Commuter rail on existing tracks sounds seductively attractive at first glance. You don’t have to buy right of way or build new rail lines; you merely have to make a few upgrades and buy some used commuter cars and locomotives and–voila!–you have a hip new rail transit line to attract Millennials to your urban area.
If politicians ever did more than take a first glance at these projects, they would realize that it never works out that way in practice. Costs are a lot higher than expected, and even if you only run a handful of commuter trains a day going a maximum of 40 miles per hour, the feds have added to your costs by requiring you to install the same positive train control systems designed to handle the hundreds of 110-mph trains per day that use the Northeast Corridor.
Worse, existing freight lines rarely go where people want to go, so ridership is often low and fares sometimes cover less than 10 percent of operating costs, and of course zero percent of capital costs. Orlando’s SunRail fares aren’t even enough to pay for the ticket machines, much less any of the costs of operating the trains themselves. Continue reading
The Federal Transit Administration’s 2017 New Starts report recommends funding for 22 different bus-rapid transit projects in cities ranging from Lansing to New York. Many of these projects propose to convert existing street lanes to dedicated bus lanes, which the Antiplanner thinks is usually a waste. In particular, the Antiplanner has criticized such proposals in Albuquerque and Indianapolis.
Now a new report from a surprising source confirms the Antiplanner’s conclusions about Albuquerque’s proposal and provides a model that skeptical citizens can use in other cities. The report is by Gregory Rowangould, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico whose research focuses on sustainable transportation. Rowangould formerly worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and is a strong transit advocate. However, like the Antiplanner, he is very skeptical of Albuquerque’s proposal to convert two of the four-to-six lanes of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue to dedicated bus lanes.
In order to be eligible for federal funds for the project, the city hired Parsons Brinckerhoff to do a traffic study and HDR to do a travel demand analysis. The city’s grant application reported to the FTA that the proposed project would relieve congestion, significantly increase transit ridership, and in particular help low-income people. Rowangould’s review of the traffic and travel demand analyses found, however, that the opposite would be true: the project would severely increase congestion, it would do little for transit ridership, but it would especially hurt low-income transit riders.
The Antiplanner is headed to Albuquerque today to speak to the Rio Grande Foundation about the future of Albuquerque transportation. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there.