The Hidden Cost of Rail Transit

Pity Capital Metro, Austin’s transit agency. It has an opportunity to include bus-rapid transit stops on a freeway that is now under construction–but it doesn’t have the funds to pay for them.

The Texas Department of Transportation, which is building the freeway, needs $18 million from Capital Metro now to buy the extra land needed for the bus stops. But Capital Metro doesn’t have it. Nor does it have the $105 million more needed to actually build the bus stops.

Where could it get the money? The best way would be to shutter the agency’s pathetic, 32-mile commuter-rail line. In 2015, Capital Metro spent more than $20 million operating and maintaining this line, but received less than $2.5 million in fares. The trains carried fewer than 1,500 round trips per day, which means each daily round-trip rider cost taxpayers nearly $12,000.

A single-year’s worth of savings on the operating costs would be nearly enough to buy the land needed to make the bus-rapid transit work. A little over five years would be enough to pay the rest of the costs. Of course, if Capital Metro hadn’t built the rail line in the first place, it would have plenty of money for bus-rapid transit. The rail line was supposed to cost $60 million, and actually cost $140 million, sending the agency’s reserve fund from $200 million to $5 million. Continue reading

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Highway Trains from LA to San Francisco

A company called Cabin is offering overnight bus service with “private sleeping cabins” between San Francisco and Los Angeles for $115. The service currently operates about three times a week but in September will begin operating daily. Buses leave at 11 pm and arrive at 7 am from near the Embarcadero in San Francisco and next to the beach in Santa Monica.

Photo courtesy Cabin.

The double-decker buses have 24 sleeping compartments with 25-inch-by-75-inch memory foam beds and bedding, 25 inches of head room, a privacy curtain, a small window with a shade, a reading lamp, power ports, wifi, earplugs, and melatonin to help people sleep. The buses also have a small lounge where people who are not ready to sleep or who wake up early can talk and get espresso, tea, and water from an on-board attendant. The one-way fare is $115. Continue reading

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Estimating Ride Hailing’s Bite out of Transit

The Antiplanner has credited the decline in transit ridership mainly to low gasoline prices, but ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft may be having more of an impact than I thought. A survey of Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar users in California found that, if the ride-hailing services did not exist, a third of them would have taken transit. That’s less than the 39 percent who would have take a taxi, but still a large share.

Lyft carried 163 million rides in 2016, up from 53 million in 2015. If a third of that growth would otherwise have taken public transit, transit lost about 36 million rides to Lyft in 2016. I can’t find exact numbers for Uber, but Uber carries about four times as many riders in the U.S. as Lyft, so the two of them together may have taken 180 million riders from transit.

APTA’s 2016 report found that ridership declined by about 244 million trips nationwide. That suggests that ride-hailing services could be responsible for about three-fourths of the drop. Considering the rate at which ride hailing is growing, it could effectively replace transit in some communities even before driverless cars hit the streets in commercial service. Continue reading

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Bicycle-Friendly Las Vegas

The Antiplanner spent the last four days in Las Vegas and, since I’m not particularly interested in sitting at tables and giving my money to large corporations, I brought my bike with me. You might not think that a city and season where temperatures often reach 110 degrees would be bicycle friendly, but I found Las Vegas to be excellent for cycling.

It helps that I was willing to get up at 5 am, when it was only about 88 degrees, and do a 30- to 50-mile ride before the temperatures exceeded 95. Beyond timing, the city seemed to be well designed for cyclists.

Actually, I was at a conference on the Las Vegas Strip, which isn’t in Las Vegas; it, along with the Las Vegas airport, are in an unincorporated city called Paradise that was made a township (preventing Las Vegas from annexing it) in 1950 by developers seeking to minimize taxes and regulation. They succeeded in attracting tens of billions of dollars of resorts, most of which are owned by just a few companies. Continue reading

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“Stability” Is Another Word for “Lack of Accountability”

A bill in the California legislature would give Caltrain, the commuter trains that connect San Jose with San Francisco, “permanent financial stability.” That’s good news if you think you will be riding Caltrains one thousand years from now, but it’s bad news for the taxpayers who will have to “permanently”–however long that is–pay for running empty trains.

Many transit agencies already have dedicated funds, by which they mean taxes that go straight into their coffers, but those that don’t whine and moan endlessly about how they would be much better off if only they had a dedicated fund. They even love to make fine distinctions: Atlanta’s MARTA complains that it has no dedicated funds from the state, but it does get a 1 percent sales tax, half of which has to be spent on capital improvements.

Transit advocates also like to point out that highways were built with a dedicated fund. Yet the gas taxes that go into that fund are highway user fees. In that sense, every transit agency has a dedicated fund because it gets to keep its user fees. Continue reading

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HUD Backs Off on Housing Mandate

In a case with national ramifications, the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) has effectively given up on its efforts to impose high-density housing on low-density suburbs in the name of racial integration. HUD had ordered Westchester County, New York, to build low-income housing in response to claims that county zoning led to segregated housing.

This was widely seen as the model for HUD’s affirmatively furthering fair housing rule, which requires local governments that have received federal housing funds to review local housing patterns with the de facto assumption that, if the community is not perfectly integrated, whatever segregation exists must be due to local zoning rules making housing less affordable.

In response to HUD’s order, Westchester County had submitted an analysis finding that, while the county was not perfectly integrated, local zoning was not the cause. The Obama administration had rejected this analysis, but the current administration accepted a new analysis that “essentially the same” as the rejected one. Continue reading

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Will Miami Settle for Modern Transportation?

“Can Miami afford more rail?” asks the Miami Herald. “Or will it settle for buses?” That’s like asking if you can afford an IBM 700 mainframe computer from the 1950s or if you will settle for a MacBook Pro. Both buses and laptop computers are far less expensive than rails and mainframes, but the former are also far more flexible.

In 1972, Miami persuaded voters to put up the money to build a 50-mile heavy-rail system. With 80 percent of the cost paid for by the feds, they finally opened a 20-mile line in 1984, but then ran out of money having spent well over a billion dollars, far more than expected. Ridership was poor and people took to calling it a white elephant.

Memories grow dim, however, and in 2002 Miami convinced voters to approve another transit tax, supposedly to finish the system. Only a handful of miles were built, at the cost of close to another billion, before that effort ran out of steam as well. Continue reading

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Amtrak Wants to What?

Amtrak’s co-CEO Wick Moorman has announced that the passenger railroad is thinking of offering a new service to compete with the airlines: economy seating that is crammed together as tightly as airline seats. This was immediately blasted by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), saying, “Amtrak should not throw out one of the best things about Amtrak and train travel — that is, you at least get a seat you can sit in and be comfortable.”

In fact, this idea makes no sense not because heavily subsidized train travelers somehow deserve more comfortable seats but because it would cost Amtrak more in lost revenues than it will save. Airlines fill 85 percent of their seats and on lots of flights they fill 100 percent. Amtrak fills only 51 percent of its seats, so cramming more seats into a railcar will simply mean more empty seats.

According to USA Today, Amtrak seat pitches–the distance from the back of one row of seats to the back of the next–are 39 inches for day trains and 50 inches for overnight trains. Airline seat pitches are 30 to 33 inches while buses are 28 to 31 inches. That means Amtrak could squeeze in four rows of seats where it now has three on day trains and five rows where it now has three on overnight trains.
Amtrak’s overnight trains rarely have more than four coaches. Substituting one economy coach for two regular coaches would save a little bit on fuel and maintenance and results in an overall loss of seating capacity. Many coach riders on the overnight trains are price sensitive, so most of the people attracted to the economy coaches would have otherwise taken the regular train. Thus, Amtrak is likely to lose more revenue than it gains by attracting few people away from buses or planes. Continue reading

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Transit’s Precipitous Decline

Transit ridership in the first quarter of 2017 was 3.1 percent less than the same quarter in 2016, according the American Public Transportation Association’s latest ridership report. The association released the report without a press release, instead issuing a release complaining about the House Appropriations bill reducing funding for transit.

The ridership report is devastating news for anyone who believes transit deserves more subsidies. Every heavy-rail system lost riders except the PATH trains between Newark and Manhattan and the Patco line between Camden and Philadelphia. Commuter rail did a little better, mainly because of the opening of Denver’s A line and trend-countering growth of riders on the Long Island Railroad. Most light-rail lines lost riders, though surprisingly many streetcar lines gained riders.

In most cases where light-rail ridership grew, it did so at the expense of bus ridership. Los Angeles Metro gained 1.66 million light-rail riders but lost 8.73 million bus riders, or more than five for every new light-rail rider. Between the two modes, Phoenix’s Valley Metro lost 23,100 riders; Charlotte 20,200 lost riders; and Dallas Area Rapid Transit lost 193,100 riders. Similarly, Orlando’s commuter trains gained 22,700 riders but buses lost 98,500. Continue reading

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Can New York Afford Rail Transit?

The Antiplanner has often said that New York City is the one city in America that truly needs rail transit because the concentration of jobs in midtown and downtown Manhattan is too great to be served by surface streets alone. But can New York afford rail transit? The city’s transit system has been getting by on bridge tolls, loans, deferred maintenance, unfunded pension and health care obligations, and turning a blind eye to major structural problems with its rail system.

The New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) latest financial statement says that, at the end of 2016, the agency had long-term debts of $37 billion (p. 25). By now, it is above $38 billion, more than that of many small countries. The statement also says the MTA has $18 billion in unfunded pension and health-care obligations (p. 83).

Unlike some transit agencies, MTA hasn’t made public any estimates of its maintenance backlog. But its latest capital improvement program calls for spending more than $32 billion over the next five years, mostly on maintenance and rehabilitation of the subways, Long Island Railroad, and Metro North railroad. This is more of a goal than a plan, as it will require $7.5 billion in further borrowing plus getting several billion dollars from federal grantmaking programs that the administration wants to cut. Even if fully funded, it probably would not completely eliminate the rail systems’ maintenance deficits. Continue reading

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