Transport subsidy double-standard hits again

Lee-VanAken-Construction-Spring2015-2

Construction is proceeding on GCRTA’s rebuilt Lee-Van Aken station on the Blue Line in Shaker Heights.

For some reason the Brookings Institution and Crain’s Cleveland Business recently singled out for criticism rail transit fares not covering the operating costs of rail systems. This just in: “No form of transportation covers their operating costs.” This selective criticism was extracted by Brookings from a Hamilton Project report which addressed government subsidies for multiple forms of surface transportation. Crain’s then shared Brookings’ selective criticism in a recent blog.

Such criticism of rail is regrettable. Sometimes this double-standard against rail is the result of the need for more education by nonprofit associations such as All Aboard Ohio. Other times the double-standard is is the result of drive-or-die special interests (petroleum, tire makers, automakers, highway builders, etc.) who have sought to destroy trains and transit for decades. Even more frightening is a new brand of ideologues who deride public transportation as a symbol of a feared central government. Instead they want government to prescribe only the individual autonomy of private cars while ignoring the inconvenient reality that they require massive subsidies from a central government.

Fact is, public transit is a cost-effective investment, even in a moderate-density transit system like Greater Cleveland’s. If the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s (GCRTA) buses and trains disappeared tomorrow and all of its passengers had to use cars (not realistic since 25 percent of Cleveland households have no car available because they can’t afford the $10,888 annual cost), it would require the construction and maintenance of 200 miles of new lane-miles of highway, according to the League of Women Voters.

Rush-hour crowds wait to board a Red Line train at Tower City Center in downtown Cleveland.

Rush-hour crowds wait to board a Red Line train at Tower City Center in downtown Cleveland.

Do roads really pay for themselves? No, far from it. The Federal Highway Administration warns: “Construction costs for adding lanes in urban areas average $10–$15 million per lane mile. In general, the funding for this type of construction comes from taxes that drivers pay when buying gas for their vehicles. Overall, funds generated from gas taxes on an added lane during rush hours amount to only $60,000 a year (based on 10,000 vehicles per day during rush hours, paying fuel taxes amounting to about 2 cents per mile). This amount is grossly insufficient to pay for the lane addition.”

In other words, it takes up to 250 years for the gas tax revenues from one new lane-mile of urban freeway to equal the original construction cost of that lane-mile. So roads don’t pay for themselves. They don’t even come close. A recent tax-gap analysis by the Texas Department of Transportation showed that some urban highways cover only 16 percent of their costs from gas taxes. For those roads to pay for themselves, the Texas analysis said gas taxes would have to be raised by more than $2 per gallon. Attempts to privatize highways have failed with either the road or its operator going bankrupt in Northern Indiana, San Diego, Austin, Denver, Richmond, Detroit and elsewhere.

Further eroding the financial viability of roads is the decline in driving since 2004. Combined with vehicle fuel efficiency that is higher than ever and Congress’ inability to raise gas tax in 20 years, the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke. The HTF has been propped up by multiple Congressional bailouts totaling $54 billion in general tax revenue (pure subsidy!) since 2008, with another $18 billion bailout possible this year.

RedLine-ColtmanTownhouses-2014

Station-area developments like these new townhouses in Little Italy are needed at more rail stations to generate more ridership. But many rail station areas are littered with abandoned, polluted industrial sites that scare off potential investors. A systematic effort is needed to clear and clean these sites.

Transit cost-effectiveness needs improvement as does access to jobs. These goals are interrelated and synergistic. Fixed-guideway transit like streetcars, light-rail, heavy-rail, regional commuter rail, and bus rapid transit feature permanent routes and stations that provide stability and density of traffic. Such features support pedestrian-oriented economic development, creating jobs that are physically accessible to all. Using the Brookings’ own data, only one out of four low/medium jobs are within a 90-minute transit trip. Cities and transit agencies and employers (many who complain about not getting enough job applicants after locating in areas inaccessible to transit and pedestrians!) need to make a concerted effort to place employment near existing high-capacity transit routes. That will also increase the cost effectiveness of existing transit services.

The National Transit Database shows that even an older rail system like Cleveland’s compares favorably with bus using cost-effectiveness metrics:

GCRTA OPERATING EXPENSE PER PASSENGER-MILE & PER UNLINKED TRIP

MODE                       /PassMile   /UnlinkedTrip

Bus………………………    $1.06         $   4.46
Heavy Rail……………    $0.64         $   4.37
Demand Response..    $6.02         $42.40
Light Rail……………..   $0.68         $  4.04
Bus Rapid Transit…    $0.48        $   1.28

New transit infrastructure like GCRTA’s HealthLine BRT performs well in cost-effectiveness metrics because new vehicles, right of way and facilities are more efficient and require less maintenance. GCRTA’s aging rail system is also more expensive to maintain than newer rail systems because Cleveland’s lacks modern features like constant-tension overhead electric wires (GCRTA’s wires must be tightened and loosened by hand in response to major temperature changes), regenerative braking systems that cause slowing trains to return electricity to the power supply, and modern trains that require less maintenance, are more reliable and still have replacement parts available. Replacement of GCRTA trains and their electrical systems will likely cost in excess of $300 million but save the transit agency millions of dollars per year in operating costs.

GCRTA’s rail network also needs to be modernized in a different way — its routes link travel markets that have been declining in significance since the 1950s. Today, its routes need new termini, new route alignments and/or don’t extend out far enough. For example the Red Line should be extended 6.5 miles from Windermere to Euclid to generate 11,000 new daily transit trips per day (3 times more than BRT options that were studied) and reduce driving by 75,200 daily automobile trips (also 3 times more than BRT options). Those are critical issues for fast-growing University Circle that’s experiencing serious traffic congestion and parking issues well before the Opportunity Corridor is built and dumps more cars into this treasured cultural district.

Existing 38-mile rail system of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

Existing 38-mile rail system of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (click to enlarge).

Similarly, most of the commuting from the eastern Heights is no longer to downtown Cleveland but to University Circle, northeast Ohio’s second-largest employment center. Yet Shaker Heights has two rail lines to downtown and none to University Circle. All Aboard Ohio urges routing the Blue Line northwest from Shaker Square to University Circle instead of to downtown, extend the Green Line from Shaker/Green Road to Beachwood Place, and extend the Waterfront Line as a loop around the east side of downtown.

Each of these 2-mile rail extensions would provide Cleveland’s rail system with much stronger ridership anchors, as would the $5.5 billion in new station-area developments that are emerging citywide. More also needs to be done to clear and clean abandoned, polluted industrial properties along GCRTA rail lines so they can compete with clean-n-green properties outside Cuyahoga County for development.

Given the lack of action by state and federal leaders for public transit, All Aboard Ohio suggests consideration of a local/regional dedicated funding initiative for transit system expansion and the clean-up of old industrial sites near current/future stations. Greater Cleveland has the economic output of Hungary, thus tThe region has the capacity to financially support on its own a vastly improved public transportation system with station-area developments that bring jobs to within reach of job-seekers. We hope the skeptics will change their tune and embrace this vision instead.

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