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.
“Why are our transit systems faltering just as more people than ever want to use them?” asks Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association, which has advocated urban planning in the New York metropolitan area since 1922. His answer is that it has to do with “with the way our government institutions are structured.” He is right in general but wrong on the particulars.
New York City subway and elevated train fares cover more than 60 percent of operating costs, but no maintenance costs. Wikipedia commons photo by AEMoreira.
Transit, at least in the New York metropolitan area, did just fine, he says, until the 1950s, when “the federal government started building the interstate highway system, offering big subsidies to states to connect to it.” When that happened, “mass-transit operators struggled to compete with these roads and started going bankrupt.” They were unwillingly taken over by the government, which “merged the workings of mass transit and toll roads to provide cross subsidies.”
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which some consider the nation’s worst-managed transit agency, has a new program called Envision Silicon Valley. Despite the grandiose title, the not-so-hidden agenda is to impose a sales tax for transit.
A nearly-empty VTA light-rail car in Sunnyvale.
Any vision of Silicon Valley that starts out with transit is the wrong one. Except to the taxpayers who have to pay for it and the motorists and pedestrians who have to dodge light-rail cars, transit is practically irrelevant in San Jose.
It looks like 2015 will be another record year for driving in America. Of course, that’s not saying much as the total amount of driving has been pretty flat since 2007.
Transit advocates will be quick to point out that transit ridership has grown faster than driving. But actually, it depends entirely on which years you pick. Preliminary information suggests that urban driving grew faster than transit in 2014. Since 2004, transit grew faster than driving in about half the years, and overall transit ridership grew by 12 percent while miles of urban driving grew by only 6 percent.
The city and state officials who promoted construction of Honolulu’s rail transit line now admit that they don’t know how they are going to pay for the cost of operating that line. Between 2019, when the first part of the line is expected to open for business, and 2031, those costs are expected to be $1.7 billion, or about $140 million per year. In 2011, the annual operating cost was estimated to be $126 million a year.
Honolulu has about a hundred bus routes, which cost about $183 million to operate in 2013, or less than $2 million per route. The rail line will therefore cost about 70 times as much to operate as the average bus route.
Officials project that rail fares will cover less than a third of operating costs, but that’s probably optimistic. They are predicting 116,000 daily riders in 2030, which works out to about 5,800 riders per mile. That’s more than the number of riders per mile carried by the Chicago Transit Authority, Atlanta’s MARTA, or the San Francisco BART system–and considerably more than carried by heavy-rail lines in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Miami.
USA Today thinks the federal government needs to spend more on infrastructure. An opposing view suggests that most of any spending increases would go for unnecessary new projects, not for repair of existing infrastructure.
Certainly, something must be done about the impasse over the federal transportation bill. But increased spending isn’t necessarily the solution; we first need to make sure that the money that is being spent is going to the right places.
The House of Representatives voted yesterday to extend federal funding for highways and transit for two months. The Senate is expected to pass similar legislation later this week. While transportation bills normally last for six years, this short-term action, which followed a ten-month extension last fall and a two-year extension in 2012, has proven necessary because no one has been able to rustle up a majority agreement on the federal role in transportation.
For those who haven’t followed the issue, the federal government collects about $34 billion a year in gas taxes and related highway user fees. Once dedicated to highways, an increasing share has gone for transit and other uses since the early 1980s. Compounding this was a decision in 1998 to mandate that spending equal to the projected growth in fuel taxes. When fuel tax revenues stopped growing in 2007, spending did not, with the result that annual spending is now about $13 billion more than revenues.
Under Congressional rules, Congress must find a revenue source to cover that deficit. The Antiplanner’s colleague at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, thinks that the simple solution is for Congress to just reduce spending by $13 billion a year. That may be arithmetically simple, but politically it is not as too many powerful interest groups count on that spending who have persuaded many (falsely, in my opinion) that we need to spend more on supposedly crumbling highways.
Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is $9 billion in debt. It has at least a $3 billion maintenance backlog. It must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing, but its maintenance budget this year is just $100 million. So when Boston shoemaker New Balance said that it was willing to spend $16 million building a new commuter rail station next to its headquarters, and to pay to maintain that station for the next decade, Boston transit officials were overjoyed.
The Atlantic calls this a public-private partnership. While it might be considered appropriate that employers help pay for transit stops that serve their employees, there’s another question no one else seems to be asking: how much will the transit line to serve this stop cost taxpayers?
The station is on a transit line that recently has had poor commuter-rail service because the passenger trains conflict with freight trains. In 2011, the state had to pay CSX $100 million to move most of its freight trains elsewhere. Since then, the state has spent more than $40 million upgrading the line. While New Balance might pay to maintain the station, taxpayers will have to pay to operate trains on the route.