Ready for More Subsidies

Amtrak has kicked off a “ready-to-build” campaign, making it clear that the money-losing company faces close to $30 billion in major infrastructure projects in the Northeast Corridor on top of the corridor’s $11 billion “basic infrastructure backlog,” meaning tracks, signals, and power facilities. In addition to the $20 billion Hudson River tunnels project, Amtrak wants to spend $5 billion on a new tunnel under Baltimore, $1.7 billion on a new Susquehanna River bridge, $1.5 billion on another new bridge in New Jersey, and unspecified billions more for building or rebuilding train stations in New York (which alone is costing more than $2 billion), Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington.

In short, taxpayers are looking at a bill of well over $40 billion just to keep the supposedly profitable Northeast Corridor running. Amtrak must believe that “ready to build” sounds like a more positive message than “we need at least $40 billion just to keep the wheels turning.” No doubt Amtrak is relying on the image it has create that its Northeast Corridor trains make money, when in fact they merely cover operating costs, not the costs of maintenance or depreciation. Adding maintenance and depreciation not only eliminates profits, it brings subsidies to at least 10 cents per passenger mile–and that’s before counting the $40 billion or so needed to bring the corridor up to a state of good repair.

Amtrak divides its operations into three categories: the Northeast Corridor, state-supported day trains, and overnight long-distance trains. In addition to claiming that the Northeast Corridor makes money, Amtrak strongly implies that subsidies to the day trains are entirely covered by the states, leaving only the long-distance trains requiring federal subsidies. In fact, before adding depreciation and maintenance, federal taxpayers fund more than 20 percent of the subsidies to the day trains, and after depreciation and maintenance, it is more than half. Continue reading

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Ending Economic Apartheid

Thanks to its greenbelt and slow-growth policies, Boulder, Colorado is the nation’s most-expensive and least-affordable housing market of any city not in a coastal state. As a result, as noted in an op-ed in The Hill, the number of black residents in Boulder declined by 30 percent between 2010 and 2016, leaving less than 1.6 percent of the city with African-American ancestry.

Closer to my home, the Bend Bulletin argues that the state of Oregon “works against affordable housing by, among other things. . . artificially increas[ing] the price of land through its urban growth boundary system.” Although cities are required to maintain an inventory of developable land within their growth boundaries, the paper notes that permission to expand their boundaries takes years.

The Oregon legislature effectively admitted that this is a problem last year when it passed a law allowing two cities to develop land on up to 50 acres of land outside of their growth boundaries. But can anyone seriously believe that adding 100 acres of new housing will make housing more affordable in Oregon? Continue reading

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Rail Runner Runs Away with Taxpayers’ Money

Commuter rail on existing tracks sounds seductively attractive at first glance. You don’t have to buy right of way or build new rail lines; you merely have to make a few upgrades and buy some used commuter cars and locomotives and–voila!–you have a hip new rail transit line to attract Millennials to your urban area.

If politicians ever did more than take a first glance at these projects, they would realize that it never works out that way in practice. Costs are a lot higher than expected, and even if you only run a handful of commuter trains a day going a maximum of 40 miles per hour, the feds have added to your costs by requiring you to install the same positive train control systems designed to handle the hundreds of 110-mph trains per day that use the Northeast Corridor.

Worse, existing freight lines rarely go where people want to go, so ridership is often low and fares sometimes cover less than 10 percent of operating costs, and of course zero percent of capital costs. Orlando’s SunRail fares aren’t even enough to pay for the ticket machines, much less any of the costs of operating the trains themselves. Continue reading

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July 2017 Transit Riders Drop 3.6% from 2016

Nationwide transit ridership continues to decline, and that decline, if anything, is accelerating. Ridership in July 2017 was 3.6 percent lower than the same month in 2016, while ridership in the first seven months of 2017 was 3.0 percent lower than the same months in 2016. These numbers are from the National Transit Database monthly data reports.

The monthly reports have every month from January 2002 through July 2017. The Antiplanner has summed the data by year, and also summed the first seven months of 2016 and 2010 for comparison with 2017. At the bottom of the original spreadsheet, the Antiplanner has also summed the data by transit agency (rows 2100-3098) and for the 200 largest urbanized areas (rows 3102-3301). Finally, columns HH through HJ calculate the percentage change from July 2017 vs. July 2016; January-July change from 2016 to 2017; and the January-July change from 2010 to 2017. Data junkies are welcome to download this 7.7-MB Excel file.

As shown in the table below, of the nation’s 100 largest urbanized areas, only a handful enjoyed ridership gains for all three time periods considered: Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Orleans, McAllen (TX), Albany, Columbia (SC), and Colorado Springs. Houston’s ridership may have grown since 2010, but its 2010 ridership had fallen by more than 20 percent since 2006, and 2017 numbers were still well short of 2006. Previous reports had shown Seattle ridership growing, but that region’s ridership declined by 1.8 percent in July 2017 vs. July 2016. Update: I am reliably informed that the Seattle decline is solely due to an error in the data. It should be corrected by FTA’s August update. Continue reading

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Kneel and Salute the Flag

A national anthem is but a song. A flag is a piece of cloth. Yet, like the wafer that turns into the body of Christ and the wine that turns into His blood, some transubstantiate these symbols into the idea of the United States as a country. Those who are not awed into submission by these symbols, they say, should be shunned by society and fired from their jobs.

Yet the United States of America is neither a religion nor a feudal aristocracy. Americans refuse to bow and scrape before monarchs, so why should we treat a song or a piece of cloth in ways that we don’t feel compelled to apply to human leaders?

The transubstantiation of a piece of cloth into the country is made explicit when we “pledge allegiance to the flag . . . and to the republic for which it stands.” Yet this pledge was written by a socialist who believed American children were too individualistic and needed to be instilled with a sense of collectivism. This makes it especially ironic that a political party that claims to believe in freedom insists on the pledge of allegiance and standing for the national anthem, while the more collectivist party accepts resistance to those traditions. Continue reading

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Portland’s Transit Experiment Has Failed

As in most other cities, Portland transit ridership is declining, and TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, promised to tell its board of directors why in last Wednesday night’s meeting. Before the meeting, one TriMet rider tweeted, “because it’s unreliable and unsafe. It’s not a mystery.” The “unsafe” part partly referred to last May’s murder of two people who were trying to defend a teenage girl from a bigot on a light-rail train.

The report to the board ignored the safety issue but listed all the other usual suspects: low gas prices; competition from Uber and Lyft; late buses due to traffic congestion. But then it added a new one: rising housing prices. Graphics on pages 21 and 22 of the board report (actually a PowerPoint show, so there’s no explanatory text) show a correlation between neighborhoods with the fastest rising housing prices and the biggest declines in transit ridership. TriMet staff apparently suspect that housing costs are forcing transit riders to move to lower-cost neighborhoods that are less accessible to transit.

It is interesting to note that two of the region’s policies for boosting transit — densification (which makes housing expensive) and congestification (which makes buses late) — are now suspected of hurting transit. Of course, no one at TriMet would ever suggest that these policies be reconsidered. Continue reading

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Detroit Streetcar Ridership Drops 40 Percent

Detroit’s streetcar was carrying about 5,000 trips a day when it was free, but ridership dropped “somewhat” after they began charging $1.50 for a three-hour pass. “We fully expected ridership to dip a little bit” when they began charging, said a spokesman for the group running the streetcar.

As it turns out, “somewhat” and “a little” means 40 percent, as the line has averaged just 3,000 trips a day since they began charging fares. Moreover, they aren’t really enforcing the fares, as they estimate that half the people who do ride aren’t paying, and fare enforcement–which is scheduled to begin soon–is likely to drop ridership that much more.

The streetcar goes down historic Woodward Avenue, which has supposedly seen $7 billion in gentrification since 2013. Naturally, the streetcar people take credit for that even though the streetcar only opened in May, 2017. Can anyone really believe that this redevelopment has nothing to do with the fact that the Detroit Economic Development Corporation has poured tens of millions of dollars of public money and tax-increment financing into the EightMile/Woodward Corridor Improvement Authority and similar projects?

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Why Public Transportation Sucks in the U.S.

Someone called Wendover Productions has released a ten-minute video about why public transportation sucks in the United States. I have some pretty good ideas why public transportation sucks:

  • Transit agencies are more interested in building infrastructure empires than in moving people;
  • Politicians are more interested in building new infrastructure than maintaining the old;
  • The industry has seen a 50-percent decline in worker productivity since it was municipalized;
  • Transit planners refuse to accept that cities no longer have the same job and residential concentrations that they had a hundred years ago.

The video, however, mentions none of these things. Instead, it blames transit’s problems on the widely discredited General Motors streetcar conspiracy. The video also claims that Republicans subsidized highways and that zoning unnecessarily separated residential and commercial areas. These are specious notions: while there are road subsidies, most major highways paid for themselves and, since at least 1970, transit has been far more heavily subsidized than highways. Meanwhile, Texas suburbs that have no zoning see almost all new construction separating residences from commercial areas, suggesting this is a response to consumer demand, not archaic zoning. Continue reading

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Honolulu Boondoggle Recovery Plan

The Honolulu Authority for Ridiculously-expensive Transit (HART) has submitted a recovery plan to the Federal Transit Administration seeking to release $1 billion in federal funds for the project. You know you are in trouble when you have to write a recovery plan for a project that isn’t even half built. Billions of dollars of cost overruns had led the FTA to question whether HART could even finish the rail line, much less operate it, and this plan seeks to answer those doubts.

The 20-mile rail line was originally projected to cost less than $3 billion, but now even HART admits that it will cost $8.2 billion ($9.0 billion including finance charges). For perspective, that’s considerably more than the projected cost of Denver’s 110-mile FasTracks program–a program that many think will never be completed because Denver Regional Transit District lacks the funds to extend one of the lines to Longmont. The Denver-Boulder area has more than three times as many people as the Honolulu urban area, so the per capita cost of Honolulu rail is several times greater.

To cover the cost overruns, Hawaii’s governor called a special session of the legislature. After rancorous debate, the legislature agreed to raise a variety of taxes to help fund the rail line. Most importantly, if you stay in a hotel in Hawaii–even if it is in Kaui, Maui, or the big island and you never visit Oahu–about 1 percent of your hotel cost will go to support the rail line, which is another good reason to try Airbnb. Continue reading

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Black Population Trends

Between 2015 and 2016, the total population of the San Francisco-Oakland urban area grew by 13,773 people, but the black population shrank by 5,839, suggesting that Bay Area land-use policies continue to push low-income people out of the region by making housing unaffordable. The Austin urban area, to its shame, saw a decline of 4,439 blacks despite a total population growth of 25,316.

Race is a complicated issue, made more complicated by the increasing (and healthy) mixture of races. According to the 2016 American Community Survey, the number of Americans who are “white alone” declined by 296,061 in 2016, while the number who identify themselves as “two or more races” grew by 445,000; some of the decline of the former and growth of the latter is probably because people are more willing to self-identify as being of mixed races.

In the past, I’ve used blacks as a bellwether of housing affordability problems because black per capita incomes have consistently been about 60 percent of whites’. I’ve previously used “black alone,” but this year that produced some odd results: both white alone and black alone populations declined in sixteen different states. For example, California’s total population grew by 105,000, but its white-alone population shrank by 404,000 while its black-alone population shrank by nearly 12,000. It seems likely that most of the changes in white-alone and black-alone numbers are due to redefinitions, not migrations. Continue reading

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