Category Archives: Urban areas

Sometimes the Answer Is “Yes”

As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?

The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.

Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading

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Who Is to Blame for Downtown Sacramento?

If anywhere is a poster child for the effects of light rail on economic development, it is downtown Sacramento. Sacramento was one of the first American cities to build a modern light-rail line, opening its original 10-mile line in 1987 just a year after Portland’s. Since then it has extended that line and built two more, all of which go downtown, for a total system that is 45 miles long (compared with 60 miles in Portland).

Downtown Sacramento is mostly low-rise buildings with a few scattered high rises. Flickr photo by Sacramento Real Estate Photography.

As the capital of the nation’s most populous and possibly richest state, Sacramento is no small town. The urban area had 1.8 million people in 2015, slightly less than Portland and slightly more than San Jose. The city itself had half a million people, more than Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis. Continue reading

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Wave Bye-Bye

One of the projects likely to die if Congress doesn’t overrule Trump’s plan to stop funding new rail transit projects is the Wave, a 2.8-mile long streetcar line proposed by Broward County for downtown Fort Lauderdale. In order to assess the impacts of Trump’s proposal on Fort Lauderdale, the Antiplanner reviewed the environmental assessment (EA) and other documents for the Wave.

For $200 million, Broward County can buy five streetcars like this one and build 2.8 miles of track for them to run on plus a maintenance facility. The county would also have to pay nearly $4.9 million per year operating the streetcars every 7-1/2 minutes. Wikimedia commons photo by Cacophony.

Broward County wants to build the Wave because it believes it will stimulate economic development in downtown Fort Lauderdale, an area that is in the midst of a development boom without the streetcar. According to the EA, the transportation benefits of the streetcar are only about 20 percent of the costs, but the EA claims that the economic development benefits will make up the difference. Continue reading

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The Secretary of Immobility Is Back

The governor of Virginia has asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood to figure out how to fix the Washington Metro rail system. That’s a little like asking someone who blew up your house to figure out how to rebuild it.

LaHood is proud of the role he played in getting the Silver Line built. Yet that line caused many of the problems Metro is facing today, all of which were known when the decision was made to build it. Most important, long before LaHood was secretary, Metro knew it needed billions of dollars to rehabilitate its system. Instead of finding the money to do that, LaHood insisted they build a new rail line. In addition, because the Silver Line merges with the Blue Line, which was running at capacity, they had to reduce service on the Blue Line and may have lost more Blue Line riders than they gained on the Silver Line.

Now Metro is on the hunt for funds to reduce some of its $25 billion maintenance backlog. LaHood thinks he’s going to find a consensus for how to do that, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that someone else should pay for it. With Republicans in control of Congress and fiscal conservatives in control of the Republican Party, the federal government isn’t going to pay for it, but neither Maryland nor Virginia want to pay for it either. Continue reading

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The Rail Transit Money Pit

After more than a year of shut-downs, slow-downs, and break-downs, the Washington Metro rail system still faces a huge maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, rail opponents in Hawaii placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post begging President Trump to cancel funding for that city’s increasingly expensive rail project.

Click image to download a PDF of this ad.

The 20-mile Honolulu line was originally projected to cost $2.8 billion. Then it rose to $3.0 billion. By the time construction began, the projected cost rose to $5.1 billion. Now, the Federal Transit Administration says the final cost may be more than $10 billion. Although the agency denies the cost will be that high, it admits it doesn’t have enough money to finish the project. The federal government agreed to cover $1.5 billion and has paid half of that. The ad implores Trump not to pay the other half.

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Another Rail Boondoggle

After holding a final public hearing last night, officials in Durham, North Carolina will probably decide next week to build a $3.3 billion ($2.4 billion construction plus $900 million interest on debt) light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. It is hard to imagine any place that is more poorly suited for rail transit.

The region’s population density is less than 2,000 people per square mile. Except for the universities, there are no real concentrations of jobs. The biggest job center in the region, Research Triangle Park, has about 50,000 jobs spread out over 11 square miles, but it isn’t even on the proposed light-rail line. To make matters worse, the proposed 17.7-mile rail route is so circuitous that someone on a fat-tire bicycle could probably beat the train by taking a shorter route.

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DC Metro: Less Service for More Money

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was pleased to announce last week that it would not be delaying any rush-hour trains due to maintenance work for a few days. However, starting this week, rush-hour frequencies on the Yellow Green Lines would be reduced by 20 to 50 percent, and part of the Green Line will be completely shut down for two weeks.

All of which has just become business as usual in Washington. The real news is that WMATA plans to raise fares and cut service by up to 25 percent on July 1. Rush-hour fares will go up a dime, non-rush-hour by a quarter, and trains will stop running at 11:30 pm most days, instead of the current 12:30 am.

The big cut, however, will be to rush-hour service. Trains that now operate 10 times an hour will be cut back to 7.5 times an hour, effectively a 25 percent cut in service. Passengers can therefore expect a 33 percent increasing in crowding. Or, more likely, the system will lose even more riders.

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Cincinnati Streetcars’ “Catastrophic Failures”

The Cincinnati streetcar–now known as the Cincinnati Bell Connector since Cincinnati Bell paid $3.4 million for naming rights–is barely six months old, and already is having problems. Four streetcars broke down in one day a few months ago.

Now the company that is contracted to operate the streetcar has warned that poor quality control by the railcar maker has resulted in “catastrophic failures” of three different major systems that cause regular breakdowns of the vehicles. Cincinnati Bell is upset enough to demand possibly illegal secret meetings with the city council over the streetcar’s problems.

Cincinnati once counted itself lucky that it didn’t order streetcars from United Streetcar, the short-lived company that made streetcars for Portland and Tucson, many of which suffered severe manufacturing defects. But it turns out the vehicles it ordered from a Spanish company named Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), which were delivered 15 months late, weren’t much better.

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Portland Housing Stupidity Grows

Here’s an incredibly stupid idea to deal with Portland’s housing affordability problems: Multnomah County proposes to build tiny houses in people’s backyard. The people will get to keep the houses on the condition that they allow homeless people to live in them for five years.

That’s supposed to be an incentive. For five years, you have to share your yard with a homeless person who may be suffering from a variety of problems, after which you get to keep whatever is left of the tiny home. But as one Portland neighborhood activist points out, what homeless people need is healthcare and social work, not to be warehoused in someone else’s backyard.

I suspect homeowners are going to be wary of this offer because they will have little control who lives in their yard. Not only would the homeowners be required to maintain the tiny houses while the homeless person or people lived in them, Portland is making it increasing difficult for landlords to evict unwanted tenants.

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The Transit Industry Needs Structural Reform

Another transit agency is having financial problems. The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District is seeing ridership decline and both transit fares and sales tax revenues are falling short of expectations.

BART’s staff has given the board a laundry list of things it can do to make up the shortfall: raise fares, crack down on fare evaders, increase advertising revenue, increase parking fees, charge companies that send buses to pick up employees at BART stations, and automate trains to eliminate drivers. Even if they do all of these things, however, they “will not be able to address the deficit we are facing” without major service cutbacks, BART’s budget director told the board.

Another thing BART could do, but probably won’t, is hire more employees so it won’t have to pay so much overtime. Last November, Transparent California found that a BART janitor whose base pay was $57,000 a year actually earned $270,000 in 2015 with overtime and benefits. To get this, he supposedly worked 114 hours a week, which is more than 16 hours a day, every day of the year. But a local television station tracked this worker and found he was spending several hours a day hiding in a storage closet, while the stations he was supposed to keep clean remained filthy.

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