Category Archives: Transportation

“Stability” Is Another Word for “Lack of Accountability”

A bill in the California legislature would give Caltrain, the commuter trains that connect San Jose with San Francisco, “permanent financial stability.” That’s good news if you think you will be riding Caltrains one thousand years from now, but it’s bad news for the taxpayers who will have to “permanently”–however long that is–pay for running empty trains.

Many transit agencies already have dedicated funds, by which they mean taxes that go straight into their coffers, but those that don’t whine and moan endlessly about how they would be much better off if only they had a dedicated fund. They even love to make fine distinctions: Atlanta’s MARTA complains that it has no dedicated funds from the state, but it does get a 1 percent sales tax, half of which has to be spent on capital improvements.

Transit advocates also like to point out that highways were built with a dedicated fund. Yet the gas taxes that go into that fund are highway user fees. In that sense, every transit agency has a dedicated fund because it gets to keep its user fees.

But user fees are not enough to sustain transit’s hungry appetites. As the article about Caltrain says, fares cover only 70 percent of operating costs. Instead of saying, “Maybe that means it isn’t worth it,” the article argues that everyone in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties should pay a sales tax to support the 1.5 percent of Bay Area workers who take Caltrain to work (according to the 2015 American Community Survey).

We know from this list of major transit agencies with dedicated funds–which includes New York’s MTA, Boston’s MBTA, and several others with huge maintenance backlogs, that dedicated funds don’t solve an agency’s financial problem. What they do instead is give transit agencies a large chunk of money they can waste without worrying about whether anyone is actually riding their buses or trains.

Some smaller transit agencies are already threatened by Lyft and Uber. What will happen when a big transit agency with a dedicated tax loses most of its customers to private competitors? The few remaining customers it has, along with transit unions and others dependent on transit spending, will lobby to keep that dedicated tax even when alternative transportation is less expensive.

For this reason alone, legislators should be wary of creating new taxes dedicated to transit. A permanent tax to support an impermanent service is a permanent waste.

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Will Miami Settle for Modern Transportation?

“Can Miami afford more rail?” asks the Miami Herald. “Or will it settle for buses?” That’s like asking if you can afford an IBM 700 mainframe computer from the 1950s or if you will settle for a MacBook Pro. Both buses and laptop computers are far less expensive than rails and mainframes, but the former are also far more flexible.

In 1972, Miami persuaded voters to put up the money to build a 50-mile heavy-rail system. With 80 percent of the cost paid for by the feds, they finally opened a 20-mile line in 1984, but then ran out of money having spent well over a billion dollars, far more than expected. Ridership was poor and people took to calling it a white elephant.

Memories grow dim, however, and in 2002 Miami convinced voters to approve another transit tax, supposedly to finish the system. Only a handful of miles were built, at the cost of close to another billion, before that effort ran out of steam as well. Continue reading

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Amtrak Wants to What?

Amtrak’s co-CEO Wick Moorman has announced that the passenger railroad is thinking of offering a new service to compete with the airlines: economy seating that is crammed together as tightly as airline seats. This was immediately blasted by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), saying, “Amtrak should not throw out one of the best things about Amtrak and train travel — that is, you at least get a seat you can sit in and be comfortable.”

In fact, this idea makes no sense not because heavily subsidized train travelers somehow deserve more comfortable seats but because it would cost Amtrak more in lost revenues than it will save. Airlines fill 85 percent of their seats and on lots of flights they fill 100 percent. Amtrak fills only 51 percent of its seats, so cramming more seats into a railcar will simply mean more empty seats.

According to USA Today, Amtrak seat pitches–the distance from the back of one row of seats to the back of the next–are 39 inches for day trains and 50 inches for overnight trains. Airline seat pitches are 30 to 33 inches while buses are 28 to 31 inches. That means Amtrak could squeeze in four rows of seats where it now has three on day trains and five rows where it now has three on overnight trains.
Amtrak’s overnight trains rarely have more than four coaches. Substituting one economy coach for two regular coaches would save a little bit on fuel and maintenance and results in an overall loss of seating capacity. Many coach riders on the overnight trains are price sensitive, so most of the people attracted to the economy coaches would have otherwise taken the regular train. Thus, Amtrak is likely to lose more revenue than it gains by attracting few people away from buses or planes. Continue reading

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Transit’s Precipitous Decline

Transit ridership in the first quarter of 2017 was 3.1 percent less than the same quarter in 2016, according the American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report. The association released the report without a press release, instead issuing a release complaining about the House Appropriations bill reducing funding for transit.

The ridership report is devastating news for anyone who believes transit deserves more subsidies. Every heavy-rail system lost riders except the PATH trains between Newark and Manhattan and the Patco line between Camden and Philadelphia. Commuter rail did a little better, mainly because of the opening of Denver’s A line and trend-countering growth of riders on the Long Island Railroad. Most light-rail lines lost riders, though surprisingly many streetcar lines gained riders.

In most cases where light-rail ridership grew, it did so at the expense of bus ridership. Los Angeles Metro gained 1.66 million light-rail riders but lost 8.73 million bus riders, or more than five for every new light-rail rider. Between the two modes, Phoenix’s Valley Metro lost 23,100 riders; Charlotte 20,200 lost riders; and Dallas Area Rapid Transit lost 193,100 riders. Similarly, Orlando’s commuter trains gained 22,700 riders but buses lost 98,500. Continue reading

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Can New York Afford Rail Transit?

The Antiplanner has often said that New York City is the one city in America that truly needs rail transit because the concentration of jobs in midtown and downtown Manhattan is too great to be served by surface streets alone. But can New York afford rail transit? The city’s transit system has been getting by on bridge tolls, loans, deferred maintenance, unfunded pension and health care obligations, and turning a blind eye to major structural problems with its rail system.

The New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) latest financial statement says that, at the end of 2016, the agency had long-term debts of $37 billion (p. 25). By now, it is above $38 billion, more than that of many small countries. The statement also says the MTA has $18 billion in unfunded pension and health-care obligations (p. 83).

Unlike some transit agencies, MTA hasn’t made public any estimates of its maintenance backlog. But its latest capital improvement program calls for spending more than $32 billion over the next five years, mostly on maintenance and rehabilitation of the subways, Long Island Railroad, and Metro North railroad. This is more of a goal than a plan, as it will require $7.5 billion in further borrowing plus getting several billion dollars from federal grantmaking programs that the administration wants to cut. Even if fully funded, it probably would not completely eliminate the rail systems’ maintenance deficits. Continue reading

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It’s the Deferred Maintenance, Stupid

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of stories blaming New York subway problems on overcrowding. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) presented data showing that the number of delays caused by crowding had tripled since 2014, while the number caused by track maintenance or signal problems had remained relatively constant.

The MTA also helpfully pointed out that the number of trips taken on the subway had grown from 1 billion a year in 1990 to 1.8 billion in 2015, while the number of miles of subway lines and subway cars had remained relatively constant. That sounded persuasive, but the Antiplanner was suspicious. This explanation conveniently shifts the blame from MTA’s mismanagement to subway users and also invites the solution of giving MTA a lot of money to increase capacities–a solution MTA would be very happy to implement.

Besides, New York subway ridership first reached 1.8 billion way back in 1926, when the system had many fewer route miles than it has today. Construction of the Independent system, which is more than a quarter of the total, began in 1932 and wasn’t completed until 1940. Subway riders in 1926 complained the trains were crowded, but delays due to that crowding weren’t a significant problem. Continue reading

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House Bill Kills Tiger, Cuts New Starts,
Keeps Amtrak, Earmarks Gateway

The House Appropriations Committee has released a proposed 2018 transportation funding bill that follows the administration’s proposal to end the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. This program, which spent $500 million a year funding numerous streetcar projects and other boondoggles around the country, was originally created to stimulate the economy. While there is no evidence that it actually did stimulate the economy, the economy arguably doesn’t need to be stimulated any more.

The bill funds $2.75 billion (a $500 million reduction from 2017) for the transit capital investment program (a.k.a. New Starts) and directs the Secretary of Transportation to “continue to administer” the program in accordance with the law. However, it doesn’t specifically mandate that the secretary sign any new full funding grant agreements, and so long as they remain unsigned, projects without such agreements can’t be funded.

As the Antiplanner predicted, the House rejected the administration’s proposal to stop funding Amtrak long-distance trains. Half the states are served only by long-distance trains, so cutting those trains effectively tells half of Congress that their interests are less important than those of the other half. The administration would be done better to propose to give Amtrak incentives to increase ridership in the form of 10 cents in subsidies per passenger mile carried. Since current federal subsidies average more than 20 cents a passenger mile (plus more from the states), this proposal would have led to a debate over “how much should the subsidy be?” rather than “which states should get subsidies?” Continue reading

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Transit Agencies Want Your Money

Transit agencies have a simple answer to every problem: you should give them more money. Back when transit ridership was increasing, the transit lobby said the increase was “a clear message to Congress that the citizens of this country want expanded public transit services” and that Congress should pass a “well-funded bill” that “invests in our country’s public transit infrastructure.”

Now that transit ridership is declining, the same transit lobbyists say the solution is more money to entice people back onto the buses and trains. The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, whose ridership has been “steadily declining,” wants to trade in the property tax that now earns it $13 million a year for a regional sales tax that will provide $30 million a year. Such a deal!

Santa Cruz Metro, whose buses lost 2 percent of their riders last year, has relied on the city to provide millions of dollars from a reserve fund to keep its system going. Yet officials bristle when people complain that they are not doing a good job of making the agency self sufficient. “We had an incredible year last year of receiving grants,” brags Metro’s CEO. If that is the criterion by which he wants to be judged, the Antiplanner thinks his priorities are misplaced. Continue reading

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Rhode Island Throws Good Money After Bad

Thanks to bad planning on the part of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, a handful of commuters are getting free rides on commuter trains for the rest of the year. In 2012, the state opened new commuter rail stations and started service between Wickford Junction and Providence, with trains going on to Boston, at a cost of $50 million (half of which came from the federal New Starts program).

Wickford Junction’s $25 million train station and parking garage. RIDOT photo.

A large chunk of the money went to build an 1,100-space, four-story parking garage in Wickford Junction. The state was counting on the claims made by so many other cities that rail transit (with a little help to developers such as parking garages) would stimulate new development. Continue reading

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Dallas Area Rapid Transit Regroups

Dallas has spent more than $5 billion (more than $8 billion in today’s dollars) building the nation’s longest light-rail system, and has very little to show for it. In 1991, just before Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) began building its first light-rail line, the region’s transit systems (including Ft. Worth and various suburban lines) carried 19.4 transit trips per capita. That’s not much, but it’s more than they carry today: despite having 93 miles of light rail and a 34-mile commuter-rail line, the region carries just 14.1 trips per capita.

At first, the public seemed to respond to the light rail. In 1995, the year before it opened, DART buses carried 44 million trips. By 2001, with 23 miles of light rail, buses plus light rail carried more than 60 million trips. Per capita ridership peaked in that year at 20.1 trips.

Ridership continued to grow and reached 75 million trips in 2004. But it wasn’t keeping up with population growth, as trips per capita had fallen back down to 19. After the financial crisis, DART bus and light-rail ridership fell to 55 million and today has only partially recovered to 66 million. One reason for the decline was financial: vehicle miles of bus service have fallen by nearly 10 percent since 2005. Continue reading

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