Tag Archives: mass transit

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

Bacon Bits: Keeping the Political Class on its Toes

Cranky strikes again. John Butcher does another deep dive into Richmond Public School statistics, comparing the capital city’s school system with the schools in peer cities of Norfolk, Hampton and Newport News. Richmond spends $2,887 more per student than the state average, and it spends $1,659 more on instructional expenses. Yet somehow, the district supports fewer instructional positions per 100 students and pays teachers and principals less. And, as Butcher has amply demonstrated before, disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students in Richmond under-perform their disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged peers in other urban-core localities by wide margins.

How about the indignity of attending lousy schools? But never fear, Richmond school administrators are au current with the latest in politically correct virtue signaling. As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond schools started requiring graduating students to wear gender-neutral gaps and gowns this year, ending a decades-long practice of having separate colors for men and women. Explained Superintendent Jason Kamras: “We want to make sure out transgender and nonbinary students don’t have to suffer the indignity of being forced to express their gender in a manner contrary to their identity.”

Big subsidies for big data. Virginia is home to 159 data centers that benefited from $417.5 million in sales-and-use tax exemptions from mid-2010 through mid-2017, according to estimates from a new Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report. JLARC deems the state subsidies to have been “relatively effective” and generate “moderate economic benefits.” It is reasonable for the state to continue the exemption, concluded JLARC. However, the tax break does not appear to have stimulated growth in distressed areas. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Incompetence and Failure Everywhere You Look

Where are the social justice warriors? SJWs are super sensitive to subtle signs of “institutional racism.” Perhaps they should focus on the widespread incompetence in Virginia’s local foster care systems. For instance: A Virginian-Pilot investigation has found “a pattern of mismanagement, retribution and poor performance” in Norfolk’s foster care program. “Employees say they saw the foster care program go from bad to worse. It started with  children languishing in foster care for years, with little done to get them adopted. In more recent years, case workers say they’ve been pressured to get kids off the foster care rolls by any means necessary, even if that sometimes meant putting the children in harm’s way.” Sometimes foster children have been placed in situations where they have been assaulted and sexually molested. These children are disproportionately African-American. Why hasn’t this failed system become a cause celebre of the Left? Could it be that it doesn’t fit The Narrative?

Metro free falling. Ridership on the Washington Metro system continues its steady decline, sinking to fewer than 600,000 average weekday trips for the first since since 2000, according to the Washington Post. Ridership peaked in 2008 at 750,000 weekday trips. The passenger rail system, plagued by safety and maintenance issues, has been engaged in a SafeTrack rebuilding program that may account for some of the loss. But the system suffers chronic problems, such as too few trains, too many service disruptions, and the emergence of ride-hailing alternatives such as Uber and Lyft.

Why so few starter homes? Why are home builders constructing so few starter homes (defined as those selling for $200,000 or less)?  Continue reading

NoVa Pushes Back on D.C. Fare Decriminalization

When last we visited the matter of turn-stile jumping and other ways of cheating the Washington Metro mass transit system, Washington City Council had voted to decriminalize the nonpayment of fares. It wasn’t hard to predict that Virginians would not look kindly upon the decision.

Now comes the inevitable reaction.

Continue reading

Shocker: Positive Signs from Washington Metro

I have relentlessly criticized the Washington Metro system for years, but I have to give credit to management under General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for trying to steer the dysfunctional mass transit system in a fiscally sustainable direction. Today’s media reports highlight two straws in the wind.

First, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (MWATA) is trying to revive a plan to redevelop portions of the Huntington Metro campus in Fairfax County, according to the Washington Business Journal. An effort to redevelop a 1.15-acre parcel failed four years ago. But Metro has expanded the project scope to 12 acres.

The selected developer for this larger project would not only design the 12-acre site but also help WMATA determine the need for replacement transit facilities — the three parking garages at Huntington Metro Station had a combined usage rate of 61 percent for fiscal year 2018. WMATA recently closed an 885-space garage on 6 acres located on the south side of the station, where it sees an opportunity for redevelopment if parking demand doesn’t merit replacing.

Heavy-rail transit stations significantly increase the value of adjacent properties. Mass transit systems in other countries employ “value capture” strategies to extract some of that increased value to defray the cost of building and operating their stations. For the most part, Washington’s Metro system has failed to do that. Rather, property owners reaped windfall gains from the public’s massive investment. (A partial exception is taxation of property owners in Tysons to pay for a modest portion of the cost of building the Silver Line extension.) However, Metro frequently did build parking structures around its stations, some of which may be severely under-utilized. The potential exists to redevelop that property in light of market conditions that favor dense, mixed-use development around Metro stations.

Although the WBJ doesn’t frame the story this way, it appears that Wiedefeld is trying to extract maximum value from the limited property Metro does own around the Huntington station. If this redevelopment project is successful, it might be a template for extracting value from other Metro parking lots and garages.

Second, Metro is looking at the potential for privatizing operations of the Silver Line extension encompassing six new stations in the high-tech corridor between Tysons and Dulles International Airport, and beyond. Reports the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, the transit agency issued a request for proposals from private companies willing to perform maintenance and operations on the line extension, which is under construction by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. …

Metro has hinted for the past two years that its intention was to outsource the Silver Line service, suggesting that such a decision could save taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run. In January, the agency issued a “request for information” from potential contractors interested in the job.

Now, Metro says that hiring a private company to fill new Silver Line jobs, rather than adding to the ranks of unionized employees, will help control operating and maintenance costs, “including future pension costs, which have grown to unsustainable levels.”

Paul J. Wiedefeld

Wiedefeld said the effort is intended to help the transit agency start “living within our means.” “Competitive contracting is one tool to hold down pension cost growth, while providing quality service for customers.” Laughably, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 responded that outsourcing services would result in poor service for riders and subpar maintenance of infrastructure. Worse than the service and maintenance provided by the union workforce? That would be something!

Virginia has boosted its financial commitment to Metro to reduce a massive capital spending shortfall on the understanding that the mass transit authority would undertake meaningful reforms. Wiedefeld is making an honest effort to deliver on that promise, pursuing strategies that were never part of Metro’s past playbook. Whether he succeeds or not is a different question — that depends in large measure upon market conditions and cooperation from Metro’s labor unions. But he’s giving it his best shot.

Will the New Mobility Revolution Make Congestion Worse?

As ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft have steadily gained market share, urbanists have been asking themselves, is this a good thing or bad thing? Will the increasing patronage of ride-hailing companies induce people to sell their cars? Siphon riders away from mass transit? Increase or reduce vehicle miles traveled? Make traffic congestion better or worse?

A new study by Bruce Shaller, a former New York City traffic planner, purports to have answers — and the outlook is not encouraging. In “The New Automobility: Lyft, Uber and the Future of American Cities, ” Shaller concludes that Transportation Network Companies (or TNCs):

  • Have added 5.7 million miles driven in nine of America’s largest metropolitan areas (including Washington, D.C.).
  • Compete mainly with public transportation, walking and biking, accounting for much of the loss in mass transit ridership. About 60% of TNC riders in large, dense cities would have walked, biked, or taken public transportation were it not for the availability of TNCs.
  • Do not compete with private automobile ownership except in two main instances: to avoid drinking and driving, and when parking is expensive or a hassle.

Even shared-ride services such as UberPOOL, Uber Express POOL and Lyft Shared Rides add mileage to city streets, putting 2.8 new TNC vehicle miles on the road for each mile of personal driving removed, the report says. The trend toward autonomous cars, argues Shaller, will make matters only worse.

Summing up the implications, he says:

The new mobility has much to offer cities: convenience, flexibility, on-demand technology and a nimbleness to search for the fit between new services and inadequately served markets. But development of ride services must take place within a public policy framework that harnesses their potential to serve the goals of mobility, safety, equity and environmental sustainability. Without public policy intervention, big American cities are likely to be overwhelmed with more automobility, more traffic and less transit and drained of the density and diversity which are indispensable to their economic and social well being.

Lyft disputed Shaller’s conclusions in comments to the Washington Post.

“We strongly disagree with Schaller’s claims regarding shared rides,” Lyft spokeswoman Campbell Matthews said. “Since Lyft’s founding, we’ve been focused on increasing car occupancy and eliminating the need for car ownership. That focus has paid off.

“Just last year, over 250,000 Lyft passengers gave up their personal cars because of the availability of rideshare,” Matthews said. “We are continuing to focus on our goals by redesigning the Lyft App to integrate with public transit and introducing bike and scooter sharing to the Lyft platform. We are committed to ensuring passengers have access to a spectrum of transportation options that serve our cities best.”

Uber said in a statement that it supports several of the policies Schaller proposes, including the expansion of dedicated bus and bike lanes and congestion pricing. The company argued that contrary to Schaller’s conclusions, Uber saved more than 315 million global vehicle miles in 2017 by shifting riders to its pool service.

Bacon’s bottom line: Shaller’s should be taken seriously — but not accepted as the final word on the matter. By necessity, he makes a number of assumptions and extrapolations, which may or may not be justified. Also, his data samples are stronger for large metros than smaller metros.

But, with those cautions in mind, let us accept his conclusions as an accurate reflection of reality. What should be done? One option that Shaller discusses is to discourage personal vehicle use in congested areas by imposing trip fees or congestion pricing. Another is to restrict the number of fleet-operated vehicles to streets’ free-flow capacity. A third is to invest in more frequent bus and rail service.

Here’s my concern with Shaller’s proposals. We are still in the early stages of the new mobility revolution. Even if it’s true that TNCs are aggravating congestion now, increased market penetration and shared-ridership innovation could have non-linear effects, changing traffic dynamics in the future. Uber and Lyft are in the very early stages of developing their shared-ridership programs. One strategy they have articulated is to integrate with mass transit, using ride-sharing as a last-mile solution. If organized and promoted properly, this approach eventually could increase bus and transit ridership. Has the hold-up in forging these partnerships been the fault of Uber and Lyft — or of the lumbering bureaucracies of the mass transit companies?

What seems evident to me is that publicly owned mass transit behemoths are in desperate need of a shake-up. TNC competition can push them into innovating and adapting. Conversely, restricting TNCs will guarantee that big-metro transportation remains in a state of stasis — at tremendous ongoing expense to taxpayers in the form of mass-transit subsidies. While it’s worthwhile paying close attention to the issues Shaller raises, it is way to early to begin acting on his proposals.

Fill Up Your Gas Tanks, Boys, You Might Be Driving to Work

Ninety-four percent of the Washington Metro’s largest labor union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 voted to authorize labor leaders to call a transit strike. Metro workers are forbidden from striking under the mass transit system’s governing authority, and a judge could order strikers back to work. But even a one-day walkout could cause massive disruption to Northern Virginia’s overloaded transportation system.

“We understand the ramifications of what we’re asking our members, we understand what a strike would mean,” said Jackie L. Jeter, president of the union, which includes about 8,000 of Metro’s 12,500 active workers.

“We will decide the when and where and how,” Jeter said at a news conference, as reported by the Washington Post. “We have to call a meeting of the executive board after this vote, and then we’ll decide on what we’re going to do.”

The vote follows “late-out” demonstrations on July 4 and Thursday, in which some employees arrived after the start of their scheduled shifts, delaying some bus service. The actions were meant to send a message to Metro management about stalled contract negotiations, job cuts, privatization, duty reassignments and other issues. Local 689 has been without a contract since July 2016.

Metro management under General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld made serious efforts to boost efficiency and productivity at the money-losing organization that has fallen billions of dollars behind in maintenance expenditures, has experienced chronic safety and reliability issues, and has suffered ridership declines.

The union has not gone out on strike since a wildcat walkout 1978. But after all the safety incidents and with all the trouble keeping trains on schedule, Metro riders don’t want to hear about potential labor disruptions. The union action is only a threat at this point, but riders who are skeptical that Metro offers a viable transportation option will not be reassured.