Category Archives: Urban areas

The City That Loves to Spend on Transit

In 2007, the New York Times called Portland “the city that loves mass transit.” The Antiplanner took issue with that claim then, and it is even less appropriate now. APTA’s latest ridership report reveals Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, carried 1.6 percent fewer trips in 2016 than in 2015. The American Community Survey says that the share of commuters taking transit to work fell from 8.1 percent in 2014 to 7.9 percent in 2015.

In reality, as the Antiplanner wrote in 2007, Portland is “the city whose officials love to spend money on transit.” That also remains unchanged, as TriMet is preparing a regional transit strategy that calls for more streetcars, more light-rail lines, and exclusive busways. To top it off, TriMet wants to build a light-rail subway through downtown, which will probably cost almost as much as all of Portland’s previous light-rail construction combined.

The region has already spent between $4 billion and $5 billion on light rail. Before commencing construction on the city’s first light-rail line, 9.9 percent of commuters took transit to work. Since it is now down to 7.9 percent, rail clearly has not boosted transit ridership. According to a report released last October, one-third of the region’s capital spending on transportation is going for transit, yet transit carries just 2.5 percent of the region’s motorized passenger miles (and virtually no freight). Continue reading

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Transit Subsidies Are “Ridiculous”

A Pensacola, Florida politician has come out and said what many are thinking: maybe taxpayers don’t need to subsidize transit. Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill has proposed to ask voters whether they want to continue subsidizing the county’s bus system.

It’s ridiculous of us to try to continue to push a service that the citizens are telling us everyday that they don’t want,” says Underhill. By “don’t want” he means “aren’t using”: According to the 2015 American Community Survey, only 1,230 people take transit to work. The 22-route bus system should “be about half the size of what we’ve got right now at the very maximum,” he estimates. Continue reading

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Tax You, Tax Them, Tax Everyone Else

To help “close a budget gap,” Washington Metro is scheduled to raise fares and cut service later this month. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents 88 percent of Metro’s employees, calls this the “pay more, get less” plan.

In response, the union issued its own plan to cut fares and increase service. It could have called this the “pay less, get more” plan, but instead it called it “fund it, fix it, make it fair.” The union didn’t originate this slogan; instead, it seems to be a mantra for the “transit justice” community, which seems to believe that, because a few low-income people ride transit, everyone should be subsidized.

For the “fund it” part of the plan, the union calls for the creation of assessment districts that would pay fees–not taxes–to help run the system. The union plan tries to imply that only the wealthy owners of properties whose values are enhanced by the transit system would have to pay, but when an assessment district was created to fund construction of the Silver Line, owners of properties miles away from any transit station were forced to pay as much as those next door to a station. Continue reading

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LA’s Rail Transit Problem

The Los Angeles Times reports that L.A. bus ridership is falling, so the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is “looking to overhaul the system.” Unfortunately, the Times didn’t make the effort to figure out the real problems, instead relying on transit agency claims that they were due to “factors beyond its control.”

In fact, in the past ten years, the number of vehicle miles of revenue bus service offered by Metro has declined by more than 21 percent, from 86.3 million miles to 67.7 million. Transit riders are probably more sensitive to frequencies than anything else, and this 21 percent decline probably did not involve the cutting of many bus routes; instead, it represents a reduction in the frequencies of most routes. That factor was completely within Metro’s control.

Metro’s bus ridership peaked at 399 million trips per year in 2007 (which buses traveled 85.4 million miles), but has since declined to 318 million trips. The 20.2 percent decline nearly matches the decline in bus miles. Continue reading

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New York City’s Only Hope

Back in 2010, when the Federal Transit Administration admitted that the transit industry had a $78 billion maintenance backlog, America’s largest transit system seemed to be in the best shape of those with legacy (older than 40 years) rail lines. Having undergone its own crisis in the 1970s, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority appeared to be adequately funded and was not suffering the huge problems faced by transit agencies in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington.

No more. While Boston, Chicago, and Washington transit systems are worse than ever (and Philadelphia’s is only slightly better off), New York’s subways seem poised to catch up. According to Streetsblog, between November, 2012 and November, 2016, weekday subway delays grew by 322 percent.

To be fair, one month (November) is probably not a long enough period to measure a trend. Comparing MTA’s February 2012 and 2017 performance reports, the subway’s on-time record fell from 85.4 percent in 2011 to 66.8 percent in 2016. Part of the cause is an increasing failure rate of MTA’s rolling stock, which grew from one failure every 172,700 miles in 2011 to one every 112,200 miles in 2016. Both of those numbers indicate serious problems. On top of this, most of the subway system’s escalators and elevators are also out of service. Continue reading

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Sometimes the Answer Is “Yes”

As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?

The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.

Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading

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Who Is to Blame for Downtown Sacramento?

If anywhere is a poster child for the effects of light rail on economic development, it is downtown Sacramento. Sacramento was one of the first American cities to build a modern light-rail line, opening its original 10-mile line in 1987 just a year after Portland’s. Since then it has extended that line and built two more, all of which go downtown, for a total system that is 45 miles long (compared with 60 miles in Portland).

Downtown Sacramento is mostly low-rise buildings with a few scattered high rises. Flickr photo by Sacramento Real Estate Photography.

As the capital of the nation’s most populous and possibly richest state, Sacramento is no small town. The urban area had 1.8 million people in 2015, slightly less than Portland and slightly more than San Jose. The city itself had half a million people, more than Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis. Continue reading

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Wave Bye-Bye

One of the projects likely to die if Congress doesn’t overrule Trump’s plan to stop funding new rail transit projects is the Wave, a 2.8-mile long streetcar line proposed by Broward County for downtown Fort Lauderdale. In order to assess the impacts of Trump’s proposal on Fort Lauderdale, the Antiplanner reviewed the environmental assessment (EA) and other documents for the Wave.

For $200 million, Broward County can buy five streetcars like this one and build 2.8 miles of track for them to run on plus a maintenance facility. The county would also have to pay nearly $4.9 million per year operating the streetcars every 7-1/2 minutes. Wikimedia commons photo by Cacophony.

Broward County wants to build the Wave because it believes it will stimulate economic development in downtown Fort Lauderdale, an area that is in the midst of a development boom without the streetcar. According to the EA, the transportation benefits of the streetcar are only about 20 percent of the costs, but the EA claims that the economic development benefits will make up the difference. Continue reading

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The Secretary of Immobility Is Back

The governor of Virginia has asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood to figure out how to fix the Washington Metro rail system. That’s a little like asking someone who blew up your house to figure out how to rebuild it.

LaHood is proud of the role he played in getting the Silver Line built. Yet that line caused many of the problems Metro is facing today, all of which were known when the decision was made to build it. Most important, long before LaHood was secretary, Metro knew it needed billions of dollars to rehabilitate its system. Instead of finding the money to do that, LaHood insisted they build a new rail line. In addition, because the Silver Line merges with the Blue Line, which was running at capacity, they had to reduce service on the Blue Line and may have lost more Blue Line riders than they gained on the Silver Line.

Now Metro is on the hunt for funds to reduce some of its $25 billion maintenance backlog. LaHood thinks he’s going to find a consensus for how to do that, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that someone else should pay for it. With Republicans in control of Congress and fiscal conservatives in control of the Republican Party, the federal government isn’t going to pay for it, but neither Maryland nor Virginia want to pay for it either. Continue reading

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The Rail Transit Money Pit

After more than a year of shut-downs, slow-downs, and break-downs, the Washington Metro rail system still faces a huge maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, rail opponents in Hawaii placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post begging President Trump to cancel funding for that city’s increasingly expensive rail project.

Click image to download a PDF of this ad.

The 20-mile Honolulu line was originally projected to cost $2.8 billion. Then it rose to $3.0 billion. By the time construction began, the projected cost rose to $5.1 billion. Now, the Federal Transit Administration says the final cost may be more than $10 billion. Although the agency denies the cost will be that high, it admits it doesn’t have enough money to finish the project. The federal government agreed to cover $1.5 billion and has paid half of that. The ad implores Trump not to pay the other half.

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