Tag Archives: light rail

Your Freedom Is Someone Else’s Hell

Yonah Freemark, a writer over at Atlantic Cities–which normally loves any transit boondoggle–somewhat sheepishly admits that light rail hasn’t lived up to all of its expectations. Despite its popularity among transit agencies seeking federal grants, light rail “neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use.”

Not to worry, however; Atlantic Cities still hates automobiles, or at least individually owned automobiles. Another article by writer Robin Chase suggests that driverless cars will create a “world of hell” if people are allowed to own their own cars. Instead, driverless cars should be welcomed only if they are collectively owned and shared.

The hell that would result from individually owned driverless cars would happen because people would soon discover they could send their cars places without anyone in them. As Chase says, “If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles.” Never mind the fact that driverless cars will greatly reduce congestion by tripling roadway capacities and avoid congestion by consulting on-line congestion reports.

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Mono–Doh!

Loyal Antiplanner reader MSetty let me know about a Tennessee proposal to spend $200,000 studying the idea of building a monorail from Nashville to Murfreesboro. The irony is that the proposal comes from a tea party member of the state senate. Senator Bill Ketron is a social conservative, not a libertarian, but he should know better than to think that giving a government agency a bunch of money to do a study recommending whether to give that agency even more more money will lead to a reasonable outcome.

Take, for example, Florida’s Pinellas County transit authority, which has spent $800,000 on “public education” regarding a proposed $1.7 billion (but likely much more) light-rail line that will be on this November’s ballot. Critics question whether it is legal for the transit agency to use “taxpayer money to engage in political advocacy leading up to a referendum vote.” The agency, of course, says it isn’t advocating anything, just educating people.

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Light Rail & Low-Income Transit Riders

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.

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The Purple Money Eater

The Antiplanner is particularly interested in the cost effectiveness of transit projects, and Maryland’s Purple Line is a prime example of an agency selecting just about the least cost-effective alternative. According to the DEIS, the cost of attracting one new rider to the “TSM” alternative is about $9; the low- and medium-cost BRT alternatives are about $14; the high-cost BRT is about $20; and the light-rail alternatives range between $22 and $24. The preferred alternative is the second-most expensive and, at $23 per new rider, the second-least cost-effective.

Put another way, the preferred alternative attracts about 134 percent more riders than TSM, but to get those riders the annualized cost is more than six times greater. Relative to the TSM alternative, the cost of getting one more transit rider on the preferred alternative is almost $34. At this rate, someone who makes a daily round-trip each work day under the preferred alternative who wouldn’t have under TSM would cost taxpayers nearly $16,000 a year.

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Purple Congestion Eater–or Congestion Maker?

Residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, are skeptical of a proposed light-rail line known as the “purple line” (to distinguish it from the DC area’s Red, Orange, Blue, Yellow, and Green heavy-rail lines). AAppropriately so: The Antiplanner has reviewed the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) and found it to be biased and misleading.

Click on image to download entire, 37-MB DEIS. Click on the link in the above paragraph to go to the DEIS web page where you can download selected chapters.

The DEIS considers seven alternatives to doing nothing: one called “transportation system management” (TSM), which is basically improving bus service without significant new infrastructure; low-, medium-, and high-cost bus-rapid transit; and low-, medium-, and high-cost light rail. (Planners call these “low-, medium-, and high-investment alternatives, but it is only an investment if you get a return.) For a route of about 16 miles, the capital costs range from $5 million per mile for TSM to $92 million per mile for high-investment rail.

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Light-Rail Inefficiency Project

Stung by the entirely accurate criticism that it is one of the worst-run transit agencies in America, San Jose’s VTA has come up with a breath-taking plan for improving its efficiency. Naturally enough, the plan is called the light-rail transit efficiency project.

Click image to download an 8-MB presentation describing San Jose’s “light-rail efficiency plan.”

The plan (see summary here) consists of spending up to $25 million building two passing tracks so that express light-rail trains can pass local trains in downtown San Jose. I know what you’re thinking: this has to be a work of genius. I mean, who would ever think of one transit vehicle passing another? Except, of course, buses, which do it all the time and which don’t need millions of dollars of new infrastructure to make it possible.

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San Jose Transit Is Still Near the Top

That is, near the top of the list of the nation’s worst transit systems, says the San Jose Mercury-New. “The near-empty trolleys that often shuttle by at barely faster than jogging speeds serve as a constant reminder that the car is still king in Silicon Valley,” says the paper, “and that the Valley Transportation Authority’s trains are among the least successful in the nation by any metric.”

Many if not most San Jose light-rail “trains” are just one car long, which means they aren’t really trains at all. Considering an average load of just 18 people, the first third of this articulated railcar would be more than enough to handle the demand most times of the day.
Flickr photo from Albert’s Images.

Five years ago the Antiplanner declared the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to be worst-managed transit system. Is it still the worst? It has a lot of competition, including Baltimore, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, yet VTA manages to remain competitive.

In terms of number of riders per light-rail car, VTA carried an average of just 18.3 in 2011, a number lower than all other light-rail systems except Buffalo (17.0) and Baltimore (18.2). Fares from San Jose’s light-rail riders cover just 15.7 percent of the trains’ operating costs; only Baltimore, at 12.0 percent, is lower. Counting just operating costs, taxpayers pay nearly $5 to subsidize each light-rail trip, an amount exceeded only by Dallas and Pittsburgh light-rail systems. Overall, I’d say Baltimore’s is the worst system, with San Jose’s a close number two.

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The Columbia River Crossing Is (or at Least Should Be) Dead

Taxpayers for Common Sense recently released a report (see page 27) that finds $2 trillion in budget cuts that will allow Congress to avoid the “fiscal cliff”–and one of those cuts is the Columbia River Crossing. The agency planning this bridge has managed to spend well over $130 million without accomplishing anything except to design a bridge that the Coast Guard says doesn’t have enough clearance to allow Columbia River ship traffic.

The latest death knell for this porky project was the rejection by Vancouver, Washington voters of a sales tax designed to pay the operating costs of the light-rail line that was supposed to cross the bridge. This has led fiscal conservatives to argue that the current bridge proposal is dead and planners must start over.

The Oregonian editorial board sycophantically responds that the bridge is vital for economic growth and jobs, and the voters didn’t reject the bridge but merely that method of funding it. What a load of crap. Everyone in the Portland area knows that the bridge is totally bloated with pork and light rail.

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Why Congress Should End New Starts

The House Republican transportation bill ends gas tax subsidies of transit and requires that any new rail projects receiving “New Starts” grants meet strict financial tests and not simply be awarded on the basis of some vague concept such as “livability.” In response, Secretary of Livability Ray LaHood says it is vital to keep funding transit out of gas taxes. As an example, he cites the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line, which he says is “an integral part of rebuilding the nation’s economy.”

Really? This 7.3-mile line line is expected to cost $1.5 billion and carry just 9,300 new riders (that is, people who weren’t previously riding the bus) each weekday. Since most people ride round trip, that 4,650 round-trip riders a day. The high cost is enough money to buy each of those new round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every year for the 30-year life of the project.

This will be the most expensive, and one of the least-used, light-rail lines in Portland. The light-rail will be slower than many of the buses in the corridor–buses that will be cancelled when the rail line opens.

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Why Rail?

After nearly 50 percent cost overruns, eighteen months of delays, and a scandal that cost top transit agency officials their jobs, Norfolk, Virginia plans to open its first light-rail line for business in August, 2011. This fabulous 7.4-mil line expected to carry an average of 2,900 riders per day in its first year, increasing to 7,200 riders per day by 2030.

Test train. Wikipedia commons photo by XShadow.

How’s that again? They spent $338 million ($46 million per mile) on a rail line that is expected to carry only about 7,000 people a day? Because a bus couldn’t possibly carry that many people, right?

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