Posts tagged ‘light rail’

The Leftish Mindset, In One Sentence

Cameron Scott meant this sentence as a withering critique of everything that is wrong with the government, from his point of view:

Transit riders shouldered four times the share of the MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] 2008 budget disaster [than] drivers did, but officials promised to seek more revenue from parking.

Holy cr*p!  You mean that transit users shouldered four times more of the transit budget than transit non-users?  Gasp!

The Bay Area where he lives is experiencing light rail disease.  This is the phenomenon where middle class voters along heavy white collar commuting routes push for horrendously expensive light rail lines.  The capital costs of these systems drain transit budgets into the distant future, forcing service cuts, particularly in bus systems that serve the poor.  The result is that the city ends up with bigger transit bills, but less actual transit, and progressives like Scott scratch their head and try to figure out what went wrong.  It must be because non-users of Transit aren't paying enough!

Light Rail Killing Another Transit System

I have written frequently that light rail tends to kill transit systems (Randal O-Toole has been a Cassandra on this subject for years).  Rail is so expensive to build and operate, and so inflexible in its routes and service structure, that once constructed it sucks resources from other modes (especially buses).   This leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that these huge investments actually in the long run end up reducing transit system coverage and service and reducing ridership.  In particular, the poor, who depend on public transit as their lifeline rather than as a publicly subsidized alternative to buying a Prius, tend to get hammered.  Their bus service is cut and the light rail seldom runs where either their work or their homes are located.  Light rail is in effect a shifting of transit focus from serving the poor to serving the middle class (who wouldn't be caught dead on a yucky old bus but who like trains).

Enter Phoenix.  For the capital cost of $75,000 per daily rider, and large operating losses, we built ourselves a light rail line in one of the most dispersed cities in the country.  In other words, we spent $1.4 billion to serve a single 20 mile corridor which represented a tiny fraction of the city's commutes.  I predicted a while back two outcomes:

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor ...  is cut back to help pay for rail.

So, here is what I woke up to on the front page of our newspaper:

Phoenix's bus system, the largest in the Valley, may see a $16 million budget cut next year to avoid a deficit in 2012, transit officials say.

Bus-system officials will discuss the issue with the Citizens Transit Commission today.

The looming deficit is more bad news for bus riders. Cost-cutting in December and July reduced the frequency of some Phoenix routes and eliminated early morning and late-night service. Also, bus fares went up in all metro Phoenix cities and for Metro light rail this year.

Of course, as with all government analyses, the problem is not enough taxes:

Phoenix is going through multiple rounds of belt-tightening because sales-tax revenue, a crucial part of Phoenix's $171 million transit operating budget, continues to drop because of the economic downturn.

Transit 2000, the 0.4 percent sales tax that voters approved in March 2000, is bringing in less than projected. The tax was expected to generate $21.4 million during the first two months of this fiscal year. It brought in $14.3 million, said Lauri Wingenroth, assistant public-transit director.

Here is what they say don't say in the article, but should:  Most of the 2000 sales tax increase was allocated to the capital costs of light rail construction.  Those can't be cut back, because they are already sunk.  That means that most of these taxes are dedicated to paying off light rail bonds for the next 30 years, and those expenses exist no matter what they do.  So with no way to cut back on light rail expenses, buses (which have more variable costs than rail) are cut.  All exactly as predicted.

PS- Hilariously, right next to this article which should have been labeled a light rail fail, is an article about the "tragedy" that Phoenix is not on the Obama light rail boondoggle map.  Everyone else gets to waste a ton of federal money, why don't we have the same right?  If you read the article, you will find that a lot of countries that are orders of magnitude more dense and have much shorter inter-city travel distances than in the US are way ahead of us.  Left out of the article is the much higher percentage of freight that moves by rail rather than road in the US.

Update on Rail Subsidies

As an update on my rail subsidy post, I saw a relevant post from the Thin Green Line yesterday.  At least, I suppose, transit supporters are honest:

When I talked to Dave Snyder earlier this month about a fix for mass transit in the Bay Area, he told me, "Somehow or another we've got to get more money from driving."

However, I thought this was a hilarious lack of perspective: side effect of the green revolution has been a growing awareness of how much roads cost. I imagine you'd be surprised to learn that building a road"”not maintaining it, just building it"”costs more than $16 per square foot.

I have no doubt that this person, who is a strong light rail supporter, honestly thinks this is a lot of money.  But I did the math in my comments on his post:

$16 per square foot for highway should be considered a bargain. This means that a twenty foot wide two-lane highway is $320 per linear foot.

The Phoenix light rail system cost $1.4 billion (thats building it, not maintaining it) for 20 miles, which at 34,000 boardings per week day is carrying somewhat less traffic than the capacity of a two lane highway. However, it cost $13,258 per linear foot, or 41 times your highway numbers. Which is why highway users easily pay the full cost of their transportation infrastructure through their gas taxes, but transit users don't even come close.

In Phoenix, light rail fare revenues cover only 7% of its operating and capital costs. Which always has me scratching my head when people say light rail is somehow more "sustainable." If running trains requires, as you suggest, draining resources from millions of people just to move thousands, how is it sustainable?

The 93% Subsidy

I wondered today what kind of subsidy a rider on the Phoenix Light Rail system was receiving.  Hillary Foose, the public information officer of Metro light rail, was kind enough to send me a link to this board presentation.   Since the rail system opened mid-fiscal year, I will use their own projections for the 2009/2010 fiscal year.

Public accounting is a pain in the butt for someone used to private finances, because it is all cash accounting rather than accrual and they mix together capital expenditures with operating expenditures.  But the table on page 62 carves out the operating budget for the existing 20-mile line from the development and capital budgets.    Here are the key numbers:

Fare Revenue:  $8,985,159

Operating Expenses:  $33,733,168

So already on an operating basis we have a 73% subsidy.  But we have sunk $1.4 billion of capital money into building the line  (actually this is a little low as Metro has spent tens of millions more this year).  Unfortunately, in government accounting, there is no depreciation or interest charge that shows up.   So I am going to charge them with the payment on a 30-year $1.4 billion 5% note, which would be just over $91 million a year.

Totaling the $91 million with the other operating expenses, we get a 93% subsidy for light rail.  This means the true cost of the $1.75 ticket for a light rail ride is actually $25!  METRO says that light rail riders love the service.  I should think anyone who gets a $25 service for $1.75 should be happy.

Another way to look at the subsidy is on a per rider basis.  So far, METRO has averaged about 17,000 round trip riders per weekday (based on about 34,000 boardings per day).   The $115.8 million annual subsidy (capital+expense minus revenues) works out to just over $6,800 per rider per year that the rest of us (who may not live or work near the line**) pay each current rider.

There are a number of ways in which I have likely understated the subsidy:

  1. I used their June revenue projections, which likely will continue to be revised downwards as ridership continues to slump
  2. I used their own expense projections, and we know how often governmental bodies hit their expense numbers
  3. I assumed no new capital spending necessary over a 30 year life.  Rail experience has shown this to be overly-optimistic.  Rail lines have to be rebuilt every 15-20 years or so.  They take tons of capital maintenance dollars.   When we look back twenty years from now, we'll likely come to the conclusion I grossly understated the capital charge.

**Footnote: Since over a third of the capital to build the line came from the Feds, many of the people subsidizing the METRO riders don't even live in this state.

Update: The other thing I left out is lost parking revenue.  The revenue numbers for fares is in fact overstated.  It should net out lost parking revenues, for example at baseball games.  This is the only time I ride the Metro, because I substitute a $2.75 Metro round trip ticket for a $10 city garage parking expense.  But the city has never acknowledged this cannibalization.

Update #2: I have posted an update here

In the Pay of Big Transit?

I am always amazed at the lengths to which some folks will try to put lipstick on the light rail pig.  One example I found today.  Michael Graham Richard wrote on treehugger in June:

The sprawling city of Phoenix, of all places, is showing us how light rail should be done. They just opened a 20 mile line with 28 stops last December, and ridership statistics are beating all forecasts (evidence that the same might be true in other cities where they are afraid to invest because their forecasts are too low) with 40,000 daily riders instead of the 25,000 expected.

But here are the ridership figures from Valley Metro, who runs Phoenix Light Rail.  This is weekday ridership (actually number of daily boardings) -- weekend ridership is much less:

  • Jan:  30,617
  • Feb:  35,277
  • Mar:  34,376
  • Apr:  37,386
  • May:  33,553
  • Jun:   29,469
  • Jul:  26,554

It is hard to see where one gets a 40,000 figure, especially since a true daily rider/boarding figure would have to average in the lower Saturday/Sunday numbers.

And who cares if it meets some sandbagged forecast or not?  Is 40,000 even a reasonable number?  Note that even at the higher 40,000 figure this implies just 20,000 round trip customers.  This higher ridership number would still make the capital cost of the $1.4 billion line to be $70,000 per round trip rider, and ABSURD subsidy.

Update: The ridership numbers will likely pick up when Arizona State is back in school.  ASU and the baseball stadium are about the only major destinations on the line through dispersed, low-density Phoenix (it goes through our "downtown" but that is not saying much  -- it is not a big center of employment).  Did we really build light rail as another subsidy for ASU students?

Update #2: Let's say there are 50,000,000 big city commuters in the US in cities outside of Boston/NY/Chicago with large transit systems.   Serving these commuters at $70,000 each would create a capital cost of $3.5 trillion for light rail.   Who on the planet really thinks this is reasonable?  Sure, you would get some network effects as you built out lines that increased ridership, but these would be offset by diminishing returns (presumably the first Phoenix line was built on the most promising corridor, and all future corridors will be less promising).

Light Rail Uses Twice the Energy as Driving

One of the justifications for diverting highway money to ridiculously expensive light rail systems is that light rail supposedly reduces energy consumption.  Really?  This is via the most recent report from the DOE's Transportation Energy Book, as highlighted by the Anti-Planner (click to enlarge):


The figures for cars are from tables 2.12 and 2.13 of the same report.  Even the best light rail systems are not substantially more efficient than cars, and this gap will likely continue to close, as it has for years, as cars get more efficient.

A Note on Freight: By the way, passenger rail promoters in the US always point to the Europeans as having a better rail system.  But while the Europeans put more of their passengers on rail than does the US, they put less of their freight there.  I would argue that the US system is much more "green", as the differences in energy use between a ton mile of freight on road vs. rail is much larger than the difference in energy use of a passenger mile on road vs. rail.  And besides, from a lifestyle standpoint, would you really want more freight on the roads?  (This is a real tradeoff -- unless one spends the absurd amount of money to build two separate systems, a rail network can be optimized for freight or passengers -- the two do not coexist very well on the same tracks).

Postscript: Just to head off the obvious rhetorical battles -- the incremental energy efficiency of moving one driver to a light rail rider of an existing system is very high.  The car consumption goes away and the train does not incrementally increase its energy use much with one more passenger.  So at the margin, it is correct when someone tells you that it saves energy to shift your commuting to an existing light rail line.  However, it does not make sense, from an energy perspective, to build a light rail line in the first place.  The investment is too high, the energy savings are negligible or non-existent, and the operating cost are so high that light rail tends to crowd out bus operations that help the poor.  As I have written before, for every light rail system I have checked, the cost to build the system is enough to buy every daily rider a Prius and the operating deficit enough to keep every one of these Prius's filled with gas.

Update:  I further understand that cars in the city likely have lower gas mileages than these averages, particularly for commutes that might be substituted by light rail.  But light rail is sold as if it is substantially more energy efficient, and it really would have to be orders of magnitude more efficient to justify the capital costs that are so much higher than for an equivalent capacity of roadway.  The efficiency is just not there.

The Portland Non-Example

The Anti-Planner, in a long post dissecting a speech by Ray LaHood, brings some good facts to the table about the lack of success of efforts in cities to get people out of cars.  Of particular interest is Portland, which is often held up by transit and in particular light rail supporters as the be-all-end-all city on the hill example of transit and growth planning.  OK, let's use it as an example:

The 2007 American Community Survey found that, since the 2000 census, the number of Portland-area residents who say they usually bicycle to work grew from about 6,800 to 15,900. But the number who say they take transit to work declined from 58,600 to 57,900. The number who go to work by car (not counting taxis) grew from 664,300 to 730,500. This means that Portland roads have about 60,000 more cars during rush hour, but the region has put most of its transportation dollars into light rail and streetcars that carry no more people.

A lot of blame for this can go to the city's focus on light rail, whose enormous costs have cannibalized bus service and thus reduced total transit service.  In particular, those who support transit as a god-send for the working poor should note that this substitution of large, inexpensive bus networks for more yuppie-friendly trains on narrow routes shifts transit away from the poor to white collar users.

...coerciveness is a fundamental part of the livability campaign, as shown by Portland, Oregon, whose official objective (see table 1.2) is to allow rush-hour traffic to grow to near-gridlock levels ("level of service F") on many major freeways and arterials. Besides diverting federal highway money into light rail instead of things that will actually relieve congestion, much of the money that Portland does spend on roads goes into "traffic calming," a euphemism for "congestion building" which consists of putting barriers in roads, speed humps, narrowing streets, and turning auto lanes into exclusive bike lanes.

Beyond the moral and constitutional question of whether government should have the right to intrude into people's lives is the more practical question of whether the benefits of such intrusions justify their costs. In the case of Portland, the costs include a nearly twelve-fold increase in the costs of congestion between 1982 and 2005, the more than $2 billion spent on light rail, and nearly $2 billion spent on subsidies to transit-oriented developments. Meanwhile, the benefits include a lot of New York Times articles making Portlanders feeling smug about themselves, but not much else except for the lucky (or politically connected) few getting the subsidies.

Phoenix Light Rail Fail -- Half My Light Rail Bet Settled

When Phoenix was building its light rail system, I made the following two-part bet:

  1. I could take all the money spent on construction and easily buy a Prius for every single daily rider, with money to spare
  2. I could take the operating deficits for light rail and buy everyone gas to run their Prius 10,000 miles per year and still have money left over.

This bet has been tested in a number of cities, including LA and Albuquerque, and I have not lost yet.  Now the numbers are in for Phoenix initial ridership, and I am winning the first half of my bet in a landslide.

The other day, Phoenix trumpeted that its daily ridership had reached 37,000 boardings per weekday.  Since most of those people have two boardings per day (one each direction) we can think of this as 18,500 people making a round trip each day.

Well, if we bought each of these folks a brand new Prius III for $23,000 it would cost us just over $425 million.  This is WAY less than the $1.4 billion we pay to move them by rail instead.   We could have bought every regular rider a Prius and still have a billion dollars left over!  And, having a Prius, they would be able to commute and get good gas mileage anywhere they wanted to go in Phoenix, rather than just a maximum of 20 miles on just one line.  Sure, I suppose one could argue that light rail is still relatively new and will grow, but even if ridership triples, I still win the fist half of my bet.  And as the system expands, my bet just looks better, as every single expansion proposal has been at a cost of $100 million a mile or more, more expensive than the first 20 miles.

So now, all we have to do is wait to see the operating results to settle the second half of my bet.  If common practice is followed from other metro areas, this will be extremely difficult to prove because the authority will do everything it can to hide the huge operating dollar hole light rail is creating.

But Coyote, what about congestion?

I am glad you asked.  Folks will argue that rail reduces congestion.  Normally, I would agree but argue that it reduces congestion at way too high of a price.  But for Phoenix light rail, it may even be that rail makes congestion worse.

Here is why:  In building Phoenix light rail, the city along most of the line had to remove two lanes of traffic (one each way) to build the line.  So here is the comparison:

  • Light rail carries 37,000 trips per day or about 2,000 per hour  (1,000 each way) through its 18-hour operating day, though certainly there are peaks and valleys around this average
  • A typical lane of road has a capacity of 2000 cars per hour, so light rail removed 4,000 cars per hour of road capacity (2,000 each way).  Its unclear how many riders this equates to, but the average car in the city has 1.5 passengers, so we will call this a road capacity of 6,000 trips per hour (3,000 each way).

So, we have replaced roads that can carry 6,000 trips per hour with train tracks carrying 2,000 trips per hour.  Sure, the train carries more than 2,000 in some peak periods, but probably not more than the road it replaced was capable of carrying.  Further, I can attest from personal experience that the complexity of trains on the road and passing through intersections screws up the timing of lights and results in lost capacity on the roads in the area that remain.

A Thought on Sports Team Subsidies

I would love to see the ridership of the light rail on days with and without a baseball game or basketball game downtown.  My sense is that a significant portion of the ridership is from game attendees (its the only time I have found it useful to ride the train).  If this is the case, then this massive overspending for light rail represents yet another subsidy for professional sports teams.

By the way, I just realized that I am underestimating the financial cost to the city of the train.  Most sports fans ride it not as a transit substitute per se but as a parking substitute -- the train allows one to park cheaply away from downtown and ride the the game without traffic hassles.  I wonder how much the lost $15 a pop parking in city lots by the stadium due to the train is costing the city?

Light Rail Hurts the Working Poor

I think it is always important to reiterate why light rail is such a threat to the working poor who depend on transit.  As I wrote the other day:

"¦light rail is simply not transit for the working poor. It is transit for yuppies that happens to be used by some working poor.  They are built for white collar workers commuting to town who are too high and mighty to be caught dead in a "grubby" bus.  But since light rail is orders of magnitude more expensive than buses, two things happen in every city that ever builds light rail.

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor even today in the Bay Area, is cut back to help pay for rail.

Light rail is the worst enemy of providing transit services to the working poor ever devised in this country.

You Must Subsidize My Unrealistic Choices

I found this a fairly typical example of the thinking by the modern victim class.

Stimulus dollars for new fare boxes strikes me as very close to the extreme in Keynes's insight that stimulus from the gov't can be needed and serve well, when he said something like that a "stimulus" could be burying bottles of dollars under a field and people digging them up - his point being that ANY stimulus would help. 50+ yrs later, surely the thought that "yeah, but, a smarter-placed stimulus would have more effect." Stimulate the company (and its employees) that make fare boxes, or allow SF residents to not be yet further pressed for money? I think the latter is smarter, and am stunned that the former seems to be going to happen.

I beg you to write and publish something on this. Raising fares at Muni also has a ripple effect on local business -- I won't ride the bus on the wkend out into the neighborhoods and maybe use my little splurge money to buy something there. In addition to that, for MTA, I will be overall paying less to them (while feeling a lot more confined, riding a lot less). The fare increase will get less money from me, while imposing more hardship on me, and I will be putting less money into local business.

Thank you for noticing and writing of we "the working poor." We're increasing in number. I'm well-educated and under-employed, and right now just trying to get by each month. I am desperately trying to avoid having to move out of SF.

So here is the situation:

  • He is well-educated, presumably with portable skills, but insists on staying in San Francisco where he cannot find full employment.  My sense is he has not tried to find a job anywhere else in the country
  • He considers himself to be poor, but refuses to entertain the idea of living in the most expensive city in the country (save possibly Manhattan)
  • He wants the rest of us via stimulus money to to subsidize his rail transport to help him better live in a city that has no work for his skills and which is too expensive for him to afford

I am OK with helping out folks who have tried everything they can to make ends meet and still need help to survive.  But should I really be thrilled to rush to the aid of someone who refuses to take even the first and most obvious step to address their poverty?

I have moved 9 times in my life trying to make things work for me and my family. I loved Boulder CO the best, and would love to live there, but there is no work for me that fits my skills. I guess I could have stayed and lived their in a financial situation that is less than I desire, but if I did so, it would be hard for me to imagine that I would lash out at the rest of the world for not subsidizing my choice.

Postscript: These guys are on drugs thinking light rail is the answer for the working poor.  As I wrote in the comments:

...light rail is simply not transit for the working poor. It is transit for yuppies that happens to be used by some working poor.  They are built for white collar workers commuting to town who are too high and mighty to be caught dead in a "grubby" bus.  But since light rail is orders of magnitude more expensive than buses, two things happen in every city that ever builds light rail.

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor even today in the Bay Area, is cut back to help pay for rail.

Light rail is the worst enemy of providing transit services to the working poor ever devised in this country.

You Guys Are Losers Because You Are Not Paying For My Stuff

The Thin Green Line has been running a series of articles complaining about price increases and service cuts at the local MTA.  I will leave aside for today the critique I have been putting in the comment section of that blog, which is that if you really care about transit service for the working poor, then you never should have started down the light rail path in the first place.  Light rail is an expensive yuppie toy that inevitably, through its high costs and continuing capital requirements, starves money from the bus services that the working poor actually depend on.

But anyway, I thought it was endemic of a certain type of political outlook that the author could write this with a totally straight face:

Also problematic is that the MTA did not hit drivers and riders equally [with proposed fee and fair increases].

Wow!  You mean a price increase for a service does not hit users and non-users of that service equally?  On what planet does one have to live on to believe that they should?

Transit as the Anti-Stimulus

The (flawed) theory of government stimulus plans is that in certain economic under-capacity situations, government spending can have a multiplier effect.

The Anti-planner shows that, as far as government spending on mass-transit is concerned, $9,150 of taxpayer subsides per rider generate about $6,100 in average savings per rider.  Every dollar of public transit spending destroys about 30 cents of value, which I guess makes it the anti-stimulus.

Update:  Yeah, I know, transit supposedly eliminates all those externalities.  But most rail transit plans typically reduce congestion by fractions of a percent, even by their builder's estimates, while energy savings is wildly over-estimated.

Update on Light Rail Alternative

Yesterday I posted on a new bus system Phoenix is implementing but that appears to cost 30x less than the light rail system we just built.  I wrote Randal O'Toole of Cato, also known as "the AntiPlanner," to see what he knew about this system.  Here is what he was wrote back"

Yes, I've written about it a lot. The best system is in Kansas City, where they didn't feel they had to spend $750,000 to make a $300,000 bus look futuristic.

Take a look at my blog, and search for "bus rapid transit" to see some articles on better bus service. Here is the article about Kansas City BRT:

Here is an article about Eugene's bus-rapid transit, which was a stupid waste of money:

The only thing good about it is that it didn't waste as much money as light rail. But that's like saying you'd rather be stabbed in the heart with a three-inch knife than a six-inch one.

The Eugene mess he refers to has the city building a dedicated bus lane, something Phoenix fortunately is not considering, opting for a traffic light transponder approach rather than dedicated lanes to try to hold schedules.  Here is a snippet of what he wrote about Kansas City:

In 2005, Kansas City did a wonderful thing: It started a bus-rapid transit system the way bus-rapid transit ought to be done. The transit agency didn't spend hundreds of millions of dollars building exclusive bus lanes. It didn't buy million-dollar buses just to have a semi-futuristic look.

Instead, it simply began running buses on existing streets on rail schedules. That is, the buses stop only once per mile and the operate three to four times every hour from 4:20 am to 11:20 pm. The greater frequencies and faster buses increased ridership by 25 to 30 percent (see page 11), and most of these new riders were new to transit.

The city built inexpensive but easily identifiable transit stops for the route. The buses were regular buses but were "branded," that is, painted in an easily recognizable style. In short, Kansas City achieved the kind of ridership increases that light rail would achieve for a tiny fraction of the cost.

In other words, the basic idea makes great sense, but spending a million bucks a bus (as Phoenix plans) just to make the bus look like a train is crazy.

All true, but I might be willing to give in on the more expensive busses if thats what it takes to kill this crazy infatuation with steel rails.   In the Phoenix Mesa Link example, they are probably spending $4.5 million too much for the train-like busses, but if that gives public officials the ability to walk past the light rail buffet and save the $800 million extra rail would have cost, I might consider that a good investment.

Light Rail Alternative

Apparently, Phoenix is experimenting with a new style of bus transport that looks and operates like a train:

The Mesa Link debuted the same week as light rail. For now, Link involves a fleet of 10 buses. Each $756,000 vehicle carries a transponder to coordinate traffic lights and keep the bus on schedule for a 12-mile run in 45 minutes.

It's the start of a much more ambitious program.

Over the next few months, the Regional Public Transportation Authority, which coordinates Valley Metro bus service, will build stations and add technology to the Mesa line to give it more of the pace and feel of a train.

Basically, they are building the thing to look and operate like a light rail train, only running on tires on the existing road.    The travel time may seem slow, but it is nearly identical to the average speed of our light rail line (20 miles in a claimed 70 minutes, though a number of riders say its slower).  And the capacity is nearly identical.

So with the same speed and the same capacity and similar scheduled service with similar style stations, here is the real appeal:

In 2010, a second line will be created to run 12 miles along Arizona Avenue in Mesa and Chandler. It will feature 10 stations and cost $28 million for construction and the purchase of nine buses. Future lines are planned for Scottsdale Road, Baseline Road and Chandler Boulevard.

The 20-mile light-rail line cost $1.4 billion to build.

Holy cr*p.  $70 million a mile for light rail vs. $2.3 million a mile for this system.   That is 30x cheaper.  The only discernible difference is one runs on steel rails and the other on tires.  Oh, and the rail line, in most places it was built, completely removed up to two lanes of existing roadway capacity, while the bus-type system leaves the roadway intact and just uses a fraction of one lane's capacity.

Now, I would have to sit down and look at the numbers and the service profile to decide if this new bus system made sense financially vs. the old bus system, but why are we even considering extending light rail?  And why oh why did we build this white elephant in the first place.

Another Selling Point for Phoenix Light Rail

Share a ride with a prisoner:

Maricopa County sheriff's deputies may soon begin taking some inmates to Fourth Avenue Jail on Metro light rail in a bid to cut costs.

The Sheriff's Office announced its intent to transport inmates using the light rail from 44th and Washington streets to the Fourth Avenue Jail in order to eliminate parking fees. MCSO estimates that the new system can save about $72,000 in transport fees.

Seems to be some funny economics at work if the city charges the Sheriff more money for parking a car at the jail than it does for at least 3 people to ride the metro.

Anyway, count on Sheriff Joe to ease any tension you might have with this share-a-ride program:

"There is nothing to be concerned or worried about as my deputies will be armed," Sheriff Joe Arpaio said in a press release.

Great, but who is going to protect me from the sheriff?  And why does this statement remind me of the famous Al Haig "Don't Worry, I'm in charge" press conference?

Light Rail and Energy Use

Politics is full of premises that people take on faith without actually testing against facts.  One such premise is that light rail investments reduce energy use and CO2 output.  But data from the USDOT, as I posted before, shows that light rail at average occupancy and autos at average occupancy are in an energy dead heat.   Driving a hybrid or even high fuel efficiency conventional automobile, even solo with no passengers, uses less energy and produces less CO2 per passenger-mile than light rail.

A group critical of the Denver light rail system brings us another data point.  In their report (pdf), compiled from the official figures of the Denver transit authority, they claim:  (via the Anti-Planner)

Denver's light-rail trains use 4,400 British thermal units (BTUs) and produce 0.78 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile. By comparison, the average SUV uses about 4,400 British thermal units (BTUs) and produces 0.69 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile.47 In other words, people who ride Denver's light rail when gasoline prices rise are not saving energy: they are merely imposing their energy costs on other taxpayers. If oil prices rise again, people can save more energy by buying more fuel-efficient cars than by riding energy intensive rail transit lines

Quite a while back, I made a light rail bet.  I said that for the capital cost of constructing these systems, I could purchase every regular rider a Prius, and with the annual operating deficit each year could purchase gas for all these Prius's for a full year.  This bet has not yet proved wrong (LA example), even for heavy rail (Albuquerque example).  Now,though, in addition to being more cost effective, the hybrid is also more energy efficient.

Postscript: I am sometimes criticized for not including the highway construction cost in my Prius bet.   First, a new highway lane has far more capacity than most light rail lines, and is far cheaper to build.  I don't think anyone, even light rail supporters, dispute this.  Light rail is generally supported over highways for what I would call aesthetic reasons -- light rail just strikes some people as more elegant a transportation solution.  All the traffic carried by most light rail lines is generally a small fraction of a single highway lane.  The congestion argument is a chimera, and is never supported, even in the fine print of transit authority statistics.  From Denver's internal projections:

Now, RTD says the line will cost more than $600 million, which is a lot for a mere 11 route miles. Moreover, RTD has changed the proposed technology to something it calls "electric multiple-unit commuter rail," which sounds something like the Chicago Electroliners or some of the Philadelphia commuter trains.

For this high price, the DEIS reports incredibly trivial benefits. The proposed rail line is projected to take 0.0085 percent of cars off the road. Of course, that's for the region as a whole, but in the corridor it will take a whopping 0.227 percent of cars off the road. A handful of buses could do as well.

OK, One Coyote Likes Light Rail

Sent to me by a reader, picture from this article.


Fortunately, there seem to be plenty of empty seats for him ;=)

We Love [Name of Government Project] As Long As Someone Else Bears the Cost

A reader sent me this, and I found it pretty funny:

Minnesota Public Radio and two neighboring churches in downtown St. Paul are escalating their opposition to the proposed line.

MPR said noise and vibrations from the train, connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, could harm their ability to record and broadcast. The churches say those very same effects could rattle their aging buildings and disrupt their worship services.

In the latest salvo, MPR has asked the project planners to study alternative routes through downtown St. Paul.

MPR and the churches say they support light-rail, but not the proposed route along Cedar Street. The tracks would be laid about 14 feet from the front door of the broadcast center.

"As far as we know, this is the closest a light-rail line will run to federally designated noise- and vibration-sensitive facilities anywhere in the country," said Jeff Nelson, public-affairs director for MPR.

I am not sure a comment is even necessary.   MPR has published any number of light rail stories about budget and approval battles that were thinly disguised cheerleading for light rail.  Take this article for example, which discusses how light rail might be saved from trouble, but because it only quotes light rail supporters, a reader can't even figure out why the trouble exists.

Basically, MPR is saying "please put the rail line, which we support, near someone else who may hate it being nearby as much as we but don't have the access to the media and the political process to make a big stink about it."   Already, the line has apparently made an expensive accommodation for just one organization -- the University of Minnesota, a state agency.  The arrogance of this is staggering.  It reminds me of the NY Times and Columbia University, both of whom claim to be advocates for the underdog, except when the underdog gets in the way of their real estate deal and eminent domain grab.

By the way, am I the only one who has never heard of a federal designation for "noise- and vibration-sensitive facilities?"  If such a designation really exists (and I sure can't find it with any similar search terms on Google), what percentage of the list would you guess is politically connected organizations using the designation to get privileged treatment vs. those without power?

Update: The "federally designated" thing is a bit of an exaggeration.  The PR department of MPR was kind enough to send me a link.  They are referring to the category 1 designation in this report, which merely says that amphitheaters and recording studios should be in the quietest category when assessing impacts of transit nearby (neither MPR or any other facility is mentioned by name).  This same report essentially comes to the conclusion that it is perfectly possible for light rail to be near to recording studios and amphitheaters, just that some care needs to be taken in design.

By the way, the "As far as we know, this is the closes a light-rail line will run to" such a facility is just nuts.  I guess the "as far as we know" covers them from outright fraud, but I have to look no further than my own town of Phoenix to find light rail in proximity to such venues.   I know of a few radio stations and TV stations right on the rail line, but a quick Google maps search found at least 9 radio stations and TV stations and recording studios right on just the Central Avenue portion of the route.  In addition, I know of at least 5 ampitheaters on the route, not to mention our main public library.  (In fact, the library is right near the intersection of the rail line and Interstate-10, and I find it perfectly quiet there).  In fact, I would challenge MPR to identify one urban passenger rail line where there is NOT a radio station, TV station, recording studio, or ampitheater in close proximity.

$3,617 an inch

Via a reader, comes this update on the link from Phoenix's new light rail line to the airport:

Down the line, Sky Harbor plans to phase out shuttles.

Eventually, an automated train will take passengers around the airport. The project will cover 4.8 miles and will cost $1.1 billion.

Construction on the project began this year, and the first phase is scheduled to open in 2013.

The entire system will be up by 2020, Sky Harbor officials say.

I beg your pardon?  $1.1 Billion.  With a B?  For 4.8 miles?  That is, as the title implies, $3,617 per inch.   It is probably so expensive because they will be working at the blistering pace of 1/3 mile per year, or about 5 feet per day.

Some Valley residents have questioned the reason Phoenix and transit officials didn't build one train system - light rail - with several stations at Sky Harbor.

Transit leaders considered that, but they decided against it, light-rail officials have said.

Running the line through Sky Harbor would have made light rail even more expensive.

Because, you know, if the Sky Harbor extension is an entirely different project that has to be funded later to make up an obvious service gap that everyone and his dog can immediately spot in the system, then the cost doesn't count?

Absolutely Predictable

Apparently, even before the first train starts carrying passengers (sometime in December), Phoenix's new light rail system is already forcing bus fares up.  (via a reader)

Before the Valley's light-rail service ever begins, the cost to ride the train and city buses may be headed up.

The issue of raising the Valley's regional fare policy has been brewing for several months as transit officials have struggled to cover
rising gas prices and other increased operation costs, said Greg Jordan, Tempe's transit administrator. Transit and light-rail costs are covered by a half-cent sales tax, which has fallen over the past year.

The real issue is that transit agencies are generally given a fixed pot of money for operating subsidies (in this case the proceeds of a half-cent sales tax) and rail tends to take a hugely disproportionate share of that money, starving out less sexy but more practical and cost-effective bus systems.  Even in the that wet dream of rail planners, Portland:

In fact, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit to work before the region build light rail. Today it is just 7.6 percent. In a story repeated in numerous cities that have built rail lines, rail cost overruns forced the city to raise bus fares and reduce bus service. That's a success?

This is even more likely in Phoenix, where buses make far more financial sense than rail, given our very low densities, lack of a real downtown area, and numerous commuting routes.  In fact, not only is it predictable, but I predicted it:

Rail makes zero sense in a city like Phoenix.  All this will do is create a financial black hole into which we shift all of our bus money, so the city will inevitably end up with a worse transportation system, not a better one.  Cities that build light rail almost always experience a reduction in total transit use (even the great God of planners Portland) for just this reason - budgets are limited, so since rail costs so much more per passenger, other transit is cut back.   But the pictures of the train will look pretty in the visitor's guide.

Why Phoenix Light Rail is Doomed in One Chart

The Arizona Republic had another of its cheerleading articles on light rail this morning.  In it was a chart that, contrary to the intent of the article, summarized exactly why Phoenix light rail is doomed.  Below is a chart of the employment density (top chart) and population density (bottom chart) at each stop along the first rail route.  Note that this line goes through what passes for the central business district of Phoenix and the oldest parts of town, so it was chosen to run through the highest density areas - all future extensions will likely have lower numbers.  Unfortunately, they do not reproduce this chart online so here is a scan:


Take the population density chart.  As a benchmark, lets take Boston.  The average density for all of the city of Boston is 12,199 people per square mile.  Phoenix's light rail line cut through the highest density areas of town has only one stop where density reaches this level, and most stops are less than half this density.  And this is against Boston's average, not against the density along its rail routes which are likely much higher than the average.

Rail makes zero sense in a city like Phoenix.  All this will do is create a financial black hole into which we shift all of our bus money, so the city will inevitably end up with a worse transportation system, not a better one.  Cities that build light rail almost always experience a reduction in total transit use (even the great God of planners Portland) for just this reason - budgets are limited, so since rail costs so much more per passenger, other transit is cut back.   But the pictures of the train will look pretty in the visitor's guide.

Postscript: Phoenix's overall average density is around 2,500 per square mile.  Assuming that the 12,000 in the chart above is one of the densest areas of Phoenix, this gives a ratio of about 5:1 between peak and average density.  This same ratio in Boston would imply peak density areas of 60,000 per square mile.  This may be high, but indicates how much higher route densities on Boston rail should be.  Oh, and by the way, Boston rail is losing a ton of money.

Other city densities here from 1990.  People think of LA as spread out, but LA has a density over three times higher than Phoenix!

Buying Dollars for $45.50 each

Our light rail cheerleader in chief, the Arizona Republic, laments that if Proposition 203 does not make it to the ballot this November, "light rail [in Phoenix & Maricopa County] will lose a chance to win hundreds of millions of dollars for the system's expansion".

Well, let's think about that.  The proposition would raise $42.6 billion statewide through a 1% point increase in the state sales tax rate.  But here's the rub:  Phoenix and Maricopa County constitute a huge part of the state's population, and presumably, retail spending.  In fact, checking the most recent Arizona state tax facts (for May, 2008), we find that Maricopa County pays about 64% of the state sales tax.  That means that approximately $27.3 Billion of that $42.6 billion in new taxes will be paid right here in the Phoenix metropolitan area. 

Good grief.  So, with a tax increase of $27.3 billion in Phoenix, we can get $0.6 billion back from the state for our light rail boondoggle.  Gee, thanks.  That hardly sounds like my definition of "winning" money.

By the way, this was hilarious:

Ziemba believes that Proposition 203 would have an "extremely significant" impact on light rail expansion if it becomes law.

"This would be the funding to really take our light rail system to
the next level, to expand it to more roots, to connect it to more of
the county," he said. "It will provide the resources to connect the
light rail system in a meaningful way throughout Maricopa County."

Why is that so funny?  Well, because the next $306 million in light rail spending is expected to get us 3.2 whole miles of track.  So at this rate, this $27.3 billion tax increase would net us $600 million which would, before inevitable cost overruns, get us at most 6.5 miles of track.  Wow, that sure sounds meaninful to me.

Light Rail and CO2

The other day, I posted an update to my light rail bet saying that not only was light rail incredibly expensive for the amount of transportation it provides, it is not even clear that it provides any "green" benefits  (with "green" today meaning only the potential to reduce CO2, since the global warming hysteria has sucked all of the oxygen out of other environmental goals).

The Antiplanner has more information, this time from the transportation planners in Denver.  Normally, transportation planners grossly exaggerate the benefits of their proposed systems, so it is interesting that even they so no net CO2 savings from their proposed rail lines:

The Antiplanner's review
of rail transit and greenhouse gases found that Denver's light-rail
lines produce more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than a typical
SUV. The Gold Line DEIS agrees, admitting that the rail alternative
will result in a regional CO2 increase of 0.034% (see page 3.7-10).

By the way, the Denver system does not do so great on the financial part either:

Now, RTD says the line will cost more than $600 million, which is a
lot for a mere 11 route miles. Moreover, RTD has changed the proposed
technology to something it calls "electric multiple-unit commuter
rail," which sounds something like the Chicago Electroliners or some of
the Philadelphia commuter trains.

For this high price, the DEIS reports incredibly trivial benefits.
The proposed rail line is projected to take 0.0085 percent of cars off
the road. Of course, that's for the region as a whole, but in the
corridor it will take a whopping 0.227 percent of cars off the road. A
handful of buses could do as well.

While that might seem terrible, it actually outdistances our guys here in Phoenix, who are projecting that the next 3.2 mile line here will cost $306 million.  While the Denver line is projected to cost $10,300 per foot, the Phoenix line will cost at least $18,000 per foot.

$100 Million a Mile

I don't really understand the various issues in this article on the next phase of Phoenix light rail expansion, but this certainly caught my eye:

It will add another $9 million to the $297 million project. But by
acting quickly to make these changes, there aren't expected to be
delays in rail construction. Work is scheduled to start in early 2009
and be completed by 2012.

Opposition to the rail plan arose last fall in the last half mile of
the 3.2-mile light rail line that extends from just south of Bethany
Home Road to Dunlap Ave.

Let's see -- $306 million divided by 3.2 miles is very close to $100 million a mile, and that is even before the inevitable cost overruns cut in (as a rule of thumb, I tend to double estimates of light rail construction costs to estimate the actual final total, and even then I am often low).   It also does not include inevitable operating losses.

Nearly a third of a billion dollars to run a rail line a distance most people could walk in 45 minutes.  For three freaking miles.  As a comparison, three buses could provide service on this same route running at 5 minute intervals for perhaps 1% of this capital cost and a substantially lower operating cost.  And better service, since the frequency would be 3 times higher.  Absolutely absurd. 

More on Phoenix light rail here, and more on light rail in general here.

Postscript: Some of you may be familiar with my light rail bet.  I often bet that a light rail line will cost more to build than it would have cost to buy every  regular daily rider a Prius, and more to operate in a year than it would require to gas up all of these Prius's for a year.  For reference, with a $22,500 cost for a Prius and $306 million (and counting) capital cost, that is enough to buy 13,600 Prius's.  Anyone want to bet that the number of incremental users attracted to the line by this 3 mile extension don't exceed 13,600?

Update:  TJIC does the math -- $1500 per inch!  Fixed link, thanks to commenters.

Bankrupcy of the Modern Transit Model

The Anti-planner observes:

Over the past 25 years, the population of the Pittsburgh urban area
has remained fixed at about 1.8 million people. Driving, however, has
increased by almost 50 percent.

During this period, Pittsburgh has spent hundreds of millions of
dollars upgrading light-rail lines, building exclusive busways, and "”
in the latest project "” building a $435 million transit tunnel under the Allegheny River. Despite (or because of) this investment, transit ridership has dropped by more than 25 percent.

Although the numbers vary slightly from place to place, Pittsburgh's
story is pretty typical of transit everywhere. Sure, some cities have
seen ridership gains, but subsidies to transit are huge and transit
does not make a notable (meaning 5 percent or more) contribution to
personal mobility in any urban area except New York (where it is 10

He has a good summary of what's wrong and what might work instead.  I appreciated this observation in particular:

Why do we put up with this? The answer, of course, is that transit is
pork. "For most transit agencies in the United States, if they were to
write a mission statement that is reflective of what they do, they
would indicate that they exist for the purpose of serving their
employees and vendors," not transit riders, notes Cox.

It's More Expensive, but Makes Up For It By Being Less Flexible

I have chastised our city on many occasions (more here) for spending enormous amounts of money on a new light rail / streetcar system for Phoenix.  These light rail systems can be twenty or more times as expensive, per mile or passenger carried, than a similar bus system.  But what really, really makes light rail nuts for Phoenix is the lack of flexibility.   Our hugely expensive new light rail system serves just one corridor, in a city that really does not even have a downtown.  Phoenix is characterized by a nearly infinite number of commuting routes that don't overlay nicely on a suburbs to city-center pattern as they might in, say, Chicago.  Further, the current route arguably follows the least congested route of any in the city!

The incremental cost of light rail over bus systems has been justified to us by our government overlords by economic development.  The argument goes that light rail creates more business development along their routes than a bus system.  Now, I am skeptical of this, given the region justified building a billion dollar stadium for the hapless Cardinals on the same justification (not to mention numerous subsidies of a couple of college bowl games that add little to an area that is going to get holiday tourists because of its climate whether there is a football game or not.

But what about Portland?  Supposedly Portland light rail is the go-by which all we unplanned cities should emulate.  But the Anti-Planner brings this helpful observation about Portland's experience with light rail and development:

Streetcar advocates often say that 7-mile-per-hour streetcars aren't about transportation, they are about economic development.
But they expect the Department of Transportation to pay for them out of
highway user fees. Why didn't they ask the Department of Housing and
Urban Development for the money?

Of course, the Antiplanner doesn't believe
that streetcars catalyze economic development. Instead, they merely
catalyze more tax subsidies for economic development. Portland spent
$90 million on a streetcar line and $665 million on subsidies to
development "” then credited the development to the streetcar line.
Yeah, right.