Category Archives: Urban areas

Metro Admits Light Rail Is Slow

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.

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Why Transit Systems Are in Such Bad Shape

“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.”

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Enfantasize Silicon Valley

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.

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Austin-San Antonio Rail Insanity

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.

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Portland Attracts the Creative Class by Increasing Congestion and Demolishing Neighborhoods

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.

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DC Metro Shut Down by Derailment

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.

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Back in the Air Again

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.

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More Lies in Light Rail

Phoenix voters will decide next month whether to extend the current transit sales tax (set to expire in 2020) through 2050 and increase it by 75 percent (from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent). This would supposedly be enough to fund at least three more light-rail lines plus several bus-rapid transit lines.


According to Valley Metro, this beautiful vacant lot across the street from a light-rail station is Escala on Camelback, a mixed-use development with 160 condos and 15,000 square feet of retail space that was supposed to be completed in Fall, 2010. It remains vacant today.

The big argument from rail advocates is that Phoenix’s first light-rail line, which opened in December, 2008, generated $7 billion in economic development. Not so much. A new report from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club shows that the light rail generated very little, if any, new development.

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So Much for Low-Capacity Rail

When Orlando decided to fund and operate a commuter train, many residents probably thought they could take the train to major events. Orlando expects to attract 120,000 people to its fireworks show this July 4th, but none of them will take the train to the site.

We’ve all heard the claim that a rail line can move as many people as an eight- (or sometimes ten-) lane freeway. Not so much. Orlando’s billion-dollar commuter-rail line carries less than 2,000 people to work each weekday morning and home in the evenings. (Amortized over 30 years at 3 percent, it would have cost less to buy every single daily round-trip rider a new Prius every year for the next 30 years.)

The train doesn’t normally operate on weekends, though it has done so for smaller special events in the past. But this Fourth of July it won’t, says the city, because of “total train capacity, safety and security, hours of operation, pedestrian wayfinding and transport operations between the downtown stations and Lake Eola, and funding availability.”

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TOD Coming to Pittsburgh

Yet another example of light rail spurring economic development comes from Pittsburgh, where the Port of Allegheny County has approved $12.5 million in public subsidies for a $42.5 million transit-oriented development. Since the development will include 152 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space, that’s a subsidy of more than $82,000 per apartment. The subsidies will also help pay for a 541-space parking garage.

Don’t be impressed by 15,000 square feet of retail space: that’s about the size of a new Trader Joe’s. The average Trader Joe’s is about 12,000 square feet, but the newer ones are bigger. Of course, if they actually attract a Trader Joe’s, they might be able to fill the apartments, but the fact that Pittsburgh has one of the most affordable housing markets in the country probably means there is little demand for stack-and-pack living.

So once again it is proven that light rail doesn’t stimulate economic development; it merely stimulates subsidies for economic development. Pittsburgh officials complain that “transit-oriented development is very difficult in Pennsylvania” because “there is no dedicated funding source” that can be used to subsidize it. So why are they bothering? Apparently just because they want to follow the latest fad.

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