Monday, November 13, 2017

NYT and COU on Houston after Harvey + the Transit Apocalypse

Before getting to a big backlog of items this week, my Center for Opportunity Urbanism post-Harvey paper with Wendell Cox got mentioned and linked in the NYT's lead feature story on Houston and Harvey last weekend! The reporter, Michael Kimmelman, spent a week in Houston, and I was able to speak with him a couple of times.  Unsurprisingly, a NYT piece is skeptical of Houston's high-freedom/low-regulation approach vs. more centralized planning, but we just have to prove them wrong with a pragmatic response to Harvey that preserves the successful essence of the Houston model while increasing our resilience against future storms.

This week's items can all be grouped under the growing theme of "the transit apocalypse" and rail failures as transit ridership continues a sharp decline across the country:
"But the expansion plan, which caused CityLab to once dub Denver “the most advanced transit city in the west,” has yet to translate into greater transit ridership, or even reduced use of cars. In 2006, then-mayor of Denver John Hickenlooper described a hope that the city would reach 20 percent ridership by 2020. But in 2016, only 6 percent of people in Denver used public transit as part of their commute to work."
"Some regions have seen catastrophic drops in ridership since 2010: 30% or more in Detroit, Sacramento and Memphis; 20% to 30% in Austin, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis and Virginia Beach-Norfolk ; and 15% to 20% in Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio and Washington.
Adding rail service hasn’t helped. To pay for new light-rail lines that opened in 2012 and 2016, Los Angeles cut bus service. The city lost nearly four bus riders for every additional rail rider. Atlanta, Dallas, Sacramento and San Jose have seen similar results. The rail system in Portland, Ore., is often considered successful, but only 8% of commuters take transit of any kind to work. In 1980, before rail was constructed, buses alone were carrying 10% of commuters.
...measured per passenger-mile, the subsidies for transit are more than 40 times as great as for driving
The transit industry has compounded its problems by going heavily into debt, allowing unfunded pensions and health-care obligations to snowball, and failing to maintain the rail lines they already have. According to the Department of Transportation, the nationwide transit maintenance backlog is approaching $100 billion, causing exactly the problems you’d expect: derailments of New York City subways, slowdowns of Chicago’s elevated train, smoke in Washington metro tunnels, and other operational and safety issues. Even if all the money now spent on new construction were redirected to maintenance, according to the department, it would take 20 years to rehabilitate America’s rail transit systems."
"As transit gets squeezed from the outside by cheap and convenient competitors, transit agencies are buckling under the internal pressure of long-deferred maintenance and underfunded pension and health liabilities. 
New York's subway system is looking at a $6.3 billion maintenance backlog. D.C.'s WMATA needs to spend $17.4 billion over the next 10 years to fix the maintenance backlog in Washington's Metrorail system. In 2015, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that the transit industry as a whole had a $89.8 billion backlog, a number O'Toole considers "conservative."
As a fix, O'Toole suggest that transit agencies "stop wasting money on expensive and noncompetitive transit services and focus on providing basic, cost-effective services for those who need transit the most, while putting their economic houses in order by reducing maintenance backlogs, debts, and unfunded obligations." In other words: Stop building new rail lines, and replace the current lines with bus services as they outlive their usefulness. 
Instead of grappling with these long-run problems, transit agencies are exacerbating them by building costly light-rail extensions that fail to attract riders.
Seattle's $54 billion transit expansion is expected to net around 30,000 additional daily riders by 2040. That's $1.8 million for each new rider."
"...the four horsemen of the transit apocalypse include:
  1. Low fuel prices;
  2. Ride-sharing services;
  3. Maintenance backlogs; and
  4. Unfunded pension and health-care liabilities."
"Back in 1980, Portland transit carried 10 percent of the region’s commuters to work. Since then, the region has increased its population density by 20 percent, spent $5 billion building nearly 80 miles of rail transit lines, and subsidized scores of high-density, mixed-use housing projects in light-rail and other transit corridors. The result is that, in 2016, just 8.0 percent of commuters took transit to work."
I've got a ton of other non-transit items, but this already seems like too much for one post. More next week.

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