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.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which some consider the nation’s worst-managed transit agency, has a new program called Envision Silicon Valley. Despite the grandiose title, the not-so-hidden agenda is to impose a sales tax for transit.
A nearly-empty VTA light-rail car in Sunnyvale.
Any vision of Silicon Valley that starts out with transit is the wrong one. Except to the taxpayers who have to pay for it and the motorists and pedestrians who have to dodge light-rail cars, transit is practically irrelevant in San Jose.
The Antiplanner was in Phoenix this week debating light rail with proponents of a ballot measure that would increase sales taxes in order to expand that city’s rail system. In addition to a public forum, a brief debate was televised and is available on video.
After the Antiplanner’s review of the existing light-rail line debunked claims that the line stimulated $7 billion in economic development, Valley Metro published a new paper claiming that it stimulated $8.2 billion in development. This $8.2 billion still includes projects that haven’t yet (and may never be) built. However, the new paper does not provide a complete list of the developments supposedly built because of the light rail, and the agency has been unresponsive to requests for such a list, but it is clear Valley Metro merely counted anything that happened to be built within a half mile of a light-rail station without asking whether those projects would have been built without the rail line.
In their campaign for the ballot measure, proponents claim the increased sales tax will provide money for repaving and improving streets. It is clear from the city’s transportation plan, however, that most if not all of the street money will be used to reduce the capacity of streets for cars in favor of more room for buses and bicycles (see exhibit A on page 18). Even if the city intended to improve streets, any light-rail cost overruns would quickly eat up most of the street money.
Phoenix voters will decide next month whether to extend the current transit sales tax (set to expire in 2020) through 2050 and increase it by 75 percent (from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent). This would supposedly be enough to fund at least three more light-rail lines plus several bus-rapid transit lines.
According to Valley Metro, this beautiful vacant lot across the street from a light-rail station is Escala on Camelback, a mixed-use development with 160 condos and 15,000 square feet of retail space that was supposed to be completed in Fall, 2010. It remains vacant today.
The big argument from rail advocates is that Phoenix’s first light-rail line, which opened in December, 2008, generated $7 billion in economic development. Not so much. A new report from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club shows that the light rail generated very little, if any, new development.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced Thursday that he was cancelling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with a caveat that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.
The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.
Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.
Las Vegas’ Regional Transportation Commission is considering the idea of building a light-rail subway under the Las Vegas strip. Unlike most roads, congestion on the strip does not happen during morning and afternoon rush hours but on weekends and evenings when tourists tire of gambling in their own hotels and decide to explore some of the other hotels on the strip.
The strip is already served by an expensive monorail that was privately funded by a firm that has since gone bankrupt. Plus there are numerous private and public buses that run up and down the strip.
Comments to this and other articles claim that the monorail failed because it didn’t go to the airport and because its route behind the hotels offers such pleasant scenery as blank walls and dumpsters. But the fact that hotels didn’t want to mar their public facades with an elevated train–and some hotels didn’t want the monorail at all because they didn’t want to encourage their guests to escape–explains some of the problems facing any potential rail line. Las Vegas has a thriving, for-profit airport shuttle system that avoids congestion by using back streets, so replacing that with a subsidized rail line is totally unnecessary.
Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan has said he would approve the costly Purple Line light-rail project provided the cost could be “dramatically” reduced. In response, the Antiplanner presents this modest proposal.
The proposal calls for using buses instead of rail, which reduces costs by 98 percent. The resulting bus service would be far more frequent than rail, should be as fast or faster (which isn’t hard because the rail line would average less than 15.5 mph), and would have lower operating costs and far lower maintenance costs. The same analysis would apply to Baltimore’s proposed Red Line, but the Antiplanner hasn’t worked up the numbers in detail.
While the rail project would significantly increase traffic congestion, the state could spend 1 or 2 percent more of the savings from canceling rail on things like traffic signal coordination and other intersection improvements that would relieve congestion for everyone, rather than just a few transit riders. The result is a win for taxpayers, a win for transit riders, a win for commuters, and a loss for rail contractors.