In mid-December, the Federal Transit Administration posted 2014 transit data on line, then withdrew it–but not before the Antiplanner was able to download most of the data tables. Two tables that were not available then were “Service” (including such things as vehicle revenue miles, passenger miles, and average daily trips) and “Vehicle Inventory” (including the number of vehicles and number of seats and standing room per vehicle).
The FTA has reposted all of the tables, including the two tables that were previously missing. Those two tables are dated today, so I appear to have downloaded them almost as soon as they were posted. Most of the other tables date to mid-December, so it is likely that few changes or corrections were made since then.
I’ve added the new data to my master spreadsheet and posted it for your convenience. This takes the information I consider the most important, including costs, ridership, fares, and energy consumption, from eight different spreadsheets and puts them in one spreadsheet.
Over at Greater Greater Washington, urban analyst John Ricco has had a mind-shattering revelation: if we spent less on transit, we could have more transit. He notes that the United States spends far more on transit projects than other countries, though he adds that, “No one’s really sure why.”
Actually, his revelation isn’t quite as mind-shattering as I presented it. Instead, what he realized is, “If we lowered transit construction costs, we could build more transit.” Apparently, he is one of those people who thinks transit is only transit if it is built.
The Antiplanner would go further and say, “if we stopped wasting money building transit, we could have more transit.” While Ricco is correct that transit construction costs are bloated, even the least-expensive rail transit is going to be more expensive than running buses on roads and streets shared with other vehicles. We’re spending $100 million or more per mile building light rail, but even if it cost only $10 million per mile, buying and running buses would still cost far less.
“Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation,” declares the Los Angeles Times. The headline might have been more accurate if it read, “Billions spent, so therefore fewer are using public transit,” as the billions were spent on the wrong things.
The L.A. Times article focuses on Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), though the same story could be written for many other cities. In Los Angeles, ridership peaked in 1985, fell to 1995, then grew again, and now is falling again. Unmentioned in the story, 1985 is just before Los Angeles transit shifted emphasis from providing low-cost bus service to building expensive rail lines, while 1995 is just before an NAACP lawsuit led to a court order to restore bus service lost since 1985 for ten years.
The situation is actually worse than the numbers shown in the article, which are “unlinked trips.” If you take a bus, then transfer to another bus or train, you’ve taken two unlinked trips. Before building rail, more people could get to their destinations in one bus trip; after building rail, many bus lines were rerouted to funnel people to the rail lines. According to California transit expert Tom Rubin, survey data indicate that there were an average of 1.66 unlinked trips per trip in 1985, while today the average is closer to 2.20. That means today’s unlinked trip numbers must be reduced by nearly 25 percent to fairly compare them with 1985 numbers.
New York City was harder hit by snowstorm Jonas than Washington, getting 27 inches of snow compared with 18 or 19 inches in Washington. Yet New York’s subways kept running and commuter trains and buses operated for as long as they could, while Washington Metro shut down its system before the storm got serious.
This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.
Sunday morning, New York sprang back to life while Washington remained shut down. By this morning, the vast majority of the New York system, including most commuter-rail lines, almost the entire subway system, and some buses will be operating. Washington, meanwhile, will operate the subway portions of its rail lines and just 22 out of 325 bus lines.
Weather forecasters predict that Washington, DC will get as much as two feet of snow tonight through Sunday morning. Fortunately, Washington has Metrorail, an “all-weather” transportation system.
Some buses might get stuck, so we’ll shut the whole system down. Photo taken during 2009 snowstorm by Mr.TinDC.
Metro officials’ faith in their transit system in the face of bad weather is revealed by their decision to preemptively shut it down completely for the weekend. Though the big storm isn’t predicted to start until after 3 pm today, buses are running on limited schedules and will stop service completely at 5 pm, paratransit will shut down at 6 pm, and trains will run until 11 pm and not restart until Monday morning.
The nation’s transit industry carried about 1 percent more trips and passenger miles in 2014 than in 2013. But to carry that many, industry operating costs grew by 7 percent and maintenance costs grew by 2 percent. For that increase in operating costs, vehicle revenue miles grew by less than 3 percent.
Transit is thus becoming increasingly expensive to operate and maintain per rider: the operating cost of single trip grew from $3.81 to $4.04, a 6 percent increase. Fares, meanwhile, grew by just 2 percent, and the industry as a whole collected just $15.1 billion in fares while spending $42.4 billion on operations, $11.0 billion on maintenance, and $6.0 billion on capital improvements.
These numbers are from the 2014 National Transit Database that the Federal Transit Administration posted last week. The numbers are only tentative, however, as the FTA took the numbers down this week (though some of the data are still available if you know where to look for them–see below). Moreover, a few key spreadsheets were missing from the data that were posted.
Last week’s Congressional passage of the 1,301-page Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act represents, for the most part, a five-year extension of existing highway and transit programs with several steps backwards. Once a program that was entirely self-funded out of dedicated gasoline taxes and other highway user fees, over the past two-and-one-half decades the surface transportation programs has become increasingly dependent on deficit spending. The FAST Act does nothing to mitigate this, neither raising highway fees (which include taxes on Diesel fuel, large trucks, trailers, and truck tires) nor reducing expenditures.
If anything, deficit spending will increase under the FAST Act, which will spend $305 billion ($61 billion a year) over the next five years. Highway revenues, which were $39.4 billion in F.Y. 2015, are not likely to be much more than $40 million a year over the next five years, so the new law incurs deficits of about $20 billion a year. The law includes $70 billion in “offsets”–funding sources that could otherwise be applied to reducing some other deficit–which won’t be enough to keep the program going for the entire five years.
Aside from deficit spending, the greatest mischief in federal surface transportation programs come from competitive grants. When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, all federal money was distributed to the states using formulas. But in 1991 Congress created a number of competitive grant programs, supposedly so the money would be spent where it was most needed. In fact, research by the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation showed that Congress and the administration tended to spend the money politically, either in the districts represented by the most powerful members of Congress or where the administration thought it would get the greatest political return for its party.
The 2012 surface transportation law contained no earmarks and turned all but two major competitive grant programs into formula funds, thus taking the politics out of most transportation funding. This upset some members of Congress because they could no longer get credit for bringing pork home to their districts. So it is not surprising that the FAST Act goes backwards, putting more money into political grants than ever before.
Peter Callaghan, a reporter for the Minneapolis Post, has figured out that rail transit planners routinely overestimate transit ridership. He calls this the Pickrell Effect, after US DOT researcher Don Pickrell, whose 1990 report found that most rail projects underestimated costs and overestimated ridership.
(Callaghan doesn’t mention the other Pickrell Effect, which is that government employees who report such shenanigans are likely to be sent to the local equivalent of Siberia. For his effort, Pickrell was told by a Deputy Secretary of Transportation that he would never be allowed to work on a transit study again.)
Callaghan does say that Pickrell’s study led to “more scrutiny” by the Federal Transit Administration, resulting in “a measurable improvement in forecasts, with mixed results.” Which is it: an improvement or mixed results? Callaghan says that a 2003 FTA study found that, of 19 projects since the Pickrell report, “only” eleven greatly overestimated ridership while eight came within 20 percent of ridership estimates.
Eight years ago, the Antiplanner argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.
However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose’s VTA. Here are just a few of Metro’s recent problems:
- Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
- Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system but now expects to scrap it for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
- One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
- Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
- WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
- Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
- That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.
Portland’s regional planning agency, Metro, is proposing a “faster transit line to Gresham.” Gresham happens to be the terminus for Portland’s first light-rail line, which opened 29 years ago. But the “faster-transit” line will use buses, not rail.
Before the Gresham light-rail line opened, Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, operated express buses between downtown Portland and Hollywood, Gateway, Gresham, and other neighborhoods along the rail corridor. All of these were cancelled when the light-rail opened, even though the busses were faster than the trains. This is one reason why Portland transit ridership plummeted during the 1980s.
In proposing a faster-transit line to Gresham, is Metro tacitly admitting that light rail was a mistake? Only indirectly. The bus routes is is proposing won’t be express buses but bus-rapid transit, and as such probably will be a little slower than the light rail, at least between downtown Portland and Gresham. They’ll just be faster than the existing conventional bus service.