Hampton Roads Transit, which serves Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Newport News, is having a difficult time. Ridership for the first seven months of fiscal 2015 (which began in July) is down 9 percent from 2013, and 2013 ridership wasn’t so hot in the first place. Financial records show that the revenue per rider, at 98 cents per trip, is 8 cents more than the agency’s target, but the cost per rider, at $5.41 per trip, is 73 cents less than targeted, so fares are only covering 18 percent of operating costs.
Click on the image to go to the page where you can download the draft environmental impact statement–comments due May 5.
What to do in this situation? For any transit agency, the solution is obvious: build more light rail. The region’s one light-rail line opened 16 months late and cost 60 percent more than projected. It was supposed to carry 10,400 riders per weekday in its opening year; it actually carried less than 4,400. While it was up to 5,500 in 2013, the 23 percent drop in light-rail ridership so far in 2015 suggests that the average this year will be even less than in the opening year.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is increasingly dysfunctional. DC’s subway system is designed to run eight-car trains but due to lack of equipment two-thirds of the trains operating during rush hour have only six cars even though they are packed full of people. WMATA has asked Virginia, Maryland, and DC for nearly $1.5 billion so it can purchase new equipment and upgrade its system to allow a return to eight-car trains.
The Maryland secretary of transportation, Pete Rahn, says the state is reluctant to give hundreds of millions of dollars to an agency as poorly run as WMATA. As an example of poor management, Rahn pointed to a dispute among the agency’s board over what kind of person should replace the agency’s general manager, Richard Sarles, who retired from his $366,000 a year job in January.
Some on the board wanted to hire a “turnaround expert” who could restore the agency’s fortunes. Others wanted to hire someone with more experience in the transit industry. The dispute became so serious that the mayor of Washington proposed to dismiss board member (and last year’s board chair) Tom Downs, who favored hiring someone with more transit expertise, because he disagreed with the mayor’s desire for a turnaround expert. In response, three candidates who were being considered for the job withdrew their applications.
The Antiplanner was in Spokane yesterday where the local transit agency is asking voters for a 50 percent increase in the sales tax that funds most of the agency’s operations. Much of the new money will go for various capital projects that will do little to increase ridership.
$1.2 million will buy you a bus that can go 170 miles on a single charge of batteries. The bus has 60 seats, which is just what is needed in Spokane, where the average bus carries just 9 people.
Spokane Transit previously persuaded voters to double the sales tax in 2004. The improvements made with that money led to a small increase in per capita transit ridership from about 25 trips per person per year to 27. Based on this, it doesn’t seem likely that another 50 percent increase in funding will do much to boost ridership.
During the Antiplanner’s visit to Washington DC last week, I tried to encourage people to think about the incentives created by federal transportation funding. But the first question on the minds of most of the people I talked with was, “How will we pay for highways and transit?”
From outside the Beltway, this question almost seems like nonsense. In fact, no one would have ever asked this question before 2008. When Congress set up the Highway Trust Fund in 1956, it decided to spend the money strictly on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning it wouldn’t spend any more than was collected in gas taxes and other highway revenues (mainly excise taxes on cars, trucks, and tires, most of which have since been repealed).
Pay-as-you-go had a disadvantage: when inflation hit, it seriously slowed the pace of construction because the gas tax wasn’t indexed to inflation. But the policy also had an advantage: since no one was borrowing money against anticipated future revenues, nearly all of the revenues could go for construction rather than a significant chunk going for interest and other finance charges.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner presented data showing that the distribution of federal transit dollars to urban areas was highly uneven, ranging from 26 cents per transit rider to $2.17 per transit rider. The main factor that appeared to make a difference was whether the urban area was building expensive new rail transit lines.
A close look at the data reveals another difference: whether the urban area is in a state that has a representative on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Over the past six years, states with a Democrat on the committee received an average of $120 million to $160 million more than they would have received if funds were distributed according to the number of transit riders carried in the area. States with a Republican on the committee didn’t fare as well, actually losing money in the 111th Congress (when Democrats held both houses) and making only about a third as much as Democrats in the 112th and 113th congresses.
The American Public Transit Association (APTA) announced yesterday that Americans rode transit a “record” 10.8 billion trips in 2014. At least, it’s a record since 1956, when Americans rode transit 11.0 billion trips. Even then, the numbers are suspect because statistics before about 1974 don’t count commuter rail, ferries, and certain other modes that APTA includes in its 2014 totals.
Transit ridership grew 24 percent from 1980 to 2012, but it required a 170 percent increase in spending. Since the growth in ridership failed to even keep up with urban population growth, per capita ridership fell by 18 percent. Source: American Public Transportation Association Historical Data Tables.
Nevertheless, it remains true that transit ridership appears to have grown slightly in 2014, as APTA’s number for 2013 was 10.653 billion trips while the number for 2014 is 10,753, or less than a 1 percent increase. We don’t have 2014 census numbers for urban areas yet, but this is probably about the same as urban population growth.
Federal funding for new rail transit lines has led to an inequitable distribution of funds among urban areas. This can be shown by downloading the historic time series data for capital funds from the National Transit Database. These numbers extend from 1991–which, coincidentally, is the year Congress created the New Starts program–to 2013.
Gross domestic product price deflators can be used to adjust all dollars to 2013 values. Finally, the National Transit Database’s historic time series for service data gives transit ridership for the same years. The time series show which urban area each transit agency primarily serves, so I added up the capital funds and ridership numbers by urban area.
The detailed results for 488 urban areas can be downloaded in this spreadsheet, while the basic results for the nation’s 50 largest urban areas are in the table below. Though there are a few surprises, the results mostly confirm my hypothesis that the best way for an urban area to get lots of federal transit funds is to build new rail lines.
Under fire from Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker for “unacceptable” interruptions in transit service, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s general manager, Beverly Scott, has resigned from her post. The immediate cause of those service interruptions, of course, was Boston’s record fall of more than six feet of snow in the past two weeks alone.
The underlying cause of those interruptions, however, is the aging and decrepit nature of the transit system. Burdened by $5 billion in debt that demands $422 million in mortgage payments a year–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget that ought to be going to maintain and rehabilitate the system–the T was simply ready to fail.
This failure can’t truly be blamed on general manager Scott, who has worked in Boston for little more than two years and before that was working for Atlanta’s transit system. Indeed, the blame belongs to politicians who agreed to borrow money to build rail transit extensions. Indeed, some of the blame could be put on Governor Baker himself, who helped develop the finance plan for Boston’s Big Dig.
Most Americans are happy with their commutes and would be willing to trade off even longer commutes in order to live in more desirable housing, according to a survey by YouGov. Moreover, the detailed results indicate that these preferences are almost as strong among 18-29 year olds as among older age classes. YouGov describes itself as a “market research and data company.”
Three out of four people in YouGov’s sample of 1,000 drive to work while 14 percent take transit. Since the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey found that 85 percent of Americans drive to work and only 5 percent take transit, it seems likely that YouGov’s sample was skewed to big cities where transit commuting is more popular. New York, San Francisco, and Washington are the only major urban areas in which more than 14 percent of commuters take transit to work.
This makes YouGov’s other survey results even more striking. The numbers suggest that anecdotes indicating that large numbers of Millennials want to use transit and live close to jobs aren’t supported by the facts. Among other things, the survey found that differences in commuting and other preferences between Democrats and Republicans are greater than between people in their 20s and people in their 50s.
The average cost of light-rail construction has grown to nearly $200 million per mile, according to data in the Federal Transit Administration’s 2016 proposal for capital grants to transit agencies under the “New Starts/Small Starts” program. This is up from $176 million a mile in the 2015 plan.
San Diego, which started the light-rail craze when it built the nation’s first modern light-rail line in 1981 at an average cost of well under $10 million per mile–less than $18 million per mile in today’s dollars–wants to spend $194 million per mile on a new Mid-Coast line. Boston, which can’t afford to maintain its existing increasingly decrepit rail system, wants to spend $489 million per mile on a 4.7-mile extension of one of its light-rail lines. The least-expensive light-rail line in the budget is a 2.3-mile extension to an existing light-rail line in Denver costing a mere $98 million per mile, nearly twice as much as the least-expensive new light-rail line in the 2013 plan.
Streetcars, which were supposed to be cheap, are costing an average of $59 million a mile, up from $46 million a mile in last year’s plan. That’s less than a third the average cost of light rail today, but still more than three times as expensive as San Diego’s original light-rail line. (I’m counting the Tacoma rail line as a streetcar, as it uses equipment that is nearly identical to the Portland streetcar; Sound Transit and the FTA call it light rail mainly to justify taxing Tacoma residents to help pay for the outrageously expensive light-rail lines being built in Seattle.) The FTA proposes to fund another streetcar line in Charlotte, and streetcars in Sacramento and Fort Lauderdale are also in the plan though not recommended for immediate funding.