Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Feds start to get rational on bus vs. rail transit

Sometimes, Houston's obsession with matching other "world class" cities works out pretty well - like Discovery Green and our stadiums - but sometimes it doesn't serve us so well, like our insistence on having a rail transit financial disaster because all of the other important cities have had one. Even the Feds are having second thoughts about emphasizing rail over much more cost-effective buses:
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.”
(hat tip to Josh)
Sounds like an absolutely excellent replacement for most of our planned $100+ million per mile light rail line extensions.

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.

Yes - they're not sexy, but vanpools are incredibly efficient and effective, especially with HOV/HOT lane network. My only issues with vanpools are that they are often cramped, don't have wifi, and are hard to do productive work in. We need a slightly different vehicle with roomier individual seats, wifi, and laptop trays, kind of like this:
Now that would be a comfortable, affordable, productive, fast, direct commute that would effectively connect all of our suburbs to all of our many different job centers.

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At 1:39 AM, July 28, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

What Rogoff is saying isn't news. It's a months-old quote that happened around the same time that LaHood got the FTA to revise the cost-effectiveness metrics to include livability. The basic gist of what Rogoff is saying is that new construction is expensive, so transit agencies should just paint bus lanes (something that would work quite well if those bus lanes had signal priority and off-board fare collection, which would do a lot to make bus service less slow).

As for the Sounder, who cares? It's a prestige line, one that Seattle built so that it can say it has commuter rail. Commuter lines that are actually useful, such as SEPTA or the LIRR, perform much better, despite having to contend with steam-era FRA regulations.

At 7:58 AM, July 28, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

New construction is cheap right now. If you have the money to build infrastructure, you build it now!!!

Several city and county road reconstruction jobs have come 40-50% under the engineers estimated construction cost. Contractors are getting heavily competitive. The end result is that the city and county is seeing their dollar go further on existing projects in the pipeline. When the downturn began, the City of Houston put several jobs on hold. Recently they released the engineers to continue design on many projects because they have money in the budget to build them even with the declining revenues due to dropping construction costs.

At 8:48 AM, July 28, 2010, Anonymous Pam said...

Some of the biggest costs with rail is acquiring the right-of-way, not the construction.

In San Antonio we have dreams of rail, but right now Keith Parker, head of VIA Metropolitan Transit, is proposing the PRIMO Bus system. It is scheduled to begin service in 2012 and will have WiFi, traffic signal control, high occupancy vehicles, comfortable seating, and will run from the 1604 campus of UTSA to the Medical Center (a high employment area) to
downtown San Antonio. Right now they are accepting input from prospective riders to make the system as comfortable and user friendly as possible.

At 9:02 AM, July 28, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

If rail systems are not financially solvent around the country, let's not forget that our roadway system is not solvent either. So perhaps instead of building new roads we should just focus on improving signal timing on the ones we have already built. That seems to be the equivalent of what Rogoff is saying if applied to roadways ... not a bad idea but not going to happen. We'll need to raise taxes to pay for required infrastructure - sooner or later.

At 6:54 PM, July 28, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

New construction is cheap now by the standards of 2007, not by general standards. For example, the recession is reducing the cost of some Second Avenue Subway projects from 7 times the cost of peer projects in Europe to only 3.5 times.

At 6:52 PM, July 29, 2010, Anonymous gratt said...

Just a few points on brt vs rail for Houston.

I agree rail transit systems can become a huge burden on any city or state (look at MTA in NYC) their is something to be said for critical mass. As you agree our current line is successful I believe it would be overall more so if it was the back bone of a system that connected more work/entertainment/and residential areas.

-but up to a point, the more light rail you build the less you will get from it (diminishing returns). That is why I like the current plan, the lines might not be in the best places but it is enough to create a small system and gives the option of living/traveling to Houston and getting around without a car comfortably. I think after this phase is done, we will not need to talk serious extensions for quite a while.

On the case of BRT, I like it in concept the problem is transit cities fail to market it well. If a BRT line has dedicated stops, its own lane then it should be treated like light rail. Period.

This would mean when METRO comes out with its 2015 rail system map that means the "Bellaire quickline" would be marked exactly the same as the rail lines with its own color.

when you do it that way people will see it as part of a fixed express system and not a local line.

Sadly I doubt METRO will do it and as a result BRT lines will be less successful.

At 10:04 PM, July 29, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree on your issues with BRT. As far as LRT, the problem is that Metro will almost certainly run out of money building the far less important/valuable N, SE, and E lines, and not have the money for the key Universities line, much less Uptown. They should make N, SE, E lines BRT, at least temporarily, while focusing on the highest priority line, Universities.

At 10:32 PM, July 29, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>On the case of BRT, I like it in concept the problem is transit cities fail to market it well. If a BRT line has dedicated stops, its own lane then it should be treated like light rail. Period.

>>This would mean when METRO comes out with its 2015 rail system map that means the "Bellaire quickline" would be marked exactly the same as the rail lines with its own color.

The Bellaire Quickline does not have a dedicated lane and it does not run outside of 3 hour periods in the morning and afternoon, and then in only one direction (I believe) - so it has a long way to go before it would really be comparable to the Red line.

I doubt they will shut down 1-2 lanes of Bellaire anytime soon to make them into dedicated bus lanes, but round-the-clock service could be a relatively easy enhancement.

And I agree if it has comparable levels of service we'd want to include it on whatever "first class" mass transit collateral Metro produces - and should probably be doing so now with some asterisks to note the lame hours.

At 5:50 AM, November 05, 2010, Blogger Peter Wang said...

"If rail systems are not financially solvent around the country, let's not forget that our roadway system is not solvent either."

Which means if we want to serve more people with existing roads, we have to put carrots & sticks in place to get more people in each vehicle... not just 1 person in a vehicle the size of a medieval war engine.

Point-to-point express buses, and BRT, can be great. Problem is always those surrounding damn cars with 1 person in them. The key is a dedicated guideway... exclusive use for the bus or train. I don't care what kind of wheels/tires it has... let it roll unimpeded! All it takes is paint or a low barrier..

At 7:33 AM, November 05, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Total agreement. I've advocated expansion of the HOT/HOV lane network for a long time, inc. around parts of 610 and even BW8.


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