Yesterday, the Antiplanner noted that APTA has published its third quarter ridership report for 2016. The report shows that, nationwide, transit ridership was 2.9 percent less than the same quarter in 2015. Heavy-rail ridership fell by 2.5% and bus by 4.4%, while light rail grew by 4.1% and commuter rail by 0.5%.
In addition to Washington, DC, where heavy rail fell by 13.5 percent, some of the biggest heavy-rail losers include Baltimore, which also declined by 13.5 percent; Atlanta (-9%); San Juan (-8%); and Miami (-5%). Ridership grew in a few places, but that growth was swamped by the 1.4% decline on the New York City subway, which is by far the largest heavy-rail operator in the country.
The main reason light rail grew was the opening of new lines in Seattle and New Orleans, both of which saw growth of around 60 percent, as well as Los Angeles, which saw a 12 percent gain. Light-rail ridership also grew significantly in Baltimore (15%), Boston (13%), and Phoenix (+14%), but light-rail suffered declines of 5 percent or more in Buffalo (-15%), Dallas (-6%), Norfolk (-7%), Pittsburgh (-9%), Sacramento (-9%), San Jose (-12%), and St. Louis (-6%).
Third-quarter 2016 ridership on the DC Metro rail system was 13.5 percent less than in 2015, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s recently released ridership report. Of course, the Metro had frequent delays due to the “surge” maintenance work, but many of the riders lost may never come back.
More immediately, lower ridership means lower revenues, and that means Metro is forced to consider cuts to both rail and bus service. To fill in the gaps, Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has proposed to apply some of the federal dollars that are supposed to be dedicated to capital improvements to operating costs instead.
Worse, the agency’s inability to fix its poor safety record has led the Federal Transit Administration to punish it by reducing federal support by 5 percent. Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but when you are in a deep financial hole with a $6.7 billion maintenance backlog, every dollar counts.
One of the many proposed rules published a few days before President Trump took office was a mandate that all cars built after 2020 come with dedicated shortrange radio communications (DSRC) so that they can talk with one another. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this rule will “prevent hundreds of thousands of crashes.” The rule is downloadable as a 166-page Federal Register document or a slightly more readable 392-page paper.
The mandate would add about $300 to the cost of every car, or several billion dollars a year. The radios would not add much weight to the cars, but once most cars have them the collective weight would increase fuel consumption by more than 30 million gallons a year.
In exchange for these costs, NHTSA estimates that the rule will save 23 to 31 lives by 2025. These numbers are small because the benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications are nil unless both vehicles in a potential communication have them. Since the average car on the road is more than 11 years old, it will take about that many years before most cars have V2V and many more years before nearly all cars have it. Yet even by 2060, NHTSA projects the technology will save only 987 to 1,365 lives.
According to ColoradoPolitics.com, the state of Colorado ranks 29th in per capita funding for transit, spending just one-twentieth of the national average. Thus, transit is getting “left by the roadside.” This is highly misleading. In fact, Colorado apparently ranks 29th in state transit funding. That’s because most of the funding for transit comes from the regional level.
The misleading-news site’s misleading data are based on a report by a Boulder group known as the South West Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), which is urging the state legislature to spend more money on transit. But this recommendation is based on three fallacies.
First is the fallacy that more spending on transit leads to more transit ridership. In fact, the state with the highest state per capita transit funding is Alaska, which has far from the highest level of per capita ridership. Just 1.6 percent of Alaska commuters take transit to work, compared with 5.5 percent nationally. Other states spending more on transit than Colorado, but not attracting a lot of people to transit, include Vermont, Tennessee, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. About 2.3 percent of Wyoming commuters take transit to work; in the other states listed here, it’s less than 1.5 percent.
One of the issues in the Twin Cities is whether to build the Southwest light-rail line from Minneapolis to the wealthy suburb of Eden Prairie. As is typical of successive light-rail projects, the Southwest line is expected to cost twice as much as the region’s previous line, which cost twice as much as the one before that. In the case of the Southwest line, that means a current projected cost of $1.858 billion, which is up from the previous estimate of $1.25 billion for what was going to be a longer line (15.8 miles vs. 14.5 miles) just five years ago.
When the projected cost had reached $1.77 billion, the plan called for the state of Minnesota to contribute $160 million. But, fed up with cost overruns, the state legislature backed out, leaving a large hole in the project’s budget. The feds had promised to pay for half provided the state and local governments secured the other half. To keep the feds from also backing out, the transit agency had to find a spare $160 million.
In the Twin Cities, the transit agency is also the metropolitan planning organization whose purpose is to distribute transportation funds to various transit projects and local road agencies, which creates a suspicious conflict of interest. The Metropolitan Council has unsurprisingly decided that transit is the best way to relieve congestion even though light rail actually makes congestion worse. However, most of the federal and state gas taxes it receives can’t be spent on transit, so it can’t simply use them to fill in the $160 million gap in the Southwest route’s budget.
The Antiplanner is in St. Paul, Minnesota this week to talk with people about regional transportation planning. I’ll probably spend a little time at the Minnesota History Center to look up documents on rail history. I should have a more newsworthy post tomorrow.
Over at KiwiReport, a writer named Serena Carsley-Mann asks a good question: “Why do trains in America function so different from trains in Europe?” Unfortunately, she mistakenly thinks the problem is that “trains in America function so badly.”
In fact, America has the most efficient rail system in the world. It is European trains that function badly. The Antiplanner has discussed this before, but since writers like Carsley-Mann continue to get it wrong, it is worth repeating.
According to a Pew study, freight shipped by truck uses about ten times as much energy, and emits far more greenhouse gases, per ton-mile than freight shipped by rail (see page 2). Because rail cars weigh more, per passenger, than automobiles, rail’s comparative advantages for passengers are much smaller, and unlike trucks it will be very easy for cars to close the gap: a Prius with a average of 1.67 occupants, for example, is more energy efficient than almost any Amtrak train. Thus, to save energy, it is better to dedicate rail lines to freight rather than to passengers.
“Exact change only.” “Carry proof of fare with you at all times.” “No food or beverage.” “No playing music aloud.” “Take off your backpack and put it between your legs so we can cram more people onto your transit vehicle.”
Some of these rules are for the convenience of other passengers, but most of them are for the convenience of the transit agencies themselves. Take, for example, the request–which could easily become a rule–to passengers to not wear backpacks while on board a transit vehicle.
You might think that this was for the convenience of other customers so more people can fit on board. But if the vehicles so crowded, why isn’t the agency running them at greater frequencies so they don’t get so full? In the case of the light-rail car pictured in the story at the above link, the answer may be that the agency picked a high-cost but low-capacity form of transit and now is stuck with that choice.
The modern escalator was perfected 96 years ago, so when someone is spending $625 million a mile on light rail (which technology is only 80 years old), you’d think they’d at least get the escalators right. Instead, “escalator failures have become a part of the daily routine” at Seattle’s University light-rail station.
If the system were brand new, you might say they were getting the bugs out. If it were old, you might say it was wearing out. Instead, it is not quite a year old, having opened on March 19, 2016. Despite that, they don’t work. To make matters worse, they came with a one-year warranty, which has expired because installation was completed before the station opened for business.
Seattle recently voted to have some of the highest taxes in the nation going for transit. If they aren’t spending an appropriate share of this money on functioning escalators, it makes you wonder where it is going instead.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has published a report finding that labor productivity has grown more slowly after the last recession–in other words, during the Obama administration–than during any other recovery period in recent history. Normally, the response to a recession is for private companies to clean out all of their least productive programs, and the people who worked in those programs find more productive jobs elsewhere. The result is a growth in labor productivity during the recovery period.
Much of Obama’s “stimulus” program, however, was aimed at protecting jobs during the recession, so many less-productive programs managed to survive and the people working in those programs didn’t have the (admittedly stressful) opportunity to find more productive work. Other parts of the stimulus program involved funding of less productive projects that normally wouldn’t have been funded. The result was a slow growth in productivity.
We can see the difference between government and private productivity by comparing the private rail industry with Amtrak and the transit industry. As shown in the table below, transit employees have more than doubled while ridership has grown by just 50 percent, so employee productivity has declined by more than 30 percent.