Category Archives: Urban areas

A Mere $54 Billion for Light Rail

Seattle’s regional transit agency, Sound Transit, wants voters to approve a tax increase so it can spend another $54 billion on new light-rail lines. The agency’s first light-rail line went 86 percent over its original projections, but the agency assures the public that it has realized that voters are so innumerate that it no longer needs to low-ball the cost estimates in order to get tax increases approved.

To promote its plan, the agency has hired Peter “Paint Is Cheaper Than Rails” Rogoff to run the agency and get federal grants. Rogoff argued in 2010 that buses can attract as many riders as trains, and that “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.” Of course, he must believe that rail makes more sense than buses for Seattle, or he wouldn’t have taken this $298,000 per year job (a $118,000 increase over his previous job), right?

Seattle’s first light-rail line cost $3.1 billion in 1995 dollars, or $4.8 billion in today’s dollars for about 20 miles, for an average cost of $240 million a mile. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, out of nearly 1.6 million commuters, a respectable 160,000 took the bus to work in the Seattle urban area in 2014 but fewer than 3,000 took light rail while another 7,500 took commuter rail or streetcars to work. It’s possible that some survey respondents were confused and marked streetcar or commuter rail when they meant light rail, but it is still an insignificant number.

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Forward into the Past Via VIA

The San Antonio urban area has about 1.9 million people today and, if it keeps growing at recent rates, will add 1.6 million more by 2040. VIA, the region’s transit agency, gets most of its money from a one-half-cent sales tax, so by 2040 it will get about 80 percent more tax revenues.


Click image to download this 40-MB PDF.

The agency is hungry for more, however, so it has written a long-range plan called Vision 2040. Actually, to call this a plan is generous; it is actually more of a sales brochure, as it doesn’t consider any alternatives, any impacts of the proposal, or any real information about costs. Instead, it merely says that it wants increased taxes to provide bus-rapid transit on exclusive bus lanes and possibly light rail–in other words, transit infrastructure that might have been useful a few decades ago, but certainly won’t be useful a few decades from now.

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Don’t Blame Housing Affordability Problems on the Free Market

Miami is one of many places where housing prices have reached crisis levels, and the Miami Herald editorial board blames the problem on the free market. Only government intervention in the form of subsidized low-income housing will fix it, says an August 3 editorial.

Wrong. Government caused the problem in the first place. No matter what the cause, subsidized housing for a few low-income people will not solve it, except for those lucky few.

Despite being one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, Florida housing remained affordable up through 2000. Miami was generally the state’s least-affordable housing market, probably because an influx of immigrants kept median incomes down. But from 1959 through 1999, median home prices remained between two and three times median family incomes.

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DC Metro Spirals Into Chaos, Taking the Purple Line With It

Judge Richard Leon apparently invalidated Maryland’s Purple Line project just in time to prevent the Federal Transit Administration from giving the Maryland Transit Authority nearly a billion dollars for construction. Naturally, rail supporters are outraged by his decision.

The Washingtonian, for example, calls the decision “ridiculous” because it was based on declining Metro rail ridership and “the Purple Line will not be part of Metro.” But the article admits that 27 percent of the projected Purple Line riders will be transfers to or from Metro, so if Metro ridership declines, the Purple Line’s will as well.

The National Environmental Policy Act is supposed to be a procedural law, the Washingtonian complains, so why is Judge Leon allowing substantive issues such as ridership influence his decision? The author of this piece is obviously not an attorney and probably didn’t even read Judge Leon’s decision, or he would understand that getting the numbers right, as the judge demands, is procedural. He might also be able to read between the lines of the decision and see that Leon realizes this project is a turkey, and is using ridership as just the most obvious reason to overturn the decision to build the low-capacity rail line.

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Purple Line Opponents Win in Court

A federal judge has vacated the decision to build the Purple light-rail line in suburban Washington, DC, effectively delaying and possibly halting the project. Judge Richard Leon’s decision said that “recent revelations regarding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s ridership and safety concerns” had persuaded him that projected ridership numbers for the Purple Line were overly optimistic.

Some Purple Line stations were planned next to Metro Rail stations and projections for light-rail ridership depended partly on the continued growth of Metro Rail ridership. But, largely due to safety issues, Metro Rail ridership has declined every year since 2009, noted Judge Leon, and this meant that the Purple Line ridership numbers, which were calculated in 2009, would probably be lower as well.

“WMATA and the FTA’s cavalier attitude toward these recent developments raises troubling concerns about their competence as stewards of nearly a billion dollars of the federal taxpayers’ funds,” wrote the judge. The Purple Line would be built and operated by the Maryland Transit Authority, not WMATA, but, the Judge Leon noted, this doesn’t mean that declining Metro ridership wouldn’t have an impact on Purple Line ridership.

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Choking Portland with Light Rail

Congestion has a “chokehold on this city,” writes Steve Duin. Possibly the Oregonian‘s best writer, Duin’s empathetic articles about the downtrodden and forgotten people of Portland are always worth reading.

Unfortunately, his analytical skills are lacking, so when he notes that it takes him 64 minutes to drive 11 miles on a Portland freeway despite the fact that Portland has built a $135 million light-rail bridge across the Willamette River, he seems unable to put 2 and 2 together and get any answer but “stay the course.”

The last new highway built in Portland opened in 1975. Since then, the city’s population has grown by nearly 60 percent, and the region’s population has more than doubled. Rather than build the transportation infrastructure needed to accommodate these people, Portland has built five light-rail lines and two streetcar lines. As of 2014, these rail lines carried just 8,500 of the city’s 301,000 commuters to work.

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More Obsolete Than Ever

Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.

Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.

A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.

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Philadelphia Transit Troubles

Service on Philadelphia commuter trains has been interrupted due to serious defects found in Silverliner V cars, which are less than six years old. The cars were built by Hyundai, which had never built railcars for an American transit line before, and make up 30 percent of Philadelphia’s commuter-rail fleet.


Wikimedia Commons photo by John Corbett.

Last Friday, a SEPTA worker noticed one of the cars was leaning to one side. A close look revealed a 10-inch crack in one of the car’s wheel sets. Further inspection discovered similar cracks in 95 percent of the cars made by Hyundai. These have all been taken out of service, and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has urged commuters to find another mode of travel for the foreseeable future.

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New York Subway: Success or Failure?

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 Journal reports 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.

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Ignoring the Reality of Growth Constraints

The young people who have moved to Portlandia like to eat out a lot, and as a result the Portland has more restaurants per capita than all but five other metropolitan areas in the country. However, the cost of eating out is rising because inexpensive restaurants are getting pushed out by more expensive ones that can afford to pay the rising rents required to stay in Portland.

This is just one more symptom of Portland’s growing affordability problem. In May, median home sale prices in the Portland area exceeded $350,000 for the first time. This is 4.8 times median family incomes, the worst Portland has yet seen. While sale prices might not perfectly reflect the entire housing market, they are probably pretty close, as Zillow estimates that the median value of Portland-area homes in April was $325,000.

Inexpensive restaurants aren’t the only thing that gets pushed out by rising land prices. Residents of a mobile home park in Northeast Portland are facing eviction as the owner wants to sell the land to a developer who will no doubt build dense, but much-more expensive, housing on the site. The residents are trying to raise $2 million to buy the park themselves, but this seems unlikely. At least four other mobile-home parks are also facing sale and redevelopment.

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