Archive for the ‘Rail and Mass Transit’ Category.

Try To Spot Who Has Been Left Out

Here is Kevin Drum, where he quotes from an Op/Ed about a new Southern California "Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy"

The plan includes expansion of housing near public transit by 60%....and projections of more than 4 million new jobs — with public transit within half a mile of most of them. Amanda Eaken of the Natural Resources Defense Council praised it as "the strongest transportation plan" in the history of "car-loving Southern California."

.... SCAG's new plan is born of the realization that as a region, we have to grow up, not out. That doesn't mean Hong Kong skyscrapers in Whittier and Redlands. It does mean more apartments near light-rail stations and more vibrant mixed-use areas like the ones in downtown Pasadena, Ventura and Brea. It doesn't mean wresting the car keys from suburban commuters. It does mean making jobs and housing accessible via foot, bike, bus and rail.

Here is his comment on this:

In theory, a plan like this should have almost unanimous support. Developers like it because they can put up denser buildings. Environmentalists like it because it's more sustainable. Urbanists like it because it creates more walkable communities. City governments like it because it creates a stronger tax base.

There's really only one constituency that doesn't like it much: every single person who already lives in these communities and hates the idea of dense, high-rise construction near their homes. So there's going to be fireworks. It'll be interesting to see how the NIMBY bloc gets bought off.

Can you spot which group of people whose  preferences have been left out?   He considers the preferences of planners, developers, environmentalists, urbanists, and current community residents.  That's everyone, right?

Yeah, except for the freaking people who are moving in and actually shopping for a home.  Apparently if you are looking for a place to live in California, everyone except for you has a say in what living choices you will find.  Want a suburban home on an acre of land -- you are out of luck (unless you get an existing one that is grandfathered in, but those are really, really expensive because they are what everyone really wants but no one in power in California will allow to be built).  Your chosen lifestyle has not been approved by your betters.

 

Highway Bait And Switch

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein both complain that Congress is letting America's highways fall apart by not raising the gasoline tax.  They complain that current gas taxes are no longer high enough to cover costs, as the Federal highway trust fund is empty.  Apparently, Congress and the President were always blithely happy to raise the gas tax to whatever it needed to be to cover costs, and now this current Congress is departing from the historic norm:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

But here is what happened since 1993:  Roughly a third of highway taxes are diverted to local mass transit and other oddball non-highway projects.  Simply devoting all the highway trust fund to, you know, highways would add an effective 6-7 cents to the gas tax money without actually raising the tax.

Here is what is going on:  The Left loves mass transit projects, particularly urban rail.  Of all government transportation projects, these have by far the highest cost per passenger mile of anything we do, so diverting money to these projects reduces the bang for the buck but the Left loves these projects for social engineering reasons I will discuss in a post soon.

The Left knows that these transit projects will not stand up well in the appropriations process.  Kansas taxpayers are not going to be happy about paying for another couple miles of the LA subway system.  They will ask, rightly, why local urbanites can't pay for their own damn transit projects if these projects are so great.  But taxpayers generally support tax hikes for highways. So what does a politician on a transit mission do?  He sells the gas tax to the public on it being dedicated to highways.  Then he switches the money away from highways to transit.  This leaves highways falling apart.  So he can again go to taxpayers asking for money, ostensibly for highways, but of which a good portion will eventually be siphoned off to transit (and squirrel bridges and whatever).  Repeat.

In effect, calls for raising the gas tax are NOT to repair highways.  This is a bait and switch.  Gas taxes are sufficiently high enough to fully fund highway work if it was all applied to highway work.  Proposed increased in gas taxes are needed to pay for the continuing diversion of highway funds to egregiously expensive transit projects.  Congress is right to stop this shell game.

Worst American Rail Project Ever?

Last week I was in Albuquerque several hours early for my meeting in Santa Fe.  Several years ago I had written about the Railrunner passenger rail line that operates from south of Albuquerque north to Santa Fe.  Our Arizona Republic had written a relentlessly positive article about the line, focusing on how much the people who rode on it loved it.  Given that the picture they included in the article showed a young woman riding in a nearly empty car, I suspected that while the trains themselves might be nice for riders, the service probably wasn't a very good deal for taxpayers.

Of course, as is typical, the Republic article had absolutely no information on costs or revenues, as for some reason the media has adopted an attitude that such things don't matter for rail projects -- all that matters is finding a few people to interview who "like it."  So I attempted to run some numbers based on some guesses from other similar rail lines, and made an educated guess that it had revenues of about $1.8 million and operating costs of at least $20 million, excluding capital charges.  I got a lot of grief for making up numbers -- surely it could not be that bad.  Hang on for a few paragraphs, because we are going to see that its actually worse.

Anyway, I was in Albuquerque and thought I would ride the train to Santa Fe.  I had meetings at some government offices there, and it turns out that the government officials who spent the state's money on this project were careful to make sure the train stopped outside of their own workplaces.    I posited in my original article that every rider's trip was about 90% subsidized by New Mexico taxpayers, so I might as well get my subsidy.

Well, it turned out I missed my chance.  Apparently, trains do not run during much of the day, and all I saw between 9:30AM and 4:00 PM was trains just parked on the tracks.  I thought maybe it was a holiday thing because it was President's Day but their web site said it was a regular schedule.  I caught the shot below of one of the trains sitting at the Santa Fe station.

Anyway, I got interested in checking back on the line to see how it was doing.  I actually respected them somewhat for not running mid-day trains that would lose money, but my guess is that only running a few trains a day made the initial capital costs of the line unsustainable.  After all, high fixed cost projects like rail require that one run the hell out of them to cover the original capital costs.

As it turns out, I no longer have to guess at revenues and expenses, they now seem to have crept into the public domain.  Here is a recent article from the Albuquerque Journal.  Initially, my eye was attracted to an excerpt that said the line was $4 million in the black.  Wow!  Let's read more

New Mexico Rail Runner Express officials said Wednesday the railroad will receive an additional $4.8 million in federal funding this year that puts the operating budget more than $4 million in the black.

The injection of new money boosts Rail Runner’s revenues this year to $28 million, well in excess of expected operating costs of $23.6 million, said Terry Doyle, transportation director of the Mid Region Council of Governments, which oversees Rail Runner.

OK, I am not sure why the Feds are putting up money to cover the operating costs of local rail lines in New Mexico, but still, this seems encouraging.  This implies that even without the Fed money, the line was withing $800,000 of breaking even, which would make it impressive indeed among passenger rail lines.  But wait, I read further down:

The announcement comes as state lawmakers debate a measure that would require counties with access to the Belen-to-Santa Fe passenger railroad to pay for any deficit in Rail Runner’s operations with local taxes. Currently, almost half its revenues, $13 million, comes from local sales taxes.

Oops, looking worse.  Now it looks like taxes are covering over half the rail's costs.  But this implies that perhaps $10 million might be coming from users, right?  Nope, keep reading all the way down to paragraph 11

The Rail Runner collects about $3.2 million a year in fares and has an annual operating budget of about $23.6 million. That does not include about $41.7 million a year in debt service on the bonds — a figure that include eventual balloon payments.

So it turns out that I was actually pretty close, particularly since my guess was four years ago and they have had some ridership increases and fare increases since.

At the end of the day, riders are paying $3.2 million of the total $65.3 million annual cost. Again, I repeat my reaction from four years ago to hearing that riders really loved the train.  Of course they do -- taxpayers (read: non-riders) are subsidizing 95.1% of the service they get.  I wonder if they paid the full cost of the train ride -- ie if their ticket prices were increased 20x -- how they would feel about the service?

Of course, the Railrunner folks are right on the case.  They have just raised prices, which "could" generate $600,000 in extra revenue, assuming there is no loss in ridership from the fare increases (meaning assuming the laws of supply and demand do no operate correctly).  If this fare increase is as successful as planned, they will have boldly reduced the public subsidy to just 94.2% of the cost of each trip.

By the way, it is interesting to note in this Wikipedia article (Wikipedia articles on government rail projects generally read like press releases) that ridership on this line dropped by over half when the service went from free to paid (ie when the government subsidy dropped from 100% to 95%).  The line carries around 2000 round-trip passengers (ie number of boarding divided by two) a day.  It is simply incredible that a state can directly lavish $60 million  a year in taxpayer money on just 2000 mostly middle class citizens.  That equates to a subsidy of $30,000 per rider per year, enough to buy every daily round trip rider a new Prius and the gas to run it every single year.

Postscript:  This person seems to get it.  One thing I had not realized, the trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe that I did in my rental car in 60 minutes takes 90 minutes by "high-speed rail".

Triumphalism Indeed

For years I have argued that most high-speed rail makes no sense economically -- that in fact it is an example of the political impulse towards triumphalism.  Government leaders through the ages have wanted to use other people's money and sweat to build vast monuments to themselves that would last through the ages.

I meant that as ridicule, and assumed most readers would recognize it as such, but apparently not the LA Times, which editorialized in favor of California high speed rail in part because its just like the pyramids

Worthwhile things seldom come without cost or sacrifice. That was as true in ancient times as it is now; pharaoh Sneferu, builder of Egypt's first pyramids, had to try three times before he got it right, with the first two either collapsing under their own weight or leaning precipitously. But who remembers that now? Not many people have heard of Sneferu, but his pyramids and those of his successors are wonders of the world.

As a reminder, this is what I wrote at the article linked above in Forbes

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.

What I Should Have Said on TV About Rail

If I were any good at the two minute sound byte interview, I would have summarized this about the superiority of the current US private rail system vs. the systems in Europe and Japan:

Link here (sorry, for some reason the link did not show up the first time, probably something to do with my iPad)

 

Just Fooling, We Had No Idea What We Were Doing

California voters -- unskeptical, unrealistic, and gullible -- nevertheless trusted their elected and unelected technocrats in Sacramento to be telling them the truth when they agreed to a $9.95 billion bond issue for high speed rail.  It turns out, even according the HSR's most fervent supporters, that the numbers that were used to sell the bond issue were total crap, and they knew it at the time

In September, I was one of several journalists who interviewed top officials with the California High Speed Rail Authority. Here is board member Lynn Schenk’s response to my question about accountability:

Q: In 2008, this project was sold to voters with the claim that when it was done there would be 117 million annual riders, which is more than four times what Amtrak now has, and it operates in 46 states. It was sold with claims of a $100 round-trip ticket and many other claims that no one believes anymore. If we had known then what we know now, it might not have passed. So when do we get accountability?

SCHENK: This deserves as much of a direct answer as I can maybe possibly give. And that is about the first business plan and those early studies. These gentlemen were not there at the time. I was there. We had one professional and two half-professionals, who were constantly being furloughed because of the state budget issue. That first plan, much to the regret of many of us, was pulled together with Scotch tape and hairpins because we had to get something to the Legislature, but we didn’t have the money, the resources, the people to pull together, so there were a lot of errors. You’re right. But there were also things in there that still stand true today. And we have new studies, a new business plan coming out. The ridership study that we had it is not as bad as the opponents would say. But there are tweaks. And there are things that need to be adjusted and we are looking to do that.

Because the last thing a bureaucratic is ever going to say is "we don't know."   So they told they public the rail line would have 117 million annual riders, when even an estimate of 5 million is probably high.  Jeff Skilling is in jail for a far less substantial exaggeration of his business prospects.

Of course voters were idiots to accept these numbers, when 5 minutes of research would have shown them absurd (the media did nothing to help, of course).  One relevent factoid:

The current air passenger traffic between LAX and SFO is 2.7 million a year

But we are going to have tens of millions of rail customers.  Right.

Way Worse Than Solyndra

Via the Antiplanner

The California High Speed Rail Authority has reason to be thankful this week as the U.S. Department of Transportation gave it another $900 million, keeping hopes alive for the state’s rail program. That means the feds have given the state a total of about $4.5 billion which, when matched with state bonds (which can only be sold when matched by other money) brings the authority’s total funds to $9 billion.

I have written any number of times that this project is simply doomed.  Either it will fail to complete, after spending billions, or worse, will spend well over $100 billion to create an enormous white elephant whose potential ridership is being grossly exaggerated (by exactly those folks whose salaries are paid by these federal grants)

OK, I Double My Estimate to $200 Billion

I wrote quite a while ago I wrote that there was no way the estimated $43 billion California high speed rail project would be completed for less than $100 billion.  Well, now the agency itself is estimating it will cost $100 billion (or $98 billion and change, but that is likely a number picked to avoid going to three digits).  So I now officially raise my estimate to $200 billion for the complete line from Anaheim to San Francisco.  Anyone want the under?

 

Are We Getting Anything Out of Transit Spending?

In the 2012 budget, the DOT will spend about $59.4 billion on highways and $30.2 billion on transit and rail (source).   Highways are getting a smaller and smaller portion of what we think of as the Federal highway budget, with transit and rail spending almost 50% the size of highway spending.  For what results?

Despite huge efforts to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles, nearly 8 million more people drove alone to work in 2010 than in 2000, according to data released by the Census Bureau. Wendell Cox’s review of the data show that the other big gainer was “worked at home,” which grew by nearly 2 million over the decade.

Transit gained less than a million, but transit numbers were so small in 2000 that its share grew from 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent of total workers. While drive alone grew from 75.6 percent to 76.5 percent, the big loser was carpooling, which declined by more than 2 million workers. As a result, driving’s share as a whole declined from 87.9 percent to 86.2 percent.

Though they get less money in absolute dollars, transit and rail have for years gotten wildly disproportionate amounts of money compared to their ridership.  This is not an accident of timing -- rail and mass transit costs per passenger mile are simply way higher than for cars in all but a few very specific high-density urban areas.

Much of this Federal spending is a huge waste of money, made worse by the fact that local authorities who get this money have little incentive to use it wisely.  Its time for the Feds to get out of the transit funding business.  If LA wants more subways, let them pay for it.

What Thomas Friedman Wants for America

When it comes to high speed rail, the Left tends to have a Santa Clause mentality.   They want the rail, but refuse to even discuss its costs vs. benefits, as if it is going to be dropped in place by Santa Clause.

I have actually had pro-high-speed rail writers call me a dinosaur for taking a cost-benefit approach.  After a reasoned article on why our rail system, with its focus on freight, makes more sense than China and Europe's focus on high speed passenger rail, Joel Epstein wrote me that I should get out of the country more, as if I am some backwoods rube that would just swoon if I saw a nifty bullet train.  For the record, my actual experience on a high-speed rail train in Europe confirmed that it was a nice experience (I knew it would be) and that it was a financial mess, as my son and I were the only passengers in my car.  I would be all for HSR if Santa Clause dropped in down from the North Pole, but it costs a lot of real money.

How much money?  Well take the system in China that Friedman and Epstein and many others have begged the US to emulate:

The rail ministry that builds and operates the trains has an incredible 2.1 million employees, more than the number of civilians employed by the entire U.S. government. Moreover, the ministry is in debt to the tune of 2.1 trillion yuan ($326 billion), about 5 percent of the country’s GDP.

Things I Didn't Expect to Read, Part 2

Several years ago, I made a bet that California high speed rail would, if built, end up costing over $100 billion.  Incredibly, Kevin Drum is making the same bet.

The disappointing part is that he is quick to say that this project is an outlier, that certainly he still supports other HSR rail projects.  But they all look as bad as the CA project.  The CA project has just gotten more attention and scrutiny because of its size.  If memory serves, Drum was right there supporting the Tampa to Orlando line, which if possible is even dumber than the California line.  In my experience, the difference between a good high speed rail project and a bad one is basically how much one digs into the numbers and challenges the assumptions.  With enough leg work, they all look bad.

"Livability" Means Sitting in Traffic

Via the anti-Planner, comes this amazing slide from a presentation by the city of Omaha on their new initiative for "Livable Transportation" (ppt presentation).   Ray LaHood recently asked that all transportation authorities include "livability" in the next round of their 5-year transportation plans.

What does "Livability" even mean?  Well, I was not sure.  This is one of those vague happy-sounding words that give liberals a hard-on in the context of government programs but generally just end up being an excuse for the exercise of state power at the expense of individual choice.

But in this case we don't have to guess, because in the presentation linked above we have the following as the first slide in the presentation, defining livability in this context:

I kid you not -- the two key steps in livable transportation are apparently increasing delay in auto commutes and increasing the cost of auto commutes.   Wow, that certainly sounds like something that will make my life better  (on the bright side, it strikes me as a goal that the generally-incompetent government can actually achieve).

Of course, the issue is not really about livability, but about the imposition of a few intellectuals' disdain for cars on the rest of us.

And if you want to look for the financial incentives, the size of government per passenger-mile of commute is maximized with rail mass transit.   First, this is because rail is simply more expensive than driving -- way more expensive - - per passenger mile in any Western city like Omaha, even when all the costs of driving are considered.  Second, with rail, the government nationalizes things like driving and maintenance that you do yourself or are done by private actors, and brings them in-house to be performed by powerful government unions.

Postscript: Left unsaid in any of this presentation is how increasing commute delay leads to keeping  jobs and businesses in the lower left.  That strikes me as a non sequitur of epic proportions.

The Elite Hatred of Buses

Several times in the past I have posited that folks in power simply hate buses.  How else to explain light rail and high speed rail projects that are both substantially more expensive and substantially less flexible than buses.  Some of the reasons for this include:

  • Politicians like rail better because it is sexier.  Period.   They are trying to spend taxpayer money to support their own re-election talking points.
  • Unions and city workers like rail because it is more expensive.  More money gets spent, either creating more union jobs or giving transit leaders bigger budgets which translate into higher salaries and more prestige for themselves.  And the lack of flexibility is good for them because it makes their job immune to budget cutting.  Just too many sunk costs.
  • Middle and upper-middle class folks in the public have a deep disdain for buses, which they associate with poverty and blue collar labor.  Riding buses hurts their self image, even if the service is no worse than trains.  Rail is the Louis Vuitton handbag of transit.

In Phoenix, light rail requires a subsidy of $3.82 center per mile (that is the government spending above and beyond the fare), which is nearly 10x what we spend on buses.  And light rail uses more energy per passenger mile here than driving.

Anyway, this story from Iowa seems to support my point -- the government is proposing to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a rail service that is slower and more costly than existing private bus service.

The latest in lunacy in high-speed rail lunacy: at Joel Kotkin’s newgeography.com Wendell Cox reports that the U.S. Transportation Department is dangling money before the government of Iowa seeking matching funds from the state for a high-speed rail line from Iowa City to Chicago. The “high-speed” trains would average 45 miles per hour and take five hours to reach Chicago from Iowa City. One might wonder how big the market for this service is, since Iowa City and Johnson County have only 130,882 people; add in adjoining Linn County (Cedar Rapids) and you’re only up to 342,108—not really enough, one would think, to supply enough riders to cover operating costs much less construction costs.

Oh, one other thing. Cox reports that there is already luxury bus service, with plus for laptops and wireless Internet, from Iowa City to Chicago. It’s part of a larger trend for private companies to offer convenient and inexpensive bus service. A one-way ticket on the bus costs $18, compared to a likely train fare of more than $50. And the bus takes only three hours and 50 minutes to get from Iowa City to Chicago. That’s one hour and 10 minutes faster than the “high-speed” train.

$273,000 A Second

That's how much is being spent between Chicago and Detroit to improve transit times on a money-losing passenger rail segment.

When U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced (last) week that he was awarding Michigan nearly $200 million for high-speed rail, he claimed that the project would bring “trains up to speeds of 110 mph on a 235-mile section of the Chicago to Detroit corridor, reducing trip times by 30 minutes.” But Michigan’s own grant application says the $196.5 million will only increase average speeds from 60 to 64 mph – with the top speed remaining unchanged at 79 mph. That is, travelers will save a mere 12 minutes – not 30.

In short, anyone who thinks they will soon see bullet trains in Michigan has been misled.

Why the discrepancy between the claimed 110 mph-and-30 and the real 79 mpg-and-12?

Page 12 of the grant application tells the tale: After spending the $197 million, the state is applying for another grant that will require hundreds of millions more to increase speeds to 110 mph.

Together with Michigan’s senators and governor, LaHood’s press conference was an exercise in high-speed deception.

Last year, about 480,000 people rode the Chicago-Detroit trains, which are some of the biggest money-losers in the Amtrak system. Can anyone really believe that saving 1,315 people 12 minutes a day is worth $196.5 million? The state will have to spend a lot more money to have trains reach top speeds of 110 mph (which means average speeds of around 75 mph). Michigan’s 2009 Chicago-Detroit rail plan projected costs of more than $1.3 billion, of which the state has less than $400 million so far. So bringing the tracks up to 110-mph standards will cost at least $900 million more.

This doesn’t count the cost of locomotives and railcars, which the plan projects will be more than $350 million for enough trains to make 20 daily round trips. Last Monday, the federal government also gave $268.2 million for locomotives and railcars to five Midwestern states. Assuming a third of that goes to the Michigan corridor, the state still needs some $250 million more.

I sometimes get accused of having a weird bias against rail.  What I actual have is a bias against stupid spending, but for those unfamiliar with my blog, I offer this to fight the rail bias meme.

City Planning, Light Rail and White People

I have argued for a long time that the shift of city transit departments from buses to a love affair with light rail has been a disaster.  Rail is so much more expensive per passenger mile, and so inflexible, that it generally forces a shrinkage in the total number of riders at the same time that budgets explode (example article here).

There are a lot of explanations for this phenomenon.  Part of it is incentives - heads of agencies with rail get paid more than bus-only agencies, and unions love the higher-paying rail jobs that never go away (part of the flexibility issues with rail).  Part of the explanation is cultural - rail is now hip and edgy and allegedly green and modern.  Buses are so last century.

And part of it is social/racial.  White upper middle class yuppies wouldn't be caught dead on buses.   They like trains better, particularly when they are successful in running rail routes through middle class commuting routes.  If the cost of this forces cut backs on buses that run where the poor need to go, oh well.

So, I ask you, what city in America is most famous as a model for urban planning and light rail?  Portland.  So it is interesting to see what effect this planning and transit strategy has had on the population.  I have already written here before that Portland bus service has been gutted in favor of rail, such that total ridership in the city has dropped despite spending a lot more transit dollars.  These maps from the Portland Oregonian show another effect -- shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has... caused Portland to be increasingly white.  What a surprise.  Via the anti-Planner

Shifting Capital from the Productive to the Sexy

My Forbes column this week focuses on the US rail system, and argues that despite all the angst that we are somehow missing the boat in emulating Europe, Japan and China in building expensive bullet trains, we actually have the best rail system in the world.

These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff.  We are “asleep.”  Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occured when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

China Spending Its Way Over a Cliff

Hayekians would argue that both the Japanese lost decade and the recent US housing crash were both caused by massive mis-allocations of capital driven by a variety of government interventions and corrupted price signals (particularly on interest rates).  This may be an early signal of a lulu of a bust coming to China, in an story on the high speed rail system in China

With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization looks more like an example of many of the country’s interlinking problems: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.

Questions have also arisen about whether costs and public needs are too often overlooked as the leadership pursues grandiose projects, which some critics say are for vanity or to engender national pride but which are also seen as an effort to pump up growth through massive public works spending.

The Finance Ministry said last week that the Railways Ministry continued to lose money in the first quarter of this year. The ministry’s debt stands at $276 billion, almost all borrowed from Chinese banks.

“They’ve taken on a massive amount of debt to build it,” said Patrick Chovanec, who teaches at Tsinghua University. He said China accelerated construction of the high-speed rail network — including 295 sleek glass-and-marble train stations — as part of the country’s stimulus spending in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a longtime critic of high-speed rail, said he worries that the cost of the project might have created a hidden debt bomb that threatens China’s banking system.

“In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,” he said. “I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.”

It should be noted that this is the system that has been lauded by folks from Thomas Friedman to Barack Obama as something we should emulate in the US.  By the way, this problem identified in China is in fact endemic to the US -- the cost overruns in every rail system.  In the US, this probably has less to do with outright individual corruption (i.e. the stealing of money for personal gain) but more common political corruption, in the form of purposefully underestimating costs to get public approval, knowing that when inevitable overruns appear, it will be too late to stop the project.

Part of the cost problem has been that each segment of the system has been far more expensive to build than initially estimated, which many trace directly to the alleged corruption being uncovered, including a flawed bidding process.

I wrote earlier on high speed rail as triumphalism rather than real investment here.  Why the US actually has the best rail network in the world is here (hint:  from an energy, pollution, and congestion standpoint, the best thing to put on rails is freight rather than passengers, and the US does that better than China or Europe, by far)

Government Agencies Run For Their Employee's Benefit

About 20 years ago I did a rail transit study for McKinsey & Company with a number of European state rail companies, like the SNCF in France.   With my American expectations, I was shocked to see how overstaffed these companies were.  At the time, the SNCF had more freight car maintenance personnel than they had freight cars.  This meant that they could assign a dedicated maintenance person to every car and still get rid of some people.

Later in my consulting career, I worked for Pemex in Mexico, where the over-staffing was even more incredible.  I realized that in countries like France and Mexico, state-run corporations were first and foremost employment vehicles run for the benefit of employees, and, as  distant second, value-delivery vehicles and productive enterprises.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen more and more of this approach to public agencies coming to the US.  If nothing else, the whole Wisconsin brouhaha hopefully opened the eyes of many Americans to the fact that public officials and heads of agencies feel a lot more loyalty to their employees than they do to taxpayers.

I see this all the time in my business, which is private operation of certain state-run activities (e.g. parks and recreation).  I constantly find myself in the midst of arguments that make no sense against privatization.   I finally realized that the reason for this is that they were reluctant to voice the real reason for opposition -- that I would get the job done paying people less money.  This is totally true -- I actually hire more people to staff the parks than the government does, but I don't pay folks $65,000 a year plus benefits and a pension to clean the bathrooms, and I don't pay them when the park is closed and there is not work to do.  I finally had one person in California State Parks be honest with me -- she said that the employees position was that they would rather see the parks close than run without government workers.

Of course, if this argument was made clear in public, that the reason for rising taxes and closing parks was to support pay and benefits of government employees, there might be a fight.  So the true facts need to be buried.  Like in this example from the Portland transit system, via the anti-planner.

In 2003, TriMet persuaded the Oregon legislature to allow it to increase the tax by 0.01 percent per year for ten years, starting in 2005. In 2009, TriMet went back and convinced the legislature to allow it to continue increasing the tax by 0.01 percent per year for another 10 years. Thus, the tax now stands at $69.18 per $10,000 in payroll, and will rise to $82.18 per $10,000 in 2025.

At the time, TriMet promised that all of this tax increase would be dedicated to increasing service, and as of 2010, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel claims this is being done. But according to John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, that’s not what is happening.

Poring over TriMet budgets and records, Charles found that, from 2004 (before the tax was first increased) and 2010, total payroll tax collections grew by 34 percent, more than a third of which was due to the tax increase. Thanks to fare increases, fares also grew by 68 percent, so overall operating income grew by about 50 percent, of which about 7 percent (almost $20 million) was due to the increased payroll tax.

So service must have grown by about 7 percent, right? Wrong. Due to service cuts made last September, says Charles, TriMet is now providing about 14 percent fewer vehicle miles and 12 percent fewer vehicle hours of transit service than it provided in 2004 (comparing December 2004 with December 2010). TriMet blamed the service cuts on the economy, but its 50 percent increase in revenues belie that explanation.

By 2030, according to TriMet’s financial forecast (not available on line), the agency will have collected $1.63 billion more payroll taxes thanks to the tax increase. Yet the agency itself projects that hours and miles of service in 2030 will be slightly less than in 2004.

Where did all the money go if not into service increases? Charles says some of it went into employee benefits. TriMet has the highest ratio of employee benefits to payroll of any transit agency. At latest report, it actually spends about 50 percent more on benefits than on pay, and is the only major transit agency in the country to spend more on benefits than pay. This doesn’t count the unfunded health care liabilities; by 2030, TriMet health care benefits alone are projected to be more than its payroll.

What if We Bought Into the Light Rail Hype, and Built It For Everyone?

Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for just 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2**, this means that to roll light rail out to every urban commuter would cost $6.4 trillion a year in government spending, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Light rail only works today because we drain resources from millions of taxpayers to benefit just a few generally middle class commuters.    This is not a model that will scale.

** This includes both service on the debt, which is payment for the original construction costs, as well as annual operating losses.  This subsidy is required essentially forever.  After 20-30 years when the original bonds are paid off, by that time systems generally have to be rebuilt in their entirety   (as folks in places like Washington DC are learning).  There are probably only 5-6 cities in this country that have the urban population densities to make rail systems come even in the ballpark of working financially, and places like Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Portland and LA are NOT among them.

Light Rail and Sustainability

Let me offer up a definition of sustainability that I think most environmentalists and progressives would accept:

We are acting in a sustainable manner if we are achieving our goals in a way that does not hamper the ability of other people in the world, or of future generations, to achieve their goals.

Most environmentalists and progressives would call light rail lines in US cities a "sustainable" technology because of its notional impact on fuel use and CO2 output (yeah, I know, but we are not going to address those assumptions today).

Let me present one fact, from Federal Transit Administration's 2009 survey of public transit authorities, whose data is linked in various ways here.  Or you can download the summary spreadsheet here.  For all US light rail systems in total:

User fares paid per passenger-mile:           $0.18

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $2.22

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $2.04

Since I live in Phoenix and the Phoenix light rail system seems to get particular praise as a "success" from light rail supporters, here are the Phoenix light rail numbers;

User fares paid per passenger-mile:          $0.07

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $3.89

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $3.82

So there, folks, is your sustainable technology.  As I have written before about sustainability, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

Nationwide, non-users of light rail pay for 92% of its costs.   In Phoenix, non-users pay for 98% of the costs.  Taking the Phoenix system as an example, resources are drained from literally millions of people so that 17,000 or so people can ride it round trip each day.   Using resources from millions of people, and building up debts that will last into the next generation, to support the transit of just a few people, seems to be the antithesis of sustainability.

If there is any common denominator among progressives, it is that they have little respect for how individuals spend their money.  So they might be unmoved by the loss of resources from so many.  So lets just look narrowly at transit, which I presume the do care about.

Before Valley Metro operated a light rail system in Phoenix, they also operated a bus transit system.  This system still requires a subsidy, but it is much lower than the light rail subsidy.  In 2009, the bus subsidy was $0.74 per passenger-mile.  This means that for the same amount of taxpayer funds, Valley Metro can provide 1.0 passenger-mile by train or 5.2 by bus ($3.82/$0.74).   I can guarantee that cities building light rail are not having their budgets quintupled.  So the result is that, as light rail gets built, total transit ridership falls in most cities as rail costs crowd out existing bus services.

Update: Most light rail articles in our local papers, which have been mindless boosters of the system, generally consist of asking riders if they like the system, who inevitably answer "yes!"  This is somehow a proof the system is great.  Well, duh.  I too am likely to be happy with a service where I only pay 2% of the costs.

Update #2:  Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for about 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2, this means that to roll light rail out to everyone would cost $6.4 trillion a year, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Phoenix / Valley Metro Light Rail Report Card: F

Folks who read this site know I have been critical of Phoenix light rail since well before it was opened.  So often, folks just willfully misinterpret my criticisms.   The actual rail line and its service is pretty nice, and the facilities are quite attractive (lets see what they look like in 10 years though).  If Santa Claus had just delivered the Phoenix light rail system for free to Phoenix, I would be thrilled with it.   But Santa unfortunately was not involved, and instead the rail line was paid for by area residents, and it cost them over $75,000 per daily roundtrip rider to build, plus annual operating deficits infinitely into the future.   I would be thrilled if an Aston Martin Vanquish showed up in my garage tomorrow, but I am not going to fork over a quarter of a million bucks for one.  Ditto the light rail system.

Anyway, the 2009 FTA transit database is out, and Randal O'Toole has helpfully summarized it in spreadsheet form, which you can download here.  You can peruse your own local system.  Probably the hardest thing to figure out are the mode codes, which are deciphered here.  Since 2009 was the first full year of operation for Phoenix light rail, we can finally look at data for Phoenix on an apples to oranges apples basis with other transit systems  (it is really, really hard to squeeze useful information out of the data Valley Metro posts on their site).

I am just going to highlight two numbers for Phoenix light rail (TRS_ID 9209 in the data).

  • The public subsidy per individual trip (that is one person boarding and riding one way) is $32.73!!   No one would pay this amount if it were the fare.   This equates to a public subsidy (beyond the fares paid) of $3.82 per passenger mile.  Remember, this is not a hostile analysis, but based on the numbers Valley Metro itself submits to the FTA.   Note the IRS reimbursement rate for the total cost (capital and incremental expense) of driving a car is 50 cents per mile, which drops even lower per passenger mile when the car has more than one person in it.  The average occupancy of a car is something like 1.5, which would make the cost per passenger mile of the average car to be about 33 cents per mile.  Ignoring the passenger fares, the public subsidy alone for light rail in Phoenix is 11.6 times larger [note: and yes, this includes the gas tax, so it includes a lot of the maintenance of the road infrastructure.  To include full cost of maintaining and building highways, it might have to be a few cents higher, but its not going to come anywhere in the ballpark of the light rail number].
  • But we are paying more for rail to save the environment, right?  Well, the BTUs expended per passenger mile for Phoenix light rail was 4402.  This compares to the average for passenger cars as determined by the DOE at 3437 BTU/PM.  So the train actually uses 28% more energy to move one rider one mile than does the average car.

Years before the light rail system was completed, I made my light rail bet:  That with the capital cost, I could easily buy a Prius for every daily rider, and still save money.  And for less than the annual operating subsidy, I could give all the new Prius owners free gas each year.  Already my bet has proved more than correct.  But now we know that under my Prius plan, we also would have saved energy, since the Prius uses less than 1700 BTU/pm, less than a third of what Phoenix light rail consumes.

Train to Nowhere

Apparently, Congress just before the election appropriated $900 million to build part of a high speed rail line in CA.  Rather than focusing either on LA or SF, Congress apparently appropriated the money for a mostly rural district that just coincidentally had a Democratic Congressman embroiled in a difficult election.  So now Congress has dedicated a billion dollars of your money for this high speed rail line, from Borden to Corcoran:

I am not kidding you.  More here from the AntiPlanner.

I discussed the CA high speed rail project here and here.  I discussed the practice of building even one useless section as a way to commit the public to building the whole thing here.  An excerpt of how this is done the Chicago way:

But what is really amazing is that Chicago embarked on building a $320 million downtown station for the project without even a plan for the rest of the line "” no design, no route, no land acquisition, no appropriation, no cost estimate, nothing.  There are currently tracks running near the station to the airport, but there are no passing sidings on these tracks, making it impossible for express and local trains to share the same track.  The express service idea would either require an extensive rebuilding of the entire current line using signaling and switching technologies that may not (according to Daley himself) even exist, or it requires an entirely new line cut through some of the densest urban environments in the country.  Even this critical decision on basic approach was not made before they started construction on the station, and in fact still has not been made.

Mass Transit and Energy Use

The Anti-Planner argues that mass transit will never be energy efficient, mainly because it is virtually impossible to improve occupancy.  The arguments for transit saving money all tend to include the line "will be efficient when occupancies increase" but he shows pretty clearly why that is probably not going to happen.

Also note pages 2-15 and 2-16 of this report.  Compare the trends of auto and airline energy intensity with rail and bus.  While cars and planes have decreased their energy use per passenger mile by quite a bit, rail has been flat and buses have been getting worse.  In fact, auto transit became more energy efficient than buses twenty years ago and continues to get better.   Airline travel has become nearly as energy efficient as Amtrak.

The Seen and Unseen: Passenger Rail Edition

We have all heard environmentalists and other American intellectual snobs lamenting that we just are not as smart as Europeans because we have so much less passenger rail.  But because freight and high-speed passenger rail service does not coexist well on the same tracks, urging more passenger rail on the US rail net is effectively asking for more freight to be dumped onto the highways.

Megan McArdle writes:

Moving freight by rail rather than by truck is an enormous carbon saving; one locomotive can haul as much as hundreds of trucks.  It also reduces highway congestion.  Unfortunately, it's hard for passengers and freight to share tracks.  In part, it's difficult simply because it's expensive to upgrade track to handle passenger speeds, but also because freight moves much more slowly, and on an irregular schedule.
I might well argue that if we were simply trying to maximize environmental benefit, we'd ignore passenger rail, and focus on upgrading our freight systems, which sorely need it.  Moreover, these upgrades could largely be made without the massive procedural obstacles that block new high speed rail lines.

But freight rail is not sexy.  It does not excite donors, and it does not excite most of the voters who are motivated by high speed rail.  Politicians win votes by delivering (or at least promising) highly visible improvements; not by silently enhancing the movement of goods from port to Wal-Mart.

I am not sure politicians really have to do anything other stay out of the way (we already have among the cheapest rail rates in the world, 1/2 of China's and 1/8 of Germany's).  The numbers on freight movement are pretty dramatic:

See the percentage of goods moved by freight, which is dramatically higher for the US.  The end result is we have a LOT less freight on our roads than the EU or Japan, and might have even less if US maritime laws had not done so much to kill coastal shipping.
This is the great unseen in all these "sophisticated" conversations about Europe.  These Euro-philes are so much smarter than the rest of us that they manage to ignore the most important part of the equation  (largely because it is unseen and not sexy).  In fact, the US has the best rail system in the world, and in fact the governments of Europe and Japan have likely sub-optimized their rail systems by forcing their focus towards passengers rather than freight.
I will leave the last word to the Anti-Planner:

Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers, while America's system is run mainly for freight. Europe's rail system has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by highway. Here in the U.S., highway's share of freight travel is only 29 percent, while the auto's share of passenger travel is about 82 percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the highway.

Light Rail Killing Another Bus System

As predicted by skeptics of light rail, like myself, the Phoenix light rail system is starting to kill bus service.  This is a familiar pattern -- in most cities that have added rail, from LA to Portland, total transit ridership has fallen as light rail systems have been built.  That is because rail is so expensive, and its costs are mostly fixed (ie bond payments for construction costs) and absolutely inflexible (ie you can't shift routes).  Since rail costs far more, even orders of magnitude more, per rider than buses, this means that even with modest increases in total transit budgets, total ridership falls when capacity is being shifted to much higher cost rail.  Bus service is inevitably cut, because even if you close rail lines, the costs remain.

So here we are, in Phoenix.  The article is mainly about the regional transit coalition falling apart, which I have no opinion or interest in, but you can see what is going on anyway.

A bad economy has meant that building a regional bus system in the Valley is no longer a regional endeavor.

A half-cent sales tax was supposed to be the magic bullet that paid for transit and roads. But as tax revenues continue to shrink, cuts to the plan have become inevitable.

Avondale leaders say the toll includes the decimation of future West Valley bus routes and the end of the regionalism that Proposition 400 promised....

Paul Hodgins, capital-programming manager for Valley Metro, which operates the transit system,said every region took a 25 percent cut in transit dollars.

Here is what is going on, though the article only sort of alludes tangentially to this way down in the last 2 paragraphs.  Half of the transit dollars in the sales tax increase went to rail, and half to buses.  The rail money is almost all for debt service on capital spending which has already occurred.  This money has to be spent or the local authorities will default on their bonds.  The other half was for bus operations.

Now, there is a 25% cut in the sales tax dollars from this sales tax increase.  The half that went to rail can't be touched.  So the 25% cut results in a 0% cut in rail and a 50% cut in buses.  Further, since bus service carries a lot more passenger trips per dollar spent than rail, this 25% cut will end up affecting well over 50% of the total ridership that benefited from the sales tax funds.

It is clear from the article that folks probably understand this, but no one from the AZ Republic to the transit agencies are yet ready to admit it.  Expect the proposed solution to be in the form of more taxes rather than a rethinking of transit strategy.  Rail is an albatross, and I wonder how often it has to drive failures like this before people start recognizing it as such.