I need to stop reading crosscut, because everytime I go there I find some article written by one ancient geezer or another arguing, despite all evidence to the contrary, how things should stay exactly the same at whatever cost. In the latest in this series, Emory Bundy, the 90-year-old board member of the anti-rail Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, writes “Why fix dangerous bridges when you can build new pet projects?” (His last piece, “The carbon cost of building and operating light rail”, was so unintentionally hilarious I laughed so loud my roommates thought I was losing my mind).
A … point, but one aimed at the Minneapolis story, was made by Joel Kotkin in an Aug. 28 Wall Street Journal essay: “Government officials in Minneapolis spent mightily on a light-rail system that last year averaged barely 30,000 boardings daily. It did not focus nearly as much on overstressed highway bridges, or the bus systems serving the bulk of its mostly poor and minority transit riders. Most other light-rail systems, built in cities with highly dispersed employment, also have minuscule ridership, but consume a disproportionate share of transit funds that might go to more cost-efficient systems, including bus-based rapid transit.”
Anytime anti-transit folks want to argue against a mass transit project, they always either bring up “person rapid transit” an idea so ridiculous to be laughable or bus rapid transit because they somehow think that’s cheaper. And bus transit money would have to go to improving roads, which is all they care about anyway.
But this 30,000 number is quite salient in this case (even though the number I have seen is 37,000 daily riders, which is different than boardings). Ironically, that is exactly the number of daily drivers the old I-35 bridge that collasped had. How much did the Hiawatha line cost to build? $715 million with significant delays and cost-over runs. Replacing just the 1,900 foot collasped span of the I-35W bridge is expected to cost at least $300~$350 million.
And this is why politicians want rail. It’s way cheaper to build and maintain than roads projects are. Just replacing our current batch of crumbling roads is going to nearly bankrupt our public coffers. Why do we want to have to go through that again in another 30 or 40 years? Roads were only cheap when the feds matched dollar-for-dollar the costs of building them back in the 1950s, which Emory himself points out in the piece.
Anyway, Emory continues with another scarecrow comparison of Forward Thrust, the defeated 1968 light rail proposal that was shot down.
Those who defeated Forward Thrust Rail in 1968 and 1970 similarly spared the region, in my view. It is an urban legend that central Puget Sound traffic woes would have been alleviated if only Forward Thrust Rail had been built. Instead, “our money” — a generous federal grant — went to Atlanta, for MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. The message is that Seattle’s loss was Atlanta’s gain. The opposite is the case.
With the aid of that federal money, Atlanta developed rail lines running north, south, east, west, and northeast. Yet today congestion in Atlanta is worse than Seattle’s, and Atlanta’s urban sprawl is worse. MARTA’s ridership is far lower than predicted, and falling. Its operating costs are markedly higher than predicted. Atlanta’s transit market share is inferior to Seattle’s. Its more-costly rail transit absorbs funds that could support more efficient bus transit, or vanpools. Because of misrepresented ridership and operating costs, MARTA’s fares and tax subsidies haven’t generated a robust capital replacement fund, as they were supposed to. So now, with the aging system in its fourth decade, with a new round of major capital investments required, the bank is empty, and red ink is accumulating. Supporters think the best way out is to give MARTA to the State of Georgia, with deeper pockets than Atlanta has, but Georgia is unwilling to take on such an unattractive liability.
Apples and Oranges! (Or Atlantas and Seattles) Atlanta is about 40% as dense as Seattle, has loads of major interstates converging in the city (I-285, I-75, I-85 and I-20, I-575, I-675, I-985), and has no geographical constraints to it’s growth to speak of, being in the center of the Chattahoochee River valley. For every Atlanta, which is nothing like Seattle, there is a San Francisco (a lot more like Seattle) whose BART system is massive success, or a Portland (getting closer!) whose MAX system is one of the most cost effective people movers in the last 25 years.
And, seriously, just how confused is Emory? He talks about the outrageous burden of MARTA for Atlanta when we in this city are looking around at our ridiculously expensive road projects: $4.6 billion for 520, $120 million for South Park Bridge, $800 million for half of the Tacoma Narrows, $4~6 billion for Alaskan Way, $1.3 billion to add just one lane to I-405 when roads projects get diminishing returns anyway. Compared to roads, transit is cheap.