One of the bright spots amid the overall decline in 2016 transit ridership was Southwest Transit, a small transit agency connecting Eden Prairie and other communities with downtown Minneapolis. The agency carried 77,000 more bus riders in 2016 than 2015, a 7 percent increase.
Many of its bus routes would be replaced by, or at least have to compete with, the region’s Southwest light-rail line, which is currently projected to cost $1.9 billion. This would be a part of the same light-rail system that lost 40,000 riders in 2016. If built, it is clear that the Southwest light rail would take many of its riders from Southwest Transit, which costs far less to operate.
Metro Transit, which runs Twin Cities light rail and many of its buses (but not Southwest Transit buses) is responding to the decline in ridership by raising fares, which is a sure-fire way to cause ridership to decline even further. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton has proposed to spend $4 million on a “demonstration project” extending the Northstar commuter-rail line to St. Cloud. That’s the commuter-rail line that spent more than $17 million on operations and maintenance in 2015 to collect less than $2.5 million in fares from just 1,274 daily round-trip riders. It carried 11,000 fewer riders in 2016, so daily round-trip riders fell to about 1,250.
When Elaine Chao was confirmed as Secretary of Transportation, rail advocacy groups were optimistic that she and the administration would look favorably towards more funding for rail “infrastructure.” So when Trump’s budget came out, they were shocked, or pretended to be shocked, that Trump proposed cuts to transit, Amtrak, and TIGER grants carried over from the 2009 stimulus program.
Transit cuts were part of Trump’s “attack on cities,” said urbanist Yonah Freemark. No, it was more like part of Trump’s hostility to pouring money down a rathole that produces no benefits.
As the Antiplanner explains in this op-ed in the Morning Consult, New Starts funding is worse than trying to create jobs by digging holes and filling them up. At least the holes, once filled, don’t impose any further obligations on society, but cities that build New Starts projects are legally obligated to continue operating and maintaining the projects for decades. Most of these projects have high costs and negligible benefits.
The latest issue of the Journal of Public Transport, which is published by the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida, has several articles relevant to bus-rapid transit and the debate between buses and rail. In general, the articles support the notion that buses are an adequate if not superior substitute to rail in many situations.
Click image to download the complete issue (9.8-MB); click the links in this post to download individual articles.
One article compares the accuracy of bus-rapid transit cost and ridership forecasts and finds that cost forecasts are much more reliable than for rail, while ridership forecasts may need some work. Of 19 BRT projects considered, only two went significantly over their projected cost, while two others cost less than 90 percent of their projected cost.
San Antonio, notes Texas Public Radio, is “the largest city in the country without a rail system to move” its residents. As a result, the article implies, people are “stuck behind the wheel,” and the article’s headline asks, “Should San Antonio Reconsider Rail?”
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, of course, suggests that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But more important, the article is guilty of the Politician’s Fallacy, which is: “1. We have to do something [in this case, about congestion]. 2. This [rail] is something. 3. We have to do this [build rail].”
Before jumping to any conclusions, San Antonians should ask how well rail is moving people in other cities. The first point to note is that, when TPR says that San Antonio is the largest city not to have rail, there are only six larger cities to consider. We don’t think of San Antonio is being the nation’s seventh-largest city, but it is true because Texas cities have strong annexations powers, so tend to be much larger than cities elsewhere. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are also among the nation’s eleven largest cities.
Washington Metro has been interrupting service for various “safety surges” (they call them “surges” because it sounds better than “slowdowns”), but according to the Federal Transit Administration it has a lot more work to do. The FTA says that the rail system’s power supply is “in a deteriorated condition” and the tunnels and tracks have numerous defects that haven’t even all been identified, much less put on the schedule to be fixed.
Not surprisingly, the American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report reveals that Metro ridership in the second quarter of 2016 was 11.5 percent less than the same quarter the year before. As the Antiplanner has previously noted, this decline took place before the delays caused by the maintenance work, so most of it is because people have found other means of transportation due to Metro Rail’s low reliability.
Washington is not alone. Rail rapid transit systems in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia are just as bad off, and New York’s and San Francisco’s aren’t far behind. APTA’s president even issued a rather desperate-sounding op-ed begging for money to repair obsolete and dying forms of transportation.
When Denver’s new airport rail line experienced severe glitches shortly after it opened, including malfunctioning crossing gates and a lightning strike that shut down the entire line for seven hours, among other problems, transit officials assured the public that they were just getting the bugs out of the system. But now, more than six months after it opened, the bugs are still thriving.
The crossing gate problem is so severe that the Federal Transit Administration has threatened to shut down the line until it is corrected. The contractor that built and operates the line tried to claim the lightning strike was an act of God, so the contractor shouldn’t be held responsible, but Regional Transit District officials responded that they had pointed out the company’s design was vulnerable to lightning as early as 2013, yet the company did nothing to fix the flaw. Meanwhile, the system continues to perform unreliably.
Now RTD has been forced to admit that two other lines being built by the same company won’t open on time. RTD claims that it saved money by entering into a public-private partnership for the line in what is known as a “design-build-operate” contract. In fact, it saved no money at all, but was merely getting around a bond limit the voters had imposed on the agency. If the private contractor borrows a billion dollars or so and RTD agrees to pay the contractor enough to repay the loan, the debt doesn’t appear on RTD’s books. Taxpayers will still end up paying interest in the loans, which actually makes it more expensive than if RTD had stayed within its debt limit.
The Federal Transit Administration has informed Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) that it will not help cover cost overruns associated with the agency’s 20-mile rail line. The project was originally supposed to cost about $5.1 billion, which was already ridiculously expensive, but now is projected to cost at least $8 billion and possibly as much as $11 billion.
The FTA has a long-standing policy that it won’t help cover cost overruns (a policy that is sometimes overturned by Congress). But in this case, the FTA has added a new twist. In light of the cost overruns, HART has proposed to build just part of the project, leaving uncompleted the five miles of the line that would have attracted the most riders. But the FTA says that, in that case, it won’t be giving HART $1.55 billion that the agency is counting on. That means HART won’t even be able to complete the part of the project that it planned.
HART says it is examining its alternatives and hopes to have a viable proposal before FTA by the end of the year. But it probably isn’t looking closely at the most reasonable alternative, which is to completely abandon the project. While it has already sunk several billion into it, abandoning it would save taxpayers billions more in construction costs not to mention an estimated $126 million a year in operating costs. Since the city of Honolulu spends less than $185 million per year operating about 100 bus routes, $125 million is a phenomenal amount of money to spend on just one rail route.
Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.
Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.
A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.
The Federal Transit Administration’s latest estimates suggest that the Honolulu rail line now under construction could cost nearly $10.8 billion, or more than twice the $5.1 billion originally promised. That’s the “highest possible cost” calculated by its estimation process, while the “likely range” is $7.2 to $8.0 billion. However, two years ago, the highest possible cost was estimated to be $7.6 billion, which is right in the middle of today’s likely range.
Any of those numbers are drastic overruns. Typically, transit agency officials have denied there is an overrun. But now they are proposing to not build the last five miles of the rail line into downtown Honolulu. Since they started construction in middle of farm lands 20 miles from downtown, they would truly have a rail line going from nowhere to hardly anywhere.
Even if it doesn’t finish the line, the city has already purchased and may continue to purchase land in the downtown area for the rail line. This creates uncertainty among property owners. Even further uncertainty is generated by reports of shoddy construction. Meanwhile, the FTA has hinted it might withhold some of the federal government’s share of funding if the line isn’t completed.
Socialists “always run out of other people’s money,” said Margaret Thatcher. “It’s quite a characteristic of them.” Some of the best examples can be found in the field of passenger rail transportation.
California’s plan to pay for high-speed rail with revenues from sales of greenhouse gas cap & trade permits has hit a speed bump. The first sale, which was expected to bring in $150 million, only brought in $10 million. At that rate, it will be centuries, instead of the planned decades, before the line is built.
When Atlanta opened its streetcar line, it offered the service for free for a year. As soon as it began charging a dollar a ride, ridership dropped by nearly 50 percent. Now the state of Georgia is threatening to shut the line down because of inept management resulting from a lack of funds.