Last Friday, Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) opened the West line, its latest low-capacity rail (formerly known as light-rail) line. Officials gave opening speeches claiming that they built the West line “within the adopted budget” and, at the end of the day, sent a memo to RTD’s board bragging that the new line carried 35,000 passengers on the opening day, well above the projected 20,000 per weekday.
Of course, the reason they carried so many people is that the line was free on the first two days. But RTD officials can hardly open their mouths without some lie coming out.
Start with the claim that they built it under budget. As the Antiplanner pointed out in an op ed in yesterday’s Denver Post, when RTD decided to build the rail line in 1997, it projected a cost of $250 million ($350 million in today’s money). As of 2009, the “adopted budget” was for $710 million, more than twice projected. The actual cost ended up being $707 million, allowing RTD to say it was under the budgeted $710 million but still more than twice the projected cost.
One of the intriguing things about rail transit is how much more the CEOs of rail transit agencies get paid than those of bus-only agencies. Yet that high pay comes with a high risk of failure and disgrace, as it is much more difficult to build and run rail lines than to simply manage bus service.
Case in point: Dan Grabauskas, CEO of Honolulu’s “rapid transit authority” and the highest-paid city official in Honolulu. What did Grabauskas do to merit this position?
It turns out that his main qualification is having helped run the Boston rail system into its present deteriorated condition. In 2009, Grabauskas resigned from that position in disgrace. Some claim he was forced out by a Democratic governor for the sin of being appointed by the previous Republican governor, yet there is no doubt that Boston’s rail lines were in terrible shape, with frequent delays, at least two recent crashes (including one blamed on rusty signal wires that killed a train operator), and miserable customer service.
Thanks to the industriousness of Portland’s creative class of young, well-educated people, Oregon now has the third-highest food stamp rate of any state in the country. As shown in the chart below, Oregon was disgustingly below average in the 1990s, but shot up in 2001, the year the Portland streetcar opened, and has been in the top three since about 2009. Today, it is behind only Louisiana and Mississippi (and, it might be noted, DC), states well known for their hard work and creativity.
It wasn’t easy for Oregon to achieve the status of being number three. Back in the 1990s, most Oregonians on food stamps were rural residents put out of work by the decline in federal land timber sales. But that can only go so far, as there aren’t that many sawmills left that remain to be put out of business. So the creative class got to work, making Oregon one of the first states to distribute food stamps in the form of an debit card so there would be no stigma put on those using it. In fact, the card is called the “Oregon Trail” card, thus identifying food-stamp recipients with the brave pioneers who first settled Oregon 170 years ago.
Neil McFarlane, the general manager of Portland’s TriMet transit agency, stunned Portland-area residents recently when he warned that the agency would have to cut service by 70 percent unless unions agreed to reduced benefits in upcoming contract negotiations. When he did so, he piously noted that TriMet’s non-union managers have had a pay freeze for four years.
Turns out that pay freeze was more imaginary than real. In the last year alone, TriMet gave its managers pay increases totaling nearly $1 million. McFarlane alone received a 3 percent raise, which–considering his previous pay was $215,000 a year–means a $6,450 boost to his income.
TriMet’s financial woes are hardly new. Last year, TriMet made the largest service cuts in its history and also decided to start charging fares in what was formerly the downtown Fareless Square. Most of the streetcar line had been in Fareless Square, and as a result actual streetcar fare collections averaged less than 4 cents per reported ride.
Portland traffic is “stressful and unpredictable,” according to one of the co-authors of the Texas Transportation Institute’s urban mobility report. In fact, by some measures, Portland has the sixth-most-congested freeways in the nation, after DC, New York, Los Angeles, Bridgeport, and (strangely) Provo-Orem.
There are other measures by which Portland isn’t quite so bad, though overall Portland ranks 17th even though it is the 23rd largest urban area. The significance of the freeway number is that it is based on actual measurements of traffic by Inrix, while most of the other measures are calculated based on estimates of miles of driving and lane miles of roads. The Antiplanner has never trusted these calculations because a lane mile of highway built in 2000 has a far greater capacity to move traffic than one built in 1950. Thus, the measure that ranks Portland sixth-worst is probably one of the most reliable in the report.
Portlandia supporters, of course, attempt to double-talk their way out of this. The mobility report, says one, “ignores differences in trip distances among metro areas and how trip distances have changed over time.” The Texas people disagree, saying they do take distances into account. Moreover, a look at census data reveal that the average Portland commuter takes 24.2 minutes to get to work, which about the same as in other urban areas of similar size (Minneapolis is 23.4 minutes; Denver is 25.7; St. Louis is 23.6; Cincinnati is 22.8; San Antonio 23.8). Since census data also show that 85 percent of Portland-area commuters still take autos to work, Portland’s investments in transit and bike paths have, at best, merely nibbled at the edges of the problem.
Portland Streetcar, the non-profit organization that operates streetcars in Portland, is demanding that the city cough up $145,000 to fix its brand-new, American-made streetcar. Let’s take a look at the history of this car.
First, the city used its own money to buy streetcars from the Czech Republic for an average of $1.9 million apiece. Each streetcar has just 30 seats, but the cost per vehicle is about six times greater than a 40-seat bus. But that wasn’t expensive enough.
The most recent expansion of Portland’s streetcar system was funded by the federal government, which has a buy-America requirement. So Oregon’s congressional delegation and lobbyists persuaded the Federal Transit Administration to give Oregon Iron Works $4 million to build a prototype streetcar. The company used plans purchased from the Czech manufacturer of Portland’s streetcars to effectively produce a replica of those cars.
That is, near the top of the list of the nation’s worst transit systems, says the San Jose Mercury-New. “The near-empty trolleys that often shuttle by at barely faster than jogging speeds serve as a constant reminder that the car is still king in Silicon Valley,” says the paper, “and that the Valley Transportation Authority’s trains are among the least successful in the nation by any metric.”
Many if not most San Jose light-rail “trains” are just one car long, which means they aren’t really trains at all. Considering an average load of just 18 people, the first third of this articulated railcar would be more than enough to handle the demand most times of the day.
Flickr photo from Albert’s Images.
Five years ago the Antiplanner declared the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to be worst-managed transit system. Is it still the worst? It has a lot of competition, including Baltimore, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, yet VTA manages to remain competitive.
In terms of number of riders per light-rail car, VTA carried an average of just 18.3 in 2011, a number lower than all other light-rail systems except Buffalo (17.0) and Baltimore (18.2). Fares from San Jose’s light-rail riders cover just 15.7 percent of the trains’ operating costs; only Baltimore, at 12.0 percent, is lower. Counting just operating costs, taxpayers pay nearly $5 to subsidize each light-rail trip, an amount exceeded only by Dallas and Pittsburgh light-rail systems. Overall, I’d say Baltimore’s is the worst system, with San Jose’s a close number two.
The Antiplanner spent much of last week in San Antonio releasing a review of the city’s plans for a downtown streetcar. The trip turned out to be a lot more hectic (and with a lot less Internet access) than I expected, which is why I made so few posts last week.
Sometimes I wonder if streetcars are tests of intelligence or gullibility, as they are such bad ideas it is hard to believe that cities are falling all over themselves to fund them. As I point out in my report, 100 years ago, both streetcars and automobiles went at average speeds of about 8 miles per hour. Today, autos routinely cruise at 80 mph (at least in Texas), but San Antonio’s proposed streetcar will still go at just 8 mph.
The Antiplanner’s report for San Antonio is called “The Streetcar Fantasy,” partly because the feasibility study for the San Antonio streetcar is filled with fabrications and imaginary data. For example, page 68 the study discusses how the Boise streetcar was financed and page 69 discusses how the Arlington, Virginia streetcar contributed to economic development–yet neither Boise or Arlington have streetcars.
Taxpayers for Common Sense recently released a report (see page 27) that finds $2 trillion in budget cuts that will allow Congress to avoid the “fiscal cliff”–and one of those cuts is the Columbia River Crossing. The agency planning this bridge has managed to spend well over $130 million without accomplishing anything except to design a bridge that the Coast Guard says doesn’t have enough clearance to allow Columbia River ship traffic.
The latest death knell for this porky project was the rejection by Vancouver, Washington voters of a sales tax designed to pay the operating costs of the light-rail line that was supposed to cross the bridge. This has led fiscal conservatives to argue that the current bridge proposal is dead and planners must start over.
The Oregonian editorial board sycophantically responds that the bridge is vital for economic growth and jobs, and the voters didn’t reject the bridge but merely that method of funding it. What a load of crap. Everyone in the Portland area knows that the bridge is totally bloated with pork and light rail.
The City of Portland has approved numerous massive four- and five-story apartment buildings in neighborhoods of single-family homes separated by streets of single-story shops. These buildings stress the infrastructure built to handle a smaller population, which is most obvious in the increased traffic and parking problems–especially since many of the buildings are designed without parking.
Despite Portland’s reputation as a car-free city, I can attest that neighborhoods that once had few cars parked on the streets are now jammed with cars, indicating far more cars per housing unit than there were a few decades ago. The introduction of apartments lining the business corridors of these neighborhoods has led to huge increases in congestion, which isn’t helped by the fact that the city carefully keeps most signals uncoordinated so that people now frequently drive on neighborhood streets to avoid stopping at frequent red lights.
To allay concerns that the apartments were taking parking away from existing homes and businesses, the city just published a report reviewing the parking situation around eight recent buildings. Four of these had about two-thirds of parking space per dwelling unit on site, while the other four had no on-site parking (page 3). The city’s report found that, even during peak periods, at least 25 percent of on-street parking within two blocks of these buildings was vacant (p. 2).
That was enough to lead the Oregonian to headline its story about the report, “City study finds increase in no-parking apartments but little neighborhood parking impact.” There’s more to the story, however.