Tag Archives: low-capacity rail

This Just In: Light Rail Fails to Relieve Congestion

The Los Angeles Time seems surprised to report that Los Angeles’ 9-mile-long Expo Line has failed to relieve congestion in the corridor it serves. Rail and bus boardings increased about 6 percent after the line opened in 2012 (at least some of which would be due to transfers of passengers from bus to rail who previously could go the entire distance of their journey by bus), but the rail line had no “significant or consistent impact” on auto traffic.

Many people believe rail transit depends on population density, and if so then the Expo Line should be a perfect candidate, as the area it serves has 26,000 people per square mile (about the same as New York City and nearly ten times the average urban density in the United States). On one hand, even that’s not dense enough for rail to attract a lot of riders. On the other hand, light rail is really low-capacity transit, so is truly the wrong solution for areas of high transit demand.

As the L.A. Times observes in other articles, rail does benefit some people. First, it gives perverts opportunities to engage in anonymous sexual harassment. Second, it gives politicians opportunities to spend a lot of money: with the prompting of Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles is considering spending billions of dollars on six more rail lines.

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More Lies in Light Rail

Phoenix voters will decide next month whether to extend the current transit sales tax (set to expire in 2020) through 2050 and increase it by 75 percent (from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent). This would supposedly be enough to fund at least three more light-rail lines plus several bus-rapid transit lines.


According to Valley Metro, this beautiful vacant lot across the street from a light-rail station is Escala on Camelback, a mixed-use development with 160 condos and 15,000 square feet of retail space that was supposed to be completed in Fall, 2010. It remains vacant today.

The big argument from rail advocates is that Phoenix’s first light-rail line, which opened in December, 2008, generated $7 billion in economic development. Not so much. A new report from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club shows that the light rail generated very little, if any, new development.

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Red Light for Red, Yellow Light for Purple

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced Thursday that he was cancelling Baltimore’s Red light-rail line while approving suburban Washington’s Purple Line. However, that approval comes with a caveat that could still mean the wasteful transit project will never be built.

The latest cost estimate for the Purple Line is nearly $2.5 billion for a project that, if done with buses, would cost less than 2 percent as much. The Purple Line finance plan calls for the federal government to put up $900 million, the state to immediately add $738 million, and then for the state to borrow another $810 million.

Instead, Governor Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million to the project, and that local governments–meaning, mainly, Montgomery County but also Prince Georges County–will have to come up with the rest. It isn’t clear from press reports whether Hogan is willing to commit Maryland taxpayers to repay $810 million worth of loans, but it is clear that local taxpayers will have to pay at least half a billion dollars more than they were expecting.

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Does Las Vegas Need High-Cost, Low-Capacity Transit?

Las Vegas’ Regional Transportation Commission is considering the idea of building a light-rail subway under the Las Vegas strip. Unlike most roads, congestion on the strip does not happen during morning and afternoon rush hours but on weekends and evenings when tourists tire of gambling in their own hotels and decide to explore some of the other hotels on the strip.

The strip is already served by an expensive monorail that was privately funded by a firm that has since gone bankrupt. Plus there are numerous private and public buses that run up and down the strip.

Comments to this and other articles claim that the monorail failed because it didn’t go to the airport and because its route behind the hotels offers such pleasant scenery as blank walls and dumpsters. But the fact that hotels didn’t want to mar their public facades with an elevated train–and some hotels didn’t want the monorail at all because they didn’t want to encourage their guests to escape–explains some of the problems facing any potential rail line. Las Vegas has a thriving, for-profit airport shuttle system that avoids congestion by using back streets, so replacing that with a subsidized rail line is totally unnecessary.

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A New Definition of Insanity

An insanely expensive light-rail project in Minnesota just got more insane. The cost of the Southwest light-rail line, which had previously been estimated at $1.65 billion for 15.7 miles, or just over $100 million a mile, is now estimated to cost $341 million more, or just shy of $2 billion. That’s $126 million a mile, or more than seven times the inflation-adjusted cost of the initial San Diego Trolley, the nation’s first modern light-rail line.

Considering that freeways with many times the capacity of a light-rail line can be built for about $10 million a mile, spending more than $100 million a mile on light rail makes no sense at all. The only way people could support it is if they have no understanding of numbers, which explains why many politicians do support it. The good news is that some in Minnesota are having second thoughts about the Southwest line, including Governor Mark Dayton (who professed to be “shocked and appalled,” though he doesn’t say why he wasn’t appalled at the previous price) and Metropolitan Council chair Adam Duininck.

As the Antiplanner has previously noted, Eden Prairie, the destination of this line, is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the Twin Cities area. In order to provide “transit equity,” regional transit planners have promised to build a few bus shelters in poor neighborhoods. That’s so equitable.

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Denver’s RTD Makes the Case for Lying

Denver RTD Makes the Case for Public-Private Funding, says Progressive Railroading. In fact, Denver’s Regional Transit District is making the case for lying to the voters about everything possible in order to get as much of their money as possible.

The first lie was that FasTracks, Denver’s rail transit plan that Progressive Railroading calls “one of the largest transit expansion programs in the country,” would cost $4.7 billion. Soon after the election, RTD admitted the real cost would be $7.9 billion. Thanks to the recession, the cost has supposedly fallen to $6.9 billion, but none of these estimates include interest and other finance charges.

The second lie was that RTD would build six new light-rail or other rail lines. In order to get the support of all of the suburban mayors in the region, RTD had to promise to build all the lines at once, as mayors realized that any that were deferred to later would probably never be built. Today, RTD realizes that the Northwest line to Boulder and Longmont is just far too expensive and will carry too few riders to be worthwhile. But that applies to the rest of them too, it’s just that RTD doesn’t have enough money to build them all.

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Todd Litman Misses the Point

Denver’s light rail hit and critically injured another pedestrian last week, temporarily shutting down most of the city’s light-rail trains. Meanwhile, transit apologist Todd Litman calls the Antiplanner’s assessment of light-rail dangers “a good example of bad analysis.” Light rail is more dangerous than cars and buses, he says, only because “light rail transit only operates in dense city centers where there are frequent interactions between various road users.” He suggests that cars and buses “might” be nearly as dangerous in similar situations.

The argument that “light-rail only operates in dense city centers” is questionable, but even if it were true, cars are still safer in those areas, which Litman could have learned by checking available data from the Department of Transportation. Highway Statistics table FI-220 lists highway fatalities by road type. Table VM-2 lists vehicle miles of travel by road type. We can divide through to compare fatality rates per billion miles of travel. Most of the vehicle miles are cars and light trucks containing an average of 1.67 people per vehicle (table 16).

The data show that motor vehicle accidents kill about 6.8 people per billion passenger miles on local urban streets, the most dangerous streets in urban areas. Urban collectors have only 3.6 fatalities per billion passenger miles; freeways just 2.5 to 2.8; and other arterials 4.6 to 5.9. All of these are well below light rail’s 12.5 fatalities per billion passenger miles. Commuter rail, incidentally, has 8.7 fatalities per billion passenger miles, while heavy rail and buses both work out to 4.5 fatalities per 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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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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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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