Tag Archives: FTA

Federal Court Rules Against Purple Line

Today, D.C. District Court Judge Richard Leon issued his opinion in the case challenging the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for the Purple Line light-rail project. The nub of the ruling is that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was “arbitrary and capricious” in its failure to demand a reexamination of the impact of declining Metro ridership on projections of future Purple Line ridership.

In plainer English, the judge thinks that Metro’s continuing failures could well mean that the Purple Line will carry significantly fewer people than projected–a claim difficult to examine as the State has kept the methodology for estimating ridership a closely held secret.

In the legal battle, the State argued unconvincingly that the Purple Line is unaffected by Metro as it is a different mode even as it claimed in the EIS that the Purple Line is needed to connect people to Metro. Seriously, this was the State’s claim (see p. 6 of the opinion).

The ruling was a surprise because winning a case under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is difficult.  As the Court mentioned in the opinion, the scope of review is “narrow” and “a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency.”

According to the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), this result should delay the Purple Line:

[D]uring a June 15 hearing in the case, lawyers for the MTA and federal government said redoing the ridership forecasts would push back the project by six months and could unravel its $5.6-billion, 36-year public-private partnership.

In a subsequent court filing, lawyers for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said having to redo the ridership forecasts “would be profoundly disruptive and could jeopardize the Purple Line project” because it could “have cascading consequences on the project schedule and financing arrangements.”

As MTA has so many times, I suspect it will change its tune in light of the decision and come up with an SEIS more quickly, so I doubt very much it will kill the project. Nevertheless, the irony remains that the proponents favor the project on environmental grounds. Yet the Court has delayed the Purple Line for failure to comply with environmental law.

To be continued.

 

Getting to Yes on Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT)

circulatorFormer Bethesda Circulator

Yesterday, I detailed some advantages of bus-rapid transit (BRT) over the much more pricey streetcar and light-rail options that the Greater Greater Washington blog plugs very aggressively (yesterday’s example here) but now appear to be going nowhere.

So what is the barrier to BRT gaining more traction?

Paying Far More for Image Not Substance

Josh Barro on The Upshot blog at the New York Times put his finger on the source of the problem:

“Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.”

That fact, laid out in a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, isn’t surprising, but it has led to a perverse outcome: Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.

Barro details how New York is now planning to spend $1 billion on an AirTrain from LaGuardia Airport that will go no faster than the existing bus connections. He reports similar investments in streetcars and trains elsewhere that go no or little faster than existing bus routes.

Corporate Welfare

In Washington, the proposed streetcar slows down far more people on buses than will ride the streetcar. This isn’t “greater” but grandiose public policy that wastes billions of transit dollars.

Indeed, it’s really corporate welfare masked as social justice as it benefits property developers. There is nothing wrong with benefiting developers or other companies if we think that makes good transit policy and economic sense. But it just becomes corporate welfare when we can get the benefits much more cheaply through another similar technology.

Improving BRT’s Image

The good news is that FTA has found that gaining acceptance for lower cost BRT occurs with the adoption of straightforward design and marketing solutions:

That 2009 transit report gives reason to believe it’s possible. The researchers conducted focus groups with “choice riders” in Los Angeles: people who have cars but sometimes use transit. These riders had an unsurprising preference for trains.

“Riding the bus carries a ‘shame factor,’ ” the researchers found. “Most of the choice riders would not consider using it, or if they did, they would feel ashamed and keep it a secret.”

But what the local transit agency marketed as the “Orange Line” — really just a bus route in the San Fernando Valley with high frequencies on a dedicated right of way — managed to gain acceptance among “choice riders.”

As it turns out, making buses look as good as light rail or streetcars is just not that hard as this photo from the Montgomery Planning website shows:

brt-photo1

We can even make them look like streetcars, complete with hard and uncomfortable benches, as the former Bethesda Circulator bus (shown at top) demonstrated for many years. People still ride it even though it now looks like a bright red bus.

These design features and marketing simply have to be far less expensive than the literally billions of dollars more that streetcars and light-rail cost to do the same thing. The good news is that BRT is expanding around the country and so hopefully the unfamiliarity with it will decrease.

Conclusion

Public officials along with transit advocates need to get past the idea that trains are better and more elite or equivalent to faster, heavy rail Metro. They’re not. They just waste dollars that could used be to provide more public transit or something else useful. The sooner they realize it, the sooner we might stop spinning our wheels and build something useful and affordable.

Up and Down Week for the Purple Line

The Purple Line received some good news the other day when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recommended both the Purple Line and Red Line for a full funding grant agreement. Both are included in President Obama’s budget with $100 million budgeted for the Purple Line.

The president’s proposal is a long way from a final budget–if Congress can even agree on a budget in this election year. But it is a step forward for the Purple Line, as federal funding is vital to the planned light-rail line. Proponents of the project are understandably pleased with this announcement.

The next day, however, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) revealed that Purple Line costs had risen yet again to $2.37 billion, as this graph from the Washington Post demonstrates:

PL Costs

The latest increase amounts to $126 million. MTA Project Development Head Henry Kay explained:

the initial $1.2 billion estimate in 2001 probably was based on broad assumptions, such as the average cost per mile for rail construction nationally. As the state has refined the Purple Line design, he said, engineers have found more “challenges” that add costs. . . .

“The [cost estimate] number at that time [in 2001] would have been based on lines on a map,” Kay said.

About 30 percent of the project has been designed, he said, enough to form more precise cost projections.

The excuse that cost estimates have risen because the earlier estimates were only rough estimates is suspicious if only because cost estimates have always increased. They never decline. If the estimates are unbiased, the errors shouldn’t be off only in one direction.

The State also doesn’t mention that Maryland foots the entire bill for every increase. FTA has recommended $900 million in funding. That amount will not increase and may decline. So the amount that the State is on the hook for the project just increased from $1.34 billion to $1.47 billion–a 10% increase.

And that means $126 million less for all other transportation projects in the State of Maryland. It also means that Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties will receive less for other projects since more funds dedicated to this part of the State will have to go to pay for the Purple Line.

One might expect further cost increases if only because Parsons Brinckerhoff is involved. This is the same firm that engineered the botched and way over budget Silver Spring Transit Center. The Center is supposed to accommodate the new Purple Line.

Henry Kay says he has “a high level of confidence” that the new cost estimates are accurate. If so, that would be good news for the State and the future of the Purple Line project.