Category Archives: Urban areas

Washington Metro Promises to Disrupt Commutes for Months

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.

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San Jose Bus Ridership Plummets

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.

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Honolulu Madness

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.

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Surprise! TriMet Wants More Light Rail

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.

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Sofia Housing and Transport

The capital of Bulgaria and the nation’s largest city, Sofia has 1.2 million people packed at a density of 6,900 people per square mile, which is nearly as dense as the densest urban area in the United States. The actual density is probably much higher as the developed area of the city is surrounded by a wide greenbelt of undeveloped land within the city limits. Whatever the density, it is achieved through lots of mid-rise (four to six stories) and high-rise (more than six stories) housing, most of which was built during the soviet era. Before that time, the city was nearly all low-rise (one to three stories) with a few mid-rise buildings in the city center.


This former single-family home is cute enough that someone built a Lego model of it. But the land it is on is too valuable to use it as a house today.

Many pre-war single-family homes are scattered throughout the city, but most of the ones near the city center have been turned into businesses. According to former Sofia resident Sonia Hirt, 47 percent of Bulgarians live in single-family detached homes. But too many in Sofia live in soviet-era high rises.

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You Want to Spend How Much on a Low-Capacity Rail Tunnel?

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) wants voters to give it $120 billion over the next forty years so it can build more rail projects that are already obsolete. Among other projects, it proposes to build a nine-mile light-rail tunnel between west LA and the San Fernando Valley that it estimates will cost at least $8.5 billion, and probably much more. That’s a billion dollars a mile, which is neither a misprint nor an April Fool’s joke.

The plan, which will probably be on the November ballot, includes some new roads as well as trains. But Metro proposes to spend twice as much on new transit construction as on new road construction, plus lots more on transit operations. As little as 19 percent of the funds would be spent on highway projects.

In 2008, Metro persuaded voters to dedicate a half-cent sales tax to transit for 30 years, which is estimated to bring in $34 billion. Now it wants to double that tax and extend it to 2057, which is estimated to bring in $120 billion on top of the $34 billion it is already getting.

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Will Miami Change Mass Transit?

Betteridge’s law states that, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” While there are exceptions, a headline in the Guardian reading, “Could Miami’s rail project be test model that could change mass transit in US?” isn’t one of them.

The article claims that Miami is installing a new light-rail system being built with the financial support of Hitachi and Ansaldo. None of this is true. What is true is that Miami is spending close to $314 million buying new railcars from Ansaldo (now a subsidiary of Hitachi) that will operate on the city’s 32-year-old heavy-rail system, a system that is such a failure that it should have been scrapped rather than supplied with new and expensive ($2.3 million apiece) railcars.

It’s ironic that a left-wing publication like The Guardian is effectively acting as a corporate mouthpiece for an international conglomerate. But all you have to do is mention the words “public transit” and progressives will fall over themselves to support you no matter how expensive and ridiculous your plans.

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Sacramento Transit Crashing and Burning

Sacramento’s Regional Transit District (RT for short) is facing an existential crisis. The region’s transit ridership fell by 22 percent between 2009 and 2014, and preliminary information indicates another 6 to 7 percent decline is likely in 2015. The agency’s January, 2016 performance report shows a 9 percent decline from January 2015.


A light-rail train trundles its way through downtown Sacramento. Flickr photo by PaulKimo9.

Some of this downward spiral is due to low gas prices, but much of it is due to an 18 percent reduction in bus service and a 7 percent reduction in light-rail service between 2009 and 2014. Declining tax revenues after the 2008 financial crisis forced these service cutbacks. In turn, reduced ridership means reduced fare revenues, and RT has responded by raising fares, which is not likely to do ridership any good. RT is also thinking about asking voters for a tax increase, but with just 2.7 percent of the area’s commuters taking transit to work, support for the transit system may be slim.

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BART Is Falling Apart Too

As if it were jealous of all of the attention that has been focused on the DC Metrorail system, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is having its own maintenance problems. Its railcars are old and need to be replaced; last week a series of mysterious power surges disrupted trains; and the agency recently admitted that many of the security cameras on its trains are either fake or broken.

In response to these problems, BART sent out a series of less-than-apologetic tweets to its customers listing a variety of excuses for its failings. “Planners in 1996 had no way of predicting the tech boom – track redundancy, new tunnels & transbay tubes are decades-long projects,” says one. “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality,” adds another.

The agency is apparently arguing that it needs more money, but it’s really making the case against a rail transit technology that can’t quickly respond to changes in demand because it is too expensive and time-consuming to expand. For example, instead of doing basic maintenance or expanding capacity where it was needed, BART–like the Washington Metro–decided to build new lines that aren’t needed and that will only add to its long-term maintenance woes.

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The Washington Metro Strategy

The Washington Metrorail system is completely shut down for a safety inspection today after having suffered another fire on Monday. As Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, wants people to know, “Safety is our highest priority.”

The Washington Post says that this decision confirms that Metro is “a national embarrassment.” In fact, the shutdown appears to be a classic Washington Monument strategy, in which bureaucrats try to make budget shortfalls as painful as possible in order to get more money out of Congress or other legislators. Instead of shutting the entire system down, Metro could have done the necessary inspections between midnight and 5 am, when the trains aren’t running. If the full inspections will take the 29 hours the trains won’t be running Wednesday and Thursday morning, then doing them at night would take just six days.

There is no doubt that fires are serious; one in January, 2015 killed someone and hospitalized scores of others. But the fact that these two fires were more than fourteen months apart suggests that there isn’t a major risk of another one in the next few days.

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