Tag Archives: light rail

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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How to Hoodwink the Public

Two years ago, Virginia Beach put a measure on the ballot to extend the Norfolk light rail (which stops at the border between the two cities) into Virginia Beach. All of the advertising for the measure said “Vote Yes to Study Light Rail.” But the actual measure read, “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?” That’s a lot different than a study.

The measure passed. But it is entirely possible that voters would have been less enthused if they had known that the Norfolk light rail ended up carrying 58 percent fewer riders than projected in its first year. In any case, the Antiplanner’s presentation arguing that light rail makes no sense for Virginia Beach can now be downloaded. It’s a 33-megabyte PDF that includes my narrative in the notes but doesn’t include any of the videos.

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More Rail Fail

Two more rail transit lines are following in the tracks of so many others that have failed to live up to planners’ promises. First, Orlando’s SunRail commuter train is “losing riders at an increasing pace.” The project, which cost a billion dollars and was built partly to persuade the federal government that Florida was serious about supporting an Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line, has lost 27 percent of its riders since it opened.


SunRail Fail. Flickr photo by Buddahbless.

Second, Seattle’s seven-year-old South Lake Union Transit (SLUT) streetcar has continually failed to attracted the predicted number of riders. Both the SLUT and SunRail were counting on rider fares to help pay operating costs; the SLUT’s shortfall has required repeated bailouts of the line.

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Coping With Too Much Money

According to pro-rail transit Metro magazine, American cities face a dilemma: the demand for rail transit continues to grow, yet there is a scarcity of federal dollars to pay for it. Fortunately, writer Cliff Henke continues, cities have come up with innovative ways to get around this scarcity.

In fact, most of the things the article says are wrong or, at least, they indicate that cities have too much money, not a shortage. If it weren’t for this surfeit of funds, cities wouldn’t plan ridiculously expensive rail lines that, in most cases, do nothing for transit riders or transportation users in general. This is shown by all of the examples in his article.

The Overpriced Los Angeles Subway: The first example in the article is Los Angeles’ Westside Subway, which will be less than four miles long yet is expected to cost well over $2.8 billion, or more than $725 million per mile. This insane project is expected to attract just 7,700 new transit riders per day. That means the cost of getting one person out of their car for one trip on the subway will be $65. (I calculated this by amortizing the capital costs over 30 years at 2 percent interest, multiplying the daily new trips by 315, which is the average weekday trips per year on L.A.’s existing subway, and dividing annual new trips into the sum of the annual operating and annualized capital costs.)

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Facts vs. Insults and Innuendo

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.

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More Light-Rail Critiques

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.

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Green Line Claims First Fatality

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.

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No One’s Riding Light Rail, So Reduce Fares and Build More

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.

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Pinellas Transit in Trouble

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.”

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Another Inane Low-Capacity Rail Plan

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.

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