The Atlanta Streetcar: Panned by The New York Times

April 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

An article appeared in The New York Times on Saturday, January 2, 2016, entitled “In Atlanta, a Ride Many Scorn Is No Longer Free.” That title says it all and obviously requires no imagination to guess how the Times feels about Atlanta’s initial streetcar line. The sole motivation for the article appears to be the fact that people will now actually begin paying to ride the streetcar. While the streetcar just completed a year’s operation, the Times appears keenly disappointed with these first twelve months. The Times reaches the conclusion that the streetcar will have minimal impact in solving the traffic woes of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Really? The Atlanta Streetcar is a downtown circulator, that is, it is completely oriented to improving mobility and enhancing development prospects in the downtown area and, not incidentally, represents the first small segment of a much larger system that will tie together Atlanta’s central core.
Not mentioned in the article is a major catalyst for the streetcar system, the Belt project, a far-reaching initiative that will create a circular band of parks, trails, housing (affordable and otherwise) and, yes, a streetcar line circumnavigating a necklace of abandoned railroad rights of way around the city. The planned streetcar system will connect with this circular greenway at a number of locations. As with the streetcar, this has nothing to do with the commuters in the suburbs bound to their cars, trying to negotiate the Atlanta region’s epic traffic congestion created by maximum highway and minimal transit investment. This is about improving the quality of life in central Atlanta. Incidentally, the trail system buildout along the belt is already underway and the completed sections have become immensely popular.
The Times article slays the usual share of strawmen, quoting a spokesperson from a local libertarian think tank, who solemnly (and predictably) pronounces the project dead after the first year, saying

“They’re holding it [the streetcar] as the way of the future for the rest of Metro Atlanta, and heaven forbid we should follow the example of the City of Atlanta on the streetcar . . . We need to accept that this was a dismal failure . . .”

A libertarian think tank in Phoenix also made declarations of doom for that city’s light rail system before it opened. Not only is that system a roaring success, the city’s voters recently approved an increase in the sales tax to support a substantial expansion. That think tank has had little to say about the system since its initial predictions.
And how are other cities faring that have embraced the modern streetcar? Portland’s streetcar system, begun in 2001, is regarded as a success as is Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Less known but equally successful is Tacoma, WA’s streetcar line. Tucson, AZ’s streetcar opened in July, 2014 and has quickly become an indispensable part of the city, spawning development and spurring a renaissance in transit riding. Dallas has opened an initial streetcar line connecting the downtown to nearby Oak Cliff. Washington, DC finally opened in February 2016 and service, like Atlanta, is initially free of charge. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Detroit will open later in 2016. Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Fort Lauderdale will soon break ground for their own downtown streetcar circulators. The point is that plenty of cities are opting to adopt the streetcar to enhance mobility in the urban core while spurring and channeling development in targeted corridors.
Certainly, the jury is out on the Atlanta Streetcar. It’s only been open for a year, and this is hardly the time to draw hasty conclusions. While the experience gained from this initial segment will be helpful, especially regarding development along the line, the overall utility of this segment can only be accurately assessed after it becomes part of a growing system, benefitting from the connectivity and resulting cohesion that many expect to help transform downtown Atlanta.
Articles such as this one make pursuing a long term project all the more difficult, as the naysayers will use their platforms to make simplistic criticisms and employ ridicule to intimidate and ultimately defeat less committed decision-makers. I always look for opponents to proffer alternatives, but if they don’t, I know they simply want to preserve the status quo, and that is a time-honored recipe for stagnation and ultimately rot. Yes, Atlanta’s initial streetcar segment may well be in for a bumpy ride but the promise that a comprehensive streetcar system brings to downtown Atlanta will be well worth the journey.

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

Why DO We Need Amtrak?

December 14, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

So, just why do we in America need Amtrak or an equivalent organization? All developed countries possess robust passenger train networks, some more modern than others. The economic benefits of dense intercity passenger rail networks have been clearly documented. The ability of business to maintain and expand contacts across the country is greatly enhanced by this connectivity (the effect has been documented in Europe and China). Connectivity also benefits ordinary citizens in countless ways. Amtrak contributes to expanded mobility, providing an affordable alternative to the automobile and airplane for travel between cities and from smaller communities to larger ones (and vice versa). A healthier Amtrak would provide more destinations and a higher frequency of service, along with competitive journey times, to successfully compete with the automobile and the airlines.

Amtrak serves many communities that have no other options. The airlines and intercity bus companies have been steadily reducing the number of cities and towns they serve, despite massive federal subsidies funneled to the airlines to serve smaller communities. The retrenchment of intercity bus service has resulted in entire states being left without service.

It really is quite simple. The future will (must) be multimodal. Our over reliance on the automobile and, to a lesser extent, the airlines, for long distance travel is already resulting in chronically overcrowded highways and clogged airports. Relief must come from bolstering other modes of transportation or implementing policies that reduce the overall need for travel in the first place. Our current direction is unaffordable and our efforts to expand highways to relieve congestion has not worked (and likewise unaffordable).

Studying the past instructs us on how to approach the future (and avoid past mistakes). That is a constant conservative position. Losing sight of how we got to this point means we will blindly continue to choose the wrong policies. We once possessed a comprehensive intercity passenger rail system connecting all parts of the continental United States (to and between communities large and small) with frequent, efficient, and affordable service. This system was operated by private railroads and was profitable until the government began pouring funds into highway building and, later, underwriting the airline industry. As the highly regulated private railroad industry had to contend with government funded roads and subsidized airline travel, intercity passenger rail unsurprisingly began to wither (freight traffic suffered too until it was freed from strangling regulation). The Interstate Highway program and the cancellation of the mail carrying contracts by the Post Office Department were the final blows. The private railroad industry finally convinced Congress (and the Nixon Administration) in 1971 to gather all remaining passenger rail operations under a government corporation (RailPax, then Amtrak). Most expected, indeed assumed that intercity passenger rail would melt away quietly. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Instead, from 6 million passengers in 1971 to 30.9 million in 2014, Amtrak ridership has blossomed, especially since the mid-1990s.

It is no secret that the current institutional setup at the federal and state levels favoring the automobile (and the trucking industry) is antiquated and archaic and in desperate need of reform. Perhaps the short term funding of the federal transportation re-authorization bill wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Federal transportation programs desperately need updating and extensively reformed rather than mindlessly pumping additional revenue into programs that prioritize the wrong activities. The defenders of the status quo (the oil and automobile industries, the concrete/asphalt industry, the construction companies, trucking interests, etc.) want to protect the current system of funding and administering our transportation modes because it benefits them. It also perpetuates the inequities and distortions that bring us unwanted/unneeded infrastructure. Studies have documented that many state DOTs continue to invest the bulk of available funds into roadway expansion while shortchanging maintenance, even as traffic counts decline or remain flat on a per capita basis.

Yes, Amtrak is subsidized, the naysayers scream time and time again, as if that alone disqualifies Amtrak from having the right to exist. What they choose to ignore is that ALL modes of transport are subsidized in this country (that is, roads, transit, intercity passenger rail, airline travel, barge transportation, etc.). A recent Texas Transportation Institute study documented that no road in the state of Texas generates enough revenue from the gas tax to cover construction, operation and maintenance. With regard to subsidization, the federal expenditure for Amtrak amounts to about .03 percent of the 2014 federal budget, or about $1.4 billion. By contrast, Great Britain, a country with a population 1/5th the size of the United States, subsidizes its intercity passenger rail network to the tune of $6 billion plus annually.

Intercity passenger trains are one of the safest modes for travel in the United States. In fact, train travel is about ten times safer than driving. Here, too, providing a viable alternative to the automobile is good policy.

The Amtrak system operates 44 intercity passenger routes over a 21,000 mile network worked by 300 intercity and commuter trains. In addition, hundreds of daily commuter trains operate over a number of Amtrak routes, largely in the Northeast Corridor. Fifteen train routes are over 750 miles long and are classified as long distance. Twenty-nine routes are shorter and are labeled corridor services. Many of these corridor services are or will be fully funded by the states, as per the PRIIA of 2008 (and re-authorized in 2015). Otherwise they will be discontinued. Expect that battle to continue. The anti-Amtrak forces operate at the state level too.

Increased emphasis on intercity rail passenger rail will bring added incentive for and pressure on cities to improve and expand their own connecting transit systems to allow intercity rail passengers to easily reach their final destinations (“the last mile”). After all, the train station is the intermediate destination, not the final one.

The utility of Amtrak also has an important national defense component. When the commercial airline industry shut down in the aftermath of 9/11, Amtrak continued to operate its nationwide network without interruption, providing key mobility options to many desperate citizens in one of the nation’s darkest hours. Had the Department of Defense needed to move units on an emergency basis, Amtrak was available.

Finally, the attached chart clearly debunks the cry that many critics make, that is, “nobody rides it.” Au contraire, Amtrak trains are actually thriving. More and more Americans are voting with their feet (and wallets) on how they feel about Amtrak.

The mindless assault in the U.S. Congress on Amtrak smacks not only of ideological rigidity but also reflects the influence of those interests that do not want intercity passenger rail to succeed.

Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Washington, DC


           [Includes Services > 300,000 Annual Ridership]


Route Type FY 96                   [unless otherwise noted] FY14 Percentage Increase in Ridership FY 14 over FY 96
Northeast Regional NEC Spine 5,417,308 8,100,776 50%
Acela [*] NEC Spine 2,473,921 3,545,306 43%
Pacific Surfliner Short Distance 1,565,162 2,681,173 71%
Capitols [**] Short Distance 456,769 1,419,134 211%
Keystone Short Distance 276,571 1,326,450 380%
San Joaquins Short Distance 567,390 1,188,228 109%
Empire Short Distance 762,060 1,119,959 47%
Hiawathas Short Distance 320,188 799,638 150%
Cascades Short Distance 303,719 782,519 158%
Lincoln (Chicago-St. Louis) Short Distance 254,581 633,531 149%
Downeaster [***] Short Distance 245,135 514,708 110%
Wolverines Short Distance 375,129 477,157 27%
Albany-Niagara Falls-Toronto Short Distance     N/A 410,344 N/A
Shuttles (New Haven – Springfield) Short Distance 329,125 370,895 13%
Washington-Newport News [****] Short Distance 434,453 344,335 -21%
Illini &Saluki (Chicago-Carbondale) Short Distance 84,915 315,963 272%
Carolinian Short Distance 228,207 302,601 33%
Ridership Totals: FY 1996 -2011 14,094,633 24,332,717 73%
[*] Full Year Acela Service in FY 2002
[**] Full Capitol Corridor Service initiated in Dec 1991
[***] Full Downeaster Service initiated in Dec 2002
[****] While ridership on the Wash-Newport News train dropped to 344,335 in FY 14, Amtrak and the state of Virginia inaugurated two new services: Wash-Richmond & Wash-Norfolk which carried a combined 342,974. All three services are now carrying 100,000 more annual passengers than the previous single Wash-Newport News service.
Amtrak Fiscal Year runs from Oct – Sep
Note: Chart only includes corridor services exceeding 300,000 passengers per year
Amtrak Total [Corridor Services > 300,000] 14,094,633 24,332,717
Amtrak Total Ridership   18,294,792 30,921,274
FY 96 FY 14 Percentage Increase in Ridership
NEC Spine 7,462,155 11,646,082 56%
State & Other Corridors (all services) 7,010,941 14,731,993 110%
Long Distance Trains 3,821,696 4,543,199 19%
Total 18,294,792 30,921,274 69%
Source: Amtrak
This Chart Prepared by The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation


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

September 21, 2014 by · 4 Comments
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

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