The Antiplanner has been writing about Washington Metro’s downward spiral for nearly two years, but the end may be in sight. According to Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, after 2018, “the game’s over.” Or, as Metro board chair Jack Evans says, if the problems aren’t solved by then, “the only option I see is to cut back on service enormously.”
That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Census data indicate that, in 1970 before any Metro lines were built, 17.61 percent of DC-area commuters took transit to work–virtually all on buses. In 2015, between buses, Metro rail, and Maryland and Virginia commuter rail lines, transit’s share was 17.58 percent. In the years since 1970 in which the census has surveyed people (every decennial census and every year since 2005), the highest it has ever been was 17.70 percent in 2005. So going back to buses wouldn’t need to reduce transit ridership. Since bus riders don’t have to worry about broken rails or smoke in the tunnels, replacing trains with buses might even increase ridership.
All of the delays suffered by passengers so Metro can do maintenance hasn’t seemed to improve reliability. Just a few days ago, trains on three lines were delayed so much that one rider tweeted, “An hour and 45 min into my @wmata commute, I’m finally BACK WHERE I STARTED! Gave up and went home.”
Washington DC’s H Street streetcar has failed in just about every way possible. The 2.2-mile line cost $200 million, which is enough to build ten to twenty miles of four-lane freeway; it opened years behind schedule; and–despite being free “for a limited time”–it carries a paltry 2,400 people per weekday, which in a sane world wouldn’t be enough to sustain a bus line, much less a more-expensive streetcar. Now, the city has decided to extend that “limited time” for four more years out of a fear that charging a fare would turn away the few riders they now have. Officials were acutely aware that Atlanta’s streetcar patronage fell by nearly 50 percent when it started charging a dollar fare.
Despite these problems, the city is still considering extending the streetcar line. One of the arguments for doing so, in fact, is that if the line is long enough, they might actually attract enough patrons to charge a fare.
But isn’t the streetcar stimulating economic development? Hardly. H Street was revitalizing itself long before the streetcar opened. No doubt streetcar advocates will pat themselves on the back because a Whole Foods is opening on the streetcar line next month. But the company signed the lease to move in back in 2013, well before the streetcar opened. Some will say this was in anticipation of the streetcar, but I suspect the company, all of whose urban stores are located next to parking garages, was more motivated by the fact that its customers would have 199 underground parking spaces available for their use. As any commercial realtor knows, parking, not transit, drives retail.
The modern escalator was perfected 96 years ago, so when someone is spending $625 million a mile on light rail (which technology is only 80 years old), you’d think they’d at least get the escalators right. Instead, “escalator failures have become a part of the daily routine” at Seattle’s University light-rail station.
If the system were brand new, you might say they were getting the bugs out. If it were old, you might say it was wearing out. Instead, it is not quite a year old, having opened on March 19, 2016. Despite that, they don’t work. To make matters worse, they came with a one-year warranty, which has expired because installation was completed before the station opened for business.
Seattle recently voted to have some of the highest taxes in the nation going for transit. If they aren’t spending an appropriate share of this money on functioning escalators, it makes you wonder where it is going instead.
San Antonio, notes Texas Public Radio, is “the largest city in the country without a rail system to move” its residents. As a result, the article implies, people are “stuck behind the wheel,” and the article’s headline asks, “Should San Antonio Reconsider Rail?”
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, of course, suggests that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But more important, the article is guilty of the Politician’s Fallacy, which is: “1. We have to do something [in this case, about congestion]. 2. This [rail] is something. 3. We have to do this [build rail].”
Before jumping to any conclusions, San Antonians should ask how well rail is moving people in other cities. The first point to note is that, when TPR says that San Antonio is the largest city not to have rail, there are only six larger cities to consider. We don’t think of San Antonio is being the nation’s seventh-largest city, but it is true because Texas cities have strong annexations powers, so tend to be much larger than cities elsewhere. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are also among the nation’s eleven largest cities.
The Antiplanner’s friend, Benita Dodd, reviews the Atlanta streetcar on the second anniversary of its inaugural run. It was supposed to cost $72 million to build. It cost $97 million. It was supposed to cost $1.7 million a year to operate. It actually costs $5.3 million.
It was projected to earn $420,000 a year in fares. During its first year, it earned nothing because it was free. In the second year, the city began charging $1 a ride, and it earned under $200,000. When it was free, it carried 2,600 riders a day. After they began charging, ridership fell to less than 1,500 a day, less than half the projected number.
It normally runs on Saturday nights until 1 am. Last Saturday, “to accommodate large crowds” for New Years Eve, the city stopped running it at 4:30 pm. (Despite the absurdity of the claim that not running the streetcar will accommodate large crowds, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reprinted the city’s press release word for word.) Naturally, after all these great successes, the city wants to build 22 more miles of streetcar lines.
New York City celebrated the new year by opening the insanely expensive Second Avenue Subway. Just two miles and three stations long, this subway line cost nearly $4.5 billion, or more than $35,000 per inch, making it the most expensive subway in the world.
Of course, not all of that money went for digging tunnels and laying track, which cost “only” $734 million (which is still more than $5,000 per inch). The three stations cost $800 million each. But that’s not all: to complete the Second Avenue subway, the city also spend $500 million on engineering and $800 million for “management, real estate, station artwork, fare-collection systems and other sundry items.” If the entire New York City subway system cost that much, it would have cost more than $500 billion, or roughly the cost of the entire 47,856-mile Interstate Highway System in today’s dollars.
Of course, the city didn’t pay for it alone. The federal government chipped in at least $1.3 billion. The state of New York put in some money, but much of the money probably came from bridge tolls paid by auto drivers. Actual riders of the Second Avenue subway will pay very little of the cost and what they do pay will be paid indirectly.
When Denver’s new airport rail line experienced severe glitches shortly after it opened, including malfunctioning crossing gates and a lightning strike that shut down the entire line for seven hours, among other problems, transit officials assured the public that they were just getting the bugs out of the system. But now, more than six months after it opened, the bugs are still thriving.
The crossing gate problem is so severe that the Federal Transit Administration has threatened to shut down the line until it is corrected. The contractor that built and operates the line tried to claim the lightning strike was an act of God, so the contractor shouldn’t be held responsible, but Regional Transit District officials responded that they had pointed out the company’s design was vulnerable to lightning as early as 2013, yet the company did nothing to fix the flaw. Meanwhile, the system continues to perform unreliably.
Now RTD has been forced to admit that two other lines being built by the same company won’t open on time. RTD claims that it saved money by entering into a public-private partnership for the line in what is known as a “design-build-operate” contract. In fact, it saved no money at all, but was merely getting around a bond limit the voters had imposed on the agency. If the private contractor borrows a billion dollars or so and RTD agrees to pay the contractor enough to repay the loan, the debt doesn’t appear on RTD’s books. Taxpayers will still end up paying interest in the loans, which actually makes it more expensive than if RTD had stayed within its debt limit.
The Census Bureau estimates that the city of Portland is growing by more than 10,000 people a year while the Portland urban area is growing by more than 40,000 people a year, or more than 100 people a day. Despite, or more likely because of, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on growth planning, the region is doing a very poor job of producing the housing those people need to live in.
Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, brags that not only is the region following most of the advice recently offered by the White House for making housing more affordable, it actually pioneered several of the techniques. Yet according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Portland-area housing prices are currently growing at 13 percent per year.
Metro has an article describing some recent housing developments that inadvertently reveals just why housing is getting so expensive. Continue reading
El Paso is spending $90 million building a 4.8-mile streetcar line. For that price, they could have built close to 9 miles of four-lane freeway. The streetcar will connect the University of Texas El Paso with downtown, which suggests that they don’t expect many students to go downtown. If they did, they would have provided a bus service, which would have been faster and could move more people per hour.
In the course of paying for the streetcar, the city paid $3.2 million to an email phishing scammer. Two payments intended for the construction company were “misdirected” to another account. The city discovered the scam in early October and tried to cover it up but held a press conference about it yesterday.
The Antiplanner applauds the city for admitting it fell victim to a phishing scam. Now I’m waiting for the city to admit that it fell victim to the streetcar scam. That will be harder. Washington DC, for example, is home to one of the most embarrassing streetcar failures in the country, yet it is already planning another line. El Paso is more likely to argue that the phishing scam it fell for will promote economic development than admit that the streetcar it is building is also a scam.
When the Antiplanner spoke in Norfolk two years ago, my opening line was “They should call it lie rail because everything about light rail is a lie.” The proponents of building light rail in Virginia Beach have certainly proven that to be true.
Above is an advertisement for the ballot measure. In addition to saying, “Reduce Traffic Congestion,” which it won’t do, it says, “Connect the Oceanfront, ODU [Old Dominion University], Airport & Naval Base.” Yet the ballot measure proposes to increase local property taxes to build a three-mile, $300 million light-rail line that won’t go to any of those places. They say they have long-term plans to build extensions to those places, but they also say that don’t plan to come back and ask for more tax increases.