Californians Will Go Into Debt For About Anything

Incredibly, it looks like Proposition 1A in California is going to pass.  This act authorizes a $9 billion dollar bond issue to start a high-speed rail passenger line from the Bay Area to the LA Area. 

Why do I say "start."  Because even the line's supporters put the minimum cost at $40 billion, so the taxpayers have authorized 22% of the line.  And this is by supporters numbers.  By my numbers they have likely authorized less than 10% of the line. 

I wonder if voters knew they were authorizing either a) $40-$100 billion, in effect, rather than $9 billion; or b) a $9 billion white elephant of a rail line that ends up incomplete and going nowhere or c) something that is not really high speed rail and therefore not different from Amtrak service that already exists.  (What are you talking about Coyote, government transit people would never begin a project without full funding and leave an orphaned white elephant in place.)

The state that makes up a huge percentage of the current mortgage and foreclosure problem seems to not have learned its lesson about borrowing.

I am generally an optimistic guy, but I wonder if we have gotten to the point where there is a large subset of the population for whom voting is solely for the purposes of boosting self-esteem.  I feel good when I support public transit, so I vote for Prop 1A, despite the fact there is no possible way it will ever deliver any public transit.

Posted on November 5, 2008 at 10:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

Absolutely Predictable

Apparently, even before the first train starts carrying passengers (sometime in December), Phoenix's new light rail system is already forcing bus fares up.  (via a reader)

Before the Valley's light-rail service ever begins, the cost to ride the train and city buses may be headed up.

The issue of raising the Valley's regional fare policy has been brewing for several months as transit officials have struggled to cover rising gas prices and other increased operation costs, said Greg Jordan, Tempe's transit administrator. Transit and light-rail costs are covered by a half-cent sales tax, which has fallen over the past year.

The real issue is that transit agencies are generally given a fixed pot of money for operating subsidies (in this case the proceeds of a half-cent sales tax) and rail tends to take a hugely disproportionate share of that money, starving out less sexy but more practical and cost-effective bus systems.  Even in the that wet dream of rail planners, Portland:

In fact, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit to work before the region build light rail. Today it is just 7.6 percent. In a story repeated in numerous cities that have built rail lines, rail cost overruns forced the city to raise bus fares and reduce bus service. That’s a success?

This is even more likely in Phoenix, where buses make far more financial sense than rail, given our very low densities, lack of a real downtown area, and numerous commuting routes.  In fact, not only is it predictable, but I predicted it:

Rail makes zero sense in a city like Phoenix.  All this will do is create a financial black hole into which we shift all of our bus money, so the city will inevitably end up with a worse transportation system, not a better one.  Cities that build light rail almost always experience a reduction in total transit use (even the great God of planners Portland) for just this reason - budgets are limited, so since rail costs so much more per passenger, other transit is cut back.   But the pictures of the train will look pretty in the visitor's guide.

Posted on October 30, 2008 at 08:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Why Phoenix Light Rail is Doomed in One Chart

The Arizona Republic had another of its cheerleading articles on light rail this morning.  In it was a chart that, contrary to the intent of the article, summarized exactly why Phoenix light rail is doomed.  Below is a chart of the employment density (top chart) and population density (bottom chart) at each stop along the first rail route.  Note that this line goes through what passes for the central business district of Phoenix and the oldest parts of town, so it was chosen to run through the highest density areas - all future extensions will likely have lower numbers.  Unfortunately, they do not reproduce this chart online so here is a scan:


Take the population density chart.  As a benchmark, lets take Boston.  The average density for all of the city of Boston is 12,199 people per square mile.  Phoenix's light rail line cut through the highest density areas of town has only one stop where density reaches this level, and most stops are less than half this density.  And this is against Boston's average, not against the density along its rail routes which are likely much higher than the average.

Rail makes zero sense in a city like Phoenix.  All this will do is create a financial black hole into which we shift all of our bus money, so the city will inevitably end up with a worse transportation system, not a better one.  Cities that build light rail almost always experience a reduction in total transit use (even the great God of planners Portland) for just this reason - budgets are limited, so since rail costs so much more per passenger, other transit is cut back.   But the pictures of the train will look pretty in the visitor's guide.

Postscript: Phoenix's overall average density is around 2,500 per square mile.  Assuming that the 12,000 in the chart above is one of the densest areas of Phoenix, this gives a ratio of about 5:1 between peak and average density.  This same ratio in Boston would imply peak density areas of 60,000 per square mile.  This may be high, but indicates how much higher route densities on Boston rail should be.  Oh, and by the way, Boston rail is losing a ton of money.

Other city densities here from 1990.  People think of LA as spread out, but LA has a density over three times higher than Phoenix!

Posted on September 28, 2008 at 12:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

More on California's Big Dig

The Anti-Planner has more on the California high speed rail proposal I wrote about earlier.  My guess was that the first $9 billion bond issue, on the ballot this fall, would not get the train out of the LA metro area.  Well, I was right and wrong.  The smart money thinks the line will start at the other end, in San Francisco.  But the betting is that for $9 billion the line won't even get out of the San Francisco metro area, making it perhaps as far as San Jose. 

But we have a second data point -- there is a proposal on the table to extend BART from Fremont to Santa Clara for $4.7 billion, a distance (as shown on the map below) about a third of that from San Francisco to San Jose.

I am not sure what high-speed rail technology that they are considering, but a true high-speed line requires special alignments, track, and signaling that should make it FAR more expensive per mile than a BART line (just as an example, a true high-speed line could take miles to make a 90 degree turn, eating up land and reducing alignment flexibility in a very congested and hilly area).  And remember, the BART cost estimate is probably low.

No way these guys get to San Jose for $9 billion, much less to LA for $40 billion.  Just what Californians need with their massive budget deficit:  a brand new white elephant.

Posted on September 15, 2008 at 08:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

The $9 Billion Dollar Toe

A few weeks ago I was amazed at the story of the city of Chicago spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the terminal rail station of a rail line that had no plan, no route, no approval, and no money.  Why spend hundreds of millions on a station that could well be orphaned?  The reason, I supposed, was to make a toe in the water investment where the public could later be shamed into voting more funds for building a rail line to actually connect to their fabulous new station.

It appears that California may be doing the same thing. This November, voters in that state will have the chance to approve a $9.95 billion rail bond issue.  $9 billion of this is earmarked for building a high-speed rail line from Anaheim to San Francisco.  But current estimates for this line's cost, which are always way too low, are for $30 billion.  Who in their right mind would proceed with a $30 billion (or likely more) project when only $9 billion of funding has been obtained?  Only scam artists, Ponzi schemes.... and the government.

  Wow!  Boy, I must be dumb or something.  The website supporting this bond issue says that this project will create 450,000 permanent new jobs.  How can anyone oppose that?  This is really amazing, since the entire US railroad industry currently employs 224,000 people, but this one rail line will create 450,000 jobs! 

Update #2:  I like to make predictions about government rail projects, so here is mine for this one:  I don't know what end they are starting with, but if they start from the south, I will bet that $9 billion does not even get them out of the LA area (say past Santa Clarita or Santa Barbara), much less anywhere close to San Francisco.

Posted on September 8, 2008 at 08:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)

Good News

The absurdly porked-up transportation initiative has been dropped from the November ballot in Arizona.  So we can relax for another year, and local jurisdictions will be forced to pay for their own silly projects with local money.  My last post on this ballot initiative was here.

Posted on August 27, 2008 at 08:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

$100 Million a Mile

I don't really understand the various issues in this article on the next phase of Phoenix light rail expansion, but this certainly caught my eye:

It will add another $9 million to the $297 million project. But by acting quickly to make these changes, there aren't expected to be delays in rail construction. Work is scheduled to start in early 2009 and be completed by 2012.

Opposition to the rail plan arose last fall in the last half mile of the 3.2-mile light rail line that extends from just south of Bethany Home Road to Dunlap Ave.

Let's see -- $306 million divided by 3.2 miles is very close to $100 million a mile, and that is even before the inevitable cost overruns cut in (as a rule of thumb, I tend to double estimates of light rail construction costs to estimate the actual final total, and even then I am often low).   It also does not include inevitable operating losses.

Nearly a third of a billion dollars to run a rail line a distance most people could walk in 45 minutes.  For three freaking miles.  As a comparison, three buses could provide service on this same route running at 5 minute intervals for perhaps 1% of this capital cost and a substantially lower operating cost.  And better service, since the frequency would be 3 times higher.  Absolutely absurd. 

More on Phoenix light rail here, and more on light rail in general here.

Postscript: Some of you may be familiar with my light rail bet.  I often bet that a light rail line will cost more to build than it would have cost to buy every  regular daily rider a Prius, and more to operate in a year than it would require to gas up all of these Prius's for a year.  For reference, with a $22,500 cost for a Prius and $306 million (and counting) capital cost, that is enough to buy 13,600 Prius's.  Anyone want to bet that the number of incremental users attracted to the line by this 3 mile extension don't exceed 13,600?

Update:  TJIC does the math -- $1500 per inch!  Fixed link, thanks to commenters.

Posted on July 3, 2008 at 10:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)