Tag Archives: Neil Harris

Toward Cost-Effective Transportation

By Neil Harris.

Transit is much more expensive to build than highways. It’s politically correct to focus on transit. But is it the best use of our tax dollars? Let’s look at the numbers.

Transportation planners in our region look at many. At the most recent Transportation Planning Board (TPB) meeting, there was a presentation on the ways that transportation plans are measured and approved factors – social equity, air quality, and many more. But when I asked if there was a cost-benefit analysis, it became clear that this did not appear to be on anyone’s list of measures.

By cost-benefit, I mean this: when you build a new transportation project, how much money does it cost to move people?

Over the last few weeks, I went back through some presentations and found the two slides shown below that have the numbers to tell an important story. I spent a lunch hour on the phone with TPB staff to verify that what I was seeing was accurate, and what it might mean. Here is what I learned from TPB’s data:

The DMV region plans to spend $42 billion to expand transportation capacity over the next 25 years, split between $27 billion on highway expansion and $15 billion on transit. This will result in 2.7 million more daily trips by auto and 300 thousand more daily trips in transit. By simple arithmetic, this means that it costs just over $10,000 to add capacity for another auto trip, and more than $53,000 to add another transit trip. Building transit capacity currently costs more than 5 times as much as highway capacity!


If this was the only factor that was important, then decisions would be easy. Any CEO would immediately allocate more money into adding highway capacity. Of course, it’s not the only factor. Not everyone can afford to travel by auto – we want lower-income people to be able to get to their jobs, so we need transit. Transit trips are less polluting than autos, although TPB’s data shows a steady decrease in auto pollutants thanks to greater efficiency and the growing number of electric, zero-emission vehicles.

The other key is that, for parts of our region, building new roads or even expanding existing ones is terribly difficult. Where would you put a new thoroughfare in DC, or in the close-in suburbs?

The costs I focused on so far are the capital costs for new projects. The same TPB information can be used for operating costs – how much it costs for each trip. It turns out that we’re going to spend $130 billion over the next 25 years on transit operations and repairs, about $5.2 billion annually, with capacity growing to 1.5 million daily trips, for a per-trip cost of about $9.50. Each time someone takes a transit trip, the government subsidizes the trip by that amount. We’ll spend $72 billion to maintain roadways during the same period, about $2.9 billion annually, to move up to 16.6 million trips/day. That comes to just under 50 cents per trip.

The operating cost information is useful in a couple of ways. At the same TPB meeting, the Commuter Connections presentation unveiled a new program, piloted in Howard County MD, where auto commuters can receive a $10 stipend for taking a rider along with them. That number is almost exactly right – it is comparable to the cost of putting someone on transit instead, but we don’t need to build more transit lines.

That is the kind of thinking we need. When we look at a new project or a new idea, does it move people more effectively than how we’re doing it now? Is it better for some reason, is it faster, is it cheaper?

For example, the TPB recently recommended that we find ways to encourage employers to let more people work from home. What if the government provided an incentive to the employers? With these numbers, we can make informed judgments about how much of an incentive makes fiscal sense.

The amount of money we have to transport people is limited, so we need to think carefully about optimization strategies to move people cost-effectively as well as focusing on all the other factors.

Neil Harris is a member of the Gaithersburg City Council and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board.


Gaithersburg Electeds Endorse Balcombe

By Adam Pagnucco.

Council At-Large candidate Marilyn Balcombe has announced endorsements from three elected officials in Gaithersburg: Mayor Jud Ashman and City Council Members Mike Sesma and Neil Harris.  Balcombe is the long-time President and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce and lives in Germantown.  Gaithersburg, including both the incorporated and unincorporated areas, has more than 40,000 registered Democrats of whom roughly 3,500 have voted in each of the last three mid-term Democratic primaries.

Left to right: Sesma, Harris and Balcombe, Ashman.  Credit: Balcombe for Council Facebook page.


When You’re In a Deep Hole

By Gaithersburg City Council Member Neil Harris.

In a recent meeting with the capital improvements team at MCPS, I suggested that it would take $1 billion in extra capital funding to provide enough classrooms and to fix dilapidated schools. The staff responded that the number was more like $2 billion or more. Ouch.

My guess was based on the basic cost for classroom space of $40K per student. So, an elementary school for 750 kids would cost $30 million. And we have 9,000 kids in portables ($360 million worth of classrooms) and we’re adding 2,500 new students each year ($100 million). I guessed at double that for renovations, but apparently that number is way worse than my rough guess.

In transportation, the situation is even worse. Not only is our system the most congested in the country, but in 25 years the congestion is projected to be 72% worse! In the past 15 years, we’ve added several hundred thousand new residents to the mid- and up-county, and the population will grow by 20%. We’re not keeping up.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) made projections based on the regional long-range plan, which includes all the projects proposed and expected to be funded. The TPB recently looked at the 500 projects proposed but not expected to be funded, and building all of them “only” makes congestion 28% worse. I repeat: building every project proposed still makes congestion 28% worse!

One problem for the TPB is that the projects on their list are proposed by local jurisdictions: the states, counties, and cities, and are most often focused on local needs. There is no central authority over regionally significant ideas that will serve to improve transportation for everyone.

Another challenge is that there is such a huge focus on new transit that it crowds out roads. If you build a new Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) on a Metro Station and 60% of the new residents use Metro, then there are still 40% of the new residents in cars. One mode is not enough, and the current plans look like they are out of balance, with the vast majority of trips by auto in 25 years but most funding going to transit and not highways. To be clear: in 25 years with $100 billion spent on transit in our region, we increase ridership by 2% for work trips, with a huge increase in auto trips and little improvement in our road network.

The TPB bravely took it upon ourselves to develop a list of 10 “potentially game changing” projects, programs, and policies to study, to learn if there are ways to actually reduce congestion instead of surrendering to it. This has been a controversial process thanks to inclusion of a new northern Potomac crossing, but the TPB has recognized that desperate times require desperate measures.

So, where would the money come from to fix these problems, assuming we find good answers and the political will to address them?

For transportation, Northern Virginia has taken the lead. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority collects a small surcharge on some taxes to create $330 million in new funding to reduce congestion. Under this new program, the state and the local jurisdictions are not allowed to reduce transportation funding, so the money goes directly to new programs.

For schools as well as transportation, Adam Pagnucco suggested that Montgomery County’s annual revenue grows by about $140 million each year due to increased income and property tax revenue. How about dedicating all this growth to infrastructure for the next few years, instead of operations? In five years or so, we could be all caught up.

These aren’t the only ways to get out of the hole. We could build schools like the Monarch Global Academy in Laurel, which cost one-third to one-half what MCPS spends on each school. That would stretch our dollars. We could look at the cost-effectiveness of transportation projects already in the pipeline and refocus on ones that make more of a difference.

I hope with the big election year in Montgomery County next year, we can direct the candidates to solve these big challenges as their top priority. We need to understand what projects will actually help and then find ways to pay for them.

Whatever we do, we know one thing – when you are in a hole, first stop digging.

Neil Harris is Vice President of the Gaithersburg City Council and a voting member of the Transportation Planning Board and TPB’s Long Range Plan Task Force.