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.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan says the $150-million-per-mile cost of the proposed Purple light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton is “not acceptable.” The Maryland Department of Transportation thinks that it can reduce the cost by 10 percent, but that probably isn’t enough, considering that Hogan wants it to be “dramatically lower.” Hogan promises to make a decision in the next month.
Before he does, the Antiplanner thinks he should know that, no matter how much the planners say it will cost, it always costs more. From that view, a 10 percent reduction probably means 30 percent more than the current projected cost.
Instead of building light rail, Maryland could just run buses. The Antiplanner estimates that a fleet of 70 buses could provide service every two minutes in each direction. If buses operated on this schedule during rush hours and at half that frequency during off-peak hours and on weekends and holidays, they could carry as many people as the 69,000 that light rail is optimistically projected to carry at a lower operating cost and for about 2 percent of the start-up cost of light rail. Would a 98 percent reduction in costs be dramatic enough for the governor?
An insanely expensive light-rail project in Minnesota just got more insane. The cost of the Southwest light-rail line, which had previously been estimated at $1.65 billion for 15.7 miles, or just over $100 million a mile, is now estimated to cost $341 million more, or just shy of $2 billion. That’s $126 million a mile, or more than seven times the inflation-adjusted cost of the initial San Diego Trolley, the nation’s first modern light-rail line.
Considering that freeways with many times the capacity of a light-rail line can be built for about $10 million a mile, spending more than $100 million a mile on light rail makes no sense at all. The only way people could support it is if they have no understanding of numbers, which explains why many politicians do support it. The good news is that some in Minnesota are having second thoughts about the Southwest line, including Governor Mark Dayton (who professed to be “shocked and appalled,” though he doesn’t say why he wasn’t appalled at the previous price) and Metropolitan Council chair Adam Duininck.
As the Antiplanner has previously noted, Eden Prairie, the destination of this line, is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the Twin Cities area. In order to provide “transit equity,” regional transit planners have promised to build a few bus shelters in poor neighborhoods. That’s so equitable.
Hampton Roads Transit, which serves Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Newport News, is having a difficult time. Ridership for the first seven months of fiscal 2015 (which began in July) is down 9 percent from 2013, and 2013 ridership wasn’t so hot in the first place. Financial records show that the revenue per rider, at 98 cents per trip, is 8 cents more than the agency’s target, but the cost per rider, at $5.41 per trip, is 73 cents less than targeted, so fares are only covering 18 percent of operating costs.
Click on the image to go to the page where you can download the draft environmental impact statement–comments due May 5.
What to do in this situation? For any transit agency, the solution is obvious: build more light rail. The region’s one light-rail line opened 16 months late and cost 60 percent more than projected. It was supposed to carry 10,400 riders per weekday in its opening year; it actually carried less than 4,400. While it was up to 5,500 in 2013, the 23 percent drop in light-rail ridership so far in 2015 suggests that the average this year will be even less than in the opening year.
Debate over the Maryland Purple Line continues. The governor is expected to make a decision in a few months.
Debate over a proposed streetcar in Sacramento begins. The measure will be voted on by local residents in May.
Debate begins over funding for two new light-rail lines in Vancouver, BC. Proponents include a council of suburban mayors, all of whom no doubt hope that light-rail lines will eventually be built to their cities. (The Antiplanner will have more to say about this one in a few days.)