California Lifts Ban on Light Rail Transit in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley: Implications for U.S. Transit

September 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

Addressing the most apparent weakness in the BRT concept, the California legislature approved and Governor Brown recently signed a bill repealing a 23 year old ban on light rail development in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. The main effect of the bill will be to permit the consideration of LRT to replace buses on the highly successful Orange Line BRT line. The prohibition was instituted in 1991 in reaction to overwrought safety concerns at grade crossings along a 3.5 mile segment of an LRT line proposed to run along an old PE right of way. The right of way last carried passenger rail traffic in 1952. Faced with this prohibition, MTA eventually moved to construct a bus only 14 mile line along the right of way, today’s Orange Line BRT, which opened in 2005 (and was extended four miles in 2012).

Fast forward to 2014, and to the Orange Line’s enormous success. The line now carries almost 30,000 weekday passengers. Unfortunately, this ridership surge has exposed BRT’s greatest weakness, that is, its inability to efficiently respond to large increases in patronage. Consequently, the line is literally strangling on its own success (The service also suffers from a lack of signal preemption at grade crossings, a concession to the local communities along the line, further degrading the service- something that will also impact light rail service if not remedied). Buses have become so overloaded during peak periods that potential customers must wait for several buses to pass before finding room to board. Unable to accommodate demand by coupling vehicles together to better tailor service to demand, as would be possible with light rail, LA Metro has tried to address the line’s popularity by increasing the number of buses. Frankly, this is their only short term option with a bus operation. This has predictably increased labor costs and reduced speeds on the busway due to bus congestion and safety concerns (maintaining safe braking distances for line of sight operations). Moreover, the constant bus traffic has caused premature wear on the paved right of way, necessitating extensive and constant repair to keep the route open.

Numerous grass root organization have already indicated that they will press for the early adoption of light rail to replace the deteriorating bus service. The LA Metro Board has jumped on the bandwagon, voting to authorize a study to examine the potential conversion of the Orange Line to Light Rail. If the line is eventually converted to light rail, it would be the second such action in North America (if you also count the conversion of the previously bus-only tunnel in Seattle to joint LRT/bus operation). Ottawa, Canada, is building its first LRT line to replace a highly successful exclusive bus operation, which like the Orange Line resulted in severe bus congestion. The Ottawa downtown was unable to cope with the weekday influx and egress of a veritable wall of buses to meet demand.

The following cite gives a good rundown on the obstacles one will likely encounter in converting a BRT facility to Light Rail.

The situation might give localities considering a grade separated BRT service pause based on the simple fact that a successful BRT line may become dysfunctional due to increasing traffic and reach capacity when passenger volumes overload a two lane busway.

BRT proponents maintain that BRT is rail-like. While BRT is a welcome addition to the transit inventory and will find many applications in this country, it does not match LRT or even streetcars in a number of basic but crucial aspects. First, capacity: Rail always has and always will possess the ability to respond to patronage increases in the most efficient manner by adding cars to each train. While articulated buses can move large numbers of people per vehicle, they fall short in matching the ability of rail vehicles to expand capacity by training vehicles together, and, importantly, avoiding additional labor costs while meeting increasing demand. Cities considering BRT for corridors with significant ridership potential should seriously consider this aspect when making a mode selection. If BRT is selected, it should be with the recognition that the facility must be designed for easy conversion to light rail. Second, speed: Light rail vehicles (and streetcars) have superior torque in electric motors, affording them the means to accelerate to reach optimal speeds more quickly than diesel or hybrid buses. This all means that the LRV can cover more territory faster, resulting in greater productivity (reflected in cost per passenger) than BRT. Third: energy efficiency: Light rail is more energy efficient in a number of ways, some not so obvious. Like all vehicles, rubber tired buses pay an energy penalty (rolling resistance) in overcoming friction (expressed as a coefficient of friction value) to move forward. However, steel-wheeled LRVs have a much lower coefficient of friction in dry conditions, translating into lower energy requirements, while buses may need to expend up to 40% in additional energy compared to LRT to overcome rolling resistance.

Some Comments on BRT and LRT: When comparing right of way costs, if BRT-lite design standards where sections of mixed traffic are tolerated are applied, the cost per mile can be quite deceptively cheap. The trade-off of course is reduced capacity (present and future), lower average speed and the diminished usefulness of a BRT installation. This can affect the attractiveness of the proposed improvement and generate community opposition when perceived as a suboptimal (cheap) solution, rather than boldly asserting increased capacity, mobility and choice benefits for potential patrons. True BRT with exclusive rights of way and well designed stations will approach LRT prices as Cleveland’s Health Line has demonstrated. Cleveland (and the Orange Line) also demonstrates that quality service on separate rights of way will attract solid patronage numbers (and potential capacity issues).

Whether the short term advantages of BRT, mainly capital cost, outweigh the long term advantages of LRT, can be determined through dispassionate analysis. While generalities in comparing BRT and LRT are sometimes useful, every corridor will possess unique qualities that should bracket the advantages (short and long term) of either mode. The shortage of capital dollars notwithstanding, we think the potential of a corridor should inform the selection process.

Some Verities: Each locality must examine and weigh each corridor’s qualities, while withstanding the withering fire from ideologues who will disparage all rail alternatives as too expensive or not cost effective. They will champion BRT because it appears cheaper or even oppose any transit proposal based on ideological predispositions (think Nashville). Finally, highway supporters will view every non-highway capital expenditure as robbing them of their irrevocable claim to all transportation dollars (think San Antonio). While most metropolitan areas depend on healthy, vibrant downtowns to remain attractive, growing conurbations, many areas where suburban interests dominate will lose sight of this basic, but crucial fact (think Atlanta). This will be to their long term detriment.

As conservatives, we believe that light rail and streetcars represent better long term value because of their efficient and effective crowd-carrying capabilities, their ability to help spur quality economic development and solid growth, and their ability to encourage and cement neighborhood cohesion and vitality, and hence promote traditional values. An increased role for rail also lessens our reliance on the automobile, which in turn, reduces our need to make huge defense expenditures to protect our foreign sources of oil (we still import 40% of our domestic oil needs). While BRT is a good alternative, LRT (and streetcars) represents the best long term value in corridors with high potential.

Some Final Thoughts: The Orange Line dilemma has brought welcome attention to the LRT versus BRT discussion. The debate is a healthy one but must be based on the merits, an honest assessment that points to the mode best suited for a particular corridor. Based on the results attained by the Orange Line, LRT would have been the best initial choice and the region could have avoided the future expense of conversion, which may now come due.

We are confident that LA Metro will be able can hash out the issues (and find the money) and devise a conversion plan that will usher in replacement LRT in an orderly and cost effective manner. Trying to accommodate future patronage growth in the Orange Line corridor through bus-only measures will likely prove to be a frustrating and ultimately futile exercise.

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

Wall Street Journal: If It’s Transit and its Expensive, It’s Bad!

July 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

The latest anti-transit article in the Wall Street Journal finds fault with a rail transit project in suburban Maryland.  Columnist Ms. Mary Anastasia O’Grady joins a long line of naysayers in trashing a transit project that has the audacity to be expensive (“Maryland’s Incredible Purple People Mover,” Wall Street Journal, June 28-29, 2014).  The 16 mile line subscribes an arc around the District of Columbia and connects two of the most populous counties (Montgomery and Prince Georges) in Maryland.  Granted the Purple Line IS expensive.  At almost $150 million/mile, the Maryland Transit Administration should be relentlessly pursuing cost cutting measures and eliminating possible waste to ensure that the final price reflects the very best efforts to achieve a cost-effective project.

But building a rail line these days in a mature urban area is not for the faint of heart.  Projects of this size, complexity and cost will almost always generate controversy.  It will also seem like everyone with a pulse will have a strong but not necessarily rational opinion on the line (and voice it).

Will some trees be cut down?  Absolutely.  Will there be construction impacts during the five year period that the Purple Line is being built?  No question.  Will the Purple Line provide unprecedented mobility and choice to users along the line?  Yes, unequivocally.  The estimate that the Purple Line will carry 74,00 weekday riders in 2040 is likely to be exceeded long before that date rolls around.   One need only look at the success of recently opened rail lines (Expo Line Phase 1 in LA, the Green Line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the Red Line extension Houston) to understand that ridership estimates very quickly become out of date.

Connecting two major activity centers (Bethesda and Silver Spring), accessing four Metro stations and three suburban MARC commuter rail lines, and placing three stations on the campus of the University of Maryland, the Purple Line will only grow in importance as the area grows.  The rail line also affords unparalleled opportunities for accompanying economic growth, an attribute that we conservatives at the Center are especially pleased to recognize.

Ms. O’Grady relies on innuendo, hazy hints of impropriety and insufficient attention to bus rapid transit alternatives (which would have much higher operating costs) to criticize the project.  Ms. O’Grady does not argue against the project based on its merits, only on some narrow supposed failings.  In closing with the hackneyed phrase that taxpayers are yet again being taken for a ride, I pine for something a bit more original to dress up her musings.   I await Ms. O’Grady’s exposé of the Highway Route 460 fiasco in Virginia (there the former Governor of Virginia spent $275 million of taxpayer money without turning one spade of dirt) to validate her genuine outrage at expensive transportation projects.  However, I have a feeling her ire is only raised for rail transit projects (or Latin American politics, where her considerable expertise really lies).

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

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, 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

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