Rail Transit Experiencing Severe Reality

COST Comments: Less than a year after the American Public Transit Association (APTA) hearlded 2008 as the greatest public transit ridership increase in many years, transit is reaching new lows throughtout the nation. The increase in gas prices diring 2008 reduced vehicle driving for the first time in a very long time. The APTA presented the changing landscape in a way which would lead one to believe that the rediced dirving was replaced with public transit. In fact, the public transit increase of about 3-4 % was only equivalent to 3% of the driving decrease. A huge portion of the remaing 97% of the driving decrease was due to eliminating longer driving trips and to driving smarter: Eliminating unnecessary trips and “chaining” driving trips so that several tasks could be accomplished in one trip.

Now, with lower gas prices, and public transit funds decreasing rapidly due to tax revenue reductions, transit agencies are in disarray.

Transit ridership is falling rapidly and costs per trip are increasing well ahead of inflation. In many cities this is resulting in increasing transit fares and reduced service. This situation is exacerbated by rail systems in many older cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC reaching the end of their designed operating life. Each of these cities needs billions of dollars to replace aging equipment and there is no source for these funds. Newer light rail cities such as San Diego and Portland will be reaching the replacement cycle for their train systems during the next 10 years and there is no source for the billions required. During the past few years, train transit has exhibited reduced reliability and a rash of accidents on the older systems resulting in an increase in train fatalities.

Train transit systems inevitably cost much more than promised and have ridership which is much less than promised. See the news article posted just prior to this posting.

Closer to home, the same trends are occurring:

Austin, Texas: There has been a ten year declining trend in transit ridership and costs per trip have risen much faster than inflation, more than doubling in ten years. These trends and the wasteful spending on an ineffective commuter train to serve about 1,000 people per day, who mostly own cars, have resulted in doubling transit fares in the past 18 months and cutting back on bus transit which serves more than 40,000 people per day, mostly who do not have an alternative. These trends are not sustainable and the agency is heading for bankruptcy. Meanwhile the commuter train is two years behind schedule with cost several times that promised and projected operating costs which are more than 6 times that promised to voters. This ill-advised approach to transit has resulted in major negative impacts and made a mockery of Austin’s stated goals of social equity/justice.

Houston, Texas: Houston implemented a short, 7 plus mile, trolley in 2004. While Houston has a flat to slightly declining rail ridership of just over 30 thousand one-way trips per day, there has been a several year decline in total transit ridership and, after spending hundreds of millions on the new train trolley, total ridership today is less than it was 10 years ago with the ‘bus only’ system. Meanwhile, Houston is moving ahead with a promised $1.2 billion train transit expansion which is now estimated to be almost $4 billion.

Below is a sampling of the many news articles regarding this “severe reality.”

Golden State Off the Rails As Mass Transit Ridership Plummets
Tim Cavanaugh | January 10, 2010

What do people in the world’s tenth largest economy do in a severe recession? They stop taking the bus, fill up their tanks, and start driving. It’s happening all over California.

The San Jose Mercury News has an entertaining story on BART defectors, solid Bay Area liberals who have given up on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system:

For three years, Veronique Selgado took BART from the East Bay to her job working for an airline at San Francisco International Airport. But she recently switched to driving because BART raised fares and upped its SFO round-trip surcharge from $3 to $8, boosting her daily trip cost to nearly $20.

“It’s outrageous,” Selgado said. “At what point do they stop raising the prices, when it’s $50 a day to go round-trip to work? At what point does BART stand back and say, ‘People can’t pay that much to commute’?”

Unfortunately for Selgado, BART fares are in fact too low. The system is so far from being self-sufficient that it required $318 million in local, state and federal tax support in 2009 [pdf].

Covering more than 100 miles and featuring a superhumanly annoying fare payment system, BART has a good claim to be California’s greatest civil engineering project since the 1960s. In my experience, under very rare and narrow circumstances, BART can be a good way to get to either San Francisco or Oakland Airport. The Merc points to low gas prices to explain the drop in ridership, although San Francisco gas prices have been more or less stable for the last six months, after rising substantially in the six months before that. It’s unclear whether BART’s ridership decline is also reflected in ridership for San Francisco’s bus-dominated (and fairly useful) Muni system, as Muni has not put out recent boardings statistics.

The desertion of the riders is also taking place outside the Bay Area. Los Angeles’ Metropolitican Transit Authority reports ridership down over the last two years for all its lines except that great Valley Zephyr, the Orange Line [pdf], a bus route which runs from Warner Center to North Hollywood and, in a rare reversal of transit policy, was actually developed to service proven demand. L.A. rail boardings are way down.

Ridership is also falling sharply in Sacramento [pdf] and Orange County. I am unable to decipher this report from San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System, which is confusingly titled “MTS Third Quarter Ridership Sees Increases in 2009” but is dated April 27, 2009. This North County Times story has San Diego MTS ridership down 15 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Declining service is frequently named to explain why nobody takes mass transit — obviously because this helps make the case that the government needs to invest more. Yet several of the transit systems mentioned above are reporting improvements in on-time-performance in 2009. I take L.A. mass transit frequently and have never had a complaint — though as always, the key to transit happiness rests in taking buses and avoiding trains.

We all learned (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? if nothing else) that the Golden State once boasted popular and successful light rail systems, which were undermined by greedy industrialists. Mass transit advocates might point to the state’s continued spending on highways (three times the national average per road mile) and the various “raids” on mass transit budgets to say this kind of thing is going on right now. But this version of history always leaves out the customer. As Yogi Berra would say if he were paid to say it by a libertarian foundation, if people don’t want to come out to a station, covered in flop sweat and carrying heavy packages in both hands, to wait for an inconviently scheduled train full of heavy coughers, nothing’s gonna stop them.

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Metro board asked to wield knife on service this week
By: Kytja Weir
Examiner Staff Writer
January 5, 2010

Metro board members are slated to vote Thursday on the transit agency’s plan to fix a $40 million deficit with cuts that would leave riders waiting longer, then taking more crowded buses and trains.

The plan, detailed in a Metro report, calls for eliminating eight-car trains during morning and evening commutes, closing some rail station entrances after 8 p.m. and on weekends, and trimming bus service.

The proposed cuts come shortly before the agency has to reconcile a $175 million gap in its projected budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Fare increases and additional service cuts are likely.

Metro’s top leaders will need to make tough choices both now and later this spring that are expected to push away even more of its riders.

The transit agency already said it would cut two hours per day from its customer call center hours starting Sunday, then close the center on federal holidays. The system also proposes to raid its capital funds and possibly a reserve fund. Last month, the agency said it would lay off about 25 people and slash 100 vacant positions.

Proposed cuts and savings
» $2.1 million: Widen times between trains during nonpeak travel times, and from six minutes to eight minutes between 6 to 6:30 a.m.

» $1.08 million: Increase wait times between buses, eliminate segments of lines and remove bus stops.

» $672,000: Eliminate all eight-car trains during peak travel times.

» $168,000: Close entrances to 10 Metro stations on weekends: Anacostia North, Stadium Armory-North, New York Avenue-South, Friendship Heights-South, Shaw/Howard University-South, L’Enfant Plaza-West, King Street-North, Navy Yard-East, U Street-East, Silver Spring-North.

» $50,000: Close five station entrances at 8 p.m. weekdays: King Street-North, Stadium Armory-North, McPherson Square-West, Shaw-Howard University-South, Friendship Heights-South.

» $200,000: The customer call center will be open weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., instead of closing at 10:30 p.m. On weekends, it will be open from 7 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. Starting Feb. 15, the center will close on all federal holidays.

» $100,000: Reduction of Metro sales office hours.

» $90,000: Modify Red Line timing, eliminating one train per day and widening rush-hour trains from five to six minutes apart.

» $35,000: Reduce train service on holidays such as Presidents Day, Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Source: Metro

The agency is proposing the mid-fiscal-year cuts to stanch financial losses caused by dropping ridership. Passengers took 6 percent fewer train trips than the system anticipated and 9 percent fewer on buses, the agency said.

The transit agency already said it would cut two hours per day from its customer call center hours starting Sunday, then close the center on federal holidays. The system also proposes to raid its capital funds and possibly a reserve fund. Last month, the agency said it would lay off about 25 people and slash 100 vacant positions.

But the chopping block also now includes increasing wait times by 10 minutes on all train lines except for the Red Line to create 30-minute waits after 9:30 p.m. Red Line trains would be spaced an additional five minutes apart, from 15 to 20 minutes. Midday, daytime weekend and early morning trains would run less often.

Eliminating eight-car trains, a program the transit agency has been ramping up for years to accommodate crowds, would mean cramming 12 more people into each Green Line car, for example, during peak commute times, the agency estimates.

Bus system trims include longer waits between buses, cut portions of lines and fewer stops to eliminate 25 bus driver and six mechanic positions. The agency said it would not need to lay off those workers, though. The bus service cuts would hit the District routes the hardest, with $457,739 out of the $698,037 cuts in increased time between buses.


John Catoe’s surprise resignation leaves Metro in a jam

Friday, January 15, 2010; A24

IN ANNOUNCING his surprise decision to resign, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said that he wanted to give the system a chance to move beyond “current distractions.” If Mr. Catoe sees the system’s string of train crashes, worker deaths, bus mishaps and safety lapses as distractions — and not as issues that need to be addressed at the most fundamental level — then perhaps he’s right about the need for change. Nonetheless, his departure could not have come at a worse time for the struggling system.

Mr. Catoe stunned members of the Metro board Thursday with news that he would step down, effective April 2. “Good leaders know to impact change. Great leaders know when it’s time for leadership change,” he said, reading from a letter he wrote the board. Later he was said to be holding back tears. No doubt Mr. Catoe made a difficult decision that he believes best serves Metro. But it leaves the system without a leader at a perilous moment, facing budget problems as well as safety issues. Add to that the inherent difficulty of finding someone with the specialized skills to run a unique rail-bus system in the country’s largest fishbowl, and you have a real crisis for the 34-year-old transit system.

Indeed, it was those factors — plus our admiration for Mr. Catoe’s management experience and apparent level-headedness — that had convinced us the board was right to maintain confidence in him, despite accumulating problems. Mr. Catoe had become a flashpoint for criticism, but we didn’t believe it was fair to blame every problem on him and it didn’t seem to us that renewed instability at the top would help Metro now. So it is disappointing, a word used privately by some board members, that Mr. Catoe did not share the board’s belief that he could be part of the solution.

But, as D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs the Metro board, told us, “When one door closes, another opens.” As the board looks to the future, it is clear — from reporting by The Post’s Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens — that stronger leadership and more resolve are needed. The Red Line crash that killed a train operator and eight passengers last June and subsequent events revealed a system that for years had shrugged off safety concerns and regulators’ proddings. It has become, as Mr. Catoe himself said, a “poster boy for safety issues that other agencies should avoid.” The full extent of the challenge probably won’t be known until the National Transportation Safety Board concludes its investigation into the June crash.

The board now turns to the task of picking what will be its fifth general manager in a little over four years. One element of its search ought to be a look in the mirror. Most board members over the years have been committed to supporting a top-quality system, but their parochialism and micromanaging can sometimes make a hard job harder. The moment calls for self-reflection as well as a nationwide search.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

Metro’s resigning manager inherited funding and board problems

By Robert McCartney
Friday, January 15, 2010

Rejoice if you want that Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has finally decided to take the fall for the transit system’s troubles. Just be aware that after the “good riddance” toasts are over, the region is going to suffer a wicked hangover as the realization sinks in that Metro still needs to deal with structural problems that are far beyond the capacity of a single executive to solve.

Catoe’s performance fell short of what was needed in some ways, especially in his failure to push hard enough to transform Metro’s bureaucratic culture so that it would focus more on efficient operations and safety.

But Catoe was not responsible for three other serious troubles afflicting Metro: a shortage of reliable funding; an aged infrastructure; and a highly politicized, internally divided board of directors.

“He inherited a lot of problems that have been suppressed over time: the maintenance issue, the funding issue,” said D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), new chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Those difficulties aren’t going away, and they might make it harder to recruit a top-quality successor.

It appears that Catoe took the high road Thursday, deciding on his own to step down after three years because controversy over his leadership had become too much of a distraction from efforts to fix the system. There’s little reason at this point to think that he was forced out, as the board said he still had its full confidence.

Nevertheless, Catoe’s position has seemed to become more precarious each month because of a stream of accidents and revelations about safety problems. His fate may have been set last month when U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) blasted Metro’s safety record and pointedly declined to say whether she favored keeping Catoe. He might have wanted to get away before Metro’s problems are aired at next month’s National Transportation Safety Board hearing on June’s deadly Red Line crash.

Bashing Catoe has been a popular pastime for many riders since the crash, and it exploded with Thursday’s announcement of his resignation. Here’s a sampling of critical comments posted on the blog “Unsuck DC Metro”: “John Catoe is retiring. Maybe 2010 is looking up after all!”

“Should have been fired awhile ago.”

“FINALLY! I already feel safer.”

“Thank God. Metro has become very expensive and has underperfomed during his tenure.”

The criticism is partly justified. As is well known, Catoe never seemed to appreciate the importance of communicating effectively and proactively with the public. In one notorious example, most riders didn’t know that three stations were going to be closed over Labor Day weekend when Metro relied on a single, opaque news release to spread the word

As is less known but more important, Catoe wasn’t sufficiently aggressive in unraveling Metro’s bureaucracy and cleaning house to correct safety lapses. There wasn’t enough focus on operations and accountability.

“He didn’t deliver on the promise that he made when he came on board, which is that he was going to be an operations guy,” said a local transportation source close to Metro who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid disrupting professional relationships. “I would have expected Catoe to do a lot more to reorient the entire staff to a no-holds-barred orientation on safety and rehabilitation. He’s had enough time to do that, and he hasn’t done it.”

However, this source and others warned that replacing the general manager, by itself, won’t be enough to revive Metro.

“Does his leaving create a pathway to improvement? I don’t think it does, unless there are a lot of other changes,” the source said.

One pressing need is to invest billions of dollars in the coming decade to maintain and modernize the 33-year-old system. It took the Red Line crash to embarrass the region and Congress sufficiently to finally approve a steady stream of money — $300 million a year, assuming nobody backs out — for Metro. The Metro Matters program, another key source of funds, is set to expire at the end of this year, and there’s no firm decision yet to extend it.

“The system is chronically underfunded. That gives us a lot of these safety problems that we’ve experienced,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit group that promotes mass transit and transit-oriented development.

The other major problem is the board itself, where progress is repeatedly stymied by disagreements between suburban jurisdictions and the District and by the unavoidable desire of the politicians who sit on the board to cater to their individual constituencies rather than the needs of the region.

The Washington region can be happy that it has the opportunity to find a new Metro general manager to go further than Catoe in making tough personnel and management decisions. But we should recognize that there isn’t a superman or superwoman out there who can deliver the safe, efficient transit system we want without enough money and a reasonable board for which to work.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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