Rail transit is excessively expensive, inflexible, and incapable of moving as many people as buses. Yet when the Antiplanner points out these facts, rather than respond with factual arguments, rail supporters reply with insults and innuendo.
In Florida, for example, a Tampa Bay Times columnist named Daniel Ruth spent an entire column attacking my credibility apparently because someone paid me an honorarium of $500 to evaluate the St. Petersburg light-rail plan. Ruth did not make any factual arguments in favor of the plan; he merely contended that my opposition was a foregone conclusion and so should be ignored.
He even implied that I didn’t get paid enough for my conclusions to be credible. After all, the transit agency spent millions of dollars hiring consultants to write reports about the proposal, and those very reports were the sources of much of my information. Those same consultants are, of course, financially backing the election campaign in favor of light rail, and if voters approve, they stand to make tens if not hundreds of millions in profits. If the measure loses, neither I nor anyone at Cato will make a dime of profit. Yet somehow they are supposed to be more credible than I.
Sorry about the light postings this week, but I’ve been pretty busy talking with people about light rail. Here is my presentation about light rail in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida, and here is my presentation about light rail in Austin, Texas.
These are large files–Pinellas is 18 MB, Austin is 24–and they don’t include the videos I used for those presentations. If you want the videos, which are self-driving cars, click here to download a 44-MB zip file with three videos that I used in both presentations.
Next week I go to Denver for the 2014 American Dream conference, so postings may be light then as well. The week after that I’ll be back in Minneapolis to debate Myron Orfield over land-use regulation and density. That should be fun.
Last Sunday, a pedestrian was struck and killed by the Twin Cities new Green light-rail line, which opened for operation in June. Shannon Buchanan was apparently crossing a pedestrian way over the tracks and was hit by a train going about 30 mph.
Though the train’s average speed is just 12.5 mph, at the point where the woman was hit it was going 30 mph. “She may have been wearing headphones,” said a transit agency official. Agencies typically claim that most accidents are the fault of the victims, as if putting a heavy, difficult-to-stop train in the same streets as pedestrians and autos is not the fault of the agency.
The FTA no longer includes fatality data in the National Transit Database, but the last time data were available, light rail was involved in about 12 fatalities per billion passenger miles carried while buses were involved in only about 4 fatalities per billion. Apparently, it’s a lot safer to get hit by a 50,000-pound bus than a 300,000-pound train.
Planners predicted that Norfolk’s Tide light-rail line, which opened in 2011 60 percent over budget and 16 months behind schedule, would stimulate economic development along its route. But little development is taking place, so the Virginian Pilot has come up with a grand idea: reduce fares by two thirds. That, the paper’s editorial writers guesstimate, should attract 1,000 more riders per day, which they hope will generate the development planners promised.
Looks fast, but the schedule indicates it takes 26 minutes to go 7 miles for an average speed of 16 mph.
There are a lot of problems with this proposal, not least of which is the fact that rail fares in Norfolk are already the second-lowest in the country, after Houston’s. Though the nominal fare is $1.50, which the Pilot proposes to cut to 50 cents, actual fares collected in 2012 averaged just 50 cents a ride, compared with 35 cents in Houston but $1.39 in Denver. The national average for low-capacity rail is 98 cents, while the average Hampton Roads bus rider pays 91 cents.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) has been illegally using FEMA money to illegally advertise in favor of a ballot measure to build light rail in St. Petersburg, Florida. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent a letter demanding that PSTA return a $354,000 grant it received that was supposed to be used to ward of terror threats, but was used instead to advertise for light rail. FEMA warned that, even if PSTA returned the money (which it has), it would still be under investigation for criminal charges for misuse of federal funds.
The double use of the word “illegal” in the first sentence above refers to the fact that, not only did PSTA misuse the FEMA grant, it shouldn’t be spending any money at all promoting the light-rail ballot measure. In the 1990s, most rail transit ballot measures lost, but in the 2000s, more have won, mainly because transit agencies began using taxpayer dollars to promote the measures start with the Utah Transit Authority in 2000.
As a pro-rail web site notes of the Utah measure, a “key to success was that the agency had put great effort into maintaining a strong, positive public reputation prior to launching the campaign. TV ads were already regularly appearing reminding the public of the benefits of the service provided by UTA. When it came time to initiate the electoral campaign, early outreach efforts had already paved the way.”
Some people in Durham, NC, want to build a $1.4-billion, 17-mile light-rail line, and the region has been spending millions of dollars planning it. A quick review of the project’s alternatives analysis reveals that planners and consultants have done everything they can to bias the analysis towards rail.
A Durham transit bus in front of Durham’s $10 million downtown transit station.
The most important thing to note is that planners projected that either of two bus-rapid transit alternatives would attract more transit riders than light rail (p. 5-78) at little more than half the cost (p. 5-105). But the analysis nevertheless recommended in favor of light rail, partly because “public and agency support” supposedly favored rail over bus and partly because of rail’s “demonstrated” ability to promote compact development.
The Oregonian was writing metaphorically when it reported last Tuesday that Portland’s low-capacity trains were “knocked off track by expensive, deferred maintenance.” By Friday, it was no longer a metaphor, as a light-rail car derailed near downtown, shutting down much of the system for several hours.
Transit commuters complained that they were given no information about the shutdown and many waited in increasing frustration as stations became more and more crowded. To make matters worse, the elevator at the Hollywood station, about one station away from the derailment, stopped working as well.
As a “thank you for your patience,” TriMet has announced all rides on its low-capacity trains will be free today.
The Cato Institute has published a new paper on Greenlight Pinellas, or, as I prefer to call it, Red Ink Pinellas. As previously mentioned in the Antiplanner, this is a plan to spend $1.7 billion building a light-rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, Florida and boost local bus service by 70 percent.
The paper reveals that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which is pushing for light rail, has a poor track record of spending. From 1991 to 2005, it increased bus service by 46 percent but saw a 17 percent drop in passenger miles. Then the recession forced it to cut bus service by 5 percent, yet ridership grew by 9 percent. Given this history, boosting bus service is likely to result in a lot of empty buses. Meanwhile, the agency projects that so few people will ride its light rail that it will only need to run one-car trains.
When compared with bus-rapid transit, the cost of getting one person out of their car and onto the proposed light-rail line is projected to be $50. That means getting one person who currently commutes by car to switch to light rail would cost more than buying that person a new 5-series BMW every year, or a new Tesla class S every other year, for the next 30 years.
Here’s a story by the Oregonian‘s intrepid reporter, Joseph Rose that has it all: deferred maintenance, delayed trains, $950 million in unfunded retirement benefits, transit cuts and fare increases, secret pay raises to transit agency executives, an angry transit union, and a plan to move transit riders on buses around rail work that “basically imploded.”
Worn pavement and light-rail switch near Portland’s Lloyd Center. Photo from Max FAQs.
The Antiplanner has repeatedly harped on the fact that rail transit infrastructure basically lasts only 30 years and then must be replaced, often at greater expense (even after adjusting for inflation) than the original construction cost. Part of the cost is dealing with the interruptions in service that are almost inevitable when replacing rails, wires, and other fixed hardware.
One of the conclusions of the Antiplanner’s recent paper on rapid buses was that regions that had fewer than 40,000 downtown jobs didn’t need rapid buses, much less light rail. Austin has about 72,000 downtown jobs, but rapid bus isn’t working well there either.
One reason can be found in census numbers, specifically table B08141 of the American Community Survey. For 2012, this table reports that just 2.2 percent of Austin workers live in households that lack access to an automobile, yet 28 percent of them drive alone to work and 12 percent carpool, while only 25 percent take transit to work. In other words, as I’ve noted for other urban areas, transit is just not relevant to most people.
In March of this year, Austin’s MetroRapid bus attracted nearly 6,500 trips per day. This declined to 5,900 in April and 5,300 in April, rising slightly to just under 5,500 in June.