There is a certain type of anti-transit writer whose perspective can be summarized as: “For every agency proposal n, the agency should instead do n-1.” When rail proposals are on the table, such writers often make substantive and seemingly pro-transit arguments for bus rapid transit (BRT) as a superior alternative for less capital cost. When BRT proposals are advanced, their arguments generally shift to either a defense of the sufficiency of traditional bus service, or to a more transparently anti-transit stance that focuses on impacts to general traffic.
the city is set to go it alone the Spokane Transit Authority (STA) is set to try again this fall after voters defeated a larger regional proposal by less than 700 votes last April, asking voters to raise the sales tax by .2% to fund transit improvements including the Central City Line. To many efficiency-minded conservatives, Spokane should be a model case; for years it has studied a higher-capacity transit service connecting its urban western districts (such as Browne’s Addition) with downtown and its University District (serving WSU-Spokane, Spokane Community College, and Gonzaga). The agency has dismissed light rail and streetcar options as prohibitively expensive, and has a solid plan for an electric trolleybus alternative that would carry 900,000 riders per year. What’s not to like?
Plenty, if you’re someone like the CATO Institute’s Randall O’Toole. Writing in the Spokesman Review, O’Toole describes the project as a deliberate waste of taxpayer dollars intended solely to win federal grants:
Spokane Transit Authority’s proposed tax increase isn’t about attracting millennials to the Inland Empire. Instead, it’s about using your tax dollars to match federal grants that will be spent on projects that won’t necessarily improve transit ridership or transportation in Spokane.
For example, STA wants to buy giant, 120-passenger buses for $1.2 million each, more than three times the cost of an ordinary bus, to operate on its proposed Central City bus route. STA planners predict that, if they run these buses 316,000 miles per year, they will attract people to ride them 1,077,000 passenger miles per year.
Do the math: that means each bus will carry an average of 3.4 people, and probably no more than a few dozen during the busiest times of the day. Why should taxpayers shell out $1.2 million for humongous buses that will mostly run empty?
The sleight of hand here is quite transparent, with O’Toole deliberately conflating passenger-miles with ridership. The 1.07m passenger-miles would be taken by an estimated 890,000 riders using 30,000 annual service hours. That’s roughly 30 passengers per service hour. That wouldn’t break any records in Seattle (equivalent to the off-peak Route 26 in 2015), but is a healthy number for Spokane.
Next, O’Toole attacks STA’s choice to run electric
The agency wants to… buy super-expensive battery-powered buses whose environmental benefits are questionable because it takes almost 4,000 BTUs of energy to generate and transmit electricity to charge a battery that provides just 1,000 BTUs of power.”
There are at least 3 lies of omission in this single sentence. A 25% efficiency rating is intended here to sound wasteful, and it depends on O’Toole’s omission of the similar waste of internal combustion engines, which range from 25% efficiency for gasoline to 40% for diesel. Second, there is no mention of the fuel source, which in Spokane is 56% renewable thanks to hydro, wind, and biomass, a clear winner over diesel fuel. Third, environmental benefits are more than just aggregate factors such as CO2. In urban settings, local environmental benefits matter. Electric buses are infinitely cleaner to the lungs of anyone in their immediate vicinity, saving citizens from breathing the particulates and more than a dozen carcinogens in diesel exhaust. On top of that, the noise reduction electric buses afford markedly improve quality of life, making all sorts of urban activities more pleasant, such as sidewalk cafes.
Finally, O’Toole says that STA should eschew any capital improvements and instead focus on increasing frequency via privatizing services:
Rather than giant, battery-powered buses or immobile transit centers, experience has shown that the one sure way to increase transit ridership is to offer more transit service. STA can do this without raising your taxes by simply contracting out bus service to private operators.
Contracting out buses could allow STA to greatly increase service at no extra cost to taxpayers. Spokane voters should be skeptical of any plan that costs more money until STA has saved money by contracting out its bus service.
If “better transit need not cost more”, the same could be said of highways. I look forward to O’Toole’s proposal to revert our Interstate Highway system to gravel, remove all wasteful electronic message signs, and eliminate wasteful flyover ramps in favor of at-grade crossings on all freeways. The reduced maintenance costs could be reinvested into wider lanes, providing more service to all of Spokane’s drivers.
In all seriousness, getting people on the bus doesn’t mean that the quality of their trip doesn’t then matter. It is quite sensible for Spokane to seek to provide more reliable service that boosts capacity and helps its citizens breathe easier. It is legitimate for agencies to use transit as part of a planning toolkit that responsibly directs growth. And it’s ok for things to be nice.