Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Risks of rail transit

Came 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.

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

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.

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.

13 Comments:

At 7:10 AM, June 22, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Who are these "American Dream" folks? The group's site kind of screams "astroturf group for developers" and I couldn't find much detail about who's behind it after a quick look at the site.

I actually think that BRT with some rail is a great choice for Houston, though probably not for the same reasons as them, just as rail is good choice for other places.

But despite agreeing with the conclusion as it relates to Houston, I'm always suspicious of groups that are this vague about who they actually are.

 
At 12:36 PM, June 22, 2005, Anonymous vox uo said...

Randal O'Toole is a well-known critic of rail transit and "smart growth" development. He passes himself off as an "expert" in these fields even though he apparently has no formal training or experience in either (he has a degree in forestry). The methodology behind his "research" is obviously very biased and is oftentimes flawed.

His "Preserving the American Dream" conference is an annual event where fellow rail and urban development critics gather to bitterly bemoan the continued assault on America's suburban, automobile-oriented way of life by supporters of urban rail systems and "smart growth" development. The conference is sponsored by organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Reason Foundation, and the speaker's list is a who's who of libertarians, rail-critics and "smart growth" detractors.

The "rail disasters" report you cite is a rehash of a similar report he wrote a year ago. The Victoria Transit Policy Insitute issued a response to that report (I'm sure they'll issue a rebuttal to this year's version as well), which can be found here:

http://www.vtpi.org/railcrit.pdf

Great Rail Disasters is one of several documents by Randal O’Toole that argue against rail transit investments and other smart growth policies. It uses a thirteen component index created by the author to evaluate rail transit system performance. This index fails to reflect best practices for transit evaluation. Rather, it appears to be carefully designed to portray rail transit in a negative way."

More about O'Toole here:

http://www.planetizen.com/oped/item.php?id=146

As a transportation professional, I have conflicting feelings about rail myself (I don't think it's as great as its supporters say but I don't think it's as bad as its detractors say, either), but I am highly suspicious of any "research" that comes from Mr. O'Toole.

 
At 2:12 PM, June 22, 2005, Blogger Christopher Loyd said...

Quick note about libertarian viewpoints on urbanism (I'm at work):

Many, if not most libertarians (whether they are in the party or not) do not have strong and/or well-informed views on urbanism, transportation, building developments, etc. While opposing government-funding of mass transit, not many realize that the interstate freeways are federally-funded. Some have used the postal-roads argument (that the Constitution allows for the construction of roads for the purpose of ferrying mail...and if other people want to use the roads, that's OK). However, *the very same* individuals who advocate this often advocate for the complete privatization of the post office. Not to mention -- why on earth would the *Post Office* ever need need something like the Southwest Freeway...and so forth.

When taken to the logical conclusion of zero government (federal, state, county, municipal) invovlement in transportation and building would result in going back to...1900. At least, as far as cities are concerned. Interstate railroads and canals are a different story.

I figure, if one doesn't federal funding for transit, then reject all of it. Ideally, that would mean auctioning off the freeways, privatizing metro, removing all pollution controls and other mandates, etc.

Whether or not that's a good thing is a rather academic argument. As long as people think that they can vote themselves a lifestyle (and, in a way, they sort of do), people will vote for whatever they want -- freeways, rails, more troops, less troops, etc.

As far as rail transit and Houston, the city would be wise to pursue the biggest bang for the buck. The newer plan just released does seem to deliver that. After all, putting buses in their own right-of-way does improve speeds, assuming that cars, etc, don't enter the right of way.

However, if Metro really wanted to attract people out of cars and into transit, they would need to do two things:

1) Offer something that driving to a given place simply cannot deliver

2) Beat the cars in terms of speed -- if there was a transit mode that could get me from Eastwood to Uptown in less than 30 minutes during the 7:30 - 8:30, and 17:30 - 18:30 time windows, door-to-door, I would consider it.

Note that 1 and 2 are not incompatible, and are often the same thing.

 
At 9:45 PM, June 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing is for certain, the future taxpayers will be stuck with whatever METRO implements.

Tom Bazan

 
At 10:51 PM, June 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Six Percent Tom:

You mean, just as the taxpayers of today are stuck paying for TxDOT boondoggles like the Katy Freeway expansion?

 
At 3:57 PM, June 24, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

vox ou,

Randal O'Toole is a well-known critic of rail transit and "smart growth" development. He passes himself off as an "expert" in these fields even though he apparently has no formal training or experience in either (he has a degree in forestry). The methodology behind his "research" is obviously very biased and is oftentimes flawed.

Randal O' Toole is definitely biased and a major rail critic, but I've never seen an iron-clad indictment of his metholodology. Let's not shoot the messenger.

The "rail disasters" report you cite is a rehash of a similar report he wrote a year ago. The Victoria Transit Policy Insitute issued a response to that report (I'm sure they'll issue a rebuttal to this year's version as well), which can be found here:

That "rebuttal" is nonsense. It admits that transit ridership, even with massive, cost-ineffecive rail expenditures, is growing slower than population or automobile usage, and yet still insists that rail is a good idea. It focuses on a three-year period in which transit ridership rose, yet ignores that in every census it has fallen as a percentage of the commuting population. It's a smokescreen.

If you want to condemn O'Toole as overly biased, by all means do so. But don't point to this kind of deceptive claptrap as a refutation of his findings.

 
At 4:04 PM, June 24, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

Christopher Loyd,

Many, if not most libertarians (whether they are in the party or not) do not have strong and/or well-informed views on urbanism, transportation, building developments, etc. While opposing government-funding of mass transit, not many realize that the interstate freeways are federally-funded.

I'm conservative, not libertarian, but I've worked extensively with libertarians on these issues and I know you're wrong. First, libertarians do recognize that highways are federally funded, and many oppose them for this reason. However, many also make pains to point out that highways are funded overwhelmingly by gasoline taxes and registration fees for automobiles, meaning that the costs are internalized in automobile usage. The same isn't true for transit.

Moreover, libertarians tend to support congestion pricing, HOT lanes, and expanded tollway construction over highway development, because then user fees cover the costs. Again, this is different from transit. If light rail covered its operating expenses, and even paid off capital costs over time, then it would be cost effective and I'd support having the government front the money. However, while that may be true for toll roads, it isn't true for transit. Furthermore, the cost of transit isn't integrated as it is with highways. You'd be paying massive fares for light rail trips if it wasn't subsidized.

As such, you're proposing a false choice. One can support highways/tollways without supporting transit (especially rail transit), and do so because they want government to be cost-effective, respond to demand, and integrate costs.

 
At 9:04 PM, June 24, 2005, Blogger Christopher Loyd said...

Owen,

It's fortunate that you've met people who know about how freeways are funded. The ones that I met didn't seem to know or care.

How do you define integrated? The costs of the freeway are not internalized in the usage of the car, because one pays for registration and gas taxes regardless if one uses the freeway. Tolls make more sense, because in that case one is paying for actually using the road.

The fact, that fares would be higher if a given transit mode was not subsidized, is clear. The problem that one runs into is how one defines subsidization. One can argue that eminent domain is a form of subsidy, for example.

 
At 11:41 PM, June 24, 2005, Anonymous vox uo said...

Owen,

Interesting that your feelings about the VTPI response (i.e. "nonsense," "deceptive claptrap," "smokescreen") are my exact same feelings about Mr. O'Toole's screeds. While I would agree that Mr. Litman probably has some biases of his own, I hold him in much greater regard than I do Mr. O'Toole.

We're clearly seeing this issue from two violently different viewpoints.

 
At 8:06 AM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

Christopher Loyd,

Oh come now. Virtually everyone who owns a car uses freeways, even if infrequently, and even if only to visit a friend on the other side of town now and then. Being a motorist is practically synonymous with being a freeway user; don't make me cite a study to prove it.

Accordingly, the costs are indeed integrated, because specific taxes pay for most of the cost. To the extent that they don't, I do support HOT and tollways. Overall, your initial argument is simply quite weak.

 
At 8:11 AM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

vox ou,

Interesting that your feelings about the VTPI response (i.e. "nonsense," "deceptive claptrap," "smokescreen") are my exact same feelings about Mr. O'Toole's screeds. While I would agree that Mr. Litman probably has some biases of his own, I hold him in much greater regard than I do Mr. O'Toole.

I didn't criticize Litman until I started reading the "study" you cited. He scarcely bothered to cover his tracks, citing data from odd timespans (i.e. transit usage from 1998 to 2001) and claiming benefits of rail transit where there is little data to back him up and a wealth of data disproving his claims (i.e. that rail reduces congestion significantly).

I've also read O'Toole, and while he has biases, his research has never made me wince when I admit he's on my side (and believe me, that happens now and then). O'Toole isn't a shining example of objectivity, but Litman is just a hack. It's little surprise, really, because his position is difficult to defend.

 
At 11:10 PM, July 01, 2005, Anonymous vox uo said...

You might not agree with Litman, and his metrics regarding the efficacy of rail transit might differ from yours, but he's far from a "hack." He is very respected in his field, not just in regards to transit planning, but highways, bicycle and pedestrian accessibility, etc. He's been published in peer-reviewed transportation journals such as the ITE Journal, the TRB's Transportation Research Record, and the University of South Florida's Journal of Public Transportation (O'toole, of course, has not). The TDM Encyclopedia he provides on his site is a great resource for transportation planners and engineers of all kinds. For you to cavalierly dismiss him as a "hack" is rather amusing; it quite frankly tells me a lot about your fundamental understanding of transportation planning and research. Which is not surprising, considering your reputation as a strident idealogue.

It was nice having this discussion with you.

 
At 2:03 PM, July 06, 2005, Blogger Owen said...

vox ou,

The only possibile justification I can fathom for Litman having cited rail stats from 1998 to 2001 was that those particular years happened to be good for public transit. Had he cited the census statistics, which are for constant, ten year stretches, it would have looked very bad for transit. By citing only those three years (which, in case you haven't noticed, stuck out with me) he revealed himself to be a hack who manipulated data to support his positions.

Litman may have credentials, but so O'Toole. Check any bio of his and you'll see a laundry list of his accomplishments. Your dismissal of O'Toole is no less offensive than my dismissal of Litman.

 

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