Tag Archives: light rail

Every Kind of Fail

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.

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Amtrak Not Worth State Support

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.

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Back in the Air Again

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.

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Streetcars and Commuter Trains Are Hot

Ridership on Atlanta’s new streetcar is 18 percent below projections–and the projections assumed patrons would be charged a $1 fare, but (as of the date of the ridership numbers) the city was still offering free introductory rides. Meanwhile, operating costs have proven to be a mere 50 percent more than projected.

Washington, DC’s new streetcar hasn’t yet opened for business, but it has already proven to be hot–as in one of the streetcars being tested on H Street caught fire the other day. DC residents aren’t exactly looking forward to the streetcar, which is increasing traffic congestion and slowing bus service in the corridor. This is just one more example, locals note, of “corporate welfare and the edifice complex.”

Just outside of DC, a new report reveals that the Maryland Transit Administration has done a poor job of tracking consultant costs on the proposed Purple and Red lines. This doesn’t bode well for taxpayers if construction ever begins on these two lines, both of which are expected to cost more than $2 billion.

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Light Rail Increasingly Dangerous

A pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in Denver last Thursday, February 12. The very next day, another pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in San Jose.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 40 people were killed in light-rail accidents in 2012. This is the most since at least 1992 (the earliest year for which I have numbers available). While the numbers vary from year to year, in all the years since 1995, light-rail accidents killed 333 people.

A few days ago, the Antiplanner mentioned that auto accidents kill about 34,000 people a year. That sounds horrible, and it is, but unlike light-rail numbers, auto fatalities have been declining. More important, light rail carried just 26.7 billion passenger miles in all the years between 1995 and 2012. By comparison, highway vehicles traveled nearly 3 trillion vehicle miles in 2012 alone. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per car (see page 33), that’s 5 trillion passenger miles.

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Say No to the Purple Line

The Washington Business Journal published an op ed casting doubt on the proposed, $2.4-billion Purple light-rail line in Maryland suburbs of DC. Since the article is behind a paywall, the Antiplanner is taking the liberty of reproducing it here.

The Journal edited out a few paragraphs; while I’m not complaining, I reinserted them here for sake of completion. Those paragraphs are in italics.

Guest Comment: The Purple Line? No thanks

Washington Business Journal: Feb 6, 2015, 6:00am EST
Randal O’Toole

In the wake of Larry Hogan’s election as governor, Maryland has been inundated with propaganda claiming the Purple Line light rail from Bethesda to New Carrollton will do everything from relieve congestion to revitalize the economy. This is all hogwash.

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Outrageously Expensive Transit

The average cost of light-rail construction has grown to nearly $200 million per mile, according to data in the Federal Transit Administration’s 2016 proposal for capital grants to transit agencies under the “New Starts/Small Starts” program. This is up from $176 million a mile in the 2015 plan.

San Diego, which started the light-rail craze when it built the nation’s first modern light-rail line in 1981 at an average cost of well under $10 million per mile–less than $18 million per mile in today’s dollars–wants to spend $194 million per mile on a new Mid-Coast line. Boston, which can’t afford to maintain its existing increasingly decrepit rail system, wants to spend $489 million per mile on a 4.7-mile extension of one of its light-rail lines. The least-expensive light-rail line in the budget is a 2.3-mile extension to an existing light-rail line in Denver costing a mere $98 million per mile, nearly twice as much as the least-expensive new light-rail line in the 2013 plan.

Streetcars, which were supposed to be cheap, are costing an average of $59 million a mile, up from $46 million a mile in last year’s plan. That’s less than a third the average cost of light rail today, but still more than three times as expensive as San Diego’s original light-rail line. (I’m counting the Tacoma rail line as a streetcar, as it uses equipment that is nearly identical to the Portland streetcar; Sound Transit and the FTA call it light rail mainly to justify taxing Tacoma residents to help pay for the outrageously expensive light-rail lines being built in Seattle.) The FTA proposes to fund another streetcar line in Charlotte, and streetcars in Sacramento and Fort Lauderdale are also in the plan though not recommended for immediate funding.

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Rail Troubles

The latest news from Hawai’i is that the Honululu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) lied to the city council when it told them the city’s rail project was $500 million to $700 million over budget. It turns out it’s really $910 million over budget. HART was just hoping to cover up $210 million of the deficit by quietly transferring bus money to the rail project.

Meanwhile, as fiscal conservative Larry Hogan is sworn in as governor of Maryland, rail advocates are doing a full-court press about how the state really needs to build the Purple Line, a light-rail line from the mighty city of New Carrollton (population: 12,000) to the city census-defined place of Bethesda (population: 63,000), passing through the census-defined place of Silver Spring (population: 77,000) on the way. The trains are expected to trundle between these suburbs at the breath-taking speed of not-quite 15.5 miles per hour, somehow attracting 69,000 daily riders along the way.

As shown earlier this week, the Maryland Department of Transportation has solid track record of overestimating light- and heavy-rail ridership by at least 100 percent. If it is built, the Purple Line is likely to be no exception. New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen line, which serves neighborhoods whose population densities are four times greater than those along the Purple Line and regional centers with far more jobs than suburban DC, carried just 44,000 riders per weekday in 2012. The Purple Line is not likely to be less than that.

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Death to the Purple Money Eater

Maryland’s Governor-Elect Larry Hogan has promised to cancel the Purple Line, another low-capacity rail boondoggle that would cost taxpayers at least $2.4 billion to build and much more to operate and maintain. The initial projections for the line were that it would carry so few passengers that the Federal Transit Administration wouldn’t even fund it under the rules then in place. Obama has since changed those rules, but not to take any chances, Maryland’s current governor, Martin O’Malley, hired Parsons Brinckerhoff with the explicit goal of boosting ridership estimates to make it a fundable project.

The last time the Antiplanner looked at the Purple Line, the draft EIS (written by a team led by Parsons Brinckerhoff) was out and it projected the line would carry more than 60,000 trips each weekday in 2030. This is far more than the 23,000 trips per weekday carried by the average light-rail line in the country in 2012. Despite this optimistic projection, the DEIS revealed that the rail project would both increase congestion and use more energy than all the cars it took off the road (though to find the congestion result you had to read the accompanying traffic analysis technical report, pp. 4-1 and 4-2).

A few months after the Antiplanner made these points, Maryland published Parsons Brinckerhoff’s final EIS, which had a new, but still optimistic, ridership projection: 65,000 riders per day in 2030. This seems totally unrealistic when compared with light-rail lines today.

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Voters Reject Taxes

Light rail lost in Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida by 62 to 38 percent. Light rail in Austin is going down by 58 to 42 percent. A transit tax in Polk County, Florida, is also losing.

Not all transportation taxes are losing. Voters in Alameda County (Oakland), California, approved a sales tax that will provide some money for roads but will mostly go to transit and bike/pedestrian paths. Clayton County, Georgia approved a sales tax to bring Atlanta transit into the county. But Maryland voters agreed to protect gas taxes and other highway funds from being diverted to other uses, while Wichita voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have funded a variety of things including transit.

The big news for transportation activists, however, was the strong rejection of light-rail ballot measures in Austin and Pinellas County. Opponents in Austin were better funded than those in Pinellas County, and even some rail supporters joined the opposition in Austin saying that the proposed route wasn’t the best place for a light-rail line. Opponents in Pinellas, meanwhile, had to overcome strong support from most local media and borderline-illegal campaigning in favor of rail by the transit agency and other government agencies. So it was a surprise to see that Pinellas voters rejected rail by an even larger margin than those in Austin.

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