DC MetroRail Still Dangerous

Accidents on the Washington MetroRail system killed 17 people between 2005 and 2010. Although there have been only three fatalities since the end of 2010, a new Federal Transit Administration report warns that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) remains lax about safety and numerous dangerous situations remain.


Several people died in a 2009 collision when one of the system’s original cars “telescoped” into another. The National Transportation Safety Board ordered WMATA to replace those older cars, but it is still running them. Wikimedia Commons photo by the NTSB.

Most media attention has been given to FTA’s findings regarding WMATA’s rail control center. The control room is understaffed, says the report, and what staff members they have are poorly trained and frequently distracted by cell phone calls, muzak, and other things unrelated to their work. The report hints that some accidents that WMATA has previously blamed on train operators may actually have been the fault of train controllers, whose actions were rarely questioned.

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Is All Aboard Florida a Scam?

All Aboard Florida is a plan by the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) to run moderate-speed passenger trains from Miami to Orlando. Where a highway trip over the route takes about four hours, FEC promises train times of just three hours. While an airline trip is just an hour, when an hour is added for going through airport security, FEC thinks their route will be competitive.

The railway’s ridership study estimates the operation will attract 4 million riders per year by 2019 and that the fares these riders will pay will be enough to operate the line as well as cover the capital cost of building 40 miles of new rail between the FEC’s current tracks in Cocoa and Orlando Airport. However, a counter-study by Brown University economist John Friedman and funded by Citizens Against Rail Expansion, which opposes the train, disagrees.

Friedman estimates the line will only attract 1.5 to 2.0 million passengers a year and the fares they will be willing to pay will come nowhere near covering the railroad’s costs. As a result, it will have losses of more than $100 million per year and will soon default on the debt it plans to incur to build the new line.

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Streetcar Entitlements

The response of Sacramento streetcar advocates to voter rejection of their pet project reminds me of a little boy who has a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get the expensive Christmas present he wants. Like the little boy, it apparently never occurs to the streetcar crowd that the extraordinarily high cost of their scheme was too much for taxpayers to support. Instead, they act like they are entitled to the streetcar, and anyone who doesn’t want to help pay for something they will never use is just a grinch.

Building a streetcar requires tearing up perfectly good pavement that can be used by cars, trucks, and buses and inserting tracks. The cost of one mile of streetcar line can be more than the cost of a mile of a suburban four-lane freeway, yet the streetcar will never move more than 2 or 3 percent as many passenger miles per day as that freeway.

The streetcars themselves have fewer seats than a standard, 40-foot bus, yet cost nearly ten times as much and occupy more street space and so contribute more to congestion. Analysts predicted that a proposed streetcar in Anaheim would reduce the capacity of the streets to move cars by four times as much as the number of cars it would take off the road.

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Oops–We Forgot About the Operating Costs

The city and state officials who promoted construction of Honolulu’s rail transit line now admit that they don’t know how they are going to pay for the cost of operating that line. Between 2019, when the first part of the line is expected to open for business, and 2031, those costs are expected to be $1.7 billion, or about $140 million per year. In 2011, the annual operating cost was estimated to be $126 million a year.

Honolulu has about a hundred bus routes, which cost about $183 million to operate in 2013, or less than $2 million per route. The rail line will therefore cost about 70 times as much to operate as the average bus route.

Officials project that rail fares will cover less than a third of operating costs, but that’s probably optimistic. They are predicting 116,000 daily riders in 2030, which works out to about 5,800 riders per mile. That’s more than the number of riders per mile carried by the Chicago Transit Authority, Atlanta’s MARTA, or the San Francisco BART system–and considerably more than carried by heavy-rail lines in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Miami.

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The Future of User Fees

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is asking for 5,000 volunteers to test mileage-based user fees as a substitute for gas taxes. The Antiplanner had an op ed endorsing this idea in the Portland Tribune this week.

The email response suggests that many people still have questions about the program. The most frequent question is whether heavier cars will have to pay more than lighter ones. But, according to ODOT, a 2,500-pound Prius c has the same road impacts as a 6,500-pound Hummer. I suspect that road impacts are proportional to tire pressures, not vehicle weights, so heavy trucks have more impact–but Oregon already charges those trucks a weight-mile fee.

The second-most frequent question has to do with privacy. Oregon is giving volunteers three options, two of which involve smart phone apps that use the phone’s built-in GPS to keep track of charges. For the initial test, charges will be a flat 1-1/2 cents per mile, so all the GPS tracks is how many miles you drive, not where or when you drove. One app requires that you pre-pay, the other allows you to pay at the end of each month. The GPS won’t count miles driven out of state.

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Still Gridlocked

The Antiplanner is in Washington, DC, today, where Congress remains as gridlocked as ever over federal transportation programs. Though Congress traditionally passes highway and transit bills for six-year periods, the last six-year bill was passed in 2005 and since it expired in 2011 Congress has passed something like two dozen short-term extensions. The longest of these, MAP-21, made a few changes to the 2005 bill but lasted only two years. Shorter extensions, including the two-month extension passed last month, merely continue the status quo.

The federal government takes in about $40 billion in gas taxes per year, and these are dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund which funds both highways and mass transit. The problem is that Congress has been spending something like $52 billion on highways and transit per year and doesn’t know where the other $12 billion will come from. Congress is divided between those who want to cut spending to equal revenues, those who want to increase gas taxes to equal spending, and those who want to find some other source of revenues to cover spending.

Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, who favors a gas tax increase, wants to stop the pattern of short-term extensions to force Congress to make one of the three choices. Considering both the administration and most Republicans oppose a tax increase, his proposal was a bold move, and I can’t help but respect him for his stand even if I disagree with him on most federal transportation policies.

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A Good Idea from Holland

Most efforts to encourage cycling involve putting bike lanes on streets. But the lanes disappear at most intersections, which is where most bicycle-auto accidents take place. Now, some Dutch cycling advocates have developed a new intersection design that protects cyclists without unduly interfering in auto traffic.

According to Streetsblog, several American cities, including Boston, Davis, and Salt Lake, are installing such intersections on an experimental basis. A variation has also been used in Vancouver, BC. As a cyclist who has been struck by autos, both when they were turning right and when they ran a red light, I can imagine that these intersections could greatly improve safety, though I hope the cities do comparative before-and-after or with-and-without studies to prove it.

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Driving Is About to Explode

Per capita driving in the United States grew from 1 mile per year in 1900 to more than 10,000 miles per year in 2006. During that time, it grew in almost every year except for a few recession years (1932, 1933, 1938, 1974, 1979, and 1980) and two years of World War II (1942 and 1943).

In 2007, however, growth flattened and after that per capita driving fell below 9,400 miles per year. Some have argued that this is evidence that Americans are turning away from cars and to transit, cycling, and walking. Others say that the decline can be completely explained by the recession; although the financial crisis took place in 2008, the housing bubble that led to that crisis actually began collapsing in 2006.

The latest traffic data from the Federal Highway Administration suggests that people are picking up where they left off in 2006. Total miles of driving in the first quarter of 2015 set a new record and was nearly 4 percent greater than the same period in 2014. The Census Bureau estimates that the population is growing at less than 1 percent per year, so per capita driving is once again growing.

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Taking a Wrong Turn to Radburn

The Antiplanner has a rule of thumb: Any transportation proposal that requires a whole new infrastructure system in parallel with the infrastructure we already have is automatically a bad idea. Such infrastructure would be expensive to build, take decades to complete, and will be obsolete long before it could make a major contribution to the nation’s mobility. This is true for high-speed rail, personal-rapid transit, light rail, and even plans to build bike path networks for commuters in urban areas (as opposed to recreation paths that have an entirely different market).

Such is the case for a proposal by University of California engineers Mark DeLucchi and Kenneth Kurani. They start by asking a reasonable question: “Can we have sustainable transportation without making people drive less or give up suburban living?”

Antiplanner readers know that I think the answer is “Yes,” simply by using existing, low-cost technologies to make single-family homes and automobiles more energy efficient. That means more insulation and passive solar and cooling systems in new homes; lighter weight materials such as aluminum and perhaps Diesel engines instead of gasoline in new cars. Existing homes can be retrofitted with insulation and low-energy lighting; existing cars will be quickly replaced as the auto fleet turns over every 18 or so years.

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Sacramento Voters Reject Streetcar

Sacramento wants to build a streetcar, and since everyone knows that streetcars increase property values, the city asked property owners to agree to pay a tax to help pay for it. Under California law, two-thirds of voters must agree, but the city must have believed that everyone loves streetcars so much that they would overwhelmingly agree to pay the tax.

Not so much. In fact, they couldn’t even get half to support it. The final vote count was something like 48 percent in favor.

Not to worry. Even though a nineteenth-century technology makes no sense in a twenty-first-century city; even though the people don’t want to pay for it; even though it has so far taken ten years to plan something that was obsolete a hundred years ago and certainly can’t respond to the almost daily changes in tastes, technologies, and travel patterns we experience today; they’re going to try to find a way to build it anyway. “We’ll look for other sources of funds,” said one city councillor. “We’re really committed to keep the project on track.” In other words, committed to stupidity.

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