Tag Archives: light rail

Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner will be in Littleton, Colorado tonight talking about housing issues. The event is open to the public and starts at 7 pm at the South Fellowship Church, 6560 South Broadway. If you are in the Denver area, I hope to see you there.

In the meantime, interesting news from Sacramento: the regional transit district is considering shutting down one of its light-rail lines for lack of ridership. As the Antiplanner noted two months ago, the agency has lost more than 26 percent of its transit riders in the past six years and has raised fares by 10 percent to make up for the lost revenue.

The light-rail line that it is considering shutting down is only 1.1 miles long–so it is more like a streetcar line–and it attracts just 400 riders per day. Despite this poor record, Sacramento still wants to build a 3.3-mile streetcar line.

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Portland Metro: More Lies Per Capita

“We’re driving less than other metros,” says Portland Metro, “and we’re driving less than 20 years ago.” These are the kinds of lies that are so typical of Portland planners: easy to check, but since few will bother, they get away with it. First, although Portlanders do drive a little less than residents of other large urban areas, they also drove a little less than residents of those same urban areas 20 years ago, so that’s no change.

More important, Portlanders are in fact driving more than they were 20 years ago. Metro’s source for its data is the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) urban mobility study. But those data only count miles of driving on freeways and other arterials. Because Portland hasn’t built any new freeways or arterials in 20 years, people are forced to drive more on collectors and other roads. When all driving is counted, according to the Federal Highway Administration (which is the source of TTI’s data), Portlanders drove an average of 22.9 miles per person per day in 2014, up 13 percent from 20.2 miles per person per day in 1994.

Metro uses lies like these to implicitly claim that all of its spending on light rail is worthwhile. In fact, light rail is just not very important to Portland travel. As the Antiplanner showed last week, transit carries just 2.6 percent of motorized travel in the Portland urban areas, and since light rail is less than 40 percent of transit, that means light rail is less than 1 percent of all motorized travel.

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Surprise! TriMet Wants More Light Rail

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.

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You Want to Spend How Much on a Low-Capacity Rail Tunnel?

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.

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Sacramento Transit Crashing and Burning

Sacramento’s Regional Transit District (RT for short) is facing an existential crisis. The region’s transit ridership fell by 22 percent between 2009 and 2014, and preliminary information indicates another 6 to 7 percent decline is likely in 2015. The agency’s January, 2016 performance report shows a 9 percent decline from January 2015.


A light-rail train trundles its way through downtown Sacramento. Flickr photo by PaulKimo9.

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.

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Time to Reconsider

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.

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Civil Rights and Fiscal Wrongs

Are the NAACP and ACLU serious when they argue, in a lawsuit filed last week, that cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line light-rail project is a civil rights issue? Or are they just acting as a front for, or the unwitting stooges of, rail contractors and other rail proponents?

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.

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Nice Work If You Can Get It (and Keep It)

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.

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This Just In: Light Rail Fails to Relieve Congestion

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.

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Maryland DOT Cooked the Books

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.

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