As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?”
The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.
Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading
If anywhere is a poster child for the effects of light rail on economic development, it is downtown Sacramento. Sacramento was one of the first American cities to build a modern light-rail line, opening its original 10-mile line in 1987 just a year after Portland’s. Since then it has extended that line and built two more, all of which go downtown, for a total system that is 45 miles long (compared with 60 miles in Portland).
Downtown Sacramento is mostly low-rise buildings with a few scattered high rises. Flickr photo by Sacramento Real Estate Photography.
As the capital of the nation’s most populous and possibly richest state, Sacramento is no small town. The urban area had 1.8 million people in 2015, slightly less than Portland and slightly more than San Jose. The city itself had half a million people, more than Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis. Continue reading
After holding a final public hearing last night, officials in Durham, North Carolina will probably decide next week to build a $3.3 billion ($2.4 billion construction plus $900 million interest on debt) light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. It is hard to imagine any place that is more poorly suited for rail transit.
The region’s population density is less than 2,000 people per square mile. Except for the universities, there are no real concentrations of jobs. The biggest job center in the region, Research Triangle Park, has about 50,000 jobs spread out over 11 square miles, but it isn’t even on the proposed light-rail line. To make matters worse, the proposed 17.7-mile rail route is so circuitous that someone on a fat-tire bicycle could probably beat the train by taking a shorter route.
Today, Denver’s Regional Transit District is celebrating the opening of a new 10.5-mile light-rail line in Aurora, Denver’s largest suburb. Part of the only planned rail route in Denver that isn’t focused on downtown, the line–which holds the distinction of already having killed a pedestrian before it even opened–is supposed to allow people at the Denver Tech Center, a large employment center in south Denver, to get to the airport without going all the way downtown first.
The green dashed line, known as the R line, opens today. Click image for a larger view.
The problem with this idea is that light rail is s l o w. The new line will average 16.5 miles per hour. Getting from Belleview, one of the Tech Center stations, to the airport by rail transit will require a change of trains in Peoria. The R-line is expected to take 45 minutes to get from Belleview to Peoria, and the A-line takes another 21 minutes from Peoria to the airport. Add to that up to an hour of wait time–both trains operate on 15-minute headways during rush hour and every 30 minutes the rest of the day–and you have a trip that can’t compete with driving, which takes just 26 minutes from the Tech Center to the airport. Plus, the Tech Center is so large that many offices are not within easy walking distance of a light-rail stop.
When the Antiplanner spoke in Norfolk two years ago, my opening line was “They should call it lie rail because everything about light rail is a lie.” The proponents of building light rail in Virginia Beach have certainly proven that to be true.
Above is an advertisement for the ballot measure. In addition to saying, “Reduce Traffic Congestion,” which it won’t do, it says, “Connect the Oceanfront, ODU [Old Dominion University], Airport & Naval Base.” Yet the ballot measure proposes to increase local property taxes to build a three-mile, $300 million light-rail line that won’t go to any of those places. They say they have long-term plans to build extensions to those places, but they also say that don’t plan to come back and ask for more tax increases.
The Wall Street Journal suggests that a light-rail line that is on next week’s ballot in Virginia Beach would end up being “empty trains to nowhere.” That’s based on the fact that the existing Norfolk light-rail line that this one would connect with is one of the emptiest in the country with the highest subsidy per rider. The only problem with the Journal‘s article is that it doesn’t acknowledge the much larger light-rail boondoggles on the ballot in Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities.
As it happens, the Antiplanner is flying to Virginia Beach today to participate in an open forum about the light-rail proposal. The forum will take place Wednesday evening. If you are in the Hampton Roads area, I hope to see you there. In the meantime, due to the length of the flight, I may not have a chance to post here tomorrow.
Thirty-five years ago, San Diego kicked off the light-rail fad when it opened the San Diego Trolley, the nation’s first modern light-rail line. The city paid $18.1 million for the right of way and $87.5 million to build 13.5 miles of rail line. Two years later, they double-tracked the line bringing the total cost, including right of way, to $137.35 million, or just slightly more than $10 million a mile. In today’s dollars, that would be $23 million a mile.
Now San Diego is planning a new light-rail line that will cost a mere $2.17 billion for 10.9 miles of line, or slightly less than $200 million a mile–and that’s only if there are no cost overruns. That’s more than eight times the cost per mile of the first line. Ridership is likely to be no greater and probably less than the first line. Despite the high cost, the Federal Transit Administration has agreed to fund half the cost.
What is it about transit planners that they see nothing wrong with this kind of cost escalation? Transit advocates claim that transportation spending has multiplier effects that generate net benefits for the economy. But considerable academic research suggests that the government multiple is negative (or, depending on your formula, less than one), meaning every dollar of government spending translates to less than a dollar of additional gross national product (or national wealth). The truth about the multiplier effect probably depends on what the government spends its money on, but billions spent on low-capacity rail lines almost certainly have negative multipliers.
Seattle’s regional transit agency, Sound Transit, wants voters to approve a tax increase so it can spend another $54 billion on new light-rail lines. The agency’s first light-rail line went 86 percent over its original projections, but the agency assures the public that it has realized that voters are so innumerate that it no longer needs to low-ball the cost estimates in order to get tax increases approved.
To promote its plan, the agency has hired Peter “Paint Is Cheaper Than Rails” Rogoff to run the agency and get federal grants. Rogoff argued in 2010 that buses can attract as many riders as trains, and that “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.” Of course, he must believe that rail makes more sense than buses for Seattle, or he wouldn’t have taken this $298,000 per year job (a $118,000 increase over his previous job), right?
Seattle’s first light-rail line cost $3.1 billion in 1995 dollars, or $4.8 billion in today’s dollars for about 20 miles, for an average cost of $240 million a mile. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, out of nearly 1.6 million commuters, a respectable 160,000 took the bus to work in the Seattle urban area in 2014 but fewer than 3,000 took light rail while another 7,500 took commuter rail or streetcars to work. It’s possible that some survey respondents were confused and marked streetcar or commuter rail when they meant light rail, but it is still an insignificant number.
Judge Richard Leon apparently invalidated Maryland’s Purple Line project just in time to prevent the Federal Transit Administration from giving the Maryland Transit Authority nearly a billion dollars for construction. Naturally, rail supporters are outraged by his decision.
The Washingtonian, for example, calls the decision “ridiculous” because it was based on declining Metro rail ridership and “the Purple Line will not be part of Metro.” But the article admits that 27 percent of the projected Purple Line riders will be transfers to or from Metro, so if Metro ridership declines, the Purple Line’s will as well.
The National Environmental Policy Act is supposed to be a procedural law, the Washingtonian complains, so why is Judge Leon allowing substantive issues such as ridership influence his decision? The author of this piece is obviously not an attorney and probably didn’t even read Judge Leon’s decision, or he would understand that getting the numbers right, as the judge demands, is procedural. He might also be able to read between the lines of the decision and see that Leon realizes this project is a turkey, and is using ridership as just the most obvious reason to overturn the decision to build the low-capacity rail line.
A federal judge has vacated the decision to build the Purple light-rail line in suburban Washington, DC, effectively delaying and possibly halting the project. Judge Richard Leon’s decision said that “recent revelations regarding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s ridership and safety concerns” had persuaded him that projected ridership numbers for the Purple Line were overly optimistic.
Some Purple Line stations were planned next to Metro Rail stations and projections for light-rail ridership depended partly on the continued growth of Metro Rail ridership. But, largely due to safety issues, Metro Rail ridership has declined every year since 2009, noted Judge Leon, and this meant that the Purple Line ridership numbers, which were calculated in 2009, would probably be lower as well.
“WMATA and the FTA’s cavalier attitude toward these recent developments raises troubling concerns about their competence as stewards of nearly a billion dollars of the federal taxpayers’ funds,” wrote the judge. The Purple Line would be built and operated by the Maryland Transit Authority, not WMATA, but, the Judge Leon noted, this doesn’t mean that declining Metro ridership wouldn’t have an impact on Purple Line ridership.