Tag Archives: rail transit

Transit Today: Marketing Over Mobility

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.

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Honolulu Boondoggle Recovery Plan

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

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Can New York Afford Rail Transit?

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

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New York City Transit Deteriorates

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

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Fake News from the New York Times

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

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FTA New Starts Report for 2018

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

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The Secretary of Immobility Is Back

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

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The Rail Transit Money Pit

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.

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A Cornerstone of Rational Urban Planning

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.

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