Category Archives: Urban areas

Good-Bye, Ms Scott

Under fire from Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker for “unacceptable” interruptions in transit service, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s general manager, Beverly Scott, has resigned from her post. The immediate cause of those service interruptions, of course, was Boston’s record fall of more than six feet of snow in the past two weeks alone.

The underlying cause of those interruptions, however, is the aging and decrepit nature of the transit system. Burdened by $5 billion in debt that demands $422 million in mortgage payments a year–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget that ought to be going to maintain and rehabilitate the system–the T was simply ready to fail.

This failure can’t truly be blamed on general manager Scott, who has worked in Boston for little more than two years and before that was working for Atlanta’s transit system. Indeed, the blame belongs to politicians who agreed to borrow money to build rail transit extensions. Indeed, some of the blame could be put on Governor Baker himself, who helped develop the finance plan for Boston’s Big Dig.

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Boston’s Little Dig

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) has a problem. It has a $3 billion maintenance backlog, and must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing. It has all kinds of wonderful plans to close that backlog, but those plans are all in the future. In the meantime, its latest budget proposal spares less than $100 million for maintenance.

So suppose someone offered the T a billion dollars. Heck, suppose someone offered it $2 billion. What percent of this money do you think the T would spend on maintenance?

Score a point if you guessed zero, for MBTA is currently spending $2 billion–half from the state and half from the feds–building a 4.3 mile extension of its Green light-rail line from Cambridge to Medford. When completed, this line is projected to increase the T’s total ridership by 7,000 “new” transit trips per day. Since the T currently carries about 1.4 million trips per weekday, the extension will increase ridership by 0.5 percent.

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Late Night Boston

What gives transit riders such an incredible sense of entitlement? The state of Massachusetts has to close a $175 million budget gap. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) is still suffering from a huge maintenance shortfall. Yet Boston transit riders think they should get 24-hour transit service, no matter what the cost or how few people use it.

An experiment with late-night transit service–running certain buses and trains until 2:30 am instead of just 1:00 am–has attracted an average of just 17,000 riders per day, or less than 12,000 per hour, at an annual cost of $13 million. For comparison, before the experiment began, the T carried nearly 1.4 million riders per weekday, or close to 700,000 per hour for the 20 hours the system had been open. Plus, at least some of those 17,000 riders would have used the T anyway, just at an earlier hour.

Transit advocates say longer hours are needed to “retain talented young professionals and tech workers while boosting night life at the same time.” But when the T asked the “corporations that could ultimately benefit from the service by retaining young talent” to contribute to late-night operating costs, they got less than 7 percent of the cost of extending service hours.

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Milwaukee Streetcar Debate Continues

Supporters of a Milwaukee streetcar boondoggle are chiding a city alderman for expressing the fear that streetcar passengers could be vulnerable to crime. Apparently, opponents of progressive ideas like streetcars aren’t supposed to use real facts when making the case against those ideas.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports crime by transit mode. When those numbers are compared with passenger miles by transit mode, it turns out that light-rail riders are far more likely to be victims of crime than bus riders. Light-rail riders are three times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted, twice as likely to suffer aggravated assault, and five times as likely to be robbed as bus riders. Yet anyone who points this out is apparently “fear mongering.” Streetcars aren’t exactly the same as light rail, but they share one feature that buses don’t have: the driver is often in a separate compartment from the passengers, so can’t do as good a job monitoring passenger behavior.

On the other hand, the Wisconsin Reporter reveals the “incestuous relationships” among streetcar supporters, all connected together by a PR firm called Meuller Communications. All this really points out is that streetcars involve lots of money and lots of people want to get in on the action. Contrary to some, the Koch Brothers don’t stand to make a dime if streetcar lines are not built, but many other people and companies stand to make millions if they are built. For this reason alone, Milwaukeeans should be wary of any claims made for streetcars.

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Keeping Austin Weird

With Austin’s light-rail ballot measure going down in flames last November due to its high costs, rail transit advocates have conceded defeat, folded up their tents, and gone home. Ha, ha, just kidding; actually, now they are talking about subways.

Although someone prepared this map of an Austin subway system more as a joke than anything else, it has been used in news reports about proposals to build subways in the Texas capital.

“What do most major popular cities that continue to grow and be vibrant have in common?” asks Tom Meredith, former CEO of Dell Computer, which is headquartered in Austin. His answer? “Subways.”

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Smoke on the Water

“On behalf of the Board of Directors and all Metro employees, I offer my deepest condolences to the family of the passenger who died yesterday following the incident on the Yellow Line,” said chairman Tom Downs of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority yesterday. “Please know that once the cause of this incident is understood, we are prepared to take the actions needed to prevent this from happening again.”

But WMATA isn’t prepared to prevent this from happening again, and that’s the problem. We know it isn’t prepared because it has had this problem before and didn’t solve it then.

“Smoke poured into Metro subway tunnels again last night,” reported the Washington Post back in 2007. At the time, officials claimed the source of the smoke was “baffling,” but the article provided some clues to the answer. The problem seemed to lay with smoldering fiberglass insulators, which “can last for years if they are in dry areas but only several months if in wet areas.”

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Sloganeering Won’t Make Transit a Success

Last week, officials of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) celebrated their successes over the past year. Their theme was that the state of MARTA was “good to great.” MARTA CEO Keith Parker expressed MARTA’s policies with the acronym SEAT: “Service, Economy, Arts, and Technology.”


A MARTA heavy-rail train. Wikimedia Commons photo by RTABus.

The truth is that MARTA is something of a paradox. On one hand, it has built a reasonably efficient 52-mile-long rail system: fares cover 40 percent of operating costs, which is much higher than the transit industry’s overall 25 percent; railcars carry an average of 26 passengers, which is more than Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or Washington’s heavy-rail systems; and they consume less than 2,000 BTUs of energy per passenger mile, which is second only to New York City subways in terms of energy efficiency.

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Cost Overrun; Revenue Shortfall

To almost no one’s surprise, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) has announced that the rail project it is building will cost at least 10 to 15 percent more than estimated, while the revenues from the general excise tax that is supposed to pay for the project are, so far, $41 million less than expected.

A 10 to 15 percent cost overrun isn’t large as rail projects go, but this is an expensive, $5.2-billion project to start with, so 10 to 15 percent is $500 million to $780 million. HART officials blame the cost increase partly on the lawsuits that, unfortunately, failed to stop this waste of money, but even they say that the delays only increased costs by $190 million. Since the project isn’t even supposed to be completed until 2019, there is plenty of time for overruns to mount up to be far greater than projected today.

Rather than make the sensible move and simply cancel the project, the city is debating how to pay for the overruns. One idea is to divert to rail $200 million in federal money that is now being spent on Honolulu buses. Another idea is to extend the excise tax, which was supposed to expire in 2022, for a much longer period of time. Either way, they would take money that would have been spent on something productive and devote it to a complete boondoggle.

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In the Spirit of the Season

Supporters of Portland’s authoritarian planning have responded to Portland State University professor Gerard Mildner’s critique of that planning in the spirit of the Christmas season. They welcomed his report, “Density at Any Cost, with open arms, agreeing to have a free and open discussion of the issues.

Just kidding. Instead, they responded like little children, calling Mildner names. “UGB denier.” “Libertarian activist.” “An outlier, unrepresentative of most of our relevant experts.” And that’s just what his fellow academics at Portland State University called him.

Mildner in fact agreed that his views were unrepresentative of others at PSU’s urban planning school. “Hiring in the School of Urban Studies and Planning self-selects for people sympathetic with Oregon’s urban planning system,” he suggests, so it’s clear his views aren’t going to align with others in that school. An economist himself, Mildner works at PSU’s Center for Real Estate, which has one foot in the urban planning school and one foot in the business school–and the Antiplanner suspects Mildner’s views have more support at the latter.

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