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.
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.
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.
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.
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 nationâ€™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.
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.
The city manager for Norfolk, Virginia, has been forced to resign due to allegations that she knew about light rail cost overruns but failed to inform the city council. The senior vice president for development of Norfolk’s transit agency, Hampton Roads Transit, has also quit in response to allegations that her mismanagement led to the cost overruns.
When Flickr user DearEdward took this photo in July, 2008, Hampton Roads Transit was promising to start operating Norfolk’s light rail in December, 2009. Now it has postponed the opening to late in 2011.
They follow the transit agency’s previous general manager, who was forced to quit a year ago when the cost overruns first came to light. Meanwhile, Hampton Roads Transit has announced that the light-rail line is not only $106 million over budget, it is at least 16 months behind schedule. The most recent scheduled date for opening the line, May 2011, has been postponed indefinitely because of delays in delivering and installing safety equipment.
When the light-rail line in Norfolk, Virginia, went nearly 50 percent over its projected cost, the general manager of Hampton Roads Transit resigned in disgrace–but they gave him $300,000 in severance pay. Now documents have come to light that agency officials knew the line was going to cost more than their published projections but kept the true cost secret from the public and the Federal Transit Administration when they were seeking funding for the project.
Norfolk light rail under construction. Flickr photo by DearEdward.
On top of that, the state has found that the transit agency broke contracting and bidding laws when it gave contracts to favored consultants and “preferred individuals”–no doubt ones who would low-ball the cost estimates and not reveal the true costs until construction was well underway. The transit agency’s current CEO is talking about bringing criminal charges against the now-departed officials who were in charge when the line was being planned.
Detroit is America’s eleventh-largest urban area and (unless you count the insipid people mover) the largest without rail transit. So, naturally, the city suffers from light-rail envy. In 2008, the mayor promised a Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter train by October 25, 2010–a promise that, since then, has been deferred indefinitely.
The city also wants to build a light-rail line up Woodward Avenue (home of the Woodward Dream Cruise in which people show off classic cars). This leads the Antiplanner’s faithful allies at the Reason Foundation to ask: Why?