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.      

Seeing Red over the Purple Line

February 8, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

As a long-time resident of the Washington metropolitan area, I have been following the saga of the Purple Line in suburban Maryland from its early conception in the 1980s to its current status as a 16.0 mile cross-county light rail line. Initially envisioned as a trolley line to run between the Bethesda and Silver Spring Metro stations, it is now seen as a major addition to the transit network in suburban Maryland.

From its inception, the Purple Line has been fraught with threats from all manner of opponents. First the Columbia Country Club sought to kill the project to prevent the use of an abandoned railroad right-of-way that cuts through its property. Then, when the right of way was temporarily converted to a trail, trail supporters disingenuously fought the project even though they were only given temporary use of the right of way until the transit line was ready for implementation. Now the tony (and tiny) enclave of the Town of Chevy Chase (population 3,000) is aghast that the right of way would impinge on their community. Their sudden concern for a mysterious microscopic shrimp-like creature found in Rock Creek Park that might be an endangered species is downright laughable. The shrimp has never been seen anywhere near the proposed right-of-way of the Purple Line and no less an authority than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given the Purple Line project the green light, but, hey, if you are rich enough to hire good lawyers, facts don’t matter.

In fact, the Town of Chevy Chase has also hired a Pittsburgh, PA law firm to fight the Purple Line whose stable of lawyers includes the brother of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster. The brother is clearly identified in lobby disclosure forms as a lobbyist working directly on this issue. The Mayor of Chevy Chase says (with a straight face) that she was unaware of this connection. If you can’t stop a project with facts, the next stop is Congress. We note that a Congressman from Houston quietly inserted a provision in the two-year Omnibus budget bill recently passed by Congress forbidding a light rail extension that would pass through his district. Not to be outdone, the Indiana legislature is trying to forbid the city of Indianapolis from even considering rail. There is nothing conservative about these violations of the conservative principle of subsidiarity (which holds that the best decisions are those made at the lowest governmental level for the issue under consideration).

The only real impact of the Purple Line on the Town of Chevy Chase will be to increase the mobility of its citizens. The Purple Line will provide connections to four Metro stations and all three MARC commuter rail lines. It will also establish an inter-county service benefitting thousands of Montgomery and Prince George’s County residents. Ridership estimates are eye popping (74,000 weekday riders in 2040). It will bring car-free mobility to those who wish to travel to destinations around the Maryland suburbs and will facilitate trips into downtown Washington, DC. It will also significantly enhance the trip possibilities for University of Maryland students with three stations on campus and an easy connection to a nearby Metro station. If patterns shown elsewhere hold, this transit improvement will spawn quality economic development all along the Purple Line route. Everyone but the Town of Chevy Chase has concluded these improvements are desirable. Can a tiny town stop a major transit improvement at least twenty years in the making? Stay tuned.

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

Three Lines in the City of Angels

February 5, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

During a recent week in southern California, I was able to ride three transit lines: the San Pedro Pacific Electric line, San Diego’s Silver Line and L.A.’s light rail Blue Line. Each offers some lessons for transit properties.

San Pedro’s short re-creation of a Pacific Electric line is a tourist ride, not real transit. Over a couple of miles of private right-of-way, it connects the San Pedro cruise ship terminal, an edge of downtown San Pedro and the (quite good) Maritime Museum. There area couple of stops beyond the museum, but there is nothing there.

Equipment consists of two replica PE cars, built to a high standard, and one vintage PE car that almost never runs. The ride is pleasant enough, but to be more than a ride, the line would need to loop through downtown San Pedro, not merely skirt it. That would still only provide real transit for cruise ship passengers. To serve the locals, it would have to connect to L.A.’s light rail system on its inland end.

San Pedro’s museum or Disneyland-type experience was embodied in a “safety” culture take to an absurd level, to the point where passengers were not allowed to adjust window shades on their own; a crewman had to do it. Britain’s Health and Safety Ministry has become the worst tyrant in England since Henry VIII: we should not allow similar excesses to afflict transit here, or even just “rides” for that matter.

San Diego’s Silver Line lies somewhere between a “ride” and real transit. Looping through the downtown on existing light rail trackage, it is served by a beautifully-restored PCC streetcar in original San Diego colors, which happens to be the one of the best color schemes for PCCs I have seen (PCCs ran in San Diego from 1937 to 1949). I rode on a Saturday, and only a couple of people appeared to be using the line for transportation. Most were just taking a ride.

The operator said his PCC carries a pretty good crowd on weekdays for the “lunch rush,” but the Silver Line is not likely to become real transit as long as it only operates Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Daily operation is essential it something is to become part of people’s lives, which is what transit should seek to do. Unlike the San Pedro line, the Silver Line serves real destinations, so with daily operation it could become a useful part of San Diego’s ever-expanding electric rail network.

The third line I rode was Los Angeles’ light rail Blue Line, with a short connection via the heavy rail Red Line (subway) to L.A.’s magnificent Union Station. That ride was in many ways the strangest.

The Blue Line is unquestionably real transit, now carrying almost 85,000 weekday passengers. Our mid-day trains were both crowded. Technically, it is a model operation. The track is excellent, the cars ride well and quietly, and the run on the former Pacific Electric right-of-way is fast. Unfortunately, in street running the Blue Line lacks pre-emption, which significant slows down the trip.

Despite its technical quality, I would think hard before riding the Blue Line again. On-board disorder is out of control, to the point where the travel experience feels Third World. The line serves Watts, which is now more Hispanic than black, but provides lots of passengers whose behavior is sub-standard. On the way into town, we were treated for most of the trip to a loud altercation between two blacks, one of whom apparently touched the other with his coat. Both were up in years, so it didn’t go beyond a shouting match, but with three small children in my party it was unnerving.

Then, two young black males in the seat in front of mine decided they wanted to talk. Our discussion was friendly, not threatening, but one of them was clearly stoned. I could not help wondering what comes next, after the conversation. Fortunately, in this case the answer was nothing. It seemed common for passengers to talk to strangers on the Blue Line, which may be just be a cultural difference from the East Coast. But to an easterner, it again smacked of disorder. (Luckily, one rider talked to us to warn not to be on the trains when the high schools let out and many students ride them; if even the locals find the results too disordered, I can imagine what that’s like.)

Most disturbing to someone with some knowledge of transit was the constant parade of butchers through the cars, most swelling food or drink. There were at least three working each of the trains I rode. Again, there was nothing threatening about it per se. I was even tempted to buy a bottle of cold water on what was a hot day, but I realized I could not legally drink it on board nor know whose bathtub it might have been filled from.

The problem is that such butchers are breaking the law. Since LA Metro allows it to be broken so blatantly and so often, what message is being sent to those whose ambitions for getting some money might go beyond selling things? As the “broken windows” approach to urban policing, which has been quite successful, argues, letting small offenses go encourages larger ones.

I seem to recall that when the Blue Line opened, there was a cop on every train. That is hideously expensive, but for this line, it would also appear necessary if the public is to be given an ordered environment. I saw no police on any of the trains I rode (I saw them often on Washington’s Metro), though two ticket-checkers came through.

My friends who live in the L.A. area told me the level of disorder is even higher on other LA Light Rail lines. If so, the city has a problem. It certainly has one on the Blue Line. Disorder will drive riders-from-choice away faster than anything else. If L.A.’s light rail is to deliver on its promise of getting people out of their cars, they must feel as safe on board transit as they do in their cars. From what I observed, the Blue Line has a long way to go to meet that standard.

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

[Ed. Note: LA Metro has announced a $1.2 billion plan to revitalize The Blue Line. In addition to purchasing new vehicles and refurbishing existing rolling stock, upgrading power systems and rebuilding the trackway, the plan also includes installing new surveillance cameras, enhancing the police presence and implementing additional safety measures]