Archive for the ‘Rail and Mass Transit’ Category.

No on Phoenix Prop 104: The Promised Benefits Are Almost Certainly Grossly Exaggerated

A reader sent me this:  A recent McKinsey study looked at large infrastructure projects (over $1 billion).  In the introduction they observe:

Rail projects, for example, go over budget by an average of 44.7 percent, and their demand is overestimated by 51.4 percent.

We actually can combine these two numbers and find that the total cost per user of these systems was over-estimated by 117%, meaning the cost per user was on averagemore than double what was promised when these projects are sold to the taxpayers.

At the end of the day, the first segment of the line cost $75,000 per round trip daily raider.  We could have bought every regular rider a prius and a lifetime of gas and still saved money.

Phoenix Light Rail: We Spent $1.4 Billion (and Growing) To Subsidize ASU Students

The AZ Republic has some of the first information I have ever seen on the nature of Phoenix light rail ridership.  The first part confirms what I have always said, that light rail's primary appeal is to middle and upper class whites who don't want to ride on the bus with the plebes

Light rail has changed the demographics of overall transit users since the system opened in 2008, according to Valley Metro.

Passengers report higher incomes than bus riders, with more than a quarter living in households making more than $50,000 a year. Many riders have cars they could use.

The 20-mile system running through Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa recorded more than than 14 million boardings last year. Still, census data estimate less than one-third of 1 percent of Phoenix commuters — or about 2,000 people — use rail as their main transportation to work.

.0033% huh?  If we built similar facilities to serve everyone, it would only cost us about $420 billion at the rate of $1.4 billion per third of a percent.

But I thought this next bit was the most startling.  I always had a sneaking suspicion this was true but never have seen it in print before:

While the much larger bus system reaches most corners of the Valley, light rail connects specific destinations along a single line. Nearly half of light-rail riders are enrolled in college.

I must have missed this in the original sales pitch for the light rail line: "Let's pay $1.4 billion so ASU students can get to more distant bars."   Note that by these numbers, students likely outnumber commuters 10:1.  Doesn't bode well for light rail extensions that don't plow right through the middle of the most populous college campus in the country.

Postscript:  They don't break out people riding to get to sporting events downtown, but sporting events make up most of the largest traffic days on the system.  From my personal acquaintances, many people use light rail as a substitute for expensive downtown parking at sporting events, parking (often semi-illegally) near light rail stops and taking the train the rest of the way in.  On the whole, its not very compelling as a taxpayer to be helping to subsidize someone else's parking.  And from a municipal fiscal standpoint, it means that light rail fares may be cannibalizing (on a much greater ratio than 1:1 given the price differential) parking fees at municipal parking lots.

Why Valley Metro (Phoenix Light Rail) Can't Be Trusted and Shouldn't Be Given More Tax Money to Play With

I was reading this article in the Arizona Republic (which is generally an unskeptical cheerleader for light rail investments) and looking at the claim that Valley Metro (the operator of Phoenix light rail) had a 45% fare recovery ratio in 2013.  One would think that means that their fares cover 45% of their costs -- which would be awful for any real enterprise but is pretty good for government-run rail systems.

But in fact, Valley Metro (along with rail supporters in the Administration) stack the deck by defining most of the costs out of this metric so it looks far better than it really is.  In fact, by my reading of their financial statements, the true fare recovery is at best 15.2% and likely much worse.

Here are the Valley Metro financials for 2013, from their annual report



Look at their costs of $75+ million and fares of about $12.8 million.  How do they get to 45%?  Simple -- they leave the majority of their costs out.  They exclude administrative costs, financing costs, and depreciation (essentially their capital cost) from the equation.  This means that their fare recover is 45% -- IF you ignore their large administrative costs and you ignore the $1.4+ billion the line cost to build.   Further, because of the way the government does its finances, it is also missing any financing costs (interest and such on debt).

So the true cost recovery, stated in a way that  a reasonable person would think about such a number, is 16.8% at best.  If one takes into account the $8.28 million in "non-operating expenses" the number is 15.2%.  And it is even lower if you were to include interest and other financing costs.

I am sure Valley Metro will argue that this is the way the Feds measure it.  I don't care.  It has an obligation to accurately report its financial position to the public who is paying for it, particularly when the public is considering further investments in the form of higher taxes.  The 45% is a meaningless number that is crafted solely to make light rail look financial stronger than it really is.

This, by the way, is why total ridership of rail + buses has stalled since the construction of the light rail line.  Light rail is so expensive per rider that it is starving cash from the rest of the system.

Vote "NO!" on Phoenix Prop 104 Transit Tax

Randal O'Toole and the Arizona Free Enterprise Club have weighed in with a comprehensive report on Phoenix's Prop 104 transit tax, and the results are ugly.  A few findings:

  • The oft-repeated claim that light rail has generated $7 Billion dollars in economic development is simply untrue. In fact, many of the projects included in this claim have never been built (like the Sycamore Station development) or involve projects that have nothing to do with light rail (such as the $600 million Convention Center Expansion, which was funded largely by state tax dollars).
  • The main beneficiaries of the transit plan appear to be contractors and developers who have projects near rail stations. The tax revenue from the plan combined with the generous subsidies offered to select developments ensures that this plan will benefit a few contractors and developers at the expense of others.
  • The plan is unbalanced and ignores vehicle street improvements. Despite the fact that only 3% of the population uses transit (less than 1% use light rail), 95% of the funding in the plan goes toward expanded bus and rail service. Only 3% goes toward vehicle street improvements.
  • Transit ridership actually fell after the light rail opened. From when light rail opened in 2009 through 2014, any gains in light rail ridership were offset by the loss of more than one bus rider. Ridership is still 1.2 million less per year than it was in 2009.
  • The transit plan as proposed will increase traffic congestion, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the transit plan will use more

The complete report is here.

Coyoteblog readers will be totally familiar with this statement from the report about light rail merely cannibalizing bus riders, echoing past articles I have had saying the same thing:

According to the city of Phoenix and Valley Metro, light rail is a great success in Phoenix, generating a 42-percent increase in transit ridership since 2001 and stimulating the construction of $7 billion in new real estate development along its route. A close look, however, reveals that both of these claims are wrong.

The increase in ridership took place between 2001 and 2009, the (fiscal) year that the light-rail line opened. Since that year, for every light-rail rider gained, the region’s transit systems lost more than one bus rider. Per capita transit ridership has declined by 8 percent since 2009 partly because the high cost of light rail forced a 34-percent increase in average bus fares by 2010 and an 18-percent decrease in bus service by 2013.

You can see this perfectly well from a chart right off of our transit authority's web site (except for my annotation in red), which I discussed in depth here.

click to enlarge

It is just incredibly disingenuous that light rail supporters are trying to claim credit for transit ridership increases that occurred before the line was built and whose growth the line essentially halted.

Another claim the report demolishes is that light rail is somehow spurring development.  Supporters claim $7 billion of light rail development planned or built along the line, but oddly enough that is the exact same figure they were touting almost 8 years ago before the line was even completed.  Doesn't seem like they are getting much traction, huh?  In fact, the list actually shortens with every year as projects get cancelled and no new ones are added.  But beyond this, simply adding up development along the line and claiming that it is all incremental to the line's construction is simply moronic, the same facile BS analysis often used to support publicly funded football stadiums.    The obvious questions are:

  • How do they know this development is incremental, and not development that would have occurred anyway?  In particular, this line was built through the three of the largest pre-existing development hubs in the metropolitan area (North Central Ave, Downtown Phoenix, and Tempe/ASU).  There was always development activity in these areas, and always going to be
  • Much of the new activity they cite is near Tempe Town Lake, and I would give that project, not the rail, much of the credit.  The city did a marvelous job (see, I can give props to government once in a while) converting a big wide ugly dry ditch into a lake that is the centerpiece for business and condo development
  • Much of this development is subsidized by various government programs.  It is impossible to separate the effects of the subsidy from the rail line.

Finally, if you don't believe me about the relative costs of the two modes, let's take a look at the number from Phoenix's own plan.  They speak for themselves:


So what does one get for the 5x higher operating costs and 134x higher capital costs of light rail over buses?  Well on the negative side, one gets a system that is substantially less flexible and responsive to changes.  The only positive I can come up with is that middle and upper class white people consider buses low class and want a transportation mode of their own.

Even Vox Can't Make A Very Strong Case For Streetcars

A reader sent me a link to this Vox article on streetcars.  What I thought was interesting is just how weak the case for streetcars is, even when made by folks are are presumably sympathetic to them.  This page is entitled "Why do cities want streeetcars."  The arguments are:

  • Tourists like them, because you can't get lost like you can on buses.  My response is, "so what."  Unless you are one of a very few unique cities, tourists are a trivial percentage of transit riders anyway.  Why build a huge system just to serve out-of-town visitors?  I would add that many of these same cities (e.g. Las Vegas) considering streetcars are the same ones banning Uber, which tourists REALLY love.
  • Developers like them.  Ahh, now we are getting somewhere.  So they are corporate welfare?  But not so fast, they are not even very good corporate welfare.  Because most of the studies they cite are total BS, of the same quality as studies that say sports stadium construction spurs all sorts of business.  In fact, most cities have linked huge tax abatement and subsidy programs to their streetcars, such that the development you get with the subsidy and the streetcar is about what you would expect from the subsidies alone.  Reminds me of the old joke that mimicked cereal commercials: "As part of a breakfast with juice, toast, and milk, Trix cereal has all the nutrition of juice, toast, and milk."
  • Good for the environment.  But even Vox asks, "as compared to what."  Since they are generally an alternative buses, as compared to buses that have little environmental advantage and often are worse (they have a lot more weight to drag around when empty).
  • The Obama Administration likes them.  LOL, that's a recommendation?  When you read the text, what they actually say is that mayors like the fact that the Obama Administration likes them, for it means the Feds will throw lots of Federal money at these projects to help mayors look good using other peoples' money
  • Jobs.  This is hilarious Keynesianism, trying to make the fact that streetcars are 10-100x more expensive than buses some sort of positive.  Because they are more inefficient, they employ more people!  One could make the exact same argument for banning mechanical harvesters and going back to scythes.   Left unquestioned, as Bastiat would tell us, is how many people that money would have employed if it had not been seized by the government for streetcar use.
  • Je ne sais quoi.  I kid you not, that is their final argument, that streetcars add that special something to a neighborhood.  In my mind, this is Vox's way of saying the same thing I did the other day -- that the streetcar's appeal is primarily based on class, in that middle and upper class folks don't want to ride on a bus with the masses.   The streetcar feels more upscale than buses.   The poor of course, for whom public transit is most vital, don't want to pay 10 times more for sexiness.  Oh, and watch this video of Washington streetcars blocking traffic and crunching parked cars and tell me what it is adding to the neighborhood.

Every argument I have ever been in on streetcars always boils down to something like "well, all the cool kids like them."  Once, after defending the US approach to rail (vs. Europe and Japan) as (correctly) focusing on productivity vs. sexiness, having gone into a lot of detail on the economics of freight vs. passengers, I got a one sentence answer from Joel Epstein of the HuffPo:  “You should get out of the country more often.”  That was it -- the cool cosmopolitan kids who vacation in Gstaad but never would be caught dead driving across Nebraska were all against me.

Streetcars: A Scam That is All About Class

I am increasingly convinced that the appeal of streetcars and light rail has everything to do with class.  From any rational perspective, these systems make no sense -- they are 10-100x more expensive than buses and lack the flexibility that buses have to adjust to shifting demand patterns over time.  A single extra lane of highway adds more capacity than any light rail line.

Streetcar's single, solitary advantage is that middle and upper class whites who would not be caught dead on a bus seem to be willing to ride streetcars.   I don't know if this is because of some feature of the streetcars (they are shiny and painted pretty) or if it is some sort of self-segregation (the upper classes want to ride on something that is not filled with "riffraff").

Anyway, Reason has a really good video on streetcars, which covers a lot of topics from cronyism to the class issues I mention.  And the film of the incredibly poor design of the DC streetcar has to be seen to be believed.  (via Maggies Farm and their great daily links page)

Great Example of Concentrated Benefits / Dispersed Costs Cronyism: New Phoenix Rail Tax

The hefty sales tax that funds Phoenix light rail deficits is about to expire, and as is usual, politicians not only don't want it to expire but they want to double it so they can build more over-priced rail lines.

One of the reasons that stuff like this is so hard to fight is a phenomenon called "concentrated benefits but dispersed costs."  This means that, particularly for certain crony handouts, the benefits accrue to just a few actors who, due to the size of these giveaways, have a lot of financial incentive to promote and defend them.  The costs, on the other hand, are dispersed such that the final bill might only be a few dollars per taxpayer, such that no individual has much incentive to really pay up to support the fight.

A great example of this is sugar tariffs.  These raise the price of sugar (as well as reducing our choices and effectively promoting imperfect substitutes like HFCS) so we as consumers should all fight them.  But the higher cost of sugar might only cost us, say, $20 each a year individually.   Are you really going to donate $100 in a political cause to save $20?  On the other side, these tariffs create millions and millions of dollars in profit for a few sugar producers, such that they have a lot of money and incentive to spend big on lobbying to keep the tariffs in place.

The new Phoenix light rail tax increase gives us a yet another sad example of the phenomenon:

Construction companies, engineering firms and transit service providers are the biggest early supporters of the Proposition 104 campaign to expand Phoenix transportation, while the group fighting the proposed tax increase still seeks major funding.

The MovePHX campaign, supporting the bus, light rail and street improvement plan going before city voters in August, raised $382,900 from March through the end of May, according to finance reports filed Monday.

Opposition group Taken for A Ride — No on Prop 104 received just under $417 from individuals over the same period. A second campaign committee opposed to the proposition formed after the contribution reporting period ended....

More than half of the contributions to the MovePHX campaign during the reporting period came from engineering, design and construction firms, including many that were hired for design and consultation on the Valley's first stretch of light rail.

The largest single donation came from We Build Arizona, a group of engineering, contracting and transit organizations that donated $125,000 to the campaign. TransDev and Alternate Concepts, Inc., which hold bus and light rail service contracts, contributed more than $35,000 combined.

A combined $30,000 came from police, firefighter and food and commercial worker union political action committees.

$382,900 to $417.  That is why cronyism is so prevalent.

Even at the Margin With Capital Charges Sunk, Light Rail Economics are Awful

A reader and frequent contributor sent me this:

When 120,000 people head to downtown Orlando for the big July 4 fireworks show at Lake Eola, none will be getting on SunRail.

It’s not running.

Central Florida’s $1 billion commuter-rail line usually only operates Monday through Friday, and while a few special weekend events in recent months have booked the train, one of the biggest gatherings of the year won’t.

Fireworks at the Fountain, in addition to the sky show, will feature more than 25 vendors, live music and children’s activities.

But Orlando city staff researched the addition of SunRail service, but found it wouldn’t work, said Cassandra Lafser, the city’s public information officer.

“Several factors contributed to this decision, including safety, availability and costs,” Lafser said in a prepared statement.

“The city’s concerns included: total train capacity, safety and security, hours of operation, pedestrian wayfinding and transport operations between the downtown stations and Lake Eola, and funding availability.”

So, even in a situation where capital costs are sunk and can be ignored, an incremental decision to operate the train on a very heavy commuter day makes no economic sense.  You want to know why?  Because it makes no economic sense Monday through Friday either.  Light rail never pays back any of its capital costs, but the vast majority of light rail loses money operationally at the margin as well.

Is the Light Rail Fail Moving to Las Vegas?

Patrick Everson has the first of a two-part series of editorials in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on light rail.  In this first part, he is nice enough to refer to much of what I have written here about the problems with Phoenix Light Rail.  You can find his editorial here.

Transit Net Transit Ridership Does Not Go Up When Cities Build Rail

As I have written before, Phoenix has seen its total transit ridership flat to down since it built its light rail line.  This after years of 6-10% a year increases in ridership.  Most cities, even the oft-worshipped Portland, have seen the same thing.  Here is the chart for Phoenix (if you look closely, you can see how they fudged the bar scaling to make light rail ridership increases look better).



The reason is that per passenger, or per mile, or per route, or whatever way you want to look at it, rail systems are 1-2 orders of magnitude more expensive than buses.  Since most cities are reluctant to increase their spending on transit 10-100x when they build trains (and to be fair, proponents of rail projects frequently make this worse by fibbing about future costs and revenue expectations), what happens is that bus routes are cut to fund rail lines.  But since buses are so much cheaper, 10 units of bus capacity, or more, must be cut for each one unit of rail capacity.

The Anti-planner shows us an example in Honolulu.  No, the line is not finished so this effect has not happened yet, but you can see it from a mile away:

The city and state officials who promoted construction of Honolulu’s rail transit line now admitthat they don’t know how they are going to pay for the cost of operating that line. Between 2019, when the first part of the line is expected to open for business, and 2031, those costs are expected to be $1.7 billion, or about $140 million per year. In 2011, the annual operating cost was estimated to be $126 million a year.

Honolulu has about a hundred bus routes, which cost about $183 million to operate in 2013, or less than $2 million per route. The rail line will therefore cost about 70 times as much to operate as the average bus route.

So they have budgeted no money for operations, and are probably underestimating net operating costs as their revenue projections, as discussed later in the article, are transparently over-optimistic (this is always a good bet, since 99% of rail projects under-estimate their costs and over-estimate their ridership).  The rail line will cost as much to operate as 2/3 of their city's entire bus system, which is extensive and well-used. So how many bus routes will be cut to fund this one route?  10?  30?  70?

By the way, beyond the obvious harm to taxpayers, the other people hurt by this are the poor who are disporportionately bus users.  Rail systems almost always go from middle/upper class suburbs to business districts and seldom mirror the transit patterns of the poor.  Middle class folks who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus love the trains, but these same folks already have transportation alternatives.  The bus lines that get cut to fund the trains almost always serve much lower income folks with fewer alternatives.

Phoenix Wants to Double the Light Rail Tax

Our great city is proposing to double the sales tax increase dedicated to light rail and make the increase permanent.  This all so we can spend more money to shift people from busses to a mode that is more than 10x more expensive per passenger mile.

Is The Left Finally Starting to Question Light Rail?

This is the first even mild questioning of light rail I have seen, and it is certainly welcome.  It even acknowledges that the sole advantage of light rail over much more flexible and less expensive buses is that it is more appealing to the middle and upper classes.  Via Kevin Drum:

Josh Barro thinks our cities are building too much light rail. It's expensive, often slow, and offers virtually no advantage over simply opening up a bus line. The problem, according to a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, is that "Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem."



Infrastructure Bait and Switch

President Obama wants to spend something like a half trillion incremental dollars on "infrastructure".  I have found that these initiatives to sell infrastructure tend to be great bait and switch programs.  Infrastructure is generally the one type of government spending that polls well across all parties and demographics.  So it is used by government officials to pass big spending increases, but in fact what really happens is that the government takes a wish-list of stuff that most of the public would not be OK with increasing spending on, then they put a few infrastructure projects on top like a cherry to sell the thing.  They call it an "infrastructure" program when in fact it is no such thing.

Obama would never do that, right?  Hope and change?  In fact, he already has.  The first time around he sold the stimulus bill as mainly an infrastructure spending bill -- remember all that talk of shovel-ready projects?   Only a trivial percentage of that bill was infrastructure.  At most 6% was infrastructure, and in practice a lot less since Obama admitted later there were no shovel-ready projects.   (also here).  The rest of it was mainly stuff like salary support for state government officials.  Do you think he would have as easily sold the "wage support for state government officials" bill in the depth of a recession?  No way, so he called it, falsely, an infrastructure bill.

The other bait and switch that occurs is within the infrastructure category.  We have seen this at the state level in AZ several times.  Politicians love light rail, for some reason I do not understand, perhaps because it increases their personal power in a way that individual driving does not.  Anyway, they always want money for light rail projects, but bills to fund light rail almost always fail.  So they tack on a few highway projects, that people really want, call it a highway bill and pass it that way.  But it turns out most of the money is for non-highway stuff.  That is the other bait and switch that occurs.

Expect to see both of these with the new infrastructure proposal.

By the way, Randal O'Toole has a nice summary of the drawbacks of light rail and trolley spending

For the past two decades or so, however, much of our transportation spending has focused on infrastructure that is slower, more expensive, less convenient, and often more dangerous than before. Too many cities have given up on trying to relieve congestion. Instead, they have allowed it to grow while they spend transportation dollars (nearly all paid by auto users) on other forms of travel such as rail transit. Such transportation is:

  • Slower: Where highway speeds even in congested cities average 35 miles per hour or more, the rail transit lines built with federal dollars mostly average 15 to 20 mph.
  • More expensive: In 2013, Americans auto users spent less than 45 cents per vehicle mile (which means, at average occupanies of 1.67 people per car, about 26 cents per passenger mile), and subsidies to roads average under a penny per passenger mile. By comparison, transit fares are also about 26 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies are 75 cents per passenger mile.
  • Less convenient: Autos can go door to door, while transit requires people to walk or use other forms of travel, often at both ends of the transit trip.
  • Less safe: For every billion passenger miles carried, urban auto accidents kill about 5 people, while light rail kills about 12 people and commuter trains kill 9. Only subways and elevateds are marginally safer than auto travel, at 4.5, but we haven’t built many of those lately.

Why Can't [X] Be Free

In the Warren Meyer style guide, any phrase like this one -- Why Can't Public Transit Be Free? -- would be reworded "Why Can't Other People Pay For My Transit" so as to be more accurate.  Because it clearly can never be free (short of an Iain Banks post-scarcity future world).  An even more generic title for this would be "why can't non-users pay for users' services?"

One other thought -- since when did "getting people out of their cars" become the goal of public transit?  Is that really a goal worth spending money on?   I understand that many transit advocates have this goal nowadays, but in the new systems being built (outside of New York) there is little or no energy reduction in moving people by transit.   And the cost per passenger mile of these system is much higher than for building more roads for more cars.   And it is no longer about mobility for poorer folks -- new light rails systems cost a fortune, and are built to appeal to professionals and the middle class, while crowding (due to their huge costs) buses that are the traditional source of mobility for the poor.

I get the sense that the argument for transit nowadays is almost aesthetic -- people find cars and roads and suburbs aesthetically distasteful, and want to replace them.  That would explain the focus on insanely expensive light rail systems, that look cool, over buses that actually move people for a reasonable cost.  I saw a great quote the other day, I wish I can remember who said it.  Something like, "Progressives aren't trying to create a rational world, they are trying to create Portland."

update:  Thanks to a reader, here is the actual quote (and source):  "The goal of progressivism is not to make the world rational; it’s to make the world Portland."

Want to Increase Infrastructure Money for Highways Immediately by 31%? Stop Diverting Highway Money to Transit

This DOT table, pointed out to me by Randal O'Toole, shows that money spent on highways could be increased immediately by over 30% if highway money was not diverted to transit and other uses.  About 13% of state gas tax revenues meant for highways are diverted to non-highway transit projects (e.g. light rail boondoggles).  Another 9.4% are diverted to general funds, and may not be applied to transportation projects at all.   The same table shows that if all state MVD receipts were used to support investments for cars rather than transit and general spending, money available for roads would increase 45% from those funds.

Transit projects should be supported by their own riders.  This will never happen, because they are so egregiously expensive per passenger-mile that no one would ride them if their trip were not subsidized by the rest of us**.  And I am exhausted with having folks argue that highways are "subsidized" because they require tax money beyond the gas taxes (which are essentially a user fee) when these extra tax monies for highways would be largely unneeded if the highway funds were used for highways.  The diversion to general funds is particularly troubling, since sleazy government officials are obviously trying to piggy-back off the popularity of highway infrastructure investment to generate a slush fund for activities taxpayers are less likely to support.

And please do not tell me that as a highway driver, investments in transit are doing me a favor by getting cars off the road.  Transit investments are so expensive per passenger mile that the same money spent getting a few cars off the road via transit would substantially increase road and highway capacities.  A dollar of highway investment carries at least an order of magnitude more passenger miles than a dollar of transit spending.

** I am always amazed that supporters of such transit projects call light rail projects "sustainable".  Forget for a minute that they seldom use less energy per passenger mile than driving.   Think about all the resources that go into them.  This at first seems like a hard problem -- how do we account for all the resources that go into transit vs. go into driving.  But then we realize it is actually easy, because we have a simple tool for valuing resource inputs:  price.  Prices are a great miracle.  They provide us with a sort of weighted average of the value and scarcity of the resources (both hard, like titanium, and soft, like labor and innovation) that go into a product.  So if light rail costs 10x or more per passenger mile than driving, as it often does, this means that it uses ten times the value of resource inputs as driving.  This is sustainable?  I do not think that word means what you think it means.

I Just Don't Understand the Appeal of Short Street Car Lines in Low-Density Towns

More street car craziness.  I love the phrase "modern street car".  Like an up-to-date stagecoach.

Despite mounting construction costs and uncertainty over federal funds, Tempe is still seeking to be the Valley's first city with a modern streetcar system traveling through its downtown.


Valley Metro executives Steve Banta and Wulf Grote reviewed the project with the Tempe City Council this month.

The new alignment has lengthened the route from 2.6 miles to 3 miles and increased costs. The cost range is now $175 million to $200 million depending on the type of vehicle technology used.

First, there is no way it comes in for these numbers, but even accepting the mid-point of their estimates this is $62.5 million a mile or $11,837 per foot.  Of course there is also the operating cost, which will certainly lose money since there is no way people are going to pay much for a maximum 3 mile ride.  My prediction is that they will sell the project promising that there will be a fare that helps cover costs but they will drop the fare quickly once implemented  (because no one will ride this thing unless it is free).  And and don't forget the cost of the loss of an entire lane of roadway each way to the trains.

Just consider how much less 4 buses running in a 3-mile circle would cost, and they would only consume a tiny fraction of the existing road capacity, rather than taking up an entire lane just for themselves.  This is just a huge upper-middle class subsidy, a special favor to rich people who think buses are too low class to ride but are OK being seen on a train.  Madness.

My best guess is that these kinds of projects have become prestige projects for government officials.  This is the way they show off to each other and act as a portfolio for them to seek larger jobs in bigger cities.

I Can't Understand the Obsession with Streetcars

I just don't get it -- why the obsession with streetcars?  Why pay zillions of dollars to create what is essentially a bus line on rails, a bus line that costs orders of magnitude more per passenger to operate and is completely inflexible.  It can never be rerouted or moved or easily shut down if changes in demand warrant.  And, unlike with heavy rail on dedicated tracks, there is not even a gain in mobility since the streetcars have to wallow through traffic and intersections like everyone else.

What we see over and over again is that by consuming 10-100x more resources per passenger, rail systems starve other parts of the transit system of money and eventually lead to less, rather than more, total ridership (even in Portland, by the way).

But apparently, in DC the cannibalization of buses is even worse, as the streetcars are getting in the way and slowing buses down:  (hat tip to a reader)

Three District mayors have backed plans to return streetcars to D.C. streets, following in the transit-oriented footsteps of Portland, Ore., and other cities. Officials in the nation’s capital want to build a 20-plus-mile network connecting neighborhoods from Georgetown and Takoma to Anacostia, linking richer and poorer communities, giving people an alternative to the automobile and, they argue, spurring development along the routes. Eventually they see a system stretching about 37 miles.

... The inaugural 2.2-mile line, on H Street and Benning Road NE, is viewed by some as proof that the concept will work. Others see the opposite.....

Buses are facing significant delays behind the streetcars, which are making regular practice runs meant to simulate everyday operations. “We’re having to go around them. Since H Street has narrow lanes to begin with, it’s a challenge,” Hamre said. He said he has instructed bus drivers to pass streetcars only when they are stopped.

“That reduces the risk of misjudging,” Hamre said.

But it also forces faster-moving buses to hang back and wait for the less-agile streetcars, prolonging commutes for the much larger population of bus riders.

Back in 2010, District transportation officials estimated that 1,500 people a day will ride streetcars on the H Street/Benning Road line once it opens. But the X-line Metrobuses that travel the same streets — and go farther east and west — carry more than 12,000 passengers a day.

Apparently, the line creates so much value that no one is willing to pay even a dollar to ride it, so they will not be charging for the service for now.  By the way, from the "I don't think that word means what you think it means" files, note the use of the term "revenue service":

Early plans were to charge $1 or more a ride. But now “DDOT has determined that fares will not be collected at the start of revenue service,” according to a DDOT plan dated Oct. 2.

And from the "and other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln" files:

District officials said the move will solve a pair of outstanding problems: They don’t have a system in place to collect fares, and ridership is projected to be underwhelming.

Is Phoenix Light Rail Fudging Its Charts to Look Better?

I bring your attention back to this chart from this post the other day about light rail killing transit growth.


I have no evidence that this chart was deliberately manipulated, but somehow the light rail ridership bar for 2014 got exaggerated.  It certainly seems suspicious.  Light rail ridership went up from 2013 to 2014 by only about 45,000, or 0.3%.  This is negligible  We should not even see the bar move.  Note the total ridership in 2011 and 2010 when ridership fell by 86,000 but the bar lengths are almost indistinguishable.  The rail ridership looks to my eye like the bar is 7-9% longer, not 0.3% longer.  In fact, the bar for 2014 clearly goes past the halfway point between 10 and 20, despite the fact that 14.3 should be less than halfway.  In fact, the 2014 rail increase of 45,000 is graphed as visually larger than the 1.3 million decrease in busses.

Phoenix Light Rail Update: We Spent $1.4billion+ to Reduce Transit Ridership

Check this graph out from the Phoenix Metro web site.  It shows bus ridership in years past, and more recently both bus and light rail ridership.

click to enlarge


You can see a few things.  First, note that almost all the rail ridership came at the expense of bus ridership.  It  was almost a pure 1:1 substitution.  The bus ridership, even with a half year of light rail being open, was 65.7 million in 2009.  Total ridership was only 67.6 million in 2010 and 2011.  Yes there is a recession here, but of the 12 million or so in light rail ridership, at least 10-11 million of that came out of buses.  Essentially, we paid $1.4 billion in capital costs to move 10 million riders to a mode of transit that is at least an order of magnitude more expense.  Nice work.

Second, note that after over 12 years of growth, with the onset of light rail transit ridership has stagnated for 6 years.  Some of this, at least initially, is likely due to the recession but in fact recessions are supposed to spur transit ridership, not reduce it, as people look for lower cost alternatives.  There is a good explanation for this.  Because light rail is so much more expensive, the cost per rider for the entire transit system has skyrocketed.  With budgets unable to be increased this fast (and with fares covering only a tiny percentage of rail costs), the system must cut back somewhere.  Since rail can't really be cut back, bus routes are cut.

If we had seen the same growth rate from 2009 to 2014 as we had seen in the twelve years prior, we should have over 86 million trips in 2014 (note these are fiscal years, and fiscal year 2014 is already closed, so this is not partial year data).

We paid, and continue to pay (since rail must be subsidized heavily) billions of dollars to reduce transit ridership.

More Bipartisan Cronyism in Phoenix: Subsidizing Real Estate so that Future Transit Expenditures Can Be Justified

Yuk.  $14 million giveaway to developer

Last week, Phoenix City Council members approved a deal for the $82 million high-rise, mixed-use Phoenix Central Station. The development at Central Avenue and Van Buren Street will include about 475 apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial space.

As part of the deal, Phoenix would give the developer, Smith Partners, a controversial tax-abatement incentive called a Government Property Lease Excise Tax for the tower portion of the project. The agreement allows developers to avoid paying certain taxes through deals that title their land or buildings to a government entity with an exclusive right to lease the property back.

In this case, the city already owns the land, but the developer will eventually take title over the building. The arrangement allows them to not pay property taxes for 25 years, which a city official estimates would be $600,000 to $900,000 per year based on conversations with the developer. However, the developer will make smaller lease payments back to the city, and, after eight years, pay taxes on those lease payments.

The agreement requires the developer to pay the city a portion of its revenue, which will net the city an estimated $4.4 million over the first 25 years

The difference from the $4.4 million they will actually pay and 25 years at $750,000 in property taxes is about $10 million (fudging concerns about present value and such).  I used to be OK with anything that reduced taxes for anyone, but now I have come to realize that discounting taxes for one preferred crony just raises taxes for the rest of us.  [Props to Republican Sal Deciccio for being one of two to vote against this]

Here is my guess as to what is going on here.  Phoenix paid a stupid amount of money to build a light rail line that costs orders of magnitude more money than running the same passengers in buses.  One of the justifications for this gross over-expenditure on the light rail boondoggle was that it would spur development along the line.  But it is not really doing so.  Ridership on light rail has been stagnant for years, as has been transit ridership (most of the light rail ridership gains simply cannibalized from bus service, shifting low-cost-to-serve bus riders to high-cost-to-serve train riders).

So they need to be able to show transit-related development to justify future light rail expansions.  Thus, this subsidized development along the rail line.

I will make a firm bet.  Within 5 years we will have Phoenix politicians touting this development as a result of the light rail investment with nary a mention of the $10 million additional taxpayer subsidy it received.

Exaggerating Transit Use for Fun and Higher Taxes. Or How PIRG Supports the 1% over the 99%

The Arizona PIRG has a report that can be summarized as "transit is increasing fast, driving is falling, all of our future investment should be in transit".  The Valley Fever blog has the story:

Arizonans are driving less, and relying more on public transportation, according to a report from the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The shift is causing the Arizona PIRG Education Fund to recommend that public officials shift funding away from more highway projects, and more toward other transportation options."

"We recommend that transportation officials and elected leaders look at the data today, and not outdated assumptions, to make sure that any highway projects are absolutely necessary," Arizona PIRG Education Fund executive director Diane Brown tells New Times....

In the Phoenix metro area, the light rail opened in late 2008 and is already experiencing ridership numbers that weren't projected to be reached until the year 2020. In 2013, the Valley Metro transit system experienced a record high annual ridership, and between 2007-2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million - an increase of 25 percent. The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority recently saw its highest monthly ridership in October 2013. And in Yuma, ridership on Yuma County Area Transit has tripled since 2011.

The report suggests that public officials re-allocate their focus and funding, away from building new highways and toward more transportation options.

This is a fantasy.

There is an enormous amount of obfuscation going on here.  The percentage rise of public transit trips is actually the miracle of small numbers -- small changes on an even smaller base.  The point of these charts is to try to say that Arizonans use a lot of transit and we should dump more billions into these projects.  As it turns out, despite all the huge public investment, transit is still a rounding error.

Note that, from their own report, driving vehicle miles per capita are 9175 per person per year.  So lets look at transit.  They exaggerate by showing averages for Phoenix and Tucson, where transit use is higher, not for the whole state like they show vehicle miles.  The total state transit miles per person in the same year, using their numbers, turns out to be as low as 64 (if no one outside of Phoenix or Tucson uses transit) and as high as 110 (if everyone outside of Phoenix and Tucson uses transit at the same rate as in the cities).  The likely number is around 75.

This means that after all these billions and billions of transit spending, transit trips are 0.8% of vehicle trips (75 vs. 9175). That is a rounding error.  You sure wouldn't get that impression from the report.  The Public Interest Research Group has a funny view of "public interest", putting the desired transportation mode of the 0.8% over the desired choice of the 99.2%

Well, you say, I should compare the increase in transit to the decrease in driving.  OK.  Again using their numbers:  Vehicle driving miles went down 348 per capita over the study period.  In the same time, per capital transit miles went up by about 26 in Phoenix and Tucson (likely less in the state as a whole).  So, at best, transit ridership accounts for about 7% of the drop in driving.

This is not nothing, but hardly justifies the enormous increase in transit spending over the last 15 years and the billions and billions in capital investment.

Oh, and by the way, Phoenix Light Rail ridership has cannibalized bus ridership about 1 for 1.  That means all that investment in light rail has just shifted riders to a more expensive, less flexible transit mode.  But that is another story.

About those "Rising Transit Use" Numbers

From Randal O'Tooole

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) argues that a 0.7 percent increase in annual transit ridership in 2013 is proof that Americans want more “investments” in transit–by which the group means more federal funding. However, a close look at the actual data reveals something entirely different.

It turns out that all of the increase in transit ridership took place in New York City. New York City subway and bus ridership grew by 120 million trips in 2013; nationally, transit ridership grew by just 115 million trips. Add in New York commuter trains (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and New York City transit ridership grew by 123 million trips, which means transit in the rest of the nation declined by 8 million trips. As the New York Timesobserves, the growth in New York City transit ridership resulted from “falling unemployment,” not major capital improvements.

Meanwhile, light-rail and bus ridership both declined in Portland, which is often considered the model for new transit investments. Light-rail ridership grew in Dallas by about 300,000 trips, but bus ridership declined by 1.7 million trips. Charlotte light rail gained 27,000 new rides in 2013, but Charlotte buses lost 476,000 rides. Declines in bus ridership offset part or all of the gains in rail ridership in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and other cities. Rail ridership declined in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and on the San Francisco BART system, among other places.

It looks like Chris Christie was doing his part to increase transit ridership in New York.

By the way, the phenomenon of small increases in light rail use offset by large drops in bus ridership is extremely common, almost ubiquitous.  Cities build flashy prestige rail projects that cost orders of magnitude more to build and operate than bus service, and are much less flexible when the economy and commuting patterns change.  Over time, bus service has to be cut to pay the bills for light rail.  But since a given amount of money spent on buses tends to carry more than 10x the passenger miles than the same amount spent on light rail, total ridership drops even while spending rises.  That is what is going on here.

Light rail is all about politician prestige, civic pride, and crony favoritism for a few developers with land along the route.  It is not about transit sanity.

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.


Phoenix Spent $1.4 Billion To Cannibalize Buses

I have written many times about my problems with Phoenix light rail -- examples are here and here.  We paid $1.4 billion in initial capital costs, plus tens of millions a year in operating losses that must be subsidized by taxpayers, for a line that carries a tiny tiny percentage of Phoenix commuters.  Capital costs equate to something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider  -- If we had simply bought every daily rider a Prius, we would have save a billion dollars.

But, as with most things the government does, it is worse than I thought.  Over the last several years, I have been treating these daily light rail riders as if they are incremental users of the area's transit system.  In fact, they are not, by Valley Metro's (our regional transit authority) own numbers.  Here is the key chart, from their web site.

ridership report chart graphic

Compare 2009 to 2012.  Between those years, light rail ridership increased by just a hair under 8 million.  In the same time period, bus ridership fell by just a hair over 8 million.  So all new light rail ridership is just cannibalizing buses.  We have spent $1.4 billion dollars to shift people to a far more expensive transit platform, which does not offer any faster service along its route (the light rail has to fight through traffic lights on the surface streets same as buses).

This is a pattern seen in most cities that adopt light rail.  Over time, total ridership is flat or falls despite rising rail ridership, because rail is so expensive that it's operation forces transit authorities to cut back on bus service to balance their budgets.  Since the cost per rider is so much higher for light rail than buses, a dollar shifted from buses to light rail results in a net reduction in ridership.

Postscript:  Looking at the chart, light rail has achieved something that Valley Metro has not seen in decades -- a three year period with a decline in total ridership.  Sure, I know there was a recession, but going into the recession the Valley Metro folks were arguing that a poor economy and rising gas prices should boost their ridership.



Boosting The Prestige of Phoenix City Officials

I am constantly amazed at just how dogged the support for even god-awful light rail projects is among city-leader-types.  The projects cost orders of magnitude more per passenger mile to move people, they are inflexible once built (you can't move them if commuter flows change) and they tend to actually reduce total transit ridership in a city because they suck resources from bus transit.  Readers will know I have been a critic of Phoenix light rail for years.  Its capital cost was something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider and it was built in the least dense major city (meaning the least appropriate major city for rail) in the world.

Well, Phoenix is just about to spend $100 million per mile (!!) to extend our line 3.2 miles.  The extension is expected (by the optimistic people who support it) to attract 5000 daily riders, which actually means 2500 daily round trip riders by the way they do the numbers.  Yes folks, that math is right -- using the optimistic sure-to-be-exceeded cost numbers from the supporters and the optimistic sure-to-be-too-high ridership numbers from supporters, this will cost $120,000 per round trip daily rider, or enough to buy each daily rider a Prius and still save nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.  (By the way, with the low density in Phoenix and the fact the most promising route was built first, it should be no surprise there is a decreasing bang for the buck, even including network effects).

Why?  Why, why, why spend $300 million to benefit 2500 people?  I think this is the answer:

“It’s critical to Phoenix and the area of 19th Avenue. We can’t be a great city unless we have a great light-rail system,” said Greg Stanton, mayor of Phoenix and chairman of the Metro light-rail board.

So, just like you can't be among the elite in Manhattan without a house in the Hamptons, you can't be a real city without a light rail system.  We are spending billions solely to enhance the prestige of our city officials.  Ayn Rand had a great essay decades ago on public officials and prestige, I think as an essay included in the Virtue of Selfishness.  For those of you who are libertarian-ish but perhaps are jaded on her novels (I am increasingly in that category), you should definitely check out some of her essay work.  All the great philosophical thinking and defense of capitalism without the cardboard characters.

PS-  at this rate, it will only cost us $384 billion to serve the entire 3.5 million people in the Phoenix metro area with light rail.