“Why are our transit systems faltering just as more people than ever want to use them?” asks Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association, which has advocated urban planning in the New York metropolitan area since 1922. His answer is that it has to do with “with the way our government institutions are structured.” He is right in general but wrong on the particulars.
New York City subway and elevated train fares cover more than 60 percent of operating costs, but no maintenance costs. Wikipedia commons photo by AEMoreira.
Transit, at least in the New York metropolitan area, did just fine, he says, until the 1950s, when “the federal government started building the interstate highway system, offering big subsidies to states to connect to it.” When that happened, “mass-transit operators struggled to compete with these roads and started going bankrupt.” They were unwillingly taken over by the government, which “merged the workings of mass transit and toll roads to provide cross subsidies.”
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which some consider the nation’s worst-managed transit agency, has a new program called Envision Silicon Valley. Despite the grandiose title, the not-so-hidden agenda is to impose a sales tax for transit.
A nearly-empty VTA light-rail car in Sunnyvale.
Any vision of Silicon Valley that starts out with transit is the wrong one. Except to the taxpayers who have to pay for it and the motorists and pedestrians who have to dodge light-rail cars, transit is practically irrelevant in San Jose.
It looks like 2015 will be another record year for driving in America. Of course, that’s not saying much as the total amount of driving has been pretty flat since 2007.
Transit advocates will be quick to point out that transit ridership has grown faster than driving. But actually, it depends entirely on which years you pick. Preliminary information suggests that urban driving grew faster than transit in 2014. Since 2004, transit grew faster than driving in about half the years, and overall transit ridership grew by 12 percent while miles of urban driving grew by only 6 percent.
Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, funds its hundreds of planners out of garbage fees, which is why Portland has the highest garbage collection costs in the Pacific Northwest. But Metro also encourages people to recycle in order to reduce their garbage refuse.
As a result, Portland garbage has declined enough to threaten Metro’s budget. Metro’s response, naturally, is to tax recyclables, which would probably lead some people to stop recycling.
Since transit is partly funded out of gas taxes, if most people actually stopped driving and started riding transit (which they show no inclination of doing in Portland or elsewhere), Metro would probably start taxing transit riders. And many places use inclusionary zoning or other housing taxes to pay for affordable housing for low-income families, so if builders stopped building high-end housing and started building exclusively for low-income families, Metro would start taxing the poor to pay for their housing. It seems likely that Metro hasn’t really thought this through.
Shortly after the Antiplanner commented on low oil prices last April, the Saudis admitted that their goal in flooding the market with oil was to drive out high-cost producers such as owners of shale-oil and off-shore wells. Now it appears that this policy has backfired on the Saudis, as their economy is hurting from the low oil prices while the shale industry continues to produce oil.
The problem for the Saudis, says one analyst, is that low prices might hurt high-cost producers, but the shale frackers “are mostly mid-cost.” thanks partly to new technologies. This means that, once they’ve made the initial investment in drilling and fracking, they can continue to extract oil, covering their operating costs even when prices are low and won’t be put out of business by a temporary surge in production in the Mideast.
Meanwhile, the Saudi government has seen its revenues decline by more than 30 percent. This has led Standard & Poors to downgrade Saudi credit ratings, saying that the country’s economy is “undiversified and vulnerable to a steep and sustained decline in oil prices.”
Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin is congested, so obviously (to some people, at least) the solution is to run passenger trains between the two cities. Existing tracks are crowded with freight trains, so the Lone Star Rail District proposes to build a brand-new line for the freight trains and run passenger trains on the existing tracks. The total capital cost would be about $3 billion, up from just $0.6 billion in 2004 (which probably didn’t include the freight re-route).
Click image to download a PDF version of this map.
By coincidence, that was the projected capital cost for the proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando (cancelled by Florida Governor Rick Scott), which are about the same 80-miles apart as Austin and San Antonio. But, despite the cost, Lone Star wouldn’t be a high-speed rail line. According to a 2004 feasibility study, trains would take about 90 minutes between the two cities, with two stops in between. While express trains with no stops would be a bit faster, cars driving at Texas speeds could still be faster.
Joseph Rose, the Oregonian reporter who proved that streetcars are slower than walking, has left the paper’s transportation beat. So it took another Oregonian reporter, Andrew Theen, to make the brilliant discover that Portland highways really are at or above capacity.
Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who lives in the Portland area. According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s latest urban mobility report, Portland has more congestion today (measured by hours of delay per auto commuter) than Los Angeles did 30 years ago, when LA was considered to be about the worst congested city in the world.
It’s no wonder, since Portland and Oregon have added virtually no new road capacity since the 1970s, when the region’s population was about half what it is today. Although officials complained to Theen that new capacity was too expensive, the region hasn’t hesitated to spend roughly $5 billion on light-rail lines that carry an insignificant share of the region’s traffic.
It’s fire season again, which means we are once again treated to stories about how the Forest Service is running out of money and about how it all must be due to climate change. Both of these claims overlook fundamental points about fire policy and firefighting.
As of August 16, the BLM had spent $2.2 million controlling the 88,000-acre Cornet Fire on the Vale District in Oregon. The Forest Service had spent two-and-one-half times that much on a fire that was just 515 acres in size. BLM photo.
The Forest Service frets that rapidly rising firefighting costs are hurting the budgets of other Forest Service programs. However, as the Antiplanner has pointed out before, Forest Service firefighting costs have risen rapidly mainly because they can: the agency has a virtual blank check to spend on fire. As a result, the agency spends far more fighting fires than Department of the Interior agencies, which have never had a blank check.
The Antiplanner spent part of yesterday in Washington DC stuck on a train while Metro was suffering yet another service disruption. I eventually got off and took a taxi, and soon after reaching daylight I received a call from a New Jersey reporter asking what I thought about a revised plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River to supplement the North River Tunnels Amtrak and New Jersey Transit use today.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the tunnel project in 2010 because he didn’t want New Jersey taxpayers to have to pay most of the cost including the inevitable cost overruns. Christie is perfectly happy to have the tunnel built so long as New York pays more of the cost. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the federal government to pay the vast majority of the cost (it was already going to pay 51 percent) because, after all, this is interstate commerce. Now Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a grand plan to create a quasi-governmental corporation to build it, as we didn’t already have enough of those. The two governors claim to love this plan even though Schumer still doesn’t say where the money is going to come from.
The justification for building the project is completely unrealistic. As the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, noted when Christie first cancelled the project, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit predicted that Midtown Manhattan would soon gain 500,000 new jobs. That as many jobs as are inside the Chicago Loop and far more than any other downtown in America, and there is little evidence that Manhattan job numbers are growing that fast (and little reason why taxpayers outside of New York or New Jersey should subsidize that growth).
The day after a derailment shut down the downtown Washington portions of the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines, a power outage shut down portions of the Silver and Orange lines in Fairfax County, Virginia. Without offering any solutions (other than spend more money), the Washington Post has helpfully listed some of Metro’s biggest meltdowns of the past few years.
These are only the biggest ones the Post happens to remember. According to table 16 of the data tables in the National Transit Database, Metro suffered more than 1,200 “major mechanical failures” in 2013, which is 16 failures per million passenger-car miles. That’s nearly twice the rate of other heavy-rail lines in the country; Atlanta and Baltimore are worse, while New York City lines are much better (yet still have many problems and San Francisco’s BART is much better.
According to one insider, most of the failures are train breakdowns, power supply problems, and cracked rails. The breakdowns are mainly in the 1000 series cars that date back to the 1970s, the 4000 series cars from the 1990s, and the 5000 series cars from the early 2000s. The 5000 series is so bad that the agency would like to get an exemption from the Federal Transit Administration to scrap them before they reach their full, 25-year lifespans, but it has no cars to replace them with. Washington Metro has purchased 7000-series cars, but doesn’t expect to have them all in service before 2020. The power-supply problems include smoke from burning insulators and power failures such as the one in Fairfax County. Metro is spending less than a billion dollars a year on capital replacement, which is probably less than half as much as it needs to spend to put its system in a state of good repair.