Tag Archives: light rail

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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Free Rides Today

The Oregonian was writing metaphorically when it reported last Tuesday that Portland’s low-capacity trains were “knocked off track by expensive, deferred maintenance.” By Friday, it was no longer a metaphor, as a light-rail car derailed near downtown, shutting down much of the system for several hours.

Transit commuters complained that they were given no information about the shutdown and many waited in increasing frustration as stations became more and more crowded. To make matters worse, the elevator at the Hollywood station, about one station away from the derailment, stopped working as well.

As a “thank you for your patience,” TriMet has announced all rides on its low-capacity trains will be free today.

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Red Ink Pinellas

The Cato Institute has published a new paper on Greenlight Pinellas, or, as I prefer to call it, Red Ink Pinellas. As previously mentioned in the Antiplanner, this is a plan to spend $1.7 billion building a light-rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, Florida and boost local bus service by 70 percent.

The paper reveals that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which is pushing for light rail, has a poor track record of spending. From 1991 to 2005, it increased bus service by 46 percent but saw a 17 percent drop in passenger miles. Then the recession forced it to cut bus service by 5 percent, yet ridership grew by 9 percent. Given this history, boosting bus service is likely to result in a lot of empty buses. Meanwhile, the agency projects that so few people will ride its light rail that it will only need to run one-car trains.

When compared with bus-rapid transit, the cost of getting one person out of their car and onto the proposed light-rail line is projected to be $50. That means getting one person who currently commutes by car to switch to light rail would cost more than buying that person a new 5-series BMW every year, or a new Tesla class S every other year, for the next 30 years.

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Portland Transit Implodes

Here’s a story by the Oregonian‘s intrepid reporter, Joseph Rose that has it all: deferred maintenance, delayed trains, $950 million in unfunded retirement benefits, transit cuts and fare increases, secret pay raises to transit agency executives, an angry transit union, and a plan to move transit riders on buses around rail work that “basically imploded.”


Worn pavement and light-rail switch near Portland’s Lloyd Center. Photo from Max FAQs.

The Antiplanner has repeatedly harped on the fact that rail transit infrastructure basically lasts only 30 years and then must be replaced, often at greater expense (even after adjusting for inflation) than the original construction cost. Part of the cost is dealing with the interruptions in service that are almost inevitable when replacing rails, wires, and other fixed hardware.

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Rapid Bus Failed, So Build Light Rail

One of the conclusions of the Antiplanner’s recent paper on rapid buses was that regions that had fewer than 40,000 downtown jobs didn’t need rapid buses, much less light rail. Austin has about 72,000 downtown jobs, but rapid bus isn’t working well there either.

One reason can be found in census numbers, specifically table B08141 of the American Community Survey. For 2012, this table reports that just 2.2 percent of Austin workers live in households that lack access to an automobile, yet 28 percent of them drive alone to work and 12 percent carpool, while only 25 percent take transit to work. In other words, as I’ve noted for other urban areas, transit is just not relevant to most people.

In March of this year, Austin’s MetroRapid bus attracted nearly 6,500 trips per day. This declined to 5,900 in April and 5,300 in April, rising slightly to just under 5,500 in June.

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Streetcar and Light-Rail Boondoggles

Kansas City voters rejected a plan to build an extensive streetcar system. The city already has plans to build a short “starter” line, and the mayor wanted to build more. But voters agreed that buses were cheaper and more sensible. This is the ninth time Kansas City voters have rejected rail transit.

Meanwhile, the Antiplanner has given several presentations in the Twin Cities about rail transit and associated land-use planning. These presentations can be downloaded, with a summary of my narration in the “notes” section, as either Zip files that include several short videos or smaller PowerPoint files that leave out the videos.

  • Presentation to the SW Metro Tea Party: Zip file (111 MB) or PPT file (32 MB)
  • Presentation to Daytons Bluff neighborhood: Zip file (82 MB) or PPT file (39 MB)
  • Presentation to Metro North Chamber of Commerce: Zip file (98 MB) or PPT file (15 MB)
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Obsolete Rail Line Opens in Virginia

To great fanfare, the DC Silver Line opened from Tysons Center to East Falls Church, Virginia. Although the news reports mentioned the cost–nearly $47,000 per foot or more than $3,900 per inch–a lot of other things were left unsaid.


The Silver Line will displace trains on the Orange and Blue lines, which are already being used at capacity. Click for a larger view.

Facts such as:

  • The transit agency that will operate it, WMATA, wanted an affordable bus-rapid transit line;
  • The cost doubled after the decision was made to build it;
  • Silver Line trains will displace Orange and Blue line trains that are now running full;
  • WMATA can’t afford to maintain the system it has, much less one that is even bigger;

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Because Exclusive Bus Lanes Aren’t Expensive Enough

Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.


These lanes are exclusively dedicated to buses, but transit agency officials say they need to replace them with light rail because there is no room to run more than one bus every eight minutes.

Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.

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