Confronting Words from U.S. Transit Administrator

As usual, the Transport Politic has a good survey of the confronting speech by US Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff.  People who are in this business because they love trains will find it especially disturbing.  Read the whole thing.

Rogoff’s gist is:  We need to slow down on constructing new rail transit, so that we can focus more on our massive deficits in operations and maintenance.

As someone who values abundant access, and who views technologies as tools rather than goals, I obviously have some sympathy with this view, though I prefer to be a little more nuanced than Rogoff is:

Let’s start with honesty:

Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don’t want to hear.  One is this — Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.

Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail.  But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a “special” bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.

Once you’ve got special buses, it turns out that busways are cheap.  Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system.  Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.

A little honesty about the differences between bus and rail can have some profound effects.

Well yes, I’ve tried to cultivate a bit of that honesty.  And I agree with Matthew Yglesias that if you wanted to create a lot of mobility options quickly, expanding bus services is the most efficient way to do that across most of North America.  Obviously, there are still projects that have to be full subways (Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles and Second Avenue in New York come to mind) and several others where light rail is the better capacity choice, but most of America is not on those lines.

On the other hand, Rogoff’s description of “successful” bus service is much too cynical.  Successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) isn’t just a bus painted a different color; it’s a service designed for high speed, frequency, and reliability that truly matches what a rail service would provide in those terms.  By and large, North Americans still have to go overseas to see such a thing.

So an FTA Administrator will need to do more than this to trigger a real Bus Rapid Transit renaissance.  He’ll have to suggest how FTA can enforce principles of good corridor planning using its funding as leverage, so that BRT can finally cease to be perceived in the US as a tool for (a) channelling transit funds into road construction or (b) compromising rapid transit for the sake of private cars.  I wonder if FTA also has a role in pushing back on the escalation of construction costs.

Still, the focus on operations and maintenance is welcome.  Rogoff is right that infrastructure maintenance tends to be neglected — in transit as well as in roads and bridges — and that this leads to increased risk of severe accidents and fatalities.  Given the impossible situation that most state and local governments are in these days, I’m not sure where this money comes from.  On the other hand, I’m sure the Obama administration is concerned about “moral hazard” in gradually shifting more and more responsibility to the Federal government.  Ultimately, the debate about how much to fund transit and where to find that money is a debate best had locally, in the context of the problems and needs of a specific city.

24 Responses to Confronting Words from U.S. Transit Administrator

  1. EngineerScotty May 20, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    Yonah, and the commenters at his blog make several good points, including:
    * Federal money much more readily available for capital projects, than the sorts of things that Rogoff wants to see emphasized.
    * Once a project is built with Federal financing, the transit authority generally has a requirement to operate it at some specified level of service–even if the service is a dog.
    On the other hand, there are probably quite a few rail projects (and other capital-intensive infrastructure projects) in the US which are of questionable merit from a transport point of view; and probably more than a few projects where the point was to get some politician a ribbon-cutting or stimulate the local economy with construction jobs.

  2. anonymouse May 20, 2010 at 11:55 pm #

    I think there are problems that can be solved with capital funding, and problems that can be solved with operational funding. The former include speed and capacity, while the latter include frequency, span of service, and capacity. And in many cases, it’s not speed or capacity that’s causing people to not use transit, it’s just the unavailability of service, whether it’s because the bus runs infrequently, stops too early, or doesn’t go where you want it to. On the other hand, there are times where the limiting factor is speed, and making a BRT system as fast as rail tends to get pretty expensive quickly. And capacity is expensive either way: either one big expense to build a rail line or at least buy bigger buses, or ongoing smaller expenses to pay more drivers. Also, I’d really, really like to see the evidence that just painting a bus red will entice rail riders.

  3. Alex B. May 21, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    I realize this sentiment is a long time coming, but it’s frustrating to be on the local side and trying to expand service while also facing tremendous pressures from the recession on the other. I can appreciate Rogoff’s concerns about moral hazard, but there are many otherwise healthy transit agencies facing huge deficits thanks to things like their reliance on local sales taxes for funding, and so on.

  4. Adam Parast May 21, 2010 at 8:21 am #

    The reason Rogoff’s comments are so frustrating is he plays perfectly into the perception of what many transit advocates have about BRT booster, essentially that they don’t care about service quality they just want to fool people into getting on the bus. Problem is you can only fool people once.
    One thing I really agree with you on is setting minimum performance and quality standards. Here are some things I just made up. I’m not sure what the speciic value should be but so I tried to make an educated guess.
    – Headways of 10 minutes or less for 16 hours a day
    – TSP at all intersections with LOS lower than B
    – Exclusive ROW along roadway segments with congestion more than 1 hour a day
    – Off board fare payment for all stops with more than 200 boardings a day
    – Mean stop spacing of 1500-2400 feet
    – Full real time info and disruption alert system (accessible online, mobile, SMS, in vehicle, at stop)
    – Significant stations that provide rain/sun/wind protection and are visible from afar
    Something like this should be required of all federally funded BRT projects, or make it so that the more they have the higher their scores are when it comes to applying for federal funds. The federal system should reward quality as well as efficency, otherwise we will continue to get fake BRT.

  5. Fred May 21, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    I definitely agree with you, particularly about the issue of first impressions. If you build a half-cocked BRT that fails, it’s going to be a lot harder to get public support for something better anytime soon. The main issue with your suggestions is that they get expensive quick, especially the exclusive ROW and the headways add a lot to operating cost. I agree these are good requirements and would likely result in ridership increases, but as long as FTA is so focused on user benefits and cost effectiveness in determining how much they’ll give you, it’s hard for most mid-sized cities to really get something like this done.

  6. CroMagnon May 21, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    I think the real problem is that the Republicans won’t agree to a new 6 year federal reauthorization without a way to pay for it. The Democrats know this and know the gas tax needs to be raised. Obama and democrats will NOT raise taxes prior to the election, ergo no reauthorization until at least December. Obama admin (Rogoff) are already nervous they may lose one or more majorities in Congress. Therefore, no new “transit friendly” pot of money to build stuff with. End of story.

  7. M1EK May 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    I call baloney. The fact is that there’s no Rapid Bus or BRT line in this country that has shown any ability to attract choice commuters (those who weren’t riding the normal city bus before).
    If you want to sell this as a nominal service improvement (as mentioned in the next thread about LA), go ahead. But it’s NOT rail, and never will be.

  8. Wad May 22, 2010 at 3:45 am #

    There’s not much to argue about Peter Rogoff’s commonsense remarks.
    Transit agencies should not live beyond their means and plan expansions until they have a cash base to cover their operations and maintenance costs.
    His position, though, is not an edict. The FTA has not formally shifted its evaluation criteria, and in the Sacramento example, it did what it was supposed to do.
    Rogoff, though, is framing this as greedy transit agencies getting in over their heads.
    I see it more of a symptom of transit agencies acting like circus seals, doing their little stunts to get a fish thrown their way.
    Starved transit agencies orient their priorities around what money is available, not the other way around. Need outweighs and overwhelms the grants.
    When the “San Diego miracle” (Trolley) occurred, the UMTA and later FTA made light rail grants a priority. Guess what? Every city wanted one. Why? It brought money into a system. These grants also gave the illusion of “free” money.
    The bigger problem is not one of costs but of diverging priorities. The hardest part of a major investment project is not high costs or even ridership projections, but of system integration.
    How will the project work with existing and future transit networks in place? How does a grant agreement affect normal operating budgets? How drastically do future plans change?
    A successful transit system will be more in crisis than a failing one. Notwithstanding San Jose’s doubling down on its horrible light rail system, ridership exceeding projections, for instance, poses very pressing operations issues. What happens if an MIS service breaks through its projected 10-year ridership in 5 years? This is an unexpected problem that would strain either capital budgets (buy more trains or add capacity) or operations budgets (higher frequencies or more operators). It sounds like a good problem to have, but good can quickly turn bad.
    Take Sacramento, for instance. It’s a victim of success. It built a light rail network that now accounts for more than half of its overall system boardings. Yet its operations funding is in serious crisis, and its future plans, are shelved because it must now look at what services must be sacrificed. In this case, light rail will bear less of a brunt of service cuts, while less productive bus lines will take the biggest hits. Here’s a case of light rail taking away bus operating funding. Yet, on the other hand, taking money away from light rail would mean degrading service on productive trains to shore up buses that will continue to remain unproductive. Sacramento would be a case of the success paradox.
    Yet I don’t see how the FTA will resolve this.
    The FTA, contrary to what people think, is not a facilitator of transit systems or a generous funds bursar. Its job is to give transit agencies hell and then compensate them for their troubles.
    There is an upshot to this. FTA helps make sure transit systems know how to spend their money. That does nothing for transit users, though.

  9. Multimodal Man May 22, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    Jimmy Carter arrived at the same conclusion years ago. I have a copy of a note he wrote to Brock Adams in Washington calling for bus lanes. I’m glad the Obama Administration didn’t take four years to remember this fact (and not continue to think BRT was a Bush conspiracy).

  10. Joseph E May 22, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    All the of the above improvements suggested for BRT can also be used for rail. Taking away two traffic lanes and a parking lane on a pair of streets downtown would make for a very high-capacity and reliable light rail truck route capable of handling 60 trains per hour per direction (or 25,000 people per hour per direction) on two different lines; that’s up to 100,000 into the CBD in one hour, with 3-car trains (you can get the same result, as in Ottawa, with 6-car trains every 2 minutes, or with only one track each way and trains every 1 minute).
    Sure, taking away lanes from cars will slow down those trips to the center city, and the rail or bus lanes will somewhat dominate the streetscape, but it will be cheaper than a subway. The real problem is getting the street space back for transit. Once that is accomplished, buses, trains or both can run faster and reliably.
    So, I’m a little confused about the Rogoff’s argument against “rails.” Many of the proposed rail systems are light rail or streetcars, which will require the same improvements as good BRT. The only difference is the need to put in rails and wires, a long-term infrastructure investment but one that assures the right-of-way will be used for transit. Someone will have to repave the bus-only lanes, right? Why would the city or state DOT do this when only transit buses are using the lanes? Is the cost of concrete repaving for 4 lanes really that much less than the cost of two rail lines? Sure, the bus can theoretically be done faster, but long-term the trains would be no more expensive from a capital standpoint, and perhaps cheaper for operations (if the capacity is in fact needed)

  11. EngineerScotty May 22, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    Depending on the rail technology used, installation of rail does have incremental costs higher than those associated with converting auto lanes to exclusive bus use–above and beyond rails and caternary, which are relatively cheap.
    If LRT vehicles are used (which are only “light” compared to freight locomotives–they are in the same weight class, generally, as subway vehicles), rebuilding of roadways and relocation of utilities is required– lest the sewer pipes or water mains get crushed by a passing train. Rail for streetcar-class vehicles, on the other hand, generally only requires a surface replacement–though even there, relocating utilities is frequently a good idea as otherwise they become inaccessible without disrupting or re-routing rail service.
    Rail does have a few advantages (as far as cost of infrastructure is concerned): Busses chew up pavement, so frequent replacement of the road surface will be necessary–rails, on the other hand, last a lot longer. Of course, many transit agencies get to externalize this cost for street infrastructure–it’s the highway department or local public works that picks up that tab, whereas transit authorities generally own and maintain their rails.

  12. Multimodal Man May 22, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    Rails last a long time because the engineering is designed to last longer than a typical arterial street open to general purpose traffic.
    Taking two lanes for rail in one direction in a downtown environment isn’t as simple as buses. Utility relocation is usually required. And it requires lots of engineered steel tracks. I find it humorous that there are comments suggesting it could be just as cheap. There are plenty of in-arterial light rail examples and they run around $40 million or more a mile. Building a road bed for buses for a 40-year life is in the $2-4 million a mile.

  13. Alon Levy May 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    Multimodal Man, there are also in-arterial light rail examples that run around $20 million a mile. The trick is to plan ahead and do the necessary reconstruction when building or rebuilding the arterial in the first place.

  14. Chris Stefan May 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Multimodal Man and Alon Levy:
    At the opposite end of the spectrum you have situations where you are building new ROW in a congested area with expensive real-estate. See U-Link in Seattle or the Second Ave Subway and East Side Access in NYC.
    To be fair I don’t see any good lower-cost alternatives for any of these projects that would be politically feasible. The ridership will be high due to the density of the corridors.
    Still these projects involve a bit of sticker shock and give ammo to those who insist rail projects are just too expensive.

  15. EngineerScotty May 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    One of the interesting developments in Portland is a bit of an anti-rail backlash among transit supporters, over the past year or so. A few Portland posters here have alluded to it, or criticized some of TriMet’s decisions–I certainly have criticized TriMet myself on numerous occasions, though I don’t consider myself a light-rail opponent.
    In many cases, the argument advanced is that light rail (or at least some of the more recent light-rail projects such as the Green Line) don’t represent good transit planning. Instead, it is often alleged that these projects are built for a variety of other reasons, legit and otherwise–land use, economic stimulus, simply to harvest Federal dollars, or to reward developers, construction firms/unions, and others who stand to profit from a rail project, for political patronage. One frequent commentor on many transit blogs–a TriMet bus driver–takes an extremely cynical view on the subject, holding that new rail lines (and other big-ticket infrastructure projects) are, by and large, little more than a scheme for the private sector to siphon off taxpayer dollars.
    I don’t agree with his dim view of the situation. MAX enjoys significant ridership (comparisons to less auto-friendly non-US cities nonwithstanding), and providing equivalent bus service would cost more than what MAX costs to operate; so it’s hard to argue that MAX provides no benefit to either riders or to TriMet. However, an argument can be made that the system is approaching the point of diminishing returns–the “best” transit corridors in town were the first two projects (now the Blue Line), and subsequent projects have been less worthwhile. And certainly, there are quite a few development interests eagerly awaiting construction to start on the Milwaukie Line next year.
    At any rate–the public perception that transit projects are increasingly being built for reasons other than improving transit operations, is one which poses a challenge to transit agencies. Opponents of transit are happy to encourage the accusations that transit agencies are incompetent or corrupt, and the recent recession-induced operational crises in transit agencies across the US, contributes mightily to this narrative.
    And of course, as Alon often points out, many transit agencies are incompetent and corrupt… including some of the most operationally-successful ones in the country.

  16. Adrian May 23, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    So buses are cheaper because somebody else has already spent the money to build the road, and somebody else is spending the money to maintain the road? Isn’t this just opportunistic cost-shifting?

  17. Alon Levy May 23, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    Chris: well, it depends on what you mean for an alternative to be politically feasible. Subway projects of similar complexity to SAS and ESA have been built for a fraction of the cost in peer cities, such as London, Paris, and Tokyo. Such projects are still very expensive by the standards of LRT, els, or subways that radiate out of the city, but they usually compensate by getting high ridership, so that their per-rider cost is not too brutal.

  18. Nathanael May 23, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    IF Rogoff means that he’s going to pay for cities to actually convert car lanes to bus lanes — without building new car lanes — I’m all for it.
    Why do I not think that will happen?
    Widespread, exclusive bus lanes will certainly help bus ridership, bus speeds, bus efficiency, etc. It might even bring ridership up to the level where more people will want to pay for trains. 😉
    But the fact is, projects which actually reallocate space from cars to buses are few and far between in this country. Busways aren’t cheap and shared roadway isn’t effective. Bus lanes are another matter entirely — but it’s been like pulling teeth to get bus lanes in the US.

  19. Nathanael May 23, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    @Multimodal Man:
    “Building a road bed for buses for a 40-year life is in the $2-4 million a mile.”
    Are you joking? Or did you leave off the cost of, say, the frequent repaving? Road*bed* lives are fairly long, but actual *road* lives under heavy bus pounding are quite short.

  20. CroMagnon May 24, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    ^The buses don’t pound the road nearly as much as the commercial freight trucks do.

  21. Alon Levy May 24, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    This is not true, CroMagnon. Because of the fourth power rule, a 20-ton, 2-axle bus actually causes much more road wear than a 30-ton 18-wheeler – nearly twice as much, depending on how evenly the load is distributed.

  22. Alan Robinson May 24, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    Buses can tear up pavement better than any other vehicle I can think of. This is due to busses putting a very large and frequent lateral load on pavement surfaces at stops and busy intersections. As asphalt is plastic, this will result in the pavement shifting and large undulations, then potholes in the surface.
    There is a solution in these locations. I’ve seen several busy bus stops where concrete has replaced the asphalt surface to dramatically reduce this wear. Concrete is both harder, and not plastic, giving decades of life where asphalt may fail within a year. It does take a competent city manager to recognize the problem and install the concrete however.

  23. CroMagnon May 25, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    Well this conflicts with various stats I’ve seen on internet docs; one of which was on VTPI. Most of the bus stops in my city have concrete bus pads. Anecdotely, I’ve seen dump trucks and other DPW and utility trucks destroy pavement while moving, that I’ve never seen with a bus. Perhaps freight and utility trucks create more wear after pavement has been weathered and uneven.

  24. Mike H August 26, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    “Once you’ve got special buses, it turns out that busways are cheap. Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system.”
    Of course, asphalt lanes are free, and they don’t even wear under the feather-weight buses.
    Multimodal Man:
    “Jimmy Carter arrived at the same conclusion years ago. I have a copy of a note he wrote to Brock Adams in Washington calling for bus lanes. I’m glad the Obama Administration didn’t take four years to remember this fact (and not continue to think BRT was a Bush conspiracy).”
    I’m not sure if that was meant to be sarcasm, but yes, we can all see what a wild success Carter’s bus lanes have been. I have no doubt that Obama can do the same.