Category Archives: Urban areas

LaHood’s DC Rx: Raise Bus Fares, Cut Service

Washington Metro should raise bus fares and cut service as a part of a plan to restore its rail system to its former greatness, recommends a report by former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood. The report hasn’t been released yet–in fact, it has apparently been sitting on the Virginia governor’s desk for several weeks–but the Washington Post obtained a copy just in time for the report to have no influence on Virginia’s recent election.

Parts of the report are predictable, such as a recommendation that Metro obtain a source of “dedicated funds,” meaning a tax dedicated to it so it won’t have to be responsive to local politicians. However, LaHood’s mandate was to come up with a specific funding source acceptable to regional political interests, and he failed to do so.

What was not predicted was a finding that Metro “offers more [vehicle-hours of] service per rider than other large transit agencies.” Based on this finding, LaHood recommended cutting back service. The report notes that service levels were “average when compared to peers” until the opening of the Silver Line led to increased service hours coinciding with a decline in ridership. Continue reading

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Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train

Transit ridership is declining nationwide, yet the mayors of Nashville and San Antonio want to build multi-billion-dollar light-rail projects, notes a commentary in the Wall Street Journal. It’s behind a paywall and I might have reprinted it here, but I signed a four-page agreement that the Journal would have exclusive rights to it for 30 days.

However, the article’s subheadline, which I didn’t write, sums it up perfectly: “Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade,” observed the headline writer. “Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.”

Within the 800 words allowed for an ordinary op-ed, there wasn’t room for a lot of other points:

  • the cost overruns;
  • the ridership overestimates;
  • the implicit racism in spending billions to attract a few white people out of their cars while cutting bus service to minority neighborhoods;
  • the way almost any transit that operates in or crosses streets adds more to congestion than it takes cars off the road;
  • the fact that most rail lines have been built mainly to get “free” federal money; and
  • the fact that Nashville’s only rail transit today, the Music City Star, still carries only about 550 daily round trips, and it would have been less expensive to give every one of those daily round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every other year for as long as they operate the train.

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Washington Metro, Meet the Titanic

Plagued by years of deferred maintenance, the Washington Metro system will have to undergo severe cuts in service if new funding isn’t found. General manager Paul Wiedefeld is asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to increase their F.Y. 2019 contributions to Metro by $165 million, which is more than 10 percent of what they are giving in 2018. But Wiedefeld’s hopes for a “dedicated fund,” meaning a sales tax paid by all the regions’ residents, have been dashed by Maryland’s governor, who says there is no chance of that happening before 2019.

Ridership reports indicate that rush-hour ridership has recovered since Metro ended the “safe tracks” maintenance program that delayed many trains, but off-peak ridership has not. Moreover, the rush-hour recovery has been to 2015 levels, which themselves were 4 percent lower than the system’s peak in 2008. Weekday ridership in FY 2017 was 18 percent less than in 2008.

Since a large part of this decline is due to competition from Uber, Lyft, and similar services, some are beginning to doubt whether a full recovery will ever be possible. Metro board member David Horner notes that financial reports to the board repeatedly use the phrase “unsustainable operating model,” and he suggests that the rail system may be obsolete. Wiedefeld’s efforts remind Horner of “the expression about deck chairs on the Titanic.” Continue reading

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Some People Never Learn

Denver’s FasTracks plan to build 119 miles of rail transit has failed, reports an article in The Hill — and you know it must be true because the Antiplanner wrote it. The rail lines went way over budget, construction is late, two of the lines that have opened have so few riders that RTD has had to reduce service, and a third line is suffering from technical problems that were solved by the private railroads more than 80 years ago. Despite, or because of, the new rail lines, the share of Denver-area commuters taking transit to work has declined from 5.4 to 4.6 percent.

All of this was totally predictable, and in fact it was predicted by Ralph Stanley, former administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration (predecessor to the Federal Transit Administration), in a speech given in Colorado in 1996 and that someone coincidentally sent me yesterday. This speech is interesting enough that I’ve reproduced it below.

Despite this clear failure, rail die hards want even more obsolete transportation in Colorado, as there is now a proposal to run trains from Ft. Collins to Pueblo. Supporters point to the fact that Albuquerque and Salt Lake City both have long-distance commuter trains, but neglect to mention that, by any reasonable measure, those trains are failures too. Continue reading

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New Tool Maps Housing and Transportation

For those who like to look at maps rather than databases, the Lincoln Institute has released a handy new tool mapping the United States using all sorts of criteria. Among other things, the map can show every structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridge, housing affordability, homeownership rates, conservation easements, and many other land-use and transportation factors.

The above map, for example, shows housing affordability, with darker colors representing more affordable. Though this is at the state level, you can zoom in and see it as close as the census tract level.

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Dallas Light Rail a “Knife in Our Back”

A new report on transportation equity demonstrates that Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s zeal to build the largest light-rail system in America has harmed the city’s low-income population. While the report (really a PowerPoint show) itself is fairly mild in tone, the interpretation by Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze is anything but moderate.

DART light-rail lines, “built at costs in the billions, reach up into Carrollton, Plano and Rowlett — suburban areas that need light rail like they a ski lift,” says Schutze. Meanwhile, “DART does an appalling job of providing mass transit to inner-city, low-wage workers who need it.”

Schutze makes this out to be a debate between cities vs. suburbs, compact development vs. sprawl. But really, it is a question of what is the appropriate mission for transit agencies. Outside of those few urban areas with large downtowns–New York, Chicago, and a few others–most people don’t ride or need transit, so transit agencies have to come up with some rationale for continued subsidies. At one time, that rationale was that poor people needed mobility too. But now, most poor people have cars, so today the rationale is the need to get middle-class people out of their evil automobiles. Continue reading

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The Damage Done by Federal Funding

Despite the fact that the Trump administration has said that will not sign more full-funding grant agreements for streetcar and light-rail projects, and there are no grant agreements for a Ft. Lauderdale streetcar, someone in the Department of Transportation gave Ft. Lauderdale nearly $61 million for the city’s inane streetcar project. When I asked DC transportation experts about it, the only answer I could get is that the department was “forced” to do so.

So now it is absolutely clear that transit capital grants are given out solely for political purposes, not because they make any economic or transportation sense. While the case could be once made that these projects went through some kind of screening process, today (thanks largely to rule changes made during the Obama administration) the only screening is a fill-in-the-blank checklist.

The good news is that Ft. Lauderdale opened the bids for the streetcar construction that was originally projected to cost $142 million, and it now appears the costs will be closer to $270 million. The bad news is that the city will now be desperate not to give up the $61 million from the feds and will find some way to build it anyway. Continue reading

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Transit Today: Marketing Over Mobility

Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) won an award for its airport rail line. But the award was not for the line itself, which continues to suffer from technical failures more than a year after it opened, but for the agency’s marketing campaign for the train.

This is a sad commentary on the state of the nation’s transit industry: marketing is more important than mobility. Agencies have successfully marketed themselves as deserving of increased tax dollars (more than $50 billion in 2016), yet they are increasingly failing their supposed mission of improving urban mobility. RTD, for example, is under pressure to build and operate rail lines with low ridership (one carries just 1,600 a day), forcing it to cut bus routes that carry many more riders.

To discuss the future of transit in detail, next Wednesday the Antiplanner will be at the Cato Institute in Washington DC. Joining me on the platform will be Art Guzzetti, vice-president of policy with the American Public Transportation Association. While I will argue that transit’s decline is irreversible, Art–an intelligent man who previously worked for New Jersey Transit–will offer an alternative view. If you are in DC, please register and I hope to see you there. If you are not in DC, you can watch the event on livestream starting at 11 am ET.

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Taxing and Regulating the Competition

Here’s a difference between government-run businesses and private businesses: when private businesses face competition, they are forced to innovate to survive. When government-run businesses face competition, they can regulate or tax their competitors out of business.

Blackberry was once the dominant smart phone. Then came the iPhone, which reduced Blackberry subscribers from 85 million to 23 million in just 18 months. In 2016, Blackberry stopped designing phones. But that doesn’t mean it is out of business; instead, it is doing other things like designing driverless-car software.

Now consider the Chicago Transit Authority, which has lost riders in every year since 2012, partly if not mostly because of the growth of Uber and Lyft. Ridesharing has also reduced car rentals (which are taxed by the city) and downtown parking (which is taxes by the city). Although Uber and Lyft also pay taxes to the city, the city estimates it lost a net of $40 million in revenues (including transit fares and vehicle taxes) in 2016. So Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to increase taxes on Uber and Lyft to make up the difference. Continue reading

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Rail Runner Runs Away with Taxpayers’ Money

Commuter rail on existing tracks sounds seductively attractive at first glance. You don’t have to buy right of way or build new rail lines; you merely have to make a few upgrades and buy some used commuter cars and locomotives and–voila!–you have a hip new rail transit line to attract Millennials to your urban area.

If politicians ever did more than take a first glance at these projects, they would realize that it never works out that way in practice. Costs are a lot higher than expected, and even if you only run a handful of commuter trains a day going a maximum of 40 miles per hour, the feds have added to your costs by requiring you to install the same positive train control systems designed to handle the hundreds of 110-mph trains per day that use the Northeast Corridor.

Worse, existing freight lines rarely go where people want to go, so ridership is often low and fares sometimes cover less than 10 percent of operating costs, and of course zero percent of capital costs. Orlando’s SunRail fares aren’t even enough to pay for the ticket machines, much less any of the costs of operating the trains themselves. Continue reading

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