Rail Transit Debates

Debate over the Maryland Purple Line continues. The governor is expected to make a decision in a few months.

Debate over a proposed streetcar in Sacramento begins. The measure will be voted on by local residents in May.

Debate begins over funding for two new light-rail lines in Vancouver, BC. Proponents include a council of suburban mayors, all of whom no doubt hope that light-rail lines will eventually be built to their cities. (The Antiplanner will have more to say about this one in a few days.)

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$10 Billion for a Bus Terminal

As if it isn’t bad enough that New York City is spending $2.2 billion a mile building a new subway, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says that replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal will cost $8 billion to $10 billion. That estimate is up from a mere $800 million a year ago.


Some have called the Port Authority Bus Terminal one of the ten ugliest buildings in the world. Wikipedia photo by Roger Rowlett.

Port Authority officials “hope” that the federal government will pay for most of it, just as the feds paid three-fourth of the cost of the World Trade Center transit hub, which came in at $2.8 billion. Much of the current terminal is used for parking, shops, advertising, and other income-producing activities, yet it still manages to lose $100 million on operations.

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Denver’s RTD Makes the Case for Lying

Denver RTD Makes the Case for Public-Private Funding, says Progressive Railroading. In fact, Denver’s Regional Transit District is making the case for lying to the voters about everything possible in order to get as much of their money as possible.

The first lie was that FasTracks, Denver’s rail transit plan that Progressive Railroading calls “one of the largest transit expansion programs in the country,” would cost $4.7 billion. Soon after the election, RTD admitted the real cost would be $7.9 billion. Thanks to the recession, the cost has supposedly fallen to $6.9 billion, but none of these estimates include interest and other finance charges.

The second lie was that RTD would build six new light-rail or other rail lines. In order to get the support of all of the suburban mayors in the region, RTD had to promise to build all the lines at once, as mayors realized that any that were deferred to later would probably never be built. Today, RTD realizes that the Northwest line to Boulder and Longmont is just far too expensive and will carry too few riders to be worthwhile. But that applies to the rest of them too, it’s just that RTD doesn’t have enough money to build them all.

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Driving Reaches Record Levels

Americans drove more than three trillion miles in 2014, exceeding this number for the first time since 2007 and for only the third time in history. Actually, this isn’t quite a record, as the Department of Transportation estimates Americans drove 3.016 trillion miles in 2014 vs. 3.031 trillion in 2007. But if the American Public Transportation Association can get away with calling 2014 ridership levels a “record” even though it is only the 45th highest level of transit ridership in the past 103 years, then we can call 2014 driving a record when it is the second-highest level of driving in history.

Low gas prices may be responsible for the surge in driving in December–a 5 percent increase over December 2013. But the chart above shows that driving began to accelerate in April, while the chart below shows that gas prices didn’t begin falling until August, so improvements in the economy must be responsible for much of the increase.

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Already Built, DC Streetcar May Be Shut Down Before It Opens

Washington’s H Street streetcar line may be shut down before it even begins operation. In testing since last fall, the line has already experienced collisions with 11 automobiles and one railcar spontaneously combusted.

DC has already spent $200 million on the project and once had planned to spend a total of $2 billion on streetcar lines in the district. But, aside from accidents, testing revealed that the streetcars created major congestion problems and slowed down buses that carry people to work on H Street. The city predictably blames most of the accidents on the auto drivers, but if the city hadn’t put the streetcar there, most of the accidents never would have happened.

“I’m not going to ask for money from the citizens of this jurisdiction nor from this council for something I can’t manage,” says the director of the district’s Department of Transportation. The city has asked the American Public Transportation Association–hardly an unbiased source–to review the streetcar project.

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Todd Litman Misses the Point

Denver’s light rail hit and critically injured another pedestrian last week, temporarily shutting down most of the city’s light-rail trains. Meanwhile, transit apologist Todd Litman calls the Antiplanner’s assessment of light-rail dangers “a good example of bad analysis.” Light rail is more dangerous than cars and buses, he says, only because “light rail transit only operates in dense city centers where there are frequent interactions between various road users.” He suggests that cars and buses “might” be nearly as dangerous in similar situations.

The argument that “light-rail only operates in dense city centers” is questionable, but even if it were true, cars are still safer in those areas, which Litman could have learned by checking available data from the Department of Transportation. Highway Statistics table FI-220 lists highway fatalities by road type. Table VM-2 lists vehicle miles of travel by road type. We can divide through to compare fatality rates per billion miles of travel. Most of the vehicle miles are cars and light trucks containing an average of 1.67 people per vehicle (table 16).

The data show that motor vehicle accidents kill about 6.8 people per billion passenger miles on local urban streets, the most dangerous streets in urban areas. Urban collectors have only 3.6 fatalities per billion passenger miles; freeways just 2.5 to 2.8; and other arterials 4.6 to 5.9. All of these are well below light rail’s 12.5 fatalities per billion passenger miles. Commuter rail, incidentally, has 8.7 fatalities per billion passenger miles, while heavy rail and buses both work out to 4.5 fatalities per billion.

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Record Spending by Transit Industry

The American Public Transit Association (APTA) announced yesterday that Americans rode transit a “record” 10.8 billion trips in 2014. At least, it’s a record since 1956, when Americans rode transit 11.0 billion trips. Even then, the numbers are suspect because statistics before about 1974 don’t count commuter rail, ferries, and certain other modes that APTA includes in its 2014 totals.


Transit ridership grew 24 percent from 1980 to 2012, but it required a 170 percent increase in spending. Since the growth in ridership failed to even keep up with urban population growth, per capita ridership fell by 18 percent. Source: American Public Transportation Association Historical Data Tables.

Nevertheless, it remains true that transit ridership appears to have grown slightly in 2014, as APTA’s number for 2013 was 10.653 billion trips while the number for 2014 is 10,753, or less than a 1 percent increase. We don’t have 2014 census numbers for urban areas yet, but this is probably about the same as urban population growth.

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John Oliver on Infrastructure

Given that American attentions spans have grown so short that the only way we can learn anything is through comedy, John Oliver’s report on infrastructure is a welcome addition to the debate. He gets some things wrong, but many things right. The Antiplanner was flying to Washington DC when the report was first broadcast, so this commentary is a little late. But if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it below.

Oliver notes that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives a “D-plus” grade to the state of our infrastructure. But he points out that asking civil engineers to grade infrastructure spending is “like having the state of our nation’s tennis balls assessed by the American Society of Golden Retrievers.” Too bad he doesn’t remember this rule later in the broadcast when he notes that both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce want to increase federal spending on infrastructure, suggesting that if these traditional antagonists agree on something, it must be right. Of course, what they agree on is that Americans should pay more taxes so their members can get more money from the feds.

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Every Kind of Fail

Does Miami need a light-rail line? In 1988, the Florida city built the Metromover, a 4.4-mile automated system that cost twice as much as projected and carried less than half the projected riders. Although Wikipedia claims this is a great success, the National Transit Database reports that it carried less than 31,000 riders per day in 2013 (less than a third of what Wikipedia claims and well under the projections).

In the same year, Miami also opened Metrorail, an elevated rail line that cost far more than projected and carries less than a third of the projected riders.

Then there’s Tri Rail, a commuter train between Miami and West Palm Beach that began service in 1989. Taxpayers have lavished around $600 million in capital improvements on this line, and spent $46 million subsidizing operations in 2013, for a commuter system that carried less than 15,000 riders (i.e., under 7,500 round trips) per day.

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Empty Nesters Moving into Bigger Homes

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune is “surprised” that retirees are moving into bigger homes, not smaller ones like the “conventional wisdom” dictates. Of course, that’s the conventional wisdom of urban planners, not demographers or economists, which means it is more like untested hypotheses, not wisdom. In any case, people who have accumulated a lifetime of toys and suddenly have time on their hands to play with those toys are not going to move into tiny downtown condos, or at least not all of them.

The Antiplanner is between planes so instead of going into this question in depth I’ll let the commenters take this and run.

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