Category: Shoddy Studies

The Recession Won’t Last Forever

The article about New York State’s decision to discontinue studying high-speed rail between New York and Buffalo is by itself not terribly surprising. Although Andrew Cuomo likes flashy public works projects, of which HSR is one, he is consistently pro-road and anti-rail.

The study released by the state sandbagged actual HSR on cost grounds – it did not provide any further analysis, and in two ways (lower average speed than most HSR lines, and a requirement for tilting) stacked the deck against it – but instead looked into medium-speed rail, with top speed of 110-125 mph, which is frequently misnamed HSR in the US. This, too, is not surprising. State DOTs have no idea how HSR works, and tend to make mistakes, not know how to do cost control, and so on.

What’s most surprising is the explanation for why not to do anything substantial: as one of the HSR proponents quoted in the article complains, “The State of New York is worried about making ends meet; the economy is not doing so great. That’s the reason in the short term.” Taking his argument at face value, the state is refusing to advance study of an HSR line because economic conditions are bad now, a decade or more before such line could even open.

The recession won’t last forever; if it does, there are bigger things to worry about than transportation. Other than immediate reconstruction projects, for which the environmental reviews are fast-tracked, major projects take years to do all the design and environmental studies. California has been planning HSR since the late 1990s. It intended to go to ballot in 2004, and after delays did so in 2008. HSR is scheduled to break ground later this year, assuming the state does not cancel the project. An HSR project for which planning starts now will start construction after the economy recovers not from this recession, but from the next one.

The recurrent theme in the article is the state’s preference for mundane over flashy projects, but rejecting HSR shows the exact opposite.Starting planning now costs very little. In fact, the best thing any state agency can do is keep planning multiple big-ticket project contingencies pending an infusion of money; this way, it can dust off plans and execute them faster if there’s a stimulus bill in the next recession. That’s long-term planning. Refusing to advance construction because it won’t start until long after Cuomo’s Presidential run in 2006 2016 isn’t.

Of course, the same goes in the other direction. Too many people, building on Keynesian stimulus ideas, want massive infrastructure spending now as a public works program. For example, Robert Cruickshank (and in comments, Bruce McF) argues for long-term benefits coming from the stimulus effect. Although construction in 2012-3 would have an impact, a multi-decade project spanning periods of both growth and recession should not rely on estimates of job creation solely from periods of recession. On the contrary, economic costs and benefits should be based on a long-term multi-business cycle trend.

I propose the following principles for interaction between business cycles and very long-term investment:

1. Assume your project will be undertaken in a period of close to (but not quite) full employment, in terms of both funding sources and economic effects, unless you specifically intend to advance construction in a recession.

2. If you want to use a recession to lock in lower interest rates, higher job impacts, or lower construction costs, make sure you have a shovel-ready project, or else try to advocate for better staffing at the requisite regulatory agencies well ahead of time so that they can fast-track it.

3. Treat fiscal surpluses coming from an economy at full employment as one-time shots rather than an ongoing situation that can be used for regular spending or tax cuts. Growth doesn’t last forever, either.

Defrauding the Public on European Rail Profits

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) penned an op-ed defending his attempt to strip California high-speed rail of all funding. In the usual litany of complaints about the deficit, he referenced a 2008 study by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General claiming that European passenger railroads lose money but keep those losses off-books. The study is fraudulent. It does not specify a methodology, which means it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly the numbers don’t match actual reality; however, some hints are provided by the following claim:

1. Public Funding to the Train Operating Companies may be accounted for as revenue, and

2. Public Funding to the Infrastructure Managers enables them to charge “user fees” to the Train Operating Companies that may be significantly lower than the actual infrastructure maintenance expenses.

Ad 1, it is not difficult to separate transport income from public funding. The balance sheets often state the source of income clearly. Most public funding comes from operating regional trains under contract, which SNCF and DB keep separate from their core intercity business, which is profitable. A minority of public funding is subsidies for social services, for example state-mandated discounts to active-duty troops, the elderly, and the unemployed; a libertarian would instantly recognize such mandates as taxes and deduct them from the subsidies. See for example page 30 of SNCF’s books, which clearly shows the majority of public funding (not counting RFF, which is nominally private) is from local sources, for operating commuter rail.

It is true that regional rail is heavily subsidized in Europe, but the same is true in the US. But in the US there’s far less national railroad involvement in commuter rail than in Europe, so comparing Amtrak to every train that has an SNCF logo is disingenuous. Worse, the study picks and chooses which Amtrak trains to compare European trains to: it ignores the long-distance trains, and in one figure (p. 13) only compares the Northeast Corridor to European networks and ignores the state-supported corridors, organizationally the closest thing to the TER or DB Regio in the US.

Ad 2, the choice of how to set the track access fees is a political one, and often the political choice is to set the access fees high. In France, in anticipation of open access RFF has recently raised tolls to far above track maintenance costs, effectively moving all French rail profits from SNCF to RFF and preventing competing companies from making a profit on the popular Paris-Lyon segment. Even in 2006, the toll on Paris-Lyon was €14.60 per train-km, the highest of all European lines although, because it has the most traffic, its maintenance cost should be the lowest per train-km.

A 2008 study of the costs and benefits of HSR in Europe published by the OECD and International Transport Forum finds that the maintenance costs per single-track-km in Europe average €30,000. This is €82 per single-track-km per day; to find the appropriate cost per train-km, divide by the number of daily trains in each direction. The LGV Sud-Est’s 2006 tolls would cover that average maintenance cost in just six daily runs; maximum frequency on the line is ten trains per direction per hour. Of the five or six lines on the list of rail links and their tolls that are HSR, the average toll is €10 per train-km. Of course this excludes depreciation and interest, but at least on the LGV Sud-Est, depreciation is quite low since the line was cheap to construct, and the construction bonds have already been paid. SNCF’s complaint that it’s being milked by tolls far above maintenance costs seems correct.

Of course, RFF’s books are more than just maintenance costs. They’re also debt accumulated by SNCF when it was run far less efficiently than today. Much like with JNR, this debt may have to be absorbed by the state, leading to predictable claims of subsidies. In reality, all this would do would be retroactively subsidize losses from decades ago. This is exactly what happened with JNR: the state absorbed the debt coming from operating losses, but required the JR companies to take over the Shinkansen construction debt, see pp. 46 and 88 of this document on privatization.

That this study has been picked up by Heritage, Reason (p. 7), and others as evidence that high-speed rail will lose money is not surprising – those organizations are paid by industry groups including the Koch Brothers and Reason spreads disinformation about trains – but for Amtrak to mislead the people who are footing its bill is inexcusable. It is probably not a matter of incompetence. Amtrak’s claim that every railroad in the world receives public funds is very unlikely to be an honest mistake. Claiming that Japan absorbed Shinkansen debt could be an honest mistake – I only found the aforementioned privatization document while looking for sources for my privatization post. But claiming that SNCF keeps public funding hidden from view when in fact it clearly states it receives regional funding for regional rail requires actively searching for reasons to tar SNCF. The alternative possibility that Amtrak included commuter rail in the calculation merely turns Amtrak’s claim from an outright lie to intentional misleading.

Amtrak’s Office of the Inspector General most likely knows what it’s doing. Nominally it’s independent of Amtrak, but if Amtrak dies, it will have nobody to supervise. Amtrak is losing money when its peer first-world railroads make money, it’s under siege by Republicans who point to those losses as a reason to private and dismember it, and it has no intention of reforming. The only way out of this conundrum is to defraud the public about peer first-world railroad practices, and I believe that this is exactly what the OIG did here. Amtrak’s existing services are sufficiently well-patronized that they have special interests behind them; therefore, feeding Reason’s propaganda is not an existential threat. But House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica’s calls for fundamental change could resonate with Republicans and moderate Democrats, and this could mean the end of Amtrak. It’s rational to lie to the public that it’s impossible to do better.

What is not rational is public acceptance of this. Heads should have rolled about this document. All involved should have resigned or been fired. Mica should have suspected shenanigans and invited both the authors of the study and officials from SNCF and DB for a hearing. Amtrak proper of course embraces the results and continues along its merry way, but I expect no better from it anymore. What I do expect is that the public in general and rail advocates in particular will be as livid as I am about being defrauded.

Skewed North Shore BRT/LRT Proposal (Hoisted from Comments)

The MTA produced an alternatives analysis for transit service on the North Shore of Staten Island. The study contains zingers and various factors making the cost many times higher than it should be, but the agency response to all comments is Decide, Announce, Defend. Commenter Ajedrez reports from a public meeting on the subject on Second Avenue Sagas:

I went for part of the meeting (from about 18:30 to 19:45), and this is a rundown of what happened:

* They discussed the updates from the last meeting. They eliminated the ferry option (that didn’t even make sense), and they eliminated the heavy rail option.

* The people were given the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. This one woman (the same woman from last time) ranted on and on about something historical at Richmond Terrace/Alaska Street that would be destroyed if they paved over it.

Then a few more people made some comments, and I asked why they eliminated the heavy rail option (for those of you who are wondering, I was the kid in the yellow jacket and blue/black striped shirt. Then again, I was the only kid in the room)

* Then we went to the back to talk with the people from the consulting firm. I discussed the heavy rail more in depth, and asked why it was needed if the West Shore Light Rail would supposedly cover the Teleport. I then made a couple of suggestions for the short-term (reverse-peak S98 service, my S93 extension, cutting back more S46s to Forest Avenue) and I gave them the name of a person at the MTA who they could contact.

To elaborate on my statement about heavy rail, they said that they took it completely off the table. It just amazed me that they originally had a ferry line as one of the options, but they didn’t even have heavy rail as an option south of Arlington.

Let me think, you have an abandoned rail line (and a heavy rail line at that), and you want to put a ferry line there. What sense does that make? I could understand maybe having the ferry supplement the rail line, but doing that would have the whole thing go to waste.

I said that the current SIR is heavy rail and the South Shore is more auto-oriented than the North Shore. And I said that it provides better integration with the current SIR (they said they could put light rail in the Clifton Yard, but it’s probably automatically cheaper if you don’t have to retrofit the yard). And I also said that there’s higher capacity than light rail, so in case there’s growth, it is better equipped to handle it

So they said “Well, it was too expensive (because one of the goals was to serve the Teleport) so we didn’t even consider it.” And then they said that SI doesn’t have Brooklyn-type density to support heavy rail (but somehow the South Shore does?). And if you limit it to light rail, you’re actually limiting SI’s growth potential. Think about it: before 1900, Brooklyn had some streetcar lines, but not a whole lot of ridership. When the subway was extended, the population exploded. But if they just extended some streetcar lines from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the population would be nowhere near the 2.5 million it has today.

And then they said “Oh, well during the last meetings (which I attended, so I know they’re not being completely truthful) people expressed a sentiment for light rail”. They didn’t. They expressed a sentiment against a busway, There’s a difference. They didn’t say “Oh, it shouldn’t be heavy rail”. They just said they want rail rather than buses.

I mean, the argument I should’ve made (besides the ones I already did) was the fact that there was heavy rail there before, and the population was smaller back then. I think it’s pretty obvious.

And when I made that statement, everybody was surprised at how young I was (16). One woman said “You should be the one studying this project”, and they actually tried to avoid responding to me (they were like “Thank you. Next question”, and then everybody said “But you didn’t answer his question”, and that’s when they made up the response about expenses)

Besides the wretched DAD attitude, the cost projections and the route choice doesn’t even make sense. The proposal is to use the abandoned B&O right-of-way along the North Shore, from St. George to Arlington, and then cut over to South Avenue and serve West Shore Plaza. Here is satellite imagery of South Avenue: observe that it is almost completely empty.

Here we have a line that consists of 8.5 kilometers of abandoned trackage, which can be restored for service remarkably cheaply, and 5.5 of an on-street segment, which tends to be much more expensive to construct. Compare the costs of regional rail restoration in Germany or Ottawa’s O-Train with those of French LRT lines (including Lyon’s cheaper line). In addition, the areas along the abandoned trackage are of moderate density by non-New York standards, while those along South Avenue aren’t even suburban. And yet, the MTA is convinced that the per-km cost of an option that terminates at Arlington is higher than that of an option that goes to West Shore Plaza ($56 million/km vs. $41/km).

While the cost range proposed is only moderately high for light rail – the French average is a little less than $40 million/km – this is misleading because of the nature of the lines. French tramways tend to be on-street, involving extensive street reconstruction. Sometimes they need a new right-of-way along a boulevard or a highway. In contrast, the North Shore Branch is a mostly intact rail right-of-way, which means that the land grading and the structures, the most expensive parts of any rail project, are already in place. It shouldn’t cost like a normal light rail project; it should cost a fraction.

On top of this, to inflate the cost, the MTA is talking about a train maintenance shop. It says a light rail option allows merely modifying the maintenance shop for the Staten Island Railway. Not mentioned is the fact that SIR-compatible heavy rail would allow the trains to be maintained in the same shops without modification, to say nothing of leveraging New York City Transit’s bulk buying to obtain cheaper rolling stock.

The O-Train’s cost – C$21 million for 8 km of route – included three three-car DMUs, piggybacking on a large Deutsche Bahn order; judging by the cost of a more recent expansion order from Alstom, a large majority of the original $21 million was rolling stock. New York should be able to obtain cheaper trains, using its pricing power and sharing spares with the SIR. The electrification costs would add just a little: electrification can be done for €1 million per route-km, and in high-cost Britain it can be done for £550,000-650,000 per track-km (p. 10).

For an order of magnitude estimate of the cost of a well-designed SIR-compatible North Shore Branch, we have, quoting my own comment on SAS:

For an order-of-magnitude estimate of what’s needed, figure $20 million for electrification, $5 million for high-platform stations, and $25 million for six two-car trains plus a single spare. Go much higher and it’s not a transportation project, but welfare for contractors.

In retrospect would add about $10-20 million for trackwork, since the line is abandoned. On the other hand, fewer trains could be used: I was assuming 10-minute headways and a 25-minute travel time to Port Ivory; with 15-minute headways and a travel time under 17.5 minutes to Arlington, which is realistic given subway speeds (the MTA study says 15), only three trains plus a spare would be required.

On a related note, the loading gauge excluding station platform edges should be rebuilt to mainline standards, to allow future regional rail service to replace the SIR. Eventually Staten Island is going to need a long tunnel to Manhattan or Brooklyn if it’s to look like an integral part of the city, and once such a tunnel is built, it might as well be used to provide RER-style service across the city.

In contrast, the MTA proposal has no concern for cost cutting, and looks like lip service to the community. It’ll be an especial tragedy if the line is permanently ripped up to make room for a busway, which will likely underperform and turn into a highway. The contractors are going to get well paid no matter what: the busway is cheaper, but not by an order of magnitude. It’s just the riders who will not have good transit on Staten Island’s North Shore.

Disappointment 2050

The political transit bloggers are talking about the new RPA/America 2050 report on high-speed rail published by the Lincoln Institute, which recommends a focus on the Northeast and California. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate description of the report. Although it does indeed propose to start with the Northeast and California, that’s not the focus of the report; instead, the focus is to argue that HSR is everything its boosters claim it is and then some more, and demand more money for HSR, from whatever source.

Look more closely at the section proposing to focus on New York and California. Although the authors say the US should prioritize, minimal argument was offered for why these are the best options. The report shows the map from the RPA’s study on the subject, which proposes a few other priorities and isn’t that good to begin with (it grades cities on connecting transit based on which modes they have, not how much they’re used). But it says nothing more; I’d have been interested to hear about metro area distribution questions as discussed on pages 113-5 in Reinhard Clever’s thesis and pp. 10-11 of his presentation on the same topic, and alignment and regional rail integration questions such as those discussed by the much superior Siemens Midwest study, but nothing like that appears in this report.

The report then pivots to the need to come up with $40 billion for California and $100 billion for the Northeast Corridor, under either the RPA’s gold-plated plan or Amtrak’s equally stupid Vision. The RPA first came up with the idea of spending multiple billions on brand new tunnels under Philadelphia, which was then copied by the Vision, and wants trains to go through Long Island to New Haven through an undersea tunnel. Clearly, cost-effectiveness is not the goal. Since the methodology of finding the best routes is based on ridership per km, offering a gold-plated plan is the equivalent of trying to connect much longer distances without a corresponding increase in ridership, which goes against the original purpose of the RPA study.

Together with the neglect of corridors that scored high on the RPA’s study but have not had official high-speed rail proposals costing in the tens of billions (the SNCF proposal and the above-mentioned Siemens report are neither official nor affiliated with the RPA), the conclusion is not favorable. The most charitable explanation is that the RPA was looking for an official vehicle to peddle its own Northeast HSR plan but actually believes it has merit. The least charitable is that the RPA wants to see spending on HSR megaprojects regardless of cost-effectiveness.

The treatment of other issues surrounding HSR is in line with a booster mentality, in which more is always better. Discussing station placement, the report talks about the development benefits that come from downtown stations and the lack of benefit coming from exurban stations, as nearly all stations on LGVs are. It does not talk about the tradeoff in costs and benefits; others have done so, for example the chief engineer of Britain’s High Speed 2, who also talks about other interesting tradeoffs such as speed versus capacity versus reliability, but the report prefers to just boost the most expensive plan.

More specifically, the report contrasts CBD stations, suburban stations, and exurban stations. In reality, many stations are outside the CBD but still in the urban core with good transit connections, such as Shin-Osaka, Lyon Part-Dieu, and 30th Street Station, but those are implicitly lumped with beet field stations. This helps make spending billions on tunnels through Philadelphia, as both the RPA and Amtrak propose, look prudent, when in reality both Japan and France are happy to avoid urban tunneling and instead build major city stations in conveniently urban neighborhoods. In fact, Japan’s own boosters and lobbyists crow about the development around such stations.

In line with either view of the report’s purpose, the literature it studies is partial. Discussing the effect of HSR on development, it quotes a study about the positive effect of HSR on small towns in Germany on the Cologne-Frankfurt line, but not other studies done in other countries. For example, in Japan, the effect of the Shinkansen on the Tohoku and Joetsu regions was decidedly mixed. The report also quotes the positive story of Lille’s TGV-fueled redevelopment, which was not replicated anywhere else in France, where cities just passively waited for infrastructure to rescue them. But instead of talking about Lille’s program of redevelopment, the report contrasts it with failed development cases in cities with exurban stations, never mind that no city achieved what Lille did, even ones with downtown stations, like Marseille. It’s not quite a Reason-grade lie, but it’s still very misleading.

Finally, the section about how to fund the $100 billion Northeast system and California’s $43 billion starter line has suggestions that are so outlandish they defy all explanation. The authors propose the following:

1. Raise the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon or more. Several cents could be devoted to passenger rail.

2. Add a $1 surcharge on current passenger rail tickets to produce approximately $29 million annually.

3. Shift from a national gas tax to a percentage tax on crude oil and imported refined petroleum products. RAND estimated that an oil tax of 17 percent would generate approximately $83 billion a year. Five billion dollars of this amount could be dedicated to passenger rail.

Of these, proposal #2 is by far the stupidest. Amtrak receives subsidies; to tax tickets is to propose shifting some change from the left pocket to the right pocket. Why not go ahead and propose to reduce Amtrak’s subsidy by the same amount and require it to raise fares or improve efficiency?

But proposals #1 and 3 are equally bad. Wedding train funding to a steady stream of gas taxes has been the status quo for decades; the result is that APTA is so used to this unholy marriage that it opposed a climate change bill that would tax gas without diverting the funds back to transportation. (That by itself should be reason for good transit advocates to dismiss APTA as a hostile organization, just one degree less malevolent than Reason and Cato and one degree less obstructionist than the FRA.) And if it were a wise long-term choice, if it were politically feasible to add to the gas tax just to build competing trains, the US political climate would look dramatically different, and instead of talking about focus, we’d be talking about how to extend the under-construction Florida HSR line.

A report that was serious about a mode shift from cars to cleaner forms of transportation would not talk about 15 cents per gallon; it would talk in terms of multiple dollars per gallon, as gas is taxed in Europe and high-income Asia. The best explanation I can think of for the funding mechanisms is that the RPA has internalized the tax-as-user-fee model of ground transportation, one that has never worked for cars despite the AAA’s pretense otherwise and that won’t work for anything else.

The overall tone of the report slightly reminds me of Thomas MacDonald’s Highway Education Board, with its industry-sponsored “How Good Roads Help the Religious Life of My Community” essay contests. It reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s “win, win, win, win, win” columns even more – which is unsurprising since I think of Friedman as the archetypal booster – but when this boosterism applies not to a policy preference but to spending very large amounts of public money, I begin to suspect that it’s advertising rather than optimism. Friedman for all his faults crows about American and Indian entrepreneurs inventing new things rather than about extracting $100 billion from the Northeast to pay for unnecessary greenfield tunneling.

Therefore, good transit activists should dismiss this report, and avoid quoting it as evidence that prioritizing is necessary. This was not what the RPA was preaching back when it thought it could get away with proposing more, and the rest of the report is so shoddy it’s not a reliable source of analysis. There may be other reasons to focus on those corridors, but the RPA did not argue them much, instead preferring to literally go for big bucks.

Shoddy Study Claims Light Rail Increased Congestion in Paris (Hoisted from Comments)

Jarrett points us to a just-published paper in World Transit Research that contends that Paris’s new T3 light rail line caused traffic congestion on the adjacent freeway, the Boulevard Périphérique, to increase, thereby causing a net increase in environmental damage and a negative social rate of return. Reading it at its original source requires academic access; here is a mirror on this blog, and thanks to ant6n for sending it. The study does not produce much evidence that an increase in traffic congestion indeed happened. As Angus Grieve-Smith explains in the comments on Human Transit:

It’s important to note that the authors did not measure traffic on the Périph. They just observed that average speeds on the highway declined from 45.9 km/h to 43.5 km/h, and that “many witnesses of the public hearing on the extension of the tramway to Porte de la Chapelle testified their fears to see an analogous shift increasing the congestion on Eastern Périphérique.” In other words, bullshit.

The fact is that a large portion of the traffic on the Périph is going from one side of the city to the other. If some of the drivers on the Maréchaux transfered to the Périph, increasing congestion there, some of the drivers on the Périph would take commuter trains across town instead. Some of the drivers would find it more convenient to take the metro instead of the tramway, or to drive an alternate route that doesn´t involve the Périph, possibly one of the parallel boulevards closer to the center of the city.

The study spends very little time arguing that an increase in traffic happened. It almost takes it for granted. The evidence it provides is that the average speed on the entire Périphérique went down 5%, from 45.9 to 43.5 km/h, whereas the average speed on the southern segment, which parallels the T3 line, went down 10%, from 37.9 to 33.9 km/h.

Instead of arguing that the reduction in speed represents extra traffic coming from the lanes removed to make room for the T3, the study assumes that 100% of the reduction in traffic on the Maréchaux, the boulevard on which the T3 runs, was transferred to the Périphérique. This is unlikely: the phenomenon of reduced demand is attested in the literature – see references here. Traffic shifts to less congested times of day, and sometimes disappears entirely as drivers choose not to take the trip. For one example, when the West Side Highway collapsed, about half its traffic disappeared; this percentage is high, presumably because Manhattan has good transit options, just like Paris.

It’s in fact worse than Angus says. Although the paper provides traffic counts on the Maréchaux, it provides no such counts for the Périphérique, although such counts should be very easy to find. Its computation of the traffic increase on the Périphérique comes entirely from prior assumptions about the traffic that disappeared from the Maréchaux. Another, more minor sleight of hand is the choice of years. For the Maréchaux, the paper argues for comparing present traffic to traffic in 2003, just before the tram’s construction began; for the Périphérique, the numbers provided use 2000 as a baseline.

Most of the paper’s effort is spent not on trying to prove that traffic increased, but on computing the social costs and benefits under questionable assumptions. Doing that is difficult to say the least without knowing more about the nature of traffic on the Périphérique, and the study makes even more questionable assumptions there. To be fair, the biggest smoking guns do not concern the social cost that according to the study is by far the highest, slower traffic speeds; those follow from the assumptions. Instead, they serve to showcase a careless and even biased thought process.

First, the difference in carbon emissions between free-flowing traffic at 38 km/h and 34 km/h is small; what causes fuel consumption to rise in traffic jams is not lower average speed but rather stop-and-go traffic. Thus, even a first-order estimate of extra fuel consumption is impossible given the study’s numbers and assumptions. Fortunately for the study, the carbon cost it uses is so low (€25/ton) and the overall effect posited not large enough that the overall magnitude posited is negligible.

Second, in its computation of economic costs, the study makes the following observation about the project’s cost:

Available information on the monetary costs associated with the project is scarce. One has only the ex ante costs envisioned in the official preliminary Public Inquiry: 341.8M€ for the initial investment and 43.9M€ for the exploitation of the tramway. Experience suggests that ex post costs are likely to be appreciably higher (Flyvbjerg et al. 2002).

For the record, it took me all of three minutes to search on Railway Gazette and Google and find ex post costs amounting to €311.5 million. Worse, the paper says it chooses to use the original cost estimate for lack of other numbers, but then multiplies the original budget by 1.3, the standard factor for public projects in France. As far as I can tell, the reason for multiplying budgets by 1.3 is to cushion against small budget overruns, which could turn slightly beneficial projects into net liabilities; it’s a more honest way of including a contingency budget. In other words, the paper claims that costs probably ran over but its cost estimate for net benefit purposes assumes they didn’t, while in reality they didn’t run over while the paper assumes they did.

Rumors of the Death of HSR Greatly Exaggerated

Aaron Renn has a post on New Geography pronouncing American high-speed rail dead. His reasoning: the stimulus spread the money around too much, Republican Governors rejected the HSR stimulus money, rail advocates have called 110 mph legacy lines high-speed rail, the FRA hobbles good passenger rail. All of those factors are true – though some cancel out, e.g. the 110 mph pretend-HSR lines in Wisconsin and Ohio were the first on the chopping block – but California HSR marches on.

Reading California HSR Blog gives an impression that the project is controversial, but in no real risk of disappearing. While some of the money from the canceled lines went to chaff, a lot went to California, which already has enough money to build a demonstration line in the Central Valley and is already looking at leveraging other money it will get to reach either Los Angeles or the Bay Area. Moreover, although the authority still carries over a lot of past incompetence, the current administration of Roelof van Ark is looking at alternatives to reduce costs, such as reducing the number and length of viaducts and even revisiting past alignment decisions. The adults are more firmly in charge today than a year and a half ago.

There’s still NIMBYism, particularly from Central Valley farmers and from suburbs on the San Francisco Peninsula, but the former is no big deal by the standards of what TGV construction has to go through, and the latter has simply led the authority to focus on connecting HSR track to Los Angeles first and use legacy track at slightly lower speed with much less local impact to get to San Francisco. Whether the project will ultimately have a useful starter line or remain a Bakersfield-Fresno-Merced shuttle depends on how much private funding it can attract, but Japan promised to fund 50% of the line, and the authority has had meetings with Spain and China. It’d be enough to do at least LA-Fresno, which is quite useful, if not as good as LA-Fresno-San Francisco.

Moreover, calling HSR dead on New Geography and saying it’s because Republican Governors rejected the money is ironic, in light of who owns the site. Aaron is interested in reform and efficiency; the same can’t be said of New Geography executive editor Joel Kotkin, an anti-urbanist so uninformed and desperate he blamed megacities for AIDS.

Kotkin may be just uninformed, but contributing editor Wendell Cox goes further: he and fellow Reason transportation hack Robert Poole wrote a report claiming, on flimsy evidence, that Florida’s high-speed rail line would have huge cost overruns and ridership shortfalls (a later report released by professional consultants said in fact the line would have been more profitable than expected). The report is a lie, and Rick Scott’s cancellation of the Florida HSR line, based on the report, involved additional lying to the court.

My explanation, hoisted from a comment I wrote on the subject on the Infrastructurist, responding to commenter Colin Prime:

1. The executive summary – i.e. what most people would read – says, “This report estimates that the cost to Florida taxpayers could be $3 billion more than currently projected.” As it turns out, in the body of the report in the section on Flyvbjerg the report says $0.54-2.7 billion, with $1.2 billion as the likeliest. None of these lower figures appears in the executive summary. That alone suggests massive deception.

2. In fact, Flyvbjerg either talks about megaprojects in general or focuses on urban rail. HSR projects don’t run over budget frequently, and when they do, it’s not by 100%. In Norway, a 50% cost overrun on the HSR line to the airport (coming from geological problems) was considered so unusual it triggered a government investigation.

3. Here’s the report on California [the projected per-km cost of the Central Valley segment is much higher than that of the Florida line]: “The California segment is not being built to full high-speed rail standards, because of a legal requirement that the line be usable by conventional Amtrak services if the Los Angeles to San Francisco project is not completed. The line would be upgraded to full high-speed rail standards when and if the much longer route is completed.”

This is technically known as “a lie.” Making the line Amtrak-usable is actually a cost raiser rather than a cost saver, because Amtrak trains are heavier and therefore elevated structures would have to be beefed up. Otherwise the line is built to HSR standards in terms of the expensive bits, i.e. track geometry and physical infrastructure; the only component that may not be included in California in this round is electrification, which is a fraction of the total cost of HSR ($3 million per mile kilometer at Acela costs).

4. In general, of the 11 factors cited for California-Florida differences, the ones on which Florida would be more expensive than California are all small things like stations and electricity; the big items involve physical infrastructure, and there Florida would be cheaper.

5. To support the assertion that HSR can suffer from a ridership shortfall, the report mentions Eurostar and THSR. Unmentioned are the many TGV lines that exceeded projections. The report also makes a spurious comparison to the Acela; it even doubles-down on the Acela comparison, and uses a false comparison to make the Florida line look slow. Florida’s travel time is compared not with end-to-end travel time on the average fast train (an average of 80 mph on the Acela NY-DC, and 140 mph on the Sanyo Shinkansen) but with the fastest intermediate segment on the fastest train of the day, connecting two small cities (100 and 170, respectively). On top of it, the Acela is priced for premium travel, with coach travel provided by the 66 mph Regional.

6. To add insult to injury, Cox and Poole dismiss Florida’s tourism as such: “The metropolitan areas in both markets [NEC and Florida] have substantial tourist volumes.” In reality, the tourist volumes in Florida relative to the metro area size are much larger than in the Northeast, and the Florida line directly serves tourist attractions (airport to Disneyland) whereas the Acela does not (minimal airport service, premium brand).

Given the above issues the study, I’d say calling it a lie is fair.

High-speed rail has challenges, many correctly identified by Aaron. The FRA is an obstacle (though the people most interested in changing it tend to be good transit activists); spreading the money around was a problem. But right-wing populists who can’t govern soon become unpopular, and are thus an ephemeral phenomenon. Rick Scott’s approval rate is 27%, John Kasich‘s is 35%, Scott Walker‘s is 37%. And it’s deeply troubling to go on a website and say that high-speed rail is dead when one of the reasons it’s dead is shoddy or dishonest work done by another contributor to the same website.

Fortunately, in California, the real obstacle is so far not a huge deal (California is planning to run on dedicated tracks, or at least on tracks shared only with commuter trains), and the ephemeral obstacle lost the gubernatorial election. Money is a problem and so is incompetence, but the incompetence seems to be waning, albeit slowly, and the money is likely to materialize. Don’t count HSR out yet.

Quick Note on Air Pollution

Yesterday’s USA Today carried a story about a study from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis coming up with a huge figure for excess mortality, 2,200 nationwide just from the extra gas consumption caused by traffic congestion. Such a figure is almost certainly too high.

On page 4, the study compares the costs of congestion in terms of wasted time, wasted gas, and excess mortality due to pollution. In 2020, the cost of excess mortality is given as just under $20 billion in the largest 83 urban areas. Since the total amount of fuel wasted due to congestion according to the TTI, on whose data the study is based, is about 3.5 billion gallons, this corresponds to more than $5 per gallon.

With this figure in hand, we can compare the study to studies of car pollution and not just congestion pollution. American studies tend to find much lower costs of pollution and lower percentages of pollution coming from cars than foreign studies, and foreign studies find costs in the $2-3/gallon range. For examples, see here for Toronto and compare with fuel consumption figures coming from carbon emissions figures in the same study; here for Sydney and compare with fuel consumption figures from here; and here for Auckland sourced to this New Zealand study and compare with these fuel consumption numbers. Note that in the US, such figures are considered high-end estimates – see anything on social costs by Mark Delucchi.

The most likely reason for the factor-of-2 discrepancy we obtain is funding sources. The study under discussion was sponsored by the transportation construction industry, and was conducted by a research institute that had ties to the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

The study’s content indeed suggests such interest conflicts. The methodology estimates pollution per unit of VMT; it could just as well have posted figures for total car pollution. And the conclusion, far from suggesting regulations or pollution pricing, is:

long-term policy alternatives for addressing congestion such as traffic management through congestion pricing, traffic light synchronization and more efficient response to traffic incidents, and adding new highway and public transit capacity.

Adding more transit capacity is reasonable, since it displaces car trips. But adding highway capacity means people drive more, which increases rather than reduces pollution. And nowhere does the study recommend a tax on gas, which is what causes this pollution in the first place. This is not serious public health research; it’s lobbying for construction.

Whither BRT?

The Institute for Transport and Development Policy has joined Brookings in publishing a completely pointless transit system ranking, this time focusing on the quality of BRT, the mode of transit ITDP advocates.

I want to like ITDP for its BRT planning guide tome, but this BRT ranking uses random criteria, with bad weightings. Every system is ranked out of 100 points, with points divided into small criteria and subcriteria. On page 17, we see the following:

Off-vehicle fare collection 7
Multiple routes use same BRT infrastructure 4
Peak period frequency 4
Routes in top 10 demand corridors 4
Integrated fare collection with other public transport 3
Limited and local stop services 3
Off-peak frequency 3
Part of ( planned ) multi-corridor BRT network 3
Performance-based contracting for operators 3
Enforcement of right-of-way 2
Operates late nights and weekends 2
Operational control system to reduce bus bunching 2
Peak-period pricing 2

Bus lanes in central verge of the road 7
Physically-separated right-of-way 7
Intersection treatments (elimination of turns across the busway and signal priority) 4
Physically-separated passing lanes at station stops 4
Stations occupy former road/median space (not sidewalk space) 3
Stations set back from intersections (100 feet min) 3
Stations are in center and shared by both directions of service 2

Platform-level boarding 5
Buses have 3+ doors on articulated buses or 2+ very wide doors on standard buses 4
Multiple docking bays and sub-stops ( separated by at least half a bus length ) 3

Branding of vehicles and system 3
Safe, wide, weather-protected stations with artwork (>/=8 feet wide) 3
Passenger information at stops and on vehicles 2

Bicycle lanes in corridor 2
Bicycle sharing systems at BRT stations 2
Improved safe and attractive pedestrian access system and corridor environment 2
Secure bicycle parking at station stops 2

Those criteria are for the most part not bad, but they’re weighted wrong. Observe that off-peak frequency counts for only 3 points, the same as contracting out the operations. It’s actually worse: a system gets 1 point for having any off-peak frequency, even if it’s worse than 15 minutes; 15 minutes is enough for 2 points. Peak-period pricing, which is absent or all but absent from many well-run rail and bus operations around the world, gets 2 points. The core elements of BRT – level boarding, physically separated median lanes, off-board fare collection, signal preemption – have 36 points between them.

In first-world cities, BRT has two uses. One, lower-capacity, slightly lower-quality transit on corridors with less demand. Two, dedicated guideways that can branch out and make local stops in shared lanes in lower-traffic areas, on the model of Brisbane. The full-fat BRT in Guangzhou and Bogota cited by BRT proponents requires a lot of concrete and many operators, and is best-suited to a city with low labor costs.

Many of the features touted for BRT can and should be used for all buses. Off-board fare collection with proof of payment is practiced systemwide in such cities as Singapore, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, and Florence; in conjunction with multi-door boarding, this reduces bus dwell times and increases speed with zero investment in concrete. Signal priority can be practiced independently of all else. Physical separation of lanes requires barriers only a few centimeters wide, and can be done selectively on the most congested and highest-demand segments.

Buses can be great buses; they make bad trains. By all means first-world cities should increase frequency, procure better buses with low floors and more doors, make sure riders know which routes are frequent and which are not, and give buses dedicated lanes when necessary. But the focus on specially branded rail-like BRT only detracts from this goal.

In American cities, BRT is more often than not an excuse to not implement those features on local buses. In New York, not only does the MTA rule out proof-of-payment on non-SBS buses, but also backroom state legislative dealings banned bus camera enforcement of painted lanes except on a closed list of six SBS routes. All this while SBS service levels are comparable to those of local buses in Singapore and many European cities – in fact lower if those local buses have signal priority. This and not low scoring on an arbitrary rubric is what ITDP should have complained about.

Brookings Folly

People who have read Brookings’ awful report saying San Jose is the second most transit-accessible city in the US and New York the thirteenth already know not to trust what Brookings says. Even at the level of collecting facts, it seems to get service frequency wrong, making sprawling suburbs with hourly bus service look like they have service every few minutes.

So it’s not surprising that senior Brookings fellow Robert Puentes’ article about infrastructure in the Wall Street Journal is full of misunderstandings and frankly amateurish claims about US infrastructure problems. Puentes opens with a standard claim that “we do a great job of building new roads” (no mention of the Big Dig, Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement, or proposed Tappan Zee replacement, each substantially costlier than undersea tunnels in Europe) but smarter investments are needed. He proposes the following:

1. Boosting exports. Puentes complains that US border crossings are congested, and hints that more are needed, for example the proposal for more bridges between Michigan and Ontario. He mentions some interstate cooperation as a solution, but never says anything about international cooperation, which is the real problem.

The Ambassador Bridge carries 10,000 trucks and 4,000 cars per day; the Holland Tunnel, which has the same number of lanes, carries 90,000 vehicles per day. The problem with the bridge is the border crossing, not the infrastructure. Nowhere does Puentes say the US and Canada should build more border checkpoints or process people faster. If Michigan doubles the number of border control booths or halves the time it takes to process a vehicle, it’s equivalent to building another bridge, but at a vastly lower cost.

2. Getting greener. Puentes praises Obama for proposing to put one million electric cars on the road in 2015. Then he talks about charging stations and the need for national standards encouraging them. In reality, the US has 240 million cars on the road, so Obama’s proposal would, even assuming zero-emission electricity, cut car emissions by 0.4%.

On the subject of cars and transit, Puentes wisely mentions that the government funds roads more liberally, but instead of railing against highways to nowhere and high construction costs says “We need equal treatment of all possible transportation projects, so cities don’t have to give up on, say, transit systems that fit their needs and help us go green, just because they cost more than highways.” It’s not that there aren’t examples of severe waste; it’s that Puentes doesn’t seem to care.

3. Adding Innovations. This is a boilerplate blurb for electronic toll collection, bus tracking, and, of course, public-private partnerships. Individually the things proposed are not bad – they’re just the most important things. For mass transit, fare integration and tighter schedule adherence are more important, but were not invented here and involve messy fights with the bureaucrats Brookings represent.

The PPP part indicates what this is really about: kickbacks to technology companies, often defense contractors looking to diversify. Many US transit systems have a smartcard using vendor-locked proprietary technology; defense contractor Cubic is the top vendor. New York’s smartcard proposal is instead a kickback to credit card providers, which is slightly less bad because the standard is open but is still far behind best practices. The best practices do not involve PPPs – instead, agencies develop technologies in-house, or instead rely on open standards. Minimal collusion offers minimal opportunity for corruption.

4. Connecting Workers With Work. Here Puentes repeats his institution’s flawed study’s findings as if they’re universally recognized facts. He does not even say “According to a recent Brookings study” – people are supposed to know it like they know Pearl Harbor happened in 1941. Then, based on said study’s conclusions, he declares the problem is that the poor are disconnected from their workplaces and makes relevant suggestions.

Since the Brookings study got things wrong in the direction of too much transit accessibility, the suggestions are for the most part not bad. The problem is that he says nothing about the problems of connecting people to where they work. The biggest problem for metro area transit is that while downtowns are reasonably connected (e.g. downtown LA workers have a 50% transit mode share), secondary downtowns and suburban job centers are not.

The common theme of all the proposals is that they’re makework for the bureaucrats and consultants who are Brookings’ base. Adopting best industry practices is useless to Brookings fellows, because pointing out that Europe does it better also means that the consultants who should implement reform are European managers. In contrast, PPP means coming up with new standards and new ways of doing things; it’s attractive to government administrators as much as it is to the companies that get the contracts.

The interests of the riders are not the same as those of the service providers. That labor does not have the same interests as riders is clear, but management benefits from bloat just as much: if things run smoothly, managers can’t look like they’re continually saving the day. Thinktanks like Brookings represent certain interest groups, and Brookings’ interest group excludes transit users.

Fatality Numbers vs. Safety

On Streetsblog, they’re waving New York’s relatively high pedestrian fatality rate as evidence the streets are unsafe and much more can be done. The region’s pedestrian death rate is the 13th worst in the nation, about the same as Houston, which is supposed to be evidence of unsafe streets.

John Adams points out that in Britain, the pedestrian fatality rate today is one third what it was in 1922. The roads are much less safe than they were then, when they were narrow and traffic was slow, but there are so few pedestrians today that cars rarely hit them. As a result, looking at absolute death rates means nothing.

Even the Transportation for America study that Streetsblog links to doesn’t fully correct for it. It scales fatality rates based on the pedestrian commute share, which is better than nothing, but still fails to account the huge volumes of people in New York and other walkable cities who take mass transit to work but still walk a lot for their other trips. The proof is in the pudding: the study says Cleveland is the second safest metro area in the US for pedestrians, behind Boston and ahead of New York.

New York has a lot of street safety issues, but it’s still light years ahead of the rest of the US, except for small pockets in Boston, San Francisco, and other compact, walkable cities. The same is true for Manhattan within New York. Ignore complaints that the community board comprising the Upper East Side has the third highest pedestrian fatality count; it also has the third highest population, trailing two outer-urban CBs with fewer pedestrians. At this stage input-based measures such as traffic speed, sidewalk width, stoplight phasing, and the presence of a good street wall and trees are much better than any skewed output-based statistic.

As a corollary, bike lane opponents who complain about the large number of cyclist injuries on protected bike lanes are just as wrong (see here and scroll for comments). There are more cyclists on 9th Avenue than on pre-bike lane Prospect Park West; of course more will be injured. Counterintuitive claims about how bike lanes are less safe than mixed traffic are fun, but they aren’t true.