Tag Archives: light rail

Tilting at Straw Men

So, your proposal to build light rail in Nashville has been slammed both locally and nationally. What do you do? Why, expand the proposal, increasing the expense from $5.2 to $5.6 billion.

You also defend your plan by setting up straw-men arguments against it and attacking those arguments rather than the valid criticisms of light rail. According to “transit skeptics,” says Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, “transit ridership has been declining for decades nationally, Nashville lacks the density for light rail and the rise autonomous vehicles is the answer for Nashville’s traffic.”

She responds that transit ridership has grown considerably since 1995. But, in fact, no one ever argued that transit ridership has been declining for decades. What they (or, in fact, I) argued was that per capita transit ridership has been declining for decades, which it has; that total transit ridership has been declining since 2014; and that the trends that are causing it to decline are not likely to change. Continue reading

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Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?

The collective stupidity of politicians and transportation agencies can be breathtaking. As of 2015, Boston’s transit system had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. But, instead of fixing it, the MBTA has been busy planning — and planning — and planning — a new rail line it won’t be able to maintain, the Green Line extension to Medford, Massachusetts.

Planning began, in fact, before 2005, which is the date of the project’s major investment study, which projected that it would cost $390 million. There’s been a little cost escalation since then: it is now up to $2.3 billion. That money could have done a lot to reduce the maintenance backlog.

Did I mention that the new line uses the right of way of an existing commuter rail line? Even with free right of way, it will cost $621 million a mile. And that doesn’t count all of the tens of millions spent on planning for more than a dozen years. Continue reading

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Last Stop on the Light-Rail Gravy Train

Transit ridership is declining nationwide, yet the mayors of Nashville and San Antonio want to build multi-billion-dollar light-rail projects, notes a commentary in the Wall Street Journal. It’s behind a paywall and I might have reprinted it here, but I signed a four-page agreement that the Journal would have exclusive rights to it for 30 days.

However, the article’s subheadline, which I didn’t write, sums it up perfectly: “Mayors want new lines that won’t be ready for a decade,” observed the headline writer. “Commuters will be in driverless cars by then.”

Within the 800 words allowed for an ordinary op-ed, there wasn’t room for a lot of other points:

  • the cost overruns;
  • the ridership overestimates;
  • the implicit racism in spending billions to attract a few white people out of their cars while cutting bus service to minority neighborhoods;
  • the way almost any transit that operates in or crosses streets adds more to congestion than it takes cars off the road;
  • the fact that most rail lines have been built mainly to get “free” federal money; and
  • the fact that Nashville’s only rail transit today, the Music City Star, still carries only about 550 daily round trips, and it would have been less expensive to give every one of those daily round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every other year for as long as they operate the train.

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Dallas Light Rail a “Knife in Our Back”

A new report on transportation equity demonstrates that Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s zeal to build the largest light-rail system in America has harmed the city’s low-income population. While the report (really a PowerPoint show) itself is fairly mild in tone, the interpretation by Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze is anything but moderate.

DART light-rail lines, “built at costs in the billions, reach up into Carrollton, Plano and Rowlett — suburban areas that need light rail like they a ski lift,” says Schutze. Meanwhile, “DART does an appalling job of providing mass transit to inner-city, low-wage workers who need it.”

Schutze makes this out to be a debate between cities vs. suburbs, compact development vs. sprawl. But really, it is a question of what is the appropriate mission for transit agencies. Outside of those few urban areas with large downtowns–New York, Chicago, and a few others–most people don’t ride or need transit, so transit agencies have to come up with some rationale for continued subsidies. At one time, that rationale was that poor people needed mobility too. But now, most poor people have cars, so today the rationale is the need to get middle-class people out of their evil automobiles. Continue reading

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This Is Why Cap-and-Trade Is Stupid

Despite the fact that Los Angeles voters agreed to spend $120 billion on light rail and related transportation projects last November, the region’s transit agency, Metro, says it has a $280 million shortfall in extending its Gold light-rail line 12.4 miles to Montclair. Cap-and-trade to the rescue! Members of the state legislature representing the area have proposed to use cap-and-trade funds to fill the gap.

The cap-and-trade or emissions trading system allows people to spend money buying the right to emit greenhouse gases, and the state uses that money to do things that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The result is a more efficient allocation of resources than if the state were to simply order everyone to reduce emissions by an arbitrary amount.

So spending cap-and-trade revenues on light rail would make sense if light rail reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But does it? According to page 4.9-33 of the supplemental environmental impact report for the project, the line would actually increase emissions. But that’s okay, says the report, because “the project would contribute less than 0.00001% to the GHG burden for the planet.” Continue reading

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No to Las Vegas Light Rail

The Antiplanner is in San Antonio, the nation’s largest city not to have fallen for the rail-transit hoax. In fact, San Antonio is the epitome of a 21st-century city, since it does not pretend to have a huge downtown–only 6 percent of the region’s jobs are located in the downtown area.

Another 21st-century city, Las Vegas, has also escaped any publicly funded rail transit but some would like to change that. The Antiplanner commented on this proposal a couple of months ago, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a similar commentary yesterday. I hope that city can avoid the mistakes made by Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake.

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Purple Line Losers

Travelers and taxpayers both lose as Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao caved in to Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan and Democratic Congressional delegation by approving federal funding for the Purple Line. As Antiplanner readers know, the state’s own transportation analysis found that the Purple Line will dramatically increase congestion in Montgomery County suburbs of Washington DC, while the $5.6 billion cost represents exactly $5.6 billion that could have been spent to better effect on just about anything else: buses, roads, schools, or health care, to name a few things.

Administration officials justified the decision by saying that the project was too far along to cancel and the planned public-private partnership was something that President Trump wants to encourage. But, in this case at least, the public-private partnership does not save any money or produce any better service; it is merely a way of avoiding debt limits because the debt from the project will be on the books of the private partner, not the public agency.

As for being too far along to stop, every project on FTA’s New Starts and Small Starts list has already received some federal money for engineering and design work. The Department of Transportation recently told Durham to go ahead with engineering work on its light-rail project, so it too will presumably reach the point where it is “too far along” to stop. Continue reading

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The Benefits of Light Rail

The Millennials favorite city, Portland, is showing just how well light rail works in reducing congestion. Which is to say, it’s not working at all.

According to a new report from the Oregon Department of Transportation, between 2013 and 2015 the population of the Portland area grew by 3.0 percent, but the daily miles of driving grew by 5.5 percent. Since the number of freeway lane miles grew by only 1.0 percent, the number of hours roads are congested grew by 13.6 percent and the number of hours people are stuck in traffic grew by 22.6 percent. Many roads are now congested for six hours a day.

I’m not sure where those new freeway lane miles are supposed to be unless they resulted from expanding the region’s urban-growth boundary. Except for reconstruction of part of state highway 217–which wasn’t counted in the above numbers–there hasn’t been any new freeway additions in Portland since the 1970s. Instead, the region has been putting all of its spare dollars into light rail and streetcars. Continue reading

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A Reporter Rode Denver’s Airport Light Rail–And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

Here’s a heartwarming story of a man who rode Denver’s airport light rail once, and it worked for him, so now he wants everyone in his Virginia city to pay higher taxes to build light rail to the local airport in case he might want to ride it again someday. How thoughtful and touching.

Of course, there are a few problems with his story. First, what he rode wasn’t light rail, which averages about 20 miles per hour; instead, he rode a commuter train that averages 38 miles per hour. So if he manages to persuade people in Virginia to build light rail to his local airport, he will get something far inferior to what he rode in Denver.

Second, the writer is guilty of survivorship bias, which is an assumption that because something worked for him, it will work for everyone else. But the Denver airport train doesn’t work for everyone else, partly because it is unreliable and partly because transit is slow for anyone who isn’t near an airport line station. Continue reading

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Dallas Area Rapid Transit Regroups

Dallas has spent more than $5 billion (more than $8 billion in today’s dollars) building the nation’s longest light-rail system, and has very little to show for it. In 1991, just before Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) began building its first light-rail line, the region’s transit systems (including Ft. Worth and various suburban lines) carried 19.4 transit trips per capita. That’s not much, but it’s more than they carry today: despite having 93 miles of light rail and a 34-mile commuter-rail line, the region carries just 14.1 trips per capita.

At first, the public seemed to respond to the light rail. In 1995, the year before it opened, DART buses carried 44 million trips. By 2001, with 23 miles of light rail, buses plus light rail carried more than 60 million trips. Per capita ridership peaked in that year at 20.1 trips.

Ridership continued to grow and reached 75 million trips in 2004. But it wasn’t keeping up with population growth, as trips per capita had fallen back down to 19. After the financial crisis, DART bus and light-rail ridership fell to 55 million and today has only partially recovered to 66 million. One reason for the decline was financial: vehicle miles of bus service have fallen by nearly 10 percent since 2005. Continue reading

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