Making the Poor Subsidize the Rich

Utah Transit Authority executives are overcompensated, the agency has underfunded its high rail maintenance costs, its bus service has suffered due to financial constraints, concludes the Utah State Legislative Auditor. Moreover, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, the agency’s fare structure makes the poor subsidize the rich, which the agency has signed cushy deals with developers that sometimes financially benefit agency board members.

Sounds like a typical rail transit agency. Naturally, the agency claims (in an appendix to the report) that it is innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it cannot deny that bus service (as measured by vehicle revenue miles) declined nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2012, years in which the agency spent close to #1 billion on commuter trains that, as of 2012, were carrying fewer than 3,200 round trips per day.

The American Public Transit Association recently named Utah Transit the transit system of the year. But it’s clear from past awards that APTA admires agencies that are best able to con taxpayers out of their money, not ones that provide the best service to transit riders. UTA, which is proud of spending more per capita than any other transit agency, seems to have done a good job of conning taxpayers. Let’s hope audits like this one will open their eyes.

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No One’s Riding Light Rail, So Reduce Fares and Build More

Planners predicted that Norfolk’s Tide light-rail line, which opened in 2011 60 percent over budget and 16 months behind schedule, would stimulate economic development along its route. But little development is taking place, so the Virginian Pilot has come up with a grand idea: reduce fares by two thirds. That, the paper’s editorial writers guesstimate, should attract 1,000 more riders per day, which they hope will generate the development planners promised.


Looks fast, but the schedule indicates it takes 26 minutes to go 7 miles for an average speed of 16 mph.

There are a lot of problems with this proposal, not least of which is the fact that rail fares in Norfolk are already the second-lowest in the country, after Houston’s. Though the nominal fare is $1.50, which the Pilot proposes to cut to 50 cents, actual fares collected in 2012 averaged just 50 cents a ride, compared with 35 cents in Houston but $1.39 in Denver. The national average for low-capacity rail is 98 cents, while the average Hampton Roads bus rider pays 91 cents.

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Pinellas Transit in Trouble

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) has been illegally using FEMA money to illegally advertise in favor of a ballot measure to build light rail in St. Petersburg, Florida. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent a letter demanding that PSTA return a $354,000 grant it received that was supposed to be used to ward of terror threats, but was used instead to advertise for light rail. FEMA warned that, even if PSTA returned the money (which it has), it would still be under investigation for criminal charges for misuse of federal funds.

The double use of the word “illegal” in the first sentence above refers to the fact that, not only did PSTA misuse the FEMA grant, it shouldn’t be spending any money at all promoting the light-rail ballot measure. In the 1990s, most rail transit ballot measures lost, but in the 2000s, more have won, mainly because transit agencies began using taxpayer dollars to promote the measures start with the Utah Transit Authority in 2000.

As a pro-rail web site notes of the Utah measure, a “key to success was that the agency had put great effort into maintaining a strong, positive public reputation prior to launching the campaign. TV ads were already regularly appearing reminding the public of the benefits of the service provided by UTA. When it came time to initiate the electoral campaign, early outreach efforts had already paved the way.”

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Another Inane Low-Capacity Rail Plan

Some people in Durham, NC, want to build a $1.4-billion, 17-mile light-rail line, and the region has been spending millions of dollars planning it. A quick review of the project’s alternatives analysis reveals that planners and consultants have done everything they can to bias the analysis towards rail.


A Durham transit bus in front of Durham’s $10 million downtown transit station.

The most important thing to note is that planners projected that either of two bus-rapid transit alternatives would attract more transit riders than light rail (p. 5-78) at little more than half the cost (p. 5-105). But the analysis nevertheless recommended in favor of light rail, partly because “public and agency support” supposedly favored rail over bus and partly because of rail’s “demonstrated” ability to promote compact development.

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Transit’s Ticking Time Bomb

America’s largest transit agencies have obligated taxpayers to cover billions of dollars in pension and health care costs over the next thirty years. To see just how serious this problem is, the Antiplanner examined the consolidated financial statements for about two dozen of the nation’s largest transit agencies. The results vary widely from agency to agency: some have almost no unfunded obligations, while others appear headed for default or other serious financial problems.

The numbers in the table below are based on the latest financial statements I could obtain for each agency. Mostly this means 2013, but in a few cases they are one or two years older. Most agencies have growing unfunded obligations, so more recent updates are probably worse than shown. Agencies in some large cities, including Baltimore, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco, and Seattle, are operated by other units of government whose financial statements don’t distinguish between unfunded transit obligations and other unfunded obligations. So if your large urban area isn’t on the above list, that’s probably why.

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What Ferguson Means for Urban Planning

The sad events in Ferguson, Missouri are being used by urban planning advocates to popularize their latest cause: suburban poverty. Ferguson is “emblematic of growing suburban poverty,” says the Brookings Institution. “Hit by poverty,” says CBS News, “Ferguson reflects the new suburbs.” According to a Brookings info graphic, between 2000 and 2011 the numbers of central city poor grew by 29 percent while the numbers of suburban poor grew by 64 percent.

There was a time that the suburbs were demonized because only middle-class and wealthy people lived there, leaving poor people in the inner cities. Now that lower-income people are living in the suburbs, the suburbs are being demonized for having “concentrated poverty,” with a distinct implication that wealthy whites have moved back to the cities leaving the undesirable suburbs to the poor and minorities.

The reality is that all demographic classes–all ages, races, and income levels–are growing faster in the suburbs than the cities. The suburbs offer less congestion, lower-cost housing, and often better schools and other benefits over the cities. Instead of turning the movement of low-income people to the suburbs into some kind of crisis, this movement should be celebrated as a success.

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New York Times 0, Forbes 0.5

The New York Times had an article recently arguing that the $11 billion Congress has spent on high-speed rail grants since 2009 has produced little visible results, mainly because most of it was spent on increasing the speeds of existing trains by two or three miles per hour rather than building new, true high-speed rail lines. This was followed by an editorial saying that “American lawmakers have not given high-speed rail the priority it deserves.” Population “growth will put an incredible strain on the nation’s highways and air-traffic system,” the editorial predicted, and high-speed rail would alleviate that strain.

In response, Forbes contributor Tim Worstall says, “The New York Times is wrong; there is no case for high-speed rail.” Worstall accepts the conventional wisdom that cars make sense for trips under 100 miles and planes make sense for trips of more than four hours, but in between there is a “sweet spot” in which rail makes sense. However, he continues, with the development of self-driving cars, that sweet spot disappears because the only advantage of trains is that riders can work or relax while on board, and since self-driving cars will allow people to do that too, there won’t be any need for high-speed trains.

Worstall is right about the New York Times being wrong, but he is wrong that there is a sweet spot today in which high-speed rail has an advantage over driving or flying. In claiming that such a sweet spot exists, Worstall is underestimating both the advantages of driving when and where you want to go and the excessively high costs of high-speed trains.

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Britain’s Shrinking Houses

Ever since the British parliament passed the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, housing in that nation has gotten less and less affordable. As a result, the average size of new homes today is only 925 square feet, down 44 percent from the average size in 1920. Meanwhile, the average size of new home in the United States in 2013 was 2,598 square feet, up 56 percent from 1,660 square feet forty years before.

Eric Pickles, Britain’s community secretary, blames the problem on “Labour policy, which decreed that at least 30 homes had to be built on every hectare of land” (about 12 per acre). But we know the problems go back well before the previous government, and the Tories had plenty of chances to reverse the policies in the Town & Country Planning Act.

Although the Daily Mail published this article just a few days ago, it is based on reports from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) that go back to at least 2011. RIBA has started a campaign aimed at having the government set minimum requirements for space and light in new homes.

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Free Rides Today

The Oregonian was writing metaphorically when it reported last Tuesday that Portland’s low-capacity trains were “knocked off track by expensive, deferred maintenance.” By Friday, it was no longer a metaphor, as a light-rail car derailed near downtown, shutting down much of the system for several hours.

Transit commuters complained that they were given no information about the shutdown and many waited in increasing frustration as stations became more and more crowded. To make matters worse, the elevator at the Hollywood station, about one station away from the derailment, stopped working as well.

As a “thank you for your patience,” TriMet has announced all rides on its low-capacity trains will be free today.

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Red Ink Pinellas

The Cato Institute has published a new paper on Greenlight Pinellas, or, as I prefer to call it, Red Ink Pinellas. As previously mentioned in the Antiplanner, this is a plan to spend $1.7 billion building a light-rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, Florida and boost local bus service by 70 percent.

The paper reveals that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which is pushing for light rail, has a poor track record of spending. From 1991 to 2005, it increased bus service by 46 percent but saw a 17 percent drop in passenger miles. Then the recession forced it to cut bus service by 5 percent, yet ridership grew by 9 percent. Given this history, boosting bus service is likely to result in a lot of empty buses. Meanwhile, the agency projects that so few people will ride its light rail that it will only need to run one-car trains.

When compared with bus-rapid transit, the cost of getting one person out of their car and onto the proposed light-rail line is projected to be $50. That means getting one person who currently commutes by car to switch to light rail would cost more than buying that person a new 5-series BMW every year, or a new Tesla class S every other year, for the next 30 years.

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