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.
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.”
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 post. GGW 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 →
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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 →
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.
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