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.

Ralph Stanley, who became administrator of UMTA at the young age of 31, saw all of this happening, yet he was helpless to stop it because the decisions to spend federal dollars on obsolete transit systems were and are made by Congress. During his four years on the job, noted the Washington Post, he was “one of the harshest critics of rail transit systems such as Washington’s Metro, which he view[ed] as grossly overpriced and ill-suited to the realities of present-day development patterns.”

Sadly, he passed away at the age of 49, but not before he slightly tarnished his reputation as a rail skeptic by getting involved in one of Portland’s infamous transit-oriented developments (which also proved to be a failure until they made Ikea one of the anchor stores). Nevertheless, the following speech, which Stanley gave at an Adlai Stevenson Center conference in Vail, should be read by every city official thinking about endorsing a rail transit project.

Talk Given by Ralph Stanley, August 24, 1996

I am delighted to be here as living evidence that we should privatize our air traffic control system. This also is the second time that I’ve had the opportunity of seeing your new airport (Denver International) which is really a poster boy for privatization in terms of infrastructure. Note: I suspect he’s suggesting that if the airport were privatized it wouldn’t have turned into such a boondoggle.

I want to mention a couple of items. I have been sort of in the belly of the beast.. When I took over as head of UMTA, the agency was spending four billion dollars a year. The second year I was there I got a call one Thursday afternoon and the Executive Director of the agency came running into my office with a panicked look on his face and said: “Mr. Administrator, tomorrow we are going to get the Golden Fleece Award from Senator Proxmire.” What went through my head was that we had forty or fifty candidates for the Golden Fleece Award given the projects we have funded.

In the twenty years that UMTA had been funding mass transit for the Federal government, we had actually lost market share in terms of what we were supposed to be in the business of providing. The number of people using transit as a percentage has actually gone down. So for the first time in the twenty years that Bill Proxmire had been giving the award out I made the decision to accept it. Normally in Washington people who get that award run from it — they have no comment when the reporters call. So Friday morning I called Proxmire’s office myself and said that we understood that we were getting the Golden Fleece Award and that I wanted to come up and accept it.

Having been given flack by every mayor in the country for the last few months, they were naturally a little suspicious that a conservative Republican wanted to come up when the award was for wasting forty billion dollars in twenty years. Naturally, his chief of staff called back asking: “what is it that Mr. Stanley wants?” So finally I just drove up to the Capitol and waited outside Senator Proxmire’s office. As he came out, I introduced myself. He knew me. At the time he was chairman of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee — which was the committee that authorized the money for UMTA.

Senator Proxmire and I wandered across the Senate up into the press gallery. It was sort of a sleepy Friday afternoon and all of the sudden about twenty other reporters covering the Senate were sort of like who’s that? Well, that’s Proxmire, the Golden Fleece Award. But who’s with him? The guy that’s getting it. And that stirred some interest and they got up and they came over and normally he has about half a dozen reporters but as the word spread through the gallery that the recipient was there for the first time in twenty years they all came over. Senator Proxmire had a press release ready that was cleverly written. He got up and introduced me and was a good sport about it. He then went through the press release “America’s Gone Busted Buying Buses,” and talked about some of the projects that we had done. Then he introduced me to accept the award.

I got up and in true Hollywood style said “I’d like to accept this on my own behalf, but I can’t. Senator Proxmire is the chairman of the authorizing committee. Senator, you and the members of your committee, the members of the appropriations committee, and many, many other Congressmen and Senators that are too numerous to mention by name who have authorized and appropriated this money share in this award.” I then handed him our budget for 1986 and I encouraged him to recognize what we were trying to do.

I still am the only person ten years later to have accepted the Golden Fleece Award, but it went to the heart of what I felt about that program — and as I do about many programs in Washington. It was measured by how much it spent, not by what it bought.

I’ve traveled to every major urban area in the country; my first trip as UMTA administrator was to Denver. I had not been (literally a true story) in the hotel for half an hour when within the next sixty minutes I was called by not one, but three separate members of the RTD. All of them wanted a quiet visit with me. One wanted to talk about moving freight on a light rail line to the Tech Center. One had an idea for a five hundred million dollar loop around Denver.

For those of you who have not really studied the impact of light rail on urban cities — the one thing I have advised mayors — is that it is like the move “Body Snatchers.” People who you think are normally rational will come back from visiting Disneyworld or France — look for the little mark on the back of their neck because they have fallen in love with this myth that somehow this rail project is going to get the guy out of the car in front of them and onto a light rail car.

As one of my last acts as administrator, I hired some consultants to do an honest study of every rail system that was built in the seventies and eighties. I wanted to take a look at five simple statistics. What did they tell the community it would cost before the vote; what did it truly cost? What did they say it would cost to operate; what does cost? What did they say the ridership would be; what was the ridership after it opened? What did they say the contribution from the farebox would be; what is the contribution today? Finally, what was the operating cost projected and what is it today?

That study, an honest intellectual exercise, was almost stopped in Congress because the “industry” went up to the Hill because no one wanted the answers published. I have talked to cities from Honolulu to Phoenix as I’ve watched them catch light rail disease, and that study has been enormously beneficial.
Particularly given the kind of press coverage that some of these rail projects get.

The study showed the same problem in cities from Miami to Washington DC to San Francisco and cities too numerous to mention. In regard to each of those statistics — what the Elmer Gantry gang of consultants tells you and what happened afterward — were off by not ten percent, not twenty percent, but three hundred and six hundred percent in capital cost overruns! My favorite is Miami.

Miami ran a rail system. I went down and fortunately was there for a lot of ribbon cutting. They told the citizens of Dade county that this rail system would carry two hundred thousand riders a day. It opened to the grim number of twenty-five thousand. I think today it may be edging toward thirty-five of forty thousand. The fact is at two hundred thousand dollars a day, a dollar a head — forty thousand is what they have actually got. They have saddled Dade county with a system that’s destination cannot be changed and which cannot be shut down.

The subsidy drained the bus system. This is a true story. I literally got a call from a Dade county supervisor who was running for reelection. He had gone to a meeting of a transit dependent minority community where the bus system had been stripped. Stripped because of this rail monster that ate the budget.

They had taken all the buses out of service. The citizens were throwing things at this supervisor at this town meeting because they were being forced to use rail.

None of the rail systems, despite the statistics, have worked. The reasons are fairly simple. If you look at any city — and driving out here from DIA today, Denver is not unlike other cities — the growth of jobs, the growth of suburbs is happening everywhere. It’s happening in Boston; it’s happening in New Jersey. I’ll give you one statistic that I try to give politicians all the time. We define a city as a place where more people come to work in the morning that has at least six hundred thousand square feet of retail space, three million square feet of commercial space. Since 1978, in the United States, we’ve created a hundred and ninety places that meet these statistics that are larger than downtown Cincinnati.

What are they? In San Francisco, it’s Walnut Creek. Where I work, on a private toll road in Virginia, it’s Tyson’s Corner. Tyson’s Corner today is the sixth largest city in America. Where I grew up in New Jersey, the third largest city in New Jersey is a place called the Meadowlands. Four hundred and forty-five thousand people go to work in that place every day. There are twenty-one of these places around the New York city area. In Houston, the Galleria is larger than downtown Seattle. Everybody thinks it’s Los Angeles. In fact, it’s happening in every urban area in the United States.

I still have a very good relationship with a reporter at the Washington Post named Joe Garreau. Joe wrote a series about Washington called the “Emerging cities of Washington” [later turned into a great book, Edge City – ed.]. It showed this incredible transfer of trips and jobs to the suburbs not at the loss of many downtown. What really proves this is that building a rail line downtown with the spokes like a wheel of the rail line going out is almost irrelevant in solving the traffic and transportation problems that we’re facing in the nineties and in the next decade. The true people who understand will admit that they have built a system designed for a city that’s looking back thirty years — not ahead thirty years.

One story about Washington DC. I was not popular because I withheld the money in Washington DC for two years because of one reason. They were building this rail system by building the rail car yard at the end. They didn’t have the money for the track in between. So I came up with something — true Washingtonese — called an operable segment. This means you go from A to B, from B to C, and you won’t build D to E until you have the money. That caused a great revolution in Washington. They were building it the way I told you for the sole reason of being able to go up to Congress afterward and say “We store our rail cars out here in Prince George’s county and we can’t get them to the rail system, so we need another quarter of a million dollars to connect the two dots.”

They had a snowstorm — a blizzard — in Washington while I was there and literally the system shut down. It was too cold, the cars were frozen in the yard.

The front page of the Washington Post ran an article that literally proposed that the Federal government should fund a way that the system and all of the rail lines can be heated in the event of a blizzard. I had to go to a “snow summit” on behalf of the Federal government. This was covered by all the press in Washington. We had an expert come in to speak about the power that would have been required for this idea. It would have dimmed the East Coast for ten minutes after you turned this on.

This rail system in Washington — thanks to the Washington Post — is like the Redskins, nobody’s against it. No one has asked “Does it help in the overall transit problem?” That area is a perfect example of this “Edge city” transportation problem I talked about. I went into the snow summit and as an opening remark said: “on a good bright sunny day there are about six hundred thousand trips a day in Washington DC. [He meant six million – ed.] This rail system carries eight percent. So ninety-two percent of the people get up and go to work in the Washington area. I could put domes over it, I could heat it, this wouldn’t help them.” Everybody locally was just sort of “Eight percent, that’s not very much.” Not only is it not very much, it’s going down. It’s very simple — it’s too expensive, it takes too long, and it doesn’t go where people go.

Those questions aren’t asked on some of these rail systems that are proposed. I will say that it is happening in every city. I haven’t looked at the 1990 consensus for the Denver area, but I can guarantee you that any rail system is going to be marginal in terms of what it contributes to relieving congestion in the Metro area. Part of the reason is that these planners think that everybody goes to works at nine and comes home at five.

I’ll give you one other statistic for Washington that I tried to address in Congress. The beltway every morning in Washington is very, very congested. The 1990 consensus revealed that fifty-five percent of the vehicles from 6:30 to nine in the morning on the beltway are not on their way to work. In the afternoon, seventy percent of the cars are not on their way to work. Garreau basically said we’ve become a society that will drive a mile to jog five. That’s true. None of these rail systems in the last fifteen years has made even a minor contribution to congestion.

We had a project in California called SR91 that is the first public-private partnership — my hats off to California. It is a four lane toll road in Orange County that doesn’t have toll booths. It uses congestion pricing — transponders in the windshield — and it’s a congestion reliever. It is extremely popular.

Everybody talks about the drivers on the road as customers — which is true. It is dynamically priced, meaning at night it’s a quarter, during rush hour it’s two dollars — we can change that price if the consumer doesn’t buy it. It has taken congestion in that corridor back from 1994 levels to 1978 levels.
Managing existing congestion with things like SR91 by introducing market forces is a much better alternative.

We helped Los Angeles during the Olympics — remember black Thursday in 1984? They basically did simple things about parking, downtown deliveries, they had a very good shuttle service. The day after the Olympics, Mayor Bradley got up and literally said at a press conference “Let the traffic begin.” He suspended all of the services. Now they are building a rail system — the mother of all rail systems — which is going to contribute little if anything after they spend thirty billion dollars for the total plan. My caution is really look before you pay for any of these.

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7 thoughts on “Some People Never Learn

  1. CapitalistRoader

    People who you think are normally rational will come back from visiting Disneyworld or France — look for the little mark on the back of their neck because they have fallen in love with this myth that somehow this rail project is going to get the guy out of the car in front of them and onto a light rail car.

    Priceless. This is going into the Denver Post comment section of the Front Range choo choo train article.

  2. prk166


    I haven’t looked at the 1990 consensus for the Denver area, but I can guarantee you that any rail system is going to be marginal in terms of what it contributes to relieving congestion in the Metro area.
    ” ~ anti-planner

    I agree. Fastracks did almost nothing to serve the tech center. It has something like 40% of the office space and @190,000 jobs. In fact, the actual Denver Technical Center has more jobs in it than downtown Denver.

    Fastracks was drawn up not to serve the public but to appeal to voters who would vote for it. It wasn’t a transportation scheme but a political scheme. So it added what? 5? 6? lines that serve downtown Denver and only one that serves the tech center?

    BTW – For anyone not familiar with Denver, there is a Denver Tech Center. It’s not located in Denver but south of it at I-25 & I-225. There is an actual office park called the Denver Tech Center ( DTC ). However, it’s common for people to refer to that whole corridor from I225 to e470 as the tech center.

  3. CapitalistRoader

    ” So it added what? 5? 6? lines that serve downtown Denver and only one that serves the tech center?”

    Two, I think, serve the tech center: E/F from downtown and R from Smith Rd. & Peoria.

  4. prk166

    Correct. They had an existing line and added one other, the I-225 line.

    So they’re talking bout the future of Denver and they add 1 line to the biggest employment center in the state while adding 5 or 6 for downtown???!?!?????

    That looks like they were looking more to the past than the future.

  5. CapitalistRoader

    I don’t disagree, PRK. IMHO the bus rapid transit/HOT “Flatiron Flyer” lanes have been a complete success. People who want to ride collective transit, cars w/ three or more people, and individuals/couples who have enough money to spend can occupy those lanes. Too bad RTD built light rail instead of bus rapid transit/HOT lanes to Lincoln Ave. on I-25. Same thing for Santa Fe to Mineral.

    What a waste.

  6. prk166

    @CapitalistRoader, I can only imagine how that would help so much more.

    I used to work on the south side of town. If I ever had to go to the airport or up to Loveland after work, I’d just spring the $11 to take e470. For the price of a stop at Chipotle, I got to just drive, rather than sitting in traffic for an extra 20 – 40 minutes.

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