Because this week’s Roundup is a bit long we thought we would provide a brief description. We begin with a more general discussion of BRT and light rail. After that, there are the news items, starting with transportation, followed by other topics. Finally, we have our list of the week.
Transportation – Inadvertent Truths
The Tribune now features a new column of a designated “conservative” columnist (Ironically named after a movie/book about one of the biggest ever government programs in real dollars). What makes his views “conservative” is unclear. In any event, recently there have been two columns regarding BRT versus rail. We think they are worthy of some discussion.
– The Left Stuff
The first column:
I like trains, to begin with. I’ve gotten around on light rail in Washington D.C., the San Francisco Bay area and in Atlanta, as well as in subways in London and Paris. And I have found all those experiences uniformly satisfying.
But I’ve also boarded London’s iconic red double-decker people-movers and, in lanes dedicated for bus travel, breezed past traffic jammed up tighter than your worst Malfunction Junction nightmare. Lane exclusivity makes true Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, a dazzling (and, compared to rail, breathtakingly cheap) thing of transit beauty.
Know this: Whatever else happens, we’re going to lay more pavement. Streets and highways will be widened, so that’s an expense already baked into our getting-around cake. For the price of road-striping paint, signage, ticket kiosks and cutting-edge buses, the system urban planners call “light-rail on tires” could blossom here at a scant fraction of the billions needed to do even the most meager commuter train.
As I say, trains are terrific. In urban areas far more densely populated than ours, there’s an argument for them. But as a key to relieving what ails local transportation, and given the alternatives aching for full exploration, they’re overpriced, hopelessly rigid and, frankly, antiquated 19th-century solutions to 21st-century headaches.
First, it is good for people to try and figure out these issues, and public discussion is also good. Second, and it is a small point, rail in DC and Atlanta is not light rail, it is heavy rail. In San Francisco, the Muni is light rail/streetcars and BART is heavy rail. (see here and here) And neither is a commuter train.
To the substance: London is an odd example to use to make the argument for BRT. First, London has one of the most extensive rail systems in the world – not just the Underground but also commuter rail. (see here) In fact, Transport for London (the transit agency) coordinates the bus and rail system and buses in central London, where we suspect the abovementioned London bus was ridden, are completely coordinated with the rail system.
Moreover, while there are bus lanes (where the striping paint comes in), there is no BRT (which is much more than striping paint) in central London. There are buses in bus lanes than can take you a distance, but, as stated, it is all coordinated with the rail system. There are BRT-ish bus lines in the eastern suburbs of London. Those lines are in the eastern outer areas and connect to rail. (see here and here) Moreover, another suburban BRT line was planned for the outer areas by the former mayor (a self-described socialist – is BRT a socialist plot?) that was cancelled. On the other hand, even under a Conservative mayor and government, London is building the rather expensive Crossrail rail line. (see here and here. While we have not done a financial analysis of it, the price alone has to create doubts that Crossrail is worth the price, but we did not bring up London’s transport system.)
And then there is the other issue – central London vehicle traffic is subject to a congestion charge – that is, if you drive your private car within a boundary in central London, you have to pay to use the local roads – all of them. (This was also the idea of the socialist former mayor of London.) The money goes in part to fund more transit. Basically, it makes the entire area of central London a Lexus lane. (Are Lexus lanes, a la FDOT, socialist, too?) The point is to remove cars from the road and reduce overall traffic, which obviously helps buses, but is not very conservative.
And regarding the argument “As I say, trains are terrific. In urban areas far more densely populated than ours, there’s an argument for them,” that requires a little examination. First, acknowledging the utility of rail is good. Too many opponents of rail just can’t do that. However, the density argument is a bit odd. Take Atlanta, for instance. MARTA’s rail lines began in 1979. The 1980 Atlanta metro area population was 2,233,000, which is basically Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties present combined population. Much of Atlanta’s density came after the rail. (Same with Miami, for that matter. And we are not even going to try to list all the rail systems in areas the size of the Tampa Bay area, but see List of the Week below.)
As we have said many times, we think buses form an integral part of a transportation system (though we are not fans of congestion charges), but to draw assumptions for a small snapshot without looking at the whole picture is not helpful and conclusions drawn from such an examination are quite weak. As is the conclusion that “given the alternatives aching for full exploration, [rail is] overpriced, hopelessly rigid and, frankly, antiquated 19th-century solutions to 21st-century headaches,” which is pithy but is completely unsupported by everything else in the column.
– Cleveland Rolls
The same author had blog post about a study regarding transportation oriented development (TOD):
But suppose communities got a similar boom from bus rapid transit — modern coaches traveling dedicated lanes and getting favorable treatment from traffic signals; passengers pre-purchasing tickets at well-spaced weather-proof kiosks — and, at least in part because capital expenses were far less, the return on investment was several dozen times higher than for light rail?
Standing on the threshold of a new path for getting around the Tampa-St. Petersburg region, who wouldn’t love to know that sort of information? If only someone had performed a reliable study. Wait. What? Somebody has?
Indeed. ITDP, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, dedicated since 1985 to “ implement[ing] projects that reduce poverty, pollution, and oil dependence,” released a survey of 21 North American transit projects in September that found BRT routinely produced bang for the government buck that summons up Gulliver in Lilliput.
Two extremes: A BRT project in Cleveland, completed in 2008 (just as the Great Recession was sinking its teeth into America), had, as of the time of the study, generated $5.8 billion in development, or $114 per transit dollar. A LRT project in Portland, Ore., completed in 1986 leveraged just $3.74 per transit dollar.
Stipulated: This example constitutes an apples-to-oranges comparison. The larger point, however, remains: The flexibility of routes does not automatically cause developers to regard BRT as something to avoid, particularly — as the study shows — when government actively pursues redevelopment efforts along BRT corridors.
Setting aside that TOD’s are an incomplete way of measuring economic impact of transit because it ignores jobs, productivity, value of the land, pre-existing empty space that gets filled, and developments just outside of the study area that occur because they are near but not in the TOD area, the comparison described certainly is provocative (we’ll set aside the admission that it is an apples to oranges comparison – even though it is). So provocative that we looked at the organization website and checked out the report. First, the organization. When you look its website, it tells you this:
While effective rail-based public transport plays a vital role in many regions, our specific area of expertise is bus rapid transit (BRT), and we work to spread knowledge about BRT and provide high-level technical assistance to cities pursuing BRT projects in the U.S. and abroad.
In fact, this organization created the “standard for BRT” (which the central London buses do not meet). While none of this is noted in the blog, the organization is hardly unbiased.
Nevertheless, is the study reliable? It is not clear. But let us look at what the columnist takes from it, namely Cleveland’s “health line” BRT got much more TOD per dollar spent on the BRT line. First, if you read the study, the cost of the transit line used is just capital costs of the line, and really the initial capital costs – the cost to build it. (pg 18 of the report pdf.) Moreover, the report tells us:
Transit operating costs are more variable and harder to measure than capital costs. Not every city measures operating costs in the same way. For example, in addition to standard maintenance and operations, the cost of depreciating the rolling stock as well as the cost of maintenance and depreciation of the catenary of an LRT or streetcar should be included in operating cost figures. Frequently, however, these additional costs are not included. When they are, BRT is generally seen to be less expensive to operate than LRT. Obtaining accurate operating cost information that is corridor-specific has proven to be quite difficult for both BRT and LRT systems anywhere in the world.
One distinct advantage of the low operating cost of BRT versus LRT is that BRT services generally replace conventional bus services, assume their operating costs, and reduce those costs through operational efficiencies. LRT, on the other hand, sometimes duplicates conventional bus services and competes with those services for ridership, thus increasing total transit agency operating losses. However, the potential operational savings for any system depends entirely on the service changes introduced as part of the new system.
(pg 18 of the report pdf)
In other words, while the report makes arguments about operating costs, it does not know operating costs because it depends on the system, which is fine. And in terms of capital costs, the GAO did a study which HART used to promote MetroRapid, which tells us this:
Factors Affecting Capital Costs:
The difference in capital costs between BRT and rail transit is due in part to elements needed for rail transit that are not required for BRT projects. Light rail systems, for example, often require train signal communications, electrical power systems with overhead wires to power trains, and rails, ties, and switches. Further, if a rail maintenance facility does not exist, one must be built and equipped. On the other hand, transit experts who have evaluated both rail transit and BRT told us that while initial capital costs are higher for rail transit than for BRT, life-cycle capital costs for rail transit are potentially lower than BRT. For instance, although more expensive up front (typically $1.5 million to $3.4 million per car), life cycles of rail transit cars are longer (typically 25 years or more) than most BRT vehicles (12 to 15 years).[Footnote 36] However circumstances affecting costs will vary among projects, and research has not yet been done to compare life-cycle costs of BRT systems in the U.S., as they are still relatively new.
In other words, lifetime capital costs are not clearly in favor of BRT over light rail. Basically, it is not clear which costs more over time to build, maintain, and operate. That is fine, too. Some things are complicated. What is not fine is to claim to know what is not known – like real BRT (not MetroRapid), with a dedicated bus lane and good stations, is “breathtakingly” cheaper in all cases, in all times, than light rail. Even the BRT-promoting report does not know.
But let’s get back to that Cleveland example. There is no question that the Cleveland “health line” BRT is successful. However, we do question whether it is proper to attribute all of the TOD, especially that around the Cleveland Clinic, which is a main source of the TOD (and the reason the line is called the “health line”) is due to BRT. First of all, it is unclear what development would have taken place without the BRT line just because the Cleveland Clinic is a world class biomed and healthcare facility.
Then there is the other point, which seems to be a recurring issue with the BRT claims – the Cleveland Clinic is near a light rail stop. Yes, Cleveland has a light rail system. It forms the spine of Cleveland’s transportation system – the part its own transit agency calls “rapid transit.” (see rail map here and full system map here) In fact, the “health line” BRT connects to rail at a number of stops, including near the Cleveland Clinic and University Circle, a major employment area. (see here and here) That is how buses should function.
As we said above, buses are part of any good transportation system, as is rail. Ideally they work together to connect the systems to major employment centers and residents to promote good transportation, which helps with economic growth. That would appear to be the case in the Cleveland BRT case and its connections to rail.
And let’s get back to that really inefficient Portland line noted in the blog. Here’s what the report tells us:
Portland has experienced this problem acutely. The city revised its zoning code to allow higher densities and a more intense built-up environment along the full length of all of its light rail corridors as well as in other areas it hoped to revitalize. This widespread up-zoning, however, undermined the city’s ability to target growth more carefully. Competition from strong land markets in certain parts of the city has pulled development away from other locations that are desirable but nevertheless have a weaker real estate market. The Gateway Transit area, for instance, was up-zoned as part of Portland’s zoning code revision. Although the area has the highest concentration of public transit in the city, with the MAX Blue Line LRT, the Green and Red LRT lines, and several bus routes passing through it, it has had difficulty attracting new development because of competition with other areas that are also zoned for high densities. In short, revised zoning in the city of Portland has resulted in excess capacity citywide, and the city is unable to down-zone to correct this problem. Allowing developers to build for higher densities as-of-right in most parts of the city effectively under-mines the future use of zoning as a tool for directing development toward a particular site.
(pg 75 of the report pdf) The lesson is that Portland did not focus its planning to take advantage of the studied rail lines so development went to higher end areas rather than the area targeted for redevelopment with the rail line. That is a zoning/planning mistake, not a weakness of transit. (And with all that, the gross TOD investment in the Portland line was still greater than Cleveland. see pg 9 of report pdf. It is also interesting to note that the report itself highlights a dedicated bus line in Pittsburgh that has existed since the 1980’s which only now, due to better zoning and redevelopment efforts, if bearing TOD fruit. Who knows what will happen in Portland in 20 years?)
Frankly, our concern for the Tampa Bay area would be the opposite – that zoning for areas near transit would allow too little density. (Like in the preliminary ideas for redeveloping West Tampa [aka "West River"] found starting on pg 31 of this pdf, which feature rather large surface parking lots and, while definitely nicer than what is there now], is not particularly dense for a city, especially in the area around I-275, the median of which is often designated as being for some form of transit. We cautiously await the unveiling of the actual master plan that is supposed to occur this week.)
The blog post ends with this:
And we totally agree. As shown by the examples given by the Tribune’s communist, a proper transportation system involves rail, buses, and roads (not to mention trails, bikes, good sidewalks, etc). Just as importantly, the elements need to be properly understood, integrated, and coordinated with each other and with proper planning that allows for greater density along the spine of the system first, then spreading to other areas. So keep your eyes open to see the whole picture (especially when Hillsborough County’s elected officials propose their transportation fixes).
And we still disagree that congestion charges would be good for Tampa Bay.
Transportation – HART/PSTA II – A Self-Fulfilled Prophecy
This week, the second consultant report regarding cooperation/coordination/merger of PSTA and HART was released. It disagreed with the first report about how much can be saved:
The $200,000 state-funded 2013 KPMG report found the transit agencies potentially could save $339,500 to $585,300 annually through changes affecting 44 duplicative senior administrative and management positions.
After reviewing the draft KPMG report this week, the consultant and transit staffs determined it would cost as much as $15 million in infrastructure purchases — not $5 million as the initial draft version indicated — to achieve $1.1 million in annual savings if the two agencies operated the same type of fleets.
A major obstacle to consolidation is that HART and PSTA fleet modernizations are headed toward different types of buses — HART powered by compressed natural gas and PSTA by hybrid-electric — and funds for replacements and infrastructure to service them have begun to be spent.
If that is what the report found, so be it. It would take about 10 years to make up the cost of merger. Of course, let’s look at the report for a second. First, the (apparently draft, even though it is from the HART website) report tells us:
HART and PSTA are members of the Florida Transit Association Finance Corporation Consortium Purchasing Board (Consortium) that collaborate and prepare common minimum vehicle specifications. Further, HART and PSTA collaborate on joint procurements related to fuel and bulk fluids to help leverage cost economies. Also, HART and PSTA are collaborating with five counties to establish a regional fare collection system to support connectivity in the area
(pg 105 of the pdf)
So they collaborate on vehicle specification. Yet, the report also tells us this:
Despite their cooperation on vehicle specification, as the article tells us, each agency is currently buying different vehicles. The interesting thing to note is that basically all the cost of merger (now said to be $15 million, not the $5 million in the slide) comes from the changing so that they use the same vehicles (having the infrastructure to use them). The biggest impediment to real consolidation or merger, working like a poison pill, is the result of decisions by the agencies themselves, as explained here (pg 56 of the pdf):
If they were already really collaborating and buying the same vehicles, they could save anywhere from $400,000 to $1.1+ million a year from merging/ really consolidating, and the cost would be limited (since the cost is in the infrastructure for the new vehicles) That money could have gone to service.
Transportation – Pinellas and the Overt Truths
The Tribune has a profile of the leader of No Tax for Tracks, the Tea Party based opposition to Greenlight Pinellas and the transportation referendum in 2014. (In fact, the Tea Party member of the HART board was part of the Hillsborough No Tax for Tracks.) We are not going to get into the whole article (you can read it here) However, there were a few quotes that were enlightening. First:
Haselden’s deep distrust of government is obvious. She suspects bus windows are tinted so residents will not be able to see how few people are onboard. She describes leaders of the agency and the county as “power-hungry people who will not prune this system.”
“That same kind of mentality that is wrecking our country in Washington, we can do something about here,” she said. “Only government thinks the answer to empty buses is more empty buses and an empty train.”
This is noteworthy for the oddness of the claim. PSTA ridership is at record levels. Watchfulness over government is appropriate, but it should be based on facts.
Then the article gets to the bottom line:
As for arguments that a government-owned bus network should serve low-population communities so that elderly, disabled or others who cannot drive or afford a car have access to transportation, Haselden says she doesn’t buy into that “guilt trip.”
Let’s follow that line of reasoning. People will take care of themselves, so if you have kids, live near the school – no buses fixes the school budget. If you are sick, live near the hospital – no ambulances lower care costs. If you need to drive, pave your own road – why should we be taxed for your road?
But, more to the point, what it really tells us is that it is not rail that No Tax for Tracks opposes. It is the government providing useful transit at all (unless it is a road they want to drive).
Transportation – Hillsborough Looks for Someone to Handle Transportation
As part of Hillsborough’s talking about transportation, local officials recently discussed who should coordinate all the transportation for economic development ideas they will someday come up with.
Several members of a Hillsborough County transportation policy group said Wednesday the county’s bus agency, HART, should be enlarged and charged with financing and building road, rail and other projects to spur economic growth.
The subject came up after County Administrator Mike Merrill told the group — made up of county commissioners, mayors of the county’s three cities and the chairman of the HART board — they would soon need to pick an agency to finance and start transportation projects the policy-makers approve this year.
Members noted that HART has experience running a transit system, which will likely be a part of what the policy group recommends; it is a major recipient of federal grant money; it has its own taxing authority; and its governing board already includes a mix of elected leaders from the county and two of its cities. (One or more Plant City representatives would need to be added.)
There is a certain logic in all that. Creating a new agency of Hillsborough official might just add to the problem. Were there any caveats regarding HART?
The group, consisting of county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities, said HART would need to be reimagined. For one, its board of directors would have to be expanded to include more elected officials and people skilled in planning roads.
In other words, HART is not built for this now, which is somewhat of an understatement.
Then there was this from the new Chairman of the HART Board, who is also a Tampa city councilman, which goes to the heart of the problem with the entire idea of planning transportation just as economic development:
A PARADIGM SHIFT IS PRIMARILY ON THE LEADERSHIP THAT WE PROVIDE HERE TO MAKE SURE THAT WE CAN GO FORWARD AND PROVIDE THE KINDS OF DOLLARS THAT WE NEED TO PROVIDE THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INCENTIVES FOR PEOPLE TO COME DOWN HERE, AND THAT INCLUDES TRANSPORTATION AND AN EFFECTIVE TRANSPORTATION NETWORK.
I DON’T THINK THAT HART AS A BOARD OR HART AS A SYSTEM OR ANY TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM THAT GOVERNS NOW CAN BE THE OVERARCHING CONTROLLER OF WHERE ECONOMIC DOLLARS – ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DOLLARS GO OR HOW ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IS GOING TO BE.
The real bottom line is this. It makes sense to try to use an existing organization to coordinate whatever projects emerge from this process, if they ever do emerge. HART is a possible candidate, but it is not fit for the job now. It is unclear that it will ever be. Moreover, it is unclear that the singular goal of economic development is the proper way to look at transportation. (It definitely is one factor but not the only factor.)
So, does anyone have an idea of how to fix HART and how long will it take?
How that would happen remains murky. County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Attorney Chip Fletcher said they would work with their counterparts in the cities to craft a road map to a new HART. That likely would include options involving other government agencies, such as the planning commission, which at least one board member said also should be considered.
HART was created by an interlocal agreement between the governments whose residents it serves, said Fletcher, who has represented both the city of Tampa and HART. That agreement is enabled by state law, which spells out certain parameters under which transit agencies operate and are governed.
In other words, no idea.
We understand the thought process behind considering HART, but, as the most vocal County Commissioner of transportation said:
And that would be business as usual in Hillsborough County.
Sulphur Springs – Not Bad
Months ago, the City of Tampa started demolishing run down houses in Sulphur Springs. At the time, it was not clear what, if anything, what would replace them. Now, we know:
As a result, the city now has 25 buildable lots and plans to put a new single-family home on each as funds allow. The $1.4 million the city is using to start the initiative comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As the first new houses are sold, the city plans to use the proceeds to build the next set of houses.
As a concept, we are good with that. It is a nice way to use the funds and try to revitalize the neighborhood. As long as the choice of contractors/builders is fair and open, we like it.
Coming Out Watch – St. Pete Gets Some Press
In the last few weeks there has been much celebration that St. Pete has gotten write ups in the New York Times 52 places to go in 2014 and the Independent (UK). We think it is great. While the methodology of the NY Times list is a bit odd, which Nashville at 15, Calgary at 17 and all of Scotland at 16 (St. Pete was 49, between Varadzin, Croatia and Belize (yes, the whole country) and a few slots before Niagara Falls), it is not really a ranking, and all that kind of exposure telling people it is cool and has lots of craft beer (which seems to be the theme of January) is positive. Of course, the Dali Museum figures large in all the media, but so what? It was incredibly fortuitous for St. Pete to get it and the most should be made of it. (Much more was made of the catalyst of the Dali in St. Pete than anything the City of Tampa or Hillsborough County did with their assets.)
This is all the kind of press that Tampa would kill for (and was supposed to come with the RNC). It is also interesting that both articles ignored Tampa. So what did the Mayor of Tampa have to say?
We are not so sure about that; this is how the Independent told its readers to get to St. Pete:
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Orlando from Gatwick, Manchester, and Glasgow. The airport is around two hours’ drive from St Petersburg. American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) serves Miami from Heathrow; the airport is around three and three-quarter hours’ drive from St Petersburg. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Orlando from Gatwick, and Miami from Heathrow.
A seven-night fly-drive package, including return flights to Orlando from either Gatwick or Manchester, plus car hire, costs from £699pp (based on two sharing) through Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk).
Odd, we thought British Airways flew to Tampa. How did that slip by in with the RNC, IIFF, multitude of trade missions, and all?
Downtown Tampa – Bringing the Hype
There was a video report on WSTP’s website about upcoming construction in downtown. It says the Martin is supposed to break ground in March. (@ 1:10) We hope so. We want downtown to grow and, as we have said before, look forward to construction there.
However, one thing we are not big on is the hype that blows everything out of proportion, like the video report which is very similar to local print and TV coverage since the early 1980s. For instance, the report tells us that there will be a “massive” building boom downtown and defies anyone to say otherwise (@ about 0:25). We will definitely say that it would be a relative boom in Tampa if all the projects proposed were under construction downtown, but we will not accept it is “massive.” Here are links to examples of “massive” building booms: Toronto, Miami (try three groundbreakings in one day for a boom), Houston, and, though we are not sure we’d call the there boom “massive,” more to a comparable metro area size, just one part of Denver (starting pg 47 of this pdf .)
Moreover, despite the Mayor saying that there are more things going on than have gone on in “probably a decade,” (@ 0:55) if everything planned for downtown were to be under construction at once, it would be less than when Channelside was booming before the crash (plus the apartments in downtown proper) (There was Element, Skypoint, Towers of Channelside, Embassy Suites, Plaza Harbour Island, Grand Central, Ventana, The Place, Parkside at One Bayshore, Park Crest, Residences at Franklin, The Slade, and a bunch of other stuff in the mid 2000’s, right before the crash, but that doesn’t count).
That is not to say that what we have coming up this year isn’t good – it is. But it needs to be kept in perspective. That is not putting anything down – that is dealing with reality.
And one more thing: At 0:50 of the report, the Mayor, who the report says is “driving the development” (even though most of it was planned before the crash and many have been downsized since the original proposals), tells us once again that Tampa is not “asking for permission” anymore. Once again, we ask: who exactly has the Mayor been asking for permission? What is he talking about?
List of the Week
Our list this week is Jones Lang LaSalle’s (a company specializing in the various aspects of commercial real estate) list of the World’s 20 Most Dynamic Cities. You can find the criteria here, but it is summarized with this:
In its new, proprietary City Momentum Index (CMI), Jones Lang LaSalle goes beyond traditional, static economic rankings to delve into the underlying drivers that are the hallmark of highly dynamic cities.
Coming in first, unsurprisingly, is San Francisco, followed by London, Dubai, Shanghai, Wuhan, NYC, Austin (There is that pesky Austin again.), Hong Kong, San Jose, Singapore, Shenzhen, Jakarta, Beijing, Chengdu, LA, Tianjin, Boston, Seattle, Tokyo, and Lima.
And, in some ways more interesting and telling, the North American cities that the report studied were (see pg 11 of the full report pdf): Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, St Louis, Detroit, Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, Denver, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego. (All have rail transit if you include the soon to be open Sunrail.)
Notice anybody missing?