Posts tagged ‘transit’

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.


Note Who Gets Exempted From This Regulation

The Feds are going to require seat belts on buses:

Beginning in November 2016, all new motorcoaches and some other large buses must be equipped by manufacturers with three-point lap-shoulder belts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

Ahh, but there is an exemption

The rule doesn’t apply to school buses or city transit buses.

What do these two exempted categories have in common:  They mostly belong to governments (public schools or public transit agencies).  So the government comes up with an expensive new regulation, but exempts itself from it, applying it to only private operators (who own a minority of buses in the country).

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.



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.

Demand at Price = $0

These two articles were back to back in my feed reader this morning.  First, Joe Biden argues that medical procedures should be free if you feel you need one

“Everyone knows, everyone in this room knows that President Obama has increased the benefits available to people on Medicare by the action he took,” Biden said. “You are now able to go get a wellness exam, and guys, if you conclude you need a colonoscopy because of the feeling you had or you need a breast health examination, you don’t have to pay a co-pay for that.”

And then I got this from China

As part of its 8 day Golden Week celebration, China's central planners decided to do a good thing for the people and remove all tolls from expressways. That was the populist explanation. The fundamental one was that this act would somehow spur the economy. Alas, while the same people may have saved some transit money in the process, what they did not save was on transit times. As South China Morning Post reports, millions were promptly stuck in traffic jams as a result of the politburo's generosity. From SCMP: "A bid by authorities tostimulate the economy by suspending road tolls for the "golden week" holiday brought huge tailbacks across the mainland yesterday as almost 86 million travelers took to the roads. That's 13.3 per cent more than on the first day of the National Day holiday last year." And then the fun began.

"One traveller blogged that he could only move 200 metres in an hour on the Zhengzhou to Shijiazhuang expressway in Henan province. Others said the queue of cars on the Guangzhou to Shenzhen expressway was 40 kilometres long. All roads leading out of Guangdong were jammed, with cars moving at about a kilometre an hour in front of some toll gates. Provincial traffic-management authorities estimated traffic on expressways would increase by 40 to 80 per cent compared with the same period last year, the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily reported. The People's Daily reported dozens of accidents on 24 highways across the mainland, further aggravating the congestion."

Since the government still keeps hammering down doctor supply, through enforcement of tough licensing procedures and through price caps (that keep getting cut) on doctor visits, we should soon be seeing the equivalent of this highway traffic jam in medicine.  Which is why every socialized medicine country in the world has queues and why their citizens keep flying to the US for treatment.

Welcome to the Fight, Sort Of

After years of apparently being OK with California's absurd restrictions on development and crazy environmental laws that tied most everything new up in the courts for years, Kevin Drum suddenly thinks they may be flawed now that they are slowing development he likes (wind, solar, high density housing around transit stations).  Drum is a classic technocrat, who is OK with absolute state authority as long as the state is doing what he wants it to do.  I am reminded of what I wrote technocrats 7(!) years ago:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry “our only mistake was letting those other guys take control”.  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.  A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.  Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent design.  And you can hear the lament – how did we let Bush and these conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My answer is that you shouldn’t have built the machine in the first place – it always falls into the wrong hands.  Maybe its time for me to again invite the left to reconsider school choice.

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.  And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was political, based on a conservative administration’s opposition to abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well, what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA’s politically motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial lawyers.  In establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the principal, contradictory to the left’s own stand on abortion, that the government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for their own body  (other thoughts here).  Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn’t.  It was unjust to scheme to control other people’s lives, and just plain stupid to expect that the machinery of control you created would never fall into your political enemy’s hands.

Great Moments In Public Sector Compensation

I can't confirm this by Randal O'Toole is usually pretty much on top of Portland transit issues:

Portland’s TriMet agreed to allow transit workers to retire at age 55 after as little as ten years on the job and gave them and their families free medical care (with a $5 co-pay, no deductible) for life (plus 16 years after the retiree’s death for their families). As a result, health-care costs have grown from $18 million in 2000 to $68 million next year and projected to rise to $153 million–40 percent of the agency’s 2010 operating budget–by 2020.


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.

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.

"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 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

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.

Cargo Cult Economics

I thought this article interesting - the hypothesis that communist countries pursued a sort of cargo cult economic policy.  Since they did not really understand economics (and as communist countries have banned many of the most important processes for economic growth), communist leaders tried to emulate successful western nations by copying high-profile bits of their economy.  For example, since Western nations were prosperous and had early on built big steel industries, communist leaders decided that building big steel industries would make them prosperous.

It falls somewhat short as a framework for explaining communist economies, but I do think that this cargo cult mentality was an important part of their thinking and even is a part of progressive thinking today.  After all, if you willfully deny classical economic theory as well as the power of individual action and private initiative, you have to fill in the blanks somehow.

High speed rail and mass transit strike me as classic modern examples -- great cities of the world have large mass transit systems so therefore if our city builds a rail system we will become great.

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).

Arrogance of the State

I know this is just a trivial example, but somehow it seems to be representative for me of a larger class of legislation - yield to the state!

In 2009, Colorado legislators passed the Yield to Bus Law to help transit agencies that were finding that the inability of buses to get quickly back into the traffic flow after a stop was hurting their on-time performance.

Steamboat Springs Transit helped push for the law after it had to add time to routes to stay on schedule because too often its buses were boxed in by traffic at stops, said Philo Shelton, director of Steamboat's public works department, which runs the 24-bus transit operation....

The hope is that motorists will get in the habit of yielding, thereby minimizing the need for enforcement of the law, officials say.  (via the antiplanner)

That does seem to be the point - produce citizens that are in the habit of yielding to the state.   Because we all know that having the state's bus full of empty seats stay on schedule is far more important than the schedule of all the little people around it.  When government schedules don't work, what do they do?  Change the schedules?  No!  Change the behavior of the citizenry so the schedules can be made to work.  Nothing wrong with the schedules - its all you folks who are broken.

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.

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.

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.

Economic Alchemy

So Obama just signed a new "jobs" package

It's the first of several such measures Democrats have promised this election year to address the public's top worry: jobs. The measure includes about $18 billion in tax breaks and pumps $20 billion into highway and transit programs.

This is fascinating to me.  Let's take it in reverse order, starting with the $20 billion in new spending.  We are going to take 0.14% of the GDP out of some people's hands, who presumably thought they were employing the money productively, and put it into some other people's hands, and that is going to be a net jobs creator? **  Does this Keynesian myth really make sense to thoughtful people any more?

OK, but lets accept the logic - somehow if the government spends the money, it is more stimulative than if private people spend the money.  But then the whole package is contradictory, because it includes $18 billion in tax breaks.   Isn't that just taking money away from that great optimizer, the US Government, and handing it back to yucky old individuals who might just save it or pay down debt or something equally silly in the Keynesian world?

**Postscript- to answer a frequent comment I get, it does not matter if it is borrowed or taxed.  Either way it takes money from some private purpose.  There is only so much capital in the capital markets, and more government borrowing squeezes out private borrowing.

Cutting the Right Expenses

In 2003, my company was in some serious financial problems.  Post 9/11 commercial insurance premiums had just risen substantially, so much so that my premiums went up more than my total annual profits.  At the same time I found out that a number of operations I had just acquired were profitable only because they were not in compliance with labor law, and my crash program to bring them into compliance was going to put me deeply in the red for that year.

I did a whole bunch of things to right the ship, but the two most important were 1)  I eliminated a whole layer of management, slashing 5 vice-presidents and having all the front line managers report directly to me; and 2)  I eliminated the smallest and worst performing business units.

Now, contrast this to what governments do in the same situation.  Their first response, of course, is to do something I could not do - compel more revenue for themselves by increasing taxes.  Those of us who make our living by the free decision making of others don't have this dictatorial option.

The second thing that governments do is cut their MOST important, MOST valuable operations.  In Seattle, it was always fire and ambulance services that would be cut.  Because the whole game was to find the cuts that would most upset the public to try to avoid the necessity of having to make cuts at all.  Its an incredibly disingenuous process.  Any staffer of a private company that made cost savings prioritization decisions like government officials would be fired in about 2 minutes.

The third thing that governments do if forced to actually, really cut costs (meaning that every other stalling tactic, taxation method, and accounting trick has been exhausted) is to cut field staff who actually do the work rather than high-paid, bloated administrative staffs.  This means teachers get cut but not vice-principals.  And it means that preventative maintenance gets cut and not transit staffers:

Having removed a mere 25 employees so far, and having just suffered its deadliest year ever, Metro officials now want to raid $10 million from the agency's preventive maintenance fund in order to cover operating expenses, including salaries and benefits. Metro managers would rather skimp on passenger safety and reliability than clear out the system's deadwood and force serious concessions by the transit union.

Moreover, even as it asks riders to sacrifice, Metro is fattening itself up, hiring two new "senior planners," one to a newly created position. According to Metro's official job description, they will be "responsible for participation in the development of an annual business plan ... identifying opportunities for future growth and development" and "defining future strategies."

Great Article on Transit Decision-Making

Via a reader, the article is about Madison, Wisconsin, but it could be about anywhere.  The author highlights at least three issues with the plans:

  • Unelected tax authority

Dane County, for instance, plans to fund its transit authority with a half-percent sales tax. Members of the RTA board were told by the officials who appointed them to put the tax to voters in a referendum, likely next fall.And if the voters say no? In theory, said County Board member Al Matano, a key RTA backer, it means no funding. But "it's not on our list of things to worry about," he told me.

Why should it be? The legal fact is the tax needs no referendum. Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed that part of the transit authority law. Struck it right out. The decision is solely up to an unelected RTA board.

"Quite honestly, they don't need (a referendum), legally," said Dave Ripp, a County Board member who doesn't favor the RTA. "And if it fails, they don't have to follow it."

  • Obsession with trains over more affordable solutions

Quite a few wonder why Madison, with 480,000 people and short distances, needs the expense of trains. Buses are much cheaper. They can go more places, and you can afford to run them more frequently. "We actually support buses," said Richardson. "They're very flexible."

"The main thing that worries me, and I'm not the only one," said Susan De Vos, head of the Madison Area Bus Advocates, a riders' group, "is that people put in rail at the expense of the existing transit system, and that's the bus." That's how things worked elsewhere, such as in Los Angeles, said De Vos. When train plans inevitably outstrip revenue, the money comes from cutting back the unsexy part of the system. She favors a series of limited-stop express "bus rapid transit" lines for a fraction of rail's cost.

  • The real focus is on rigid government control of development (ie the Portland model)

"Their agenda really isn't about transportation," as Dane County Towns Association President Jerry Derr put it to a reporter. "It's about land use. They want to build a rail system so they have a reason to force all new development to within a half-mile of the rail corridor." Surely he exaggerates? No. The commuter rail plan's founding document lays out the rationale thus: "Goal 1: Promote Efficient Land Use/Develo

Sounds like a another great town (Madison is really a great place from my experience) is about to be screwed up, just like Portland has.