Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mass Transit Light Rail - Trains to Nowhere

One major topic right now in Livingston County is the local WALLY train, or one I've referred to as the "Train to nowhere." Light rail mass transit is a favorite project of urban planners, "cool city" advocates, Richard Florida gurus, and government contractors. It also costs a lot of money, is heavily subsidized, runs overbudget, and is a waste of our tax dollars. I am strongly opposed to government funded WALLY trains in Livingston County.

I've posted my thoughts on the WALLY "Train to nowhere" on several occasions.
March 2007 - People Mover Pt 2

Howell Approves - June 17 2007

October 07 - 2.3 million subsidy

October 23 07 - Federal money denied to train to nowhere

October 30 07 - County money denied

2009 - Authority seeks 32.4 Million

The "in" thing isn't always the right thing. New Geography had a great comparison piece today on light rails called Mass Transit: The Great Train Robbery

Despite promises that the $8 billion invested in rail lines over the past two decades would lessen L.A.'s traffic congestion and reshape how Angelenos get to work, the sad reality is that there has been no increase in MTA transit ridership since before the rail expansion began in 1985.

Much of the problem, notes Tom Rubin, a former chief financial officers for the MTA's predecessor agency, stems from the shift of funding priorities to trains from the city's more affordable and flexible bus network. Meanwhile, traffic has gotten worse, with delay hours growing from 44 hours a year in 1982 to 70 hours in 2007.

This doesn't shock me. Bus systems have a reputation as being for the so called "lower class" people while rail is a favorite topic for upper middle class white people that the urban planners love.

Sadly, this situation is not unique to Los Angeles. In cities across the country where there have been massive investments in light rail--from the Portland area to Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., and a host of others--the percentage of people taking transit has stagnated or even declined. Nationwide, the percentage of people taking transit to work is now lower than it was in 1980.

Then why are we still pushed for WALLY?

None of this is to argue that we should not invest in transit. It even makes sense if the subsidy required for each transit trip is far higher than for a motorist on the streets or highways. Transit should be considered a public good, particularly for those without access to a car--notably young people, the disabled, the poor and the elderly. Policy should focus on how we invest, at what cost and, ultimately, for whose benefit.

I don't disagree, if it is handled at local or regional levels. One system I thought that isn't all that bad was the CATA system in East Lansing/Lansing. It's good for those who have "one too many" at the bar, and also takes students who live increasingly away from campus over to MSU. It's needed there.

In some regions with large concentrations of employment, downtown major rail systems often attract many riders (although virtually all lose lots of money). The primary example would be the New York City area, which is one of only two regions (the other being Washington, D.C.) with over one-fifth of total employment in the urban core. In the country as a whole barely 10% of employment is in the city; and in many cities that grew most in the 20th century, such as Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the central business district's share falls well under 5%.

Some other urban routes--for example between Houston's relatively buoyant downtown and the massive, ever expanding Texas Medical Center--could potentially prove suitable for trains. But most transit investments would be far more financially sustainable if focused on more cost-efficient methods such as rapid bus lanes, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, is roughly one-third the cost of light rail.

Do you go with what looks good or works best in the situation? Dallas, Miami, LA, Phoenix, and Detroit are sprawled out areas. A large number of Detroit area residents commute to Oakland County, not Detroit. All those areas also have millions of people. Keep in mind that this Wally Train proposal covers an area less than 500,000.


Ultimately the choice to invest in new subways and light rail as opposed to buses reflects both a class bias and the agenda of what may best described as the "density lobby." The people who will ride the eight-mile long Second Avenue subway, now under construction for what New York magazine reports may be a total cost of over $17 billion, are largely a very affluent group. The new subway line will also provide opportunity for big developers to build high-density residential towers along the route. In contrast, the bus-riders, as the left-of-center City Limits points out, tend to be working- and middle-class residents from more unfashionable, lower-density districts in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Put your noses up in the air, snobs.

Clearly we should not spend our ever more scarce transit resources on a nostalgia crusade to make our cities function much the way they did in the late 1800s. Instead, we need to construct systems reflecting the technology and geographic realities of the 21st century and place our primary focus on helping people, particularly those in need, find efficient, economically sustainable ways to get around.

The first thing the Richard Florida types need to figure out is reality. Outside of a select few areas, people aren't moving to cities. Cities still shed population. New rail projects, lofts, and snobbishness isn't going to bring people in. Jobs not Fluff

1 comment:

RDBrit said...

Beware this Trojan Horse. It is a device to facilitate the annexation of Livingston County by the Peoples' Republic of Ann Arbor.