The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, told a Congressional committee last week that highway user fees should be dedicated to highways and any federal subsidies to transit should come out of other funds. Unfortunately, we have become so used to the idea that everything should be subsidized that advocates of transit subsidies could get away with calling Poole’s ideas “crazy talk.”
Why is it crazy to think that user fees should go to the infrastructure that the users are using? I suppose the transit lobby thinks that some of the money people pay for clothes at Wal-Mart and J.C. Penneys should go to subsidize Paris fashions. Or that some of the money people spend on ordinary groceries should subsidize gourmet restaurants.
After all, transit–at least the kind of transit these people want–is a luxury, not a necessity. They want expensive transit systems aimed at getting relatively well-off people out of their cars. To pay for these systems, they want to tax the more-than-92 percent of mostly ordinary people who have and use cars as their primary modes of transportation.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner took a quick look at the Federal Transit Administration’s 2013 New Starts program. Now the agency has released its 2014 New Starts Report, which includes eight new projects.
Four of the eight projects are bus-rapid transit, which can mean anything from running buses on existing streets to building expensive new busways. A proposed BRT in El Paso appears to be closer to the former as it is projected to cost $43 million for a 17-mile route, or less than $3 million per mile. At the other extreme, a BRT in Lansing is projected to cost $215 million for an 8.5-mile route, or more than $25 million per mile. This is undoubtedly a huge waste.
Two of the remaining four projects are extensions to existing light-rail lines. Denver proposes to spend $211 million building a 2.3-mile extension of one of its light-rail lines. At $92 million per mile, this is less than the national average for light rail, but still outrageously expensive, especially considering Denver built its first couple of light-rail lines for less than $30 million per mile.
A $112 million transit center in Silver Spring, Maryland, is years behind schedule due to serious construction flaws. After detecting the flaws, Montgomery County officials halted construction and hired en engineering firm to look at the center.
That firm’s report found that the pillars supporting the three-level center are inadequate to hold the buses that are supposed to use one of the levels; the concrete covering the steel reinforcement bars is so thin that the center will probably rust out in about 12.5 years, instead of the 50 years for which it was designed; and the center doesn’t meet fire standards.
Really, why does Silver Spring need an expensive, three-level transit center anyway? They could have fit everything they wanted in a ground-level, surface parking lot that would have cost far less than $112 million. This is simply another case of transit going for the high-cost solution to any problem.
One of the claims made by Indianapolis transit advocates was that improved transit would help the region “compete for jobs and talent.” They cited a study by a group called CEOs for Cities that found that “Young adults with a four-year degree are 94% more likely to live in close-in urban neighborhoods than their counterparts with less education.”
This is the old Richard Florida idea that cities should strive to attract the “creative class” of well-educated people that want to live in lively cities with walkable, transit-intensive neighborhoods. Ninety-four percent sounds like a big number, but let’s put this into context.
The CEOs for Cities study defined “close in” as neighborhoods near downtowns housing an average of less than 5 percent of urban area populations. “Young adults” includes people in the 25- to 34-year-old age class. The 2010 Census found that about 31.5 percent of this age class has a four-year degree or better. If this group is 94 percent more likely to live close in than their cohorts without a four-year degree, then less than 7.5 percent of young, well-educated adults live “close in.” This is less than 2.5 percent more than might be expected if the population was evenly distributed by education class.
Indygo, Indianapolis’ transit agency, offers one of the lowest levels of transit service of any urban area of its size in the Midwest–only Omaha’s is lower. The proposed Indy Connect plan calls for changing this by making a $1.3 billion capital investment and more than tripling Indygo’s operating from about $50 million to $175 million a year. A key feature of the plan is to have communities outside of Marion County–which is the current limit of Indygo’s services–join in a regional transit district.
Proponents say the plan will make Indianapolis more competitive, relieve congestion, and reduce air pollution. Yesterday, I gave a presentation arguing that the plan wouldn’t accomplish any of those goals. Instead, I urged the region and state to save money by contracting out existing transit services; legalizing private transit operations; and encouraging cities outside Marion County to start their own cross-county transit service, which would probably offer better service at a lower cost than a regional transit district could provide.
My presentation can be downloaded in several formats:
The Antiplanner is going to Indianapolis this week to talk to people about a proposed transit plan. The plan, which was written by the Chamber of Commerce rather than Indy’s transit agency, calls for creating a regional transit district (IndyGo, the city’s transit agency, only covers one county) and running several “rapid transit” lines that are billed mainly as bus-rapid transit but that might use light rail on one route where a rail right-of-way is owned by local governments.
The plan is expected to require more than $1.3 billion in capital investments, and the transit system will then require more than triple the operating subsidies–from $43 million in 2011 to $140 million when the plan is fully implemented. Of course, if they actually build a light-rail line, the total costs are likely to go much higher.
In reading through a PDF version of the plan, I was struck by a one-sentence summary of the basic justification for the plan: “A robust regional transit system is necessary to spur our region’s continued economic growth, to preserve our ability to compete for jobs and talent, and to address growing challenges with congestion and air quality compliance” (page 5).
Neil McFarlane, the general manager of Portland’s TriMet transit agency, stunned Portland-area residents recently when he warned that the agency would have to cut service by 70 percent unless unions agreed to reduced benefits in upcoming contract negotiations. When he did so, he piously noted that TriMet’s non-union managers have had a pay freeze for four years.
Turns out that pay freeze was more imaginary than real. In the last year alone, TriMet gave its managers pay increases totaling nearly $1 million. McFarlane alone received a 3 percent raise, which–considering his previous pay was $215,000 a year–means a $6,450 boost to his income.
TriMet’s financial woes are hardly new. Last year, TriMet made the largest service cuts in its history and also decided to start charging fares in what was formerly the downtown Fareless Square. Most of the streetcar line had been in Fareless Square, and as a result actual streetcar fare collections averaged less than 4 cents per reported ride.
The lies begin right in the headline of the American Public Transportation Association’s annual press release patting the industry on the back for carrying heavily subsidized riders last year. “Record 10.5 Billion Trips Taken On U.S. Public Transportation In 2012,” claims the press release headline.
The text reveals that it wasn’t actually a record at all, but merely the “second-highest ridership since 1957.” When was the first highest? In 2008, meaning the headline would have been more accurate if it had read, “Transit Ridership Falls Since 2008.”
Of course, as a lobby group, APTA is paid to promote the transit industry. Reporters are also paid to see through lobbyists’ lies, but unfortunately most of them simply modestly rewrite the press release while others add their own propaganda.
Portland’s TriMet has acquired new buses that automatically record rider conversations. It wasn’t something the agency particularly wanted; it just “came standard with the new buses,” says a spokesperson.
Under Oregon law, unless you obtain a warrant, you can’t record a conversation without the permission of all parties. Not to worry; TriMet’s buses are posted with signs warning “Security cameras with audio on board.” Apparently, TriMet considers that anyone who boards automatically consents to be recorded.
2. You’ll Make Their Lawyers Rich
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority revealed that it has paid 84 victims of the 2009 crash that killed nine people and injured dozens more a total of $1.6 million–an average of $19,000 each. At the same time, it paid its attorneys $7.5 million in fees to deal with lawsuits stemming from the crash that resulted from its own inadequate maintenance.
The Oregonianreports that drivers for TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, are taking so much overtime that many get little sleep. Paying for overtime costs taxpayers a lot of money and the lack of sleep creates hazardous situations.
This TriMet light-rail train crashed into the bumpers at the end of the line because, investigators found, the driver fell asleep at the controls. The TriMet employee who released this video to the public was suspended for doing so.
Thanks to overtime, four TriMet drivers earned more than $100,000 last year, but TriMet says that “only” four of them have been involved in accidents. How about that? Just 50 percent. This naturally raises the question of what share of drivers who don’t take so much overtime have been involved in accidents.