Perhaps encouraged by the Trump administration’s opposition to wasteful transit projects, it has now become popular for politicians to come out in opposition to those projects when it is clear they are boondoggles. Some of them, however, are expressing their opposition only after it is too late to stop the projects.
For example, Broward County wants to build an inane streetcar line in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Someone twisted Secretary of Transportation Chao’s arm to actually provide federal funding for the project. But when bids were opened to build it, they came in much higher than projected.
Now, all three candidates to be the next mayor of Fort Lauderdale say they oppose the streetcar. But the decision to build is in the hands of the county commission, not the city council, and the county is going to have another bid process. So it is safe for the mayor and council candidates to oppose something they can’t actually stop. Continue reading
Plagued by years of deferred maintenance, the Washington Metro system will have to undergo severe cuts in service if new funding isn’t found. General manager Paul Wiedefeld is asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to increase their F.Y. 2019 contributions to Metro by $165 million, which is more than 10 percent of what they are giving in 2018. But Wiedefeld’s hopes for a “dedicated fund,” meaning a sales tax paid by all the regions’ residents, have been dashed by Maryland’s governor, who says there is no chance of that happening before 2019.
Ridership reports indicate that rush-hour ridership has recovered since Metro ended the “safe tracks” maintenance program that delayed many trains, but off-peak ridership has not. Moreover, the rush-hour recovery has been to 2015 levels, which themselves were 4 percent lower than the system’s peak in 2008. Weekday ridership in FY 2017 was 18 percent less than in 2008.
Since a large part of this decline is due to competition from Uber, Lyft, and similar services, some are beginning to doubt whether a full recovery will ever be possible. Metro board member David Horner notes that financial reports to the board repeatedly use the phrase “unsustainable operating model,” and he suggests that the rail system may be obsolete. Wiedefeld’s efforts remind Horner of “the expression about deck chairs on the Titanic.” Continue reading
Denver’s FasTracks plan to build 119 miles of rail transit has failed, reports an article in The Hill — and you know it must be true because the Antiplanner wrote it. The rail lines went way over budget, construction is late, two of the lines that have opened have so few riders that RTD has had to reduce service, and a third line is suffering from technical problems that were solved by the private railroads more than 80 years ago. Despite, or because of, the new rail lines, the share of Denver-area commuters taking transit to work has declined from 5.4 to 4.6 percent.
All of this was totally predictable, and in fact it was predicted by Ralph Stanley, former administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration (predecessor to the Federal Transit Administration), in a speech given in Colorado in 1996 and that someone coincidentally sent me yesterday. This speech is interesting enough that I’ve reproduced it below.
Despite this clear failure, rail die hards want even more obsolete transportation in Colorado, as there is now a proposal to run trains from Ft. Collins to Pueblo. Supporters point to the fact that Albuquerque and Salt Lake City both have long-distance commuter trains, but neglect to mention that, by any reasonable measure, those trains are failures too. Continue reading
Denver’s Regional Transit District (RTD) won an award for its airport rail line. But the award was not for the line itself, which continues to suffer from technical failures more than a year after it opened, but for the agency’s marketing campaign for the train.
This is a sad commentary on the state of the nation’s transit industry: marketing is more important than mobility. Agencies have successfully marketed themselves as deserving of increased tax dollars (more than $50 billion in 2016), yet they are increasingly failing their supposed mission of improving urban mobility. RTD, for example, is under pressure to build and operate rail lines with low ridership (one carries just 1,600 a day), forcing it to cut bus routes that carry many more riders.
To discuss the future of transit in detail, next Wednesday the Antiplanner will be at the Cato Institute in Washington DC. Joining me on the platform will be Art Guzzetti, vice-president of policy with the American Public Transportation Association. While I will argue that transit’s decline is irreversible, Art–an intelligent man who previously worked for New Jersey Transit–will offer an alternative view. If you are in DC, please register and I hope to see you there. If you are not in DC, you can watch the event on livestream starting at 11 am ET.
The Honolulu Authority for Ridiculously-expensive Transit (HART) has submitted a recovery plan to the Federal Transit Administration seeking to release $1 billion in federal funds for the project. You know you are in trouble when you have to write a recovery plan for a project that isn’t even half built. Billions of dollars of cost overruns had led the FTA to question whether HART could even finish the rail line, much less operate it, and this plan seeks to answer those doubts.
The 20-mile rail line was originally projected to cost less than $3 billion, but now even HART admits that it will cost $8.2 billion ($9.0 billion including finance charges). For perspective, that’s considerably more than the projected cost of Denver’s 110-mile FasTracks program–a program that many think will never be completed because Denver Regional Transit District lacks the funds to extend one of the lines to Longmont. The Denver-Boulder area has more than three times as many people as the Honolulu urban area, so the per capita cost of Honolulu rail is several times greater.
To cover the cost overruns, Hawaii’s governor called a special session of the legislature. After rancorous debate, the legislature agreed to raise a variety of taxes to help fund the rail line. Most importantly, if you stay in a hotel in Hawaii–even if it is in Kaui, Maui, or the big island and you never visit Oahu–about 1 percent of your hotel cost will go to support the rail line, which is another good reason to try Airbnb. Continue reading
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