More Rail Fail

Two more rail transit lines are following in the tracks of so many others that have failed to live up to planners’ promises. First, Orlando’s SunRail commuter train is “losing riders at an increasing pace.” The project, which cost a billion dollars and was built partly to persuade the federal government that Florida was serious about supporting an Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line, has lost 27 percent of its riders since it opened.


SunRail Fail. Flickr photo by Buddahbless.

Second, Seattle’s seven-year-old South Lake Union Transit (SLUT) streetcar has continually failed to attracted the predicted number of riders. Both the SLUT and SunRail were counting on rider fares to help pay operating costs; the SLUT’s shortfall has required repeated bailouts of the line.

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Living in a Fantasy World

Here’s more evidence that rail transit advocates–in this case, streetcar supporters–are totally delusional: proponents of a 7.4-mile Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington, Virginia, estimate that the streetcar line will carry 42,800 people per day in 2035. That’s nearly 5,800 daily boardings per mile of streetcar line, which is more than twice as great than the most heavily used streetcar lines in the country. It is even greater than all but one light-rail line and only 20 percent less than the Washington MetroRail system.

According to the 2012 National Transit Database, the most heavily used lines that the Federal Transit Administration currently defines as streetcars are in Philadelphia, which carried nearly 85,000 people per weekday (see the service spreadsheet for weekday trips and the fixed guideway spreadsheet for directional route miles–divide directional route miles by 2 to get route miles). But there are 108 route miles of such lines for an average of just 780 boardings per mile. The streetcar line that attracted the most passengers per mile in 2012 was in Portland (probably because it was nearly free), and it attracted 2,670 weekday riders per mile–less than half of the projection for the Arlington streetcar.

“The Columbia Pike corridor currently has the highest transit ridership within the Commonwealth for a corridor without fixed guideway service,” say streetcar supporters. They think the “high-capacity” streetcar will handle this ridership and attract even more riders. But not even most light-rail lines, whose capacities are several times greater than streetcars, attract 5,000 riders per day.

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Irrelevance Across America

Something calling itself the “Accessibility Observatory” at the University of Minnesota has mapped transit accessibility for most of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas (Jacksonville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Richmond were left out for lack of transit data). Different colors on the maps show how many jobs are accessible from each point within 30 minutes by transit.


Click image to download report.

“At the highest levels,” gushes the report, “millions of jobs are accessible by transit within 30 minutes.” To be precise, millions of jobs are accessible by transit in Manhattan. In Chicago, the nation’s second-largest concentration of jobs, under a million jobs are accessible. San Francisco is under 750,000 jobs; Portland is under 500,000 jobs, and places like Tampa are under 250,000.

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When Myron Met the Antiplanner

Some two weeks ago, the Antiplanner met regionalist Myron Orfield in a debate over the question, “What is the appropriate role of government in land-use regulation?” A member of the Sensible Land Use Coalition, which sponsored the event, recorded the discussion and asked me to post it to Youtube.

To avoid an overly long video, I elected to post it in four parts. Part 1, above, shows the introductions and my presentation (also available as a 10.5-MB PDF).

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The Death of the Auto Industry as We Know It?

Adam Jonas, head of auto research at Morgan Stanley, is predicting the end of the auto industry “as we know it.” Or, at least, that’s what Business Insider is reporting–Jonas’ actual article appears to be behind a paywall.

As near as the Antiplanner can tell, what Jonas is actually saying is that self-driving cars will completely change the auto industry, and industry analysts who fail to account for that change will lose out. The actual title of Jonas’ article is “Death of an Auto Analyst.”

According to the report, Jonas “sees a world in which everyone rents a car instead of owning one.” This means the industry will have to change from one that sells cars to consumers to one that sells cars to car-sharing firms that rent them to consumers. He may believe that this will change the dynamics of auto making such that, for example, style becomes less important than functionality.

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All Aboard Florida Goes Private

After going to the effort of writing an environmental impact statement in order to be eligible for a federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan, All Aboard Florida has suddenly switched tracks and says it wants a private activity bond instead. Private activity bonds are issued by cities or states, but the funds are given to private entities that are responsible for repaying them–for this reason, they are sometimes called conduit bonds.

Since they are issued by a government entity, they are tax exempt. Yet the private companies that get the funds range from American Airlines, which built new terminals at JFK and other airports, to Transurban, which built HOT lanes on Virginia’s I-495. The tax exemption allows bond issuers to pay lower interest rates, giving companies that receive such bonds an advantage over their competitors. The tax exemption is also controversial, as it effectively costs the federal government money.

All Aboard Florida, which is part of the Florida East Coast Railway, promises to build a moderately high-speed (110-125 mph) rail project without any subsidies. Yet it also wants government loans of one sort or another to do it. It has already issued $405 million in bonds paying a whopping 12 percent interest–which one critic notes puts them in junk bond territory–with the up-front expectation that the bonds will be repaid out of a much lower interest $1.6-billion loan that the company expects to get from the federal and/or state governments.

Given that President Obama supports high-speed rail and noted fiscal conservative Robert Poole, of the Reason Foundation, has specifically endorsed All Aboard Florida, why would the company suddenly switch from the planned RRIF loan to a private activity bond? The company’s press release emphasized that the new bonds wouldn’t pose any risk for taxpayers, suggesting that company was sensitive to local critics who claimed that the RRIF loan could leave taxpayers holding the bag when the company defaulted.

Another possibility is that the Federal Railroad Administration let the Florida company know that full funding of the proposed RRIF loan was unlikely. This would have been the largest RRIF loan in history and one of the few dedicated to passenger rail.

The Antiplanner remains suspicious that running sixteen trains a day in each direction between Miami and Orlando is not really a viable project. If it truly were viable, would Florida East Coast really need to get tax-subsidized loans to make it work? Why doesn’t it save itself the trouble and red tape that comes with federal or state support and simply go to the truly private bond market? I suspect the answer is that not enough private investors would have faith in the company’s ridership and fare projections to fully fund the project.

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The State of State Highways

A new Reason Foundation review of the condition of state highways (which includes interstates) finds that, in general, they are improving. Highways are doing particularly well in Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Texas. However, highways in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey are faring poorly.

“A widening gap seems to be emerging between most states that are making progress, and a few states that are finding it difficult to improve,” says the report. Moreover, “There is also increasing evidence that higher-level road systems (Interstates, other freeways and principal arterials) are in better shape than lower-level road systems, particularly local roads.”

Some of the differences between states are purely geographic. For example, fatality rates per billion vehicle miles are higher on rural roads than urban roads, so states with higher shares of rural driving, such as South Carolina and Virginia, have higher overall fatality rates.

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Coping With Too Much Money

According to pro-rail transit Metro magazine, American cities face a dilemma: the demand for rail transit continues to grow, yet there is a scarcity of federal dollars to pay for it. Fortunately, writer Cliff Henke continues, cities have come up with innovative ways to get around this scarcity.

In fact, most of the things the article says are wrong or, at least, they indicate that cities have too much money, not a shortage. If it weren’t for this surfeit of funds, cities wouldn’t plan ridiculously expensive rail lines that, in most cases, do nothing for transit riders or transportation users in general. This is shown by all of the examples in his article.

The Overpriced Los Angeles Subway: The first example in the article is Los Angeles’ Westside Subway, which will be less than four miles long yet is expected to cost well over $2.8 billion, or more than $725 million per mile. This insane project is expected to attract just 7,700 new transit riders per day. That means the cost of getting one person out of their car for one trip on the subway will be $65. (I calculated this by amortizing the capital costs over 30 years at 2 percent interest, multiplying the daily new trips by 315, which is the average weekday trips per year on L.A.’s existing subway, and dividing annual new trips into the sum of the annual operating and annualized capital costs.)

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A Model for the Rest of the Country?

Portland doesn’t need to apologize for spending more than $1.5 billion on a 7-mile light-rail line, says Secretary of Immobility Anthony Foxx. “Cities, counties and state need to have bold visions, not be unapologetic about them, and explain them to the public,” he was quoted as saying. Presumably this quote was garbled; otherwise the Department of Transportation is in even worse trouble than the Antiplanner thought.

Let’s see how well Portland is doing as a model for the nation:

  • Its streets are falling apart even as it plans to build 140 miles of streetcar lines at a cost that would be enough to repave all 5,000 miles of streets;
  • Portland doesn’t even have enough money to maintain city-owned office buildings;
  • The general manager of Portland’s transit agency says it will have to reduce all rail and bus service by 70 percent between now and 2025 in order to meet all of its financial obligations;
  • Despite all the money spent on Portland transit, transit is so unpopular that, of 50,000 new workers gained between 2005 and 2012, fewer than 100 take transit to work;
  • For the Portland urban area as a whole, there were 124,000 new jobs between 2005 and 2012, of which about 700 took transit to work.
  • Thanks partly to money stolen from schools by TIF-addicted planners intent on subsidizing TODs, Portland high schools have some of the largest classroom sizes and lowest graduation rates in the nation;
  • The “creative class” of young people who have been attracted to Portland (most likely by the city’s 50 brew pubs) do so little work that they have reduced Portland’s per capita incomes, relative to the rest of the country, by 10 percent;
  • Portland has funded only half of its pension obligations and just 4 percent of its health-care obligations, giving it one of the worst records of any city in the nation.

Sounds like a model for other cities of what not to do.

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Senior Citizen

The Antiplanner turned 62 on October 1, and I celebrated by buying a “senior pass” from the National Park Service. This $10 pass is supposed to allow me free (or, at least, discounted) entry into every national park for the rest of my life.


Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Click image for a larger view.

Since I happened to be in Denver, I first used the pass to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, where I saw and heard elk bugling on my way to the Bear Lake trailhead where I hiked to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald lakes. The Park Service representative at the gate–who admitted he was older than I am–didn’t resent selling me a lifetime pass for just $10.

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