Remember the Twin Cities light-rail line that was supposed to average 17 mph but, after testing, was scheduled for just 13-3/4 mph? It turns out that, in actual operation, it averages less than 12.5 mph. That means it takes 53 minutes to go from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, 36 percent longer than the 39 minutes originally promised and more than twice as long as the 26 minutes required by a bus.
A green line train near the University of Minnesota. Flickr photo by Michael Hicks.
What’s slowing the trains down? Traffic signals. Apparently, the city of St. Paul is reluctant to give the trains signal priority over all other traffic. “It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic,” says Metro Transit’s general manager. But it is also hard to rationalize giving the few people who ride the train priority over the thousands of people who use other modes of travel.
The Cato Institute has published a critique of the city of Austin’s proposal to build a 9.5-mile light-rail line that would cost nearly $1.4 billion (which was briefly discussed here). “Austinites make more than six million person trips per day, of which the light-rail line would carry less than a third of a percent,” says the critique. “Yet constructing the light-rail line would consume 5 percent of the region’s transportation budget for the next 25 years, and operations and maintenance would increase the cost still further.”
The proposed line is only one of several that the city wants to build. Yet projected ridership for the first line is expected to be less than 20,000 people per day and no more than 2,500 people per hour at its peak. As an associated op ed in the Austin American Statesman points out, since ordinary buses can move far more people than that, there is no reason to build rail. (A similar op ed looks at a light-rail proposal for St. Petersburg, Florida; a more generic op ed is here.)
Not surprisingly, “Project Connect” (the planning agency representing the city and Capital Metro) claims that light rail has a higher capacity than buses. To reach this conclusion, it made the absurd assumption that an exclusive bus lane can support no more than one bus every three minutes, allowing buses to carry no more than about 1,300 people per hour. In fact, ordinary city streets, much less exclusive bus lanes, can support far more than one bus every three minutes. Planners are clearly biased in favor of the expensive rail option, as based on this one fact alone they concluded that rail was the appropriate solution for Austin.
Thirteen and three-quarter miles per hour. That’s the scheduled speed between Minneapolis and St. Paul on the Twin Cities new Green Line light rail (previously discussed here).
A test train on the Green Line passes through the University of Minnesota east bank campus. Wikimedia Commons photo by Runner1928.
“People are still learning the nature of light rail,” said Metro Transit’s John Siqveland. “We think a 48-minute schedule is a realistic schedule.” One of the reasons why people are “still learning” is because Metro deceived them before by claiming that the line would take just 40 minutes to go from Minneapolis to St. Paul, when it is now scheduled for 48 minutes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.