Archive for the ‘Rail and Mass Transit’ Category.

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"We recommend that transportation officials and elected leaders look at the data today, and not outdated assumptions, to make sure that any highway projects are absolutely necessary," Arizona PIRG Education Fund executive director Diane Brown tells New Times....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

Crazy Rail Transit Capital Costs

I don't know what it is about rail transit advocates, but for some reason they seem to believe that capital costs of rail construction are somehow irrelevant.  There is no other way to explain this (thanks to a reader for the link):

A new rail station that opens next Wednesday in Ramsey could give the Northstar Commuter line the ridership boost it needs for an eventual extension to St. Cloud, an Anoka County official says.

But even as a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday heralded the arrival of the seventh station along the line, others have questioned the cost: about $13 million, or an average of roughly $130,000 for each of the 100 new daily round-trip riders the station is expected to attract. Some also wonder whether the new station will merely siphon riders from the two stations on either side of it.

But apparently the rail authority thinks the skeptics are being too pessimistic.  They expect it to be MUCH better:

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, a former Ramsey council member, predicted the new station will exceed the 100 daily round trips that Northstar officials hope it will generate. With a bus line being discontinued because of the station's arrival, and a 230-unit apartment complex going up near the site, Look said the station could increase Northstar's overall ridership by 25 percent. Based on current figures, that would be a rise of about 600 rides per day.

So the station's greatest supporter is optimistically expecting 300 daily round trip riders per day.  That makes the cost of the station per round-trip daily rider "only" $43,000.    Or approximately enough to buy every rider a new Prius and still save about half the costs.

If California Gets To Waste $100 Billion on High Speed Rail, Then We Want to as Well

David Zetland sent me this writeup on a plan I had not heard of -- apparently Amtrak has a $150 billion plan to improve speeds on the northeast corridor

Take, for example, Amtrak's proposal to bore a 10-mile rail tunnel underneath Philadelphia. As Steve Stofka, a transport blogger, explains, this proposal would require the most expensive type of tunnel imaginable—"It is freaking expensive to bore a ten-mile-long tunnel through an alluvial floodplain under a highly urbanised area—and to maintain it, since it will reside below the water table," Mr Stofka writes. At $10 billion, he notes that the project would be about three times as expensive per mile as the Gotthard Base Tunnel under the Swiss Alps. And all this is for marginal improvements in speed and access. The tracks around and through Philadelphia aren't, generally, big obstacles to high-speed rail—the tunnels in and around Baltimore, Maryland are. It would be much cheaper to replace Baltimore's terrible tunnels than to build a fancy new one under Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia tunnel, unfortunately, isn't even the worst part of Amtrak's plan. That honour goes to a $7 billion renovation of Washington's Union Station (pictured), which Slate's Matthew Yglesias rightly calls"insane".

Another Enormous Subsidy of a Pitiful Few Train Riders

From the AZ Republic

Valley Metro is set to break ground today on the first light-rail expansion, a 3.1-mile stretch into downtown Mesa that city leaders hope will bring a sorely needed economic boost.

The $200 million extension is expected to attract thousands more East Valley riders daily and potentially nurture new development along the line.

If we assume "thousands" means two thousand, then this means the metro area is spending $100,000 per new daily rider for this expansion, not including the additional operating subsidies that will be required to run the trains.  Given that none of these people will likely be able to give up their car, since the route goes so few places, why should they get a $100,000 subsidy?

How about we charge them what it costs?  The payment on a 30-year 5% bond is around $13,000,000 a year.  So if there are 2,000 additional round trip riders boarding or debarking at these new stations each day, that is 1.46 million trips.  So the tickets should be $8.90 per trip plus the cost of actually running the train.  We'll round it to $10, though the cost is probably higher.  If people really think this train is so great, they should be more than willing to pay the $10 a trip it costs for the expansion.

No, they are not?  What this means is that people think this is a really go idea as long as someone else pays.

PS-  If these seem unreasonably high, or simply an artifact of looking at this expansion on a stand-alone basis, think again.  For the original system, the capital cost was $75,000 per round trip rider and the public subsidy in 2010 was $32.73 per trip.  In other words, on the main system, riders would have to pay $32.73 a trip more to be actually covering the cost of the service they are receiving.  So if anything, these incremental numbers for the expansion are probably optimistic.

PPS - I am sure transit authorities would argue that the public did support paying for other people's transit by approving the sales tax increase for this purpose a few years ago.  But the train piece was packaged in with a bunch of highway improvements in the same proposition that people really did want.  It would never have passed on its own.  Transit official may disagree, but the proof is in their actions - they have never allowed the public to vote on the transit piece alone.

California Schadenfreude

From Zero Hedge:

The hoped-for April spike in personal income tax revenues for the State of California fell once again below theoveroptimistic assumptions used to get the budget to “balance.” Instead of the $9.4 billion that the government had counted on collecting in April, it only collected $7.4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. A 21% shortfall! In addition, corporate taxes were $450 million below forecast. After months of “disappointing” tax revenues, the total shortfall in income taxes now amounts to $3.5 billion for fiscal 2012 ending June 30.

The budget, supposedly balanced when it was passed last summer, had been spewing red ink from day one. Tax revenues were one problem. Expenditures were the other. The most recent re-revisions pegged the deficit at $9.2 billion. That was a few weeks ago. Now it’s going to be re-re-revised to nearly $12 billion.

Just how bankrupt does a budgeting process have to be for a budget that is supposedly in balance turn out to be $12 billion overdrawn barely 9 months later?  I have a California state tax refund on my desk -- better cash it quick or else its going to be replaced by scrip again.

The same article has this interesting tidbit about California high speed rail:

The CHSRA plan assumes that it would cost 10 cents per passenger mile (the average cost of carrying one passenger one mile at a given load factor) when international high-speed rail systems averaged 43 cents per mile, according to a report that just surfaced. The low-cost leader was Italy with 34 cents per mile; at the upper end were Germany and Japan with 50 cents per mile; Amtrak’s Acela Express, though not truly high speed, was in the middle with 44 cents per mile. And in California, it’s going to be 10 cents per mile?

The CHSRA correctly assumes that train tickets compete with air fares and the cost of driving, which, despite our incessant complaints, are lower in California than overseas. Thus, the US market requires cheaper tickets. And to make the project appear profitable, and thus more digestible for the taxpayer, the CHSRA lowered its projected operating costs to less than a quarter of the international average.

But if actual operating costs are 43 cents per mile and not 10 cents per mile, annual subsidies of $2 billion to $3 billion would be required just to keep the trains running, according to the report. Yet, AB3034, the California High-Speed Train Bond Act, makes these subsidies illegal. A conundrum that the Legislature, the Administration, and the CHSRA have so far successfully ignored.

When the Media Loses Its Skepticism - High Speed Rail Edition

I have said for a long time that I don't really think there is a lot of outright media bias in the sense of conspiring to bury or promote certain memes.   But there are real issues with the leftish monoculture of the media losing its skepticism on certain topics.

For example, high speed rail is one of those things we are just supposed to do, from the Leftish view.  Harry Reid's justification for a high speed rail line is typical:  he wants to see  "America catch up with the rest of the world".  Everyone else has these things, so it must be some failing of ours that we don't.  For the left, the benefits of high speed rail are a given, they are part of the liturgy and not to be questioned.  Which means that it is up to outsiders to do the media's work of applying some degree of skepticism whenever a high speed rail project is proposed.

Thus we get to this article on high speed rail about a supposedly "private" rail line from LA to Las Vegas.  As is usual in the media, none of the assumptions are questioned.

Greg Pollowitz gets at some of the more obvious problems.  First, it is fairly heroic spin to call a line that currently is getting $4.9 billion in public subsidies "privately funded."  Second, he points out that, like the proposed California high speed rail line, this is a train to nowhere as well

And second of all, having grown up in Los Angeles — and having lied to my parents to drive to Vegas since the time I was 16 years old — I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the Los Angeles to Vegas drive. (CNN, Fox, MSDNC — call me!) I remember Victorville fondly as the place where we’d make our food-stop and pick up some In-N-Out burgers for the final half of the journey. And I can tell you this: There is no way anybody would ever drive through L.A.’s notorious traffic only to stop halfway and hop on a train on the other side of the El Cajon Pass and in doing so give up their personal transportation once they actually get to Vegas.

I want to reality-check their usage numbers.

DesertXpress estimates that it will carry around five million round trip passengers in the first full year of operation,with the company charging fares of around $50 for a one-way trip.

OK, right now there are about 3.7 annual air passengers between Las Vegas and the southern California airports, according to rail supporters.  It is hard to get at drivers, but the Las Vegas tourism folks believe that 25% of 36 million annual visitors to Vegas come from Southern California, so that would mean about 9 million total or about 5 million driving.

What this means is that to make this work, they are counting on more than half of all visitors from Southern California (and remember this includes San Diego) taking the train.  Is this reasonable?

  • The train is supposedly $50 (I will believe that when I see it).  Currently JetBlue flies from Burbank to Las Vegas for $56 in a flight that takes 69 minutes (vs. 84 for the train and remember that is from Victorville).   The standard rate from LAX, Burbank, or Long Beach seems to be around $74-77.
  • Airplanes leave for Las Vegas from airports all around LA and in San Diego.  Let's take a couple of locations.  Say you live near downtown LA, not because that is likely but it is relatively central and does not feel like cherry picking.  Victorville is a 84 mile 90 minute drive AT BEST, with no traffic.  The Burbank airport is a 15 mile, 18 minute drive from LA.  LAX is just a bit further.  Victorville is 82 miles and 90 minutes from Irvine and 146 miles/144 minutes from San Diego.  Both of these Southern California towns are just a few minutes from an airport with $70-ish flights to Vegas

So are drivers going to stop half way to Vegas, once they have completed the hard part of the drive, to get on a train?  Are flyers going to drive 1-2 hours further to get to the rail terminal to say $20?  Some will.  But will more than half?  No way.

Postscript:  If you really want to promote the train, forget shoveling tax money at it and pass a law that the TSA may not set up screening operations at its terminus.  That might get a few customers, though the odds this would happen, or that it would stick over time, are minuscule.

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