Category Archives: Urban areas

More Light-Rail Critiques

Sorry about the light postings this week, but I’ve been pretty busy talking with people about light rail. Here is my presentation about light rail in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida, and here is my presentation about light rail in Austin, Texas.

These are large files–Pinellas is 18 MB, Austin is 24–and they don’t include the videos I used for those presentations. If you want the videos, which are self-driving cars, click here to download a 44-MB zip file with three videos that I used in both presentations.

Next week I go to Denver for the 2014 American Dream conference, so postings may be light then as well. The week after that I’ll be back in Minneapolis to debate Myron Orfield over land-use regulation and density. That should be fun.

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Making the Poor Subsidize the Rich

Utah Transit Authority executives are overcompensated, the agency has underfunded its high rail maintenance costs, its bus service has suffered due to financial constraints, concludes the Utah State Legislative Auditor. Moreover, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the agency’s fare structure makes the poor subsidize the rich, which the agency has signed cushy deals with developers that sometimes financially benefit agency board members.

Sounds like a typical rail transit agency. Naturally, the agency claims (in an appendix to the report) that it is innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it cannot deny that bus service (as measured by vehicle revenue miles) declined nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2012, years in which the agency spent close to #1 billion on commuter trains that, as of 2012, were carrying fewer than 3,200 round trips per day.

The American Public Transit Association recently named Utah Transit the transit system of the year. But it’s clear from past awards that APTA admires agencies that are best able to con taxpayers out of their money, not ones that provide the best service to transit riders. UTA, which is proud of spending more per capita than any other transit agency, seems to have done a good job of conning taxpayers. Let’s hope audits like this one will open their eyes.

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No One’s Riding Light Rail, So Reduce Fares and Build More

Planners predicted that Norfolk’s Tide light-rail line, which opened in 2011 60 percent over budget and 16 months behind schedule, would stimulate economic development along its route. But little development is taking place, so the Virginian Pilot has come up with a grand idea: reduce fares by two thirds. That, the paper’s editorial writers guesstimate, should attract 1,000 more riders per day, which they hope will generate the development planners promised.


Looks fast, but the schedule indicates it takes 26 minutes to go 7 miles for an average speed of 16 mph.

There are a lot of problems with this proposal, not least of which is the fact that rail fares in Norfolk are already the second-lowest in the country, after Houston’s. Though the nominal fare is $1.50, which the Pilot proposes to cut to 50 cents, actual fares collected in 2012 averaged just 50 cents a ride, compared with 35 cents in Houston but $1.39 in Denver. The national average for low-capacity rail is 98 cents, while the average Hampton Roads bus rider pays 91 cents.

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Pinellas Transit in Trouble

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) has been illegally using FEMA money to illegally advertise in favor of a ballot measure to build light rail in St. Petersburg, Florida. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent a letter demanding that PSTA return a $354,000 grant it received that was supposed to be used to ward of terror threats, but was used instead to advertise for light rail. FEMA warned that, even if PSTA returned the money (which it has), it would still be under investigation for criminal charges for misuse of federal funds.

The double use of the word “illegal” in the first sentence above refers to the fact that, not only did PSTA misuse the FEMA grant, it shouldn’t be spending any money at all promoting the light-rail ballot measure. In the 1990s, most rail transit ballot measures lost, but in the 2000s, more have won, mainly because transit agencies began using taxpayer dollars to promote the measures start with the Utah Transit Authority in 2000.

As a pro-rail web site notes of the Utah measure, a “key to success was that the agency had put great effort into maintaining a strong, positive public reputation prior to launching the campaign. TV ads were already regularly appearing reminding the public of the benefits of the service provided by UTA. When it came time to initiate the electoral campaign, early outreach efforts had already paved the way.”

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Another Inane Low-Capacity Rail Plan

Some people in Durham, NC, want to build a $1.4-billion, 17-mile light-rail line, and the region has been spending millions of dollars planning it. A quick review of the project’s alternatives analysis reveals that planners and consultants have done everything they can to bias the analysis towards rail.


A Durham transit bus in front of Durham’s $10 million downtown transit station.

The most important thing to note is that planners projected that either of two bus-rapid transit alternatives would attract more transit riders than light rail (p. 5-78) at little more than half the cost (p. 5-105). But the analysis nevertheless recommended in favor of light rail, partly because “public and agency support” supposedly favored rail over bus and partly because of rail’s “demonstrated” ability to promote compact development.

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Free Rides Today

The Oregonian was writing metaphorically when it reported last Tuesday that Portland’s low-capacity trains were “knocked off track by expensive, deferred maintenance.” By Friday, it was no longer a metaphor, as a light-rail car derailed near downtown, shutting down much of the system for several hours.

Transit commuters complained that they were given no information about the shutdown and many waited in increasing frustration as stations became more and more crowded. To make matters worse, the elevator at the Hollywood station, about one station away from the derailment, stopped working as well.

As a “thank you for your patience,” TriMet has announced all rides on its low-capacity trains will be free today.

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Portland Transit Implodes

Here’s a story by the Oregonian‘s intrepid reporter, Joseph Rose that has it all: deferred maintenance, delayed trains, $950 million in unfunded retirement benefits, transit cuts and fare increases, secret pay raises to transit agency executives, an angry transit union, and a plan to move transit riders on buses around rail work that “basically imploded.”


Worn pavement and light-rail switch near Portland’s Lloyd Center. Photo from Max FAQs.

The Antiplanner has repeatedly harped on the fact that rail transit infrastructure basically lasts only 30 years and then must be replaced, often at greater expense (even after adjusting for inflation) than the original construction cost. Part of the cost is dealing with the interruptions in service that are almost inevitable when replacing rails, wires, and other fixed hardware.

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No Streetcar for San Antonio

After being in office just one week, San Antonio’s new mayor, Ivy Taylor, proposed Monday that the city withdraw the $32 million it had promised to build a new $280 million, 5.9-mile streetcar line. Moreover, she persuaded Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the region’s leading streetcar proponent, to join her in declaring the streetcar plan dead. Wolff has previously said that he is too busy waging a re-election campaign against a streetcar opponent to campaign in favor of the streetcar plan.


A planner’s fantasy of what a streetcar would look like near the Alamo in San Antonio.

The announcements come amid controversy over an initiative petition submitted by streetcar opponents asking that voters be allowed to approve or reject the plan in November. The city has tentatively rejected most of the signatures, saying they were improperly collected. The petitioners have a legal opinion saying the city is reading the law incorrectly. The new mayor may be hoping that, in announcing the plan is dead, the demand for a vote will go away. If the city rejects the petitions now and opponents go to court, the measure may have to go to voters in a later election.

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East Portland: Another Planning Failure

Planning of outer southeast Portland has failed so badly that even the planners are recommending that the city slow densification of the area. As reported in the Oregonian late last year, the city upzoned the area to much higher densities but failed to install basic urban services to support those densities. The result is just one more disaster in the model of urban planning called Portland.

Some background: In 1994, Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, gave every city in the region a population target and told them to upzone neighborhoods to reach that target so they wouldn’t have to make large expansions of the region’s urban-growth boundary. Metro specifically targeted 36 neighborhoods for densification, including outer southeast Portland and the Portland suburb of Oak Grove.

At the time, the Antiplanner lived in Oak Grove, the only targeted neighborhood that successfully fought densification. In 1996, I met someone from outer southeast Portland whose neighborhood was not so lucky. The planners came to their neighborhood and proposed upzoning to as high as 65 housing units per acre. The residents strenuously objected, and after much haggling, the planners agreed to a modest amount of upzoning, but warned that if the neighborhood failed to add enough new housing, even more upzoning would take place later.

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Whose Rights?

Early this month, a Texas judge ruled that developers can proceed with the Ashby high-rise in Houston, but that they have to pay nearby residents $1.2 million for damaging their property values. Planning advocates say this makes the case for zoning, while zoning critics say the damage award will merely encourage NIMBYs.

Developers plan to proceed with construction even as they promise to appeal the damage award. The case has been in court for seven years, damaging Houston’s reputation as a place where developers can easily get permits and build for the market.

Planning advocates should be careful what they wish for. As residents of Vancouver, BC, Portland, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area have learned, zoning can be used to impose high rises and other high-density developments on neighborhoods that didn’t want them just as easily as it can be used to prevent such developments.

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