Tag Archives: transit

The Inevitable Decline of Government

LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for San Francisco Muni‘s $1.6 billion Central Subway project, has found so many problems with the project–and so little interest within Muni or the Federal Transit Administration in fixing those problems–that she has given hundreds of pages of budgetary and internal documents to the San Francisco Weekly. “Your article” about these documents “is going to get me fired,” she told the Weekly‘s reporter.


Politicians such as then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (center) love to have their photos taken breaking ground or cutting ribbons, in this case for the Central Subway project.

As just one example, Muni told the San Francisco city controller that it spent $110 million on preliminary engineering, when it told the Federal Transit Administration that it spent only $70 million. The extra $40 million went into a slush fund for other stuff.

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Measuring Downtowns

The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, has just released a new compilation of downtown job data. His data include the number of jobs in the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of more than a million people), the percentage of each region’s jobs that is downtown, and transit’s share of commuting to those downtown jobs. These numbers are based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys for 2006-2008, so are mostly from before the recent recession.


Click image to download report.

One thing the data show is how New York is unlike any other metropolitan area in the country. New York is the only metro area that has more than a million jobs downtown, and it has just shy of two million. Number two is Chicago, which has just over 500,000. New York is the only metro area that has more than 15 percent of its jobs downtown, and it has 22 percent. New York is the only metro area in which transit carries more than 60 percent of downtown commuters; in fact, it’s 77 percent.

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The Transit Train Wreck

Investigators have concluded that the driver of the CTA train that crashed at O’Hare earlier this week slept through the stop. Moreover, she apparently had a record of falling asleep at work before. However, investigators also concluded that two back-up systems that should have stopped the train before it crashed even without a waking driver failed as well.


We’ve spent roughly $1 trillion since 1970 for not much return. Capital spending before 1990 is not available, but probably followed a trajectory similar to operating subsidies (i.e, operating costs minus fares). Click image to download a spreadsheet with these and other data mentioned in this post.

Meanwhile, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defends its claim that recent ridership statistics represent a genuine “shift in American travel behavior.” While it admits that per capita ridership has declined since 2008, it blames that on the recession. It prefers to go back to 1995, “because after that year, ridership increased due to the passage of the landmark ISTEA legislation and other surface transportation bills which increased funding for public transportation.” Effectively, APTA argues that people will ride transit if you subsidize them enough, and so therefore subsidies should be increased still further.

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Hoodwinking Reporters

Nearly two weeks after the American Public Transportation Association issued its deceptive press release about 2013 transit ridership, some reporters are still being fooled. Just two days ago, for example, NPR did a story claiming commuters are “ditching cars for transit in record numbers.”

Ironically, NPR begins its story in Chicago, where (APTA data reveals) 2013 transit ridership declined by 2.7 percent from the year before. “Throughout the entire country, just about every public transportation system saw hikes in ridership,” the story incorrectly claims. In addition to Chicago, transit systems in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Antonio, and Washington DC all lost riders in 2013. Don’t NPR reporters check their facts?

While reporters might be fooled, three urban planning professors writing in the Washington Post weren’t. “The association’s numbers are deceptive,” they say, and any claims that the nation is “moving away from driving” is “misguided optimism.” In fact, they continue, “transit is a small and stagnant part of the transportation system.”

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Who’s Counting the Costs?

Per capita incomes in Flint, Michigan, are only about half the national average, and poverty rates are three times the national average. So what does the city’s transit agency do? Why, spend $2.4 million for a $327,000 bus.


Zero emissions? Not really. Flickr photo by Earthworm.

Of course, this is a special bus: instead of being powered by Diesel fuel, it is powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And everyone knows that hydrogen power has zero emissions. The transit agency is so happy with the bus that it wants to order up to 30 more.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is in Washington, DC, today attending a conference on mileage-based user fees. When my plane landed in DC at 3:50 pm, I turned my cell phone on and got a voice mail that Lars Larson wanted to interview me on his radio show about yesterday’s transit numbers. We arranged to have the interview begin at 4:20.

That put me in a dilemma. I had a meeting in the city at 5:30 and wanted to drop my luggage off at my hotel in Roslyn. If I waited to the the radio show before leaving the airport, I’d be late for my meeting. So I hustled to take the subway to Arlington and hoped I’d arrive before 4:20, as cell service doesn’t extend underground.

Roslyn is five station stops from National Airport. As I’m thinking about the irony that I’m depending on public transit to get to an interview where I expect to be critical of public transit, our train pulls into the third stop, which is the Pentagon. People stand up to get off the train, but the doors don’t open. The crowd of people outside the train who want to get on grows, but the doors don’t open. I’m afraid I’m going to miss my interview, and the doors won’t open. Finally, the driver makes an incomprehensible announcement and the train leaves–and the doors never opened. I no longer felt that riding transit to criticize transit was so ironic.

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Interpreting the Data

At nearly 10.7 billion trips, transit ridership in 2013 reached its highest level in 57 years, says the American Public Transportation Association. This increase shows that people are “saying we want these (transit) investments made,” APTA’s president, Michael Melaniphy, told USA Today. Needless to say, by “investments” he means building new rail transit lines.


Any century now, transit is bound to overtake driving. Source: Transit data from APTA, urban driving from the Federal Highway Administration, and urban population from the Census Bureau. Click image for a larger view.

However, a close look at the data shows something entirely different. It turns out that New York City subways alone were responsible for more than 92 percent of the increase in transit ridership. Nationally, ridership grew by 115 million trips; New York City subway ridership grew by 106 million trips. According to the New York Times, the growth in subway ridership resulted from “falling unemployment.”

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Taxing Commuters Living Abroad

Governing magazine has a great idea for cities that are hard up for cash: tax suburban commuters. After all, those leeches live outside the city but depend on the city to provide them with jobs. Thus, they should pay a tax for a privilege of working in the city.

Just to make sure they get people coming and going, cities like Detroit also want to tax reverse commuters. That is, they want suburban employers to deduct taxes from the pay of their employees who happen to live in Detroit.

These are both great ideas if the goal is to hasten the fiscal demise of the cities. After all, think how well the cities would be doing if all the employers in the cities moved to the suburbs. The cities wouldn’t have to pay to provide urban services to those employers, but they also wouldn’t collect any property or other taxes from the businesses. Would they be better or worse off? If you think they would be worse off losing those jobs, then a commuter tax is redundant since the city is better off having the jobs without the commuter tax. (The same rationale applies to a reverse commuter tax on city residents who work in the suburbs.)

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Overcounting Transit Riders

The Antiplanner has argued that Congress should abolish New Starts and other mass transit grant making programs and distribute the money through formulas instead–preferably formulas that reward transit agencies for increasing ridership. However, I warned, the formulas probably should be based on fares rather than ridership counts as the latter are far easier to fake.

Case in point: Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) has its bus drivers count every boarding rider, and it was foolish enough to have the driver ring a bell for each count. A television news team decided to ride some KAT buses to see if the bells correlated with actual passengers.

On one trip, for example, the reporter heard “the driver hit the bell almost 30 times – when only seven riders had boarded. A short time later, two passengers were counted as 10.”

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Time Running Out for TriMet

Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, is building one of the most expensive light-rail lines ever and is planning several more. Yet the agency is running out of money. The cost of maintaining rail lines grows rapidly as they approach 30 years of age, and TriMet’s oldest line was opened for business 28 years ago.


Click image to download the Secretary of State’s audit of TriMet (5.6-MB pdf).

An audit of TriMet by Oregon’s Secretary of State finds that the agency is already falling behind its maintenance needs. A decade ago, it was completing 92 percent of track maintenance and 100 percent of signal maintenance on time. Today those numbers have fallen to 53 percent for track and 72 percent for signals.

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