Denver opened its rail line to the airport a few weeks ago, but it seems to have been rushed into operation. The Antiplanner took the train to Union Station on Wednesday and back on Thursday and fortunately allowed plenty of time because it was not very reliable.
The train is formally known as the University of Colorado A-Line, which is deceptive because it doesn’t actually go to the University of Colorado. Instead, the university paid $5 million for naming rights, which seems a strange thing for a public institution to do.
But then, deception is the name of the game for RTD’s new train. When I was on the airport subway to the terminal I heard a recorded announcement by Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, inviting people to take the A Line, which he said took “about 35 minutes to get to Union Station.” I happened to know that the train was scheduled to take 38 minutes, and mathematically, 38 is closer to “about 40” than “about 35.”
The Antiplanner will be in Littleton, Colorado tonight talking about housing issues. The event is open to the public and starts at 7 pm at the South Fellowship Church, 6560 South Broadway. If you are in the Denver area, I hope to see you there.
In the meantime, interesting news from Sacramento: the regional transit district is considering shutting down one of its light-rail lines for lack of ridership. As the Antiplanner noted two months ago, the agency has lost more than 26 percent of its transit riders in the past six years and has raised fares by 10 percent to make up for the lost revenue.
The light-rail line that it is considering shutting down is only 1.1 miles long–so it is more like a streetcar line–and it attracts just 400 riders per day. Despite this poor record, Sacramento still wants to build a 3.3-mile streetcar line.
The train that saved Denver? Give me a break! Politico‘s Colin Woodard claims that the effects of new rail transit lines on Denver “have been measurable and surprising.” In fact, his article is all hype with hardly a touch of reality.
Let’s start with same basic “measurable” numbers. In 1990, before Denver built its first light-rail line, the decennial census found that 4.74 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. By 2014, the region had four light-rail lines, and the American Community Survey found that the percentage of commuters taking transit to work was all the way up to 4.76 percent.
Yes, that’s a measurable 0.02 percent increase in transit’s share of commuting. If it is a surprise, it is only that it wasn’t a decrease.
Remember how the Washington Metro Rail system shut down for an entire weekday on March 16 so the agency could inspect all of the rail insulators, and replace any that were worn out? This was supposed to be needed to prevent fires such as the one whose smoke killed a passenger in 2015.
It didn’t work. On May 5, passengers at the Federal Center Southwest station were treated to a huge fireball of sparks when another insulator caught fire. Moreover, says the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Metro officials responded poorly to the fire, continuing to run trains on that track until a second fire started several hours later.
On May 6–coincidentally, the day after the latest fire–Metro announced its maintenance plan that calls for shutting down some segments for as long as seven days and single-tracking many more lines for weeks at a time, which will slow service on those routes. That’s not good enough for the FTA, which ordered the agency to rearrange the schedule to work on lines that the feds think are at the highest risk sooner than Metro planned.
“We’re driving less than other metros,” says Portland Metro, “and we’re driving less than 20 years ago.” These are the kinds of lies that are so typical of Portland planners: easy to check, but since few will bother, they get away with it. First, although Portlanders do drive a little less than residents of other large urban areas, they also drove a little less than residents of those same urban areas 20 years ago, so that’s no change.
More important, Portlanders are in fact driving more than they were 20 years ago. Metro’s source for its data is the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) urban mobility study. But those data only count miles of driving on freeways and other arterials. Because Portland hasn’t built any new freeways or arterials in 20 years, people are forced to drive more on collectors and other roads. When all driving is counted, according to the Federal Highway Administration (which is the source of TTI’s data), Portlanders drove an average of 22.9 miles per person per day in 2014, up 13 percent from 20.2 miles per person per day in 1994.
Metro uses lies like these to implicitly claim that all of its spending on light rail is worthwhile. In fact, light rail is just not very important to Portland travel. As the Antiplanner showed last week, transit carries just 2.6 percent of motorized travel in the Portland urban areas, and since light rail is less than 40 percent of transit, that means light rail is less than 1 percent of all motorized travel.
Students graduating college used to look for jobs and then moved to the cities where the job were located. Now they move to cities they like and then look for jobs. Therefore, any city that wants to attract recent college graduates had better spend more money on transit.
That’s the logic used by John Robert Smith, who chairs Transportation for America (aka Reconnecting America), to support a proposed tax increase for Spokane Transit. There are so many flaws in this reasoning that it is hard to know where to begin, but let’s just start with the presumption that transit is at all important to the lives of more than a tiny fraction of people in Spokane.
As the Antiplanner noted Tuesday, transit moves less than 2 percent of passenger travel in all but about eighteen urban areas. In Spokane, it’s 1.4 percent. The American Community Survey says that 3.0 percent of Spokane-area commuters–that’s a bit more than 5,000 people–usually took transit to work in 2014.
On the heels of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that found that Washington Metro “has failed to learn safety lessons” from previous accidents, Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld will announce a plan today that promises to disrupt service for months in an effort to get the lines safely running again. While ordinary maintenance can take place during the few hours the system isn’t running every night, Wiedefeld says that past officials have let the system decline so much that individual rail lines will have to be taken off line for days or weeks at a time to get them back into shape.
The Washington Post blames the problems on “generations of executives and government-appointed Metro board members, along with Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending.” That’s partially true, but there are really two problems with Metro, and different parties are to blame for each.
First is the problem with deferred maintenance. The Metro board recognized that maintenance costs would have to increase as long ago as 2002, when they developed a plan to spend $10 billion to $12 billion rehabilitating the system. This plan was ignored by the “Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending” and who decided to fund the Silver and Purple lines instead of repairing what they already had.
The San Jose Mercury News points out the “staggering drop in VTA bus ridership” and suggests “dramatic changes” are needed to reverse that decline. However, it misses the elephant in the room, namely that the drop in ridership is directly due to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) cutting bus service in order to fund its rail transit fantasies–fantasies that have been repeatedly endorse by the Mercury News.
The Mercury News reports “ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001.” This understates the problem as light-rail ridership actually grew by about 19 percent during this time period, mainly because of an expansion of light-rail lines from 29.2 route miles in 2001 to 40.5 route miles in 2014. The small ridership increase gained by a 44 percent growth in route miles is distressing in itself, especially considering that the area’s 13 percent population growth accounts for most of the light-rail ridership growth.
The real tragedy is what happened to bus ridership, which declined by 32 percent from more than 48 million trips in 2001 to less than 33 million in 2014. (Light-rail and bus ridership and service numbers are from the National Transit Database Historic Time Series.) As it happens, in the same time period vehicle miles of bus service fell by 22 percent, a drop that explains most if not all of the decline in ridership.
The Honolulu city auditor’s review of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) found numerous problems, including the use of obsolete and unreliable decision-making tools, failure to analyze major changes in the planned rail line, and leasing more office space than the agency needs. The rail line HART is constructing is already 25 percent over budget, and based on the problems found in the audit, the auditor “anticipate[s] additional cost overruns.”
Rather than fix the problems, HART officials chose to attack the messenger, claiming that the audit (which had been requested by the city council) was “politically motivated.” When the auditor shared a confidential draft of the audit with HART, HART shared it with unauthorized people, attempted to intimidate the auditors, and went to the press to attack the auditors before the audit was made public.
Not many people believe the agency’s attack on the city auditor. Honolulu’s mayor asked the the chair of HART’s board and another one of its board members to resign, perhaps hoping to use them as scapegoats for the project’s failings. Yet shaking the top of the agency won’t help fix the fundamental problems, which are that a $6 billion construction project is really beyond the region’s needs or the agency’s abilities.
In a move that surprised no one, the staff of TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, wants to build light rail instead of bus-rapid transit between Portland and Sherwood. Since the Obama administration no longer requires transit agencies to do a rigorous alternatives analysis, this decision was based on subjective criteria and erroneous assumptions, yet will probably not be challenged by either TriMet’s board or the federal government that will have to pay for most of the line.
TriMet’s last light-rail line cost about $168 million per mile. This proposal is for an 11.5-mile line that will cost at least $2 billion, or $174 million per mile. Of course, that cost is likely to go up. By comparison, Portland’s first light-rail line cost only about $28 million per mile in today’s dollars.
A state auditor says TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, is falling behind on light-rail maintenance. TriMet’s general manager says that the agency’s pension and health-care obligations are so great that it will have to cut all transit service by 70 percent by 2025 to meet those obligations. So naturally, it makes perfect sense to talk about spending $2 billion that the agency doesn’t have on another low-capacity rail line.