New Starts 2017

The Federal Transit Administration has published its New Starts recommendations for 2017. The recommendations include profiles of more than 60 different transit projects, including bus-rapid transit (BR), streetcars (SR), light rail (LR), commuter rail (CR), and heavy rail (HR). Only 60 projects are shown in the table below as a few, such as the San Antonio streetcar, have been cancelled or at least are “on hold.”

PhoenixS. CentralLR5.0531106
LAPurple 1HR3.92,822720
LAPurple 2HR2.62,467949
San DiegoMid-Coast LR10.92,171199
San Fran.CentralLR1.71,578928
San Fran.Van NessBR2.016381
San JoseEl Camino BR17.418811
San JoseBerryessaHR10.22,330230
San RafaelSMARTCR2.14320
Santa AnaStreetcarSR4.128970
DenverSE ExtLR2.322497
Ft. Laud.WaveSR2.817362
Ft. Laud.BrowardSR5.00
ChicagoAshland BR5.411722
ChicagoRed & PurpleHRC5.6957171
Indy.Red BR13.1967
Gr. RapidsLakerBR13.3715
Minn.Blue extLR13.010
K. CityProspectBR10.0545
CharlotteBlue extLR9.31,160125
Reno4th StBR3.15317
DallasRed & BlueLRC48.11192
El PasoMontanaBR16.8473
Ft. WorthTEXRailCR27.299637
TacomaLink extSR2.416669
A “C” after a mode abbreviation means that project is a capacity increase or reconstruction of an existing line. An “ext” at the end of a project name is an extension of an existing line. There are 60 projects in the table; to see all 60 at once, select “Show 100 entries.” Projects are sorted in alphabetical order by state, but you can resort by any column.

For the projects in this year’s report, the average cost of new streetcar lines is $45 million per mile; light rail is $163 million per mile; heavy rail is $347 million per mile; and commuter rail is $38 million per mile. Of course, cost overruns are likely for a majority of these projects, so the final costs are likely to average 20 to 50 percent more. Even without the overruns, these costs are outlandish, as the nation’s first light-rail lines cost only around $10 million to $25 million per mile (after adjusting for inflation), and streetcars were supposed to be even less expensive than that.

CityProjectModeDaily RidersCost/tripPrius cost
LAPurple 1HR33,70016.8011
LAPurple 2HR36,10013.4211
San DiegoMid-Coast LR31,90011.9010
San Fran.CentralLR35,1008.607
San JoseBerryessaHR46,00012.856
San RafaelSMARTCR8009.227
DenverSE ExtLR6,6007.836
Ft. Laud.WaveSR1,80015.3519
IndyRed BR11,0003.413
Gr. RapidsLakerBR4,4002.435
CharlotteBlue extLR24,60010.666
Reno4th StBR7,7001.461
Ft. WorthTEXRailCR13,70015.6412
TacomaLink extSR8,6006.264
Cost per trip includes capital costs amortized over 30 years at 3 percent interest plus operating costs divided by the projected annual riders in 2030 or 2035. The “Prius cost” shows how often, in years, we could give each weekday round-trip rider a new Toyota Priuses (at $24,000 per car) if the project wasn’t built; for example, “3.0” means a new Prius every three years.

Ridership projections are only available for about 29 projects that are well advanced in the planning process. Based on this ridership data, most rail projects will cost well over $10 per rider while most bus projects will cost less than $5 per rider. Of course, projections are usually high, so the actual costs will be more.

The Federal Transit Administration is no longer interested in the cost-effectiveness of projects, so it rarely bothers to publish how many projected riders will be “new” transit riders. In most cases, at least half of all riders would have taken transit even without the project, so the cost of getting someone out of their car and onto transit would be more than double the cost per rider shown here. In the case of the L.A. Regional Connector and San Francisco Central Subway light-rail projects, almost all of the riders would have taken transit anyway, so the cost per new rider will be many times higher than the cost per average rider.

I like to calculate how often taxpayers could give a new Prius to every daily round-trip transit rider for these projects. For example, the Orlando South commuter-rail project is so expensive and will carry so few riders that we could give every daily round-trip rider a new Prius every 18 months. The extension of the existing North commuter-rail line is even worse: we could give every rider a new Prius every nine months and still save money. Of course, this statistic is most meaningful for commuter-rail lines and other lines used mainly by commuters as opposed to shoppers, event patrons, and so on.

Given that cost-effectiveness is no longer relevant to the FTA, the agency seems to be using the “Field of Dreams” criteria for handing out money: if you apply for it, they will fund it. To any reasonable person, the idea that taxpayers should spend nearly $70 million, plus more than $6 million in annual operating costs, so that 300 people could commute on the North extension of Orlando’s commuter train, for example, seems absurd. Yet the FTA proudly includes this project in its list of recommendations. I’m sure the fact that the line serves the district of one of top-ranking members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has nothing to do with it.


4 thoughts on “New Starts 2017

  1. FrancisKing

    “…as the nation’s first light-rail lines cost only around $10 million to $25 million per mile (after adjusting for inflation), and streetcars were supposed to be even less expensive than that.”

    The UK’s early systems were also low cost. They had raised kerbs for stations, and used as much old railway line as possible. Many expensive US systems have full-blown stations, with car parking. A recent UK system in Edinburgh blew through the budget because the streets were riddled with underground storage basements.

    “To any reasonable person…”

    However, they are not being directly taxed to pay for it. It’s free federal money. Who could object to that? (The EU does the same sort of thing).

  2. prk166

    @FrancisKing, I get what you’re saying. People think like that but the Federal money is something everyone is being taxed for. It’s not free money. Of course that doesn’t stop the local politicians from claiming it is.

  3. prk166

    @antiplanner, it looks like the eagle line costs $2.2 Billion
    A public-private partnership (P3) is an innovative financing and project delivery method in which a public entity partners with the private sector on a public infrastructure project. The private team invests its own money through borrowing or equity and assumes much of the risk associated with a project. This allows the public entity to spread out large up front costs while preserving public cash for use in the early construction years of a project.

    The Eagle P3 is a $2.2 billion capital project comprised of federal funds, RTD sales tax bonds and private equity from the concessionaire team, Denver Transit Partners. Eagle P3 received a $1.03 billion Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) from the Federal Transit Administration on Aug. 31, 2011.

  4. The Antiplanner Post author


    Yes, a lot of projects on this list are already over budget, but I just reported the numbers as reported in the FTA New Starts report. Frankly, people who think it’s okay to spend $2 billion on a 30-mile commuter rail line aren’t going to be bothered much by a cost overrun.

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