. My selection of projects may not be as representative a cross-section of projects completed in that time period as I only picked projects I know about and these may tend to go over cost by more than the average.

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Abolish the Gas Tax?

Last month, the Eno Center for Transportation proposed to abolish the gas tax, and the Antiplanner panned the idea. This week, the Wall Street Journal proposes abolish the gas tax, and the Antiplanner thinks it may be right.

The difference is that Eno wanted to replace the gas tax with federal transportation spending out of general funds in a deliberate effort to make transportation even more politicized than it is today. The Journal, on the other hand, wants to de-politicize highway spending.

The problem is that the Journal never actually says what it proposes to do instead of the gas tax. Reading between the lines, what the Journal is really proposing is to abolish the federal gas tax, while letting states fund highways out of gas taxes, tolls, mileage-based user fees, or whatever fees work best in each state. Too bad it didn’t bother to make the case for that, or even explain it.

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Big Brother Wants to Watch You Drive

In 2008, the Washington legislature passed a law mandating a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. California and Oregon have similar but somewhat less draconian laws or regulations.

The Obama administration wants to mandate that all new cars come equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, so the car can send signals to and receive messages from street lights and other infrastructure.

Now the California Air Resources Board is considering regulations requiring that all new cars monitor their owners’ driving habits, including, among other things, how many miles they drive, how much fuel they use, and how much pollution or greenhouse gases they emit.

Put these all together and you have a system in which the government will not only know where your vehicle is at all times, but can turn off your vehicle if it decides you are driving too much or driving in a way that emits too many grams of carbon dioxide or is otherwise offensive to some bureaucratic imperative.

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Smoke on the Water

“On behalf of the Board of Directors and all Metro employees, I offer my deepest condolences to the family of the passenger who died yesterday following the incident on the Yellow Line,” said chairman Tom Downs of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority yesterday. “Please know that once the cause of this incident is understood, we are prepared to take the actions needed to prevent this from happening again.”

But WMATA isn’t prepared to prevent this from happening again, and that’s the problem. We know it isn’t prepared because it has had this problem before and didn’t solve it then.

“Smoke poured into Metro subway tunnels again last night,” reported the Washington Post back in 2007. At the time, officials claimed the source of the smoke was “baffling,” but the article provided some clues to the answer. The problem seemed to lay with smoldering fiberglass insulators, which “can last for years if they are in dry areas but only several months if in wet areas.”

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Sloganeering Won’t Make Transit a Success

Last week, officials of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) celebrated their successes over the past year. Their theme was that the state of MARTA was “good to great.” MARTA CEO Keith Parker expressed MARTA’s policies with the acronym SEAT: “Service, Economy, Arts, and Technology.”


A MARTA heavy-rail train. Wikimedia Commons photo by RTABus.

The truth is that MARTA is something of a paradox. On one hand, it has built a reasonably efficient 52-mile-long rail system: fares cover 40 percent of operating costs, which is much higher than the transit industry’s overall 25 percent; railcars carry an average of 26 passengers, which is more than Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington’s heavy-rail systems; and they consume less than 2,000 BTUs of energy per passenger mile, which is second only to New York City subways in terms of energy efficiency.

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There’s a Car in Your Future

An anti-auto urbanist named Brad Meacham wrote a blog post that offers a typical “we-have-to-get-people-out-of-their-cars” diatribe. When Meacham’s post was picked up by a San Antonio on-line magazine, someone asked the Antiplanner to comment. While my response speaks for itself, I’d like to add a few comments here where I don’t have to worry so much about word limits.

Meacham’s case against cars stands on four legs:

  1. Congestion is only going to get worse
  2. The cost of driving is increasing
  3. Fiscal reality will force cuts to highway budgets
  4. People are hungry for community

The first claim is almost certainly false. As the Reason Foundation recently showed in the case of Denver, if an urban area truly wants to reduce congestion, it can do it and do it in a cost-effective manner. Reason’s plan for Denver would cost less than half as much as Denver planners are already planning to spend on transport, but because Reason’s spending is targeted on congestion-reduction rather than social engineering, it actually can relieve congestion.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner was in Austin yesterday speaking at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference for Texas legislators. I gave two presentations, both of which are available for download.

First, I talked about how Texas can keep the “Texas miracle” going by protecting property rights (8-MB PowerPoint show). I made three recommendations:

  1. Don’t give counties the authority to regulate land uses. Texas may be the only state that doesn’t allow counties to zone, and this keeps city zoning from being too restrictive because developers can simply avoid city rules by developing outside of the cities.
  2. Relax the financial requirements for municipal utility districts. Municipal utility districts allow developers to borrow funds to install infrastructure and then charge homebuyers and other property owners a fee for 30 years to repay the bonds. After the financial crisis, the Texas legislature required developers to put up more of their own funds for infrastructure, leading to a significant increase in housing prices. I argued that the risk of defaults was worth it to keep housing affordable.
  3. Retain city authority to annex land without the permission of the residents being annexed. Most debates over urban sprawl are really debates over who gets to collect taxes. In states where cities have a hard time annexing land, they use other tools, such as urban-growth boundaries, to limit land development. While annexations without voter permission are controversial, the alternative is worse. However, Texas cities are also allowed to have control over certain “extraterritorial” lands outside their city limits. This does not seem to be needed to keep housing affordable and eliminating that control would relieve many of the debates over annexation.

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