Risks of rail transitCame across this press release from the American Dream Coalition. I'm reprinting it here because I think it does a good job concisely articulating three of the big risks of rail transit.
If you go to page 20 of the report link, you can find the specifics on Houston. We get a grade F due to overall transit ridership declines and light rail collisions (88 in the report, but now we're up to 94). Stats show Metro graded very respectable B when it was bus-only.
RAIL TRANSIT FLUNKS RIDERSHIP TEST
Transit agencies that rely on buses are more likely to grow transit ridership as fast or faster than driving than those that build expensive rail lines, says a new report. The study reveals that, over the past two decades, transit ridership has declined, or at best remained stagnant, in more than two out of three urban areas with rail transit, while it grew in numerous regions with bus-only transit.
The new report, "Rail Disasters 2005," scrutinizes transit records in twenty-three urban areas with rail transit and assigns each a letter grade based on whether transit ridership has grown faster than driving, grown slower than driving, or declined. Ridership has declined or stagnated in fourteen of the twenty-three areas, earning those areas an "F."
Transit has grown faster than driving in only two regions, Boston and San Diego. However, the report shows that transit has grown faster than driving in many regions with bus transit, including Austin, Las Vegas, and Raleigh-Durham. The report also finds that transit grew faster in many rail regions before the regions began building rail transit than after the rail lines opened.
The cost of starting a rail transit line can be fifty to one hundred times greater than the cost of starting comparable bus service. "Rail's high costs present a triple threat to regions and transit riders," says the report's author, economist Randal O'Toole.
The first threat is cost overruns, which average 41 percent for rail transit projects. These often force agencies to raise bus fares or reduce bus service. In the case of Los Angeles, this led to a nearly 20-percent decline in bus ridership. Only when the NAACP sued to restore bus service to low-income neighborhoods did bus ridership recover. A similar lawsuit has recently been filed in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The second threat comes during recessions, when declining tax revenues force heavily indebted transit agencies to choose between defaulting on their rail-construction loans or cutting transit service. To avoid default in the recent recession, San Jose made such severe cuts in service that it lost a third of its transit riders.
The third threat comes when it is time to rebuild rail lines, which must be done every twenty to thirty years. Washington, DC, estimates that it will cost nearly as much to rebuild its rail lines in the next decade as it cost to build them, yet it has no funds to do so.
Usually because of one of these threats, transit ridership declined in fourteen out of twenty-three rail regions in the past two decades. In other regions, such as Portland, Dallas, and Salt Lake City, transit ridership grew faster before rail construction began than after the rail lines opened.
The report concludes that regions are better off improving their bus service than building rail transit. The report's author, Randal O'Toole, is a nationally known expert on environmental policy and is also the author of "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths." Copies of the report can be downloaded from http://americandreamcoalition.org/RD2005.pdf
The section on the new light rail line in Minneapolis also bodes badly for Houston. There, the new rail line with traffic signal priority played havoc with local light synchronization, dramatically slowing a major highway parallel to the line. They have given up on getting the lights in sync, and now have higher congestion on the highway, even though lower congestion was promised when the line was promoted.
It looks like Bus Rapid Transit (which I expect to renamed "Tire Trains" soon for marketing purposes) and heavy-rail commuter transit along existing lines addresses most of the three risks by having substantially lower capital costs than light rail, although there is still the potential of traffic signal havoc. If the new light rail line is routed along Westpark, I could definitely see problems on Kirby, Buffalo Speedway, and Weslayan between 59 and Westpark, which already have intersection blocking problems without a crossing rail line thrown into the mix. A Richmond routing with a cutover to Westpark in the rail right-of-way west of Weslayan should be less problematic for traffic signals, but then we're back to the collisions problem (Westpark has a right-of-way corridor separate from the street).
I know the normal culture of blogging is to have a strong point-of-view one way or the other, but this new Metro transit plan is a mixed bag with pros, cons, and risks on each side (that's my cop-out, and I'm sticking by it). I guess that makes it finger-crossing time: just hope whatever gets built is safe, effective, efficient, and ends up benefiting Houston.