The Feds start to get rational on bus vs. rail transit
The urban transit community was buzzing last month after a remarkable speech by Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff on May 18th at the National Summit on the Future of Transit, in Boston. Pointing not only to the fiscal crunch facing all levels of government but also to the dire condition of transit agencies, Rogoff said it was time for everyone in transportation to face facts. The seven largest rail transit operators have a deferred maintenance backlog of $50 billion, with another $28 billion racked up by the smaller systems. And 29% of all transit assets are in poor or marginal condition. Yet at this very time at least 80 urban areas are seeking federal funds for new rail transit. “At times like these,” he told the audience, “it’s more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question: if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion? If you can’t afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really expand the President’s goals . . . in any sustainable way?”
So Rogoff reminded his listeners about the virtues of buses, which provide the majority of all transit trips (but account for only one-quarter of the deferred maintenance). “A little honesty about the differences between bus and rail can have some profound effects,” he said. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would be wiser than rail “for a lot more communities than are currently considering it. Some communities might be tempted to pay the extra cost of shiny new rails now. But they need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.”
“One [simple truth] is this—paint is cheap, rail systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” In addition, once you have the special buses, consider busways: “Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.”
Sounds like an absolutely excellent replacement for most of our planned $100+ million per mile light rail line extensions.(hat tip to Josh)
Buses are also better than rail for long-distance commuter express transit, but even better than buses in many cases are vanpools, as this article from Seattle argues:
Vanpools are cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient than any other intercity transit mode. King County's public vanpool program alone carries more riders than Sound Transit's entire Sounder Commuter Rail, and for $1 billion less.
When accounting for ridership and distance traveled, vanpools cost between three and five times less to operate than light rail, buses or commuter rail. In the seven years between 2000 and 2007, the six vanpool agencies in the Puget Sound area spent $50 million on capital infrastructure. This is 18 times less than the same six bus agencies, 12 times less than Sound Transit’s Express bus system and 20 times less than the Sounder Commuter Rail.
It costs about 20 cents per passenger mile to build and operate the vanpool program in the Puget Sound region. Compare this to other intercity transit modes like express buses or rail. Sound Transit Express buses cost about $1.70 per passenger mile and Sounder Commuter Rail costs a whopping $5.39 per passenger mile.
And vanpool users pay for most of their own service. In 2007, King County Metro had the highest farebox recovery rate in the region, collecting 83 percent of operating expenses from vanpool passengers.
This is in stark contrast to what users pay to ride buses, commuter rail, and light rail. Farebox recovery rates for these transit modes are about 20 percent of operating costs, while taxpayers pay the remaining 80 percent.
Between 2002 and 2007, the public paid about $1.26 for every vanpool trip made in the Puget Sound region. In comparison, the public paid $5.13 in operating costs for every passenger trip on Sound Transit buses and $10.66 in operating costs for every passenger trip made on the Sounder Commuter Rail....Instead of building expensive, fixed-route intercity transit systems that relatively few people use; instead of reducing personal mobility by limiting how much people drive; and instead of artificially forcing people to live and work in dense urban centers, vanpools offer a more cost-effective choice to connect the suburbs with transit, preserve people's freedom of mobility and help the environment by reducing the number of cars on the road.