Yes, Virginia, There are Alternatives to Highways

September 20, 2011 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

Over the past year, we have witnessed a spate of thoughtful studies that unequivocally demonstrate that America’s infrastructure is aging, crumbling and in dire need of renewal. All the measures used to determine the condition of our infrastructure in these studies dramatically document this state of affairs.

Unfortunately, many of our nation’s governors didn’t get the message. Rather than focusing on maintaining and upgrading what we have, many governors have gone on sprees to construct new highways. In Virginia, where the state cannot maintain what it’s got, the state has offered Charlottesville $400 million for an ill-conceived bypass. The state has even contrived to revive the “Western Bypass”, a multi-billion dollar project killed countless times in northern Virginia.

While the state DOT is essentially broke, it didn’t stop them from pouring $400 million (that seems to be their level of investment in new highway projects) into the Capital Beltway HOT lanes. Recently, the head of VDOT, Sean Connaughton, essentially told the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to “Drop dead” when they had the audacity to ask the state to increase its miniscule contribution to the critical Dulles Metro extension. While we too have problems with the labor provisions for the Dulles project (see our “A Suggested Tea Party Agenda” for our suggestions for reform), I think the state of Virginia is hiding behind this issue to justify not upping the ante for Dulles.

The Virginia transportation largesse evidently does not extend to transit, which heaven forbid, they view as “subsidized.” Yes, Virginia, highways are subsidized too, but facts don’t seem to get in the way of the governors of Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio or Florida. Whereas the Governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have taken an in your face rejection posture on high (and higher) speed rail, the governor of Virginia has spoken soothing words while proceeding at caterpillar speed to upgrade intercity passenger rail in Virginia, rejecting federal assistance as having too many strings attached (of course, not so with federal highway money). A new service recently started from Lynchburg to Washington, DC (an initiative started by the previous governor) has proven so popular, it is even making a profit. Shouldn’t this experience spur greater efforts to improve and expand intercity passenger rail in Virginia? Yes, there are plans to improve passenger rail to the Tidewater region but implementation on that plan is barreling ahead at, well, glacial speed. And what about plans to extend the northeast corridor service to Richmond, through Virginia, connecting with North Carolina’s efforts and eventually on to Atlanta? Yes, that is being thought about, carefully, deliberately, and ever so slowly by the McDonnell administration. Anyone who has to experience I-95 between Washington and Richmond knows that alternatives are needed. Not another lane or two but real, long term alternatives like fast, convenient passenger rail. A ninety minute trip from Northern Virginia to Richmond on I-95 can take ninety minutes or four hours, or three hours, or, well, you take your pick. God forbid that an accident might occur. Then all bets are off.

We conservatives don’t like raising taxes but we prefer that to increasing debt. You can’t build (or maintain) something with nothing. Virginia has not raised the state gas tax since 1986. Do we wonder why our transportation tax dollars don’t go as far? Look at what you were making in 1986 and think about meeting expenses with the same amount today.

However, the main culprit is the institutional framework at the state and federal level, which is set up primarily to fund highways (let’s also not forget the way we fund elections in this country). Virginia is no exception. But transportation isn’t the only area where current reality intrudes on programs set up to deal with situations that existed twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Think defense and entitlements (Medicare and Social Security). The constituencies that have grown up around these programs over the years like the status quo and are fighting tenaciously to maintain their place at the trough. Times change, conditions change, people change but our institutional framework is resisting change at all costs. The responsiveness of our political leadership will determine if we can muster the will to break the power of the status quo. If not, expect a whole lot more potholes, grossly inadequate public transportation, much higher gas prices and precious few transportation choices. A grim future? Indeed, unless we make the necessary changes to align our future direction with reality. Good transportation and our way of life really do depend on it.

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

How to Save Ogden’s Streetcar

September 20, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

In my last Car Stop, I reported that Ogden, Utah’s planned streetcar has been killed by high construction costs, estimated at a total of $156 million or $31.2 million per mile. Here, I want to discuss how Ogden’s streetcar might be saved.

The first requirement is city leadership that is firm on two policies: 1) the streetcar will be built; and 2) it will be built as cheaply as possible. Both of these positions are conservative. Building the streetcar is conservative because it recognizes that what we used to have (streetcars) is better than what we have now (buses). Doing it cheap is conservative because conservatives are stingy with taxpayers’ money. We believe that the rule for all government-funded projects should be “Best is the enemy of good enough.”

Second, Ogden should learn from those who have successfully built streetcar lines cheaply. The champion is Kenosha, Wisconsin, whose system was built for $2.9 million per mile – – less than a tenth of what the Ogden streetcar is now supposed to cost. How could Ogden learn from Kenosha? By asking the people who run Kenosha streetcar to serve as consultants.

Third, give serious consideration to building the Ogden streetcar to historic standards. Historically, most streetcar companies were undercapitalized. They built lightly and cheaply. But their lines worked. They carried hundreds of millions of people annually in cities all across America.

A good example of a line built to historic standards is New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line. The rail line itself was built in 1835. It was electrified in 1894 and it still runs with streetcars built in the 1920s. That does not make it a toy for tourists. Until hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans’ population, it carried 15,000 people a day. Ogden’s streetcar is unlikely to carry more.

There are a number of ways Ogden could find its streetcar to historic standards. Perhaps the best is to get in touch with the American Public Transportation Association’s Heritage Trolley Task Force. It can point Ogden to consultants to know how to do things the old way, which is to say cheaply. The Gomaco Company in Iowa builds new streetcars to historic designs, and they cost much less than modern-design cars. A modern streetcar can cost upwards of $3 million, while Gomaco sells streetcars for about $750,000. Gomaco’s streetcars also look better than most modern streetcars, especially when they are running in a downtown that has lots of historic buildings.

As Ogden once had streetcars, it can look to its own past for guidance. What did that streetcar line look like? Do plans for its construction still survive? While local historians, libraries, and museums can be helpful here, Ogden’s own Historic Trolley District can provide its own distinctive vision. If there are rail or trolley museums in the area, they can also serve as consultants. Museums have to do things cheaply, because they don’t have much money. They are also trying to re-create the past as accurately as they can, as they know about historic standards.

A basic conservative motto is, “What worked then can work now.” We do not look down on the past. On the contrary, the past provides a model for us, in a great many areas, not just streetcars (morals and manners come quickly to mind).

The starting point and sine qua non for all this is civic leadership that insists on doing it cheaply. The reason the construction costs for streetcars and light rail keep escalating is that, in most streetcar projects, there is no constituency for cost control. Only local political leaders can provide that constituency. If Ogden’s leaders will do so, it can get the streetcar line it wants at a price it can afford

Killing the Golden Streetcar

September 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

One of the themes of our Center is the need to reduce construction costs for rail transit. The reason is simple: the less it costs, the more we can build.

The converse is also true: higher construction costs mean less rail transit. It now appears that high costs have killed a streetcar project in Ogden, Utah.

Ogden planned to build a five-mile streetcar line connecting an existing intermodal hub with Weber State University and McKay-Dee Hospital, both of which generate transit users. But the project also had a larger intention, namely to bring re-development to a major downtown street, Harrison Boulevard. Spurring re-development is something streetcars do well, as other cities that have built streetcar lines can attest.

It now appears the project is dead. Why? The high cost of construction. The five miles are estimated to cost $156 million, for a construction price of $31.2 million per mile. Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey said his administration has abandoned the project, because even if the federal government were to pay for half the construction cost, the city would still have to come up with about $80 million. He says they don’t have the money.

The construction cost figure of $31.2 million per mile does not seem excessive if compared with what some other cities have spent to build streetcar lines. However, that is a misleading comparison. It is like comparing the Defense Department’s’ famous $600 toilet seat with the price of other military equipment (as soon as you label something either “military’ or “health care,” you can move the decimal point at least one figure to the right). The correct way to compare the cost of that toilet seat was to toilet seats you find at Home Depot. That gives a “should cost” figure for toilet seats.

Establishing a “should cost” figure for streetcar lines is more difficult, because Home Depot doesn’t carry them. In our view, the best way to do so is by seeing how cheaply somebody has been able to build one. The champion so far, was Kenosha, Wisconsin, which built the whole system, streetcars included, for $5 million, or $ 2.9 million per mile. Kenosha uses remanufactured PCC streetcars, which remain the best-designed streetcars ever built. Little Rock’s River Rail streetcar line was built in 2004 for $19.6 million, or $8.9 million/mile.

We think a reasonable “should cost” figure for a streetcar line equipped with new, modern-design streetcars is about $10 million per mile. Were Ogden’s projected five-mile system built for that cost, the bill would be $50 million, not $156 million. If the feds funded half of that, Ogden’s bill would be only $25 million. Rising property tax revenues along Harrison Boulevard should enable the city to reclaim that cost in a few years. Indeed, property owners along Harrison Boulevard, who will benefit enormously from the streetcar line, might be willing to come up with part of the $25 million themselves.

Consultants and construction companies that push prices substantially above $10 million per mile are doing themselves no favors. They may maximize their revenue from a single project, but they lose in the long run, because the prices they quote cause streetcar projects to be cancelled. In effect, they are killing the golden streetcar, the streetcar that can carry them, cities that build new streetcar lines and all of us who want to ride streetcars into a second trolley era. They – – and Ogden – – may want to look at options for doing more for less.

In my next column, we will consider a way in which Ogden might be able to do just that.