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in gas taxes and other highway revenues (mainly excise taxes on cars, trucks, and tires, most of which have since been repealed).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.
Many taxpayers get irate when they see huge buses taking up road space with almost no passengers on board. Transit agencies tint or screen bus windows either to reduce air conditioning costs or to allow billboard-type advertising, but to an outside observer it looks like they are trying to cover up the fact that so many seats are empty.
Is this bus full or empty? It is difficult to see through the tinted glass, but since it is in Pinellas County, Florida, whose buses carry an average of just 7.7 riders, it is likely to be on the empty side. Flickr photo by Bill Rogers.
According to the 2013 National Transit Database, the average urban transit bus (including commuter buses and rapid transit buses) has 39 seats but carries an average of just 11.1 people (calculated by dividing passenger miles by vehicle-revenue miles). That’s actually an improvement from 2012, when the average load was 10.7 people. But it’s a big drop from 1979, when the average loads appear to have exceeded 15 people.*
While many interest groups are promoting increased federal spending on infrastructure on the grounds that it will spur economic growth, the Washington Post reports that the “benefits of infrastructure spending [are] not so clear-cut.” Yet there is a simple way to determine whether a particular infrastructure project will generate economic benefits.
Spending on transportation infrastructure, for example, generates benefits when that new infrastructure increases total mobility of people or freight. New infrastructure will increase mobility if it provides transportation that is faster, cheaper, more convenient, and/or safer than before.
In 1956, Congress created the Interstate Highway System and dedicated federal gas taxes and other highway taxes to that system. The result was the largest public works project in history and one of the most successful. Today, more than 20 percent of all passenger travel and around 15 percent of all freight in the United States is on the interstates.
What gives transit riders such an incredible sense of entitlement? The state of Massachusetts has to close a $175 million budget gap. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) is still suffering from a huge maintenance shortfall. Yet Boston transit riders think they should get 24-hour transit service, no matter what the cost or how few people use it.
An experiment with late-night transit service–running certain buses and trains until 2:30 am instead of just 1:00 am–has attracted an average of just 17,000 riders per day, or less than 12,000 per hour, at an annual cost of $13 million. For comparison, before the experiment began, the T carried nearly 1.4 million riders per weekday, or close to 700,000 per hour for the 20 hours the system had been open. Plus, at least some of those 17,000 riders would have used the T anyway, just at an earlier hour.
Transit advocates say longer hours are needed to “retain talented young professionals and tech workers while boosting night life at the same time.” But when the T asked the “corporations that could ultimately benefit from the service by retaining young talent” to contribute to late-night operating costs, they got less than 7 percent of the cost of extending service hours.