More Support for Abolishing New Starts

Today, the Cato Institute releases my policy paper on the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program that gives about $2 billion a year in grants to cities to build new streetcar, low-capacity rail, and other rail transit lines. My basic argument is that nearly all of the billions spent on this program since 1992 have been wasted, mainly because rail transit is obsolete except in a few extraordinary places such as Hong Kong.

The paper starts by quoting FTA administrator Peter Rogoff, who in a 2010 speech chastised the transit bureaucracy for asking his agency for money to build rail lines when they couldn’t afford to maintain the lines they already have. “Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive,” he said. “You can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.”

My paper points out that Rogoff’s own agency, with the complicity of Congress, is the main reason so many cities want to build rail lines they can’t afford to maintain. Although Congress set competitive grant criteria such as “cost effectiveness,” when the FTA tried to implement that criteria Congress simply exempted favorite projects from the rule. More recently, the FTA has rewritten the rule so it is now meaningless.

Another criterion the FTA supposedly requires is that agencies must be financially able to maintain rail service without cutting bus service. By an extraordinary coincidence, just last week the Cascade Policy Institute sent an open letter to the FTA pointing out that Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, does not come close to meeting this criterion. Not only is TriMet not offering the service it promised on the last two rail lines it built, TriMet’s own forecasts indicate that it will never be able to reach that service level. Instead, it has cut service and has warned that, given its current financial condition, it will have to cut it by another 70 percent by 2025.

The point is that the FTA ignores all of these problems and continues to give money to agencies such as TriMet. So it is no wonder that agencies continue to ask Rogoff for money for rail lines they can’t afford to maintain–those who ask, get it.

Sadly, Rogoff has never repeated his comments, and presumably was gagged by his boss, Ray LaHood. But this just shows why the only solution is for Congress to completely abolish New Starts. Instead, if the federal government funds transit at all, that money should be given to the agencies using formula grants, preferably with formulas that give them incentives to provide better transportation, not just more costly transportation.

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13 thoughts on “More Support for Abolishing New Starts

  1. gecko55

    New York, Boston, Chicago, Paris, London, Barcelona, Switzerland, Washington DC, Copenhagen, Singapore … The millions of people who use rail transit in these and other places would beg to differ. Sure, maintenance can be an issue with some systems, but the alternative is?

    Buses? Fanciful notion, especially in cities where a lot of the rail transit is underground. And the fact is, buses are much noisier and uncomfortable compared to (most) rail transit.

  2. Neal Meyer

    Antiplanner,

    You’ll be much disheartened by the recent visit by none other than Ray LaHood (a most appropriate name for a politician) to my fair city, where he shouted at the local political classes that we needed to get our act together on light rail.

    Why, you ask? Because, according to Mr. LaHood you see, my fair city is missing out on “our fair share” of the national pork, damn it! The political classes in our city are letting the political classes from other cities get away with stealing our money, and that’s just not right!

    Now then, the transit agency whose abuse I have to put up with has built one light rail line so far, out of money they have confiscated from the local populace, and they are building another rail line ($550 million for four miles, which runs along a street that has had a bus route on it that has gotten 4,000 – 5,500 boardings per day for the past 30 years) with local money. The good news for everyone else is that this is local money being wasted, and not federal. Therefore, the abuse isn’t being spread out.

    I am someone who thinks that even if you are someone who believes that government should be in the transit business that transit is a local issue. There is no reason at all for the federal government to be involved. This is part of what author William Vogeli wrote in his book Never Enough, where he described that since the New Deal, America has had a centralization and nationalization of politics. The skies have turned black with criss crossing dollars, and everyone is out to try to become a net winner of stealing someone else’s money. And so it has become with government transit.

  3. libertyrailroad

    JK: then feel free to refute it.
    Simple the technology is still in wide use in many parts of the world and development of said technology continues. Maybe maglev will replace it but maglev is not standardized enough yet. I guess roads and automobiles are obsolete too paved roads go back to the age of the Romans and Automobiles originate in the 18th century.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    gecko55 wrote:

    New York, Boston, Chicago, Paris, London, Barcelona, Switzerland, Washington DC, Copenhagen, Singapore … The millions of people who use rail transit in these and other places would beg to differ. Sure, maintenance can be an issue with some systems, but the alternative is?

    I suggest you not make the mistake of grouping heavily-used and huge rail system regions like New York and London with some of the others, including the ones at the lower end of the list below.

    Wikipedia has an entry showing annual boardings here (a metric I really dislike, because it tends to inflate the impression that people get about the effectiveness of passenger rail transit systems) of rail systems around the world – though for an apples-to-apples comparison, it is useful.

    New York – 1655 million
    Paris – 1524 million
    London – 1171 million
    Singapore – 794.2 million
    Barcelona – 434.6 million
    Chicago “L” – 231.1 million
    Washington, D.C. – 212.2 million
    Boston – 165 million
    Copenhagen – 54.3 million
    Lausanne, Switzerland – 36.2 million

  5. gecko55

    Dear C.P.Z

    Ha Ha. The bit I was reacting to was this: “… because rail transit is obsolete except in a few extraordinary places such as Hong Kong.” It was a quick list of some cities I’m personally familiar with, and where rail transit is an integral part of the cityscape.

    Lausanne is a pretty small city. (And my reference was to Switzerland, not just one of its medium size burgs / villes.) Population is about 123,000. Not sure if this annual boardings metric includes all of the train options as well as the trams, but even it it doesn’t, that still works out to something like 296 boardings @ person @ year.

    I know. Lots of these boardings were made by people passing through. But trust me — you will be hard pressed to find someone in Lausanne (or Switzerland) who views their rail transit as “obsolete.”

    Also, Chicago “L” is only a one part of the rail system there. Lot of riders on the suburban rail lines as well. (Although I will concede that some of those riders would describe their line as obsolete.”

  6. MJ

    Sure, maintenance can be an issue with some systems, but the alternative is?

    There are plenty of alternatives. Randal suggests one:

    Instead, if the federal government funds transit at all, that money should be given to the agencies using formula grants, preferably with formulas that give them incentives to provide better transportation, not just more costly transportation.

    A second would be to devolve responsibility for transit down to more local levels of government and make them responsible for financing and maintaining their own networks. Local governments addressing a local issue.

    It is easy to think of more.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    gecko55 wrote:

    The bit I was reacting to was this: “… because rail transit is obsolete except in a few extraordinary places such as Hong Kong.” It was a quick list of some cities I’m personally familiar with, and where rail transit is an integral part of the cityscape.

    Does that justify the spending of tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars on New Starts (as in new rail transit lines).

  8. Sandy Teal

    Neal Meyer hit issue on the head. These federal programs pretend that there is “local support” for these projects, while the projects are sold to the local area as “get free federal dollars”. Even a 50-50 split between the federal and local government would doom all these projects from local opposition.

    These projects are just pork from DC, sold with some promises of reducing congestion and lowering global warming that will never come true. And of course nobody talks about maintenance costs or replacement costs.

  9. Dan

    A second would be to devolve responsibility for transit down to more local levels of government and make them responsible for financing and maintaining their own networks.

    I agree. We’ll see what choices people make when differing-competencies local governments have to fully fund auto transit and maintain and repair.

    DS

  10. metrosucks

    I agree. We’ll see what choices people make when differing-competencies local governments have to fully fund auto transit and maintain and repair.

    DS

    The first thing they will do, left out by the lying planner, is stop building rail transit. How ironic.

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