Category Archives: Transportation

“Equity” Is a Word We Want to Use in this Press Release

Advancing its “regional transit equity” plan, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council issued a press release last week announcing it has received a $3.26 million federal grant to build or “enhance” 140 bus shelters. This money is matched, on a one-to-four basis, with $815,000 of local funds, meaning each bus shelter will cost a whopping $29,000.

Meanwhile, the Met Council is twisting the arms of city officials to gain support for a $1.7-billion light-rail line extending from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, which is probably the Twin Cities’ wealthiest suburb. Three (out of 13) members of the Minneapolis city council voted against the project, partly due to concerns over transit equity.

“If we think equity means maybe we might build some heated bus stops in north Minneapolis sometime in the future that we can’t promise or guarantee and we won’t tell you where they’ll be, then good for us for standing up for equity,” one of the councilors who voted “no” sarcastically stated.

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Still on the Road

Tonight, the Antiplanner will be in Rochester, Minnesota to address a proposed high-speed train between Rochester and Minneapolis. I’ll speak at the Rochester International Event Center, 7333 Airport Drive SW, at 7 pm.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is going through the process of preparing an environmental impact statement for the “zip train.” I suspect there is only a tiny chance that the train could be funded, but MNDOT wants to be ready in case money for high-speed rail falls out of the sky as it did in 2009 when Congress passed the stimulus bill. Not surprisingly, Parsons Brinckerhoff is also behind the effort.

The response to a request for comments on the scope of the planned EIS produced so much opposition that MNDOT is taking longer than it expected to produce a final scoping document. Among other things, MNDOT has decided to include a “no-build” alternative in the EIS, the absence of which would have been reprehensible. After all, the no-build alternative was found to be the environmentally preferred alternative in the EIS for the Tampa-Orlando high-speed train (see p. 2-38).

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Indiana Tollroad Operators File for Bankruptcy

The consortium that paid $3.8 billion to lease the Indiana Tollroad filed for bankruptcy yesterday. The operators–a Spanish company named Cintra and an Australian company named Macquarie–said that revenues were up and costs down, but it wasn’t enough for them to keep up on their mortgage payments.

According to toll-advocate Robert Poole, the problem was that Cintra-Macquarie had structured its debt to require a large payment after ten years, but the recession prevented it from collecting enough money to meet that schedule. On the other hand, toll critic Terri Hall argues that the bankruptcy helps demonstrate that such leases are inappropriate and cronyistic.

Coincidentally, Poole and Hall debated tollroads and public-private partnerships at the American Dream conference in Denver last Friday. (The debate also included Greg Cohen of the American Highway User Alliance.) Hall argued that long-term leases allowed governors such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels to collect and spend large sums of money during their administrations but left travelers paying heavy tolls for generations to come.

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Policy Implications of Autonomous Vehicles

Tomorrow, the Cato Institue will release a new paper on the policy implications of self-driving cars. Antiplanner readers can download a preview of the paper today.

In a nutshell, the paper argues that self-driving cars combined with car sharing will put public transit agencies out of business. The average cost of transit, including subsidies is $1 a passenger mile. Self-driving cars should cost far less than half of that. This means there will be no reason to continue to subsidize transit except in a few very dense areas such as New York City.

The paper also points out that most of the effects of self-driving cars can’t be predicted today, so Congress should give up on the idea of having states and metropolitan planning agencies write long-range transportation plans that we know will be wrong. Transportation agencies should solve today’s problems today and prepare for autonomous vehicles by keeping roads in good repair and following consistent sign standards.

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Facts vs. Insults and Innuendo

Rail transit is excessively expensive, inflexible, and incapable of moving as many people as buses. Yet when the Antiplanner points out these facts, rather than respond with factual arguments, rail supporters reply with insults and innuendo.

In Florida, for example, a Tampa Bay Times columnist named Daniel Ruth spent an entire column attacking my credibility apparently because someone paid me an honorarium of $500 to evaluate the St. Petersburg light-rail plan. Ruth did not make any factual arguments in favor of the plan; he merely contended that my opposition was a foregone conclusion and so should be ignored.

He even implied that I didn’t get paid enough for my conclusions to be credible. After all, the transit agency spent millions of dollars hiring consultants to write reports about the proposal, and those very reports were the sources of much of my information. Those same consultants are, of course, financially backing the election campaign in favor of light rail, and if voters approve, they stand to make tens if not hundreds of millions in profits. If the measure loses, neither I nor anyone at Cato will make a dime of profit. Yet somehow they are supposed to be more credible than I.

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More Light-Rail Critiques

Sorry about the light postings this week, but I’ve been pretty busy talking with people about light rail. Here is my presentation about light rail in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida, and here is my presentation about light rail in Austin, Texas.

These are large files–Pinellas is 18 MB, Austin is 24–and they don’t include the videos I used for those presentations. If you want the videos, which are self-driving cars, click here to download a 44-MB zip file with three videos that I used in both presentations.

Next week I go to Denver for the 2014 American Dream conference, so postings may be light then as well. The week after that I’ll be back in Minneapolis to debate Myron Orfield over land-use regulation and density. That should be fun.


Left-Wing Streetcar Skeptics Don’t Get It

More left-wing writers are expressing skepticism of the streetcars that have been infecting so many American cities. They aren’t anti-rail transit, they say, just anti-bad rail transit.

“Too many new streetcars are being deployed as economic engines first and mobility tools second (if at all)” says Atlantic writer Eric Jaffe. However, “if they run in dedicated lanes and with high frequencies as part of a wider network, they can perform quite well.” That all depends on how you define “perform.”

Streetcars have a huge disadvantage over almost all other transit: their extremely low capacities. Dedicated lanes or not, they can only move about 2,000 people per hour (about 100 people per streetcar about 20 times per hour). Combine this limited capacity with their high cost and streetcars are a huge waste compared with buses that can easily move 10,000 or more people per hour at a much lower cost.

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Cadillac vs. Mercedes

Cadillac has announced that in 2017 it will begin selling truly “hands-free” cars that can steer themselves and control their own speeds to avoid collisions. While other manufacturers, including Acura, Infiniti, and Mercedes, most manufacturers have simply provided lane keep assist, which warns drivers when they drift out of a lane.

The new thing in Cadillac announcement is the inclusion of vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The Antiplanner thinks building such systems into cars is unnecessary because they are already inherent in many smart-phone apps, and since consumers replace smart phones more frequently than cars, they will be assured of having the latest technology at all times.

Perhaps more significant is Daimler’s announcement that it has bought MyTaxi, a competitor of Uber. Mercedes obviously believes that car sharing and smart-phone apps will play an important role in the future of the cars it manufactures.


Green Line Claims First Fatality

Last Sunday, a pedestrian was struck and killed by the Twin Cities new Green light-rail line, which opened for operation in June. Shannon Buchanan was apparently crossing a pedestrian way over the tracks and was hit by a train going about 30 mph.

Though the train’s average speed is just 12.5 mph, at the point where the woman was hit it was going 30 mph. “She may have been wearing headphones,” said a transit agency official. Agencies typically claim that most accidents are the fault of the victims, as if putting a heavy, difficult-to-stop train in the same streets as pedestrians and autos is not the fault of the agency.

The FTA no longer includes fatality data in the National Transit Database, but the last time data were available, light rail was involved in about 12 fatalities per billion passenger miles carried while buses were involved in only about 4 fatalities per billion. Apparently, it’s a lot safer to get hit by a 50,000-pound bus than a 300,000-pound train.

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Making the Poor Subsidize the Rich

Utah Transit Authority executives are overcompensated, the agency has underfunded its high rail maintenance costs, its bus service has suffered due to financial constraints, concludes the Utah State Legislative Auditor. Moreover, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the agency’s fare structure makes the poor subsidize the rich, which the agency has signed cushy deals with developers that sometimes financially benefit agency board members.

Sounds like a typical rail transit agency. Naturally, the agency claims (in an appendix to the report) that it is innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it cannot deny that bus service (as measured by vehicle revenue miles) declined nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2012, years in which the agency spent close to #1 billion on commuter trains that, as of 2012, were carrying fewer than 3,200 round trips per day.

The American Public Transit Association recently named Utah Transit the transit system of the year. But it’s clear from past awards that APTA admires agencies that are best able to con taxpayers out of their money, not ones that provide the best service to transit riders. UTA, which is proud of spending more per capita than any other transit agency, seems to have done a good job of conning taxpayers. Let’s hope audits like this one will open their eyes.