Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) won an award for its airport rail line. But the award was not for the line itself, which continues to suffer from technical failures more than a year after it opened, but for the agency’s marketing campaign for the train.
This is a sad commentary on the state of the nation’s transit industry: marketing is more important than mobility. Agencies have successfully marketed themselves as deserving of increased tax dollars (more than $50 billion in 2016), yet they are increasingly failing their supposed mission of improving urban mobility. RTD, for example, is under pressure to build and operate rail lines with low ridership (one carries just 1,600 a day), forcing it to cut bus routes that carry many more riders.
To discuss the future of transit in detail, next Wednesday the Antiplanner will be at the Cato Institute in Washington DC. Joining me on the platform will be Art Guzzetti, vice-president of policy with the American Public Transportation Association. While I will argue that transit’s decline is irreversible, Art–an intelligent man who previously worked for New Jersey Transit–will offer an alternative view. If you are in DC, please register and I hope to see you there. If you are not in DC, you can watch the event on livestream starting at 11 am ET.
Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock has issued what he calls a Mobility Plan. But if carried out, it will actually reduce the mobility of the residents of America’s nineteenth-largest city. Instead of doing anything to relieve congestion, the number one listed goal of the plan is to increase the share of commuters walking, cycling, or taking transit to work to 30 percent. Such a 146-percent increase over the current 12.2 percent is unattainable, so the plan ends up devoting most of the city’s transportation funds to forms of transportation that are either insignificant or obsolete.
Click image to download a 5.5-MB PDF of this plan.
The centerpiece of the Mayor’s plan is dedicated bus lanes on Colfax, Denver’s most important east-west street. Currently, buses carry about 22,000 people a day, more than any other corridor in Denver. But, as the Antiplanner noted recently, dedicated bus lanes can move than many people per hour, and even the 50,000 people per day that the city optimistically projects for Colfax isn’t enough to justify dedicating that much street space to buses. Continue reading
The strange notion that bus-rapid transit isn’t “true” bus-rapid unless it uses lanes dedicated only to buses has infected Denver. The city is now considering converting two lanes of Colfax, the most important (and most congested) east-west street in the region, into dedicated bus lanes.
This would make the remaining lanes even more congested, yet Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) simply does not have enough buses to fully utilize dedicated lanes. Despite this, the idea has gained the editorial endorsement of the Denver Post, which nonsensically claims that this would “fix” Colfax’s congestion problems.
Recall that Istanbul has a dedicated busway that supports more than 250 buses per hour. RTD has less than 1,200 buses in total, the vast majority of which never go on Colfax. It would never be able to run more than a small fraction of 250 buses per hour down Colfax, even if the demand existed, which it does not. Continue reading
Here’s a heartwarming story of a man who rode Denver’s airport light rail once, and it worked for him, so now he wants everyone in his Virginia city to pay higher taxes to build light rail to the local airport in case he might want to ride it again someday. How thoughtful and touching.
Of course, there are a few problems with his story. First, what he rode wasn’t light rail, which averages about 20 miles per hour; instead, he rode a commuter train that averages 38 miles per hour. So if he manages to persuade people in Virginia to build light rail to his local airport, he will get something far inferior to what he rode in Denver.
Second, the writer is guilty of survivorship bias, which is an assumption that because something worked for him, it will work for everyone else. But the Denver airport train doesn’t work for everyone else, partly because it is unreliable and partly because transit is slow for anyone who isn’t near an airport line station. Continue reading
Since it opened a little more than a year ago, Denver’s airport rail lines, known as the A Line, has had a serious safety problem: the crossing gates aren’t reliable. Now Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) claims it has solved the problem, which is transit-speak for they haven’t solved the problem; they’ve just given up.
According to Denver Transit Partners, the private consortium that built and operates the line, “the problem with the crossing technology is impossible to fix.” Instead of fixing it, they’ve gotten a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to allow them to run the trains anyway–provided they have human flaggers at every crossing, which costs about $6 million a year.
Supposedly the crossing gate system is incompatible with the positive train control that the federal government also requires. The Antiplanner doesn’t claim to be an expert on railroad signal technology, but the basic principles behind positive train control were developed more than 100 years ago by Frank Sprague, the electrical genius who also developed the first workable electric streetcar, the first electric rapid transit system, and the first high-speed electric elevators. Continue reading
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.