As the Antiplanner noted yesterday, Ray LaHood’s lasting legacy as Secretary of Immobility is the loosening of requirements for major transit capital grants in new rules issued a few weeks ago. This is most important for streetcar fans, since the Bush-era rules pretty much predetermined that streetcars were not a cost-effective use of federal transportation dollars. As a result, most of the streetcar projects that LaHood was able to fund came out of stimulus funds, not transportation funds.
With the floodgates opened, expect to see a rash of streetcar applications. Reconnecting America, a pro-transit group, has cataloged more than 600 transit plans under way in more than 100 metro areas. These include 125 streetcar projects in at least 50 cities which may now be eligible for funding now that LaHood has eliminated the Bush cost-effectiveness criteria.
|Projects||Cost/Mile (Millions)||Daily PM/Million $ Cost|
|Bus rapid transit||135||16||177|
This table shows the estimated capital cost per mile of various types of transit projects identified by Reconnecting America. “Rapid bus” is Reconnecting America’s term for fast, frequent bus service with limited stops on existing roads; “bus-rapid transit” is Reconnecting America’s term for similar bus service on dedicated roads. The daily passenger miles per million dollars of capital cost is a crude measure of cost-effectiveness calculated by multiplying projected daily trips for each mode times the average length of trips by that mode (1.75 miles for streetcars; 4 miles for bus; 5 for light and heavy rail; and 20 miles for commuter rail) and dividing by the capital cost. The last row, representing the Interstate Highway System, is offered for the sake of comparison.
Reconnecting America was able to track down capital cost and ridership estimates for most of the projects being planned and based on this we can calculate a crude measure of their cost effectiveness: daily passenger miles per million dollars of capital cost. I calculate passenger miles by multiplying daily ridership numbers by the average length of trips in the 2011 National Transit Database: about 1.75 miles for streetcars; 4 miles for buses, including bus-rapid transit; 5 miles for light and heavy rail; and 20 miles for commuter rail.
By this measure, streetcars are the least cost-effective transit mode, providing less than 60 daily passenger miles per million dollars of capital investment. Rapid bus (Reconnecting America’s term for bus-rapid transit on existing roads shared with other traffic; it reserves the term bus-rapid transit for buses that have dedicated lanes) is five times more cost effective. Not coincidentally, it is also the least-popular mode proposed by transit agencies.
For comparison’s sake, I’ve added interstate highways, which I calculate produced about 3.6 billion daily passenger miles of travel in 2011 (not to mention about 1.6 billion daily ton miles of freight movement). Adjusted for inflation, the interstates cost about $450 billion, or about 8,000 daily passenger miles per million dollars of investment. I hardly need add that the interstates paid for themselves out of the gas taxes they generated while transit fares are not expected to ever cover the operating costs, much less the capital or maintenance costs, of any of these transit projects.
For LaHood, however, cost effectiveness was irrelevant; instead, his goal was “livability,” by which he meant living without a car. But considering that 92 percent of Americans do live with a car, and live much better because they have a car, LaHood’s goal effectively represented a reduction in the standard of living for most people.
Unfortunately, the planning process that LaHood promoted contains seeds of self-fulfulling prophecy. Cities typically pay millions of dollars to outside contractors to write the environmental impact statements. Since contractors know that if projects are funded they are likely to get some of those funds for engineering and design work, they freely contribute some of their profits from the environmental process to promoting the projects. The environmental review also include a public involvement process that gives rail advocates a tool to organize support.
LaHood was only a symptom of the problem inherent with any federal funding for what should be state or local programs: there will always be a clamor for “free” federal money. But his credibility as the token Republican in the Obama cabinet gave a bit more legitimacy to this process. His replacement could be an even more extreme supporter of these programs, but it is hard to imagine that he or she will be able to do any worse damage to our cities than LaHood has already done.