Tag Archives: Washington DC

Let’s Start Scrapping Streetcars

Good news: Washington DC is thinking of scrapping its streetcars, which have been in service for just two years and whose ridership is still so poor — about 3,000 weekday riders — that the city is afraid to start charging fares.

Bad news: City officials are only thinking of scrapping the streetcars and not the tracks; instead, they wants to replace the streetcars with brand-new ones because it’s so hard to get spare parts for the ones they have. Each new 30-seat streetcar would cost roughly ten times as much as a 40-seat bus, but cost is no object when you are playing with other people’s money.

The modern streetcar craze, which was only partly fueled by federal funding (Portland, Tacoma, and Washington purchased their first streetcars without federal support), provides a lesson for the writers of Trump’s infrastructure plan. They hope that giving local, not federal, politicians the authority of where to spend money would result in better decisions. In fact, local politicians are just as willing to waste money on gleaming new urban monuments as federal ones. Continue reading

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Metro’s Unsurprising Derailment

Washington Metro officials pretended to be shocked when a Red Line train derailed due to a broken rail on Monday. In fact, the break should not and probably didn’t surprise any of them.

“It’s like, God, didn’t we do all of the fixing, the bad areas, SafeTrack?” rambled Metro’s board chair, Jack Evans. “All that stuff was intended to prevent stuff like this from happening.” Actually, Evans knows perfectly well that the SafeTrack work was superficial and the system still needs $15 billion to $25 billion of maintenance and rehabilitation work.

“This rail was manufactured in 1993, which may sound old but actually rail can last 40, 50 years,” said Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld, “so it’s not particularly old in the railroad business.” Actually, it is. Continue reading

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$34.50 Toll for 10 Miles

Virginia introduced tolls to high-occupancy lanes on Interstate 66 in suburban Washington DC, and the tolls the first day reached $34.50 for a ten-mile drive. Some people think this is excessive.

What the articles may not reveal is that the high-occupancy lanes offer toll-free travel for any vehicle with two or more people. Most high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes only give a free ride to vehicles with three or more people. So what has happened on I-66 is that the two-or-more vehicles are pretty much filling up the lane. With room for only a handful of single-occupancy vehicles, the tolls are set high to keep the lane from getting congested.

Having gone to the expense of installing toll-collection equipment, Virginia should have changed the toll-free rides to three passengers and up. As it is, the high tolls are giving bad publicity to the idea of HOT lanes. Of course, no one has to pay the toll as there are free lanes available, though they are more congested. If all lanes were tolled, as the Antiplanner prefers, the tolls would be much lower and all of the lanes would be free of congestion. Continue reading

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LaHood’s DC Rx: Raise Bus Fares, Cut Service

Washington Metro should raise bus fares and cut service as a part of a plan to restore its rail system to its former greatness, recommends a report by former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood. The report hasn’t been released yet–in fact, it has apparently been sitting on the Virginia governor’s desk for several weeks–but the Washington Post obtained a copy just in time for the report to have no influence on Virginia’s recent election.

Parts of the report are predictable, such as a recommendation that Metro obtain a source of “dedicated funds,” meaning a tax dedicated to it so it won’t have to be responsive to local politicians. However, LaHood’s mandate was to come up with a specific funding source acceptable to regional political interests, and he failed to do so.

What was not predicted was a finding that Metro “offers more [vehicle-hours of] service per rider than other large transit agencies.” Based on this finding, LaHood recommended cutting back service. The report notes that service levels were “average when compared to peers” until the opening of the Silver Line led to increased service hours coinciding with a decline in ridership. Continue reading

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Washington Metro, Meet the Titanic

Plagued by years of deferred maintenance, the Washington Metro system will have to undergo severe cuts in service if new funding isn’t found. General manager Paul Wiedefeld is asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to increase their F.Y. 2019 contributions to Metro by $165 million, which is more than 10 percent of what they are giving in 2018. But Wiedefeld’s hopes for a “dedicated fund,” meaning a sales tax paid by all the regions’ residents, have been dashed by Maryland’s governor, who says there is no chance of that happening before 2019.

Ridership reports indicate that rush-hour ridership has recovered since Metro ended the “safe tracks” maintenance program that delayed many trains, but off-peak ridership has not. Moreover, the rush-hour recovery has been to 2015 levels, which themselves were 4 percent lower than the system’s peak in 2008. Weekday ridership in FY 2017 was 18 percent less than in 2008.

Since a large part of this decline is due to competition from Uber, Lyft, and similar services, some are beginning to doubt whether a full recovery will ever be possible. Metro board member David Horner notes that financial reports to the board repeatedly use the phrase “unsustainable operating model,” and he suggests that the rail system may be obsolete. Wiedefeld’s efforts remind Horner of “the expression about deck chairs on the Titanic.” Continue reading

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DC Metro More Reliable But Riders Are Not

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has blamed much of the rail system’s ridership declines on the system’s reliability problems and all of the track work it did in 2016 and early 2017 to fix those problems. Now, the system has become more reliable, but riders don’t seem to be returning.

The Federal Transit Administration has published month-by-month ridership data for all transit systems through June, 2017. The numbers show that Metro rail ridership in February, March, and April of this year were all about 10 percent less than in the same months last year. In May, however, it was only 1.5 percent less, while June 2017 ridership was actually more than in June 2016–though only by 0.6 percent.

While that’s grounds for a bit of optimism, Metro rail ridership still has a long way to go before it returns to its 2009 peak, which was 28 percent higher than the year ending June 2017. I don’t like making predictions because there are too many unknown variables, but I suspect ridership will never return to those levels partly because many former riders have lost faith in the system and partly because the band-aid work done on the system in the last year won’t solve its long-term reliability problems. Time will tell.

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LaHood to DC Metro Board: “You’re Fired!”

Washington DC’s Metro system has a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, declining ridership, and serious problems with labor unions. The systems problems are so bad that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood, one of the least credible people ever to hold that office, to lead a search for new funds for the agency.

Now LaHood has come out with his proposal. Has he found a billion dollars stuck in the seat cushions of Metro trains? Nope. Has he discovered a treasure map at the White House that leads to a city of gold? Nope. Has he found any money at all? None.

Instead, he proposes to replace Metro’s current sixteen-member board of directors with a “reform board” consisting of “five members who are solely responsible to the transit system, not the parochial interests of the local officials who would appoint them.” Continue reading

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Purple Line Losers

Travelers and taxpayers both lose as Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao caved in to Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan and Democratic Congressional delegation by approving federal funding for the Purple Line. As Antiplanner readers know, the state’s own transportation analysis found that the Purple Line will dramatically increase congestion in Montgomery County suburbs of Washington DC, while the $5.6 billion cost represents exactly $5.6 billion that could have been spent to better effect on just about anything else: buses, roads, schools, or health care, to name a few things.

Administration officials justified the decision by saying that the project was too far along to cancel and the planned public-private partnership was something that President Trump wants to encourage. But, in this case at least, the public-private partnership does not save any money or produce any better service; it is merely a way of avoiding debt limits because the debt from the project will be on the books of the private partner, not the public agency.

As for being too far along to stop, every project on FTA’s New Starts and Small Starts list has already received some federal money for engineering and design work. The Department of Transportation recently told Durham to go ahead with engineering work on its light-rail project, so it too will presumably reach the point where it is “too far along” to stop. Continue reading

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Bus versus Streetcar

The bus versus streetcar debate became personal in Washington DC when a Megabus rammed a platform for the H Street streetcar. The crash put the streetcar out of service for several hours, and that particular platform for many days.

As if in retaliation, a streetcar rear ended a DC bus, injuring ten transit riders. There were only eight passengers on the bus, so the other two must have been on the streetcar and the Antiplanner wouldn’t be surprised if they were the only passengers on board.

Of course, the entire streetcar system was put out of commission while the messes were cleaned from each of the accidents. If only they had a vehicle that could pass one that was stationary because of an accident or breakdown. Maybe someday someone will invent one.

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Tax You, Tax Them, Tax Everyone Else

To help “close a budget gap,” Washington Metro is scheduled to raise fares and cut service later this month. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents 88 percent of Metro’s employees, calls this the “pay more, get less” plan.

In response, the union issued its own plan to cut fares and increase service. It could have called this the “pay less, get more” plan, but instead it called it “fund it, fix it, make it fair.” The union didn’t originate this slogan; instead, it seems to be a mantra for the “transit justice” community, which seems to believe that, because a few low-income people ride transit, everyone should be subsidized.

For the “fund it” part of the plan, the union calls for the creation of assessment districts that would pay fees–not taxes–to help run the system. The union plan tries to imply that only the wealthy owners of properties whose values are enhanced by the transit system would have to pay, but when an assessment district was created to fund construction of the Silver Line, owners of properties miles away from any transit station were forced to pay as much as those next door to a station. Continue reading

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