The Federal Transit Administration’s latest estimates suggest that the Honolulu rail line now under construction could cost nearly $10.8 billion, or more than twice the $5.1 billion originally promised. That’s the “highest possible cost” calculated by its estimation process, while the “likely range” is $7.2 to $8.0 billion. However, two years ago, the highest possible cost was estimated to be $7.6 billion, which is right in the middle of today’s likely range.
Any of those numbers are drastic overruns. Typically, transit agency officials have denied there is an overrun. But now they are proposing to not build the last five miles of the rail line into downtown Honolulu. Since they started construction in middle of farm lands 20 miles from downtown, they would truly have a rail line going from nowhere to hardly anywhere.
Even if it doesn’t finish the line, the city has already purchased and may continue to purchase land in the downtown area for the rail line. This creates uncertainty among property owners. Even further uncertainty is generated by reports of shoddy construction. Meanwhile, the FTA has hinted it might withhold some of the federal government’s share of funding if the line isn’t completed.
New York City subways have been in the news lately. A passenger thought they heard a gun, which lead to a stampede of people trying to get out of the Central Park North station in a case of what authorities called “mass hysteria.” Second, the Wall Street Journalreports that the number of reported gropings, public lewdness, and similar sexual offenses has gone up 50 percent in the last year. City police attribute this to more victims reporting crimes more than an actual increase in the crimes, but the Antiplanner is dubious about that.
Are New York subways really overcrowded? MTA claims that some subway lines are running at capacity.
These problems result, at least in part, from overcrowding. As the Antiplanner has noted before, transit ridership is declining in most cities, but continues to grow in New York due to increased jobs. This ridership growth, however, doesn’t come without cost, including more than a doubling of the number of delayed trains. Even if trains aren’t delayed, they might be so crowded that passengers have to wait for two or more full trains to go by before one arrives that has room for them to board.
An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that self-driving cars will give more people access to housing that is affordable, particularly in urban areas where growth-management regulation has driving up housing costs. Unfortunately, that’s not the overt message in the article, which is instead headlined, “Driverless Cars to Fuel Suburban Sprawl,” as if that’s a bad thing.
You’d think that a writer for the Wall Street Journal would realize that sprawl is a good thing, but it gives people access to more affordable housing and less traffic congestion, and most importantly allows people to live in the way most people prefer: in a single-family home on a private lot. But this article by technology writer Christopher Mims seems to assume that everyone knows sprawl is bad, even though it doesn’t say why. In fact, the article reports, in a shocked tone, that “half of Americans live in, and are perfectly fine with, suburbs.”
Mims admits that no one really knows how self-driving cars will change the world. But he joins others in assuming that nearly everyone will give up owning a car and rely on car-sharing instead. After all, he and others point out, cars are actually used only 5 percent of the time–what a waste! Hey, Mr. Mims, the toilet in your house is probably used only about 5 percent of the time. Are you willing to share it with anyone who can download a smartphone app?
When the California High-Speed Rail Authority put the 2008 measure on the ballot for the state to build the line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, they claimed that the line would earn more than a billion dollars a year in operating profits (compare tables on pages 21 and 22), and that private investors would gladly invest around $7 billion in the project in order to get a share of those profits (figure 26).
As recently as two months ago, when asked at a legislative hearing if other high-speed rail operations earned “a substantial profit,” rail authority chair Dan Richard replied, “all of them, virtually all of them, make operating profit.” But Richard had to know that was a lie.
The Federal Transit Administration’s 2017 New Starts report recommends funding for 22 different bus-rapid transit projects in cities ranging from Lansing to New York. Many of these projects propose to convert existing street lanes to dedicated bus lanes, which the Antiplanner thinks is usually a waste. In particular, the Antiplanner has criticized such proposals in Albuquerque and Indianapolis.
Now a new report from a surprising source confirms the Antiplanner’s conclusions about Albuquerque’s proposal and provides a model that skeptical citizens can use in other cities. The report is by Gregory Rowangould, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico whose research focuses on sustainable transportation. Rowangould formerly worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and is a strong transit advocate. However, like the Antiplanner, he is very skeptical of Albuquerque’s proposal to convert two of the four-to-six lanes of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue to dedicated bus lanes.
In order to be eligible for federal funds for the project, the city hired Parsons Brinckerhoff to do a traffic study and HDR to do a travel demand analysis. The city’s grant application reported to the FTA that the proposed project would relieve congestion, significantly increase transit ridership, and in particular help low-income people. Rowangould’s review of the traffic and travel demand analyses found, however, that the opposite would be true: the project would severely increase congestion, it would do little for transit ridership, but it would especially hurt low-income transit riders.
Washington Metro is shutting down parts of its rail system in succession so it can do maintenance work on them. Commuters appear to be adjusting to Metro’s slowdowns and shutdowns, but Metro employees haven’t.
Metro calls its maintenance program “SafeTrack,” but it appears to be anything but safe. In the course of one five-hour period yesterday, a Metro maintenance railcar derailed; a train carrying passengers collided with the mirror on the derailed railcar; and an empty train collided with a stationary train in a rail yard.
Fortunately, no one was hurt, but why was a revenue train allowed to use a track right next to the derailed railcar? Why did the railcar–whose job it was to secure rails to the ties–derail in the first place? Did the operator of the train in the rail yard fall asleep? All these events suggest that, while Metro may be spending money on maintenance, it still does not have the safety culture it needs to operate a public transportation system.
Electric cars! Robocars! Smart transit stations! Solar-powered buses! Free WiFi in transit corridors! These are some of the ideas proposed by seven cities that made the cut from 71 original applicants for President Obama’s “smart city” challenge. The Obama administration promises to give away $40 million to some lucky winner, with more likely in future years.
These are almost all stupid ideas that will do little to fix the real transportation problems in the cities that are applying for the funds. But the federal government has offered funds for these kinds of projects, so these kinds of projects is what cities will do.
Almost all of the applicants, for example, mentioned self-driving cars or robocars. But, as the Antiplanner has shown before, no new infrastructure is needed for the self-driving cars being developed by Google, Volvo, Volkswagen, Ford, and other companies to operate. All they really need is clear road stripes, consistent road signs and signals, smooth roads, and perhaps some standards for road construction detours. None of the applicants will do these things; instead, they will fritter away the federal funds on things that self-driving cars won’t need.
Buffalo’s Main Street is coming back to life thanks to one simple change: the city has opened it up to cars after three decades of being a pedestrian mall. As a pedestrian mall, “it was like a ghost town,” says one business owner. Now that it is open to cars, “the difference on the street is like night and day.”
The surprise is not that opening the street to cars has revitalized the downtown area. The real surprise is that it took the city so long to learn its lesson. Businesses started closing almost as soon as the street was closed. By 2002, everyone knew the street closure, which was supposed to renew the area, was a failure. Yet it took more than a decade after that to open it up again.
The Antiplanner gets into the background of this story in Best-Laid Plans. In 1959, Kalamazoo, Michigan became the first city to try to create a downtown pedestrian mall by closing streets to cars. Over the next three decades, cities across the United States and Canada emulated this example by creating more than 200 pedestrian malls. But far from revitalizing downtowns, nearly all of them hastened their demise.
One of Captain Jack Sparrow’s famous sayings in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, echoes these words in a recent presentation focusing on what transit can do and what transit can’t do. In particular, he says, transit can provide mobility for people who can’t or don’t want to drive, but it can’t relieve congestion, reduce transportation costs to taxpayers, save energy, reduce pollution, create real estate development, or stimulate the economy of a region.
Rubin used to be the chief financial officer for one of the largest transit agencies in the nation, so he knows what he’s talking about. He goes on to say that, when transit agencies try to do some of the things they can’t do, they end up doing poorer jobs of the things they can do.
Much of his presentation draws upon his 2013 study on the relationship between transit and congestion. One of the study’s findings was that increased transit use is associated with increased congestion. Rubin suggests this is partly because regions that spend more of their transportation dollars on transit end up more congested because transit is not a cost-effective solution to congestion.
As if we need any more evidence of profligate waste in the transit industry, Chicago, Austin, and other cities are considering aerial trams, also known as gondolas. Portland’s infamous aerial tram, which opened in 2006, cost 500 percent more than the original projection, carries a mere 3,200 round trips per day, and collects fares that cover just 22 percent of its operating costs. The economic development that was promised if Portland taxpayers helped build it went to Florida instead.
Given this terrible track record, it’s not surprising that other cities weren’t lining up to follow Portland’s example in building aerial trams. So what’s changed to get cities interested in them again? According to Bloomberg, it is lobbying by ski lift manufacturers. They’ve somehow managed to convince people in Austin that a tram will reduce congestion and people in Chicago that a tram will attract tourists, even though Portland’s tram has done neither.
Disneyland used to have an aerial tram, but Disney shut it down in the 1990s “citing its lack of popularity and the number of workers required to operate it.” Such factors tend to be ignored by transit agencies, which merely cut popular routes to pay for unpopular ones and draw upon tax dollars to pay workers.