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.)
Denver RTD Makes the Case for Public-Private Funding, says Progressive Railroading. In fact, Denver’s Regional Transit District is making the case for lying to the voters about everything possible in order to get as much of their money as possible.
The first lie was that FasTracks, Denver’s rail transit plan that Progressive Railroading calls “one of the largest transit expansion programs in the country,” would cost $4.7 billion. Soon after the election, RTD admitted the real cost would be $7.9 billion. Thanks to the recession, the cost has supposedly fallen to $6.9 billion, but none of these estimates include interest and other finance charges.
The second lie was that RTD would build six new light-rail or other rail lines. In order to get the support of all of the suburban mayors in the region, RTD had to promise to build all the lines at once, as mayors realized that any that were deferred to later would probably never be built. Today, RTD realizes that the Northwest line to Boulder and Longmont is just far too expensive and will carry too few riders to be worthwhile. But that applies to the rest of them too, it’s just that RTD doesn’t have enough money to build them all.
Denver’s light rail hit and critically injured another pedestrian last week, temporarily shutting down most of the city’s light-rail trains. Meanwhile, transit apologist Todd Litman calls the Antiplanner’s assessment of light-rail dangers “a good example of bad analysis.” Light rail is more dangerous than cars and buses, he says, only because “light rail transit only operates in dense city centers where there are frequent interactions between various road users.” He suggests that cars and buses “might” be nearly as dangerous in similar situations.
The argument that “light-rail only operates in dense city centers” is questionable, but even if it were true, cars are still safer in those areas, which Litman could have learned by checking available data from the Department of Transportation. Highway Statistics table FI-220 lists highway fatalities by road type. Table VM-2 lists vehicle miles of travel by road type. We can divide through to compare fatality rates per billion miles of travel. Most of the vehicle miles are cars and light trucks containing an average of 1.67 people per vehicle (table 16).
The data show that motor vehicle accidents kill about 6.8 people per billion passenger miles on local urban streets, the most dangerous streets in urban areas. Urban collectors have only 3.6 fatalities per billion passenger miles; freeways just 2.5 to 2.8; and other arterials 4.6 to 5.9. All of these are well below light rail’s 12.5 fatalities per billion passenger miles. Commuter rail, incidentally, has 8.7 fatalities per billion passenger miles, while heavy rail and buses both work out to 4.5 fatalities per billion.
Does Miami need a light-rail line? In 1988, the Florida city built the Metromover, a 4.4-mile automated system that cost twice as much as projected and carried less than half the projected riders. Although Wikipedia claims this is a great success, the National Transit Database reports that it carried less than 31,000 riders per day in 2013 (less than a third of what Wikipedia claims and well under the projections).
In the same year, Miami also opened Metrorail, an elevated rail line that cost far more than projected and carries less than a third of the projected riders.
Then there’s Tri Rail, a commuter train between Miami and West Palm Beach that began service in 1989. Taxpayers have lavished around $600 million in capital improvements on this line, and spent $46 million subsidizing operations in 2013, for a commuter system that carried less than 15,000 riders (i.e., under 7,500 round trips) per day.
The Antiplanner arrived at the Purple Line debate debate last night to find protesters who were apparently upset that anyone would consider not building a train whose projected costs have already risen by more than 40 percent and whose ridership projections are so outlandish that even the Federal Transit Administration uses a lower (though still unrealistically high) number. Some of the protesters recognized me and were nice enough to wish me well in the debate.
My opponent, Richard Parsons, seems to truly believe that a 15.5-mph, low-capacity rail line will spur enough development to increase county tax revenues by more than $10 billion. When I pointed out that this has not happened to any rail project in the last 40 years, and that at most all they have done is influenced where development takes place, he didn’t dispute it, but merely claimed that Montgomery County was unique. Those who wish to see my presentation can download the PowerPoint file here.
Meanwhile, in keeping with the fiscally conservative trend that swept much of the nation in the last election, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has proposed (see p. 3-32) to help close the state’s $6.8 billion budget gap by cutting state support for Amtrak from $46.2 million in 2015 to $28.8 million in 2016. Amtrak supporters are unsurprisingly outraged, claiming that a reduction in passenger train service will increase traffic congestion, air pollution, and wear and tear on the highways.
The Antiplanner is in Washington DC today to participate in a debate over the Purple light-rail line–or, as I like to call it, the Purple Money Eater. In conjunction with this debate, the Maryland Public Policy Institute will release a detailed critique of the proposed low-capacity transit line; Antiplanner readers can download a preview today.
Predictably, rail supporters are claiming that the supposedly evil Koch Brothers “dispatched” me to fight this rail project. In reality, I doubt that light rail is even on the Koch Brothers’ radar screen, since there is no light rail in Kansas (where they are headquartered) and no proposals for any as far as I know. (Could it be that’s not a coincidence?)
We’ll see what the rail supporters say tonight. If you are in the DC area, I hope to see you in Silver Spring at 7 pm.