In a move that surprised no one, the staff of TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, wants to build light rail instead of bus-rapid transit between Portland and Sherwood. Since the Obama administration no longer requires transit agencies to do a rigorous alternatives analysis, this decision was based on subjective criteria and erroneous assumptions, yet will probably not be challenged by either TriMet’s board or the federal government that will have to pay for most of the line.
TriMet’s last light-rail line cost about $168 million per mile. This proposal is for an 11.5-mile line that will cost at least $2 billion, or $174 million per mile. Of course, that cost is likely to go up. By comparison, Portland’s first light-rail line cost only about $28 million per mile in today’s dollars.
A state auditor says TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, is falling behind on light-rail maintenance. TriMet’s general manager says that the agency’s pension and health-care obligations are so great that it will have to cut all transit service by 70 percent by 2025 to meet those obligations. So naturally, it makes perfect sense to talk about spending $2 billion that the agency doesn’t have on another low-capacity rail line.
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) wants voters to give it $120 billion over the next forty years so it can build more rail projects that are already obsolete. Among other projects, it proposes to build a nine-mile light-rail tunnel between west LA and the San Fernando Valley that it estimates will cost at least $8.5 billion, and probably much more. That’s a billion dollars a mile, which is neither a misprint nor an April Fool’s joke.
The plan, which will probably be on the November ballot, includes some new roads as well as trains. But Metro proposes to spend twice as much on new transit construction as on new road construction, plus lots more on transit operations. As little as 19 percent of the funds would be spent on highway projects.
In 2008, Metro persuaded voters to dedicate a half-cent sales tax to transit for 30 years, which is estimated to bring in $34 billion. Now it wants to double that tax and extend it to 2057, which is estimated to bring in $120 billion on top of the $34 billion it is already getting.
Some of this downward spiral is due to low gas prices, but much of it is due to an 18 percent reduction in bus service and a 7 percent reduction in light-rail service between 2009 and 2014. Declining tax revenues after the 2008 financial crisis forced these service cutbacks. In turn, reduced ridership means reduced fare revenues, and RT has responded by raising fares, which is not likely to do ridership any good. RT is also thinking about asking voters for a tax increase, but with just 2.7 percent of the area’s commuters taking transit to work, support for the transit system may be slim.
Portland’s first light-rail line turns 30 years old this year, which is about the expected lifespan of a rail line. Not by coincidence, the system was highly unreliable last year, being “plagued with delays and disruptions” and having terrible on-time performance.
The line between Portland and Gresham originally cost more than $200 million to build, which in today’s dollars is around twice that. It is likely it will cost roughly that amount of money to restore it to like-new condition.
But Portland has a choice. Instead of sinking a bunch of money into an already-obsolete transit system, it could scrap it and replace it with buses. Before building the rail line, the parallel freeway had HOV lanes; restoring those lanes (or turning them to HOT lanes) would give the buses an uncontested route to fallow. We know that the buses would be faster than the rail, because the rail line was slower than the buses it replaced.
In Los Angeles, the NAACP filed a successful lawsuit against the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority for building light rail. The group argued that light rail was so expensive that the agency was forced to cut bus service to minority neighborhoods, resulting in a huge decline in transit ridership. The court ordered the agency to restore bus service, allowing ridership to recover. But in Baltimore, the NAACP seems to be arguing that cuts in bus service are worth building a billion-dollar tunnel under an African-American neighborhood.
Maybe this is a case of the NAACP’s Right Coast not knowing what its Left Coast was doing. But the heart of the complaint in Baltimore seems to be that blacks are somehow harmed because the state of Maryland chose to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on bus improvements instead of billions of dollars on one light-rail line. This suggests that the Maryland NAACP thinks dollars spent are more important than results. After all, Baltimore’s other light-rail lines are all embarrassing failures, with costs greater than projections but ridership well below projections.
Stephen Banta, the CEO of Phoenix’s Valley Metro transit agency, resigned in disgrace after revelations that taxpayers paid for him to fly first class around the world, stay in $600-per-night hotel rooms, and take elected officials out to expensive dinners trying to woo them into supporting light rail. After resigning, he then tried to rescind his resignation, apparently wanting to negotiate a better golden parachute.
This tactic apparently worked, as the Valley Metro board has agreed to pay him $265,000 if he leaves on January 4. That’s approximately his average annual pay.
The Los Angeles Time seems surprised to report that Los Angeles’ 9-mile-long Expo Line has failed to relieve congestion in the corridor it serves. Rail and bus boardings increased about 6 percent after the line opened in 2012 (at least some of which would be due to transfers of passengers from bus to rail who previously could go the entire distance of their journey by bus), but the rail line had no “significant or consistent impact” on auto traffic.
Many people believe rail transit depends on population density, and if so then the Expo Line should be a perfect candidate, as the area it serves has 26,000 people per square mile (about the same as New York City and nearly ten times the average urban density in the United States). On one hand, even that’s not dense enough for rail to attract a lot of riders. On the other hand, light rail is really low-capacity transit, so is truly the wrong solution for areas of high transit demand.
As the L.A. Times observes in other articles, rail does benefit some people. First, it gives perverts opportunities to engage in anonymous sexual harassment. Second, it gives politicians opportunities to spend a lot of money: with the prompting of Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles is considering spending billions of dollars on six more rail lines.
You may want to sit down for this, but it is finally becoming obvious to everyone that the Maryland Department of Transportation and its consultants overestimated ridership on the proposed Purple light-rail line. Even the pro-Purple Line Washington Post is skeptical of the numbers. Of course, this is only after Governor Hogan appears to have signed off on the line.
As the Antiplanner pointed out in a review of the proposed low-capacity rail line, the projected first-year ridership of 58,800 people per weekday is more than any single light-rail line outside of Los Angeles and Boston–and rail lines in those cities serve centers with far more jobs than are found on the entire Purple Line. The line that is most comparable to the 16-mile Purple Line is New Jersey’s 17-mile Hudson-Bergen line, which serves an area whose population density is four times greater and has far more jobs than that along the Purple Line, yet the Hudson-Bergen line carries just 44,000 riders per weekday (p. 9). The Antiplanner also pointed out that light-rail planners almost always overestimate ridership, and Maryland in particular has a poor track record with its lines in Baltimore (p. 8).
Hogan’s Secretary of Transportation, Peter Rahn, apparently didn’t read the Antiplanner’s report, as he told the Post that he was “comfortable” with the numbers because “the FTA was involved, and they were acceptable to them.” Of course, the FTA rarely questions any numbers given to them by transit agencies. What Rahn was really doing, of course, was shifting the blame to someone else for not doing the job he should have done.
Arizona has just published a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed moderate-speed (80-120 mph) passenger train between Phoenix and Tucson. The 116-mile route is projected to cost $4.2 billion to $8.4 billion depending on the route. At the low end of this range, the cost per mile would exceed $36 million, which should easily be enough to add four new lanes to the existing freeway (not that it needs them).
Louisiana wants to spend a mere $260 million for a so-called commuter train between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Since then-state governor Bobby Jindal vetoed the idea of spending $500 million on a moderate-speed train in 2009, the new proposal is for a train whose top speed over the 80-mile route would be 79-mph. Initially, as few as one train per day would go each way, which pretty much make the idea a complete joke. Despite this, the idea is popular: at a recent forum for gubernatorial candidates, most candidates agreed that the state’s infrastructure was crumbling and they supported the idea of building more infrastructure that could crumble in the future.
Massachusetts officials are once again talking about connecting Boston’s North train station (which sends all-important trains to Portland, Maine) with its South Station. The connection, which would cover less than 3 miles, is estimated to cost $2 billion to $4 billion.
Canberra, Australia’s capital, is considering spending close to $1 billion building a light-rail line. But a new study by computer programmer Kent Fitch finds that shared, self-driving cars make a lot more sense.
Where light rail would lose money, a fleet of shared, self-driving cars could earn a profit. Where light rail would serve just one corridor, self-driving cars would serve the entire urban area. Where light rail would require a massive expenditure on new infrastructure, self-driving cars would use existing infrastructure. While light-rail would require people to walk to stations and wait for a railcar, more than 96 percent of self-driving car patrons would have to wait less than a minute for a car to meet them at their door.
Fitch observes that Canberra, being entirely a twentieth-century city, is simply not designed for public transit, which is why ridership on the city’s stagnant or declining. When a city is too decentralized for “medium-box” transit like buses, the solution is not to go to “big-box” transit, which only works if a lot of people want to go from point A to point B at the same time. Instead, the solution is smaller-box transit, such as shared cars.