Today, Denver’s Regional Transit District is celebrating the opening of a new 10.5-mile light-rail line in Aurora, Denver’s largest suburb. Part of the only planned rail route in Denver that isn’t focused on downtown, the line–which holds the distinction of already having killed a pedestrian before it even opened–is supposed to allow people at the Denver Tech Center, a large employment center in south Denver, to get to the airport without going all the way downtown first.
The green dashed line, known as the R line, opens today. Click image for a larger view.
The problem with this idea is that light rail is s l o w. The new line will average 16.5 miles per hour. Getting from Belleview, one of the Tech Center stations, to the airport by rail transit will require a change of trains in Peoria. The R-line is expected to take 45 minutes to get from Belleview to Peoria, and the A-line takes another 21 minutes from Peoria to the airport. Add to that up to an hour of wait time–both trains operate on 15-minute headways during rush hour and every 30 minutes the rest of the day–and you have a trip that can’t compete with driving, which takes just 26 minutes from the Tech Center to the airport. Plus, the Tech Center is so large that many offices are not within easy walking distance of a light-rail stop.
When Denver’s new airport rail line experienced severe glitches shortly after it opened, including malfunctioning crossing gates and a lightning strike that shut down the entire line for seven hours, among other problems, transit officials assured the public that they were just getting the bugs out of the system. But now, more than six months after it opened, the bugs are still thriving.
The crossing gate problem is so severe that the Federal Transit Administration has threatened to shut down the line until it is corrected. The contractor that built and operates the line tried to claim the lightning strike was an act of God, so the contractor shouldn’t be held responsible, but Regional Transit District officials responded that they had pointed out the company’s design was vulnerable to lightning as early as 2013, yet the company did nothing to fix the flaw. Meanwhile, the system continues to perform unreliably.
Now RTD has been forced to admit that two other lines being built by the same company won’t open on time. RTD claims that it saved money by entering into a public-private partnership for the line in what is known as a “design-build-operate” contract. In fact, it saved no money at all, but was merely getting around a bond limit the voters had imposed on the agency. If the private contractor borrows a billion dollars or so and RTD agrees to pay the contractor enough to repay the loan, the debt doesn’t appear on RTD’s books. Taxpayers will still end up paying interest in the loans, which actually makes it more expensive than if RTD had stayed within its debt limit.
Denver opened its rail line to the airport a few weeks ago, but it seems to have been rushed into operation. The Antiplanner took the train to Union Station on Wednesday and back on Thursday and fortunately allowed plenty of time because it was not very reliable.
The train is formally known as the University of Colorado A-Line, which is deceptive because it doesn’t actually go to the University of Colorado. Instead, the university paid $5 million for naming rights, which seems a strange thing for a public institution to do.
But then, deception is the name of the game for RTD’s new train. When I was on the airport subway to the terminal I heard a recorded announcement by Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, inviting people to take the A Line, which he said took “about 35 minutes to get to Union Station.” I happened to know that the train was scheduled to take 38 minutes, and mathematically, 38 is closer to “about 40” than “about 35.”
The train that saved Denver? Give me a break! Politico‘s Colin Woodard claims that the effects of new rail transit lines on Denver “have been measurable and surprising.” In fact, his article is all hype with hardly a touch of reality.
Let’s start with same basic “measurable” numbers. In 1990, before Denver built its first light-rail line, the decennial census found that 4.74 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. By 2014, the region had four light-rail lines, and the American Community Survey found that the percentage of commuters taking transit to work was all the way up to 4.76 percent.
Yes, that’s a measurable 0.02 percent increase in transit’s share of commuting. If it is a surprise, it is only that it wasn’t a decrease.
The San Jose Mercury News points out the “staggering drop in VTA bus ridership” and suggests “dramatic changes” are needed to reverse that decline. However, it misses the elephant in the room, namely that the drop in ridership is directly due to the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) cutting bus service in order to fund its rail transit fantasies–fantasies that have been repeatedly endorse by the Mercury News.
The Mercury News reports “ridership on buses and light-rail trains has dropped a staggering 23 percent since 2001.” This understates the problem as light-rail ridership actually grew by about 19 percent during this time period, mainly because of an expansion of light-rail lines from 29.2 route miles in 2001 to 40.5 route miles in 2014. The small ridership increase gained by a 44 percent growth in route miles is distressing in itself, especially considering that the area’s 13 percent population growth accounts for most of the light-rail ridership growth.
The real tragedy is what happened to bus ridership, which declined by 32 percent from more than 48 million trips in 2001 to less than 33 million in 2014. (Light-rail and bus ridership and service numbers are from the National Transit Database Historic Time Series.) As it happens, in the same time period vehicle miles of bus service fell by 22 percent, a drop that explains most if not all of the decline in ridership.
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.
Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?
All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.
At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?
According to pro-rail transit Metro magazine, American cities face a dilemma: the demand for rail transit continues to grow, yet there is a scarcity of federal dollars to pay for it. Fortunately, writer Cliff Henke continues, cities have come up with innovative ways to get around this scarcity.
In fact, most of the things the article says are wrong or, at least, they indicate that cities have too much money, not a shortage. If it weren’t for this surfeit of funds, cities wouldn’t plan ridiculously expensive rail lines that, in most cases, do nothing for transit riders or transportation users in general. This is shown by all of the examples in his article.
The Overpriced Los Angeles Subway: The first example in the article is Los Angeles’ Westside Subway, which will be less than four miles long yet is expected to cost well over $2.8 billion, or more than $725 million per mile. This insane project is expected to attract just 7,700 new transit riders per day. That means the cost of getting one person out of their car for one trip on the subway will be $65. (I calculated this by amortizing the capital costs over 30 years at 2 percent interest, multiplying the daily new trips by 315, which is the average weekday trips per year on L.A.’s existing subway, and dividing annual new trips into the sum of the annual operating and annualized capital costs.)
Early tests reveal that the Twin Cities’ new light-rail cars require 67 minutes to go the 11 miles from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul for an average speed of 10 miles per hour. Metro Transit managers say they expect to get the time down before the line opens for service on June 14, but the 39 minutes promised on the agency’s web site seems unattainable considering they have added three stops since the line was originally planned. Even 39 minutes is less than 17 mph, hardly a breathtaking speed.
Buses currently do the same trip in a mere 26 minutes. Some people are mildly outraged that the region has spent $100 million per mile to get slower service. Too bad they weren’t outraged when the line was being planned.
Officials say that most people won’t ride the entire distance, and what really counts “is that these new Green Line passengers have a very high quality and reliable ride.” For that, they needed to spend a billion dollars.
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.