Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rail Transit: Are we Creating New Life or Resuscitating a Dinosaur? (part 2 of 2)

This second part provides excerpts from the last 12 commentators and our brief conclusions.

12. Ed Wytkind, President, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
"Transit investment will relieve road congestion and offer environmentally sound transportation alternatives to increase economic efficiency and global competitiveness." Sad to see that unions simply copy-paste boilerplate half truths.

13. Steve Van Beek, President & CEO, Eno Transportation Foundation

"Input straight-line assumptions about behavior today and out will come results which suggest public transportation will play a marginal role in the future. (Such an analysis when the Model T was invented would have led to a future replete with horses and buggies and with underbuilt road networks.)" Unfortunately Mr. Van Beek not looked into Bureau of Transportation Statistics showing that public transit share of trips is very small and diminishing, and that the increasing share of telecommuting begins to dwarf rail transit.

14. John D. Porcari, Secretary, Maryland Department of Transportation

"We have to start by leveling the playing field. While we get highway funds by formula, states and metro areas fight for transit monies primarily through earmarks, and the race to the bottom known as the New Starts program. End the false dichotomy between highway and transit funding by making system preservation needs the first call on federal dollars (whether highways and bridges, transit, aviation or port needs) and then using local, regional and state land use plans to drive new capacity (transit or highway) investment decisions with the remaining unified federal formula dollars." Highways, bridges, airports and harbors generate their own revenues from user fees and are rarely subsidized by taxpayers. Electricity, telephone, water and sewer services break even and can be profitable. Where is the revenue stream for rail and bus? It is remarkable that people who charge one dollar for a trip that costs over ten dollars are in leading and expert prositions.

15. Greg Cohen, President and CEO, American Highway Users Alliance

"The current funding arrangements are set up so that federal highway user fees subsidize transit expenses -- thus creating the unfortunate reality that transit does compete for funding at the expense of highway programs. It is important for policy makers and the public to recognize that (excluding air travel) between 98 and 99% of all passenger miles and vehicles miles of travel occur of our nation's aging roads. Both private auto use and efficient public transit use in most areas is largely dependent on a good network of safe and efficient roads."

16. Robert L. Crandall, Retired Chairman and CEO, AMR and American Airlines

"In the furor over finding ways to increase and sustain employment, and the understandable desire to use infrasturcture investment to attach that problem, we need to remember that money invested in the wrong tools is the equivalent of money wasted.
Bob Poole's thoughts on how to use buses and rapid transit lanes strike me as worth very careful thought."

17. Bob Poole, Director of Transportation Studies, Reason Foundation

"For the 22 Metropolitan Planning Organizations whose long-range plans were reviewed, transit spending averages 41% of the total, while transit’s projected mode share is just 5.5%. Something is wrong with this picture. First, MPOs project only modest increases in transit’s mode share by 2030, despite devoting more than 40% (on average) of all transportation dollars to transit. Second, they project that traffic congestion in 2030 will be significantly worse than it is today. There is a direct connection between under-funding the highway infrastructure that buses, car-poolers, and individual motorists depend on and continued increases in congestion. The key is to use congestion pricing for these express lanes. More than a decade of experience with HOT lane projects in half a dozen states has demonstrated the power of congestion pricing to provide reliable, high-speed, uncongested traffic flow on such lanes. Transit agencies would love to have exclusive busways, but a congestion-priced lane is, in fact, the virtual equivalent of an exclusive bus lane. The pricing simply allows enough paying automobiles to share the use of the lane, without degrading its uncongested performance."

18. Geoff Anderson, Co-chair of the Transportation for America Campaign, President and CEO of Smart Growth America

"There is an undeniable linkage between our broken economy, our broken energy/climate policy, and our broken transportation system. Investing in a 21st Century transportation system with an emphasis on mass transit solutions – while creating safe streets for walking and biking to with them -- is a three for one deal: it kick starts our economy and generates jobs, gives hungry Americans transportation options, and begins to solve our climate crisis." Pure "smart growth" nonsense. There is no significant link between broken economy, walkable streets, bikeways and the ozone layer. You can, however, wordsmith good looking paragraphs and drive up the deficits in the absence of cost-effectiveness and accountability.

19. Deron Lovaas , Federal Transportation Policy Director, Natural Resources Defense Council

"The short answer is that yes, the time is ripe for making a larger commitment to public transportation than has been the case in the last 50 years."
Why? Spending 20% of the transportation budget in the last 20 years on transit systems that carry 5% of the public has not been bad enough?

20. Paul M. Weyrich, Chairman and CEO, Free Congress Foundation

"I have my doubts about the effectiveness of stimulus bills, but since it is clear President elect Obama is intent on advocating one,I certainly hope the Congress will include $8 billion of American Public Transportation Association short-term transit projects in whatever bill they come up with."
This is $8 billion nationwide. Relatively tiny Honolulu would like to build a $5 billion rail ... pretty please Mr. Obama.

21.Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow and Director, Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative

"Although almost all of our buses serve the top 100 metro areas but half are concentrated in just 10 large metros. Heavy rail (subways) exist in only 11 metros like Philly and San Francisco. Commuter rail is in only 14 metropolitan areas – primarily in the Northeast and California. And light rail can be found in only 26 – like Minneapolis, San Diego, and Denver. Based on the admittedly simple inventory of transit infrastructure available, 54 of the 100 largest metros do not have any rail transit service and also have relatively weak bus systems.
As employment has dispersed through metro areas, lower income workers are finding themselves increasingly isolated and therefore need to spend higher proportions of their income to reach their jobs." So how can a single rail line with 20 stations help them? Did I mention that it costs $5 billion?

22. Rich Sarles, Executive Director, NJ TRANSIT

"At NJ TRANSIT, we have experienced five consecutive years of record-high ridership with nearly one million trips taken on the system each weekday. Ridership continues to be strong, despite lower gasoline prices, especially on rail service on our busiest lines serving Manhattan. In the next 25 years, we expect ridership on these lines to more than double, creating new challenges to acquire the infrastructure (station capacity, track, rail yards, etc.), rolling stock (rail cars and locomotives) and resources needed to support this demand."
This is really where the nation should be spending its transit monies.

23. Pete Ruane, President and CEO, American Road & Transportation Builders Association

"According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), there is $20 billion annual shortfall at the federal level between current highway investment levels and what is necessary just to maintain road conditions. For public transit at the federal level, the shortfall is about $4 billion annually." It is too obvious that priority one is maintenance and restoration of what we have, and cautious investment in new priced roadway capacity including exclusive busways and exclusive truckways.

To answer the original question in the subject line: All cases of rail transit in the U.S. excluding Chicago, New York City, and a few other legacy systems have been hyper expensive dinosaur
resuscitations at taxpayer expense.

It would be a remarkably poor and expensive choice of President Obama to sink taxpayer dollars in rail transit New Starts. We can barely afford to keep the CTA, MARTA, BART and other metro rail systems alive. Let's please leave all future dinosaur resuscitations to the movies.

Rail Transit: Are we Creating New Life or Resuscitating a Dinosaur? (part 1 of 2)

The title is paraphrasing a 1983 paper title by Dr. Joseph Schofer, Associate Dean, College of Engineering, Northwestern University. I think it is a more appropriate title than the biased question "Has Mass Transit Finally Arrived?" posed in the NationalJournal.com's transportation expert panel discussion.

Of course the majority of the 23 commentators answer that the time for transit has come (as it did in all previous oil/global economy crises.) We know that the results were poor from most of those deployments. But learning from history is not a priority in modern society.

If you have about an hour, do read the original text which includes a handful of well thought out positions and concerns.
If not, here are some highlights from each commentator. This part provides excerpts from the first 11 commentators.

1. Eric Britton, Managing Director, New Mobility Partnerships
"Before rushing out to pour many billions of dollars into mass transit, we will do well to recognize that as a phrase, it is a relic of another day, another way of thinking about cities. And indeed another way of thinking about people (mass?).

Here is what we can counsel with confidence to the incoming Obama team about "mass transit" and its appropriate role for the critical 2009-2012 period.

If you have it already in place, your main challenge is to get a lot better at using what you have in a cost-effective manner.

If you do not have it, forget about using scarce taxpayer dollars to build yourself a new one from scratch, because there are far better ways of getting the job done."

2. Nancy LeaMond, AARP's executive vice president of social impact
"To leave their cars behind, boomers will require the same level of convenience as they have had in their car-centered world.

A coordinated strategy of public transportation, paratransit, coordinated human services transportation, transit-oriented development, and “complete streets” sidewalk networks accessible to transit, can yield a multitude of benefits for people of all ages.

...making stops and vehicles more accessible and user friendly, helping newcomers understand how and where to access schedules and their closest transit with easy to use information, training drivers to understand and pleasantly accommodate the limitations of aging and in some areas offering neighborhood circulators or door-to-door service to grocery stores or shopping malls."

3. Robin Chase, CEO, GoLoco, Meadow Networks
"If we think back to Katrina, the lack of alternatives for people without cars to evacuate the New Orleans proved disastrous. Some policy experts claimed that the solution was to make sure the poor and carless had access to cars. A few weeks later, another hurricane demanded that Houston evacuate. The highways were backed up and people sat motionless in their cars for hours. Today, as I write this note, a huge snow storm is bearing down on Boston. Planes are canceled and roads will be dangerous. My homeward-bound college age son is stuck in Washington DC.

My point is not that we should build trains and transit to accommodate one-day freak storms, just as I do not advocate building parking lots to accommodate Black Friday shopping demand. But real diversity and redundancy in transportation systems is mandatory. This nation needs to accommodate the transportation needs of people of all incomes, of all ages, of all development densities. The last 50 years of supporting one mode -- cars -- to exclusion of others, has not served us well. It is time to right the balance."

Somebody needs to tell her that a few days after hurricane Ike hit Houston, all systems were up and running except for its rail that took two and a half weeks.

4. Michael A. Replogle, Transportation Director, Environmental Defense Fund
"Established rail systems need to be revitalized. But pouring money into poorly conceived transit projects will not make transit a viable alternative for the majority of Americans living in auto-dependent suburban areas.

The most cost-effective way to expand high performance mass rapid transit is Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. ... And BRT can be used like rail to anchor transit-oriented development. ... A big advantage of BRT is that the bus can go anywhere. The same bus can operate in mixed traffic where there is no congestion, enter a busway in a congested area, and then leave the busway again.

Performance-based transportation investment plans should be required as a condition for funding, including operational plans for both highways and public transportation."

5. Bill Graves, President and CEO, American Trucking Association
"Although mass transit performs many important uses, particularly for certain niche communities in large urban areas, it cannot replace our nation’s need for good highways. While mass transit effectively moves people, infrastructure investment is critical to the safe and efficient movement of freight."

6. Judith Bergquist, Associate Director of Rural Programs in the Denver office of the Colorado Center for Community Development
"Sometimes we look past some simple and very viable alternatives to multi – modal transit for bigger glitzy solutions: We should look at road and bus systems that could effectively be started today and get buses to run every 10 minutes from suburb to suburb and suburb to work centers and downtowns. We need the buses to run often with lots of quick stops to increase this ridership before other transit is even in place. We will lose the cars because there will be ease of access."

7. Paul Yarossi, President, HNTB Holdings Ltd.
"Public transit supporters definitely have the clout to influence the next transportation bill. In no way will this effort to fund more public transit projects replace the much needed investment in maintaining and expanding our national highway system."

Solid advice for worsening the already huge budget deficits (to the benefit of mega contractors.)

8. Christopher B. Leinberger, Real estate developer, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Professor and Director of the University of Michigan graduate real estate program
"Why rail transit? Middle class Americans like it far better than bus transit. In addition, real estate developers and investors have increased confidence in it since rail transit implies permanence; it is easy to change a bus route but not so with fixed rail. The combination of middle class preference and the permanence of rail transit have resulted in far more real estate development being sparked around rail stations than bus stops."

Great paragraph but there is little proof that any of this is true. Most US cities developed quite well in the complete absence of rail.

9. Emil H. Frankel, Director of Transportation Policy, Bipartisan Policy Center
"How can transportation best serve national goals and purposes like economic growth, environmental and energy sustainability, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, and safety?

Before we allocate funding - whether to give transit or highways more money - let’s ensure that we have a performance-based approach that can help us identify and prioritize programs that achieve national goals."

10. Frank Busalacchi, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Transportation
"The current transit programs send much of the funding to mass transit systems in our largest metropolitan areas. Our metropolitan areas rely on mass transit to provide a needed mobility option for those who don’t want to use their cars or don’t have cars to use. However, in many parts of the country bus fleets are old, far beyond the time frame in which they should have been replaced."

11. Tim Kaine, Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia
"Transit and rail investments are expensive up front and even more so when operation and maintenance costs are factored in over time. These long term financial commitments only make sense if there are different land use patterns to take advantage of the transit and rail investments.

Increased funding should not come at the expense of other modes, particularly given the dire need to repair and replace our existing bridges across the country."


A few common themes emerge from these diverse opinions:
  • Need to maintain what infrastructure we have and expand it.
  • Look into buses, BRT and other affordable solutions first.
  • Performance-based decision making and accountability for infrastructure projects.
The latter means that a systematic way is used to look at urban transportation problems and address the issues in a cost-effective away.

This is the opposite of what occurred in Honolulu where a politician was elected in 2004 and made rail the number one priority: Total top-down dictum. The lack of accountability is obvious in that there is no accounting of $107 million spent on rail studies and the shameless use of taxpayer money to defame those opposing the system and produce an avalanche of TV, radio, newspaper and home-mailed ads and fliers.

Stay tuned for the second half and the conclusion.