Finally, A Pilot Editorial I Agree With!

A Virginian-Pilot editorial takes the City of Virginia Beach to task for decisions made in the 1990s to quit a light rail partnership with Norfolk. The City of Norfolk is proceeding regardless. Virginia Beach has much to gain by jumping back on board.

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10 responses to “Finally, A Pilot Editorial I Agree With!”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    interesting excerpts: “Economics, lifestyle and common sense beg for the clusters of stores, businesses and destinations to be linked by something more than the interstate and Virginia Beach Boulevard.”

    …. apparently the elected officials in Norfolk… also believe this… and I assume their constituents…

    “Last week, when Norfolk cleared the last major hurdle for the light rail line…”. That hurdle was the Feds agreeing that … Federal transit officials agreed that is was a cost-effective and technically sound starter light-rail line.”

    this is the same agency.. weighing in on the expansion of Metro Tysons…. right?

    more: “Without the ridership from Virginia Beach, it’s remarkable that Hampton Roads Transit and the city of Norfolk still were able to overcome the Federal Transit Administration’s stringent economic hurdles.”

    so my question is this: The conventional wisdom from opponents is that these things are completely unjustifiable economically.. and a huge waste of resources that could be better spent .. on something else… like roads.

    Are we to believe that the FTA and local elected officials are simply irresponsible for pursuing such a path?

    I have to say… I find it extremely hard to reconcile… clear support from the Feds, top State officials.. and many regional and local officials .. for transit… if it is indeed not a solution and ugodly expensive to boot.

    What do they know that we don’t know? .. or what do we know that they do not and why is that?

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry, the FTA’s analysis works based strictly on the number of commuter hours saved versus the costs. I suspect that the costs of doing about anything in Norfolk are well below those in Fairfax County.

  3. I’m willing to take a wait and see, but I’d like to see good, unbiased before and after figures.

    Last summer I took the opportunity to use the Baltomore light rail line from the airport to the convention center. It was a pleasant ride, but slow and with many stops. It is hard for me to believe it saves ANY commuter hours.

    As I recall the ticket machine was automated, but then they had a conductor on the train to make sure you had a ticket. It seemed a little silly to me, but I suppose you need a conductor anyway.

    The light rail in Portland seemed to be lightly used, even during rush hour. I think the jury is still out on light rail. One bad thing is that it will probably screw up the traffic light timing because the light rail gets priority signals.

    Isn’t VA beach quite land limited? In that case light rail might make more sense.

    “Early new light rail project ridership estimates were greatly exaggerated during the early and mid 1980s, as highlighted in the Urban Mass Transit Administration-financed report, Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Versus Actual Ridership and Costs (1989). This is to be expected when there is little upon which to base estimates. New regulations and oversight by the Federal Transit Administration, and experiential data has solved this problem, and in most cases, have caused underestimates of ridership levels. For example, Baltimore’s light rail has seen their ridership increase seven-fold since 1992.”

    Maybe there is some left over animus from earlier debacles. The real question is, if Baltimore’s ridership has increased seven fold, are they seven fold closer to covering their own costs, or has the subsidy increased seven fold, too?

  4. When light rail arrives at one suburban Denver express bus park-n-ride, commuters who now take a 35 minute express bus ride to Colfax and Broadway downtown will have to park and spend an extra 5 to 10 minutes walking across I-25 on a bridge. After waiting up to 15 minutes for a train, they will spend 20 minutes riding to I-25 and Broadway and another 15 minutes to get downtown. This is at ideal forecast speeds of 31 mph. Actual average speeds achieved by most operating light rail systems are only 20 mph, a 45 minute journey. At present, traffic along the same route on I-25 averages 31 mph at rush hour.[3]

    Denver has already seen how commuters respond to increased inconvenience. Jonathan E.D. Richmond of Harvard University found that when Denver’s first light rail project reconfigured suburban express bus routes to end at the I-25 and Broadway light rail station, it became “cheaper as well as faster to drive to the free park-and-ride at the end of the light rail line than to take the shortened bus route and transfer to light rail.” Between September 1994 and May 1995, express bus routes lost 1,125 of 6,523 daily riders. Light rail increased congestion because 56% of light rail’s weekday riders who used to ride express buses downtown decided to drive to the light rail station rather than wait for feeder buses.[4]

    there is more of this at

    And an Orange county grand jury report on the propmotion of light rail is found here

  5. If you really want an eye opener, here is an actual state audit – with before and after, projected and actual figures. The report is dated 2003.

    Projected amortized capital and operating cost. $1,362,803

    Actual amortized capital and operating costs. $3,599,682

    Projected riders: 214,562
    Actual riders: 82,811

    Projected revenue: $160,922
    Actual revenue $52,831

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    What would be interesting also… would be to take a highway…. look at the daily traffic numbers… come up with a reasonable estimate of gasoline consumption.. and from that produce a number that reflects how much money is being collected by the state from the users of that roadway … and then compare that to the amortized cost of the roadway.

    … THEN go through a similiar assessment process that is used for transit ….

    we already know that the current gas tax does not produce enough revenue on a state-wide basis but wouldn’t it be interesting to … say .. figure out how long it will take to recoup the cost of the Springfield Interchange or the Woodrow Wilson Bridge based on the assumption that each user/driver will be paying essentially a few pennies per use?

    I get that from .. estimating a car that gets 20 mpg… and Springfield is at most a few miles of pavement… so that even if it were 20 miles of pavement.. that the entire amount paid by each user/driver would be .35 per use.

    So.. let’s say a user/driver drives 5 miles on the new infrastructure… they’re paying 7 cents per use – correct?

  7. First of all, you won’t get any argument from me that we need a full fair and accuate accounting of what our transportation system costs, and what it provides.

    Your analysis is oversimplified and incomplete, but let’s take it at face value. At seven cents per use, considering the volume of traffic, that still amounts to almost $13 million a year in gas tax revenues( $.07 x 300,000 vehicles x 300 days x 2 trips per day), which seems like it ought to be enough to maintain and pay for five miles of highway. The Springfield interchange is in another category entirely, of course, but the idea still holds. Jet Blue, by comparison, makes a profit by FLYING passengers at $0.07 per mile.

    But, those same drivers are paying far more than $0.07 per use. Part of what they pay comes from federal taxes used to pay for the infrastructure, and as others have noted state income tax, property tax, and now all those other new fees will also be thrown into the mix.

    Most things double in price every ten years. Had the gas tax been posted by the dollar and not by the gallon, then it would have gone up 4X since 1987, (without raising the rate) and your argument would be moot. You argue that the gas tax alone cannot solve all our transportation problems because it just isn’t enough money, and raising the tax will result in less revenue as people change their habits and drive less. Even if that is correct, it is not the same as saying that our gas tax is presently set at the optimum level for revenue generation, and it ignores the fact that one reason it cannot pay the expenses now is that so many have been delayed and they also cost more now. Had we increased the funding and the effort as we went along, we might be on the bottom line of the TTI graph instead of the top.

    And, just as Metro does, and gets credit for, the Interchange will enable more development in the area. AIn addition, roads are far more resposnible for supporting our commerce than Metro.

    Everyone recognizes that people are willing to pay more for the use of roads than we apparently do. I say apparently because of all those hidden costs mentioned above, and other outside expenses like contributions to the local rescue squad, tow truck charges, insurance, payments for police and other things that make the use of the roads possible. That people are willing to pay more is what makes the Greenway possible and allows the Dulles Toll road to support itself and Metro. It is the crux of the argument for congestion tolling.

    I don’t claim that Metro or light rail of BRT is not necessary or valuable in its own right. I see them as part of an overall transportation system in which each part needs to be evaluated on its true merits and costs and not on some social engineering fluff. I don’t even claim that the government audits presented above are the full picture, but they do provide some sobering and incontrovertible facts. All I’m saying is that it is apparent that the value of Metro and Light rail is being overstated in some respects and not properly accounted for in others. If the promoters want people to listen, then they should understand that people are not idiots and they can readily discern the difference between facts and agenda driven drivel.

    We need to get off of this “either, or” argument because transportation isn’t and never will be one or the other. Your argument seems to be that cars are always the worst option and can never cover their full costs. That may be, but the best and most complete analyses I have seen suggests that auto drivers still pay a higher proportion of their full costs, direct and external, than transit riders do. It’s also apparent that except for those locations where the 40% of congestion that is work related and limited to 15% of our roads screw up the system, that cars provide a better, cheaper, faster, and more flexible service.

    Let’s put it this way, more and more we are seeing suggestions to privatize the highways because they can be built and maintained more cheaply and operated profitably. OK, so privatitze light rail and Metro, and then see how many get built.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re” “Let’s put it this way, more and more we are seeing suggestions to privatize the highways because they can be built and maintained more cheaply and operated profitably. OK, so privatitze light rail and Metro, and then see how many get built.”

    Actually.. I think if we toll roads according to what they actually cost.. that it will be to the benefit of transit and yes.. once we allow private investment… (especially in urban areas).. we may actually see some proposals for private investor transit.

    Time will tell.. but only when private investors.. look at the huge costs involved in backfitting roads into dense urban areas.. will .. a dialogue begin about whether $10 daily road tolls… are preferred to $10 rail tolls.

    I’m all for it especially if we allow private industry in the game… and compete against both Metro and VDOT.

  9. We agree on the solution but disagree on the likely results, then. As it stands now, the best transit systems in the world garner only a few percent of trips, even with enormous subsidies, sometimes more than $50,000 a year per passenger.
    For that kind of money you could just give the passenger the money, and let him stay home: that would reduce congestion.

    I have in my possession a book by Winston and Shirley, published by the Brookings Institution, and titled Toward an Alternate Transportation System. In it they promote the argument that if optimally priced for maximum social benefit and operated by private enterprise, transit operations would drop by half, and if Autos were likewise priced, their use would increase by two to three per cent.

    Be careful what you ask for, you may get it. Go read the book, you might be very surprised.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “$50,000 a year per passenger.”

    then why would any responsible public official support such a thing?

    Not only .. in DC.. but a dozen or more US cities.. and worldwide?

    what could possibly justify such a grossly expensive system?

    serious answers only please. .. let’s focus on realistic reasons

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