Even as the prospects of stopping Honolulu’s $5 billion low-capacity rail project grow dim, the prospects for ever building the California high-speed rail system grow even dimmer. This week, California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom–once a strong rail supporter–has come out against the project. As theSan Diego Union-Tribune says, this is “another nail in the coffin of high-speed rail.”
At the 2010 groundbreaking ceremony for what was supposed to be San Francisco’s high-speed rail station, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (left) tells then-Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood that he is “extraordinarily excited” about the future of the train. Flickr photo from Mayor Gavin Newson‘s photostream.
Asked about his former support for the project, he said it was “a $32 billion project then, and we were going to get roughly one-third [each] from the federal government and the private sector.” Now, “We’re not even close to the timeline, we’re not close to the total cost estimates, and the private sector money and the federal dollars are questionable.”
On Saturday morning, February 8, we awoke to find three feet of snow outside. Our delight ended the next day, when newspapers reported that 61-year-old Tim Lillebo had collapsed and died shoveling his driveway Saturday evening.
Tim helped lead an incredible group of people dedicated to saving Oregon wilderness in the late 1970s and 1980s and centered on an organization then known as the Oregon Wilderness Coalition (OWC). We were more like family than co-workers, putting in long hours for nearly no pay, sharing rooms, cars, meals, and just about everything else. In mourning Tim, I find myself mourning someone who was nearly a brother but also the loss of the family itself.
The Ninth Circuit Court dismissed objections to the plan for Honolulu’s 20-mile, $5 billion rail line. Though proponents call it a high-capacity rail line, in fact it uses trains whose capacity is actually lower than light-rail–which term really means “low-capacity rail.”
A line with three-car light-rail trains can move about 9,000 people per hour. The maker of the Alstom trains Honolulu wants to run claims they can move 15,000 people per hour, but that’s at crush-capacity. At crowding levels that Americans will accept, the capacity is probably less than 7,000 people per hour.
By comparison, the Antiplanner estimates double-decker buses can move 17,000 people per hour on a city street and more than 100,000 people per hour on a freeway lane. Buses are faster too: Alstom trains in other cities average just 20 mph.
Lobbying for streetcars has become a “rare growth spot in an otherwise difficult business environment,” reports Politico. At least thirteen different lobbying firms are trying to help cities get federal money for building clunky, obsolete rail systems.
The article repeats the usual drivel about how streetcars revitalize neighborhoods and lead to billions of dollars of economic development. Since there’s absolutely no evidence of that outside of Portland, and the only redevelopment along Portland streetcar lines was supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, all the Antiplanner can say is that a lot of cities are going to be surprised when nothing happens where they build streetcars unless they sneak in their own subsidies to developers.
Imagine how proud the streetcar lobbyists will be as city after city clogs up its streets with slow-moving vehicles that carry hardly any riders because they are slower than walking for most people and slower than bicycling for just about everyone. Yes, they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren, they are the ones responsible for saddling the cities with high taxes in order to pay to operate streetcars that cost twice as much to run as buses and to spend even more maintaining rail lines that were obsolete almost a hundred years before they were built.
What should be done about the nation’s rustbelt cities–or, as they are being repackaged by marketers, “Legacy Cities“? The populations of at least a dozen major cities declined by more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, including Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and of course Detroit and New Orleans (whose population decline has little to do with the rest of them). In many cases, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis (which declined between 8 and 9 percent in the 2000s), recent declines are merely a continuation of trends since 1950.
Click image to download the report (7.6 MB).
A new report from the Lincoln Land Institute offers a set of prescriptions for these cities. While they may sound good at first glance, close scrutiny reveals that they are the same tired policies that have been trotted out by urban planners for decades.
Mumbai opened a monorail last week, the first 12 miles of what is planned to be an 84-mile system costing a total of US$2 billion. A high-density city like Mumbai may be one of the few places in the world where rail transit makes sense. But the Mumbai monorail has a design flaw that makes it as stupid as the most idiotic rail lines in the United States (of which there are many candidates).
Not only are the monorail trains small, their average speed is just 20 mph. Wikimedia commons photo.
That flaw is that the trains are no more than six short cars long, and can run only every three minutes. Even at crush capacity, the system can move only 7,400 people per hour. That’s a tiny fraction of what a real high-capacity rail system can move. New York’s Eighth Avenue subway line can move 30 ten-car trains per hour, and each car has a crush capacity of 240 people, making it capable of moving 72,000 people per hour. Americans won’t accept crush-capacity conditions, but even at American levels of crowding, New York subways can move at least six times as many people per hour as the Mumbai monorail.
Gentrification is in the news. Protesters against Google buses in San Francisco who object to the fact that mobility allows high-paid Silicon Valley workers to gentrify San Francisco neighborhoods have been joined by Seattle anti-gentrification protesters who object to Microsoft buses for the same reason. In Portland, Trader Joe’s has backed out of plans to build a store on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard because protesters believed the store would contribute to the area’s gentrification.
Photo by Owen G. Richard.
Meanwhile, New York magazine argues that gentrification can actually be good if it is the “more natural, humane kind” rather than the “fast-moving, invasive variety.” Similarly, NPR points to studies claiming that gentrification can actually be good for long-term residents.
“Wimps didn’t build California,” claims this pro-high-speed rail video. Instead, California was built by “people with grit”: people like Walt Disney, who hated subsidies so much that he paid extra to have Disneyland get its electrical power from a private company rather than the public power company that served Anaheim.
If you have trouble viewing this video here, see it on Youtube.
“People said the Golden Gate Bridge was impossible,” the video says. It turned out to be possible because it was paid for entirely out of user fees, unlike high-speed rail whose costs would come mainly from people who would never use it.
The Port of Portland plans to spend up to $4 million giving shipping companies incentives to send containers through Portland, rather than another West Coast port. The subsidies would pay shippers $20 per container that is shipped through Portland.
This is a classic zero-sum game: If Portland attracts any containers that would otherwise have gone to Seattle, Vancouver, or some other West Coast port, the other ports will merely match Portland’s subsidies to get the business back. The shipping companies earn a little extra profit, taxpayers lose,and consumers probably won’t save enough to measurably increase purchases of imported goods.
When Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) opened its West light-rail line last April, it naturally cancelled parallel bus service. But, for many people, riding the light rail cost a lot more than the bus. This effectively made transit unaffordable for some low-income workers, who now drive to work.
Click image to download a 2.6-MB PDF of this report.
A group called 9to5, which represents working women, formally surveyed more than 500 people who live near the West light-rail line, and informally interviewed hundreds more. It found that the light rail had put a significant additional burden on low-income families. In one case, someone who was commuting to work by bus for $2.25 per trip now has to pay $4.00 per trip to take the light rail, a 78 percent increase in cost. 9to5 points out that the cost of gasoline to drive the same distance would be about $1.25.