The Big Dig ain’t got nothing on us. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board has approved $250 million in additional funding to pay for cost overruns on Phase II of the Silver Line rail project, which, incidentally, was supposed to begin service in 2018, and Metro officials now hope will begin this fall. Fairfax County will have to cough up $40 million more, Loudoun County $12 million more, and MWAA $10 million more, reports The Washington Post. The balance will be foisted on the motorists using the Dulles Toll Road. By way of comparison, Phase I of the Silver Line was only $220 million over budget and only six months late.
That’s a lot of laptops. Two Fairfax County school employees and a third man have been charged with stealing as many as 35,000 laptops stored in a county warehouse and scheduled to be auctioned. The losses were estimated at $2 million. The laptops were loaded onto a box truck that arrived at the warehouse without the necessary paperwork. Police charged Fadi Atiyeh, owner of Attyah Computer Recycling, as well as Franque Minor II and Mario Jones Jr. who were employees at the warehouse, reports The Washington Post. The Fairfax County HR website says the county has 12,000 workers. That’s three laptops per employee, unless the county is handling the school system’s used laptops as well. The schools have more than 17,000 employees.
Fewer police, more violent crime. The City of Roanoke has seen an explosion in violent crimes this year. The number of firearm-related woundings and killings has surged: nine homicides so far this year compared to six during the same period in 2021, and 25 aggravated assaults compared to 19. Police Chief Sam Roman says the department’s priority is interrupting “the cycle of gun violence.” In addressing City Council, he pointed to more counseling and mentoring services for at-risk youth and the Groceries Not Guns program, which exchanges unwanted firearms for supermarket gift cards. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
In fiscal 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia budgeted $582 million to the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). Spending on rail, buses and other forms of mass transit soared to $935 million in the current year (fiscal 2022), and is scheduled to recede somewhat to $865 million in the budget submitted by Governor Ralph Northam for fiscal 2023.
Assuming that legislators didn’t alter the numbers much during the recent General Assembly deliberations, DRPT spending will be 49% higher than it was five years previously.
In the chart above, you can see how disconnected spending is from reality. Mass transit ridership in Northern Virginia, which accounts for the vast majority of bus and commuter rail traffic in the state, plummeted between fiscal 2020 and 2021 by 59% overall. Ridership on the Virginia Railway Express dropped an eye-popping 92%.
In what world does it make sense to increase spending on mass transit by nearly 50% even while ridership has crashed by nearly 60%? Continue reading
D.C. fare jumper. Photo credit: Unsuckdcmetro
by James A. Bacon
Thirty-four percent of all Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority bus riders are not paying their fares, reducing revenues by $10 million in the second half of 2021 alone, reports The Washington Post. That’s up from 17% in unpaid fares two years previously.
Bacon’s Rebellion readers may be reassured to know that 42% of all Metrobus fare-jumping incidents took place in D.C., 34% in Maryland, and only 6% occurred in Virginia. The WaPo article does not compare those numbers to Metrobus ridership, however, so it’s not clear that Virginia riders are more law-abiding.
Whatever the case, some local government representatives view fare evasion as a social issue stemming from poverty rather than criminality. The Washington, D.C., City Council is now discussing a proposal to give city residents $100 in monthly fare credit.
“Most people skipping fares are doing so because they can’t afford to pay their transportation costs,” said Councilman Charles Allen in a statement. “We can help ease that pain a little.” Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
The pre-pandemic financial model for the Washington Metro, the largest mass transit system in Virginia, is not sustainable, and it’s time to re-envision the system to recognize the new traffic patterns, General Paul J. Wiedefeld testified to a Congressional oversight committee yesterday. Metro officialdom is scrambling to plug a another $500 million revenue shortfall stemming from declining ridership and lost fares.
The root of the problem: thousands of Metro riders, including federal workers who once comprised 40% of the system’s pre-COVID rush-hour customers, have opted to work remotely.
“It’s really mission impossible turning this around from a financial standpoint, and we may have to accept that it’s going to be a consistent money loser and a big money loser for decades and decades, but necessary to have our capital shown in the best way it can and also get the legions of federal workers … to and from their place of work,” said Rep. David Trone, D-Md., a subcommittee member, reports The Washington Post.
The Washington Metro has been a money pit for years, sucking up an ever larger share of Virginia transportation dollars allocated to mass transit. But Metro officials at least held out the hope that given enough money to address maintenance backlogs and safety issues the commuter rail system could be turned around. If Wiedefeld says Metro needs a new vision, you’d better believe that it needs a new vision. Indeed it may be time, after four years of the Northam administration indiscriminately dumping money into mass transit and rail projects, for a wholesale re-evaluation of mass transit across the state. Continue reading
The Tide light rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo by Dean Covey, Virginia Department of Transportation.
by Randal O’Toole
The Tide, Norfolk’s light-rail line, has been open to the public for ten years. As noted in this article in The Virginian-Pilot, it opened 18 months late after a 60% cost overrun.
The article claims the light-rail line carried its first million rides “five months ahead of original projections,” but that’s a transit agency lie. The original projections estimated that the rail line would carry 10,400 riders per weekday in its opening year. That would be about 1 million riders in less than four months. In fact, it carried less than half that, just 4,900 riders per weekday in its first year, and took eight months to reach 1 million riders.
In a typical transit-agency lie, Hampton Roads Transit later reduced that projection to 2,900 trips per weekday, and then claimed that was the “original” projection. This made it appear to anyone who didn’t look closely at the numbers that the line was doing well.
In fact, not only did it do poorly in its first year, it only went downhill from there. By 2019, seven years after it opened, ridership was down to 4,641 trips per weekday. Continue reading
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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