As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?”
The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.
Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading
The modern escalator was perfected 96 years ago, so when someone is spending $625 million a mile on light rail (which technology is only 80 years old), you’d think they’d at least get the escalators right. Instead, “escalator failures have become a part of the daily routine” at Seattle’s University light-rail station.
If the system were brand new, you might say they were getting the bugs out. If it were old, you might say it was wearing out. Instead, it is not quite a year old, having opened on March 19, 2016. Despite that, they don’t work. To make matters worse, they came with a one-year warranty, which has expired because installation was completed before the station opened for business.
Seattle recently voted to have some of the highest taxes in the nation going for transit. If they aren’t spending an appropriate share of this money on functioning escalators, it makes you wonder where it is going instead.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says it has found the best Seattle homes for Millennials. Judging by the paper’s suggestions, Seattle Millennials should move to Houston. Houston may not have Mt. Rainier, but it has beautiful lakes, a sea coast that is just about as nice as Washington’s (though not as nice as Oregon’s), and most important, it doesn’t have urban-growth boundaries which means it has much more affordable housing.
Click any photo to go to the listing for that property.
The P-I‘s first suggestion is a 720-square foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home on a 5,000-square-foot lot. On the plus side, the living room has hardwood floors. On the minus side, the asking price is $259,950–and if Seattle’s housing market is anything like Portland’s, it will go for more than that. At the asking price, the cost is $361 per square foot.
Seattle’s regional transit agency, Sound Transit, wants voters to approve a tax increase so it can spend another $54 billion on new light-rail lines. The agency’s first light-rail line went 86 percent over its original projections, but the agency assures the public that it has realized that voters are so innumerate that it no longer needs to low-ball the cost estimates in order to get tax increases approved.
To promote its plan, the agency has hired Peter “Paint Is Cheaper Than Rails” Rogoff to run the agency and get federal grants. Rogoff argued in 2010 that buses can attract as many riders as trains, and that “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.” Of course, he must believe that rail makes more sense than buses for Seattle, or he wouldn’t have taken this $298,000 per year job (a $118,000 increase over his previous job), right?
Seattle’s first light-rail line cost $3.1 billion in 1995 dollars, or $4.8 billion in today’s dollars for about 20 miles, for an average cost of $240 million a mile. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, out of nearly 1.6 million commuters, a respectable 160,000 took the bus to work in the Seattle urban area in 2014 but fewer than 3,000 took light rail while another 7,500 took commuter rail or streetcars to work. It’s possible that some survey respondents were confused and marked streetcar or commuter rail when they meant light rail, but it is still an insignificant number.
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.
Growth management not only makes housing more expensive, it makes housing prices more volatile. So, even though the American economy isn’t exactly booming, growth in some parts of the country is sending housing prices upwards, and housing affordability has become a battlecry in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and many other cities.
Unfortunately, it is usually the battlecry of advocates of the wrong policies. San Francisco’s affordability crisis has led to a blame game, with some blaming high housing costs on anti-development progressives (which is partly true) while other say they are solely due to due to demand, not supply (which is completely wrong). Proposed solutions include increased rent controls and inclusionary zoning, both of which would make housing less affordable in the long run.
In Seattle, someone noticed that developers were tearing down $400,000 bungalows in order to build three $600,000 condos and came to the wrong-headed conclusion that housing could be made more affordable by saving the bungalows. Yes, $400,000 is less than $600,000, but if you don’t increase the supply of houses, overall affordability will decline.
Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?
All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.
At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?
Two more rail transit lines are following in the tracks of so many others that have failed to live up to planners’ promises. First, Orlando’s SunRail commuter train is “losing riders at an increasing pace.” The project, which cost a billion dollars and was built partly to persuade the federal government that Florida was serious about supporting an Orlando-Tampa high-speed rail line, has lost 27 percent of its riders since it opened.
SunRail Fail. Flickr photo by Buddahbless.
Second, Seattle’s seven-year-old South Lake Union Transit (SLUT) streetcar has continually failed to attracted the predicted number of riders. Both the SLUT and SunRail were counting on rider fares to help pay operating costs; the SLUT’s shortfall has required repeated bailouts of the line.
Early tests reveal that the Twin Cities’ new light-rail cars require 67 minutes to go the 11 miles from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul for an average speed of 10 miles per hour. Metro Transit managers say they expect to get the time down before the line opens for service on June 14, but the 39 minutes promised on the agency’s web site seems unattainable considering they have added three stops since the line was originally planned. Even 39 minutes is less than 17 mph, hardly a breathtaking speed.
Buses currently do the same trip in a mere 26 minutes. Some people are mildly outraged that the region has spent $100 million per mile to get slower service. Too bad they weren’t outraged when the line was being planned.
Officials say that most people won’t ride the entire distance, and what really counts “is that these new Green Line passengers have a very high quality and reliable ride.” For that, they needed to spend a billion dollars.
King County Metro is having a banner year in terms of sales tax revenues, collecting $32 million, or almost 7.5 percent, more than anticipated. But the agency still petulantly plans to eliminate 72 bus routes and reduce service on 84 other routes because voters rejected a tax increase a couple of weeks ago.
The unanticipated revenue could provide half the money the agency says it needs to maintain bus service. But rather than keep the buses running, it says it will put that extra revenue in a “rainy day fund.” “Isn’t Metro’s rainy day happening right now?” asks the Washington Policy Center. In addition to using those revenues to keep some of the buses running, the Policy Center suggests that Metro cut costs by, among other things, buying regular buses instead of expensive hybrid-electric buses.
“Diesel buses are dirtier and cost more to operate,” chides a Seattle blogger. But, as the Antiplanner has documented before, the tiny cost savings from using hybrid buses comes nowhere near repaying their operating costs. Transit agencies that buy hybrid buses are letting ego blind them to the reality that hybrid buses just aren’t very efficient.