The Antiplanner has often said that New York City is the one city in America that truly needs rail transit because the concentration of jobs in midtown and downtown Manhattan is too great to be served by surface streets alone. But can New York afford rail transit? The city’s transit system has been getting by on bridge tolls, loans, deferred maintenance, unfunded pension and health care obligations, and turning a blind eye to major structural problems with its rail system.
The New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) latest financial statement says that, at the end of 2016, the agency had long-term debts of $37 billion (p. 25). By now, it is above $38 billion, more than that of many small countries. The statement also says the MTA has $18 billion in unfunded pension and health-care obligations (p. 83).
Unlike some transit agencies, MTA hasn’t made public any estimates of its maintenance backlog. But its latest capital improvement program calls for spending more than $32 billion over the next five years, mostly on maintenance and rehabilitation of the subways, Long Island Railroad, and Metro North railroad. This is more of a goal than a plan, as it will require $7.5 billion in further borrowing plus getting several billion dollars from federal grantmaking programs that the administration wants to cut. Even if fully funded, it probably would not completely eliminate the rail systems’ maintenance deficits. Continue reading
The Antiplanner is in Philadelphia today for the World Metrorail Congress. Apparently, one of the conference organizers thought it would be a good idea to have the Antiplanner debate University of Pennsylvania Professor Vukan Vuchic about the future of transit. Needless to say, I will take the position that its future is very short.
As the Antiplanner has previously noted, claims that transit ridership grew in 2014 and 2015 obscured the fact that all of that growth was accounted for by the New York City subway. But subway ridership declined in 2016, contributing to a 2.3 percent decline in nationwide transit ridership.
The drop in the Big Apple’s subway ridership was only 0.8 percent, but unlike most cities where transit fares bring in less than 20 percent of operating costs, the subway covers 60 percent of its operating costs with fares. So even a small decline hurts a lot more than a bigger decline would do elsewhere.
Money is particularly crucial now, as the subway and other New York transit systems have become increasingly unreliable. It is so bad that some transit riders have sued New York City transit for failing to provide safe and reliable service. Continue reading
That well-known fake-news site, the New York Times, has once again published a report claiming that transit hubs are a “growing lure for developers.” The Times published a similar story eight years ago, and the Antiplanner quickly found that every single development mentioned in that story was subsidized with tax-increment financing (TIF) and other government support.
So has anything changed since then? Nope. The first development mentioned in the recent story by Times reporter Joe Gose is Assembly Row, in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Is it subsidized? Yes, with at least $25 million in TIF along with other state funds.
Then Gose mentions Chicago’s Fulton Market, downtown Kansas City, Austin, and Denver’s RiNo neighborhood. Fulton Market just happened to receive at least $42 million in support from the city of Chicago, much of which comes from TIF. Continue reading
The Federal Transit Administration released is annual recommendations for 2018 federal capital grants to local transit projects, a.k.a. New Starts report. Usually, the report went through all sorts of gyrations rating each projects by various criteria.
This year, the criteria, or rather criterion, was simple. Had the FTA already agreed to fund the project with what is known as a full-funding grant agreement, or FFGA? If yes, then the project would be funded. If no, it would not be funded.
Yet a footnote indicated two exceptions: “The FFGA for the Caltrain Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project is planned to be signed shortly and the Maryland National Capital Purple Line FFGA remains under review due to pending litigation.” Yet neither of these exceptions should be made. Continue reading
The governor of Virginia has asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood to figure out how to fix the Washington Metro rail system. That’s a little like asking someone who blew up your house to figure out how to rebuild it.
LaHood is proud of the role he played in getting the Silver Line built. Yet that line caused many of the problems Metro is facing today, all of which were known when the decision was made to build it. Most important, long before LaHood was secretary, Metro knew it needed billions of dollars to rehabilitate its system. Instead of finding the money to do that, LaHood insisted they build a new rail line. In addition, because the Silver Line merges with the Blue Line, which was running at capacity, they had to reduce service on the Blue Line and may have lost more Blue Line riders than they gained on the Silver Line.
Now Metro is on the hunt for funds to reduce some of its $25 billion maintenance backlog. LaHood thinks he’s going to find a consensus for how to do that, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that someone else should pay for it. With Republicans in control of Congress and fiscal conservatives in control of the Republican Party, the federal government isn’t going to pay for it, but neither Maryland nor Virginia want to pay for it either. Continue reading
After more than a year of shut-downs, slow-downs, and break-downs, the Washington Metro rail system still faces a huge maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, rail opponents in Hawaii placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post begging President Trump to cancel funding for that city’s increasingly expensive rail project.
Click image to download a PDF of this ad.
The 20-mile Honolulu line was originally projected to cost $2.8 billion. Then it rose to $3.0 billion. By the time construction began, the projected cost rose to $5.1 billion. Now, the Federal Transit Administration says the final cost may be more than $10 billion. Although the agency denies the cost will be that high, it admits it doesn’t have enough money to finish the project. The federal government agreed to cover $1.5 billion and has paid half of that. The ad implores Trump not to pay the other half.
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.