“Can Miami afford more rail?” asks the Miami Herald. “Or will it settle for buses?” That’s like asking if you can afford an IBM 700 mainframe computer from the 1950s or if you will settle for a MacBook Pro. Both buses and laptop computers are far less expensive than rails and mainframes, but the former are also far more flexible.
In 1972, Miami persuaded voters to put up the money to build a 50-mile heavy-rail system. With 80 percent of the cost paid for by the feds, they finally opened a 20-mile line in 1984, but then ran out of money having spent well over a billion dollars, far more than expected. Ridership was poor and people took to calling it a white elephant.
Memories grow dim, however, and in 2002 Miami convinced voters to approve another transit tax, supposedly to finish the system. Only a handful of miles were built, at the cost of close to another billion, before that effort ran out of steam as well. Continue reading
Transit ridership in the first quarter of 2017 was 3.1 percent less than the same quarter in 2016, according the American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report. The association released the report without a press release, instead issuing a release complaining about the House Appropriations bill reducing funding for transit.
The ridership report is devastating news for anyone who believes transit deserves more subsidies. Every heavy-rail system lost riders except the PATH trains between Newark and Manhattan and the Patco line between Camden and Philadelphia. Commuter rail did a little better, mainly because of the opening of Denver’s A line and trend-countering growth of riders on the Long Island Railroad. Most light-rail lines lost riders, though surprisingly many streetcar lines gained riders.
In most cases where light-rail ridership grew, it did so at the expense of bus ridership. Los Angeles Metro gained 1.66 million light-rail riders but lost 8.73 million bus riders, or more than five for every new light-rail rider. Between the two modes, Phoenix’s Valley Metro lost 23,100 riders; Charlotte 20,200 lost riders; and Dallas Area Rapid Transit lost 193,100 riders. Similarly, Orlando’s commuter trains gained 22,700 riders but buses lost 98,500. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of stories blaming New York subway problems on overcrowding. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) presented data showing that the number of delays caused by crowding had tripled since 2014, while the number caused by track maintenance or signal problems had remained relatively constant.
The MTA also helpfully pointed out that the number of trips taken on the subway had grown from 1 billion a year in 1990 to 1.8 billion in 2015, while the number of miles of subway lines and subway cars had remained relatively constant. That sounded persuasive, but the Antiplanner was suspicious. This explanation conveniently shifts the blame from MTA’s mismanagement to subway users and also invites the solution of giving MTA a lot of money to increase capacities–a solution MTA would be very happy to implement.
Besides, New York subway ridership first reached 1.8 billion way back in 1926, when the system had many fewer route miles than it has today. Construction of the Independent system, which is more than a quarter of the total, began in 1932 and wasn’t completed until 1940. Subway riders in 1926 complained the trains were crowded, but delays due to that crowding weren’t a significant problem. Continue reading
The House Appropriations Committee has released a proposed 2018 transportation funding bill that follows the administration’s proposal to end the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. This program, which spent $500 million a year funding numerous streetcar projects and other boondoggles around the country, was originally created to stimulate the economy. While there is no evidence that it actually did stimulate the economy, the economy arguably doesn’t need to be stimulated any more.
The bill funds $2.75 billion (a $500 million reduction from 2017) for the transit capital investment program (a.k.a. New Starts) and directs the Secretary of Transportation to “continue to administer” the program in accordance with the law. However, it doesn’t specifically mandate that the secretary sign any new full funding grant agreements, and so long as they remain unsigned, projects without such agreements can’t be funded.
As the Antiplanner predicted, the House rejected the administration’s proposal to stop funding Amtrak long-distance trains. Half the states are served only by long-distance trains, so cutting those trains effectively tells half of Congress that their interests are less important than those of the other half. The administration would be done better to propose to give Amtrak incentives to increase ridership in the form of 10 cents in subsidies per passenger mile carried. Since current federal subsidies average more than 20 cents a passenger mile (plus more from the states), this proposal would have led to a debate over “how much should the subsidy be?” rather than “which states should get subsidies?” Continue reading
Transit agencies have a simple answer to every problem: you should give them more money. Back when transit ridership was increasing, the transit lobby said the increase was “a clear message to Congress that the citizens of this country want expanded public transit services” and that Congress should pass a “well-funded bill” that “invests in our country’s public transit infrastructure.”
Now that transit ridership is declining, the same transit lobbyists say the solution is more money to entice people back onto the buses and trains. The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, whose ridership has been “steadily declining,” wants to trade in the property tax that now earns it $13 million a year for a regional sales tax that will provide $30 million a year. Such a deal!
Santa Cruz Metro, whose buses lost 2 percent of their riders last year, has relied on the city to provide millions of dollars from a reserve fund to keep its system going. Yet officials bristle when people complain that they are not doing a good job of making the agency self sufficient. “We had an incredible year last year of receiving grants,” brags Metro’s CEO. If that is the criterion by which he wants to be judged, the Antiplanner thinks his priorities are misplaced. Continue reading
Last week, the Antiplanner argued that transit is going extinct and, rather than fight this trend, regional officials should find ways to smooth the transition. One way of doing so is to improve the mobility of low-income workers.
Transit advocates love to use phrases like oil dependency and auto dependency to suggest that automobiles are environmental disasters that have reduced our freedom. In fact, the 2015 National Transit Database shows that the only transit systems use less energy per passenger mile than driving are those in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco-Oakland, Portland, and Honolulu, while automobiles have liberated Americans, giving them far more mobility and economic opportunities than the people of any other country.
Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys the benefits of this liberation. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, about 5 million workers who take transit to work live in households with either no or one car. About 2 million of those are in New York City and most of them presumably choose to live without cars, but it may be reasonable to estimate that about 2 to 3 million workers nationwide take transit because they can’t afford a car. Continue reading
With declining ridership, growing costs, and increasing competition, the nation’s transit industry is on the verge of complete collapse. The trends leading to this collapse appear to be permanent, yet transit officials across the country are pretending they are only temporary. Instead of preparing for the collapse, they are simply seeking more subsidies.
The Antiplanner has witnessed in the collapse of an industry before, and the results are not pretty. I spent the first two decades of my career fighting money-losing timber sales on federal forests. Between 1990 and 2000, those sales declined by 85 percent, turning communities built around sawmills that purchased federal timber into near-ghost towns.
Some communities could see the handwriting on the wall and made the transition to a recreation economy. Bend, Oregon, near where the Antiplanner currently lives, is thriving as a resort and recreation town, with one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. Coos Bay, Oregon, near where the Antiplanner used to live, turned up its nose at the recreation economy, saying its high-paid union millworkers would not be satisfied flipping burgers and changing bed sheets. The area is currently depressed and–despite outstanding beauty and recreation opportunities–its population is stagnant.
Like timber communities, transit cities have the choice of preparing for or denying the impending collapse. Those that prepare for it will enable a smoother transition to future transportation systems while those that deny it will create huge problems for local taxpayers. Continue reading
In 2007, the New York Times called Portland “the city that loves mass transit.” The Antiplanner took issue with that claim then, and it is even less appropriate now. APTA’s latest ridership report reveals Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, carried 1.6 percent fewer trips in 2016 than in 2015. The American Community Survey says that the share of commuters taking transit to work fell from 8.1 percent in 2014 to 7.9 percent in 2015.
In reality, as the Antiplanner wrote in 2007, Portland is “the city whose officials love to spend money on transit.” That also remains unchanged, as TriMet is preparing a regional transit strategy that calls for more streetcars, more light-rail lines, and exclusive busways. To top it off, TriMet wants to build a light-rail subway through downtown, which will probably cost almost as much as all of Portland’s previous light-rail construction combined.
The region has already spent between $4 billion and $5 billion on light rail. Before commencing construction on the city’s first light-rail line, 9.9 percent of commuters took transit to work. Since it is now down to 7.9 percent, rail clearly has not boosted transit ridership. According to a report released last October, one-third of the region’s capital spending on transportation is going for transit, yet transit carries just 2.5 percent of the region’s motorized passenger miles (and virtually no freight). Continue reading
A Pensacola, Florida politician has come out and said what many are thinking: maybe taxpayers don’t need to subsidize transit. Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill has proposed to ask voters whether they want to continue subsidizing the county’s bus system.
“It’s ridiculous of us to try to continue to push a service that the citizens are telling us everyday that they don’t want,” says Underhill. By “don’t want” he means “aren’t using”: According to the 2015 American Community Survey, only 1,230 people take transit to work. The 22-route bus system should “be about half the size of what we’ve got right now at the very maximum,” he estimates. Continue reading
As the Antiplanner has previously noted, claims that transit ridership grew in 2014 and 2015 obscured the fact that all of that growth was accounted for by the New York City subway. But subway ridership declined in 2016, contributing to a 2.3 percent decline in nationwide transit ridership.
The drop in the Big Apple’s subway ridership was only 0.8 percent, but unlike most cities where transit fares bring in less than 20 percent of operating costs, the subway covers 60 percent of its operating costs with fares. So even a small decline hurts a lot more than a bigger decline would do elsewhere.
Money is particularly crucial now, as the subway and other New York transit systems have become increasingly unreliable. It is so bad that some transit riders have sued New York City transit for failing to provide safe and reliable service. Continue reading