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 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.      

Three Lines in the City of Angels

February 5, 2014 by · 2 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]

Some Busway Realities

December 19, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Arguments in favor of busways as an alternative to rail transit are gathering steam, in part because of the success of Cleveland’s HealthLine, which connects Public Square with University Circle via Euclid Avenue. As a Clevelander, I know some things about the HealthLine and the development it has supposed to have brought that non-natives may not be aware of.

First, the reason the HealthLine is a busway instead of a streetcar line is political. The project was undertaken during the administration of President George W. Bush. That administration, which was owned by the oil industry, hated passenger rail, Cleveland knew that if it requested federal funds for any rail project on Euclid, the answer would have been “no.” So it requested a busway instead, and got the money.

Shortly before the HealthLine opened, I was given a tour of it. An RTA official, who took me on the tour, told me the above. He made it clear he knew the streetcar would have been better. But a busway – – a real one, not just some lines painted on a street – – was better than nothing, and nothing was the only other option. He added that the busway project had done all the necessary work, such as utility relocation, so converting it to streetcar would be simple, just a matter of laying the track, putting up the overhead and buying some streetcars.

It is important to note that building the HealthLine busway was about as expensive as a streetcar line. Studies that compare its construction cost with the construction cost of Light Rail are setting up a straw man. A stand-alone Light Rail line down Euclid Avenue, all running in-street, would make no sense. The venue is appropriate for streetcar, not Light Rail.

Busways, as their ridership rises, become more expensive to operate than light rail or streetcar because each vehicle requires a driver. Cleveland streetcars had a long history of pulling trailers, which in effect doubled capacity without additional labor costs. Ottawa is a current good example of a busway strangling on its own success. The number of buses required to accommodate exploding demand overwhelmed the busway and downtown streets. Consequently, Ottawa is currently building a light rail line to replace the busway and provide the capacity needed for the near present and future demand in the corridor. The Orange Line in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley also reveals the biggest flaw in busways. The line is essentially at capacity and adding more buses only results in a much slower service and higher operating costs, denying the service its full potential. Each additional bus adds another driver and increasing labor costs.

Don’t get me wrong; the HealthLine has been successful, in terms of both ridership and effect on development, compared to bus-on-arterial it replaced (which was nonetheless Cleveland’s heaviest bus line). But that is very different from saying it is better than streetcars would have been.
Looking at claims that the HealthLine has brought billions of dollars of new development to Euclid Avenue, some local knowledge is useful. Much, perhaps most of the development traces to the expansion of Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic’s growth goes back long before the HealthLine was conceived, and would have occurred busway or no.

Another important factor is the shift of the epicenter of black crime east and south, which has permitted an economic and social upturn not only along Euclid but more broadly in the area from Public Square to University Circle, stretching north from Carnegie Avenue to Lake Erie. A large influx of Chinese immigrants into this area, especially west of E. 55th Street, has brought major improvement. I know, because my church is on E. 55th between Euclid and Superior. A few years ago, the only pedestrians on E. 55th were black. Now, many are white or Asian. Since the black rate of violent crime is twelve times the white rate, a change in the ethnic mix is important for economic reasons.

While the HealthLine has seen an increase in riders-from-choice compared to the previous bus line, the Euclid Avenue route remains heavily used, especially in rush hour, by transit dependents. The HealthLine’s success does not demonstrate that busways are as effective as streetcars in drawing riders-from-choice. Since riders-from-choice usually have significant discretionary income, they remain key to spurring economic development. From that perspective, rail transit is still in the motorman’s seat, while busways have yet to prove their case.

Some busway advocates no doubt really believe they can do as much for urban redevelopment as rail transit – - again, an unproven assertion. But many remain closet advocates for continued automobile domination. They know rail transit compete successfully with automobiles, while buses usually cannot. They push buses instead of rail because their real loyalty (sometimes connected to their pocketbooks) is to cars. That game has been going on since the 1920s, and urbanists should not let themselves fall for it. The proven case remains clear: if you want to get people out of their cars, give them rail.

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

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