Monday, March 12, 2012

The progressive love affair with trains

Cartoon John Pritchett, Hawaii Reporter

I've written before about the love liberals have for trains. Actually, everybody likes trains, but train systems are more expensive to build and operate than bus systems and are thus not a solution to urban traffic congestion for cash-strapped cities and states. Hawaii is the latest state to flirt with a ruinously expensive rail system.

Randal O'Toole's recent presentation on that proposal. [Later: his follow-up post on the subject]

Wendell Cox on Hawaii's rail proposal.

O'Toole's deconstruction of Portland's ongoing planning fiasco.

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At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it so happens that train systems are more expensive to build and operate than bus systems and are thus not a solution to urban traffic congestion for cash-strapped cities

That's why everyone takes the SamTrans KX bus instead of Caltrain, and the AC Transit transbay buses instead of BART.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The CalTrain and BART systems are already built. Like the California high-speed rail project, you have to look at the cost/benefit analysis. The Hawaii system and CHSR are both crushingly expensive for a meager transportation payoff.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So was BART...

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob thinks highways are free.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Maintaining existing systems is a lot cheaper than building new ones, and, in the case of California's high-speed rail project, building a luxury train for the well-off.

At 9:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then why weren't you protesting building a brand new bay bridge instead of just maintaining the old one?

At 11:04 PM, Blogger Nato said...

The farebox recovery for bus systems is terrible; in general about half that for light rail. (example:VTA Light rail is in the 20-25% range most years while the agency as a whole is at an even more dismal 12% because the bus recovery rate is so bad. Muni trains are in the 30-40% range, but SFMTA is ~25% on the whole, and so on). This actually surprised me, but it seems true everywhere I've looked. Thus, it seems like rail is generally more economically efficient than buses.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Nato said...

So I finally found a more recent reference, and it appears that the SF farebox recovery is about the same for both bus and light rail, so clearly it's not as consistent as I thought

At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob loves CEQA, which is pretty much a "status-quo" law.

At 1:36 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

What does this post have to do with CEQA?

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, it has to do with you liking the status quo : the fact that any changes to the already prolific car culture can be shot down using CEQA and LOS. It is all related.

BART is already built so you are fine with it. But HSR isn't built so you'll fight it tooth and nail.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yes, everything is related to everything else to the paranoid. It's simply untrue that "any changes to the car culture" can be shot down by CEQA. In fact our litigation is unique as far as I can tell, though apparently L.A. is doing an environmental study of its bicycle plan to avoid the problems and delays SF created for itself when it tried to rush its Bicycle Plan through the process with no environmental review.

CEQA is in fact a good law, since it only requires that developers and/or jurisdictions must do an environmental review of any project that might have a negative effect on the environment. That's true whether the proposed project is a large housing development, or, as it turns out, a Bicycle Plan. Why is that a bad thing?

The problem with the high-speed rail project---and other rail projects---is that they cost so much to build, operate, and maintain that a cost/benefit analysis clearly shows that they don't make any sense. The federal government is willing to give states some money to start these projects, but they won't pay for the inevitable cost overruns or to operate the system once it's built. State taxpayers are on the hook for those costs, which is why the Governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin rejected federal money for rail projects. (True, the fact that it was a Democratic administration program made it a lot easier for them as Republicans to reject the money!)

As reported recently, just the projected interest on the $9.95 billion in bonds authorized by state voters in 2008 is now up to $700 million a year. Fortunately, the state legislature hasn't authorized the bond sale yet

On LOS: The problem you anti-car zealots have is that you have to have something reasonable to replace the level of service (LOS) method of measuring traffic density. Hard to believe that "auto trips generated" (ATG) as an alternative would withstand legal challenge if SF adopted it and dumped LOS.

I think it's much more sensible to maintain the transit systems we already have, since we know exactly what they can do and how much it costs to do it. It's absurd to embark on the Central Subway, for example, even as Muni is chronically in the red. As the Grand Jury and others have pointed out, that project will not even make the city's Muni system better or more cost-effective. It will actually add to the system's budget problems.

The folks on this website have gone into the details of the HSR project in great detail.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger alai said...

The funny thing about Bart, for example, is that it could easily get by with far fewer subsidies, if the political will was there. All it would have to do: stop catering to drivers.

Example 1: Bart has numerous parking lots which are just packed, and fill up early in the morning. Many of them charge only a token fee. They could easily charge many times the current parking rate, make a lot more money, and still fill the lots, ensuring that there are no fewer riders. In fact, there would likely be more, since people would carpool to split the parking fee (right now, there's no incentive: who's going to carpool to save 50c?)

Better yet, redevelop the parking lots to apartments, retail, and offices. This is an internationally successful formula.

Example 2: The Macarthur Bart "transit-oriented development".

So they're doing it, but in the stupidest way possible. Step one has been to build a $100m, ~450 space parking garage (with more garages to come). In order to break even, Bart would have to charge about $20 a day for the next 30 years. Needless to say, they're not going to do that. Bart is just paying for it. Unlike rational transit agencies, which use station-area developments to subsidize their service, Bart's goal seems to be to use their service to subsidize drivers.

I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that anyone who wants to live at the Macarthur apartments will be required to pay for parking whether or not they have a car. That's Bart for you-- going the extra mile to encourage people not to use Bart.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The thing you pro-train, anti-car folks ignore is that, like airports, train systems must have stations with parking lots, since there's really no transit infrastructure to get people from the station to their homes once they arrive via train. People in a huge state like California have to rely on cars to get door-to-door, whether they fly or use a train system.

It really doesn't matter how much housing near stations you "smart growth" advocates build; it will never be enough to accommodate enough travelers to change that reality.

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It really doesn't matter how much housing near stations you "smart growth" advocates build; it will never be enough to accommodate enough travelers to change that reality.

There are 4 HSR stations in Paris, none of which have long term car parking.

At 9:18 PM, Blogger alai said...

You know, Rob, sometimes I wonder if you live in San Francisco.

So Bart just NEEDS that huge parking garage? Well, Bart actually did some surveys about how people get to Macarthur station:

See the last page. A staggering 10% of riders park there. That's it. And that's with a giant parking lot occupying the block right next to the station.

This is not to say that parking lots are never useful-- I'm sure that the stations in the central valley will have sizable parking lots. And that's fine. But there is zero reason to have one in SF-- or LA for that matter. Unlike LAX, Union Station is a transit hub for LA, with two subway lines, six suburban train lines, and numerous bus lines converging on it. Access is really not a problem.

Or take a taxi! It'll cost a fraction of a taxi ride to the airport-- and certainly less than parking there would.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The high-speed rail boosters are predicting that millions will ride that system. How many of those passengers will live anywhere near train stations, even in San Francisco? HSR passengers will face the same problem airline passengers now face: how to get home from the terminal? But at least the trip between L.A. and SF for airline passengers will be a lot quicker than HSR, which will supposedly take two hours and forty minutes.

If you take a taxi from downtown SF to my neighborhood near Alamo Square, it costs $10-$15 plus the tip.

People flying into SFO either have their cars parked at the airport, rent cars there, or take a shuttle to downtown SF. Unless they're staying at a downtown hotel, they still have to take Muni or a taxi to get home. Why would it be any different for HSR stations?

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Mikesonn said...

Taxi from SFO to pretty much anywhere in SF ~ $40+ dollars.

Also, you fail to include the 1hr+ that most people add onto their airport arrival for security, etc.

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many units of housing are there and will there be within a half mile of 2nd and Mission, and 4th and Townsend?
Why not just take MUNI to the station. 2 bucks and you're there.

All this bickering over HSR is just prehistoric. HSR is considered the norm in Europe and Asia. In Japan, the Shikansen operates at a profit and uses profits generated to expand the system.

HSR will save money in the long run, and is the only way to add trip capacity to the popular Bay Area to LA corridor that will meet the goals set by SB-375. Imagine the cost of adding lanes to highways 5 & 99, and expanding airports? Even if we could build more of this "dirty" transportation, why would we when we can have a simple HSR system. Seems like all those who oppose HSR are people who've never had a passport.

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Your rosy account of high-speed rail systems around the world is belied by the facts. European systems were built by taxpayers and then, in many cases, turned over to private operators. The system in Spain cost taxpayers $60 billion, and it's still subsidized by the government.

Your account of the system in Japan also one-sided:

"Of all the high-speed train services around the world, only one really makes economic sense—the 550km (340-mile) Shinkansen route that connects the 35 million people in greater Tokyo to the 20 million residents of the Kansai cluster of cities comprising Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Nara...The sole reason why Shinkansen plying the Tokaido route make money is the sheer density—and affluence—of the customers they serve. All the other Shinkansen routes in Japan lose cart-loads of cash, as high-speed trains do elsewhere in the world.Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and national chest-thumping keep them rolling."

California will never have that kind of population density, and the population growth predicted by HSR supporters isn't happening:

"Academic experts say the growth models that put the state's population at 60 million by mid-century lack credibility. And the state Department of Finance is now revising official population projections downward.Walter Schwarm, a state demographer, said the lower estimates are based on three factors:California overestimated its population before the 2010 census;as many people will move out of the state in the future as move in,and Latino birthrates are declining."

Instead, we need to pay for our existing transit systems, many of which are now in the red, including Muni.

The best analysis of the California HSR proposal is on this site.


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