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.)
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.”
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.
A few days ago, the Federal Transit Administration posted the 2012 National Transit Database. Data are downloadable in three formats. First, you can download profiles for every transit agency (21.3 MB). These give basic data such as trips, passenger miles, fares, and costs broken down by type of transit. If you don’t want to download the whole book, you can also download profiles for individual agencies by entering the agency name, city, or ID number in a search box (scroll down and look for “Individual Profiles” on the righthand column).
Second, you can download data tables, which present the data for all transit agencies in fairly user-friendly spreadsheets. All of the tables at once can be downloaded in a self-extracting exe file (4.1 MB), but my Macintosh doesn’t want to extract the spreadsheets. One problem with the data tables is that there are separate tables for trips, fares, operating costs, capital costs, and other data, so comparing the numbers is difficult.
Third, you can download database spreadsheets. These are more difficult to read than the data tables, but are easier to manipulate on a computer because every row on each spreadsheet follows a consistent format. Like the data tables, these spreadsheets can also be downloaded as one self-extracting exe file (5.1 MB).
Transit advocates often argue that a particular city or region must spend more on urban transit in order to support the growth of that region. To test that claim, the Antiplanner downloaded the latest historic data files from the National Transit Database, specifically the capital funding and service data and operating expenses by mode time series. These files list which urbanized area each transit agency primarily serves, so it was easy to compare these data with Census Bureau population data from 1990, 2000, and 2010.
The transit data include capital and operating expenses for all years from 1991 through 2011. I decided to compare the average of 1991 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 1990s, and the average of 2001 through 2010 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2010s. In case there is a delayed response, I also compared the average of 1990 through 2000 per capita expenses with population growth in the 2000s. Although it shouldn’t matter too much, I used GNP deflators to convert all costs to 2012 dollars.
I had to make a few adjustments to the population data to account for changes in the Census Bureau’s definitions of urbanized areas. Between 1990 and 2000, the San Francisco-Oakland and Los Angeles urbanized areas were split into several parts, so I added up the various parts for 2000 and 2010 data. At the same time, the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach urbanized areas were merged, so I added these three for 1990. The Oklahoma City urbanized area was radically reduced in size, with the apparent but incorrect result that it had lost population between 1990 and 2000. I used the growth rates for the Oklahoma City metropolitan statistical area instead. Since they are served by the same transit agencies, I combined Boulder and Denver data as well as Salt Lake, Ogden, and Provo-Orem data.
The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce thinks a regional (as opposed to county) transit agency will help Indianapolis compete with regions such as “Minneapolis and Salt Lake City that offer extensive transit systems.” The Antiplanner disagrees, pointing out that the Indianapolis urban area is already growing twice as fast as Minneapolis or Salt Lake City, and higher taxes aren’t going to help.
Unmentioned is the fact that “regional transit” is generally a euphemism for rail transit, and that the proposal for a regional Indianapolis transit agency includes a plan for a low-capacity rail line. Basically, someone wants to spend a lot of money on obsolete transportation.
Only about 17,000 Indianapolis-area workers live in households that lack cars. I’m not saying this should be done, but it would cost less, and do more for regional vitality, to give every one of those households a new Toyota Prius than to build a low-capacity rail line. With or without rail, Indianapolis doesn’t need regional transit.
When the Antiplanner travels around the country, I often meet people critical of their local transit systems. “The buses/trains are empty most of the time,” they say. “I saw a bus this morning with only one passenger on board.” “They put advertising over the windows so we can’t see in to see how empty they really are.”
Socially beneficial transit? Flickr photo by David Wilson.
People shouldn’t complain about empty transit vehicles, says transit expert Jarrett Walker. People “make it sound like because transit systems run empty buses that means they’re failing,” says Walker. In fact, those empty buses are serving a socially beneficial function: they “are valued for the lifeline access they provide for the isolated senior,” disabled person, or other people who lack access to an automobile.
A new poll finds that three out of four Americans never or almost never ride transit. Just 6 percent use it daily; 7 percent once a week; 4 percent two or three times a month; and 7 percent once every few months.
The numbers seem a little high, as the 2010 census found that less than 5 percent of workers ride transit to work. Moreover, other data show that people who say they ride transit often drive instead, while people who say they drive almost always drive, so the census numbers overestimate transit commuting.
In any case, the poll goes on to say that Americans “still tend to believe the government should back mass transit projects as long as they don’t lose money.” But all transit loses money? How did the pollsters reach this conclusion?
The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, told a Congressional committee last week that highway user fees should be dedicated to highways and any federal subsidies to transit should come out of other funds. Unfortunately, we have become so used to the idea that everything should be subsidized that advocates of transit subsidies could get away with calling Poole’s ideas “crazy talk.”
Why is it crazy to think that user fees should go to the infrastructure that the users are using? I suppose the transit lobby thinks that some of the money people pay for clothes at Wal-Mart and J.C. Penneys should go to subsidize Paris fashions. Or that some of the money people spend on ordinary groceries should subsidize gourmet restaurants.
After all, transit–at least the kind of transit these people want–is a luxury, not a necessity. They want expensive transit systems aimed at getting relatively well-off people out of their cars. To pay for these systems, they want to tax the more-than-92 percent of mostly ordinary people who have and use cars as their primary modes of transportation.
A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner took a quick look at the Federal Transit Administration’s 2013 New Starts program. Now the agency has released its 2014 New Starts Report, which includes eight new projects.
Four of the eight projects are bus-rapid transit, which can mean anything from running buses on existing streets to building expensive new busways. A proposed BRT in El Paso appears to be closer to the former as it is projected to cost $43 million for a 17-mile route, or less than $3 million per mile. At the other extreme, a BRT in Lansing is projected to cost $215 million for an 8.5-mile route, or more than $25 million per mile. This is undoubtedly a huge waste.
Two of the remaining four projects are extensions to existing light-rail lines. Denver proposes to spend $211 million building a 2.3-mile extension of one of its light-rail lines. At $92 million per mile, this is less than the national average for light rail, but still outrageously expensive, especially considering Denver built its first couple of light-rail lines for less than $30 million per mile.