Eight years ago, the Antiplanner argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.
However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:
- Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
- Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system but now expects to scrap it for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
- One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
- Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
- WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
- Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
- That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.
The Antiplanner is headed to Albuquerque today to speak to the Rio Grande Foundation about the future of Albuquerque transportation. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there.
Canberra, Australia’s capital, is considering spending close to $1 billion building a light-rail line. But a new study by computer programmer Kent Fitch finds that shared, self-driving cars make a lot more sense.
Where light rail would lose money, a fleet of shared, self-driving cars could earn a profit. Where light rail would serve just one corridor, self-driving cars would serve the entire urban area. Where light rail would require a massive expenditure on new infrastructure, self-driving cars would use existing infrastructure. While light-rail would require people to walk to stations and wait for a railcar, more than 96 percent of self-driving car patrons would have to wait less than a minute for a car to meet them at their door.
Fitch observes that Canberra, being entirely a twentieth-century city, is simply not designed for public transit, which is why ridership on the city’s stagnant or declining. When a city is too decentralized for “medium-box” transit like buses, the solution is not to go to “big-box” transit, which only works if a lot of people want to go from point A to point B at the same time. Instead, the solution is smaller-box transit, such as shared cars.
Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, is proposing a “faster transit line to Gresham.” Gresham happens to be the terminus for Portland’s first light-rail line, which opened 29 years ago. But the “faster-transit” line will use buses, not rail.
Before the Gresham light-rail line opened, Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, operated express buses between downtown Portland and Hollywood, Gateway, Gresham, and other neighborhoods along the rail corridor. All of these were cancelled when the light-rail opened, even though the busses were faster than the trains. This is one reason why Portland transit ridership plummeted during the 1980s.
In proposing a faster-transit line to Gresham, is Metro tacitly admitting that light rail was a mistake? Only indirectly. The bus routes is is proposing won’t be express buses but bus-rapid transit, and as such probably will be a little slower than the light rail, at least between downtown Portland and Gresham. They’ll just be faster than the existing conventional bus service.
“Why are our transit systems faltering just as more people than ever want to use them?” asks Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association, which has advocated urban planning in the New York metropolitan area since 1922. His answer is that it has to do with “with the way our government institutions are structured.” He is right in general but wrong on the particulars.
New York City subway and elevated train fares cover more than 60 percent of operating costs, but no maintenance costs. Wikipedia commons photo by AEMoreira.
Transit, at least in the New York metropolitan area, did just fine, he says, until the 1950s, when “the federal government started building the interstate highway system, offering big subsidies to states to connect to it.” When that happened, “mass-transit operators struggled to compete with these roads and started going bankrupt.” They were unwillingly taken over by the government, which “merged the workings of mass transit and toll roads to provide cross subsidies.”
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which some consider the nation’s worst-managed transit agency, has a new program called Envision Silicon Valley. Despite the grandiose title, the not-so-hidden agenda is to impose a sales tax for transit.
A nearly-empty VTA light-rail car in Sunnyvale.
Any vision of Silicon Valley that starts out with transit is the wrong one. Except to the taxpayers who have to pay for it and the motorists and pedestrians who have to dodge light-rail cars, transit is practically irrelevant in San Jose.
Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).
Click image to download a PDF version of this map.
By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.
Joseph Rose, the Oregonian reporter who proved that streetcars are slower than walking, has left the paper’s transportation beat. So it took another Oregonian reporter, Andrew Theen, to make the brilliant discover that Portland highways really are at or above capacity.
Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who lives in the Portland area. According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s latest urban mobility report, Portland has more congestion today (measured by hours of delay per auto commuter) than Los Angeles did 30 years ago, when LA was considered to be about the worst congested city in the world.
It’s no wonder, since Portland and Oregon have added virtually no new road capacity since the 1970s, when the region’s population was about half what it is today. Although officials complained to Theen that new capacity was too expensive, the region hasn’t hesitated to spend roughly $5 billion on light-rail lines that carry an insignificant share of the region’s traffic.
Parts of the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines were shut down for eight-and-one-half hours after a train derailed before 6:00 in the morning at the Smithsonian stop near downtown Washington, DC. Although Metro hasn’t yet determined the cause of the derailment, it seems likely that the service interruption is due to poor maintenance, which has caused many other incidents. The accident also illustrates a fundamental problem with rail transit: when one train breaks down, an entire line–or, in this case, three lines–can be shut down.
Metro continued to run trains in the outer reaches of the system, but stations between Federal Center and McPherson Square–in other words, nearly all downtown stations on the Blue/Orange/Silver lines–were closed. The Red and Yellow/Green lines were unaffected, and Metro provided buses for passengers on the other lines needing to reach downtown.
By 2:30 pm, Metro had opened four of the six affected stations and ran trains on one track. Both tracks were in operation by midnight, and Metro hopes to have service completely restored this morning.
The Antiplanner was in Phoenix this week debating light rail with proponents of a ballot measure that would increase sales taxes in order to expand that city’s rail system. In addition to a public forum, a brief debate was televised and is available on video.
After the Antiplanner’s review of the existing light-rail line debunked claims that the line stimulated $7 billion in economic development, Valley Metro published a new paper claiming that it stimulated $8.2 billion in development. This $8.2 billion still includes projects that haven’t yet (and may never be) built. However, the new paper does not provide a complete list of the developments supposedly built because of the light rail, and the agency has been unresponsive to requests for such a list, but it is clear Valley Metro merely counted anything that happened to be built within a half mile of a light-rail station without asking whether those projects would have been built without the rail line.
In their campaign for the ballot measure, proponents claim the increased sales tax will provide money for repaving and improving streets. It is clear from the city’s transportation plan, however, that most if not all of the street money will be used to reduce the capacity of streets for cars in favor of more room for buses and bicycles (see exhibit A on page 18). Even if the city intended to improve streets, any light-rail cost overruns would quickly eat up most of the street money.