The Antiplanner is in Lafayette, Louisiana today to talk about urban planning. I’ll be speaking tomorrow about the city & parish’s current plans and proposed new development code.
In the meantime, Bloomberg reports that Millennials want to own and drive cars about as much as their parents’ did–it was just the poor economy holding them back. Of course, they’d rather drive “cool” cars such as Teslas or Priuses rather than Cadillac Escalades. But drive they will.
In other news, Amtrak’s accounting tricks are catching up to it, as illustrated by an escalator in Penn Station that went out of order in January and hasn’t been fixed yet. In order to make it appear that its trains are more profitable than they really are, Amtrak defined “maintenance” costs as capital improvements. It then went to Congress and bragged that its operating subsidies were smaller than ever–but it needed huge capital subsidies, which Congress failed to give it.
Japan has test-run a mag-lev train at faster than 600 kilometers per hour, a fact that is ” further humiliating the US rail industry,” says Business Insider. As an American, I feel totally humiliated by this test.
After all, after spending more than $100 billion (about $350 million per mile) on infrastructure that will require millions of dollars of precision maintenance each year, Japan will have a Tokyo-Osaka train whose normal top speed of 500 kph will be barely 60 percent as fast as the cruising speed of a Boeing 737-600 and less than 55 percent as fast as the cruising speed of a Boeing 787. Compared with mag-lev, those airplanes require hardly any infrastructure: a few acres of approximately smooth runways, a few air terminals, and air traffic control.
“Why can’t America have great trains?” asks East Coast writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in the National Journal. The simple answer is, “Because we don’t want them.” The slightly longer answer is, “because the fastest trains are slower than flying; the most frequent trains are less convenient than driving; and trains are almost always more expensive than either flying or driving.”
Van Zuylen-Wood’s article contains familiar pro-passenger-train hype: praise for European and Asian trains; selective statistics about Amtrak ridership; and a search for villains in the federal government who are trying to kill the trains. The other side of the story is quite different.
For example, he notes that Amtrak “ridership has increased by roughly 50 percent in the past 15 years.” But he fails to note that the biggest driver of Amtrak ridership is gasoline prices, which 15 years ago were at an all-time low (after adjusting for inflation). Now that prices are falling, so is Amtrak’s ridership.
The Cato Institute will publish a new report tomorrow looking at the inequities of federal transit funding. Antiplanner readers can download a preview copy today; many of the results in the paper have previously been reported here.
The Antiplanner has argued for years that federal transit funding was inefficient because it encouraged transit agencies to choose high-cost alternatives in any transit corridor. The new paper shows the results of this inefficiency: transit agencies that have persuaded local politicians to go along with these high-cost alternatives have ended up with as much as eight times more federal transit dollars per transit rider than agencies that settled for low-cost alternatives.
Bloomberg argues that “supply alone is [not] behind the plunge in crude prices to $50 a barrel.” Instead, demand for motor fuel has slacked off due to lack of growth in driving combined with more fuel-efficient cars and more competitive electric cars.
The electric cars argument is specious, as too few of them have been sold to have much of an impact. The lack of growth in driving has already begun to turn around. Bloomberg itself demolishes the argument that supply isn’t the major factor with its very next story, which reports that Saudi Arabia greatly stepped up oil production in March, partly to meet the country’s “growing domestic requirements” and partly, no doubt, to hurt American or possibly Russian producers.
There is no doubt that cars are becoming more fuel efficient, but that is offset by the huge increase in cars sold in China, where auto sales have exceeded those in the United States since 2009. Besides, gasoline only accounts for about 19 gallons of product from a 42-gallon barrel of oil. Some of the rest goes to Diesel fuel, but most goes into other products for which demand is not likely to decline.
Hampton Roads Transit, which serves Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Newport News, is having a difficult time. Ridership for the first seven months of fiscal 2015 (which began in July) is down 9 percent from 2013, and 2013 ridership wasn’t so hot in the first place. Financial records show that the revenue per rider, at 98 cents per trip, is 8 cents more than the agency’s target, but the cost per rider, at $5.41 per trip, is 73 cents less than targeted, so fares are only covering 18 percent of operating costs.
Click on the image to go to the page where you can download the draft environmental impact statement–comments due May 5.
What to do in this situation? For any transit agency, the solution is obvious: build more light rail. The region’s one light-rail line opened 16 months late and cost 60 percent more than projected. It was supposed to carry 10,400 riders per weekday in its opening year; it actually carried less than 4,400. While it was up to 5,500 in 2013, the 23 percent drop in light-rail ridership so far in 2015 suggests that the average this year will be even less than in the opening year.
Transit-oriented developments (TODs) are supposed to promote economic growth because the demand for it is so high. But if so many people want to live in dense, mixed-use developments, why do they so often need subsidies?
The latest proposal to subsidize TODs comes from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). He wants to expand use of the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program to allow the funds to be used for TODs. RRIF was created mainly to provide low-interest loans to smaller freight railroads improve their facilities and restructure debt so shippers along those rail lines would not be stranded (or have to resort to trucks) if the rail lines failed.
However, some of the money has been used for passenger rail, including $663 million for Amtrak and $72.5 million for the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains. Considering that these are perpetual loss-making enterprises that have no hope of repaying the loans except out of other tax dollars, expanding this fund for money-losing TODs may seem a natural next step to Booker. But Booker’s fundamental assumption, like that of many Democrats, is that the federal government has an infinite capacity to give away funds, which is what these “loans” are if they can’t be repaid.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is increasingly dysfunctional. DC’s subway system is designed to run eight-car trains but due to lack of equipment two-thirds of the trains operating during rush hour have only six cars even though they are packed full of people. WMATA has asked Virginia, Maryland, and DC for nearly $1.5 billion so it can purchase new equipment and upgrade its system to allow a return to eight-car trains.
The Maryland secretary of transportation, Pete Rahn, says the state is reluctant to give hundreds of millions of dollars to an agency as poorly run as WMATA. As an example of poor management, Rahn pointed to a dispute among the agency’s board over what kind of person should replace the agency’s general manager, Richard Sarles, who retired from his $366,000 a year job in January.
Some on the board wanted to hire a “turnaround expert” who could restore the agency’s fortunes. Others wanted to hire someone with more experience in the transit industry. The dispute became so serious that the mayor of Washington proposed to dismiss board member (and last year’s board chair) Tom Downs, who favored hiring someone with more transit expertise, because he disagreed with the mayor’s desire for a turnaround expert. In response, three candidates who were being considered for the job withdrew their applications.
Auto manufacturers revealed plans for cars with self-driving capabilities at the New York Auto Show last week. These include cars that will be on the market within a year or two.
Volvo, for example, plans to introduce a car this Spring that can “take over both the steering and throttle to follow the car in front of it at speeds up to about 35 miles per hour.” Audi plans to offer cars with a similar feature (up to 40 mph) as soon as January, 2016. The manufacturers use some variation of the term “traffic jam assist” to describe this feature. While the drive won’t actually be steering the car, for liability reasons the cars will require that the drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel or at least put them there every 10 seconds or so.
Late next year Cadillac will offer its top-of-the-line CT6 model with a “super cruise” feature that will combine self-steering and adaptive cruise control at highways speeds: “hands-off-the-wheel, feet-off-the-pedals highway driving.” Cadillac publicity has at least implied that drivers will be able to take their hands off the steering wheel for extended periods without having to touch the wheel every 15 seconds or so like other brands. GM had announced this feature last year, but gave more particulars at the New York show.
The Antiplanner was in Spokane yesterday where the local transit agency is asking voters for a 50 percent increase in the sales tax that funds most of the agency’s operations. Much of the new money will go for various capital projects that will do little to increase ridership.
$1.2 million will buy you a bus that can go 170 miles on a single charge of batteries. The bus has 60 seats, which is just what is needed in Spokane, where the average bus carries just 9 people.
Spokane Transit previously persuaded voters to double the sales tax in 2004. The improvements made with that money led to a small increase in per capita transit ridership from about 25 trips per person per year to 27. Based on this, it doesn’t seem likely that another 50 percent increase in funding will do much to boost ridership.