Tag Archives: mass transit

Your Tax Dollars at Work: The Virginia Breeze

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) subsidizes three bus routes connecting communities in Southside and Southwest Virginia to population centers to the north. One of those, the Valley Flyer, links Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, ferrying college students to Northern Virginia and back. It carried more than 2,800 passengers in the 1st quarter of 2021. The farebox recovery was 45%, and the average cost per passengers was a modest $45.33, according to DRPT’s Virginia Breeze Bus Lines 1st Quarter 2021 report. Not bad as far as public transportation goes.

A second line, the Capital Connector, connects Martinsville with Richmond and Northern Virginia. It carried 820 passengers in the 1st quarter, for a 10% farebox recovery and an average cost per passenger of $231.60. Not so good.

Then there is the Piedmont Express, commencing in Danville and running through Altavista, Lynchburg, Amherst, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Warrenton, Gainesville and Dulles airport before terminating in Washington. The 1st quarter passenger count was 269, the farebox recovery 5%, and the average cost per passenger $729.63. Continue reading

Silver Line Phase II — Now Four Years Late

Back when work began on the Washington Metro’s Silver Line under the Kaine administration, planners expected Phase II to be complete by 2018. Here it is, mid-2021, and the officials in charge now are hoping to open in early 2022. Phase I went relatively smoothly, but Phase II, which extends the commuter rail system to Loudoun County, has been a fiasco. Press coverage of the incessant delays has taken on a fatalistic tone — oh, well, another delay. Stories enumerate the problems — more than 100 design changes, defective panels, flawed rail ties, bad concrete — but no one seems interested in the underlying cause of so many failures, which, one suspects, can be attributed to terrible project management by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).

The opportunity costs of the four-year delay continue to mount. Reston Now highlights the plight of Weird Brothers Coffee which opened at Worldgate Metro Plaza in anticipation that the Herndon station nearby would open in 2019 and generate foot traffic. Meanwhile, traffic congestion in Northern Virginia, which the multibillion-dollar project was designed to mitigate, is returning to the hellish pre-COVID conditions. Twenty years ago when Virginia Department of Transportation projects were running late and over budget, it was a statewide scandal. Today? Virginians are so inured to incompetence that there’s not a peep from anyone.

But, hey, government is something we all do together! We’re looking forward to Congress enacting a trillion-dollar infrastructure package to shower free money on the state. What could possibly go wrong?

— JAB

Free Bus Fares for Everyone Because… Equity

Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, Virginia built roads and bridges according to the quaint old principle of “pay as you go,” meaning that the state didn’t spend money it didn’t have. That idea went hand in glove with another quaint concept that the people who used public transportation infrastructure should be the people who paid to build and maintain it. People who walked (which a lot of people did in those days) or rode the trolleys shouldn’t pay for roads.

Now Virginians are much more sophisticated. We tell ourselves that such antiquated ideas originated with Harry Byrd Sr., who was a segregationist and racist, which therefore discredits everything he said and did. Not only do modern-day Virginians borrow billions of dollars to build transportation projects, government now operates bus, passenger rail and commuter rail lines, and we tax everyone to pay for everything. The link between who use and those who pays for transportation infrastructure has dissolved like a corpse in a vat of hydrochloric acid.

Virginia’s original bus lines, trolley lines, and passenger lines once operated for profit. They no longer do. The government owns them and massively subsidizes them — even more than roads and highways (which is a travesty in itself). But apparently those subsidies are not enough. Now the au courant thinking is that subsidized transit fares are a “barrier.” People who ride mass transit should not have to pay anything at all. Continue reading

$50 Million to Extend Amtrak Service to Christiansburg?

by James A. Bacon

In his proposed budget unveiled yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam provides $50 million to extend Amtrak passenger rail service from Roanoke to the New River Valley. The money would go to “right-of-way and easement acquisitions and anything that would help reduce bottlenecks to make way for a passenger train in the New River Valley,” reports the Roanoke Times.

“This is an important down payment on extending passenger rail connections in Southwest Virginia,” Northam said. But it’s not a done deal yet, says the Times. There is no firm timeline for when the state and Norfolk Southern Corp. will strike an agreement.

Fifty million dollars is a non-insubstantial sum. As Northam acknowledges, it is only a “down payment.” It does not cover, for instance, the cost of building an Amtrak station in Christiansburg. Some documentation exists online about projected ridership, revenue, and costs available, but I could not find a study that weighed the costs and benefits of the proposed route compared to alternative investments of the money.

Let’s review the numbers, such as we have them. Continue reading

3% Subsidy Cap for Washington Mass Transit “Appears” to Help Virginia Taxpayers

Image source: Northern Virginia Transportation Commission

by James A. Bacon

A 3% cap on annual state contributions to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) “appears to be a useful tool” for managing runaway subsidies for the Washington-area transit agency, finds a report recently published by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC).

The main benefit cited by the report, required by state law, has been to restrain increases in wages and salary levels, which constitute 70% of WMATA’s budget. States the report: “Data presented to the Working Group found the annual wage increases for union employees range from 0% to 4% per year in the multi-year CBAs over FY 2009 – FY 2024, demonstrating that the cap appears to be a helpful tool in WMATA’s negotiations with labor.”

Otherwise the “Report on Virginia’s 3% Cap” is a curious document. Continue reading

Metro vs. Transurban in the Age of COVID

Perceptions of safety on different transportation modes. Green bar = more safe. Blue bar = the same. Orange bar = less safe. Source: “Urban Mobility Trends from COVID-19”

by James A. Bacon

We are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming about the culture wars to highlight a more traditional topic: government dysfunction. In so doing, we shall contrast the flailing, failing response of a quasi-governmental entity, the Washington Metro, with the proactive, enterprising response of a private toll road operator, Transurban, to the challenge of epidemic-induced declines in traffic.

The Washington Metro, an independent authority governed by a board of directors appointed by three states and the federal government, is a train wreck. For years the commuter-rail and bus system was plagued by maintenance backlogs, a toxic workplace, frequent accidents, deteriorating on-time service, and declining ridership. Then the epidemic hit, and people found it impossible to maintain social distance. Ridership was down 85% in July compared to the same month in 2019… which was down from previous years.

Ridership on the Silver line in Fairfax County is so sparse that it is now practicable for would-be rapists to assault people on trains. Last month a 21-year-old man sexually assaulted a woman who, with her child, was the only other rider in the car. The woman did manage to escape the train at East Falls Church Station, but it won’t bode well for ridership if the public concludes that riding the train is on a par with picking up random hitch-hikers. Continue reading

Metro’s Latest Breakdown: Control Room Operations

by James A. Bacon

The Silver Line extension of the Washington Metro might not open on time. The latest problem, according to Greater Greater Washington, is that the commuter rail system may not be able to hire, train and retain enough rail controllers to operate the system safely.

The Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) oversees train movement on tracks. The center is critical to the safe operation of the rail system. In its most recent safety audit, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) issued 21 findings requiring corrective action.

Metrorail has failed to follow its fatigue management policies that allow controllers at least one day off per week. Moreover, the control center is a toxic workplace.

The control center’s environment includes distractions, fear, threats and conflicting instructions that prevent overworked and undertrained controllers from fully and properly carrying out their duties. These serious safety concerns create a variety of safety risks for everyone who depends on Metrorail. … Continue reading

Mass Transit as the Newest Entitlement

by James A. Bacon

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed eliminating all transit fares, and in a sign of how far left the City of Richmond’s political center of gravity has moved, his two main competitors in the mayoral race, Kim Gray and Alexsis Rodgers, support the idea.

The city suspended fares during the COVID-19 epidemic, which has coincided with a 20% ridership decline for the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company). Stoney endorsed making the fare cuts permanent as he unveiled a new “equity office” in the Department of Public Works, which will also oversee initiatives relating to pedestrian safety, bike lane development, and transit planning.

Rodgers, who is running as a progressive, criticized Stoney, in effect asking what took him so long. Gray, the most centrist of the candidates, said she supports the free-transit model but added the caveat that she didn’t want to raise taxes or make cuts to other services to achieve it. “At some point,’she said, “this will require a budgetary reckoning.” Continue reading

Mass Transit Reacts to COVID-19 Menace

Norfolk transit employee wipes down a bus.

by James A. Bacon

Another data point in the ongoing debate over cars versus mass transit…

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has asked riders to stay home and not to travel, as the agency prepared to cut service Wednesday, reports the Washington Times. Ridership has already fallen 70%.

Metro, which operates buses and commuter rail in the Washington area, will continue to provide service for essential trips.  In the past trains normally ran every four minutes during rush hour and no less frequently than every 12 minutes during the day. now they will run every 15 minutes on each line from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays.

The loss of revenue will have a significant impact on Metro finances. Farebox recovery accounts to 57.5% for Metrorail and 24.3% for Metrobus. I guess it won’t be long before Metro asks for another bailout. Update: Question answered in one day. According to the Washington Post, the transit agency is asking for $50 million a month in emergency federal aid. Update: Meanwhile, according to Virginia Business, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has allocated $11 million to help struggling transit systems recover from ridership losses. Continue reading

Can a Cap-and-Trade Tax Salvage Mass Transit?

Charlottesville bus — endangered species?

by James A. Bacon

While social engineers plot ways to increase the cost of driving single-occupancy vehicles and push people into low-carbon transportation alternatives like bicycles and mass transit (see the previous post by Steve Haner about the Transportation & Climate Initiative), Virginians stubbornly stick to their cars. Mass transit ridership is down sharply across Virginia — even in the People’s Republic of Charlottesville with its environmentally conscious electorate and super-woke elected officials.

Five years ago Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) had a ridership of 2.4 million. This year the transit expects to serve only 1.7 million riders, reports Greater Greater Washington (GGW). The situation is so dire that CAT’s new director, Garland Williams, says the transit agency is in a “death spiral.”

The transit system, in Williams’ estimation, is plagued by unreliability, decreasing coverage, and one-way routes. A housing-affordability crisis is pushing lower-income residents into surrounding counties that the transit system doesn’t reach.

GGW quotes Charlottesville-area transit advocates as suggesting the solution may be closer collaboration between the City of Charlottesville’s system, the University of Virginia service, and a program that serves regional commuters in outlying counties. Functioning as a regional transit authority might allow these entities to unlock new state and federal funding.

Yeah.  Maybe. But, then, there’s the problem that people would rather drive their own cars: going where they want, when they want, taking the passengers they want, playing the music/talk radio they want, and carrying whatever gear they want. Continue reading

Metro in the Age of Crazy

by James A. Bacon

The chronic problems of the Washington metro system can’t be blamed entirely upon its dysfunctional, multi-state governance system or even the poor choices of its governing board. Any realistic appraisal of the Metro must take into account the fact that the country is increasingly populated by friggin’ lunatics!

The Metro board came up with the idea of selling off the naming rights to Metro stations. Most recently, the board waived its existing naming rules in order to finalize a deal with a “Fortune Global 500 company” to rename the soon-to-open Innovation Center station (near the Center for Innovative Technology building) to a name selected by the unnamed corporation. Now members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors are in a snit that the county wasn’t consulted.

People, get a grip. As WTOP states succinctly, “Metro hopes station naming rights deals could help offset losses from ridership declines to help keep the budget in line without more significant fare increases.”

Speaking of significant fare increases… fare jumping in the Washington Metro is already a significant problem, accounting for $29 million in losses.  That could well get worse, depending on whether local riders heed calls for an international transit fare strike. Proclaims the “It’s Going Down” website: Continue reading

Chesterfield’s Slow-Motion Suburban Suicide

by James A. Bacon

The traffic engineers, it appears, have won. Chesterfield County is doubling down on suburban sprawl with plans to build a series of “superstreets” at a cost of tens of millions of dollars over the next decade. While the massive infrastructure investment likely will reduce traffic accidents and improve traffic flow on the streets themselves, they will literally cement into place the county’s dysfunctional land use patterns.

This article in the Chesterfield Observer lays out the rationale behind the superstreet concept. “It provides for a high-capacity roadway, and also safety because you don’t have these intersections where [cars] cross paths in front of each other. It’s a way to eke out additional capacity without widening,” says Jesse Smith, the county’s transportation director. According to the Observer, work on the first project, on Iron Bridge Road (Route 10), will cost $64 million and is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2022.

Greater Greater Washington critiques Chesterfield’s superstreet in a recent blog postGGW questions whether the added transportation capacity is needed, argues that the superstreet design rules walking and biking in the corridor, and contends that the money could be spent more effectively elsewhere, such as mass transit. The critique is worth a read. I agree with much of it, but differ in important respects. Continue reading

More Quality-Control Issues Surface in Silver Line Project

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metro inspector general has identified new quality concerns with the work taking place on the second phase of the Silver Line: A sealant applied to prevent water from seeping into hundreds of defective concrete panels may not be working, and the rock ballast in the track beds of the rail yard could cause drainage issues and shifting of the track, reports the Washington Post.

If not corrected, the issues “will create extraordinary cost, maintenance and operational issues early once WMATA [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] takes ownership and control of this project,” wrote Inspector General Geoffrey A. Cherrington.

Construction of the second phase of the Silver Line, an extension of the Washington transit rail system to beyond Washington Dulles International Airport, is already a year behind schedule. The latest deficiencies add to the list of quality issues raised about the $2.8 billion construction project. Last year officials discovered problems with hundreds of precast concrete panels installed at five of the six stations. The defect could lead to water seepage and premature deterioration. The general contractor applied a sealant to address the issue, but tests have shown that the coating was insufficient in at least 20% of the sampled panels. Continue reading

Does Subsidized Blacksburg-to-D.C. Bus Service Make Economic Sense?

Virginia Breeze bus route. Map credit: Megabus

More than 19,300 people rode the Blacksburg-to-D.C. “Virginia Breeze” bus line launched by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) during its first year in operation. The $200,000 subsidy amounts to a subsidy of roughly $10 per ticket. Was that a good expenditure of public funds? Let’s dig into that question.

Partnering with Megabus, the inter-city bus company, DRPT rolled out the service in November 2017 with seven stops along Interstate 81 and in Northern Virginia. Greater Greater Washington describes the partnership this way:

Virginia has access to buses and logistical support without having to buy its own fleet or hire staff to maintain and drive them. For a ticket price ranging between $15 and $50, passengers on the 56-seat Breeze buses get a restroom, baggage storage, free Wi-Fi, and in-seat power outlets just like regular Megabus customers. Breeze riders can even buy interline tickets for Megabus destinations beyond the Union Station terminus, a first-of-its-kind feature in the US.

Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Black Diamonds, Tarnished Silver, Wilting Green

Free falling. As coal production declines, the economy of far Southwest Virginia is in free fall, with potentially dire fiscal consequences for local governments. “A sharp decline in coal production jeopardizes the fiscal health of local governments, degrading their capabilities to provide adequate public services and issue and serve debt,” finds a report by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and the Brookings Institution. Between 2007 and 2017, Virginia coal production fell by 50% from 24.9 million short tons to 12.8 million. The study identifies Dickenson and Buchanan counties as the fifth and sixth most mining-dependent localities in the nation, with 17% and 16% respectively of the labor force engaged in the industry in 2015. The Virginia Mercury has the story here.

Tarnished silver. Phase One of the Washington Metro’s Silver Line to Tysons ran $220 million over budget and was completed six months later. Now Phase Two of the $5.8 billion project funded largely by commuters on the Dulles Toll Road, reports the Washington Post, is running late. The project, expected to be wrapped up next month, may not be completed until next spring or summer. The construction project has been plagued by cracks in concrete structures, defective rail ties, and faulty dimensions for a rail-yard platform. It is not clear yet if the problems will exceed the project’s $550 million contingency fund.

Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? Bacon’s Rebellion has made much of Virginia’s $5.8 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Now a new study, “The Sustainability of State and Local Government Pensions: A Public Finance Approach,” says there’s no reason for Virginia or any other state to panic. After “reverse engineering” future benefit cash flows of the pension plans, the authors find that pension benefit payments in the U.S., as a share of the economy, are currently at their peak level and will remain there for the next two decades. Thereafter, the reforms instituted by many plans will gradually cause benefit cash flows to decline significantly.”  Continue reading