Posts tagged ‘Federal Transit Administration’

Streetcar Folly

This article on an expansion of the already grossly under-performing Seattle trolley system has everything:  Over-optimistic ridership and revenue projections and no better service than busses while costing substantially more.  It's hard to figure out where to even excerpt this article, which is the kind of skeptical media coverage of light rail and trolleys that one almost never sees, particularly in a Progressive city like Seattle.

Your fares cover about 40 percent of operating costs for Sound Transit’s Link light rail. Fares cover about 31 percent of the cost of King County Metro buses. Seattle’s two streetcar lines cover 23 percent of their costs with fares.

But once a streetcar is built along First Avenue in downtown Seattle, the city Department of Transportation (SDOT) expects fares to cover a whopping 56 percent of operating costs for the three lines.

That would be among the highest rates of any transit agency in the country.

And it’s one of a number of optimistic financial projections contained in Seattle’s plans to expand a streetcar system that is performing far below expectations.

“The financial assumptions are simply unrealistic based on our history with the streetcar,” Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said. “I don’t want a situation where we don’t meet those projections and the result is we end up seeing bus-service hours cut to pay for any shortfall.”

Which is exactly what happens with every trolley and light rail project, as I reported on in Phoenix recently.

The two streetcar lines — South Lake Union and First Hill — have low ridership that the city doesn’t expect to improve until the First Avenue line is built. But once it is built? The city predicts an exponential surge.

So far this year, the city’s two streetcar lines have averaged about 5,200 riders per weekday, if you filter out 2½ weeks in the spring that the First Hill line was shut because of an uncontrolled skid.

Those numbers, for the two lines combined, equate to about the 25th-most-popular bus line in King County.

SDOT predicts that in its first year of service, the expanded streetcar system will more than quadruple its ridership — to nearly 22,000 weekday riders....

SDOT officials say their ridership model is the gold standard — used by the Federal Transit Administration to validate other agencies’ models.

I loved that last line - "used by the FTA"... not mentioning this model has been overestimating ridership at every other project in the country. I would say it is the gold standard for producing figures to try to sell a bad project to taxpayers.

I wish every article on light rail disclosed this critical piece of information:

Westlake Avenue is a microcosm of the arguments made by streetcar skeptics nationwide, who question their utility if they are not separate from other traffic.

“If you build a streetcar instead of a good bus line, that money you spend above the cost of the bus line is not helping anyone get anywhere faster,” Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit consultant, wrote in 2009.

Bus lines are almost always cheaper to build than streetcar lines and they’re also less expensive to operate. It costs King County Metro about $163 an hour to operate a bus, according to federal data, while a South Lake Union streetcar costs $242 an hour, although a streetcar can carry 30 to 40 more people than a double bus.

I will end with the line my reader pulled out from the article

Why, many transit users realized, should they ride the streetcar, which runs barely 1 mile, when buses come four times as often, cover the same stretch as quickly and also extend their routes to West Seattle and Ballard?

Is The Left Finally Starting to Question Light Rail?

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

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



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).