Washington's Metro is in crisis, and will sink further, worse it is just the tip of the iceberg . . .
Metro sank into crisis despite decades of warnings
. . . nearly every other light rail, and heavy rail system is at or soon will be at the same place.
More after the fold!
This is a story of the lunatic idea that we should breath life into a technology which was withering by the 1920s, primarily because "all real cities had these, and they look cool." Rail as a carrier of people died from the 1920s to the 1950s not because of some conspiracy of GM and the auto makers, but because rail is slow, inflexible, and seldom goes where we want to go. Transit, public or private, is about moving people from where they are to where they want to be. The gold standard is door-to-door, high speed, safe, convenient, comfortable transportation. Rail is the last entry on this list because it meets so few of these standards.
The auto is first because it meets so many. The self drive car will be even higher because it meet even more, and is even safer.
Today Metro is a cautionary tale which is not being heeded. Instead city after city clamors to install light rail, streetcar, heavy rail, commuter rail, and virtually every other bad transit idea. Bus was seen as a huge improvement to rail and eliminated the need for rail by the 1950s. Nothing has changed but we are returning to rail. This is driven by the federal governments willingness to pay for this toy, the fact that the budget of the transit agency grows exponentially with rail, the pay of the upper level bureaucrats also grows like wildfire, and the respect of being a choo-choo manager among the transit crowd is off the charts.
Lost in the power and money grubbing is the fact that rail is far more difficult to manage than bus, and if not maintained, and managed correctly, far more likely to result in systemic transit instability, injuries, and deaths. Unsurprisingly, the managers are not up to the task.
Once a fleet of buses begins to run up maintenance costs, they can be replaced over time with few real problems, the occasional bus may breakdown but this does not shut down the system, and only requires another bus be dispatched. If consistent, this increases the cost and difficulty of managing the system but it creates only a local problem.
Rail is different, once it reaches its maintenance replacement age, it will begin having routine catastrophic failures, and these will increasingly result in serious injuries and deaths. This happens because of the wear the heavy rail cars cause to the entire system, from track, to tie, to everything in between. The electrical system also suffers from the high voltage and amperage flowing, and also must be replaced in total. Ultimately, most systems reach this total replacement maintenance point at about 30 years, and by 40 years the system is in actual collapse. These problems result in system wide failures and shutdowns, not just local problems.
The costs of repair are nearly always equal to the costs of initial construction, including the price of land. This is money the agency does not have, and has not budgeted.
Here in Portlandia we just finished the Orange line, a 7 mile light rail line from downtown Portlandia to, well, nowhere really. It cost $1.5 billion give or take a few dollars. The ridership will be far under the initial estimates, although over time these initial estimates always come down, it will likely be much below even the last ridership estimates. There are not enough riders on this or any Portlandia rail line to amortize the cost of construction into the ticket price. The cost per ride would be far greater than the cost of ride share, or even taxi, and dramatically in excess of private automobile.
A few years back Maddogsson asked me to help him prepare an analysis of light rail in Portlandia, to evaluate actual fuel use per rider, and carbon output. The results were surprising. Remember light rail in Portlandia handles approximately 1/2 of the total transit riders and it is electric, so it burns not motor vehicle fuels. Yet the results for the total TriMet system were stunning. Fuel use per passenger mile were worse than the averages for the average American auto, they were so bad they were only slightly better than the Chevy Suburban. As I recall, they were nearly the same but the slightest bit worse than the Hummer 3. Similar outcomes were had for the carbon (off hand I do not remember the exact numbers here). We used federal data supplied by TriMet to create the analysis.
Add to this the fact that public transit in Portlandia has been losing ridership since the 1970s, even after the installation of the wonderful light rail, street cars, commuter rail, and the tram. So, costs and pollution are up, ridership down, and taxpayer costs went through the roof.
Obviously, the ridership will not be able to afford the costs of the replacement maintenance once they arrive in 30 years. So, again taxpayers will be charged with picking up these exorbitant costs. In addition, the operating costs of rail are always higher than initial reports, as is maintenance. The results are far higher transit costs than forecast.
In another twist, rail is nearly always focused, at least initially on the middle and upper middle class ridership. The idea being they will demand something better, and nicer than bus. So, what we see is dramatically higher costs to the transit agency, and a near total inability to reduce rail transit, or cut rail transit costs. This is because if rail time or frequencies are reduced, ridership among the middle and upper middle classes falls, quickly, and dramatically. Instead bus services are cut, and cut, and cut. This is the game we have seen happen repeatedly in Portlandia. The poor who rely on bus service are sacrificed so the middle and upper middle classes can continue to ride the train.
At this juncture, transit goes from being transportation, to being a perk for the middle, and upper middle classes, paid for through employment taxes which fall un-progressively on all, including the poor, but the poor receive ever less benefit from their "donation" of tax monies.
Brilliant. Tax the poor to pay the rich! I am sorry to inform you but progressivism is a neo-feudalistic system based on the story of Robin Hood, the progressive system, however, follows Prince John, not Robin. The money flows from poor to rich, not the other way round. Oh, the poor still get crumbs, but the game is to squeeze them and force the feds to richen the welfare pot, so they can be squeezed even more.
Failure to maintain is primarily a problem in the public sector. The public agency does not maintain because the point is not transit, or transit riders, the point is power, money, prestige, and the client is not the transit rider, but the highest level bureaucrats, and the overseeing politicians. To see what it looks like otherwise, look to our commercial freight rail system. Total costs from initial construction, to operations, to routine maintenance, to replacement/capital maintenance are all amortized into the cost of shipping. The customer is king, and everything is done to accommodate the customers needs.
This is simply not the case with the public agency. So, Californians, if you pay for the high speed rail from nowhere to nowhere, you will need to also be ready to pay the same $60 billion dollars in 30 years to rebuild that project, if you are not willing to do so the project should not be built.
Washington Metro is, and will continue to be a disaster, slowly rotting, slowly corroding, every more costly. If salvation comes, it will come as a massive new tax on all workers, and will force the poor to pay for this fancy ride built for the rich.
At this point, Metro, and the people of Washington need to sit up and actually think about what they are doing, and what is happening in the real world. Do they wish to dump billions of dollars into the rat hole of rail transit to eek it along for another 30 years, or should they return to more modern, flexible faster bus transportation? Remember, the self drive car is just around the corner. Will this change anything? Did Uber change the taxi system?
It is time now for the people to turn from what they enjoy (family, friends, work/recreation/hobbies), and engage politics. It is time to force the political actors to act as they should, not as they will. And perhaps it is time for reformation of the political systems as well as bureaucratic systems.
Here at the End of History we know what works, republican governance, free markets, strictly limited government powers/action, and reformed religions. We have republican governance, generally free markets, and reformed religions. We spent the progressive era building a less, and less limited government. The next socio-economic change will be to reduce this, by returning to much more strictly limited government, and more free markets.
Delaying on this project will only mean more money wasted on futile useless baubles for the politicians, and bureaucrats. But hey, it's your money!