Free Tracks For Transit

June 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

Wouldn’t it be great if transit operations got free tracks? All they would have to buy would be the rail vehicles, stations, and car barns. Well, according to a recent story in the New York Times, the City of New York is about to re-discover the free tracks that lie all around Manhattan. What are they? Waterways.
The Times reported that Mayor de Blasio plans to inaugurate a much-expanded ferryboat system that would connect all five boroughs, in order to relieve the overcrowding on the subway system. The ferries, eighteen of them, each capable of carrying 149 passengers, would be owned by the city but run by a private operator. The city would also build thirteen new ferry landings and a home port for the boats at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
For most of their histories, cities such as New York that lie on waterways made extensive use of them for passenger transport. Around the world, many still do. Passenger boats were one the many nice ways of travel that got sacrificed on the altar of the automobile. Now, they are coming back, and for good reason. The tracks are free.
Just how dramatic the savings are from free tracks is illustrated by the projected cost of new ferries. The estimated total price is “more than $325 million,” according to the Times.
That may sound expensive, until you realize that the new waterfront streetcar line Mayor de Blasio wants for Brooklyn will cost upwards of $100 million per mile. The total cost estimated for the ferries would cover about three miles of the 18-mile streetcar line. Why the difference? Obviously, because for the ferries the tracks are free.
The mayor estimates that the new ferries (a few ferries already run in New York) would carry 4.5 million people annually, which works out to a bit more than 12,000 people a day. A streetcar line that carries that much is considered a success. Of course, the planned Brooklyn-Queens streetcar line is in a league of its own, expected to carry about 50,000 weekday riders.
There are very few issues on which I, as a conservative, agree with Mayor de Blasio, one of the most liberal politicians in the country. But in this case, by using free tracks to keep transit costs down, he is doing something conservative. Conservatives hate wasting money almost as much as liberals usually like spending it.
Other American cities would do well to learn from what New York is doing. Because water transport is always the cheapest, many of our cities are built on waterways. Virtually all used those waterways at some point for moving people, not just freight. Now, few do so. By resurrecting ferries and other water transport, they could expand transit options cheaply with a mode most people enjoy riding. High-quality transit with free tracks; what more could anyone ask?

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

President Trump May Be a Friend to Transit

July 26, 2016 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

While many Republicans politicians oppose public transportation, especially rail transit and intercity rail, Donald Trump appears to be a supporter. Perhaps that should not surprise us given that is a New Yorker. While he may not often use New York’s subways, he certainly knows the city would come to a halt without it. What would his New York real estate investments be worth if New York’s rail transit ceased to operate? Businessman are aware of this sort of thing.
Trump’s few statements on infrastructure and passenger rail also give cause for optimism. He has repeatedly called for a massive program to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he said, according to Business Insider, “Rebuild the country’s infrastructure – – nobody can do that like me, believe me. It will be done on time, on budget, way below costs, way below what anyone ever thought. I look at these roads being built all over the country and I say, ‘I could build these things for one third.’ We have to rebuild our infrastructure: our bridges, our roadways, our airports.”
This is a point he has repeated. According to of May 5, 2016, Trump said on CNBC’s Squawk Box, “Maybe my greatest strength is the economy, jobs, and building. We do have to rebuild our infrastructure.” The same source quotes Trump calling for a “trillion-dollar rebuilding plan” which would be “one of the biggest projects this country has ever undertaken” and create 13 million jobs. It further quotes Trump’s book, Crippled America, as saying, “A few years ago, Moody’s. the financial investment agency, calculated that every $1 of federal money invested in improving the infrastructure for highways and public schools would generate $1.44 back to the economy. On the federal level, this is going to be an expensive investment, no question about that. But in the long run it will more than pay itself.”
Of course, as public transportation advocates know only too well, “infrastructure” could mean just highways. What has Trump said about rail? Time magazine of March 3, 2016 quoted Trump as saying some encouraging words:

In a freewheeling speech Thursday afternoon, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump stumbled into a riff about how great trains are. It’s sad, he said, that the American rail system is so dilapidated while China’s is now slicker than ever.
“They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” the populist billionaire exclaimed, “We have trains that go chug…chug…chug.”

All this certainly is certainly more encouraging than anything said by any of the other Republican candidates. More, because Trump is a businessman, as President he might do what Democrats have shown they will not, namely put a cap on the explosive and unjustified escalation of building rail transit. We now see proposals for streetcar lines coming in at more than $100 million per mile, when they can be built for much less.
What is needed is a common business tool called “should cost” limits. In relation to transit, “should cost” means the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would set limits on the cost of building new rail transit lines, limits based on internationally-derived best practices. If a city wanted to pay more, it could, but all the money above the “should cost” figure would have to come from state or local resources. The feds would not pay for more than the line should cost. This would create a now-absent incentive for consultants and contractors to keep costs down.
Establishing FTA “should cost” limits is something a President with a business background would be more likely to do than would one with a previous career as a politician. Too often, politicians care only that the money go into the pockets of their political friends.
The current rapid escalation in rail transit costs threatens to put rail out of business. If, on the other hand, construction costs were to be forced downward, we could expand the amount of rail transit we could afford to build. From that perspective, President Trump might prove a better friend of transit than President Clinton.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC

L.A.: Rail Transit Works, Cars Don’t

February 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

I recently spent a week visiting friends in Los Angeles, and I quickly learned a basic fact about that city: rail transit works, cars don’t.
Every time we tried to go somewhere by car on L.A.’s famous freeways, we ended up taking forever because of stalled traffic. The time of day did not matter, although weekends offered an improvement. We were able to use the HOV-2 lanes, which also helped. But even with those lanes, going anywhere on a weekday was a nightmare. My friend’s marina is about 40 miles from his house. One weekday, using the HOV lanes, the trip took us 90 minutes inbound and two-and -a half hours home. The latter would have been longer but with the freeway going nowhere we got off onto arterials. Those were lightly trafficked. Unlike us easterners, when the freeways jam up, the locals just sit there. Using arterial streets and roads does not seem to occur to them.
In contrast, whenever we used rail transit, the journeys were speedy and relaxing. It was my first time on Metrolink, and I was impressed. The trains were on time and fast, the equipment was in good shape and off-peak the ridership was strong.
Metrolink does something other commuter rail authorities might want to emulate, to the benefit of their riders. Each Metrolink ticket contains a chip that gives a one-day, unlimited-ride TAP card, the card for L.A.’s subway and light rail lines. It made riding Metrolink a great deal. We saved more on light rail fares than the Metrolink ticket cost. I was greatly surprised that our combined ticket/TAP card was good the whole time we were in the city; I thought it might be valid for an hour or two, like a transfer. Score one for Metrolink for offering great value.
In the city we took advantage of the light rail lines. Again, then trains were in good shape and well-patronized outside the peak hours. My earlier experience of disorder on the Blue Line, a problem the system’s leadership acknowledged, do not recur, although we rode only in the immediate downtown area.
The transit critics did everything they could to block the creation of rail transit in L.A., swearing before the gods that people they would never give up their cars. Well, many of them have, because on the freeways the cars don’t move. L.A.’s rail transit does move, and people ride it in large numbers. Over and over, the critics’ predictions of failure prove wrong. Why does anyone take them seriously?

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC

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