What do we make of APTA’s Ridership Numbers: Fundamental Shift or Much Ado about Nothing?

June 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

“It’s funny how day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back everything is different.” –Calvin & Hobbes

With great fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced on March 10, 2014 that overall transit ridership in 2013 was the highest since 1956. Naturally, the anti-transit crowd (plus a few neutral observers) threw torrents of cold water on this statistic, finding fault with APTA President Michael Melaniphy’s statement that “there is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities.” In Newgeography.com, Wendell Cox opined that not only was there “no fundamental shift to transit: [but] not even a shift.” Three professors from Columbia University, Cornell University and Rutgers University respectively stated in a Washington Post op ed that “the association’s numbers are deceptive, and this [APTA’s] interpretation…wrong.” Strong words, to be sure.

Some facts are in order to put APTA’s announcement in the proper perspective. Since 1920, government highway spending has undermined tax-paying, payroll meeting transit companies, contributing mightily to their demise. Other factors of course came into play, including inability to raise fares to recapitalize the streetcar infrastructure, onerous requirements to maintain streets with streetcar tracks, the Public Utility Company Holding Act of 1935, predatory strategies by General Motors and fellow travelers, cheap government-guaranteed mortgages (after WW II), and the Interstate highway system as it increasingly penetrated our nation’s downtowns (much to Eisenhower’s consternation). It should be no surprise that, by 1963, transit finally became unprofitable in the aggregate. This signified another milestone in the plummeting (at the time) prospects for transit. Transit could ultimately have become completely marginalized in the U.S., relegated to vestigial or legacy services, as private transit company after private transit company threw in the towel.

That this did not happen can be attributed to the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and the formation of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The UMT Act of 1964 provided funds to localities to purchase the assets of private transit companies across the country and preserve transit services that would have otherwise disappeared or been further curtailed. These acquired assets served as the foundation for preserving and expanding transit operations in many of our nation’s metropolitan areas. Transit ridership reached its nadir in 1972, before the trickle of federal monies initiated in the previous decade could begin to have any impact and help address the hemorrhage of transit riders (caused in large part by the federal government’s own policies).

Critically, research has found that even today fully 50% of Americans do not have access to transit. In order to take transit, it must exist. A recent vote to provide funds to expand transit in the Atlanta metropolitan region foundered on this very fact. Vast swaths of suburban Atlanta are bereft of transit, rendering the question moot for thousands of ‘no” voters who saw no reason to give transit additional resources when they detected no transit service at all where they lived. Never mind that those “no” voters were inextricably tied to their automobiles for even basic mobility (and they certainly did not fare well in the snow and ice catastrophe of this past winter).

While the anti-transit crowd puts much weight on the great recession as temporarily depressing auto travel while transit ridership essentially plateaued, there is growing evidence that a fundamental shift in basic attitudes and behavior toward mobility is occurring, exclusive of the economy. Much has been made about Millennials and their willingness to forego a driver’s license or even owing a car, but these may be symptoms of a larger, more momentous cross generational catharsis. The long term trend of reduced or tiny increases in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) likely points to fundamental shifts on how (and whether) people travel. One can certainly see manifestations of the concern the automobile industry has for the younger set. No auto (or light truck) commercial I’ve seen lately has a gray hair (or wrinkle) in sight. It appears that auto (and truck) commercials are exclusively targeting the 18-33 year old age group. The automobile industry knows that the grayer we get, the less we drive and the fewer autos we acquire.

Much has also been made about the 85% increase in population since 1956 suggesting that transit should have been making much greater strides than APTA is trumpeting. This point is irrelevant when you consider the tremendous resources that have been devoted to highways since 1956 compared to the relatively miniscule transit investment made over the same period. From 1956 to 2011, highways consumed 91% of available capital, while transit collected a paltry 9%. Quite a disparity, you might conclude and reason enough to easily (and rightfully) conclude that the mode with the most resources will dominate.

The primary advocate for highway building during this period, the state highway departments, now called DOT’s, have wielded overwhelming influence in determining the direction localities take. Buttressed by a federal highway program that essentially puts state DOT’s in the driver’s seat, these state agencies have dictated the terms of the transportation future. Transit was relegated to subsist on the crumbs. The Golden Rule applies here, that is, he who has the gold, certainly rules. Localities that wished to fund transit initiatives did so largely or exclusively on their own nickel. Not so for highway improvements, which state DOT’s were (and, largely, are) quite willing to fund (and that friendly federal highway program would fund some improvements with an 80 to 90% federal share). Thus localities were faced with the choice of raising the money themselves for major transit projects (with some federal funds) or choosing highway improvements that were either fully or largely funded by the state (including using federal monies from the (now-approaching bankruptcy) Highway Trust Fund). It is odd when the anti-transit crowd disparages local rail projects as a waste of money when it is clear that localities that choose to build transit do so knowing that they will bear much higher costs for transit improvements than for highway projects (and likely take much longer to implement). That they still proceed reveals that they do so because they are finding that transit offers a better long term investment to achieve true mobility and real choice.

Transit has come a long way and the progress made is truly amazing when you realize these obstacles most localities have faced and some have overcome. Hostile state DOT’s, hostile state legislatures, and exceedingly well funded lobbies at the state and federal levels intent on maintaining their place at the transportation trough have all stood in the way of transit expanding as it should.

This hostility has not melted away with the years. For example, just recently, the Indiana legislature sought to prohibit the city of Indianapolis from even placing rail alternatives in the city’s planning process. And a U. S. congressman from a district that includes parts of Houston, TX, inserted a provision in the latest federal Omnibus funding bill to prohibit the city of Houston from building light rail in his district. The Tennessee legislature adopted legislation that would require the city of Nashville, TN to secure state approval for a local BRT scheme. The Governor of Ohio withdrew previously approved state funds for the Cincinnati Streetcar in a blatant attempt to stop that project (he failed). And finally, the state of Wisconsin is doing everything in its power to stop the city of Milwaukee from building its own streetcar line. These efforts are desperate attempts to stave off change, which threatens the current order, the status quo. Transit patronage gains across the country reflect the changes that are happening in cities, large and small, across the country, in spite of those counter-forces.

No doubt, the population of the U.S. has surged since 1956, but transit spending levels necessary to provide for and sustain real alternatives to the automobile did not happen until the late 20th century. The dearth of transit spending at all levels of government that existed for at least the previous 50 years has, until recently, severely retarded transit’s ability to compete with and also complement the automobile. Furthermore, the lack of resources resulted in deferred maintenance and deferred projects, conditions that persist to this day. For critics to point out that the population of the U.S. has increased by 85% since 1956 while serving up only self-serving homilies masquerading as serious analysis as to why transit hasn’t kept pace is, frankly, inexcusable. Superficial (or lack of) analyses, cherry-picking figures and ignoring history as the axe grinders have done only solidifies their reputations as shills for a certain point of view, regardless of the facts.

The bottom line is transit has indeed reached the ridership level last achieved 57 years ago. This IS momentous. Transit has reached that decisive point where its relevance to the economic health and vitality of our metropolitan areas is apparent and increasingly accepted. We now need to move further into the 21st Century with the goal of providing true mobility and choice to all our citizens, whether they be young, old, high, medium or low income groups, in short, all strata of our society. It won’t be easy, for nothing is more powerful than the status quo, and nothing harder to dislodge. We need look only at the difficulties currently being encountered to secure long term federal transportation legislation (and long term funding) as proof. We, however, can settle for nothing less; otherwise we’ll find ourselves mired in a bleak future, bereft of smart choices of where, how, when or whether to travel.

Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Smart Growth for Conservatives

April 18, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Smart Growth for Conservatives, a new initiative undertaken by James A. Bacon, distinguished conservative author and publisher of the popular Bacon’s Rebellion (http://www.baconsrebellion.com/), is something we welcome. For conservatives, smart growth means recapturing good things from the past that our country has partially lost, namely traditional towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to sprawl suburbs.

There are three main reasons why we favor bringing back those older ways of living. First, as conservatives, we know old ways, ways that evolved over many generations of man’s experience, generally work better than new ways. Conservatives are not ideologues. Rather we favor what has grown bottom-up, over time, and is embodied in customs, traditions, and habits. Until the post-war building codes were enacted, people were not so rigidly segregated where they lived from where they shopped or from where they worked, by distances too great to walk. It was a mistake to do so, as most departures from long-standing practices are mistakes.

Second, as conservatives, we prefer what is beautiful to what is ugly. Much sprawl development is ugly, especially automobile-driven “strip” development. When we compare what our country looks like today with what it looked like a hundred years ago, when the neo-classical City Beautiful was in full swing, it is obvious we have taken the wrong road instead of the right streetcar.

Third, conservatives place a high value on community, and traditional towns and neighborhoods foster community better than does suburban sprawl. Why do we desire community? Because traditional morals are better enforced by community pressure than by the clumsy and intrusive instrument of the law. But community pressure only works where there is community. If you do not know your neighbors, what do you care what they think? We want people to care what their neighbors think.

Smart growth for conservatives ties in closely with what this website advocates, namely better public transportation in the form of streetcars, interurbans (light rail) and passenger trains. Like towns and livable cities, these are good things from the past whose loss we lament. We want to bring them back.

How does conservative smart growth differ from liberal smart growth? It differs in two major ways. First, conservatives reject the Left’s love of “diversity,” mixing races, ethnic groups, income levels, and cultures in ways where everyone must live cheek-by-jowl. Why do we reject it? Because diversity undermines community. Communities form more easily where people are most similar. Community, for us, is far more important than any putative benefits from “diversity,” benefits that seem entirely ideological in nature.

Second, while liberals strive for smart growth through more and more detailed government regulation (think Portland), conservatives want a free market on a level playing field.

The present near-universal sprawl codes radically tilt the playing field, because anyone who wants to build according to traditional neighborhood designs (TND), which we see as central to smart growth, must get a slew of variances to do so. One developer told me that to build one small TND project he had to obtain 150 variances. Each cost him time and money. This is not a free market situation.

The solution is simple: dual codes. A developer should be free to choose to what code he wishes to follow, a sprawl code or a TND code. He will decide on the basis of his estimation of the market. We are confident that many will choose the TND code, yielding smart growth. Why? Because most TND housing projects sell at a substantial premium over the same floor space in nearby sprawl developments. People like the old ways, and when they see them in the form of towns and neighborhoods, they want to be a part of them. They want to live there.

A few years ago, Paul Weyrich, Andres Duany (founder of the New Urbanism) and I co-authored a study titled, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common?” Our answer was yes. I have been involved with New Urbanism from CNU III, because its essence is conservative: bringing back old ways. New Urbanism, in turn, is central to smart growth, which without New Urbanist influence can produce some ugly stuff. We don’t want any “Khrushchyovkys” [Soviet-style, five-story apartment blocks], thank you.

Our study was published by Free Congress Foundation which may still have copies available, as may CNU. Meanwhile, here at The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, we will return to the theme of conservative smart growth from time to time. The physical setting in which we live is a factor in influencing our culture, values and morals. We wish our friends at Smart Growth for Conservatives
(http://www.smartgrowthforconservatives.com) well as they make their mark in this fertile area.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Addressing the Cost Problem

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

As regular visitors to this website know, one of our Center’s main themes is the need to bring down the cost of building rail transit lines, especially Light Rail and streetcar (heavy rail is beyond help).  Curiously, as costs continue to rise and increasingly threaten the future of rail transit, little is written on the subject.

An important exception is a recent piece on www.railmagazine.org by Rich Sampson, entitled “Passenger Rail’s Economic Duality: Why Rail Projects Are Expensive or You Get What you Pay For.”   I am not sure all projects do get what they pay for, but beyond the title this is a thoughtful and timely article.

I do not intend to repeat it here; rather I recommend you find it and it read it in its entirety.  But a few points are worth noting:

  • The increase in costs is real.  Sampson writes that construction of the original IRT subway line in New York City in 1902 ad 1903, a line 9.1 miles long, cost $1.4 billion in today’s dollars.  Now, the Second Avenue Subway, 8.5 miles long, is expected to cost $17 billion.  That is roughly a ten-fold increase.  I do not have the figures, but I know streetcar and interurban lines built in the late 19th century and early 20th century were usually undercapitalized.  That meant they were lightly built, but they worked.  As with subways, I suspect the construction cost of those lines was a small fraction of what we pay now to build streetcar or Light Rail.
  • A sizable fraction of the cost difference between then and now is the proliferation of governmental requirements, and with them endless studies (paralysis by analysis, some say).  The streetcar or interurban company then had essentially one government requirement to meet:  obtaining a franchise.  Now, the hoops to be jumped through before construction can begin seem endless.  Obtaining a franchise usually took weeks or months.  Today’s process requires years.  I remember Congressman Oberstar telling me it now takes 14 years to bring a rail transit project from conception to conclusion.  Then it was less than 14 months.  One fact does not change.  Time is money.
  • This phenomenon, everything getting more complicated, is not limited to rail transit.  We see it everywhere across our society.  It is a classic symptom of decay and decline.  If we look at the rise and fall of other countries, we almost always find increasing complexity marking the downward path.  It can reach a point where nobody can do anything: welcome to 17th century Spain.
  • Costs appear to vary enormously, often for little or no visible reason, i.e., tunneling.  For Salt Lake City’s UTA Frontlines effort, the total Light Rail share of the program came in at $57.8 million per mile.  An extension of Charlotte’s Blue Line LYNX Light Rail is estimated to cost $123.4 million per mile.  What gives?
  • What gives is that nowhere in the process of building rail transit is there any player who has an interest in keeping costs down.  There are, however, many players who have no interest in keeping costs down; indeed, they may have an incentive to drive costs up, because they make more money.

Sampson’s article is strong on diagnosis but weak on prescriptions.  Our prescription is to create a player, and a powerful one, whose job is to keep costs down.  The obvious candidate is FTA, which seems to be asleep at the switch on the cost problem.  Why isn’t FTA questioning the cost differences between Salt Lake and Charlotte?  You would think someone there would at least want to know.

Beyond knowing, FTA needs to do something.  As we have proposed before, FTA should set “should cost” figures for streetcar and Light Rail projects.  “Should cost” is a common cost control measure in business.  It reflects a best professional estimate of how inexpensively a job can be done.  If a city wants to build a rail transit line at a price higher than the “should cost” figure (after taking account of tunneling or elevating required by terrain, not NIMBYs), it is welcome to do so – – at its own expense.  FTA will only provide funds based on the ”should cost” number.

We have asked this before, but I will ask it again:  Are there any suggestions for what the “should cost” figures should be?  This is the crucial question.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.      

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